(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 3: Merchants
Ashtaroth – Qemassen: The Palace
Hazzan’s caprine eyes stared into Ashtaroth’s from a small square alcove in the palace sanctuary beneath the heq-Ashqen’s tower.
Ashtaroth shifted on his aching knees and blinked back the tears forming in the corners of his own eyes. Thick, perfumed smoke hung so heavy in the air he could be swimming in it. Every inhale was like gasping water into the lungs. Together with the flames warming his back and the sides of his face, the smoke drew him back to his dream, to the burned buildings in the lower quarter and the soot staining his hands after he’d woken. It was so hot that already the water from the basin at the sanctuary’s entrance had dried on his hands.
The goat god, Hazzan, son of Molot and Qalita, was carved half in ivory, half in horn, gold inserted into the gouged slits representing his rectangular pupils. In either hand he clasped a rope, a black-horned goat on one lead, a white on the other.
Firelight from over two dozen wall-sconces and braziers danced across the polished surface of the god’s face, his gold eyes glowing whenever the light tickled their metallic paint. A large bowl for offerings rested on a sacred pillar made from a single gypsum sand rose. The bowl’s base was stained black from repeated burnings.
Ashtaroth held his palms outward in supplication. A razor with an image of the god carved into its sides rested in his right palm, cold against his skin, a cut strand of his white hair curled around it. In his left hand, he held one of Aurelius’s carvings: a little goat Aurelius had made him when Ashtaroth had been but a child.
Having never made a formal sacrifice to Hazzan before, Ashtaroth had been unsure how to proceed. Snatching the carving from one of his cluttered shelves had been an afterthought, but now that he sat here, belly groaning from hunger, and palms still sore from the mysterious cuts in his skin, the wooden animal seemed exactly the right thing to have brought.
The walls of the sanctuary were narrow and cramped, but the ceiling was so high he could only make out the barest suggestion of its end. The walls down here, on the lowest level, were rectangular, but the rest of the sanctuary coiled round in the shape of Samelqo’s tower. The eyes of a hundred gods or more looked out from the walls above, accessible only from the tiny balconies or the pulley and basket on this basement level.
Only the twenty most important gods were represented on this lower floor, and their eyes seemed to watch him as he prostrated himself before one of the least significant of their number. Sacred stones lined the twenty alcoves recessed into the walls, and an image of a god stood behind each one, every god or goddess with their own bowl in which to receive votive offerings.
Out of all of them, Ashtaroth had chosen Hazzan, god of the desert. Hazzan, the sin eater.
He pinched his eyes shut.
What could he possibly have to atone for? The soot, the scratches on his palms that had scabbed and then flaked until they resembled tiny jabs in his flesh—they could mean anything. News of the fire had interrupted Samelqo’s interpretation of Ashtaroth’s dream, and five days later, Ashtaroth was too consumed with shame to mount the tower steps. Twice he’d walked to the base of the twisting stairs, and twice his nerves had stopped him climbing any higher.
Where had he gone that his feet had been blackened and his hands scratched? How had he come to stand in the basement cellar where Safot had found him?
And why couldn’t he remember?
It had something to do with Lilit. Not the fortuneteller Lilit, but the woman who’d come to him in the dream. Lilit covered in owl feathers, who’d whispered in his ear that he was a true child of Qemassen.
Ashtaroth opened his eyes, meeting Hazzan’s. Was the god’s face closer than it had been?
He wetted his lips. He must make his offering. Whether or not the fire had anything to do with Ashttaroth, Hazzan would take his guilt upon himself, to loose it amongst the demons of the western desert.
A basket full of incense sat on the floor beside the statue, ready for use alongside a gilded ritual knife and several more of the razors. None of them seemed right. Ashtaroth should give something meaningful. Something of his very own.
Ashtaroth closed his fingers over the wooden goat. It was so small and delicate, the way he himself had once been. Back then, Aurelius had been a brother to idolize—handsome, clever, and adventurous. Back then, Ashtaroth wouldn’t have guessed he’d one day hate Aurelius for those same reasons.
His lip quivered. Aurelius was his brother. How could he ever truly hate him? Just because Aurelius had smiled with Djana, who Ashtaroth didn’t even love? Just because a few layabouts at court thought Aurelius would make a better king? Aurelius never would be king. A few whispers from Shaqarbas and those like him hardly mattered. Ashtaroth had Samelqo and Hima’s support. And his father’s too, of course. Ashtaroth was the seventh child of the sixteenth king.
A true child of Qemassen.
