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Chapter 1: Slaves
Ashtaroth – Qemassen: The House of Many Purposes – 20 Years Later
How soon the afternoon came on.
Already the nib of Ashtaroth’s reed pen was dull. Already the ink blotted instead of flowing freely as he pressed pen to papyrus. Already the hour grew late and the funeral drew near.
The world is filled with detritus and despair, Ashtaroth scribbled from his spot on one of the simple benches lining the basement of the House of Many Purposes. The tools of darkness—
No. Ashtaroth crossed out tools. In the empty room, with no one there to speak, the scritch-scratch of reed against papyrus was the only sound. Lamplight flickered across the cool stone room and the scroll he’d unrolled on the lectern in his lap.
The instruments of darkness tell us truths, to betray us in deepest consequence. As we languish in our inevitable mortality—
“As we languish in our inevitable mortality. As we languish in our inevitable mortality. As we languish . . . .” Ashtaroth tapped his reed pen against his chin, contemplating the trajectory of his poem.
Maybe it would work better if it rhymed.
Ashtaroth brushed back his hair with ink-stained fingers and felt liquid smear his cheek. He pulled several strands away from his face—black had seeped into his prematurely white hair. Gods, he was clumsy. It was a good thing he’d hidden down here, away from the palace, so he wouldn’t have to attend his brother-in-law’s funeral. The last thing he needed was to show up covered in ink. Samelqo would’ve had yet another thing to scold him for.
He reached for one of the cotton rags he’d placed beside him for correcting mistakes and squeezed his chin-length curls between its folds. Inky water dribbled down his fingers and pooled on the plain stone floor.
The world is filled with detritus and despair, as smoke and shadows fill the air, and mortality grasps us with—
“Its hair?” Ashtaroth wrinkled his nose. Was his rhyme a show of great skill and craftsmanship? Was it an offense to the great poet Ciqa himself, whose very feet had graced these same lower quarters of the city? Crown prince Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen found himself torn; the gap between greatness and obsolescence was a slim one indeed.
On the wall across from him, the lamplight cast shadows like long claws.
Yes. Yes, that was it. The finishing touch.
And mortality grasps us with claws laid bare.
Ashtaroth scratched his signature below the poem, then leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, exhausted by his labours. Was this what it felt like to rest after a hard day’s work in the lower city—tending a stall, stomping sheets at the fuller’s, mending the city drains? The words he had set down on these humble scrolls would one day resound in the ears of the Massenqa as hallowed verses. He’d long been schooled that it did not do simply to rule Qemassen. Ashtaroth must embody Qemassen—his whims were the city’s needs (or was it the other way around?), his failures the city’s failures. When he succeeded, the city must succeed, and when he was led astray, the city suffered. Today he may have run from his duties at the palace, but all in service to Qemassen’s greatness.
Samelqo would understand why Ashtaroth had been compelled to set aside the work he’d been assigned. After seeing his brilliance, Samelqo would instruct the palace’s foremost scribes to make copies, and Ashtaroth’s art would be distributed amongst the people, a monument in metre.
From the main floor, above Ashtaroth, he heard three sets of footsteps, trailed by muffled voices that became more intelligible as they descended the enclosed staircase. Qorban’s booming voice was unmistakable, as was the subject of conversation—the new ship, a quinquireme, that Ashtaroth’s eldest sister had given Qorban command of.
They’d found Ashtaroth. They’d come to force him to attend the funeral, and no doubt to thrust Djana at him again. Ever since Ashtaroth’s older brother Aurelius had sauntered off on his latest sea voyage, the group’s philosophy circle had degenerated into a matchmaker’s guild. Qorban’s wife Titrit was set on Ashtaroth taking Djana, the Ajwatat ambassador, as a lover. Maybe today Titrit would restrain herself—it was her uncle Sabeq they burned tonight after all. A funeral was no place for Djana’s wandering hands and fawning touches.
