“It is unfortunate—yes—fortunate for you, however.”
“I mean, it will chafe sadly upon you when you have married her,” said Atossa, calmly.
Darius raised the goblet he still held and setting it to his lips drank it at a draught. As he replaced it on the table, Atossa rose swiftly, and with her own hands refilled it from a golden ewer. The wine was of Shiraz, dark and sweet and strong. The king took her small white hand in his, as she stood beside him, and looked at it.
“It is a beautiful hand,” he said. “Nehushta’s fingers are a trifle shorter than yours—a little more pointed—a little less grasping. Shall I marry Nehushta, or not?” He looked up as he asked the question, and he laughed.
“No,” answered Atossa, laughing too.
“Shall I marry her to Zoroaster?”
“No,” she answered again, but her laugh was less natural.
“What shall I do with her?” asked the king.
“Strangle her!” replied Atossa, with a little fierce pressure on his hand as he held hers, and without the least hesitation.
“There would be frequent sudden deaths in Persia, if you were king,” said Darius.
“It seems to me there are enough slain, as it is,” answered the queen. “There are, perhaps, one—or two——”
Suddenly the king’s face grew grave, and he dropped her hand.
“Look you!” he said, “I love jesting. But jest not overmuch with me. Do no harm to Nehushta, or I will make an end of your jesting for ever, by sure means. That white throat of yours would look ill with a bow-string about it.”
The queen bit her lip. The king seldom spoke to her in earnest, and she was frightened.
On the following day, when she went to the garden, two tall spearmen guarded the entrance, and as she was about to go in, they crossed their lances over the marble door and silently barred the way.
Atossa started back in pure astonishment and stared for a moment at the two guards, looking from one to the other, and trying to read their stolid faces. Then she laid her hand on their spears, and would have pushed them aside; but she could not.
“Whose hounds are ye?” she said angrily. “Know ye not the queen? Make way!”
But the two strong soldiers neither answered nor removed their weapons from before the door.
“Dog-faced slaves!” she said between her teeth. “I will crucify you both before sundown!” She turned and went away, but she was glad that no one was there in the narrow vestibule before the garden to see her discomfiture. It was the first time in her life she had ever been resisted by an inferior, and she could not bear it easily. But when she discovered, half an hour later, that the guards were obeying the Great King’s orders, she bowed her head silently and went to her apartments to consider what she should do.