VIRGINIA SMITH, or Ginny to her friends, is an avid reader with eclectic tastes in fiction. She writes stories in a variety of styles, from lighthearted romance to breath-snatching suspense. Her books have been finalists for ACFW’s Carol Award, the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, the Maggie Awards, and the National Reader’s Choice Awards. Two of her novels have been honored with Holt Medallion Awards of Merit—A Daughter’s Legacy in 2011 and Dangerous Impostor in 2013.
When she isn’t writing, Ginny enjoys the extremes of nature—riding her motorcycle, snow skiing, and scuba diving. She and her husband, Ted, divide their times between their homes in Utah and Kentucky.
A Note from Virginia Smith
The book of Genesis doesn’t have much to say about the society in which Noah and his family lived. What a delight to an author with a vivid imagination, because the framework for stories set during that time period is wide open. All we are told is that in Noah’s day mankind had become evil and corrupt. Many have assumed the culture to be primitive–but what if that assumption is wrong? What if civilization had progressed to the point of cultivating technology? What if Noah’s society had developed some of the alarming elements of our own society?
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
City of the God
Behind a well-bloodied altar, the high priestess stood ramrod straight, a razor-sharp blade poised above her head. Eliana matched the rigid posture, her gaze riveted on the glistening knife gripped in her mother’s hands. A lamb lay bleating in terror on the altar, held in place by two blue-robed priestesses. Knots formed in Eliana’s stomach, and she averted her gaze from the struggling animal. Gathered in the courtyard before the open-air dais, the mesmerized crowd drew an audible breath, anticipating the moment of the knife’s descent.
From her position on the rear of the dais, deep beneath the shade of the golden canopy, Eliana watched her mother’s slender back, taut cords of muscle plainly visible beneath the filmy white gown. Her gaze shifted to the opposite side of the platform where another dark-haired priestess waited. The woman’s hand rested gently, almost lovingly, on the shoulder of a child. The last of the morning’s sacrifices stood motionless, watching the ritual through drug-laden eyes.
The crowd roared approval as the knife fell, and Eliana’s stomach lurched. By sheer force of will she remained outwardly passive, though her throat convulsed with the effort of keeping her breakfast in place. Why did the blood still disturb her so? Sacrifices had been part of her daily routine for years, since she ascended from the temple’s nursery to dwell in the upper halls. High Priestess Liadan made no secret of the fact that she despised this weakness in her daughter, and that Eliana must master her squeamishness. She had no choice. For in only a few years, Eliana would be called to take her mother’s place at the altar.
A movement among the masses caught her eye. A man dressed in farmer’s trousers and a loose-fitting shirt turned away to push through the crowd. Before the people closed in and hid him from view, he looked once more toward the dais where the high priestess stood. Even from the distance, his distaste at the spectacle showed clearly on his face. He shook his head sadly before disappearing into the crowd.
As the attendant priestesses removed the lamb’s carcass, Eliana’s gaze traveled once again to the opposite end of the dais. All hair had been shaved from the child’s head, making the gender impossible to determine. A white linen robe hung loosely from thin shoulders, and as Eliana watched, the priestess gently nudged the child toward the stairs leading to the altar. For one moment, dark, dull eyes locked onto Eliana’s in an unfocused stare.
With the speed of a lion attacking its prey, repugnance struck her like a physical assault. Burning acid surged into her throat, and her knees threatened to buckle. She shrank against the heavy gold curtain behind her. One urgent thought pummeled her brain: escape, before she vomited. If forced to watch one more sacrifice this morning, she would shame herself, her mother, and worst of all, the mighty god, Cain.
Though she would certainly be called to task later, Eliana slipped behind the curtain into the temple, and ran.
Breath burning in her lungs, Eliana catapulted through a side door that led from the temple into a secluded corner of the public gardens. Bright sunlight assaulted her eyes after the dim lighting of the temple corridors. She stopped on the cobbled walkway to recover her breath, inhaling deep draughts of rose-scented air to clear the stench of sacrificial blood from her nostrils. In the distance she heard the roar of a hundred exhilarated voices and knew the final sacrifice of the morning had been performed. An image rose unbidden in her mind: sightless eyes, dark and dull, stared skyward as the child’s life dripped into the high priestess’s chalice to appease the hungry god.
Huge gulps of cool morning air tasted sweet against the bitter bile that again threatened to choke her.
No! She pressed fists against her eyes. Think of something else.
