The Mark of Motish

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Chapter 3

I sat quietly, watching Jehvad train one summer evening. The sun during the hottest season brightened the land until near the middle of the night. I admired the way his muscles flexed beneath his bronze skin as he went through the motions with his scimitar. The shiny metallic blade made whooshing sounds as it cut through the air with precision His deep brown eyes were sharp with focus. He would make a good warrior. I only wished it wasn’t Khadji he strived to fight for, but every time I brought the subject up, he argued Khadji was the fiercest leader the islands had ever seen. It’d be an honour to be in his army, he’d tell me with pride.

Jehvad slid his scimitar into its scabbard and sat on the ground beside me, wiping the sweat off his brow. “I think I’m ready,” he stated, trying to catch his breath.

“Ready for what?” I played dumb, hoping he wasn’t talking about what I feared he was.

“Ready to join Khadji and his warriors.”

I sighed and leaned back on my elbows. “I wish you’d join another island’s army.”

“And leave you? Never. You know Gwon’s army is the only one that matters. If I were to go to another island, I’d be useless. Their armies are there for nothing but defense. I want to do something that matters. I want to help Gwon conquer the other islands so we can be one nation.”

I shook my head, my lips pulled back in a thin line. “You wish to take other’s freedom.”

He took my hands in his, his eyes piercing my gaze. “We’ll stand stronger as one. You must know that. The islands are prosperous with resources. We need to protect that.”

His vision for our people did please me. I just didn’t agree with the way Khadji was going about it. I conjured up the best smile I could, dropping the subject yet again. “I admire how passionate you are.”

That won me a grin. Leaning in, he placed his fingertips under my chin. “You are what I’m most passionate about.”

I chuckled softly and wrapped my arms around his neck. He was easy to love. We’d only met two full moons ago, but we had already proclaimed our love for one another. He was the sweetest man I’d ever crossed paths with, and he truly did have eyes only for me. Jehvad was different from any of the other’s I’d showed interest in. My father hadn’t been successful in chasing him away, and he didn’t care about the status of my fortune—or lack of it.

Jehvad claimed my mouth with his own, and my thoughts slipped away. “Marry me,” he breathed against my cheek.

I pulled back and stared at him with wide eyes. My lips wouldn’t work.

“I love you, you love me. Why wait? Besides, I would like you to be my wife before I join Khadji’s army.” He rubbed my shoulder.

My eyes became wet with tears. I blinked them away and nestled into the space beneath his chin. “Of course I will.” I sat with him silently for a few moments before adding, “Mama will be so happy.”

He frowned down at me. “Not your papa?”

I waved a hand in the air. “He’ll come around.” He had to.

“He likes me. I know he does,” he said, tickling my sides.

I squealed and squirmed away from him. “I should go home. It’s late. I’ll tell my parents the news—or should I wait until morning? Then you can tell them.”

“No, please don’t make me.” He clasped his hands together before him dramatically.

I playfully slapped his arm. “Coward.”

He shrugged innocently.

When I got back to my hut, I heard voices from within. We never had visitors. Who could be in my hut, and why were they there? Something felt wrong.

I entered slowly, cautious of whom I would find inside. The first person I spotted was Mama. She sat, watching me with sad eyes and shook her head.

I frowned and looked past her. Papa stood facing a man who wore robes made of silk with intricate golden designs embroidered on the material. His clean, black hair was tied high on top of his head. His amber eyes turned on me, causing me to shudder. He was flanked by two guards with bare chests and matching red trousers. Both men rested their hands on the scimitars at their waists.

“Papa, what’s going on?” I was afraid to ask, but I needed to know.

“Malyi, go to bed. I’m taking care of this.”

I hesitated. I never disobeyed an order from Papa, but the expression on Mama’s face made me unusually stubborn. “No. I’m part of this family. I deserve to know what’s going on.”

