THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 5

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Submitted Date 05/05/2019
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Some hours later, Tarlos's belly was full of spiced beer and his head was full of ideas. He looked around at the tilting and rippling room ahead of him, seeing the people talking and walking every which way, drinking and dancing and singing. Music drifted through the room, high-pitched strings and deep drums. It all gave him a headache.
A huge bonfire roared in the center of the great hall, and eight boars roasted on four spits above the flames. Slaves turned the spits, and the grease and fat dripped sizzling into the fire. The boars' bellies were filled with apples and cinnamon, and the room was full of the aroma of baking pork. Tarlos's stomach lurched at the smell.
Someone hit him on the back and almost broke him in two. A huge hairy arm draped over his shoulder, and hot breath whispered into his ear.
"Brother, that was some kind of thing you did, the way you killed that roc." Krastos's words were slurred, and the goblet in his hand spilled over as he swayed on Tarlos. Tarlos looked up at his giant demigod twin brother and smiled with hooded eyes.
"Of course," Krastos continued, "I didn't see it. Stuck behind a door, yeah? But I heard it all. And Lugal saw it, and he told me all about it, how you put that giant chicken in its place, yeah? Flying all over the place, throwing stuff. Did you throw stuff? I threw stuff. Did you see me? Yeah, of course you did. I almost died."
Krastos swirled his beer around in his cup, and more spilled over the rim. Tarlos said nothing. He hardly ever spoke when drunk. Krastos spoke enough for the both of them.
The smell of cooking meat was too much for Tarlos, and he bent over and puked. It was brown and all liquid.
"Oh wow," said Krastos. "You need something to eat. Be back, yeah?" He left Tarlos staggering, going to the table that ran the length of the great hall. It was covered in cheese and fruit and bread.
Tarlos wiped his mouth and swallowed the sour spit in his mouth. He was thirsty, and he drained the rest of his beer. His tipped the cup upside down over his upturned face. A drop fell out and landed in his eye. It stung, and he rubbed it.
"More mead, prince?" asked a sweet voice.
Tarlos looked to his left and focused his double vision. Katla stood there with a pitcher. It seemed to be the first time Tarlos realized how small she was, with narrow hips and tiny feet. Her straight blonde hair was always pulled back, revealing her stark blue eyes. No one else in Kesh had blonde hair. No one had blue eyes, either. And now that Tarlos was really seeing her, her skin was almost milk-white. All the people native to Kesh were chestnut-skinned with dark curly hair.
"Where are you from?"
"It was a small village called Hirnhyo," she said. "I'm sure I've told you before. Can I refill your cup?"
"Did you see me today?" Tarlos held out his cup and Katla filled it with mead.
She shook her head. "Mez wanted me to. I refused." Her neck and face turned a light shade of red, and she looked up at Tarlos with sad eyes. "I couldn't. What if you had..." She moved a stray strand of hair behind her ear and cleared her throat.
Tarlos placed a hand on her bare shoulder and met her eyes. "I'm sorry if I worried you. But I'm okay." He took a sip of mead. "Have you ever seen a mammoth?"
Katla shook her head. "If I ever did, I was too young to remember."
"Traders say they're dying out."
"That's a shame." Her eyelashes were long and dark, and they fluttered with shyness. "Can I get you anything else?"
Tarlos shook his head. "I think I'm going to bed soon. I'm really tired."
"You had a long day. Congratulations, prince." She moved to walk away but turned back for a moment. "Tarlos, I...there's something..."
He burped in his mouth and smacked his lips, grimacing at the taste of vomit in his throat. "Yes?"
She stared at the floor. "Perhaps now isn't the best time. Goodnight, Tarlos." Katla left him, offering refills to other guests in the great hall who were attending the banquet.
Krastos returned with a wooden platter stacked with cheese and red grapes.
