Chapter 11

Chapter 11: III: Uta

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Chapter 11: Mercenaries

Section III

Uta– The Hamatri: The Palace: Qemassen

The Hamatri was empty, except for Uta and Zioban. Even the palace guard who’d led Uta here—one of Zioban’s hidden contacts, it seemed—had left. Without the slaves to fill the space, the cubicula felt haunted and abandoned. The endless repetition of cube upon cube reminded her too much of the stelae in Molot’s gardens to feel like anyone’s home. With the slaves all awaiting punishment, the little chambers may as well have been gravestones.

Standing in the shadowy passage between the cubicula, Zioban was a ghost. He kept his distance, shoulders oddly pinched and defensive as he faced her, even though it was he who had summoned Uta to his side. He was lucky they were alone. After Bree had revealed to King Eshmunen that the slaves had used a hidden passage to march them up the wall, Yirada scoured every corner and crevice for secret entrances. It was a detail Uta had left out of her reports to her husband.

Uta glanced behind her at the stairs, wary that someone might be watching. A few days ago, she’d almost been caught by Princess Bree. Bree had walked right up to the spyhole in the wall and stared straight into Uta’s eyes.

She’d learned a great deal eavesdropping on Bree and Queen Eaflied’s conversation. The princess was having Aurelius’s child for one, though that was unsurprising. What had been more curious was Eaflied’s comment about Bree not always being herself. Uta wasn’t sure what that could possibly mean, but she was certain it was important. Her first instinct had been to go to Zioban with the information, like she’d gone to him about Bree and Aurelius’s affair, but ever since Djana’s death the idea made her skin creep.

The words that could lay Bree low hung on her tongue. With an utterance she could change the fates of a few more Semassenqa. She could do that, but what would be the cost? Another woman blinded and thrown from a building to smash against the rocks? Djana had been an entitled, lazy child like the rest of them, but to kill her in such a way?

“You shouldn’t be here,” Uta hissed. She hadn’t meant to let her anger show so plainly, but Uta had been sent by Zioban to look for Prince Ashtaroth during the festival, and when she’d lost the prince on the Shedi-Qalana, she’d followed the crowds to Molot’s gardens. She’d seen Aurelius collapse, seen the ambassadors tumbling from the walls.

“Well I am here,” Zioban snapped. His voice was rough and strained, not the deep, resounding bellow Uta was used to.

“I use them for the cause,” Uta explained, as pinched as Zioban’s pose. The way Zioban had said it, it had sounded like a threat. “Why did you call me here?”

Torchlight cut across Zioban’s mask as he stepped forward, so that half of it shone white as milk, while the rest of him lay in darkness.

Once, when Uta had been a child, her mother had shown her a small idol of an old Vetnu god with two faces. Its front face had been jolly and kind, but the one on the back had bared its teeth like a demon: a god the picture of any man, two-faced and awkward.

People had such mercenary hearts, mysterious even to their own minds. Why should Zioban be different?

“I only wanted to see you,” said Zioban. “To demonstrate my faith in you. What happened in the gardens isn’t the worst you’ll see done for our cause.” Zioban hesitated, choked as though close to tears. It didn’t fit the picture of him that Uta held in her heart. What was wrong with him?

Then in dawned on her. Zioban had been broad-shouldered and heavyset, taller than the one who now stood before her. They weren’t the same person. It wasn’t Zioban’s voice, but a woman’s. Two-faced, indeed.

Uta glared, but she wasn’t fool enough to tear off the woman’s mask or reveal what she knew. It could put Uta in danger. Whoever Zioban now was—or had always been—the other rebels served at their will and wouldn’t hesitate to rip Uta limb from limb if Zioban ordered it. And perhaps Zioban had been several people all along, each working together to lead the slaves out of bondage. Or else Zioban had been killed or imprisoned, and this new leader was a replacement or imposter. At the very least, two rebels had worn Zioban’s mantle.

Better to have such a god as a friend and not an enemy.

“You needn’t worry,” said Uta. “Even if I don’t agree with everything you’ve done, I’m still one of you. Our people need to be free.”

“At any cost.” Zioban inclined her head, and Uta got the distinct impression she was being glared at past that inscrutable mask.

“Not at any cost.”

Zioban tilted her head to the side, folding her thin arms across her chest. “What do you mean?”

