Bar Sinister

Chapter XLVI: ASHA

The ships began as naked skeletons in Lilali's harbor, but as the months went on they were fleshed out with hulls and curved bows and wide, rectangular sails. The galleys were all of Naksosi design, as the Kyroshi were a desert people and knew little of ships or sailing. The Naksosi carpenters and shipwrights hammered together the long beams until each ship was about 200 feet long, built for a long voyage, not for war. Their purpose was diplomatic: in early autumn, Rao and Asha would be sailing to Naksos.

"It makes me nervous, m'lady," Dalya admitted to her one day as she brushed and braided Asha's hair. "Sea voyages are so dangerous. There's storms..."

"It's just to Naksos," Asha insisted as she lifted her daughter Shaharazai to her breast. "We will be fine. Besides, maybe we'll find out some information on what's going on in Nesar that's not a year or more out of date."

Dalya held one mirror in front of her while Vasumadra held one behind her so that Asha could see her braids from every angle. Asha nodded in approval and then went on, "I still don't know what happened to my brothers and sister -- whether they're alive or dead, or in chains. I have to know something, Dalya. I'm a queen but I feel so helpless." Her voice broke, and Dalya clasped her from behind, a warm comforting embrace.

"Mara, don't cry," said Bahaduradri as he ran to her side. Asha smoothed back his hair and kissed his forehead.

"I'll be all right, poppet. Go and play."

Bahaduradri pouted, but did as he was told. Asha gave Shaharazai to Dalya, who soothed her to sleep. She stood and fiddled with her dress, turning this way and that in the mirror, trying to pretend she was thinking about her appearance when her mind was really thousands of miles away. If the worst had happened -- Asha couldn't think about that. She wouldn't let herself think about that. Grief can drive you mad, Asha remembered her mother telling her, faster than anything else can.

In early autumn, just in time to avoid the worst of storm season, they sailed for the Great Port of Naksos. Asha and Rao were aboard the largest ship, a sturdy galley flying the Kyroshi colors. Asha insisted on going on deck and peering over the bow, watching as leaping dolphins followed them out of port, thrilling at the sensation of flying over the waves. The rocking of the ship made Rao so ill that he stayed below deck, but Andradri insisted on following Asha about, despite his green face. Asha was fascinated by the Naksosi sailors as they climbed the mast and rose the sails, each one as sure-footed at sea as he was on land.

Leaving her children had been excruciating, but Asha had not been prepared for how hard it had been to say farewell to Dalya. All had been well until she placed Shaharazai in Dalya's arms and told her, "Love her as though you were her mother until I return."

Tears fell from Dalya's eyes and when she tried to speak the words came out as gibberish. Asha hugged her and whispered into her ear, "Last chance. If you board the ship now you can still go home."

Dalya clung to her but whispered back, "That's not my home -- my home is here -- that's just where I was born." She choked on the next few words and had to catch her breath and try again. "Besides, someone has to stay and make sure the little ones learn Nesarian, m'lady. We'll be waiting here when you come back."

Bahaduradri, who was in Nurandazai's arms, began to wail. "Mara, mara! Don't leave!" He reached out for her and Rao. "Umu," he cried, using the Kyroshi word for papa, "don't leave without me!" The tremble in his voice broke Asha's heart.

Rao kissed their son on the head. "We will return soon, my khaganissi."

Asha took Bahaduradri from Nurandazai and held him tightly one last time. "Mara and Umu won't be gone for long," she said.

Bahaduradri bravely wiped tears from his eyes. "Promise?"

"Promise," she told him solemnly.

Nurandazai took Bahaduradri back, and he hid his face in Nurandazai's chest. Asha grasped Rao's hand and boarded the ship before she could lose her nerve. As they sailed out of the harbor, she looked behind and saw Dalya standing on the docks, waving. She kept waving until she faded from sight. "Oh," she gasped when they were real and truly gone, "suppose I never see them again?"

"Oh, I suppose you will," said a raspy but unmistakeably feminine voice behind her. Asha whirled around, her braids whipping about her face, and stared at the tall figure before her, a woman with short hair cut to the nape of her neck, sun-burnt skin, and vicious scars bisecting her face. "Who scarred you?" Asha blurted out.

The woman, who's name she would soon come to learn was Rroro, grinned. "A hopeful suitor whom I told there was no hope. He slashed my face and I one slashed his throat."

