"Come here, Chalcione," I commanded. "Give Ismene to Eucleia. I have another task for you."
"Yes, Lady," responded Chalcione. She obeyed, passing the baby to the smaller young servant. She stroked Ismene's honey coloured hair with one hand, as her other rested on the bulge beneath her own tunic.
I masked the uneasy anticipation rising from my stomach. But my servant was approaching with more calm in her steps than I had felt in many days. She slowed as she drew closer. A momentary concern touched her brow, but was just as quickly hidden.
"My husband has summoned me to the central hall," I explained. "I wish for you to accompany me."
I was under no obligation to have a maidservant with me on this day, and gave no further acknowledgement of Chalcione's presence. She fell into step behind me, and kept her eyes lowered as the two of us traced a familiar path through the palace's cool stone passages. Even so, I took comfort from the knowledge that I would not have to face this summons alone.
"This is an unprecedented crisis, Lord Oedipus. Possibly the worst that Thebes has seen since the reign of King Cadmus. Your people are asking if the gods have abandoned them, or whether it is their king. If anything is to be done, the time is now."
Even had I not heard the voices of my husband's advisors, it would have taken me little trouble to guess what they had said. The troubled hesitation on the face of my husband was indication enough. I hesitated in a small annexe by the entrance to our private apartments, concealed between two pillars and with Chalcione standing silent and pensive at my side.
"No," said Oedipus. "The Oracle at Delphi is many days from here, over treacherous terrain, and always with the risk of encountering thieves and bandits. I have made great journeys before, but I cannot abandon my people at this time."
My own eyes barely caught the troubling change, which passed behind the king's expression and left me with a lingering sense of unease. Even the clearest afterimage in my memory refused to allow me a truthful understanding of what I had seen.
And why this reluctance to seek the will of Apollo? I asked, of any gods who might have known my thoughts. Would the Oracle's counsel not be the surest way to tell us how this plague might end? I noticed some uncertainty in Chalcione's eyes, but still I said nothing. It was not the queen's place to demand an explanation of her king, and especially not before a gathering of the Council.
"Would you trust another to make this journey in your stead?" inquired the quiet but audible voice of one elderly nobleman, who whistled softly with every syllable. The thick and tangled hair of his beard seemed to stir like the quills on a waking hedgehog, as he pursed his already sunken lips.
"We have seers in Thebes, do we not?" Oedipus responded with an impatient challenge. "Why send a man all the way to Delphi when we can seek the will of the gods from here?"
"Zeus speaks through the flight of birds, Poseidon through the tides, and the oldest gods through the mutterings of augurs at the sacrificial feast," the same old man reminded him. "Apollo speaks through the Oracle - and these are his arrows which have felled our people."
Oedipus studied the old man's bearded face, revealing nothing of what thoughts may have been stirred by his suggestion. The elder stepped back. But what I had seen in his faded eyes had lost none of its previous intensity.
"My Lord." Finally, I stepped into the hall.
The circle of advisors inclined their heads as I strode into their midst. But my own eyes were focused on my husband, who stood directly before me. I was pleased to see that the affection in his eyes had not dimmed, even as it came from far behind a mask of detached but courtly familiarity. He did well to hide the shades of anxiety deep beneath his expression - but his disguise was entirely short of perfect. The constant worry had already darkened the skin beneath his eyes.
"Lady Jocasta." He spoke warmly. "My wife and most beloved queen. I have summoned you here for your knowledge of our history. I have something to ask of you, which may yet save the future of Thebes."
"I will do all I can, my husband."
"I am pleased," he assured me. But then he paused, averting his gaze, shoulders heaving as he gathered courage from a single deep, slow breath. He looked at me again before he continued. "You know that I am a foreigner in this kingdom - a traveller from Corinth. You would know that none of the Elders here have access to this palace's most intimate secrets. Things that only we and the gods may know."
My husband paused again. "I am sorry," he said. "But I must ask. Do you know of a reason - any reason at all - why they may have wished to send us this plague?"
My chest was tight. But I managed somehow to find a voice. "No, Lord."
"Jocasta. Please." There was urgency in his whispered tone. Stepping forward suddenly, he clasped both of my hands in his. I glanced furtively at the nearest stern, grey-bearded Elder. But my younger husband's display had lost none of its fervour even before this assembly of stately witnesses.
"Consider the children," he insisted to me. "We have been fortunate so far, but it may not be this way forever. I do not want to consider what may happen, should either of them fall prey to this sickness. Therefore I urge you, if you can recall even the most seemingly trivial matter, you must tell it to me. What do you believe has caused the gods offence? Do you know of a possible answer? Any at all?"
I thought of my dreams, of the dimly remembered images and the subsequent ill feeling that had continued to haunt my days. Even now, I sensed the same persistent memories rising in me once again. I hesitated, glanced around at the faces of every old man in the room, and back at my husband's clear brown eyes.
"No, Lord. There is nothing."
He nodded, turning away, and spoke in a controlled, authoritative tone to his advisors. "We must seek the counsel of Apollo," he told them. "Prepare an announcement for our people. I have decided to send a man to Delphi."