Fiala soon returned to escort Hercules on a tour of the castle, and even Alteira was forced to admit that the queen had a spectacular collection of objets d'art. Unfortunately, Hercules' ability to appreciate the beauty around him was impaired by Fiala's progressively bolder advances.
"Ah, Hercules..." the queen cooed, stroking his hair. "Didn't you find the Tiger Eye Emerald beautiful?"
He readjusted his coiffure. "Er, yes, your majesty. It was exquisite."
"And what about the Dancing White Stallions of Athens? I had to pay ten thousand dinars for them."
Hercules dodged a grope. "Very impressive. I can tell you're an avid collector of rare and valuable items."
Fiala tried to slide her hand inside his shirt. "Oh, yes. I just love unusual things. All kinds of unique objects excite me. I have to possess them. Or, at least, experience them." She eyed him significantly.
Hercules pretended not to notice. "You know, I've seen many beautiful things in my travels. One of the best was an object I saw in Karona; it's called the Eye of Apollo and it is --"
Fiala interrupted him excitedly. "But wait! I have that! It's just down the hall! Come see!"
She caught his hand and dragged him down the corridor to a heavy, locked door. It took a moment for the guard to unlock, unbar, and open it while Fiala danced impatiently. As soon as the massive portal was opened, the party squeezed inside to find a small tower room. In its center stood a pedestal on which was displayed a brilliant blue gemstone. The color seemed to pulse, as though the stone were alive. There was one window, heavily barred, in the curved wall and sunlight streamed through to illuminate the gemstone.
"Isn't it absolutely gorgeous?" Fiala asked proudly.
"Breathtaking. But how did you get it? The Karonans consider the Eye their most prized possession." Hercules was utterly sincere.
"A merchant who knows of my tastes brought it to me. For a suitably handsome reward, of course. As you get to know me, Hercules, you will learn how good a friend I can be." She grabbed for him and he sidled away, ostensibly to peer more closely at the Eye. He glanced back at Alteira, and she nodded imperceptibly. It was the real thing.
"This is very impressive, your majesty, but I can't believe this merchant came by the Eye legitimately, and the Karonans are certain to be devastated by the loss."
The queen tossed her head. "Foo, what do I care for those stupid Karonans? If they were careless enough to lose the Eye, it's my good fortune and their ill luck."
Alteira was infuriated at this remark and opened her mouth for a hot retort. Hercules frowned at her warningly, and she reluctantly subsided.
"Don't let's talk of Karona, Hercules. I want to talk of us. Doesn't the color of the Eye remind you of something?" She batted her eyelashes at him as a prompt.
Alteira snorted under her breath. "Maybe if the Eye were bloodshot and surrounded by wrinkles there'd be a resemblance."
"The Eye truly is magnificent, your majesty. May I pick it up?"
"I don't think that would be a wise idea, majesty!" Everyone turned as a new man entered the room. He was as tall as Hercules and excessively good-looking.
"This is Ethrone, the agent who obtained the Eye for me. Why do you object, Ethrone? Haven't I already paid you for the Eye?"
"And a very handsome price it was, your majesty," Ethrone oozed unctuously. "I just meant that it might not be a good idea for Hercules to touch the Eye."
"And why not? Who are you to say which of my guests may touch my treasures?" Fiala demanded, annoyed.
"Forgive me, oh most gracious sovereign, but it is said that the Eye has special powers when wielded by an immortal, and while I imagine that most of these stories are mere superstitious twaddle of a primitive people, there may be a grain of truth to them. One story states that if an immortal holds the Eye, it will transport him to Apollo's side instantly. Another says it will carry him to Mount Olympus itself."
"But I'm not --" Hercules began.
"I apologize, my queen, but I wish only to safeguard your treasure, and I am certain that mighty Hercules would not wish to jeopardize your possession of the Eye."
Fiala looked hungrily at the Eye. "No, of course not. I appreciate your caution, Ethrone. I should be most displeased if anything were to happen to the Eye. I'm sorry, Hercules. Perhaps I can make it up to you later."
