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Chapter 1: Slaves
Uta – Qemassen: The Hamatri
Uta et-Lohit had been born a slave—the daughter, and granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of slaves. She had served the Semassenqa since she was a little girl, new and beautiful like the spring blossoms in the palace orchards. Now forty-five years old, Uta was neither new nor beautiful, face disfigured by Moniqa in same blow that had taken Uta’s eye, hands hard and lined from long hours of labour: drawing documents, sharpening reeds for writing, mixing pungent inks.
Uta sat upright on her simple cot, examining her hard, lined hands, and their varied imperfections. She might have been a dyer for all the stains that decorated her fingers.
She should feel grateful. Her family legacy meant Uta had been trusted as a young woman, fit for work as Aurelius’s keeper, privileged to be taught letters, to be educated for scribal duties. In the lower quarters of the city, even some freeborn Massenqa couldn’t read or write, and most slaves didn’t have their own bunk in the Hamatri—the basement quarters afforded to the more favoured of the palace slaves.
She needed a moment to stop, to rest her back. Uta leaned her head and shoulders against the plain stone wall, eyes closed, but the movement caused a spike of pain to lance up her neck. She winced, rubbing out the ache.
Too much time bent over her work. Too much time hurrying up and down the stairs in the heq-Ashqen’s tower.
As Samelqo’s primary body slave, Uta should attend Samelqo in his rooms at all times, yet he insisted she remain either in the Hamatri with the other palace slaves, or in the cubiculum outside his rooms, but young Madaula was housed there, and Uta wouldn’t deprive the girl of her private space. Uta had little enough of that herself, in the labyrinthine cubicula of the Hamatri.
Last year, an earthquake had collapsed the ceiling of the easternmost side of the Hamatri, killing hundreds, turning into rubble the simple but beloved little rooms that had once housed families. Uta could still remember the shocked faces of the Semassenqa who’d passed below to assess the damage to their property. They hadn’t expected the painted walls—murals, names, an informal archive of the people who’d lived and loved and died beneath their feet. When the Hamatri had been rebuilt, those histories had been erased. The new walls were bare gray stone, reinforced with large wooden posts. Even those walls that had survived the quake had been replaced, everything human stripped away. The Semassenqa couldn’t afford the risk of the aboveground palace collapsing.
The cubicula had always been doorless, always arranged in a grid so that their entrances faced one another. Once, it had been comforting—a friend only a whisper away, a network of small homes each open to the others. Now, the Hamatri was faceless, nameless.
When the Semassenqa had bought new slaves to replace the dead, Uta hadn’t been able to bear befriending them. Many masters claimed to love their slaves as family, yet in the end Uta’s people were considered interchangeable to all but other slaves. The friends Uta had lost could never be replaced by the new faces that surrounded her, and these bare walls made strangers even of those she did know—the open doors of the small square rooms like the eyes of a jailer, ever watching despite the low light. The Semassenqa plied favourites with small gifts, the better to make spies of them, the better to turn them against their own.
The Semassenqa might have sown poison seed amongst the slaves, but if so, something much darker now pushed through the soil with it.
At a noise, Uta opened her eyes. Another slave now sat across from her—a young Lora girl, cross-legged on the simple plank-bed opposite Uta’s own. Her new roommate, favoured for her fair face, not her family.
“You want I should go, Sese?” the girl asked.
Sese. Uta smiled wryly at the young girl’s mistaken honorific. The Lorat had come all the way from Estralan and didn’t speak the Massenqa tongue well. She would learn, as they always did, and then she would treat Uta and her missing eye with the same wariness as the other slaves. People knew better than to bother Uta, and she rather preferred it that way.
“It’s only ‘Uta’, or ‘Dese’ if you prefer. What’s your name, girl? And no, you need not leave.”
The Lorat hesitated. “Dju—Dja.” She fumbled to settle on a name. “Dorat, Sese. Desese. Dese.”
Uta stifled a laugh. “Your real name. You won’t convince anyone you’re from Qemassen, not with that accent.” She frowned, considering the scrawny, foreign thing and her great round eyes. “Even if ‘Dorat’ were a real name, which it isn’t, no one will love you more for it, nor hate you less. Your real name, Dese.”
Uta had said it in Massenqa. She might as easily have spoken Lora, but it wouldn’t do the girl any good to coddle her. She’d learn, the way they all learned.