“The lady’s right.” The important-looking man lifted his chin. “I’m Hepbar. We’ve come to collect funds for Khadji. Warriors need to be paid to fight, ships need to be built. Everyone must pay.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Twenty gold coins,” Papa answered, glaring at Hepbar as though he could kill him with a look.

I let out a breath. “We can’t afford to give you that much. We’ll starve. Is there nothing else we can offer?”

“Well…” Hepbar rubbed his clean shaven chin.

“Malyi,” Papa warned.

I waited for Hepbar to finish his answer.

His sly smile caused his sharp cheekbones to protrude even more. “Khadji is looking for a woman to bear him sons. You are perfect for the job.”

“No!” Mama shot off her seat at the same time as Papa moved toward Hepbar.

The guards pulled out their weapons and stepped in front of their superior.

“Halt!” Hepbar raised a hand and the guards lowered their weapons. He fixed a cold gaze on me. “If you agree, your parents will never be bothered for funds again—”

“Done,” I answered without thinking twice.

“I’m not finished.” The irritation in his voice was clear. “Your parents will never be asked for coin again so long as they leave this island and never return. They must disappear from Gwon as though they never existed.”

“But where will they go?” I asked, not looking at them.

Hepbar threw his hands up. “I don’t care! Another island. As long as it’s not Gwon. I’ll even give them two coins to help pay for their passage.” He reached into a pouch and dropped two gold coins onto the floor.

I pursed my lips, weighing the options in my mind.

“Malyi, I forbid this!” Papa’s eyes darted back and forth between me and Hepbar.

I knew if we gave away twenty coins, we wouldn’t be able to afford to eat for at least three full moons. We would starve to death, unless we became thieves. I knew my parents would never steal, even if it their lives depended on it. If we did steal and were caught, we’d end up imprisoned and likely die anyways. If I gave myself instead, at least my parents had a chance. Jehvad would soon be working for Khadji. I had to have faith he would save me. The choice was clear.

I locked eyes with Hepbar. “I’ll do it.”

Papa froze. Mama rushed to Hepbar, fell to his feet and begged for him to take her instead.

“The offer only stands for your daughter,” he told her, pushing her away with his foot.

She fell to the ground and wailed.

“Asmeet!” Papa rushed to her side, but she pushed him away. “Look what you’re doing to your mama!” His eyes flashed with anger. No, not anger…pain.

“I’m sorry.” I turned my eyes towards him as the guards grabbed ahold of my arms. “This is the only way. Tell Jehvad I’m sorry, and I love him.”

Mama grabbed fistfuls of my skirt, but one of the guards used his scimitar to slice the material free. She fell back, holding onto the ruined pieces of material. Papa rushed to her side. I was shocked to see the tears streaming down his face. I suddenly knew that would be the last memory I was going have of my parents.

I looked back one more time before I went willingly with Hepbar and the two guards.

I was thrown onto the back of a camel, Hepbar wedged in behind me, and taken to a fortress on the other side of town. We entered through a small, dark entrance in the back. I realized I was being sneaked in.

“Go find Tavah.” Hepbar ordered one of the guards once inside the fortess.

Moments later, a petite, young woman with dark brown hair approached us. She wore a simple tunic that brushed the floor as she walked.

“Tavah, this is Malyi. Make her look worthy of our leader,” Hepbar ordered. “She’s the one we’ve been waiting for.”

She glanced at me before bowing her head to Hepbar. “Of course. Follow me, Malyi.” She turned and began to walk away. I hesitated. She looked back and paused to wait for me. I caught up to her and let her lead the way.

The fortress was dark, with high doors and ceilings. The walls and columns were made of pale grey stone. There were no windows in this part of the fortress.

Tavah ushered me through a door and closed it behind us. She lit a torch on the wall inside the small room. It shone enough light to allow me to view the small space. A large basin sat on a tiled floor at the center of the room.

“Strip,” she ordered. “I’ll have some water brought up.” She didn’t wait to see if I’d obey before she disappeared through the door.

