Chapter 11

Chapter 11: IV: Dashel

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Chapter 11: Mercenaries

Section IV

Dashel– The Palace: Qemassen

Dashel’s tea-haze had turned his world into a waking dream. The vivid hues of the palace walls had transformed to the mad brightness of the Feast of Ashtet, and beneath his lotus-tinted veil, embroidered linens became living tapestries. The serpents, elephants, lions, and horses sewn in red and black and gold exploded to life as he lay motionless on a settee. He could barely lift a finger, but the animals chased each other around and around.

On the wall, a gold-rimmed mirror encircled by Leven and Pepet seethed in a ring, so that the twin serpent gods became one, consuming each other from the tail upwards.

Around, around, around. Like Thanos falling, his limbs turning over each other, a silly, broken tumbleweed caught on the breeze and shattered on the hard earth, arms and legs as brittle as sticks.

It was Dashel’s fault Thanos had stayed in Qemassen. If Dashel hadn’t pleaded with him, he would have returned to Lorar before the Feast of Ashtet.

The serpents writhed, and Dashel’s stomach oozed with them.

Dashel twisted onto his right side, away from the marauding figures and facing the cup of lotus tea on the small table beside him. The blossom bobbed on the surface of what remained, delicate and calming, its pale petals all but glowing in the dim light.

It wasn’t just lotus, but henbane as well. His sapenta was all gone, but he’d needed something to help him forget Thanos, and more recently, forget what had happened—what was still happening—to Aurelius.

So much for becoming a better man. What point was there when there was no longer anyone to be better for?

Dashel hadn’t been allowed in the Eghri for the whipping. Samelqo had worried Dashel would cause a disturbance.

Only Aurelius’s nurses were willing to talk to Dashel about the prince’s condition. It was no good asking Hima or Bree; Hima was too busy to see Dashel, and the Feislanda princess wasn’t allowed to. He had tried to visit Bree, but when he’d approached her door, he’d been stopped by a terrible, rending scream. The guards had come running, and Dashel had been shooed away like a child.

Up down, up down went the lotus on its watery bed. He squinted at the flower. Its tips were wilting, beginning to bruise.

His eyelids drooped and his vision darkened with sleep, hypnotized by the tea and the flower, but as he slipped away someone knocked at the door and jerked him awake. He stared at the door, vision blurred, waiting for whoever it was to enter. Wait, no. That wasn’t how things worked in the palace. He had to give permission.

“Come in!” Dashel’s eyelids were still droopy, as though pulled down by tiny weights, but he managed to raise his hand in a limp approximation of a wave, no matter that the guest hadn’t entered.

The door opened, and Dashel’s visitor was revealed, the man’s features coalescing one by one before Dashel was able to slot each feature into place to determine who he was looking at: long, braided hair; sharp, birdlike eyes; a grin like a crocodile; and gilded teeth that glittered in the ambient, flickering firelight.

Qanmi. Not someone Dashel would have expected, and not someone Dashel was pleased to see. “Sese, what can I do for you?”

Dashel struggled to sit up, but promptly slumped down again. When he moved, it felt like he was flying. Even though Qanmi was standing, he’d become a minnow far below, while Dashel soared in the clouds.

Qanmi drifted into the room, staring at the windows, which Dashel had covered with dark sheets to black out most of the natural light.

“I drank too much last night,” Dashel explained. “The sun was hurting my eyes.”

Qanmi turned around, movements fluid and easy. In the face of Dashel’s drowsiness, Qanmi’s grace felt demeaning. “There’s no need to be so accommodating, Dashel. I’m aware you can’t stand me.”

At least Qanmi was candid. Dashel hadn’t expected that. He grunted, trying to assemble himself into a slightly more presentable position. As he shifted, the lotus concoction spilled onto the carpet. He frowned down at the dark stain as it spread out in an uneven circle and submerged a stylized depiction of Qemassen in a blackening wave.

“Sorry,” Dashel offered, though he couldn’t remember what he’d meant to be sorry about.

