Early Winter: 552 BC
I whisper into the brilliant afternoon sunlight, “Humata. Hukhta. Huvarshta.”
The city built of mud and unbaked brick breathes life – the voices of the people rising. I stand out of sight, blending into the deep shadows cast from the columns as I repeat the phrase in self-assurance: Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds. Everything I’ve done, and will do, is for my people.
“Do you hear them crying out for your death, Father?” I ask.
The half corpse lies on the bed and a soft moan escapes his lips but I continue staring outside. A warm winter desert breeze sweeps through, tousling strands of my long dark hair and blows them across my face. I brush them away and wonder how many people have taken to the streets, eagerly awaiting the news they’ve been praying for. It’s impossible to count the Medes dotted with Persians that are the citizens of Issatis. They’re a blur of dingy color washing over the streets.
I approach the bed draped in gold curtains. If not for his paralytic state, one would assume he’s in perfect health – his waist protrudes and the fat in his face fills wrinkles that would otherwise show in a man of lower-class, but never the ruling Satrap. Playing the part of a loving daughter although no one watches is laughable. Sitting beside him, I lay my hand on his forearm. Where red hot life once thrived, it’s now chilled. Stagnant. What little remains seeps into my hand and in moments I’ll have taken it all.
I gaze upon him, emotionless. “May you have learned something in this life to carry to the next. Goodbye, Pedar,” I say, keeping the interaction formal. As far as I can remember, I’ve never called him, Bâbâ. This man may as well be a stranger. His dark brown eyes meet mine. He knows, but he’s too weak to speak. Too weak to call out for the guards, too weak to save himself. I knew it would come to this one day. Yet, I tried to change it – I wish I’d succeeded. The failure makes me hate him more. I want to ask him why power and riches were more important, but I know the answer wouldn’t give me closure. His eyes flutter closed and his last breath is soft upon his parted lips beneath his greying beard.
My eyes drift closed as searing heat spreads through me and threatens to burst. The world is anew when I open them. I stand, smooth my dress and walk to the heavy wooden door and swing it wide.
The two guards outside the door jerk to attention and look to me, expectant.
“He has passed,” I announce. “Notify the counsel.”
They rush to do as commanded and I return to the room, lean against the column nearest the balcony and wait.
Cheers burst when the first blow of the horn bursts and resounds in the square. The people chant over and over, “The Satrap is dead!”
I revel in their joyous proclamation of his death.
Footsteps echo behind me and the owner clears his throat.
“It is not a blessed day?” I ask, continuing to observe the people.
“Āmitis, the General requires your presence.”
I whirl and narrow my eyes on one of his men, scowling. The soldier takes a hurried step back.
“Satrap Āmitis – I am the ruling governor here now and you will address me as such. As for the General, he may demand my presence, but I am not his to command. He knows where to find me.”
I whip around, stride outside, and across the balcony to its edge. Beyond the high outer walls surrounding Issatis, the land changes quickly to the barren landscape of the surrounding deserts and the mountains rising in the far distance. We’re isolated from the growing turmoil between the Medes and Persians, the sun and sand keeping us safe. But it will soon end – the dark hand of death approaches. Some of the people cheer at the sight of me. Other’s boo. A slow new chant begins, half of the people joining in. “Long live the Satrap! Long live the Satrap!”
The people have expectations. Am I my father’s daughter or am I something else? I am both.
Smoke and saffron sting my nose as it drifts toward me, accompanied by the heavy fall of rapid steps. A hush falls over the crowd. “I believe they’re eager to see what will happen next. Shall I amaze them?”
The General grunts and comes to stand beside me. Sweat drips from the side of his face and into his graying beard. He must have run to my side, eager to control the situation. His polished golden scaled armor and red cloak distinguish him as General to everyone watching. “And what does the young Satrap plan on doing to ‘entertain’ her people?” A rueful chuckle rumbles in his chest.
“I will show them change.” I smile, sweet and devious.
Heat rises in his face and his brows furrow at my mockery. I am all that remains standing in his way of all he desires.
“You think it’s that easy? It takes longer than sixteen years to learn to lead a great city such as Issatis. You may be Satrap, Āmitis, but you don’t know the people. That is why you need a strong general such as me.”
