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Chapter 8: Kings
Ashtaroth – Qemassen: Samelqo’s Tower
All the warmth Ashtaroth had drawn from Bree in the gardens faded as he stood before the doors to Samelqo’s chambers. Everything seemed simple and perfect when Bree was nearby. Even Lilit and the visions she sent him weren’t half so terrifying when Bree smiled. And when he remembered that she was to marry him, his illness seemed to peel from him like dead skin shed from the belly of a snake. What gleamed underneath was new and untouched, supple and strong.
The heq-Ashqen’s tower was cold in comparison, though sunlight burned warm through the windows, and though its painted sunset walls were like a wool cloak wrapped close against the skin. They’d used to feel that way, in any case.
Ashtaroth glanced at the guard posted outside Samelqo’s chambers—a palace guard, not one of Hima’s Yirada henchmen. He looked so stern, staring into the middle distance as he rapped his knuckle against the door.
“The crown prince, Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen, is here to see you, Sese,” said the guard.
Ashtaroth tensed and stood tall. He’d waited too long to see Samelqo, to tell him about the visions. Now that Ashtaroth was finally here, he wanted to turn and run, as though speaking Lilit’s name aloud again would make her real. And what if the guards and peasants who’d seen him chasing the actors in the Eghri were right? What if Ashtaroth was mad?
“Send him in.” Samelqo’s voice was much softer than Ashtaroth remembered it. He was lucky to be alive after Hima had pushed him and he’d broken his leg.
Guilt hung heavy as a robe of lead over his shoulders, and when Ashtaroth stepped inside, he did so with the softness of an insect’s footsteps.
“Prince Ashtaroth.” Djana’s voice jolted Ashtaroth out of his reverential pose.
The heq-Ashqen was sitting up with bound and bandaged leg elevated on a low stool. Uta stood beside him, holding a stylus and clay tablet. The second guard—who Ashtaroth would normally have expected outside Samelqo’s tower—was gathering scrolls as though he’d been set a slave’s duties.
“Sese.” Samelqo inclined his head, though Uta, Ashtaroth noticed, continued to scribble into her tablet as though she’d not noticed Ashtaroth at all. Samelqo continued. “My business with the Ajwata ambassador is almost concluded. Stay and wait. It would do you well to listen.”
Djana looked at Ashtaroth, then quickly away again. It wasn’t like her to be shy.
Ashtaroth’s chest tightened. “Of course, heq-Ashqen.”
Samelqo’s attention was on Djana. “The ambassador and I were just now discussing a strengthening of our alliance. Recent losses on the Feislanda border make it essential for the southern nations to strengthen our relations.”
Losses? Ashtaroth hadn’t been told. But then, there were meetings he missed—not that he could be blamed. How could Ashtaroth know to bother when his father never summoned him?
“We are discussing marriage,” said Djana.
The world stilled. Losses in the Feislands . . . losses for Bree’s people. A marital alliance, a strengthening of Qemassen’s relationship with Ajwata.
Ashtaroth all but trembled as he walked to a chair and plunked himself down. “I-I’m happy with Bree.” He swallowed, tugged on all the strength Bree had filled him with in the garden.
Samelqo raised an eyebrow. “I have suggested to Djana et-Bidal that a marriage between she and your brother be arranged. Alternatively, her cousin Dan is a prominent general in her homeland, and might be persuaded to take your sister to wife.”
Djana wrinkled her nose. She knew as well as Ashtaroth that Hima would slit Samelqo’s throat before she allowed herself to be sent away.
They weren’t discussing Ashtaroth at all, but Aurelius and Hima. Relief cloaked him, soft as goose down.
“Aurelius,” Ashtaroth blurted. He met Djana’s eyes. “You should wed Aurelius.”
It was perfect. It would mend everything. If Aurelius married Djana, he couldn’t hover around Bree anymore.
Djana frowned so rarely, but she frowned now. Ashtaroth drew in closer against the back of his chair.
“Is that so, Sese?” Djana asked. “You would like to see me marry your brother?”
Why not? There had never been anything between Ashtaroth and Djana, only a foolish interest on her part—never any on his. “I thought you liked Aurelius?” he asked.
