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Chapter 11: Mercenaries
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
Seven days ago, Ashtaroth had killed them: Djana, Thanos, and Shaqarbas’s wife. When Lilit had told him there’d be a cost for saving Aurelius’s life, he’d thought she only meant to take his crown, not make him a murderer, but as he retraced the passage to his father’s council chambers, that word—murderer—trailed him like the wake of a ship. When he held his trembling hands in front of himself, he no longer saw soot, but blood: Lara’s blood, and the knife Ashtaroth had stabbed her with.
King Eshmunen’s council chambers lay buried in the palace, where neither sunlight nor spies could find them. Walking back along the corridors felt like travelling the winding corners of a labyrinth. Ashtaroth slouched as he walked, the shadows flickering across the walls seeming to slouch with him: an army of Ashtaroths cast in grey. The Yirada officer escorting him stood straight as the walls themselves by comparison.
Ahead of them, approaching feet clacked quickly against the stone.
Raising his head caused a rush of dizziness, and he lowered it again. An unprincely posture was surely better than collapsing in the hallway.
He barely looked up as he passed Bree in the corridor. She was being led between two guards, her mother trailing behind her, their heads held high as though either of them had any dignity left to maintain. Her expression was stony. A true princess might at least have cried for her lover, but Bree appeared unmoved. No doubt Eaflied had beggared some pardon for her, while Ashtaroth’s brother had been dragged off in bonds and thrown in a cell below the palace. It was a wonder they’d found anywhere to put him; the dungeons were still packed with slaves.
Aurelius, who Lilit had promised would become king if Ashtaroth saved him. How could Aurelius steal a crown from the dungeons?
It was the best and only place for him. Bree had been complicit, but she hadn’t been the instigator. Aurelius had detailed it all to Eshmunen, Ashtaroth, and a small council comprised of the city’s most powerful. Only Shaqarbas had opposed Aurelius’s confinement.
Shaqarbas hadn’t looked at Ashtaroth the entire time. Why should he?
Ashtaroth’s feet were a blur against the floor, moving faster than his thoughts, taking him back to Eshmunen’s council chambers, to Shaqarbas, Hima, and the others. He couldn’t face them. When they looked at him, they’d see his shame: the people he’d hurt, Bree’s infidelity. They’d see what a waste he was.
Ashtaroth squeezed his eyes shut, but you couldn’t close your eyes to memory, and visions of Djana’s falling body pierced the mental veil he’d tried to construct for himself.
The price. Lilit had told him there would be a price for his brother’s life. Well, that had been it: three lives for Aurelius’s one. That Aurelius had survived the head injury given him by the slaves was miraculous, and it so happened that Ashtaroth had bargained for a miracle.
Three lives. Ashtaroth couldn’t say he’d have made the same choice twice, but when he’d hung his neck back and seen Aurelius slump to the ground on that wall, his body had turned to air and emptiness.
Ashtaroth’s Yirada escort opened the way for him into Eshmunen’s council room. The double doors thudded as they trouped inside. Ashtaroth glanced at the face of the man standing to his right inside the council room. Another Yirada officer, weathered and big. Ashtaroth felt weak beside the man—they were all weak beside such men. Zioban and Lilit had made that plain.
Before the attack, Ashtaroth had thought catching Zioban would return the city to normal, but now Zioban had killed both the Lora and Ajwata ambassadors and Bree had betrayed Ashtaroth. Nothing would be the same ever again.
Everyone but Hima looked up as Ashtaroth walked in: Eshmunen, Shaqarbas, Qorban, Qanmi, and Samelqo. Even Samelqo. They sat around the long table, the tall ceiling and narrow rectangular walls making them appear oddly stretched. As Ashtaroth approached, the gold veins of the lapis tabletop glinted. The loop of Tanata’s ansate cross that was inlaid into the table’s surface seemed yet another eye, watching him, the golden moon resting above it like a great eyebrow.
Stone. Ashtaroth was strong and unreadable as stone. He was the chosen one. What he’d done had saved his brother, even if it meant he’d lost everything else.
Everything, and Djana. He’d lost Djana. He’d run for her, him and Qanmi. Qanmi had reached her first, cradling her in his arms, his white tunic soaked in blood. Her face—Ashtaroth hadn’t been able to look at it straight on: bloody mush. You couldn’t even tell she’d been blinded.
And Dashel’s cry. It’d broken Ashtaroth’s trance.
This was what Lilit had done. What Ashtaroth had chosen.
He plunked into the chair beside Hima, the side furthest from the door. The chair next to him was empty. Aurelius should have been there.