Ashtaroth’s skin crawled, hairs on end. He rubbed his arm with his hand to stifle it, but the cold chill of the shaded basement easily penetrated the thick cotton of his murex-dyed tunic. Ever since the sweet-urine sickness had returned a month ago, Ashtaroth had found the cold clung to him, accompanied always by a relentless hunger. Neither was helped by the meagre, bland diet Samelqo’s physicians had forced upon him. Day by day, Ashtaroth’s flesh melted from his bones, and he wondered if the cure wasn’t worse than the return of his childhood illness.
“My Ziphax is the swiftest in the fleet. Sure as spring she’ll see the Lora running,” said Qorban.
“You cannot run on the ocean.” The telltale sound of Djana’s honeyed, Ajwata-accented Massenqa, followed by a chuckle. She was always chuckling at Ashtaroth like that, but he didn’t know why. Ashtaroth was a serious person. Only Aurelius laughed at him, and that was because Aurelius was an ass.
Their voices were quite loud now. Ashtaroth prepared for their arrival by laying his poem to the side and turning to face the entrance with what he hoped was an expression of casual disinterest, though he chose his angle carefully—the shadows down here would exacerbate the boniness of his face and the sharpness of his hooked nose. He might not want Djana the way she seemed to him, but that didn’t mean he wanted to look a fool in front of her.
Titrit entered first, trailed by her husband Qorban. Djana followed—tall, elegant, and arms laden with a heap of scrolls ready to tumble onto the floor. Before they could, Ashtaroth bolted to his feet to help her. In his haste, he knocked the ink pot and lectern from their place.
“Ashtaroth!” Djana covered her mouth with one hand while pointing with the other, and the precarious heap of scrolls cradled in her arms clattered to the ground, along with several oblong pots containing the five separate tinctures Ashtaroth was expected to apply to his joints, and which seemed to do nothing but stain his skin orange. Well, Aurelius was always complaining the House of Many Purposes needed a coat of paint.
Ashtaroth turned from Djana to assess the damage to his manuscript. Viscous black ink had spilled over the surface of his masterpiece. He let out a squeak—an effeminate, high-pitched sound he regretted immediately. He knew already it would haunt his dreams for weeks.
Titrit reached the mess before he did, sliding the papyrus away from the ink. She picked it up and tilted it so that the pools on its surface drained away from his poem. She cocked her head, the long braid she wore down her back threatening to drag in the spill. “Loneliness beyond compare,” she read aloud, “struggling to breathe in fetid air, in the cavern of the bear—”
Behind Ashtaroth, Qorban laughed and cleared his throat. Blood rushed to Ashtaroth’s cheeks. He marched up to Titrit, snatched the scroll from her thin fingers, and rolled it closed. “Cavern of despair,” he corrected, to Titrit alone.
“You spelled it wrong,” Titrit pointed out. She straightened and smiled at him. She was dressed in her usual, plain stola, despite that it was her uncle’s funeral. But as usual, Djana more than made up for Titrit’s drabness.
Any normal man would have thought Djana radiant in her patterned yellow dress, which hugged her curves and flattered her dark brown skin. Her hair was bound in a matching yellow wrap—an Ajwata fashion that had recently put down roots in Qemassen. Roots like the ones she wanted to sink into Ashtaroth. She was always pawing at him, endlessly wanting with an oppressive kindness he couldn’t escape for fear of offending.
Qorban and Djana were cleaning up the mess she’d made of her absurd pile of scrolls. She looked up at Ashtaroth. “Titrit claimed you would not hide on the day of your brother-in-law’s funeral, but I knew better. And I knew to look at the House of Many Purposes.”
The House of Many Purposes. In reality it was only the basement level of one of Titrit’s father’s many properties. Qanmi eq-Sabaal let her use the building for whatever she liked. Aurelius had coined its name as a joke, trying to be crude, and the name had stuck.
“I’m sorry,” said Ashtaroth, directing his apology at Titrit. “I had planned to meet you like we arranged, but I got caught up in my poetry.”
