Once we had left the gates of the palace, the carriages were stopped and I was whisked away to my own separate travel coach. We were to travel separately in case of attack but also to keep us from doing anything untoward until our official wedding ceremony before the Rajaian High Priestess. When I stepped into the ornate coach a smug face greeted me.
“It is good to know that you are not a coward.” My attendant was wrapped in a dark black cloak tied with a blood rash sash. She stood to close the door and secure it tightly behind me. A cursed smile spread across her face as she watched Prince Rahmi from the carriage door. Lowering the shade on the window, the attendant sat back down on the silken cushions and picked up a set of ivory-handled pistols that had been lying on her seat. She loaded them with quiet confidence, taking turns between staring at her weapons and smiling at me.
“I am a coward, Kuva.” I told her with a sneer. “If I wasn’t, I would have died and let my country rot with me.”
But the sound of the trumpets calling for our departure silenced us both. It didn’t matter now what could have been. I had chosen this path and I would see it through to the end, no matter how handsome and lovely Rahmi was.
“Why the weapons?” I asked her after a half-hour of awkward silence.
She had moved on from shinning her guns to polishing a set of twin-daggers. They were Ilerian made and looked like ones palace guards in my home capital wore.
“They are to protect you from harm in case we are attacked on the road.”
I laughed and Kuva looked up with a grim expression.
“You care if I live or die? How strange…” The words were venomous and I didn’t care.
“Of course I care. You are my ticket to freedom, remember.”
I didn’t speak another word.
The carriage moved toward the coastline quicker than I had dared hope. It would be the longest week of my life, sailing across the waters to my plague-ravaged home. Yet before we would set sail, we would stop for the night at a temple half-way between the Rajaian capital and the port city of Lumar. The thoughts of Rahmi’s smile as he kissed me at our wedding would not leave my mind no matter how many times I turned and flipped to get comfortable. The stack of plush pillows under my neck felt like rocks poking into my skin. My anxieties scratched away at the façade of comfort all around me.
“Do you still have the jewel?” I asked Kuva after I could take the silence no more.
She looked up at me in-between strokes of the cloth against the shiny metal. “It is safe until you need it.”
“And when…” I paused to take a short breath, poking my nail into the palm of my hand to keep myself from crying in her presence. “When will that be again?”
Her smile curled up in ecstasy as she replied. “When we arrive at the temple, Si’tareh. The same temple in which I saved your life.”
Behind the beautiful face of Kuva I saw the darkness move, like a shadow of storm clouds rolling across a summer sky. I didn’t speak to her again, nor look at her frightening face. While others would see only the pale skinned Ilerian servant, I knew what she truly was and I could not stand the sight of her.
I was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire and a hand pulling me to the floor of the carriage. My attendant was crouched on top of me like an fearsome wolf and she hissed for me to stay low and be quiet. Outside there was shouting and the screaming of palace servants. I heard Rahmi yelling and then a loud smack, as if he had been thrown into the ground with tremendous force. Shots rang out again and our carriage jolted .
The handle jiggled but it didn’t open. My attendant handed me a dagger. “Use it if you need to. There is not much I can do, having drained my powers before this trip. I will have to fight them in this wretched form.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or fearful. If she was weak, Kuva could be killed. But if she died it was likely I would also be killed. There were many that did not want this alliance to happen. I had been threatened on more than one occasion not to go through with the marriage. But it had been part of the deal I had made with Kuva.
“Open this door! We know you are in there Princess!” A deep voice, gruff and angry shouted as he shook the handle and pushed against the carriage rocking in violently.
Kuva unbolted the lock and waited until the door swung open to discharge her pistol and kick the mortally wounded man out of her way. I hadn’t noticed before, but she was wearing the same clothing I was underneath her black cloak and her hair, which was darker than mine, was hidden, tied up in a strange mass under a veil. Only a man that got close enough to see her face would know that she was not me.
Clever, I thought. For a moment, I was happy to have her with me, forgetting the evil curse she had bound me to. A throng of armed men chased her as she ran from the carriage into the nearby woods. They did not think to check the carriage for other passengers, however, so I slipped from the carriage with Kuva’s dark cloak wrapped round my pink gown. Crouching down by the wheel, I hid myself next to the dead assassin, his cold eyes staring up into the sky. There was a pool of dark red blood pooling around him and I laid close enough that I could feel its warmth soaking into the earth. I peeked out and tried to assess what was happening. I could see Rahmi tied to a tree on the other side of the road. The dozens of servants and soldiers, most of whom looked wounded, were being held at gunpoint by two men. A third man held a gun to Rahmi’s temple.
