Chapter 01,  Crown of Asmodeus

Crown: Chapter 1: III: Eshant

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Chapter 1: Orphans

Section III

Eshant– Qanmi’s Palace Residence: Qemassen

It was chilly in the small, bare chamber where Eshant et-Loriqa stood with head bent and gaze lowered, but she sweated all the same. How could one not sweat when commanded by one’s father to appear before the king?

King Aurelius eq-Eshmunen had come to the house of Qanmi eq-Sabaal in the cool of the day. His raiment was ordinary in the way that anything worn by so handsome a man could be ordinary, which was to say, not ordinary at all. But it was clear by his plain cotton the colour of beached seashells and the unadorned leather of his sandals that he was affecting ordinariness.

“Qanmi tells me you were with my sister the day she—” Aurelius’s voice cracked, but he composed himself. At the brief weakness of his voice though, Eshant looked up. “You were with her when she died.”

Eshant sucked a sharp breath through her nose, breathing in itchy cinnamon incense. “I saw her eyes close, heard her draw her last breath.” A sneeze tickled her, but she forced it down, using the heavy drape of her Ashqat’s bonnet as a curtain to hide behind.

The awkward silence that followed made her wish she had sneezed. It would have given Aurelius something to comment on. Eshant shifted her weight between her feet, feeling lost in the rich red robes she’d all but stolen from Qwella—a traitor in carmine.

It was just the three of them in the room now: King Aurelius, Eshant, and her father Qanmi.

Eshant wanted to leave. She had little practice prancing before kings. From Aurelius’s glazed eyes, he had even less care for being pranced in front of.

“Did she speak?” asked the king at last.

Hesitation. “She did.”

“What did she say?”

“That she was sorry.”

“Sorry, Sese.” From behind Eshant, her father jabbed her back with his elbow.

The king raised an eyebrow as though at her father’s nudge. It was almost enough to make Eshant laugh. If he couldn’t handle a nudge, he’d faint to see what Qanmi was capable of.

Aurelius extended his hand, palm upwards. “There’s no need. As you keep reminding me Qanmi, we’re family.” Despite the cool weather, a bead of sweat glistened on Aurelius’s forehead. “Sorry to whom?” he continued, meeting Eshant’s eyes.

“The goddess, perhaps.” Lies. “Or her sisters.” Lies. “She feared for their safety at the last.” That had been the truth anyway. Qwella’s brother clearly sought some relief; at least in deception Eshant might grant him that. “She was very brave.”

The sorrow she’d managed to hold back suddenly clogged her throat. Shy queen’s breath, let him not ask her to speak right away. He’d wonder why Eshant should care so deeply, and Eshant wasn’t confident she could explain it away as the love of one sister for another.

“Thank you.” Aurelius adjusted himself on the fine woven chair Eshant’s father had fetched for him. Was it her imagination or did the king’s fingers tremble against the chair’s arms? Surely, her father would know if Aurelius were indulging. “But I don’t see how this makes you a suitable candidate for the high priesthood of Qemassen. You’re already heq-Ashqat of your temple; be satisfied with that.”

In another life Eshant might have been satisfied with even less than that. She was Qanmi’s daughter though, and granddaughter of Sabaal who had sailed to Indas to sell his wares and argue in the halls of kings and conquerors. It wasn’t in her to relent. Eshant had no life beyond what her father had given her.

“It doesn’t,” she said. Her father shifted behind her and she knew from the subtle scratch of cloth against cloth and the particular snitch of his sandal against the floor that he was anxious that she do well. This moment mattered. “But you need someone educated by your side. Someone who knows Qemassen and the ways of the Semassenqa. The heq-Ashqat’s burdens are heavy; the person you appoint should be strong enough to bear them.”

As she assessed Aurelius, she heard in her mind her father’s voice repeating the questions her had taught her: what can you do for this man? What does he want from you? What can you make him want?

The slaves had been simple. They wanted freedom, but more than that they lived off hope. They’d needed someone to believe in. If Aurelius saw Eshant as someone to lean on—

Qwella’s brother smiled, the expression lighting up his face. For a brief instant Eshant glimpsed the fire men followed him for and the charm Qwella had boasted of.

