Prologue

The grey stones of the temple had taken on a greenish hue, and the air smelled stale. Where were the candles? And why had the fountain gone dry? Surely, the gods couldn’t have forsaken this place. This was holy ground. Why was there no priest?

Time became a fluid thing and Shansi was back in Naz’s strong arms. Frantic, she clung to him as he held her and kept her from falling. His voice, warm and seductive as always, soothed her fears. The sweet scent of his skin comforted her. The luscious taste of his lips increased her longing for him.

Her excited moan turned into an agonised wail as pain shot through her belly again and forced her to her knees. Why couldn’t she have been born a boy? In a reflex, her hand went to the medallion she wore on a delicate golden chain around her neck. Worth a fortune, yet utterly useless. If only she’d been able to sell it.

Annoyed with herself, she rubbed the tears from her eyes and forced herself to her feet. She had to be strong. For the child she was about to deliver into this world.

Please, good Goddess, I can’t do this alone. A faint rustle made her look up, and a beam of sunlight guided her eyes to the large statue. Gods be praised, it was still there and more magnificent than ever. As she set out towards it, another contraction made her double up on the floor again. Was this her punishment?

If only Dad hadn’t gone missing. If only Grandfather hadn’t died. And Mum. Rasmi and Siana. The treacherous tears came again. Shansi bit her lip. She sniffled. Wiped her eyes once more.

“Zinnir’s teeth,” she swore, “be strong for once. Scorching. Be. Strong.” She crawled closer to the statue of the Goddess, until finally she could touch it. “Bring it on.” Her voice sounded raw. Broken. Her womb cramped again. She felt nauseous. Her breath came in short, ragged bursts now. A sudden cold made her shiver. Her legs were trembling.

When the pain subsided, she tried to sit up, but almost immediately the next wave of pain crashed into her. In a vain attempt not to cry out, she dug her nails into her skin. Gods, but this was savage! How could any woman survive something as fierce as this? She closed her eyes. Bit her lip bloody. Dug her nails yet deeper into her skin. Gasped for breath.

For how long she lay there, on the cold stone floor, riding the waves of pain, she couldn’t tell. For once, there was no time. No hunger, no thirst. Not even the all-consuming need for a fix that had been the driving force behind pretty much all of her actions since little Siana died in her arms. If only she could have saved her baby sister.

If only she could have stayed with Naz. He’d been good to her. Provided her with the good, clean stuff. Not the street-quality shit she’d been taking after she’d left him. If only things had been different. If only his family could have approved. If only…

But all her if onlies mattered not one bit. She was going to die today, and her child would become a retarded, sickly person. If it lived.

“Child.”

Shansi opened her eyes and looked up. Someone was approaching. A woman.

“Are you…” her voice cracked, “… the Goddess?”

“No child.” The woman came closer, “Just her servant. I was sent to attend to your needs. Drink some.” She supported Shansi as she offered her a small cup of water. Then she wiped her face with a cool, damp cloth. “Is that better?”

Shansi nodded. It wasn’t much. A shot of something strong would have been considerably better, but that was not an option. She had to think about her child. In fact, she should have been doing that since the day she discovered she was expecting, but she’d been too selfish.

More contractions. More pain, ever more unbearable, but at least she didn’t have to go through it alone now. The woman stayed by her side and tried to make her as comfortable as possible.

Just when she thought she could take it no more, her child was born. A beautiful boy with golden eyes and caramel-coloured skin. Just like his father.

She must have lost consciousness then, because next she woke up in a real bed, between soft silken sheets, in a cool, well-ventilated room. The lady from the abandoned temple sat on a chair beside her. The child lay sleeping in a basket.

“My son,” she whispered, “is he… is he…?” She couldn’t. She knew the answer already. He’d die, and she – his own mother – had doomed him.

“He is weak, but he’ll pull through. I gave him the pendant. It will give him the strength he needs. Was it your father’s?”

She shook her head. “My granddad’s. His sons died. My mum was his only remaining child.”

“I see. I’m sorry.” She was silent for a moment, then asked, “What’s your son’s name, dear?”

“Moradin.” It had been her grandfather’s name, and it seemed fitting that her son should be named after him. “Can I…” a sudden nausea made her cut off her words. She felt cold again, and black specks swam in front of her eyes.

“Child!” The woman stood bent over her, felt her forehead, her pulse. “Stay with me, girl. Stay with me!”

“Cold,” she said, “Naz.” She grew colder still, and weaker. “Naz…”

Naz took her in his arms. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered, and his voice sounded more soothing than ever, “nothing will ever hurt you anymore.”

“No!” a woman’s voice cried out in the distance. “Don’t you die on me. Don’t…”

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