July 10, 2017 at 5:38 am #3339
Scene: Temple of Eshmun – Carthage
Carthage rose majestically on a hill dominating the Gulf of Tunis and the surrounding fertile plain, a rich, diverse trading empire with nearly unparalleled naval strength. It was the jewel of the desert to those who knew only sand to the South in Northern Africa. It was a jewel of the Mediterranean too to those to the North in Rome who coveted it while despising its threat and cursing its ruinous seductress queen, Ethbaala.
But in every great city there is an underbelly of suffering, the dregs of society, the unsightly cripples, the poor refuse, the decaying elderly, the sick, the whores, the criminals that are to be regulated and contained. The Carthaginian guards here had a mean look about them, one that suggested they understood their role very well, should they be forced to remove these ne’er-do-wells for the sake of the city.
Here the unwanted flocked, outside of the Temple of Eshmun, the Phoenician God of Healing, his cowled marble statue with a great sword to cut away disease, turning blood into the bloom of life. Eshmun’s likeness was surrounded by offerings of incense, whittled carvings of babies, cloth, wine, whatever could be spared by the poor or those who desired healing. The Brujah old and learned enough to understand realized Eshmun was no hollow stone god, but the image of Saulot.
And she almost belonged with them, but not quite. “Jezebel,” as they called her, seemed a snip of a common girl who had taken to helping the healers. The frayed cloak of a beggar slung about her hid the full splendor of her youth, her waist-length dark hair, her smooth hands, her willowy figure. Her face, half veiled behind a tattered rag, hid aquiline features and high, chiseled cheekbones that even the most rigid Toreador critic could only have said desired simply a little more rouge, the most fastidious sculptor perhaps wishing for only a little more fineness in her nose.
She had been careful not to speak too much either, but rather listen and absorb what was around her, to hide her breeding. To learn. To hear what the common folk would never tell their betters. A story shared here, a favor done there, information spread and obscured there, while she distributed bandages, provided water.
It was clear to any kindred with an eye for it, she was banking in the commodity of information as an advantage at the price of demeaning herself with such a disguise. If the mortals ever suspected anything, they would think she was a former lady perhaps who had fallen on hard times. But most here were wrapped within their own misery and hopes for healing.
It was her eyes that gave her away, not the color, the deep blue, almost violet which stood out even unadorned with kohl. But the regality behind them, the lack of humility, the pride, the hint of arrogance, the self-importance that comes from a lifetime of being told you matter for this reason or another, that you are Queen of Carthage, as Ethbaala was.
It was not an uncommon sight to see Saulot’s disciples, the Salubri, move within the throng here tending to the ill. As of late, in fact, more Salubri had been in Carthage than usual as a rash of illness had spread. They had been kept busy with their ceaseless toils, at times working with the Brujah scholars to ease the symptoms of the disease while ferreting out the root problem. The surge of illness teetered into spreading into a full-blown epidemic.
It was just such cooperation with the Salubri that found the Brujah healer, Eshmunazar, and the True Brujah scholar, Ashdanot, outside the Temple of Eshmun one evening. The night had been a flurry of activity, but now there was a lull giving them room to converse.
Ashdanot looked at the Brujah that called himself Eshmunazar. Blood brethren, yes, but the two kindred in truth could not have been more different and distinct. He still had…ah, what were they? Displays of emotion…His countenance often bended and twisted to reflect them, while her own had long ago lost all semblance of expressive lines; the milky expanse more akin to immovable stone than a soft thing of malleability.
Few things appealed more to the avuncular, middle aged seeming Brujah Eshmunazar than the palette of odors and sounds which he bore witness, the mélange of freely flowing bodily humors, brains blistering in their own fever-caused body heat, the groans and moans of those in pain, the smell of garlic and elecampane. It was a homely thing. It brought to mind sun on his face and his father’s voice.
Eshmunazar’s face was angular, all sharp features, baked by the North African sun, wrinkled for he had been in the later years of his 40’s at the time of death, the tinges of gray in his beard, curled in the Carthaginian style denoted this as well.
The Brujah did not feel it themselves, the heat of this night, which bathed them in blazing breaths so hot it all but blistered the living lungs nearby. But rather they experienced it in the way the sweat salted the mortal blood around them, making the skin shine. They sensed it in the animal scent that came from cloth covered heads, cocooned in warm sweat, halos of insects hovering around. Nothing and no one moved in this roasting heat unless they was desperate, and they were. Desperate through and through.
A man wept nearby and knelt before the shrine of Eshmun, kissing the toes of the marble statue as Ashdanot watched the throngs of diseased that surrounded them, some rendered immobile while others ambled slowly in their decrepit state. It was a sight she had seen countless times, countless ages, and in countless places. Her smooth, youthful face remained as unmoving as stone as she passed among them. Her focus reserved not for them, but for her work as she prepared salves and tinctures, as she assisted her fellow Brujah healer, Eshmunazar, and the numerous Salubri that tended as well to the aged, ill, and infirm.
The Salubri in green cloaks, the clasp of a great eye along their belts, hunched over the diseased nearby, hands covered with the suffering and filth of humanity. Gentle hands that would not so much as bruise a fig moved without rest, a gleam now and then from beneath their hoods catching the eye.
All the while Eshmunazar busied himself with others, applying opium as painkillers, fenugreek to those with sickness in the lungs, garlic for the ill-hearted, egg yolk for those whose excretions contained traces of blood. Each was given the same attention that the others before had, impersonal though it may be and, in return for his services, the bleeding bowls were set aside, meant for his gullet rather than an overfed god.
Eshmunazar applied unwashed wool to an old man with sores on his feet, checking for signs of rot. He grabbed the man’s feet, brought it closer to his face and took a deep breath, smelling its sores, his face altering not a bit.
Ashdanot poured honey into a plain clay dish, handing it to Eshmunazar.
Ashdanot: Here, to stem the tide of rot.
Ashnadot said in a monotone voice that echoed nothing and conveyed nothing other than the plain meaning of the words themselves. She held the clay dish a few minutes, her eyes, unblinking. Seeing Eshmunazar made no move to it, she set it aside.
Eshmunazar finished dressing the man’s sores and rose to his feet, flat to not feel his joints creaking with the effort. Although, at times, he thought it a poor trade, malleable joints in exchange for a wrathful Beast, impossible to silence.
Eshmunazar: Although I may yet be wrong, I believe the longer he remains, the more likely he is to contract from one more unfortunate.