Startled, she opened her eyes to see a filthy urchin before her. He must have been hiding behind the hedge that lined the cobbled path. Beggars were unusual in the secluded cluster of shops and taverns that surrounded the temple gardens. In the unlikely event one decided to try his luck inside the ornamental iron gates separating the private marketplace from the press of Cainlan’s city streets, dozens of uniformed guardsman were normally on hand to point out his error. This child had somehow escaped notice. The bones in his wrist protruded beneath thin, dirt-encrusted skin as he thrust his palm toward her, gazing up with liquid brown eyes.
Eyes that flickered with life.
Eliana reached for the bag that hung at her side when she shopped. Then she remembered. She hadn’t needed a bag for the morning sacrifice. It was back in her rooms in the temple’s resident hall.
“I’m sorry. I’ve nothing to give.”
Disbelief flashed across the child’s features. His gaze dropped to take in her silk gown, followed by a smirk of disgust. He spat, barely missing her embroidered slippers, and ran off. She watched as he ducked under the cover of a thick, flowering bush.
At least he was alive to run away.
When the urchin was out of sight, Eliana hesitated. Duty demanded that she return to the temple. Girta would be waiting in her rooms with something cool and calming to drink. But this morning the thick stone walls of the only home she’d ever known threatened to press the breath right out of her body.
With a guilty backward glance, Eliana turned away from the temple and hurried down the walkway, her silken gown whispering around her feet. The gardens lay inside the high hedge to her right. At the center a statue of Cain towered above the greenery, his back to the temple dedicated to his service. Sometimes that ever-watchful presence comforted her, but in recent days, with her official entry into the priesthood drawing nearer, the god’s regard presented a menacing force that haunted her dreams. She kept her head turned away.
At the far end of the stone and wood shops that comprised the market square rose the imposing building that housed the Cabinet of Energy. She avoided looking in that direction as well. The smooth, polished walls, so different from the rough hewn stone of the temple, stirred feelings of disquiet deep in her stomach. The sun’s rays reflected off glass panels, blinding her and hiding the actions of those who worked within doing … what? The workings of Cainlan’s government were largely a mystery, at least to a fledgling priestess. Each morning men and women filed inside clutching satchels and moving with quick, hurried steps that gave the impression of important activities awaiting them inside the shining walls. At the end of the day, those same men and women filed out carrying the same satchels. At night the energy-powered lights lining the roof cast a harsh glow into the sky and blotted out the twinkling stars. In daylight, the building stood as a gleaming symbol of progress, staring defiance across the gardens toward the ancient temple and the statue of the god the temple served.
When the building was erected ten years before, Liadan’s voice had snapped with irritation whenever it was mentioned. But in recent years the High Priestess’s attitude had undergone a change. Though Eliana still heard the occasional grumble about ‘that monstrosity’ blocking her view of the city that sprawled to the south, her mother had ceased grumbling about the government. The reason, Eliana suspected, had little to do with politics and everything to do with Captor, the handsome governor whose first official project after his appointment was to champion the building project.
Eliana jumped when a loud blast from a horn signaled the end of the sacrifice ceremony. Within moments the walkway filled with people intent on their own errands. Shopkeepers threw open their shutters and attempted to coax customers through their doorways with promises of bargains and temple-blessed wares. Eliana allowed herself to be swept along toward the far end of the market square, where she turned into the relative peace of a narrow alleyway.
The scent of freshly baked bread carried from the corner bakery, so like the kitchen near the temple nursery. She missed those peaceful years, when she’d been too young to attract her mother’s attention beyond the obligatory monthly visits to the high priestess’s chambers.
A movement ahead caught her eye. The pet shop owner wrestled a heavy iron cage through the doorway of his store. Inside, a colorful bird squawked in protest at the rough handling. Another man emerged from the shop in the owner’s wake, his quiet voice easily heard in the narrow confines of the alley.
“I’m quite sure my father would be interested in a pair, if you could manage to find a female.”
At a glimpse of his profile, her breath caught in her throat. He was the man she had seen in the crowd, the farmer who had turned away before the end of the sacrificial ritual.
The shop owner placed the cage near the window and faced his customer, hands on his hips. “Your father has quite a collection by now, I’d say.”
A warm laugh rumbled toward her. “That he does, but none like this.”
Collection? Was the stranger’s father a bird handler, then? A pair of women entered the alley, chatting with one another as they headed toward the fabric shop at the far end. Curious, Eliana crept closer to the men, her eyes averted but her ears tuned to their conversation.
“My supplier can find a female, but they’re expensive. They come all the way from Enoch, and the roads are dangerous these days.” The shop owner shook his head. “I’ll need payment in advance.”
