(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 12: Freemen
Eshmunen– The Palace: Qemassen
It was a quiet and peaceful night. Too peaceful, too quiet, for the dark dealings Eshmunen had been tasked with.
His bedchamber was filled with slaves—six of them standing still as statues around the room, heads bowed. A seventh knelt on the floor before the edge of Eshmunen’s bed, washing the king’s feet and humming an unfamiliar lullaby. Her brown hair, threaded with yellow ribbon, seemed to blend into her light brown skin. He might have asked her to stop—he certainly hadn’t commanded her to hum—but the sound was oddly beautiful.
Water from the slave’s cloth dripped onto Eshmunen’s foot, sending a shiver through him. The water slid between his toes, soft like ghostly fingers, or what Eshmunen thought a lover’s fingers must feel like. Moniqa had never touched him so gently. No one had. No one would.
There’d been a girl once, when Eshmunen had been younger than Ashtaroth was now. Tirzah had been the daughter of a prominent Ashqen of Abaal, and when she’d come of age, she’d been brought to the palace to dance before King Isir’s court.
Oh how her feet had spun upon the floor!
He could still envision her: her arms bent in subtle, elegant poses; her curves swaying and twirling with the rattle of the sistrum and the beat of the drum; her mouth smiling and nervous as she’d been introduced to the crown prince. She’d batted her thick black lashes in shyness, and the belled and beaded lattice of a dress that had revealed and disguised her beauty had chimed at the quake of her shoulders.
He’d wanted to touch her, but nervousness had stopped the pair of them, so over many moons they had talked instead. She’d told him about the doves she kept in her home on the upper slope of the Talefa hill, and he’d meekly confided his fantasies of a life in which he was not the crown prince, but a baker selling sweet delicacies in the Eghri eq-Shalem. He had told her he wasn’t really a boy at all, but a woman, and his parents only had to pretend he was a boy because they needed someone to be king. Most incredibly, she had believed him.
They’d laughed—done everything but touch. Then, one day, when he’d girded himself enough to ask her for a kiss, his father had given her to the old heq-Damiran. Months later, she’d been initiated into the temple of Ashtet, round with child.
Eshmunen had never seen her again, and since thinking of her hurt too much, he’d wondered instead on what had become of her doves. Had her father tended them for her? Had she been allowed to bring them to Ashtet’s temple? Perhaps they had been granted the freedom that was denied their mistress.
Everything Eshmunen had loved belonged to his father.
Samelqo had comforted Eshmunen that he was destined a much grander bride—a princess not of temples, but nations. Eventually, Moniqa had come, Samelqo’s promise fulfilled. She, too, had been wonderful, but unlike Tirzah, she had loathed him.
Eshmunen slouched for a moment, but Samelqo’s voice cracked like a whip inside his heart, telling him to straighten, that it wasn’t a king’s duty to relax. He swallowed back the lump in his throat, and as he corrected his posture, his gaze found the small votive statue of King Isir that sat upon its small altar across from his bed. The small dish in front of it was empty, as it had been since shortly after Isir’s death. Eshmunen had sacrificed to his father’s divine spirit only twice, out of obligation.
Four years ago, Eshmunen had commanded his slaves to cover the statue with a dark cloth so that his father couldn’t watch him while he slept, but these new slaves Qanmi had supplied must have removed the protective slip of fabric.
Firelight caught the curved, limestone edges of Isir’s curled black-stained beard, and the sharp lines of his tall, gold-banded crown. The votive didn’t look anything like Isir, except in the broadest of terms. Eshmunen’s father had been bearded, tall, and muscular just like the statue, but its gaping eyes and passive face didn’t suit him. The votive captured none of Isir’s ferocity.
But it was only the slave at his feet. She’d dropped the sodden, balled-up cloth onto the floor.
It was only the slave. Only a cloth.
Eshmunen’s chest tightened anyhow, his body hardening and shrinking, preparing for a blow that never came. His memory burst to life, his father’s fist meeting the wall, then slamming against a wooden table, his arm sweeping Eshmunen’s possessions onto the floor, scattering trinkets and shattering glass.