“Lara.” She blushed. In the dim light of the basement, with its low ceiling and flickering torches, her reddening cheeks looked like orange painted on grey, almost the way the walls of the Hamatri had looked before the renovations.
“Are there many Laras in Lorar?” Uta asked with a smile, but if Lara from Lorar was as entertained by the alliteration as Uta was, she didn’t show it.
“I don’t know, I’m not from there, Sese—Dese.”
Not a worldly girl then. Uta couldn’t fault her; she’d never travelled outside Massenqa territory herself, though when she’d been younger she’d dreamed of it. A child’s fantasies, burst along with her eye when Moniqa had struck her. She still dreamed of it sometimes—Aurelius’s broken tiger that he’d refused to part with, Moniqa’s blood-stained hands, Uta’s fear and disbelief when the queen had raised the blade.
Uta raised her fingers to her glass eye, itchy in its socket, and the bumpy flesh around her eyelid and upper cheek that had never fully healed. “And what brought you here, Lara? Did your parents sell you?”
Uta’s maternal great-grandfather had sold his whole family, himself included, to escape debts he’d had in Vetna. Uta had often wondered why he hadn’t just left, but her mother hadn’t been able to tell her. Perhaps it wasn’t even true, just a story to give the family a past. They’d come from Vetna though, that much was certain.
Over the years, her Vetnu family had mixed with a disparate hodgepodge of peoples. In the right light Uta looked like a common Massenqat, yet in another she might be mistaken for an olive-skinned Vetnu woman fresh off a slaver’s ship. Her coiled brown hair suggested she had at least some Inda or Ajwata blood.
Lara, though, was every inch the Lorat, with silky, straight black hair, warm olive skin that would tan easily, a strong nose. Her nose twitched as she struggled over her words. “No sell . . . um . . . sold. I am taken, Desa.”
Captured then, probably by raiders or pirates. Uta’s back thrummed with its usual pain, as though in sympathy with being herded onto a pirate ship. Well, she could do without that. Uta nodded at the girl. “You can leave now, Lara.”
The girl scrambled to her feet on coltish legs. She bowed, silly pretty thing, and rushed out. When she was out of earshot, Uta finally did laugh. It was a moment before she realized she’d started crying, and she angrily wiped a stray tear from her cheek, shaking her head at her own foolishness.
Had she ever been a silly child like that? Probably.
Uta was one of few slave-women remaining from the days of her youth. Even setting aside those killed in the earthquake, her parents had died years ago of a sickness, and most of her young companions had been married off, and become freedwomen or concubines to this or that Semassenqen. Uta might have been one of them, if not for her injury. It was just as well; she couldn’t see herself as a mother. Until Lara had shown up, the bed across from Uta’s had been empty for a long time. Suddenly Uta’s already small world had shrunk to half its size.
Another slave coughed from the maze of cubicula, and Uta turned. She could barely see in the low light. The candles and torches represented a losing battle against the darkness, and the air was perpetually thick with their smell.
Uta had once asked her father why they’d bothered to construct walls for all the rooms in the Hamatri, and he’d told her it was so the slaves couldn’t speak to one another or gather.
The walls had never stopped her parents from gathering to throw dice with Helat when Uta had been a girl.
Uta smiled, peeking across the narrow space between cubicula. No sign of Helat, or any of the ghosts from her past—just another stranger she’d never bothered to meet. Maybe the Semassenqa weren’t so foolish after all.
She stood up and dusted herself off as though she were a piece of furniture. She didn’t want to be here when Lara returned. She wanted even less to leave when Lara was around to catch sight of her. Although, if what Uta had heard was true, it was the Indan prince, Shaqarbas, who’d acquired the girl. If so, Lara would be spending more time warming his bed than troubling Uta. She’d probably be a concubine in a few years, and then a mother and a freedwoman.
Uta’s peace would be hers alone again, and she wouldn’t have to manage her movements according to the whims of a girl.
She huffed at the thought, and grabbed her palla from the strawberry-wood chest at the foot of her bed. The wool shawl was unadorned, but warm, and its thickness would protect Uta’s shoulders from the damp of the tunnel. A candle from her supply would do for light—she didn’t need much, after all. The paths she walked were as familiar to her as the real family she’d lost in the collapse.
