19. Soraya

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The envoy of House Varaz arrived without much fanfare on his part. Only a small retinue accompanied their prince, and their gifts to Soraya as tribute were meager at best. It was the highest of insults. Any other ruler would have had such offenders executed on the spot, heads sent back to their House in boxes.

But Soraya could not afford such measures. She needed House Varaz desperately. This was merely their way of showing that they knew it too.

Prince Zohar was a man of middling years and middling status. The fourth son of old Goshtab, and thus of no consequence to anyone. Soraya had heard he was skilled in the matters of coin and purse, but a failure on the battlefield. A bitter son, on a hopeless errand for a stubborn father. He would not be easy to persuade... unless Soraya could make a deal worth his while.

And what do you have? She scoffed at herself. A penniless, powerless empress abandoned by all except a sect of equally penniless and powerless priests. Still, it was better than nothing; at least the gods were on her side.

Prince Zohar arrived in a chariot driven by two pure black bulls, a small retinue of guards and advisors walking alongside him on foot. The prince wore simple but rich clothing. A tunic embroidered in gold, a dark red satin sash over his shoulder. His dull brown hair was tucked under a saffron yellow turban that made his skin look wan and sickly. He was already scowling.

Soraya stood in front of the temple gates, Shapur and Farnaz each by one of her shoulders. A hundred priests were amassed in front of the temple to welcome the prince, all bedecked in simple red robes and bowls filled with lotus petals.

Musicians and performers aligned the courtyard, singing and dancing hymns and songs of welcome. The beat of the drums gave Soraya heart, even as her hope dwindled. She tried to stand as strong and resolute as the stone of the walls and pillars behind her. She was immovable- and Prince Zohar was in her territory.

Prince Zohar's chariot rolled to a stop before the assembled crowd. Handing the reigns to a servant, he stepped down and approached Soraya.

Shapur and Farnaz placed their palms together and bowed low to the prince, as did the rest of the priests and monks present. Soraya inclined her head but did not bow- a symbolic gesture that did not go unnoticed. The prince's scowl deepened.

"I welcome you to Azar-Atash, Prince Zohar," Soraya spoke. "I hope the journey wasn't too difficult."

"The road was long, but without trouble, my lady," he replied gruffly. My lady, he said. Not your majesty, or even your highness. Soraya's smile tightened.

"There is to be a celebration to announce your arrival to the Great Fire," She said, gesturing to the display of music and celebration around them. "Please, follow me to the court."

Zohar gave a short nod to his servants and they came to stand beside him. Soraya waited for them to arrange themselves and turned to lead him to the temple. Zohar and his companions filed past the priests and musicians, who chanted and threw lotus petals in the air as he passed. The fanfare filled the entire inner courtyard with sound and color. Zohar barely gave them a second glance, following Soraya through the courtyard and into the inner sanctum.

The inner sanctum of the temple was an architectural wonder- built by the great priest Danir some four hundred years ago, its wide, gaping dome was the largest of its kind in the world. The buttresses and pillars that held up the structure were not designed merely for practicality, but for the utmost beauty and grace. Everything was curves and circles- no straight lines, of course. Demons and devas became confused by twisting paths and could not enter. The format of the entire palace compound was of three concentric circles, one inside the other. A holy shape.

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