Title: Devils in the Dark

Author: Blaze

Email: blazing@SoftHome.net

Disclaimer: The characters belong to Double Secret, Showtime, Gekko and other folks none of whom include me. This particular arrangement of words in cyberspace, however, is mine alone. However, I not only release any and all ideas to the above mentioned entities, I outright encourage them to steal at will. Please, we'd appreciate it.

Summary: An alien world and strange goings on.

Author's Note: This piece is not precisely a sequel, but some of the emotional situations and conflicts are inspired by Shel's story, Where Angels Fear to Tread. You might want to take a gander to see what I'm thinking of for where Sam and Janet's relationship is during the period prior to the story. With permission.

 

PROLOGUE

 

March, 2004

Sweat trickling between full breasts. A rough tongue following the uneven path. The rhythmic sound of harsh breathing, driven by desperate passion. Janet Fraiser's back arched, instinct driving her closer to her lover, her free hand digging into thick blond hair, biceps and triceps knotting as she pulled against the manacle latched around her left wrist. A long chain linked the etched gold cuff to an identical gold manacle wrapped around Sam Carter's narrow wrist, while the chain was tossed over a bedpost, the position forcing a game of tug of war that Janet was nowhere near strong enough to win. She tried again to bring her arm down and blue eyes lifted, blazing in the thin light, while graceful hands slid over her skin with possessive intensity.

"I'll never let you go," Sam whispered, but there was frightening lack of familiar humor or gentleness in her voice and expression.

Despite her fear of what was happening to both of them, Janet felt her body respond to every touch and caress, unable to resist the reality of something she'd fantasized about for so long. "Sam, please--"

"Don't," the blond commanded with a note of arrogance totally alien to her normal disposition. She drew her mouth down the length of Janet's throat, teeth working against smooth skin. "Say it," she growled, fingers thrusting deep, the pleasure of the caress tinged with a flicker of pain, though it was a product of raw possessiveness and the need for dominance rather than cruelty. At least Sam's total lack of capacity for that hadn't changed.

"Terreis," Janet gasped in surrender, moaning low in her throat as Sam's mouth covered her own, the answering pleasure thick and terrifying. Her only thought beyond the demands of her own body -- this can't go on....

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

 

Three Months Earlier

Janet Fraiser straightened, smiling at the small child staring up her with wide eyes. Back home, snow dusted the ground and the winds blew cold, but on this alien plain it was humid and warm enough that her uniform stuck to sweaty skin in uncomfortable places, leaving her wishing for the cool confines of the SGC. Despite her discomfort, she reached out to ruffle the child's pale, cornsilk hair, then nodded to her mother. The worried looking young woman swept the toddler into her arms and slipped out with a few heartfelt words of gratitude. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate the help, but the locals had been scared since they'd begun accepting help from the SG teams, clearly afraid of punishment from the powers on high. Not that anyone associated with Stargate Command had quite figured out who that might be. Whoever they were, they seemed to be completely uninterested in the local population's health or welfare, though judging by the people's fear, they apparently demanded total fealty in return for their uncaring stance.

Janet sighed softly as she tossed the jet injection gun she'd used to give the child a much needed vaccination back into the open carrying case with a muttered curse.

"Is it really that bad?" Sam Carter questioned, ducking as she stepped inside the abandoned building that had been serving as the doctor's makeshift infirmary since she'd arrived several days before. O'Neill had settled on the location since it was close to the main encampment, but far enough that the locals would actually come for help. The fact that the walls were sturdy stonework and eminently defensible had doubtless also been a consideration, especially since he'd been firm about keeping a guard on the door any time Fraiser was there seeing patients.

Janet looked up and shrugged a little helplessly. "Surprised to see you here," she murmured. "I thought you were still trying to fix the water pumps."

Sam shook her head. "The general needed another strong back, so I relieved your guard to go help. I needed to get away from the problem for a little while anyway," she added by way of explanation at Janet's questioning look. She nodded after the woman and child who'd just left. "How's the girl?"

Retrieving the injector, Janet began breaking it down for storage with automatic skill. "Underweight, malnourished ... she's got a couple of nasty opportunistic infections and a probable calcium deficiency." She looked back at the blond in time to catch her flinch. "It's like everyone else we're seeing ... six months to a year of rest and decent nutrition and they'd be fine, but it's nothing I can fix with a few shots. Everything I'm doing is pure bandaid medicine to try and keep anything worse from happening while they're so weakened."

"How about the vaccine?"

"At least that seems to be working right ... We've had no new reports of infection and no bad reactions to the vaccine itself. With a little luck, that situation is contained." She sighed, fatigue, frustration, and bad sleeping conditions catching up with her all at once. Okay, so the medical team had figured out a way to stop the virus apparently running rampant through these people, a variant on smallpox that had apparently run riot through the local populace before SG-1 had discovered the situation and offered whatever assistance they could. That didn't change the fact that they were still in frighteningly poor health and scared of something though no one would say what.

Sam noted her depression with a worried look. "You okay?"

Another shrug. "I'll live. I just hate that there's so little I can do for them." She ran her bangs back from her forehead, where they were tending to stick in sweaty strands. "Any luck with the generators you found?" There was a city nearby, or more correctly, the remains of a city, the ancient walls crumbling around the few people who still lived there. The odd part was there were signs of considerable technological expertise, but any knowledge of how to make it work had apparently disappeared somewhere over time. Sam, however, had some hope of restoring some function to the section of the ancient system that was apparently designed to pump deep water to nearby fields, long since gone fallow. That might give the local farmers some chance at growing the food they were clearly becoming desperate for. She'd almost gotten it up and running before everything broke down again.

It was Carter's turn to shrug. "Had a little luck. I think it's doable. It's just that the system's so old and it looks like somebody's scavenged parts at some point, so I'm having to jerry rig things ... I just get one problem solved and something else goes wrong." She sounded as tired as Janet felt.

The two women shared a long moment of companionable silence, both drawing strength from their long-standing friendship. Their gazes met and held, a familiar sense of awareness arcing between them. More than friendship, if they were honest, though they'd long since agreed not to pursue anything else since that would have meant lying to everyone they cared for and risking their careers. However practical the decision, it had done nothing to change the chemistry that existed between them whether they wanted it or not.

Finally, Sam offered a wry smile, her expression tender as she reached out and tapped the newly silver cluster on Fraiser's collar. "I still owe you that beer, Colonel," she teased gently.

The doctor glanced down at Sam's fingers, a hint of a smile touching her lips. "I keep forgetting about that," she muttered.

Carter's smile broadened a tiny notch. "You've got to stop timing your promotions so they arrive during the busy season."

Janet managed a smile and a small laugh. "Sorry, we don't all have your knack for making sure everyone's schedule is free for a party." Carter's own promotion to lieutenant colonel had come some months before, during a down period for the team, and the celebration had resulted in more than a few hangovers, not the least of which had been Sam's own. The doctor's smile softened as she remembered the image the blond had painted on her couch after everyone else had left. She'd sat sprawled there, pleasantly tanked, singing a merry tune. It was the only time since they'd agreed not to let their relationship go any farther than friendship that she'd allowed that iron control to slip a little, smiling up at Janet -- who hadn't been a whole lot more sober by that time -- then reaching out and pulling her down onto the couch until they were sitting hip to hip.

Sam had leaned back into the cushions, her smile ironic. "So, is the silver pretty enough to be worth it?"

For a moment, Janet was lost in the confusion she'd felt in that moment, both understanding and not understanding her friend's poignant tone. Her drunken inability to quite put it all together had come through in her tone as she whispered Sam's name on a questioning note. "Sam?"

She'd never forget the quiet longing in those familiar blue eyes as Sam turned her way. "Giving up the only other thing I care about as much as my career." She'd reached out, brushing silky hair back from Janet's temple. "Hell, if what we're doing weren't so damn important, I think I'd chuck it all and go civilian." Another slow stroke through Janet's hair had wound up with Sam cupping the back of her head and they'd leaned close, breath mingling in the scant space still remaining between them. "I keep thinking maybe I can stop loving you, but I can't ... nothing's changed." The low, mournful whisper had left Janet's heart hammering in her chest, offering so many sweet temptations.

They'd drawn to within a hand's breadth before some small measure of sanity reasserted itself. "We can't. You know that." Her own voice had sounded shaky and uncertain even to her own ears.

"Just this once ... one little congratulatory kiss--"

"Except I don't think either one of us is going to be able to stop if we cross that line."

A long moment of silence had followed, then Sam's regretful sigh. "No, we couldn't." She'd staggered to her feet then, mumbling an exhausted, "See you in the morning," before stumbling off to sleep -- or not sleep -- in the guest bedroom, leaving Janet to her own lonely bed.

"Janet?" Sam's soft voice brought her back to the present. Dark eyes met Sam's paler gaze and she saw the other woman flinch ever so slightly at what she saw before dropping her hand to her side, straightening her shoulders, and resettling her feet. She swallowed hard, maintaining an iron lock on her emotions. "The guys and I figured we'd take you out for some kind of fancy dinner when we get back," she said softly, putting it all back on safe ground by including their ever-clueless chaperons in the discussion.

Pushing any dangerous emotions back into the safe lock box where they belonged, Janet offered a dry smile. "I'm not sure I can stand an evening of General O'Neill's whining if he has to wear a suit." She put added emphasis on O'Neill's rank before shaking her head, one sculpted brow rising. "And don't officers in other commands usually wind up with a few different duties when they advance in rank?" It had become something of a standing joke between the three of them that they kept receiving promotions right on schedule while doing exactly the same jobs they'd always done at the SGC. Sam couldn't guarantee it, but she was comfortably certain that Jack O'Neill was now the only one star general in the service who was normally in direct command of precisely three people -- only one of whom was even in the Air Force.

Sam grinned. "Not our fault we were perfect from the start."

Janet snorted softly and rolled her eyes. "Speak for yourself."

"Now, now," Carter chastised, her tone intentionally light. "Just because some of us were a little more perfect than others--"

Another annoyed snort interrupted the teasing. "Right ... perfect." Janet checked the serum vials to make certain they were properly tucked into their padded home in the hard sided case for the vaccine gun, then snapped the case shut, "Like when you oh, so perfectly got yourself turned into Wilma Flintstone and tried to molest General -- then Colonel -- O'Neill--"

Sam winced. "Okay, so that was a less than perfect moment," she allowed, playing along with the joke.

"Or how about that wonderful little device you helped bring back that oh-so-perfectly impaled self-same former colonel, and tried to take over the entire base--"

"Well, okay, less than perfect, but that wasn't my fault--"

"And then there was that perfect transference with the entity from outer space that left you in the computer system--"

"You shouldn't complain. I reorganized your files while I was in there," Sam riposted, eyes glinting teasingly. It was a game they'd played before

"I remember," Janet drawled. " I couldn't find the personnel reports for a week."

"Everybody's a critic," Sam mock-complained, then offered a gentle smile, glad to see Janet's mood improved for the light repartee. Fraiser ducked her head in silent acknowledgment of the efforts to cheer her up, while Sam glanced at her watch, noting the time. Time to go back into professional soldier mode. Nightfall was roughly an hour away, and O'Neill had been very clear about keeping their people together once darkness fell. The terrain was rough and unfamiliar, and there were any number of pitfalls of long discarded civilization -- tumbled down buildings, old tunnels that were falling in, steep shafts that went down to old underground dwellings of some kind, and a dozen other things that could make wandering in the dark dangerous. "However, if you're finished here, I can give you a hand carrying any equipment back to camp."

"Now that, I could use," Janet said, sounding relieved at the notion of having help. As uncomfortable as her bedroll back at camp was, the notion of crashing for a few hours was very tempting indeed.. "Let me just--"

"Doctor Fraiser, Doctor Fraiser!"

Both women swung around as a local man came skidding into the room.

"Doctor Fraiser, " he said again, clearly breathless from running.

"Tecal, right?" the doctor questioned.

The newcomer nodded. "My son," he said quickly, clearly panicked. "He fell in the old quarry. He's not moving. Please, you've got to help."

Janet remembered the boy, maybe twelve and as full of energy as anyone she'd seen so far on the planet. She could easily see him climbing too high and falling. "Let me just grab my kit and we'll go," she said as she moved to put together what she thought she might need.

Sam frowned uncertainly. "Janet, it's going to be dark soon," she reminded her friend. Crawling over unfamiliar ground in the moonless night could get very dangerous if they weren't careful.

"I know, Sam, but if it's bad, we can't just stand here."

"Please," Tecal begged. "You have to hurry."

"Okay," Sam agreed. "But I'm coming with you," she added as she adjusted the shoulder strap on her MP5, so that the weapon was more easily accessible. Janet didn't argue, just continued packing equipment into a backpack with a noticeable red cross on the back. Sam toggled the radio on her shoulder. "General O'Neill, Carter here."

"What's up, Carter?" her superior's voice came back to her almost instantly.

"Local kid's had some kind of an accident. Fraiser's going to check it out, and I'm going with her."

Janet had finished gathering what she needed and was snapping a field case shut, while the boy's father fidgeted uneasily. "Please," he urged, "you must hurry."

The doctor nodded and glanced at Sam, who waved them on, taking up the rear as they exited the small building, her attention split between the trail and her conversation with her superior.

"It's gonna be dark soon, Carter. You want me to send somebody to lend a hand?" O'Neill sounded uneasy.

Sam glanced at the worried father. He was moving fast, clearly anxious to get back to his injured child. With luck, it wasn't too far, and they could reach the boy and assess the situation quickly . She knew O'Neill needed every available hand to splice a section of huge water pipe, and it would cost them twice as much time if they had to disrupt the process. "Not right now. I'll let you know if it looks like there's a problem."

"If you're sure...."

"I'm sure, sir." The most dangerous thing they'd seen so far were the tumbled in buildings and tunnels that made the landscape hazardous, and she wasn't too worried about those as long as it was still light. "I'll check in when I know what the situation is. In the meantime, we're headed twenty-two degrees West of true North."

"Understood," O'Neill said quickly. "Be careful.""Yes, sir," Sam signed off as they reached the edge of a scrub forest. She'd helped recon the area when they first arrived. The small, scruffy trees were spaced just far enough apart to make it impossible to see more than a few yards and ran right up to the edge of a deep, sheer sided quarry. The cut cliffs of the quarry revealed inky black, onyx-like rock that began only a few feet below the sandy topsoil. With a muttered curse, Sam picked up her stride, moving more quickly. When she was worried about a patient, Janet was amazingly capable of outpacing Sam despite the difference in height and stride. Already, the doctor was far enough ahead that she flashed in and out of Sam's view as she wended between the squat, broad leafed trees, following Tecal at a dog trot.

After several minutes at that hard pace, they broke through the trees where they abruptly ended at the edge of the quarry. Catching up with her friend, Sam scanned the area and saw the pathetically small figure lying at the base of the sharply cut cliffs, his body a limp sprawl in tattered rags. SG-1 had checked the area out on first arriving, so Sam knew where Tecal was leading them as he skirted along the cliff's edge. Stairs had been cut into the black rock, probably for the long dead workmen who'd once mined the place, and there were the remains of occasional posts along the cliff-side that had probably once stabilized some kind of handrail. The quarry wasn't especially large, perhaps half again as long as a football field, twice as wide and a little over a hundred feet deep, but there was something eerie about the inky black rock and the way it seemed to absorb any light that got near it. It didn't help that there were deep cuts and shallow caves all over the place where someone could easily hide completely unnoticed. Sam had hated the place on sight. "You sure this is a good idea," she murmured sotto voce to Janet.

The doctor's gaze slid over to Sam, her own unease easily visible to anyone who knew her, though no one else would have guessed, and shrugged. "Not a lot of choice." Like Sam, she had duties and responsibilities that she couldn't ignore.

"This way," Tecal said quickly and led them onto the stairs. As skinny and underfed as he was, he moved quickly and hurried them along.

The stairs were steep and high enough that it took some concentration not to slip, especially since there were precious few handholds a climber could use to stabilize themselves. Sam kept an eye on Janet as they moved, ready to offer assistance, since the other woman was small enough to have some difficulty on some of the higher steps, especially with the added burden of the medkit. Fraiser handled the climb with ease, finally dropping the last couple of feet to make a graceful landing at the base. She paused and glanced back at Sam, then took off after Tecal at a jog. Sam frowned, her pace a little slower, unease crawling down her spine as she took a moment to check out their surroundings. She knew it was just her own paranoia, but the place really did give her the creeps. It looked like something out of an old sci fi horror movie, just waiting for the monster to leap out and eat everyone in sight. "Oh yeah, Carter," she chastised herself under her breath, "thinking like that should really help the situation."

Sam was about fifteen yards behind Janet when the doctor reached the boy's crumpled body. He was lying at the base of an artificial cliff, only a few feet from one of the sharp cuts that took off into a tributary like canyon, though Sam had to squint to make it out against the black on black layers of rock. Tracking the doctor carefully as she dropped down beside the tiny figure and slung open the medkit, Sam skirted along the rough floor of the quarry only a few feet from the base of the canyon wall. Even from the distance, she could see her friend's automatic gentleness and the worried frown creasing her brow, and just barely hear her soft voice as she spoke. "Jelan?" Then something caught the officer's attention, a sound somewhere just off her right shoulder. She started to turn only to pivot back as she heard Janet cry out. The doctor was gripping what looked to be the boy's arm, holding it well above the ground, the child's position impossibly limp unless his bones had been completely crushed. It took Carter a moment to process that the "child's" body appeared to be nothing more than a bundle of rags, though she was already reaching for her MP5 with one hand and the two way radio at her shoulder when she saw a figure lunge out of a hiding place in the rocks behind Janet. She was just shouting a warning when she saw her friend's head come up, her expression torqued by surprised and fear.

"Janet!"

"Sam!"

And then she was grabbed from behind, something foul pinned across her nose and mouth. Her vision was already starting to spiral inward when she caught a glimpse of Janet struggling with an attacker, a rag held over her face, the crackle of her radio a strange background music to the scene as she felt someone grab for her gun. She managed to tighten her finger, satisfied by the sound of automatic gunfire as the MP5 sprayed a random array of bullets skyward.

"Carter, that sounded like gunfire...Carter! Carter!"

Dizzy and fading, Sam sank to her knees. She wanted to fight, but it was as though her muscles had turned to liquid. She lost her grip on her weapon as she began to sink into the spiraling vortex. She saw Janet limp in her attacker's arms, and wanted to make one last valiant surge, some part of her desperate to save her friend, but she had nothing left to fight with. O'Neill was still calling her name, his voice desperate, but she didn't have it in her to care anymore.

She caught a glimpse of a lean, pinch faced figure stepping into view and vaguely heard Tecal's voice, scared and breathy. "The outlanders as I promised you, m'lord. Now, please ... release my son."

The answer was disinterested and directed elsewhere. "See to the peasants. I want no witnesses."

Then the ground came up and the world went black.

 

 

 

 

Part 2

Dreams, floating and strange, were a confusing plague. Unrecognized voices whispered familiar words with incomprehensible meanings.

"What about the other one?"

"So far, she's proven resistant."

"Then continue your efforts."

"I'm afraid I can't for now without risking damaging her. She needs time to completely clear the drugs from her system before we try again."

"I don't have time to waste on this."

"You'll gain nothing if she dies."

"Then do what you need to, but understand that I want her converted as soon as possible. I also gain nothing if she remains as she is."

She heard low groans, rustles and ruffles, her mind toying with images that she knew in her dreamstate meant something to her but like the words suddenly had no meaning. She fought to look through the fog and caught a glimpse of a limp figure being lifted from somewhere out of her line of sight. A gentle face was momentarily turned her way, the features unfamiliar though something in her strained against the idea, feeling that they somehow should have been well known to her. And then the dream slid on by and she was floating again as her subconscious surrendered to total unconsciousness once again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

A sun brightened room greeted Queen Terreis of Arrathonea's languid efforts to waken from the comforts of sleep and dreams. Blinking sleepily, she ruffled her hair and slowly pushed upright, smiling ever so slightly as she noted the figure silently bustling through her room, her figure veiled by the gauzy curtains that surrounded the huge bed. Lips tipping upward in a smile, she threw her legs over the side of the bed and rose, gracefully exiting the fluttering drapes.

"My Queen," the delicate figure moving so quietly through the room spun, ducking her head and curtsying low. "I brought your breakfast."

Terreis nodded, crossing to pluck a piece of fruit from the tray and biting into the tart, sweet pulp hungrily. She stiffened ever so slightly a second later as slender arms wrapped around her from behind, and she felt the press of warm lips against her center back.

"My Queen is hungry this morning," her servant, Maya, whispered between delicate kisses across the brace of her shoulders. Her hands spread against the curve of slender hipbones, stroking soft curves through sheer fabric. "Perhaps for more than food?" she added, her tone lifting hopefully at the end. "You have time before you're due for your meeting with your ministers."

A tiny moan escaped Terreis' lips as talented hands smoothed around her body, stroking down her stomach and following the vee of her pelvis, fingertips drawing teasingly close to the ache suddenly flooding her body. "I do seem to feeling a little hungry," she admitted, her breathing growing heavier with every passing moment. Tossing the fruit aside, she pivoted, lifting an arm over the smaller woman's head, then settling it on her shoulder as her servant leaned fully against her body, arching up on tiptoe and tugging her head down until their lips met in a demanding kiss that didn't end until they were both breathing hard. Terreis straightened, blue eyes meeting her servant's bright, dark brown ones, staring deeply into their velvet depths, oddly comforted by the familiarity. At that thought, she frowned ever so slightly, something tugging at the edge of her mind along with the distant curiosity as to why she felt the need for comfort. Before she could muse on the strange thoughts, Maya's hands were sliding over her body, leaving heated trails of arousal in their wake, and reminding her of the ache burning in her blood. "Starving in fact," she breathed, working her fingers into the woman's waist length black hair, tugging her head up as she found her lips again, the need for anything but passion forgotten in the rush for satisfaction.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Drip, drip, drip.

Janet Fraiser groaned softly, consciousness returning with the unpleasant awareness of a headache that throbbed in time with the steady splash of water falling somewhere nearby. She was lying on her stomach, body sore, throat raw as though she'd been breathing smoke. She gasped sharply, wincing as she drew air into lungs that felt like they'd been sanded from the inside out.

Then she opened her eyes and found herself fighting a clawing sort of panic when there was nothing but more darkness there to greet her eyes. Blind? She pushed up on one hand, barely feeling the pain that rippled through overstressed muscles as she passed her other hand in front of her face, desperately hunting for some hint of a shadow. Nothing but vague swirls that could have been the side effect of being in total darkness with eyes struggling to see, or being blind with a brain stripped of visual impulses and struggling to insert something to fill the void.

Drip, drip, drip.

Blind, her hearing seemed to become that much more acute and she concentrated on the tiny, rhythmic sound as she fought the raw terror, forcing the it down and focusing on learning more about her situation. She was lying on a narrow pallet, her feet bare against some kind of stone or cement, though she still had her fatigues on by the feel of it. She rolled onto her back with a groan, patting herself down to discover her belt gone and the cargo pockets on her uniform empty.

Drip, drip, drip.

Janet pushed to her feet only to nearly topple once again as her muscles reacted with all of the power of wet sponges. "Sam? Sam, are you here?" she whispered, her voice seeming loud to her own ears, though far quieter than the silence that answered back. She shook off some of the daze, forcing herself to move, carefully pacing the confines of her small prison, hunting for any sign of her friend and pausing only when she was certain she was alone. A moment later, she realized she'd found the drip by standing under it as water slid from her bangs and splashed onto her cheeks. It smelled clean, and she was dry mouthed enough that she finally tipped her head back and caught a few drops on her tongue. It was slightly musty tasting, but not foul and she caught a few more drops, wetting her mouth at least, before stepping away again and checking her surroundings a second time, hoping for some clue she'd missed the first time.

She was in a cell roughly five paces one direction and eight the other. The pallet where she'd woken sat in one corner and there was no sign of anyone else in the room, nor could she find any kind of indentation that might indicate a door. The walls were smooth -- metal or some kind of poured resin by her guess -- cold and faintly damp.

Drip, drip, drip.

Judging by the feel of the walls, the drip was probably from condensation. If they hadn't been moved offworld her cell had to be somewhere deep underground as hot as things were on the surface. Of course, if they had been moved through the gate, they could be anywhere.

Either way, God only knew what her chances were for escape.

She frowned, trying to remember the exact sequence of events in hopes of deciding whether the Goa'uld had been involved in any way. She had a sharp memory of the trick in the quarry; realizing that the boy's "body" was nothing more than bundled rags, and then seeing Sam attacked even as she was grabbed from behind, but after that there were a few moments of haze and then precious little until waking. Other than a few vague memories of strange voices, there was nothing. She had no way of knowing what had happened since those hideous moments when she'd slid into a black well. Janet snarled a low curse. A trap, and she'd been responsible for leading both of them into it.

Still, there nothing about the situation that suggested the involvement of any of the system lords. Their drugs tended to be far more sophisticated, not that they would need them to subdue two lightly armed humans. With their strength and healing ability, they could easily have taken she and Sam without cracking a sweat. That knowledge gave her some small hope that they were still somewhere fairly close to where they'd been taken and not in Goa'uld hands.

Feeling the cold, she rubbed her upper arms and stood, trying to come up with some kind of plan. She was still considering the problem when she heard the muffled rattle of metal on metal and then a flare of light from behind her. Janet spun just as a slot roughly a foot wide and several inches tall opened several inches off the floor opened in the wall opposite the bunk. She blinked against a spray of thin, amber light that seemed painfully bright to eyes adjusted to total darkness. Before she could move, a tray of some kind was shoved through, the contents rattling noticeably as it hit the floor, and then the trap door slammed shut again.

Janet blinked, the after-image of the trapdoor burned onto her retinas as she hurried forward and dropped to her knees. She found the tray easily in the darkness; what felt like a bowl of gruel of some kind, a piece of rough bread and a cup of room temperature liquid. Pushing it aside, she reached for the wall, hunting for the edges of the trap with sensitive fingers, but it was so precisely fitted that she couldn't feel them until she rubbed a fingernail over the joint. She traced the line with her thumbnail, envisioning its placement in her head, then moved on, rubbing lightly until she found edges roughly a foot and a half on either side of the trap. Ignoring the shakiness in her legs, she stood as she continued to trace the seams upward until she was comfortably certain it was a door.

Breathing more easily, the realization that there was a door -- even if it was firmly locked -- an odd sort of comfort, Janet leaned forward, resting her forehead against the smooth surface, the cool damp seeping into her skin. Some of her terror assuaged, her only thoughts were for Sam, worrying about the other woman and wondering if she was all right. She spread her hands against the smooth surface of the wall as if the tactile sensation could offer some clue as to where she was or where her friend might be. "Oh Sam," she breathed, "please be all right."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Terreis stared at the complicated map laid out before her, noting the red marks that indicated heavy damage. She trailed a finger along a road so littered with red that it looked as though someone lost a healthy measure of blood. "Losses?" she demanded briskly of the men gathered around the table in the royal hearing chambers.