The wooden figure cracked in Ashtaroth’s hand, and he frowned, hesitant to look. When he did, the goat lay on its side, one of its legs broken off.
Perhaps it was Hazzan telling Ashtaroth he accepted the sacrifice.
“I’m sorry,” Ashtaroth said to the goat, his voice absurdly loud in the room as though to match the absurdity of his apology.
He stood and tipped the figure into the bowl along with both razor and hair, and took a stick from beside one of the braziers to light the fire. Ashtaroth wasted only a breath before touching flame to wood. Some things were easier done quickly.
He bowed curtly to Hazzan, eager to escape the cramped confines of the room, the walls that seemed to press inward. But as Ashtaroth turned to leave, content to let the fire in the basin burn itself out, the crackle and whoosh of a blazing fire erupted behind him.
Ashtaroth swerved and came face to face with a column of fire, a great tower, taller than he was. Orange tendrils like spider legs crept across the ceiling, threatening to crawl down the walls and consume the whole room.
He stumbled backward, toward the doorway. He had to fetch help. He practically bumped into the basin of water at the sanctuary’s entrance, beside the foot of the stairs. He grabbed the gold dish from the stone upon which it rested and dashed with it back to the fire.
Through the flames, somehow Hazzan’s ivory and horn visage glimmered, still staring at Ashtaroth. He raised the basin and—
“Sese? What are you doing?”
A woman’s voice stopped him.
Ashtaroth froze, arms poised to toss the water.
But the fire was out. In the bottom of the dish, all that remained was Aurelius’s carving, no longer on its side, but standing—leg unbroken—with the blackened razor beside it.
He drew in a sharp breath, then another. He stepped away, heart pounding, and lowered his arms.
Had he failed? No—his hair had burned to nothing. Hazzan had accepted Ashtaroth’s offering. Hazzan had swallowed his sins. Hazzan had returned his wooden toy to him, not only unharmed, but mended. It was all the proof he needed of the god’s favour.
“Sese?” the woman asked.
He faced her. Samelqo’s younger body slave, Madaula, stood beside a female slave he didn’t recognize. Madaula clasped the stranger’s hand in hers, cradling a basket filled with papyri between her free arm and her side.
“I’m fine.” He walked to the doorway and returned the basin to its stand. As he did, he caught a glimpse of the papyri filling the basket. Names in black ink had been written on small papyrus scraps.
The names looked like the ones burned during the marzeh festival in honour of the holy dead. There’d be feasting and drinking in the temples, and sacrifices to the ancestors. Some practiced worship of the holy dead year-round, but it seemed odd for a slave to do so.
He pointed at the basket. “What are those?”
Madaula looked down at the basket. “The names of the dead from the fire downhill, Sese. The heq-Ashqen had me bring them, along with the usual ones.”
The usual ones?
Ashtaroth reached for the basket, and the slave handed it to him without resistance. He rifled through the pile till he saw his sister Ashtara’s name. His mother’s was there as well, along with the names of long-dead aunts and a great many strangers. He brushed aside the names of his mother and sister, but found only more unknowns below them: D-N-N, M-L-Q-R. Well, that last must be Samelqo’s father, Milqar. Perhaps D-N-N was his mother’s name. It was oddly familiar.
He handed the basket back to Madaula, startled briefly when he saw L-L-T on top of the heap. But that could be anyone—it didn’t have to be Lilit.
And besides, he had Hazzan’s blessing.
He returned to the goat-god’s altar and retrieved the singed razor and the wooden goat.
One of the slaves cleared her throat. But when Ashtaroth turned around, Hima stood in the doorway, arms folded over her chest.
“So this is where you’re hiding.” She surveyed the room like she’d never seen it before. Maybe she hadn’t. Like Ashtaroth, she had small shrines to her favoured gods in her own apartments and had likely never needed to make an offering to Hazzan, a god who rarely graced people’s personal sanctuaries. The sanctuary in the heq-Ashqen’s tower could be used by anyone, but Ashtaroth rarely met anyone else here.
Madaula and her companion parted and began placing the papyri in the votive bowls lining the room.
Which bowl contained Ashtara’s name? Madaula placed a name in Ashtet’s bowl—it seemed a strange choice till he remembered that many of the dead from the fire had been prostitutes.
Hima coughed. “Why are you choking alone down here?”
“Samelqo sent me on an errand,” he lied, though why, he couldn’t say. His shame had burned to nothing with his lock of hair.
“Well, I need you at the docks,” said Hima. “And by the look of things, you could use some sunlight. You’ve barely left your room in days.”
“I was unwell.” Ashtaroth tucked the wooden goat into his pocket along with the singed razor.