A shadow fell across Eliana, accompanied by the stench of rotten breath. She whirled and lifted her eyes to a face much closer than she liked. A man, tall and broad-shouldered, towered over her. His companion, whose clothes bore evidence of much wear and little washing, stepped behind her to successfully box her in. Narrowed eyes glinted down at her as cracked lips parted in a grin.
Alarm plunged into her belly.
“What do we have here? A lady in fancy clothes.”
He fingered the gold-embroidered silk of her gown where it draped across her collarbone, and Eliana drew breath to voice an outraged protest. His rough hand brushed against her breast. Her words died unspoken while icy fear froze the blood in her veins. She shrank away, but the man behind her formed an immovable barrier. Twisting sideways, she pressed her back against the stone wall. Why had she run off without a cloak to cover her gown? She might as well have strung gold coins from her ears and invited thieves to take them. Hadn’t Girta warned her over and over? She cast about frantically for a means of escape, but could not tear her gaze from the menacing grin blocking her view. Could she outrun them, make a dash for the alley entrance?
As though he heard her thought, the man raised a meaty arm and planted his hand against the stone beside her, entrapping her in a cage of sweaty flesh.
The second man lifted a fat finger to point at her face. “Hey, I know her. She was up by the altar.”
The first man’s grin deepened. “A priestess, eh?” He put his other hand on the wall beside her head and leaned closer. “I’ve heard some of them priestesses can be mighty friendly to a working man when they’re asked real nice.”
The man’s hand dropped to her shoulder and slid down her arm. A trail of fire seared her skin where his fingers touched, and a fierce trembling in her knees threatened to drop her to the cobbled ground. She had to get away, to run to the safety of the temple, and of Girta’s arms.
“I—” Her voice failed her. She gulped and tried again. “I must get back. I’m…I’m expected.”
The second man’s low chuckle resonated in her ears. “What’s the hurry? We’ve got a nice place out in the city where—”
“Pardon my intrusion.”
Eliana jerked her gaze to the man who suddenly appeared behind her captors. The farmer who’d been bargaining for the colorful bird. Anger erupted on the faces of the ruffians as they turned toward him, shoulder-to-shoulder. Their backs formed a wall of muscle and flesh in front of Eliana.
Courtesy and steel blended in the farmer’s soft voice. “I’m concluding my business here, and then I can accompany the lady back to the temple.”
The backs of her captors swelled until they seemed to double in size. “Mind your business. This lady don’t need no dirt digger to take her anywhere.”
The farmer’s soft voice did not change. “I think she does.”
As one, they took a menacing step toward him. With a quick sideways movement, Eliana slid out of their reach. Without a backward glance, she dashed blindly down the alley. Half a breath later she realized her mistake. She should have run the other way, toward the alley’s entrance and the safety of the wide-open gardens where the marketplace guards would see her. There was no place to go in this direction except into one of the shops in this tiny alley. She skidded to a halt behind the dubious protection of the metal birdcage, just as the animal keeper emerged from the open doorway of his shop. In one hand he carried a short but sturdy club, which he slapped rhythmically into the palm of the other as he stalked toward the place where the farmer stood his ground before the pair of brutes.
“Here now, we’ll have none of this. Be on your way.”
The larger of the thugs glanced toward Eliana, clearly considering whether or not she was worth pursuing. She huddled behind the cage, fear coursing down her spine. Though the farmer stood half a head taller, they both possessed arms nearly the width of Eliana’s waist, and were decades younger than the shopkeeper. If they decided to fight, could she scream loud enough to attract the attention of the temple guards? Were there any guards near enough to come to their aid?
The first ruffian turned his head and spat. “Let’s go.” Apparently he didn’t mind the odds of two men against one petite woman, but didn’t relish the idea of pairing off against other men.
His companion hesitated, and then joined him. Eliana’s rescuers did not move until the thugs had left the alley.
When her would-be attackers were out of sight, she sagged against the shop’s doorway, eyes closed, and willed her heartbeat to slow. Footsteps approached.
“Are you hurt, lady?”
She shook her head and looked up into the kind gray eyes of the farmer. “I’m fine, thanks to you.” She slid her gaze to include the shopkeeper. “Thanks to you both.”
The man slapped his club once more into his palm. “I’ll have a word with the guards, I will. We don’t need their kind in here. The temple marketplace should be safe for priestesses.” He peered at her. “Seen you here before, I have. You won’t warn your friends not to come?”
