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Chapter 14: Lovers
Aurelius – The Palace: Qemassen
A month had passed since Dashel’s death in the Eghri, but it felt longer.
Aurelius was no longer confined to his rooms, though he’d spent most of his time secluded anyway. He didn’t receive many visitors, but that didn’t reflect the number of requests to be received. His reply was always the same, that Ashtaroth would be king, and that they should visit Ashtaroth if they wanted someone to bribe so badly.
Aurelius had no taste for it. In fact, he had little taste for anything. Fish, or fruit, or fine wine—it was all gristle on his tongue.
Qirani claimed Aurelius should be healed and well from his injuries, but he didn’t feel well. A constant pressure clouded his mind, and his heart swam with dark thoughts he couldn’t banish. So many times, he stood up to sneak to Bree’s chambers, but when he remembered how narrowly she’d escaped punishment for their treachery, he’d sit himself back down again, a great and terrible silence overtaking him.
Silence shouldn’t make a sound, yet it roared like the ocean inside his skull.
And underneath it all, the ache of his own accusing barbs: Dashel had died for him and Aurelius had done nothing. Dashel had loved him, and Aurelius hadn’t given him an inch. Dashel had trusted him, and all Aurelius had ever done was ensnare him, play with him, destroy him.
Sitting on his bed, Aurelius balled his hands into fists. “I have no right to love.”
His own voice was that of a stranger breaking the dim quiet.
There was no time for sitting, not today, when he was due to make his first appearance at the war council.
Aurelius stood up and approached his bronze mirror, staring into it.
If his voice had been that of a stranger, then how much the more so the face that gazed back at him? His hair was unkempt, his beard unshaven, his robes dishevelled and stained. He hadn’t washed himself in a week, and it had been stuffy and hot in his room.
He’d dismissed all his slaves and servants, even freed some, just to piss off Hima. It would never be enough to make up for what she’d taken. She could have saved Dashel and had chosen not to. She’d weighed Dashel’s soul and found it wanting.
Hima had come to Aurelius the night after Dashel had died. She’d told him everything Dashel had said to her in his cell, every detail of Dashel’s plan to save Aurelius from Eshmunen’s blade, along with her reasons for abandoning him. Then had come her rant, her accusations. How many more people, Hima had asked, had to die for Aurelius eq-Eshmunen? He was leaving everything to her, shutting himself in his room, acting the coward. She needed him, she claimed, and he’d thrown her to the wolves.
He’d yelled back in denial, but she’d been right.
If Aurelius had died all those years ago, none of this would have happened. Dashel, Eshmunen—even Samelqo—would still be here.
All of them, Ashtara too, for this face.
“Perhaps the face should match the heart.” He smiled bitterly. The expression made his guts churn. “What are you so happy about?”
His smile widened to a grin, and he reached for a knife, overcome by the sudden desire to widen it permanently.
He pressed the dagger to his cheek. Blood welled where iron met flesh.
The door opened.
“What are you doing?!” Bree marched over and snatched the knife away. Her eyes were wide with shock.
“Shaving,” Aurelius offered with a smirk.
“Then have a slave do it.” She scowled, turning the blade over. “Your sister gave me special permission to visit you; she told me you were in a state. I thought she was exaggerating, but now I see it was the opposite.”
It was hard not to look at Bree, not to want to flirt with her and kiss her and lay her down on the bed and be what she wanted him to be, but he couldn’t.
“Hima sent you.” He laughed. “That must have taken a lot out of her.”
“Aurelius.” Bree laid a hand on his arm. She was shaking. She had tears in her eyes.
“Now I’ve made you cry. See how generous I am? How benevolent and kind?” He slipped his arm away, returning his attention to the face in the mirror.
“Don’t. I need you. Don’t leave me alone.”
Aurelius’s chest ached. “You sound like my sister. Did she ask you to say that? Did she think I’d believe you more than I did her? She needs me, she says, Qemassen needs me. I’m being selfish, apparently. Well, I agree. I’m a selfish man.”
