Chapter 10: II: Ashtaroth
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Chapter 10: Monsters
Ashtaroth– The Eghri eq-Shalem: Qemassen
As Ashtaroth carved a path through the Massenqa filling the Eghri eq-Shalem, he smiled beneath the plain funeral mask he’d chosen for tonight’s celebration. Titrit and Qorban struggled to keep up, but he had no intention of slowing, even for his friends. It was the first night of the Feast of Ashtet, the first night of his own wedding ceremony, and thanks to the exorcism, he was finally free of Lilit. He wanted to celebrate. He wanted to be wild and free and happy.
He grasped the talisman Samelqo had made for him that hung about his neck: apotropaic scribblings in goat’s blood, written onto a tiny fragment of parchment that had been curled into a miniature scroll and sealed with glue. It smelled foul, like copper and something acrid he couldn’t place, and its leather strap was filthy from days soaking up his sweat.
But Samelqo had promised Ashtaroth would be safe while he wore it. He mustn’t take it off, even when he bathed.
He gave it a squeeze in thanks.
“Ashtaroth!” Titrit squeaked from behind him.
Qorban laughed, but whatever he called out afterwards was swallowed by a rising cheer from a cluster of revellers to their left.
Qemassen was a cataclysm of sound. Men and women had danced in the streets all the way downhill, whooping, and screeching, and singing, and loving. Great cartloads of bread, fish, and bouza had been wheeled into the Eghri eq-Shalem and the smaller markets for city-wide feasting, and all of it in the name of Ashtaroth and Bree’s marriage. Massenqa crowded the carts, dressed in their finest clothes, wearing masks of their own that were painted with the faces of kings both real and imagined.
A dark blue sky overlooked the festivities, its night-eyes shining clearly, the stars finding twins in the myriad lights of the controlled fires that filled the Eghri. Tonight, every Massenqen was Ashtaroth and every Massenqat his bride, and as members of the royal family they dined like Semassenqa, like Ashtet and Adonen reborn.
The world had gone upside down and inside out. It should be frightening, but safely contained within the parameters of the festival, it was beautiful.
Ashtaroth wandered the square as one of many, every face he passed disguised by a mask or face-paint. Some of the women had gone to great trouble with their costumes, using scraps of fur to mimic Feislanda dress.
A woman stumbled into Ashtaroth’s path, drunk and laughing. Her hair was braided through with yellow hyacinths, and a smear of white chalk discoloured her face.
Ashtaroth jumped backwards. A shudder passed over his skin like a cloud over the sun, but stroking the talisman calmed him. The woman was only dressed as Ashtet—it was the goddess’s festival after all, and the streets were filled with her Ashenqa. Ashenqa, and women trying to look like Bree.
Ashtaroth scanned the crowd for the real Bree, but it was hopeless. His heart fluttered at every glimpse of silky black hair, or peek of pale skin, but none of the revellers were her. Besides, he’d agreed not to see Bree tonight. Samelqo had instructed him to keep his distance from her for now, lest Lilit grow jealous and curse their bed.
The woman with the hyacinths hobbled drunkenly past, supported by a friend, and Ashtaroth stumbled out of their way. He jostled his mask in the process, knocking it askew.
Titrit walked up beside him and gently righted it. “You don’t want it falling off, not here.” The long beak of her eagle half-mask threatened to thwack his cheek as she smiled at him.
Qorban’s bearded mask, with its strong, masculine features, might as well have been his real face. Titrit’s husband had never been especially creative, though last year, Djana had dressed him up as a woman. He’d looked quite pretty in the face-paint, and Ashtaroth had even been a little jealous.
Where was Djana? It wasn’t like her to miss the Feast of Ashtet—or any festival that involved copious drinking and costumes. She and Titrit were usually inseparable. “Is Djana still recovering from the slave attack?”
Titrit pursed her lips. “She’s fine, probably with Dashel and your brother again. When did I become her keeper?”
“Since forever, lovely wife,” prodded Qorban, earning a stern look from Titrit. He turned to Ashtaroth and whispered discretely behind his hand. “She formally refused Qanmi. Titrit can’t be seen with her right now.”
Ashtaroth frowned. “Oh.” The way Qorban had phrased it made it sound like Titrit didn’t have a choice, but she seemed genuinely angry.
In any case, it was a foolish decision on Djana’s part. Qanmi’s was fast becoming the second-most influential family in the city, and Samelqo’s scheme to marry Djana to Aurelius had been doomed from the start. Unless Aurelius had been convinced to marry Djana after all. Was that why Titrit had said your brother instead of referring to Aurelius by name?
Good. It would stop him from bothering poor Bree. No doubt she was exhausted from his attentions.