"Almost total," her senior minister, Valchon, responded. "Three villages nearly destroyed, two water plants disabled, four power plants disabled, this season's crops burned, the workers in the stone quarries slaughtered." His lip curled with distaste while the elegantly appointed men around him mumbled their disapproval of such brutality.

Terreis' traced the line of red on the map, mentally marking the damage as she noted the positions, her eyes glittering with barely controlled rage. "Why?" she hissed, the subtle tension in her voice the only overt sign of her deeply held anger. "What reason do that outlanders have for this level of destruction?"

"We know not, My Queen," Valchon answered, folding his hands together in front of himself, the muscles in his narrow face pulling taut. "We know only that they came through the Gate of Heaven and began destroying everything in their path."

Terreis shook her head, blond hair spilling around the narrow coronet the decorated her forehead. "There must be some reason," she whispered more to herself than her advisors. She studied the map, hunting for some kind of clue, but could find none. "They kill and destroy and don't even bother to steal."

"No, My Queen," Valchon confirmed. "They must be madmen ... bent on destroying anything that isn't their own."

The queen made an angry sound in the back of her throat. Her people were peaceful traders and farmers. They didn't even have much of a standing army to fight back with. "Do we know their current position?" she demanded, pinning Interior Minister Adlave in place with a hard look. He was in charge of the public works ministry, including the police, and had charge of what few defense forces they possessed.

He pointed at a red mark closest to the royal city of Marmax. "Here, My Queen," he said breathlessly, his nervousness showing. He patted at the sweat trickling down his hairline with an extravagant lace handkerchief. "They attacked the water and power station that supplies our own city. Thankfully, my forces repulsed them, but not before they did considerable damage. Our power and pumping capacities are dangerously low, which means we won't be able to care for the refugees coming in if we don't do something."

Terreis growled a low curse. "Get me the plans to the stations. There must be something we can do to effect repairs and increase their capacity." The thought of her people thirsty and starving for lack of services made her stomach clench with worry. It was something she could not tolerate. "Then order our defense forces to protect the city gates and bring any refugees inside." Marmax was walled. With limited forces, their best bet was to protect the city and their people. "We also need to find a way of either driving these outlanders back or making some kind of treaty with them."

"Their weapons outclass anything we have," Valchon snapped impatiently, "and their response to our every effort at making peace has been to slaughter the ambassadors we sent to meet with them." He slapped a fist into the map, expression blazing. "We must find a way to fight them."

Terreis nodded regretfully. Sadly enough, he was right. "First, we need to see to our resources ... then weapons," she said softly.

Valchon nodded and didn't argue, though angry tension remained in his expression. "Very well, My Queen." He snapped his fingers sharply. "You heard our queen, Adlave. Fetch those plans."

The junior minister nodded nervously and hurried out, reappearing minutes later with a bundle of dusty papers, some of them torn and ragged at the edges. Terreis noted their condition with a raised brow as the portly minister dumped them on the table and began shuffling through the stack. He tensed under her pointed gaze. "The ... uh ... the good copies were with the engineers that were attacked."

A frown drew the queen's brows together. "Our engineers were attacked?"

It was Valchon who answered. "Yes, My Queen," he said quickly. He glanced down at the plans then back up at her. "They were trying to repair the damage done to the water plant near Merring Vale in hopes of fighting the crop fires when the outlanders found them and attacked."

Rage flickered in Terreis' eyes before they briefly slid closed. One hand fisted tightly as she fought the anger, knowing that giving way to it now would do no good. "Were our people armed?"

The senior minister shook his head. "No, My Queen. They didn't expect to be attacked."

The queen slapped her fist into the table, knuckles radiating a flare of pain that did nothing to distract her from the hurt caused by the thought of her people being harmed. "Distribute what weapons we have to our forces," she instructed as she began studying the plans, already committing them to memory. As queen, she had training in every kind of skill imaginable in order to see to her people's needs, unlike these men, whose focus was primarily political. "I want armed guards on any work crews."

Valchon nodded to acknowledge the command. "We have only limited arms, My Queen."

She nodded, eyeing the plans, tracking the complex design of the intertwined power and water plant. "Once we've got repair crews started, we'll focus on weapons." She saw Valchon draw breath to argue and held up a hand. "If our people are dying of thirst and starvation, there's no use to having weapons ... and without power, no way to build them anyway." She leaned down, wiping the thick layer of dust away study the top drawing more closely. "Do we know where the damage was done?" she questioned, her attention focused on the plans.

It was Adlave who answered, "Yes, My Queen," as he leaned close and flipped through the multitude of sheets before yanking one out. He spread it out quickly, shaking hands making the ancient parchment rattle as he handled it, rubbing the dust away until his hands were grimy in an effort to please her. "Their weapons burst pipes here and here," he pointed at two separate lines on the diagram, "which shut down the third and fourth turbine and the attached cooling systems. Now, the turbines have frozen and we can't figure a way to get the lines spliced, then get them going, since each turbine supplies the power for its own water pump."

Terreis listened to his explanation, then reached for a pen and a sheet of paper from the stack on the corner of the table to begin jotting notes. "We'll need to assess the damage to the pipes," she began, "and then either replace or patch the damaged sections. Once that's done...."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Janet was sitting up on the narrow pallet that served as her bed, her back against the wall, legs stretched out and crossed loosely at the ankles, listening to the steady, tapping drip of water as it fell from the ceiling to land in the empty metal drinking cup where she had placed it on the floor for precisely that purpose. It was part of the routine she'd developed partially as a matter of survival and partially as a means of keeping herself sane while dwelling in such total darkness. Without a watch or anything to distract her, she had no sense of time and precious little to keep her mind from conjuring any number of demons and terrors. She had scoured every inch of the room within her reach, sensitive fingers hunting for any weakness that might be exploited only to find nothing at all. A tray of food came periodically; twice a day by her guess at the way her stomach was growling, though it was getting harder and harder to be certain, since it wasn't enough to keep a body alive either way. She'd tested it all, tasting and waiting for a reaction before concluding it was okay. The water she drank first, then set the cup to catch the runoff from the ceiling, well aware that they weren't giving her even survival water rations. She'd had eight meals so far -- which meant she'd already spent something between four and eight days trapped in black tar. Already she could feel the weakness from lack of food and dehydration taking hold.

She'd heard a voice only once in that time; the first time the trap opened without a tray coming through, a rough male voice had demanded she put the empty things near the trap and back away, making it plain that until she did, no more food would be forthcoming. Shortly after, a fresh tray with the same contents had been shoved through. The one time she'd tried withholding the cup and trying to see through, the door had snapped closed again and hours had passed before she'd had another chance. Now she moved quickly when the trap clattered open, tossing back any water she'd gathered and shoving things forward. She'd tried to duck down and get a look at what might lie on the other side of the door but it was only open for second or two and her efforts to see had only resulted in blindness in the face of the seemingly bright lights. Likewise any efforts to speak or call to her jailers had been completely unsuccessful. They either didn't hear or didn't care. Either way, she was out of ideas.

Cursing aloud just to hear a voice, Janet threw her legs over the side of the pallet, standing easily, though there was a momentary sense of disorientation that bordered on dizziness. It had never occurred to her before just how thoroughly the human mind relies on vision to gauge even the most basic directions like up and down. In theory, it was all up to gravity, but she'd found that in reality, a mind stripped of visual cues quickly started playing tricks. She'd already lost her balance or wound up completely turned around several times, uncertain which direction the pallet or the door lay. Now she concentrated on the tiny sound of dripping water, startled to realize what a guidepost that small but consistent sound had become. She knew it was near the foot of the narrow pallet and closer to that than the door. It gave her a compass when the blackness closed in. If she closed her eyes and centered herself, listening until she heard it, she could figure out where she was fairly quickly and push the panic down through sheer force of will.

Orienting herself, so she knew where she was in relation to her rather limited landscape, she contemplated the placement of the trap door her food came through, mentally picturing it and calculating where she'd need to be positioned to have any hope of seeing through during the brief moment it was open. She needed to figure out a way to buy some time. She'd already tried to look through several times, but speed just wasn't enough to do the trick. She needed an extra second or two to give her eyes any hope of adjusting to the light that blared through the hatch, and even that was no guarantee. Her eyes were so adjusted to utter darkness that she might not be able to delay the trap long enough to see anything, but she had to try ... now, while she could still move reasonably fast, and while any information she learned might still make some kind of difference. At the rate her body was weakening from hunger and thirst, she wasn't sure how much longer she'd be up to making any kind of escape attempt. She was still praying that she might be able to learn something that would offer some hope, no matter how slim.

As little as it was, it was all she had left to cling to.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Lost in thought, Terreis stood staring out at the city she ruled, the pencil and paper she'd been using to sketch out her ideas forgotten. She'd spent the better part of the day with her chief scientist, Lemier, and a pair of metal smiths who'd built the first prototypes of a simple weapons design that, once perfected, could be quickly and easily constructed even with their limited water and power resources. They weren't likely to be enough, and it would take time to build enough to arm all of their forces, but with luck, it would start turning the tide; buy some time so they could effect more repairs to the infrastructure and develop more weapons. Then maybe they could fight back in earnest.

She sighed heavily, throat tight as she considered the cruelties already inflicted on her people. If only she could have prevented it somehow. Her hand fisted tightly where she gripped the balcony railing. But the damage was done. Now, her only prayer was to prevent as much future damage as possible.

She was still contemplating the possibilities when she heard the soft pad of footsteps and realized she wasn't alone. Glancing over her shoulder, she smiled at the servant standing somewhat hesitantly in the doorway, a tray of food in hand.

"My queen," the maid said with a shy duck of her head as she held out the tray. "The cook thought you might like something to eat since you barely touched your dinner." She ducked her head again, the move spilling coppery bangs across her brows and momentarily shielding dark brown eyes from the queen's sight.

Terreis frowned, something tweaking her thoughts, though she couldn't quite place what. "Thank you," she said softly, her head tipping to one side as she considered the girl, trying to decide where she'd seen her before. She nodded to indicate a small table that sat near several chairs. "Just set it there."

The young woman did as told, then turned back, curtsying automatically. "I hope you enjoy, Highness."

An encouraging smile touched the queen's mouth. "I'm sure it will be excellent," she assured the young servant. "Please, thank the cook for thinking of me."

A frown touched the girl's brow as she stared up her liege. "You are the queen. What else would he think of?" she enquired with honest curiosity, while the queen found herself caught in a strange trap, frozen in place, something hammering at the back of her skull.

Pain flooded Terreis' senses, setting up a throbbing behind her eyes as images that made no sense overlaid themselves in her head, coming at her too quickly for her to decode their meaning.

"My Queen, are you all right?"

The worried inquiry broke the cycle, yanking Terreis out of her momentary paralysis. Blinking rapidly to clear her head, she nodded as she reached up to massage her temple. "Fine," she panted as the swimming sense of unreality passed. "Just a little...." She shook her head, now knowing how to describe what had just happened. "It's nothing," she said at last, dismissing the experience.

The servant continued to stare up at her though, a frown creasing her brow. "A vision," she said very softly, peering up into blue eyes with intense curiosity.

Frowning at the idea, Terreis shook her head. "It was nothing like that," she insisted instantly. "It was most likely just an idle fantasy ... nothing but the product of too much stress."

"They say your line has always been subject to visions, My Queen ... that it is why you rule ... you see your destiny, and know when to act." A worshipful smile touched the girl's mouth. "Which is why you will protect us all."

The queen's frown deepened at the faith she saw in the look directed her way, her mouth suddenly dry. "I don't deserve such trust," she rasped, thinking of all the lives that had already been lost, but at the same time unbelievably touched by the young servant's obvious belief in her abilities.

"Of course you do," the girl disagreed. "You are queen."

Such faith. The queen reached out, gently stroking the young woman's cheek, the softness of her skin making sensitive nerve endings vibrate with awareness. She trailed her fingers up, brushing silky bangs back to stare into innocent brown eyes ... and froze. Something ... wasn't ... right. "Too young," she breathed, barely even aware she'd spoken. Her hand dropped to her side, a sense of loss she didn't even begin to understand leaving her completely bereft of something she needed like air itself.

"My Queen?"

Terreis blinked, her frown deepening as she tried to understand her own thoughts. "Have I seen you before?" she whispered at last.

The young servant shook her head. "I don't believe so, Highness." She offered another small, shy smile. "I've only been working the palace a few days ... and then only in the kitchens."

"Right," the queen exhaled heavily, still struggling with the conundrum of her own thoughts when a shiver slid down her spine, and she realized they weren't alone. Her head swung around, eyes clashing with her lover's angry gaze.

"My love?" Maya inquired with a forced pretense of courtesy.

The young servant tensed, looking uncertainly back and forth between the two women.

"Go," Terreis dismissed the girl, and she quickly fled, leaving the queen and her mistress alone.

"She's very pretty," Maya said after the doors had closed behind the maid.

Terreis shrugged, turning and staring out at the city to gain a moment in an effort to sort through her jumbled thoughts. "She's a child," she dismissed, sensing Maya's anger.

"A very pretty child," her lover said, acid sneaking into her tone.

Glancing over her shoulder, Terreis shook her head. "Don't be foolish," she sighed, exhaustion making her more snappish than usual. "She just brought food."

Her handmaid glanced at the tray. "I see," she drawled, though there was a strong note of disbelief in her voice. "And did she taste as good as the meal she brought?"

The queen looked back, silently willing her lover to notice how shaken she was and offer some measure of support rather than jealous condemnation. No such luck apparently. "To the best of my knowledge, I'm not known for seducing the scullery maids and kitchen wenches," she bit out, glaring until she saw Maya flush, her eyes dropping away.

"My pardon, my love," the other woman apologized abruptly. "I'm sorry. I simply thought...." She trailed off. "Perhaps it's because I know how much a girl like that would give to spend even one night in your bed," she said at last.

Terreis shook her head, staring back out at the city. "You're the only one I've invited to my bed in a long time," she sighed. "I was simply speaking to the girl." She felt a hand settle lightly on her back, massaging as it slid up under her hair, brushing the back of her neck. "And I ... for a moment, it was like I was seeing someone else," she whispered, struggling to bring that phantom face into focus. The hand at the back of her neck paused ever so slightly, but she barely noticed.

"Someone else?" Maya questioned, her tone sharpening faintly. "Who?"

Her gaze distant, the queen nodded. "I don't know ... but it was ... so real...."

Maya gripped her shoulder, tugging the taller woman around until they were face to face. "Perhaps I need to work harder to steal you back from this phantom lover," she joked, though there was no humor in her eyes. Hooking a hand behind Terreis' neck, she would have pulled her head down, but the queen pulled back, shaking off the loose hold and blocking the hand reaching to caress her breasts.

"It was no lover," Terreis insisted, backing up a step, her eyes a little desperate as she struggled to understand. Or maybe it was a lover, she thought as a memory of warmth and belonging slid through her. She backed another pace, stopping as her hip hit the balcony railing. "It was ... confusing," she whispered at last, suddenly hesitant to discuss the images with her lover, uncertain why, but uncomfortable with the notion of sharing them.

Maya paused, then finally reached up, brushing a soft cheek with her fingertips. "You're too tired," she said at last, and slid her hand back into pale hair, stroking lightly. "You need to relax." Her smile turned distractingly sensual, while she smoothed her hand down the side of her lover's neck and along the slope of her shoulder.

"How can I relax?" the queen whispered, staring down at her lover, willing her to offer some comfort. "My people are dying on all sides." The hand at her shoulder trailed down the slope of her chest, and she caught it in a harsh grip, pulling it away, impatient with the lust when she wanted caring and a sympathetic ear.

"My Queen," Maya gasped, wincing sharply. The queen loosened her tight grip but didn't let go, while her handmaid continued, "I simply wish to please you."

Terreis stared down at her lover, frustrated at her inability to understand that it wasn't lovemaking she wanted, but someone to listen and offer comfort. "You do," she whispered hoarsely, not wanting to hurt the other woman's feelings.

Maya rested her other hand on Terreis' chest, "Then let me take you away from all of your problems for a little while, my love ... then perhaps you can forget any visions ... and only see me when you close your eyes."

Refusing would have meant hurting her lover, and the queen had no desire to do that. Besides, even if it wasn't the comfort she would have preferred, it was what there was, and she needed to feel less alone in the world, if only for a little while.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Listening carefully, Janet followed the sound of the slow and steady drip, finally crouching down next to it, her movements gingerly until her fingers touched the metal rim of the cup. Lifting it to her lips, she drained the contents of the cup, hoping the water would quell some of the hungry gnawing in her stomach. That done, she remained where she was for a long moment, wondering if she had finally gone a little mad. She'd been fed twice since forming her plans and had painstakingly counted droplets, using them to tick off the seconds. By her calculation it was getting close to time for another feeding. Shaking off any fears -- self-doubt was a luxury she couldn't afford -- she edged forward, struggling to keep everything laid out in her head, well aware that she was only likely to get one chance. She braced the tray in position, sensitive fingers sliding over the door until she felt the faint line that indicated the bottom edge of the trap-door, then remained like that, crouched and ready to move for what seemed like forever.

The temptation to move and relax stressed muscles was almost irresistible, but she was perversely certain that if she backed off for even a moment, she'd lose her opportunity, and she doubted she had it in her go through everything necessary to try again. Gritting her teeth, she shook off the pain and weakness, determined to stay right where she was as long as need be. Time passed -- she wasn't certain how much -- but she was still crouched like that when she heard the rattle of the bolt on the trap being thrown. Sparked into motion, she moved quickly, bracing her hand the way she'd planned, muscles quivering with anticipation, well aware she had to time things just right. She'd only have a moment or two to act, a few seconds while her captor was every bit as blind as she was, no more able to see into her darkness than she could see into their light. Her teeth ground together, eyes already stinging as the first flickers of light slipped through the expanding crack in the door. She tracked its progress by sound more than sight, holding the urge to act in check until the right moment, heart hammering so hard she thought it might just escape her ribs. Then it was time. She shoved hard on the tray, jamming it into place, the thin lip caught between the side of the opening and the door, then footed it there with her instep, keeping it locked in place as she kicked off.

She hit the floor on her backside, foot still braced against the edge of the tray, eyes squinted against the painfully bright flare of light. Something moved, breaking the beam, but her eyes were tearing too badly for her to make out any details. Something pulled on the tray, but she shoved that much harder, pinning it more firmly in place to resist the hard pressure. Adrenaline flooding her system, she twisted, trying for a better view, her eyes adjusting ever so slightly to the light; just enough to let her see what she was looking for. A very human hand gripping the edge of the tray.

Human, her captors were human.

She was still processing the information when she realized her jailer had reached through the trap. He slammed her foot aside with enough force to send runners of pain up her leg. Moving as quickly as she knew how, she twisted, catching a glimpse of his lower jaw while his arm was still thrust through the trap nearly to the shoulder. A hard yank and he freed the tray, then grabbed for the cup and bowl as well, pulling them free. Fully expecting the door to simply slam shut, she was surprised when a tray was thrust into the cell. It rattled as it hit the floor. No more than the span of a heartbeat later, the trap slammed shut, leaving her in the dark once again. She heaved a sigh, not of relief precisely, but something closely related to it. She hadn't seen anything that offered any immediate opportunity for escape, but any new information had become a desperately sought after commodity. If nothing else it gave her some distraction in the crushing boredom of her cell. Despite her best efforts, a familiar face appeared at the forefront of her mind's eye. "Oh, Sam," she exhaled. "Please be okay." She tried not to think about the other woman too much since it just made the fear that much worse. For the moment, there was nothing she could do for Sam and worrying about her wouldn't do either of them any good. Which was all very well and good to tell herself, but it seldom did any good.

Still lost in thought, she grabbed the bowl off the tray, draining the flavorless gruel in a few swallows. Bad smelling with the texture of well blended oatmeal, it tended to trigger her gag reflex, but she needed any liquid and calories she could get so she'd taken to just downing it as quickly as possible.

She was still going over what she'd glimpsed and trying not to think about her friend when the first wave of dizziness hit. At first she thought it was just the usual darkness triggered vertigo, and then one knee buckled. She hit the floor hard, her knee cracking against the cold surface. "What the...." Lightheaded, she blindly reached for anything that might offer some support only to unbalance herself instead. She hit the floor in a sprawl, a small cry escaping her lips. Even lying down the dizziness was inescapable until the floor seemed to drop away and she was falling....

And then real blackness came up and hit her.

Limp on the floor, she neither heard nor saw the figures that entered her cell moments later.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Terreis nodded in satisfaction as she noted the guards -- newly armed with simple, but nonetheless deadly, projectile weapons -- that stood in place to protect the workmen struggling to restore the water system for the city. The design for the weapons was quick and dirty; the simplest thing she could come up with considering the limited supplies and manpower available after the recent attacks. But the tests had been surprisingly effective. If the outlanders attacked again, they'd find considerable resistance.

More complex weapons would come after water and power were restored. A faint smile touched her lips as she had some sense that they were making some headway on her strategy for driving the invaders back and restoring their home.

"Your plans are working, My Queen," Minister Valchon said smoothly as he stepped up beside her. "Our workers may now continue the repairs you have designed with appropriate protection."

Terreis nodded, a satisfied smile touching her mouth. Caring for her people was the single most important thing in her life. "This is only the first step," she said softly. "Once the water and power are working properly, then we can protect ourselves -- force the outlanders to either leave or make peace -- and rebuild everything they've destroyed."

Valchon smiled and nodded. "Indeed, My Queen. Your people owe you everything. Without your knowledge and leadership, none of this would be possible."

The queen offered a modest shrug, though bright blue eyes danced with pride and excitement at the changes she was seeing. "I'm simply grateful my meager efforts can help them."

"Indeed, My Queen," the minister said smoothly. "Your efforts have helped us all."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Janet returned to awareness to find herself being dragged through a corridor of flickering lights, men on either side carrying her weight from under her armpits. She was still trying to get her feet under her when she heard a door opened in front of her. And then she was falling into darkness again, back into her cell she realized even as she pitched forward. Too weak to stand, she hit the floor on the other side of the door with a dull thud and lay sprawled helplessly, her stomach rolling with agonizing pain. Her body wracked by harsh spasms, she vomited up what little liquid remained in her stomach and lay helpless as the door slammed shut again. She had no idea how much time passed before she could move again. Enough for the trap door to open for her regular feeding. A half hysterical laugh escaped her lips as it struck her she was becoming like an animal in rattrap of a zoo, trained to react to the sound of the food wagon coming. Even knowing the danger that it was drugged, her body was so dehydrated that she grabbed for the food and water, drinking them down despite the remaining stomach cramps that left her uncertain they weren't going to come back up. Finished, she collapsed back to the floor and lay there, unmoving, as another meal and then another came. When she could move again, she fell once more into her perverse routine, pacing, eating, mind running in circles in an effort to find some means of escape. Until finally, another meal came, and she once again felt the swimming dizziness as her knees turned to jelly and her body seemed to melt away. She hit the floor hard, pain throbbing through her hands and knees.

"No," the doctor hissed even as the darkness came up and devoured her.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Terreis flipped through the reports brought by her minister, a muscle pulsing along the sharp cut of her jaw as she saw the most recent figures from the outlying communities. "They're still hitting us," she hissed furiously, dangerous rage glittering in her eyes.

"Yes, my Queen," Valchon confirmed as he stepped forward. "We need more powerful arms. We've managed to repulse them at the repaired power and water plants -- though with high losses -- but with our current arms, any attempt to protect the smaller villages or independent farmers is still hopeless."

She turned away from the waiting men, peering out into a somewhat tattered royal courtyard, the plants rapidly regaining health now that they were getting regular water. It was a sign of how successful her efforts had been to restore the pumps and the power, since she'd insisted that only excess water be used for such frivolities. Her people's needs had to be seen to first. "Why?" she whispered to herself, wanting to understand what her enemy was trying to do with the unceasing attacks. Maybe if she could understand, she could find a way to stop it.

"They're simply madmen," Junior Minister Adlave insisted nervously, then glanced around himself as though those simple words might bring the savages down on his head, "just killing for pure sport."

"No," Terreis disagreed distantly, her thoughts still on what she knew of the situation. "There's a pattern ... there has to be...." She shook her head, mentally envisioning it as a puzzle that she could manipulate and test. But the pieces just wouldn't fit. "There's always a reason. We just don't know enough to know what it is."

"I would think the reason is unimportant," Valchon inserted, shaking his head as Terreis turned back to face her. "What we need to be focused on is finding ways to fight them."

"Bigger weapons will slow them down ... but we need to find a way to stop them permanently." Terreis growled a curse under her breath, hating that her peaceful world was forced to do battle this way. She would have protected her people from the need to get blood on their hands if she could have. "However, you're quite right," she sighed at last. "Until we can find a way to stop them permanently, we need to be able to fight them." She shuffled through a stack of designs she'd brainstormed earlier, pulling out a detailed technical drawing on it, and proceeded to begin making notes along the edges. "Have these delivered to Chief Scientist Lemier. This should give him enough to oversee building the prototype ... then we can put it into production once the next power plant is up and running...." She grabbed a fresh sheet of paper from another stack.

The ministers listened, watching closely as she made several more quick, but surprisingly detailed drawings, though her explanations meant almost nothing to them. Untrained for such technical matters, they could only nod knowingly and hope the machinists and metalworkers could understand what she wanted.

After the meeting was finished, Terreis offered her ministers an encouraging look, then slipped out.

Valchon stared after both women, a hint of a smile touching his mouth. His gaze dropped to the papers spread across the table in the meeting room. "Adlave, see that these are delivered to Lemier's laboratory," he ordered imperiously.

"Yes, sir," the younger man said quickly and began gathering things up even as the others hurried out. A moment later, he rushed out as well, leaving the senior minister alone in the meeting room.

Valchon did a slow pivot, his gaze thoughtful. Moments later, he looked up as he heard boots on the tile. "Well?" he demanded of the newcomer without turning.

"Unsuccessful again. For some reason, the other woman doesn't seem to be programmable."

Valchon did a neat pivot, eyeing the newcomer with an annoyed look, his gaze raking from the tip of the doctor's soft soled shoes to the top of his balding head. "You said she tested positive, Lemier."

"She did." Lemier shrugged helplessly. "I don't know why it's not working," he admitted, his tone defensive. "But we don't know much about this--"

"Then learn," Valchon hissed furiously. "And try again. I want her turned as quickly as possible."

"We'll have to wait before we can try again--" Lemier began, but Valchon cut him off.