“You’re unwell because you never go out.” Hima leaned against the door frame, half-in, half-out, as though by refusing to enter, she might force Ashtaroth to leave. “Do I have to tell you I want you to come? I swear, you’re worse than Qwella.”
Ashtaroth crooked his eyebrow and smiled. “Because I occasionally stand up to you?” Though come to think of it, he hadn’t heard from Qwella since the funeral. She must still be grieving.
Hima’s golden eyes judged him from beneath her one eyebrow. “Djana will be there.”
Ashtaroth’s heart quickened. Hearing Djana’s name conjured the smell of her rose perfume, the sight of her wide smile, the ring of her laugh. It was terrible. “Why does everyone think I like Djana so much?”
“Because you’d be stupid not to, and supposedly you’re the smart one.” Hima headed for the stairs, Ashtaroth followed.
The last thing he needed was another lecture about how he should take Djana to bed. “What’s at the docks?”
Hima waved her hand. “Business with Qanmi. I owe Titrit a favour. Said I’d help arbitrate a purchase. Qanmi needs someone there who can speak Vetnu.”
Ashtaroth furrowed his brow, incredulous. “You speak Vetnu?”
Hima snorted. “Hardly. Not all of us wasted our youth studying scribbles on a page. I asked Samelqo to lend me that slave of his to translate.”
So that was why she’d come to the heq-Ashqen’s tower. That Hima had visited Samelqo was even more surprising than if she’d planned to translate herself.
“Couldn’t you have asked Cheti?” Ashtaroth asked. It was the purpose of a royal scribe, after all.
Hima groaned. “Cheti.” She cocked her head at the stairs behind her, sliding away from the wall to start walking. “Perhaps I was wrong to ask Samelqo for his slave. You’d have been as good a scribe.”
Ashtaroth started after her. As he passed Ashtet’s votive bowl, he peeked over the rim. Several papers lay inside. That name, D-N-N, was on top. “I don’t speak Vetnu either. Not well enough, anyway.”
Hima shrugged as they mounted the stairs. “It was only a joke. It wouldn’t be seemly for the crown prince to translate for merchants at the docks.”
Apparently it was unseemly for Ashtaroth to translate, but seemly enough for Hima to run around the shipyard barking orders like a man. A few weeks ago, Samelqo had complained of Hima’s hypocrisy, of how she marched around the palace praising their grandfather as the greatest of the Massenqa and extolling the virtues of Massenqa craftsmanship, but also happily prancing around in the pair of ugly foreign trousers Aurelius had gifted her after a previous voyage.
Ashtaroth smiled to himself.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing.” Ashtaroth pushed past her and back up the stairs, emboldened. He was the crown prince. His presence was needed. “I’ll come. If Qanmi tries to make a fuss, I’ll throw my station in his face.”
“We’re supposed to be on his side,” said Hima. “Not his business partner’s.”
Ashtaroth laughed. It had been a long time since he’d felt this light. “When have any of us been on Qanmi’s side?”
The light above, which filtered through the open arches of the palace windows, was nearly blinding at first, but blessed Hazzan was it refreshing. He clutched the goat in his pocket tight—but not too tight this time. The wood was warm beneath his fingers, comforting in his hand. His hunger pangs barely bothered him.
When his eyes focused, Samelqo’s slave, Uta, was standing awkwardly against the wall across from the stairwell, a satchel slung over her shoulder. He should have realized it would be her. He met her gaze, but didn’t hold it long. With her glass eye, scraggly hair, and loose, ill-fitting stola, she was difficult to look upon.
“Sese.” She bent low, and Ashtaroth turned away. She always gave him a chill.
As they walked, she fell into step behind him. He could feel her eyes at his back the whole walk to the litter, hanging on him the way she looked at Aurelius when he was around.
At the palace gates, Djana was waiting for them inside the litter, a toothy smile at the ready. Her hair was piled on her head and half-hidden by a green and yellow headscarf decorated with flowers. As Ashtaroth clambered into the litter, she stretched out her long arm to help him up. He felt the blood rush to his cheeks as her fingers clasped his, and he sat down across from her, trying to look everywhere but her face. Hima came next, then last of all Uta, seemingly content to stare at the side of the litter as the slaves below hoisted the vehicle into the air and began the trek downhill.
“Where’s Aurel?” Though Djana had directed her question at Hima, Ashtaroth’s heart clenched, and his fingers found the goat again.
“Downhill helping with that fire.” Hima’s words dripped skepticism. “Trust Aurel to let a bunch of dead whores compel him.”
