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In shape, the garden labyrinth was how Ashtaroth remembered it, but its familiarity only made it more sinister. It was as though something large and slithering writhed beneath the surface, stretching the skin of this place over itself in order to remain hidden. The trees were the same, yet strangers, and it dredged up memories of the streets he’d walked months earlier, the phantom city in which his own people had spoken a foreign tongue, and alien architecture had rent the skyline.
Someone giggled behind him. Ashtaroth swerved to look. What ghosts and monsters would Lilit send to torment him in this dark place?
That laugh again. It didn’t sound like the demon.
An unnatural light flickered further up the path, followed by the trill of a songbird. A few paces away from Ashtaroth, sheer, colourful scarves darted around one of the passages that lay ahead, as though someone had been standing there and he’d only just missed her. The same shrill laughter followed, dancing on a wind that had grown eerily calm.
If he entered here, there was no coming back. His home would be closed to him.
Ashtaroth’s home had been closed to him a long time.
He took the final step.
Samelqo – Qemassen: The City Streets – Twenty Years Ago
Samelqo eq-Milqar, high priest of the great city of Qemassen, had a headache.
He’d hoped he might find relief once he returned to his litter, but the dry airs and scorching heat of the desert sun pervaded beneath the litter’s canopy. Each bump in the road, every jostle atop the shoulders of Samelqo’s acolytes, was a spear of pain piercing past his left eye to the back of his skull.
And the smoke. No smell would ever root itself in Samelqo’s body like that sulfuric stench. It lingered thick in the nose, and the throat, and on the tongue, and when many sacrifices were burned one after the other, over a period of days during the hottest summer in fifty years, the smoke hung thick as memory. It drifted, oily, beside the litter, just as it had all the way from the temple district. It drowned his breath like sour, black water.
Samelqo smoothed a hand over his bald scalp, eyes closed but vision seething. He could still see the lines of supplicants outside the temples downhill: desperate mothers lined up for grain the priests didn’t have to give, desperate fathers leaving the death god’s gardens with empty hands and emptier stomachs, their sacrifices already burned to ash in the god’s golden hands.
His throat itched. He coughed into his fine azure sleeve. When he drew it back and opened his eyes, he half expected to see blood, but the fabric was clear. The high priest—the heq-Ashqen—did not bleed for his city. As the dryness of the river proved, the heq-Ashqen did little for Qemassen.
Nothing, at least, that had not also been for himself.
Samelqo scowled. Tonight’s festival would absolve him of whatever wrongs had drawn the gods’ ire. The sacrifices of the peasants were clearly insufficient. The gods demanded a greater price—one only a king could pay.
He searched out the letter buried in the folds of his robes and curled his fingers around the rough papyrus. Its surface seemed to burn hot as coals. The letter had finally convinced King Eshmunen his sacrifice was necessary, but the words Samelqo had written there were as false as his intentions were true.
Swallowing, he withdrew his hand.
What was one more lie to add to a lifetime’s deceits?
The acolytes ducked down suddenly. Samelqo gripped the cedar handrests inside his litter, biting back a curse. With a grimace, he shoved the curtains aside to spy out at the twisting cobble street. The fine palace of Qemassen’s kings and nobles—its Semassenqa—loomed above the flat-roofed mud-brick apartments of the lower city. Its myriad colours—blues and oranges and pristine whites—were like a million flowers blooming against the sky. As a child, Samelqo had thought those palace towers beautiful, but if they were, it was the beauty of death, the unkindness of a jewelled dagger against the throat.
Shit, as his father had used to say, flowed downhill.
“Why have we stopped?” he asked.
“Apologies, Sese,” mumbled—and Samelqo had warned them about mumbling—one of his acolytes. “A gull swooped. We—we were avoiding it. It . . . defecated on Bilan’s head.”
Restraint. Samelqo would restrain himself. His tongue had ever been razor-sharp, Esha had once said. He breathed in, sucking back foul airs, and swallowed the cough that threatened to follow. Jaw clenched, he drew the curtains.
“Carry on,” he announced. When the litter did not continue he called louder, and it lifted into the air.
Samelqo’s temple throbbed, and he gripped his handrests, running long, thin fingers over wood so smooth it could be skin.
His hands had been deft once, hadn’t they? Time took so much, so slowly, that one hardly realized what was being stripped away till it was all but gone.
