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Chapter 12: Freemen
Uta – The Palace: Qemassen
“Hand me another pen, would you?” Samelqo stretched out his palm to Uta without looking up.
Uta plucked one from beside her and handed it to him. He nodded his thanks, dipping the pen in its ink and scribbling his signature.
He’d been composing and signing documents all evening, working like a madman. Overwork and fastidiousness all but defined the heq-Ashqen, but tonight there was an especial frenzy to his movements. He was on edge; he had to be. Uta might be the only one capable of seeing it, but she knew Samelqo was as ravaged by his guilt as Eshmunen was. It was no light weight he bore on those shoulders. It never had been.
Or maybe Uta was only able to think that because this time she and Dashel, and not Dashel alone, were going to save Aurelius. Maybe it was because Samelqo eq-Milqar, her husband, the man who’d saved her life and was, perhaps, her only true friend, was going to die by the hands of Zioban’s soldiers—men Uta had called to her like hounds.
Guilt made the heart generous.
Samelqo coughed, but he didn’t stop writing. The dim light of evening erased for a moment the wrinkles in his skin, yet with another tilt of his cheek deep shadows were etched like gravestone inscriptions. Young or old, he was at home in this place, surrounded by his star-speckled walls and his scrolls—not to mention his coded messages to eq-Anout. He’d scribbled off at least three drafts of one of those tonight before discarding each one.
“You should rest, Sese.” She was staring at him, she realized. She’d been staring at him since he’d asked for the pen.
“Sese?” His eyebrow twitched and he smiled in amusement.
Uta frowned. She was as preoccupied as her husband. “I’m too old to change my ways.”
“You were the one who demanded we do away with such courtesies.”
He was looking at her now. Uta couldn’t bear it. She bowed her head, feigning a deep concentration on her copying work. The surface of her desk was scratched and stained, not the desk of the heq-Ashqen’s wife. Not something presentable to the fine guests Samelqo entertained in these rooms. “My desk needs repairing.”
The banality of the statement cut through her. Samelqo would never have occasion to do such a thing, so why ask it of him? A sob knotted in her throat and to disguise it, she darted a glance at the window.
It was already dark outside, and so early. The men she’d sent for would be here soon. She wouldn’t be able to go back.
“Uta!” Samelqo leaped to his feet, his chair scraping the floor.
But no, no one stood beneath the arch of the doorway with knives drawn. “So why had Samelqo called out?
Her work. Ink bloomed on the papyrus before her.
She shuffled the mess to the side, thick dark ink slick against her skin. Her thoughts wouldn’t settle long enough for her to remember how to clean up. “Perhaps it is I who should rest.”
She sat and stared at her hands. The opaque puddles that splattered her calloused skin changed form with the flicker of the light and subsumed her native flesh blotch by crude blotch.
“Indeed.” To Uta’s dismay, Samelqo retrieved a scrap of cloth and started mopping ink from her flooded palette. The ink had turned the fine brown grain black.
She sat back down, gripping the seat of her chair. “I’m tired.”
“Then rest.” Samelqo sat down himself but didn’t resume his coded missive. When he spoke, he did so quietly. “You’ve been troubled ever since the Eghri. Do you hate me so?”
Uta looked up at him, eyes wide. “Hate you? Why would I hate you?”
“You blame me for the prince’s punishment, don’t you?” His gaze held steady. Underneath it lay a trace of judgement, thin as the clean papyrus sheafs in the wooden box beside him. But no—Uta was wrong. It wasn’t judgement. It was sadness or perhaps concern. The judgement she read in his face was all her own.
She swallowed. For the first time in her life since the night she’d lied to a young Aurelius about his fate, it was a struggle to conceal her emotions. “No. It was his own fault. It moved me briefly, that was all. It reminded me of something.”
“Where you came from, perhaps?”
Every question felt like an interrogation.
“I never forgot where I came from.” A sprig of hardness, to show them both that yes, she was herself.