It’d been one of the usual rages. Eshmunen wasn’t anything like a king should be. He was soft and cowardly and stupid. He wasn’t a true child of Qemassen. He wasn’t a true son of Isir.
Isir was owed a true son.
Wood splintered against the wall and Eshmunen shuddered.
He could feel the corner he’d crouched against as a boy enclosing him. He’d locked his arms in front of his face, cowering, waiting for Isir to tire of breaking Eshmunen’s possessions and break Eshmunen instead.
His eyes had been shielded by his arms, but he’d felt Isir’s shadow tower over him, burning hot as Molot’s fire. In his imagination, Isir was the terrible statue of Shalem in the Eghri, vicious, with a skirt of bloodied female heads.
Eshmunen couldn’t remember the words Isir had screamed at him next—those had been a blur then, and they were a blur now—but the tone of Isir’s voice still rang in his ears: a deep, mounting bellow, a child’s tantrum blurted from the mouth of a man. He had known without a doubt that King Isir was going to kill him. He had been six years old.
When Eshmunen had opened his eyes, Samelqo had pinned Isir against the wall, crushing Isir’s windpipe with his forearm. For a moment, Samelqo’s eyes had glowed with a deep intensity. Eshmunen had been able to see the heave of his chest, the tightness in his jaw, and an expression that was half-surprise and half-fear on Isir’s face. Then a shadow passed over the pair of them. Shock overtook Samelqo, and he loosened the press of his arm.
Samelqo was shorter than the king, slender where Isir was muscular. Isir had easily reached around the young heq-Ashqen’s shoulder and grabbed Samelqo by his topknot. He’d tugged Samelqo’s head back, exposing his neck. Eshmunen had thought Isir meant to tear out his throat.
But the two had just stared into each other’s eyes, and gradually Isir had calmed and released Samelqo. Isir had stood with head hung and shoulders heaving. It’d looked like he was crying.
“I want a different one,” Isir had said.
Samelqo had ordered Eshmunen out of the room.
After that, Samelqo and Queen Eshant had conspired to keep Eshmunen and his sister Safeva from Isir’s presence. When Nila had been born a year later, she had been kept from Isir as well. It was the only issue about which Samelqo and Queen Eshant had never bickered. Enemies at court, they had made a truce when it came to protecting Eshant’s children.
Samelqo had spent hours teaching Eshmunen how to be anything but what he was. When Eshmunen ate too much, Samelqo was there to slap his wrists; when Eshmunen avoided his weapons training, Samelqo watched every trip and fall to make sure Eshmunen couldn’t run. When Eshmunen had told his mother who and what he was, she had told him sometimes she didn’t feel much like a woman herself. Tearfully, she had made him promise that he would never tell anyone ever again.
The slave at Eshmunen’s feet hummed and hummed. She rang out the cloth, then smoothed it over Eshmunen’s left foot. The black paint on the statue’s beard and hair gleamed.
Years had gone by, punctuated by a dozen bruises on his mother’s face. She’d disguised them as best she could, until one day they started to appear on Samelqo as well.
One by one, each of Eshmunen’s sisters had been sent away. He had always known, in the back of his mind, that it had been for their own safety. Safeva and Nila had been shipped to eq-Anout, while Meghigda had been brought to Indas to be bartered to a prince. Meg was the only one to have returned, and he’d always believed she only stayed because not long after, Isir had died. The danger had passed.
Isir couldn’t reach them anymore.
The seed of a story had been planted at court—that Isir had died of heartbreak following the death of Queen Eshant in childbirth, though Eshant had lived on for a time after Isir’s souls had departed. The truth didn’t matter, and the story was cultivated and flourished in the hearts of the people of Qemassen.
A warrior king, a beloved queen.
King Eshmunen was neither.
The statue’s bulging eyes gaped at him from across the room. He couldn’t stand it. He didn’t want to see it.
“Douse the fires,” Eshmunen ordered the slaves. He clenched his fists.
