by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
Hannah was born in the city of the Shrine of Asa, some two hours north of the capital by train. She had never seen Omri before her wedding; the country of Giveah had been occupied by the Asturian Empire for nearly thirty years, and all the rail systems had been seized and the roads closely monitored. But the Empire had grasped beyond its reach, and the king of Giveah negotiated a peaceful transfer of power back to his family barely two weeks after he relieved his mother of regency. He had been fifteen years old. He was seventeen now.
Hannah’s grandfather was Asa’s high priest; the city and the shrine had both grown considerably while the occupation had restricted travel to the Central Temple in Omri. The young king sought to consolidate his power, and Hannah was betrothed to him not long after her own seventeenth birthday. She was studying law, and her mother told her that the University of Omri would have far better resources for her education than their own schools, and that a law scholar would make a very fitting wife for the king. Hannah supposed she wasn’t unhappy with the arrangement. She accepted that it was her time to grow up.
The shrine clothed her in a white dress and a blue silk robe, closed with a gold brooch in the shape of a blazing sun: the king’s seal of office. His administration had sent it to her family ahead of time so she would be properly attired when she entered God’s city, along with a small squad of royal guards and a fleet of town cars.
“Don’t say too much at the first meeting,” he mother told her as she brushed her hair for her again, half-twisted around on the leather backseat. “You babble when you’re nervous.”
“I know, Mom,” Hannah said. Her father watched the window and the country going by, and Hannah watched him. His hands lay unobtrusively in his lap and squeezed a handkerchief with stiff fingers. He was not given to nervous gestures; she felt something in her chest wince.
They reached the outskirts of Omri’s traffic in late afternoon, and they arrived at the palace at dusk. The king met them, slender and still, with his mother and three of his advisers.
The king’s name was Aryeh. This was the name of all the kings of Giveah since the very first; each had the name his mother gave him, but as soon as the Temple’s high priest slipped the ring of office onto his finger this name had to be discarded in favor of his father’s. The origin of that tradition was a little murky, and for all Hannah knew it was to supply historical novels and television shows with a ready supply of symbolic royal angst. This Aryeh, however, looked like an Aryeh. He was very handsome — God’s favor was the ruling family’s defining trait — with a regal profile, wine-dark lips, and eyes that watched the room like they knew what to look out for. But he had a too-quick smile that turned hesitant as soon as it was exposed. He looked every bit as young as he was.
He bowed to her as a guard helped her out of the town car. Hannah thought she had mentally walked herself through every possible second of this meeting, and yet she found herself entirely unprepared for such a mild and humble gesture. She wavered, unsure of whether to stand passively or curtsy in return; the weight of everyone’s eyes on her pushed her to awkwardly mimic him and bow from the waist like a man. She was already flushed with embarrassment when she straightened, but he was smiling; their eyes met in a conspiracy of mutual relief.
“I’ve never been to Asa,” His Majesty said. He took a quick sip of his tea and added, “I’ll have to go soon, of course.”
“It’s very beautiful,” Hannah’s mother said.
Aryeh looked to his own mother, Lady Asherah, and asked, “You’ve been, though, haven’t you?”
“With your father, yes, and the others,” she said. “Many years ago. We attended an opera, I think…?”
“The Asa Opera House, yes,” Hannah’s mother said, smiling quickly. “We’re very proud of it.”
“You didn’t go to the shrine?” Aryeh asked.
“Of course we did!” Lady Asherah said. “But that was business. Politics.”
“God isn’t concerned with politics,” Aryeh said. Asherah rolled her eyes a little, gently teasing, and Hannah’s parents chuckled politely. He smiled and shook his head. “I’d like to see Asa’s shrine.”
“Where is Lady Layla?” Hannah’s mother asked. “We heard the news. We wanted to congratulate her.”
“Layla will be at dinner tonight,” Aryeh said. “She’s with the doctor right now.”
“Oh! Is everything all right?”
“Everything is fine. It’s just a check-up.” He glanced up at Hannah sidelong, like he was helpless against the urge to gauge her reaction. She kept her face pleasantly straight, and he looked back down at his tea. “I’m surprised that you’ve heard,” he said. “Gossip travels faster than news.”
“You must be so excited,” Hannah’s mother said. “This will be your first, right?”
King Aryeh nodded. He was thoughtfully quiet for a moment, and then he smiled. “Many things are happening at once,” he said.
Hannah and her mother were shown to what would be Hannah’s apartment by Lady Asherah after their tea; Hannah resisted the urge to cling to her mother’s scarf. The king was unexpectedly easy on her nerves, but Lady Asherah made her tense. The palace was glorious, glass and gold-threaded marble and directionless warm light, and her rooms were intimidatingly grand. An entire wall of her sitting room was a window overlooking Jabin Square. “Don’t worry, they can’t see in,” Asherah said, gesturing to the tourists below.
Serving women carried Hannah’s trunks in; Asherah explained that no men were allowed in this wing of the palace aside from His Majesty without his explicit permission. Hannah knelt beside a box of her books as her mother asked, “What else is here, that men have to be kept out?”
“Well, my rooms are upstairs,” Asherah said, “as are Layla’s. The harem and the baths are below.” She cocked her head and asked, “What is all this?”
“My law books,” Hannah said. “I’m applying for my scholar’s mark this year.”
Asherah laughed. “Whatever for?”
Hannah froze. She didn’t dare answer, and neither did her mother; the silence grew awkward, and Lady Asherah laughed again and touched Hannah’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, dear. You can do whatever you like.”
Hannah bowed her head, and Asherah withdrew her hand. “You should freshen up for dinner,” she said.
The king met her at the sweeping wooden doors to the hall that dinner was being held in; he had with him a very lovely and very pregnant young woman. “I wanted to introduce you two before we had an audience,” he said.
“I’m Layla,” the woman said, smiling and extending her hand. Hannah shook it, glad to be offered such a casual greeting. “Goodness, you’re so young.”
“She’s the same age as me,” Aryeh said.
“You’re also very young,” Layla said.
“Hannah,” Hannah said. “It’s a great honor to meet you.”
Layla brushed off the obsequiousness carelessly, squeezing Hannah’s hand and smiling like she was greeting a long-lost cousin. “What do you think so far?”
