In the open court they call her Nakshedil, “Embroidered on the Heart,” as the prince does. But in the shadows they call her “the Great Whore” or “the Viper,” and they watch her with narrowed eyes. She is beautiful. Nobody can deny that, though there are many beautiful concubines in the palace and many who are less ambitious than Nakshedil. But when she dances, she is more than beautiful. Even those like me, who wish her dead, cannot help but love her a little.
She was trained by the famous wind dancers of the Blackleaf hills, and she turns her wrists with a grace no other woman can emulate. Her eyes are dark and her smile perfect; it alights on all of us, even on her fellow concubines who watch her with women’s hatred, weak and bitter. She smiles on the eunuchs and the visiting men in the open court, and she smiles also on our beloved prince as she turns, spinning her final arc. If she were wise she would smile only on him, for he is her owner and holds all our lives in his hands. I notice this and think, she forgets herself. This may be useful later.
I am careful not to stand in the shadows, where Nakshedil or anyone sympathetic to her might mark me with suspicion, but sit cross-legged in the row of useful women, behind the favorites. Safiye, who is my age, knows better than to say anything, but Rabiye and Husni have only been favorites for a year, and they are terrible gossips. They giggle to each other about Nakshedil’s un-oiled hair and the ugly shadows of her ribs, which are visible when she raises her arms.
“She looks like a fishbone,” Rabiye whispers, helping herself to another sweetmeat. She pats her own round thighs with satisfaction. Barely two years past her first bleeding, she has put on flesh rapidly since being purchased for the prince. Safiye turns her head to comment and then thinks better of it. Like me, she has lived in the prince’s indoor garden for many years and seen his tastes change. Her waterslave reports that Safiye oils her hair less these days and has begun to abstain from sweetmeats.
The Keeper of the Keys appears at the far end of the women’s hall, ostensibly to oversee the delivery of a plate of honeyed quails. As he stands, he fingers the white flower stitched into his velvet robe. Anyone watching will think he is carrying out one of the flirtations common to the eunuchs. Only I know the flower’s true meaning. The General is coming.
I feel the cold crease of sweat along my spine. Just like that, the die is cast, and a good witch must trust to her preparation and good sense to manipulate the outcome. I tell myself the chill I feel is only that, the fear that precedes an illusion one has performed a thousand times. A good archer keeps his eye on his target; a good witch must direct her eye towards something else entirely, if she is to deceive her audience. And so I do not notice the Keeper but watch Nakshedil dance like a burning tree, wilting and cracking to the wailing music, and think that soon I will be asked to kill her, and what my response must be.
At the end of Nakshedil’s performance there are trills and shouts of approbation. In the women’s section we cover our mouths politely as we sing her praises, though no man save the eunuchs can see us. Nakshedil bows her head modestly, but there is nothing modest about her.
I gesture to the Keeper of the Stage, indicating that I wish to take to the stage earlier than scheduled. His eyes flicker nervously, but he bows his head in acquiescence. I have paid him well over the years for such favors.
I move to take my new position at the base of the performers’ stairs, and so I cannot see the prince step out to raise Nakshedil from her position of submission. Looking back at the audience of women, though, I see a shadow pass across their faces like the wind across leaves, and I know that the prince must have invited Nakshedil to sit with him.
And then it is my turn. “The witch Ayla,” the Keeper of the Stage announces, and I mount the stairs.
Like Nakshedil, my face is unveiled and my hair un-oiled, and so I look like a creature half-mad, dragged from the deep. Unlike her I do not smile during my performances. As a witch, I adopt a melancholy, dream-haunted look, my eyes half-focused on an unseen world. I hear the children clap eagerly as I appear from behind the screen, and I stifle a smile. The young are not fond of dancers.
I make my bows to the prince, my master. Part of me still bristles at this humiliation: as a witch-to-be, I was taught to stand tall, channeling the pride of my village. But that witch-girl is long dead, and I will not betray myself by heeding her ghost’s angry whispers. The prince’s gaze is like boiling water on my skin, but I think only of the bristle of carpet against my forehead, the graceful laxness of my arms. My performance must be perfect.
