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Chapter 20: Conquerors
Aurelius– The Palace: Qemassen
“There’s still time. I could ride after her and bring her back.” Aurelius was halfway to his chamber door when Hima’s words stopped him with the force of a wall forming in his path.
“She didn’t want you to go after her.” Hima sighed in a way that made it clear the sound was meant to cover her judgemental tone. She added, more softly: “She never loved you, Aurel. Eaflied told me everything.” Hima’s pathos was worse than her coldness.
Never loved him. The words twisted inside him. It couldn’t be true. He couldn’t lose Bree along with everyone else.
Aurelius eq-Eshmunen had returned to a city half-drowned, whose only victory in war seemed to have been that at least some of her remained standing. The Lora had no such hope to cling to. What few men had survived the harrowing of the city had been summarily rounded up and imprisoned. The majority of the Lora force had either drowned or been buried beneath Qwella’s tunnels, and though Qemassen’s navy had also sustained heavy casualties and widespread destruction, their losses had been few by comparison.
Qwella and Ashtaroth were both missing, presumed dead. Hima’s scouts had apparently scoured the streets and even the outlying hills for Ashtaroth. That nothing had been found suggested he’d somehow escaped his room and been killed in the chaos. And Qwella—Aurelius grew choked at the thought of her.
Qanmi’s youngest daughter said Qwella had been crushed in the tunnels along with the Lora soldiers she’d been trying to fight off.
Aurelius hadn’t been here to save her. He hadn’t been able to say goodbye to either of them. And now, Hima lay in front of him telling him his wife had fled. He’d lost nearly everyone he cared for in the span of a few days. Maybe a few hours.
She hadn’t ever loved him.
“And Bree told her mother that, did she?” Aurelius’s smile was tight.
Hima’s bruised face smiled back at him—her own attempt at acting human. She lay back on her settee, holding her hand to her bandaged side. She was almost as much of a wreck as Qemassen was—her leg broken, arms sprained. Four burly slaves had been forced to carry her to Aurelius’s rooms. She’d narrowly avoided death.
Instead of stewing on what was lost, Aurelius should focus on the people who remained. None of what Bree had done was Hima’s fault. She was just the messenger.
But fresh from the road, Aurelius was still in shock.
Qwella. Ashtaroth. Bree. All gone in a hair’s breadth. Aurelius had done nothing to keep them safe. His sisters had broken themselves in service to the city Aurelius was duty-bound to protect, all while he’d been chasing fantasies of a glorious Inda victory.
“Eaflied wasn’t her mother, Aurel, I told you. And yes, I suppose she must have, because that’s what Eaflied told me.” Hima leaned forward and the settee—or perhaps her splint—creaked. “I thought it might make it easier for you to know.”
That Bree had pretended to be a princess, Aurelius had no trouble believing, but that she had feigned her interest from the start was more difficult to understand.
As soon as Aurelius had arrived, as soon as he’d passed through the gates amidst the rubble and the builders who swarmed about it, his first thought had been of Bree and their son. Were they safe? Were they alive? In so many ways, it was better that Bree had fled than that she’d died. It should warm him to know her heart was still beating when the hearts of so many others had stilled.
Having clearly foreseen his concern, Hima had seen fit to be brought to Aurelius’s chambers, to explain to him the detailed story of how a wastrel from the north had forced herself to tolerate her marriage to him in exchange for a few baubles and a fancy chair.
“She kissed me like she loved me,” Aurelius continued, knowing even as he spoke how pathetic he sounded.
Hima cocked her head at him. “As whores are keen to do, especially whores set on marrying princes. She had much to gain, Aurel.”
Aurelius stood up. He ran his hand through his hair. He was a mess—certainly not a king, to look at him.
What had Bree thought as she touched him? The press of their bodies, their heat, her urgency—it couldn’t all have been a lie. She must at least have wanted him. It was a very long time since a woman had feigned enthusiasm for his touch, and he’d been a fumbling boy back then.
He couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t.
But in the end, wasn’t his disbelief only more selfishness? He wanted to Bree to have loved him, because then he could go to her. He could have her. He wouldn’t have lost her along with his brother and sister and the pain of their deaths would be—not numbed, but—
Aurelius wrang his hands.