The temptation to rest his head against the side of the litter nearly overwhelmed him. If he closed his eyes and slept the rest of the way, perhaps it would ease his headache. He could let the rhythmic up and down of the acolytes’ steps lull his racing thoughts to rest. But Samelqo sat straight, neck rigid and proud, gaze fixed on the opposite wall of the litter. He sat that way for a long time, pernicious memories nipping at his eyelids each time they threatened to close. Only the weak required rest, and Samelqo was not weak.
There was a creak, the familiar sound of the palace gates unlocking. The litter hurried inside, no doubt hastened by the acolytes’ fear. Samelqo let them carry him till he was certain he was well within the palace grounds, then tapped the litter’s side again with the flat of his palm.
“Set me down. I shall walk the rest of the way.”
They did as instructed, and Samelqo abandoned them without comment, soft robes fluttering about his ankles as he stalked away.
The air here was fresher, laden only with the ocean’s salt and not the vapors that choked the city streets. From high up in the palace gardens, one had a perfect view of the Helit sea. It stretched northward from Qemassen’s port, its waters glistening and utterly useless—even salt water refused to give up its fish to Qemassen’s nets.
Samelqo needed solitude, a moment of respite before tonight’s festival—somewhere to think silently and steady himself. There was still much to be done. The palace slaves were to be sent out with food for the people, and although Samelqo had already instructed the other temple priests—the Ashenqa—as to their roles tonight, certain of them were less than competent. Competence was in eternally short supply, its coffers near as empty as the city’s.
To either side of Samelqo lay paradise: paths of mosaic tiles bordered by shade and fruit-giving trees; hidden statues in low bushes, peeking nymphish faces from between jade leaves; the soothing sound of water trickling nearby; and the yawning mews of the peacocks as they stalked along low walls and down circular avenues.
It was all frivolity, and deadly at so late an hour. The water used to feed the trees was better spent on the orchards and olive groves surrounding the city. But nothing was so precious to Queen Moniqa as her lilacs. Nothing, perhaps, save her eldest son, Aurelius.
Further inside the labyrinthine garden, children were laughing and shrieking.
Samelqo stopped in the centre tile of a forked pathway and listened. For a moment it sounded like Eshmunen was laughing beyond the bushes, still a child and so far from the man who would be king. Long ago, he’d tutored the king and his sisters along these same paths. Stepped these same stones on much lighter feet.
He set his foot down atop a blue tile, then a green. A girl’s shrill squeal of delight pierced the air, followed by a giggle.
A red tile, a black. He could hear them—Eshmunen and his sisters.
Samelqo frowned, knitting his brow. He looked left, then right, but found only the stone faces of statues.
He kept walking, his throat tightening with every phantom sound. Nila, Safeva, Meg—Eshmunen’s sisters were long dead, charges Samelqo had failed in one way or another. They couldn’t be here, yet Samelqo knew more than most how the gods’ blessings could be sudden, unexpected. Perhaps, after everything, after Qemassen’s sacrifices, the gods had seen fit to reward him. All he would have to do was find the children in the garden, warn them of their fates.
Gods could be kind as well as cruel.
“Stop hitting me.” A girl’s voice. Meg? He had heard her, hadn’t he?
Years ago, he would have been faster on his feet. Now past sixty, Samelqo could feel the death god Molot’s fingers tickling his skin, smell Molot in the stuffy streets, see Molot in the lines that marked his once-proud face. Nevertheless, he skipped one tile, then another, growing more spry with each step, every corner turned.
Samelqo rounded a bend. He could—he really could hear them. Eshmunen and his three sisters, but as children again, living children. Some god or goddess had turned their gaze his way and conjured the dead to toy with him.
The sky was reddening. In the evenings, the children would usually be brought inside. Samelqo must hurry. The gods might be smiling on him, but even immortal smiles could sour.
One slipper fell from his foot as he ran down narrowing avenues toward the centre of the gardens. The tiles, scattered with sand, scraped his bare skin. A stone pierced him; he winced and stumbled. He was afoot again quickly enough. It was as though the years fell away from him with every cubit. The air, no longer dry, tickled his cheek. His clouded eyes grew clear. His legs, strong and fit, closed the distance with agility long mourned and put to rest.
At another fork, he paused to listen, heart pounding.
