Chapter 16: IV: Ashtaroth
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Chapter 16: Generals
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
“Atlin has fallen?!” Ashtaroth leaped from his bed and settled into a pace—back forth back forth in front of Cheti. “Are you quite sure?”
Eremus, Ashtaroth’s slave and current jailor, rumbled out of Ashtaroth’s way to stand flush against the wall beside the door. His bulging muscles made him look like a labourer. The council must have chosen him from Qanmi’s stock with defenestrating Ashtaroth in mind.
“Quite sure, Sese.” Cheti kept his hands folded, head bowed.
Cold morning light slanted into the room, adding to the chill that spread upwards from Ashtaroth’s toes. In bed, it’d seemed like vipers tore at his insides, but they’d disappeared and been replaced by Cheti’s bad news.
If Atlin had fallen, where would Lorar next turn its attentions? Everything terrible that Ashtaroth had feared was coming to pass. Couldn’t Aurelius see that? Didn’t he know? The world was turning upside down and only Ashtaroth seemed able to see it.
Ashtaroth grabbed two of his fingers in his left hand and bent them back. An ache shot from his joints to his fingertips, and he switched to his thumb.
Anything to distract from the seething pain in his back.
“How long did they wait to tell me?”
Cheti looked up. His brown eyes looked like empty bowls. “They didn’t, Sese. King Aurelius eq-Eshmunen sent me right away to tell you.”
King Aurelius eq-Eshmunen, as though Ashtaroth might have forgotten who their father was.
He scoffed. “But not to invite me to council, I suppose?”
Cheti rubbed his lips together. “No, Sese.”
Ashtaroth stretched his hand back, feeling beneath his tunic for the poultice Qirani had made to treat the weeping sore that had opened there. “I was born to save Qemassen from destruction. How can I do that from in here? I’m not mad. I’m not. Tell him to let me out. Tell him I order him to let me out.”
“I will, Sese.”
Ashtaroth snorted, stopping mid-step. “No, you won’t.” Or if he did, Aurelius wouldn’t listen to him.
Ashtaroth’s fingers, where they’d touched the poultice, tingled with oncoming numbness. He wiped the anesthetizing substance off on his robe.
“I promise to tell him, Sese.”
Standing beside one of his cluttered tables, Ashtaroth nudged the corner of a scroll with his finger. The urge to overturn the table was almost irresistible. It was irresistible, only Ashtaroth wasn’t strong enough to do it.
Maybe he’d order Eremus to topple it—let him flex those meaty shoulders. Let the last of Ashtaroth’s life fall away to nothing.
He’d never leave this room. He’d never speak to anyone of import ever again. He’d die in here, surrounded by near strangers and with only the voices of dead poets for company. Them, and Lilit.
Every part of him was cold.
Ashtaroth bit his lip. “But that’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Sese?” Cheti inclined his head with an expression very close to concern.
“Leave. You can go. Thank you for relaying my brother’s message.” Ashtaroth turned away. He walked to the window, waiting for the sound of the door closing before letting out a dry sob.
Outside, a peacock strutted free along a brick wall.
Chaos was upon the city, lingering just out of sight, yet the bird marched on, oblivious, no care in the world but his search for a mate and the patrolling of his small sliver of territory. He didn’t know that doom waited beyond the bend.
Like the peacock man in Ashtaroth’s vision. A woman—Ashtaroth’s mother most likely—had kissed him and his alabaster skin had cracked open to spill gold onto the floor. Ashtaroth’s skin had cracked with the man’s.
Was the man the city, maybe? What had happened to the man had happened to Ashtaroth. Could it mean that because Ashtaroth suffered, the city suffered? Because Ashtaroth was trapped, Qemassen was trapped?
The council claimed he was imprisoned for both his own safety, and the safety of the court, but it was the safety of his family’s reputation that Aurelius and Hima cared about.
Below the window, the peacock mewed, but no one answered.
Alone. Like Ashtaroth.
“Come walk with me.”
There were worse things than being alone.
At this point, Ashtaroth’s slaves barely reacted when he started talking to himself, so he didn’t bother trying to pretend for Eremus’s benefit.
He leaned hard on the windowsill, as though the foundations of the building could anchor him there, as though if he didn’t look at Lilit she’d disappear. “No.”
“So sour. I won’t hurt you, I promise. My promises can be trusted, can’t they, Ashmodai?”
It had been a long time since Ashmodai had joined his mistress. Ashtaroth turned around out of pure curiosity.
The tall, handsome demon was as dour as ever. His long black curls tumbled to his pale bare shoulders. His expression was anything but honest as he replied with dark humour. “Yes, Lilit.”
Lilit stomped her foot. “Yes, Sese. You have to play the part, Ashmodai.”
“Yes, Sese,” Ashmodai corrected, with just as much sarcasm. “You always keep your promises. Until it suits you to change your mind.”
“That’s right.” Lilit held her head high as though proud.
“His response doesn’t inspire much confidence.” Ashtaroth searched out the window for the peacock, but the bird was gone. Perhaps it had found its mate.
“Come with me, Ashtaroth,” Lilit begged. “Please?”
Come walk with her. And what? Be free? There was no free where Lilit was concerned. Ashtaroth might be a fool and he might be mad, but he understood that.
He stared at the empty wall. In the distance, the peacocks called to one another.