"Eat," he said, and he dangled a hunk of white goat cheese in front of Tarlos's face. It stunk. Tarlos waved it away. "You have to eat, brother. You can't drink the night away. There's dancing to be done and girls to bed and songs to sing and stories to tell! You can't do any of that if you're sick or asleep, and in order to keep you from that you have to eat!" He shoved the cheese into Tarlos's mouth as Tarlos brought his cup up to drink.
Tarlos glared at his brother with cheese in his mouth. It filled with saliva and he realized he was actually a little hungry. He had not eaten since the previous night. He ate the cheese and some grapes as well.
"There you go," said Krastos. He slapped Tarlos on the back. Tarlos choked on some cheese for a second, then swallowed it down and chased it with beer.
Tarlos sighed. "Why aren't you doing all that stuff?"
"What?"
Tarlos pointed to the party crowd all around them. "Singing and dancing and all that you said."
"Brother! We have to stay together tonight! It's our night. Not yours and mine separately. After all, if it wasn't for you, I'd be dead, yeah?"
Tarlos raised a finger to his brother's lips. "I would advise you..." He belched. It tasted like beer and cheese and grapes and vomit all at once. He scowled. "I would advise you not to talk about that. I broke the rules. As you did, taking the chance I gave you."
"Aww..." Krastos brought his brother in for a rib-cracking hug, and Tarlos held his cup to the side so as to not spill any beer. "I'm too drunk to remember that!" He released Tarlos.
"Not as drunk as this one." Tarlos nodded to a woman who was sauntering over to them.
"Oh, Tarlos, save me," whispered Krastos.
The woman was in her forties, and in her younger years she was Lakaeus's favorite concubine. Now, her age was apparent, and she covered herself in bracelets and jewelry in her ears and in her nose. Her face was painted at least half a dozen colors, and the paint was thick like a mask. The skin under her arms was loose and flabby but was reminiscent of the days when she was thin and smooth. She wore a purple robe, and it was loose in all the wrong places. The largest goblet in Kesh was in her hand.
The twins grimaced as she approached. She laid a red-tipped hand on Krastos's shoulder muscle and moaned.
"Oh, boys, boys," she said. Her breath reeked of beer. "That was some display of strength today." She squeezed Krastos's shoulder. He drew back. She stepped closer.
"Thank you for the compliment, Kamhat," said Tarlos.
"It's only the truth. Everyone knows it." She shot a smile at Tarlos. A few of her teeth were missing and the rest were yellow. She gazed at Krastos and bit her bottom lip.
Krastos cleared his throat. "We haven't seen you in a while, Kamhat. How are you?"
"Oh, fine, fine." She took a long drink from her goblet, draining half of it in one gulp. "The king treats me so well, me being his favorite, you know. Gods bless him, he's too tired for me to visit him anymore. Moleg give him strength."
Tarlos and Krastos both rolled their eyes, drunk as they were. They knew for certain that Lakaeus had not made physical contact with any concubine for more than five years. And he most definitely was not avoiding Kamhat for his health.
"And speaking of Moleg," Kamhat said. She ran a finger down the length of Krastos's arm. "What are you thinking about, demigod prince?"
Krastos pulled away and stepped to the side. "Thinking about those hogs on the spit! I think they're almost ready, by the smell of them. I think I'll go and have a word with the slaves tending to them. I like my pork bloodier than most." He nodded to Kamhat and frowned at Tarlos, then made for the bonfire.
"That Krastos," mused Kamhat, following him with her eyes, "is surely his father's son."
"Have you seen my father recently?" Tarlos asked, bringing her attention away from his brother.
"Oh, dear prince, no. Hardly anyone has but for his healer, a few slaves, and the High Priestess." She smiled at him. "You miss your father."
Tarlos shrugged. "As any son would. I worry about him. I wish he could have been there to see me—us—today. But I understand. This day is difficult for him. Every year."
Kamhat nodded and grabbed his bicep. "Your mother, of course. Such a great queen, Ninsun was. And so beautiful. A great loss." She made a tut-tut noise with her tongue. "It was thought among some of us privy to her lineage that she would live for a thousand years."
"Mm." Tarlos took a drink, swallowed, coughed. "Why's that?"
