Chapter 02,  Chapter Section,  Crown of Asmodeus

Crown: Chapter 2: II: Bree

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Chapter 2: Sisters

Section II

Bree – Betusha: The Anata Border

Upstairs, in the room Darron had rented for them, Bree lit a small candle from a brazier and set about undressing. She began by emptying her hidden pockets of their treasures—coins and gold jewellry, a fine ivory comb and a collection of small votives from Massenqa temples. She’d made a habit of counting her wealth every time she was sure of some privacy, unwilling to trust that her companions’ fingers were any less sticky than her own.

A few more months and she would be rid of this lot, then she could take what remained of the funds Hima had given her and pay for passage south. There would be more men like Darron, of course, and maybe she was foolish to abandon him, but in Bree’s experience the longer you kept a man around, the more likely he was to get attached. Bree might not hate Darron, but like was a strong word, and she had no desire to become his property. No, someone new would be better, even if he were worse.

She’d never meet a worse type than Aurelius eq-Eshmunen.

Bree’s throat grew tight. She slid her hand into a pocket sewn at her breast, a seductive calm rushing through her as her fingers found Aurelius’s wooden carving. She traced the fracture where a crude mending job had reattached a cracked leg. It was a shattered thing glued haphazardly into something functional.

Just like Bree.

Rumour had reached the caravan that King Aurelius was married now to a true princess—a Semassenqat blessed not only with grace but with wisdom too.

Graceful. Polite. Wise.

Bree was none of those things, but at least she and Titrit shared madness in common, along with their crippling affections for Qemassen’s king. Let Aurelius have Titrit’s madness if it was the Massenqat he so desired.

Jealousy stewed in her at the thought of her lover’s irritatingly handsome face, his lips touching Titrit’s, his hands holding her, his tongue making her squeal. In their rooms at the palace, Aurelius had promised he would always hold her, no matter what happened, no matter how old they grew, no matter if they fought and bickered. What lies men told, to make you feel safe, to gain entry.

The jug of wine Darron had ordered called to her from a small table. Bree grabbed a cup, poured it to the brim, and downed it in two gulps.

Now such things were Titrit’s to worry on, along with a son Bree could only hope Hima had been honest about protecting. If only there was a way to know, for certain, that he was safe.

“I thought it was you.”

Bree jumped at the man’s voice. She leapt onto the bed, kicking the covers from it, ready to scream. She pulled a small dagger from her belt and held it out in front of her.

Bree bared her teeth. “I’ve a man downstairs. His fists are as big around as your head.”

The old man in the hood snorted darkly, and Bree squinted. She should have lit the larger torch on the wall.

She recognized him, she was sure of that now. There was such venom in his voice, such loathing.

“I’m not afraid of your merchant or his friends. My darkest fears have been made real already. I’ve seen my king murdered and usurped, my faithless wife betray me and sell me to thieves. I’ve been set adrift from the only place I’ve ever called home or cared for—an exile unworthy of its broken walls. My prince is lost, my portents dust, my sacrifices rendered pointless. I gave my life for my city, every heqet of myself since I was a child, and because of you, a princess very far from home, I find myself ensnared, a slave to thugs and cheats, dishonoured and discarded.”

She knew him. Oh, she knew him. But why he seemed to think anything that had happened to him had been in any way Bree’s fault, she couldn’t fathom.

“Long-winded and bitter,” Bree hissed, fear twitching along her back.

As if he needed to, the shadowy figure lifted his cowl from his head to reveal the skeletal visage beneath.

Bree kept the knife pointed right at him. She spat his name just as heavy footsteps thudded up the stairs beyond her room. “Samelqo.”

The aged heq-Ashqen inclined his bald head. A heavy slave’s collar glinted around his neck. “My conqueror,” he sneered, “my queen.”

Sarcasm dripped from his words like blood from a wound. Whatever wounds Samelqo eq-Milqar now suffered, none of them were Bree’s doing.

