To show my commitment to this story, for these last few chapters I am including excerpts from the next book as well!
Nari absent-mindedly stroked her stomach…her child. Her dresses had become tight so fast, but to a point that only Nari noticed. She rubbed the sleep away from her eyes and wondered how much longer she could conceal the truth.
She looked up as Sraemy entered the room, muttering to himself. He approached his jewelry chest, oblivious as usual to the scenes around him. She watched as he fingered through various amulets, as befitting his new station. He ruffled through the chest in his habitual disorganized fashion, until he found what he was looking for. Her husband held the amulet to the morning light then froze when he noticed Nari.
"You are still in bed?"
Nari cradled her stomach as if she were already holding their child. She nodded weakly.
A frown crossed Sraemy's face and he lowered his jewelry. He approached the bed and squeezed her shoulder.
"Are you well, my princess?"
Nari forced a smile. "Of course. How are you?"
It had been so long since they had spoken. Sometimes she wondered if he even slept in the same bed with her. He always returned late at night when she was asleep and gone before she woke up, with only warmth in the sheets betraying his presence. His absence had been so great that he was oblivious of the morning sickness she endured.
Sraemy sighed. "Stressed and busy. Your brother has given me a mound of work to complete that only seems to grow."
"If anyone can tackle it, you can," Nari encouraged. She pecked him on the cheek and he favoured her a soft smile that melted her heart.
He stood and bounced over to the chest, throwing the amulet over his neck with such gusto that it swung violently, glinting in the sunlight.
"I have yet to even ask Tor to teach me Latium."
"Foreign affairs can wait," Nari said, memorizing how the light accentuated his cheekbones.
"Indeed." He adjusted the amulet then turned to her. "How do I look?" He struck a ridiculous, pompous pose. Nari could not help but laugh.
Sraemy flashed his boyish grin and jumped over to give her a quick peck. He made to leave, but turned back to cup her cheek. His dark eyes were serious for a moment.
"You are well, Nari?
Again, Nari forced herself to smile. She blushed at his touch. "Of course. Do not let me keep you from your work."
He patted her cheek with affection. Nari ignored the dark thoughts that hissed the gesture was more platonic than romantic. She watched him leave with a heavy heart. The moment he was gone, she sagged against the wall, unmoved from her bed and caressing her stomach once again.
They had consummated their marriage only once. Nari could not believe the fortune. Or misfortune: she had no idea how Sraemy would take the news. He was a dutiful husband: affectionate and attentive, but there was an indescribable distance. Sometimes Nari wondered if it was her own fault. Perhaps it was her pushing him away, for fear of falling for man whose heart was devoted to another.
I am being cynical, she reprimanded herself, and I should trust my husband.
Quenching her doubts was almost a daily mantra. Nari had all she desired and hated herself for wanting more. It would take time to truly win Sraemy's affections. He was hers and she was his—at least that was a comfort.
Nari sighed again and hauled her sore body out of bed. She splashed her face with cool water and a servant handed a towel. Nari glanced at the retreating servant as she dried her face.
She caught the judgment in the girl's eyes. Nari was used to stares from her entourage. Their made-up faces were masks of obedience, but Nari's mother had always taught her that it was the eyes that betrayed a woman. A wave of betrayal hit her.
"You believe I should tell him," Nari stated.
The servant remained silent, eyes concentrated on her feet. It was unheard of for a royal to address a servant. An indescribable part of Nari snapped. She strode forward until she was directly in front of the girl. In the corner of her eye, she saw the others sneak their comrade fearful glances. Nari felt her neck heat up with indignation. How could they fear her? She had been nothing but kind to her help.
"I was speaking to you."
The girl shifted and peaked up through her bangs, only to look away.
"Tell me what you were thinking: you shall only come to harm if you disobey me."
The girl mumbled and Nari fought the urge to lift the girl's chin so she could look into her eyes. It would be unseemly to touch a slave.
"Speak truth. Do you believe I should tell him?"
There was a pause. Then, quietly, the servant responded, " He is your husband, Your Highness."
One of the other girls gasped quietly at her comrade's boldness and an older woman gripped her arm, shushing her.
Nari surveyed them all with watery eyes. "Leave us."
Her servants scurried out; a few shot worried looks at their friend. Once Nari was sure they were all gone, she sat down on a bench near the window. Djal had always joked the very palace walls had ears.