Samelqo cleared his throat. “Just as well. You’ve travelled very far.” He twiddled his fingers as though they’d fallen asleep. “I was a common man, when I was given to the temple. I was one of several boys in service to Tanata who hadn’t earned his place through hereditary connection to the Ashenqa. Most of them were pathetic, mewling creatures who felt their wealthy parents had abandoned them, but I adored my lessons. Knowledge and mystery were my mother and father, reading and writing my brother and sister. I did well, and then I fought well, and for my efforts I became heq-Ashqen. A punishment of my own, of a kind.”
Fought? It was an odd choice of words, and Uta couldn’t imagine Samelqo meant that he’d thrown physical punches of any sort. It was that last thing, though, that gnawed at her the most. “A punishment?”
“Of a kind. The heq-Ashqen is not the soul of the city, as many would claim, but he is the caretaker of its soul. He strives, in all things, to serve his king and his people, yet he is merely a man after all.”
“What else would you be?”
Samelqo smiled bleakly. “I waited a long time for the answer to that very question, and yet my position failed to bequeath unto me the certainty I sought, or the change I desired. Oh, it has changed me, of that I am certain. It is the nature of the transformation that disappoints.”
The door lay firmly closed, and it was so still without the occasional shuffling of the guards’ boots. Didn’t Samelqo notice the quiet? He must be too lost in his thoughts.
“The change into an old man?” Uta asked, to lighten some of Samelqo’s darkness. Soothe, soothe. She must soothe him before the dagger slipped between his ribs, like any good wife would.
“That, amongst other things. All things grow old, Uta, and I am young compared with most of them. This city is old. Sometimes I think her death lies dreaming, waiting to be woken, somewhere in the deep.”
Such words from the mouth of such a man meant more than if an ordinary person had spoken them. Even Uta had to shiver at their weight. Samelqo had never been plagued with visions the way Ashenqa sometimes were, but their rarity only lent them a more prophetic air.
“The death of the city,” echoed Uta. “You believe that it will happen soon?” It could be Zioban’s rebellion he spoke of. With the rebels supporting a Lora invasion, Zioban’s victory meant the death of Samelqo’s Qemassen. But then, what did Uta really know of Samelqo’s life beyond what he’d allowed her to see?
She let her gaze travel to the half-completed papyrus in front of the heq-Ashqen. An addressee of two consonants, in a code Uta couldn’t read. She’d have time later, to pour over his secret labours unimpeded.
Samelqo collected his papyri and neatly set them just out of view. He’d noticed her looking. Uta was clumsy tonight.
“The seeds of the end germinate in the hearts of traitors and weaklings,” Samelqo answered. “The slaves are only the most obvious of them, but there have long been poisonous ones close to the throne. Even the royal children—” He cut himself off. A rare thing. “I have done my best to disperse them. I fear the hour is too late.”
Any words Uta might have spoken dried on her lips. Samelqo had some inkling then, of that thing she had so recently become convinced of, that Hima and Aurelius played the part of Zioban, two faces to the same name. One might be a saviour, the other a destroyer as Samelqo thought.
She only hoped that in asking for Zioban’s help tonight, she hadn’t gambled on the wrong one. Hima had a lot to gain from her brother’s death. She might have already sent the Yirada to stop Dashel, or even interrupted him herself. It seemed less likely she would spare the breath it would take to save the dreaded Samelqo eq-Milqar.
Uta released her chair at last and folded her hands in her lap. Every movement of the shadows or the firelight, every creak as Samelqo shifted position, created an unbearable wave of panic that threatened to drown Uta anew.
Eventually, the door would open. What final things would she speak to her husband before she murdered him?
“I spoke with Princess Bree today,” he said, as though perhaps the Feislanda princess were related to the doom that overshadowed his thoughts. Given that she was at least partly responsible for the tensions between the royal siblings, that did make a certain amount of sense.
“What did she have to say?” Uta asked.
A wry smile played across Samelqo’s face. “It is less what she said than what she omitted.” He folded his hands across the table. “There is more to her than it seems, or perhaps she only reminded me of myself.” He cleared his throat. “I’m not entirely convinced she is who she claims. She hasn’t the manner of a princess, and in my correspondences with Ossa’s court, he described his daughter as yellow-haired and fourteen.” He scoffed, oddly amused. “That woman is not fourteen. I’d place her closer to twenty.”