To feel his feet touch the earth again. To breathe fresh air and walk without the hulk of Eremus’s shadow overhanging his. To see Qemassen’s streets and remember that he had once been a person instead of his family’s private shame.
Why not leave with Lilit, if she could make it so? She hovered around him whatever he did and wherever he went. Ashtaroth might as well get something out of it.
“If you can get me away, you’re free to do it.” Ashtaroth faced her and glared. “But only if there isn’t a price this time.”
Lilit smiled to herself as if at some small triumph, looking for all the world like an ordinary girl. Yellow hyacinths still sprouted from her brown hair, but for the first time in a long time, her face wasn’t crushed and bloody. “I can do that. It’s easy enough if you know how.”
For the last few months, Ashtaroth had continued reading whatever he could about Lilit. Some documents had been refused him, on the grounds that they would disturb his mind further, but Ashtaroth had at least received some of the materials he’d wanted. Most of them were useless or repeated information Ashtaroth had already known. Lilit was a goddess and to the Eru a demon. Lilit was summoned to wreak havoc and vengeance, particularly on behalf of women and against the men who had wronged them. Lilit fed on the blood of Eru infants. Lilit was the bride of Ashmodai. Lilit hungered for flesh with an insatiable appetite. She was an owl. She was a temptress. She was dishonest and malevolent.
At least if she were dishonest, some of the so-called secrets she’d told him started to make sense. The notion that he and Aurelius—perhaps all of Ashtaroth’s siblings—lacked any amount of royal blood, was truly unbelievable. And there had been her assertion that Samelqo was alive—unlikely, when Dashel had admitted to his murder. It might mean she was wrong about Ashtaroth’s kingship as well.
But for that, Aurelius would have to die.
Ashtaroth pushed the thought from his mind. “How do we get out then? Climb through the window like my brother?”
Lilit smiled. “No, that would be silly. There’s a much easier way, and it doesn’t involve getting your clothes dirty.”
He eyed her cautiously. “All right.”
Ashtaroth had been about to ask for more detail when the world fell away. Swirls of colour like mixed paint drowned his vision. Voices popped in and out of earshot—snatches of conversations from people Ashtaroth recognized but didn’t know.
He stumbled forward.
Less than a second passed and he stood outside, wide open sky above him, hilly countryside around him. Pungent, salty sea air drifted to his nose along soothing currents, fresh and light on his tongue. Nearby, sheep and goats grazed on low, rough grass. Short, thorny argan trees shaded the ground on the lower slope, and when Ashtaroth looked north he had a perfect view of Qemassen, glinting under the midday sun like a gem ready for the taking.
Ashtaroth held his hand up, squinting. It looked as though he could take the entire city in his palm―grand harbour, palace, and all. If he reached for them, he could hold all the people who lived encased within Qemassen’s walls: merchants and buyers bustling in the Eghri eq-Shalem, supplicants offering prayers and paying for sacrifices along the Shedi-Qalana, families strolling winding avenues rich with colour and history.
Ashtaroth’s home. The most beautiful city in the world.
The Qabira in the dockyard towered with arms outstretched, welcoming sailors from distant seas. In the bay, Tanata-Elibat’s statue peered past the edge of Tarefsa Tithmeseti.
“Haven’t you ever wanted to sail, Ashtaroth?” Lilit asked from behind him. “Sailing, I thought, was in Massenqa blood. I grew up being lectured that you were a curious people―a city of explorers and pirates and mercenaries.”
When Ashtaroth turned, Lilit was approaching from uphill, framed by a stand of towering cedars. She was dressed in simple but elegant peasant attire, a pale blue robe with a hood that framed her face, a shepherd’s crook in one hand.
“Lectured by whom?” Ashtaroth turned away from her before she reached him, neither expecting a reply nor receiving one.
She stood beside him, admiring the view quietly the way a normal woman might. It was odd to think she might enjoy the simple beauties of the human world, and that someone might tell her anything she didn’t already know.
An especially cool breeze hit them, and Lilit shivered. She pulled her robes closer, eyeing Ashtaroth expectantly. “You hate me, don’t you? I know you do.”
The question startled him. What could he say? Hate was such a trivial word for what he felt toward her, an emotion reserved for the childhood enemy, or the swindler―something for Qanmi, perhaps, or even Aurelius.
“I don’t know.” He swallowed the knot that had formed in his throat. “I suppose I must, after everything that’s happened.”
Lilit nodded at that, seeming to recognize the truth in it. “I’ve done a lot for you.” Her words were sad.
“Where’s Ashmodai?” Ashtaroth didn’t want to have a conversation with Lilit about what she had or hadn’t done to him.
Lilit shrugged. “He comes and goes.” Her eyes looked lusterless and numb.
“You don’t control him?”
From above them, a falcon shrieked, prompting a scattering of smaller birds to burst in a panic from the branches of an argan tree.
“Such a cruel word.” Lilit paused. The falcon swooped down, faster than Ashtaroth could follow it. “Yes. Maybe. He’s mine and I love him.”
It wasn’t much of an answer. “What are you? Are you my sister?”
Lilit shook her head. “No. I’m nobody. Maybe I was somebody once, but that was a long time ago. So long.”
The falcon veered abruptly, clutching one of the smaller birds in its talons. “Then why do you care about me? If you’re not my sister, and you’re not from Qemassen, why do I even matter to you?”