Another laugh. Eshmunen again? It wasn’t quite right, and yet—
He dipped down a shortcut the garden slaves used to tend the grounds. The thorns of Moniqa’s roses grazed his bare arms. Blood trickled down his calves as he burst onto the path, in the middle of a four-way intersection.
The children usually came this way to play in the central fountain, but—
“Ow!” Nila’s voice this time. They were near the palace walls that overlooked the northern quarter of the garden.
He quickened his pace. From around the corner, sunlight reflected off the jewelled beads of a royal tunic, smooth brown skin flitting beyond the leaves. He rounded the corner, whacking a bush in his haste. There was a flurry of activity from amidst the thicket, and an owl swooped out from the trees, hooting once before disappearing.
He surged forward, but something pulled him back. He twisted his neck to look. Behind him, his fine robes were caught in the brambles, spread out like punctured blue wings.
There was no time. Samelqo tugged, ripping the fabric.
As he tore away, all his aches gripped his joints with renewed hunger. He was an old man again, and the air just as dry as before. Above the gardens, the red evening sun was the blazing yellow of mid-afternoon.
The voices were just ahead of him now, and yet—they weren’t quite right.
He stepped onto the path.
The royal children were here. But not Eshmunen and his sisters. These were King Eshmunen’s son and daughters: Aurelius, Himalit, and Qwella.
Young Dashel was with them—a palace servant. Moniqa’s creature.
Samelqo swallowed, focusing on the rhythm of his own breath in order to retrieve his usual calm. Had the laughter been an illusion? He ought to return to his duties.
Dashel hovered over Qwella’s shoulder, his pale, olive finger poked in the dirt as though he’d been drawing something. He stood hurriedly when he noticed Samelqo. For a man of fourteen he was awkwardly tall. He bowed curtly. “Sese.”
Samelqo dismissed the honorific with a wave. He had no illusions about how much respect Moniqa’s pet showed him when he wasn’t there.
Himalit, eleven, had a stick in her hand, poised as though to strike Qwella, who was sitting cross-legged in the dirt. Aurelius, the youngest at six, was balancing atop a stone bench with a branch of his own, hopelessly outmatched by his eldest sister.
They were staring at Samelqo.
Aurelius guffawed. Samelqo grit his teeth.
“There’s a plant stuck to your face,” said Qwella. The eight-year-old bit her lip as if to suppress a laugh.
Samelqo held his head high, smoothed his tattered robes with one hand, then delicately plucked the offending leaf from his forehead.
Qwella pointed at him. “Not that one. The other one.”
Samelqo brushed his hand over his head. It came back stained with the black kohl that lined his eyes. He scowled, then looked away.
He’d been certain he’d heard . . . no. The heat had got to him, that was all. He needed shade and water. He couldn’t be seen to make a fool of himself during the sacrifice, in front of the city. Qemassen deserved more than that. King Eshmunen deserved more.
Yet Samelqo’s heart still raced.
Himalit whipped her branch across the ground. “Did that owl chase you?” A smirk played at her lips.
“Owls are bad onions,” said Qwella. She looked up at Samelqo, smiling triumphantly as she attempted to recite back one of Samelqo’s lessons. “Onions from Molot’s wife.”
Dashel grinned. “Don’t you mean omens?”
“Samelqo definitely said onions,” said Aurelius.
“Lamentably,” intoned Samelqo, “your attendant is correct. Owls can indeed be bad omens. Though in this case, I merely disturbed its rest.” Or so he hoped.
He stepped toward Qwella and Dashel, where the pair had drawn something in a patch of spilled sand. A knife of pain shot up his leg, and he winced, his bare foot giving way for an instant before he caught himself.
Dashel shifted as though to support him, but Samelqo slapped his hand away. “I need no assistance, Erun.”
“What happened to your shoe?” Himalit demanded. Samelqo turned toward her. She’d hopped onto the bench beside Aurelius. The two must have been sword fighting with their sticks. That was all Samelqo had heard. This heat—it was maddening.
Himalit’s gaze was fixed on Samelqo. She had much of Eshmunen in her. His hawk-like nose, his skin like sandstone. But her hair, her hair was brown shot through with gold.
“A mishap,” said Samelqo, remembering himself. He tore his attention from her unsettling amber eyes.
