As I spoke a cloaked and hooded woman glided from the shelter of the trees behind and stood before us. She threw back the hood from her head and the moonlight fell upon her face. It was that of the Empress, but oh! so changed by jealous rage that I should scarce have known her. The large eyes seemed to flash fire, the cheeks were white, save where they had been touched with paint, the lips trembled. Twice she tried to speak and failed, but at the third effort words came.
“Nay, all is but begun,” she said in a voice that was full of hate. “Know that I have heard your every word. So, traitor, you would tell my secrets to this Egyptian slut and then murder my own servants,” and she pointed to the dead and wounded men. “Well, you shall pay for it, both of you, that I swear.”
“Is it murder, Augusta,” I asked, saluting, “when four assail one man, and, thinking them assassins, he fights for his life and wins the fray?”
“What are four such curs against you? I should have brought a dozen. Yet it was at me you struck. Whate’er they did I ordered them to do.”
“Had I known it, Augusta, I would never have drawn sword, who am your officer and obedient to the end.”
“Nay, you’d stab me with your tongue, not with your sword,” she answered with something like a sob. “You say you are my obedient officer. Well, now we will see. Smite me that bold-faced baggage dead, or smite me dead, I care not which, then fall upon your sword.”
“The first I cannot do, Augusta, for it would be murder against one who has done no wrong, and I will not stain my soul with murder.”
“Done no wrong! Has she not mocked me, my years, my widowhood, yes, and even my hair, in the pride of her—her youth, me, the Empress of the World?”
Now Heliodore spoke for the first time.
“And has not the Empress of the World called a poor maid of blood as noble as her own by shameful names?” she asked.
“For the second,” I went on before Irene could answer, “I cannot do that either, for it would be foul treason as well as murder to lift my sword against your anointed Majesty. But as for the third, as is my duty, that I will do—or rather suffer your servants to do—if it pleases you to repeat the order later when you are calm.”
“What!” cried Heliodore, “would you go and leave me here? Then, Olaf, by the gods my forefathers worshipped for ten thousand years, and by the gods I worship, I’ll find a means to follow you within an hour. Oh! Empress of the World, there is another world you do not rule, and there we’ll call you to account.”
Now Irene stared at Heliodore, and Heliodore stared back at her, and the sight was very strange.
“At least you have spirit, girl. But think not that shall save you, for there’s no room for both of us on earth.”
“If I go it may prove wide enough, Augusta,” I broke in.
“Nay, you shall not go, Olaf, at least not yet. My orders are that you do not fall upon your sword. As for this Egyptian witch, well, presently my people will be here; then we will see.”