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Chapter 7: Traitors
Ashtaroth – The Palace: Qemassen
Ashtaroth’s new body slave, an Erun named Danel, tripped on his way to the cabinet that contained Ashtaroth’s medicines. Qanmi had assured Ashtaroth that Danel was at least somewhat experienced, but if that were true, Ashtaroth suspected Danel’s previous masters hadn’t retained him for his skills at managing a household, or even a room. He had a handsome face that made Ashtaroth think he’d been someone’s bed slave—not an especially useful quality, unless you were Aurelius.
The olive wood cabinet creaked when Danel opened it, but Danel didn’t even ask where the oil was to tend the hinges, merely fumbled with Qirani’s tinctures, clinking glass vials as he searched for the correct one. With no slaves left to teach any of Qanmi’s newcomers, people like Danel simply bumbled along like flockless sheep.
Ashtaroth stood from his bed and walked toward the cabinet. He might be bored and lonely, but that didn’t mean he had time to waste suffering Danel’s incompetence. And unlike everyone else in the palace, whose original slaves would all be returned to them once the interrogations were through, Ashtaroth’s Safot was a heap of gnawed bones outside the city walls. Bones couldn’t empty his bed pan. The women would be brought back, of course, but half of them were as useless as Danel.
And perhaps, along with Ashtaroth’s anger, there was also a hurt lodged inside him, an ache knowing Safot was gone. Ashtaroth had trusted him, had even liked him as much as he was able. What terrible thing had Ashtaroth done that Safot thought kidnapping, mutilation, and suicide an appropriate response?
Ashtaroth sucked on his lower lip.
No, Safot had been a good slave. It was this strange man Zioban that was the trouble. Hima was right about that, at least, and perhaps torturing the slaves would provide the answers she was looking for.
“I’ll be ready shortly, Sese,” said Danel, a slight bite to his words. The slave’s impertinence was another problem entirely.
Ashtaroth reached past Danel’s shoulder and snatched the correct vial. “The blue one with the fluted top,” he said, an edge to his words. “Just the same as yesterday, and the day before.”
“Of course, Sese.”
Danel stepped aside and Ashtaroth stalked away from him, toward his papyrus-cluttered table. At least the lack of slaves meant no one was around to insist on cleaning Ashtaroth’s papyri.
Ashtaroth emptied two drops of Qirani’s decoction into a cup of root tea, swirled it round till the mysterious potion dissolved, then slung it back.
The tea was tepid, but better than scorching his throat. Still, it had been three days of nothing but tepid or too-hot tea, poor food, clumsy dress. Three days since Ashtaroth’s father had stripped Hima of her titles, confined Aurelius to his rooms, and ordered the palace slaves imprisoned.
Qemassen had turned eerily quiet, not that Ashtaroth had been out on the streets since the slave attack. Perhaps it was fairer to say that the palace had turned quiet. Bedpans went unemptied, floors were poorly swept (if they were swept at all), fires were tended only rarely, so that at night you never knew if a wrong turn down a corridor might lead you into darkness.
And as the palace struggled to function, Samelqo still lay abed, tended by Qirani eq-Maleq, but barred visitors save for his one-eyed wife. There was no way for Ashtaroth to speak to the heq-Ashqen about his visions, or about the mysterious woman, Dannae. No one but Ashtaroth understood the visions’ importance, so no one bothered to grant him access to the heq-Ashqen.
Ashtaroth was alone.
Out in the hallway, women exchanged mumbled words.
Ashtaroth’s stomach growled, and he laid his hand on his chest. Eyes closed, he roamed his fingers across his chest, feeling his ribs—too thin, and getting thinner. Every day was like floating on a boat that drifted further and further from the shore, out into an endless ocean.
What if Qirani were right? What if it wasn’t only his body that was failing him, but his mind? What if Samelqo only believed otherwise because he didn’t want to admit Ashtaroth was dying? Because he’d gambled on the wrong one of Eshmunen’s children and even if Ashtaroth lived it would be as a madman? His mind was all he had. He couldn’t stand it if that were true.
He tried to stifle his sob, but the tears came all the same, sliding down his cheeks.
Behind him, someone knocked at the door, and Danel’s footsteps hurried toward the noise.
