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Chapter 14: Lovers
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
Morning and night she came to him: Lilit, demon or goddess, mortal woman turned ghost or something still more vile. Some nights she would appear to Ashtaroth in a blood-stained dress with yellow hyacinths in her hair just like the corpse he’d seen in the Eghri, and on others she was naked and whole, crawling into his bed with the steady creep of a serpent.
Without Samelqo’s amulet to protect him, Ashtaroth had taken to pretending she wasn’t there, but there was only so much you could shut out, and the deep hollows that had always haunted his eyes grew deeper with every chitting whisper at his ear, every night’s sleep broken by the pawing of her hungry hands at his throat.
Every morning, Ashtaroth’s body slave, Danel, would brighten Ashtaroth’s complexion with the best facepaint a man could afford, but when Ashtaroth had assessed his own reflection this morning he’d still looked sallow as a dead man.
Unless his appearance, too, was his imagination. If he could pretend Lilit wasn’t trailing beside him on his way to today’s council meeting, he could pretend he wasn’t sick and sleepless.
Lilit’s foot dragged across the floor as she followed him—the scrape and creak of her broken ankle like a nail hammered inside Ashtaroth’s brain. He didn’t have to look at her to see her—the sound alone was enough. Broken face from where she’d been struck or fallen, broken ankle, bent at an impossible angle yet walked on as though nothing were amiss. A click and a scrape, and blood soaking through her robes, the same as he’d seen her when the horse had chased him down during his vision.
Dannae: a murdered wife, a murdered priestess of Ashtet. So why did she torment Ashtaroth? If Sabaal eq-Sabaal had killed her as Samelqo had thought, why did she blame it on him?
A week ago, he’d commanded his slaves to anoint the perimeter of his room with fish oil like in the story of Ashmodai, but it had done nothing. Lilit couldn’t be deterred.
Ashtaroth clenched his fists, willing the sound of her broken footsteps away.
The corridor was empty but for Ashtaroth. The corridor was empty.
“You belong to me, don’t you understand?” Lilit’s lips brushed his ear as she whispered, and she looped her arm in his so that they walked abreast. The sound of her limp disappeared as she made herself whole. “I want you so much more than they do. I lie awake at night dreaming of your scent, your taste, your touch. You’re meant for great things and they don’t see it. They’ll never see it.”
Defying her never achieved anything, only made her hold him tighter, leer longer. She clung to him like a child, giggling and chattering, pressing her body against his. If he ignored her instead, he could perform his duties.
Lilit flicked his ear with her thumb and forefinger.
“Ow.” He drew his hand to his face instinctively.
“Say something,” Lilith pestered. “Or I’ll make you piss yourself.”
Could she do that? A shiver coursed through him—could Lilit be responsible for his physical illness?
She laughed. “No, but the source is the same.”
“The source?” Ashtaroth asked quietly. He scowled at his own question. She was baiting him. “I can’t stop myself hearing you, but I don’t have to listen. Demons have only the power we grant them.” It sounded like something true. In saying it, perhaps he’d make it so.
Lilit pouted. “Why do you hurl that word at me? Your heq-Ashqen thinks I’m a goddess.”
“Thought you were a goddess. Samelqo’s dead.”
Lilit squeezed his arm. “You make it sound like the two are connected.” She shrugged, turning at the sound of approaching footsteps behind them. “Anyway, he’s not dead.”
Aurelius was walking down the hallway toward them.
Ashtaroth stopped and pulled his arm away. “Where is he? Dashel said he killed him.”
Lilit stroked her hand down Ashtaroth’s cheek, and he swatted her away.
“Don’t touch me,” he warned. “I am a prince of Qemassen. You have no power over me.”
In an instant, Lilit’s aspect changed. Her eye sockets widened till her eyes were nothing more than tiny black seeds dead in her face. Her skin—pockmarked with small holes—hugged her bones like a corpse.
Ashtaroth gasped and recoiled.
Where the holes puckered her flesh, the skin began to press outward, as though something were trying to spear through.
And then Aurelius stepped through her as if she were air, and her body fragmented like sand scattered on the wind.
Ashtaroth stared down the hall, expecting to see Lilit, but he was alone with his brother.
Ashtaroth could have hugged him. Instead, he smiled, breath coming hard and fast. “Aurel . . . .”
Ashtaroth had smothered his pride and visited Aurelius not too long ago.
Aurelius had cast a pathetic figure, nothing like the handsome, clever prince Ashtaroth was used to. It didn’t look like he’d gone to any effort to clean himself up for the council’s benefit today either.