I bow again to our prince’s much-honored family: his three favorite sons; his first wife, who sits with her hands folded behind a long veil embroidered with gold; and the second wife, the one they call the parrot. I make reverence also to the empty throne of the prince’s mother, who is, they say, in her final days.
Lastly, because I am always careful, I bow to Nakshedil. The Viper sits, still unveiled, at the prince’s side. Her eyes are alert and watchful in her sweat-streaked face.
And then I begin. With exaggerated care, I first face the children, showing them the emptiness of my hands. My daughter sits somewhere among them, but I cannot see her from the stage. I wonder what she thinks as she watches me, the much-feared witch, her mother.
After repeating the ritual gestures to the prince and to both the men and women’s section of the court, I step forward and flick the weighted silk hidden under my bracelet towards the prince’s feet. There is some polite clapping as I seem to flourish the vivid red fabric from nowhere, but it quickly falls silent. The audience leans forward, expecting more. When I twist the silk to reveal the half-stunned parakeet I’ve palmed out of the padded belt on my skirt, the applause is enthusiastic.
Now, the dangerous moment. I depart from my practiced routine and offer the parakeet not to one of the prince’s wives, but to Nakshedil.
Her smile goes stiff. She stands, gracefully, and displays the bird to an audience grown suddenly grave. When I change the bird’s color by palming a packet of chi-powder over feathers previously doused with sagrit oil, the applause is less than it should be.
In the men’s section, I can see the General’s golden headdress towering above the red plumes of his guards. He is watching. Looking back to Nakshedil, I know she has marked the crowd’s displeasure. We are for a second frozen together, Nakshedil and I. With one whisper into our dear master’s ear, my former peer could have me executed; but I, the performer, have made her stand before the hatred of the crowd when she would prefer to hide in our master’s shadow. This too is power, and I know the General has marked it.
Nakshedil is too good a performer herself to let her feelings show. She smiles and curtseys to the stone-faced audience as the bird, finally recovered from its drug-induced stupor, flutters against the ceiling’s garden mural.
The rest of my performance is routine, some simple sleights-of-hand and chemical magic. Half of any good illusion is knowledge; the rest is misdirection. A good witch must always act as though she believes the coin is in her other hand, my mother once told me. It is a lesson that has served me well.
I conclude by breathing fire: hardly magic, but a trick that pleases the children and makes them clap with pleasure. As I leave the stage, I spit the rest of the fire-oil into the jug provided by a waterslave. I see the Keeper of the Keys approach and extend his hands in the gesture of one delivering a command.
“The General wishes to see you.”
♦ ♦ ♦
I wait on the floor of the reception room, my forehead pressed to the cold marble in a bow of submission and humility. The General takes his time in asking me to rise. After the Keeper has dismissed the last guard, the General says to me, “You may kneel,” and this is how I meet the man who will decide so much of our kingdom’s future.
He is old for a soldier, a man fast approaching fifty summers, blackened by the desert and scarred in eight separate battles. I have heard that as a tactician he is excellent, though as a woman, of course, I cannot judge such things. He looks at me in the stern, half-askance way of a man who does not believe in magic.
“Can you kill the whore?”
In dealing with this kind of man I find it best to be direct. “Yes,” I say, without requesting permission to speak, and find myself sweating at answering any man so boldly.
The General himself seems taken aback. He looks at the wall beside him and at the Keeper of the Keys, who stands behind me as my chaperone.
Finally he mutters, as if to himself, “The Keeper swears you are intelligent. And that you know how to keep your mouth shut. I suppose you might be able to do it.”
The Keeper requests permission to speak. When the General nods, he says, “The witch knows many poisons. And you saw how she brought that woman on stage—”
“It can be done.” The General cuts him off, then nods to himself. “It can be done.” He glares at me. “If you betray a word of this I will have you destroyed.”
I nod. It is no idle threat.
The General looks at the Keeper again. “You have a price?” But the question is directed at me.
