The Wisest Maiden
by Dahlia DeWinters
Liquid Silver Books
eBook ISBN: 978-159578-969-3
After she is forced into marriage with a powerful ruler who deflowers and kills his brides, Issalia is compelled to use her wits to avoid the executioner’s axe. But can she avoid having her heart captured by the deeply wounded king?
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Even the soothing sounds of wind chimes were unable to calm Issalia’s heartbeat. Shaded from the hot desert sun, she brushed sand from the market stall’s counter with trembling fingers, pausing to scan the bustling Maolin bazaar. A windstorm brewed, sending a dry rush of wind across her face and rendering her actions useless, for as soon as she swept the burnished wooden board clean of sandy grains, another wave blew in to take their place. She blew out her breath in frustration. Sand was a way of life in the small desert country of Al’eam.
“Don’t bother yourself, Issa.” Her father pushed through the back curtain to peer over her shoulder. “Only do it when you see a customer approaching. You will look busy and they will be more grateful for your time.”
Issa pulled the indigo headscarf more snugly over her hair, preventing her bronzed curls from flying over her face. The wind was much stronger now, whipping it into her eyes and mouth. As much as she loved the warm breeze blowing across her scalp, a wild head of hair was not conducive to good business. She tried to smile as she gazed out over the busy bazaar, one hand absently swiping at the stray strands. Her mother would have insisted she wrap her hair up as tightly as possible, but her father was not as strict.
“I know you are not used to the market, daughter.” Her father’s expression was somber, his eyes dark in his sun-browned face as he scanned the teeming crowds. “I do not feel comfortable having you here at all.”
Issa laid a comforting hand over her father’s work-worn one. “Papa, it could not be helped. We must do the market every day, and since Mama was sick, I had to come. It takes two to run the shop.”
Papa’s gaze continued to dart around the grouping of wooden stalls. Some had tops like theirs, a sturdy covering to keep the desert sun from scorching the herbs and oils they sold for seasoning, healing, skin care, and other more intimate uses. A few of the other stalls were simple frames with rough boards for a counter. These were the temporary stalls. The owners moved from market to market throughout the province because they could not afford the permanent vendor prices. While the family was fortunate enough to have a permanent one, being available for business every single day was a necessity in keeping up with the fees.
“You cannot keep watch on every male who wanders through the market, Papa.” Issa smiled at a woman who approached the booth to purchase some basil and safflower. The herbs lay in little bunches, each in their own muslin bags, dampened to keep them fresh. “Many thanks and blessings to you.” She slipped the woman’s money into a box under the counter before she went back to her futile sweeping. At least it gave her something to do. “King Toridesh cannot be around every corner.”
Papa sighed. “It troubles me to put you on display like this. Your mother and I have gone through great effort to keep you sheltered, but to do this seems like asking for trouble.” He shook his head.
“Mama is sick. The women will not purchase from a man. It takes two to handle the market traffic.” Issa raised her hands, palms up. Papa needed to not worry so much. “What else could we do? We have to live, do we not? Besides, the rumor is that the king is visiting the Kammas province. It is doubtful he is here.”
Papa walked behind the muslin curtain at the rear portion of the stall to continue cutting the herbs and placing them in bags. If a male customer wanted something a little more special for his tastes, Papa would be available to speak to the client and Issa would disappear behind the curtain. But it was necessary for her to be the primary shopkeeper. No woman would dare approach the stall with a lone male as attendant.
Issa suppressed a smile as she glanced over the “special” muslin bags that were marked with the arrow symbol. Though she had not yet had a suitor, nor been intimate with a man, she was well-versed in the herbs that could boost a man’s stamina and increase his desire for a female. She also knew the herbs that would do the same for a woman, as well as the ones that would cure a fever, induce sleep, and make a tasty Maolinian stew. It was useful knowledge to have when dealing with the problems and issues of humankind.
Hot wind whipped her headscarf across her face again, blinding her for a moment. Tired of fighting the delicate material, she pulled it off altogether and used it to bind her long tresses at the nape of her neck. Now both her hair and the scarf would be out of her face. She bent her head and straightened the already neat rows of herbs beneath the glass.
“Maiden, I am looking for some cooking herbs. Can you be of some assistance to me?” The melodious baritone caught her attention and she raised her head with a polite smile on her face, ready for the next client.
“Yes, sirron, how may I help you today? We have many seasonings that are suitable for cooking.” She gestured toward the rows of dried leaves and roots, ready to explain the type of herbs they carried when her heart stuttered in her chest, rendering her speechless. Any forthcoming words were halted by the presence of the man who stood before her. She had never seen one quite like him before.
