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Chapter 15: Dreamers
Vivaen – The Eastern Feislands: A Dream
Vivaen’s hand ached from clutching her sister Roewyn’s so tightly, their palms slick with sweat from running. Midnight trees slapped past, turned to great hulking beasts in the darkness—Caern’s underworld monsters come to feast. The traitorous branches of oak and elm hooked their clothes, slowing them so the Loralander soldiers might catch them.
They couldn’t afford to be caught.
Roewyn tripped and her hand slipped from Vivaen’s grasp.
Vivaen stopped long enough to haul her back up.
The moon was clouded over, but every so often a sliver of light would illuminate a puddle or a tree or a grove. They had to stay in the shadows, even if the way was knotted with roots and dotted with hidden stones.
“We’re almost there,” Vivaen wheezed, breath ragged. “I recognize this glen.”
“I’m scared,” Roewyn cried, too loudly.
“Quiet!” Vivaen cursed. She stopped abruptly and Roewyn slammed against her.
Roewyn started to cry. She sucked her thumb, fumbling for Vivaen’s hand with her free one.
East. West. North. South. Vivaen bit her lip as she scanned the trees and tried to listen past the beating of her heart in her ears. So loud—why was it so loud?
A stick cracked.
Vivaen twirled round, spinning Roewyn along with her.
Nothing. Just a fox or a badger or a deer or an owl or—
Why was her heart beating so loud?
North. South. East. West. Vivaen mouthed the words to herself, assessing each route.
Tirgwnswy, their village, was overrun with Loralanders, and the nearest free village was at least a day’s travel.
The last place Vivaen had seen their parents was near the stream, fighting on horseback. They must make for the stream.
Roewyn burrowed her head in Vivaen’s skirts. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
Vivaen’s chest ached. “No,” Vivaen lied.
A dog howled in the distance behind them—or had it? Vivaen’s heartbeat was so loud. She could have imagined—
“I heard a dog,” Roewyn whimpered.
Roewyn’s words were followed by a chorus of barks and whistles. The Loralanders had brought their dogs.
Vivaen pulled Roewyn into a run. West—the direction of the river. West—deeper into Feislander territory. West—safety. As far from Lorar as they could run.
Roewyn squealed and Vivaen jerked her sister’s arm to warn her off speaking.
“My shoe,” Roewyn pleaded.
“Leave it,” Vivaen snapped.
But Roewyn stumbled, forcing Vivaen to stop. With a growl she bent low and scooped her sister into her arms. Roewyn was five—only two years younger than Vivaen and quite heavy—but Vivaen managed. She didn’t know how, but she managed.
Twigs snapped beneath her feet, her own shoes catching in what seemed like every tangle of roots. The moss was slick with dew and rain fall. She’d trip, and Roe would go flying, and the Loralanders would hear them and come running. No, the dogs would catch them first. Sharp fangs would puncture deep into their bellies an rip their innards out so they dangled like snakes from canine mouths.
All throughout the forest, flames shot up. In the mist between the trees, the torch fires looked like burning faces.
Whistle whistle whistle. The Loralanders didn’t call to one another with words. Why didn’t they use words?
Whistle whistle whistle howl howl howl. And the snap of branches and leaves, the bobbing of the torches in the mist.
Vivaen longed to squeeze her eyes shut, but she couldn’t. They were frozen wide.
What would she do if Mother and Father weren’t where she thought they’d be? Where would they go? They couldn’t outrun an army, and they couldn’t hide from the dogs.
Whistle whistle whistle. All different pitches—if only Vivaen knew what the pitches meant.
“Caern’s hunters,” Roewyn whispered against Vivaen’s skin. “Caern’s hunters are coming for us because we were bad.” She tugged one of Vivaen’s braids. “We should go back. Mother and Father might be with the Loralanders too.”
Whistle whistle whistle.
Their parents weren’t with the Loralanders. Their parents were—Vivaen didn’t want to think about that. They had to get to the stream, then they’d know.
