(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Samelqo – Qemassen – The City Streets – 20 Years Ago
Night had fallen, and Qemassen’s streets were so thick with revellers that Samelqo’s acolytes may as well have carried him through a viscous porridge. Packed bodies—Massenqa, Anata, Ajwata, and even Eru—waved palm fronds and dyed feathers as Samelqo and his train of litters jostled downhill toward the temple district on the eastern slope of the city. Foreign beards beaded with the polychrome glass of Qemassen’s artisans, foreign eyes lined with Massenqa kohl. It seemed even the substantial number of traders in Qemassen deigned to celebrate Molot’s rites. Typical of such people that their protestations had turned out to be only talk. Foreign bellies, it turned out, ached as much as Massenqa ones.
Painted six-storied apartment complexes towered over the winding street, flat-roofed and rectangular. The complexes dominated the residential pockets all around the city, but only Qemassen’s wealthiest lived so close to the palace on the Talefa hill, whence the remainder of the city fanned out like the skirts of a goddess. To the north and east lay Qemassen’s harbour, its famed markets, and the lower quarter where Samelqo had spent the first years of his youth. There, the limestone of the upper city was replaced by mudbrick and rammed earth, and what family Samelqo had made for himself on the hill was replaced by the vestiges of his former household. Qemassen’s steepest slope lay to the west, overshadowing government buildings and the city’s vast cisterns, and to the south stood the grand gate that separated Qemassen proper from surrounding farmland, and the hilly landscape beyond its olive groves. It was for all of this—all of them—that Samelqo acted tonight, that Prince Aurelius’s litter trailed Samelqo’s in grim procession.
The night was almost cloudless, and a bright, yellow-white moon shone down upon the city of the Semassenqa. When he’d been younger, Samelqo had looked up into that night and seen the mother goddess Tanata’s face on the moon’s surface, the whispers of the gods in the winking of the stars. It had been a long time since he’d felt that wholeness, or found answers to his questions in the patterns and shapes above Qemassen. Had his goddess turned away from him? As an inquisitive young priest, he’d never planned to become so much Molot’s man, but the way to the gods took so many detours, and it often happened that you turned out not to be who you once thought you were.
Which choice had finally decided Samelqo’s path? When his parents had sold him to the temple as a child he’d had no choice at all, but as a young man he might not have fought so stridently to become heq-Ashqen of his temple. And once he’d become heq-Ashqen of his city, he might have fought harder to refuse King Isir the command that had assured Samelqo would entangle himself in the affairs of the Semassenqa.
But the choice that had led him here? No, that was something else entirely.
In Samelqo’s mind’s eye, the sands of southern Indas, where the once-great city of Tintellan formed a circular stronghold against the desert wilderness, surged in an imagined wind. The sands of Hazzan, god of the desert and child of Molot and Qalita.
He lifted his head high and proud, girding himself. Everything had its place, and Samelqo had earned his as much as any man. For good or ill, he had earned it.
As Samelqo peered past the curtains of his litter to the rabble crowding his acolytes’ path, an Ajwata woman in a colourful, patterned headdress fell or was pushed against him, and Samelqo pulled himself back inside the safety of his transport with a jerk as her elbow bashed his face. He rubbed his nose gingerly. He did not much care for the asymmetry of a broken one. When he drew his hand from his face, the blue sleeve of his linen robe was bloodied.
At least he was nearly at Molot’s temple and the day done. The meeting before the Semassenqa had left him rattled, though he’d anticipated far worse from the queen, whose violent moods were not unknown to him. As the years had passed, the shapeliness of her form was not the only thing to have left her. He had hoped she would understand, but that of course had been fanciful. Parents would do anything for their children, often to the detriment of all else they held dear. Moniqa was not the first. She would hardly be the last.
Samelqo stared at his sandaled feet, which rested flat against the base of the carriage, and touched his neck. The gouges left by Moniqa’s choking grip still stung. Perhaps they would even scar. If they did, they wouldn’t be his first, nor indeed his last.
When that guard, Bado, had finally appeared with Aurelius in his arms, the boy had been a disheveled mess. Samelqo had made specific instructions to Uta about how the prince was to be dressed, yet his hair was sticky and his face smeared with ruddy pigment. The lack of care or concern would have been troubling on any occasion, and tonight was not just any occasion.
Samelqo reached for the ansate cross of Tanata that hung at his neck and gripped its base so hard its pointed ends pricked his skin. At least Aurelius was asleep; it made what was to come a little easier.
He parted the curtains of his litter again. His chest tightened as Molot’s temple reared into view.