"Pour us both some water." Her delicate stomach could not handle any sweet juices. The servant obeyed and handed Nari the cup with a bow.
"Sit." The girl hesitated. "Sit," Nari repeated and this time the girl sat, shaking.
"What is your name?"
"Manzuma, Your Highness."
"Manzuma, you are not in trouble," Nari assured.
Inwardly, she wondered what she was doing. She was acting far below her station, yet her desperation compelled her to continue. "You need not fear. I merely wish your opinion. Now why do you believe I should tell my husband?"
Manzuma paused, tucking a stray hair behind her ear. It struck Nari that this is what she must look like to others. Frustratingly shy.
"He is your husband."
"Yes, you said that. Why else?"
Again, the girl paused, as if debating whether or not to speak truthfully. Manzuma took a deep breath and answered, "The Pharaoh already knows, as does the Queen, your husband should hear the news from Your Highness, not others."
Nari blinked in surprise. She had chastised herself the minute she told Kraos, shocked that she had so willingly shared her secret. She hated to admit, but the servant was right. Another thought surfaced in her mind.
"How do you know this?"
Nari's heart stopped. She had always been wary of the slaves, ever present around their masters. For the first time, it occurred to her how much they must know.
"I worry for Sraemy's reaction." Nari stopped herself, surprised at her own boldness. Perhaps because Manzuma was merely a servant, but it was still so unlike Nari to share information.
I must be very lonely.
Manzuma looked genuinely shocked. "But he is your husband! It is the greatest gift a woman can give and you are blessed so early in the marriage."
A soft smile graced Nari's lips. She could only hope Sraemy would view her pregnancy that way. He was such a child himself; Nari was sure he would make an amazing father.
"I hope I can entrust you with this information," Nari said, her voice stern. "There is a reason I dismissed the others."
Manzuma nodded. "Of course, Your Highness. Your prudence has not escaped us, especially in comparison to other masters—Kindness as well, I would not want to lose this position."
The girl blushed as she realized she had just insulted Nari's family. Nari let the indiscretion slide. She did not wish Manzuma to be vengeful now that she had private insight.
A silence stretched while Nari breathed. She glanced out the window, watching as a flock of birds clouded the sun for an instant, casting a momentary shadow across the city.
When she turned back to Manzuma, she noticed the girl biting her lip. Manzuma felt Nari's inquisitive look and met her eyes. In any other circumstance, or with any other master, Manzuma would be beaten for such nerve.
"I am serious, Your Highness, I do not wish any harm to you, nor do I wish you to be sent away so that I may have to serve another."
"Why are you telling me this?" Nari's heart was beating. Manzuma knew a secret, a secret that could hurt Nari.
Manzuma breathed deeply as if calming her nerves. Nari noticed she was shaking again. "I mean no disrespect, nor any malice, I only speak out of loyalty and love of my position."
"Tell me. Do not be afraid of insulting me."
She bit her lip again and then glanced back up at her mistress. "I believe it best to announce your pregnancy publically as soon as possible."
Nari frowned. She had made Manzuma far too bold and should punish her for imposing opinions on Nari's affairs, but she was too curious about Manzuma's insight.
"And why is that?"
"It may just be gossip among the servants…but the Pharoah told his Queen to keep your pregnancy a secret."
"As he should have."
Manzuma nodded. "Yes, as it is not His Majesty's child. However…and again servant speculation…the servants noticed the Queen was a little too happy at the news…in particular the secrecy portion. She informed the Pharaoh that she would love to congratulate you on your pregnancy."
Nari took a moment to absorb the information. Yet, no matter the angle she repeated the story, she could not find any danger.
"That is kind of her," Nari answered, political. "Perhaps she wishes our children to grow together."
Doubt flashed through Manzuma's eyes. It was momentary, but Nari caught it. Nari raised a brow.
"Tell me what you know." When the girl did not respond, Nari slid closer. "You have no need to fear me. If you suspect any danger that may come to me, you must let me know. Else, I cannot protect you."
Manzuma looked away and wiped clammy hands on her skirt. "Please, Your Highness, I fear for my life. The words I am about to utter are treasonous. If you do not wish to hear them, do not force me to speak."
"I wish to hear all."
Another pause then, Manzuma whispered, "Slaves say the Queen is not pregnant."
"What?" Nari could not help the outburst. Manzuma flinched and glanced nervously around the room. "But she has grown, I have seen her stomach myself! The sickness and weakness…she must be pregnant."
