Lovers, no doubt
Asina tried to accept the whipping. But it sent swords cutting through her. And the hand that held it had also once held her.
She blinked. There were red ants in the dirt, traveling in a line, supporting each other.
“You are not my slave, Asina,” Bagabush said. “Stop saying that.”
Asina could hear the rasping of his throat, and then a hiss. She tasted iron and quit biting her lip.
Of course, slavery was frowned upon in her community. Great Cyrus had despised slavery, and the Great Kings after him had banned it across Persia. But Bagabush’s household didn’t call her a slave. She had a “duty” towards them. A pledge she had given as a child to enrich their reputation as craftsmen. She didn’t remember giving the pledge. Her childhood was hazy, and the only thing that came to mind was a close friend, and his smile. His beautiful, bright smile.
Her friend’s face was Asina’s cherished memory. Some nights, she would lay awake trying to recall the way it had felt being the reason for that smile. It was like descending a mountain and having the air fill the emptiness inside her.
Why did he leave me? Asina wondered. She stared at dark spots on the ground. How many of her tears were for him, and how many from the lashes?
“It is well that you do not resist, Asina,” Bagabush said. She sighed when she heard the whip shuffle sand. It was over.
“Ahura Mazda shows mercy on the strong,” Baga said.
Wise Lord, give me strength, Asina prayed. As she sat up, she dug her fist into the ants. There was some crunching.
“Here,” Baga said. She took what he gave her. A wet towel.
“The Great King’s company will soon arrive,” Baga said, his chest rising as he observed their masterpiece in the distance. Mount Behistun rose in front of them, on a vast plain of dirt and trees. At its top, Baga and Asina had carved their greatest work yet; a declaration of Great King Darius’ triumph.
In the past year, their Lord had trampled every rebellion across the land and now rode in their direction. He would pass Mount Behistun in a day’s time. And it was Baga’s dream to have him pass an honorary carving, detailing his victories. And it was Asina’s idea to have the text written in three different languages from throughout the Empire. After sixty nights, and all the men their household could employ, their work was done.
Baga turned. His smile vanished quickly.
“Where is your pleasure? Where is your pride?” he asked.
She squeezed the towel over her shoulder. Cold wetness seeped into her, interrupting the stinging.
“Ignore me, as always,” he continued. “You never cared for our work did you?”
“I admire it greatly.”
“No you don’t.”
Baga observed the carving again. The peaking sun cast deep shadows around the stone figures at its top. King Darius stood with his foot upon a rebel, and many more stood before him in chains. Asina had made sure their heads were bowed. That was important.
“I cannot wait, Asina. My name will be spoken from Susa to Sardis,” Baga said. “King Darius himself will acknowledge our household. Thousands of travelers, great nobles and wretched merchants, will admire my dedication.”
“And we are young. You will have many years to enjoy the prestige.”
Baga held out a hand for her, but she did not take it.
“Let me rest awhile.”
“Don’t be silly, you need shade. The sun will cook you raw.”
She shook her head, and Baga said something but there was another voice that clicked and hissed in her head. And heat waves blurred the ground, and bile burned her throat. And the figures they had carved on Mount Behistun turned away from her in resentment. Their hate smelled like limestone.
But why didn’t they care? Asina had labored for them. She had bloodied her hand on every nook and curve, deep into cold nights. But the figures remained silent. King Darius was too busy displaying his power.
She squeezed the towel in her hand. It was dry.
When she turned back to her master, he was gone, but the dirt from his footfalls still floated about her. How had he left so quickly?
The clicking and hissing resumed. Asina tried to imagine what the sound reminded her of.
Water sizzling on a hot plate, she thought. The sound was coming from behind a boulder not far away. Her finger slipped into the grainy sand as she crawled, and stones burned her legs. She had her eyes locked on the rock, but it flickered as she neared. So she moved quickly, picking up her robe.
She rounded the boulder, and found her friend. He was sitting cross-legged in the shade. He smiled when he saw her, and wrinkles formed around his eyes. How could she have forgotten those lovely wrinkles!
She cried, and pulled him close.
Darius studied Mount Behistun. The sun hid behind the rock, but Darius could still make out the carving at the top. It reminded him of his own past. Celebrated it. And his own likeness was carved above the carving, handsomer than Cyrus. Whoever had created this marvel had shown great dedication to Darius.
Coming across this rock had made Darius forget his destination.
“The two responsible for this art died not long ago,” Obares said, as he approached with soldiers carrying two corpses; a man and a woman.
Darius studied the woman. Her clothing was ripped, breasts bare. Her neck swollen to the size of his own thigh. A pink tongue stuck out like a dead goat’s.
Obares turned the woman’s head with his foot. She looked surprised.
“Snake bite. A saw-headed viper, no doubt,” Obares said, kicking the side of her neck. The face jiggled, and the tongue flopped to the other side. Darius stifled a chuckle.
“And the man?” Darius nodded to well-dressed craftsman. His tunic was crusted dark red.
“Suicide,” Obares replied, “The workers at their camp say that he slit his throat when they found her body.”
“Lovers, no doubt. Bled to death right beside her.”
Darius observed Behistun again. “We will make camp here, and record this marvel.”
“And we should burn them,” Obares said, “Kill their workers too.”
“This should be your victory. Your idea. No one elses. Let the Noble Houses see that. This mountain will stand here, long after your death, yelling to the world your deeds in three different tongues. It is timeless, my Lord. It will make you timeless.”
“Should I not reward my subjects and their family?” Darius said.
Obares laid a hand on Darius’ thigh. His horse whinnied.
“These lovers are dead and gone,” Obares said, “they don’t care what the world thinks of them.”
Darius glanced at the woman. Her bulging eyes reflected the cold evening sky. She was dead meat, like many Darius had left behind this year. She wasn’t anyone anymore. She couldn’t be anything but food for the ants.
Darius stared at his hands. His own flesh.
“Alright,” he said, “Burn them. Get rid of them.”