0 Prologue,  Chapter Section

Crown: Chapter 3: II: Aurelius

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Chapter 3: Lora

Section I

Aurelius – The Palace: Qemassen

A wet rat of a man with lank black hair and a beard so thick it looked like coal-painted coral stood before Aurelius and his table of counselors with the defiantly proud posture of someone a hundred times cleaner and significantly better dressed. Beside him, Fritha eq-Ifar might as well be an Ashqen of Ashtet.

Fritha had summoned the lot of them to the king’s council chamber with what he’d claimed was significant news. From the look of things, it wasn’t news Fritha hoped to impart, but lice.

The Loran—for it was obvious he was a Loran prisoner—stunk like he’d crawled straight from a sewer drain. It seemed a little late to ask for a ransom from his family. And what secrets could he have that would be of any use to Qemassen? The battle was over, if not the war, and whatever information the Loran had been privy to, it was out of date.

“Who is this man?” Aurelius set his gaze on Fritha. “And why should I care?”

For the first day out of countless others, Aurelius felt strangely himself―capable, affable, and as sure of himself as he was of the sunrise. The why of it—a drop of sapenta in the early hours of the morning—wasn’t so happy a thing to dwell on, but perhaps it wasn’t so important, either. Today was a good day to be a king. He had a plan for the future and for Qemassen. This impromptu meeting was an opportunity to show Hima he had as much of an interest in Qemassen’s wellbeing as she did.

Fritha dared glare, which almost made Aurelius smile. “Varco Drenda, an admiral of the Lora navy.”

Varco Drenda’s clothes were so threadbare they might well be the ones he’d worn the day of the attack. He refused to meet Aurelius’s gaze, head bowed. It was an oddly humble gesture when contrasted with the rest of his pose, and not one that advantaged Aurelius.

Aurelius’s face was his best weapon, but what good was smiling at a man who wouldn’t look at him?

“Drenda,” Aurelius mused. “That’s a noble name, is it not?” he continued in Lora. He’d just have to fight one-handed. A good thing his wit was ever as sharp as the cut of his jaw.

Hima turned to watch him. She’d never been a master of language, not like her brothers and sister.

“You speak our words well, Sese,” Drenda replied in Massenqa. “If all our enemies were so clever, perhaps we would lose more battles.”

“We’re enemies, are we?” Aurelius cracked a smile, though with Drenda still making eyes at the floor, it was wasted.

Around the table, Aurelius’s council watched both Drenda and each other with varying degrees of curiosity, distaste, and boredom.

Shaqarbas lounged, leisurely, on his seat, attention on Fritha, while Qanmi clasped his hands atop the table, sparing a subtle glance at Eshant. Hima’s arms were crossed in front of her, expression defiant as she looked Drenda up and down. Titrit was absent, but Aurelius had taken the liberty of requesting her sister be present. Eshant sat beside her father, out of place amongst the fine flock of Semassenqa assembled in the room. Aurelius followed her gaze to its conclusion—the coin flitting between Fritha’s fingers. Fritha was watching Varco, waiting for a response.

Everyone watching everyone else. They could have a contest to see who watched the hardest.

“I’m a militia man,” Drenda answered. “I think you’ll find our countries are at war. I believe that is the definition of what makes one your enemy. To some men, anyway.”

Aurelius cocked his head to the side. “To you?”

Drenda’s shoulder length mop of hair slipped in front of his face, neck still bent in deference. “My enemy in war, naturally.”

“We’ve won the war.” Shaqarbas snorted, then reached across the table and plucked a sprig of grapes from a dish.

“You won a battle.” This time a sharpness entered Drenda’s voice, like it was a correction. He raised his head, staring at Shaqarbas.

“A battle that destroyed your army,” Hima spat.

Aurelius leaned forward, assessing Drenda’s expression, his harsh features, his grey eyes like storm clouds.

“We have other armies.” Was that the hint of a smile in Drenda’s eyes?

“Indas is no longer yours.” Shaqarbas chewed his grapes noisily, swallowed, then plucked another. “One of your little lackeys has taken her for himself.”

For barely an instant, Drenda’s eyes widened, but soon he regained his composure. “Hadrianus was always ambitious. A grasper.” He paused. “But we have others still. Men of Lorar fight for Lora goals, while you depend on foreign mercenaries to win your landed battles. Such a city cannot survive for long, not alone.”