Ashdanot turned and started gathering a variety of herbs into a small earthenware bowl and set about the task of grinding them into a fine powder.
Ashdanot: Perhaps it would have been wise to dress it with honey then.
There was no judgment or challenge there, just a simple observation, an assembly of facts, a conclusion, as she set about the preparation for a salve.
Eshmunazar turned to her, his movement perhaps more sharp or aggressive than he had intended.
Jezebel wiped her brow with her forearm and sat a basket of bandages down along with jars of various ointments, quietly replenishing their wares.
Eshmunazar: It’s not a matter of honey but rather of adhering to old, obsolete practices for the sake of tradition!
Ashdanot: You need not raise your voice. I can hear you just fine.
Ashdanot said flatly, still grinding away at the herbs in the bowl.
Eshmunazar: The Greeks of old placed their sick in front of altars, hoping for divine intervention rather than to pursue a tangible…forgive me.
The muscles of Eshmunazar’s face contorted as if in a struggle with an inner demon and he truly was.
Jezebel turned her eyes to them as the temperature of their discussion rose, tucking a wisp of her dark hair beneath her hood.
Ashdanot: Honey is often quite effective at stemming the tide of rot in flesh.
Eshmunazar: Yes, of course. I only wish we had more…sterile accommodations.
Jezebel set down fresh water jugs for them, notably she did not touch the dirty rags nearby set in a pile.
Ashdanot had not flinched an inch, “The honey is free from impurity.”
Eshmunazar: Singular rooms for each patient rather than piling them three feet deep in temples. The merchants say that Rome has done as much.
Eshmunazar meant it as an offhanded comment, an afterthought, his voice carrying no distate.
Ashdanot: I would concur, if we had the desirable space to do so.
Eshmunazar did not make the name of Rome a curse to be spit out.
Jezebel lingered and also…notably made an excuse to do so by ordering the bandanges and jars, making a show of it.
Eshmunazar grabbed the bowls of water, not acknowledging the servant as he began distributing it.
Ashdanot added water from a nearby just to the herb mixture, before turning to lookm as Eshmunazar, and by extension Jezebel.
Jezebel: Will you be needing anything else?
Jezebel asked in ill-suited humility; it clearly pained her.
Eshmunazar: Hmm, Marcus Varro wrote that…oh, no, thank you.
Ashdanot turned briefly before handing the woman a jug low on water.
Ashdanot: It requires refilling.
Jezebel nodded and took the jug, shuffling off on her way. She returned quietly, short time later, with the replenished vessel and tread off just as quietly again.
The gleam of hanging lanterns wavered, casting shadowy arms over the surrounding colonnade, the throng of humanity lurching all around as Ethbaala moved among them.
Light shown on the face of an old man, a veteran sailor by the look of his gait and the weather beaten face that had seen years of salt and sun. He sat on a barrel and talked to anyone who would pay him notice, especially those who offered bread or libation. His left eye was perpetually closed due to a crisscrossing of white scars and his calloused hands often trembled. His one opened eye was a cloudy grey like a storm on a far off horizon.
He spoke to a man beside him, who seemed around the same age, but he was younger than he appeared, a hard life of poverty had drained his youth, leaving him prematurely withered with no hair save the white bristly hair along his chin.
Derelict: How did you get the scar over your eye? Get caught ogling the queen at the baths?
The derelict smiled, stroking the prickly bits of snowy stubble on his chin.
Veteran Sailor: Ba’al Hammon took it.
The derelict’s smile fell from his face, a surge of fear, wonder, reverence competing for dominance in his expression.
Jezebel consoled the man beside her, speaking softly, but confidently.
Jezebel: Our Great Bull only accepts what is given. And gives much in return.
Veteran Sailor: Jezebel is right.
Derelict: Why would you give up your eye though and leave yourself cripple?
The veteran sailor shrugged and smiled, gaps between his remaining yellowed teeth.
Veteran Sailor: It beats being dead. And oh the night, that night the moon was silver and full, the sea had been calm. But all of the sudden our ship was ambushed by some Roman filth.
The derelict frowned and growled.
Derelict: The fucking animals.
The veteran sailor laughed and said awkwardly, his foot knocking against the barrel where he sat.
Veteran Sailor: Yeah, I’ve heard they do that too. Anyway, they had the advantage. But then it was like night itself came crashing out from the water slathering us all with darkness. It pounded against the ship, strangling each man like a serpent, Roman and Carthaginian, down to the depths of the sea.
Jezebel made a sign against evil.
Jezebel: Eshmun’s mercy…
Veteran Sailor: I prayed to Ba’al Hammon, asked him to save me, told him I’d give my left eye. Well, sure enough, he took it, and I lived. Only one too.
Derelict: I heard it was that whore Ummashtart’s mother come at you with a knife when she was drunk. But then she looks a lot like a sea monster in the wrong light.
Jezebel laughed in amusement.
Jezebel: I have never known a creature of the sea to take an eye, but a woman yes, with a blade, or the very pin of her stola.
Veteran Sailor: Oh, yes, I heard about that. Some fool of a woman came at the queen and took out her eye. Heard there was blood everywhere, that they’re still cleaning the baths.
Eshmunazar continued speaking to Ashdanot, as the conversation from the huddle of people swelled up and rose in waves to their ears where they would occasionally break on the shore there.
Eshmunazar: Marcus Varro wrote that disease is caused by miniature creatures too small for the naked eye to see.
Ashdanot’s countenance was blank as unmarred parchment as she listened to his words.
Eshmunazar: Now, barring the possibility that these creatures are incapable of walking, a possibility Varro discounts. We must consider what chariots they may be using instead. The breath of the diseased?
Ashdanot: It would seem particular pockets of air lend themselves more to disease. The criteria for which there is no current way to be sure. It is feasible the clusters of ill could create these pockets.
Eshmunazar: Possible, however, in that case, we should be seeing greater cases amidst sailors and traders. Furthermore, even the nobility needs to breathe and yet, they aren’t getting sick. Ergo, we must determined how the lower classes differ from the merchants and nobles.
Ashdanot: It would seem unsanitary conditions breed these pockets of mal air more often. It is my hypothesis that accumulated wastes form pockets of diseased air.
Eshmunazar walked back and forward as he spoke, to Ashdanot, to the air, to himself most of all.
Eshmunazar: Yes, yes but why….are there any sailors in the crowd tonight?
Eshmunazar looked among the throng, searching for any with the appearance of seafarers of the look of foreign shores in their brow.
