THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 4

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Submitted Date 05/03/2019
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Hestos lived to be very old; Tarlos never knew exactly how old, but Lakaeus was aged himself by the time Hestos finally died. Lakaeus met Ninsun when they were both young, but they were permitted by law to marry only after Hestos was gone. And by then, Ninsun and Lakaeus were afraid they could not produce an heir.
They tried for many years, but the gods would not grant them a child. The news spread that the king and queen of Kesh were having trouble. The kingdom feared for them. Much of the world feared as well.
Each Holder passes the Power onto their eldest child. If this fails to happen, it is said that the universe will come apart at the seams and all life will cease to exist. Everyone in Edorath knew this and was nervous as the years passed with no heir to the Power of Space.
Lakaeus and Ninsun tried for a child for twenty years. Other women were brought to Lakaeus, concubines, and princesses of far-off kingdoms. But he refused to give a child to anyone but Ninsun, his beloved wife.
They prayed and sacrificed to the gods until a miracle was given to them. Moleg, the god of strength, came to Ninsun in a dream as she slept beside Lakaeus.
"Ninsun," said Moleg, "I have heard your prayers and have received your sacrifices. You and your husband, the king, have served the gods well. You are both old, but the king must have an heir to his Power."
Ninsun cried out, "Yes, lord, give us a child, I beg you!"
"I will give you a child," said Moleg, "but you must give me something in return."
"Anything, great god."
"Come to me on your child's twelfth birthday, the day his Power will come to life. I will await you in the Cedar Forest. Then I will ask the favor of you."
Ninsun awoke in tears, and she shook Lakaeus awake to tell him about her dream. He was happy, and they embraced in love.
Nine months later, Tarlos was born. He was small, pink, and perfect, and he cried and wriggled like a baby should. Lakaeus held Tarlos and grinned. His firstborn son! The one who would inherit the Power of Space and the throne of Kesh.
And then, something unexpected. Another son! Krastos held onto Tarlos's foot and entered the world moments after his brother. Krastos was a large baby and was covered in hair, as he would be his entire life. He never cried as a baby. Ninsun often referred to him as a peaceful old soul.
A few years later, just after the twins began to walk and speak, the king and queen noticed that Tarlos and Krastos were quite different. Tarlos was a normal, average child. He was the expected size and weight for his age, and he looked like his father with his narrow feet, slender hands, and lean face.
But Krastos looked like neither parent. He grew faster than a wolf cub. By the time his legs could stand beneath him, his arms could lift a cedar chest. While other children tripped over their own feet, Krastos sprinted faster than a bull. Most full-grown men struggled beneath a plow, but Krastos dug tributaries with his bare hands.
The king and queen knew that Tarlos was their son, the next Holder of Space and king of Kesh. But it was apparent that Krastos was the son of Moleg.
Ninsun loved both boys fiercely and would have done anything for them. She denied the traditional service of a wet-nurse or anyone else to change their soiled clothes or tuck them into bed. She was present for every moment of her sons' lives until her death.
The night before the twins' twelfth birthday, Ninsun gathered her servants and soldiers. They made ready to set out to the Cedar Forest, two days' journey west of Kesh. One soldier survived to tell what happened.
Before Moleg came to Ninsun to ask his favor from her, the monster Bawa attacked her and all who came with her—Bawa, the monster spawn of Ablis, who was discarded from the sight of Shar and Moresh.
Bawa killed Ninsun before Moleg arrived, and a single soldier rode home on an exhausted horse to tell the king. Lakaeus wept that day.
Four days after the twins' birthday, Lakaeus came to their bedroom and sat on a chair across from their beds.
"Sit and be quiet," the king said. He ran a hand through his greying beard, and he did not look either boy in the eye. "I will tell you why your mother is dead."
Tarlos and Krastos sat in silence as they listened to their father's story. They did not interrupt, only nodding whenever the king looked up—which was seldom—to communicate their understanding. When the king finished his recount of events, the two boys stared at him with blank faces. Lakaeus said no more about their mother, and he left them as he whispered, "Sleep well, boys."
Tarlos did not cry that night. He wanted to, but the tears would not come. He thought of his mother, and of Bawa. A seed of anger was planted deep within him that would not surface for many years.
Krastos did cry, but Tarlos heard his brother try to stifle his sobs into his pillow. Tarlos never told anyone that Krastos cried, and he was envious that he was able to cry at all. He often wanted to weep for his mother since she died, but he was never able to.
Ninsun's body was never recovered, but a golden sarcophagus was buried just the same. It was filled with treasures and inlaid on the outside with lapis lazuli. The goldsmith had made it into the likeness of the queen, and Tarlos saw at it and did not think it looked like his mother.
The sermon at her funeral was read from an ancient text, and it was word-for-word the same funeral that was received by all the dead—royal or not. After the sermon, the sarcophagus was sealed away in a stone tomb in a secret place in the desert. No one stayed long afterwards. Even Lakaeus departed the scene before the stones were set in place.
Tarlos stayed, as did Krastos. As the stones and mortar were placed around the gold coffin, Krastos cried. Snot and tears ran down his face, and he wiped himself with his huge hands and linen tunic. Tarlos did not cry. He knew that what they were burying was not his mother. She was gone forever, and all who had been at the funeral knew that. The goldsmith could not remember her face. No one bothered to stay even a few minutes after the sermon. Whatever memories anyone had about Ninsun were buried in that tomb, and Ninsun might as well have never been born.

Krastos's death began on the twins' twentieth birthday. Tarlos was sound asleep in his comfortable bed when Krastos pounced on him like a jaguar. Krastos was a huge man, heavy like a boulder, and it knocked the air right out of Tarlos. He woke with a breathy shriek, kicking and punching. Krastos put a hold on him from behind, and Tarlos saw that the room was full of laughing guards and slaves. Krastos had brought them all to watch Tarlos be humiliated.
"Krastos!" huffed Tarlos, still catching the breath that was knocked out of him. "Let me go!" He tried to move, though his arms were pinned behind his head and his legs were squeezed together between Krastos's feet.
"Happy birthday, brother," said Krastos. He put a finger in his mouth, sucked on it, then stuck it in Tarlos's ear. Tarlos growled, and the bed levitated into the air. "Hey! None of that! I want to wrestle you fair today. My birthday gift to you."
