Chapter Twenty-Six

629 B.C.

True to what she had prophesized, Bomani was long gone by the time Ziba returned to her chambers that morning, tired and bloodstained from hours spent tending to the God of Destruction. She peeled her robes from her skin, soaked red, and dropped them on the floor before she crawled back under the blanket and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, all the waking hours in the world could not have lulled her back into a deep sleep. Mainyu’s words replayed in her head as she stared into the darkness behind her eyelids. You are mine. You are mine. You are mine.

She didn’t sleep much for the next week.

Between periods of kneeling beside Mainyu, tending to his wounds alongside Shireen while he absentmindedly stroked her hair, she prayed at the sanctuary to Kurshid, stared up at the ceiling from her bedroll in the night, and pleaded with fate that Bomani not return to the temple. It was all she wanted in the world to be allowed to keep him, but she knew it wasn’t to be. If she didn’t comply with the demands of the God of Destruction, Mainyu had made it perfectly clear that her relationship with Bomani would be revealed to the city, and she, as well as her love, would be killed.

But, she knew she couldn’t send him away.

When the day came that she knew he would return, she spent the morning nursing Mainyu, as usual. Shireen, however, didn’t join them. While she led the temple in prayer for the Persian Army when they returned from Egypt, Ziba stayed behind with Mainyu, cleaning his wounds again and dressing them in fresh bandages. She said nothing while he wound his fingers through her long, strange hair. She didn’t dare protest, but the feeling of his fingers touching any part of her made her skin crawl and her muscles tense.

“So beautiful,” he whispered, staring up at her from his place on the bedroll.

Swallowing back her objections, she bowed her head politely, shoving the bandages she had just unwrapped from his body into the jar in her lap. “Thank you, My Lord.”

His hand moved from her hair to cup her face. “Something ails you, My Love. Tell me what it is that upsets you.” She was forced to look in his face and what she found there made her want to gag: fierce possessiveness.

“You are mistaken, Lord Mainyu. Nothing ails me,” she lied pretending to wipe sleep from her eyes. “I am only tired.”

The skeptical look to come over his face suggested he did not believe her, but his eyes softened as they met hers. “My Love, you need not worry yourself over mere mortal matters. By the end of a fortnight, my strength will have returned and I will bring you back to my world with me.”

Ziba’s heart hung in her throat, choking her. She bowed her head again and prepared to back out of the room.

“Ziba, wait!” he ordered, sitting up.

She halted, but didn’t raise her head.

“Will you not look at me, Priestess?”

She half-heartedly complied. “Yes, My Lord.”

He smirked, looking her up and down. “I expect you to come to me this night. I know of your former lover’s presence in the temple and I want to know, the moment you tell him of your indifference.”

She let her head fall, hiding the tears pricking at her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice cracked. “Yes, My Lord.”

She couldn’t help but keep her head hung as she sauntered toward her room, feeling the heavy moisture in her eyes roll lazily down her cheeks. Her chest shook with hidden sobs, and she could not see where she was walking when she abruptly smacked into someone else’s body. She could not look up, for fear she would reveal her sadness to the patrons of the temple. She just wanted to hide in her room.

“My Lady?” the all too familiar voice gasped as he recognized her fair hair.

Ziba’s sobs suddenly cut off with a sniffle as she squinted up into her Bomani’s face. Her arms itched to throw themselves around his neck so she could kiss him and know that everything would be alright. It was so easy to believe that when she was wrapped in his arms, safe from anything that came her way.

Regrettably, he could hold her in his arms forever and it still was not going to change Mainyu’s ultimatum. As he went to embrace her, she held him at arm’s length.

“Ziba, what is the—” he inquired, reaching fruitlessly for her shoulders as she fought him off.

“I cannot see you anymore, Bomani,” she confessed, peering up at him through drenched eyelashes.

It took a moment for shock to register on Bomani’s face. “Z…Ziba, you cannot mean that.”

Gulping back the sudden bad taste in her mouth, she said, “I do.”

“Why?” he demanded, grabbing her by the shoulders and pulling her to him, despite her quiet pleas that he release her. “If this is about the consequences, it does not matter, Ziba! I will…I will…will take you away from here! We will leave! The temple…the army…all of it!”

