Chapter 13

Chapter 13: III: Aurelius

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Chapter 13: Captives

Section III

Aurelius– The Palace: Qemassen

The doors were locked, the windows barred. Guards marched beneath Aurelius’s windows carrying spears and shields, their orders to break his bones should he so much as attempt to leave.

Aurelius was in no state to fight them, but if he had to, he would. He had to stop Dashel’s execution.

He ripped his robe down the centre, creating two more strips to add to the shredded fabric he’d knotted into a rope. His fingers worked faster than his thoughts, winding the ruined cloth around the already substantial coil spread across the bed.

Get past the garden and he could steal a horse. Once he had the horse, he’d ride hard down the Talefa Hill. He could make the Eghri. He would be there in time to save Dashel.

They’d dragged Dashel downhill a few hours earlier, according to one of Aurelius’s guards. If Aurelius had been stronger, if he hadn’t let them drug him to oblivion, he could have held Dashel in his arms days ago.

Then what?

He had to reach Bree.

And then?

They’d run. All three of them would leave Qemassen.

At least with the execution imminent, Dashel and Bree would be in the same place at the same time. Aurelius only had one destination.

He tugged the final knot experimentally—it felt tight, but the fabric wasn’t very strong. Lucky then, that the drop to the ground wasn’t far.

A laugh burst past his lips, hysterical.

Out the window, past the guards, past the gardens, steal a horse, run, run, run.

Aurelius wound the rope around his arm then bolted to his feet. Pain hobbled him, radiating from his back down his legs and upwards to his neck. He could still feel the lash, and worse, the thud of his knees hitting the wooden platform as he fell.

He stumbled.

Don’t shake. Be steady. Dashel needs you.

Aurelius held his hand out, watching it tremble, willing it to stop. He willed himself to do most things and succeeded, why not now?

They’d fed him more sapenta than usual, along with who knew what else. He’d managed to bring the last dose up with his fingers, but his head still felt leaden.

Aurelius ran his hand through his coarse, unwashed curls. He laughed again, nervousness pulling his emotions this way and that.

Why had Dashel done it? Aurelius could think of no satisfactory answer. According to what little he’d been able to pry from Ashtaroth, Dashel’s attack had been more vicious even than what it had looked. Their father had been stabbed countless times.

But why the blood on Aurelius’s bed and floor? A scream had woken Aurelius from one of his sapenta-induced slumbers, but it wasn’t Dashel he’d woken to, only his own father standing over his bed.

It didn’t matter. Whatever Dashel’s reason, he’d had one, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with Zioban and the slave rebellion. Dashel couldn’t possibly be Zioban, not only because of the logistics, but because it went against everything he believed. He’d never have hurt Hima’s boys, couldn’t possibly have ordered Djana and Thanos killed, not to mention the brutality Aurelius and Bree had experienced at the slaves’ hands.

Aurelius would ask Dashel all about it once they were free. It would make a good story, he was sure.

He sucked in a deep breath and staggered to the window. One end of the rope was already secured to the bed post. It should hold. Maybe. It wasn’t ideal, but should he fall or the rope break, at least there were the guards to try and catch him.

Or impale him on their spears. It was a gamble.

Aurelius smirked, but the moment of lucidity passed as the floor tilted beneath his feet.

No, no, no. Stop spinning, stop moving. Stop wasting time.

It was all an illusion brought on by Qirani’s foul cocktails. If Aurelius convinced himself of that he should be fine. He’d read once that the mind could achieve all manner of control over the senses. It should be nothing to work past his pain.

Nothing to fight off the guards. Nothing to steal a horse. Nothing to reach the Eghri, disarm the men holding Dashel, rescue he and Bree both, and make a dashing escape.

Aurelius had already loosened the screws on the window. All he had to do was give the ornamental lattice a tug and it came free in his still-trembling hands. He laid it gently on his bed, careful to keep quiet lest the men below hear him.

