The Queen

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There were scorch marks where the ifreet had walked, black, sooty scars on the pale alabaster tile. The young queen sat on the floor, her back against a tall pillar, and stared at them.

The throne hall was open on all four sides to an expansive view of a green isle ringed by azure seas, and a warm breeze played among the hundred pillars supporting the domed ceiling. It ruffled the queen's curls, and she shuddered and drew her knees to her chest. She wore a thin, gauzy gown of blue that exposed her back and arms, tied with a simple gold cord at her waist. The day had begun warm, and usually she liked to feel the open air on her skin. Now she felt only a chill that no fire could warm.

"Padore, if we are to meet the Shaitan's demand, we must act soon. The sun will set in a few hours."

She looked up to see a tall, bronze-skinned young man standing across from her, dressed in a knee-length blue robe, his feet sandaled. He had the same dark curls as she, and the same round face and full lips. Beside him stood another, identical in appearance, but wearing white.

"Tarin, Arun, my brothers," she said, forbidding her voice to shake, "how can I do this? What kind of queen would I be?"

The young men exchanged looks, and Tarin stepped forward. "You can't give in to this madness. We've never bowed to the demands of the jinn before. We cannot do so now, or next time, it will be sixty lives they want, then one hundred. The king of Qopta surrenders one thousand virgins to the Shaitan each year! Would you do the same?"

The queen gazed up at him, swallowing. "I know this, Tarin. But if I don't..."

"If you don't," said Arun "then the Shaitan will destroy us. Padore, sister, queen: listen to me! What are forty lives against thousands? We know the story of the Baharran king, who would not give his daughter to the Shaitan. And where is Baharra now? It is a scorch mark in the dirt."

"Arun, you would ask her to be party to murder," said his twin harshly.

"Either way, people will die. Better a few than all of us, I say."

"Better to die with honor than live with shame."

"Don't fight with each other," Padore said, covering her face with her hands. "Please. I asked you here to counsel me, but one of you points east as the other points west. How am I to know where to go?"

Arun crossed the floor, stepping over the ifreet's footprints, and crouched beside her. He sighed and rested a hand on her knee. "I'm sorry, sister. It is your decision. You are queen, and whatever you say, we will stand at your side as we always have."

"Yes," she said, smiling sadly, reaching up to put her hand against his cheek. "You always have."

He and Tarin were both twenty-one, tall, strong, and quick. The twin prides of Ghedda, warriors in their own right, and her steadfast friends. It seemed not so long ago they were all children, running wild on the beaches. Her brothers would carry her out into the waves, letting her sit on their shoulders to watch the porpoises play at sunset. She thought of all the other bright young citizens like them, of the sons and daughters who would die like lambs if she met the Shaitan's bloody demand.

Her mother, Queen Amadris, had been the one to abolish jinn-worship in Ghedda. She had closed the great alomb at the center of the island, forbidding the ancient practice of sacrifice at the feet of the ifreet, shaitan, and other jinn. No longer did people offer their children's lives on the altars, garnering magical favors in return. And for nearly forty years, the Gheddans had lived in peace, free of magic and its terrible price. When the crown had passed to Padore, she had determined to continue her mother's great legacy, remaining unbowed before the forces of Ambadya, the fiery world of the jinn. Ghedda was a small nation, confined to one island, keeping to its own affairs and intruding on none. They had escaped the notice of the jinn for a few decades, but inevitably the Shaitan, King of Ambadya, had turned his jealous eye toward the island and its peaceable citizens.

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