Instruments of Sacrifice: Time Passers releases on September 26th, 2020
QUEEN OF EMBERS
HE lifted his right arm first. Then his left. He lifted them both above his head. The resounding crack and pop loosed a sigh from his lips. Next, he found a linen towel and a pitcher of water.
The sun, as usual, was relentless.
So was his training. By the end of it, he had been panting as much as the dogs in the markets. And yet, the Jarhira still stood opposite the running yard looking as grim as usual. You see, becoming one of the Jarhira was not a high aspiration for the prince of Varhira. Even if it were more appealing to him than gaining the throne as his oldest brother would.
Amaziah found a cooler room and slumped onto a sofa. He poured himself a drink. The bathing pools scattered about the courtyard before him were sparkling in the sun, and the bathers were sparkling in their own sweat.
Amaziah took more comfort in the shade beneath the roof and the palm trees.
The quiet of the courtyard sluiced through him. Or perhaps it was the drink. Whatever it was, he felt his muscles relax. There were few here anyway, and as he came to realize, most of them were the maidens, the women who served his mother and sisters.
And brothers. Sometimes.
Amaziah glanced over the rim of his cup, but decided that he was too tired to watch the golden-brown bodies of the women slipping through the water.
His peace was sweet, but lasted only for a moment.
He heard the obnoxious laughter first and didn’t have to know which of the Varhiran males was entering. His older brother Majah and his cluster of peacocks branded themselves in drunken laughter and incessant visits to the northern courtyard where bathing and other activities were held frequently.
Amaziah sighed, telling himself it was time to find a new spot. But I’m so comfortable.
Too late. They had seen him slumped on the sofa, and his oldest brother Majah had called out the shortened version of his name. Hands clamped his shoulders and back, squeezing where the sun had just recently burned him. He winced more at the volume of their greetings than at the sting of their hands on his shoulders.
“Majah,” Amaziah said slowly, “you missed training.”
“No,” Majah said, a gleam in his eye, “I was up at dawn training while you were still smashed.”
Amaziah restrained his cringe. He didn’t want to remember last night in this same courtyard. Majah laughed, his lips lifting to reveal teeth so white they were blinding against his brown skin. The older prince’s dark eyes glittered beneath heavy black brows and a shining head void of hair. As Majah’s eyes crinkled in amusement, the rings looped through his brows and nose moved. Amaziah found no amusement, but offered his brother the pitcher of the sweet henqet.
The other young men dispersed, removing clothing as they sauntered to the bathing pools. They were calling out to the women who were laughing their greetings in return. Majah, however, took his place beside Amaziah on the sofa. “The Jahira are back,” he said, his lips lifting in a smile.
“Yes, they are,” Amaziah replied, allowing his tone to indicate that he found nothing about the situation interesting. He wasn’t a part of their cohort yet.
“All forty of them left, Ziah.” Majah leaned forward, his eyes wide.
Amaziah traced a finger idly around the rim of his cup. Now that part was somewhat interesting. No more than six or so left at a time, so all forty meant…something big. “But they’ve brought no more than twenty-five back.
“Slaves?” Amaziah asked, taking the bait.
Majah shrugged. “I suppose. All but two of them.”
This was the part where Majah, who adored attention and storytelling, leaned back, sipped from his goblet and pretended that the remaining details were of no importance whatsoever.
Amaziah restrained his curiosity for the duration of his brother’s drink. When Majah reached for the pitcher, the young prince finally sighed, shoved the pitcher away and gave his brother a pointed look.
Majah leaned in, his voice dropping to a confidential whisper. “They say one is a criminal who killed one of the Jahira years ago and fled before his own execution.”
Amaziah’s brows lifted. “And they’ve brought him back to demand justice?” He nodded to his own question. “It makes sense. The Jahira wanted justice for one of their own so tracked down the man who did it.”
Majah shook his head, surprising Amaziah. “That was over twenty years ago. If they had truly been intent on finding the killer, they would have searched then, not now.” He leaned forward farther. He was so close that Amaziah could feel his brother’s ill-scented breath on his face. “They say the criminal summoned them.”
Amaziah’s curiosity rose. He found that he too was now leaning forward, brows drawn. “You should have seen how Father greeted him, Ziah. It was like…they had been friends once.” Majah shook his head. “I don’t see an execution happening any time soon.”