It was Eshant’s duty to suffocate it.

“You do have impressive shoulders, I’ll grant you that,” Aurelius joked. He scratched his chin along the sharp angle of his jaw. The skin there looked angry as though with a rash. “The position of heq-Ashqat is not for you. Several other candidates are being considered already, and I believe we will come to a decision soon enough.”

Qanmi barged past Eshant, his hand catching her arm. He gripped her tight but not painfully. The touch felt angrier than if it had been painful—full of intent rather than passion. It was a touch that told her he was displeased.

“She’s your wife’s sister!” Qanmi pleaded. “If that’s not enough to win her the office, then I see family is of little value to you.” The gilded ends of his braids clinked together, glinting in the purple light that filtered past the windows.

If it was real anger he showed now, he should know better. This might be Eshmunen’s son he dealt with, but it was not Eshmunen.

What did Aurelius want?

His fingers tap-tapped the chair—from impatience or sapenta or both—and that delight in his eyes was nearly cruel. He didn’t like Eshant’s father, which meant she’d have to work hard if she wanted him to like her.

“You expect nepotism from a man rumoured to have killed his own father? You’re smarter than that, Qanmi, or so I thought.” Aurelius stood up and the chair creaked. His movements were easy and fluid. He was graceful as a temple dancer with no sign of any effort on his part. “I may have married your daughter, and maybe I even did it because I needed you, but I’m no ox to be yoked. If I’m to have some pompous priest whispering pieties in my ear they will at least be one of my choosing.” Aurelius stepped away from the table.

His hands no longer trembled. He was ready to leave.

The weight of Eshant’s failure was a stone around her neck, locking her in place.

Qanmi’s fingers loosened their hold on Eshant’s arm and then he let her go entirely, moving as though to bar Aurelius’s passage. Eshant grasped for her father to stop him making a mistake, but her fingers only grazed the folds of his robe.

Qanmi eq-Sabaal stood in place, blocking the king’s exit. “You’re right in that, Sese. You needed me then, as the walls of Qemassen crumbled around you, as your people looked on while your queen swindled you and vanished. You need me now. I won’t be pushed aside like one of your women. You need me, you need my daughters, you need my money to rebuild the city that lies shattered at your princely feet.” Qanmi’s voice was stern as Eshant had heard it, his words coming fast and hard as the wave that had ruined the city. After a pause though, he smoothed his tone. “I would be your friend, Sese, and your partner, but I admit I am a proud man, and my pride often gets the better of me when I would wish it to diminish.”

Aurelius’s slanted smile returned. He cocked his chin up, taking a step toward Qanmi so the difference in their statures was plain. “And what use to me is a man who doesn’t have the sense to diminish himself before his king? It should be easy enough, for someone already so low.”

To her father’s credit, Qanmi stilled the anger she knew was brewing in his breast and bowed his head. He stepped aside for Aurelius eq-Eshmunen. “As you say, Sese. Forgive me my flaws, mortal as they are.”

Would stroking the king’s ego work? He was famously proud, but somehow, Eshant still sensed he wanted something else. He only demeaned Qanmi because it was the easiest way to make him angry, not because he was trying to elevate himself.

Aurelius snorted. “It’s an interesting immortality I enjoy; despite myself I still grow hungry without food and thirsty without water.” He paused. “Right now, I grow bored. Your god made flesh has made his choice and my choice is not Eshant et-Loriqa.” He glanced over at Eshant, and their gazes met for an instant. “Not for heq-Ashqat, anyhow.”

What did he mean by that? To take her to bed? Qwella had never described him as the type to force himself on a woman.

Eshant swallowed but didn’t budge; Aurelius was a man like any other, nothing to be afraid of. She watched him in silence as he strode past them and out the door. His attention was elsewhere, as though Qanmi’s family were insects to be crushed beneath his feet.

The door closed.

Eshant was alone with her father.

