Chapter 4: I: Ashtaroth
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Chapter 4: Friends
Ashtaroth – The Throne Room: Qemassen
The court had been in session from morning till well into the afternoon, with no sign of an end to the petitions of the Semassenqa. Ashtaroth did his best to stay alert, but his stomach ached with hunger, and his mouth could have been the deep Sajit for the way his thirst turned it to a desert. He reached for the pitcher of water beside him, pouring a fresh cup, but he couldn’t bring it to his lips for the sight of liquid reminded him of the cup of wine he’d drunk this morning and for which he was now paying. His physician had warned him to avoid wine and spirits, given his condition. Even a cup of watered-down wine made his head pound like after a feast day.
The light beaming in from the arched windows across the hall was nearly blinding, obscuring the heads of the furthest petitioners, and making a white sheet of the onyx floor. Something about the glare made a dark patch appear in his vision, one that seemed to move with the movement of his eyes, so that he could never escape it.
He turned away from the light, to Aurelius and Dashel. He wished he had their freedom—standing beneath the shade of the mezzanine, laughing and whispering, instead of being stuck on a hard throne next to his father and his sister Himalit, aching to piss and too self-conscious to ask that the petitions be paused.
The great lecher prince, Shaqarbas eq-Zotan, knelt before them, but even on his knees he was giant compared with those standing in the crowd behind him. Only the raised dais allowed for the illusion that the three rulers were taller.
Ashtaroth scanned the room, his heart briefly sinking at the size of the well-dressed crowd, their colourful, floor-length tunics; and their bracelets and rings of bronze, silver, and gold. Hopefully, they’d gotten through most of the petitioners, and the rest were merely onlookers—Samelqo’s slave, Madaula, was certainly only present to scratch notes for the heq-Ashqen on her wax tablet.
He stopped on Qwella, dressed in a plainer stola than was usual. He’d almost missed her in the crowd with her head bowed, her arms covered by her palla.
To Ashtaroth’s left King Eshmunen, Father, coughed and adjusted his position as though he’d been asleep and was only now waking. He pried his cheek from the fist he’d been leaning on, straightening, blinking.
Himalit sat rigid as the sandstone throne she occupied, a chair that had once seated Samelqo. And just as the court had once whispered that Samelqo was Qemassen’s true king, some now said the same of Ashtaroth’s eldest sister. She certainly stared down Shaqarbas like he was an ant.
“Another wife? Don’t you already have three?” Himalit arched an eyebrow, skepticism dripping from every syllable.
Shaqarbas stumbled on his next words, an uncommon show of nervousness for one so outspoken. But then, Hima had that effect on people. “Ah, Sese, I do have three.” Regaining his bluster, Shaqarbas rose from the floor and spread his arms wide in supplication, giving a half-bow. “But I’m a big man, with a big man’s desires, and my desires tell me Lara will bear me more sons.”
“Sons?” Hima’s word was sharp as a sword’s point. Ashtaroth winced, happy not to be on the receiving end of her blade.
“Sons, Sese,” Shaqarbas repeated.
“And daughters will not do, I suppose?”
This time Shaqarbas kept his mouth shut.
“Some of our greatest leaders have been daughters, Prince. Our blessed founder, Queen Elibat, fled her home on Old Elu to escape the injustice of her male counterparts. They tried to give her throne to a man, so she decided to build a queendom of her own. Did you know that?”
Shaqarbas darted a look at King Eshmunen. “No, Sese. I was under the impression the good queen left due to the religious troubles, Sese.”
He wasn’t wrong—though Ashtaroth had heard both versions of the story. It was no surprise which of the two Hima preferred, and since Shaqarbas was an Indan prince, it was possible he didn’t know the second.
Himalit drummed her nails against the hand rest of her throne. It was like the clink of a cat’s claws as she played with her supper. “A common mistake.” She paused and the court held its collective tongue as it watched her deliberate. “You may marry this lithesome Lara. Take her to the scribes to be freed. My father hopes she grants you many . . . sons.”
Like a hippo disappearing beneath the river, Shaqarbas bowed and shuffled back into the obscuring veil of white light. The way Aurelius talked about him, the exiled Indan prince was a great hero, a master warrior with the spear. But no matter how tall he loomed he was just another fat old man now. Aurelius would think him great—Shaqarbas supported Aurelius in everything, as if Aurelius were the only true child of Moniqa’s, as if Ashtaroth were the last letter of the alphabet, made a big to-do of, but of little use.