Vivaen exploded through a tangle of boxwood and into a meadow. It was the fastest way, but also the most dangerous.
Roewyn screeched. “They’re behind us!”
Vivaen bolted into the meadow, long grass and summer flowers crushed in her path.
A trail of whistles followed.
She dove into the forest as soon as they reached the tree line. Branches whipped Vivaen’s face, carving scratches that welled with blood. Her arms ached so much from holding Roewyn that she could barely feel them anymore.
She wasn’t strong, she wasn’t brave. Why was she trying to force herself to be?
A horse snorted up ahead, and Vivaen slowed. She set Roewyn down and crouched behind a tall patch of nettles.
Dew dripped onto her forehead from high up in the canopy.
Their mother’s sleek black southern mare stepped into view.
“Meti,” Vivaen coaxed. Meti whinnied in reply, but she didn’t move. Her ears were pressed back and she kept pawing and pawing at the dirt. Something was wrong.
Vivaen grabbed Roewyn’s hand and started toward the horse, ignoring for now the slight limp to Roewyn’s walk.
“Mother?” Vivaen dared.
Even if Mother and Father had fled, at least they’d left Meti. Vivaen remembered most of the route to Atlin, from a trip she’d made with Father to see the king. There shouldn’t be Loralanders on the western road.
Meti shook her mane out, pawing. She didn’t react to Vivaen or Roewyn at all as they approached.
A body lay at the horse’s feet.
“Daddy!” Little Roe ripped her hand from Vivaen’s and darted for the corpse.
A low whine escaped Vivaen’s lips. “No—no Roe. Roe.” She fumbled forward and reached for her sister, but all the tiredness she’d been fighting washed over her at once.
Roewyn lifted their father’s arm before letting it fall back again. Up and down with a movement meant to wake him.
As Vivaen reached him, she pinched the back of Roewyn’s dress and gently tugged. “Roe . . . .”
She stared down at her father, who lay on his belly with a round bloodstain in the centre of his tunic. His sword arm hung limply over one of the pits dug to trap the invaders.
Vivaen peered over the edge and recoiled. A Loralander’s eyeless corpse hung speared through his breast on a large wooden stake. Vivaen and Roewyn’s mother lay dead beside him.
“Vivae?” Roewyn grabbed her sister’s torn, ruined dress, whimpering.
Meti. They had to take Meti.
Whistle whistle whistle.
Vivaen hurried to the mare, but a flurry of yapping from the Loralander dogs spooked the horse and she reared up. Vivaen screamed and back off, only able to stare as Meti bolted deeper into the trees.
Whistle whistle whistle.
The Loralanders were shouting to one another. They’d be upon her soon.
“Vivae!” Roewyn cried.
“Shut up,” Vivaen hissed.
Then she had an idea.
“Get in the pit.”
Roewyn turned wide, frightened eyes on the hole. “I’m scared.”
“I can’t,” Roewyn cried. “I’ll slip, and I’ll . . . .”
She was scared of the spikes.
Whistle whistle whistle.
Vivaen screwed her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms. “I’ll go first. I’m bigger. I can catch you.” She hastened to the edge, painting over the image of her mother’s body and the crow-picked face of the Loralander soldier.
She tried to pull her skirts from Roewyn’s clutch, but Roewyn held tight. “Vivae!”
“Ouidistem!” shouted a Loralander.
They heard us.
“Let go,” Vivaen shook off her sister’s hand. “I’ll help you once I’m down,” she whispered, already digging footholds out of the earth wall with her toes. The ground was damp, easy to climb. She lowered herself slowly so that she landed between the spikes.
“Follow my path, then take my hand. I’ll catch you.” Vivaen stretched her arm up, but Roewyn hesitated, frightened. She kept looking behind herself.
“Vivae?” Roewyn plunked herself down and dangled her legs over the edge. Her hand brushed their father’s arm and she yelped.
In the distance, a man shouted an alarm.
Someone had spotted Roewyn.