Her heart hammered at the crackle in the air—the slip of an instant when her body recognized, all at once, that violence would follow.

Qanmi’s hand shot out and swiped a golden decanter off the table and onto the floor. Even though she’d been waiting or it, the crash sent a jolt up Eshant’s spine.

Ruby red wine spilled across the pale marble tiles, the stain spreading in a puddle that funnelled into a river of blood.

Eshant tore her attention from it. Her father wouldn’t want her to gaze upon the evidence of his temper. She was his steadfastness. She was his rock in a storm.

She faced him, brave like he wanted her to be, braced for all possible reactions he might have to her or Aurelius or the disappointment he’d once again endured.

“You don’t want to be heq-Ashqat.” Qanmi squinted side-long at her. His words were sharp, spit from his mouth and aimed with practiced accuracy. “And he sensed it. He’s no fool. Not like Dashel. He needs more of the wine.”

So, Eshant had been right. Her father was supplying the king.

“He’d made up his mind already,” Eshant argued, stepping slowly from around the table, taking no heed of the spilled wine soaking the hem of her Ashqat’s robes. She laid her hand on her father’s shoulder and squeezed gently, soothingly. It took just the right touch to ease his troubles. “We’ll find out who he’s chosen when everyone else does.”

Qanmi shrugged her hand away. He stalked toward the corner of the room, hands clasped behind his back. “It makes no sense. Aurelius has flaunted his godlessness since he was a child. He couldn’t name half the heq-Ashenqa in Qemassen. He must select the heq-Ashqen from amongst their number, or else appoint some acolyte he knows even less to one of their positions.”

Eshant squeezed his shoulder to try and coax him into facing her, but her father was fixated on the wall and the floor. “Like Qwella. Couldn’t we do the same thing again―use someone we know is loyal? Or make someone loyal.”

She’d thought her father would be pleased with the suggestion, but he only waved away her advice. “No, you were right. Aurelius already knows what he wants—I could see it in his eyes. It falls to us only to anticipate who that person is and what we can do for them.”

Eshant slumped down into the wicker chair where Aurelius had been sitting. It was still warm from his body heat. She kicked idly at the spilled jug, letting its rattle and roll punctuate her thoughts. “Every Semassenqen worth the name will be grasping for the heq-Ashqen’s attention. Could it be someone of Hima’s choosing? He said we, and we both know he didn’t consult you.”

“Aurelius puts less trust in his sister’s opinion than he does in mine.” A sigh fled Qanmi’s lips, and Eshant couldn’t help but notice the deep lines about his mouth and eyes as he turned to face her again.

Her chest tightened. Qanmi’s thin face seemed to have changed more over the past year than it had in twenty, the laugh lines around his eyes no longer the only wrinkles on his skin. His copper eyes were just as clear though, just as alive.

But deep inside him festered the hurt of Eshant’s betrayal. She’d disappointed him. She’d chosen Qwella over her own father. She ought to have done more, whatever her choice. Instead, she hadn’t chosen at all.

But how could she have chosen Qwella over Dansila—over her own father and sister?

This was where she was meant to be. At her father’s side.

Qanmi’s jaw was tight, rage still sizzling beneath his skin. Aurelius had truly wounded him. He needed to be calmed.

Eshant sucked her lower lip, wishing she wasn’t the one such a duty had fallen to. Since Titrit had been married though, their father came to Eshant more often. That was probably as it should be. Titrit had struggled with the burden of him all last year.

And yet, Eshant only wanted to be anywhere but this room. Dansila would be waiting for her. She’d been running an errand at Ashtet’s temple, but she’d have finished now.

Ashtet.

Eshant beamed proudly as the solution to the problem came to her. “The heq-Ashqen of Ashtet stepped down recently.”

Qanmi grinned back, and it was like the brazier in her breast had burst to life. He clapped his hands together. “What a way to flaunt his power to his elder sister. To taunt the priesthood with his impiety. That is exactly what Aurelius eq-Eshmunen will do. Clever girl.” He strolled right up to her, then bent down to cup her face.

He kissed her forehead.

