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Authors: Eleanor Herman

Queen of Ashes

BOOK: Queen of Ashes
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Queen of Ashes
by Eleanor Herman

Power, betrayal and desire... It's a dangerous gambit in
Queen of Ashes
, an ebook companion to the Blood of Gods and Royals series by
New York Times
bestselling author Eleanor Herman!

If you look away from her face, you will die.

This is the warning given to the suitors of Queen Laila of Sharuna, who must compete against one another to win the royal Egyptian's affections. One by one, men cower under her penetrating gaze, and one by one, they are executed.

That is, until Laila meets two brothers who do not cower before her: Brehan, noble and courageous...and Riel, intelligent and ambitious. As Laila is tempted by both of them and their differing approaches to magic, she decides that there is one thing she wants more than either brother's affection: power.

But when Brehan and Riel turn on each other, Laila must choose where her heart truly lies, before the brothers she loves reduce her kingdom to ash.

From the
New York Times
bestselling author of
Legacy of Kings
,
Queen of Ashes
shares the secret history of characters who play an unforgettable role in the Blood of Gods and Royals series.

QUEEN OF ASHES

Eleanor Herman

To my dear friend Leslie Harris,
Renaissance costume designer extraordinaire,
with whom I have made many trips to places
as legendary and magical as Princess Laila's Sharuna.

PART I

Chapter One

880 BC

THE SUITORS ARE READY.

High on the dais, Princess Laila of Sharuna sits on her gold and ivory throne as motionless as a statue of Isis, but beneath her voluminous black robes, her heart thuds like a battle drum. This is it, the moment she has been waiting and planning for, ever since her father's death, four years ago, when she was fifteen.

No, longer than that even. Ever since her mother's brutal murder, six years ago. This isn't just the fulfillment of a promise. It is vengeance.

Four pairs of warriors stand inside four red circles painted on the golden paving stones of the main palace courtyard, their bronze armor gleaming in the sun, their muscles bulging. They've arrived over the course of the past few days, horses and chariots carried by extravagant barges up the Nile. They clattered through Sharuna's main gate, the horses kicking up thick yellow dust, musicians playing flutes and drums, surrounded by dancing girls tossing flowers and slaves carrying gilded trunks of gifts for the princess. She knows they're not really vying for her, but for the wealth and power of Sharuna on the Nile, principality of vast limestone quarries that build Egypt's palaces, tombs and temples.

Over the past few days the suitors have flashed bright smiles and flexed broad muscles at the heavily veiled woman they are not allowed to see but wish to marry. They've bragged of princely bloodlines, heroic feats in battle and great wealth. And through it all, Laila has inclined her head politely, pretending to be interested.

But now it is her turn to have fun.

Suddenly, instead of seeing the eight handsome, muscular warrior princes standing before her in the bright morning sun, Laila sees a gray-haired man—her father—withered and twisting in a soiled bed. The choking clouds of myrrh wafting from the incense burners cannot hide the stench of sickness. A papyrus-dry, gnarled hand grasps her wrist. She tries to pull away, but the grip of the dying man is strong. His bony hand has become a clenched claw, as if his last bit of mortal strength flows into his fingers.

“Promise,” he hisses.

She promises only so he will release her. But she owes him nothing. So she will fulfill the promise in her own way.

The call of a falcon wheeling overhead interrupts her memory, and she's back on her throne, staring at the suitors in their blazing white pleated kilts, collars of gold and carnelian and turquoise adorning their bare chests. Around her, courtiers sit forward in the stands, waiting for her to give the signal. One old man's eyeliner is slowly running down his cheek like a black snake. A young woman removes her thick dark wig and mops her bald head with a cloth. Laila is glad for the cool shade offered by her royal awning of fringed red cloth with the symbol of Sharuna: the quarry tools of a mallet crossed with a copper wedge.

The leader of her army, General Wazba, stands at the foot of the dais, as wide and strong as a temple column, his bare, tanned chest glistening in the heat, his legs like tree trunks. Below his striped headdress, his dark eyes flash something like amusement that this event—the culmination of so much planning—is finally taking place.

Fleetingly, she thinks on the fact that she should perhaps be concentrating on feeding her citizens, not hosting this parade of suitors. Last year's crop did not live up to expectations. The price of grain is rising all over Egypt. Most of the wheat and rye in her silos has had to be saved for this year's planting, and only enough sold to keep her people from starving.

But she has prepared far too long for this particular charade, and she must see it through. This, too, she reminds herself, is really for the people. It may not fill their stomachs, but the stories generated from this one event will inspire hope and awe and reverence. And she knows that without those things, her people
will
give up, and starve.