"No. No more waiting--"

"But the process nearly killed her this time. She won't survive if we--"

"She might as well be dead to me now," Valchon snapped. "If she can't be turned, she's no use whatsoever."

"At least let me increase her rations until--"

"You said yourself that weakening her body might also weaken her resistance to the process," Valchon reminded the scientist with cold brutality.

"Yes, sir," Lemier allowed, "but with everything that's happened the outlander is dangerously weak. She's badly dehydrated and has lost considerable weight."

"What outlander?" a smooth voice demanded and both men spun, eyes going wide as they realized their queen had re-entered on silent feet. She looked back and forth between the two men. "I said, 'What outlander?'" Terreis repeated impatiently.

"My Queen," Valchon croaked, struggling to put a smooth mask in place, "I thought you'd left."

"I forgot something," she waved that aside, her focus on what she'd overheard. "Now what's this about an outlander?

A muscle pulsed in Valchon's jaw, while Lemier looked like a rabbit in the headlights. "Merely a prisoner, my queen, brought in by our men--" her minister began, but she cut him off.

"We've taken a prisoner and you didn't tell me?" she demanded angrily, unable to believe she hadn't been informed of something that important.

"My Queen--" Valchon began, his tone intended to be calming, but her expression only hardened with impatience.

"Answer the question." Her gaze flickered to Lemier, pinning him in place when he might have tried to slip out unnoticed. The outlanders were making war on her people. If they had a prisoner, she might be able to find some answers as to why. She had no intention of tolerating any delays.

"Yes, my Queen," Valchon said at last, "but she was brought in unconscious and in poor condition, so there was no reason to inform you, since she was not expected to survive." He nodded to Lemier. "We've had the finest physicians under Lemier's command working to save her so that she might be interrogated--"

"I want to see this prisoner now," Terreis bit out, her eyes flinty with resolve.

The two men traded uneasy looks. "As I said," Valchon began carefully, "she's in very poor condition. I think it would be best if--"

"Now," Terreis cut him off impatiently. She didn't care if the prisoner was comatose. She wanted to at least see the face of her enemy.

"My Queen," the minister began, "I can understand why you would wish to interrogate this prisoner, however, in the interests of your safety--"

"I thought she was at death's door," Terreis said sharply. Any risk to her life was far less than her people were facing every day. And she needed any clues she could get, no matter how small.

"She was, My Queen," Valchon said quickly, "and is still very weak--"

"Then I would think there is little enough danger, one easily contained by the guards--"

"One would think so, yes," Valchon agreed promptly, "however, in view of the fact that she was a party to the slaughter of civilians, and managed to kill several soldiers even as she was taken, I think it best--"

"Take me to her now," Terreis cut him off furiously, unused to any argument from her inferiors. "No argument. Take such precautions as are necessary, but I will see this prisoner." Her tone didn't allow for any disagreement. If there was a prisoner, she would interrogate that person or heads would roll. Her eyes blazed as she considered all of the destruction wrought by their attackers. Nothing would keep her from finding out how to stop it, and a prisoner offered some hope of new information that might help in that task.

Valchon stiffened, then drew himself ramrod straight. "Very well, my Queen," he said formally. "I'll arrange for a contingent of guards to escort you tomorrow morning--"

"Now!" she barked, impatient with any delays.

"Very well." Valchon straightened. "If you're to see her, you'll want to know the circumstances in which she was taken," he began, then used the journey to the dungeons to relate the brutal tale in great detail, the information stomach-turning in its ugliness.

By the time they reached the lower landing that led into the dungeons, the queen's hands were tightly fisted at her sides, barely controlled fury glittering in her eyes.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Darkness, Janet mused as she sat with her head resting on her upthrust knees, the cloying, neverending darkness was definitely beginning to get on her nerves in a major way.

She laughed grimly, sounding slightly mad even to her own ears as it occurred to her what an understatement that was.

After the latest torture session, she'd managed to crawl over to the bunk and drag herself onto it, but if it had been a matter of life and death, she couldn't have moved any further. She could only stare, watching the strange, cloudy designs her eyes and mind created out of the utter blackness, and wonder how much time had passed since she'd been brought back. Perhaps as much as a day she thought, though as shaky as she was mentally, it would have been easy enough to convince her it had been only minutes ... or conversely, that weeks had passed while she sat there. Half starved, badly dehydrated, filthy, weak, and now poisoned into the bargain, she couldn't help but wonder how much longer she could even survive. They'd brought one of her water and gruel meals, but scared of being poisoned again, and still too nauseous too keep it down anyway, she'd simply ignored it. It had been taken away again some time later.

All she could really do was pray that Sam was in better straights. She would have done anything to spare the other woman her current predicament. "Oh, Sam," she breathed, then said a silent prayer. "Please be all right." And then she fell silent, not sleeping, but simply staring into the swirling darkness.

Her first thought when she heard the sounds was that food was being delivered. But the noises were all wrong; louder and deeper with a different rhythm than those involved in the simple opening of the trapdoor they used to deliver her food. Slowed mental reflexes were still decoding the meaning behind the differences when the heavy door to her cell was pushed open. Janet threw up an arm, eyes snapping shut against the painfully bright blast of light that entered her cell. "Wha'?"

Two men were on her in a moment, grabbing her arms and dragging her back against the wall, pinning her there like a bug in a display case. Still blinded, she tried to turn her head away from the painful brightness, but a hard hand latched onto her jaw, forcing her to face forward.

"Careful, My Queen," a man's voice echoed in her ears, the crisp tones oddly familiar, though she couldn't place it. "The outlanders have proven very devious and vicious."

She forgot all about him as a second voice reached her ears. "She barely even looks alive."

Shock burning through her, Janet slitted her eyes, blinking against blurring tears and painful brightness. "Sam?" Her voice came out weak and ragged, and she couldn't see more than shifting shadows against the lights.

"What did she say?" the achingly familiar voice demanded as the tallest of the shadows swept closer.

Janet swallowed hard against the sandy dryness in her throat as she stared up at the silhouetted figure towering over her, struggling to find well-known features in the hazy darkness. "Sam?" she gasped again, barely able to speak past the brutal grip on her jaw.

The shadow leaned closer, faint rises and hollows resolving themselves into familiar features. It was her. Janet was almost sure of it.

"What did you say?" Sam demanded, sounding not at all like herself.

At least not like she'd ever sounded when speaking to Janet, leaving the doctor to doubt her own judgment. Was she so desperate to see the other woman that her mind was turning a faint resemblance into something it wasn't? A gurgling croak escaped Janet's lips, but she couldn't get an answer out as the fingers on her jaw tightened, pressing into the soft flesh just below the edge of bone, cutting off her ability to speak.

Sam seemed to realize the problem because she spoke sharply. "Release her so she may speak."

"But, my Queen--" that first voice started to argue again.

"Guard, release your grip on her throat!"

And Janet's jaw was suddenly free of the punishing hold, though her arms remained pinned. Gasping for air, she hung weakly from the guards' tight grips and was still dragging air into oxygen starved lungs when Sam leaned down into her space, so close her breath touched Janet's face as she spoke, "Now, tell me what you said, outlander."

For a moment, Janet thought maybe she'd finally lost her mind, but her eyes were better adjusted to the light now and she could see that it really was Sam -- attired in long, formal robes, a gold and diamond circlet in her hair, but unmistakably Sam. As their gazes locked, Janet found herself expecting some kind of acknowledgment, something to let her know it was just an act, that there was some kind of plan to get her out.

But there was nothing. Intelligent blue eyes glared down at her with a level of outrage and disgust that bordered on hate.

"Answer the question, outlander," she rapped out furiously.

Janet frowned, shock adding to her confusion and making it that much harder to think straight. "What?"

"What did you say?" Sam repeated.

It was probably the dehydration, Janet decided in an odd burst of clarity, that was making it so hard for her to resolve everything into some kind of coherent assessment of the situation or even respond. "Sam," she whispered at last, silently willing her friend to recognize her, "I said, 'Sam,'" or at least her recognize her own name. Nothing. Not even the tiniest flicker of recognition showed in her eyes.

"What does it mean?" Sam growled.

"What does it...." Janet shook her head, unable to comprehend that her friend didn't appear to know her own name.

"Most likely it's some threat or insult, Highness," the supercilious voice that Janet was fast beginning to hate argued.

"No--" she started to deny the charge, but Sam cut her off instantly.

"Why?" she hissed as though she couldn't contain the question any longer. "Why are your people attacking us?"

Janet shook her head again, wondering vaguely if she really had gone mad and this was all some kind of hallucination. "...haven't attacked anyone," she denied the accusation as forcefully as she could. She wasn't prepared for the suddenness of the response as Sam's hand snapped out, the long, graceful fingers she'd admired so many times wrapping around her throat to slam her head back into the wall.

"Don't lie!" the blonde hissed, fingers and thumb pressing deeply into the underside of Janet's jaw. "You've come here and slaughtered my people. Now, why?! What do your leaders want?"

Gagging against the brutal pressure, Janet shook her head. "Haven't 'ttacked 'nyone. Came t' h'lp."

"Lying bitch," Sam snarled, shaking her like a rag doll until Janet cried out in pain, half afraid the other woman meant to kill her. The shaking stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun, and the doctor found her throat released from the punishing grip. Her eyes swept up as Sam straightened and stepped back a pace. For a moment, Janet thought she saw something shaken in the other woman's expression, but her look firmed into a mask of utter disdain and she decided she'd been imagining things. She stood stock still for several seconds, staring down at Janet as though she could look right through her. "She looks half starved," she said at last.

"Indeed, my Queen," the oily, arrogant voice murmured and a sharp featured man stepped into view. "She was taken in this condition," he lied.

Janet wanted to argue, but the words wouldn't come, and she stared helplessly up at Sam, her faith and hope visible in her eyes. For a moment, she thought she'd broken through whatever wall lay between them as Sam's head canted to one side, and a hint of frown touched her brow.

Unfortunately, her supercilious accuser spoke up again. breaking the momentary spell. "As I told you, she was captured near one of the burned out farms... doubtless her work." A soft snort. "The way they tortured and killed those poor people was beyond the pall."

Janet shook her head, words finally escaping her lips. "No," she whispered over and over, but the damage was done.

Sam started to lunge forward, hate in her eyes, one hand pulling back as if to strike, and Janet flinched from the expected blow. Her eyes closed against the sight, she didn't see Sam stop, only realized after a beat that the expected strike didn't make contact. By the time she opened her eyes, Sam had pulled back.

The blonde straightened, consciously calming herself, expression shifting from raging fury to icy disdain. "Obviously, she's not going to tell us anything today." She smoothed the glossy gown over her hips. Suddenly, she looked around the close confines of the cell, eyeing the sterile confines, her nose wrinkling at the smell of illness that was inescapable now that she wasn't so focused on the prisoner. "Make sure she's fed," she ordered simply. "I won't be accused of torturing prisoners." She glared pointedly at Janet. "We aren't the savages here," she snarled, sounding almost defensive. "Perhaps when you realize that, you'll answer our questions." With that, she turned to leave, moving quickly as though she couldn't stand to remain there any longer.

Janet felt as though someone had reached into her chest and ripped her beating heart out. "Sam, please," she called out without planning, desperate to reach the other woman and strip away whatever fa´┐Żade stood between them.

Sam froze, then did a slow pivot, a hint of a frown touching her brow as their gazes locked. For a moment, Janet thought she'd reached her, then Sam's gaze broke from hers to slide around the interior of the barren cell. "And get a light in here. I wouldn't even leave a chuloth in the dark like this." She swept out before Janet could draw breath to speak, closely followed by the arrogant rat-faced man.

Once they were gone, the guards released Janet and she fell forward, bent double, shock blinding her to everything but her own agony as she heard her tormentors leave. Sam hadn't known her. Something had been done to her. Either she was really a Goa'uld or there'd been some kind of brainwashing to make her turn on her own people.

And they'd tried to do the same thing to her, Janet realized in a rush as a few vague hints of memory came back to her. There had been drugs, whispering voices discussing her, arguing about something ... and then....

She shook her head, struggling to recover the memory, but it wouldn't come and just trying made her skull throb painfully until she had to stop. Exhausted, she sagged against the wall, slumping on the narrow pallet and curling into a tight ball, too weak to move.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

"Your Highness," Valchon's voice pulled Terreis up short, halting her rapid exit from the dungeons. She didn't turn back, just stood perfectly still, hands clenched together in front of her, her stomach still roiling with raw emotions she couldn't even begin to categorize; anger, disgust, hatred ... and pity.... "What?" she bit out without turning to face the minister.

"Shall I have the outlander put to death?" he asked briskly.

She looked back, anger darkening her expression. "I ordered she be given food and a light. Does that sound like I want her dead?"

He appeared faintly taken aback by the answer. "But, Highness, it's clear she won't answer your questions ... and she was a part of an attack on innocent civilians--"

"She didn't answer them today," Terreis corrected him sharply, her eyes hard. "But that doesn't mean we won't learn something from her tomorrow ... or the day after." She consciously quelled a dangerous swell of fury, refusing to allow herself to give in to such cruelty the way her enemy did.

"I see," he exhaled. "Shall I arrange for a royal interrogator to deal with her?" He ducked his head respectfully. "I can see that you get reports daily."

Thinking of the methods typically used by the interrogators, she shook her head, doubting the frail figure she'd seen could even survive that sort of treatment. "No," she dismissed that idea. "That would kill her." The woman was already in such poor condition it turned her stomach. If their enemy used their own so cruelly, was it any surprise they placed no value on their victim's lives? "I'm not sure how best to deal with her, but she's to be treated decently until any decisions are made. I won't see our people become like our enemy."

Valchon stiffened, but didn't argue, simply ducked his head in acknowledgment. "As you wish, your Highness. I'll remain here and see to it."

Terreis nodded, then gestured to her bodyguards and hurried out.

Valchon stood staring after her until Lemier stepped up to join him.

"We can try the process again immediately," the doctor began, but Valchon cut him off, his voice hard.

"No. She's been seen. She's useless now."

Lemier recoiled from the inference. "It was dark in there and she's in such bad condition. No one would ever--"

"It's too risky ... and you said yourself that the process isn't working on her." He glanced over his shoulder toward her cell door. "It's unfortunate ... but she'll have to be destroyed."

The cold way he said it sent a chill down Lemier's spine. He wanted to argue, but seeing the determination in the minister's expression, knew it would be pointless, so he simply stood mute.

"Our .... queen ... will wish to see the prisoner again," Valchon mused aloud, then speared the doctor in place with a look. "Which is why is must be done quickly ... tonight--"

"Sir, I--"

"See to it," Valchon snapped, impatient with the other man's reticence to do what was obviously required.

"B-but the outlander was to be her consort. I'm not sure how long Maya will be able to hold her attention. She was never supposed--"

"I'm sure Maya will be be more than capable of holding our queen's interest--"

Lemier shook his head, disturbed to see everything he'd worked for in danger of going up in smoke. "You don't understand. Samantha Carter isn't--"

"No argument. The outlander will have to die ... tonight," Valchon cut him off, his tone coldly practical.

Lemier swallowed hard, shaken to the core by the idea. "How?" he croaked.

Valchon looked thoughtful. "An escape attempt, I think," he decided out loud. "Have the guards on duty see to it ... then in a few days, reassign them."

"Rea--" Valchon turned a sharp look his way and Lemier gulped. "Understood," he croaked weakly.

"Good," Valchon said softly, his look sending a bolt of ice through Lemier's veins and leaving him to wonder if his head would be the next one on the chopping block. Sweating with terror, he wanted to make sure the other man believed he was loyal. "I assure you, sir, I will do everything in my power to see to the success of our efforts."

A chill smile touched Valchon's mouth. "See that you do," he murmured, then straightened his shoulders. "And now I must see to our ... queen." He smoothed his tunic and shot the cuffs. "I fear I may have ruffled some feathers," he looked annoyed at the prospect, "which will need smoothing." He looked at Lemier again. "Now, I suggest you see to your duties, Doctor, and I will see to mine."

He left Lemier standing there, his face pale, his hands trembling. Finally, he jerked himself out of the brief paralysis and hurried to find the guards who would be on night duty, eager to rid of the responsibility. Perhaps once they had their assignment, he could avoid thinking about his part in all of it. And stop thinking about what he was helping Valchon do to two women who'd come to his world only to help.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Terreis stood watching the way the sky turned amber around the setting sun. The cup of calavier tea in her hand had started hot when she'd stepped onto the small balcony overlooking her courtyard, but was rapidly cooling, completely forgotten. A long day of efforts overseeing the newest weapons designs should have had her mind racing on new innovations that could make them more effective, but....

A pair of brown eyes kept haunting her thoughts. She closed her eyes against the memory of the prisoner calling out to her, the look in her eyes begging for something, something about them eerily familiar. Growling a curse under her breath, she dismissed that notion and any sympathy with it. She had no business pitying the woman, not when the outlander and her ilk had been busy slaughtering and tormenting her people. No matter how pathetic her condition, the witch had no right to any pity. None of them did. She didn't want the woman tortured, but it wasn't for her sake, it was because she didn't want to see her people corrupted in that fashion. A muscle pulsed in her jaw as she reminded herself of everything she'd seen and learned of what they were doing to summon her hate and banish any of the dangerous compassion. The outlander deserved her fate. In fact, after everything she'd done, she deserved far worse than her fate.

Which made it that much worse when she still couldn't rid herself of the memory of that last look or the frightened, hopeful timbre of the woman's voice when she'd called out.

She spared a glance over her shoulder long minutes later when a warm hand trailed up the graceful arch of her spine.

"My Queen," Maya drawled and leaned forward to press a soft kiss to her bare shoulder. When Terreis didn't respond to the sensual caress, she pouted playfully and arched up on her toes to blow in her ear. "You seem distracted, My Liege ... perhaps I need to work harder to earn your attention."

"No," Terreis sighed, in no mood for such coquettish games, "not tonight." She felt the woman at her back stiffen.

"You are distracted," Maya murmured after a beat.

The queen shrugged, feeling the need to explain in response to the accusing look thrown her way. "I saw an outlander prisoner in the dungeons...." She trailed off, amazed to find herself still shaken by the reality of being in the presence of one of her enemies ... and disturbed by the sense that the woman had expected something of her. It made no sense.

"Really?" Maya murmured, her tone odd. "Did you speak to this prisoner?"

Terreis shrugged, uncertain what to make of her lover's tone. "She refused to answer any questions." She paused, frustrated with the lack of knowledge, then growled a curse under her breath as she remembered her senior minister's preferred response to the lack of cooperation. "Valchon wishes to see her put to death."

"Ah," Maya exhaled. "When will the execution take place?"

Frowning, Terreis look back at her lover. "There won't any execution ... at least not for now," she said quickly. "The woman may have information about what's happening. It would be foolish to waste the opportunity to learn what she knows."

"The prisoner is a woman?" Maya murmured, something about her tone sending a prickle down Terreis' neck.

"Yes. She was involved in an attack on a farm."

"And is this woman beautiful?" Maya inquired, the question catching Terreis completely by surprise. It wasn't something she would have thought to consider under the circumstances.

Terreis' eyes slid closed as she summoned a mental image of the woman she'd seen in the cell. Painfully gaunt, her hair lank, filthy and smelling of dirt and illness, she was anything but beautiful. But those eyes, a tiny voice whispered in her ear even as she answered Maya's question, her tone annoyed. "Hardly. She's underfed, barely conscious, and I doubt a week's soak in a bath would get her clean." She purposely disparaged the outlander while avoiding any thoughts of that piercing, soul-stealing gaze.

"I see," her lover exhaled thoughtfully. "After everything our people have suffered, I'm surprised you didn't take revenge."

Terreis swallowed hard, remembering the way her control had slipped. She'd felt the prisoner's hammering pulse against her palm as her fingers had tightened on that slender throat, so angry she had been close to snuffing out that fragile candle. She'd seen the terror in dark eyes and felt herself on the edge of violence. It wasn't a point of pride that she'd come so close to doing something she found so repulsive. "I almost did," she admitted, her voice thick with shame.

"Really," Maya drawled, eyeing her lover in a way that made Terreis edgy for reasons she couldn't define. "Does that mean an execution would be redundant?" Her tone was cool enough to make the queen flinch.

"No," Terreis said instantly, sickened by her loss of temper. "I left orders for the woman to be cared for."

A dark brow rose high on Maya's forehead. "Planning on taking revenge at your leisure then?" she questioned.

The queen waved a hand to dismiss the idea. Punishment might be in order once they'd learned what the woman knew, but simple vengeance was pointless. "I need to know what she knows. I can't very well do that if she's dead."

"True enough," Maya allowed, then an ironic smile curved her lips as she considered Terreis thoughtfully. "Of course your ancestors would have gotten the answers they wished and taken revenge at the same time."

The queen's frown deepened as she flinched, not particularly liking the reminder that her line hadn't always behaved in a civilized manner where prisoners were concerned. "I doubt it," she dismissed to cut off that line of discussion. "Most likely they would have simply slit her throat."

"Your ancestors?" Maya mused doubtfully. "As I recall from my childhood history lessons, they were more creative than that." She offered a sly smile, eyes running over the queen with an assessing look. "Perhaps you should learn more about their methods."

Terreis shook her head. She knew quite enough about their methods and had no intention of implementing any of them -- even those the prisoner might survive. "I have my own methods," she dismissed the idea. There had to be a way that wouldn't involve torturing the woman; perhaps an appeal to humanity or some kind of bribery. She had several options before she lowered herself to more brutal methods.

Maya's brow rose as she considered the answer. "What if she defies you?" she asked practically.

"Then I'll find a way ... whatever it takes." The queen's knuckles whitened on the railing as she remembered the outlander's claims of innocence. That would not be allowed to continue. She had no intention of being denied any information that might protect her people. She was momentarily lost in thought when a hand trailed languidly up her arm, and she looked down at her lover, pulling up short as she saw the wolfish smile curving full lips.

"I can help you, you know," Maya breathed, her eyes gleaming with darkly predatory lights.

"What?" Terreis exhaled as though struck, not understanding at all.

Maya's smile broadened, and she reached up to trail her fingertips along the queen's cheekbone. "It would be the ultimate revenge on those attacking your people. Make use of one of their women as their soldier have doubtless used our own."

The queen's spine snapped ramrod straight, her eyes glittering with disapproval at the suggestion. "No," she breathed. "The only thing I want from her is information," she insisted, horrified by the very idea.

Lost in her own plans, Maya barely appeared to hear her. "But what better way to get it? It would mean pleasure for you and pain for your enemies," she murmured. A hint of an excited smile curved full lips. "And you'd be well within your rights," she pointed out, her smile taunting and tempting at the same time. "As queen, her body is your property in every respect ... to do with as you wish--" Dark eyes trailed over the taller woman. "And if not ... well..." she shrugged philosophically, "...you'd still learn her secrets."

"To do as you suggest," Terreis snapped, cutting her handmaid off, her voice icy with disapproval, "would make me no better than the outlanders."

"But perhaps you could make her your willing slave...." A wry smile twisted Maya's mouth, and she shrugged. "She'd probably fight you at first," she allowed, tongue trailing over her lips as though savoring the idea, "I can hold her down for you though ... in the interests of helping our people ... and she'd likely be grateful before it was over," she suggested. "It's doubtful the outlanders are any kinder to their own than they are to us."

The queen was silent for a long moment, sick revulsion making her stomach roll. "Stop this!" she demanded at last, sickened by the sudden burst of proposed cruelty from a woman who'd never shown any such inclinations before. "She's half dead ... my enemy and my prisoner ... not a prostitute to use for the night. I want to understand what she knows ... not...." she couldn't finish and stood staring helplessly at her lover.

Shaking her head, Maya reached out with one hand to draw a languid caress down the center of her lover's throat. "But perhaps you would understand her better if you had her spread naked in your bed ... begging for-- well, whatever you cared to make her beg for ... either mercy or release." She grinned suggestively.

Teeth clenched in anger, eyes blazing, the queen forced down the impulse to shake her lover in an effort to put a stop to the ugliness. "Stop this now," she growled impatiently, her tone raw. "I'm in no mood for it." She took a sip of her cold tea, pointedly ignoring the other woman. She wanted a little comfort and human kindness, not more ugliness. She'd overlooked several outbursts of temper and jealousy recently, but this was just too much.

A sneer twisted her lover's lips. "I thought you'd do anything for your people," Maya taunted.

Terreis glanced her over shoulder, glaring at the other woman. She pushed down the temptation to lose her temper, instead forcing a cold wall into place. Stress was making them all a little crazy, she reminded herself. Now wasn't the time to strike out at each other just to have someone to strike at. "I've a great many serious matters to consider."

"I believe I've just been dismissed," Maya sneered.

The queen didn't argue, simply took another sip of her tea, refusing to be baited into a fight.

"Very well." The brunette smirked. "My advice," she sniped after a beat, "drag her up here and take what you want until she tells you what you want to know." A disparaging look glittered in her eyes. "Prove you're willing to do anything for your people."

"I think you should go," Terreis hissed through tightly clenched teeth, blue eyes flashing angrily, barely able to believe what she was hearing.

She earned another smirk from her servant. "Of course, My Queen. Perhaps you'll be in need of my services in the morning." She put an unpleasant spin on the words.

A moment later she slipped out, and Terreis heaved a sigh, relieved to have her gone. She frowned, remembering the shy young girl she had first invited to her bed and trying to decide if the hardness was just since the tensions in the castle or if it was something that had been building for far longer. It all seemed so wrong ... as though it wasn't really Maya she'd been speaking to, but someone who'd simply taken her place. Which was insane. Shaking her head, she pushed her worries to the back of her mind. Contemplating her personal life would do her people no good. She had far more important issues at hand. She massaged her temple, trying to be rid of the violent headache suddenly throbbing behind her eyes. Her hands were trembling, she realized abruptly, as Maya's suggestions played and replayed in her brain despite her best efforts to push them aside. She couldn't help but remember the tattered, waifish figure she'd seen in the dungeons. The woman might well deserve any and all cruelties that could be visited upon her, but the queen didn't have it in her to sink to that level.

Besides, by the look of it, her own masters had already done far worse. A ripple of tension slid through the queen at that thought. The woman had seemed so small and delicate ... half starved and nearly broken, but strong enough in spirit that she'd still been fighting. Terreis shuddered with distaste, wondering how anyone could mistreat someone so badly. That the outlanders could treat the weakest among them so meanly only reinforced her outrage against their would-be invaders.

Which was the real problem, she reminded herself, their attempts to invade. The prisoner was of no real importance beyond whatever knowledge she possessed. Sighing softly, she went back over everything she knew in the hunt for answers, struggling to push aside the memory of near-black eyes as she considered her next step.

