In the distant past, a mysterious woman meets Delphine for an encounter that will change the course of history, but especially HERstory.
– From the Master’s Hand –
Scene: Outside of Hunedoara Castle, the Well
Much had been made of the interior of Hunedoara Castle, the great halls where the Inconnu came together for their noble duty, less thought, in these current nights turned the attention outwards, certainly not outwards toward anything as mundane as an old well. But that’s exactly where Luthienne De’Loncre, as she often presented herself, found Viviane Morgause.
Luthienne was hardly surprised to find Viviane by the well. It was always a matter of time before Saulot’s blood sought one out, for good or ill. Viviane stood nearby, testing the depth of the well, drawing up a magnet on a string from the darkness below, making notations in a journal. But her journal, no matter how interesting, no matter what revelation she thought it might contain was nothing compared to the bomb…the book….Luthienne had tucked under her prim and proper English arm, a work simply entitled: From the Master’s Hand.
Luthienne approached on the singular, telling click of her heels, the troubadours that announced her presence.
Viviane turned her head swiftly at the sound, looking briefly like a well-trained pet, an observation she would have found distasteful, but her thoughts were far from that now.
Luthienne admired Viviane for a moment, took the measure of her, carefully, rolling her shoulders softly like a cat about to pounce a lesser beast, a rodent, a rabbit, a spider…
Viviane: “Lady, you startled me.”
Luthienne snapped to attention, drawn from the mire of her ancient thoughts, thoughts Viviane would run merrily into the sun to forget.
Luthienne said very sweetly, “I am no Lady. But I enjoyed being called one.”
The mirror glaze of her eyes clarified in a moment, and she was Luthienne tonight or Malkav, or both. Who could ever really say?
Viviane smiled softly in return, trying to take some comfort, some relief, in the thought that it was Luthienne there tonight, not the Other. But there could never be total reprieve from the Madness beneath the surface, beneath blood, blood Viviane had tasted which joined her to it.
Luthienne came closer, lifting the tome on her hip and looked to Viviane and then to the lip of the well.
Viviane: I came across a fascinating anecdote about the well of Hunedoara Castle. The link seemed to have some cursory parallels to the fable of the Baali creation.
Luthienne turned then, plucking up a small stone from the edge and admiring it as Viviane prattled.
Viviane stepped back from the well a bit out of some primal understanding that she was close enough to be pushed in.
Luthienne said nothing, only smiled as she turned the small rock over in her pale fingers.
Viviane: Did the Innconu really toss ghouled prisoners below and make them dig the well for 15 years in exchange for freedom?
Luthienne did not look at Viviane as she replied, sweetly, musically, a mother’s coo in her voice.
Luthienne: No. That was Ruthven’s get. Vladimir. A very, very nice boy indeed.
Viviane: Oh but of course, that explain the peculiar Turkish notations, and the temporal incongruities in the tale. Did you favor Vladimir?
Luthienne turned to Viviane, holding the stone up to her eye as if to measure Viviane against its insignificance. She moved the stone away, and grinned saying only, “No.”
Viviane felt herself visibly smaller in comparison to the stone, but her expression was pleasant, thrilling to these scraps of knowledge.
Luthienne moved the stone back to her eye, nodding as if Viviane should continue. She looked at Viviane as an old woman might peer at a younger one through a monocle.
Viviane: I thought it would be best to learn of my surroundings. Even the smallest trasure can be of great import. And with the Baali I know so little in comparison to some. I should learn more.
Luthienne spoke while still holding the pebble over her eye, “I think, madame, you are very much like a well. And…if I were to unscrew your skull and drop this stone down your neck, it would fall and fall and fall and never reach the bottom.”
Viviane glanced at the pebble, thinking briefly how it looked like a third eye to her vision, a strange a thing.
Luthienne smiled, so like a friend, a sister. She turned and dropped the stone down the well, peering into the dark mouth of it.
Viviane felt disturbed by Luthienne’s phrasing, but she managed to curve her lips into a smile, understanding the meaning behind it, well, at least one of them.
Viviane said carefully, for you must always be careful with Madness, no matter how friendly it appears, especially, perhaps, when it does, “That’s quite an observation. You humble me by sharing it. It gives me much to consider.”
Luthienne shifted the book to her other hand and offered it to Viviane, still looking into the abyss as if perhaps expecting another to look back. “Take this. A ponderous tome.” She turned to Viviane now, not having found whatever it was she was looking or not looking for.
Viviane’s eyes brighten to a flash, as her eyes move over the tome, what a sweetie…erm a collection of tales, rather, could this be? She was elated by the prospect of what discoveries it might yield, while finding what revelations might be in Luthienne’s care shuddersome.
Luthienne: “Only you have the space inside your skull with which to house it.”
Viviane reached over, gently accepting the tome, not taking it, the difference clear in the subtlety of English gestures understood by each. She ran her fingers over the cover, which was plain except it was inset with a silver cross with rubies. Viviane murmured the title softly in an inquisitive half whisper, “From the Master’s Hand…” She began to open the cover, the inside a smooth vellum.
Luthienne stepped closer to Viviane, as she admired the tome, looking down at Viviane in a doting fashion, before placing a hand on her cheek. The sudden shifts in her conversation seemed, at times, like her unfathomable mind, to move with some unseen current. And now was one of those times.
Luthienne said with complete sincerity, “My father was a Kennel Master.”
Viviane: “A Kennel Master, really? How extraordinary.”
Luthienne: “No it isn’t. He stank of shit and blood. Hahhahaha. He was very fat.”
Viviane: “Shit and blood? But don’t we all to a degree. None of us are clean…”
Luthienne changed the subject as smoothly as if it had never been spoken at all. “Do you like stories, Viviane?”
Viviane: “I delight in them tirelessly.”
Luthienne: “Stories about wells and the slithering things that live inside them?”
Viviane could feel the page against her palm like a slithering snake, the vellum cool, damp as a well as Luthienne spoke of such things, how strange a thing. Viviane turned her eyes to the well, then back at Luthienne, hesitation yet curiosity there.
Viviane: “Delight then…that may be too strong of a word, but I see the importance of understanding them. There is no substitute for knowledge.”
Luthienne reached for and smoothed an errant lock fo hair from Viviane’s face and said, “We can learn much from stories…l’historie….History. But especially….HERstory. I know so many stories, Viviane. And I tell this more…”
Luthienne lifted Viviane’s chin. “Most of them are true.”
Viviane’s eyes rose and met the other’s. They grew slowly wide, not in terror, but wide as a possibility settled there — Was that madness, simply a collection of too many tales to fill an empty well.
Luthienne turned then without another word, fishing a candy from her pocket and peeling away the wrapper and simply walked away.
Scene: The Steps of an Ancient City
She was young yet, Delphine d’Orleans, but I knew what she would become–it was obvious from the first sight of her. One does not forget that sort of face, those extraordinary eyes. Her words had the naked, terrible beauty of belief. She burned so bright, the sun in my eyes, the pulse of her heart like a steady drum. She ran with sweat. Her worn white dress clung like a lover’s hand, skin pink beneath. Her hair was dark and covered, except for the wisps that snaked out from beneath her hood. A plain woman, except for her eyes, those rapture-blue eyes. Her eyes moved over the crowd, passing over me, and they were the eyes of a savage saint, so full of love they were fatal. And she began to speak. Her voice was a sword, piercing every ear, sending some to their knees, driving most to tears. She never raised her voice, but her words screamed of her pain, God’s pain, her love, God’s love.
Delphine stood before the steps, and spoke to the crowd there, reading from II Corinthians, Chapter 13, or rather she quoted it, such was the evidence of her study. She spoke of love, not the love that put a blush in a girl’s cheek and a thud in a man’s heart. She spoke rather of that deep compassion that defied the limits of mortality, fear, and death. She spoke of things that defied desire, the jealous murmurings of the heart. She spoke of things that bound all humanity together by a single golden thread… She spoke softly, as was her nature, never raising her tone, never frowning or even smiling too deeply.
Delphine: “Agape. I did not know of such a thing, if it was a thing at all. If it was made of air, or water, or stone. I did not know it because I was searching for the unseen. I was a whore. Searching for the glitter of gold, all the treasure that sparkled under the sun. And when I found it, I spent it on bread and wine, a new silk, a dab of ambergris. I loved those THINGS, but they did not love me.”
Delphine smiled now in earnest, in true appreciation not for her own words but for the message they gave.
The laborers gathered round, men, women, children, the sick, the desperate, and everything in between. The buzz of conversation went on around me. It was a murmuring beast, spiraling out from her with countless heads. Delphine spoke with the voice of God, people said. She healed with His hands. I, doubting, had come expecting an evening of lukewarm platitudes. Such was the state of Christianity–it had been raw, intoxicating wine when I was young, but now it was milk, suitable for children at their mothers’ knees. I had walked with the martyrs in the shadows of crosses, and I had never learned to love milk.
A poor farmer to my left was worried for his daughter, taken ill with a fever–not the dreaded and still-raging plague in the remote parts of countryside, he hastened to add. He hoped the prayers of this holy woman would save his child. A plump lady of middling years and her stick-thin husband gave him some comfort and suggested he make a bone broth soup for the sick child to bring down the fever.
Delphine stepped forward, arms slightly uplifted, and she spoke then of her hidden sin, uncaring whether they balked or disbelieved her, of her child she carved from her own womb. She spoke of the love she felt when she looked upon the pound of her flesh, no bigger than a plum, dead in her hand.
Delphine: “I could not feed it. I could not clothe it, and it would grow up amongst naked, abused flesh…I loved it so well that I believed it better to die before it was born.”
She shook her head then, looking to the earth through the sweep of her lashes, like a statuary.
As she paused, the crowd rippled into silence, responding to some electric presence, gathering lightning. Were they afraid? I began to think I was. My life had become comfortable and routine, and here she was, that blue fire in her eyes, to rip it apart again. It was what I craved, what I feared. A path of light in a long, familiar darkness. I could feel its fire from where I stood. No fraud, this one. No false prophet.
Delphine: “I thought that was the highest form of love, to save one from suffering and be despised by the world. But no…it was just another THING. One that I could see. I almost perished for that thing, that love that I misnamed. Until, I found myself in the Abby of Orleans. Near dead, my blood poisoned, dying. And…”
Delphine rippled with a little laughter at this, as if she could not believe how foolish she had been.
Delphine laughed, looking upward, “And…I tried to roll from the bed and flee! Near dead, pale as milk, and I tried to run from my respite, a warm bed without fleas and good straw. I tried to flee because I was unworthy, unfit to be amongst such piety, such purity. And then one of the lay sisters came, dropped a decanter of water. It smashed, all her toiling to carry it uphill to wash her face and hands. And she dropped it as if it were nothing at all. And I…I–”
Likely the trouble had been going on for some time before the ripples of it reached me so far in the front of the gathered crowd. It shook me from my trance; Delphine had stopped speaking and waited, staring toward the back.
The world tasted flat and dusty after the glory I’d seen, and the sound of screams and indolent shouts spilling in around me now sounded harsh, unwelcome. A wedge of young men came driving through the crowd, heading for Delphine. A dark-haired, pink-cheeked boy leading them raised his hand and pointed at her. And he shouted, “WHORE!!!”
The other boys took it up like a battle cry.
WHORE!!! WHORE!!! WHORE!!! FUCKING WHORE!!!
Delphine gave them a curious look. She had heard the word so many times she merely thought they were calling for her services.
Some pulled down their pants to wave their grimy, festering cocks at her in disdain and to shame her before her God. As if she hadn’t seen those before.
Delphine smiled then, warmly, and wished to laugh, but she did not and then resumed her tale. “She dropped her wages on the floor to come and help…a whore…into her sick bed.”
Other naked ruffians hurled animal shit at Delphine’s white dress, their aim mostly shoddy though, thanks to the steady flow of booze running through some of them. They raised makeshift weapons in their hands and began to beat the crowd.
Delphine flinched as they pelted her, but continued through it. “She cared nothing for her labor, for her toil, for the fruits of her work. Only for me, not of herself, I was a burden to her. And yet she did not care.”
Delphine stood like a porcelain statue, illuminated with sweat and the halo of her passion, and watched the violence with unnerving eyes. I stayed where I was, unwilling to flee but certain that I was watching the destruction of the glory I’d glimpsed. Prophets were fragile things, made and broken in a day.
One of the boys slammed his club into the ribs of the farmer near me who’d come to pray for his daughter; he grunted and fell down, his sobs muffled. The blow had been hard, too hard for that farmer, something inside him had broken, blood filling his body with death. It would kill him. He seized, wheezing, reaching upward toward me, and I rose, recoiling, no wish to be involved with the intimacy of his death. He had reached for the wrong savior. And then, a ruffian who smelled of piss and shit, stabbed me right in the side with a broken blade, the wound was deep, gushing, quickly fatal in less…cursed creatures than me.
Delphine staggered once as another fistful of mud or shit hit her and said again, “Agape…pray with me.”
Terror threatened to overtake the crowd, but Delphine’s voice had reached the gathering here, fearful as they were, her words soared above that, about them. And, one by one, like lights in the night sky turning on, they began to bow their heads and kneel in prayer with her.
Delphine was just about to kneel, for herself perhaps more than anything. She practiced what she had just spoken, forgetting that she was caked with filth now and bleeding from a stone that flecked her cheek. But then she turned swiftly to the wheezing farmer, gripping his chest, his face twisted in terrible pain. She fell at the man’s side, sinking into the mud with a splat and put her hands in the crook of his shoulders. She pressed him to her chest and cradled his head, shielding him from further blows and prayed, prayed for him, for the others there so abused, and lastly herself, that she was not within her own self aggrandizement but the greater service of God, pleaded that she was right in this. She pleaded that she endured so much hate from misguided men and women who mocked and scorned her daily. She prayed deeply that she endured it all for the grace of God and never for herself. She prayed so hard that the world seemed to fall away, drawing from the bottomless well of Faith. Delphine finally breathed, in her ancient French, breaking from the Latin, and said in another would do a thousand years from this night and a thousand others before and after, “God…help…me…”
The farmer struggled to grasp Delphine, his hands were worn down with time, and he was breathless, afraid, in awful agony. He murmured broken prayers with her, they stopped and started erratically, cut off by the pain shooting through him, knocking the wind from his chest. But bit by bit, his grip became stronger, his prayers less disjointed, joining Delphine’s, his voice steadying.
Delphine looked over to the farmer, thankful to God and He alone that this man seemed to rally.
The weave of Delphine’s devotion seemed to match the weave of the farmer’s flesh, the weave of spirit. He was listening. It terrified me. And though I could sense some power beyond myself, beyond us, the warmth between Delphine’s hands and this farmer was a very human thing, the simple divinity of two souls seeking a drink from some shared well, a bit of water sipped from the Lord’s hand. I could not smell the blood bloating the farmer that would have turned and festered in him, turned on him as all blood seemed to do one way or another whether kine or kindred.
The crowd had kneeled, except the nude ruffians. They were the only ones left standing, and it clearly unnerved them. They looked like fools, weapons raised, cocks jiggling. They spun in circles, looking for a fight. With a scream of rage, a boy farther off to my right brought his club down on the head of a tawny-haired woman. She toppled over. But no one rose to fight, merely prayed.
A boy who with a dirty stub nose spat and then howled, “COWARDS! FIGHT ME!”
But again, no one rose.
Delphine looked up now, over the heads of those who knelt around her and caught the eye of a ruffian. She smiled through the mud on her cheek, the smear of blood on her chapped lips. She kept her eyes with the boy, as his friends tormented the kneeling ones. She looked into the well of his eyes and saw they were dry, stone dry, and he was dying of thirst. She reached a hand to naked youth, as she cradled the farmer in her arms still. And she said gently, “Go in peace.”
And the nude youth looked back at her, seeming as if he might turn the board with uneven nails hammered into it he held on her and the farmer, but then he stopped, looked at her, looked around, and dropped it. It clattered on the ground, as the farmer flinched in Delphine’s arms.
The ruffians, unable to start a fight, heeded Delphine’s words, leaving in peace, leaving naked, their jiggling foolishness flapping and slapping their thighs.
The farmer took Delphine’s hands and kissed them with his parched lips, “Bless you, bless you, may the Lord keep you.”
Delphine kissed his filthy hand and climbed to her feet, helping him up and said, “And you.”
The farmer took her hand, tears in his eyes, hot tears, his daughter was still ill, so very ill, but she did not lose her father this night. And that had been a miracle.
