Here is a free short story from the world of my new fantasy series “Age of Bronze.” The first book, Against All Gods, launches on June 23rd, and will be available in print, ebook, and Audiobook (narrated by the great Peter Noble!). I think it’s pretty great. Pretty sure you will, too.
So click the button to learn more and then read this free story!
Story Three of Spear Carriers, Tales from an Age of Bronze
The linen was red, but it wasn’t scarlet red. Bright Poppy snapped her fingers at the cloth merchant and shook her head.
‘Do you think I don’t know the difference?’ she asked. She spoke clearly, but not quickly; her voice was surprisingly deep for a woman so small.
‘Ah, Great Lady,’ the merchant said. The contempt wasn’t very hidden. And he leered, his whole attention on her bare breasts and none on her face.
She turned to one of the two slaves who held a parasol over her and gave a slight nod, and they raised the parasol a little higher. She smiled at the youngest, a girl of seven or eight. She had been a parasol bearer. Her first task, when she was taken…
‘I am buying for the High House,’ she said.
The merchant nodded. ‘Yes, this is my best scarlet cloth.’
‘No, it is not,’ she said. Men were always so surprised when she, a pleasure girl of the High House, spoke with authority. ‘This is good linen, but it has only been dipped three times, perhaps four, and one of those was madder and not grain. I want a bolt of proper scarlet, all grain, ten or fifteen dips. If you continue to waste my time, I will see that my mistress Hehet cancels your connection with the High House.’
He went from badly-hidden contempt to fawning servility in the blink of an eye. ‘Oh, Great Lady! I didn’t know that in addition to your wonderful beauty and obvious charms, you were also a connoisseur of fine textiles! And the mistake is mine! My poor aging eyes… My stupid slave had brought out the wrong fabric.’ Turning, he struck the big man behind him a hearty blow. The man barely flinched.
In fact, the big slave’s eyes met Bright Poppy’s, and he rolled his eyes in weary amusement. She allowed herself a very slight smile in return.
After all, they were both slaves, and despite her fine clothes and jewelry, she was every bit as much a slave as he, and just as likely to receive an unjust blow.
But not always a slave…
The pleasure slaves of the High House weren’t usually used to run routine errands, but it was the week of the God-King’s own religious festival and everything was late. And Hehet knew that she could do this.
The merchant went back inside and then came out again. She’d already forgotten his name. He was free, and she was a slave, but he was a no-account cloth merchant who’d bribed someone in High House to supply fabric and she was Bright Poppy, Third Pleasure Lady of the High House.
She had once had another name.
She flushed, because she didn’t usually even allow herself to think of her other name. A name it was illegal to say aloud.
The merchant was talking. The threat to revoke his arrangement was real; no matter who had been bribed, Hehet ruled the administration of everyday life in the High House and she brooked no fools. Hehet was fair; in the world of slavery, that made her like a goddess. Regardless, he was rambling on and on, trying to prove, by subservience, his worth.
She smiled. She’d been taught by ruthless artists since she was seven years old how to win a man or a woman with a smile; how to smile in twenty different ways, how much eye-contact to allow…
She allowed her eyes to touch his and then vanish under her downcast lids. ‘This is a good scarlet,’ she said.
‘All grain,’ he said. ‘Beautiful lady of the magnificent body… do you know that grain is actually a tiny insect?’
She met his eyes boldly, leaned forward, and said, ‘Fool of a merchant, do you really believe you can pay empty compliments to the God-King’s pleasure ladies?’
She nodded. ‘Nut, take the cloth. We are done with this gentleman.’
‘But the cost?’ he shouted.
‘Ask at High House. Hehet will pay you. She will want to meet you.’ She let that threat hang heavy.
‘This is not my arrangement with High House.’ He was insistent. He really didn’t understand.
She drew herself up, which was mostly a waste of time as she was very small. ‘You are late. The cloth should have been delivered. I had to come and fetch it. You tried to hand me cheap crap. I am done with you now. If you wish to be paid, you may come to High House and meet my mistress. Do you understand, sir?’
His face worked. He didn’t like women, she could tell. So many men didn’t. It didn’t make her job any easier, either.
‘Yes,’ he spat, finally. And as she turned away, he said ‘whore.’
