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Authors: Kacy Barnett-Gramckow

He Who Lifts the Skies (31 page)

BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
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“She loves you.”

“Partly for your sake; she loves you as her son,” Keren answered, staring hard at one particular leaf, which was fading. “At times I fear I will bring her more sorrow. I feel I should remove myself from her life—as I should remove you from mine. If anything happens to you …”

“Don’t.”

“I know. I shouldn’t think of these things. I should get busy before our spies wonder what else we might be discussing apart from
his
new spies.”

“Be your sister, Lady,” he said, reminding her of her role.

In silent agreement, they parted in their usual way; Keren dismissed Zehker with a petulant wave of her hand, as if she couldn’t wait to be rid of him. Her best imitation of Sharah.

Sometimes Keren acted as if she were furious with Zehker. But she didn’t have the spirit to pretend a temper today. Nor did she have the time; her guests would be arriving in the early afternoon, and everything had to be perfect because Sharah might show up unexpectedly and criticize things. Zeva’ah, too, would be quietly critical if anything was amiss. But Zeva’ah’s criticism was softened by her four-year-old daughter, Demamah, who was loveable, gentle, and Keren’s particular delight.

“Do you think our Great Lady will appear today?” Alatah asked, her sweet voice full of dread as she joined Keren to clear the fruit pits from beneath the almond trees.

“I pray not,” Keren murmured. “I want to rest and enjoy the evening.”

Her hands still busy with the cleaning, Alatah said, “Yesterday, while I was being followed by those spies, I
found a seller of carved wares and weapons. His work is marvelous, Lady—not like anything we’ve seen. Forgive me, but I invited him to come this evening, to show you the treasures he has created. If I’ve been too hasty …”

“Alatah.” Keren interrupted her nervous apology. “Don’t fret. Your taste is always perfect. As is your timing. I need to select a gift for He-Who-Lifts-the-Skies. If this craftsman has some treasure worthy of
him
, then you’ve saved me a morning of pacing through the streets. Thank you.”

Alatah sighed, relieved. Keren smiled, and they continued their work in peace.

Her disgracefully trimmed hair clean and shining beneath her gold headdress, and her garments and face paints impeccable—thanks to Tsinnah—Keren relaxed and watched her guests.

Meherah was talking to Zeva’ah, their quiet conversation brightened by occasional bursts of laughter. Meanwhile, Meherah’s radiant, dark-haired daughters, Hadarah and Chayeh, were clapping cadence for Demamah, who was dancing a game song with them, bare brown feet pattering over the clay brick pavings as they sang.

A bird in spring cannot be caught except by hawks or nets—such as the nets I’ve cast for you!

Demamah squealed and laughed as Hadarah and Chayeh lunged at her, catching her and swinging her around. Keren laughed, enjoying Demamah’s wholehearted glee. Usually Demamah was so serious and wide-eyed about everything. But now, safe on the ground again, she ran to Keren, highly excited. “Come dance with us, Lady!”

“I will,” Keren promised. “After you’ve worn out Hadarah and Chayeh. And after I’m sure that my own sister won’t visit and be unhappy with me for ruining my hair and my robes.”

“But you won’t ruin your hair and robes just dancing,” Demamah protested, widening her dark eyes, which were huge and fringed with incredibly long, black lashes. “And you look beautiful anyway.”

“You’re wonderful to say such things!” Keren hugged Demamah, who suddenly crawled into her lap, giggling as the mischievous Chayeh growled and pretended to claw at Demamah like a monster. Chayeh’s sparkling eyes and brilliant smile pained Keren—she looked so much like Lawkham.

“Demamah,” Zeva’ah scolded, “your feet are dirty.”

Abashed, Demamah scooted off Keren’s lap. But Keren patted her back and said, “We’ll clean her up, Zeva’ah. Forgive us; we’re to blame.”

Zeva’ah was satisfied. And Demamah was thrilled to be the center of attention as Keren and her attendants brought water for her face, hands, and feet. “Make me look like you,” Demamah begged Keren in a whisper.

“Well, I wish I could look like
you,”
Keren answered, staring into Demamah’s marvelous black-brown eyes. “You’re perfectly lovely.”