Scene: My Cup Runneth Over, a Shady Corner of an Ancient City
I had made my way out of the crowd after the hooligans cleared out. The bleeding stopped on its own, as it always had. I was never in any danger, but I was thirsty and loathed questions. Blood was the only question and answer I cared for now. Even if it never fully sated me.
I had been born to thirst.
But, of course, Delphine followed me, catching sight of my stabbing in the throng of the crowd, drawn to the red stain pouring down my dress, soaking it. And now she stopped and stared. She saw something else, a singular sight, me sipping from a clay cup, a carpenter’s cup, filled unmistakably with blood, and the gash at my side visibly healing before her eyes. And it was clear she thought, by the way her eyes fastened upon it, this is His grail, His cup. It seemed absurd. But then why wouldn’t she believe it, she who stood in His light? But I didn’t stand in the light. I was something old and unknown, something dark. I had a second’s grave disquiet and thought, “I should not have come here. But it’s too late to leave. She’s seen.”
Delphine crossed herself, marveling at the sight and thought to fall to her knees and pray away the doubt leaking into her brain. She took a curious step forward, voice a whisper, an echo in a dream, “I–I think you must be a vision.”
I held the cup close, looking startled, my eyes following her movements, carefully, as she crossed herself. I spoke, my voice weighed with the gravity of years, slipping a bit of my gray hair behind my ear, appearing to her as the old woman I was, not the young woman blood had made me, “A vision, hardly, just a very old woman.”
Delphine: “You–you are unhurt. I saw…I saw you drink from the cup, and you are standing.”
I turned my weary eyes toward the cup clutched in my hands and could have almost laughed. It wasn’t this cup that healed me. The only thing it had done in ages is make me thirstier, but then I never could resist taking a sip from a pleasing cup.
I could have corrected her, perhaps should have corrected her. Her eyes moved over me, with seemingly unending strength to give more, all of herself, her bone and blood if that is what it took. But I could see the weariness on Delphine, the strain that hadn’t shone through as well before the hungry crowd, the strain from tending to their constant needs, their hungers, their wants. Faith was a fragile thing. And I didn’t care to break it to a million pieces of cutting glass. To be near the prickling ribbons of her faith, to be mistaken for a soul in a state of grace, it was secret ecstasy. I had not been so close to the light in so long, felt its heat, heard the echo of his voice inside it. It was painful and glorious and jarring.
I said with solemnity, “I’m Joanna, wife of Chuza, once the servant of Herod.”
Joanna held the simple clay cup in her hand and Delphine saw it refill itself slowly with blood. This was the carpenter’s cup then, and the weight of this woman’s identity washed over Delphine. This could only be it, the grail. His cup. And this was Joanna, the woman from the Gospel of Luke who was healed by Jesus, traveled with his disciplines, and was there for his resurrection.
Delphine fell to her knees at this, crossing herself, again, mind turning over what was spoken, believing it utterly. She began to pray now, perhaps the woman understood, perhaps she did not, but Delphine was afraid now. She was afraid she had gone mad, or this was some trick of the Devil and surely this was a trial.
I regarded her with an intense gaze as she swept herself with the sign of the cross again, a sadness crept into my voice. “This was his cup, his miracle to impart with his blood. I knew him and his disciples…I knew them all…”
Scene: When the Candle Goes Out – An Ancient City
I heard Delphine speak again later, but the slight weariness I had noted in private that dreadful night…changed, grew, and grew. She exploded out in a fury of belief to those hungry faces, those empty eyes. And I did not feel the sun’s radiance from her, only a tingle of power, nothing like the tide I’d been swept away on before.
I was grateful in a way. One should not know God so closely on a daily basis.
My poor prophet, burning so bright.
What happens when the candle burns out?
– Alpine Passage (Hannibal’s March on Rome) – Carthage Sea Shanty –
(Chorus) Ah, for just one time let us cross the Alpine Passage
To find the hand of Hannibal reaching for the Tyrrhenian Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make an Alpine Passage to the sea.
Eastward from the Pyrenees ’tis there ’twas said to lie
The mountain route to Rome for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones…
Centuries ago did Dido found our majestic land
Cut the oxhide to slivers round a hill and a sea of flowers began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
Driving hard across the ridge, I pray to Ba’al Hammon…
And through the night, on elephants high, footsteps clicking east
I think upon Himilco, Hanno, and the rest, deceased
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Hannibal to the sea…
How then am I so different from the other men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away.
To seek an Alpine Passage at the call of many men
To find there was no path back home again…
(Chorus) Ah, for just one time let us cross the Alpine Passage
To find the hand of Hannibal reaching for the Tyrrhenian Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make an Alpine Passage to the sea.
Scene: A Cloak of Beggars – Carthage Outskirts
I had come with the lepers, wrapped in layers of rags and castoffs. The crowd was still great, even at so late an hour, but no man held his place before lepers; we moved through solitude even here, in this sweating throng. Some of the faces knew me, another reason to veil myself. They would know me as Moloch’s own, stone me, and should the wrathful eyes of some kindred find me, they would leave me to the sun. I saw a man for a brief second as the crowd shifted, and his eyes were wonderful, terrible, and knowing. The veils, the concealment, all that was useless. Hector Asselin recognized me for what I was, even with his third eye shut. Hector was stocky, and he had hard-cut muscles beneath the cloth that flowed over them, a bearded man with a kind, but stern face, one of the warriors, not one of the healers.
He paused just at the perimeter of the crowd, beast railing somewhere deep in the coil of his soul, alerting him to another who suffered Caine’s curse, another cursed even beyond the prescription normal to their kind. He did not move with aggression, or even disdain, rather stood there, a stone bastion in the current of mortality that swept between them. Hector saw her, and knew she was a sister, her blood peppered with a different spice, and that was all. He knew he could kill her, scatter her ash on hallowed ground, but that was not his mission tonight.
I caught Hector’s eyes, neither of us moved for the beat of a heart, a serpent meeting a mongoose in the wild, but which was which? I stayed where I was, in a huddled nest of dirty beggars, the sick, out of acceptance, fear, or perhaps some other dark compulsion.
Hector knew better than to equate stillness with placidity though. He understood calm could be the herald of calamity. And he wasn’t about to give her a chance to escape or even meet him with a challenge. He pressed through the crowd, stepping over their rotten flesh, steel boots through a swamp of disease.
I wrapped my beggar’s disguise around myself more tightly as he neared, these Salubri, the way they could see through you was unsettling, but then she could see him too…and too clearly.
Hector did not speak to her, offered her no comfort of a directive. But he smiled at her, a thin, handsome curve of the lips, women had thrown themselves from battlements for that smile. He did not enjoy this, but he knew he did not have to like a duty to perform it well, after all, that was the definition of penance. He offered her a hand, despising the foul stench of her blood, but honor bound to lead her.
I stood up, the scent of rot and worse on me, and I turned my green eyes down to his hand and put, what I knew he imagined to be, my filthy paw into it.
Hector led her through the throng, pressing them gently to the side, but many shrank away at his coming.
Scene: Rest…of a Kind, an Ill-Repaired House, Carthage Outskirts
Hector took me to a small, ill-repaired house with cracked walls and blankets and packs spread out on the rough floor, and he told me to sit. And then a second man joined him, Saulot…
For all the strength of his eyes, he was only a man, no taller than most, no more beautiful. He had the smell of the road on him, and the sweat of a hard day’s work. No longer young, not yet old.
Saulot gave Hector a soft nod, it so like the heavy hand of a father on the back of a favored son, and said, “Thank you for bringing her, Hector.”
Hector did not speak in the presence of his Master, only nodded in return, unwilling to parcel out exceptions for his vow of silence. He swooped into a deep and graceful bow, which brought him low in an instant, and then he rose like a mountain over the fetid woman.
My eyes widened when I saw Saulot, and yet I hesitated, prostrating myself did not come naturally. But I bowed my head to the floor with as much deference as I could manage, and when I looked up, he was watching with a small, amused smile.
Saulot: “Humility should come from the heart or not at all.”
Before him, rested a tray of figs that his fingers worked over tirelessly, tearing the stems from them, cleaning them in a bowl of water nearby and then gently peeling them, never damaging the soft flesh beneath. I puzzled over why he should show such care for fruit he could never enjoy. If it were to feed the beggars, they would have gladly accepted even the slop of pigs to keep them one day further from death. A starving belly is blind. Hunger knows only itself.
I started, my voice like sandpaper in my throat, “I am–”
Saulot lifted a hand lightly to stop me, “Ethbaala, I remember you well.”
I sat upright, more afraid of him than ever. I had not unveiled. I was as anonymous as a thousand women, a thousand…Baali…outside this door. He had seen me before only once, and I’d been different then. So very different.
Saulot: “Did I know you would come here? Because I know.”
He tapped a finger just above his right eyebrow, so near the third eye which was thankfully closed.
Saulot: “Because I can see very well.”
The amusement was closer to the surface now, but not cruel–a child’s gentle amusement, full of wonder. His hands reached for a fresh fig to peel, curling off the skin of it in a ribbon. The inside of it was blood red, juicy, like a fresh heart. The thought quickened my thirst.
Hector rested a hand on the hilt of his blade, ready to send Ethbaala to the pit she loved so well, ready to end her suffering, ready to stay his wrath, or do whatever his master commanded of him, but ready all the same. And he was right to be ready, the treachery of Moloch’s blood was legendary, and few were closer to his corruption than Ethbaala.
Ethbaala: “Most call me Jezebel. No one calls me Ethbaala anymore. No one remembers that name.”
Saulot: “God remembers, Ethbaala. Nothing is forgotten under the sun; nothing is left lost beneath the earth.”
He paused, cleaning off the blade he had been using to peel figs with on a bit of cloth, before delicately starting on another fig.
Saulot: “Your road, it’s been hard.”
Ethbaala quirked a brow from a-top her beggar’s disguise. “Hard? But I haven’t traveled that much.”
Saulot: “I didn’t say you had.”
His smile faded.
Saulot: “You may take away the disguise now. I am not afraid.”
I unwound the scarves to show him my unnatural pallor, my too-red lips, my too-green eyes. I smiled to show my sharp teeth.
He looked me over with his two eyes, the third remaining the merest hint of a slit, but I could feel it somehow focused on me. If it had opened fully, I knew I would be dust before I had time to realize it. He paused with a half-peeled fig in his palm, unmoved by the reality of my strange countenance. Then he went back to peeling it.
Saulot: “It will be a long road. And it will be longer still. Do you have the strength?
I turned a shifting eye to Hector at my side, then back to his master, unnecessarily swallowing hard, begging did not come easily to me, even in mock humility.
Hector did not return Ethbaala’s look, but listened to her, and his ring finger traced the metal work of his sword’s hilt, subtly, only the Sun had an eye piercing enough to notice it. He slowly drug his finger across the eye worked into the hilt over the small ruby at its center. He repeated this as they exchanged words, each pass of his skin against the gem in time with each word they spoke. He timed each dread syllable Ethbaala spoke perfectly, learned the pattern, kept its rhythm. He focused only on the natural rise and fall of her speech, studying the crest, the trough, riding the wave of her words, mastering it. he moved his finger faster now, faster, slowly, softer, whatever he need or need not do, he was ready all the same.
Ethbaala: “Can you help me, master?”
I felt the words nearly strangle me in my throat. The word “master” wrenched from my lips hard like a moneylender parting with coin. I dipped my head now, hoping he wouldn’t see the pain it had caused me to say it.
He continued, kind and merciless.
Saulot: “Did not Moloch heal you? Did he not embrace you when you were dying and promise you everlasting life. Are you unhappy with your bargain?
I felt tears welling up, but they were mortal tears, and my body no longer knew them.
Ethbaala: “No, no, please, help me!”
Ethbaala lunged forward suddenly toward Saulot, but Hector restrained her before she could fall on his master, the desperation of her words betraying her motion before she even knew she would move herself. Let them always speak evil for themselves, Hector, he thought. Let them betray their wicked intent.
A hint of ozone, sulfur rose up in the air.
She would summon the flames of Baal here?!
But then she seemed to calm, think better of it, her aura a sad and turbulent maelstrom.
After a moment, Hector released her and towered over her nearby. He stilled himself and waited for the music to begin again. That was it. No more. If she stuttered, grew too silent, changed the pace, he would strike her dead before she rose. He didn’t care a drop for her words, the poison in them was revolting. He made a map of them…all the same.
Ethbaala: “I went to Moloch because I needed-Master Saulot, I asked you for healing, and you said my time was done.”
Saulot finally set the bowl of glistening, peeled figs aside. He spoke calmly. Two tiny words, like two terrible fangs, jutting into flesh with their gentle truth.
Saulot: “It was.”
Ethbaala: “I only want to die. I killed so many men out of thirst, did so many…salacious and…wicked things. I can’t bear it anymore. Please, give me rest.”
Hector would gladly give her such, but she had not reached the crescendo yet, the music on her lips was too soft.
Saulot’s eyes were full of sorrow and pain, knifing through me and leaving ice in their path. I reached out to him and touched his hand. He did not draw away.
Saulot: “It is not my place to take your life. But I can give you rest…of a kind.”
He reached for the sturdy, sharp knife he had used to peel the figs, meticulously cleaning it again on the cloth until it had a mirror shine. He held it out toward our joined hands, and before I knew what he would do, drew it across his own wrist. I cried out. Saulot hissed a little with pain and held our joined hands over an empty cup.
His blood dripped like jewels into the plain clay, fast at first, then slowing.
Hector waited, finger slowing to a gentle sweep around the ruby, watching, stilling his own feral desire for this ambrosia.
When Saulot turned his wounded wrist upward to show me, there was no cut at all. He let go of my hand, and I looked down at the cup.
Saulot: “Drink and know thyself.”
He’d only bled a little, but the cup shimmered with blood, full to the brim. I thirsted like the desert for rain. I raised the cup and gulped it down greedily, the raw fire of it burning down my throat and into my veins. It tasted of honey and flowers and tears, and I drank until the cup was empty. And my hunger bled away from me. I could hardly feel it. I was sated.
Saulot: “Now you will not need to kill. When you hunger, the cup will fill again.”
I clutched the cup to my breast and bowed, no mock humility this time, wishing I could weep for joy. Here was the water of life, in my body, and in my heart I felt the pulse of the divine.
Hector’s mouth tightened, jaw tightened, setting the stones of his face over the rage of his beast, as he watched this thing, this dog, scrap at the table of his master.
Ethbaala: “And…what do you ask of me in return?”
Moloch had asked, everyone had asked. There were no gifts, only exchanges.
Saulot’s hand touched my hair, gentle as the wind.
Saulot: “Walk your road. Walk to the end, where you will find your healing.”
Scene: No Pauper’s Hut – Carthage
Moloch had a palace overlooking the rolling waves of the azure sea. But all of Carthage belonged to him, to us. We were Carthage. Every house was his house. He kept a separate house reserved for matters too small for a palace. And the house was huge, expansive, and within the heart of Carthage’s walls, surrounded always by lots of people seeking his particular form of…blessings…or just to get a good look at him. He also had…disciples, many of them, some serene and seductive as the stars, others unpredictable, mad, but knowing, others of rough build, ready with fists, fire, and swords to die for their master.
Two of the later brand of disciples were on duty outside the door when I arrived in my leper’s disguise; one reached down to find a rock to throw. I pulled the veil away and showed my pale face, my flashing fangs. The one with the rock grinned and shrugged stupidly, tossing the stone over his shoulder. The other just spat near my feet and settled back against the wall more comfortably. My blood boiled to crush the paltry life out of him for his casual insult, to rip out his tongue, and shove it down his gullet and watch him choke on it and gargle in his own blood…but not tonight…no, tonight it was good he didn’t recognize the queen in her disguise. This man had just seen another of Moloch’s numerous disciples, and wishing to differentiate himself, had shown his contempt, and shoved the weak brand of his authority around like a flaccid cock.
No pauper’s hut would have done for Moloch. Inside, soft lamplight glimmered on the fine cedar tables, delicate pottery, gold lamps, and jars. The mottled marble floor was covered with intricately woven rugs with the kind of embroidered mazes your eyes could get lost in. A doorway at the other end of the room was covered by a black drape that glittered with sewn gold coins; they chimed in the cool evening breeze. The air simmered with costly incense, gifts affluent worshipers had brought to his feet. I didn’t dare take a single coin from that curtain.
He knew the number of those exactly. But there were many, many other gifts here, enough for me to take just enough to secure passage from Carthage to Rome. It had been risky coming here, but it would have been far riskier to try to return to the palace where I was known, the palace I wasn’t sure I had the strength to leave if I saw again. The last time I saw it the baths bubbled with blood. I thirsted thinking of it, and felt the press of my fangs against my tongue. I tried to contain my wild thirst at the memory, the thirst that was never truly contained, raging always beneath.
