The saffron cloak of the noblewoman in front of her brushes against my sandaled feet. I take a deep breath, pressing my lips together to keep from chastising the woman then and there.
“Are you okay, my lady?” whispers Herut, from beside me.
I glance over at the girl, pleased to see her dressed in a simple white dress and a cloak of worn grey. “For the time being,” I reply, my eyes flitting back to the cluster of noblewomen we are surrounded by.
“As you say,” Herut replies, her voice so soft I nearly miss it.
“Should I not be alright?” I ask Herut. The girl is technically my servant, but she is also, apart from Adara, my most trusted confidant. She is the prize jewel in my corps of ladies-in-waiting, the one who gathers court gossip and other intelligence for me.
Herut shakes her head, the dark, tight curls that halo her face swaying with the motion. “But I don’t think giving the nobles a hard time about their clothing later on will do you any favors, my lady.”
Of course. At this moment, however much I despise the nobility, I need as much support for Adara that I can get. “Astutely observed as usual,” I reply, giving her a small smile.
The girl smiles in return then ducks her head slightly. I get the vaguest feeling that if her skin weren’t so dark, her face would be flushing.
The noblewomen start moving and after giving Herut’s shoulder a squeeze, I move along with them, down the gold-inlaid marble stairs and out through the black gates of the palace. We walk a twisting path towards the royal burial mounds, the path flanked by brambles and thorny bushes. The woman in front of me starts muttering under her breath about how awful and unkempt the paths are. This is a time for solemnity and unity, not to find fault after fault. I focus on the texture of the wool of Herut’s cloak to keep from becoming angry. Rough and worn, like the stones on the banks of the River Arghana. Like his hands, that day we first met.
Now, more than ever, I cannot risk offending any of these women, however garishly they are dressed. Their support will be vital once court convenes after the mourning period to decide what should be done with Adara. I will have to woo the women with promises of spices, silk, and secrets then somehow, deliver the gifts without the men of the Lower Court realizing once they’ve whispered into their husband’s ears and brought me the affirmation I need.
But I remind myself that all is for later today, when Herut, the Twelve, and I convene under the wide leaves of the sacred fig tree in the Hall of the Lords.
We halt in the midst of a sea of fragrant grass, surrounded by both new and ancient mounds. This is the Sea of the Dead, the final place of resting for all the Kings that have served the Amber Palace since the beginning of all remembered time. In front of us, the women have spread out along the boundary of a freshly piled mound, amongst the men of the court already standing, their many, multi-colored cloaks softly swaying like flags flanking an army camp right before battle, like overgrown flowers in a sea of endless green.
Adara stands beyond the boundary of the mound, next to a red-robed priest. She is dressed in a clear, deep blue the color of the River Maghrik, the same color she wore, I realize, when King Zeif—only a Lordling then—first stumbled across us, many, many moons ago. My eyes find Adara’s immediately, and she mouths two words to me, breaking the silence she has given me since the King’s death. Come. Please.
I grab a hold of Herut’s shoulder, making her start. I cannot go to her, not now, not when everyone is watching, not when I am afraid of losing control of myself. I push back the tears starting to burn my eyes and clench my jaw tight. I look away from Adara and trace one of Herut’s stray curls with my eyes instead.
“Perhaps, my lady,” Herut says, her voice soft and filled with concern, “you should go to her. They will understand.”
I send her a sharp look and she turns away, her lips pressed tight against one another. I don’t know what she’s thinking. She knows why I cannot go to Adara. But I don’t care. I need to get through the service in once piece. I cannot show weakness in front of the entire court. I am safe here, behind the cloaks that are like flags, where no one can notice my suffering but Herut.
I glance up at Adara, but her back is turned to me. I deserve it. I deserve her coldness and I deserve so much more for abandoning her. My throat burns. I need to breathe, but there is no more air left in the world.