The temple’s stairs emptied directly onto the twisting incline of the temple district’s main thoroughfare—a street known as the Shedi-Qalana, or Alley of Voices. The gods gazed upon the people on the street, staring from statues that pressed between temples, or peering from behind the visages carved into temple walls. At the very end of the Shedi, past the curve of road where Molot’s temple stood, the great ivory doors of the house of Abaal shone white in the moonlight, raised up on a man-made plateau so Qemassen’s father god could overlook the temples of his family.
And to Abaal’s right, Tanata, Samelqo’s goddess. To the left, Molot’s gardens.
The litter-bearers bobbed steadily downhill, careful to avoid stumbling into a run as they braved the decline. To Samelqo’s right, the house of Molot somehow loomed and lurked in equal measure, tucked as it was beside the residence of its priests. Stark sandstone walls stood before him, their yellow surfaces decorated only with carvings detailing Qemassen’s history—scenes from the life of its founder, Queen Elibat, and stories of the underworld from the Book of Abaal: Molot’s jealous murder of his nephew, Adonen. Adonen’s resurrection. The marriage of Molot and the Quiet Lady, Qalita.
Many of the other temples in the district were more fanciful, but Molot’s tastes were simple and subtle. The temple jutted from the earth in straight, imposing lines, buttressed on either side by high angled towers. It thrust against the sky with a virility that was lacking in much of Qemassen’s architecture. If he looked closely at the reliefs on its walls, Samelqo was sure he would find the scene he’d described for the court this evening: the city’s sacrifice of two hundred children.
What was one compared with so many?
His acolytes carefully lowered their burden, and Samelqo stepped onto the bottom of the sandstone steps of Molot’s temple before they could crowd him with mincing offers of assistance. He closed his eyes and breathed in. The air outside the temple was already cleaner than this morning, though he would never rid his body of the smell of Qemassen’s burned children. Flakes of ash that had once been skin buried themselves in the lungs, in the bone. It was like drowning by increments, and he of all people ought to know about drowning.
Black water seethed in his vision, and from its centre, a small brown hand thrust upward, to grapple with him, scratching his arms, the stone beneath his feet. Holding her under had taken far more than physical strength, and it had broken him. It had broken Qemassen.
Samelqo opened his eyes to banish the memory before it hooked its claws in deeper. Tonight was for his city. Tonight, he would set everything right for the people of Qemassen. Tonight, he would make recompense to the death god: a prince for the princess he had taken.
Behind him, the litters transporting Aurelius, the two twins, and their slaves had stopped along the road.
He grimaced and mounted the stairs that led directly from the street into the temple’s gaping entrance, high above the road. The temple’s shadowed mouth seemed to speak to him, but its messages were not the kind one welcomed. He hurried inside, comforted by the low light of the torches within, which flickered against the walls. Across the temple floor, priestesses of Molot’s bride, the underworld goddess Qalita, paced in circles, whispering a flurry of sacred prayers from beneath their plain linen veils. At a distance, their words sounded like the hisses of serpents, the secrets of the dead spoken aloud and stolen by the air.
A slave bloomed from the darkness, bowed, then handed Samelqo a tallow candle. Samelqo waited for the slave to light it, then moved on. Each of the temple guests held an identical candle, and every firelit face was the face of a ghost.
Fitting in the death god’s cavernous, pillared house.
From behind Samelqo came the sound of footsteps mounting the stairs outside, followed by a flurry of chatter. He turned, tongue primed to reprimand.
Two of the young twins’ wet nurses stood framed beneath the temple arch, moonlight turning them to black silhouettes before they pit-patted inside. More courtiers and slaves followed, two by two until only one individual remained to arrive, his absence like the pulsing of a sore tooth.
Then, at last, Bado crested the steps with Aurelius in his arms. As Bado entered, the firelight revealed Aurelius’s drowsy face, his unkempt hair. He was awake now, but confused, and he held a toy of all things.
Moniqa’s children had always been a nuisance. It seemed wrong that Aurelius meet his fate looking as he did, and yet perhaps it was better that he die true to character.
With a swish of his robes, Samelqo tore himself from the scene, leaving for the far side of the temple where a second door led to the platform above Molot’s gardens. He would wait there, and he would compose himself.
Ahead of him, to the side of the temple’s grand doors, a figure sat hunched on a wooden chair. Some beggar or other, left over from the crowd who’d choked the temple floor this morning. Trust Molot’s simpleton of a high priest to ignore Samelqo’s instructions to empty the building of supplicants. He approached the beggar to usher him outside.
And King Eshmunen reared up like a phantom in the dark, not a beggar at all.
As Samelqo drew close, the gold embroidery of the king’s robes and banded crown glinted in the light from Samelqo’s candle. Never the most ostentatious of men, Eshmunen was dressed even more simply tonight, his pale robes granting him a lightness he otherwise did not possess. The only true finery on his person was his crown. Abaal’s fish-tailed ram rose majestically from its centre, but though Abaal was the king’s patron god, Eshmunen could hardly be called majestic. It had always been so, ever since the king had been a child.
