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Chapter 1: Generals
Aurelius – The Palace: Qemassen
A week after Aurelius’s coronation, war had engulfed the Feislands from the Lora marches to the western coast. Now, two months later, war raged still. A hundred and fifty Massenqa ships packed bow to stern with soldiers had disembarked from Qemassen a month past—ten thousand Massenqa lives that might have ended, drowned in squalls or slit chin to gullet by Lora swords.
Yet as Aurelius sat in his council chambers with the voices of his advisors floating around him, all he could think of was the battle raging in Bree’s chamber, the child coming two months too soon, and the pain she must be enduring.
He should be with her. He should be holding her. He would have been, had the Ashenqa of Tanata not physically barred him from the room. Aurelius had only let them treat her because the new heq-Ashqen of Tanata insisted his priests were the only ones with the healing knowledge to keep both Bree and the baby alive. Even Qirani had deferred to their expertise.
Tanata’s ansate cross glowed in warm gold in the centre of the lapis war table. It was just another symbol, made powerful by those desperate to trust in it. Beautiful, rare, malleable metals had the stunning capacity to blind those who saw them. Craft something lovely enough and there was barely a man who could look past that sheen to the emptiness beneath. Gods and gold alike only meant something because men decided they had meaning.
How much easier life must seem to those who thought a little incense and prayer were enough to ward off evil.
Then again, believing hadn’t done Ashtaroth any good, and Dashel’s faith in Adonen hadn’t stopped the elephants from pulling him—
Aurelius tapped his foot beneath the lapis war table, pretending all the souls of all the Massenqa in the world mattered as much to him as those of the two people fighting to survive inside Bree’s locked rooms.
At least Eaflied was with her, though Aurelius would have welcomed the Feislanda queen’s expertise on her homeland. Fritha wasn’t near as pragmatic, nor as pleasant.
Even without her, the council room was full: Hima and Qwella to his left and right, Qanmi, Fritha, Fadil, Qorban, and Shaqarbas lining the sides of the table. Cheti stood taking notation on a wax tablet beside the door.
Titrit had also been allowed to attend. Qanmi had asked for her, but Aurelius was grateful to have the wisdom of an old friend as a resource he might plunder.
The advice of wise women and men was worth a thousand priestly prayers.
“How many men lost at Endsil?” Fadil scrutinized Fritha past his long nose. A sickly-sweet perfume wafted from the Anata ambassador, as though he bathed in anise.
Fritha bristled, addressing Aurelius rather than Fadil. “Eight-thousand, six hundred,” he repeated grudgingly. They’d already had the news days earlier; Fadil was merely making a point. It was a point he made every meeting, again and again, and though the weight of Massenqa lives didn’t hang about Aurelius’s neck like an iron chain.
“We’re losing the war,” Fadil pointed out unnecessarily. “Or we will be losing it if we continue to haemorrhage men in the Feislands.”
Aurelius clasped his hands on the table. The stone was cool to the touch. It was enough to help him swallow the distaste Fadil always dredged up in him.
He’d had a plan to crush the Lora between the strength of the Feislanda and Massenqa armies, one from the west, and their own pursuing from the south, but the Lora had been too quick to attack the Feislands, and the threat of Indas still loomed to the southwest of Qemassen.
“We haven’t lost.” Aurelius said, “but my father’s failure to act has left us catching up with his mistakes. He should have been prepared for this. He knew it was only a matter of time before our peace ended. There should have been troops already in Atlin, ready for Ossa to make use of.”
“We had ships ready, but in his wisdom Father was waiting until the marriage to send them.” Hima shifted, crossing her legs. “In case you didn’t think him fool enough.”
“Please,” offered Fritha, “don’t besmirch your father’s name. The Feislands owe much to their Southern friends.”
He was a smooth one, that Fritha.
Fadil wheezed, a sound that might have been incidental, but was more likely intended as a slight. “Owe us in great abundance. When, I wonder, shall we see the debt repaid?”