The priest begins speaking and I shut my eyes, focusing on the feel of Herut and her cloak beneath my fingers. She is strong, like the sacred fig trees that grow in the ancient orchards on the Hills above the Amber Palace. She is strong like I fear I cannot be anymore.
“We are water and stone, light and air,” the priest says in the High Tongue, his deep voice washing over me. He is the same priest that performed King Zeif and Adara’s marriage ceremony, I realize. My throat feels like it has been washed in acid. “We are performers of service, we are puppets of the Twelve who breathed life into our fragile flesh. We are at the mercy of the stars and the sky; we are merely sand under the feet of the Ones.
“Blessed may the soul of our King be, blessed may his spirit rise to the side of the Twelve, where he may be judged pure. May his heart—stolen at death by the trickster Spirit Tarthen—be returned to him. May his divinely given sight never leave the waters of our earth and the stones we have made our own.”
The priest—Elnaim is his name, I think—begins the ritual of Resting and anointing the mound with the eleven Elements. I stop listening. What I want is to be left alone with Adara. What I need is to bury my head in her lap and cry for hours until everything, every feeling of self-hatred and weakness is gone from my body. And what I wish for more than anything is for Adara to look at me again, to talk to me the way she used to when we were girls, to be my best friend once more. I miss her like the night would miss the stars, like the heavens would miss their angels. And there is no one, absolutely no one that can open their arms and embrace me—heal me—like Adara can.
I don’t realize Elnaim has stopped speaking until a clear, high voice rings out across the Sea of the Dead. Adara, her hands raised in the air, sings an ancient lament from the hills we were born in. Why have you abandoned us, my lord?
It is actually a shepherd’s song, sung for a gentle sheep gone astray. Father used to sing it to us when we would play our games and I would drag her to hide in the hills, though it was slightly different than what Adara is singing now.
Adara has not sung for me since we left home, all those years ago.
Herut yanks my hand, pulling me to the side and I stumble against her. No one pays attention to me. I realize the crowd is parting, forming a path leading to the mound. “My lady,” she says, looking behind me, her golden eyes wide. “Look.”
I turn and there, walking towards the mound, are the pallbearers, carrying the burning body of King Zeif on a magnificent pall made of gold and amber. The fire burns bright, even though it is daytime, casting a glow on the Sea of Death that makes me feel as though twilight has settled over us. I do not understand how the body burns the way it does nor how the pall stays solid in their hands, but then again, I still do not understand many things that happen outside the Hills.
I do not understand why this is so hard.
Adara and I had not been in the hills when Lord Zeif had stumbled on to us. We had taken to exploring further and further outside the safety of the rolling grasslands and valleys that we called our home and, that day, we found ourselves on land that was more gravel and rocks than earth. This, we knew, was the final valley before Mount Shaya, where the Golden City and the Amber Palace overlooked the entire world. It was, as a rule, a forbidden area, because of the wildcats that roamed the valley, looking for sheep and goats unlucky enough to wander into their territory.
We had been on the banks of the Maghrik. (It is more of a stream there; it only widens out into a vast rives that flows into the seas when it leaves the valley and meets its tributaries.) Adara had been sitting with her feet in the clear, deep water, and I was trying to weave flowers we had picked earlier in the day into a crown. I was frustrated because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the flowers to hold together, not like Adara’s, which stayed together even after they had wilted long ago and were more dust than petal.
“Alla,” she said, watching me with a grin on her face. “Let me do it. You won’t be able to.”
“Nyat,” I replied, trying not to let my frustration show on my face. “I can do it.”
“Alla, Alla, Aliyaaaah,” she sang, laughing. “Being angry at the flowers will not make them hold anymore than your awful knots will.”
