“Oh! Augusta,” I interrupted, “why stain your lips with those words ’of justice’!”
“——Under the finding of the Court,” she went on, “your fate is left in my hands. I may kill you or torment your body. Or I may spare you and raise your head higher than any other in the Empire, aye, and adorn it with a crown.”
“Doubtless you may do any of these things, Augusta, but which of them do you wish to do?”
“Olaf, notwithstanding all that has gone, I would still do the last. I speak to you no more of love or tenderness, nor do I pretend that this is for your sake alone. It is for mine also. My name is smirched, and only marriage can cover up the stain upon it. Moreover, I am beset by troubles and by dangers. Those accursed Northmen, who love you so well and who fight, not like men but like devils, are in league with the Armenian legions and with Constantine. My generals and my troops fall away from me. If it were assailed, I am not sure that I could hold this palace, strong though it be. There’s but one man who can make me safe again, and that man is yourself. The Northmen will do your bidding, and with you in command of them I fear no attack. You have the honesty, the wit and the soldier’s skill and courage. You must command, or none. Only this time it must not be as Irene’s lover, for that is what they name you, but as her husband. A priest is waiting within call, and one of high degree. Within an hour, Olaf, you may be my consort, and within a year the Emperor of the World. Oh!” she went on with passion, “cannot you forgive what seem to be my sins when you remember that they were wrought for love of you?”
“Augusta,” I said, “I have small ambition; I am not minded to be an emperor. But hearken. Put aside this thought of marriage with one so far beneath you, and let me marry her whom I have chosen, and who has chosen me. Then once more I’ll take command of the Northmen and defend you and your cause to the last drop of my blood.”
Her face hardened.
“It may not be,” she said, “not only for those reasons I have told you, but for another which I grieve to have to tell. Heliodore, daughter of Magas the Egyptian, is dead.’
“Dead!” I gasped. “Dead!”
“Aye, Olaf, dead. You did not see, and she, being a brave woman, hid it from you, but one of those spears that were flung in the fight struck her in the side. For a while the wound went well. But two days ago it mortified; last night she died and this morning I myself saw her buried with honour.”
“How did you see her buried, you who are not welcome among the Northmen?” I asked.
“By my order, as her blood was high, she was laid in the palace graveyard, Olaf.”
“Did she leave me no word or token, Augusta? She swore to me that if she died she would send to me the other half of that necklace which I wear.”
“I have heard of none,” said Irene, “but you will know, Olaf, that I have other business to attend to just now than such death-bed gossip. These things do not come to my ears.”