If I was clever and lucky, no one would recognize me here or when I traveled across the sea.
I would leave tonight.
I started to shove what trinkets I could beneath my beggar’s disguise, a gold comb dotted with fine pearls, a solid gold cylinder of kohl to line the eyes, a ruby ring emblazoned with the diamond crescent moon…and then a strange disquiet overcame me…a slight breeze stirred the veil of coins which chimed like light bells tinkling.
There was silence other than that.
Outside, the guards broke into laughter coarsely.
It startled me terribly; I nearly knocked over the collection of gifts.
But it was laughter, no more. Just the guards.
Or so I had hoped. Hoped.
I whirled around to find Moloch standing quite near me in the shadows. As he came into the light, I saw he wore a new robe, no doubt another gift. The umber and gold of it put sparks in his sharp blue eyes, made his skin seem gilded. Beautiful Moloch. Never a man born so beautiful.
Moloch cut a beautiful and terrible figure, a Greek statue against the whispering of his silken curtains. He had a face of such gaunt and pallid beauty that it mocked the diabolical creature that slept under his skin. His countenance was not ruddy enough to betray his Cainnite heritage; death had recolored him into a Gaulish looking man. He seemed still young, a honey shade of flesh, two blue eyes, rimmed with kohl that made them seem as sapphires in onyx capuchon. He always worse the mask of a man who knew much and said very little, but Ethbaala knew he would peel it off soon and replace it with the reptilian dread of a dragon in a moment’s notice.
I stood still as the hour of death, my eyes frozen on his form, trembling with something squirming beneath my skin, swarming in my soul. It was too much, and I looked away from him and knew that weakness would destroy me unless I was careful. I slowly swept my eyes back to him, studying the contours of his body, avoiding his eyes.
Moloch spoke softly, gently, like cool water across hot skin, pleasing and startling all at once, in the ancient Cainnite tongue, “Is it not enough that you are a whore, Ethbaala…must you be a thief as well?”
My lips tightened, twisting, a swell of pride beneath the mock humility of my beggar’s disguise as I addressed him with brazen familiarity that would see another dead or worse, and…there was always worse.
Ethbaala: “I was royalty, Moloch, royalty, a queen before all of those things.”
Moloch suddenly reached out and seized her by the throat; it was a snake strike of power and yet he did not squeeze her, crush her gullet into dust, rather held her like a shepherd might do to a lamb to be bled.
My eyes went wide, rolling around in terror, and I gasped as I felt his cold fingers wrap around my neck like an asp. “Ah-ack!”
The slightest touch from him could be a crushing blow of death or the heights of ecstasy from any other hand. And some part of me ached and thirsted to feel both. It was like being touched by fire, beautiful and agonizing at once. When he spoke again, his voice was velvet, so sad and fond, it shamed me, enraged me, scared me.
Moloch: “Royalty…once. But a queen doesn’t hide in the mire with the sick, grovel with the beggars. You wallow in garbage. And yet, Ethbaala, I could cast you down to worse than the filth you cower in.”
Moloch raised his thumb, ran it up her jaw and disconnected the veil around her mouth with a little click. He appraised her face as the cloth fell and revealed what was underneath.
Her face was youthful, luminous like a moonstone, an ivory carving sculpted from the master’s hand, Moloch’s hand. The imperfections of her mortality now smoothed by ancient blood and brought to shine. But there were traces of what came before, a girl from a renowned and prosperous family who benefited from their worship of Ba’al Hammon, while she was sparred much of the ugliness of life. And yet she always craved more, desired more, given all these things so cheaply. A life of relative ease, until she had been thrust into power and drown in blood.
Moloch took his thumb and moved it under Ethbaala’s chin, lifting her face to his, his own was soft, save for his gem hard eyes that moved over every curve of her lip, her eyes, the length of her nose, like a sun stone magnifying and appreciating his own sculpture, what death had frozen in perpetuity.
Her skin was like silk over glass, the bone beneath felt deceptively delicate. Beggar as she pretended to be, she was unadorned and without any dramatic paint to accentuate her sweeping lashes, without the intricate swirling patterns of kohl lined eyes that so defined Carthage nobility, without the rare violet-blue shades of color that framed her eyes when they had been a smoldering sea of smoky hunger, those hungry eyes, which were now so often green.
My eyes met his, and they seemed to burn. Was it the fire of his eyes I felt or the green fire behind my own eyes that he had put there?
Moloch lowered his eyes to her mouth, waiting for it to say more and when it did not, he asked, as the length of his fingers still clung to throat, holding her, “Why have you come to me?”
Ethbaala: “I didn’t know where else to go. Everything is so bright, hot, and savage. All I can think about is blood, covering myself in a cloak of it, feasting, fucking, and swimming in it in since that night at the palace. And my delight in the thought of it…shames me. Is this what queens do?
I looked back at him, my neck in his hands, the beast rolling beneath the bright green depths of my eyes, tortured in despair, dismal as sorrow behind a shrouded veil of mourning. My eyes steered a path to him cut from the notion of a dim eternity. I had traded a dying body for a dying heart.
Ethbaala: “I never wanted this. I just didn’t want to die in my own shit simply for drinking bad water from the wrong well. I just wanted to live, Moloch, but Saulot…he wouldn’t save my life. Is there no way to end this thirst? The things we are drawn to do, to taste, to drink, to corrupt…to perpetuate…it’s awful. It never ends. I just want it all to stop. I didn’t understand what you offered when you extended your…cup to me.”
This was a lie, a lie born from regret. She had thirsted for more. She was the Queen of Hungry Eyes.
Moloch’s lip curled into the memory of a smile, one of a validated man, hearing the truth she was not confessing. He did not answer her but tightened his grip around her throat, not painful, but firm, she would never escape. He suddenly pressed her against the wall, a hawk, swooping down on the hare.
Ethbaala stiffened like a hanged whore in his hand, as if he held her very soul, and he did… She clawed at his fingers to peel them away; but it felt like nothing so much as the gentle paws of a kitten.
Moloch took his free hand and tore under the rag of a gown she wore, thrusting his two middle fingers inside her, a fleshy dagger, until they disappeared to his knuckles.
Ethbaala cried out sharply, like the first teasing cut before the final cut of death comes, her brow furrowed, wrinkling, and she stuttered with a long, low aching hiss.
Moloch pulled his fingers free, slowly, painfully slowly, raking the vitae from her cunt and brought his hand to his mouth. He tasted her then, never breaking from her eyes. His eyes flashed in white hot rage then, and he struck her with his bloodied hand, smearing her in a wild swath of red across her lips and cheek.
Ethbaala broke into a scream, “Ahhh!” Her skin stung in a ripple of pain; it was terrible. She flailed to get away or to embrace him, who could say which, perhaps both.
Her face tilted to the left, dissolving in agony from the blow. And when her face turned, he pulled it back to his and closed the distance between their mouths. His lips smacked against her as he spoke, his beast, his diabolical fiend of a voice growling….
Moloch: “You drank of…him….”
And her eyes radiated a primal terror like a jack-rabbit that has heard the howl of a wolf.
Moloch knew! Ethbaala had gone to him, HIM, Saulot, and not Moloch, not the one who had carried her like a bridegroom over the threshold of death and saved her from its jealous clutches.
And while her lips sputtered with terror, perhaps trying to weave something to save the scraps of her wretched hide, Moloch saw her brush a hand against her robe, before she could stop herself. She felt for the cup below her cloth like a woman betraying a disgraceful, ill-gotten child. He had already known it was there, could sense its purity, but the raw truth of it now, it was enraging — Saulot had given her a clay cup, had given her…reprieve, how noble, paralleling himself to the Carpenter, giving “mercy” to this girl only Moloch had seen fit to save. Saved, when Saulot denied her.
Moloch seized the cup at once and hissed when it began to burn him and cast it away. Ethbaala reached for the cup as it flew through the air, but Moloch still held her firmly by the neck in his grasp. She stood there helpless, fearing it would break, but then it spun around, rattling over the floor, remaining intact.
Moloch tightened his grip on her throat and bellowed, slamming her into the wall once. “You drank of him!”
She shrieked, feeling the hard cool marble against her back, pinned there.
Ethbaala: “I was desperate! I thought it would end it, kill me. I–”
She wheezed out frightfully, her throat constricting.
Ethbaala: “I thought it would cure me!”
Moloch: “Cure you?!”
Moloch pulled back from her face but his hand was still a vice around her neck.
Moloch: “There is no cure for the filth of Ba’al Hammon!”
Ethbaala’s terror soared, and she tried to tear herself loose in vain, her fingers wisped with green flame, but this was nothing to him, but fog, a breeze, he WAS the flames. And the emerald fire simply leapt from her hands into the icy hearts of his eyes, briefly making them look like green sea glass before returning to their piercing blue depths.
Moloch jerked her forward then and pushed her around him, tossing her to the floor at his feet. And he turned to her.
Ethbaala: “Then kill me, Moloch…kill me, let me go, let me die, let me rest.”
Ethbaala lifted her hands up like a shield, expecting another blow.
Moloch: “Kill you…kill you…You beg like a gutted man on the field. But at least there is sincerity in his pleading. There is none in yours…”
Ethbaala watched him through the frames of her outstretched her arms, as they reached toward him, pleadingly. This was a queen? His queen? This woman, scurrying below him like vermin, a rat caught when the lanterns were lit. It would not do.
Moloch: “You are a liar, a scullion of the lowest order. You speak of your Queenship…have I not made you a Queen Eternal? And yet you roll around amongst the withered, the plagued…I will not ask you again. Why did you come to me, fresh from the blood of…him?”
Ethbaala teetered, wavering, the beast clawing beneath the surface of her flesh. She wasn’t looking at that clay cup now, but Moloch could feel her foolish desire for it. Ethbaala, always yearning for release, always seeking the wrong cups, all too thirstily. An endless hunger beyond her eyes.
Ethbaala: “I thought if I must be cursed, I could leave, start again somewhere, somewhere we are not known.
The terrible desperation in her voice softened into a flow of agony as she turned her eyes upward, slowly.
Ethbaala: “Have you…never longed for it, Moloch?”
Moloch’s eyes narrowed then, but it was just a moment, and it was foolish; he betrayed himself by letting her words prick at him.
He had run so fast, so far, and so long from the long tooth of Ba’al Hammon; he was weary of it. He was tired of his beggarly children, children like her, purposely debased, skulking amongst shit and pestilence. And for what? To solider on with his wayward siblings, or to keep the Sleepers at rest. And what reward was there but an eternity of blood, cunt, cock, perfume, and…thirst.
Ethbaala felt the rush of his potent blood beneath his skin, so close, so close, and longed for it even in her terror and desperation, and she knew that no cup would ever be enough to slack the hunger behind the thirst.
I clung to my damnation, to him, I hungered. The cup would feed me but never satisfy me, a dim light to the hungry sun. I was born to thirst.
Moloch stared at her and said nothing, glazing over the heat and terrible disgust in his eyes, and then stepped over her, towering over her like an obelisk, his shadow thrusting into her soul.
I knew it would not matter if I wore a thousand cloaks, or if it stood in the midst of a thousand…Baali then, I would always be naked before his eyes, those eyes that tore my every secret away.
Moloch could not collect all of his children to brow beat them and level his disdain at them, so he leveled it at her.
Moloch: “You are nothing, less than nothing. You served Troile, and offered betrayal by skipping off to follow Saulot when he crooked a finger; you turned your back on Saulot when you sickened, and came to me for miracles. Now that you are well, you betray me.”
Ethbaala ‘s jaw swung open, a string of blood spittle clung to her ivory fangs, as her mouth stretched wide. She gurgled with the blood saliva of her own terror, her own dread, and yearning for the embrace that might kill her in truth. She curled her fingers around his robe, pleadingly. “No, Moloch, no!”
Moloch: “You are a whore of the spirit, Ethbaala.”
Moloch reached down then and seized her up by the throat and brought her face to him. His eyes flashed over her face, where red clay paints and kohl once colored it.
Moloch: “And a whore of the body…”
Suddenly, wildly, so unexpectedly — his mouth fell on hers in a kiss that defied the laws of lust or desire, mixed with rebuke and remorse.
His lips stung mine like the kiss of a whip, and everything I was, had been, might be flooded past the blush of my mouth flowing into him, as if he were some great siphon, his queen, a sick woman, a whore, his virulent hand, reveling in blood and lust, wallowing in shame and regret, ambition, strength, thirst…especially thirst, all the joys and sadness and sublime wickedness was in it. How can I describe the sensation, the closest mystical term might be the fabled Golconda. Or so it felt, at the time. Perhaps diablerie was closer. For it very much seemed, he tasted some part of my soul and could reshape it in blood to suit him, if he chose.
Moloch broke from her mouth, tasting the vitae from her cunt that he had smeared there when he struck her.
Moloch: “There is no reprieve, Ethbaala…WE are the keepers of that purpose, the cursed watchmen who check ceaselessly the chains of Hell. And our reward…is NO REPRIEVE…only the base desires of flesh laid out at our feet nightly.”
Moloch succumbed to his own words, his own mad reasoning for his tormented vigil. He knew THEY were hungry, even now, even here amongst his own kind, with such trivial, small sins.
Ethbaala watched Moloch with steady eyes, the terrible and…wonderful weight of it, crushing her, raising her up, all at once. She stood closer to him, dared it, dared to reach for him, her fingers separating the strands of his hair, dared it, even as she twisted in agonized delight and awfulness to be so near, dared it to hear each of his words like a hammer on her heart. She dared it because she was…of him. He inhabited every drop of her. She was his cup, and she longed to be filled by him, to consume him, and be consumed by him, She was a portrait in his blood. And it scared her.
Moloch brushed his lips across her cheek, closing his eyes, and drinking in the smell of her frightened blood, drunken on it. If there was no reprieve, then the prisoners ought to at least drink the finest ale, drink the sweetest wine, and pollute themselves in their cells.
Moloch: “You suffer because you thirst…”
Ethbaala: “Yes, for blood, for something…deeper. For you…I was born to thirst. It’s driving me mad.”
Moloch: “So dine on me, while I dine on you…and let us thirst no more.”
Moloch suddenly carried her by the neck, squirming and fearful to the front. He freed his cock from his robe and tore the rags of her gown up to her navel and splayed her legs. He began to fuck her mercilessly, squeezing the soft flesh of her throat, driving himself into her until her blood began to leak. He fucked her painfully, ruthlessly, his cock a sword that would fuck the vainglorious blood of Saulot from her. He would carve it out of her, fuck her to madness, his fangs fell on her throat, then her breast, feasting and feeding, leeching all of Saulot’s blood from her, every drop he could find.
Saulot’s blood filtered through Ethbaala’s own spun to Moloch’s lips in winding ribbons of curling vitae, winding into his possession like a precious ruby. A ruby that became valuable and more lustrous as he bit down hard, and defiled it, claiming it as his own, bit by bit, drop by drop, bending it to form as he bent her body to desire.
There was no pleasure in this for him, none, just the dry pumping of his undead flesh into her, defiling her, defiling Him, as he had been defiled and forgotten aeons ago and left in agony and flame. He was not gentle, but ceaseless in his toil, his mad rage to hear her moaning and whimpering from his kiss and his prick.
She burned with thirst, burned with him, and reached for the cup of Saulot that was nearby. He spun her around before she could reach it, anger brimming, baiting his beast.
And now she reached only for him, Moloch, the cup from which she had spilled. She raged with mad, tearing desire, as she clawed, and bit and tried to drink of him, the thirst so savage, but he held her at bay denying her for now, until he had found every drop of Saulot’s blood The thirst was an agonizing thing, born of hunters, the shared hunger that united them, that he understood so well.
Moloch took her from behind then, pulling the long ropes of her dark hair into a bridle, biting the nape of her neck. Then when he felt her shudder, he hated her worse, hated himself, and tore away the remains of her dress. He put her back and fucked her with all the force of a dam breaking, certain he was killing her. Ethbaala screamed like he was, it was the type of deep and wretched scream that could break the world.
