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Harvest of Gold
By Tessa Afshar, Pam Pugh
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2013 Tessa Afshar
All rights reserved.
THE TWENTIETH YEAR OF KING ARTAXERXES' REIGN WINTER, PERSEPOLIS
Sarah's head snapped up as the door to her chamber burst open with uncharacteristic force. Her friend and handmaiden, Pari, rushed in, tunic askew, strands of usually pristine brown hair hanging around her face in a haphazard tangle.
"The baby's here!" she said, her voice high as she waved a long arm for emphasis.
Sarah jumped to her feet. "And Apama? How is she?" Apama, the wife of the second assistant gardener, had gone into labor with her first baby three days ago. The baby had proven reluctant to come. By the end of the second day everyone had started to fear the worst.
Pari's lips flattened into a straight line. "Bardia says she is too weak. They allowed me a glimpse of her before I came over. She's whiter than a bowl of yogurt, and lies shaking in spite of the fire burning in the brazier next to her pallet."
A shiver ran through Sarah. Bardia, the head gardener and practically a member of Darius's family, was not in the habit of careless pronouncements. "That doesn't sound encouraging. Perhaps we can do something to help."
She strode to the bank of shelves built into a niche in one corner of her bedchamber. Neat piles of soft sheets, wool blankets, and cotton-filled quilts stacked on top of each other. Sarah chose an exquisite linen quilt made of various shades of blue and green fabric, embroidered with silver thread. "This should help keep her warm."
Pari's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "Didn't the queen give you that coverlet?"
"She has stunning taste, hasn't she?"
"Indeed, my lady. More to the point, won't she mind your giving away the gift she chose for you with her own stunning taste?"
"Not if she doesn't find out," Sarah said, unable to keep the smile from her voice. "Besides, having suffered through a difficult birth herself, she is likely to approve. We should send a few things for the baby as well. Is it a boy or a girl?"
Pari slapped a hand over her mouth. "In all the excitement, I forgot to ask. I only know it is healthy."
Sarah tucked a loose curl behind her ear. "That's the important thing. I saw some linens in the storehouse that should suit a new baby. Let's fetch them." She and Pari paid a brief visit to the storehouse and retrieved a few appropriate articles for the newborn.
"His lordship has already sent over a lamb," Pari said as they walked back to Sarah's apartments. "He had instructed Bardia to bring it over as soon as Apama gave birth."
Sarah was not surprised by Darius's thoughtfulness. Children were highly cherished by the Persians. The whole household rejoiced at the birth of a baby, even one belonging to a lesser servant.
She frowned at the thought of Darius. It had been five long days since he had sent for her. His lack of interest ate at her with a sharpness that robbed her of sleep at night and of rest during the day. Was he losing interest in her already? The thought made her want to weep.
She had not always been desperate for his company. When her marriage had first been arranged by the queen, it had felt like a blight that ruined her life. She had chosen neither her husband nor the state of matrimony.
Everyone assumed that a simple Jewish girl should be overjoyed at the prospect of marrying the king's cousin. But at the time Sarah had wanted nothing more than to continue serving as the queen's senior scribe, the only woman in the empire to have ever been honored with such a post. The first four months of her marriage had been a nightmare of mutual resentment. But in time, she and Darius had learned to accept each other and settled into a happy companionship. She gave a wry twist of her mouth as she sat on a purple linen couch. Her feelings for Darius were far more complex than companionship.
The problem was that she loved him.
She loved him.
Much good it did her, for he did not return her feelings. She knew he cared for her. He had set his concubines free, and settled them in their own independent establishments, and made Sarah the only woman in his life. By his own admission, he enjoyed her company and admired her. But he never confessed love for her.
Her puppy, Anousya, tired of being ignored, interrupted her reverie by jumping up and putting his head on her lap, gazing at her with adoring eyes. At six months, he was already large, and beginning to develop the massive structure that had marked his cousin Caspian, Darius's favorite dog. Sarah still missed Caspian, who had been the most astounding dog she had ever met.
She leaned over and caressed Anousya behind his ears, drawing comfort from the warmth of his solid body. He gave her a puppy smile full of pleasure.
He had been a present from Darius. Her mouth softened as she remembered the night she had named him. Her first suggestion that they call him Silk—because he was so soft—had met with undisguised disapproval.
"Silk!" Darius had exclaimed, sounding offended. "He's not a little girl's toy dog. He is from a noble bloodline, worthy of kings and princes."
Sarah had smoothed the lines of her flowing skirt over her thigh. "How about Honey? He is so sweet; that would be a perfect name."
Darius's dark brows lowered with displeasure.
"You don't like Honey either?" She pretended to pout. "You said I could name him anything I liked."
"Ah. I did say that. I beg your pardon. Honey ... Honey, it is." He spoke the name as if he was chewing on a mouthful of salted sour cherries.