To Ashtaroth’s older siblings, Shaqarbas was like a jolly uncle, but Ashtaroth had never been close with him. For a while, Ashtaroth had met with Shaqarbas’s son Gemelas to exchange poems, but it had quickly become clear he had no interest in Ashtaroth’s writing. He’d only seen Ashtaroth as a stepping stone to Aurelius’s bed.
He glanced toward the pillars where Aurelius was miming perverse sex acts with Dashel. It wasn’t exactly kingly behaviour.
Ashtaroth reached at last for the cup of water he’d poured and left untouched. The cup was painted black, banded with yellow around the rim, speckled with yellow stars along its sides. In the tunnel dream, the alabaster man’s cloak had been covered in stars as well. Staring into it, the cup seemed bottomless. His stomach squirmed like serpents slithered inside him, and the echo of footsteps approaching the throne brought him back to the echoing tower full of coloured glass windows, where Lilit had come to him.
Ashtaroth downed the water in one hasty gulp. He plunked his cup down on the table at his right—too loud. His temple thrummed with the promise of an oncoming headache.
On the onyx floor, the head of the Yirada, Adoran eq-Afqad, stomped forward, kneeling with the grace of a sandstone block. “Sesa!”
“Get up, Adoran. I need your knees in good shape if you’re to patrol the city,” said Hima. “What brings you to the Talefa hill?”
Ashtaroth could practically hear Adoran’s legs creak as he rose. It probably would have been better for him to remain kneeling.
“The fire in the lower quarter, Sese,” he said, speaking only to Hima now.
Ashtaroth bit his lip. He had to fight not to pull his hands from the arms of his throne and turn his palms over. He’d made his offering to Hazzan. He’d made his peace. Sleepwalking and strange dreams meant nothing. Whatever demons stalked inside the chambers of his heart had no place out here, in the real world.
And Samelqo’s niece had lit the fire. She’d confessed. It meant nothing that she’d spoken of a god of owls.
Even a week later, the image of Lilit’s vast owl wings was as clear as a calm ocean, her black eyes like little obsidian beads as piercing in his memory as they’d been in dream. He shoved that away. Lilit the owl was a creature of his mind. Only Lilit the fortune teller existed in Qemassen.
“What about the fire, Adoran? Is it dealt with?” asked Hima. She had this way of using people’s own names to diminish them. It was a good thing she was on Ashtaroth’s side.
Was he on his own side? Two days ago at the docks he’d hesitated when Titrit and Djana had asked him if he wanted to be king. But of course he did. He had ideas—a path forward he could envision for the city, one that favoured peace, not war, with Lorar. He would be king, and he would be a good king.
“Almost, Sese. Laelat et-Eret, a local businesswoman, is to be executed for the crime. She confessed, Sese, and seems quite mad. The Ashqata of Qalita think she was possessed by a bau.”
Samelqo’s niece, executed, and the heq-Ashqen locked away in a tower. Yet Adoran spoke of her as if she were no one. Ashtaroth dug his nails into his palm. If he was to be king, he should be kingly. He should seek justice. He should involve himself in Qemassen’s affairs instead of relying on Hima to do everything.
Ashtaroth frowned. “If an evil spirit possessed her, then surely it’s a matter for the temples to decide. Surely she’s not entirely guilty?”
The court’s eyes snapped toward him, sharp as an owl’s claws around grasping a mouse.
“Forgive me, Sese,” said Adoran. “The crime was a grievous one. Many innocents were killed, including her own children. And whether or not the bau is to blame, it targeted her for a reason. She must have called it to her through evil thoughts or deeds.”
Like Ashtaroth had called Lilit in his dreams? He leaned forward on his throne. “Could it have been a curse?” Demons could be set on a victim by a third party. “Does she have business rivals?”
But Hima snorted. “Demons, curses, madness—they make for excellent excuses. What is your recommendation, Adoran?”
The Yirada chief shuffled his weight onto his other foot, one hand at the hilt of his sword. “The mood in the district is sour. People want to see justice done, and quickly, the better to put it behind them and rebuild.” He bowed his head. “My recommendation, Sese, if you’ll allow it, is for a traitor’s death. It would ease the people’s hearts to know their losses mean as much to the Semassenqa as any losses suffered on the hill.”