Ashdanot spoke matter of factly, the tone stagnant, bland.
Ashdanot: I cannot ascertain that, but there is much refuse in the streets.
Eshmunazar approached the guards.
Eshmunazar: Soldier, I need you, and do not make that face already. I shant ask you to change brown-stained swadclothes.
The Carthaginian guard turned his attention to Eshmunazar, looking slightly annoyed, smelling of stale wine, as he slightly slurred the healer’s name.
Greedy Guard: Baal Eshmuuunzar? What was that you said?
Eshmunazar: Never mind that, soldier. I need you to find me a healthy sailor amidst these sick Carthaginians.
The guard lifted his unkempt brows in an air of hopeful greed, “And for my assistance, Baal?”
The guard smiled, and added eagerly then, “I’ll see it’s done fast then, Tanit-Ashdanot.”
Ashdanot replied as flat as ever, “Thank you.”
Eshmunazar felt a growling deep in his soul, a red thing filling the empty spaces in his body, and he struggled for a second not to rip the greedy bastard’s head off. But he remained silent, letting his older cousin speak. They were withered branches of a shared trunk, the calmer cousins fallen, just as the rest of the Brujah would in a millennia hence. It seemed to be a characteristic, a flaw in their vitae. And the time would yet come when wise women, burning women, will be named Brujas for the ownership of books and black cats. Dark days were ahead and darker nights.
The guard saddled a younger one with the full measure of their combined duty, and then he quickly marched off into the thick of gathered flesh of the city to hunt for a sailor for the healers.
Voices from the crowd gathered here continued to swell around Eshmunazar and Ashdanot. A feeble, old woman’s voice rose up a little more clearly from the others, distinguishing itself. She had a fringe of grey-white hair around her mottled face and had a wizened look, her back slightly hunched. With each movement there was the creak of old bones. She had the resigned look of one who knows that at her age life has stopped giving and only takes away. She spoke to a much younger woman beside her, as Jezebel stepped up offering them each a bit of water.
Old Woman: No, no, it’s true. And the queen’s cousin, Bitnima spread her legs for Decimus, the dog of Rome, right in front of everyone.
Jezebel: She is a fool and whore then. And her husband should beat her soundly.
Carthaginian Woman: Still Ethbaala is unwed. We have a girl child for a queen with no heir. We should have a king, not this girl. At least Bitnima has sons.
The old woman spits and says, “Bah! Who cares? Likely all flea-bitten bastards of Rome. And I do not trust the dark ways of those desert people. They lay down with dogs and are part Numidian themselves.”
The stream of conversation around them quieted again into the background, Ashdanot’s rising above it.
Ashdanot: Do you suspect sailors as facilitators of disease?
Eshmunazar: No, the opposite. Tell me, Ashdanot, what does a sailor do when he reaches safe port?
Ashdanot: I have heard they participate in fornication.
Eshmunazar: Yes, true, what else? They drink to inebriation.
Ashdanot: They also relieve their bowels…oft times in public. They do not use the designated latrine for such relief.
Eshmunazar: The water in ships come from other sources. While in Carthage, they consume almost exclusively wine. And the water that is sold to these ships will only be tasted in the high seas where it would be impossible to say if they have contracted a sickness. Likewise, the ruling classes do not imbibe water, partaking exclusively of wine or sugared drinks. Mostly, it is the lower classes who drink water, and it they who are getting sick.
The guard returned a short time later, flecks of fresh wine beading in his beard.
Guard: Found you a sailor, Baal Eshmunazar.
Hanno grinned at them, he rubbed his hand, as if anticipating the coin that would fill it.
Eshmunazar: Well done, soldier. What’s your name sailor?
Hanno: Whatever Ummashtart told you, wasn’t me that gave her those sores.
Guard sighed, “I told you that this wasn’t about that, Hanno. I told you they needed someone healthy.”
Eshmunazar looked at the newcomer closely, inspecting him top to bottom, searching for any visual signs of sickness.
Ashdanot scrutinized him as well, behind obsidian eyes that reflected nothing.
The sailor was in decent condition, he’d had some wine and showed signs of malnutrition, but nothing overly serious.
Guard: The coin, Tanit-Ashdanot, if you will, tends to loosen their lips and get them talking.
Ashdanot deposited one coin into Hanno’s opened palm, and motioned for him to talk.
Hanno brought the coin to his lips, biting it, testing some quality of the metal, nodding to himself, seeming pleased.
Guard: And for me, your diligent servant and guardian of Carthage?
Ashdanot handed the guard two coins.
Guard: Ah, Eshmun bless you, Tanit-Ashdanot.
The guard dropped the coins into a pouch he kept tied around his chest so the thieves here couldn’t easily snatch it.
Guard: Go on, Hanno, talk to her, like you would your mother. On second thought, better than that.
The guard stepped back a little, resuming his post.
Hanno: I haven’t been in port long, just a few nights.
Eshmunazar: What have you done since your arrival?
Hanno said with an impish grin, “Whoring, Baal, drinking and whoring? Been a long trip at sea, too long without the feel of a woman. Just about run through the wine too.”
Eshmunazar: Have you partaken of the water?
Hanno: Water, Baal? Never. You know fish fuck in it, right? I never touch the stuff.
Hanno wrinkles his face in disgust, criss-crossing his hands, shaking his head.
Ashdanot said flatly, “Water is an ingredient of wine.”
Hanno’s eyes widen, and he looked as if had heard her say his whole family died and took all the whores in Carthage with them.
Hanno: No, it can’t be, can’t.
Ashdanot: Water is a base for the fermented fruit detritus.
Hanno: What now? Oh I never drink det-truss.
Hanno’s eyes rolled around in confusion, apprehension, and he shifted from foot to foot like he might need to piss.
Ashdanot: You were unaware about what you were truly drinking?
Hanno: It’s made of grapes not water. You’re having some fun with me. But you won’t fool me.
Hanno laughs, though a little nervously, uncertain.
Ashdanot: Both are present in wine.
Hanno: If that were true, fish would swim in wine.
Eshmunazar: Have you experienced any of the following symptoms? Sore throat, abdominal pain, explosive diarrhea with blood?
Hanno: Bloody shit? No, Baal, I like women.
Eshmunazar: Vomiting blood, erectile dysfunction, rot of the limbs?
Ashdanot: You have felt no illness?
Hanno: No, no, no! I’m fine. Or rather there’s nothing wrong with me that a little wine-without-water couldn’t fix.
