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Chapter 18: Saviours
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
It must be dire news indeed if Hima had bothered to call Ashtaroth to her meeting. So far, almost every scrap of good news coming out of the east had been relayed to Ashtaroth by his guards. When Hima visited, she only wanted to talk about mundane nonsense like the weather or the latest Cheti-related gossip. It was as though Qirani had told her that Ashtaroth couldn’t cope with anything more serious. And his Lora slave, Eremus, followed him everywhere, no doubt at Hima’s command.
Dampness tickled his back as though his wound was weeping into his bandage again. It was a clammy reminder of his weakness, making him feel like an oozing, creeping thing. And hadn’t Lilit mentioned a serpent? Perhaps Ashtaroth was shedding his skin.
Hima might be right not to share her news with him.
Ashtaroth glared across Hima’s finely polished table into those gold eyes of hers that so mirrored his own. Her home served as her council chambers today, the brilliant orange of her walls giving the sharp contours of her face a warm cast. Without Aurelius here to rule as king, she must be basking in newfound power.
Hima the lion.
From an adjoining room, Hiram and Reshith screeched in childish glee. Ashtaroth couldn’t help but turn at the sound—it’d been so long since he’d been allowed to see his nephews.
Tears coming, Ashtaroth drummed his nails on the table to distract himself from crying. With Eaflied and Bree to Ashtaroth’s left, Qwella and Hima across from him, and Titrit to Ashtaroth’s right, he wasn’t going to let himself be disgraced again.
Besides, here he sat, the only man. A madman and his sisters.
Ashtaroth grimaced at Bree. She was only a sister by a cruel twist of fate.
Bree stared back, watching him emotionlessly from behind her thick black lashes.
“I’m prettier anyway, don’t you think?” Lilit leaned against his chair and laid her hand flat against his bandaged back.
Ashtaroth winced in anticipation of the pain, but Lilit’s stroke numbed rather than stung this time. Ever since she’d shown him the vision of Samelqo murdering Dannae—murdering her—things had been different between them. Lilit had grown softer and gentler.
Across from him, Qwella had distracted Bree with a piece of trivia, and the two of them were now chatting away.
“Are they friends now, Bree and my sister?” Ashtaroth asked Lilit as discretely as he could.
The demon gave one of her low purrs, considering. “I don’t think that one has many friends, especially not at this table.”
Ashtaroth frowned. “What one?”
Lilit pointed a long finger toward Bree. His heart, however briefly, tightened with guilt. Was he judging the Feislandat too harshly?
Then he remembered her cruel kiss in the garden and the feigned interest she’d shown him, just to taunt Aurelius. Ashtaroth had been her plaything.
Let Bree remain friendless. Surely Aurelius’s attentions were enough for her.
“I didn’t bring you here to trade gossip,” Hima announced loudly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Your husbands and keepers no doubt expect very little from you, but I know better, and it is better your city needs now. I’ll say it plain. The Lora sail for Qemassen. In fact, it may be a matter of days before they’re here.”
Ashtaroth’s heart seemed to stop. He grabbed the arm of his chair. “But Qorbon chased them north. They can’t be coming.” He rubbed his hand back and forth over his hand rest. “Aurelius is days away.”
Lilit chuckled behind him.
“Generally in war, little brother, the enemy doesn’t wait for his opponent to return to the nest. The Anata have been feeding us lies while the Lora prepared their attack. They’ve taken the Ziphax, and most of her sister ships.” Hima lowered her gaze, lips tight, as though she’d lost a dear friend and not a boat.
“My husband?” Titrit’s voice was tremulous, quite unlike the steady woman Ashtaroth knew.
“What of Qorban?” Ashtaroth asked, lending his own concern to Titrit’s.
“Dead, if our informants are to be trusted, which I believe they are.” Hima cleared her throat, turning her head distractedly as an elated, childish scream cut the air. Hiram or Reshith started laughing. “There’s worse. The Anata sail with Lorar in full force. We’ve been betrayed, and we have no other allies capable of lending aid. My brother, our king, probably won’t reach Qemassen before the enemy does.”
Ashtaroth felt movement at his back. Lilit stepped free of him. She leaned down, speaking directly into his ear. “I told you, didn’t I, prince? But there is another way. The only way.”
“Be quiet!” Ashtaroth hissed. The air around him sizzled, thickening for an instant before all Lilit’s strangeness vanished as if it had never been.
She was gone.
Everyone was staring at him.
