(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 5: Mazna
Ashtaroth – Qemassen: The Palace
“I didn’t know she’d be like that.” Ashtaroth hadn’t been able to stop smiling like an idiot since Bree et-Eaflied had taken his hands in hers yesterday afternoon. His fingers still tingled with the soft touch of her skin on his, his nose still itched with her smell.
Hima rolled her eyes. “Like what?” She lay back on the cushioned bench, staring at the painted ceiling of his chambers as Ashtaroth paced. “I think it’s clear which parts of her appealed to you.”
Why was Hima always so cynical? It couldn’t be enough that Bree was betrothed to him, or that she was beautiful, or that he liked her. What was it he was missing?
Hima’s criticism had poisoned him the way she’d intended and now his thoughts were drowned by anxious questions.
Ashtaroth stopped before the window and gazed out to sea, toward Tarefsa Tithmeseti. If he squinted, he could make out the tip of one of Tanata’s stone wings. “What do you think she thinks about me? Do you think she liked me?”
“She vomited on you in front of the entire court.”
Ashtaroth faced his sister. “Is that enough to damn a marriage? I think she liked me, there was something in the way she looked at me.”
“Yes, like she was about to puke.”
“As though we understood one another.”
Hima said something in response, but Ashtaroth didn’t catch it. He had no time for arguing such trivialities now. He hurried to the papyrus scrolls heaped on his desk, searching desperately for an empty sheet, scattering the used ones onto the floor. “Yes!” He snatched up his reed pen and ink, shoving aside the chaos atop his workspace as he took a seat, dashing down a line. No time for Samelqo’s fine penmanship now—he was stirred by the passions of the moment.
Bree. Bree with hair as deep as the sea. Only Bree’s hair was black, like night. Bree. Bree with hair black as night. The night rides through your hair, like a hunter.
“What are you doing?” Hima laughed, her footsteps approaching. “Hiram and Reshith are coming.”
Ashtaroth had forgotten about his nephews. He laid the reed down as he finished scribbling off a line of verse. “I’m writing.” He sighed. “I’ll stop.”
Hima leaned over his shoulder. “What is it?”
Ashtaroth groaned. “It’s a poem. I thought I’d write her something to cheer her up.” She hadn’t left her rooms at all since . . . the incident. Qirani was tending her, and when Ashtaroth had seen his physician this morning he’d said Bree was doing well. Even so, Ashtaroth’s heart ached for her in her distress.
Hima walked away without giving his work much of a glance. She’d never had an ear for poetry like he did. “She’ll be queen of Qemassen one day. If she needs poetry to cheer herself up then perhaps she shouldn’t be queen.”
“None of that matters, not if she’s scared and sick. I need to show her that this is her home now, that she’s welcome amongst the Semassenqa.” He had to make her happy, like she had him. Singlehandedly, she’d banished the hunger that hounded him.
“People like Bree are born for this,” said Hima. “They don’t need to be told these things, not if their parents have done their work. You’ve been betrothed since you were born; what more preparation does she need?”
“As much as I still do.” Ashtaroth had been born for a lot of things, and it was like he understood none of them at all. He turned around, watching Hima poke at his scrolls and the many trinkets tucked against the shelves. “I’m supposed to do great things for our people, but I can’t see how, no matter how hard I try to puzzle it out.”
She picked up Aurelius’s wooden goat, turning it over and then replacing it. “Because it’s not a puzzle. The Lora are coming. Maybe not this year or next, but they are. When they do, it will be your time, and you’ll save us or you won’t.” She snorted, grinning his way. “Or I’ll save us, which is vastly more likely. Of course, they’ll give you the credit, but what can any of us do about that?”
Ashtaroth smiled weakly. “We could write the truth instead of lies. It’s not as though I’d pretend I was the heq-Damirat.”
He leaned against his desk and looked up at Hima. Her face wasn’t the dour mask he was used to. Many thought Hima unkind, but she could be loving too. She wanted Ashtaroth to succeed, to rule effectively and be respected by his people. With her behind him, Lilit’s prophecies had nothing to stand on. He smiled at her. “I’d make sure Qemassen understood how important you were,” he said.
Hima raised the edge of her brow at him. “You’re sweet. I wish you weren’t so I could hate you.”
Hate him? Why? Because he’d be king? He laughed, though it came out hollow.