After much fretting, Ashtaroth had come to the conclusion he held a great deal of power over Lilit. It seemed from her behaviour he had something she wanted, and that whatever it was couldn’t be taken from him unless freely given.
Lilit appeared lost in a dreamworld. Ashtaroth could understand—the whole world was a dream now, and he wasn’t convinced that he was the dreamer. Faces came to him: memories from before Lilit had appeared. Sometimes, even in daylight, he saw Djana’s smiling face, but then a shadow would overtake him, and the happy memory would be replaced by one of her broken cheeks and contorted limbs. A woman, fallen from a great height, just like Lilit.
“I like you,” Lilit answered eventually. “I want you for my own. You were lonely and I thought we could be friends.”
It sounded as though she actually believed herself.
“If I’m lonely, it’s only because you’ve made me that way.”
Lilit stared at him with a hint of fear in her brown eyes. Her curls, caught in the breeze, blew past her hood. Was it his imagination, or was she smaller today, diminished?
“You were always lonely,” said Lilit. “I can tell. I can always tell. You didn’t know it was all. It’s lonely at the top, and once you’ve fallen from so high, there’s no one to catch you at the bottom; everyone’s too busy scrambling for the chance to replace you.”
“How would you know?” Ashtaroth narrowed his eyes, considering how best to force an answer. “Who was Dannae?” Ashtaroth pinned her with his gaze. “Was she Qanmi’s mother? Are you angry because your husband murdered you?”
Shock struck Lilit’s face, then melted away. Her throat bobbed as though she were struck by some genuine emotion. “I wasn’t murdered by my husband.”
Lilit reached for him. He stepped back, but she quickly clasped his hand.
An Ashqen of Adonen trailed his gold-slathered paintbrush across Ashtaroth’s chest, tickling his nipple. Ashtaroth flinched, then straightened. He glanced down at the man crouched on a chair beside him and met his eyes.
“This would have been faster with more help,” said the Ashqen—Bitros. “Traditionally, there would be at least four of us.”
“It would also be faster if you used a larger brush,” Ashtaroth snapped. “Perhaps you should have simply filled a bath.”
Ashtaroth’s chest buzzed with a nervousness he couldn’t kill. He hadn’t felt this way since—
He clenched his fists, feeling the weight of Abaal’s horns upon his head as though he wore them now.
“If I used a larger brush, the detail would be lost,” huffed Bitros. “I’d always thought you were more concerned with detail than anything else, but I’ve learned a lot about you tonight.” Bitros dipped his brush in gold, then stood up. “Tilt your neck back.”
Ashtaroth did as instructed, breathing in deep and swallowing a lungful of the noxious, metallic smell of the paint. The room started to spin and he stumbled.
“Careful,” Bitros warned. “It’s the paint.”
“I know what it is,” said Ashtaroth.
From toes to cock to shoulders, nearly his whole naked body was plastered in it.
Bitros bent down and Ashtaroth lowered his head.
“Keep your chin up. I have to do another coat.”
The brush itched up Ashtaroth’s neck, followed by a scratch as though Bitros were fussing over an excess of paint. He tsked and Ashtaroth rolled his eyes.
Bitros clucked and Ashtaroth lowered his head again.
“Extend your arm,” Bitros instructed.
It had been so long since Ashtaroth had taken orders from a fellow priest. He did as he was told, watching the tattooed line along his arms disappear beneath a swatch of gold. It took three coats to completely smother the blue.
“The goddess will be disappointed,” said Bitros.
The goddess wouldn’t be disappointed at all; Ashtaroth was certain of that. She’d got exactly what she wanted.
“She’s expecting a king,” Bitros continued.
“The king,” said Ashtaroth, “has declined the request. The crown of Abaal does not bow to the thighs of Ashtet.”
Bitros reached for an even smaller brush. Weapon in hand, he leaned up to carefully daub Ashtaroth’s cheek. “But the star of Tanata does.”
With Bitros’s brush working so close to Ashtaroth’s eye, any physical display of irritation risked Ashtaroth being blinded. He let his displeasure seep into his words instead. “The star of Tanata knows that its place is in service to the king. Would that the heq-Ashqen of Adonen demonstrated the same respect for the priestly hierarchy.”
Bitros laughed. “The heq-Ashqen of Adonen has only the deepest respect for you, Sese. But do let me enjoy myself tonight.” He looked Ashtaroth up and down appraisingly. He opened his mouth to speak. “You would have made a—”
“Don’t,” Ashtaroth warned.
“It was going to be a compliment, Sese,” said Bitros.
It was only ever a compliment.
“Sese, you’re shaking.” Bitros reached behind him. He retrieved the cloudy glass cup Ashtaroth had prepared for himself earlier.
The king’s hairs swirled in circles inside the glass, around and around in a bath of semen from the sacred bull, oyster juice, milk, and lotus tea.
Ashtaroth could taste it without drinking.
Bitros brought it to Ashtaroth’s mouth. “I need to paint your lips next, Sese. And the lotus tea will calm you.”
Ashtaroth closed his eyes and parted his lips.
Bitros tipped the cup gently, and Ashtaroth swallowed the potion as quickly as he could. For the first time in a long time, he gagged. He pitched forward, covering his mouth, clutching his stomach with his other hand.
It didn’t taste better coming back up, but Ashtaroth grit his teeth and forced it down.
“Sese? Should I mix another?”
Since Bitros had no idea what the potion consisted of, his concoction would undoubtedly have a superior flavour. Ashtaroth held up a staying hand. “The paint made me nauseous.”