They were ignoring Ashtaroth, maneuvering around him. Even Hima hadn’t sided with him. “Isn’t the accused one of the common people?” he pressed. “What of her losses?”
Adoran cleared his throat. “With all respect, Sese, you did not see the bodies. Children’s bodies, burned till their skin blackened, chained to their beds so they couldn’t escape.” He paused, like he was swallowing something back. He wiped his sweaty brow off on his sleeve. Beneath the mezzanine, Dashel tensed. “Whether it was madness, cruelty, or a bau, something must be done, or there will be unrest in the lower quarter.”
The mention of it was enough to summon the phantom smell of ashes, the sensation of burning water against his skin from the tunnel dream.
He grit his teeth, and took a gamble. “Laelat et-Eret is the niece of your heq-Ashqen.” He turned to his father. Eshmunen faced him slowly, as though reluctant. “The family of a Semassenqen cannot be treated in the same manner as a common woman.”
“Burning children seems to run in the heq-Ashqen’s blood,” snarled Aurelius from beneath the shadows of the mezzanine. “And why should she be treated differently, only because her uncle is a rich asshole and not a poor one?”
Ashtaroth turned, watching Aurelius as he stepped out onto the floor before the throne, like Adonen emerging from the land of the dead into the light of spring.
“For once, I agree with Aurelius,” said Hima. “Blood will out. Should it surprise that rotten stock leads to dirty deeds? There’s no doubt here of the monstrosity of the crime, nor of where blame lies. And the heq-Ashqen himself is a criminal, isn’t that right, Father?”
Eshmunen seemed to shrink against his throne as he stared past the Semassenqa and out the huge windows that framed them. “A traitor’s death,” he said.
“Is that a command, Sese?” asked Adoran.
Instead of answering, Eshmunen turned toward the mezzanine where Aurelius had been standing. “Dashel, have your father ready his elephants once we adjourn. I’d see this finished tonight.”
So it would be a traitor’s death. Laelat would be stretched between the elephants, and her name would be erased and her qet and ban with it. Ashtaroth’s guts felt like they’d been twisted inside-out as he remembered Samelqo’s stony, wounded expression when Uta had told him the news.
Blood will out.
“You may leave, Adoran,” said Hima. “Coordinate with Yeremi about the details.”
Like that, it was done. Adoran marched off. The day’s business continued. Hima hadn’t even tried to argue with their father, to sway him to Ashtaroth’s view. What use were allies who never took your side?
King Eshmunen shifted in his seat and sat up straight, the way he did when about to address the court. “Good news has come our way from the Feislands. King Ossa, who has long been our ally on the northern shore, has sent his surviving daughter to wed my son. The princess is accompanied by her mother and a small retinue, and shall be housed with the Semassenqa. The marriage will take place in the months to come. A festival will be held to mark her arrival.”
Now everyone was looking at Ashtaroth again, thanks to the so-called happy news Eshmunen had shared to chase away the dark talk of justice. None of them understood that this was just as much a punishment.
The entire court seemed to have an opinion on the matter, whether it was that Bree would show Ashtaroth the true measure of a man, or that they pitied his union with a hairy barbarian. Qorban claimed to have seen her once, when he’d traveled to meet the first princess, the one who’d died. He’d called Bree a great beauty. How could a beautiful woman be satisfied with Ashtaroth’s unmanly face, and scrawny frame? How could she be satisfied with a prince not even his own sister listened to?
“This festival, Father, will it involve Feislanda rituals?” Aurelius asked from the floor. He was smiling—never a good sign. Ashtaroth buried his face in his palms.
“Why? Do you know any you might share?” Eshmunen sounded genuinely intrigued. The last time Eshmunen had sounded genuinely intrigued had been when the new Lora ambassador had brought him some an exotic cake made of cheese and honey. In the end he’d only eaten a slice, muttering that Samelqo wouldn’t approve of the overindulgence.
If only Eshmunen had the same foresight when it came to indulging Aurelius.
Ashtaroth lowered his hands.
Aurelius feigned surprise as he answered. “Just one ritual, but it puts the feast of Ashtet to shame. It’s called the rutting, Father.”