“Don’t apologize. A man in my position doesn’t need to be liked, and I don’t try to be. What matters is that I’m required, and that by making myself useful, I become tolerable. I’m indispensable to the city, and to Eshmunen, just as you’re indispensable to your poor prince.”

Aurelius. His name was a hook in Dashel’s heart. “Have you seen him?” Dashel swallowed and threaded his fingers through his beard. He hadn’t been trimming it. It was growing long and tangled. Aurelius would have teased him.

“Not recently. I saw him when they loaded him in the litter home―a distasteful sight.” Qanmi grimaced. “They had to lie him on his stomach. It was hard to tell if there was any skin left on his back at all. So much blood—”

The room was spinning. Dashel closed his eyes and held up his hand. “Stop.” He didn’t need the details.

Qanmi’s shoes slapped the floor, but in his delirium, Dashel couldn’t tell if he was approaching or receding. “I hear his condition has improved somewhat, if it’s any consolation. Qirani eq-Maleq is hopeful.”

Dashel nodded sedately. He’d doused all the incense in the room, but a nauseating sweetness drifted past his nose all the same. Was it Qanmi’s perfume? Dashel swallowed, trying to clear his throat. He opened his eyes and patted the table beside him in search of the tea—that was right, he’d spilled it.

Qanmi was standing much closer than Dashel had realized. “Don’t you want to know why I’m here?” The merchant bent down, plucked the fallen cup from the floor, and set it on the table.

“What? Oh, yes. Why are you here?” Dashel frowned, searching the carpet for the lotus blossom. It had slouched across a cubic depiction of Qemassen’s harbour, a deflated jellyfish.

Qanmi chuckled, gesturing at a chair. “May I?” He sat down before Dashel could reply. “I have something I thought you might need.”

For Dashel?

“For me?” Dashel asked. His own question echoed in his skull.

Qanmi reached beneath the folds of his tunic and produced a vial not unlike the one Dashel had shattered against the wall the day he’d decided to earn Thanos back.

“The finest eq-Anout has to offer,” said Qanmi, “grown on the Sajit borders to the south. Very fine. Very costly.”

“Thanos―” Dashel had been about to say he was trying to be better for Thanos, but Thanos was dead. He’d been bandaged and painted up and shipped back home with his mouth stuffed with dried, fragrant flowers.

The sweet smell choked Dashel again, and he cleared his throat. “Aurelius. I’m trying . . . I want to be better.” Dashel rubbed his sore eyes. His skin was sticky with the residue from his tears.

Qanmi snorted. “Surely now is not the time. No one would fault you for finding comfort where you could. Besides, I can watch you, be sure you don’t overindulge. I’m made of finer stuff than Hesh.”

“You know Hesh?”

Qanmi laughed. “I supply him, I’m ashamed to say. But trust me, Dashel, when I tell you you’re better off with me, loathed as I am, than with old Red-Eye. I’ll treat you better, sell you cheaper, provide the finest quality sapenta I can―fit for Aurelius himself, if he would partake.”

Dashel shook his head. “No, he won’t. I wouldn’t let him, even if he wanted it.” Dashel was beginning to grow uncomfortably sober. Everything looked painfully sharp, from the corners of the furniture to Qanmi himself. “Why? You don’t need my business.”

That day at the elephant stables with Mal, someone had allowed Hesh’s man entry to the palace so he could collect. If Hesh was in Qanmi’s pocket, he might have been able to pressure the guards.

“Astute as ever.” It was hard to tell if Qanmi was mocking him or not. “All I want, Dashel, is for you to do what you do best.”

“Sit around?”

The air buzzed with the sound of a thousand insects, but when Dashel peeked over his shoulder, there was nothing in the room with them, not even a lone fly.

“If you like.” Qanmi smiled again with his crocodile teeth. “I want you to forget, to ignore. A while ago, you saw my daughter at the temple.”

When had he visited the temples? Dashel frowned in thought. He’d run to Molot’s gardens during the festival, following Ashtaroth. Titrit hadn’t been there that he could remember. “How is Titrit?”

Qanmi sighed. “As well as can be expected. She blames herself, poor thing. If they hadn’t been fighting, Djana might have been with Titrit instead of Aurelius and Princess Bree.”