“Try not to bring it up,” said Qorban. “Titrit will be fine.”
Ashtaroth hoped so. It wasn’t Djana’s fault. “You think they’ll be friends again?”
“It was a big fight. I don’t think a thousand apologies would span the distance between those two. And Titrit has a point; it was unreasonable for Djana to refuse my father-in-law. She’s practically a whore. Qanmi would have her made rich and powerful.”
Titrit eyed them past her eagle mask. “I can hear you.” She sighed. “Let’s change the subject.”
A whore. Ashtaroth bristled, his stomach churning. Did people really say such things about Djana? He hadn’t noticed until now. Protectiveness swelled in his chest.
He quashed it—Djana wasn’t his woman to defend. Titrit wanted to change the subject, and so they would. He strolled in the direction of a vendor selling sweetmeats, slower this time, so that Titrit and Qorban could keep pace.
A pair of lovers bumped into him. They were dressed like Bree and Ashtaroth. The false-Ashtaroth was much taller than the real one.
“I’m about to be married,” Ashtaroth said abruptly, imagining Bree before him. “In a few weeks I’ll have a wife.”
“They’re more trouble than they let on,” said Qorban.
“A bit like husbands then.” Titrit’s voice was still prickly.
A slave wheeled a cart of pomegranates past them. Qorban stabbed one with his dagger and lifted it up to begin the business of cutting it. “All the fruits of the earth, no matter the season.”
The fruit of Qalita and the underworld. Was it a good omen, or a poor one? Qalita’s Ashqata had presided over Ashtaroth’s exorcism. He ought to have her blessing now.
He eyed the pomegranate, which must have travelled from the south to be so ripe.
“It’s much grander than the celebrations for my wedding,” Titrit mused while Qorban nibbled seeds. “My father must love you more than me.”
“Qanmi paid for this?” Ashtaroth frowned, feeling hemmed in by the crowd. He steered them toward Shalem’s statue.
“Some of it,” Qorban answered. “He does love your family.”
Ashenqa of Ashtet ringed Shalem’s round plinth, scattering hyacinth petals from colourful woven baskets. “Qanmi wants to impress my father,” offered Ashtaroth. “I don’t think it’s about love.”
“It’s always about love,” snapped Titrit.
Ashtaroth didn’t know what to make of the comment, so he ignored it.
“He wants to impress you more than King Eshmunen,” explained Qorban. “When your father dies, it’s you who’ll be king.”
Ashtaroth wanted to think about his father’s death even less than his own coronation. “He doesn’t need to impress any of us. We all know Qanmi’s worth.”
All except Hima and Aurelius. Ashtaroth didn’t like the man, but he was smart enough to respect him, and now Qorban, Qanmi’s son-in-law, was heq-Damiran. It would be wise not to mock them.
A thick, strong hand clamped down on Ashtaroth’s shoulder, sending a jolt through him. He swerved, coming face-to-face with a man in an elaborate elephant mask. It took him a minute to recognize his friend.
“Dashel!” Ashtaroth forced a smile, then stood on his tiptoes to look past Dashel for Aurelius. “Where’s my brother?
“Otherwise engaged. I was supposed to meet Thanos, but he’s vanished on me.” Dashel waved his hand at his hair. “Then I recognized that white mane. I thought I should congratulate you. This is your celebration.”
Ashtaroth steadied himself as a particularly boisterous party of revellers forced their way past. Two of them were carrying a goat between them on a bronze platter. The animal’s empty eye sockets were stuffed with pears and mint leaves.
He turned to ask Titrit about the fruit, but she’d stormed off, Qorban bustling after her as though he might be the cause of her upset. He waved a rushed farewell and Ashtaroth waved back, wincing. Titrit ripped off her mask in irritation before the pair disappeared into the swell of bodies.
“Why’s she so sour?” Dashel looked aghast.
Ashtaroth hugged his chest. “She’s fallen out with Djana over Qanmi.”
Dashel snorted. “So that’s still happening. Qanmi’s not worth anyone’s friendship. Someone should talk to them.”
“You’re good at smoothing things out.” If anyone could ease this tension, it was Dashel. There was hardly anyone he didn’t get along with.
Dashel laughed, scratching the back of his head and knocking his mask. “I’m not getting involved, not in this. Those people are too dangerous and complicated for me. I’ll take a simple life from now on.” He turned, straining as though looking for someone—Thanos, probably.
Dangerous? Ashtaroth could have laughed. Titrit and Djana were nothing compared to Hima, whose tantrums Dashel got involved in nearly every day.
“I saw the other one a few days ago,” Dashel continued. “Qanmi’s other daughter.” He shook his head as though remembering something distasteful.