The door banged open, and Reshith ran into the room to the sound of its thud, face a mix of horror and delight. Hiram dashed after his brother, waving a wooden serpent. It looked like one of Aurelius’s carvings. “He’s going to eat you, Reshi!” Hiram yelled. “He’s going to suck out your insides!”
While Reshith was spry and tall like his mother, Hiram was squat and bulky, with tightly curled hair. Both boys shared their mother’s golden eyes, but otherwise they were very different—a testament, most likely, to their ambiguous paternity. Ashtaroth wouldn’t have put it past Hima to have strolled into the Eghri eq-Shalem and picked a man at random to get her with child.
As Hiram sped past, Ashtaroth stretched out his arm and grabbed the wooden toy, smiling with what he thought of as his uncle face while Hiram pouted.
Reshith slunk behind Ashtaroth’s back, gripping Ashtaroth’s tunic.
He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but he’d made a favourite of shy, nervous Reshith. He knew exactly what it meant to have an older brother who was so much bolder than you were.
Hima clucked at them. “Behave for the crown prince. He’s your future king, not just your uncle.”
Ashtaroth handed the toy back to Hiram, as Reshith vanished from Ashtaroth’s side to start poking at the papyri scattered around. “Why don’t we visit the Eghri eq-Shalem for some stories? Would you like that?”
The storytellers’ square in the market had been a favourite place of Astaroth’s since his own childhood, and perhaps he could look for a gift to give Bree—surely there were Feislander merchants around.
Hiram glanced at his mother. “I’ll make sure Reshith’s good. I promise.”
Hima gave Hiram’s hair a tussle. “You get enough stories listening to Aurel, but if you must. I have business at the harbour, anyway. Qorban’s finally got his paws on the Ziphax, and if he’s not watched she’ll sink to the bottom of the canal before she ever sees combat.” She smiled at Ashtaroth, and Hiram grinned up at her. “Have them back before dark, and keep Safot with you. My sons aren’t going to grow up thinking it’s safe to traipse about unaccompanied.”
It was much safer than Hima believed, but Ashtaroth nodded, watching Hiram dart to the doorway and start tapping his foot.
“I’ll treat them like I would my own,” said Ashtaroth, his chest swelling. He would have children of his own, now Bree was here.
And for once the thought wasn’t terrifying—well, it was terrifying, but it was exciting too. Ashtaroth would be a father, and Hiram and Reshith would have cousins to care for.
After Hima left, Ashtaroth called for Safot as he’d promised, though he rejected the offer of a litter, or additional guards and slaves. If he marched downhill surrounded by pipers, drummers, and spearman, the Eghri would clear out of its characteristic bustle, and Hiram and Reshith wouldn’t experience the life’s blood of the true Qemassen.
It was cool on the streets, beneath the brown hoods and long plain robes Ashtaroth had found them as a disguise. Though since the boys spent the entire walk downhill tripping over themselves and whacking each other with the silk pillows they’d brought to sit on, the robes may have been a mistake.
The Eghri eq-Shalem was Ashtaroth’s favourite place in the city. Within its four walls was everything that made Qemassen great—its piled spice stalls, its fine clothiers, and an entire section devoted to telling stories. What other city could boast the same?
Four roads fed into the walled market in cruciform, and Ashtaroth and Safot led the boys through the easternmost of these so they wouldn’t have to push through the entire Eghri to reach the storyteller’s square. Even so, they had to squeeze past customers and merchants to break past the entrance and onto the white and blue tiled ground.
Enterprising women had set up stalls selling dried fruit, refreshing teas, roast pigeon, and assorted delights, wherever they could tuck themselves, so that the air was fat with the smell of spices and meats. Four divine statues guarded each corner: Tanata’s lion, the phoenix of Qemassen, Adonen with his bow, and Ashtet’s mare. At the very centre loomed the statue of King Shalem, the market’s builder.
Ashtaroth couldn’t help but stare at Shalem—his own ancestor—every time he stepped inside these walls. It was hard to believe the same blood that had produced Shalem’s handsome face ran in Ashtaroth’s veins.
It was harder still not to focus on the severed head of a woman Shalem clutched by her hair. Seven more heads rolled at his feet, each uglier than the last, each punished for her part in murdering Shalem’s father, their own husband. The wives’ cursed bones lay somewhere beneath the Eghri, which had once been the site of the royal harem. After Shalem had burned the building to the ground and exacted his vengeance, polygamy had fallen out of favour in Qemassen.