“Perhaps the Jarhira who was killed was unloyal and this man was appointed by our father to have him killed,” Amaziah suggested. The idea wasn’t entirely unconventional.
Majah shook his head again. “Father was friendly enough until the murder was brought up.”
Amaziah sat back, baffled. And irritated that his brother had convinced him to listen. But there was no amusement in Majah’s eyes. “There’s another thing,” Majah said.
Amaziah was beginning to grow weary of this conversation and thus looked into his goblet instead of at his brother. Majah was whispering again. “They turned all of the slaves over to Pithom and to the slums. But they kept the murderer and a girl.”
Amaziah found this statement underwhelming compared to the first revelation. “Is she pretty?”
Majah shrugged and leaned back. “That isn’t why. She had something with her. It was a crown. A regal looking thing. The Varhira believes she is some sort of queen.” Majah laughed. “Ziah, ever imagine having a criminal and a queen both as our prisoners at the same time? I can’t think of which is worse.”
Amaziah shot him a burning look. “You’re an insensitive brat,” he said wryly.
“And you’re a prude.”
Amaziah took the last drink from his goblet and set it down without considering the clattering sound it would make. He rose so that he could stand over his brother. “Get to the point, brother or I’ll spill your own wine all over you.”
Majah rolled a shrug off his shoulders. The gleam he had borne when he had walked into this room returned to his eyes. “Father wants you to have the queen.”
ILEA woke with a groan but then immediately knew that she wasn’t in pain. Rather, she was comfortable. Too comfortable. She sat up quickly enough that all the blood rushed to her head, and she had to wait a moment before her vision cleared.
Her brows furrowed. Where am I? The room was open and pleasantly warm. Pillars stood opposite her and beyond them could be seen the entire city. The capital, she surmised. She craned her head to see the flattened lands beyond; the farms and a smudge of gray on the border. The slums, she assumed. Where the others have been taken, no doubt.
The room was thrumming with the soft murmurs of several people. Ilea glanced down and found that she lay in a small, but comfortable bed.
She looked between the room’s occupants and came to realize that between those washing their feet in the basins on the polished floor and those lifting thin garments over their heads, everyone here was rather young. And beautiful. Though most of them were women, the men also present had just as glowing skin and soft features.
The sun was beginning to burn like the flame on the last wedge of wax of the candle. Nearly gone, but still bright. Darkness was creeping into the horizon. I must have slept the whole day.
She couldn’t remember falling asleep. She only remembered the Shadow Bearer and then becoming so heavy that darkness had overtaken her. The image of Leviathan in her mind sparked a new flicker of fear in her chest. Her stomach coiled. And she dared not to remember the last time she had seen him.
Ilea stood and caught the eye of one of the women. The dark woman smiled and approached her. She spoke in a honeyed voice, but Ilea knew only a few of the words. She shook her head to let the woman know that she did not understand. The woman frowned but then beckoned another.
“What is your name?” the second woman, whose skin was only a bit lighter than the first, asked in the common continental speech. It was the language the desert clans spoke with the city-dwellers in the north. It helped with trading, if nothing else.
Ilea did not answer. Her name wasn’t something she handed around to just anyone. “Where am I?” she asked instead.
“We are in the changing chambers. It is where we wait for the Varhira to summon us.” She flicked her wrist to motion toward the dozen other women. “Some of us just only arrived, like yourself, while others have been here for over a week.”
Ilea’s eyes narrowed. “Summon us for what?”
“For the festival,” the woman said with disdain edgeing her voice. Ilea now observed the woman differently. This woman wasn’t from Perez. The desert lands, certainly, but not here. She was neither refined nor barbaric enough for this place.
So that’s what they want. To make us whores for the princes of Perez, Ilea thought grimly. She set her jaw so tightly she felt like her teeth would break.
The woman seemed to read her thoughts. “And for the princesses.”
“How long?” Ilea asked lightly.
“Soon,” the woman said. “But you may not be chosen.”
Yes, I will, Ilea surmised, Ramis showed too much interest in me. And besides, Leviathan… Her thoughts trailed off. Shock was still thrumming inside of her. Why is he here?