Another daughter? Ashtaroth tried to remember Titrit ever having a sister, but he couldn’t summon a face. “I don’t think I ever met her.”
“You wouldn’t have.” Dashel stroked his beard. “She was whisked away to the temples long ago.”
Firelight burned suddenly bright from the other side of the statue. A chorus of oohs and ahhs followed and they walked round to see what was happening.
An audience had formed a ring around a man wearing a peacock costume. Where the eyes of his tail-feathers should be, flaming torches formed a fan behind him. One by one, he lit each torch. The crowd stepped further back from the spectacle, afraid and entranced in equal measure.
The fires lit up the ground around the performer, glancing off the ghostly petals that had been trampled into the earth. The performer spun round and round so that the flames left phantom lights in their wake, turning the night air burnished orange.
Dashel lifted a leather flask to his lips and chugged. He handed the flask to Ashtaroth.
Ashtaroth hesitated, then brought it to his lips. Wine. Regular wine, not sapenta. He wasn’t supposed to drink wine, but then, this was his wedding celebration, wasn’t it? And maybe, just maybe, the talisman would stave off his sickness as well. He hadn’t suffered so badly over the last few days.
Dashel whistled, gazing deep into the fires. “I promised Thanos we could watch the Ashenqa dance during the ceremony, but this is even better.” He peered left. “If he hadn’t disappeared.”
“It’s Qanmi’s doing,” Ashtaroth said confidently. Qorban had said Qanmi had paid for everything, and the merchant’s fondness for Anata light-tricks was well-known.
The dancer was spinning, spinning, spinning, the flames melting into one another in a great tumbling wheel. Just one slip of the peacock man’s foot and he’d catch alight.
The peacock man. For an instant, the centre of the flames reflected back the terrifying dream from weeks ago: Lilit in that great stone hall, the alabaster man who’d reminded Ashtaroth of a peacock and who’d bled gold as his skin shattered.
He swigged from the wineskin, the bitter red filling his mouth. Ashtaroth looked up at the sky. The multitude of stars made his head spin. He started to fall as the wineskin slipped from his fingers.
Dashel caught him under the armpits.
Ashtaroth straightened and shook Dashel off. “I’m all right.” He averted his gaze as the swirling fires filled his vision. “I think I’d like to find somewhere quiet.”
Dashel hovered beside him, hunching like he expected Ashtaroth to collapse. “Maybe back at the palace—”
“No.” This was his night. He was safe. But a shift in the air and an unnatural muting of the roar of the crowd made him reach for the talisman around his neck.
Then he saw her. “Lilit.” Dannae. Samelqo had told him Qanmi’s mother Dannae must have joined somehow with the demon, that Ashtara had joined with them.
It was her, a lone figure in the crowd who no one else seemed to see or acknowledge, but who the people stepped around as though she were on fire too. The yellow blossoms in her hair shimmered in the dark, and even from this distance her eyes stared straight through him as though through glass.
The masked revellers spread out further, revealing the ugly dwarf and the handsome black-haired man beside Lilit. It was the actors Ashtaroth had been accused of attacking. He hadn’t been mad, no matter what they’d said about him later. He’d seen what he’d seen in the Eghri.
The demons shouldn’t be here.
“Is something wrong? Ashtaroth? Sese?” Dashel’s voice sounded far off.
Lilit smiled gaily. She turned and walked away, eaten up by deep, impossible shadows.
Ashtaroth hurried after her, blurting a goodbye to Dashel. “I have to go―I’m sorry.” Dashel’s fingers snagged on Ashtaroth’s tunic, but he pulled away.
Massenqa parted to either side of Ashtaroth as he ran toward her, as though he were like Lilit suddenly—a shape that repelled other bodies. No one seemed to look his way—not even Qorban when Ashtaroth raced past the man, Titrit nowhere to be seen.
He reached the perimeter of the Eghri, where Massenqa funneled inside from the city streets. Ashtaroth swam against the tide, Lilit’s flower-laden hair a glimmering light that somehow dimmed everything else around it and acted like a beacon. It shone, gold against a greying world. Gold, like Ashtaroth’s blood had been in the dream, when it had wept from the cracks in his alabaster skin.
The longer he followed, the clearer it became where she was headed: the temple district.
The endless sea of Massenqa diminished as they reached the lower portion of the Shedi. The Feast of Ashtet, when the heq-Ashqat formally chose her consort, would be held in Molot’s garden, and even that was deserted now except for a few Ashenqa who were preparing.
Ashtaroth easily kept Lilit in his sights as he descended the slope of the Shedi, past Hazzan’s cramped little temple entrance, past Qalita’s house where Qwella might be sleeping right now.