"I cannot answer for sure, Your Highness," Manzuma admitted. "Nor give proof. I only know what I see and hear and all the slaves are whispering in the darkest corners of the palace that something is not right."
Nari bit her lip and looked outside. Could there be truth to this story? She reflected on Halima the last few months, her movement to the guest chambers every few moons to help Kraos sleep prior to important council meetings; the switch to heavier and darker dresses…would she truly be so stupid as to lie to Kraos?
"Who does her laundry?" Nari asked, thinking of the dark dresses. Were they meant to conceal some form of padding?
"That is why I have no proof. Only servants from her house are allowed to do laundry and it takes place in secrecy. None of the palace workers know when or where her laundry goes."
"And the morning sickness?"
"Again, she surrounds herself with her own people, but a slave once caught her with a finger down her throat."
Nari rubbed her face, conflicted. She hated politics. It was unlike her to meddle, never mind interrogate a servant for private information. But if there was an inch of truth to these suspicions, then Kraos was involved. He desperately wanted an heir. If Halima was faking pregnancy, her brother would be heartbroken and made a fool. Nari wondered if she could let that happen. He was Pharaoh, true, but behind their difference in status, he was also her baby brother.
"And why are you telling me this."
Manzuma's eyes were filled with sadness. "Why fake a pregnancy without a baby to steal?"
Nari's heart stopped. She felt her eyes widen and she automatically clutched her stomach with new possession.
"I am Kraos's sister. My baby would be of the same blood." Manzuma nodded. "Kraos may not notice the difference and I have kept it a secret in-so-far."
Nari mulled over the horrific news, hoping these were only suspicions. A feeling of dread overcame her as yet another question popped into her mind.
"You said you did not wish to lose me, that you are risking your life so you do not lose your position. Why?"
Manzuma's eyes became pained and Nari realized with a shock that she did not need an answer.
Should Nari be royally commanded to give her baby to Halima, Nari would have to fake a miscarriage, giving Sraemy a good reason to leave her. Nari would then be swept into Panya's schemes and most likely married into some far away kingdom as part of a war truce, as originally planned.
Her heart dropped. Despite her fears for the future, Nari strangely was more upset by this. Even her servants knew her husband did not return her love. They may even gossip that he would leave her at the first mistake. Nari attempted to hide the hurt welling up inside her; she may have opened up to this slave, but she would be damned before she would cry in front of her.
Nari composed herself and forced a smile. "Thank you Manzuma for your honesty. I trust that this conversation will be kept between us."
"What will—" Manzuma froze mid-sentence, realizing she had spoken out of turn. She blushed. "Apologies, Your Highness, a servant should never ask questions."
"You already started."
"What will you do, Your Highness?"
No idea, Nari thought, but she refused to show weakness.
"First find proof, then act from there," Nari said. "Tell the servants that you are all dismissed for the time-being. I need to think in quiet. Guards shall fetch you should I have any need."
Manzuma bowed. "Your Highness."
"Remember, secrecy is of the utmost importance. When the servants ask what occurred here, complain to them of my cruelty."
Manzuma nodded dutifully. She paused for a moment, staring at her cup. In one swift movement, Manzuma raised the cup and brutally smashed it against her face. Once, twice, thrice. Water spilled over the floor. Nari cried out at the unexpected violence, her eyes wide with shock. Manzuma wiped blood from her nose with the back of her hand. She grabbed some cloth and wiped up the water while Nari watched, too stunned to speak.
Manzuma stood and bowed once again. "Now they will believe me and now Your Highness has their loyalty too."
Without another word, the servant left. Nari pinched her arm to ensure she had not just dreamt that scene.
All of a sudden, her ears roared and tears poured from her eyes. Would Sraemy truly leave her? She curled in a ball, rocking herself. Slaves un-blinded by love seemed to believe so. Somehow, that made her fears become more real. Nari rested her head on the wall. She stupidly wished Sraemy were there to hold her, to comfort her and whisper the rumors were false.
Nari did not know how long she wept. She cried and cried, her body shaking at the effort. Soon, the stone became wet from absorbed tears, smeared with kohl stains. She sobbed until her body was dry.
Nari stood and splashed her face, fetching her own towel to wipe away remaining makeup. She caught her reflection in the pool, a distraught woman with puffy eyes and mussed hair staring back at her. Nari did not like this woman: so unhappy, her perfect world threatening to shatter. Nari gulped air until her breathing slowed. A calm washed over.