The curtains and the sheets on the bed floated like smoke around them, caught up in the surprise and adrenaline that triggered Tarlos's Power. The bed tilted on an invisible axis and they toppled over the side. Krastos landed with a crash on his shoulder. He rolled away, stood, and cradled his arm.
"How am I supposed to complete my trial with a dislocated shoulder?" he asked. His smile never faltered beneath his beard.
Tarlos had not landed at all. He floated down, touching his toes to the wood floor before settling his full weight on his feet. He grimaced and rubbed his wet ear.
"I hate when you do that," he said. "There's nothing you can do when the inside of your ear gets wet. You just have to wait for it to dry, and that takes forever and a day." He gave up the futile task and nodded to his brother. "But you're right. We have a hard day ahead of us, so let's not wrestle this morning."
Krastos laughed, and the slaves and guards stepped back. "No using your Power, and I won't use my strength."
Tarlos looked at his hairy hulk of a brother and laughed. "You can't choose to abandon your strength, son of Moleg, any more than Katla can abandon her beautiful legs." He winked at his slave. Katla was from the North, and her skin was pale as milk. She blushed, and her freckled nose and cheeks turned a hot pink.
"Well, I'll restrain myself as best I can," said Krastos. "As long as you don't lift me so I can't touch the floor, or suck the air from my lungs like you did last decan."
"It was entertaining, watching you squirm like a fish."
One of the guards laughed at that, and he choked when Krastos shot him a glance.
"You're on his side, Lugal?"
Lugal shifted his weight on his feet and gripped his spear. "Forgive me, prince."
Krastos pointed at Tarlos. "You turned my friends against me!"
"They have their own free will, same as you and me." The brothers were now circling each other in the center of the room. Tarlos's ear was still wet, but he ignored the discomfort. "Surely, they have only chosen the cleverest, strongest, and most handsome prince to support. It's natural they would want to see the slower, uglier, hairier brother to lose."
Krastos said, "Who are you calling slow?"
Lugal pumped his fist into the air and laughed again.
When Tarlos could think of nothing more to say, he emptied the space between Krastos and himself of air, and the two of them were sucked together in a temporary vacuum. Tarlos drove a punch into his brother's gut, catching him unaware.
Krastos laughed. His muscle was like iron, and he could hardly feel his brother's blow. He reached over Tarlos, his shorter and smaller twin, and grabbed him by the waist. He lifted Tarlos upside down and above his head as a child would lift a housecat.
Tarlos lifted Krastos with his mind, and the two of them hung suspended in the air. Having been in this situation many times before, Krastos let go of Tarlos and stood upside down on the ceiling.
"Behold, the strength of a demigod!" he shouted, and pushed off from the ceiling. Krastos almost reached the floor when Tarlos's Power slowed him to a stop. But Tarlos felt the full weight of Krastos, and his mind gave way. Krastos crumpled to the ground. He lifted himself and rolled his shoulders.
Tarlos remained on the ceiling, a safe ten feet above Krastos. "Give in, brother?" Tarlos asked.
Krastos sneered and jumped. The wooden planks in the floor groaned as he propelled himself upward. He grabbed Tarlos around the shoulders and pushed off the ceiling with his feet. The two of them fell in a heap with Krastos on top.
"Just let me know if this gets too uncomfortable," said Krastos. He held Tarlos's arms behind his back and pulled.
Tarlos let out a roar, and the hot water his slaves had been preparing for him jumped from the stove and flew at Krastos's face. He let go of Tarlos and rolled away. The water splashed on the wood floor near the bed and steamed there in the cool morning air.
"Hey!" Krastos yelled. "Jokes aside, that would've actually hurt me!"
He leaped at Tarlos, and the two of them locked hands. Their feet drove into the floor, and they growled against each other's strength.
"You're too kind-hearted," Tarlos said. Sweat beaded at his temples. "That's why you never win. You're afraid of hurting me."
They snorted like bulls locked in combat. The walls shook with Tarlos's Power. The floor vibrated under Krastos's weight and strength.
Tarlos bent his knee with his foot planted, and he threw Krastos to the floor. He sunk his feet under Krastos's hairy chest and said, "Do you submit?"
Krastos's chest heaved with his breath, and for a moment he looked at his brother in anger. But it was only for a moment, and a smile spread over his bearded face. He laughed and held out his hand, and Tarlos helped him to his feet.
"There's none in the world like you, brother," Krastos said. "Not even a demigod can best a Holder." He took Tarlos in for a hug, and Tarlos's head came up to Krastos's chin.
"Even still," said Tarlos, "only a Holder can best the son of Moleg, the man who could carry the Sun himself on his shoulders."
The slaves and guards applauded them, and they each gave a short bow.

The bedroom door flew open and slammed into the wall behind it. The High Priestess charged into the bedchamber. Tarlos's room slaves, Katla and Mez, backed away with their heads down. The four guards who had come to watch them wrestle stood erect and clutched their spears.
"As Shar himself sees you behaving thus, I wonder why he does not burn you all where you stand!" She pointed at the rising sun through the window with an elegant finger. Her painted eyes burned with fury, and her skirt dusted the floor as she approached Tarlos and Krastos. "I thought the end-times were upon us, the way the palace was shaking and creaking and thundering. You've woken everyone in the palace, royal and slave both! And did you think of your father? Sick in his bed, needing all the rest he can get? He thought Ilshu had come for him at last, the way the walls were swaying around him. And on the anniversary of your mother's death, no less! You should know better. Well?"
The twins averted their gazes from the anointed High Priestess, who spoke on behalf of the gods. Their bowed heads hid their smirks, and they risked a humorous glance at each other.
"And you!" She turned to Katla and Mez. "Why is the stove lit? Why are the tea leaves out? Today is the day of the princes' trials—they are not to eat or drink today until they are men."
Katla and Mez kept their eyes on the floor.
"Forgive us, High Priestess," said Mez. "We lost track of the day."
"You will both be punished accordingly," said the High Priestess.
"No," Tarlos said. "I asked for it, Priestess. Don't blame them."
"Why would you ask for tea, Tarlos? You know the commandment."
He nodded. "Forgive me."
Krastos said, "We're sorry things got out of control. We're both anxious for our trials today, and we wanted to let out some energy."