Ashtaroth was very lucky not to have lived at such a time, to have Bree and not Shalem’s traitorous mothers for a wife. He squeezed his nephews’ hands, prying his attention from the morbid image. This wasn’t a day for such dark tales.
They slipped past the mess of listeners who cluttered around the storytellers. Men and women stood on the steps leading up to Tanata’s lion and Ashtet’s mare, on pails and mobile wooden steps, even on the backs of carts, in order to be heard. The air was a flood of poetry, an ocean of words.
One day, when Bree and Ashtaroth were married and had children of their own, Ashtaroth would take them here, to show them the wonders of his world.
Hiram tugged on Ashtaroth’s arm, pointing at a scraggly old storyteller standing on an upturned bucket.
“. . . . his finder of bones, his treasurer of corpses!” hissed the old man dramatically, bearing his teeth to render his face a mask of horror. Several of the people clustered around the man drew back, but still more leaned forward in wonder.
“He’s talking about Ull!” said Hiram. “Can we listen to that one?”
“I don’t like scary stories,” Reshith opined.
Ashtaroth glanced back at Safot, who trailed behind them. “We’ll find something you both like.”
Hiram growled in exasperation, plodding in protest. After a brief silence he looked up at Ashtaroth, grinning. “In year two of Tifert there was a king on the island of Ull, King . . . .”
“Athtu,” Reshith all but groaned, as Hiram began reciting the story.
Ashtaroth scanned the sea of tellers, looking for something theatrical, something lively, to distract them and spare Reshith’s delicate constitution.
“King Athtu,” Hiram continued. “Athtu was an evil king. He had a palace made of the gilded bones of people he didn’t like. One day he made a god angry, so the god made him immortal but said to him, ‘You, King Haftan, will be immortal and eat only bones’. So Haftan killed all his slaves, and wives, and things, and ate their bones. But he ran out, so he ate the bones of his palace. And the god made Haftu’s vizier immortal, and Haftan sent him out to get him bones to eat, and build with, and the vizier sneaks from village to village collecting bones for his king to eat on his island in the Western Ocean, the sea of the dead.”
Ashtaroth chuckled quietly to himself at Hiram’s dramatic emphasis—he could be a storyteller himself.
Reshith shuddered beside them. “I don’t like that one,” he mumbled.
“Over there!” Hiram jostled Ashtaroth’s arm, jumping up and down and pointing at a trio of colourfully-dressed performers—a hooded figure, a dwarf, and a pale-skinned northerner—camped at the base of Ashtet’s statue. What looked like an already enraptured audience sat before them.
Safot all but collided with Ashtaroth as they stopped, hurrying back and murmuring his apologies. Ashtaroth spared him the reprimand, focused instead on the storytellers who’d so captured his nephew’s attention.
The boys let go of his hands and rushed to the front of the semi-circle of listeners that had formed around them. He rubbed his sweaty palms off on his tunic and looked back at Safot. “Let’s give them some space to enjoy it.” He still remembered what it was to be that age, to long for freedom from the adults that surrounded you.
From Ashtaroth’s spot standing behind the cushions radiating around the statue’s base, he glimpsed a hooded figure and a tanned, dark-haired northerner with a handsome face and a bare chest. The man wore trousers like an Inda horseman, thick, dark, leather ones that must have been sweltering under Qemassen’s sun.
“He was a beautiful man,” said the dwarf, from outside Ashtaroth’s field of vision, “as beautiful as a god, and all the women of the village loved him. His name was Ashmodai.”
The handsome man took a step forward, raising his hands and wriggling his fingers to show he was taking on a character.
Ashtaroth frowned. There was something achingly familiar about him, but before he could inspect the man’s features, the performer covered his face with a smiling wooden mask.
Ashtaroth knew the story of Sarah and Ashmodai. It wasn’t as frightening as the Legend of Ull, but he was surprised Reshith had been so excited. Perhaps Reshith didn’t know it.
“But though all the women of the village loved Ashmodai” said the dwarf, “he had eyes only for Sarah, the chieftain’s daughter. Hers were eyes of sapphire, hers was hair like blackest night!”