“I’m not mad,” he offered meekly, and the lot of them looked away again, as though they felt Ashtaroth’s shame as acutely as he did.
All except Qwella, who locked eyes with him. She smiled sweetly.
Ashtaroth smiled back, but he couldn’t bear her pity and pretended to be suddenly interested in what Titrit was doing. It wasn’t hard—Titrit was crying silently, her hands tightly clasped in her lap as though by clenching them together she’d keep Qorban’s souls from flying free.
Ashtaroth’s heart quivered.
“What can we do,” Bree said slowly, as though with great effort, “to stop them?”
Hima grunted. “What we’ve been doing all along. We prepare for a siege. Many an army’s smashed itself against our walls and this will be no different.”
“Except the Lora can sneak past our walls.” Bree cast a cruel eye on Titrit. “Thanks to your father’s scheme, isn’t that right?”
Titrit sniffed. She wiped away her tears. “Thanks to my father’s scheme, the city will be saved.”
Why did Bree seem to hate Titrit so? Perhaps she’d learned that Titrit and Aurelius had once been lovers.
Qwella laid her hand on Titrit’s and squeezed lightly. “My Ashqata have nearly finished work on the tunnels. It won’t be long. Eshant’s overseeing their completion as we speak.”
Ashtaroth frowned. There was much he’d missed, it seemed—people he should know but didn’t. And Qwella, she seemed much bolder than she had. “Who’s Eshant?” he asked.
But no one paid Ashtaroth any mind. Maybe they hadn’t heard him. He’d got so used to speaking in whispers to disguise his and Lilit’s talks that he’d practically silenced himself.
“It won’t be enough,” Hima rebuffed. “I’m sorry, Qwella, but it won’t. We need supplies, we need people, and we need time, none of which we have. If even half the Lora and Anata forces make it inside Qemassen, we won’t have the manpower to repel them. Nearly everyone left with Aurelius.”
Eaflied snapped her fingers. “Don’t be foolish.”
By the way Hima stared at the Feislandat queen, Ashtaroth was certain she was about to throw Eaflied from the room.
Eaflied continued, unperturbed. There was at least one person besides Aurelius and Samelqo, then, who was willing to stand up to Hima. “We have people in abundance and supplies enough for someone with any imagination.”
Hima leaned forward, face tight. “Explain.”
“Don’t be short with me. I’ve wielded a sword far longer than you and I’ve certainly survived more sieges. That was in Atlin, barely a mud-fort compared with this city.” Eaflied bristled like a proud mother hen, sharing a look with Bree, who smiled as though amused at her bluster. “I can’t believe a woman who’s raised herself so high in Qemassen’s navy would look so lowly on her fellow sisters. Besides, if it’s balls you think we need, not all the men left with Aurelius.”
“King Aurelius,” Hima corrected, though she rarely afforded their brother that title herself. “Fine. You claim to have experience, I’ll put you in charge of organizing the lay people into something resembling usefulness.”
Ashtaroth inched closer, his chair scraping the floor. The sound pierced his ears, but he wasn’t going to sit here and listen mutely. He had to offer something. “What about supplies? What do we need? I could organize. I’m good with numbers.”
Hima winced visibly, and Ashtaroth shrunk back in his chair. Anger and embarrassment fought a war all their own beneath his skin, and he wasn’t at all sure which of them was winning.
Eaflied saved him, looking on him with what at least seemed like earnest respect. “Projectiles, oil, arrows, stones, tar, glass. Anything we can scavenge. We need rope, and water, and food. The women of the city will shave their hair for rope, and for stone I recommend repurposing as many of your least favourite monuments as you’re willing to spare.”
If they needed a least favourite monument, Shalem’s statue in the Eghri was an excellent candidate. That, or Ashtet’s mare, though now that Lilit had mellowed, it seemed traitorous to remove a statue so sacred to Dannae.
No doubt horrified at the potential loss of her lush black locks, Bree twirled a strand of hair around her finger.
Eaflied was watching him expectantly. “Can you manage those things, prince?”
Ashtaroth was about to agree, when Titrit interrupted him. “I’ll do it. For my husband. My father owns many slaves; I can gather workers to help.”
Hima frowned. “Can such workers be trusted?”
Titrit’s cheeks were still puffy, her eyes red-rimmed, but her hardness and strength seemed to have come back to her. “Mine can.” She laid one of her hands on the table, clenching and unclenching it into a fist over and over. She stared at her nails. “My body slave intercepted a message between one of the Lora slaves in our household and,” Titrit hesitated, “Zioban—or someone claiming to be. With Dashel gone, maybe the Lora are trying to take his place. The Lora slaves my father shipped inside the city were perfect targets to draw to their cause. We’d be wise to remove them.”