They crowded around him, their heads bobbing and blanched beneath the glow of the light in his bedchamber. They looked like full moons floating on the surface of the ocean. So many bland, milky faces—ever since he’d had the old slaves removed, the palace crawled with them. Too many moons couldn’t be a good sign. Wasn’t this Lilit a child of the moon? But the moon was also Tanata’s province, Samelqo’s symbol. An ambiguous omen.
“But Sese,” one of the moons asked him, “then you won’t be able to see.”
“I don’t want to see!” He hadn’t meant to shout.
The statue stared at him. His doom seemed to beat in its cold stone chest. He might be exactly like his father, the statue seemed to say. Certainly, the task he’d been set tonight was a fitting violence for a son of Isir.
All but the slave at Eshmunen’s feet scurried to the braziers and snuffed each of them, one-by-one, till a lone lantern remained. The room surrendered to the darkness, Isir’s statue obliterated in shadow. When a slave moved to extinguish the final lantern, Eshmunen called out.
“No—leave that one.” He paused. “Then leave me.”
The slave washing his feet stood up to follow her sister-slaves outside, but Eshmunen cupped her elbow, stopping her. “Not you.”
Her brown eyes stared steadily into Eshmunen’s own, unwavering. The yellow braided into her hair danced where the light touched it. For a moment, he swore her shoulders bristled with feathers, but it was only a trick of the shadows forming strange shapes from her hair.
The door closed behind the last of the women and the one washing his feet sat back down.
“Please, hum that melody again,” he told her. “You can sing if you like.”
The woman reached for a dry cloth and resumed her humming, but this time the sound was followed by Vetnu words. Long ago, Samelqo had ground the Vetnu language into Eshmunen’s thoughts, but only stray phrases remained. Still, he caught a few of the slave’s words: child, owl, moon.
Eshmunen drew his feet from the basin one by one so that she could dry them.
He could picture himself: rigid, timid, soft—all the qualities his father had loathed, and which had pushed Moniqa further away, the qualities that had led him to tonight’s evil duty.
Samelqo counselled that it wasn’t evil at all, and if it hadn’t been for Samelqo’s wisdom and protection, Eshmunen would never have survived his father.
Yet Eshmunen had once listened to Samelqo long ago, and his priest had proved a liar. There had never been any Lora ships sailing for Zimrida; there had been no letter of warning. Moniqa and Ashtara had died because of that lie. Could it be that all this time, Eshmunen had striven to do his best and all this time he had been mistaken?
He yearned for his sisters’ advice: Safeva’s steady mind and gentle touch; Meg’s awkward, honest wisdom; the way Nila’s mind so often turned to dark and gloomy thoughts as his did.
Child, owl, moon. The slave’s song wound around him, a melody he could smell and taste as well as hear. Lilac perfume tickled his nose.
Moniqa had always loved her lilacs. She appeared to him, a ghost in fine silks. Back then, she’d cursed him for his choices. She would curse him again, now. But oh, how Eshmunen had loved her, silly though it had been. She’d arrived a queen, dressed in fine robes, with the haughty airs of a princess of Indas, her marriage the cost of her brother’s throne.
A throne Eshmunen had failed to win him.
That had been the first of many failures.
The second had been letting Aurelius die―not her son Aurelius, no―the Lora ambassador. Eshmunen had sent him to meet some Anata traders, but all he’d found was a concealed blade, wielded by the skilled hand of a Qarnaaman and aimed at his heart.
There was no doubt in Eshmunen’s mind that Moniqa had given herself to Aurelius. Her mood had soured so after his death that Eshmunen had even regretted his murder. But then, if Eshmunen hadn’t financed the deed, another cuckold would have. Eshmunen had not been the only husband enraged by the Loran’s comings and goings, but he’d been the last.
It was a pity Eshmunen’s eldest son had lived up to his namesake. Aurelius’s infidelity had nearly ripped his family apart.
His eldest son. Little Aurel.
Aurelius had been an ugly baby, though none had admitted it. All Eshmunen and Moniqa’s worst features had combined in him so that his very existence mirrored the unsuitableness of the match. He’d ever been clever though, and curious, and bold like Eshmunen’s mother and father.
