Zoroaster gazed for a moment on the track of the swift warriors; then went up the steps, followed by his priests, and entered the palace.
Atossa and Nehushta had watched the departure of the king from their upper windows, at the opposite ends of the building, from behind the gilded lattices. Atossa had recovered somewhat from the astonishment and fear that had taken possession of her when she had found herself under Zoroaster’s strange influence, and as she saw Darius ride away, while Zoroaster remained standing upon the steps, her courage rose. She resolved that nothing should induce her again to expose herself to the chief priest’s unearthly power, and she laughed to herself as she thought that she might yet destroy him, and free herself from him for ever. She wondered how she could ever have given a thought of love to such a man, and she summoned her black slave, and sent him upon his last errand, by which he was to obtain his freedom.
But Nehushta gazed sadly after the galloping guards, and her eye strove to distinguish the king’s crest before the others, till all was mingled in the distance, in an indiscriminate reflection of moving light, and then lost to view altogether in the rising dust. Whether she loved him truly, or loved him not, he had been true and kind to her, and had rested his dark head upon her shoulder that very morning before he went, and had told her that, of all living women, he loved her best. But she had felt a quick sting of pain in her heart, because she knew that she would give her life to lie for one short hour on Zoroaster’s breast and sob out all her sorrow and die.
Four days after the king’s departure, Nehushta was wandering in the gardens as the sun was going down, according to her daily custom. There was a place she loved well—a spot where the path widened to a circle, round which the roses grew, thick and fragrant with the breath of the coming summer, and soft green shrubs and climbing things that twisted their tender arms about the myrtle trees. The hedge was so high that it cut off all view of the gardens beyond, and only the black north-western hills could just be seen above the mass of shrubbery; beyond the mountains and all over the sky, the glow of the setting sun spread like a rosy veil; and the light tinged the crests of the dark hills and turned the myrtle leaves to a strange colour, and gilded the highest roses to a deep red gold.
The birds were all singing their evening song in loud, happy chorus, as only Eastern birds can sing; the air was warm and still, and the tiny gnats chased each other with lightning quickness in hazy swarms overhead, in the reflected glow.
Nehushta loved the little open space, for it was there that, a year ago, she had sent for Zoroaster to come to her that she might tell him she knew the truth at last. She stood still and listened to the singing of the birds, gazing upwards at the glowing sky, where the red was fast turning to purple; she breathed in the warm air and sighed softly; wishing, as she wished every night, that the sunset might fade to darkness, and there might be no morning for her any more.