"You'll need all the energy you can muster," said the High Priestess. Her legs were far apart in a defiant stance, her hands on her hips. Her eyes were lined with blue and red paint, which cascaded down her cheeks in three lines. The ends of her black hair were dyed green. Every finger wore a ring, and bands of bronze and lapis lazuli adorned her thin arms. Standing with her splendor and authority before them, the brothers felt more like rebuked children than princes.
"Come," she said with a wave of her arm. "It's time to prepare."
As she led them from the room, Tarlos gave a friendly smile to Katla, and the Northerling girl shook her head, smiling in return.
Krastos punched Lugal's shoulder on the way out, and the guard grunted in pain. Krastos snickered and patted Lugal's arm. The guard smiled and nodded at the prince, and the twins followed the High Priestess through the palace.
The bathhouse was of cedar wood, as was most of the palace and most of the city-state. The bath itself was a small swimming pool, and it sat above a natural hot spring that kept the water perpetually hot.
Krastos and Tarlos undressed and eased into the steaming water. Body slaves scrubbed them down with soap, lathered their hair with oil, and smoothed out their tangles with cedar wood combs.
Tarlos asked his body slave, "What do you think they have in store for us, Basmem?"
"I couldn't say, prince," the slave replied as he washed Tarlos's hair. Basmem was probably about fifteen years old, but even he did not know his exact age. When he was much younger, he was caught stealing an apple from a merchant. He had lived as a slave and without thumbs ever since.
Basmem poured a red liquid soap into Tarlos's hair. As he had difficulty holding objects, the small vase slipped from his hand and the soap dripped into Tarlos's eyes.
"Gah!" Tarlos rubbed his stinging eyes with wet hands.
"Prince—!"
"No, no, it's all right. But if I fail my trial because I can't see, I'll cut off the rest of your fingers."
Basmem chuckled.
Tarlos said, "I imagine a giant boar for me, or maybe an aurochs. Have you seen the mammoths that the traders from the North ride? I'd bet I could take one of those. Krastos, though, they probably have a dairy cow for him, eh, Basmem?"
Krastos sent a splash toward Tarlos, and Basmem laughed. He wiped water from his forehead with a thumbless hand. Tarlos moved a small wave back at Krastos without lifting a finger. It drenched Krastos and his body slave.
Krastos sighed. "Patnu spent hours, probably, getting his hair perfect this morning, and now it's ruined. I hope you're happy, brother." He made one more tiny splash at his twin, for the sake of having the last move.
"Will you forgive me, Patnu?" Tarlos asked, still rubbing soap from his eyes.
"Nothing to forgive, prince." Patnu ran his hands over his face and curly black hair, dripping the water off. He was the only slave in Kesh from the South, across the Narrow, across the deserts and jungles. Neither Krastos nor Tarlos had ever known how Patnu had managed to find himself in Kesh, thousands of miles to the north in the middle of a vast desert.
"Unless," Patnu added, "you'd like to apologize for not thinking of inviting me to this morning's wrestle. I always enjoy seeing Krastos put in his place."
Tarlos exploded with laughter. Krastos reached a giant hairy hand behind him and pulled Patnu over his head and into the water. Patnu surfaced, sputtering and laughing. Krastos laughed as well in spite of himself.
The last thing to do was to rub a special oil on the princes' faces to help their beards to grow. A good beard was a symbol of power and authority, and it befitted the twins to grow them. Tarlos was never able to grow much more than stubble, and Basmem gave his face an extra rub. Krastos, who had had a beard since he was thirteen years old, as well as being covered in hair everywhere else on his body, received a trim before his own oil rub.
The twins lifted themselves out of the bath, and Patnu and Basmem wrapped them in hot towels and brushed their hair. They wrapped cotton tunics around their waists.
The High Priestess was waiting for them outside.
"It's time for your blessing," she told them. "Follow." She spun around, and her braided black hair flew around her head causing its colored beads to snap against one another.
"High Priestess," Krastos said. "Couldn't we have just some bread and water, at least? Slaying a beast will be tiresome, and I'm already starving."
"You will eat or drink nothing until you have completed your trial. That goes for you as well, future king."
At the same time, both twins realized where she was taking them.
"Why are we going to see Father?" Tarlos asked.
"Isn't he too sick to have visitors?" Krastos asked. "And on the anniversary of our mother's death, no less!"
The High Priestess caught Krastos's satirical tone and turned to him.
"How dare you?" she said. "May Moresh, goddess of motherhood, with whom your mother now lives, forgive you for taking Ninsun's death so lightly." Her voice was not loud, nor was it angry. There was disappointment in her words, and Krastos heard it.
He frowned and nodded, lowering his eyes from the Priestess.
"I expect more of you, prince," she added, then turned back and continued to lead them to Lakaeus's apartment.
The guards at the massive cedar doors stepped aside and opened them for their superiors. Light hurt the king's eyes, so his chambers were kept as dark as possible. Heavy black curtains covered the windows, and no flame was allowed in the room. For more than three years, Lakaeus had been weak and sensitive, symptoms of his blood disease. He would cry out in pain, gripping the sides of his head if the light of a single star squeezed into the room.
The king himself lay on his bed with the curtains pulled back. Slaves and a healer tended to him. As the princes and High Priestess approached, the doctor saw them and bent close to the king.
"Your majesty," the doctor whispered, but in the silent reverence of the room, his whispers bounced from the walls. "The High Priestess has come with the princes."
A low grumble came from the king, and the healer nodded to the slaves. They left the bedside, and they bowed to the Priestess and to the princes as they departed from the room.
Leeches covered the king's arms, legs, torso, and neck. Tiny trickles of blood snaked between him and the leeches, and stained the white sheets. Old stains from previous leeching sessions dotted the sheets, and the spots had turned brown.
"Your majesty," said the High Priestess. "The princes have come for your blessing before their trials of manhood."
The king's eyes rolled in his head, and they were white and naked. He looked at Tarlos and Krastos. He held out a bony hand, and Tarlos took it. The skin was like tissue.
"My son," Lakaeus said. His voice was dried leaves in the wind. He swallowed, licked his lips, and looked to Krastos. "Brother of my son, son of my wife." A small smile played at the corners of his mouth. "You have come to visit me?"
