With my heart racing in my chest, I felt my way through the dimly lit tunnel, my mind firmly on the task ahead. One offer. One wish. The rough stone underneath my fingers reminded me of the times ahead if I didn’t do this, the dry air I inhaled a promise of what it would feel like every day if I didn’t succeed. Even though she was next in line, Azra could not ascend the throne, no matter the cost. If she did, everything we Ilvannians treasured would be lost to her totalitarian regime.
The royal healer had been clear — one more child, or I wouldn’t live long enough to raise the next. One child, and she had to be a girl, for the sake of Ilvanna. I love my sons, and I love my husband, but on their behalf and everyone else’s, this had to be done, if only because the Council rejected a law enabling a male to inherit the throne.
No man would ever rule Ilvanna.
Breathing in deeply — inhaling the scent of chamomile, lavender, and rosemary lingering in the air — I stepped through a set of heavy curtains into a circular cavern room lit by hundreds upon hundreds of candles.
I did not envy the haniya in charge of this sacred duty.
A giant slab of stone stood in the middle of the room, and up close I could see it was engraved with intricate lines and the marks of the Gods. I trailed my fingers delicately over the lines, following every curve, groove, and mark, until I found the one I was looking for. Two crescent moons drawn within a full moon depicted the beginning and ending of life. According to our scholars, a second concept was of it being a mother’s womb at the start, middle, and end of a pregnancy.
It made perfect sense since it was Xiomara’s mark after all.
I traced my fingers over the other marks reverently, knowing them all by heart. If anything, Mother had instilled a healthy dose of respect for the Pantheon into me, even if it was done by veiled threats. Little did I know they would be the ones I would turn to in my hour of need. My hand traced along the lines of the dagger, and the snake coiling around the cup, which were the marks of Esahbyen and Aeson respectively. The coiled snake was a strange mark, but then, Aeson was a strange God, paragon for artists, musicians, and healers. The dagger on the other hand was plain and simple, apt for the God of War.
Stepping back, I regarded the altar with mixed feelings. Mahrleyah, leader of Hanyarah, hadn’t been very specific in her instructions for this part of the ritual. All she had been clear about was to bring an offer for the Gods if I wanted my wish granted. It had been hard finding one. The tight feeling in my throat did nothing to alleviate my nerves as I placed my Mother’s sapphire necklace on the altar before I went down on my knees. From this angle, I could see candlelight play over its multi-faceted surface, sending its reflection dancing on the cavern walls. A smile tugged at my lips as a stone settled itself in my stomach. It had been a gift from Mother before she died, and the last tangible item of hers that I owned. I breathed in deeply, and willed my pounding heart to calm down.
It was now or never.
Sweat trickled down my back, my chest, and stomach.
Had it been so hot all this time?
I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, rubbing my hands over my thighs before settling them in my lap.
“Xiomara, lady of life, mother of women, guardian of the womb, I beseech you. Troubled times are ahead for my people. Please, hear the prayer of a faithful daughter.”
As expected, it remained eerily quiet and for a brief moment, I felt like a complete and utter idiot.
I tried again.
“Please,” I continued, “I need your help for the sake of my people. For the sake of Ilvanna. I don’t know who else to turn to.”
Tears stung my eyes, and as they fell down my cheeks my hands lay shaking in my lap. If this failed, the consequences would be dire, even if they were hundreds of years away. If anything happened to me, and I had no heir to the throne, everyone would be at her mercy.
I had only one chance.
“I like it when they beg,” a deep, smoky, masculine voice came from behind me.
“You just like them on their knees,” a second, more melodious, and feminine voice answered, “begging or not.”
A deep, rumbling laugh echoed through the cavern, sending my heart into a wild frenzy. “You know me well, Sister.”
The woman snorted. I didn’t recognise either of the voices, but as it was a slow and painful death for a man to enter the sacred valley of Hanyarah, it left only one conclusion for me to come to. Surely they couldn’t be a God and Goddess, could they? It was too outrageous to even consider them as actual living and breathing beings, let alone answer the call of someone like me.
“Arayda, is it?” the woman asked.
I nodded demurely, not sure if I should move or stay where I was. It made me acutely aware of what I was wearing, or rather, what I wasn’t wearing.