“Omri is very beautiful,” Hannah said. “More beautiful than I ever would have imagined.”
“It will be more so for your presence,” Aryeh said.
Hannah felt herself blush. So much fuss in one day and she became flustered at an offhanded compliment from her husband-to-be. “When are you expecting?” she said, asking the first question that came to mind, which on second thought wasn’t an entirely appropriate question to pose to a woman she had just met. But Layla laid both of her hands on her belly and beamed.
“This one will be a barley baby, if the doctor knows she’s talking about,” she said, swaying on her feet like a excited child. “So, about two and a half months.”
“I look forward to it,” Hannah said. Long tradition held back announcements of such news until after the birth, even in this day of low infant mortality. It was considered bad luck to get the country worked up prematurely. Even so, if her mother had heard, Hannah wished she had told her. She would have brought Layla a gift.
The dinner was attended by a host of advisers, generals, priests, prophets, and other assorted important people. Her setting was at Aryeh’s right, between him and Layla and across from Lady Asherah, and this placement was noticed long before they were seated. She tried to fall behind him as they made their way through the hall, but he gripped her hand and pulled her even with him. “Everyone,” he said to the room. “Your attention.”
What felt like every man of power in Giveah turned together to face their king and to face her; Hannah swallowed hard. “I am honored and humbled to introduce to you Hannah of the Shrine of Asa, my betrothed,” King Aryeh said. “The Temple will witness our marriage in three days, and she will become my second wife.”
Only the king was given the right of plural marriage under Giveah’s current laws; some kings embraced it gleefully, and others were more conventional. That it had taken Aryeh this long to marry again hinted that he was one of the latter, but it was hard to say. He and Layla were clearly very fond of each other. Both were going out of their way to make Hannah feel welcome, but she sensed that she was an intrusion brought in by political necessity. She did not have to ask to know that Layla’s child was going to be a girl.
“He’s very sympathetic to the plight of new wives,” Layla told her the next day. They were having tea in the Arboretum; the air was kept cool and wet by little mist nozzles set into the high ceiling, and they were shaded from the sunlight outside by the foreign trees sweeping over them. They were several floors up, and Hannah again found herself looking down at Jabin Square. “Lady Asherah was his father’s sixth wife.”
“None of the first five had children?” Hannah asked.
Layla sipped her tea. “They did,” she said. “All girls. They’ve all been married off along the coastal kingdoms. Aryeh barely knows any of them.”
“How long have you two been together?”
“We married when I was fourteen,” Layla said. “He was nine.” That made Hannah laugh, and Layla smiled. “It’s a little embarrassing that it took us this long to conceive, really!”
Hannah smiled at the huge bite of teacake Layla followed that with, and she said, “He’s very young.”
“He is,” Layla said. “But he’ll waste less time with you.”
That thought made Hannah fall quiet again. She looked down at her tea and bit the inside of her lip. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” Layla said, her voice pitched soft. “He’s very kind.”
“I’m sure he is,” Hannah said.
“Very gentle,” Layla said. “He won’t ask you to do anything disgusting.” Her tone of voice was odd on the last word, a touch droll. Hannah raised an eyebrow, and Layla shrugged. “He has the harem girls for that.”
“Oh,” Hannah said. “Yes, of course.”
“But he won’t neglect you for them, either,” Layla added with haste. “He’s very well-balanced, I think. Very serious.”
“Yes,” Hannah said. That was her impression of him as well. All of his gestures seemed very deliberate, and everything he said sounded like it had just been rehearsed in his head. She supposed she would sound like that soon.
They were quiet for a time, enjoying the trees and their tea, and Hannah worked up the nerve to ask her next question. “Is it… is it all right if I apply for my scholar’s mark after I marry?”
Layla’s eyes widened. “Of course! Which one?”
“That’s wonderful! Of course, you’ll have our complete support! Why wouldn’t you?”
Hannah shrugged. “No reason. I suppose… it was just something Lady Asherah said.”
“Ah. You learn to…” Layla paused, and she shook her head. “…work your way around much of what the Lady says. It’s not personal.”
“I see.” Hannah took a deep breath and smiled. “Well, good.”
“You should be terribly proud of yourself.”
“I am,” Hannah said. “Thank you.” The spot they were seated in was a balcony of sorts, overlooking the glorious tangle of trees and vines of the Arboretum. It was a very famous feature of the palace, not least for being restricted to the king’s family and his harem. Birds that had been bred for Temple rites but deemed imperfect were kept here to very pretty effect: there were spotted swans in the stream that snaked through the floor and red-eyed doves fluttering past. In Asa, the priests just released them.
A memory came to her unbidden: she was a very little girl, standing on the roof of the shrine where they kept the coops. She held a white dove that had a single black feather in its tail; she pinned its wings to its sides with her thumbs. One of the younger priests tasked with caring for the birds grinned at her and mimed throwing it up into the sky. She was afraid to do so because the bird had never been outside of its cage before — what if it fell from the roof? — but eventually he coaxed her into letting it go. The bird flew away in a great gust of energy, never hesitating in its climb, and she watched as it vanished into the pale sky. She was so happy.
Hannah hadn’t thought about that in years. She frowned a little, letting her eyes trace the arch of the branches around her until they were caught by a bit of movement below.
A woman walked between the trees, dark-skinned and wrapped in airy blue cloth. It was a little hard to judge from this angle, but she looked extraordinarily tall — as tall as a man — with long arms and strong legs. Her hair was cut slave-short, but both her wrists and ankles were looped with gold. Her anklets had bells on them. Hannah could just make out a sparkle of their ring as the woman walked past them and ventured into where the man-made forest grew thicker.
“Who is that?” Hannah asked.
“Hm?” Layla turned to look where Hannah was gesturing. “Ah.” She smiled with sudden slyness and took another bite of her cake before she answered. “That is Bilhah.”
Bilhah was the king’s favorite. She had been a gift from the king of Kemet, the country that faced Giveah from the western shore of the Erythra Inlet. Kemet was not traditionally an ally of Giveah, but the Asturian Empire had been a mutual enemy, and Kemet’s king had decided to put his weight behind Aryeh when he petitioned the Empire for Giveah’s independence. The story of how Bilhah had ended up as part of Aryeh’s harem was apparently a favorite one around the palace, but no one particularly wanted to share it with the girl the king was about to marry.