“And where would we go, Bomani?” she cried. “Where could we go where we would not be recognized?”

He thought for a moment before he gave a loud laugh, “I do not care! We could live anywhere, Ziba, and never see anyone else ever again and I would not care! As long as I have you, I would not care what else happened.”

“Bomani!” she whimpered. “You would do that?”

“Of course, My Love, anything!” he insisted, kissing her neck while he held her to him. “I cannot lose you.”

Ziba easily succumbed to her wish to pull his face to hers and kiss him. “Then we have to run now!” she enthused, holding his head between her hands.

“Ziba, is that what has you so frantic? Have we been discovered?”

She briefly debated whether to admit that she had been confronted by a God, but, in the end, she decided that she did not want to worry him over it. “I fear we may have. I cannot live with this worry anymore, we must leave tonight!”

“My Love, relax,” he pleaded. “We need time to put together means of escape. I promise you, we will leave by daybreak tomorrow. I must return to the men now. I will come for you at dawn to take you away. Be ready, then.”

Ziba reached up on the tips of her toes to kiss him. “I will be ready.”

With a smile, he disappeared around the corner, out of Ziba’s view.

She felt like the world had been taken off her shoulders as she strode toward the sanctuary to Kurshid and prayed. It may have been wrong of her to do so, seeing as she would be abandoning her position soon enough, but she wanted to appear normal. However, all day, out of the corner of her eye, she searched the room for Bomani. Several times she found him looking back and the two shared secret smiles. The only storm cloud over Ziba was the reminder that she would have to visit Mainyu that night.

As the sun set behind the temple, Shireen swept through the temple with a sour look marring her visage. Ziba stood in the center of the room, putting off the inevitable as long as she could, when her sister stepped up to her. “Sister,” she greeted with a curt nod. “Lord Mainyu requests that you join him in his chambers. He sounded…quite urgent.”

Ziba grunted an inaudible groan but nodded nevertheless. “Thank you. I suppose I should see what he needs, then.”

Shireen hummed in the affirmative, but her face suggested otherwise.

Ziba’s stomach dropped. “What is the matter, Sister?”

“There is something about that man, Ziba. I do not trust him and I do not like that you are seeing him alone. It completely lacks propriety and it is wrong of him to ask it of you when the consequences are so dire,” she explained, crossing her arms.

“I would never risk such a fate, Shireen, you need not fear,” Ziba lied, inconspicuously clenching her fists.

“I trust you, Ziba,” she amended. “I fear for you, though. You are so young…so naïve. It makes me nervous when men show such an instant attraction to you. You do not know yet what they are capable of.”

“I do know,” Ziba said. “I do. I do not risk harm, I assure you.”

Shireen bit the inside of her mouth. “What is it that he speaks of when you are alone?”

“Nothing of consequence, Shireen.”

Shireen nodded suspiciously but stepped out of Ziba’s way. “Then I will not keep you away any longer.”

Ziba walked to Mainyu’s bedchamber like any other would walk to their death. She cast aside the curtain separating his room from all the others and slipped inside with the quiet grace of a cat. She found him sitting up for the first time since they found him, his abrasions all but healed, and his expression twisted with rage.

“Lord Main—” she bowed.

“Do you think me a stupid mortal, Ziba?” he demanded, turning the full force of his scowl on her.

Ziba staggered back like she had been struck. “O…of course not, My Lord.”

“Then do you think me blind or deaf?”

Dread festered inside her and sweat beaded up on her forehead. “I…I think n…nothing of the sort, M…My L…Lord.”

“Your fear gives you away,” he snapped.

“Gives what away?”

“Do not test me, young one!” he snarled, pulling himself to his feet. “I am a God! I heard everything of your plans to leave with that mortal!”

Ziba’s gasp was the loudest sound in the room for a long moment. She fell into a deep bow on the floor. “My Lord, please forgive me! I was foolish to think of such a plan and I was foolish to disobey you—!”

“You test me, yet again! I am not a simpleton, Ziba. I know you are only sorry that I was able to catch you.”

“No, My Lord, I swear—” she sobbed.

“But you would be unable to betray me ever again if he were gone!” he growled.

Ziba went silent when he did. “What do you mean?”

Mainyu smiled slightly. His jaw dropped as low as it could as he gave a long, inhuman growl.

