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Chapter 13: Captives
Vivaen – The Eghri eq-Shalem: Qemassen
Vivaen would never have set foot inside the Eghri eq-Shalem again if it had been left up to her.
The stage the Semassenqa sat upon was the same one from which she’d watched Aurelius crumple to the ground, his back a bloody sheet. The ground below, empty of slaves and ringed with platforms upon which the public bickered over the best view, was the same ground. The elephants were different, of course—four of them, each with a long metal chain that draped like a second tail from its back onto the sand. They called to each other, trumpets playful, which was at odds both with their hulking appearance and the duty that awaited them. Would they realize, when Dashel was brought out, that it was the death of one they knew for which they’d been carted downhill?
Vivaen partitioned off her dark thoughts, as though by thinking—well, not thinking—about Aurelius’s injuries or Dashel’s sentence, she would become as cold inside as she looked on the outside. But the partition was thin, and terror lapped, always, like the tide against a hull.
Eaflied shifted beside Vivaen as though her arse had fallen asleep. Her mass of wild blond hair was bound atop her head in a Massenqa fashion that didn’t suit her, but at least she’d dressed accordingly.
As soon as Vivaen had been able to she’d shed the stifling trappings of her culture. Her skin had finally begun to tan, her robes and dresses layers of sheer colour.
Her clothes were particularly fine today. It was most important that one be dressed appropriately to watch a man torn to pieces by animals.
If she could forget that she’d liked Dashel, forget what he meant to Aurelius, then she could keep command of her emotions and not risk revealing herself to the Semassenqa.
To Himalit, bitch-queen of Qemassen.
The former heq-Damirat was behind Vivaen on a higher rise, face painted to match Aurelius’s skin tone, hair disguised. It must appear to the rabble below that Aurelius was here. The prince must be seen to condemn his father’s murderer.
What Dashel had or hadn’t done was largely beyond Vivaen. He wasn’t a hard man to read. If he was the rebel king, he certainly hadn’t worn it on his face. Yet he had confessed, and that confession weighed heavy on her. How much could he have been responsible for?
At night, Vivaen still returned to the wall in Molot’s garden, where Zioban had held her captive and murdered Djana and Thanos. She dreamed of sounds mostly: the crack of Aurelius’s bones beneath Zioban’s weight; the screech of Zioban’s sword against the stone as he’d dragged it slowly behind the captives; that garbled, scratchy voice as Zioban had laid Vivaen’s sins bare for the city; and most of all, Djana and Thanos’s screams.
So much for partitioning her dark thoughts.
Whatever bargain Dashel had made with the woman—yes, the woman—who’d stood on that wall with the captives the night of the feast, it had gone drastically wrong. Dashel’s love for Aurelius was as plain as his face was honest. Might he have acted out of jealousy? It didn’t seem possible. Maybe his confession had been won of torture.
She could believe Dashel rash enough to kill Eshmunen in order to win Aurelius a throne. Had he thought murdering Eshmunen would endear him to the prince? What a fool, running in, reckless and suicidal.
Vivaen tried to keep that at the head of her thoughts as the fanciful pretense of civility continued: Cheti trotted out to declare Dashel’s crimes, instruments played as though to deafen the audience first.
Aurelius didn’t condemn Dashel. Vivaen knew that without having to speak to him.
Eaflied reached for Bree’s hand, and Vivaen the urchin moved it out of the way. She would not make a scene this time. She wouldn’t reach for Aurelius’s tiger, still tucked inside the folds of her gown. She could feel Hima’s eyes on her, burning a hole through Bree’s elaborate finery to Vivaen’s secrets beneath.
Vivaen raised her hand to her belly but resisted at the last moment. She laid her palm flat and leisurely upon the arm of her gilded seat. Gold on her chair, gold lining Cheti’s robe and glinting on the backs of the elephants’ unmanned saddles.
Executions were expensive in the South. King Ossa would have slit the man’s throat and dumped him in a bog.