That would include Eremus. Ashtaroth frowned. He didn’t like having jailor, but killing the man seemed excessive.
Hima narrowed her eyes. “Adoran’s Yirada have been finding Lora—slaves and freemen alike—dead all over the city.”
Titrit smirked. “That’s not surprising. At times of war, killings like that are bound to happen. Though it’s possible my household may have had something to do with rooting out the slaves. The Massenqa slaves are loyal. They always have been.”
Ashtaroth parted his lips, about to protest that Safot had been no Lora slave, when a shadow appeared behind Qwella.
It wasn’t Lilit.
He stared, eyes wide, as Hima and Titrit’s chatter continued. The female figure—a round and womanly shape very like Qwella herself—curled her clawed fingers over Qwella’s shoulder. If Qwella noticed she gave no sign.
The shadow couldn’t mean anything good. It felt like a kind of doom.
It coalesced into Lilit’s familiar form.
Ashtaroth stumbled to his feet, unable to tear his gaze from Qwella. In his haste to get away, he nearly overturned his chair. “I would return to my rooms if no one has any objections. I’m feeling unwell.”
Qwella rose to her feet and Lilit disappeared like she had the time Aurelius had walked through her.
Hima looked up at him, clearly startled. “Of course. Cheti is outside, you can have him send for a physician if you like.” She’d obviously dismissed his behaviour as caused by his madness—and in a way, wasn’t that true?
And Titrit had happily assigned herself the duties Eaflied had given him. The women had no need of Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen. The only help he could provide was whatever Lilit would give him, and for that he needed to speak with her alone.
Ashtaroth nodded a curt goodbye, then hurried away from the table in the direction of the doors that would bring him into the main palace garden. Hima had given him something better than respect or trust, whether she knew it or not: permission to walk the palace grounds without Eremus at his heel. “Thank you, sister,” Ashtaroth blurted as he retreated. “I might do that.”
Ashtaroth had no intention of doing that.
From behind him, Titrit’s voice rang out. “I must go also, Sese, but if I might have a word with you? Later. In private?”
Ashtaroth left without further words, ignoring the women the way they seemed content to ignore him.
Cheti was lingering in the hall as Hima had promised. He started toward Ashtaroth, then froze mid-step upon seeing Ashtaroth’s grave expression.
“Titrit will follow shortly,” Ashtaroth lied. “We have urgent plans together.”
Cheti nodded, relaxing when he saw Titrit et-Loriqa was indeed following close behind.
Ashtaroth set off in the direction he knew she would go, but at a quick enough pace to stay ahead of her. When he was sure Cheti had lost sight of him, he veered down a side passage, waiting there for Titrit to pass before doubling back and taking another route to Moniqa’s gardens.
As always, the gardens remained untouched by the troubles of the outside world. Within their walls, birds happily sang and pecked for worms. The autumn golds, oranges, and browns of the leaves crinkled in the wind with the softness of whisper. As dead winter approached, the peacocks no longer preened and strutted to attract potential mates, but the petrichor in the air and the crispness of the dying trees was near as beautiful as their shimmering tails.
Ashtaroth hugged his chest. Out here, with a cold breeze blowing, he could feel more starkly how his bones poked through his skin. He should feel hungry still, but lately he felt nothing. Maybe that was Lilit’s doing too. If so, it was a kindness.
Just like the garden bowing to winter’s approach, Ashtaroth was dying. His sisters saw it. His former bride saw it.
He’d rather not feel it.
Aurelius would have died bravely. Dashel and Samelqo had died bravely. And here Ashtaroth was, alone and feeling every heqet of that loneliness like it was cloak as heavy as the robe of coins and necklaces that Aurelius had carried all the way to the steps of Abaal’s temple. If Aurelius had born such a weight, surely Ashtaroth could manage this sack of bleeding skin and bones that rattled hollowly in their fleshless body.
Ashtaroth squeezed his eyes shut and a whine escaped his lips.
His sandals scuffed a series of stray stones that had been kicked onto the path.
He opened his eyes.
His mother’s lilac tree was in full bloom.
Now that he thought on it, had he ever seen it when it wasn’t?
Ashtaroth hesitated, then approached Moniqa’s bench. He reached out and smoothed his fingers over the stone surface, searching it for the names written in blood that had appeared in his vision months ago.
