Avizeh had been satrap for over thirty years, ascending to the throne on the day she took a poisoned pin and stuck it in the back of her mother’s neck, killing her instantly. Avizeh had been twelve at the time.
Now, she sat in front of her mirror, examining her aging features and contemplating the fact that she was only a year older than her mother had been when she died. When she picked up her hairbrush, her hand shook. Tomorrow was her daughter Zaneib’s twelfth birthday.
A knock at the door was enough to make her jump, and she cursed herself for being a fool. There was nothing to worry about. She wore the enchantress’s talisman, kept a dagger strapped to her waist, posted guards at her door, and unlike her silly, naive mother, trusted no one. Not even her daughter.
Especially not her daughter.
Putting as much steel into her voice as she could, she said, “Who dares to interrupt me?”
The door swung open, admitting her chief attendant who bowed low. “Your majesty, the Princess Zaneib has arrived.”
“Send her in,” Avizeh said. She stood, keeping her spine as straight as the pikes her executioners used to impale their victims. She would not show fear.
Yet, despite her inner vow, her heart trembled. She was about to meet her rival face-to-face for the very first time. Never before had Avizeh seen her daughter. At the birth, she had covered her eyes, refusing to look upon the infant princess. And to drown out the heartrending sounds of the newborn’s cries as she was carried away, Avizeh had concentrated on the enchantress’s whispers in her ear. That baby is your enemy, the witch had said. Your adversary. She will destroy you if you keep her close.
Then, as now, Avizeh could not afford to be weak. Weakness led to death.
A young girl, modestly dressed, entered the chamber. Her shoulders were square, her head held high. At the sight of her daughter, Avizeh sucked in her breath. Her daughter was tall – much taller than Avizeh had been at that age – and very lovely. Though her nose and mouth were hidden by an embroidered scarf, her brown eyes were visible. Wide and luminous, they looked upon her mother with frank curiosity.
The talisman in Avizeh’s pocket trembled, signaling the arrival of the enchantress who, even as old and stooped as she was, moved with shadowy stealth. Dressed entirely in black veils that swept the floor, the witch looked like a piece of night sky fashioned into human form. The only part of her that was visible through the scarves was a pair of haughty, displeased eyes. “Mind your manners, child!” she demanded as she came to stand next to Avizeh. “Pay your mother the respect she deserves.”
Without a hint of distress at the reprimand, the girl bowed low. “I am honored to meet you, my blessed mother,” she said. Her voice was soft and musical.
“My daughter,” Avizeh said. The word felt strange in her mouth. “I am pleased by you.” This was not a lie. Her child was every bit as poised as she’d hoped. Every bit as lovely. She would make a fine bride.
Zaneib straightened, her bangles chiming as they settled back to her wrists. This time, she kept her eyes downcast, remaining appropriately humble. Avizeh walked a circle around her, appraising the girl as if she was a camel up for sale. Zaneib’s feet, clad in satin slippers, were small and dainty. Her hands were slender, her nails perfectly groomed. Her posture was straight, and her shoulders did not slope.
“Have you studied hard?” Avizeh asked.
“And you play music? The setar perhaps?”
“Yes. And the kamancheh as well.”
Avizeh nodded, pleased. “Good. Then you will perform at the dinner tomorrow.”
The girl looked up and caught her mother’s eye. There was a smile hidden behind that veil, Avizeh was sure of it. But she was not deceived by the girl’s innocent pleasure. Zanieb was lovely, true, but so were the deadly adders that the market entertainers charmed with their music. Not for one moment could Avizeh afford to forget it.
Unable to sleep, Avizeh retreated to her private, roof-top garden to pace. Now that the fierce desert sun had sunk below the horizon, the violent, afternoon winds had finally gentled. Burning braziers saturated the air with the heavy smell of incense, and from a far away corner of the city came a plaintive, warbling song of prayer.
Ordinarily, Avizeh would have found comfort in the darkness and stillness of her garden, but not tonight. The back of her neck prickled as if anticipating the piercing pain of the poisoned needle. She listened intently, trying to discern the scuff of slippered feet stealthily crossing the garden towards her. Guards were posted everywhere, but they could be bribed or seduced or threatened into betraying her. Everyone, Avizeh knew, had a weakness.
Avizeh felt, rather than saw, the enchantress enter the garden. Her body gave off an unnatural heat, like a desert rock which soaks up sun during the day and releases it at night. And a sour smell followed in the her wake, as if she crushed scorpions beneath her sandals with every step. Even the garden cacti seemed to wilt in her presence.
Without a word, the witch placed something in Avizeh’s hands. It was long and thin, silky to the touch. Avizeh immediately knew what it was: a cunning box fashioned from a highly polished human femur. She’d held once it before, many years ago. It contained the poisoned pin she’d used to murder her mother and, years later, her husband.