“Don’t goad me, Ada.” I grinned and threw a flower at her and she caught it with both hands, the crimson petals clashing wonderfully with the blue of her frock. She fastened it behind the ear, the flower nestling into her dark, loose curls. She had always had the most beautiful hair. She was younger than me, only by two years, but she was by far the loveliest of the two of us. Where she was lean and slender, I was short and thick-skinned. Her hair flowed to nearly the small of her back; mine I kept cropped to the nape of my neck, so it wouldn’t get in my face when I worked with father. Adara could sing and dance and weave; she had a beautiful, infectious laugh laugh; no one could carry on a conversation like she. I had always been a little jealous of her, but not enough to stop caring or loving her. She had always been my shadow, looking up to me and mimicking my every move. Now she was my best friend—my only friend, I suppose—and she was the sunshine in between the grasses of the hills.
Adara came to me, her feet covered in sand and mud. Without a word, she picked up my flowers and began to entwine them together. “Do you think father will come looking for us tonight?” she said, her silver eyes on mine.
“No, I don’t think so. He has to take the herd to the village and trade. Why do you—” I caught the glint in her eye. “You’re planning something.”
She had, at least, the decency to bush. “Of course not, I just—”
“Tell me!” I clasped her wrists. I knew her hands like I knew my own. How many times had we counted the lines on each other palms, traced the bones of our fingers and wrists when we had nothing better to do?
“Well.” She began to chew her lip. I usually scolded her for it, but I let it go this time.
“Okay, okay!” She glanced around, as if making sure no one was listening, then dropped her voice to a whisper. “Do you know Ezra?”
“Ezra—that boy that helps father during the winter?”
“Don’t tell me—wait, Adara! No!” I squealed, squeezing her hands. “He’s not asked to meet you, has he?”
“We’ve already met, once or twice…maybe three times.” Her lips quirked up in a half-smile.
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t want to, not before—Alla, I think he really likes me.” The flush on her face grew redder. She was focused on the flower crown in her hands. But she was smiling.
I nodded, surprised I felt tears pricking my eyes. Was it because I was happy for my sweet Adara? Or was it because I sometimes dreamed about Ezra, about taking him in my arms and kissing every dimple and freckle on his face? Whatever it was, I wasn’t going to let it get in the way of Adara’s happiness. If it came at the price of my own dream, so be it. I could always find another.
“Have you—you know,” I gestured vaguely with my hands. “Yet?” I wanted her to keep talking. I didn’t want to deal with my own feelings. I told myself they were nothing compared to Adara being so happy.
“Aliyah! Of course not!” she gasped, throwing a flower at me. I couldn’t catch it and it fell into my lap, the small white blossom settling in the crease between my thigh and calf.
I picked it up and twirled the stem. “Do you want to marry him?”
She sighed. “Maybe. I don’t know. What will father say?”
“I think he’ll be very happy. You could be courted by Malik instead!”
Adara snorted. “As if! That drunk is married to his goats.” She leaned in close to me, her face scrunched up. “I hear he does things with—”
At that moment, a man crashed through the brushes and stumbled right into the river with an echoing splash. Adara and I jumped to our feet. The man pulled himself up out of the water and started coughing, nearly vomiting. Adara and I looked at each other.
“Who is that?” she whispered, her hand clasping mine.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “But I’ll go see.” I gave her hand a squeeze and started towards the man.
“Aliyah, wait!” she whisper-shouted, but I was already halfway to the man.
He noticed me approach and turned to face me. He was a handsome man, even sopping wet and mud stained. “Don’t come any closer,” he said, the warning in his voice making Adara whimper.
I wasn’t afraid of him. “I just wanted to make sure you were alright,” I said, cautiously.
“I’ll be—” he coughed again, “okay.”
“Are you sure?”
He suddenly looked confused, as though he had just woken up from a dream. “I—you wouldn’t happen to have dry clothes?”
I relaxed and laughed. This man wasn’t a threat to either of us. He didn’t even look like he was armed. “We don’t have dry clothes, but, if you’ll tell us how you ended up crashing headfirst into the Maghrik, we’ll share some food with you.”
“No!” squeaked Adara. “I mean, we don’t know who you are, or—or what you might do to—”
The man put his hands up. “I will not bring you harm in anyway, I swear it on the Twelve.”
