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Chapter I: Orphans
Aurelius – Ashtet’s Temple: Qemassen
She was sweat and sweet and heat, and she was laughing, kissing him, smiling, happy. Aurelius kissed her back, long and hard, pulling her against him, pulling her down as he leaned back against the cushioned settee where they were lounging. It wasn’t his bed, wasn’t his home, wasn’t his wife. And he felt better for that.
Lately, he always felt better for that.
Beside him, on a patterned stool, his dagger glinted next to what little remained of Qanmi’s sapenta. The Ajwatat who now lay on the floor with her head propped against the settee had swallowed most of the poppy drink before collapsing in ecstatic oblivion, leaving Aurelius and the second woman to their fun. Not that she was missing much, with her heart no doubt sailing Tanata’s clouds. Aurelius and his beautiful stranger were only paddling in the shallows.
He leaned his head back and back over the rim of the cedarwood and the woman whose name he didn’t know and hadn’t asked slunk lower. Face to chest with him, she curled the tip of her tongue inside the notch at the base of his neck then licked slowly upwards, tracing a straight line from hollow to chin.
Aurelius’s skin prickled. He closed his eyes.
Her tongue was soft, but in his mind it was a hard dagger. In his mind, cold metal shaved slow against his skin. Its sharpened point drew blood with so little pressure. A bead of red, caught on the blade’s edge. As welcome as a lover’s touch.
He’d scraped it hard against his skin when he’d been playing with it two days ago—the shear so close it’d caused a rash.
Let me have you, it had said, as the woman said now, pulling at his flesh, crawling atop him, the breath of her words tickling the hairs on his skin. He reached his arms all the way around her. He dug the tips of his fingers in just enough, delicately drawing them down her spine and smiling when she squealed.
Flesh and steel swarmed before him when he closed his eyes, or when he opened them. Was this how Dashel had felt? Was it what had kept him alive?
Until Aurelius had killed him.
Aurelius laughed, off-pitch, and the beautiful stranger sat up, straddling him. Her confusion was ice cold in the air.
Without opening his eyes, Aurelius traced his fingers across her torso, feeling her ribs, the dip of her stomach, her belly button. He should ease her worries. Perhaps she feared the displeasure of a king. Perhaps she did this out of duty.
He’d lost them.
The thought pulsed in his skull, bobbing on a sea of sapenta and wine.
He’d killed them.
The woman’s hands cupped his shoulders, the hair between her legs rough and soft all at once against his cock.
Now there was only him. The only one he deserved. The only one he’d ever truly cared for.
He’d betrayed his brother for a whore who’d robbed him of his son, his future, his sense. It might as well have been Aurelius’s cruelty that had driven Ashtaroth mad and then missing.
Not missing. Dead. Everyone knew he was dead—like Qwella and Dashel and Aurelius’s father.
The woman slunk down, her nipples grazing his chest as she sought some new way to stir his desire. She was gentle, unsure, soft like all the others before her.
Bree’s had been a cold heat and a hard love. She’d have dug her nails in, raked them down his chest till they left a mark. She’d have bitten his lip, feigned disinterest at the skill and spectacle of Aurelius eq-Eshmunen.
Aurelius’s thoughts shifted like clouds, and as a flicker of sound escaped his lips, he reached across the void beside the settee. His fingers curled around the knife again.
He could do it here. He should tell them to leave, so they wouldn’t be blamed, so they wouldn’t be afraid.
It was selfish. But he always had been.
The blade’s hilt was rough from the coloured twine wrapped around it. It had been a coronation gift, a treasure given him by Shaqarbas as a memento of Indas.
Aurelius tensed as the woman’s lips found his cock, and he drew the dagger closer, opening his eyes. The firelight from the sconces danced along its edge.
Lately he often dreamed of fire or its aftermath. He’d be walking through the lilac garden, or the palace halls, or the city streets. Everything everywhere he looked would be coated in ash, furniture burned to black skeletons, trees turned to husks filled with soot. In the darkest moments, he began to wonder if Samelqo hadn’t been right after all, if perhaps he shouldn’t have died years ago. So much would have changed―his mother alive, and Dashel, and perhaps Ashtaroth as well.
