In the time before time, Amiel and Lia are as sisters.
They would love one another forever. But Lia dies.
It hurts Amiel to speak. Her words tear the inside of her throat. But still Amiel promises Lia as Lia dies, “I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.”
The words are pure and beautiful and painful. It is one of the longest things that Amiel has ever said.
And it is false.
Amiel’s line is false. Their guardianship is twisted.
550 years before the common era, Amiel’s heir Nabonidus breaks his ward, his lover, his enemy Mylitta on the altar in the temple of Sin. Belshazzar, their son, devours from within her that potential that opposed Nabonidus.
She is the heir to Lia’s line, and first of the people of salt.
Ten years pass.
It is 540 years before the common era, and the moon burns with white cold light.
Mylitta lives in the temple at Harran. When he wishes, Nabonidus comes to her. He takes gods from her.
“I’m sorry,” he says, sometimes. He tries to say that. He isn’t sure how. So sometimes it’s words, and sometimes it’s a gentler touch, and sometimes he just opens and closes his mouth like a fish.
He’d have broken a long time ago if it weren’t for her.
“I chose this,” she says.
It’s one part true and four parts lie. He knows this. He wrung that information from her, once, when he couldn’t stand not knowing any more.
But it shows him that she is not dead. It shows him that he has not lost her. It shows him that he has won without sacrificing her soul.
“You can’t kill me, now,” he tells her, one day, when drawing a feathered serpent from her. It’s to harass Kuras’ forces in Egypt.
The serpent is slick with the fluids of its birth. It stretches its wings uncomfortably. It shakes itself.
“Fly to Egypt,” Nabonidus tells it.
It will kill two hundred and thirty men and lay five hundred eggs before its death.
Mylitta is drained. She is pale and weak. It is no longer true that she can kill monsters. There was a flame in her once, a flame that gave her that truth, and now there is only silence.
“I can’t kill you,” she agrees. “I’m not the hero any more.”
“Then why are you smiling?”
Nabonidus pulls them from her. He pulls forth an army. And among them are things that no mortal blade can kill; things that can devour armies; lawmakers of ruthless dispassion; scourges, judges, scientists, warriors, and architects of the natural order.
“Sometimes I think that the world will hate me,” says Mylitta, as she looks upon a demon born from her.
“It will honor you,” says Nabonidus.
“Because I am your judge.”
Nabonidus walks to the window. He looks up. He bathes in the light of the moon god Sin.
“This is my judgment,” he says. His voice is Amiel’s now. It is the monster’s, now. It is pure and brilliant and cuts at his throat until the words are blood. “Your children shall honor you for all the days of the world. They will call you the mother of their line. They will say that you fell before me, not because you were weak, but because I was too strong.”
It takes him time to recover. She gives him that time. She waits until he can speak again before she asks him,
“Did I fall?”
He laughs. “Did you not?”
He turns to look at her. She is alive, he thinks. Still, after all of this, she is alive.
There is a sudden wild exultation in him. “Do you understand what I have done? What I am? What will happen here?”
He gestures at the window. “Monster, you called me. Monster, of a line of monsters. And it frightened me, Mylitta. That I might lose you to that frightened me. But when I sit on the throne of the world, there will be nothing that can bring me fear. There will be no chains that can bind me. I will not suffer. I will not sorrow. I will shape the world as I see fit, and I shall never know pain or sorrow again. They will not call me monster. They will call me God. I will have won.”
“Unless you are weak,” she says.
“This will be a monster’s world,” says Nabonidus. “I will remake it until it honors me.”
“Unless you are weak,” she says.
He is not listening.
“And I will free you from this,” he says. “When I can. When I’m safe. I’ll free you. You won’t have to make gods. I know how it hurts. I know how impossibly it hurts.”
“You’re forgetting who you are,” she says.
He looks at her.
Slowly, he comes back to himself.
“The stars are gone from your eyes, Elli,” she says.
But it’s a lie. She sees them there. And later, he makes her tell him that, until he knows that she remembers that he loves her.
He walks out of the temple. He looks up at the sky. He looks up at Sin, who is the moon.
“I want to do this,” he says to Sin.
It is a plea. The moon god is the guarantor of the word of kings. The words he does not say hang in the air: It’s true, isn’t it?
“It’s just harder to fight her when she’s so weak.”
The moonlight on his face is a blessing.
Nabonidus straightens. He grins. If there’s no path to happiness, he can at least be pure; and one day soon, he figures, he’s going to make sure that the two are pretty much the same.
Whistling, he walks away from the temple and out into the night.