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Chapter 2: Strangers
Ashtaroth – A Tower, A Tunnel, A Dream
Only dream kissed so softly. Stones that would have been firm underfoot in the waking world were as light as Tanata’s clouds against Ashtaroth’s soles, and the air in the colossal hallway was fresh, despite the lack of sunlight or windows. Light emanated from further down the long corridor, illuminating a rounded room with murals decorating its walls. A figure stood frozen at the room’s centre, so still it must be a statue, black and glossy as bitumen. The entire cavernous space was silent as midnight, but for the distant drip-drip of water.
Might he use it as imagery for his poems when he woke? Or perhaps that wouldn’t be appropriate, for the dreams of princes meant more than those of ordinary men—more than that little Eru fortune teller’s bones could ever have foreseen. And in truth, Ashtaroth was safe in his bed in the palace. Lilit’s clumsy predictions had no place in the halls of kings, nor even their dreams.
Unpainted, grey ashlar stones made up the walls that towered to either side of him. They rose until they joined into an impossibly high arched ceiling, so distant he could barely make out its details. The stonework was like that of a tunnel, but it was impossible that so tall an edifice could lie buried underground.
Dizzy, Ashtaroth steadied himself against the wall. The stone was rough and real, speckled with lichen. Were dreams usually so detailed, or was it simply that he didn’t remember the details upon waking?
Someone blew a gentle breath against his neck. “A true child of Qemassen,” a girl’s voice whispered at his ear.
Ashtaroth swerved, but there was no one behind him, only darkness stretching into eternity, obscuring the sides of the hallway, as if the hall were a tunnel descending beneath the earth. A few years ago, Ashtaroth and his father had toured Qemassen’s southernmost territories: the copper mines, the salt flats, and the villages that had sprouted up around them. The narrow, vertical mine shafts of the copper mines had been dark like this. A dark that promised to reach deeper still.
He squinted into the black. “Hello?”
A cold wind caressed his shoulders, and he clutched the thin fabric of his tunic tight around him. He turned back toward the rounded room, where the light promised warmth and safety. The obsidian statue stood menacing in the center of the room. Staring at it, the hair stood up on the back of Ashtaroth’s neck. It was in the same place, wasn’t it?
Lilit laughed behind him.
Ashtaroth jumped and ran toward the round room without looking back—
And found himself facing the blackened tunnel. He swerved, skin prickling, but both ends of the hallway now lay in darkness. The room had completely vanished.
“Witch of the Western Desert,” said Lilit. “Prophet of the waterless sea.”
It was like she was naming people—naming Ashtaroth. A true child of Qemassen. Outside the dream, he’d been called that many times, and yet, was he the true child Lilit spoke of? The child of Samelqo’s prophecy, the child Ashtaroth’s twin sister had burned for? He was the seventh child of Qemassen’s sixteenth king. There could be no other.
His chest felt clammy, his throat dry. One day, Samelqo and Ashtaroth’s father would die, and Ashtaroth would rule Qemassen alone. Not even Samelqo could live forever to steady Ashtaroth’s hand, and when Ashtaroth was all alone, would he still belong on Qemassen’s throne?
Of course he would.
“Lilit. Come out. I know you’re there. This is just a dream. We can go somewhere warm and safe instead of . . . this.” His voice echoed around him.
In the distance in the hallway behind him, a speck of white light winked twice before steadying, like a figure running in front of the tunnel entrance. The water was still dripping somewhere ahead of Ashtaroth—or maybe behind.
She didn’t speak again, and the shape didn’t return. But the sound of the water had changed—trickling gently now, barely audible. Ashtaroth closed his eyes, calmed his breathing to listen over the thunder of his own breath, the thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat.
Cool liquid trickled over his feet.
He looked down. Black water covered the floor nearly up to his ankles, spilling in rivulets from somewhere behind Ashtaroth, and pouring from the tight cracks between the stones of the walls. It was getting louder. It was getting deeper. A sound like the roaring of the ocean tide bellowed from the darkness behind him, and Ashtaroth stumbled toward the pinch of white in the distance.
The walls shook, stone grinding against stone like a giant crunching its teeth, like the ocean was pounding against the tunnel, trying to break through.