As their gazes met, a weak smile played across Eshmunen’s face and distorted his trim beard. He wasn’t unhandsome, despite that his once-muscled middle had grown fleshy with age. His eyes were uncertain, his brow furrowed. He was taller than Samelqo, but the hesitation in his face made him seem much smaller—older than his thirty-nine years. “Is my queen not attending?”
Had he truly thought Moniqa would stand at his side as they burned her favored son?
“I thought it best she remain at the palace, lest she upset the ceremony.” Samelqo had posted a guard outside her room in case she tried to reach Aurelius. When they’d dragged her from the throne room she’d been in a faint, in no state to attempt a rescue, but there was always the chance she’d find a burst of energy and come after her son. Samelqo had intended to visit her before the ceremony, but there hadn’t been time. And after all, what could he have said to calm her? The visit would have been for Samelqo’s piece of mind, not Moniqa’s.
The king nodded slowly to himself, as though he had expected Samelqo’s answer. “I see my son has arrived.”
“Your sons, and your daughter. The babes are with their wet nurses.” Samelqo glanced back at where he’d left them. “Did you wish to speak with Aurelius?”
“No,” the king croaked, barely audible.
Samelqo smiled politely. He knew Eshmunen too well to have anticipated any other answer. “It is a good night for this thing we do.”
“A good night? Is there such thing as a good night for the death of a prince of Qemassen?” The king looked uncharacteristically stern, but an uncertainty crept in at his edges.
“My words were poorly chosen.” Samelqo mulled over what to say to console his king, but it was no night for pretense, no matter that Samelqo’s lies had brought them this far. All the detachment he’d cultivated seemed to leave him, and he let the weariness he’d been holding back wash over him. “Perhaps all I meant was that your people thank you for this and that I, as one of them . . . well, I thank you also. Right actions are not always pleasant, pleasant acts not always virtuous.”
The king cracked a wry smile. Bitterness gleamed in his eyes like a prized gem. “Is it wrong that I long so for your faith?” Eshmunen glanced upward, as though contemplating the symbol of Abaal atop his crown. “As Qemassen’s king, I feel I should be at peace with this, but as with everything I’ve done, I find I’m not at peace. I am not strong.”
“Not as your father was, but thoughtfulness is its own strength.”
“You flatter me.” He swallowed, staring past Samelqo with a worrying, vacant look. “I’m not the husband Moniqa wanted, and now I fail her again. She tries to pretend she doesn’t hate me for losing the war in Indas, but I see it. I see that, but cannot see if this is evil or good we do here.”
It seemed to Samelqo that his king might prefer it if he didn’t speak, though Samelqo would have liked to offer some comfort. Eshmunen wasn’t always the most efficient of kings, but Samelqo felt a love for him that was greater than what he’d felt for Eshmunen’s father, King Isir. Just now, that love burnt a hole in the pockets of Samelqo’s robe, as though seeking out the papyrus still hidden there, and the lies he’d told to drag Eshmunen this far. “She will forget it. She has a new son, a third daughter.”
“Yet one does not equal the other, and the two are not the measure of the one.” Eshmunen closed his eyes.
An acolyte rustled up to Samelqo and Eshmunen, before Samelqo could reply. The acolyte bowed to the king before speaking to Samelqo directly. “Everything’s ready, Sese. The drums will herald the time to head outside.”
Samelqo nodded as the acolyte dashed off, but his thoughts were elsewhere. He turned back to Eshmunen, trying to catch the king’s eyes with his own, imbue him with confidence. “The twins will live. I’ve heard it from Abaal and from Tanata.”
Though their eyes met, there was no strength in Eshmunen’s. “As I said, I wish I had your faith.”
The crowd of wet nurses, servants, and guards was approaching—an army of candles beating at the gates. Aurelius was standing on his own now, still dazed, as he held Bado’s hand.
Eshmunen shrank back into the shadows, and Samelqo stepped out in front of him, to shield him from unwanted attention. Samelqo had already explained the details of the ceremony to the lot of them, but took a moment to confirm their roles. The boy he left ignorant. It wouldn’t make it easier for Aurelius to know what was to come.
The drums would sound at any moment. Samelqo took his place before the double-doors that led onto the steps behind Molot’s statue. This close to its wooden surface he came face-to-face with a scene from Qemassen’s treasured history. The city’s founder, Queen Elibat, had arrived on a ship made of feathers, and hair, and fingernails, her own once-proud mane sheared down to bind into rope. The coastline greeted her, seeming to smile and say: Here I am, empty and in want of paint! Plains, hills, and rivers stretched out in a simple network, and little faces in the desert looked out toward her in expectation. These were Samelqo’s people, the Massenqa. It was for them that their king made this dark deal with the death god.