Asha's eyes went wide and Rroro laughed. Andradri glared at her and said, "Speak with respect to the khagana, wench." He moved to stand before Asha as though to protect her. Rroro eyed him as though taking his measure, and Asha decided to intervene before her bodyguard and the lady corsair came to blows. She stepped between them, resting a hand on Andradi's arm to appease him.

"The khagana is intrigued," she said to both, and that appeased them enough, for Andradri turned his back on Rroro and Rroro laughed in triumph.

Asha had never known a woman like Rroro, a woman who wore trousers like a man and captained her own ship. Rroro and her crew shipped spices to most every port of call in the world, even the faraway lands of the Esrafael, whom Asha had thought only legends. Rroro told her many tales of the tall, black-skinned Esrafael who rode giant birds as though they were horses (this part Asha decided was made up) and the Esrafaelish king who could control ocean tides and storm clouds with his temper (this Asha found reasonable). Much to her delight, Asha also discovered that Rroro had been to Nesar only months before, and moreover, had gone as far north as the Hidden Palace itself to see it's Regent.

"Oh, he's the handsomest man I ever saw, khagana," Rroro assured her when Asha queried her about the Regent. "The blackest hair imaginable!" Gryff's coloring had never been fashionable among the Nesarians, but Rroro was Naksosi, and prized dark looks. "And he had a wife, or a concubine, pregnant as a goose. Hmph! She was nothing special at all. I could've shown him a much better time."

Asha changed the subject quickly. "Is he hailed as a king?" she asked. "Do his men follow him from fear or from loyalty?"

Rroro's brows knitted together. "I did see him sit on a throne, but as to whether he's the rightful king, I don't pretend to know, khagana. Nesarian politics change like the wind."

Asha took her fears to bed with her, and the next morning she woke sick, sicker even than green-faced Rao as the ship pitched them back and forth. Asha curled in the bed beside the comforting bulk of her husband and refused to leave, even for meals. Being a queen was good for something; people left you alone when you insisted on it. They stubbornly stayed below deck until Nesar was sighted several days later. When Rroro came down to tell them that the island was in sight, Asha dragged herself out of bed and stumbled up on deck to glimpse Naksos off in the distance, a dark green gem in the blue of the ocean.

The sun was sinking into the horizon by the time they docked and the Naksosi envoys arrived to meet them. Much to Asha and Rao's relief, the envoys announced that the prince, Tzazike, had prepared quarters for them and the other Kyroshi for the night, and that he would hold a banquet in their honor the following day. They were bundled into a litter and their belongings tossed into a cart, and taken through the little winding streets to a fine house with whitewashed walls and a tiled roof. The chambers Tzazike had designated for Asha and Rao was easily twice the size of their simple bedroom in the manse in Luguna. Asha sank into the feather bed when she sat down, and couldn't quite hide her astonishment at the sight of the luxurious marble bathroom. She soaked in the hot bathwater for a long time, soaping down her arms and legs and rubbing oil into her hair. She had just climbed out of the tub and had begun painting her skin when the door creaked open.

"My Asha," said Rao softly. His eyes looked brighter, to match his spirits. Asha began to feel like this journey hadn't been a mistake after all. "The bed is vast and cold without you."

"Is that so?" Asha said, her lips quirking in a smile. She loved it when Rao looked at her as he did now, as though she were the most desirable of all women. "Well, let us warm it!"

They did not sleep much that night. Asha dozed for a couple of hours, then awoke shortly after dawn to the crackling and hissing sound of fire. She sat up in the bed to see a slender girl with a ring through her nose stoking the fire in the grate. Yawning, Asha pushed her brown hair out of her eyes and asked in her rudimentary Naksosi, "Who are you?"

The girl gasped and dropped the poker. She then fell to her knees and snatched it back up, placed it in its place next to the fire, and then fled the room before Asha could say another word. Asha rubbed her eyes and blinked sleepily. She had never seen a servant so jumpy.

Shortly thereafter Tzazike's envoy appeared, bowed at the waist three times, and requested their presence at the prince's banquet. He ushered in a trio of maidens who helped Asha dress, chattering in non-stop Naksosi the entire time. Asha blushed and kept her mouth closed, feeling like a dumb beast; the maidens used so much slang that she understood perhaps one word in twenty. Rao, who for his part was dressed and ready in ten minutes, swept in and shooed the maidens away. Asha twirled around in her beautiful dress so he could see her from every angle, and asked, "Do I look lovely?"