They are just rumors, not truths. Sraemy still cares for you, though it may not be in the way you want, Nari told herself, attempting to be logical.
She moved back to the window, inhaling the heavy outdoor air. Nari needed to compose herself. If there was any truth to Manzuma's suspicions, then Nari should prepare for a visit from the queen. Nari debated how Halima would breach the subject. If she did plan to steal Nari's baby, she would have to confide in Nari. Nari was known for her apathy, so it would not take Halima long.
I truly am the perfect candidate, Nari thought bitterly.
Nari rubbed her stomach once again. She would not tell Sraemy until she knew Halima's intentions. The thought of Sraemy sent another wave of sadness through her, but Nari was too exhausted to cry again. A soft smile played on her lips as she looked down on her growing stomach.
This child will love me, she realized, even if Sraemy does not.
Even if Halima took her child, Nari vowed she would still love it as her own. She wished at that moment that she was Iset. Iset would fight for her baby. Disgust rose up like vomit in Nari's throat. She was too weak.
Nari stood. She needed to get out of her room. The walls seemed to close in on her, like the teeth of a trap. Nari stepped out of her room to find her whole retinue of female slaves waiting for her. They snapped to attention faster than the guards, fear wafting off their dark bodies.
"Find my sister," Nari ordered and was satisfied when two scurried away in opposite directions.
The others watched the two hastened away, eyes wide. Nari did not blame them. She had never behaved so decisively in her life. Without another glance, Nari took a different path than her two slaves. Perhaps she would bump into Iset first.
Nari yearned for her younger sister. Iset was a bully, but Nari always felt safer and stronger around her. Iset emanated ease and power, despite her female stature.
Perhaps it is more than beauty Sraemy sees in my sister, Nari thought.
Her travel was stopped short by Djal. As if sensing Nari's distress, he bowed deeply in proper decorum.
Nari nodded and made to pass, but Djal followed. "Djal," Nari whispered. Even upset, Nari's voice was soft. She hated it.
"Your Highness," Djal said, "I was heading to your quarters to see you."
Nari glanced over in surprise.
"His Majesty has told me of…" he paused, remembering Nari's pregnancy was secret, "…the good news. He has commanded me to discuss how you wish for the education of…such a gift."
Nari inwardly raised her eyebrows. It was more than premature to think of schooling for her child. There was another motivation for Kraos sending the scribe. Nari kept her silence and waited for Djal to embellish.
"May we…speak in private for a moment, Your Highness?"
The request was beyond rude for a princess. Nari felt her anger flare at the indiscretion. Djal would never command her siblings.
Disgusted with herself, Nari nodded and commanded her retinue to hold back. She walked a little down the hall, so that they were still within sight of her guards, but out of earshot.
Djal glanced around, wringing his ink-stained hands. "This command was a surprise for both of us, Your Highness. Of course, the true purpose of the Pharaoh commanding me is not to discuss lesson plans. He wishes I stay by your side until the baby is born."
Nari blinked in surprise. Did Kraos have his suspicions as well?
Djal swallowed and peeked around once again for listeners. "Rashidi has suddenly appeared in my life," Djal whispered. "Commander Anhar was sent back to the battlefront without the right to enter the walls. Events are afoot."
Nari sighed. The walk was meant to ease her mind, not burden it further. "That is none of my concern."
Djal's dark eyes studied her. "It should, Your Highness. I was commanded to watch over you, not your younger sister, which only leaves one explanation."
Nari raised her brows.
Djal stepped closer, his voice low, "that your brother believes you need protection."
How about from his wife, Nari thought bitterly.
Instead, she said, "He should think more of his future heir."
"Indeed, I am to tutor his child as well," Djal agreed. Nari carefully kept her face placid. It seemed only she and her servants suspected Halima. "But truly we must talk. I am no warrior, Your Highness. However, in court, Rashidi and I are the best body guards money can buy."
Out of the corner of her eye, Nari saw that the two slave girls she had sent had returned. She refocused on Djal and nodded.
"I will be in my chambers at sunset."
She walked away and beckoned to the slave girls. Her scouts had found Iset in a minor courtyard, characterized by shady trees. Bushes lined the path and insects flitted around the pond.