The full moon hung overhead and for an instant as Lilit continued downhill, it looked almost like she was running toward it. Her companions, though, had vanished, gone with the singers and Ashenqa and instruments.
In the darkness, the painted faces of the gods on the temple doors and statues all looked the same. He shivered and turned away, talisman in hand.
Abaal’s main shrine loomed at the base of the hill like a great white mountain. Lilit climbed the wide steps leading to the temple’s engraved ivory doors, lingering long enough between them to make it clear she intended Ashtaroth to follow, before slipping inside.
There were sixty steps in all, each threatening to suck the air from Ashtaroth’s lungs and send him tumbling onto the road. But he made it to the top and laid his palm against the cool surface of the ivory door to rest.
The door was covered in scenes from Abaal’s stories, and when he lifted his hand, the figure carved beneath it was familiar. A man approached a woman on a throne: Abaal visiting his wife Tanata. Like the alabaster man from Ashtaroth’s dream, the figure of Abaal had great curving bull’s horns and trailed a long cape across the floor. Had his vision been of the gods themselves? Or had it been of his mother as he’d thought at the time? The alabaster man had looked nothing like Eshmunen though, and since Ashtaroth had never met his mother, he couldn’t say for certain that the woman had looked anything like Moniqa.
A soft movement at his feet drew Ashtaroth’s attention. He bent down and found a corner of fabric caught inside the door. It was a scarf, sheer and cerulean, with beautiful, interlacing patterns across its surface—little crisscross shapes like a lattice. It was a wealthy woman’s decoration, but was it Lilit’s? Ashtaroth plucked it from the ground and clutched it tightly.
He should hurry and stop being so afraid. A true child of Qemassen should never be afraid. He stole a glance at one of the statues of Abaal that guarded the temple entrance, then pulled the door open.
“Hello?” Ashtaroth peered left and right, but the temple was empty.
Inside, incense struggled to mask the mustiness. The great hall felt lonely and abandoned, but there must still be priests lurking somewhere.
The interior walls of the temple were purest white, and tiny green and white tiles created an interlocking pattern on the floor. Two great columns—one of emerald, and one of gold—dominated the entrance.
Ashtaroth gazed up at the vaulted ceiling, which had been painted a deep blue to imitate the night sky. Its surface was dotted with luminescent yellow stars painted in gold, and they shone brightly when the light from the sconces hit them. Tanata’s presence was felt even here, in Abaal’s home.
“Ashtaroth?” Lilit’s voice echoed off the walls.
Ashtaroth followed the sound deeper inside the temple, passing between the emerald and gold pillars, beneath Tanata’s starry sky. The reliefs carved in the door repeated along the walls, and when he spied Abaal and Tanata again, Abaal’s cape was filled in with jade, Tanata’s figure overlaid with a thin veneer of blue so that her naked body could be seen underneath. It didn’t tell him anything new.
Beyond the entrance, an ivory statue of Abaal’s ram stood in the centre of the room, twice the size of a real creature. Lilit, feet dangling, straddled the divine animal as though he weren’t a god at all, but a beast of burden. The fingers of her right hand curled about the god’s horns and she held his ceremonial flail—the heq-Ashqen’s flail—loosely at her side. Yellow petals had tumbled from her hair, scattered across Abaal’s back and at his feet. Her two friends had mysteriously reappeared, like creeping monsters from the western desert.
“How do you like my mount, Prince?” She released Abaal’s horn to pat his back mockingly. “He’s slow, but I know he’ll get me where I want to be.”
How powerful or bold was she, to treat Abaal like this in his own house? “You shouldn’t be here, Lilit.”
The dwarf snickered and Lilit tilted her head at her companion. “Abraxas, I call him. He’s a nasty little man, but he’s useful.” She turned to her tall, handsome friend with affection. “And beautiful Ashmodai; it’s a shame he’s so grim. He’s mine though. That’s all that matters.” She smiled delightedly to herself, as though she were a child again, though her body was a grown woman’s.
Ashtaroth frowned. He took a step closer, and Ashmodai stirred. “So, he really is Ashmodai? The one from the story?”
A look of annoyance crossed Ashmodai’s face, and Lilit crinkled her nose at him. “I suppose he is, aren’t you pet? Or maybe my story wasn’t about him at all. You’re family’s full of handsome philanderers.” She smiled wickedly.
Ashtaroth wouldn’t be distracted. He dropped Lilit’s scarf, suddenly wanting anything of hers away from him, and wrapped his fingers about the talisman. He held it out in front of him as far as he could while keeping it round his neck.
