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Chapter 12: Freemen
Qwella – The Temple of Qalita: Qemassen
Daana et-Titrit, heq-Ashqat of the goddess Qalita, was dying.
This morning, an Ashqat had found her sprawled at the base of the steep steps that led to the debir, Daana’s ancient bones no match for hard stone and unforgiving stairs.
Why she’d ventured downstairs alone was anyone’s guess.
Qwella, Dansila, and several of the older Ashqata dabbed Daana’s sallow flesh with wool cloths, mopping cold sweat from her skin as she lay naked upon her austere bed. It was no more than a board supported by six bricks, and when Dansila had tried to cover her with a blanket, Daana had slapped it away. According to the attending Ashqata, her dying pains put her in commune with the gods. If this was what commune with her goddess meant, Qwella hoped she never achieved it.
A low moan wriggled from the heq-Ashqat’s lips as she stared sightlessly at the ceiling. She’d barely muttered a full word for hours now, and the wound on her head kept reopening and bleeding. Qwella had been warned off bandaging it or attempting to tend to the massive bruises that formed a map across her abdomen and legs.
The room stunk of qyphi, but no matter how many rolled balls of incense were heaped on the braziers in the corners of the room, the stench of urine drenched the air. They’d cleaned Daana off, but the heq-Ashqat had little to no control of herself.
Qwella did her best to breathe through her mouth.
Two more Ashqata shuffled inside the room, whispering a barely audible prayer in unison. Their words wound like invisible ribbon through the air, binding every sister through mellifluous song. It was a prayer of supplication and transformation, that Daana’s souls might fly free as birds, given unto Qalita rather than Tanata.
Qwella stopped daubing Daana briefly so that she could watch them take position beside the braziers. As she did, Dansila stretched past Qwella and tossed her sweat-soaked towel into the bucket beside Daana’s bed. Qwella wordlessly handed her a new one and side-by-side they gently smoothed their cloths over Daana’s right arm and side. Of all the things to ease the tension between them, this one was impossible to celebrate.
Qwella replaced her own towel, trying to think of anything but death.
It wasn’t just Daana’s death that consumed her. With every shiver across Daana’s skin, Qwella pictured Aurelius ailing at from his injuries, Djana and Thanos murdered, even poor Shaqarbas’s young wife dead by Ashtaroth’s hand. Qwella hadn’t been there for any of it. She couldn’t be there for her family.
At least Qwella could be here for the heq-Ashqat. Daana had been kind to Qwella since the day she’d stepped inside the heiqal seeking shelter from Qanmi’s grasping hands.
Besides, in her own way, Qwella was still there for her family. Thanks to Qwella, all trace that Qanmi might be Isir’s son had burned to ash.
On her plank of a bed, Daana waved her head left and right, groaning.
“Can you see her?” Qira, one of the Ashqata, leaned forward, an urgency to her question. “Can you see our lady?”
Daana licked her lips, opening and closing her mouth like a fish washed up on the sand. She was staring straight up at the ceiling.
Dansila reached out a dainty hand and took Daana’s in her own. She squeezed the old woman’s fingers. “Don’t speak, Sese. Don’t speak. We know you’re with blessed Qalita now.”
Were those tears forming in Dansila’s eyes? Maybe she wasn’t as much of a bitch as Qwella had thought.
Every one of the women in the room had been called to Daana’s side because she was a contender for the succession. Temple law required that the next heq-Ashqat must witness the passing of her forbearer in order to make contact with the underworld goddess.
Women like Qira were seasoned candidates, nearly of an age with Daana, and while Qwella wasn’t a full Ashqat, the fact that she was Eshmunen’s daughter had surely informed her inclusion. What did surprise was that Dansila should be chosen above the multitude of other acolytes. If Daana intended to make a leader out of one of the initiates, why not Eshant, or Nunat, or Elishah? Eshant had been here a very long time, by her own admission. Long enough that she really ought to have ascended to being a full Ashqat by now.
Daana coughed and Qwella startled.