“Why choose me? If she felt no love for me then why choose me over Ashtaroth? She made it more difficult for herself, and a woman only concerned with raising herself high wouldn’t do that.” He paced the room, recalling and dissecting every detail of Bree’s face: her smile as they’d sat together, her biting sarcasm, their teasing. If it wasn’t real, she’d made herself perfect, schooled body and mind to snare him. It was no easy task she’d accomplished. Aurelius had never allowed anyone to reach inside him like she had.
Himalit flicked her wrist, gesturing at Aurelius with the little movement available to her. “Look at yourself. Think of Ashtaroth. Everyone knew you wanted the throne—that the succession wasn’t assured. She may not have lusted for you in truth, but I’d wager she’d rather you in her bed than our brother.”
Their brother, who was most likely dead and hardly seemed to deserve Hima’s criticisms. Aurelius had taken everything from Ashtaroth—his bride, his confidence, his throne.
If only Aurelius were wearing his crown now so he could throw it at Hima’s feet. He had no desire for it, felt no great pride in his accomplishment.
“I’d have gone after her. I don’t care what she is, only who she is. She could have been a fisherman’s daughter for all I care.” He paused, turning away from his sister, and striding toward the ledge below his window where he kept his carvings. The tiger that Bree had stolen was still missing. It had been a gift from Dashel when he and Aurelius had both been children. What had Bree wanted with it? Perhaps she collected trophies from all the kings she bedded and wedded.
He smirked to himself sourly.
If what Hima said was true, Aurelius had ignored everything that really mattered and everyone who really loved him, all for Bree. Even now, her image pulled him, when he should be thinking of his family.
Little Nobody. Aurelius must be strong for him. To grow up motherless was no easy thing, and everyone at court would be gasping for the chance to steal his inheritance. Aurelius couldn’t waste his time chasing dreams when he had a son to raise. He wasn’t going to be Eshmunen.
“Don’t go after her, Aurel. She didn’t want you to. She didn’t tell anyone where she was going, not even Eaflied. She has money enough to keep her happy, with all the gold she stole from the treasury before her flight.”
Aurelius’s brother and sister were dead, his city lay in ruins, and his wife had carved a piece of him and run.
He plucked a wooden elephant from the ledge, running his thumb and fingers across its smooth surface. He wanted to shout and throw the thing across the room. He wanted to protest that how could Bree not love him, when after all she was a part of him? But he knew better than to show such weakness in front of Hima. All along he’d thought himself the hunter, but the deer had turned on him and stuck him full of arrows.
As though reading his thoughts, Hima sighed. “Perhaps it’s your turn, Aurel. Everyone knows a broken heart at least once in their life.” Her tone hardened. “Do you want to be held?”
A choked laugh escaped Aurelius’s lips. “No. I want to get drunk. I want Dashel back, and I want to get drunk. I want Ashtaroth and Qwella and my mother, and I want to get drunk and stumble home and find Bree waiting for me in our bed.” He gazed out the window, fighting the tears at the corners of his vision. “She wouldn’t be asleep, you see. She never slept if I wasn’t with her. She used to have terrible nightmares. They only went away when I was holding her. She’d say she didn’t need me, but she never meant it.” He grew quiet, a numbness descending upon him.
She’d told him in so many ways that she didn’t love him, over and over, only he’d been too proud to see it.
Himalit was trying to be a good sister, stretching her curt kindnesses to fill the gap left by their siblings. She was trying.
“You never would admit you were anything like Father. It might be better if you did.”
Aurelius slumped into a chair. He couldn’t look at his sister. “I lost her country, you mean, the same as him. She was forced to wed me like Mother was Father. Did she love another too?” He turned the elephant over in his hands. It was one of the first he’d made; it was clumsy, not as finely crafted as the others.
He wouldn’t have time for wooden animals anymore. They were a child’s things, fit for the fire.
Aurelius shivered. It was as though he could see the flame before him now, twisting up into the air, lighting Dashel’s face, heating Aurelius’s skin. If he’d died then, would Ashtaroth and Qwella still be alive? He forced the thought down. “I’ll have to marry then, won’t I?”
“Aurel,” Hima soothed, but he wouldn’t be beaten down.
