The following days were much the same. I fell into a routine. I spent my days alone, wandering the fortress and watching the warriors train. I spent my nights dining with Khadji, always lying with him afterward. I hadn’t been able to get Hepbar alone to ask him if he’d lied to me in some way.
I planned in my head how I would kill Khadji but could never work up the courage to actually go through with it.
I drank the khaviss every three days. When I ran low, Nenet brought me more. I didn’t know where she kept getting it from, and I didn’t ask. All I knew was, she would sometimes disappear for a few days and then reappear without explanation. No one seemed to care.
I tried to be patient as Khadji grew more and more frustrated with my flat belly. The khaviss was working.
One day, when I went to watch the warriors train, I didn’t hear the crashing of steel for the first time. Peering down from my usual spot on the balcony, I saw Khadji standing in a circle of warriors I didn’t recognize. They weren’t in uniform, nor were they bare-chested like those who trained. They were each dressed in clothes of their own, but all appeared fit to fight in battle. I made my way down the stairs so I could hear what was being said.
“Today is the day, men! Today you become Khadji’s warriors. Be proud!”
The men all cheered, including the men who were already in Khadji’s army who stood around the circle of newcomers.
My eyes fixated on one new warrior in particular. His hair was shaved off, but his warm, brown eyes were familiar.
Khadji went to each man, asking them to pledge allegiance to him. He came to the warrior with familiar eyes. Hearing him speak… my heart stopped. I knew that voice belonged to my Jehvad. At last, he had come for me.
After each man had given their pledge, the warriors broke apart. I tried to reach Jehvad, but the crowd was too thick. I gave up and went back to my room. I pulled the dagger out of the wooden chest and studied it. I loved how powerful I felt when I held it in my hands. So beautiful, so deadly, I thought as I balanced the blade on my palm.
A knock on my door had me chucking it back into the chest. “Come in!”
The door swung open, revealing Nenet’s slouched form. “Khadji’s invited everyone to dine together tonight, and he’s requested you wear green.” She set the dress she’d been clasping upon my bed.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Though, I’m not happy about angering Bati even further.” I picked up the dress and inspected it. It was nothing special… just a plain, emerald green dress.
“I pray for her forgiveness every day,” Nenet admitted.
I didn’t doubt that for one moment.
“Do you need assistance in getting ready?” she asked.
“No, I can manage.” The dress was loose enough I could easily slip into it on my own.
At my insistence she left me to my own devices.
After getting into the dress, I put on the golden bracelets I’d grown so fond of, as well as a gold and emerald necklace. I went to the dining hall, only used when Khadji decided to eat with more than just his private circle.
The dining hall was crowded with loud warriors who stood around laughing and conversing as they gripped cups of fine wine. Only a few females were in attendance. Khadji wasn’t yet there.
I was staring up at a painting of Torin showered in the blood of his victims when I spotted Jehvad’s shaved head out of the peripheral of my vision. I moved into his line of sight, but I guessed he didn’t see me because he turned away.
I huffed and strode into the crowd to catch up with him. I came up behind him and tapped on his shoulder.
His back stiffened before he turned around, grinning widely. “Malyi! How nice to see you.”
My brow furrowed. “I need to speak with you.”
His eyes darted around the room as he adjusted his stance.
I grabbed ahold of his hand and led him away from the crowd.
“This looks suspicious,” he said with a nervous laugh.
I ignored his comment and turned and placed both hands on my hips like a mother reprimanding her child. “What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Waiting for me? You left me—for Khadji, our great leader.”
“I had no choice!” How could he think I would willingly leave my home for such a man?
“Shh,” he hushed me, raising both hands as though I were some scared animal “You belong to him now. There’s nothing I can do for you.”
I wanted to scream at him, but I managed to calm myself enough to ask, “At least tell me this, did my parents get away from Gwon?”
He frowned. “I believe so. They told me you’d offered yourself to Khadji for them and they were leaving Gwon. They were packing up when I went to look for you.”
I relaxed a little. “Good.”
Everyone suddenly went silent and faced the front of the dining hall. I turned my head to glimpse over my shoulder and saw they were looking at Khadji. When I turned back, Jehvad was gone. Coward. I couldn’t believe him. All this time, I’d been waiting for him to save me, and he didn’t even care to try. So much for true love. I’d never felt so foolish. I’d have to take Nenet’s advice to wait and hope Khadji would tire of me and set me free.
After our substantial meal, Khadji stood up. “Malyi, come,” he ordered as though I were his dog.