"Yes, Father," said Tarlos. He had not been permitted to visit his father for several decans. Now that he saw him, he was filled with dread at the certainty of death.
Soon I will lose my father as I lost my mother.
Lakaeus's cheeks were sunken, his lips thin and pulled back, revealing yellow teeth and grey gums. His eyes were round, and they swiveled in their sockets like birds' eyes. His whole head looked like that of a skeleton—fleshless and white. The rest of his body was not so different: skin dried like papyrus covering bones as soft as mud.
"I do not look well," the king mused. "Your eyes tell me."
Tarlos shook his head. "You look wonderful, great king. Healthy as Moleg, who gives you strength."
Lakaeus smiled. "I am happy to see you. Why have you come now, after all this time? How long has it been since I've seen your faces?"
"You've been feeling poorly. We didn't want to disturb you. You need your rest."
"I need death, that's what I need." The king laughed, and it was a sound like a headless swan attempting to breathe underwater. "I am too old to have lived this long. The only mercy I pray for is Ilshu to ferry me across the river."
Tarlos patted his father's hand, frail as a child's, and looked into his pasty eyes. A regret began to surge up within him. He didn't really know his father. After Ninsun died, Lakaeus retreated within himself, hardly speaking to anyone, least of all his sons. Her sons. They reminded him too much of her. Tarlos blamed no one for his father's distance all those years, but he did regret it. King Lakaeus's time was not long for this world, and Tarlos felt it as heavily as the king did for a moment.
Krastos remained silent beside his brother. Although Lakaeus had raised him as his own, Krastos was not blood, and therefore not permitted to speak unless spoken to. Only the High Priestess and Tarlos were allowed that privilege.
"Our trials are today," Tarlos said. "We become men. We ask for your blessing before we begin."
"Ah-h-h..." Lakaeus lifted a thin clawed hand to Tarlos's head and rested it in his hair. "And so you have it. May the gods bless you as I do. May you be a greater king than I, and a greater father."
Tarlos took his father's hand from his head and held it in his own. "No one could be a better king or father than Lakaeus the Great."
The king did not respond, and he took his hand back. He gestured to Krastos. "Come."
Krastos lowered his head to the king and allowed the feather-light hand to rest in his hair.
"I am not your father," said the king, "but I have raised you and loved you as my son. And as surely as your father, the great god Moleg, blesses you, so shall I bless you as your foster father. May your life be fruitful. May men and women sing of your life forever."
Tarlos saw the beginnings of tears in Krastos's eyes, and Krastos wiped them away before they could fall down his face. He was thankful for the blessing, and he had not hoped for a better one, nor had he expected it—not from a man who had never asked for him to be born, but had raised him as his own son nonetheless, even after his wife and mother of his only son was taken from him.
Krastos took Lakaeus's hand and kissed it. "Thank you, my king. May you live forever."
At this, the king laughed once more, and it was an awful wheezing sound. Krastos drew back in confusion.
"No, dear boy," he said. "To live forever in my state would be a curse. I have lived a full life, and I am at peace with my death, which is soon to come. Only gods and Ageless live forever."
The king pointed to a small dresser on the other end of the room. "Tarlos. The first drawer. Bring me the little box."
Tarlos did as his father said and found a small black wooden box in the drawer, and he set it down on the bed next to the king. Lakaeus opened it and pulled out two small talismans. They were identical, made of bronze and stamped with the seals of Moresh and Shar, half colored blue and half colored red. They were on silver chains, and Lakaeus gestured for the twins to put them on.
"A gift from a dying father to his boys," said the king.
They put the necklaces over their heads. Tarlos let his drop to his chest, keeping his eyes on his sick and dying father. Krastos inspected his for several moments, running his fingers over the stamp and feeling the weight of the bronze. He wore the talisman on the outside of his tunic while Tarlos placed it underneath against his skin.
Lakaeus took a hand from each brother and smiled. "Good luck with your trials. Gods, has it been twenty years already? I will forever think it the greatest shame that life lingers so slowly when we suffer, but the time we spend with those we love is more fleeting than sunshine in a storm."
Before anything else could be said, the High Priestess swept in and placed her hands on the twins' shoulders.
"Your majesty, the princes must now prepare for their trials."
Lakaeus gave the smallest of nods and waved the princes away. "Don't worry about me. I've still got a few decans left, I'm sure of it." He gave them one last smile, then fell asleep.
The High Priestess led them through the king's apartment and outside the palace, through the courtyard and gardens. The courtyard was shaded from the hot summer sun, and the place was filled with palms and Joshua trees, conifers, lilies and roses. The gardens buzzed with hummingbirds and honeybees.
She led the princes to the temple on the other side of the gardens. Unlike most structures in Kesh, the temple was built from stone, each block weighing over a ton and dragged from a quarry fifteen miles away, on the border of the Fertile Valley. It was in the temple that the gods spoke to the priestesses and gave them commandments to convey to the people of Kesh.
When they were young, Tarlos and Krastos thought the temple reached to the heavens, to the throne of Shar, and they had to crane their necks back to see the top-most block scrape the sky. Now that they were older and bigger, the temple was not large at all. In fact, their own palace was taller.
A few slaves worked in the gardens in the courtyard and in the smaller gardens surrounding the stone temple, and some worked on the structure itself sealing cracks in the old rock with mortar. They all paused their work and touched their foreheads to the ground as the princes walked by with the High Priestess.
Krastos spoke to one of the slaves. "Good morning, Namgan. How is your family?"
The slave did not lift his bald head from the ground but answered just the same. "Healthy, with full bellies. Thank you for asking, prince."
"For as long as I shall live," said the High Priestess, "I will never understand your friendliness toward slaves."
"It's not their fault they were born slaves," said Krastos. "They're only people. Like us."
Tarlos nudged his brother with his elbow. "Says the man whose father is a god."
Krastos continued, "If I were king, I'd give them wages. The royal family has enough possessions. We can afford to pay them."
They climbed the stone stairway to the matching door above.
"You will not be king," said the High Priestess. "Your brother will." Tarlos thought this last bit was spoken with a hint of resentfulness.
Tarlos said, "Maybe we will rule together. A Holder and a demigod. Co-rulers of Kesh."
The High Priestess chuckled in her throat, sounding disgusted. "Such has never been heard of."