And Aurelius would have been killed. Dashel twisted his lips. He’d loved Djana like a sister, but if Aurelius had died in her place . . . .

“I should visit her,” Dashel said to himself, meaning Titrit, “once Aurelius is better.” If Aurelius ever recovered. “Where did I see her?”

“Not Titrit.” Qanmi folded his hands in his lap. The movement was doubled, then tripled, as though he had six hands, six arms, six faces. Then the image stuttered into one again.

Not Titrit. Dashel had seen Qanmi’s other daughter, the day he’d visited Qwella at the archives on the Shedi. She’d run away for some reason. Before that, it had been ages and ages since he’d seen her—back at the palace, before Qanmi had shipped her off to the temples, then once again, when he’d travelled downhill to Ashtet’s temple one day. “The other one. I remember now―what’s her name?”

Qanmi leaned forward, hands clasped. “It doesn’t matter. I want you to forget about her. Would you like some sapenta?”

There was the vial before Dashel, very close. He nodded, holding out his hand, swaying forward and grabbing it from Qanmi. “Forget her why?”

He grasped the cup, missing, and it wobbled on the table. Qanmi righted it as Dashel poured the sapenta.

“Certain persons—the heq-Ashqen and the former heq-Damirat, for example, feel an unjust distaste for my family. My daughter works very hard in the temple, and she’s worked especially hard to distance herself from my name. I would be very sad to learn that she’d been barred from ascending the ranks of her own temple because of some childish dislike of me.” Qanmi let go of Dashel’s cup and the last of the sapenta dripped inside. “You understand what it’s like to be judged not on your own merits, but by your family.”

Dashel did understand.

The cup was smooth as a lover’s skin under his fingers, and cold as Thanos’s dead flesh now would be. Thanos wouldn’t want him to drink, but Thanos was the reason he needed this. “That makes sense.”

“Yes.” Qanmi stood up. “I believe Prince Aurelius currently has visitors.  Now might be an opportune time to pass by in case they prove talkative.”

Dashel looked up from his cup. He’d never thought of Qanmi as kind, but his expression was soft and slightly sad. Maybe Dashel had been hasty in his judgement. Qanmi wasn’t so bad. He was hungry for recognition, but who wasn’t hungry for something?

“Thank you, Sese,” Dashel said genuinely, and Qanmi continued to smile back at him as he left.

When Qanmi had gone, Dashel considered the sapenta. The fine, glazed ceramic had warmed under his grip. He released it, his skin sore. He should leave the sapenta for now and visit Aurelius first. The sapenta would still be here when he got back, and if Aurelius was healing well, Dashel might not even need it.

Dashel wobbled a little on his way to the door. At least there was no one outside to see him stumble. By the time he reached the prince’s sickroom, he was miserably lucid, and he slid down the wall until he was crouched on the floor, head in his hands. Garbled voices bumbled from inside, joining the buzzing of the invisible insects. Could one of the voices belong to Aurelius? He didn’t dare hope.

When was the last time he’d heard Aurelius’s voice? Some seemingly irrelevant moment, probably, one he hadn’t cherished like he should. It was cruel. Dashel’s best friend. Everything. Gone just like that.

The door opened abruptly, and Dashel looked up to find Samelqo gawking at him. Uta stood behind the heq-Ashqen, head bowed as though she’d forgotten she now ranked above Dashel.

Qanmi had been wrong. Dashel was unlikely to get anything out of the heq-Ashqen besides a nasty word.

And soon it came.

“I’d rejoice that you’d finally learned your place, but even a palace floor is too fine a spot for you. If the prince dies, consider your stay temporary.”

Samelqo began to hobble off, quite fast for an old man, but Uta called to him, forcing him to stop.

“I have business to attend to with the doctors still,” Uta said to her husband. “Your medicines.”

Was she smiling? Dashel wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Uta smile, but he was sure he’d never seen Samelqo provoke such an expression from anyone.

“Vile things,” Samelqo grumbled. “Very well. I must return to my confinement.”

Dashel scoffed. Lately it wasn’t much of a confinement. The heq-Ashqen had been coming and going these past weeks like Moniqa’s death had never happened.

