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Chapter 5: Mazna
Dashel – Qemassen: The House of Many Purposes
Aurelius’s lips were soft and hungry against Dashel’s, the prince’s hands urgent at his hips and back, caressing his skin where it lay bare, and pulling his tunic where it wasn’t. He tasted of salt and blood from where Dashel had broken his skin in his eagerness. Aurelius barely seemed to notice, pressed hard against him, as if he might push Dashel to the floor of the House of Many Purposes and fuck him right there if the night stretched any longer. The press of bodies was all that kept them standing, each guest—and there were at least forty—as trapped by their lust as Dashel.
He slid his hand beneath the folds of Aurelius’s robe, over the firm plain of his chest, around his back, drinking deep of the moment, letting it saturate his thoughts till all memory of Thanos and of the attack on Mal at the elephant stables had passed. Almost passed.
Thinking about not thinking about it revived the echo of his father’s raised voice.
Aurelius stroked a finger down the back of Dashel’s ear, and the sound of his family’s hatred died. Aurelius’s touch could chase it all away and, Dashel hoped, his own attentions would similarly dispel the sourness that had descended on Aurelius since Ashtaroth’s bride had arrived.
It was a passion no man in the city would dare call a lie. No man but Dashel.
Aurelius was the king of liars and lovers both. He laughed as his lips left Dashel gasping for air, the cold creeping in despite the crush of guests dancing and fucking and drinking all around them.
Dashel held his eyes closed as the ghost of Aurelius’s touch dissolved from his skin, as he pulled away from Dashel’s hands.
When Dashel opened his eyes, Djana was tugging Aurelius away from him and back into the press of drunken, reveling bodies. She smiled and winked at Dashel, and for a sliver of an instant he hated her.
But he couldn’t hate her. Djana was a smile in human form. Maybe she even thought she was doing Dashel a favour—she was doing him a favour. Only it wasn’t a kindness he wanted to accept.
He followed them, overwhelmed by the oddly sombre tone of the musicians Djana had hired for her party.
Aurelius shot Dashel a conciliatory smile over his shoulder as Djana dragged him to one of the settees lining the small, cramped room. He realized, at least, what he’d done to Dashel.
Not that it would be difficult for anyone to see. Dashel swallowed, positioning his arm so it disguised the obvious erection beneath his tunic.
Djana and Aurelius all but collapsed onto the settee. The furniture creaked beneath them as Djana draped herself across Aurelius’s lap.
Aurelius grinned drunkenly at Dashel and Djana reached behind her to pour herself another cup of wine.
“Out of all the many purposes of this house, this may be my favourite” said Aurelius.
Dashel smiled and sat down beside them. He grabbed a cup from a table beside him and held it out to Dana. She poured him another drink. “No Ajwata music tonight?” he asked her.
Djana shrugged one shoulder. “I let Qanmi find them, and he paid so I did not complain.”
“He’s courting you now too, is he?” Dashel tried and failed to picture Djana pottering around Qanmi’s house as exquisite property. Had the merchant known Djana would spend the evening in Aurelius’s arms, he might not have been so eager to finance her fun.
“We will see what it is Qanmi eq-Sabaal is after, I have a feeling.” Djana’s smile wavered tremulously as Aurelius kissed her neck and then her shoulder and arm. She wriggled in his lap. Perhaps she hadn’t been trying to steal Aurelius so much as share him. Dashel wouldn’t have said no. “Dashel tells me you are in love, Aurel. You could prove it better than this, I think,” she continued. She gave Aurelius’s arm a playful slap.
Dashel hadn’t been supposed to tell anyone about the girl in the Feislands who Aurelius was pining for, but it was hard to keep secrets from Djana, and he’d needed someone to whom he could confide his misgivings. He scratched his head, guilty.
But Aurelius looked unbothered. He abandoned his kisses and straightened beneath Djana. “Her? A dream, a figment. I’ve forgotten her name already.”