“When I lost my shoe you wouldn’t let me come back inside.” Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Himalit whipped her stick against the bench, then at Qwella, who wailed as the beads decorating her hair scattered across the path.
Himalit grinned, her one, furred brow giving her an added ferocity as she beat at the shrubbery. Her curls, piled beautifully atop her head by a house slave, struggled for freedom as she traipsed back and forth, stola tucked at the belt so she looked a young warrior. “I got you.” She thrust the stick pointedly at her younger sister. “Stay there or I’ll get you again.”
Qwella dusted the sand from her dress, combing the dirt for her things. “I’m not playing,” she said. “It’s a stupid game anyway. One of the twins is going to be king.”
So this was the game. Samelqo should have known. “I’m glad to see at least one of you is paying attention.” He’d spent little time with the royal children these past few days, busy as he’d been counseling Eshmunen and preparing for tonight. No doubt Himalit and Aurelius had conjured all sorts of wild stories about their newborn brother and sister in that time. Moniqa had given birth to twins not two weeks past.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Himalit leapt from one bench to the next, jabbing her stick at Aurelius. She swung her sword, knocking him from the bench with a thud. Dashel rushed to the prince’s side, helping him up. Aurelius dusted his tunic off with a grin and hopped back on the bench, glaring at his sister.
“I did it! Hah!” Himalit prowled along the benches, tapping her stick against the wood. “I’m king now. After Father.”
“The twins are going to be king. I told you.” Qwella exchanged a look with Dashel, then glanced at Samelqo as though for support.
Samelqo arched his eyebrow. “Yes, and he will bring great fortune to Qemassen.” A fortune they desperately needed at present. By the time the twins were grown, Samelqo had no doubt their Lora enemies would be circling the skies above Qemassen’s hilly shore. Assuming there was anything left of the Massenqa to pick apart by then.
“They can’t both be king.” A sombre tone entered Hima’s voice. “Father will have to pick one.”
Samelqo shoved his hand inside the folds of his robe, panic easing as his gnarled fingers felt the papyrus curled inside his pocket. He hadn’t lost it.
“Can we see them?” Aurelius asked. “Mother said we could.”
Dashel stood back up. “We’ll see them later, once Queen Moniqa’s well.”
Himalit turned to Samelqo, thrusting her play sword at him. “Tell Father to let us see them. He will if you tell him. He always listens to you.”
Samelqo cleared his throat. “I will tell your father nothing, except that you’ve been well behaved, and respectful of the troubles of the poor. In the lower quarter this morning they were carting dead men out of the city to burn. Molot’s gardens are too full for the bodies these days, thin and frail though they are. How blessed you are not to look upon their faces, or go without bread and water for more than an hour.”
Himalit lowered her gaze. “Dashel took us to see the elephants today. One of them was dying. Yeremi slit its throat. We sang a prayer for it, and burned cedar wood. Yeremi says it’s with Adonis now.”
Samelqo wished Eshmunen wouldn’t entertain Moniqa’s whimsy so. Dashel and his father, the royal mahout, were hardly suitable companions for Qemassen’s royal children. “Adonen,” he corrected. “The elephant is with Adonen.”
He glanced at the ground where Dashel and Qwella had been drawing, recognizing the shapes.
Samelqo strode toward Qwella, kicking the pictures away with his foot. “You are not to preach to them, Erun. You’ve been told before.”
Qwella’s face crumpled, eyes moist, and Dashel stared daggers back at Samelqo. “It won’t happen again, Sese. It was my mistake.”
Himalit crossed her arms. “Qwella asked him to, and anyway, Mother prays to Adonen. Who wants to pray to crusty old Molot? Or his stupid family. He’s just a dumb cow.” Himalit’s voice was shaky, like she didn’t quite believe her own words.
“Adonen is part of that stupid family, and not the most important part. Your mother’s people have forgotten the gods, and so they have been cast down. I would hold your tongue, before Molot casts you down along with them. You know they used to gild the tongues of those who spoke against Molot?”
“But Mother said—” Himalit started.
“She is of the Inda. She cannot be expected to follow our traditions.” Samelqo broke the intensity of their exchange, turning toward the palace. He should never have matched Eshmunen with Moniqa—she was a nuisance at best, and the alliance the match had initially bought had crumbled to dust along with the bones of her usurped family. But Eshmunen would never be parted from his beloved Moniqa, no matter that another bride might have brought him true happiness, would not have been fool enough to cuckold a king.