Djana bowed her head and turned away, as though she was tired of looking at Ashtaroth and wished to be elsewhere. “Of course I am great friends with the prince.” She looked at Samelqo. “I will send word to my cousin all the same.”
“And what of Qanmi eq-Sabaal?” Samelqo asked. “I had heard he’s been courting you.”
Djana had never truly shown any interest in the merchant, surely even Samelqo ought to know that.
“Qanmi eq-Sabaal is of no interest to me,” said Djana. “With all respect.”
The heq-Ashqen scoffed. “There’s no need to feign reverence in these rooms. None of his slaves are here to spy on you. I refused Qanmi eq-Sabaal’s gracious offer of assistance, as the state of my floors should make clear. My own slaves will be returned to me. King Eshmunen is certain they had nothing to do with the attack on Hiram and Reshith.”
Ashtaroth frowned. Had Samelqo really managed such a thing? Eshmunen had seemed content to let Hima’s arrests stand, but now Samelqo was claiming special privileges. Perhaps Ashtaroth ought to demand his own slaves be returned.
Eager to show Samelqo he had opinions worth considering, he nodded again at Djana. “If Hima is to be sent away, perhaps it’s for the best. Or better yet, Aurelius can marry Djana, and maybe he’ll grow tired of laying claim to things he has no right to.”
Samelqo frowned, Djana turned, and too late, Ashtaroth realized what he’d said.
“Perhaps this is a conversation we might pursue privately,” Samelqo snapped. “Djana et-Bidal is surely uninterested in salacious rumours.”
Djana actually laughed. “Politics are built on rumour, the more salacious the better, and I would be a poor politician not to have noticed that Aurelius is a master builder.” She cocked her head at Ashtaroth. “Does Prince Aurelius covet something of yours?”
Ashtaroth withered under the heq-Ashqen’s stare. “Only Bree,” he admitted. “At a distance. Because she’s beautiful and because she loves me.” The bitterness he’d felt for days spilled out of him, only now it sounded childish in the face of Djana’s eloquence. “She wouldn’t touch him though,” Ashtaroth lied, though it wasn’t fully a lie—she wouldn’t touch him anymore.
Of course she wouldn’t.
“As you say, Sese,” said Djana. “If that is all, may I go?”
Samelqo waved her off, and fast as a sparrow she turned on her heel and rushed out, sparing neither Ashtaroth nor Samelqo another glance.
Had Ashtaroth truly stung her so?
The door thudded behind her, and Ashtaroth stood up and approached Uta and the heq-Ashqen. Uta looked up at him as he did, the sunlight past the window catching the sheen of her glass eye. Beside her, swathed in sheets and with his leg stretched out, Samelqo looked uncharacteristically small and frail.
“I apologize for bothering you, heq-Ashqen. I can see you’re still unwell.” He readied to leave.
A glare briefly distorted Samelqo’s face, then almost as quickly vanished. The tiredness Ashtaroth had heard in the heq-Ashqen’s voice entered his eyes. “It is I who have been slow to return your request to see me. My injury has kept me, as have the preparations for the Feast of Ashtet and your nuptials.”
Ashtaroth nodded. Princess Bree was important to all of them. “What do you think of her?”
“The princess? I haven’t met her yet, though I’m told she’s quiet. Strange.” He waved an aged hand, but the movement was stilted, his arm caught in his blue robe. “They say she has a feline cunning about her, but it should serve her well come her coronation. Your mother was less than shrewd, and it served her much less than well.”
Ashtaroth didn’t like the implied insult, though the heq-Ashqen had veiled it in a compliment. Bree was Ashtaroth’s betrothed and he must defend her honour. “She’s in love with me.”
“I’m glad, but it isn’t necessary. Now, why was it you wished to speak with me?”
Uta stood still as stone against the wall, head hung so as not to meet the eyes of her betters. She was hard to look at, yet Ashtaroth was constantly pulled toward her, toward the ugly scars marring her face. His mother had done that.
