Farah snuck a peek over her father’s head at the deep groove on the stone ceiling, cubit feet high from the ground. She twisted her mouth and immediately caught her father’s eye. He raised one thick dark brow at her in question. Farah lowered her head to the etched tablet on her lap, biting back a smile.

“Daughter…” Zanahpi said in a calm but invoking tone that had Farah lifting her head to look at him.

“Hmm, yes Papa?”

He tilted his head to study her intently, causing the seventeen-year-old to shift uncomfortably under his probing gaze. “What fills your mind besides the prayers?”

Her cheeks warmed visibly and Farah bit the inside of her cheeks, her eyes still on her father’s amber gaze that normally warmed her heart but now arrested her with cold authority. She didn’t blame him for being impatient with her. This was the fourth time today he’d caught her daydreaming. “Papa… I must ask you something from my mind.” She leaned forward when he rolled his honey-colored eyes and grabbed his wrist before he scooted away from the table.

“What is it now?” his lips were taut with annoyance. “You have not listened to any of my instructions or insights and now you want me to listen to your thoughts?”

Farah squeezed her father’s hand and gave him a smile. “Papa, please. Just answer me this and I will swear to pay close attention.” She made sure her warm yet pleading gaze was steady on her father’s and within moments, the coldness fell from his eyes.

Zanahpi heaved a sigh and nodded. “Fine. What is this question?”

Farah raised one hand, pointing toward the ceiling. “Why are those grooves in the ceiling? I have seen it in Khatereh’s home as well…” she slowed down as her father stiffened visibly across from her.

His jaw tightened, his gaze flitting over her head to the archway that hid the grooves from his view. Then he quickly removed his hand from hers and his lips pursed, the coldness returning in his gaze. “The grooves in the ceiling have nothing to do with you.” He tapped the stone tablet. “This however is a preceding matter if you intend to join the temple in four seasons,” he finished in a clipped tone and pushed up onto his feet. “Leave the other matters alone and concentrate on your studies. A priest’s daughter must make her father proud and I expect it from you, Farah.”

Slack-jawed, Farah stared after her father who now spun on his heels and marched out of the courtyard, his long linen vest embroidered with gold trim flapping in his wake. Once he disappeared around the stone pillar, she closed her mouth. Then she snuck another look up, frowning at the shadowed gaps in the ceiling. Clucking her tongue at her own foolishness, Farah lowered her head and focused on memorizing the tablet of prayers for her upcoming debut as one of the charges of Khatereh, the high priestess’ of the grand temple in Susa. Papa was right, she didn’t have time to worry about the holes in the roof. It wasn’t any of her concern or problem.

A fortnight later, Farah stared up in disabling dismay at the ceiling where two large bronze rings now covered the gaps. Treaty rings, Amuna said in a trembling voice as she gathered her cotton veil about her shoulders before glancing worriedly at the open archway to the courtyard. When Farah moved around her to enter the courtyard and see what the raucous was, Amuna, her nursemaid, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the door. “Lady Farah, please!” she said urgently, gripping Farah’s arm tightly that the girl cringed openly. The fear in Amuna’s gray eyes stilled Farah in her steps. “Just stay with me and be quiet, I beg you.”

Farah shook her head mutely, shaken by Amuna’s open trepidation. It wasn’t like the seasoned woman to fear anything, having served their family even before Farah was born. Amuna had served Farah’s late mother and grandmother before Farah’s father brought her into his home once he was married to her charge. Amuna, a weathered woman, terrified of whatever stood on the other side of the door worried Farah and she loosened her resolve to calm the woman’s anxiety. Until she remembered her father and shook her head.

“No!” She forcefully nudged Amuna’s arm, releasing herself from the woman’s grip and stumbled out onto the courtyard.

The sight before her made her skid on her heels, almost bringing her to her knees. There before her was Zanahpi, one of the most respected high priests in Susa, kneeling! Even her father’s guards and the servants knelt at his heels before a group of people before them. Fury rising within her at the sight, Farah snapped her eyes to the person who would cause her father’s shameful humility and her eyes widened at the leering black eyes in front of her. She could feel her very being shrivel up inside her body at the unwavering gaze of the decorated soldier before her. Farah felt her shoulders bow forward as if to hide herself from his open staring but forced herself to keep her glare focused on him. How dare he cause her father to prostrate himself in his priest garments?

