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Chapter 1: Slaves
Dashel – Qemassen: Molot’s Gardens
Dashel stared down at the blue lotus blossom clutched in his fingers. It had been given to him by a young priestess when the parade of mourners had reached the gardens. Like the other priestesses of Qalita, the Ashqat had been paid to wail, and tear her hair, and beat her breast as though Sabeq eq-Sabaal had meant anything to her besides a few copper teqla for a new dress.
Each of the guests, from servants like Dashel to King Eshmunen himself, carried one of the aromatic flowers. Its leaves were sky-blue spearheads, its firm green stalk light in his hand—a reminder of the child he’d been all those years ago at another Massenqa funeral. The night they’d burned Queen Moniqa, the sky had been overcast with rainclouds. Tonight was clear.
Clear, but for the shadow of Molot’s statue, looming above the gardens like a storm ready to break. Dashel tilted his head upward, but he couldn’t stand to stare too long at those great gold hands. He tore his gaze away, watching Sabeq’s pyre instead. The sight of a man burning was grotesque, but this time it was also safe. A scorpion or a snake bite had done for the eldest of Sabaal’s sons, as rumour had it. A matter of poor luck, not poor choices.
At least Dashel hadn’t condemned Sabeq to death as he had the princess who’d burned in Molot’s palms.
He coughed as a whiff of the pyre’s acrid smoke stung his nose, then covered his face with the back of his hand. The last thing he wanted was to breathe in bits of charred Sabeq.
Closer to the body, Sabeq’s younger brother Qanmi stood beside Titrit, her husband Qorban, and the royal family. Qwella was leaning against her older sister Himalit and sobbing. The flickering flames lit her pretty white stola so she looked like a ghostly star.
Himalit was crying too, but Dashel had watched her dab an onion beneath her eyes before coming—no worry she’d grown soft overnight. Hima’s two young sons clutched her skirts in their hands and rubbed their own eyes. Dashel winced. Trust Hima to give them the same treatment.
Qwella’s sobs though, those looked real. Dashel clutched the lotus stalk a little tighter. Sabeq had been a money-pinching dullard, but Qwella was precious to Dashel.
“Sese,” someone said from behind Dashel’s back. Not his lover, Thanos. Certainly not Dashel’s father, Yeremi, nor Prince Ashtaroth. He turned.
He grinned, immediately stretching his arms out and drawing Aurelius into a warm embrace. Dashel felt his beard brush the prince’s clean-shaven cheek. It had been months since they’d last seen each other. Too long. He broke away reluctantly, patting the prince on the arm. “Aurelius.”
The prince lifted a finger to his lips. He was hooded, clothes plain. “If I can get away with it, I’d rather not have to pretend I liked him.” Aurelius smiled as though to himself, the way he always did, even when it seemed he should be angry or upset. “Or have to spend my first evening home entertaining barbs from the high priest of vipers.”
Dashel followed the prince’s gaze to where Samelqo eq-Milqar presided over the burning, the priest’s aged hands folded in his lap as he sat tall and proud. Despite his posture, everything about him was bent. Dashel gripped the lotus stem tighter. “It’s only for tonight. They’ll put Samelqo back in his box once they’ve lowered Sabeq’s ashes into his.”
Aurelius sighed, and Dashel turned. Darkness brewed in Aurelius’s brown eyes as he rolled his neck and shoulders. He was tired, of course he was. He must have come straight from the docks. “How is my sister taking it?”
Dashel swallowed. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Qwella yet, but he had eyes to see. “She’s been brave.” He paused, not wanting to bring bad news. “Your father’s already seeking a new husband for her.”
Aurelius smirked. “So that’s why she’s crying.”
“Give her more credit than that. Maybe she loved him. Sabeq was loved by many.” Untrue, but it was bad luck to speak poorly of the dead. Dashel forced his mouth into as firm a line as he could, but he’d never been a good liar. Not like Aurelius.
Aurelius turned his liar’s smile on Dashel. “You really think so? That pompous piece of horse shit? And Qanmi—he marries a brother off to Qwella and suddenly he thinks he’s one of us.”
“Isn’t he?” Dashel frowned. “He’s more Semassenqa than I’ll ever be. He’s wealthy and he’s smart.” He shrugged.
Aurelius shot him a look. “You’re worth a hundred of Qanmi eq-Sabaal and his family, Erun or no.”
Maybe that was true for Aurelius, even Hima and Qwella, but the affection of a few royals would never make a Semassenqen of Dashel eq-Yeremi. A treasured Erun pet was still a pet, was still Eru. “What about Titrit? She’s not like her family.”
Aurelius’s expression cooled. “Well I didn’t marry her, did I?”
“You didn’t marry her.” Dashel smiled. “You didn’t marry me though either.” The joke that wasn’t one. Speaking it conjured the feel of Aurelius’s lips on his cheek, on his chest, lower.