What she managed to put together between Layla’s smirks and her serving women’s whispers was this: Aryeh had been invited to the king of Kemet’s table to celebrate soon after the Empire formally withdrew from Giveah. Fifteen years old and completely unaccustomed to the strength of Kemet’s wines, he perhaps let himself be too frank, and he confided to his host how beautiful he found the courtesans waiting on them. The king smiled and summoned forth Bilhah, and he told Aryeh that she was his. This was not an unusual sort of gift from one king to another, but Aryeh’s advisers sucked on their teeth and whispered to him that he should just smile and accept without complaint. It was their opinion that Bilhah was meant as something of a backhanded compliment for a king that was still green: she was too tall, and she had very little in way of breasts or hips. She hardly looked like a concubine at all. Surely she was just some messenger girl who had been close at hand, or, at best, a court dancer?
Aryeh barely listened to their mutters; he fell all over himself thanking the king for his generosity. He couldn’t take his eyes from the girl seated next to him through dinner, and he declined an invitation for more drinks afterward, he was so eager to take her to bed. It was the honesty of youth, people said. The king’s taste in women was… unusual. Hannah laughed at this teasing story when she was supposed to — even Layla thought it was funny, as though she was speaking of an endearing younger brother instead of a husband — but she couldn’t help but silently agree with her king. Bilhah was the most beautiful woman Hannah had ever seen.
The harem was one of the signifiers of the king of Giveah’s station, as much as his ring and the gold and topaz ephod he wore on his lapels. Aryeh’s harem was some thirty women strong, but they were mostly what he had inherited from his father, and he did not often add to their number himself. Bilhah was one of the newest, and, at about two years older than Aryeh, by far the youngest. Hannah saw her from a distance along with the other concubines in the women’s wing of the palace in the days leading up to her marriage. She was not quite as supernaturally tall as Hannah had first taken her for from that compromised angle in the Arboretum — her overall litheness added to the effect — but she was easily as tall as Aryeh on his feet.
On the night before her wedding, Hannah could not sleep. She studied her texts far past the time she should have retired to bed, reciting the ancient laws in her head and struggling to find a clear path amongst them in her books’ theoretical legal exercises. When the words and moral quandaries began to blur together, she took to her feet and paced the length of her sitting room’s window. There were few people outside gawking at the palace at this hour.
Since she was a child, she had wanted to be a judge. But now Lady Asherah’s mocking question rang in her head, though not in the manner the Lady had intended it. To be considered an expert worth consulting in the field, she had only to attain her scholar’s mark, but to be a judge she would then have to pursue her master’s mark. But would anyone want to consult the wife of the king in legal matters, much less be judged by her in a court of law? She didn’t know of any precedent. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but now she worried that in agreeing so easily to this marriage, she had thrown all of her ambitions away.
The square below was lit by the lamps around the perimeter of the palace and by the streetlights beyond it, and as Hannah looked down on it she saw someone come out of a door of the opposite wing. Even looking straight down on her, Hannah recognized Bilhah. She walked slowly, pausing to wrap her bare shoulders against the cold night with some of the loose cloth of her dress; she always seemed to be wearing that bright shade of peacock blue. Hannah watched her cross the square until she was directly underneath her, and then she entered the women’s quarters and was gone from sight.
Hannah felt her stomach do a funny little flip. She was not the only one who couldn’t sleep on the eve of this marriage, it seemed.
The wedding was held in the Temple’s courtyard; the Temple’s doors were thrown open so that God might witness the procedings, and all the guests gathered beneath the ornamental trees that surrounded it. The wedding canopy was made up of layered blue and gold cloths: blue for Asa — not Bilhah’s gem tones but the darker royal blue that symbolized Asa’s shrine in the priests’ flag — and gold for Omri. It fluttered handsomely in a light wind under a clear sky. Hannah was led under it by Aryeh’s mother, and Aryeh by Hannah’s father.
Brides and grooms were required to memorize a great deal of legal language for recitation in the marriage ceremony, but as it happened Hannah already had all of it committed to heart as part of her educational requirements. A good match, indeed. Her mother smiled at her with the other witnesses as Hannah rattled off her sworn obligations, but she could hardly hear herself speaking. She only broke free of her trance when the priest said, “Thanks be to You, our God, who leads His bride to find joy with his wife.” That wasn’t the standard blessing, but this wasn’t a standard marriage.
Aryeh took her hand and slid a plain gold ring onto her third finger, and he kissed her with dry lips. The crowd around them cheered. She kept her eyes closed and tried not to shake.
Because of Layla’s pregnancy, they could not share the traditional king’s wine at dinner. A priest said a blessing over a goblet of grape juice instead, and Layla giggled as she drank from it; her good humor was infectious, and Hannah and Aryeh both laughed around their own sips of the child’s drink. “I need something stronger,” Aryeh said. “My nerves will kill me.”
“Haven’t you done this before?” Hannah asked.
“I don’t remember a second of my first wedding,” Aryeh said. “I was petrified.”
“They made you drink grape juice then, too,” Layla said.
“Yes.” Aryeh smiled. “All right, I remember that.”
The king brought Hannah to his rooms that night, and after three days of living in the palace she was more or less prepared for them. He lived at about the same level of luxury she was still growing accustomed to, though of course his home was much larger. She peered up at a painting in his bedroom, trying to look interested in it but hardly registering even what colors it was. He stood behind her quietly, and it occurred to her finally that he was being patient with her.
She turned back to him at last, flushed and laughing a little. “Sorry.”
“No,” Aryeh said, “don’t be sorry.”
Hannah nodded. “Not sorry, then. Nervous. I’m nervous.”
“That’s… completely understandable.” He hesitated, and then he said, “I don’t know how you’ve been prepared for this, or… if you have been prepared for this. There’s a lot of romance around the wedding night, but I have to tell you that it isn’t really true. It’s not a lot of fun the first time. But it does get better, I promise.”
Hannah smiled. “You’ve had many virgins, I suppose.”
“No!” he said. “No, not… not many. A few.” He laughed. “If it had been many, I probably could make this fun. But, as it is…” He stepped towards her and laid his hands on her shoulders. He dropped his voice and said, “You are my wife, and I will honor you above myself always. Please don’t think of me as a king to be appeased.”
