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Chapter 15: Dreamers
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
Mad mad mad. They all thought he was mad. And maybe he was mad. Maybe he’d imagined everything. Maybe he’d pierced his own flesh like they claimed. Maybe he’d stripped himself naked. Maybe he’d—
Click, scrape, came Lilit’s footsteps.
Ashtaroth bent lower over his work, frenziedly scribbling. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. He was fine in his room, alone, crownless, and what did prophecies mean anyway? Certainly, Samelqo had never said anything about Qemassen’s promised saviour being mad.
“It’s not very nice of them,” Lilit purred, strolling idly about the room, picking up this and that ornament to turn over in her hands, “but I did tell you.”
Ashtaroth looked back down at his work—the translation he was now struggling to finish: one of the great epics of the Lora poet Naeus. A moment later and Lilit’s hand was flat atop the scroll, smearing the fresh ink. Lilit was rather a lot like a cat he’d once owned.
“Stop thinking about cats. I want you to think about me.”
“I am,” Ashtaroth admitted grudgingly, “and about cats.” He looked up. “Why are you still here?”
Lilit removed her palm. She tousled her bloody curls. “Because you are.”
A burning ache spread across his back, a pain he’d been feeling for days and couldn’t explain. Probably more of Lilit’s doing, which meant there was no point calling for Qirani. There had never been any point in asking anyone for their expertise. Where Lilit was concerned, the wise men of Qemassen were novices.
“I don’t see where else I’d be,” said Ashtaroth. “They won’t let me leave unaccompanied anymore.” He rubbed his back. The flesh was tender and puffy. Swollen.
Along with everything else, perhaps he was developing a hunchback.
Ashtaroth swallowed the frenzied laughter that threatened to explode past his lips.
Lilit chortled and stepped away from him. “Give me what I want and no one has to let you do anything. You can come and go when you like.”
Ashtaroth stared dully at the smeared poetry in front of him. It was no use; his work was irreparably damaged. He frowned at the last vestiges of his connection with the ordinary world before rolling the document up and pushing it to the side. “What do you want? I can’t see what else you could possibly take from me.”
The click, scrape of her footsteps transformed to an uneven stomp. She slammed her palms on the table, making Ashtaroth jump. “You. You, you, you. You know that.”
“What would a god want with me?” He surveyed Dannae’s pleading eyes, her light bronze skin, her battered face.
“Gods are only ideas, Ashtaroth,” said Lilit. “The idea of love, of eternity, of revenge.”
Ashtaroth scratched absently at his back and felt the skin give way. Something wet trickled out. He drew his hand back and found his nailbeds filled with blood and milky yellow fluid.
“Ideas don’t cut holes in people,” Ashtaroth said plainly.
Lilit grinned, the expression made crooked by the hole in her face. “Become one and find out, little twin.”
The door opened.
No one had even knocked this time. Did they care so little for his own wishes? He didn’t want to see anyone. He didn’t want to see his shame reflected in their eyes.
One of the guards gave Ashtaroth a wary glance as Aurelius walked in, then closed the door with a thud, leaving the brothers alone.
Well, alone with Lilit, which according to everyone else amounted to the same thing.
“How are you?” Aurelius asked.
Lilit circled Aurelius as he spoke, pretending to nip his ears as she stroked her hand down the front of his tunic. Ashtaroth’s brother seemed neither to see nor feel the demon’s lusty advances.
Ashtaroth stirred uncomfortably, drawn back to those painful moments in the council room. “Well.”
Aurelius looked unconvinced.
And no wonder, really. He believed Ashtaroth had disgraced himself in front of the council, that he’d shoved Hima and punched the guards. At least Ashtaroth was past humiliating anymore. Anything else Lilit could do to him seemed paltry by comparison.
Aurelius took a step forward. “But you know, don’t you, that they’ve removed you from the line of succession.”
Ashtaroth balled his right hand into a fist. Hima had told him yesterday. “Making you king.”
The comment seemed to disturb Aurelius, and he turned away. Lilit kept her eyes fixed on his every movement.
“Aurelius the handsome,” Ashtaroth mumbled to himself, recalling Lilit’s words during the Feast of Ashtet.
Aurelius looked back again, frowning at Ashtaroth. “What?”