It was certainly a word she heard a great deal. It gave her no pause. She turned and walked away with her two parasol bearers, as dignified as a queen. She collected her guards at the entrance to the great market; the stalls were too close for armoured men. Both were big barbarians from the Guard of Swords; all foreigners. They were trusted absolutely by the God-King and by Hehet, and they were trusted even with the Pleasure Ladies.
‘I’m done, Fionn,’ she said to the bigger man; red-headed, huge, and covered in barbaric tattoos. Her head came up to his biceps.
‘Lady,’ he said with a grave nod. ‘Fucker give you trouble?’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Bah,’ she said.
‘Conn an’ me can break his knees,’ Fionn offered.
‘I chose to punish him a different way,’ she said.
‘Never get on Bright Poppy’s bad side,’ Conn said. ‘I mean, not that she has a bad side.’ He leered. It was a good-natured leer. It was very different from the merchant’s leer, and she wondered, not for the first time, why she reacted differently to such displays. All of the Guard of Swords liked to suggest that they were available to her at any time, even though any such behaviour would cause them to be killed.
‘Perhaps, if we’re done admiring my body,’ she said, ‘we could return to the palace.’
Fionn looked abashed.
Conn muttered, ‘Never done.’
She rolled her eyes and walked forward. The two children holding her parasol came along behind, serene and dignified as they ought to be. She stopped at the great arch of the market square, where an old woman held down a very valuable spot with a small booth that sold little snacks; nuts, dates, honey cakes and sesame seeds in honey, baked hard.
The old woman had a constant flow of customers; she had the perfect location to sell her sweets, and she was expert at maintaining a constant flow of talk so that each person received a sentence or two. She joked, she mocked, she predicted the quality of the next harvest (excellent) and the timing of the birth of the God-King’s heir (never).
She looked up from folding a date-cake in papyrus leaves. ‘My lady!’ she said. ‘Deary, you are the prettiest thing I’ve seen today, and if I was twenty years younger, I’d come and taste your honey.’
‘Four sesame candies,’ Bright Poppy said. ‘If I were twenty years younger, my love, I wouldn’t be born yet.’
‘True for you, my sweet!’ the old woman said. She was unperturbed by the two barbarian guards, or the parasol bearers.
Bright Poppy’s crisp, perfectly ironed white linen skirt was not made for her to bend over well, but she did, because she had dancer’s muscles under the smooth skin, so that instead of bending at the waist, she sank as if making a courtesy. She handed each of her parasol bearers two sesame sweets.
‘Eat them now, dears,’ she said. ‘Or someone will take them away at Pleasure House.’
Nut, the older one, looked at Sila, the new one. ‘She’s right,’ Nut said very quietly. ‘Don’t get her in trouble.’
Sila popped her sweet into her mouth and ate it.
Bright Poppy smiled. ‘Good girls. I thank you for your service.’
‘You’re keeping my customers away,’ the woman complained.
‘Give me two date-cakes,’ Bright Poppy said. She handed over a pair of startlingly blue lapis beads she’d had in her palm.
‘Oh, Lady!’ the od woman said. ‘It’s too much.’ But she took the beads greedily and handed over the cakes, which Poppy gave to her guards.
‘Poppy, you are the best,’ Conn said in his terrible accent.
Bright Poppy smiled at him and then turned back to the street seller. ‘I’m a slave’ she said. ‘The beads aren’t even mine.’
‘And here’s a nice piece of poppy cake for you, dearie,’ the woman said.
The children had wolfed down their treats, as did the soldiers.
The first lesson, always applied; make them like you with small acts of kindness.
Bright Poppy never ate in public, but she did like cake, so she put the cake, wrapped in papyrus, into Nut’s net bag.
They passed under the great arch of the market square, where Enkul-Anu, bull-headed, stood carved and painted with Sypa his consort. Her eyes caught on the right side of the great monument, where a carving had been effaced.
Arinna, Goddess of the Sun. Beloved of Narmer. Carved away.
Oh, Arinna. Always you favoured us.
Bright Poppy walked under the arch, head high. Her entourage followed her into the broad street, the central street of Memis, greatest city in the world, home to hundreds of thousands of Narmerians, seat of the God-King, center of the world. Chariots passed, and nobles leaned out to look at her under her parasol; when one chariot suddenly went up on one wheel and almost spilled, Sila giggled.
Bright Poppy should have struck her for the show of emotion, but she was in too good a mood.