Bronze glimmered in the light, right beside him on the bed: the dagger Samelqo had given him to spill Aurelius’s blood. Deep shadows made monsters of the carved figures ringing its ivory handle.
Bold. Too bold.
Child, owl, moon.
The slave at Eshmunen’s feet pulled the soiled cloth away and stopped singing. He wanted to ask her to sing the song again but knew he couldn’t bear it. What monster listened to lullabies while plotting his son’s murder?
He cleared his throat, watching as the slave mopped spilled water from around the basin. She was very beautiful.
Yellow shone at her shoulder—something stuck to her skin. It must be a loose coil of ribbon. Eshmunen reached out and plucked it free. He turned it over in his hand.
A yellow petal.
“You’re not pale-skinned like the others,” Eshmunen said. He flicked the petal onto the floor.
The slave didn’t look up. “I’m from Qemassen,” she said. “The others are from Lorai colonies.”
War captives probably. Qanmi had paid for huge shiploads of them, fresh from the Feislanda border.
“But your song was Vetnu, wasn’t it?” He knew it was Vetnu, but for reasons unknown he felt compelled to be polite.
The woman froze, then slowly nodded. “My mother’s people. My father was an Erun.”
“What do they call you?” As he asked, he realized he knew none of his new slaves’ names. He wouldn’t ever need to learn them if the old slaves proved innocent. Certainly, something had to be done with them. Samelqo was already pestering to have his property returned to him. He’d ever been oddly close with them, but maybe that came of his background in the Qelebet.
The woman lifted her head and smiled. “Dannae et-Erinya.”
That name—Eshmunen was certain he’d heard it before. The wife of some Semassenqen, perhaps. Dannae and Erinya might have some popular, common meaning to the Vetnu people.
“Do you know any other songs, Dannae et-Erinya?”
Dannae lifted the basin and carried it to a table, along with the damp and dry cloths. “I know a story.”
Once she’d put everything away, she carried a cedar stool to Eshmunen’s bedside and set it down. She sat without Eshmunen’s prompting, confident for a slave, as though Eshmunen were a child to whom she planned to recite a bedtime story.
He hadn’t asked for a story. “Not a song?”
She smiled, her lips pressed tightly together. “No, but I think you’ll like this one.”
“What is it about?” Eshmunen asked. He felt himself relax again, and this time, Samelqo’s voice didn’t correct his posture.
Dannae threaded her fingers through her loose, dusky brown curls, toying with the yellow threads. “Two princes,” she said. “Cruel fathers. Vengeful mothers.”
Eshmunen tensed. He stood up, reaching for the dagger. He should leave. He didn’t want to hear whatever this story was, and he had his duty to attend to.
A hand tugged his robes. “Sit.”
He looked down at Dannae, sitting on the stool. Though the remaining lantern was on a table on the other side of the room, a circle of light surrounded her, as though she herself were the source of illumination.
Was she a goddess?
Eshmunen chortled. It seemed absurd that a goddess would appear before him. No, no, no. This was just a slave woman. As he thought it, her light dimmed.
His dark mood conjured illusions.
“Is it a sad story?” Eshmunen sat back down, if only to convince himself this was an ordinary woman, and to forget for a moment the dagger and the sacrifice.
Dannae smiled. “You can’t have the sweet and not the bitter too. There’s sadness, but there’s also joy.”
She’d mentioned cruelty and vengeance. Neither seemed likely to bring joy.
The dagger glowered next to him on the bed, its bronze a match for the gold bands that striped his robes, as though Eshmunen and blade were meant for one another, as though he were fated to wield it and draw blood.
It could wait a few moments to be sated.
“Tell your story, then,” Eshmunen commanded.
Dannae wriggled on her seat as though getting comfortable. The movement was so like a bird ruffling its feathers for cleaning.