It had been a long time since he’d touched her. It felt strange.

Anticipation made her shoulders tense, her skin clammy. Maybe he wouldn’t—

He tilted his head, kissing her nose, then the space between it and her lips.

She closed her eyes as Qanmi bent down, his furtive hands greedy as they hiked up her Ashqat’s robes to stroke her thighs. The cold jewellery on his arms and fingers scratched her bared skin—a jolt of feeling. Nearly in a daze, she let him drag her to her feet and against the table. She let the bump of the furniture against her back knock her further out of her body, out of the room.

Think on Dansila.

Eshant had promised to bring her something. A gift to make up for a year kissing another’s lips.

Qanmi reached for a pitcher of oil, then loosened the sash belting his robes closed. Eshant lifted herself so she was sitting on the low table, opening her legs—

A new comb, perhaps, would be acceptable. A jewelled one, like what Aurelius had given Titrit last month.

He pressed inside her and she squeezed her eyes shut. Her robes, bunched beneath her, ripped from the movement.

A new comb. Jewells, but plain wood. Something small she could wear in private and hide easily from the other Ashqata and jealous eyes.

Eshant tried not to make a sound, but after so long she found the feeling of her father painful.She dug her blunt nails deep into the rim of the table. All over her body, her skin felt impossibly tight.

I love him.

He kissed her and she knew she should kiss him back, but she couldn’t. Nausea took her instead. She had to stop herself from pushing him off.

You love him.

From the hallway outside a voice called for her, high-pitched and feminine. It came as if from underground: a lover’s voice, begging her to do terrible things. The roar of the Helit was like the death cry of a lion, the waters collapsing the city walls an awesome thunder tearing the sky in two.

It wasn’t fair. Eshant had tried to warn Qwella. But she’d been silly. Stupid.

A whimper escaped Eshant’s lips and her father’s hand clamped her mouth shut. His sweat was pungent on her tongue. She wanted to gag.

Father forgive her.

Eshant pushed herself off the table, unbalancing Qanmi. She collapsed to the floor on her knees, chest a knot of pain. From behind her she could hear Qanmi fixing his robes, accompanied by heavy footfalls ready to bring comfort or pain.

But then the door opened before her.

Eshant craned her neck up, stifling a cough, as Qemassen’s thick desert air flooded inside the small chamber. A gentle hand, a parent’s hand, curled its fingers around her shoulder, its rings felt keenly despite the thickness of her robes.

“Fritha.” Qanmi’s tone was warm as he acknowledged the Feislandan standing like a stumpy white mountain on the threshold.

Eshant shrugged off her father’s concerned hand and stood up. She stifled another cough, provoking a frown from the homeless ambassador, though the sickness in her gut had vanished as fast as it had come.

Standing at full height, Eshant towered above the short, pale-skinned man, though he was as wide as she, and his brow as strong. He’d shaved his yellow beard, probably to fit in better at court, but all his preening had done was make his drooping jowls more visible.

“Sand in the lungs,” the ambassador pronounced, his green eyes fixed on Eshant, as though he were considering her for purchase. “You should speak with Qirani. The Anata are skilled at soothing the condition.”

Eshant hated physicians. “Perhaps. He’s a busy man, serving kings and princes. I doubt he has time for the complaints of woman priests.”

Fritha brushed past her so she had to turn to watch him. He snorted, a coin appearing between his fingers as though from nowhere, spinning in and out of the ruts in his closed fist. “You do yourself a disservice. You’re the daughter of Qanmi eq-Sabaal, the sister of our beloved queen―how could any man refuse you?”

It was clear she was being toyed with, but Eshant wasn’t graced with words the way her father and sister were. “I let go of all that when I swore myself over to the goddess. The king called me and I came. As you can see he’s left now, as should I.”

“And abandon your father? How quick they are to fly the nest.”

Could the northerner have heard or seen them? Did he suspect?

Eshant opened her mouth to speak, but Qanmi gripped her arm and answered in her stead. “You have children of your own?”

A shadow passed across Fritha’s face such that the room seemed to dim with his mood; his sunken eyes seemed to sink further. “Dead now with my country.”