That was curious. When Uta had overheard the princess and her mother chattering away in Feislanda, there had been mention that Bree had once been other than herself. If Bree were an imposter, it would explain what Queen Eaflied had meant. “But why the deception? What would Ossa stand to gain by deceiving us?”
The look Samelqo shot her was one of a tutor schooling a pupil. “Nothing. More likely the princess died on the voyage. Almost the entirety of Queen Eaflied’s entourage met exactly that fate. Sickness is rarely kind enough to spare the high born and take only the low. Bree could be a former slave for all we know.”
A slave. Uta’s chest tightened. She hadn’t felt any particular sympathy for Bree before, but now? It was irrational, yet the possibility alone moved her. Beyond that, it was darkly amusing—with Uta and Bree having risen so high, the court was already growing populated by slaves. The rebellion might be unnecessary if Samelqo were correct.
“Surely that would present a problem, were the blood of slaves to run in the veins of the kings of Qemassen,” Uta said.
Samelqo eyed her curiously and long, his thoughts hard to guess. He cleared his throat. “A simple enough problem to address.” He rubbed his finger over the surface of his desk, staring into the polished surface. “There are prayers that could be said, and sacrifices made to cleanse any child of impurity. Though for my part I see no reason to bring Bree’s past to light. When Ashtaroth succeeds his father, she will become a queen of Qemassen, and what is a princess of the Feislands compared with that? No, I would be more concerned that she pines still for Aurelius, and worse, that she might repeat the indiscretion and find a new lover to warm her bed.” His brow wrinkled. “Even that might be surmountable, as long as no child followed.”
His assessment shocked her. Samelqo was nothing if not a dedicated priest of propriety. “Then what will you do about her?”
He tensed. To judge by his rigid posture, his meeting with Princess Bree had not gone well. “That depends entirely upon her. I had thought she was a woman of some intelligence and that she might provide the strength Ashtaroth lacked, but she seems to view me as an enemy.”
A smirk sneaked past Uta’s defenses.
“Why are you smiling?” Samelqo asked.
Uta pressed her finger against the rounded tip of her reed on its palette, rolling it from side to side. It drummed with the sound of ocean waves beating tunnel walls. “You allowed her lover to be whipped nearly to death.” Uta looked straight into Samelqo’s eyes. She laughed. She laughed. “What did you expect?”
And what did it matter what words Uta spoke aloud tonight? She spoke them to a dead man.
Her nose twitched, but she couldn’t cry in front of him. She retracted her finger from the reed pen.
“You think I lack sympathy,” Samelqo spat.
He’d whipped Bree’s lover half to death in front of her and looked on uncaring as he’d done it. No matter how generous Uta’s guilt made her, she couldn’t scrape clean that truth.
Her strength stirred. She let it ride her, so she might not have to reckon with the anger she felt not for Samelqo, but herself. “You sympathize with her? Why? Because you call yourself lowborn and believe she shares that rank?”
Samelqo creaked to his feet, his linen brace belabouring his walk. He shuffled past her, steadying himself against the wall rather than taking up his cane. He ignored Uta and made for the panoramic window encircling his tower.
“Call myself.” He chewed on the words as he stared outside, like he might spit them at her feet. He didn’t deign to look at her. “When I was a child, I had a sister. I had several sisters and several brothers too, but I was closest with my little sister, Safeva. When they came of age, my mother whored them on the corner of the Qelebet, while my brothers picked pockets and swindled fools on the tiles of the Eghri eq-Shalem. It was a gamble for Safeva and I, which fate our mother would choose for us: the corner or the knife. We were so alike, though there was a year between us, and if she had wanted, I’m certain my mother could have sold the pair of us to Ashtet’s temple to be trained in her arts. My mother preferred a dependable income. She would grow our hair long until there was enough to sell, and then she would cut it. My sister’s companions whispered that it would be the corner for us both, and I lived in dread of it until the day the temple took me.”
