(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 13: Captives
Dashel – A Cell: Qemassen
A ball of light brighter than the noonday sun bobbed in the corridor leading to Dashel’s cell.
He squinted to lessen the light’s sting, tears springing to his eyes, chains rattling when he instinctively tried to draw his hand to his face as a shield against the brightness.
The sphere elongated as it neared, bouncing off bronze or gold at the torchbearer’s wrist. Cheti eq-Horeb, the court scribe, had come to see him. It could mean only one thing.
A judgement had been made.
No one had harmed him. No torture, no brutal beating, no lash of the whip. He was damp, thirsty, chained by his wrists to a wall in a dark cell, but he was unhurt.
What eye had turned its gentle gaze on him, to spare him the injury another man would have suffered? They whipped princes nearly to the bone in Eshmunen’s city.
Dashel shuddered at the memory of Aurelius’s savaged back, a sob sputtering from dry lips. Aurelius was alive. He was alive, alive, alive and Dashel hadn’t been too late.
The crunch of Cheti’s feet stopped and was followed by the rattle of the keys to Dashel’s cell. Cheti stepped inside.
Harsh flame bathed the cramped little room with orange light, revealing dark stains on the floor, the shit-pail in the corner, Dashel’s bare legs bent beneath him. He was covered in dirt. He’d known he was covered in dirt because he could feel it caked to his skin and because that was what happened when you were thrown in a cell and forgotten, but he hadn’t expected there to be so much. So much blood. Eshmunen’s blood. It had soaked straight through Dashel’s clothes and when they’d stripped him, they hadn’t bothered to wash it off. That had been days ago, he thought, but days measured light, and where there was no light there were no days.
Cheti slotted his torch inside a metal sconce on the wall. Sparks spit from it as fire grazed the stone wall.
“What—” Dashel’s voice came out a croak. He wetted his lips with his tongue and tasted iron and piss. “What’s going to happen?”
“There is to be no trial,” Cheti announced. He held an unrolled scroll in his hands. He tilted his chin to read from it. “Your guilt has been ascertained by your own confession. You will be executed tomorrow, before the people of Qemassen, for the murder of King Eshmunen the Third and your involvement in the slave conspiracy against the Semassenqa.” Cheti furled his scroll, an exaggerated frown on his lined face. “I would pray to your Erun god if I were you; there will be no pain spared you upon the morrow.”
From the darkness behind Cheti, a second set of feet shuffled.
Hima, arms folded across her chest, stepped inside the ring of light. A beautiful ghost. “That’s enough, Cheti. Leave us.”
The scribe bowed, turning to go. “As you wish, Sese.”
Dashel relaxed against the wall, his breaths coming more easily. He closed his eyes and flicked his tongue over his lips again. Hima had come to visit him, but to berate him or to praise him?
Her footsteps scraped against the floor as she neared him.
Water sloshed, then dripped. The cold metal rim of a cup brushed Dashel’s lower lip and clinked against his teeth.
“Dashel. Drink.” Hima tipped the cup slowly and Dashel opened his eyes, sipping at first, then gulping. They’d brought him water, but it had been what felt like a long time ago now.
Hima had crouched in front of him, her honey eyes—the same as Eshmunen’s eyes before Dashel had chopped his head off—staring directly into Dashel’s. She’d never been beautiful, but against the backdrop of this dank little hole she was a heavenly body.
She drew the cup back, then tossed it into a bucket beside her. “Have they hurt you?” Her tone was softer than Dashel had expected.
He did his best to grin through the pain and gave her what passed for a shrug. “No. Not really.” He swallowed. “Was that your doing?”
Hima reached again for the cup and brought it to his lips a second time. He drank.
“Yes.” She paused, drew the cup back, then let out an audible breath. “Whatever you’ve done, I knew I wouldn’t need torture to get the truth from you.” Hope pulsed in her words.
They sat in silence, watching each other. Dashel could sense a question lingering on her lips, the same way his own question hung on his.
They spoke at the same time: “Why did you kill my father?” “Are you Zioban?”
Hima recoiled as though struck. She blinked at him. “No. You’re Zioban, aren’t you?” But there was hesitation in her voice, the suggestion she hadn’t believed Dashel’s lie.
“No.” He rolled his shoulders and his chains scraped against each other. If Hima wasn’t Zioban, that didn’t mean Aurelius wasn’t. He still had to be careful. “I thought you were.”
Hima glared. “You thought I would harm my own children? That I killed Djana? You’re a fucking bastard, Dashel. I should have you beaten for that.”
Dashel rattled his chains bitterly. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Hima turned away, brow wrinkled, lip twisted like she was biting it. When she looked at him again she’d regained some of her composure. “Why did you kill my father? What does being Zioban have anything to do with him or me?”