The hooded figure lowered their cowl, revealing a masked woman in a braided black wig. Curling yellow tresses peeked from beneath her false ones, and Ashtaroth’s hairs stood on end, reminded of Lilit, of the throne room. That was silliness though—Ashtaroth had imagined all of that.
She parted her cloak, revealing sheer linen that showed her nakedness as though she were a priestess of Ashtet robed in gossamer.
“Sarah loved Ashmodai, and they wed beneath Tanata’s stars and consummated their union beneath a dying fig tree that stood beside a stream on her father’s land. Her blood soaked into the water that night, into the very ground. The next morning the tree was alive, and its branches bowing from the weight of its fruit; the stream was filled with fishes fat with roe.”
The performers playing Sarah and Ashmodai drew together in an embrace, clasping each other’s hands. Ashtaroth clenched his fist, feeling Bree’s fingers between his own. Her touch could chase away the very darkness.
“But magic comes with a price, and Sarah did not know that Ashmodai was a creature of magic. In the morning she awoke to find that he had transformed into a monster: a man with the horns of a goat!”
Quick as a fish, Ashmodai replaced his happy mask with a snarling, horned one, and the crowd gasped.
“Hazzan!” called Reshith in a burst of enthusiasm.
Ashtaroth stood on his tiptoes so he could see.
The dwarf bent down to grin at Reshith and Hiram. He was pot-bellied, with burned peach skin, a ruddy nose and cheeks. He could have passed for a demon himself. “Not quite, child! This was no son of Molot, but a demon prince of the Westerlands!”
The woman in the wig leaped back from Ashmodai in surprise, replacing her mask with one of horror.
Had those been green eyes Ashtaroth had spotted beneath her mask? He hugged his arms around his chest, surveying the faces of the people pressed around him. For a moment, he lost sight of Safot, but the slave had only been pushed a few shoulders left.
The audience practically bubbled with anticipation, though the telling wasn’t particularly strong and the story wasn’t popular. Their delight probably had more to do with the novelty of the ugly dwarf than the quality of the performance.
“With Sarah fled, Ashmodai awoke, and heartbroken, he rushed back to the village. But Sarah had told the people what she had seen and they hurled stones at the creature until he ran away to fester in his fury.”
Sarah picked up a stone and mimed throwing it Ashmodai’s way, and the demon stumbled back as much as the crowd would allow.
“In the Western Desert, Ashmodai wept and wailed over Sarah, until one night, the queen of all demons heard his cries. Pitying him, she took him to her bed and made him king of all demons in everything but name. But Ashmodai never forgot Sarah, who had conceived of him on their wedding night. Two months to the day, a beetle approached him and told him Sarah was to be married again. A young man named Tobias had asked for her hand, and though Tobias was cruel, her father could not refuse, for Tobias was very wealthy.
For the wedding, Tobias built Sarah a palace of glass and invited great kings from eq-Anout, from Vetna, and from the waterless desert to attend.”
The dwarf held up a mask to his own face, crowned like a king.
“Ashmodai went to the queen of all demons and told her of what Sarah had done, and of his child that would be raised by Tobias. The queen of demons listened to all he said, and considered that she alone of all the kings of the world had not been invited. She called the children she had conceived with Ashmodai to her side—for time runs at a much faster pace in the realm of demons. The queen, and Ashmodai her consort, and all their children dressed in their finest to attend the wedding.
All was as it should be until the evening,” said the dwarf, “when it was time for the brutish Tobias to take Sarah to bed. A great whirlwind came then, forming out of sand and air. It harried the glass palace. The walls rang like a million bells and deafened the man and wife and all the family and all the guests.”
Ring. Ring. Ring—a bell chimed seven times, pinched in Ashmodai’s fingers. Its echo was like the echo of Lilit’s laughter, ringing in the throne room. It seemed to thrill through Ashtaroth’s bones, calling him.
He tapped his fingers against his leg.
“When the sound subsided everyone uncovered their ears. A man, handsome as a god, and mad like a demon, stood in the centre of the room. He pointed at Tobias and said in a voice like thunder, ‘You who have stolen my love and shamed me, you will have no congress with your wife; no seed of yours will take root in her, and you shall not be married, for the gods do not recognize your union.’
A deep howling began, fierce as before, and the winds beat at the glass palace, which sang again in a mournful voice and cracked with the force of the wrath of Ashmodai! Come the dawn, the palace had shattered into dust and all the family and their guests lay cut to ribbons. Only Sarah and Tobias had lived for they had sheltered beneath a table carved from the magic wood of the fig tree.”