“You knew her name?” Dashel raised an eyebrow.
Aurelius laughed, but his expression was pinched. “No, I didn’t. I must have forgotten that too.”
Perhaps Bree’s arrival had reminded Aurelius of his Feislanda woman, the one he’d wanted to run off with. It would explain his dark mood lately. Forgetting the woman would be a happy return to form.
Dashel reached behind Djana to clap Aurelius on the shoulder. “Good. Any less reason for you to leave is fine by me.” He smiled, trying to catch his prince’s eye and cheer him with a look.
It was easy to be cheerful when you were doing it for someone else.
A slave walked by, carrying a platter laden with fruit. Aurelius eyed the man, who was very handsome, but didn’t call for the slave’s attention. “You’re a good friend, Dashel.”
No doubt Aurelius meant it kindly, but it stung like a dismissal.
Dashel smiled through it the way he always did.
“What did you think of the princess?” asked Djana. Bree and her presentation to the court yesterday were all anyone would talk about.
Dashel sipped his wine, watching Aurelius watch the slave, watching Aurelius frown as someone grabbed the slave’s cock beneath his tunic. Dashel gave his prince’s leg a kick, knowing all too well the look in Aurelius’s eyes, like he was about to intercede.
“I felt sorry for her,” said Dashel. “When I met her at the dock they looked like boiled lobsters, the two of them.”
Djana laughed. “And you, Aurel? What did you think of Ashtaroth’s virgin bride?”
“I think she’s no virgin,” Aurelius spat.
The comment was so sharp and shocking Dashel thought for a moment the music had stopped, but the dirge went on as before. It was only Dashel’s surprise that had made it seem so.
Once the same surprise had faded from Djana’s face, she glared at Aurelius. “A cruel assumption to make, based merely on a woman’s appearance. I suppose you think all foreign women loose.”
Dashel snorted, trying to ease the mood. “I wonder why,” he said with a look at Djana.
She elbowed Dashel in his side.
“She’ll make a fine bride, I’m sure,” said Aurelius, “but you can’t tell me none of you are worried for my brother.”
“Not worried for him,” said Djana, “but jealous of her, perhaps a little.”
Dashel did worry some. Ashtaroth behaved like a man much younger than his twenty years, and just this morning Dashel had heard a Semassenqen whisper to another that given how thin Ashtaroth had grown, he might not live to be much older. But that was only talk—surely if that were true, Samelqo would have abandoned the notion that Ashtaroth might succeed Eshmunen?
Aurelius grunted. He looked more than sour, he looked tired. The weight of whatever burden Aurelius was shouldering dragged Dashel down with him.
It had been nice to forget for a while, to put Hesh behind him. Since the attack on his family, it was harder than usual to distract himself. He’d spent as much as he could of the days since the attack in his cups, but it hadn’t been enough. Even the fact that Hesh’s thug had been found dead near the palace walls not an hour later couldn’t mollify Sarah or Yeremi, and so it had done nothing to calm Dashel either. And there was Safot—he’d been hovering over Hiram and Reshith that day, before Daroth had turned up and distracted everyone. Dashel had meant to keep an eye on him, but he’d failed at that, too.
Probably nothing. Dashel was only looking for more excuses to reprimand himself, to make up for the lack of reprimand he’d received from anyone but his family. No one knew about the guards who must have let Daroth slip by, and Hima didn’t know about the potential danger Dashel had put her sons in. If he were braver, if he weren’t so selfish, he’d have told someone.
Dashel flexed his fingers, watching the muscles pull taut and then loosen, listening to the strings of the lute pull taut and resonate, casting their depressing melody into the air for Dashel to inhale.
“Why don’t we escape this bad music?” Dashel pulled his arm from behind Djana and stood. He stretched out his arm for her, wobbling as she hoisted herself up.
Djana buried her face in Dashel’s chest, chuckling drunkenly against his skin. “And slight Qanmi eq-Sabaal? Who would dream of such a thing?”
