Once the immediate threat of attack from the Cyrgai on their hilltop camp had passed, and the Atan garrison from Saros was on their way, the immediate guard around the Elenian queen's camp was relaxed. Ehlana was left with only her regular companions in her tent, and they passed the remaining day in something close to relaxation. Eventually, though, Stragen and Talen snuck off somewhere, and Oscagne and Emban were outside enjoying the sun, which left just the women in the tent.
This allowed Mirtai to broach a subject she had been thinking about for some time.
"You need to learn how to defend yourself," she said in her customary blunt way.
"Defend myself?" Ehlana was startled by the idea. "Isn't that what I have you and my other guards for?"
"We could all be overcome."
"But Sparhawk - "
"Isn't at your side all the time. Someone could sneak in to abduct you. If you knew how to defend yourself, it would make it that much harder for them."
Melidere pursed her lips. "She's right. I know how to handle a blade a bit, but I could definitely learn more. Think about it, Ehlana. Being able to wear a dagger in your hair and know that you could successfully use it if you needed to?"
"Perhaps the Princess and I will leave - " Alean started to say, but Ehlana cut her off.
"No. You need to learn as well. You might be the only one with me, if something happened. I want you to be able to escape and get help, if you have to." Ehlana paused and eyed her daughter speculatively. "I don't think she needs to learn this yet, though. Danae, go run and find Talen or your father and stay out of the way for a while. If you can, keep Oscagne and Emban occupied too. I don't know what they would say about this little adventure."
"But, Mother, I want to learn too," Danae protested.
"No, Danae. Maybe later Mirtai can teach you a few simple things, like how to hide and escape. But for now the grown ups need some time. Scoot."
"Mother. . ."
"Danae. . ." There was warning in Ehlana's voice. Danae pouted prettily and clung to Alean. "Now, Danae." This time Ehlana's tone was laced with the authority of both Queen and Mother.
Danae huffed a huge sigh and slowly made her way to the edge of the tent.
Ehlana smiled fondly at her daughter. "Danae, would it make you feel better if I gave you permission to do whatever you had to do, if you ever found yourself in trouble?" Danae turned back with questioning eyes. "Whatever you had to do," Ehlana said firmly.
Danae's eyes widened, but Ehlana held her gaze steadily. The princess ran back over to her mother and threw her arms around her neck and rained kisses upon the queen's face. Then she scampered out again, much happier.
Melidere narrowed her eyes at Ehlana. "How long have you known?" she asked finally.
"Known what?" Ehlana asked innocently.
"Save it for the idiot men out there," Melidere snapped. "We've been worrying our collective heads off about what would happen if you found out, and you're telling me you've known all this time?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Ehlana said coyly, causing Melidere to fume and mutter some very unpatriotic things under her breath.
"What are you talking about?" Mirtai asked, but Melidere just continued to pace back and forth, waving her hands in irritation. "Alean, do you know what she's talking about?"
"I do, but it's not my place to say," the maid replied, and focused on the sewing in her lap so she wouldn't have to meet the Atana's eyes.
"Explain, Melidere," Mirtai ordered. "And come brush my hair out while you do so. That always seems to calm you."
The baroness muttered a few more choice phrases and shot a glare at the queen, but did as requested. Ehlena sat serenely on her cushions, with her eyebrows slightly raised, giving her a somewhat quizzical and innocent look. No one in the tent was fooled for an instant.
"There are a number of us who are intimately attached to the royal family," Melidere started to explain as she drew the hairbrush through Mirtai's long, dark mane of hair, "who are aware that Princess Danae is. . . something more than she appears to be. Point of fact, she is the Styric Goddess Aphrael."
Mirtai's sudden stillness was the only suggestion that she was shocked by what she heard. "Is this true, Ehlana?" she asked bluntly.
"Yes," Ehlana replied calmly.
Melidere sighed loudly. "And you couldn't have told us you knew?"
"You all were having such fun trying to sneak around behind my back. It wasn't harming anything, so why should I spoil your fun?"