“Why did you follow me?” Her heart beat to the thump of Darron’s approach. She didn’t have time to hide the possessions she’d strewn across the bed, but there were larger problems just now than Darron stealing from her.

Samelqo’s nose twitched with distaste. “You murdered my king.”

Bree had murdered him? A queer giddiness fizzed in her chest. Bree might have laughed in Samelqo’s dour face. After all that had happened, he blamed Bree over anyone else―not Aurelius or Dashel.


“Then you don’t understand anything,” Bree said. She smirked, allowing herself the fleeting pleasure of his surprise. “Dashel killed King Eshmunen. I’m just another of Aurelius’s discards.”

The door thudded inwards, and Darron’s bulky frame loomed behind Samelqo.

Don’t let your eyes warn him.

Samelqo must have heard Bree’s lout of a lover on the stairs, but he didn’t move. Fool—he ought to know better. That pride that had allowed him to do whatever he liked in the palace meant nothing here. Fists and quick fingers decided power on the road.

Bree slid her knife back into place as discreetly as she could. No need to complicate matters—Samelqo’s accusation against her aside, she wasn’t sure yet what he wanted, and the knife would only make Darron suspicious.

The plunk plunk of Osen the Feislander following Darron told her hiding the knife had been the right choice. Osen was nothing if not one to jump to conclusions.

Darron didn’t give Samelqo time to turn around—he hauled the cloaked intruder back by his elbows, then pinned him against his chest. Samelqo didn’t struggle—even he must see Darron was too big to be worth fighting.

Bree gripped the edge of the bed, digging in her nails. She hadn’t wanted whatever this was. Travelling with Darron was supposed to be simple. But here was another Massenqen causing trouble, as they always did.

Behind Darron, Osen the Feislander had his hand at his belt. His gaze roved toward Bree and the myriad objects strewn across the bed.

She should have hidden them, but it was too late now. If pressed, she’d have to tell them the truth—or half of it.

“Were you going to touch my woman, old man?” Darron released one of Samelqo’s arms but hooked his fingers round his slave collar instead. He gave it a sharp tug.

This time Samelqo squirmed, as though the collar had pinched him.

Bree winced, but then a hideous jolt of delight coursed through her. He wasn’t proud now, Qemassen’s troublesome priest. In Darron’s broad arms, Samelqo was as lowly as Bree and as fragile as Aurelius when they’d dragged him bloody from his whipping. She might hate Aurelius, but she could still loathe the man who’d tried to murder him.

If Bree wanted it, she had only to speak the word and Samelqo would be dead at her feet. Was he not clever enough to realize that? Slavery must’ve broken his mind.

Darron let go of the collar. He shoved Samelqo forward.

Bree scrambled from the bed to avoid him. She reached for Aurelius’s carving, but it was tucked in its pouch, safe from her touch.

Samelqo caught himself on the bed.

“Or are you just a thief?” Darron continued, affecting the toothy sneer he always did when he was playing at intimidation. “If the innkeep sent you, I’ll cut his balls off.”

Bree took a look at Samelqo, his frail body, his clouded eyes.

She could have vengeance for Aurelius if she wanted. All it would take was a word. She tightened her right hand into a fist, rubbing her thumb against her fingers out of habit, as though the carving were still there.

Fuck Samelqo. Fuck Hima. Fuck Qanmi. Fuck Aurelius. She’d shown Hima mercy, and what had that got her? She should have left the bitch to rot under that mast.

And yet—

Why was Samelqo here? What did he want from her?

“He followed me upstairs,” Bree began, and Samelqo’s shoulders sank as hope left him. “I know him from before. He wasn’t a slave then. He was a priest in Zedaba―” Samelqo’s cloak had slipped to the side, revealing his arm and the azure tattoo that ran its length.

Bree hesitated.

Aurelius had called the gods’ curse down on them. He’d mocked them the night of the Feast of Ashtet and in return they’d taken everything. They’d killed Djana and ripped Aurelius and Little Nobody from Bree’s arms. They’d spared Hima and Samelqo.