Nari paused beside a column. She held up a hand to stop her retinue. Her light eyes searched the midday haze for Iset's own slaves and guards and found none. A movement across the courtyard caught her eye. Nari narrowed her eyes as she saw a column's shadow grow. Sunlight caught blonde hair and a chill set through her body. Livius. As if noticing her stare, the shadow receded back into the dark passageway.
Nari walked alone through the courtyard. Her slow steps quiet as she looked for Iset and the Latium commander. She turned a corner and spotted them in the shade of trees. They stood close, Iset pacing while Tor languidly leaned against the tree, talking. His gold fleck eyes glanced up and his lips quirked. Nari watched his mouth move, her body paralyzed with fear. Iset turned and Nari noted her sister had tears in her eyes.
"Nari, sister dear," Iset called. Her dark eyes suddenly dry and a smirk pasted on her lips. "What a delightful surprise. Commander, we shall continue this discussion later."
Tor nodded, smiling as ever, and stalked off to join Livius. The two princesses watched them leave.
Iset gestured Nari to approach and embraced her. Nari watched as her sister's sharp eyes caught sight of Nari's retinue.
Iset stroked Nari's hair with affection. "I know what you are thinking. It is dangerous to be alone with a man like this." She winked. "What you must think of me."
"My thoughts are not what you should worry about."
Iset's face grew serious for a moment, but she quickly masked the emotion with a flippant wave of her hand. "Gossip is the least of my worries these days."
Nari raised a brow. Something felt deeply wrong. As always, Nari had no idea what to say. Instead she took Iset's hands and gave them a feeble squeeze.
Iset smiled. "Come into the trees," she said, a little too loud, "the sun is harsh today."
Nari obeyed, already forgetting her problems. Iset's countenance was making her uneasy. It was more forced than usual. She felt her sister's eyes searching her face. Nari as always kept her eyes downcast from that predatory stare.
"Nari, you know I love you, right?"
"Of course," Nari whispered. She was growing scared.
"And do you love me?" Iset's gaze was intense. Nari gave her hands another squeeze. With surprising strength, Iset pulled Nari closer. "Nari, I truly have made a mess of things this time around."
Nari looked up in surprise.
Iset dropped her hands. "Oh do not give me that innocent stare. I always make a mess. I thrive in chaos, but this time, I have gone too far."
There was a long pause where Nari waited for Iset to continue. For once, her sister remained silent.
"Iset, what is wrong?"
Iset ignored the question. She reached up and plucked a leaf from the tree. Her fingers ripped it and green dye squirted out onto her hands. Uncharacteristically, Iset paid no heed.
"Is your love of me unconditional?" she blurted. "What if I lied to you?"
Who do you not lie to, Nari wanted to retort, but she merely smiled.
"What if I conducted myself as a whore?" Nari said nothing. "Or if I murdered someone?"
Nari pulled the leaf from Iset's shaking hands. Iset's cheeks coloured as if she were about to cry.
"You are my little sister," Nari comforted. It felt strange to be strong for once. Iset did not respond, so Nari confided, "Mother says you were a noisy baby, always crying, always needing attention."
Iset gave a humourless laugh. "And never does she let me forget."
Nari smiled. "It was true. You were terrible. One night, you were screaming for hours. Even the cats could not sleep for your howling. Father was away and mother had had enough of you and moved to the guest chambers. No slave could lay you to rest. Kraos and I grew tired of the noise and came to your room. Kraos wanted to throttle you…but then, when I looked into your crib, you suddenly went silent. You glanced up with your dark eyes and smiled. I will never forget that moment."
Iset's eyes were downcast, but Nari saw her lips quirk. Iset pulled her into a tight embrace, knocking Nari's breath away.
"What about treason?" Iset whispered in her ear. "Would you still love me then?"
Nari froze. She pinched her arm to see if she had imagined Iset's confession. She pulled away and gripped Iset's shoulders.
"What have you done, now?"
Iset's dark eyes were vulnerable. She looked like a doe. "The Queen," Iset whispered, "I poisoned the Queen."
Iset winced as Nari's grip tightened. "But she still lives?"
If Iset were to poison someone, she would be long dead by now.
"No, no not to kill her…I poisoned her womb, to make her infertile."
Iset ripped herself out of Nari's grasp. She raked a hand through her silky hair. "She was being terrible. I only wanted her out of the way." She looked back at Nari, eyes wide. "I know it was wrong, but I needed her gone."
"And now she is pregnant."
"So what is the issue? Did someone find out?" Nari thought of Tor. Was he blackmailing her sister?
