I lay in bed feeling sorry for myself that evening. My empty stomach grumbled, and my shoulder throbbed where the fresh mark wept blood and ink.
Veniece strode in, without invitation. The bed sank with her weight as she took a seat beside me.
I didn’t have the will to deal with her right then. “Go away,” I groaned.
She ignored me, her eyes flicking to my mark. She pressed her lips into a thin line. “I’m sorry this has happened to you.”
“What do you care?”
She sighed. “I know about the khaviss.”
Her words caused my stomach to drop. I sat up. “You’ve lain with Khadji too?”
She nodded. “As soon as Khadji became leader, my father offered me to him. He wanted more power, but Nenet had other plans. She overheard me talking to one of the other ladies about how I was distressed about being tied to Khadji, so she offered me the khaviss. I accepted.”
“Were there any others?” I asked, remembering how Nenet told me there’d been one or two.
“There was one other woman—a small, shy thing. Khadji frightened her. She tried to run away from him.” She lowered her voice. “He had her executed for failing to obey her master.”
“How awful.” I wasn’t surprised that he’d killed her. He was merciless. However, I was surprised Nenet led me to believe all would be okay if I drank her khaviss. I was lucky he hadn’t done the same to me. I glowered. Did Nenet even care that she was risking our lives?
Veniece tilted her head back and looked down at me. “When you showed up, I knew my father must have promised you something to get you to come here. I assumed you were greedy and wanted the power that came along with bearing Khadji’s children. If that was what he promised you, it was a lie. Khadji will never marry. Not even if you did carry his child. He doesn’t want to share his power.”
I ran a hand through my hair and answered her honestly. “I come from a poor family. Your father was going to take everything my parents had worked for. He said Khadji needed it to pay for ships and warriors. I offered myself in exchange.”
She shook her head. “Unbelievable. He’s still a liar. Khadji has more than enough gold. My father was given coin to purchase a beautiful and willing woman from a rich family. Instead he found a poor family so he could keep the extra coin for himself.”
I tensed. Her words cut me deep. All of this, my agreement to give myself to Khadji, my parents being banished… it could’ve been avoided if Hepbar wasn’t so damn greedy! I wanted to kill him. I felt Motish’s approval at the thought, quickly turning want into need. “Thank you for being honest with me,” I told her sincerely.
“We should be allies now that we both know the truth.”
“Yes, of course.” I still wasn’t sure if I trusted her fully, but we shared the secret of khaviss. I hoped I wouldn’t regret our conversation.
She sauntered to the door. “I’ll send Tavah to care for your wound and bring you some food,” she called before disappearing.
That was the night I accepted my fate as Motish’s devoted servant and vowed I’d kill Hepbar for what he’d done. He was the one who was responsible for everything.
I hid in bed for the next few days, letting Tavah bring me my meals. Gossip had spread like wildfire, and I couldn’t stand the looks of pity cast my way whenever I left my room. Nenet stayed away from me now that her goal was taken care of. Her son had given up on me. I eventually grew tired of being cooped up. I realized if I wanted to be free, I’d need to learn how to survive on my own. It was time to embrace my new role as death’s servant.
I managed to corner a lean, young warrior I’d seen training before. He was quick and often beat the larger men with his agility. I stepped out in front of him and stuck my bare thigh out of the long slit in my magenta dress. “Care to help me with something?” I whispered in his ear, brushing my lips against his cheek.
Seeing his comrades had left him behind, he turned his attention fully on me. “I—I—what do you need help with, madam?”
I pulled back just enough so he could see my face. “Please, call me mistress.”
I placed a palm against his chest where his heart lay inside. “I’ve seen you train. I like your style.”
“Th—thank you? Mistress.” His heart pounded beneath my palm.
“Teach me.” I gave him my most disarming smile. When he looked like he was about to refuse, I pressed myself up against him and gave him a long, slow kiss. “I’ll make it worth your while.” I winked.
“Oh—uh—alright. I can teach you, but we’ll have to do it late at night. I believe only warriors are allowed to train here.” He swayed. He was completely under my spell.
“Wonderful. I’ll meet you in the pit tonight, when the moon is at its peak.” I let my hand trail down his arm as I stepped away, leaving him without words.
That was easy, I thought as I went in search of Tavah.
I found her gathering linens to take to the laundress. She dropped the pile of material she’d been holding into a basket and greeted me.
“Listen, Tavah, I need you to do something for me,” I said, wasting no time.
“What is it?”