I did as she asked and left my clothes piled on the floor. I shivered. The air on my bare skin made me feel vulnerable.

Tavah returned with two brawny women who held two buckets of water each.

I wrapped my arms around my naked breasts to cover them.

“Into the tub, please,” she said tightly while pointing at the copper basin.

I moved slowly but did as she asked, sucking in a breath as my skin met the cold metal. The water was poured over my body. It didn’t offer much warmth. Once the buckets were empty, the two women servants left.

Tavah used a brick of floral smelling soap to scrub my body and hair. Once she was satisfied with my cleanliness, she fetched a robe to wrap my shaking body in.

While she fixed my hair into tiny braids and twists, I decided to ask her what Hepbar meant when he’d said I was the one they’d been waiting for.

She lifted a shoulder, but her hands stayed busy. “Khadji wants to ensure his line continues. He’s been waiting for someone worthy. Though, I’m not sure why Hepbar chose you. You’re poor. I mean—apologies.” Her hands went still in my hair.

I wasn’t offended. It was the truth. It dawned on me that that was why Hepbar had ordered my parents to leave Gwon. He didn’t want Khadji to know where I came from.

“Well, you better make me look wealthy then.” I smiled genuinely at her and she seemed to relax.

Her own lips formed a sly smile, and she went to a wardrobe at the back of the room and pulled out a bright scarlet dress. After she helped me into the dress, I saw it didn’t leave much to the imagination. The skirt had a high slit, which showed off my left thigh. The front was cut so low, I was worried my chest might pop out, and the back scooped down to my waist. I felt extremely bare, but to be honest, I kind of liked it.

Once I was decorated with golden earrings and bracelets, and we found some leather sandals that fit my feet, Tavah deemed me ready to meet our leader.

“I see why Hepbar chose you. You are most ravishing,” she complimented, admiring her work.

I ran a hand down my waist and asked, “Who does this stuff belong to?”

She blinked quickly a few times, thrown off by my question. “One of the many ladies who left when Khadji killed King Sahyied and seized this fortress.”

“I understand.” I’d heard the story of how Khadji had gained his position. King Sahyied was lazy. The people hated him for it and for his ignorance, so it wasn’t hard for Khadji to find men willing to fight for him. The King’s own army was unprepared and unfit for battle. They’d grown used to peace, and thusly, were easily defeated. There were still some who called Khadji a usurper under their breaths, but most felt he was a necessary evil. I hated to admit it, but he’d done a lot of good for Gwon as a whole. I’d never set eyes on him myself. That was about to change.

“I’ve never worn the colour of Torin,” I told Tavah, following her down the narrow corridor. I didn’t think it was appropriate for a lady to wear the colour of the god of blood and war.

“It’s Khadji’s favourite colour,” she said, staring straight ahead as our footsteps echoed off the walls of the corridor.

Of course it is.

We came to a set of double doors. Tavah knocked twice, and the doors swung open. She gently pushed me into the room and left, closing the doors behind her.

I examined the room before me. I’d never seen such beauty inside a room. It left me speechless. The walls and ceiling of the circular room were white and decorated with gold filigree. In the center of the room, a square table sat draped in red linen. Above the table, a golden chandelier hung, holding enough candles to illuminate the entire room.

I spotted Hepbar sitting in one of the high backed chairs. The candlelight cast shadows over his thin, yellowy face, making him appear sickly. Next to him, a young woman sat. Her black hair was woven up in fancy braids, showing off her slender neck. She narrowed her amber eyes at me.

Hepbar followed her gaze. “Ah, Malyi, there you are. Please, sit.” He pointed to the empty chair across from him.

I took my seat beside an elderly woman with straight, steely grey hair and brown, leathery skin. I adjusted the front of my dress to ensure no one would catch a glimpse of something I didn’t want them to.

At the head of the table, to my other side, a burly man crossed his arms and stared at me with dark eyes. He wore his long, dark hair in tiny braids. A red and black leather vest covered his chest but showed off his tattooed arms. I spotted the marks of every god and goddess etched on his skin. A golden hoop caught the candlelight from his right ear. I knew without being introduced that this man was Khadji.