Sarah clung to an imaginary husband. Her movements were so like Lilit’s, her pale hands, and yellow hair so similar.
“Sarah looked out on Tobias’s broken wealth, shattered across the sands. She saw that the queen of all demons was very beautiful, and that her children would be as kings, while Sarah had only Tobias and the child already within her who she believed to be her husband’s.”
The two women in front of Ashtaroth shifted and he pushed further to the front, to see Sarah’s performer better. This woman was too old to be Lilit, but maybe she was Lilit’s mother or older sister?
“For three days and nights Sarah prayed to Adonen and Ashtet. On the third night, Adonen appeared to her and asked what she would have of him. She thought on the fine clothes of Ashmodai’s children, of their glittering palace in the Western Desert, and of the wealth her own child would never know. She begged Adonen that he curse all Ashmodai’s children. Three times Adonen asked Sarah if this was her will, and three times she agreed. Adonen bade her go to the river beneath her father’s fig tree and there catch a fish. If she wished to curse the family of Ashmodai and protect the wealth of Tobias forevermore, she should slit open its belly, and smear the lintel of her home with the flesh of its liver.”
The dwarf reached into a bucket on the step and produced a fish. In his left hand he held a knife. In a deliberate, ritualistic motion he opened the animal’s belly. The dwarf’s grin was wide as the gash.
“Ashmodai came to them days later, and Sarah called to Ashmodai from her bed, and the demon was tricked and came to his love. While he lay with her, Tobias sealed his door with the fishes’ rotten insides. But Tobias forgot his wife lay inside, and he lit a fire around the home and did not leave again until it had burned to dust. And when he called for his wife in vain, Adonen came to him and said, ‘You did not do as I told her, thinking yourself cleverer than I, and so the gods have punished you and Sarah has returned to her husband. You have cursed Sarah’s own house with Ashmodai’s.’ As the sages tell it, even now, Sarah’s spirit haunts the halls of the queen of demons, seeking every chance to revenge herself upon Ashmodai’s children and seat her own son upon their throne.”
A long silence marked the end of the story, and for a moment no one moved until one man tossed a copper at the feet of the statue. Others followed, but Ashtaroth kept his gaze on the woman dressed as Sarah. Breathless, he waited for the performers to remove their masks. The way the actress flitted across the steps, the tilt of her wrist, that laugh—it was just like Lilit. When she took it off, he would be watching. He would know.
The day Lilit had read his fortune before Sabeq’s funeral she’d been but a child, but at court she’d seemed a young woman. What was she, this girl? A ghost? A goddess? Something else?
Ashtaroth rubbed his wrist, watching her bend and snatch another coin from the stone. He licked his lip.
The actress removed her mask, laying it gingerly on the steps. She stood back up, raising her arms to the sky and smiling at the audience, her green eyes catching the overhead sun. “Many thanks to you, Sesa!”
Lilit. Lilit. It was her.
Their eyes met. As Ashtaroth pushed forward, recognition flashed across her face and was gone.
“Lilit!” he called, earning peculiar looks from the people he passed. “Lilit!”
Reshith and Hiram were still sitting on their cushions at the front, legs folded beneath them as they threw coins to the performers, laughing all the while. The boys looked up as Ashtaroth approached.
Lilit backed away as Ashtaroth shoved aside the last of those blocking him. He stepped onto the stairs leading to the statue. The dwarf grabbed the hem of his tunic.
“Step back, please,” said the dwarf, polite but firm.
“No, you don’t understand! I know her; I just want to talk!” The dwarf held on so tight Ashtaroth had to shove him to get past. The man tumbled on the short steps, but there was no time for an apology—Lilit dashed down the stairs, skirts bunched in her hands. The man playing Ashmodai made a grab for Ashtaroth.
She was getting away.
Ashtaroth leaped from the steps and bolted into the crowd. He grabbed for her arm, grazing her skin, and she tumbled to the ground. She scrambled to her feet, glancing back at Ashtaroth before running off across the square, shoving men aside.
“Lilit!” Ashtaroth chased her, heart racing. A man stepped into his path as though to block him, but Ashtaroth dodged him, barreling past the storyteller on the pail, nearly knocking the man down. “Let me through! Safot?!” Hands grabbed at him, but Lilit was hitting nearly as many men as he was. “I’m the crown prince, let me through!”