Ashtaroth groaned. Snickers from the Semassenqa who’d understood the Feislanda word chirped through the hall, while Hima made silencing motions with her hand.
Eshmunen furrowed his brow, curious.“The rutting? What does it involve, this rutting.”
“Usually a man and a woman, but a man and a man will do—or a beast if either is lacking.”
Eshmunen pursed his lips. “What do they do, these strange partners?” Someone in the audience burst out laughing, unable to control himself. The king frowned and waved for the man to be removed.
“Anything they like, Father, but there are some rules. Why don’t I demonstrate? I’m very good at it, as it so happens. Dashel?” The prince gestured to his friend, who inched onto the floor, sheepish despite his size. “Bend over please.”
Hima stood up. “That’s quite enough of that, Aurel. We’re all very impressed with your wit. Now please fuck off somewhere before I have you forcibly removed.”
Aurelius bowed and slipped back beneath the mezzanine, Dashel trailing him. From the way the poor man scratched his head, Dashel probably didn’t know any Feislanda either.
Himalit sat back down.
“What is rutting?” Eshmunen mumbled.
After a prolonged silence, Hima rose again, ready to close the court for the day.
The weight of today’s proceedings seemed to molt from Ashtaroth’s shoulders like a serpent’s skin. Maybe he would go listen to the storytellers in the Eghri eq-Shalem, or relax in one of the palace’s open-air baths. He could all but feel the cooling water easing the ache in his head, distracting him from his gnawing hunger, washing away his guilt over Laelat et-Eret.
“There is one thing, before we adjourn the court.” King Eshmunen raised his hand, beckoning someone to approach. “Qwella, come forward before your father.”
Qwella stepped out from the crowd, holding her palla over her arms, like she had a chill.
He frowned. They’d all known Eshmunen would announce a new husband for her soon, yet somehow Ashtaroth had forgotten. He hadn’t spoken to her since . . . since before the funeral. Another guilt to scrub from his shoulders.
And who was she to marry? Father hadn’t consulted him about it.
But when he saw Qanmi eq-Sabaal smiling triumphantly to himself, Qanmi’s gilded teeth glittering in the light as he stepped forward to stand just behind Qwella—well, it was obvious enough.
Ashtaroth pulled back in revulsion. He and his siblings might not often agree, but on the matter of Qanmi eq-Sabaal, they shared a rare consensus.
Aurelius walked out from his nook. This time he wasn’t smiling. “Father, I must protest.”
Ashtaroth bit his lip. Qwella was his sister too, and as the crown prince his word might carry more weight. He leaned forward, voice cracking as he spoke. “Aurelius is right. Qwella can’t marry Qanmi. I heard him swear to Abaal he would take no other wife, not since his love died. He pines for her still. It would be unkind.”
The King’s eyes widened. He had a soft heart for those who remained faithful after death.
Qanmi strutted past Qwella and stood before Eshmunen. “It’s not true.”
Ashtaroth swallowed as Qanmi turned his sharp eyes his way. But so what if Qanmi made him shrink against his throne a little? He’d stood up for his sister. He could be proud of that, if nothing else today.
“It’s true,” said Aurelius. “I was there as well. And our heq-Damirat, isn’t that so?”
“Let me remind you, Sese, that we have an arrangement.” Qanmi’s tone was hard as iron. The tone of a king to a commoner.
Eshmunen shot from his chair like a bolt of lightning. And like lightning, he struck at the metal in Qanmi’s voice, his own soft voice turned to thunder. “And I am your king, and you will not speak to me as you would your chattel!”
Eshmunen might be weak in ways, but maybe Ashtaroth was too hard on him. He’d come to his own decision about Laelat today, and since Ashtara had burned, Qemassen’s fortunes had turned. Eshmunen was loved in a way he hadn’t been twenty years ago. Ashtaroth’s father was a powerful man, and it was well people remembered it.
It was well they all remembered it, even Qwella. Maybe their father was right to marry her to Qanmi.
Ashtaroth cast a glance at his sister, but couldn’t read her expression. He looked at Qanmi beside her. The merchant wasn’t ugly, and brought with him even more riches than her last husband. He was conniving, but who amongst the Semassenqa wasn’t? And although Titrit sometimes complained of her father’s high expectations of her, Ashtaroth had never heard Qanmi speak unkindly to his daughter.