I found myself staring back into eyes that were so dark they were almost black. This was the man whose children I was expected to bear. I hadn’t let that thought sink in until now. I felt a sense of impending doom as I looked into eyes that held no kindness.

Hepbar cleared his throat. I tore my attention away from Khadji and fixed it on the table before me.

“Master, this is Malyi Laylita from the island Nehmal. She’s chosen to come here to be yours,” Hepbar lied to his leader with confidence.

I cringed inwardly but managed to put on a fake smile and bow my head at my master.

“Nehmal…isn’t that one of the tiny, insignificant islands to the north?” The middle aged woman beside him spoke up. I could tell by her tone, she was being facetious.

Hepbar put his hand over hers, but kept his eyes on Khadji. “It is small, indeed. Regardless, Malyi is very well off. She was born into a family with an abundance of gold.”

I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing. If only that were true, but then again, I wouldn’t be sitting here then, I thought.

“Malyi, this is my daughter, Veniece,” Hepbar explained, squeezing her hand before letting it go.

I smiled at her, but she shot me a look that could freeze the world, so I turned my eyes away from her and forced my expression into a neutral one.

“And I’m Nenet, Khadji’s mother. I’m pleased you’re here,” the elderly woman beside me spoke up in a voice grown rough with age.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nenet.”

Khadji still hadn’t spoken a word. His silence made me uncomfortable. I wanted to ask him something to break the ice, but before I could think of anything, servants dressed in white and gold entered with trays of hot food. The plate placed before me steamed and smelled of flavourful spices. My mouth watered, but no one else had begun to eat. So I waited.

Once the servants disappeared from the room, Khadji picked up his gold fork and said, “Eat.”

So he does speak.

Hepbar made comments about growing Gwon’s army in-between bites. Khadji gave him short one word answers. Veniece added her opinion into the conversation a few times. Nenet ate silently beside me, listening to her companions. I was completely forgotten as the conversation turned to one of tactics about overthrowing another one of the independent islands.

Maybe I didn’t need to worry about giving Khadji children. Maybe he’d decided he didn’t approve of me and had already forgotten my meaningless existence.

His next words shattered my hopes.

He pushed his plate away and downed the rest of his wine. “You come with me,” he stated, taking my skinny wrist in his big hand.

I opened my mouth to protest, but what could I say? I couldn’t refuse him. I’d agreed to this. I wished I’d finished my own wine, but I didn’t even have time to say good evening to the others before I was pulled from the room.

We entered a bedroom of red and gold. The bed at the center of the room had golden posts and was covered in crimson silk. A thin, black veil hung from its canopy. On the stone floor, lay a thick, black carpet bordered with gold designs.

Khadji let me go and lit a couple of lamps on the tables beside the bed. The musky scent of recently burned incense lingered in the air.

I stood rigidly in a corner, unsure what to do with myself.

“My advisor tells me you are pleased to come and be with me.” His voice was deep, and like his eyes, held no kindness.

“Your advisor?”

“Hepbar.” He scowled at me as though I should already know this bit of information.

“Ah, yes. Well—he’s right. You are, after all, the most powerful man in all the islands,” I said, moving closer to him. Maybe flattery would work to my advantage.

“They’ve began to call me the Emperor of the Islands,” he replied, puffing out his chest. He thought highly of himself.

He stood as still as a rock. I approached him, hesitantly reaching for his arm and trailing my fingers down it.

He peered down at my hand.

I repeated in my mind, this is for your parents’ sakes. This is for your parents’ sakes.

He wasn’t hard on the eyes. His body was hardened from all the battles he’d led since becoming leader. He appeared a bit older than I, but not so old that he was rendered unattractive by time. His personality was what turned me off. If he had a heart, it was made of stone.

His dark, bushy brows drew upwards as I leaned in and kissed his cheek.