He turned for the bed, but Bree pulled him against her.
Aurelius shoved her away, fighting past her glare. “You should go to my brother. Ashtaroth loves you. You’re to be his queen.”
Bree’s expression hardened, her glare vanishing to something much colder. “Well I don’t love Ashtaroth.”
Aurelius wanted nothing more than to ruin things for the man he’d thought he was. “You would if he looked like me, though, wouldn’t you? I’m just a very lucky bastard, that’s all. If you’re worried about your nuptials, I could teach him a few tricks for you, show him what you like.”
Bree slapped him and he stepped back. “You’re not that fucking good-looking, Aurelius, and I’m not that shallow.” She shifted, glancing away suddenly, stroking her arm. “I like you.”
“You like me?” Aurelius shook his head. “What an admission.”
“Don’t make me say it.”
“Why not?” He held her arms and rubbed his thumbs against her skin.
“Bad things happen to the people I―to the people I like. They go away, or . . . .” Bree trailed off, biting her lip.
She was always biting herself—biting, chewing, scratching, digging her nails in. Like she believed she’d done something terribly, horribly wrong and it was only a matter of time till her guilt caught up with her.
Bree had no reason to feel guilty.
“Whereas the people I like, only glory awaits them.” But he smiled at her, more softly this time. The need to comfort her pulled him like the tides tugging a boat.
They were very close to each other, bodies pressed tight for the first time since the night Djana had died. Aurelius leaned down and brushed his lips against her cheek. He kissed her, closing his eyes.
She smelled clean and good.
“Just promise me you won’t make me say it,” Bree whispered. “It won’t make it less true, but I’ll be less afraid.”
Aurelius wrapped his arms around her. He stroked his hand down her back. “And what do you have to be afraid of, Princess of the Feislands?”
Bree laughed a choked, stifled little trill. “War, and Lorar, and your sister.”
“My sister will love you now you’ve convinced me I need a bath.”
She dug her nails into his back. “I’m having your child, Aurelius.”
Aurelius let go of her. For a few seconds he couldn’t speak.
Doubt and terror and hope flickered across Bree’s face in equal parts.
“I’ve never had one of those before, which is something you’re unlikely to hear from a prince. Congratulations.” He was in too much shock to fully name the other emotions battling in his stomach.
Bree raised her eyebrows incredulously, only to furrow them in dislike. “Forget I was ever kind to you. You don’t deserve anyone’s pity. Be serious.”
“Then I’d be boring like everyone else,” Aurelius quipped.
“You’d be tolerable like everyone else.”
Bree drew close to him again. “You’re more alike than you think. I told you, you’re lovesick like him, and silly, and foolish.” She glanced up at him coyly from beneath her black lashes. “This is your fault and you’re going to fix it.”
Aurelius shrugged, a heaviness in his throat. “You’ll be married soon. He’ll think it’s his.”
Tell me you don’t want it to be. Tell me it’s mine again.
Aurelius couldn’t settle on exactly what the well of feeling in his chest was, but of anything, he knew he wanted her to deny Ashtaroth. He wanted her to name him.
Bree grew quiet again. When she spoke, her voice was hushed. “Come to me tonight.”
The lack of response to what Aurelius had said formed a tight, heavy ball in his throat, but he ignored it. This was Bree’s way, and he loved her for it. She wasn’t easy or obvious like most people. And she was, in a very real way, in danger, even if he tried to convince her otherwise to ease her worries.
“I thought you were afraid?” There was more bitterness in his voice than Aurelius had intended.
Bree recoiled, but then she clutched the sleeves of Aurelius’s dirty tunic. She leaned up and kissed him. “I’m always afraid.”
A knock at the door interrupted them. Even so, their hands lingered near each other’s skin, their lips remained just shy of touching.
A sharper knock forced Aurelius to answer.
“Who is it?” Aurelius called.
Bree slunk away from him, standing unnaturally to the side.