Ashtaroth could list a hundred reasons why Qanmi would make a good match for his sister, yet trusted none of them. He was slimy, like a creature dredged up from the seafloor, his cleanliness and finery mere affectation, concealing the beast beneath.
The beast’s lips moved as he dared stroll closer to the throne, and as Ashtaroth stared at those twisting lips he was reminded of a basket of squirming eels. He shuddered, glancing about himself in the hope no one had noticed. But no one was watching him. They all fixed their gazes on Qanmi as he knelt before Eshmunen.
Qanmi kept his head bent as he spoke, and this time the only iron in his voice was that of a blade lowered in service to its master. “I apologize if I’ve offended, Sese. I only speak in order to assure you that I am as steadfast in my loyalty to our arrangement as yourself. I’ve never made such a statement, though I loved my dear wife, and pray for her spirit nightly. Your sons must be mistaken. Perhaps it was someone else they overheard.”
Qanmi glared at Ashtaroth discreetly from his prostrate position. Ashtaroth glared back.
“They lied, you mean,” said Hima.
Qanmi looked up at her. “One need not be a liar to speak untruths.”
Aurelius grinned. “No, but being a son of Sabaal surely helps. My sister is through with liars.”
Several members of the court tittered nervously, accompanied by Shaqarbas’s booming laugh. There was no love lost between the two men.
Qanmi cocked his head at Aurelius. “If you’d accuse me of something, say it outright. I’ve no time for cowards.”
“If a challenge is what you want, then I do accuse you. I accuse you of having a brother—”
Qanmi interrupted Aurelius, turning to the courtiers on their chairs. “Of having a brother? I fear I’m not the only guilty man in the room. I believe you have one yourself.”
“I accuse you have having a brother who beat my sister, a princess of Qemassen. I accuse you of encouraging cruelty toward her, and of using her to further your own gains. I accuse you, Qanmi eq-Sabaal, of harbouring designs on my father’s throne.”
Qanmi puffed himself up, gesturing to the Semassenqa behind him. “There’s not a man amongst us who doesn’t long to see his line united with yours, my prince. If that’s my crime, then I’m guilty, but it is the only thing of which I am guilty.”
Ashtaroth doubted that. Whether or not Qanmi wanted the throne for himself—which did seem an exaggeration—he certainly had his fingers in a number of unsavory pies around the city. He frowned. “You didn’t answer the question,” Ashtaroth dared. “What about your part in Sabeq’s treatment of Qwella?”
“If my brother treated her unkindly, I wasn’t aware of it. She’s a beautiful woman, and childless. I only wish to honour my promise to King Eshmunen, and lighten her burdens as I would her life.”
Eshmunen sighed, finally sitting. “Qanmi is not on trial here. I have no doubts as to his loyalty or motivations.”
He fixed his gaze on Ashtaroth, and Ashtaroth wilted beneath his father’s disdain, his amber eyes. Eshmunen expected more of him. He quickly looked away.
Qanmi nodded curtly in a show of deference. “I bow to your wisdom, Sese.”
“Wait. Please, wait.” Qwella’s voice was small in the large room, almost a child’s. She knelt on the floor behind Qanmi with her hands clasped in front of her.
Astaroth’s insides groaned and his vision blurred for a moment.
“What is it, child?” Eshmunen asked, some warmth in his voice.
“I can’t marry Qanmi. My grief is too great.”
Why hadn’t Ashtaroth thought of that?
Qanmi threw up his hands. “This is a farce.”
“No, it isn’t.” The firmness in Qwella’s voice was unheard of. Though Hima and Aurelius might stand up to Eshmunen, Qwella always did as she was told.
Every member of the Semassenqa, from the courtiers on the floor to those packing the mezzanine was abuzz with chatter. The sound was so loud Eshmunen had to raise his voice to be heard over them.
“Your love for Sabeq is admirable,” the king said, kindly as he could with his voice strained to breaking, “but I stand firm in my decision. With time you will come to love Qanmi as you do his brother.”
He rose again, exhaustion dripping from him. This was it. This was the end of all his children’s petitioning. King Eshmunen was a harder man than any of them gave him credit for.
The courtiers opposite the throne stumbled to their feet, bowing their heads as the musicians hurriedly ran out from the pillars to play the closing tune. One of them tripped on his colleague and his sistrum went skittering across the tiles to land at Qanmi’s feet. The merchant kicked it aside, glaring at the slave as he stumbled after his instrument.