Ashdanot: That is physically impossible. But I will not keep you from your chosen drink.
Eshmunazar: I see. Well, thank you for your time.
Hanno’s eyes darted between them, only catching half of their terms. He seemed to be growing paranoid that he would grow sick.
Hanno: I am fine…aren’t I? I’m not going to get sick am I, Baal?
Hanno clutched at his throat, rubbing it, thinking what was that scratch in his throat. Was it getting sore?
Eshmunazar: Hmm, probably not.
Hanno asked, alarm creeping in, his voice rising a little in pitch, “Probably?”
Eshmunazar: Though I would advise your captain to boil any water you purchase for your trip.
It may not have been the wise thing to do, to advise him thus. Undoubtedly, those older than himself with a hand in the ruling of this city would frown on him for bringing the quality of the city’s trade, its lifeblood, into question. But that was not his duty; each body was a temple to the soul that housed it.
Hanno brought a hand in front of his mouth and breathed on it, smelling the soured grapes he drank there, testing it.
Hanno: Thank you, I will. I will boil the fish shit right out of it, Baal.
While Eshmunazar and Ashdanot spoke to Hanno, Jezebel meandered over to a couple of women, giving one of them some fresh bandages for her wrist.
Poor Woman: Wasn’t no Roman, but one of them noble ladies with that red hair. Never can trust them kind. Oh and then she bowed just as easy as she pleased to our queen.
The poor woman dipped down, mimicking a bow, the rags she wore swishing against the ground.
Poor Woman: But when the traitor righted herself she came at the queen’s throat with a dagger.
Ummashtart: You got it half right. I heard t’were two of them, one of those fancy nobles and the Roman lover what seduced her with his crooked grin and crooked coin come at the queen. And they done tried to stab the queen in the back like cowards right at the baths, squawking ‘Delenda Est Carthago’.
Jezebel stiffened, looking uneasy, clutching the jug she was holding beneath the crook of her arm more tightly.
Poor Woman: Tried, ye’but they tried. But Baal Moloch, he jumps in, and stops it. Offers her the traitor’s blood like he’s Baal Hammon and she’s Tanit.
Ummashtart brings both hands to her heart, covering it, stilling her breath, “Oh but he handsome.”
Ummashtart: Saw him one time at the amphitheater for the naumachias, and t’weren’t hardly an eye on the naval battle with him there.
Ummashtart sighed, “He had beautiful brown eyes.”
Jezebel: His eyes are blue actually.
Ummashtart laughs, and shakes her head, pitying the common, plain girl beside her.
Ummashtart: You must not have seen him then. Poor girl. They are brown like honey.
Hanno finished speaking to Eshmunazar and Ashdanot, and he was just about to make way to the nearest tavern to get back to the very important business of drinking wine-without-water and whoring, when he stopped. He pointed in the direction of a groaning man being brought over to Eshmunazar and Ashdanot’s sick palette.
Hanno: That’s Juba, came ashore with us. He looks as sick as a Roman whore…
Ashdanot: Not all whores are ill.
Hanno: But all Romans are, Tanit.
Ashdanot: I have not seen enough Romans to confirm this.
Hanno rushed over to his comrade, but was careful not to get to close.
Ashdanot made her way back where Hanno’s ill companion was.
Eshmunazar approaches more carelessly. It was a wondrous thing, one of the greatest gifts of his sire to be beyond the reach of all illness.
Mathos kneeled beside the sickly sailor who had been groaning and twisting, thrashing this way and that.
Eshmunazar: Is he the one?
The man seemed to ease at Mathos’ touch, growing calmer.
Eshmunazar bowed his head in respect to another of the Blood before kneeling.
Hanno: Yes, that’s him. He isn’t…contagious is he?
Eshmunazar: We can’t discount the possibility. We’ll see…
Hanno pulls his mangy shirt up close to his lips in anticipation. The shirt itself was filthy and more likely than not could have infected him with some odious thing just now.
Ashdanot: We cannot be sure of that, but he is ill.
Hanno stepped back a little further at that.
Mathos: This is the freshest case yet.
Ashdanot collected a handful of rags, washing them in the basin of cool water upon the table before handing them to Mathos, who takes them with a grateful nod, applying them to the feverish patient. Eshmunazar gathered the silphium as well to help with this fever. Eshmunazar’s back was turned to the Salubri, though he listened intently, the chick chick chick of wood against wood as he smashes the seeds of the plant for the silphium medicinal. Juba fell unconscious as Mathos’ anesthetic touch eased his pain, and the silphium and the cool rags brought down the fever.
Eshmunazar: Juba, can you hear me?
Mathos: The symptoms came upon him more quickly than the others. I was able to speak to him, briefly.
Ashdanot: What did he say?
Eshmunazar: Did he relate his goings before he was assaulted by this sickness?
Mathos parted Juba’s lips, looking at the condition of the interior of his mouth, which didn’t show any signs of blood yet.
Mathos said gently, “From what I gathered this man has fathered children with three different women among the poor section of the city.”
Hanno: That Juba, half the Mediterranean probably is full of his seed. Nearly as bad as the fishes, that one. All of them with the same crooked smile as the youngest like little Durandis.
Ashdanot: Quite the deformity. Crooked mouths.
Mathos lifts the man’s collar and reveals hints of syphillic sores along the back. The other plagued patients hadn’t displayed the same pattern of infection along the back, for the most part.
Ashdanot and Eshumnazar moved in and closely examined the sores.
Eshmunazar: It’s possible he have contracted whatever this is here.
Mathos: I think he had a condition already that sped along his decline.
Eshmunazar: Yes, the other cases don’t exhibit these same symptoms.
Hanno sees the sores and steps back a little further still, inching away.
Hanno: Maybe I should go tell the Captain about Juba’s whereabouts. You seem to have him well in hand, Baali.
Hanno promptly leaves the healers to their diligent work, badly in need of a drink.
Eshmunazar: So, an already weakened constitution is assaulted again, much like a weakened wall under siege.
Ashdanot went back to preparing the salve, adding some honey to the mixture and stirring it. She crushed some more garlic into it as well, stirring the pungent mixture again.
Mathos moved his hand along the man’s back, slowly, his third eye opening the merest slit, the sores closing in on themselves and vanishing over Juba’s back. And then it shut again, even the hint of that sliver across his forehead gone.
Eshmunazar: How is that you do that?
Mathos: A gift from the Master’s Hand.
Ashdanot: An ability of their blood.