“Vivae!” Roewyn started to scramble down, her short little body struggling for purchase. Vivaen could hear a man dismounting, Loralanders talking. They’d seen Roewyn; they knew she was in the pit.
They didn’t know about Vivaen.
Vivaen stepped backwards until her back smacked one of the wooden spikes. She lowered herself slowly, till she sat hidden in its shadow.
“Vivae!” Roewyn was panicking, reaching out her hand, but Vivaen sat still as stone.
Tears poured down Vivaen’s cheeks. She clamped her hand over her mouth to stop her sobs being heard.
Roe. Roe. Little Roe.
Roewyn screamed, a sound that shook the heavens. The arms of the soldiers reached down and plucked her from the earth wall.
Vivaen hugged her knees, rocking herself back and forth, certain the men would spot her.
But they didn’t.
The sound of her sister’s cries and the soldiers’ chatter grew distant and then finally disappeared, but the howling of the dogs echoed through the forest, close and then far, and then close once again.
Vivaen sat until it grew light, then dark again. She tilted her face to catch the water as a midnight rain poured its tears over the lush summer trees. The dead arm of her father looked like a twisted root grabbing for her.
“Why weren’t you brave and strong?” it seemed to say.
Vivaen gripped her knees through her tunic. “If I were brave, I’d be dead,” she countered.
She didn’t speak for a long time.
Another day must have passed before they found her, but this was a dream, not the real world, and soon she heard a familiar voice—Eidoun, her father’s second, calling out. She stood up.
Her legs had fallen asleep. They burned with pain and she almost fell down again. “I’m here! I’m here!”
I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!
Vivaen—no, Bree, awoke with a startled whimper, cold sweat on her forehead, heart pounding. She looked to either side of her, hoping to see Aurelius, but knowing as she had for too many nights that he wouldn’t be there.
She laid her hand to rest on her swelling belly. Five months in, it was getting harder and harder to disguise her pregnancy, and there was nothing she could do about the slaves who bathed and dressed her.
At least now she would be married soon. She didn’t have the nightmares when Aurelius slept beside her, and though it wasn’t custom for a wealthy man and wife to lay together every night, Aurelius had promised her. Aurelius would stop her nightmares, and Bree would have her child, and they would be safe behind Qemassen’s walls.
If she believed that, she was a fool. A fool, a bitch, and a coward.
“A queen.” Vivaen—Bree smiled, despite the panic that nipped at her edges. It was a lying, faltering smile that set her to laughing, and laughing still she hung her head back on her pillow, unsure if the tears that came were from relief or terror.
Today, Aurelius would be made king.
All power did was paint a target on the backs of those who had it. If she were smart, she would flee west. West meant safety. West was the furthest she could get from Lorar. Except here, on the southern shore, Lorar’s reach stretched all the way to Indas.
Nowhere in the world was safe.
Bree rolled onto her side and drew her legs up as far as she could against her chest.
Bree looked up, her passionless mask returning to her with such ease she could have slapped herself.
One of her new Lora slaves—Bree couldn’t remember the woman’s name—was standing with her head bowed, half-in, half-out of Bree’s bedchamber.
“What is it?” Bree asked.
“The coronation, Sese. I’m here to prepare you.”
Was it so late already? It must be. Bree had been sleeping longer into the mornings than usual. The child made her tired and hungry and at night sometimes it kicked and turned so that all Vivaen could do was pace about the room and pray for peace. She stole her sleep when and where she could.
“Fine.” Bree sat up, heavy and exhausted, and allowed the slave-woman to get to work.
So much primping and fussing went into Massenqa rituals. Admittedly, Bree enjoyed the beautiful gowns and brilliant colours of her fine new things, but the time wasted putting them on made her weary, especially when it meant standing for long periods of time. Her legs and back ached these days, and the extra weight she was putting on didn’t help.
It wasn’t long before Eaflied joined them, already dressed in light, fluttering silks, with her yellow hair flowing freely down her back.