They scrubbed her clean, then combed her long, straight dark hair, which was certainly like Ra-Anan’s would be if he weren’t always shaving his head. But Demamah sighed wistfully for curls and waves, so Tsinnah and Revakhaw dampened her hair and began to braid it artfully.

“Wear your hair this way overnight,” Revakhaw told her, “and in the morning when you comb it out, it will be full of waves.”

“Like yours?” Demamah asked Keren, hopeful.

“Better than mine,” Keren told her ruefully. “Yours will behave and mine won’t.”

Which was why she had to send a gift to Nimr-Rada. Though Keren knew that Nimr-Rada’s tantrum was provoked by more than her unlawfully shorn hair.
What?
Keren wondered to Nimr-Rada.
What have I done now?

Soon, Gebuwrah and Na’ah presented their food to the accompaniment of a band of musicians—also arranged by Alatah. Delicate notes from harps, flutes, and chimes floated upward as the fragrance of roasted meats, spiced sauces, sweet fruits, crisp breads, and savory vegetables filled the air.

Keren was serving Demamah when the bundle-laden tradesman arrived. He was small, hunched, and dusty, with rough hair, glittering little eyes, and a nervous smile. And he shrank back at the sight of Keren’s pale eyes. To put him at ease, Keren asked the tradesman to sit on a mat and offered him some cool honey-sweetened barley water to drink. Obviously afraid to refuse, he drank a sip of water, stared at it, then finished the cup and licked his lips. “May I say that this is very good, Lady?”

“Our Na’ah thanks you,” Keren murmured, smiling at Na’ah, who ducked her head, delightfully self-conscious. “Please, let us see what you’ve brought us.”

Eagerly the tradesman untied various bundles of leather. Combs, flasks, slender pins, pendants, and exquisite knives of wonderfully polished pierced and carved woods, ivories, shells, and gems, all flashed and glittered in the sunlight. Keren stared, amazed. “You carved all these things yourself? They look so delicate; I’m afraid to touch them.”

“They are truly strong and durable, Lady,” the tradesman
assured her, unafraid now, defending his remarkable work. “Holding them and using them will only add to their color and beauty. Perhaps the little one will test these works for herself?”

The little one, Demamah, waited for a nod from Zeva’ah, then crept forward. She accepted a pendant and a knife and brought them to Keren. The knife, from its fine-edged blade to the iridescent shell carvings set in its hilt, was perfect. And Demamah touched the round ivory pendant over and over, plainly enthralled.

Keren couldn’t blame her. She studied the craftsman and his wares again. “What’s in that large bundle? Your tools?”

Distressed, he said, “No, Lady. It’s a sword—not something to attract the eyes of women.”

He didn’t want her to see it. Keren guessed why. “Is it an offering for the Great King? Please, I am obligated to find a gift for him. And if this sword is acceptable, then
I
will exchange its fair worth in goods, but …”

She allowed her words to trail off, implying—rightfully—that the Great Nimr-Rada wouldn’t barter for a sword but take it as his due. Now that Keren had hinted at such a dreadful possibility, the tradesman couldn’t open the parcel fast enough.

They all gasped to see the sword. The blade was fashioned of one long, curved piece of bone, perfect and shining from tip to hilt. And the hilt—of ivory—was richly carved in hunting scenes, ornate leopards, lions, and bulls, with fiery red-stoned eyes. Demamah retrieved it for Keren, walking cautiously as if the sword itself were afire and might burn her. Keren smiled at the little girl, loving her tender, sweet-serious face.

Keren studied the sword, feeling its weight, testing its
balance, pondering its craftsmanship. Its edge was surprisingly keen, and everything about it was unparalleled. Keren had seen enough weapons by now to appreciate this sword. But Nimr-Rada, she knew, would use it only for show. Nimr-Rada loved to kill for the sake of killing—he was a vicious, blood-loving hunter—and he could destroy this wonderful sword with one ferocious blow. Even so, useless gold-and-gem laden objects appealed to the Great King. Keren considered herself to be living proof of that appeal. Such objects were tributes to his power, and this sword was exquisite. “What do you ask for this sword?”

The tradesman shook his dusty head as if arguing with himself. Seeing that he was unable to articulate what he wanted, Keren said, “Would you like your own field near the river? With half its harvest from this year—from which you’ll have seeds for planting with the coming of the rains. I will give you the tokens before you leave today.”