"Her ancestors, of course. She was descended from the Ageless."
Tarlos raised an eyebrow. The small motion seemed slow and difficult on his drunk face. "From...?"
"But evidently it was not true." Kamhat shrugged and spied at her goblet. "That small thing you were talking to, is she yours?"
"Katla? Yes. She and Mez are my room slaves."
"I shouldn't have to guess then." She gave him a sideways glance and a smirk.
Tarlos narrowed his eyes at her. "No, you shouldn't."
Kamhat gave him an apologetic look. "Forgive me, prince. I forget my place when I've had too much to drink." She bowed her head. "Congratulations on your becoming a man. You will make a great king someday."
Tarlos nodded to her and took a drink, sending her the plain message that they were finished speaking.
Krastos came back some time later with a bronze plate loaded with a pile of red pork. He was chewing on a slice, and blood dripped down his chin. He wiped it away with a hairy hand and swallowed his bite, then licked his lips and tried to reach his bloody chin with his tongue.
"Mental, that one," he said.
Tarlos nodded. "I'm not feeling so well."
"You need to eat." Krastos held out a slice of bloody meat and Tarlos gagged on the smell.
"I drank too much," Tarlos said. "I think this is my eighth cup." He drained the rest of it.
"Did you talk to Katla?" Krastos asked.
"Yes."
"What did she want?"
"Nothing, why?"
Krastos pointed to a general direction toward the middle of the hall, where people danced with goblets in their hands, and the goblets spilled over onto the floor, and the hands that did not hold goblets were holding onto other people, and the people swayed to the rhythm of the music.
"I saw Lugal a minute ago, or maybe an hour ago. I can't really tell. I'm less drunk than I was. I think it's because I've eaten something. You really should eat something. It'll make you feel better. What was I...oh yeah. Anyways, Lugal told me that Katla had something to tell you, but I told him that's none of my business."
"Nor his."
"Told him that, too. Did she tell you something?"
"I don't remember. My head is swimming. The room is swimming. I really think I'm going to sleep. Hopefully the room doesn't sway too much while I'm laying down."
"I've got some herbs that Shala gave me a few decans ago—"
"That priestess girl? Are you and she still seeing each other?"
"—she gave them to me for bad dreams. It helps you sleep really, really deeply."
"You're having bad dreams?"
Krastos shook his head and shoved another piece of pork into his mouth. He chewed quietly and did not speak until he had swallowed. He licked the pink blood from his lips. "Not anymore."
"Goodnight, Krastos."
"All right, goodnight, brother. I'll see you tomorrow. If your head isn't hurting too much, yeah?"
Tarlos nodded, put his empty cup on the food table, and made his way through the crowd of people who had gathered to celebrate his coming of age, weaved through dancers and swaying drunks with puke on their robes, climbed the steps to his apartment, fell over into his white cotton sheets, and he was asleep before he closed his eyes.

Lightning cracks and forks over a mountain and the sky for an instant is illuminated in white and purple. The mountain laughs at the lightning, and Tarlos covers his ears.
"Why do you cover your ears?" the mountain asks. "Do you fear the sound of laughter?"
"Why do you laugh at the lightning?" Tarlos asks the mountain.
The mountain bends over, bends down to speak to him better. Tarlos sees the mountain with two sights. With one, the mountain is a mountain and is unmoving. With the other, the mountain is a man made of black rock and red clay, and the rain begins to fall and the rock-and-clay man glistens in the night.
He smiles a smile filled with rocks and mud and twigs and says, "Because the lightning lives only for a moment, while I will live forever. Will you live forever?"
Tarlos lies in his bed, covered in leeches, and blood trickles from beneath the leeches and stains his sheets. His once long black beard is now sparse and white, covering the shell of a once great man.
"Only the gods and Ageless live forever," Tarlos tells the mountain. But the mountain is no longer a mountain. Krastos stands beside him now, beside his deathbed, holding his frail hand.
"Do you fear the lighting?" Krastos asks.
