Prologue IV: Aurelius
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Aurelius – Qemassen: The Palace – 20 Years Ago
“Her name is Adarabaal. It means Abaal’s fire.” Aurelius held the wooden tiger up for Uta to see. The Vetnu slave smiled back at him, bending down to touch the toy. At least it had distracted her from fixing his hair and facepaint for the festival.
He scratched at his face while she wasn’t looking. The guard in the corner—Bado, he thought the guard was called—gave Aurelius a sly wink. Aurelius grinned back.
It was odd that Aurelius’s father had sent a guard, but Aurelius had run away last time he was due for his lessons with Samelqo, so maybe that was why.
“She’s only got three legs,” said Uta, and Aurelius turned his attention back to her.
He frowned, staring at the clean break in the wood, and wriggled on his stool. “That was Hima’s fault, but Dashel knows someone who can mend her. A glue maker in the city. She’s from the lands beyond Ajwata, where the trees are bigger and she can sleep in them all the time and eat leaves and monkeys.”
“The glue maker?”
Uta could be so stupid sometimes. Aurelius shook his head, frowning regally as he explained it so Uta would understand. “No. Adara. Glue makers don’t eat monkeys.”
“They probably don’t eat leaves, either.”
Although he’d seen people eat all kinds of leaves before, Aurelius decided he wouldn’t upset Uta by making her feel inferior. Anyway, maybe she was right. He’d never actually seen a glue maker eat anything; in fact, he’d never seen a glue maker at all. It was the kind of thing he’d find out about when he was king and could start exploring. There were a lot of things and places he wanted to explore. He should make a list so he didn’t forget. Dashel had told him about a waterfall not far outside the city, and there were those orchards where his mother’s slaves had seen goats climbing in trees.
Uta knelt down in front of Aurelius, deftly unlacing his dusty sandals while reaching for another, fancier pair. Jade faces peered up at him, framed in gold. The shoes were heavy, and Aurelius made a face back at them.
“How am I going to run in these?”
Uta stood, brushing a loose strand of hair from her face. She was so jittery tonight. Maybe it was because of the guard. Maybe his sword was making her nervous. “They’re not meant for running, little prince. They’re for the festival tonight.”
Aurelius frowned thoughtfully. He liked the festivals where people wore masks the best, the ones with fire-blowers and animals from other places. They hadn’t had one of those in a long time. “Will there be food?”
“I expect so.”
“What about animals? Will there be a tiger like Adara?”
“Who can say?” Uta smiled at him, but it looked pinched. “If there is, I don’t think it will have three legs.”
That was good. It would be sad for a tiger to have three legs. Probably. He’d only seen one once, and she’d been a kitten a trader had carted all the way to Qemassen from a distant land. “I’m going to ride a tiger when I’m king. I’m going to name her after Adara and she’ll be red, and stripey, and run on the sand. I may want one with wings. I’m scared of falling off right now, but I won’t be when I’m bigger. Himalit says you can’t be king if you’re afraid of things like falling. Do you think there are tigers that can fly?”
Uta’s lip was trembling like she might cry, and Aurelius stopped talking. She looked like Mother did sometimes, when she sat alone in the dark in her room, quiet and sad and staring at her dresses. Aurelius didn’t like it when his mother looked that way. It frightened him. Nothing he tried ever seemed to make her better, but maybe Uta was different.
He glanced at Adara, gripped tightly in his hand. He held the toy up to Uta. “Do you want her?”
A tear glistened on her olive skin. She shook her head, lifting a hand to her face to wipe her eyes. “You keep her. Thank you, Sese.”
“I won’t forget you, you know, when I’m king. You could be free if you want.” Aurelius lowered his gaze to stare at Adara in his hands, rubbing his thumb across her faded paint. “You’re very pretty.”
Uta rolled her shoulders and sniffed. She stared past Aurelius, toward Bado. Then she sucked in a raspy breath and turned back to Aurelius.
Aurelius blushed as she looked him in his eyes. Hers were so pale.
