(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 13: I: Ashtaroth
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
Eshmunen’s death itched but didn’t ache. Ashtaroth’s stomach tightened to a stone-hard knot at the guilt of such filial negligence. He hadn’t known his father, not really, and now he never would.
The Massenqa court was a beehive, and Dashel had kicked it. The Semassenqa buzzed to and fro, openly ignoring their proscribed places at the far end of the throne room, openly gossiping about Eshmunen’s murder and the heq-Ashqen’s disappearance as though Ashtaroth weren’t sitting before them with ears to hear.
He shrunk back as far in his chair as he possibly could, sick in his stomach, and his feet, and his heart. He hadn’t even drunk any wine today. He’d been careful. He should have learned by now that disease didn’t respect fairness.
All across the white walls, barely visible lines wormed in Ashtaroth’s vision. They seemed to zigzag across the painted plaster, in the direction of the windows behind the Semassenqa. They looked like tiny geometric serpents.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was grief that worsened his illness, only grief. He wasn’t hallucinating.
His father was dead. Eshmunen was dead. The king was dead. And exactly when Ashtaroth had need of him, Samelqo had vanished.
In Samelqo and Eshmunen’s absence, the rest of the Semassenqa had grown bold. Perhaps it was the sight of Qanmi, one of their own, sitting tall in King Eshmunen’s seat with Ashtaroth and Hima to either side of him. In accordance with tradition, Qanmi acted the regent until Ashtaroth’s formal coronation.
Ashtaroth’s, or Aurelius’s.
The echoing throne room walls refracted the court’s cynical whispers. A mere week after Eshmunen’s death, Semassenqa gossiped that Samelqo, Ashtaroth, or Hima must have been co-conspirators in his murder. Others spoke of curses beneath their breath, that the gods voiced their displeasure with Qemassen the same as they had twenty years ago when Samelqo had burned Ashtara.
There were signs that couldn’t be ignored: reports of earthquakes in the villages along the coast, tales of dead fish washing ashore, and stories claiming the very waters bubbled in primordial anger. There was Lilit. There was Lorar’s recent campaign into Feislanda territory—not an encroachment any longer, so much as a concerted attack. The Lora weren’t on the defensive any longer. It suggested, as even Ashtaroth was able to see, the start of a real war between Qemassen and Lorar.
Ashtaroth clenched his fingers around the hard stone arm of his throne and stole a glance at Hima. He was lucky she stood with him. On his own, Ashtaroth would’ve been adrift. He’d never fought a war. Not even his father had fought a real war.
Qanmi nodded his head discreetly at the head scribe, Cheti eq-Horeb, and Cheti nipped forward from where he’d been loitering beside Hima’s throne.
“Silence! Silence in the hall of kings!” Cheti bellowed. The rumble of chatter faded quickly.
There were no kings here, so how could it be a hall of kings?
Qanmi sat straight and authoritative in Eshmunen’s chair. His braids were looped in elaborate rodetes that covered his ears, fastened with gold pins and threaded with jewelled ribbon. His dangling gold earrings hung over his collarbone, framed by a linen stole. He looked more the king than Ashtaroth’s father ever had. Perhaps Ashtaroth should abdicate in his favour. It would put to rest the question of whether Ashtaroth or Aurelius would wear Abaal’s crown.
Bree and Eaflied stood off to the side of the Semassenqa, half-hidden by the shadows of the mezzanine. Eaflied leaned in and whispered in her daughter’s ear. Since the Djana’s death in the Eghri, Bree had grown withdrawn. Maybe it was shame at her revealed infidelity that created the creeping cold that wafted from her. Bree and her mother must be frightened.
Aurelius, of course, was still too unwell to attend court, especially after the shock he’d suffered upon discovering their father’s body.
Hima had taken Dashel’s family into the palace, first for questioning and then for safekeeping. When a king’s life was taken, the people grew angry. Already some Eru houses had been vandalized and since yesterday the Eru quarter bled men and women. Dashel’s people fled, anticipating violence and choosing the uncertain fortunes of eq-Anout or their island homeland over the possibility of retribution against their people.
Ashtaroth still couldn’t believe Dashel was responsible. Dashel, his friend since childhood, guilty not only of killing Ashtaroth’s father, but of rousing Qemassen’s slaves to rebellion. He’d given no sign at all that his heart had been poisoned against the gods who granted the Semassenqa their power. And to have looked on while Djana plummeted to her death? Dashel couldn’t have been responsible for that, or else he was a far better actor than Ashtaroth ever would have guessed.