"My Asha is wasted on these seadogs," Rao said, and they were on the verge of mussing up her hair and clothing when Tzazike's envoy rapped sharply on the door and reminded them that the prince was waiting. Rao released a long-suffering sigh and Asha growled under her breath, but they got up nonetheless.

Nothing in Asha's life had prepared her for Naksos; its great domed palaces, the throngs of people in the marketplace, flocks of parrots flying overhead, the overwhelming colors and scents. Asha gaped in amazement when she peeked through the fabric covering her litter to see naked children dodging carts and peasant women bustling about carrying baskets atop their heads. The Hidden Palace seemed cold and curiously empty in comparison. She looked to her husband, wondering if his memories of Kyrosh seemed drab and small compared to Naksos, but Rao wore a look of boredom and weariness on his face. Asha's wonderment melted away, replaced with concern -- Rao had not taken the trip well. She curled up beside him and stroked his face with her cool hands. Shadow slithered down her left arm and coiled around her wrist like a bracelet, so Asha caught her up and tucked her back into her clothes.

Tzazike's palace was so vast and its walls so thick that when they entered Asha could feel the temperature drop several degress. She rubbed the prickling flesh on her arms as the litter came to a stop. Asha and Rao stepped out of the litter into a beautiful hall filled with curious courtiers, decorated with fanciful (and when Asha looked closer, frankly obscene) wall paintings. The great tall windows, tall enough for two men to stand, one on the other's shoulders, on the ledge, looked out at the port and let in a cool breeze. The centerpiece of the hall was an ornately-carved throne, and slouching on the throne was a young man who could only be Prince Tzazike himself.

The courtiers peered at her curiously, taking in her clothing, her braids, and her ochre. Asha suddenly felt shabby in her Kyroshi clothes; the Naksosi courtiers wore silks finer than her finest. Their long sleeves dragged the ground and their earrings brushed their shoulders. Perhaps it was her imagination, but Asha thought that every one of them looked down his long nose at her and Rao. She threw her shoulders back and held herself straight and proud, reminding herself, I am of the blood of kings. My mother is an honored priestess of the Other. My husband is a great king. No one in this world can look at me and make me feel inferior. The envoy guided them through the crowd to stand before Prince Tzazike, and his job done, bowed at the waist three more times and took his leave of them. Rao and Asha faced the young Naksosi prince together.

Tzazike was perhaps ten years older than Asha, and a head taller. He was bare to the waist, wearing only a white linen loin cloth, a diadem tied across his forehead, and turquoise bangles and rings. His eyes were gray and half-lidded, reminding her of a sleepy and self-satisfied cat's eyes. "Greetings to the king of Kyrosh and the king's wife," he said in flawless Kyroshi.

"This one greets the prince of the Naksosi people in turn," Rao replied, inclining his head slightly to acknowledge the other king.

Tzazike snapped his fingers, and obediantly two youngsters stepped forward and bowed to Asha and Rao on their hands and knees. A boy and a girl, as alike as two newly minted coins. Asha supposed they must be twins. "I present to you Ilarya and Koriolan," said Tzazike in a bored tone. "They are the mongrel orphans of Edwyn Kella. I offer them to you as slaves for my honored guests."

Rao's face went hard as stone; Asha could tell immediately that he was furious. The Kyroshi did not keep slaves, but were preyed upon by the Naksosi corsairs who would steal any Kyroshi caught unawares near the coast. Tzazike offering him the bastard children of Edwyn Kella as slaves could be nothing but an insult. Asha acted quickly -- Ilarya and Koriolan had to be half-breeds, not a lucky thing to be in the proud Naksosi society, and without their father's protection some terrible fate was sure to befall them -- and she rested her hand on Rao's arm and whispered, "Make a gift of them for me."

Rao looked at her with shock and bewilderment, so Asha explained. "If you don't take them, Tzazike will claim you've forfeited his hospitality and that will get us nowhere. And if you don't take them he'll sell them for pillow slaves or worse."

Rao seemed to consider this, and after a moment he spoke. "This one is... honored by the Naksosi prince's thoughtful gift," he gritted out, the hard set of his jaw and the furrow in his brow making it clear that he was not honored at all. "This one's khagana has requested the young ones be given to her, so this one gives them to my Asha."