Despite her best efforts, her thoughts kept coming back to the woman in the dungeons as she tried to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. As she contemplated the problem, the sun fell beyond the horizon, the sky sliding from amber to rose, to blue, to black.

"Highness?" a deep voice interrupted her silent musing some time later.

She glanced back to find a uniformed guard standing in the entrance to the balcony.

"I noted your personal servant isn't here." He contained his curiosity, but it obviously took some effort. "I wondered if you wanted me to start a fire for you."

She frowned ever so slightly as it occurred to her that the air was getting chilly. The days were still hot, but with winter coming, the nights were getting steadily colder. The palace had ancient furnaces, but they weren't very effective and the fireplaces in the rooms produced far more heat. "You're new," she said softly as she set her teacup aside.

"Yes, My Liege."

"Your name?" she requested.

"Rubio, Highness."

"And would you know where the dungeons are, Rubio?" she asked, her expression distant as it struck her that she needed to see the prisoner again.

He frowned. "Of course, Highness."

"Good," she said decisively and did a neat pivot, "then let's go."

His frown deepened along with his confusion. "Highness?"

Blue eyes unfocused, her look once again becoming distant. "There's a prisoner I need to speak to." It was nagging at her, and she wasn't going to have any peace until she'd seen the outlander again. Maybe then she could exorcize the nagging inability to think of anything else for more than a few minutes.

"A prisoner?" He sounded very doubtful about the idea. "Are you sure that's safe?"

A dark blond brow swept upward in an ironic arch. "I'm sure you're capable of protecting me ... especially since this prisoner's half dead anyway." Maybe without Valchon and an excess of manhandling guards she could learn something.

"B-but, Highness--" the guard stumbled nervously over his words.

"Come," Terreis broke in, swinging on her cloak as she headed for the doors, forcing him to follow or be left behind.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

"Shouldn't you be with your mistress?" Valchon demanded of the woman draped languidly across his bed.

"Most men wouldn't be so eager to be rid of me," Maya complained through a playful pout.

A muscle pulsed in his jaw. "She saw the outlander today. That makes it even more important you be with her tonight." he snarled a curse under his breath. "I don't want her to have too much time to think about the woman."

"Well, since she sent me away, I'm afraid that's not an option." She offered a sultry smile. "Which leaves me free for other ... things." She toyed with the thick comforter on the mattress. "Like your bed."

Valchon growled a curse under his breath, impatient with her sexual desires when he had far larger issues to attend to. "My bed is the last place you should be right now. What if you were seen?"

"I wasn't," she assured him, then her mouth tipped up in a wicked smile. "I've missed you, and I trust you can keep me from screaming too loudly." Her smile broadened another notch as she eyed him speculatively.

A flicker of lust burned in his eyes, but he shook his head. "No more games, Maya," he snapped. "Go back to her now. Work your magic--"

"By playing the sweet, simpering fool?" the woman on his bed demanded bitterly. "While she lusts after every brown-eyed, red-haired scullery maid and kitchen wench who passes by ... not to mention the guest of honor in your dungeons?" She shook her head, dismissing the very idea. "Do you have any idea how boring her every touch is. It's a wonder I manage to stay awa--"

Her complaint ended in a strangled gasp as he crossed the distance between them, one hand flashing out to wrench her head back by the hair. His expression never changed as he leaned close to whisper in her ear. "I suggest you learn to enjoy the boredom then." He tightened his grip, twisting her head harder and drawing a gasp of pain. "Because if you are incapable of keeping our ... queen ... entertained, then you are of no use to me."

Maya whimpered at the pain, but still tried to argue. "She sent me away." She left out the way she'd taunted their 'queen' in hopes of satisfying her own sexual desires. Valchon wouldn't appreciate the way she'd allowed her own appetites to come to the fore, or the way she'd allowed her behavior to become overtly out of the range of the character he'd invented for her to play. He wouldn't understand the temptation to exercise her sexual power when she'd seen the lust in Samantha Carter's eyes at the mention of the outlander, or her need to prove her sensual power over a woman she didn't even want.

"Then I suggest you beg and simper your way back into her good graces ... then make certain the only thing she can think of tonight is what you can do with your mouth." He smiled then, a nasty, viperous expression that sent a chill down even his mistress' spine. He was, she realized in an instant, aroused. As she felt his hand tighten viciously in her hair and saw the promise of pain in his eyes, so was she. "However, I'm afraid she'll have to wait until I'm finished with it."

Maya simply nodded obediently.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

 

 

 

 

 

Part 3

A cold chill crawled down Terreis' spine as she wandered the dark, dank confines of the lower level dungeons. Focused on getting the truth from the prisoner, she hadn't really considered the place before. Now she couldn't help but notice the stale air tinged with the stench of human misery, the way the dull lights overhead made everything look as though it was coated in a thick layer of dust -- even the few things that weren't coated in a thick layer of dust -- or the damp chill that clung to every surface. She pulled her cloak closer around her shoulders as if it could ward off the oppressive atmosphere. The sound of boots headed her way was a welcome relief from her own thoughts.

"I'm sorry, Highness, but I couldn't find the night guards. They must be delivering food to the prisoners."

"No matter," she said softly. "I know where her cell is," she said softly, finding herself oddly relieved not to have to put up with the guards, even if the idea made Rubio uneasy. They'd been all too eager to manhandle the prisoner, and had seemed to enjoy the task far too much for her tastes.

"Perhaps I should go first," Rubio suggested hesitantly when they found the proper cell door.

Thinking of the creature she'd seen earlier, Terreis had her doubts about the need for any protection, but she nodded and allowed him to step in front of her.

It was a wasted effort. When he threw the bolt and opened the door, they found the cell dark and utterly silent. With only the ambient light shining in from the hallway, it took a moment to be certain it was empty.

"They must have moved the prisoner to another cell," Rubio murmured.

Terreis nodded even as she tried to ignore the sense of unease sliding down her spine. Lemier had said the outlande had been brought in near death and she'd more than looked it. Had she passed during the intervening hours? The idea disturbed her more than she would have liked, though she tried to tell herself it was just the loss of an information source that bothered her so deeply. "We need to find the guards," she muttered and turned to hurry back toward the entry area, trusting her bodyguard to follow. They found the outer rooms of the guard quarters still empty.

"Maybe they're asleep in the back," Rubio suggested and pointed toward a closed door. He shrugged apologetically in response to her annoyed look. "I didn't think to check before."

Terreis was still drawing breath to answer when a dull roar sounded behind the closed door. She brushed past Rubio in an instant, ignoring his words and the hand that reached out as if to grab, but didn't dare make contact. She heard a curse and a woman's voice even as she reached for the door to the guards' personal quarters and yanked it open.

The outlander female was crouched in one corner of a cot, her eyes fever bright, her shirt torn, mouth bloodied, nails and knuckles also bloodied. Even as weak as she was, she'd managed to gouge the cheek of one of her would-be attackers while the other one was bent double, clutching his groin. Focused on their prisoner, neither man seemed to notice the latest entrant into the drama.

"You'll be dead by morning," the one with the bloodied face snarled, "but we've got plenty to do till then."

"That's right," the other one gasped as he struggled to straighten up. "Lots and lots of ways to make you pay."

They lunged at her so suddenly that Terreis doubted the woman on the bed had any more idea that she'd entered than the men.

The queen didn't pause, just reacted, lunging forward to grab the nearest man by the scruff of his neck. Hurling him aside, she reached for the other one, grabbing the limping man by the collar to haul him back from the terrified woman.

Growling an obscenity, he twisted in her grasp, blindly lashing out. She easily blocked the haphazard blow and slung him away from herself. "Rubio!" Her furious bark filled the room, but her bodyguard was already knocking heads with the billy club from his belt.

"Your queen commands you!" he bellowed in the face of their resistance.

And suddenly both men froze as the identity of their attackers sank in. "Highness?" they stammered, frightened voices overlapping each other. "We were unaware of your entry into the dungeons," the one with the gashed cheek said quickly. "How may we serve you?"

The queen's outrage grew with every word as she realized he thought her anger came from the lack of service. "You could start by not attempting to rape the prisoners under my protection." Both men flinched at her sharp tone. She glanced back at Rubio. "Inform the commander of the watch that these two men are to be removed from duty and punished for attacking a prisoner."

The bodyguard eyed the two men and nodded, though his response was entirely practical. "After you've safely returned to your apartments, My Queen."

Terreis did a slow turn, trusting her bodyguard to handle the situation as she considered the prisoner. The woman was pressed into the far corner of the cot where it butted up against the wall, her hands crossed in front of her holding the multi-hued shirt she wore closed in front. In decent light, she looked even worse than she had in near darkness, her face pale and painfully thin, deep circles under her eyes. Her breath was coming in harsh gasps and violent tremors wracked her slight frame. Dark eyes stared into the distance, dazed and unfocused. Terreis stepped closer, but the woman on the bed showed no sign of noticing, then she crouched down, reaching out hesitantly.

The prisoner reacted abruptly, jerking her head back and glaring with feral resentment.

"Highness, are you sure you should--" Rubio started to question her judgment but she cut him off.

"She won't hurt me," she said with absolute conviction, though she had no idea where the certainty came from. The prisoner blinked, lips pulling back from her clenched teeth in a tiny, inhuman growl.

"Easy," the queen soothed as she continued reaching out, her voice low. "I won't hurt you."

In the wake of the prisoner's silence, 'Bloody Cheek' apparently decided it was a good time to try and shift the blame. "She tried to seduce us, Your Highness. Offered her body if we let her out."

"He's lying," the woman on the cot said, her voice perfectly flat as she fixed an accusing stare on the woman crouched in front of her.

"Most likely," the queen agreed, then paused to throw a quick glance toward the guard. "And since at best, you were ready to release a valuable prisoner in return for sex, you're hardly trustworthy." She didn't want him to think she believed any excuses he might offer.

He swallowed hard, shaking his head in denial. "Wasn't gonna let her go ... just do her and throw her back in the cell."

"Or maybe kill her?" the queen hissed, dangerous rage glittering in her eyes. She'd overheard enough to be fairly certain that had been their intention. They'd obviously planned on hiding their crime by murdering the only witness. She didn't care what his reasons, nothing excused what they'd intended. He froze, swallowing hard in the face of the rage directed his way. "Get them out of here," she ordered Rubio, "into one of the empty cells ... so I don't have to look at them any longer."

Her bodyguard nodded, grabbing the two men and hauling them out with rough strength.

Brown eyes slid closed for a moment and a hard shudder rattled through the outlander's fragile frame. Her nails were torn, her knuckles bruised and bloodied. Terreis reached out, amazed to find her earlier anger nowhere in evidence as she carefully brushed bruised hands aside. The woman tensed, fingers curling into fists, ready to fight. "I won't harm you," she soothed, turning her hands to catch bony wrists in a surprisingly gentle grasp. "I just want to see if you're hurt." The prisoner seemed uncertain how to respond and, too weak to fight, couldn't prevent the queen as she pressed her hands back. She wore a black shirt under the long sleeved green one. Hanging loose on her frame, it was filthy and there were several tears that revealed fresh scratches on the flesh underneath. It shook the blond to realize the woman was even thinner than she'd originally realized, hauntingly so. She released her hold, allowing her prisoner to pull her outer shirt together again. "There's so much anger at your people for all the killing and destruction--"

The outlander showed her first real sign of life at that, eyes flashing as she insisted, "We haven't hurt anyone."

A sharp flare of temper nearly to drove the queen to drag the woman back to her cell -- she'd seen the reports of the casualties, and knew the suffering being inflicted on her people -- but she tamped down on the impulse. "Lying won't help you," she said very softly, her tone dangerous.

Rich brown eyes focused on her, and the outlander shook her head. "I'm not lying."

Facing that impossibly deep gaze, Terreis could almost believe her; might have if she weren't all too aware of the damage this woman and her ilk had done. Her teeth gritted as she forced down a dozen conflicting emotions.

"She won't be safe if we leave her here," Rubio pointed out practically as he returned. "The day guards are no better than the night ones ... and a vulnerable woman is a tempting target for them."

"And the anger against the outlanders doubtless doesn't help. People are too eager to take revenge for the pain and suffering," the queen murmured and fixed a hard gaze on her prisoner. "If I leave you here," she said softly, her tone an odd mix of pitying and grim warning, "this is likely to happen again ... or worse."

The outlander shook her head, her expression hopeless. "You make it sound as though I have some kind of input about what happens ... when we both know that's not true."

Accusation glittered in rich, dark eyes and Terreis had to fight the urge to flinch under a wave of guilt that was wholly at odds with her status as queen, especially when caused by a savage enemy. "That's right," she said more sharply she might have otherwise. She reached out, brushing lank and filthy bangs back from the woman's forehead. "It's entirely under my control. I can leave you here at the mercy of the next guard who decides to make use of you," the softly spoken words struck the woman on the cot like actual blows, "or I can remove you to a safe place."

The prisoner sat silently, teeth digging into her lower lip. Terreis could sense the wild turmoil of emotions running just beneath the surface, but if she was expecting some kind of surrender or plea for mercy, she was going to be disappointed. Weak and battered as she was, the prisoner wasn't beaten. She surprised even herself when she didn't wait any longer and simply made the decision, hooking a hand around the woman's upper arm. "I'm not leaving you here."

The outlander appeared startled by the abrupt decision. With Terreis pulling on her arm, she stumbled off the cot, her legs so shaky she would have collapsed without support. She staggered and fell against the taller woman. Terreis simply tightened her hold while Rubio stepped forward, ready to offer a hand. She shook her head. After the attack, she was afraid the outlander might panic if she found herself grabbed by a strange male. "See to the guards," she told him. "I want them punished ... and I want it well known that any prisoners are to be treated humanely. I know these are difficult times, but I will not see such cruelty become the norm."

Rubio nodded seriously. "Understood, My Queen." He indicated the prisoner. "Are you sure you don't need help?"

"Quite," she assured him, comfortably certain she could deal with any attempted resistance. "Go on."

"Yes, My Queen," he murmured and hurried out.

When he was gone, Terreis looked down at the slender figure leaning heavily against her. The woman's head was down, her eyes closed, and she looked to be barely conscious. A soft sigh escaped her lips and she seemed to collapse inward as though she'd exhaled the last of her energy in that breath. Terreis tightened her hold as her prisoner's knees threatened to buckle and the outlander was forced to lean more heavily against her side. The queen was shaken to feel just how thin the woman was. Teeth gritted against a fresh wave of pity, she reminded herself that this was her enemy. She wouldn't allow her to be brutalized, but neither could she afford to allow herself to soften where she was concerned. She wouldn't allow any woman to be harmed that way. That was the only reason she was so furious. It had nothing to do with the hopeful look the prisoner had directed her way earlier or pity for her poor condition. She wouldn't have allowed any creature to be abused in so cruel a fashion.

She kept telling herself that even as she slid her hand from the outlander's arm, dropping it down and around her waist, while she reached across her with her other hand, curving it supportively to a narrow shoulder. "Come," she commanded as she led her out of the dungeons.

By the time they reached the royal apartments, the outlander was shambling so badly Terreis was afraid she might have to carry her the last few feet. There was a narrow pallet in a niche in the wall intended for her maid's use -- though Maya hadn't used it since she could remember -- along one wall of her sleeping chamber, and she lowered the prisoner onto it as gently as she was able, muscles flexing to keep the woman from collapsing like a dead weight. The outlander leaned forward on her elbows, head hanging limp from her shoulders, her muscles trembling so badly, Terreis half expected her to collapse to the floor.

The queen crouched down, one hand resting on the pallet near a slim hip as she stared up at her prisoner. "What's your name?" she demanded quietly.

The outlander's chin rose, brown eyes sweeping upward until they encountered Terreis' paler gaze. "You really don't know, do you?" she whispered, her voice still breathy from exertion.

Terreis shook her head. "No ... if our guards were aware of it, I wasn't informed."

The prisoner seemed uncertain how to respond, though it was impossible to tell why.

"Your name," the queen demanded more sharply this time.

"Janet Fraiser," the outlander responded at last, her voice fading at the end.

Terreis tested the name mentally, sounding it out in her head before speaking. "Janetfraiser," she repeated, making it all one word.

"No," the outlander quietly corrected. "Two words ... Janet..." she paused momentarily, "...Fraiser."

Terreis retested the name, finding it felt more natural now. "Janet," she exhaled very softly, then suddenly stiffened, throwing off the temptation to sympathize. She straightened her shoulders ever so slightly, becoming more formal as she asked, "Is it the tradition among your people to use the first, the second or both names when addressing someone?"

Another long pause, then the outlander spoke very softly, "The first name for informal speech, last name for more formal situations ... it indicates family relationships where the first name is more personal."

Terreis nodded, wanting to learn anything she could. The more she understood her enemies, the better the chances she could find a way to stop them. She abruptly realized the outlander -- Janet, she mentally amended -- was watching her closely. She wondered if the other woman was looking for clues for manipulating her, or perhaps for a way to learn something her people might use. "If you're thinking of escape, don't bother," she bit out, wanting the prisoner to understand her only option was to cooperate. "And if you're thinking you might be able to overpower me," a feral smile curved the queen's lips, "allow me to assure you, I'm more than capable of defending myself."

She was surprised when the woman shook her head unsteadily, looking like she'd been struck for sport. "I-I wasn't..." she stammered. She swallowed hard, staring up at Terreis in a way that wouldn't let her look away. "I don't want to hurt you," she exhaled after a beat.

Caught by that limpid gaze, the queen didn't know what to say for a long moment. "Good," she said at last, "then we should get along just fine."

The outlander's head fell forward again and she sagged, elbows braced on her thighs, leaning heavily on her arms. She shook her head, whispering something to herself, but Terreis couldn't make out the words. Trying to hear, she leaned a little closer, nose wrinkling with distaste as she caught a whiff of the stench of sweat and sickness emanating from Janet Fraiser. Something was going to have to be done about that. She glanced back over her shoulder, eyes touching on the pool that sat in the middle of the room, the water flowing steadily through it warmed as it slid over heated rocks, keeping it perpetually ready should she decide to bathe. She was half afraid to allow the woman in for fear she'd drown, but the showers in the adjoining servants' quarters weren't heated, and she feared the outlander's condition was too frail to stand up to the cold. Finally, she reached out, reaching for the front of the mottled green overshirt the woman wore.

Startled by the sudden contact, Janet's chin came up, her eyes going wide as a frown creased her brow. "What are you--"

"You need a bath," Terreis said simply. Not wanting the woman to think she was after anything else, she carefully kept her tone neutral. "You're filthy ... and have scratches that could infect." She was surprised by the force the prisoner managed to summon to knock her hands away.

"I'll be fine," Janet croaked unsteadily. Her eyes were wide and frightened, as though she somehow knew all of the things Maya had suggested and feared they might happen.

Terreis pushed that thought off as quickly as it occurred. Of course the woman was frightened. She had every right to be scared. She was part of an invading army and probably expected to be treated the way her own people treated prisoners. Maya's suggestions might well have seemed tame by comparison. "And I have no intention of having to put up with the smell," she said bluntly. "You needn't fear being harmed, but you will bathe. Either you can take your clothes off, or I'll do it for you." Her gaze was hard, her tone utterly implacable. She meant the threat in no uncertain terms and had no intention of relaxing her stance no matter how many soft looks were thrown her direction. She wasn't like her enemies, but neither was she weak or a fool.

Janet drew breath as if to argue, but seeing the look in blue eyes, she retreated. "I can do it," she whispered at last.

Terreis nodded, clamping down on any hesitation to back off with a firm hand. "Do so quickly," she instructed as she pushed to her feet and stepped back a pace. "I'll arrange for food and drink to be brought." As well as manacles. Even if the prisoner seemed weak as a kitten, she'd injured two guards, both of them twice her size. The queen had no intention of allowing her any more freedom than necessary.

"Something mild," Janet requested, her voice not quite sliding over into a plea, but close enough that the queen didn't bristle. "I don't think I can keep anything strong down." It was obvious how difficult the confession was for her. She wasn't a woman who admitted weakness easily.

"I'll see to it," the queen felt the need to assure her prisoner. The woman was in very real physical distress. Hate the outlanders as she did, she didn't have it in her to add more cruelties to those she'd already suffered. After a last look, she turned and slipped out, reasonably certain the woman was too weak to offer any real resistance. Though there were a few weapons in her chambers, she seriously doubted they could be found in the few minutes she would be gone. She wasn't even sure the woman could stand up in that amount of time. Finding a servant, she ordered food, clean slaves' robes, and a set of manacles to be delivered to her chambers. If the man thought there was anything odd about her request, it didn't show in his bland expression. He assured her he'd arrange for everything she requested to be delivered. After nodding in approval, she hurried back toward her apartments.

She pulled up short as she reentered her bedchamber to find the prisoner standing shakily, her back to the door, her outer shirt tossed haphazardly on the floor. As Terreis watched, she unfastened her pants and let them drop, weaving unsteadily as she stepped out of them. Swallowing hard, the queen's head canted to one side, torn between pity over her prisoner's poor condition and a host of far less benign emotions -- anger, frustration ... desire?

The last thought occurred before she could stop it, and she instantly dismissed it. That couldn't be. The woman was filthy, half dead, and might well need to be sandblasted to get her clean. Added to which, she was part of an attacking army. Hardly the description of an attractive package. Any thoughts along those lines were simply a product of Maya's suggestions coupled with the obvious realities of having a strange woman stripping off her clothes in front of her. As if in response to that thought, the woman peeled the black t-shirt off over her head and let it fall to the floor, the sight of her bare back enough to make the queen wince and instantly wipe away any thoughts of desire. Several ugly red marks slashed across her back -- pressure points that would doubtless darken to bruises with time -- and there were visible fingernail scratches at her hips and shoulders. Despite herself, the image of frightened dark eyes flashed in her head, and her hands fisted tightly at her sides as she remembered that her own men had inflicted those injuries. She had to fight the urge to step forward and help as Janet staggered toward the sunken pool, her every step painfully unsteady. Terreis half expected her to simply sink under when she stepped into the sunken tub, but she managed to keep her head above water. Hooking an arm over the edge of the pool, she leaned there for a long moment, her head hanging listlessly, then finally reached for the sweet smelling bar of soap that sat along the edge of the pool.

As Terreis stood silently watching, her prisoner began painstakingly washing away the grime, her every movement torturously slow. She was so weak the queen feared she would sink under the water at any moment and be unable to fight her way to the surface again. As she stood there on the balls of her feet, ready to rush forward, she kept telling herself it was just because she couldn't risk losing such a valuable prisoner. She tensed when Janet tipped her head back and slid under, but she pulled herself up again soon enough that the queen realized it had been intentional. She started to soap her hair with the bar soap and Terreis took a half step forward. "There's shampoo in the gold carafe," she told her, speaking for the first time since returning.

Janet twisted in the water, nearly losing her grip on the edge of the pool and going under. Her eyes huge in her face, she stared up at Terreis, her free arm swinging around to hide her chest. "I didn't hear you return," she breathed.

"No ... you didn't," the queen confirmed, keeping her tone as bland as possible as she stepped forward, moving slowly so as not to startle the woman, dealing with her the way she would a feral animal. Well aware of the dark eyes tracking her every move, she stepped to the side of the pool, crouching down to indicate the shampoo. "Try that," she instructed without looking toward her prisoner. "And the silver one afterward." She could just barely make out Janet at the edge of her peripheral vision, her body tense, clinging tightly to the edge of the pool. She didn't move and Terreis slowly swung her head that direction, sharp blue eyes taking in the expanse of creamy flesh revealed through the distorting ripples of water. The outlander was far too thin, but her skin was nearly flawless by the look of it. "Do you need help?" she asked, carefully keeping the bland tone in place.

Dark eyes fell away and Janet shook her head, but didn't move. "No," she whispered.

When she still hadn't moved after a long moment, Terreis pushed both carafes closer, then straightened to her full height, arms folded across her chest as she silently watched.

The prisoner swallowed hard, taking a deep breath to gather herself, then reached out to retrieve the gold container, tipping a measure of thick shampoo into her hand. She quickly lathered her hair, then sank under the water.

The queen tensed, very aware of the seconds that ticked by until the woman surfaced again, her breath coming deep and ragged. Janet hooked her arm over the edge of the pool and hung there, limp and gasping, worn out by that simple effort. Blue eyes slid over too slender shoulders, then trailed along the length of the outlander's bare arm. Terreis was a little appalled to find herself wondering if the pale flesh exposed to her eyes was as soft as it appeared, while her fingers tingled faintly with the sensual desire to touch and find out. Tortured and desperate -- born into what was clearly a warring society and probably a cruel one judging by their attacks on the villagers -- the outlander might well have never known gentleness in her life. What would happen if--

She cut that thought off right there, unfolding her arms to twine her hands together at the small of her back. It was just Maya's suggestions making her aware of things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed ... like the glossy highlights that glittered on freshly washed hair and the graceful line of the woman's neck where it curved into her shoulder. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly to calm her jangled nerves, careful to keep her expression impassive. "Do you need help?" she offered again when the prisoner still hadn't moved several moments later.

Janet shook her head slowly without looking up, then took a deep breath and reached for the silver flask.

A muscle flexed along the sharp line of the queen's jaw as she watched the prisoner's efforts, fighting the natural pity that came from watching someone so weakened struggle to do the simplest things. She looked more like the victim of some ungodly act than the perpetrator, making it a constant effort to remember who and what she was.

The outlander went under again to rinse her hair a final time and a second ticked by, then two. By the sixth, the queen was moving, careless of her gown as she knelt down and reached under the water. She hooked her hand across the woman's chest and under her armpit, hauling her to the surface, then holding her there when she hung limp, coughing and gagging as she dragged air into her lungs. Her arm came up, clinging to the queen's, though there was little strength to her hold. Water soaked through Terreis' sleeves and the front of her gown, but she barely felt it as she scooped her other hand under the prisoner's arm. Several moments passed by, the only noise to break the silence, the ragged sound of Janet's breathing as she fought to catch her breath.

Terreis swallowed hard, the intimacy of the position making her intensely aware of the fact that, despite her thinness, the prisoner had good bone structure and silky smooth skin -- her fingertips just grazed the outer curve of a rounded breast -- as well as curves that would be beautifully proportioned at a normal weight. To see her in this condition seemed almost a crime in and of itself; like seeing a wild dargash starving and brutalized. "Did your masters abuse you?" she murmured, still holding the woman supportively, wet hair brushing her cheek as she leaned down to whisper near a a delicate ear. "Did they threaten you ... beat you ... withhold food to make you attack?" Tension rippled through the slender figure hanging on her arm, and Janet pressed weakly at the arm braced across her chest.

"I have no masters," the prisoner gasped, teeth gritted with the effort required to try and support herself.