Ashtaroth straightened himself. He ran his tongue over his front teeth, finding a knot of hair wedged between them. He worked it free and swallowed. It almost came up again.
“Some mint or qarqada tea,” Ashtaroth fumbled out.
“You sent the slaves away, remember?” asked Bitros.
Gods grant him patience. He grit his teeth and closed his eyes again, willing himself to keep the potion down. “Then fetch it yourself.”
Bitros hurried off this time and Ashtaroth was left inside the small, windowless room in Adonen’s temple.
A polished bronze mirror hung against the far wall and with nothing else to do, he approached it.
A stranger stared back at him—gaunt, crooked-featured, and with hair as white as snow.
It disappeared, replaced by Ashtaroth’s face. Handsome, if at turns severe. Whatever he’d seen, it hadn’t been him.
It was an illusion caused by lotus tea and paint fumes.
Ashtaroth’s heartbeat slowed and he crept closer again, hand hovering just shy of touching his cheek and smearing Bitros’s fine work. The heq-Ashqen of Adonen wasn’t a poor cosmetician, by any means, especially considering he worked only in gold. Ashtaroth would have accentuated his eyes with kohl, but perhaps that was yet to come.
He turned his face left and right, considering, letting his mind drift on the eddies of the lotus tea. The frenzied jittering in his bones had quieted, replaced by a familiar, calm acquiescence.
It wasn’t Dannae he went to tonight. It was Ashtet. It wasn’t Ashtaroth who went to her, but Isir—no, Adonen. Whatever Dannae thought she was doing in choosing him, it wasn’t as potent as what the gods willed. It was their call he answered, not hers.
Besides, Isir had commanded him, against all Ashtaroth’s reasoning. Isir could have sent anyone in the king’s place, yet he’d insisted. It was as though he derived pleasure from Ashtaroth’s obvious discomfort.
But then, that was nothing new.
A haze filled the room, filled his vision.
The gold paint drying on his skin felt like fingers running all over him.
He reached for the pin keeping his long hair bound in a knot atop his head and pulled it free. His golden brown curls tumbled loose—a mess from being constrained so long. Ashtaroth grabbed his hair from the back, bunching it in his fist. Perhaps he ought to have Bitros soak his hair in gold as well.
A grin that didn’t entirely feel like his own stretched across his face and a laugh erupted from him.
Bitros chuckled from beneath the arch leading into the room. “I see the lotus tea is doing its work.” He tapped his nose. “Lotus tea, and something else I may have slipped in. For your nerves.”
Ashtaroth released his hair and grimaced. “Not sapenta.”
“Something for your nerves.”
Ashtaroth took a wobbly step toward Bitros. “I am not prone to nervousness.”
Bitros bit his lip as though disguising a smile. “Exactly, Sese.” He held out a cup.
“What is that?” Ashtaroth reached for it. The sharp sting of mint steamed from the surface of the tea.
“Your tea. Now, Sese, I would suggest you drink it so that I can finish my work. It is not recommended that you wear the paint for too long, and your bride is already waiting.”
Ashtaroth followed Bitros back to the centre of the room.
“Dannae.” Her name slipped from his lips like the vestiges of a dream.
“Ashtet,” said Bitros.
Ashtaroth started to laugh again. Nothing was funny. He didn’t want to be laughing.
Bitros frowned. “Perhaps my gift was not such a good idea.” He glanced down at Ashtaroth’s waist. “Are you able to perform your role, or will you require help?”
A wave of lucidity smashed through him. “No.”
“Good. I can assure you that Dannae et-Erinya is a beautiful woman. Her family’s from Vetna, I believe.” He eyed Ashtaroth. “If women are to your taste.”
“My tastes are not your concern.”
Bitros resumed painting and Ashtaroth sank into the quiet. His thoughts wouldn’t fix on one thing. He wanted only to sleep.
“All done, Sese.”
Ashtaroth looked at Bitros in surprise. He’d lost time. “Slap me.”
Bitros’s caterpillar eyebrows met in the middle. “I’m not going to slap you, Sese.”
“You will slap me, because if you don’t you’ll be punished for drugging your heq-Ashqen.”
Bitros pulled his arm back.
Ashtaroth’s whole face stung.
Ashtaroth strode past Bitros with renewed purpose, then out of the room, through a corridor, and into the debir where she would be waiting. There was little point in dragging this out. He had to know what Dannae knew. He had to know why she’d done this.
Dannae was lying on a couch, popping grapes into her mouth. She froze mid-bite upon seeing him.
The small room, which typically contained Adonen’s statue, was empty but for Dannae, a collection of furniture, several braziers to light the space, and a table piled high with food. With Ashtaroth and Dannae taking on the roles of their gods, there was no room for cold stone within the debir. Warm flesh had replaced it.
Dannae swallowed her grape and sat up. “I knew it would be you.” She gripped the couch to either side of her, her nails digging into the fabric.
Ashtaroth couldn’t move.
“Oh, don’t look like that.”
“Look like what?” asked Ashtaroth. People always accused him of looking like something, when Ashtaroth was certain he wore no expression at all.
“You’re doing that thing with your face.” Dannae sighed. “Nevermind. Just come here.” She patted the couch. “Don’t I look beautiful? I’ve never felt so beautiful.”
