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Chapter 6: Visitors
Ashtaroth – Qemassen: The Palace
The sun had just risen when a door that had not been there before appeared in Ashtaroth’s room beside his window. There was nothing unusual about the door in and of itself, besides the fact that it had come from nowhere and that when it had appeared the scent of lilacs had filled the room.
There were no lilacs in the riad beneath Ashtaroth’s window, and even had there been, the lilac trees shouldn’t have bloomed this early in spring. Strange, too, that Lilit had summoned lilacs and not the yellow hyacinths that had covered her hair when he’d seen her in the Eghri eq-Shalem.
Ashtaroth sat up from his bed and walked toward Lilit’s door. He was long past fear now—long past letting it paralyze him in any case. Besides, what was a door if not a point of egress? And Ashtaroth badly needed to escape. He had to reach Samelqo before Hima arrested him. Only Samelqo could help Ashtaroth with the contents of his vision. Only Samelqo would believe him.
“Where does it lead?” Ashtaroth asked the empty air. No doubt Lilit was listening—it seemed unlikely there was anywhere in the city she couldn’t hear him.
But if she did hear, she didn’t answer. Ashtaroth hovered in front of the door. In stories, doors could also trap you.
He curled his hand around the handle. He opened it.
As soon as he opened it, he found himself outside. He hadn’t even stepped through—the mere act of opening it had transported him into the palace gardens at night. He craned his neck back, taking in a pitch black sky devoid of stars. Something white was falling all around him—snow? He caught a piece of it in his hand, expecting the flakes to melt, but it wasn’t snow at all. It was a purple-white lilac petal. They rained onto the gravel path ahead of him, onto the stone benches beneath the trees, so white against the opacity of the darkness that it was as if the whole world had turned to black and white.
Black, white, and red.
Where they hit the earth, the petals gradually turned red, as though soaking up blood.
Ashtaroth turned around, but even as he did he knew the door would be gone. All he could do was move forward along the path, crushing flowers beneath his bare feet.
“Lilit?” he called out. He swallowed. What had the girl’s name been? The one from his vision in the Eghri. Dannae? Yes, Dannae. Invoking her seemed dangerous. It was after he’d seen her that Ashtet’s statue had attacked him.
He crept past the benches, blood and blossom wet against his skin. The flowers were oddly warm, like living flesh. He could feel their breath rustling up through his feet, his calves, his knees.
The blackness ahead was endless, something that had fed on the colour of everything around it—turning stones plain grey and trees a muted brown so pale they may as well have been white. The path was straighter than the real paths in the gardens, which twisted and turned, and as he trod its length he felt in his heart that should he stray from it, he’d be lost in the blackness. He wetted his lips with his tongue. “Dannae?”
The petals stopped falling. On the benches lining the path, a word appeared in blood, each letter formed as though by invisible fingers. S-M-L-Q. Samelqo.
Blood welled along the shapes of the letters as though they’d been cut in flesh and not written on stone. It dripped from the edge of the bench and onto the ground.
Ashtaroth froze. Was Samelqo already dead? Was that what Lilit was trying to show him?
Go deeper, said Lilit’s voice, not from the air, but inside his head. It echoed slightly, as though it had reached him from far away.
He walked toward the bench. More words were appearing on its surface. SH-N-T, M-GH-G-D, S-F-V, N-L, Q-N-M, SH-M-N-N
Ashtaroth’s father’s name, and the others . . . His dead aunts, his grandmother. Q-N-M didn’t belong. The blood forming Eshant and Meghigda’s names on the stone darkened to silty black water, pouring onto the bench, washing away the ones beside them. It trickled over his feet, dislodging the lilac petals from the path. The water, like the flowers, was warm.
Ashtaroth swallowed as more names continued to appear. When H-M-L-T formed he snapped away. He didn’t want to watch his own name written beneath the others. He didn’t want to understand what it meant.
Trembling, he stumbled back, the water sloshing around his ankles now. He backed up against what felt like a wall—hard and impenetrable at his back. When he turned to see what it was, a completely transparent barrier stood behind him, clearer than the water of a stream.
Beyond the throne room doors, Hima was yelling.
The throne room?
Ashtaroth was in the palace. He swerved, searching the ceiling, the nearby windows, the hallway—everything was as it should be but for the Yirada officers guarding the throne room.
Lilit had taken him where he needed to be—Hima was inside, and by the sound of it, a good many others were with her.
Ashtaroth stalked up to the officers. “Let me through. I’m the crown prince.”
The officers parted for him and he pushed open the doors.
The floor was filled with Ashtaroth’s family, all yelling. Titrit and her father Qanmi were with them, and Samelqo with his ugly slave, Uta. There was an officer standing beside Samelqo, but the heq-Ashqen was unbound.