“Do you know what happens during the coronation?” Eaflied asked, bending over Bree’s chair to speak into her ear and forcing the slave to work around her.
“There’s to be a parade through the city. We’ll sit in the seat of honour with the heq-Ashqen—” Bree started to explain.
“The heq-Ashqat,” Eaflied corrected sharply. At least her Massenqa had improved enough for her to start nitpicking. “It shouldn’t take more than a month to get used to, and she’s been heq-Ashqat for two.”
“If she takes offense at a little mistake like that, we’re unlikely to get along anyway,” Bree reasoned.
It was the first time Bree would be in close contact with Qwella et-Moniqa. Hopefully she was gentler than her elder sister, and hopefully she liked Bree.
The slave daubed blue powder across Vivaen’s cheeks, then used a cotton bud to blend the colour into her skin.
“Why blue?” Eaflied asked.
“For Tanata’s blessing,” said the slave. “To encourage a child once the marriage takes place.” The northern slave reddened, having the shame at least to avert her gaze.
Bree resisted the urge to lay her hand across her belly.
The slave drew a stick of turquoise face paint in a straight line beneath Bree’s lips, then another right beside it. She held up a bronze mirror so that Bree could inspect her work.
Eaflied sniffed, a slight smirk appearing on her face. “You look like a trout.”
Bree turned her face left, then right. “I like it,” she said, though as she stared at her blue-blushed cheeks, for a moment all she saw was the face of her mother’s corpse, drained of blood.
Bree was gifted the seat of honour, an open-air litter borne by bare-chested slaves. Every one of them had seemingly been selected for his pleasing form and face so that Bree couldn’t help but stare at their muscled arms as the litters lingered at the top of the hill, waiting for some mysterious sign to begin their descent.
Qwella sat beside her, while Eaflied was relegated to the lower of the tiered seats inside the litter. Himalit, Qanmi, and other important officials sat in uncovered litters of their own while women in deep red gowns fanned the Semassenqa with ostrich-feathered fronds so big they blotted out the sun.
Aurelius, garbed in a beige, pauper’s tunic, stood in front of them all, his back to the Semassenqa.
Ordinary Massenqa and wealthy tamqaru cluttered the barriers at the sides of the street, tossing flower petals, coins, and grain at Aurelius’s feet. A cluster of children waved at Bree, while young men leered at her with sloppy, drunken grins.
One of them pulled out his cock and began stroking it. Bree smirked and made a show of looking them up and down.
“The people seem to like you,” said Qwella, her voice quiet and mousy.
Bree turned to her future sister-in-law and shrugged one shoulder. “They like my tits.”
Qwella swallowed, darting an uncomfortable look at Bree’s chest before averting her eyes. “There were supposed to be elephants, but they’re busy being trained for the coming battles. Have you seen one before? Most foreigners find them quite shocking at first.”
Bree smiled at the pointless small talk. “I saw one in Atlin once. One of the northern kings had it sent for as a gift for his son.” There had also been Dashel’s execution, of course, which they had both attended. Qwella was obviously as keen to keep it from her mind as Bree was.
The heq-Ashqat’s eyes widened in surprise. “Northern kings? Further north than Atlin?”
“Much further.” She could still hear the beast’s pained screech as it had been led off the ship by its masters. “I doubt it survived. It looked sickly, much different than the ones here.”
“Oh.” Qwella shifted her weight. Swathed in her red robes, she cut quite a figure. Were she a fiercer woman, she would have been imposing in her tall conical hat.
“I hadn’t seen a camel before though,” Bree offered. “The first one I met nearly bit my finger off.”
Qwella giggled. She opened her mouth, poised to speak, but a loud horn blast interrupted their conversation. The gathered crowds went deadly silent.
Bree heaved herself up with the support of her hand rests in order to get a better view.
A temple musician stood along the road, blowing into a massive horn. When he lowered it, the litter heaved forward.
Bree fell back onto her seat with a thump, which sent Eaflied into a fuss.
