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Moniqa – Qemassen: The Palace – 20 Years Ago
Everything Moniqa owned belonged to her husband, from the too-soft bed foisted upon her as one of his grand gestures, to her father’s treasured collection of ruby-eyed sandstone statues. It all belonged to him, no matter what she did, because she herself belonged to him, and because she belonged to him, so too did the flesh of her flesh—those newborn twins in the adjoining room, wailing as the slaves tended them.
No. That wasn’t true. Not everything belonged to Eshmunen. Some things, like the twins, like their sisters Himalit and Qwella, belonged to Samelqo. All Moniqa’s children were Eshmunen’s by blood, but everything that was Eshmunen’s was Samelqo’s.
Moniqa rolled onto her side in the darkness of her chamber, soft body sinking into softer bedding. An army of gold-tasseled pillows fortified the threshold of her frame, not because she needed the comfort, but because there wasn’t room for them elsewhere. The new bed wasn’t large enough, but that didn’t matter to Eshmunen, or the slaves that had carted the old one away. Lying there was like sinking beneath the water, surrounded by stones too slippery to grasp.
She stretched her hand out slowly, ebony skin catching a sliver of light from the windows she’d all but blacked out with thick curtains. She crooked her finger beneath the fragile gold of the sun. The light was like a bird or an insect come to balance on her hand. Inside its focused beam, the dust motes danced in slow circles. Massenqa dust—sand sneaking inside to colonize her lungs like little winged soldiers.
At home, in Indas, the air was hot and humid at this time of year. In the capital, Ipsis, slaves and boatmen would be threshing the reeds to keep the rivers clear for tradesmen and royal barges. When she’d been a child, she’d begged her older sister Lena to swim in the palace’s innermost canals. Moniqa had stopped asking only when Lena had told her the bottoms were full of human bones and giant fishes.
Moniqa closed her eyes, drunk on the lotus tea her Anan physician plied her with. Her fingers, still bathed in sunlight, dreamed of slipping beneath the surface of Ipsis’s waterways, of giant fishes nipping gently at her nails, her palms, her eyelids, the jellied eyes beneath.
Lena had disappeared long ago. Moniqa had never been sure why, but she’d always imagined that Lena had drowned—that her body lay sunken at the base of one of those verdant waterways—a feast for the eels. Maybe if they’d been close, Moniqa would have cried, but they hadn’t been close. Lena had worshipped the old gods, like the Massenqa did, not sweet Adonen. In that way she’d been their mother’s daughter, and Moniqa her father’s. Besides, mourning a vanished sister when their whole country had long been lost seemed almost fanciful.
But oh, how she wished she were in Indas now, that it had not been lost, that she’d never married the Massenqa king, that if she tipped her hand just so her skin would slip under cool water as the slaves ferried her downstream. She wished that everything she had was hers, including her children. Herself.
Moniqa opened her eyes and watched her hand resting in the light like it was someone else’s. Unrecognizable.
Aurelius was hers, because she’d named him. Some days, it was her only comfort.
She swallowed, then retracted her hand from the sunlight to push herself into a sitting position. As she heaved, she jostled a pillow out of place and it tumbled to the floor.
It looked so absurd there—a square puff upside-down, balanced perfectly on its peak.
Moniqa laughed, which was the lotus tea, but she didn’t care. Let her laugh.
She kicked all the other pillows off the bed and onto the floor, watching them skid across the polished surface. A pillow collided with the thin leg of a cedarwood table—another of Eshmunen’s endless gifts—and one of her father’s statues wobbled threateningly.
Moniqa grit her teeth, overwhelmed with a desire to smash them. That, too, was the lotus talking.
So let it talk.
She bolted from the bed, ignoring the hint of residual birth pain that spiked past the numbing power of the lotus, and marched toward the nearest of the small statues that lined the walls. There were seven in all—identical, beastly-faced, red-eyed relics from the civilization that had reigned in Indas before the Inda had ever dwelt there. The builders of the marveled canals, lotus-topped palaces, and the sunken cities slumped underwater in Indas’s southern reaches had left hundreds of similar artifacts behind to be puzzled over by their successors.
The statues were valuable, reminded her in some way of home, but they were not of her home, of her father. The statues were hideous. Evil. Perhaps they were the votives of early gods, demons watching her from behind their red eyes. Maybe the demons had leapt out of the statues during Indas’s Troubles, to possess the bodies of the savages who’d overthrown her family, who’d dragged her brother’s corpse through the streets, so that sharp stones had scoured his skin.
