The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.
Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.
He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.
Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?
He narrowed his eyes and waited.
Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?
Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?
She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.
At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.
It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.
“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”
When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.
“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”
She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”
Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.
She made up her mind.