The iron was cold against his skin, the woman warm. Aurelius turned the blade at an angle, balancing it coquettishly against his throat.
The pleasure of the woman’s mouth on him seemed strangely distant, as though it were happening to someone else. The sapenta might be to blame, or maybe it was his death come to meet him, his spirit halfway between here and someplace other. Death and sex were such close cousins. Bree would have called it a fitting end for him.
Footsteps clopped closer from somewhere nearby. Somewhere outside Aurelius, and the beautiful stranger’s tongue, and the dagger at his throat. It was too soon and too fast. He wasn’t ready yet to face what remained of his family today.
The door opened, despite his silent protests, and duty rushed in on him to break down his walls and drag him out to sea.
The beautiful woman ran her tongue along him, and a moan escaped his parted mouth. He closed his eyes and the picture of the knife returned—of blood pumping swiftly from the jagged smile at his neck. But with the opening of the door the image fled, so that he could pretend it had never been. Just in time for him to pretend for the only one left worth pretending for.
The weight and the pleasure of the beautiful stranger pulled off him, her lips and tongue leaving unfinished work while her greedy hands ripped the blanket from his feet, no doubt to cover herself.
The Ajwatat had fallen completely onto the floor but was still too drunk on sapenta to wake.
Aurelius let his arm hang limp over the side of the bed, dagger still in hand. He opened his eyes and smirked at Hima, who was standing just inside the room.
She’d found him again.
The beautiful stranger was already scurrying from the settee and toward the blocked door, like she could sense the fury radiating from Hima from all the way across the room. She didn’t want to be shut up in this tiny room alongside the heq-Damirat any more than Aurelius did.
To Hima’s credit, she stepped out of the way for the nude priestess of Ashtet.
Aurelius sighed loud enough for his sister to hear him. “Let me be, Hima.”
Hima was frowning, but that wasn’t unusual. She took the measure of him, until her gaze at last settled on the vial of Molot’s wine.
That was right. Let her take a good look. Let her seethe. Let her storm out and leave him in this tiny anteroom to the heavens—Ashtet’s chambers.
But instead of judgement, Hima’s face showed only melancholy and disappointment. For a fragile instant, Hima was the ghost of their father, but Aurelius didn’t have to wait long for her exasperation to chase away the signs of anything like sadness. It wasn’t, after all, an emotion Hima was used to feeling.
“Put some clothes on, Aurel.” Hima stalked the short distance from the door to the circle of debris scattered in front of the settee. “There’s at least one woman in Qemassen who doesn’t want to see you naked.” She bent down, retrieved Aurelius’s fine blue robe and sash belt, and tossed them at him in a bundle. Hard.
Aurelius grabbed the balled-up clothes, then swung his legs over the side of the settee. The room jerked in his vision. He smiled at her, doing his best not to let the haze of his intoxication show. “Come to return me to my prison?”
Hima snorted. “If you mean your wife, then no. If you mean your duties then an emphatic yes.” She paused. Her tone was softer when she spoke again. “How much did you take?”
The tunic was woven of fine cotton, a dark blue as deep as the sea with gold detail along the sash. Finery such as this had always suited him, yet all it did lately was remind him of his vanity.
As though it had been waiting for his thoughts to turn dark again, the dagger shone on the floor where he’d dropped it. He retrieved it casually as he could, as though it were nothing and he hadn’t been fantasizing only moments ago about painting the floor red with his own blood.
“Not enough,” Aurelius answered eventually. He stood up and tightened his belt, then slipped on his sandals. He really hadn’t taken much—not that Hima would believe him.
She turned on her heel and headed for the door, and like a dog nipping at her boots, Aurelius followed.
Or tried to. His sandals scuffed the floor a little more than he’d have liked, and he had to steady himself against the wall to keep from stumbling. He shut his eyes, pinching closed the swaying of the room. Once confident he wasn’t going to falter, he pushed himself away from his support in time to see Hima turn to face him.