Moloch fucked her for hours, fucked himself, had her suck him, took her in the ass, struck her, called in one of his paramours and took both of them, made Ethbaala lick the other, and had the other put neigh her whole hand in Ethbaala’s ass. He defiled her in every way he could imagine in the space before dawn. And then when he finally sated himself on her blood and her body, and she was soaked in blood sweat and undead seed, he seized her by the hair as she relaxed in the silk of his bed. He fed her his blood, a good portion of it, and she, his empty chalice, gushed with him, a willing vessel filling with him. She flowed with the mad delirium of it, with his blood, with lust. And then as he saw the pink of dawn approaching, he gathered her stinking rags and drug her to the door, then cast her out into the street, as the guards parted for him. Moloch threw her rags to her and simply turned and shut the door, barring it. He left her naked, sweating, still delirious with desire and dread in the sand.
Scene: Queen of the Hungry Eyes – Carthage
My thoughts swam with those perfumed nights in Carthage, the steam from the grand imperial therma Baths of Antoninus rising up in a veiled haze within intricately mosaiced decorated walls of our glory and our Great Bull, Ba’al Hammon, beneath vaulted ceilings. The warm marble floor radiated pleasing heat from below. So much of Carthage was there, including me, a Carthagian royal of ancient blood, queen’s blood, a fresh-faced, but famished girl, always craving more than the overflowing cups eagerly presented to her.
All those cups just made me thirst more.
Just like Saulot’s cup would grow to do many years later.
Starving, burning of thirst, and withered in the midst of opulent bounty.
The “Queen of the Hungry Eyes” they called me before they cursed my name as Jezebel.
I’d stepped toward the pool and unfastened the bull clasp holding up the golden weave of my stola at my shoulder, the cloth began spilling downward over my skin like milk, before I caught it, stopping its flow and held it briefly along with my breath.
And I saw him, Moloch, for the first time and felt hot press of destiny over and beneath my skin. A moment hung in the air, it was an evening with common pleasures, made uncommon by him, burned into my soul’s memory.
And my thirst ebbed and rose all at once with the rush of water, cups all around. Always cups.
Moloch had never loved a woman before, save for his sister, whom jealous Nergal guarded carefully from his pursuit of her. He had never felt much more than the clockwork movements of his scheming, the things that kept time just above the pit where his beast resided; it was all simply thirst…and lust. Lust not only for the fruitless desires of the body, but of what he could marshal it to. With Ethbaala, however, he had come close, he desired a Queen, and since his sister spurned him for her own unknowable pursuits, he took his pleasure where his eye rested, and knew it was significant. If he thought of her for more than an hour or a night, he could have drank in the sight of her hunger for ages. It was a tool, a mechanism to be put to the turnings of his unending toil…to ruin and defile.
He entered the palatial baths as if he were already King here, and in truth, he would be. He merely needed to show himself to her. He was handsome, clean, noble, and finely cut. Women and men alike lusted for him as all creatures lust for things that shine bright and hide their tarnish with a finely perfumed throat. Moloch’s eyes circled her like a hawk over a sparrow, tempted to make a game of it, knowing how many men already threw themselves at Ethbaala’s feet and were poorer for it. He knew the way to take a woman, the oldest sin of men, was to leave her in the desert, drive her mad with thirst, and offer her a sip of wine on occasion, and she would open to you like a lotus flower. Moloch watched Ethbaala carefully and decided to bring her to the desert…
I caught Moloch’s eyes but for a moment, but then noticed them quickly cut away toward a Carthaginian noble woman who had come to pay her respects to me. And a flutter of surprise and anger went hot through me at this…this man…who spurned the sight of me for another, me who commanded any eyes I should choose. I followed the direction of his eyes, turning them just in time to see the noble woman bow, a glint of metal in her hands almost too late.
But Moloch launched himself at the woman, came up behind her, and wrenched her wrist away from Ethbaala. The dagger clamored from her hand. He held her with no more force than a child might hold the string of a toy; she was nothing. The royal guards all simultaneously rushed forward, their reaction so sluggish in comparison, weapons rattling, as blades left sheaths, until they surrounded the Carthaginian lady, and would-be assassin in a circle of pointed blades.
Carthaginian Noble Woman: “Delenda est Carthago!!”
She writhed in Moloch’s arms, but her words lacked conviction; her murder was a thing born of greed. She wreaked of Roman coin.
Moloch said not a word, but fixed his face, his handsome face on Ethbaala, as if she were the Pinnacle of Heavens. He lied to her in this way, the first time, but she never needed to know that.
I turned in surprise seeing Moloch standing so near holding my would-be murderer so easily in his arms, seeing the way his eyes moved over me, two blue flames. I looked from him, her, the silver blade on the marble floor, then snapped my eyes back to his. And something of delirium and rage exploded in me. Since I could not plunge myself into his eyes, where I thirsted, I plunged the sharp end of my clasp up, bearing the emblem of our Great Bull, into her right eye, as her body writhed in exquisite pain, serenading me with screams.
Isn’t that what those Christians had said, If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out?
And I did…
A hot spurt of blood and viscera from her spilled over my neck as I twisted the clasp in the noble’s eye.
Moloch kept his eyes on Ethbaala’s, never straying from hers, even as his senses pricked with the sensation of a fresh, warm stripe of blood poured against her slender throat.
I returned his gaze, as the noble screamed so loudly, I thought my ears would burst; she screamed so much, I could feel her breath on my arm, like a furnace, could feel her desire to rip me apart with her bare hands, but utterly unable to do so, could hear the slosh of her eye, as the jelly of it ran down her contorted cheek, pink and luminous.
Moloch held the noble easily in his arms, a hand wrapped around her throat, as if he were a pagan, offering his shrieking child to the Bull.
Ethbaala plucked the bloody pin bearing the emblem of the Great Bull from the noble’s eye, which wrested another awful shriek from her, and placed it bloody, as a fresh rose, on Moloch, a Queen’s favor.
The guards moved in then, stabbing the treacherous noblewoman again and again as Moloch held her, until she was nearly unrecognizable as blood and meat from the butcher. He held her, paying no mind to the blades that flashed close to him, as the white of his robe turned crimson with her life, her death, until her blood ran into our baths.
Scene: Now We Are of an Accord – Carthaginian Palace
The imperial palace of Carthage hummed with life, and trills of laughter near many a bath, as always, hid knife-like intent behind smiles of deadly politics, the darker things of blood beneath the glistening surface of water of court. The courtiers vied for the attention of Queen Ethbaala, some of whom bowed congenially and cloaked themselves in customs to disguise how they despised her and plotted how best to use what they perceived to be a soft-headed beauty, an impressionable youth of easy cares. Pity for them she was few of these things. From the moment she drew breath, Rome howled for her blood across the sea. And since her first moment of understanding, she knew she would flourish or perish by merit only of her guile.
Her cousin Bitnima supposed much the same as the others, and she was a shark swimming in the cool waters of court, someone Ethbaala knew she must measure this day carefully. As if Ethbaala’s thoughts of her cousin summoned her from the very steam of the baths in incantation, Bitnima arrived, her guards flanking her in their expensive armor, bearing the insignia of elephants. And the court hushed somewhat as Bitnima stepped forward to greet her cousin, Queen Ethbaala.
Ethbaala did not smile as Bitnima came, flanked by mere men, when Ethbaala had walked in the steps of a god. She smiled with her eyes rather, so that her mouth did not betray her bemusement, how small Bitnima was. And yet, she knew that the tiniest of insects often carried the most potent poisons.
The soft strands of a harp gently played in the background, the scent of expensive and heady incense rose up from tripods, and hung heavy and moist in the air with the vents of steam rising from the baths.
Bitnima moved forward with all the practiced grace and fluidity expected of a noble lady. She broke the rhythm of her graceful steps just long to pay her respects in a softly sweeping bow.
Ethbaala: “Hail and well met, cousin. You are most welcome in my domain.”
Bitnima: “Thank you, my most gracious Queen.”
Bitnima turned her head up to face her cousin’s full on, a cordial smile playing upon lips that were not as full and youthful as Ethbaala’s.
Ethbaala: “Away with your formalities! Here, I am not your Queen. Here, I am…family.”
Bitnima: “And I could not be prouder for it, dear cousin.”
Ethbaala rose from the dais and smiled in earnest now and moved, arms spread, to her cousin. She embraced Bitnima then without stopping to see if was welcome or reciprocated. Bitnima returned the embrace, effortlessly, the expected greeting between blood kin.
Ethbaala: “My heart soars that you have chosen to visit me, and I welcome you with all the pleasures you have missed on your travels.”
Bitnima looked her over briefly, from head to foot.
Bitnima: “I trust you are well these days?”
Bitnima’s dark almond eyes seemed to be searching Ethbaala, testing the proverbial waters, though to anyone else it appeared the concern for the well-being of her cousin first, and queen second.
Ethbaala: “Very well. Though I am of a terrible thirst…as I imagine you must be.”
Ethbaala snapped her fingers to summon wine and fruit, and it arrived forthwith on gilded trays, lush, bountiful fruits of many shades and hues, and the darkest, sweetest wine. Blood-red asoka flowers were spread around the edge decoratively.
Courtiers watched every step of this dance, whispers spreading among them, striking this ear or that like a serpent’s tongue.
Ethbaala: “Come, sit and talk with me, cousin.”
Ethbaala took Bitnima by the crook of her arm and led her gently to the dais.
Bitnima: “Thank you; this is much appreciated.”
Ethbaala snapped for a stool to be brought and sat just below her own carpeted throne.
Bitnima did not balk at this, after all, one was expected to take their place beneath the a queen. She swept down gracefully, and sat on the stool, with all the nobility fitting royalty.
Ethbaala took a chalice of wine from a slave and plucked a few dates from the tray.
Bitnima, looked at the goblets on the wine tray, and carefully selected one that pleased her, and then did the same with the fruit, deciding at last on a large, ripe pomegranate.
She was not a lady who would just take any pleasure offered to her like her cousin Ethbaala, whom Bitnima had heard, in salacious gossip, had taken to whoring herself while in disguise, swayed by the incendiary words of that firebrand Troile. While there was no proof, a lady’s reputation needed little to be ruined, a queen even less. It was an open wound, Bitnima could use, pry open, and bleed Ethbaala fatal.
But no, she would not be so unkind. She’d offer her cousin Ethbaala mercy, a life from court among her elephant herds, perhaps marry her to one of her generals, far away from the cares of court that were too grave and consequential for her foolish, pretty, young head. Carthage needed a real queen. It needed Bitnima. She was clearly the better choice, queen’s blood herself, a cousin to the current queen, and she and her husband held lands to the south with a substantial number of elephant herds with which the Carthaginian Empire bolstered its military might. Furthermore, Bitnima was older, modest, long-married with sons of her own for Carthage’s glorious future, and she was of serious disposition with the steel in her veins to meet Rome’s greed.
Ethbaala: “You must tell me of your sons. Are they well? Married and breeding sons?”
Bitnima answered cordially, beckoning a servant to assist her with making the pomegranate more manageable.
Bitnima: “My eldest has only recently wed. I pray that the gods see fit to favor him with a child of his own. I pray also that they may gift yourself with such a blessing.”
It was a swipe, a blow, disguised behind the veneer of empathy for Ethbaala. An unwed queen’s power without sons could only endure so long. And all of Carthage watched her.
Ethbaala never let on that it concerned her, rather continued to plow through the trivial banter, calling for more wine.
Ethbaala: “And your Lord Husband, how is he? I see he does not travel with you?”
She asked with some genuine remorse, a man would have been easier to manage, their desires much simpler.
Bitnima: “My husband remains to see to the elephant herds. You never know when they may be needed en masse — given these rather uncertain times.”
Ethbaala: “Quite agreed and very judicious of him.”
Bitnima: “He is a prudent man, my Lord Husband.”
Ethbaala: “As is his noble wife.”
Bitnima: “Tell me, have you such prospects in sight for yourself?”
Ethbaala: “Prospects perhaps, but you must forgive me…my slaves dishonor me…your apartments are not yet made up. I fear you shall have to endure my company and court for a bit longer.”
Bitnima: “Perhaps mine may assist yours with this task.”
Ethbaala: “Certainly. Send them ahead, and stay. Enjoy the pleasures of my court.”
Bitnima: “Thank you, cousin.”
Bitnima snapped a few stained fingers to a couple of servants nearby, cueing them into action. And the majority of them stepped away, leaving to make use of themselves, one remaining at her beck and call to clean the pomegranate juice from her hand.
The harp music grew slightly louder and began to pluck sweetly like raindrops as a lilting voice carried on old Phoenician tune about dark clouds moving in, rain falling, and, violent storms, each cousin recalled from childhood. The plink of dulcet notes increased in speed, drops, becoming a torrent, a storm, as the song chaotically captured the flood of Ba’al Hammon. The pluck of notes lengthened, becoming sharp, sorrowful as a singer’s voice rose, the storm a metaphor for Ba’al’s wrath at being separated from his fair love, Tanit, and so he made an ocean, a flood to reach her more easily across the endless wastes of desert. And then verse upon verse came extolling the greatness of Carthage’s many ships with their Tyrian purple sails riding high on the seas, ships of war, ships of trade, ships of Ba’al Hammon.
Ethbaala: “I find myself lonely for the presence of family and friends.”
She said, as she took a bite of some red, alien fruit plucked from the cornucopia presented on the gilded tray.
Bitnima: “I feared as much, which is why I came with haste. I also heard tell of an attack upon your person. Is this true, cousin?”
Ethbaala: “Ah, but you must not fear for me…only my wits. It is a poor Queen indeed that does not have a dagger at her back a time or two. If they are not trying to murder you…they do not fear you.”
Bitnima: “There is such a thing as too heavy a hand, my cousin.”
Ethbaala: “A heavy hand, cousin, but a gentle heart.”
Bitnima: “Seems they sought to remedy your heavy hand by taking your gentle heart.”
Ethbaala smiled and took another bite of the red fruit, a bit of the juice kissing her lips, making them shine.
Bitnima looked between the wine in her hand, and the pomegranate, considering whether to take a second slice or another sip. She decided to take both. A bit of wine, chased by the fruit. And as she did, she mulled over Ethbaala’s response, tasting it, as she tasted her own possible parries and thrusts at her cousin. Ethbaala had played off the assassination attempt well, but how would she fair against accusations of her harlotry.
Ethbaala: “Come, try this…I gorge myself into delirium with it nightly.”
Ethbaala said, in jest, with a soft smile.
Ethbaala nodded to a servant to bring a gilded carafe of strong wine, and took some of the wine herself, nodding as if it were a little matter. Bitnima finished the wine she had, making room for the wine the queen offered with a grateful nod. Ethbaala drank a good long while, keeping the silver cup always at her lips.
Ethbaala: “You are still young and beautiful, will you give your husband more sons?”
She leaned in from her the silken lounge of her throne, and then asked with a conspiratol whisper on her lips…
Ethbaala: “Or have you been wicked and taken a lover?”
Bitnima: “No, I have been faithful. And thus have faithfully sired my three sons and two daughters. I could only hope for a sixth at my age.”
Ethbaala leaned back on her soft, ivory throne, allowing a slave to fan her. Her long raven hair fell about her nearly to her hips, kohl lined her eyes boldly tapering to intricately drawn waves at the side like the lovelorn storms of Ba’al Hammon highlighted in gleaming Tyrian purple that so well matched the hue of her eyes.
Carthaginian women were notorious for their sinuous long hair, and in the capital of the Empire, in particular, the more dramatic, elaborate, and exotic the paint on the face, the more status given the woman. And none could compete with Ethbaala. She wore her hungry eyes like a crown. She was a queen. Oh, the stories Rome would tell of her, coveting her and her Carthage, as they painted her in lascivious and murderous design.
Ethbaala reclined, the sweep of a feathered fan, stirring the layers of her stola clinging to her body, her breasts rolling against the gold chains that fell across them, sunning herself in her own grandiloquence.
Ethbaala: “You cheat yourself, Bitnima. You have given your husband true born sons, and yet now take nothing for yourself?”
Bitnima: “I am nearing the end of my prime. But you, dear cousin, are full of such possibilities.”
Ethbaala leaned forward, stroking a perfumed lock of hair from her cousin’s throat. She sighed, as if she wished to talk of nothing but love.
Ethbaala: “Ah again, away with your hateful words. You are so very beautiful. I am eclipsed beside you. A woman adored by such a man as your husband and surely a potent one as well. You must tell me of the joy of marriage.”
Bitnima: “You compliment me, cousin. But we both know I pale next to you, the rightful queen of Carthage. You are my family, and I place my family first as always.”
Ethbaala leaned closer to Bitnima and whispered, gesturing to an envoy from Rome nearby who had come to her court in the spirit of diplomacy following the assassination attempt. He bent just then, placing an asoka flower into a brass vase by the harpist with a smile in admiration of the performance.