The door was open and dark before them, and the High Priestess extended her slender arm, motioning for the princes to enter before her.
The inner room was lit with candles, and statues of the gods lined the walls. There were more than a dozen in all, though Tarlos cared for only a few. The dancing light from the candles gave the gods menacing stares and grimaces. They judged the twins with their stone eyes.
Priestesses, all young girls who had devoted their lives to the gods and had vowed never to marry or bear children, came to the princes to help them into ceremonial clothing: a sleeveless leather shirt, belt, sandals, and a copper headband.
At the end of the room were the statues of Moresh and her husband Shar, the moon and sun. The High Priestess motioned for the brothers to kneel, and they knelt before their gods.
Shar wore the sun as his crown, and he held the sun in his right hand, and he was the sun.
The moon was in Moresh's right eye, and she cradled the moon against her bosom, and she was the moon.
In the beginning there was nothing, and then there was chaos, and from the chaos came Moresh and Shar, and they were the moon and sun, and together they formed the stars and the earth. They separated the stars from the earth, and they had children, who are the gods, and the gods came together to create mankind from clay and fire.
A brazier stood before Shar, and a brazier stood before Moresh. The High Priestess brought a torch and first lit Moresh's, and then Shar's. The flames on Moresh's brazier turned blue, and her husband's flames were red.
The High Priestess lifted her hands to the goddess of the moon. "Moresh, two children come to you this day to receive your blessing, that they may become adults. As they use their skill and cunning during their trials, look upon them in favor."
A young priestess, perhaps seventeen years old, held a bowl to the High Priestess. She dipped her fingers into it and smeared blue paint on the princes' cheeks.
The High Priestess lifted her hands to the god of the sun. "Shar, two boys come to you this day to receive your blessing, that they may become men. As they use their strength and force of will during their trials, look upon them in favor."
Another young priestess stepped forward with her bowl, and the High Priestess smeared red paint on the princes' foreheads and chins. Tarlos saw the young priestess give a tiny smile to Krastos, and Krastos gave her a wink. Tarlos glanced at the High Priestess, hoping she did not see the exchange, but it appeared that she had, and she shook her head.
"Gods save us from the future king and his brother," she whispered under her breath.
She motioned for the twins to stand, and they bowed to the gods—first to Moresh, then to Shar, then to each god and goddess that lined the walls from right to left.
When Krastos came to Moleg, he stayed a bit longer. The statue depicted Moleg as grinning, with pointed teeth and huge round eyes. There was no emotion in the statue, and Krastos did not expect any. But Tarlos watched as his brother looked at his father with wonder and respect, and Tarlos knew that Krastos was giving one final prayer especially for Moleg. Tarlos had overheard him many nights leading up to this day, praying to his Moleg idol in the privacy of his bedroom: "Give me strength. Show the king that I am Ninsun's son, and let him be proud." Krastos always kept his pain hidden away within himself and behind a smile, and Tarlos was the only one who knew how much Krastos wanted Lakaeus's love.
The day was dry, and the hot sun beat down on the princes as they walked through the streets of Kesh. All through the city, people lined the roads and cheered for them. They shouted the princes' names, threw lilies and palm leaves at their feet, and they threw red and blue chalk powder on them to bring favor from the gods.
Tarlos smiled, even as his heart beat madly in his chest. He had waited many years for this day, and now that it was here it was surreal. He thought he would have been more excited than nervous, but he was wrong. The closer he and Krastos came to the arena, the more Tarlos's heart thumped, and the more sweat dripped from his forehead and armpits, making tiny trails in the chalk powder.
Krastos ignored the cheering crowds, and he ignored the blue and red chalk dust that clouded the streets and covered him from head to toe. Krastos was never one to be distracted by applause. He had always been focused when he needed to be, and he was focused now. His brow was down low over his dark eyes and his jaw was set beneath his bushy beard. His strength had never failed him and he knew it would not fail him in the arena. He was the son of Moleg. No beast could best him.
The arena lay on the outskirts of Kesh, without the city wall that encircled the city-state. It was a great bowl in the red and yellow rock of the desert, partly carved from the living stone, partly built from quarried granite and cedar wood. It was more oval than circle, six hundred feet by five hundred in the arena itself, and the walls reaching upwards more than two hundred feet with thousands of seats already filled with citizens.
The guards who escorted the princes through the city led them through a small private gate in the city wall, and down a path kept off-limits to civilians.
Tarlos punched Krastos's shoulder. "What do you think?"
"I think I'm ready." Krastos did not look at his brother. He was focused.
"I mean, what do you think it'll be?"
Krastos shrugged. "Doesn't much matter, does it? You'll fly above it, whatever it is, and throw it around with your Power. Maybe toss a boulder at it. I'll grab mine and wrestle it to the ground, choke it until it passes out."
"And then you'll kill it."
"Not if I can help it. Whatever it is, it's just an animal. I'll tell them to release it after."
Tarlos shook his head and grinned. His fingers and hands vibrated with adrenaline, and there was a hop in his step.
A trial of manhood for a Holder happened once a generation. The firstborn of a Holder was also a Holder, and therefore heir to the throne. If the king and queen had multiple children, they were also expected to complete a trial. Holders faced a monster, such as a dragon or gryphon. A Powerless prince or princess would only have to fight an animal—a gorilla or an adolescent elephant—and they were given weapons. Holders were not given anything.
Today there would be two trials, and both initiates were more than human. Tarlos was a Holder, able to move things at will with his mind; Krastos was the son of Moleg and had inherited his godlike strength. Today's trials would be such not seen in Kesh, or perhaps the world, ever before. And, as it turned out, never again.
The path led behind the arena, into a small room in which initiates would prepare themselves and pray. Above them, Krastos and Tarlos heard the thundering of the crowd, their cheering and shouting, the stomping of their feet. Small puffs of dust drifted from the stone and wood ceiling above the twins.
The guards stood at attention as Tarlos and Krastos each made one last silent prayer to Moresh and Shar. Tarlos was sure that Krastos included Moleg in his prayer. They finished their supplications and looked to the guards.
"Are you ready, princes?" asked the captain, who stood in front of the rest and held a spear that was taller than him.
Both princes nodded.