"Asha," Tzazike murmured. "Is that her name?"

Ilarya and Koriolan bowed once more before Tzazike, their foreheads touching the ground, and then walked over to Asha and Rao and bowed at the waist. Asha's heart bled for them. She gestured for them to come closer and saw that they were about Arden's age. The girl, Ilarya, gazed at her in wonder but the boy, Koriolan, could not bring himself to look up from his shoes. He looked utterly miserable. "Do you speak Nesarian?" Asha asked them.

Ilarya nodded mutely. Koriolan shifted from one foot to the other. "Then come and stand behind me," Asha told them. "You are safe now, no harm will come to you."

The banquet dragged on for a couple of hours. Asha choked down some unappetizing Naksosi cuisine. The twins followed her like ghost children, silent and pale-faced. Rao and Tzazike exchanged a few pleasantries, and then at last they were allowed to retire to their chambers. Asha released a deep breath that she had been unaware that she was holding as soon as the door slid shut behind them and they were out of the prince's sight or hearing.

In their chambers, Asha turned her attention back to the twins. Koriolan sat on the floor, his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms clasped around his legs, and when she tried to speak to him he turned his face away, miserable. Ilarya she found much more talkative.

Ilarya looked up at her pleadingly through her long bangs. "Don't listen to Prince Tzazike," she said. "Not a word he tells you. To him, you're just the best bred horse in the barn."

Despite Ilarya's warning, Asha couldn't deny that Tzazike was an exemplary host. He sent baskets of fresh fruit to their room, warm towels, scented water for them to wash their hands. Rao found the constant stream of delicacies and treats annoying, and said so. "He gives and gives, but his gifts mean nothing to him," he grumbled. "He smiles and smiles but his smiles also mean nothing. He is a hollow man."

"A hollow man," Asha repeated mindlessly as she stroked her hands across the softest robe she had ever touched. Her father had been like that, she thought. Careless. Thoughtless. Kaspian did as he pleased and never mind the consequences. Asha supposed that it was a mercy he didn't live to be king.

Asha glanced over at the twins, curled up on the couch, finally asleep. She had stayed up all night with them, listening to their stories. Their father, Edwyn Kella, had been a crony of Tzazike's until his sudden and mysterious death the same evening that their elder half-sister had set sail for Nesar. Ilarya and Koriolan had been living in Tzazike's palace since then, comfortably-kept hostages, waking every day not knowing what that day might hold. Their Naksosi mother had abandoned them once their father was dead and quickly remarried to a wealthy merchant; it was not fashionable to have half-breed children. Ilarya cried on Asha's shoulder when she told her that part.

Ilarya and Koriolan were thirteen, about the same age as Asha's brother Arden. The age he would be if he wasn't dead.

Asha stretched out on the bed. "Rao," she said softly. "Let's just go."

"Go?" Rao looked at her in confusion. "Return to Kyrosh?"

"No," Asha breated. "Go to Nesar. Let's set sail in the morning, dock at Merfort, declare war on Damon Grana. I could roast my stepmother alive by next week. We're so close. What's stopping us?"

Rao inhaled deeply, his nostrils flaring. "My Asha needs rest," he said, stroking her hair. "She speaks of that which cannot be."

Her eyes snapped to him, quick and fierce like the sting of a spark from the fire. "You never planned to go to Nesar!" she said, trying to wrench away from Rao. "All your talk of revenge, it was just talk!"

Rao pulled her closer. "Hush, my Asha. That is not true. This one vowed to make the dog Grana pay for his crimes. He will face Kyrosh's wrath soon enough."

"But why not now?" Asha's eyes filled with tears, and she wiped them away angrily. "We're so close, all we have is two days sail and we'll be in Nesar!"

"With only a handful of soldiers."

"Enough to kill Damon Grana!" she said. "Enough to kill the man who tried to steal me! Enough to kill the man who cut down your warriors!"

"We shall go, my Asha. Soon."


"Next year," he told her, smoothing down her hair.

Asha pushed away from him. "Next year! Next year something will happen -- I'll have another baby, or there'll be a poor harvest, and you'll say, this is not the time. Next year. And the year after that there will be a plague or a flood, and you'll say, this is not the time. Next year. And the year after that and the year after that, until Damon Grana and my harridan stepmother die peacefully in their beds of old age! There will never be a better time than now!" She tried to slow her speech, tried to sound more dignified, but the words poured out of her, ugly, painful words. Her vision blurred and she wiped away more tears. "If we do not go now then we will never go, Rao!"