“Are you Massenqa, now?” The heat in Fritha’s words was matched by the redness blustering in his milk-white cheeks. “I had thought you were a representative of the Anata safeta, but you must have fooled me.”
Aurelius would have to do something, say something. “We need to make a move before they do. There’s not much, I’m afraid, we can do to help Ossa, save to send more gold for him to buy northern mercenaries. We need the remainder of our fleet to defend the southern shore.”
“What do you propose then, Sese?” Qanmi’s rings clinked against the table as he laid his hands flat upon the table.
Aurelius had spent days agonizing over a plan. That the one he’d settled on depended on Fadil’s agreement was far from ideal. If the Anata ambassador said no, there was little Aurelius could do to persuade the rest of eq-Anout’s government. He needed the anise-steeped saftan on his side.
Aurelius clasped his hands, sitting tall, allowing his gaze to rove over the faces of his councilors. He needed each of them to see him. He needed each of them to listen. “The Lora are planning an attack on Zimrida, it’s a key target for them and would cut us off from our eastern trade routes. It’s also threateningly close to Ledan in eq-Anout. With Fadil’s help, I’d like to send a fleet north to the island from the Anata capital. Our ships are stronger, faster. We can meet them, and with such a large force we can’t fail to repel them.”
“To what end?” Fadil dripped doubt like other men dripped sweat.
Aurelius ignored the implied slight of the lack of an honorific. Fadil was a man used to dealing with equals, not kings. Aurelius was happy to oblige. “To the end that once we’ve turned their ships to kindling, Lorar’s southern coastline will be ripe for the taking. The bulk of their army is still busy in the Feislands. Attacking Lorar directly will force their hand. They’ll have to recall their troops in the Feislands to deal with the invasion. The Lora Motherland—”
“Fatherland,” Hima corrected, “the Lora have a Fatherland.”
Even after Aurelius had restored her position as heq-Damirat, Hima still took every opportunity to disagree with him. Well, if accepting her pedantry with good humour was the price of her support, then he’d happily suffer it.
“Fatherland,” Aurelius corrected. “If we were to coordinate an attack with King Ossa, his men could march east in the wake of Lorar’s retreating army. We could crush them as we originally planned.”
Qwella leaned forward. Her chair creaked beneath her. “And Indas? What if Hadrianus marches on Qemassen while our men are abroad?” Her voice was surprisingly loud and confident. On any other day, it would have made Aurelius smile.
Aurelius locked his gaze with Fadil’s. “We’ll leave men to defend Qemassen and our western settlements. I put forward that the bulk of our northern forces be supplied by eq-Anout. I can spare twenty ships to aid in Zimrida’s defense, to add to our forces already stationed there. Together, we drive a wedge through Lorar, force them to react to us and not the other way round. Fadil, could you convince the rest of your safeta of this plan?”
Fadil’s attention dropped from Aurelius to the table, his eyes darting back and forth as though he were counting off Anata councillors on the lapis surface. In eq-Anout, the safeta were more powerful even than Aurelius’s advisors. They had no king or queen, only elected officials.
“Yes.” The caution in Fadil’s tone was worrying, but Aurelius set that aside. He was only being circumspect, the way they all should when it came to human lives. “But I would need to offer them something if we’re to commit so many lives to this cause, and I would need to speak with them in person. I would need to leave immediately.”
Aurelius grinned. “You have my permission. And surely a generous percentage of the lands acquired would be enough of an incentive.”
“I believe it would.” When Fadil had said immediately, he hadn’t spoken in jest. The ambassador rose from his chair and bowed low before the council.
Hima shook her head, waving Fadil back to his seat. “It’s a bold strategy, Aurel, but what if we don’t defeat the Lora ships fast enough? What if Hadrianus sails for the Feislands instead of marching for Qemassen?”
Shaqarbas snorted. “He won’t. He’ll want to take full advantage of the Inda light cavalry. He can’t do that in the Feislands. Besides, the Inda have barely any ships. No, Lorar will command Hadrianus to stay as a deterrent to Qemassen.”