When the cough grew violent, Qira gave Dansila an idle shove. “Go fetch some water!”
Dansila glared as though poised to snap back at her senior, but eventually she strutted off, the skirts of her robes billowing with an unmistakably regal air.
“That’ll do the little bitch,” Fara, another Ashqat, muttered discretely to Qwella.
Qira clucked disapprovingly at the remark, a playful smirk on her face.
Qwella couldn’t help but warm to them. It was obvious no one wanted Dansila to be chosen and that they’d send her off on whatever silly errand they could if it meant limiting her time at Daana’s side.
Daana sputtered, blood pooling in the well created by her clenched teeth.
Qwella stepped back in alarm, dropping her towel.
Qira looked at her askance, as though Dansila weren’t the only little bitch they thought should learn her place.
Why was Qwella even here? She didn’t know how to be heq-Ashqat. All she knew how to do was pray, clean, and sleep. Suddenly, alone in the room as the only acolyte, Qwella felt entirely out of place. The Ashqata all towered over her, robed as they were in their conical crimson garb, their tall hats adding a cubit to each woman’s height.
Qwella would much rather be in the secret room beneath the debir, safe and warm in Eshant’s arms. She’d rather be puzzling out the room’s magic, the mystery of the immortal flowers, and what Aunt Meg had been doing in the bowels of Qalita’s temple.
Fara dipped a cloth between Daana’s lips and blood soaked through immediately.
Daana’s limbs went rigid and straight at her sides, her red-stained teeth clamped together as though with lockjaw. Her gaze, oddly lucid after hours of delirium, darted left and fixed on Qwella.
She looked like a hungry beast, baring its teeth.
“She’s trying to say something!” said Melat, the youngest Ashqat.
Everyone but Qwella bent closer. Robe-swaddled and in their large, looming hats they were vultures clustered around a dying animal. They crowded Qwella out, but Qwella was happy to escape Daana’s ghastly stare.
She slid away, sparing a look over her shoulder as she made for the door. As she reached the doorway, she thwacked into a moving body.
Water splashed onto the floor of Daana’s claustrophobic little room.
“Watch it!” Dansila snapped.
“H-hergh.” Half-nothings slithered from Daana’s bloody lips.
The Ashqata parted so that Qwella could see—or so that Daana could see Qwella.
Daana had managed to turn her aged head to the right. Her left eye had wandered so that the pupil looked down and to the left, while the right stared straight at Qwella. Blood welled in the corner of the damaged eye, her skin mottled beneath.
“Huh—her.” The word came out a sigh, but it was clearly a word: her. Daana was calling to Qwella.
The attention of the Ashqata converged on Qwella, all but Dansila, who hurried to Daana’s side to offer the heq-Ashqat water. The evil on Qiri and Fara’s faces was hot and heavy, as they awaited the announcement that would crush each of their hopes. Qwella was comparatively young. If she succeeded Daana, it was unlikely any of these women would have another opportunity to become heq-Ashqat.
“Q-Qalita has taken you to her bosom.” The words tumbled from Daana’s lips, forced out, tripping over themselves in the heq-Ashqat’s haste. “Qalita covets you like a man covets his wife. She parts your legs like a lover. Her teeth seek out your heart like a daughter to a mother’s tit. Daughter of the Lady. Daughter of death. Viper at your master’s breast. Death will ride again for you. Death rides tonight for the blood of the kings of Qemassen.”
Death. For Qwella’s family.
Qwella didn’t care to hear more. She turned and ran. None of the other women made any attempt to stop her―why should they? Qwella had just done their work for them and taken herself out of the running.
The corridor outside was lined with well-wishers, detractors, and the morbidly curious. Qwella rushed past all of them, toward the labyrinthine passages in the centre of the heiqal. She needed her room and she needed Eshant.
Daughter of death. Viper at your master’s breast. The blood of the kings of Qemassen . . . .
Tears sprang from Qwella eyes. She balled her hands into fists to wipe her cheeks clean.
