After parting with Arbace, Mandane found that sleep did not come easily. Instead of seeking her bed, she paced slowly up and down her chamber, watching the moonlight form patterns on the floor. Through the power of love, when I speak to my heart, it will be as if I speak with you. So she had said to Arbace, before leaving him as duty bade. Yet she saw little hope that the King would ever grant Arbace her hand.
Her thoughts – already scattered enough – were broken by the sound of trampling feet. She frowned and went to the window. Torches were moving back and forth in the garden below.
A sudden cold dread seized her. Could Arbace have been spotted in the palace, or even arrested? If he were caught here after bidding her a last farewell, in defiance of the King’s command– She did not hesitate, but ran into the corridor. From different directions, she could hear the movements of armed men through the palace, the jingling of weapons and armor. Guard patrols were ordinary and expected, but there were far more soldiers and messengers astir than those who should have been awake shortly before dawn in the palace of the Great King. Her fears increased, together with her resolve.
Mandane moved silently through the familiar halls made strange by the darkness, seeking someone she could question without endangering Arbace further. More than once, she ducked into a side passage when a body of soldiers approached. At last, she saw a company led by a commander she knew, a man who was friendly to her brother Artaserse.
She stepped forward, holding herself with dignity, and spoke with all the assurance at her command. “Arsame! What has happened?”
He bowed low in respect, but he hesitated to speak and avoided meeting her gaze. “Princess, you should not be here. Please return to your own chambers until the situation has been dealt with. For your own safety, my lady.”
“What situation? What is happening?”
Arsame shook his head and motioned for his men to follow him down the passage.
Mandane’s brows drew together in a frown. This seemed to be a far more serious matter than a commoner found where he had no right to be. She turned and swiftly made her way to the chambers of one person who knew all that occurred at court and among the nobles of Susa.
She was admitted by a distraught maidservant. “Princess? You here, at such a time?”
“Tell the Queen that Mandane is here, and ask if she will speak with me.”
“Let her enter,” called an authoritative voice from inside. Mandane passed into the inner chamber.
Though she no longer possessed the beauty of youth, Queen Damaspia was still a force to be reckoned with. Rumor at court whispered that it was her support and influence which caused her son Dario to be the King’s favored heir rather than Mandane’s full brother Artaserse. She sat now on a gilded chair as if in state. Although her servants and ladies rushed here and there like leaves in a strong wind, the Queen remained still and unmoved. Her hair and robes were perfectly arranged, her face painted in flawless lines. Mandane approached and gave the deep formal curtsey that etiquette demanded.
Damaspia gestured for her to come closer. “What brings you here at such an hour, Princess Mandane?” Gold glittered in her hair and the threads of her garments.
“I came to learn what is happening in the palace,” Mandane replied boldly.
The Queen’s red lips curved slightly, though there was no humor in her eyes. “You do not know it, Princess? The King is dead.”
Mandane felt as if turned to stone. She respected her father more than loved him, but he was the King – the constant and center of the royal court, the one to whom she owed all loyalty and duty.
“I see you truly did not know,” Damaspia continued, looking at her curiously. “It seems your brother does not confide in you.”
“My brother?” Mandane echoed.
“It was no sudden illness, Princess. The King has been murdered.” Damaspia's brows drew together the tiniest bit. “This stroke was well planned. The King has not been dead an hour, and already my son’s strongest supporters are dead or arrested. It seems Artaserse is more astute than I gave him credit for.”
At this, Mandane found her voice. “You wrong him,” she said fiercely. “Although our father distrusted him, Artaserse would never have conspired to bring about his death.”
Damaspia returned her gaze coolly. “Then perhaps there is another hand behind him.”
“My brother is no traitor,” Mandane replied with restrained anger. “He considers such schemes beneath him. Do you think he would shed his own father’s blood?”
“Rumor in the palace has it that Dario is guilty of his father’s death. Yet my son’s supporters have been scattered, and Artaserse’s are untouched. What would you believe?” Damaspia reached for the jewel-box that lay open on the table beside her, selecting a coiled bracelet which she held experimentally against her sleeve. Light gleamed from the row of brooches within; their serried order made Mandane think of the shields and spears of an army in battle array.
“If I believed my brother guilty of this crime,” Mandane returned, her voice unsteady with indignation, “dearly as I love him, I myself would demand his death. My duty to my father and my King demands no less." Mandane knew her brother; all his life, he had held himself apart from the intrigues of the Court and refused to seek advantage by such means, even at the risk of being seen as weak rather than as the honorable man he was. She met the Queen's eyes unflinching. "But he did not do this,” she said with conviction. “I am certain of it.”
The Queen nodded slowly. “Then there is something I would ask of you.”
“What is it, my lady?”
Damaspia set the bracelet lightly down on the table. “There has been fighting in the palace. I suspect that Dario is already a prisoner, and I fear what may happen in the confusion and the heat of blood. Whether your brother planned this or not, it must bring him to power. Go to Prince Artaserse and ask him to spare Dario’s life.”
Mandane considered the Queen’s words. “But if Dario should triumph in this conflict?” she asked slowly.
“If Dario triumphs,” Damaspia said solemnly, “I give you my word that Artaserse’s life will be safe. My son will hold himself bound by my promise.”
“Dario is my brother as well as Artaserse,” Mandane said. “He has been cruel to both of us, but I do not wish my brother to begin his reign stained with the blood of his nearest kin. I will gladly do as you ask.”
Damaspia inclined her head. “I thank you.”
Mandane started to leave but stopped. “You have said nothing of yourself.”
The Queen made a resigned gesture. “I have studied the ways of power for thirty years. I know when mine is lost.”
There was a restrained fierceness in her, like a falcon on the perch. Mandane felt something oddly like pity stir in her heart. She kept it from her face, knowing the Queen would not welcome it. “Artaserse will not mistreat you, his slain father’s wife.”
“Perhaps not. But do not lose time. I pray you, seek out your brother.”
“My lady, I will.” Mandane again made the deep formal curtsey of a princess to the Queen, perhaps for the last time, and withdrew from the room.
Once out of sight of the Queen’s ladies, Mandane hurried to seek out Artaserse. She would do her best to save Dario, for all their sakes. She did not allow herself to think she might fail.
She found Artaserse at last by going onto a balcony which overlooked a hall of the palace; he was crossing the floor below, attended by some of the royal guards. A few lamps had been lit, and the pale light of dawn shone through the windows. Artaserse looked about him as if he too were seeking someone, and when he passed into the lamplight, she could see that his face was troubled.
Mandane left the balcony and quickly descended the stairs leading into the hall. Still unseen, she stopped just beyond the threshold to smooth her hair and settle the folds of her mantle which had become disarranged by her hasty progress. For the space of a few breaths, she stood in the dimness of the corridor, taking that brief moment to compose herself before greeting Artaserse. When she stepped forward again from the dark into the light, she must be worthy of her father. She would be speaking not as a sister to a brother, but as a daughter of Persia to Persia’s King.