This is the moment on which everything hinges. I force the words out, willing myself to meet the General’s eyes, though it makes me uncomfortable. “I want four things. A jug of whitewater, which you will say is wine. My daughter’s marriage to your youngest son, to take place here, in an open place, before the ‘desired event.’ A demon stone. And the honored skull of your greatest ancestor.”
The General turns on his heel. He is angry. He is apoplectic. He would yell, no doubt, and strike me, but he cannot afford to yell, and if he strikes me Nakshedil will not die. Worse, I might betray him, through my bruises if not my words.
I see him realize all this, and see him realize also, with the shock of a man who is not used to being in this position, that he has no choice. If he wants her dead, he must agree to the first three of my requests. The last, of course, he will reject, as is customary; a powerful man cannot be seen to accede completely to the demands of the weak.
An unnatural silence falls, and in it we can all hear the faint warbling of the ballad-singer through the walls, keening out one of those dreadful old songs Nakshedil is fond of:
My love has left and gone away
But I cannot even speak his name
Save when by myself I stray
Into the gardens of the night
The General glowers at the music. The Keeper, anxious for his own head, begs permission to speak. “The kingdom cannot survive another Rule of Concubines,” he says to the General, and to me. He holds his soft hands out in a womanly gesture of supplication. “It is only a youngest son,” he says.
“It is also a demon stone.” The General glances at me and I see, to my surprise and pleasure, that he is disturbed. A skeptic he might be, but some wet-nurse told him stories in the dark of his childhood nights, and those tales are flickering through his mind now like flame-cast shadows. A demon stone is a powerful thing, say the stories. Whereas he saw me before as a charlatan, playing on the superstitions of fools and children, some part of him is now afraid.
“That is my price,” I say, unbidden, and this I do deliberately, to keep him off balance. I meet his eyes with the clear, direct gaze of a witch. “Or Nakshedil will live, and on the death of the Queen Mother she will become our beloved prince’s most trusted councilor.”
That is enough to push him into decision. “I will not dishonor the bones of my ancestors by giving them to a witch,” he says, “and so I will give you only three of the things you ask for. Your daughter. The whitewater. The… demon stone. In return, you will make certain the Viper dies, and that I am not blamed for this.”
I feel a surge of fearful exhilaration at his words. I hope it does not show on my face. I have waited a long time for such a bargain.
“Her death will be long remembered,” I promise him, “and you shall not be blamed for it.”
I bow before him, trying not to think of the enormity of my task. I am afraid, but I cannot hesitate now.
The coins are in motion. My performance is underway.
♦ ♦ ♦
The next day, a seclusion is announced.
In the marble corridors and tiled hallways of the women’s section, the concubines are twittering with excitement. The waterslaves, who are allowed to walk the inner palace freely when carrying burdens, are less excited than their mistresses.
“Mistress Rabiye always gets her clothes dirty when there is a seclusion,” Emine whispers to me in the bathhouse. I nod, and when the eunuch motions me to stand up for inspection, I slip her one of the coins I carry in the pouch around my neck. One never knows what information may prove useful.
I am dressed in the lilac silks decreed for the day. I may not be a favorite, not anymore, but there is always a chance the prince will find a use for me, to couch with a man he wishes to reward, or, as is more often at my age, to offer my skills as a healer or magician to some great man in need.
Today the General will make a supplication to our beloved prince, explaining that his oldest son is gravely ill and that I have offered to use my magic to save him. It is a good story; people understand that a powerful man will try anything to save the life of his heir. When he announces my daughter’s marriage they will shake their heads in pity and hope that his sacrifice proves worthwhile.
The General’s announcement will create a firestorm of gossip. But I have some hours left, and after my hair is oiled I join the other women in the outdoor garden, all of us hiding from the sun under the shade of screens and veils.
“I forget how it is out here,” Safiye remarks. We are not friends, but as two of the older concubines in the prince’s tiled garden, we have things in common now that we did not in the old days. She halts for a moment and lifts her veil to squint into the sun. Automatically I turn to check if anyone is watching.