Titrit pursed her lips, meeting Ashtaroth’s gaze. “We found you. That’s what matters.” Her sandy complexion mirrored Ashtaroth’s, and she wore her straight black hair bound down her back in a simple knot. She was older than him, born in year five of Eshmunen’s reign, the same as Himalit. She was pretty in a clumsy sort of way. She’d been pretty enough for Aurelius for a time, at least. Beside her, Qorban looked like a hulking brute—all muscle, and dressed in his fine ceremonial leather armour. He was smarter than he seemed though; Hima would hardly have put him in charge of the Ziphax otherwise.
“I just wanted to get away from all the slaves,” said Ashtaroth. When Titrit’s eyes didn’t exactly overflow with sympathy, Ashtaroth switched tactics. “And an illness came upon me.” He laid his hand on his stomach for emphasis, trying to look faint.
Djana set the spilled scrolls aside and stood up. She threaded her arm through Ashtaroth’s and stroked the back of her hand down his cheek, gazing at him with concern. “Poor dear. Perhaps one of your tinctures?” She gestured at the pile.
Ashtaroth grimaced. “I’ve already applied some.”
“Samelqo said otherwise,” said Titrit. “We thought you might have visited him in his tower, but he claimed not to have seen you today, and instructed that we—” She cleared her throat as though preparing to imitate the heq-Ashqen, but Qorban beat her to it, which was as well because Qorban was better at impressions: “—inform the crown prince that since he has clearly determined that the merits of his artistry far outweigh the importance of concerns of state, his heq-Ashqen will content himself with assessing the prince’s work from afar, admiring the effluvium of his poetic output from the vantage of a simple auditor. No doubt, the prince’s newfound occupation will match in quality previous such efforts on the prince’s part. I recall, for instance, the early greatness demonstrated by Aurelius Smells Like a Turd, and I am Happy Not to be Poor. As an avid supporter of such metrical excellence, he will forgive me the indulgence of having his words recited aloud to the court at large, that their true quality be acknowledged by all.”
This was decidedly unfair. Aurelius Smells Like a Turd had been written when Ashtaroth was eight, and I’m Happy Not to be Poorhad, according to Samelqo, contained some important themes worth exploring.
Qorban sucked in a deep breath and, hoarse, continued, “And that should he insist upon neglecting his own health and therefore the health of the very city which depends on his successful survival into adulthood, you are authorized to exert such force upon him as is required to see that his treatment is properly applied and his error corrected.”
An impressive feat of memorization.
“He said we could sit on you if we wanted,” Qorban translated. “To rub the oils in.”
Ashtaroth went rigid, and slipped his arm out from Djana’s. “That won’t be necessary,” he blurted.
“Do not let him trouble you,” said Djana. “Your poems are very heartfelt.”
Qorban shoved one of Samelqo’s scrolls at Ashtaroth. “He also sent this.” The papyrus was a rough grade for practice, and contained Ashtaroth’s completed work from two days ago—a list ranking the gods according to their relative merits, as selected and defended by Ashtaroth. The margins were filled with Samelqo’s commentary, written in a firm, elegant hand—a sorry contrast with Ashtaroth’s chicken scratches. Samelqo, it appeared, had taken issue with the brevity of the goddess Tanata’s description compared to Abaal’s, despite that Abaal was supposedly king of the gods. Another annotation lay below it, in Samelqo’s hand:
Unfortunately, once again your listening comprehension has proved flawed. At least, that is the hope, since the alternative is that you have willfully neglected my instruction. You were tasked to describe not merely our own pantheon, but the gods of the Helit entire. You might begin, as an example, with an entry on Lorar, or Ajwata. In Ajwata, the people worship only one god: the god of happiness. It is fortunate for you that this is not also the case in Qemassen, elsewise you might fear the ire of a heq-Ashqen in whom you have evoked the opposite feeling.
“Perhaps,” said Titrit, “we should leave you to salvage what you can of your afternoon?”
