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Transcendence Series Historical Fantasy Sci FI by E A Carter
The Lost Valor of Love
The Transcendence Series Book 1
by E A Carter
Genre: Historical Fantasy, SciFi
"Claim me, and your every movement, every breath, every word will be written upon my heart, for eternity. You will be immortal yet."
'GRIPPING. WILL KEEP YOU READING THROUGH THE NIGHT.' KATHERINE STANSFIELD, AUTHOR OF FALLING CREATURES
Growing up during the centuries-long conflict between the empires of Egypt and Hatti, the young princess Istara is taken hostage by the King of Hatti to secure the loyalty of her father, the King of Kadesh to the empire. Soon her new life in Hatti's glittering capital becomes all she knows. Bound in blood before the gods to Hatti's unwilling crown prince, Istara, now Hatti's queen-in-waiting, learns she will never be loved.
But the drums of war beat again, and when the scheming plans of Hatti's king threaten the existence of all civilization, the gods give Istara a choice: to leave behind everything she knows to save mankind, or remain where she is, powerless, a token on the game board of kings. On the brink of one of the most brutal battles in history, she chooses to risk her life to deliver a message to the only man able to prevent the prophecy from becoming a reality—her mortal enemy, the Pharaoh Ramesses II.
Wounded, cold and hungry, she wanders in the battle's horrific aftermath, and aids a powerful commander, who she learns protected her once, and has been bound to her ever since by a prophetic dream of his future. Despite his resistance, and Istara once more becoming a pawn of kings, they must confront an eternal love so powerful, not even kings, the gods, or death can keep them apart.
The Lost Valor of Love is the first book of the Transcendence series.
'AN EPIC STORY OF LOVE. POWERFUL AND COMPELLING.' KATHERINE STANSFIELD, AUTHOR OF THE MAGPIE TREE
"I love you, even past the boundaries of eternity. Not even the end of my existence could extinguish the love I feel for you."
In the epic sequel to The Lost Valor of Love, worlds collide, and gods and mortals cross paths, kingdoms fall, and ancient, long-buried hatreds stir.
In the heavens, the storm god Teshub discovers two of the most powerful gods of the pantheon have fallen to a world torn apart by rivalry, war, famine, and plagues. Soon, he learns, he too must fall.
In the north, a crown prince ascends the throne, his queen taken by his enemy as compensation for the crimes of his father. But the new king is prepared to risk everything to reclaim his queen, and plans for war begin.
In the east, a near-immortal senses the awakening of a powerful artifact after an eternity of silence. It can only mean one thing: gods once more walk among men, and with their return—the key to his immortality.
And from far without, the Creator eyes his dying creation, its fragile boundaries unraveling. From across an enormous board, he picks up a token—an exact replica of a living woman. He smiles at it with fondness and sets it down on a new space. Folding his hands together, he steps back, and waits.
The Call of Eternity is the second book in the Transcendence series.
Istara found the courage to meet Sethi's eyes. In his, the anguish of his love, untainted by the darkness. He was going to leave her. Tears blazed a path through her soul. He drew her against him as she wept, as she accepted what he already knew. For them, there could only be war.
'A SUPERB FINALE. YOU WON'T BE DISAPPOINTED.' KATHERINE STANSFIELD, AUTHOR OF THE MERMAID'S CALL
In a world older than time, a portal stirs from its long slumber. From out of its cerulean mists, the warship of the scion of darkness and destroyer of worlds emerges. With its gods long gone, Elati is a world ripe for the taking. Marduk intends to take it all.
Corrupted by Marduk's devices, Sethi succumbs to the grip of evil. A brutal, merciless commander, he oppresses the kingdoms of Elati, his violence awakening a weapon of the deepest darkness. Poisoned by lies and tainted by hate, he thirsts for its power to obliterate the light of the one he once loved beyond all reason.
Desperate to reprieve Sethi from his corruption, Istara pursues her last hope, risking everything to retrieve powerful artifacts of Thoth's, her light her only defense against the growing darkness—and the one determined to annihilate her.
Bound by love and driven by duty, Urhi-Teshub reaches the threshold of his destiny, where he faces the horrifying price he must pay to protect Istara.
And at the heart of an abandoned island of gods, surrounded by an endless storm, an eternal tower awaits. Caught in the crosshairs of a primordial war for supremacy, Sethi and Istara must face each other one final time. Darkness and light. Enemies. Lovers. Gods.
The Rise of the Goddess is the final book in the Transcendence series.
City of Pi-Ramesses, Summer. Reign of Ramesses II, Year 6
In the sweltering heat of the Egyptian sun, the pharaoh's eyes are cold, like the icy, silent winters of Tarhuntassa. He sweeps his khopesh, slick with blood, high into the burning air, and heavy, dark gouts soar from his curved blade toward the pristine white pillars of the palace, where they land in a perfect arc, staining them the color of my love.
The taut muscles of his body, and his kilt are a canvas, splattered with the essence of the man who has sacrificed everything so I might live. Were it not my own love's life the ink for such art, Ramesses's work could almost be considered beautiful. Almost.
And when he comes to me tonight, will he think of this brutal battle as he is taking me, possessing me as his own? Will he speak of it, reminding me I was destined to be a queen, though not of Egypt, but of her enemy? Will he gloat about his triumph, not just over Egypt's commander, but over Urhi-Teshub, the Crown Prince of Hatti, to whom I once belonged? The one, who far too late I learned, loved me. Though not like this. Never like this.
The image of Ramesses entering me, his body still drenched with the blood of my love fills my mind. I swallow the bile rising in my throat, tasting metal, the scent of butchery heavy in the enclosed space. I am able to see my bleak future. Once he has taken his fill of me, I will be sent away, like all the others, condemned to the corridors of his harem, to live in the shadows, forgotten, alone and unloved, with only this, my meager store of memories to comfort me.
My love fights on, for love, for honor, for us; his powerful body torn apart by the one who believes himself a god. I try to see the man who cradled me against him only a few hours ago, his tenderness as he made love to me for the first and last time. His mouth on mine, our souls entwining. He is unrecognizable. I blink back the tears burning in my eyes, ashamed. I promised I would not cry. But my chest is aching, and my throat is raw, the agony of holding the pain inside, exquisite. With every blow he suffers, I flinch. He bleeds outward, and I, inward. Together, we are dying.
Powerless, just as I have always been, I watch them battle, my hands clenched into fists, my fingernails cutting into my palms. The one I love, despite knowing his fate, remains steadfast, valiant, and honorable against the relentless onslaught of the pharaoh, who must cheat to bring down Egypt's indomitable commander.
Beneath their sandaled feet, the pristine white sand turns red, drinking up the fluid of my love's life, thirsty in this accursed heat. Another savage assault and Ramesses's khopesh slices deep, carving into bone, becoming stuck. He staggers, struggling to free his blade. He heaves once, twice, grunting with the effort. It is a nightmare. With a sickening snap his sword bursts free and my love, reviving from shock, roars in agony.
My thoughts splinter. I imagine myself kneeling in the soaking black-dark sand, gathering up his life essence, drawing it into the material of my gown so I can return it to him, drop by precious drop.
My love rallies, but Ramesses plays foul once more. Overcome, my love falls to his knee. He looks at me, his chest heaving, his breathing ragged in the thick, claustrophobic air. I see his suffering, not just from his pain, but from knowing he will soon face his annihilation as the gods claim his debt, separating our souls for eternity.
I step onto the grounds, desperate to go to him, to ease his pain, the memory of our first encounter exploding into my thoughts; the long, cold night I spent tending his injuries, fighting his delirium, struggling to keep him alive. The night he tried to kill me. Our love, born in violence, dying in violence.
He calls to me, my name on his lips ragged and bloody. His final words tear me apart. I feel a forbidden tear slip free, hot against my face.
Furious, Ramesses roars and strikes him down, and the one who sacrificed everything to hold my heart in his hands for the briefest space in time falls to the ground, dying.
Numb, I watch Ramesses as he staggers, panting, staring battle-blind at his butchered commander. A bright gleam pierces my blurring vision. I shove away my tears. In the burning light, a fallen dagger, forgotten—like me—beckons.
I beg the gods for forgiveness, and run.
EMPIRE OF HATTI
Summer 1287 - Late Summer 1275 BCE
City of Kadesh, Summer. Reign of Muwatallis, Year 8
Istara had never been in Baalat's sanctuary before. She decided she didn't like it. It had to be a mistake; her mother couldn't mean to leave her here alone with the golden statue of the goddess, shrouded in a suffocating haze of opium incense.
“Please,” Istara said, tugging on her mother's hand, “I don't want to stay here. It's dark, and the smell makes my head hurt.”
When her mother didn't respond, Istara tugged again, harder but the Queen of Kadesh's gaze remained fixed on the image of the goddess. With a heavy sigh, her mother sank to her knees and whispered a prayer, for forgiveness.
Uneasy, Istara touched her mother's hand, bare of the usual glittering array of rings. “Ama?”
Her mother looked down at Istara's hand on hers. “I have abused my power as high priestess,” she said, quiet. “For weeks now, I have been taking the goddess's food and giving it to you. I could not bear to see you starve.”
Istara eyed the image of Baalat, fear slicing into her, deep. “But the punishment is—”
“I know.” Her mother's fingers touched Istara's lips, silencing her. “I pray she understands, and will forgive me.”