He erupted into a cloud of buzzing, black smoke.

Ziba fell backward as the explosion sent the dark vapor blowing into her face, leaving a slight burn on her cheeks. Then, the smoke flew out the door, into the hallway, and out of sight. Ziba sat there in the silence for only a moment before the sound of bloodcurdling screams brought her flying to her feet.

The hallway was empty as she ran headlong toward the sanctuary where she had last seen Bomani, smiling back at her. As she entered the main room, she halted mid-step when Shireen’s arm caught her around the waist, keeping her from seeing past the circle of people standing around the room. She heard sobbing from some and screaming from others, and though she could not see what they surrounded, she had a good idea of it and fought against the arms binding her.

“Ziba, you cannot go in there,” Shireen snapped, pulling her sister down the hall the other way.

Ziba slid easily through Shireen’s arms and crawled toward the crowd before she pulled herself up. “Ziba, don’t!”

Ziba ignored her sister’s warning and fell through the wall of onlookers into the emptiness within where only one body lay on the cold floor.

 All the sound around her melted away as Ziba tried to recognize her love in the corpse that lay before her. Black veins protruded from his grayish skin and his mouth was hanging open, full to the brim with dark fluid. His eyes, wide open and unseeing, had become the same shade of inky blackness.

Arms wrapped around her body, pulling her back to her feet and away from the gruesome scene before her. Shireen’s voice whispered comforting words in her ear, but she couldn’t understand them. Any hope of escape was now gone. Any hope of a life was now gone. Any hope of love was now gone.

“Ziba. So young. So naïve. I’m so sorry you had to see that,” she whimpered, hugging her sister to her as hard as she could.

A sob wracked through Ziba’s body and only a wail escaped her lips. “He killed him. My love! My Bomani!”

Shireen froze. “Ziba?”

“He knew I was going to run away with Bomani and he killed him!”

“You were not! Ziba! The Gods will damn you!” Shireen shrieked, holding Ziba at arm’s length.

Ziba shoved Shireen away. “The Gods have already damned me, Shireen! He killed Bomani!”

“Who killed Bomani, Ziba?” she demanded, forcing her sister to look her in the eye.

“It was Angra Mainyu,” she confessed. Realizing that there was nothing else to lose, and nothing else to hide, she told her sister everything.

Shireen’s ire only grew as Ziba told her of the ongoing affair she had had with Bomani without anyone knowing and cooled only when Mainyu came into the story. By the time Ziba had finished her tale, tears were falling swiftly down her face. She clung to Shireen while the older sister tenderly rubbed her back, waiting for peace to return to the room. Silently, she thought over some way to help Ziba’s situation.

When the sound of sobs subsided into hiccups, Shireen mumbled, “I am so sorry you had to go through all that you have, little sister.”

Ziba curled up into Shireen’s shoulder, taking deep breaths.

“I will not pretend that this is any better than it is, Ziba. You are in trouble in the mortal realm and damned in the afterlife. You do not have any options—”

“I will do anything, Shireen, just save me from him, please!” Ziba interjected, begging Shireen with her glassy eyes.

Shireen felt her own sadness coming to a point as she realized what she would have to do to save Ziba from eternal fire. “Very well then, sister. I will save you from Angra Mainyu. Just remember that I am doing what I must because I love you.”

“I understand.”

Shireen supported Ziba with her shoulder and led her to the dungeon below to await her impending sacrifice.

Knowing where Shireen led, Ziba squeezed her eyes shut, biting her cheek until she tasted blood. “Oh.”

They came to retrieve her when the horizon turned pink with the morning three days later. Fatigue had washed all color from Ziba’s alabaster skin and her blue eyes were rimmed with red but she held her head high as she strode toward the stairs between two of her sister’s priests. Feeling the burn of the rope against the delicate flesh of her wrists brought on a new flush of shame; never in her life had she imagined that she would ever be in this position.

“My lady,” a quiet voice murmured beside her, catching the remnants of her focus. Those words were so agonizingly familiar that it ached in her heart to realize that it was not in the context or the deep timber that she so desperately desired. Her love and lordship had not come to see her. Her love and lordship would not come to see her. As she came to this comprehension, again, a hand, much smaller than the one she wanted to see, reached out to hold a bronze goblet before her face. She took it obediently, inconspicuously surveying the contents before putting her lips to the shimmering cup. She drank the water under the scrutinizing gaze of the priests, but, in truth, her most recent revelation had taken away the entirety of her appetite.