Eshmunen, Samelqo, Qanmi, Himalit, Nila—who had the others been? He’d run away before Dannae had finished, too afraid to see his own named etched in blood, but if he’d stayed, might he have learned something? The shadow that had appeared at Qwella’s back might be a sign she was the next to be afflicted or killed. Had he seen her name appear too? He couldn’t remember.
Ashtaroth sat down on the bench, crushing pale, fragrant flowers beneath him.
“That was where they found her, you know.” Lilit’s voice was accompanied by the sudden sound of her footsteps clapping against the stone path. Ashtaroth was so unused to hearing her approach at all that the noise was almost more upsetting for its normalcy.
Ignoring Lilit, he reached for one of the lilac’s flower-laden branches and plucked a petal free. The branch sprang away, raining more petals onto his shoulders and onto the ground at his feet.
“I know,” Ashtaroth answered Lilit, as she sat beside him. “What I want to know, is how you do?”
Lilit folded her hands modestly in her lap, petals catching in Dannae’s brown curls. It was so odd to see her without the hyacinths. His chest warmed to think she might have been freed from the reminder of those dark times when he’d apologized for Samelqo’s crimes. The way she looked now—calm and sweet—was how he’d often daydreamed of Bree. Maybe, once, Lilit had been good.
But whatever else, she’d still tricked and hurt him. He could still feel the former heq-Ashqen’s shame with the ache of a burn.
Lilit smiled. “I’m not sure how I know things, Ashtaroth, but I do, and I’m telling them to you because I want to help you. I know you don’t believe me—you have every reason not to—but I don’t want Qemassen to be destroyed, and I don’t want to see your family killed.”
This again. “I’m tired, Lilit.”
“Ashtaroth?” It was Qwella.
Hearing someone other than Lilit saying his name aloud was as strange as if one of the peacocks had started to talk. He stared up the length of the path to where is older sister was standing, the skirts of her rich red Ashqat’s robes gripped in her fingers in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them dragging in the dirt.
He swallowed and turned to Lilit—
Gone. Lilit was gone, and he hadn’t had the chance to agree to whatever it was she wanted in exchange for Qemassen’s survival. He hadn’t had a chance to ask her about the shadow standing at Qwella’s shoulders.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” came Lilit’s voice.
“Ashtaroth—are you all right?” Qwella was fast approaching, despite the weight of her robes and the enormous conical hat she was wearing.
He stood up out of respect for the heq-Ashqat, but she waved him down.
“Don’t be silly, it’s just me.” She reached up and plucked her headdress off, then laid it on the bench beside Ashtaroth.
“Your hair’s growing out,” Ashtaroth offered. It seemed like something he should say—an entry point back into the world of civilized conversation.
Qwella giggled in return. She patted her head, as though she’d mistaken his laughter for a comment on her hairstyle instead of the random outburst it had been.
“I haven’t had time. You have no idea how busy I’ve been—there’s so much administration to take care of.” She glanced in the direction of the lower city, toward the Shedi. “So many sacrifices, and now that we’ve taken on the duty of unblocking the tunnels, half my Ashqata and all of the acolytes are busy night and day with digging. It’s—well, it made me reflect a little on what I thought this position would be.”
Ashtaroth smiled. “You seem more . . . yourself.” Which was true. She glowed with authority. It wasn’t the bucking and chaffing authority of Hima, either, but something altogether more confident.
Qwella smiled back. “I feel more myself.” The smile faded, like she’d noticed and remembered that Ashtaroth was a skeleton sitting in front of her. She flicked one of her long, manicured nails against the other. “It’s so good to see you.”
Ashtaroth hung his head in his hands and wept.
Qwella’s skirts poofed onto the bench next to him. She didn’t reach for him. “I tried to see you weeks ago, but Hima wouldn’t have it. Qirani keeps saying you’re too fragile. I should have tried harder. I’m sorry.”
It took longer than Ashtaroth would have liked for his tears to dry and for him to be able to raise his head and look his sister in the eyes. “I’m not mad,” he said. “I know you’ll think I am, but I’m not—I, I see things. Bad things. Lilit’s real and she follows me everywhere. She’s shown me what will happen to Qemassen if we lose. She’s shown me things about Samelqo—”
Ashtaroth trailed off at the look in Qwella’s eyes. Her expression wasn’t pitying at all.
She looked like she believed him.