The prince raised an eyebrow at the quip. “Not yet.”
Another joke, and Dashel smiled wide, because what else was there to do? Thanos, the Loran ambassador, awaited Dashel back at the palace, warming the bed they’d shared since Thanos’s arrival two months ago. Dashel shouldn’t dwell on what he didn’t have.
Beyond the crowd of mourners in the garden, Samelqo stood up, a cobra uncoiling from the grass. He began speaking some prayer or evocation, but the ambient sound drowned him out. A good thing—Dashel had listened to nothing but prayers all day. He didn’t need more from a man he despised. The wood around Sabeq’s pyre crackled and spit as the burial goods heaped beside the body were consumed by flame. They’d started burning the body hours ago, but the burning of Sabeq’s things was reserved for this spectacle.
As the heq-Ashqen finished, everyone lifted their lotus flowers to breathe in the sweet perfume. When Dashel lowered his, he sneezed, and pollen dusted his nose.
Aurelius laughed, and for an instant, it was a year ago, and they were at Ashtet’s temple, playing setef, sipping lotus tea, Dashel’s hands roaming the length of Aurelius’s body. Then one of the mourners turned to glare at them both, intruding on the memory. Her eyes widened with recognition as she noticed Aurelius. She bowed meekly and returned her attention to the funeral.
Once the fire had gone out, Sabeq’s remains would be dusted into his urn—jumbled together with kindling, scrolls, incense, and every other possession the Ashenqa had managed to heap onto his pyre. A life whittled down to its belongings, objects so essential that in death they became the man.
After all that, the procession to the mausoleum would begin. The urn would be lowered with ropes into a deep, narrow chamber, to be stacked atop the remains of his family. The stelae that marked these tombs were indistinguishable from one another in the darkness—nameless to all but those who knew them, or who took the time to read a stranger’s inscription, to dream double lives for families they’d never known.
Dashel’s people didn’t burn the dead, only buried them, but in the end it was the same: dust to dust, clay to clay.
And Adonis above, always watching.
“Where’s my brother?” Aurelius asked.
Dashel hadn’t seen Ashtaroth since morning. “He was supposed to meet us here, but he didn’t arrive with the others.” Dashel searched the crowd for any sign of Ashtaroth and found none. “He had one of your boring philosophy meetings. Titrit was with him.”
Aurelius grunted. “Wherever he is, he’s having a better time.”
A stray breeze blew the cloying smell of burning cloves into the crowd and Dashel coughed at the bitter sweetness.
Red and yellow flames snaked around the rank blacks and greys of the greasy smoke. Sabeq’s family held their sleeves to their mouths, ruddy-cheeked. Stoic Titrit knelt upon the grass, her black hair shining orange where the light touched it, and for a moment she looked fragile and old. Qorban knelt beside her and the moment was gone.
Dashel’s heart ached as she cried silently into the deepening night. Qwella hadn’t been the only one to love him, then.
Even Aurelius looked sullen now, his groomed brow sharp and heavy. Twenty years ago, when Dashel had been a child himself, he’d held Aurelius the way Hima now cradled her sister. Neither Dashel nor the prince had needed to wet their eyes with onions.
The prince had been skinny then, features ill-fitting. The gawky boy had grown into a man, beautiful as a statue of Adonis. But while stone didn’t smile without the instruction of its sculptor, Aurelius’s came easily, and his eyes weren’t flatly painted like a statue’s, but alive and cunning. Aurelius’s aquiline nose sat proudly on his face, his naturally frizzy, black hair tamed to curls that tapered about his neck. He was lean, and strong, and tall, though Dashel dwarfed him the way he did most.
Dashel’s eyes lingered on Aurelius’s full lips, but he tore his gaze away, grinning to himself.
Aurelius searched his face. “What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing, Sese.” Dashel lowered his hand from his beard—he’d been stroking it again without thinking, the tell Aurelius always remarked on when the prince trounced Dashel playing setef. “Why do you want to avoid them?”
“My family?” Aurelius breathed deep, then wrinkled his nose, coughing from the smoke.
“Avoiding them—it’s unlike you,” said Dashel.
“I’m just distracted. I―” The prince hesitated. There was something he didn’t want to say, which was strange for the two of them. Aurelius was never shy.
And he never kept secrets from Dashel.
“Don’t say anything else. I don’t need to know.” He offered Aurelius an understanding smile.
“No, I should say it. To you of all people.” Aurelius didn’t look Dashel in the face this time, staring instead at the priests and priestesses—Ashenqa and Ashqata—as they quieted the flames.
Dashel’s skin was clammy. He swallowed. “Nothing too sad, I hope.”