She was beautiful, dressed in a sheer yellow stola, with hyacinths woven through her hair and chalk-white paint dusted across her face. She’d been dressed the same when she’d performed Ashtet’s dance before the Semassenqa, only then Ashtaroth had been able to look upon her without the knowledge that he was duty-bound to touch her.
He was duty-bound to touch the goddess Ashtet, not Dannae et-Erinya.
Ashtaroth would do his duty.
He walked toward her but couldn’t bring himself to sit.
Dannae broke into a laugh. “You look silly.”
“Silly?” He sat beside her.
“I wish you didn’t have all that paint covering you. Maybe I should scratch it off.” She leaned back against the couch.
Beneath the facepaint, she was the same Dannae. Even twenty years later. Even after marrying Sabaal, even with new lines etched at the corners of her eyes.
Ashtaroth though, was not the same Ashtaroth. Another woman’s voice whispered in his ear.
“This is your doing,” he accused. “What did you hope to gain?”
Dannae tensed. She pulled her legs against her chest and hugged them. “Samé, it’s me. I don’t want to gain anything. I wanted to see you.” She paused. “I wanted to see if you were the same as you used to be. Which you are—you’re just as cold.”
“Did your husband make you name the king?”
“Samé.” She wouldn’t face him suddenly. She started to cry. Her tears carved pale brown trenches in her white facepaint. She buried her face in her hands.
“Dannae.” Samelqo’s chest ached. She really was just as she had been, not only the same as when he’d last truly spoken with her, but the same Dannae he’d grown up with. His sister’s best friend. They knew each other differently than others knew them.
Dannae sniffed and rubbed her eyes. White paint stained her hands. “I wanted to see you, truly. But look at us.” She threw up her hands, then waved at him, encompassing Samelqo’s entirety. She laughed. “Look at what we’ve done to ourselves.”
Samelqo stared at her, understanding, yet affecting an incredulity he didn’t entirely feel. “Yes, look at us. You’re the heq-Ashqat of Ashtet and I’m heq-Ashqen. How terrible.”
His words managed to goad her into a smile, at least, but it was a sad one. “He hits me.”
“We should have married.”
Samelqo remained silent. He couldn’t lie to her. No amount of tears could make him wish away what he had now. Of course, he pitied her, but what good did pity do? “We set our sights on finer prizes.”
Dannae grimaced. “Is that what she is to you?”
The world turned cold, hard, and grey in an instant. “I don’t know what you could mean.”
“I’ve seen them, so don’t try to play me for a fool.” Dannae smirked. She stretched out her leg and cupped his thigh with the ridge of her foot. She wriggled her toes. “What a fabulous con you’re pulling. Your parents would be so proud.”
Samelqo pinched her toe and used it to pull her foot off him. “There is no con.”
Their eyes met, the tug of familiarity hooking them to one another. He watched the hope die in her eyes as she saw and understood.
“No.” Dannae’s tears came again, followed by a wrenching sob. “Nono. Please. No.” She shook her head. “You’re right. I made you come here. He asked me to, and I did and you’re right, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But I—I wanted to see you so much. I thought—I needed to see your smile, because every day is awful, and I don’t know how long I—”
He pulled her against him. She wrapped her arms around his back and sobbed into his shoulder.
“Samé.” She spoke his name like a salve, pulling herself onto his lap. Her words hushed against his ear. “I’m breaking apart. You’re all I have.”
But Dannae wasn’t all he had.
“I’m here tonight,” he said. That part was true. She’d all but tethered him to her.
A smile shone through the rain of her tears. “Because I made you. What can I say? I’m still a bad girl.” Where her tears had fallen, they’d washed away Bitros’s gold paint. Dannae stared at her work, scraping off more paint with a fingernail. “Maybe we’re both a little bad.”
“I’ll take care of Sabaal.”
“You shouldn’t have to, after what I did. This is my mess.” She tucked a loose strand of his hair behind his ear. “I’ll handle it.” Her thighs tensed around his waist. She laid her palm flat against his chest and kissed him. “All you have to do is handle me. If that’s something you still know how to do.”
She must be able to feel him hard against her.
He was staring at her blood-red lips.
The lotus tea fuzzed his vision.
There was a reason he was here. Something he had to do, whether he wanted to or not, and yes, part of him did want to.
He kissed her cheek, then her lips. He bit her neck.
She flexed her back and let out a shrill, false little gasp.
Samelqo laughed. “You can do better.”
He found the crook beneath her knee and stroked his finger slowly and deliberately down her leg.
This time, the sound she made was real. “You remembered.” She closed her eyes and smiled. “See? Now what else do you remember? Your goddess wants her wedding night.”
Yes. That he could do.
He shifted, ready to stand, and she wrapped her legs around his back. He lifted her up, walking—stumbling—with her in his arms.
“You can have your wedding night.” Samelqo grabbed her tighter, pressing his fingers deep into familiar flesh, holding her steady. She flexed her muscles beneath his hand. “If you tell him you met someone else tonight.”
“You mean if I lie.” She kissed him. “That paint tastes of poison.”
He was still dizzy, and they thudded a little too hard against the wall. If she minded, she didn’t say so. Instead, she cupped his face and kissed him. Her tongue slipped past his lips.
She smelled like cinnamon and lavender, just like she used to. She smiled just like she used to. Tasted like she used to.
He needed to focus on what was at stake.