“Qalita’s come to me as well, Ashtaroth.” Qwella patted his hand. “That’s why I followed you. I mean, I followed you to see you, obviously, but apart from that, I needed to speak to you about the visions you say you’ve experienced. I know Hima and Aurelius think it’s nonsense, but any rational person would understand the truth. The gods speak through you. They’ve visited us both.”
Ashtaroth swallowed. “Really?”
“You want me to share what I’ve seen?” Now that the moment had come, Ashtaroth was half afraid of what this meant. “I don’t know where to start.”
A breeze coursed through the lilacs, scattering flowers across the pair of them.
“I think—” Ashtaroth hesitated. “Lilit’s been following me for some time now. She appeared to me one day as a human fortune teller and said I’d never be king. Then she kept appearing in impossible places, and I had this dream with a tunnel and room full of coloured glass windows and a man made of alabaster and—”
“Slowly.” Qwella met his eyes. “We have time.”
Ashtaroth grabbed hold of his sister’s hand. “We don’t. Not enough time. The Lora are coming and they’ll win if I don’t—”
The shadow stood behind Qwella again. Ashtaroth had to fight not to jump up and run away.
Qwella frowned at him. “What?”
Lilit’s voice purred out of the air. “Go ahead. Tell her. It’ll be the death of your city.”
“No,” he murmured to Lilit.
Qwella leaned in closer. “What’s wrong?”
“Your sister, or your city.” Lilit’s words seemed to shake from the branches of the tree.
A strained groan escaped Ashtaroth’s lips.
Qwella hurried to her feet. “I’ll fetch Qirani.”
Ashtaroth bolted up. “No!” he hesitated. “We need to talk. I’m—I’m fine.”
And the shadow was gone.
Qwella’s concern, if anything, had etched deeper into her face. “Ashtaroth, if this is too much—”
He had to tell her something. They needed each other. That was clear. He pressed his eyes tight tight tight, the open sore on his back throbbing where before it had been numb. “Dannae. The cause of the bau is a woman named Dannae—no, not just anyone, but Qanmi’s mother Dannae.” He hurried on before Qwella could make him stop again. “Years ago, she was Samelqo’s lover, and Samelqo killed her because she—because—”
That was the question, really. Why?
Qwella was right up close again. “Dannae et-Erinya.” There was an urgency in her voice now. “Samelqo killed her? Not her husband Sabaal. Samelqo.”
Ashtaroth opened his eyes. “Yes. I don’t know why really, but she was blackmailing him with something she knew. It was about the royal family. She said something about one of Isir’s daughters getting torn apart in the Eghri. And then he—he shoved her over a railing. I don’t even think he meant to do it, but after what she said it’s like he snapped. I felt him snap like I was him. Qanmi—he was sure Qanmi saw the whole thing, or enough of it to know Samelqo had murdered his mother.”
Qwella’s eyes widened. “Ashtaroth.” She bit her lip. “What I’m going to tell you can’t be spoken aloud to anyone. Especially not Titrit. Promise me. Not anyone. Not Titrit. Promise me.”
“Of course. Why—why would I tell Titrit?”
Qwella rung her hands, staring to the side. “Eshant and I found some papyri about Dannae in Tanata’s Temple months ago. Dannae lay with Isir in her role as heq-Ashqat of Ashtet. Nine months later, she gave birth to Qanmi eq-Sabaal and a stillborn daughter.” Her voice hitched. “Her children should have been delegitimized by the temple, but they never were. Ashtaroth . . . she’s angry because Qanmi has a claim to the throne. It’s not stronger than Aurelius’s, but she still believes Eshmunen stole his crown from her child.”
Qwella was completely wrong.
Ashtaroth relaxed. He even smiled. “You don’t have to worry. Lilit showed it to me as it happened. Dannae asked for Isir as consort, but it was Samelqo who came to her. For some reason she’d known it would be Samelqo, so she asked for him on purpose because they were old friends or lovers.” He laughed. “Qanmi’s a bastard, but he’s not a royal bastard.”
Despite what he’d told her, Qwella didn’t look calm at all. She only looked confused. “That doesn’t make any sense.” She paced up the path a few steps, then back again. “It has to be about Qanmi.”
Ashtaroth laughed. “It has nothing to do with Qanmi. Samelqo didn’t even know Qanmi was his son—or the girl. Yes.” Ashtaroth frowned. “When Samelqo and Dannae were fighting, before he pushed her, he said something about how he’d taken Dannae’s daughter and given her to some people. Both Dannae’s twins were fine, as far as I know. It’s Samelqo she’s wroth with, and she’s taking it out on us because he cared for me.”