Hannah nodded. Aryeh let his hands slide down the front of her robe and carefully unfastened the gold sun brooch that closed it. “I can only do my best if you help me,” he said. “I am only as strong as the people who stand by me who are willing to speak. Not only in my bed, but in our life together.” He swallowed. “If I hurt you, say so.”
“I will,” she said. “I promise.”
Aryeh was right: it wasn’t a lot of fun. He did hurt her, but not very much; he stopped when she asked him to and resumed when she encouraged him. All in all, he was indeed very kind, and he was indeed very gentle, and when she laid her head on his shoulder afterward, she thought that she could grow to love him very easily. They were young yet. Even so, she thought of what she had heard of his eagerness with Bilhah, and how she’d seen Bilhah making her way back from this very bed the night before. Hannah could not find it in herself to resent Aryeh for that, but she felt regret that she neither inspired nor felt such passion.
Hannah’s parents stayed in Omri for another week before returning to Asa without her. She was no longer a representitive of her home shrine; she was the wife of the king, and the king represented the Temple. She hugged them both for a long time while their driver waited.
“Don’t wait to tell us,” her mother said. “I want to know as soon as you do.”
Hannah laughed. “Of course, Mom.”
She met with Layla’s doctor — now her doctor as well — and for an afternoon her life boiled down to charts and calendars and counted up days. “The best time for you to conceive seems to be towards the end of the month,” the doctor said, and Hannah nodded obediently. She gave her a written list of dates, days in clusters of three and four, and told Hannah to give it to her husband. Hannah studied it on her own and tried to think of a casual way to pass the information along. These are the days you have to sleep with me if you want another pregnant wife.
To her surprise, Aryeh seemed relieved to see it when she met him for dinner afterwards. “I know it seems a little… impersonal,” he said. “And not a little creepy, really. But it’s good to be able to plan.”
Hannah chewed on a bite of lamb longer than she needed to before she swallowed and said, “I have a request.”
“I’ve applied to take the law tests this spring. I’d like to have that finished first.” She looked up at him. He kept the light in his dining room low, which occasionally made him a little difficult to read. “Is that all right?”
It took him a moment to answer. He chased a bit of food around his plate with a piece of flatbread. “Of course,” he finally said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He looked up and smiled her at her, but there was something unconvincing about it. “It will give you some time to adjust. And that will be around the time Layla is due anyway. There’s no reason to split everyone’s attention.” He tapped her list and asked, “So, we should just cross off the first few months here?” His voice was deliberately light, she thought.
“Well,” Hannah said, “I’d still like to see you.”
He nodded. “We’ll both be under a lot of pressure until you conceive. Of course, it’s your right to decide when that is, but you need to know that things are going to be very…” He grimanced and reached for his wine glass. “Irritating for you until then.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Thank you.”
He shook his head. He seemed to have relaxed again. “Just try to avoid my mother,” he said.
That was easier said than done. Lady Asherah fancied herself an excellent mother-in-law and regularly hosted lunches for her son’s hapless wives. Layla and Hannah exchanged hidden expressions of amused disgust over many baskets of bread and bowls of grapes.
“We’re only concerned because it took Layla so long,” Asherah said. “They tried for three years before anything came of it!”
That number left Hannah trying to surpress a surprised cough for more reasons than one. Lord, poor Layla. …and poor Aryeh. Layla only smiled and said, “God knows best in these matters, my Lady.”
“God may know best, but you do Him no favors frittering your time away on poetry,” Asherah said. Layla rolled her eyes a little when the Lady looked away.
“I didn’t know you wrote poetry,” Hannah said later.
“Only on special occasions,” Layla said. She snorted and added, “As though such a thing could stop me from being a mother!”
That off-handed comment haunted Hannah as she studied. The first dates on the doctor’s list passed, but the king did not invite her to his rooms the week following, either. She finished the first draft of her application before the next set of dates came about. She was only asking for a few months’ grace; she knew that was no hardship, but in asking for it she had shifted much of the vague worry in the palace onto Aryeh’s shoulders alone.
She accompanied him publicly, and though he was never anything less than warm towards her, he did not take her to his bed. He was taking her request to heart. I should ask him if I’ve hurt his feelings, she thought, though she suspected that was one of those things to which kings weren’t allowed to confess. He was busy running his kingdom and with his Temple duties, too, of course, and with Layla. She saw them often standing together in the court, heads bowed in hushed conversation.
Hannah envied Layla for how comfortable she seemed in her role and in her skin. She even walked gracefully, despite her swollen belly; she must have been formidable under more normal circumstances. She didn’t often speak in court, but as long as Lady Asherah wasn’t present she easily held the floor when the priests’ wives gathered for their parties and dinners. Hannah was afraid that her own relative silence reflected poorly on her as the king’s wife, but Layla insisted that this was not the case. “You don’t speak unless you have something to say,” she said. “It serves you well, I think. People will think of you as the smart one!”
Hannah doubted that; she was the young and frightened one, more likely. When she wasn’t studying or being escorted to ceremonies and Temple events, she found herself favoring the artificial wilderness of the Arboretum over the urban wilderness of Omri. The way the harem women knelt by the stream in their bright dresses reminded Hannah of the foreign river goddesses they sang about up north. She watched them from the safety of the balconies, fancying herself unnoticed. She was occupying herself thus one day about a month from Layla’s due date when she noticed amongst the Arboretum’s population a white dove with a black feather in its tail.
It wasn’t the same one she remembered, of course; even spared by the shrine, she didn’t think doves lived that long. It wasn’t the same feather that stood out, anyway. She watched it coo and bob its head at its fellows before it fluttered unhurriedly into the trees, out of Hannah’s sight. She rose to her feet, trying to follow it with her eyes, but it was gone.
Hannah stood at the railing uselessly for a moment, and then she turned to creep down the little staircase to the Arboretum’s floor. The humidity that kept the balconies cool made the ground warm and damp. A few of the women who were here looked up at her as she passed and quickly looked down again, but Hannah didn’t pause to give it any worry. She found the tree she’d seen the bird in; she knelt briefly to pull off her shoes and took off at a jog in her hose.