Istara thought of all the scraps her mother had given her over the weeks, almonds, and dried figs, once she had even surprised Istara with a little piece of honey crystal. That was a good day.
Now Istara imagined her mother stealing from the offering bowls at the goddess's feet. A terrible, awful crime. She looked at her mother's gaunt, worn face, her fragile beauty diminished by extreme hunger, and saw her desperation. Overcome, Istara hugged her, her hands brushing against her mother's shoulder blades, protruding, sharp.
“Oh Ama. I do not deserve you.”
In her mother's quiet embrace, Istara closed her eyes and recalled the day when everything began. It was raining when the Egyptian army streamed out of Labwi Wood, driving their fancy horses and chariots over the pretty meadow outside the city walls. For two days, the soldiers worked to set up a vast city of tent; Istara was certain about that part because she had watched.
Her father sent couriers to Hatti's far-off capital, Tarhuntassa, to King Muwatallis. The gates slammed closed, and Istara learned a new hateful word. Siege. Weeks passed. Her lessons dwindled, then ended, the palace's quiet order turning to chaos.
Rooms were closed off, deemed unnecessary. Soon there was no fuel left to burn in the braziers, and Istara shivered in her bed as the stone walls sweated out the heavy rains of spring.
Her father changed, becoming angry, shouting, sometimes even breaking things. The food ran out. They braved hunger for two days, waiting for Muwatallis to come, her stomach cramping so much, she cried. The cats disappeared, even her favorite, the stable cat, Mada and her litter of kittens. The hunting dogs followed soon after. Then, one by one, the horses in the stables vanished, until even Istara's pony Kuma was gone, and the stables lay silent, the quiet, deafening.
The night Kuma disappeared, there was meat on Istara's platter for the first time in almost two weeks. Both her mother and father had come to her, to sit in silence while she ate, their eyes haunted. Despite her heartache, Istara could not disappoint them. She ate her beloved friend, trying not to think of the happy hours she had passed with her, each bite tainted with bitterness against the Egyptians. As soon as her parents left, she cried until she fell asleep, dreaming of Kuma being taken away, whinnying in fear, to be cut into pieces to feed the starving people. To feed her own mistress.
The next day, Istara slipped away to the rooftop garden of the palace, stripped bare of its vegetation and hurled rocks over the walls, calling the Egyptians every name she could think of. When she ran out, she created new ones.
Exhausted, she sagged, panting against the wall, glaring at their camp, filled with hate. From its edge, surrounded by soldiers, one young man emerged, dressed in gleaming armor. He stopped and looked up. Right at her.
Indignant, she rose and returned his gaze, focusing all her unhappiness on him. Her fingers shaking, she prized a large rock loose from the wall and heaved it over the side, screaming out the worst insult she knew. Dirty bottom eater.
The rock tumbled, useless, straight down into the olive grove beneath the city's walls. Humiliated, she looked back at him, waiting for him to mock her. Instead, he lifted his hand, inviting her to join them. One of his men pulled his ration bag from his belt and held it up, a heartbeat later, the others joined in, holding theirs up, silent.
Shamed, she backed away so she could no longer see them. On the long walk back to her apartment she experienced confusion, no longer certain who to blame for Kuma's death. She decided she would think about it when she was older and wiser, when she had had more lessons. Until then, she had learned nothing was as simple as it seemed.
Istara looked around, afraid. Now, after three months of hunger and waiting, she was going to be locked in here, in Baalat's dark, oppressive sanctuary. Istara felt her mother's thin fingers wrap around her arms, her grip so faint, it felt like a whisper.
“I cannot remain with you much longer,” she said. “By your father's command, you must stay here until I come for you. We have lost. King Muwatallis has not come. Today your father will open the gates and kneel before the Pharaoh of Egypt.”
“But I heard you say if he kneels to Egypt,” Istara said, pulling back, anxious, “the King of Hatti will punish us all.”
Her mother looked away, blinking hard. She took Istara's hand and led her back to the sanctuary's thick cedarwood doors. “You have suffered much these past months, and without one word of complaint,” she murmured, changing the subject. “I am proud of you. But today, you must face one last challenge and wait here, alone, until my return. You must trust your father's judgment. He only thinks to protect you.”
Istara clung to her mother's hand, her small store of courage fleeing. She had thought she was ready, but she wasn't; in the meager light of the single flame there were too many shadows lurking, sinuous, at the edge of her vision.
“Promise you will come back to me,” she whispered.
“I promise.” Her mother brushed the hair from Istara's forehead and smiled, though it didn't reach her eyes. “You are safe here in the goddess's sanctuary. Stay close to her, and she will protect you. Soon this will be over, and we will be happy again.”
She prized Istara's fingers free and went outside. Istara made to follow her, but her mother shook her head, a warning flaring, sharp, in her eyes. She gestured to the guards to push the doors closed. They came to with a low boom. Istara jumped. She didn't like that sound. A scraping noise followed as the guards settled the beam into place, locking her inside. She pressed her ear against the thick door. She couldn't hear anything. She tried to be brave, but her heart pounded so hard it hurt.
Her back pressed against the door, she peered into the dim, smoky space, its pillared edges lost in deep shadow. She counted to three before darting through the darkness to the little pool of light at the base of the statue. Huddling against the cold stone platform, she wrapped her arms around her knees and waited, hoping with all her heart the lamp wouldn't run out of oil before her mother returned.
Ramesses, Crown Prince of Egypt, eyed the barred doors to the sanctuary of Kadesh's goddess, uneasy. It was a crime, what he was about to do. His father had commanded him to take the temple's gold, the only price Kadesh would be forced to pay for standing against Pharaoh Seti. But instead of keeping their gold in a temple storeroom, like sensible people, the Kadeshites had secreted their wealth into the sanctuary of their deity. Ramesses cursed, certain his sacrilege would return to haunt him one day.
He breathed a prayer to Horus for protection and lifted the carved beam away. With a soft groan, the doors opened. A thick haze of opium incense surrounded him, making his eyes water. Cautious, he stepped over the threshold and breached the sacred residence of the goddess. Nothing happened. He felt foolish. Of course he would not be struck down. These provincial gods were not powerful. Not like Egypt's gods.
No more than twenty paces distant, the goddess stood alone, with enough gold and gems piled around her to cover the costs of their entire campaign. He hesitated, even with the doors open, the pillared edges to either side remained cloaked in shadow. His hand moved to the hilt of his dagger. He could hear someone breathing, ragged. He called out to his second-in-command.
“Captain Sethi. Torches.”
They found a child, similar to the one he had seen throwing rocks from the palace roof a week ago. No more than seven or eight years old, she wore a shabby temple robe over her bare-footed, emaciated body. Under the effect of the opium, she stood, quiet, her eyes sliding, unseeing over his men. In Sethi's gentle grip, she staggered, struggling to stay on her feet. His captain cleared his throat.
“Should we bring her with us?”
“No,” Ramesses answered, terse. “They closed her in here, drugging her with the opium for a reason. My father asked me to bring him the goddess's gold, nothing more. For all we know, the child is intended for sacrifice.”
Sethi's eyes darkened at the suggestion. His grip tightened on her shoulders, protective. “My lord, we cannot leave her to die,” he said as he glanced down at her, his expression softening. “She is just a little girl.”
“She stays,” Ramesses said, gesturing toward the pillared shadows, impatient. “Put her back where you found her.”
Sethi hesitated. Irritated, Ramesses grabbed the waif's arm. “It is my command.” He pulled the girl to him. “Release her.”
Taller, older, and stronger by far, his captain resisted for as long as he dared. “My lord,” Sethi murmured, “I beg you. Be merciful.”
Ramesses considered the girl, reviving in the freshening air. She was a pretty thing, beautiful even, for a child. Her black hair, tumbling in thick waves down to her shoulders framed her heart-shaped face. A worthy sacrifice to a god. She gazed up at them, calm. Her dark eyes, framed by thick lashes, moved from him to Sethi; back and forth, examining them, her mouth shaping itself into a little, round 'o'. She pointed at Sethi's khopesh, saying something incomprehensible, her small voice sweet and inquisitive.
He caught Sethi watching him, waiting.
“To Ammit with your bleeding heart,” Ramesses scoffed. “Why must you save every stray you find? Are you a warrior or a priest?”
“Can a man not strive to have the qualities of both?” Sethi asked.
“Bring her, then,” Ramesses sighed, relenting. “If your grasp of Akkadian is sufficient, you may deliver her to their high priestess, forbidding her against the crime of human sacrifice. Be grateful I am in a generous mood today.”
He left the sanctuary and inspected the heaped baskets, ready to be taken to his father. The pharaoh would be pleased. Ramesses began to say something to Sethi, before realizing he was alone. He turned. Still within the sanctuary, Sethi knelt before the girl. He offered her a fig from his ration pouch. She took it and devoured it in one bite, like a heathen. Her eyes drifted back to his pouch, looking for more.
Smiling, Sethi found another fig, then offered his biscuit, watching, delighted, as she gobbled up his evening meal, piece by piece; the Crown Prince of Egypt's second-in-command, willing to go hungry so a child of no consequence would not.