Ashtaroth had called her daughter of death during his exorcism. And viper? It could only apply to Sabeq’s death. Qalita knew Qwella had poisoned her husband, and Qalita had rejected her. Samelqo had all but claimed he thought Lilit’s torments were retribution for Sabeq’s murder when he’d visited her, and the proof of Qwella’s connection to the demon lay in the documents she’d foolishly burned in Hazzan’s temple. Tonight, Qalita would take Aurelius as payment for Qwella’s crimes.
The faces in the line of people blurred together. She was crying again. This time she didn’t wipe her tears away.
“Qwella! Qwella, come here.” Eshant’s arm darted out, waving. She was crouched on the floor, against the wall. Her hair and clothes were in disarray. Her broad shoulders were slumped as though from exhaustion.
Eshant clasped their hands together as though to tug Qwella into line with her, but Qwella had no desire to re-enter Daana’s room. Let Qira or Melat or even Dansila have the position if they longed for it so. Qwella hauled Eshant to her feet, dragging her away from the line and in the direction of the labyrinth.
At first Eshant stumbled along behind her, but as they neared the arch that would lead them to the secret passage, she snatched her hand away, forcing Qwella to stop.
Eshant rubbed her skin. “Slow down!” Dark crescents hung beneath her eyes as though from lack of sleep. She must have been on night duties. Qwella did dimly remember her leaving her bed last night.
“Come with me. Please.” Qwella wanted to explain, but she couldn’t make the words come.
Eshant’s expression hardened. “Why don’t you tell me where we’re going first. I’m not your dog. You don’t see a leash around my neck.”
It was as though Eshant had bitten her. Qwella recoiled. But no, this wasn’t Eshant’s fault. Qwella hadn’t explained herself, and Eshant was probably even more upset about Daana than she was.
Qwella stared over Eshant’s shoulder at the slump of people pressed against the wall. The Ashqata and acolytes were bathed in shadow, great hulking shapes that may as well be stones, or animals, or even more monstrous things. Her bones ached, seeing not supplicants, but debtors, each of them lined up to take from Qwella’s family. “Something terrible is going to happen; Daana told me so. I think someone in my family is going to die.”
They both knew who that would be. Ever since the whipping, the whole city had been abuzz with gossip about the prince who’d all but killed himself to save a few slaves.
Eshant looked away, her irritation dissolving. “I’m sorry.” Her tone was flat, almost uncaring.
Qwella must have done something to upset Eshant and not realized. She chewed her lip. Whatever it was, she needed to fix it. Tonight, Qwella needed Eshant by her side. “Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing.” Eshant laughed weakly. “I’m sorry about your brother, Qwella, I truly am. I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“I didn’t see you return.” Qwella didn’t mean to sound as desperate as she did, or as accusing.
“That’s because I didn’t, not until late.”
Qwella looked, truly looked at Eshant again. Her hair was tangled, her face dirty, perhaps even bruised. As Qwella realized what must have happened, her ribs could have cracked inwards with sympathy. “Were you visiting your father again?”
“Yes.” Eshant smiled, but it was clearly only a way for her to avoid a tender subject. “Let’s not talk on that. You need me, don’t you? Talk to me. I promise I’ll do my best.”
Eshant was always promising things. One day, maybe she’d let Qwella promise her something back. There were a lot of things she’d promise, if given the chance, but Eshant rarely wanted to talk in any detail about herself. No wonder, when it obviously brought her such great pain.
Qwella laced their fingers back together, swinging Eshant’s arms gently. Touching even this little bit was enough to soften the hardness of her grief. “I thought we could go to Qalita’s room. It’s been too long. I think I need to sit for a while and just be. With Daana and Aurelius—everything’s too big and difficult.”
“You should be used to big and difficult, being a princess and all.” Eshant smirked, deep voice cracking. “But why don’t we go somewhere different this time? No one’s around. We could explore anywhere in the temple. We could even leave.” She beamed. “Wouldn’t you like to sneak out and explore the city? Forbidden air is good for the lungs.”