Just like she almost did, once.

No. She must make them believe.

Her handmaiden Sada fans Laila with the tall white plumes of an ostrich feather fan. She bends down and whispers, “My lady, I have decided that Prince Djedi is the handsomest one!”

Through the eye slits in her veil, Laila studies the tall Egyptian with the proud face of a beautifully carved cameo, his dark eyes glittering. His posture is all arrogance. His fingers are tight around the hilt of his sword.

Sarina, the handmaiden standing on Laila's other side, whispers, “It is a shame he is so wicked. It's said he's merciless with his enemies and even crueler to those close to him.”

“Let us see if his well-known love for his sword is reciprocated,” the princess comments calmly.

Standing beside Wazba, Tiy, the Royal Mouth, raises plucked dark eyebrows, a silent question.

Laila nods.

With a swish of robes, the fat young man steps forward, the beaded braids on his chin-length wig sparkling with sunlight. “These are the terms of the contest,” he calls out in his deep, ringing voice, a voice that reaches the farthest seats. “Each contestant will try to draw first blood from his opponent, and no one can step outside his circle. Listen well to this next rule. During the competition, no one, under penalty of death at the pleasure of the princess, may look at Princess Laila.”

Prince Djedi appears unmoved. Some suitors frown; others seem surprised because she is already so heavily veiled that there is really nothing to see. Wazba, Tiy and the twins have told her the suitors think she hides herself because she is as ugly as a scorpion. Two even have tried to bribe her handmaidens for information about her appearance.

“If any man disagrees with this condition, let him return home now,” Tiy adds.

No one moves except the courtiers in the stands, nudging and whispering to one another and fanning themselves.

“Agreed,” says Djedi, swaggering up to the foot of the dais. “But how is the contest decided? No one has made that clear. If I should cut my noble opponent.” He gestures to the Assyrian, Prince Baal-Eser. “What do I do next?”

“You will wait,” the Mouth says, “until you are given further instruction. Are you ready to start?”

Eight heads nod. Eight pairs of hands draw swords and grip shields.

“Begin!”

The pairs circle and parry, lunge and thrust. Laila is captivated by their bodies—each one a work of art far greater than those made of stone or paint that adorn every room and street in Sharuna. They are masterpieces carved in flesh, their skin glistening olive and tan and dark brown in the heat. They twist and jump in this ancient, graceful dance of war, as their muscles—some lithe and slender, others large and strong—flex and expand. She closes her eyes to shut out the old traitor, desire, from welling up unbidden inside her. After what men did to her mother in the brothel, how could she ever
want
one?

Laila hears the sharp smack of iron swords on hide-covered wooden shields, the metallic clang of iron on iron, the grunts of the fighting men and exclamations of the crowd. She smells hot sun on stone, the slightest tang of salty sweat and her own sandalwood perfume, the kind her mother used to wear. It is time. Her flowing black robe and long black veil cascade around her like water as she descends the dais stairs. She walks into the circle at the center of the four pairs.

Then she opens the black robe and lets it drop to the ground, standing there completely nude except for her gilded sandals and a belt of gold and carnelian around her waist.

Swords stop in midair. Eight heads turn toward her. Eight pairs of eyes focus on her.

She feels their hot gaze raking over her body—kept pale from her ritual of bathing in milk—feels their moment of shock followed immediately by their desire. It is like a torch to bone-dry wood, and she, too, feels aflame. But not with desire—with power.

She smiles wryly as the suitors begin to realize what has happened: they've broken the rules and looked. Men are almost too easy.

And now they've given her the power to kill them.

But she doesn't plan to kill
all
of them. Not right away.

* * *

An hour later, Laila nods, and the guards drag open the two heavy throne room doors, letting in a long rectangle of light on the flagstones. From her perch at the top of the dais, she sees the eight suitors enter hesitantly, then stop, blinking in the dim light. The high windows have been shuttered. Torches burn brightly in bronze sconces, casting eerie shadows.

“Enter the Hall of Two Truths,” she commands, her low voice echoing off the dozens of tall, massive pillars. The suitors' eyes grow wide. Everyone knows the Hall of Two Truths is the place where the soul goes for judgment after death. It has taken Laila months to prepare this imitation of it.

The doors slam shut behind them with a resounding boom as the suitors look back nervously. Guards clatter to a halt in front of the doors and stand to attention, shields and spears raised.