“I think it’s very kind of him.” Djana’s musing was full of admiration. “Of course Aurelius would think to do that.”
Ashtaroth squeezed the goat tighter. Was it kind? The fire had nothing to do with Aurelius, and Aurelius had nothing to do with the people in the district. They could handle their own affairs, surely. Of course, Ashtaroth would have also helped, if he’d had anything to do with the people there. But he didn’t, so he stayed out of it.
“Maybe it’s kindness,” said Hima, “but it stinks of his usual scheming to me. Trying to ingratiate himself with whoever he can just to hear them sing his praises. Just another reason he should never be given control over anything that matters. He’d sell the whole city for a compliment.”
Be given control over anything. Sell the whole city. Hima made it sound like he still thought to take Ashtaroth’s throne. But Hima was right about one thing: Aurelius could never have shouldered Ashtaroth’s burden. He’d have sunk beneath the weight of it. While Ashtaroth . . . thanks to Hazzan, Ashtaroth was standing tall.
He wriggled on his seat, eager to change the subject. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Djana?” He asked the question matter-of-factly, doing his best to imitate Samelqo, to practice his regal airs.
Djana’s lips crinkled and she glanced in Hima’s direction as though sharing a private joke. After a moment she cleared her throat. “I am meeting Titrit. I am to show her that new clothier of mine, after her father has finished his dealings, of course. Titrit has to attend all Qanmi’s meetings now.”
Hima parted the curtain impatiently to peer outside. “She’s the only heir he has, until she produces a son.”
Ashtaroth frowned. “Do you think she will? It’s been a year since she and Qorban married. Perhaps the gods find the match ill-made.”
As ill-made as Ashtaroth’s own betrothal to his faceless Feislanda princess?
“I think it is very well-made,” Djana insisted, a dreamlike quality entering her voice. “They love each other, and Titrit enjoys managing a household.”
Hima snorted. “She should, with a man like Qanmi for a father. It’s about all he’s good at.”
“And one of many things dear Qorban is terrible at,” laughed Djana.
“Maybe Titrit’s barren then,” said Ashtaroth. Even Uta turned to look at him, as though he’d sprouted a second head.
“That is unkind,” Djana replied simply, and for a time the four of them occupied themselves staring outside, the friendly conversation brought to a stop by Ashtaroth’s clumsy observation.
Was it really so cruel a thing to say? There were solutions to such problems, according to what Ashtaroth had read in temple scrolls. A barren woman wasn’t really a barrier. All that was required was money—of which Qanmi had no shortage—to pay a priest to perform the rites that transformed the chosen slave’s womb into the wife’s. Then again, when he was tucked away in the library at Tanata’s temple, he rarely paid attention to the age of the papyri. Perhaps these rites simply weren’t done very often anymore.
He would tell Titrit about it the next time they were alone.
The remainder of the trip passed in awkward silence till they reached the docks, but by then, Ashtaroth had nearly forgotten his fumble. Nearly.
He smelled the sea before he saw it, an unmistakable, fishy pong creeping past the curtains. And the docks were always noisy. He didn’t have to slide open the curtains to see the sailors crooning sea songs, foreigners arguing prices in strange tongues, the ebb and flow of the water lapping against the sides of boats. Most of Qemassen’s business took place here, the city’s power drawn chiefly from the strength of her navy and the adventurousness of her sailors.
“There is no deal made between Anan and Ajwatan that a Massenqen has not made with each of them already,” Djana remarked, her truism treading the same paths as Ashtaroth’s thoughts.
He smiled and opened the curtains a sliver, peeking out at the cothon—Qemassen’s great walled docks and circular military harbour. From on top of an artificial island at its centre, a great watchtower overlooked the harbour and the open ocean beyond. At the peak of the tower stood a statue of the Qabira—Qemassen’s sixteen goddesses of sailing. The goddesses surveyed the city and its environs, their arms outstretched, pointing in all directions.
Sailing, exploration, trade, collaboration with foreign merchants and artisans—these were the bedrock of what it meant to be Massenqa. Yet Ashtaroth had sailed no further than the small Massenqa settlements west of Qemassen. Unlike Aurelius.
The litter turned from the circular dockyard toward the rectangular branched arms of the merchant harbour that ran along the wide channel toward the sea. Ocean water lapped at the sides of the channel walls, at the ships docked at its sides.
From somewhere outside the litter, a deep-voiced man broke out into song. The Ajwata lyrics flowed together like the water of a babbling brook, impossible for Ashtaroth to discern. He turned to Djana to ask for a translation, but she cut him off with a stamp of her foot, bringing the litter to a halt.
