The Sultana sat down next to her husband, and cleared her throat. Everyone in the room was paying attention, including her 'lord and master'.
"They are using battle tactics," she said. "Even a cursory examination of their sheer power will tell any of us that they could decimate our kingdom if that was their purpose. This means one of three possible alternatives. One. Someone inimical to our kingdom who has designs on its resources has managed to control them. Two. These creatures seek something valuable within our kingdom which must not be harmed, and which must not be at the receiving end of their war machine. Three. There is something within our borders that these creatures actually fear. Or perhaps some combination of some or all of these three alternatives. Can anyone think of another reason for their disabling border security, when with their might, they may as well destroy our kingdom?"
The conference room was silent. An errand boy, of Hellenic origin, who almost appeared to be hiding within himself, coughed slightly. In the stony silence his cough sounded like an explosion. Several ministers gave him looks that were different proportions of irate and annoyed. The Sultana looked at him quizzically.
"If you have anything to say, boy, say it now," she said, her face assuming a stern expression.
He coughed again, and stepped forward.
"Your last alternative sounds the most reasonable, your majesty," he said, his voice trembling. "Perhaps there is some real threat within our kingdom that they perceive."
She considered his words for a moment, and then spoke.
"What manner of threat would that be, boy?"
"It must be something that we are unaware of, ourselves, your majesty," the boy said, his voice sounding barely braver. "We must have something within our borders that is so powerful that the snake sisters dare not challenge it openly, and yet we have no knowledge of it."
"And why is this alternative superior to the other two," she asked.
The boy was still trembling, but he found the courage to speak up.
"Your majesty," he said, "I…"
He paused. He wanted the Sultana to give him permission to go on, before he pointed out something she had missed.
"I beg your pardon, your majesty, it is not for someone such as myself to suggest so audacious a thing," he said.
"Say what you will, boy," she said, giving him a look that mixed impatience and reassurance. "You have my word that you will not be held accountable for any words you say to me now, since you say it in the interests of the kingdom."
He sighed a breath of relief, and went on.
"The creatures converse in a code, your majesty" he said.
"He speaks a lie, your highness," a general piped up. "None has heard the creatures speak a word."
"Answer the charge, boy," the Sultana said.
"They speak with their eyes, your majesty," the boy said.
The conference room erupted with laughter. There were calls to make the boy a court jester, and other calls to throw him out on the street and whip him so that he never displayed such insolence again. The Sultana didn't laugh, and raised a hand to silence the room.
"The next words you say, boy, will determine whether you stay in my presence or not," the Sultana said. "I've given you my word that you will not be harmed, so you will not. But I will have you thrown out of the palace, and removed from royal service, if your next words don't make sense."
"Your Majesty," the boy said, "I have been following many of the missives and stories since the battle with the sisters got underway."
"Hardly a battle," the Sultan said, giving a tragic chuckle, and nodded at the boy to go on.
"Their eyes change color, your Majesty," he said, now including the Sultan in his gaze while he spoke. "They change color in a specific pattern, and different army amanuenses have noted the order in different attacks. I glanced at a report that compiled all these descriptions while I was cleaning General Mohal's room."
The boy gave a frightened glance at the Sultana. He had just confessed to snooping, and that meant that he had just surrendered himself to the Sultana's mercy for the good of the kingdom. She smiled at him as though she were his mother, and asked him to go on without being afraid.
"The color codes when placed together form the Aramaic alphabet," he said. "Their eyes change color very fast, and the sisters use shortcuts in their communications, but every series of color changes indicates an alphabet."
The conference room listened in stunned silence. This was information from a humble errand boy who was here to serve them hot vanilla and saffron tea and a sweet made from fava beans. A number of the ministers and generals looked at General Mohal as if he were responsible for the boy's cleverness at the expense of notables in the room.
"Why was I not informed of the color change in their eyes?" the Sultana asked, looking at General Mohal.
He fumbled and said something, but couldn't meet her gaze. She dismissed him from her attention and turned back to the boy.
"If what you claim is true, boy," the Sultana said,"that means you have decoded what the sisters are communicating with one another?"
The boy nodded.
"I know a little, your majesty," he said. "The sisters never discuss things such as battle strategy. They are completely self assured that they can destroy any human army. Instead they discuss something far more powerful that they fear. Of this much I am sure. Over the course of many battles, they have been having one very long and slow conversation about how to deal with that something."
The Sultana knew that she had a new potential appointee to her council of ministers. The boy was perceptive beyond anything she had known. She also knew that this something that the sisters feared was on her mind. She leaned forward and paid closer attention to the boy.
The Persian satrap's emissary paused. It wasn't a missive from the Sultana, but it was a royal missive. The princess Lubna had summoned him, and she wanted a secret alliance with the satrap. It was an invitation to attain power from within the kingdom, and no politician or king worth his seat of power would turn it down.
The princess asked him to take a seat on a dewan and ordered some coffee and some of the Sultana's famed dolma to be served. Dolma as prepared in the Sultana's kingdom were grape leaves that were stuffed with a mixture of rice and minced beef, and flavored with a rich mix of spices, and cooked in olive oil. They were served with sauteed carrots and fried potatoes on the side. The emissary politely stuffed himself while he waited, pretending that his diet didn't matter when on state business.
A maid who appeared to be from a northern land because of her unusually light skin, brought in a veiled painting. She placed it on an easel that was setup just for this purpose, a few feet away from the dewan on which the emissary was wolfing down his fourth pastry.
"You said your name was Erach?"
"Yes, your highness," he said, making sure the food in his mouth didn't alter his pronunciation.
"You will understand my summons when you see this painting," she said.
"Yes, your highness," he said.
The maid unveiled the painting. Erach, the emissary, was both stunned and surprised.
Rawer sat down and thought. Meeting the princess one on one in their usual spot was out of question. He expected trouble. If the Hellene was the only person who knew of their clandestine tryst, he would be okay. If there were others whom he had confided in, or perhaps others who had confided in him, then expecting trouble was the right thing to do.
Tuya's breasts rose and fell with her even breathing, as she slumbered on. She had played messenger once. He wondered if she would do it again. Even if she agreed, would it be safe? People notice a tall, buxom, Nubian woman in an Arabian palace. It didn't matter that she had the proper security clearance on her. Tuya was built to be noticed.
Plus, she wanted him for herself. He didn't expect her to cheat him, but then jealousy can lead to unpredictable behavior. Then he thought of something. The princess went horse riding on the fourth day of the week, in the early morning, before the sun became harsh. He knew her usual routes. She went with an instructor, and with some companions, and sometimes with the other princesses. But they didn't all stick together at all times. Perhaps he could find some way to intercept her without attracting attention.
It was either that, or trusting Tuya. She shifted in her sleep to face him, and somehow the proud look on her face as she slept didn't inspire confidence. Rawer made his decision.