Aurelius laughed. “He’s bold, Fritha. I like him. If you brought him here to entertain me though, I’ll tell you now I prefer a man with a handsome face.”

Aurelius didn’t have to be sitting close to Qanmi to feel the scorn that radiated from him at even the hint Aurelius might take someone besides Titrit to bed. He ignored Qanmi’s displeasure with well-honed ease. Even better than pissing off his sister, was pissing off Qanmi eq-Sabaal.

Fritha cleared his throat. “He has a proposition, I believe.”

Aurelius caught Drenda’s eye at last, tugging the soldier’s attention toward him. Drenda seemed entirely unaffected by Aurelius’s appearance. He looked Aurelius’s way like he might have any other man.

“Then please.” Aurelius tapped his fingers against the surface of the lapis tabletop. “Propose.”

Drenda took a step toward the table.

Fritha’s arm shot out, pressing flat against Drenda’s chest. His coin clinked onto the ground. “Close enough.”

At least Fritha was concerned for Aurelius’s safety. That suggested some loyalty. “Let him be, Fritha. If he kills me from across the table, I’ll be impressed.” Besides, his hands were bound behind his back.

Fritha lowered his hand, then bent to retrieve his coin.

Though freed, Drenda remained where he was. “When I set sail from Lorar, I left a city almost entirely under Red Faction control. If you understand that much, you probably know the leader of Red Faction is a man named Marianus Rufus. He killed my cousin’s husband, a Lora senator, through manipulation and guile, in public, in front of the Lora people. This war was Marianus’s powerplay. Now his navy’s been defeated it’s the perfect time for my family to expose him for the fraud he is.”

“How does this help us?” Shaqarbas asked.

Drenda nodded at Shaqarbas, an intentionality to his movements, to his expression, as though he were only now in his element. “My clan is Yellow Faction, largely in opposition to war with your people. Allow me to contact my family. Fritha tells me my cousin’s already beginning to turn the rest of the senate against Marianus―even his Red Faction minions can’t do anything to help him in the face of her evidence. Marianus is stuck in eq-Anout, with little chance of pleading his own case.”

Aurelius raised an eyebrow. “Marianus is in eq-Anout with an army. He could march west if he wanted, or sail north and force your senators into submission.”

Drenda’s thin lips pressed together, all the thinner for it. “I won’t lie. There’s a possibility he may attack Qemassen, once he realizes how isolated he’s become from Lorar. He might also march south, to take Ajwata―easier prey for one looking to redeem himself in the eyes of the senate.”

Hima scoffed. “Ajwata is no easy prize, not with the Sajit to guard her. The desert’s defeated more than one foolhardy general stupid enough to test its sands.”

“The Sands of Hazzan,” Shaqarbas added, an ominous tenor to his voice, “the deep Sajit. Things worse than men lurk beyond eq-Anout’s borders.”

For all the moment in Shaqarbas’s words, they probably didn’t mean much to a northerner, and even if they did, most of the tales that made their way out of the desert were exaggerated children’s stories. There was the heat though, the waterlessness of the waste. Such things were a lot to contend with, and even more hazardous to a northern army unequipped for such harsh terrain.

The hollows in Drenda’s cheeks twitched like he’d clenched his jaw. “Marianus has spent most of his life on campaign in the far north. Whatever else I think of him, he’s no coward. He’s a risk-taker, a gambler. The threat of the Qarnaama won’t scare him off if he thinks he’ll find glory in the desert. If she doesn’t frighten him, they won’t.”

“You mentioned a she before,” said Aurelius.

Drenda nodded—a tick of his, it seemed, maybe born of his military training. “Qordelia. My cousin. Wife to the murdered senator. His name was Yakovius Lutelian Azizin. Now she takes up the call, and names herself Lutelian.”

A woman taking a senator’s title. Aurelius had never read about such a thing in any of the histories Samelqo had assigned him as a boy. Even more unusual, it was clear Yakovius could claim Eru heritage. Drenda’s family was teasingly complex; Aurelius hadn’t been gifted such a puzzle in months. “Lutelian―that’s the mark of a Yellow Faction senator, is it not? Like Rufus, in the case of Marianus.”

Another nod. “Correct.”

Aurelius smiled. “I should like to meet this Qordelia Lutelian, the better to judge her character. A woman raised to the rank of Lora senator must have a lot of character.”