The crowd closed behind her, like water swallowing a stone. His entire body ached. He hadn’t ever run so fast. Panting, he bent over, clutching his knees. When he looked up, he was standing at the eastern gate.
A man’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. Ashtaroth shook him off without looking and bolted through the arch that led into the city proper.
Had he lost her? What if she’d stayed in the Eghri? What if he never found her? He didn’t know these eastern streets so well, and the turns he took seemed to lead him deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of narrow alleys and decrepit houses. A blackness was stealing in, clouding his vision. The blood in his cheeks wanted to burst out. He had to sit down, lest he faint.
He stopped at a crossroads between two streets, then took the quieter of the two—a residential alley. He wobbled, knees threatening to buckle as though loose, and finally leaned against the side of a plain, unpainted house. He wiped the sweat from his brow off on his arm, closing his eyes.
What was he doing, chasing strange women about Qemassen? What if she was only Lilit’s relative?
But if that were true, why had she run? And there’d been that knowing look that’d flashed across her face when their eyes had met. It was her, and somehow she was playing with him.
The sound of voices—maybe even Ashmodai and the dwarf—drifted toward him. He pushed himself off the wall, following the winding alley deeper into the maze of Qemassen’s backstreets.
A woman was hanging laundry along a line from her second-story window, and she stared down at him suspiciously. Ashtaroth ignored her, too exhausted to take offense. He was dizzy, and he’d lost Lilit, and he should really try and head back and bring his nephews home.
His nephews. Hiram and Reshith. It was a weight in his chest, but—but Safot was with them. Safot would lead them home and everything would be fine.
A girl giggled behind him.
Ashtaroth swerved, catching a glimpse of yellow hair disappearing through a doorway and inside one of the homes.
Lilit was teasing him. He had to catch her. She was so close, and now he knew it had been her in the market.
The wooden door swung shut as he approached, and with some effort he reopened it, searching the interior of the modest dwelling for some sign of her.
Two little girls—no, a boy and a girl—each with golden-brown hair and warm brown skin, were playing beside a washing basin. They looked up with startled expressions as he traipsed across the room.
“Dannae?” called the girl, and a child with brown hair and an olive complexion rushed to their side. The two girls clung to the boy, who glared at Ashtaroth with piercing eyes.
Ashtaroth had no time—he stalked past them, peeking behind furniture, looking for Lilit. “A little girl, or a woman. Have you seen her?” His thoughts felt as disjointed as his questions. “She has yellow hair.”
The children shook their heads in unison.
“Eret!” called the boy, and footsteps thudded from upstairs in answer to his distress.
Ashtaroth hurried out the main entrance just as a woman appeared from a stairwell.
It was chaos outside, the streets filled with people. Ashtaroth knew his city well, yet he was disoriented all of a sudden. There were buildings here he didn’t recognize, strange white houses and people dressed in foreign attire.
Where had this busy road come from?
But the sky was the sky he knew, and when he stared in the direction of the bay he recognized the top of Tarefsa Qusirai. Where was Tarefsa Tithmeseti? The taller of the islands should be visible, but it was gone.
Ashtaroth rubbed his wrist. It must only be the view—the tops of the buildings were obscuring the larger island.
He stumbled, and his sandal pressed down on something soft. Feather-light petals stroked his toes. He lifted his foot, revealing crushed yellow blossoms. The flowers filled the road leading back in the direction of the Eghri eq-Shalem, pounded into the mud. The people walking along the street didn’t even look down as they trampled them beneath foreign boots and sandals.
Something hit his shoulder from above. It was another flower, fallen from who knew where. When he looked back at the road, plucked petals rained like water from the heavens.
Lilit. This must be her doing.
Ashtaroth hurried back the way he’d come. On his way, he passed a cluster of slave women, chatting in the Lora tongue. Their faces were Massenqa faces.
“I’m looking for Lilit,” Ashtaroth pleaded to them. “A Feislandat—or an Eru girl? With blond hair.” The women stared at him like he was mad, whispering to each other. “The Eghri eq-Shalem,” he said, switching to Lora. “I’m looking for the storyteller’s square.”
“There’s no such place,” one of the slaves said. “Leave us be.”