“Just that,” said Uta. “There are some things that claim too high a price. What purpose is there in escaping our chains if we only forge new ones? When Lorar attacks, they’ll fetter Eshmunen’s court, and anyone associated with it. If we make slaves of the Semassenqa, it all begins again, over and over. If we’re to change things, truly change things, we must find new avenues of attack.”

Zioban’s laugh was terse. “There are no new avenues. If we don’t devote ourselves to the path, revenge will never be ours. A fool commands the navy, and a sickly child is poised to take Qemassen’s throne. We must strike true or be struck back down into the mud. You still want revenge, don’t you? Djana’s two eyes for your one, if you choose to see it that way.”

Uta shivered. It had a disturbing poetry to it, but Uta was tired of being disturbed and tired of schemes. She was weighed down by all she knew, not freed by it. There was Samelqo and Eshmunen’s recent plot to murder Aurelius, now helped along by the revelation of the prince’s treachery; there was Bree and her secret; there was what little she’d learned of Zioban’s identity.

A pair of Ziobans. A man and a woman with connections in the palace and a desire for revenge. The description fit so many. Was Zioban only a two-faced god, or was she also a false one? Regardless, Zioban hadn’t worried about coming to Uta high-pitched and narrow-shouldered. She either thought Uta was a fool or trusted her enough not to care.

Uta kept her expression even, the way all slaves learned to one way or another. “Then let that be vengeance enough for me. I’m finished with it.”

Zioban crept forward, her footsteps like the scuttle of mice inside a pantry. “You’d betray us?”

Uta didn’t budge. “No, I’ll help you, but I don’t want to if it leads to more pointless brutality. You could have slit their throats. Why strip them that way?”

“Brutal?” Zioban clutched her wrists. “I took that brutality on myself when I stabbed a sword through Djana’s back and threw her off the wall. You’ve done nothing, seen nothing. You know nothing of the brutality I feel.” She paused. “Some wrongs still must be righted. Some debts must still come due.”

Uta was well attuned to recognize the potential for violence. She didn’t need to see Zioban’s eyes to know she was very close to lunging and shaking Uta, that she wanted to show Uta some of the brutality she spoke of.

Uta inched backward, toward the exit. She felt safer as soon as she was outside the ring of firelight that surrounded Zioban. Its glow seemed to pen Zioban in, the way Uta encased the memory of Moniqa’s violence in heavy sand. “I must go. My husband is waiting for me upstairs. The slaves are to be whipped today. I assume you will be there? It’s you they’ll be dying for.”

Zioban scowled and turned away, before stalking toward one of the tunnel entrances. “They’re dying for themselves,” she called back, voice barely audible.

****

A huge platform had been constructed out of wood and placed at the north end of the Eghri eq-Shalem, between the statues of Tanata and the Massenqa phoenix. It seemed a lot of trouble for two hundred bodies considered no more than property by those assembled to judge them. And here Uta was, face painted, scar disguised as much as it could be. Samelqo had hired someone from the market to dress Uta’s hair and select appropriate clothing. The wife of the heq-Ashqen must look the part.

She was an intruder, as fake as Zioban had turned out to be.

Semassenqa clustered around her: Himalit, Ashtaroth, Samelqo, Qanmi, and Shaqarbas. The king himself hunched on the level above her, Bree and countless others huddled and whispered beneath her. Uta was a goat among wolves—or was it the other way around? To judge by the guards lining the square below the raised benches of the Semassenqa, Eshmunen’s court certainly considered Uta’s fellow slaves a threat. Yirada stood straight as arrows, shoulder-to-shoulder from one end of the Eghri to the other, hemming in the rows and rows of slaves kneeling on the tiled earth with their heads bowed.

On the outskirts of the Eghri, freemen and women squeezed between the grand arches that led to the square, desperate for a glimpse at the Massenqa prince who’d cuckolded the heir to the throne, hungry for the sight of blood.

It was all too quiet, despite the people.

Then a girl cried from the many lines of children positioned before their parents, her voice resonating like a lone string plucked in an echoey room. The cry was too young to belong to Madaula, yet Madaula was all Uta could think of as the sound rent the air. It buzzed in Uta’s bones, all the way up her spine, and she straightened instinctively, as though a whip had snapped against her own back.

She scanned the faces of the slaves, desperate to see Maduala’s familiar brown curls or catch a glimpse of any of the rest of Samelqo’s household. So many of the faces looked bruised and battered.