Eliana’s smile trembled nearly as much as her knees. She saw no need to correct his assumption that she was a priestess. “I’ll tell everyone I know of your bravery and how you rescued me from…” She shuddered, unable to contemplate exactly what she’d been rescued from at the hands of those crude men. Something terrible, for certain.
He jerked a satisfied nod. “That’s alright, then.”
The farmer smiled, tiny lines deepening around his kind eyes. He was tall and trim with muscular arms evident beneath a loose-fitting shirt the color of mature wheat. A plain strip of leather at the base of his neck secured dark hair sprinkled lightly with silver.
She looked toward the alley’s entrance. “Thank you again. I should go.” The thought of leaving the safety these men provided set her pulse racing once again. Were the two ruffians out of sight, waiting for her to leave her rescuers’ company?
The man followed her gaze. “If you’re returning to the temple, I’ll go with you.”
Relief flooded her. She didn’t trust her voice, but accepted his offer with a nod.
He turned to the animal keeper and gestured toward the cage. “About that bird. I’ll need to check with my father concerning the expense.”
“My supplier leaves in six days. I don’t know when he’ll make another trip.”
The farmer dipped his forehead. “Then I will return in five.”
The shop owner waved a hand in dismissal, and with a final smile in her direction, disappeared into his shop. When he was out of sight, the handsome stranger watched the bird smooth the colorful feathers that covered its wing, an unreadable expression on his face. Wistful, maybe? Or merely secretive?
His expression cleared, and he gestured toward the market square’s main walkway. “Shall we?”
Eliana fell in step beside him. His arms swung at his sides with an easy grace as he walked. She had to hurry to keep up with his long-legged gait.
“I heard you mention that your father is a bird collector.” Her mouth snapped shut on the last word. She’d just given herself away as an eavesdropper.
He seemed not to notice. “Not really, though he is keenly interested in animals of all kinds, especially those from distant lands.”
“Is he a breeder, then?”
“Not exactly.” For one moment, his lips twitched with a secret. “My father is a simple farmer, as are I and my two brothers. He’s also something of a carpenter.” He pulled up short as they approached the end of the alley, and turned to face her. “I’ve not introduced myself. Forgive me. I am Shem de Noah, eldest son of Noah and Midian.”
He executed a formal half-bow and gave her an expectant look.
Eliana tore her gaze from his face. How should she identify herself, her parentage? Hadn’t Girta warned her more than once against telling anyone who she was? She avoided his eyes. The crowd on the marketplace walkways had dwindled to a handful of shoppers who hurried past. The two men she feared were not in sight. Maybe she should forgo the introduction and make a hasty exit.
One look into his warm gray eyes and her desire to part this man’s company dissolved. Her father’s name was a common one. Perhaps Shem wouldn’t make the connection to the famous man who was, after all, a complete stranger to her.
She mimicked Shem’s bow. “I am Eliana de Ashbel.” She left off the traditional identification of her maternal parent. There was, after all, only one Liadan. The name was recognized the world over.
His features did not change as he nodded. “I thought so. You’re the primogenitor, the heiress to the high priestess. I saw you on the dais this morning, behind your mother.”
A quick breath hissed as it entered her lungs. She hadn’t needed to identify her mother. Of course he would recognize the name of the former governor of Cainlan, and make the connection. She’d been foolish to think otherwise. Girta would be beyond furious that she had revealed her identity to a stranger after promising faithfully never to do so.
“I—I shouldn’t have stayed so long.” She edged sideways, toward the temple. “Thank you for helping me.”
“Why are you frightened?” Shem’s outstretched hand hovered in the air between them. “You have nothing to fear from me. I promised to see you safely home, and I will keep my word.”
The entreaty in his voice stopped her. Unlike the two who had frightened her in the alley, no hidden intentions lurked in Shem’s face. He would not harm her. She relented and allowed him to walk beside her.
In silence they traveled the wide path toward the temple. A pair of uniformed guardsmen appeared on the walkway in front of them, their faces lighting with recognition when they caught sight of her. One straightened, his shoulders back in an almost-salute, but the other merely dipped his head in a silent greeting as they passed. Eliana did not acknowledge them, but Shem returned the gesture with a pleasant nod of his own.
When the side entryway through which Eliana had escaped earlier came into view, Shem’s step slowed.
“Can you stay a moment and talk?” He gestured toward an empty bench near the tall hedge that bordered the temple gardens. “I’ve some time before I meet my friend.”
Eliana glanced at the position of the sun. She really should return to her rooms. Yet something about this man intrigued her. What harm was there in a moment or two’s delay?