“The young ones go down to the water, where the townspeople can see them,” Safiye says. “They play their tag games and hope some man will see them and carry them off.” Without her veil I can see that there is a melancholy upon her. She looks towards the river, and I realize that she too once dreamed such things.
“Any man who carried them off would put them in a garden much worse than this one,” I say. As soon as the words leave my mouth I realize that I have made a mistake. The correct response would be to deny that anyone might dream of leaving our beloved prince. The blue flicker of Safiye’s eyes tells me that she has noticed my slip.
But she surprises me. “I came from the north, originally,” she says abruptly. “My name was Irine. My father drove cattle, before the raiders came.” She looks at me, but my face is veiled. Even so I have gone cold. These are things we try not to think of, let alone speak of.
There is a flash of fear on Safiye’s face. “Forgive me,” she mutters, and replaces her veil. I do not say anything. We walk along in silence to the execution stones beneath the gate of swords.
Today’s execution is the ostensible reason for the seclusion, though no doubt Nakshedil has done her part to persuade our prince that he might enjoy some games outside. And so he has banished the male slaves and petitioners from the central courtyards, and we are free to trip our way through the dazzling sunlight, past the blazing colors of tulips and roses, past the stalking peacocks and the white dogs that laze in the sun.
A pair of waterslaves kneel beneath the arch, accused of stealing jewels from one of the Acknowledged Children’s cradles. The executioners had the decency to veil their faces, at least, but it makes me uneasy to see them kneeling on the hot stones, shaking and waiting to die. At least it is not a concubine, not this time. True, the concubines are not killed in front of us, but they are prepared here, and they tend to cry a great deal.
I have thought often about what it might feel like, to kneel on the flat stones under the shadow of the great arch, knowing one is about to die. Waterslaves are strangled, but concubines are first bound and placed in a great woven grain-sack, weighted with rocks. There is a ceremony, at which our beloved prince voices his grief and the other concubines stand in neat columns, dressed in grey. Then the guilty ones are rowed out in one of the green-and-blue boats, far into the dark waters of the strait, and pushed overboard.
During the Rule of Concubines, one woman, Zühal the Vicious, asked her prince to drown all three hundred of her former rivals. He did. When the garden women look at Nakshedil, they fear her out of more than just women’s jealousy. They fear her because they fear what they would do in her place were they elevated above all others and had a besotted prince to command.
As I think this I see the prince approaching, Nakshedil at his side. She holds his arm as though she were a wife. Safiye turns her face away, as do many of the other concubines. Nakshedil meets my eyes, because I am the only one looking, and I do not look away. She frowns slightly when she sees me, and I know that she remembers my performance and is marking me as a woman to be watched.
♦ ♦ ♦
The execution is mercifully quick. When our beloved prince dismisses us we flock into the shadows; the sun is hot, and we cannot afford to darken our skin. And for me, this is where the trading begins, in the shadow of the pillars by the bird house. Officially, no one knows I am there, but anyone who looks can see the line of women forming to petition me: waterslaves come to trade information or herbs for coins; concubines come to trade coins for my packets of womb-bane or bittersweet. Some ask me to place curses on their rivals; some beg for love potions.
By the time we are called for high-sun prayer, I know the name of the guard Rabiye couches with, I know who really stole the jewels from the cradle, and I know that three favorites are pregnant and one is trying to lose the child. Every piece of information I gather I hold tight against some future date when I might need to bargain or blackmail or trade.
A trade is what I need to see my daughter. The last nurse of the Unacknowledged Children was a simple, greedy woman who asked only for coins, but the new nurse is smarter, and she asks also for secrets from the spirit world. And so I tell her that the jewels were really stolen by a waterslave called Nasir who has already sold the emerald to a bundle woman. The nurse nods, and I can see her chewing on this information as she waves me through to see Manisha.
It takes me a moment to pick out my daughter from the crowd of children that tangle and push on the bank, playing some game only they understand. For one frozen moment I fear I will not be able to recognize my own child, and then I see her: a tanned girl, half-a-foot taller than I remember. She stands as though jerked on a hook when she notices the new nurse gesturing at her. Her confusion resolves into a kind of wariness when she sees me, and though it hurts, part of me also feels a sad pride that my daughter is growing up.