Ashdanot had long assisted the childer of Saulot so such a display was not unusual for the True Brujah elder.
Eshmunazar: It is a remarkable use of the Blood. Is it capable of detecting sickness in an object or substance.
Mathos stroked the pinnacle of his chin with an index finger, looking down at Juba, considering both the question and the patient before him.
Mathos: Some can, yes. Some can even see it in the mind and the very heart of our unique condition. That is not my strength, though. I am best able to cure the sick flesh I can see and touch, the tangible, the living.
Mathos slid a bit of the frayed blanket over the slumbering man, cupping a hand over Juba’s forehead, careful to make sure the fever didn’t rise again.
Eshmunazar: Surely you know of one who could. I believe that contaminated water may be responsible for the spread of disease.
Ashdanot: Specifically the water of this locale since the sailor’s wine was imported, and he showed no signs of illness.
Mathos smiled slightly from beneath his hood, recognizing a brother of intent, a healer, if not one directly of the blood.
Mathos: That’s been our determination too. We’ve found an ill-well and purified it. If that’s all there is to it, the sick should abate soon. If it is only that well.
Eshmunazar: If the gods are good. Still, we should prepare for the eventuality that they aren’t.
Mathos offered a grim look to Eshmunazar and Ashdanot, “Indeed, victory loves diligence in such matters.”
Ashdanot: All matters require diligence.
Mathos: That they do.
Eshmunazar bowed his head in recognition, Mathos offering them a gentle one in return.
Ashdanot took a cue from her more lively brother in the blood, and said, “Ashdanot of Brujah.”
Mathos: I am Mathos, one of the Master’s disciples, originally I was from Greece, but I’ve always enjoyed casting my net farther from home. The world is so very big.
Eshmunazar spoke of the classics, asking pertinent questions that revealed someone learned on the subject and Mathos welcomed the conversation. Dutiful as he was, it was refreshing to have some informed conversation.
Ashdanot had returned to her herbs and mixtures; there was still plenty of work left to do.
While they spoke, chatter continued to spill in from around the surrounding swell of humanity. A man with tufts of wild hair sticking out this way and that, a rope tied around his dirty clothes. His hands moved in a wave of gestures as he spoke to himself, clearly unhinged from a recent loss.
Voice 1: And that’s not even all of it, by the grace of Tanit, Tyre rousted the mercenaries from the city denying payment to that band of ruffians.
Voice 2: You don’t think they’ll come here next, do you?
Voice 1: If they do, the only payment they’ll get is Baal Hammon throwing them into the sea.
Voice 2: Shh! Don’t talk about storms. Nearly lost everything in the last flood.
Voice 1: Kept your life.
Voice 2: I did at that. And what a fucking life it is. I’m the king of Carthage!
Ashdanot listened to the talk nearby, while focusing on her medicinal preparations, nothing that some nearby discussed the city of her mortal birth. Her national and ethnic pride mattered not to her, so long as she had a land to secure a safe haven in. It had been centuries since she had set foot on Tyre’s Phoenician soil, but had found an adequeate calling in its foremost colony.
Though teeming with the poor and the desperate, speckled here and there, on occasion, were the more well-off of Carthage, seeking Eshmun’s blessing for this reason of another. Peppered among them were a couple of such men.
Ovilido had strong arms and a strong mind, considered a low brow philosopher, a poet. He spoke more about what he would write than actually write. To date he had completed only one ode about his two great loves, the ocean and the girl adored since they were children.
Ovilido: Don’t you realize what this means? Andriscus is King Perseus’ heir. The Greeks love him.
Jezebel offered Ovilido and Nyir a drink from a jug, which they summarily declined with a hand.
Jezebel: The Greeks love a lot of men. More than their wives, I’d say.
Nyir laughs, “The girl is funny. I like a funny girl almost as much as I like a young whore. Maybe she should be writing for you. Then we might see your next ode before Mot takes us.”
Ovilido kept his lips in a straight line, expression sober.
Ovilido: This is serious. There’s talk of a Macedonian revival should Andriscus challenge those mongrels of Rome.
Nyir: Andriscus is a dangerous pretender. Everyone knows that Rome slew Perseus’ real sons and cut out their hearts as an offering for the gods of their Eternal City.
Ovilido: Exactly, they took the hearts. No one saw the boys themselves. Andriscus is Perseus’ son.
Nyir: Even if it were true, and it’s not, Rome’s crushed them time and time again. And Greece will just expect us to come to their rescue again.
Ovilido: We must forgive them though. They are just Greeks after all.
Nyir: Yes, we must.
The sailor, Hanno, was nearby and nodded at this wisdom too, but he wore a distant, distracted look on his face. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He teetered for a moment, closing his eyes, taking a deep breath. He looked dazed, clutching a hand to his stomach. And then the muscles in his stomach tightening, spasming, his stomach churning.
All at once, Hanno coated Ovilido and Nyir in old wine and rotten food. The two men levy a enough Phoenician curses on Hanno to fill all the ships in Carthage’s harbor, screaming. Hanno would have laughed under different circumstances, Ovilido obviously defensive of the competition to his illustrious and singular ode. Now he was not alone in spewing his shit over the masses!
Hanno groans loudly, followed by a sickening twisting moan in his abdomen. He screamed as his bowels released an equally impressive stream in the opposite direction, shwoing red and brown over Ummashtart and a cheap prostitute, who squealed, running away. Usually, she got paid, at least, before they did that.
Eshmunazar had his back turned to Hanno and had noticed nothing, and had been in the midst of a conversation about managing the sickness left from the tainted water with Mathos and Ashdanot.
Eshmunazar: It would require a concerted effort from the ruling classes in order to supply the population with an alternative drink until such time as this epidemic has run its course.
Mathos had been on the cusp of responding when he turned his head up sharply, noticing him quickly, rushing over.
Eshmunazar sees the motion of his fellow healer and turns in the direction Mathos was staring, his eyes searching for the source of the commotion until he saw it. Instinctively, he rushes over in the direction of the suddenly sick man.
Hanno, his composure regained, takes another step and falls forward. He wretches, vomit splashing the feet in front of him. Just afterwards, Mathos drapes an arm over Hanno’s shoulder, leading him over to a sick palette off to the side. Eshmunazar hurries in, assisting him.
Eshmunazar shares a knowing, concerned look with Mathos, “Well, it seems we were wrong.”
Ashdanot: I would guess even the imported wine was tempered with local water.
Eshmunazar: The tavern keeper could have watered it, yes.