Darkness swallowed him. He ran toward the circle of light. Water cascaded past, flowing faster than he could run, like he’d already been swallowed by the unseen waves and hadn’t noticed. Like the hallway wasn’t a building at all, but the throat of some great serpent.
And it was squeezing shut.
The vast space between the walls had narrowed, imperceptibly at first, but now he could touch either side of them with his hands—had to, in fact, because they were pressing in all around him, as tight as the walls of a mine shaft, curving and bending as he walked.
The crown of his head grazed the ceiling.
The water had slowed to a trickle.
Ashtaroth groaned and tried to turn his head to see if he could go back, but the tunnel was too tight to do anything but creep forward. Its stones were damp, rougher cut than earlier, and rusty-brown. The walls were practically a tube, sinuous as a snake’s throat. He fell to his knees and crawled.
The round light flickered in the distance and Ashtaroth blinked from the brightness, though the hole itself had barely grown any larger than it had been the first time he’d noticed it. As he blinked though, the circle of light speared out—arms and legs, a head. Not an opening, but a person. The shape of a person dressed all in white, her umber skin warm against her pale dress. He needed to reach her—there was nowhere else to go but forward and the walls were closing in on him.
Wake up wake up wake up.
But he didn’t wake, and the passage narrowed again. He fell flat onto his belly, crawling like a worm toward the figure in front of him, the walls so close they scraped the skin of his ears, tearing his knees, ripping his tunic. Every soft place on his body grated against the ground, his blood and skin spread across the stones, mingling with the now feeble trickle of water that lubricated the passage.
But the light was so close now, and it wasn’t a woman at all, but an opening, a plum-sized spyhole looking out on a small room. The room was painted all in gold, from the palmettes that topped the capitals of the pillars lining the walls, to the fingers of the nightshade grasping the lattice that covered the window. He recognized a table here, a chair there, the window and the nightshade.
His mother’s room.
His heart seemed to still. He’d so rarely stepped inside—why bother when no one lived here? There was no queen any longer to call the queen’s residence home, and Ashtaroth had never felt welcome within its walls. Mother was just a word, unanchored to a human face.
Ashtaroth’s father had forbidden any changes to the room, had barred anyone from occupying it, but this room had been changed. Most of the furniture was wrong, the decorations foreign and strange.
Silt from the ceiling tumbled onto Ashtaroth’s head, stinging his eyes. He blinked to get it out, and when his vision cleared, there was a woman in the room, painted the same gold as everything else, naked, belly swollen with child, breasts full as she sat still and silent in a high-backed chair. Her tightly-coiled hair was caged in a crown that dangled with gold-painted stones. When she finally turned her head, the stones tinkled at the movement.
Her eyes pierced him, and Ashtaroth struggled against the walls, fighting to scrabble backward, but found only a dead end. The tunnel had closed behind him.
“Help!” Ashtaroth was hyperventilating, cutting his arms as he fought to free them from his sides, to reach the small opening—his only escape. It was like time had dilated, like he was noticing things not as they happened, but only later, once it was too late.
It was a dream, only a dream.
Ashtaroth dragged his elbow out from beneath him, stone shearing through to what felt like the bone, and he wailed.
The golden woman in his mother’s chambers didn’t acknowledge him, but she turned her head again, watching something Ashtaroth couldn’t see. Ashtaroth moaned, crooked his finger—two fingers, three—inside the hole.
A man entered his view, cloaked not in gold but a cape blue as the night sky, the material dotted with yellow stars. The hem of the cape rustled against the floor as though made of heavy fabric. Great ivory horns like a bull’s emerged from his head, gilded at the tips and hung with gold string. His skin was alabaster, white as milk and reflecting the light like a polished surface. The gold in the room turned the planes of his face into shimmering shadows. As he walked toward the seated woman, he looked like nothing more than a peacock, its tail streaming out proudly behind him. He knelt before her, and she drew his chin up, leaning down and kissing him. Gold streamed like wine from her mouth to his, and Ashtaroth felt it slide down his own throat, heavy, metallic, and choking. He tore his shaking, bloody fingers from the hole, grasping at his throat.
