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Moniqa – Qemassen: The Palace Gardens – 20 Years Ago
Moniqa lay dying on the cold surface of the stone bench beneath her lilac trees.
Her lilacs. Hers.
She stared up at the purple blossoms above her. As her vision blurred and sharpened, blurred and sharpened, the flowers took on strange shapes. They looked so much paler in the moonlight, their thousand rounded petals like the curled fingertips of ghosts. Soon she would join those ghosts—Eshmunen’s thugs had made sure of that. The bench was coated in her blood, and every time she breathed too hard she coughed more blood into her mouth. It tickled at her gums, oily in her throat, just like all those years ago when she’d been a child.
Back then, back in Indas, she’d tripped on her skirts one morning and cracked her chin against the hard palace floor. She’d cried and cried, and the slaves hadn’t been able to make her stop. She’d cried until her father had come and lifted her up and pretended to steal her nose. She’d lost a tooth, but that was lucky, her mother and father had said—a sign she was growing into a woman.
Being a woman had meant marrying Eshmunen. She’d been so proud then, to be growing up.
The leaves above her shivered against one another.
Everything felt cold—no, not cold, numb. Numb, and she was alone, the soldiers already gone by the time she’d woken. She’d wanted to crawl from the bench for help, but her limbs were too heavy, like she’d woken from one of her nightmares, immobile. The soldiers had laid her out on this bench with a knife beside her—a knife she couldn’t even hold and had knocked onto the garden path when she’d tried. They expected the Semassenqa to believe she’d killed herself beneath these trees, stabbed such a deep hole in herself with this feeble blade. Moniqa laughed, tears springing to her eyes, blood to her mouth and lips.
Had it been minutes? Hours? Time seemed to have slowed, or maybe speeded up. Aurelius might already be dead. She’d failed him.
There was no mother with him to steal his nose.
She stretched her trembling arm upward, her reach just shy of the flowers. The blood of her slaves had dried on her hands, had mingled with her own. Her skin, her fingers, were all dirty with it—too dirty for the clean beauty of the lilacs. But if she touched skin to blossom, flesh to leaf, perhaps Adonen would hear her. And then Aurelius—the first Aurelius—would take her hand and clasp it in his own. She would be free to return to her family. Her mother and Lena were doomed, having never welcomed Adonen to their breasts, but Moniqa would see her father and brother again. Lena had followed the old gods, and her sun had set with theirs.
And Moniqa’s son? What if she hadn’t taught Aurelius enough of Adonen’s wisdom? How did one instill the love of a god in a child’s heart? There hadn’t been time. His spirit would be lost, wandering the Western Desert, unsure how to make his way back to Adonen’s bosom, to her.
Her chest felt full, like it might burst, but that wasn’t logical—her chest wasn’t full, it was empty, pierced through by Gemel’s sword.
Moniqa dropped her arm and it fell against the bench like a heavy stone.
She blinked away a dampness from her lashes.
An owl hooted somewhere behind her, and the noise was followed by the sound of rustling leaves, as though the bird had taken flight. She’d found that owl’s feather in her trunk earlier, before the disaster at court, before Aurel had been ripped from her and sent out like a lamb to slaughter. She should have known then. She should have understood. Evil gods watched with evil eyes. Evil goddesses of violence and vengeance.
The strix in the window of her babies’ bedchamber had been summoned to her side. It had known what was about to happen, before even Moniqa had realized. It had sensed a mother’s need for retribution and come to feed.
She slid her hand over the bench, shaking with the effort of even that small movement. The stone under her was slick and wet. She dipped her finger against the blood. If she were to die here, she’d name her murderers, put a curse on them if she could. Let Adonen grant her a vengeance of her own. And if not Adonen, then—
M-H-N, she started to write, lest Mahan the guard captain live. G-M-L, his son. But they’d only killed Moniqa, not Aurelius. Moniqa clenched her bloodied teeth. That guilt was all Samelqo’s. She raised her finger, pressing hard into the blood as she painted the letters that formed his name: S-M-L-
If he wanted demons so, let him have them.
A girl giggled, its ting like a chorus of tiny bells. The laugh was unfamiliar—a child’s laugh, but as if it were only someone’s idea of what a child sounded like. After the laughter, no one approached, at least not that Moniqa could hear. But there were those whose footsteps made no sounds, ghosts and demons.
Moniqa drew her fingers away from her unfinished writing. She unclenched her jaw, then she spat out a question, her hurried words eliding. “Who is it?”
Sandaled feet shuffled along the tiled path behind Moniqa. It could be a palace slave, someone who could help her. Somehow, though, deep in the cavity of her chest, she knew those footsteps belonged to no slave.
“Who is it?” Moniqa tried to turn her head, but pain speared her neck, her skull. Her vision sparked yellow-white. She whimpered.
The stranger’s footsteps stopped close by, no more than a few cubits from her bench.
All Moniqa could do was stare up at the lilacs. The flowers’ pale finger-petals no longer reminded her of the hands of the familiar dead, but fecund grave blossoms, newly bloomed from the freshly buried.