The train of Semassenqa, along with the dancers and slaves, was beginning the march downhill. Aurelius walked ahead of them.
Bree leaned in close to Qwella, getting a pleasant whiff of sandalwood from the heq-Ashqat’s robes. “Isn’t there to be anything said first?”
Qwella shook her head gently. “Not until we reach the temple. Until he’s blessed by Abaal, Aurelius is nothing―not yet king and no longer a prince. He has to earn his titles as he walks, with every heqet of gold they lay on him.”
Qwella sucked in a breath as though struggling for another word. “Every amount of gold. It’s a measurement.”
“Ah.” Bree nodded, though she still wasn’t sure she understood.
Her confusion must have been obvious, because Qwella continued. “It’s simple. My brother wears the tunic of a beggar, but after every twenty cubits or so a representative of the city will gift him a piece of finery as a symbol of their blessing. Once he reaches the temple he will carry so much gold he’ll hardly be able to stand. The gold is the weight of the burden of kingship. If he falls before he reaches the steps, then his reign will be filled with famine and sickness. If he completes the ceremony without falling, Qemassen will prosper.”
Bree cringed, imagining Ashtaroth enduring such a task. As it was, he wasn’t even here to see his brother crowned, the fear too great that he might make a scene during the celebration.
A scattering of grain from one of the Massenqa in the crowd sailed too high, pelting Bree in the side of the face. She shook off the coarse meal and held her hand up as a shield.
“Do men often fall?” she asked.
Qwella rolled her full lips thoughtfully. “There are stories of men falling, and women, when queens ruled Qemassen.”
The litter stopped. Behind them, drummers began to beat their instruments in a slow, booming rhythm. The sound was followed by a trill and whistle—
Bree clung to her hand rests, swallowing her panic. She scrunched her eyes shut.
“Princess?” asked Qwella. She laid her hand on Bree’s. “Princess, are you ill?”
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. She wasn’t in the hole, nor even the woods. She was safe and protected and the cool ocean air of Qemassen’s streets was blowing free all around her.
She breathed in once, twice, three times, then opened her eyes just in time to see Qwella staring with concern at Bree’s abdomen.
“If there’s something wrong,” Qwella whispered. “You can confide in me.” She smiled and squeezed Bree’s hand. “We’re sisters now—or soon enough we will be. I hope we can also be friends.”
Bree stared at her. The words ought to comfort her, but since the last woman who’d offered her friendship had died hours later, friendship came with its own set of worries.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
“I’m fine, I promise,” Bree rasped. “The music reminded me of something unpleasant.”
Qwella frowned with a concern so ripe to bursting it looked theatrical. It wasn’t theatrical though, Bree could tell. There was an innocence to the heq-Ashqat that couldn’t be faked.
Bree rubbed Qwella’s hand. “I’m fine,” she repeated. And then, since Qwella seemed to know already, she laid her hand on her belly. “Everything is fine.”
Qwella beamed with a lightness Bree only wished she could feel. “Then I’m glad. Now, what were we talking about?”
The trills and whistles of the flautists were still there, but the drums and the cheering of the crowds were loud enough to drown out most of it. Bree settled her attention on Aurelius’s back.
They’d been talking about the ritual.
“If Ashtaroth had fallen, what would have happened to him?” Bree risked. She couldn’t bear to draw the gods’ ire by asking of Aurelius. Ashtaroth’s fitness was a safer question.
Qwella smiled sadly. “No one would have expected Ashtaroth to make the walk. When there is concern a king might not manage, a ritual is performed to allow a proxy to take the king’s place.” Qwella cleared her throat. “The former heq-Ashqen walked on my father’s behalf.”
The concept of proxies seemed to render the ritual pointless, but then, Qwella knew better than Bree did. As Bree stared at Aurelius’s back, watching a member of the tamqaru delicately lower a heavy gold necklace over his shoulders, she wished he’d opted to allow someone else to walk for him. Someone tall as an ox and with muscles to match. Someone who didn’t have a mass of scars spiderwebbed across his back.