In the room, the woman removed her crown and placed it atop the man’s head. His alabaster cheek cracked, a vein of gold snaking down the side of his face, snaking down Ashtaroth’s face, splintering into smaller and smaller lacerations. Gold poured from his arms and face like blood, pooling beneath him on the gold tiles, on the stones in the tunnel.
“Stop,” Ashtaroth said, but the golden woman couldn’t see him, couldn’t hear him. Her lips trapped the man’s lips, her hands holding him in place, his hands gripping her thighs even as his fingers broke apart.
Ashtaroth reached again for the spyhole, slid three fingers in, then another, another—his hand was through, and his thin wrist, even as it cracked, spilling liquid gold onto the floor. Ashtaroth screamed, pushing back with his feet against the tunnel walls, forcing his arm through the too-small opening, feeling his skin crack open, his arm white as milk, fragile as glass, shattering its pieces onto his mother’s floor.
“A true child of Qemassen,” said Lilit, everywhere and nowhere, and Ashtaroth screamed as he forced his whole arm inside and shoved the fingers of his left hand in after it. He shouldn’t have fit, but he forced himself—two arms, then his head, his shoulders scrunched together, breaking into sharp edges in order to make it. His chest was through—
He tumbled onto the floor, cheek smashing against the ground. He drew his face up and caught a glimpse of part of his fractured face dangling from his cheek, gold blood spilling onto the ground.
Lilit was standing in front of him, but she wasn’t human. Two great owl’s wings framed her, feathers spiking from the flesh of her arms. Her eyes were big and black and soulless and a white light danced at their centre, like the white speck that had lured Ashtaroth into the tunnel. She smiled, lips and cheek smeared red with blood.
Ashtaroth opened his mouth to speak, but his tongue had turned to stone in his mouth.
Lilit held a clawed finger to her lips.
He wasn’t in his mother’s room at all, but inside the rounded room from before. No obsidian statue stood at its centre though—Lilit had taken its place.
Ashtaroth craned his neck back to look at the room. The hole he’d slipped through had disappeared. Now the room had no door at all. Six images lined the walls, not at all like the murals he was used to. They were made of glass, and glowed with rich colour as though a blazing sun shone behind them. Two of the images were nearly identical—a pitch-dark cave, flooded and with a figure whose head was held beneath the water. Another showed a woman writhing on the floor, blood spilling from her . . . womanly place. Ashtaroth spun round, searching the pictures for something he might recognize, but the locations were unfamiliar, and the faces of the figures lacked detail.
Ashtaroth swallowed. He crept toward the picture of a redheaded child floating in a boat atop a small pond amidst a swarm of insects. As Ashtaroth stepped closer he raised his hand to touch the glass, and the image’s surface rippled like water disturbed by a stone. Ashtaroth snatched his hand back, grimacing. It was just a picture, and yet . . . to look at it felt wrong, deep in his bones. He tore his gaze away.
“Where are we?” Ashtaroth asked Lilit.
Lilit crouched down, and Ashtaroth shuddered as she caught his gaze with the polished stones that served as her eyes. “Somewhere you shouldn’t be,” she said playfully. She reached out and stroked his cheek, and he snapped back, remembering how the gold woman had drawn the cloaked man into her deadly kiss.
Above them, the thunder of the ocean returned. Ashtaroth looked up. A staircase curved up the side of the wall—up, and up, and up, so far he couldn’t see its end. More of the glowing images ringed the tower, and water streamed down the walls.
“This is a place where you don’t belong,” Lilit said.
A cascade of water and stone showered down from high up, pummeling a huge hole into the floor behind Lilit. Ashtaroth was too scared to move, even as moss-covered stones fell all around them. Water splashed his face, his arms. It burned hot as fire, and he jerked his hands up, holding them over his head to shield himself.
“W-where do I belong?” he asked.
She smiled. “With me, sweet. With me.”
A deafening crack echoed above them, and Ashtaroth looked up. A huge section of the wall had broken off from the tower, the stone buckling as it fell.
Ashtaroth slammed himself to the floor in a crouch, the water at his feet so hot it sizzled on the ground.