The captain said, "I will let them know. Prince Tarlos will be first. Best of luck to both of you." Before he turned away, he paused only for a moment to take one last look at Krastos. His eyes lingered, and then he and the other guards bowed, and he led them from the small room. The brothers were alone.
"Did he seem worried?" Krastos asked.
"I don't see why he should be." Tarlos crossed the small room and leaned against the door that would open at any moment, open to the arena and to the cheering crowd and to the monsters that would try to kill them. "We're the once facing possible death."
Krastos took the talisman from beneath his shirt and looked at the image of the sun and moon, and he ran his fingers over the outside edge.
"I forgot we had those," said Tarlos, and he grabbed his own talisman. He took it off from around his neck and stuffed it in a pocket.
"Don't you like it?"
Tarlos shrugged. "It's just a necklace. Nothing special."
Krastos frowned a bit and squeezed the talisman in his fist. "Don't laugh, but...since Mother died, this is the first time I've really felt like family. Lakaeus almost treated me like I was his son." He hid the talisman back under his shirt and took in a shaky breath. "So, you're first?"
"I'm older."
Krastos nodded. "Good luck."
Tarlos returned the nod, hoping this would not be the last time he saw his twin. "See you on the other side, then."
Outside, great drums boom-boom-boom'd and the sound carried through the arena, and the crowd cheered ever louder. Their stomping made more dirt fall on the princes' heads and shoulders. The sound of chains rattling made Tarlos's heart race as the door pulled open.

The roc was already there when Tarlos stepped through the door into the hot and sun-bright arena. The spectators filled every seat above and around him, and they called his name and applauded. The door shut behind him. There was no handle on this side.
The giant bird stood over an aurochs, tearing into it with its beak as sharp as obsidian. Its enormous talons helped the ripping of the flesh, and blood poured from the dead aurochs and puddled around the bull and bird in a thick red pool.
Tarlos swallowed and scanned the area. The roc had not yet seen him, and they were on separate ends of the arena. Tarlos had a few seconds before the roc smelled fresher prey. An aurochs was but a morsel to a roc, whose wingspan spread over two hundred feet, and it was no doubt only meant to keep the roc occupied until Tarlos had formulated a method of attack.
He was not allowed a weapon. In the trial of manhood, a Holder was allowed only his or her hands and wits. He stepped lightly around the edge of the arena and saw that there were many boulders littered around the place. He made note of it but discarded them as a good first plan. Using his Power cost energy, and he knew he could not throw boulders for long. Besides, Krastos might have better use for them.
The only other object in the arena was a wooden scaffolding holding a narrow ladder that connected the arena floor to the stands above. The ladder was used by guards in case someone was seriously injured and needed a quick escape. If Tarlos was injured, he would not need the ladder. He could fly.
But I won't be able to fly if I'm unconscious or exhausted. And what if Krastos needs a quick escape?
Stop worrying about your brother and worry about the roc.
The last of the aurochs went down the roc's long neck, and the giant bird stretched its wings and screeched. Everyone in the stands covered their ears and grimaced against the sound. Tarlos closed his eyes and put his arms over the sides of his head. The sound was like a copper knife being dragged over rough granite, and it made his teeth rattle.
The roc flapped its wings down, and a thunderclap shook the stadium, blowing dirt and small rocks outward in a circle. The shockwave knocked Tarlos off his feet and sent him flying into the stone wall behind him.
He grunted as he hit the wall, then once more when he fell to the ground. He stood and stretched his neck. It popped, and he sighed in relief of being intact.
The roc folded its wings and craned its head upward. It cawed at the people above it, and with another thundering flap of its wings, it attempted to fly up to them. The people screamed as the sharp gaping beak of the roc soared up at them. But a chain had been attached to its feet, and the chain was short. The giant bird was jerked down, just shy of its prey. The spectators still screamed, and that section of seats was emptied as the people fled to sections at the sides.
Tarlos avoided the last thunder shock by laying on his belly. He felt the wind and tiny rocks graze his back, but he was not thrown.
The roc hovered down, disappointed in its failure. It began to preen its black and brown feathers.
Tarlos regarded the talons that stretched from the roc's toes. It was difficult to tell from a distance, but he judged them to be at least a few feet long. They were silver, and they glinted in the sunlight. He had seen the way the talons had torn into the aurochs as if it were made of soggy papyrus, and he knew he must avoid them. But Tarlos would get nowhere near the bird if he did not take care of those wings first.
The roc hobbled around, pacing the circumference of the arena and testing the length of the chain. It considered the audience with passive interest, more concerned with the chain holding it to the ground. It pecked at the stone wall of the arena, and great chunks of red rock came loose and fell to the ground in puffs of red dirt. As it walked around the field, Tarlos moved as well. He kept himself on the opposite end of the bird at all times. He stayed low and quiet.
Maybe he could rip its wings off. That would stop the thunderclaps. But no, that would be too messy. Although it was a monster, Tarlos would prefer to leave his opponent some dignity. He circled the arena in time with the roc, thinking of what to do.
With another tooth-rattling screech, the roc lifted its head and stretched its neck, and it looked directly at Tarlos. The obsidian beak opened, and the pink tongue within clicked against the roof of its mouth. The enormous wings opened, and Tarlos fell to his belly.
The thunderclap hit him like a galloping horse, and he felt the weight of the air ram into him as it threw him to the wall behind. Even lying flat, he stood no chance.
Tarlos stood, groaning, and he shook the stars from his head. The roc trotted over to him from across the arena, its huge clawed feet sending ripples of sand outward with each step.
Tarlos jumped in the air and flew above the roc's head. The bird looked up at him with confusion, and it leapt to meet him in the air. The chain pulled it down, and the roc landed hard. It cried and screeched, and it watched Tarlos in the air with a swiveling head and eyes like black marbles.
Tarlos eyed the roc from his vantage point, and the roc squawked and paced. Tarlos noted the civilians, his soon-to-be subjects, as they looked up and down, from Tarlos to the roc, and back again. He had to smile.
Reaching out with his mind, Tarlos selected a medium-sized chunk of rock that the giant bird had pecked loose from the wall, and he brought it to his height. He had been lifting rocks this size since he was young, and it did not cause him any strain to lift this one. The people followed the boulder with their collective gaze, and so did the roc. Beside him now, the boulder was about half his height, and many times heavier than himself.
