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Chapter 4: Friends
Dashel – Qemassen: The Palace
Kissing Thanos might have distracted Dashel, if it weren’t for the wasps.
The Lora ambassador had somehow acquired several boxes of wasps’ nests from an Ajwata merchant who’d claimed to have carted them all the way from the mythic lands south of the Sajit. It seemed pointless when Qemassen had its own wasps and no one was running around snatching them out of the air to sell in the Eghri.
The insects didn’t stay in the boxes that contained their nests, but buzzed around the palace riad where Dashel and Thanos were sitting on a painted wooden bench, Thanos’s lips hot against Dashel’s own, Dashel’s attention torn between wasp, lover, and where he was going to come up with the remaining coin he’d promised Hesh for that sapenta last week.
It didn’t help that Thanos was wearing a very large hat he’d sewn himself and coated in honey. More than a few dead wasps had already stuck to the sides of the hat, which was apparently Thanos’s intention. A rogue wasp landed on Thanos’s shoulder, far too close to Dashel’s own, and he jerked back and bolted from the bench. The sudden movement frightened a flurry of insects from the hat and into the air.
Dashel held his hands up, palms outward. “All right. All right. I’m not a coward, I promise. But this is a lot of wasps. And you’re not the only person who lives here—did you ask Djana how she felt about this?”
Thanos glared at him from the bench, unflinching despite the insects that danced around his long, silky black hair. He made a show of examining his nails. “Djana’s first in line for one of my wasp hats, actually. And I don’t really care how the other ambassadors feel. Do you really think Fadil’s going to complain when I wield the might of the Lora empire in one hand—”
“And a sword covered in wasps in the other?” Dashel joked. He grinned, but another wasp hovered in front of his nose and he took a step back, colliding with a potted citron tree. The huge vase wobbled on the tiles. Dashel reached back and steadied it. “I just think,” he started to say, watching Thanos’s brown doe-eyes for a hint the ambassador could be convinced, “I just think, what if you killed the wasps before you put them on the hat? As a suggestion.”
“Then they’d be dead,” Thanos answered flatly. He stood up and crossed his arms. “What’s the point of paying for a wasp hat made of dead wasps?”
Dashel scratched his head. “Well . . . yes? Exactly?” He shuffled a little to the left, toward the shallow, rectangular pool at the centre of the riad.
“I promised my financiers live wasps, and live wasps they’ll have.”
“Whether they want them or not,” Dashel muttered. Maybe Lorar had sent Thanos here not as a peacekeeping ambassador, but as a secret weapon to destroy the Massenqa from within. With wasps.
Thanos took two steps toward Dashel, but when Dashel flinched, he paused to remove his prototype. He laid the hat on the bench with the reverence of a priest setting an offering upon the altar. “The problem with you Massenqa is that you don’t have an eye for innovation—everything’s taken from somewhere else: Ajwata scarves here, Anata architecture there. Lorar has a very strong identity, and it’s because we envision change instead of copying. Ours is an elegant simplicity, not this—” he gestured at the ambassadorial quarters, the myriad colours of the painted walls, the interlocking patterns on its support columns, the jumble of symbols carved into wood and stone and recreated in the mosaic tiles, “cluttered confusion.”
Dashel chose to ignore the fact that Thanos had called him a Massenqen in favour of the much more disturbing claim that Lorar was superior because they considered wearing live insects an elegant simplicity. He shrugged. “Maybe old-fashioned is good sometimes.”
And sometimes, maybe Massenqa culture was better. Maybe some Massenqa were better.
Aurelius was training with the Sacred Band today, darting in the sand to avoid or give a spear thrust. Otherwise Dashel might not have come here.
The guilt turned his limbs to water. Thanos was generous to Dashel, but even he’d remarked on the change in Dashel’s behaviour since Aurelius had returned. Dashel’s phantom prince, as Thanos called him, was somehow always present even when he was physically distant.
Yet Dashel couldn’t help wishing he was physically close right now.
Sometimes the Band trained for entire afternoons, but if Dashel were lucky, Aurelius might finish early and they could have some fun. He still had a little of the sapenta he’d got off Hesh, but he was almost out again, and still without the coin to pay what he already owed. Doing odd jobs for Shaqarbas’s household and this or that priest looking to curry favour with Aurelius hadn’t been enough.