“Anything is too much. Dashel wouldn’t want this. You know that.”
“Dashel’s dead.” The little room was too small for the loudness of Aurelius’s words. “I’m sorry. I’m not angry with you.”
“Then who?” It looked like Hima was squeezing her crossed arms very tight, but it wasn’t like her to be anxious. “Qemassen needs you too much for you to waste your energy hating yourself. There’s too much for me to do alone―or hadn’t you noticed the great hole in our walls on the walk to your whorehouse?”
Aurelius cracked another smile, refusing to move―it wasn’t hard; his stomach felt like it’d been turned inside out. He gestured freely at the painted peach walls with their erotic murals. Images of Ashtet and Adonen, Ashtet and Molot, Ashtet and any man and woman that would have her, stared back at them. Smiling. Happy. Free. At least, from a certain angle. “A temple, Hima. I’m praying.”
Hima’s golden eyes seemed to burn so bright they looked like they might catch fire. “Praying?” She strode past Aurelius, back to the settee, and grabbed the unconscious Ajwatat by the arm. The woman groaned without waking. Hima shook her arm as though it were a prop. Finally, she let the arm drop with a slap. “You call this prayer?” Hima gave the unconscious woman a light shove with the toe of her boot. “Maybe if you believed in the gods, I’d believe you. You’ve never prayed in your life.”
“Hima . . . let her go. She’s no one.”
Hima walked away from the woman, and as she did, the smoothness of her gait briefly wrinkled, a limp showing through. She righted herself with not a sign on her face it’d happened. “A luxury you don’t have. I need you at court; the vultures are circling. Qanmi, and Shaqarbas, and—”
A bark of laughter escaped Aurelius’s mouth unbidden. “Shaqarbas? Now I know you’ve gone truly mad, sister. Shaqarbas loves me.”
The naked woman on the floor rolled over, exposing her breasts and cock.
Hima crinkled her nose before shoving past Aurelius and out into the halls, forcing him to follow. Doors painted with yellow hyacinths lined the corridor. The sounds of other people’s fun echoed from beyond them.
Hima didn’t even turn to look at them. “Everyone loves you. But being loved is more dangerous than being hated. These people love you because you’ve made promises to them, ones they expect fulfilled. For Shaqarbas, that means retaking his homeland; for Titrit that means your steadfastness and affection.”
“I’ve never promised anyone my steadfastness. Surely no one would expect that of me.” As Aurelius followed, his footsteps grew more confident, some of the dizziness lifting. Still, he was cautious on the stairs leading down to the heiqal of Ashtet’s temple.
At the temple entrance, a handsome Ashqen of Ashtet knelt in deference, balancing cups of blue lotus tea on either of his outstretched palms. Aurelius took one. He cast the young man a smile, drinking down the Ashqen’s beauty as he did the liquid. Hima, meanwhile, made a show of spilling the contents of her own cup on the warm floor, where it sizzled in the heat of the noonday sun.
Finished, Aurelius placed the emptied cup on the Ashqen’s hand. He shot the man a wink, briefly admiring the rare freckles that dappled his warm brown skin.
As Aurelius and Hima stepped outside and headed for Hima’s litter, Aurelius had to shield his eyes from the brightness of the sun. Hima climbed inside with a fluidity Aurelius had some difficulty replicating.
The litter jogged as the slaves hefted them into the air. Aurelius reclined against his cushioned seat, closing his eyes to shut out as much of the sunlight as possible. He clutched the bridge of his nose, head beginning to throb. Drinking ordinary wine along with the sapenta had been a mistake. “So what trouble is Shaqarbas making that I should know about?”
Hima kicked Aurelius’s foot and he dragged his leg back to give her more room. “He’s heard whispers from the west. Stories of further unrest in Ipsis. He’s making noise about marching into Inda territory, using the distraction of Hadrianus’s death to take back the kingdom.”
“Shaqarbas wants to put me on the Inda throne so a countryman rules its shores again.” The steady rocking of the litter was oddly soothing, a rhythm that was lulling him back into the dreamlike state Hima had ripped him from.