"Because it lives only for a moment?" Tarlos—or is he Lakaeus?—asks him.
"Because I can bring down the mountain," answers Krastos, and now Krastos is a rock-and-clay man, and he stands tall and broad, and now he is a mountain, looming and great, silhouetted against a cloudy night sky filled with lightning.
Another crack splays across the sky and strikes the mountain, and the mountain crumbles under its shock. Rocks fall from the peak until there is no more peak, and the rest of the mountain follows suit from top to bottom, huge boulders cascade down and bring dust and debris in a thundering gale.
"Tarlos"
"Father?"
No. He lies in his bed, helpless and sick and dying, and he watches the mountain crumble, and the boulders and smaller rocks that were once the mountain roll on top of him, crushing the air from his lungs, cracking his ribs, crushing his skull.
Tarlos feels his tongue pop out of his head, his heart and lungs and intestines explode from his torso and squish under the rocks, and the entire weight of the mountain is upon him.
He cannot move. He is dead. He knows he is dead. But he cannot leave this stone prison. This stone Hell. He is dead and he is trapped and he will remain beneath this mountain until chaos returns to the cosmos and the earth dissolves with the Powers that be.

Tarlos woke up with a scream and clutched his beating heart. His cotton sheets were drenched with cold sweat, sticking to his naked body.
When did I get undressed?
He tried to swallow, but his throat was dry and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. The room was dark and the moon outside was a thin sliver. The air was still.
"Mez?" he called out. "Katla?"
A stirring in a dark corner by the door, and then a voice. "Prince?" It was Mez. "Are you all right?"
"Did I scream?"
"Yes. Bad dream?"
Tarlos rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Yes. Could you get me some water?"
"Of course." Mez's dark shape stood from his bedroll, crossed the room, and Tarlos heard the trickle of water from pitcher to brass cup. Mez gave the cup to Tarlos, moving in the faint moonlight that came through the open window.
"Where's Katla?" Tarlos drank the water and gave the cup back to Mez. His head pounded with the pain that comes after a night of drinking.
Mez lit a candle, and the room flooded with soft orange light. "She wasn't feeling well."
"Probably drank too much."
"I don't think so, prince. Can I get you something else? Some tea might help."
Tarlos nodded. "Thank you, Mez. Tea sounds good."
Mez built a fire in the small stove, and the room was cast in dancing shadow as the flames licked at the cedar wood kindling. Mez's face was lit in orange and yellow light as he set the kettle on the stove and mixed in the tea leaves.
"What time is it?" Tarlos asked. He sat up, hung his legs over the side of the bed.
"A few hours before dawn."
"When did you come to bed?"
Mez stirred the tea as it heated. "I didn't attend the dinner. My regrets, of course."
"You didn't miss much. I was just wondering if you had seen Krastos. He gets to drinking too much and becomes a different person."
"I've noticed he talks a lot." Mez added more kindling to the fire. The kettle began to steam.
"Krastos's greatest strength is his kindness. Sometimes that goes away when he drinks a lot. I guess I was just wondering if that happened last night. He was doing fine when I left."
"I couldn't say, prince." Mez poured the tea and gave it to Tarlos.
The prince took a cautious sip. The tea filled his body with warmth, and the clouds in his head dissipated a bit. "Get yourself a cup."
"Thank you, prince." Mez poured himself some tea and sat on the floor across from Tarlos. He let his tea cool and watched the steam rise.
"How old are you, again?"
"Fifteen."
"And Katla?"
"Sixteen."
"She looks younger."
"Hers are fair-looking people."
Tarlos blew on his cup and took a sip. Mez did the same.
"She was worried about you, you know," said Mez. "I didn't want to go, but neither did she, and she made me watch so that she would hear it from me before anyone else."
Tarlos said nothing. His tea steamed in his cup. "Do you talk to each other about your lives before? Has she told you about the north?"
"No. We do our duty, and our lives are here, in Kesh, in the palace, with you. Anything that happened before is irrelevant."