Lilit shrieked like a strix. She snapped her wings open, sheltering them both within the cocoon of her feathers. Her wings blotted out the light, like the moon eclipsing the sun, a darkness that burned. Ashtaroth shut his eyes, but that only seemed to open his ears, and a thousand whispers flooded him under the canopy of Lilit’s wings—the whispers of the dead, reaching out from her shadow. He clamped his hands over his ears. The backs of his hands stung like the cracks that had splintered his skin still haunted his flesh as scars. There was nothing in the dark but the brush of Lilit’s feathers, the snap-snap of an owl’s beak clicking, his body breaking, and—
and Ashtaroth awoke in darkness, screaming.
He was standing up, and it was still very dark, but it was also very cool, and his body slave Safot was shaking him by his shoulders, and the burning of the water at his feet was gone, and why—why was it so dark? Why did his hands sting like they’d been cut?
Where was he? Not in his bed.
Ashtaroth grasped Safot by the scruff of his tunic, clinging, half collapsing into him like he was a child. He wanted—he wanted someone. Qwella, or Hima, or Dashel. He wanted them here now, to hold him.
“Sese! Sese!” Safot was still shaking him, lit by a small lantern against the wall.
As Ashtaroth’s eyes adjusted to the low light he started to make out the familiar shapes of the basement storeroom beneath his residence: amphorae hanging in their racks, baskets and shelves, and a pile of blankets where some of Ashtaroth’s other slaves sometimes slept.
His chest ached like a gaping wound, and he let go of Safot so he could pat his stomach, reassure himself that he was whole. He touched his arms, his cheek, expecting to find shards of broken flesh and finding nothing. When he patted the back of his right hand with his left, he jerked it back in pain—the skin was sore.
It was too dark to see, but he gingerly prodded the back of his hand, found it sore to the touch, finding gently raised flesh. His feet ached, and the hard floor felt odd underfoot, as if coated with flour. He breathed out slowly.
He grimaced, closed his eyes, focused on the warmth of Safot, the regularity of Safot’s breathing.
“Why am I down here?” Ashtaroth asked. His throat was terribly parched.
“You were sleepwalking, Sese.”
Ashtaroth had never sleepwalked in his life—he barely snored. And why hadn’t Safot woken him? He clenched his fists. He wasn’t thinking clearly. Part of him was still in the collapsing tower, still in the gold room, still in the tunnel that had crushed him like—
“Are you well, Sese? Should I send for Qirani, Sese?” Safot asked, tentative.
Ashtaroth shushed him. “Quiet. Please.”
He had no need of a physician. It had been a dream—he’d spent too long in the sun, and the funeral had unsettled him. Just the funeral, and Aurelius’s sudden return. Aurelius must have made him think of his mother. There was no one else the woman on the throne could have been. She’d worn the raiments of a queen, and the blue cloak with its stars recalled the mother goddess Tanata. The man—well, he must have been a king. Whenever Samelqo explained dreams he always began by comparing them to the matter of a king, and the bull horns on the alabaster man’s head were a symbol of Abaal. As king, Eshmunen was the high priest of Abaal, the god made flesh in Ashtaroth’s father, divine blood beating in royal veins.
Divine blood emptied onto the floor.
But the alabaster man had shattered as Ashtaroth had, as though they were the same, as though Ashtaroth were the king and Princess Bree the queen seated on the gold throne.
Ashtaroth swallowed. Why was his throat so dry when the water had been everywhere?
He clung to Safot, who stayed bent over awkwardly, till the pit-pat of slippers jogged Ashtaroth out of his meditations. He peeled open his eyes. Two of his female slaves—Safot’s helpers—had brought a bronze bowl laden with towels and a deeper dish filled with water from upstairs. Safot stepped out of their way and the pair of them bent their heads in deference.
“Sese,” the slave women intoned as one.
Ashtaroth took the bowl and drank straight from the rim, the water dripping down his chin as he filled his mouth with it, still trying to dispel the sensation of gold choking his throat.
“Sese—” interrupted Safot. “Would you like a cup?”