Uta jumped at the sudden noise and clutched her hand to her chest.
Hima slouched back in her seat. “We have to keep moving! I’m not going to spend the rest of the month with Qanmi eq-Sabaal complaining I made off with his translator. He’s already weaseled his way out of his docking fees, thanks to—”
Djana bolted from her seat. Hima made a grab for her sleeve, just missing Djana as she leaped out. The litter tottered on the shoulders of the slaves.
After waiting a moment, Ashtaroth and Hima hopped from the litter onto the stone road. Uta followed.
Twenty feet away, Djana was excitedly grabbing the wrists of a short Ajwatan. The stranger looked just as startled as Ashtaroth had been when she’d leaped from the litter. The three of them hurried toward her.
“He’s a singer!” Djana called out, standing on the tips of her sandals. She waved as they approached.
“Obviously,” said Hima, reaching out to tug Djana by her expensive sleeve. “Now can we please get going? Messing around with Qanmi is only fun when you’re not the one dealing with the consequences, which I’d like to remind everyone I will be.”
“I am sorry, Sese,” said Djana, looking anything but with that cheeky smile on her face. All her attention was on the poor man trapped in her grip. “He was singing a song from my homeland. My mother used to sing it to my brothers and I. I have not heard it since . . . not for a long time.”
Were those tears in the corners of Djana’s eyes?
Ashtaroth offered his sister a smile. “If Qanmi makes a fuss, tell him it was my fault. He wouldn’t blame a crown prince.”
Djana let out a smooth, lyrical stream of Ajwata too fast for Ashtaroth to follow, and the jittery singer bowed his head meekly.
Djana grinned. “He will let me employ him, he says. Now I can have music all the time.”
Hima sighed, but Ashtaroth could tell she’d mellowed. It was hard to go unmoved by Djana’s full-bodied enthusiasm. Djana rambled out what must have been directions to her residence, handing him a small object and a few coins. The singer stared silently for a moment before taking the money and wandering off.
Djana didn’t seem at all worried that he’d go find an alehouse to drink away his good fortune and never appear at the ambassadorial apartments.
Hima gazed down the length of the pier. “We may as well walk.” She marched off down the length of the dock. She was halfway across the length of the pier by the time the rest of them had got started.
The Vetnu ship, recognizable by the key design painted along its sides, was moored by the entrance of the protected dockyard, framed from this distance by the two large gatehouses that stood to either side of the narrows. The last time Ashtaroth had been down here, it had been with Qwella, keeping her company as she awaited Sabeq’s return from a sea journey he’d taken to Suflan. Such trips had been hazardous even then, but now that war was brewing with Lorar, they were nigh impossible. A Massenqa tradesman seeking business on the northern shore best look to the harried Feislands.
His sister, at least, would have enjoyed this distraction. “Where’s Qwella?” Ashtaroth asked.
Hima sniffed. “She said she had business in the temple district. She’s been loitering there all week, making offerings to Sabeq’s spirit. I’m not sure how much space you get in the afterlife, but it can’t be enough for all the useless crap he’s had sacrificed to him.”
In the distance, Ashtaroth could just make out three figures standing beside the enormous vessel, deep in conversation. He squinted, recognizing Qanmi’s gesticulations as he bargained. For someone of average stature, Qanmi always seemed tall to Ashtaroth. “There they are.” He pointed.
Once they were close enough, Qanmi seemed to notice them and set his hard stare on Hima. Today, as always, he kept a tidy, if gaudy appearance, with two golden teeth on the left side of his mouth, and gold earrings that jangled against each other.
The sunlight glanced off the gold decorating Qanmi’s greying brown hair and the red and blue beads at the ends of his braids. For just an instant, the flash of gold brought Ashtaroth back to the dream and the gold room, but Qanmi looked nothing like the alabaster man. The designs on his robes were simple, though in good taste, cut sharply and neatly at his ankles. His cheeks were lined, but his age sat well on him, the laugh lines about his eyes suggesting he must have moments of good humour the court simply wasn’t privy to. Perhaps at home, when his wife had been alive, and when Titrit had not been married, Qanmi had been a happy man.
Qanmi looked Hima up and down with pale amber eyes not unlike hers—eyes that suggested their two families had once intermarried, if only long ago. “Good of you to join us, Sese. I trust this is your Vetnat slave? She must be very good to keep me waiting so long. Did you travel to Vetna itself to find her?”
“Father.” Titrit glared at Qanmi, before offering Ashtaroth and Hima a placating smile.