“Girta won’t raise the alarm quite this soon.” She crossed the cobbled path and perched on the iron seat.
Shem joined her. “I never expected to see the primogenitor alone in the marketplace. With a flock of protective priestesses or temple guards in tow, perhaps, but not alone.”
“No one knows I’m here.” Their immediate surroundings were vacant, with no one to overhear her confession. “I slipped away just before the end of the morning ceremony.” She almost added, as you did.
“And is Girta a priestess, then?”
“Oh no, she’s my nursemaid. Or—” She fought a blush, embarrassed to have him think she still needed nursing. “—she was my nursemaid, from the day I was born. Now she’s my maid, but she still treats me like I crawled out of the cradle yesterday. She worries that someone will try to steal me away.”
The moment the words were spoken, an ugly realization struck her. Apparently Girta’s fears were not unfounded. That is exactly what nearly happened.
Shem nodded, his expression solemn. “The heir to the high priestess of Cain could command a high price in some quarters. That aside, the city is full of unscrupulous men who would take advantage of a beautiful young woman, no matter what her position may be. You should be more cautious.”
Eliana hid her delight in his compliment by brushing a piece of dried grass from the hem of her silky gown. Did he find her beautiful? When she’d regained her composure, she settled against the back of the bench. In the distance, from the direction of the temple stables, the clang of metal played a rhythmic accompaniment to the low murmur of barely audible shoppers’ voices. “Tell me of your father’s farm. Is it near the city?”
“No, we live to the west of here.”
The temple rested on the northern edge of Cainlan, with the city sprawling outward from its protected gates on three sides. The window of Eliana’s room looked westward upon the city’s narrow streets, crowded with dwellings and packed with people and animals. No farmland lay beyond the city’s edge in that direction, only a barren ribbon of land, and beyond that, a deep canopy of green. “Your farm is in the forest?”
“Just beyond, a half-day’s journey by wagon.”
“Wagon?” She gave a small laugh. “Not many people travel by wagon these days.”
Secrets appeared again in the smoky eyes. “No doubt we’re a little backward by modern standards. My father isn’t fond of landriders, or the energy that runs them.”
Eliana looked away, embarrassed. Perhaps Shem’s family was poor, and couldn’t afford a rider, or the energy cartridges to power it.
She searched for a topic to distract him from her ill-mannered comment. “Tell me of your home. I’ve never seen a real farm, only the lands that surround Cainlan. Girta tells me they’re not proper farms, like the ones where her people used to live in the south.”
Shem extended his long legs and folded his arms behind his head as he described his home. He spoke of working the fields and harvesting produce, of his love for animals, and his favorite exotic birds. He possessed a passion for feathered creatures that surpassed his father’s. Enthralled, she listened as he detailed the ways to care for captive birds, of their strict dietary requirements and the importance of providing an atmosphere free from stress.
Long before Eliana tired of listening, a piercing signal blasted from the Cabinet of Energy building to mark the hour.
He straightened abruptly. “I am late. I’ve delayed you much longer than I realized.”
Disappointment sank through her, but Girta must have noticed her absence by now, and begun to worry. Even worse, what if the high priestess had summoned her daughter to reprimand her for leaving the morning ceremony early, and no one knew where to find her?
That thought sent Eliana scrambling to her feet. “I’ve enjoyed meeting you, Shem de Noah. Perhaps we can talk again sometime.”
He shaded his eyes with a hand as he stood. “I hope so. Sometimes my wife comes to the city with me, and I think she would enjoy talking with you as well.”
His wife? She struggled to school her features against a wash of disappointment. The term told her much. Followers of the One God joined in marriage for life instead of forming normal marital alliances. For some reason, she found his admission that he practiced this old-fashioned custom oddly embarrassing. “Of course. I’d… like to meet her.”
The proper thing to say, though untrue.
He ducked his head in an invitation to force her to look up, into his face. Smiling gray eyes peered deeply into hers. “I hope we meet again, Eliana. I will add you to my daily prayers, and ask the One God to watch over you.”
Blood surged through her veins to roar in her ears. What daring, to mention the One God to the daughter of the high priestess of Cain. Was this man a fanatic, then?
With a final sideways grin, as though fully aware of the lapse he’d just committed, his fingers touched his forehead and he strode away.
Eliana cracked the door wide enough to slip through. Just before she pulled the heavy iron latch closed, she glanced at his retreating back. Amazing that she, the primogenitor, would meet a follower of the One God in the very shadow of the temple dedicated to the service of Cain.
Now she knew two who practiced that outdated religion.