"Thank you, my lord! How perfect. I can imagine it vividly. Having a house full of your mighty friends, and you calling out in front of them: Here, Honey. Fetch, Honey. They will be delighted by such a spectacle."
"Wench." The grooves in his cheeks deepened. "I'd be looking at you the whole time I said it. Here, Honey," he said, patting his lap.
She burst into laughter and threw herself into his arms.
"I have a better idea. What if we call him Anousya?" She suggested the name, knowing that her husband would approve of the allusion to the king's elite royal guard, better known as the Immortals.
"Now that's a fitting name," he said. "He shall be a warrior dog."
She poked him in the side where she knew him to be ticklish. "He shall be a companion dog," she said, reminding him of the original meaning of the Persian word.
Sarah sighed. She could not understand her husband. Sometimes, it seemed to her, he battled his own heart, wanting her with half and rejecting her with the other. Then again, he had never gone five whole days without sending for her, not since they had committed to living as true husband and wife.
"Apama and her husband will be thrilled with your gifts, my lady," Pari said, interrupting Sarah's thoughts. She lifted her arms, now piled with the linens they had fetched from the storehouse sitting precariously on top of the queen's coverlet. "Would you like to come with me as I deliver them?"
"I think not. They always seem flustered when I visit, though I do my best to put them at ease. What they need is peace and quiet. You take those with my compliments. And I will pray for Apama."
Pari wasn't absent for long. She returned, carrying a tray loaded with food. "Shushan has sent you thick herb soup with wheat noodles and hot bread from the ovens," she said as she set the table.
"She read my mind!" Sarah exclaimed as the fragrance of mint and fried onions filled her room. "I've been craving one of her hearty soups all day." Sarah bent over the bowl and inhaled the complex aroma of herbs and spices with pleasure. Darius's one-eyed, skinny cook could transform simple vegetables and meat into an unforgettable feast for the senses.
"Bardia says Apama shows improvement. She smiled when I covered her with your quilt. She is too weak to speak, but her eyes filled with tears when I told her the coverlet had once belonged to the queen. Her husband more than made up for her silence. He bid me to thank you and his lordship so many times that I had to escape while he was midsentence. He'll probably fall at your feet or something equally embarrassing when next he sees you." She lifted the tray on which she had carried the food and turned as if to leave before coming to a sudden halt. "I almost forgot. A messenger just arrived from Susa. He has a missive from Her Majesty for you."
Damaspia, the queen of Persia, was kind enough to consider Sarah a friend—a privilege that sometimes exacted a terrible price, as Sarah well knew. The queen had entered into the habit of writing Sarah, sharing the latest news since she and Darius had moved to his lavish estate near Persepolis six months ago, while the rest of the court resided in Susa for the winter months.
Sarah looked from the steaming bowl to the roll of papyrus in Pari's hand. In a low voice, she spoke a prayer of thanksgiving over her food. As soon as she finished, she held out one hand for the missive while grasping a spoon to start eating. She was too hungry to wait on the soup and too curious to wait on the letter. Pari gave her a disapproving look, but surrendered the missive. Sarah knew she did not have the most graceful table manners even when she was focused on the task. Reading and eating at the same time spelled disaster for either the upholstery or her delicate clothing. Or, most likely, both. She offered Pari her best conciliatory expression before tearing into Damaspia's seal.
She had the skills of a fast and accurate reader, but she read the letter twice to ensure she had understood the queen's command. She looked at the date of its composition with a frown. It had been written two months ago. With a swift motion that almost upended her soup bowl, she rose from the couch.
"Artaxerxes and Damaspia have asked us to visit them at Susa. But they want us to be there in eighteen days!"
"Under three weeks? You would have to fly to arrive in time," Pari said with a gasp.
"I know. Would you please fetch the courier who brought this letter? At once."
A few moments later a young man, still in riding gear, stood at her door next to Pari. Sarah thanked him for his prompt presence. "Can you tell me when this missive was first given to the royal courier service?"
He searched through his leather satchel and retrieved a papyrus scroll. After a few moments of study, he nodded. "Here it is. It was part of a larger batch from the queen's offices. The whole packet was given to us three weeks ago."
Sarah dismissed him with her thanks. His answer confirmed what she had suspected. Damaspia's scribe must have missed the fact that this letter was time sensitive and delayed sending it until a larger packet became ready for dispatch. Deferments of mail were common practice, which saved money and resources. But the scribe was supposed to know when a letter should not be delayed. Sarah quashed an uncomplimentary thought about the inattention of Damaspia's new senior scribe.
"Is his lordship at home?" she asked Pari.
"Yes, my lady."
"Then take this letter to him. Tell him it's from the queen, and that it's urgent."
Sarah wondered if Darius would come to her in response to the queen's letter, or if he would make arrangements without consulting her. It had become his habit to speak to her about most of his affairs of business in the past few months. Given his recent distance, however, he might choose to attend the matter without involving her.