Uta stepped over the threshold and into the corridor. Dashel strained his neck trying to catch a glimpse of his prince, but it was dark inside, as though the windows were covered like Dashel’s. If he lunged, he could easily force his way past Uta, who was much smaller than Dashel.

Clack. The door closed and locked. There were still guards inside, it seemed.

Uta didn’t head off like she’d said she would but stopped in front of the door. She peered down the hallway both ways. “Dashel.”

 Dashel braced for more taunts. Uta had never spared him even a kind look before, let alone a kind word. She’d never got over Aurelius, jealous that Dashel had deepened his prince’s favour on the same night Uta had lost it. Well, now she had what she wanted: Dashel was trapped outside while she was granted entry.

“Do your worst.” Dashel groaned.

She raised an eyebrow in an expression he was sure she’d picked up from her husband. She looked confused, which made Dashel feel confused.

“Not here,” Uta whispered. “I need to speak with you. Is there somewhere we could go?”

Dashel’s head ached. If he wasn’t going to see Aurelius, all he wanted was to sleep. He would’ve laid down right outside the prince’s door and waited if he could. “For what?”

Uta scowled. “Obviously I can’t tell you, or I wouldn’t ask you to come with me. Get up.” Her tone prickled, and she had that same icy look on her face from the day he’d seen her surveying the site of the fire in Qelebet.

Dashel tried to beat her stare, but he didn’t have the will to fight her and eventually broke their competition. “Fine, but if you kill me, I’ll kill you back.” He creaked to his feet, leaning his head against the wall before pushing himself off it.

Uta clipped along, following the curve of the hallway. Dashel kept some distance as he walked so that he didn’t overtake her with his longer strides.

She was so tense—her attention never wavering from what was ahead of her, her hands almost supernaturally still by her side. As she turned left, then right, it grew obvious even to Dashel where they were headed: Samelqo’s tower.

“Uta—I mean, Sese . . . .” Dashel extended his hand to grab her shoulder and turn her to face him. He wasn’t about to let her lure him into Samelqo’s trap.

“We’re not going to see the heq-Ashqen,” said Uta. Was Dashel that predictable?

At the tower stairs, instead of climbing, she lit a lantern and began to descend. The curl of the steps and the walls and the everything was dizzying. It was how he’d felt watching the mirror with Leven and Pepet, or like he was walking inside a gigantic conch shell. He steadied himself against the walls, not proud in the slightest.

By the time they reached the bottom, Dashel’s legs felt like pillars of water. He managed to stumble after Uta inside a small cellar though, but when she started shifting pots and jugs he didn’t have the strength to help her.

Dashel flapped his arms in exasperation. “What do you want with me?”

“No one ever taught you patience, did they? Then again, you’re one of them, so why I should expect more from you I don’t know.” She squeezed between the jars and beckoned Dashel after her.

“One of who?” The jars wobbled as he jostled them. He was a lot bigger than her, and he wasn’t exactly dexterous even when he hadn’t been drinking lotus tea and henbane.

Uta glared over her shoulder. “The Semassenqa.” At the wall, she fiddled with something in front of herself that Dashel couldn’t make out—grooves of some kind, scratched into the surface.

Dashel laughed. “They don’t even consider me a Massenqen most of the time.”

“You don’t understand anything,” Uta said.

Dashel clenched his teeth. “You’re one of them. You married Samelqo eq-Milqar so you could be the heq-Ashqen’s wife, and only because Aurelius wouldn’t be a pawn in your quest for power.”

“Quest for power?”

A section of the wall groaned, and Dashel froze, staring at the space where once a slab of immovable stone had stood and now . . . well, the stone had proved not to be so immovable after all.

Uta stepped through, like this was nothing to her. She glanced over her shoulder, face lit by a finely-decorated lantern. Diamond and square patterns spun across her face. She looked like she was wearing a veil made of light. “Are you coming?”

Dashel backed away, his calf colliding with a jar. “Is this how the slaves got Aurelius and the others up on that wall?”

“Yes, but that wasn’t my fault, and this has nothing to do with that.”