“Please, get up,” she said, her voice gentle. “I don’t much like talking to someone’s back.”
Rising to my feet, I wrapped the robe tighter around me, keeping my eyes downcast as I turned towards them.
“No need to cover up,” the man purred, a playful grin ghosting around his lips.
The man called Esah harrumphed. “What? It’s true.”
Glancing up from under my lashes, I observed the two who couldn’t be anything but Gods. They were tall, even for Ilvannian standards, both beyond handsome with hair the colour of pearls and eyes the colour of the ever-changing skies. Both were clad in traditional clothing — tight floor-length robes with wide sleeves and a wide sash around the waist. Hers was the colour of ice on a clear winter’s day, while his was the colour of smouldering embers at the bottom, blending into the russet-gold colour of dancing flames.
He had to be Esahbyen, judging from the way she called him. I guessed her to be Xiomara.
“My apologies for letting you wait,” she said. “I had a hard time convincing my stubborn mule of a brother to come.”
My head snapped up and I stared at her slack-jawed. Had she really just apologised to me? I shook my head and bowed deeply.
“It is your time, milady. I am the one who should be patient.”
“Well-mannered too,” Esahbyen commented. “This is getting better and better.”
“Ignore him,” Xiomara said as she glared at him, only to let her gaze settle back on me, “for now...”
My eyes drifted over to Esahbyen, and I caught him smirking at me while cleaning his nails with a knife. A shiver ran down my back.
“What you ask is quite something.” Xiomara fixed me with a hard stare. “Are you willing to pay the price?”
I swallowed hard and nodded. “Anything to keep my people safe.”
“Are you willing to pay any price?” Esahbyen asked. “Any we ask of you?”
Xiomara looked somewhat troubled at my answer, her lips a thin line, her eyes hard.
Esahbyen grinned at her. “I like her spirit.”
“I’m sure you do,” she said with a sigh before turning to me. “You’re asking for a life, Arayda. You are aware of that?”
I nodded again. Annoyance at their amount of questions began building up inside of me, but I needed their help, so I gritted my teeth and dampened my anger. Esahbyen stalked closer, much like a predator would its prey. He moved behind me and stopped, his body a mere inch from mine. Strong hands ran down my shoulders and arms, warm breath tickling my skin as he leaned forward, sending my heart into a frantic beat.
“I can give you exactly what you want,” he whispered, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, his voice like a lover’s caress. “No questions asked, but you will not like what I ask in return.”
I looked at him confused. “But you’re the God of War. How—?”
The moment I opened my mouth to ask this question, I realised what he meant. I glanced at Xiomara, whose expression was unreadable.
“It is he who shall grant you your wish,” she said, “and so it shall be he who claims the price. Are you willing to accept that?”
“What will you ask?” My voice was barely a whisper as I stood shaking in his arms.
I felt the deep rumble in his chest as he laughed. “You will not know until such a time as I claim it. Are you still willing to move forward?”
Apprehension filled me at the idea of having to make a commitment to something I didn’t know the terms of. I had been trained to negotiate with people in all possible ways — not with Gods. There was no compromise in this. There was nothing to settle.
But what if his request would be to send my sons off to a war they might not get back from? What if he wants one of them in exchange for a daughter? What if he —.
I broke off the thought as a sickening feeling threatened to overwhelm me. It didn’t do to dwell on the what ifs. I either accepted his terms and receive what I desired, or I did not and would be left with a fifty-fifty chance of conceiving a girl.
I’m sorry Gaervin.
“I accept,” I said, straightening my shoulders while looking over my shoulder at Esahbyen.
A lazy grin spread across his immaculate features, which up close were even more exquisite than I had initially thought.
“I think it’s time for you to leave, Sister.”
He didn’t even so much as glance at her as he said this, his arms snaking around me to undo the knot of my robe. Xiomara disappeared in front of my eyes, a faint echo of her voice in my head wishing me good luck. I tensed when he dropped the robe from my shoulders, and slowly turned me around.
Esahbyen looked solemn.
“You understand that by accepting, you agree to all my terms?”
I nodded, but remained silent.
“As you wish, Tarien.”
