0 Prologue,  Chapter Section

Prologue III: Dashel

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Prologue: Children

Section III

Dashel – Qemassen: The Throne Room – 20 Years Ago

Dashel stood scrunched between perfumed nobles on the packed mezzanine of Qemassen’s throne room. The competing scents of qyphi, rose, and lily clouded in the air around him until they were sucked inside his nose, dizzying.

In his own plain cotton tunic, sweat-soaked from his day in the hot sun with the royal children, Dashel was out of place. But Moniqa wanted him here, to spy for her, to see things she might miss. No one would question his presence.

He gripped the railing with damp palms, surveying the courtiers below. They milled at the rounded end of the great hall, framed by huge, arched windows behind them. The court hadn’t been so packed in weeks, and it was hard to spy on the Semassenqa with the room so full.

Moniqa’s cousin—tall, muscled, and imposing—was easy to spot. The exiled Indan prince, Shaqarbas, pushed his way through the crowd to stand at its head. He stopped a few feet ahead of the rest of the Semassenqa.

The merchant Qanmi looked him up and down before whispering something to his brother Sabeq. The two shifted subtly till they were flush with Shaqarbas. Even from Dashel’s spot on the mezzanine, the gold of Qanmi’s earrings glinted in the light, reflecting off the polished onyx floor.

Qanmi was always the most ostentatiously dressed at court—like he thought he was a prince himself. He wasn’t a prince at all, just rich, and no friend to Samelqo. There wasn’t much point in watching him.

The Ajwata ambassador was close behind them, but the Anata ambassador from eq-Anout and the Lora ambassador were both missing. Dashel scanned the crowd for their faces. They definitely weren’t here. It seemed odd, but maybe they’d tired of Samelqo’s pronouncements of doom.

At the head of the room, not so far from Dashel’s vantage, Qemassen’s queen and king—Moniqa and Eshmunen—sat upon their thrones, each seat resting on a tiered dais. The third throne sat empty.

Where was Samelqo? His throne stood to the right of Eshmunen’s, on the lowest tier of the dais. The lowest, even though everyone knew Eshmunen was only a puppet. Samelqo was Qemassen’s real king. It was him Moniqa needed Dashel to watch. Moniqa was sure he was plotting something against her.

A minor noble nudged Dashel’s side as though to press past and get a better view, but Dashel was tall and strong for a man of fourteen. He planted his feet firmly apart and nudged the noble right back before gripping the railing again. He’d promised Moniqa he’d be here for her tonight, promised her he’d stand at the edge of the gallery so she’d know where to find him. It was all worth it, because Dashel was needed.

It was worth missing his last night with Isef.

He ran his tongue over his lips, remembering Isef’s kiss this morning. Dashel’s skin still tasted of olives, just like Isef’s.

Isef’s mother had arranged a marriage for her son—a pretty girl from Lorar. Usually Isef’s mother hated anyone who wasn’t a real, Qemassen-born Erun, but apparently an Eruna girl from Lorar counted as long as she got Isef away from Dashel.

Well, that was fine. Dashel still had the memory of his lips. He gripped the railing tighter, shifting his attention from Isef and back to what he was supposed to be doing.

Moniqa’s many-hued skirts spilled from the dais to the floor in front of her—expensive silks traded from distant lands, displaying her wealth and power to everyone assembled. It was a perfect gown in which to stand up to Samelqo.

Today was her first day at court since the royal twins had come screaming into the world. A sweat had gripped her until five days past, and Dashel had spent most of that time at her side, or with Aurelius, or attending court as her eyes and ears. Samelqo’s underlings had tried to bar his entry, but Moniqa had put a stop to that with a word to the king. Dashel wasn’t sure how good his reports had been, but Moniqa always thanked him, and paid him, and smiled.

Dashel kicked at the rail with his foot, and his sandal scuffed the floor, squeaking against stone. He grinned, sheepishly, at the courtier beside him, but no one seemed to have heard. Everyone was chattering about tonight’s festival—staring and pointing at the more important nobles standing below them, at the far end of the curved hall.

Dashel straightened. And so what if they had heard? Everyone knew he was Moniqa’s favourite. No one would dare say a word to him.