Dare she test them a second time?

Bree swallowed as Darron shifted his weight in impatience. The air buzzed.

She must be smart, not proud. Pride had got her into this mess and her wits would get her out. Maybe Aurelius had stolen them before, but she could snatch them back.

“He was a good man.” With a hint of a smile, Bree continued, never letting her gaze stray from Samelqo’s face. “He was heq-Ashqen of the village. When I heard the Lora had attacked us, I thought him dead, but they must have sold him instead.”

The raid on Zedaba was part of the tale she’d concocted for Darron and his friends.

“Why’d you scream?” asked Osen. He held his axe now, pointing its tip Bree’s way.

“I was startled,” Bree said simply. She paused, shooting Darron a plaintive, vulnerable stare. “Please don’t harm him. I couldn’t bare it.”

Where only Bree could see, Samelqo raised an incredulous eyebrow. And was that a subtle hint of amusement at his lips?

Darron looked back and forth between Bree and Samelqo, his expression almost comically perplexed. Finally, he settled on Samelqo. “Who’s your master?” There was a bite in his words. Did he not believe Bree’s lie?

Speak. Say something. Play along, you foolish old man.

Samelqo closed his eyes. “The innkeep.”

Darron was stiff now as a cake of ice. “And what use has he for old men?”

“A former Ashqen has many uses.” Samelqo’s tone was just a little too condescending for a man from a tiny village.

Osen relaxed, leaning his shoulder against the lintel, head cocked at an angle as though appraising or entertained. Bree didn’t trust it. “Former?” Osen asked. “You gave up your profession when you became a slave?”

Samelqo sat up, facing Darron and Osen head-on. If he was aware of the threat emanating from the much stronger men around him, he gave no sign. To Bree, Osen’s ease and Darron’s rigidity communicated danger very clearly. “I have been an Ashqen by trade nearly my entire life, but my position died with my home.”

Osen was too clever by half, his smile wide but empty. Cruel even. She could read his suspicions on his face: he thought Bree and Samelqo must’ve been planning to rob them. He’d already accused her in the past, calling her strange, trying to sour Darron’s affection for her. Darron liked Bree’s womanly parts a bit too much to give an ear to such vague accusations—or had previously.

“I can vouch for him,” Bree repeated. “Spare him.”

Darron frowned. “And what should I do with him if he’s no thief? Speak your mind, woman. You want me to buy him, is it, from the innkeep?”

Buy him? Was that really what Darron thought? There was no edge now to his tone or his pose.

What did she want Darron to do? What point was there in giving Samelqo his life only to leave him here? What use had she for owning him?

Osen picked his teeth, then flicked a piece of dirt or grain off. “Another useless mouth to feed, and this one doesn’t have a cunt to offer in exchange. Would the innkeep even accept coin? Men who buy priests are a strange sort.”

A stab of pain shot through Bree’s stomach, gone again just as quickly, but she had to stop herself resting her hand on her belly. Was it the baby?

She gripped the sheets to keep her hands from wandering where they shouldn’t.

If she wanted time alone with Samelqo, and if she wanted to maintain her story, she ought to argue. Besides, if she decided she wanted vengeance, abandoning Samelqo alone with Darron’s caravan would be a fine cruelty.

She glanced at Samelqo, as though with care and affection. “An Ashqen’s wisdom wouldn’t be a bad thing to have. Let him read the stars for you and guide your path.”

Samelqo stood up, though no one had given him permission. “Thank you for your offer, but I would rather remain where I am. Beron is a kind enough man, and I’m too old for caravaning. I’ll plead with my goddess for your safe travels.” He walked toward the door, but Osen didn’t budge.

Why wasn’t Samelqo playing along? Did he recognize that Bree’s offer wasn’t entirely kind?

Darron cocked his chin at Osen. “Let him pass. The man knows what he wants.” He sounded relieved.

Samelqo made for the doorway again, footsteps bold as though to add his certainty to the force of Darron’s order.