He’d promised Uta he wouldn’t say a thing. But here Hima was, listening to him, being patient despite what must be going through her head, trusting him. How could Dashel not say anything? As long as he was careful, as long as he left Aurelius and Uta out of it—
“There was a plot.” Dashel righted himself against the wall as much as he could. Pain lanced down his spine. He winced. “I overheard Samelqo and your father planning to kill Aurelius. Samelqo thought the sacrifice had failed, that they should have burned Aurelius and not Ashtara.” He faltered. His fingers trembled like he was still standing in the hallway outside Aurelius’s chamber, watching a blood-drenched Eshmunen stumble from his room. “I went to Aurelius’s room ready to stop the king, only I thought I’d come too late, because he was covered in blood. I thought he’d killed Aurelius, and I just . . . I couldn’t help it. I wanted to destroy him. I wanted to see him in pieces on the floor.”
Hima stared at the dark floor beneath her. She sucked her teeth. “Aurel was fine. Why would my father have blood on him?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter though, does it? I killed him. He’s dead, and Aurelius is safe.”
She looked up. “And Samelqo?”
How could Dashel explain that? When the palace guards had thrown him down here, one of them had asked him what he’d done with Samelqo’s body. If there was no body, Dashel could say what he wanted. He had to trust that whatever he told Hima, the reality of what Uta had done wouldn’t contradict his explanation.
“I―I killed him. I thought they’d taken Aurelius to the heq-Ashqen’s tower.” He bit the inside of his cheek, hoping that in the darkness Hima wouldn’t be able to detect his lie. He’d never been a good liar. “I threw his body in the sea.”
She sat in thought for a moment, rolling the empty cup between her hands. “You’re an idiot. You and my brother both. I can’t help you; you know that, right?”
Help him. Dashel knew better than that, and more importantly, if help had been offered, he couldn’t ever have accepted it. If he did, the Semassenqa would whisper that it was Aurelius who’d let him go.
Dashel smiled weakly. “Of course not. I don’t expect any help. Aurelius is all right, and that’s all that matters.”
“Fuck.” Hima held her head in her palm for a long time. Her shoulders started to shake.
She was crying.
When was the last time Dashel had seen Himalit et-Moniqa cry? Not since she’d been a girl. Back then, he’d have hugged her close, but now he couldn’t even touch her. What good was all his strength if he couldn’t hold her?
She looked up at him, cheeks damp. “This isn’t one of your games, Dashel! They’re going to pull you apart before the entire city. Do you know what that means? They’re going to make us kill you, and I can’t do anything, absolutely nothing, to stop it. You and Aurel, you don’t understand. You play your tricks and you run around behaving like you can do whatever you want, but you can’t. You’re killing the people who love you, don’t you see?”
Dashel would have sunk into the wall if he could. “I had to.” His throat felt thick as honey. “Aurelius would have died.”
“And don’t you think he’ll die a hundred times in his heart after what you’ve done?” Love and hate had ravaged Hima’s face. Her lip quivered.
Tears welled in Dashel’s eyes, till one of them slid free. “He can’t know. Don’t tell him.”
“Why not?” She stood up and kicked the water-filled bucket. “Is it better he should think you killed our father for nothing? He won’t believe it. He’s an idiot, but he’s not stupid.”
She was right, but he still couldn’t let her do it. “Please, for me.”
Hima dropped the cup and turned on him. “Why should I do anything for you, Dashel? You murdered my father, and now I feel I should be glad for it.” She shook her head as though to shake off her pain. “I couldn’t care for him the way I should, not after what he did, but he was still my father. He was what little held this city together.”
That, at least, Dashel had an answer for. “Aurelius will hold the city together.”
Hima scowled. She wiped her cheek clean on her arm. “He can barely hold himself together right now. He’s not out of danger yet. Besides, what is he going to do? Fuck the Lora into submission?”
Dashel snickered and despite her mood, Hima smiled past her tears.
“It’s not such a bad idea.” Dashel paused. He’d watched Hima grow from a child into the woman she was, and though he himself had been only a few years older, he’d always been her protector. “And he has you. You’re brave, and strong, and you’ll do what you have to, to save the city.”
“Like kill you?” She grit her teeth, the light from the sconce flickering in her damp eyes. “I will do it, because you’ve made me, and I will hate you for it forever.”
Dashel cleared his throat. “Good.”
“Qemassen needs you to die.”
“Your city needs you.”
Dashel’s composure failed him. His city. Qemassen. His city.
“I love you, Dashel, and Aurelius loves you, and Qwella, and Ashtaroth. My mother loved you.” Hima leaned forward. She stroked Dashel’s cheek. Her hands were worn from labour, yet soft as Dashel remembered them. “You’re my brother. A true child of Qemassen.”
In his heart, Dashel reached for her. He slid imaginary fingers through hers and squeezed as tight and as long as he could. He held onto Moniqa’s daughter forever, like he’d promised her mother he would do for each of her children.
He wouldn’t be there for them any longer. Some friend. Some protector.
Hima stood up.
Dashel would have done anything to make her stay, anything but cause her more pain by asking her to.
“I love you too,” he said, blinking back tears, trying to be strong.