“Lady!” Gebuwrah gasped, horrified. Keren had just offered this humble tradesman a lucrative portion of her many holdings.

Ignoring Gebuwrah, Keren watched the tradesman. Apparently, Keren had just offered him his most cherished dream. Tears filled his eyes.

“Lady … let it be as you say.”

“What about the knife and this pendant that my dear niece loves?”

“Nothing, Lady,” he said, shaking his head. “Take them.”

“These carvings were made from days in your life,” Keren reminded him gently. “How can you live if you give up your days for nothing? Ask a price.”

“The smallest ring from your hands?” he suggested, fearful. Keren laughed. So the man had a wife, and
she
knew that Keren no longer gave her gold rings out as tokens to anyone—the demand had been too great. Looking down at Demamah, Keren winked.

“Do you want that pendant, Demamah-child?”

Demamah nodded quickly, not looking at her mother, who frowned at being ignored. Keren removed her smallest ring, and Demamah hurriedly gave it to the tradesman, while clutching the ivory pendant tight in her tiny brown hand as if she feared Keren would change her mind.

“Why did you do that, Lady?” Gebuwrah scolded as soon as the tradesman departed through the gate, clutching his tokens as Demamah clutched her pendant. “Do you think it will be easy to replace a field near the river? Or another gold ring?”

Wearied by the thought of yet another argument, Keren sighed. “Gebuwrah, the field doesn’t matter. Will you take this sword and knife to He-Who-Lifts-the-Skies?”

“I’ll go if she doesn’t,” Revakhaw said stoutly. She and Gebuwrah had been at odds with each other lately. Her offer was a challenge to Gebuwrah, who stiffened.


I
will go.”

“And I will go,” Tsinnah said softly. “How can
he
be angry with you after you’ve offered him such marvelous gifts?”

“Indeed,” Meherah agreed, eyeing the sword, clearly fascinated by its workmanship. “Our Great King will be pleased.” She looked at Keren now, her eyes bright. “By the way, Lady, that field you granted the tradesman … is it near my own?”

It was. “I’ve complicated your life,” Keren told her, remorseful at her own impulsiveness. “We don’t know what
that tradesman and his wife will be like as neighbors. Forgive me.”

“I want to apprentice my youngest son to your tradesman,” Meherah said happily. “I’ll befriend him—and his wife.”

Relieved that Meherah was pleased, Keren sent Gebuwrah, Revakhaw, and Tsinnah off to Nimr-Rada’s residence with the sword and the iridescent knife. And with Zehker to guard them against the spies. Keren watched them leave, suddenly wondering if she should have presented the gifts to Nimr-Rada with her own hands.

It wasn’t long before Gebuwrah returned with Tsinnah, who was in tears. Zehker was right behind them, wide-eyed and silent.

Keren stood, alarmed. “What happened? Where’s Revakhaw?”

As Gebuwrah stared, Tsinnah dropped in front of Keren, tearing at her garments in agitation. “He took the gifts, Lady. And Revakhaw. He put a rope around her neck! Tomorrow …”

When Tsinnah could not continue, Gebuwrah said, “The Great King says that he will send for you tomorrow. If you don’t obey, then Revakhaw will die.”

“I’m going to him now,” Keren said, reaching for her sandals.

Tsinnah stopped Keren, clutching at her robes, horrified. “No, Lady, you must do exactly as he says, please! Otherwise, he might kill Revakhaw.”

“He said he
won’t
see you until tomorrow. You must obey him,” Gebuwrah insisted fiercely. “Otherwise we could all be punished!”

“She’s right,” Zehker agreed. There was a lost quality in his voice that stilled Keren completely. She shut her
eyes to prevent herself from looking at him—her love and concern for him would have been evident to every person in the courtyard.

Meherah sucked in her breath audibly, drawing Keren’s gaze to her. “Lady, forgive me, but we must leave.” She beckoned Hadarah and Chayeh, pausing just long enough to touch Zehker’s arm and make him look her in the eyes. “Do whatever he says, my son,” she pleaded. “Don’t anger him.”

Zehker nodded and clasped her hand. “I will escort you home.”

BOOK: He Who Lifts the Skies
5.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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