“A lot of nerve,” Qanmi broached. “It is rare indeed to find a woman worth listening to, who rules by reason and not manipulation.”

“Rare,” Fritha agreed, with glance in Qanmi’s direction, “but not unheard of. Not all are plagued by hysterics and whimsy.”

Aurelius didn’t bother speaking up with Hima in the room, waiting instead for her inevitable retort. He wasn’t waiting long.

“True,” Hima snapped, “your daughters are both hysterical creatures―how wise of the king to shut his ears to their seductions.”

All but Eshant fidgeted at Hima’s chiding. Her aloofness—that slump of her shoulders and the way she looked so carefully. She was intriguing, he’d give her that.

Almost as intriguing as Drenda’s cousin.

Aurelius leaned forward, about to say something clever to ease the bristling hackles of a room full of unimaginative men, but the movement made his head spin, the sapenta that had smoothed his mood choosing now of all times to play its tricks on him.

Drenda spoke again before Aurelius had a chance to. “Qordelia is beginning to sway the senate, if the rumours are true, but convincing them to listen and convincing them to act are two different things. Some men require more than words to open their ears to argument. In fact, it’s what I wanted to ask of you.” He turned to address Aurelius, his already deep voice dropping deeper. It had the sound of a commander’s pitch, as though this were how he spoke to his men.

“Give me what support you can,” Drenda continued, “Allow me access to my captured men, and my family will argue your cause with all the weight of our name.”

Hima scoffed. “What cause? Your ships lie smashed with ours at the bottom of the bay.”

“They do, Sese. And yet, as I’ve said, Marianus remains a threat to both Lorar and Qemassen.” Drenda faced her, no sign of disrespect on his face. Was it a deliberate gesture, to show he honoured her where Qanmi and the others didn’t? Perhaps the Loran wasn’t so bad.

“I assume you want this support to be discreet,” Aurelius said with a smirk. “I can’t imagine the Lora senate will look well on a family who’s been paid by King Rat to whisper praises in their ears.”

Aurelius had hoped for some reaction from Drenda at the mention of the no-doubt affectionate nickname thrust on the kings of Qemassen, but he remained unflinching no matter what Aurelius seemed to say.

“Support no one here will have any reason to reveal,” Drenda pressed, his tone and bearing enough to make it clear his statement was a warning.

“His boldness is entertaining, don’t you think, Shaqarbas?” Aurelius kept his gaze on Drenda all the while, making it just as clear he wouldn’t be shaken by a stern look and a hard voice. “You’re very open about your bribes, Loran.”

Drenda seemed to remember suddenly he stood before a king and went silent before bowing his head rigidly.

Humourless and immoveable was this one, but not, it seemed, a bad man.

Aurelius flicked his wrist at Fritha. “The Lora prefer to wear their hair short, don’t they? Fritha?”

It took a moment for Fritha to realize Aurelius wanted an answer, managing a clumsy, “I believe so, Sese. Most of the men I’ve seen have cut it so. They consider it a sign of good discipline and modesty.”

Aurelius’s smile warmed. “Not like me then―undisciplined and immodest.”

“Something you might try harder to disguise,” Hima offered, as though expecting the others to join her and laugh. No one did, which was more uncomfortable than if they had. Hima’s warnings came back to him―that Shaqarbas, Qanmi, and Fritha were more dangerous, perhaps, than he’d considered. Aurelius had thought Fritha and Shaqarbas his friends, and maybe they had been before his coronation.

Did a king ever have friends? Certainly, his father had spent the majority of his time alone with the vague sorrows that had always seemed to demand his attention.

Aurelius opened his mouth to speak when a deep voice—not a man’s voice—outpaced him.

“Better to be honest,” said Eshant, “about what you are. Men will respect you if you’re honest. I think our guest would agree.”

Such a naïve statement, from Qanmi’s daughter of all people. But Aurelius couldn’t say he disagreed. Then again, when had he ever been honest? Yet here he sat, while Ashtaroth had lost both his mind and his throne for all his rambling honesty.

Shaqarbas laughed. “A child of Qanmi preaching about honesty? I’ve heard it all.”

The barb snuffed Eshant’s breath like it was a candle and she averted her gaze once more, shoulders drawn inward as though she longed to make herself as small as possible and was desperately aware how impossible such a thing was.