The dove, fat and drowsy, was perched in a fruit tree farther along the stream, but it saw her running towards it and took wing again with much alarmed flapping. Hannah grinned and gave chase, hopping over the exposed root networks like a little boy as the bird flew from branch to low branch. She was laughing, a solid month of smiling at ministers and memorizing obscure legal terms falling from her shoulders like a unseasonable coat, when she rounded one clutch of vines and found herself at eye level with the dove. It huddled resentfully on the blade of Bilhah’s hand, and Bilhah looked down at Hannah with surprise.
“Oh,” Hannah said. All in a moment her mind went utterly blank.
“Lady Hannah,” Bilhah said. She was even more beautiful face-to-face than Hannah had thought. “Is everything well?”
“I’m sorry,” Hannah said. “I… I don’t know what came over me.”
Bilhah passed the bird from one hand to the other, keeping her gaze on Hannah; her eyes were very dark and truly captivating. “I’ve just been so busy these last few weeks, and I’ve written so much that I feel like my hands are going to fall off,” Hannah said, her mouth dry. “And I’m so tired of wearing high heels all the time–”
Bilhah gently interrupted her. “Lady Hannah, you do not have to apologize to me.” Her voice was low and satiny, and her Kemetite accent made it lyrical. The bow of her lips curved into a smirk, and she added, “Offer your excuses to Hamul.”
“Hamul?” Hannah said. “Oh. The bird?”
Bilhah extended her arm like a dancer waiting for her cue. The bird fluffed itself with something that looked like dignity; Hannah let her shoes dangle by their straps from her little finger as she gathered it up awkwardly. “I’m sorry, Hamul,” she said. “We should be friends, not adversaries.” The dove cocked its head one way and then the other. She lifted it up to eye level with herself and addressed it very seriously. “We even have similar names.”
That marked the first time Hannah heard Bilhah laugh, and she never, ever forgot it.
“I like the birds,” Bilhah said a little while later, walking along the Arboretum’s vast windows with Hannah. “In Kemet, we give the gods cattle. The birds, though, they are charming.”
“We offer cattle occasionally,” Hannah said. “But not many cattle are pure.”
Bilhah nodded. “Your Temple rules are very complicated.”
“They’re not so complicated,” Hannah said. “Just strict.” There were tourists in the square below taking pictures of the palace guards. She smiled. “Do you worship Kemet’s gods?”
Bilhah tilted her head. The sunlight lit the line of her cheekbone exquisitely. “Kemet’s gods watch over Kemet, and Giveah’s god watches over Giveah. I am in Giveah now.”
“That wasn’t an answer!”
Bilhah raised her eyebrows and grinned suggestively, and Hannah laughed. “The rules besides,” Bilhah said, “there is no great difference. Someone will hear my prayers.”
“I see.” They walked companionably, and Bilhah’s anklet bells marked their steps with bright, brassy chimes. Hannah thought, I cannot imagine how anyone could have taken this women as an insult. Hannah had never seen anyone personify feminine beauty so thoroughly even as she defied every measure of it. She knew that she herself was perceived as very pretty in a very typically Givean way — it was one of many reasons she was deemed a fitting wife for the king — but her small, curvy build was Bilhah’s complete opposite. Were the Kemetites all so powerfully sleek? Bilhah stood a full head taller than Hannah, and the lines of her body were straight and unbroken from shoulder to heel. Hannah had remind herself not to stare at her sidelong, though Bilhah was surely used to it. “I like your dress,” she eventually said, her voice shy.
“Yes?” Bilhah looked down at herself and smiled. “Blue is my favorite color. Yours too, yes?”
Hannah blinked. “Why do you say that?”
“You wear blue often,” Bilhah said.
“Oh.” She felt herself blush a little. She didn’t know why. “Well, because I’m from Asa. Sapphire is our shrine’s emblem.”
“Ah, I see. But I hope you like it, if you must wear it.”
Hannah thought about that for a while before she answered. “I do like it,” she said. “I’m proud of my city.”
“Good,” Bilhah said.
“But I don’t know if it’s my favorite color.” She looked out over the city. The sun was setting, drenching the glass-faced buildings in red and orange. “I like yellow, actually.”
Bilhah laughed. “Then you will love Omri,” she said. “Everything is gold, gold, gold.”
“Topaz, maybe, but they like gold.” She reached down and tapped Hannah’s brooch. “You see?”
That did nothing to appease her flush. “Yes,” Hannah said.
Bilhah paused, looking down at her. “Your stockings,” she said.
Hannah looked down as well. The feet of her hose were ruined, wet with the dirt and a mess of runs up past her knees. “Oh.” She considered the shoes she was still holding in one hand and sighed. “Oh well.”
“We can send one of the girls back to get you another pair.”
“Oh, no, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Bilhah smiled. “You have nowhere to go tonight?”
“No. Just studying.”
“Ah,” Bilhah said. “The little scholar.”
Hannah laughed. “Not yet, I’m not. But hopefully. Soon.” Aryeh must have told her. With Layla pregnant and her own nose glued to her books, he had to be comforting himself with someone. The thought hurt a little, unexpectedly, but she dismissed it with only a moment’s reflection. “And then I’ll be easier to be around.”
Bilhah laughed. The sound was rich and from her chest. “My Lady should not worry herself.” She touched her arm. “You have been excellent company to our king, and to me today.”
She wasn’t sure what about that made her smile — that being excellent company came before being an excellent wife, perhaps. Or perhaps it was just the touch of her hand: light, unassuming, and uninterested in rank, despite her careful word choice. “Thank you,” Hannah said. “I mean… I’m glad.”
Bilhah’s hand slid up Hannah’s arm to squeeze her shoulder gently. The touch through the silk of her robe was surprisingly intimate, and Hannah shivered at it involuntarily. Bilhah’s smile widened. “I would hate to be bad company,” Hannah continued, her brain cheerfully bowing out to her mouth again. “I don’t want to be one of those people who just talk about their work all the time. Even the king manages not to do that.”
“The king,” Bilhah said, “does not speak much at all.”
“Oh,” Hannah said. “I wouldn’t… say that. He speaks.”
“Mm.” Bilhah’s smile turned sly. “Not that I have heard.” She let go of her, and the warm air seemed cold in comparison. “I will see you again soon.”
Hannah nodded. “Of course. It was good to meet you.”