Eshmunzar: Or…it’s worse than we thought, and it travels in the air itself. We may have infected this man when we brought him here.
Ashdanot: Perhaps there is a link between the air and water, if one is unclean, it could affect the other.
Mathos eases Hanno down on the palette, resting his hands on the back of the sick man’s neck, instantly soothing the intensity of the cramps in his stomach.
Hanno groans under Mathos’ touch, murmuring deliriously, “Fucking tramp. Fucking, fucking tramp…Let’s drink wine…yes, you fucking beggar, swine.”
Mathos ran a hand along Hanno’s brow, rubbing the perspiration between his fingers, bringing it to Ashdanot so she can smell it.
Ashdanot: He has been poisoned.
Ashdanot: This was no accidental ingestion of filthy water.
Eshmunazar: Who’d bother to poison a common sailor?
Hanno wheezes out, groaning, “A wench…”
Ashdanot: An unfulfilled or unpaid debt?
Hanno: She gave the wine to a common urchin, and he shared with me for a shekel.
Mathos wipes Hanno’s brow with a cool cloth, then stands behind him, his third eye opening by the merest slit, veins raising beneath the surface of Hanno’s skin, the thread of poison in his blood revealing itself, as Hanno releases another torrent from both ends. Mathos kept to the task at hand, minimizing Hanno’s pain with his anesthetic touch, unmoved by the disgusting torrent of fluids. Mathos carved a pinprick hole in Hanno’s shoulder, and drew the virulent poison through it, it forming a nasty globular blob, which Mathos hastened to wipe away.
Eshmunazar: Ashdanot, you should inform the guards.
Ashdanot: Very well.
Ashdanot disappeared into the crowd and returned later, announcing she had informed the guards.
Hanno grabbed Mathos weakly, “It’s alright…I think the whore will get her comeuppance
Hanno: I seen it. A suitor, tracking her for blocks through the maze of the city.
Mathos: What do you mean?
Hanno: He’s got designs on her…will probably have her in an alley! Took great interest in her wine…Turns men’s insides to rot….like all women eh?
Eshmunazar: I see. What did this suitor look like?
Hanno: A common thug. He’ll make pretty work of her I’m sure. A ruffian! A scraggly, haggard matted little fuck! Oh he’ll like the whore…
Eshmunazar: Well, this is rather strange. But, ultimately, a matter for the guard.
A matter for the guard indeed, except you could see them sharing a drink, likely paid for with the coin imparted earlier, unmoving otherwise.
Eshmunazar: Hells, useless slobs, it shows the regard the rulers of this city have for the sick!
And just then Jezebel was snatched by filthy hands into the darkness behind a tattered curtain of thin cloth.
You knew who she was, the queen. You knew what this was. Assassination. Now it turned to you. What would you do?
Eshmunazar was no warrior, despite the penchant for bloodlust and battle of the Brujah blood. However he was also incapable of simply watching cold-blooded murder of commoner or royalty alike, and the bodies of immortals carried its own vigor.
Mathos eased Hanno down to rest, rendering him into merciful sleep after his ordeal.
Mathos: I cannot leave this man, but she must not die. Please Ashdanot, Eshmunazar. Don’t let any harm come to her.
Eshmunzar adds quickly, before hurrying after her, “Of course.”
Ashdanot had seemingly disappeared in a blink.
When Eshmunzar caught sight of Jezebel, she was being dragged by a thug by her hair roughly, her struggling form weaving in and out between the darkened columns and the rows of hanging sheer cloth.
Abdosir laughed, “And what do we have here? The queen dressed as a common beggar? Fitting, much as you’ve done to our fair city, no?”
Absodir threw her up against the pillar, as she flailed, screaming.
Absodir: And this is what happens when we forsake our royal duty.
Jezebel clawed at his face, leaving a bloody scratch there, the black ropes of her hair tangled in his filthy fingers as she shoved him away.
Eshmunazar: Cease! You would commit murder here?!
Abdosir caught her Jezebel by the shoulder though, rolling his arm around her neck in a choke hold before holding a rusty dagger to her throat. She suddenly grows still, as he rips her hood and veil away from her face.
Abdosir turns to Eshmunazar and says, “This doesn’t concern you stranger.”
Eshmunazar: It concerns not only me but all of Carthage.
Jezebel: You are bold…
It wasn’t a statement she made, so much as a threat.
Absodir whispers, “You are so right, my dove.”
He presses the dagger into her skin. She stiffens, the dagger glinting, her breath catching as she feels the blade.
Absodir: You can fuck off now, and maybe she lives. Who knows?
Jezebel: I am merciful and Carthage is in need of bold men.
Absodir: A shame, it also needs bold rulers.
Ethbaala’s voice quivered just a hint, before the steel came back to it, “That it does, rules who will fell Rome. And I will.”
Absodir: I think I’ll wager and a strong Carthage would do well with a strong queen. Bitnima perhaps. She would be most grateful.
Ethbaala: Bitnima made herself whore to all of Rome. No Carthaginian will have her or her bastard sons. But I am a young queen. I will have a king. And we will have children, children like Carthage has never seen.
Absodir slid a hand between her legs, as she tightened her thighs together, a look of pure disgust and indignation churning in her eyes.
Absodir says gruffly, “A king, yes. You may have one yet…”
Ethbaala reached out imploringly to Eshmunazar with her eyes, beads of sweat clinging to her brow.
Eshmunazar: Listen to me, listen.
This was a novel situation, much different from speaking in front of young students or aged peers.
Eshmunazar: There is but one road before us in which you may survive. And that is if she forgives you and spares your life. Under any other circumstances, you will be tried as a regicide. Do you know what they do to regicides?
Abdosir tightened his grip around her throat, “And she will be a policide! So what say you now, Baal? Will you try me as a regicide? And join her in death?”
Eshmunazar: Is this truly what you are in Carthage for? Is this what you aspire towards?
Absodir: Carthage is my home and a great dream, though I were a mere slab of Numidian fuckmeat when I was enslaved. I know the great dream. And whore is not it. We will have a queen to match Dido herself.
Eshmunazar: These acts are not it either.
Absodir: Well, you have to start somewhere.
Eshmunazar: A righteous path can never start crooked.
Absodir: Oh my, you look nervous, my dove. What do you think, Baal, does she need some more wine? You see, I am more generous than my captors were.
Ethbaala shivered involuntarily.
Ethbaala: You are misguided. But it’s not too late.