“Why tonight, is what I don’t understand,” someone said nearby. “And where’s the heq-Ashqen? He should answer for this. I can’t spare what I have plumping up peasants for some festival—”

Dashel turned his attention back to the hall below. Samelqo’s empty throne was like a gaping wound.

A few months ago, Samelqo had claimed demons sent by the death god, Molot, were responsible for both the dryness of the river Izzat, and the Lora mercenaries attacking the trading ships and caravans that normally crowded Qemassen’s famed harbour and merchant quarter. Everyone had thought it funny at the time, but now? Molot’s gardens were packed with supplicants, the ground seasoned with ashes.

For a moment, the perfume of the courtiers was replaced by the pungent smell of smoke, and Dashel shuddered. Staring at Samelqo’s seat, he could almost see the demons crawling from the void it represented, black and burned.

Samelqo’s festival had been announced only a few days earlier, its details left vague. Dashel’s sister Sarah had told him that Eshmunen’s slaves had bought up the remainder of her date stores in preparation. Dashel liked festivals, but Massenqa ones were often gloomy affairs—there was good food and good drink, but instead of eating it they just burned it in big piles for their strange gods.

And since the spring, they burned more than food.

Dashel shifted, and stared down at the marble pillars that supported the mezzanine on the other side of the hall. His gaze slipped from pillar to pillar until it reached the vast arches of the windows, whose light still spilled across the floor. It was warm in the throne room, even in the shade, but thinking on Molot always gave Dashel a chill. The last time they’d passed the death god’s gardens, his mother and father had talked about how soon the Massenqa would tire of burning their own. Then they’d turn on the Eru, start blaming them for the drought. Dashel’s people would have to leave.

If that happened, Dashel would stay. Qemassen was the only home he’d ever known. Dashel believed in Adonis like any good Erun, even if the sages’ lectures put him to sleep, but his place was with the royal children. It didn’t matter that they were Massenqa.

Besides, Moniqa would protect him. She’d protect all of them. He tore his gaze away, settling his attention on her.

She turned Dashel’s way, chin angled upward, searching for him. His heart beat faster. He grinned, then waved. From all the way up here, he could just make out her smile—and she’d smiled it for him.

Then Eshmunen leaned toward her and spoke, and she turned away. Her shoulders slumped. She still looked beautiful in her silks that spread around her like the petals of a flower, but it was like the world had crashed down on her with her husband’s words.

The atmosphere about the palace must be adding to Moniqa’s unease. The mood was anxious, confused. Then again, her melancholy might be from the sapenta Dashel had brought her earlier.

Three slaves holding a ney, a sistrum, and a cymbal skittered from the marble pillars beneath the mezzanine and stopped at the centre of the room. Together, they played the melody that signaled the start of a session. The rattles of the sistrum were not so different from those of some living thing—like a field of insects laying in the grass.

No sooner had one slave lowered her ney from her lips, than the doors across the hall flew open, and Samelqo strode inside. With his robes whirling about him, his steps long and firm, he looked nothing like the wreck Dashel had seen earlier in the gardens. The musicians scrambled back into the shadows beneath the mezzanine like mice scattering before a cat.

Samelqo surveyed the room quickly, then bowed to his king and queen. King Eshmunen barely looked up. He was hunched against his seat, one fist propping up his chin as his other arm fell lazily over the throne’s sphinx-headed armrest. The sphinxes’ blind faces seemed to stare endlessly past the great windows opposite, past Qemassen and its rounded harbour.

As Samelqo took a few slow, deliberate steps to the centre of the room, Moniqa trailed him with her gaze. Dashel turned to the rest of the Semassenqa.

A heaviness had descended on the court, like the tension in the air before the summer storms. The horses in the stables beside his father’s elephants would squeal, and rear, and kick when the thunder came, and sometimes before it even started. No one was kicking or squealing now. Somehow it was more frightening.

Samelqo was taking his time. He prowled the floor, and as he prowled, Dashel followed his every movement, as transfixed as the Semassenqa. He swallowed.

Evening sunlight shone against the bald dome of Samelqo’s head, casting the heq-Ashqen’s golden skin an angry orange. Samelqo was always so prim and arch, like an evil sorcerer out of a story. It had felt good earlier in the garden to see his mask cracking. Maybe if it cracked enough, the king would finally see past Samelqo’s avian gaze to the serpent under it.