“Nothing. I was thinking aloud.” He paused, considering whether he could trust Aurelius not to call him a fool or a liar. “Do you believe me?” He didn’t mean to sound so pathetic, but his voice brimmed with need.
Aurelius’s expression softened. He looked sad and tired. “I believe that you believe yourself. That’s as much as I can promise. If the gods are real―you know how I feel about this, Ashtaroth. We’ve worked long enough together that you should know I don’t trust miracles and curses without proof. If the gods exist they aren’t likely to waste their time with trivial human concerns.”
Ashtaroth sunk against his chair and rubbed the sore on his back, trying not to look at Lilit. “What about demons?”
“Spirits,” Aurelius mused, looking far more serious and troubled than was usual, “are possible. Why not? Perhaps they’re made of the same soul-stuff as ourselves. Again though, it seems unlikely an incorporeal being would have such power over the flesh. Matter interacts with matter, air with air.”
Ashtaroth scoffed. What did Aurelius know of it? Why was he so sure? He smirked as he recited Aurelius’s blatantly false argument back at him. “If the gods aren’t matter then they must be air; therefore they can’t touch us, therefore why should they care at all? Perhaps they don’t even know we’re here.” Ashtaroth felt the weighty cynicism crush him.
“You sound unconvinced. It’s your own argument. We’re like insects underfoot, unseen by those above. So base as to earn only their disdain.” Ashtaroth had been gifted with a lot of time over the past few weeks to re-read Aurelius’s old writings, to pour over everything the guards would bring him about spirits like Lilit and Ashmodai. He’d found little of interest, giving up in favour of poetry. Now Lilit had ruined that, too.
Aurelius smiled crookedly. “You’ll laugh at me, but ever since Dashel was . . . ever since he died, I find it comforting to think there are gods, and that he’s with his. It’s calming to trust that some being somewhere knows the truth in our hearts, that even if the world can be fooled and misled the gods are not blind.”
The mention of Dashel stung surprisingly sharp. “Dashel makes you feel that way, but not your own father? Not the man he murdered?”
Aurelius’s brow darkened. “It wasn’t Eshmunen who carried me on his shoulders when I was a boy. It wasn’t Eshmunen who gave up everything he had for me: his life, his reputation, his legacy.” Aurelius was growing angry, and it made Ashtaroth correspondingly angry, despite himself.
“You didn’t fuck him either. Dashel wasn’t your father.”
“No, he was more important than that, and I failed him.”
Dashel’s death had hurt Ashtaroth too, but Aurelius’s insistence on defending him was disgusting. “He killed my father so you could be king, because he thought you might look pretty with a crown on your head. Maybe he wanted to fuck you on your new throne. Maybe that was it.”
“Crudeness doesn’t suit you.” Aurelius snorted, though he looked more affected than he made out, his chest rising and falling heavily. “And you don’t need to be king to fuck on a throne. The gods know I’ve done it a few times, and in your precious temples. I fucked a priestess of Qalita once, did you know that?”
Ashtaroth wished he was strong and capable so he could hit Aurelius for his callousness. He wasn’t though, so all he did was scowl.
“I could hurt him if you wanted.” Lilit whispered. “I could make him feel what it was like for you to be shamed so publicly.”
To see Aurelius brought low? To see him called mad and stripped of everything he valued? Ashtaroth was tempted
He watched the demon in silence for a moment. Then guilt washed over him and he relaxed back against his chair. “No.”
“I don’t want to fight with you, Ashtaroth. My feelings toward our father are complicated.”
“I know that.” Did he think Ashtaroth’s were simple? “But why choose his murderer, all the same?”
Aurelius opened then closed his mouth. “Can I trust you? I mean it—this is important.”
Ashtaroth nodded briskly, a deep foreboding budding in his chest. “Of course, with anything.”
“Even after Bree? Now that I’m to marry her?”
Why was Aurelius bringing up Bree? Ashtaroth had been struggling to forget her along with everything else. She was nothing now.
“Yes,” Ashtaroth admitted.
“Even now that I’m to be crowned?” Aurelius pressed.
“You’re not helping your argument.”
Aurelius smiled a little. “That’s the point. I need to know that even while you’re hating me, we’re still brothers.”