“Whether or not the Lora meet us at Zimrida,” Aurelius argued, “and they will—Fadil’s ships will make land in Lorar. The outcome is the same.”
“A game of cat and mouse.” Hima rapped her knuckles against the table. “But you have my support if this is the gambit you’ve settled on.”
“And you have my agreement to the plan,” said Fritha.
One by one, Aurelius’s councilllors gave their assent.
Fadil stepped from the table. He bowed again, this time with a hint of impatience. “I must be off, Sese, if there’s no further need for me?”
Aurelius raised his hand, stopping Fadil in place with the lift of his finger. “One more thing. I would like the Ziphax to join your ships at Zimrida. Can that be arranged, Hima?”
Himalit furrowed her one brow, but the severity of the expression was contemplative rather than angry. “Yes, I think we could spare it. Qorban?”
Qorban jolted to his feet, grinning ear to ear as though he’d just won at dice instead of being ordered to war. “She can be ready immediately, Sese.”
Aurelius smiled—an affectation. “Escort Fadil. You can show him what Massenqa shipbuilding is truly worth.”
“Yes, Sese.” Qorban left the room, following Fadil, beaming with pride.
If only Aurelius could be as happy about it as Qorban.
From across the table, Titrit stared at Aurelius. Gradually her shock melted and was replaced by a numb implacability that Aurelius recognized too well. Aurelius had just ordered her husband away, years after having rejected her himself. He’d doomed her to months of a cold, empty bed.
Aurelius tapped his foot. He understood Titrit’s worry. So much of marriage was letting someone in who might at any time be taken from you. At least Titrit could rest easy that any danger Qorban was in, it wasn’t her own doing. If Bree—Aurelius’s chest tightened with a pained ache—if Bree were to die upon her labour bed, the only one to blame would be the husband who’d put her there. If Qorban didn’t return, at least Titrit wouldn’t suffer that same pain.
It was too soon to lose her. They’d barely had any time at all.
Tanata’s cross gleamed on the table, the gold veins scorching through the lapis like a contorted spider’s web.
A fool would have prayed.
“Aurel.” Hima’s word came softly, as though responding to some expression Aurelius had been making without realizing it. He didn’t like to be so uncontrolled.
“Yes, sister?” The smile he’d summoned for Qorban sprang back into place.
“We should discuss the defense of the city,” Hima said, just as soft as before. “Just because Indas won’t sail north, it doesn’t mean she won’t ride east.”
“We could withstand a siege for years,” Shaqarbas countered. “More than enough time for our allies to relieve us. No one has ever breached these walls.”
“Yet.” Qanmi tapped one fingernail against the lapis—a spider, perhaps, or was he a fly?
His bleak announcement seemed to poison the air in the small little room. It wasn’t just that he was disagreeing with Shaqarbas; a glint in his eye and the twitch of his lip gave the word more force than that.
He knew something.
“Yet,” Aurelius repeated.
“I have interesting news from my man in the Lora senate,” Qanmi explained, as though this man in the Lora senate were common knowledge, and not something Aurelius was hearing about for the first time.
“Your man?” Hima glared across the table, expressing with a look what Aurelius was feeling.
The corner of Qanmi’s lip twitched. “Farnus Alba. A friend, and a White Faction senator.”
“Is he here?” Aurelius asked.
By way of reply, Qanmi nodded to Cheti. Cheti opened the doors and crooked his finger to someone outside.
So, Qanmi had spoken to Cheti privately and arranged this. Aurelius would keep that in mind.
Farnus entered without any particular fanfare, nor any remarkable swagger to his walk. He wasn’t much to look at, neither notably ugly, nor attractive. In places, his pale northern skin was patchy with age, and his skin sagged with the weight of his years. Rather than wearing Lora clothing, as Aurelius had half-expected, he was dressed in Massenqa street clothes. His tunic was fine, but again, unremarkable.
A man who did his best not to be seen.
Once Farnus was inside, Cheti closed the doors to the council chamber.
Farnus collapsed to the floor in supplication.
