By: Kimberley Griffiths Little


1759 BC


Tonight was the night of my betrothal ceremony, and a cold, sharp moon hung low in the eastern sky. I yanked back the heavy panel doors of the tent and peered into the darkness, a lump of dread sitting like curdled camel’s milk in my belly.

Dozens of small torches bobbed and weaved along the paths. Held aloft by the approaching women, they emerged as drops of frozen fire against the blackness. I shivered at the sight of so many guests imminently arriving. A year ago we had celebrated my older sister Leila’s betrothal to Zenos, and now, at sixteen, it was my turn to perform the betrothal dance before my family and the women of my tribe.

As I scanned the path for my sister, nerves raced along my skin. I kicked my bare toes at Aunt Judith’s tapestry rug in her back bedroom, ready to tear the frayed edges into shreds. Leila had promised to dress and perfume me, so I was waiting here, alone. Of course, she was nowhere to be seen. All was darkness and starlight.

“Leila, where are you?” I muttered, snapping the panel doors again.

I chewed my fingernails, then glanced down at my dusty clothes. Two hours ago, the sun had burned my face, the wind had whipped at my cheeks, and I’d savored my last hours of freedom.

Now I swiped a comb through the collection of particularly nasty knots in my hair—a consequence of an impulsive camel ride out to the desert. It was a desperate attempt to escape my fate, but my father had quietly hauled me back after my mother’s wild search had proved fruitless.

Mother had stood at the camel pens, her brow creased with worry, her eyes hunting the open desert. Even though she had been upset, she had folded me in her arms when I returned and held me close, whispering words of reassurance.

Through the crack in the tent’s doorway, I finally spotted a small flame advancing on the curve of the path and darted outside.

“Where have you been?” I grabbed for Leila as she came within reach, but she spun away, holding up the lantern.

Her dark hair floated like silk over her shoulders. The jewel in her navel winked green in the shadows, accenting the pleated white linen skirt that hung low, slung around her sensuous hips. A sheer crimson drape crossed her bare shoulder, emphasizing the shape of her chest. My sister was the picture of beauty. An Egyptian princess. The way I should look tonight, and I envied her.

“Where did you get that dress?” I asked.

A hint of a smile twitched at Leila’s lips. “It’s a secret.”

“Tell me!” I begged. “Are you going to wear that dress tonight with all of our cousins and friends watching?” My eyes traveled the length of her slim torso. “You can see practically everything!”

“Oh, Jayden, you’re such a prude!” Laughing softly, Leila twirled around on her toes. “What does it matter if the dress makes us beautiful?” When she lifted her arms, she looked like a jeweled white column from the goddess temple in Tadmur—the Temple of Ashtoreth.

“Leila, you know the goddess dresses are forbidden. It’s as though you enjoy shaming our family.” I stared at the flowing, revealing garment. I’d never seen anything so evocative, so sensuous.

Leila came closer, a shrewd look in her eye. “Deep down, you probably wish you were wearing this dress.”

She was right, although I wouldn’t admit it to her. A part of me wished I were as bold and as stunningly beautiful as my sister. A hot sensation of envy and irritation crept up my neck. “Are you trying to sabotage my betrothal ceremony? You’ll be the center of all the attention.”

“You worry too much, Jayden. I’m not doing anything wrong, just having some fun. Now try to focus on tonight, your night,” Leila added with a grin. “And your dance before the women of the tribe, in preparation for Horeb.” She raised an eyebrow and the twisted nerves in my gut roiled like scorpions. “Think of how much Horeb wishes he had permission to watch you.”

I looked down, embarrassed. That was the problem. Eventually he would.

“You are terrible!” I snapped, unable to express my true feelings. This night didn’t mean to me what it meant to Leila. She had been in love with Zenos, Horeb’s older brother and heir to the tribal throne. I was only engaged to Horeb because our fathers had arranged it when we were children. But after losing Zenos in the terrible raid by the Maachathite tribe last year, Horeb had automatically become the eldest son, which changed my fate, too.

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