Chapter 6: I: Ashtaroth
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Chapter 6: Visitors
Ashtaroth: Qemassen: The Palace
A drop of water slid down Ashtaroth’s forehead, waking him from what could have been years of sleep. He was lying down, and something soft and damp—a cloth?—had been laid on his brow. The air stunk of the pungent bloom of burning mint and thyme that he’d come to associate with his illness. The medicinal incense was meant to heal, but the rich, flavoured air only made his gorge rise.
Ashtaroth tried to wet his lips, but his mouth was chalk-dry. He’d died. He’d been trampled in the Eghri, and now his desiccated corpse had been laid out upon its bier, ready for burning. The mint and thyme wasn’t one of Qirani’s medicines, but perfumed smoke to conceal a cloying putrefaction.
He clenched his jaw to contain the sob breaking like a wave against his teeth.
Only once it had passed did he notice that his bed was soft against his back.
His bed. He was alive.
The warm purple of his ceiling embraced him as he opened his eyes.
How had he got to his room? He’d been in the Eghri eq-Shalem with Hiram and Reshith. They’d been listening to those actors tell the story of Sarah and Ashmodai, and then—
Ashtaroth tried to swallow, but his throat was as brittle as charred wood. The smell of mint and thyme was like the stink of burning flesh and wood from his nightmare.
It had been a nightmare, hadn’t it?
Lilit had appeared and he’d chased her. He’d found her body lying in the sand, ringed by yellow petals, her face beaten in. The statue of Ashtet’s mare had chased him across the Eghri and he’d fallen to the ground.
But the earth had been so hard beneath him, hard like his bladder felt now—so full it seemed to press against his flesh. He peeled himself from his sweat-soaked sheets, and a wave of dizziness spun his chamber round and round in his vision.
Ashtaroth forced himself to stand, groaning. The wet cloth slipped from his forehead and squelched against the floor. “Safot? My chamber pot!”
The slave failed to materialize.
Where was he? Where were any of Ashtaroth’s slaves? They’d disappeared as though they’d melted into the smoke.
The need to relieve himself was too great to await assistance, and Ashtaroth fell to his knees, hauling out the brass pan. Piss drummed against the pot’s sides as words drifted to him from the hallway outside the door to his chambers.
“He’s awake!” came an unfamiliar voice, a young man’s voice.
“Then let me see him,” said Hima, wroth. “Or did you forget whose coin lines your commander’s purse?”
The young man’s answer was muffled.
“I don’t care what Qirani said,” Hima snapped. “I’m a princess of Qemassen, and Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen is my brother. What’s your name?”
Ashtaroth tensed. Qirani eq-Maleq had been to see him—well, that should have been obvious from the incense. Had Ashtaroth’s infirmity been the cause of his dream?
“T-tess,” said the man. Ashtaroth didn’t recognize the name, which meant he couldn’t be one of the palace guards, and slaves didn’t have commanders.
If Hima were coming in, Ashtaroth couldn’t be seen like this, dirty and relieving himself. He prodded his sloshing bedpan back beneath his bed and looked around for something clean to wear, before spying a fresh robe folded atop one of the chests containing his clothes. He grabbed it, and a yellow blossom fell out of a fold in the garment.
As it drifted to the floor, his heart seemed to stop.
The blossom looked just like the flowers that had covered Lilit’s hair in the dream. Only, if it were here before him now, the things Ashtaroth had seen must have been real. He reached for it, running his thumb over the star-shaped flower, half believing it would dissolve into the air. It didn’t.
The door banged open behind him.
Ashtaroth dropped the blossom and swerved round.
Hima’s forehead was creased in anger. A young man in a Yirada uniform peeked past the door, drawing back suddenly when his eyes met Ashtaroth’s.
What was a Yirada officer doing outside Ashtaroth’s door? Where were the palace guards? Where were his slaves? The Yirada guarded the city, not the palace.
“You irresponsible little shit!” Hima yelled, stomping toward Ashtaroth,
The fire in her eyes drove him back against his bed. He stumbled and fell back onto his mattress. “Hima―I don’t . . . .”
“You don’t what?” She faced the door and snapped her fingers. “Close it.”
The door thudded shut, leaving Ashtaroth alone with his sister.
“I don’t remember anything, at least not much of anything,” he said, before Hima had a chance to interrupt him. “There was a horse, and these actors, and one of them was Lilit.”
Hima frowned, aghast. “A horse? Ashtaroth, what are you talking about? They’re saying you attacked someone in the Eghri. The Yirada caught you ranting in the streets. What did you think you were doing?” Her voice quavered as though she were holding back tears. “You left them all by themselves in the middle of the city.”
