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Authors: Tracy L. Higley

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BOOK: Palace of Darkness
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Cassia spun on him, her jaw tight. “Then go on alone! We’ll be fine without you!”

Aretas’s eyes went dark and his hand fisted. He swallowed hard, then shook his head. “We must keep going.”

They outpaced the traders somehow, losing them in the close-packed streets of Damascus. They returned to the house, and Cassia placed Alexander on a chair to wipe the grime from his body.

Aretas growled. “The boy deserves a whipping, not gentleness.”

Cassia’s lips tightened and her breath shallowed.

Aretas was not finished. “One of these days he’s—”

“Stop!”

Alexander jumped at the sharpness of her voice.

“Not another word, Aretas.” She turned on him, protecting her son with body and words. “You pulled us into your trickery when we wanted no part of it. I warned you it would be dangerous for us, but you did not care. So do not speak another word of blame to me!”

She sensed his tension. Like a snake coiled to strike. But she had venom in her as well.

Later, when Alexander had been given his thousand kisses and tucked into his bedding and the day’s take sat fat and heavy in a pouch beside the boy’s lyre, Cassia lay tense and angry beside Aretas.

“Those traders”—she hesitated, then pushed forward—“when they spoke of being in Petra—”

Aretas cut her off. “It was my home.”

“You never speak of it.”

“For good reason.”

In the darkness she could not see his face, but she could read him easily. Regret, perhaps bitterness, soured his voice. In all their years together, she had only learned bits and pieces of his early life. “Have you no one there anymore?”

He did not answer at once, and when he did speak, his voice was thick. “They are there. But they do not want me back.”

“But perhaps Alexander . . .”

Aretas rolled to his side, away from her. She had seen all she would see through that small window. He was asleep long before her, his breathing steady and untroubled, even after the frightening day.

But sleep again did not favor Cassia. Today’s plan had been shattered. A new plan was needed.

Sleep did come, eventually. But sometime in the early watches of the morning, a pounding came at the door. Cassia bolted upright, her heartbeat matching the clamor.

Aretas was on his feet. Alexander appeared in the doorway behind her. He clutched a tiny carved lion, his bedtime companion. Cassia went to him and turned as the door burst inward.

She gathered her son behind her and faced the two intruders. She recognized them in an instant.

“We want no trouble here.” Aretas wore a light tunic only and had no weapon. In that moment he seemed quite weak.

The trader Aretas had swindled took in the room with a glance.

“We want what’s ours,” the man said through clenched teeth. “And then
you
will be the one who pays.” His gaze drifted to Alexander and her, and the throbbing in her head warned her of danger.

This was it, then. The day she had known would come since she had first tied her fate to Aretas’s, somehow believing she could love him into respectability, create out of him a man worth having, who would love her in return in the way she yearned for. She had stayed with him, had borne him a son. Somehow she had believed her own commitment would foster his. And yet some part of her had always known that Aretas’s past or his present would someday find him.

Now all that remained was to see if he would destroy her and Alex as well. She pushed the boy behind her and held his arm with her own slick hand, willing him to stay as unseen as possible.

But it was
not
possible. Perhaps it was the scent of gold at the boy’s feet.

It happened in an instant, and yet slowly. The weasel-man flashed a knife and lunged for Aretas. The beefy man lumbered toward Alex and her, where they stood with the coins beside their sandals. His hands were outstretched, and his fingers were fat and clubbed, like greasy sausages in the market.

There was no time to react before he knocked them both aside with one sweep of his massive arm. They fell together, and Cassia heard Alex’s lyre fall to the floor with a crack. The boy had landed on the instrument. She felt an illogical jolt of sadness at the loss, as though something much greater was not at stake.

Cassia reached for Alexander. The boy held his hand to his mouth, as he often did when trying not to cry.

Behind them Aretas screamed, and Cassia turned to see the little man pull his knife from Aretas’s stomach.

Her own insides turned to water then, with the ponderous dread that comes when one’s entire world is about to change.

Alex lay upon the money pouch. Cassia turned back as the fat man kicked her little boy in the stomach to push him aside. The air whooshed from his lungs. His light eyes widened in terror and fixed upon her as his only hope. “Mama!”

Aretas was in trouble, but the protective fierceness that rose up in her was only for Alex. She pulled him away from the scattered coins. His attacker bent to scrabble in the dirt.

The bitter taste of fear and anger rose in her chest. She glanced around her, saw the heavy pot of caraway, and wrapped her hands around the cool weight of the terra-cotta. She scrambled to her feet, hefted the pot over her head, and smashed it down with a furious yell onto the fat man’s bent head. The clay cracked and the soil spilled over him like a dirty anointing, and he went down with a groan and lay still.

On shaking legs, Cassia turned to the other, smaller man. He faced her, bloody knife in hand.

Alex whimpered at her feet, and one glance at him revealed a bloody mouth. The two wiggly front teeth had been knocked out.

Somehow the injury to her boy, though slight, raised a fury in her like she had never known, not even when Aretas would shove him aside in impatience and neglect.

She took two rapid steps to the table, still laid from yesterday’s holiday celebration, and grabbed up the knife she’d left there while cutting dates. She spun to her attacker, who clearly debated whether to lunge for her first or the boy.