Aurelius slipped one leg over the edge and gingerly lowered the rope to the bushes at the base of his window. The thump thump of one of the knotted footholds against the wall tugged him back to happier days: sneaking out of women’s windows with Dashel waiting for him outside, ready to flee with him back to the palace, or to his own rooms if he was visiting someone nearby. It all seemed childish now. There was no murder in that pristine, carefree world, no war, no rebellion, no younger brother to fight for the one you loved.

Life had been a game, other people only dice he’d toyed with.

Aurelius clung to the rope, feet against the wall, slowly lowering himself, counting his sins to the thud of his heart.

He’d used to fuck ugly women during the feast of Ashtet and call it charity. He’d used to make a game of stealing women’s husbands. He’d used to tease Dashel because his love was so obvious, his heart so easy to ensnare.

And then there were Ashtaroth and Bree. There had been cruelty in touching her, he knew, but did the love that lay behind it outweigh the selfishness?

Aurelius landed in the bushes in a heap. The pain, the pain, the pain. His back burned.

He bit down hard on his lip, drawing blood, lightheaded. There was no time. Surely the pain knew how busy he was. It could be merciful and leave him be, at least till the Eghri. At least that long.

Aurelius hauled himself up, then crouched down to hide beneath the cover of the oleander he’d tumbled into. As he walked, its branches whipped his face and arms. The shrub’s blushing flowers were only now starting to bloom and clung stubbornly to their branches as Aurelius passed.

The leaves were surely trembling as he stirred, but maybe the guards would take the movement for that of a bird. From what canopy the bush provided, Aurelius peeked out on the garden paths. Most of the plants here were short, the bushes largely too dense to provide cover.

He’d have to run past them and hope they didn’t catch him.

Heart in his throat, Aurelius leaped from the bushes.

The guards all turned.

He had no weapon. In his delirium he’d forgotten one.

One of the guards bent back a branch, stepping closer. “You’re not to leave, Sese. We have to bring you back.”

“And break my legs if you have to? I heard.” Aurelius smirked. His smile had always been his best defence.

Aurelius made a dash past the foliage and toward the gate.

A firm hand pulled Aurelius’s arm, hauling him back, and Aurelius twisted the guard’s wrist hard enoughcthat the man yelped before he let go.

Run, run, run.

“Sese! Come back! The heq-Damirat gave us orders!” The guards’ armour slapped as they chased him, slowing them down. Aurelius could outpace them, was outpacing them.

“Have some new ones!” Aurelius yelled back, “Go fuck yourselves!”

It felt good to run, pain be damned. At least running he was getting somewhere. Running, he was free, or close enough to imagine being so. Soon, Aurelius would be free of the palace, free of his duties, free of his disagreements.

What would he have done with a crown anyway?

The sun shone bright and blinding, stinging Aurelius’s sore eyes. What hour was it? What could the sun tell him? If he knew, he would make his legs go faster. He would make the sun stop, he would do as a prince should be able to do and—

Aurelius faltered. His gorge rose. Every gasped breath burned like he’d swallowed fire, and his vision swirled with distorted shapes. The leaves, the painted walls, the blue sky . . . it fragmented into geometry. Aurelius pawed a wall, leaning hard against it to support himself. He clamped his eyes shut, shook his head.

Focus focus.

He turned a corner.

The courtyard was filled with Yirada officers.

Every one of them turned his eyes on Aurelius.

Everything from spears to swords to slings glinted and groaned in their hands. Men with hard, cruel eyes stared back at him. Adoran eq-Afqad himself clutched his sword at the ready.

They couldn’t all be here for Aurelius. Hima wouldn’t have done this. She wouldn’t have been so cruel.

Aurelius marched slowly toward them, affecting confidence. “Let me through. I am your prince and I have urgent business in the city!”

One of the older men bared his teeth in a sinister grin, flicking his tongue out as he chewed lotus leaves between words. “I see no prince here. Didn’t your father disown you? For lying with men as I heard it.”

Technically that was true, but Aurelius had a hard time keeping track of the times he’d been disowned only to be reacquired the following day.

“Perhaps he’s a girl,” a young man laughed, “he’s pretty enough for one.”

Adoran shushed his officer, and a tall, burly woman glared at the speaker’s back.

Aurelius grit his teeth, as much to keep from throwing up as out of anger.