“If only he knew what you’d bargained in exchange for his life,” trilled Lilit, sitting herself down in Ashtaroth’s lap, weaving her fingers through his hair.
Djana’s face flared before him, followed by the thud and crack of her body hitting the ground in Molot’s garden. He remembered how upset Aurelius made him merely through the accidents of his cleverness and his beauty, and he thought about how, in spite of that fact, Ashtaroth had nevertheless decided to save him.
Djana had died for this.
“Yes.” Ashtaroth sighed. “You’re still my brother and I love you.” The blood rushed to his cheeks, absurdly.
If Aurelius felt any warmth at Ashtaroth’s rare admission, it didn’t show on his face. “Then I want you to know what Hima told me, that Dashel killed our father to save my life. He and Samelqo thought Ashtara’s sacrifice had failed. They thought by promising me to Molot and going back on their word that they’d cursed you, and Qemassen.”
The chill that coursed through Ashtaroth’s body shocked him into stillness, and he could tell he must look alarming, because even Aurelius seemed to shrink a little. The weight on his legs left him, Lilit vanished to nothing. He was too destroyed inside to take comfort in her absence.
“What you’re saying,” Ashtaroth blurted, “is that you did this? You’re why she comes to me? And Samelqo and Father knew, and they tried to help me?”
Why did Aurelius look so confused?
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t curse you with madness. I was a child, Ashtaroth. They were going to kill me, and Dashel stopped them because it was wrong. You’d rather I were dead? I doubt somehow it would have helped you any.”
Ashtaroth shook his head. There was a time for Aurelius’s godless nonsense, and that time was not now. “They did kill a child: our sister.”
“I didn’t ask them to.” Aurelius’s voice echoed against the walls, a plea that made Ashtaroth ache to forgive him.
Instead, he held fast to his righteous anger.
He watched the light dance through Aurelius’s proud hair, watched it glitter against the gold-threaded fabric of his sash. He was so beautiful. So perfect. He was everything a prince should be except that he wasn’t made for it. He wasn’t the seventh son of the sixteenth king. Samelqo had known that Aurelius wasn’t worth saving.
Ashtaroth could tell someone what Samelqo had planned, that in killing Aurelius he might find freedom. If he did, there were bound to be some at court who’d do what had to be done to fulfill the prophecy in the Book of Abaal.
All Ashtaroth would have to do was kill his brother.
Even Lilit had to know that Ashtaroth could never do that, not even for the city he was meant to save. “Qemassen will fall because of you, and Dashel, and your stupid vanity.”
“It’s vain to want to live, is it? Or to want the man you love to live?” Aurelius avoided looking Ashtaroth in the eyes, crossing his arms in front of himself. “There’s no part of me that thinks my death would help you, or I would do something about it. All my life I’ve had to live with the knowledge that were it not for the prophecy I would be king, and all my life I’ve put you first, made myself forget that simple truth. Shaqarbas begged me to take the throne from you before the incident in the council room. I could have taken it at any time, but I didn’t, because I love you, because I’ve been told, all my life, that it was your birthright, and I was nothing.”
Ashtaroth found it hard to believe Aurelius had ever been particularly bothered by anything in his life. “Qemassen will fall.”
Aurelius shook his head, disbelieving. “If it does it won’t be because Samelqo broke a promise to a golden cow.”
Ashtaroth gripped this chair, digging his nails into the wood. “Get out.”
Aurelius seemed to diminish. “You can’t tell anyone what Dashel did.”
Ashtaroth wouldn’t, he didn’t think, but it suited him to let Aurelius squirm. “Get out,” he repeated.
Aurelius marched to the door, looking bewildered and hurt.
The crown prince left, and Ashtaroth sank back in his chair, feeling guilty, angry, and betrayed. He’d been ready to let go of it all; he’d stood up for Aurelius that day in the Eghri, and all for this.
Supple fingers stroked his shoulders from behind. “Oh, pet. I said you wouldn’t be king, but what made you think you had to be, to save the city?”
On the table, where Ashtaroth’s translated poetry had lain, a smear of ink marred the surface. Its shape, as he stared into it, was that of two winged serpents consuming each other in an endless circle. The twin serpent gods: Leven and Pepet.
Ashtaroth didn’t need to turn around to see the wickedness in Lilit’s smile.