“Are you all right?” Aurelius asked. His concern was plain on his face, but there was a hesitancy in his words, like Ashtaroth would snap at him for asking.
Ashtaroth nodded weakly, averting his gaze. “I’m fine. Winded. You frightened me.” He looked up at his brother. “You left your room.”
“I’ve been compelled to attend by forces greater than myself.” Aurelius’s customary smile graced his face. It warmed Ashtaroth for once.
“Who else? Certainly no one could doubt her tenacity. She’s a cruel mistress.”
Ashtaroth had met crueler. “Apparently there’s been important news; it’s good that you came.”
Aurelius raised an eyebrow. “So I can offset the gloom with my usual good humour? I’m no admiral, no general, no king. I’m a drifter with an overblown title and a sister too stuck on pretence to let me go.”
Ashtaroth shied away at the promise of Aurelius’s words—he was no king. “Maybe we need pretence right now. The people are growing afraid.”
Ashtaroth had grown afraid, and not just of the war.
Aurelius threw up his arms. “I’m here, aren’t I? Behaving for once? Come, they’ll be growing impatient.” He gestured for Ashtaroth to walk beside him and Ashtaroth fell into step.
Aurelius had chased Lilit away. Ashtaroth’s big brother had made her disappear like she was nothing. He hung as close to Aurelius as he could get away with without comment. If he could have looped his arm with Aurelius’s like Lilit had his own, he would have. Ashtaroth needed Aurelius to be here; he could hardly find the strength these days to concentrate on the comings and goings of this or that ambassador, this or that army. If Aurelius had set aside his desire for kingship, Ashtaroth could make peace with him. He had someone besides Hima and Samelqo to turn to.
Together, they would make Lilit vanish to the winds. Then, maybe Ashtaroth would be well and shake his sickness from him like leaves falling from a tree.
As Aurelius and Ashtaroth entered the cramped little council room, the gathered councillors looked up. Hima, Fadil, Qorban, Qanmi, Cheti, and Shaqarbas, each one assessing Ashtaroth as he chose an empty seat next to his sister. Across the table, a pale-skinned stranger sat beside Shaqarbas, his straw-yellow hair plaited down the front, his beard forked and similarly braided. His eyes were such a pale blue they looked almost white.
Where were Eaflied and Bree?
Qanmi wrinkled his nose at Aurelius, as though he’d caught a whiff of the unwashed prince.
Aurelius seemed to take it in stride, sitting between Hima and Fadil eq-Hitankhy with exaggerated amusement. “I’ve been informed by my sister that bathing is less important than attending war councils. I’ll leave you to judge the truth of that for yourselves. Apologies, of course.”
“Thank you, Sese.” Qanmi cleared his throat. He was looking at the pale stranger. “May I present Fritha eq-Ifarsson, your honoured servant from the Feislands, the new ambassador.”
Fritha bowed his head to Ashtaroth, looking genuinely humbled. He was a burly man for his meagre height, with droopy eyes and heavy jowls. His bushy beard was the only wild thing about him. In his loose, rich purple tunic he looked more at home than Aurelius.
“Fritha eq-Ifar is enough, otherwise I would be Fritha, son of Ifar’s son, and as uncivilized as us northerners are, I’d be a different sort of deplorable to have fathered myself.”
Shaqarbas and Aurelius laughed.
Qanmi tilted his chin downwards in a way that seemed to bathe his face in shadow, but soon any obvious displeasure was replaced by practiced poise. His tight smile seemed unnoticed by anyone but Ashtaroth—or at least, Aurelius didn’t make a jab at Qanmi’s expense like Ashtaroth would have expected.
He wouldn’t be regent for long, and he must be feeling the ache of losing that power. Surely, today, the question of the succession would be put to rest. Qanmi would step down once Aurelius announced he had no intention of taking Ashtaroth’s place.
Hima snapped her fingers and Cheti slid a scroll across the table toward her. “We have pressing news to discuss.” Hima unrolled the scroll, flat on the table in front of her, beside several others. “According to our great northern enemy, Indas is prepared to march on Qemassen. Lorar has issued us an ultimatum, that should we defend either ourselves or the Feislands, they will be forced to declare war on our country, to burn our city and towns to the ground and obliterate our people. Women and children will not be spared, and their chief senator, one Tarqis Murinus, promises he will rape me himself in the temple of our foremost god.”
Aurelius grunted. “A charming fellow.”
