One of the first sword and sorcery fantasy classics written by Robert E. Howard featuring Conan the Barbarian, this thrilling tale centers around a regal queen who rules over a small nation – and her ruthless twin sister, who will do anything to usurp the leadership role. Can Conan, the chief of the queen’s guards, foil this plot before it’s too late?
65 pages with a reading time of ~60 minutes (16383 words), and first published in 1934. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
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Taramis, queen of Khauran, awakened from a dream-haunted slumber to a silence that seemed more like the stillness of nighted catacombs than the normal quiet of a sleeping place. She lay staring into the darkness, wondering why the candles in their golden candelabra had gone out. A flecking of stars marked a gold-barred casement that lent no illumination to the interior of the chamber. But as Taramis lay there, she became aware of a spot of radiance glowing in the darkness before her. She watched, puzzled. It grew and its intensity deepened as it expanded, a widening disk of lurid light hovering against the dark velvet hangings of the opposite wall. Taramis caught her breath, starting up to a sitting position. A dark object was visible in that circle of light–a human head.
In a sudden panic the queen opened her lips to cry out for her maids; then she checked herself. The glow was more lurid, the head more vividly limned. It was a woman’s head, small, delicately molded, superbly poised, with a high-piled mass of lustrous black hair. The face grew distinct as she stared–and it was the sight of this face which froze the cry in Taramis’s throat. The features were her own! She might have been looking into a mirror which subtly altered her reflection, lending it a tigerish gleam of eye, a vindictive curl of lip.
‘Ishtar!’ gasped Taramis. ‘I am bewitched!’
Appallingly, the apparition spoke, and its voice was like honeyed venom.
‘Bewitched? No, sweet sister! Here is no sorcery.’
‘Sister?’ stammered the bewildered girl. ‘I have no sister.’
‘You never had a sister?’ came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. ‘Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?’
‘Why, once I had a sister,’ answered Taramis, still convinced that she was in the grip of some sort of nightmare. ‘But she died.’
The beautiful face in the disk was convulsed with the aspect of a fury; so hellish became its expression that Taramis, cowering back, half expected to see snaky locks writhe hissing about the ivory brow.
‘You lie!’ The accusation was spat from between the snarling red lips. ‘She did not die! Fool! Oh, enough of this mummery! Look–and let your sight be blasted!’
Light ran suddenly along the hangings like flaming serpents, and incredibly the candles in the golden sticks flared up again. Taramis crouched on her velvet couch, her lithe legs flexed beneath her, staring wide-eyed at the pantherish figure which posed mockingly before her. It was as if she gazed upon another Taramis, identical with herself in every contour of feature and limb, yet animated by an alien and evil personality. The face of this stranger waif reflected the opposite of every characteristic the countenance of the queen denoted. Lust and mystery sparkled in her scintillant eyes, cruelty lurked in the curl of her full red lips. Each movement of her supple body was subtly suggestive. Her coiffure imitated that of the queen’s, on her feet were gilded sandals such as Taramis wore in her boudoir. The sleeveless, low-necked silk tunic, girdled at the waist with a cloth-of-gold cincture, was a duplicate of the queen’s night-garment.
‘Who are you?’ gasped Taramis, an icy chill she could not explain creeping along her spine. ‘Explain your presence before I call my ladies-in-waiting to summon the guard!’
‘Scream until the roof beams crack,’ callously answered the stranger. ‘Your sluts will not wake till dawn, though the palace spring into flames about them. Your guardsmen will not hear your squeals; they have been sent out of this wing of the palace.’
‘What!’ exclaimed Taramis, stiffening with outraged majesty. ‘Who dared give my guardsmen such a command?’
‘I did, sweet sister,’ sneered the other girl. ‘A little while ago, before I entered. They thought it was their darling adored queen. Ha! How beautifully I acted the part! With what imperious dignity, softened by womanly sweetness, did I address the great louts who knelt in their armor and plumed helmets!’
Taramis felt as if a stifling net of bewilderment were being drawn about her.
‘Who are you?’ she cried desperately. ‘What madness is this? Why do you come here?’
‘Who am I?’ There was the spite of a she-cobra’s hiss in the soft response. The girl stepped to the edge of the couch, grasped the queen’s white shoulders with fierce fingers, and bent to glare full into the startled eyes of Taramis. And under the spell of that hypnotic glare, the queen forgot to resent the unprecedented outrage of violent hands laid on regal flesh.
‘Fool!’ gritted the girl between her teeth. ‘Can you ask? Can you wonder? I am Salome!’
‘Salome!’ Taramis breathed the word, and the hairs prickled on her scalp as she realized the incredible, numbing truth of the statement. ‘I thought you died within the hour of your birth,’ she said feebly.