Hannah puzzled over the odd last moments of the conversation as she walked back to her rooms. Bilhah’s meaning was plain enough amongst talk of being good company and speaking of one’s work — Hannah blushed to herself again — but Bilhah’s tone had seemed strange, amused and knowing. Perhaps she hadn’t liked her at all, Hannah thought; perhaps she had only been sizing up her competition.
She tiptoed over her rug and peeled off her ruined hose in the bathroom. She considered washing them, but she ended up throwing them away. She went to her sitting room with her dress draped over her bare legs and curled up cross-legged on her sofa. The sun had set but it was not yet quite dark; she reached over to her coffee table and dragged the nearest open book into her lap. If a man takes a wife and she is seized by disease, and he then desires to take a new wife, he shall not put away his wife who has been attacked by disease but shall keep her in his house and support her so long as she lives, read the page. If this woman does not wish to remain in her husband’s house, then he shall compensate her for the dowry that she brought with her from her father’s house, and she may go.
Hannah rubbed her eyes. The historical forms were run-on sentences intent on choking the very meaning from their words. But she had to be a good scholar. She had to be a good wife for the king. If a man gives his wife a field, garden, and house and its deed, if then after the death of her husband the sons raise no claim, then the mother may bequeath all to the one whom she prefers, and she need leave nothing to his brothers. She sighed. She flipped a few pages ahead, scanning their contents grimly.
She shut the book declaratively enough to get a good thud out of it and tossed it back onto the table. She stood and shook out her hair and her dress, and she left her rooms without even pausing to put her shoes on.
The women’s wing of the palace was one of the three greater towers that surrounded Jabin Square, the other two being the main government building and the king’s private wing. It was some twelve floors, built to accomodate kings with as many as thirty wives and a hundred concubines. That sort of excess wasn’t currently fashionable, of course, and her king was more modest in his needs than even the current mood allowed; the building’s current inhabitants were granted a lot of space. Hannah’s apartment was on the eighth floor, and there were doors here for another two theoretical future occupents. Layla had the entire ninth floor, and Lady Asherah, it was rumored, had the three floors above that to herself. She had been regent once.
Below Hannah’s floor was the harem. It was almost a building unto itself within this one; the elevator bypassed its individual floors, and their main stairwell access was one-way. To enter, one had to come in through an entrance on the ground floor that was under guard all hours of the day. It was all a lot of pomp, but not unnecessary pomp. In older documents the harem was included in the royal inventory of the house’s jewels, and they were guarded as such.
“Lady Hannah,” a soldier on guard said. He glanced to his fellow nervously. “Is something wrong?”
She pointed to the heavy ceder-paneled doors behind him. “Do I have clearance?”
This question was met with baffled silence. “I think…” the other guard said. “…Yes?”
Hannah said, “So? May I?”
The idea obviously did not appeal to them — was there any history of violence between the wives and the harem? she wondered — but it apparently wasn’t within their rights to bar the door to her. They let her pass.
The ground floor was the baths. It was a vast, cavernous single room — again, hailing back to when the king knew no shame and hosted private parties here with the women attending, but for the most part this was the women’s space alone for them to pamper themselves with. Few of the ladies were here now; they watched her, clearly at a loss. She went to one, a woman about ten years her elder, and said, “Excuse me for intruding. I’m looking for Bilhah.”
The woman pointed up to the ceiling with a single neatly manicured finger. “Third floor,” she said. “The door marked with a corn poppy.”
There was a lovely marble staircase in the back of the room, and Hannah reveled in the freedom of her bare feet and took the steps two at a time. When she reached the third floor, she felt a brief flood of panic: each of the doors had the shape of a flower carved into its wood, each unique, and for a moment she could not call to mind exactly what a corn poppy looked like. She walked down the hall, examining the markings closely.
There. A double ring of petals around a more deeply carved eye. She knocked once; she swallowed and knocked again.
Hannah’s impatience aside, the door opened soon enough. Bilhah was dressed for bed, but she looked down at her and smiled widely. “Lady Hannah,” she said. She was so far the only person here who did not seem surprised to see her. “It is so good to see you again.”
Hannah reached up to grasp her shoulders and pulled her down to her. Bilhah submitted easily. They kissed for a very long time, there in the hallway; Bilhah’s hands came up to comb Hannah’s hair from her face with long fingers, and Hannah gasped softly. Bilhah laughed into the kiss and gently ushered her inside.
Hannah wasn’t sure, honestly, if this was what she had been planning to do, but she couldn’t kid herself. Bilhah tasted wild and sweet, like honey. She couldn’t pull away and or let Bilhah escape her, but the difference in their heights was immediately awkward. Before Hannah could drag her to the floor, Bilhah carefully steered her a few paces to the right, and then the edge of a bed bumped into the back of her calves. Bilhah eased her down, and Hannah finally broke away from the kiss, breathing heavily and flushed.
“My Lady grows tired of her textbooks?” Bilhah said, grinning.
“Yes,” Hannah panted. “Yes, she does.”
“Then allow me to help you relax.” Bilhah reached behind herself and untied her shift. It fell away from her, leaving her bare to the waist; she was beautiful, all lean muscle and graceful bone, with small breasts set high on her chest.
Hannah swallowed. She wanted to touch her. Badly. “This is… this is all right?” she asked. “Is this normal?”
Bilhah shrugged, which was delightful to watch. “I serve the throne.” She smiled. “That includes you.”
Bilhah glanced upward coyly. “Mm… maybe not. But let us say it does.” She shimmied the rest of the way out of night dress, revealing long athletic legs and and a smooth belly. Hannah laid on the bed, watching her dumbly, and Bilhah crawled over her on all fours to straddle her. “This is what you want?” Bilhah asked. A note of uncertainly was finally creeping into tone in the face of Hannah’s sudden passiveness. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Hannah said, and Bilhah kissed her. Hannah didn’t know where to put her hands — God, she was a virgin all over again — and settled with resting them on Bilhah’s shoulders. The contrast with Aryeh was more jarring than she would have expected. He was slender and lean as well, but Bilhah’s shoulder blades were narrower and fit more snugly in the hesitant embrace of Hannah’s hands. She thought of that bird again, its wings nestled in her palms. Bilhah lifted her head and blinked down at her. “Oh,” she said, “you are afraid!”