It was chilly outside. Dashel regretted his thin clothing as they stepped onto the street. At least the litter was waiting for them, crushed beneath a host of others. Aurelius’s slaves were slouched against the wall playing dice by lantern-light.
“I was supposed to wait for Titrit.” Djana frowned up at Dashel.
“She would have come by now if she intended to,” said Aurelius. “Perhaps she’s with Qorban.”
Djana wrapped her shawl tightly about her shoulders. “No, I think not. Qanmi, maybe. He is her father, and he is without a wife.”
Dashel wasn’t sure why Djana was so worried for their friend. Since Aurelius had spurned her, Titrit rarely joined them for anything besides their philosophical discussions.
Dashel called to the slaves to attend the litter, but as always it left him guilty as he interrupted their game. They seemed happy enough to get moving and out of the cold though, no better dressed than their masters. He let Djana sit beside Aurelius, if only because at his stature he needed the space.
Soon the little party was making its way back uphill to the palace, but if Dashel had hoped to escape the drear of Qanmi’s musicians, the quiet of the night was a poor replacement. A pall had fallen over Qemassen, the usual bustle evaporated along with the heat. And maybe that was all it was—the chill of the air had sent the city scurrying for the warmth of cozy beds and cozier bodies to curl around.
“You seem unhappy, Dashel,” said Djana. “What has happened to make you frown so?”
Dashel laughed, but as he turned to Djana and Aurelius it was obvious from their faces they didn’t trust his false humour. He’d always been a terrible liar.
But he couldn’t tell them about Hesh, or Thanos’s sharp words. He settled on something safer—less personal worries that still nibbled at his thoughts.
He cleared his throat, shivering as a cold breeze sneaked past the curtains and stroked his bare legs. “People in the lower quarter have been stewing with talk of ill luck since the fire. My people think it was a judgment from Adonis—from Adonen. And Laelat was ranting about an owl causing the fire.” He swallowed. “The men who threw her body outside the walls said an owl appeared and pecked out her eyes. It even frightened the dogs away.”
Aurelius pulled the curtain open and gazed outside, watching someone or something on the road. “The whole city’s on edge. They sense war coming, and they’re looking for divine messages to explain their unease. The displeasure of invisible gods is less terrifying than the prospect of Lora soldiers at the gates.”
Dashel frowned. On some level, perhaps, Aurelius was right, but if the gods were displeased, surely war was only another sign of their displeasure.
“What has an owl to do with it?” asked Djana.
Aurelius pulled the curtain closed and leaned his head back. “A lesser manifestation of Qalita took the form of an owl and married Hazzan. The Eru believe she steals children at the full moon.”
Aurelius’s explanation lacked the flavour of the tales Dashel had been told as a child, but he didn’t have the words for it himself so he simply nodded.
Djana frowned, clearly still confused. “And your people believe this goddess came after the heq-Ashqen’s niece? Why?”
Dashel didn’t know and wasn’t sure he trusted the story himself; he only knew it had upset him and that if Aurelius was looking for signs of discord, there was enough of that brewing in the lower city. “It’s just a story. She was mad is all.”
“Stop!” cried a man from outside.
The litter swayed. Dashel barely managed to keep himself from tumbling out the opening in its side as they jerked to the left and then backwards to the rhythm of the slaves’ retreat.
Dashel shoved open the curtain.
A group of hooded figures stood blocking the path uphill. The flickering light of torches cast shadows across the brick street, shapes shifting as the strangers moved.
“Who is it?” Djana asked, eyes wide. She clutched Aurelius’s shoulder.
Dashel pursed his lips. “I don’t know. Strangers in hoods.”
Aurelius glanced outside before stepping out. “Lets have a look. Djana, you stay here.”
Dashel hopped out after Aurelius. He signalled to the slaves to lower their burden. If there was going to be any trouble, a few men could make all the difference. It was a fool’s errand to attack a prince of Qemassen, but then, most men were fools.