Avizeh recoiled. “No.”
“You’ve seen the child,” the witch insisted. “She’s too dangerous to keep alive.”
Avizeh clenched her jaws. “The girl is to be married to the prince of the northern kingdom.” It was for this reason that Zanieb had been allowed to live all these years. Uniting the two kingdoms would ensure peace, thus allowing the trade routes to remain open. “Our city would never survive if trade was cut off.”
“You think I don’t know that?” The enchantress’s voice was like a lash, making Avizeh flinch involuntarily. “It was I who helped arrange her marriage.”
Avizeh loathed the feel of the box in her hands. Should a drop of the poison leak from it and land on her skin, her heart would stop beating even before her body hit the ground. “By tomorrow night,” she said, “Zaneib will be married. A week later, she’ll be far away from here.”
The enchantress hissed like a poisonous lizard. “Stupid woman! You cannot trust her. Even now she is plotting your overthrow. She is an ambitious girl. She’ll do anything to get what she wants.” There was grudging admiration in her voice.
Avizeh thought of Zaneib’s dark eyes looking at her with such fascination, just like she had seen other children stare at their mothers. Could her daughter really be so bloodthirsty?
The enchantress took Avizeh’s elbow in a cruelly strong grip and pulled her to the edge of the rooftop. Many stories below them, luminescent in the starlight, was the white granite square upon which the condemned were brought. Every traitor to the kingdom, every potential assassin, every would-be usurper had been executed there, impaled and left to slowly die under the blistering heat of the cruel sun.
“Do you want to end up on that slab?” the enchantress demanded.
Avizeh swallowed. Hundreds of times over the past thirty years, the two of them had stood in this very spot to witness the excruciating deaths: Avizeh, struggling to harden herself against the screams and pitiful cries for mercy; the enchantress panting – nearly gasping – with pleasure as if she was being stroked by a lover instead of witnessing such brutality. The witch fed off such cruelty; every death made her stronger.
Below them, the granite slab shone, ghostly white. Avizeh imagined herself upon it, looking helplessly up at the hooded face of the executioner, screaming as he shoved the pike into her body. She broke into a sweat, despite the cool night air. If the choice was between her death and her daughter’s, it was an easy decision.
And yet, Avizeh shuddered at the thought of harming the child. If only the witch could do the job! But that was impossible. The witch’s powers were many, but they came at a price. She could conjure poisons and sate herself on the suffering of the victims, but she could not spill human blood. To do so would cost her the power she held. And without the power, she could no longer protect Avizeh.
As if sensing Avizeh’s reluctance, the enchantress leaned in close. “The girl will have you cut to pieces in front her. She thinks that you are weak. Old. She longs to feast on your blood.”
Avizeh’s heart pounded at the words, filling her ears with the sound of rushing blood. Of course her daughter was plotting to kill her. After all, Avizeh had done the same thing to her mother. It was the way of the world.
“She will dance while you scream. Your suffering will be her music.”
No satrap was ever safe. The price of power was high.
Avizeh shoved the witch out of her way and crossed the garden. In this world, it was either kill or be killed. Life was as pitiless as the desert sun at high noon.
Avizeh lingered in her daughter’s bedroom doorway, listening to the steady sound of breathing. Sound asleep, the stupid child was the easiest prey imaginable. She might be plotting her mother’s death, but she certainly did not seem to fear her own.
The golden pin made a cool line across Avizeh’s palm. Bolstered by the enchantress’s words, Avizeh no longer feared the poison. She slipped inside the room, letting the doorway curtain fall silently in place behind her.
In a corner of the room, a lamp burned dimly, shedding just enough light for Avizeh to see her child. She moved forward, but then paused when she saw that Zaneib’s nurse slept on a mat on the floor next to the bed. Avizeh frowned, confused. It wasn’t the presence of the woman that bothered her, but the fact that she slept on the stone floor like a submissive lapdog and not in bed with Zanieb.
As a child, Avizeh’s nurse had crawled into bed with her every night after the lights were turned low. Afsoon, the woman’s name had been. She was a nondescript, impatient woman from the hill country who pressed herself close to Avizeh and told her terrible, bloody stories of cruelty and pain. She fed these tales to Avizeh like poisonous dates until the little girl screamed in terror and begged her to be silent. Avizeh had loathed the nighttime and the fearsome nightmares it brought. She’d loathed her nurse as well, but had been unable to resist her. At times, she felt that the woman had enchanted her into submission. The nurse’s very name, Afsoon, meant bewitcher. Enchantress.
Avizeh watched her daughter’s ribs rise and fall, rise and fall, with each breath. Her mother, too, had been asleep when Avizeh had crept into her room and stuck her with the pin. Afterwards, Avizeh had fled to the rooftop garden, vomiting over and over again into one of the stone urns. When her nurse had finally found her, she had slapped Avizeh hard across both cheeks and shaken her. “Stupid girl,” she’d said. “You’ll have to be stronger than this to remain satrap. There are many others who need to be killed to keep them from working evil against you.”