Osen grabbed Samelqo’s wrist, stopping him where he stood.

Bree slid her hand slowly across the bed, closer to the knife at her belt.

“What have you got there, thief?” Osen pushed himself off the lintel and rolled Samelqo’s long sleeve up his arm.

A tiny vial clinked onto the floor.

“Ha!” Osen kicked the vial across the floor toward Darron, and it rolled to a stop against Darron’s boot. “A liar then. Thought to poison us, did you?”

The wine.

Bree turned and stared at the jug. Could he truly have poisoned her? Was that why he hadn’t cared when she’d suggested Darron buy him? The thought summoned the stabbing pain in her stomach.

Her hand went to her throat, then to the pouch where she’d hidden Aurelius’s carving. Her traitor hands unlaced the strings keeping it closed and sought out the smooth wood of the tiny animal.

Darron drew his knife.

Instead of gutting Samelqo, though, he turned on Bree. “You whore.”

Their gazes met for an instant, during which a thousand excuses sprang to mind, none sufficient to explain this unexpected turn of events. When he broke the stare it was to look to her shift, and the strings she’d loosed there.

“What’s that in your hand?” Darron wiggled his dagger at Bree.

Bree shook her head. “Nothing. A trinket.” She didn’t disguise the anger in her voice. “Why are you accusing me? I drank the wine!”

“What’s in your hand?” Darron’s anger echoed off the walls, the roar deeper than she’d thought him capable of making. The roar of a man who’d just realized he’d been duped. “Show me!”

He’d not be satisfied even if she showed him, and worse, he’d take it from her.

Bree clasped her hands tighter around the carving. “A trinket.” Between clenched teeth Bree spit her words. “Something that’s not for you.”

“Something she stole most like.” Osen pointed his axe at Bree’s possessions where she’d foolishly laid them out on the bed.

Darron approached her cautiously, one palm held open as though that might distract her from the eager blade glinting in his grip. “Come on, you bitch. What have you got there?”

Osen was holding Samelqo—distracted. She might make it.

Bree bolted from the bed.

Her stomach roiled and she stumbled. In the instant she faltered, Darron’s big hand grabbed her elbow. He spun her back against the bed.

Bree scrambled to right herself, but quickly gave up. She made to crawl across the bed toward the open window. They were two stories up, but what choice did she have?

Darron snatched at her ankles, missing.

From behind her, it sounded like Samelqo was struggling with Osen.

Bree was almost to the window—

Darron grasped her ankles and hauled her back. Anger limned his touch. His skin was hot against hers, his fingers pinched where half an hour ago they’d caressed. As he dragged her toward him, her spilled wealth—jewels, coin, and gold—raked her arms and stomach. Something jagged and sharp broke her skin and she cried out.

Darron flipped her over so she was lying on her back. His hands pressed her arms as deep as the thin bedding would allow, his thick body hulking over her so she couldn’t even kick him away.

“You’ve been holding out on me.” He leaned down, rank breath hot against Bree’s cheek.

He was going to kill her.

The whole room was quiet. Samelqo was likely dead—not that he’d be any help to her if he wasn’t. He’d poisoned her and turned her own companions against her in the span of a few minutes. All he meant was harm.

Desperate, Bree twisted her wrists, but she could only reach so far.

Her fingers glanced off something sharp—Darron pressed in close, his lips against her cheek, then his tongue—Bree snapped her fingers against her dagger, so close to her hand, and it tumbled into the dip where her hand was pressed into the bed.

Darron nudged her leg with his knee as though to part them and as he did so he loosened his hold on her wrist.

A mistake.

Bree struck without mercy, driving her blade deep into Darron’s neck. She pulled it out, hot blood pumping from the wound, coursing down her arm and splattering her face. Before he’d even realized what was happening, she drove the blade home again—stabbing hard and fast. He raised his hand to the punctures in his skin and Bree’s dagger scraped his fingers.