There’d been talk of torture, yet no whisper that Zioban had been betrayed. It seemed so unlikely that not a single slave had broken on the torturer’s table. Unless Zioban had more guards working for him, more palace servants along with the slaves he—or she—commanded. Uta glanced downwards at Shaqarbas, Qanmi, Bree, and their families, searching for a clue in their posture or countenance. To have enough influence and wealth to buy the men guarding the slaves, one would have to be very well placed. Uta had spied on the male Zioban and knew he had at least one Semassenqen friend. But maybe Zioban—both Ziobans—called the palace home. The rebel slave might be a rebel master.

Ocean air buffeted Uta’s face. She wasn’t sure if it was the wind or the thought that stole her breath, but for an instant she couldn’t breathe or smell anything. The updraught freed Uta’s hair of its ribbons, sending a strip of cloth spiraling down to land on the back of Shaqarbas’s fine purple cloak. How much money was that scrap worth? How many days of freedom might it have bought her parents? In the Hamatri, Zioban had spoken of debts owed and revenge deserved. Uta’s family had been owed. Madaula was owed. The children on their knees in the dirt were owed.

Free of the ribbon, Uta’s greying brown curls rippled in the wind, as though they were something beautiful even without the finery Samelqo’s station had heaped on her without her consultation or consent.

In the end, it didn’t matter who Zioban was. It mattered what Zioban did. And Zioban the man—no matter who Zioban the woman was—was still a man worth fighting for. He’d been strong, good, and genuine. Uta knew that much, even if she knew nothing else.

The wind died down, replaced by the salt of the harbour. The scent was so thick she could taste it on her tongue.

On the platform below, metal rattled and squeaked, waking Uta from her reverie.

Aurelius shuffled along behind a Yirada officer, his hands bound behind his back.

The love that had strangled Uta from her adolescence constricted. She saw Aurelius as the child he had been: innocent and brave, desperate to defend her. She heard King Eshmunen and Samelqo plotting the prince’s murder a second time. Only weeks ago, they’d resolved to sacrifice him to save Ashtaroth from this demon they believed tormented him.

Prince Aurelius was dirty, and shirtless, hair unkempt and wild, his face scratched. His head was still bandaged from the attack he’d suffered at the festival. To hear Princess Bree tell it, it was a wonder he’d survived at all. Uta didn’t believe in wonder. It’d been a lucky blow that he’d taken, or else it had bled worse than it really was.

Did Uta hope he died now, to save him the pain of it at his father’s hand? Uta bent her head, thoughts locked at the same crossroads they’d stood at for weeks, a choice that, whatever she decided, meant betraying one of the two men she loved. If Aurelius didn’t die today, Samelqo and King Eshmunen would devise another way to kill him, they’d made that clear. Whether it happened or not seemed up to her. She could still go to Zioban, or even relay the plot to Aurelius himself, if she could get close enough.

The Yirada officers stopped, and the court scribe, Cheti eq-Horeb, turned briefly and regarded Aurelius before tearing his attention away.

Samelqo’s voice cracked like lightening. “The slaves will be whipped first.”

Uta turned to him. “Even the children?”

“The children first.” Today, he wore his finest mask. His face was inscrutable. “We must learn who was behind the attacks.”

Uta looked away to hide her frown. Samelqo coughed violently into his hand.

When the coughing fit subsided, Samelqo stretched his head back, cracking his neck. He sighed in relief and curled his fingers around the top of his cane. Even ancient and infirm, he held his head as high as a much younger man. “You must feel sorry for them,” said Samelqo. “You were one of them not too long ago.”

“I feel nothing,” she snapped coldly, drawing her arms away from her husband. She fixed her attention on the Semassenqa. Himalit was glaring at Qorban, though the heq-Damiran had his back to the princess. The visual rankled, an itch in the depths of her mind.

In the Hamatri, Zioban had singled Qorban out as foolish and unworthy of his position. Why Qorban? Why the navy? Zioban had mentioned Ashtaroth as well. An heir to the throne who was deathly ill and a recent appointee to the position of heq-Damiran—the two were an odd pair to have chosen, hardly of equal rank. Qorban’s appointment must mean something to Zioban personally.

Uta’s head grew light. There was one obvious member of the royal family who had good reason to be wroth with Qorban and Ashtaroth both.