Ashtaroth frowned at Qanmi, who was blatantly ignoring him the way a disturbing number of courtiers seemed to do. “I apologize for keeping you waiting.”
Qanmi’s eyes widened, but soon he was all smiles again, reverting to the state of wormy obeisance he always used once someone pointed out his indiscretion. He tilted his head deferentially, yet even that carried a layer of barely disguised sarcasm.
“Not at all, Sese,” Qanmi said. “It has been but a short time―a dalliance. I’m such a busy man. It will be good for me to take a moment and enjoy the heat of the sun.”
Had Ashtaroth been a stronger man he might have rebutted Qanmi’s veiled insults, but he wasn’t, and he couldn’t, and so he played the fool and accepted the false apology with a nod. These were the sorts of things he would have to become used to if he was to be a king one day, as there was vinegar as well as sweetness in the flattery of the Semassenqa. The trick wasn’t in drawing attention to it, but in remembering it. Ashtaroth was sure he would remember Qanmi, and that one day he would learn to control him.
One day, but not now.
The Vetnan rattled something off in his native tongue, and Uta took a step forward, her succinct reply suggesting an insult of some kind.
The merchant’s fat lips hung on his face. He was draped in self-importance, clothing over-rich, and posture haughty. What would he think if he knew the crown prince of Qemassen had accompanied his interpreter? Perhaps nothing. Someone important enough to deal directly with Qanmi eq-Sabaal might very well be a prince himself. He certainly wore enough jewels for one.
“What did he say?” Qanmi asked.
Uta didn’t take her eyes off the merchant as she answered, her voice as colourless as her clothes. “He says if we don’t mind, he’d like us to stop yammering and start making money.”
Ashtaroth felt a hand tug his cloak. He turned, finding Djana. He wished she wouldn’t touch him like that, but was loathe to risk offending her by asking her not to. She seemed to draw happiness from her proximity to other people’s bodies. Aurelius should have been ideal for her.
When Djana pulled him beneath the shadow of the merchant’s galley he didn’t protest. Once in the shade, she let go of him, smiling at someone behind him.
Titrit had followed them.
Relief flooded him, but Djana looked disappointed, if only for a moment, as though she’d wanted to get Ashtaroth alone.
“He has no need of you, then?” She didn’t sound upset. Perhaps Ashtaroth was being unfair.
Titrit was watching the Vetnan’s ship rocking gently on the water. It really was a marvel: three tiered, with nude women holding gold flowers painted all along the keel, an eye at the prow just like on Massenqa ships. Perhaps the Vetnu also invoked spirits to occupy their vessels, help guide them safely between ports.
“He’s buying slaves,” Titrit answered. “The Vetnan thought it inappropriate for a woman to take part.”
Uta wouldn’t count, being a slave herself. She might have a woman’s parts, but the dishonour of bondage lowered her to a beast’s place.
Ashtaroth turned from Uta back to the ship. What the future slaves packed inside its hull were thinking, if they realized their sorry state. Then again, they might have been starving in their native lands. At least captivity meant food and shelter, assuming they were northern captives. There were those, too, who chose their lot: men who sold themselves, forfeiting their rights and agreeing instead to live according to the daily rhythms of another.
Ashtaroth craned his neck, pale hair tickling his neck.
The trireme was huge, but it couldn’t be big enough for rowers and slaves. Had those Qanmi was bargaining for been forced to row their own way here? And who would row it back to Vetna, if that were so?
Sometimes, when Ashtaroth’s father was in one of his dark moods, he spoke of Qemassen’s fall, of a future in which the Massenqa were loaded into Inda and Lora holds to be stripped of their dignity. Ashtaroth could barely imagine such a fate, yet sometimes he woke from nightmares of a vast, dark ocean, his hands and feet bound, his city nothing but a mound of smoldering embers at his back. When most people talked about slaves, or their fears of conquest, it was the fear of dishonour, but Ashtaroth was far more frightened by the threat of physical suffering, of separation from his city. In Lorar, it was said, they paraded the bodies of conquered kings through their streets, so their people might savour Lorar’s triumph. Hima and Samelqo would probably rather die than suffer such indignity.
But so many considered Ashtaroth sickly and dishonourable already. He could probably bear that particular burden uncomplaining. That he might be sold to a perverse master was the worse fate. And oh, to be pried from one’s place, to be loose in the world without a country or calling! That’s what Qanmi was buying: souls without homes, bodies without land to rest their feet on, children with no names and no claim to names. The dead walking, only mobile because they hadn’t yet realized they were no longer alive.
He thought of Safot, of Madaula and the slave whose hand she’d been holding in the sanctuary. Perhaps there was some cruelty to their fate, but they didn’t seem entirely unhappy. They lived surrounded by beauty.