“Lilit, you must leave this city. In the name of Qalita and Molot, Abaal and Tanata, in the name of Adonen and Ashtet!”
Eyes filled with mirth, Lilit giggled into her hand. “You people grant your gods such power, and your kings too. Won’t you be one of them one day? I wonder how it is that men become gods and gods men. Do you know, Abraxas?”
The little man squinted his beady eyes. “No, mistress.”
Ashtaroth lowered the talisman.
“What would you say, little Ashtaroth, if I told you Abaal was a poor farmer scraping in the dirt, or that Ashtet was a bloated whore riddled with sickness?”
“I’d say you were a liar.” Conviction flowed into Ashtaroth’s fingers as he held his talisman. “We become gods, because the seed of the gods is the seed of the kings of Qemassen.”
“The seed of rapists and murderers, kings who fuck children, and princes who steal daughters from their homes to make slaves of them. Who would want such a seed in her blood? You should be lucky you share none of it.”
What did she mean? Ashtaroth’s heart seemed to stop. Who else’s seed would it be? He girded himself. She was lying. He knew who he was and where he’d come from. “Is that why you want the Lora to win? Because you hate my family?”
“I fucked your grandfather. Doesn’t that make me one of your family? Or maybe not, maybe it’s that he fucked me and now we’re all fucked together.”
It was as if someone had sucked Ashtaroth’s blood out and replaced it with ice. King Isir had lain with a demon? And it was said the gods always bore children from their unions . . . but then Ashtaroth remembered: Lilit wasn’t just Lilit, she was Dannae. Dannae had been a human woman and Dannae had warmed King Isir’s bed.
It wasn’t unusual for a king to take a lover. King Isir had been a powerful man and would have had the appetite of a powerful man.
Ashtaroth clenched his fists for confidence. “Are you Dannae? Qanmi’s mother?”
“Dannae should have stayed in the Qelebet. She’d have been happier turning corners. So would her whore lover.”
Whore lover? Who did she mean if not King Isir?
She stared at him quietly. Her eyes flickered briefly, becoming owl’s eyes, but then they were human once more. “I wouldn’t speak her name if I were you. And I don’t care what happens to you.” Lilit’s eyes became glazed, as if in boredom. Her mood ebbed and flowed as quick as silver. “You’re all just men, why should I care who wins your petty games? One people lives, another is destroyed. The world is cruel and unfair.”
She had to be Dannae, Ashtaroth was certain of it. Or why else had the name upset her so much? It sounded like she hated King Isir for turning her aside. And maybe, it hadn’t been Dannae’s husband who had killed her, but King Isir himself, when she’d grown inconvenient.
It was a puzzle, but he couldn’t get distracted from what was important, and he couldn’t upset her too much. “You know what will happen? You know if Qemassen survives the conflict with Lorar? I’m supposed to save the city, but I don’t know how. I don’t want war. I can’t fight or lead. I have to save us, all of us, otherwise it’s all been for nothing. We gave Ashtara to Molot. I’m the chosen one.”
“The seventh son of the sixteenth king. I’d pay more attention to who wears Qemassen’s crown.” Lilit snorted and gripped Abaal’s horns. “You think the butchering of your sister will save your people? The bodies of children lie beneath every street in this city. It’s done nothing to help you so far.” She smiled. “Does the stink of smoke still follow you? Do you still look down at those princely fingers and see soot?”
The back of Ashtaroth’s neck tingled. The night of the fire in the Qelebet, when that street had burned and Ashtaroth had dreamed of the alabaster man, he’d woken to soot on his hands and bloody scratches on his arms. But Samelqo’s niece had been responsible for that—she’d been punished for it. He swallowed. It was all more lies.
“You talk as though you’re not one of us―aren’t you?” Despite all else, Lilit was supposedly a shade of the underworld goddess, and she certainly seemed fond of the city, or why else would she remain here?
She smiled, releasing the horns to rub Abaal’s back playfully. “That depends on what you mean―Semassenqat, Massenqat, human . . . .” She looked up at the last word, and Ashtaroth got the impression she rather enjoyed the look of confusion on his face. It was one thing for Samelqo to call her a demon, and quite another for her to admit it.
“If the sacrifice didn’t save Qemassen, then what do I do?” Ashtaroth divided his attention between all three of the demons, looking to each of them for an answer. “One of you must know.”
Abraxas grinned but remained silent; Ashmodai lowered his gaze as though he saw and was unwilling to divulge the secret.
“The future is a funny thing.” Lilit sounded nearly like a member of their philosopher’s circle. “It flexes and shifts, retracts and returns. I could show you your brother dying a painful death, your sisters led off as chattel, your wife thrown from the walls of the city, her babe in her arms—but you wouldn’t like it.” Lilit turned to Ashmodai and chuckled.