I unclasped the gold necklace with rubies I’d been wearing. “Take this and have me some new clothing made, preferably pieces that would be easy to fight in.”
“Mistress?” She eyed me suspiciously.
“Don’t ask, please, just do it,” I pleaded desperately, clasping her hands.
Resolve crossed her face. “Yes, of course.” She was my servant and she would do as I asked.
“You’re the best,” I cooed. “Oh, and make sure they’re all black.”
She frowned, but I left before she could change her mind or ask any more questions.
The colour of Motish was the only colour I wanted to wear.
I managed to find a dress loose enough I could move freely in. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. I brought the dagger I’d stolen with me to the pit.
When the young warrior, whose name was Keb, saw my weapon, he chuckled. “No, that won’t do.”
My arms dropped to my hips with disappointment. “It’s all I have.”
“Lucky I brought a scimitar for you then.” He held the large curved sword out for me to take.
I beamed at him as I accepted the shining sword. “My gratitude.” The weapon was gorgeous. It was nothing special, but I still loved the way the metal gleamed in the starlight. I felt powerful as I gripped the handle in my fist.
“Here,” he came behind me and reached his arms around me. “Hold it like this.”
I placed my hands where his were, and he let go.
“Yes, like that,” he said.
I took a swing and almost fell over. “Arg!”
“Careful. Widen your stance. Like this.” He demonstrated the position with his body.
I copied him with my body and tried again. I swung, and the sword cut cleanly through the air.
“That’s better. Let’s try some moves now.” He took his own scimitar out of its scabbard and had me repeat his motions.
When I was breathless and drenched in sweat, we stopped. The night air cooled me as we walked back inside. Just before we entered the warriors’ quarters, I turned and pressed my mouth to Keb’s, parting my lips so our tongues could play. Running my hand up his thigh, I undid his trousers. And in the shadows of the night, I paid him generously for his aid.
We met each night until I was satisfied with my training. He even gave me the scimitar I’d used for practice. I was overjoyed at having two weapons to call my own, but I wanted more. Their power was addicting. I’d take a good weapon any day over jewels and fancy dresses.
Tavah had done well in obtaining the type of clothing I’d requested. My favourite outfit was a leather corset and a long skirt with two slits for the legs. She’d even managed to get me a pair of well-fit trousers. I relished in the sneers I got when I wore those.
I carried my dagger with me everywhere. I made sure to keep it hidden, but the feeling of it against my skin made me feel safe. Especially since the warriors seemed to believe spending a night with me would get them in Motish’s good graces before going to battle. Some of them I indulged, others I refused. I still had enough khaviss to ensure I’d remain barren.
I was crossing a bridge from one of the towers to the main part of the fortress one night after letting one of the warriors worship Motish through me. The fortress was quiet as most were already slumbering. I almost leapt out of my skin when a voice called my name from behind.
I turned to find Hepbar in his usual brightly coloured robes, though they were dimmed by the cover of night. The darkness made the shadows on his face appear deeper. “Were you following me?” I asked in a vexed tone.
“You need to stop seducing the warriors,” he ordered, his voice grating my nerves.
I took a step towards him. “So you were following me. It’s none of your business what I do any longer.”
His eyes took in my appearance. He licked his lips. “Listen, I’m sorry for what happened. I didn’t realize you’d be barren when I brought you here, but you can’t keep seeing the warriors. You’re a distraction.”
I lost it. All the anger I’d felt at losing my simple life… at losing my parents, came pouring out. I grabbed the dagger I’d tied around my thigh and pointed it to his throat. “This is your fault!”
He raised his palms and took a step back. “What do you mean? I didn’t know you were barren, and that Khadji would do this to you.” His gaze snapped to the mark on my shoulder.
I took another step closer to him. “No, but you weren’t even supposed to bring me here. You were supposed to find a wealthy, willing lady.”
“Who—who told you that?” He took another step back.
I smiled and pressed the tip of the dagger into his skin. Not enough to draw blood, just enough to make him feel its prick.
He took a few more steps back and lost his footing. He made a panicked sound before slipping off the bridge and hitting the ground beneath with a loud THUMP! I stepped to the edge and peered down at his crumpled, lifeless body.
I was disappointed that I didn’t technically get to kill him with my own hand. It seemed Khadji was right. Motish was now on my side.
I placed the dagger back in its home at my thigh and went to my room. I told no one about Hepbar. Someone would find him soon enough. There was no evidence of my part in his death. I came to the realization my time at Khadji’s fortress had come to an end. It was time to move on.