Ashtaroth hastily wiped his tears away and sucked back air through his nose.
“Hello?” came a woman’s voice, accented like a Feislandat.
Bree. It would break his princess’s heart to know what he was thinking.
He opened his eyes. He turned toward her. He forced a smile.
Bree cast a sidelong glance at the wall as though doing her best to look anywhere but at Ashtaroth. Her gaze fixed on a golden, decorative apple in one of the dishes laid out on the table against the wall.
Ashtaroth wrung his hands. Of course he wasn’t alone. How could he ever be alone when Bree was here? He should have called on her instead of fretting in his rooms and pacing the halls. When he looked at her, it was so easy to forget his worries. She was so beautiful.
He pushed past a wave of dizziness, rifling through the papyri on the table for the poem he’d been composing for her when she arrived—he’d all but forgotten it after the slave attack. It was here somewhere—he knew it was here.
He lifted a bony hand to his head. “I wrote something for you. It’s not finished yet, hardly anything at all, but it’ll be as beautiful as you when it’s done.”
Through the mess on the table, a word scratched in a hasty, passionate hand caught his attention. There. He clasped the scroll and thrust it out for Bree to take.
Bree unfurled the papyrus. She stared at it blankly. After a moment she handed it back.
He frowned. “Don’t you like it?”
Bree’s lips twisted in a smirk. “The letters are lovely.”
Ashtaroth frowned, considering her. There was too much quickness in her eyes for her to be illiterate. “You don’t know what it says? But you speak Massenqa so well.”
“I speak your language; I don’t read it.” She hesitated. “I don’t read at all. In the Feislands only the priests write, and not the way you think of it.”
Even Danel was staring at Bree, aghast.
“How do you keep your histories, your stories?” Ashtaroth asked, struggling to keep the horror from his voice.
Bree tilted her head as though her gaze was following the curve of the ceiling, as though the room were wondrous. “The sqald keeps them. He’s like a storyteller or an Ashqen. Sqalds remember the histories so they can repeat them to us.”
“A sqald.” Ashtaroth repeated the word and Bree snapped her attention back to him, scrunching her lips like she was stifling a laugh.
Ashtaroth couldn’t help but grin. It felt good for her to laugh—the first one, he hoped, of many. And he was responsible. He’d made her smile. “It’s all right, you can laugh if you want.”
Bree reached for his hand and laced her fingers with his. Her eyes looked like coals set in her milky skin. “I heard what happened to your brother; is he all right?”
His brother? What did she think had happened to Aurelius? Oh—she must mean the slave attack. Ashtaroth didn’t really know if Aurelius was fine or not. He hadn’t seen him since the courtroom, when their father had confined him to his rooms.
That day, Aurelius had stood up for Ashtaroth when Hima hadn’t. No scathing remarks at Ashtaroth’s expense, no cleverness or vanity. Perhaps Aurelius had changed, or maybe Ashtaroth had never fully understood him. In his own way, Ashtaroth was as single-minded as his siblings. He ought to have asked after Aurelius himself, instead of waiting for Bree to do it. She was only asking out of politeness, but Aurelius was his brother.
Ashtaroth drew his fingers back. He didn’t deserve the reward of Bree’s fingers in his. “I haven’t been to see Aurelius.” He swallowed. He met Bree’s wide, frightened eyes and smiled. “When I do, you could come with me.”
A laugh so short and harsh it seemed like it must’ve been choking her left her mouth. Abruptly, she looked away. “I have no reason to see your brother.”
Ashtaroth frowned at her disquieting bluntness. “He is my brother. The brother of your betrothed, of your beloved.”
Her attention snapped back to him, a taut string cut at its most strained, but her expression softened. “My beloved.” She smiled, reaching for his hand again.
Ashtaroth backed away from her, pulling his hand out of reach, then casually combing his fingers through his hair, as though he hadn’t noticed her attempt at intimacy.
Why had she done that? They barely knew each other yet. It wasn’t time for closeness.
Or Ashtaroth was being prudish again. Cowardly, like Titrit always accused him of when it came to Djana.
Bree didn’t look hurt though, the way Djana did. Instead, she deftly turned her attentions to the rest of the room. She was kind and, most of all, she was patient. She was perfect. She was nothing like Djana.