Just another thing to worry about, and worry Bree did, though she shouldn’t. If Aurelius did falter, the Semassenqa would inevitably disguise it somehow.
Their litter stirred again, and Qwella gripped the railing. Below them, Eaflied was taking in the view, looking this way and that.
Nubile Ashqata and Ashenqa in lewd, sheer garb swayed seductively near Aurelius. Their arms waved like willow branches caught in the wind.
“Those men and women―Ashenqa of Ashtet?”
“Yes. Holy prostitutes. They promise fertility in the new year.”
Aurelius needn’t worry about that.
One of the dancers planted a kiss on Aurelius’s lips and Bree glanced surreptitiously at the intricate tattoos on Qwella’s arm so that she didn’t have to watch. “What are those?”
Qwella turned her arm over, examining the decoration. “Symbols of Qalita. They mark me as an Ashqat of the underworld goddess.”
Gods and goddesses of death seemed to follow Bree everywhere she went. She smiled wryly. “The last heq-Ashqen was a priest of Molot, and now we have a priestess of Molot’s bride. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
Aurelius had stopped again to receive more gold—rings this time, along with a thick cloak lined with spotted fur. In that outfit, it was more likely he’d pass out from the heat than from the weight.
“Samelqo wasn’t a priest of Molot. He studied in Tanata’s temple.” Qwella seemed alarmed by Bree’s assumption.
“Oh.” It didn’t seem so strange a mistake to Bree. He’d looked like a skeleton, and the way people had talked about him made him sound like the death god’s man.
For the next little while, Bree let her mind idle, watching the parade in front of her and enjoying the shower of petals and small favours scattered in their path. The people looked so happy to see their king, jubilant at the sight of the Semassenqa, and yes, even Bree and Eaflied. As man after man and woman after woman laid their burdens upon Aurelius, the promise of a golden future shimmered in the metal that glinted around his neck.
“Brother!” A man cried as he slid a gold band about Aurelius’s shoulder. “Father!” said another, doing the same with the other arm.
Bree frowned, curious. In the Feislands, arm bands were a sign of royalty and a marker of rank, but the shouting was peculiar.
Qwella whispered to her again from behind her hand. “The calling of the titles. As he receives them and their respective gifts he comes closer to becoming king. The last of them is his role as heq-Ashqen of Abaal.”
Bree snorted. “Ironic for a man so godless.” She pursed her lips, refusing to take her gaze from Aurelius as he accepted more gifts. Already he was covered in gold, and they were only halfway to Abaal’s temple. He rolled his shoulders like he was trying to get comfortable.
Bree bit her lip. “You’ll pray for him, won’t you? He won’t pray for himself.”
Qwella laced their hands together once more. “My brother’s lucky enough without the gods—he doesn’t need my help. Whether he wants their love or not, he has it, the same way everyone loves him.”
Bree clucked. “Please don’t give me another speech about our beloved Aurelius. It makes me wish I hated him. I’m sure someone somewhere must. I’m starting to think I’d like to meet them for the novelty.”
Qwella laughed. “Maybe I exaggerated a bit. Not everyone loves him.” She grew quiet. When she spoke again, her tone was grave. “He’s a good man. He’ll never touch you unless you want him too. He won’t beat you and he won’t disrespect you.” She cleared her throat, and for the first time she seemed the older sister. “Please don’t hurt him.”
“I’d have more luck parting the sea.” Bree took her hand back, laying it in her lap, examining the lines on her palm. “It’s Aurelius who hurts people. He’s broken a lot of hearts with that smile, and don’t try to tell me he hasn’t.”
Qwella glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder. When Bree looked it was in the direction of Qanmi eq-Sabaal and Titrit’s litter.
Titrit was glaring straight at Bree.
Had she been watching her all this time?
“Did he break Titrit’s heart?” Bree asked. She met Qwella’s eyes, ignoring the woman behind them for now.
