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Chapter 12: Freemen
Dashel – The Palace: Qemassen
Dashel had lost count of how many times he’d polished his sword, just as he’d lost count of how many times he’d sharpened it. The weapon sat in his lap, a king’s death waiting hungrily for its king.
The sword had been a gift from Aurelius. It seemed fitting Dashel use it in the prince’s defence.
A peacock mewed distantly as the sunset cast its colours past Dashel’s makeshift curtains. He looked up, a dying brilliance stabbing his eyes, leaving blood-red streaks of light to scratch at the furniture and floor.
It was almost dark, almost time to go.
Dashel had been waiting anxiously for hours, yet now that the moment sped closer and faster, he wished he could linger in the red darkness for a little longer. If he were a priest or magician, maybe he could have stopped time altogether, but Dashel had never had any skill for study.
He stopped his compulsive polishing and laid his sword aside, then walked to the table where a scattering of his personal belongings lay in a messy heap. His elephant mask peered out at him, the one he’d worn at the Feast of Ashtet. He plucked it from the pile, turning it over.
When they arrested him, they’d expect an answer as to why he’d poked a sword through Eshmunen’s guts. He could tell them Aurelius had been in danger, but how would he have known? Uta had helped him, and he wasn’t going to give her up.
Aurelius was Zioban. Aurelius and Hima.
He tossed the elephant mask back onto the pile. If he wanted to protect Aurelius beyond the dangers of tonight, there was one explanation he could give the Yirada interrogators. He couldn’t pretend he’d been the one to kill Djana, no, but if Uta was right and there was more than one Zioban, Dashel could certainly be the second.
The sun had disappeared, and with it a day spent worrying and saying his farewells. He’d dared a visit to Sarah and her family this morning. He’d spun Mal in circles the way she liked, listening to her squeal in delight. Then he’d gone to his father and helped feed and groom the animals. None of his family had begrudged him the comfort of their presence. It was obvious they pitied him for Thanos’s death and Aurelius’s injury.
Then it’d been a brief hello to Ashtaroth and Hima. He hadn’t been able to see Qwella. It ate at him.
He frowned. What would his two very different families think of him after this? Would they forgive him?
Qanmi’s sapenta called to him from a shelf, but he’d stayed sober all day. It was no good giving in now. He needed a clear mind, in case Eshmunen brought helpers. Dashel was a good swordsman, but not good enough to take on ten men single-handed.
This morning, Uta had told Dashel everything she knew about Samelqo’s scheme, including when, where, and how it was to happen. Details might change, but the hour at least seemed certain, for it was only briefly the prince would not be accompanied by his nurses or physician. Eshmunen was supposed to be alone, but there were usually guards either inside or outside the prince’s room.
That would be better, in fact. The more who saw Dashel, the more who could vouch he’d done the deed without Aurelius’s help. He’d confess to being Zioban, and then they’d kill him, and he wouldn’t have to be tortured, and there would be no risk of admitting the truth under duress.
He’d only lived in the palace a short time, yet Aurelius’s offer that Dashel take up rooms among the Semassenqa felt as though it had happened to someone else or in a distant past. The dark curtains Dashel had fashioned to save his wine-weak eyes, the heap of Dashel’s things—it was all so temporary.
“Time to go,” he said to the room, as though it had a spirit and could hear him.
He’d never truly belonged here, not even with his prince’s blessing, but he’d never belonged with his own people, either.
Dashel reached for his sword. Its bronze hilt was warm and tender against his skin, like the embrace of a loved one long-thought lost. It was where it was supposed to be, grasped by the hand that was meant to wield it.
This last act was his home and purpose. What better gift than to die in Aurelius’s service and be saved from a life under the thumb of men like Hesh?
He left his door unlocked, and then stalked purposefully down the hall. He wasn’t far from Aurelius, but he hadn’t been allowed a room immediately next to those of the royal family. He would probably be too early, all the same. Well, if the guards were there to see him, at least it wasn’t unusual for Dashel to be found outside the prince’s sickroom.
Then he heard it, a great and powerful scream, strangled and ululating. Dashel’s pace quickened to a jog and then a sprint.
Doors blurred as Dashel passed them. Suddenly, Aurelius didn’t feel close at all. He was far, far away, and Dashel was too late.
Eshmunen emerged from Aurelius’s room, hands covered in blood, face ghostly. The king dropped his dagger after only a few steps, limping with his red hands held out before him as though unable to comprehend the evil he’d done.
Dashel couldn’t comprehend the evil that he had done.
“No.” He raised his weapon in a brutish, clumsy swipe. With fury in his heart, he swung the sword his prince had given him, lobbing it straight into Eshmunen’s neck.
The body tottered a moment before slumping to the ground. The king’s head rolled across the marble floor.
Blood painted the wall behind Eshmunen’s corpse, still pumping and spraying from the king’s neck. When Dashel held his hands up, they were coated in it, so thick it dripped like rain onto the floor at his feet.
Was some of it his prince’s?
From behind him, the familiar pound of the guards’ footsteps echoed as they made for Aurelius’s room.
How did they know Dashel was here?
The scream—Eshmunen’s scream.
Dashel wiped his bloody hands off on his tunic.
The door to the sickroom opened outward. Aurelius, unharmed, stumbled out, slipping in his father’s blood.