Uta inserted the candle into a beautiful, patterned lantern that had belonged to her mother. One of few fine things Uta owned, and even fewer that remained to her from her family. There had been other objects, of course, before Moniqa. In a fit of rage, or madness, or cruelty, Eshmunen had seen those he considered responsible for his queen’s death executed in the Eghri—stretched between his elephants till the ropes grew taut, till Yeremi, his mahout, blew his signal horn, and then—
Uta had been spared, but though Samelqo had saved her life by taking her into his service, he’d done nothing to ensure she retained the objects her parents had passed down to her. All lost but the lantern. She’d always wondered if it had survived due to oversight. Perhaps, to the Semassenqa, it wasn’t even worth taking. To someone whose life was surrounded by beauty, it might look a dull, simple thing.
Uta gave the lantern a whirl—her own moment of whimsy—and the patterns in the metal twirled across the walls of her cubiculum. Suddenly, the room was plain no longer. A frenzy of dancing shapes—moons, lotuses, palms—replaced the images that had once lived here, and which now only haunted the space. A palimpsest of fire.
She smiled and stepped out of her room, onto the passage between cubicula. With so many new faces in the Hamatri, Uta was wary of being followed on her way down into the lower part of the city. Surely she wasn’t the only slave making her way downhill tonight, but she was the only one who travelled belowground. Besides, if someone did see her, the path took her directly to Samelqo’s tower. Should people whisper, they would say only that perhaps Uta had been summoned for more nocturnal duties.
She stiffened, sucking in an audible breath through her nose. She’d rather not slander the man, but needs must.
She dipped her head beneath one of the low, brick arches separating the cubicula from the bathing chamber, and turned down the narrow tunnel joining the slaves’ quarters to the northernmost buildings of the palace complex.
To anyone else—to someone like Lara, or to the Semassenqa unaware of the subterranean mirror world below—the tunnels beneath the palace would be a maze. But Uta was quick in these familiar corridors. It didn’t take her long to reach the cellar beneath Samelqo’s tower, though it wasn’t the heq-Ashqen whom Uta was going to see.
Uta emerged into the large, cool chamber where Samelqo’s wines, pickled fish, and oils were stored. The space was lined with amphorae, their pointed bases buried in the ground, a few rows suspended in metal racks.
She wasted no time, holding her lantern high overhead as she squeezed uncomfortably into a narrow gap between two rows of the huge ceramic jugs. Twice, she had to unhook her stola from the frames—the awkward twisting of her body sent a lance of pain up her spine, and a tingle down her leg.
The containers were heavy and unbudging. It took some sweating before she reached the wall. Behind the amphorae, there was at least enough space to set down her lantern. The light was barely enough to see by, so she ran her hands across the surface of the walls, feeling for that one spot, finding it slower than she’d hoped.
Her hands met the indentation and she smiled. The arcane symbols were like welcome friends, though she had no idea what they meant. The letters, if letters they were, were not Massenqa. Perhaps it was the Sand Tongue, whose ancient letters were etched into buildings all across the southern shore. What had once been a language was now mere decoration, the meaning lost to all but maybe a handful of scholars in the temples, or in the far-flung corners of eq-Anout where such things were studied. Samelqo himself didn’t know what they meant.
The wall here was relatively smooth and unweathered, the raised indentations barely visible even in better light. They felt like giants beneath her fingers. Samelqo had shown them to her last year, when his knees had started to fail him, and he’d needed to trust someone else with his spying. When he’d been younger, he’d used the hidden paths beneath the palace to travel in secret. At least one of the Semassenqa understood there were two Qemassens—the world above, and the world below.
Uta pressed the pictures in the order she’d been taught.
A narrow door groaned open in front of her, and Uta shot an anxious glance at the stairs behind her.
Even after so many trips through the labyrinth, Uta breathed out in relief.
She bent down, retrieved her lantern, and slipped past the threshold into the dank tunnel exposed by the door. A few presses on an identical pattern on the other side closed the entrance, and she was on her way.
As she navigated the twisting stone corridors, her lantern cast distorted shapes across its increasingly uneven walls. The further she descended, the rockier the path became, and the harder she had to work to keep her footing.
Samelqo hadn’t known who’d built the labyrinth, but he’d guessed it had been for one king or another, perhaps one of Qemassen’s early queens. Needing her eyes and ears to stand in for his own, he’d shown Uta how to reach the throne room, Eshmunen’s private chambers, and several of the more important homes.
It was Uta who’d discovered the rest.