The first woman that had approached Ilea now handed her a thin, shimmering garment in the deepest shade of green and lined in gold. It was thin enough that it would leave little to the imagination as to Ilea’s form.
“And now for your hair,” the woman said.
ILEA tried not to wrench away the golden bracelets on her wrists or the sapphires adorning her neck. She walked barefoot among the other women and tried not to brush her fingers along the now shorter, cleaner cut of her hair.
She walked behind six others.
“What is it? The festival?” she asked them. And they had told her. Every year to urge the rising of the Mar, the river that ran to the Scarlet Sea, the Perezians held a weeklong festival with races and games. And tonight, they were all celebrating inside with food, drinking, and dancing. And games, no doubt, of another sort, Ilea conjectured.
Two enormous double doors swung open, and the throne room she had seen this morning was spread before her in an entirely different way.
Lanterns bobbed above the floor, allowing the polished stone to glimmer mercilessly and reflect the bare feet and the swaying clothing of the guests. Laughter echoed off the walls and pillars. Banners were strung from one pillar to another across from it.
Ilea smelled the food before she saw it, and when she did, her stomach coiled. Her body wasn’t ready for the richness of the food here. Not that I’ll be offered any. And it appears as if this has been going on for hours. Perhaps she and the other six women were the last of the entertainment.
Thin curtains parted between the pillars to reveal several small pools of water in which some were leaning in, glasses in their hands. These glasses clinked and laughter bubbled. The swaying brown bodies of the guests were not the only living creatures in the room. In fact, the dozen or so peacocks were far more colorful and the ten or so monkeys were far louder. But even their screeching was quiet compared to what came next.
A loud thumping sound echoed from the back of the room where the platform for the Varhira was raised. Ilea’s attention was snapped from the various occupants and embellishments of the room to where the sound was coming from.
She saw Ramis then and with him several others. His wife was adorned in gold jewelry that shimmered in the light.
The children of this regal woman did not appear on the platform, for they must have been among the crowd. But there were two others Ilea had not entirely been expecting. Her breathing hitched as her eyes snagged on the only bearded figure in the room. His blue eyes were blank even as their color correlated perfectly with the clothing he wore.
So Moaz was being treated well so far. Or at least comfortably.
Ilea looked away from her. Her heart clenched at the sight of him, of what he had led her into but also because…
Ilea could feel the Shadow Bearer without having to look at him. It wasn’t the same feeling she had had before. The one of compulsion, the thread deep in her chest that he pulled to let her know that she was being followed. It was the feeling of someone intently watching her.
Ilea swallowed hard and willed herself to not look in his direction. She looked instead at Ramis as he was now speaking. His laugh rang out through the room as if he were about to announce something amusing.
What he said Ilea could not decipher, but based on the crowd’s cheering reaction, she figured it was some sort of greeting and announcement of the night’s festivities. His gleaming black eyes snapped to rove over Ilea and the four men and women with her. Though she wasn’t sure she could call them that. The men were boys, too young to be sold like this. Ramis stepped back, allowing another man, significantly younger but similar in features as to the ruler.
A son, then, Ilea surmised.
The younger man smiled, his eyes beginning to gleam. He spoke again in the tongue Ilea knew little of, but as every gaze turned to rove over her and her companions, she knew who he spoke of. It made her stiffen and her insides coil.
The announcer extended his hand, and one of Ilea’s companions at the start of their line was pushed forward. He made a proclamation of some sort and then spoke a string of words Ilea did not understand that had the crowd rumbling in laughter.
The face of the first young man flushed.
Wild cries erupted from the crowd, men and women both throwing their hands in the air.
The prince smirked. His finger traced the man’s cheek and slid off his jaw, down his neck, and right over his chest. Ilea stiffened. An eternity seemed to pass before the man was offered to the two nearest people who were reaching, a man and a woman. Ilea tried to suppress her shudder.
The next woman stood completely still and had to be pulled to the stage. Her face was set as steel, and she refused to look ahead. The prince shouted something else and laughed again. It sounded like he was selling her. A sack of coins fell at his feet a second later, and the woman was cast into the crowd.
Ilea felt her eyes welling and beginning to sting. Her fingers clenched into fists. With her blood rushing and hands clenching, she knew it would not be long. Not when she was soon to be brought before this room of seemingly sex-famished…
She didn’t finish the thought. She was next.