There were at least ten such fools standing in the middle of the road, staring them down. Each of the strangers had obscured his face with a Massenqa death mask, and each wore a plain dark hood and cloak.
“What do you want?” asked Aurelius. “If you planned on robbing us, I’m afraid you’re a few hours too late. My money now belongs to the priestesses of Ashtet.”
At the back of the group, one man wavered beneath the weight of a heavy sack he’d slung over his shoulder.
One of the figures stepped forward. Dashel recognized the set of his shoulders, his gait. He squinted, trying to place the figure, his belly knotted with worry suddenly. He’d felt this same creeping dread before.
“We don’t want your money,” said the man. “We come with a message from the prophet Zioban.”
“Who’s Zioban?” Dashel asked.
One of the three men in front turned to him, only when they spoke it turned out to be a woman. “A better man than you, Erun.”
Dashel grit his teeth at the disdain in the stranger’s voice. The shame that clawed at him was worse than the kicks he’d suffered from Hesh’s men in the lower quarter. Could these men be Hesh’s? Thanos had paid Daroth off, but then, maybe Hesh blamed Dashel for the death of his man outside the palace walls.
Dashel wouldn’t be able to bear it if Hesh attacked Aurelius to get to him.
“So what’s this message?” mused Aurelius, as though completely unaffected. “It’s been a poor excuse for a day, and I’m in no mood for games.”
The mysterious leader snorted. He dropped his torch at his feet and leaped back. The road in front of the litter burst into flame.
“Bitumen!” cried the slaves beside the litter.
Dashel and Aurelius jumped away, shielding their noses with their arms at the sulfuric stink of the fire. The slaves guarding the litter darted further back down the road, and Dashel thrust aside the curtain and grabbed Djana. He hauled her outside as the wind gusted the flame perilously close to the roof.
Djana staggered against him, just as the cloth of the litter caught alight. She coughed at the noxious smoke and Dashel rubbed her arms to try and comfort her.
Beyond the wall of fire the hooded men called to one another, their voices drifting in and out on the wind just like the flames they’d summoned.
“We are one voice!” cried the leader, turning around to face his companions. “We are many hands!” The attackers took up the chant, raising their torches high as they chorused. Their death masks flickered evilly beneath the light, so that it was as if serpents writhed in shadow across their faces. “We are one voice! We are many hands!”
They’d cut off the narrow road with the bitumen, so the path was completely barred.
Above the street, the shutters of nearby apartments clattered open, and faces appeared at doors and windows. A child screamed in fear. The district burst to life.
“Fire!” called a woman, her cry like that of one bird to another, taken up by the people in the next house, and then the next, till it reached far enough that a bell rang out, alerting the whole area to the danger. The noise blurred with the whoosh of the wind and the licking of the flames, and behind the wall of bitumen, the men in death masks tittered to one another, so quiet Dashel couldn’t make out their words.
With their faces hidden behind carved wooden smiles, the strangers could be Molot’s own soldiers.
“Who are you?!” Aurelius yelled, struggling against the cacophony.
Dashel turned to Aurelius, his heart aching. What horrors did those faces hold for him? How much greater must be his fear of the fire? The cruelty was so precise it seemed intentional.
And what had Hesh called Aurelius? The burnt offering.
Sour, smoky, tears leaked from the corners of Dashel’s eyes. He blinked them away, standing tall beside Aurelius. If this was anything to do with Hesh, Dashel would break the man in half over his very own knee before he let him harm the prince.
The leader cocked his head at one of the others, and the two men bearing sacks pushed to the front to stand alongside their leader.
There was that dread again.
Grinning, the lead man bowed mockingly at Aurelius. “Who are we, Sese? We are the claws buried in the belly of the beast! We are the children of Qemassen’s shame and depravity, ill-begotten and ill-favoured!”
Aurelius scowled at Dashel. “He’ll only talk in riddles.”