The complexity of the patterns from the lantern obscured rather than revealed Uta’s expression. She didn’t seem bothered though, which was troubling.

“You’re Zioban, aren’t you?” Dashel could easily knock her out, even unsteady as he was. Besides, the cool air down here was sobering.

Uta coughed—or maybe laughed. It was hard to tell. “Don’t be absurd. Of course I’m not Zioban.” She shifted awkwardly on her feet, giving whatever lay behind her a nervous glance. “What if I told you Aurelius was in danger. You’d come with me then, wouldn’t you?”

Dashel hesitated. He would and they both knew it, because it didn’t really matter to Dashel whether or not he got himself into trouble following Uta. If there was a chance he could help Aurelius, he would take it. “Maybe not,” he lied feebly.

“Aurelius is in danger,” Uta said with a sigh, “and I’m going to help you save him.”

“Fine. All right.” There was no point in pretending that his answer could be anything different. Dashel maneuvered around the pots, knocking a few, which earned him a scathing look from Uta.

“Follow me, and be quiet,” she hissed, as though there was anyone at all down here to spy on them. The woman was paranoid.

Beyond the door lay darkness and cold. A cramped, uneven tunnel led off in either direction, one uphill and the other down. Even with the lantern, it was pitch-black, yet Uta stepped deftly down the passage, making sudden turns that forced Dashel to abruptly shift direction. At one point he found himself crouching, far too tall for the low ceiling. Minutes upon minutes passed—or so he thought. It was difficult to tell. At some point they’d started to ascend, but it had been so gradual he hadn’t noticed immediately.

The only sounds in the tunnels were the creak of the lantern swinging back and forth, the scuffle of their own feet, and the distant trickle-drip of water.

“Why would you help Aurelius?” Dashel asked, tired of the silence.

“I said be quiet.”

“Sorry.”

A spear of light jutted from the wall ahead, thinner than a pin, stabbing the opposite side of the tunnel. Uta stopped in front of it, and Dashel bent down, peering inside a peephole in the stone.

He was looking in on a lavish room, one of the palace rooms. There was a bed against the wall. Aurelius lay upon it, resting on his stomach.

Dashel’s heart caught in his throat.

Bandages smothered the prince’s wounds, and a selection of medicines stood on a table beside his bed. He looked peaceful and clean, his back gently rising and falling. He must have been given something to keep him from waking.

Dashel was about to speak when Uta tugged him away by his arm. She cocked her head for him to keep moving, and Dashel reluctantly obeyed.

When words came, they were choked. “He was sleeping.”

“You wanted to see him, didn’t you?” Uta asked.

Dashel nodded to himself, choked at the surprise kindness and at the sight of Aurelius at least somewhat haler than he’d imagined. “Thank you.” He’d been thanking people he hated all day it seemed.

Uta didn’t respond to the courtesy for a long time, but as they continued downhill along increasingly damp paths, she broke her silence. “I want to help him because he’s a good man, because he’s the man Qemassen needs, even though I know my husband doesn’t think so.”

“Samelqo’s a vulture,” Dashel spat.

“You’re hard on him, but all he’s ever wanted is what’s best for the people. He might be wrong about what Qemassen needs, but it doesn’t make him evil, or your enemy.” She paused, voice shaky in a way that softened Dashel’s heart. “Though something else might.”

Perhaps she did love Samelqo after all. Love, especially when you shouldn’t feel it, was something Dashel understood intimately. If the looks Uta still shot Aurelius when the prince’s back was turned were any indication, Samelqo wasn’t the only one she still felt something for.

“Do you love Aurelius?” Dashel risked.

An odd, indeterminable sound left Uta’s lips. It could have been a laugh, or something more sinister, but Dashel couldn’t read her expression in the darkness.

“We all do, don’t we? But we can only come so close to the sun before it burns us. You’ve got the weight of him on your soul, Dashel, but he won’t love you, and he won’t love me. All we have is the heat from him, and unless you’re content to be burned you must satisfy yourself with a distant warmth.”