Would they see that? Would Moniqa and her children understand, or would they curse Samelqo along with their poor father?
The procession shifted behind him, their skirts rustling against the floor, their breaths unnaturally loud in the echoing hall. Eshmunen took his place behind Samelqo. He would be followed by Aurelius and his maid, and finally the twins and their nurses. Slaves hurried to Eshmunen, waving feathered fans on long poles. The king dismissed them with a word, though Samelqo had told them earlier they must accompany the procession down the steps.
He took a deep breath. Everything would go as planned. A few baubles and frivolities wouldn’t be noticed by anyone but himself. Aurelius’s dishevelment would go unnoticed.
“Where’s Hima?” Aurelius asked from the back of the gathered company. “Where’s Qwella?”
One of the attendants shushed the prince, and Samelqo swallowed, straightening.
From outside, the thousands of Massenqa gathered in Molot’s gardens rumbled. He closed his eyes and imagined them, pressed up against pillars and squeezed between supports, crying excitedly, wailing as they released their pain on the wind. It was his milk and honey, soothing whatever misplaced guilt he’d been allowing to wreck him. He pushed thoughts of Aurelius’s pleas for his sisters from his mind. The crowd and the drums would drown them out, along with everything else.
“Father?” It was Aurelius.
Outside, the heavy boom of the drums began.
Two acolytes of Molot slid the heavy bar from the temple doors, a stiff reverence in their movements. They laid their palms flat against the surface of the doors and heaved with all their strength.
Light slanted inside through the growing sliver between the doors, the flames from outside torches doing somersaults along the wood, over Samelqo’s face, and the faces of the crowd behind him. It was as though the eye of the gods peered down at them, opening after some long sleep to stare in judgement upon their nakedness. When the eye’s lid was fully raised, the night sky and Qemassen’s waiting crowds were revealed to him.
Samelqo stepped into the night, onto the first of seven wide stairs that descended onto a fifty-foot-long platform. The platform extended above the centre of the gardens before branching into two arms that ran to either side of the hundred-foot-tall gold statue of Molot. The bull-headed god’s vast back was to Samelqo, his arms outstretched and bent at the elbow so that he cupped his hands beside the terminus of each of the platform’s branches, lit braziers positioned beneath. Samelqo could smell the smoke from here, grating like nails scratching the inside of his throat, his nose. He could see the firelight licking the statue’s glittering surface like serpent tongues. The two platforms that split from the main walkway serviced either palm, but it was the left hand upon which the prince would burn.
As Samelqo descended the steps, the bells he’d tied to his sandals sounded with each footfall—pure ostentation, but their chimes were a comfort.
The night stretched out before him. Tanata’s sky was yet unclouded, the goddess refusing to avert her gaze.
Samelqo stood high above the gardens where Qemassen’s dead lay buried, and where the Massenqa now gathered to watch their king’s sacrifice. No true garden, Molot’s grove was dotted with grave markers in place of trees. The people crowded between them, shouting from fifty feet below. Here and there the litters of the Semassenqa erupted from the mass of peasant bodies, like stones in a stream. Qemassen’s houses were empty tonight.
Molot’s heq-Ashqen stood to the side of the statue, holding a ceremonial death mask in his hands, waiting for Aurelius. Waiting for Samelqo.
As the royal party descended the stairs behind Samelqo, a great hush seized the crowd. Peasant instruments were silenced and crude cheers quieted. Samelqo had rarely seen such attentiveness. All eyes were on the greatest of the Semassenqa.
Samelqo stopped midway across the trunk of the platform. The slaves behind him had fanned out to left and right to stand at the edges of the steps, heads bowed and hands clasped before them.
The drumbeats slowed, and one by one their players dropped out, until a lone instrument beat against the night. Molot’s priest bowed to Samelqo, before approaching with the death-mask held high above his head, his arms stretched tall and proud. The death masks the Massenqa buried with the dead were made of clay or stone, but this one was special, crafted of valuable cedarwood. Its lacquered surface glinted in the light as he lowered it.
Samelqo grasped it. Holding the mask was like holding a venomous serpent—something he would cast from him if he could. Its eyes and mouth were shaped in an exaggerated smile, long and thin, and curved like a blade. Little teeth had been whittled into its mouth, and bands of a lighter wood created sacred circles on its surface.
He could have stared at that face forever and preferred it to the life that awaited him, but such a simple thing was not for the heq-Ashqen. His sense of duty to the Massenqa was stronger than his fear. His hands shook as he held the mask out toward the gardens.
The people stood, and swayed, and trembled amongst the grave markers where Qemassen’s burned dead lay buried in their urns. In that moment they were his, and they were Qemassen’s. “A great famine is upon us, as we face warriors from distant lands. They will come with swords, and spears, and with fire; they will ride on a tide of demons and—”
The words dried in Samelqo’s throat, flown like specks of sand along the winds. Despite the drum he could hear Aurelius crying behind him. Samelqo turned and knelt before Aurelius. He lifted a wrinkled hand to wipe a tear from the prince’s cheek. “Hush, Sese. Do you know what this is?”