Ashtaroth laid his hand on the table, but his fingers were shaking. He quickly clasped his hands in his lap, where no one could see.
“A hound-beast of Seteq walks with us today,” said Shaqarbas, loud enough to make it clear he didn’t care whether Ashtaroth or Ashtaroth’s family heard him. All it earned Shaqarbas was a weary look from Samelqo, not the stern reprimand it normally would have.
No one was speaking. Ashtaroth should break the silence. “What’s going to happen to her?” Ashtaroth had been asked to leave while the matter was discussed, lest his anger blind him. He wasn’t angry, he was . . . lost. Empty.
He surveyed the faces of his fellow Semassenqa: Qanmi seated across from him, Qorban, then Shaqarbas wearing his bitterness like a badge, Samelqo, Eshmunen at the head of the table, Hima to Ashtaroth’s left, and finally Aurelius’s empty seat.
Samelqo opened his cracked lips, his blue robes blending with the lapis table. “Her mother made it clear what it would cost us to chastise her. Aurelius will be punished for the two of them. A public flogging should do. The people must see that those who betray Ashtaroth are not treated lightly, Semassenqa or no.”
Shaqarbas folded his thick arms in front of his chest, sneering. “There should be no punishment. If a crown prince can’t keep his woman from straying, what good is he for a king? So the bitch sought comfort with a more able man; she must know something we don’t.”
Samelqo scowled. “The whores of the Qelebet are well schooled in the marital arts, should we choose our kings from their ranks? Whether Ashtaroth is skilled in the bedchamber is hardly relevant to his ability to rule.”
Ashtaroth swallowed, unable to stop from staring into the empty air between Qanmi and Shaqarbas. The negative space took on a form for an instant—a woman’s figure. Djana? But no one was there: not Djana, and not Lilit.
Soft, long fingers wrapped around his. When he looked down, Hima’s hand gripped his own, tight, filling him with her strength. He didn’t know why she was here, now that she was no longer heq-Damirat, but he was glad she’d been allowed to come. He could have hugged her, but that would make him look weak. He wasn’t weak.
“Could we move along please?” Qanmi sounded bored. How could he, after all that had happened? When Djana had been threatened Qanmi had screamed loudest of all. He wore mourning dress, but not the attitude to match.
Hima cleared her throat. “If my brother is to be whipped publicly, I say we do the same with the slaves. It might bring Zioban out of hiding, or at the least make a coward of him when he refuses to show his face.”
“They’re not to be killed?” Ashtaroth asked, looking to Samelqo and then his father for confirmation.
“Would you like them to be?” Samelqo asked.
Him? Since when did anyone care what Ashtaroth thought—and why should they, after what he’d done? He fumbled for the words. “No, but I thought they might be.”
Qanmi sniffed. “Perhaps Shaqarbas had a point. You clearly have no sense of forethought. If we killed all the slaves, who would be left to extract information from?”
They didn’t seem to have extracted any useful information so far, and most of the palace slaves had been in Yirada hands for weeks. Ashtaroth was about to defend himself when his father interrupted.
Eshmunen leaned forward. “The slaves will be whipped. Children first, to loosen the tongues of their parents. We have little time to waste hunting Zioban now that we have Ajwata and Lorar to placate.”
Hima furrowed her brows. “You underestimate the significance of this, Father. You weren’t there; you didn’t see it for yourself. Those people grabbed your son off the street and killed two royal ambassadors in front of the entire city. Zioban must be found and executed, yesterday if possible.”
Ashtaroth frowned. Had Hima been there? Ashtaroth hadn’t noticed her, but perhaps she’d been further off from him.
“The king has only one son,” croaked Samelqo, “and he’s sitting next to you.”
Hima’s hand unlocked from Ashtaroth’s, and a chill crept across his skin. So Aurelius had been disowned. Then again, perhaps Samelqo was only making a point. The two of them had never got on, and Aurelius’s fall from favour would serve him well.
“The people of Qemassen are loyal to me,” Eshmunen said softly, with conviction. “It’s only a small fraction of the populace who oppose me. They’ll be found and silenced. War was inevitable, and Ajwata will understand. Nothing has changed.”
“It is as you say, Sese.” Qanmi bowed his head toward Eshmunen and Ashtaroth stared at one and then the other in disbelief. “And we shall respect your decision in this. Though women have a certain cunning about them, I fear that between us we give their fantasies far too much weight.”
Hima bolted from her seat, her chair scraping the floor. She slammed her fists down on the surface of the table. “Fantasies!? What right do you have to speak of me? My shit has more weight than your council.”