“They know they are outnumbered,” I told myself as I tried to think of a plan of action. I couldn’t stay next to the dead man for long. Kuva was leading them on a chase, but who knew when they would return. If I could give Rahmi’s men an advantage, buy them time to fight back, they could gain the upper hand and kill the assassins, or whoever the brigands were.
I decided to use what I had at my disposal. I felt inside the cloak and found a sheath for the dagger. After carefully putting it in place, I rubbed my hand through the dead man’s blood, smearing it on my dress and face. I hoped that the shock of seeing me covered in blood would draw the attention of the guards long enough for someone to do something other than wait to die.
I stood to my feet and hobbled around the carriage, I took a few steps out onto the road in full view of the servants and soldiers who gasped at the sight of me. The captors turned to see what was happening and as they ran towards me I stumbled forward and fell to the ground, pretending to be mortally wounded. I don’t know what happened next, only that I heard the men fighting. I opened my eyes just enough to see the two assassins fall at the hands of Rahmi and his head guard who was nursing a wounded arm. Rahmi fell to his knees next to me, his hands searching for the imaginary wound.
“My love… my wife…” he muttered. I opened my eyes and sat up with a sober expression. Rahmi had a cut across his cheek and blood splatter covering his traveling clothes. His eyes widened as I smiled and lifted a hand to his good cheek.
“I didn’t think that would work.” It took him a moment to realize what I had done and he lifted me to my feet and kissed me deeply in front of everyone. When he let me go, I took a step back and smiled, only to see a handful of men come barreling out of the woods. Their swords and daggers were stained red and their eyes were wild with fury. They spotted us in the road and charged towards us. Rahmi whipped his sword around to parry a blow from a charging assassin and I ducked down and fell backwards into the dirt. A smaller man leapt towards me and I pulled the dagger out of the cloak instinctively. My brother had trained me to fight long before the plague and I was deadlier than I appeared. The wide-eyed assassin with a knife in his ribs attested to my secret talent. All the soldiers were engaged, fighting with horrifying wounds. Rahmi and I were left to deal with a pair of short-sword wielding fighters, both were intent on murder.
“Who are you? Who sent you?!” Rahmi yelled at the men. But they only snickered and swung one sword, then another. Rahmi parried and leapt out of the way and the dance continued. I stayed at his side, my dagger hidden in the folds of my cloak.
“We came to kill her,” one said as he pointed his blade at me. “But since you killed our leader, you will all die.” They laughed and lunged again towards Rahmi. As the second attacker went in for a shot, I ducked under his attack and rolled towards the assassin coming up under his blade with my dagger. I pushed it into his lungs with the full weight of my body and he stumbled backwards, blood pouring from his mouth. The other assassin screamed and swung his blade down at me, but a shot between the eyes stopped him before he could reach me. I turned to see Rahmi with a gun in his outstretched arm.
He didn’t speak of my fighting; rather he gathered me in his arms and kissed me again. The rest of the men had finished fighting, the assassins lying dead or dying in slicks of dark red blood all over the road.
Rahmi commanded the dead bodies to be gathered and burned. It took more than an hour to move them all to a suitable place. During that time, they searched for Kuva. Her body was found hacked to pieces near a ravine. I told them to burn her body with the others and no one objected, but I could see their disapproval. If only they knew who she really was, they might not have been so quick to judge me.
It was dark when we arrived at the temple. Tall columns of dark black stone carved into the shapes of elephants rose out of the ground by the dozens to hold up a high domed ceiling. The massive building itself was hewn from black marble, a near replica of the Rajaian family palace. It was framed with pink and yellow rose gardens, the flowers in full bloom. Cascading fountains made in the likenesses of the goddesses of Rajai filled the massive courtyard where we arrived with great fanfare. Everything was lit by floating candles and lanterns that set the grounds of the palace ablaze with beautiful colored lights. We were met by a procession of priestesses and their eunuchs all wearing the royal wedding colors of pink and white. As Rahmi and I were escorted from our carriages we were met with cries of jubilation and showers of wilted rose petals.
“Welcome your highnesses. Welcome to the Temple of Gohdai.”
The voice belonged to a woman dressed in bright Ilerian pink framed with the gold trim of the Rajaian kingdom. She wore a diadem made of moonstone and her eyes were lined with kohl. She smiled at us both as she stretched out her hands and descended from the temple entrance.
She carried the smile with her until she reached the bottom of the silk-covered stairs. She paused for a moment, taking in our disheveled appearance. There was blood splattered across my traveling gowns and still caked on my face and a freshly stitched gash on Rahmi’s otherwise perfect face.