Aurelius looked down at the wooden mask, stifling his sobs. “A laughing mask.” He paused. “Like the ones they made for my brothers and Aunt Meg.”
The king’s sister, Meghigda, had been burned last year after a scorpion bite, and Aurelius had watched two stillborn siblings brought to the gardens. He knew what it was Samelqo held. He must. “Yes, just like those.”
“But it’s wood.” He was biting his lip, some anxious thought occupying his mind. Samelqo let him battle it out; the city could wait a few moments yet. “It’s for me, isn’t it?” The prince’s shoulders slumped, eyes and nose crinkling as he cried. He pushed past Samelqo as though to run, but he made it barely two steps before a slave grabbed him by his shoulders.
Samelqo stood up. “You’ll be a hero to your people, and to your father and mother, and your older sisters.”
Samelqo shivered, despite the heat from the great braziers warming his back, barely suppressing the questions that leapt to his lips. How could Moniqa be dead? Had she taken her own life? He could do without Moniqa’s restless spirit haunting his every step. And Eshmunen—had he heard? Samelqo turned to his king, who stood far back toward the temple steps. Eshmunen appeared unmoved. It was just as well. Who knew what doubts the revelation would seed in his mind?
“Hold him,” Samelqo instructed the slave who’d grabbed the prince. Samelqo turned and marched along the branch to the left arm of the statue.
The Massenqa’s chatter was a rumble far below.
“Drums!” Samelqo yelled, and the musicians hurried to their work. He crooked his finger at the slave who held the prince, and as the slave guided Aurelius, Samelqo addressed the crowd again. “A true child of Qemassen dies for you tonight, and sends back Molot’s blessing from the Otherworld. He will drink with Elibat on her sacred barge and dwell among those most precious of our stars. You have given your children to Molot, and in return our king matches your piety with his courage.”
Behind him, slaves were busy binding the boy with cord, ready to place him atop Molot’s waiting palm.
Samelqo swallowed, heart thumping, as he focused on the words. “We invoke Abaal and Tanata above. We invoke Molot below. We ask that they send before us those guards who shield them, that they bring us life where none is found. We ask that Qemassen’s fields be renewed, its people fed and its wars won. We ask for the deaths of our Lora enemies. Long has Qemassen prevailed, and long may she yet prevail.” Samelqo paused, swallowed the thickness in his throat. “A true child of Qemassen dies for you tonight, and from his ashes you shall feed your fields.”
The slaves carried Aurelius to the edge of the platform, ready to hoist him onto the statue’s hand. A large brazier stood just out of sight, below the statue’s fingertips, ready to catch the children who strained from the scorching metal in search of relief. When the fire was fierce enough, its flames sometimes touched the statue itself, but fortunately not tonight. Samelqo would spare Aurelius that sight at least.
The drums ceased. They weren’t supposed to stop—
A strangled cry from behind him broke the silence. Someone in the crowd below was pointing, and soon shouts and screams took hold of the Massenqa in the gardens.
Samelqo swerved, robes flapping, but the view of the temple steps was obscured by the statue. He strode past Aurelius, back toward the temple to see what was happening.
A slave lay sprawled across the temple steps, his blood gushing over the stone.
Samelqo hurried past Molot’s priests and the cluster of guards who’d moved toward him and Aurelius. As Samelqo passed the royal twins, clutched protectively in the arms of their nurses, one of the babes let out a cry, stretching its fingers toward Samelqo’s robes.
Samelqo stopped in his tracks. “Erun.”
Moniqa’s little spy, Dashel, stood on the steps beside Eshmunen with a guard’s blade in hand. The sword—a bloodied sword—was pressed to the king’s throat. Dashel lifted his head.
Moniqa’s cousin, the Indan Prince Shaqarbas, stood beside Dashel in ceremonial Inda armour. Was this some game of Moniqa’s? Three of Shaqarbas’s men stepped out to either side of Dashel, flanking him protectively, creating a barrier between King Eshmunen and the king’s men. Between Eshmunen and Samelqo.
Samelqo pushed past the last of Eshmunen’s guards and stopped at the foot of the steps. A few more cubits and Samelqo could reach the king, but not with Shaqarbas’s men surrounding him. And Dashel’s hand—it was perilously unsteady. He might cut Eshmunen’s throat if Samelqo wasn’t careful.
Eshmunen spoke before Samelqo had a chance. “My queen’s favour brings you only so much freedom, Erun. And you, Shaqarbas, are you so low as to follow a servant?”