Qwella’s brow twitched. “That could be it,” she relented. “But—something doesn’t feel right. If Dannae wanted Samelqo to play the role of Adonen, she could have just named him. She didn’t. Why name the king if she didn’t want the king? And if she knew Qanmi wasn’t Isir’s son, what was she using to blackmail Samelqo?” She paused. “Did Lilit show you anything else?”
“The vision with Dannae was the most vivid.” He shivered. “It was like I was Samelqo. And he was panicked. He was . . . scared. I’ve never seen him scared.”
As soon as he said it, the autumn garden with its dead leaves and damp, earthy smell didn’t seem so beautiful. The breeze felt sharp as a razor.
Qwella rubbed her arms, though they were shrouded in her thick Ashqat’s robe. Did she sense it too? “He was scared because she threatened one of our aunts, isn’t that what you said?”
Ashtaroth leaned his head back against the trunk of the lilac. He gazed up at the blossoms. “Yes. The youngest, I think, so probably Aunt Meg. Samelqo was always fond of her, so maybe they were in love?”
Qwella made a face. “She would have been a child.” She paused. “But maybe there is something to that. Meg was conducting research in Qalita’s temple. When Eshant—I mean, my friend Eshant—showed me the secret rooms under the temple, there were these flowers there that couldn’t die. Meg’s notes were scratched into the wall of that room, and when I touched them I had this vision of being a child again. I was me sitting in Meg’s rooms with her and Samelqo and they were talking about something I didn’t understand. Then later—I had another vision, during my initiation.” She cleared her throat as though whatever she was remembering had choked in her throat. “Like you, I was Samelqo. I felt what he felt. I saw what he saw. He was visiting King Isir’s sickbed. He’d been poisoning the king.”
Ashtaroth snapped straight and a stinging ache pierced his back. “Samelqo wouldn’t have killed King Isir.” That he knew better than anything. Samelqo had lived and breathed to serve Qemassen’s kings.
Qwella raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Why not? He loved Eshmunen, but neither of us ever met King Isir. We don’t know what they were like together. What I saw suggested that relationship had turned sour. Samelqo seemed to think Isir had murdered his newborn child, and Isir—” Disgust wrinkled Qwella’s nose. “Isir told Samelqo he’d got one of our aunts with child before Samelqo had been able to send her to eq-Anout.”
“He beat them.” Ashtaroth gripped his wrist, wringing it to help him focus his thoughts. “Isir, I mean. Samelqo confided in Dannae that King Isir beat Eshmunen and his sisters. And he thought Isir had forced him to act in Isir’s stead as some kind of cruel joke, because he knew it would bother Samelqo.”
Qwella frowned. “What if our father plotted with Samelqo to murder our grandfather. What if it’s not just Dannae that’s cursed us, but Isir?” She paused. “After what I saw and what I felt,I don’t blame them for wanting our grandfather dead. You had to have been there—Isir was a monster. I felt it all through my bones. But even so, to kill a king—that would be enough to draw the gods’ ire.”
Could the shadow figure behind Qwella have been Isir? No—that was ludicrous. The shadow had been a woman’s, of that Ashtaroth was completely certain. It was probably just Qwella’s form and Lilit had rendered it in shadow to spook him.
Ashtaroth rocked forward. “I apologized to Dannae for what Samelqo did. She accepted it, but she said there was something else keeping her tied to us. If Isir really did hate his children like it seems, maybe he cursed them when he died?”
The names on the bench . . . it would all make sense. Ashtaroth’s aunts had died one by one, then Eshmunen and Samelqo—Ashtaroth was undeniably cursed as well. Everyone who’d run afoul of Isir had come to bad ends.
“I think that must be it,” said Qwella. “But Ashtaroth, it’s not the only mystery. During the initiation, and even earlier, during the exorcism, whatever spirits have been communicating with us kept talking about the kingship. They predicted that you’d never be king, that you were sick and getting worse. Aunt Meg appeared to me with our grandmother Eshant and spoke all these strange things to me. It’s all turned around in my heart now, but I remember thinking one of them spoke the truth and that the other was lying. One of them said Qanmi would be king.”
Ashtaroth chuckled nervously. “So that spirit was lying.”
Qwella shook her head. “The other one said Qanmi was the child foretold in the Book of Abaal.”
Ashtaroth scoffed. “He’d have to be our father’s son for that to make sense, which it doesn’t.”