Ashtaroth cleared his throat to say so, but she spoke before he could.
“I’m not used to so much . . .” she drew out the last word, as though searching her vocabulary, her gaze settling briefly on Danel “. . . so much pampering. The slaves were kind, but after the attack on your nephews I feel safer without them. And it’s nice to have some privacy.” She paused. Her long, thin face seemed permanently attuned to fear, like a ferret or a cat, and she wrang her hands, gaze distant as though she were imagining a knife-wielding slave slinking toward her from the darkness. “I suppose it wouldn’t do any good to ask that they not be returned?”
Ashtaroth spared a look at Danel, who was picking up random objects and pretending to clean them in an obvious effort to look busy. “You can dismiss them; they’re yours.”
“Mine?” Bree asked.
“They belong to you. They’re a gift.” Ashtaroth walked to the table where Danel was feigning work and plucked the golden apple from its dish. He tossed it in his hand and, very fortunately, caught it again. “Anything you want belongs to you. Didn’t you have slaves in Atlin?”
He held out the apple to her.
Bree smiled. “Yes, but not so many. Atlin is much smaller, and our people are spread across the land.” She took the fruit, running her fingers across its surface, clutching it like someone might take it away. “Is this real gold?”
Ashtaroth chuckled. “Of course. What else would it be?”
Bree walked toward his bed, still turning the apple over in her hand, gazing into its surface as though at her blurred reflection. “Your sister’s very unusual.”
“My sister’s very frightening, is what you mean.” He smiled. “It’s only because of what happened to my nephews, I promise.”
“I don’t think she likes me much.” Bree looked up at him.
Ashtaroth wasn’t sure what Hima thought, or why Bree cared. She would be the queen one day, and vastly more important than Hima. Why wasn’t she asking about him? She hadn’t wanted to know if Ashtaroth was all right, about what had happened to him in the Eghri, or how the situation with the slaves had impacted him. “You’re very interested in my family.”
Bree bit her lip. Her mouth was as thin as the rest of her, but the pressure of her teeth caused her skin to flush with blood. She looked so soft.
A shiver coursed up his spine.
“They’ll be my family soon too,” she said, matter of fact.
Ashtaroth nodded, but his uneasiness had returned. He couldn’t help but imagine Bree the way she’d been when he’d first seen her, shaking and afraid. Now that she was standing before him, she seemed far less demure.
“Do you like Qemassen?” he asked.
Bree smirked again, rubbing the golden apple. “It’s hot, but everything’s very beautiful.” She looked up at Ashtaroth, catching his gaze. “Most things are very beautiful.”
Did she mean him? His heart beat fit to explode.
Ashtaroth dragged a chair from the table and gestured to it. He pulled a second out for himself and sat down. His mouth was very dry. “People say my brother’s the handsome one, not me.”
Bree tucked the skirts of her Massenqa dress beneath her and sat down. She gripped the apple like she thought it might sprout legs and run away. “He’s not so handsome as all that.”
A lie, but then . . . what if for Bree it wasn’t? What if she meant it?
Ashtaroth snorted. “Titrit’s the only woman I’ve heard say that.”
“Who’s Titrit?” Bree asked.
Ashtaroth would have to send someone to her to educate her about the Semassenqa—maybe even Titrit herself, someone personable and kind. Bree couldn’t be a proper queen if she didn’t know the names of her most important courtiers. “Qanmi eq-Sabaal’s daughter. Aurelius was supposed to marry her, but he turned her away. He always turns them away.” Ashtaroth hesitated. “Dashel told me a secret though, about a girl in the Feislands. He fell in love with her and they were married. He’s planning to leave to find her.”
Bree stared at him, face a mask. Was Ashtaroth boring her? “He married her, did he?”
“That’s what he’s been saying.” Ashtaroth scraped his fingernail across the side of his chair. He needed to relieve himself again, but he was hardly about to do that with Bree in the room. When she looked upon his nakedness, it would be because they were about to join as one, not because he needed to evacuate himself. “Enough about Aurelius.”
Outside in the hallway, footsteps were approaching. Could it be Hima, back again to berate him, or perhaps with the rest of his slaves? Hopefully the Yirada hadn’t damaged them too badly.