“Then let us hope their souls sing sweetly in the afterlife,” offered Qanmi.

Fritha looked away, the coin stopping for barely an instant. “The Lora won’t have honoured our ways. If my family’s souls sing anywhere it’ll be where they died and are doomed to wander.”

Eshant snatched her arm from her father’s grip. “How do you know they’re dead?”

“They must be,” Fritha answered, “or else fled. And if they ran from the defense of our home they are no children of mine. It’s just as well they were dead.”

Cold autumn air blew inside the room and Eshant hugged her robes tight. Despite the chill, a fire burned in her, laying waste to her sympathy. “Rather than live to fight again? I wouldn’t call that love, not while you stand fat and safe behind Qemassen’s walls.” Eshant blurted the words without thinking. “You fled Atlin before there was a reason to do it and you call your children cowards?”

Fritha took a step toward her, his jowls trembling as though his jaw were clenched. “Obeying the commands of one’s king is never cowardice. My children will not have run; I know them. What does a priestess know of bravery?” Fritha grinned coldly. “What’s there to fear in your temple besides incense and gossip?”

He ought to know what the Ashqata of Qalita had done to protect Qemassen while Fritha and the rest of the men played war in the west. Every woman in Qalita’s care had lost something that day.

“I’m sure we can all agree to fear the gods,” Qanmi offered. He slid his fingers about Eshant’s own, till the tension in her hands relaxed. “Now. What can I do for you, Fritha? You came to my home for a reason.”

Fritha cast a troubled frown Eshant’s way, then shook his head as though dispelling a troubled thought. “My queen was in need of a recommendation, but it can wait. I see you’re . . . busy.”

Eshant didn’t like the way the word hung in the air.

Qanmi smiled placidly. “Another time then. Busy, as you say. Qemassen’s streets are no place for a woman alone; I must see my daughter returned to incense and gossip.”

When Qanmi didn’t say anything further, Fritha left.

For a moment, the door hung open. Eshant nearly snatched her hand from her father and stepped across the threshold, thinking maybe, this time, he would bring her home, but before she could, he reached out and closed it again.

The thud as the door shut was the same thud it had made every day of her life—the shutting door that closed the world out and kept Qanmi in. And underneath it, the knowledge that it didn’t matter if the door closed. It was his house and inside its walls he could do anything he liked.

What he liked, just now, was to stroke his hand down her cheek and neck.

Eshant swallowed, staring straight ahead, pretending she was someone else and that someone else was touching her. “I really should get back.” To lend credence to her point, she turned in the direction of the window.

It was getting dark.

Qanmi let his hand fall from her flesh and the relief nearly brought tears.

Who was she to question him? To refuse him? She was all he had besides Titrit. She was his comfort. She was so lucky compared with him and everything he’d suffered. Refusing him had always been a disavowal of his suffering.

As she tried with all her heart to suck back her tears, Qanmi released her and opened the door. Together, they walked from the room.

To their left stood a solid wall lit by sconces, while to their right the view was open, fringed by rounded arches boasting flowering vines and grapes. There were few clouds tonight, and the moon and stars hung from the deep blue of the evening sky like a pair of Dansila’s gleaming earrings. In the gardens below them, all the way from the main palace complex, the Ashenqa Eshant had sent to the palace still made their rounds, singing their mourning song and polluting the halls with pungent incense.

The formal funerals of Aurelius’s brother and sister had taken place ages ago, but the deaths of princes and princesses were mourned for an eternity. Even her uncle had received no such splendour.

As heq-Ashqat of Qalita, her heart ought not to question that.

When Qanmi had given Eshant to the temple, she’d been barely eight years old. She remembered the palace and its gardens, but it was no home to her. Qalita’s walls had been home and mother, her haven save for when her father had need of her. She’d met Itta in the temple, and then Dansila. Finally, Qwella.

Qwella.

Eshant tugged the sleeves of her heq-Ashqat’s robe, staring out the window and listening to the elegant pat of her father’s footsteps. Qanmi’s fine boots were so soft on the floors that his footsteps could barely be heard.

