Author’s Note: Back to intrigue…
Aware of the eyes glaring at her back—this time she knew their owner, a minister’s wife that had been usurped as the female head of the court when the king married—the queen tried to focus her own gaze down on the crowds below them. She did not know that the ministers ever mingled with the commoners if they could avoid it. The servants were the only ones allowed close. Lesser ministers met with them, she did, but the ones with the real power, they could not be bothered.
Then again, she doubted that anyone would want to meet with Malzhi.
She supposed that was a bit of cowardice on her part, though. She found herself fearing his touch, though after two doses of his herbs, she had some reason for that fear. “Tell me about this ceremony. What is it for?”
Malzhi came close to her, leaning against the rail. She stiffened, trying to keep herself from moving away and showing him his advantage. “The newest legion of our troops has completed their training, and we celebrate their achievement.”
“Do not lie to the queen. She will not think it charming, Malzhi,” Wenjige warned, her tone more than a bit sharp. She was an unpleasant woman, always poisoning the area around her with her negativity. “The troop’s training is not complete until they kill the others in battle. If they survive against their opposition here, they become a part of our army. If they do not, their training was wasted.”
“You put them against seasoned warriors and expect them to live?” The queen asked, aware of too much horror creeping into her voice. She should not have expressed any emotion at all. That was a weakness. She knew that Malzhi and even Wenjige would use that against her.
“Don’t be absurd. He expects them to die.”
“Ah, now, my dear lady,” Malzhi said, and the queen started to think that the minister’s wife was—or had been—his lover. She did not know why anyone would want to have Malzhi anywhere near them, but then he must have had some kind of appeal, perhaps if the woman was a fool or wanted power or it could even have been done out of fear. “You needn’t be so harsh. You make me sound so heartless.”
Wenjige glared at him. “You are.”
The queen did not disagree. She did not think Malzhi had any sort of kindness in him, no good at all. She wondered at those who said the king was worse. How could he be? Malzhi had the herbs, he had threatened her with violation, he might well have done that to Wenjige, and almost no one doubted that he had killed Omamhi. If the king was worse… The queen shuddered.
Malzhi gave a dismissive wave of his hand, trying to smile at the queen. “Pay her no mind, my lady. Our friendship has soured of late.”
“Soured?” The other woman snorted. “Why don’t you stop pretending and tell everyone where my husband’s body is?”
Malzhi laughed. “Were I to have done anything to Omamhi, I would not need to conceal it. Your husband is a fool, and if anything happened to him, it was his own doing.”
The queen felt sick. She had not realized that Wenjige had been Omamhi’s wife. She knew the woman was married—no woman at court was not attached to a man in some way. The king had no regard for them at all, and that spread amongst his ministers. Some were worse than others, though, and Malzhi was the one she’d consider the most terrible. Still, she had not thought that she’d have to face both him and the wife of the man she’d killed. She had not wanted to kill him; she had tried not to, but he had forced the fight. He had as much as killed himself, though that did not lessen the guilt she felt.
She did not care if it was in defense. She was not a killer, and he’d forced her to become one. She hated him for that. Now, though, she must face his wife knowing what she’d done and somehow make Malzhi look guilty of what she had done. She did not know that she could.
She was not prepared for this. She did not know if she had any semblance of composure, and if she looked weak now, it would betray too much to Malzhi, who knew himself innocent of the man’s death. She was trapped, and she would have run if she could have.
“Are you feeling ill again, my lady?”
She let out a breath. “I… As always, this heat bothers me, but I cannot help thinking that—”
“Malzhi killed my husband? Everyone knows it. He keeps denying it, but I know better. We all do. Omamhi is dead, and he won’t even be decent enough to give me his body so that I might bury him.”
Malzhi grabbed hold of Wenjige’s arm. “Do you not think that such accusations are dangerous to make? Are you certain you want to continue talking?”
She looked at him and then spat in his face. “I never thought you were a coward.”
“I am not a coward.”
The queen knew this was what they wanted—Agache and his allies needed Malzhi accused of Omamhi’s death—but she did not like it. Not only was she the one who had killed Omamhi, as much as she disliked Wenjige, she did not think she could let Malzhi hurt her.
“If you attack her, does that not confirm her accusation?”
Malzhi turned toward the queen, his grip on Wenjige slipping. “My lady, I do not think that you quite understand the situation.”
She almost laughed. “Perhaps not. I still think it is not wise to answer her questions with aggression.”
Malzhi stepped toward her. “Are you trying to tell me what I should and should not do? Do you think that being a queen means you are correct and I am not?”
She swallowed. She had known it was possible that he would turn on her, but she had not expected such instant anger, the violence right under his surface. He would hurt her, turn all that he might have done to Wenjige on her. “I voiced my opinion, that is all.”
Malzhi reached for her, adding his bruises to the ones Omamhi had left behind. “You are not in any position to have an opinion. You know so little of the facts. You are a newcomer, and you do not know what you are talking about.”
She reached to pry his fingers off her arm. “I think you feel that no woman ever knows what she’s talking about. I am afraid you will be quite disappointed when you realize that some of us do and that we are not the sort of easy prey you are accustomed to having.”
His lips curved into a smile. “You suggest that I need a challenge? Would you offer it to me?”
Wenjige snorted, stalking away in anger, and Malzhi shook his head as she did. The queen took advantage of his distraction and pulled away from him. She turned back to the ceremony, not wanting to watch, but then she would rather not look at Malzhi, either.
“I welcome the challenge,” he said, leaning over her shoulder, and all she could do was shudder.