The guard fumbling with scrolls dropped an armful of them with a clatter. Uta clucked angrily and hurried to help. With her gone, Ashtaroth was forced to look at Samelqo again. The same anxiousness that had held him captive at the door snared him.
He cleared his throat. “I’ve seen something important, Sese.” He reddened at his use of the honorific. “A girl accosted me, she called herself Lilit; she read my fortune for me. I’ve seen her several times since, always under impossible circumstances. The worst was in the Eghri when I―when I chased that woman. I followed her because she looked like Lilit, because she grows older every time I see her, and she changes form sometimes. The last two times, she turned into someone else entirely—a brown-haired woman called Dannae.”
Was it Ashtaroth’s imagination, or did Samelqo go suddenly rigid?
The moment passed. “This was the woman you pursued in the Eghri, when you abandoned your nephews?”
Ashtaroth hesitated. “Yes. But I’ve seen the name before, I think . . . in the fortune teller’s house. And maybe somewhere else . . . .” He could see the letters, had seen them somewhere in the real world—the world outside his visions. Where had it been?
“Dannae,” said Samelqo. “What else did you see?”
The last time Lilit had come to him, she’d rescued him from his imprisonment and led him to the throne room to watch his family arguing. He swallowed. “She can transport me places. The day you were injured.” he cleared his throat again, nervous at mentioning the event, but Samelqo didn’t even flinch. “She guided me through a garden like the one in the palace, but an unnatural night covered everything. Names appeared on one of the benches, written in blood: yours, my father’s, my aunts’, Hima’s . . . and when I turned away I was outside the throne room. Lilit appeared—when I asked who she was, she said her name was vengeance.”
He’d thought confiding in Samelqo would be cathartic, but as the words passed his lips, Lilit’s voice danced inside his head. Everything he’d seen became more real as he spoke the words aloud, summoned into being through Ashtaroth’s own mouth.
Vengeance. But against whom? Did Lilit seek vengeance of her own, or behalf of someone else?
The familiar pop of someone opening a scroll case made Ashtaroth jump. He turned, finding only Uta and the hapless guard as they organized Samelqo’s work.
“Werothen, leave us,” said Samelqo.
Werothen must be the guard, because he left the room, abandoning his unshelved scrolls on a table. One of the cases rolled off the table and onto the floor. Uta retrieved it.
“Is something wrong?” Ashtaroth dared.
Samelqo shifted against the back of the couch, righting himself where he’d become slumped. Ashtaroth stood up and went to his side. He hovered awkwardly, but Samelqo didn’t give him an opening to assist him, and Ashtaroth sat down again.
“Some things are better said in private,” Samelqo answered. “What happened in the Eghri when you chased the actor?”
The memory reared before him, clear as the statue of Ashtet’s mare had been in the Eghri. He shuddered. “The actor was Lilit, so I chased her.” He swallowed, realizing too vividly how easily he’d forgotten Hiram and Reshith. “She led me into the city, but it became somewhere else.”
“Somewhere else?” The heq-Ashqen’s expression was grave.
“It started off as Qemassen—I think it was Qemassen, but then suddenly it wasn’t. The people were Massenqa, but they spoke the Lora tongue and dressed in foreign clothes.” As he remembered, his palms grew sweaty, forehead clammy. He could smell smoke, taste the panic that had gripped him as he’d searched for a sign of a way home. He tried not to look at Samelqo, lest the heq-Ashqen sense his fear. “I walked back to the Eghri and there was a dead woman—Dannae or Lilit. She was wearing Ashtet’s hyacinths in her hair. The sky was black with smoke and the road was heaped with ash. The statues in the Eghri had been defaced, and there was chanting. Ashtet’s statue came alive and chased me.”
“I had heard about the horse.” The heq-Ashqen closed his eyes, looking thoughtful, as though awaiting enlightenment from the gods.
“Is the horse important?” Ashtaroth asked. It seemed a strange detail to fix on, but then, Ashtet was a goddess. More than that, she was the goddess whose feast they were about to celebrate, a goddess whose feast had become entwined with Bree’s arrival. “It doesn’t have to do with Bree, does it? She’s not in danger?”