Putting his back to them, Ramesses suppressed a familiar ripple of envy toward the man who had come out of nowhere, rising to prominence from the gutters of Pi-Ramesses. Of no blood, and without family, Sethi had made a name for himself as a street fighter, whom none could defeat. The pharaoh had tested Sethi against his commanders. Not one of them had been able to take him down. Not even with weapons against Sethi's bare hands.
Sethi accepted the pharaoh's offer of a career in the military. One success followed another, his daring strategies during his first campaign earning him promotions and wealth.
At first, Ramesses had resented Sethi, but as time passed, he found himself growing to like him. Charismatic, honorable and clear-headed, Sethi was by far the best soldier Ramesses had ever fought alongside. And, wherever Sethi went, there was never a shortage of willing women. Together with Ahmen, Ramesses's oldest friend, they frequented the whorehouses, breaking hearts in every city. It was a good life.
Still, it was at times like this Ramesses couldn't escape the feeling of his own lack. Maybe it was because Sethi was three years older than him. He did have more experience. He was better in combat; there was no doubt. But Ramesses wasn't sure that was it. He caught Sethi brushing the hair away from the little girl's eyes, affectionate. Ramesses suppressed his annoyance. They had work to do. He called Sethi to him, impatient.
His captain approached, the girl at his heels, trusting as a lamb. Ramesses endured a fresh stab of envy. With almost no effort, Sethi drew people to him, like moths to a flame. Ramesses wanted that kind of power. He was Crown Prince of Egypt. Sethi was no one. He glared at Sethi as his captain set the little girl on a ledge at the base of a pillar, before joining the others to help load the goddess's gold onto waiting carts.
Bored, Ramesses looked at the little girl and offered her a smile. She ignored him, edging to one side to look around him, her eyes following Sethi as he worked. Ramesses reached into his pouch and held out a fig, gesturing for her to come and take it. Wary, she slid off her perch and reached out, cautious. He pulled his hand back. She looked up at him, confused. He smiled at her. A faint smile ghosted her lips as she smiled back at him, uncertain.
He caught Sethi watching him, expressionless. Triumphant, he tossed the fig onto the ground. The girl scrambled after it with a little cry. He walked away, satisfied. No one was going to get the better of him, especially not a nobody like Sethi.
Alone in the rooftop garden of the palace, Istara watched the last of the Egyptian army march into Labwi Wood. They left the meadow a hardened, dusty wasteland blackened by the scars of hundreds of fire pits. She had loved that meadow. Every summer it hummed with fat bees and butterflies kissing the riot of wildflowers. She used to go down and watch them. Now, it was ruined.
She thought of all the friends she had lost, her father's old dog, who was too old to hunt, but often came to sleep beside her bed, and Mada, with her beautiful litter of kittens. Who could kill kittens, and eat them? A tear slipped free as Istara thought of Kuma. She had loved her pony so much. And now all of them were dead, and for what?
For a dull stone stela to be put up in the palace square, forever claiming Kadesh as a vassal of Pharaoh Seti, Blessed of Re. It was just a rock. Why did they all have to go hungry and eat their friends, for a rock? None of it made sense. Whenever she brought it up, those around her changed the subject; even her Aunt Rhoha, who wasn't afraid of anything, or anyone.
One good thing happened, though. The Egyptians had left provisions, bags of grain, and corn—probably stolen, Istara had heard someone mutter—and they had been respectful, even if she couldn't understand anything they were saying. So, now, just like before they came, the smell of roasting meat and baking bread filled the palace kitchens, and from the farms, food poured into the city.
A week passed. A caravan of horse traders arrived. Istara's mother came to her, smiling, saying someone was waiting for her in the stables. Istara ran as fast as she could to the stable yard. There, in Kuma's empty stall, a new white pony whickered, her muzzle soft as down. Istara named her Saharu, and promised her no one would ever eat her so long as she lived. But this time, just in case, Istara decided not to love her pony quite as much.
Two more weeks passed, and summer reached its height. Apart from the desolation of the meadow, the memory of the Egyptian siege began to fade. Istara realized she was happy again, just as her mother promised they would be.
Four days later, as Istara dozed in the shade of an almond tree during the hottest part of a broiling afternoon, the sound of horns echoed across the walls of the city, just like the ones she had heard in the spring. She sat up, alarmed. Horns were bad. Already, gardeners, servants, and guards crowded along the terrace wall, shading their eyes against the glare of the sun, murmuring, fearful.
Her heart pounding, she pushed her way through, trying to see. The wind gusted, hot and dry, making the purple flags on the walls snap and buckle, sharp against the quiet air. The horns blasted again. She caught a glimpse of movement, far to the north, beyond the cedar wood.
Rising on her toes, she squinted into the distance, her hair billowing around her, catching in the wind. Impatient, she gathered it together and twisted it into a rope. There, a gleam. Her attention snapped back to the north. She searched the heat haze. Was that the faint pounding of drumbeats?
Her eyes burning, she waited, begrudging even the need to blink. The horizon shimmered, a liquid wall of silver, shifting, moving, deceiving. Something dark coalesced within the viscous surface. From its depths, four black horses, peacock plumes atop their bridles, stepped through as though arriving from the immortal realm. Behind them, standing proud in his chariot, the reins wrapped around his powerful arms, a man emerged with the bearing of a god, his golden armor gleaming white in the burning light. On his back he wore a sword, its massive hilt rising above his shoulder. The chariots of two more men appeared, one man almost the same age, the other much younger. And behind them, from out of the impossible wall of nothing, a host of thousands followed, lines upon lines of chariots, streaming onto the northern plain.
Muwatallis, the King of Hatti, had finally arrived.
Urhi-Teshub, Crown Prince of Hatti, pulled his horses to a halt and eyed the imposing stela set in the center of Kadesh's palace square proclaiming Pharaoh Seti's triumph over Hatti. His father, Muwatallis, stared, rigid and expressionless at the bombastic thing. Urhi-Teshub knew his father would not accept the loss of Kadesh, not after everything he had done to prepare for this battle, or everything he had had to leave behind unfinished in Tarhuntassa, Hatti's capital.
The date on the stela was more than a month old. Pharaoh Seti and his son Ramesses would be back in Pi-Ramesses by now, celebrating. Urhi-Teshub bit back a curse. He had been anticipating drenching his blade with Egyptian blood, to prove to his father his last year campaigning against the Kaskans with his uncle Hattusilis had been well spent. But now, after two months of preparation and one of hard marching, his sword would remain dry, just as it did two years ago when Pharaoh Seti claimed the city states of Amurru; his sudden, unexpected predations catching Hatti off guard.
But the pharaoh had been a fool to leave Kadesh undefended. For two years Hatti's king had seethed over his Amurrite losses to Egypt. And now, to find this? Urhi-Teshub shook his head, grim. Kadesh would pay.
His father's voice boomed across the square, where the city's assembled officials, nobles and royal family stood waiting, pale and trembling; their thin faces betraying the extent of their long wait for assistance.
“Tear it down,” his father bellowed, putting his back to the offending stela. "Kadesh belongs to Hatti, regardless of Egypt's pathetic scribblings.”
A gesture from Hattusilis, and orders went down the lines. Soldiers came forward bearing mason's tools. They surrounded the edifice, glistening like beetles, the thudding of their mallets loud in the still, oppressive heat of the square.
His father pulled the reins from his arms and left his chariot, watching as the men labored to break the stela apart until only a jagged lump remained. A thick haze of dust billowed out, making Urhi-Teshub's throat itch. His eyes watering, he suppressed a cough. The soldiers stepped back, panting, their bodies drenched in sweat.
His father made a wide circuit around the stump, stepping, disdainful, over its broken pieces. He stopped and looked over his men, his eyes glittering.
“Everything of value is to be taken.” The King of Hatti's voice carried across the square, echoing over the soldiers and down into the city. “Every animal, every store of provisions, every bolt of material, every hoarded ingot of gold and silver. Spare only the image of the goddess herself. You will leave them nothing but the stones we stand upon. If anyone resists, put them to the sword, be it man, woman or child. By my command, you will show Kadesh no mercy.”
The pleas began, quiet at first, soon escalating to desperate wails as the soldiers stripped the nobles of their gold, jewels, and embroidered tunics. Some of the women were left wearing nothing, their thin frames and slack skin exposed for all to see. Several of the soldiers laughed, mocking them. Urhi-Teshub shook his head, glaring at them, disgusted.
His father turned his attention to Amunira, Kadesh's king, and gestured for Urhi-Teshub to join him.
“Prince of Hatti,” his father began as Urhi-Teshub navigated his way around the broken remains of Seti's stela, “how shall we punish our disloyal vassal? Think well, for one day you shall be Hatti's king, and the lessons you learn today will be of great value to you then.”
Urhi-Teshub caught the vindictive glint in his father's eye. He would not do his father's dirty work for him.
“My lord king and father,” he answered, choosing his words with care, “you have taken all Kadesh has left to be taken after having endured a long siege. There is nothing left to them now save their lives.”
His father smiled, cold, as he pulled his daggers from their sheaths. “Shall we take their lives as well, my son?”
Urhi-Teshub looked at Amunira, stripped of his finery, waiting, stoic. Behind him, his queen, Azfara, stood wearing only a thin linen shift. A beautiful woman. Her gaze met his, pleading. He turned his attention back to Amunira, trying to gauge the man, his worth as a king. Amunira met his eyes, courageous, honorable, ready to die.