The crowd were fidgeting and shifting on their feet.

At last Samelqo spoke. “Beloved children of Qemassen.” He raised a rolled scroll high up in the air, and as he did so his robes swiveled about him as though to emphasize his every word. His voice echoed throughout the hall, clear and commanding. “I come before you with further proof of the gods’ displeasure. The harmony of the Helit Sea is unbalanced. Lora conquerors have set sail for Zimrida.”

The hush of the court burst into a flurry of whispers. Dashel’s heart leapt to his throat. He darted a look at Moniqa, whose skirts rustled as she shifted on her throne. She was gripping her handrests. Eshmunen didn’t even look up.

He’d known. He’d known before the meeting was called. The queen had not.

From the unhappy looks on the Semassenqa’s faces, no one had yet been told. And how had Dashel missed this news? He had plenty of friends at the docks—sailors and traders who would have known about a Lora attack. He should have been paying more attention to his work and less to Isef.

“Have ships been sent?” Queen Moniqa rose from her throne. “How long have you known this?”

Samelqo didn’t turn around to address her. “The ships were sent, but too late. Molot has delayed them, or demons attacked them. The speed of our oars is nothing against the will of the divine.” He turned so that he surveyed the Semassenqa as he spoke. “Only three days ago word reached us that our outpost was besieged, and today our informers in Ledan confirmed the island was taken. There is no sign of our ships, Queen. They never reached Zimrida.” Samelqo paused. “They never even reached Ledan.”

Dashel darted a look at the Semassenqa. That must be why the Anata ambassador was missing. Ledan was his nation’s capital. As the closest landmass to Qemassen’s outpost on Zimrida, Ledan should have sent word earlier.

Moniqa’s cousin Shaqarbas brushed past the merchant Qanmi, and stepped halfway onto the floor of the hall. “Never reached Ledan or weren’t reported? What proof do we have that these informers are loyal to Qemassen?” He, at least, wasn’t frightened of Samelqo. “How do we know the Anata themselves haven’t been bought with Lora coin? Anyone here worth the gold on his fingers knows demons don’t helm ships, but pirates and traitors are more than willing.”

“Demons have no need of ships,” said Samelqo. Some of the Semassenqa were nodding in agreement. Were they so desperate for reassurance they were suddenly willing to swallow Samelqo’s stories? Moniqa had told him there’d been droughts before. Qemassen would survive.

“They come up from the seafloor or take shape from the wind itself,” Samelqo continued. “They scatter men’s bones along the shore and drag warriors off to feast upon beneath the waves. We have come to laugh at our demons and the gods they serve, but that laughter twists back on us now. Rivers dried and scouting parties missing? Ships vanished and seedlings suffocated by barren sands? What of Indas? What of She?”

Dashel’s throat felt thick, strangled. How dare he speak of Moniqa’s home?

Samelqo’s voice reverberated throughout the hall as the sun’s light faded. The shadows deepened across the room, across Shaqarbas’s face. At the mention of his homeland, Shaqarbas looked like he might take those last few steps and strangle Samelqo where he stood.

Dashel’s heart fluttered with the hope, but Prince Shaqarbas didn’t move.

“Qemassen is great, as once was Indas,” continued the heq-Ashqen. “Qemassen forgets its gods as Indas once did. It is not the Lora we should fear, but ourselves. I shall tell you of Indas the Great―of the fall of her cities and her towns. Where now is the great city of Ipsis, but clutched greedily by Lorar? What of Lera, whose palaces burned with fire from the torches of her own Inda people? It is a Loran king who governs in the City of Reeds, and it is a Loran king who will govern these sacred halls and call himself Semassenqen.”

Dashel’s squeezed the railing. Samelqo was laying fallen Indas, naked and shamed, before the Semassenqa—it was as though he’d stripped Moniqa bare.

Moniqa was trembling—not with tears, Dashel thought, but with anger. For Samelqo to have publicly slandered the Inda people, and Moniqa’s family in particular, was a dangerous tactic. Everyone knew how Eshmunen loved his queen. The people loved their queen.