Hercules smiled weakly at Fiala's leer. Alteira struggled not to react to Ethrone's presence. It had taken all of her self-control not to lunge at him when he'd first appeared, especially after he made that remark about "primitives".
"Shall we go, Hercules? I must get ready for the banquet this evening. I intend the evening to be unforgettable," Fiala promised.
Back in their suite, Alteira paced, trying to suppress her rage. Hercules was oblivious, deep in thought as he stared out a window.
"That slug!" Alteira hissed. "Did you hear him? Calling us names, as if we were some aboriginal tribe squatting in the marshes! Karona has been among the most modern lands for over four centuries!"
"What about those stories he told? Are they true?"
"Huh?" Alteira was distracted. "Oh, I don't know. Why? What does it matter?"
"It could make a big difference in terms of how we try to get the Eye back. If I can touch the Eye, it's no problem. I can break through that door in a second, and after that, it's just a question of getting out before the alarm is sounded. If I can't touch the stone, though, then things could get complicated."
Alteira finally began to focus on the question at hand. She thought for a moment. "I don't know, Hercules. I've heard the tales Ethrone mentioned, but I never paid much attention to them. We don't have any immortals in Karona, nor do we have much use for them. Those stories about the Eye sort of got forgotten. They could be true though. But -- are you really an immortal?"
Hercules was amused at her expression. "Is that so hard to believe?"
"Let's just say I thought a god would be -- bigger."
Genuinely nettled, Hercules snapped, "Do you know how often I hear that? It's not like I'm extraordinarily short! Why do --"
"Hercules. Hercules? Could we stay focused, please? Remember? The reason we're here? The Eye?"
He cleared his throat. "Right. Sorry. Anyway, the point is that I may not be immortal, but I do have immortal blood, and if the Eye has some special properties, that might be all it will take. Apollo loves gadgets, and he hates it when his things go missing. It's easy to believe he'd rig the Eye to do something to any immortal who touches it."
"Wait a minute. You actually know Apollo?"
Hercules shrugged off-handedly. "Sure. He can be kind of arrogant, but he's not a bad sort. When he's in the right mood, it can be fun to hang out with him."
Alteira shook her head incredulously. "I can't believe I'm sitting here while you discuss a god as though he were one of your drinking buddies."
"He is," Hercules admitted with a hint of apology.
"Don't do that," Alteira ordered.
He hid a smile. "Sorry. Anyway, back to the Eye. If I can't touch it --"
"What's the problem? I can. "
"Yes, but --"
She eyed him warningly. "This isn't going to be one of those 'You stand off to one side while the Son of Zeus takes care of things', is it?"
Hercules cleared his throat guiltily. "No. Not at all."
"Good. Now what I was thinking was that we would stay here for a few days, getting the lay of the land, and then, once we know the guards' schedules, I'll slip in and grab the stone. You can be keeping the others busy and --"
"Actually, I have a problem with that," Hercules interrupted.
"Oh?" Her tone was forbidding.
"Yes. I don't think it's such a good idea for us to hang around Loradon. Ethrone might recognize you and then, as you pointed out, we're done for."
Alteira blinked. This wasn't what she'd been expecting. "But in the treasure room today, he was as close to me as you are now, and he didn't realize who I was. I don't think there's any danger."
"But what if he were to catch sight of you without the veil? Every extra second we stay here puts you in danger," Hercules insisted doggedly.
Alteira was honestly confused. "But you were the one who said we should -- Wait a minute. Are you beginning to have second thoughts about your ability to handle Fiala?"
He looked away. "I didn't expect her to be so, er, persistent."
She grinned. "Okay, Hercules. I understand. Sure, we can go back to my original plan and just snatch the stone and run. Let's go."
Hercules sighed with relief and followed Alteira to the door of their suite. She pulled it open and froze, stunned to find a squad of guards poised to knock.
"Excuse me, Hercules." The squad leader bowed. "I have been sent by Her Majesty to escort you to the banquet."
"Oh. Well, thanks, but I thought I'd take a quick walk first -- to build up my appetite."