Ashtaroth distracted himself by watching the musicians standing still as stone between the shadowed pillars. Their instruments remained silent and lifeless in their hands. Had Qanmi asked them not to play?
As if it were possible, Qanmi sat straighter in his seat, neck held high and voice commanding as he addressed the Semassenqa. “The reign of King Eshmunen the Third has been ended. A true child of Qemassen has found his way to Tanata’s bosom to ride at the head of her barge as equal beside the gods.” Qanmi’s voice echoed like a drum throughout the room. His voice never faltered; he didn’t cough or clear his throat, and no ear strained to make out his words. “We live in the time between the years, until year one of Ashtaroth the Second formally begins. While the heq-Ashqen is missing, I shall act as humble regent. Should he not be found, or should he be proved dead, a suitable replacement will be chosen from amongst the Ashenqa.”
Samelqo, vanished. Ashtaroth dug his too-sharp nails into his armrests. His stomach whined, betraying a hunger so constant that at this point Ashtaroth didn’t notice it.
The lines forming the imaginary serpents on the walls thickened till they looked hard and black.
Ashtaroth’s heart fluttered at the sight. Were they real?
“What will happen to the traitor?” called Shaqarbas.
Dashel, the traitor. Ashtaroth tilted his head and the room blurred with the haze of his sickness.
Qanmi inclined his head toward Hima rather than answer the question. Perhaps he feared the bait behind it—Shaqarbas had been no great lover of Eshmunen, but both he and Dashel cared greatly for Aurelius.
Hima sat quieter than usual, looking as dazed and lost as Ashtaroth felt.
Their father was dead, and a man they both loved was responsible. Hima had certainly loved Dashel more than Eshmunen.
Hima hesitated for an instant only, and then her voice hardened. “Dashel eq-Yeremi will die a traitor’s death as soon as we’ve finished our investigation.” Her knuckles tensed around the arms of her throne.
“A public death,” Qanmi added, “as the punishment for regicide demands.”
Ashtaroth’s heartbeat quickened. Gossip drifted around the room, buoyed on a sea of whispers: Moniqa’s old favourite, dishonoured in such a way. A final insult. Would it bring more disaster? Aurelius would stop it—and what of Aurelius’s involvement? The elephants, his own father their keeper—A just decision, a good choice. There was no choice, the law was clear. And what of the heq-Ashqen? Rumours of a curse. This would only make things worse. A gory show for the people—
Dashel, tied between four elephants and ripped apart, his qet and ban destroyed before the entire city.
Ashtaroth ripped his hands from his throne and hugged his arms to stop himself shuddering. To judge by the concerned tilt of Hima’s brow, he’d only made himself look afraid. Sick and small and afraid, without Samelqo to stand behind him and only Hima on his side. No father, no support. Rebels threatened to rip the city from him, and a demon tormented him. How could the Semassenqa fail to see it written in his body, when Qanmi sat beside him as the very picture of strength?
Finally, one voice broke through the rest as a Semassenqat stepped from the crowd. “An Erun servant can’t have planned this himself. He was Aurelius eq-Eshmunen’s pet. Is the prince’s involvement being considered?”
That, at least, seemed to disturb Qanmi’s calm. He leaned back in his kingly seat, earrings tinkling. “Considered and rejected. None of the royal family were involved, only slaves, whom Dashel controlled through the identity of Zioban. We have detained some of those responsible.”
Lies. They had only Dashel, and he’d named no names.
Would Ashtaroth have thought to lie so skillfully, to protect his family’s reputation and soothe the Semassenqa? Managing the court was such delicate business, it turned out, requiring artfully applied deception and clever redirection. All these years, Ashtaroth had never seen Eshmunen employ it, and had thought such methods the province of lesser men. He’d been wrong. A king had his ministers, it was true, and Samelqo had done Eshmunen’s dirty work when necessary, but how much neater and cleaner it was for the king to act decisively on his own. Eshmunen’s lack of guile was only another sign he’d been a feeble king.
Weak, he’d been weak. Ashtaroth would have to learn, or he would be weak too.
Shaqarbas joined the woman at the head of the crowd. His anger at not being chosen regent over Qanmi seemed to have faded, at least. He’d been unsuitable, with his undisguised hatred for Ashtaroth and his love for Aurelius.
Ashtaroth frowned, wondering who Qanmi supported. He’d declared Ashtaroth the next king, but it benefitted him to do so. Maybe he thought if he stood behind Ashtaroth, he’d be gifted Hima as a bride in place of Qwella.