“In the stories,” said a girl’s voice, “you have to ask your questions three times to get an answer.” The girl’s voice was honey and poison. Moniqa’s heart hammered in her throat.
The stranger shuffled forward another step, and Moniqa felt a crushing weight on her shoulder—like someone had laid a slab of rock there. She strained her neck, fighting the pain to catch a glimpse. Long delicate fingers, milky brown like that horrible Vetnat slave of her son’s, rested against Moniqa’s skin. Such a slender hand should have weighed nothing, but it was heavy as a statue’s. The girl’s brown hair was threaded through with faint and feeble yellow flowers the colour of moonlight.
The colour of death and sickness.
Moniqa was too weak even to shudder.
The girl leaned forward and smiled down at her with bright brown eyes. Her lips were painted so rich a red they could be bleeding. It was the red of rubies, the red of her father’s horrible old statues and their evil eyes. A strained, high-pitched whine escaped Moniqa’s lips, and the stranger brushed her thumb down Moniqa’s cheek, smoothing out a tear.
“Oh no, don’t cry.” The girl’s voice was soothing, cooing, so like a mother’s. “I’m here for you.”
“Here for . . . .” Those two words were all Moniqa could manage. She coiled her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms. Such a monster—if that’s what this girl was—couldn’t be here for Moniqa. Moniqa had been a good servant of Adonen. Moniqa had sung his praises, embodied his virtues, imbibed his sacred waters. She was to go to Adonen. She knew the path and the words to speak when she reached him. What had this girl come for?
“For you, my sweet.” The girl laughed. “For vengeance.”
Vengeance. Moniqa had wished for it, had written her killers’ names—Samelqo’s name—and the girl had appeared. Above the girl’s head, above Moniqa’s, snow spiraled in the air. A rare sight, when the weather had been so dry. She could have laughed—for all Samelqo’s grotesque sacrifices to his monster gods, he’d summoned frost instead of rain. No, not frost—feathers. Hundreds of downy white feathers.
The girl with flowers in her hair plucked a feather from the air. She crushed it between her fingers and it smeared like ash. She raised her thumb to her lips and licked it clean. “They’ll burn your baby tonight.”
Moniqa sobbed, which turned into a wracking cough. She could taste her own blood in her mouth. Her throat burned. “Aurel.” His name was a whispered prayer.
The girl reached over Moniqa’s chest for her hand. She took it in hers and pulled it across Moniqa’s wound, so their hands sat clasped on Moniqa’s belly. The skin of both their hands was smeared with blood, sprinkled with fallen feathers.
“What do you want me to do?” the girl asked.
The world was spinning—a blurred world of feathers and ash. Moniqa was sure she could hear the sound of lapping flame. Flame that was now reflected in the girl’s eyes. Aurelius must have stared into such a fire when they’d burned him. He might have seen these same hungry eyes staring at him from the darkness.
Moniqa’s pain was gone. She let go of the girl’s hand, and the girl pulled back from her as Moniqa sat up and pawed at her bloody dress. Her wound was still there. She grew nauseous and looked away, her whole body shaking with the effort of ignoring the hole in her chest.
“You’re still dying,” said the girl, crouched beside the bench. Now that Moniqa was sitting up, she could see that the girl was garbed not in human clothes, but in feathers that pierced her flesh, thick at her middle, thinning on her arms. She could see where the quills of each feather punctured the girl’s death-pale skin, but no blood ran from the holes where feather met flesh. The hairs on Moniqa’s arms stood on end.
“You’re her,” said Moniqa. The girl grinned, too wide. “You’re Lilit.”
All around them, the leaves on the trees in the palace gardens rustled. It was as if all the creatures of the night had turned to listen.
“I could fix you. I could make you whole again.” Lilit said. “What do you want?”
What did Moniqa want? She wanted her son, alive. What was her life without his? “Aurelius.” She closed her eyes briefly, grimacing, nose twitching as she tried not to cry. Her eyes welled with tears all the same. “Aurel. I want my son. I’d give anything for that.”
“Anything?” When Lilit spoke, Moniqa could hear the smile in her voice.
“My life, my . . . .” Moniqa had nothing a demon could want.
“Lives are cheap things. Tawdry. They never last as long as they promise to, and yours is bleeding out as we speak.” She paused, and Moniqa sobbed. “Your place at Adonen’s cock—or tit—whatever it is you call it. Yes, I’ll have that.”
Her place at Adonen’s breast.
Moniqa shook, forcing her eyes open, glaring past her tears. “If lives are cheap then—”
Lilit cut her off. “Then you want something else. You’re quite a little bargainer.” Lilit stretched out her hand, admiring fingers and nails that seemed suddenly to curl like great black talons. The longer Moniqa looked, the more she felt transfixed by them, seeing a polished obsidian where once there’d been pale flesh. A series of great, gaping doors led on and on, reflected in those black surfaces, each one opening before her, rushing her forward and through the next.