“And you’re a handsome boy, who’ll be a handsome man one day.” Uta’s smile was back again, though her skin still looked blotchy. He hoped she wouldn’t pinch his cheek and start treating him like a child, the way Mother did. Aurelius hated that almost as much as when Mother cried.
Uta retrieved the short silk tunic she’d draped across the chair beside him. Aurelius relaxed—no pinching in the foreseeable future.
Aurelius heard leather rub against leather from the corner where Bado was standing—his scabbard hitting his leg as he moved—and Aurelius turned to look. Bado didn’t look cheerful anymore, like he had when he’d winked at Aurelius. “You have to hurry,” he said to Uta. “The heq-Ashqen’s expecting him.”
“It’s just Samelqo,” said Aurelius, but Bado looked away.
Uta scowled. Aurelius lifted his arms for her, and she pulled the silk over-tunic over his plain one. Aurelius rubbed the delicate stitched pattern on its front. There was a phoenix in the centre of a large circle, a pomegranate in one claw and the looped cross of the goddess Tanata in the other. The creature was said to live beneath the palaces of Qemassen, making her nest under the hilly earth. Encircling the bird was a border of divine animals: Tanata’s lioness, chasing the horse Ashtet; handsome Adonen riding on the back of his bride; the great serpent twins Leven and Pepet, coiled together in a confused tangle; Seteq the hound-beast; Abaal, with his fish tail and ram’s head; and finally, pursuing Tanata, the golden bull of Molot.
“I’m going to make an elephant god when I’m king,” said Aurelius.
Uta didn’t say anything. She’d started dabbing his face with paint and powder again—chalk and gold to make his skin shine and lighten his complexion. It itched, but Aurelius was still trying not to be difficult, so he kept talking to distract himself.
“I’ll call him Dashel,” Aurelius explained. He’d spent a lot of time planning out the elephant god, watching Dashel’s father caring for them. “And I’ll make Yeremi his priest. That way he can still look after the elephants, but he’ll have more people working under him to help, and he’ll get food from sacrifices and none of the animals will starve.”
Uta wasn’t paying attention.
He was talking too much again. Samelqo was always scolding Aurelius and Hima for being noisy or speaking too fast, or asking too many questions. Aurelius didn’t think he was as bad as his sister, who was always telling people what to do just because she was older. Outlawing sisters was another plan Aurelius had devised recently, and one he grew more fond of every time Himalit pushed him over.
Preparations for Aurelius’s hair came next: sticky, black, smelly ointments that Uta rubbed between her palms before applying. He winced as she kneaded the concoction into his curls, pushing a little too hard. When she was finished, she perfumed it to mask the smell, but Aurelius still sneezed. Then Uta fetched a ceremonial wig from the other end of the room and fitted it on his head. He raised his hand to try and wipe more of the itchy powder off his face, but Uta swatted his hand away and gave him a stern look before stepping away and assessing her work.
“Is it done?” pressed Bado.
“He’s done when I say he’s done,” said Uta. She sounded angry.
“You can’t keep him here forever.” Bado’s words were a hiss. “It has to be done.”
Aurelius sighed as dramatically as he could. He wanted to flop down and go to sleep, or stay in his room and play with his toys. Sisters weren’t outlawed quite yet. If it wasn’t for the festival, Hima and Qwella could tell stories with him.
“Would Father be angry if I didn’t go?”
Uta bit her lip. “You must go, Sese. Everyone is depending on you tonight. The whole city.”
On him? Aurelius’s chest tightened. His head felt light. He’d been fighting with Hima over the throne for weeks now, never truly believing it would be his. But why else would everyone need him if it wasn’t to announce him as heir? They’d never had much time for Aurelius before.
He nodded, hoping it looked kingly. “I’ll go, but only because they need me so much.”
Uta gave him a gentle pat on the head, lessening his sense of kingliness.
Bado slipped from the corner, hand on the hilt of his sword. “We need to get him to the temple district. The street will be full of riffraff soon. It’ll be too crowded to move.”
Uta clutched her hands into fists. She was mad about the way Bado talked about the peasants, Aurelius could tell. She knew better than to contradict a freeman though.