Djana laid her hand on Ashtaroth’s shoulder. “What are you thinking about?”
He shook off her touch without turning away from the ship. “Nothing. Slaves.”
“You feel sorry for them?” asked Titrit. He couldn’t read her tone, whether or not she was judging him.
Everyone is always judging you. Don’t be stupid.
He furrowed his brow. “Yes, sometimes. When I think about it, which isn’t often.”
Titrit nodded to herself. “And pitied, they remain pathetic.” She sounded almost wistful.
“Why didn’t he send Hima with you?” Djana asked, drawing the discussion back to Qanmi’s transaction.
Titrit’s shoulders slumped as she considered the scene. “I think he thinks she’s a man.”
Ashtaroth could only stare in shock. “Hima doesn’t look like a man.”
Titrit raised an eyebrow. “Well, she does a bit.”
“You are too honest, Titrit,” Djana said, but she laughed all the same.
Titrit gestured at Hima. “I meant her northern clothes, and with her hair tied back from her face like it is. She’s not exactly womanly in shape.”
Ashtaroth winced as he observed his sister, trying to convince himself they were wrong. “She’s not ugly, though.”
“No,” said Titrit, “but I imagine our Vetnan friend wasn’t expecting a Massenqa princess in boots.”
“Or Feislanda trousers.” Djana giggled, and Ashtaroth fought a smile of his own, which he hid by studying Titrit.
She was plainly dressed herself. As always, her stola was free of any embroidery, coloured an unobtrusive pale blue, its straps pinned back with costly, but undecorated bronze brooches. She was skinny like Hima, her skin a tawny brown like her father’s. She gave off an air of dowdiness that even Djana’s careful eye for fashion hadn’t been able to temper. Was she so different than Hima, apart from the dress?
Ashtaroth hugged his arms, watching the gentle roll of the waves buffeting the hull of the ship. The next time he was down here, it could well be to greet his bride. Nothing would be, nothing could be the same after that. So different, in fact, that he couldn’t imagine life afterwards. It seemed more likely he would die before Princess Bree showed up than that he might be married as early as next year.
Married, and with a child on the way.
His skin prickled. Maybe it was good that Titrit was plain, unchanging. Her neatness and lack of pomp were dependable fixtures of Ashtaroth’s world, a reflection of the woman herself―stolid and immovable.
“Is the whole ship really full of slaves?” Ashtaroth asked, anxious to distract himself. “It just seems a lot. There must be more slaves than freemen in the city.” He’d never thought of it that way before. It was unnerving somehow.
“And this is only one such ship of Qanmi’s,” said Djana. “He has made quite a business from the sale of human bodies.” Her voice carried a hint of disapproval, though he didn’t know why. Titrit was her best friend, and the heir to whatever fortune Qanmi cultivated.
“They’re not all for the city,” Titrit explained, her cheek twitching with suppressed reproach. “Some of these will end up in eq-Anout and the colonies, maybe even back in Vetna if the tensions simmer. The Inda still buy from him, though less often. They insist he bless each slave in the temple of Adonen.”
“Really?” Ashtaroth asked.
Titrit smiled cunningly. “Of course. He pays a priest to put it in writing.”
“If you pay a priest, he will put anything in writing,” joked Djana.
Ashtaroth clenched his teeth. Of course there must be a few crooked men amongst the Ashenqa, but the temples were houses of learning and truth. The priesthood kept the secrets of Qemassen’s history. They wouldn’t lower themselves to simple bribery. “Perhaps the priests where you come from are like that, but in Qemassen you won’t find many.”
Djana stuck her nose up in the air, parodying Ashtaroth. “Where I come from, Sese, the priests revel in their depravity, which is far better. At least they are honest about their dishonesty.”
Titrit sighed. “You two bicker like children. I feel sometimes I have another sister and brother I need to coddle and scold.”
Ashtaroth frowned. Titrit had once had a sister, long ago, but she’d died before Ashtaroth was old enough to remember her. Life was probably easier as an only child. The ugliness of the thought stung deep in his guts, but that didn’t make it untrue.
“I love you, too.” Djana leaned over and kissed Titrit’s cheek.
Titrit swatted at her with a thin hand, as if prudish, but her eyes betrayed her good humour.
There was something matronly about Titrit, in her wise smiles and knowing glances. Maybe that’s why Aurelius had loved her for a time, and why he had stopped so coldly and abruptly.
Aurelius. He’d returned, fresh from his voyage with tales of adventure: storms, and riches, and armies of naked, beautiful women presenting themselves to him for conquering.