An obvious lie as far as the queen was concerned. The woman was no general, not even a field commander. Most likely, she was little more than cannon fodder thrown into the fight with little care whether she lived or died. Considering the condition she was in, no one had given a damn about her in quite some time. Which left Terreis to idly wonder what she would be like if someone did. She pushed the thought down in an instant, shoving any compassion aside in favor of more practical considerations. "Answer my questions," the queen promised, her voice husky, "and I'll see you rewarded." Her prisoner would have pulled away, but as weak as was, the queen barely had to tighten her grip to keep her right where she was. "It's obvious your life has been difficult. I can change that. Just tell me what I need to know to defeat our attackers."

Janet Fraiser shook her head, every movement a struggle. "I can't help you," she breathed as she managed to get her feet under her.

Terreis momentarily debated increasing the pressure only to decide she had a better chance of coaxing the woman into offering what she knew if she used a lighter hand. "Can you get out on your own now?"

The queen was almost disappointed to hear her prisoner's barely audible, "Yes."

As she pulled her arm back, Terreis' fingers trailed across Janet's torso, brushing silky wet flesh, that small contact sending trickles of heat up her arm, awareness burning through her now that she wasn't concentrated on preventing the woman from drowning. It didn't help slow her pulse to remember that, by law, she had every right to do anything she wished, take whatever she wanted, in any manner she wanted. As Maya had reminded her, her ancestors had done so plenty of times. She pushed the thought off almost as quickly as it appeared. More than a few of her ancestors had been little more than savages. Their behavior wasn't something she cared to emulate even with an enemy as bloodthirsty as this one. Clamping down on those unwanted thoughts, she pushed to her feet, grabbing for one of the huge towels that sat folded on a shelf near the bath.

The outlander climbed almost halfway out, then seemed to run out of steam and stood on the second step down, her head down, muscles trembling with the effort required to simply remain on her feet. Shaking the towel out, Terreis threw it around pale shoulders, stepping onto the top step -- careless of the water that soaked the bottom edge of her gown -- to wrap an arm around the woman when it was obvious she wasn't going any farther under her own steam. She all but lifted the prisoner the last couple of steps until she was standing -- albeit unsteadily -- on the tile floor, water sluicing off her skin to puddle at her feet. Stepping behind her, Terreis rubbed the towel up and down her arms, then along her shoulders and down her back. As she worked, the towel slid back, revealing a shoulder that was amazingly smooth now that it was cleared of grime. Teeth gritted against the curious desire to touch, she lifted a corner of the towel, ruffling wet-dark hair. After a moment, she combed her fingers through the silky strands to remove the worst of the tangles, that sensual pleasure somehow less dangerous than the desire to stroke bare flesh. She was startled out of her aimless thoughts by the outlander's soft voice.

"Why," the woman whispered, her voice thick with confusion, "are you doing this?"

Still finger-combing wet hair, Terreis tugged Janet back against her chest and slid an arm around her when her knees threatened to buckle. "Because it needs to be done," she said very softly, muscles pulling taut as Janet's struggles increased, though she had little strength for the effort. "Don't fight me," she commanded not unkindly, but with enough determination to make it apparent she wouldn't be dissuaded. "We're not the savages here. You won't be harmed if you just answer my questions." She softened her voice, purposely gentling her hands as she added, "In fact, if you help me stop this, I can see you rewarded...."

Janet jerked sharply in an effort to free herself, but as weak as was, it took almost no effort to keep her right where she was. "Please don't," she exhaled raggedly, her voice suddenly taking on a whole new timbre.

It took Terreis a beat to realize that the hand braced across her prisoner's chest had slid under the towel in front and was spread over bare flesh, her hold almost possessive. She hadn't even noticed doing it, but now that she did, she froze as the tactile reality sank in. Her breath caught, her first impulse to yank her hand back as though burned tempered by the fact that the woman in her arms would have collapsed without the support. Amazingly enough, her second impulse was almost the perfect opposite of her first as she recognized the shape of the curves beneath her palm and realized that only the slightest increased spread in her fingers would put them in contact with a coral tipped nipple. She swallowed hard, startled by a sudden rush of heat that made coherent thought a challenge. Reminding herself that this was about gaining information, she forced that impulse down as well, swallowing hard as she struggled to control the confusing and wholly unwanted responses. Concentrating on the lack of natural padding between the flesh and bone at Janet's ribs, she reminded herself that the woman was a bare step above dead. She had been cruelly used by someone and very likely knew nothing of kindness. Terreis couldn't help but wonder if she could be taught to trust. Would a gentle hand perhaps soothe Janet Fraiser's fears and coax whatever secrets she held from soft lips where cruelty would gain nothing? "I won't hurt you," she whispered very softly. "Just tell me what you know so I can help you."

Terreis could feel the hammering of her prisoner's heart under her palm as the woman shook her head back and forth. "I don't know anything," she insisted, flinching as the queen spread her hand ever so slightly, handling her the way she would any frightened animal.

She was lying, and not particularly well either. But was she keeping her secrets out of fear or loyalty? One of the prisoner's shoulders was bare, and Terreis tugged the towel back, revealing the other one. "Oh, you know things," she exhaled, fingertips following the graceful line of Janet's collarbone. "The trick is going to be getting you to tell them."

Tension rippled through the outlander's fragile frame, her muscles quivering under the impact of fear driven adrenaline. "You think I'm part of some kind of attack force," she rasped, her tone uncertain.

Reminded of the harsh reality, Terreis tamped down any softer emotions with a hard hand. Desire and pity were weaknesses she couldn't afford when it came to this woman. She'd been a part of attacking defenseless civilians. "No," she bit out. The outlander deserved anything she got and keeping her alive was simply a matter of making certain they didn't lose a valuable information resource. "I know you are," she added, wanting the woman to know she wouldn't be easily fooled, her voice hardening, though her touch remained gentle.

"You're wrong." Apparently accepting that she couldn't break loose, Janet instead tried to shift the towel back into place to serve as a barrier between her skin and wandering hands.

Angry at the outlander's refusal to admit what she knew, Terreis blocked her efforts with ease. "No," she snapped her tone sharp enough to make her prisoner wince, "you are ... if you think you can defy me." She slid the hand on Janet's shoulder up to stroke the curve of her jaw lightly, tugging the woman's head around until they were eye to eye. "You need to understand ... you're completely within my power." Damp hair brushed her cheek as she leaned closer. "I can make things very easy ... or very difficult for you. The choice is yours."

"Not if I don't know anything," Janet rasped, too weak to even make a show of resisting.

"I know where you were taken," Terreis said impatiently, "and you lie badly. If you're afraid of what your masters will do if they discover you've betrayed them, you needn't fear. Help us, and I'll see you protected."

"Don't," Janet hissed suddenly, jerking unsuccessfully at the arms wrapped around her.

Terreis suddenly realized she'd slid the hand on the woman's chest down to spread it against the flat plane of her stomach and froze, startled by her own actions. It was as though her hands were acting on their own without consulting her brain. Suddenly it wasn't righteous anger burning in her gut, nor thoughts of her people's needs burning in her mind. She swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry, lust -- the kind to make knees tremble and palms sweat -- burning in her veins. Turning her head slightly, she was caught by her own fascination with the delicate shell of the prisoner's ear where it peeked out through strands of hair that were drying to a bright, coppery brown. "Don't what?" she growled at last, resentful of the desire the woman unknowingly sparked, "see that you're clean ... fed ... safe ... instead of dead on a battlefield or starving in a hole?" She'd treated the woman far more kindly than most would say she deserved, certainly far kinder than her own people treated prisoners ... if they ever bothered to take any. She grabbed slender shoulders in her hands, forcing the outlander around until they were face to face, only to freeze as she was caught in the trap of impossibly deep brown eyes. For a moment, she couldn't think straight, couldn't think period. Her gaze dropped, eyes touching on pale flesh. The outlander was too thin and too weak, but she could see the promise of beauty, and feel the throbbing drumbeat of need. She reached out, knuckles brushing the soft flesh between smoothly rounded breasts.

"Don't be ... like ... like those men." The pleading words struck the queen like actual blows.

Frozen in place by the accusation, Terreis took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before she carefully tugged the towel back up over slim shoulders, pulling it together in front. She wasn't like those animals ... excited by pain and degradation. She felt the shudder of relief that vibrated through the smaller woman. She hadn't planned for any of this when she'd brought the outlander to her rooms; couldn't possibly have predicted the confusing jumble of desires and emotions. "You needn't fear ... that," she assured the other woman. She took another deep breath, releasing it slowly as she fought to regain control. She lifted her hand to stroke auburn hair back from the outlander's temple only to find it sliding lower, caressing the graceful line of her throat. "I'm not like your leaders. I don't cause pain for sport," she whispered even as she found herself brushing the towel back as she slid her hand along a narrow shoulder. She knew she shouldn't, but couldn't seem to control the impulse.

Janet tipped her head down, eyes fastened on the floor. Terreis could almost hear the gears turning in her head. "Then what are you doing to me?" she whispered, her desperation impossible to miss.

The queen had it in her to wonder the same thing as she brushed the towel lower, revealing the tempting curve of breast and the soft rose of nipple and aureolae. Her thumb slid down, stroking the very edge of that change in color and texture from creamy smooth to darker and faintly puckered. "I'm trying to help you," she said very softly, ignoring the possible ramifications of her actions, seemingly unable to do anything else. "You can't want to be a part of the savagery perpetrated on my people." She couldn't imagine anyone choosing to be a part of such heinous acts, but particularly not someone with such soft eyes. Terreis looked up, lifting her other hand to stroke drying hair lightly. "Tell me how to stop it ... and you'll have my personal protection." She forgot her ministers, Maya, everything but this woman and the need to learn her secrets.

Janet Fraiser's chin rose, her eyes flashing accusingly. "And who will protect me from you?" she demanded raggedly.

"My ... uh ... My Queen," the stuttering voice interrupted any answers the queen might have offered, though she didn't have a good one. "I brought the food you ordered. Caillon is arranging for the rest of what you ordered."

She looked over her shoulder to find a servant standing in the doorway, a heavily laden tray in hand.

"Set that there," Terreis ordered with a nod indicate a small end table, so used to having servants come and go that she thought nothing of it. At least not until she realized the outlander sought to pull the towel back around herself. She glanced back at the servant, noting the way his eyes carefully avoided them. No surprise. No man or woman in her service would risk their position in the palace by showing an unseemly level of curiosity. "Pour two glasses," she ordered with a lazy gesture to one of the pitchers on the tray. "And take the wine with you. We'll have no need of it." The last thing she could afford was to blunt her already conflicted instincts with alcohol. "Also the clothes on the floor ... have them burned."

"Yes, Highness," he said and quickly did as ordered. "May I serve you in any other way?"

Her attention once again on her prisoner, Terreis shook her head without looking at her servant. "There's nothing else I need from you." She knew the outlander had heard the faint emphasis she put on the last word by the way she stiffened.

He glanced back and forth between the two women, then quickly fled.

Terreis felt Janet waver on her feet and brushed the towel aside to curve a hand to her waist, half expecting her knees to buckle. A hand rose, bracing on her upper chest as the prisoner leaned back, her eyes wide and frightened. "Please don't," she begged, then began more hesitantly, the words coming slowly as though she was choosing them very carefully. "I don't ... don't think you want to hurt me."

"I don't want to hurt anyone," Terreis admitted, suddenly almost as exhausted as her prisoner. She hated the things she had to do to protect her people, the weapons, the plans for killing, the need to destroy. It only made it worse to think that maybe most of the outlanders were like this one --- frightened, starved to the point of desperation, and battered into submission. She didn't want the pain and degradation Maya had suggested. She stroked silky flesh, momentarily lost in sensation, the unexpected familiarity of the contact soothing the headache that had begun throbbing at her temples. The last thing she wanted was more pain for any of them. They'd all had enough of that.

"I know," the outlander breathed, her voice soft, almost mesmerizing. "That's why it would be best if you just let me go."

There was a moment's temptation to do as she asked. It would make things easier to be free of this ... whatever it was ... she was feeling. "I can't," Terreis said softly, feeling as though she'd been hypnotized. "I need you."

What little color had remained in the outlander's cheeks drained away in an instant. "For what?" she rasped tersely.

Terreis lifted her free hand, brushing the pad of her thumb along the smaller woman's temple, caressing her skin right at the hairline, struggling to remember all of the logical, practical reasons. "You're the only link I have to our attackers ... the only chance I have for any answers...."

"I don't have any answers," Janet insisted, still using that soft, coaxing voice.

Terreis shook the momentary weakness off at the denial. Remembering her task, blue eyes hardened, rising to clash with the other woman's darker gaze. "You have them," she whispered, consciously shaking off the languorous feeling and rekindling the righteous anger. She closed her eyes momentarily, envisioning all of the things she'd read about in the reports, the things Valchon had told her this woman had done, the ugly images shattering any softer impulses. When she looked at the prisoner again, her eyes were like chips of ice. "And one way or another, you will tell me what I need to know." She absorbed the soft shudder that slid through weak muscles. Her touch brusque without being rough, she thrust the woman away from herself, needing to be rid of the temptation offered by silky flesh. Settling her on the servant's pallet, she stepped away to drag the small table of food close. It gave her a brief respite from the intensity of sensation and awareness, allowing over-excited nerve endings to cool a degree or two. When she turned back, she found the woman sitting with her head hanging from her shoulders, elbows braced on her thighs. A fresh wave of pity burning through her, Terreis crouched down before the prisoner, retrieving something off the tray. Perhaps a little food and kindness would begin to convince her that it was in her own interests to tell what she knew. "Try this," she coaxed, holding the bland fruit up to soft lips.

Dark eyes rose, their expression harder now, giving her the sense that the woman had regained control of herself just as she had during the brief respite. "What are you doing?"

Good question, Terreis thought. Unfortunately, she didn't have a ready answer ... or maybe she did, which was even more worrisome. Finally, she settled on the most straightforward answer. "Feeding you," she pointed out logically, "since you're better than half starved in case you haven't noticed."

"Oh, I've noticed," her prisoner said very softly, still staring at Terreis, her gaze suspicious. "It's not something I'm likely to miss."

Not knowing how to read the other woman's reaction, sensing that the outlander's emotions were nearly as torn and confused as her own, Terreis was silent for a long moment. "Did your leaders deny you food?" she asked after a beat. "Perhaps only reward you if you killed or destroyed enough?" She could almost forgive the brutality if that were the case. Starving and desperate, she could see people being pushed to do things they might normally find abhorrent. If that were the case, perhaps she could find a way to turn the foot soldiers against their masters.

A faint narrowing of near-black eyes was the only initial response. "No," her prisoner said softly. "Don't you know what's happening?" Again, her voice took on the note of accusation that seemed wholly at odds with how she should have reacted.

"No," the queen said carefully, feeling as though she were being tested in some manner. "Why would I ask if I did?"

"I don't know," her prisoner admitted. Brown eyes slid closed, and she shook her head, her expression dispirited. "I don't know anything right now." She swallowed hard and took a deep, shuddering breath, her head falling forward once again.

"Then perhaps you should simply eat the food your body clearly needs."

"And trust you?" Janet asked, her tone wryly hopeless.

"Trust me enough to eat," the queen responded, sensing that asking for any more than that wouldn't gain her any information or ease the other woman's fears, though it disturbed her that she was so concerned with easing her fears. "Now, try this. It's jelabi. It should help settle your stomach." She held up the morsel in her hand only to have the outlander turn her head away. "You won't do anyone any good by refusing food," she pointed out with quiet logic, then her tone turned coaxing. "Now, eat." She nudged full lips with the pale wedge until they parted to accept the food. Watching closely, she fed her several more of the blander choices from the tray. "Now, drink," she commanded gently once she was satisfied the outlander had eaten enough for a first meal. She held one of the goblets up to rose-kissed lips.

"What is it?" Janet flashed a suspicious look at the amber liquid in the cup.

"Just juice," Terreis assured her. "You need the liquid ... and if I was out to poison you, there are easier ways."

A slender hand rose to take the goblet, but trembled unsteadily.

"No." The single word stopped her prisoner's hand mid-movement. Janet's gaze swept upward, her expression confused. "You'd spill it," the queen pointed out quietly, though she was uncertain that was the only reason. There was something dangerously intimate -- and even more dangerously alluring -- about the idea. Like feeding her by hand, giving the outlander the liquid she so desperately needed to survive was about care, but also a tempting kind of control. Her gaze dropped to full lips, then rose again to clash with her prisoner's dark brown eyes, making it clear that Janet Fraiser was well aware of the power battle between them. She shook her head stiffly.

"No," the outlander said very softly, but with considerable defiance. "I've already...." She trailed off, took a breath, and started again. "Don't do this."

A hint of a frown touched Terreis' brow, anger flickering in her eyes in response to the other woman's resistance. "Would you prefer your master's uncaring?" She demanded. Her eyes raked over the woman. "You're half starved ... and god only knows what else they've done to you," she growled, outraged by the woman's continuing refusal to surrender to her when she was willing to be far kinder than whoever she already served. "How can you show them any loyalty--"

"Don't play whatever game you're playing." Janet cut her off, her tone hopeless as her eyes momentarily slid closed, a hard shudder rattling her fragile frame. "Whatever you're trying to do, it won't work." She kept shaking her head. "I won't ... won't do whatever it is you want."

"At the moment," the queen said frostily, "the only think I want is to see that you don't expire from dehydration."

"Or maybe this is just a tactic," Janet said as she looked up again, her tone bleak, "to make me dependant on you."

"I don't need tactics for that," the queen pointed out blandly. "Though were you correct, I'd think you'd be wise to play along in the interests of your survival." The point wasn't even remotely subtle, and she felt no pride when the outlander flinched in response to the threat. "Now, drink ... plot and plan my downfall if it pleases you..." she said, her voice and expression softening as she touched the edge of the goblet to soft lips, "... but drink." She was surprised when the woman didn't argue further, simply opened her mouth, corded throat muscles working as she swallowed the first trickle of juice. "That's it," the queen praised after she'd downed nearly half the glass. She pulled the goblet back, watching the prisoner carefully. She was still deathly pale and wracked by the occasional tremor, but she looked a little stronger. "How do you feel?"

"I think it's going to stay down," the prisoner whispered after a long moment.

"Good," Terreis murmured and pushed to her feet, tucking a finger under Janet's chin to force her head up until their eyes met. "Because we have additional matters to discuss. I want you to understand the position you find yourself in." Gentler methods weren't drawing out any outlander secrets, instead they were shattering the queen's peace of mind to the point where she was starting to doubt her own actions when her people's safety had to be her first consideration. "As a prisoner taken in an undeclared attack by outlanders, you have no legal status," she saw Janet swallow hard and resisted the urge to soften the words, hoping that the brutal truth might frighten her into breaking down, "not even the legal protections against murder the lowest slave would enjoy."

Another hard swallow and when the prisoner spoke, her voice was little more than a tortured rasp. "Meaning?"

"You are my property ... to care for ... or to break ... as I see fit." Dark eyes slid closed, a hard shudder rattling the outlander's frame. Terreis hardened her heart when she would have preferred kindness. "My Senior Minister would see you handed over to the palace interrogators," she said, her tone flat, and knew the other woman understood the mean by the way she winced.

"Torture?" Half a question, half a statement, the single word was barely audible.

"In your present condition, I doubt you would survive the experience," Terreis said without answering the question directly, perversely ashamed that such services existed.

She saw her prisoner draw breath to speak, only to think better of it. Her eyes slid closed, the only thing keeping her head up, the queen's hand under her chin. Adrenaline was all that had gotten her this far, and she was fast running out of even that. "Is that what you want," she whispered, sounding hurt and frightened, "to see me dead?"

The straightforward question made the queen flinch. "No," she admitted, then straightened herself, calming her voice. "I want to see you alive ... and my people alive." She ran the pad of her thumb along an arched cheekbone. "But to do both, I need your help." The woman had information, Terreis reminded herself with cold-hearted practicality. She had to be focused first and foremost on learning the reasons for the outlander's actions. With that in mind, she reached out, gently smoothing silky bangs back from her forehead, struggling to take a more calculated, manipulative approach. "You're very tired, aren't you?" she asked, keeping her voice low and sympathetic.

Janet nodded, her eyes sliding closed. "So tired," she breathed, her head resting more heavily on the hand under her chin.

Terreis leaned down, studying soft features, still working her thumb rhythmically over velvety skin. "I can make things so much easier for you," she whispered in a tone meant to invoke trust. "All you have to do is tell me why your people have attacked ... what they want..."

Brown eyes slid open with effort, exhaustion visibly making it difficult. "You really don't know, do you?" she whispered at last, her words slightly slurred, sounding more confused by the idea than she had any right to be.

"No, of course not. If I knew how to stop all of the destruction," Terreis said intently, "I would have done so already." She continued the gentle, hypnotic stroking, silently willing the outlander to trust her and tell her what she needed to know. "But you can help me."

Peering blearily up at Terreis, Janet frowned ever so slightly, her look so intent the queen could almost see the thoughts running through her brain. "More tactics?" she exhaled at last and shook her head. "The problem is..." she paused uncertainly as though debating her words very carefully before continuing, "...the only ... destruction ... I know anything about is what was done when I was kidnapped."

A muscle pulsed in the queen's jaw, impatience gleaming in her gaze. "Lies will gain you nothing," she growled. "I know for a fact you were captured when your people attacked a farm."

"You know for a fact," her prisoner repeated, her tone sharpening. "You were there then?" she demanded, somehow summoning another burst of strength for that small show of defiance.

"No, of course not," Terreis dismissed, " but I read the report from the commander on the line."

"Ah." No one could have missed the smaller woman's sarcasm. "Unfortunately, whatever story you were told isn't true."

"Really?" It was Terreis' turn for sarcasm.

"Really," Janet confirmed. "I'm a doctor. I was led into a trap in the belief a child had been hurt and needed my help. Only it was nothing but a bundle of rags." Her voice cracked with such intensity of emotion that Terreis almost believed her story. "I was attacked ... drugged ... thrown in that hole ... starved ... and tortured--"

"You lie," the queen hissed, the litany of abuses triggering her anger. With everything she'd done, now the woman was trying to push the blame onto her victims. The hand under Janet's chin worked back into her hair, twisting her head back with harsh strength. "You would have done better to try and convince me you were some kind of innocent bystander caught in the middle and attacked by the same monsters murdering us ... but I know my people. They wouldn't have done what you describe--"

"Just like they wouldn't commit rape or murder?" the outlander demanded with all the energy she could muster. She glared up at Terreis as though willing her to believe or to....

The queen shook her head, the headache returning with vicious intensity. "That was wrong ... but predictable," she growled. "There's so much anger simmering against your people for everything they've done--"

"Is there?"

"Of course there is," Terreis snapped, her impatience growing with every passing moment. She'd let herself forget the treachery the outlanders were capable of, allowing pity to blunt her determination. "Perhaps I should see you delivered to the interrogators," she threatened grimly as she was reminded of everything her people had suffered at the hands of her prisoner and the army she served. Maybe the interrogators could resist the urge to soften and gentle in response to her weakness, and maybe their hearts wouldn't contract at the idea of causing any kind of pain. She felt no satisfaction when the outlander paled several shades, her eyes sliding closed.

"Please don't," Janet whispered, not quite pleading, but close.

Forcing down a treacherous wave of pity, Terreis fought to bring her righteous anger back to the fore without much success. "I won't," she said very softly after a beat and saw delicate shoulders sag with relief. "As I said, you aren't likely to survive the experience," she added, needing to make certain the woman understood she wasn't being spared because it was what she wished. "And I can't afford to risk what you know." She didn't know what to say at that point and found herself staring helplessly at the other woman as she slumped, barely able to keep herself upright. A sad sigh escaped the prisoner's lips. "Whatever you're afraid of," the queen promised quietly, surprised to find herself wanting to reach through that aura of depression and offer some succor, "I can protect you." The outlander's masters might be brutal, but they had no sway in Arrathonea, though if she'd seen other worlds fall before their attackers, the woman might not believe that.

A small headshake and a fragile hand rose from her knee. The prisoner massaged her temple slowly. "I need to think," she whispered, her tone making it clear that wasn't an easy task. "It's all too confusing right now."

"All right," the queen breathed, unable to summon the cruelty needed to continue pressuring the prisoner, and hoping that if she considered everything carefully, she'd see the wisdom in playing along. The other woman was on her last legs. Starvation and dehydration had sapped her strength and slowed her thought processes so severely that it was amazing she was doing as well as she was. The starvation had to be tool her enemies used to control their troops. She couldn't envision someone getting into such awful condition accidentally, at least not if they were part of an invasion force. Their leaders probably used their desperation to drive them to such frenzied acts of slaughter. A shudder slid down her spine at the thought. Clearly, her enemies were absolutely without remorse or soul. She slid her hand back to just barely stroke auburn silk threads.

"I don't know what to do," Janet whispered, sounding hopelessly young and lost.

"I know." Terreis glanced back as a servant stepped cautiously into the room.

He was carrying the clothes and manacles she'd ordered, and his eyes were locked on the floor. "Highness?"

"Yes?"

He held up the armload of goods. "The things you ... uh ... ordered. I would have delivered them sooner ... but ... uh ... you appeared to be otherwise ... engaged."

A dark blonde brow rose high on her forehead as she realized what must have happened. Obviously, he'd entered at an inopportune moment and probably backed out as quickly as he was able. "That's fine," she assured him. Remembering Janet's earlier embarrassment, she shielded her with her body as she pointed to a nearby table. "Just set those there."

He nodded and quickly did as told, then hurriedly fled.

As the queen looked back at her prisoner, she noted the woman was lying limp on the mattress, her eyes closed. For a moment, Terreis thought she'd fallen asleep, then her eyelids fluttered, her gaze swinging over to touch on the things stacked on the nearby table. The manacles were painfully obvious where they sat on top of the simple tunic. "I'm guessing those are for me," she said, her tone bleak.

The queen felt a blush heat her cheeks, and her tone was defensive as she admitted, "You didn't expect to remain completely unrestrained, did you?"

"I didn't really think about it." Janet pulled the damp towel more tightly around herself.

"He also brought clothes for you," Terreis told her as a peace offering.

She received an exhausted nod in return.

"Here," the queen said softly and delivered the promised clothes. A brief look thrown her way was the only plea she received to turn away. She simply shook her head.

Janet silently pushed upright, tugging the tunic on over her head. It was a simple affair in pale cream linen, short -- it fell to mid-thigh -- with raglan sleeves and a belted waist.

"I'll arrange for something else tomorrow," Terreis said softly as she saw the way the woman picked at the outfit, clearly embarrassed by the scantiness.

An ironic smile touched her prisoner's lips and she settled into the mattress, once again pulling the blankets around herself. "Tomorrow..." she exhaled. "Maybe I'll get lucky and wake up to find out this was all a bad dream."