“Well, if Bree was lying, I’m a king without a queen. You’ll want me to marry. You’ll parade them in front of me, sell their merits, curse their defects. Which one do you think an adequate replacement? Who to do her duty and lie with me? To lay down her happiness and bear the mantel of my company?”
“Aurel.” There seemed something new in Hima’s voice. Was it shame? It seemed funny she should feel guilt for speaking her mind when she was usually so keen to. “No one bears you. You’re not that man. You’re handsome and clever. People respect you. Just because one woman—”
“My son. I am king, aren’t I? If I say he’s to remain my heir then will you support me?” He pushed himself up from his chair, facing Hima. “I want to see him.”
The sorrow on Hima’s face was another arrowhead piercing his flesh. “I would have brought him to you.” She faltered on her words. “He’s gone. She took him. We’ve looked everywhere and no one can find him. It’s all I can think of.”
And like that, there was no one to hold onto.
Aurelius nodded. “Of course. Of course she took him. It only makes sense. She must have loved him.” Let that be a comfort. Bree would care for him. She’d love him. He’d grow up strong and free and with a mother’s gentle hand to guide him. It would be better than the scheming halls of the palace.
“She wouldn’t harm him,” Hima said assuredly, “if that concerns you.”
The comment struck him like a punch.
Aurelius couldn’t imagine it. But until a few moments ago, he hadn’t been able to imagine a great many things. The worry burrowed inside him. “How could you know that? None of us knew anything! She was someone else entirely. She never loved me, not for a moment, and I couldn’t see it. She might hate him for his father. She might have stolen him only to enjoy watching him drown.”
And yet, as much as Bree had fooled him, it seemed an impossibility. Little Nobody was safe. Gone, but safe.
It didn’t seem like the hollow in his chest could grow wider or deeper, but it did. “I saved Ashtaroth from her, so there’s that.”
Hima parted her lips, as though to say something, but closed them again.
“You were going to say I didn’t?” Aurelius knew her too well. Hima didn’t reply, but he could read the truth on her face. “No, I didn’t save him. I didn’t save my city. I didn’t save our sister. I’ve saved nothing and no one.”
“She didn’t deserve you, Aurel. She was a bitch and a liar.”
On their last day together, she hadn’t walked back with him. He should have realized right then.
Aurelius smiled wryly. “Bree never told me she loved me. Not once. Perhaps she’s not as much a liar as you think her.”
“Forget her.” Hima sat up taller, bearing her aches and pains with the same stalwart strength she’d always shown. “Slave!”
One of the slaves who’d carried her here emerged from outside the room. He bowed to Hima.
“I wish to leave,” Hima commanded.
Three more slaves entered the room. Together, two of them lifted her from the settee onto the special litter Qirani had commissioned for her while she recovered. She looked an altogether bent and broken thing, swathed in wrappings and poultices. She would heal in time, but time wouldn’t erase the grey strands from her hair.
“I deserved her,” Aurelius said plainly. “For Dashel, if nothing else.”
He’d deserved to have Little Nobody taken from him. A fitting name, it had turned out, since for Aurelius he would remain no one and nowhere.
“They’re excavating the tunnels beneath Qalita’s temple today.” Himalit frowned. “To find our sister. Come. She’d want you there.”
Aurelius nodded absently as Hima left. He would come, and he would watch, and he would even lift the stones himself, but for a few minutes longer, before his people had need of him, Aurelius wanted nothing more than to be in silence.
When the door had closed behind Hima, Aurelius lay down on his bed. He stretched his arm across the surface, curling his fingers around empty air. The slaves would have cleaned all this before he arrived, yet it seemed he could still smell Bree’s scent where she’d lain, recall her shape lying next to him, see the imprint of her body in the covers.
Oh, how he needed her now, on the day they pulled his sister from the ground.
He smiled, desperate to fill the expression with warmth, letting Bree’s teasing words echo through his thoughts. He’d thought what they had was so special. So different.
Aurelius’s smile faded.
It had all been a clever trick, nothing more. People wanted what they couldn’t have, and she’d made certain he’d always want her.
Aurelius tightened his fingers into a fist, the sight blurring before him.
Qwella and Ashtaroth’s faces seemed to coalesce out of the haze of his tears, but the moment it seemed they might be real, they warped into strange, indistinct shapes. There was so much he should have said to them.
Alone with the traces of Bree’s smell, the king wept into his pillow.