How many others? That had always been Avizeh’s question. After every execution, she was certain that she had – at last – weeded out the final traitor. But there were more. Always more. Afsoon – who, by now, had become the witch – was never satisfied.
Zanieb sighed and rolled over, exposing her beautiful face. Avizeh sucked in her breath. The girl’s full lips and proud nose – these were Avizeh’s own features. Her daughter’s resemblance was astonishing. Avizeh’s hand trembled, and the pin nearly slipped from her hand.
The girl stirred again, and this time the nurse roused as well. “Child?” she asked. Her tone was gentle. Soothing. The way Avizeh had wished her own nurse had sounded.
Before either of them noticed her, Avizeh slipped from the room.***
By morning, Avizeh had reached a decision. She would speak to her daughter alone, under the guise of giving motherly advice concerning the wedding night. In reality, however, she would plumb the girl like a well to see how wily she was. How dangerous. If Zanieb proved to be a true innocent, Avizeh would let her marry and send her off to the distant kingdom. But if the child was as treacherous as the enchantress claimed, then Avizeh would kill her without a thought.
Confident in her new purpose, Avizeh left her chambers. Avoiding the traffic of wedding day guests who crowded the main hallways, she snuck up the back stairways and little-used passages that – over the years – she had come to know so well.
But just as she had reached the wing in which Zanieb’s rooms lay, she was brought up short by the sound of voices. Heart pounding, Avizeh pressed herself against the wall and used her pocket mirror to see around the corner. Her mouth went dry. There, by the girl’s bedroom doorway, was the enchantress.
Avizeh struggled to control her breathing. She closed her eyes and listened. “Your mother is weak,” the enchantress was saying. “She no longer deserves to be satrap. The throne is yours.”
Traitor! Yet, as Avizeh’s hands tightened into fists, she knew that the enchantress was right. The previous night, Avizeh had shown weakness by not killing her rival when she had the chance. Avizeh had not acted like a conqueror, but like a victim. The kingdom should not be allowed to remain in the hands of someone as feeble as she.
But there was hope. Avizeh would kill her rival right now, in front of the witch. Then the enchantress would know that Avizeh was indeed strong enough to remain in power. Jubilant, Avizeh put her hand into her pocket to retrieve the femur box that held the golden pin. It was empty. Suddenly terrified, she checked her other pocket. That, too, held nothing. The box was gone.
She fumbled with the mirror, nearly dropping it, and once more peeked around the corner. There, dangling from the witch’s bony fingers was the box. Avizeh’s heart hitched in fear as if she’d already been stuck by the pin and was on her way to the land of the dead.
All day long, the wedding preparations continued. From the kitchens poured the aromas of roasting goats and baking bread. Servants rushed about the grand hall to set tables, sweep sand from the stone floor, and arrange the cushions. Musicians assembled and tuned their instruments. Jugglers, acrobats, and actors crowded in the hallways, struggling to perform amid the confusion. Lavish wedding gifts – gold-embroidered linen, alabaster jars of perfume, cedar wood caskets, live peacocks – were collected and prominently displayed. The guests were ready to begin the celebration. But Avizeh, too troubled to venture out, stayed in her room and paced.
There must be a way to kill the girl before she herself was murdered. There must be! But right now Zanieb would be preparing for the wedding, surrounded by attendants who would be bathing and dressing her. It would be impossible to get her alone. And Avizeh dared not attack the child in front of anyone from the northern kingdom. To do so would certainly mean war and an end to the trade routes. The kingdom would be in peril. No, it must be done privately. And soon. She needed only to get the girl alone.
Once more, a knock disturbed her thoughts, and Avizeh – furious – demanded that she be left alone.
“But, your highness, you have a visitor,” her chief attendant said, sounding tremulous. “The princess Zanieb wishes to see you.”
Avizeh’s heart leapt. It was an opportunity she had not been expecting. She ordered that wine be brought to her then hurriedly took a packet of black powder the enchantress had once given her long ago and hid it in her sleeve. She no longer had the poisoned pin, but there was more than one way to take a life.
The girl entered, unescorted, and bowed low. “Thank you for seeing me.” Her eyes were wide and worried.
“Take off your veil,” Avizeh said. “We’re alone.” Her voice was soft. Motherly. She could afford to be kind now that she once more had the kingdom within her reach.
As the girl removed the scarf from her face, Avizeh discreetly emptied the packet of black powder into one of the goblets the servant had brought. Then she poured the wine. She was careful not to turn her back on the girl for even an instant, ever aware that her daughter was here to kill her. That the child had come to Avizeh’s rooms on her own, ready to strike her down in broad daylight, attested to her audacity. Certainly, she was more daring than Avizeh had ever been.