Urhi-Teshub recognized in him the many qualities lacking in his father. Here stood a good and noble king who had suffered much, who had been forced to make a terrible choice to protect his people. Urhi-Teshub would not sacrifice this man just to gain his father's approval. A thought crossed his mind.
“Is there not another way?” he asked, his eyes on Amunira. “To kill them would only give rise to a new nobility, perhaps ones chosen by Pharaoh Seti. We have the perfect opportunity to ensure King Amunira's continued obedience, despite his treachery of having allied himself to Egypt.”
A soft hiss filled the quiet as his father slid one of his daggers back into its sheath. A creak of sun warmed leather followed as he rested his hand on the dagger's pommel. “I am listening.”
A flicker of gratitude flared in Amunira's eyes. Urhi-Teshub ignored him. “Hostages,” he said, gesturing along the line of nobles. “Just as Lord Hattusilis takes the Kaskan children from the conquered tribes, let us take these children with us to Tarhuntassa to educate under your command. Once they are grown, send them back to Kadesh to serve as your loyal administrators.”
His father rubbed the pommel of the other dagger against his jaw, its fluted edge rasping against his stubble as he looked over the children among the nobles, unimpressed. His gaze moved to one of the young women standing near the queen, stopping to linger on the faint curves of her body. He nodded at her. Urhi-Teshub turned. A little girl, a pretty, dark-haired thing, peeked out from behind the woman's shift.
His father pointed his dagger at her. “The girl,” he said, his voice taut. “Bring her to me.”
With a cry, Azfara rushed over to the child and put her behind her, out of his sight. “Your Majesty,” she pleaded, her face tight with fear, “I beg you, not her.”
“Ah, the desperate look of a mother,” his father smiled, slow. “So, I have flushed out Amunira's brat.”
Before Azfara could answer, the young woman who had first hidden the child brushed past Azfara as though the queen were of no consequence.
“Your Highness, of what use is a child?” she asked, soft and enticing, bowing low. “Such a burden. Let me offer myself to you instead. I am Lady Rhoha, sister of King Amunira. Allow me to devote my life to your pleasure as your concubine.”
Urhi-Teshub looked from his father to the woman, who could be no more than twenty. Even in her diminished state, there was no doubt the woman knew her beauty was astonishing. With a few weeks of feeding, her body would once more be ripe and full, ready to give great pleasure. Her thick, dark brown hair fell to her waist in rolling waves, unbound without its jewels. Dark and sultry, she would be a match for any of his father's most exotic concubines. She licked her lips, slow, seductive. Urhi-Teshub raised his brow. Was she trying to seduce his father here?
“I have concubines enough,” his father grunted. “The girl, Urhi-Teshub.”
Rhoha opened her shift, exposing the curve of her perfect breasts. She stepped toward his father, her eyes wide and trusting. “Then, instead of the child,” she breathed, “take my life. To be killed by one's king—a god—there can be no greater end.”
His father narrowed his eyes. “You dare try to divert me? You are no one, worthless. Beware I do not send both you and the child to the gods today.” He shoved her aside, pointing once more at the girl. “I will not ask again. Bring me Amunira's child. She will be the price for Kadesh's crimes. My blade awaits.”
Her eyes bright with tears, Azfara clung to the child, her knuckles whitening, shaking her head, defiant.
“Lord King of Hatti,” Amunira cried out, his voice ringing across the square, “it was I who opened the gates. I knelt before Pharaoh Seti. If it is blood you seek, take mine. The child is innocent.”
An ominous silence fell, in the midst of it, footsteps approached.
“Brother,” Hattusilis murmured as he approached, his voice, as always, soothing, reasonable, “none doubt your judgment against Kadesh. But, if you kill the child, how could you hope to retain the loyalty of this kingdom? As soon as we leave, Kadesh will rally once more to Egypt.”
“Instead, let us expand on the prince's suggestion,” Hattusilis continued. “Take this child, along with these others to Tarhuntassa, as hostages. So long as Kadesh remains loyal to you, Amunira's daughter will live.”
A long silence stretched. Urhi-Teshub could hear the girl's shallow breathing, hidden behind her mother's shift. He hoped his father would see sense. He wanted no part in the murder of a little girl.
His father grunted. “You speak sense as usual, Brother, but my blade will taste blood this day. Who will stand in her place, since my son has convinced me to spare the king?”
“Take Queen Azfara,” Hattusilis answered without even a heartbeat's hesitation. “Forbid Amunira on pain of his child's death, from taking another wife. Then you shall hold the only heir of Kadesh in your hands to be raised as you see fit. When she is of age, marry her to a man who is loyal to you, and through her he shall be king, guaranteeing Kadesh's continued loyalty to your throne.”
His father scratched his chin with the dagger's pommel, his gaze on the queen. “The woman will have to suffice,” he sniffed. “Urhi-Teshub, bring her to me.”
Reluctant, Urhi-Teshub took hold of Azfara's arm. She shook him off and knelt beside her daughter.
“Istara, my love,” she said, her voice shaking, “because the Egyptians came into Kadesh, Ama must go to the gods. Be a good child. Learn your lessons, and be faithful to Baalat. When I am gone, she will watch over you. Never forget I love you.”
Urhi-Teshub sensed his father's impatience. He took hold of Azfara's arm once more. She rose, trembling in his grip. Confused, Istara looked from her mother to his father, who flexed his fingers on his dagger's hilt. Comprehension, then horror, filled her eyes. Urhi-Teshub couldn't bear it. He looked back at Hattusilis, desperate for his intervention. His uncle shot him a cold, warning look. He had to sacrifice the mother to save the child. Urhi-Teshub felt sick. It was enough to take everything in the city. There was no need for blood, either of children or of queens.
Istara fell to her knees, sobbing. Her little hands clung, desperate, to her mother's shift. “Ama, don't go. Ama stay . . . Ama . . .”
Azfara shuddered and shook her head, pulling against Urhi-Teshub, trying to free herself. All around him, noblewomen erupted into wails, begging for mercy. Lady Rhoha sank to her knees, prostrating herself, clutching his father's feet, kissing them, pleading with him to take her life instead. He kicked her aside, his face dark with anger, bellowing for someone to get rid of the girl.
Soldiers rushed forward. Urhi-Teshub pushed in front of them. They would not have her, not like this. They fell back. Sick with guilt, he let go of Azfara and took hold of Istara's shoulders. Screaming for her mother, she fought him, the material of Azfara's shift tearing free in her fingers. He tightened his grip, cursing, frustrated. She was strong, like a wild piglet. He pinned her between his legs, forcing her to hold still, holding her head in his hands, turned away, so she would not see what was to come.
Amunira took hold of Azfara. “Had I not allowed the Egyptians in,” he spat, clutching his wife against him, protective, “you would have arrived today to a city of rotting corpses, of no use to Hatti. If it is blood payment you seek, take my life, as accorded by law. As is right!”
“Enough!” Urhi-Teshub's father bellowed, furious. “It matters not what you bleat at me. If you had had enough faith, the gods would have protected you.”
He drove his dagger into Azfara's back, twisting the blade, vicious. Her eyes widened. She juddered, her legs giving out as he yanked the dagger free. Blood and gore splattered onto his chest. She cried out, a high, thin wail. Amunira scrabbled to hang on to her, even as she slid to the ground, already dead.
The child thrashed, crying out for her mother, frantic. Urhi-Teshub tightened his hold. He couldn't let her see. There was blood everywhere, pumping out of Azfara in massive gouts. Istara's teeth clamped onto his finger. She bit him, hard. He swore and shook himself free. No more. It was enough.
He picked her up and pressed her face against his chest. The place stank of hot blood and fear, reminding him of temple sacrifices. Men and women wailed, their cries escalating, spreading across the square, their horror washing over the city, filling the air with grief. Ignoring his father's shout to remain, Urhi-Teshub left, stumbling over the broken stela fragments in his haste to get Istara away.
His father shouted again, furious. Urhi-Teshub pressed on, determined, knowing he would pay dearly for his disobedience as he continued to stride past the soldiers in the square, past the market stalls and lanes and down through the city, Istara's small fists beating against his chest.
He did not stop until he came to the river outside the city's walls. Setting her down on the riverbank, he dipped his hands in the cool water and cleaned the dried blood from his finger. Cupping some water in his hands, he brought it up to her lips and offered her a drink.
She looked up at him, fearful, her face swollen and blotchy. She hiccupped. A tear, stuck to her eyelashes, slipped free. His heart ached for her. At times, he hated his father. What he had done today, out of vengeance for Amurru was unforgivable. For the hundredth time, Urhi-Teshub vowed to be a better king than his father. He would start by taking responsibility for this little waif on the march home, watching over her until she was safe in Tarhuntassa.
He waited, patient, as the water trickled out between his fingers. Istara licked her lips. She had to be thirsty. Heat radiated from the hard-packed earth, broiling hot. He lifted his hands closer and nodded at her, encouraging her. Her eyes never leaving his, she leaned forward, slow, and sipped, wary, a lamb before a wolf.
“Brace yourself,” Urhi-Teshub warned just before one of his chariot's wheels dropped into a deep rut.
Istara tightened her grip on the box's edge, staggering as the box tilted at a steep angle. She felt Urhi-Teshub press his thigh against her back, steadying her.