I looked back at her and gave her a smile. “It’s okay. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“I consider myself warned,” he laughed.
I walked over to him and helped him to his feet. He swayed only a little as we walked back to where Adara and I had been sitting. Adara glared at him.
“Ada,” I said, “Could you gather some brush we can burn? I don’t want him to catch a cold.”
She nodded and walked off briskly. I sat the man down and then cleared some stones into a circle we could start a fire in. The man started unbuttoning his tunic.
I looked away. His body was lean but muscled, as though he had done hard labor since he was a boy. “Perhaps you should wash off,” I said. “Or the mud will cake when it dries.”
“Of course,” he replied. He slowly got on his feet and made his way down to the river bank. I kept my eyes on him, the way he kneeled over the river almost as if he were praying. Every movement he made was purposeful, as though he never doubted himself.
How had a man like that stumbled headfirst into a river?
Adara returned and dumped a pile of sticks and brush next to me. “What are you doing?”
I realized my mouth was hanging open. I clamped down and turned to her. “What do you mean?”
She was looking at me warily. “If father finds out—”
“What father doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” I said.
“But, Alla, I just—I have this feeling—” she clenched her hands together. “I think you should send him off right now.”
I reached out and put my hand on her cheek, her smooth skin warm under my hands. “Nothing will happen, I promise you.”
She stared at me, searching for something more, then turned away, busying herself with starting the fire.
Adara’s intuition wasn’t to be ignored. Once, she had warned me about not letting some of the sheep graze in a field farther down in the valley we lived above. I hadn’t listened and a flash flood had swept through, nearly taking me and the sheep with it. She had sent father to come after me, and it was only because he had found me hanging on to the roots of some ancient, gnarled trees that I had been saved. We lost twelve sheep that day. I had nearly lost the right to help father.
But this time, I too had a feeling, a burning, forceful feeling that this man would be fortunate from us. He had emerged from the Maghrik and anything that emerged from one of the twelve rivers could not be counted as unfortunate. This man had been bathed by the waters and mud and was pure. Strange circumstances though it was, I could not simply let him go without understanding how he had come to us.
The man came back and sat down cross-legged next to us, his back straight and his chin high in the air. His shirt he laid on a large stone close to the fire and I saw that he was clean, his sun-browned skin fresh.
“You two are very kind,” he said. His grey eyes fell on me.
“It is not kindness to serve those who need it,” I replied, smiling.
“So you are a Scholar of the Books?”
Adara snorted. “If she is a scholar, then I am a three-legged drunk.”
“Our father is a Scholar,” I replied, ignoring her.
Adara offered him bread from the basket we had brought from home, taking care to hold it so that if he accepted, his fingers would be in no danger of brushing hers. He held out his palm so that she could place it there instead. “Then you must be monastery girls?”
“Nyat,” said Adara, sniffing. “Our father is a shepherd. He left the monastery before we were born.”
He tore the bread in half. “So you are village girls, the kind they sing about in the songs.”
“What do they sing about us?”
“Only that village girls are the most beautiful kinds of girls.” Again, his eyes fell on me. I looked away, feeling my cheeks heat up. Perhaps this was a mistake.
I caught Adara’s gaze. She looked smug. I swallowed down the flustering I felt and forced myself to look at the man with a straight face. His gaze was not leery, like Malik’s after too many drinks. It was kind, even. I told myself he was only being courteous.
“And you?” I asked. “How did you fall into the Maghrik like that?”
“Well,” he rubbed his nose with the flat of his palm. “My party and I were hunting wildcat at the bottom of the Mount, then—I don’t know what happened—I fell from my horse and started walking—”
“How long have you been walking?” asked Adara.
“A day—I think.”
“And your party?”
He flicked a pebble under his knee. “I don’t know.”
“You’re not injured from falling from your horse?” I asked. One of the farmhands in the village had fallen from his horse once. He had suffered three broken ribs nearly died from pneumonia.