Tarlos made a small shrug. "If that's how you want to go about it..." His tea was cool enough to drink now, and he downed the last of it. Mez took his empty cup. "Make sure no one wakes me tomorrow. I have a feeling I'm going to be sick in the morning."
"Of course, prince."
"And don't you dare let Krastos in here. If he tries to pounce on me tomorrow, tell him I said I would have your teeth pulled out if he so much as crosses my doorway."
"Would you?"
"What?"
"Have my teeth pulled out?"
Tarlos heard the smile in Mez's words, and he smiled back in the darkness. "Go back to sleep, Mez."
"Sleep well, prince."
Tarlos was asleep within minutes, and this time he did not dream.

A guard shook Tarlos awake, and he started and snorted. He rubbed his eyes and sat up.
"What is it?" His head was full of cotton, as was his mouth. He wet it with spit and licked his chapped lips. The sun was shining through the open window and sent spears of light into his eyes and brain.
"Prince Krastos has been arrested," said the guard. "The king has summoned you to his room."
Tarlos scratched his hair and looked up at the guard. The sunlight hurt and dulled his senses, and he tried to make out exactly was the blurry double figure in front of him.
"What about Krastos?"
"Please, prince. The king is not in a waiting mood."
Tarlos nodded and wrapped a clean tunic around himself, then splashed some water on his face. Mez was sitting up on his bedroll, hair amess and sticking up in the back. His eyes were puffy with sleep.
"What time is it?" Tarlos asked the guard.
"Two hours after sunrise."
"What did you say about Krastos?"
"King Lakaeus wishes to speak to you about it."
Tarlos accepted the response and said no more as the guard led him across the palace to his father's apartment. As he walked, his arms and legs were heavy, likes stones on ropes swinging as dead-weight pendulums. His head was foggy and his eyes stung in their sockets. He needed a drink, and he needed to relieve himself in the worst way.
The guards in front of Lakaeus's apartment opened the cedar door for Tarlos, and all the guards waited outside. In the dark room, Tarlos heard the clash of something light and metal on the floor. There was another clash, and a copper plate skidded across the wood floor and came to a rest near his feet.
"Father?" he said. "Are you in here?"
"Tarlos, why in gods' graces did you take so long in getting here?" the king shouted. He did not sound as sick as he was the day before. His voice was impatient, furious, and energetic.
Tarlos stepped through the room, finding it frustrating that his eyes had only just adjusted to the sunlight, and now had to readjust to the darkness.
When his eyes did adjust with what little light seeped through the fabric that covered the king's windows, he saw his father leaning on his bedpost, his chest heaving, his hair in a chaotic halo over his scalp.
"Are you all right, Father?" Tarlos approached slowly.
"Curse that boy's father, that's all I can say. And to think I raised him as my own. Brother to my son, son of my dead wife, and I raised him as my own. My own!" A gold candle holder that sat on a chest floated up and flew to the wall behind Tarlos. The candle broke in half as it collided with the wall, and the golden holder clinked to the floor. Tarlos had not seen his father use his Power since he was a child.
"Where is Krastos?" Tarlos asked.
"In the dungeons, where he'll rot for the rest of his life unless I come to my senses and have him executed!"
Tarlos smiled. "What's really going on?"
The king hobbled over to Tarlos, keeping a hand on his bed to balance himself. He grabbed Tarlos's shoulder and leaned close. There was yellow dried spit and mucus in the corners of his mouth, and Tarlos smelled his putrid breath that came with malnutrition.
"He raped Kamhat, Tarlos," the king hissed. "He took her unaware when she was drunk and defenseless, and he a huge demigod with super strength! She's lucky she survived."
Tarlos lay a hand on his father's hand, the one on his shoulder. "Father, surely you don't believe that. Kamhat...she's a harlot."