Ilea stood as still as the last woman until her arm was gripped in a hand as tight as iron. She would have spoken objections, demanded to be released, but her tongue was leaden. Elyon…be here.
The prince was musing over her, his brows drawn together as he stroked his chin. He circled her, his eyes roving. Ilea stiffened further and looked over the heads of the people. They were blurs behind her tears. He spoke, and his words surprised her, for they were in the common continental tongue. “She came bearing…an interesting object. A crown we might call it.”
No… Ilea’s heart was racing now. She glanced at the prince, and his gleaming black eyes met hers. His lips twisted into a smile.
“A queen?” His brows rose.
Ilea’s eyes flashed, and her tongue was flaring before she could stop it, “More of a leader than you will ever be. If you are more interested in selling women than tending to the good of the people.”
The prince’s eyes widened, and with a laugh, he said, “And with a tongue of flame too!” He leaned closer, his whisper spreading prickles across Ilea’s neck. “I am tending to the people. Their more…primal needs, which,” he flung his hands out, “I don’t doubt you have as well.”
Ilea stiffened once more and something inside of her twisted into an ache.
“Tell me,” he whispered, “which one of these people do you most desire?” He motioned to their audience. Ilea looked at them fully for the first time. A mixture of men and women in an array of colored clothing, skin, paint, and adornments.
Ilea could now only hear her own heart thundering in her ears even when she knew the crowd was clamoring in chaos. For her. All for her damn body.
She felt a tug in her chest. “Look at me,” the voice said.
She looked. Not because she wanted to, but because she had to. The magic within her could not be told otherwise. The single eye of ice locked with her gaze from across the room. The Shadow Bearer’s ivory skin shone like the sun amongst the darker pallets of skin tones that arrayed this room.
Leviathan smirked. “Show them hell, Ilea.”
Her eyes fluttered shut, and she let go. Yes, it would hurt. Yes, she would be revealing something to a room full of people who didn’t need to know anything about her. Yes, she would be caving under the Shadow Bearer’s will. But it had been a very, very long time since she had let her magic shatter from her. Her body could no longer contain it.
Her skin ripped open just where her wrist met the base of her hand and where her fingers met her nails. Her body seemed to tear down the center, and her own scream sliced the air.
The room erupted into chaos. Screams echoed, a loud clanging, and Ilea’s eyes flew open. Everything was dark. Shadowy. All blurs. Blue fire. Her thorns were on fire. She must have hit something, for it wasn’t just the thorns. The entire room was going up in flames.
She could see shadows moving. And then smoke. Someone was finding water.
“Stop, pull yourself in!” a voice inside her called. “Don’t kill them all. Come back. Come back.” More softly, less urgent now. Warm and filling. “Come back to yourself.” It was not the voice of the Shadow Bearer this time, but of her God, her Elyon.
She collapsed, her knees crashing into the stone of the platform. She heaved air into her lungs as her head spun.
There were more cries and more splashing of water against stone. She heard the hiss of steam and could smell the smoke under her nose.
Everything fell silent. All eyes were on her, wide and terrified. Ilea was still panting, a sheen of sweat on her brow, when she turned to face Ramis and the Varhira, she found his jaw dropped.
A moment later, as Ilea began to rise on shaking legs, a rough laugh burst from his lungs, hitting the air like a punch to her stomach. He stood, clapping his hands. “A queen indeed.” He tilted his head, his eyes glinting in the firelight. It wasn’t blue fire as she had thought it was. No, it was red.
As it should be.
“Queen of Embers,” Ramis said, his voice silky and regal. “Welcome, to the court of the Varhira.”
Ilea scoffed, and a delirious laugh of her own echoed off the stone. “What a kind welcome you have granted me indeed.”
Ramis’ expression darkened, but his voice was just as daring. “And what an introduction you have made of yourself. No doubt anyone here will dare take you for themselves now.” His voice rose. “Would they?”
A shifting in the crowd. Low murmurings.
Ramis jerked his head at the prince which had been presenting the women. After a second of staring in shock at Ilea, the prince leaned towards his father. “Take her to Amaziah.”
Ramis looked at Ilea, his lips twisted into a crooked smile. “My youngest son will be pleased to find that he has a new challenge on his hands.”