Ashtaroth lowered the bowl as blood raced to his cheeks. He must look like an animal. “No—No, I was still half-asleep, and I was thirsty.” He handed the bowl to Safot and pushed past the three of them, toward the stairs.
He felt something powdery on the soles of his feet as he hurried upstairs to his chambers, the slaves in tow behind him. Once in his proper rooms, Ashtaroth lifted his foot up to a brazier, hopping awkwardly before steadying himself against the wall.
The firelight cast an orange sheet over the skin of his hands, which were latticed with angry red scratches. The pad and heel of his foot were black. Black like the water, black like Lilit’s eyes.
He brushed his hand over the stain and his fingertips came back dusted with chalky black powder. Heart thumping, Ashtaroth drew his fingers to his nose and sniffed.
He hurried to a basin and submerged his hands, shaking them beneath the water. One of the larger scrapes on his hand stung and he winced.
“Are you all right, Sese?” Safot asked.
Ashtaroth shook his head. “What happened to me? Why didn’t you stop me?” And where had he gone? He lifted his hands from the basin and shook them out before dabbing the rest of the water off with a towel.
“I’m uncertain, Sese.” Safot hesitated. “I didn’t hear you get up.”
“Never mind.” Ashtaroth placed the basin on the floor and dipped his feet into the water one after the other. The slaves mopped up the spill, using the towels from the dish to clean his feet.
Once they were done, he held out his arms. “Dress me—I want to see my sister.”
The slaves hurried to retrieve his clothes from one of the chests in his room. As they pulled on his undertunic the tug of the fabric transported him back to the tunnel, to the leaden feeling of the crush of the stones, the sensation of something vast pushing from outside to break apart the hallway.
Gold spilling out like guts.
Ashtaroth swallowed down bile as he remembered the flap of broken pottery-skin that had hung from his cheek, the shards of his shattered arms and legs scattered across the ground like a statue.
When he was fully dressed, Ashtaroth took his leave of the slaves, heading first for Qwella’s home, but then turning around. She was in mourning. He couldn’t bother her with a foolish nightmare like he was a child, not when she’d just burned her husband.
He stalked instead toward Hima’s rooms in the palace, the dawn sun spilling an anemic yellow light over the colourful tiles of the floor, giving them a sickly cast.
Did the land sicken as its prince sickened? He’d heard that somewhere—probably from Samelqo. The choices of Qemassen’s kings certainly drew the gods’ ire, and their blessing. If that weren’t true, Ashtaroth’s twin sister would still be alive.
And his mother would be alive with her.
Ashtaroth clenched his fists, walking faster, trying not to picture the golden woman on the throne. He’d never met his mother, didn’t know what she’d look like. Perhaps she haunted him in dreams. Perhaps she wished him dead out of vengeance. Like everyone at court, he’d heard the stories of how she’d offered him in Aurelius’s stead. She was no mother to him, in truth.
Ashtaroth skipped down a flight of painted orange stairs to the private entrance that attached Hima’s home to the central palace and knocked.
A slave opened the door almost immediately. She bowed as soon as she saw the crown prince.
“I’d speak with my sister—is she awake?”
The slave shook her head. “The heq-Damirat is away, Sese. But you can wait here for her return.”
Ashtaroth stretched his neck to the side, trying to get a glimpse of the inside of the house. Why was Hima out so late—so early?Was she at the docks? Ashtaroth’s nephews—Hiram and Reshith—were laughing from inside Hima’s home, to what sounded like the frustrated pleading of their tutor. Of course Hima would have insisted they be woken when she was.
The sound of family calmed his anxiety some, and he drew back from the door.
“No,” he told the slave. “I’ll return later.” There was one more door Ashtaroth could visit.
He hurried back up the steps, panting once he reached the top, but pressing on in the direction of the heq-Ashqen’s tower. Samelqo had to be there—he was forbidden to leave. Unlike Hima, there could be no sneaking out.
Unfortunately for Ashtaroth, visiting the heq-Ashqen always meant suffering up the winding stairs that led to Samelqo’s chambers. On some days, when he was particularly unwell, Ashtaroth had the slaves hoist him up on a carrying chair, but this morning he’d foolishly left them in his room.