Was it the custom in Lorar, for senators to kneel so grandly? Surely, as a Loran, he must think himself Aurelius’s equal, not his inferior. Then again, he was a traitor to his people, perhaps he longed yet for a king to put him in his place, a gold sandal pressed to his back as he sweated into the stone floor.
“Sese,” Farnus said simply. His accent was perfect. How terrifying.
“Stand, please, or we’ll all have to crouch to see you, and some of my councilors have aged knees.” Aurelius smiled in amusement. “I’m very handsome, I admit, but I promise you won’t go blind to look at me.”
“Aurel.” Hima scoffed beside him.
Though those who looked upon Aurelius did experience a singular bad luck. Dashel first, now Bree—Aurelius stretched against his chair.
“Speak, man!” Shaqarbas bellowed at Farnus. Perhaps he thought if he yelled at the man, whatever bad news he’d come to convey would scamper off with him.
Farnus looked up, but he didn’t say anything until Qanmi nodded. “The Lora plan to sneak inside the city, Sese. They believe they have allies on the inside. Men to direct them.”
“Men?” Aurelius asked.
“Me,” Qanmi offered, smiling. “Farnus is referring to me. Marianus Rufus is under the rather deluded impression that he and I are friends. There are tunnels, Sese, beneath the Shedi-Qalana. They lead outside the city walls, and I have promised the good senator that I will reveal them to him.”
Aurelius stared. “That sounds like what Bree described, when we were taken by the slaves. How do you know this? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now, Sese. With respect, there was no need until now. King Eshmunen and Samelqo eq-Milqar were both complicit in the plan.”
Aurelius grimaced. He couldn’t say it would have been out of character for Samelqo and Eshmunen to keep such a thing to themselves. “Now, Qanmi eq-Sabaal, tell me everything.”
Titrit stood and spoke before her father could. The animosity and disappointment of earlier no longer distorted her face. The Titrit who stood before Aurelius was his old friend—wise, practical steadfast. “He’s telling the truth, Sese. Samelqo hatched the scheme. My father was to pretend to betray Qemassen, with Farnus as a go-between.”
“Tarqis Murinus and Marianus believed Farnus was their man,” Qanmi continued. “In any case, the plan worked. Lorar believes I will send someone to lead them under the tunnels, which I will, of course, though what they don’t know is that we will have weakened them. Indeed, after the recent earthquakes, that may not even be necessary.”
Aurelius frowned. He should have been told about this as soon as his name had been uttered in the same breath as king. “Did you know, Hima?”
She looked near as wroth as Aurelius felt. “No.”
“I did.” Everyone turned to look at Qwella, who bit her lip, sheepishly. “The tunnels run underneath our temple. A friend showed me. They go all the way to the sea—well, nearly. There must have been a cave-in, because it’s blocked off by rubble.” She’d barely looked at Qanmi for the whole meeting—Aurelius didn’t blame her—but this time she held her head high and stared right at him. “We’d need a lot of people to help clear it.”
Aurelius rubbed his forehead. “And should the Lora reach our shores, which they shouldn’t, you’re confident we can execute this plan? How many men are they planning to send inside?”
Qanmi grinned, a frightful expression. “Nearly all of them.”
If the Lora made it as far as Qemassen, that would mean Zimrida, and likely eq-Anout, would have to have fallen. It was a lot of hypotheticals to devote so much manpower to the enterprise. Then again, it would save the lives of Qemassen’s soldiers, and it could help them avoid a long siege. If enough of the Lora army were crushed beneath Massenqa stone, Aurelius might even retain the forces he needed for an entirely different enterprise.
Indas. His mother’s country. It shone before him, brighter than Tanata’s cross.
He glanced at Shaqarbas, who couldn’t possibly know what he was thinking. The Indan prince had stood beside him just as long as Dashel, and just as faithfully. Was it time, at last, to repay him?
Aurelius tore his attention back to Qanmi. “How will we organize this?”