"She was my best concubine when we were both younger. Your brother knew the penalty for taking her! And nothing to say of our laws against rape—"
"So maybe she was raped," Tarlos interrupted. His head was beginning to clear, and some fear and doubt began to creep into his heart and mind. "But you can't believe it was Krastos. He wouldn't hurt anything. Couldn't hurt anything. Father, he didn't even want to kill the manticore. He told me before our trials, if he could find a way..." He shook his head. "Krastos would never. He wouldn't take her if she begged him. What makes you think it was Krastos?"
"Her pelvis is shattered." The king stepped back and nodded, his mouth knit into an angry line. The tips of his ears were burning red, and he ran a hand through his thin beard. "Both wrists broken, as well. Bruises all over. Her back and neck and chest—all bruised. Now you tell me, Tarlos, who in Kesh—on Earth—other than Krastos could have done such a thing?"
Tarlos's mouth gaped as his eyes gaped, and he shook his head. "I don't believe it. There's no way."
"The penalty for rape alone is death. To lay with one of the king's concubines is death. If he were any other man, he would have been beheaded twice! He should be dead now, Tarlos, if I had not raised him as my own." This time it was a bowl full of grapes that flew across the room and clattered to the floor, spilling grapes in every which way. Tarlos ignored them.
"Where is he?"
"The dungeons, like I said. Chained to the wall with our strongest irons until I can figure out what to do with him. But even our strongest irons may not be enough to hold the son of..." He coughed. "...Moleg." He looked at Tarlos with disappointed eyes. "He was like a son to me. I was like a father to him. Moleg didn't raise him, didn't show him how to be a man, how to hunt, how to fight. He was my son." This last part he whispered, and Tarlos thought for a moment that the king might cry.
"I didn't want to do it," the king continued, his voice softer now. "But the law is the law. If only he would confess, then perhaps I could call upon the High Priestess to ask the gods' forgiveness for him. Then Krastos may only serve a life sentence in chains. Then he wouldn't have to die." He nodded, then turned away from his son. "I would like to know your opinion."
There was a beat, and then Tarlos almost laughed. A short chuckle escaped his nose and he said, "You know what my opinion is. Krastos is innocent!"
"The time for judgement has passed!" Lakaeus shouted, throwing his arm across himself to dismiss the matter. "Now the only hope Krastos has is to confess his crime to avoid the chopping block. And he should consider himself lucky that he was raised as a prince of Kesh, as my own!"
Tarlos braced himself for another dish in the air, but this time his father only put both hands over his face and shook his head and sighed deeply.
"Talk to him, Tarlos. You're his brother. His best friend. If he would confess to anyone, it would be you."
"He didn't do it."
"Damn your stubbornness!" the king screamed. Tarlos drew back. "Do as I command! Go!"
Tarlos stared at his father for almost a full minute, and they looked into one another's eyes in silence all the while. Tarlos reached beneath his shirt and plucked the talisman from around his neck. He threw it across the room, and Lakaeus watched it clatter away with sad eyes. Tarlos turned and jogged from the chamber.
He shoved open the door, and it knocked into a guard that stood in front of it.
"Ow!"
"You." Tarlos pointed to the guard who had escorted him from his room. "Take me to the dungeons. Do you have a key?"
"Yes, prince."
Tarlos half ran through the palace and down the steps that led to the dungeons, and the guard kept up behind him.
The door to the dungeons opened into darkness. For a moment a shaft of orange light was projected on the floor in a rectangle, and it thinned as the door closed. The guard took a torch from a sconce on the wall and lit it with a piece of flint, then handed it to Tarlos.
"I'll wait back here," he said. There was worry in his voice. All guards, soldiers, and slaves in the palace loved Krastos. "He's in the cell down that way at the very end." He pointed.
Tarlos jogged down the dungeon hall, making tiny splashes in the puddles that lay all over the place. The cell at the end of the hall came into view in the torchlight, and Tarlos saw Krastos's grey shape behind the bars. He was chained at the wrists, arms raised above his head, which hung low and miserable.
Krastos raised his head, and he stared at Tarlos through his long and matted hair. "Hello, brother. It's good to see you before I die."
Tarlos stared at his twin, chained to the wall, feet barely touching the cold stone floor, hair tangled and cast over his face. Krastos's eyes were sad and empty, the eyes of one who had given up. All at once Tarlos hated his father.