Moniqa rested her hands to either side of the middlemost statue, staring with it eye-to-eye. She wanted the statue to squeal, to see the rubies shrivel within its placid face.
It was heavier than she remembered and the weight stretched an ache up her arms. Her palms shook as she lifted it to her chin. She let it drop, her hands still shaking as it crunked against the fine patterned floor. Its waist split diagonally with the impact, refusing to shatter like she’d imagined.
Outside, the newborns cried again—had they gone silent while she’d been daydreaming? She hadn’t noticed, and the realization stung deep in her chest. One of them—the boy—was sickly. His urine was sweet, an illness that had plagued Moniqa’s family in the past, and he cried endlessly no matter what the slaves did to ease him. He would probably die, frail as he was, and wouldn’t that suit Samelqo and his silly little prophecy just perfectly? How could there be a seventh child, when Moniqa had borne twins? And the girl—well, she was just a girl, wasn’t she? Only another meal for some king.
The seventh child, according to Samelqo’s silly scrolls, was to be a great king and save his people. Moniqa wasn’t even certain the twins were her seventh children in the eyes of Adonen. The two she’d lost had lived such brief lives, they could hardly be called lives at all.
She stared at the floor, at the broken statue. It lay face-down so that its eyes were covered. It was pathetic and small now, only its back visible, like a corpse floating on the surface of a stream. She knelt slowly, wincing, then rolled its top half back over so that it was gazing up at her. The points of the rubies had made small indents in the floor, but its eyes—its eyes were just as red, just as evil.
What kind of person made something to look so evil?
The chimes outside her door tinkled against one another. Moniqa stood up.
“Sese?” The slave’s voice was pitched, slightly frantic. “Are you well?”
She should have called for Dashel—perhaps she still would. She would have him bring Aurelius, and they could sit together, maybe even in the gardens beside the lilacs. She’d been teaching Aurelius Inda songs and stories lately, so he would hold her homeland in his heart, so he would know it was his and retake it for her. Inda songs for an Indan boy. When Aurelius sang back to her he had the most perfect voice—just like a songbird.
Moniqa hesitated. “Come in.”
The slave—a plain, Massenqa face that Moniqa only half-recognized—locked eyes with her. “There was a noise, Sese.”
Moniqa smiled, then glanced at the floor. “I dropped it.”
The girl rushed in, cooing over the destroyed object. Moniqa took a step backwards as the girl struggled with how to go about moving and fixing the thing. The slave’s hands darted to either side of it, never touching it, like it was a spiny urchin that might stab her.
“Don’t fuss over it so.” Moniqa held her head high, reaching her hand back to brush over her close-shaved head. She opened her eyes wide even though the slave couldn’t see her, in case she still looked drunk on lotus tea. “I would like to see my son. Now. And Dashel. Have them both brought to me in the gardens.”
“Just your son, Sese?”
Moniqa turned on the girl. “Aurelius—I meant Aurelius. Not—” The newborns had no names yet, young as they were. “Not the other one.”
She smiled to herself—the name a kiss on her lips, a quickening of her heart. The first Aurelius, just like Lena, was long dead, but sometimes in the night she would wrap her arms around herself and pretend they were her Loran lover’s arms, holding her tight and safe.
He hadn’t been Eshmunen’s either. And he had died for it.
“Sese?” The slave was staring at her.
Moniqa stroked her lip with her thumb. She didn’t remember raising her hand at all. How long had she been standing here? “It’s just the lotus tea. I’m well.” The admission relaxed her.
“Sese—apologies—your physician didn’t see you today.”
Of course he had. Of course he had, but . . . no, that had been yesterday. It was Dashel she’d seen today. He’d brought her . . . no, not lotus tea. He’d brought her sapenta, the poppy drink.
Moniqa nodded, annoyed. “That doesn’t have anything to do with my son. Go get him. Go get Dashel. I want him here.” No. The gardens. She’d wanted them in the gardens, to pray to Adonen.
“Sese, the prince is with his slaves. The festival is tonight, Sese, and court—you requested to attend court this evening.”
The air smelled burnt. She coughed to clear her throat. Had it smelled burnt earlier? She wasn’t herself.
“Of course I will attend,” she snapped, too roughly. She shook her head. “Have cold water brought—frigid. I must wash.” She must wake herself.
