Essie lives comfortably as a companion to Simin, a wealthy merchant’s daughter selected as the prince’s new bride. But when her friend disappears on her wedding day, Essie’s world is turned upside down.
Fearing the worst, she sets off across the desert, but finding Simin isn’t exactly a walk in the park. In a land of scorching heat, bandits, and deadly creatures, nothing is as it seems. Who is friend, and who is foe?
But Essie believes she has a good chance at survival. That is if she can outrun the assassin and bounty hunters at her back. To make matters worse, a voice in her head makes her question her origins. The secrets she unearths shatter everything she knows.
When things go sideways, and enemies close in, she forges ahead and faces her most difficult challenge yet.
Will she risk losing her heart? Or will she reach her goal?
Dive into the sprawling YA science fantasy tale in the fifth entry to the Aeterna Chronicles. If you’re a fan of Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, you’re sure to enjoy this epic, fantastical adventure.
Sleeping concoctions were the trickiest to prepare. Too little, and it had no effect. Too much and, well… Essie pushed the thought away. Now wasn’t the time to think of committing murder. Tonight of all nights, she was desperate for the recipient of her potion to fall into a deep slumber.
When she had awakened this morning, nowhere on her to-do list was a wedding ceremony, much less to a prince. She had always thought of herself as smart, but getting married was a snap decision. Now she feared the consequences and had no clue how to get out of this tricky situation.
The pungent smell of herbs wafted around the kitchen, gouging at a memory deep inside Essie. It burst to the surface, prompting an ache and opening a long-buried wound.
Essie froze at the memory of her eight-year-old self, once a healer apprentice to an old man, as she mixed herbs and prepared concoctions to sell to Dalkhaish citizens.
That had been eight years ago, yet the memory was so vivid that it might have been yesterday. The old man had left with his daughter, leaving no note, and now Essie had an inkling that her life was on a repeat: soon, she’d be left behind again. As she had always done before, Essie clamped down on the ache.
Through the kitchen window, the sun set behind the rolling sand dunes on the horizon. Essie thought of Naher, the goddess of the desert, who must have guided her path today. Not only had she found the kitchen empty—other than a few servants who barely spared her a glance—but the herbs she needed to prepare the potion grew right outside in the small garden patch.
That meant her luck was turning, didn’t it?
No more snap decisions, Essie. Don’t panic. You’ve survived on the streets all on your own before the old man came by. You can survive this.
The crushed leaves turned into a dark greenish paste. Essie hesitated, digging into her memory. Was it ten leaves of merriroot to one dragongold or the reverse?
Her fingers shook as she pressed and extracted the juice from the paste. When mixed with almond milk, the greenish tint was barely discernible. After some more hesitation, Essie doubled the dose, her heart pounding. She took a whiff of the concoction. It looked about right. To mask the bitter taste, she added a dollop of honey.
The drink was finally ready.
On the tables were rows of trays laden with dried dates, figs, and flatbread. Leftovers from the feast: so much lavishness only to be wasted. They had spared nothing for the first union of Prince Ardee Ryanda, the firstborn son of the king and heir to the throne.
Pangs of hunger gnawed at Essie’s stomach. Earlier, it had been in knots when hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of eyes had followed her every move. When she had dared to pick an olive from the tray, dozens of women had followed her action. It grazed her nerves to be under such scrutiny.
No one knew what she looked like, not even the prince. The embroidered bridal veil she had donned at the last moment had done the job. After the ceremony, back in the bride’s quarters, she had tucked away the silk outfit and replaced it with a plain gray tunic. On her head was a loose shawl that she pulled over the lower part of her face to hide her features.
But she couldn’t hide the swirls of henna designs that ran over her hands and forearms and past her elbows. If one looked close enough, they’d recognize her as the bride’s companion—the weird companion with freakish eyes, as she overheard one servant.
Essie reached for stuffed eggplant and sighed with pleasure, the crispiness and grease a marvel to her taste buds. She picked a few figs and lemon tarts, chewing quickly and ignoring the protesting gurgles of her stomach. She had a long night ahead, and restoring her energy levels was a must.
“You're not supposed to be here!” someone bellowed, startling Essie.
Before she could draw back the shawl to shield her face, her eyes met the newcomer’s. The man flinched, almost as if someone had slapped him. Essie’s amber eyes had always drawn attention, their color defining her as someone else. A freak.
“The princess is hungry,” she said in as firm a voice as she could muster, lowering her eyes and searching for a plate. She stepped sideways to hide the mortar with the ground herbs and the glass of milk.