Ashtaroth started his ascent up the narrow steps. The walls of the tower were painted the colours of the sunset, darkening from orange to purple to blue at the very top. When he was halfway up, he paused and leaned against the wall. The rich orange of the lower stairs had blended into a deep purple, and the darkness of the paint made it hard to see, despite the windows that dotted the outer wall and the hung ceiling lamps casting tiny ansate crosses along the tower’s curving walls, and upon the doors built into the central column.
His throat was raw from exertion, but the familiar patterns and colours had already started to chase away Ashtaroth’s earlier panic. He swallowed, mouth dry again, and pushed himself forward. There’d be water once he reached the top.
Outside Samelqo’s door, two of Eshmunen’s guards stood watch—protectors, yes, but jailers also. Not that Samelqo was spry enough to escape. The guards obviously knew that too, slouched as they were at their posts. They stood hastily at attention as Ashtaroth mounted the stairs.
“Let me in . . . .” he huffed between breaths, “I would see the heq-Ashqen.”
“Immediately, Sese,” said one of the guards, and the pair of them opened the double doors that led into Samelqo’s audience chamber.
As usual, the heq-Ashqen busied himself at his desk, scribbling. He didn’t look up as Ashtaroth entered. One of his body slaves—the pretty one named Madaula—sat on a cushioned seat against the wall, mending one of Samelqo’s robes with a needle and thread. She looked up at him and darted a look from her master and Ashtaroth, before tilting her head at Ashtaroth and setting her work aside. “Sese,” she said, keeping her eyes downwards.
The rising sun beamed through the panoramic tower window, casting her brown face in a warm glow. Deeper in Samelqo’s chambers, a curved, west-facing window captured the sundown in the evening. From up here, a long line of high priests had surveyed Qemassen’s streets—watching over the city and its people.
“Samelqo,” Ashtaroth said. The doors thudded closed behind him.
Samelqo looked up. He laid his reed pen to the side and clasped his hands atop the desk. “Sese,” he said in greeting. He didn’t stand up or bow—was he still wroth over Ashtaroth’s late arrival to the funeral?
But Ashtaroth was the crown prince, and he stood tall and held up his head. He remembered only too late the scratches on his hands, then quickly hid them behind his back. “I wish to speak with you.”
“I had determined that,” said the heq-Ashqen, “from your presence. Not many climb my stairs to watch me in silence, much as I might prefer it.”
Out of view of the heq-Ashqen, Madaula smirked and rolled her eyes.
Ashtaroth frowned. He understood where she was coming from, but it wasn’t appropriate. He’d bring it up with Samelqo later, once the nightmare was out of the way.
Samelqo sighed, some lightness entering his voice as though perhaps he were only tired, and not wroth at all. “What brought you here, Sese?”
It seemed so foolish now that Ashtaroth was actually standing here, in front of the heq-Ashqen. What had he expected? For Samelqo to hug him and tell him everything would be all right? The dream had seemed important, but what if Samelqo thought it silly? What if he used Ashtaroth’s sleepwalking as an excuse to have Qirani fuss over him?
Ashtaroth shook his head, staring at the patterned floor. At the betraying tremble of his lip, he clenched his hands into fists.
“Sese?” Samelqo pressed, voice suddenly filled with concern. His chair scraped across the floor.
Ashtaroth looked up to find the heq-Ashqen had stood. “I—I had a bad dream. A nightmare. That’s all.”
The heq-Ashqen looked distant for a moment as he stared at the surface of his desk. “Perhaps you wish to tell me about it? Was it a prescient dream?”
Yes. He could still feel the rough, eroded edges of the stones that had cut his knees. Normally in dreams, all he remembered were vague emotions, or funny moments like when his father had been replaced by a talking pastry and Qanmi had tried to eat him.
“I don’t know,” Ashtaroth managed. “I was in a tunnel—or maybe it was a tower. It was big and made of stone, and there was a room full of these glowing murals. The walls started to close in on me, so I tried to get away. ” He swallowed.
Samelqo gestured to one of the cushioned seats around the audience room, and Ashtaroth took a seat in front of the desk, before looking up at the heq-Ashqen. “May I have some water?”