Uta locked her attention on the horizon beyond the Eghri walls. She couldn’t risk looking Himalit’s way. Could the princess really be Zioban? She was a hard woman and driven, but was she hard enough to have ordered her own sons kidnapped and disfigured?

“Not even sympathy for their fight?” Samelqo asked, quiet as a sparrow’s whisper, drawing Uta back into the now.

Uta restrained her surprise, maintaining an even tone. “None.” What had he expected her to say?

A musician gripping a long, bronze horn followed Aurelius and his guards onto the lower platform. He stopped to their right and raised the instrument to his lips, releasing a loud, steady burst of sound. The noise echoed in the square and inside Uta’s head. In the seats below, Queen Eaflied covered her ears.

Cheti eq-Horeb stepped forward and unrolled a short piece of papyrus. Samelqo had composed the script yesterday, asking one of his new slaves to set it in ink for him.

Cheti’s voice was already strained when he started reading. “Horror has gripped Qemassen and her people. Horror has been enacted against her king and his sacred Semassenqa. An ambassador of Ajwata returns to her homeland as ashes. A representative of Lorar is slaughtered at risk of retaliation. A princess of the Feislands has suffered insult from those beneath her. What monster stirs in the dark recesses of Qemassen’s heart? What creature shackles Qemassen’s people with such fear? One amongst the palace slaves has betrayed their master. Qemassen calls for vengeance against those responsible, against the beast Zioban.” Though a practiced speaker, Cheti was forced to clear his throat.

Samelqo stirred beside Uta, his displeasure plain. In his prime, Samelqo wouldn’t have faltered so obviously.

“And,” Cheti continued, “we have come together to punish those responsible for such evils.”

“I didn’t write and,” Samelqo growled beneath his breath. “Can’t he read?”

Uta smirked despite the seriousness of the moment, taken by an absurd lightness in her gut. It was all so horrible. Everything was horrible beyond mending. She wiped a tear from her cheek, unsure whether from laughter or sadness. On the seat below her, Princess Bree scratched obsessively at her arm, clutching something small in her right hand. It reminded Uta of the way Zioban had wrung her wrists.

Uta cast a furtive glance at Hima to see what the princess was doing, but she must have leaned forward too much, because Samelqo pulled her back.

“Let it be known that the Semassenqa are not themselves without guilt,” said Cheti. “The man who stands before you, Aurelius eq-Eshmunen, has confessed to the corruption of his brother’s bride. A sentence of twenty lashes is to be witnessed before the Massenqa people, to be followed by a week’s imprisonment in the palace dungeons, and further confinement to his rooms in the palace.”

Twenty lashes. It was survivable, but it would scar him very badly, and there was always the risk of infection.

“First,” said Cheti, “let the slaves be punished with fifty lashes each. Should any man confess information related to the identity of Zioban, he, as well as his family, shall avoid punishment. Should Zioban choose to surrender himself, all will go free.” Cheti nodded to someone on the ground, and the guards stationed behind the slave-children lifted them to their feet. “Bring the children forward.”

A flurry of confused whispers and shouts of distress coursed through the slaves. Even the Semassenqa buzzed with chatter.

Do something do something do something, Uta willed. No one could do anything. No one but Zioban, and if Uta was correct, one half of the rebel slave sat beside her, ready to watch these children scoured. And what would there deaths be worth to someone who’d let her own sons be maimed? Hiram and Reshith sat beside Himalit et-Moniqa now, trembling. On another day, it might have moved Uta to see such sympathy, but today it only burned.

A boy tripped as he was prodded forward. The officer guiding him pulled him back up by his elbow and he started to cry. The slaves behind them stirred as though ready to attack their captors, but as the officers guarding them readied their weapons for a fight, a lone voice paralyzed all of them.

“Stop!” Aurelius eq-Eshmunen struggled past his guards. “Stop! Stop it now! Put your weapons down!”

The world went quiet again, bending its collective ear to listen, the way people always seemed to bend to hear Aurelius.

“There were no children amongst those who took us!” Aurelius pleaded. “This is madness. You have no idea who was behind the attack. We don’t even know if Zioban really is a palace slave. He might have sneaked through in the confusion.” The guards circled around the prince as though to silence him, but King Eshmunen interrupted them.

“Let him speak!” the king called. “And undo his bonds. He is a prince of the Semassenqa. He will not run.”