I do not have long, and so I begin talking to her as I always do, abruptly, delivering the information that is most important. “Manisha,” I say, using the name I gave her, not her slave name, “you are to be married to the General’s youngest son. You will say your vows tomorrow and then be sent to the fortress Almut, where the General lives.”
My daughter’s face has gone rigid and pale, but she does not cry. This pleases me. Many times I have told her to guard her thoughts as well as her tongue, lest her emotions betray her. Yet, looking at her, I remember that she is still only ten summers old, and that at her age I was sweeping my mother’s cottage and learning the names of herbs. Briefly I remember our village’s green mornings, my brothers’ laughter as we tied up stalks of blesswell, the day the prince’s soldiers came.
But my daughter, born into the prince’s garden, has never swept a floor, never cooked a meal. She has never learned the histories of the magicians, let alone how to construct one of the major illusions. Everything I have been able to teach her has been taught in snatches of stolen time, and it is not enough. It will never be enough.
And so I kneel now beside her and hug her, smelling the jasmine oil in her hair and the smoke clinging to her child’s robe. She is stiff and rigid in my arms.
“Be brave,” I whisper into her ear. “Remember the herbs I taught you. Keep your secrets, and do not trust anyone.” And then I must let her go, because the nurse has seen us.
“Gulbeyez,” the nurse says sharply. “Go play with the others.” She looks at me, kneeling in the dirt.
I blink back the tears. The nurse must not hear sorrow in my voice. I stand up, brushing the soil from my silk robe.
“She is getting married,” I say. The nurse does not stop eying me speculatively, and it will certainly not stop her from gossiping. But it is a distraction. A good witch must always act as though she believes the coin is in her other hand, my mother said.
I told my daughter the same thing, when she was old enough. One day I hope she will understand.
♦ ♦ ♦
I am not, of course, invited to my daughter’s wedding ceremony, but I hear gossip about it. I hear that my daughter looked lovely in her saffron dress. I hear she looked like an ugly frog. I hear the General’s third wife wept when her son was married to a girl so far beneath his station. I hear the General’s oldest son miraculously recovered from his illness the instant the wedding wine was poured.
I hear this and many other things, but I see nothing but the dark hoods of the wedding party as they leave by the temple gate. I have bribed a guard to let me stand at the tower window with the lattice screen open, so if my daughter looks up as she leaves the palace she may see me there, wearing white silk against the darkness. But I do not know if she does.
When she is gone I fold into myself. Grief strikes me like an arrow.
But it is for the best, I remind myself, shaking in the darkness. It is for the best. She will have a better life because of this.
The next morning I receive a congratulatory jug of wine, which I store under the other jugs stacked in a corner of my room. The General has made good on all but one of his promises. Soon I will have to make good on mine.
♦ ♦ ♦
When the demon stone arrives, I am sitting in the hall listening to the dreary ballad-singer warble the romantic songs requested by the younger concubines. My daughter is gone, and there is a darkness upon me. I have other children, of course; two living sons, neither acknowledged by their fathers. My oldest was sent to live in the mountains, and my younger son was given as a gift by the prince to an island diplomat. But my daughter is the only one of my children I have seen grow up. Whereas my sons may have a chance to earn their freedom through loyal service or courage, my daughter had only marriage. I have bought her a good marriage, and whatever happens now, she is part of the General’s family and must be protected by him. And she will always bear the mark of a freed slave on her cheek.
Yet there is a darkness upon me.
Nakshedil sits in a position of honor before the stage, a smoke burner belching fumes beside her. The prince has chosen another woman tonight and Nakshedil is not pleased. She picks grapes with angry darts of her hand and motions to a waterslave to bring her another glass of sherbet.
The hatred must be harder to bear with the prince gone, I think, watching her. Every eye in this room is trained on her, hoping she will make some misstep. Everyone in this room, from the waterslaves to the concubines, wishes her ill.