Her husband drew back from her, and in her bewilderment Asha reached out for him. They had never argued before; she had always been the good wife, the good khagana. She had never seen that look of hurt on his face. But then Rao turned his back on her and Asha sobbed out loud.

"Go away!"

"Rao..." she began weakly.

"Go!" He ordered her. "This one must think on this. Go!"

She hesitated, but finally gathered her skirts and fled. Asha ran down the corridor until Rao was out of sight, and then slumped against a marble column. Sliding down to the floor, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes and struggled to keep from wailing. A confusing storm of anger and bitterness and guilt raged within her. She had never imagined seeing Rao look so hurt, much less by her words. She took several deep, shaky breaths and then stumbled to her feet. She walked until she came to a small balcony overlooking Tzazike's courtyard, and there she sat down on a stone bench, inhaling the intoxicating scent of jasmine and staring up at the full moon until her nerves calmed.

"Beautiful night, yes?"

Asha jumped to her feet, and whirled around to see Tzazike leaning against the doorway, holding an apple in his hand. Besides cat's eyes he seemed to have cat's feet. Remembering herself, she bowed, hoping he didn't notice her red eyes or trembling lips. "As you wish, Dread Lord," she said.

"I wish to share the night with the king's wife," he said amiably, strolling over as though neither he nor she had a care in the world. He pulled a small knife from his pocket, and the blade flashed in the moonlight. Asha instinctively startled, but Tzazike merely began peeling his apple. "We are kin, you and I," he said, gesturing for her to return to the bench. Asha hesitated, but then slowly walked over and sat down, carefully draping her skirts just so.

"Kin?" she asked. Asha knew her great-grandmother had been a Naksosi princess, but every Naksosi who had a ship and a cove to hide it in called himself a prince. She had never known that Queen Xrero was of the blood of the most powerful princely family.

Tzazike bit into his apple. He swallowed before continuing. "The old Nesarian king's wife was my grandfather's cousin -- his betrothed, before she was taken." He knelt to sit beside her on the bench. Asha had to stop herself from scooting away. "In my culture we consider cousins to be... a desired match," Tzazike went on. He held up the apple, silently offering a bite.

"My people often marry cousins as well," Asha said, and then to be polite she leaned forward to take a small bite of his apple. Tzazike watched as she leaned back and licked a spot of juice from the corner of her mouth. His eyes were piercing and curiously pale, and he was really a good-looking man. Asha wondered what it would be like to kiss him. She had never touched a man other than Rao, and knew nothing of another man's kisses.

Tzazike's hand brushed against her neck. Asha found herself holding her breath as he pulled her sleeve down to bare her shoulder. "I am a married woman," she said weakly as he went to kiss the curve of her neck. His lips felt soft and his breath warm as they touched her.

"A shame," Tzazike mouthed against her skin. "A shame you married that desert barbarian. A shame my cousin was not good enough for me instead."

Asha shoved him away from her, feeling a thrill race through her body at the sight of the surprise and confusion on Tzazike's smug face. She pulled her sleeve back up to cover her shoulder. "Your cousin," she spat, "may not be good enough to be your wife, but I am much too good to be your whore."

Perhaps realizing how badly he had erred, Tzazike tried to explain, making consoling motions with his hands. "I misspoke, Asha," he said. "A mistranslation. My Kyroshi is not perfect. You must understand--"

Asha glared at him with pure loathing. Why had she allowed this snake to hypnotize her? This slave-master, this corsair in a prince's robes, Tzazike was not fit to walk in Rao's shadow. He did not love her; he did not even know her. All Tzazike saw when he looked at her was some exotic prize to be won. She shuddered, as though still feeling his touch on her skin. "I understand perfectly," she said, turning her back on him, "that my place is with my husband. Farewell, Dread Lord!"

She stormed off the balcony, and as soon as she was out of Tzazike's sight Asha broke into a run. She hitched up her skirts and ran all the way back to Rao's guest chambers, running past Naksosi slaves who stared at her in open-mouthed shock, past mosaics of sea battles and altars to the gods. She wrenched open the heavy doors and ran into the chambers, searching for her husband. Rao sat at the window, staring out at the ocean. He looked up at her, his face so open and so trusting that Asha had to choke back a sob.