“Soon we will be in Tarhuntassa,” he said, as he shifted his weight and steered the horses around a boulder. “Once we arrive, you will be taken to the nursery along with the rest of the children from Kadesh.”
“I know,” Istara murmured, keeping her eyes open for more ruts.
Urhi-Teshub guided the horses along the rocky stretch, the lean muscles in his arms shifting and flexing as he called to them with encouraging words, low and reassuring. Once clear of the rough patch, he continued, “As soon as I am able, I will go to my stepmother, the queen and ask her to look out for you. She raised me after my mother died. She is a kind woman and will be good to you.”
Istara knew he meant to offer comfort, but there could be no other mother for her than her own. And now she was gone, living in the immortal realm with Baalat. The first night they left Kadesh, Istara dreamed of her mother holding her, telling her stories and kissing the top of her head like she used to do. It felt real. But it wasn't.
As those first long iters passed under the horses' hooves, Istara had grieved for the loss of her parents, her home, and her new pony. Urhi-Teshub never said anything, but she knew from the way he looked at her it made him sad. Those evenings, he would give her extra rations at dinner and hold her up so she could brush his horses' manes. One night, not long after they left, he gave her a little carved horse he had made while she slept. She called it Kuma and kept it with her always. It helped to take the hurt away, a little.
Urhi-Teshub leaned back on the reins, slowing the horses. “Quick," he said, tilting his head toward the horizon, “before we descend into the valley, look to the west. There is Tarhuntassa.”
She peered over the box's edge through the gap between the hills. In the distance, thick, towering walls circled a vast city atop an enormous plateau. At its furthest end, the walls of a smaller city rose. The royal enclave. She stared at it. The enclave was massive, bigger than the whole of Kadesh. A gleam within the royal citadel caught her eye. Curious, she looked up at Urhi-Teshub.
“What is the shining light?”
Without troubling to conceal his pride, he answered, “It is the pillar in the central court of the Temple of the Storm God, Teshub, for whom I am named.” Urhi-Teshub smiled, a rare thing. “My father, who represents the sun, had it covered in panels of gold. When the sun's light strikes it, it is a beacon for all to see, to remind them they look upon the home of Hatti's king, The Sun.”
She gazed at the shining pillar, transfixed, watching it sparkle and gleam as it caught the light. “It is like nothing I have ever seen,” she whispered, filled with awe.
“Tarhuntassa is beautiful,” Urhi-Teshub said, still smiling. “The royal gardens bloom with colorful flowers carried from Babylon, and the palace's floors are laid with marble, shipped from the island quarries of Ahhiyawa. Even on the hottest day, marble remains cool to the touch and is so smooth you can slide across a whole room without stopping. I expect you to try at least once.”
Istara mouthed the strange, new word. Marble. Did he really mean it when he said she could slide across the floor? She peeked up and caught him watching her, indulgent. Embarrassed, she focused her attention on the beam of light. They descended into another valley, and the vast city with its glittering pillar sank beneath the horizon as if its wonders had been nothing more than a figment of her imagination.
As they descended deeper into the valley, shadows closed over them, reigniting within Istara a familiar feeling of gloom. Soon she would live in an enormous place, alone, among thousands, with no one to care about her. King Muwatallis, or, rather, The Sun, drove in front of them in somber silence. From what she had overheard in the camp, missing the opportunity to confront the Egyptians had been a humiliating blow, one he never intended to let happen again.
She studied Hatti's king. He leaned back against his reins, slowing his horses for the descent down another steep slope, the powerful muscles in his back and shoulders rippling. She had managed to stay clear of him for most of the march, but there was one evening, halfway through as she ate her evening meal with Urhi-Teshub, Muwatallis had arrived, accompanied by four of his bodyguard, the intimidating, spear wielding, Mesedi.
That night, the King of Hatti had accepted a cup of wine from his son and seated himself upon a stool, his elbows on his knees. They spoke of mundane things like Hattusilis's lame horse, and Urhi-Teshub's next campaign in the north. Her appetite gone, she crept back from the fire, watching him, wary, waiting for him to turn on her.
He had never looked at her once. All she had seen was a father talking to his son. They talked long into the night. Despite her fear, sleepiness overcame her. She curled up, shivering, near the horses, too afraid to go back to the fire, dozing until the warmth of a thick blanket settled over her. She roused, expecting to see Urhi-Teshub's kind eyes, but instead found those of the man who killed her mother eyeing her, troubled. She turned her face to the ground, terror clawing at her. He was going to kill her now too, she was sure of it.
“Asuru, my love,” the King of Hatti murmured, “I beg you, cease. I can feel your anger condemning me all the way from the immortal realm. I swear I will remedy this wrong. The child will not suffer for what I have done.”
His words made no sense. Istara had held her breath, waiting for the hiss of his dagger leaving its sheath, instead, with a creak of leather, he was gone.
Urhi-Teshub carried her back to the fire and lay her head on his lap. He stroked her hair, his calloused fingers gentle and soothing, calming her. Warmed by the heat of the fire, she slept and dreamed of home, reliving the lost days when she had been safe and happy.
A horse whinnied, startling Istara. She blinked, returning to the present. She glanced again at Muwatallis. Once in Tarhuntassa, lost in the vast grounds of the royal citadel, she expected it would be easy to keep her distance from him. Perhaps if she was fortunate, she would never need to see him again.
She stole a look at Urhi-Teshub, her protector and at times maybe even her friend. Soon he would leave her among strangers. Her chest tightened, the thought of losing him suddenly unbearable.
“Will you come and visit me?” she blurted out.
“Whenever I am in Tarhuntassa, I will,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. “But I must return to my uncle's city of Hakpis where I live. Together with my uncle's armies, I have been campaigning to regain the lands lost to the Kaskans.” His eyes darkened, and his jaw jutted out a little, betraying a stubborn streak Istara had come to recognize. “They are heathens and have desecrated the holy city of Nerik. I have sworn an oath to Teshub I will not rest until Nerik is his once more.”
“How long will that take?” Istara asked.
“Years.” Urhi-Teshub sighed. “It is an endless war; we have been fighting to reclaim Nerik ever since my great-grandfather, Suppiluliuma II was the king.”
“Oh.” Istara looked down at her feet, disappointment flooding her.
“If you like, I will write to you,” he offered.
“I don't know how to read,” she murmured, ashamed.
“A scribe could read my letters to you,” he suggested.
“No. I want to read them myself,” she answered, determined, “and I want to be able to write too, so I can write you back.”
“Then you shall learn to read and write,” Urhi-Teshub said, decisive. “I will see to it. This much at least I am able to do.” He pointed at a wide road, paved smooth with flagged stones rising up out of the valley floor. It snaked away between the hills into the distance. A pair of towering statues depicting a strange god flanked either side of it, just where the road began. “Finally,” he said. “The royal road. At last.”
It took most of the rest of the afternoon to cross the remaining iters to Tarhuntassa and to complete the long, winding climb uphill to its gates. Horns had been blaring from the city's walls for more than an hour, announcing the arrival of the king's army. Atop the final turn, Istara discovered a multitude waiting, cheering and crying out the king's name.
Movement along the ramparts caught Istara's eye. She gaped. Chariots?
“You might want to close your mouth,” Urhi-Teshub chuckled, “else the flies will get in.”
Istara pressed her lips together but kept watching, fascinated. Driving two abreast, the chariots' outer wheels almost touched the ramparts' edge. A deafening blast of horns erupted. Urhi-Teshub nudged her with his knee and nodded at the gate. The vast wooden doors opened, splitting the metalwork sunburst covering its surface in two, its spikes, huge, sharp and forbidding, the sight of it both beautiful and terrifying.
Up they went into the city, along its winding streets toward the citadel walls, past temples, bazaars, residences, parks, squares, horse markets, stables, garrisons, and arenas. Wide-eyed, Istara clung to the top of the chariot gazing at the people thronging the streets and squares, filling every doorway, leaning out of windows, balconies and roof gardens. Flowers of every color and size drifted down from above, turning the floor of the chariot into a soft, scented carpet.
As they drew close to the royal citadel's gates, they passed an elegant villa, its terrace shaded by potted palms. Colorful hanging linens billowed around its edges, caught in the late summer breeze. Young women, all of them breathtaking, called out to Urhi-Teshub, their sun-bronzed breasts draped in gold and gems.
He smiled up at them. Singling out the most beautiful one by name, he asked if she would join him at the feast. Her lips curved, seductive, as she threw him a rose, dark red, its petals soft. It landed in the chariot beside his feet. Istara picked it up and inhaled its rich, enticing scent. She held it up to him.
“The lady gave you this.”
A look of pleasure crossed his face. “Save that one for me, little one. I will keep it with me when I go north.”
She watched him, curious, as he smiled to himself. “Do you love that lady?”
“Love?” He raised a brow, considering. “No, but I do like her very much.”
Istara looked back at the woman, who could be no more than twenty, watching Urhi-Teshub, her eyes filled with longing. Istara thought she looked kind.
“Do you think she could be my friend, while you are away?” she asked.
He burst out laughing. Her cheeks burning, Istara hunched into herself, understanding enough to know she had said something foolish.
“I would not advise it,” he said, still chuckling. “She is not a lady, but a whore.”