“Sing it again,” she orders and sits back, refusing to acknowledge the groans and hisses of the other favorites. The ballad-singer obliges her, launching back into the never-ending tale of a girl mourning her lover in the gardens of the night.
I do not see why any of the concubines like this song. We are allowed no lovers of our own. We are rarely allowed to walk the gardens by day, and never at night. In my black mood, it occurs to me that perhaps the girl singing in the poem knows this, and that her words are skirting some darker secret. Grief wells up within me; there is a tightness in my throat.
At that moment a waterslave appears at my side, quiet and unobtrusive. “From the General,” she says and offers me her basket. In my grief, I do not understand; I motion her to hand me its contents, and she shakes her head nervously, eyes wide. She knows what the basket contains.
I reach in for her and scoop out the bundled package that holds the demon stone. As I slip it into my robes, I realize that I should have told her to meet me elsewhere. I hope no one has noticed this unusual exchange.
But of course someone has. Later that night, Nakshedil summons me to her room.
♦ ♦ ♦
The demon stone weighs against my chest like a guilty heart. I dare not remove it, for of all the materials I have gathered, it is the least replaceable. And so I enter Nakshedil’s room with my death warrant tucked inside my robe, a stone I could be executed for even touching. It is not how I would choose to face the woman I have sworn to kill.
Nakshedil’s waterslaves have loosened her hair for the night. Around her neck she wears three chains that reach to her knees; one of large pearls, at the bottom of which hangs an emerald as big as a swan egg; one of tiny emeralds, closely joined; and one of diamonds. This last chain she removes as I watch and hands it to a waterslave to take out of the room. “The prince gave it to me,” she remarks, as though there were any other way she could possess such a thing.
I make my bows and kneel before her, though it chokes me a little to prostrate myself before a fellow concubine. But when I rise she looks at me directly, as I once looked at the General, and I see she is afraid.
“They say you know everything that passes though these walls, Ayla,” she says. “They say you talk to spirits. So tell me, who plots against me?”
I let my breath out slowly. Eventually, I speak. “You should ask the Keeper of the Keys. He keeps all the secrets here.”
“But he hates me!” The words burst out of her with surprising force and she turns, running her fingers through her hair. “You’ve been a favorite before. You understand what it’s like. They all have their knives out. All because the Queen Mother is dying and the prince likes me best.”
I say nothing, watching her. Up close, I can see how young she is. Sixteen summers at most, and still unused to palace life. She was probably too old to be properly trained but was purchased anyway, because of her skills. As was I.
“I know you know things,” she says, and there is an edge to her voice. Seeing me looking at her, she shrinks back a little. “Please,” she says. “I’m not going to hurt anyone. I’m not Zühal. I want to make things better. I persuaded the prince to give us a seclusion, didn’t I? Once the Queen Mother dies, he will listen to me even more.”
And then her anger is back. “I will ask for a school for our children. I will make it so we can walk abroad in the outdoors garden. This is what I want to do, and they want to stop me.” She slams her hand against the ebony table.
I look at her and think how young she is. There is an earnestness about her. She may even be telling the truth. It is enough to break one’s heart.
“Even if you receive all you ask for,” I say slowly, “even if you achieve all your desires, our beloved prince must follow his heart. In a few years he will prefer another woman to you, and then he will listen to her, and all your changes will be swept aside.”
I see her dark eyes glitter and a flush grow on her cheeks. She does not believe another woman will ever supplant her. I watch her struggle with her anger, and then she says, “Even if that is so, it is still better to try. Not all changes can be undone.”
That is true enough, I think.
She looks at me, no doubt thinking that she could demand to see the package hidden inside my robe. It might contain a secret she could blackmail me with. I see her struggle with this knowledge, and then put it aside. She is young and still clings to the rules of a world outside the palace.
“Will you help me?” Nakshedil asks this simply, honorably. Her eyes are wide in her bronze face.
I hesitate, thinking of my daughter, the prince, my carefully laid plans. Then I nod. “I will help you.”
And I lie as honestly as any performer has ever lied, before an audience whose fate is already decided.
