Nimli gazes into the blackness and listens to the sounds which have disturbed her sleep: the clicking of horses’hooves, men shouting, and the shrill, hair-raising barks of hounds. Throwing off her feather blanket, Nimli steps out of bed and onto the cold floor. Her candles have long since gone out, so she gropes her way along the stone wall to the window and pushes aside the heavy curtain.
Outside the frosty glass pane, the moon casts an eerie glow on the palace grounds. Her breath fogs up the window, so she wipes it away with her hand and tries to see where the commotion is coming from.
Beyond the black wall of the forest which stretches out to the south of the palace, Nimli sees small, flickering lights. Five groups of riders and dogs work their way through the dense woods in different directions.
What could they be looking for? A thief? A Persian spy? She steps down from the windowsill, but, before she can dress, the chamber door creaks open and her children’s nursemaid, a girl just a few years younger than Nimli, steps timidly into the room.
Putting her hands on her hips, Nimli glares at her. “What has he done now?”
“You must come.”
The nursemaid’s face is pale. Her dark eyes look like round pieces of coal fallen in fresh snow, and her hands tremble so that wax spills from the side of her candle and drips onto the rug.
A cloud sweeps over Nimli’s soul.
“What is it?” Nimli asks, though she dreads the answer.
The nursemaid looks at the ground, her silence speaking more than words. Nimli’s thoughts descend into darkness, to places no mother’s mind should venture.
“Where are my children?”
“It’s not your children milady.” The nurse takes Nimli’s cloak out of the wardrobe and holds it out to her. “It’s the king.”
Nimli is still trying to rid her mind of tragic images having to do with her two small children. She needs a moment to take in another scenario, one involving her husband.
“They asked me to beckon you.”
“He was stabbed.”
Nimli is reaching for the cloak, but pauses. “Stabbed? Is he...” She cannot say the word. Many times she has wished him dead.
“He’s alive,” the nursemaid says, “barely.”
Nimli clears her throat in an attempt to veil her disappointment. She wraps the cloak around her shoulders.
“Where is he?”
“His bed chamber."
Stepping to her bedside table, Nimli picks up a candle and lights it from the nurse’s flame.
“They claim Anak did it,” the nursemaid says.
Nimli sneers at her. The young nurse always tries to sound informed, even when she has no idea what she speaks about.
“That’s impossible.” Nimli starts out the door, the nursemaid scurrying behind her. “Why would they send you anyway?” she says over her shoulder. “You ought to be with my children where you belong.”
“There’s more.” The nursemaid stops. Nimli turns to face her. The girl’s lips quake and she avoids Nimli’s eyes.
“Well?” Nimli demands.
“It was Tiridates who found the king.”
Nimli shifts her weight from one leg to the other. “What do you mean?”
“The boy found the king stabbed. He alerted the guards.”
“He just happened into his father’s room in the middle of the night?”
“I don’t know,” the nursemaid says, her voice cracking. “I-I was asleep.”
“Perfect,” Nimli says. “Can’t you manage to keep an eye on him?”
Nimli feels like slapping her, but what good would that do? Without saying anything more, she turns and sprints down the hall, too fast for the nursemaid to keep up. How could someone be so incompetent? This is the fifth time her son has crept out of his room at night. And now look what happened.
The heavy arched door to the king’s chamber stands ajar. As Nimli steps through it, her frustration vanishes. All-encompassing gloom fills the room like dense fog. It sobers her entire being.
Dozens of the king’s other wives and concubines have already arrived, with cloaks pulled over their sleeping clothes. They stand about in silent clusters, all looking as gray as a sunless sky. A few men, Nakharar lords who advise the king, are in the room too, wearing grave expressions. Two of the king’s more devoted women weep beside his bed.
Also beside the bed is Nimli’s five-year-old son, Tiridates, looking like a helpless lamb after encountering a wolf for the first time. His skinny limbs shake and his face is red from crying. Beyond the shock are eyes that have aged since that afternoon when Nimli last saw him.
When he notices she has come, Tiridates runs to Nimli. She bends down and catches him, wrapping her thin arms around his back and holding him as tightly as she can. He lays his face on her bosom and weeps. Nimli wants to comfort him, but words escape her.
As she holds him, she looks at her husband for the first time. He lies on a four poster bed. Sweat flows from his wrinkled brow and blood from his gut. His sheets are stained crimson.
The king holds out his hand, motioning for her to come.
The nursemaid has arrived in the room, panting. Nimli pulls away from Tiridates’ embrace and gives him to his nurse. Once again, she is forced to play the part of dutiful wife. Why does he always single Nimli out? She kneels by the king’s bedside and presses her forehead against the back of his clammy hand. Her long black hair wraps around her face like a veil as she listens to her husband’s raspy breathing.