Shaqarbas inclined his head, but he was grinning. Samelqo wanted to slap that smirk off his face. “I’m not here for Dashel, Sese. I’m here for the sake of my queen. Massenqen I may be, but I’m still a child of Indas. Your Inda subjects are worried what the burning of her favourite means for us. We thank you for this offering.” He wiggled the point of his sword in the direction of Molot’s statue, and Aurelius. “But is it possible you’ve made a mistake? The Erun seems to think so.”
Samelqo tensed. “King Eshmunen is incapable of mistakes. This is a matter for the gods to decide, not a disenfranchised prince.”
Shaqarbas’s grin faded and he shrugged. The blood of the slave Dashel had killed continued its steady course down the temple steps. “Disenfranchised, perhaps, but lacking neither men nor steel.”
“What is it you want?” King Eshmunen indicated the seething confusion now taking place in the gardens below. “The people came here for blood and they’ll have it, whether it belongs to my son or a few petty rebels.”
Samelqo took a step forward. One of Shaqarbas’s men swung his sword down, the blade coming within an inch of Samelqo’s face. Samelqo glared past the weapon, meeting Shaqarbas’s gaze. He laid his hand on the blade, ignoring the pain as its edge dug into him, as his blood trickled down the flat of the sword. If the prince thought Samelqo would back down, he was both deluded and forgetful. “This sacrifice is as much for Indas as Qemassen. The boy’s death heralds unity for our city, not discord—”
“You can’t have him,” Dashel interrupted.
Samelqo turned toward him. Dashel was trembling, the weapon he held lowered, obviously too heavy for him.
If Samelqo could make it past Shaqarbas’s guards, past the prince . . . he’d bested Shaqarbas once before, long ago, when his need had been just as great. But he’d been young then, and he’d had a weapon—well, a chair—to beat the prince over the head with. And surprise had won him that fight. Shaqarbas was twice—three times—Samelqo’s size and half his age.
“I don’t care about Molot, or Abaal, or any of that,” Dashel continued. “Aurelius is my prince and you can’t have him. You won’t have him. I―I’ll kill the king if you burn him.” Dashel raised his stained weapon to the king’s throat, hands shaking from strain. Shaqarbas glared Dashel’s way, but held his position. If he doubted Dashel’s plan so, he shouldn’t have been foolish enough to follow him.
Eshmunen breathed out deeply, closing his eyes as though released from some great burden.
Samelqo gripped the sword harder. “If the king dies, you’ll soon follow.” Samelqo’s best option was to keep Dashel and Shaqarbas talking, to give the guards in the gardens below time to sneak inside the temple from the streetside entrance and take Dashel’s people from behind.
“Then it’s a question of how much you value your king,” said Shaqarbas. “Surely though, the death of son and father both will cast a brighter flame for the cow-god’s pleasure? And if we die too, well, that’s a lot of death to fill his belly.”
In the gardens below, the Massenqa were yelling. Samelqo glanced down, to his right. The crowds there were so thick that Eshmunen’s guards would never reach the king in time. Some of the Semassenqa were fleeing the gardens in their sheltered litters. “It is not about the death. It is about sacrifice, and murder is not sacrifice.”
Shaqarbas snorted. “How comforting for the young prince.”
For a moment, the cries of the Massenqa in the gardens were like the rushing of those black waters in that deep cave, churning against the walls. A princess’s face disappeared beneath the water as he shoved her under, and the water slapped his cheeks. He looked up, at Eshmunen. Was this, then, what the gods required? Had he never been in command?
“Sese! Heq-Ashqen!” One of his acolytes burst from the open doors of the temple and raced down the first few steps, but two of Shaqarbas’s warriors grabbed him.
“Let me pass,” he insisted. “I have news for the heq-Ashqen.”
Samelqo fixed his gaze, and his hopes, on the young man refusing to be threatened away. “Let him pass,” Samelqo pressed Shaqarbas. “A sign of good faith—his news may affect all of us.”
Shaqarbas hesitated a moment, then nodded at one of his men, who patted the priest down before allowing him to pass. The acolyte shuffled past the others, and Samelqo released his hold on the sword, wincing at the sting. He stepped back, giving his acolyte space.
The acolyte leaned in and whispered, his words frenzied. “It’s the queen, Sese. Moniqa is dead.”
Samelqo’s chest was heavy as stone. So it was true. He eyed his king. Eshmunen could not be told, not now. Samelqo would rather the king never be told, but that was impossible. “How?”
“A slave found her in her garden. Pierced at the breast—laid out with her weapon beside her.” He lowered his gaze out of respect. “Suicide, Sese.”
“Did no one see her leave her rooms?” He’d posted a guard at her door—surely she couldn’t have slipped past. Something was amiss.
“We don’t know, but she was quite hidden, Sese, beneath the lilacs.”