She probably wouldn’t appreciate Aurelius staring. He returned his attention to Drenda. “Does honesty please you?”

“Any good man appreciates honesty. Were you to speak with my countrymen they would attest to my character. To answer your earlier question,” and here he fidgeted with the frayed edge of his sleeve in a way that surprised, “I wouldn’t decline a haircut. Or a bath.”


“I didn’t offer a bath,” Aurelius said with utmost seriousness. When Drenda remained unsmiling, Aurelius relented. Humourless indeed. “A bath and fresh clothes.” He cocked his chin at Fritha. “Get him a room in the palace and have Cheti find the man a slave while I consider his bribe.”

Fritha hesitated, but at last he slipped his coin back into the folds of his robes and turned to usher Drenda out of the room.

With Fritha and Drenda gone, the room felt oddly still and empty.

Aurelius sighed and leaned his head back, forgetting for a moment that there was anyone at all around to judge him. He closed his eyes.

He’d thought himself well, but the dizziness brought on by the sapenta now came in waves. Dashel would be unimpressed, Hima had been right.

A small laugh escaped him.

“What’s so funny?” asked Hima.

Aurelius opened his eyes. “Nothing. Nothing is funny. It’s all so very un-funny.”

Hima scowled. “I’m sorry kingship has proved so dull for you. Let us know how we can better entertain you in future.”

As Aurelius sat up, he hoped Hima could feel the full weight of the flat stare he shot her.

“The Feislandan is struggling to maintain his relevance,” said Qanmi, “He wants you to visit her, you know. His queen. That’s all this was―a show to make us think he can still do something for this city, that he has more to contribute than empty pockets and coin tricks.”

Shaqarbas grinned. “Some talent, to have empty pockets as well as coins for tricks.” As he sat forward, his ever-expanding belly pressed further against the table.

How had the Sun of Indas let himself slip into old age so gracelessly? He’d been a giant of a man to Aurelius all throughout his childhood―almost godlike. All Aurelius’s indulgence—was that what it led to?

“Does it matter why he’s made himself useful?” Hima rolled her shoulder, almost a shrug. “He’s being useful; that’s all I care about―it’s all any of us should care about. If the price is a visit to Eaflied’s quarters then maybe Aurelius should pay her a visit.”

Hima’s comment shocked Aurelius from his stupor.

Qanmi leaned forward, wrapping his ringed knuckles against the table. “You’d argue for peace? You? Truly?”

Aurelius stared at her. “I thought you’d want to make the Lora pay, for Zimrida if nothing else.”

Hima furrowed her brow. “There are many ways to war, Aurel. I’ve trained in most of them, as have you, when you could be bothered to pay attention. A quick, decisive victory would be best, but with the city half in ruins we can spare neither the money nor the men. I propose we take Varco Drenda up on his offer―sow seeds of dissent back in Lorar. Set the Lora dogs at each other’s throats.”

For once Aurelius found little fault with his sister’s suggestion.

“So, you think she’ll fail—” Shaqarbas hesitated before speaking the foreign name aloud, “Qordelia.”

Qanmi leaned back against his chair, crossing his arms. “It doesn’t matter who wins or fails. Whether it’s the bitch or the hound who comes out on top, their tussle will leave behind a country ravaged by civil war. A wise king would prepare to make his move in the aftermath.”

Hima snorted. “A wise king.”

This time, Qanmi chuckled.

Poor Hima—it was a bad sign to have Qanmi eq-Sabaal laughing at your jibes. But then—should he be concerned that they laughed so openly? Normally, he’d have laughed with them, but perhaps they could see in his eyes how drunk on Molot’s Wine he’d been all yesterday and the day before, how even now it nipped at him, turning the world voluptuous and strange.

He’d come here with a plan. For Qemassen.

The light was growing dimmer in the small room. It had been daylight when the meeting had begun, but the windowless chamber always gave the impression of night. The oil was growing low in the lamps, the air thick from their fumes. “An ambassador then, to treat with the Lora, and coin for Drenda to fund his cousin.”

“You won’t be sending the Loran back himself?” asked Eshant.

“Are you slow?” spat Hima. “Who’s to say what cause Drenda would support once he’d sailed home? We keep him here, safe, a guest, until Qordelia wins or dies trying. One of our own must sail to Lorar.”