I felt the others eyes on me, but one pair in particular bore deep into my soul. I hated myself for relying on Jehvad to rescue me. He had chosen to come here and fight for Khadji. Even after finding out I had to sell myself to him to save my family. I gripped the table and got up slowly and followed Khadji from the dining hall without a word. I figured he’d take me to his bed, but when we passed his room, I realized we were headed somewhere else.
We entered a long but narrow, dimly lit room on the other side of the fortress. There were eight pedestals along the walls. Each held the statue of a different god or goddess. Each held a shrine where people came to worship. We stopped in front of the statue of Bati. Her shrine held dried flowers and green candles, which Khadji ordered me to light.
“We pray to her for her blessing,” he said to me before sitting on his knees and placing his forehead on the ground before the smiling goddess holding her pregnant belly.
I mirrored his pose, but I didn’t pray to her for her blessing. Instead, I prayed silently for her forgiveness.
Khadji did take me to his bed afterwards. I felt no emotion as I let him try to plant his seed in me yet again.
“It will work this time. I feel Bati’s presence tonight,” he told me assuredly with his arms crossed over his head when the act was done.
He didn’t see my smirk as I climbed off the bed. “Me too.”
The next full moon came and went. I still didn’t carry Khadji’s child, thanks to the khaviss.
One afternoon, a couple of concubines who lived at the fortress had asked if I wished to paint with them. I accepted their invitation with gratitude. Being poor, I’d never gotten the chance to create pictures. My parents didn’t have the coin for such materials. My lack of skills showed. I made a screwed up face at the odd looking partridge I’d painted with wings that were way too large for its tiny body.
“Malyi.” Khadji’s deep voice tore my thoughts away from the ugly demonic sort of bird I’d created.
The other ladies stopped to stare as he grabbed ahold of my arm and dragged me away. He never came to fetch me himself. This couldn’t be good. He guided me down the corridor by the shoulders with a firm grip.
“Ow! Where are you taking me?” I asked, trying to twist away from the fingers digging into my skin.
He didn’t answer.
I began to panic. My thoughts became frantic. I was sure he was going to kill me, but why take me away? He’d always preferred to make an example out of his victims.
He took me down a set of steep, winding stairs. The air was cooler beneath the ground level. I quivered as goosebumps pimpled the skin on my arms. It was so dark—darker than a deep and dreamless sleep, but Khadji somehow found his way. I heard a door open before I was shoved inside a room.
Khadji lit a few dusty lamps then pointed to the only chair in the room. “Sit.”
I hesitated. The room was tiny and had a low ceiling. Cobwebs hung in the corners like wisps of cotton.
Startled by the volume of his voice, I obeyed.
He found a rope and bound my arms to the chair.
“Please, why are you doing this?” My voice came out as a squeak. I was ashamed at how weak I was. I felt betrayed. Betrayed by Jehvad, and betrayed by Nenet who had told me I’d be set free. How foolish I was to believe such promises.
“You give no life, so you’ll bear the mark of Motish.” He grabbed a small dagger with a thin blade and pot of ink off a shelf.
Horror filled me as my mind comprehended what he meant to do. I squirmed and fought against my bonds, but they wouldn’t budge. A frustrated sound escaped my throat. “Did you do this to the other women who failed you?”
If he was surprised that I knew this bit of information, that I wasn’t his first, he didn’t show it. “No, but Motish is forever the one who blesses me with death. If I give her you, maybe she’ll leave me alone.”
I opened my mouth to tell him death couldn’t take something that was never alive, but he stuffed a piece of material in it and gripped onto my arm.
I jerked away and he let out a growl. “Hold still!” He pushed my head to the side and clasped my arm even harder. With his other hand he began to trace a pattern with the dagger. He was too big, too muscular. I couldn’t make my body move.
I left out a whine from around the material. I hated him for what he was doing. I’d already hated him, but now my loathing towards him grew like a plague.
When he’d finished drawing with the blade, he poured ink onto the mark he’d cut out.
I howled in pain as the liquid stung my shoulder.
He rubbed the ink into the mark and sat back, cracking his knuckles. “Death will follow you now. Should you try to rid yourself of this mark, Motish will come for you and everyone you’ve ever loved.”
I sagged against the ropes. He was right. To destroy any symbol of a god or goddess was bad luck. I wouldn’t have cared if it’d only meant my own death, but I couldn’t chance my parents’ lives… wherever they were now.
Khadji took the cloth out of my mouth and released me.
“You’ve put me in favour of the goddess of death. May she aid me in ending your life,” I spat at him.
His booming laugh followed me as I bolted from the room and up the dark stairway. For the first time since my arrival, I wasn’t invited to dine with the leader.