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Chapter 8: Kings
Dashel– The Ambassadors’ Residence: Qemassen
Dashel leaned forward and skimmed a small stone across the narrow pool at the heart of the ambassadors’ riad. Surrounded by the birds and the bugs and the flowering bushes, the world seemed beautiful. With Thanos sitting beside him on the stone bench, he could pretend he wasn’t alone.
“Thank you for seeing me,” Dashel said without looking up. He hunched, pressing his forearms into his legs. “I needed to see someone. After Mal and the princes were attacked—” He waved his hand, straightening.
Thanos was staring at him, dark circles beneath his eyes. “What do you want from me?”
This had been a mistake. Since Thanos had cut things off, Dashel had hardly thought of him. Not until Aurelius had started fucking Bree.
His fingers were jittery. They’d stop shaking if he drank the reserve of sapenta he’d stashed in his pocket.
“I shouldn’t have bothered you.” Dashel stood up, but Thanos grabbed his wrist.
“Don’t.” Thanos sounded so tired. “What did you want?”
“I wanted to talk to you,” Dashel said. The sapenta beat a rhythm steady as a pulse inside the folds of his tunic.
Thanos laughed, a rough sound. “Everyone wants to talk with me lately—all day and night if they can. The heq-Ashqen, the former heq-Damirat, even the king, hard as it may be to imagine Eshmunen actually governing.”
Somehow he’d forgotten that Thanos lived a life outside what the two of them had shared, that he was here for a purpose, and that his diplomatic presence was important. While he remained in Qemassen, there seemed some hope that peace might win out between Qemassen and Lorar.
Dashel took a step toward the shallow, clear pool, letting Thanos’s hand drop from his sleeve. The surface of the water was covered in petals shed from the bushes: yellow and purple and blue.
The colour of bruises, like those that marred the skin of Hima’s children—children he’d failed when he hadn’t told anyone how Safot had been acting. Because Dashel had been a coward and hadn’t wanted Hima or Aurelius to learn that he’d led Hesh’s thug inside the palace walls.
Dashel walked to the very edge of the pool. He wanted to shake off his sandals and dip his feet beneath the surface. The water was so clear, it was like if he touched it, he could be clear too. “Have I ruined everything?”
Thanos scoffed. “It would be hard to ruin everything. For instance, I hear the temple of Tanata has projected a bountiful olive harvest for the autumn months, and my wasp hat is coming along very nicely.”
That was right—the wasps had disappeared from the riad. They must be fully attached to the hat.
Dashel smiled and faced Thanos. “I’m sorry.” He shouldn’t ask—every part of his body begged him not to—but it was like the decision had already been made long ago by some fickle god. He hung his head. “Perhaps I could visit you tonight—I haven’t had any sapenta in days. I haven’t been with Aurelius.” Well, he had, but not in bed with Aurelius. “I miss you.”
“It’s time this . . . thing between us ended, Dashel. We both know it―you just won’t admit you want it to.” Thanos looked so calm, so controlled. He was thin, not much to look at but for his bright green eyes. For the first time, Dashel thought he might miss that green.
“I don’t want it to.” The words slipped out, a cruel and easy lie. He wanted Thanos only as a warm body in his bed, because at least then he could pretend it wasn’t empty.
Beat beat beat went the vial tucked inside his tunic. An always and forever friend, a companion that drew others to his chambers. Damn the clear water in the pool and praise unto the clouded glass vial of sapenta. He deserved it, didn’t he, after so hard a conversation? A small reward, a tiny consolation.
Thanos snapped his fingers. “Well, soon enough you’d have had no choice. I’m leaving, Dashel.”
Grey sky overhead, and war brewing across the sea. There was only one reason for Thanos to be summoned back to Lorar. Dashel tipped his head back, rolled his shoulders, and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to be reminded of the war, because then he’d have to think about it. “So, war is almost certain.”