He shifted her weight onto one hand, letting the wall hold her up, coaxing her into leaning back. “I’m yours for the night if you promise to tell him it was someone else.” He slid his free hand between her legs, touching her slowly—down, down, down, till she swallowed and leaned her head back. He held his thumb there, making small controlled movements.
“It wasn’t me,” he repeated.
“Mmm.” She bit her lip and started to move her hips gently in time with his strokes. “That’s not how it works. You’re my husband back from the dead and I get to tell you what to do.” She squinted at him coyly. “Does she tell you what to do? Is that what it’s about for you now—taking orders?”
He moved his thumb slightly to the right and she squealed.
“I shouldn’t have taught you to do that.” Her breath was laboured. She met his eyes. “You’re really not going to fuck me if I don’t promise? Don’t try to beat me at this game.”
She wrapped her fingers around his cock and he inched tighter against her.
“It’s a small concession,” Samelqo managed.
She pulled him close enough that he could feel her wetness, then leaned in and whispered into his ear. “I don’t want to concede.”
“It’s the price I’m asking.”
Dannae scoffed. She bit his cheek. “Fine. It wasn’t you. It was some hunched old Ashqen from Molot’s temple, because the king was in a bad mood.”
“Because the king had no interest, and he ordered someone else to do it. Because he loves his queen too greatly.” Samelqo kissed her. “He chose not to.”
“What other reason could there possibly be?” She stroked her fingers to his tip and Samelqo sucked back a sharp breath. She stuck out her tongue. “People don’t say no to me. Sabaal won’t believe anything else.”
Samelqo let her pull him inside her. “Make him believe it.” He rolled his shoulders and held her in place against the wall. Her hands roamed his body.
“Slow.” She closed her eyes. Loose yellow petals were plastered to her sweat-soaked skin. “Ah. Yes. Like that.”
Thrusting slowly against the wall was a challenge, and Samelqo carried her to the bed in the centre of the room. He laid her down, slipping out of her in the process. She reached for him again.
“Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have got tired.” She laughed, guiding him inside her. The gold paint had flaked off, shimmering across Dannae’s pale, tan skin.
She wrapped her legs around him and squeezed. He rolled his hips, going slow.
“Twenty years ago, I was twenty years old.” He kissed her neck, her earlobe, rubbed her nipple beneath his thumb.
“Pretend you are.” She arched her back against the bed, meeting his thrusts. “Pretend you love me.”
Samelqo looked up. Tears stained Dannae’s cheeks. He kissed her. “A god loves his goddess.”
Dannae let out a sound that was half moan half wail. “She’s not as beautiful as me.” She gripped his backside, urging him to go faster.
He sucked back a moan of his own. “She—”
Dannae laughed, breathing harder. “So there is a she. Do you use all my tricks on her?”
It was easy not to answer. She was so tight, so warm, so familiar around him. She knew exactly how to make him lose control.
And it didn’t matter if he did. He wasn’t himself now. She wasn’t Dannae. It wasn’t her skin against his, or his cock inside her, or their lips and hands and—
“Sweet Adonen.” Her voice thrummed with sarcasm. “So holy. So good. Ah. So clean.”
The words were cold water poured over him. He started to pull away.
Dannae grabbed his neck and held him in place. “No. I meant it.”
He was getting close.
“Holy fucking whores.”
Samelqo bit his lip. “I’m . . . not—”
“Then why are you here?”
He pulled out, spilling his seed onto her belly. He hesitated before slipping his fingers inside her.
Dannae writhed under him, head turned to the side, eyes closed. She gripped the bed. Finally, she finished with an arch of her back.
Samelqo pulled away his hand, staring at her. Looking down at her, she seemed so far away suddenly, and a chill wrapped itself around him, folding inside him.
The white chalk that had disguised her human skin was smeared away, revealing bruises across her ribs and ringing her thighs. He looked down at himself, at the gold that had been so easily chipped away from him. Underneath it, beneath his human skin, perhaps Dannae could see the bruises there, too.
There was no goddess here. No god. And all he felt was dirty.
“The king struck his son today.” The words fell away from him as easily as the paint. It felt just as ugly.
Blood on the sand. Blood and a split lip. A broken nose. Bruises across his cheeks. And Samelqo had stood there and let it happen, because to say anything at all was to invite worse. Because it was a king’s prerogative to treat his son however he deemed fit.
His stomach churned.
Dannae propped herself up on her elbows. “And? Why should you care?”
Samelqo stared at her.
She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “Is King Isir unhappy with the crown prince?” She leaned forward, grinning ear to ear. “Could he be more unhappy still?”
“Dannae, you promised. We don’t do this to each other.”
She sat up and began cleaning the mess on her belly with the corner of a blanket. “The palace has spoiled you. We do whatever it takes to survive.”
Samelqo clenched his jaw. Delicacy. This situation required delicacy. This was precisely the kind of mess Isir trusted him to clean up. He tilted his chin up, head held high. “Safeva would be horrified to see you now.”
Dannae scowled. “Safeva was the best of us, and guess what, she’s dead. We’re both here because of the blood on our hands, Samé. I’ll use whatever tools I have to make sure I’m still here come the sunrise.”
A mask. He would make his face a mask. “What do you want?”
“Not much. Just to feel alive.” She smiled, tender, and reached for his knee. She laid her hand there, inching forward. “We could see each other more often.”
“Tonight. That’s all.” He feigned disinterest, unconcern. “You have nothing.”