They walked, much remarked; it was rare for one of the God-King’s pleasure ladies to walk abroad. They had stares and compliments and cat-calls and even bows, all the way to the High House. Some people stopped and stared, and not just men; a priestess of Sypa ogled her like a teenage boy. Bright Poppy ignored it all, sailing along like a ship on the great river, her white leather sandals seeming to skim the ground.
She didn’t enter the High House through the ceremonial gate, with statues of the God-Kings, some defaced, and the Gods of Narmer, and the Gods of the world; Druku, his erection obscene and comic; Gul, God of the dead and the underworld, and his frightful consort Urkigul, and a new statue, just installed; Telepinu, a son of Enkul-Anu. Telepinu was being painted in lurid colours and a fortune in Lapis lazuli paint.
But that was not for her, and she turned off the broad thoroughfare and walked down a narrow street to enter the Pleasure House quadrangle through the Outer Garden. She left her soldiers at the Pleasure House Gate; even they, trusted as they were, were forbidden to enter this area, but the palace guards had a small building with comfortable benches.
‘Come with me,’ she said, and walked through the gate into the Pleasure House courtyard, with barracks and quarters and the training houses and the barracks for new children, and entered the palace garden proper from the Pleasure House side through the Gate of Pleasure, as it was called, often with a sneer.
‘Oh, mistress!’ Nut said. ‘I’ve only been in the palace once!’
She crouched again so that she was face to face with the children. ‘Both of you be completely silent. Understand me?’ she put a finger to each child’s lips. ‘Only speak if spoken to. Stone face. Can you both do that?’
Both children put on their stone faces and nodded.
Bright Poppy rose, smoothed her skirt, and walked carefully along the corridor. On one side, heavy columns supported an open stoa facing out into the gardens; on the other side, frescos of the Gods at play and at war hid doors to the private apartments of high-level servants. Farther along were the daytime offices of the palace staff; scribes, most of them bald, and male, working dawn until dusk, sitting hunched on the floors, copying in clay and papyrus.
The largest office was that of Mari-Ye; the palace chamberlain. He had been a priest, gossip reported; maybe even, it was whispered, a priest of Arinna. Yet somehow, he survived.
She saw him, seated at a table. He looked up, and his dark eyes met hers.
Unaccountably, he smiled.
Automatically, she flashed her best smile back.
She walked on, sandals slapping the dark basalt of the floor, inlaid with intricate designs in beautiful white marble from far off Noa. What did the palace chamberlain want with her? Beyond what every man and many women wanted. She shrugged.
All the same.
She walked through Hehet’s office door without pausing. The Lady of the Pleasure House was from one of the noble families, and had worked her way up through the palace bureaucracy; there were few enough high-level tasks for women, no matter how talented. She had never worked in the Pleasure House. But she was fair.
Hehet also had a table, which distinguished her from the half-dozen scribes, all eunuchs, who sat on the floor, writing out her household accounts.
She looked up. ‘Bright Poppy?’
Bright Poppy indicated Nut and her armload of fabric. ‘’Mistress. The merchant attempted to cheat us,’ she said.
Hehet nodded, took the fabric from a correctly silent Nut, and examined it minutely. ‘This fabric is adequate.’
‘He showed me twice dyed stuff first, and said it was ‘as ordered.’’
Hehet nodded. ‘And this is why you are sent on these errands, my dear,’ she said. She rang a small bell; a slave appeared. ‘Take the fabric to the chamberlain,’ she said. ‘It’s for the festival. We’re just helping out. Do you understand?’
The slave bowed. ‘Yes, great Lady.’
Hehet nodded and turned back to Bright Poppy. ‘Anything else?’
‘I didn’t pay him,’ Bright Poppy said, and handed back the small bag of carefully weighed gold. ‘I told him to come here, explain himself to you, and beg your forgiveness.’
‘Oh, my,’ Hehet said. She managed a very rare half-smile. ‘He must be very cross.’
Somewhere off in the palace, there was a thump as if something very large had been dropped.
‘He was very cross,’ Bright Poppy said. ‘I believe he called me a whore.’
Hehet looked up. ‘Really?’ she asked, drawing the word out. ‘I could perhaps send a few of your barbarians…’
‘They offered,’ Bright Poppy said.
This time, the thump was more of a crash. It was more immanent, and dust flew from the ceiling of the office, which was supported by brightly painted wooden columns.