Ashdanot disappeared in a blink, seeming to disappear in thin air. Abdosir looked this way and that, then grinned, not seeing her.
Abdosir: It’s just us. You see, your whore has already run off. What do you think? Just you and me, and our pretty sacrifice now. Ahh, like a babe oiled and ready for the tophet, don’t you think?
Ethbaala smooth brow rumpled, as she said, “Stop this fool’s madness.”
Eshmunazar: Idiot. You do not see the axe above your head.
Abdosir chortled, “Do you not see–” * glug *
Ashdanot reappeared behind Abdosir, flickering back into the material world, her hand lashed out, seizing Abdosir up by his neck. Eshmunazar rushed forward, clasping onto the dagger, pushing Ethbaala out of harm’s way. Ashdanot held the man dangling helplessly in mid-air, as Abdosir thrashed wildly. In a swift movement her hand closed on his windpipe crushing it like fragile dried grain. Abdosir promptly goes limp. She dropped him as unceremoniously as she had seized him. There was not so much as a blink on her stone countenance as she did so.
Ashdanot: You are free now, Queen.
Ethbaala felt along her neck where the cold blade had kissed it, remembering its tender caress promising death. Eshmunazar leaned in and examined her neck with clinical precision and distance, checking for any cuts. Fortunately, there were none.
Ethbaala: I owe you each a boon. My deepest gratitude.
Ethbaala did not kiss the hems of their cloaks as a common girl might, did not lowers herself to this, but rather offered them this boon as a queen, something she thought was infinitely more valuable.
Ashdanot: Your safety is of paramount concern to us.
Eshmunazar: Then as my boon, I’d request an answer. Why does a man lay poisoned in the floor of this temple?
Ethbaala: Tell me of the man.
Eshmunazar: A sailor who claims you offered him wine and shared it with a street urchin.
Ethbaala dabbed at the sweat at her temples, remembering now the wine, remembering she had a sip or two, and did not care for its flavor and had passed it to the street urchin without finishing it.
Ethbaala: A sailor, you say…
Ethbaala’s cheeks glistened with sweat, her breath heaved and her face grew red, pupils constricting.
Ethbaala: I fear you will have your answer forthwith…
Ashdanot saw this immediately and rushed forward to catch her thin frame and support her.
Eshmunazar: Oh, hells. The Fates seem to truly want this woman dead.
Ashdanot propped Ethbaala up before scooping the queen up into her arms in the manner one might a small child.
Eshmunazar indicates the way back to temple to which he leads Ashdanot, “Here, quickly.”
Ashdanot followed with haste, carrying Ethbaala, whose eyes rolled around, madly, she started spasming. She nearly bit her own tongue off in her delirium, but Ashdanot, held her jaw, keeping Ethbaala from severing her tongue. Ethbaala gagged and her chest heaved. Ashdanot restrained Ethbaala accordingly, so she neither choked upon her own tongue or aspirated on the contents of her stomach.
It was clear in Eshmunazar’s mind what there was to do. It was the simplest, quickest solution, however, as he stopped, looking down at the ashes, the charcoal of a spent fire, he found himself doing the unthinkable, hesitating in his duty. He stopped in his tracks, a terrible cold dread, a curse levied upon his kind by an angel whose religion had yet to be taught. The effects were nonetheless potent and the mere sight of a place where fire had once raged was something to fight against.
Finally, just as blood red beads of false sweat began sprouting from his forehead, he raised his eyes to his namesake, Eshmun, the dog’s face that of a true healer, though he did not know this, new into the Blood. And, with the dog’s eyes and perhaps another’s, who was to say that a god of blood could not see through eyes of stone, he finally managed to grab a fistful of charcoal darker than the night that surrounded them, lighter than the blue eyes of the Ethbaala’s tempter, corrupter, husband and king to be.
Ethbaala’s eyes flashed with rage and defiance at death through her pain, her fear, a death that lustfully caressed her and sought her as its bride. She railed against this, her back arching straining against the contractions of her stomach as it twisted in fiercely on itself. She burned with a singular burning hunger to live, a thirst for it, that defied Rome, defied the Numidians, defied her usurping cousins, a sea of troubles, all of them, all of it, she would live. She would rule. She would not be the last queen of Carthage.
Eshmunazar: Hold her, and open her mouth.
Ashdanot pried open Ethbaala’s mouth, and the queen’s lips puckered out into the mockery of some obscene kiss, as her jaws were opened wide. Ashdanot kept steady, carefully calculated, pressure on the queen’s mouth, holding it open.
Eshmunazar did not bother to ask for permission or forgiveness from a queen who was, at this moment, just another patient. He forced the mercifully cold charcoal down her throat, his very hands touching the back of it. It wasn’t a graceful or coordinated movement, but it was necessary.
Ethbaala squirmed, gagging each time, her torso writhing like a frenzied serpent beneath the sure hands that easily held her.
Eshmunazar pushed, forced the charcoal to go down and spoke again, “Turn her upside down, never mind her modesty.”
Ashdanot had no qualms whatsoever about such and turned her easily over in her arms. Exposed sex or breasts meant nothing to one as ancient and past feeling as she. She held Ethbaala tight, not relinquishing her hold through the process.
Eshmunazar tried to form a barrier between this display and the rest of the temple to provide what little modesty he could.
Ethbaala clucked and gagged as the charcoal went down, her face twisting up, contorting, the cords of animal tissue, muscle moving below the skin of her face in that unique way that marked her as mortal, her skin rosy, unlined, unmarked by any sign of visible hardship, deceptively, it hid the sea of troubles beneath the surface like the depths of the ocean that surrounded Carthage itself.
At once, she started to cough up lumps of charcoal, rancid and sickly sweet, it bore the hints of poisonous wine. Ashdanot helped the purgation along, by applying a finger into her mouth. Ethbaala’s pulse quickened, racing, erratic, black viscous charcoal with dark wine and a bit of her royal blood, which was wine enough to the kindred.
Eshmunazar thought he saw something truly odd. The statue, was he going madder than a Lunatic councilor of Rome or were the statue’s eyes…disappointed? It was as if the statue told him that this mortal’s time was done, and he should have let her die. It was something the Brujah would fervently disagree with. It was not up to him to decide which lives were saved or doomed. He was a doctor, he healed. Eshmunazar kneeled with these thoughts in mind and noted the Queen’s color, watched her pupils and smelled her breath.