The comparison didn’t make Dashel feel warm at all. It made him think of Thanos and Thanos’s plea to tell Aurelius how he felt. It made him think of Thanos broken on the ground, which shouldn’t have been Dashel’s fault, yet somehow felt as though it was.

Aurelius knows, Dashel admitted to himself. Of course he knows. He’s always known. She’s right.

“I didn’t expect you to be so poetic.” Dashel laughed weakly, trying to shake some of the gloom that had settled on him. Gloom seemed to follow Uta like a cloud, filling the air.

“I do a lot of reading,” Uta replied. “Some poetry was bound to cross my path.”

Eventually they stopped again, and Uta opened another door. It led them into a small basement.

Dashel frowned, recognizing the location. “Isn’t this Qanmi’s house? The House of Many Purposes?”

Uta nodded. “No one lives here. It makes a good place to talk. We should be quiet though; I’m not the only one who comes here.”

Aurelius’s name for it had never been so apt.

Dashel crossed his arms. The walk had cleared his head, and he wanted answers. “You said Aurelius was in danger.”

Uta picked at her nails absently, not looking Dashel in the face as though she were the weak one now. “I hear things, working for Samelqo. Eshmunen came to him not long ago. There’s worry that Aurelius is favoured over Ashtaroth as successor, and Samelqo won’t let that happen.”

“That’s not news,” Dashel said. He flinched at the depth of the shadows down here, focusing on the muted beam of light that shone from upstairs.

“No, but Ashtaroth’s affliction gives Aurelius’s supporters cause, and after what Shaqarbas started in the Eghri, you can’t fail to see how precarious Ashtaroth’s position is.” Uta walked to a plain stool that was propped against the wall and sat down, her hands folded modestly in her lap. “My husband thinks he killed the wrong child in Molot’s gardens that night. He blames himself for what’s happening to Ashtaroth.”

Dashel frowned. “Then I’ll happily build him a pyre to jump into, if he wants to mend the situation.”

Uta ignored him. “He thinks the only way to make it right is to kill Aurelius. I know the details of their plan; I know where it will be done and how.” She looked up, staring through Dashel with her one eye.

Even if Aurelius survived the whipping, he’d be killed. Dashel’s whole body hardened, turned to stone and ready to hit something. “We have to stop them. I can tell Hima and Aurelius. We can hide him or tell the Semassenqa while the court is in session.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Uta hissed. “You know as well as I do that while Eshmunen and Samelqo are in power, Aurelius won’t be safe. What do you think will happen if the king is revealed as a conspirator in his son’s murder? Nothing. Aurelius was a sacrifice then and he’ll be one now, and no Erun servant is going to sway the opinions of the Semassenqa.” Uta grew quiet.

“What then?”

“Do you think he’ll be a better king than Ashtaroth or Eshmunen?”

Dashel hesitated only an instant. “Yes.” He hung his head, traitorous. He loved Ashtaroth, but the crown prince was indecisive, just as easily led as King Eshmunen. Men wouldn’t follow him the way they would Aurelius.

He nodded, more to himself than to Uta. Yes. Aurelius should be king.

“Would you do anything for him?” Uta pressed.

The shadows that had so uneased Dashel seemed to lighten as his eyes and conscience adjusted. “Yes. Anything.”

“Would you die?”

Dashel looked up, and this time he didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

Of that, there had never been any doubt.

“Because that’s what I’m asking you to do,” Uta said, her voice pleading, “and you’ll have to take Eshmunen with you.”

Kill the king? Dashel shuddered. He’d be thrice-damned for such a betrayal.

But it was for Aurelius.

Anything. Anything. He’d said anything. “What about Samelqo?” he asked.

Uta didn’t speak at first. The subtle light hitting her glass eye disappeared—she must have closed both of them. “I’ll take care of him, and I’ll send some men to help you.”

Why did Uta have men? Dashel was always jumping into things without thinking. He shouldn’t be so gullible, not when so much was at stake. She might be playing him for a fool. “Zioban would have men. He’d have a reason to want Eshmunen dead, and Samelqo. We’re in the tunnels that Zioban used to attack the royal family and—” And the ambassadors. Thanos and Djana, both gone.