Surprised, Istara turned around and inspected the woman. “But she is so pretty and clean,” she said, disbelieving him, thinking he must be teasing her. “I thought whores were dirty and ugly—at least that is what my nurse told me.”
“Most are, it is true,” Urhi-Teshub conceded. “But these women are courtesans, trained in the art of love and owned by no man. Courtesans are beautiful, skilled and very rich. The wealthy compete for their attention, sending gifts to entice them. Tonight will cost me much, but it will be worth it.”
Istara looked at the rose in her hand and hoped she understood. “So the rose means she chose you?”
“It does.” He smiled, his eyes unfocusing. “And tonight I shall be the envy of all men, for Adar is the most coveted of them all.” Calling to his horses with a happy shout, he brought them to a trot, guiding them through the gate into the glittering splendor of the royal city, Istara's new home.
Three long, lonely weeks had passed in the harem's nursery before Istara was summoned to the queen's residence. She looked around, wide-eyed, at the opulence of the Queen of Hatti's vast reception room. Cushioned divans and potted palms encircled huge, colorfully-painted pillars. High above, even the ceiling bore painted scenes of gardens and exotic birds. Istara wondered how they did it. She would have to ask Urhi-Teshub, he would know the answer. He knew a lot of things.
Around the room's edges, pink, blue, and purple-dyed linen hangings created little alcoves. Within them, Istara glimpsed beautiful women reclining, their heads and necks laden in jewels, watching her, whispering behind their feathered fans.
Beneath her feet, a gleaming floor of polished marble. It was the first time she had seen it. Urhi-Teshub was right; it was slippery. So much nicer than flagged stone. A little part of her longed to see how far she could slide across it.
On the dais, an empty chair gilt in gold waited, a thin blue cushion on its seat. Two of the queen's royal guard flanked it, standing still as statues, their leather armor embossed with gold. A door in the dais's paneled wall opened. The women in the room came to their feet, then sank to their knees, the whisper of their gowns soft against the marble.
Istara knelt, her heart pounding. She had no idea what to expect, nothing here could be compared to home. Her mother hadn't had her own reception room with divans and guards and a chair gilt in gold. Tarhuntassa was another world, exotic and strange, filled with complicated hierarchies and power, even in the harem's nursery.
A heavy rustle of material swept past. Istara peeked up. Tanu-Hepa, twice-crowned queen of the empire of Hatti, wore a draped gown of pure white, edged in gold thread. An intricate filigreed crown had been woven into her dark hair, and a fortune of gems and gold glittered on her throat, arms and fingers. She processed to her chair and waited as her attendants arranged her gown so she could sit. Another attendant came forward carrying a footstool, also gilt with gold. Istara stared as the attendant lifted the queen's feet onto it, even her sandals were made of gold.
Tanu-Hepa raised her hand, languid, and beckoned Istara forward. Trembling, Istara came to her feet and moved to the bottom step of the dais, feeling as though she were in the presence of a goddess.
“Welcome, Princess Istara of Kadesh, to the Court of the Sun,” Tanu-Hepa said, her voice melodious and refined. “The crown prince has spoken to me of you, and the king has decreed you will live with me, here in my residence.”
Istara gaped. She was going to live here? She thought she was going to have to live in that horrible, hateful nursery forever, where babies were always crying, and she had to share a pallet with two other children, who kicked her in their sleep.
At a nod from the queen, one of the noblewomen came forward, smiling, and held out her hand to Istara, to take her away. The noblewoman's gown and jewels far outranked anything Istara's mother had owned.
Shy, Istara shuffled backward and bumped into the guard who had brought her from the nursery. Soft ripples of amused laughter drifted through the room, but she didn't care. They could laugh as much as they wanted, all that mattered to Istara was she would never have to go back to the nursery again. She took the hand of the noblewoman, silently vowing never to forget what Urhi-Teshub had done for her. Ever.
Istara watched, fascinated, as Hatti's queen prepared a platter from two of the trays on the table and passed it to her steward. He placed it before Istara with a flourish.
Istara looked at the golden platter, piled with creamy morsels of roast calf glistening in its juices. A compote of apples and raisins, spiced with cinnamon and honey, sat at its side, waited to be mixed into the meat. Her mouth watered. She looked up and caught Tanu-Hepa's indulgent look.
“Eat,” she said, nodding at Istara's platter, “before it gets cold, but do leave a little room for the sweet. We shall have my favorite, specially made for your arrival, honeyed almond cake.”
Istara ate. The meat was so tender, it melted in her mouth. Not like the gristly bits of dried meat she had had to gnaw on at the nursery. She ate all of the compote. Cinnamon was her favorite, she usually only tasted that rare and expensive spice on her year day. She couldn't imagine the impossible luxury of having cinnamon every day. She wondered what honeyed almond cake would taste like. She hoped she would like it so she wouldn't have to disappoint the kind and gentle queen.
She didn't need to worry, though she wished she hadn't eaten all the compote. Now she would struggle to finish her cake. It was so perfect she could almost cry. Then she felt guilty. How could she enjoy her food—how could she enjoy anything—after what had happened to her mother? She put her cake down and pushed her platter away.
Tanu-Hepa set aside her wine. “Is something wrong with the cake?”
Istara looked down at her hands, sticky with honey. “No,” she said, quiet. “The cake is very nice, but I feel bad eating it.”
Istara shook her head. She didn't want to answer.
Tanu-Hepa lifted a clean napkin from the table and dipped it into a bowl of warmed rose water. She knelt beside Istara and ran the damp cloth over each of Istara's fingers, one by one, until all the honey was gone. Istara watched her, thinking of how her mother used to do the same. She pressed her lips together, suddenly missing her mother so much her throat ached. She wouldn't cry in front of the queen. She couldn't. Tanu-Hepa set the napkin aside.
“Urhi-Teshub has told me all,” she said, brushing back a strand of Istara's hair, just like Ama used to do. “My heart aches for you, to have lost your mother while still so young.”
Istara struggled to fight the flood of memories. The heat of the square. Her mother's high, thin cry as Muwatallis stabbed her. The sharp metallic scent of her blood. Her father's hollow, shocked voice, calling her mother's name over and over. She caught Tanu-Hepa gazing at her, the queen's gentle eyes glistening with tears.
Istara crumpled. She sobbed her mother's name, begging it to all be a bad dream. With a low cry, Tanu-Hepa pulled Istara into her lap and rocked her back and forth, holding her, murmuring nonsense words of reassurance into her hair, just like Ama used to do. Unable to do anything else, Istara clung to the Queen of Hatti and wept.
It was a long time before Istara felt calmer. She hiccupped and looked up at Tanu-Hepa, shy. Brushing her own tears away, the queen rose and held out her hand. Istara took it and followed Tanu-Hepa onto a balcony overlooking a torchlit garden. After a long while, the queen sighed.
“I will never be able to replace your mother,” she said, “but if you give me the chance to care for you, I will try to make your life as comfortable as possible in Tarhuntassa. You have lost your mother, and I have lost a son. I think we could find comfort in each other's company.”
Within the garden, pairs of women dressed in white floated little boats bearing flowers and burning lamps onto the waters of the pools, creating little islands of light. It was very beautiful, but it only made Istara feel worse. They didn't have lamp boats in Kadesh. Was nothing here going be familiar? She looked up at Tanu-Hepa.
“Who is Asuru?” she asked, suddenly needing to understand Muwatallis's vow to remedy his wrong, made the night he joined Urhi-Teshub by his campfire.
A look of anguish sliced across Tanu-Hepa's face. She closed her eyes and shook her head. Istara felt terrible. How could she know her question would hurt the queen?
Tanu-Hepa brushed a fresh tear from her eye and gave Istara a watery smile. “I can see you will keep me on my toes,” she said, though not unkindly. “Asuru is Urhi-Teshub's birth mother. When he was born, there was a terrible winter storm. Prince Muwatallis was alone with Asuru when things went wrong. She died, and he had to cut her open to save Urhi-Teshub. Muwatallis has never been the same since then . . . Asuru was the love of his life.”
Istara shook her head. Poor Urhi-Teshub, he lost his mother before he ever knew her. Somehow knowing he had lost his mother too made her feel less alone. Maybe that was why he had protected her. She thought of Muwatallis and wondered if he had agreed to Urhi-Teshub's request to move her out of the nursery to the queen's palace because of his promise to Asuru. Istara shook her head. It didn't matter. She still hated Hatti's king for what he had done. Nothing he did could ever make things better, not even living with the Queen of Hatti and having cinnamon every single day for the rest of her life.
Alone in a pillared pavilion, its indigo-dyed linens drifting around her, Istara sat cross-legged upon a divan. Her tongue between her teeth, she concentrated on pressing her stylus against her wax tablet. Careful not to smudge her work, she turned her hand to complete the last stroke of one of the more difficult letters. A piercing cry startled her, sending her stylus slicing across the wax.
She looked up, irritated. A peacock processed along the crushed gravel path, his tail feathers dragging behind him, rustling against the pebbles. She looked back down at her tablet, despairing, all her effort for her tutor, ruined. Resigned, she lay the tablet in a patch of sunlight to let the wax soften, so she could smooth it over and begin again.