“One of many,” Qwella confessed. She patted Bree’s hand. “But not yours. He looks at you differently than other people. Talks about you differently. Aurelius loves you. Don’t hurt him.”
Bree didn’t know what to say to that. Thankfully, another loud trumpet blast stopped her from having to say anything at all.
At the head of the parade, at the entrance to the Shedi-Qalana, Prince Shaqarbas eq-Zotan stepped out of the crowd of onlookers. He held aloft an especially heavy-looking medallion. Sunlight struck it as the medal spun round on its chain.
“King of Indas!” Shaqarbas proclaimed. His thunderous voice was louder even than the drums.
Aurelius knelt to receive the prince’s gift with particular reverence. As he rose with a quiver in his step, Shaqarbas thumped Aurelius’s arm playfully.
Next, a beautiful naked Ashqen of Ashtet bowed before Aurelius. “King of Prosperity!” His words were honey, his smile as gleaming as the metal layered over Aurelius’s body.
Bree smiled tightly at Qwella. “You’ll be staying in the palace now, won’t you?”
“No.” She sounded relieved. “Those rooms were Samelqo’s and I’m more than happy to let his wife have them. My place is in my temple. It would be silly for me to become heq-Ashqat of Qalita only to leave her service immediately. I’ll come to as many councils as I can, of course, but if I’ve been chosen for this task, I want to approach it in a way that suits me.”
Bree wouldn’t pretend she knew what being heq-Ashqat entailed, but she was sure the council had hoped for more than what Qwella was promising. Raising a sister of the crown to such a prominent and influential post had been an astute move, whoever had conceived of it, but Qwella was clearly resistant to being controlled.
“That’s disappointing,” Bree admitted. “I could use a friend on the hill.”
“The palace can be a very lonely place for a woman,” said Qwella.
Ashenqa and Ashqata from each of the temples lined the road, bearing this or that object to bestow upon their future king. The last of all before Abaal was Molot’s priest, who stood on the steps rather than at his god’s shrine, being that it was somewhat removed from the other buildings.
Bree watched Aurelius very carefully, reading the subtle roll of his shoulders before he stood rigid in front of the Ashqen, the way he stared unmoving, the way he seemed poised not to kneel but to flee.
To be blessed by the god who demanded your death.
He did his duty though, and the Ashqen receded back onto his steps, head bowed.
Of the instruments, only a lone drum remained, beating its rhythm in time with Aurelius’s footsteps as he mounted the stairs leading to Abaal’s door.
The dancers in front of Bree’s litter parted before them so that the litters descended through the centre of the Shedi.
The litter-bearers walked steadily but quickly.
The closer she got, the more obvious the sweat glistening upon Aurelius’s brow, the clearer the downward pull of the heavy chains around his neck and wrists. Through it all, his face was a mask.
“He’ll make a good king,” Eaflied said from below them, smiling up at Bree with a mother’s reassurance.
When they reached the base of the stairs leading up to Abaal’s temple, the slaves gently laid down their burden and stood aside.
Three temple acolytes escorted Bree, Eaflied, and Qwella from the litter onto the steps. Himalit, Qanmi, and the rest weren’t far behind.
As Bree mounted the stairs, the heq-Ashqen of Abaal came into view. He was an elderly man with an impressive grey beard. His hands held Aurelius’s crown so lightly that it was as though the headpiece floated in the air of its own accord. The fish-tailed ram of Abaal reared at the crown’s centre.
Once Bree, Qwella, and Eaflied had reached the top of the stairs, Qwella walked toward the heq-Ashqen and took the crown from him. She smiled at her brother.
Bree couldn’t manage such an expression, not least of all because the stairs had left her winded. Most of her energy was taken up forcing herself not to pant. But beyond that, the strain was much more obvious on Aurelius’s face up close, the sweat so much thicker. His nostrils flared as he breathed in and out.
What madness, to force this upon him. He looked ready to collapse at any moment.
The drumming stopped completely.