"Maybe," the queen murmured, her tone oddly sympathetic. She watched dark eyes slide closed and stepped over to retrieve the handcuffs her servant had brought. Staring at them for a long moment, she seriously considered not going to that extent. A long look at her prisoner confirmed the woman's weakness. It wasn't like she was much of a threat. But....

But she was a threat no matter how small. "I'll arrange for something lighter tomorrow," she murmured apologetically as she silently latched one end around a fragile wrist. Janet didn't even bother to respond, just snuggled deeper into her blanket as if to escape her current reality, though a solid flinch rattled her slender frame when Terreis latched the other end of the cuffs around a bedrail. "Sleep now," she said very softly.

Completely depleted of any hint of energy, the woman went limp, the last of the fight draining out of her as she slid off into exhausted sleep.

Terreis stood and watched her for a long time.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

The soft sound of voices drew Janet out of a sleep so deep it bordered on unconsciousness. Momentarily confused, she tried to remember why the hell Sam would be in her bedroom talking to some strange woman -- because she definitely recognized her friend's voice, but the other one was a mystery -- and then it all came back in a rush; their kidnapping, her days of hell locked away in the dark, then being discovered by Sam -- but a Sam who didn't know her and believed they were enemies -- and finally being rescued from near rape and murder by her friend ... or at least the woman who wore her face. At first, she'd thought it some kind of Goa'uld trick to manipulate her, but now she was far less certain. Sam had shown flashes of vicious temper, but also a more familiar kindness, and she seemed to lack the bloodthirsty cruelty of the Goa'uld. A few times Janet had even thought she was breaking through and reaching the woman she knew. She'd held off saying anything, not trusting her own judgment after everything that had happened, and fearing it was an enemy wearing Sam's face trying to trick her into revealing the SGC's secrets.

Despite her doubts, when she looked into blue eyes, she found herself as lost as she'd always been chemistry that had always simmered between them no less potent than ever. Even frightened of who and what Sam was, overwhelmed by the situation, and so weak she could barely move, Janet had felt it. And, unless it was a Goa'uld and one hell of an act -- a possibility she couldn't completely dismiss -- Sam had felt it as well. A shiver slid over her skin as she remembered the feel of hands on her bare skin, the connection they'd always shared affecting her even when she was scared for her life and uncertain who she was dealing with. She'd wanted to trust, wanted to dump all of her thoughts and fears, but knew it wasn't wise until she knew exactly what was going on.

The low voices continued, and she rolled onto her side, careful to be utterly quiet as she struggled to make sense of the quiet conversation. She needed any clues she could get about the situation she found herself in.

The second woman was speaking -- her voice low and smoky like some would-be Lauren Bacall knockoff. Janet could just make out her silhouette where she sat on the edge of the huge bed on the opposite end of the room. "...wanted to apologize for my behavior."

"Maya, I--" Definitely Sam. Janet recognized her voice in an instant. She sat up in bed, a barely visible silhouette from the doctor's position.

"Please ... let me finish," the other woman -- Maya -- murmured. "I'm sorry for angering you." She laughed self-consciously and reached out to stroke Sam's cheek, though it seemed to Janet that there was something calculated about the seemingly tender gesture. "This whole situation ... the fear and uncertainty ... it made me a little crazy." The doctor frowned as those fingers slid down the curve of Sam's throat, her brain refusing the register what was happening in front of her. "I wanted to comfort you the way you always do me ... and I got frustrated when I couldn't ... took my fears out on you. You always make me feel so safe ... and I only wanted to do that for you."

Janet's molars ground together. Now there was a loaded line guaranteed to manipulate Samantha Carter.

"Maya, I really think ... we should...." Strained and husky, Sam's voice trailed off into a soft sigh.

"I love you so much, Terreis. I have from the first moment I saw you." Maya hooked her other hand behind Sam's neck and dragged her close, leaning in to claim her lips in a hungry kiss.

Janet's hands clenched so tight, her nails dug deep furrows into her palms, and she barely managed to contain a tiny cry of pain as the reality of what she was seeing and hearing finally sank in. Her throat tightened as though she was being garroted, and she could barely force her lungs to expand to take in air.

The bastards! The utter goddamned bastards!

She suddenly forgot her uncertainty that it was really Sam, so lost in agony that all she could think about was the other woman's hands on Sam's body, their mouths moving together, bare flesh touching bare flesh. They'd found a way guaranteed to manipulate and control the other woman. She knew just how tender and loyal Sam could be. Even with the limitations on their relationship, the other woman had always made her feel so intensely cared for -- loved -- that it got her through the rough times and made her feel like she had a place in the world. 

And if Janet hadn't been in such agony, she might have even been able to think about it in terms other than how much it hurt her ... might have been able to think, period. It might have even occurred to her that a few loud noises would probably have put a stop to things. But by time that thought struck her, Maya had slid into bed with Sam, and it was too late. Curtains hung around all sides of the bed, and a slender hand reached up to loose the ties that kept them out of the way. Janet was still trying to draw a breath when she heard the soft sounds of their lovemaking, the whispered words, rustling of blankets, and tiny noises made by the slide of flesh on flesh.

Teeth clenched against the anguish rolling over her, threatening to make her entire body seize up and stop functioning altogether, Janet slowly rolled onto her other side, harsh tears burning her eyes, making them sting and itch painfully. A tiny sob escaped her lips as the dark irony struck her, that there were things far worse than the dark cell where she'd just spent entirely too much of her life. She pulled the thin pillow up over her head, trying to block the sounds they were making as the tears escaped her tightly closed eyes to slide down over cheekbones made too prominent by starvation. Much, much worse. Despite the emotional agony, her body was already at its limit, and she couldn't withstand the need for rest for long, particularly after the draining effects of the harsh sobs that wracked her fragile frame. Soon, she fled back into the only refuge left to her ... sleep.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

 

 

 

 

 

Part 4

 

 

Careful not to disturb the woman sprawled asleep in her bed, Terreis slid out from under the covers and shrugged into a heavy robe to ward off the chill clinging to the walls of her chamber, surprised to find herself too keyed up to sleep. She glanced back at Maya, noting the way she took up most of the mattress with a raised brow. Or perhaps simply too uncomfortable ... not because of the lack of sleeping room, but....

She shook her head, throwing off any memories of their lovemaking or the moments when she'd fantasized the body in her arms was that of the outlander. 

Shying from the thought and the complications it could mean for her life, the queen stepped away from the bed, peering out the an open archway. The moon was high. Well past mid of night, she thought as she turned away with a soft sigh, not liking the thought of returning to a bed that suddenly seemed crowded and awkward.

A faint stirring of fabric drew her attention back toward the servant's pallet where the outlander slept buried under the thin blanket. Only her arm was visible where it dangled awkwardly off the edge of the mattress, pinned there by the bruising weight of the manacle that locked her wrist to the bedframe. The queen tugged her robe a little more tightly around her angular frame as it struck her just how cold the room was. With summer turning to fall, night-time temperatures were dipping lower every night, and the blanket on the servant's bed was meant for summer use. Thin as she was, the outlander was probably freezing, her body forced to use reserves it simply didn't have. Without pausing to consider the unease tightening like a band around her chest, she moved to retrieve a couple of additional blankets from a cupboard, then stepped up to the outlander's bedside, pausing as she stared down at the unmoving lump of bedding. Her head was hidden under the pillow, leaving Terreis to wonder if the other woman had heard her with Maya. She didn't know what to make of that thought, horror at the idea or curiosity about what the prisoner might have thought. Neither thought was particularly comfortable, so she dismissed them both, simply hoping the outlander had slept through any noise they might have made. Her gaze slid down to touch on the slender joint encased in the heavy shackles, and a muscle pulsed in her jaw. Sick that such delicacy needed to be encased so cruelly, she barely restrained the urge to unlock the cold steel and free the woman by reminding herself just how dangerous she might well be. As weak as she was, she'd still managed to bloody two guards. Just because she was physically weak didn't mean she was tractable and trustworthy. Terreis couldn't help but wonder if her own desires were somehow the product of the outlander's efforts at manipulation.

Shaking out the blankets, she spread them over her prisoner's too slender form, fanning them out with a light hand to avoid waking her. As weak as the woman was, she needed the sleep. She glanced toward the food tray, frowning as she realized she'd left it too far from the bed for her prisoner to reach either food or liquid if she woke during the night. Startled by the weight of guilt that settled on her shoulders for her thoughtlessness, she pulled a small table over, then retrieved the tray of food and drink and set it on the table. After staring at the unmoving lump made by her prisoner for a long moment, she slipped out, stepping through the large anteroom and into the receiving chamber. There were two guards on the doors, and she nodded as she recognized the taller of them, waving him over.

"My Queen," Rubio said, offering a respectful duck of his head as he joined her.

Indicating he should follow, she stepped back into the anteroom, not wanting the other guard to overhear. "The dungeon guards?" she demanded, her tone clipped.

"I reported their behavior to the master of the watch," he quickly assured her. "He assured me they will be punished."

"Good. I won't have that sort of thing happening. It's unacceptable." They were lucky she hadn't handled their case herself, or they might have found themselves sent to the front where they could face an enemy that could fight back.

The guard nodded in agreement, his look of distaste obvious. "The woman?" he questioned.

"She sleeps," Terreis responded, momentarily distant. After a second, she refocused on the guard. "I'll be busy the next several days ... and she needs close care." She looked pointedly at him. "Can I trust you, Rubio?"

The young man straightened, nodding seriously. "I would like to think so, My Queen."

"I want nothing to happen to her. She's the only tie to the outlanders we've found so far. I need to know what she knows." She folded her hands together at the small of her back. "Unfortunately, I fear for her safety. I cannot stay here and be with her at all times ... there's simply too much to be done, and no one else to do it ... and she's too weak to move...."

"Highness?" Rubio said, clearly confused.

"Is there any female servant you trust completely in the castle?" Terreis responded without explaining further.

"My wife, Elyana," the guard answered without pausing to consider. "She's a maid for Lord Ezri."

The queen nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. "Inform her master that she's to serve here from now on ... I want the two of you to look after the outlander. You can move into the attached servants' quarters. You've seen the condition the woman is in, so you must realize she'll need constant physical care for some time, but I also need you to make sure she's never without a guard, for her safety ... and everyone else's." She turned a sharp gaze on the young man. "Understood?"

He nodded quickly, eager to please. "Yes, My Queen."

"Good, this is very important to me," she said intently, wanting to impress upon him the significance of the assignment. "We must learn why the outlanders are attacking ... and she's the only clue we have. Unfortunately, I fear some might allow emotion to rule their heads, and destroy the one thing that might answer our questions."

The young soldier was silent for a long moment, then nodded very seriously. "I understand, Your Highness ... and I will do everything in my power to see to her safety. You have my word."

"Good," the queen said, liking what she saw in his eyes. "Then you'll do." She nodded in dismissal. "Now, inform your captain that I've personally given you a new assignment, and he's to assign someone to see to your normal duties. Then have him give you key to one of the empty servant's rooms attached to my chambers. Bring your wife ... I want both of you to get some sleep tonight. I'll call you when you're needed in the morning. Also, before you see to those things, please inform the royal metalsmith I wish to see him ... immediately."

Rubio frowned, but didn't argue. "He may need some proof that you sent me, My Queen."

She turned away, crossing to the huge freestanding jewelry box and dug through until she came up with a gold and ruby pin that bore the royal crest. Turning, she tossed it to the guard. "This should do well enough to prove your claim to anyone who questions it."

The young man's eyes bulged as he stared at the thing in his hand. "Aye, My Queen," he agreed, swallowing hard.

"Perform your responsibilities well, Rubio, and that's yours," the queen promised him.

He looked up, disbelief in his eyes. "But this is--"

"Meaningless when compared with loyalty," Terreis said seriously.

He was silent for a long moment, his look almost contemplative. "I shall do my best to earn such trust, My Liege."

"I have faith you shall," she assured him, then nodded toward the doors. "Now, go."

After ducking his head in respectful acknowledgment, he hurried out.

Once he was gone, Terreis turned toward the jewelry cabinet, digging the through the haphazardly arranged collection until she found what she needed. Plucking a beautifully filigreed pair of bracelets from inside, she studied them carefully before deciding they would do. She was just turning away when the royal metalsmith appeared in the doorway, his head respectfully bowed. He was wearing a thin robe over his nightclothes and breathing hard enough to make her certain he'd run the whole way.

"My Queen," the burly smithy said quickly.

"Good, you're here." She offered an approving smile, then added, "My apologies for waking you, but I'm afraid I've a task I need you to see to immediately."

"Of course, My Liege."

Terreis offered him the bracelets and a smile. "Good," she said softly, then quickly described what she needed, well aware of his curious expression, though he had the good sense not to ask.

When she was finished, he considered the problem for a moment, then spoke, his eyes downcast, his manner faintly uneasy. "What you ask isn't simple, Highness. It may take several days to craft."

She nodded her understanding. "Take such time as is needed. I wish this done properly." She offered him an encouraging smile. "However, the sooner you can finish it, the better."

"Of course, My Queen," he assured her quickly. "I'll have this done for you as quickly as I'm able."

Smiling her approval, she nodded to dismiss him. "I have the utmost faith in your abilities."

"I will do my best to live up to your faith, My Queen," he stammered after a moment, then with a few last words, slipped out.

Terreis stared after him for a long moment, her expression thoughtful, then silently turned and stepped back into her bedchamber. Pale eyes touched on the curtain shrouded shadow of her bed while sharp ears picked out the heavy sound of her lover's breathing. Still sleeping, she thought with no small degree of relief, then stepped over to the pallet where her prisoner lay only to realize the woman had rolled onto her side and was leaning on one elbow and staring up at her, her eyes luminous in the faint light.

Not knowing what else to say, the queen nodded to indicate the table. "I moved the food and drink closer ... so you can reach it." She reached out, filling a glass with fresh water. "You're to eat and drink whenever you wake tonight ... but no more than two glasses of liquid ... try to stick with water ... at most one glass of juice ... and no more than ten pieces of food." As starved as she was, to eat or drink too heavily risked stressing her system too much. Better to keep the amounts small for a day or two to let her system adjust. "Understood?"

She half expected a fight, but the outlander nodded. "Yes."

"Good," Terreis exhaled, not knowing what else to say. A moment passed and then she spoke softly. "I'll be in meetings tomorrow, but I've arranged for your care ... the guard who helped rescue you ... and his wife." She leaned down, staring into dark eyes, her expression full of warning. "You will do as they tell you ... and offer them no harm ... or your life will be forfeit."

"I'm not likely to hurt anyone," Janet denied resentfully, her faint movement clanking the manacles gently, "even if I tried."

"Nonetheless, I want you to understand the price if they're hurt in any way. I value the lives of those who serve me and will tolerate no attack on them."

"You needn't worry," the outlander said softly, her eyes dropping to the blankets Terreis had thrown over her while she slept. A hint of a frown touched her brow.

Terreis nodded, satisfied for the moment that her prisoner understood the stakes. "Good," she breathed. She stared at the outlander's free hand as she reached out, fingering the new blankets, clearly noting how much heavier they were than the one she'd started with. The queen held out the water she'd poured. "You should eat and drink now," she said to distract the woman from her curiosity. For reasons she didn't care to consider, she was in no hurry to tell the outlander that she was the one who'd shown her the small kindness.

The hand that reached for the was glass was far steadier than it had been during their earlier confrontation, and a strange combination of fear and challenge glittered in dark eyes. For a moment, Terreis' fingers tightened on the crystal, refusing to release it, and she saw the way both emotions ramped up. It would be a fight, and having had a few hours of sleep, the prisoner was more able to resist now. The queen's teeth gritted as her pulse leapt, the memory of how their last confrontation had gone burning in her blood. It would be so easy to simply--

Maya stirred, rustling the blankets noisily as she rolled over on the mattress.

Both queen and prisoner froze, their eyes swinging toward the heavily shrouded bed.

Reminded of her lover, Terreis abruptly released the glass, yanking her hand back and letting it hang at her side, faintly appalled by her own behavior. Stepping back a pace, she folded her hands together at the small of her back, schooling her expression into one of disinterested command. "Eat and drink," she said very softly without making any further move.

A hint of an ironic smile touched full lips as a gently trembling hand reached out to the tray. "For tomorrow we die," the outlander exhaled, then absently began chewing on the piece of bread she'd picked up. She looked up when Terreis didn't immediately respond. "I hope you weren't expecting me to go for the merry part of that saying."

Frowning, the queen shook her head, not understanding the meaning behind the tangle of words and uncertain how to read her prisoner's mood. "There's no reason for anyone to die," she disagreed at last, her voice low. Considering the culture she came from, it would make sense for Janet to fear that her own life was likely forfeit.

A single, expressive eyebrow rose. "It's a saying," the outlander said after a moment, then quoted, "'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.'" She grabbed another piece of bread off the tray and wolfed it down, then took a long draft from the water glass.

"A rather harsh philosophy," Terreis murmured disapprovingly.

The prisoner looked down at her wrist, intentionally clanking the heavy manacle tying her to the bedframe, her expression grim. "It seemed appropriate."

Suddenly needing to see the look in the other woman's eyes to assess her honesty, Terreis reached out, tucking a finger under Janet Fraiser's chin and drawing her head back up. "You're in no danger of dying," she said very softly, then found the urge to let her fingers explore far too tempting and stroked a velvety cheek. "Particularly if you tell me the things I need to know." She wanted to build a bridge and create some degree of trust. Maybe then, she could find a way to end the conflict destroying so many lives.

Her expression unreadable, Janet shook her head. "Would that I knew," she whispered.

Unable to think of anything to say to that soft, almost mournful whisper, Terreis simply pulled her hand back once again, folding it back into the other one at the small of her back as she watched the other woman eat a few more bites and drain the last of the water she'd poured.

When she was finished, the outlander's eyes slid closed and she sank into the mattress, exhaustion catching up with her once again. She lay unmoving for several moments, until Terreis thought she'd fallen asleep once again, then her eyes snapped open again, and she stared up at the queen. "Who are you really?"

Dark blonde brows drew together in a frown. "Queen Terreis of Arrathonea; the leader of my people ... their defender and protector ... and hopefully someone who can one day look back on her life with some degree of pride in what she's accomplished." When no comment was forthcoming, she quietly asked, "And you? Who are you?"

The woman on the bed closed her eyes, sounding lost and tired as she sighed, "Good question. I'll let you know when I have an answer." This time she did slide into sleep, her weakened body no longer up to the challenge of dealing with her captor or her situation.

The queen stood silently watching her for a long time after she was certain she was asleep again. Finally, she stepped away from the narrow pallet, shoulders slumped, the prospect of returning to her own thick blankets and thicker pillows suddenly less than comfortable for reasons she didn't care to contemplate. Brushing the bed curtains back, she stared at the woman sleeping there, her arms spread as if to establish dominance over the maximum possible amount of space. She started to pull the blankets back, only to freeze. In an instant, numb fingers opened and she dropped the blankets as she turned away.

There were several chairs on the balcony and she tugged the most comfortable looking one over to the front railing. The stars overhead held her attention as she sat, leaning back, her ankles loosely crossed where she hooked them over the low balustrade. Staring at the bright points of light high overhead, she found herself trying to resolve them into some kind of organization in her head, an annoying sense that she should know more about them nagging at her. It suddenly struck her that her people should have noted such thing long before. They should have charted the stars, noted their placements and the patterns of their movement, and tried to understand how it related to their own world. A sudden image of pictures overlaying their arrangement suddenly appeared in her head, but the brief flash didn't match up to what she was looking at and she blinked it away. Still, the idea wasn't bad. Break things into smaller, related groupings, then it would be easier to study them and notate their placement. It could turn the myriad of glittering lights into a manageable system. If she put a team on it....

That thought trailed off almost instantly. A team? A team of what, ministers who could barely find their backsides by searching with both hands? She'd have a better chance of training a wild nerf to the task. Cursing her own inability to be everywhere at once, she shoved the idea to the back of her mind. For now it would have to wait ... just like so many other ideas she had. As she considered her ancestors' historic efforts to consolidate power and knowledge with the elite, she found herself cursing their stupidity. They'd done their jobs so well that even her ministers were next to useless. There were a reasonable number of skilled craftsmen in the kingdom, but their knowledge appeared to be entirely limited to their own trades. In speaking to various of them since the outlander attacks had begun she'd yet to find one who'd considered how their work related to other fields. Even her chief scientist's knowledge was hopelessly compartmentalized. He could follow her orders exactly, but seemed unable to come up with an original idea to save his life. No one ever seemed to see the larger picture or how things related to each other.

No one but her.

And putting it together was her task, she reminded herself. That was why she had been trained from birth in every art and science imaginable. Would that she knew more. Perhaps then she could do more to ease her people's suffering. Her eyes slid closed, and she drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms tightly around her folded legs. The weight of her responsibilities sitting heavily on her shoulders, she sank into herself, wishing there was someone else who could be trusted to handle some measure of it all. Then maybe there'd be a little time left over to explore the complicated weave of questions and musings in her own mind. No, Terreis reminded herself, there was no room for that until they'd driven the outlanders back. Once that was done, then maybe a few people could be taught additional skills to help oversee the necessary rebuilding. Sighing softly, she couldn't contain a flinch as she considered how hard the ministers would likely fight her, Valchon particularly. Sadly, his focus had moved more to vengeance than rebuilding, and he had absolutely no interest in any changes to the established order. As far as he was concerned, the only thing needed was enough weapons to slaughter their attackers ... as if simply killing the attacking soldiers would solve everything. Firstly, it didn't guarantee that more wouldn't come. She had a hard time believing that an army so brutal to its enemies would care overmuch about their own losses. And most importantly, it wouldn't restore lost lives or recover destroyed property. He seemed to have no capacity to understand the damage done to their infrastructure or why it was imperative that it be restored and improved upon, or that weapons were useless if her people had nothing to eat or drink.

Feeling her increasing frustration with her senior minister's refusal to understand that their approach to fighting this enemy needed to be a multi-pronged one, she forced it down, willing herself to step away from the larger problems, if only for a little while.

Stretching her legs back out, she leaned back and said a silent prayer as she tugged her heavy robe a little tighter around her body to ward off the late night chill. Contemplating the stars again, she found herself wondering why she'd never thought about them before. The need to understand their nature seemed so obvious that she couldn't imagine why she'd missed it for so long. It was tempting to blame the distraction of the outlanders and their attacks, but they hadn't been going on more than a few weeks, and she'd overlooked them her whole life. Wondering what else she was missing, she sighed softly, startled when a mental image of the outlander flickered in her mind's eye. Only in the momentary flash, she was healthy and strong, her hair caught back from her face, a light-hearted smile curving her lips, hand outstretched and touching....

Frowning, she reached out, trailing a finger down her left forearm. The outlander's hand had rested there in the momentary hallucination. She could almost feel the warmth and weight. She closed her eyes tightly, shuddering under a surge of almost painful desire, not just carnal want, but the desire for everything ... to see that smile, to feel the heat of her touch, to know her trust and faith. Her fingers curled against her sleeve as if to stroke velvety flesh, heat sliding through her veins with paralyzing intensity. A soft groan escaped her lips as her body throbbed in time with her suddenly raging heartbeat. Her head swung toward the door, fingers clenching on her sleeve where she'd imagined the other woman touching her. It needn't be what Maya had suggested -- all pain and torture. The woman would fight, but Terreis could overcome the fear ... teach her that kindness was possible. It would be like taming a wild animal -- as far as she could tell the outlanders were little better -- a matter of simply containing panicked struggles and offering assurances until the woman accepted she was safer and more cared for than she'd ever been in her life. Once she understood it was for the best, Janet would surrender any knowledge she had. Terreis closed her eyes tightly, images of their bodies twined together in the sheets making her tremble with need. She could have it all that way; help her people and have the woman she--

"No," she hissed, resisting the tempting impulses, her teeth gritted against confusing array of feverish sensations and emotions, none of them even remotely sensible. She had a lover ... one who had supported her through difficult times. The outlander was her enemy and nothing more. "It's not real." Hands fisting tightly, Terreis fought the illogical impulses and desires. What had that woman done to her? Was it some purposeful effort to manipulate her? If so, she feared it might be more successful than any of them could afford. Even now, when her body should have been sated by Maya's lovemaking, she burned, the ache so severe it was hard to keep her hands from floating over her body in search of some small measure of satisfaction.

"No," she hissed again, breathing slowly and deeply to control herself. She didn't know where the desire had come from, but it was just an impossible phantom with no bearing on her life. She had no business thinking such things, even in idle fantasy.

She tipped her head back on her shoulders, concentrating on the stars with effort. Try as she might to lose herself in their distant beauty, the image of impossibly deep eyes and an affectionate smile were still with her when she finally slid off to sleep some time later.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

"Just out of curiosity...."

Terreis snapped awake in response to the sharp voice, blinking against the early morning sunlight.

"...is there a reason there's a stranger sleeping in our room ... or did you decide you wanted an audience for our ... lovemaking?"

It took the queen a moment to throw of the haze of sleep and process the situation as she realized she'd slept the rest of the night on the balcony, it was morning, and an archly smiling Maya was standing over her, her arms folded, her expression unreadable.

"Or," her lover continued, her tone bland, "perhaps you decided one lover wasn't quite enough."

"No," the queen managed to croak at last, her throat raspy after the better part of a night sleeping in the cold. Unhooking her feet from the balustrade, she pushed upright in the chair, then brushed tousled bangs out of her eyes. "She's a prisoner. I found her being attacked in the dungeons, and felt it best to bring her here for her own safety."

"I see," Maya responded, drawing both words out, something dangerous glittering in her eyes. "Since when is it the queen's responsibility to see to prisoners?" she demanded.

Rubbing the back of her neck to release muscles stiff from the uncomfortable sleeping position, Terreis pushed to her feet, wondering who was in charge in her chambers. "Since that prisoner might have information about the outlander attacks. She's the outlander woman who was captured."

Maya frowned and her head canted to one side as her response sank in. "Well," she said at last, "and here I felt guilty for my behavior last night. I gather you decided to ... question ... her personally?" she added, putting an ugly spin on the words that left no doubt about their meaning. Her gaze raked over Terreis. "And I thought you didn't have it in you."

The queen shook her head, denying the accusation, though a flicker of guilt tightened her stomach muscles as she remembered the temptation she'd barely managed to resist. "She was attacked, would have been raped, probably murdered as well. I didn't feel it was safe to leave her there."

A sensual smile twisted her lover's full lips. "I see ... or perhaps you decided to follow family tradition," she drawled, taunting Terreis.

"I said I brought her here to avoid a rape," the queen said pointedly, "not commit one." She hadn't betrayed her lover, but she wasn't certain that would be true had the outlander showed the faintest hint of willingness. There was something about the woman that triggered her emotions in a way she couldn't even pretend to understand.

