Ileria. The beautiful shoreline of lush green greeted us as we neared the cape of the northern-most port village of Mahraz. I watched from the prowl as the swift vessel slowed to a creep, dragging up alongside the lone pier. It was empty save for a few empty vessels whose goods sat waiting to be unloaded. There were a few rows of soldiers wearing the golden armor of the royal guard lined up along the wood and stone structure. Stiff as corpses, they stood rigidly at attention as if they were a permanent fixture of the docks. I watched them with a jumble of emotions thrumming through my mind.
As the mooring lines were thrown ashore and the gangplank lowered into place, I felt my heart try to leap from my chest with joy and then horror.
“It’s just as beautiful as I remember from my youth,” Rahmi told me as he stepped up behind me wrapping his arms around my waist.
“Rahmi, I . . . perhaps we should turn back, go back to Rajai and tour your lands first.”
He laughed quietly in my ear and squeezed me playfully. “And miss the chance to see the countryside and visit with my new subjects? I wouldn’t dream of it. I have seen all that Rajai has to offer,” he paused spinning me on my heels so he could look deep into my eyes. “Now I wish to see what Ileria, a place of exquisite beauty, has in store for me.”
My head spun and a deep pit of sadness buried itself deep in my belly. There is no beauty here, I whispered to him in my mind. Only death. I didn’t realize I was frowning until Rahmi placed his hand underneath my chin and pulled me closer into his embrace.
“What is the matter, Sitar’eh?” He asked, a deep concern edging his words.
I smiled the royal smile that I had perfected from my youth. “Nothing, my love, nothing. I just . . .”
“I know it must be hard to be back here so soon, having left in a hurry to be wed. Your people are still recovering from that horrible plague. So many deaths, so much devastation . . . I can only imagine how crushing it must feel knowing there is still so much to be done.”
I nodded as he hugged me tightly.
“But, you aren’t alone anymore. I am here with you now and you don’t have to do this by yourself.” He pushed me away just enough so that I could see the look into his deep brown eyes. “I won’t abandon you.”
He stooped down to give me a kiss, his soft lips filling mine with passion. I tried to let myself feel the happiness he offered me, but the nagging realization that I still had a duty to perform for Anri Mahyu made my stomach turn.
I faked a weak smile as our lips parted.
“We are ready for your departure, your majesties.” The captain of the ship said as he approached the prowl.
Paraded down the pier, I should have felt jubilant. I should have been excited. But all I could picture was the dark form of the demon Anri Mahyu burning away the beautiful soul of my husband, one who I had so carelessly traded for my own selfish life.
He trailed behind me in the body of Jahal, a smug expression plastered across the stolen face. His closeness kept me from running, if for no other reason that I had seen the darkness in him, felt it when he had entered my body at the temple many moons ago. I knew what he wanted and what he was capable of. I was too much of a coward to have warned Rahmi. I was too much of a coward to have ended my life long before I turned to the dark lord of death for help.
“How many days to the capital?” The voice of Jahal asked that night as we settled into the winter palace just outside the city of Mahraz.
Rahmi looked at me, my lips pursed in defiance. I knew what game Anri was playing at and I was too worn down to take his bait.
“I believe it is several weeks from here, is it not, my love?” Rahmi asked. I shrugged my shoulders and turned back to the mirror to re-do my sleeping braid for the fifth time.
I caught Jahal smiling behind me as I looked up in the mirror. I stormed from my seat and pushed her in the chest. “Get out of my chambers, now! GO!” I shouted.
She pretended to cry but I could hear the silent laughter of Anri Mahyu from deep within her body. He knew what I was dreading and he knew there was no way out.
Rahmi grabbed my shoulders and gently pulled me behind him. “You may go, Jahal. See that we aren’t disturbed until the morning.”
She bowed and exited without another word.
That night as Rahmi lay sleeping in my arms I cursed myself. After what felt like forever, I finally could take it no longer and gingerly wiggled my way out from underneath him. I slipped down into the dark corridors where guards usually stood watch. The plague had seen to the lack of proper protocols, however. The troops that had survived had been set to patrol the perimeter of the major palaces, not walk the hallways to watch for danger.
I walked down old, familiar pathways until I arrived at the room that had once been my father’s study. I had spent many hours curled up at the bay window reading stories of far off lands and war among the gods. Most of the furniture was still covered and I slipped dusty sheet off the desk that had been my father’s favorite place to spend the winter months. There were letters written in his hand in a pile- copies of old laws or decrees that my father had dreamed up when we were far from the main court. There was a golden globe painted with a star map and several odd knickknacks, things that I had always been fascinated with when I was younger like a large eagle feather and a carving of a mighty warship. I was lost in happy memories of days long past when the door creaked open.
I jumped and as I spun I came face to face with Jahal.
“Having second thoughts,” she asked.
I swallowed and took several steps back.
“You know, it won’t be as horrible as you imagine. Sure, Rahmi’s soul will burn to ash and he will cease to be on this plane of existence, but…”
“I wish I had never asked for your help.” I snapped.
“But you did and in a week when we reach the outermost temple, you will place your husband on the altar with this jewel around his neck and recite these lines.”
She held out a slip of parchment. Scribbled down were the verses to an ancient curse that I dared not read out loud. Then she took the jewel she had shown me, a dark black stone carved with strange runes, and placed it in my hand.