As she began her tale, she didn’t smile at all, but stared at the space ahead of her, straight through the bed at something distant. “It came to pass in the great city of Qemassen, that there lived a man named Ashmodai, son of nobody, who sired two princes upon two women but raised neither as his own.”
Eshmunen frowned, trying to puzzle out her words, but decided to wait. He got so tired of talking. It felt good to listen.
“Each prince was blessed with a wise and gentle mother and cursed with a father who wished him dead, but while one son thrived in a house of ivory, the second withered in a house of horn. The father of the prince in the house of ivory could grow no child from his own seed, while the father of the prince in the house of horn saw no harm in trading his wife as one trades coin and thought to better himself by placing her in the bed of the ivory. And so, Ashmodai son of nobody came to have two sons, neither of whom bore his name, and only one of whom he protected.” As she recited the tale her tone dipped from sadness to anger to pity.
Eshmunen swallowed. He knew the story of Ashmodai the demon king, but this wasn’t the same tale.
“The child in the house of ivory was weak but powerful,” Dannae continued, “while the child in the house of horn was handsome but full of low cunning. It served him well, that cunning, for it didn’t take long for his father’s fists to find his mother. Night after night the child in the house of horn would fall asleep to the sound of her screams and be forced to rejoice that at least it was she and not he who would be beaten that night. The father in the house of ivory was no better, but the ivory child had Ashmodai to protect him, Ashmodai to shield his mother, Ashmodai to love them.”
Eshmunen didn’t like this story. He pushed himself to his feet, fumbling behind him for the knife. His hands closed around its cold hilt, and he quickly shoved past Dannae and her stool toward the door.
In the darkness, he couldn’t find it.
But he found Isir’s statue. The ashes in the brazier nearby glowed warm enough to light its terrible painted beard, its terrible eyes.
The stool screeched and wobbled behind him.
Eshmunen swerved. He could feel Dannae at his back. She was still reciting the story and it was all around him in the blackness of the room.
“One day,” Dannae said. “The father made of horn struck his wife so hard it cracked her open, and with her gone he found himself free to do what he liked to her poor, handsome, cunning child. He hit when he wanted—”
Eshmunen couldn’t find the door. He clamped his hands over his ears.
“—He fucked him when he wanted. He paraded him around the palace so the child made of horn had to watch, every day, as the boy in the palace of ivory was cradled by his mother and loved by Ashmodai and sheltered from the cruelty of his father.”
“Please. Stop.” Eshmunen fumbled for the door. His hands touched wood. He pushed. The door—if it was the door—wouldn’t open.
Long, thin fingers folded over Eshmunen’s shoulder. “And the boy in the house of horn grew up cruel and hard like his daddy. And when he had daughters of his own he beat them when he wanted and he fucked them when he wanted and he—”
Eshmunen turned and stabbed the darkness with the bronze blade.
“You’ve never been king,” Dannae whispered from behind him.
The room was filled with light. He was lying on his bed, the knife beside him. The slaves had all left, even Dannae, though when he sat up, his foot nudged the basin and water sloshed onto the floor. The votive carving of King Isir remained shrouded by its black cloth.
He drew his robe tightly around himself, squeezed his eyes closed, and grimaced.
That had been no dream.
Eshmunen bit his lip, forcing back tears. He rubbed his forehead. He was too old to cry at such things. He was the king of Qemassen. He had the strength of the gods behind him and what he did tonight would put a stop to the strange visions plaguing Ashtaroth and now, it seemed, himself.
He gripped the ceremonial dagger by its ivory hilt, and this time he didn’t falter. He walked with it to the door in a kind of haze, eyes bleary. He was partway down the corridor before he realized his feet were bare.
It didn’t matter.
As he neared Aurelius’s door, he felt like he was gliding. If he wasn’t meant to do this, why did the gods ask it of him? Gods could never be wrong.
He stopped in front of Aurelius’s door and stared at the natural patterns of the cedarwood grains. It was so quiet and still.