For seven years she has kept her heart cold toward him, and rightly so. That is how she survived its breaking. Now, as he lies on his deathbed, she wonders what she would feel if her heart thawed and the numbness vanished. Would she be relieved? Ecstatic? Perhaps she would feel nothing at all. As she holds him, she feels she embraces a stranger. Of course she knows many things about him. He is a warrior, King of Armenians. For ten years he has defied an empire. These things give him no esteem in her eyes. And she doesn't really know him, the man within. After what he did to her, she never wanted to.
Nimli raises her head and looks at his square face. She has never looked him in the eye, no matter how often he implored her to. But now she does so. He winces in pain, but his raven black eyes hold no fear. He looks at Nimli, yet somehow beyond her, as though gazing into the next world, preparing to enter it.
“Nimli,” he says.
“Nimli. Bring my son.”
She looks from one solemn face to the next until she sees the child, his father’s image in miniature. Only his cheekbones, high and chiseled, are from her. She extends her hand, but he stares at her with terror and despair, seemingly unable to move. A tear runs down her cheek. Why did Tiridates have to be the one to find him?
Nimli stands, wiping away her tear and leads Tiridates to his father’s side. With great effort, Khosrov raises his hand to the boy’s cheek.
“My son,” he says.
Slowly dragging his hand to his chest, the king pulls an amulet from under his blood-stained robe--a golden orb with fiery tourmaline gems inlaid in the shape of the sun.
“He’s too young,” Nimli says.
King Khosrov lifts the chain over his head, offers it to the boy.
“No.” Nimli puts her hand over the amulet.
“Will you deny my dying wish?"
What can she say? Khosrov has a right to choose his heir, but he has dozens of sons. Why would he burden a child with kingship? She reluctantly withdraws her hand.
“This belongs to you, Tiridates,” Khosrov says, “and you alone.”
The boy’s hand trembles as he takes the gift. Nimli wants to stop it, but can do nothing to intervene. She pulls Tiridates tight against her side as he examines the orb. He has no idea what a hard road lay ahead of him. He will never be free again. If he hopes to survive, he must take off the cloak of childhood and become a man.
Nimli’s hatred for Khosrov rises within her. “Why him?” she says through gritted teeth.
“Because,” he says, stroking Nimli’s temple with his thumb, “I have many wives, but I’ve only ever loved one.”
Nimli shakes her head. How could that be true? He doesn’t love her. She was his prey, a conquest. He ruined her life to appease his appetite for flesh.
She clenches her jaw, breathing sharply from her nose and trying to hold back the stew of rage which has brewed in her heart since the day Khosrov took her. It boils over. Tears escape from her eyes uncontrollably and the fast thoughts become too fast.
She starts to back away, but King Khosrov holds her, running his fingers through her long, silky black locks. His hand feels warm, but not repulsive. Why isn’t she cringing like she normally does? She has always hated him, yet suddenly she is unsure.
His hand falls limply onto her shoulder and his breathing ceases. His eyes become void and lifeless as his soul steps into the afterlife. He leaves Nimli weak-kneed and breathless, unable to mourn, unable to rejoice.
People begin wailing and crying out in grief. Tiridates wraps his arms around her waist and hides his face in her cloak, his shoulders quaking as he sobs. Nimli has no tears. She cannot take her eyes off the corpse.
Cries fill every corner of the room. It feels surreal, like a nightmare from which Nimli can never wake.
“They caught him!” A voice interrupts the chaos in Nimli’s mind. She looks up to see a guard standing in the middle of the room. “They caught Anak. He is in the courtyard.”
She forgot about that. They are accusing her cousin. She must hurry and stand for his defense.
“Come.” Nimli takes Tiridates’ hand.
Tiridates holds his ground. Kneeling down in front of him, she puts her hand on the back of his neck. His eyes fall on her, eyes filled with horror. Then she understands that his nightmare surpasses her own.
“Don't fret,” Nimli says, at a loss for words of real comfort.
Nimli motions to the nursemaid.
“Take him to my chamber,” she says.
As the girl leads him away, Tiridates’shoulders are slumped over and he stares at the ground. He looks as though all his life and energy have been drained. Nimli knows she should be worried about him, but there is no time for that now.
She rushes to the courtyard, a large open patio surrounded by the two-storey palace on three sides and a wall and gate on the fourth. Many of the mourners have already come. Nimli maneuvers her way to the front of the crowd where Anak kneels with his arms tied behind his back. Blood trickles from his lip onto his brown beard and several bruises have already begun to form on his cheeks and forehead.
“This is a mistake,” Nimli informs the guards who restrain him. “Release him immediately.”
The guards ignore her. She looks around helplessly. Why does no one else intervene? Across from her she sees Aghazar, a prominent Nakharar and her childhood friend. She runs to him.
“This is madness,” she says. “You must do something. It couldn’t have been Anak.”
He frowns, looks away as though she is indecent.
“It just couldn’t be,” Nimli says, trying to convince herself as much as Aghazar.