“Do you want to kiss me, Ashtaroth?” Bree asked.
Ashtaroth snapped his attention from the door and back to Bree, the question like lightning ricocheting between his ribs. “Do I what? S-Someone’s coming.”
Bree leaned across the distance and touched her lips to his. Her teeth nipped his skin and he jumped. She smiled against him as he lifted his hand to her cheek, her . . . very substantial breasts just glancing against his chest.
The door opened and Aurelius and Dashel walked in. Ashtaroth tried to pull away, but Bree held his arms.
Dashel grinned, rubbing his trim beard between his fingers as Bree drew back and released Ashtaroth.
Bree stood up, still holding her apple, still pinning Ashtaroth to the chair with her dark eyes. Ashtaroth’s poem fell to her feet, but she didn’t seem to notice, and Ashtaroth couldn’t make himself care.
“How relieved I am to see the brother of my beloved is unscathed,” Bree said to Aurelius as she passed him.
Aurelius arched his eyebrow. “Beloved, is it? And so soon. I shouldn’t have thought you’d had time to learn his full name, and here you’ve become lovers in the time it took me to drink myself senseless.”
Bree scoffed. “Don’t slander yourself. I’m sure you’re senseless enough without the drink.” She paused. “Everyone knows the name of Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen. Every lowly visitor to Atlin it seems.”
It seemed Aurelius had some complaint with Bree, and if he did, he should keep it to himself. Fortunately, Bree was clever enough on her own not to need defending from Aurelius’s petty insults.
She turned to leave with a look of triumph on her face. “Thank you for the gift, Sese.” She waved the gilded fruit as though showing it off to Dashel and Aurelius.
Ashtaroth beamed with embarrassment.
Another Yirada officer was waiting for Bree in the corridor and as Bree left Ashtaroth called out to her. “See she has a dozen more! No! A hundred more! A hundred golden apples for the princess! And find someone to teach her our letters!”
Ashtaroth laughed after him. Suddenly he was merry again—so merry he hadn’t thought on how strange it was that Aurelius was here to be insulted. But what did it matter, really, how Aurelius had escaped his rooms? Perhaps he’d paid off his guards, perhaps he’d offered them favours of another kind? Aurelius would do as he pleased.
It was a strange new confidence Aurelius’s support and Bree’s love had given him. Ashtaroth wasn’t mad, and he hadn’t imagined Lilit, and Hiram and Reshith were fine now, and Bree loved him, and Dashel and Aurelius had come to wish Ashtaroth well.
“What can I do for you?” Ashtaroth asked, smiling. Sitting in his chair with Dashel and Aurelius in front of him, he felt a king.
But then Aurelius frowned, brow shadowed. “Dashel, I’d like to speak to my brother alone.” He sounded . . . irritated. Had he come to discuss their alliance? Perhaps there were political matters Aurelius wanted Ashtaroth’s advice about.
Dashel’s eyes widened in surprise. “Yes, Sese,” he said, but before he left he winked at Ashtaroth.
Aurelius closed the door. “I came to ask if you’d been to visit Hiram and Reshith. They were asking about you.”
The reprimand stung. Of course Ashtaroth would go see them. It was only that Bree had made him forget for a moment, and besides, they were probably resting still and needed to sleep. And Ashtaroth had been busy worrying about his visions—he didn’t have time to fawn over two healthy boys.
And he could still taste Bree’s lips on his.
Ashtaroth narrowed his eyes at Aurelius. “How did you manage to see them? Didn’t father’s punishment take?”
Aurelius scoffed. “As if he could keep me locked up like a criminal.” He paused. “Are you well? I wanted to see you after Safot’s attack, and after your turn in the Eghri, but . . . .” He threw up his hands as though to suggest everything that had happened. “Were you hurt?”
How was Ashtaroth supposed to feel about Aurelius’s concern? It didn’t sound false, exactly, but there was a flatness to the way he asked the question. And he’d brought up the embarrassment of the Eghri again, the chase after Lilit or Dannae or whoever she was. Ashtaroth didn’t want to think about that right now.
“No,” Ashtaroth answered. “I was confused and I—” he braced himself. It wouldn’t do to pretend. “I left Hiram and Reshith there with Safot. I shouldn’t have, I know, but . . . well, it doesn’t matter, does it? They’re alive and safe, and Safot is dead.”