Qwella’s shoulders slumped. “That’s what I’m telling you. One of those two things is a lie, and if we know Qanmi was Samelqo’s son—or Sabaal’s at most—he couldn’t have been Isir’s. Even if he were Isir’s like I thought, he wouldn’t be the son of the sixteenth king. He’d be the son of the fifteenth.”
Ashtaroth’s insides—heart included—had turned to muck. He couldn’t focus. He was exhausted and frightened and he felt sick. All he could think of were absurdities. “We do know that our father was the sixteenth king, don’t we? No one was crowned in between?”
“Don’t be foolish,” said Qwella. She slumped onto the seat beside him. “I just wish I knew what it all meant.”
It might mean nothing, he wanted to say. It was what Aurelius would have said. Ashtaroth knew better than that.
“Do you remember anything else they said?” Ashtaroth asked. “And how did you recognize our grandmother?”
Qwella shrugged. “She told me who she was.”
Ashtaroth rested his chin on his fist, tracing the logic. “So, does that mean Meg told you she was Meg?”
“I know what Aunt Meg looks like.” Qwella shot him a look.
“But she didn’t say she was Aunt Meg.”
“No.” Qwella sounded annoyed. “She didn’t say she was Aunt Meg. I never asked.”
“So,” Ashtaroth rubbed his knotted forehead between his thumb and forefinger, “can we assume she would have said she wasn’t? We should be able to figure out who was lying.”
Qwella groaned in exasperation. “I don’t remember which one of them said what. At the time I thought Eshant was telling the truth, but—”
“What made you think that?”
“I—” She faltered, as though remembering something uncomfortable. When she resumed, she spoke slowly, as though very carefully remembering. “I asked about you.” She breathed out, visibly, then briefly closed her eyes. “I asked if you were the one foretold in the Book of Abaal.”
Ashtaroth’s heartbeat quickened. “Lilit—Lilit’s said before that I wasn’t.” An ease washed over him. “But she said I didn’t need to be, to save everyone.” He shrugged. “So whoever said I wasn’t that child must have been the truth-teller.”
Qwella pushed herself off the bench as though restless. Jittery. “Eshant said you weren’t. When they gave different answers, I realized they were lying, and when I asked if one of them was lying, Eshant said yes and Meg said no. She was telling the truth.” Unrepentant joy radiated from her, as though she’d solved the puzzle.
Ashtaroth smiled weakly. “You don’t remember who said what else—nothing at all?”
Qwella’s glee faded. “Only that Eshant was the one who said Qanmi would be king.”
Cold settled on Ashtaroth.
“And—” Qwella continued.
Ashtaroth stood up.
“And they said something else very strange. That you were either Eshmunen’s seventh child, or that you were the seventh son of the sixteenth king.”
The blood runs weak.
Was Ashtaroth illegitimate? He hadn’t thought so—he looked like Eshmunen. A bit.
“I’m not—I’m not your brother?” Ashtaroth asked.
A series of bells chimed far off, coming from the palace. Qwella turned toward them. They must hold some ritual significance for her, or perhaps it was a signal.
She faced him again, smiling. She reached for her discarded headdress but stopped to squeeze his shoulder. “You’re my brother—or whatever you want to be.”
Whatever he wanted? Ashtaroth’s arms prickled. “What do you mean?”
She pursed her lips. “When the war is over, I have someone I’d like you to meet. My—my lover, Eshant. She’s different. Special. She wasn’t always a woman, and after what I heard in my vision I thought she might be someone you’d like to talk to.”
All the blood rushed to Ashtaroth’s face. He rubbed his shoulders, nervous.
“You have a lover who’s a girl?” was all he could manage.
Qwella laughed. Her smile reached her eyes. “A woman, but yes.” She pursed her lips as if to wet them. “You don’t think less of me?”
Ashtaroth stared. “N—no. I wouldn’t ever think less of you.”
The shadow the shadow the shadow.
“Good.” Qwella’s smile widened. She looked so happy. “I have duties to attend to, but I think we should talk to Samelqo’s wife and see if we can get access to his private library. We could learn something there, I’m sure.”
Tell her. Tell her. Tell her.
The shadow was there, hovering over her. Isir’s curse or whatever it was—
Ashtaroth’s stomach was filled with a heavy, dark stone.
Qwella turned to leave.
“Wait—” Ashtaroth half stood from the bench, reaching for her.
Qwella twisted back around. “Is everything all right? I can send Qirani back.”
Ashtaroth’s sister or his country.