"My Asha," Rao said, and he held out his arms to her. She fell against him, clinging to him, her arms wrapped around his neck.

His hands stroked her hair. "Tomorrow the ships will sail," Rao told her. "For my Asha's kingdom."

Asha buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed, and hoped that he thought they were tears of joy, not guilt.

The next morning, Rao and Asha attended a farewell banquet held in their honor. It would have been a grave insult to their host not to attend, so Asha had to grin and bear it for Rao's sake even though she wanted nothing so much as to run to the ships and set sail as quickly as possible. As she sat by Rao's side on a balcony overlooking the harbor, Tzazike and some of his lordlings surrounding them in a half-moon shape, like a vice closing around them, Asha no longer felt so much honored as on display. He thinks my husband and I are foreign curiosities, Asha thought to herself, glaring at Tzazike's smug face. Barbarians playing at being king and queen. She remembered Ilarya's warning, and clenched her teeth. I am nothing more than livestock to him. A slave-girl with the dusty skin of a Kyroshi knelt before her, offering her a platter of stuffed grapeleaves. Asha waved her away.

"King's wife, have you lost your appetite?" Tzazike asked breezily, quirking his eyebrows in false concern. "You have hardly touched your meal."

"Forgive me, cousin Tzazike," Asha said before she could stop herself. Tzazike bristled at the cavalier use of his first name. Clearly the Dread Lord of the Naksosi did not like his lordlings to be reminded of his kinship to a bastard Nesarian mongrel. Asha bit her tongue, but she decided the damage had been done already, and she might as well speak her mind. "I am unaccustomed to being offered food on platters held by shackled hands," she said, forcing herself to smile.

"Ah, yes," Tzazike said, his tone a little too curt and clipped. "The mountain barbarians who raised you eat with their fingers, don't they? Poor thing, it must've been quite an adjustment to you, mixing with civilized company."

Asha considered setting him on fire. They could never prove it was her doing. "Yes, cousin, it is a strange honor to break bread with corsairs and slavers grown fat on human flesh. I suppose I haven't enough Naksosi blood to be comfortable with such things." She glanced to her side to see Rao smiling around his wine glass.

The Naksosi lordlings whispered amongst themselves. "No, I suppose not," said Tzazike, and the whispers fell silent at his words. "It is unfortunate that Xrero was taken by the Nesarian warlord who called himself king, for had she remained with her people you would never have been born at all."

"Nor would you," Asha reminded him. "For had my great-grandfather not made Xrero his wife and queen, she would have married your grandfather, and the sun might've rose and set on a world without you. As it is, she had to content herself with being queen of a land far greater than a handful of islands."

Tzazike's voice fell low and threatening. "You make a fool of yourself, king's wife."

"And you fool yourself, cousin," Asha said, popping a single grape into her mouth. The corner of Tzazike's eye twitched.

"Dread Lord--" began one of the Naksosi lordlings, but Tzazike slammed his fist on the table, silencing everyone. The lordlings all held their breaths. Asha took pride in having not flinched, while Rao was as serene as a summer's day. Tzazike stood, shoving back his chair with more force than was strictly necessary. Slaves darted out of his way as he stalked from the balcony, shoulders hunched and fists clenched. Rao watched him retreat, then stood and offered Asha his gloved hand to help her up from her own seat.

"This one feels that the diplomacy between the kingdom of the Kyroshi and the Dread Lord was most pleasing," Rao said amiably. Asha took his arm and they strolled from the patio, all eyes on them as they left the assorted lordlings holding their forks and half-empty wine glasses. Good riddance, Asha thought as they walked down marble steps back towards their chambers. I hope I see all their heads mounted on the ramparts one day. Suddenly everything that had amazed her about Naksos a few days ago left her angry and irritated; the crowds that squacked like seabirds, the glaring sun and garish colors, the way everything tasted salty, even the water. But most especially the manacled hands she saw everywhere, the slaves darting about Tzazike's palace like rats.

They set sail within the hour, without bothering to ask permission from Tzazike or say their farewells. Below deck, in their quarters, Asha made pallets for the Kella twins and laid them at the foot of hers and Rao's bed. "You are not our slaves, but our honored guests," she assured them. Koriolan still looked about fearfully, but Ilarya boldly asked her, "Why are you being so nice to us?"

Asha sighed. "I had a sister and a brother about your age."