He stumbled off her with Bree’s knife still lodged in his throat, opening his mouth to scream or speak, but only able to gurgle. Then he collapsed.

Across the room, Osen was oddly quiet, holding Samelqo in his arms as he stared slack-jawed at his employer lying dead on the floor. “Darron?”

Osen dropped Samelqo at about the same time Bree ran for the knife.

Bree reached the fallen caravanner first. She yanked the knife from Darron’s neck. Screaming, she slashed in front of her.

Osen reached for his belt where he kept his axe, but his eyes went wide—he’d lost it. Still, he darted right up to Bree without fear, avoiding her knife thrusts and ploughing into her with a shove that knocked the wind from her breast. The thud of her back smacking the floor was strangely numb, like it was happening in a dream. Her knife clattered out of reach.

This was it. This was how she died.

Osen was on top of her, crushing her chest, crushing her belly and the baby she hadn’t even wanted. Her stomach ached like she’d swallowed shards of glass and her mouth tasted of iron. She couldn’t breathe with his body pressed against hers.


He wasn’t moving. It was a dead weight that had fallen onto her, not that of an attacker.

Bree heaved with everything inside her, squeezing out from under Osen and all but clawing across the floor. Her legs were numb, her insides tight.

She sat up and slouched against the bed.

Samelqo stood over Osen’s body, a bloody axe gripped in his hand.

Bree sneaked a glance at Osen, then snapped her attention away at a glimpse of pink brain matter exploding from a hole in his skull.

She swallowed and closed her eyes, stroking her hand across her belly. “I should have told them to kill you,” she cursed, voice hoarse. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”

“There’s no time for that now,” Samelqo urged. The floor creaked like he’d approached her. “Someone might’ve heard the noise. We should be gone before anyone discovers what we’ve done.”

If he meant to escape with her, could that mean he hadn’t poisoned the wine after all? Could the pain be in her mind?

Bree opened her eyes to find Samelqo’s offered hand thrust out at her. She scowled and brushed it aside. With a grimace, she forced herself to her feet. She turned her back on him and started gathering what she could of her wealth from the bed. “What you’ve done. I was fine where I was, until you appeared.” She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “You poisoned me. Why? What have I ever done to you? I had nothing to do with Eshmunen.”

“The poison—”

So, there had been poison.

Bree’s blood-slick fingers smeared every ring and every necklace she picked up, and she was forced to shove them, stained and sticky, into the pockets of her ruined dress. Her long black hair was red-tinted rope. With trembling fingers, she reached for it and squeezed. Crimson droplets pattered onto the floor.

“The poison?” Bree asked, turning back to face him.

Samelqo was staring, horrified, at her belly. Panic seized her for an instant—she must have been cut during the fight—but no. He was staring because the blood had so soaked through the cloth that it stuck tight to her rounding body.

“You’re pregnant.”

Was that remorse in his voice? Concern?

Caern curse the bastard. Curse him for all he’d brought on her and curse him for pretending to care.

Bree wanted to slap him. She marched toward him to do just that, but only a cubit out of reach her vision spun and she stumbled.

Samelqo caught her, that same shocked expression on his face.

Bree shoved him, but all her strength had melted away, and instead she found herself draped against him and clinging for support. He dragged her to the bed.


“What did you do?” she hated the pleading sound in her voice, hated that he’d stolen her fight.

“A mistake,” he said, hurried. “We have to leave, while you can still walk. I have a cart outside, but we need to make it past the drunks downstairs.”

A cart.

“Where did you plan to take me?” Her words came harder, slower. Her thoughts were spinning almost as much as her vision.

Samelqo shouldered her with a heave and a groan. Then she was on her feet, legs wobbling, seeming to want to race ahead of her steps. They’d reached the door before he answered. “Qemassen.”

Bree’s heart thudded. “He’ll kill me.” The words slipped out, quiet as the distant sound of rolling dice and drunken cheers from downstairs.

“Who?” Samelqo stepped slowly, tentatively, down each step, using the narrowness of the stairwell to brace them so that Bree’s dress must be painting the wall red.