"Get those chains off," Tarlos said. His voice was even, and he kept himself from shouting. Krastos stared at Tarlos, seeing the anger radiate from him. "Why are you still in them? Break them off."
Krastos shook his heavy head. "I deserve them. Don't you know that? Don't you know what I did?"
Tarlos reached into the shackles with his mind and felt the tumblers. With two clicks, the restraints unlocked themselves and Krastos crumpled to the stone floor.
Krastos sighed. "I told you, I want to be in chains. I deserve to be in chains. Don't you know what I did?"
"I refuse to believe it," Tarlos said. He bent down to help Krastos stand, but Krastos pushed his hands away and slumped against the wall.
"Who else could have done such a thing?" Krastos looked away from Tarlos and gave his cell a passive inspection. The torchlight showed how small the cell was. "Only the son of the god of strength."
"You're an idiot if you believe anything they tell you," Tarlos said.
"The king believes it."
"He's an idiot, too."
Krastos frowned at his brother. "How could you say that?" With an absent mind, Krastos brought a hand up to his chest and touched the talisman that hung around his neck.
"Because he's stupid enough to believe this. Stupid enough to have you put in chains when you could tear them off like cotton."
"What was I supposed to do? Fight the guards? Run away? That would only cement my guilt."
"Did you even try to defend yourself?"
Krastos shook his head.
"Why not?"
"I don't know that I didn't do it."
Tarlos sighed and sat next to his twin. He set the torch to the side, and the cell danced in its flickering light. "I know you didn't do it. The Krastos I know never could."
"I was drunk. I have no memory of last night. How do you know I didn't do it?"
"The same way I know the sun will rise tomorrow. Because it always has. Krastos, the idea of you doing a thing like this is like...it's like suggesting that a swan ate a lion."
"You're comparing me to a swan and Kamhat to a lion." It was not a question, and one corner of Krastos's mouth twitched upward.
"I'm not so good at analogies." Tarlos tried to smile, but he found that he could not.
What might have been a hint of hope on Krastos's face faded, and he said, "But the swan had just finished defeating a monster, and he was mad with drink and the thrill of accomplishment. And the lion was old and drunk, and was not afraid of the swan. I think, in that case, the swan might have killed the lion."
"She's not dead. Just..." Broken.
Krastos made a shaky sigh as if he had just finished crying. He covered his face with a huge hand and inhaled deeply. "He must hate me," he whispered.
"Who?"
"The king."
Tarlos stood up and kicked a small chain on the floor. "Ablis take my father. He's an old fool. You shouldn't seek his approval."
Krastos looked up over his hand. "A stranger wouldn't know you loved him only yesterday."
"Yesterday my brother wasn't in chains!" Tarlos screamed. His voiced bounced through the dungeon's stone halls. "He's old and sick, that's all. If he were young and healthy, he would see that you could never do this, and he would investigate further. But the man I call Father would never accuse my brother of rape."
"And the man I call Father has never shown me his face," said Krastos, his voice rising. "He's never spoken to me. He didn't help raise me or teach me. As far as I know, he never loved me. But Lakaeus did. He was more of a father to me than anyone else I've known, and it really upsets me when you take him for granted."
Tarlos crossed his arms over his chest. He chewed his bottom lip in contemplation. "I don't understand why you seek his favor so much. You already have it. He told me himself, he considers you his own son."
"I seek his favor because I know that I am not his son, and he is not my father, but he took me in just the same, even after Mother died, his only wife, and—I'm certain—the only woman he ever loved. So why don't you help me put these shackles back on and leave me alone? I deserve my fate."
"He's going to have you put to death." Tarlos stared at Krastos. His twin still sat against the wall, legs and feet stretched out in front of him, hands in his lap. He did not look at Tarlos.
"There's nothing I can do about that," Krastos whispered. After he said this, the cell was filled with a reverent silence, a silence filled with foreboding.