“You had trouble on the road?”
Rahmi shook his head and at the same time took her hand into his own and kissed it reverently. I stepped forward to do the same, hoping to put the skirmish and our near-death experience behind us. The High Priestess seemed to understand. Instead of pressing the matter further she lifted her smooth, copper-skinned arms into the air and said loudly. “All is prepared, come, let us bath you and make ready for the ceremony.”
Rahmi took my hand in his own and looked towards me with a half-smile. I could see that it hurt his face to smile, the wound stretching as he did so. He squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. For the first time since I had left Ileria, thoughts of my horrid mission left my mind. Replaced in their stead was the knowledge that I was free.
Inside the dark stone temple it was surprisingly light and airy. I was ushered away from Rahmi towards the woman’s bathhouse where an entourage of young priestesses awaited me. The bathhouse was built from sparkling, white mountain-stone that was warm to the touch. And as I was stripped of my traveling clothes and led into the rose-scented water, I marveled at the heat of the stone under my feet. The young priestesses laughed as they told me the tale of the Rajaian emperor who had travelled to the east in search of the goddess Gohdai’s mountain. He fell in love with her and she bore him a son which later became the greatest ruler of Rajai. He built the temple between the ocean and the palace as a way station so that every trip he took he could spend in worship of his lover, the goddess.
For once, I felt like the weight of the world and my bad choices had been pulled off of me. I didn’t know what it meant, Kuva being dead, but I was sure that I was free. The plagues, the deaths, the bad decisions— all if it was gone. I focused on the sensation of the water against my skin and the story of the emperor and his goddess lover. I blushed as they wove their beautiful tale, only because my mind had wandered off to Prince Rahmi. I wondered if his touch would be like the warm stones under my feet or like the cool water that was poured over me to wash away the grim of travel. My cheeks flushed as I thought of what was to come.
When they had finished and my pink was bright pink from their efforts, I was led to a chamber where the priestess rubbed smooth oil into my skin. A sheer lace gown of gold was slipped over my head with ease. Before a mirror I admired my loveliness. My pale hair had been woven with tiny roses and my skin was shiny and supple. Underneath the see-through fabric my skin was taut and smooth, not a single flaw to be found. The grime and blood and death from earlier in the evening had been washed away. I felt like a new creature.
When I entered the High Temple chamber, I was not expecting the scene that unfolded before me. The room had been adorned with twisting panels of silk and carefully covered lights filled the room in a soft glow. A large bed was set in the middle of the room and Rahmi stood before it dressed on in a sheer panel wrapped round his waist. A semi-circle of eunuchs surrounded the bed; their heads bent low in reverence. The sheer curtains were drawn back, one by one, as I moved toward my husband. His eyes were only on me and I could see that he was ready for me.
It was awkward letting my handsome husband touch me in front of a procession of Priestesses. The first time was nothing more than ceremonial love making, where my virginity was confirmed and the marriage declared legal under the letter of the law. We were given wine to drink and led to a chamber where we feasted until late in the night. But I didn’t touch much food because Rahmi’s touch had set my passions aflame. It wasn’t until later in the evening, when the rest of the temple had fallen into deep sleep that Prince Rahmi came to my bed, his eyes full of the fire that burned within my bosom.
He didn’t wait to see if I was alone before he pushed his way into the room and wrapped me in his arms. He lifted me onto the bed and ran his fingers along my warm flesh and I shivered with anticipation. As we melted together as a husband and wife should, I let go all of the worry and strife and sadness that had accompanied me from Ileria to Rajai. When we had finished taking our fill of one another and lay quietly in one another’s arms, I felt a strange pull and I sat straight up in bed, staring at the door to my room.
A whisper, a dark whisper fluttered towards me from beyond the door.
A knock at my door revealed a copper-skinned priestess with jet black hair and slinky eyes the color of sandalwood. She smiled when the door swung open and brought in a tray of wine and food.
“I am Jahal. The High Priestess learned that your maid was killed and she has offered me as your new servant. I have brought you sustenance to keep you during your many hours before departure.” She stopped and pointed to a bell near the door. “Ring if you need me, I will never be far.”
Rahmi smiled as she left and made a comment of how wonderful it was.
I cringed as he swung down from the bed and handed me a cup of wine.
He would have made a good husband and a fine ruler. It was sad that I would not get to live out the rest of my life in his arms.But, the strange darkness that had lived inside of Kuva… it had survived.
Fate is as cruel as true beauty is rare.