"Was it sweet kisses and silky words then?" her servant demanded.

Terreis flinched, molars grating with frustrated anger. "It was nothing of the kind," she ground out, trying to forget that a part of her had wanted just that. "She was half dead with starvation and dehydration. I simply brought her here where she'd be safe." Maya didn't need to know about anything else.

"And gave her a free show while you were at it," the smaller woman drawled, dark eyes flashing knowingly. "Tell me, love, did it excite you knowing she could listen in?"

"As she was more or less unconscious the moment she fell into bed, I doubt she noticed," the queen shot back, angry at having her word doubted, even though she had her own questions about that. "I tried to tell you, but you weren't listening at the time." She didn't add that she'd already been half aroused and had needed the release ... though it had been little help in killing her desire for the prisoner.

Maya flinched at the anger in her queen's voice, though she didn't quite have the self-control to back down. "So, you played heroine for the outlander," she sneered.

The resentment made little sense to Terreis. Where had the sweet, kind woman who had been her lover gone? "I removed her from a dangerous situation, yes," she responded, then turned a sharp look on her lover. "Would you sleep more easily in my bed if I hadn't? Would it comfort you to know you've made love to someone who could leave another human being to be treated to that kind of brutality?"

Her servant had no ready answer for that and spun away, staring out at the waking city. She leaned forward, hands braced on the balustrade. "And did you get any of the answers you were looking for?"

"No," Terreis said, wanting to accept the apparent truce. She had no desire to see her lover snapping and angry, or feel the ugly words tearing at their emotions. "She refused to say anything of any value." She let out a tiny bitter sigh, once again wondering if the outlander had somehow conspired to manipulate her desire. Had it been a way of avoiding answering questions or trying to gain influence? If so, it was doomed to failure, she reminded herself with fierce resolve. The outlander was her enemy, and while she wouldn't see her tortured, she had no intention of allowing her to gain an upper hand.

"Ah," her servant drawled and turned to face her, leaning back against the balustrade. A sensual smile curved her lips as she eyed her mistress, dark gaze running from head to toe, then back up again. "Perhaps you should question her again."

"I assure you, I will," Terreis said impatiently, the look in dark eyes making her edgy. In the last few weeks, Maya had gotten that look every time she'd gone for emotional blood, each time with increasing ferocity.

"Such determination," Maya paused for effect before continuing, "to protect your people."

"Yes," the queen confirmed, eyeing her lover suspiciously.

"Ready to do anything for them," her handmaid added, the words half a question, half statement."

"You know that," Terreis said more softly, uncertain where this was leading.

"And, last night, did you seduce the outlander on behalf of your people?" her lover demanded.

The queen made an annoyed sound in the back of her throat. "I told you--" she began, but Maya interrupted her.

"Yes, I know, nothing happened." One eyebrow rose as she considered the taller woman, then a half smile twisted her lips. "I thought you were a bit forceful last night." Knowledge gleamed in dark eyes, challenging the queen to deny the inference.

A dull flush crawled over the queen's cheekbones, and she drew breath to deny the charge, only to run out of air as her lover continued.

"Were you pretending I was her when you held my hands over my head and thrust your fingers inside--"

"Don't," Terreis breathed, unable to summon any strength for the word.

She saw Maya's expression shift as she correctly read the guilt in blue eyes. Her lip curled, her expression a strange cross between aroused and jealous. "Considering the danger to our people, you really shouldn't have wasted all that energy on me .... and since you've been unsuccessful in learning the outlander's secrets so far, perhaps you should consider some new techniques."

"Maya," the queen regained her breath to whisper.

The servant held up a hand in a silencing motion. "No, no, my love, I want to help." She straightened, pacing slowly around her mistress. "And I do know of one or two things you might not have thought of."

Terreis glanced at her lover, eyes hard and angry, lips tightly pursed. "Stop this," she growled, not liking very dark turn the conversation was taking.

Maya laughed very softly, pacing around her lover, eyeing the curves visible in the open vee of her robe. "Do you know," she began almost conversationally, though her eyes gleamed with something that sent an unpleasant shiver down Terreis' spine, "that you can get your entire hand inside a woman's body?" A wicked smile curved her lips as Terreis froze before the darkly seductive words, unwanted images searing themselves in her brain. "If you're relaxed, it can be quite pleasant, but if you're tense," she drew a finger down her lover's upper arm, stroking lightly, "it's quite excruciating."

And then the queen did back up a pace, driven back by the wolfish, predatory smile directed her way, feeling vaguely trapped by the smaller woman, shocked beyond measure by what she was hearing. There was nothing of the woman she knew in the look directed her way.

"Of course," Maya continued, "if you like that sort of thing, they say even that can be quite delicious." She laughed softly, the sound setting off prickles at the nape of Terreis' neck. The servant shook her head slowly, mock sympathy in her eyes. "Your little outlander doesn't look the type for those games though." She reached out, drawing her lover's long-boned hand up between them. Terreis could only stare, so shocked, she didn't even resist. "In which case, I'd recommend you tie her to the bed ... or I can help you if you like ... start like you did last night, but don't stop at two ... add a third ... and a fourth ... then your thumb...." As she spoke, she folded each of the queen's fingers down into a fist. "Then thrust." She marked a point well past the taller woman's wrist. "To here." Her smile turned positively vicious. "She'll beg to tell you what she knows."

Throwing off the sick paralysis, Terreis yanked her arm back, shaking her head stiffly, her voice little more than a tight rasp. "No."

"Oh, I think so," Maya disagreed as though she'd misunderstood Terreis' meaning. "You have rather large hands ... and my guess is you could draw blood and screams both--" She smiled, clearly relishing the idea.

"Stop it," the queen hissed, feeling physically ill at the things her lover was saying. "Why are you doing this?" she demanded furiously and pulled back, spinning away momentarily. "Saying these things?" She shook her head. "This isn't you." She turned back to face the smaller woman, struggling to resolve the woman she knew her lover to be with the things she'd just said. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You've never taken pleasure in cruelty before ... and there's no need for it. I can protect you without that sort of barbarity ... and if you want to push me away, there are easier ways."

Something glittered in her lover's eyes, and she abruptly spun away, gripping the railing around the balcony once again. "Pushing you away," she repeated almost inaudibly, then turned back, a bitter expression twisting normally soft features. "Would that I could." Then suddenly, she paled, lips moving for a moment, though no sound escaped them. She looked up at Terreis, fear glittering in her eyes for the briefest of moments, then straightened her shoulders, her expression clearing, bitterness turning to apology in an instant. "I-I'm sorry," she stammered quickly, "I-I didn't mean any of it. I don't know what's come over me." Her throat muscles rippled as she swallowed hard, and dark eyes briefly swept away from the queen. "I know you would never...." She trailed off and was silent for a moment before continuing, her eyes fastened submissively on the floor. "I've just heard about all of the things they've done to ... to our people ... the savagery ... and I ... I was angry that you would protect one of them." She risked a look up through thick lashes. "And perhaps afraid of the risk in having her here. If you wish to banish me from your chambers, I'll understand."

Her anger draining away in the face of her handmaid's obvious regret and fear, Terreis relaxed somewhat and released a heavy sigh. "No," she assured the other woman, her voice coming out less certain than she intended. She looked away, reminding herself of their history together, of all the times when Maya had supported her during difficult challenges, offering nothing but kindness and comfort. If she was having a hard time now, it wasn't the time to show an unforgiving stance. "We've all been under considerable stress ... and it keeps coming out in unpredictable and often unpleasant ways." She saw her lover stiffen faintly, clearly understanding the meaning behind the words. She was willing to forgive, yes, but that didn't mean Maya hadn't gone much too far with her words. "But you have nothing to fear. She's chained ... and I've arranged for a guard and a maid to care for her. You need have nothing to do with her. They'll see to her health and make sure she cannot escape. I promise, I won't allow her to harm anyone, but I need her alive to learn what she knows."

Her handmaid nodded, her manner passive and nervous enough that Terreis found herself feeling guilty for her anger. "Again, my apologies, My Liege ... my behavior was unacceptable."

The submissive use of her title only increased the queen's guilt. She'd never wanted that sort of obsequious behavior in or out of bed, and had never allowed it when they were alone together. "No," she disagreed quietly, "but you did go too far ... please don't do so again." She carefully refrained from making it a command, wanting it to be between lovers, not queen and subject.

"Of course not, Highness."

Dark eyes remained downcast, and Terreis reached out to gently stroke a velvety cheek. "There's no need for titles," she whispered, "and no need to worry that I'll banish you. But, please, stop this outrageous behavior. With everything going on, I'm not always going to have time to pander to your worries ... not when so many things are happening. I've always tried to treat you with respect. Try to remember that."

The maid's eyes remained fastened on the floor, but she nodded. "Of course, Highness," she said very softly.

Teeth grating, torn between frustration and guilt, Terreis stroked her lover's cheek, then slid a hand back into her hair, tugging her head up and dropping a soft kiss on her lips. "Try to remember my name by this evening," she chided gently, then backed up a step. "In the meantime, I'm afraid I have several meetings I must attend." She glanced toward the doors into her chambers. "However, since you're so worried about the outlander, you're released from any duties in my quarters for the day." She stroked her lover's temple with her thumb. "Please trust me that I'm doing this for all our sakes. If I can find a way to stop the outlanders, isn't it worth any difficulties?"

She was surprised when brown eyes searched her face for a long moment, then her maid shook her head. "You truly mean that," she said very softly, sounding surprised by the discovery.

"Of course I mean it," Terreis said instantly. "I know this is hard for you ... and frightening, but I cannot simply ignore my responsibilities ... not even for you." She stroked her lover's silken cheek again, wanting to reassure her and offer some measure of comfort. "Now, relax. Take the day off from everything and just look after yourself." Another soft caress followed, then she pulled back. "But I really do need to ready myself ... and speak to the prisoner's guard before I leave."

Maya simply nodded, her expression bland, though it took on an assessing cast as the queen stepped back into her apartments.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

Hoping to relieve some of the ache in her wrist caused by the press of sharp steel against the ridge of the bone along the outer edge of her forearm, Janet shifted into a new position. Her shoulder and hip both protested the movement, the bruises acquired from the guards the night before causing a fresh wave of discomfort and setting off a sympathetic throb behind her eyes. "Devil or the deep blue sea," she muttered under her breath, trying to decide which pain was worse. Finally deciding that the answer was the one in her stomach, she pushed up on her elbow, reaching out to empty the last of the water from the jug into the glass Sam had left. Despite the temptations offered by the food, she was well aware that her state of dehydration was far more dangerous than the lack of food. Just managing to down the jug over the course of the night had done wonders for her clarity of thought even though she was still as weak as a day old kitten.

As she sipped the lukewarm water, she scanned the room, her gaze finally coming to a rest on the elegantly clad figure standing just inside the doors to the apartment. Wearing a blue-violet gown trimmed in gold and magenta, Sam stood perfectly straight, a gold and diamond circlet in her hair, looking every inch the queen she claimed to be as she stood speaking to a uniformed guard -- the one who'd been with her in the dungeons, Janet thought, though she wasn't sure -- and a rather pretty young woman who was dressed in a simple brown and grey gown. Maya? No, she didn't think so. Her body language was all wrong, and she kept flashing adoring glances at the guard. Maya -- whoever she was -- wouldn't have taken that risk in front of Sam. Pain rippled through her as she remembered what she'd been an unwilling audience to, but she forced it down. It was a luxury she couldn't afford, not with both of their lives on the line.

As she watched, unable to tell what they were saying at that distance, Janet couldn't help but wonder at her own sanity. There appeared to be no doubt in Sam's mind -- or anyone else's -- just who she was. The doctor would have been convinced she was nuts if not for the memory of the unwanted sexual awareness that had seared the air between them the night before. What were the chances of that sort of intensity existing between herself and a stranger? Almost none, if previous experience was any gauge. Only Sam had ever made her feel that melting, overwhelming desire to completely lose herself in another person, and she was comfortably certain the same was true of the other woman.

And that desire, unleashed by a dangerous mix of emotions had driven Sam until she'd been frighteningly close to doing something completely against her nature. Swallowing hard, Janet felt her pulse accelerate as she remembered those moments when her friend's hands had slid over her body, containing any struggles with ease, then touching with possessive hunger. She'd been frightened, even terrified, but at the same time some part of her hand been certain the other woman wouldn't truly hurt her. The soft words and promises of safety had nearly been her undoing, drawing her in until she was close to breaking down in total surrender. Sam was one of the few people in her life that she'd always been able to trust and it was hard to resist the need to lean against someone when she was so alone and so beaten down. Then Sam's mood had shifted, anger simmering in her eyes at being refused, her words turning from promises to intimidation. That dark edge had terrified her, leaving her wondering if it really was a Goa'uld trying to trick her. The only thing that gave Janet any comfort was the fact that the other woman hadn't been able to follow through on the threats to send her back to the dungeons or hand her over for torture.

She didn't want to think about what had happened then -- Sam and the other woman -- it hurt too much.

Then later, when the blonde had woken Janet from the sleep she'd used to escape the sounds of lovemaking that were like knives on her flesh, there'd been something else in familiar blue eyes; pity, and something else sad and regretful, as though she sensed the wrongness of it all, but couldn't quite see the truth. She'd thought about trying to reach the woman she believed was still hidden in there, only to back off, remembering the anger and afraid of triggering it once again. Until she had a better idea of what was going on and could be certain it wasn't a Goa'uld trick, she couldn't risk exposing her knowledge. Better to let them wonder what she knew. Besides, even it it was still Sam, brainwashed as she was, it was just too dangerous to challenge her when she had that much power, and that much rage directed anyone she perceived as her enemy. A divide Janet, unfortunately, found herself on the wrong side of. Though Sam had been oddly eager to believe she'd been forced into whatever hideous acts she'd supposedly committed, there was no guarantee that would last. Sam had been too erratic for her to rely on anything. Janet stared at the woman she'd come to trust as she had no one else in her life in an effort to resolve everything she knew into some kind of coherent picture, but it just didn't make sense.

As if sensing she was the subject of her prisoner's thoughts, the blonde turned abruptly, her gaze sweeping the room until it clashed with Janet's. A hint of a frown creased her brow, then she waved for the guard and the woman to follow her as she made a beeline toward the servant's pallet. She didn't bother to see if her servants followed, clearly confident that her word would be obeyed. And it was, Janet noted. Understandable. She couldn't even look away from the intense gaze directed her way.

"I'll see to it that more food and drink are delivered," Sam said as she drew close and her eyes fell on the empty pitchers and nearly denuded tray.

Peering up into blue eyes, Janet swallowed hard as she fought the urge to grab the other woman and shake her, scream at her, beat on her, anything to force her to acknowledge who she really was, and who she really loved.

Now, there was an idea almost guaranteed to get her tossed back in the dungeons or handed over to the interrogators. Whoever, or whatever this woman was, she and everyone around her apparently believed her to be a queen, one with near absolute power by the look of it. So much for democratic ideals. Pushed too hard, the doctor had no doubt, she could lose control -- she'd come close enough the night before -- and if that happened, Janet was well aware that she would be the one to pay the price. "Thank you," she exhaled at last, opting to stick with an attitude of cooperation.

Icy blue eyes remained focused on Janet, the slight tilt of a dark blonde brow indicating that Sam wasn't buying the submissive act. "Keeping you alive is in the interest of my people," she said, pointedly putting it on an impersonal footing.

Janet didn't respond, simply dropped her eyes, staring at her chained wrist as though it might answer the questions burning through her brain.

"And in that interest," Sam continued when her prisoner didn't respond, "I've assigned Rubio," she nodded to indicate the guard, "and his wife, Elyana to see to both your safety and your continued presence."

An auburn brow rose in sarcastic arch. "Because I'm likely to run so far in my current condition," Janet muttered under her breath, unable to quite contain a caustic response. She continued to glare at the heavy manacle as she fought a dangerous flow anger, well aware that she couldn't afford to let emotion rule her actions, but hard pressed to control herself.

"You might well," Sam murmured, her voice dropping low, her tone strangely intimate as she laid gentle fingers along the curve of Janet's jaw, drawing her head back up and holding her gaze. "I suspect I'd be a fool to underestimate your determination." Her tone hardened fractionally. "And I've seldom been counted a fool."

Fighting the mesmerizing impact of the look directed her way, Janet flicked a look sideways, tension running through her as she spotted a slender figure watching them from a doorway that appeared to lead to an outdoor balcony. Small and slightly built, with dark eyes and almost waist-length black hair, she had to be Maya. Janet was certain of it. As their gazes locked for the briefest second, a shiver of apprehension slid down the doctor's spine at the cold-blooded, assessing look she glimpsed before it was hidden behind an impassive wall. Then the fingers on her jaw slid under the ridge of bone with added pressure, forcing her attention back to Sam. Vivid blue eyes locked with brown, holding Janet prisoner even as that fine-boned hand gentled and trailed up over the rounded curve of her cheek, stroking possessively. "Remember that cooperation is in your best interests."

The anger coiling dangerously tight, ready to explode despite her best efforts, Janet clenched her hands tighter, barely resisting the urge to do something very stupid and demand to know how Sam could do that to her. In all the years since they'd recognized their feelings for each other, they'd both held off from any other serious relationships, too afraid of hurting one another to take even that comfort. Some part of her was furious with her friend for not somehow knowing it was all wrong. "And you care so much about my interests," she whispered very softly, unable to contain the bitterness.

Sam's head canted to one side as she considered the comment for a moment before answering. "You are my prisoner." As if she couldn't quite control the urge to touch further, her fingers danced back into the baby-fine hair at Janet's temple. "That makes you my responsibility."

"Responsibility or property?" Janet challenged and yanked her head back in an effort to break the tenuous contact, resentful of the possessive manhandling, but also dangerously aware of the temptation to simply trust that it really was Sam, and she would be safe in her care.

Her fingers still tangled loosely in auburn hair, Sam worked them deeper into the fine strands in reaction to the defiance, tightening her grip just enough to keep Janet from shaking her hand off. "Both," she said softly, her thumb stroking her prisoner's temple lightly. "Now, be a good girl, and do as you're told." Her fingers tightened another fraction, just enough to demonstrate her power without causing actual pain. "And don't make me force you to my hand."

A muscle pulled convulsively along the curve of Janet's jaw, but she managed to restrain the sharp words on the edge of her tongue. No matter the situation or who was doing it, it wasn't in her to gracefully handle that kind of treatment.

"Better," the Sam who wasn't Sam murmured, well aware of her prisoner's barely suppressed anger. She glanced back at Rubio and Elyana. "I have meetings to attend all day, but I want you to contact me if she gives you any trouble. In the meantime, you have permission to deal with her as need be." The look she directed toward the young guard was hard, silently reminding him of the reward she'd promised. "And I want to be completely apprized of her behavior this evening."

"Yes, My Queen," he said quickly, his chin ducking in automatic acknowledgment. "We will, of course, do our best to live up to your expectations."

"I'm sure you'll do fine," she assured him, then looked back at Janet. "And you ... remember that I value those who serve me."

Janet had to fight a sudden, hysterical burst of laughter that threatened to bubble up. With no other response, she simply shrugged.

"When I return this evening, I expect to hear how cooperative you've been," Sam said, still fingering silky hair very lightly.

Another silent, resentful shrug was the only response. Finally, Sam had little choice but to release her loose hold and pull her hand back.

The instant she regained that small measure of freedom, Janet yanked her head back, glaring defiantly. She was surprised when the faintest hint of a smile touched Sam's mouth.

"Rubio ... Elyana," the blonde murmured, then turned away. She froze as her eyes fell on Maya where she stood watching.

As Janet watched the dark haired woman's bland look wavered slightly, something much darker glimmering there before she managed to hide it once again.

"Maya," Sam said, her tone vaguely placating as she waved for the smaller woman to join her. She reached into a pocket, drawing out a jangling coin purse of some kind, which she offered. "The markets are open today. Enjoy yourself ... buy something pretty ... then feel free to spend the rest of the day in the gardens." She stroked Maya's cheek very lightly, though as her fingers contacted soft skin, she flicked a glance back toward the silently watching servants and prisoner out of the corner of her eye. The odd tableau lasted only a second or two, and then she tugged Maya out with her as she left in a hurry.

Janet stared after the two women, her shoulders suddenly slumping with exhaustion, tears threatening to burn her eyes and clog her throat. Teeth gritted, eyes tightly shut, she fought the sudden surge of emotion, completely forgetting that she wasn't alone.

"I'll ... uh ... see to the food our queen ordered," a woman's voice, soft and faintly shy sounding, broke in on Janet's agony. Dark eyes slid open as the young woman Sam had introduced as Elyana backed up a step, a frown darkening her expression. She glanced at her husband a little uncertainly. "And also some additional clothes ... a nightgown and a dress at least."

He nodded, and she hurried out, all but fleeing the room.

Rubio looked at Janet, his head canting to one side as he considered her. He nodded in the direction Elyana had disappeared. "She has a soft heart," he said very softly, his body language that of a protective husband worried for his wife, rather than a member of the queen's guard.

The doctor simply tipped her head back on her shoulders, heaving an exhausted sigh. "You needn't worry," she said softly. "Whatever the accusations, I'm no danger to anyone." A few tears she couldn't quite control leaked back into her hair, and she dashed them away with her free hand.

A moment passed, then the guard cleared his voice. "Our queen is a just woman. She has no desire to harm you," he offered by way of comfort.

"I know," Janet whispered, her voice broken by ragged gasps. "But that doesn't mean she won't anyway."

He had nothing to say to that, so he simply stood there, hands folded together at the small of his back until his wife returned, several articles of clothing thrown over one shoulder, a tray of food and drink balanced between her hands.

The young woman ducked in a tiny curtsy as she set the tray down on the table near Janet's bed. Blue eyes rose from the table and she carefully studied what she could see of the doctor's too-thin frame, her expression sympathetic. "My Lady," she said formally, "my name is Elyana, and I'm here to help you in any way you need."

Janet frowned, blinking as if to clear her vision while she tried to decide if she'd heard right. Several acid replies danced on the tip of her tongue only to dry up in response to the earnest look in the young woman's eyes. The kindness was nearly her undoing after everything that had happened, and she shaded her face with her hand, needing a moment to gather herself together.

"It will be all right," the young woman soothed.

Which only made not falling apart that much harder. The hand caught in the manacle tightened into a white knuckled fist as she fought the surge of emotion she'd somehow been able to contain in Sam's presence. "How?" she choked at last, unable to see any solution.

"In the short time we've served in the royal palace, the queen has proven herself a kind and just woman," Rubio spoke up. Never one to enjoy a woman's pain, he couldn't help but flinch over the obvious distress felt by the prisoner, even if he knew from his queen that she was part of an effort to attack his people. He'd never really thought about royalty before receiving the commission -- not beyond considering them generally useless -- but he'd seen how she was driving herself to try and repair things and protect everyone, not just the rich and powerful. "I'm certain she'll treat you fairly if you do as she wishes."

A tiny, half hysterical laugh escaped the doctor's lips, hopelessness momentarily threatening to overcome her. "Except I can't." She ran her free hand through her hair, pulling it back from her face and shaking her head, her gaze unfocused.

A long moment passed. Husband and wife traded looks, and finally, Elyana reached for the glass on the table and began filling it from the pitcher. "Perhaps you should eat now," she suggested tactfully.

Swallowing hard in an effort to force down some of the overwhelming emotion, well aware that she wasn't thinking clearly, Janet nodded. "Thank you," she said very softly, appreciating the kindness more than she knew how to say.

With little more to say, she ate in silence, then collapsed back into the mattress and was asleep in moments, still too weak to remain conscious for long at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 5

 

 

 

 

Valchon was just leaving his quarters when Maya appeared around the corner. Before he could say a word, she braced a hand on his chest and shoved him inside his apartments, kicking the door shut in their wake.

Furious, the minister grabbed the hand on his chest, twisting hard even as he backhanded her with his other hand. "I told you not to come here again," he snarled, twisting her wrist until she toppled to her knees.

"I came with important news," she hissed, eyes filling with pained tears. "The outlander--"

"Is dead by now," Valchon interrupted on a satisfied note, "and so hardly a concern."

"Not exactly," Maya gasped the sound melting into a whimper when he twisted harder on her wrist.

"What are you babbling about, woman?" the minister demanded. "The outlander is dead. I arranged for it myself."

"Actually, she's in your queen's chambers," Maya told him, a flicker of triumph filtering through the pain as she realized she'd caught him by surprise. That was an unusual enough for her to take more than a little pleasure at having one up on him for once. "Apparently she went on a little mission to the dungeons last night ... and found the woman being beaten and on the verge of being raped by the guards." Enjoying the power the knowledge gave her, she managed a mocking laugh in spite of the physical pain. "Your precious queen played the heroine ... and the outlander is being looked after by one of her personal guards. Quite doggedly loyal by the look of him." She cried out as Valchon twisted her wrist harder, punishing her for the moment's triumph at his expense.

Snarling a curse under his breath, he shoved her back, not caring that she fell hard enough to draw a grunt of pain. He folded his arms across his chest, glaring at her. "If you're lying..." he snarled, "trying to get my attention--"

"I'm not," Maya insisted. "She's there." She rubbed her wrist in an effort to soothe away the worst of the pain, comforting herself with the fact that it would have been worse if he'd found out later. Not getting him important information would have given him a far greater excuse to deliver a harsh punishment than simply being the bearer of bad tidings.

"Dammit," he cursed, pacing in a tight circle as more curses and colorful invectives filled the air. Suddenly he stopped and spun, head canting to one side as he stared speculatively at his mistress. "You'll have to do it," he said abruptly.

Still massaging the badly wrenched joint, she pushed up to sit on the edge of a nearby couch, peering at him with a look of confusion. "Do what?"

"Kill the outlander bitch, of course," he said as though the answer was obvious.

Maya blinked, her mouth hanging open for a moment. "No," she said when she could find the breath to speak again.

Dangerous fury glittered in Valchon's eyes. "Excuse me?" he demanded as though he hadn't heard correctly.

She shook her head, eyes showing her panic at defying him. "I won't do it."

He crossed the distance between them in two long strides, grabbing her by the upper arm and hauling her to her feet. "You dare refuse your master?"

"She's got a guard on the woman," Maya gasped in a panic. "I'll never be alone with her. She'd would never allow--"

Valchon shook her like a rag doll, rattling her teeth. "For god's sake, you're fucking the deluded idiot. Use your hold over her to make her do what you want." His eyes slid over her body like a perverse caress. "Surely you've enslaved her with your body by now."