I managed a shy smile, and he seemed to finally remember his own hands. His big palms slid down my waist and cupped my buttocks. I forced myself not to scream or runaway. Stay in control. Don’t let him take charge. “Sit on the bed,” I ordered in a thick voice.

Shockingly, he complied.

I slowly began swaying my hips to a silent beat, moving my own hands down my waist in the same rhythm.

“Take off the dress,” he commanded in a husky voice.

“Ah-ah. Not just yet, Your Greatness.” I held up a finger.

I knew in my gut if I let him take charge, things would go very poorly for me.

When I was just out of his reach, I started to peel the scarlet dress off, careful not to rush.

His eyes travelled the length of my body. Now unclothed, I focused on breathing slowly and stepped towards him… and then I lost control.

He pulled me onto the bed with him, undid his trousers and took me fast and hard.

I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to pretend he was Jehvad. I failed. Jehvad was slow and gentle. Nothing about these two men was the same.

Thank the gods, it was over quickly. Khadji collapsed onto his back on the bed. I lay still, feelings of self-pity creeping up on me.

“You’re room is across the hall,” he muttered quietly.

I sat up, holding the blanket to my chest. That was it? He was done with me?

“Out!” He sat up and pointed at the door.

“Yes—sorry.” I swiftly slipped back into my dress, grabbed my sandals and rushed out of the bedroom.

“Malyi,” a feminine voice came from down the corridor.

I halted. “Yes?”

A hunched over woman hobbled out of the shadows. I realized it was Nenet, Khadji’s mother.

“May we speak?” She tilted her head towards the room that was to be mine.

“…Alright.”

She grabbed a torch off the wall and followed me through the door. She used the fire from the torch to light a few candles around the chilly bedroom so we could see one another.

This room was mostly red too, though the shade was more of a deep burgundy instead of the crimson of Khadji’s room. The bed covered in black and white pillows and blankets had iron posts and no canopy.

I waited for Nenet to speak. I had no idea what she wanted. I found a brush and began undoing my messed up hair.

She came and stood beside me, using a stick to hold herself up. “You don’t want to bear my son’s children.” It was a statement, not a question.

I stopped brushing and gaped at her. I was trying to decide on an answer. I couldn’t trust her to tell her the truth.

“You cannot fool me. You were like a scared little girl when you came to dine with us. I don’t blame you. I would be too, if I were in your position.”

“To have Khadji’s children will give me power,” I said with more conviction than I felt.

“I know my son. You’ll have no power.”

“Perhaps, he’ll grow to love me.” Even if I never love him.

“Listen. I know you don’t trust me, but we can help each other. I don’t agree with how my son’s running this island. I don’t want his line to continue. I must put a stop to his reign of terror. If it’s the last thing I do.”

I frowned at her. “You would go against your own son? He’s brought great fortune to our island.”

Her milky brown eyes fixed on me. “Our island. Exactly.”

I realized my mistake and quickly fumbled for an excuse, but she cut me off.

“Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me. Now, while I’d never murder my own son, I can prevent him from passing his ways down to an heir of his own. He will grow old and die—or fall in battle. Someone new will take his position. As long as Khadji’s in power, there will never be peace. He’s devoted to Torin above all others.”

I took in her words before answering. “And what would you have me do?”

She mindlessly tapped her walking stick on the floor. “I’ve found a potion which makes a woman barren when consumed. I’ll bring it to you in the morning if you’ll agree to drink it.”

I contemplated her offer. If I never became pregnant, Khadji wouldn’t know it was my doing. He could still grow angry with my inability to bear him children, but maybe he’d toss me out. Jehvad would surely be here soon, and then we could leave this place together. I prayed to the gods he would come and find me, but if he didn’t… did I really want to birth the next cruel leader? The answer was no. “Okay, I’ll drink it. You better not poison me,” I added.

She chuckled softly. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already.”

Those words kept me up half the night. I was living with dangerous people.

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