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Epilogue: Ghosts

No One – Nowhere

In the darkness of the water, up and down lost all meaning.

He’d been falling for what seemed a hundred years—first through the air into the ocean, and now inside the water itself. Light from the world above had funneled down for a little while, drifting on drops of water as though the sea were made of dust.

Now, uncanny blackness enveloped him. Still stranger, it was warm. Still stranger, he’d lost the need to breathe.

Names slipped just out of reach, but he was certain that he’d once had one. It had been a bold name. A strong name. A name fit for kings. Someone who’d loved him had chosen the name for him, for its connection to a great grandfather. It had seemed auspicious.

Pride burned in his chest at the memory of something that could have been but never was: a beautiful Ajwatat wife and her smiling child. A wish and a dream. Time, someone had told him once, was an illusion. Perhaps reality was just as malleable.

As he floated, faces and voices drifted alongside his limp limbs and featherless wings. He saw a burly, thick-bearded king bend his neck to receive his crown from the heq-Ashqen of Abaal. He saw a blue-robed Ashqen laden with gold and jewels hike the steps to Abaal’s door and receive the same gift. And last of all, he saw a man he was certain had once been his brother falter before making the same pained journey up those stairs.

Three kings. Isir, Aurelius, and . . . Samelqo, who had born the burdens intended for Ashtaroth’s father and accepted the crown of Abaal on Eshmunen’s behalf. The seventh child of the sixteenth king had never been Prince Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen. Perhaps, there wasn’t a seventh child at all.

Ashtaroth had been no one.

Relief seethed around him, caressing his skin.

Whatever else he was and whoever he’d been, he’d never been king. And finally, wrapped in warm waters and far from the struggles that had characterized his final months, he could admit he’d never wanted to be. A cold crown and a hard throne had never been his fortune. To be a poet though, even a bad one—

Ashtaroth. A bold, strong name that he’d once hated for the effeminacy it implied.

Bubbles surged toward him from what had once been below but now felt as though it were above. He was falling upwards. The ocean, it seemed, was double-sided, as though when he breached the waves on the other side he’d find himself floating on strange, dark waves beneath unlikely stars.

Up ahead, an invisible sun shone deep purple rays upon the water. Everywhere the light didn’t touch looked opaque in a way that suggested a great flat object covered most of the water.

As Ashtaroth neared the surface, he stretched out his arms. The purple haze that might have been daylight was faint and peculiar, yet it was all he could see in the darkness. He was lucky he knew how to swim. Aurel had taught him, against Ashtaroth’s own wishes. What kind of Massenqen would Ashtaroth be not to know how to swim?

Ashtaroth fought the waves like he’d fought his brother’s arguments, and as time passed and it seemed he should have already drowned, Ashtaroth grabbed hold of whatever hard surface it was that covered the ocean and heaved himself up out of the water. His featherless wings dripped onto the floor as he coughed out an ocean’s worth of water.


Where was he?

He lifted his foot from the shrinking puddle of water, and the opening snapped closed with no sign he’d ever been anywhere other than in this room.

A light emanated from who knew where, casting dark shadows along a jagged wall.

“Hello?” he repeated. His voice reverberated off dripping cavern walls.

Ashtaroth smoothed his hands over the stones. The floor was impermeable and unmoving.

He hauled himself up on unsteady feet, then stumbled to the right almost as soon as he was standing, as though the floor were curved. He caught himself from falling, but his stomach lurched.

Water dripped from a far corner that the light didn’t reach.

“Hail, prince of the Massenqa.”

The voice was amused, sarcastic, gloomy.

And familiar.

“Aurel?” Ashtaroth squinted, vision blurred. There was a tall stone throne at the head of the chamber. A man sat upon it with his arms stretched the length of the throne’s arms. He looked like a god or a king.

“No. I’m not your brother.” The question seemed to have puzzled the figure, who stood up. In the dim light, it looked like he had had horns, clawed hands, and cloven feet.

Ashtaroth’s heart pounded as the demon neared him.

Hazzan. I’ve been sent to Hazzan.

The figure stepped through the sliver of light, revealing pale human feet and pale human skin. He looked half-dead, yet more beautiful for it, his black curls tumbling against his naked shoulders. He wore a diadem of plain wood.

It wasn’t Aurelius.

Ashmodai.” Now that Ashtaroth knew which demon this was, he was no longer afraid. Which was, of course, incredibly foolish.

“You sound disappointed,” the demon said, cocking his head to the side, looking Ashtaroth up and down. Seemingly satisfied, he turned around and walked back to the head of the room. “You’re naked. Put some clothes on.”

The absurdity of the demand made him laugh.

“Qemassen—is she safe? What about my family?” Ashtaroth followed after Ashmodai, walking carefully and slowly, attempting to follow the unusual curve of the floor.

“Safer than you are,” said Ashmodai. “You don’t know what you’ve given yourself to. When you do find out, pray she forgets you quickly.”

“Lilit?” Ashtaroth mostly wanted to know about his city.

“Who else?” Ashmodai smiled crookedly in Ashtaroth’s direction with a jarringly familiar expression. He did look rather like Ashtaroth’s brother. “My honoured mistress.” Ashmodai gave a bow.

Footsteps approached from every direction, but there was no one to see.

“Is that any way to speak of me? Pretty Ashmodai, so bitter and cold.” Lilit’s voice cooed from behind Ashtaroth.

He swerved and caught her emerging from the shadows of the walls. Once she’d reached him, she clasped his hand in hers. She smiled at him with blood red lips. “Ashmodai’s so unkind to me, you know. But you won’t be, will you prince? You’ll be exactly what I’ve always wanted.”

The light which had revealed Ashmodai and the throne flickered and died, and in the darkness Ashtaroth heard a sound—terrible and slinking—as of a serpent shirking its skin.

A baby cried, and out of the black came the echo of bells.

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