A child’s laughter burst from the colonnade that looked out on the riad. Dashel looked up, swatting a fly from his face—the wasps weren’t the only ones attracted by the honey. A moment later Hima’s son Hiram dashed to the railing, trailed shortly after by his little brother, Reshith.
Hiram waved frantically, practically bouncing as he jumped up and down, one hand on the railing. “Dashel! Dashel! It’s time to see the elephants! Come on!”
It was noon already. Dashel had promised Hima he’d occupy her sons with a trip to his father’s elephant stables. His own sister, Sarah, was even bringing her daughter Malqat.
Reshith squealed from the colonnade as the slave Hima had sent along with them struggled to safely dislodge the boys from the railing.
Dashel waved. “I’m coming! Get down from there—if you break your necks you won’t get to see the elephants.” After all these years, he still felt awkward commanding princes, but at least Hiram and Reshith listened and hopped back from the railing.
“Is there an open invitation? I’d like to join you,” Thanos said from behind Dashel.
Dashel turned and grinned. “Always. As long as you don’t bring the hat.”
Thanos shot him a look, but he smiled and looped his arm with Dashel’s.
They hurried upstairs to join Hiram and Reshith, and from there walked to the elephant stables on the west side of the palace complex.
As soon as they arrived, Hiram and Reshith dashed across the gravelled courtyard, sandals crunching the tiny stones as the boys raced each other to the furthest of the arches leading to the elephant pens. The stables themselves formed a square wall around the courtyard. A hundred arches, twenty-five on each wall, served as the entrances to a hundred separate stables.
“Slow down!” Dashel bellowed after the two boys, but they ignored him, as he’d known they would. He grinned, but the smile was short lived, fading as he watched them run across the gravel without the need of his guidance.
Hiram, at ten, was getting too old to lean on Dashel, and Reshith himself was eight. Qwella was now an acolyte of the Quiet Lady and would never bear a child. Ashtaroth—well, he and Dashel had never been close like Dashel was with the others, and his relationship with Samelqo made it more likely the prince would listen to the heq-Ashqen. If Samelqo warned Ashtaroth against trusting his children with Dashel, the prince would listen. If Aurelius left on his ship for good, as he’d—
Dashel’s throat hitched. He couldn’t finish that thought. Finishing it was the same as inviting it to happen.
Thanos tugged Dashel’s sleeve. He scuffed the gravel with his sandal. “Is this where they executed that woman?”
The question snapped Dashel out of his circular worries. “Laelat?” His stomach tightened in a knot. “No.” He watched Hiram and Reshith disappear inside the arch where Dashel’s father was usually found.
“But they did use the elephants, didn’t they?” Thanos asked. He sounded disappointed, even a little annoyed.
“Yes,” Dashel said slowly. He didn’t want to picture it, couldn’t understand why Thanos would, but Thanos hadn’t known Laelat. She was just a name to him. Dashel cleared his throat. “They usually do it in the Eghri eq-Shalem.”
“In the market? It must be awfully crowded. In Lorar it would be done in the arena, so everyone could find a seat. No one even told me it was happening until it was too late.”
That was right, Thanos had sent his slave to observe the proceedings yesterday. A good thing, or he might have made Dashel watch the execution with him. “They clear everything out. In the Eghri. But the king didn’t give much notice, so they probably only closed off half the market.” He shrugged, uncertain.
“So what do they use all this for?” Thanos gestured to the courtyard.
Dashel smiled, latching onto the opportunity to divert the conversation. “Training the elephants mostly. Sometimes my father stages a demonstration for the Semassenqa.”
Thanos pulled himself in tight against Dashel, laying his head on Dashel’s shoulder as they followed the princes at a distance. “Would he stage a demonstration for me?”
One of the elephants trumpeted loudly, followed by an answer from another stable. Thanos and Dashel were almost to the arch where Dashel’s father was working. Hiram and Reshith were stroking their hands down the trunk of one of the elephants, but it was too dark inside the stable for Dashel to see much else.