Ashtaroth had imagined just such a thing the day he’d stood on the docks, watching Qanmi’s slave ship. But it hadn’t been a real vision, just a daydream. “I don’t believe you. Qemassen is destined to defeat Lorar.”
She shook out her mane of hair, shedding blossoms. “Maybe, but maybe not. I can help you of course, but it would cost you. Everything has its cost.” She paused. “How do you feel about that, Ashtaroth? Would you give both your souls for your city’s salvation?”
It was the kind of sacrifice a chosen one would make. Or was it? The stories he’d learned at Samelqo’s knee had been filled with foolish bargains made with demons and gods, and the terrible consequences reaped upon those who dared chance such exchanges. This was a trick. “I would never give my souls, and besides, I don’t trust you. Samelqo’s going to help me get rid of you; there was an exorcism.”
Lilit eyed Ashtaroth’s hand, clutched around the talisman. “And I suppose you think a few stinky fish will scare Ashmodai away? I wouldn’t trust that priest. He’s a cheat and a liar.”
“He wants me to be king.” Ashtaroth frowned.
“But should you be king?” Her words hung in the air, probing and prophetic.
“My brother shouldn’t be, and Hima is a woman.” It was all Ashtaroth could think to say.
“Your brother won’t be, unless you save him.” Lilit stared up at the ceiling and hopped off Abaal. The echoing smack of her sandals hitting the floor frightened a fly into the air from a nearby pillar. It buzzed in circles before settling on the Abaal’s nose. “And your gods will turn to insects and creatures of the night.”
Ashtaroth’s head was swimming. It was too much—he shouldn’t trust Samelqo; the gods would fall and Qemassen with it; Aurelius was in danger.
A sick feeling twisted Ashtaroth’s stomach. “What’s going to happen to my brother? What are you going to do?”
Lilit snapped her fingers. “I’m not going to do anything. He’s going to die. Tonight.”
“How?” Ashtaroth strode toward her, but Ashmodai barred his way and glowered down at him in warning. His irises were amber, like Ashtaroth’s. The familiarity of the demon’s gaze sent Ashtaroth stumbling backward.
“It’s not my place to say.” Lilit stepped from behind Ashmodai so Ashtaroth could see her. “But you could help him, if you wanted.”
Lilit’s eyes seemed brighter than was natural. Ashtaroth glanced about himself, suddenly noticing how bright everything was, how liquid the pillars and the walls seemed to be, as though all matter and air had become water. He thought he could hear voices as well—men and women speaking as music played. There was no one at all in the temple, only the swirling shapes and colours of the room.
“What’s happening?” he stuttered.
The very air seethed as though with heat.
A clap like thunder startled him, and he fell to the floor like he’d been struck. Blurred shapes jostled around him in a tangle of skirts and legs. The temple had been transformed, great lights shining from above, hundreds of candles hung high up from a wide, long ceiling and filled with the men and women he’d heard earlier, holding one another and dancing. They spoke in tongues he didn’t know, wearing strange clothes—skirts like upturned bowls and tunics fitted tightly to chests. They seemed not to see him.
Their shoes felt real enough. They snapped and nipped at his fingers as they danced, click-clacking against the floor, scuffing as the dancers spun in place.
A pale brown hand thrust between two pairs of dancers, reaching for Ashtaroth. Lilit stood over him, her hair piled on her head and encased in a cage of gold flowers. Her white dress was just as large and round and bulky as those of the other dancers, dusted in downy white feathers.
The dancers bumped and jostled closer, pressing Ashtaroth in. If he stayed here, wherever here was, he’d be crushed or trampled. When Lilit offered Ashtaroth her hand, he took it and let her hoist him to his feet. She pulled him into a dance he didn’t know.
Though the world wasn’t spinning anymore—well, except for the spin as he struggled to dance—the foreignness of the setting was just as disorienting. He was out of place here, still dressed in his tunic, his funeral mask hanging limply from his neck. No one seemed to notice though. It was as if no one could see him.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Lilit pressed her body against his, cheek to cheek so she could whisper into his ear. “Don’t worry about that. Look at all the beautiful people around us. Don’t you like it here?”
Her breath was hot on his skin, and he was uncomfortably conscious of the press of her breasts against him. She maneuvered his hands and arms, so that he held her the way the other men held their partners. As she moved, he shuffled clumsily along with her. “I don’t know where we are. Of course I don’t like it.”
He sneaked a surreptitious glance at the nearest couples as they circled them. Most of the men and women wore masks as well—long, beaked things encrusted with glittering gems and patterned with flowers. A woman with hair as white as snow winked at him, her pretty mouth tight-lipped and drawn in a smile. “Are they demons?”