If only Ashtaroth could slip away in the chaos. It was embarrassing watching the slaves, watching his sister married for a second time, watching Qanmi test his father. There was a lot of noise, a lot of movement. Ashtaroth could easily—
“No!” Qwella stood up. The entire court stopped at the sound of her voice. He hadn’t thought his sister could shout so loudly, that she was anything more than a mouse. She thrust her arm out, ripping the sleeve of her dress away to reveal a tattoo beneath, its dark patterns climbing from her fingertips to her elbow.
The tattoos of the Chaste Lady. The tattoos of an Ashqat of Qalita.
Ashtaroth fell back in his seat.
“I have given myself to Qalita. I am a priestess of the underworld goddess.”
“And you cannot marry.” Ashtaroth spoke the words to himself, but Dashel must have heard, because he turned his way.
King Eshmunen was silent for a long time, and when he spoke his voice was like the ocean tide clawing back from the rocks. “Then let Qalita care for you.”
Ashtaroth had never heard his father so angry, so betrayed. He wanted to go to him and tell him it would be fine, that Ashtaroth was still his son and would marry his northern princess and that Eshmunen would forget about what Qwella had done, drastic as it was.
He couldn’t bring himself to do it. This was what Ashtaroth had hoped for, wasn’t it? For Qwella to be free.
Eshmunen stalked out of the room, trailed by a small army of guards and slaves. Ashtaroth didn’t need to follow to know where he was headed. He always ran to Samelqo when things didn’t go as he’d hoped.
Qanmi brushed past Qwella so his shoulder knocked hers. He craned his neck down to whisper something to her, but Ashtaroth was far too far to hear what it was.
Hima shook her head, staring dazedly at their sister like she couldn’t believe what Qwella had done.
Hardly any of the Semassenqa were leaving as they normally did. They milled around the floor instead, pointing and whispering at Ashtaroth’s family.
He closed his eyes. He wished the world would disappear, or that he had someone to talk to. At least his father had the heq-Ashqen; Ashtaroth had no one. He wanted to sort out his thoughts, but the courtroom was so loud. He could hear Hima’s chastising voice, as though from some great distance. His temples throbbed, his vision wouldn’t settle, his guts wouldn’t stop rumbling and churning. He still needed to piss.
A girl giggled. Her laugh rang throughout the hall like a bell, and every other sound vanished.
Ashtaroth opened his eyes and the room snapped into view. His blurred vision had sharpened to an image clear as blue sky.
There was no one. They were all gone. The entire court had disappeared.
Ashtaroth stood up. His hands were shaking. He must have fallen asleep, that was it. That had to be it. It was the wine—he should have listened to Qirani about the wine and not sneaked that cup this morning. He should have commanded the court pause so he could piss.
The girl’s giggle echoed off the walls in ripples, like someone was running between the pillars as they laughed.
Ashtaroth peered left and right, trying to peek behind the marble pillars supporting the mezzanine. “Hello?” Even Dashel was gone, and the guards. “Hello?”
The laughter stopped. Ashtaroth descended the dais on wobbling legs, heading toward the shadows.
A girl—the girl—stepped into view.
Ashtaroth jumped back, startled.
The girl who’d haunted his dreams, covered in owl feathers, now stood before him. Only now she was human, just the human fortune teller from the Eru district. Her curls were perfectly groomed, her ashy skin washed out under the bright sunlight from the windows. Somehow, she looked different. Older. She’d been what—eleven, the last time he’d seen her on Qemassen’s streets? Now she looked at least thirteen. A young woman.
“Don’t you remember me?” she asked, wounded.
“I remember you,” Ashtaroth said to Lilit. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”
Lilit’s face lit up, emphasizing her dimples. She gestured at one of the arched doorways. “I slipped in while everyone was leaving. It’s not hard.”
Ashtaroth could have collapsed from relief. So that’s where everyone had gone. He’d just fallen asleep. He swallowed, but couldn’t still his pounding heart. “They probably assumed you were a slave.”
Lilit nodded, looking pleased with herself. “Can we go now?”
“Go where?” He laughed nervously. Maybe she had managed to sneak inside the busy throne room, but how had she entered the palace complex in the first place? How had she known where to come looking?