Them? Who had Ashtaroth left? It came to him even as he thought it.
Hiram and Reshith. He’d left them in the Eghri. But Safot would have kept them safe from harm.
Ashtaroth snatched a pillow from beside him, crushing it in his hands. “Where are they?”
Hima wiped her eyes with her forearm. Though her eyes were still moist, a ferocity glowed in them, a rage directed at Ashtaroth in way it hadn’t ever been. “With Aurelius and Dashel. Qirani’s seeing to them.”
Ashtaroth hugged the pillow tighter. “The physician?”
“Safot grabbed them in the Eghri.” She paused. “He cut their cheeks and hair like they were wayward slaves.”
Ashtaroth bored his nails into the pillow. Had a prince of Qemassen ever been so shamed? The vision of his burning city filled his memory, and he was back on the docks again with Titrit and Djana, imagining his family dragged away in chains. But then the rest of what Hima had said jolted him from the daydream. “Who did? Safot?”
Safot was a good slave, obedient, mindful of his station. Why would he ever harm Astaroth’s nephews? There was a mistake. Hima had to be wrong.
Hima nodded, bowed her head. She flicked a piece of dirt from beneath her nail—calm, so calm, as if she hadn’t just been on the verge of tears. “Safot and a gang of slaves attacked Aurel, Dashel, and Djana on their way home. Safot killed himself in front of them. They dumped Hiram and Reshith out on the street like offal and ran off.” She clenched her hands into fists. “They carved up my sons like pigs. Hiram and Reshith will bear those scars for the rest of their lives.” She met Ashtaroth’s gaze, then tore the pillow from his hands. She tossed it across the room and it landed against the wall. She sneered. “My sons. Taken. Because you insisted on marching them downhill with no protection. Because you abandoned them.”
Ashtaroth shook his head. “It wasn’t like that. Safot was a good slave. How could I have known?”
“You could have taken someone else with you, as I asked, instead of gallivanting around as though arrows couldn’t pierce your flesh.” Her shoulders heaved.
Ashtaroth could do nothing but stare at the ground, at Hima’s feet. “What about everyone else? Were they hurt?”
Hima scowled. “The slaves didn’t touch them. Dashel’s beard was a little singed.”
Singed. So they were fine. Well, fine as anyone could be. He frowned. Safot had seemed himself earlier, hadn’t he? Why would he have plotted to hurt Hiram and Reshith? “What does it all mean?”
“Ashtet’s cunt, Ashtaroth.” She started pacing, looking not at Ashtaroth, but at the walls, the air. “It means you’re an idiot. Were you drunk? Why did you leave them? Why did you chase that actor?”
He stood and stepped in front of her to stop her in her tracks. When he met her gaze he found a sadness, a fear, along with the anger.
Could Ashtaroth trust his sister with what he’d seen? He stared into her golden eyes to try and discern an answer, but none came to him. “I thought I knew her, the actor. I thought she was this girl, Lilit, from a few weeks ago.” He swallowed, hugging his arms round his chest. “She comes to me sometimes. I think she sees the future.” He stared past Hima at the door, and flickering of the light from the braziers in the room was the lick of the flames consuming Qemassen. He hadn’t even seen his family in the vision, but it was as though he could hear their screams now, ringing in his ears. “And I can see the future too.”
Hima’s expression darkened, and Ashtaroth shrunk inwards, drawing his arms against his side.
Lilit had been there. He’d seen her.
But Hima didn’t believe him.
“I must have been mistaken,” he mumbled. “I was disoriented. I’m sorry.”
Hima relaxed. She and Aurelius were so alike, seizing the first opportunity not to have to believe something difficult. She waved her hand, dismissing his admission along with his apology, like it was a foul wind she could fan away with the incense. “They said you were raving that the city was on fire, and about a horse, and sand. Qemassen can’t afford for you to be mad, Ashtaroth. I can’t afford it. Aurelius will grab any opportunity you give him to take the city from you.”
Mad? He wasn’t, and . . . and there was nothing for Aurelius to take. Hima talked like their father was already dead in his tomb and not hale and healthy.
Ashtaroth wasn’t mad. He’d been there, watching the city burn, hearing the shouts of conquerors ring the Eghri eq-Shalem. He’d seen it. And he had proof.
He twisted round and hurried to his bedside. “There were these yellow flowers everywhere. Everywhere. All through Lilit’s hair, and on the streets.” He fell to the ground to retrieve the blossom, but it must have slipped beneath the bed, because it was gone. He patted the floor, then snaked his arm under the bed in search of it. He jostled the chamber pot, spilling urine over his arm.
“What are you doing?” Hima asked flatly. “Get off the floor.”