She wiped her eyes with her fist. “I’ve arranged for Qanmi to give you something before the execution. It should help.” She stopped speaking, choked. “There won’t be pain.”
Hima turned and left, quick as a flash of lightning in the sky: there and suddenly gone.
Tomorrow. It seemed like forever and yet no time at all. A night to torment himself over who Zioban was, over what he’d done, over whether Moniqa’s children would be safe without him.
And yes, to wonder what his punishment would feel like and if he would be able to stand it. Hima had said there would be no pain.
It didn’t matter if Dashel could stand it. It would happen regardless. At least it would be quick. After what he’d done, Dashel probably didn’t deserve quick. He certainly didn’t deserve Hima and Qanmi’s mercy.
When Dashel fell into fevered sleep he continued to wonder, his dream-self drifting from visions of Aurelius screaming for him as the palace guards dragged Dashel away to images of masked faces filling the streets and cutting the throats of the Semassenqa. And Qanmi—or was it Hesh?—holding out a vial of sapenta to him. The merchant’s face became a skull dripping maggots and worms, and the sapenta turned to poison that frothed on his palm.
In Dashel’s dream the Semassenqa paraded past a funeral pyre. Instead of Ashtaroth at the head of the march, Aurelius was led by a veiled woman. Dashel strained to see past the thin fabric that disguised her face, but all he could make out was long dark hair, bound loosely so that it hung down her back. Bree. She drew a lotus blossom to her lips, as did those about her: Ashtaroth, Hima, Qanmi, and all the others. Even Djana was there, weeping.
Dashel woke with the taste of lotus tea in his mouth and the smell of smoke from his funeral pyre in his nose. He smacked his lips, trying to suck liquid from his mouth and failing. The smoke from the torch had turned the air ashy. With his hands chained, he couldn’t reach the pail with its soothing water.
He thunked his head back against the wall, desperate to slip back inside the dream where Djana was waiting for him. Maybe this time he’d find Thanos in the crowd. He’d pull Thanos close and kiss him. He’d tell him he was sorry. He’d tell both of them he loved them.
Maybe Dashel would see them both again. He would like to meet Djana’s god of happiness. Adonis had been little use to him.
Was Dashel asleep again? He opened his eyes.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal stood in the doorway of Dashel’s cell. His hair was different, his braids bound around his ears, handsome and regal. His smile was gold-flecked as always, and his amber eyes danced with familiar light. He knelt before Dashel as Hima had done and reached inside his robes. Without the grin ever fading from his mouth he held the sapenta out to Dashel, only this time his face didn’t transform into a skull, and there were no grave worms wriggling in the empty sockets.
Dashel opened his mouth, vision drawn toward the sapenta. “Hima sent you.”
“She told you then.”
Dashel was so tired, and sleep had never left him rested. Only one thing had ever been able to do that. “How long?”
“Not very.” Qanmi popped the lid on the vial. He drew the sapenta to Dashel’s mouth. He tipped it and Dashel parted his lips to accept the gift. “It’s the strongest I have. You won’t even be conscious.”
Calm and ease. Calm and lethargy. Calm and love.
His last and oldest friend had come to visit him.
Dashel closed his eyes briefly. “Won’t the people notice?” It was strong stuff, stronger than Dashel had ever partaken of. It was meant to grant an eternal sleep, not a temporary one.
“Doubtful,” said Qanmi. Dashel had already forgotten his question. “They’ll assume you were tortured, unable to walk.”
Dashel stared at the vial as Qanmi drew it back inside the hidden pockets of his robes. When he looked up, the world was already blurring and indistinct. The beautiful colours of Qanmi’s clothes melted into their surroundings, turning his cell into a festive rainbow.
“It is strong,” Dashel slurred.
“Good.” Qanmi stood. One, two, three of him, like when he’d come to Dashel the first time and told him it was a good time to visit Aurelius. He was so kind, Qanmi.
The Qanmis stood still, their many eyes fixed on him like the eyes of a spider.
“No, a bird. You’re a bird. You’re a hawk.”
Qanmi smiled. “There’s something else, something I would like you to know, Dashel eq-Yeremi, before we all bid you farewell. I would like you to appreciate my gift for what it is, that it is as much from me as from the princess.”
Dashel couldn’t even see three Qanmis anymore, just a smear where the merchant stood. “From you?”
“Yes, from me. A thank you, for I have much to thank you for Dashel, more than you could possibly realize with that muddled little mind of yours.”
“Mind.” Dashel grinned stupidly. He knew he was being stupid, that Qanmi was telling him something important, that he should focus on what the words meant and not just how they sounded. There was an echoing thud and more smears appeared across his vision, unlocking the doors, heavy keys in their hands. They’d come to collect him.
“You’ve given me more than I could possibly need.”
Qanmi leaned down, and Dashel flinched away, thinking the merchant meant to give him a kiss.
He didn’t though. He whispered something very softly, almost sweetly in Dashel’s ears. “We are many, and we are one.”