Uta looked startled by the accusation. She stood up and resumed fidgeting with her hands. “If you must know, Aurelius is Zioban.”

“Hah!”

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but he is. Him and his sister.” She walked right up to Dashel and took one of his big hands in hers, squeezing hard, like if she proved her strength she’d prove her claim.

“Hima?” Dashel couldn’t believe that.

Uta nodded. “I’ve met with the slaves, I admit, but until Djana was killed, Zioban was different. Zioban wasn’t mad. He was strong and good and all the things Aurelius has always been. Aurelius stood up for the slaves in the Eghri because he felt himself responsible for their punishment. It’s always been him—him and Himalit. Zioban changed that night in the gardens. It was a woman who killed Djana and Thanos. I even met her before the whipping. She ranted and raved about Ashtaroth and Qorban. Who but Hima would complain about the heq-Damiran? She probably intended to kill Aurelius that night on the wall and take Zioban’s name for herself. Himalit would have a lot of reasons to want to wrest control from Aurelius, especially now he’s become so popular.”

Dashel couldn’t believe that, Uta was right. If Dashel accepted that Himalit was Zioban, he’d have to accept that what had happened to Thanos had been her fault. “I’m sorry. Aurelius is sympathetic toward the slaves, but he doesn’t want the monarchy to fall. And Hima would never do that to her brother.” And yet, weeks ago he’d wondered to himself why Hiram and Reshith had been injured but not killed, about the fact that Hima had seemed poised to press for greater power at court and had used the attack as an excuse to fill the palace with men loyal to her. She’d spread rumours that a Semassenqen was responsible and had tried to blame Samelqo. That her plan hadn’t worked, didn’t mean it hadn’t been a plan. Could shehave killed Thanos and Djana if it meant a crown one day for Hiram? Aurelius probably hadn’t even known she was planning to do it.

Dashel’s heartbeat thudded in his ears, the slow soporific song of the lotus tea fading from memory. He forced himself to think back to the Feast of Ashtet. Had he seen Hima in the gardens that night? He tried to will her image into his recollection but couldn’t. She hadn’t been there. The captives, Qanmi, Ashtaroth—Dashel had seen all of them, but no Hima.

Fuck, Hima.

He combed his hand through his hair, pacing.

In the end, what did the knowledge change? Aurelius was in danger whether or not he and Hima were Zioban.

He shrugged as though it were nothing. “I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter who or what Aurelius is, or who Zioban is. I’ll help Aurelius. I’ll kill the king or . . . or whoever.” Tears sprang to his eyes.

It was perversely easy to agree to Uta’s request.

“Good.” Uta stopped her fretting. “Tomorrow night they plan to sneak into his room and kill him. They can claim his death was because of his injuries. No one would question that after what the prince endured. Eshmunen will do the deed; you wait for him outside Aurelius’s room. That part is important, Dashel. Aurelius can’t know what you’re planning to do; no one can know. You tell them whatever you have to, but once Eshmunen is dead the people of Qemassen must be made to believe that Aurelius had no part in his murder. They must see you tried and punished, otherwise Aurelius’s ascension will be viewed suspiciously for the rest of what life he has.”

A life without me.

And there it was, spoken as plainly as Uta was probably capable of—the reason she’d asked Dashel if he were willing to die. She was right; if Aurelius were suspected, there was always the chance Hima or someone else might accuse him of regicide and patricide both, that Aurelius would be executed for the crime. That couldn’t be allowed to happen.

A long time ago, Dashel had lost who he was, forgetting what it had meant to be great and do great things. If Aurelius died and failed to shed his light on the city, what would Dashel even do with himself? He frowned, thinking of Qanmi with his sapenta and his pity. There was always another vial, another cup of wine, another coin wasted on the streets of the Qelebet. Without Aurelius, Dashel had no purpose, but this thing he could do. This thing would leave a mark on Qemassen for the better.

It had been a long time since Dashel eq-Yeremi had dared call himself a man. Tomorrow, Dashel would dare for one last time, and in daring, become a killer and a maker of kings.

Tomorrow, Dashel would make himself better for his prince.



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