Leaning back against the thick cushions of the divan, she gazed up at the hangings moving in the soft spring breeze, watching how they filtered the sunlight. She stretched, thinking of the evening ahead. Today marked her year day, and Tanu-Hepa had promised her a treat at dinner. Istara wondered for the twentieth time what it would be. She hoped it would be honeyed almond cake, her favorite.
“You are hard to find.”
Istara sat up, searching through the rippling hangings, her heart in her throat. It couldn't be. A young man stepped into view, just outside the pavilion.
With a cry, she lunged from the divan and barreled into his waiting arms.
“Hello little one,” he said, laughing as she danced around him with delight. “The queen tells me I have returned home just in time for someone's year day. So tell me, what year are we celebrating? You look about ten.”
She giggled, pleased he thought she was older. “No. I'm only nine. But, I have almost mastered writing the whole alphabet. I could have shown you my work, but a peacock came by and ruined it.”
“Did he now?”
She caught his mocking smile and laughed, realizing how silly she must have sounded. “He did. Look there he is, behaving as though he is innocent. Wait, I will prove it to you.” Picking up her tablet, she smoothed it over and began the work of writing out her name, her tongue once more escaping her lips. “There, you see. Now I will write your name.”
She handed him her tablet, proud of her work; she had done everything right. She waited. He nodded, impressed. “You learn fast. What about my letters, have you been able to read any of them yet?”
“Yes, all of them, I mastered reading before the winter solstice passed. Is it really true so much snow fell last winter it was as high as your chest?”
“It is,” Urhi-Teshub frowned, “and I hope never to have to experience such a thing again.”
Taking the tablet back from him, she hugged it to her chest, inspecting him. “You have grown taller,” she said as she looked him over, “and your chest is bigger too. Is that a new sword?”
“Not very.” He reached over his shoulder and pulled the sword free, holding it up with both hands, the muscles in his arms flexing. “I have had it for almost a year now,” he said, showing off a little with it, slicing it through the air, “a powerful weapon. I have felled many a Kaskan with this blade.”
“So you are winning,” Istara smiled, her hopes igniting.
“We are making progress,” he answered, wry, as he slid the sword back into its scabbard.
“How long will you stay?” she asked, hoping it would be more than a day or two.
“Uncle wished to return to make offerings to Teshub at the festival,” Urhi-Teshub replied, crossing his arms over his chest, eyeing one of the courtesans processing along the path, “and to seek the omens before we push further north. Once the rituals are complete, we will depart.”
“A week then, at least,” Istara twirled, pleased. “Will you see Adar while you are here?”
“Who?” he asked, glancing at the peacock as it fanned out its tail feathers, their jeweled colors iridescent in the sunlight.
“Adar, the courtesan who gave you the red rose the day we arrived from Kadesh.”
“What a memory you have!” he laughed, tousling her hair. “That was what? Almost two years ago, and still you think of it?”
“She was very pretty,” Istara shrugged, “and you liked her. I just thought you would want to see her again.”
“Little heart, I am a warrior, women come and go,” Urhi-Teshub said, shaking his head, his gaze straying once more to the courtesan, who behaved as though she could not see him. “Adar is just one of many. In truth, I had forgotten about her. Now come, gather up your things. I have a present for you, carried back in a basket with me from the north. I would like to give it to you before I must go to the temple.”
Curiosity overwhelming her, Istara followed Urhi-Teshub into a dimly lit storage room piled high with sacks of grain, right at the back of the royal stables. In the middle of the floor, set upon a blanket, a closed basket waited.
Urhi-Teshub knelt and unlaced its ties. Cautious, he lifted the lid and reached in to gather up something small and wriggling. He turned, his eyes warm, and held it out to her.
“She was birthed from one of my own bitches,” he said, smiling at her. “The smallest and weakest are usually drowned since they will not be fit for hunting. But there was something about this one which reminded me of you. So I kept her, in the hopes you would take her as your own. Will you have her?”
“Yes! Oh yes!” Istara cried out, overcome with joy. “I will keep her by my side, always. Now I won't be lonely anymore.” Her eyes filled with tears, she couldn't see the puppy, but it didn't matter, she was so happy. She hugged the little, wiggling bundle of life, feeling her tears escaping. The puppy licked them. She laughed, hiccupping, filled with delight. “This is the best day of my life so far in Tarhuntassa.”
Urhi-Teshub said nothing. He bowed his head and turned away, busying himself with packing up the basket. The little brown pup, warm and solid, wriggled in her arms and tried to lick her some more. She lifted its face up to hers and kissed its soft nose.
“Your name shall be Anash,” she whispered, “for happiness, because now, I am happy again.”
City of Tarhuntassa, Summer. Reign of Muwatallis, Year 12
Urhi-Teshub pushed away his morning meal, his appetite gone. “I will not do it,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. “I cannot. Even the thought of it makes me sick. I am nineteen, Istara is eleven, a child in mind and body and like a sister to me.”
His father motioned for the steward to bring more mead. He waited until the cups had been filled and the steward had withdrawn before responding. “Perhaps now you understand what I suffered being forced to marry my own stepmother.” He toyed with the stem of his wine cup, his lips turned downward. “It is no lie I cannot stand the sight of Tanu-Hepa. But for you it is not the same.”
“You are right. It is not the same,” Urhi-Teshub answered, tight. “Tanu-Hepa was eighteen, of equal age to you when grandfather married her to provide Hatti with a high priestess, her only purpose. He did not even allow her to live in the queen's palace.”
“Yet, he knew her,” his father replied, cold, “knowing he would force his son to marry her, knew her, and they had a child.”
“The child died,” Urhi-Teshub muttered, exasperated by his father's determination to make everything about himself, “and all know he never touched her again.”
Over his raised cup, his father glared at him. “Why do you defend her? She is not your mother. Asuru is your mother.”
“Tanu-Hepa is the only mother I have ever known,” Urhi-Teshub said, feeling his temper beginning to rise, “and despite all she has suffered for Hatti, she has remained a kind and good woman. Even after you banished Lubarna to Hakpis, she loves you still.”
His father eyed him, indifferent. “Just one time I had her,” he muttered as he finished his meal. “I don't even remember it. Now I am burdened with her brat, but with Lubarna under your uncle's influence, the loyalists have been silenced and—don't look at me like that, you ingrate—I did it for you, to protect your inheritance to the throne. Enough of this. I expected you to be pleased with my decision for you to marry Istara since it is no secret how fond you are of her.”
“As a sis—”
“Enough.” His father tossed his napkin on the table and rose to his feet. “It is my command. Kadesh is too valuable to give to anyone else. I swore to Asuru I would make it right, and this is how it shall be done.”
“By forcing your son to marry his near-sister?” Urhi-Teshub snapped, bitter.
“Before you return north,” his father continued as he dipped his hands in a bowl of warmed water, ignoring Urhi-Teshub's question, “you will mix your blood before the altar of Arinna and seal your bond before the gods. None shall be able to break it.”
“And I have no choice but to obey,” Urhi-Teshub scoffed, eyeing his father, filled with hate. He leaned forward, his body vibrating with suppressed rage. “But in one matter you will have no power over me. I refuse to complete the bond with her until she is a woman, and even then, it will sicken me to take her to my bed. In this union, there can be no joy for me.”
“You may thank me yet,” his father said, waving away Urhi-Teshub's words as he took up a linen towel and dried his hands. “In a few years, when Istara has matured, I suspect you will be more than willing to take her to your bed. Her mother, as I recall, was astonishing.”
Urhi-Teshub stared at his father, incredulous. “Do you not hear me? I will never thank you for this. Never. It is sick. No matter how much she matures, I will only ever see in Istara the broken-hearted, weeping child I carried away from Kadesh's square, the one who wet her blanket the first three nights of our march home.” He leaned forward, angry, his words accusing. “The one I washed clean in the river in the dead of the night since there was no one else I could trust to do it.”
“Go,” his father shouted, pointing at the door. “Spend your time fighting for Nerik. When you return, a woman will be standing in the child's place. Tell me then you do not thank me. I can wait for your apology.” He tossed the towel at a servant and stalked out, leaving Urhi-Teshub sitting alone at the table, furious and humiliated.
Urhi-Teshub slammed his fist against the table, bellowing the foulest curse he knew. He shoved his chair away from the table. Unseeing, he strode through his father's apartments, blinded by his anger and powerlessness. He plunged out the main doors into the crowded corridors of the palace, sending courtiers and servants scuttling to make space for him.
Istara was a sister to him, a child. An image, unwelcome and unbidden, flashed across his mind, of him taking her, the child, to his bed. Bile, bitter and burning hot, rose in his throat. He pushed his way into a garden, vomiting his morning meal onto a rose bush, uncaring of who saw.
Rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth, he watched the rose petals shrivel, blackened by the acid of his stomach. He recalled Istara's favorite flowers were roses. He turned. It was the only rose bush in the garden. Of all the places he could have been sick, it had to be here. A bad omen.
Gardeners came running, their heads bowed, and hurried to clean the mess before the king passed by. He left them to their work and headed for the training grounds. He longed for the familiar feel of his sword in his hands, and the deep ache in his muscles after a lengthy afternoon of sparring. His father might be able to force him to bind with Istara, but this much he could control—he would never touch her. Ever.