“Mother, I came to warn you.” The girl’s voice shook. “There is a plot against your life.”
Avizeh, goblets in both hands, stared. “What?”
Under the kohl and rouge, Zanieb’s face was pale. “Yes. An old woman came to me this morning.” Zanieb reached underneath her veils and withdrew the femur box. “There’s a pin inside. A poisoned pin. And she wanted me to…to kill you with it.” The girl was crying now, the kohl blackening her tears and making tracks down her cheeks. “She said such terrible things to me! Such wicked things.”
Avizeh, unable to answer, stared at her daughter in disbelief.
“I took the box,” Zanieb said, “but only so she would not have it.” Her voice was hardly above a whisper. “I wanted to give you proof.” She held out the box like an offering.
From the corner of her eye, Avizeh saw a flicker of shadow. The witch was in the room, she was sure of it. Now was the moment! Now was the time to show the enchantress that she was not weak. That she wouldn’t let anyone come between her and the throne. And yet she stood, still as stone, unable to move.
How young her daughter was! How naive and vulnerable. She had no idea that she was treading directly on the viper’s nest. There was no cunning in her eyes, only innocence. No enmity, only fear for her mother’s life.
The shadow moved again, coming closer like a dark cloud heralding a sandstorm. Avizeh set down the goblets and picked up the box of bone. Swallowing, she opened it and removed the golden pin.
“Be careful,” the girl urged. “Please.”
Her daughter’s concern filled Avizeh with fierce affection. She would not harm the child. On the contrary, she would keep the girl safe.
As if reading her mind, the shadow hissed. “She is here to destroy you!”
Both mother and daughter turned to look at the enchantress. “Don’t be weak, you fool!” the witch said.
The satrap straightened her spine and narrowed her eyes, feigning haughtiness. “It is you who are weak,” she said. “Don’t forget. You are my servant.”
“Your servant! It is you who serve me,” the witch said. “You are my huntsman. My butcher.”
The words struck Avizeh like a blow, the force of them knocking sense into her head. What an utter fool she’d been! For her entire life, she’d willingly sacrificed victims to the enchantress to keep the witch’s powers strong. Avizeh had not been satrap; no, she’d been the witch’s fool.
Avizeh’s hand tightened on the pin as she looked from the witch to her daughter and back again. If Zanieb lived, the witch would continue to pit mother and daughter against each other. And if Avizeh died, the enchantress would stalk her daughter, continually feeding her poisonous lies so that Zanieb would spend her life as Avizeh had spent hers: imprisoned by fear, jumping at shadows, seeing conspiracies in everything. In the end, Zanieb would live out her mother’s legacy, murdering hundreds of people, perhaps her even own husband and child, to satisfy the witch’s need for blood keeping her strong. Nearly godlike. Unstoppable.
But there was a way to end this, Avizeh suddenly realized. A single path that would keep her daughter safe. And Avizeh would take it. She raised the pin, ready to strike.
The enchantress laughed. “I can’t be harmed by such simple poisons.” Her eyes, peeking through her black veils, were flat and hard. “I no longer have those human frailties.”
Avizeh continued to advance, then jabbed the pin at the witch who, with lighting reflexes knocked her arm aside. Avizeh gasped at the strength behind the blow, but kept hold of the pin. She swept her arm forward in an arc towards the witch’s face. Once more, the enchantress deflected the blow.
“Weakling! Fool!” The enchantress raised her arms and flexed her fingers. The floor trembled. Zanieb was tossed backwards, and Avizeh stumbled. But she smiled and tightened her grip on the pin, throwing herself at the witch.
This time when the witch knocked her arm aside, Avizeh’s hand did not sweep out towards her enemy, but instead, moved downwards arcing until it met with her own thigh. And the razor sharp point of the pin pierced her flesh, drawing blood and letting in the poison.
Avizeh blinked. Zanieb rushed to her side, trying to catch her as fell to the ground. “Mother! You killed my mother!”
The witch, stunned, drew away. “No,” she protested. “No! It was a trick! I never meant to.”
Yet the proof was there. Avizeh could feel the trickle of warmth on her leg. Her chest seized, unable to draw breath. Her vision rapidly dissolved into a cloud of gray. She smiled at her daughter, struggling to form the words she longed to say on the day of Zanieb’s birth. I love you.
Already guards were entering the room. The witch screamed, but her powers had evaporated like a puddle in the desert sun. And Avizeh, in her daughter’s arms, smiled and touched her daughters cheek for the first, and last, time.
x x x
Ms. Scott’s first appearance on these pages—but not her last if talent continues to tell. I liked this story enough to make it the first of the new year. Your opinions to our BBS, please. -GM