Hehet rose. She was half a head taller than Bright Poppy, and dressed in a long sheath of blue and white linen that started just below her bare breasts and swept to her ankle bracelets. Her red diadem showed her rank.
‘I don’t like that sound,’ she said calmly. Bright Poppy admired Hehet, and strove to imitate her voice of authority. ‘Everyone out to the gardens. Something is wrong.’
The scribes leapt to their feet.
Dust, mixed with a little whitewash or fresco plaster, showered down on them, and Hehet coughed.
‘Out,’ Bright Poppy said to the two children. ‘You may run.’
‘God’s what’s happening!’ said one of the scribes.
‘Silence,’ Hehet said. ‘Out, out. Everyone out.’
A shower of dust and a loud crash-bang simultaneously.
The last scribe bolted through the low door, which, however, had a stone lintel held by two low stone pillars.
‘Earthquake?’ Bright Poppy asked.
Hehet looked at her and shook her head. ‘I think we should run, ourselves,’ she said and suited action to word.
Bright Poppy pulled up her linen sheath, kicked off her white sandals, snatched them up in the hand holding her skirts, and ran. Out in the corridor, there was noise everywhere; a pounding sound, a rush of running; screams.
She followed Hehet. Her mistress surprised her by making a very athletic leap over the low wall of the colonnade and into the garden. Bright Poppy followed. She was trained to do such things; she was an acrobat, among other accomplishments, and the Noble Lady Hehet had never had all the training.
The noble woman could definitely run.
Now they were out among the cypress trees of the central garden. There were hundreds of people pouring out of the palace into the gardens and the dusty square of the central courtyard; palace staff and slaves all intermixed with courtiers and nobles and priests.
Something in the air made Bright Poppy look up.
She put her hand to her mouth to stop herself from screaming.
‘Gods,’ Hehet said.
The High House Steward, Mari-Ye, was close behind them, his bald pate shining in the sun.
‘Not gods,’ he said. ‘Demons.’
There were dozens of them, flying around the palace, and Bright Poppy, who thought of herself as tougher than work-hardened bronze, couldn’t make her mind assemble the horrific details; the crimson skin replete with scales, the glowing eyes, fangs, talons, and batwings…
She could see that there was an enormous hole; more than one, actually, in the tile roof of the central structure. Smoke was coming out; something was afire. She could smell it.
One of the flying demons hurled a fireball bigger than her body. It detonated against the roof with a loud thump and something gave.
‘A whole demon legion,’ Mari-Ye said, as if this was more interesting than utterly terrifying.
‘But…’ Hehet said.
Bright Poppy had never seen her mistress at a loss for words.
‘But…’ Hehet stammered again. Bright Poppy, who admired Hehet, didn’t like to see her like this. It undermined her own sense of self.
The world was coming apart. Another flying demon threw a ball of fire from one clawed hand, and it struck the cornice of the roof and the whole roof rippled.
‘But Great God Enkul-Anu commands the Demon Legion,’ Hehet said. ‘Why would he…’
Mari-Ye looked at Hehet even as he backed under the shade and protection of an ancient cypress tree. Bright Poppy caught Nut in her arms and pulled her close. Sila was nowhere to be seen.
Bright Poppy shoeved the older girl against the tree and whirled, looking for Sila. She called the girl’s name; loud, hopefully calm. Screaming a name never sounded calm.
‘Why would the gods attack the God-King?’ Hehet asked. It was almost a wail.
The roof of the palace proper gave a groan, and sank a hands-breadth, and then, suddenly, a clear blue light began to shine from within. At first it was just a flicker, like sparks flying from a fire; then it grew, until it was obviously a dome.
A bolt of pure white light slashed across a demon, and it screamed…
And the world grew even worse. The wounded demon transformed as if its outward semblance had been a costume; from a red-skinned horror it became something much worse, an amalgam of all Bright Poppy’s fears; insect-like, with a long body like a sea-shrimp and many legs.
Too many legs.
The stricken monster crashed through the tree canopy to her right and was broken by the ground, white ichor spraying from its carcass for a little while.
She gave a little shriek, and then clamped down on herself.
Hehet stood blinking, as if she could change what she was seeing.