I meet his glare. The General towers over me by at least a foot, but I haven’t any fear. “We had a strong and fair general. Do you not remember General Shari? My mother.”
“It’s a shame she became ill and had to step down.”
My muscles tighten. I doubt that very much, his advancement is proof enough he’s to blame for me. If I could only figure out how he poisoned her…
“We aren’t the only ones on verge of rebellion. Word arrived this morning that another of the High King’s Satraps turned supporter of that rebel, half Persian, grandson of his,” he spits in disgust. “Mark my words, you won’t be able to handle the responsibilities of Satrap. If Astyages lets you keep the position, you’re going to lose the power you just attained.”
“Because of rebellion or because you’re planning on seizing power?”
He smirks. “Revolution is upon you, regardless of Astyages and Cyrus’… issues. Do you even have the soldiers outside of your personal army under your control?”
Arrogant bastard. I clench my jaw, take a deep breath and release it slowly. He braces himself on the ledge and leans. His eyes graze the city below, hungrily taking it in. “There’s only one way stop an uprising: Destroy it.”
“No,” I breathe as my lips slide into a sly smile. “The people will die for me and love me for allowing them to do it.”
He lets out a snort of derision but he can’t stop himself from asking, “How?”
“I will give them exactly what they want,” I announce, and place my hand on top of his. “I will lead their revolution.”
The General’s eyes widen. He gasps, struggling to breathe. Jerking wildly, he tries to pull his hand from mine but it doesn’t free. I tighten my grasp and dig my nails into his hand as I drain his life while thinking of choking him. He claws at his throat with his free hand and I wonder if he will tear it open in desperation. I’d like to see that. This is an end befitting the things he’s done in his time as General. He falls to his knees and his two guards rush forward.
I hold out my hand, palm out. They stop. I’m surprised they follow my order. But in the end they know whose word is law, especially when one of us is on our knees. Leaning, my lips brushing his ear, I whisper tenderly, “I’m more than my father’s daughter. I am my mother’s daughter, and her Magian blood flows through my veins. You will die knowing her power flows through me and that my father’s line no longer lies dormant. Both lines of power sing though my blood and together, they have created something new.”
Straightening my back, I stare at the disposed General. He wheezes and gurgles one last time and falls on his side. Dead, bulging eyes stare at me, mouth agape, and his face is a bright purplish-red. But the color fades now that the beating of his heart has stopped.
I pulse with his and my father’s life. Everything is brighter and clearer. Sharp like never before. A desert lark lands on the edge of the balcony rail and chirps a song. I stare at the little bird and take it as a good omen. It flutters its wings and leaps, taking to the sky. I could soar away with the energy coursing through my veins.
But that isn’t to be, nor will I be keeping the life I’ve taken. I pull the sheathed sword from his belt. It is polished and sharp. The razor’s edge gleams in the sunlight. It’s beautiful. I raise it high and bring it down with all my might. Crimson sprays against my dress and leaks, the blood pooling at my feet. Satisfied, I grab hold of his hair and pickup his head.
Turning to the guards, I instruct, “Put his body on the ledge.”
They stand unmoving. This was their general: There is no greater dishonor than to not die in battle or to not have a proper funeral. But he doesn’t deserve one. For too long he encouraged my father to amass wealth and ignore the people unless it was law to benefit their and the High King’s gain. Both were puppets of Astyages, and it wouldn’t be long before they followed in his footsteps and enslaved anyone they wished – including their own people. My people.
I hiss at them, “Are you refusing a command from your Satrap?”
The soldiers shake their heads vigorously and lurch to do as commanded. They heave the body onto the edge. They hesitate, looking at me one last time in hope I rescind the order. They know what I intend.
Returning my attention to my people, I ascend the stairs to the top of the wide ledge and thrust the head high into the air for all to see. Warm blood runs down, twisting and encircling a trail around my arm, and splatters against my white dress embroidered with gold and jewels. I want… no… I need them to see red against the stark white. Visuals are as important as words during precarious times such as this. I announce clear and strong, “My people: The Satrap’s reign has ended, I give you his General.” I nod, commanding the soldiers to proceed. They roll the body over the edge and it falls to disappear from sight. My eyes flicker down, making sure his horrid body didn’t hit anyone beneath. I wonder what they will do with the useless corpse.