“It might be sad, maybe not.” Aurelius glanced behind himself—and only afterwards, when Dashel was lying in his bed, did he realize Aurelius had been looking in the direction of the docks. “I met a woman while I was travelling. I think I fell in love with her.”
“And why is that so special? You fall in love with men and women every night, sometimes two at a time!” Dashel wished he could ignore the gravity of Aurelius’s tone, pretend this was another game, like all the nights before the prince had left on that trading ship. Aurelius’s exploits were the subject of many ribald tales, and Dashel knew firsthand that most of them were true. The prince spent as much time in the beds of married women as he did discussing politics with their husbands. He never took it seriously.
Together, Aurelius and Dashel drank, and fucked, and sipped lotus tea in the temple of Ashtet. And somehow, after all that, the prince still managed to write, and philosophize, and train for future duties. Dashel wasn’t sure how he did it. By the time Dashel finished celebrating with Aurelius, all he had the capacity for was celebrating more lethargically.
Music was slowly replacing the smoke, as slaves touched lips to wooden flutes, drummed drums, rattled sistra and plucked the strings of lyres. A cluster of female dancers swayed to the rhythm. The cadence of their hips and limbs was like the coiling of serpents, the musicians their charmers.
Aurelius had been silent a long time. Dashel turned to follow the prince’s gaze, and it became clear why.
Prince Ashtaroth had arrived. He was stumbling past the other guests, panting. Neither Eshmunen nor Sabeq’s family had noticed, but even from this far away, Dashel’s skin itched watching Samelqo and Himalit stare poor Ashtaroth down. Samelqo was one of few men in the city who welcomed the crown prince’s reign, but instead of being sympathetic to his charge, Samelqo only seemed more anxious that Ashtaroth do as he was told.
Aurelius laughed. “He looks like a whipped dog.”
“No more than you did when you were younger.” It was no secret that Aurelius was Dashel’s favourite, but Dashel had a responsibility to all the royal children, and he was in a protective mood. Ashtaroth was the youngest, and acted even younger than that. At Ashtaroth’s age, Hima had already risen through the navy to the rank of heq-Damirat, and Aurelius had sailed east to Zimrida and lands yet more distant. But Ashtaroth—he needed someone to look out for him.
“I was much younger then,” said Aurelius. “Can’t you let me be cruel for once? I’m enjoying myself.”
“For once? You’re cruel all the time, Sese.”
“When am I cruel? Who are these hundreds of slighted souls and why aren’t they lining up at my door seeking recompense?”
“There are your lovers, as a start.” Dashel made a show of counting on his fingers. “And you piss off a lot of people with that tongue of yours.”
“I do have a wicked tongue,” Aurelius said, like he was relishing the words. “But as for the lovers, I do them more good than cruelty. I make them happy. Where’s the injustice in that?”
Happy as the crippled dog, greeted by its master, only to feel his tender dagger at its throat. “You could be kinder to the prince, that’s all.”
Aurelius looked pleased with himself. “If you insist. It’s not as if I don’t love him. It’s satisfying to have someone clever around. Hima’s a lot of fun, but she’s not always so smart.”
Himalit seemed smart enough to Dashel, but then, maybe that was because he wasn’t. And what of Qwella? Still, after all these years, she was left out.
The fire had finally died, the Ashenqa sweeping up the ashes with little gold brooms. After everything had been collected in Sabeq’s urn, the march toward the mausoleum began. Dashel stayed where he was, not of high enough station for his absence to be noted. Aurelius remained with him—a good thing, for Dashel still had questions.
“So who is this woman? I’m starting to feel jealous.” Dashel shook out his leg, which was falling asleep. Staring at his foot gave him an excuse not to look at Aurelius, but Dashel met his gaze again when the prince spoke.
“A Feislandat.” A strange stillness crept into Aurelius’s eyes.
Dashel nudged the prince with his elbow. “Was she hairy like a dog?”
“Not even as hairy as you.” Aurelius was always teasing Dashel about how diligently he groomed himself, as though Aurelius wasn’t twice as vain.
“Probably a witch,” Dashel mused. All the Feislanda were hairy. It would take magic not to make it so. Magic, or a very good razor.
“Probably,” said Aurelius. The lights in his eyes danced like he was seeing something very far away.
Like he wasn’t in the gardens with Dashel at all, but back in the Feislands.
Dashel cleared his throat. “True love, is that it?”
“It’s true and it’s love, so who knows.” Aurelius had never seemed so smitten. Maybe the woman was a witch.
“I’m surprised.” Shocked was more like it.
“So am I.” Aurelius grinned.
The sincerity of the expression left a lump in Dashel’s throat. “Does she think you’re coming back for her?”
“I don’t think so. I never told her who I was. But she’ll be awaiting my return, after the nights we spent together.”
Something damp welled in the creases of Dashel’s palms—juice from the lotus’s stem, crushed in Dashel’s hand. “So the plan is to go back and get her, bring her here, and turn her into a princess? And you think your father will let you do this?”