The officers didn’t hesitate. They undid Aurelius’s bonds and stepped back, giving the prince space. Aurelius rubbed his wrists once the guards had freed him. “Thank you, Sese. Now, if you will only do the same for these people below.” Aurelius extended his arm in an arc that encompassed the Eghri.

Innocent, brave, and desperate to save her. That was who Aurelius had been. That was who Aurelius was.

Eshmunen was barely audible, even from where Uta was sitting. “Justice must be done.”

Aurelius scoffed. “This is no justice. It’s insanity, and an insanity I recognize well having suffered it from your hand. There’s no logic in killing these children, nor even their parents, when we know nothing more than that Zioban is a person living somewhere in this city.”

Strong, and good, and genuine. A companion to Himalit, someone whose values aligned with the slaves’ and whose needs might complement Himalit’s wants. A person who needed Ashtaroth out of the way in order to succeed, and who was loved enough to have the reach that Zioban clearly commanded.

Samelqo propped himself forward with his cane, shaking from the effort. “It’s precisely our lack of information that’s forced our hand. Kindly submit yourself to your punishment. You were dismissed from your father’s council for good reason. Don’t presume to raise yourself to your former position now. Be silent.”

In the basement of the House of Many Purposes, Uta had watched Zioban kiss the lips of another man, the way Aurelius sometimes kissed Dashel.

“No, I won’t. You’re a fool, Samelqo. You’re a poisoned dart at my father’s breast.” Aurelius glared, all fire. “I will not be silent, and I will not be silenced. You’ll let these men go or I’ll see them set free myself.”

Bree muttered to herself, anxiously worrying at the thing in her hand. “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” she whispered hurriedly. “Just sit down. Shut up.

Beside Uta, Samelqo clenched his jaw so hard Uta swore she heard his teeth grinding. “I am the heq-Ashqen! You will not speak to me in that fashion!”

Aurelius prowled the platform. It was as if his injury didn’t bother him at all. “It would be easier if I didn’t speak, wouldn’t it? It would have been so much easier for you if my family never opened our mouths at all. I wonder, if you could have, would you have had my mother flogged for her disobedience?”

The tension surrounding Uta was thick as the clouds before a rainstorm. She should reach for Samelqo and steady him. She should—

Himalit leaned forward. “Enough, Aurel, you’re embarrassing yourself for a pack of criminals.”

Aurelius laughed. “Criminals?” He faced the slaves and pointed toward someone in the crowd. “I see Sella, my clothier. And there, that’s your cook who makes you all those fine meals you eat―what’s his name? I wonder if you know it. I believe it’s Belphos.”

Himalit scowled. “You just made that up. Stop being difficult.”

“He’s got two sons,” Aurelius continued, “the same age as Hiram and Reshith, or near enough. I confess I don’t know their names, but I remember their faces. And there they are, standing in front of your guards, shaking. I wonder, which one of them struck me such a mighty blow? Strong boys for their age no doubt.”

Bree was shaking herself, shaking her head and wringing her hands. Eaflied clamped down on them as if to force them still, but Bree was so jittery it seemed she might leap to her feet and run away.

“Arrogant ass,” Himalit muttered, but she thudded back onto her chair, gazing out at the scene with the patient violence of a lioness.

Aurelius was arrogant, yet somehow that lightness in Uta’s chest had hardened, and the crossroads before her seemed to coalesce into one clear path.

“The slaves will be punished.” Eshmunen repeated.

Aurelius was quiet for a moment, then perked up again suddenly. “Then let me be punished for them. We all know I’m guilty.” He laughed. It was erratic, even giddy. Was he afraid? “I’ve been fucking Bree since the night she arrived. In fact, I’ve been fucking her since before then. I’ll probably keep fucking her after you’ve flogged me, so you may as well make it good.”

Samelqo snorted. “Ridiculous.”

Uta eyed him. There was hurt in the tension of his jaw, worry in the lines of his face. Something like hatred, too, or maybe it was desperation.

Aurelius raised his arms. “A prince’s request. One lash for each man kneeling in the dirt. One for each of them.”

“That’s over two hundred!” Eshmunen was incredulous. “You’ll die. I won’t allow it.”

What hypocrisy—a king plotting his son’s death, then lamenting the possibility of it in the next breath.