Ethbaala: “You see him there, strong calves and that hard Roman face? He’s come to woo me with the poetry of Rome.”
Bitnima kept her voice low, and whispered…
Bitnima: “Perhaps you should woo him back. He is sturdy of body and, no doubt, potent of seed.”
Ethbaala: “Shall we see if he makes my heart sing to his tune?”
She laughs, a little drunkenly, wagging a finger at the Roman envoy, calling over the music…
Ethbaala: “You there, Roman, I hear you wish to sup on all the pleasures of my court. And yet, you have not even tasted the finest delicacy. It’s Queen.”
Ethbaala smiled as the courtiers laughed at her bawdiness.
Bitnima watches this exchange with shrewd almond-shaped eyes. She knew well of her cousin’s harlotry but perhaps had forgotten how lacking in finesse she was as well.
The Roman envoy stepped forward, his footstep steady, certain, and he bowed deeply. When he lifted his head, he gave her a devilish smile. He introduced himself as Decimus for the sake of Bitnima. Ethbaala already had his name and the measure of this man well in hand. But she enjoyed foregoing his name, and referring to him as “Roman” all the same.
Decimus: “The Queen of Carthage is gracious. And there are so many pleasures to sup from in her court.”
He darted an eye between the queen and her cousin with just the right amount of heat.
Ethbaala: “Ah, indeed.”
Ethbaala reclined on her plush sofa, lifting a foot, begemmed in amethyst, gesturing to the other seat below Bitnima.
Bitnima observed the Roman envoy carefully, doubting his interest in her beauty was genuine, as he took a seat just below her. But this he did with some flourish, strength, like the great Roman eagle itself, swooping down before them. And as his eyes rose to meet Bitmina, she had to admit, her cousin Ethbaala certainly had taste, even if she was rather loose in such matters.
Ethbaala: “Tell me, when a man is offered two of the greatest beauties of the desert, which shall he choose to worship first?”
Decimus: “Must he choose?”
Decimus’ eyes gleamed in mirth and desire at this, and they were a dark brown, honeyed amber. Rome had chosen well sending him here.
She said, with a laugh, and called for more of the strong wine for Bitnima and the Roman diplomat. And the wine comes, flowing into silver chalices that gleam, catching the light in here. Everything in Carthage seemed to shine so.
Ethbaala: “I am certain you have come to torment me with talk of state…but I plead with you let us stay that grave exchange and instead celebrate the coming of my fair cousin, Bitmina.”
Decimus: “What a relief to find some reprieve from it all, to find the Queen predisposed to pleasures.”
He laughed, and it was deep and throatily. He thrilled to this and to the beauties next to him, eager to skirt the near assassination attempt of the Carthage queen for more pleasant pursuits, ones that could improve his own standing in this court and bolster relations with Rome. But the Queen would expect him to fawn over her now, and he must resist to keep her interest and pay worship to her cousin, Bitnima, who was, in truth, a powerful ally to have as well in the Carthage Empire.
Bitmina: “You are too generous. But should not the duty to your people take precedence, cousin?”
Ethbaala: “Ah, and it does, night and day. It is my great toil. Let the parchment and pen wait for midday of tomorrow.”
Bitnima: “It may be a grave, unpleasing affair, but one must sacrifice much to rule.”
Ethbaala: “As I do, cousin, most willingly. I understand, however, if the road has made you weary…and your years plead with you to rest.”
Bitnima: “I hope such leniency does not extend to your palace guard.”
Ethbaala: “Oh never. I keep them sober and troubled with so very much gold!”
It was a subtle blow for subtle blow between them, masked behind perfumed finery and cordiality.
Decimus: “A Roman will tell you they have the most beautiful women in the world, but being here, I am disinclined to agree. The flowers of the desert bloom more brilliantly.”
Ethbaala: “Ah, flattery…I am very amendable to it.”
Ethbaala pours him more wine, and the Roman envoy nods graciously, sipping the wine.
Bitnima: “Ah, but I hear they make up for it in fidelity and duty, no?”
Decimus laughed, a bit drunkenly, the wine lightening his mood.
Decimus: “In duty anyway.”
Ethbaala commanded that all should dance, feast, and drink in the honor of her fair cousin. Time passed, and the court came alive with dance and revelry as the day bled deeper into evening. The large shutters of the palace were drawn open by slaves as night approached, and beyond and below, was the sea, above the sky painted in violet, orange, and red sunset. And it felt as if only the sea and sky surrounded them, elevated as the palace was. It was paradise.
The courtiers rippled with conversation, their eyes moved forward and amongst themselves, the baths splashed, laughter peeled, and the harp music played on. The surge of merriment in the court rising, seeming always to keep time to the moods of the queen atop the dais.
The wine flowed in the steady haze of smoke and jollity, as Ethbaala began to trade stories with Bitnima.
Ethbaala: “…and gods…remember how red he got? A bare-assed boy running from his bed? Your sister was shamed for weeks.”
Decimus plucked a grape, and shined it, offering it to Bitnima. She smiled, adding it to the plate of dissected pomegranate. She took notice of how macabre it looked on the plate, crimson juice spilling forth and staining the unblemished grape, before lifting it to her lips. She laughed, her head swimming with wine and smoke, before it was cut short by the Roman’s lips falling upon her own, He tasted the tartness of the fruit as it gushed from her lips, and brazenly, as all Rome seemed to do, lifted a hand to her thigh, her hip, moving upwards. Bitnima moaned deeply, transferring the piece of fruit into his mouth, as her tongue tasted his. He plucked another grape and bit into half of it, freed her nipple from her stola and painted it with the moist part of the grape. He made a cutting smile, and then sucked her tit.
Decimus: “Such a beauty…skin like the golden sands of the Sahara.”
He craved her fiercely like he craved her land, ah, Roman lust.
Ethbaala carefully, oh so gently began the dance, the thrust and release of deadly insinuation.
Ethbaala: “I heard your sister took a lover, a poetess from your court. Is that so Bitnima?”
Bitnima: “Ah yes, it seems…ah…that…mmm…that such indiscriminancy is not uncommon in the family.”
Bitnima tried to speak, her tongue loosening, when it was not responding to the envoy’s ministrations. She could feel her sex grow warm, wet, threatening to soak the delicate silk of her stola.
Ethbaala stays on her ivory throne, watching the Roman diplomat feast on Bitnima, not hiding the wanton delight in her eyes.
Ethbaala: “She is bold to take a woman as a her lover…such things women do not do as men do. For we must be satisfied with the secret panting with our maids when we are badly served by our husbands.”
She offered this and nothing more, as if it were obvious, the pleasures of her court so easily made one forget the tithe of marriage.
Bitnima: “And of those that have no husband to speak of?”
Ethbaala refilled Bitnima’s wine.
Ethbaala: “Ah, but we are sorely underserved…”
Bitnima: “Do many lovers suffice in the absence of fidelity?”
Ethbaala: “Of course.”
Bitnima: “Surely…surely…a veritable garden could be had from such collective seed?”
Bitnima took another swipe at her childless womb, made less subtle by the wine and intoxicant smoke.
Ethbaala: “Ah…but Bitnima…now you assume these lovers are men. Seed is necessary, and there is such delight in it, but there is pure pleasure in the touch of another woman. And so little risk from it.”
Ethbaala smiled over her silver wine cup.
Decimus kneeled in front of Bitnima, his hands grabbing the edge of her stola, pulling her toward him fiercely. He grasped her thighs, his head dove between them, slurping at the warmth, the moisture there, as he had her tit.
Ethbaala gently pressed the diplomat’s neck into her cousin with her toes, reclining as she watched them.
Ethbaala: “There…there…now we are of an accord…”
Bitnima moaned aloud, a long, loud sigh of release. It had been too long since a touch had come that had been accompanied by such pleasure, such real heat, not the obligatory rigid copulation that had given her heirs. Her eyes rolled slowly back in her head, as she was tasted below. His hair buried below was close-cropped and filled with burnished curls that seemed to match so intriguingly the color of Bitnima’s sex. His hard, chiseled features pressed against her, as his lips ferreted out her clit and continued to taste it, taste her. Bitnima’s nails dig into the flesh of the Roman’s shoulders, and she kneaded him like a cat lapping up the warmth of the noonday sun. She was languid, contented, and pleasured.
Ethbaala got up then and snapped for the bed slaves who waited with bowed heads, a young woman and man, perhaps 19. She hit the smoke of the hemp bowl and blew it over Bitnima and Decimus to cloud them in their ecstasy. Ethbaala whispered something to the slaves, instructed them to disrobe and pleasure the Roman envoy and Bitnima. And he fingered her hole, knuckle deep, as the slaves slinked in and caressed them both. He pressed his fingers into her until they were sloppy and oily with her, and then tasted them, as his eyes rose up meeting her own.
It was all enough to make Bitnima forget her duty, her ambitions, her children, or the fact she was rapidly approaching her 35th year of life. She did not notice or care that the bed slaves were her eldest’s age. She would…no could only make her objections should they cease their attentions on her body.
Ethbaala watches as the slaves pressed themselves into the fray, the girl slipping Bitnima’s stola from her shoulders, the boy freeing the diplomat’s cock and taking it into his mouth. The slave youth got the Roman hard, and the girl opened Bitnima’s cunt to allow the Decimus to enter her, making little circles around her clit to help her on. The Roman grabbed her firmly by her rounded ass then, squeezing, as he drove the length of himself into Bitnima in slow thrusts, at first, escalating faster and faster, until he was plunging into her in wild abandon, sweating with her, sweating with wine, sweating with the humidity and smoke of the baths. Bitnima shuddered, moaned, body wet and slack from drink and rippling pleasure. The slaves brought out ebony carved dildos, encrusted with gems to the stir the pleasure of the senses. And the slaves spread the cheeks of the deliriously fucking pair and pressed them into the asses, moving them back and forth, in and out, the jewels disappearing and reappearing from their bodies, gleaming on the ebony length.
Ethbaala took a step back toward her throne, wine chalice still near her lips…and still very full. She finally took a sip of the wine in earnest as she watched her fair cousin ravaged like a whore by a dog of Rome. She motioned for her scribe to come forward who had scratched away the whole affair and said softly to him…
Ethbaala: “Now…send the account to her husband. And relay my deepest regret at the shame of his beloved wife.”
Ethbaala finished her wine, turned, and stalked from the chamber, head high, a queen making noble strides over the copulation from left and right of her, the smile of Baal on her ruby mouth.
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.
Scene: Temple of Baal Hammon
Scene: How the Gods Reign – Carthaginian Palace
The coronation was done, and Carthage reveled in the ascension of its new king, Moloch. A huge swell of cheering and revelry flooded in behind Moloch from the crowds teeming in the streets. The city glowed with so many lanterns that it was like the stars themselves had fallen from the skies and now danced in a merry dervish. A glimpse of the great round harbor of Carthage could be seen over Moloch’s shoulder, and it was filled with the slow moving shadows of hundreds of ships on display in honor of Carthage’s new king. The trumpets of military elephants heralded Moloch in the distance mingling with wild verses of ancient Phoenician songs. For the general populace of Carthage, the union of the king and queen promised increased stability for the Empire, some envisioning a flourishing of trade, culture, wealth, expansion, a golden age with plenty of gold to go around.
Half a dozen royal Carthaginian guards slammed shut the giant palatial doors inlaid with gold behind their king as he entered his palace, his palace…a truth they had seen for the first time this night, a truth he had known long ago. The marble floor was littered with garlands of bright red flowers, dotting the way like so many drops of blood. Rows of sheer and opulent Tyrian purple curtains, so distinctive to Carthage, stretched right to the floor and billowed almost amorously around the lines of nearby columns that edged the path toward Ethbaala, to the imperial dais, where Moloch would now rule.
Moloch stepped over the blossoms on soundless sandaled feet, like a soldier, like a King, and he was one…he stepped over them, bruising them beneath his heel as he had so many Cainnite heads before him. He wore the coveted Crown of the Cerulean Seas of the Carthaginian Empire, and somewhere across the gulf of waves Rome shuddered. As he strode forward now, two lines of Carthage’s most prominent stood in attendance, mortals and kindred alike. Each of them bowing as he stepped past them like an endless wave. Quick cuts of the piquant flavors of their sins reaching him as easily as the bright red asoka flowers he crushed beneath his feet. The royal Carthaginian guards bowed along his path as well, their sins bookends to better ones.
Moloch reached the end of the sycophant tribute, ignoring them all so like they chattel they were. He came to the feet of Ethbaala, his Queen, and reflected her greatness, stone look for stone look. Her lips curved into a smile like a siren turned loose in paradise, as if all the world were hers. She took a triumphant breath as her eyes met his, her King, seeing so clearly a bountiful and enduring future, thirsting for it. The endless hunger of her eyes drew him in. For all his countless years, he had hardly ever seen a well that dry since the one where he was reborn.
She held two silver goblets in her hands, ringed with a ribbon of maze-patterned engraving. They were filled not with wine, but with the sacred blood of the bull, so that the newly joined king and queen might hold communion and feast with and be of the Great Bull, Ba’al Hammon.
Ethbaala: “Join me in a drink, my King. Let us feast how the gods do.”
Moloch looked at the cups, between them, then between her hands, inside the visceral tangle of her guts. He looked at the gleaming cups…looked…at…them…looked at her.
Then he swept a hand across hers and sent them crashing to the floor. He seized her, his Queen, his silver medal, the laurels he wore when he could not wear his gilded crown. She gasped, stiffening in his grip, as he took her by the waist, uncaring, unafraid, defiant even. He was too ancient, too tired, to be scrapping by on the blood of beasts. And tonight he would not guzzle down the blood of a lesser beast in the name of Ba’al Hammon, who had already taken too much of his dignity.
This night belonged to Moloch.
All he had ever wanted was an equitable exchange, not servitude, not an eternity of evading Hell’s arms, and something deeply fierce inside of him rebelled now. And below there was some ancient being rumbling at this small evil.
Moloch: “This…this is how the gods feast…”
Moloch opened his mouth, fangs slipping out of his gums, slow, like a dagger from a crimson sheath. Her eyes shot to them; wide as the night is long. And then he plunged himself into her soft throat and drank her. No beast here; this was Queen’s blood. Her heart was strong, surging in pulses, rising to meet the rhythm of his own devouring gulps on this bloody field of battle. She tasted of fear, longing, and most of all, thirst, as the secrets of her soul’s descent spilled past his lips in a warm, violent gush of red. He drank deeper, his ancient thirst fired by her blood, drinking her right there in front of the whole cowed mewling lot of them.
A surge of cheering rose from the revelers who, at first, mistook their new king’s actions as the impulsive ardor of a man in love swept up in the moment with his bride. But the cheers were softer, as some stopped, uncertain, beginning to step back and stare. Others whispered among themselves, and others still continued to pour their wine.
Ethbaala’s fingers flew to Moloch’s collarbone, his neck, either to push him away or draw him near, the intent muddled as she struggled to surrender and not to surrender to the sharp, sudden engulfing rapture of death’s embrace. She spasmed jerkily in his arms, encircling her, ensnaring her in his grasp. The long locks of her dark hair whipped around her like a mourning veil.
Moloch drank her until she grew torpid in his arms, and how well she would understand that feeling in the aeons to come…He drank her until she was a heartbeat from death, then opened his wrist, and pushed it to her lips with her blood leaking from his mouth. He looked into her fluttering eyes, as death tugged at her beginning to spiral her from his embrace to its own.
As the deep kiss of the king went on too long and the queen seemed oddly distressed, growing quickly stiller, the crowd’s cheering silenced one by one, screams taking its place, chaos erupting. Wine cups flying, people trampled in the confusion. The guards had hesitated at first, uncertain of how to respond. But then they rushed forward in a tight wave, the sound of metal sliding from scabbards in unison, as they moved to restrain the crowd and stop Moloch. Some of the kindred in the gathering made a move for him then. But they found themselves quickly overwhelmed by other kindred already seduced by him and caught in a bloody fray of battle.
Moloch roared at them all, face screwed up like an animal, eyes alive with green fire, vitae spewing from his jaws. He said and his voice was a thunderclap across their flesh, a bellow so deep no mortal could mimic it.
He said to them, one and all, and his voice echoed across the marbled floor. He was so ancient, so commanding, that few could resist. And a sea of flesh began to bow one by one to their knees by the sheer force of a demigod’s will. The few that charged forward, blades flashing, toward Moloch, were akin to children waving toy swords to him. And they were promptly gutted by guards, who remained kneeling but, in a show of loyalty, had thrust their blades upwards to bleed the small onslaught like pigs.