Hima waved a hand in dismissal of the rest of it, and Ashtaroth leaned forward, reading as much of it as he could. “He keeps mentioning Thanos. But that wasn’t our fault. Dashel—I mean, Zioban—killed Thanos.”
“It’s an excuse,” Qorban pointed out. He was usually so quiet in these meetings, nervous of Hima, it seemed to Ashtaroth.
“Qorban’s right,” the former heq-Damirat agreed. “War was inevitable, but they want to be able to pretend to their soldiers they did everything possible to avoid it. That’s the trouble with systems like theirs.”
“If they care so for their soldiers,” said Aurelius, “perhaps they shouldn’t start wars.”
Ashtaroth frowned, pointing at the scrawl of text. “It says you ate his tongue with your . . . .” The blood rushed to his face.
Hima snapped the scroll shut and Ashtaroth drew his hand away, rubbing his thumb where the rod of the scroll had thwacked it.
“So, what does Qemassen propose to do?” asked Fadil, shifting his attention between Hima and Qanmi, ignoring Ashtaroth altogether. “Restraint in the Feislands may be accepted as a show of good faith. They may spare us if we act now and do as they say.”
Fritha was red in the face before Fadil had even finished. “With respect, Fadil, Qemassen and the Feislands have been allies since the birth of Qemassen’s crown prince.” He shoved his hand in Ashtaroth’s direction with such force that Ashtaroth jumped back in his chair. “King Ossa promised his own daughter to seal the pact between our peoples.”
Hima straightened. “Calm yourself, Fritha. Qemassen has no intention of ending its support. Of course we can’t agree to Lorar’s demands and they know that. They don’t want us to surrender—they want to destroy us, turn us to vassals just like Indas.” She glared at Fadil. “I’m surprised the Anata ambassador would suggest such cowardice.”
Fadil stuttered. “Yes, Sese, and if that is the decision of the Semassenqa, and you regent, eq-Anout will not fail to support you.”
“It is,” confirmed Qanmi rather sternly.
Across from Ashtaroth, Shaqarbas crossed his arms in front of his chest. “And what little support I have to give is also Qemassen’s.”
“You have our thanks,” said Ashtaroth, completely sincere. “My grandmother would have been happy to know her marriage sealed a continued peace.” Fadil must know Ashtaroth had never met Queen Eshant, but the comment did at least elicit a smile.
Hope bloomed in Ashtaroth’s chest. The renewed sense of confidence that he could contribute gave him the strength to sit taller in his chair. He would be a king of Qemassen. He was destined for greatness. He was the son of King Eshmunen who had ensured peace reigned for all the years of Ashtaroth’s brief life, and he was the grandson of King Isir who had brought the Anata to heel and taken their princess as just spoils.
Fingers Ashtaroth knew too well coiled around his shoulders and squeezed.
The windowless council room was dark even on days when Lilit wasn’t there, but as she smoothed her fingers down the front of his tunic, the light seemed to dim, casting everyone in shadow. The darkness made mounds of them all—Hima, Qanmi, Qorban, Cheti, Shaqarbas, Fadil and Fritha. Their features were suddenly indistinct, as though Ashtaroth ruled over a council made of graveyard stelae.
“He looks a king, doesn’t he?” Lilit’s smile danced inside her words, smooth as silk and sharp as a knife.
There was no need to clarify her words. She could only mean Aurelius. But Ashtaroth knew better than to give in to the temptation to rebuff her.
Lilit continued even without Ashtaroth’s response. “Even filthy and recovering from his wounds, Aurelius is more a king than you’ve ever seen or could hope to be. And all that, with only half a cup’s worth of royal blood.”
Half a cup. Ashtaroth frowned at Aurelius, at his wild Inda hair and the ease of his smile. Had the rumours been true, that Moniqa had borne the child of the old Lora ambassador? Aurelius’s namesake had died years before Aurelius had been born, and besides, Aurelius did look a little like Eshmunen. But what if Aurelius didn’t have a claim to the throne? And if it were true, why did Lilit reveal it to Ashtaroth?
Lilit laughed. “Aurelius isn’t alone in that. And it’s one thing, at least, you can’t lay at your poor unfortunate mother’s feet.”
His poor mother. His mother. If Moniqa had lived, would things have been different? What comfort would she have given to her second son?
“None,” Lilit said. “She begged Samelqo to burn you.”