“Why not?” asked Samelqo. “Let the prince’s offer stand. If he wants to make an example of himself, let him.” Uta turned on him, searching for the concern she’d just noticed and finding no human kindness in his stare.

Only the gulls sang in the silence after Samelqo spoke, until Eshmunen, returned to mouse-like form, croaked a command. “Twenty lashes, and then another fifty on behalf of the slaves. Should he survive, let him be confined to his rooms. The slaves will be returned to the palace for questioning.”

Seventy lashes. A death sentence.

On the level below, Bree rocked in her seat, her eyes wide and unseeing. Uta might have joined her.

Aurelius backed away from the Semassenqa, and bowed his head in thanks, smiling as though a great honour had been bestowed on him. He let the guards grip his arms and hem him in to steady him, as a rather flustered Cheti addressed the Eghri once more.

“Prince Aurelius eq-Eshmunen will receive seventy lashes in place of the palace slaves,” Cheti pronounced.

“You can’t,” Hima snarled at her father. “He’s your son. He’s an idiot, he thinks he’s immortal, but he’s still your son.”

Either Eshmunen didn’t answer his daughter, or Uta didn’t hear his reply. It was hard to pay attention to anything else anymore as one of the jailors raised his whip for the first strike, bringing it down with an agonizing snap. Uta thought she saw the prince flinch, but he bore the blow well, standing strong. Uta could only imagine the pain.

Beside Hima, one of her two sons wailed.

The next ten blows came just as hard. The officer sped up, as though he longed to be done with his work as soon as possible. After the twentieth lash was called, Aurelius started to pale, sweating so much that the dirt that had caked his handsome face streamed clean.

Uta sunk into a daze, letting the crackof the whip fade into the background of her awareness, watching Eaflied cradle Bree in her arms so she didn’t have to look at Aurelius. Bree’s thumb rubbed viciously at a small, familiar object clutched in her hand.

Aurelius’s tiger.

A long time ago, a little boy had held that same tiger up to a different Uta, because he’d seen she was sad. And Uta had been sad because she’d agreed to help kill him.

Uta lost herself as the count continued, and a great sob escaped her lips, tears kindly blinding her as rivers of red ran down her prince’s back and soaked his skirt. She bent over and blubbered stupidly into her hands, hearing nothing but Aurelius’s voice promising he would free her, seeing nothing but Aurelius blushing because he was a stupid little boy who thought he loved his slave-girl.

Uta lifted her head. Samelqo was frowning at her. His whole body was rigid, his eyes like dark empty pits. She wiped her eyes, ignoring him, forcing herself to look at the man who was killing himself for the sake of a people who’d just tried to do the deed themselves.

“Fifty!”

The prince collapsed in the arms of his guards. His flesh was in tatters. He was dying. They were watching him die.

Strong, and good, and genuine. Like Zioban. Because Aurelius was Zioban. He must be. And he’d chosen the slaves.

From the Semassenqa in front of her, Shaqarbas got to his feet, standing tall and proud. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called to the people in the Eghri. “Stand up! For the crown prince of Qemassen! Stand up for your future king!”

Uta’s skin prickled, a thrill racing through her, forcing down the sadness.

For a moment, nothing happened, then one slave took to his feet. Then another. And another—five more, ten, thirty. One by one, every man, woman, and child in the Eghri stood for Aurelius on the tiles of the Eghri eq-Shalem.

Aurelius’s back was a red sheet.

Uta blinked away her tears. Beside her, her husband whipped around, glaring at Eshmunen. “Will you allow this?! Eshmunen, they are committing treason against your son, against Ashtaroth! Eshmunen!”

Beside Shaqarbas, as the final ten lashes were struck, as Aurelius’s awareness seemed to wane, Qanmi eq-Sabaal stood up. Eaflied, still supporting her daughter, shot Samelqo an evil stare. She drew Bree, trembling, to her feet. The Princess clung to her mother like an animal to its kill.

Even Himalit was standing. Even Ashtaroth, though his expression was one of terror and confusion.

A firm hand crushed Uta’s. Samelqo pinned her in place. “If you get up, I will whip you myself.”

The thrill raced through her. Uta met her husband’s eyes and pried her hand from beneath his.

“Seventy!” The whip-wielder lowered his weapon, and then, red-faced and exhausted, he launched the lash into the air and out onto the ground, as though ashamed of it.

Uta would not be ashamed. She stood up.


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