As if reading her thoughts, Iset said, "Tor knew from the beginning. I could not attain such herbs without arousing suspicion, so Tor found a pregnant girl in the kitchens and offered to go to the city to purchase some for her."
"And he bought extra?"
Iset slapped her forehead. "Why did I not think of that?"
Fear rose in Nari's stomach. "You stole the herbs," she stated. "You stole the herbs and replaced them with fakes."
Iset gulped. "Yes."
"And now this servant is still pregnant and asking questions."
"And Halima is still pregnant."
"Yes, by some miracle," Iset seethed. "And now if my scheme ever surfaces, Halima will still be here to pass the sentence. My head will be rotting on a spike with only birds for company."
Nari exhaled, shocked. "Iset what would drive you to such measures?"
Iset kicked the dirt like a petulant child. "Mother."
"She is sending me away, Nari." Iset's eyes began to tear.
"Tomorrow. A few days. A moon's passing. Who knows? She is loving every minute of my torture."
There was another long silence. Iset moved from the leaves to picking at the tree's bark. Nari tried to digest her sister's dire situation. It occurred to her that she could share Manzuma's suspicions with Iset…made even more realistic with Iset's antics. However, Nari knew if she did, Iset would act irrationally. Nari still had no proof of Halima's own agenda. Besides, she refused to meddle.
"I really have made a mess of things, haven't I?" Tears were now flowing freely down Iset's cheeks. "Exile or death, my future is bleak." She sniffed quietly. "I thought I had it all figured out, but now all I see are my hopes and dreams crashing around me."
Nari tentatively raised a hand to her sister's cheek. She wiped away a tear.
"Do not speak like that."
Iset looked up to her. "I am at a loss of what to do."
Nari realized Iset was waiting for some advice. She sighed. She had come to Iset for strength, only to find Iset needed hers. Nari wish she could be wise or tough for her sister, but she could not.
"As am I," Nari finally replied. "If anyone can figure a way out of this tangle of lies, you can."
"I used to believe that as well. The Gods' have cursed me. I wish father was here."
You would not be so desperate if father was here, Nari thought.
"I miss him too," she whispered. "Iset, refrain from doing anything rash. Mother has yet to send you away and the servant has yet to gossip to anyone important." Nari recalled her morning and how she had coped. She added, "Go to your chambers and cry as much as you want, then dry your tears. You will feel better, I promise. Lie low until you figure something out."
Iset wiped her face and nodded. She made to leave, but another thought hit Nari.
"And Iset? No more poison."
Within a fraction of a second, Iset's countenance changed. It was as if Iset's breakdown was a figment of imagination. Apart from the wetness on her cheeks, her eyes were bright and dry. She flashed a cheeky grin.
"I shall dear sister."
Iset headed down the path, leaving Nari confused at the erratic behavior. Then, she turned to find Halima standing by the columns.
"I had no idea there was a sisterly reunion," Halima commented once Nari had greeted her. "I am hurt I was not invited."
Nari favoured a weak smile, her heart pounding. "My apologies, Your Majesty. It was unplanned."
Halima smirked as if she had heard every word of Iset's conversation, though if she had, Nari doubted Halima would waste time bullying her.
"Unplanned yet so…" she tapped her lips in mock contemplation "emotional," Halima finished, eyes triumphant
Halima desperately desired information on Iset's devastation, but she had chosen the wrong confidant. Nari tilted her head in dismissal, deciding a shrug was too inappropriate.
A silence drew out while Halima seemingly waited for a confession. Paranoia spread through Nari's body as she remembered Manzuma's words: Slaves talk. Were they watching her right now, waiting for the latest gossip? Unable to restrain her curiousity, Nari glanced beyond Halima and noticed something unusual: the slaves, they were not the ones Panya had gifted the new Queen.
Hope fluttered in Nari's heart. If the rumours were true, then Halima was in the middle of her bleeding. She was tempted to comment, but thought better of becoming a threat to Halima.
Instead, she returned Halima's favour and fished for information. "How is my brother? He seems quite busy."
The Queen did not bother to hide her disappointment. "Extremely. He has so many meetings and duties," she paused to rub her belly with affection, "that I wonder how he managed to gift me a heir!"
Nari smiled softly. Halima looped an arm through Nari's and leaned in conspiratorially.
"In fact, I hear congratulations are in order for you; please, do not be angry with my husband for telling me. We are both so excited."