He lowered the hand he’d raised. “No. I was going to say that I—I love you. And. And I think I’d like to meet this Eshant.”
A smile brighter even than the one she’d worn before lit up Qwella’s face as she tugged her headdress back into place. “Oh Ashtaroth. I love you too.”
This time, he couldn’t watch her go, but he knew when she’d disappeared because Lilit was suddenly sitting right next to him again, shoulder-to-shoulder.
“You made the better choice,” she said, her words kind. “But there’s another you still have to make.”
They sat quietly together, almost like ordinary people, listening to the birds and bubbling fountains. Lilit didn’t speak again until Hiram and Reshith disturbed the peace, rushing through an archway and onto a path across the gardens. The boys were chasing each other, waving their arms and skidding in the dirt.
Lilit tilted her head to the side as she watched the boys playing. “When the Lora come, those two won’t be killed. Conquerors always have a use for royal children. Their lives will be spared, as will that of Aurelius’s child. They’ll be raised as good little citizens of the Lora empire and taught to curse the names of their fathers and mothers. Your sisters will be made slaves—conversation pieces to be whored to Marianus Rufus’s finest guests, or else to bear his own children. Your brother, if he survives battle, will be tortured and his corpse left to rot outside what used to be the city walls.”
Ashtaroth’s throat was dry and his mouth clammy. He kept his attention trained on Hiram and Reshith, trying not to picture the horrors Lilit painted for him. “You’ve shown me what will happen if I say no. What happens if I give myself to you?”
Lilit smiled. “Qemassen lives. The Massenqa live.”
Ashtaroth turned on her. “But what will you do? What happens to me? And how can you possibly stop an entire fleet―two fleets!”
Lilit held a finger to her lips. “Ssh. I’m listening to your nephews.”
Ashtaroth was tired of this. He grabbed Lilit roughly by the arm, squeezing her as tight as he could in his weakened state. She had the courtesy to look hurt as he held her. “Tell me, and I might say yes. You’re right―there’s nothing for me here. Outside of Qwella, my family are ashamed of me. The only woman who ever loved me is dead because of my choices. I have no legacy, no work worth doing. I am nothing except this last act, and I know that. But tell me, before I give you all the nothings I have left, what it is I’m giving myself for.”
Lilit’s brown eyes seemed to swirl greedily, taking on a feral aspect as he held her. “The serpent that eats its own tail. That is what I give to you, Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen, and that is what you will take from me.”
Ashtaroth withered at the riddle, all the fight gone from him. He released Lilit. “That’s all the explanation I get, in exchange for my life.”
Lilit grinned. “In exchange for your souls, yes. The earth trembles with his rage, the ocean seethes with his breath.”
Ashtaroth glanced toward Hiram and Reshith darting in and out of bushes as they trampled the carefully tended flowers. He’d hoped one day to have sat here and watched his own children, to have sat and held the hand of a woman who loved him, and known his world was beautiful and complete. He’d have told them stories, and kissed them, and loved them, and taught them all the wonderful things he’d learned in the scrolls he’d read and written.
He would never hold anything.
“My sister, Ashtara, would have saved the city some other way, wouldn’t she?”
Lilit smiled. “What does it matter when your people don’t have her. They only have you.” Lilit stood up, as though she needed to walk anywhere to get where she wanted to be.
She strolled away from him, purple flowers shaking free of her hair and dress as she stepped slowly away down a narrow path—one of many Ashtaroth had run down as a child, the one his mother must have wandered every day since she’d married King Eshmunen.
Moniqa had never wanted Ashtaroth, not like the others. Not like Aurel. Well, soon she’d have him anyway, wherever she was.
Ashtaroth only hoped she wasn’t disappointed.
“I—I’ll do it. Whatever you want from me. My—my souls.” Standing tall, Ashtaroth called to Lilit past the tears that welled in his eyes. “But what should I do!? Lilit!”
Lilit turned, her face that of the child he’d first seen in that Eru alley. “Go to the island, prince. Go to the maze. When the sky turns red and the earth begins to shake, you’ll find me there.”
“Who are you talking to? Is it the ghost lady?” Reshith had run up in front of him. He was staring at Ashtaroth in youthful puzzlement.
“Ghost lady?” asked Ashtaroth.
Reshith pointed at the bench. “Grandmother. The servants say she sits beneath the lilac tree, waiting for Uncle Aurel.”
Grandmother. Moniqa. A ghost on the bench where her body had been found.
Ashtaroth forced a smile. “Yes. I was talking to the ghost lady.”