The bright blue bubble emerged from the palace through the Gate of Felicity. It shone like a sapphire lit by an inner sun, and the fireballs thrown by the demons didn’t seem to touch it. Figures were moving inside the bubble…
Hehet went down on her face. Bright Poppy was in enough shock that it took her a moment to understand.
That was the God-King and his consort. They were in the divine presence!
Bright Poppy fell on her face, regardless of her clothes, her fullest obeisance. She gathered Nut with her as she went down.
There was a titanic explosion and bits of the garden began to rain down on them.
A dozen demons pounded the blue globe with fire.
‘They’re attacking the God King!’ Hehet screamed.
The globe held. It moved slowly out into the garden until it was quite close to where Bright Poppy lay, full length, with the child clutched against her. She could feel the Chamberlain pressed against her.
And then Demons began to land. One landed so close to her that she could see it’s red taloned foot on the sand without moving her head.
She felt the brimstone heat of its foul breath wash over her.
‘Kill ‘em all, boss?’ asked a guttural voice.
‘Not until the mission is done, shit-for-brains,’ grunted another, just over her head. She kept her eyes tightly closed, waiting for death.
And then they were gone.
She couldn’t stop herself from looking.
One demon, the one giving the orders, wore heavy bronze armour. He drew a sword that burned like a black flame from a scabbard under his arm and cut straight into the sapphire bubble. A lance of white fire struck him from inside and he reeled, but by then three more demons were cutting pieces off the ephemeral sapphire shield.
She watched as one reached into the bubble. To her horror, she saw the taloned hand seize the God-King. He was pulled from the bubble, screaming in rage and pain and fear. A taloned demon hand ripped him open and spilled his entrails. The demon captain tossed his still living carcass to the others and they fell on him like vultures on fresh carrion.
The demons tore him to pieces. His high crown, the Snake Crown that he wore for everyday, rolled off into the sacred grove.
An old man, lean and fit for his age, stepped past the demon in armour, pointed, and said a word. The demon-captain was hurled away; it struck the colonnade of the palace and something broke; the corpse transformed into another of the flying millipede things and the white ichor fell like a terrible acid rain. A drop burned a hole in Bright Poppy’s skirt and her thigh felt as if a red-hot poker and been slammed against it.
Another demon had the Queen; the Great Lady of the High House. It pulled off her head and threw it, then took a horrible bite of her flesh, tearing it away the way hyaena’s tore at antelope flesh.
The old man ran perhaps ten steps right at Bright Poppy, his long beard trailing behind him. He was very fit for a man so very old.
When he was as close enough to touch her, he waved a hand and was instantly enveloped in thick orange smoke. The smoke was everywhere; all around Bright Poppy, and she couldn’t see anything; even her own hands. Yet she could breathe, hence, it was supernatural smoke.
Bright Poppy was hardened to various crises by her life; her mind worked well in these moments. So she assembled what she knew and decided that the old man had been the God-King’s mage. She’d never even heard of such a man, but…
There was a long, long crash, and the smell of smoke was everywhere. The orange smoke had no smell, but this was the smell of burning; cedar, mostly.
The palace was on fire and she couldn’t see where to run. When she raised her head, the smoke was worse. Close to the ground, she could breathe.
Nut, in her arms, was weeping silently. She was already, at age eight, too well trained to scream.
‘My dear,’ Bright Poppy said, between coughs, ‘We are going to crawl. We are going to find the fence and crawl along it to the Gate of Pleasure. And then we will do something else.’
‘That is an excellent plan,’ Mari-Ye said from behind her.
Bright Poppy was too scared to be abashed by his rank. She began to crawl. After a few paces she rolled on her back and pulled off her skirt, so that she wore only her jewelry and a loin cloth. She still couldn’t really see, which meant no one would see her.
That made crawling a good deal easier. The child was quite good at it and found the fence, calling out her triumph, while behind them the roof of the main palace structure finally collapsed in a roar. At least, that’s what Bright Poppy assumed the roar must be.
‘Where is Sila?’ Nut asked.
Bright Poppy knelt, holding the fence, trying to imagine a path through the orange fog and coughing-fit-burning-smoke. Somewhere out there was the Gate of Pleasure and her own quarters, but were even they safe?
Is anything safe?
Hehet emerged from the smoke behind her as Nut kept calling.
Then came Mari-Ye, and a courtier she didn’t know.
The man looked terrible. ‘The demons are killing everyone,’ he said. ‘My wife… Oh, Gods!’