But so what if Ashtaroth was no warrior king? Aurelius could boast of no great victories besides those he’d won with his loins. Ashtaroth was the seventh son of the sixteenth king. He was prophesied to save the city. Lilit had called him a true child of Qemassen.
But the rest of the fortune teller’s words returned unbidden to his mind, her green eyes and childish face appearing before him as though he were sitting in that dingy Erun house again.
They think someone else would be better. They think you’ll be weak like your father.
Ashtaroth clenched his fists and shuddered, trying to shake free of the thought and its attendant worries. He looked hopefully at Titrit and Djana, finding that the conversation had carried on without him.
“The green material I told you about,” Djana said. “It would bring out the colour in your cheeks―yes! A headdress like mine.”
“What if I don’t want a headdress like yours?”
“Oh, Titrit, of course you do. You must take more care over your fashions.”
“I’m not looking for another husband. Besides, I like simplicity; it never goes out of fashion.”
Djana pouted, raising a hand to touch her elaborate headgear. “Simplicity is not always best. I find beauty in intricate things.”
It was all so frivolous. So empty.
Ashtaroth’s heart was in his throat as Lilit’s words swirled around and around inside his head.
Across the dock, a goat bleated as its master tugged it toward a small vessel.
“Do you want me to be your king?” he blurted.
The two women stared at him, startled, Djana’s hand frozen mid-gesture. Even Hima, far away and occupied with her manly business, glanced his way—he hadn’t realized he’d spoken so loudly.
His skin felt like it was on fire and the scratches on his palms itched.
Titrit snatched his gaze with hers. When she spoke her voice was calm, even. It wasn’t helping. “Who else would be king after your father?”
She knew very well who. Everyone did. Wasn’t she his friend? Hadn’t Djana just accused her of being honest?
“There are others,” Ashtaroth sputtered. “Don’t pretend you don’t know.”
“I do not think Titrit is pretending, Sese,” said Djana. “Your gods proclaimed you to be king, so you will be.”
Ashtaroth stared the two women down. They were exchanging glances. “I won’t whip you for saying it plainly.”
Titrit shook her head. “It’s not that. I don’t think either of us has ever thought about it before. You’ve always been the crown prince. Even before you were born, no one thought of Aurelius as the heir.” Titrit reached out to squeeze Ashtaroth’s shoulder, but he sidestepped her, doing his best to make it seem accidental. He avoided her eyes as she continued. “When I was a girl, the heq-Ashqen told stories of you. With the famine, people needed those stories to keep them going.”
Djana nodded. She hadn’t even been in Qemassen then, must have been barely a child herself. How could she possibly know?
How could anyone?
Ashtaroth couldn’t look them in their faces. “There’s no famine now. Now there’s war, and my father isn’t a warrior―I’m not a warrior. I’m weak like him.”
That’s what people thought. That Eshmunen was no great king, that he had Samelqo and Ashtaroth’s dead grandfather to thank for any stability in Qemassen.
Eshmunen wasn’t a king at all in any way that mattered, and Ashtaroth was a sick, strange little man who walked in his sleep and woke up covered in soot.
It was like he was mad.
Titrit and Djana stared at him like statues, their befuddlement etched on their faces. Titrit raised her hand to rub at her forehead, creasing her skin beneath her fingers like she was tired or frustrated. They were treating him like a recalcitrant child.
“You should not say such things about Eshmunen,” Djana said softly, gently, coddling. “The city has prospered of late. The old troubles are behind the people now.”
“And new ones in their place.” Ashtaroth wasn’t impressed by Djana’s attempts to soothe him. “Forget it.”
Titrit raised her head, eyes clear and focused. “Do you want to be king?”
His tongue was dry. Ashtaroth opened his mouth to speak. The heat from the midday sun had grown oppressive, its increased strength having come upon him in ambush, its light stabbing his eyes so he had to raise his hand to see.
“I . . . .” He swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment, imagining he was back at the palace, laying in the gardens on the shaded grass, listening to the birds. He pretended it was the day before Aurelius had returned to the city, the day before he’d met Lilit in the Eru quarter. It wasn’t enough to calm him, but he swallowed whatever indecision had gripped him and met Titrit’s eyes.
For only a moment, they weren’t Titrit’s eyes at all, but the eyes of Hazzan, carved in ivory and horn. A god, waiting for Ashtaroth to assert his worth.
Samelqo would know what to say, and so Ashtaroth gave them the answer he was sure Samelqo would have given.
“It is my duty to Qemassen.”