Uta remained still in her chair, watching the rise and fall of Samelqo’s shoulder blades beneath his fine azure robe. “Your parents made more from selling you to your heq-Ashqen than as a whore.”
Samelqo stirred at that, but he didn’t turn from the window and the midnight blue sky that hung above the city. “I doubt it,” he said. “Earlier I told you I was disappointed in the change in myself.” He paused. “We like to believe that proximity to greatness is enough, that the wealth and beauty and power of the gods is transferable to those who brush shoulders with nobility. As a child I was so committed to that fantasy that I would stare for hours at the beautiful things in the Eghri: fabrics in colours so rich it seemed a goddess must have dipped her toes into the dyeing vat, spices so costly a grain was worth more than my entire family, hair cut from the heads of pauper children that if we had asked to purchase it for ourselves would have meant a week or more without food.” He chuckled bitterly. “Visitors to the bedrooms of my sisters and mother were always telling me how beautiful I was, how regal, and I came to believe that I must be owed the beautiful things that others traded so easily. How much better would the world become were I only to be dressed to match the princely face I believed I possessed. I sat in the dust, baking in my envy, watching uglier men and women paw at the fine clothes I coveted. I didn’t think myself childish, but it was a childish craving, of an intensity very few but children feel. I can still picture the fine gold silk I asked my sister to help me steal that day. I can’t remember the details of her face, but I remember the cloth and the unabashed want that stirred me. She was anxious to be taught to pickpocket—to play the knife game, as we called it—and I used her eagerness to convince her to help me.”
Samelqo paused, a subtle hitch in his voice, a slight tremble in his shoulder that eyes less keen than Uta’s one wouldn’t have recognized.
“She was caught,” he continued. “A Yirada officer with something to prove, or perhaps simply violence in his heart, decided to take her arm. I was dragged to the Yirada cells, while our friend Dannae raced home to alert my parents. I thought Safeva was dead. But the heq-Ashqen of Tanata and the heq-Ashqen of Abaal had seen it all. They had paid at great expense for my sister to be cared for. She survived, thanks to their charity, and I was given to Tanata’s temple as payment. I should have learned better, all that time ago, that no matter what title I bore, no matter how costly the robe or how wealthy the eye that hungered for me as I had hungered for that cloth, none of it would change me. The Semassenqa possess a worthiness that is untouchable and incorruptible. Like diamond, it does not flake. Only mortal flowers fade.”
Uta’s back ached, twisted as she was in her seat, in order to watch him. Even though he seemed finished, he didn’t turn. She didn’t know what to say, not because she was moved to some great pity, but almost because his story left her oddly cold. It was sad, she recognized that, but so were the stories of every slave Uta had grown to adulthood with in the Hamatri. And she knew, whatever he said, that it wasn’t childish to want in the way he described. It was a hope and it was a dream, and no matter how he believed he hadn’t been changed by his fate, he stood here, the most powerful man in Qemassen, surrounded by luxury. If Samelqo eq-Milqar wasn’t one of the Semassenqa, who else could lay claim to the title?
Uta buried all that. She settled on what had meant something to her, that he had, at last, confided something. “I wish you had spoken to me of your sister.”
“There was no need. She died in childbirth a very long time ago.”
Made to work the corner, probably. The fate Samelqo had escaped. Uta parted her lips to give comfort of whatever kind she could but was interrupted.
The door opened, such an ordinary sound, neither especially loud, nor remarkably quiet.
“Who is it?” Samelqo finally turned, brow furrowed. The guards usually announced a guest.
Perhaps, he thought it was Eshmunen.
Uta’s fingers tap-tap-tapped against her chair, fast as the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.
Two tall, masked figures stepped inside. One of them held a short axe, the other a short sword. They marched straight for Samelqo at the window.
“Uta! Get to the door―run.” Something metallic glinted in Samelqo’s hand.
Uta stumbled to her feet. She backed up against the desk instinctively, gripping its edge.
That moment she had tried in vain to prepare herself for had sneaked up on her; that moment when Samelqo would turn his disappointment on her. She was no poisoned heart, though it was all she would see reflected in his eyes.