Ashtaroth shook his head. “No.” He frowned at her, guilt for missing his morning instruction with Samelqo digging its teeth in. “We should attend the funeral. I’ll see him there. I’ll apologize.” Samelqo was one of few who truly seemed to want Ashtaroth to become king, who didn’t favor Aurelius because of his handsome face and easy smile. Ashtaroth ought to be more considerate of the heq-Ashqen. Though Samelqo never complained, it must be lonely in his tower, with only his hideous, one-eyed slave for company. Ashtaroth’s father sometimes visited, but he was gloomier even than Molot.
Titrit rejoined her husband at the foot of the stairs, taking his hand. “Then we should make our way to the temple.”
Ashtaroth was about to agree when Djana interrupted. “Would you go on ahead?” she asked Titrit. “I would like to speak to Ashtaroth alone.”
Alone. The word hung in the air, swinging like a noose before Ashtaroth’s face. As Titrit left, face plastered with a sly smile, Ashtaroth gripped his arm and rubbed his skin, the better to stop Djana from doing it for him.
“Are you cold?” she asked.
Ashtaroth hesitated. “Yes.”
“How funny. I am very warm, Sese.” She let the words hang like she expected some witty and flirtatious reply, but Ashtaroth wasn’t Aurelius.
Blood rushed to his cheeks. “Then perhaps we should get going. You’ll get some fresh air—I can let the sun warm me.”
It wasn’t the response she’d been looking for, which he knew, and which he knew she knew that he knew. She glanced at the scroll Qorban had given him, still clutched in Ashtaroth’s free hand. “Were you writing about our god? I saw Samelqo’s notes.”
“Oh.” Ashtaroth’s stomach growled, loud enough for Djana to hear. “Yes. The god of happiness. ” He shouldn’t have told her that, inviting interest.
As predicted, she grinned, toothy this time. “You know,” Djana said, “when one of our kings or queens brings unhappiness to our people, the ruler is exiled to an island off the coast. Failing our people is considered an affront to the god of happiness himself.”
Was that intended as some comment on Ashtaroth? That he might not make his people happy? That he couldn’t make Djana happy like she wanted? Did she think he ought to be exiled like some stupid Ajwata king? “I’ll never understand you and your god.”
Her smile faded. “I want you to be happy, Ashtaroth. That is all I meant. Happiness is the most important thing we have to offer each other, and ourselves.”
Anyone else would have looked her in her eyes, and smiled, and brushed her arm with their fingers. The idea made Ashtaroth recoil, not because Djana was grotesque, or cruel, or a fool, but because she was none of those things, and because he didn’t want her though he had every reason to.
Upstairs, on the first floor of the House of Many Purposes, Titrit and Qorban were talking about Lorar and about Qorban’s ship again. The Lora had been seen raiding some northern Ajwata settlements. People were far too worried about it.
“Let’s go,” said Ashtaroth, pretending he didn’t remember that Djana had asked to be alone with him, that she’d never had the chance to say what she’d wanted to. Without looking at her—because he knew it would only make him feel guilty—Ashtaroth headed upstairs. After a few steps, he heard Djana follow.
Once outside, Ashtaroth waved Titrit over while Djana joined Qorban beside the litters. Ashtaroth’s slaves had no doubt been idling as he worked away inside, but they all stood at attention now, as did Titrit’s slaves.
Titrit smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Ashtaroth forced one in return. “Can we speak?”
“Who am I to refuse the crown prince?” she asked. She seemed in a strangely whimsical mood for someone who’d recently lost family.
“I’m sorry. About your uncle.”
A flicker of something Ashtaroth couldn’t decipher distorted Titrit’s birdlike features, but it was soon gone. “Thank you, Sese.” She held her hands clasped in front of her, and she worried at her knuckles with her thumb. Maybe she was more upset about Sabeq than he’d thought.
Ashtaroth cleared his throat. “It’s not that, though. That I wanted to speak with you about.”
“I had a feeling.”
