1. The Ants that Carried Us

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The End

"Do you think he understands what's going on?"

I gave Xerxes a side-eye and returned my gaze to the slaves and supervisors entering the garden. From the palace's top floor, they looked like ants to us, tiny and insignificant. The beady black of their hair and the rust of their skin blended together in the desert shimmer, and against the exotic bright green of the bonsai trees, they appeared to swarm together until they became a colony, one single entity. I could tell Xerxes wasn't really paying them attention, but I was - I always was. Ants may have been tiny, but they carried their weight hundreds of times over to serve their queen. In that way, I figured, significance and power were not synonyms.

"Takehiko's thirteen," I answered. "Not mentally incapacitated."

Something in the molten gold stream of Xerxes's energy churned at 'thirteen' like there was a rock just below its surface, obstructing its flow. Even though nothing was funny, he let out his breath as a short, silent laugh.

"It makes you think though." I traced my finger along the curving lines of a ghalamkar tapestry and met his eyes with a subtle smile, my voice low. "Don't you wish it was Sargon's mother instead?"

There was a larger ripple in the fluidity of his energy, and it was my turn to laugh at something entirely unfunny. Xerxes was uncomfortable with honesty, whether it was his own or somebody else's. In that case, deep in his heart, I was sure it was both. 

"Careful." Xerxes turned back to the men coming in. They marched in unison as they carried the iron stake in which Takehiko's mother would be burned, eight of them on either side. "You aren't nearly as funny as you think you are."

"Then I am still very funny."

He smiled wryly, his energy flowing easier - the rock gone - his earlier discomfort forgotten as easily as it came on. "I don't think so."

And for the third time, we laughed, there, together, when nothing was funny, because there was nobody around, because there was nothing else to do.

Because there was nothing else we were willing to do.

Takehiko's mother would burn that night for allowing another man to bed her when she was meant to be bed by our father, the Emperor, while Takehiko would watch straight-faced, front row with the rest of us. I was right, and Xerxes knew it. It would have been nice had it been Sargon's mother instead. Then Sargon's mother might have fallen out of favor with the Emperor and we might not have a nine-year-old as the heir to the empire.

It was a wrong thought, maybe, to wish for a child's tragedy, especially since this child was our half-brother. Regardless, somebody's mother would die. And it wasn't as though it was the first time for something of the nature to happen - I had six older and eight younger brothers, including Xerxes, who I had nine months over. Among our ten mothers, dissent wasn't unheard of.

Perhaps that was why Xerxes was feeling so uneasy - he thought that with my own experiences, I might have been a little more sympathetic that particular day. But sympathy had never been one of my strong suits. I sat still next to him as I watched them raise that structure in the center of the palace garden, my eyes cold, concentrated, unflinching.

"Do you think Takehiko's just going to let her burn?" Xerxes looked back up at me, a wrinkle between his eyebrows and a twist of his ring as he studied me for a reaction. "He's not going to try to stop it?"

But I had no reaction left within myself to give him.

"I think he'll let her burn. He'll let her burn or he'll burn with her."

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