“We need a king now,” said Shaqarbas, “whether it’s that murderer sitting next to you, or Aurelius in his bed. Lorar wages war on the Feislands, and decisions must be made.”
Murderer. Ashtaroth let the word wash over him. It wasn’t his fault, what had happened to Shaqarbas’s wife. That had all been Lilit.
If he kept telling himself that, he could one day believe it, and if he kept quiet now, maybe the Semassenqa would read it as confidence instead of fear.
Qanmi inclined his head politely, face impassive. “Decisions for another hour and a private room. A war council will be assembled to address Lora aggressions.”
“And will the Feislandata be participating in this council?” asked someone pointedly. “It’s one thing to have the former heq-Damirat for counsel, but foreign women?”
Hima bristled. “The Feislanda are sending a male representative to Qemassen. There was one aboard the queen’s ship, but he was taken ill like the rest.”
Ashtaroth hadn’t been told. He discreetly eyed the spot where Bree and Eaflied stood shrouded in shadow, but he couldn’t make out their expressions. Bree looked awfully stiff.
“What about Ajwata and eq-Anout?” asked Shaqarbas.
Qanmi answered this time. “Since Djana’s death we’ve heard nothing from our southeastern friends. Another ambassador is unlikely. The Ajwata seem loath to antagonize Lorar.”
Ashtaroth’s cheeks drained of blood and the haze from earlier nibbled at his vision. Surely the other southern nations would come to their aid? What else could they do but band together during such times?
He cleared his throat. Everyone was staring at him. Qanmi and Hima kept trading turns as answerer—Ashtaroth ought to speak, even if it were only to ask a question himself. “What about the Anata? Where is the Anan ambassador?”
The Semassenqa shuffled as someone pushed through, and gradually the people at the front parted. Fadil eq-Hitankhy, a diminutive man with a large grey beard, and a bush of curly grey hair to match, stood before the thrones. Black stitching decorated his white robes with stylized flowers, dotted circles, and harsh, diagonal lines.
The Anata ambassador smiled, then bowed ridiculously low, as was customary amongst his people, his sharp nose nearly touching the ground. “The Anata are with Qemassen, as we have been since your grandfather took Eshant et-Nila in marriage. Our empires are sisters, are they not?”
Of course eq-Anout was with them. Ashtaroth’s relief was so strong it felt like a physical thing. Qemassen could rely on their northeastern neighbours and their sizable forces.
“I thank you, Fadil, from the bottom of my heart, and Qemassen thanks you also.” Ashtaroth’s voice didn’t shake so much this time, but he was glad when attention turned from him back to Qanmi and Hima.
It wasn’t just Bree who was on edge, but the whole room. The court had turned frigid and unkind. It might be fear, or maybe it was the absence of Aurelius and Dashel to make fools of themselves. Perhaps even Eshmunen was missed. Just like Ashtaroth, everyone in the room was lost, seeking guidance.
At least the matter of Zioban had been resolved, to hear Qanmi say it. It seemed unlikely the slaves would continue to hound their masters after their leader’s capture.
If he focused on the certainties of his situation and not the questions that remained, he could embody the calm his people needed.
For the rest of the meeting, Ashtaroth stared at the floor rather than meet the terrified eyes of his subjects. It didn’t seem possible he would be king soon, or that he would be married. The wedding had been postponed after Bree’s infidelity, but they couldn’t wait much longer. Qemassen needed to see that order still reigned in the palace, that there was still a figurehead to rally them.
After Qanmi called an end to the session, Qanmi and Hima led Shaqarbas, Fadil, and Qorban toward the private council room. Ashtaroth hung back behind the others, listening, but not yet recovered enough to take the lead. His bladder ached, and his skin seemed to crawl as though invisible maggots wriggled across him.
“—be quick about a replacement for heq-Ashqen,” Hima was saying.
Qanmi inclined his head. “What about your sister?”
“The heq-Ashqat must first serve as high priestess of her own order, is that not so?” asked Fadil.
Qanmi waved his hand, dismissing the concern. “The heq-Ashqat of Qalita recently died and no replacement has yet been chosen,” replied Qanmi. “There is a simple solution: Qwella et-Moniqa will serve her posts simultaneously.”
Qanmi, defending Qwella’s right to ascend as heq-Ashqat. It was a good thing she wasn’t here to listen to him. Was the position even one she wanted? It would be good to see her again, to have her close, but the desire felt selfish when she’d so readily seized the chance to escape the palace.
