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Authors: Tracy L. Higley

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BOOK: Palace of Darkness
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Come to me. Come to me.

She would drink in their power tonight. She would have their knowledge. But always, even when she summoned them with the confidence borne of her position as high priestess of the god Dushara, a corner of her heart knew the truth.

She was at their mercy.

The gods came when the gods would come. So it had always been.

Hagiru’s incantation chamber lay like a black jewel in the center of the palace.
The dark heart
, she called this special place. One day all of the Nabataean kingdom, including her capital city of Petra, would be ruled from this place.

This was why she sought the gods tonight. To be reassured. To be stroked and petted and told she still acted within their will.

But something blocked her union this night. She fought through the thickness in the air, grasping for the presence. Still on her knees, with arms outstretched and head thrown back, she invited the powers that ruled her to come once again and fill her to overflowing.

Nothing.

Hagiru dropped her head, then, teeth grinding, stood and went to the edge of the room where a narrow ledge held instruments of worship and incense.

Her fingers closed around a small but lethal dagger. She returned to the center of the circle.

Satisfied with her position inside the yellow flames, she laid the dagger’s flat blade across her whitened palm, then slowly closed her hand over it.

One quick cut. She inhaled sharply at the dagger’s bite and pulled it from her closed hand. Again she swayed, but this time with the dizziness of pain.

She opened her palm and saw the red gore spread across her skin like oil soaking into parchment. Two quick steps took her to one of the lamps, where she held her hand over its light, letting the blood drip into the flame.

This is what I will do for you. This and much more. Come to me.

The flame popped and sizzled with its anointing, and she turned her humming into chanting, louder and more insistent. Had she not shown them her loyalty?

The flow of blood slowed, and Hagiru hoped it had been enough
to please the gods. She put her tongue to the gash like a kitten to milk and smiled.

Still dizzy, she lowered herself to the floor, this time stretching out inside the circle, arms and legs forming an X, putting herself at the mercy of the gods.

And then they were there. With their blessed chaos and enchanting fury, they rushed out of the darkness beyond and scratched and clawed their way into her body. Heat washed from her head to her feet, and then a chill chased after it. She trembled on the floor but kept herself outstretched and exposed. Let them have her, all of her.

Shards of bright colors shattered behind her eyes, red and orange, purple and yellow. Bright stars falling out of the sky, burning her thoughts.

And then the voice she knew best among all the others. Dushara, chief god of Petra, was her special connection.

Hagiru.

The voice was as clear as her own, though she never knew if others would hear it had they been present.

“Speak, Dushara. I am your servant.”

There is danger.

A tremor shook her body. “What is this danger?”

The rule of Petra is not secure.

Did he speak of his rule or her own? She swallowed and lifted her chin, driving her head against the stone floor. “I am equal to any challenge. I must only know that my actions here are right. That I follow the right path.”

Be watchful. Ready to destroy.

“I seek the will of the gods always.”

She waited then, waited for the reassurance that she acted according to their purpose, but when the message came, it did nothing to calm her spirit.

Be warned, Hagiru. Danger comes to Petra.

SIX

T
HE CITY OF
P
ETRA LAY WITHIN A SANDSTONE GORGE
, cut into the mighty mountains of Arabia as though the finger of a god had carved a slit through the dark-red stone and hidden the city away. Or perhaps the gods had thundered over the red cliffs until they split apart, and the city had bloomed in the crack like a desert cactus.

But it was not the origins of Petra that troubled Cassia as she and Alex stumbled from the desert and joined the caravans that passed into the narrow gorge leading to the city. It was the future.

Though they had survived the treacherous journey south over the King’s Highway, braving both heat and predators, the biggest challenge still lay ahead.

The narrow Siq, the road into the city, was only a stone’s throw across, but the sandstone walls on either side towered so far above them, Alexander nearly fell backward trying to see the sky. Cassia guessed the walls to be the height of forty men. The heavy pack he wore on his back threatened to pull him over. His arms were bruised from the encounter with Aretas’s killers. He lagged behind, transfixed as always with the camels, but in danger of being trampled by one of the many that lumbered through the pass, laden with merchandise.

Cassia tugged on his arm. “It grows late, Alex. We must make it into the city before nightfall.”

In truth, it was not so late. But the soaring cliffs that walled them in did not allow the rays of the setting sun to reach the limestone paving stones of the Siq. Her anxiety to reach the city had more to do with the unknown than the nightfall.

The press of the crowd carried the two weary travelers like tiny pieces of desert grass bobbing on a swollen river. Cassia wondered at the numbers of traders and families heading into the city at this late hour. It must be a great city, indeed, to welcome all these guests into itself.

But would it welcome them?

She circled Alex’s shoulders with one arm, keeping him close as they walked and staying near the right side of the Siq, with its red and ochre ribbons of sandstone running through, like the stripes of a woven blanket. She wished he did not have to carry so much, but they had put all they could take on their backs before leaving Damascus, all they had in the world.

“Mama, look at this!” Alex said for the hundredth time. He pointed to a shallow trough cut into the wall of the Siq. “A river in the wall!” He pulled away and dipped his fingers into a terra-cotta-lined channel that rushed with water and ran the length of the Siq ahead of them, into the unseen city.

“Amazing!” They had seen the dam built into a small wadi before entering the Siq, most likely the stream that used to flow through this gorge. Here was evidence of more skilled engineering, where the precious resource of water being collected at the dam was channeled through this long passageway into the city.

Alex put two wet fingers into his mouth. “How much farther, Mama?”