Once she made it past the passages directly under the palace the walls grew slimy, water trickling down in small streams that further degraded the stone. Spring’s heavy rains were the hardest on the tunnels, and Uta worried for the day when the lower networks—corners she hadn’t fully explored yet—might flood and cut off her access. No doubt last year’s earthquake was responsible for some of the collapsed tunnels.
Where the incline was at its steepest, someone had constructed a crude staircase of slate slabs. Uta tentatively stepped onto the first slab, and her foot slipped on a patch of wet stone. She yelped, grabbing an outcropping of stone to catch herself. Her lantern went flying—bouncing down the first two steps with a rattle, and leaving her in darkness. She grunted as she righted herself, heart pumping as she made certain that yes, she could still move. Her back was at least as functional as it had been.
She’d feel that near-fall later. The scrapes on her palms already stung, and ever since a tumble on the tower stairs five years ago, her back was a knot of pain every time she bent over too quickly, or spent too long standing, sitting, kneeling—doing anything at all, really.
At least it wouldn’t be far now.
Uta’s sandals threatened to slip out from under her as she tip-toed down the remaining steps. When her feet met rougher ground she relaxed slightly. Her feet kicked the darkened lantern and she picked it up.
She padded the wall to guide her way, stopping when this branch of the path dead-ended at a muddy stone wall. There was a series of symbols similar to the ones from the cellar. This one she’d deciphered for herself, based on what Samelqo had taught her. It wasn’t complicated, but the door had been caked with dirt when she’d found it, and unrecognizable. It was only her curiosity that had fueled the symbols’ discovery beneath the grimy surface. With no chance of Samelqo wandering these tunnels in his condition, Uta was sure she was the only one who knew about it.
Qemassen at her fingertips. Uta opened the door.
It had to be late, though in the underground it could have been daylight above and she wouldn’t have known.
Stop thinking. Hurry.
Closing the door, Uta continued down, further and further, until the path levelled out again. Side passages spider-webbed outward to either side of her, doors and peepholes here and there along the walls, some of them granting a welcome cylinder of light. Some of the holes now looked out on earth, or rubble, but the locations had been important when the tunnels were constructed.
As Uta approached her destination, muffled voices echoed along the corridor.
She was late. Uta hurried around a turn.
“We are one voice,” Zioban’s voice reverberated through the tunnels, “sounding from the belly of a great beast as though trapped inside.”
Uta pressed on, leaving the tunnels for now, entering another cellar through a final secret entrance.
Light, again, at last.
The voices were coming from a separate part of the basement, and as quietly as she could, Uta followed them to their source.
“We are one voice, but our hands are many, and our talons are sharp, and the beast forgets that we, too, are hungry.”
Uta stopped in front of a cupboard and picked the lock with one of her hairpins.
The mask was exactly where she’d left it—a Massenqa laughing mask made of fine, banded cedarwood. Uta held it up, staring into the empty eye holes, and strapped it on.
She set her lantern inside the cupboard, closed it, and pushed open the final door.
The storeroom was well-lit by sconces and lanterns, and the men and women gathered within carried candles of varying shapes and sizes. Most of the people were heavily robed, having travelled outside. A few clutched their arms, rubbing their skin to warm themselves. With few exceptions, all were masked as Uta was, and some even disguised their hands with gloves. How they’d made it here unseen, Uta couldn’t say. Perhaps it should have concerned her, but all she felt within these walls was warmth.
She brushed past them to stand closer to the head of the chamber, taking a moment to steal a few glances at her compatriots. Frightened eyes peered past their masks, wondering if she would recognize them, wondering who she was. Eyes of brown, black, and blue—even green.
Two things these friends of convenience shared in common: they were all here for Zioban, and they were every one of them slaves.
Zioban’s tall, robed figure seemed a statue in the flickering lights. The Massenqa laughing mask he wore smiled triumphantly at his mismatched flock. She didn’t know him, this strange man, but she thought she might love him with all her heart.
“We are one voice, and though our cries may go unheard inside his guts, the beast will know us as we rend his flesh. The beast will know us as we crawl outside, blood-drenched, to dance upon his bones; the beast will know us, and he will know fear.”
The slaves to either side of her took up Zioban’s call, and Uta’s heart raced, harder and truer than when she’d fallen.
“We are one voice!” she called, adding her own voice to the crowd. “We are many hands! We are one voice! We are many hands! We are one voice! We are many hands!”
We are one. We are one. We are many and we are one.