“You’re not one of the Semassenqa,” he said, immediately wishing he hadn’t. That had been cruel. Dashel let it hang there, a cut between them to add to all the cuts Dashel had yet to make but that he knew he would. There was nothing at all wrong with Thanos, besides the wasps. He deserved better than second place in Dashel’s heart.
Not even second, but third. The sapenta took the second spot.
“And risk the wrath of the mighty Lora empire?” Thanos scoffed. He didn’t seem bothered. He never seemed bothered. “If Eshmunen’s smart he’ll know my happiness and well-being are worth more to him than any other man in his court. When my uncle wins the election back home, your bull-god king will have a direct channel to the man who holds all of Lorar in his hands. And the fidelia—the people of Lorar—they know me, they love me. Peace will be all but laid out for him.”
Dashel frowned. He listened to Thanos enough to know Red Faction weren’t usually interested in peace. “What about the Feislands? We have an alliance. Lorar would have to stop raiding their borders.”
“Would we?” Thanos pulled away from Dashel as they slipped inside the darkened stable. Hiram and Reshith had abandoned the entrance to marvel at the taller animals further down the row of stables. “A beleaguered pack of dogs united only in their fear of the empire? They’d scatter on the wind before the combined power of our forces.”
Dashel grimaced. It was a hideous suggestion. “Qemassen doesn’t suffer treachery.” The elephant in the nearest stall reached out with his trunk and Dashel rubbed the rough skin beneath its nose. This one was smaller—only six feet.
Thanos laughed and clapped Dashel on the back. “That they don’t, if your elephants are indication.” He grinned.
Dashel swallowed. “Let’s go check on the princes.”
The end of the stables was blocked by a grated metal gate, and the light that beamed through turned the figures of Hiram, Reshith, and Dashel’s father into black silhouettes. A fourth figure—Ashtaroth’s slave, Safot—hovered beside them. He laid a hand on Hiram’s shoulder, drawing the prince’s attention.
Dashel waved—something about the way the slave was whispering to Hima’s son made his skin crawl. “Hey!” he called to them. “Don’t Massenqa princes respect their elders? My legs can’t take all that running.”
Hiram slipped from Safot and walked to Dashel and Thanos. “You train with Uncle Aurelius all the time,” Hiram complained. “You could run if you wanted to.”
Thanos shrugged. “He means me. In Lorar we save the running for the slaves. A well-developed calf is a sign of low birth.”
Dashel made a show of turning his own well-developed calves from side to side. Thanos gave him a shove. “A fancy man like yourself should find better company,” Dashel joked.
“So I prefer rolling with slaves—worse has been said of me.” He pecked Dashel’s cheek.
Hiram was staring at them while Reshith stuck out his tongue. Dashel had a bit of a hunch as to where Hiram’s interest might lie eventually. Poor child. With Hima for a mother, he’d be wed and bred by the time he was twenty.
“Come to nip at my ankles like when you were five?” spoke Dashel’s father from the shadows. He stepped into the light alongside Safot. Ashtaroth must have sent the slave on some errand.
Dashel smiled at his father, ignoring the slave for now. “Thanos, this is my father, the royal mahout, Yeremi eq-Ami.”
“Thanos eq-Lorentis.” Thanos leaned his head on Dashel’s shoulder again. All the blood rushed to Dashel’s cheeks as he stood in the presence of his father with the scrawny ambassador.
Dashel’s father gave a curt bow. “Sese. It’s an honour to accommodate you.”
Thanos tapped Dashel’s nose with his finger. “See? I told him Eshmunen’s palace would be more than happy to meet the desires of the Lora ambassador. Your son didn’t think I was important enough for your king to bother entertaining.”
“I’m sure my son’s done his best to entertain you himself,” said Dashel’s father.
If there was any more blood left in Dashel’s limbs it all flowed to his face. He scratched the back of his head, then slipped from beneath Thanos’s head in a way he prayed looked accidental. He leaned against the elephant stable in an attempt at a casual stance. Thanos stumbled briefly as his support disappeared.
“What’s Dashel helping with now?” asked Sarah from behind them.
Hiram and Reshith rushed in the direction of Sarah’s voice and Dashel turned to where his sister was standing with Dashel’s ten-year-old niece, Malqat. The boys grabbed Mal by either arm and tugged her back down toward the elephant pens.