Maya rejected the idea, waving it off in a panic. Her hold over the other woman was fading day by day, and everything she'd tried in an effort to increase her control had failed miserably. With the powerful ministers she'd previously taken to her bed, she'd always known exactly how to make them mad with lust and bend them to her wishes -- or at least she had until Valchon. With him, her efforts at manipulation had been turned on their edge -- something she'd found almost painfully exciting in the beginning. But their new queen? She had yet to find the key to controlling her in or out of bed ... and her latest efforts to use the woman's lust against her had only worsened things. "No, I can't. She's ordered the guard specifically to protect the witch. It wouldn't make sense for me to ask her to change that."

He rattled her teeth again. "Just order him out and do it then."

Maya shook her head and kept shaking it. "I can't. I'm only a servant ... with no right to countermand her orders. If I did that ... then the woman wound up dead...." More panicked head shaking. "She'd know I did it on purpose."

"Just tell her the outlander attacked you," he dismissed her worries with an impatient wave.

"She'd kill me," she insisted, amazed to find herself every bit as afraid of their new "queen" as her master. She'd seen the possessive look in those blue eyes and noted the way "Terreis" couldn't stop touching her prisoner. Instinct told her that no matter what fiction Valchon had been able to make her believe, she'd destroy anyone who harmed the outlander. She had no intention of finding out first hand if she was right about her suppositions. None at all.

"Dammit, you stupid celanth--"

"If you want her dead, do it yourself," Maya shot back at him, amazed at her own temerity now that her life was on the line. "You're her senior minister. The guards are more likely to take your orders than mine. They'd also believe whatever story you tell to explain the murder ... as would your queen." He paled ever so slightly, leading her to suspect that he at least suspected the danger in touching the prisoner. "Afraid to do it?" she taunted, crying out a millisecond later as he backhanded her with enough force to send her careening into the couch.

"I'm not afraid of anything," he snapped, though the way his hands fisted tightly at his sides threatened to reveal the claim as a lie. "Certainly not our queen." A tight smile curved his lips as he forced his normal self-confidence back into place. "She's mine to control."

"Then kill the outlander yourself," Maya taunted, using the one weapon she had to make him back off. She'd learned through hard experience that challenging his manhood was one guaranteed way to control him -- virtually the only weapon she had in her arsenal where he was concerned, and one easily overplayed. It had backfired on her more than once.

He ignored her tone, pulling back and regaining control. A long moment passed, then he straightened his shoulders, his gaze becoming distant. "Perhaps it is for the best if I do it," he mused out loud. The tight smile drew his mouth into a ghastly mockery of humor. "After all, our queen would never question the word of her senior minister." His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides as though they were wrapped around a human throat; the only sign of his inner battle for control. Suddenly they stretched one more time, then hung, relaxed, at his side as he laughed very softly. "Or perhaps there's someone else who can do it." A sly smile curved his mouth, then se abruptly refocused on her, a feral look in his eyes. "Get out ... and don't come here again until you're prepared to do whatever you're told." He smoothed the front of his doublet, wiping away any wrinkles the same way he banished the viciousness from his expression. "And now I have several things to see to before my morning meeting."

Maya shivered, torn between relief and horror at what she saw in his expression. It freed her from the responsibility for doing his dirty work, but the utter boredom was far more terrifying than hatred or rage would have been. At least those emotions would have given some reason for his murderous intent ... and perhaps some sense that others might avoid his wrath by never invoking those dark impulses. But his total ease with killing for the slightest reason meant that anyone could wind up on his hit list if their death became expedient. A shiver slid down Maya's spine as she found herself wondering how soon her death might become expedient. She knew so many of his secrets.

As if reading her mind, he offered the chilliest of smiles. "You may go now."

Dismissed, she had no choice but to leave, though she was wise enough to wonder if perhaps it was time to flee the royal castle at the first opportunity. No, that would only draw his attention ... and the attention of his enforcers that much sooner. She'd made her deal with the devil. Now she was stuck with it.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Terreis stood in the entry to her chambers, a folder of papers clutched tightly in one hand, her expression grim. It had been one holy hell of a long day. And one holy hell of a bad one. The ministers had all been on her about minor matters and then Valchon had brought the latest reports from the field, including a detailed accounting of the farm where the outlander had been taken, complete with pictures that would forever be burned in her memory. He'd said little. He hadn't had to. The complete report had said everything necessary, making a mockery of her attempts to reason with the prisoner the night before. The outlanders barely qualified as human if they were capable of such savagery.

It didn't help in the least to find the woman comfortably ensconced in the servant's bed, her every need seen to by the servants assigned to see to her care, all the food and drink she could want waiting for her. Fire burned in the queen's eyes as she thought of all the victims -- all the dead and injured, and those who'd loved them, all the homes burned, the fields destroyed.

And all the while, her enemy slept safe and unconcerned, protected by the soldiers she would happily kill, her belly full of food grown and cooked by her victims. A tiny, inhuman growl escaped the queen's lips, the soft sound drawing Rubio's attention.

The guard looked over, standing straighter when he recognized his queen. He was standing near the narrow pallet where the prisoner slept while his wife was curled into a nearby chair, her head down as she read a book borrowed from the bookshelves. She looked up as Rubio cleared his throat pointedly, then jumped to her feet when she realized the queen had returned. Drawing breath to speak, she changed her mind when her husband held out his hand in a silencing gesture.

"Your Highness," Rubio said formally with a faint duck of his head as she drew closer. "I didn't hear you enter." He nodded to indicate the sleeping prisoner. "She's slept most of the day."

The queen said nothing, barely acknowledging his presence, her entire focus on the figure sprawled on the narrow pallet. How could she sleep so deeply with all she'd done? Didn't she have any guilt over the countless misery inflicted on innocents in the name of whatever cause she served?

Uncertain how to read his mistress' mood, Rubio spoke up quickly, "Elyana made certain she ate and drank regularly." He flicked a tiny smile at his wife. "And the outlander offered us no trouble."

"Didn't she?" Terreis ground out without looking at him, her mind on the graphically ugly picture painted by the reports.

"No, My Queen, she was very cooperative...." He trailed off, sensing her dark mood, but confused as to its origin and more than a little afraid he'd offended somehow.

Either wakened by the sounds of speech or the intensity of the gaze directed her way, the outlander stirred, lifting her head, then snapping upright when she saw the blazing look in overbright blue eyes. Unlike Rubio, she knew precisely where the dangerous edge of rage was directed.

Rubio looked at the prisoner, then back at his queen. "She gave us no trouble," he said again, the words only firing Terreis' anger to greater heights.

Of course she offered no trouble. Facing no threat whatsoever, well fed and looked after, why should she? She could simply sit safe and sound while her people cut a brutal swath through the very people caring for her. Terreis' lips drew back from her tightly gritted teeth.

Rubio stood helplessly, completely at a loss to understand what to do. He glanced at the prisoner. She sat up now, any sleepiness thoroughly banished, her eyes wide, hands trembling faintly where they curled into the blankets. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she was hauntingly gaunt, but even a few hours of sleep and decent food and drink had eased some of the damage. He looked back at his leader, a shiver sliding down his spine when he saw her expression; an intimidating mix of fury and something less defined.

She looked at him and pointed at the door. "Go."

Pinned in place by her hard look, Rubio stood frozen, his instincts all at war with each other. "My Queen--" he began, hesitant to leave when she was obviously so upset, though it was hard to say whether he was more worried about her or the prisoner.

"Get ... out," Terreis bit out, cutting him off impatiently. Her voice sharpened to a verbal razor's edge, "now."

With no choice but to leave, he cast a last uncertain look at the prisoner, then waved for Elyana to precede him and slipped out.

Terreis didn't bother to make certain they'd left, simply glared at the prisoner where she sat, silent and wide-eyed. "Tell me," she commanded at last, her voice soft and dangerous, "how to stop the attacks on my people." She couldn't allow the slaughter of her people to continue; couldn't go on reading reports cold bloodedly recounting such hideous barbarity and staring at pictures that showed it all in black and white that somehow made it all the uglier for the lack of color. It had to end and this woman was the only one who held any hope for doing that.

A muscle clenched, tension rippling along the line of Janet Fraiser's jaw. "I don't know," she insisted.

"Don't you?" Terreis demanded, furious that the woman thought she was either blind or stupid. "I've read the reports. I know where you were taken ... how those farmers were murdered." Valchon's initial story had left out considerable details ... ones the latest reports had detailed with stomach churning specificity. "You're a part of this. You know what your leaders want and you'll tell me how to stop them." She spoke slowly and with absolute finality, channeling the helpless rage into a perverse kind of precision.

Janet shook her head. "I don't know what you've been told, but I had nothing to do with any attacks." Her eyes were soft ... scared. "I don't know what's going on. I just know that everything's wrong."

Terreis' eyes slid over the too slender body. If she hadn't known better she might have believed the innocent image the woman projected. She wondered if that was how she got close to her victims. Did she use that very appearance of sweetness to draw them in and make them trust so she could slit their throats more easily? It was amazing that she could look so innocent when she was anything but. "Don't lie," she hissed, her anger intensifying in the face of the denial. "I know you were there."

"You don't know anything!" Janet shot back instantly.

A furious growl bubbled up from the queen's chest, anger exploding into a red haze. "I know this!" Without planning to, she flung the folder in her hand at the prisoner, curiously satisfied by the way she instinctively flinched and flung up her arms as if expecting a blow while papers fluttered around her on all sides. Momentarily caught in the strange snow storm, she stared up at her captor with genuine fear in her eyes. "Look at them!" Terreis ground out, eyes glittering with a horrifying level of barely controlled rage. "They're accounts of the death and destruction you and yours have wrought here!" It was burning a hole in her gut to think she could want someone who could be a part of that ... that she could want to touch, not the way Maya had suggested, but with kindness and care ... that she could want to protect ... to--

It didn't matter, she reminded herself, it wasn't real.

Janet scrunched into the corner of the narrow pallet. "We had nothing to do with that," she swore, but Terreis barely heard her.

The queen grabbed one of the stray papers, glaring at it, then thrusting it at her prisoner. "Look at it!" she snarled. "Your work!" It was a picture, grainy and black and white, but clearly a child's body, slaughtered and dumped carelessly aside. "How could you be a part of this?" The anger melded into hurt, triggering a sense of betrayal that made no sense, but which she was powerless to change.

Janet would have continued to pull back, but her shoulder bumped into the back wall of the niche, leaving her with nowhere to go.

"Look at it," the queen commanded again, her temper just barely held in check, forcing the issue until Janet had no choice but to take the paper. The color drained from her face as she scanned the photograph. "He was found on the farm where you were taken ... the only one still recognizably human when your soldiers were finished."

"Dear God ... Jelan...." Janet exhaled, clearly recognizing the child. She paled another notch and seemed to waver, her voice a sick rasp.

Taking it for a confession that the woman had been a part of the attack, if not the killing, the queen pressed harder. "Tell me how to make it stop so no more children have to die like that," she begged, the genuine horror in the other woman's eyes giving her some hope that she'd broken through whatever fear the outlander's masters had inflicted, that despite everything a core of humanity remained underneath everything.

Her prisoner's chin rose, luminous brown eyes focusing on her with frightened intensity. She shook her head slowly, rejecting the charge. "I don't know." Shaken, the words coming in uneven pants, she looked back down at the picture. "This is the boy I was trying to save. His father tricked us into going to him ... but it was only rags.... I didn't think they'd actually...." She shook her head again, tears filling her eyes. "How could anyone do this?"

"You tell me," the queen whispered, her voice a rasp. "Your people did this."

Janet's chin rose and she shook her head, denying the charge. "No one I know would do this ... no one."

"It's obvious you recognized the boy," Terreis growled, angry that the woman could deny her the information she needed even now. "So don't try to tell me you weren't involved when it's obvious you were." Sick and tired of the lies, the restraints on her fury growing thinner with every passing second, she leaned down, one hand braced on the mattress near Janet's hip, trapping her where she was. "Tell me why this is happening." If she just knew that much, maybe she could find a way to deal with all of this and make it stop. "You can't make up for this, but you can help stop it from happening again."

Janet just shook her head. "I swear, I had nothing to do with this," she insisted again. "This is.... it's insane."

Terreis' temper snapped, the image of the child's broken body burning in her mind's eye. "No more lies," she hissed, lashing out with her free hand to tangle her fingers auburn hair, forcing her prisoner's head back. "I want the truth," she growled, reacting to the outlander's sudden struggles by shifting the hand on the mattress higher, bracing it near her shoulder and leaning into the smaller woman's space. "Did they use you as bait ... or were you a part of it all? Did you kill that child yourself?" The idea that her prisoner might be capable of that kind of insane behavior was tearing at her.

"NO!" Janet gasped, her free hand rising to brace on Terreis' chest in a futile effort to push her back. "I was trying to save that boy. I wouldn't have hurt him!"

"If so," the queen rasped, grabbing Janet's wrist and peeling her hand away from her chest, "tell me what your masters want!" she growled, pinning Janet's arm over her head as she wrestled the smaller woman to the mattress, using her weight to contain her struggles. "Give me a way to stop it from happening again."

"I don't know!" Janet repeated, fighting desperately, panic edging every movement. Twisting her head back on her shoulders, she stared at the way Terreis had her wrist trapped even as she tried to wrench it free.

"Oh no," the queen hissed, tightening her grip and pressing the slender joint harder into the mattress. She leaned harder into the struggling body beneath her own, aware, but not caring that the woman's other wrist was twisted at an uncomfortable angle where the manacle locked it to the bedframe, the metal biting deeply into soft flesh. She'd given her prisoner so many chances to make amends, but she'd refused all of them. Bitter rage drove her to tighten her grip. Kindness was wasted on the outlander if she could protect the murderers who'd killed that child and so many others. "You're not going anywhere." Her face only inches from her prisoner's, her breath playing over the woman's face, she glared down into frightened eyes, feeling a measure of satisfaction at punishing one of the monsters who'd inflicted so much terror on her people. "Now, tell me," she ground out, deadly threat in her eyes.

Janet's mouth worked silently for no more than a second. "I can't," she whispered, her voice ragged from exertion.

"Can't?" Terreis demanded at last. "Or won't?" Her teeth pulled back from clenched teeth in a feral growl, and she pushed up on her hand enough to let her eyes trail down over Janet's heaving body, taking in the softness of pale skin where it was revealed by the scant slave garment. "So vulnerable," she whispered, her voice taking on a new note. "The women in that village were vulnerable.... I didn't show you that part of the report, but perhaps you already know the details." Muscles tightened and she shifted her weight just enough to force her knee between slender thighs despite the way taut muscles tightened in an effort to block her. Some part of her was horrified by her actions, but the rage was thick and cloying, and wouldn't be contained. "There was little they could do to fight back ... just ... like ... you." Maya's suggestions burning in her brain, she couldn't stop herself. It was thick, primal, irresistible desire. One hand was still tangled in silky hair and she released her hold, slowly dragging her fingers down the slender column of her prisoner's throat, then dusting the bare expanse of her upper chest, her breathing suddenly harsh with need. Maybe Maya was right and it was time to take the answers she needed by any means necessary. Nothing else was working ... and she was within her rights. God knew, her ancestors wouldn't have had any qualms about doing whatever they had to to protect their people.

Comprehending the unspoken threat, Janet exploded into motion in a burst of struggles, writhing desperately in an effort to throw her captor off. The wrestling match was short lived and left them both breathing hard, bodies pressed intimately close, the smaller woman pinned firmly to the mattress.

Her knee riding between slim thighs, belly pressed tightly against the heaving plain of Janet's abdomen, breasts molded together, Terreis was so wrapped in her lust and anger that she was incapable of maintaining control as the dangerous mix of desire and violence turned explosive. "Tell me," she hissed, so close her breath played over Janet's face, her lips mere inches from the softness of her prisoner's mouth, "how to make it stop."

A tiny whimper escaped the outlander's softly parted lips, and she shook her head helplessly. "I swear I don't know."

The red haze reappeared as an inhuman growl escaped Terreis' lips. She shifted her weight and her free hand slid down to a rounded breast. A firm thrust of her knee forced slender thighs apart once again, and her mouth came down on soft lips with rapacious cruelty. Drinking in her prisoner's frightened whimpers, Terreis was lost in a dark lust that gloried in such total domination. This was her right as queen, and the outlander deserved no better after everything her people had done. Such brutal revenge was only justice. Her teeth dragged against a soft lower lip as she rubbed her thumb firmly over a tight nipple and squeezed a firm breast. She ground her thigh punishingly against delicate flesh and gave no quarter to the soft mouth trapped beneath her own. "Tell me," she ordered through the grinding kiss. "Save yourself." She trailed tiny bites along the curve of her prisoner's jaw, riding the rolling hip thrust intended to throw her off, the desperate writhing setting off fresh flashfires of want that burned through her. Fabric tore under her hand and then she was cupping the bared weight of a perfect breast, the incredible softness of smooth flesh drawing her attention to the body beneath her own. It was made for pleasure, not this agonized spectacle.

Suddenly lust rather than rage became the driving force behind her actions. "Tell me what I need to know," she whispered, her voice somewhere between a demand and a plea. She pushed up on one hand, staring down into impossibly deep brown eyes with raw desperation, hating herself almost as much as she hated the woman beneath her. "Let me make it good for you." If the outlander would just surrender, there would be no need for this. She would show that she could be merciful in victory.

"Don't do this," Janet begged, her voice thick with tears, but Terreis didn't have the self-control to pull back. Lost in lust, convinced of her self-righteous right to do whatever she had to in order to protect her people, she could only go forward, like a rock tumbling down a cliff.

She slid her hand lower on her prisoner's body, brailing too thin curves before finding a soft, inner thigh. "Give yourself to me," she murmured as she fluttered kisses over Janet's upper chest. She forced taut thighs wider, shifting so that she was lying completely between them. "I can keep you safe and make everything right again." Once this ugly violence with the outlanders was over, there would be no reason for the inescapable anger that burned in her breast. Tapered fingers slid higher on the outlander's inner thigh, drawing so close--

And then suddenly her prisoner went wild again, bucking beneath her, tiny inarticulate sounds escaping her throat as she fought to regain her freedom with desperate passion.

The queen rose up, muscles pulling taut with raw strength as she controlled the wild struggles with ease. Her anger rekindled, her mouth came down on Janet's. "I have every right," she snarled, blindly pushing thin fabric aside as her fingers reached for--

"Sam! No!" The horrified scream stopped her mid-movement and pain exploded behind her eyes as though an actual blow had slammed into her skull. She tumbled forward, still aware enough to contain panicked struggles even as her head throbbed with violent agony. The pain only lasted moments, but long enough to leave her shaken and confused by the foggy images that had so briefly burned in her brain.

Images of herself and this woman ... together ... desire and caring impossible to separate ... her heart so lost she would die for her in an instant. Just the memory of it made her ache with longing ... .and the longing stoked the already simmering fires of resentment. It wasn't real. It couldn't be. Her head came up, teeth gritted against the remains of a throbbing headache, eyes flaring with suspicion. "What did you do to me?" she demanded, her voice a low, guttural growl of fear and fury. She didn't know how the outlander had done it, but she wouldn't be controlled by any tricks.

Her prisoner just shook her head back and forth, no words coming.

The queen lifted her hand to the curve of Janet's jaw, caressing the corded line of the smaller woman's throat with her thumb, pressing just hard enough to make her point. "You said that before," she pressed a little harder, perversely gratified by the way the prisoner lost all color. This woman had to learn who was in power here. "What does it mean?"

"Nothing," Janet croaked, her voice trailing off into a tiny, strangled whimper as Terreis pressed harder.

"What does it mean?" the queen demanded again, fingers sliding down to brace along the woman's throat.

"It's just a name," Janet panted, her body still writhing with instinctive struggles.

"Whose?" the queen growled, then threw out accusing answers to the question before the prisoner had a chance to speak, "Some perverse god of death that you worship ... some slaughtering general whose name you invoke to give you strength ... maybe some murdering ancestor you think might lend their ghostly aid?"

Janet's head just kept shaking back and forth, her expression twisted by fear and pain. "No," she gasped. A tiny moan of pain that had nothing to do with the physical escaped her lips. "God, doesn't some part of you know?" she begged desperately.

The headache started throbbing at the back of Terreis' skull again, the pain driving her anger even harder, panic edging her reactions, the notion of the other woman having so much power over her a terrifying thought. Her lips pulled back from clenched teeth in a gritted sneer. "What are you talking about?" When Janet only shook her head and turned her head away, she shook the smaller woman with bone-rattling force. "What does it mean?" Her fingers tightened on Janet's wrist where she held it pinned to the mattress and pressed into the slender arch of her throat.

Suddenly Janet twisted the hand pinned above her head, managing to wrench it free. She yanked it down in a blink, bracing it on the queen's chest and shoving as hard as she could. "Goddammit!" she hurled at Terreis, "it's your name! Your goddamned name!"

Not expecting the sudden attack, Terreis reared back, rage burning in her breast at the defiance and lies. Whatever the word meant, it certainly wasn't her name. Reacting on instinct, she thrust out a hand, slamming the outlander back into the mattress as she chocked her other hand back, fingers curling into a tight fist.

"My Queen," the startled exhalation froze both women in place, the grim tableau suddenly utterly still, as though carved in stone.

Terreis came back to herself in an instant, the details filtering into her brain in small, discrete packets; her fist pulled back ready to strike; the outlander pinned, terrified and totally outmatched; Rubio standing in the entry, a shocked look on his face. All those and a thousand other details seeped in as she crouched there.

Rubio's shock could never have equaled her own. As it sank in what she had been on the verge of doing, her stomach rolled with sick nausea. She'd never been one to turn to violence on a whim, and yet she'd been ready to do something that horrified her. And the worst part was that she couldn't even guarantee it wouldn't happen again. Already her fingertips were tingling with the memory of touching soft flesh, her mouth still full of the taste and faint tang of her prisoner's skin and lips, all of it overlaid with a dangerous level of anger and resentment for what her people had done ... and perhaps for the power the woman unknowingly wielded over Terreis' thoughts.

"My Queen?" Rubio said again, and she glanced over, taking in the young guard where he stood poised on the balls of his feet, visibly uncertain what to do. He wasn't a man who could stand by while any woman was abused ... and yet, Terreis was his queen and someone he'd come to respect. He couldn't believe she would act in such a fashion without good reason. He honestly didn't know what to do.

Terreis' head swung back around, focusing on her prisoner, seeing the terror she had inflicted. The nausea only got worse. She pushed to her feet, staggering several steps away from the pallet. A part of her broke inside when she looked into heart-stoppingly deep brown eyes and saw the complex swirl of emotions, all of them making her chest ache. She tried without success to summon the anger and disgust she should feel for this woman, but she was too busy feeling disgusted with herself. "Get her out of here," she abruptly commanded Rubio. She needed space to think ... or not think.

"Highness?" he exhaled in genuine confusion.

She whipped around, turbulent emotions honing her temper to a fine edge. "Get ... her ... out ... of ... here," she commanded, each word coming in a sharp blast. "See to her care in your own quarters, or...." She almost gave him permission to return the prisoner to the dungeons or hand her over to the interrogators if he chose, but the words wouldn't come. Even as frustrated and angry as she was, that involved a level of risk she couldn't take with the other woman's life. She backed up another step, some of the anger draining away into a confused ache she was helpless to understand. "If you need more room contact my majordomo and have him assign you larger quarters. I don't care. Just get her out of my sight." Maybe if the outlander was elsewhere, she could regain some sense of her equilibrium and be rid of this bizarre obsession.

Suddenly shaking off his paralysis, the guard hurried forward, impressed by his liege's obvious distress. "Yes, My Queen," he said quickly as he retrieved the key to the manacles from his belt. A moment later, he reached for the prisoner, not trusting that she could walk.

Hands folded together at the small of her back, Terreis barely managed to restrain the urge to grab his arm and yank the woman back from him, the possessive drive gnawing a hole in her gut. As he slung Janet Fraiser's slender figure high in his arms, it was a literal physical pain to allow him to touch her. Even knowing he had no interest in her -- that his wife was waiting for him in their quarters --hy she almost couldn't do it. Dear God, was the outlander a witch wrapping her in some kind of sorcery? She needed to get away from her before she lost her mind. "Go," she hissed, turning away to escape the look turned her way by the woman in question. "I'll speak to you tomorrow."

"Yes, my Queen."

She couldn't contain a tiny flinch with each of his soft, echoey footfalls as he slipped out, some part of her screaming that this was all wrong. The woman was hers -- enemy or not -- they weren't supposed to be separated this way. It wasn't until the doors had slammed shut in his wake that she allowed herself to show some emotion, a hissed curse escaping her lips as she spun back, suddenly aware that the soft perfume of soap and a woman's body still hung in the air, teasing her senses with the unwanted reminder of what she was running away from. She escaped onto the balcony, grateful for the head-clearing chill air. Breathing slowly and deeply, she braced her hands on the railing, leaning heavily as she struggled to assemble her thoughts into some semblance of coherence. She had to get over this bizarre obsession. It was far too dangerous to allow herself to be distracted at a time when her people were under such brutal attack. The outlander was nothing to her, just a prisoner. Whatever her ancestors might have done, she wasn't them.

Her knuckles whitened on the railing, and she let her head fall forward for a moment before straightening. Peering out at the city, she forced herself to think about something else. The streets and houses were still darker than she would have wished, but there were lights now. Repairing the power grid and generators was going slower than hoped for, but it was moving forward. Purposely distracting herself, she envisioned it all in her head, mentally testing various ideas for streamlining the repairs in search of something that might speed things along. She was still consciously focusing on anything but the outlander some time later when she heard the soft pad of footsteps. A momentary burst of hope flared in her chest that the outlander had returned for some reason, then she glanced back, her heart sinking when she saw Maya standing in the doorway onto the balcony.

"Hello, my love," her handmaid said softly.

"Maya," she murmured, then turned to stare back out at the city, appalled by the fact that it wasn't her lover she'd hoped for, but a woman she should hate.

A warm hand landed on her shoulder, interrupting her thoughts. "Did your meetings go well?"

The queen shook her head. "No matter what I do," she said bitterly, the things she'd read painting horrific pictures in her head, "it's not enough to stop the destruction." She swallowed hard, purposely forcing the mental images down, wanting to escape from everything. She looked back at her lover, forcing a stiff smile into place. "And how did your shopping go?" she asked, trying to summon some level of interest.

"It's unimportant," Maya dismissed the issue, then glanced back over her shoulder. "I see no sign of the outlander," she added after a beat.

The last thing Terreis wanted was to discuss one woman with the other. "She's been dealt with," she said without elaborating.

A long moment of silence passed, then Maya spoke softly. "Then I have you to myself again." Her voice was low ... sexual.

"Yes," the queen whispered and did a slow turn, reaching for her lover with gentle hands. If she couldn't distract herself one way, perhaps another would work better.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

 

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