The man with the axe swiped Samelqo’s pathetic little dagger from his hand and it clattered to the floor. The man with the short sword drew its evil edge to the heq-Ashqen’s throat.
He had to die. It was the choice Uta had made, the deal she’d bartered. Killing Samelqo was the only way.
His gaze found hers, confusion on his face as he begged her wordlessly to leave and still she stood motionless.
When Uta didn’t do as she’d been told, he turned his attentions on the slave with the short axe. “Let her go. She was a slave like you. Whatever treasonous business you have is with me.”
One of the slaves chuckled cruelly and Uta swallowed. Here she was, dangling above the moment, swinging in the wind like a body from a gallows.
“She’s still a slave, Ashqen,” scowled the swordsman. “She’s the one who sent for us, so we could slit your wrinkled old throat and feed you to the dogs.”
“Don’t kill him!” Uta blurted, trying not to catch Samelqo’s eye, afraid of what she’d find there. “Your orders have changed.”
The slaves didn’t pull away, but they also didn’t cut him.
“To what? Why?” asked the swordsman.
In a movement so quick Uta barely registered it, Samelqo grabbed the swordsman’s hand and slipped beneath his shoulder. The sword dropped to the floor, but just as Samelqo seemed poised to flee, the swordsman crushed him against the wall with the force of his strong back.
Samelqo collapsed in a tangle of robes and limbs. He screamed.
His leg. The brace still protected it some, but he was still healing. Whatever good Qirani’s ministering hands had done, it was undone now.
Uta flinched and burrowed even further back, the force of her body inching the desk across the floor in a screech that twinned her husband’s cry.
The slaves hauled him back to his feet. The way he dragged his leg made her teeth ache.
The expression he shot her was indescribable.
“Uta . . . .” he began, low and querulous and drawn out like she still might deny what he must see so plainly before him.
Uta sucked back a lungful of air and closed her eyes to clear her thoughts. This was her doing. This was her choice. She did what she did for the city, and though Samelqo might not understand that, it was what he would want himself if he did understand.
Gripping the rim of the desk one-handed, Uta fumbled at her belt for her coin purse. She unlaced it with shaking fingers, then clumsily tossed it at the men’s feet. “Zioban wants him exiled, not killed. There’s money enough for passage on a ship in here, and lodgings, and food for all three of you.” She could read the doubt in their eyes, but it was easier to look at them than at her husband. “Once you’re far enough from the city, leave him to his fate.”
Even if she didn’t see him she could still feel him. He didn’t need to put words to his emotions, nor remind her how he’d trusted her, or felt he’d known her. And what good would apologies do, having come so far? The betrayal twisted in him, deeper and sharper than any blade. She didn’t need to see it to know.
“We should kill the bastard now.” The axe man pressed his blade to the vulnerable area beneath Samelqo’s ribs. “Spill his guts out on the carpet. Ever seen a man gutted, Sese? They say it’s the worst pain.”
She pried her hand from the table and it hammered uncontrollably against the wood before she drew it into a clasp. “Whatever else he is,” Uta countered, “he’s still the heq-Ashqen. It’s ill-luck to kill a priest. Zioban doesn’t need the gods’ wrath cursing the rebellion.”
The swordsman shook his head as though Uta’s warning had uneased him. “Zioban’s already killed one Ashqen,” he said to his companion.
“And a king,” the axeman pointed out. “King Eshmunen is heq-Ashqen of Adonen and he’s a god. It’s too late to worry about curses.”
Uta had hoped not to have to see Samelqo’s face when he learned about the king.
His eyes were hollow, not empty but filled with a singularity of purpose, a deep violence. He thrashed in their arms, an elbow jabbed into the stomach of the man with the axe, a leg planted forward and pulling the swordsman along. When that didn’t work, he slammed back against them. He bit down on his lip from what looked like pain, drawing blood.
His leg. His leg.
The axe man struggled to pin Samelqo’s arms, and Samelqo raked his nails down the slave’s arm.
Samelqo burst for the door, hurling furniture into the slaves’ path with an energy Uta hadn’t thought possible.