“Adoran, let me pass,” he repeated coldly. Was the sun higher? Time sailed past him, further than the farthest shores. The world had grown suddenly serious. “I am a prince of the Semassenqa. My father paid you for your service.”

“Your father, not you. Your heq-Damirat has left us with orders to stop you should you try to leave.”

“Break your bones, she said.”

“Cut your pretty face.”

Aurelius doubted that last part very much. And Hima wasn’t even the heq-Damirat anymore, or did she simply assume Ashtaroth would return her rank to her? “I’ll break your bones, if you don’t let me through.”

He’d never been one for begging, always too proud, ever too arrogant. He’d have begged now if he thought it would do him any good. One look at the grizzled faces of the men surrounding him told him it wouldn’t.

“You take orders from a woman, do you?” Aurelius pressed. “Surely you’ve heard: my sister’s a witch. She must have cast a spell on you.” He paused, smiling smugly, letting the taunt sink in. “All so she can murder a good soldier like yourselves.”

Dashel was by no means a soldier, lacking not only the taste for blood, but the discipline. Judging by their mismatched armour and slouched postures there wasn’t much in the way of discipline amongst Adoran’s people either.

Too bad they had at least enough to stand fast at their posts. Only a few of the younger ones appeared goaded by the insults.

The old officer spit his lotus-mush onto the tiled ground, while Adoran regarded Aurelius with a dry, impassive dislike.

“We have our orders,” Adoran repeated. The Yirada tightened their ranks in front of the gate that lay between Aurelius and freedom.

You won’t make it. You’re not going to reach him. Dashel is going to die.

It wasn’t real; it couldn’t be. It was all more hallucinations brought on by the pain and the medicines. He was in a delirium. He was lost in some nightmare.

Footsteps thudded behind him.

Aurelius glanced back the way he’d come, meeting the eyes of the palace guards he’d escaped earlier. One, two, three, six men.

His charm and his wits had failed him. What was left once those had been dismissed?

A man without a sword, barely able to stand any longer, let alone walk. One man against what? Forty?

In the distance, a chorus of voices cried out, the unmistakable baying of a crowd. Something was happening in the Eghri. Horns were sounding.

“Dashel!” Aurelius yelled his name, as though by some magic he might be heard from all this way away.

He ran at the men where they were packed the thinnest and hurled himself toward the gates. Two officers barred his path with their spears. He met their eyes, but they averted their gazes. Hima had been wise stationing the Yirada here—her pets, men she knew wouldn’t follow him.

Aurelius thwacked one of the spears aside and lunged for the bar blocking the doors. He heaved the bar up, wobbling, but it thudded down, nearly crushing his fingers.

The rumble of the voices in the lower city rolled over the gates.

Aurelius jumped.He scrabbled for purchase on top of the bar he’d failed to move with his hands, reaching for the top of the gate to pull himself up. He could still—

A horse. The Hill. The Eghri. Run run run.

Fingers snatched at his ankles. Fingers wrapped around his legs. Pain burst across his back and his vision turned red.

Falling, falling, then caught in the arms of the Yirada.

Aurelius screamed.

In the distance, a rhythmic drumbeat he recognized too well, and the call of the elephants, one to another. Yeremi’s elephants.

Aurelius elbowed one of the officers in the face, but they tightened their grip instead of loosening it. The officer squeezed him with the comfort of a loved one.

It was the muscular woman with the far northern features. Blood dribbled from her nose where he’d thwacked her.

Aurelius didn’t want her comfort.

Weaponless, he shot curses, and threats, and a thousand and a thousand insults. And yes, he begged in the end, though it did nothing. None of it did anything.

He thrashed and punched, back burning, his carefully healed wounds breaking open.

“Dashel!” Dashel, you fucking bastard. No, no. I’m going to come for you. Just wait. Wait. I should be there. I have to be there. Why aren’t I there? “Dashel!”

A cheer went up. A great bellow.

There was no mistaking that elation—the rush of the mob as a traitor met his end.

The officers let him go, only to catch him when he stumbled.

Aurelius didn’t stop screaming till one of the officers made him.

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