“I’m not,” Hannah said. She swallowed. “I’m nervous.”
Bilhah shifted her weight off of Hannah so she was lying beside her, hugging her side. “There is nothing to be afraid of,” she said. She gestured to her pelvis and the lovely juncture of her thighs. “You see? I am unarmed.”
Hannah laughed. Bilhah smiled and cupped her jaw. “You have no duties here,” she said. Her hand slid down to caress Hannah’s neck, and then over her chest and to rub her belly through her clothes. Hannah shivered. Her touched lingered at that, but it soon rose again to cup Hannah’s breast through her robe. “You are so pretty,” Bilhah said. “So soft.”
Hannah was sure she intended to respond to that, but all that came out of her throat was a moan. Bilhah sat up to carefully unfasten the gold sun brooch; she twisted around to set it on her nightstand face-down. Beneath her robe Hannah was wearing one of thin dresses meant to be worn with it, and Bilhah’s smile turned lascivious. The warmth of her hand was startling clear through the cloth when she returned to palming Hannah’s breast. Hannah felt the skin of her nipple contract, and Bilhah moved to roll it between her fingers. Hannah gasped, letting her head fall into the pillow and her back arch. “Good?” Bilhah asked. Her tone of her voice made it clear that she knew the answer.
“Oh,” Hannah said. “Yes. Oh, it’s good…” Bilhah took her hand away and bent down to press her mouth to her through the cloth of the dress, and Hannah gasped. Bilhah squeezed her nipple with her lips, and then gently with her teeth, but Hannah felt the shock of it deep between her legs. “Yes,” she said again, and Bilhah circled her with her tongue. The cloth separating them made the touch a little rough. She lifted her hand as though she were in a dream and touched Bilhah’s breast, feeling the gentle way the flesh gave, and Bilhah purred.
Hannah imitated her clumsily and rubbed her nipple with her thumb; she couldn’t see what she was doing and Bilhah’s ministrations made fine movements a little difficult to coordinate, but Bilhah made a noise like Hannah was touching her as perfectly as she was being touched. That sent another internal little thrill through Hannah’s core; her body couldn’t decide whether to tense up or relax. Bilhah reached down to grasp the skirt of Hannah’s dress and slowly pulled it up so she could lay a warm hand on her thigh. She lifted her head to say, “Ah. No stockings.”
Hannah laughed again, giddy. “This is better,” Bilhah said. “I never wear them.”
“You don’t need them,” Hannah said. “You have such beautiful skin.”
Bilhah seemed surprised, and she laughed too. “Thank you!” She looked down the length of one arm and said, “I think many do not like dark skin here. I am unique.”
“You are unique, completely,” Hannah said. She swallowed. “I love it.”
Bilhah smiled down at her. “Lift your hips,” she said.
She did as she was told, and Bilhah slid the dress up past her waist and then over her head. Hannah was past the point of blushing, but her stomach flipped when Bilhah looked down at her with her eyes lingering on her breasts. But she took the opportunity to let her own eyes drop over Bilhah’s lovely frame; she was like a line drawing, simple and spare. Bilhah leaned down to kiss Hannah again, and in the same motion slid her hand down Hannah’s belly and beneath the waist of her underwear.
In the back of her mind, Hannah had been dreading this part. She wished they could kiss and pet each other’s breasts all night. But Bilhah did not push inside of her; her fingers stopped a little short of that and instead touched something that made Hannah gasp. Bilhah smiled into the kiss, and then pulled away from it a little to watch her face as she circled that spot with her fingertip.
“Oh my God,” Hannah whispered. “That’s, what are you–”
“Ah,” Bilhah said. “Our king knows nothing of the differences between women.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “We should tell him, hm?”
“I don’t–” Hannah swallowed hard. “That’s amazing, that’s amazing, oh my God.”
“You see,” Bilhah said, “for some women, a man’s prick is enough, yes? Layla is like this, happy to be fucked. But other women…” She did something subtle, a little flick of her finger, and Hannah had to clap a hand over her mouth. “They like this.”
“What is it?” Hannah asked, her voice shaky.
Bilhah made a thoughtful noise and said, “Your word for it? I do not know it. In Kemetite it is khenti.” She grinned. “Well, that is the polite word. It is very like a prick! But it is very small. Many men and women do not even know it is there.” Her fingers dipped lower briefly and returned slick. “It likes many of the same things a prick likes. To be stroked, to be sucked.” She took obvious pleasure in her next words: “Would you like me to suck you, my Lady?”
Hannah didn’t even think before she spoke. “Yes,” she said, “Yes, please.”
Bilhah pulled her hand free of Hannah’s underwear and moved to tug it down from her hips; Hannah lifted her hips without being asked this time. Bilhah set them aside and repositioned herself by Hannah’s knees. Hannah opened her thighs shyly, as she did for Aryeh, and Bilhah laid down on her stomach before her. “You do not have to cover your mouth,” she said. She pointed around vaguely. “The walls are thick here.”
“Oh.” Hannah bit her lip. “All right.”
Bilhah winked and lowered her head to her, and Hannah let her own head fall back. Bilhah kissed her, and then opened her mouth and touched her tongue to that spot, that khenti. Hannah forced herself to just breathe, and when Bilhah really started she let herself moan. She did much the same as she had with her fingers, but her tongue was soft and rough at the same time, and it molded itself to fit her. Hannah lost track of time. After a few minutes she laid a hand on her own breast and absently plucked at her nipple. Bilhah stroked the inside of her thigh with the backs of her fingers.
What started as a pulse of pleasure ringing in time with the motion of Bilhah’s tongue became a tide. Hannah voiced her gasps and Bilhah moved faster, and before Hannah could wrap her mind around it the tide dragged her under. She cried out from her throat; she grasped clumsily at Bilhah’s hair as her body throbbed with a sort of raw heat that her previous experiences had only hinted at. It eventually retreated, making her feel red and tender, and Bilhah carefully kissed her and withdrew.
“Oh God,” Hannah whispered. Her throat was dry. Bilhah wiped her mouth and the back of her arm and laid beside Hannah again, grinning ear to ear. “Oh my God.”
“You are very sweet,” Bilhah said.