Dannae laughed. “Do people find you hard to read? That flicker of your eyelashes.” She waved her hand in the air, sticking her nose up. “So disinterested. So poised. You’re a careful assemblage of qualities and always have been. I saw how you were made, remember?”
Samelqo narrowed his eyes at her.
“The king has a least favourite,” she said. “Does he have a favourite? What about the queen? That pretty little girl—Nila?—you know she came to see me.” Dannae reached between her legs. She touched herself and moaned theatrically. “She wanted to know how to please a man, but from how she couldn’t keep her eyes off my tits, I don’t think it’s men on her mind. And her sister. There’s a beauty. Her hair, those eyes—”
“What do you want?” Samelqo swallowed. “How much—”
“I’m not asking for money,” she rasped. She wiped her face free of tears with her knuckle. “I want a friend. I want my Samé back. I want someone to listen, so I can feel something besides Sabaal’s fists.” She sniffed. “I didn’t want to have to make you. The old you would have been here.”
“The old me was there.” Samelqo watched her, trying not to feel.
“I know.” She paused. “Give me your ear. Touch me a little. She can have your cock if she wants it.” Dannae shook her head. She looked up. “If you can bare to crawl back into the dirt with your Dannae, I promise I won’t speak a word.”
Ashtaroth—Samelqo—Samelqo. He was Samelqo, standing in the rain on the upper walkway of the riad inside Sabaal eq-Sabaal’s home.
Dannae stood in front of him, a little older now. She was drenched through with water, her stola plastered to her stomach, her breasts. She was shivering and rubbed her arms.
“Please don’t go.” She reached for Samelqo’s robe and he tore it away. She offered a smile, soft and tentative. “Remember when we were children? Me and Safeva must have followed you everywhere.” She laughed sadly. “You hated it. But you also protected us. You’d never let anything happen to me.”
Samelqo sneered at her. “You care nothing about what happens to me.”
“It’s the only thing I have to make you stay.” Dannae’s nose twitched in distaste. “It’s always been you and me. You and me and Safeva and we were happy.” She stepped forward, bare feet displacing the water that pooled on broken tiles beneath her.
Samelqo glared. “Do I look happy to you? I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to. Everything. I gave your daughter to those people. I’ve let you use me—”
She reached up and tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. “You looked happy before you met her.” She chuckled teasingly, beaming up at him. “Your hair’s starting to thin.”
Samelqo grabbed her wrist and forced her hand away. “We’re getting old, Dannae.”
“Not so old.” She hopped up on her tiptoes and kissed him. “Leave her. Marry me. We kill Sabaal, and she won’t want you anymore anyway—”
He shoved her away. She hit the banister.
Her brown hair was bedraggled, clinging to her face. She cast a pathetic figure—grasping, desperate.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Samelqo frowned to himself. “You never have.”
Dannae glared. “I couldn’t possibly understand, could I? I know you. I see you.”
Samelqo was exhausted. He wanted this conversation to be through. “We’re not on a street corner anymore, Dannae. Neither of us are children. I barely know who you were then with any certainty, let alone now.”
“We are still there,” she pleaded. “They’re all using you. She’ll trade you for the next beautiful thing that catches her eye, just like the last one did.”
Samelqo turned on his heel.
Water splashed beneath Dannae’s feet as she followed him beneath the overhang. She grabbed his waist, hugged in close, and snapped her teeth at his ear. “How old is the king’s youngest now? Five? I’ve never seen a princess torn apart in the Eghri eq-Shalem before.”
Samelqo turned around. He grabbed Dannae by the throat. His fingers pressed deeper, harder.
“That,” Samelqo said “was a mistake.”
Dannae scratched at his hands. Tears beaded in the corners of her eyes. “Samé.” She rasped his name. Her eyes started to roll back. “P-please.”
He squeezed harder, stepping back out into the rain.
She broke free for an instant, slipping in the water. She fell to her knees, coughing. “I wouldn’t—”
There had been so many wouldn’ts in the palace on the hill. Isir’s voice raised and violence in his eyes. His fists bruised and bloody from beating his son and his wife and leering with hungry eyes, always, at his daughters. His endless threats were followed by endless promises never to do it again. A king’s hatred grown to a callus.
“I’m not willing to take that risk.”
Dannae scrambled back across the tiles till she was backed right up against the banister. She rubbed her throat. “No. No. Samé. I didn’t mean it. It’s me, Dannae. Don’t—”
Samelqo grabbed her by her shoulders. He hauled her to her feet.
I’ve never seen a princess torn apart in the Eghri eq-Shalem before.
The thud as Dannae hit the ground was a whimper.
Samelqo stared. He had—he hadn’t. Dannae? “Dannae—” He stepped to the banister and stared over the edge.
She’d landed facedown on the hard ceramic tiles, where she convulsed inside a halo of blood. A bone protruded from her leg, which was twisted—
Samelqo grabbed the banister with trembling hands. “No. I—”
He threw up on the tiles beside him.
It was like he could feel Safeva beside him, cursing him. His whole childhood lay there smashed on the ground.
Sabaal’s three-year-old child wobbled on unsteady feet from the great double-doors of his home, toward Dannae’s corp—toward Dannae.
Samelqo had to go. He backed away from the ledge. His hands were still shaking. His face was damp with more than rain. He had to get home.
Water splashed beneath his feet. Rain pelted his face.