Hima tsked. “You’re no countryman of his. No more than me. We have claim to Indas, but I’m sure it’s not your backside Shaqarbas envisions on the Inda throne.”
Was Hima genuinely suggesting what it sounded like? She truly was paranoid, seeing shadows where there were none. Maybe she needed to have an enemy so she didn’t have to feel the pain of Qwella and Ashtaroth’s deaths.
Aurelius’s lips were so dry. “Shaqarbas is an old man now, and a friend of our mother’s. To see her son govern in the City of Reeds would fulfill all the ambition he has for himself. Besides, he knows we have no army to spare―not with the cost of repairs what they are. Without that army he has nothing; without our patronage he has nothing.”
Hima went silent at that—for a little while anyway, which was the same as a long while for anyone else. When she spoke again, her voice was low, as though she were loath to voice her words even with no one but their litter-bearers to hear them. “He has heirs. Shaqarbas’s children grow older, and Titrit has yet to conceive a son.”
Aurelius opened his eyes and straightened. He glared. “Now we come to it. You think he’ll steal Hiram’s throne. You’re not afraid for me; it’s your own ambition you’re worried for.”
Hima scowled. “Of course I worry for my children. We don’t know for certain that Bree did have a hand in your son’s disappearance. What if someone else was responsible? Qanmi had reason, and Shaqarbas.”
The mention of his unnamed child caught Aurelius by surprise. He stared at the curtains of the litter to avoid showing Hima the weakness in his eyes, the tremble of his lips. But of course, she would see that anyway. “And you. You had reason.”
Hima’s voice was level, perhaps even kind. “Yes, if you want to see it that way. I didn’t though; I would never.”
Aurelius smirked. “Then you’re lucky I’m not as paranoid as you are.”
Hima sucked her teeth, no doubt choking down another scowl. She leaned back against her seat—a rare grasp at comfort. “Put a child in your wife. It’s the one part of kingship I would have thought you’d excel at.”
The tug of the sapenta was becoming loose and abstract, his body and his heart growing heavier the closer they got to the palace on the hill. Aurelius’s wife was there, and his father-in-law. The last thing he’d wanted was to be reminded of Titrit, who inspired little in him outside guilt and distaste. He couldn’t lie with her, and she cried through the night more often than she slept soundly. He’d never known her to be so filled with pain, but the cool restraint Aurelius had known her for had proved a facade. It seemed Bree wasn’t the only one who had deceived him.
Aurelius didn’t want to talk about Titrit or his heir. “Shaqarbas can’t be your only concern. What scintillating complaints can I expect from our fellow Semassenqa today?”
Hima’s voice was as tight and controlled as ever, yet beneath the surface there was a tremor Aurelius wasn’t used to hearing. An uncertainty that shook his sister in a way even Lorar’s attack hadn’t. “It’s not only him. The court is full of stories, and people are starting to listen to them.”
“What kind of stories? Not more talk of monsters, is it?” After what had remained of the Lora forces had fled or been rounded up, wild tales concerning the siege had begun to emerge from the palace dungeons. Lora soldiers whispered of a great sea snake spied beneath the waves, and some of the more exaggerated reports claimed the wave that had broken Qemassen’s walls had been the work of the same beast. Aurelius had no doubt these men thought they’d seen something, but suspected the more ridiculous claims were the product of sharks spied beneath the surface and turned to serpents by broken minds. It’d happened often enough when Aurelius had been at sea.
Someone out on the street shouted—the exact words unintelligible.
“Some.” Hima turned to peer through a crack in the curtain as if seeking out the source of the sound.
“And the others?”
Hima glared outside before letting the curtain fall back into place. Her eyes met his. She took a deep breath. “Ashtaroth―one of the soldiers I stationed on Tarefsa Tithmeseti claims he saw him enter the maze.”
Well, that explained Hima’s anxiety. “Then he might be alive.”
“Aurel.” Her pained, pitying expression suggested otherwise. “You know better than I do most of the maze is gone now―the greater part of it collapsed during the earthquake.”