And Dashel would have to look elsewhere for companion for the night. There’d been that pretty Ajwata servant who’d made eyes at him a month back, and there was Shaqarbas’s son, if the man wasn’t nose-deep in a scroll—
Thanos stood up. “The war’s been happening all around us for years, or did you sleep through that as well? It’s not why I’m leaving.”
Thanos’s frown carved a deeper trench than usual across his face. It made him look older. “Don’t you even want to know why?”
Djana and Titrit’s voices, talking heatedly from the walkway above, drifted to him on the cool breeze. Dashel looked up to see Djana gesticulating as the pair stalked along the walkway. Titrit was stiff as a board. Even from here, he could see her jaw was clenched. She wouldn’t meet Djana’s imploring gaze.
Djana and Titrit never argued. One more sign things were turning to shit.
“Dashel.” Thanos’s face was almost as pleading as Djana’s. I’m right here, it seemed to say.
“You’re leaving, yes. Of course I want to know why.”
Across the riad, Djana and Titrit slipped through an open door, a splash of colour vanishing into shadow. “It’s your own choice—” Titrit said, but the rest of her words were cut off. She sounded wroth.
Thanos followed Dashel’s gaze, brow furrowed. “Never mind.”
Dashel stepped right up to him, about to stroke his cheek and stopping just short. “No, I want to know. I mean it. I want to. Tell me.”
Thanos scowled, the expression so beautifully funny on his delicate face. “Fine. Because I’m in love with you, Dashel, but all you think of his someone else. You’ll never love anyone as much as you love him. We both know it, and you can’t help it, and it makes me angry, which isn’t fair either.”
It seemed fair to Dashel. Why shouldn’t Thanos blame him? But then, if Thanos hadn’t been recalled, if he was asking to be summoned back to Lorar and replaced, Dashel could still convince him to stay.
Thanos drew back, in the direction of his rooms.
Dashel held up his hands, palms outward. “I know I have a complicated life.”
“See? You can’t even deny it. Maybe you love your drink as much as your phantom prince, but nothing else. Certainly nothing human.”
Aurelius and Hima and Qwella. Mal and Sarah and Father. Dashel did love. He did.
But was it enough?
He ran his hand through his hair. “You can’t even say his name.”
“Why should I?” Thanos spat. “I hate him. I hate him, and I hate your beer, and I hate your sapenta, and I hate that you sleep all day instead of talking to me. Tell him you love him and leave the rest of us out of it.”
There were a thousand reasons Dashel couldn’t do that. Didn’t Thanos understand? “He’s in love with someone else. I have to bring him to see her every day and listen outside the door while he fucks her.”
He shouldn’t have said that, and not only because it would hurt Thanos, but because it was a secret Dashel had promised to keep.
Thanos rolled his eyes, then marched to the doorway. With his black hair and robes, standing with the riad’s yellow wall to either side of him, he looked like a crow framed by the sun. “Maybe he is, but you’ll never find out if you don’t tell him.”
With that, he left.
Dashel hurled the vial of sapenta as hard as he could at the wall. The smash startled a pair of pigeons to flight. A slave gasped from the walkway above.
He glared at the wet stone, throat tight. The mark was already drying, a small blemish only staining the beauty of the palace for a heartbeat, maybe two: a small, temporary thing, like all the moments of his life he’d spent within the palace walls. And just like the stain, he could so easily be burned away—should be burned away.
Dashel collapsed back onto the bench, clasping his hands.
Feet scuffed the tiles behind him.
Titrit stood behind him, her face puffy like she’d only just stopped crying. She clutched her arm, nails digging into her bare flesh. Her fight with Djana must have been bad.
“I heard glass breaking.” She sniffed and cleared her throat. “Are you all right?”
She was near tears, and she was asking after him?
Dashel walked to her. He wrapped his arms tight around her. “I’m fine. I dropped something.” He squeezed her gently and she rested her forehead against his shoulder, shaking as she cried silently. Dashel forced a laugh, filling it with all the warmth he couldn’t muster for himself. He rubbed her back. Her shoulder blades were like metal plates beneath her plain, thin dress.