Aghazar’s dark hair blends into the night, making his regal profile all the more distinct. Nimli always thought he looked like an eagle, perhaps because of his rounded nose, but also because the stately glory behind his features awes her, and has ever since she was a girl. She wishes he would look at her, tell her she is right. Anak couldn’t have killed her husband.
“You are accused of murder and treason.” The captain of the guard steps toward Anak. “What say you?”
Anak breaths heavily and looks around him. His eyes rest on Nimli. She can hardly breathe under their weight.
“Forgive me,” he says.
No. It cannot be. They took him in, treated him like a king. Their children played together.
“I did it,” he says. “Emperor Shapur called us together, all the Parthian nobles. He wanted Khosrov dead, said he’d make the one who did it the richest and most powerful man in Persia. Second only to him. I thought...”
His words trail off as he begins to sob. His face is drawn in misery.
“I didn’t want to go through with it,” he says between sobs, “not after I got to know him. But I had no choice.”
He looks at Nimli again. It makes her feel dirty. How stupid to have trusted him. Worse, it was she who convinced Khosrov to welcome her cousin into the palace.
“I’m…so…ashamed.” Anak weeps bitterly, his chest heaving with each heavy breath.
Nimli looks up. A thin layer of cloud covers the sky like a blanket. This confession is a terrible omen. Already she can hear the drums of war and smell the smoke of Persian fires. If Shapur is behind King Khosrov’s death, he will not stop, not until he has reduced Vagharshapat to rubble and spills the blood of every prince. Tiridates will be first.
The captain gives the signal and four executioners step forward carrying curved swords. They surround Anak and plunge their weapons into his flesh. Nimli closes her eyes, sinks to the ground. The crowd cheers, but she knows better. This execution will not save her son, nor the rest of Armenia for that matter.
Running her gritty fingers down her forehead, she contemplates what to do. Tiridates must leave Armenia, but who can be trusted to take him away?
The air grows colder with the approaching dawn. Nimli is lost. Aghazar wraps his arm around her shoulders and helps her to her feet. Looking into his guileless brown eyes, Nimli sees her only hope.
“I need to speak with you,” she says.
“What is it?”
“Alone,” she says. “Can we go to my room?”
He drapes his arm around her as they walk, his warm hand resting on her shoulder. For years she longed for his skin against hers, but now she hates herself too much to enjoy it. What kind of woman wishes her husband dead, runs to the arms of another not an hour after his heart stops beating? And he loved her after all.
They enter Nimli's chamber to find Tiridates asleep on the bed and his nursemaid sitting on a chair beside him. The nursemaid leans forward, and when she sees Aghazar her eyes widen and her jaw drops.
“Leave us,” Nimli says. “Check on Khosrovitookht. Tiridates can stay with me tonight.”
The nursemaid continues gaping.
“Now!” Nimli shouts.
Jumping from her seat, the nursemaid curtsies and leaves with her eyebrows raised.
Nimli’s room has a bed big enough for three people to comfortably sleep, as well as a lounge with a fireplace and several chairs and sofas. Nimli sits on a couch and Aghazar pulls up a chair, sitting across from her and leaning forward eagerly.
“Thank you for accompanying me,” Nimli says. “There is something I must ask you.”
“Now that you’re a widow I suppose we have much to speak about.”
“That isn't what I meant.”
“My husband’s corpse is not yet cold,” she says, her voice trembling.
“Forgive me.” Aghazar lowers his head.“I thought-“
“No, forgive me. I must have misled you by bringing you here. This isn’t about us; it’s about him.”
Nimli nods toward the bed where Tiridates sleeps.
“The Persians are coming; I feel it in my bones. He must leave Armenia.
“I shall arrange a royal escort.”
“No. It must be you. I trust only you, Aghazar.”
He leans back and takes a deep breath, making a circle with his lips as he exhales.
“And what of you?” he asks.
“I will stay. Secure his throne.”
“I cannot leave you.”
Aghazar takes Nimli’s hand in his. His touch sends shivers up her spine, memories of joyful times long passed.
“I would die if something happened to you,” he says.
She closes her eyes and pictures it: she and Aghazar raising her children together, somewhere safe. Perhaps even having children of their own. How she longed for that, but even now it must not be.
“You take my son and my little girl," she says. "If the Persians come, I’ll flee the city and meet you in Rome. If they do not, I'll remain to ensure the throne is kept for Tiridates, and I'll send word for you to return."
“If you so wish."
Aghazar kisses her hand. His lips linger on her skin.
“You must go,” Nimli whispers.
He slowly runs his fingertips along her palm and fingers as he releases her hand. Though she longs for him, the time has come to let him go. She once promised never to lie to Aghazar, but what else can she do? There are other princes itching to be king and she must make Khosrov’s dying wish come to pass. Besides, what would people think if the queen mother flees the country like a criminal? No, when Khosrov made Tiridates his heir, he intertwined Nimli’s fate with that of Armenia. And as long as her children will be safe, she can accept her death with courage and dignity.