He began to throw up on the ground.
Hehet, who had tied her linen sheath-skirt around her waist, handed it to him.
He wiped his mouth, looked at her with unfeigned thanks, and threw up again.
‘Keep moving,’ she said in Hehet’s voice of authority.
‘Which way?’ Nut asked.
‘Right. That way. Follow me,’ she said, guessing based on Gods-knew-what, and began to crawl, then threw caution to the winds, rose to her feet and began to walk, then trot along the fence, pausing to retch and cough at wafts of heavy smoke. She could see almost ten feet now, and carefully groomed flower bushes loomed out of the smoke like colourful monsters and faded away behind, but she stayed along the fence, looking back to make sure she had Nut and the others.
She’d guessed correctly. This was the gate from the Garden to the House of Pleasure. It wasn’t on fire; it led to the courtyard she knew. ‘This way!’ she called. And then stopped.
While there was no immediate threat, the whole yard was chaos; men and women of every rank ran in every direction, screaming, kicking and biting to get out the far gate.
It was too far to go all the way around the palace to another gate.
‘Stay down,’ she said. She crouched by the Gate of Pleasure, watching the pandemonium in the courtyard. Her courtyard, where she’d lived her entire life…
Her entire life since…
Her mind shied away from that, and she looked back to see the courtier, some sort of elite scribe, come up with them. She expected him to start giving orders; if not the courtier, certainly the old chamberlain, who was as far above her as the God-King. She was surprised at herself.
‘What now?’ the chamberlain asked her.
‘We wait until the foolish ones have cleared the dooryard,’ she said. ‘And then we leave. If my soldiers are still obeying orders, they will be outside, with the guards.’
‘Your soldiers?’ he asked. He was looking at her carefully. Not the stare of a man who cared that she was almost naked, but the look of someone who thought that he recognized her.
‘I am Bright Poppy,’ she said. ‘Third Lady of the Pleasure House. I have two guards given me by…’ she choked on the words ‘The God King.’
Hehet looked at her. She was herself again.
‘She has always been very reliable,’ Hehet said archly. And then, to Bright Poppy’s surprise, she said, ‘I think you saved us, my dear.’
‘If the demons come after us…’ the courtier said.
‘They won’t,’ Mari-Ye said. ‘They had their orders. Being demons, they exceeded them.’
‘Orders?’ Hehet asked.
Mari-Ye shrugged. He rolled over and sat with his back against the fence. The orange smoke was almost gone. The palace proper was an inferno, so hot that even two hundred paces away through the rolling smoke, Bright Poppy could feel it against her skin.
‘They were ordered to destroy the God-King and his family,’ Mari-ye said. ‘It’s happened before. Hasn’t it?’ He looked at Bright Poppy when he said the last.
Hehet was looking at her too.
Bright Poppy had a moment, a flash
Bronze knives rising and falling, and her mother…
Then she dismissed the thought and watched as the mob of her peers from the Pleasure House had finally cleared the courtyard gates out into the world; into Memis, the greatest city in the world.
Where would they go? What would they do?
‘Who was the old man?’ she asked Hehet. She wasn’t bold enough to ask Mari-ye directly; she ignored the courtier, who had calmed enough to be devouring her body with his eyes. She needed to be clothed. The smoke was still heavy, and all of them coughed, but she could see, although her eyes felt gritty and swollen.
Mari-Ye answered her directly. ‘That was Hekarrinat,’ he said. His tone didn’t encourage more questions.
A man with Arinna in his name who is powerful? All the priests of Arinna were killed hundreds of years ago…
‘I need clothes,’ Bright Poppy said. ‘I’m going to run for my room. We should have no trouble passing the gate.’
‘I want to find Sila!’ Nut insisted.
‘But… the demons…’ the courtier was not fully recovered. ‘I should go back and look for my wife,’ he said. He didn’t sound as if he was going to do it, however.
‘Go,’ Mari-Ye said.
Bright Poppy rolled to her feet with the agility of a trained acrobat and ran through the Gate of Pleasure and across the courtyard. There were people dead; she tried to wall herself off from the immediacy of their death in her mind, although her first dance mistress, old Juhawata, lay dead, her small and fragile body trampled. That was bad.