Moloch turned to them as they kneeled, Ethbaala pale as milk, dangling over his arm like a swatch of silk, and showed himself to them fully.
Moloch: “Now…I shall show you how the gods kill!”
The crowd shuddered, some struggling to rise to kiss his feet, to run in terror, or to defy this monster who had cruelly come to them in the trappings of a king.
Moloch: “I shall show you how the gods reign!”
Moloch ripped down a row of thicker Tyrian purple curtains that obscured a throne Ethbaala had commissioned for him, a throne she had meant to unveil as a final surprise to the spectators, a surprise, of course, he had secretly known of well ahead of time. He would do her surprise one better, and give these slack-jacked sycophants something to remember for all time. It was a throne that many years later would find its likeness in a land not yet known across the sea.
Moloch carried her over to the plush throne, past the slaughter as it flanked him. And he laid her so that her face hung toward the crowd in reverse, looking at them from the wrong side up. Her eyes were slits, doorways, wavering back and forth between oblivion. He looked at the throne, admiring it, admiring her, circled it like a shark while Ethbaala lay, limbs draped, on the silken seat before him.
Moloch cast his eyes to the horror on their faces and kept them there, as he pushed her legs apart with a knee. He undid himself, never breaking from their gaze, pulling his cock free from his robe. And to the rhythm of the drums that pounded unheard to mortal ears, deep within the bowels of hell, he plunged himself into her, holding her steady by the throat, and began to fuck her dying flesh. She seemed dead, cold marble, only coming back to life like a sculpture from Pygmalion’s hand as he plunged himself into her depths, and her eyes would flutter back open sharply with each thrust, only to fall back to stillness, lifelessness.
He fucked her body while his eyes fucked her court, and when he brought himself to it, that final, futile ache deep inside of him, he spilled his vitae inside her, filling her with death. He poured himself into her, awakening her flesh with his pestilence, the scourge of his disease filling her with green flame. Her senses reeled, her mortality burning away, in agony, every sense heightened and bleeding into death and beyond, the last and first feel of her existence was him and his disease inside of her. And then she was still. And the change in her was sudden and eerily fierce, when her eyes opened again they boiled green, and her hips devoured him, meeting the very flame that gutted her mortality and left horror in its wake. Blood ran down her legs, down the throne, in a crimson ribbon, wrung from all the wicked hearts of the world, as if she were a virgin bride newly broken. He did not kiss her, but lifted her to him, still impaled on his cock and whispered as he held her throat.
Moloch: “Now…my love…death will be your wine, and you shall never thirst again.”
Moloch lied to her again, but never, oh never, was it to be the last time. He had made her thirst incarnate, an immortal Queen of the Hungry Eyes. It was beautiful and…terrible. But she did not feel the hell of it yet, only the rapture in this moment. And so she reveled in the fresh ecstasy of her damnation. Ethbaala saw the empty silver cups he’d sent crashing to the floor, saw the blood, the horror, the frightened faces, the angry ones, so enthralled, so thirsty, she could not muster the horror for it, only the exhilaration.
Ethbaala: “Then let’s drink that wine together. Ambrosia, fit for the gods.”
He pressed his lips to her ear, turning her face to the courtiers and hissed.
Moloch: “Give me children, my Queen. Heirs to our Bloody Throne.”
He let them wriggle loose of his compulsion then, savoring it, as dread and terror exploded again, this time more bloody and terrible. Moloch threw himself at the court then, seizing those who fled first, because their fear tasted so well. They were downed like fattened beasts in a muddy field. Blood splattered the pristine marble floor mixing with the reds of the asoka flowers until they seemed one. He urged Ethbaala to do the same, reigning down blood and fang on them all, drinking them and feeding them. And she did just that, wetting her virginal fangs on their blood, until they were thick and sticky with their lifeblood. She feasted and fucked in delirium, ravishing each bit of flesh, until it ran from her lips and cunt both in a steady flow. She mirrored him in every way, catching his eye now and then with their fangs buried deep in throats, remembering when it was his fangs in her own neck. And when she thought of it she drank harder, thirsted more. And she pushed the very blood she’d stolen from them back down their own throats, delighting in that moment she saw the green flicker spark in their eyes. She fucked and fed with Moloch making a marriage bed of the flesh there.
Moloch thrashed and reveled in the slow shower of their hot blood, moaning against their flesh as he ravaged them. He fucked and made children of those who knelt, fucked and slew those who fled, but drank all the same. He drank until he was bloated with their blood, drunken on their fear, their desire, their pleasure. Moloch drank and spilled a sea of red beneath his feet while his wardens laughed at him from Hell. Moloch drank and fucked and slew until none were left living, and many awakened under his or his queen’s vile kiss. And he knew then, they would come for him, those stoics, those vainglorious whores of decorum in Rome. He was glad for it, for he would scorch the earth in flame and bone.
Scene: Will it be War or Will It Be Peace? – Carthaginian Keep
Word of turmoil in Carthage’s palace following the union of the king and queen reached Bitnima. Ethbaala had been forced to hide herself away in a keep overlooking Carthage, abandoning the tumultuous city until the militia regained order. And Bitnima knew it was time to act, to bring her soldiers, her elephants, her might, and make her reach for the capital. Lines of soldiers and a ring of elephants surrounded the keep, securing it utterly. A peel of thunder rippled in the distance as a storm crept in. Bitnima’s guards helped her down from the back of an imperial elephant, her sandals touching the wet ground, cream-colored silks swirled about her legs in the whirlwind that kept time with the illuminated flashes of lightning above. She may have been an aging lady, but she had the stance and bearing of a general tonight.
Her guards pushed their way inside, expecting to talk their way past the royal guard or cut them down. But as they fell into the great keep, they found not a single guard to meet them. Instead eerie solitude inside, nothingness, greeted the clatter of their marching feet over the hollow stone. And then, a flash of lightning! It illuminated the sight of tiered and beautiful tiled baths nearby, baths…filled not with the water but with churning blood.
Another flash! And the light at the head of the stairs revealed Ethbaala’s form. She stood so still that she might have been mistaken for one of the marbled statues here. Ethbaala was a vision, pale as bone, wrapped in regal purple with two unnatural green eyes, alive with Baal fire, expectant and unmoving. The wind whipped up, stirring the diaphanous Tyrian purple curtains near her in a slow, languid rustle. They wrapped around Ethbaala as she stirred to life, running her hand along the sensual edge of cloth, moving past them, through them, the thunder growing closer.
The guards gathered close to Bitmina, seeing the spectacle of blood and horror oozing in the baths. Their swords at the ready, the smell of copper and death, the perfume of battle so well known to a soldier, accosted them from the churning baths, bubbling their coo of death.
Ethbaala spoke, and it was not the voice Bitnima remembered, the high chittering of an unruly girl but the deep and cool rumble of a goddess.
Ethbaala: “Hail and well met, cousin. You are most welcome in my presence.”
Bitnima’s eyes were hard and slitted, her mouth set in a determined line.
Bitnima: “I make myself welcome tonight, cousin.”
Ethbaala: “So it seems. You come unto me as the charioteer of death.”
Bitnima: “But ah, the charioteer of death, now that all depends on your cooperation.”
Ethbaala smiled at this deeply.
Bitnima: “And it seems death has already proceeded me.”
Bitnima’s voice was confident, unwavering.
Loyal Guard: “It’s well you’re unhurt, Queen Ethbaala. Our Lady Bitnima charged us to hasten to your assistance when she heard of the news of the riot following your wedding.”
Ethbaala: “You are mistaken, soldier. There was no riot. It was a feast of the gods.”
Ethbaala’s voice dropped to a strange and mad whisper that carried over the stone, carried over the gaps in the storm’s growing fury.
Ethbaala: “It was a feast of the gods.”
The loyal guard’s brow furrows in deep confusion, unnerved deeply, until he rearranges his features, and he says no more.
Bitnima grimaced, the lines of her face twisting into distaste.
Bitnima: “It is worse than I thought, clearly. You are a madwoman.”
Ethbaala: “I am not a woman at all, Bitnima.”
Ethbaala said and began to descend the stairs.
Ethbaala: “I am the wife and lover of the Great Bull.”
Ethbaala descended further, gesturing to the crimson baths.
Bitnima: “I took you initially for a reckless whore and unfit to rule. And I was prepared to offer you clemency under my rule. But my reign shall have no place for a mad butcheress.”
Bitnima’s voice was hard, gaining an edge of venom to it.
Ethbaala: “You are one to call me a reckless whore…when you opened your cunt to the dog of Rome before the whole of Carthage. They tell me your husband beat you bloody and raped you before his generals for your wantonness.”
Most of the soldiers contained their expression at this accusation, but one, oh one, he looked down before he could stop himself, looked down, so Queen Ethbaala knew it was true, sensing the sin of him, not revulsion for the rape. No, not that, sadness for he was not permitted to rape Bitnima too.
Ethbaala: “You came to me as an Usurper. It was I who should have offered you clemency. And still…I find myself moved to do so.”
Bitnima laughed; it was spiteful, contemptible thing.
Bitnima: “You are no longer queen, but driven from the city, a trapped rat in a flooded hole.”
A brave guard stepped forward.
Brave Guard: “Your guards have abandoned you. And you’ve fled a ravaged city…you mad whore! And for all that, our Lady Bitnima offers you mercy, and you shit in her open hand!”
Bitnima: “No guard, no court, city ariot in flame.”
Brave Guard: Say the word, Lady Bitnima, and Carthage will have a worthy queen with the flash of my blade.”
Ethbaala snapped her eyes to the brave guard, and she smiled to him like a woman he had loved an age ago and abandoned. She approached the brave guard slowly, moved over the marble as if her feet never touched the floor.
Bitnima: “I was prepared to offer you a place of comfort, luxury in your retirement.”
Ethbaala: “You were prepared to offer me a cage.”
Bitnima gives the signal for the guards to advance, and they do, closing in on Ethbaala, the bravest of them, raising the tip of his sword to Ethbaala’s throat. It gleamed in a flash of lightning, and the rest of the soldiers moved their step in time to a clap of thunder.
Ethbaala placed her hand on the brave guard’s blade and ran her fingers along the length. She smiled at him as if she were looking at a plate of succulent delicacies, giving consideration to which she might choose. She looked from him to Bitnima, her smile remaining and said…
Ethbaala: “How very small you are.”
Bitnima: “Your death can be quick or slow. There will be no gilded cage, per your request. Seize her.”
Bitnima said flatly, favoring Ethbaala with a glare.
Brave Guard: “Yes, my Queen Bitnima…”
He relished the words he spoke, “Queen Bitnima,” already looking to the moment past the mad queen’s rule here, imagining his Lady Bitnima on the imperial throne as he and the other guards rushed to grab Ethbaala.
Ethbaala did not immediately move but let them surround her before flexing her fingers, green flame exploding from her palms. She let the green fire climb up her arms, reflected in the green of her eyes as she addressed them.
Ethbaala: “I am a merciful Queen…cast down your swords, and kneel before me. And you shall be spared. Flee from me, or draw your blade, and I shall add your blood with the rest below.”
Bitnima took a small step back, carob eyes widening at the putrescent, green flame that consumed her cousin’s hands.
Stalwart Guard: Sorcery! What manner of evil is this?!”
And the guards jumped back in unison, eyes wide as fresh, open wounds. They raised their swords like a row of teeth, teeth that came slamming down like a set of jaws after a moment as they struggled to regain themselves.
She said only this, a simple word, one, that pressed down on their skulls, and pushed them down to their knees.
Bitnima: “Do not!”
Bitnima’s voice rang out, competing with the thunder clap from above.
The soldier’s swords crossed each other in death over Ethbaala’s head where they would have rained down her death, and …hovered.
Bitnima: “Take her head! NOW!”
Bitnima mustered up her courage, taking a couple of steps towards her soldiers. She would show no fear, and lead by example.
Stalwart Guard: “I cannot!”
The eyes of these hardened soldiers rolled around in their heads like marbles, trying to do anything other than sink to their knees, struggling against it, like animals struck suddenly with poisoned arrows. They clutched their swords tightly trying to gain purchase as they saw this monster sidle nearer.
Ethbaala: “Drop your swords.”
And they did, sent them clattering against the stone.
Bitnima: “Gods above, what manner of foul thing have you become?! Besides irredeemably mad?!”
Bitnima’s lips trembled, as she watched her soldiers cave and buckle under this invisible weight.
And then Bitnima realized in dread where the blood in the baths had come from, why there were no guards here. The pools, they had been filled with their lifeblood.
Ethbaala pressed between the kneeling guards now, gently slipping around them like they were trees in a forest.
Ethbaala extinguished her flames and offered Bitnima her hand.
Ethbaala: “Come, Bitnima…there are such wonders I have to show you.”
Bitnima snatches up a sword from one of the fallen soldiers, and aims the point at Ethbaala’s throat.
Bitnima: “If you will not, then I will…”
Ethbaala merely stood there, and she looked at Bitnima with the feral, monstrous glow of her green eyes.
Loyal Guard: “No, no…get…the general, get…a holy man! She is not…natural!”
He struggled to speak, as he remained on his knees.
Ethbaala held up a hand and made a gesture that snapped their mouths shut. Hardened men of war, struck silent, each and every one terrified and heeled before a young, delicate looking queen.
Bitnima tried to keep both her voice and arm steady, as she brandished the gleaming steel tip at the thing that claimed to be her cousin.
Ethbaala offered Bitnima her hand again.
Ethbaala: “Will you have war or peace, cousin?”
Bitnima: “No…I will not. I cannot!!!”
Ethbaala: “I shall show you both then…”
Bitnima arced the sword towards Ethbaala’s wrist, aiming to sever her hand from her arm.
Ethbaala suddenly swept the blade from Bitnima’s hand, and in that same motion, seized her by the hair, dragging her up the steps.
Bitnima: “Get off me, demoness!”
Ethbaala ignored her words as she dragged Bitnima screaming and thrashing to the window at the top of the stairs.
Ethbaala turned to her cousin and said softly, looking down at her.
Bitnima cried and struggled, helpless as a doll dragged around in a child’s hands.
Ethbaala said and yanked her up, holding her face out over the lip of the window.
Bitnima ceased her struggling just long enough to glance up. She grunted sharply at the motion, but her eyes obeyed, looking below.
In all her life, for good and ill, Bitnima, as a royal, had never felt alone, never felt so utterly cut off from the constant presence of others who surrounded her. But now as she looked below, she felt that exact emotion, fully, as if it were a jagged dagger in her heart. For below, her forces still stood, save for scattered bodies here and there. But the rings of elephants and the soldiers that rode them no longer surrounded the great keep, no. They surrounded just one man who cut a fierce and powerful silhouette across the flickering night illuminated by shocks of lightning and the haze of the green flame rippling from his eyes like a burning sea. They circled him instead, this man, forgetting the very storm that hammered rain down over them, bowing before him, prostrate as Bitnima’s guards were at the foot of the stairs. They bowed to a king with eyes matching the virulent greens of Ethbaala’s own, a wedded pair.
Bitnima felt the depths of her helplessness, vulnerable, small as this…this thing…beside her had so aptly put it.
Bitnima: “That man…”
Ethbaala: “Is the son of Ba’al Hammon. The Great Bull. And I his wife. THAT man is war….Bitnima.”
Bitnima eyes were weary with age, and wary, fearful as they drank in the view below.
Bitnima: “No, no he cannot be…”
She spoke weakly, defeat mixing with revulsion.
Ethbaala turned to her face so that Bitnima was forced to look at her.
Ethbaala: “This woman…is peace.”
Bitnima: “A bloodied court and rioting subjects are not peace. It cannot be our great god, Baal…no…no, this man is…”
Bitnima could not find her tongue to say more, but thought…”he is…what…what is he…a demon? A malevolent spirit? The harbinger of chaos itself?”
Ethbaala lifted Bitnima and cradled her waist so that she was holding her in a lecherous way.
Ethbaala: “You are blood, fair cousin, and now blood is as the gold of the earth to me. And I would no sooner spill my blood than yours…see it lapped up by the dogs of Rome…No, I would see it elevated.”
Bitnima: “Elevated…with a bloodbath and orgies of madness?”
Ethbaala: “You can choose the gift of eternal life, or power, of pleasures you have never known. You are still fair…and can be fairer still…”
Ethbaala turned her head slowly to the carnage outside.
Ethbaala: “Or you can choose death.”
Bitnima: “Are the gods so petty?”
Ethbala: “Petty is for women and children.”
Ethbaala turned to her cousin and kissed her lips softly and whispered.
Ethbaala: “Power is for Queens.”