“It’s about Djana. She keeps . . . and you keep—”
Titrit cut him off, all business. “She wouldn’t be a poor mistress before your princess arrives, and that’s if she ever arrives. An ambassador is no small prize, and with her father’s business connections back home in Ajwata—there’s a strong alliance to be made, if you’re bold enough.” Titrit smiled knowingly.
Ashtaroth had been promised to a Feislanda princess since birth, some stranger from a faraway land, always threatening to arrive and realize the spectre of marriage. Anyone else would have taken a mistress long ago. Ashtaroth was twenty, past the age when most took their first lover.
He swallowed. “I don’t think that’s a reason to, well, you know.” He tensed, waiting for a laugh that never came.
“For a prince it’s a perfect reason. For a merchant’s son it’s a perfect reason.” She paused. “But you don’t like her.”
It didn’t sound right, as though Djana were somehow deficient, when it was clear Ashtaroth was lacking. And was there bitterness in her voice? Ashtaroth wished Titrit would admit to feeling slighted by Aurelius. It would be nice if for once someone admitted Ashtaroth’s older brother could do wrong, instead of being so very right all the time.
Behind Titrit, the curtains of the litter were askew, like she was watching them, waiting for Ashtaroth’s response even though she couldn’t have heard anything from so far away.“I like her, just not enough to want her, and too much to hurt her.”
Titrit laughed. “It’ll take more than a skinny thing like you to hurt Djana. She’s had her share of lovers, or hadn’t you noticed?”
Ashtaroth had noticed. Djana was as free with her affections as Aurelius—not the sort of person Ashtaroth would share a bed with. Somehow though, the thought fueled a fire in him. “Then maybe she should bother one of them.” He hadn’t intended it to come out so harsh. Flustered by his own boldness, he stalked away from Titrit, down the narrow street the slaves had cleared of pedestrians.
“Ashtaroth. Sese,” Titrit pleaded behind him. She was like a mother with her matchmaking, but how good at it could she be when she’d failed to win Aurelius for herself?
Ashtaroth wasn’t a child. He didn’t need her pity.
But Titrit’s uncle had died, and today they burned him. Ashtaroth could be more gentle. He stopped walking. “I need time alone. To think.”
“We should make our way to the gardens, for the funeral.”
She was right, but Ashtaroth wasn’t composed enough to face the horde of relatives and well-wishers. He wanted time alone, without slaves and nobles trailing him wherever he went. For just a little while, he wanted to escape Djana and his stifling duties—endless reports, and meetings, and lessons with Samelqo—even Titrit and her husband. Ashtaroth hadn’t liked Sabeq. What good did it do to pretend he had, now that Sabeq was dead? Why did people bow to dishonesty and disingenuousness as welcomed gods?
“I’ll arrive before the funeral starts.” He turned around and forced a smile for Titrit’s sake. “When have I ever missed something important?”
Titrit bit her lip. “I won’t make excuses for you.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to.”
Titrit said her farewells, and took Ashtaroth’s litter so that he could dip back inside the House and escape their attention. The slaves who’d carted him downhill would think he was with Djana and Qorban. Soon, Ashtaroth was alone.
He had at least an hour before the funeral began. He lifted his arms above his head and sucked in the air as though it were rich with freedom, instead of Qemassen’s usual mixture of spices, incense, and indeterminate stench. Even though the street had been cleared of people by his slaves earlier, the distinctive smells of Qemassen prevailed.
There was a texture to the lower quarters of the city: the stalls of seedy merchants, the steady chatter and clatter of ordinary Massenqa in Qemassen’s central marketplace—the Eghri eq-Shalem. The lower city was noisier, wider, and dirtier than the Talefa hill, but it was full of the most fascinating people.
With his distinct white hair, Ashtaroth usually had to disguise himself, lest the Massenqa recognize their future king, unguarded and unaccompanied. Today Ashtaroth kept his hood down, let the wind tickle his cheek and blow through his hair. Besides, from behind Ashtaroth had often been mistaken for an old man. He’d never looked the way a future king was supposed to. His face was cursed with feminine daintiness, framed by his pale curls. Aurelius always said he took after Hima the most, and he did share her golden eyes. Hima looked more the part of a prince than Ashtaroth did.