But Dashel’s heart caught in his throat as the men holding the sacks dumped their cargo out on the street and two small bodies—children’s bodies—collapsed lifelessly to the ground.
Figures darted across the flat rooftops, running to flee the potential spread of fire, or to access the street and offer help. Their cries seemed to fade into a dull hum as Dashel watched the bodies of Hima’s two boys—boys he’d loved and cared for and all but raised—laid out like hollow logs on the road.
“Hiram! Reshith!” Aurelius’s eyes were wide. He made as though to break through the flames to get to them, but Dashel grabbed him round the waist, stopping him before he could burn himself to ash trying to plunge through the fire.
Aurelius thrashed in Dashel’s arms. Dashel was stronger than his prince, but Aurelius was frenzied. He heaved Aurelius into the air and slammed him against the wall of the nearest building, pinning him. “You can’t reach them, Sese. Leave it.”
All he wanted to do was run to the boys himself. But he couldn’t.
Aurelius shoved him, raising his hand as if to hit him. Dashel took the blow and crushed his forearm against Aurelius’s neck, immobilizing him.
“Help us!” Dashel commanded the slaves, though what they could possibly do that he and Aurelius couldn’t, he didn’t know.
Beside them, Djana held her long sleeve to her nose, tears pouring from her eyes.
Men and women bearing bowls and pails rushed from the houses further uphill, and the masked men began to scatter, leaving only the man and woman who’d spoken. The pair of them stood still as statues as flame consumed the bitumen and the litter, unbothered by the approaching Massenqa.
The leader removed his cowl, then tore off his mask. The woman beside him did likewise, and they tossed the wooden masks into the fire.
“Safot?” Aurelius frowned, tears on his cheeks.
Safot. Safot at the stables, with no clear reason, hovering around Hiram and Reshith. And the girl beside Ashtaroth’s body slave—she was from Qwella’s household.
Aurelius relaxed, and Dashel removed his arm, but he kept Aurelius steady against the wall.
What did Safot think he was doing?
Safot clutched a dagger in his hand, his arm shaking. He grabbed Qwella’s slave by her arm and hauled her toward him. The pair of them stared unflinchingly past the flames at Aurelius and Dashel, and the girl only faltered when Safot finally stabbed the blade into her neck and gouged a deep red smile across her throat. Blood spurted and bubbled from the wound, but Safot clung to her, holding her up as her legs failed her.
“You want to know who we are, Sese?” yelled Safot. “We are your wet-nurses, and your whores, your cup-bearers and your cooks. We are one voice and we are many hands.”
Slaves. They were slaves. Proud servants of the Semassenqa. What could possibly have driven them to hurt children?
Aurelius elbowed Dashel in the side, and Dashel lost his hold on the prince. Aurelius raced to the flames, which burned low enough now to jump over, and Dashel followed him.
But as Aurelius jumped, Safot dropped the girl’s limp body. Before Dashel could reach him, he stabbed the blade into his own neck, painting the street in front of him hot with blood.
“Aurelius! Dashel!” Djana cried.
“They’re breathing!” Aurelius yelled back at Dashel, kneeling beside the bodies. “Dashel, come quick! Someone get help! They’re breathing, oh gods they’re breathing.”
Dashel ignored Safot as the slave collapsed and hurried to Aurelius’s side.
Footsteps were approaching from the houses to either side of them. Men poured from the doors to the houses all along the road, heaving their precious bowls and barrels of water. Dashel knelt at his prince’s side to the sound of doused flames and the persistent clanging of Qemassen’s bells. The whole city was awake, and the whole city was too late.
Reshith and Hiram had cuts on their faces, a mark on either cheek just like the ones given to recaptured slaves, deep angry slashes made to scar. Made to mark. Their hair had been shorn—a shameful disfigurement.
Aurelius clutched them to his chest, eyes closed, breathing rough and hurried.
Aurelius was the king of liars, sometimes even to himself.
And Dashel prayed Aurelius wasn’t delusional, because all he could see were two still, limp bodies.