Ethbaala stopped seizing up after some time, relaxing into repose from her tortured contortions. Only the quick thinking of the Brujah and her youthful vigor had spared her. The queen, even in disguise, had been a fool to risk herself by putting herself among the dregs here, but the palace had proven no safer. For she had recently survived an assassination there too, only to be spared by Moloch himself. Ethbaala turned her head from them, wiping the filthy bits of charcoal from her mouth weakly with her pallid arm.
Ashdanot held up a small earthen jug of water to Ethbaala’s lips.
Ashdanot: Drink. You have lost much liquid.
Eshmunazar: Unwise. It might be contaminated.
Ashdanot: It is from a purified and verified source.
Eshmunazar: Very well.
Ashdanot cradled Ethabala’s head, she hesitated, hearing Eshmunazar’s concens, but then had always been born to thirst, a queen with hungry eyes and a hungry heart, who ached for everything. Perhaps most of all parched for a golden age of Carthage, not just a Carthage that would survive Rome, but an enduring Empire returned to glory.
Ethbaala drank sluggishly at first, coughing slightly, then resumed drinking more easily, slowly though, slowly but with a thirst in her eyes. It was just water, but that thirst, that thirst it was familiar, it echoed the hunger of the kindred for blood, and one could easily see it now, the queen’s hungry lips against a vein. And as a bit of the water caught the lantern light, glinting from the corner of her mouth, it seemed almost to Eshmunazar that snaking trail, a tear etched its way down the marble face of Eshmun. Perhaps though it was the morning dew though, as the night, it had grown old.
Earlier that evening…
Ashdanot stood in front of the simple masonry that composed a repository of water, the well, earthenware jug in hand. She looked into the depths of the water, a milky occludedness kept her from seeing the bottom clearly. But on the surface the vague hints of a stone face stared back, sterile and emotionless, with the vaguest outline of ebony hair absconded by dark, garnet cloth. Her eyes reflected even less than the turbid water housed within the mossy stone. Wordlessly, the small red clay jug made contact with the water, scooping a generous amount into its own contained depths.
The well had that slightly turned piscine scent of sedentary water, but that hadn’t stopped the poor from drinking it from this well or the others Ashdanot had contaminated.
Three ill wells spread out through the impoverished district had been just enough of an outbreak to gather more Salubri here, which had made the Baali less bold.
Even Moloch had withdrawn.
It had also given those less disciplined followers of Troile something productive to focus on. Ashdanot knew that one of the less volatile descendants of Troile, the healer Eshmunazar, would be among the Salubri tonight as would Ethbaala.
One assassination attempt had already been made on the queen, a minor Carthage noble had gotten close, bolstered by Rome’s coin. It had proved ineffectual when Moloch stopped it and gained the queen’s favor.
A second attempt was easy enough to manufacture. It was known that Troile raged and praised the young queen in a single breath.
Ashdanot would make sure she was there to save the queen with Eshmunazar, make sure the Salubri did not turn upon her in suspicion when she innocently offered Ethbaala a drink from a jug from this bad well.
No one would suspect her given she had just helped spare the queen, after all.
It wouldn’t be as quick as poison, but lengthy and drawn out as her bowels failed. But no would could dispute the queen’s death being anything but natural.
The Salubri had a saying that the cure was often found in the disease. And Ethbaala was part of that disease, not because she was mortal, or even particularly wicked, but because she was a queen who would have a king, Moloch.
The logical cure to the disease was her death.
A few nights after Ethbaala was saved from being poisoned at the Temple of Eshmun…
Ashdanot sat at the simple unadorned desk of her study, shelves of immaculately catalogued scrolls gathered around her. She pulled a long quill from a holster, neatly dipping its tip into a dab of ink. Then she deftly set the inked quill upon a sleeve of parchment, inscribing upon the parchment with fluid, clean, mechanical strokes, the movement so simple, but devoid of what one might call passion, expression, or any real animism. The inked quill made nary a sound as she set about the task of composing her letter. She finished writing a letter on a scroll in a sturdy, even hand. The ink shifted from black to purple to blue, before fading from sight, until she held it up to the nearby flame of a lantern and the ink came fully back into view. That is, until she held the scroll away from the flame. Satisfied that the note would remain secret she sealed the scroll and sent it on its way.
It may interest you to know that the dreaded Queen of Carthage, so despised by Rome, withers from nothing more than drinking water from a bad well. Mortals are so fragile. She will not last more than 26.2 hours. I have sent this missive on ahead before correspondence becomes difficult in the chaos following her death.
It is said that Saulot himself has turned her away. The Salubri will not heal her.
Troile’s mercurial interest has long since shifted from the queen. And Troile will, no doubt, use Ethbaala’s death simply to further excite her destructive childer.
Even Moloch has made himself scarce, inevitably reasoning that Ethbaala is a poor pawn in his plans.
He will not have time to make more of them.
When the queen dies, Ethbaala’s cousin, Bitnima will encroach on Carthage with an army of her husband’s men and their elephants and a civil war will erupt with Troile’s pernicious disciples exacerbating it, leaving a window open for Rome to invade for a relatively easy victory lasting approximately 6.1 months versus 3.5 years otherwise.
I am well-aware that some in Rome would rather see Carthage destroyed than conquered just as I am well-aware, as a renowned scholar of Carthage, you have reason to see it spared.
But though the Senate howls for Carthage’s destruction, it has more often been the practice of wise Camilla to embrace conquered lands into the empire of Rome, allowing for life, trade, and most importantly, the pursuit of knowledge to continue with suitable tribute.
Therefore, reason dictates that this is the most agreeable solution for Carthage and Rome.
Tanitbaal-Sahar, tell Camilla the time to strike is near. And that the True Brujah will prove allies when the time comes where Troile’s brood has failed.
Cura ut Valeas, (Stay well)
Ashdanot of Tyre
Tanitbaal-Sahar finished reading the scroll in the crypt by the glow of the green flames, tousled dark brown hair, snaking out from beneath the hood of his cloak in wisps, eyes dark with flecks of gold.
His face, youthful, silken, brow unfurrowed, did not betray his thoughts in the illuminated glow.
But then his eyebrows sloped downwards in a serious expression, eyes moving over the page again. His usually playful, boyish smile had drawn into a hard line across his face.
That hard, little, perfect line of a mouth that Camilla had found so ripe for the kissing.
He tossed the scroll into the fire, ripples of emerald flame rising up in a wave to devour it before it went out with a hiss. The boyish smile returned as he turned and left, his cloak billowing around him, stroking the dead stone at his feet.
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