Qwella had yet to sneak out for any reason, unless she were to count the visit to Tanata’s temple. Qalita’s secret room was where she had to be. It was the only place she’d ever felt truly at home. “But it’s ours, it’s our special place. I feel safer there. Let’s just go. Please.”
“I’d rather not.”
Eshant wrested her hand free. “I just don’t want to. I don’t feel like it. The tunnels make me sneeze.”
“Everything makes you sneeze. Look at you, you’re sniffling now. You should have a physician sent for. He’ll prescribe you a tonic.” Qwella tried to grab Eshant’s hand again, but she turned right so that Qwella’s fingers brushed empty air.
“I don’t want to go down there.” Panic beat in Eshant’s voice.
Qwella narrowed her eyes, worried now. “What are you afraid of?”
Eshant scuffed her sandal against the floor. “I’m not. I’m just not in the mood.”
It was a petulant stance to take, when Qwella’s own brother was dying. In the past, Qwella might have left Eshant to her mood and visited the room alone, but she was stronger now. She knew that to feel better she needed Eshant with her, and she wasn’t going to give up so easily. Eshant wouldn’t have given up, and if she were feeling herself, she wouldn’t want Qwella to spend tonight alone. “Please. We’re closer to the goddess when we’re down there.”
Eshant crossed her arms, shoving her hands under her armpits as though to stop Qwella taking them. “You want to be closer? After what Daana said about your family?”
“I need to be closer. Don’t you see?” Qwella rubbed her forearms through her robes. “If someone . . .” Qwella’s throat grew tight. Her lip trembled. “If my little brother is going to die—if Aurel is going to die, then who better to pray to than the goddess of death?” Qwella pinched her arm, struggling to speak the words without bursting into tears again. “The gods know she’s more likely to have sympathy for him than Molot would. Aurel’s always been good with, good with wome—” A tiny whimper escaped her lips.
Eshant’s strong arms were around her, holding her close, heedless of the women in the line or the scattered few ordinary Massenqa visiting the heiqal.
“Shh. Shh.” She stroked Qwella’s hair. “We’ll go to our room. It’s all right. Think about how brave you’ve been, through all this. And your brother’s been brave too, doing what he did in the Eghri. If he dies, at least it will be for something worthwhile.”
“Worthwhile? How can you say that?” Qwella drew back so she could look Eshant in the face. “Killing himself over a bunch of washerwomen and clerks? The same people who attacked my nephews . . . .” Words failed her again. And truly, it wasn’t Eshant she was angry with. It wasn’t even the slaves.
Daughter of death.
Her body went limp and she clutched Eshant’s shoulders for purchase. Only Eshant’s strength kept her standing.
“Come on.” Eshant led her the rest of the way to the arch, then into the darkness of the labyrinth. “I love you, you know,” Eshant said. “So, you have that, if it helps at all.”
Qwella could barely see Eshant’s face in the dim light, but her eyes were wide, as though she’d shocked herself with the admission. She clamped her free hand over her mouth. A nervous giggle escaped her lips anyway.
Qwella squeezed Eshant’s hand, giddy. Then she realized Eshant probably expected a response. “It does help. Thank you.”
Eshant stared at her, aghast. “You thank me?”
Qwella leaned up and kissed Eshant’s cheek. “I love you as well. Is that better?” She licked her lower lip and tasted earth and mildew. Wherever Eshant had gone, she needed to bathe, but Qwella had barely convinced her to head downstairs and wasn’t going to give Eshant an excuse to change her mind now.
Eshant grunted by way of response, but it was good-humoured.
The hike downhill was harder than usual. Eshant’s footsteps were leaden, as though they were headed to Molot’s gardens and not a place of wonder. The flickering of the torches was no longer warm, but disorienting. The precipitous stairs were no longer impressive and mysterious, but summoned thoughts of Daana lying broken at their feet.
With Daana dying, Qwella would never learn whether the heq-Ashqat had known about this place. She’d never learn whether Daana had anything more to tell her about Meg and Queen Eshant’s connection to Qalita’s temple.