“And to eq-Anout? To Indas?” Shaqarbas asked. “If Lorar is a dog it’s a three-headed one. Before we concern ourselves with foreign lands, shouldn’t we turn our attention to the liberation of friends and neighbours?”

Friends?” said Hima. “Rat-faced traitors, more like. All the better if Ledan and her sister cities burn with Marianus.”

“Your grandmother was of eq-Anout,” Qanmi dared. The look Hima shot him could have wilted a whole hill of towering cedars.

“And Indas?” Shaqarbas pressed. He turned on Aurelius. “Your mother’s country. Have you forgotten her so soon? They say she bleeds, that she burns. She’s been bleeding since Qorelibas slaughtered your uncle and our family.”

Shaqarbas’s hands gripped the arms of his chair as though he were prepared to stand.

Didn’t Shaqarbas know how deeply Aurelius dreamed of retaking Moniqa’s home? It wasn’t some fig to be reached out and plucked. Half a year ago it had finally seemed time, the whole of Indas spread open to him for the taking. Had Aurelius pressed west instead of returning to Qemassen, an Indan king might even now be ruling in the City of Reeds. As it had turned out, Qemassen hadn’t needed Aurelius―the wave had been enough to see the siege broken. That moment was long-past though, and now another army stood between Aurelius and his mother’s homeland.

Aurelius sighed. “Neither Indas nor eq-Anout have been forgotten.” He paused, letting the moment hang silently, letting the room await his voice. “Can anyone speak to the truth of these rumours about Hadrianus’s son? How dangerous he?”

Hima shook her head. “No one knows. The west falls silent one village at a time. What little we’ve learned has been third or fourth-hand from the mouths of sailors. More than a few claim to have seen or spoken to refugees fleeing toward Qemassen.”

If the Inda were fleeing east, what were the chances Hadrianus’s heir wouldn’t follow? Was his plan to join with Luqiferus and double his troops? Qemassen didn’t have enough of an army left if it came to battle. The best they could hope was that the southern wall would hold long enough for this unknown conqueror to grow bored. Then again, perhaps Hadrianus’s son would ignore Qemassen altogether. Perhaps all he meant to do was secure Lera and the other Inda towns before Lorar had a chance to destroy him. Perhaps he intended to take Lorar itself.

Whatever the Loran’s goal, it was essential Aurelius learned what it was.

He needed to be quick and clever. His wits—he needed his wits. And besides, this was what he’d come here to announce—his plan to prove to Hima he was worthy of the crown everyone could see she coveted.

Aurelius closed his eyes again, holding his breath for several heartbeats, willing the world to cease its turning.

Aurelius was neither Shaqarbas, nor Eshmunen, nor even Moniqa. At his core, he was what he had always been―the man Dashel had crowned. The man Shaqarbas had supported.

“We can’t act blindly,” he said, “and the Lora are too much of a threat to ignore. Ambassadors will have to be sent to all three of our enemies to gather information, if not alliances. Whomever travels north will deal with Qordelia and the Lora senate―two more to meet with Marianus and the Loran boy in Indas.”

“We could recall Luqqan,” suggested Qanmi. “What good is Ajwata for an ally when all she does is hide away across the desert? Better to be rid of them.”

Hima turned a grudging eye toward Qanmi. “Luqqan is the most experienced with the Lora senate. He served nine years there before he was recalled by Grandfather.”

“A good man,” Shaqarbas agreed. “I met him once long ago. He’s wasted on the south.”

Aurelius sucked his teeth. “Nine years during my grandfather’s reign . . . how old would you say this man is? How long since any of you has seen or spoken with him in person?”

Shaqarbas blinked. “Older than I am―seventy-five, at a guess. He was younger than Samelqo, that I remember.”

Aurelius raised an eyebrow. “Almost everyone alive is younger than Samelqo was, and how many old men do you trust to be as level-headed as the heq-Ashqen when he died? No. Let Luqqan rest where he is. From his reports, Ajwata’s climate suits him well. Besides, I’d keep one eye on our southern ally. They’ve yet to send a new ambassador to Qemassen.”

“Little wonder, when the last one returned in a shroud.” Qanmi’s expression was calmer than Aurelius would have expected. He’d grieved so deeply after Djana’s death, even months after the attack in Molot’s gardens. Suddenly, it seemed Qanmi’s sadness had evaporated into the hot air.