“Djana’s going to refuse my father,” Titrit said.
No one had ever thought Djana would agree to the match—no one but Titrit, apparently. Still, it wasn’t cause for tears.
Titrit sniffed, then drew in a shaky breath, collecting herself.
Dashel chuckled, trying to lighten her mood. “Did you really think she wouldn’t?” There was some other reason she was so upset, but Dashel was loathe to pry. If he danced around the question, she might answer on her own.
But Titrit pulled away, still close, but no longer so close he couldn’t see her face. She wiped her tears away. “I thought she’d see it as a way to stay close to me. She can’t live in Qemassen forever.”
Her usual sharpness had returned to her voice. She gripped her elbows and stepped from Dashel’s grasp.
Was there something more between her and Djana? Dashel had never seen any sign the two of them were lovers, but perhaps only Titrit felt that pull. Strange though, that she hadn’t acted on her desire, when Djana was known to lie with women and men. Maybe Titrit really did only crave a friend, now that Aurelius had soured of her, and her husband been made heq-Damiran. Ashtaroth, too, was busy with his lessons and his bride. Of the philosopher’s circle, only Titrit had slipped through the cracks.
She was lonely.
And that, Dashel understood.
He smiled weakly. “It seems like everyone’s leaving.” He gestured at the wall, where the sapenta had now dried, and even the shattered glass only made itself visible at the stray touch of a sunbeam. “Thanos is sailing back to Lorar.”
Titrit raised her head so quickly it was like she was a jointed doll and someone had snapped her neck back into place. “Dashel, I’m sorry.” Her sharpness blunted, smoothed to sympathy. “He’s leaving today?”
Dashel didn’t even know, hadn’t even asked. He was terrible at asking questions, even obvious ones that a former lover would naturally think of. He stroked his beard, avoiding Titrit’s gaze. “Not today, I think. I mean, I doubt it.”
“Was he summoned back by his uncle?” Titrit bit her lip, as though hopeful, for Dashel’s sake.
Titrit stared at him, incredulous. “Senator Marianus Rufus. He’s the most powerful man in the Lora senate.”
Ah. Yes. That was right. Dashel had known that. “Right. Well, he wasn’t summoned by him—or anyone.” He scratched his head. “He’s leaving because I’m dogshit.”
Titrit cocked her head, unimpressed by his self-deprecation. “You’re not dogshit. You’re the most loyal man I know, the best friend I’ve ever met.”
“Loyal to whom?” Dashel scoffed. “And whose friend? Only Aurelius. Only ever Aurelius.”
She gripped Dashel’s arm in her slender fingers and squeezed. Her kindness wasn’t big or loud like Djana’s, but it was true. “You love Aurelius, but he’s not the only one you love. You’ve been a true friend, Dashel, to me and to Djana, and to the rest of the royal family.”
Was that how Titrit saw things? He’d been no friend to Sabeq, the only tie Titrit’s family had to royalty. But in the end, compared with Dashel, they were all royal, even Thanos in whatever peculiar way Lorar understood such things.
“I wasn’t a friend to Thanos,” said Dashel.
Titrit smiled, tight-lipped. “You could be. He’s not gone yet, Dashel. The world is changing all around us—Hima stripped of her position, Qwella widowed and now an acolyte, my husband raised to power—”
Dashel grinned, despite himself. “Aurelius doting on anyone longer than the time it took to bed them.”
She squeezed Dashel’s arm, but this time it had an edge to it. She hadn’t known, Dashel realized. Again, he’d spoken when he shouldn’t, but then, she had no way to know he meant Bree.
“Slaves turning against their masters,” Titrit added to their list. “Though Hima thinks this Zioban is one of our own. As though one of the Semassenqa could possibly be responsible for the mutilation of children. Everything’s gone upside down. In a world like this, who’s to say you couldn’t change with it?”
Everything was changing. Everything had gone upside down.
“Does Hima still think Samelqo had something to do with the slave attack?” Dashel asked.