“Ah!” cried Fadil, with enough enthusiasm that he was either genuinely astounded, or that he must be a very good actor. “Then it must be fated by the gods!”
“She told me she wasn’t there for Daana et-Lohit’s death,” Hima countered. “They have that silly tradition, don’t they? About witnessing the spirit leave the body?”
Qanmi laughed. “I’m sure we can find someone willing to attest that Daana’s spirit left her body before Qwella left the room. You must think more creatively, Sese.”
Ashtaroth recoiled. “But if she didn’t witness Daana’s death, she’s not suitable. She wasn’t chosen.” Samelqo never would have interpreted the gods’ wills so pliably.
Qanmi glanced over his shoulder at Ashtaroth, smiling. “Think of it this way, Sese. If she is chosen and the gods do not will it, they would surely make their opinions known. Therefore, we can assume they’ve used this council as an instrument to ensure your sister’s succession.”
It was a circular, twisty sort of reasoning, but there was a little logic in it at least. Still, Ashtaroth didn’t much like the idea of testing the gods pleasure by forcing Qwella to take a post that could result in divine punishment.
The chatter continued without him though, and Ashtaroth lingered behind, alone with his dissatisfaction and a growing ache in his lower abdomen.
Let them discuss the future amongst themselves; they had a better grasp of it than Ashtaroth. In fact, they barely seemed to notice his absence. They drifted further off so that he could no longer listen in, and he turned away, focusing on how good it would be to have Qwella back at the palace with them. He needed her now, someone to fill the gaps left by Dashel and Aurelius.
And Father. He mustn’t forget their father.
Ashtaroth turned a corner.
He’d hit someone. He jumped back, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Titrit was bent over in front of him, struggling to keep a trio of vials clutched to her breast so that they didn’t shatter at her feet. A few small pouches of what looked like herbs had already fallen.
Ashtaroth knelt to collect her things for her. “Titrit. I’m sorry. Let me help.”
Titrit darted down quicker, snatching the pouches and then stuffing them inside a bag at her shoulder. It was already very full. “It’s fine. Nothing was broken.”
Her voice was croaky as though she might be sick, and she wore a scarf about her head as though from modesty. She’d never looked so grim.
Ashtaroth straightened, trying and failing not to frown. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. Are you well?”
Titrit didn’t meet his eyes, her thin face drawn and melancholic. “Are any of us? I heard about Dashel.”
Ashtaroth nodded. “I don’t know if I believe it, but I suppose it must be true.”
Titrit shook her head suddenly. This time she looked at him directly. “Forgive me, your father―I should have remembered. You must be torn apart.”
He should be, but if this was grief it wasn’t an easy grief. It hurt more to think of Samelqo gone, but the possibility of what his disappearance meant ached too much to dwell on. Ashtaroth would rather keep it shelved high up on a wall like a fragile ornament. “I wish it was as simple as that. I know I should be. I don’t know what I’m feeling. It doesn’t feel real.”
“It was so unexpected.”
Ashtaroth peered at the medicines that she clutched to her breasts. Something was written on the vials, and a word caught his attention.
Titrit pointed with a finger to her neck. “Qirani eq-Maleq prescribed it, for my throat.”
Ashtaroth nodded with a smile, trying as best he could to disguise his pity. Silphium was more commonly taken as an abortifacient, or to prevent pregnancy. It explained, at least, why she’d failed to provide an heir for her husband. Did Qorban know? It wasn’t unheard of for a woman to fear childbirth. Perhaps her late mother had died during labour; Ashtaroth couldn’t remember how it had happened. Loriqa et-Nanet had been her name—a beautiful name eclipsed by that of Qanmi eq-Sabaal. No one ever called Titrit by her matronymic; she’d always just been “Qanmi’s daughter”.
“Your father seems comfortable on the throne,” Ashtaroth offered, perhaps a little too casually.
Titrit started at that, as rigid as Bree. He’d insulted her, and she was still mourning her best friend.
Soon, Ashtaroth would know that pain. Dashel was as close a friend as Ashtaroth had left, besides Titrit and his family.
“I’m sure all he wants is to serve Qemassen well.” She cast a furtive glance behind Ashtaroth’s back as though in a hurry.
He had offended her, or else the tragedies of recent months had spoiled something between them.
“What happened to us?” he asked. “Our circle of friends isn’t much of a circle anymore.”
Titrit smirked. The expression had a fatalistic swell to it. “Aurelius happened. Love happened.”