Someone knew, and someone saw, or how else had Aurelius come by the knowledge? Had Aurelius been in the lilac groves? What had he been doing there?Samelqo swallowed. He wouldn’t put it past Moniqa to take Aurelius there with the intention of killing them both, if only to grant her son a swift death.
The cold crawled in on him suddenly. He looked up. Dashel, Shaqarbas, and the other traitors were staring.
Shaqarbas caught his gaze. “What’s your little mouse tittering now, heq-Ashqen? Speak up.”
Neither Samelqo nor his acolyte did any such thing, and Samelqo glared back at the messenger, holding up a hand to stay Shaqarbas. “Explain,” he whispered.
“Her maids were found dead, Sese.” The acolyte paused. “The guard outside her door is injured but alive. Perhaps he will tell us more when he wakes.”
Or perhaps not.“We can only pray he does. In the meantime, inform no one.”
The acolyte didn’t look surprised. He stepped away from Samelqo and bowed.
“What news, priest?” Shaqarbas cocked his head pointedly in the direction of Dashel and Eshmunen. Dashel’s arm had proved too weak to hold the sword to Eshmunen’s neck so long, but he raised it again as Samelqo turned his way.
Something. Samelqo needed something to tell him—ideally something that would change Shaqarbas’s mind. “The Lora have landed in eq-Anout,” he said. What was one more stone to add to the dead weights hanging unseen from his priestly robes?
Shaqarbas looked out over the waiting crowds. “And you honestly believe killing this Indan boy will send them back?”
“What I believe is of no concern. I know the gods will look favourably on Qemassen for offering one of our own. He is as much Eshmunen’s son as Moniqa’s. He is no simple Indan boy.”
A true child of Qemassen. A true prince of the Massenqa.
“The twins,” Dashel sputtered. “Father told me it was traditional to pledge a baby to Molot before it was born. He said they only gave older children if the baby was born dead.”
He wasn’t wrong. Typically a child was promised before birth. Most often this had been the eldest son, and if a second son was never born, it was thought a judgement of the gods. But Eshmunen’s twins had never been possible sacrifices. The Book of Abaal promised one of them would save Qemassen, would be a great king. Did Dashel think he hadn’t considered this? “The seventh is the heir. And you are a hypocrite. Burning Aurelius is murder, but the death of the twins something else?”
Dashel’s expression hung dark and hollow, his words halting, choked. Samelqo bristled that Dashel would dare feel such things. “I don’t know the twins. The seventh is the heir, but there’s a sixth.”
A feeble boy, cursed with sweet urine and unlikely to live long. Burning him in Aurelius’s place might even be a kindness, might shorten his suffering.
But he was a boy—a boy child who should he survive could be the king Qemassen required. And the girl—Samelqo had thought the female twin the true seventh, but could it be that he’d been mistaken? Could the gods have made a mistake? They would not have sent a girl to save the city.
And with Moniqa and her slaves now dead—the only others who’d been present at the birth—no one would know the difference.
The gods would know.
A babe’s wail cut the stillness. It was the female twin, swaddled close against her wet nurse’s breast. Had it been she who’d reached for him as he’d rushed toward the king? Had it been her, or her brother?
There was also Eshmunen to think of. Samelqo glanced up at his king, at the steel pressed to his flesh. Dashel’s hand was frighteningly unsteady, his grip unskilled. It would be so easy for him to sever that royal throat, either by accident or design. It didn’t seem so long since Eshmunen himself had been a child, looking to Samelqo for guidance, for reassurance that his queen would be kind when she arrived, that she would love him.
Samelqo’s throat was impossibly tight.
There had been so much blood following the birth and they’d been so worried for Moniqa’s life. The gods might have intended the boy to be born second, and somehow Samelqo had been confused.
He turned away from them all, facing Molot’s golden back. It was said children given to Molot lived in the finest of palaces, and grew to adulthood in silks far fairer than those of any earthly prince or princess.
Aurelius stood propped up by the slaves who’d bound him, shivering in spite of the heat. He was staring at Samelqo, staring with that face not so different from Eshmunen’s family, despite that Moniqa claimed him as her own.
Samelqo felt something snap inside him. “Cut his bonds.”
The slaves did as they were told. Aurelius stumbled as the cords fell at his feet, but one of the men caught him. Soon he was on his own and running toward Dashel. The Erun lowered his weapon. Shaqarbas nodded to his men and they too fell back, allowing the guards who lingered at the temple’s entrance to tend to their king. Samelqo took the measure of each of them, memorizing their faces. They’d pay later.
He turned from them once he was sure Eshmunen was safe and seen to. The wet nurses with the twins were still beside him.
In the darkness, Samelqo caught the eyes of the woman holding the female child. He hadn’t remembered them being so green, or her skin so pale. Hair the colour of spun gold peeked out from behind her hood, her expression cold where it had been fearful a moment ago.