An effective ruler kept the peace amongst his people, freeborn and slave alike. Aurelius planned to be an effective ruler. He shot a smile in their direction—he was very good at smiling—and hopped off his chair. He walked between them to the doorway, then lingered on the threshold as he waited for Bado to catch on that he was ready to leave.
“Aurel? My Aurel?” Mother’s voice. It sounded far away.
Aurelius stepped into the hallway. Uta’s fingers grasped for his arm, but Aurelius deftly slipped away and out of the room, hurrying before Bado had a chance to stop him. He looked left and right, seeking out his mother. Why would Uta stop him from seeing her?
Mother was walking down the narrow corridor. Torchlight flickered across her face and clothes. Her dress was torn, stained with something dark. She stopped and stood with her arms out to him, like she wanted him to come to her. There was a bloody knife in her hand. There was blood on her gown.
Aurelius’s chest was tight again, only this time not in a good way, and he took a step backward toward the safety of his room.
“Mother?” Aurelius gripped Adara tight. Behind him, Bado drew his sword and Aurelius flinched.
“You get away from my son!” Mother pointed the knife in front of her. She looked strange and wild, and that sharp blade didn’t belong in her dainty fingers.
Aurelius wanted her to stop making that face, but he didn’t know what to do.
Uta hauled him back inside the room by his shoulders and Mother followed, slowly.
Uta stood her ground. “Sese, I know it’s hard, but your people need him. The gods will reward you. Tanata will take him to her breast in the Otherworld.” Her fingers tensed against Aurelius’s tunic.
Aurelius’s skin prickled.
Bado’s armour clinked as he stepped toward the queen. “My cousin saw both his sons to the gardens. At least you’ll have children left.”
The gardens. Where they sent the dead. Where his aunt’s funeral had been.
“Mother?” Aurelius didn’t feel at all kingly now. He wished Hima was with him to tell him what to do. “Where’s Qwella? Where’s Hima?” He shook his head, his cheeks itching as he cried away the chalk dust.
Uta hushed him. Aurelius pressed his head against her chest and craned his neck to meet her eyes. She smiled, but she was crying. She opened her mouth to speak.
Mother lunged at them. Uta let go of Aurelius. He caught himself on one of the chairs as Uta fell to the floor screaming and clutching her face.
Mother rushed forward, and Aurelius nearly slid down again, but Bado stepped between them, half-blocking Mother from view.
Uta wailed on the ground. There was blood on the floor around her, and something mushy and red was pressed between her fingers.
Aurelius was about to be sick, but he swallowed it and looked away. He darted further back into his room, crouching behind a chair. His hands shook as he fumbled at his head for the wig. He ripped it off, then tossed it onto his bed.
Mother and Bado were at a standstill. Uta had gone still.
He needed something to defend himself, or his mother, or Uta, or whoever it was he was supposed to protect.
Then Mother slipped past Bado, who just stood and let her past. She was the queen, after all.
Mother hurried toward Aurelius. She was covered in so much blood. Aurelius wanted to scramble away, but before he could her arms were around him. She rocked him gently, like when he was younger, like nothing was wrong. He was too afraid to hug her back.
“My baby,” she cried, stroking his hair. “My baby.”
Aurelius should feel safe, but he didn’t.
“Whose blood is that?” He shouldn’t have asked. He asked too many questions. He always asked so many questions.
Footsteps echoed from the corridors outside.
Mother pressed their faces so close he could taste the blood staining her robes. “No one’s, love. No one’s.”
A whimper escaped Aurelius’s mouth.
Were Hima and Qwella hurt? Was it because he’d wanted them to go away? “I didn’t mean it.” Aurelius whispered, muffled, against his mother’s breast. “I didn’t really want them to leave.”
Mother didn’t answer. She rocked Aurelius back and forth, her nails digging into his arms. The footsteps slowed. They were inside the room now. Mother stopped rocking. Aurelius looked up.
It was Mahan, captain of the guards. Two more soldiers flanked him. “Sese, Queen, you must release the prince. His father called for him to be brought to the temple. The city grows restless. Queen?”
Mother didn’t move. Aurelius’s heart pounded.