“Approach,” says Laila. The high conical crown digs uncomfortably into her scalp. The green clay on her face—the color of vegetation and rebirth—feels dry and crumbling. Her garment of stitched-together mummy bandages is so tight she can't walk; slaves had to carry her up here. She holds the shepherd's crook—symbol of kingship—and the flail—representing the fertility of the land—crossed over each other and resting against her chest.

From the reactions of the suitors, mouths open, she knows they recognize her as Osiris, judge of the dead.

Behind Laila stand two slender, birdlike goddesses identical in every way but their costume. Isis, queen of the gods, wears red, her crown a red sun disk between two golden cow horns. She is played by Sada. Next to her is Sarina as Nephthys, in green. On her head is a basket on top of a cylinder in which she collects dead souls. Both “goddesses” have floor-length wings of green, blue and red feathers hanging from their shoulders.

“Welcome to the Underworld,” Laila, Sada and Sarina intone in unison.

Laila's casts her gaze around the room, proud of the effect of her many months of preparation. Other gods watch the proceedings: Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection. Sobeq, the god of the Nile with the crocodile head. Khnum, the god of the Nile inundation, with the head of a curly-horned ram. Sekhmet, goddess of war, with the head of a lioness, and many others, courtiers Laila has carefully chosen to participate.

Two sinister figures move out of the shadows and into the flickering torchlight. One is muscular and tall, wearing the head of a black dog with stiff pointed ears. Anubis, god of the Underworld, leads a huge, growling creature on a chain. Its head is long, scaly and green, like a crocodile's. The front half of its body is gold fur with black spots—a leopard—and the back half is cracked gray hide—a hippopotamus. It is the demon Ammut, who devours the hearts of the wicked.

Anubis and Ammut stop beside a wide table at the foot of the dais. On it is a double-pan balance scale of teak and bronze as long as a man's arm. Laila sees absolute horror in the faces of the eight suitors.

Prince Djedi is the first one to cast off his fear. “What is this ridiculous piece of buffoonery?” he asks angrily, marching toward the dais. “Princess, open those doors. I demand that you allow me to leave.”

An unusually fat Thoth, god of wisdom, approaches, recognized by his green face and long black ibis beak. In a booming baritone voice that bounces off the walls and columns, he says, “All suitors agreed that their fates would be in the princess's hands if they lost the contest. All suitors lost. You cannot leave unless she permits it.”

The prince fumbles for his sword, forgetting the guards stripped him of his weapons in the courtyard. He looks at the soldiers stationed all around the throne room, shields up, spears clutched tightly.

“Very well,” he snorts derisively. “Let's get this over with.”

“Your soul will be judged first, then,” Thoth says. He snaps his pudgy, beringed fingers. Isis emerges from behind the throne and descends the stairs slowly, holding a golden plate piled high with objects about the size of a human fist, red and raw and smelling of blood. Anubis takes the top one and places it on the left scale pan, sending that side toppling to the bottom as the empty scale flies up and swings wildly in the air.

“Behold, your heart,” Thoth, says, drawing out each word like the slow plunge of a dagger through flesh. When the prickly prince actually looks down to make sure his chest is unmarked, Laila feels her mouth twitch into a smile, cracking the green clay on her face.

“Bring us the feather of Ma'at,” the ibis-headed god instructs. The goddess Nephthys plucks one of the two tall white ostrich feathers from Laila's hat and glides down the steps. The throne room is utterly silent as if everyone is too afraid even to breathe. Gently, the winged goddess places the feather on the other side of the scale. It doesn't budge.

“Prince Djedi, you have beaten prostitutes to death. Your wicked deeds and the selfish desires of your heart outweigh the feather of truth, kindness and righteousness,” Laila says, striving to keep her voice impassive. Osiris is not emotional; he is as unperturbed as a papyrus legal scroll.

“Well, of course it does!” Djedi snarls. “This isn't really the Hall of Two Truths, you aren't really Osiris, that story is just a myth to scare people anyway.
That
is just a feather,” he says, pointing, “and
that
is the heart of some animal you just butchered.”

“What is the judgment of Osiris, god of the dead?” Anubis asks darkly, approaching the dais. Laila stares down at those hard, shining beetle-black eyes and sees the prince's cruelty and brutality against women who couldn't defend themselves. Sees her mother on a filthy floor, bleeding and broken.

“That his heart be eaten by Ammut,” she says, her voice rising. “That he be taken outside the Hall of Two Truths and beheaded for his crimes. His remains will not be mummified. He will not pass on to the Field of Reeds. His soul will cease to exist.”

BOOK: Queen of Ashes
4.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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