Silence, and then Shaqarbas’s deep voice answered. “Shaqarbas eq-Zotan, Sese.”
Shaqarbas had come himself this time, presumably so Aurelius couldn’t ignore him the way he’d been ignoring the Indan prince’s errand-boys.
Aurelius was poised to turn him away again, but Bree seemed to sense his intention and crossed her arms, glaring at him. The pose and the expression were too like Hima’s.
His sister’s words echoed between his ears: “This wallowing is only another form of pride, Aurel.”
Aurelius’s shoulders slumped in resignation, and maybe there was even some relief in it. “Come in.”
The door creaked slowly.
“You came to ask me something,” Aurelius said before Shaqarbas could get a word out.
“Yes, Sese.” Shaqarbas’s nose wrinkled as though from the smell of unwashed prince.
Aurelius hid his amusement as best he could. “So ask. My sister’s demanding my presence at council today. I’ve suddenly become very busy. Or don’t I look the part anymore? Unwashed, unshaven, found dealing in secret with my brother’s bride?”
Shaqarbas’s lips formed a tight line on his thick-bearded face. “A smelly king is better than a stupid king, and either is preferable to a mad one.”
Bree stepped a little closer to the pair of them. “What about a smelly, stupid, mad king?”
Shaqarbas beamed with good humour. He gave Bree’s shoulder a friendly slap that Aurelius could tell she was merely tolerating.
“You’ve made a cave for yourself.” Shaqarbas waved at the windows, which Aurelius had covered. “Has my prince turned into a bat?”
“More like a mollusk,” added Bree with another pointed look in Aurelius’s direction.
Aurelius folded his arms. “I’m glad you both find this so entertaining. Is there anything more I can do for you? Juggle, perhaps?”
Shaqarbas cast a furtive glance at Bree, as though he was nervous voicing his needs with her in the room. He’d all but crowned Aurelius the day of the whipping, but suddenly he was shy of one woman.
“You can speak candidly,” Aurelius reassured. “She’s trustworthy. What can I do for you?”
“Only one thing, Sese. I’d like you to become king.”
Bree tensed, clenching and unclenching her hands. It was obvious she’d rather not be present if treason was up for discussion.
“Barely anything then.” Aurelius smiled.
Shaqarbas’s face grew stern, his age settling on him. The lines on his cheeks, forehead, and at the corners of his eyes became trenches in his skin, ditches as deep as the famed canals of his motherland. “Ashtaroth is not fit to rule. Either his wits have withered or he’s the plaything of evil spirits. Whichever it is he’s unsuitable. He avoids his duties, abandons his council to their own devices. He has no stomach for war. He’s no great general.”
Aurelius snorted. “Nor am I.”
“The people don’t love him,” Shaqarbas continued. “They don’t know him, and he knows nothing of them.”
“It’s true,” Bree agreed hurriedly, as though caught up in Shaqarbas’s fantasies. “Men won’t follow Ashtaroth. I’m not even sure he wants to rule.”
How many times must he refuse? This wasn’t the destiny he’d been set. Aurelius was fated to live a wanderer’s life, travelling, laughing, making merry. Though he’d been born first it was just as well he was a second son. “I’ve let the desire die in me.”
Had he? Even he sensed the dishonesty in that.
Shaqarbas regarded him beneath a heavy brow. “But you felt it once. It could be revived.”
Bree inched closer. Her slender fingers grazed his arm. She couldn’t have touched him that way in front of someone else even two months ago. But then, Shaqarbas had always supported Aurelius, even after Zioban had revealed Bree’s infidelity.
“If you were king,” said Bree, matter-of-factly, “it would be you I married.” She held his gaze, trapping him with her sultry dark eyes. She didn’t mean to be, but she was glorious and terrifying.
He couldn’t dismiss her argument as easily as the others. They could have each other, truly have each other. Bree’s child would be his.
Shaqarbas nodded. “Himalit et-Moniqa came to me last week, raving that you’d made up those slaves you named in the Eghri.”