“I’m looking for the flower. I found one in here—it proves I saw what I saw.” He drew away from the bed, then hurried to the wash basin. He shoved his wet arm inside and started washing. Had he imagined the flower along with everything else?
Hima sighed. “The lower city is full of yellow flowers. It’s the New Year’s festival soon, remember?”
The New Year’s festival. Ashtaroth had forgotten it.
He pictured Lilit, splayed out in the Eghri, the flowers tangled in her hair, the white chalk staining her face. She’d been dressed like the priestesses of Ashtet did every New Year, when one of them was chosen as a proxy for her goddess. The priestess would choose a man as their sacred consort, to play the role of Adonen.
Was Lilit a priestess of some kind? One of Ashtet’s sacred prostitutes? In the vision, she’d looked like the girl, Dannae, who he’d seen in that peasant’s home when he’d run through the district in search of Lilit.
It meant something. It had to. In the tower dream, with the alabaster man, Lilit had protected him. She was trying to help him. She was trying to guide him, but it was like she spoke a foreign tongue and he couldn’t comprehend her words.
Hima was glowering, like her anger was rising again and she might slap him. Like he was a sleepwalker and she could shake him out of dream and madness. Only, Ashtaroth was very much awake now. He was more awake than he’d ever been and no one else could see it. “I didn’t see any flowers in the Eghri before Lilit appeared,” he said, which was true.
“Even Qwella wouldn’t take that as proof, Ashtaroth.” Hima crossed her arms. When she spoke again, a sadness had entered her voice. It was worse than her anger. “Qirani said your illness could be making you see things.”
Ashtaroth tore a cloth from the table and ran it up and down his wet arms. Pale brown grit came off on the cloth, like he’d not been cleaned properly when Qirani had tended him. Had Hima stripped even their physician of his slaves? Ashtaroth splashed more water over his skin and started rubbing again with the towel. He rubbed so hard his skin was raw, Hima’s pity echoing in his ears.
She wasn’t angry anymore because she thought him mad. Well, they couldn’t call him mad if he kept his visions to himself. He knew now not to burden Hima with them, nor Aurelius, nor anyone else. The only person he could trust to take him seriously was the heq-Ashqen. “I want to see Samelqo; it’s important.” He turned around, throwing the towel onto the chair beside him. The skin on his arms tingled.
Hima’s brow crinkled in anger again. Her jaw looked clenched, her arms squeezed against her chest. “You want to see an evil old man before you see your nephews. You’re planning to ignore what the slaves have done and chase hallucinations instead. Is that correct? You haven’t even apologized.”
It wasn’t like that at all. The visions were more important—didn’t she see that? Hiram and Reshith were scarred, but Ashtaroth could do nothing for them, and it was his duty to watch over Qemassen. Besides, Hiram and Reshith were citizens of Qemassen. If the city fell, so would Hima’s children.
When he didn’t answer, Hima stormed toward the door.
“Wait,” Ashtaroth pleaded. “What are you going to do? Where are all the slaves?”
He stepped toward her, but she didn’t turn around.
“Adoran’s men are interrogating them,” she said. “We can hardly trust them now, can we?”
Ashtaroth swallowed. It was frightening, thinking that Safot had harboured such violent thoughts. What else might he have plotted? And, it occurred to him, what if the attack had something to do with the things Lilit had shown him? “You think they were all palace slaves?”
This time, Hima half-turned to look at him. “Don’t feign interest for my sake. It’s abundantly clear you’d rather sit here spinning stories for yourself than protecting our family. I’m perfectly capable of running this city with or without you or Father.” She paused. “If your slaves survive the interrogation, and if you can still bear to be around them, I’ll have them returned to your rooms. If you’ll excuse me, I have matters of my own to discuss with our heq-Ashqen. Someone was behind the attack—slaves couldn’t have plotted this alone. Who more likely to lead them, than the man whose gutter-rat niece was just executed on the king’s orders.”
But Hima stalked from the room without further word, leaving Ashtaroth drowning in the wake of her words. What she’d said of Samelqo couldn’t be true. It was more absurd than Safot’s violence had been. Ashtaroth made for the door to go after her.
Tess stepped out, blocking his path. The Yirada guard bowed his head, sheepish. “I’m sorry, Sese, but I have orders to keep you here for your own safety.”
Ashtaroth stood tall, glaring. “Orders from whom?”
Tess’s throat bobbed, but he didn’t step aside. “Qirani eq-Maleq, the king, Himalit et-Moniqa. Take your pick, Sese.”
Ashtaroth stepped away from the door, then slammed it in the guard’s face.
She’d trapped him here, and he had no way to see Samelqo before Hima put the heq-Ashqen in chains.