At times throughout his life, Ashtaroth had let himself believe his mother had loved him, and perhaps in her way she had, but Eshmunen had been his only true parent, and now Dashel had taken him, laying everything in Aurelius’s lap.
The jealousy he’d worked hard to suppress flared dangerously in his gut, as he focused his attentions on Aurelius’s smiling face. How easy it all was for him, how natural. All he need do was speak a word and the world fell at his feet.
Baited. He was being baited. Letting Lilit crawl inside his heart. “Go away, Lilit.”
Beside him, Hima’s tone was growing heated about a topic Ashtaroth had missed. “—only makes it more integral that we have the coronation as soon as possible. Any unrest the people are feeling will be squashed once Ashtaroth is crowned.”
Ashtaroth’s stomach churned, the room spinning, his thoughts sticking together inside his chest—a viscous pool he could barely wade through.
Lilit’s claws raked up and down his arms, forming shallow cuts that beaded with blood at either end.
“After everything that’s happened, you’re still adamant that Ashtaroth be king?” Shaqarbas waved in Ashtaroth’s direction, not even looking Ashtaroth’s way. “What do you think of this man, Fadil? He’s pale and quaking, and this amongst his allies! His skin is near as white as his hair!” Shaqarbas finally had the gall to look Ashtaroth in the face. His mouth went briefly slack. “He’s scratching his own arms bloody, for fuck’s sake.”
“Ashtaroth?” It was Hima, speaking softly to him.
Ashtaroth looked down at his hands, which were shaking. Shaking and caked with blood.
Aurelius rose from his chair, staying the others with a calming gesture. “Quiet, everyone. There’s something wrong with my brother.” He was so commanding, so strong. People listened.
“Lilit. Stop it. Please, Lilit.” Ashtaroth muttered the words like a prayer, begging his sister not to notice, for no one to hear.
“It’s all right, pet. You’ll show them who you are,” Lilit cooed. She stepped around him to the empty space at his right. “A big man ready to chase the demons away.”
Lilit pulled him to his feet with a force that couldn’t be earthly. His chair spun across the floor behind him and clattered against the wall. Something in the sound was like a door closing.
Her fingers pinched the front of his robes, feeling out the fabric, then shifting down, down—hooking his belt and tugging it loose. She stroked his thigh, undressing him, touching him. Even Bree had never touched him like this. No one had.
He didn’t want it.
“Please stop.” Ashtaroth quivered.
“What are you doing?” Hima reached for him, but Lilit shoved her and she tumbled back against Aurelius.
Everyone was staring. Everyone was standing.
The last of Ashtaroth’s clothes dropped to the floor at his feet.
Lilit dug her nails deep into his skinny arms, drawing blood. She pulled him close and Ashtaroth clamped his eyes shut, not wanting to look at her.
Another chair clattered as though she’d tipped one of them over. Just as Ashtaroth was opening his eyes to check she threw him against the table. Free of her grip, he scrambled across the table’s surface.
Hands were reaching for him, clawing, slashing, snarling. Their talons scraped his flesh as the room grew darker and darker and darker. Scrolls and cups rolled across the table as he kicked and shoved them out of the way. Something fell from the table, the sound of shattering glass resounding like a bell inside his head.
“He’s mad!” The voice was unfamiliar, more of a snarl than human words.
“Someone grab him, get hold of him.”
“He’s thrashing too much.”
The table thudded and Ashtaroth rolled onto his back.
Lilit stood above him, naked. She stepped forward and bent down. She grabbed his ankles and pulled him toward her. Her footsteps were heavy as if she were made of stone, causing the table to creak and groan with her every movement. She walked toward him with slow, measured footsteps, so tall her head grazed the ceiling. Her brown, hyacinth-strewn curls spilled over her shoulders, just shy of her breasts. One half of her face was caved in, but she lowered herself onto him, grinning.
Her very breath seemed to hiss with heat as she smiled. “You don’t belong to them anymore, Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen, you know that. You belong to me.”
Lilit’s grim sentinels—Ashmodai and Abraxas—stood watch from the corners, their hands clasped in front of them.
“Help,” Ashtaroth croaked.
Neither of the men in the corner moved.
Lilit’s body crushed him like a rock had been laid atop his chest, cracking his ribs, pressing his organs. “Eventually all debts come due.”
Hands were grabbing at him, trying to pull him from Lilit, but as she rode him, it seemed nothing would remove her, and she stared past his eyes, past all of him made flesh and into the trembling core of his soul. Lilit’s eyes burned with malicious fire.
She threw her head back and smiled.