Aurelius pulled himself from Bree’s hold, heading toward the door. “What of it? I needed to convince my father to reject the slaves’ punishment. It was monstrous what Samelqo planned to do―to whip children for no fault of their own.”
Shaqarbas strolled away from the pair of them, his thumbs hooked in his belt, paunch a little wider than Aurelius had noticed before. Somehow Aurelius had kept the image his child-self had had of Shaqarbas locked in his mind: an exiled prince, strong and strapping and capable, with riches and women aplenty, with stories and wisdom, and the scent of his country thick about him.
And he was still that man, beneath everything.
Samelqo had called him a lion turned to a fatted calf, resigned to never seeing his home again. Clearly, to judge by Sharqarbas’s interest in Aurelius, he wasn’t so resigned as all that.
When Shaqarbas spoke, Aurelius heard the fire burning behind his words, the persistence of a need that had grown small and buried and thornier for both those facts. “Naming the slaves was a ploy like your sister said. You knew how it would make them love you; you knew they would chant your name.”
Was there any truth in that? Perhaps it was being faced with his own sneaking ambition that was making him so angry now.
“No one chanted my name. They stood in solidarity with my misfortune because they thought I was about to die.”
Shaqarbas marched up to Aurelius, face close. He laid his great strong hands on Aurelius’s shoulders. “In solidarity with their king’s misfortune. Your people crowned you that day, ahead of Ashtaroth, ahead even of your father. You showed them who you were, and they saw, plain as the sun above them.”
Was it that simple? His childhood fantasies of succeeding his father had taken on sudden and tangible life. Now that it lay before him, he felt unprepared, unworthy.
Aurelius slipped away quickly, afraid of what he might agree to if he didn’t. He’d ever been stubborn, but self-control and Aurelius were natural enemies. Removing the temptation was easier than saying no. “You underestimate my brother. He’s a scholar and a good man. He will learn what he has to, with our help.”
“He’s not the only scholar,” Shaqarbas argued softly, with a cock of his head at Aurelius’s scrolls, his inks, the treatises he’d poured over obsessively. “But out of the two of you, he is the only murderer.”
Dashel’s face came to him—not blood-spattered like Aurelius had found him after Eshmunen’s death, but kindly and smiling. The Dashel who’d protected him as a child. The Dashel who’d protected Aurelius until it had killed him.
“Not the only murderer.” Aurelius was growing weary of the debate. “Leave please, we must go to my sister.”
Shaqarbas bowed, but as he left there was a jaunty confidence in his stride, as though he’d already won what he’d been after.
Bree frowned at Aurelius. Her eyebrow twitched as though in frustration.
“I hadn’t thought you wanted to be queen,” Aurelius said dryly.
“I don’t, and I don’t care if you’re a king, either, but you’re foolish if you don’t see the opportunity here. I’ll be queen whomever they crown, but if I can, I’d at least like a husband I can stand. And your friend is right—Ashtaroth’s no general. I don’t want to see Qemassen fall. I don’t want to die.” She rubbed her arms. “And I’ll be even more annoyed if you die.”
It was a compliment, of a kind. He approached her slowly and tilted her chin up to kiss her.
He’d never loved someone so long or true as this, never been plagued by the same fears she provoked in him. “Hima won’t let the city fall.”
The words were intended to reassure Bree, not himself, but though he’d thought he meant them, his heart beat faster at the thought of the rest of what Hima had said to him—that Dashel had doubted Ashtaroth’s abilities, that Aurelius had been the king he’d chosen.
“No one lets a city fall, Aurelius. And you don’t want to be anywhere near Qemassen if it happens.”
When had Bree seen such a thing? She’d never spoken of it. Did she really believe Aurelius could prevent Qemassen’s conquest better than Ashtaroth? Was his brother mad? He certainly wasn’t cursed, no matter what others gossiped.
They parted ways, taking separate paths as Aurelius meandered to the council chamber. On his way, he caught sight of Ashtaroth ahead of him.
The crown prince was talking to himself and gesturing to the air.