Qwella stepped in front of Bree, staring out at the crowd of onlookers—Semassenqa and commoners alike. Her hands trembled.
“The reign of Eshmunen has ended.” Qwella’s voice shook at first, but gradually a confidence overtook her nervousness. “The sun disappears beyond the lands of the living to arise reborn. He promises victory in the face of war. He promises fertile fields and seas swelling with fish and plunder. He promises slaves and finery and all the gifts of the earth. So I crown him, a true child of Qemassen, heq-Ashqen of Abaal.”
A simple ditty compared with the fuss it had taken to get here.
Qwella lifted the ram’s head crown and placed it upon Aurelius’s black curls.
Aurelius’s hands shook worse than Qwella’s, but he raised his neck proudly all the same. He faced his people with a smile upon his face, then knelt to the ground in a pose of supplication. He pressed his forehead to the temple step. With a shudder, he stood again.
Nearby, a musician blew a horn.
Bree clamped her hands over her ears, but this time the note was blessedly short.
Cheti stepped up beside Qwella. “We live now in year one of Aureliban! The calendar begins again, the serpent devours its tail!”
Aureliban. A curious attempt at making his name sound like a Massenqa one.
From further up the hill, the low rumble of drums thudded toward them—no, not drums. It wasn’t drums, and it was closer than she’d thought.
The enormous ivory doors to Abaal’s temple creaked behind them.
“What’s that sound?” asked Hima.
The comment sent a shiver through Bree.
The rumbling was getting louder, and it wasn’t only Bree who heard it.
In the street, the Massenqa exploded in a flurry of chatter, darting this way and that. A few rushed to the centre of the road, away from the temples.
“Calm yourselves!” Cheti called past the building noise.
The ground was shaking.
The stone beneath Bree’s feet was vibrating.
“Get inside!” Qanmi yelled behind her.
Bree turned, ready to run.
Aurelius was already being dragged inside by two Ashenqa. Eaflied, Fadil, Qanmi, and Qwella were close behind him.
The shaking rattled through Bree’s bones and along her skin. She dashed for the door but lost her footing and tumbled into the heq-Ashqen of Abaal. He grabbed her by her dress to steady himself, gnarled hands hooking in her clothes, ready to hold her fast, hold her tight so Caern’s hounds could find her.
Bree screamed as a long, crooked tear snaked down the temple wall.
Inside was the last place she wanted to be.
The heq-Ashqen gripped her by her belly.
Bree kicked herself free, ignoring his squeal of pain. She turned toward the street, but the stairs were so high, and the road was cramped and narrow. How close the buildings pressed one against another.
She probably would be better off inside.
Uphill, the wall of one of the smaller temple buildings collapsed in a cloud of dust.
People were screaming. Massenqa choked the streets. The dust cloud enveloped all of them, bursting toward the Temple of Abaal, toward Bree.
The heq-Ashqen of Abaal stood paralyzed on the temple steps.
Bree rushed past him, desperate to get to safety, desperate to find Aurelius. She slammed her palms against the ivory doors as the cloud overwhelmed her, the earth shuddering beneath her feet.
“No!” Something slammed into Bree, knocking the breath from her. Her body was thrown to the ground, tossed like she weighed nothing at all.
Debris and dirt pelted Bree and whatever it was that lay atop her. She sucked back a deep lungful of air before a choking cough rattled through her and she sputtered out a dust-filled breath.
The earthquake was subsiding. The wails of the injured in the streets replaced the deafening sound of splitting rock.
Bree rolled over, kicking out from under the heavy, soft thing that lay across her—not a rock, but a person.
The heq-Damirat groaned and sat up.
Amidst what remained of the dust cloud, Bree surveyed the damage.
The great stone steps of Abaal’s temple had split down the middle, and in front of the door where Bree had been standing only moments before, Abaal’s ram statue had toppled from the arch above them. A priest’s arm poked crookedly from beneath it.
The heq-Damirat stood up and offered Bree her hand.
Bree looked up at Hima, then at the corpse and the statue. She fainted.