Tarlos steadied the boulder over the roc and let it fall. It struck the bird in the back but did not injure it at all, which was exactly what Tarlos wanted.
The roc screamed in pain and in annoyance, and it flapped its huge wings. The arena rocked with thunder and wind, and the people cried out and ducked between the seats to shield themselves from the debris. The roc carried itself as high as the chains would allow, and it screamed at Tarlos.
With a flick of his hand, Tarlos removed the restraints on the roc, and the bird soared at him as fast as wind. The people screamed, and Tarlos's smile grew into a grin.
Up, up, up.
Tarlos led the roc into the sky, speeding toward the noon sun as fast as his mind would allow. Just below him, the roc flapped its mighty wings and sent thunder throughout the Fertile Valley. It bared its talons and opened its razor-sharp beak. The pink tongue wriggled in its mouth like a serpent, eager for the meal to come.
Tarlos stopped, and he hovered a few thousand feet above the ground. The arena was a tiny oval, no bigger than his little fingernail. A few inches to the east lay Kesh, surrounded by a great wall as thick as a hair. It was cold this high up, and the air was thin. Tarlos's next move had to be quick before he fainted and fell from the sky.
He allowed the roc to reach within a few feet of him before he pinned its wings to its sides. The roc squawked once more, and it struggled to spread its wings. It lingered in the air for a moment with its momentum, and then it fell.
Tarlos stayed beside the roc, watching it roll around in midair and thrash at nothing with its clawed feet and scream at the sky.
The tiny oval became bigger and more defined, and the bird swiveled its head to watch the ground rise to meet it.
Tarlos halted at the top-most level of the arena and rested on its roof. The roc plummeted into the red dirt. A spray of rock and sand and feathers lifted upward. When the dust settled enough to see onto the arena floor, the audience and Tarlos beheld a crumpled mass of feathers and twisted broken limbs. Tarlos floated down and landed on the great roc's head, and he waved to the crowd as the people of Kesh cheered and shouted his name.
These were his people smiling at him. "Tarlos! Tarlos!" they chanted. He drank it in, and he felt their praise in his bones and in his blood, and he knew that there was no greater life to be lived than his own.

Tarlos flew to the top of the stands, the highest of the seats, and the arena was small below him. He rested on the roof and dangled his feet off the edge, and he waited for the soldiers to clear away the mess so that Krastos could come out for his own trial.
Tarlos's heart was sprinting and the adrenaline in his body made him nauseous. He had never had the rush he was feeling at that moment. He knew Krastos was waiting in the small room, nervous and probably praying. Any moment now, that heavy stone door would open and it would be his twin's turn to face whatever monster awaited him in the arena.
Tarlos sent up a small prayer to Moleg, on behalf of Krastos. God of strength, lend your strength to my brother.
Krastos must have been afraid and anxious. He was never one who enjoyed fighting unless it was a friendly wrestle. But Tarlos knew that whatever creature he would have to face, Krastos would wrestle it into submission. He had seen Krastos do it before with cave lions and wild bulls.
Only a Holder can best the son of Moleg. Tarlos had said that earlier that morning, and he only half meant it. He knew that Krastos let him win those wrestling matches, but he never said anything about it and neither did Krastos.
There was the sound of metal against metal, chains rattling, and the stone door pulled open.
Krastos stepped into the bright sun and shielded his eyes with his huge arm. The crowds erupted in applause for him, and Tarlos sent down a shout of his own.
"Krastos! Give it hell!" He did not know if Krastos could hear him or not.
Then, on the opposite side of the arena to Krastos, more chains rattled. The click-click-click-click of gears brought Krastos's attention to a large metal gate in a section of the arena that housed the large animals.
Krastos planted his feet firmly in the ground and took a low stance.
The metal gate opened completely, and only darkness faced him. Several silent seconds passed, and the crowd was anxious. Tarlos found himself chewing on a fingernail.
From above the gate, two guards threw a dead sheep into the arena. It landed in front of the dark hole like a limp doll. A huff and a sniff came from the darkness, and the monster walked on all fours to inspect the dead sheep.
Tarlos's heart stopped in his chest. It was a manticore—a huge, demonic animal with the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the face of a man. Its body, from mane to tail, was covered in sharp poisonous quills. Krastos would not be able to wrestle it. He would not even be able to touch it. Even a Holder would have trouble fighting a manticore.
Krastos crouched low, hiding behind a boulder as he gathered his thoughts. The manticore nibbled at the sheep. Although it had the body and teeth of a lion, it did not have a lion's snout, and it slowly and methodically tried to fit its man-like mouth around the carcass.
Lakaeus used to tell the brothers stories when they were young about the monsters and demons that roamed the desert. The manticore in the stories had huge bat wings and three rows of sharp teeth on each jaw, and it could shoot poisonous quills from its tail like arrows from a bow.
But this manticore did not have wings, and although Tarlos could not see well from his vantage point, he did not think it had three rows of teeth on each jaw. So could it shoot quills from its tail, or was that an embellishment of the stories?
Krastos could not risk it. He would attack the tail first. He looked around from his hiding place. All there was around him were boulders and dirt and the stone door behind him that would not open from this side. Then his head stopped as he caught sight of the narrow scaffold and ladder against the arena wall.
Krastos nodded to himself, and Tarlos swallowed. If Krastos was about to do what Tarlos thought, he would only have one shot.
Krastos wrapped his massive arms against the boulder he was hiding behind. With a slight grunt, he hefted it from the ground and over his head. As the boulder soared through the air, he sprinted for the ladder.
The boulder collided with the manticore's face as Krastos grabbed the first rung of the ladder. The monster's mannish nose broke beneath the rock. Blood sprayed in all directions. The manticore roared, displaying its sharp teeth, and blood ran from its nose and into its mouth.
It saw Krastos climbing the ladder, and it galloped toward him. Its claws extended from its furry toes, and it leapt through the air. Krastos neared the top of the ladder, almost able to see over the wall and into the stands when the monster jumped, and Krastos turned to it. The manticore's mouth opened so wide that it was almost flat, and even from a distance Tarlos could see that it did indeed have three rows of teeth on both the top and bottom.
Tarlos bit his thumbnail, and a tiny trickle of blood seeped out of the quick.