“Thank you, Lord Hosrael,” Ziba replied graciously, emptying the goblet and returning it to the priest. He nodded in answer and the group ascended the stairs, each priest grasping the tops of Ziba’s arms so she couldn’t run. Their display of blatant distrust in her depressed Ziba, as she had been a priestess in the temple for eight years now, since her seventh birthday; everyone trusted her, and with good reason, as she was as guileless as the innocent child she appeared to be. She couldn’t exactly say, however, that she was surprised by this show of loyalty to her older sister. As the high priestess, Shireen was trusted above anyone else in the temple.

The young priestess abruptly collapsed into the arms of the priests, as they expected, on the way to the altar. The sedative they had slipped into her drink on the way to recover her was tasteless, and the darkness had shrouded the green powder floating in the water. Nevertheless, as detailed to them by Lady Shireen, the priests had come to do a job and didn’t allow Ziba’s inert body to slow them down. Hosrael lifted the girl easily into his arms, his companion chasing at his heels, and made his way to their destination. Ziba, for her part, remained blissfully unaware of just how close to her impending doom she really was.

Lady Shireen, swept through the marble temple toward the altar like the wrath of God, her blood red robes billowing out and around her. The green of her eyes was cold, staring straight ahead and giving away no emotion, but all could tell how she felt. Anger radiated off her very skin. She felt no guilt or regret, only the deepest disgust, and all patrons and priests within the temple hid from the burning rage that they didn’t want directed at them.

Inwardly, though, Shireen’s mind was in turmoil. By Sraosa, the god of the afterlife, she’d taken solace in the knowledge that her sister would be protected, but, as anyone in her situation would feel, her faith had been shaken. All those to be brought back from the dead with the Book of Eternity had failed, and she feared her powers were too weak to return her sister to the land of the living. Regardless of her lack of confidence, she didn’t have a choice. Her dominant hand twitched with anticipation.

The room was large and completely silent; the various priests scattered across the marble didn’t dare to breathe. Each man was bedecked in gold robes to stand behind Shireen for the ritual, but it was evident that they were reluctant. Use of the Book of Eternity for this purpose had angered the Gods before and they knew this sacrifice could, and would, bring the wrath of the God of Darkness and personification of evil itself, Angra Mainyu, down upon them. Lady Shireen had warned them all earlier that this was inevitable. Fortunately, the priests were devoted enough to her that they had agreed to help despite the risk.

At the far end of the room, a stone table was organized in the center of a plethora of offerings to the Gods, from flowers to the preserved organs of rams. The table was grey, but stained with the remnants of blood from past offerings, all of which was unseen beneath the long, white silk of Ziba’s robes.

The priests in gold advanced toward the altar ahead of the High Priestess, beginning to chant the spell in Old Persian, “Spenta Mainyu who breathes life into you, now take it away. May our holy sister, Ziba, be held in the safe, merciful arms of the Gods, and be returned to the land of the living anew. Deliver her from the lust of Angra Mainyu. Protect her, your holiest servant. Spenta Mainyu who breathes life…”

Shireen picked up the chanting as she approached the altar and lifted the long dagger on the altar into her hand. She stared down at the petite form with an expression that could freeze an entire ocean, and brought the dagger up with one hand into position over her sister’s body. One of the priestesses held the silver Book of Eternity open in her arms for Shireen to read. Shireen’s free hand pushed passed page after page until she found the page to bring a soul back from the dead.

As she flipped through the pages, the body on the stone began to stir and a light voice murmured, “Shireen?”

When Ziba opened her eyes, she saw immediately that tears were falling down Shireen’s face without her knowledge, and Ziba’s face began to match. She so desperately wished it could have ended differently. She wanted to tell Shireen that she loved her. She wanted to apologize for all the trouble she had caused. She wanted to turn back the hands of time so that Shireen wouldn’t have been forced to kill her. All she could do was try to infuse her gaze with as much love and forgiveness and bravery as she could as the dagger pierced her heart.

 

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