Cassia stepped farther to the right to avoid the snort of a camel’s
muzzle. Its driver walked beside, a short man covered in the sand of the desert, and seemed not to notice. He switched at the camel’s forelegs with a thin, white reed and did not give Cassia a glance.

She peered ahead but could only see as far as the next bend in the Siq. “I don’t know, Alex. It can’t be far. All these people are going to Petra.”

He swiveled his head behind them. “Will there be room for us too?”

Cassia smiled and rubbed grit from her eye. She was as covered in desert dust as the camel driver. “We are very small, don’t you think? We wouldn’t take much room.”

Alex shrugged.

If only she could give him assurances, but she had none to give. His question had plagued her as well, when they had bedded down in the cold desert nights, as they sought shelter from townspeople along the way, as they consumed the very last of their meager food supply this morning.
Will there be room for us in Petra?

When they left Damascus she’d been so filled with determination to find Aretas’s family, then work hard to create a respectable place for herself and her son in this city. She determined not to tell anyone of what Aretas had become, nor how he died. Rather, she thought, she would save money and find them a home of their own.

Now, ten days later, hope flagged as she realized the gamble she had taken. She knew very little of Aretas’s family. What if she could not find them? She and Alex had nothing. No food, and only a few silver
sestarii
. How long could they survive?

The Siq pressed them even closer, funneling them into a narrower pass. Alex slowed again, and she followed his gaze to see what had intrigued him. The sandstone wall across the road had been carved expertly into the facade of a miniature temple. It stood roughly the height of a man and the width of outstretched arms, and its shallow
indentations, where a temple’s doors and windows would have been, were filled with votive offerings and flickering oil lamps.

The rest of the jostling crowd seemed to think nothing of this elegant wall sculpture, passing by without notice. But a chill passed over Cassia, and she recognized it as part of her special sight. Evil was here, and the blood in her head pounded. She took Alex’s hand and quickened their pace. The Siq had held them for nearly an hour. Surely they were close to reaching the city.

And yet more niches and altars, with inscriptions carved above them, followed, revealing not only the great skill of the Nabataean sculptors of Petra but also the religiosity of its people.

Surely people this skilled and this religious could find a place for one young woman and her little boy.

Alexander laughed.

Cassia was so taken with the rare sound she nearly forgot to wonder what he had found humorous.

“I like this one best.” He smiled and pointed.

She followed his outstretched finger to the opposite wall of the passageway. A huge camel and driver had been cut into the rock wall. Cassia hugged Alex to herself. “Of course you would like one with an animal better than any other.”

The crowd ahead seemed to slow. Was there some disturbance that would prevent them from entering the city? She still could see no farther than the next bend in the rock.

And then they rounded the bend, and she and Alex slowed as well.

For the Siq ended. The narrow split in the rock they had traveled concluded with a beautiful archway carved overhead. And there, through the slit, they got their first glimpse of the pride of Petra—another sandstone pink rock-cut facade, one that dwarfed all they had yet seen in both size and beauty. The central figure carved between
columns high above appeared to be a Nabataean goddess. But a mixture of Greek and Egyptian deities also graced its bays and recesses, and the stone columns with their elaborately carved capitals and intricate pediments astonished the onlooker.

Cassia inhaled sharply, pierced by the surprise and fighting a wave of unexpected emotion.

Petra!

She looked down to Alexander, who raised wide eyes and a gap-toothed smile to her. “Are we here now?”

Cassia blinked back tears of exhaustion and relief. “We are here.”

The Siq birthed them into an open space before the beautiful carved facade, a large open plot that was perhaps the city’s agora, the marketplace destination of all the traders who traveled the Siq. Even at this late hour, the area teemed with merchants and their tables, townspeople, camels with drivers, and rich traders wandering among the merchants, hawking their merchandise and striking deals. Damascus had been a trade city, but nothing like this. Petra’s secure location at the crossroads of trade routes running both north-south and east-west brought goods from India and China, Egypt and Syria, and carried them east to the spreading Roman Empire. The great silk, spice, and slave routes all ran through Petra, increasing its wealth.

Cassia held tightly to Alexander’s hand as they wandered the tables. The air hung heavy with the scents of spices, of frankincense and myrrh. Tables glittered with Chinese silk and pearls and gemstones. There were exotic animals, perfumes and unguents, rice and grain.

But the market was breaking up. Clearly the night was soon upon them, and shoppers and merchants alike were preparing to head home.

Cassia felt the sudden aloneness, the realization that they had nowhere to go in the darkness. It was time to begin her meager plan, the only idea she had contrived to make their way in Petra.

She bent to Alexander, put her hands on his cheeks to turn his face to hers. “Listen, shekel, stay close to me. Don’t wander away when I’m speaking to people.”

He nodded, his face sober.

“If we should ever get separated”—she looked around the agora—“ask someone who looks like a mother to take you to the city fountain, to the Nymphaeum.”

Alex surveyed their location. There was nothing of the city to be seen here but the one amazing rock sculpture. Impassable rock walls blocked one end of the canyon, and the other end bent away, out of sight. “I don’t see the fountain.”

“But wherever it is, I will find you there.”

His brow furrowed in concern.

She kissed his cheek. “Stay close to me, and we won’t be separated.”

He clutched her tunic in a small hand. “Promise?”

“I promise.”

A young woman passed them, arms filled with bulging sacks, and Cassia stepped to the left to intercept her. “Excuse me.” She smiled. “I am new to the city and looking for family.”

BOOK: Palace of Darkness
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