“The biggest one’s down here!” Hiram chattered at her. “He’s huge and he has one tusk and it’s as tall as Dashel.”
Dashel shared a grin with his sister. “It’s good to see you, Sarah.”
She peeked past him at the children. “Are they safe by themselves, Father?”
“They’re fine,” said Yeremi, dismissive. “You used to run around here with much less supervision, if I remember.”
Sarah shook her head. “Yes, and I remember nearly getting my hand crushed by massive grey feet at least twice.” She frowned. “Well I suppose they’re with that slave. Is the princess really comfortable with her children running around like this?”
“Hima?” Dashel smiled. “She’s happy for them to get the exercise.” But when Dashel glanced down the stables at Hiram and Reshith, he didn’t like the way Safot hovered behind the three children, hands clasped behind his back. “Maybe I’ll stand with them just in case.”
Sarah reached out and caught him by his sleeve. “Stay a moment, at least.” She looked between Thanos and Dashel, as though weighing what she was about to say. When she spoke, it was hushed. “I heard you were hurt the other day, near that terrible fire. Are you all right?”
Now Thanos was frowning too. Great.
“You didn’t tell me about that,” said the ambassador.
“It wasn’t anything really.” Dashel grinned, trying not to think about how Sarah always saw past his lies. “Just some thugs.”
Sarah crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. His father opened the gate to one of the pens and stepped inside. He’d definitely heard Sarah. Dashel had promised his father at winter’s start that he was done with the Wine, after Yeremi had paid off what Dashel had owed from the fall.
“I’m perfectly fine,” Dashel assured the pair of them. He held his palms up to emphasize the point.
But Sarah was as stubborn as Hima was with her own brothers. “Perfectly fine because they left you with your sapenta? People talk, and I listen. You need to stay away from Hesh’s people.”
So she’d already known everything then. Dashel slumped. “I already am,” he said. “They were after money from before, but I paid it.”
Thanos raised an eyebrow. “With what?”
“Aurelius lent it to me,” he blurted, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Thanos and Dashel had something of an understanding. He didn’t mind Dashel sleeping with other men, but since Aurelius had returned, Thanos had been asking a lot of questions about Aurelius that Dashel wouldn’t answer.
Sarah tilted her head so she could glower at him from beneath her thick black brows. “If you’re lying—”
“No.” Dashel sliced the air with his hand. “I am not.”
If only for a moment, he almost convinced himself that he hadn’t been counting the hours till Sarah and Mal and Thanos would be gone and he could return to Aurelius and take his next sip of Molot’s wine.
Sarah reached out and brushed his arm with her fingers. The hope and pity in her face could have gutted him. “Father worries about you.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m still nipping at his knees, right?” He laughed nervously. “But I should go see to the princes, or Hima will have my head.”
“While he’s gone,” said Thanos, “you can answer my burning questions about what little Dashel was like.”
Sarah laughed. “Annoying.”
Not listening. Not listening. Not listening.
Dashel whistled as he turned on his heel and marched toward the gate. “Safot! Return to your master—I’ll see to the princes.” As he reached them, he smiled reassuringly, but there was a hint of fear in Safot’s eyes.
Meeting Dashel’s gaze at all was unusual for the slave, but then Safot cocked his head at the grate beside them. “Sese. There’s a man outside.”
A man? Dashel glared past the grating, past the cut grass outside, and at the bushes beyond. The haze of the day’s heat blurred his view of the western slope of the city, the orchards and farms surrounding Qemassen, and the hills in the distance. He stepped slowly toward the aperture. If someone was really there, and if they were genuinely dangerous, Dashel wasn’t going to give whoever it was the opportunity to grab him through the gaps in the metal. It was probably just some child playing on the hill who’d got too close. “Hello?”
Mal sidled up to him. She already reached all the way up to his waist, like she might be as tall as he was one day. It felt like only a year since she’d begged him to carry her on his shoulders, but it must have been longer.
“What is it?” she squinted beside Dashel, poking her head forward so her long black hair hung down like a mane. “Come out, whoever you are!” She planted her fists on her hips.
Dashel pushed her gently back with his hand. “Why don’t you three let Safot take you back to my father? Tell him you want to feed an elephant.”