It was all bad, but Bright Poppy had seen a great deal of bad in her life, and she was used to it. So she ran to the steps and up them, to the long corridor on the second floor of the beautifully clean barracks of the Pleasure House. As Third Lady, she had a small suite and her own slaves. First Lady was too old to actually provide pleasure; she ruled the house under Hehet’s authority. Second Lady was Wawati, the most manipulative person that Bright Poppy had ever met.
She wasn’t in her apartments.
Bright Poppy ran on until she came to the curtained alcove by her own door. She ran in to find Ulat, her body slave, who almost struck her with a bronze knife.
Quick as thought, Bright Poppy had her wrist; stripped the knife, and and shook her head. ‘Ulat, darling, we’re running.’
‘Yes, mistress. Apologies…’
‘Accepted. It’s not a normal day,’ Bright Poppy said. Ulat snorted and produced a pair of hemp bags.
‘Jewels, gold, street clothes. You’re naked, mistress.’
‘Not quite,’ Bright Poppy said, but she stripped her loin cloth and replaced it from a linen press, taking five more in a sweep of her hand.
‘That tunic is horrible, mistress,’ Ulat said as she pulled a work tunic over her head.
‘We’re going to try to be invisible, not attractive,’ Bright Poppy said.
Ulat nodded. ‘I’m ready, then. I’m always invisible.’
Out in the corridor, Mari-Ye stood with Hehet and Nut.
‘You followed me into the Pleasure House?’ Bright Poppy was almost as appalled as if more demons had appeared. For a noble to enter the barracks was a crime.
Of course, the Lord of High House was dead, so perhaps there was no one to stop people from coming into the harem.
‘Ulat, see to Nut,’ she said, and darted into Second Lady’s apartments. They were emptry; she’d run for it. Bright Poppy spent as long as it took a priest to make a full invocation to the Bull-Headed God to rifle her chests; pearls, a fine bronze sword, Dardanian make; two gold brooches…
‘That cursed witch,’ she spat, as she found her own cloak of Mykoan wool, missing a few months. She took it too.
She wasn’t coming back.
She darted into the hall again.
Hehet was looking at her. She shrugged. ‘Great Lady,’ she said, ‘whatever happens now, the Pleasure House is done.’
Hehet nodded. ‘You are wise, girl.’
‘She’s the daughter, isn’t she,’ Mari-Ye said.
Hehet nodded. ‘She is. I’ve done what I could to protect her.’
Mari-Ye nodded. ‘What do we do now,’ he asked Bright Poppy.
She was not used to being directly addressed by nobles. Even in bed, they seldom spoke to her. ‘We go out the gate, collect my soldiers, and…’ she looked at Mari-Ye, directly in the eye. ‘And we decide what to do. Whether to run, or wait.’
He nodded. ‘You, Third Lady, have gotten us this far.’
She led them down the stairs. It was odd; chilling… the building was clean and neat; outwardly very little was wrong, until you reached the courtyard, where there were six people dead, and the smell of death already hung, and there were flies.
And it was empty of life, otherwise. No slaves sweeping, no children running for their next lesson. No courtiers gathered at the gate to peep at her or her sisters and brothers.
Not quite empty of life, either. Even as they came to the gate, her two parasol bearers appeared. Sila was burned; it was obvious even at a distance, and Nut was holding her up.
‘Permission to speak, mistress?’ Nut asked.
‘Not now,’ Hehet snapped.
‘Only?’ Nut said, defiant.
Bright Poppy sank to their level. ‘Tell me, child.’
‘Only,’ Nut looked at Sila, who was weeping in total silence, the tears running down her face. Over in the main wing was a dispensary. There would be ointments for the burn. Bright Poppy looked at it; not deadly.
‘We’ll have that burn seen to,’ she said firmly.
‘Only,’ Nut insisted. ‘We have the God-King’s crown. Sila found it.’
The Snake Crown was small; that’s why the God-King wore it every day. But it was solid gold, and the snake’s eyes were rubies. There was probably a curse on it.
‘Carry it,’ she said gravely. Best to give them something to do.
Her father used to say that.
The gate was open. She leaned out; the guard shack was empty, but the two foreign barbarians were standing outside, watching the sky, their long sword in their hands, heavy leather shields on their arms.
‘Fionn,’ she said with forced confidence.
‘Lady!” he said, and stood taller.
Conn smoothed his linen kilt as if he’d been doing something wrong.