Tarlos chewed on his lip some more and paced around the cell. He splashed the tiny puddles and kicked aside the skeleton of a large rat. It skittered away into the dark.
"I have an idea," Tarlos said at length.
"To end my existence sooner?"
"Listen." Tarlos knelt beside Krastos and rested his elbows on bent knees. "You want the king's favor, right?"
"Yes."
"And neither of us want you to die."
"Get to the point."
"You gain his favor—regain your honor—by avenging Mother's death." Tarlos stood.
Krastos stared at Tarlos and his mouth gaped in confusion. "What?"
"Go into the Cedar Forest," Tarlos said as his mouth stretched into a smile. "Bring back the head of Bawa."
There was a silent beat, and then Krastos closed his eyes and laughed. His chest shook with his quick deep breaths, and he ran his hands through his messy hair.
"What's so funny?" Tarlos demanded. His hands balled into fists at his sides. "Why is that funny?"
Krastos wiped his eyes. "You want me to just wander into the Cedar Forest with the intent to kill Bawa. You know what Bawa is, don't you?"
"He's a monster. So what? We each killed our own monster just yesterday, and it wasn't such a huge task."
"Don't you pay attention to the High Priestess's sermons?"
Tarlos raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Krastos sighed. "Bawa is the son of Ablis and the Mountain. Since he was cast out from the presence of the gods, Ablis doesn't have the power of godly creation. So he mates with the creations of the other gods and produces bastard offspring, nature mixed with evil, manifested in physical form. Ablis's children are all evil, but Bawa is the most neglected and despised of him. They say his voice is the Flood, his words are fire, his breath is death."
It was Tarlos's turn to laugh. "They're all just stories, Krastos. Sure, there's a monster in the Cedar Forest and its name is Bawa. He's been there for a thousand years, and he killed our mother. He killed the king's wife. Isn't that the perfect way to regain his favor?"
Krastos stood up and regarded Tarlos, standing before him with his arms crossed and his feet apart and his face stern. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"I wouldn't joke about your life," Tarlos said, and he meant it.
Krastos shook his head and waved a hand. "No. Absolutely not. I'm not going against a demon. Not by myself."
"Who said you'd be doing it by yourself?" Tarlos laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "No way I'd let you have that thing alone. And stop calling it a demon."
"But it is..."
"—just a story."
Krastos shook his head again and turned away. "I can't. Bawa has killed more men than any other dem—monster. He's bigger than anything we've ever faced, Tarlos. We don't even know what to prepare for."
"No one who's tried to kill him has been a Holder or a demigod. He won't be able to take both of us. Just like the manticore, yeah?"
Krastos spun around and pointed a finger at Tarlos. "And about that! You shouldn't have helped me. The manticore was my right to kill, my trial—"
"Gods, Krastos, are you with me or not?" Tarlos yelled. Krastos stepped back. "You're being a coward. Your spineless words are really discouraging, you know that? The gods have our days numbered, brother. We aren't meant to die in the Cedar Forest by the hands of Bawa. He's just a monster—and look at you! Since you were a boy, lions have been afraid of you. I've seen you wrestle aurochs to the ground. No one has ever bested you in a fight."
Krastos sneered. "You never lost to me."
"The gods have given me a Power to wield, so that no one can ever defeat me." And you let me win anyway, you know you do. "But you are the son of a god, Krastos. Or have you forgotten that?"
Krastos said nothing. He stared at the wall, avoiding Tarlos's eyes. Tarlos crouched beside his brother and grabbed his arm.
"Mother died for us," he told Krastos. "If you die, she will have died for nothing. Please, Krastos. For her sake."
Krastos groaned and scratched his head. He sighed deep and long, and he stared at the wet stone floor. The torchlight was flickering, and the dungeon was becoming darker. Krastos nodded, looked up at his brother, and extended an arm.
Tarlos grinned as he took the arm. The torch went out, and the dungeon went black.
Tarlos said, "There will never come a day when the names Tarlos and Krastos are forgotten from the minds of Men."
 

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