By the time the Queen had reached the top of the ladder and entered the workshop, Or-Tikva was deep in conversation with her brother Rik.
"We knew it might come to this," he was saying.
"It is worse than we imagined," she responded. "Ah, Esther –"
"Welcome, my Queen," Rik greeted her, bowing his head politely. "My sister has been telling me of our cursed sibling's latest disturbance."
"Sibling?" repeated Esther in surprise. "But – of course, I knew Merwa was a member of your tribe –"
"No," Or-Tikva interrupted regretfully. "That is to say, she is the child of our tribe, though they named her Meryam. And they always hoped Meryam would return. When she betrayed us to the king's troops – though she tried to blame it on me, as I had lately been Queen – she forfeited her last chance at forgiveness. She had been expelled from the tribe already, but for this treachery she was completely disowned.
"I'm sorry, my friend; I had thought to tell you before this but the words rankled in my gullet and refused to come forth.
"But Rik agrees that it is important for you to know, now, that she and I share a common mother. I am Merwa's sister."
Monty had been proactive.
"Did you read the news today?" Nicky asked Tova when they'd talked on the phone the next day.
Nicky wanted to be kept in the loop so Tova had called her, late Saturday morning, from a payphone within sight of Sam's hospital room.
"No, I haven't seen a paper. Why?"
"It says 'Celebrated Canadian science fiction author Sam Burnsides has been admitted to an unnamed drug rehabilitation facility after a near-fatal overdose, according to his agent Montgomery Dickson'."
"I guess they didn't misspell Monty's name. That's the only accurate detail in the lot. Burnside isn't Canadian," she'd begun the list, "he doesn't write sci-fi, and he's not in rehab. The guy doesn't even like to take aspirin when he's got a headache!"
"Monty's being clever," Nicky had responded soberly. "If he did poison Sam, he'll be trying to cover his butt. Can we do anything about this?"
"Probably. Let me think about it."
She'd wandered back into Sam's room pensively, wondering if she should tell him about Monty's latest antic. The doctor had just left.
Sam had been looking pensive too. "He says it was nicotine poisoning," he'd told her, "so the antidote they gave me was the right one. And they could tell from the pristine condition of my lungs that it wasn't from smoking. Apparently you'd have to smoke an extraordinary number of cigarettes to get nicotine poisoning that way.
"I still think it was Monty did it to me," he'd muttered. "I'm not quite sure how he did it, though I have a thought. Now," he'd said, looking up at her, "how's Miss Nicolette doing?"
"Something's on your mind, I can tell. Won't you say what it is, sweetheart?"
Before she'd answered, she'd sat down in the chair next to his bed and clasped the hand he'd offered her. "I don't want to worry you, Sam, but since you've already read me well enough to see something's wrong, here it is: Monty's made a statement to the press saying you're in drug rehab."
Sam had burst out laughing.
Tova, surprised, had joined in after a moment.
"That's a healthy response," she'd added.
"Now I'm sure he's guilty. I don't know if this is how he planned it – he's not the most competent sociopath I've ever met – or if he's just trying to make the most of the situation and turn it to his own advantage while putting himself in the clear.
"You know every celebrity worth his salt has got to go to rehab, and Mister Dickson would dearly love for me to be a celebrity so he can be a celebrity's agent. You think that's why he tried to kill me – so's he could be a dead celebrity's agent? I bet he'd make more money that way."
"Ugh. I don't know, Sam."
"You seem skeptical, now. That's okay. There might be a way to test my theory – it's just an idea, really – but my esteemed agent was always after me to drink this special bottled water he gave me. He had a case of it delivered right to my door. Said he was hopin' he could get me some kind of contract endorsing the stuff.
"Monty claimed this water had some special additive with health benefits. But it tasted awful, bitter and noxious, like the doctor said nicotine would taste."
"Additives with benefits. Why don't we have it tested?"
"That's the thing – I dumped it. Emptied the bottles all down the drain and threw them in recycling."
"But – I didn't take out the recycling yet. If there's a few drops left in the bottles ..."
"Or there could be some residue," Tova had said, rising and shrugging into her jacket. "Can I have your keys? I'll go there right now. Or –" she'd sat down again. "I don't think it's safe to leave you alone. Nicky's going to be here in twenty minutes. I'll wait and go then."
"Y'all sure take good care of me," Sam had said, settling back comfortably into his pillows.
Hearing his words, Tova had hung her head, her eyes tearing. "It shouldn't have happened at all, Sam. I should have done something before it went this far. I should have at least tried to find out what was wrong with you instead of just shrinking away. My mom would be so ashamed of me; 'a shrinking violet', she'd say."
"Now, I don't believe that." Sam had taken her hand again and continued, "Your momma loved you just the way you are, from what you've told me. And I read the poems she wrote about you, about how much she learned from you and how much comfort and joy you gave to her. She was never ashamed of you.
"No, darlin', she'd know what I know, that you did the best a good woman could. My behaviour hurt you terrible. You were right to step back; and when the time came when you felt you could step up, you did – even though it must have seemed like such a risk for you. You are a hero.
"Look at me, now," he'd added gently, and when she'd raised her head he'd looked into her glistening eyes and said, "I'm here alive right now because of what you did. You got no regrets."
She'd laughed through her tears. "Aren't I supposed to decide that?"
"Yes, ma'am, you're right. Just take it as a heartfelt suggestion from me to you."
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...