“I—I don’t think so.” He looked lost all of a sudden, as he had done before. I had the feeling that this wasn’t the whole story. Adara glanced at me and I knew she was thinking the same.
“Perhaps,” offered Adara, “your party is still searching for you. The distance between Mount Shaya and the Hills isn’t that far.”
The man nodded. He started to eat the bread and silence fell over us like nightfall, broken only by the crackling of the too warm fire. Adara offered us some fruit and we all began to eat.
“I’m so sorry,” the man said at last, jerking his head up to look at the two of us. “I’ve accepted your hospitality without even introducing myself. I am—Lor—Zeif.”
“Lorzeif?” said Adara, eyebrow raised. “A strange name.”
“Just—Zeif,” he said. “Please.”
I nodded. “Of course. I am Aliyah. And that is my sister, Adara.”
“Adara,” he muttered. “Aliyah. Aliyah.” He looked at me. “Are you the elder?”
“By two years—I am seventeen. Adara is fifteen.”
He opened his mouth. Then he closed it. “Forgive me,” he finally said. “I hope you don’t think it too improper of me to ask if you are married.”
“No,” said Adara. “She is not.” She grinned. “Though she should be.”
“I have no wish to marry,” I said, gently. “Our father is elderly and would not be able to survive without us.”
“Surely you have more hands?”he asked.
“It’s only us,” I replied.
“Father was not blessed with sons,” said Adara, quietly.
“Daughters are blessings, often more than sons,” said Zeif. He looked at her with great kindness in his eyes. I suddenly felt my stomach fluttering, as though I’d struck ill. What was going on?
I was never like this; I was never falling over handsome men when they showed me the smallest kindnesses. My feelings for Ezra didn’t count. Neither did what I felt for Yusef and Martin. Those were born from years of working together. This was different. Zeif was a stranger, someone who had literally stumbled out of a river. No matter how much of an omen his arrival was, I wasn’t going to let myself succumb to emotion, not this time, not without understanding why the Spirits were sending us in these directions.
“Of course,” I said. I also didn’t want this conversation to devolve into what it usually did. We girls were strong, hard workers, yet, despite the praise father would lavish on us, Adara had yet to understand that being born a girl was not a fault.
Yet again we fell into silence. I wanted to ask Zeif more about himself to try and clear his memory, but before I could, he was buttoning up his shirt.
“You’re leaving?” I jumped to my feet, feeling as if sand were slipping through my fingers, sand that I desperately needed back in my palms.
“I’ve—I’ve encroached on your hospitality enough,” he said, bowing his head.
“You cannot leave so soon!”
“Lady Aliyah,” he looked at me with sympathy in his eyes. “I cannot stay. I must find my party.”
Adara jumped to her feet and took my hand. “We are not ladies,” she said. “But thank you for your kind words.”
“Let us at least see you out of base of the Mount,” I offered, feeling desperate. I couldn’t let him go, not without at least knowing who he was.”
I turned to her and took her other hand. “No, it would be wrong to simply leave him on his own. You go back home. Tell father I will be back soon.”
“I am not going to let you go off on your own with some spiritsforsaken man!”
“Forgive me,” said Zeif. Both of us turned to look at him. “I am sure I can find the way to the Mount on my own. You have already been kind enough.” Again his eyes lingered on me.
The moment was slipping from me. He was slipping from me. “I insist,” I said.
Adara sighed. “Fine, Alla, if you want to go, go. I won’t stop you. I won’t stop father either once he’s found out what you’ve done.”
Father wouldn’t do anything, I knew. He was an old man, too old to beat us, too weary to care for more than his scrolls and his sheep. I broke away from her and reached for the flower crown she had woven before. I offered it to her. “I won’t be long,” I said. “I promise.”
She took the crown from my hands and fastened it on my head. “Don’t you dare go onto the Mount without me,” she whispered.
I reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind her head and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be back soon.”
We broke apart and I headed towards Zeif. “Come,” I said without stopping. “I will walk you to the base of the mount.”