Lilit laughed. “No, silly prince. I just brought you here to talk and to show you things.”
Lilit spun them round. “Time. How mutable it is, how fluid for people like us.”
She stared directly into his eyes. “What you can be, if you stay with me and save your people.”
The masks covering the faces of the dancers leered at him, the light reflecting off the gems that covered them a searing brightness. His stomach reeled from dizziness. “Stop it. Take me back.”
Lilit slowed, as though she’d noticed his discomfort, but then she sped up again, pulling him in a twirl toward the head of the room. The dancers parted for them, as oblivious to Lilit as the Massenqa in the Eghri had been. “I thought you wanted to talk about your brother? You must love him very much.”
Ashtaroth narrowed his eyes at her. “Of course I do. He’s my brother.”
As the dancers drifted gracefully out of Ashtaroth and Lilit’s path, their absence revealed a couple at the very end of the room: the alabaster man and his queen, only they had warm, human skin now. The man wore a cape that dragged across the floor, covered in moons and stars. The woman wore a crown.
“Who are they?” Ashtaroth asked.
“Who?” Lilit followed Ashtaroth’s gaze, but it was like she didn’t see them.
“That man and woman. The alabaster man and the queen—they’re dressed like Tanata and Abaal.”
The alabaster man who was no longer made of alabaster spun the queen around before pulling her against him. She pressed in close, their every movement as fluid as fish darting in the water. Light glanced off the queen’s mask—a human face that looked so like the statues of Tanata. Her tightly curled brown hair was an aura around her head. The alabaster man wore Abaal’s face. Golden-brown curls like Hima’s were pulled up in a top knot behind his mask, his sandy brown skin so like hers.
He must be a relative—not Ashtaroth’s father, but his grandfather, King Isir. That made the queen Queen Eshant, Ashtaroth’s grandmother.
They were different than he’d imagined. He’d always pictured the warrior-king Isir as a much taller, muscled man, but he was slight and quick on his feet and clean-shaven beneath his mask.
Queen Eshant laughed and pulled her mask off. She stood on tiptoe and kissed the lips of Isir’s mask, smiling. The warmth in her expression made Ashtaroth want to go to her, to talk with her. Her husband lifted her into the air, spinning her round in a style very different than the other dancers, like she was a tiny flying leaf, caught on a breeze. Ashtaroth could feel the air flowing around her as though he were the one being held.
He thought of Bree and Aurelius, and his chest ached.
Lilit cupped Ashtaroth’s chin and forced him to look at her. The dancers closed ranks, cutting off Ashtaroth’s view of his grandparents. “We were talking about your brother. You do love him, don’t you?”
The light from the candles overhead dimmed, as though the room had darkened with Lilit’s mood. She didn’t want to talk about Isir and Eshant. He’d have pushed her on the matter, but there was Aurelius to think about.
Lilit spun faster, away from Ashtaroth’s grandparents and toward the other side of the hall. “Then let me save him.”
Ashtaroth stumbled as they sped up. “What will it cost me?”
“A clever one, aren’t you?” said Lilit. “It will cost you pain. It might cost you a throne. Who will the Massenqa have as their king: Aurelius the Handsome, or Ashtaroth the Wise?”
Only a few weeks ago, Ashtaroth had prayed Aurelius would leave the city. If only Aurelius didn’t exist, it had seemed, Ashtaroth could have everything he wanted. No beautiful, clever brother to compare himself against. No rival for Bree’s affections. No competition for a crown that by all rights was his.
And he could have it all if he refused Lilit’s offer and let his brother die. She’d made the choice clear: if Aurelius lived, Ashtaroth would lose his crown. If Ashtaroth wanted to be king, he’d lose his brother.
Ashtaroth bit his lip, trapped by Lilit’s eyes, which seemed to spiral with colour. “And he’ll live, and he won’t be hurt at all?”
“Not tonight. I can’t protect him forever. That’s for others to do.”
His brother or his throne. Ashtaroth had hated Aurelius so much, or so he’d thought. But faced with the spectre of Aurelius’s death, that hatred burned clear away. He pictured his grandmother’s smile as King Isir had held her.
Love. Family. Titrit had been right—nothing was as important.
Ashtaroth nodded, his throat heavy and his heart afraid. “Yes. Whatever you want, as long as you save him.”
Lilit had said it would be painful, and he prepared himself for a blunt strike, or for his legs to collapse beneath him in agony. But all she did was giggle and kiss his cheek. Her lips were warm and moist.
Fire and a night sky flashed before his eyes, too fast to see properly. It was as though he’d been somewhere else, somewhere dark and loud: Qemassen. The Eghri eq-Shalem.