“Bring her.” The gods had meant for this. The boy was the true seventh, the girl a test. A princess taken for one given.
The yellow-haired wet nurse bowed. “Yes, Sese.”
As she approached, a rueful smile twisted her thin lips, her green eyes brighter than they should be in this darkness. There was something wrong with her. Something unearthly in her face, her pose. A downy grey feather lay curled on her shoulder. Samelqo found himself unable to turn away. It seemed she saw past his clothing and flesh to his naked spirit. Who was this foreigner? Some whore or goddess? Not his Tanata, nor the goddess Ashtet. No, this was a creature of the earthy darkness.
She stood in front of him, and Samelqo felt as though they were the only two people for miles.
“Bride of Molot,” Samelqo breathed. “Qalita.”
The slave knelt down, child held tight against her.
“Sese?” spoke a woman’s voice. When the slave looked up a Massenqa face stared back at Samelqo, her deep brown eyes red-rimmed from crying.
Samelqo rubbed his tired hands against his face. Did the gods speak to him, or was this madness stealing in? “Rise, child. Give the princess to me.”
The girl was heavy in his arms as he lifted her up and carried her toward the platform. Her little hands wriggled free of her blanket, reaching for Samelqo’s talisman, straining against his grip. He should have spoken to Eshmunen before making the choice, but there hadn’t been time. If the king had minded, he would have spoken. It was the right thing; it resolved everything.
Back in Indas, beneath the city streets of Tintellan, Samelqo struggled not to feel it as she pulled for him. Tried not to see it as he plunged her beneath the water.
Samelqo shook his head, dizzy. It was the smoke, the heat of the afternoon. He was in Qemassen, above Molot’s gardens. That dank cave and its black waters were a phantom memory, nothing more. “Is there enough rope left?” he asked one of the attending slaves.
Samelqo handed the baby to the slave, her absence like winter cold gnawing the skin beneath his robes.
The people below were watching again, though there seemed fewer than before.
The drums started up again, without the need for Samelqo’s command. He turned to look and caught sight of Eshmunen staring on, Aurelius clinging to Dashel.
Samelqo sighed. Eshmunen’s father would have executed the Erun and his Inda conspirators, but Samelqo already knew Eshmunen had pardoned them in his heart.
The baby screamed. Samelqo snapped his attention back to her, back to Molot’s cruel hands as she was lowered onto the god’s left palm, the death mask newly placed over her face. Samelqo began his vigil. His eyes never strayed from her, though he commanded the drums be beaten louder to hide her cries from her father.
The flames were still low in the brazier, but the golden hand was hot, and seared her where she touched it. She clutched at the air, at the golden statue, rolling, wailing, till she slipped from Molot’s embrace and into the flaming brazier. He watched the flames swaddle her, watched as her skin blistered and cracked. After a time, her wails quieted, all sensation lost as her skin sloughed away. The wooden death mask had slipped to the side, wreathed in flame.
A princess for a princess. He swallowed, tasting smoke, fighting back a cough. He would name her—name the pair of them. Even a dead princess of Qemassen deserved a name.
“We call her Ashtara, for she dies with Ashtet’s star above her. We call our future king Ashtaroth, for he is born with Ashtet’s star above him. In the hands of children we place the destiny of Qemassen. The phoenix wanes only to be born again. The serpent sheds itself into the sand, yet crawls away to birth its hundred young. The many-eyed gods of our heavens watch us tonight. Molot cleanses us, and Abaal shall slay our enemies.”
Though he wanted to look away, Samelqo could not. He slipped a wrinkled hand inside the pocket of his robe, curling his fingers around the parchment he’d displayed before the Semassenqa that evening. He lifted it from its hidden place and unrolled it, though his gaze remained fixed on the girl. Her dead mouth had never looked more alive, stretched in a grim rictus of a smile. Her lips gaped too wide as the skin around them melted away.
The heq-Ashqen took a step toward the edge of the platform, hand unsteady as a gust caught his outstretched arm. It had been so still earlier, so dry and dead. Already the air was alive again. Samelqo let go of the parchment, eyes forced shut as a stray breeze billowed stinging smoke into his face. When he opened them, he was no longer looking at the girl, but at the paper he’d just let loose. He watched dispassionately as the flames caught its surface, erasing, for a time, his indiscretion, as it burned away the news of the attack on Zimrida. Perhaps a day would come when a real messenger would arrive bearing such news, but that day was not this one, and for now, Samelqo had succeeded in warding off destruction and hunger. Eshmunen was weak in ways it was natural for a man to be weak, but he had Samelqo beside him, to correct his course.
The city had been starving. The waters had dried and the people had been desperate. A sacrifice had needed to be made, and as ever, Samelqo’s duty had been to the people of Qemassen.