Qanmi shrugged idly, as though he’d worked this out long ago and had complete confidence in his success. “The people of Qemassen will volunteer if it means they can rest easy that Lora swords won’t slit their throats. Beyond that, we have slaves enough to put to work.”
More slaves. More slaves who might see the tunnels and make a connection between them and Zioban’s rebellion. The rebel was still out there, assuming, of course, that he hadn’t died. “We’ll need trustworthy men to coordinate this.”
“And women.” Qwella’s voice was iron. “My Ashqata will help. All the temples will. We’re the closest to the tunnels. It’s only logical.”
Aurelius sucked his teeth. The earthquake that had struck during his coronation hadn’t been as destructive as it might have, but it had hit the Shedi-Qalana worst of all. An entire wall in the temple of Ashtet had collapsed and killed twenty people, and the heq-Ashqen of Abaal had been crushed beneath a statue of his own god. If a worse earthquake struck and Qwella was underground in an area already known for its instability, she could be buried alive, or worse—crushed.
But then, Hima regularly put herself at risk on the open ocean. If the ploy was to work, Qemassen would have to station ships outside the walls, so as not to earn the suspicion of the Lora attackers. Who was Aurelius to deny Qwella the opportunity to defend her country, the same as any man—the same as their elder sister? Only she could make that choice.
A choice Bree had been denied.
Aurelius quashed the thought.
He nodded at Cheti. The man was still viciously scribbling. “Fine, that’s what we’ll do. Qwella and Qanmi, I want you in charge of the operation. I want every detail of this examined and mapped out, and once it’s been scoured over by your four eyes I want it brought to me to be scoured over again. Is everyone agreed?”
The entire council raised their palms in accordance. At least they’d been able to agree on something. Samelqo’s death had left a considerable void amongst the Semassenqa—a void Aurelius was forced to fill. He would have thought, from the speed at which everyone here had stood for him in the Eghri, that the council would have rejoiced at his kingship more enthusiastically, but it wasn’t so. Life, it turned out, was more complicated.
And outside this room, something very simple but very deadly was still happening. Once the council concluded, Aurelius would be left to fret over Bree, with no Dashel to distract him as his best friend surely would have. Aurelius must think of something more to keep himself here—
He laid his hand on Hima’s shoulder. “Hima, one more thing. Arrange for the Yirada to keep watching for signs of Zioban.” He paused. The rest of the council weren’t aware of Dashel’s innocence. “We may have caught their leader, but I doubt very much they’ll be cowed by his death. All we’ve given them is a martyr to rally around. Someone else might take Zioban’s place.”
No one had seen any sign of the slaves since Uta had been attacked, but toppling Eshmunen couldn’t have been their only goal. Aurelius had witnessed Safot’s suicide. The man had wanted something much more than to replace Aurelius’s father.
Hima stood up and bowed her head with a gentility that could almost have passed as genuine, but which Aurelius recognized for the sarcasm it was. “I’ll mention it to Adoran, the man you should really be speaking to, instead of your very busy sister. You could have ordered him to join your council.”
That brought a genuine smile out of him. He raised an eyebrow. “So you would have a parrot to sing your every word?”
“I only sing words worth repeating,” Hima snapped, but she returned his expression.
The rest of the council rose to their feet. Each bowed in turn as they made to leave. Even Farnus scraped himself from the floor before latching himself to Qanmi’s side.
Cheti reached to open the chamber doors for the councilors, but as he did, someone banged three times, hard, in quick succession, on the exterior.
Something had happened to Bree. She’d died. The child had died.
“Let them in!” Aurelius yelled a bit too loud, a bit too rabidly.
The councilors scrambled to make way as a panicked Cheti threw open the doors.
The heq-Ashqen of Tanata, Lepti eq-Urad, entered. His hands were stained red with blood.
Aurelius’s mouth hung open. He couldn’t summon the necessary words.
After too long a wait, Hima finally broke the silence for him. “Is the queen all right?”
Aurelius stood up, heart tight, head light, the judging eyes of his advisors picking apart his every movement.
Lepti smiled at Aurelius. “More than all right, Sese. She’s given you a son.”