A royal purple cloth covered the stranger’s face, except for his amber eyes, startling against his carob skin and black eyebrows. His pants and top were dusty and baggy, but when the wind pulled the linen taut against his body, Issa saw the fine musculature of his arms and torso. A sudden dart of arousal shot through her, weakening her knees, and for a brief moment, she imagined the stranger’s hands caressing her most intimate parts. The wind whipped past her face again, causing her to suck in her breath.
Their gazes met and Issa recognized that the stranger was there for more than cooking herbs, judging by the knowing look in his eyes. It was time for Papa to intervene. She slid off her stool, but in her hurry, the material of her skirt caught on a treacherous nail protruding from the counter. Desperate to get away from this stranger, whose eyes were too probing, too knowing, she snatched at it, causing the recalcitrant material to wrap even tighter. She did not wish to reach out to free herself, not wanting to have any part of her body any closer to this man who now watched her as if she were a sheep tethered to be a lion’s meal.
Just when she thought she was going to have to rip her skirt, he reached over the counter, and with a flick of his fingers, freed it from the nail. With a breathless “Let me get someone to assist you.” she dashed behind the curtain to fetch her father.
She was beautiful, modest, and unassuming, virtues he sought in his brides. By the way she conducted herself he sensed she was a maiden, a pure freshling who was more than ready for his touch. The brief flash in her coffee eyes told him everything. Her lips were full and lush as the most succulent plum from the palace garden. The loose linen blouson and skirt, while modest, did little to hide her generous bosom and rounded hips. He imagined stroking her velvet nutmeg skin in the deepest hours of the night as she pressed her softness against him. He wanted this sloe-eyed female, to gorge himself on the pleasures of her unspoiled, ripe body.
He snapped his fingers when the father approached the counter, dropping the fabric mask from his face.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, royal majesty.” The older man ducked his head in obeisance.
“The maiden who was here, she is your daughter?”
“Yes, royal majesty,” the man stuttered.
“She is a maiden then? There is no question of her purity?” He paused, judging the man’s ability for untruthfulness. “Do not lie to me.”
A look of resignation passed across the man’s face, the wrinkles becoming deeper somehow. “Yes, royal majesty, she is a maiden. Her mother and I have raised her to be close to us.”
“Then why have I not seen her in the marketplace before?”
The man met his gaze and spoke with a slight edge to his voice. “We were hiding her from you.
He was taken aback at the impertinence of the old man but only for a moment. Hiding such a lovely specimen for so long? The old man should be put to death just for that. “It seems as if your efforts to deceive did you no good.” A smile spread across his face, pleased at his success in acquiring a new bride so quickly. And what a fine bride she would make.
“Not an effort to deceive. An effort to protect our only daughter. She is our only child.”
He waved the subtle plea away and made a motion with his upraised hand. He had no time to listen to the pleas of an old man for his daughter. It would make no difference: he had already decided to have her. Two large guards appeared at his side. “And your efforts were wasted. I am claiming her for my bride.”
Listening from her spot behind the curtain, Issalia nearly wept when she realized it was the murderous king to whom she had been speaking. Three years ago, he had murdered his first queen in a fit of rage after she had betrayed him with another man. For each year after that he had selected a virgin at the same time as his original wedding, kept her for one night and murdered her the next day. Despite her parents’ endeavors, the king had found and chosen her to be his third virgin bride.
When the guards burst through the curtain, she did not resist. Better to go quietly rather than be killed on the spot and her entire family slaughtered.
Her father appeared old and broken next to the huge menacing guards. He touched her cheek gently, tears glistening in his eyes. “Issalia, daughter, I am so sorry.”
She embraced him, willing her strength into him. “Papa.” She spoke directly into his ear. “Do not fret. You and Mama have taught me well. I promise not to disappoint you.” She held him at arm’s length. “Tell Mama I love her and will see her soon.”
“You will see your family at the bridal ceremony,” the king declared. “Now you must go.”
Issalia stared at the king, taking him in from head to toe. He was tall enough that she had to lift her head to look him in the face. A handsome one but with a hint of something else … sadness perhaps? Without the headscarf, he was more imposing, his shaven head gleaming in the shade of the market stall. Gold hoop earrings glinted at both ears, the precious metal lustrous against his dark skin. The cream dashiki he wore was open at the neck, exposing a generous slice of smooth, muscled chest.
Under her unwavering gaze, his eyebrows drew together and his eyes burned through her.
“Say good-bye to your papa, maiden.” He reached out and ran his fingers along the line of her jaw. “You are mine now.”
Though fear churned in her stomach, she glared at the king. “My name is Issalia.” She turned to her father. “Good-bye, Papa,” she said in a softer voice and kissed his wrinkled cheek. “I love you.” To the guards, she said, “I am ready to go.”
She walked, unhindered, from her parents’ market stall in the hands of the king. No tears shone in her eyes and she held her head high, refusing to meet the pitying stares of the merchants and shoppers.
Fearless on the outside but on the inside her heart wept.
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