I swear I felt Zeif’s eyes on me the entire time.
I am afraid my mistress is going losing herself with grief. She clutches my shoulder the way a babe clutches the arm of its mother. I can feel her tremble beside me as she tries to remain stoic and cold, as she tries to prove to the court she is still the cunning Queenmaker, the woman who brought Queen Adara, a low-born shepherd girl, to our beloved King Zeif.
The twelve bearers set the pall right before the mound, next to where the Queen still sings her lament. My skin has yet to stop looking like gooseflesh.
The priest, an awful zealot of a man, gestures for us to take twelve paces back. The crowd moves like syrup. None of us want to miss a single moment of the funeral.
As soon as we are at a safe distance, he throws a black powder onto the body—the twelfth Element. The bringer of Death. The pyre flares far into the sky, burning white and hot. The heat falls on my skin the same way midday in the Sands does, as though it will melt me if I am close to it any longer.
But none of the court looks away. I can even hear some gasping and noises of wonder coming from the ladies around us. I can only imagine what my mistress is thinking. This is not a fireworks display. How I wish the court would treat the memories of people with more reverence than they do a circus.
The column of fire dies as quickly as it sprang and once I’ve blinked the spots from my eyes, there is nothing left of the pall but gold sprinkled ashes. The Queen stops singing with a final note that sounds more like a sob, and my mistress is clutching my shoulder so tightly I fear it will fall off.
“Lady Aliyah,” I whisper.
She looks at me with the eyes of someone who has returned from the dead. I try my hardest not to flinch.
“Please, you’re gripping my shoulder too tight.”
She looks down at her hand and lets go, letting her arm lamely fall by her side. “Forgive me,”
“It is alright.”
The priest gathers the golden ashes and starts throwing them over the mound, speaking words in the High Tongue I barely understand. I wonder if any of the rest of the court understand as well, or if their nodding is merely a product trying to seem as they are more educated than they actually are. The priest takes Queen Adara’s arm and leads her through the crowd. We follow them back up the thorny path, back towards the Amber Palace.
Someone behind me starts singing a lament from the Sands, one that I sung once for my own father when he passed on to the Twelve. I join them, and the other ladies of the court from the Sands join in as well, our voices a shrill reminder to all that hear that our sovereign is dead.
It is only when we pass through the black gates of the palace into the garishly decorated entry halls that we fall silent, one by one, until the only voice left singing is Lady Reshma’s. She is not the best of singers and her rickety voice echoes in the hall. Some of the court put their hands on their ears, not foolish enough to tell her to stop, not clever enough to hide their distaste.
Lady Reshma’s voice breaks off suddenly and she looks at us, struck with mortification. She blinks then swishes her skirt and turns, walking briskly down the halls to her own quarters, followed only by her maids and the awful sound of her own echo.
The rest of the court stands in silence, looking at the Queen for her approval to leave. She looks back at us, her deliberately avoiding Lady Aliyah’s gaze. “You are dismissed,” she says finally, her voice soft. “We will convene as a court once my mourning has ended.” Without a second glance at us, she turns and slowly walks down the hall, going the same way Lady Reshma did.
I glance at Lady Aliyah. “We must follow,” I whisper.
She nods and the crowd parts for us.
The Queen kneels at the side of her bed, her head buried in her arms. Her dark hair is gracefully scattered over her shoulders. How does she, in spite of her grief, manage to look like a master painting, like the ones that hang in the King’s Gallery? I will never understand.
My mistress runs over to her, kneeling beside her and placing her head in the crook between the Queen’s neck and shoulder. She is whispering something to her, but being next to the door, I cannot make a word out. Even if I could hear, I might not even be able to understand them, as they speak in the tongue of the Hills when alone in the palace. They are clever women.
I am busying myself with arranging the mess in the Queen’s room—where in the Spirits’ name are all the maids?—when the Queen pushes Lady Aliyah away from her. “How dare you,” she says, slipping into the Vulgar Tongue. Her lovely face is swollen with tears. “How dare you try and talk to me like this when you’ve avoided me ever since Zeif left us.”