The captain exchanged a significant glance with his men. "I don't think you have to worry. And the Queen is waiting."
"Ah. Thank you. Er, slave, you wait here. I'll be back later."
He walked away with the soldiers; the captain of the guard paused long enough to wink at Alteira. "Don't expect him until morning. At the earliest."
To the left of the bolted door leading to the room in which the Eye was kept, a large soldier stood watch. Alteira walked up, exuding "charm". "Hi, there. Are you all alone up here?"
The guard ran his eyes over her form with interest. "Yup. What about you? Don't you belong to that Hercules guy? The one whom the Queen's taken such a fancy to?"
"Uh huh. He's at a banquet with her right now, and I've got nothing to do," she pouted.
"But I guess you're on duty, right?" she asked, twining a lock of hair about her finger.
"Well, technically I am, but it's not like anyone's going to break into the palace to steal the Eye!"
"What a silly idea!" Alteira laughed with him.
"Hey, have you seen it? The Eye, I mean."
She shook her head. "I couldn't before. The others were crowding around too closely."
The soldier glanced up and down the corridor. "Want to go in and take a look? And while we're in there, we could..."
Alteira jumped up and down, clapping her hands. "You read my mind!"
Meanwhile, the soldiers had escorted Hercules through the palace, stopping at a set of ornately carved doors. They politely ushered Hercules inside, where he looked about, expecting to see a large table and dozens of other guests. Instead, he was in what appeared to be a decadent bedroom.
Fiala called to him from the far end of the room. "Hercules! How nice of you to come!"
Hercules averted his eyes from the filmy wisps covering her. "Um... I thought there was going to be a banquet."
She came closer. "Silly man. There is. This night will fulfill your wildest dreams. I can sate your most passionate hungers."
Hercules backed away, trying vainly to keep distance between them. "Fiala, it's not that I don't find your interest flattering; really, I do. But it's just that, when I look for someone, it'll be a person with whom I can settle down."
"How sweet," she crooned, cornering him. "You're a homebody at heart. But what's the rest of you like?"
Hercules captured her hands as she tried to run them over his body. "Your majesty. Perhaps I should have made my position clear when I first arrived..."
Fiala placed her finger against his lips. "Hush, Hercules. Nobody likes a man who never stops chattering. I've heard legends about your mighty 'prowess'. Why don't you show me an example?"
He pulled away. "I think we're talking about two different things."
The queen folded her arms with a sigh of irritation. "I'm getting a little tired of this coy act."
"It's not an act. I mean, I'm not trying to mislead you. I just don't happen to have any interest in -- uh -- you. Romantically, I mean. I'm sure you're a very nice person, but --"
Fiala burst into laughter. "Oh, Hercules, you are sweet. And so old-fashioned. But let me remind you of a few things. I don't care if you're not interested in me. That doesn't matter. What does matter is that I'm interested in you, and since this is my kingdom, that's all that counts. Now, we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way -- it really doesn't matter to me. In fact, the hard way might be kind of fun."
Hercules glared at her. "I'm not one of your subjects, Fiala."
She waved a blithe hand. "No, but the thirty guards outside my door are, and I think that they -- or their hundreds of colleagues -- can successfully overcome whatever resistance your pride feels compelled to muster. And even if you manage to defeat them and run away -- and what a blow to your reputation that would be! -- you'd have to leave your slave behind, and I can think of some very inventive ways to revenge myself upon her. They say you're very tender-hearted, Hercules. Would you really sacrifice your slave just to satisfy your silly whims?"
Hercules' reply was interrupted by a robed and hooded slave who entered the bedroom from a door behind Fiala. The woman carried a tray with several objects on it, all of which were hidden by gauzy scarves. The queen glanced backwards at the slave's approach.
"Oh, you stupid woman," she said dismissively. "I told you not to bring those in until later. Well, you might as well put the tray down. Hercules -- wouldn't you like to see what fun we could have?"
She moved closer, sliding her hands up onto his shoulders. Hercules opened his mouth to tell her off, but before he could do so, the slave came up behind Fiala and clonked her on the head with a rock. The hood fell off with the movement of the blow, and Hercules stared in shock at Alteira.
