Life has changed for Jamilah. She’s of an age to be married off, and she knows her father will choose the most profitable match to advance his status. Although her heart chooses otherwise, there is no escape from the binding ties of her family and her father’s greed for control.
When Jamilah’s brother invites Vonhadi to visit their family’s’ estate, he jumps at the chance to see her again. Their first kiss seals their fate, leading to secret meetings and the glimmering hope of a future together. But he is a poor man living the modest life of a priest in the temple, the only thing he has to offer, his gift of elemental magic.
From the moment Droma’s future bride pulls the veil from her face, revealing the abuse she has suffered, he falls in love with Jamilah. He vows to protect her, but devoting himself to her happiness could mean letting her go free, something he may not have the strength to do.
She hadn’t seen him in three years. Her heart racing, Jamilah leaned over the balcony railing to watch him stride past her mother’s house. Vonhadi’s finely woven black clothes blew against his sinewy body in a sudden breeze. He raised his face and smiled up at her, so changed, a thin beard on his cheeks. A hot shiver ran through her middle and made her catch her breath. Their childhood was gone now, their only connections happy memories and scattered letters to one another: discreet, simple, the words masking their affection beneath the goings-on of daily life. One of the servant girls would bring them to her, and she would write back as she could. She kept each note in her room, hidden in a jewelry box. They smelled like incense and clean linens. Jamilah had loved Vonhadi since the day they met, an easy, innocent love between children that grew deeper with time apart. Now that she had come of an age to marry, her love was forbidden.
“Is that little Vonhadi?” her grandmother asked from behind her in a shocked voice.
“Yes, Yama,” Jamilah said. “Tiric must have invited him.” It was strange to see the two of them side by side. They had always been rivals, bickering and at odds when they were children, and Tiric had never brought Vonhadi home with him before, even though they’d both been inducted into the temple at the same time. There would always be the issue of wealth separating them, for her brother thought himself above those with little money.
Yama nodded, crinkling her nose. “He’s so tall now,” she said. “Like a weed left to grow through the crack of a rock. Hmph.” She left Jamilah to prepare for their guests.
A weed, Jamilah thought. That was how her family saw him: as something that didn’t belong. A weed among roses.
Jamilah lingered on the balcony until he had passed from her sight. Silently, she waited out the greetings in the study and then went downstairs to offer her brother a formal kiss on each cheek. He visited every week, and when he did, she was forgotten by their father, the only blessing he had ever brought into her life.
Vonhadi sat at the table beside her brother, far from her, politely listening to the conversation between Yama and Tiric. She wondered again why her brother had brought Vonhadi. He never did anything without purpose; he was too much like their father.
“The bishop made his choice today,” Tiric announced to their grandmother. “Me, Brother Vonhadi, and Brother Ayadi Klemel from South Quarter.”
Yama let out a soft “hm” and nodded as she contemplated Tiric’s revelation. “Your father will be proud,” she said.
Tiric beamed. “He will. I can’t wait to tell him.”
Jamilah noticed that Yama said nothing to congratulate Vonhadi, and she supposed that was to be expected. In fact, Yama didn’t say anything to him at all, as if it was a given that Tiric would succeed the bishop.
Staying quiet throughout the meal, Jamilah tried her best to go unnoticed. Every so often, Vonhadi looked her way, and she smiled softly at him, hoping her brother and Yama wouldn’t take note. When the meal was done, Tiric offered for Vonhadi to stay in one of Yama’s upstairs rooms rather than at their mother’s house. Then her brother took his leave, anxious to speak to their father.
“Do you still play keskat?” Vonhadi asked Jamilah as Yama followed Tiric to the door to see him out.
She looked down at her plate and quietly answered, “Not since my grandfather died.” There had been no time for games anymore and no one to play them with.
“Would you like to play now?”
She stole a long, sideways glance at him. His face had changed, grown longer and more handsome with the dark hairs across his chin and above his lips. His smile was less wide now, and his eyes flickered with magic, as they always had. Ticklish butterflies danced in her stomach. She imagined holding his hand, stealing a kiss from him, but the thought of her father’s wrath soon stopped such notions.