At the centre, at the terminus of those doors, lay something hideous. Moniqa didn’t want to see what that thing was, but she couldn’t look away—it was calling her. Her feet touched down on the black surface of the floor, walking. She could taste cool air slipping past her lips, down her throat, as an ancient breeze drifted past the black walls. At the centre, the hideous thing, a rounded room, a grey statue with its back to her. The statue’s back was etched with feathers. All around the room were tiled murals of the dead and dying—eight in all. In one of them, Moniqa recognized a pool from Indas’s hills. A boy sat in a tub that floated on the pool’s surface, surrounded by water as his face rotted away. Insects clouded around the boy’s head, so vividly detailed Moniqa thought for a moment she could hear them buzzing.
“You wanted something else.” Lilit’s words snapped Moniqa from her trance and Moniqa looked up. They were in the garden again. Lilit had ceased her preening to stare up at her. The black of her eyes shone a haunting yellow, like ghostlights above a marsh.
The rustling resumed, and Moniqa turned to the path that led to the garden labyrinth. Her tears had clouded her vision till it fogged like the surface of a looking glass, but she could make out what looked like tiny red eyes in the darkness. Had Lilit called an army of fellow demons to devour her? Panicked, Moniqa wiped away her tears, clearing her vision.
Dozens of her father’s statues lined the ground to either side of the tiled path, their ruby eyes staring sightlessly back at each other. Their hideous little faces seemed to glow beneath the moon.
“What have they taken from you?” Lilit asked. “There’s taking and there’s taking. Isn’t one of your twins supposed to be some kind of chosen one? The seventh child of the sixteenth king.” Lilit’s words were barbed, pregnant with mocking laughter that burst from her like a cough. “Prophesied to save Qemassen at a time of great turmoil. But prophecies are only empty words, and what will the Massenqa take when they recognize that truth? That their fabled hero king is a sickly prince or, even worse, a daughter? What have the Massenqa taken from you already, inch by inch, day by day?”
What had the Massenqa taken from her?
Everything. She dug her nails into the stone bench.
“Your family,” said Lilit, like she could hear Moniqa’s thoughts.
Moniqa nodded. Cold. She was so cold, as if the frost she’d imagined earlier had been real after all. The world that had been spinning was still. She flicked her tongue over her blood-caked lips.
Moniqa’s family in Indas had torn itself apart, had torn her country apart, and now Eshmunen destroyed their own child, urged on by his false priests. It was Samelqo’s fault, just like her marriage to Eshmunen had been his fault. Just like the first Aurelius’s death had been. She clutched the image of his broken body, returned on a mere peasant’s cart, ripped and degraded by desert animals. They’d blamed bandits, but Moniqa knew the difference. She’d always known. One by one, Samelqo had taken everyone she cared for. He’d taken everyone she cared for and hailed her twins as saviours of everything he held dear, so they could fail and be derided for their failure. The prophecies in Samelqo’s heretical scrolls held no weight, and as always, Moniqa’s family would bear the burden of his disgrace.
Half in a daze, as though sapenta still addled her mind, Moniqa nodded. “Yes, my family. He took my family from me.”
But Samelqo had no family of his own, nothing she could attack, nothing she could rend limb from limb as he had her children. He cared for nothing.
“Go deeper.” Lilit’s voice was like a purr prowling the dark, circumscribing it, consuming it.
Moniqa could hear the sound of stone grinding against stone, as though the statues were moving, but they stood as motionless as before. It was as if something much larger than the statues was trapped within their confines, anxious to break out. Something long and sinuous twined round the heart of Qemassen itself. Moniqa heard Lilit’s words echo inside her mind: Go deeper. She smelled smoke.
Her first year in Eshmunen’s court—he’d clung to her, carted her around with him like a doll he could dress up and show off. She’d been sold, bartered, abandoned, and it had been all for nothing—her people were slaves to Lorar’s whims. But that was nothing to Eshmunen, who’d paraded her in front of the Semassenqa at every terrible Massenqa festival, every funeral. And there had been so many funerals that year—including a sister of Samelqo’s. Not even one of the Semassenqa, but some whore he’d dragged from the lower city and dressed up in borrowed finery. At the funeral she’d learned there were others—other sisters, about whom Samelqo eq-Milqar seemed to care for enough to pretend their rotten bodies were worthy of such pomp.
It was so very little, in comparison, but it was something.
“He has sisters, I think, in the lower city.” Moniqa forced the words out, without looking at Lilit. She dug her nails into the stone, felt bright flares of pain as they cracked. Aurel. Samelqo had her Aurel.
“Sisters,” Lilit echoed. Her voice was scratchy, shrill, an inhuman throat struggling to form human sounds. The rustling in the trees grew louder and louder, though no wind blew in the garden in the palace on the hill.
“His family,” said Moniqa. “I want them to tear each other apart.”
Everything went silent. Then, all down the path, the ruby-eyed statues cracked at the middle.
Moniqa turned back to Lilit. Her eyes had shriveled to black pebbles in her cheeks, small and gleaming like an owl’s. She opened her mouth, wide like she was screaming, then wider still, like a great toothless hole opening to swallow Moniqa. A scream cut the night, and right up to the moment Moniqa lay back onto the cold stone bench, she wasn’t sure if it were her scream, or Lilit’s.