"You're a disgrace to women everywhere! You might just as well have been a man!" Alteira hissed at the unconscious Fiala.
"What are you doing here? I thought you were going to steal the Eye!"
Alteira showed him the rock with which she had clocked Alteira. It was the Eye itself. "We don't all work as slowly as you do. I was in that room in less than two minutes, thanks to that guard's overheated imagination. Then, while he was fumbling with his armor, I grabbed the Eye, knocked him out, and came looking for you. I had a feeling that Fiala's 'banquet' might turn out to be a more intimate affair -- it was exactly the sort of dodge Ethrone would have used."
"And you just assumed I'd need your help?" In truth, Hercules was more relieved than offended.
"Are you kidding? If you hadn't turned that cow down, I was here to conk you. You're restoring my faith in men, Hercules, but I wasn't taking any chances."
"She'll be out for hours. Let's get out of here!"
"You go first. My leaving the palace won't raise any eyebrows, but yours might. If you sneak out alone, you might have better luck. Go out the way I came -- it's a back exit to the servants' quarters. I'll meet you outside the walls, by the north corner of the palace."
Hercules nodded and hurried out. He stealthily entered the long hallway, heading for the door at the far end. Before he could get there, however, it opened to admit a squad of guards. Hercules dodged into a window alcove, pressing in to avoid being seen.
The guards were obviously on a break, and they ranged themselves across the wall, chatting in a desultory fashion. Hercules snuck a peek and, seeing that they are unlikely to move, prepared to creep out the way he came. Just then, from that very direction, another squad hove into view.
In a few short seconds, he would be trapped between the two groups, and it would then be only a matter of time before someone noticed him skulking in the shadows. He glanced around desperately, his eye falling upon the barred window. If only the casing were loose enough...
He hurried over and twined his fingers about the grille. A quick jerk, and then through the open frame -- As the newly arrived squad walked past the alcove to greet their comrades, the empty alcove drew no attention. It was only from the distance of a few inches that fingers could be seen holding the window grille in place from the outside.
Hercules stood outside the palace, holding the window's bars in place with brute strength. He had escaped the squads by yanking the entire grille out in one piece and exiting through the window, but he then found it difficult to get the bars to return to their place. Every time he thought he had it balanced, it began to tip. He didn't dare let it fall lest the noise of the crash attract the guards, but he grew more desperate as each passing second raised the risk that someone would notice him.
"Hey!" A hobo, slumped in a drunken daze at the far end of the alley, finally noticed the interloper.
"Would you mind keeping your voice down, please?" Hercules whispered.
"Whaddya think you're doing? This is my alley. You're trespassing!" the tramp informed him balefully.
"Ssssssh! I'm just leaving, honest!"
"Then move it! Whaddya want there, anyway? Trying to see into the palace?"
"No! Look, would you please be quiet?"
"Who do you think you are, to invade a man's home and then tell him how to behave? You've got a nerve!"
"I'm sorry. I just don't want to attract any attention!"
"Yeah? Why not?"
Hercules' mind raced. "Well, I -- Hey, what am I thinking of? I can't tell you what I'm doing!"
Affronted, the hobo demanded, "And why not? You're doing it in my home!"
"Well, you have a point there. Hmmmm. Okay, but if I tell you, how do I know you won't want in on the money?"
The bum moved closer. "Money? What money?"
"Ooops, me and my big mouth."
The other man came close, dropping his voice. "You can trust me. What money? What's going on?"
Hercules leaned towards him conspiratorially. "You see this window? Well, the grille is loose. I'm waiting for the queen to walk by so that I can let it drop. She'll look over here, I'll put the grille back for her, and she'll give me a reward."
"Hey!" the hobo yelped. "Some nerve! That grille dropped off in my alley! If anyone has the right to cash in on it, it's me! Now leggo and get outta here!"
Hercules hung his head and meekly relinquished the grille to the triumphant tramp. As soon as he was free of the burden, he sprinted away. "Just like Atlas," he said to himself with satisfaction.