“Forget feeding, we can ride an elephant,” said Hiram, his voice already fading as he walked away.
But Mal hesitated, feeling for Dashel’s hand. Her small fingers wrapped around his.
“Don’t you like playing with the princes?” he asked.
She twisted her long black tresses like rope. “They’re really loud.” She let her hair fall loose and craned her neck to look up at him, her expression guilty. “But they’re nice.”
“How about this. If you give them one more chance, I’ll give you a tour of the palace later.”
“All of it?” She stared at him, eager in the way only children could be.
He scratched the back of his head. “Uh, yes. All. Except the ambassador’s quarters.”
“But I want to see the pretty ambassador,” she complained. “The one with the rainbow hats.”
“Djana? I’m sure I can send for her to come meet us somewhere else.”
“Why can’t we go to the ambassador’s palace?”
Dashel frowned. “It’s full of wasps. Now, you run back there with the others, okay? Like you promised?” She hadn’t promised, but she let go of his hand and raced off.
He returned his attention to the grounds beyond the gate, but the only movement was that of the birds rustling the leaves. Safot was still beside him though.
“Did Prince Ashtaroth send you?” Dashel asked.
“Yes, Sese. He wanted me to find out what happened to the heq-Ashqen’s niece.” He shuffled in place, hands folded in front of him. “He wanted to know if your father knew what had become of her possessions.”
That was strange. Safot could have asked Hima, or Adoran eq-Afqad. “And you thought the heq-Damirat’s sons would have an answer for you?”
Safot stepped back abruptly. “Sese, I apologize if I’ve overstepped. I was . . . trying to keep them occupied, while your father tended his beasts.”
Was that really all? Safot’s eyes were wide, and he’d shrunk into himself. The guilt hit Dashel like a hammer. He could be overprotective sometimes. Safot was a slave, and Dashel a freeman. “It’s—that’s perfectly all right, Safot.” He had to swallow the apology that leapt to his tongue.
Safot stepped up beside him, gesturing to the grass and the bushes outside the stable. “Should I fetch the palace guards, Sese? About the figure?”
Dashel scanned the bushes, but there was nothing. “No, I don’t see anyone. Are you sure—”
Dashel turned. His father and sister were standing frozen under the arch. A hulk of a man stood a few feet from the stable, out on the gravel of the courtyard. The stranger gripped Mal with one arm, holding her against him, the other hand on his belt, the threat obvious.
Dashel shoved past Safot and ran to the entrance, his own hand poised at his belt, where he kept a small dagger.
Sarah grabbed his arm as he reached them. “Dashel, Dashel. Dashel do something.”
He settled his attention on the figure. Hesh’s man. The big one from a few days ago. What was it—Darron, Daroth? Daroth.
Fuck. Fuck Fuck. Dashel stepped onto the gravel, but Thanos pulled him back. “The guards must have seen him.”
“Yes, and they let him past,” Dashel muttered. Hesh had said he had friends uphill. Dashel hadn’t believed him.
His father stomped from the shade of the stable onto the gravel, and Daroth grabbed Mal tighter, inching backward. He combed his dirty fingers through Mal’s hair. “Stop, or I take a memento.”
Yeremi froze, holding his palms out. “Whatever you want, we can get it. You want gold, is that it?”
Gold. Yes. Daroth was here for the gold Dashel had promised him. The gold he’d just lied to Sarah about. This was all Dashel’s doing. This was Dashel’s to fix, but he didn’t have the coin.
“Hesh wants what he’s owed from your cocksucker son,” Daroth snapped. He yanked on Mal’s hair and she screeched. “And don’t think I’m leaving without it.”
Everyone was looking at Dashel. “I—I have most of it, Daroth, but it’s not on me. If you let her go, I can fetch it straight away.” If he spoke calmly, evenly, he could get Mal out of this. He blocked out everyone who wasn’t him and Daroth and Mal. He couldn’t face the judgement in his family’s eyes just now. “Hesh never said when he’d be coming, or I’d have it on me. He didn’t tell me, so I didn’t know. I can get it to him soon.”
“You get it to him now is when. Or I get a slice of her plump little cheek.” Daroth pressed the tip of his knife to Mal’s cheeks. She drew in sharp breaths like hiccups, tears streaming down her face.