“Anywhere we like. I wanted to see you. Can’t I come see you if I want to? I thought we were friends.” She cocked her head.
“I don’t think my father would be pleased.”
“Why not?” Lilit trotted over to him. “Is it because I read your future? He didn’t like it much, did he?”
Ashtaroth hadn’t told anyone about that, especially not Eshmunen. “No. But I’m to be king one day. Kings don’t waste time with peasants.” He hadn’t meant it to sound cruel, and opened his mouth to retract his statement, but Lilit spoke first.
“You won’t be king.”
The words, spoken so calmly, with such authority, sent a shiver through him. He clenched his fists at his side. “I will. I was born for this. The Ashenqa have seen it in their visions. It’s written in the Book of Abaal.”
Lilit didn’t look impressed. “The Book of Abaal was written by men, who can be wrong and often are.”
Ashtaroth glared. “You’re only here to play games. Do you think I’ll give you more money if you hang around here? Go back to your grandmother.”
That’s right—the fire. The part of town where he’d met her the first time had been awfully close to the fire site, and he’d heard a number had died from the smoke. “I’m sorry. The woman responsible is to be executed.”
Lilit furrowed her brow. She shook her curls. “My grandmother died long ago.”
That was impossible. Ashtaroth had met Lilit’s grandmother, tucked away in the corner of that tiny room.
Ashtaroth stammered before regaining his composure, drawing himself up. “Then I’m sorry, but there’s nothing for you here.”
“You’re here.” She said it with such confidence, like she knew him, like she belonged at his side.
“Go home, Lilit. I need to rest.” He needed to eat and drink, needed to wash, needed to sleep. He moistened his lips, trying to ease the dryness of his mouth.
Lilit cooed in sympathy. “You’re worried about your family.”
How long had she been in the courtroom? Could she have gone unnoticed among the Semassenqa, spying from beneath the mezzanine? “Yes,” he admitted. He was worried about a lot of things: Qwella, Princess Bree, Qanmi eq-Sabaal . . . .
She tiptoed toward him, batting her lashes. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend to confide in? Someone to help you?”
Ashtaroth backed away instinctively, stopped only by his ankles bumping against the step leading to the dais and its thrones. “I have plenty of help.” And few true friends. It was like she’d read his thoughts from earlier. But no, that hadn’t even been true. He did have friends. He had Djana and Titrit, Qorban and Dashel. He even had Samelqo, if it came to it.
“True friends are hard to find, even for a prince. Some might say, especially for a prince. And blood will out.”
Ashtaroth clutched his arms. Those words, Hima’s words, were like augury on Lilit’s lips. Not something that had happened, as Hima meant them, but something that had yet to happen.
“What of your blood?” Ashtaroth snapped. He tapped his foot. His vision had cleared, but he was on the brink of wetting himself. “Some Erut peasant from the lower city. Some nobody.”
Lilit regarded him coolly, her brown eyes lit unnaturally, untouched by the firelight from the braziers, or the sunlight from the windows. “I’ll leave you then.” She turned around as if to go, running halfway across the room before calling back at him, her cheer returned, like he hadn’t just insulted her. “Promise me you’ll come find me!”
Lilit waved at him, grinning, and then dashed from the room out one of the arched doorways.
All the sound rushed back in.
Ashtaroth swerved all the way around. Dashel was looming behind him. Hima was just getting up off her throne, and Aurelius was leaning against a pillar. The hall resounded with chatter, the voices of the Semassenqa mingling into an incomprehensible ruckus as they filed outside.
But she’d been real. The real Lilit from the lower quarter, not the one from his dream. Unless—had he been dreaming her? Had he been sleepwalking?
“Sese, are you all right?” Dashel’s honest, brotherly concern was like a blanket held out to wrap around him, but it wasn’t enough to reorient Ashtaroth in his confusion.
“Yes, sorry. I think I need to lie down,” Ashtaroth managed. He smiled, but Dashel was still frowning at him. Ashtaroth rubbed his arm. “You didn’t see a girl in here, did you? She was about thirteen, with brown hair.”
Dashel stared at him dumbly a moment, then shook his head. “No, Sese.”
Ashtaroth turned around. He stared at his hands, counting each of his fingers. He pinched his arm. He was awake. He was definitely awake.