Vivaen sneaked a look behind her as Cheti droned on.
Ashtaroth was plucking nervously at the loose threads of his sleeve. He must have been close with Dashel too. Only Himalit was impassive, as though Dashel’s death, and her father’s untimely end, meant nothing to her at all.
Vivaen must be like her—still as stone, biting like ice, sharp as a sword-tip. She had no allies here. Unless—
Aurelius and Ashtaroth’s other sister sobbed openly into her brown acolyte’s robe like a child. It was the first time Vivaen had seen her. She looked very little like the other siblings, her Inda mother clearer in her features, colouring, and hair. Where Hima was rigid as a branch, Qwella was round and pretty, the kind of woman men in Atlin considered good for whelping. Vivaen was probably staring at her too hard, but she couldn’t help but hunt for some trace of Qwella’s siblings in the woman’s face and baring. Supposedly Qwella looked like Aurelius, but apart from their complexions, Vivaen couldn’t see it. Their features were entirely different, their bodies like night and day.
Below, the elephant trainers led their beasts closer to the centre of the Eghri.
“You don’t have to watch,” cautioned Eaflied in a whisper. “No one will notice if you don’t.”
“Would a real princess watch?” Vivaen turned to her mother.
Eaflied hesitated. “Not my daughter. And be quiet; you are a real princess. Your father was a digan.”
“I’m a dockside slut, as you once loved to remind me. As soon as Ossa’s men arrive to help with the war effort it’ll be me the Massenqa are killing for a traitor.”
Panic buzzed in her chest all over again. King Ossa had sent a man to supplant Eaflied. A man. If he was from Ossa’s court—and he would be—he’d know immediately that Vivaen was no Bree.
“I told you not to worry about that. My husband’s men are my men, and it’s in everyone’s interests that you remain my daughter.”
Vivaen wasn’t convinced. The men in Atlin had respected Eaflied’s real daughter, inasmuch as a woman was respected at all. Vivaen had been a curiosity, suspected of dabbling in all sorts of witchery and unsavoury conduct. True, some of them had enjoyed being unsavoury along with her, but certainly none of them would have made her their queen, or even wife. Vivaen had not been good for whelping.
And it had been better that way, hadn’t it? Just look what happened when she was displayed out in the open, a bride for men to squabble over. She couldn’t deny that some of what Himalit had said had been true, but none of it was her fault. The brothers tore at each other’s throats. Aurelius had nearly died.
It didn’t mean Vivaen deserved Hima’s threats, or that she herself was a threat.
Ashtaroth didn’t really love her anyhow. He was only a boy in the body of a man. He believed he was in love and that was enough for him, because Vivaen was the first woman he’d ever wanted, and she’d stupidly been kind to him.
She should have fully thrown her lot in with Aurelius, or else ignored him completely. Walking the middle road had done her no good.
She crossed her legs, as though doing so now would make up for the stupidity of uncrossing them for Aurelius the first time.
And all subsequent times.
Irritated with herself, she folded her arms over her chest. She probably looked bored and haughty, which was just as well—she’d fit in with everyone else.
At least there was a breeze today, blowing in from the sea. The salty smell of the ocean was thick in the air.
Against her will, Vivaen’s attention was drawn again to the sand the slaves had carted in and spread across the tiles. Was it to soak up the blood? Perhaps it was only to ease the elephants’ feet.
No matter how hard she tried, her thoughts turned always toward worry, and now here was a horror she couldn’t avoid. Here was a fate Vivaen the urchin might one day face, should either her deception or her pregnancy be revealed.
Two guards led a bound Dashel between them. His head lolled forward, floppy. The guards looked as though they were lifting him by his shoulders. He could be dead already. Dead or unconscious.
Vivaen swallowed the thick lump that formed in her throat and shivered despite the heat.
Dashel must have been tortured, as she’d thought. Was that the fate that awaited her in the months to come? And her child, Aurelius’s child; it would die inside her, never having lived, or breathed, or opened its eyes.