Istara gazed at her reflection in Tanu-Hepa's bronze mirror, admiring her new gown. It fell from her shoulders in elegant folds. White as winter snow, the linen had been woven with gold and silver threads, falling like rain from her shoulder to the hem. She turned, watching the material as it shimmered, catching in the torchlight. She smiled. The queen had ordered a gown for a woman, not a child. Istara's eyes had been made up, enhancing them, and a touch of color had been applied to her lips. A gold collar lay around her neck, and wide, jeweled cuffs encircled her wrists and upper arms. She could almost see the woman she was going to become in her reflection. She looked up at Tanu-Hepa standing behind her, her hands on her shoulders, a smile on her lips.
“Are you pleased?” she asked.
Istara nodded and stole another look at herself in the mirror. So pretty. She hoped Urhi-Teshub would approve of her.
“You must make certain not to get any blood on your gown in the ritual, it would be a bad omen,” Tanu-Hepa said as she straightened one of the folds at the back of Istara's gown. She glanced up and met Istara's eyes. “I have sent a message reminding Urhi-Teshub to be careful.”
Istara looked down at her right hand, feeling a faint sensation of unease, though not for the ritual. She had not seen Urhi-Teshub since his return from Hakpis almost two weeks earlier. She had waved at him from the queen's rooftop gardens. Instead of his usual pleasure at seeing her, he had turned away to speak to the men around him, and carried on walking, never once looking back. Since then, every invitation Tanu-Hepa had sent inviting him to dinner had been declined, with regrets.
Tanu-Hepa said it was to be expected, he would be busy preparing for the binding ritual, making sacrifices at the temple and offerings to Teshub to bless the marriage, but Istara wasn't as certain. Something felt different; he had seen her but looked away. She wondered if she had done something to displease him, perhaps she shouldn't have waved, it was quite childish. Soon she would know the truth, she could ask him at the feast. She bit her lip, trying to hide her smile as a thrill of joy rushed up her spine. Out of all the men she could have been forced to marry, the king had chosen her best friend, a man who could never hurt her, well, except for the part that was coming up.
“Are you afraid of the ritual?” Tanu-Hepa murmured, breaking into Istara's thoughts.
“A little. Will it be very painful?”
“It stings,” Tanu-Hepa admitted with a sigh, “but as soon as the blood is mixed, Urhi-Teshub will put soothing oils on the wound and bind it. It will be his first act of protection as your husband. You must be brave and trust him.” Tanu-Hepa's gown rustled as she knelt before Istara. “Remember, you must not pull back when he cuts your hand, it will be interpreted as a bad omen if you do. Just think of all the celebrations there will be afterward, and of how lucky you are to be betrothed to the Crown Prince of Hatti. You are fortunate, for you shall be loved.”
A gentle knock at the door signaled the time for the procession to Arinna's temple had arrived. Istara hung back, the queen's words sending a sudden bolt of dread through Istara.
“Did you pull back?” she asked, pressing her palm against her dress, trying not think about what was going to be done to it.
Tanu-Hepa brushed a tendril of hair back into Istara's golden hair band. “Yes, when I was bound to King Mursili.” Her eyes grew distant as she smiled, sad. “Only heartache followed after. No one doubts you are a brave young woman, but I will pray for you when the time comes, to give you the strength to see it through. Now. It is time. The goddess awaits.”
Tanu-Hepa rose and nodded to her guards. The doors eased back. Across the sumptuous reception room, dozens of noblewomen came to their feet dressed in beautiful gowns, their throats and arms gleaming with gold, silver, and gems. In their hands, they carried little baskets filled with rose petals. They smiled at Istara, admiring her as they passed.
Careful not to tread on the hem of her new gown, Istara followed the queen out of her opulent royal apartments into the palace gardens. The noblewomen processed along the path, weaving back and forth in an intricate, slow dance, scattering rose petals and singing the hymn of love.
Despite her apprehension, Istara tried to remember everything, how her gown shimmered in the moonlight; the sweet scent of the rose petals as she walked over them; the noblewomen's song, rising and falling, more beautiful than any she had ever heard before.
They approached the darkened Temple of Arinna, lit only by the light of the full moon. At the end of the pillared colonnade, Urhi-Teshub stood alone at the altar, waiting for her, dressed in a white tunic, his long, dark hair tied back and held in place with a golden browband. Istara's apprehension faded. She wanted to run to him, drawn by his charismatic presence like a bee to a flower, but she kept to her slow walk, her heart pounding, overwhelmed by her good fortune. The Crown Prince of Hatti looked so handsome and strong, the most bravest, noble warrior in the whole of the empire. Her heart surged with pride. Soon she would be bound to him, would one day be his wife and future queen, and no one would ever be able to take him away from her, not even the King of Hatti, no, not even the gods.
Istara looked down at her hand, upturned and vulnerable in Urhi-Teshub's firm grip. He was going to cut it, very soon. He reached over and picked up the ritual dagger. She trembled, staring at the blade's sharp edge, glinting in the moonlight. It was going to hurt, a lot.
“Istara,” Urhi-Teshub said, firm, “look at me.”
She dragged her gaze away from the thing and met his eyes. He nodded at her. She understood. She kept her eyes on his and waited. He never looked down. The blade slid across her hand, burning, stinging, hot. She bit back a cry, but held still, willing herself not to pull back.
A collective sigh rose from the shadows. She blushed, knowing she had done well. Urhi-Teshub let go of her hand. Without taking his eyes from hers, he pulled the blade across his palm and took her hand in his. Their blood mixed together, warm and slippery. He lifted their clasped hands over the silver bowl on the altar, waiting for their blood to drip out from between their palms.
Fascinated, Istara watched their blood, black in the moonlight, slide down the side of the dish. Now it was over, she felt euphoric. She looked up at Urhi-Teshub, giddy with relief. She belonged to him. In a few years, when she became a woman, the full wedding celebration would take place, and she would become not only his wife but Hatti's queen-in-waiting. But that was years away, all that mattered right now was that she was safe and would never have to fear for her future again. She watched as he tended her hand, his ministrations gentle.
He looked up at her as he finished, nodding at her, acknowledging her bravery. Istara smiled at him, but he didn't smile back. He turned away, expressionless, and bandaged his hand, cold, silent and distant.
'To write of love is to feed the flames of the soul.' E A Carter
As a writer, the passion of love fascinates
me, consumes me, and drives me to craft ever more complex stories of the
breathtaking places our hearts can take us. Stories of war, of enemies, of
boundaries, of journeys into the unknown which transcend the barriers of space
While speaking about Earth as the Pale Blue
Dot, humanity's only home against the incomprehensible immensity of the
universe, Carl Sagan once said: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is
bearable only through love.”
He's not wrong. It is unbearable. We
collapse ourselves into our lives, our thoughts, our hopes, fears, and dreams.
And love. We fill ourselves with it. Wait for it, crave it, seek it, chase it,
talk about it, dream of it, analyze it. And read it. Love. Its existence
possesses me like an anguished thing desperate for its release—to liberate
itself through my words in all its dark and beautiful glory.
In ages past, men and women have gone to war
over love, have died for love, have sacrificed everything for love. We may live
in quieter times, yet our souls still crave the magnitude of such epic,
all-engulfing passion—of heroes and near-unconquerable cities such as Troy
under siege for the sake of love. Within the innermost rooms of our hearts,
each of us longs for the scope of an all-encompassing affair which smashes
every barrier. It is the pulse of the star stuff within our souls, the seeking
of an eternal connection that defies the unbearableness of our solitariness in
a digital world which strives to separate us with every breath we take.
We know the pain love can bring, and yet we
pursue it because the unbearableness of being alone is unnatural,
unsustainable. If we must be alone, then we imagine being with the one our
heart desires. At times it is all we can have, but it can be enough. For a
It is a quiet irony the man I loved with all
my heart left me last summer for another younger, healthier woman. And yet, in
the sudden days of my solitary existence I continued to write of love. I completed
The Rise of the Goddess with a broken
heart, channeling pain and sorrow into the final book of the Transcendence series. It
turned out to be the most beautiful book of them all. Perhaps it was meant to
be, that I should lose my love to write the book as it was meant to be written.
And now, as I rise broken and battered in
the fallow fields of my loss, love has become an ugly, distorted thing. And
yet, I still dream of love, still imagine heroic feats of sacrifice, of
determination, of facing insurmountable odds and overcoming them. So my fingers
fleet over the keyboard and I escape into dark worlds, beautiful worlds, where
love is transcendent. I want to take you there. Because where there is love
there is hope, truth, salvation, bliss. And stories take us there, away from
our solitariness and into the hidden corridors of our hearts, where we find
shelter from the storm of our existence.
And so, the stories will go on. So long as
there is love, there will be stories to tell. Epic, glorious, breathtaking
stories of undying love until our souls return to the stars. And it will be
there, scattered across the heavens, as we wait for chance to tumble to the
Earth once more, we will understand the truth. We are love.
The stories have been about us all along.
E A Carter is a British-Canadian who lives in Sweden.
Her debut novel The Lost Valor of Love is the first book in the Transcendence series and a finalist winner in the First Novel and Historical Fiction categories in the 2019 Indie Author Network's Book of the Year Awards.
When not at the keyboard, she can be found photographing the world around her. Between 2014-2015 she held three exhibitions of her photographs, two by invitation from the city's Kulturhuset. Her work has been seen on national television, and her black and white photography has won two contests, one in the US and one in Sweden.