Aurelius forced a smile when no other response came to him. “So he drowned, or was crushed.”
Hima waved her right hand in dismissal. “Or any number of things. It’s just a story, though I’m sorry to say I find it the best explanation.”
It didn’t make sense. Aurelius leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “How did he escape his confinement? Who brought him there? This soldier’s account only makes more mess of things.”
Hima shrugged one shoulder. She was so good at looking unconcerned. “The man said he was carrying something, but it was too far away to see. Maybe whatever it was helped Ashtaroth sneak through the palace. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d broken out of his rooms.” She smiled slightly, one eyebrow raised, as if to break the icy mood. “Or you for that matter.”
Aurelius smiled back.
The litter dipped suddenly. Aurelius gripped his handrests. On this steepest part of the slope, the ride was rougher. “Was that all?”
“If only.” Hima didn’t bother to steady herself. “Zioban—
Aurelius cut her off with a snort. “Not Zioban again. He’s dead.”
Hima glared at him. “My sons were mutilated on his orders. Forgive me if I’m not put at ease because one of Qanmi’s slaves claimed a random body was his.”
Aurelius shrugged. “So what then? You think the man was lying?”
Hima’s nostrils flared. “That’s just it. I had Adoran track him down, but he’s missing.”
“Of course the slave—who else would I mean? Qanmi has no idea where he vanished to. Or so he claims.”
Aurelius didn’t particularly like Qanmi eq-Sabaal, but the explanation that the Lora had been behind Zioban all along made too much sense. “Didn’t Titrit say they’d sniffed out the culprits?”
Himalit scowled, “Honestly, Aurel. You’re king now; you can’t act the fool anymore.”
The litter jerked to a halt.
One of the slaves bearing the litter blew from his horn. The gates of the palace creaked in answer.
With autumn upon them, the gardens were a flurry of sound as the Semassenqa and their servants advantaged themselves of the cooler weather to stroll the garden’s avenues and laze about on steps and benches. There weren’t many guards around, most of them having been sent to work on the city wall and the flooded Qelebet.
“Does it scare you?” Aurelius asked.
Hima watched him in confusion.
“Not knowing where your enemies are, all the time,” Aurelius clarified, scratching his scruffy cheek. For Hima, everyone had their proper place, their purpose. She chaffed at the slightest step outside her predictions. “You think everyone should bare their strings to you, even those who mean you harm.”
The palace gates clinked shut behind them, and it seemed the air grew taut and heavy as though there wasn’t enough of it within the palace grounds to satisfy the needs of both their breaths.
Hima’s brow knotted—not at Aurelius, he thought, but at the invisible spectre sharing the litter with them. “Zioban’s your enemy too, or did you forget that along with your duties? More than that, he’s an enemy of Qemassen. I find it odd that none of his lieutenants have named themselves to take his place.”
Light filtered through the thin cloth of the litter, the sweet strain of stringed instruments creeping from hidden homes. The houses of the Semassenqa were a hive of joined palaces, each with its riad, its fruit trees, its worker bees.
Perhaps Hima was right; perhaps they should still be afraid.
He did his best not to dwell on his memories of the night Zioban had taken Aurelius and Bree prisoner. It helped that for most of what had happened he’d been barely conscious.
Hima continued. “We know the slaves were up to something during the siege, with all those masks we found lying about. They can’t all have been killed; they’re planning something and Qemassen must be prepared. To do what they did to us in the gardens and not follow through with an attack would be pointless.”
“What they did to Djana,” Aurelius spoke beneath his breath.
The light from outside grew dim, and a sudden chill took him. The transport rattled as it was lowered slightly, the slaves holding it in place, waiting for the Semassenqa to step out into the hallway. Rather than oblige her men, Hima remained where she sat, but Aurelius left quickly.
When Aurelius turned to part the curtains for his elder sister, he couldn’t help but notice the trembling in the slaves’ hands as they stood in place, faces stoic to the point of incredulity. Taking pity on them, Aurelius reached inside to offer Hima his hand, smiling when she brushed it angrily aside and hopped out on her own.