“Sese,” said Dashel. “Should I call a slave for you, Sese? You look . . .parched.”
Samelqo shook his head. He needed to concentrate, tonight of all nights.
A dying sun cast its red hues past the arches along the airy palace walkways that lined the gardens. Samelqo looked out toward the hills where Qemassen’s goatherds tended their flocks beyond the city wall. Further still lay dried streams and fields gone dead from heat and lack of rain. And past that? Past that, the yawning desert scratched at civilization with its golden fingers, ever-threatening to clasp them shut about the lands of the Massenqa, Qemassen’s people, Samelqo’s people.
And past that?
Past that Samelqo’s death lay waiting, nestled in the dunes, at the desert-god Hazzan’s very breast.
“Sese . . . ?” Dashel took a step toward him.
“What are you thinking about?” Aurelius asked.
Samelqo raised his head, ignoring Dashel and staring at Aurelius.
Himalit poked Aurelius with her stick. “Come on, he’s just being old. Let’s hunt for crabs on the beach.”
“There never are any,” said Aurelius. “Not anymore. We should go swimming.”
“What’s the point of that?” Himalit said. “Let’s go to the hills. There were lions there last night, Yeremi said. He said the soldiers scared them off with torches. If we track the lions, we’ll find gazelles. We could catch one and give it to those people Samelqo told us about.”
A distraction wouldn’t be the worst thing for the children tonight, but Samelqo couldn’t have them cavorting in the hills like goatherds. “No.”
Himalit looked like she might speak again, probably with some anecdote about how the fabled Queen Elibat had hunted gazelles on a giant tortoise, but she was interrupted by a cough from further down the path.
Samelqo tensed at the sound, remembering the owl, but it was one of Eshmunen’s slaves. She stood a few feet away, her head hung.
“Sese. King Eshmunen sends for his eldest son, the Prince Aurelius eq-Eshmunen. He asks that the Erun, Dashel, remain with the princesses until they are summoned for their lessons.”
Aurelius turned to Dashel, plaintive.
Samelqo clenched his fists. “Didn’t we just have this conversation? You are a Massenqa prince. You do not defer to your mother’s Erun servant. Go to your father. The rest of you stay with Dashel, as you were commanded.”
“But I don’t want to go. I want to play.”
“That’s a king’s command, Sese,” Dashel said, smiling at his charge. “And you can’t disobey a king—unless you’re giving the rest of us permission to disobey you?”
Aurelius stared at Dashel, sour. He fluttered his lashes like he was looking down his nose at the lot of them—did he fancy he was mocking Samelqo with that look?
Aurelius plodded after the slave all the same.
Dashel sighed, watching Aurelius leave. “Why does the king want him?”
Samelqo didn’t answer.
Something soft pressed against his fingers, and he looked down to find Qwella attempting to tuck a sprig of lilac into his palm. She alone truly shared her Indat mother’s likeness, her dark brown skin and rounded features. She was much better behaved than her mother.
He took the flower and forced a smile. Qwella hurried to Dashel’s side, offering him his own lilac.
“There’s a festival tonight,” said Samelqo, his weariness catching up with him. He twirled the stem of Qwella’s blossom in his hand, keeping his gaze on Prince Aurelius and the slave as they walked away. “Aurelius is the first born son and must attend.”
They all had dark duties they must attend to this evening.
“Sounds boring,” said Dashel. “I mean—it sounds very important.”
Himalit whipped her stick across the sand, hitting her sister a second time.
“Himalit,” Dashel cautioned, but she’d already run off, singing a particularly poor rendition of the summer hymn to Queen Elibat and skimming leaves off the trees with her stick.
Dashel hurriedly helped Qwella to her feet. “Sese.” He dipped his head at Samelqo. Dashel tugged Qwella along. “Let’s go to your rooms to play.”
Samelqo stood alone on the path for a long time, one bare foot stained with blood from the cuts on his leg. Moniqa’s thorns had choked out many of the trees Samelqo had known of old. His headache had faded some, in comparison with the sting of the roses’ bite.
Samelqo the heq-Ashqen gripped the papyrus in his hand, and listened to the sound of children playing long after Dashel, Himalit, and Qwella were gone.