Ashtaroth craned his neck to stare up at the narrow lane of blue sky between the coloured brick of the buildings. It was a dry day, welcome after several weeks of near-constant rain. The cloudless heat pained his eyes, but in its own way, the sun’s merciless light was as rejuvenating as the rain’s promise of lush summers.
How many people had walked these unassuming side streets before him? How many of them had lifted their heads to curse the sky for lack of water, or for too much? Had the poet Ciqa ever wandered this same path, pondering the mysteries of the divine and the mundane, questioning the nature of matter and man? How trite and empty the ideas of Ashtaroth’s philosophy circle must seem to his ghosting spirit. What did war matter to someone like that?
“Three bronze. Five if I like you.” A girl’s voice, like the bleat of a lamb.
Ashtaroth stumbled, colliding with the outstretched hand of a young girl. She looked a mere seven or eight years old, and she was alone on the street. She was a foreigner, nearly white as milk. A scrawny thing, with bright green eyes and long, wavy hair like spun gold. She was barefoot, dressed in thin white linen that barely concealed the flesh beneath. Her smiling face was streaked with dirt, but she was remarkably clean for a peasant, a hint of perfume hanging about her as she fidgeted on skinny legs.
“What?” Now that Ashtaroth had set his sights back on things mundane—the tightly-packed painted houses, the clothes lines strung between them, the offal buzzing with flies on a corner—he realized he didn’t recognize this road. Where were all the people? The slaves couldn’t have cleared all the roads. At the very least there should be people at the windows, sounds from inside the run-down houses cramped to either side of him.
“Five if I like you.” She tipped her head, gesturing toward a plain wooden door in the side of the building next to her.
It took a moment for Ashtaroth’s horror to fade. “You charge more for someone you like?”
The girl giggled. “Because you get more if I like you.” She smiled coyly, batting her lashes. “And I like you.”
“No, sorry, I―you’re too young, and even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t . . . .”
The girl raised an eyebrow and laughed again. Her constant mirth reminded him uncomfortably of Djana. “I tell fortunes. If you want someone to stick your prick in, go see my sisters at the temple of Ashtet, or if you’re looking for something less pious there’s an alley down by the docks where you can get a girl for a few coppers.”
Ashtaroth worried his sandal against the paved street. He was a prince. He couldn’t possibly seek out a prostitute. Then again, Aurelius was also a prince, and Ashtaroth had no trouble imagining his brother sneaking around the docks after whores. “I apologize. I’m not used to the streets.”
“If you’re really sorry, you’ll give me five bronze.” She clasped her hands together behind her back, swinging her arms gently. “I promise I’m good.”
Even after the correction Ashtaroth felt uncomfortable, as though she might be lying and turn out to be a whore after all. And there were stories of scams run in the lower city. On streets like these the overabundance of rats was made up for by the absence of morals, and young fools could be lured inside by the promise of a kiss only to find themselves with a second smile.
But when he looked in her green eyes, there was no malice in them. And she was just a child—hardly capable of killing him on her own, and with no sign anyone lay within waiting to jump him. As he stared into her eyes, it was as though he hung suspended inside that green, an insect encased in amber. The promise of that green compelled him to follow her past the wooden door.
Besides, he’d never had a peasant seer read his future before. All the priests in the temples did was repeat his destiny as saviour of Qemassen. He could learn something from this girl, from this ordinary citizen. Samelqo always told him: the whims of the city are the needs of the king.
Before he could speak a word of agreement, the girl grasped his hand in her own, drawing him toward the little house. His heart raced, images of a phantom father waiting on the other side of the door to attack him rearing up in his mind.
“You don’t have an accent,” Ashtaroth said, to distract himself.
“Why should I? I grew up here.”
“I’ve never seen someone as pale as you. Even our northern slaves tan after a while.”