“But we already sent the servants to her room with plentiful food,” he insisted, eyes narrowed and raising his voice.
Darn right. Goddess of the desert, help me. Inside the bride’s room was a low table covered with trays and a jug. But she had been in too much of a hurry to get to the kitchen and the herbs.
She took a deep breath and held up the glass of milk, tilting her chin up. “The princess-bride requested a glass of milk.”
She hated the quiver in her voice. She had always thought of ways to get out of trouble, but lying had never been her strong point. That required a different level of smartness she didn’t have.
Fortunately, the man didn't seem to hear her words. His gaze lingered on Essie’s hands and then moved to her face.
“You’re the freak-eyed companion,” he murmured.
Essie’s grip on the glass tightened, but she kept her gaze steady.
“The princess won’t be too happy to hear her companion was called a freak,” she said, anger seeping into her voice.
The man’s face relaxed. His frown was wiped away as he smiled, his teeth gleaming white. As if on a switch, his gaze turned apologetic.
“Oh, I meant no offense. I am Ulf, the head servant. Anything the princess needs, you let me know, okay?”
Essie didn’t answer. She hated the scrutiny they had subjected her to all day, even though nobody actually saw her face. She fought the urge to run out of the kitchen. Ulf blocked the only exit. She would have to get past him and hope he didn’t smell the herbs.
Misunderstanding her silence, Ulf continued in a soft voice. “I am responsible for the princess’s needs, so I apologize for the drink.”
Obviously, Ulf thought they would punish him for his condescending remarks earlier. Essie raised an eyebrow, trying to find some comforting words. She had suffered worse while living on the streets.
The man’s shoulders stooped farther in his plea. “The companion’s beautiful eyes are those of the Nossebi people, one of the most revered desert tribes. Our princess is favored to have such company. It will bring great wisdom and strength to our kingdom.”
Essie froze midway, her mouth opening and closing. “The Nossebi tribe?”
“Yes. As I recall, the amber-gray eyes were typical of the Nossebi women. It is rumored that the force of nature wiped out the tribe while they lived in the middle of the desert, but I’m glad their legacy survived.”
Living on the streets and then struggling to survive in the Verchan household, she had never wondered about her roots. She had assumed she was abandoned. Since Ulf appeared so chatty, she decided to push further.
“Are you sure no one else survived? Where were their usual campsites?”
“They were nomads with a few designated camps along trade routes in the Qajar desert.” Ulf shook his head. “Not much is known about the Nossebi tribe other than they disappeared overnight. The rumor went that the riot and dissension in Issamun city led to their disappearance, but no one knows for sure why.”
He seemed reluctant to continue, deliberately avoiding her eyes—her freak eyes. Essie decided to change to a more pressing subject.
“Would you know a boy-servant about this high—” She held her hand to her waist, “with dark, tousled hair, a cleft on the chin, and cuts on his eyebrows?”
Ulf looked flustered for a moment, and his voice turned apologetic. “Monun always causes trouble. But he means no harm and does his errands well. His tricks—”
“Oh, no, no. He was so helpful in showing me the way to the kitchen. I’d like to thank him personally.” More like wringing the brat’s neck and giving him a good hiding, but Essie composed her face and smiled, pushing down her fury.
Ulf visibly relaxed. “Oh, no need. I’ll give him your—”
“I would really like to know where his living quarters are. The bride will be delighted to have his help early tomorrow, and I don’t want to bother anyone.”
“Oh, if that’s the case… He lives two corridors down in the servants’ quarters. You’ll see a green door. There are five other younglings, so just call out his name, and he’ll come out.” Ulf paused, wringing his hands before continuing in a pleading tone. “I apologize again. The princess has the highest status in the palace, the highest woman, that is. See, we know little about her taste in food and what she likes. But as her companion, I hope you'll share her taste and likings with me. Keep her happy.”
He took a step toward her, reaching for the glass of milk. He looked so desperate to please that Essie almost laughed out loud. Almost.
If only Ulf knew the princess’s likings, least of all being waited upon and living in the palace. Simin hated all court manners. Simin, who should have been at the wedding ceremony and married to the prince.
But she had disappeared this morning, a few hours before the ceremony. She was missing, a fact only Essie knew.
Nine days ago, the prince had chosen his future bride. To her dismay, Simin had found out she was the lucky one—or unlucky. Nine days of whirlwind preparations. Simin and her parents had traveled across the bay, and today had been the wedding day. A day Simin had dreaded.
There was someone else who knew about Simin: the boy called Monun. The messenger boy had turned up at Essie's door in the early hours and handed her a note. Simin’s elegant handwriting was unmistakable. The message was vague as to her reason: she couldn't go through with the wedding and be tied down.