Bitnima croaked, eyes briefly traveling down to the man with emerald flames for eyes.
Ethbaala smoothed the sweat soaked hair that clung from her face and moved a long gilded nail to the vein in Bitnima’s neck.
Bitnima could feel a lump in her throat, uncomfortably dry.
Ethbaala: “Choose freely, and I shall grant you your desire…either from my lips…or from the window to the horror below.”
Below Moloch stood, naked, the rain beating at his skin, washing away the blood that covered him. His eyes cut upward; he was the figure of a god, flesh at his feet.
Bitnima began to tremble, as she was cradled like a lover in her cou…no this creature’s arms. She tried to blink back the salty tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. She was no queen, no lady, just a piece of meat for the gods.
Bitnima: “I…do not…t-to die.”
Ethbaala shuddered as if it were almost a sensual plea from Bitnima and smiled.
Ethbaala: “Then I shall give you immortality.”
Ethbaala crooked Bitnima’s head to the side and kissed the throbbing vein at her throat before suddenly baring fang and drinking her.
Bitnima’s whole body tensed as she felt the prick of teeth break her skin, but her throat was far too parched to give her a proper cry. She groaned softly as waves of pleasure washed over her…through her.
Ethbaala drank her down until her heart slowed, moaning and snarling against the white flesh of her throat.
Bitnima’s muscles untensed, limbs becoming limp and languid like a cat napping in the noonday sun.
Ethbaala turned Bitnima sharply round to face her as she fell limp in her arms, biting her own tongue, and then her mouth fell on Bitnima’s spilling her blood down her throat as she kissed her sweetly. Bitnima felt the sudden jolt through her veins, akin to the lightning outside, her mouth fastening hard onto Ethbaala’s. She drank down the thick, hot nectar, divine ambrosia. Ethbaala let the pestilence fill her cousin, as Moloch had filled Ethbaala herself, until she could feel the woman stirring in her grasp. She caught Bitnima as she began to collapse with the pleasure of it, tearing off her gown. And then she ripped the chains and gems from her cousin’s throat, tore out her earrings and the gold bands from her hair, tossed the finery to the side and held her naked and reviving in her arms.
Bitnima groaned, head falling back, trickles of crimson spilling from her parted, slack mouth. Her tongue, long and delicately serpentine, lapped the remainder away.
Ethbaala allowed the woman to fall over the fold of her arms, running her gilded nails between her breasts and up to her throat.
Ethbaala whispered to her as she kissed the soft spot between Bitnima’s breasts.
Ethbaala: “You shall be his concubine…go and serve your King…”
Ethbaala took Bitnima then, carrying her gently to the window as the wind and rain pelted them both. She brought Bitnima’s face to her own and kissed her mouth one last time, putting her lips to her cousin’s ear.
Ethbaala: “Fly to him, Queen of Nothing.”
Ethbaala let Bitnima gently fall from the keep’s window then, watching her descend like an offering of flesh to the Great Bull. Bitnima did not process that she had fallen from the window until her back met hard, merciless rain-soaked stone.
The sounds escaping her were more guttural, feral than the fearful cry of a woman. The pain shot through her spine, hot and merciless, and yet she did not die.
Ethbaala locked eyes with her King as the white flesh of her cousin fell unbroken and fresh before him. Moloch snatched Bitnima, lifting her up by the throat, raising her squirming body, as she growled softly like the beast she was now. He raised her up like a chalice to his queen above, one he might drink dry and cast aside as easily. He held her aloft, and she was small and at the mercy of a far greater god and master. The rain fell down hard, pelting his unyielding skin in diagonal stripes. He looked from his queen to the canvas of bone, blood, and animal terror before him, turning it round in his grip, and began to explore the limits of Bitnima’s flesh along with her soldiers, as the heavens wept, as the thunder screamed, as blood seeded the wet earth below.
Ethbaala turned from the scene to let the Master taste the newest treat she offered him. She slipped the stola from her shoulders then and descended naked down the stairs to the men below. The lightning flashing around her, illuminating the smooth, pale curves of her body, as she made her way downward, step by step, slowly, until at last she was at the foot of the stairs where Bitnima’s guards still kneeled, still screamed with their eyes, but their eyes only since she had rendered their tongues flaccid. She looked them over one by one like a young maid delighting in a bouquet of fresh flowers. And then she leapt on the soldiers, draining them one horribly after the other, kissing her own blood back into them. She embraced them all, unquestioningly, reveling in her dark mercy as she relieved them of their plate and leather. She bid them carry her to the baths on their shoulders and drink and bathe her in the blood that bubbled there. She traded a sweet and lingering kiss with them between gulps of blood. She plied them with the delirious pleasure of unlife until they were near mad with hunger and want. She gathered her children to her…the first of her apostates, the first of her dread guard to worship at her feet. She waited then with her King and her dead court…for the sluts of Rome to wail from their white towers and come for her, and she would show them the same mercy. She would show them war or she would show them peace.
Bitnima’s Ghost – A Carthage Sea Shanty
A Captain bold came from Rome and dwelt in fancy quarters,
Seduced a Carthage maid who hanged herself one morning by her stola.
His wicked conscience smited him, and he lost his stomach daily.
He took to drinking soured wine and thought of the dead lady.
Oh, Bitnima, unfortunate Bitnima; she left this wicked life so very unseemly.
One night, when he went to bed, for he had caught a fever,
Said he, “I am a handsome man, and I’m a sly deceiver.”
His candle just at twelve o’clock began to burn quite palely.
A ghost stepped up to his bedside and said, “Behold! Bitnima, the fallen lady!”
Oh, Bitnima, unfortunate Bitnima; she left this wicked life so very unseemly.
“By Baal, Bitnima,” then he cried. “Your face looks white and mealy!”
“Vile Captain Decimus,” the ghost replied. “You’ve used me ungenteelly.”
“The priests of Mot went hard with me because I’ve acted frailly.”
“And they won’t be moved to bury me though I’m a sad, dead lady.”
Oh, Bitnima, unfortunate Bitnima; she left this wicked life so very unseemly.
“Sweet Bitnima,” said he, “since you and I accounts must once for all close,
I have a silver shekel of Tanit in my toga, my tunic, my small clothes.”
“It’ll bribe the priest for your grave.” And then the ghost, she vanished gaily,
crying, “Bless you wicked, Captain Decimus. Remember a sad, dead lady.”
Oh, Bitnima, unfortunate Bitnima; she left this wicked life so very unseemly.
The captain from his bed arose, his fever now departed.
His appetite was keen again, and then for town he started.
He ordered clams and mutton too, as once he used to daily.
He eyed the pretty Carthage maids and forgot Bitnima, the dead lady.
Oh, Bitnima, unfortunate Bitnima; she left this life of sorrow’s melee.
So come you maids and beware of Roman captains in their quarters.
Don’t let them pull your stolas down or get familiar with your short hairs.
And if you let them dilly dally round your legs, and you should get a baby,
Keep your stola from around your neck. Remember Bitnima, the poor dead lady.
Oh, Bitnima, unfortunate Bitnima, she left this wicked life so very unseemly.
Scene: And He Had Eternity…A Hill in an Ancient City
I felt thirst, hunger, all these things, but delighted in them. I was cured. But that Delphine, she had made me sick with her…faith again. Bringing them all to mind. I had grown tolerant over the years to the touch of the burning cup of Saulot and delighted in drinking from it, though it never provided sustenance now. Quite to the contrary, whenever I tried to drink from it, it stirred my hunger terribly. And sometimes, on occasion, just thinking about Saulot’s cup, his “grail,” plagued me with a violently swift, and unshakeable hunger again, a thing possessed, a thing that could not be denied.
That night the hunger was agonizing. Not the regular tug of torment I was used to, but a painful, ripping hunger, a need for flesh and blood, to defile, a need to rend and tear and scream. It took me that way sometimes, like a fit of madness. When it came, it was like dying, mortally terrifying. The scent of mortal blood so nearly consumed me. Their heartbeats ached in my ears, and trembling hands smothered my ears as some inward voice whispered from the shadows. “KILL THEM…”
It was my own darkness, subtle and powerful. I HAD to drink, MUST drink, before the tide of madness sucked me down.
I rose in the dark and found my bag, clawed aside layers of clothing and precious, ancient memories, until I held the cup in my feverish hands. Drinking from it would only make my hunger swell like a blistering storm. And I would be the beast I so hid beneath one mask or another. But it beguiled me, called me, I was drawn to drink from it, the dark treachery of it whispering its poison, promising a lie, promising to sate my hunger.
But I couldn’t leave it, couldn’t cast aside, so I grabbed it quickly, that clay cup that had been with me so long. A thing that had been a burden and a joy. And I fled from the drowning temptations of mortal blood, through the dewy rustling grass, that waved silver-green as the wind stroked it. I climbed a small nearby hill, the chilly tingle of moonlight above me. the dots of torch lights below. I clutched the cup close and panted, not for the air but to hold off the attack of the beast.
I went to my knees and took my cup in both hands. Hunger beat at me with clenched, bruising fists, as I waited for the red to collect at the bottom of the cup, to bubble up like Moses’ desert spring. It was slow, this time, or perhaps my insatiable hunger made it seem so.
As I held it there, hunger bursting in my skull, deciding if I would drink from a cup that never gave me succor, feasting my ever hungry eyes on it, Delphine saw me, “the grail” pressed to my lips, and called my name.
I froze in animal terror.
Delphine’s face was wild and white, her hood down, hair loose. The wind teased it out into a veil of shadow.
Delphine: Joanna? Joanna!
She still didn’t know my real name. And she never would.
Ethbaala: “Go. Go away.”
My arms trembled with the strain of holding the beast back now, the shadows screaming, “KILL HER, KILL HER, KILL HER!!”
And I was close, so very close.
Moloch’s form snaked up from the ether in Ethbaala’s mind, his voice in her ear, the feel of his honey-touch on her flesh. His essence slithered about her, arms forming around the small of her waist, lips pressed to her ear.
Moloch: “Sssshh…Peace, peace, my Queen.”
I could not hide my surprise, the deep shudder in my body, my soul. My king, Moloch, after so long, so long…I could have wept blood.
Delphine stared back, lifting her palm a little, in reassurance, thinking it was she who had startled me.
My animal lust, my hunger seemed to subside like a raucous tide slowing in a storm. I wrapped his voice around me like gossamer silk against bare skin, like fire against flesh, inhabiting it as it inhabited me.
Moloch’s hand petted her throat, stroking the beast to silence as he kissed her neck sweetly.
Moloch: “Ssshh…peace…let the lamb come closer…”
Moloch’s corpse was buried somewhere deep across the sea, under the mud of an unknown land…but he called to Ethbaala, caressed her through the blood, quieted her after so long a silence.
I lifted my chin up slightly, as my beast eased, as if taking a drink from him, the cup lowering slightly in my hand.
Moloch hissed in her ear, kissing it, a hand pressing into her belly, forcing her to him, anchoring her…loving her…
Moloch: “Tell her to come to you…come to me…”
Delphine: “I worried when I saw you come up here alone, running off in such a state. You who is most holy, who knew Him.
She paused, afraid to ask, afraid not to ask.
Delphine: What…what could be troubling you?”
I looked at Delphine, softening my face, my voice, drawing her in.
Ethbaala: “Come closer, I’ll tell you…”
Moloch saw the vision of Delphine through Ethbaala’s unliving eyes, drank in her sweet form, her purity, and took her like a shot to the heart. He had seen her before, but never as beautiful as now, like this, naked in her mortal skin, her hair loose, and with only a thin cloak to shield her from his lust.
Delphine edged closer, her footsteps crunching softly over the grass. Her hands gently reached for Ethbaala’s own, Moloch’s own, the sensation of her felt through blood, felt over distant miles and through layers of earth. She squeezed those hands, hers calloused from a hard life of toil and servitude to others, in one form or another, the steady pulse of warm mortality radiating through them.
With my beast soothed, it was plain now, Delphine was distraught by her own doubt, her own conundrum, her own agony. She had lost Him. But she struggled not to speak of it, even now to turn her attention to me, who seemed unsteady, in such need, who had walked with the apostles, but oh, not the apostles she imagined. The voice of her Lord had left her just as the voice of my Lord had returned.
She was lost and weary. And all those people came to Delphine, came to feast on her words, hungry for some taste of them, starving for some taste of Him. They had supped on her until there was nothing left, nothing. And she was in turmoil, cast adrift, plagued by doubt. Having seen so much human misery tore at her heart as their hunger for respite tore at her nightly. She couldn’t feel Him anywhere now. There was no light. There was darkness.
Moloch squeezed Ethbaala’s waist, hands roaming over her stomach, her thighs, her breasts, and whispered in her ear…
Moloch: “Comfort her.”
Ethbaala: “Even we had doubt, we who walked with the Lord, saw him and his travails. He had so many enemies. If you want to love the world, you must contend with the hate of it, the hunger. And…”
I stroked Delphine’s wrist like a snake coiling around a branch, gently. She never need know the Lord I referred to was Moloch.
Ethbaala: “He was always so weary, so tired, the strain of it all, burdened with the heavy task of sating such seemingly endless…hunger…of all those around him.”
Moloch shivered as he thought of the Name of Him that Ethbaala skirted, the one which had cast he and Troile into torpor by the Ordo. He would have raged at it, this Agape, this LOVE, that Delphine clung to, but he was the serpent, Ethbaala his apple, the ones his sister so loved. “Taste me, Delphine…” he thought.
Delphine leaned forward, placing a kiss on each of Ethbaala’s hands, deeply humbled by this woman, this woman who walked in the light of God.
Delphine: “Your words are a poultice to my soul. But is it doubt then that is troubling you?”
I knew I had her hooked then. Inwardly, I relaxed into a deep smile, reveling in my deception. Outwardly, I trained my face to solemnity, a touch of sorrow, as I looked her over.
Ethbaala: “No, not my own, but yours, Delphine. I fear coming to you with my revelations has shaken your faith. It is…one thing to know of our Lord, to see his blessings in the world. But perhaps…perhaps…it is too much to see his cup, so like any other, and to meet a woman who walked beside him.”
Delphine’s eyes strayed downward, her lashes making a fringe of shadow over her eyes.
Delphine: “No, no, if anything you are a vision, a sign of Him. But I fear I am failing Him. And I am so weary.”
Ethbaala: “Our Lord, he was never without bags beneath his eyes, especially at the end, even he questioned and held his hand to the sky.”
Moloch listened as Ethbaala sold her wares, a practiced liar, a deceiver, such as he had found her, such as he had left her.
My eyes shone up at Delphine, with something I hoped felt like holy fire and not the flames of Baal, as I endured the slight prickle of her faith as a glimmer of it seemed to return to her. But it was tiny, a spark, it would die quickly without nourishment.
Moloch could not endure the loss of that, no, even he, Lord of the Flies, the Pit, even he cowered at her faith and did not want it to perish, because he beat his wings around it like a moth to a flame. He denied his desire to be redeemed, and yet sought it in Delphine’s eyes.
Delphine turned her eyes to the cup in Ethbaala’s hand and her eyes rolled away from it, feeling unworthy of being in its sight, knowing of the doubt that ate at her.
Delphine: It’s so beautiful…the purity of it, to think His hands touched it, that His blood fills it, that His cup endures for sacred communion.”
Moloch: “Tell her to drink…tell her to drink…and…”
He smiled as he thought of the Ordo, of the flame-haired Vestia and how this would burn her.
Moloch: “and…know herself…”
Ethbaala: Take communion then. Take communion with our Lord. Drink and know him. Drink and know…thyself.”
I extended the cup to Delphine with as much gravitas as I could muster. And I noticed the way her wrists pulsed with life so near my pale fingers, red, warm, easy to find, as she took the cup from my hand.
Delphine marveled at the cup, turning it round slowly in her hands, feeling small and humble before it, but…hungry for what it offered.
Moloch listened to Ethbaala lie and lie, wondering somewhere if the demons were toasting to it, wondering if this would keep Ba’al Hammon from his heel.
I was senseless with the ecstasy of the moment for I realized something Delphine did not understand. What Saulot had given me was for me alone. His…miracles…were personal. They could not be traded like unused tokens at a country fair. That way lay defeat and madness. That was the glitter of false faith, things the Baali knew too well. That cup would not sustain another.
Moloch pressed his face into the dip of her neck where it met her shoulders, kissed her flesh, inhaled her scent, squeezed her, plodded her onward, imagining it was Delphine’s hair on his cheek, her hips under his fingers.