If this was what Aurelius did to the ones who loved him, what chance did Vivaen have? Perhaps she wasn’t the only one who brought ill luck down on those close to her.
Someone’s fingers tightened about hers, and for a silly moment she thought it was her sister, a comforting ghost. When she looked though, it was Eaflied. This time, Vivaen allowed their fingers to remain together.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal’s voice rang out from behind her, and Vivaen flinched. He was so loud, so close. She struggled to remain calm, not to have one of her breathing fits. His voice only reminded her how he’d screamed in Molot’s gardens when Djana had been killed.
“I speak with regret,” he called out, “for were it not for this cheap and feeble murderer, our king would stand before you and not I. Alas, he has departed Qemassen’s shores for brighter horizons, to sail the seas of midnight and dream amongst Tanata’s stars. The evils of Dashel eq-Yeremi are manifold. As you have heard, he has confessed also to the murders of Samelqo eq-Milqar, whose body he has defiled and thrown to the beasts of the sea, and to inflaming the slaves to rebellion under the alias Zioban.”
A cry went up amongst the Massenqa gathered in the Eghri. They began to chant, but the collective thunder of their voices rendered the words inaudible to Vivaen.
Startled by the noise, the elephants kicked up sand, or perhaps it was the tug of the chains as their trainers fastened between them—a shackle for each arm, each leg, his neck.
Vivaen grew tight all over. She could feel the roughness of the metal against her own joints, the burn of gold that had been laying in the sun for hours.
“A viler traitor has rarely been known to our people; a crueller hand never expected or witnessed. Yet we grant him, in our magnanimity, the ease and comfort of death, the solace of an empty mind, clear of consciousness or the possibility of betrayal. No afterlife will his souls know; no pillow but oblivion will his cheeks rest upon. We will give him no funeral, nor grave, but in our clemency he will have peaceful nothingness. Let nothingness be his lover, his mother, his father. Let nothingness be his home, his shelter, his comfort. We return you to nothing, Dashel eq-Yeremi, where you shall have no name, no people, no past. I call you Nothing, for you are no one in our eyes and in the eyes of Abaal and Adonen whom you loved. You are nothing in the eyes of Qemassen.”
“That’s enough, Qanmi. Sit down now.” Hima’s voice was quiet but hard.
Vivaen turned. Hima had tugged on Qanmi’s sleeve to draw his attention. Qwella clutched Himalit’s shoulder, whispering something inaudible into her ear.
Eaflied squeezed Vivaen’s hand. “Let them grieve in peace, daughter.”
If it was so hard for them, why let it happen? Instead of voicing the complaint, she hunched deeper into her chair.
A cluster of musicians had started to drum a steady, reverberating beat. Soon, soon, they seemed to say. It will be soon.
Vivaen straightened. Why could she not get comfortable? Why could she not sit still?
She must watch, for Aurelius. He would want to know what had happened, even if it pained him. He would want someone who cared for Dashel to see.
Vivaen pursed her lips as the men below finished chaining Dashel to the elephants. A mahout was led onto the square. He carried a small horn in one hand.
She had to watch, but gods it was hard, so much harder than she had thought it would be, though she hardly knew Dashel, though he might have been involved in Zioban’s crimes. She dug her nails into Eaflied’s hand, finally sliding her other one inside her robes and squeezing the wooden tiger.
Dashel’s limp body grew tight between the chains.
The mahout raised his weapon to his lips and blew a piercing sound that seemed to split the downy white clouds overhead. For an instant it was agonizing, but the instant fled, a tiny, insignificant moment out of the many in Dashel eq-Yeremi’s life, and then he was returned to nothing, as Qanmi had said, and the gathered crowds exploded into shouts of righteous vengeance, and somewhere, deep inside her, Vivaen wondered after all whether Aurelius had been right, that perhaps there were no gods. Perhaps there was only man in his infinite hatred.