♦ ♦ ♦
On the night of the assassination I wait by the stair of the wind tower overlooking the grey waters of the strait. I have sent the Keeper ahead with the poisons; he alone has the authority to taint the Viper’s food, as she sleeps in the room of the prince, and place the witch’s charm I have made in the dish of the smoke bowl. I gave him an antidote bottle. Just in case, I said, our beloved prince should by accident consume any morsel of the poisoned food.
Meanwhile in the tower I have prepared my ritual, a massive circle of runes carefully chalked with rabbit’s blood. I made Rabiye hold the basket containing the demon stone. I warned her against what it contained, of course, and her eyes grew wide when she realized she held the crystallized spirit of a captured demon, whose power I intended to steal that very night.
I swore her to secrecy before I dismissed her, which means it will be all around the palace by morning.
Now, at the appointed hour I wait, counting the favors I have called in. There is enough poison in the food in the prince’s bedroom to kill twenty women, though not instantaneously. I had to get it past the tasters, after all.
And finally there is the witch’s charm the Keeper will place in the smoke burner. The vapors the burning whitewater acid releases will destroy the lungs of anyone who breathes it.
My heart beats against my chest like a bird in a burning cage. Even now, something may have gone wrong. Despite my thoroughness, my plan has already failed; the Keeper has betrayed me; the guards are on their way. When I hear the thunder of footsteps down the hallway I steel myself to meet them.
A gaggle of frantic waterslaves run by. I grab the arm of one, spinning her around. “What has happened?”
“Our prince, our beloved prince!” I can see the rim of white around her eyes as they roll in her head. “He’s dead!”
I pull back, stunned. I have dreamed of this moment for many years, but its arrival dizzies me. Have I succeeded? Or is this a trick, an illusion constructed to lure me into revealing my intentions?
The vibrant boom of a gong shivers the air, announcing disaster, and that is when I believe it. The prince would never risk the political chaos that sound will bring if he were still alive.
Numbly I mount the stairs. I suppose if the prince is dead Nakshedil must be dead too. And the Keeper as well, no doubt having drained the tiny bottle of river water I gave him in a desperate attempt to save himself. I have killed many people tonight, in order to be sure of killing just one: the prince whose whim destroyed my mother, my brothers, my village; the master before whom I have had to scrape, and submit, and serve.
We all work change in our own way. I stare at the glorious red demon stone at the center of my circle, thinking of Nakshedil. I am not as naïve as she was. In the coming chaos, a few concubines may manage to purchase their freedom, but within a few months there will be a new prince on the throne. The General will probably flee to the mountains, if he does not try for the throne himself. Ultimately he has too many soldiers to be easily killed.
My daughter has been married, and publicly, to the General’s son. That will offer her some protection. But what I do now will offer her more.
Tenderly I stroke my finger across the surface of the demon stone. I never thought to see one. For a moment I wonder what secrets this rare stone might reveal if I could test it the way my mother tested her minerals and powders.
But a good witch knows true power lies elsewhere.
In the morning, they will start asking questions. They will find the remains of the witch charm in the burner, and the remains of my ritual in the tower. They will hear from Rabiye that I possessed a demon stone that let me unlock the powers of hell itself. And even if they don’t believe it, the General who holds my daughter will, for he gave me the stone himself.
I place the precious stone in the pocket of my woolen robe, where it clinks against the other rocks I have gathered. Then, because I cannot afford to wait any longer, I climb up into the open window and look out into the dark waters of the strait.
I chose this room because it protrudes over the water, and because the ocean here is deep. Somewhere below me, in the darkness, lie the bodies of countless drowned concubines. None of them have ever floated to the surface.
I take a deep breath. My fingers clench the cold stone of the window ledge. They do not want to let go. But I cannot be found, I remind myself, I cannot be dragged down to the rocks and executed like an ordinary woman. I have to remain a witch in their minds. A shadow to be afraid of, even when a new prince sits on the throne and my daughter is a grown woman.
Closing my eyes, I step out into the darkness.