Samelqo opened his eyes, still distant. “Describe this chanting.”
Ashtaroth wrung his hands. “The chanting grew louder and louder, and there were many voices, like a crowd of people all shouting the same thing.”
Behind them, Uta shoved a scrollcase into place so hard it thudded against the wall.
Samelqo rolled his shoulders, straightening as best he could. “But you couldn’t discern what they were chanting?”
Ashtaroth shook his head, lips pressed together.
“Was it Lora?”
Instead of giving him answers, Samelqo only asked more questions. When Qirani did that, it always meant bad news. I can’t remember. “No, well, it might have been. Can you tell me anything about Lilit?”
Samelqo sighed. “Little, but enough. She is a lesser shade of Qalita, or so the Eru believe. They claim she is evil and steals children from their mothers’ breasts. Vengeance is one of her provinces.”
And like that it seemed clear enough that someone had cursed him, prayed or payed for Lilit to visit him. But who would want Ashtaroth harmed? Or helped, for that matter? He couldn’t even be sure she meant him harm. Where the gods were concerned, a blessing might look much the same as a curse without the right knowledge.
Ashtaroth leaned back. “So you believe me?”
Samelqo gave him a cold look. “You are the crown prince of Qemassen, fated to join the gods themselves one day; why should I not believe you? Are you lying?”
The lightness Ashtaroth had sought finally came to him, but it was followed just as quickly by a new weight: if Samelqo believed him, it meant Lilit was real.
“No, it’s all true.” He paused. “Don’t the Eru have only one god?”
Samelqo pointed at something on one of the tables, and the scuffle of Uta’s footsteps followed. “Yes, but Qalita is a demon to them, and so Lilit also.”
A series of clunks followed as Uta retrieved whatever it was Samelqo had gestured toward. She seemed to know his mind so well he didn’t even need to speak for her to understand his desires. Perhaps it was why he’d married her.
“And the things she showed me?” The answers to Ashtaroth’s questions still felt distant and opaque.
Samelqo reached out as Uta handed him a stylus and tablet. The deft rhythm of his fingers was quick but elegant. Without even looking, Ashtaroth knew the writing would be clear and beautiful, even etched in clay. “It’s what will come to pass should you fail to become king after your father.”
Ashtaroth hesitated, not wanting to admit the rest of what Lilit had revealed to him, what she’d asserted so terribly. But he was here to learn the truth, which he never would if he wasn’t truthful himself. “When I first met her, she was an Eru fortune teller. She told me I would never be king.”
The heq-Ashqen sneered. “Then we know one thing: this facet of Qalita bears no love for you, and spreads lies to weaken you. Perhaps she favours Lorar. You must remember your calling, Prince, for you are to lead the city out of misery.”
And like that, Lilit was an enemy. “She wants to trick me.”
At least Ashtaroth now had some idea of who Lilit was and what she wanted. All the same, he wasn’t sure he would be able to ignore her. “Who was Dannae?” He’d seen her corpse enough to know was was the correct phrasing. Whoever she’d been, she wasn’t alive.
Samelqo stopped writing. He handed the tablet and stylus back to Uta. “Uta, go to the temples of Qalita and Tanata and show them this list. They should have everything we need. Tell Daana et-Titrit I will need her and whomever can be spared from temple duties.”
Uta hurried off without a word, though she at least remembered to bow to Ashtaroth. Though he’d never liked her, being left alone with Samelqo felt unusually uncomfortable. The heq-Ashqen watched him with eyes that Ashtaroth was sure were gazing at somewhere very different and distant than the tower.
The sun outside caught on the gold talisman at Samelqo’s neck, and Ashtaroth’s vision shone with a brilliance so bright he was forced to squint.
“Dannae was Sabaal eq-Sabaal’s wife,” Samelqo said curtly. “Qanmi’s mother. Long dead now, from a fall supposedly, though it is very likely that Sabaal beat her to death. He killed his first wife in the same manner.”
Why would Qanmi’s mother be interested in Ashtaroth? “How do you know she’s the right Dannae?”