Yet Eshmunen did nothing. No one did anything as Samelqo ranted on, commanding quiet with his every word as his gaze danced across the faces of the assembled nobility.

“The temples of Molot and Abaal were razed to the ground in Ipsis, and the Adonis of Elu held up in their place. It is easy for a mighty people to forget their benefactors and grow lax. It is easier to worship one god than many. It is easier to burn lambs and leaves than human hair and bone, and it is easiest of all to grow complacent in our wealth.” As Samelqo moved, the very torchlight made a specter of his shadow, which stretched long and looming behind him. “Who here goes starving like the woman in the street who peddles her sex for milk and olives? Who here makes sacrifice as Elibat’s people were once taught to do? The common people of Qemassen know what this drought means, even if we do not. The common people of Qemassen, whores and gamblers and degenerates, know better what is required of them than the kings and queens of this mighty city.”

Dashel’s skin crawled with the legs of a hundred creeping insects.

“You preach as though you speak for your king, Ashqen,” snapped Moniqa. She didn’t sound tired now—she sounded like a queen, like Dashel’s queen. “It is you who forgets who rules in Qemassen. Who his allies are.”

Before Samelqo was forced to answer though, Qanmi eq-Sabaal took a step forward. “What allies? The men promised us died long ago in lands most of us have never seen.” He cracked his gold-ringed fingers as he stared Moniqa down. “I paid well to sit your brother on the Inda throne. I hoped my trading barges might find safe harbour in his ports. Perhaps the new king in Indas would recognize the agreement if I sent a fallen Indat princess in place of pots and linens? I hear Lorar looks kindly on those who bow in defeat.”

Qanmi couldn’t have said such a thing a year ago, yet none now seemed surprised by the threat.

King Eshmunen shifted in his seat for the first time since the beginning of the meeting. His greying curls hung limp against his chest as he straightened. Dashel had to lean forward to hear the king’s hushed voice.

“There will be no talk of defeat inside Qemassen’s walls. Bowing to Lorar would mean the death of us. They can’t afford for Qemassen to be left standing.” Eshmunen gestured vaguely with his hand, as though to indicate the west, and Moniqa’s homeland. “The loss of Indas was great, but there are other potential allies. Envoys have been sent across the Helit Sea to treat with the northwestern clansmen. The chiefs of the Feislands are joining their armies to fend off Lora raiding parties, with talk of electing a leader. The king of the Feislands won’t refuse a prize as great as the future ruler of the Helit. A marriage alliance would solidify our friendship.”

Dashel cringed, trying to picture pretty little Qwella forced to marry a brutish tribesman in furs. From the stirring of the court, it sounded like they were as concerned as Dashel. The court would be filled with Feislanda beasts.

Samelqo held out his hands. “The king has decided this after much thought. The Feislanda are not what they once were and bring with them many warriors and much territory. Farming territory.”

Shaqarbas cut Samelqo off with a laugh, grinning ear-to-ear. He would stand up for Moniqa’s children when her husband wouldn’t. “And marrying a woolly northern elephant, was that something the gods commanded, Samelqo? If so, I feel sorry for our young heir. Someone should tell the child, so he can crawl back inside his mother. Of course, we could always send our heq-Ashqen to the Feislands. I’m sure there must be some poor hag, blind enough to welcome him to her bed.”

Dashel chuckled at Moniqa’s cousin in the darkness. He wished the king would send Samelqo to the Feislands.

“Common sense commanded this alliance of the king,” Samelqo answered, pinched. “If the gods find fault with his decision they will inform us.”

A chill passed over Dashel. There was something he wasn’t understanding, buried in Samelqo eq-Milqar’s words. He looked out the windows behind the Semassenqa. Slaves had come and lit the torches in the room and the sun had nearly disappeared from the sky. The red and purple sunset still spilled across the walls here and there, but the shapes had taken on a sinister bent, and for a moment Dashel could have sworn he’d seen the face of a real demon painted in crimson on the white walls.

“And what are we to do with this news?” asked Shaqarbas.

Samelqo inclined his head. “Pray.”

Shaqarbas snorted, arms folded across his broad chest, but he stepped back. “The Ashenqa have been praying for years.”

“Then the manner of prayer must change.”

The manner of prayer?