Eshmunen’s face was puffy, his gaze furious. Had he ever looked so wroth?
“You will not supersede the authority of your king, daughter!” Eshmunen moved like a bull toward her, but Hima held her ground. She held her ground even when he slapped her, though her curls broke free of their binding, hanging askew over one side of her face. “That man is as good as a father to me and you do not have the authority. You do not have it.”
Hima looked cocked her head at Aurelius and threw up her hands. “Please inform our father, Aurel, that the heq-Ashqen has done more than enough over the years to warrant his arrest.”
She didn’t even seem bothered that he’d struck her.
“He has,” said Aurelius, who turned on Eshmunen. “But the slaves haven’t. Let them go.”
Qanmi eq-Sabaal stepped toward Eshmunen, arms held out. “Indeed, Sese. I couldn’t countenance Yirada thugs ogling my daughter as she bathes—this has gone too far. And the Semassenqa are beginning to talk. They fear the hour when your daughter turns her paranoia on the rest of us. If our own households are carted off, if the heq-Ashqen can be ripped from his seat, then who next?”
Titrit tugged her father’s arm, pulling him away. “It’s not the time.”
Eshmunen ignored Qanmi, Titrit, and Aurelius.
Ashtaroth shrank even further back under the overhang.
His father was so close to Hima’s face he must be spitting on her. “Samelqo eq-Milqar has been punished for his crimes.” Eshmunen cocked his chin at the officer. “See him returned to his confinement.”
Ashtaroth watched the officer with his heart in his throat. Who would he obey? Hima, or the king? But surely Hima wouldn’t go so far as to commit treason.
The officer didn’t hesitate. He walked in front of the heq-Ashqen, past Hima, toward the throne room doors, toward Ashtaroth. Samelqo moved as though to fall into step behind him.
Hima grabbed the heq-Ashqen by the neck of his robe and cast him down the small steps that connected the audience hall with the thrones.
There was a sickening snap.
Uta screamed. Eshmunen darted for the stairs, quicker on his feet than Ashtaroth, who could only totter toward stairs, afraid of what he’d find. Samelqo’s name had been written on blood on the stone benches. The first of many names.
Hima broke away and started toward Ashtaroth.
“Is Samelqo—?” Ashtaroth started to ask, but she cut him off.
Himalit sniffed derisively as she approached. “A broken arm. He’ll live. It’s better than our mother got.”
Would he live? A broken arm was no small injury. Men forty years Samelqo’s junior often died from infection. Ashtaroth bit his lip. He grabbed Hima’s arm.
She turned on him, hand raised as though she meant to slap him. Slap him, the crown prince. Her brother. “Hima,” he said softly.
She lowered her hand and tore her arm away from him.
The Yirada officer darted off as though he’d been ordered somewhere new—perhaps to fetch Qirani eq-Maleq.
“Himalit et-Moniqa!” Eshmunen reared to his feet. “Do not walk away from me.”
Himalit turned on him. “Or what? My children lie injured and you simper over a murderer. I suppose you’ll beg me to release the slaves next, or forget Zioban entirely. This was an attack on my family.” Himalit jabbed her finger at her chest. “On ourfamily. You may be too cowardly to face that threat, but I’m not. We need men we trust patrolling the palace and the streets. We need to interrogate the palace slaves. We need to smoke out the snakes who’re poisoning the Semassenqa. When you invite scum inside the palace don’t feign surprise when you find it sullied.”
Aurelius, Titrit, and Uta were helping the heq-Ashqen to his feet. Ashtaroth heard Samelqo suck back a scream.
The daylight arced across the palace floor, blinding.
“Hima,” Ashtaroth started. “This isn’t right. Samelqo had nothing to do with the attack. You’re using this as an excuse to vent your personal grievances.”
Himalit hissed, turning on him. “Personal grievances. Like our mother’s murder. Like your twin sister’s murder. That man should have been ripped to pieces in the Eghri eq-Shalem for treason twenty years ago. If our father loved Mother half as much as pretends, moping around the palace after a dead woman twice his worth, he’d have cut the bastard’s throat himself.”
Ashtaroth shrunk back. He looked at his father, but Eshmuen had retreated into his silence again, sitting on the steps, watching Samelqo.
Ashtaroth walked past Hima to help. If Aurelius was helping, he should as well. Aurelius, helping. For once, he and Ashtaroth were of like mind. It was Hima with whom Ashtaroth was suddenly at odds.
“Hima, Ashtaroth’s right. You have to stop.” Aurelius said, soft. “This isn’t the way. And those slaves have done nothing.” He relinquished Samelqo to Titrit and Uta, facing Eshmunen. “Call off the interrogations.”