* * *
Darius returned from the palace at Persepolis nursing the start of a pesky headache. Hours of dealing with one of Artaxerxes' foreign officials had proven exceptionally dreary. Halfway through the meeting he'd thought of Sarah. An intense longing for her company overcame him, tempting him to cut the meeting short.
He controlled the urge, not out of concern that the official might take offense, but because this disconcerting yearning for Sarah was exactly what he had been trying to battle against for weeks. He felt as if he was losing control and did not enjoy that feeling. Staying away from her seemed the safest course.
But keeping his distance failed to curb his hunger for his wife. He had spent the whole hour since his return from Persepolis staring at new maps from the cartographer while thinking of the outline of Sarah's curves.
The last time she had visited his apartments, she had accidentally left a sheer scarf behind. Instead of returning it to her, he had held on to it, draping the turquoise silk over the back of a sofa. He leaned against the folds of fabric now, and pulled one corner against his lips. The faint smell of roses still clung to the delicate shawl. He inhaled the scent before shoving the fabric away.
She had sent him into convulsions of laughter the night she left the scarf behind, pulling it low over her forehead and scrunching her lips, mimicking with astonishing accuracy thevoice of Artaxerxes' dreaded mother, Amestris. "Eat your spinach or it will be the dungeons for you, my boy. I'll chop off your nose, don't think I won't. Your handsome features don't impress me."
"You keep that up and you'll be the one in the dungeons. Amestris has spies everywhere. For all you know, I'm one of them."
Sarah gave a nonchalant shrug of one shoulder. "Or I might be one of her spies, setting a trap for you."
"You haven't eaten your spinach, have you? Shows a distinct lack of obedience. Even the vague likeness of the queen mother should motivate you into submission."
Darius laughed. "Submission and I don't get along. You should have learned that by now."
She leaned over. For a breathless moment he thought she would kiss him. Instead, she stretched a hand and pulled a tiny piece of flint from his hair. She blew on the fragile thread and watched it fly into the air. "One can always hope."
He felt the tug of challenge in her voice. Something ancient and intensely male rose up in him, filled with excitement at the thought of that challenge.
And that was the trouble with the woman. She managed to hold his interest in a thousand ways. Peace as well as entertainment seemed to follow in her wake, though she offered both without conscious effort.
Her intelligence impressed him, and that was not an easy accomplishment with a man who spent his days around the most brilliant minds of the world. And yet, instead of giving herself airs, she got on her hands and knees and scrubbed the head gardener's floor when his cottage became infested from the damp.
When Pari came to tell him that an urgent summons had arrived from the queen, he leapt to his feet with the alacrity of a hungry lion. He no longer had to fight against his own urges. He had no choice, after all. It was his duty to go to his wife. As he made his way to Sarah's apartments, he realized with sheepish relief that his headache had disappeared.
* * *
A brief knock on Sarah's door heralded a visitor. The knock proved a polite formality, as her husband let himself in before she could respond. Darius appeared every inch the courtier today, dressed in a tunic of soft, midnight blue wool that clung to his tall figure, emphasizing long, toned muscles. As if he needed sartorial enhancement to improve his looks. Darius turned heads even when wearing old hunting gear. Deep green eyes narrowed as Sarah bowed before him.
"How formal," he said, when she rose.
"It seemed appropriate." She gestured toward his elegant outfit. Earlier that morning she had been for a walk with Anousya and had found, discarded, a few alluring tail feathers from the priceless peacocks that roamed the grounds. She picked the most colorful one and tucked it into his belt. "Here. I think you must have dropped this earlier."
He pulled out the feather, intending to stroke Sarah's cheek with its soft plume. She sidestepped the caress. Darius frowned. "Such audacity," he said with mock rage. "Are you implying I am a peacock? I've been closeted with one of the king's officials most of the morning. Had to dress the part, that's all."
He waved the queen's letter. "What's this about, do you know? Why the great rush? We have to be on the road in two days and ride the back roads light and fast to arrive in time."
"I don't know why Damaspia and the king have requested our presence in Susa. It might be a routine visit."
Darius arched a dark brow, speaking volumes without needing to use words. Artaxerxes and his queen rarely wasted time with routine anything. The fact that they had summoned Darius and Sarah meant they had a purpose to the visit.
Sarah raised her chin. "I'm afraid I have no idea what is behind this royal invitation. But I can explain the inconvenient timing. That would be the fault of Damaspia's new senior scribe. If you look at the date, you will find that she dictated this message two months ago, in good time for us to make arrangements and arrive at Susa with utmost convenience. So whatever her reason for summoning us, it could not have been an emergency. Unfortunately, her new scribe must have overlooked the date the queen has mentioned. I checked with the courier. The letter was not sent until three weeks ago, which places us in an awkward position."
Excerpted from Harvest of Gold by Tessa Afshar, Pam Pugh. Copyright © 2013 Tessa Afshar. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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