Once Hercules was safely away, Alteira wrapped the Eye safely in her veil and hid it underneath the folded robe in her arms. She then left Fiala's bedroom, pausing at the threshold to make sure that Fiala was securely trussed on the floor. All was well, so she shut the door and turned around, only to find herself eye to eye with Ethrone.
"Excuse me, I just wanted to ask the Queen if she would -- Alteira?!"
Alteira cursed and struggled to free an arm from her heavy robe so that she could throw a punch, but Ethrone didn't give her the chance. Immediately putting two and two together, he shoved her backwards and fled. She dropped the robe, stuffed the Eye in her top, and dashed in pursuit.
Safely back among the anonymous crowds, Hercules waited just outside the north gate, anxiously scanning the palace courtyard for Alteira. His concentrated gaze soon attracted the attention of two nearby guards.
"Hey. You need something, buddy?"
"Um, just trying to catch a glimpse of the Queen." Hercules offered the first innocent explanation he could invent.
"Yeah, she's some looker all right."
His partner looked around nervously. "Ssssh!"
"Ah, come on," the first man persisted, undeterred. "I'm not saying anything we're not all thinking. I bet there isn't a man in the kingdom who wouldn't give his left arm for a night with her. Am I right?"
"Well, there might be one or two men who wouldn't be interested," Hercules allowed.
"Are you crazy? Look, if you had the chance to take her in your arms, trust me, you'd do it."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
Hercules' eyes widened as he suddenly saw two figures pelt onto the battlements above. He immediately recognized Ethrone and Alteira, and he quickly engaged the guards in conversation to keep them from noticing as well.
"I -- uh -- I guess that you must get to see the Queen a lot, working at the palace the way you do."
"Well, I don't like to brag, but..."
Ethrone saw the guards below and leaned over to yell to them, giving Alteira the chance to catch up. She grabbed him, and her elbow in his midriff aborted Ethrone's shout. Despite the blow, he was able to thrust her away and regain his balance. The shove made Alteira trip over her flowing hem, and she fell to the narrow ledge, but as Ethrone tried to dart past, she grabbed his ankle, dropping him beside her. Then the two wrestled -- Ethrone trying either to send Alteira over the edge or to catch the guards' attention, Alteira desperately smothering Ethrone's yells with her hand, sleeve, or anything else that's handy.
"You witch! I should have killed you when I had the chance," Ethrone panted.
"You're damn right you should have!" Alteira replied, throwing a credible right hook.
Then Ethrone caught sight of the Eye, and he snatched at it. Alteira misunderstood his intention and her temper waxed even hotter. "Don't flatter yourself, you single minded cretin!" she snarled, striking his hand away.
"Give me back the Eye, or I'll have the Queen boil you alive," he threatened.
"Your stock with Fiala might go down once she realizes you've lost her the Eye. Or didn't you mention that we 'primitives' always come after what is rightfully ours?"
"You stupid female. I can manipulate that lust-crazed moron as easily as I duped you! Guards!"
Alteira dove to cover his mouth.
Down below, one guard paused in his conversation with Hercules to ask his partner, "Did you just hear something?"
"Tell me more about your work -- is there room for advancement?" Hercules hastily asked.
"Well, promotion is -- You know, I did hear something that time. Where do you suppose it's coming from?"
Hercules watched helplessly as Ethrone took advantage of Alteira's proximity to the edge of the battlement to try shoving her off. The guards below glanced about in bewilderment.
"Um -- What do you like most about your job?"
"Why all these questions? Are you thinking of joining up or something?" one guard asked.
On the castle walls, Alteira continued to struggle with Ethrone. He was bruised and bleeding, but her last kick gave him just enough distance to scramble out of reach and he made it to his feet with a triumphant laugh. "I win, Alteira. Again."
He turned to shout to the guards below, and in desperation, Alteira called out to him. "Ethrone! Catch!"
He looked automatically, and she flung the Eye at him. He lunged for it and lost his balance on the narrow walkway. At the edge, he teetered for a moment, desperately fighting for his balance. Alteira dove towards him and sprawled at the edge just as he went over. She grabbed his wrist as he slipped past.