It was a beautiful summer night, the scent of lavender and marigold heavy on the air when my daughter arrived safely into the world. It had been nine months since I’d bonded with a God to have her, and while I was filled with complete joy, a sense of dread overshadowed me. Gaervin looked completely happy and extremely proud at the little bundle in my arms, tears brimming his eyes.
I couldn’t tell him he wasn’t her biological father — to do so would be to admit adultery — and even though Ilvannians were known to have someone on the side, we were mostly monogamous after we’d chosen a partner. Gaervin was mine, and the father of our sons Evanyan and Haerlyon, who came bounding up to my bed in happy ecstasy at that moment.
It would be best if none of them knew.
“She’s so tiny.” Evanyan breathed.
“She’s so pretty,” Haerlyon murmured, placing a small hand on her cheek.
Having all of them here in my room, on my bed, made me the happiest woman in the world. For the last nine months, a single thought had been foremost on my mind, and now with Shalitha born, it returned.
A life for a life, Tarien. That is what I desire.
Esahbyen had told me his terms just before he left me in the cavern room, a dark, solemn look in those ever-changing eyes. I had cried for a very long time after, realising what I had condemned someone to. I had cursed myself, wished even he had not gotten me pregnant, but as time wore on and my moon-cycles didn’t come, I knew he had done exactly as he had promised.
He’d kept his end of the deal.
I feared it was mine now.
That night, when everyone aside from myself was subject to deep, blissful sleep, the God Esahbyen appeared. His ember-and-russet-gold robe was replaced for a jet-black version, his pearlescent hair shimmering in the candlelight as he walked over, ephemeral eyes fixed on the little bundle asleep in my arms.
“Can I…hold her?”
The question took me by surprise, leaving me slack-jawed. For a brief moment, insecurity passed those graceful features, before he composed himself. Carefully I lifted our daughter into his arms, endeared by how gently he held her, cooing and murmuring to her in the old language.
“You’ll be a feisty one, shareye,” he whispered, “and you’ll turn many heads, but I’m afraid there’s more in store for you. For when past and future come together, and love and hatred silently gather, when darkness your only companion at night, only then shall be your return to the light.”
My heart stopped when I heard his words.
“What have you done?” I stared at him wide-eyed.
He looked at me solemnly. “Our daughter is meant to be more than just the average Tari, Arayda. She’s the one who will bring change to Ilvanna the likes of which have never been seen before. Her path shall not be easy, and there is no guarantee she will live through it, but it has been set.”
“You said it would be a life for a life.” I barely caught the sob in my throat. “I never imagined it would be hers! That’s cruel!”
He smirked at me. “Is that what you think?”
“I’m not sure what to think anymore,” I replied with a scowl. “You just damned her to…to…whatever that was!”
Esahbyen watched me gravely. “Who says it’s to damn her? Now, as for our agreement, it’s why I’m here.”
He handed me back our daughter, and I couldn’t help but hold her tight against me — perhaps a little too tight, because she started to fuss and cry.
“I’ve chosen that life.”
I swallowed hard, closing my eyes. “Who?”
My eyes flew open, and tears started rolling down my cheeks of their own accord as I watched him. Shalitha started to cry too, and while shushing her and inhaling her new scent — trying to regain a sense of serenity — I bargained with the God of War one more time.
“Please, not yet,” I said. “Let her grow up with a father who can be here. Let him teach her the things she needs in life. Let my children grow up with him until they are old enough.”
Esahbyen looked from me at the bundle in my arms, ever-changing eyes guarded. “For her sake, I shall agree, but on one condition.”
“Name it.” I whispered.
“On the day of her one hundred and twentieth birthday, the day she will be regarded a child no longer, it is by your hand he shall die.”
A sob caught in my throat. “But I am no fighter.”
“By your hand or mine,” Esahbyen said. “Mercy or torture. Your choice.”
And so I struck another bargain with a God to prolong a life I wasn’t ready to take. The thought of it being my hands which would eventually kill Gaervin nearly drove me insane over the course of the next weeks, giving the healers reason to believe it was a malady of the womb. As time wore on, however, and the children grew up, I managed to put the fear away. One hundred and twenty years wasn’t anywhere close, giving me enough time to come up with a humane way to kill my husband.
Until then, I would enjoy every single moment with them.