‘What in ten thousand hells of Kur is going on?’ Fionn asked. ‘Druku’s member! It’s the Chamberlain!’ he sketched a hasty salute.
Mari-Ye nodded. ‘The God King and his consort are dead,’ he said. ‘I’ll wager that every one of their children and relatives is dead as well.’
‘Gods above!’ Fionn gasped. ‘Kur below! Who? Why? I thought I saw demons! Enkul-Anu’s demons?’
‘Yes,’ Bright Poppy said. She was sagging, but she was done, anyway. The soldiers and the nobles would take over now, which was fine. Leading was exhausting. And she had a good deal of gold.
It might be time to slip away. She’d take Ulat and Nut, and buy their freedom from a crooked scribe, and…
‘Why?’ Fionn asked.
Mari-Ye took the big barbarian seriously; after all, barbarous or civilized, he was an officer of the Guard of Swords. He looked back at the palace, which was already just a column of fire.
‘I warned him,’ Mari-Ye said wearily. ‘When he began building up the horse farms and training more charioteers. Half his priests were spies for the Gods. I warned him that he couldn’t attack the Hundred Cities without consequence.’
‘We haven’t even attacked yet, have we?’ Conn asked.
Fionn looked at the great eagle engraved on his long bronze sword; the symbol of the High House. ‘Who’s the Lord of the High House, then?’ he asked.
‘A very practical question,’ Mari-Ye said. He looked at Hehet.
Hehet flushed, and looked at Bright Poppy.
That made Bright Poppy uncomfortable. ‘We should run,’ she said. To Conn, she said, ‘will you two come with us?’
Conn shook his head. ‘Lady, I’m sorry. I was assigned to you, but this is bigger. Tudhal is our officer of the day; he’ll be at the main gate, if he’s alive. Brogmil was with the God-King…’
‘Almost certainly dead,’ Mari-ye said.
Fionn made a mourning scream. It was a terrible sound.
Conn cut his arm with his blade so that blood fell to the ground.
‘He was a great warrior,’ Conn said. ‘But you must see that I have to go. We have to find the next… the heir. Someone is God-King, Lord of the High House.’
‘Favoured of Arinna,’ Bright Poppy said. The words fell from her lips unbidden.
Mari-Ye smiled. ‘So it will be,’ he said. ‘So it was prophesied.’
Hehet froze. ‘You can’t,’ she began.
Mari-Ye fell on his face.
After a moment, Hehet joined him in the dust of the gate. They were making the full obeisance to royalty. Ulat was on her face; the two children were slower, but down they went.
From the dust, Mari-Ye said, ‘You are the Lady of High House now, Maritaten Ak-Arinna.’
Maritaten. They called me that. In that other life.
Maritaten, favoured by Arinna. Ak Arinna.
The warmth of the sun fell on her face; she had no parasol. She wore a shapeless tunic and worker’s sandals, and carried a hemp bag of stolen gold.
She even thought about it for a moment. The whole thing. Her mother, killed by knives.
If I do this, I will probably die that way too. Or with demons ripping my arms off.
I can run. I have a bag of gold. Then what; open a Pleasure House? Fuck that.
She smiled, the most natural smile to crease her face since early childhood.
‘You may rise,’ she said. ‘We have a great deal to do, and only a few hours of daylight. People will be afraid.’
Hehet rose, and bowed deeply.
Conn made a face. ‘You mean she… that is, Bright Poppy? She’s a princess?’
‘Her father was Aknataten, Lord of the Golden Bow,’ Mari-Ye said.
‘Gods,’ Conn shook his head.
Fionn grinned. ‘Called it,’ he said with an easy laugh, and then, suddenly, knelt, sword outstretched. ‘With you, Lady,’ he said.
Conn knelt with him.
Mari-Ye glanced at them, rose, and dusted himself off. ‘I recommend that first we find the new captain of the Guard of Swords.’
‘Excellent,’ Maritaten snapped. She reached out and touched Conn’s sword, and then Fionn’s accepting their fealty. ‘We’ll need a dispensary for the children. And…’ She turned to Sila. ‘Give me the crown,’ she said.
Sila knelt, and gave it to her.
She handed it to Mari-Ye. She turned to Mari-Ye. ‘You may place it on my head.’
He bowed, and did so.
She pointed towards the main gate. ‘Lead us.’