What was that supposed to mean? “It wasn’t all his fault.” Ashtaroth paused, the admission like a heavy stone lifted from his chest. If he were being honest, then no, what had happened with Bree couldn’t all be laid at Aurelius’s feet. “I’d like to see you sometime, and Qorban. Would you join me for a meal?”
Titrit smiled obligingly. It was the smile of so many courtiers—shallow and bright as a painted face. “Of course, if you can make the time. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you couldn’t. We are at war after all, and so much has happened. There will be a coronation soon, I expect, and the traitor’s execution.”
The traitor. Dashel.
“And my father’s funeral.”
Titrit nodded, then slipped past him suddenly. She stole a parting glance in his direction. “I must be off, Sese. I apologize.”
Someone laughed in front of him, a bestial sound that startled Ashtaroth, drawing his attention. Where Titrit had been, a dwarf stood scratching his chin. It was Lilit’s companion. He was shirtless, with pock-marked skin and a grim expression. His nails were so long they could be claws. They were claws.
Ashtaroth’s robes whirled around him as he turned, searching for Lilit.
“She’s not here.” The dwarf nodded in the direction Titrit had run off. “That one’s mine, of a kind.”
Ashtaroth wrinkled his brow. What did it say about his state of mind that he wasn’t surprised anymore by the comings and goings of spirits? “Who? Titrit? Can she see you?”
“Only you can see me at the moment.” He grinned, his teeth like knives. “Does that frighten you?”
With his wide smile and stubby, clawed fingers, the creature would frighten anyone. “What was your name again? Ashmodai?”
“Abraxas. Ashmodai is the pretty one,” Abraxas sneered. “Lilit’s favourite. Her prince. You can be sure she doesn’t take me to her bed, the bitch. That’s a place for you, and men like you.”
The maggots were back again, crawling across Ashtaroth’s flesh. “It’s not a place I want. I wish she’d leave me alone.”
“Do you now? And what would you do if she left you to yourself? Become king? Marry your princess? Enjoy the love and respect of your people? You weren’t made for this any more than Lilit remade me to lay in the beds of queens.”
Remade? The comment puzzled Ashtaroth, but he had a feeling any answers he got to his questions wouldn’t be satisfactory.
“Shaqarbas thinks I’m mad, and he’s not the only one. They think I’m seeing things. Only Samelqo believed me, and he’s gone.” The truth of it cut Ashtaroth to the core.
The serpents that had streamed across the throne room walls peeled from the intricate designs painted along the hallway. Now in the hundreds, they squirmed down the walls and onto the floor, their hard lines turning soft and slithering. Though flat as paintings, they looked real.
Ashtaroth pressed himself flush against the wall, but the snakes still swam beneath his feet and continued their pilgrimage down the hallway, filling the floor side to side.
Abraxas didn’t react to the snakes. “I spend too much time feeling sorry for myself to feel sorry for you. Stop moping and forget this place. You’ve already left it and you haven’t even realized yet. You’re barely visible to them anymore.”
Ashtaroth certainly felt invisible, but he always had. He grasped for the talisman Samelqo had given him, but his fingers closed around empty air. He’d lost the talisman during the Feast of Ashtet. “No. I have to become king, to save my people. Samelqo was the heq-Ashqen; he wasn’t wrong. This is all a test, because I’m the chosen one.”
The demon snorted. “The only person who’s chosen you is Lilit. You’re hers now, see?” He wriggled his claws. “I’d do what she asks if I were you. Become her little dream for a while, then let her forget about you.”
The serpents on the floor—thousands of them—streamed down the hallway, all in the direction of the harbour.
Ashtaroth pried himself from the wall and forced himself to watch them more closely. “What do the snakes mean?” he asked.
Their backs were decorated with outstretched wings. He’d never seen patterns like those on the scales of real serpents. They had a ritual quality to them.
Abraxas’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “Snakes?”
The demon couldn’t see them. Ashtaroth blinked in surprise, then straightened. If Lilit were here, would she be able to see them? He’d never thought to test Lilit’s magic before now, but if she and her demons had limitations, it meant he might be able to fight her advances.
Not wanting to be found out, Ashtaroth met Abraxas’s eyes. “Symbolically,” he said.
The demon’s lips twisted into a snarl. “You tell me, prince. It’s you who worships them.”
Ashtaroth bit his lip and glanced again at the snakes. They did look a lot like images you’d find on altars to Leven and Pepet. The twin serpents—symbols of fertility, of time, of death and rebirth.
He looked up again to answer Abraxas and ask another question, but when he did, the demon had vanished and the serpents with him. Only the creature’s laughter remained, drifting on the air.