“Well, I’m not a slave.” She pushed the door open.
Inside, the entry room was dark and boxy, illuminated only by a sputtering candle on a low table, and the sliver of light that had knifed inside when the girl had opened the door. At the other side of the room, Ashtaroth could dimly make out the shape of an interior door, and the vague outlines of furniture—another table, perhaps, and a chair. The air inside the room was stale and sweet like rotting fruit. Ashtaroth took a step back—he hadn’t meant to, but the girl pulled him through anyhow. He didn’t fight her a second time.
“You can’t get much business here,” Ashtaroth said, wetting his lips. “There wasn’t anyone in that alley.” And no father lurking in the shadows to mug him.
The girl let go of Ashtaroth’s hand and walked to the far side of the low, square table, where she knelt on a cushion. She pointed to the ground in front of him, and he sat across from her. He reached into his purse, producing a silver coin—far more than the advertised price—and laid the payment on the table. The coin clunked loudly against the wood.
Someone unseen croaked from a shadowed corner, and Ashtaroth nearly jumped up from the cushion.
Now that his eyes had adjusted to the light, he spotted an old woman hunched on a stool, milky-eyed, lip trembling. She mouthed, fishlike, as if she might speak, but her throat rattled and she slumped back. It wasn’t only the shadows that had kept her from Ashtaroth’s attention. Even now she was . . . recessed, as though she sat apart from the rest of the room, sunken, half-swallowed. Was she dead? No—her chest still rose and fell, if faintly, her checkered dress wrinkling subtly at her movements. The patterns on the worn, dirtied fabric were Eru designs.
He tore his gaze from her and looked at the girl for explanation. She wasn’t watching Ashtaroth or the old woman, focusing instead on unlacing a leather pouch from around her neck. Ashtaroth hadn’t noticed it before. When she laid it on the table its contents clattered.
Ashtaroth smoothed his hand over the table in front of him, its rough old wood scarred with use and age. He looked down as his fingernail snagged briefly on an especially deep groove. Tally marks were scratched onto the table’s surface, and what looked like a series of names—children maybe, practicing their letters? Ashtaroth doubted anyone who lived in such a place could read, and there was no sign of any children save the fortune teller herself. Ashtaroth ran his fingers over the names, mouthing the letters.
S-M-L-Q, S-F-V, D-N-N.
Which one was the girl? Ashtaroth looked up at her. “Your grandmother, is she a seer as well?”
“Not with her eyes.” The girl paused, pressing her fingers to the pouch, feeling something inside. “She went quiet a while back. She’s only looking for a place to rest now, like me.” Her inflection made it sound like a saying, though Ashtaroth hadn’t heard it before. The Eru had a lot of little sayings—Dashel sometimes repeated them, though mostly in jest. He wasn’t superstitious like the rest of his people.
“Are you an Erut?”
“Put your fingers on the bag. Yes, like that. You can take them off now.”
Whatever was inside the pouch was jagged and hard. He removed his hand and turned it over, searching for punctures. “What’s your name?”
For a moment he thought she would ignore the question. “Lil.” She smiled pleasantly. The room seemed to brighten with her mood. “Lilit. You took your time asking.”
Had he? He squinted as Lil shook the pouch out over the table, sprinkling its contents as though seasoning a meal. Small, broken bones lay scattered across the table, and she combed through them, returning some to the bag, turning and touching others. They didn’t look right—blackened at their ends like they’d been charred in a fire. They stained the table where they fell, black dust speckling the names etched into the tabletop.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Reading your fortune.”
“You’re not supposed to put them back, are you?”
She muttered something Ashtaroth couldn’t make out beneath her breath. “I’m the fortune teller, not you.” She shrugged. “The ones I don’t like I put back.”
“That’s a funny way of doing things.”
Lil bit her lip, staring intently at the bones. “It’s my way of doing things.”
