Excerpt from finished manuscript:
Strong hands guided the razor over my skin with relentless, fluid motion. I watched the mirror impassively as one of my mother's slaves removed my hair. My fourth marriage was tonight at sunset. Tonight I would be a wife again. A priestess would pour sacred oil over my head and the Imperator's youngest son would carry me to his bed and take me.
Chal would take me tonight. And the next night. And the next and the next. He would take me every night until one of us died. I had nothing left to give but still he would take from me. Lust and entitlement cared for nothing except self-fulfillment. I knew better than to let romantic thoughts swarm as I thought of my future. The only escape would be Chal's death, but it would be brief. The deaths of my three previous husbands had afforded me only scant handfuls of freedom. I yearned to be free from all of it—the Imperator and my mother and my husbands—but knew of no way to obtain that power. I was trapped.
I played with a piece of hair that had fallen into my lap. It was dark and thick, shorter than my little finger. It had only been two months since slaves had last shaved my head. Two months since I stood before the court and married Nason. Yet I felt I'd been born and lived and died within those weeks. And now with Chal, I would be reborn. Reborn as a devoted wife: meek, obedient, and silent. Such things were demanded within the imperial enclosure, though my grandmother had assured me such was not the will of the Divine. The Goddess favored the strong and fierce among her daughters.
But my grandmother's teachings meant nothing to the Imperator or the Senate. The way of the ancient Sealords was not the way of the desert they had conquered. I had learned that lesson quickly, from my first husband.
A small grin quivered over my lips but never became a smile. After Chal, the Imperator had no more sons. This was the last time I would marry against my will. Even under the threat of uncertain future, I found comfort in this one reassurance. Tonight was the beginning of the end and I could not hate the thought. In spite of myself, optimism forced me to believe that my life could become no worse, and death would be but a final end. Then I would be finished.
I sucked in a sharp, dust-filled breath. My mother's slaves spoke about me, as if I were stone. They picked apart my appearance. The bare, smooth head; the round, childish jaw; the young, unblemished skin; the wide, empty eyes. I did not look like a bride. I had never looked like a bride. I stared unblinking at myself and I began to see that I would never look like a bride. Brides were happy and beautiful and desirable. Brides were not little girls forced to take a woman's role. Brides were not children playing at being grown up. Brides were not like me, never like me.
I'd been nine when I married Urif. Ten when I married Achai. Eleven when I married Nason. Eleven again tonight, when I would marry Chal. Even then, as the slaves dressed me for my fourth wedding, I knew enough to see that what had been done to me wasn't right.
There was a commotion at the door, then my mother entered the room. I stared straight, watching her movement in the polished looking glass. Her face and clothes were perfect; she was hard and remote, beautiful and unaccessible. She clucked and cooed out of her thin lips, and the weight of her study was heavy against my sweaty skin. She walked around me and her examination was sharp. I rose from the vanity bench but otherwise let her do as she wished.
"You're beautiful!" she exclaimed. Her hands came together with a quick, brisk sound. I blinked in spite of my desire to remain unmoved.
I was not beautiful.
My mother's slaves had shaved my head and rubbed sweet-smelling oils into my naked skin. They had hennaed my tiny breasts and hands and feet with scrolling designs of flowers and vines. They had looped gold and jewels through the piercings in my ears and nose. They had fastened a gold collar around my next and clasped bangles on my wrists. They had flung malachite dust over my skin until I sparkled. They had dressed me in a tunic made of the finest Eastern silk.
The slaves had done all this and still I wasn't beautiful. My grandmother had said beauty came from the Divine, but I had abandoned religion. It was hard to remain faithful to a Being who had allowed such things to befall me. If I was beautiful, it was false.
My mother tapped me under the chin. Her filed nails were delicate spear points. I imagined that she would be eager to rid herself of me if I did not further her purposes.
I looked into my mother's face.
"Chal is the most handsome of the Imperator's sons," she said.
I said nothing. Chal could be the Goddess come to walk among Her daughters and it would not signify his soul. My second husband Achai had been beautiful, but his touch had been cruel.
My mother's fingers probed again. "Aren't you pleased to have a handsome husband?"
"No," I said.
"Are you pleased to be marrying again—to have a husband once more?"
"No," I said.
She tutted at my as if I were a naughty toddler. "You should be," she told me. "Every woman should have a husband. For if she has no husband, how will she bear children as the Divine commanded?"
Hot words flew into my mouth but I said nothing. Pointing out that my mother had herself never seen fit to marry would not improve her mood. Nor would parroting my grandmother's teachings about the right of a woman to choose her fate. I could hear my grandmother's smooth voice in my head. My mother was only repeating what the Imperator and his Senators had taught her since the age of fourteen.
She spoke again: "Listen to me! It's important that you conceive as quickly as possible, even though your moonblood is begun. The Imperator has no more sons to give you, and your life—our lives—will not survive should anything happen to Chal. You have three dead husbands, and many believe that the fault is yours. Do you understand?"
"If only your moonblood would come. That would solve everything." Her face creased even as her eyes softened. She touched the top of my newly-bald head. "Remember your duty," she said.
"Always," I said.
When had I done differently?
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Cover image of model Ajak Deng.