The below of Shaqarbas’s laugh rang out like a drum in the cramped space. Though Samelqo settled his glare on the Inda prince, Shaqarbas ignored him.
Qanmi grinned, his gold tooth shining. He gestured to Hima’s seat with a wave of his ringed hand. “Sit down, Himalit et-Moniqa, I meant no offence to you personally. I spoke of women generally, of course, not yourself. Your tenure as heq-Damirat lasted years, and we’re very lucky to share your council today, even in your retirement.”
The room went still and quiet.
Ashtaroth watched Hima’s face carefully, but all she did was maintain her gaze as she stared Qanmi down. After long enough that the rest of them began to shift awkwardly, Hima took her seat again.
“So we are agreed the slaves will be whipped,” Shaqarbas interjected hurriedly. “Good, good, good. I would like to propose we address the crimes of another, who yet sits amongst us guiltless and free.”
Ashtaroth sunk in his chair as the Indan’s eyes found him. Shaqarbas’s condemnation was cocked at him like the tip of a blade, ready to slit his throat as soon as the opportunity arose. The worst part was, Ashtaroth wasn’t sure he deserved leniency. But the thought of being dragged into the Egrhi eq-Shalem to suffer a traitor’s death—or even of Shaqarbas’s sword at his throat—was too frightening for him to admit his guilt. Besides, no one would believe him, Shaqarbas least of all.
“I don’t remember anything,” Ashtaroth stammered. “I was in the temple―Abaal’s temple, and then suddenly there was blood on my hands and I was in the market.”
“What were you doing in the temple?” Hima asked.
“It doesn’t matter.” Samelqo clasped his hands in front of himself. “I hadn’t wanted to be so free with the information, but it seems I must. The prince has been plagued by a demon, a bau. This is her doing or it is no one’s.”
“A demon?” Shaqarbas scoffed. “That excuse grows tired, Old Man. It is a madness or nothing at all.”
Everyone was scrutinizing Ashtaroth again, like he was a stranger.
But he had Samelqo. He’d always had Samelqo.
Lilit—Dannae—had warned him not to trust Samelqo.
“It’s true,” Ashtaroth blurted. He crushed his thumbs inside his fists. “I see her all the time! She’s called Lilit and I saw her that day in the Eghri, when the slaves took Hiram and Reshith.” He looked at Hima. Her lips were pursed, and she avoided his gaze. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but it was hard to. I didn’t know what was happening until Samelqo helped me.”
“Then the matter is closed,” Eshmunen said. “Shaqarbas will be repaid for the loss of his wife, and my son will continue his observances until he is cleansed of this demon.”
There was a general nod of agreement from everyone but Shaqarbas, who shook his head. “What fools are you that you believe him? I’ve never seen this demon, nor any god or spirit, but I have seen violence, and I have seen madness. You Massenqa know nothing of gods. In Ipsis, I saw Abaal toppled from his throne and replaced by another. Would a god stand by and allow himself to be so profaned? There were madmen aplenty when Moniqa’s brother was scourged and hitched to the back of Qorelibas’s chariot, but gods?” He snorted. “No Adonen, no Abaal, no Tanata to cast a protective net over him.”
No gods. It was almost as Lilit had said. Where once Ashtaroth had been confident, his belief had melted to a puddle at his feet. He’d lost his talisman in the Eghri—Lilit had been able to break Qalita’s protection as though it had meant nothing.
Samelqo was taut as a rope pulled at either end. “I should remind the Indan prince that it is his future king he speaks of, and that Ashtaroth’s ascent has been prophesied in the Book of Abaal.”
Ashtaroth wanted to leave. He wanted to get out. A hand closed comfortingly around his shoulder. Hima—he had Samelqo and he had his sister. Always.
Shaqarbas stood up and spat. Qanmi shrank back, barely avoiding being hit. Shaqarbas jabbed his finger against his broad chest. “He will be no king of mine. If I was going to bow to an idiot I would have done better to remain in Indas with Deghashi.”
“Then return home; let Lorar bare the expense of keeping you.” Qanmi shook his head as though to say good riddance. Shaqarbas would do no such thing, of course, and they all knew it. As soon as the Indan planted his foot on home soil he would be killed.
Shaqarbas marched for the doors and the Yirada officers standing guard hurried to open them. The doors banged loudly in his wake—once, twice, then a third time, much more softly.
Perhaps Ashtaroth had more allies than he’d thought. Qanmi, Hima, and Samelqo had all spoken for him.
Supple, kind fingers squeezed Ashtaroth’s shoulders, then snaked their way lower down his chest. Not the touch of a sister, but—He tensed, glancing at Hima. She wasn’t looking at him at all, and her hands sat in her lap, folded.