Aurelius nodded, but his expression was hollow. “And so are a lot of other slaves, thanks to our sister. If you can intercede with Father, you should. Hima’s still on her rampage.”
Ashtaroth glared. “Why shouldn’t she be? The slaves mutilated our nephews.”
“Some slaves did. And torture is only going to cause false confessions. Then if this Zioban is even real, he can do what he likes, all because Hima believes she’s already uncovered the culprits.” Aurelius caught Ashtaroth’s gaze. For a moment, Aurelius’s brown eyes were as sharp as Hima’s gold ones. “Surely you understand?”
Sunlight from the window warmed Aurelius’s skin. But maybe Bree was right: Aurelius wasn’t so handome as all that. Maybe he wasn’t so clever as all that either. “This is what Hima does best, Aurel. She’ll sniff out those responsible and soon everything can return to how it was. She didn’t mean what she said about either of us in the throne room—she was upset.” He smiled patiently, feeling magnanimous. He could be kinder to Aurelius. Ashtaroth would be king, after all. “I wanted to thank you for your support by the way. It helped me see there’s a place for you in my future court. It’s important to know which tools are the best for which tasks.”
Aurelius sniffed. “Hima’s a weapon, not a tool.” There was a strange gleam in his eyes. “I want you to know that I don’t blame you, Ashtaroth. You are what you are and I am what I am and neither of us can help it.” He stared down at his hands, flexing his fingers, fidgeting.
Ashtaroth raised an eyebrow, already lost. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Aurelius walked past him, toward his desk, forcing Ashtaroth to twist in his chair.
Aurelius idly picked at the scrolls on the table, but he didn’t lift any of them up. He sighed. His shoulders slumped with lethargy. “You can’t marry Bree.” He seemed to be deliberating over something. When he spoke again, his voice cracked. “I’m asking you not to marry her.”
Ashtaroth’s laugh exploded from him. “Why? Is this a trick?” This was hardly the time for one of Aurelius’s jokes. “We’ve been betrothed since my birth. Of course I’m going to marry her. If she were a crocodile I’d have to marry her.”
“Because of Father?”
“He’s our king. Not all of us take him for granted.” Emboldened by Bree’s kiss, Ashtaroth drew himself up, stepping from his chair.
Aurelius abandoned the desk and walked to stand in front of Ashtaroth, looking him in his eyes. “I’m asking you as your brother to set her aside. How often do I ask you for anything?”
He sounded so serious, but it had to be some game. Three days in his rooms had driven Aurelius mad.
“Why?” Ashtaroth asked. “You think she’s unworthy of being Qemassen’s queen?” Such snobbery wasn’t like Ashtaroth’s older brother.
Aurelius’s jaw tensed. “I know her, that’s why. I met her in the Feislands, only I didn’t know her name or who she was, just that she was some chieftain’s daughter. She never let on he was the chieftain.”
Everything came crashing in at once, a great wave buoying Ashtaroth’s tiny boat, threatening to capsize it. The endless ocean yawned before him in his mind. He had to build a wall, keep the water from overwhelming him.
Ashtaroth pursed his lips, breathing in deep. “She’s the one Dashel told me about, isn’t she? The one you wanted to marry?”
Desperation wasn’t something Ashtaroth was used to seeing in Aurelius’s eyes, but it lived there now, cocooned in his irises. It was answer enough, but Ashtaroth wanted to hear Aurelius say it. The knowledge filled Ashtaroth with a rare sense of power that tingled all along his arms. And didn’t Ashtaroth deserve it? For once, Aurelius was weak. For once, Ashtaroth had something Aurelius coveted.
Aurelius relented. “Yes, she is, and I’d still like to. But now that it’s been revealed she is who she is, clearly that can’t happen.”
“Clearly.” Ashtaroth steepled his long fingers in front of him, feeling like Samelqo, with all the heq-Ashqen’s presence.
Aurelius looked so little in that moment. Ashtaroth scrutinized him from the perspective of Bree’s words: that Aurelius wasn’t handsome after all, that perhaps Ashtaroth was better.