The Queen stopped, expecting a response. Nari was too busy trying to quench her dread to think of an answer.
Halima laughed, though it sounded nervous. "Truly Nari, you are so mysterious." She hesitated then asked, "How long have you known?"
Nari shook her head; she did not want to aid the Queen in her scheme in any way. "I cannot say, Your Majesty."
Another silence stretched in which Halima shifted. "You cannot say? Then how do you know? I am in no way doubting you," she quickly added when Nari stiffened.
"My apologies, sister, when greatest dreams come true, one often is scared to admit it, in case they wake up and it was all a rouse."
Halima appeared to ponder on her words. Nari wondered unkindly if the Queen even understood what she had said.
To Nari's surprise, Halima pulled her into a quick embrace, kissing her cheek. "It should seem both our dreams have come true. I shall pray to the gods for a healthy boy."
With that, Halima left Nari alone in the courtyard with her entourage. All doubt left Nari's mind, as she pondered, She prays for a boy, not two.
As the glaring sun disappeared behind the horizon, Djal arrived as promised. He joined her at the window, hands behind his hunched back.
"Beautiful sunset," he attempted to break the silence. "All awash with colours. I remember sunset and sunrise are your favourite."
A smile crept on her face. His presence comforted her, despite her intentions with him.
"I always feel closer to the gods at these times," Nari shared. "One cannot know the colour of the gods."
Djal chuckled at the reference to his old teachings. "The gods themselves are unknowable and thus are no colour and every colour. I see you remember much from our classes as well."
The conversation lulled and Nari savoured the calm. Throughout the day, she had debated how to deal with Halima, Kraos and Iset-Whether to act at all.
All the people she loved seemed to be going up in flames and Nari hesitated to throw herself in the blaze to save them.
If you give in to Halima, it will not stop, she thought, attempting to assuage her wrangled nerves. Iset will fall first and hard, then mother soon after. Kraos could be humiliated, his power diminished.
The selfish part of her added, and how much longer are you and Sraemy safe from her destructive path?
Nari breathed to extinguish her rising fear. She was placing her head on the chopping board and the knife in Djal's hands. He was a known spy of both Panya and Iset…Nari could only hope his loyalty remained to her family, despite his betrayal to individuals.
"Some music for our guest," Nari ordered, setting her mind on the task ahead. As an afterthought she added, "and platters worth of our honorable guest." As her slaves rushed out, Nari commanded, "Do not leave the kitchens until it is ready."
She inwardly grinned as the slaves made haste to obey. Manzuma had clearly placed fear in their hearts. She turned to Djal as instruments were set up and tuned. His eyebrows were furrowed in worry at her assurance their conversation would remain private.
A jaunty song struck up and it was safe to speak.
"Djal I need your silence and guidance."
The old scribe seated himself next to her, facing the servants as if watching them play.
"I am serious, Djal. In the desert, you provided me sage advice and I listened. I am placing a lot of trust in you."
Djal did not respond immediately, so Nari pressed, "You pause? I will not continue until I have your word."
His tight lips lifted into a rueful smile. "Pardons, Your Highness, but do I have a choice?"
"No, not because it is a royal command, but because it will affect you either today or in future years. Either way, you will have to deal with it."
Djal glanced over in surprise at her harsh words. Nari so rarely spoke, never mind demanded obedience.
"This sounds serious," he hazard. "You have my word."
"You must keep this a secret. My mother, brother and sister must not know of this. I need your advice, not actions."
Nari bit her lip, unsure how to proceed. Her heart thundered in her throat. "Our Queen has two sets of slaves," she began, "one for daily activities, the other are of her house not the palace and they are responsible for her mornings and laundry every few moons passing."
Djal frowned. "That is indeed strange, but perhaps wise. The court has spies everywhere. You know this, Nari, as you yourself has ensured no slave can overhear us."
Nari took a deep breath then relayed her conversation with Manzuma and the resulting events of the day. She tactfully removed her meeting with Iset, sticking to the fake pregnancy. By the end of it, Djal's face remained unmoved, but his leathery skin had paled.
"This is indeed a grave accusation." His eyebrows knit together. He sighed, "Unfortunately, Your Highness, there is little I can council nor do."
Nari fought the urge to plunge her face into her hands. She had never felt so helpless. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Djal stroked his chin in thought, dark orbs pensive.
"But I know who can," he said with finality. Nari cringed at the wariness in his words.