"Be nice," Melidere chided. "Anyway, Danae isn't always as subtle as she thinks she is - or perhaps we're more observant than she gives us credit for - and a number of us have figured out who she really is. Sparhawk knows, of course, and Alean. I think Khalad has figured it out, and Talen is close to guessing. Stragen definitely knows."
"Kalten knows as well," Alean said softly, "although I do not think m'lord Sparhawk is aware that he does."
"Really?" Melidere said in surprise. "I need to stop underestimating him. The point, though, is that Sparhawk decided very early on that everyone was to go out of their way to make sure that his wife never found out. He said something about not wanting to risk her sanity on it."
Ehlana laughed, although there was a trace of bitterness in it. "Sometimes Sparhawk forgets that he forged me himself, and none of his weapons could ever be that fragile. My mind is the least fragile thing about me."
"So how long have you known?" Melidere asked pointedly.
Ehlana rose gracefully and drifted over to the side of the tent to watch the light and shadows play on its surface. She wished she had a window to look out of. "Far longer than any of you," she said at last. "Once I knew the name of the poison that Annias had used on me, it wasn't hard to find references to it in the Royal Library."
"I thought Sparhawk said it was an incredibly rare drug?"
"It was, but the Royal Library is extensive. My husband has many good traits, but the patience to research is not one of them," she said fondly. "It did not take me long to discover that one of the postulated side-effects of darestim - because, remember, no one had ever survived it before - was barrenness. So when I then became pregnant, I was a little on the suspicious side."
Even Mirtai laughed at that.
"You also have to remember that it was Sephrenia's magic that kept me alive. What is Styric magic, at its core?" she asked impatiently when she saw the blank looks of her companions.
"As I understand it, it is a request to their gods, isn't it?" Melidere said slowly.
"And who does Sephrenia and the rest of the Pandion Order worship?" Ehlana asked archly.
"Yes. So in reality, it was Aphrael herself who kept me alive for those long months. I might have been unconscious, but my body certainly came to recognize Her touch. When I became pregnant, it was a piece of myself that I didn't know was missing fell into place again."
Ehlana smiled dreamily and sat down on the cushions again, with her feet curled up under her. "It was the most amazing feeling in the world. And then, when she was born, I took one look at her and knew beyond a doubt that I was correct. Have you ever truly looked at my daughter? Take her out of context, forget that she is a princess, forget the Elenian clothing. She is a Styric child without question. And yet somehow no one notices it."
"I did," Alean said. "I was helping the Princess bathe and had just wrapped her in a towel. She looked so, so, foreign in that moment, that was when I knew something odd was going on. She just reached out and touched my cheek and said, clear as anything, 'It's okay, Alean, I know you will love me no matter what.' And suddenly it didn't matter. I promised her I would keep her secret."
"So what will you do?" Melidere asked Ehlana.
"I will sit down and have a very long discussion with my daughter. She has chosen a form this time where she will have to grow up. I will make it very clear to her that she has to follow through with what she has chosen. I will not hand over my kingdom to an ill-prepared successor. I do think, however," she continued mischievously, "that I will let Danae explain things to her father."
"You better advise her to do it when they are a long way from anything breakable, like people or forests or cities."
"And the other thing I shall do is have a long chat with Sephrenia when we get to Saros."
Melidere sighed loudly again as she finished tying off the elaborate braid she had woven into Mirtai's hair. "You know about that too? Sparhawk will be so disappointed."
"Sparhawk needs to learn that he can't keep secrets from me," Ehlana replied acidly. "I wouldn't be a very good queen if I didn't know how to ferret out secrets, now would I?"
Mirtai rose with her customary grace. "Alright, spread out the cushions," she ordered abruptly, focusing everyone back to her lesson, "and I will teach you how to fall properly. We will begin there. If you do not know how to move properly, you will never be able to defend yourself."
A short ways away, the goddess-become-princess paused in her attempt to kick rocks off the edge of the hill and smiled to herself. Things didn't always work out exactly the way she planned, but sometimes they got even better instead.