“But,” Aurelius continued, a spark in his eyes, brow raised in perverse hope, “if we could convince the Feislanders that Bree should marry me instead, then I would stay in Qemassen; you could find another bride, form an alliance with eq-Anout or Ajwata, or even the Eru! There are so many princesses you could take to wife.”
Ashtaroth could hardly bear to keep looking at his brother. How little must Aurelius think of him to ask such a thing? He clenched his fists. “You say that like I’d want another. I waited my whole life for some haggard oaf of a woman from the Feislands and now she’s beautiful and I love her, you want to take her from me.” The more he spoke, the more nakedly he saw the truth of it.
Aurelius laughed, brittle and ugly. “You love her? You hardly know her.”
“Do you?” Ashtaroth dared. He felt he could dare anything. He could stand up to Aurelius, to Hima, to anyone and everything, and all because Bree was by his side.
“Better than you. I know her smile, and the smell of her sweat,” Aurelius grinned. “I know she’s a thief, and a liar, and the cleverest woman I’ve met.”
Ashtaroth sat up from his chair, pacing. “A thief? She’s a princess!”
Aurelius continued undeterred, as though Ashtaroth had never spoken. “I know she screams at night when she’s asleep. I know she’s cruel, and terrible, and kind.”
Asleep? Had he seen her sleeping then?
“You saw her kiss me just now. Did it look as if she wanted you, Aurelius?” How could Aurelius suggest this? It was mad.
“She was trying to make me jealous.” The apologetic tone in Aurelius’s voice was sickening, a poisoned dagger honed just for Ashtaroth. Aurelius always had an answer for everything, but he was wrong about this.
Bree loved Ashtaroth as a wife should; what other recourse did she have?
“You can’t believe someone might prefer me to you, can you?” Ashtaroth forced a laugh. “You can’t let me have anything.”
“What do I have then?” Aurelius narrowed his eyes. “You’re the crown prince, after all. What is it I have that you covet so? My throne? My great purpose? The love my father bears me? I’d like to hear you repeat those words after your household tries to burn you alive. Don’t you understand, Ashtaroth? You have everything and see none of it. You have a kingdom, and a father, and a beautiful woman who fawns on you in spite of your pigheadedness.”
Yes, he did. He had Bree. But that clearly wasn’t who Aurelius was rambling about. “And who’s that?”
Aurelius wrinkled his nose. “Djana, not that you pay her any mind.”
“Then you have her; I don’t want her.” A lump formed in Ashtaroth’s throat as he spoke, as Djana’s warm face floated before his eyes. He drowned it. “I love Bree and you can’t marry her because I’m the crown prince. King Ossa wouldn’t settle for a petty royal like you when his daughter could be queen. Even if I would give her up I couldn’t; the Feislands could desert us over a slight like that. Find another; you always do. Common girls won’t care that you’re only a prince, and you said yourself that Bree’s a thief and a liar. If she’s so greedy, I’m a far better match for her. She’d only resent you.”
Aurelius scoffed. He drew in close enough that his breath tickled hot against Ashtaroth’s skin. “And you think you can make her happy? She’s a grown woman, not some slave you can dress up like a doll and order about. You can gild as many pieces of fruit for her as you like, but they won’t satisfy her, and neither will you.”
It shouldn’t surprise Ashtaroth, he supposed, that Aurelius should stoop to such childish insults. He was grasping. Besides, it didn’t matter than Ashtaroth lacked experience. There were treatises on that sort of thing. Samelqo had reams of scrolls on how to conceive in the light of Tanata, on how to touch a woman.
He stood tall. “She didn’t love you, Aurelius, and now she has me anyway, the prince she’s waited for all her life. If she’d had any intention of running away with you how could she have neglected to tell you that?”
Pain distorted Aurelius’s face as the cold nakedness of the logic wounded him where Ashtaroth’s other barbs hadn’t. For an instant, shame needled Ashtaroth’s heart.
Any trace of sympathy he might have felt slipped away, however, as Aurelius stormed toward the door. He turned toward Ashtaroth at the last moment, glaring with such venom that Ashtaroth might have mistaken him for an asp.
“I’ll make a cuckold of you on your wedding night,” Aurelius spat, “And every night until the lot of us are ashes in the earth.”