Samelqo’s face was hard, unflinching. “Qanmi’s mother was an Ashqat of Ashtet. You said the woman you saw wore Ashtet’s hyacinths, that it was Ashtet’s mare who rode you down. Perhaps her death has caused her to become one of Qalita’s demons, a part of the goddess. A bau.” He cleared his throat, turned from Ashtaroth to stare out the window, as though the sun’s light didn’t bother him at all. As the sunlight burned in his eyes, they glowed almost as rich a gold as his talisman. “You’ll require Qalita’s aid to dispel Lilit. An exorcism, to be held at Qalita’s temple.”
An exorcism. “Qwella will help,” Ashtaroth blurted, for something to say. The idea comforted him. His older sister would protect him. He missed her—he should have visited her already and he hadn’t.
The golden light in Samelqo’s eyes died as he turned back to Ashtaroth. He smelled of cinnamon and papyrus. “Whomever can be spared, he repeated. “My wife will return with what is required.” He paused, and Ashtaroth waited. “I’ve seen the woman you describe myself. The night we burned Ashtara, the wet-nurse who held her transformed before my eyes. I believed she was Qalita then, and now I’m certain.”
Samelqo rarely spoke of the burning, more rarely even than the royal family spoke of it.
Ashtaroth’s own feelings were muddled and unreadable. Sometimes, in private, he had cried over his mother, but he didn’t know her. Ashtara was even more of a mystery, a concept, but not a living thing: a bull or a goat bred for sacrifice. How might his world have been different had he grown to adulthood with Ashtara at his side?
“Why would Lilit appear like that, and why to me, and why now?”
Samelqo opened his mouth but closed it almost as fast. When he answered he stared straight into Ashtaroth’s eyes. “It’s possible she carries the spirit of your sister with her, in the same way that she carries Dannae―an angry child sworn to Lilit, to Qalita. Ashtara was sent to Molot; it wouldn’t stretch credulity for his bride to have taken the princess instead.”
“Then she’s my sister?” Ashtaroth’s voice trembled.
Samelqo’s expression softened. “No, I think not, but she’s something very personal to you, and very dangerous. You must be careful. It may be that Lilit has stolen the girl and now hungers for Ashtara’s male counterpart. The gods of the underworld have ravenous appetites.” He grimaced. “She remains unsatisfied by the offering.”
A grim collection: burned children and murdered wives. When he’d stepped inside Lilit’s house in the Qelebet, she’d had a bag full of tiny bones. Children’s bones she’d claimed to have found in the gardens.
“My own sister set against me.” He hugged his arms. “She wants me to doubt myself, so that Qemassen will fall.”
Samelqo sat upright and strained to reach Ashtaroth’s hand. He laid his fingers over Ashtaroth’s. “And fall it shall should your brother and sister steal your throne.”
Ashtaroth wrinkled his nose, brow furrowed. Hima and Aurelius? The suggestion was slanderous. “They wouldn’t.”
Samelqo shook his head. “You must pay attention. Himalit flatters you in the hopes of retaining the influence she wields with your father, and Aurelius is as opportunistic as that Indat mother of his. The alliance isn’t the only reason to see one or both of them married within the year. They’ve been allowed too free a rein till now.”
That Indat mother had been Ashtaroth’s as well, but he understood Samelqo’s meaning. Moniqa had been Aurelius’s mother in a way she never would be Ashtaroth’s. Where Aurelius had her, Ashtaroth had Samelqo. No doubt Aurelius hated Ashtaroth for that as well.
After everything his brother had said to him, how could Ashtaroth not see the serpent buried at his breast? It was like the story of Adonen himself, whose jealous cousins had torn him to pieces and banished his spirit to the underworld. Like Adonen, Ashtaroth would rise again, and bring power and prosperity with him.
The more he thought on the past few days, the more Hima’s kindness and the speed with which she’d forgiven him for what had happened to his nephews grew suspect. She’d yelled at him in the court room, the day she’d hurt Samelqo. Was that who Hima truly was? But today, she’d seemed to care for him, to be worried about his love of Bree.
Samelqo was staring. “Sese?”
Ashtaroth shook his head. “I don’t need them. Not now that I have Bree.”