Hima glared at Aurelius. “You saw what they did to my sons. You were there. And you stand here now begging for mercy on behalf of dogs?”
“On behalf of other children, Hima,” Aurelius pressed.
Jagged, bloody bone protruded from Samelqo’s right arm and through his sleeve. Ashtaroth gagged, clamping a hand over his mouth, refusing to look at the blood smeared across the heq-Ashqen’s skin, glinting in the morning light where it had spilled across the black floor.
Samelqo’s eyes were glazed, as though he were somewhere else.
“Don’t worry,” Titrit said to Ashtaroth. “We have him.” They helped Samelqo into a sitting position on the step.
“The pair of you think you rule Qemassen.” said Eshmunen. His voice was quiet and morose again, like usual. His words were steady though, his voice even. “But neither of you do, and neither of you will.”
Ashtaroth shifted his attention between Hima and Aurelius. “No, they don’t, because I will.” Ashtaroth added. “I support our father. The heq-Ashqen is vital to the city.”
Eshmunen’s eyes widened at the sound of Ashtaroth’s voice ringing in the echoing hall.
“How did you even get here?” Hima spat. “I confined you to your rooms.”
Venom bubbled in Ashtaroth’s throat. “Is it so impossible to believe I could command authority? That I couldn’t force your rabble to let me walk unimpeded through my own palace halls? Me? The crown prince of Qemassen? That’s more power than you’ll ever command.” His fingers were shaking. Had he truly said that? Hima was his ally in all this. But there was hatred in her golden eyes when he looked in them. Hatred and rage.
Hima spit at his feet and he jumped back. “Of course you’d defend Samelqo. He’s coddled you like his own precious pet.”
“Hima,” said Aurelius. “Let him speak.”
A girl giggled behind Ashtaroth, accompanied by the smell of lilac. Lilit.
“You’re nothing, either of you,” Eshmunen said to Aurelius to Hima, “without the power I grant you. Well you can do without it. The slaves will be interrogated. The heq-Ashqen will be healed and returned to his tower.”
Lilit laughed again—a woman’s laugh this time. Ashtaroth didn’t bother searching the room for her—it didn’t matter where she was anymore, because she was everywhere.
On the stairs, Aurelius and Hima held their heads high.
“Himalit et-Moniqa,” said Eshmunen. “You are stripped of your position. Qorban will assume the role of heq-Damiran. Aurelius eq-Eshmunen, you are confined to your rooms. Qanmi—I’m sure you have slaves enough in that shipment of yours to replace those that have been taken. The crown will bear the cost for the Semassenqa.”
Himalit bolted toward Eshmunen. “You send Aurelius to his room like a child, and you strip me of everything I’ve worked for? You’ll kill this city. You’re choking it with your own fragile incompetence. You couldn’t stop our mother and you won’t stop me. You think you rule here? My men will listen to me. I am this city. Not you. Me. You shouldn’t be Eshmunen eq-Isir; you’re no conqueror’s son. You’re Eshmunen the Unfit, Eshmunen the Mouse.”
Ashtaroth’s head spun. The room was moving. He gripped his head. When he turned to face the throne room entrance, another door stood beside the second.
“Ashtaroth,” said Lilit. She was behind it. Behind the door. It cracked open, spilling moonlight across the floor.
Ashtaroth turned back toward his family, but no one was paying attention to either Ashtaroth or the door. Either they saw nothing, or were too busy yelling to notice it, to see what Ashtaroth saw.
“Be very grateful, child, you never met my father,” Eshmunen spat at Hima. “He was never so patient with disobedient children.”
A woman stood in the middle of the room, her light brown hair threaded with yellow petals that shed onto the throne room floor as she walked between his feuding family. As she passed them, she traced her fingers over Qanmi’s cheek, over Samelqo, and Aurelius. None of them reacted.
Her fingers, bent into clawlike shapes, left bloody trails across their skin.
Ashtaroth backed away from her, herded toward the door. “Lilit?” he asked. “Dannae?”
The girl smiled. Blood trickled down her cheek from an unseen head wound, staining her brown skin all the way to her shoulder.
Ashtaroth risked a glimpse at the door. It lay fully open now. Behind it lay a lilac tree and a stone bench. A woman sat upon it, wrapped in the white linen of a corpse. A moon shone above her.
“Who are you?” Ashtaroth asked.
The woman with yellow flowers in her hair cupped his chin in her hands, bent forward, and kissed him. When she drew back she left his lips stained with soot.
“I am vengeance,” she said, and laughed.
Ashtaroth turned and fled through the entrance to the throne room. He didn’t stop running till he reached his rooms.