Jamilah stood and called out to her grandmother, who had gone back to the kitchen to oversee the servants. “Yama, may I play keskat with Brother Kalad?” She peered in from the entry and gave a curt nod, her eyes slightly narrowed in disapproval.
“We can play in the study, like old times,” Jamilah said, ignoring Yama’s thinly veiled disapproval. “Grandfather would be so proud of you now,” she said to Vonhadi, remembering how he had been the only one to pay him any mind. “That you have done well for yourself in the temple.”
Vonhadi smiled brightly and stood. “I’ll meet you there in a moment.” He carried the plates to the kitchen despite Yama’s protests and cleaned them off before placing each to dry in the rack. Jamilah thought it courteous of him. The temple had not changed who he was, the son of a very poor man who cleaned up his own messes and did not pride himself above anyone else.
Jamilah went to set up the game pieces, thinking she should go home to her parents’ house soon. If her father knew she was talking to Vonhadi or any other young man, for that matter, she risked a sound beating. She had done well to stay out of his way for months by keeping quiet and staying on the family’s estate. If any visitors came to see her father, she had learned to go and hide in her room lest they notice her and decide she would be a good match for their son.
“Have you been well, Jamilah?” Vonhadi sat down across from her, his eyes intent. He reached out to help prepare the game, and his hand brushed hers, his fingers lingering. She sucked in a breath, burned by the heat of him.
“Well enough,” she lied, knocking over two of her game pieces as she pulled away. “And you? Does life in the temple still please you?”
“It’s better than shoveling the stalls in your father’s stable.” He grinned. “And as your brother said, I’m one of the Chosen Three. I never thought that would happen. It’s an honor.”
She nodded. “I’m sure that’s why he brought you home.”
Vonhadi frowned as if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe it hadn’t. But she knew it could be the only reason he was here. She had heard her brother complain about Ayadi Klemel, a low-born priest that for whatever his reasoning Tiric didn’t think worthy to be in the temple at all.
“Watch out for my brother,” she whispered, then waved her hand at the game board, waiting for him to make the first move. Marble slid across marble. He held his carved piece firmly. Her life had always been like this: a game of hiding what she loved, trying to avoid pain, and her father and brother had won countless times. “He can’t be trusted.”
Vonhadi nodded, his eyes focused on the game board.
“I’ve missed you,” she said in a whisper so Yama wouldn’t overhear. It was a risk to admit such a small confession. “I wish you’d never left.” She moved her piece.
He spoke low as well, as if he knew her fears, but she doubted he truly understood. It wasn’t his fault. She’d never told him how things had changed. “I’ve missed you, too. I’m glad your brother invited me, no matter why. It’s good to be here again. After my father died, there wasn’t an excuse for me to come back…not one I could get away with.” He raised his face and winked.
Vonhadi turned his soldier piece to the side, a strategy she remembered from their games long ago. He was a tricky player, and she had learned from her grandfather many ways to beat him, but now he countered her moves, challenging her to think of new ways to outsmart him.
“Are you allowed to go down to the temple?” he asked.
She bit her lip, contemplating. “I am allowed to go to the market on seventh day.”
“Ah. I understand.” He leaned to look into the kitchen where Yama was sipping tea and staring out at the sunset through the window. “You could stop at the temple on seventh day after the market. We could meet in the garden and play keskat…if you think you’d be permitted.”
She wondered if she could do such a thing, disobey her father’s wishes by seeing Vonhadi. Would she be able to avoid his wrath? She lost focus on the game as she tried to think of a way that wouldn’t draw suspicion. “I could see you when I stop there to…visit my brother.” She moved a piece to block him.
He frowned and sat back, his eyes on the pieces, shifting from one view to another while he weighed his options. “You always treated me like I belonged, even though I didn’t. You didn’t have to.” He raised his face to eye her. “And you could always make me laugh. I don’t laugh much anymore. It would be nice to do so again.”
She nodded, remembering a time when she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or have fun; it was so very long ago. “You were ticklish. It wasn’t that difficult.”
Their game went on until Tiric returned and told Jamilah it was time to go home. Neither had won nor lost when Vonhadi rose and kissed her right cheek. His lips were a soft caress against her skin that prickled her arms. “I love you,” he whispered as he brushed against her left cheek, his confession so soft she doubted at first what he’d said. “I always have.”