One thing for sure was that her escapade had been planned, and she had given it some thought. The previous night, Simin had dismissed all her attendants—making sure none of them saw what she looked like—and insisted only Essie be present. She had asked for her travel bag, and Essie had been too tired to question her requests.
Indeed, when Essie had run back to Simin’s room, the travel bag was missing. And so was Simin. Her bridal dress and veil lay hastily discarded in a heap on the bed. The royal jewelry was on full display on the vanity cabinet. Essie wasn’t too sure whether any was missing. And if it was, then Simin would be accused of theft. Stealing from the royal family was no small matter.
Only on rare occasions had Essie lost her temper. This had been one of them. Her hands had trembled, and her jaw had ached from clenching her teeth. If she were to find Simin, she would wring her neck. To think the girl would disgrace her family by eloping after all they had done for her...
It had taken a while for Essie to clear her head. By then, doubts had crept in. Was it possible Simin had written the note under duress? She must have been forced to. Someone had made it look like she ran away.
Simin had always been stubborn, petulant, and rebellious, but a line was drawn. However much she had complained, she had always followed her parents’ rules and caved in at the last minute.
A thousand thoughts had run through Essie's mind. Only two options were left: one was to call out the kidnapping and cancel the wedding, and the other was to hide Simin’s absence.
And if Simin had indeed run away and was caught, the disgrace on Master Verchan would stick for generations. The royal kingdom would never forgive or forget this humiliation.
Part of Essie couldn’t blame Simin. The royal family had an infamous reputation.
So Essie had done the unthinkable. She had donned the bridal dress and veil, wore all the jewelry while hoping no pieces were missing, and blanked her mind through the wedding ceremony.
Standing in the kitchen, she barely remembered the events of the last few hours. Not that it mattered. She had to find Simin, so she needed to buy time, hence the drug-filled almond milk.
Ulf took another step forward, and Essie backed up against the countertop, her hip hitting the mortar. In one deft movement, she swiped the glass away from him.
She should have put away the evidence. If anyone knew about the herbs she ground, she would surely end up in the dungeons.
“I’ll bring the tray to her room,” Ulf said, oblivious to her dilemma. Essie's hands shook, and some milk spilled on her wrist. He continued, “That way, we can become acquainted, and I’ll introduce myself—”
“My daughter would see no other than dear Essie, I heard,” a voice said from the entrance. In her panic, Essie didn’t see the man step inside the kitchen. Another, more petite figure followed.
Essie blew out a sigh, not realizing until then that she had been holding her breath.
Ulf turned abruptly and bowed to his waist at the newcomers, Master Verchan and his wife. Simin’s parents.
“Ah,” Ulf said reverently. “You need not come to the kitchen. I’ll bring anything to your room. I’m sending a servant now—”
A snort interrupted him. Master Verchan was a burly man; his build seemed to fill the entire kitchen. His shrewd and darkened eyes fell on Ulf, who wisely exited the kitchen after more profuse flattering.
Master Verchan glanced at the glass in her hand. His eyes softened, and his smile was indulgent. “Ah, Simin's night-time drink. It’s good for her to keep up her habits.”
Since they had landed at the dock, he and his wife had looked tense and unsmiling, almost as if they had mourned their daughter's selection. Regret and worry were written all over their faces, as much as they tried to appear calm. They both loved Simin, and leaving her here to fend for herself didn't please them. The rumors about Dalkhaish’s uprisings were unsettling.
Essie reckoned Master Verchan was too lenient with Simin. At times, the daughter needed a good hiding, but Master Verchan let her get away with so much. Mistress Verchan had little say in Simin’s upbringing. She cared more about appearances and duties. Even now, her long skirt and blouse sparkled and dazzled under the dim light. Not a practical outfit at all for this time of the night.
Under the veneer of a tough, ruthless businessman, Master Verchan had a heart of gold. He had given Essie a roof, food, and clothing and, in return, had only asked her to be his daughter’s companion. Essie guessed they couldn’t have more children after Simin’s birth. She was the jewel of his eyes, the heir to his business.
But Master Verchan did more: he never treated Essie as a mere maid and paid Simin’s tutor for Essie’s education. By the time both girls turned ten, Essie had caught up to Simin’s level. But where the latter enjoyed music and dance lessons, Essie excelled in defense and academics.
Simin had the same traits as her father: stubborn, with a heart of gold. Reluctantly, she had taken up fighting lessons to indulge Essie. Now all Essie could hope was that these lessons would prove helpful and save her life.