“What did you say, Aurel?” Hima dismissed the slaves with a wave, and they retreated the way they’d come, necks bowed in deference. Hima’s words echoed in the tunnel of a corridor, its warm walls bouncing her voice about as though the sound itself were alive.
Aurelius took a brief look back at the path outside and the attendants standing at attention just inside the arch. They were young for their duties, with scrawny arms and legs. If Zioban were alive, maybe the construction in the lower city was to blame for his absence―he might well be laying stone with the able-bodied slaves.
“If the Lora were behind the plot, their plan died with them.” Aurelius sighed, tired of the same old arguments.
They started walking, and servants and slaves skittered from the very walls to fret about the king and his sister. Aurelius and Hima rounded a bend and slipped through a small door and suddenly the hall widened, revealing the marbled entrance to the throne room. Up ahead, Cheti eq-Horeb, chief scribe and herald of the Semassenqa, paced back and forth before the double doors that stood between Aurelius and the duties he’d sought so hard to forget in Ashtet’s temple.
As Aurelius and Hima neared, Cheti looked up, settling his brown eyes on them. He bowed his head and stepped aside, sandals scuffing the floor. The whispered tunes of sistrum and ney drifted from inside the courtroom, heralding the entrance of the king and his sister, the start of a session.
Aurelius glanced at Hima as the guards posted to either side of the entrance parted for them. “Perhaps there were no new lieutenants to take up Zioban’s mask. Besides, you can’t expect a madman to make sense just because it would be easier for you.”
Himalit didn’t look at him this time, staring straight ahead at the growing crack between the doors. “Don’t tell me what I expect, little brother. Zioban is dangerous, whatever lies you’ve told yourself to keep from doing what needs to be done.”
Aurelius smiled to himself, feeling anything but happy as he followed Hima over the threshold. He kept his voice low as the chatter of milling Semassenqa quieted before them. “And what is it that needs to be done so urgently?”
Hima growled the words at Aurelius, maintaining her pace as they marched toward the raised thrones of Qemassen’s king and queen. “What you stopped in the Eghri the day you decided to name yourself king.”
What he’d stopped had been Hima’s rampage. So many slaves had been tortured on Hima’s orders, and she’d even attacked old Samelqo thinking him the culprit.
Thethought was enough to quiet any suspicion she’d aroused in him. Hima was desperate to blame anyone she could for Zioban’s crimes. She couldn’t fathom that Hiram and Reshith’s masked attacker had been someone she didn’t know.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal, beloved father of Aurelius’s wife, was standing beside the throne, his avian gaze fixed like all the rest on Aurelius and Hima. Surely the ass must be tired―why not take the seat beside Titrit? It was what he longed for, after all.
“You stood with the rest if I remember,” Aurelius countered, “or was that only because you thought I was dying?”
“Who could afford not to stand, after your little speech?” Hima paused. Her irritation seemed to cool. She stood in place, and Aurelius stopped with her. “And what if I did stand because you were dying? It was a stupid, childish, greedy gamble you made, but you might still have died, and you’re still my brother.
“If Zioban ended his slave rebellion, if he isn’t just waiting for our underbellies to show, then it means one of two things: that Zioban died and the uprising with him, or that he is very much alive and whatever his true motivation, whatever goal he set himself when this farce began, he has already achieved it without any of us ever realizing.”
Aurelius couldn’t say what victories were coveted by a man whose true name and face he did not know. Clever as he was, he hadn’t considered that Zioban wanted anything more than what he had claimed or what Lorar had paid him to claim.
Himalit stepped aside for Aurelius to approach the throne, but before he did she whispered into his ear. “And until we know what it was Zioban was really after, or can prove that he’s dead and ended, none of us, not even the least of us, can afford to think we’re safe.”
As Aurelius mounted the steps to his carved stone throne, his gaze alit briefly on Titrit—seated on the throne that had once been his mother’s—and avoided her gaze with the same disinterest he had felt since the day he’d married her.