The roar of the ocean breaking against the rocks was louder and more violent than it had been before, and the rumbling that normally shook the walls had ceased. It should have been calming not to have to watch out for crumbling earth raining from the ceiling, but the absence of that faithful vibration was somehow eerie.
Everything tonight was eerie—Qwella was being foolish. The possibility of Aurelius’s death had coated the whole world in a veneer of mud.
As they reached the base of the stairs, Qwella exhaled a huge puff of air.
The tunnel shuddered.
Qwella looked up.
Small chunks of stone tumbled onto Qwella’s face and she drew her forearm up to protect her eyes, spitting out dirt.
Eshant pulled her away, edging along the wall with its divine reliefs. “That was worse than it’s ever been before,” Eshant said as Qwella spit dusty, dry soil out of her mouth.
Qwella was still smearing rocks from her face when they reached Qalita’s chamber. “A worse one could be coming.” She could still picture the destruction reaped by last’s year’s earthquake. The Hamatri had collapsed, taking some of the palace’s finest architecture with it.
Eshant lazily pressed the relief that opened the door and Qwella skipped inside to get out of the newly terrifying tunnel. If it collapsed while they were down here, no one would ever find them. Had they ever been safe down here, or had Qwella only been desperate for something to cling to? What if this wasn’t her place, but someone else’s?
Qwella rubbed her bleary eyes, and the room came into focus.
She squealed in horror.
The light that had shone like the sun from the ceiling had dimmed as though evening had fallen upon the secret room, but even in this gloaming she could see that the once sweet-smelling blossoms had dried and wilted.
“What happened to the flowers?” Qwella turned around.
Brown, decaying stems and withered leaves made a mortuary of what had been green and vibrant. Even the bushes at the head of the room were bare and ugly, their leafless branches clawing at Qalita’s sacred image where it was set against the wall.
“It’s terrible.” Eshant didn’t sound surprised. “I’m sorry. I came here last night after I got back. I didn’t want you to see it, not when you were already so upset.”
Qwella’s legs gave out, and she flopped onto the dead flowers. They crackled beneath her knees, crushed to fine powder. “It’s an omen, and it’s meant for me. Qalita is wroth with me and my family. She’s put a curse on us.”
“No, no, don’t think that!” Eshant stepped around Qwella and knelt in front of her. She clasped Qwella’s hands and shook her head. Her sleeve slid back, revealing a long scratch in her arm. Qwella did her best not to stare at the mark Eshant’s father had made. “This has nothing to do with you, it’s just . . . it’s a symbol!” Eshant’s expression brightened, but it was a false brightness. “The flowers are dead to signify a new beginning. Qalita’s a goddess of the underworld; of course her flowers would die.
Qwella couldn’t look at Eshant’s too-bright face. She stared instead at the wall to her right, where Meg’s calculations remained scratched in stone. They, at least, were truly immortal. “The flowers never died before.”
Eshant shrugged, rocking Qwella’s arms with the movement. “Maybe they did die and we weren’t here to see it. Maybe they die every year and then return. They could be dying because of Daana. Don’t be so quick to blame yourself.”
Daughter of death. Viper at your master’s breast.
Qalita was punishing Qwella for killing Sabeq and disguising Qanmi’s paternity. By forcing Eshant to burn those papyri, Qwella might have cursed Eshant along with her.
The scratch marks on the wall turned hazy as tears budded in Qwella’s eyes. The only thing she could do was tell Eshant the truth about what Qwella had done, so Eshant understood the danger Qwella had put her in. “Sabeq. It’s because of Sabeq. He was lying there, just lying there . . . a scorpion.”
Eshant straightened. Her face grew drawn. “Yes?”
She couldn’t. She couldn’t. Not even to Eshant.
Eshant parted her lips, swallowed. She looked hungry, as though she meant to urge Qwella to continue. She wouldn’t look so eager if she knew the truth.
Bells sounded. A great clanging echoed from above, all the way down the stairs to meet the crush of the sea and the rumble of the walls. It was a clarion call. A death knell.
Eshant loosened her fingers. “Daana is dead.”