This could be any night, any beautiful, quiet night, but it was not. The dagger was proof of it. He squeezed his fingers tighter about the blade’s delicately carved handle. It was a lying thing, to decorate itself so, to disguise its cruel purpose with finery. Better the knife used to slaughter one’s son be crude and plain, dirty from ill-use and blunt from lack of care. Better it be hideous and deformed like its master’s soul.
King Isir’s son could be nothing else, had never been anything else. And he’d known that, hadn’t he, all along? Better to leave his children’s care to other men. When Eshmunen came for them, it meant death.
He sobbed into his free hand and leaned his forehead against the door. He wanted to crush himself against it and disappear.
He didn’t though, and when he didn’t he wiped his face clean on his robe and crept inside Aurelius’s sickroom. The sound of Aurelius’s labored breath cut through him like a knife.
The pain was the point, of course. It would have been easier for Eshmunen to agree to the act if another man wielded the blade. Samelqo would have shouldered this burden as he’d shouldered every burden Eshmunen had ever faced. It was clear now, what the gods expected of their kings.
Aurelius was asleep as Eshmunen approached his bed, dosed into oblivion with the aid of the sapenta Samelqo had promised to sedate him with. The room was empty, because Samelqo had recalled Aurelius’s guards.
Aurelius lay on his stomach, head tilted to toward the door, one arm hanging unnaturally over the edge of the bed. Eshmunen stroked his hand across Aurelius’s damp forehead. Even in disarray the prince was beautiful. Even sweaty and sickly he was a sight to behold.
Did Aurelius always sleep in such a way, or was it merely a combination of the sapenta and his injuries?
That Eshmunen didn’t know was troubling.
There was a time when every new thing Aurelius did had been miraculous. Eshmunen could remember carrying the ugly little boy in his arms, seeing Moniqa smile at them, watching Hima pout and demand that she, too, be carried.
If nothing else, Eshmunen had given Moniqa Aurelius. There was one thing, at least, that Moniqa must have loved him for.
And Eshmunen did love Aurelius. He loved him too much to bear looking him in his dark eyes—Moniqa’s eyes. It shouldn’t have been that way, but it was. Eshmunen should always have told Aurelius he loved him, should have held him the night his mother died, instead of letting that Erun take his place.
Eshmunen knelt beside Aurelius’s bed. A stabbing pain twisted in his gut, and sobs overtook him. He lifted his lips to kiss his son’s cheek, as though the man were yet a child who might allow his father some redemption and grant him forgiveness.
“I love you.” The words dribbled clumsily from his lips as he pressed the nasty little blade to Aurelius’s throat. “I have ever loved you.”
A drop of blood beaded at Aurelius’s neck.
Eshmunen closed his eyes.
He was a small boy, scrunched into a corner as his father shattered a wooden chair against the wall, hiding, listening to the crunch of glass underfoot; he was a young man, watching placidly as his mother sat on a bench, a rogue bruise forgotten, dried blood at the corner of her mouth as she forced a smile for the children gathered around her. He was a king who’d let an old man convince him to burn his son alive, and who’d watched as his wife begged on her knees for him to save her babies.
Eshmunen raised the knife. He stabbed blindly downwards.
For a moment, he felt nothing, then a pain that shot through his thigh as sharp and straight as an arrow. He fell backwards, raised the weapon a second time, slashed through his robes and across his knee, his left hand.
On the bed, Aurelius blinked drowsily.
He couldn’t be here when Aurelius awoke. That, out of everything, was too much.
He lumbered to his feet and tumbled, unkingly, from the room. But then, whether it had been a vision or a dream, Dannae had told him he had never been a king. Perhaps Ashtaroth shouldn’t be one either. Perhaps Aurelius and Hima were right. Perhaps it had always been Samelqo’s crown he bore atop his head.
His own blood covered his robes, his hands . . . . Eshmunen limped forward, away from the door and toward the opposite wall. He was shaking, the blade gripped in his hand juddering with every step.
He hurled it across the glistening marble floor, splattering red across the immaculate surface.
Eshmunen turned, alarmed by a familiar voice. It was the Erun, sword in hand, a terrible murder in his eyes as he stormed toward Eshmunen and swung his weapon in a savage arc.