Every hair on Ashtaroth’s body stood on end—strings pulled by an invisible hand. He didn’t want to look, but he had to. He craned his neck back and met Lilit’s green eyes.
His skin was made of ice. He knew better by now than to ask if anyone else could see her; this was a vision all his own.
Lilit, the demon. Or Dannae, Qanmi’s mother. Whoever she was, she was Ashtaroth’s alone, and he couldn’t be here with her and with all the others. He sensed the lurking danger of it deep inside.
“I-I have to go. Excuse me. Please.” Ashtaroth stumbled up from his chair, sick to his stomach. He fled without meeting the eyes of the people whose strength he should have trusted. The doors, and he passed them, still vibrated with the force of Shaqarbas’s shove.
He didn’t look back; he didn’t want to have to see their faces.
Shaqarbas was right; Ashtaroth was mad. He was mad, and he couldn’t be king. The exorcism hadn’t worked and he’d killed Djana and Thanos and Lara. Bree didn’t love him, and Aurelius—they were going to break Aurelius’s back for what Ashtaroth had chosen. He’d chosen it. And he couldn’t even admit that to save those he loved.
Ashtaroth practically fell into his room upon reaching it, throwing open the door with a bang and startling the guards outside.
“Don’t come in,” he spat, “and don’t let anyone enter after me. I wish to be alone.”
Ashtaroth slammed the door shut before either man could reply, jumping back when he saw who was standing behind it.
Lilit. Dannae. She wriggled her fingers in a disturbing wave.
“What are you doing here?!” Ashtaroth couldn’t keep from letting his mouth hang open as Lilit peeled herself from against the wall where she’d been leaning.
She was dressed in sheer cloth like an Ashqat of Ashtet, smiling coyly as she strolled toward him. Her brown hair was perfectly arranged, her lips as red as berries or blood, her cheeks a fashionable yellow. “I came to see you. I thought that would be obvious, Ashtaroth.” She smiled like a child might, reaching for him.
Ashtaroth patted the desk behind him, curled his fingers around a quill, and brandished it in front of him. “No. You get away from me. I killed Djana because of you.”
Lilit shrugged, pouting her painted lips. “The slaves killed Djana.” She giggled. “You didn’t want her anyway.” She paused. “She wanted you though, but not as much as I do.”
Ashtaroth closed his eyes, lowering his defensive quill. He couldn’t stop her. Why did he even try anymore? Tears brimmed at the corners of his eyes. “I loved Bree, but she betrayed me. I saved Aurelius . . . .”
“But you shouldn’t have? Clemency obviously isn’t your virtue.” Lilit pressed her hand against his chest, hooking her nails in his tunic, twisting it like she might tear it off him. Her breath coiled against his skin, hot and hungry. “What is your virtue? Chastity, perhaps? We’ll see about that. Sweet as honey, but oh so confused. I’ll make it all better for you if you’ll let me.”
Ashtaroth reached for the talisman at his neck, forgetting it was no longer there. Samelqo couldn’t stop her. No one could. “I don’t think you need me to let you. You’ve managed without my permission so far.”
Lilit’s lips found his neck, nibbling his skin. She kissed him. “I taught your grandfather everything he needed to know. Would you like me to show you?”
Ashtaroth opened his eyes. He pushed her with the flat of his hand. Her teeth tore his flesh as he forced her away, his blood mingling with whatever substance she’d smeared on herself before accosting him. Ashtaroth lifted his hand to the small cut on his neck, glaring.
“I want you, Ashtaroth, I told you that. Be good to me, won’t you?” She looked so wounded standing there. It reminded Ashtaroth of Djana, and how she’d looked at him from time to time. He tried to recall the Ajwatat’s bright eyes, her smiling face, her merry laugh, but all he could see when he summoned her image before him was her falling body: eyeless, screaming, dying.
He’d thought, for a moment, that he could catch her. If he got there soon enough, he could catch her in his arms, and he would tell her he was sorry, that he’d made a mistake. That he—
“I can’t.” Ashtaroth dropped the quill, kneeling down, holding his head in his hands. He cried into his palms, praying the tears would wash them clean. “I can’t do this. He’s right. I can’t save my people.”
Ashtaroth heard Lilit sit down in front of him, and he raised his face to look at her. “Tell me, will everything be all right? Will Qemassen survive?”
A genuine and pitiful sorrow settled on Lilit’s pretty features as she watched him, and for an instant Ashtaroth believed there might remain in her spirit some sliver of humanity.
She cupped his chin in her soft hands. “Oh pet, but that’s all up to you.”