What had Lil removed? What part of Ashtaroth’s future had she dismissed with such ease? Her deft fingers clutched vertebrae the size of dried apricots and fiddled with larger, curved fragments that looked like pieces of cow skull.
He drummed his fingers against the wood table. Perhaps he should leave. “What kind of bones are they?”
“Human. I dug them up from the gardens.”
Ashtaroth stopped drumming his fingers and laughed.
But Lil didn’t even look up at him as she continued to manipulate the bones. If this was a joke, she showed no sign of it. In fact, she looked entranced. Her green eyes that had swallowed him earlier seemed odd in the light now—almost opalescent, like an owl’s. Hungry. That was it. She looked hungry.
“There’s going to be fighting.” Lil grinned. “Lots of people will die, people to replace the one I took from the gardens.”
“Massenqa people?” Ashtaroth frowned. He shouldn’t believe her. His friends would scold him for listening to someone who’d just rigged the outcome. The mention of war sparked something in him though. Perhaps he’d been wrong earlier to dismiss the Lora. Then again, people were always dying. It was the way of things. He was letting himself be drawn in by the dark room, by her performance. She’d said nothing of note, in truth.
“Some of the dead will be Massenqa, but I see northerners too, and Inda, and Ajwata. I see a dark-haired woman crying over a lost child. A dynasty coming to an end.”
A dark-haired woman, crying over a child. Ashtaroth knew that story—they all did. “You mean my mother?”
For the first time during the reading, Lil looked him in the eyes. She smiled, but she didn’t answer his question. “You’ll have choices to make, ones you don’t want to. Four children, playing in a garden, digging up the bones. Wild oats cut before the grain is fully grown. Gods made of dust.”
Hima had two sons. “Are any of the children boys? Are they my—am I going to have children?” Of course he would have children. He had to.
Lil giggled again, lifting her hand to her face to cover her mouth. “You should take a trip to the docks if you want to make children.”
“I won’t need to. I’ll have a wife.”
Lilit ignored him. Her eyes widened as she gazed at her casting. So wide that for a moment, they didn’t look human. “People don’t trust you. They think you’ll be weak like your father.” Lil’s smile abruptly faded. “You’re carrying a murderer in your arms.” Her expression contorted—wild, angry. She swiped the bones off the table, and they clattered against the floor.
Ashtaroth bolted from his cushion, but Lil stood calmly and inclined her head in deference, palms held outward in respect. It didn’t fit the Lil he’d seen so far, who hadn’t cared at all about Ashtaroth’s station, if indeed she’d suspected who he was. “We’re done here,” she said, “and you need to go.”
What time was it? The light outside was muted, dimmer than it should be. His skin tingled with a chill breeze that blew past the open door. He needed to get to the gardens for the funeral procession.
Ashtaroth laid a hand against the door as though to leave. He’d been drawn inside the little house earlier, but now he felt like it wanted to expel him. “Thank you.”
From behind him, Lil’s slippered feet scuffed the floor. Bones clinked against each other as she replaced them in her bag.
She was just a strange little foreign girl with the strange ideas of a foreigner. She’d known though, that people didn’t want him to succeed his father. Everyone but his father and old Samelqo seemed to prefer Aurelius or Hima over Ashtaroth.
If he were honest, he wasn’t sure he wasn’t one of them.
The night was thick and full when he stepped out onto the cooled stones of the alley. Night. It had been nowhere near late enough for it to be dark already. It had been afternoon—he’d only stayed a few minutes.
The funeral. Ashtaroth’s stomach clenched in panic. Sabeq’s funeral would be over by the time he reached the gardens. His family would be wroth.
Ashtaroth looked back to find Lilit lingering at the threshold of her tiny home. She smiled, tantrum seemingly forgotten, and wiggled her fingers girlishly. Beneath the starlight she looked older than he’d first thought—at least eleven or twelve.
“Goodnight, prince. I hope we all find a place to rest. Some of us may need it more than others.”
Under the clear light of the moon, Ashtaroth shivered, and turned away from the crooked little house to hurry to Molot’s gardens.