“And if I change my mind?”
Jahal smiled coolly, her eyes went black as hell itself. “Then I will suck your soul from your body and ravage these lands until every man, woman, and child has felt the sting of my wrath.”
It grew more and more disturbing to travel beside a man that I had come to love knowing that I could not tell him that his life was in danger. Jahal had stuck closer to me after that night in Mahraz, after Anri Mahyu realized that I had contemplated going back on my word. Rahmi had asked me if I wanted a different hand-maiden. He had clearly seen how angry Jahal made me. I told him no, there were other things on my mind and it wasn’t the servants fault. He grew to be suspicious and watched Jahal carefully to see if she was doing inappropriate things or acting in a way unbecoming of a royal servant. But Anri Mahyu had been a better actor than I could have ever been. He would laugh and smile and pretend that my coldness didn’t bother him.
I wanted to strangle the life out of his puppet’s body.
The closer we got to his temple, the more withdrawn I became. The night before we were due to pass by Anri Mahyu’s temple, Rahmi cornered me before we could split up for the evening. I had requested we sleep separately until we reached the capital and he had acquiesced with a downcast countenance. He had not asked questions, but, as he approached me in the hallway outside my room, I knew there would be no avoiding him.
“Why won’t you just be with me for one night? What has gotten into you? Are you worried that you made a mistake? Are you regretting marrying me?” He peppered me with a dozen questions, one after another after another. I shook my head no and no again and again.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now, Rahmi. I just need some space. There is a lot on my mind.”
Jahal popped her head out of the servant’s room adjacent to my own. “Is everything alright, your majesty?”
For the first time since I had met him, other than the ambush on the road in Rajai, I saw Rahmi scowl in anger. “Leave us be, Jahal.”
She smiled and bowed and closed her door quietly. I knew Anri Mahyu would be listening on the other side and I would have to be careful what I said.
“It’s just . . .”
Rahmi pulled me close and kissed me harshly. “I need you.” He mouthed breathlessly.
I pushed him away. “Rahmi, please. It’s not a good time. I . . . I’m pregnant.”
In that instant, his eyes grew large and round like a creature caught in a trap unaware. A smile spread across his face and he grabbed me around the waist and buried his mouth in the crux of my neck, kissing it over and over.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He repeated over and over.
And as he slipped back across the hall in a whirlwind of glee and satisfaction, I ran to my room and buried my face into the silken sheets that covered my pillows trying to hide from my guilt and shame and lies.
“I’m sorry too, my love.”
Tomorrow would be the end of our journey.
“What is this place?” Rahmi asked me as we approached the temple on foot. I had told the guards to stay behind at the local village, that we would be riding out to see a few things in the surrounding area and it was best to go unnoticed. They had protested fiercely but Rahmi made them back down.
“It is an old temple to a god that you might know in Rajai, a dark and dangerous god, Anri Mahyu.” I told him matter-of-factly. I figured at this point I had nothing left to lose.
Jahal had snuck off in the morning and was nowhere to be found, but I could feel the presence of Anri Mahyu lurking nearby so I knew that she had to be somewhere inside, waiting.
Rahmi followed me without question. He briefly paused at statues and faded relief carvings, his eyes calculating the design and the art and the connection to his home world. Part of me hoped he would remember the name of this old god and know the stories and legends. I wished that he would recall the darkness surrounding Anri Mahyu and flee before we reached the inner temple.
It never happened.
We went deeper into the temple until we reached the black altar. There were flicking candles encircling the table of black stone and I shivered at the sight. All had been prepared.
I took Rahmi’s hand and led him up the steps. When we reached the top of the stairs, alone on the high pinnacle where the altar rested, I took him in my arms and told him I loved him.
“I need to lie down,” I told him, feigning lightheadedness.
He pulled me up into his arms, placing me carefully down onto the black stone table. The jewel that I had been given by Anri Mahyu rested in the innermost layer of my bodice and I could feel the cold stone pulsing against my skin. I pulled a scroll from my traveling coat and handed it to him.
“Will you read this poem to me,” I asked as I laid back on the hard stone surface. “It is a verse of the old gods.”
Rahmi unrolled the parchment and cleared his throat, the words dancing from his beautiful lips in a haunting melody.
Anri Mahyu burst through the inner chamber entrance in Jahal’s body. She collapsed mid-stride as the dark spirit of Anri left her body. I could see blood running from her nose as she fell lifelessly away. He had killed her to stop me.
But it was too late.
I pulled a vial from inside my bodice, hidden next to the jewel thrumming against my skin. I drank the contents as Rahmi finished the last line of the spell, one that I had changed to trap the dark god within my body.
I shook violently as the force of Anri Mahyu merging with me sent my body into convulsions. The poison took effect just as he burned away the last tethers holding my soul in place. As I floated out of myself, the edges of my light burning away like parchment held over a flame, I saw the fruits of my final penance. Foam was pouring from the mouth of my former body and blood was oozing from the eyes that had once been a bright and beautiful blue. Rahmi was shaking me, unsure of what was happening and I wished so badly to reach out and hold him in one final embrace. But as I drifted off into the nothingness of a banished existence, I felt at peace knowing that at least I had spared him from a fate that he didn’t deserve.
I had proven I wasn’t a coward after all.