For a while Hannah just laid on Bilhah’s bed and let that warmth pool her joints. She remembered Layla speaking of the harem and disgusting things; I hope she was joking, she thought. She had seemed like she was joking. Hannah turned her face to Bilhah and asked, “What should I do?”
Bilhah smiled. “Do you want to?”
“Yes! Of course!”
Bilhah laughed and stretched out on her back with her arms folded behind her head. Hannah touched her breast like a child unable to keep her hands to herself, and Bilhah closed her eyes, still grinning. “There is something I would like,” she said. “If you are brave.”
Hannah frowned. “Brave?”
Bilhah nodded. “You see, I also like to be fucked.” She shifted her hips a little. “I like a big prick inside me.”
Under normal circumstances, Hannah might have taken this as a rebuff, but her mind was still fuzzy. “How do I do that?”
Bilhah reached for her nightstand’s drawer without sitting up. After a moment of rummaging, she pulled out a long piece of ivory and laid it in Hannah’s hand. Hannah looked down at it blankly for a moment, and then yelped and dropped it on the bed.
Bilhah laughed loudly from her belly at that. “Really?” Hannah asked.
“Yes,” Bilhah said. “Please, Lady Hannah, I want you to fuck me.”
That demand stirred a strange lust in her, something different than before. She picked up the phallus and considered it; it was of very simple design, smoother and more streamlined than Aryeh’s prick and longer. “My goodness,” she said.
Bilhah opened her legs with no shyness whatsoever. Hannah looked down at her — she had never had a good look at her own pubis, so even this was new. “Do I just… put it in?” she asked.
Bilhah laughed. “You are not a man,” she said. She touched a fingertip to a small pearl of flesh nestled within a fold of skin and said, “Khenti.”
Hannah touched her own fingers to it after Bilhah drew her hand away, and Bilhah sighed happily. She could hardly blame Aryeh for his ignorance; it seemed easy to miss. She rubbed it for a moment with the flat of her thumb. “Yes,” Bilhah said, “this is good. But I want to feel your prick.” Hannah thought for a moment and carefully touched the cool tip of the phallus to her, and Bilhah moaned.
She slid its length against that spot gently, letting the ivory glide over Bilhah’s wet lips. Bilhah arched her back and spread her thighs more widely to give her fuller access. “Oh, you feel good,” Bilhah whispered. “Now. Please. I want it in me.”
Hannah swallowed. She aligned the phallus with Bilhah carefully and inched the tip of it into her. She felt no resistance. “Yes,” Bilhah said, her voice urgent, and Hannah pushed it in.
Bilhah shouted. For a terrified second Hannah was afraid she had moved too fast, but Bilhah was bucking her hips up to meet her and was still smiling. Hannah eased the phallus out and pushed it in again, and again, and Bilhah moved against it in a way that was almost obscene. Hannah couldn’t tear her eyes from her. Soon, she gave in: she moved forward as much as she could, still fucking her, and kissed whatever she could reach, her belly, her breasts, the arc of her ribs. Bilhah wrapped her legs around her and laid both of her hands on the back of Hannah’s head. Hannah stopped pulling the phallus from her and just held it in place with her palm, letting Bilhah’s hips rock into it, letting it fill her as Hannah licked the skin between her breasts. When Bilhah met her climax, her legs tightened on Hannah and she cried, “Oh, oh, oh,” into the pillow rucked up by her head.
Hannah pulled the phallus free gently and dropped it on the bed again. She laid her head on Bilhah’s stomach and just rested where she was. Bilhah panted and didn’t move for a long time.
Eventually Hannah felt Bilhah’s hands stroke her hair back again. “I will not lie,” Bilhah said. “I am very fond of the king.”
Hannah sighed. “Yes,” she said. “I like him, too.”
“But I am fond of you as well. Very fond.” Bilhah pet her cheek. “I think… we should not tell him.”
Hannah nodded. “Do you think he’d be angry?”
“Angry? No.” Bilhah paused. “But I think it would injure him. And he needs to be strong.”
“I see.” Hannah picked herself up, finally, and moved to lie across Bilhah so they were level with each other. “I’m glad he has you,” Hannah said. “I’ve been a terrible wife. Studying too much.”
“Hm? He has not called on me since before your wedding.”
Hannah frowned. She lifted her head and asked, “He hasn’t?”
“Then… what’s he been doing?”
Bilhah laughed. “Lady Hannah, when some women are with child, their needs change.” Hannah looked at her blankly, and Bilhah said, “I do not think Layla has let him sleep a night in six months.”
Hannah blinked hard. But she couldn’t help it; she burst out laughing.
Hannah successfully passed the first of her exams three weeks later, and Layla gave birth four days after that to a healthy girl. She and Aryeh named her Talya. She had big blue eyes like her father. Layla was rightfully exhausted, but Aryeh couldn’t tear himself away from her side. He asked Hannah if she’d like to see the baby the day after, and Hannah eagerly accepted.
“Oh my goodness,” she said, holding the tiny thing against her shoulder. “You’re so pretty! You’re such a pretty girl!”
Aryeh beamed. Hannah kissed Talya’s soft forehead and stage-whispered, “I want one.”
Aryeh laughed, blushing, and said, “You can have one. You can have as many as you like.” He watched them, smiling shyly, and asked, “How many exams do you have left?”
“Two.” Hannah grinned as the baby batted at her jaw. “Next week, and then the week after.”
“We’ll throw you a party when you’re done,” Aryeh said. “I’m…” he paused. “I’m really proud of you.” Hannah passed Talya back to him, and he smiled at her grumpy whimper. “I’m proud of you, too!”
“You’re proud?” Hannah asked. “Of me?”
“Of course,” he said. “Having a law scholar in the family will be a huge benefit to the administration. I will have the word of the law beside me and you will have the word of God beside you. We’ll legitimize each other a great deal.”
Hannah hadn’t looked at it that way before. “You think so?”
He nodded. “You’ll see. And you’ll be a role model for little girls who think the judiciary is just for men!” He kissed Talya’s temple. “Isn’t that right.”
Hannah shook her head and laughed. “Well, I look forward to it.”
“So do I,” Aryeh said, and something in his voice made the sentiment wistful.
Hannah raised an eyebrow. “You have not been neglected,” she said.
“No,” he said. He smiled down at her. “But still.”
“Still,” Hannah said.