"AGGGGGGGGGH!" Ethrone screamed.
Even the intellect-challenged guards couldn't miss Ethrone's shriek, and they gaped upwards.
"Oh swell," Hercules muttered.
He tapped the first guard on the shoulder and, when he turned, clouted him on the jaw. Before the other one knew what was going on, he was laid out alongside his friend, and Hercules sprinted towards the battlements.
Alteira meanwhile had wiggled to a sitting position, her back against the palace wall. She still had Ethrone's wrist; his other hand was locked in a death grip on one of her extended legs.
"Don't let me fall! I'll give you the Eye! I'll give you anything!"
"Shut -- up and -- climb up here," Alteira gasped between clenched teeth.
Hand over hand, Ethrone climbed about halfway up before she halted his progress with a boot at his throat. "Wait. The Eye. Give it to me."
"I, um, I dropped it."
"Oh? Pity." She twisted her wrist out of his grasp, and he let out a piercing yell of terror, grabbing frantically at her legs.
"All right! All right!"
She snatched hold of him again. "Well?"
While one hand firmly clutching Alteira's wrist, Ethrone fumbled with the other one until, a moment later, he dropped the Eye onto the stone beside her. She freed one hand and examined it.
"That's it, for the gods' sake! Pull me up! Pull me up!"
Satisfied that the object was genuine, Alteira dragged Ethrone the rest of the way onto the battlement. He collapsed onto the stone, sobbing in relief.
Alteira rose, tucking the Eye into her top, and ran a disdainful eye over Ethrone's pitiful form. "I must have been insane," she murmured to herself.
With his sole remaining spark of malice, Ethrone glared up at her. "You'll never make it out of here. Can't you hear the guards running up to the battlements? Maybe if you give the Eye back and agree to be nice to me, I can protect you."
"I'd rather kill myself," she told him scornfully. And she hopped off the battlement, right before Ethrone's stunned eyes.
Below, Hercules neatly caught Alteira's plummeting form and set her down on the ground.
"You might have looked before you leaped," he remonstrated, a touch aggrieved. "What if I hadn't been in position?"
Alteira grinned with sheer exuberance. "Don't be silly. All the myths are unanimous -- you're always exactly where you're needed. Now let's get out of here before we're caught!"
Hercules spared an apprehensive glance upwards. "What did you do to him?"
Alteira sniffed. "Nothing. I thought I'd leave him to Fiala. Better that she take her frustrations out on him than on some poor innocent slave. Besides, they deserve each other."
Hercules shook his head in reluctant admiration and followed her out the gate and into the crowds.
On a bluff overlooking the coast, Hercules and Alteira stood together. A vessel's sails could be seen approaching over the horizon.
"Are you sure you don't want to come to Karona with me?" Alteira asked, a bit forlorn.
"I'm sure I do, but this way I can lay a false trail for Fiala's men to follow. Besides, there's still work for me here. Who knows -- maybe the right person could convince the Loradonians to do away with Fiala and slavery in one fell swoop."
"It would take a hero... but I know one. How can I thank you, Hercules? You saved my life -- and my faith in others. How can I repay you?"
Hercules squirmed. "I didn't do that much. You saved yourself, and me a few times, too. I'm just glad I was around to help."
She embraced him, her eyes glistening. "If the struggles ever get to be too much, and you want a respite, come to Karona. You'll love it there, and you won't be bothered by your pesky relatives. No immortal has visited us for centuries."
"Thanks. Someday I'll take you up on that."
"And don't forget: if you ever need help, just ask. I'll be there before you know it," she promised, blinking back her tears.
She slowly started for the beach. "You too. Oh, and remember, whatever you do, don't trust dinner invitations from unscrupulous monarchs."
"You forgot the most important warning!" Hercules called after her.
"What's that?" she asked, puzzled.
"Beware of bargains at the slave market!"
Alteira made a rude face at him, and with a smile, Hercules turned to continue on his way.