He’d led Eshant into the older part of the palace, where Samelqo’s tower lorded over everything below it. Eshant peered up at the minaret past an open arch, uneasy at its strange geometry and stark white facade. The building was oddly plain for whom it had housed. Samelqo was dead now, of course, but his one-eyed wife remained. Eshant had done her best to befriend Uta, but all Qanmi’s insistence couldn’t force success. The ugly ex-slave was unmoved by Eshant’s efforts. Still, she hadn’t made any move to betray them. To do so would mean Uta’s death as much as it would Eshant’s family’s.

In the riad below the tower the gardens lay untended, vines choking the stagnant pool at the complex’s centre, clawing weeds trapping hard stone beneath their softness. It was the way of weak things, to suffocate and kill with time and patience.

“Be careful how you speak to men of his kind.” It had been so long since either of them had spoken that Qanmi’s words made her jump.

The command surprised Eshant, but she kept her pace. “Who?”

Qanmi clucked in irritation. “Who do you think? The Feislandan. The foreigner. We don’t know what he knows; we don’t know what Bree told him.”

Eshant frowned. The princess hadn’t been Bree; she’d been someone else. What had Titrit called her? Fifal? Fifa? Fifan? A man’s name, awkward on the tongue. Eshant’s father had boasted to Titrit of Fifan’s silken lips, her pearl-white breasts. He had the words Eshant lacked, the poetry of a king. Qanmi was a king. He had seduced the king’s wife, he whispered in his king’s ear, he had chosen the king’s new queen.

But still, their family was left wanting.

“Do you think he saw us?” Eshant asked. She shouldn’t feel such a longing to avoid a lover’s touch, but her nausea had saved them in the end.

“Fritha? He has no idea―why would he? If he thinks anything it’s that I struck you. You are my daughter, and after your uncle’s indiscretions people seem to expect it of me.”

Shouldn’t they? Eshant had been struck on more than one occasion.

“You shouldn’t have brought me here,” Eshant argued. “I’m not my sister. I didn’t know what to say to the king―I have no experience with the Semassenqa. Titrit’s spent her whole life learning how to be delicate and subtle.”

Eshant caught a glimpse of Qanmi smiling in amusement to himself and resisted the urge to give him a shove. He could be cheeky when he was in a good mood. She ought to be cheeky back and take advantage of the moment.

“No,” he said, “you were never delicate. You saw his sister die though, and that’s more important. Besides, our king seems to enjoy a certain crudeness―always has. His Erun toy was an oaf―a handsome oaf, but an oaf. The poor man doted on nothing so much as our dear Prince Aurel.”

“Our King Aurel,” Eshant corrected, already anticipating Qanmi’s next request. “You want me to be close to him like the Erun was.”

Qanmi hurried down a wide flight of stairs, skipping every second step, speaking softly whenever he spied a slave coming too close.

“You’re no oaf, but the king could grow fond of you. You’re a good girl, aren’t you? Good at making people fond.”

Eshant had hoped he wouldn’t ask such a thing of her again. “Titrit won’t like it.”

“Then she should think longer on how to please her husband. She was a poor choice to begin with and everyone sees it. Aurelius only agreed because he couldn’t face choosing a wife. The whole court titters about Titrit’s empty belly, which only grows emptier and older with every night she fails to fuck him. Failing to fuck Aurelius is like failing to convince a fish to swim.”

There were things Eshant knew, of course, about her sister. Things she could never tell their father. Titrit would bear a child for Aurelius if she could. It might simply be that after the abuses Titrit’s body had endured it couldn’t nurture any seed at all, even should she wish it to. She’d aborted too many of their father’s children—even the temple of Tanata might not be able to help her.

“Please,” Eshant said, a little quietly, “I don’t want to, not again. I was bad last time. I didn’t do what I was told. Titrit will have a son by the strength of her own love if she has to. Besides, it’s not as if I can carry a child.”

The sky was darker now, and the birds had grown quiet.