The slave stood, bowed, then slipped toward the door without turning around again. She left it ajar. Moniqa stared at the lantern light casting dotted patterns in the next room. She took a step toward it, then into the adjoining chamber where her babies lay. It was a small, circular room. Round braziers crouched at the room’s entrance—the burning smell from before?
One window lit a small patch of floor. A skeletal olive branch stretched inside like a clawed hand, reaching for the royal children. Moniqa strode over and tried to snap it, but the bark was still wiry despite the supposed drought, and it bent instead of breaking.
An owl hooted.
Moniqa leapt back, hands in front of her face. Her heart hammered in her breast. She froze, watching as the night bird shuffled from its hidden perch outside the window toward the branch Moniqa had failed to break. White feathers puffed out from its horrid black eyes, and it held its tawny wings pinned to its back.
“Don’t stare,” said Moniqa. She lowered her hand. “And go away—it isn’t time for you.”
It wasn’t yet evening, let alone night. And there was nothing to eat here—no olives on the tree to entice prey.
Only babes in their beds.
Lilit—the night bird, the demon who stole children from their cradles. Dashel had told Moniqa about her. Goddess of the dark, of vengeance, of death. She took the form of a strix.
Moniqa stepped protectively in front of the baskets where the twins lay gurgling. “Go away,” she repeated more harshly.
A cloud must have passed, because sunlight suddenly caught the bird’s eyes, and for an instant they flashed red and round, and cruel as rubies.
There were names. Names one was to speak to ward the demon off, but even if Moniqa had known them, she wouldn’t have spoken them. They were the names of Massenqa gods. The only god Moniqa needed was Adonen.
She sucked a breath. “Adonen be gone with you.”
The bird cocked its head at her. It looked . . . amused. But then it hooted and flew off, as fast as it had seemed to appear.
Moniqa bent over and laughed. Silly. It was silly.
She turned from the window to her children. Their eyes were closed, their breathing untroubled. The boy. He looked peaceful. Perhaps the physician was wrong and he didn’t have the sweet sickness. Perhaps he would be well. The owl hadn’t even woken him—or her, the girl.
The children weren’t really Samelqo’s, or Eshmunen’s. Just Moniqa’s. She would love them, she would care for them. It had been the sapenta making her think such thoughts before. She was queen of Qemassen—she could have anything she wanted. What she wanted was to kiss them. But no—they’d only wake again, and she must get herself ready. She would look well for the court tonight.
What was taking that slave so long?
With a smile at her sleeping babies and a quick glance at the owl-less window, Moniqa left the nursery for her room. She would need her fine silks—the finest. The Semassenqa needed cheer and Moniqa would be that cheer. Eshmunen had gifted her a thousand fabrics, a thousand near-translucent garments in another thousand hues. She would wear none of those tonight. Tonight she would wear the orange and purple—the silks he, Aurelius, had given her.
She hoped Eshmunen and Samelqo remembered them. She hoped it was a dagger in her husband’s heart and that when he cried about it, Samelqo wasn’t there to coddle him.
It was dark in this room—too dark. It wasn’t good for her. She flung aside the curtains and the sunlight poured in. Evening would be coming on soon, but for a little while at least the sun would shine on the queen of Qemassen.
Each of Moniqa’s most treasured objects, silks included, were stored in a great banded chest beside her bed—one thing, at least, that Eshmunen had not stolen away and replaced. It was filled with trinkets from her youth, a lock of each of her childrens’ hair, a small statue of Adonen that her father had given her. Moniqa unbolted the now-rusted lock that kept it closed, heart brimming with newfound determination. In the distance, from the hallway, she could hear the feet of slaves returning with the water she’d asked for.
She lifted the lid.
It was empty. Almost. A sandstone statue with little rubies for eyes stared up at her, laid on its back, wrapped round with a scrap of torn orange cloth.
It had to be a trick. A terrible trick—the slave had put it there. The vicious little thing had stolen in here and torn her fine clothes and robbed her and put the statue back together and hidden it in the chest as a nasty, nasty, cruel trick and all for Samelqo. Yes. It had been him, him or Eshmunen. They’d taken everything—Samelqo had killed Aurelius, if not with his own hand then with a hired one, and now he’d ripped even this small pleasure from her. He’d taken—
Moniqa twisted around and counted the statues. There were six lining the wall, one broken on the floor. All of them. The sapenta. It had to be. She looked back at the chest. The statue was gone. Instead, nestled amongst her fine silks, beside her trinkets and the statue of Adonen and the locks of her childrens’ hair, was the curled white feather of an owl.