Letting my lids drift closed, I lift my face to the sky and pray, ‘Please, Ahura Mazda, please let this be what they need to unite and follow where I lead.’ Opening my eyes, I draw a deep breath and with all I have, shout, “A new era has begun!”
A roar overtakes the crowd and reverberates off of the buildings. They may not know everything that happened here or why, but they know nothing is the same. It’s all they need to know. I toss the head to the ground below with the rest of the body. Satisfied, I return inside, leaving them to chant, “Long live the Satrap!”
A figure stands at the foot of my father’s bed. I wonder when he arrived and how much he saw. Before I have the chance to ask, Astiak speaks as I stop a few feet away.
“That was an intriguing display.”
“I’m glad to have amused you, Uncle.”
Astiak abruptly inclines his head and half bows. “I am yours to command, Satrap.”
The shadows of the guards glide across the polished marble floor. I doubt he’d have done the same had they not come inside.
“Men,” I call their attention. “Astiak is General.”
He doesn’t bother to fake surprise. Instead he remains passive – an expression he wears as often and as well as old worn-in shoes. We’d discussed the position when it was announced the Satrap was close to death. I will keep the secret I taunted the General with minutes ago.
Astiak wastes no time in exercising his new power. “Inform your comrades forthwith. I’ll address the troops in two hours. Make sure they’re ready.”
Bowing, they make their exit.
We wait until their footsteps have long since faded before moving, let alone speak. The palace is as dangerous as the land beyond our own, the gentle green lands seem to breed hostility rather than conquer it.
Astiak clears his throat. “The poison worked quicker than I thought.”
“What of it?”
“Only an observation.” He strolls toward the balcony and stops where I stood earlier. I wonder what he’s thinking as the celebration continues throughout the city and fills the air. I hope they remember this day as one that untied us and made us strong when the obscurity of war descends.
“It’s also an indication one should be diligent if worried for their health.”
A laugh bubbles and I press my fingertips to my lips. I grin at his back. If only he had an idea of how true his words are. It makes me wonder if he knows how precarious his own position is. The support garnered by my mother must give him great comfort.
“You know, I’ve always been amazed at how fortunate you are to be blessed with the gift of the Magi considering you’re only half.”
“Indeed.” Waiting, I let him lead the conversation.
He spins and strides toward me. “Zara’s dream of the Satrap becoming ill… Remarkable.”
“Although fortunate, as my next in command, I don’t find it remarkable – what happens to me affects her.” I wonder if he suspects I interpreted my own dream – a gift even full blooded Magi lack the ability to do.
He studies me, intent. “You travel a precarious road, Āmitis.”
I swallow the lump forming in my throat. I loathe the way he looks at me. There’s a constant feeling of failure that accompanies it. It’s as if he’s expects something more and believes I’ll never meet the secret expectations. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does.
“Is there something else you’d like to add?”
In his hesitation to answer, I stride past him, eager to be rid of confusion and self-doubt he instills. His hand is suddenly on my arm and forcing me to stop and face him.
“Be careful, Āmitis. If not for your sake, for your mother’s.”
Panic flashes. I cannot decipher if it was a veiled threat or genuine concern. “What is that supposed to mean?”
The grasp on my arm falls away and for a second, Astiak looks helpless, if not lost.
“It means: Don’t let your drive for power change you into what you despise…” His eyes fall upon my father’s body.
Fury rises – I know what’s going to happen and yet I can’t stop. “I didn’t usurp power and cover myself in that vile man’s blood because I want power, I did it because I had to…” My arm snaps out and I point to the balcony. “For them!” Like thunder, my voice bounces off of the columns and polished marble floor and fills my ears. I cut myself of before I spill a secret.
“If you don’t have the forethought to watch out for yourself, someone else must.”Dropping my voice low, I challenge him, “I don’t know why you’re always trying to cast yourself in the role as my father with these bits of advice and misplaced concern, but you can see it where it led the father I had. Keep to your position as General.”