“The king will hear about this!” Yeremi’s leg twitched like he might make a run at Daroth.
“Let her go!” Hiram called.
Reshith buried his face in Dashel’s side.
Sarah gripped his tunic, hand shaking like a rattle. “Dashel. That is my daughter. Do something.”
Dashel pried Reshith from his side. He held his hands out, stepping from the shade and into the sunlight. The spring wind was cool against his skin. Sparrows twittered from the trees beyond the courtyard. It had been such a beautiful day. It should still be beautiful, but Daroth’s violence was a blot on the peace of the palace.
There wasn’t anything for it but to go with Daroth himself, if Daroth would even accept that. Dashel walked slowly forward, his steps chaperoned by the crunch of gravel beneath his sandals.
A purse heaped with coin landed on the ground in front of Daroth.
“There. That should cover it, right?” Thanos stepped forward, dusting off his palms. “A little extra for being gentle when you let her go.”
Daroth glared across the way. “Who’re you, his prince or something?”
“Or something.” Thanos sounded so calm, his voice so even, but he’d stiffened at the mention of Aurelius. “Right now I’m the man paying you to fuck off. Or doesn’t it work that way in Qemassen?”
Daroth wavered. He gave Mal a shove but held onto her by the neck of her dress. “Pick it up.”
“Do as he says, Mal,” Dashel soothed.
She nodded and crept forward as much as Daroth’s grip allowed before grabbing the purse. Daroth tugged her back and took it from her, weighing it in his hand, kneading the bag with his fingers. He grunted. “I’ll let her go at the gate. Come after, and I’ll take an ear.”
Sarah wailed, and Dashel pinned her arms to stop her surging forward. “At the gate,” he repeated. “And be gentle, like Thanos said.”
Darroth tucked the purse into the pocket of his tunic and hauled Mal, stumbling, across the gravel. At a small door at the corner, one that led onto the grounds outside, he pushed her away and fled.
There were guards assigned to that door. Where were they?
Dashel raced across the gravel, his sister and father beside him. Mal wobbled to her feet and ran toward them, collapsing into Sarah’s arms when they reached one another.
Dashel reached for his sister’s shoulder, to hold onto her, to ask for Mal, to—
Sarah turned on him, a fire he didn’t recognize in her eyes. “Get your fucking hands away from my daughter. You stay away from us. I don’t want to see you anywhere near us. I don’t want to see you on our street. I don’t want to see you in the quarter.”
“It’s not like that. I didn’t know—it’s not what it sounds like. It wasn’t money for sapenta. It was for Aurelius, for . . . .” Lies. All lies. It had been to impress Aurelius, yes, but it had been for the sapenta before everything else.
The blood on Sarah’s hand from the cut on Mal’s cheek. That was what Dashel’s happiness was worth.
The world went all fuzzy, like he’d slipped a taste of Molot’s wine. He stumbled backwards, bumping into his father.
Yeremi clamped a hand on Dashel’s shoulder. “You’d better take the princes back to the palace, before this gets worse.” He fixed Dashel with a stern gaze. They could flog you for this, it said. And they’d be right to.
Dashel turned, saw Safot comforting the boys. Thanos was with them. Dashel nodded to his father. “Yes. Yes. I’ll take them to Hima. I—I’m sorry. Tell Sarah—”
Yeremi’s hand slid away, leaving Dashel naked. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I care. She’s my granddaughter. You do what your sister told you and stay away, or I’ll tell the heq-Ashqen himself you let a thug come after the heirs to the throne. He’ll skin you alive. And don’t show your face here again.”
Dashel must have walked away from his family, because he found himself at the stable with Thanos and the boys, but he didn’t remember consciously returning to them. He forced a smile for Reshith’s sake, but when Dashel reached for the boy, he huddled back against Safot.
Thanos sighed. “I’ll take them, Dashel.”
“I can help.”
“It’s better if you don’t.”
“Where do I go?”
Thanos ushered Hiram ahead of him, away from Dashel, the man who was supposed to be their protector, and started walking. “To your prince?” The words cut like a sword’s point.
Dashel started to reach for Thanos’s sleeve, but Safot stepped in front of him. “I think it’s for the best, Sese, if you listen to the ambassador.”