She gripped the hilt of the knife in sweaty palms and forced the tremor from her voice. “Go into the back room, shekel.” She did not take her eyes from the intruder.

The beady-eyed man started forward as soon as Alex moved—he intended to kill the boy. The realization nearly suffocated her, but she could not succumb to the fear. She moved like summer lightning between her son and him. If he killed her first, no one would be left to save Alex. Aretas lay moaning on the cushions and could not save them.

They faced off, with Alex somewhere behind her. She prayed he had escaped the room.

She pierced the little man with her gaze and held the knife toward him at her waist. It took only an instant to read him. Greed drove him, not revenge. “Aretas has stolen from you, and you have retrieved your money. Now take it and your friend, and go. There is justice in taking what is yours. But no one will forgive you the needless deaths of a woman and child.” Her voice was like hard steel, surprising even her.

His eyelids fluttered with indecision.

The big man on the floor groaned again and struggled to his knees.

“Take your money and go!” she shouted.

The man on the ground was scooping the coins and dumping them into the pouch.

The little man waved the knife to his friend. “We have what we came for. Leave them.”

And then they were gone, and the house was silent like the grave, and just as still.

Cassia stood in the center of the room, breathing heavily and gripping the knife, unable to take her gaze from the door still swinging on its hinges.

It was not Aretas’s moans that brought her to her senses, but Alexander’s quiet cry. She turned slowly to see him there with his crushed lyre and his bleeding mouth. Her sweet shekel.

But Aretas’s blood also drew her attention and she went to him on the floor. She ripped away his tunic. His stomach was covered in
the purple-red of smashed dates, she thought, her mind oddly disconnected from the truth. All those smashed dates, reminding her of the festival she had planned last night.

Aretas gripped her arms with surprising strength, and she looked into his eyes.

These were their last moments together. She searched for the right words. Nothing came.

“You could have stopped him,” Aretas hissed. “If you hadn’t been shielding that cursed boy.”

It was strange, this feeling she had. As though Aretas spoke to her from the other end of a dark tunnel, and each moment receded from her farther, until she could see his lips moving but heard nothing, felt nothing.

And then his mouth stopped moving and his eyes focused on the roof above them and then focused not at all and his grip loosened and he was gone.

Cassia moved backward on her knees, backward until she bumped against something. Alexander. She reached for him and pulled him into an embrace.

And they cried together there on the floor, though Cassia did not know exactly why she cried.

For more than anything else, more than grief or fear or even shock, and even with all that was now unknown about their future, what Cassia felt was a sickening, betraying, yet welcome sort of relief.

Two days later Cassia buried Aretas in a poor man’s grave outside the city limits of Damascus. No rock-cut tomb where his embalmed body could be left for the requisite year before moving his bones to
an ossuary. Rock tombs were for rich men, for men with families.
Respectable men
.

Instead, she stood on the barren plateau, with the desert air blowing in from the east, and stared at the rock pile that covered Aretas’s body. Alexander stood beside her. He clutched her hand in his own and leaned his head against her side, above her hip. It seemed to her the boy had not released her for two days.

She had hoped to give him a good childhood with his father. Her own father had abandoned her so early, and she still felt the pain.

She smelled of myrrh. There had been little money to purchase the other embalming spices, but it was only right to wrap his body traditionally, and she had used some of his treasured supply.

Magdala was there, and her son, Kelaya. She had followed behind Cassia and Alexander as though part of a larger mourning party, and Cassia was grateful for the support, however pitiable. A few drops of water on parched ground.

“You are better off without him.”

Her friend’s words were true, but she raised her eyes to the distant trunks of palm trees, outlined against the wavering heat of the orangetan sand, and hoped for Alex’s sake Magdala would not continue.

“You are a strong woman, Cassia. You can survive alone. Raise that boy alone. Teach him what’s right, instead of—”

“Thank you, Magdala.” Cassia gripped Alex’s hand. “Thank you for coming.” She smiled at the woman, whose bony-sharp features matched her words.

“What will you do?”

Cassia voiced the thought that had come to her on the heels of Aretas’s death. “Petra.”

Alexander looked up at her with curious eyes, and she put a hand on his shoulder. Their time had come at last.

“Aretas came from Petra, he told me. His family,
Alexander’s
family, must still be there.”

“Family?” Alex spoke the word as though it were unfamiliar on his tongue. His smooth forehead creased in concentration.

Cassia smiled at the only joy of her life and pulled him close. It was time for him to have a life. Time for both of them. “Family, Alex.” She turned to Magdala and smiled, hope for the future filling her heart.

“We are going to Petra.”

FIVE

H
AGIRU KNELT ALONE IN THE CENTER OF HER PRIVATE
incantation chamber.

Here none would dare disturb her.

The cold stones beneath her chilled her limbs, for no fire warmed the tiny chamber, only the feeble flicker of oil lamps. She closed her eyes and reached out through the darkness with her soul, searching. Always searching. Why did the gods always make her beg?

The black-and-gray blocks of the chamber walls undulated with the orange-and-black shadows thrown against them by the circle of tiny oil lamps surrounding her. She swayed on her knees with the rhythm of the flames, and a low hum built in her throat, more animal than musical.

BOOK: Palace of Darkness
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