The merchant Qanmi crept forward, his earrings and metal-ornamented braids tinkling against one another. “You can’t ask that of us. My Titrit is nearly twelve.”

“I do not ask it of you, nor does our king.” Samelqo stood rigid, oddly emotionless suddenly.

“Then what is it he does ask?” said Qanmi.

“It is written in the Book of Abaal that following seven years of plague and meagre yields a gift of two hundred children was made in Molot’s gardens. That spring, the rains flooded the banks of the Izzat. Molot rewards those who follow the proper observances, and punishes those who refuse. Yet we live in a time even more uncertain than those first days, with enemies to either side of us, and silence from the skies above.”

Dashel had always lived in Qemassen, a friend to its people, but even at his age there were areas of the city he feared to enter, and the gardens most of all. When he was small, Sarah had told him ghost stories about the bodies buried in those grounds, and of the graves left empty when the flames took everything. Only once had he chanced to see the great gold statue of Molot, with its bull’s head and outstretched hands. He’d been riding in a litter with the queen, and Moniqa had parted the curtains to point toward the temple entrance behind the statue, its giant steps leading down to a sandstone walkway that extended all the way to Molot’s back. The smoke that hung perpetually over the quarter these days had not been there then, but the image had shaped his nightmares for months.

“Stop dancing around the question,” said Shaqarbas. “Explain what you mean if it’s not the murder of our children. The poor men burning babes they can no longer feed is one thing; it’s another to butcher healthy heirs.”

Samelqo spoke so fast he nearly cut Shaqarbas off. “Our people are suffering. The Lora are on Zimrida, perhaps sailing for Ledan. Our Indat queen,” Here, at last, he turned to face Moniqa and Eshmunen, “has taken a foreign god as her own. In answer to our withered orchards she squanders the last riches of our city on herself, and on a son she named for a man of Lorar. While the cries of poor families drown Molot’s gardens in grief, the Indat Moniqa spares not a date from her table. I ask you, what do the Semassenqa do when its peasants are holier than its crown?”

Dashel wanted to run to Moniqa, who was crying now, but he stopped himself. It would do none of them any good. His gaze darted to the king, waiting for him to decree Samelqo’s imminent dismissal, but the word never came. The king looked bored and distant, grimly resigned to what was to come.

“Molot requires retribution for the insult of Moniqa’s godlessness,” Samelqo said. “The queen is loved, however, by our good king. Hers is not the blood the gods require. Qanmi need not worry for the life of his daughters, nor Shaqarbas his sons. Following the birth of his seventh child, King Eshmunen offers up his son as tribute, to be burned in Molot’s garden tonight, before the people of Qemassen.”

Dashel forced down the sickness in his throat. Moniqa looked as though she’d been struck. Her right hand that gripped her armrest trembled, her nails digging against the sandstone as though hoping to bury themselves in the rock.

She turned to Eshmunen, but his face was covered by his hand. Dashel understood that the king might not want to be the one to announce to his wife and court that their son was going to die, but surely he could pay Moniqa the courtesy of looking her in her eyes. A stronger man would have; a stronger man would have held her hand.

None of the Semassenqa protested—who valued the life of his own child below that of a boy they hadn’t met and didn’t love? Two of Moniqa’s other children had died after only a few months, and the male child was sickly. Perhaps, if this had to happen, it was the best of many bad choices.

Qanmi eq-Sabaal bowed before the royal family, a sudden solemnity to his pose. “Will the young heir also be brought before the people tonight? It would ease the minds of the Massenqa, and dull the sting of a royal death. Our king’s sacrifice isn’t unappreciated, but there are those who consider such things macabre.”

Samelqo smiled bitterly. “Foreigners, you mean. Well, I suppose it is both a joyous and terrible event, just as Molot is joyous and terrible. Yes, the heir will be present, as will the twin. They will be introduced following the ceremony.”

Murmurs flitted, slowly and then faster, as those gathered mulled the meaning of Samelqo’s answer.

“What do you mean? If the twins are to be brought forth after the sacrifice, who is to be burned?” Qanmi asked.

The heq-Ashqen’s composure faltered a moment, as though he found it difficult to give his intentions breath. “The first son. The boy Aurelius.”

No.