“Adara, my darling, please—” Lady Aliyah pleads, pain written across her face. “Please don’t push me away. Not now.”
“I am pushing you away?” The Queen begins to laugh. I catch the echoes of madness in it. Suddenly, I am terrified. I move to the door and shut it, after making sure no one is in the hallway lingering. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ears in the walls, but I feel more reassured there is no way for anyone else but the three of us to be listening to the Queen and her sister fight.
Their power is in their unity, or so Lady Aliyah has always told me. Queen Adara is the soul and my Lady is the mind. They act as one, and their goals are one. My mistress has tried to convince me many times that they are actually one spirit in two bodies, but sometimes, I feel as though she is saying it more to convince herself than me.
“I only did what I thought was best for us!” says Lady Aliyah. “What was best for you.”
The Queen stares at her as though she’s seen something disgusting. “I never wanted any of this. I never wanted to be here. I never wanted to be anything more than what I was. What we were.”
“But you always said—”
“Forget what I always said! People are always saying things, do you think that means they want it? For the love of the Spirits, I was happy. I was so happy. And you took it away from me.”
I no longer know whether Queen Adara is talking about how cold my mistress has been since the King’s passing, or whether she is finally putting to words the storms that have plagued her mind for a very long time.
Lady Aliyah takes a deep breath. I can see in the way the muscles of her jaw twitch that she is fighting to stay composed. “What do you want from me, Ada?”
The Queen’s face softens. She stands up and walks to the window carved into the stone of the palace on the other side of the apartment. She opens the clasp that keeps the glass panel shut and lets the wind wash over her face. “I want you to leave me.”
My mistress takes a step back and, not for the first time in the last few weeks, does she look as though she is at a loss of words. She clenches her fists so tightly, I see a streak of red starting to pool in her palm. Lady Aliyah slowly walks to the door, her short frame trembling.
“My lady?” I ask, unlocking the door.
She pauses, looking straight ahead. In her grey eyes, I see the shadows of someone who is slipping from the edge. “Call the Council of Twelve. I don’t want any delays.” Her voice is deadly.
I want to take her hands into mine. I want to embrace her and let her cry in my arms. I want to wipe each tear away and tell her the Queen will need time to come around. I want to kiss her small, pink lips and reassure her she will not fail in securing Adara’s throne once the court convenes again. But I can only bow my head in deference to her, as always. “Of course.”
She leaves without so much of a glance backwards.
I want to follow her, of course, but I have a duty to do. I look at the Queen. “If I have your leave,” I say.
She turns to me, her eyes streaked with red. “Come here,” she says.
I walk to her, to the window, where the wind sends a shiver up my spine. “My queen?”
She turns to face the outside, her slender fingers delicately tracing absent patterns on the stone sill. “What does Aliyah intend to do?”
“I beg your pardon?”
She turns to me, the movement sharp, and the anger in her eyes fierce. I feel as though I have been slapped. Somehow I manage not to flinch. “I said, what does my sister intend to do? Why is she calling the Twelve?”
“I—I’m not entirely sure, my queen,” is the only thing I can manage. I feel my defenses crumbling. Suddenly I understand how she is the only one Lady Aliyah can confide in. It would be so easy, so very easy to tell the Queen all that we have been planning since the passing of the King. Despite the wrath etched on her face, there is a sweet softness that lingers there I cannot seem to escape.
“Do not lie to me, Herut.”
I cannot tell her that we are planning to manipulate the Twelve with promises of gifts we do not have. “We are gathering the Council in order to discuss your sovereignty once the court convenes,” I say, instead. I force myself to meet the Queen’s blood-streaked eyes, telling myself that wavering now means letting my Lady Aliyah down. I hear my heart beating louder than the wind blowing.
The Queen turns away. “You may leave.”
I don’t realize I’ve been holding my breath until I’m halfway to Lady Reshma’s chambers.