“Aurelius. He’s not good like he pretended.” The words felt thick, heavy in her mouth, her Massenqa coming harder to her.


The carving.

“My—my thing.” She jerked in Samelqo’s grip.

For an instant, they tottered on the stairs, but Samelqo regained control of them, gripping her tighter. “Ashtet’s cunt,” he spat. “Stay still.”

“My carving—I have to go back.” But she didn’t move. She didn’t even try. She wasn’t even sure she could fight Samelqo off if he attacked her.

Auelius’s carving was lost to her.

“Be patient,” hushed Samelqo as they neared the last of the stairs.

Men and women yelled curses and shouts and whoops of glee as beer and wine and dice sloshed and rattled across the wooden tables in the wide room. A few patrons glanced their way, but their attention was fleeting. It was too dark in the room to be able to easily see the blood. To anyone watching, it probably looked as though Bree had passed out against Samelqo and he was helping her outside.

Something stirred in Bree’s breast as they crossed the threshold of the inn and stepped cautiously into the night. Her skin tingled gently across her ribs and chest, the soft breeze bringing relief from the stink of the blood still covering her. Her vision, though blurred, had stilled somewhat, but it was getting harder to hold her head up. She slumped against Samelqo, using his shoulder like a pillow.

“Aurelius.” Bree spoke his name against Samelqo. “Kill.”

“I doubt that.” Samelqo huffed under her weight, dragging her into the shadows outside the inn. “True, I have no friends in Qemassen any longer, but it’s my home, and she is in danger the longer she has no one to guide her.”

It must be a testament to her sickness that the sound of his voice was a comfort. Ordinary words spoken into the wind as though she wasn’t falling into a terrible sleep.                               

A stand of tall palms stretched their fronds toward the star-speckled sky. In the darkness, they could be hands.

Trees, arms hanging. Down, down, at the bottom. Caern’s hounds. Roe. Roe, Samelqo.

Bree laughed into his shoulder. Rhyming games. She’d played games before, games with Aurelius. She’d tied him up, refused to let him touch her. What a fun game.

Her body slumped onto something flat—a table? No, a cart. He’d mentioned a cart. And he was standing in front of her—no, kneeling. His shape moved to the left, to leave her—

No.” She snatched his cloak, and he pulled it away.

“I won’t be far. I have medicine.”

He was gone. “My thing—my—” She was holding her hand out, and the force almost sent her tumbling from the cart onto the ground. “Aurel—” Her mouth tasted fuzzy and swollen.

The cold air was an emptiness embracing her. The sky was a shroud. Damp, she shivered. Alone, she waited.

And then he was back, holding something. Another vial. He crept in close.

Bree pulled back, shuffling further onto the cart. “No.”

The blur that was Samelqo sighed. “It’s medicine. You take it, or I force it down your throat.”

“No.” Bree tore at her clothes. “No. No. Where is it. My thing―where is it? Where is my thing?!”

“I wasn’t always a priest.” Samelqo stood up. In one hand, he held the vial and in the other—

Her carving.

Bree ambled to her feet, a rush of energy propelling her movements. “You took him.”


My son.

Bree strode toward Samelqo, confident she could overpower him, even kill him if she wanted. He was just an old man. “Give it back!” Bree lunged, but instead of taking hold of him she tumbled to the ground, her fingers closing about empty air.

“We travel together. Wherever you’re going, I’ll be coming too.” Samelqo took a step closer. “And drink this medicine.”

“Idiot,” Bree hissed, and she stood up. “I’ll just kill you. I could kill you. Take it back.”

She could barely see Samelqo anymore, just a blur that moved independent of the shifting background of the stars and the trees and the road. She could hear travellers and locals wandering, whispering. All the voices she heard coalesced into a great thunder, the sound of waves and splitting wood and her heart torn in two.

“Take it back,” she said in her mother tongue, but the colours had stopped, and the noise. Everything was black, everything was silent.


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