“What are you doing?” he asked, knowing she wouldn’t answer.
A red line snaked across her pure white dress.
It spread across her front, rapidly soaking her belly.
Instinctively, Ashtaroth pressed his hand against her wound, trying to stop the bleeding. The red only seeped deeper and further, soaking the feathers that decorated her dress. “It’s all right,” he bumbled. “I’ll help you. It’s all right.”
When he looked up she was laughing. She dragged him along with her, faster and faster, his hand doing nothing to stem the bleeding. The blood slid down her dress like water on glass, the cloth disintegrating around the wound as though her life’s essence were corroding the thread.
“I can’t stop it,” Ashtaroth sputtered.
And Lilith was spinning and laughing. She didn’t seem to care. He wanted to tell her to stop, but he couldn’t speak. He was trapped against her, breath to breath, skin to skin, her blood soaking through his thin tunic. Her blood all over him.
“Don’t be frightened, Ashtaroth, it’s only a dance,” she said, eyes capturing his.
I’m not afraid, he wanted to say, but couldn’t. It would have been a lie anyway.
The strange music rose in pitch, echoing off the walls and the ceiling. The clack of the dancers’ shoes hitting the floor had taken on a rhythmic quality, like someone tapping a metal instrument against a wood desk.
“Lilit,” he begged. He wanted it to stop.
Lilit’s gown bulged outward as though something was trying to claw its way out of her. The rip that had appeared in her dress stretched, spilling her guts so they dangled from her like garlands. And she danced, smiling, crushing her organs beneath her shoes and forcing Ashtaroth to crush them with her, till his sandals and feet and the floor were a bloody mess.
Ashtaroth tugged his hands free and scrambled back. He was in the Eghri. There was fire all around them, held on high by outstretched Massenqa hands that waved in time to that evil music.
Couldn’t they see her? Couldn’t they see what she was doing? Ashtaroth fell, then picked himself up and fled across the Eghri.
A voice was calling him, deep and familiar, from far away. He ran toward it, bumping into masked strangers with every footstep. He reached stupidly for the mask at his neck only to find he’d lost it somewhere in his hurry to get away. The talisman was gone. Was his face wet? What was that sound? Was he screaming?
He was in Qemassen. He was home. Someone was holding him. Why was his face wet?
“Ashtaroth! Stop it! Stop fighting! It’s me!” Dashel had forced Ashtaroth’s arms behind his back. He shook him.
Ashtaroth blinked and the world was calm again. “I—Lilit—she was here.”
He went limp in Dashel’s arms, and Dashel held him up, held him close. It was as though something integral and unseen had broken inside him.
Dashel’s eyes were round as the moon, and so were the eyes of all the people Ashtaroth now realized were watching them.
Why were Ashtaroth’s hands wet?
He rubbed them across Dashel’s back. “Why is everyone staring? Why is everyone staring, Dashel?”
The revellers in the Eghri started to remove their masks, all wearing the same horrified expressions. It was quiet, but for the sound of a man screaming somewhere behind them.
“We have to get back to the palace, Sese,” Dashel said, clipped.
“Leave it, Sese.”
Ashtaroth twisted in Dashel’s arms. He smacked Dashel in the face, pulling partly free. Ashtaroth’s hands—they were covered in blood.
A circle had formed back the way Ashtaroth had come, surrounding someone who crouched on the ground.
“Move! I’m the crown prince and I command you to move!” Ashtaroth stumbled, but he didn’t have to push the revellers out of his path—they fled from him as he approached.
“Shaqarbas?” Ashtaroth frowned at the Indan prince, who sat hunched over a body lying in the dirt, wailing.
“Don’t, Sese.” Dashel hurried after him. He laid a warning hand on Ashtaroth’s shoulder, but Ashtaroth shook him off.
A dead girl lay on the ground. The Lora slave Shaqarbas had taken to wife. The midsection of her dress had been ripped savagely, her blood and guts spilled around her. Her dead eyes stared up at the sky, face distorted in an ugly grimace.
Ashtaroth fell back against Dashel, shaking. He raised his hands, turning them over and over, but no matter how many times he opened and closed his eyes, his palms remained red as Lilit’s dress, wet as the tears on his cheeks.
“Something’s happened!” a voice called from behind them.
Of course something had happened. He was going mad. He’d killed a woman.
Ashtaroth shuddered. He wanted to go to Shaqarbas and the murdered girl. He wanted to run. He wanted to yell at the person calling to them. He curled closer against Dashel.
“Something’s happened!” the voice repeated. “In the gardens, Zioban’s taken hostages in the gardens!”