“Who then, Sese?” Shaqarbas asked.

Aurelius turned to Shaqarabas and smiled. “You have sons, have you not? Choose whomever you think most suited to the task―one to Lorar, one to eq-Anout. You’ve been a good counselor to me; I would reward you with honours for your children.”

Hopefully Hima was smiling. She’d all but accused Shaqarbas of having designs on the throne the day she’d dragged him from Ashtet’s temple, as though Shaqarbas’s sons might rob her own of their birthright.

Ever the prince, Shaqarbas bowed his neck, though a certain tightness at the corners of his mouth betrayed his concern. “I thank you, Sese. It is an hounour indeed. I have two in mind already―good boys, strong and well-studied. Gemelas has always been fascinated by those scroll-sniffing Djeberetza.”

“And to Indas?” Qanmi spoke a mere instant after Shaqarbas had finished, so soon he might have cut him off. “Surely the father of such noble children would make the ideal envoy?” Qanmi glanced sidelong in Shaqarbas’s direction. “You speak so often of returning home, Prince, what a perfect opportunity to do so.”

“And lose his head,” Aurelius added. “Sending him could be seen as incitement to war. Shaqarbas retains a claim to the Inda throne―Hadrianus’s son would be a fool to let him live.” Aurelius smiled at Qanmi. “I had someone else in mind.”

All smugness drained from Qanmi’s face like sludge from a dirty drain. “You’d send me away―the father of your wife? We know nothing of this boy-king; he could be a tyrant, a madman.”

Realization gripped Eshant fierce and quick, her composure slipping. A frantic, corned look glowed in her eyes. “A death-trap,” she pleaded, “you said so yourself.”

Aurelius shook his head. “Sabaal eq-Sabaal was ambassador to Indas for quite some time. Your family has a history with Indas, enough to be knowledgeable, but not to cause offense. What would be deadly for Shaqarbas is well-suited for Qanmi, and an honour besides. I place a great deal of trust in your diplomatic skills, Qanmi. Win me the Loran’s allegiance and you will be well rewarded.”

“Rewarded with a plot in Molot’s gardens,” Qanmi spat. He jolted to his feet, chair scraping the floor. His dainty face was contorted in a snarl. “I will do your bidding, Sese. I will meet this devil of the west. Pray I don’t return, for it is an honour I might seek to repay should I survive it.”

Near as fast as the words left Qanmi’s lips, Shaqarbas’s hand was on his sword hilt. “A bold threat,” Shaqarbas growled from beneath his beard. “Be careful, Qanmi.”

Perhaps Shaqarbas hadn’t been as insulted as all that by Aurelius’s ploy to remove his sons.

Qanmi was another matter. He grabbed Eshant by the wrist and dragged her up out of her seat. She stumbled after her father, all the way to the door. He turned to face Aurelius, bearing his teeth in a glittering smile. “A fortnight and I will relieve you of my presence. Treat my daughter well in my absence. I fear you will regret the loss of my company, along with its many conveniences.”

Qanmi stormed off, Eshant in tow.

Had Hima or Shaqarbas understood the meaning of his words? Surely though, Hima would be pleased to know the procurer of Aurelius’s earthly delights had been sent away.

When Aurelius turned to her though, her expression was sour and unyielding.

“Our meeting, I fear, is at an end,” Aurelius said with a smile, a poor attempt to diffuse the heated atmosphere. At least the daylight had been let in as Qanmi fled. The smoke from the braziers flooded out, weaving like serpents across the surface of the water.

“Sometimes you can be so stupid.” Hima stood up. “Qanmi eq-Sabaal is a poisonous little worm, but at least while he was here, he was our worm. Now you’ve insulted him to his face―what do you think he’ll do once he meets this Loran king? He has no loyalty to us, to our throne.”

Aurelius shrugged one shoulder. “He won’t betray me―not with Titrit ruling as my queen. I may not like Qanmi, but I meant what I said―he’s a good diplomat, when he keeps his pride in check. He’ll do as I asked or die trying. Isn’t that how you put it?”

Shaqarbas snorted. “No need, I take it, to voice my preference in the matter?” He got to his feet, then bowed. “Good day, Sese. I must see to my children, to tell them of the great honour they’ve been blessed with today.”

“True children of Qemassen,” Hima offered.