Samelqo’s frown deepened. “Did you hurt your hands?”
“What?” Ashtaroth resisted the urge to hide them again and held them out. He affected a laugh. “I must have scratched myself in my sleep.”
Samelqo got up and retrieved a jug from a stand. He poured some wine into a cup and slid it across the surface of the table. Ashtaroth took a long swig. It was strong—not diluted with water like most wine. It must be for rituals, when Samelqo needed it to speak with the gods.
“Better?” asked Samelqo.
Ashtaroth was about to answer that yes, it was better, when he burst into tears. Samelqo blinked, drawing back for a moment in shock. Once the heq-Ashqen had collected himself, he laid his hand over Ashtaroth’s, and rubbed soothing circles over the back of Ashtaroth’s hand with his thumb. “You know, I received word today of your Feislanda princess. The missive stated that she and her queen-mother were to set sail soon for Qemassen. Surely they must already be at sea by now.”
The golden woman. Royal blood given with a kiss and wasted on the floor.
Ashtaroth snatched his hand back, frowning at the wall, smoothing over his skin where Samelqo had touched him. “I look forward to meeting her,” he said, because he had to.
Samelqo snorted. “Such unbridled enthusiasm. Well, if it matters to you, I’m told she’s fairer than her sister was, and that she has a soft temperament.”
“Soft? Is she a carpet?” Ashtaroth snapped. He turned back to Samelqo.
The heq-Ashqen arched one of his thin eyebrows. “I merely meant, Sese, that she is said to be kind. A gentle queen will suit you.”
Gentle. Like Djana. Well, what if Ashtaroth didn’t want gentle? “Thank you, I look forward to meeting her,” Ashtaroth repeated.
Samelqo breathed out audibly. He was staring at Ashtaroth’s hands. “She is young. You should be gentle with her, also. If she is to be queen of Qemassen, she will be Tanata made flesh, and must be respected as such.”
Respected like Samelqo had respected Ashtaroth’s mother? “I wouldn’t be cruel to her. Even if she were ugly I wouldn’t be cruel.” He paused. “Can we talk about something else?”
Ashtaroth could have withered beneath Samelqo’s flat stare. The gold talisman at the heq-Ashqen’s neck caught the sunlight, blinding Ashtaroth with a spear of light. “Was there more to your dream?” Samelqo asked.
Ashtaroth lifted his cup, and Madaula approached to pour him more wine. “I was outside Mother’s room, but it was all painted gold. There was a queen on a throne and she was kissing a man made of alabaster who shattered when they touched, and then I started to shatter apart as well. He was wearing a blue cloak covered in stars, like the ceiling in Tanata’s temple.”
Ashtaroth stared at the scroll the heq-Ashqen had been working on, so that he didn’t have to look at Samelqo. The letters were in some foreign script, but not one that Ashtaroth recognized. He squinted at the shapes.
Madaula reached out and took the scroll away. “Let me store this for you, Sese, to avoid a spill.”
Samelqo flicked his fingers absently, and Ashtaroth glared after her. Did she think Ashtaroth a spy? It was Ashtaroth’s future kingdom Samelqo administered.
“I understand your concern,” said Samelqo, drawing back Ashtaroth’s attention. “The . . . alabaster skin might suggest a northerner. There was gossip once, about your mother’s rumoured dalliance with an old Lora ambassador, but rest assured that he died long before your birth, or the births of your siblings. None of his blood flows in your veins.”
Was that what the dream had meant? It made sense, but Ashtaroth felt like he himself had been the man of alabaster, like his own blood had spilled across that floor alongside the man his mother had kissed.
And what of the circular room filled with images of the drowned and dying? What of Lilit covered in owl’s feathers?
“The matter,” Samelqo continued, “can be compared to that of a king. The king is weak without—
The doors to Samelqo’s audience chamber groaned open.
Uta, Samelqo’s ugly one-eyed slave, stood in the doorway, a scroll case slung over her shoulder. Despite the stairs, she was perfectly poised. She bowed to Ashtaroth and almost immediately ignored him in favour of her master.
“It’s Cheti, Sese—”
Samelqo hissed in distaste. “Cheti.”