"Who?" she asked, fearful of the answer.
"I am afraid this is more of Rashidi's field. Court games have never been to my taste or my strength."
Nari's stomach squirmed at the suggestion. "I do not trust that man," she whispered.
"Nor should you," Djal agreed. "If you ask me, he is the most dangerous man in court."
"Then why him?"
"When he is on your side, defeat is near impossible."
"Because he always chooses the winning side," Nari shot back.
Djal chuckled without humour. "You are cleverer than most." He paused then continued, "I am by no means vouching for his loyalty nor do I encourage you to trust him. He is a shrewd man and hard to predict, but one aspect you can depend upon in any man is self-preservation."
Nari frowned in confusion. Djal caught her expression and smiled secretly, "In other words, Rashidi has a lot to gain from this information-More advantages than taking you down. He will not know of your involvement, you have my word."
It was true, Nari was no threat to the royal advisor, but the illumination made her uneasy. Again, Djal read her disquiet. He shifted closer to her, as if to comfort her as a father.
"Nari…Your Highness… are you sure you wish me to proceed?"
"I get the feeling that I have only one piece of a grand puzzle."
Djal nodded. "The final piece, to Halima's puzzle at least. Her demise is inevitable. She is too bold for this marriage and has squashed too many toes." He looked outside, smiling at the irony as he added, "her strong, aggressive sun is setting."
"Then why are you so wary?"
Djal sighed, looking old for a moment. "I want to ensure you understand the implications. This will shake the court and affect those closest to you, including yourself. Once I tell Rashidi, it is out of our control. You must prepare for change."
Nari mulled over his words, deep foreboding ripping through her. She thought of Iset and her dire situation. A scandal may either arouse Halima's suspicions of her infertility or refocus negative attention upon her and away from Iset. "Who will this be advantageous to, other than Rashidi?"
"In these matters, it is best not to know," Djal answered cryptically. "Definitely not our vivacious Queen."
Or Iset, Nari worried. She longed to confide in Djal about Iset's demise and ask for her to be protected. However, she stopped herself. Djal may tell Rashidi and he must not know of Iset's weak stand in court.
"So, Nari, shall I proceed?"
She pondered, torn between her fears and logic. Her mind grasped at the implications of her actions, but the potential future remained murky.
Finally she gave permission. "She will not stop."
"No she will not," Djal replied.
They turned back as her slaves entered with their meal, steam rising from the platters. The scribe and princess sat in peace, pretending to enjoy the music and food late into the night.
She prays for one boy not two, Nari reflected. I pray for one sister not two.
EXCERPT FROM BOOK TWO
Kraos slammed his fists on the desk. "Damn her!"
He clenched his hands tightly, knuckled white. He glanced down at them, ignoring the pain. He imagined her pretty face between them and then her smug expression turn to horror as he crushed her skull open. A grim, disturbed smile graced his lips.
"Your Majesty must not lose his temper," Rashidi warned.
Kraos opened his palms to show the advisor his bloodied, callused hands. "Do you see this? This is the blood of our enemies; it fills the sand like a pool; it coagulates and sticks to out clothes, skin and hair. Our army is covered in the blood of our enemies and brothers alike, mixed into one terrible mess. Do the people not see what I sacrifice for them, for Egypt?"
"They do, Your Majesty," Rashidi soothed. "War unfortunately is only news when one is far away in the comfort of home."
Kraos spat. "Comfort of home. I am Pharaoh of Egypt and I must live out in the desert like an animal. So much is sacrificed here…"
He paused, chaotic emotions ripping through him. Suddenly, Kraos felt a wave of sadness as weariness from the battle calmed his rage. He dropped his head into his hands and he felt his eyes prick.
"It is not just our army and soldiers that pay for Egypt's safety, our enemies as well," he whispered. "How many of the men I killed had wives at home, pining for a vanquished husband…children depending upon their father for their livelihood."
"War is war, Your Majesty. A soldier's purpose is to die," Rashidi said. "Let her play her games. When you return, she shall be punished."
Kraos contracted his knuckles once again. He could not wait.
So, thoughts anyone at these turn of events? Predictions for Halima and Iset's fate? Nari finally gets her hands a little dirty, if through others and every character's destiny now lies in Rashidi's hands.
Let me know your opinions! Oh and a HUGE thank you to all reviewers! I am so excited to have reached one hundred reviews! It really is such a pleasure!