Delphine’s blue eyes glistened over the pool of blood as she held the clay cup in her hand and seemed to look over to Moloch through the eyes of Ethbaala. But she couldn’t know.
Delphine: “Please lift me up with your cup, and fill me so that I may fill others, oh Lord. May my blood, my body, my soul be filled with enough compassion to be worthy of joining yours eternal.”
Moloch watched the scene thinking what a fool Delphine was, but such a pretty one, such a creature of his ardent desire. He wanted to know her, wanted to be shriven by her, burn away the curse of his blood, the thing Saulot had made him, the thing he knew Saulot would make of her. He yearned to burn it all away and leave the pustulent, rotting, corpse pits of the Baali behind. Moloch would wait an age before he tasted her, touched her, loved her in truth, and in mad desire.
Moloch kissed Ethbaala’s cheek and whispered dark things to her, locations, gatherings, plans, and a name.
Moloch: “Find Lykenia, gather them, all of them, as many as can be claimed…Find Lykenia, find me, come to me, come to my bed, and I will make you a Queen again. Come to my hot bed, my own love, lie with me for eternity, let me love you Ethbaala…”
He called her Ethbaala but the words were for Delphine, while Ethbaala lied to her, he lied as well. Moloch continued to hiss to her…
Moloch: “Find Lykenia, and I will cast her aside for you, gather them…and I will wrap you in silk and be your wine…you shall never thirst again….
I smiled and it must have been beatific, almost rapturous, by the way Delphine returned it, returned it without knowing the smile was not for her Lord, but my Lord Moloch, as his words carved themselves on my withered heart.
I thought, “She is already doomed, this one, this Delphine. Even if I were to save her now, there will only be another time, and another. She is no carpenter from Galilee. And people cannot bear so much arrogance without smearing mud on it. Eventually, she will fall. It might as well be to me, to us.”
Delphine raised the cup toward her lips slowly, and I remembered a thousands things about her I had seen in an instant, good things, bad things, moments of pridefulness and arrogance, moments of love and kindness, the full vision of a soul only those with a third eye or the sight of Baal can truly see. And I longed to see the shades of her mortality painted in Baali blood. To see how the silver ribbon of her faith fared through the burning hell of our green eyes. It would destroy Delphine. But what artistry would take her place?
Delphine was strong, faithful, pure but Moloch was subtle, patient, unrelenting.
And he had eternity.
Scene: Troile and the Lamb – Carthage
Scene: Communion – A Hill in an Ancient City
You had sated my thirst.
You took away my suffering.
You showed me the prison cell was a palace. And the palace was a temple, our temple.
As I watched Delphine, I tuned my expression to one of gentile reverence, a blasphemous woman masked by false serenity. A beast fraught with expectant glee beneath. The hard surges of my wild blood crashed on the distant shores of your slumber, just as I felt your hands, your blood wrap around me here like a blood red silk knot.
Delphine tilted the clay cup upwards, the hard rim of it touching her lips. Her face disappeared behind the round lip of the cup, except for the bright blue eyes peeking over the top, brimming with anticipated pure ecstasy of true communion.
The Cup of Saulot, had been whittled away over time, by all the many hands of the Baali that I had placed upon it, including my own. But wasn’t that always the way with Saulot’s blood, always so malleable, defined by whatever vessel touched it. And it had never found better definition than when it was crafted from your hand, Moloch, into the Baali.
Moloch uncoiled himself from Ethbaala, appearing behind Delphine, and he could smell the scent of her by proxy. He inhaled her scent, the moisture between her legs, the sour sweat beneath her breasts, the piss sloshing inside her. He relished it, all the vile odors of mortality that marked the natural death of them, the slow rot of their bodies as the cells died and tried to survive and knew, yes…this was worth preserving. Moloch watches impassively, careful not to betray his face, not to himself, not to the Sleeping things that watched…from their dreams.
Moloch was reminded of Vestia now, her flame hair matted and locked with sweat in the arena, how she had thrown herself willfully to the jaws of beasts for her Faith and how he hated her for it, he could not turn her. She wore the collar of Kings now, blood so old and terrible even he could not speak of them. Moloch hoped she felt this somehow, that it burned in her slumber, but wondered as Delphine seemed so like her…and yet so plainly different, so humble, so pure, and radiant.
Delphine closed her eyes slowly, the blood edging toward her lips, edging forward inevitably as destiny.
And I took a moment to admire the artistry of the deception, the weave we had crafted, tainting Saulot’s “mercy” and presenting it as just that to the faithful hunger of this one. It was delicious irony that through our deceptions, the deeper truths always welled up.
Ethbaala: “Take the communion of our Lord, and have your faith restored. Find love and freedom in his eternal embrace.”
My mouth parched to see her on the precipice of drinking. I spoke devoutly, so passionately, and it was true, was it not? Could I be blamed if she mistook this offer of communion as one with her Lord instead of one with mine?
Moloch wondered if she would drink; it drove him around the point of a knife’s end with madness. He pondered it all, what it would prove, and if he indeed had been careful enough to conceal this from Saulot, who even now had a hold on his blood.
Delphine shifted slightly, as a light breeze touched her, making the hem of her cloak rustle. And she thought she heard a voice on the breeze, thought she heard Him.
And in that whisper, she caught just one word, “Agape…”
Moloch shuddered as it passed over his spirit, and he saw his skin begin to flake, ash pricking from his hands. And yet he did not burst into flame, nor did the earth swallow him up, but he felt it all the same.
Agape, the word rose up again now in Delphine’s mind with the clay cup in her hands. A love deeper than the flesh, deeper than wants, deeper than oneself, springing from the font of the deepest well, compassion…
A love that gives, never expecting to receive. A love eternal, unchanging. A love that gives itself fully to beggars, the sick, the jaded, the deformed, the wicked, the lost, the whores–as Delphine had been herself. It was a cup that could never empty, this deep love, because the waters of it were of Him, the true divinity of the spirit…of boundless love.
What was this? Was it from her? So alien a feeling, a peace that passed all understanding and then evaporated like water on a sunny stone. Moloch backed away from Delphine then, hating this warmth, this unheard voice that whispered words he no longer could conceive.
And as this boundless love swelled within her, a moment hanging in the air before she drank from the clay cup, she looked over at the woman across from her, who called herself Joanna, wife of Chuza, servant of Herod, and in this clarity saw her, saw past her mask. This was no gray-haired matronly woman of the Bible who traveled with the apostles and witnessed the Resurrection.
No, this was a young woman, who bore the burden of a terrible thirst, a woman with glossy curls against ivory skin, too-green eyes, hungry eyes so dry they looked almost like cracked marble, too-red lips, which held the sensual knowing curve of a whore’s understanding that Delphine knew well.
“Joanna” had lied, but was she so different, this whore who had sought His cup to quench her thirst, to make herself clean. Delphine prayed with every bit of herself that this woman, a woman she would never know the true name of, would have her thirst quenched utterly by God that He would share from his eternal well.
“Oh yes, this is she….” thought Moloch madly, understanding all at once who and what this woman, Delphine, would become.
She prayed that He could hear her even now, as she struggled to hear Him. She prayed so very hard that this was not, in truth, a prayer of some selfish design thrust upward in desperation just to hear Him again. No, not that, but for the revelation of the true boundless love of God be revealed to this woman of hungry eyes, of thirst, that she drink and know herself through His healing waters, and thirst no more.
He felt some insane urge to fall on his knees in this moment, to cry out to the star that burned over the world, the one that lit the face of Caine aeons ago and plead for reprieve, for redemption, anything to die and feel nothing but this. And perhaps in this moment he could have done it, do what the Dark Father could not or would not…but no, a darker voice, the Deceiver, the Father of all Lies, things that came so naturally to Moloch…and yet he could not discern this one for himself, told him, “There is no reprieve….”
Delphine’s faith may have faltered, her hope may have diminished, drained as she had been so many nights of human misery and weariness, but her profound love for others never did. And of faith, hope, and love — love…
love was the greatest, the rock on which all else was built.
Moloch mutilated this purity from Delphine, twisted it against his evil mind and bent it into a blade, one he would use to cut his children. He said to himself and perhaps to God; he could never say…
Moloch: “Yesssss….The stone on which to build my undying house.”
Moloch was a fool, already scheming to pervert this into something that glorified himself. He was a madman and a demon. And yet, he could feel it now, something he had not known since his sister, who promised him this, gave him some taste of it, and yet fled from him, something he had feigned with Ethbaala, something he would seek for a thousand years.
Agape…it was His true cup, and it could never be corrupted, never be emptied, it replenished and filled the well of Delphine’s soul. And it was not something you could hold like a chalice in your hand, not a thing you could admire on a shelf, not clay that could be broken. No, the true cup, the true grail, it was within your soul, and it was filled with God’s love made enduring through His sacrifice for His children.
Moloch could feel the shift in her from behind the thin skin of Ethbaala, through the ribbons of blood that connected them, from countless miles away, beneath mud, in a foreign land. He felt it all. And it had been just as Moloch had hoped. He never wanted Delphine to drink down that tainted cup, to see her become another green fire added to the endless fires of Baal. He had wanted her to see through the veneer, see she didn’t need the cup, to fan the flames of her faith again that drew him so near. And Baali, if they were adept at anything, it was fanning the flames, bringing them to boil, even the hardest of sparks to cultivate, faith, rose up when confronted with the Baali. The Brujah had once thought themselves Promethians but only the Baali could ever truly know the flames.
Delphine lowered the cup slowly, her eyes seemed to move through Moloch to the woman across from her.
Delphine saw “Joanna,” saw the terrible thirst in her soul. It was dry, yearning; it had been without water for too long in a dry land. Seeing the greater thirst of the woman across from her, Delphine stopped just before she took a sip, and offered “Joanna” the cup instead.
Delphine: But you are thirsty yourself. Please have a drink. Those who drink the water He gives them will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
This was unexpected. I had never known anyone in my long life who had given a full cup to another when they burned with thirst. Few could resist gulping it all down and enjoying their fleeting satisfaction while the desire, the lust, the hunger of other eyes clung to them, just as I had done, none could resist even a taste.
Moloch seemed to answer Ethbaala’s unspoken words, though she could not hear his voice…
Moloch: “But she can…”
I kept my voice sweet and humble, things I was not, nor cared to be, and reached forward.
I would take a sip, then offer it back to her, we would share a communion. This was the Cup of Moloch after all now, and it gave me no end of delight that the lamb offered it to me. I could feel the stirrings of her faith prickle me more now, angry ants against my skin, but I endured it.
Ethbaala: “But then will you join me, Delphine? For just as my thirst touches you, yours touches me.”
Delphine’s lips cut into a slight smile; she gingerly brought the cup forward, and nodded.
Delphine: “Of course, I will, but not while you thirst so much.”
Moloch was the Lord of the Flesh, of Pain and Depravity and all the sinews flooded with surges of sensation. What else could he do but marvel for eternity at one who denied his touch and wanted for nothing but matters of the soul. What else could he do…but hunt it? But first…oh but first, “Father…” he thought, “first, I must keep it alive…” Moloch watched then, watched as he worked it out, mapped out the labyrinth for a millennia. He knew he would send another, some evil to Delphine, and set her in Saulot’s path.
Ethbaala’s lips spread into a smile.
Ethbaala: ” But you are kind. Surely, you would have walked with us in those distant nights in Jerusalem. Oh, then let us give thanks to the Lord (Moloch) together.”
I had her…a sip or two, and she’d drink. I had nothing to fear from the Cup of Baal.
I would find Moloch. Go to this distant land.
Tear at the mud covering my King with my own hands if I must.
I would be His queen. As I always had been.
Moloch watched as Ethbaala drank, giddy with the thought of the father’s blood in Delphine, yes…yes…
I drank rapidly, eagerly, the blood flooded my throat like it had been stuffed with a fat cock. Unbearably wicked and wonderful.
And I drank ravenously, deeply, with my whole thirst for him, unbridled, the primal wet longing of childe’s fangs to hold communion with their sire.
Moloch watched as Ethbaala threw herself down amongst the cobbled stone of corpses that he tread over. He watched her ripen with the blood, as the wind picked at Delphine’s cloak. He watched the calf fatten itself for Their gnashing teeth, she herself a cup from which he would drink and readily pass to his Queen, Delphine d’Orleans.
And I drank and drank, until the cup was empty as a mourning heart.
And it was Empty. I was empty.
My hunger…sated, utterly.
Never once in my years had I ever felt such…peace…such absence of want. Not even as a mortal…
I was born to thirst…
Moloch felt himself suddenly, intrusively pulled away from the vision, and he would have snarled…Moloch would have screamed, would have cursed Ethbaala to hell, but could not find his tongue before the darkness took him. He was smothered by the emptiness inside her, by the touch of greater power.
Ethbaala’s eyes shifted downward to the cup, realizing she had drained it all dry, panic. Delphine MUST drink. But then I remembered the cup always refilled, always, responding to the presence of hunger.
“When you hunger, the cup will fill again.” – Saulot.
But there was no hunger here.
Not from Ethbaala, not from Delphine, and connected as he was by blood, for a briefly radiant moment, the echo of that found Moloch in the darkness, beneath the earth, beyond seeming hope, beyond all seeming remembrance.
Moloch’s soul was hurled through the ether, back into the shell of his withered husk, and the stone lid of his prison slammed shut. And he fell into the green mire of his dreams, awaiting a better cup in which to pour himself into.
Ethbaala: “What is…this?”
For the first time in a hundred years or more, I took a breath. A BREATH! Delphine had touched something within me that was fearfully strong, love and death and desire and pain all bound together, the dark wine of faith I’d known in my youth when, for Ba’al Hammon, for Moloch, we slaughtered and were slaughtered by the thousands and kissed the knives that we killed with and that killed us.
Delphine placed her hands in mine, palm in palm, and gently squeezed. She was too bright to be so close to me, and her heart raced like a deer, mad with ecstasy, as she saw my thirst had been burned away, such passion for the well-being of others it felt fatal.
Delphine: “It’s mercy…it’s love…Have strength, believe in Him…”
“A long road. It will be longer still. Do you have the strength?” – Saulot.
What was a kindred without thirst? What was I without it? I who was born to it…The Queen of the Hungry Eyes, consort to Moloch, the last true Queen of Carthage.
I found myself slipping into Delphine’s arms, a strange exhaustion coming over me, stranger still the peace of it.
It terrified me; I called out to Moloch, but felt his cold silence.
But there was another warmth filling my blood, an almost living heat, like a warm bath inching over and beneath my skin.
Delphine: “Don’t fear. I will stay with you…you are not alone or forgotten. I am here. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. He has given you rest.”
“It is not my place to take you life. But I can give you rest, of a kind.” – Saulot.
I could feel Delphine’s arms wrap around me, that shawl of her faith and human warmth enveloping me.
I was weaker now, my eyes heavy, a long slumber descending. The cool ground beneath me calling. The world was empty and quiet. Dawn would blush the horizon in a few hours. I felt an easing in my chest, as if some long-tightened spring had begun to unwind.
Ethbaala: “You have not saved me…You cannot even save yourself. You know… you cannot last.”
Delphine: “I know.”
Delphine looked deeply into Ethbaala’s eyes, the fear, the want, the suffering bleeding away. Her eyes weren’t green now, but full, sated, like two full twin cups of water, sated, and they seemed almost gem-like blue.
Delphine: “None of us can last. That is the lesson.”
“Walk your road. Walk to the end, where you will find your healing.” – Saulot.
– VIDEOS –
Ordo Tales – From the Master’s Hand
Part 1 (A Sweetie from Luthienne, Steps of an Ancient City, My Cut Runneth Over)
Part 2 (A Cloak of Beggars, Rest…of a Kind)
Part 3 (When the Candle Goes Out, No Pauper’s Hut)
Part 4 (No Pauper’s Hut)
Part 5 (And He Had…Eternity)
Part 6 (Queen of the Hungry Eyes, Troile and the Lamb)
Part 7 (Communion)
Part 8 (Now We Are of an Accord)
Part 9 (Will It Be War or Will It Be Peace?)
Part 10 (Will It Be War or Will It Be Peace?)
Part 11 (Temple of Eshmun 1)
Part 12 (Temple of Eshmun 2)
Part 13 (Temple of Eshmun 3)
Part 14 (Temple of Eshmun 4)
Part 15 (The Fortune Teller)
Part 16 (Death Before Dishonor 1)
Part 17 (Death Before Dishonor 2)
Part 18 (Death Before Dishonor 3)
Part 19 Death Before Dishonor 4)
Part 20 Death Before Dishonor 5)
Part 21 (A Dying Queen)