As if the man could hear her raging thoughts, his full mouth curled up in a sneering smirk. Farah flinched as his teeth glinted from the exposed moonlight beams reflecting on his shining armor. It was like a ravenous beast who had found his prey. She shivered involuntarily when his black eyes skimmed over her. How she wished she’d worn her outer coat like Amuna had begged her to earlier in the evening. She knew where his eyes lingered and shifted her body from his view, only lowering her gaze then.

“Zanahpi, I believe I have made my decision…” the man finally spoke, his deep and hoarse voice sending chills trickling down her spine. Farah dared not look at him even though his familiar tone with the revered priest bristled her nerves.

“Anything, Lord Azahar. My family and I are indebted to you.”

Farah’s brow furrowed when the man dared to chuckle darkly in response to her father’s whimpering tone. Indebted for what?

“Good. I knew you would be this way, Zanahpi. I did well to make a treaty with you, it seems.”

Farah’s eyes jerked up and caught the mocking black eyes staring back at her. She moved her gaze to her father’s rigid, bowed back before lifting it to the bronze rings bolstered precariously in the gaps. Treaty rings… Her father had made a peace treaty with this evil man? Why?

Then she heard the measured, heavy footsteps echoing on the polished stone floor and lowered her eyes. Farah inhaled sharply when she realized that the armed general, Azahar, was now approaching her. She felt her entire body shrink inwardly as his black eyes roamed without propriety over her body and bit her tongue to hold back a cry. For some reason, she had a feeling her father would not approve.

But she couldn’t help the whimper that escaped her lips when he reached down swiftly and grabbed her wrist, pulling at her. Farah squeezed her eyes shut as she tried to pull away. She could hear the shuffling of urgent footsteps approaching her, followed by the sharp and clear sound of swords unsheathing. The man’s hand tightened around her wrist, jerking her up and against the cold armor of his body. Farah wanted to vomit, wanted to faint. The room was spinning even with her eyes closed.

“Zanahpi,” the man said sternly, his voice echoing in the courtyard. “Call off your guards or my men will kill every member of your household. You aim to break our treaty?”

Farah felt the tears well up in her eyes but clenched her jaw tightly. She would not give him the satisfaction of knowing what his presence was doing to her.

His grip didn’t loosen but only pulled her closer to him. Farah felt her knees give way under her and he sighed in annoyance, pressing her further against him. When she couldn’t stop the whimper from escaping her lips, she heard the chuckle drifting over her face.

“Please…please, Lord—not my Farah, please,” Zanahpi pleaded, groveling before the general. “She is sanctified for the temple. Please, not her.”

“It’s her or the treaty is over. My men are especially bloodthirsty and I will not hesitate to let them calm their fever.”

Farah could hear her father’s haggard breathing, could almost see his whole body shrivel up like hers was. He would have to pick between her and the rest of the family. From the way he looked at her, this bloodthirsty villain could end up killing everyone, including her father and still take her with him. Farah felt her shoulders sag in defeat. There was no use struggling now.

Zanahpi’s lips trembled as the armed general hoisted Farah, his precious and only daughter, over his shoulders and strode past the helpless guards to his side of the courtyard. Tears blurred his view of Farah’s face and he blinked rapidly, watching as the general continued walking and the soldiers followed closely behind, blocking his view of his daughter.

Groaning aloud, Zanahpi stumbled to his feet to go after them when his linen hem caught between his legs and tripped the priest. He staggered to the floor and his guards hurried to help him when suddenly the scraping of metal against stone sounded above. Aghast and full of debilitating dismay, Zanahpi watched helplessly as one of the treaty rings unlatched from the groove in the ceiling and crashed to the stone floor. He couldn’t even flinch as he realized that it was his ring that had fallen… Azahar had won, and he’d lost everything.