Qanmi looked up, several feet from his mother’s stilling body.
Samelqo stared straight into his eyes. He ran.
Ashtaroth gasped. He collapsed on the grassy hill. He patted the ground to make sure it was real.
He was here. He was in Qemassen. He was Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen, not . . . not—
“Samelqo murdered you.”He looked up at Lilit—at Dannae. Her blue peasants’ cloak whipped around her in the wind.
The nausea, the sadness, the guilt—everything Samelqo had felt still coiled and uncoiled inside Ashtaroth’s belly. And Lilit—he could still feel what it had been like to kiss her, to want her, to be inside her.
Dannae knelt beside him. She reached out and stroked his cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“What was that?” he asked. She looked so full of sorrow. “You’re attacking me because . . . because Samelqo hurt you, and I meant something to him? How did you—I was him.”
Dannae plunked herself down in the grass beside Ashtaroth. She wrapped her arm around him and pulled him closer, so their shoulders touched. “For people like us, time is only a suggestion.”
“People like us.” Ashtaroth swallowed. He frowned. “Is Qanmi . . . is Qanmi Samelqo’s son?”
Lilit stared coldly into Ashtaroth’s eyes. Her pupils grew round, fat, and dark. Owl’s eyes.
“Did he know?”
Lilit’s nostrils flared. She opened her mouth. Her teeth, for an instant, were sharp as knives.
“What do such things matter to gods?” Lilit asked.
They must matter a great deal, if Dannae had thought to show him all of that and make him feel what Samelqo had.
It hadn’t all been suffering though. Beneath the hate and the fear had been a deeper, warmer feeling. A love that was bottomless.
Where had home been for Samelqo?
Ashtaroth shuddered. Lilit’s claws tapped his back as though to comfort him. Did she know how threatening it was? He felt like laughing.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you,” Ashtaroth dared.
Lilit released him. “It will do.”
Ashtaroth’s heart leapt. “Does that mean you’ll let me go?”
Lilit grinned and laughed. Her eyes shrank back to normal. The darkness that had settled on her dissipated into the wind. “No. I can never let any of you go.” She paused. “But I’ll help you.”
Ashtaroth watched her cautiously. Cold, he pulled his tunic taut against his skin. “Help me with what?”
Lilit got to her feet. “I’ll help you save Qemassen. All I ask is one simple thing of you.”
Dark rainclouds overhung the ships in the bay. On the beach of Tarefsa Qusirai the tiny people running for cover looked like ants.
“One simple thing,” Ashtaroth repeated. Dannae had asked Samelqo for one simple thing. At least, she’d claimed it had been simple.
“Yes.” Lilit stepped in front of him, staring straight out at the ocean. “You.”
Ashtaroth shrank inwards, as though if he made himself smaller, she wouldn’t see him. “You already have me.”
“Not the way I need to.” Lilit’s voice was plaintive, pleading, full of a yearning that had no limit. So much like Dannae. “To do great things for your people, you must set yourself apart from them, you must bid them farewell.”
The hairs on Ashtaroth’s arms were on end, his flesh creeping. “Leave Qemassen?”
“More than that, pet, more than that.”
The suggestion carved a cavernous pit in his gut. “That’s absurd. Ridiculous.”
He felt Lilit’s soft fingers on his shoulder, her breath close to his ear. She was still standing several cubits away from him.
Ashtaroth didn’t dare turn around to see what breed of creature caressed his skin. “And what in exchange, if I do let you take me?”
Lilit fingers at his shoulders vanished. The figure standing with her back to him turned around and faced him. “I do want you. I want you to be one of my pretty things. I want you to come home with me.”
“Where’s that, Molot’s underworld?”
Lilit giggled quietly. “It’s where and what it is.” She slunk in close again and pulled him to his feet. She linked her arm in his. “And as to your other question, in exchange I will give you Qemassen. I will change fate, stop the Lora from winning.”
Ashtaroth grimaced. “The Lora won’t win.”
“Because they won’t.”
Lilit gazed westward, out to sea. “They have your ships. They have your allies. Hadrianus prepares to march East, and at Zimrida all is not what it seems. Qemassen should look to her friends if she wants a reason why.”
Ashtaroth swallowed, haunted by a nagging grief. “What I saw that time, in the Eghri when I followed you, the Lora filled the streets of Qemassen—is that what’s going to happen?”
“Take my offer, Ashtaroth. Take my offer or Qemassen won’t just be alone and friendless in the Helit, she will cease to exist.”
Dannae had threatened Samelqo into doing what she wanted, and it had got him nothing. “If the situation’s as dire as you suggest, how could you possibly stop the Lora winning?”
Lilit stroked her palm down the front of his tunic. She kissed his chin. “I won’t. You will, little god.” She pulled back. “Little twin.” She smiled. “Think on it.”
A tightness squeezed his arm as though a serpent had coiled itself around him. Blackness bit at the edges of his vision until he couldn’t see anything. The sound of rain pelting the earth drowned all other noise.
When at last the darkness cleared, he was lying on the floor inside his room. His back was sopping wet. He reached behind him, wiped his hand over the sore. It came back red.
From beyond Ashtaroth’s window, a torrent of rain assaulted the riad.
Dannae’s voice rang clear as thunder. “A leviathan slumbers in the deep, boiling the very sea with his breath, waiting for you, Ashtaroth. Dreaming you will set him loose.”