Aurelius shot Dashel a look. “It’s not like you to be practical.”
There was a hint of reprimand in his words, but why shouldn’t Dashel be honest? He wanted Aurelius to be happy, the same as any friend. “Well, I won’t stop you. I’m happy for you.”
“Good, because I need you more than anyone.” Aurelius let out a long breath, as he stared across the fields of stelae that marked the graves of the Massenqa. “There’s nothing for me here, Dashel. Not the throne, and not a future.”
There’s me. I’m here. Dashel forced back the hurt. He was thankful for the night then; his expression was unsteady.
“I need to get away from this place. I love it, but it’s suffocating. There’s too much pain here.” He gestured at Molot’s temple to their right, toward the Talefa hill. “And it’s not just because of her. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, that I could just set sail and never come back. What’s the use of being a prince if you’re still a slave?”
“They’d miss you.”
Dashel had never felt so defensive of Qemassen, a place he rarely considered his city. He was an Erun, and as he’d long been schooled, his home was on the distant island of Old Elu. The Eru priests told tales of Old Elu, of its lakes and fields, but he couldn’t imagine what its winds tasted like on his tongue, the smells of its streets, or the faces of its people. He’d lived in Qemassen all his life, thirty-four years and counting.
Who were the Eru? For Dashel, Old Elu was a collection of stalls in the middle of King Eshmunen’s city. For Dashel, his homeland was his childhood with Aurelius and Qwella and Hima; his father’s elephants and Moniqa’s love. The promise of that family’s future, and Aurelius’s smile, and a friendship deeper than Sabeq’s grave.
Aurelius patted Dashel’s shoulder. “They would miss me, but not as much as you think. We’re all too caught up in ourselves, my family. Hima’s got her fleet, my brother his kingdom. Qwella will do whatever Father decides he wants her to. Or maybe she’ll surprise us all and refuse. Maybe she’ll come with me.”
Dashel would have come with him. He would have sailed to the ends of the earth with his prince, if that’s what Aurelius wanted. All Aurelius had to do was ask.
The question never came though, and Aurelius was quiet for some time.
“What about your ambition?” Dashel asked. Just two springs past, in the month of Nunsu, Aurelius had tried mobilizing support amongst the Semassenqa to re-institute the elected rank of saftan in Qemassen. Eq-Anout still followed the practice of distributing power between many councilors, but the safeta had not existed in Qemassen since before Dashel’s time. Hima and Samelqo, in a rare show of solidarity, had squashed that idea as soon as it was proposed. With their typical cynicism, they’d claimed it was a dishonest attempt on Aurelius’s part to subvert Eshmunen’s power and one day steal Ashtaroth’s throne.
Aurelius would have been elected saftan had his proposal been accepted—everyone loved him, from the Semassenqa on the Talefa hill, to the ordinary Massenqa.
Aurelius laughed. “I’ll become king of the Feislands: their great prince from the south, come to unite them against Lorar. Or I could found a kingdom on some distant island. Queen Elibat reborn.”
Aurelius turned from the spectacle of Sabeq’s funeral and looked up at the palace on the hill. “Come. I want to get back. I miss the comfort of my bed.”
Talk of beds only reminded Dashel of Ambassador Thanos, who’d remained in his palace chambers tinkering with his absurd inventions instead of attending the funeral of someone he’d barely met.
Dashel stared down at the blue lotus, its stem pulpy in his fingers now. He should think on Thanos more, instead of Aurelius. But still, he followed the prince through the dispersing crowd.
A familiar voice called out to them, deep and musical. Dashel turned to find Djana, robed in her elaborate Ajwata dress, her hair braided and arranged atop her head the way so many Massenqa women wore it these days. She ran toward them, skirts gripped in her hands to keep them out of the dirt, and wrapped her arms around Aurelius without heed to propriety. Her flawless white teeth were a slash of light.
“I thought I had seen you.” Djana pinned Aurelius to her chest. “You should not sneak away like that. Or was Dashel planning to keep you for himself tonight?” She glanced behind herself, across the gardens, toward Ashtaroth. “Some people have no time for fun in this city.” She smiled up at Aurelius, who started walking again, Djana’s arm now locked in his.
Aurelius cocked his head at Dashel. “We’ll have to provide some then, won’t we?”
Dashel glanced behind them, to where Ashtaroth was helping Samelqo sit back down. Ashtaroth was watching them—watching Aurelius as he spun Djana around and the couple laughed. Poor Ashtaroth.
As Dashel followed Djana and Aurelius back up the winding roads of the Talefa hill, he spared a moment to whisper a prayer—not for Sabeq, or even himself, but for Ashtaroth. After all, the crown prince wasn’t the only one who would be lonely tonight.