Mahan approached, a steadying hand held out in front of him. His sword hand rested on the pommel of his sheathed weapon.
He reached for Mother’s shoulder.
Mother loosened her hold on Aurelius. Her knuckles bulged as she gripped her knife tighter. She was going to—she really was going to—
Aurelius opened his mouth to warn Mahan and his men, but Mother smothered his words with her hand. The taste of salt and copper filled Aurelius’s mouth again, but then Mother pushed him back. He tumbled onto the floor beside the chair, barely feeling it.
Mahan’s eyes went wide as a thin red line appeared across his throat. He held his hand to the wound and stumbled back against his two men, blood spurting in front of him. It splattered Uta’s still-open powders.
As Mahan’s blood soaked the carpet, the guards holding him lowered him to the ground. His men clamped their hands against his throat, but it didn’t do anything to stop the bleeding, red spurting viciously from the deep cut, coating their armour, their faces.
One of the soldiers stumbled away from Mahan, then pushed toward Mother.
She brandished the blade, blocking the soldier’s access to Aurelius. Her voice was low. “Do not touch him.”
One of the younger men rushed forward, as Aurelius skidded back on all fours.
Bado shouted at the young soldier to stop, but the man kept coming. He rammed into Aurelius’s mother with the full force of his armoured body.
Mother went flying, like one of Qwella’s cloth dolls when Aurelius stole them. Her knife slid across the floor.
Aurelius ought to go get it. He ought to do something, but he couldn’t move.
Mother groaned, stretched out her arm, reached for the blade. But the guard was standing above her, legs to either side of her supine body. He unsheathed his sword and held it aloft.
Aurelius’s palms were slick with sweat, but he held onto Adara, rubbing the snapped stump of leg, the only thing that seemed real. And this was real—this was all real.
The guard wouldn’t really hurt Mother. He wouldn’t really.
Bado lifted his own blade, pointing it at the man. “Gemel. Don’t. Sheath your sword. We have orders.”
Gemel. Aurelius knew that name. A young guard. Mahan’s son.
Suddenly everything was oddly calm. It was quiet but for his mother’s crying. Aurelius knew what was about to happen. He could see it so plainly. He ought to do something. He ought to stop watching.
Gemel stabbed the blade downward, impaling Mother through the breast. Aurelius opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
Gemel stared beneath him like he could see straight through her. Mother’s nails scratched at the floor, groping for her knife.
“Mother.” Aurelius whimpered, curling himself up small.
Blood slipped down the side of her cheek as she coughed. It stained the floor, mingling with Mahan’s. She started to shake. Aurelius finally squeezed his eyelids shut, arms wrapped around himself, Adara pressed to his chest.
“Indat bitch.” Someone spat and then footsteps approached Aurelius.
“She’s still one of the Semassenqa,” said Bado from just in front of Aurelius. “Show your queen some respect.”
“What does it matter now? She’s dead. We can arrest Gemel and he’ll be executed, or we can leave the bodies here for someone else to find. Who’s to say whose fault it was? Not the boy. Maybe she and Mahan killed one another, hm?”
“We should move the bodies. We can’t have the captain dishonoured. They’ll throw his body out for the lions.”
Someone lifted Aurelius into his arms. Aurelius held his breath. If he was quiet, maybe everything would go back to normal.
“Open your eyes, Sese,” said Bado, who was holding him. “It’s all right now.”
Aurelius peeled his eyes open one at a time. His heart felt faint. All he wanted was to see his sisters, or his father, or Dashel, or even old Samelqo.
He couldn’t look at the floor.
Bado’s gaze was locked on his. Aurelius laid his head against Bado’s chest and clamped his eyes shut. He felt Bado turn and carry him out of the room and back out into the hallway.
It was all right. Bado had said so. He’d said so, and Aurelius was the crown prince. And he had to go to the festival, and when he got back it would all be gone. He’d go find Hima and Qwella and they’d play in the garden, and Dashel would take him to the glue maker to get his tiger fixed. And everything would be all right.
Aurelius rubbed his finger over Adara. Her rough back damp but familiar against his thumb.
Everything would be all right.