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Authors: Kacy Barnett-Gramckow

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BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
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Unable to bear the sight of Lawkham’s death-stilled face, Keren returned to sit with Na’ah, holding the speechless girl, fearing Na’ah would go mad.

But Na’ah suddenly leaned into Keren, saying, “I’ll never forgive myself, Lady. Never. I wish I had your courage. If I hadn’t been so stupid, screaming, he’d still be alive. And I … I loved him so!” Her tremulous confession broke down into heavy, racking sobs.

“Oh, Na’ah …” Keren rested her cheek on Na’ah’s dark, wet head, sharing her grief. At last she whispered, “You can’t blame yourself. You didn’t throw that spear. Listen to me; we have to be brave now. We have to take Lawkham to his family.”

“How can we bear to face his mother?”

Thinking of Meherah, Keren swallowed. “I don’t know.”

Walking slowly, heavily, they carried Lawkham’s body through the streets of the Great City, ignoring the stares, gasps, and whispers of the citizens. Before they reached the fields south of the Great City, where Lawkham’s parents lived, Keren and the others paused to lower Lawkham’s body to the ground so they could rest and change places.

A number of citizens approached them, staring at Lawkham’s face, recognizing him and expressing their dismay. Following Zehker’s terse instructions, Keren and her attendants said nothing to the citizens. Whatever they said would undoubtedly be conveyed to Ra-Anan and Nimr-Rada. Then their own words might be turned against them, and they would be punished. But Na’ah,
Tsinnah, Revakhaw, and Alatah cried quietly, evoking sympathy from everyone who saw them.

Keren also wept, numb beyond despair. As they approached Meherah and Yabal’s modestly squared and plastered brick home near the river, Keren’s stomach churned. How could she possibly tell these people why their son was dead?

Meherah was in front of her house, tending a low, domed, earthen oven, accompanied by several of her younger daughters and her youngest son, who was stretched out on a grass mat, playing with a collection of tiny clay toys. The instant she saw Keren and Zehker leading the procession, Meherah screamed. She dropped to her knees, knocked her forehead against the dirt in front of the oven, and wailed. Clawing her black braids down into long, wild curls, she began to fling blind handfuls of dirt into her hair as her youngest children cried in terror.

Hearing the noise, Yabal came running from the side of the house, his hands covered with wet, darkened clay. When he saw the body of his eldest son, Yabal staggered and wept.

As she helped to gently lower Lawkham’s body to the ground, Keren looked into his blue-marked face, thinking,
Never again. This must never happen again
.

“Your sister believed you would die in the river,” said Zeva’ah.

Keren knelt with Ra-Anan’s wife on fleeces and mats in the hushed seclusion of her own residence.

“He-Who-Lifts-the-Skies also said you might not live,” Zeva’ah added.

“Does he intend to kill me now that I’ve survived?” Keren asked, ignoring the reference to Sharah.

“No, Lady,” Zeva’ah answered. “I’m sure he wants you to live.”

Keren stared at her lovely sister-in-law’s rounded, pregnant body and blooming face, wondering why Ra-Anan had sent her. Zeva’ah—faultless as always—was obviously here for a purpose, and it was not to console Keren in her grief over Lawkham’s death. Guessing aloud, Keren said, “Ra-Anan is unwilling to welcome me into his presence until I am forgiven by He-Who-Lifts-the-Skies. Am I right?”

Zeva’ah’s unmoving silence affirmed Keren’s suspicion. Feeling wholly emptied and cold inside, Keren said, “Tell me what Ra-Anan says I should do.”

She had practiced her every move, all her attendants’ moves, what they would wear, how they would adorn themselves, and how they would paint their faces. They were perfect now, and completely silent as they entered Nimr-Rada’s crowded ceremonial courtyard.

Keren kept her face impassive as she approached the majestic gold-and-leopard-skin clad Nimr-Rada, proud and remote on his dais seat.
How I hate you!

Reaching her designated place, Keren waited while Revakhaw and Tsinnah knelt to untie her ornate gold sandals. When they were finished, Keren stepped out of her sandals, never once looking down. Revakhaw held the elaborate sandals attentively as she stepped behind Keren. Certain that all her attendants were standing exactly where they had been instructed to stand, Keren knelt on
her mat, the others kneeling with her. Then, Keren removed her headpiece and set it aside. For a counted instant they paused, then bowed together in a single motion, touching their foreheads to the mats. Still in perfect accord, they sat up. Keren retrieved her headpiece and put it on again. Then she looked at Nimr-Rada.

His dark eyes were gleaming, smug. Beside him, dazzling in her white robes, gold, jeweled ornaments, and intense face paints, Sharah glared at Keren. To their right, Kuwsh was also fuming at her, resplendent in his leopard-skin mantle, pale wrap, and all his gold.

Ignoring her sister and Kuwsh, Keren faced Nimr-Rada, thinking,
I have bowed to you, but I swear in my heart, which worships only the Most High, that I will repay you for Lawkham’s death. Even if it means my own life, I will find a way to destroy you. You have not won
.

Eighteen

“IS MEHERAH coming this afternoon?” Keren asked Revakhaw, who was entering the courtyard from the gate.