Qanmi stopped in the open air, standing tall at the centrepiece of a great cross created by the mosaic tiles of the garden path. Twenty feet away to all sides the shades of lilacs and date palms spread their branches like long fingers reaching across the distance.

Eshant lingered before her father, her great mountain of robes somehow not enough to keep her warm.

Qanmi raised a finger to her lips, caressing the sensitive skin as he stared beyond her face and eyes and further still into her very souls. The betrayals he’d swallowed in months past weighed heavy on him, she knew, but still he held his neck straight and proud.

“Love for whom?” Qanmi asked, a wicked smile twisting his lips.

Eshant faltered, taken aback by the question and the accusation and what it implied. “I don’t know,” she lied.

Qanmi lifted his finger from Eshant’s mouth. “Then perhaps it’s not Titrit who should be concerned.”

“What do you mean?” The absence of his skin against hers felt like a blessing and a wound. As always, she found herself torn between wanting to please him and angry at herself for that same want. That need.

“There hasn’t been a real king on Qemassen’s throne since King Isir and any legitimacy Aurelius has comes from your sister, not the other way around. Perhaps a real king ought to claim she and Qemassen both.” He smiled. “How would you like to be a queen?”

A queen?

The cold night air settled in her bones as she pictured the woman she’d have gone home to—an image like a glittering and distant star.

“What do you mean?” The words were a whisper, half lost with the breath that carried them. Whatever the answer, Eshant wasn’t certain she wanted to know it.

Qanmi reached out again and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. His knuckles were so prominent. “My Esha.” Qanmi bent his head and kissed her neck.

They’d be seen.

But maybe, Qanmi didn’t care. Maybe, whatever he was implying about Titrit and Eshant and himself had made him bold.

Eshant was still afraid.

“Why do you call me that?” Eshant swallowed, speaking the question to force him to stop. “You don’t always—you didn’t used to.”

Qanmi pulled away from her to answer. “You’ve always been my little Esha. Don’t you remember? In the riad, I used to take you up in my arms and spin you around and call you my little Esha.” He smiled, and Eshant’s certainty wavered.

Maybe he had always called her that. Maybe she had forgotten. The image he painted was so beautiful; she would have liked for it to be true.

“I remember playing in the riad,” she offered in consolation, worried she’d wounded him by not remembering.

“I taught you letters, and you’d practice them with sticks of charcoal and chalk on the floor. When my mother was alive she taught me just the same. You look like her, you know. She was as bright as the moon in a sea of uncaring faces. She’d call me her little friend and braid my hair herself rather than let the servants do it. My Esha.”

“My grandmother’s name was Dannae.”

Qanmi let his arms fall back at his sides, looking Eshant in the eyes. “So it was, Daughter. In another world, perhaps—”

Eshant broke away, feeling half a stranger, as though she’d intruded on something sacrosanct that only Qanmi was privy to. The sense of transgression was so strong she had to look away. Her souls felt dirty, having touched something beyond her knowledge or understanding—something wrong.

“In another world,” Qanmi continued, “you’d have grown up in palace halls with a nation’s love to mother you. My Esha. My heir.”

Eshant’s heart all but stuttered. “What did you mean about the king?” she dared, still not looking him in his eyes.

And like that, the spell that had held her father dissipated.

Qanmi backed away from her, as though he planned to leave her standing here alone.

Alone, at last.

“Isir had no trueborn son.” He smiled. “And in such circumstances, a bastard is the nearest thing.”

Eshant’s whole world stopped. “You?”

“All that’s missing is the proof.” His cheeky smile returned. “I’ve wasted too much time on kindness. If Aurelius won’t accept the honour I’ve bestowed on him, perhaps it’s time I rescinded it.”

Eshant’s father had suffered the death of his wife, his son, his nephew. A brother’s murder had hardened him and been avenged. The Lora had betrayed him, and they had answered for it, dashed against Qemassen’s walls as they’d dashed Qanmi’s hopes of kingship.

What hope for Aurelius when a whole nation’s might couldn’t stand against Eshant’s father?

What hope for her?



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