An owl hooted from somewhere above them. Dashel craned his neck, scanning the rooftops, but he couldn’t find the bird. He must have imagined it.
Titrit pursed her lips. “Samelqo, or someone else. What does it matter? She’s wrong.”
“A lot of people would benefit from Hiram and Reshith’s deaths.” The idea sent a shudder through him.
Titrit strolled to the pool. “But they didn’t die. They were only scarred.”
Only. Titrit hadn’t seen their fresh injuries like Dashel had, hadn’t felt her chest grow so tight with worry she thought her bones would crush every organ in her body. “It was enough,” he said.
“I only mean, if one of the Semassenqa had wanted to advantage themselves, Hiram and Reshith would be dead. And who benefits from their deaths? Only Aurelius, perhaps, and whatever I think of him, he’s only cruel when it comes to the men and women in his bed.”
“He’d never lay a hand on his nephews,” Dashel agreed. His throat was tight—Titrit was right, wasn’t she? If one of the Semassenqa had directed Safot to kidnap the children, the boys would have been murdered. All their mutilation had caused was the imprisonment of innocents. The slaves had had to be replaced by the Yirada for a time, of course, followed by Hima’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat Samelqo by accusing him.
The only one who’s actions had been altered by the attack was Hima herself.
Dashel stepped back from the pool, cold all over. His hands shook. He clasped them to stop it.
Hima would never. Not even to oust Samelqo. But then, from how Aurelius had told it, she’d come after Aurelius and Ashtaroth as well. If she’d been successful, might she have secured the throne for Hiram? Was power so important to her that she’d have shamed and brutalized her own children?
At Sabeq’s funeral, Hima hadn’t thought twice of squeezing lemon juice into the boys’ eyes to affect grief. But that was different. Much different. This was Hima. Her sons were everything to her. She’d overturned the order of the palace to find the ones responsible.
“Dashel?” Titrit turned around. “Are you all right?”
Dashel laughed, willing away his suspicions. It was silly—all of it, silly. “Yes. I’m fine.”
“You should talk to him,” she said.
“Thanos.” She held her hands clasped in front of her. Any trace of her tears had vanished, and she was Titrit again: stoic, as strong and firm as the pillars of Adonis’s temple.
Dashel walked up to her, happy to have something else to think about rather than the rebel slaves and whoever was controlling them. He slipped his sandals off one by one. As he dipped the toes of his right foot beneath the water of the pool, a shiver shot up his leg. He’d wash away his guilt as he washed away his unfair suspicions of Hima. “I haven’t treated him as a lover should be treated. I’ve been dismissive of him. I don’t think of him as much as I should. He’s right about me and Aurelius.” The pool’s water chilled his ankles as he stepped down into it. He looked up at Titrit. “How did you come to love Qorban with Aurelius on your mind?”
Titrit shook her head. “Replace him in your heart when you find yourself thinking of him. When his image comes to you, put Thanos in his place. When you feel the pinch of love, make it Thanos’s fingers that squeeze your flesh. Mend your heart together with his.”
It sounded easy, but it wouldn’t be. Standing as straight and tall as Titrit always did could never have been easy. Discipline rarely was, especially for those who had it. “You think I could be that person?” Dashel asked.
Dependable, and strong, and new.
“I do,” Titrit said with a bow of her head and a smile. “Like I said, things are changing.”
Dashel would change too, because if he didn’t, in a few years he’d be just another corpse slumped on the floor of a sapenta den in the Qelebet. And who would remember him?
Aurelius. Aurelius would. For a time, until he met someone new. Until Dashel was only a vague soreness, a forgotten and disappointing friend, a man who’d once saved Aurelius and then died as ordinary men are wont to do.
The cool water swished as Dashel kicked his foot out. He watched the ripples echo from his skin and lap against the sides of the pool. He would like to be remembered by Thanos, and Titrit, and all the others. He might not be a prince, destined to die and rise as a god, but he could be more than a fading stain on a palace wall.
“I’ll talk to him,” Dashel said. “I’ll make him stay.”