Ashtaroth stepped backwards into the middle of the street, colliding with a merchant, who cursed at him in Lora.
This wasn’t—this wasn’t right. But he was lost, that was all. He was lost. Perhaps this was where the Lora citizens lived. A part of Qemassen he’d never seen.
Ashtaroth continued on, frowning as the road inclined before him. Over its peak a round, pillared building towered above the rest. Triple-tiered, and completely white. Ashtaroth would surely have known if such a building existed in Qemassen.
Overhead, the blue sky had bruised red and purple, not beautiful, but terrifying. The yellow flowers had vanished from the air.
He should retrace his steps. It would be easier to find the Eghri if he walked back through that house.
Ashtaroth jogged downhill, searching for the door. Relief swamped him as he came upon it. It stood out amongst the blinding white of the rest of the houses on the street. He pushed the door open as quietly as he could, remembering the mother who’d hovered on the steps.
But inside, the air was stagnant. Flies buzzed dismally about the room, and Ashtaroth flinched as a sudden stench hit him. The source became clear soon enough, as the crumpled, maggoty body of a woman came into view. As he drew closer, a cloud of insects swarmed off the body, filling the air. A woman who looked a lot like that one child—Dannae?—was scrunched on the ground, half her face bashed in.
Ashtaroth’s eyes watered from the stink, and he closed them as he stumbled into the alley.
When he opened them, a night sky looked down on him.
“Lilit? Reshith?! Hiram!” Ashtaroth’s voice grew increasingly high-pitched as he headed for the Eghri.
And it wasn’t only the skies that were black. A dark mist hung in the air, acrid and smoky. Soot clung to Ashtaroth’s tunic. The walls of the houses, and the brick of the streets were thick with ash. Yet the blossoms from before coated the ground even thicker than before, a blinding yellow whenever he looked at them.
Was that thunder rolling in the distance? He listened carefully as he raced back to the eastern gate, and it came to him that it wasn’t thunder at all, but shouting, as though a thousand men cried in concert with one another.
When he burst past the eastern gates of the Eghri eq-Shalem, no storytellers stood upon the tiled square any longer. Now the tiles were obscured by black sand.
“Reshith! Hiram!” Ashtaroth darted across the square to the statue at its centre, but even before he reached it he could tell something was wrong.
Shalem’s head lay cracked in half at the statue’s feet. Now only the distorted faces of his wives looking out on the city.
Fingers trembling, Ashtaroth pulled himself onto the base of the statue, looking out at what remained of Qemassen. Lights flickered against the sky in the distance where the palace should be, flames licking black plumes of smoke. The chants of an invisible crowd were growing louder, and he turned around and around in an effort to pinpoint their location.
From somewhere unseen, men stomped their feet as metal clashed against metal. Ashtaroth covered his ears, thinking of Ashmodai the demon, and the palace made of glass, and the howling wind.
A shrill scream cut across the sand-filled square. It was a woman’s scream, and it went on for what seemed like minutes before abruptly stopping, silencing the rest of the noise along with it.
A horse whinnied from the west, and Ashtaroth turned toward it.
A woman’s body lay about twenty feet away, curled on the ground, yellow hair spread around her head.
Ashtaroth raced to her side, but when he bent down, her yellow hair was only flowers, spilling out from brown locks, chalk-white paint covering her face. But beneath that—
He stumbled back. It was her. Underneath everything, it was Lilit, but a grown woman now. He reached for her, his fingers shaking. Her skin was cold to the touch, her body stiff.
He rolled her over, and her smashed-in face stared into his with its half-remaining eye. Dannae, the woman from the house with the children.
Out of the noxious fog a shape reared, hooves black as its glossy coat and mane, teeth white in its wide mouth. The horse kicked up a whirlwind of black dust as its feet thudded against the sand, galloping fast and hard toward Shalem’s statue, toward Ashtaroth.
At first Ashtaroth was frozen by some great dread, but then he felt himself falling backward, and he grasped in futility at the statue, inhaling the drifting ash, feeling his lungs close. He fell backward, and as he fell his eyes fixed on a strangled sun, shining in impotence from behind the clouds, its light winking in and out of sight like fading candle-flame.
“I knew it would be you,” said a woman’s voice—Lilit’s voice—and then Ashtaroth’s head hit the ground. “I’ve never felt so beautiful.”