The axe man had real youth, real strength, behind him. He grabbed Samelqo’s robe and yanked. “Let the gods curse me then. I want to see him bleed!”
Samelqo thudded onto the ground. He groaned but didn’t stand.
Uta put herself as close as she could between the axe man and Samelqo, trying to bar the slave’s path. She rested her hand on the slave’s blade, glaring up at him from beneath half-lowered lids. She hoped she looked a fright. With her one eye she didn’t doubt she struck a figure. “I said no, which as far as you’re concerned is the same as Zioban saying no.”
With a half-formed growl the lout finally moved off. “Have it your way, bitch, but I’ll not escort him across the ocean like precious cargo.”
The swordsman stepped around her and dragged Samelqo back to his feet. The heq-Ashqen looked dazed and there was a shallow cut on his forehead. His cheeks were damp.
Tears, for Eshmunen. Uta had killed the last of Samelqo’s friends tonight the same as if she’d wielded the blade herself: Uta and Eshmunen, ripped from him in one cruel gesture.
She wouldn’t kill Samelqo along with them. “No, you won’t. You’ll stay here. Just one of you will go. He’s to remain cared for.” Once Uta was confident she would be obeyed, she stepped aside to let the axe man past. “He’ll feel the pain of exile more than he will the injury of death.”
“And what is to be done with me?” Samelqo’s words were slathered in hate. “If you’re to be a traitorous whore, kill me outright. Don’t hide behind false courtesy.”
Uta steadied herself. “Maybe another temple will buy you. You can serve as you’ve always done. The colonies on the coast have need of men like you.”
Laughter burst from Samelqo’s lips. “Have I taught you nothing? Know what you want and take it. Know where you stand.” His eyes grew moist. “I’m your enemy. Stick a knife in me and be done with it. Kill me! Whore! Liar! Double-dealer!”
Uta grabbed the axe from the slave, surprising all of them, most of all herself. She drew it to Samelqo’s neck, close enough to shave the hairs from his skin. Her teeth were clenched, eye burning with unshed tears, cheeks hot as fire.
Then she shoved it at the swordsman. She stormed away to assemble her husband’s medicine chest, then stowed it in a sack with whatever supplies she could grab. She shoved the bag at the now unarmed slave. “Take him away. Now. There’s no time for debate. And be careful with his things. Don’t leave him alone, but don’t harm him. Be gentle.”
Uta turned away from them, listening to the fading whisper of Samelqo’s slippers dragging against the floor. She only looked back once they’d gone.
She should have looked at him at least once more before he’d been taken. She should have had the courage to face him one more time, that he might read in her eye why she’d had to take everything. Why it was for the good of Qemassen.
He’d been good to her, better than anyone she’d known and probably anyone she would ever know. What did she hope would happen to him? The slaves had no reason to heed her instructions. All she’d sentenced him to was a death out of sight.
Somewhere far away from Uta, Dashel must be committing a murder himself, only he was brave enough to do it with his own hands. He was far more worthy of living than Uta felt in this moment, yet for his crime, Dashel would die.
Uta glanced sidelong at Samelqo’s tiny dagger lying abandoned on the floor.
Dashel might not be the only one. There was work yet for Uta to complete. She couldn’t go unscathed, not after Samelqo’s disappearance.
Dashel had shown her the safest place to stab, and how deeply—a slash on the lower belly, just below the belly button, a stab to her thigh if she could get it exactly right. Uta wasn’t confident that she could.
The blade called to her from its place on the tiles. Samelqo had been so quick to draw it on his attackers. He must have always kept it on him. Now that Uta had taken it, would Samelqo be able to protect himself.
Uta wobbled toward the knife. She sat beside it, her skirts wrinkled beneath her knees.
Defensive wounds on the hands—Dashel had been emphatic about those. A few neat slices, as though she’d grabbed the blade to pull it away from her attacker, or to protect Samelqo.
She ran her finger along the knife’s edge as one might a child.
Uta would have no child. She had no husband. It was very likely she would have neither, ever again.
She clasped her fingers about the hilt. Before she could change her mind she stabbed her weapon into her flesh.