Standing in the kitchen before Simin’s parents, Essie couldn’t bear the thought of lying to them. They were the reason that had led to her snap decision to go through the ceremony in Simin’s stead. Their hurt and shame would have been too unbearable.
Master Verchan had turned up on the shop’s doorstep where eight-year-old Essie had worked as an apprentice. The owner, Belor, and his daughter had disappeared months ago, and Essie was barely surviving on meager food supplies. At least she had shelter, she told herself.
Master Verchan had come for medicine. Simin had been terribly sick. Essie had supplied him with the bottles and vials he needed. Two weeks later, Master Verchan turned up again at the shop. The medicine had worked so well that he wanted more. By that time, Essie was starving. Scrounging in the dustbins every night was taking its toll. After hearing her story, Master Verchan brought her home. He posted a watch near the shop, but Belor never returned.
Essie owed so much to his kindness. Simin’s disappearance would bring shame to the family and bankruptcy to his business, putting him and his wife on the streets.
Mistress Verchan never spoke to her other than giving her orders, but Essie didn’t mind at all. The petite woman grabbed a bag from the counter. A traveling cooling bag, Essie realized. Now that Master Verchan came under the light, Essie noticed his traveling cloak and rugged boots.
“Are you leaving?” She had thought they would stay for another week to get Simin settled in the palace.
“Business calls,” Master Verchan replied with a sigh. “Having a prince as a son-in-law has certainly helped business.” His tone sounded more sarcastic than pleased. Essie understood him well. Vultures and bootlickers like Ulf would surround the princess’s connections and family. Harass them, even.
For a moment, a spark lit inside Essie. She was tired of the palace, and well…
Darn Simin. They would notice her disappearance the following day, and by that time, Essie would be far away across the bay.
Darn the consequences, too. Why should she be the one picking up the pieces?
“I'll give Simin her drink and be ready in the next hour.” She gathered the plate of sweets and made for the door when Master Verchan raised a hand.
“No, no. Please, do stay with Simin and get her settled.”
Essie’s steps faltered. “Simin will have new companions. Women and girls to teach her the way of the courts and palace. Things I can never do. I will be better off back in Aeria and of good use working in the office at the shipping company.”
For a moment, Essie was glad to see Master Verchan hesitate. Essie was good at organizing the paperwork. Her advice on cutting out the middlemen in negotiations had saved him thousands. Then he smiled, ready to take her offer.
Mistress Verchan stepped forward, her gaze traveling over the kitchen and walls, everywhere other than Essie’s face. She rarely spoke to Essie.
“Simin will have all her needs catered for, yes,” she said. “All the servants and jewelry she wishes for.” Her voice trembled, her tone pleading. “But they will all be strangers. The threats around the palace are growing. A familiar face will help our Simin to adapt. Please stay.” Her eyes brimmed with tears and pleaded.
Our Simin. How could Essie leave without knowing Simin’s whereabouts? Simin, her sister, if not by blood, was missing. Essie had to find her.
“You made her into a better person,” the Mistress continued. “Please continue to do so.” Her jaw quivered, but she blinked her tears away.
Essie nodded, taken aback by Mistress Verchan’s display of emotion. Then they stepped out of the kitchen. With a heavy heart, Essie could only watch them through the window climbing into a carriage and disappearing into the night.
Life on the streets had taught her many things. First, never take things for granted. Next, prepare for a rainy day and look for a silver lining. Life in the palace couldn't be that bad, could it?
Ulf was also outside. Alone in the kitchen, Essie gazed at the laden trays around her. Then she straightened up. No time to hang around. It was now or never to get her plan under way.
After stuffing a few pastries in the pockets of her gray tunic, Essie climbed up the service stairs, the glass of milk in one hand and a tray in the other. The kitchen and servants’ quarters were in the eastern wing, closer to the princess's rooms, while the prince's quarters were in the western wing. And she would see him soon.
Conjugal visit. Ugh.
Essie forced her fingers to relax their grip on the glass. Any tighter, and it would shatter. In her gray apparel, she was invisible, and no one was watching her every move. So she told herself.
Still, she was uneasy. Maybe because the corridors were deserted since most people were still at the feast. Essie grimaced and quickened her steps. The prince would pay a visit to his newlywed soon, and she needed to be ready.
She would have to coerce the prince to take the laced milk. What if he didn’t like almond milk? The thought sent panic fluttering inside her.
Then she would just have to improvise. Like a good knock on the head that would put him to sleep. She steeled herself before heading to the bride’s room.