As the manticore flew through the air, Krastos reached the top of the wall and planted his feet on the last rung of the ladder while steadying himself on the wall with one hand. He bent his knees.
Krastos jumped, using all his strength to push from the ladder and wall, and he soared over the manticore. The beast seemed to catch sight of its foe too late, and Krastos drifted over its spiny back as the monster pummeled into the red stone wall. A large crack stretched from ground to spectator seat, letting out a POP and a CRACK so loud that Tarlos saw the audience recoil in a wave, spreading from the bottom row to the top. He felt a small rumble under himself as the shockwave reached the topmost level.
Krastos flew over the manticore and it slipped beneath him. As the monster's head met with the stone wall, Krastos grabbed hold of the end of the scorpion tail. He was dangerously close to the stinger, but it was the only place not covered in quills.
Using his momentum, Krastos pulled the scorpion tail to the ground. The manticore, stunned from both the boulder and the wall to its face, lay motionless for a few short moments.
Krastos landed, pulling on the tail. With a tug, a jerk, and a twist, the stinger ripped off. The entire tail wriggled like a beheaded snake, and shudders rippled up the manticore's back.
Green ooze bled from the wound, and Krastos jumped away from it. Tarlos could not remember from the stories whether or not manticore blood was poisonous or corrosive. Krastos would always rather be safe than stupid.
The monster raised itself from the cracked wall, its tail still flicking around like a frog leg in a pan. The manticore shook its head, and its huge spiny mane ruffled with its head. It brought its tail around to its face, gave it a lick with a long black tongue, and whimpered.
Oh no, thought Tarlos. It feels pain. Now he knew Krastos would not kill it, but he prayed that he was wrong.
The manticore moved its attention from its defeated stinger to Krastos. Its lips peeled back from its three sets of triangular teeth, and it growled. Every hair on Tarlos's body stood on end.
The monster leapt. Krastos somersaulted out of the way, and he landed hard on a rock. He stood, holding a bleeding shoulder.
The manticore roared, and it swiped at Krastos with a giant clawed paw. Krastos jumped over it, landed beside the manticore, then jumped away again as the tail swooped in to knock him away.
He landed beside the discarded stinger. The base of it looked to be as round as some shields that soldiers carry into battle, and the stinger itself stretched more than several feet, curling a bit at the end to a gruesome point still dripping with yellow venom.
In a single moment, the manticore puffed its bristly mane, and the mane inflated to three times the size of its head. Then, just as quickly, it seemed to pop, and dozens of yard-long quills shot from the mane and headed in all directions.
Krastos held the stinger in front of him like a shield. The quills hit the arena walls with a few dozen hard thumps. Several quills hit Krastos's makeshift shield, and the force pushed him back. His feet made tiny channels of dirt as he slid.
If Krastos had known it felt pain, Tarlos was sure he would have killed it quickly if he was going to kill it at all. Now that the monster was agitated, Tarlos had no idea what his brother was going to do.
The manticore shot its quills, and Krastos blocked them with his stinger-shield.
More quills, this time accompanied by a roar, and the manticore leapt. Krastos blocked the quills, then rolled out of the way just in time to avoid a paw full of claws to the torso.
Krastos rolled, and he stood, and more quills came at him. He blocked them. The manticore leapt, swatted. He dodged, rolled, stood, blocked the onslaught of quills.
Around and around they danced. The manticore had not yet harmed Krastos, and Krastos had not had time between blocking and rolling and dodging to make any kind of move against the manticore.
"What is he doing?" Tarlos wondered aloud. "Throw the quills like spears!" He wanted to yell it, but aiding Krastos would forfeit his trial and his becoming a man.
But Krastos was doing nothing to fight the manticore, and the manticore was doing everything it could to kill Krastos.
"It'll only take one," Tarlos mumbled. Just one mistake, and he's done.
Tarlos hovered around, leaving his stoop on top of the stands, and he circled the top of the arena above the civilians. He scratched his chin and chewed his thumbnail again as he watched Krastos narrowly escape death dozens of times.
And then, Krastos made a mistake.
The manticore shot its quills, and Krastos lifted his stinger-shield to block them. Out of near habit, Krastos rolled out of the way to avoid the inevitable pounce and swatting claws. But the manticore did not pounce this time, instead, it shot more quills, and one quill caught the edge of Krastos's shield as he rolled.
The shield flew from his grip and skidded to a halt several yards away. The manticore smiled a mannish grin, its broken nose wrinkled, its eyebrows knitted, its lips pulled back in a sneer, its hind legs bent.
Tarlos put his hands on his head and shouted the first thing that came to his mind: "Behold the strength of a demigod!" Krastos looked up at him with absolute fear in his eyes, but with the fear was also understanding of what Tarlos was about to do.
The manticore pounced.
Please see your chance, Krastos.
Tarlos reached down with his mind, and with all his strength he stopped the manticore mid-leap. He groaned under the mental strain, willing Krastos to act.
Krastos saw his opportunity in the two seconds in which it occurred. He sprinted, sending a wave of dirt spraying behind him, grabbed the broken stinger from where it lay, and jumped straight into the way of the manticore's mouth.
Its maw was open in halted roar, and Krastos dropped the stinger into the gaping jaws before vaulting off the monster's broken nose.
Tarlos let go of the manticore and panted. He was a hundred feet closer to the ground, and he willed himself not to fall.
The manticore landed on one side of the arena as Krastos landed opposite it. The manticore closed its mouth. It paused. Then it turned.
Krastos met the monster's human eyes. They were blue. Not clear like the sky, but opaque like sapphires.
The manticore fell over on its side. Its hind leg twitched, and then it was dead.
To the audience, the pause in the manticore's leap was almost non-existent. It all happened so fast, from start to finish, all the people had had trouble following the fight. And then the monster was dead, and Krastos stood victorious with nothing but a scraped shoulder.
The crowd erupted with applause and cheers. Krastos's chest heaved as he struggled to steady his breath, and he wiped his sweaty hands in the dirt. He looked at the dead animal and shook his head. He did not smile.
Tarlos came down and landed in a small crater, beaming. Krastos smiled at his brother, and they embraced tightly. The civilians cheered them on, and they grasped each other's hands and thrust them into the air.
They were men.
 

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