“True children of Indas,” was all the reply she received.

Aurelius joined Hima, and the two of them stepped beyond the doors to the council room. The air outside had cooled somewhat from earlier in the day, and a soothing breeze kissed Aurelius’s cheeks.

Whatever Hima thought, whatever Qanmi feared, Aurelius had done a good thing today. He ought to allow himself some grace—a small celebration.

There was the temple, of course, with its women and its wines. There was his study, with its promise of scrolls and secrets and stories. He’d neglected his philosophical work of late; it might be time he returned to it.

He strolled alongside Hima in silence, frightened, slightly, by how good he felt. How confident. How like himself.

Then Hima stopped at a fork in the corridor. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Aurel, because I have no idea.”

“I’m heeding your warnings,” Aurelius answered. “You told me Shaqarbas’s children were a threat, so I’ve sent them away. Qanmi’s poison, so let him sour someone else’s cup.”

Hima was looking at him so strangely, so sadly. The quiet of her expression was disturbing.

“You don’t seem yourself,” Hima said, tone oddly gentle. “You haven’t for some time. You have your reasons, I know, but I wish you’d try and forget them.”

A tightness at the corners of Aurelius’s lips. “They’re forgotten.”

She shook her head. “No. You’re lying. I don’t think you forget anything. You’ve always been too clever for that.”

Aurelius laughed a little, admiring the sunlight as it caught Hima’s hair. “Praise? From my sister? How novel.”

The wistful look in Hima’s golden eyes was short-lived. She scowled as she turned from him. “Just be careful, Aurel. I’ve lost too much already to lose you too.”

Once Hima had left him, Aurelius headed for his rooms, grateful for the privacy that allowed him to walk at a more comfortable pace. Though the effects of the sapenta were easing, he still had to fight off nausea, the hot sun taking its toll as he sauntered homeward along the palace’s winding, terraced walkways. How Dashel had ever managed to function at all while indulging so heavily was a newly curious mystery.

Aurelius turned a corner.

Pat pat. Thunk.

Footsteps in the hall behind him, fast-approaching and heavy with urgency.

Aurelius tensed. He had no weapon, had dismissed his slaves before he’d even entered the council room. All he had were his fists.

He swerved round just as the footsteps caught up with him and snatched out his arm to grab whoever was approaching.

His fingers closed around empty air. The stalker had stopped just before reaching him.

Qanmi’s daughter.

“Eshant?” Aurelius lowered his hand even as she raised hers, the decanter of wine she held in one hand splashing across his face.

Wine dripped from his nose, his cheeks, his hair.

Aurelius mopped at his face with his sleeve. He started to smile at the girl, but before he could speak she’d lifted the jug a second time, splashing him again.

Aurelius spit out wine. “I could have you killed for that,” he joked, though he might only be half-kidding. “Let me guess―you thought I’d look better in red?”

Eshant dropped the metal decanter onto the floor, where it clattered before rolling against the railing above the riad. “Have me killed then―or would you rather send me across the desert to treat with the Sons of Hazzan?”

Aurelius frowned at his wine-soaked sleeve. He sucked back a deep breath. “An ambassadorship isn’t a punishment, or a death sentence. Am I the only one who’s not an idiot?”

Eshant narrowed her eyes, drawing herself up to an impressive height—one she evidently went to great pains to disguise on days when she wasn’t attempting to intimidate her king. “Maybe, but you’re also a shit.” She paused, glaring. “Do I have your permission to go, Sese?”

“What does it matter? You didn’t need my permission to arrive.”

Eshant gave an awkward, clumsy bow, lumbering off down the hall as though pouring a jug of wine over Aurelius’s head was retribution enough for the so-called slight.


It had been an insult. Aurelius had meant it as one, and as an insult it had been received.

Aurelius didn’t think he wanted Qanmi dead, but didn’t want him close, either. Was the mission really so dangerous?

Before his own coronation, Aurelius had longed to travel the world, to set his feet down at least once in his mother’s homeland. If Hadrianus’s son was a fool and a degenerate, then so what? All kings were shackled in one way or another by the rules of diplomacy, even degenerates. Qanmi’s worries were only paranoia. Aurelius should be so lucky as to stand in his place.

And Eshant—

Aurelius smiled to himself as wine dripped onto the floor.

What a curious woman, who felt no fear as she stared down a king.

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