Dashel thought the word, even as Moniqa spoke it. “No.”

The queen was on her feet. She stepped down the raised platform of her throne, legs shaking. She tripped on her gown and fell into a crouch, palms flat against the black of the floor.

“No,” she whispered. “Not him, not my Aurel. You can’t―take the other one—I don’t . . . .” Her words squeaked from her lips, cracking as she swallowed back sobs. “Any of them. You can have all of them, just not him. Don’t take him. Please.”

Dashel’s eyes widened. She truly would give up any of the others, Qwella and Himalit both, if they would let her keep Aurelius.

Some brave man amongst the Semassenqa would have to stand up for her, and when he did, Dashel would join him. He’d find a sword and they’d get Aurelius from wherever Samelqo had hidden him, and all the other children too, and they’d leave the city, through the elephant pens and to the hills, or across the sea in a boat.

Something tapped against his leg. He looked down and saw that it was his own hand, trembling near as much as the queen’s.

Samelqo looked pitying as he responded to Moniqa’s stilted pleas. Dashel hated the old man more than ever then. How could the priest do this, when he’d known Aurelius all the boy’s life and lectured him and taught him prayer?

“I’m sorry, my queen, but it has always been tradition to take the eldest son. It seems cruel to us now, but with time it will be seen as a kindness.”

Moniqa threw herself at Samelqo. The heq-Ashqen cried out, and several of the Semassenqa leaped to their feet. Samelqo eq-Milqar’s imposing aura slipped from him, and he was instead a frail, brittle little creature, falling backward in a panic.

“I’ll cut you!” The queen yelled, shaking the heq-Ashqen. “I’ll rip you to pieces and feed you to the dogs if you touch my boy, if you touch him.”

Samelqo tore his arm from Moniqa’s grasp, but she grabbed the talisman about his neck, and twisted it. The amulet cut his skin, drawing blood.

Eshmunen stood finally, overlooking the spectacle with that same distracted blur in his eyes. He turned and nodded to someone Dashel couldn’t see, and then there were soldiers everywhere. It seemed a lot of men to restrain one woman. Soldiers rushed to prop Samelqo up as he coughed into his sleeve indecorously. They dragged Moniqa toward her throne. She looked mad: wailing open-mouthed, face streaked with tears.

Samelqo rubbed his neck where Moniqa had strangled him.

The courtier who’d been standing beside Dashel shoved him and shuffled by. The mezzanine was clearing out, everyone frightened by the chaos.

Dashel clenched his fists at his side. Samelqo had promised Moniqa would not be harmed, and he had to trust that. So instead of going to her as he wanted, he stepped back into the shadows, where he couldn’t be seen by Eshmunen’s guards.

“The boy will be brought before the people, and before our gods,” Eshmunen announced, to be heard over the crowd.

“A wise choice, as the heq-Ashqen made clear,” said Qanmi. “You’ll find no opposition from your Semassenqa, only gratitude for taking this upon yourself.”

“The gods are with us, and your son Aurelius. A true child of Qemassen,” said a woman from the crowd.

“A true child of Qemassen.” The voices of the court joined in unison to echo the Semassenqat’s words.

Dashel looked at Moniqa—she was staring at him. He hadn’t known anyone’s face to look so afraid, or so much like a corpse, yet there she was, mouthing something at him, though it seemed she should be unable. He shivered.

He shook his head at her, for she wasn’t close enough for him to hear, but it soon came to Dashel that it didn’t matter. He knew what that look meant. He knew what Moniqa wanted, as he had ever known.

He’d been so certain Samelqo’s choice was the best of many evil ones, but now? He girded himself, glaring down at the heq-Ashqen. He couldn’t let the boy die, nor the two girls he’d grown up with, nor even the newborn babes. It was an evil thing that had forced the queen to offer her other children in exchange for Aurelius’s life, and evil things had to be stopped. Some things were simple like that, and true.

And impossible.

But Dashel, Yeremi’s son, had been born into Qemassen to protect Moniqa’s children. No task was so noble, no need so urgent.

Fleet in his sandals, Dashel ran. He darted past the pillars as night came upon the palace on the hill, its halls lit only by fire, and its silence broken only by the sounds of a mother’s cries and the pounding of his heart.

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