Revakhaw tossed her gleaming curls, obviously pleased with herself. “Indeed, Lady. I told her that we’re going to do nothing but visit and talk and eat and laugh and rest, as we’ve not done in an age! She gives her word that she will come. Her daughters Hadarah and Chayeh begged to come too. I told them you would love to see them again.”

“And so I will,” Keren agreed, smiling, going back to her task of cleaning the courtyard with Alatah. She was grateful, as always, for Meherah’s continued friendship in the five years since Lawkham’s death. And Hadarah and Chayeh were delightful young women, so much like Lawkham that it sometimes hurt Keren to see them.

Shielding herself from thoughts of Lawkham, Keren
rolled up a frayed mat, deciding that it could be mended and saved. Revakhaw knelt beside her now, unusually solemn. Keren lifted an eyebrow at her. “What’s wrong?”

“We are still being followed by those strange guardsmen every time we leave the gates,” Revakhaw murmured, glancing at the servants listening nearby. “I don’t like it. They followed us more closely than usual today, yet I couldn’t tell if they belonged to He-Who-Lifts-the-Skies, or Kuwsh, or Ra-Anan, or your Great-Lady sister.”

Keren exhaled, disturbed, staring up at the cloud-hazed sky. “I don’t like it either. This has been going on for days. Did they say anything?”

“No, Lady. Alatah said they followed her yesterday when she went to barter for fish. They made her nervous.”

Gnawing her lower lip, thinking, Keren said, “Alatah told me the same thing. We should follow
them
next time. Who in our household was with you this morning?”

“That new guard, Qaydawr, and our devoted Erek.”

“Erek!” Keren sniffed, wishing she could be rid of him. But he was Nimr-Rada’s loyal spy—and Kuwsh’s. She was sure that Qaydawr was also an informant. Probably Nimr-Rada’s. “Tell Zehker what you’ve told me. We should track these new spies—confront them if necessary. Also, please tell everyone in our household that if they go outside for any reason, they must be accompanied by others.”

“I will, Lady.”

Revakhaw hurried away. Keren returned to her work, upset. She had already visited Ra-Anan, who denied responsibility for these new spies. She didn’t believe him. But then, it might be Kuwsh, stirring up trouble against her out of spite. And Sharah could also be sending spies after Keren’s household for the pure joy of intimidating them. Even so, whoever was having her attendants followed was
certainly acting with the full knowledge of Nimr-Rada, who knew everything that happened in the Great City.

When will I be rid of you?
she wondered to Nimr-Rada.

Nimr-Rada, as usual, had been tormenting her and indulging her by turns. At present, he was angry with her simply because she had trimmed her hair without his permission.
Her
hair. It had been down past her knees, unbearably heavy and always in disarray, so Keren had trimmed it to just below her waist. When he saw her, Nimr-Rada had actually thrown dishes and food at her, chasing her out of his presence while Sharah and Kuwsh laughed. That had been two days ago. Now, remembering the confrontation, Keren’s face tingled with anger and humiliation: how Sharah and Kuwsh had enjoyed Nimr-Rada’s rage.

So now I must send a gift to you and beg your forgiveness
, Keren thought to Nimr-Rada, grimacing.
Then I will ask you to stop these new spies. Perhaps Meherah can advise me on a gift
.

By now, Keren also knew that Meherah was another one of Nimr-Rada’s informants—probably against her will. But Meherah was a tender person, as Lawkham had been. And Meherah had forgiven Keren for her part in Lawkham’s death.

Have you forgiven Nimr-Rada?
Keren wondered to Meherah.
I hope not. Because I haven’t. I took the blame openly, but I will never forget who threw that spear
.

Finished rolling and binding the grass mat, Keren frowned at a mess of discarded fruit pits on the mats beneath her just-harvested almond trees. As she gathered the discarded pits, Zehker entered the courtyard, clenching his longspear. He saw her at once and strode toward her, purposeful as always. Bowing his head politely, he knelt and placed his longspear between them. Keren relaxed,
watching him overtly, mindful that they were being observed.

“The spies are
his
, Lady,” Zehker told Keren quietly. “I saw them turn toward his residence.”

“Then he’s planning something,” Keren decided, accepting Zehker’s opinion without question. “And all we can do is wait for him to act. I wish he didn’t enjoy these little games—stalking us, frightening us, whipping my entire household into a state of agitation.”

“A part of the hunt.”

“The hunt has lasted for nearly six years now. I’m ready for it to end—and not as
he
would have it end.”

Zehker was silent, lowering his head, studying his spear. Keren could almost read discouragement into his attitude. They had both been trying, without success, to think of a way to escape Nimr-Rada’s control without endangering Keren’s entire household. The thought of leaving anyone in her household behind to face the Great King’s vengeance made Keren ill.


He
is patient when hunting, Lady,” Zehker said at last. “As we must be.”

For the sake of the spies in her household, Keren rolled her eyes toward the swaying, leaf-draped branches above them, tapping her fingertips together as if irritated. But she was consciously extending her time with Zehker. Soon the leaves of this tree would fall, the rains would begin, and they would have fewer chances to be together. She was restless just thinking of the coming rains and the planting season.

“Patience is becoming more and more difficult to cultivate.” Very softly she added, “I wish Lawkham were here. Even after all this time, it’s still hard to greet Meherah and not feel the guilt, and the loss of his laughter.”

BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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