The court scribe—an honoured position, except that . . . well, he was Cheti. There wasn’t really anything else to be said about it.
Uta sighed and shook her head. “I sent him away, but there’s been news, Sese.” She flicked her tongue over her lips and bowed her head. “There was a fire in the lower quarters of the city. Your niece Safeva was involved—she’s admitted to spreading oil over her family’s beds, throwing a lantern inside and barring the doors. The entire block was consumed before the flames could be put out. She’s—she’s been arrested by the Yirada, Sese. Alive, claiming a god threatened her.” Uta looked up. “A god of owls.”
Just like in the dream, Ashtaroth was frozen to his seat.
The soot on his feet. Lilit’s feathers and shiny black owl eyes. The way the water had burned like fire. The scratches on his hands—
Ashtaroth wrung his hands beneath the table and forced himself to turn and look at Samelqo.
He’d known the heq-Ashqen had distant family, but not that they were in the lower city. Had Samelqo’s family always been poor, or had they done something to make them that way? Surely Samelqo could have paid their debts?
The heq-Ashqen was uncomfortably still, his eyes distant at first, until he blinked back some unreachable emotion. His brow furrowed, lips parted.
Ashtaroth had never liked how his brother and sisters called Samelqo skeletal, like he was a monster, but the bones beneath his skin really were quite prominent. In the moment, he seemed old and frail. Delicate.
Samelqo’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “I apologize, Sese,” he said to Ashtaroth, before looking past him at Uta. “I will need the king’s permission to travel to the lower city.” He stood, gesturing to Madaula, who scurried away into an adjoining room.
“I’m sorry, Sese.” Uta’s sandals scuffed the floor as she approached the desk. She reached out her hand as though to take hold of Samelqo’s arm, but she didn’t go so far as to touch him. “King Eshmunen has already denied your request. He requires that you remain here, should he have need of you. There are matters of state on which he requires your attention. He wishes to discuss the New Year’s sacrifices, the blessings of the vineyards . . . .” She trailed off as Samelqo returned to his seat.
King Eshmunen claimed to want to speak of the spring festivals, of the harvest sacrifices, but Ashtaroth’s lessons were often interrupted by his father seeking solace, or advice, or someone to talk at. Eshmunen often spent hours upon hours in Samelqo’s chambers, babbling about who knew what. He certainly never spoke to Ashtaroth about his troubles. He’d never bared his breast to any of his children. Only the heq-Ashqen. Only Samelqo.
Samelqo wet his lips, looking neither at Ashtaroth, nor Uta, but at the surface of his cedarwood desk. No one spoke. At last, Samelqo cleared his throat. He looked up at Uta. “Then send someone to the Yirada cells, and to the site of the fire. I would know if anyone remains.”
“Yes, Sese,” Uta said quietly, and she left through the door Madaula had taken to Samelqo’s inner chambers.
The room was fully lit now, the tentative warmth of the spring sun turning the teal walls nearly white. It was one of the most beautiful of all the palace residences—but was it beautiful any longer to one who spent all his days here? The funeral might have been the first time in a year that Samelqo’s feet had touched the earth.
Down in the lower quarters of the city, the air was thick with the smell of salt water, of spices and the musk of human bodies. Did the scent of the ocean drift all the way up to Samelqo’s room in the tower? Could one claim to be a child of Qemassen if the sea no longer cleared the lungs?
Ashtaroth stood up. The sound of his cushioned stool clattering against the floor was loud in the quiet room. “I shall attend to my duties,” Ashtaroth said. He turned around and hurried off, certain that now of all times, the heq-Ashqen would wish to be alone.
Once he was safely at the tower’s base again, he collapsed against the wall, turning his hands over. He could have made those scratches himself, or cut his hand wandering in the cellar. He could have stained himself with soot somehow. And the owl—Lilit’s owl. Well, it was all just coincidence, the ravings of Samelqo’s mad niece.
Ashtaroth brought his hands to his face, smelling for smoke, but there was no trace of it, nor on his clothes. But when he looked closer at his hands, at his fingers, there was a dark crescent beneath the whites of each fingernail. He scraped the dirt free from under his nail and it smeared red across his skin.