(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 15: Dreamers
Uta – A Memory: A Dream
Uta was a child. A slave child, and therefore, perhaps, not a person capable of childhood in the eyes of anyone but her fellow slaves. Yet still, a child.
She marvelled at the softness of her hands, turning them over and rubbing them together as though her skin were made of finest linen instead of flesh. Hardness had not yet knotted her hands, scars hadn’t dappled the smooth, pale brown of her palms.
And legs—legs were still for running.
She dashed inside the palace riad from beneath the shadow of an open door, feet so fleet it seemed they should sprout wings and carry her up inside the bosom of the sky to soar above the sea.
Other children chattered from beyond the lush palms whose fronds transformed the walled garden into a jungle, and water trickled from a spout in time with their laughter.
Instead of liquid, the pool at the riad’s centre was full of music. Uta knelt beside it, torn out of reverie by the sound, and dipped her hands beneath the surface. She felt the vibrations of the music ripple outward from her fingers, the whistle of a ney whispering from of her grip.
It was real. This was real. She’d only imagined being blinded, growing old, her parents’ deaths, the collapse of the Hamatri, Zioban and her divided loyalties, her marriage to Samelqo—Samelqo of all people.
Beyond the palms, feet scuffled.
Uta bolted upright, letting the music fall from her fingers and back into the pool. The notes clanged like a chime battering a stone floor.
“We can play fiends and Feislanda. Come on, it’s fun.” It was a boy’s voice, a familiar voice.
“I don’t want to play with you anymore,” answered Princess Meghigda et-Eshant, the young girl they called Meg.
A long silence followed and Uta crept toward the voices. She stopped beside a potted olive sapling and clutched its wiry trunk, watching the royal children from the arrow-shaped spaces between leaves.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal was standing not two cubits from Princess Meg. He was thin and short compared with Meg, younger by several years if Uta remembered correctly.
He bent his head in shame, chewing his words. “It was an accident.”
Meg took a step back. The leaves of a cistus bush scratched against her dirty stola. She was staring right at Qanmi, not afraid exactly. It was more like the step was meant as a final dismissal. “You killed me.”
The children of the Semassenqa were always playing at being northern savages at war with each other, crafting horns made of sticks and draping themselves in whatever furs they could find. As King Isir’s daughter, Meg probably wasn’t used to someone not letting her win.
The leaves and branches of the olive tree obscured Uta’s view too much for her to get a perfect look at Qanmi’s expression, but there was no mistaking the anger in his walk as he closed the gap between himself and Meg. He stopped short of grabbing the ball of Meg’s shoulder, fingers cupped and poised to touch, hand hovering with the tremble of a dragonfly’s wings.
“Not really though. Your father fixed it anyway.” Qanmi’s words tumbled out in an angry plea.
Meg curled her hands into fists, but she didn’t move. She was always so frighteningly unexpressive. “My father didn’t fix anything. He only breaks things—you’d know that if you were as smart as you pretend.”
Qanmi lowered his hand, but his sneer held a violence that Uta had seen too often on the faces of Semassenqa.
Wasn’t Meg afraid?
“I am smart.” His anger coiled inside his words. “I see everything. I know everything.”
“I’m not sure how, from down on all fours.” Meg’s words charged from her lips, and for the first time, Uta saw her falter. Meg’s brow rose, her full lips puckering then parting, as though to suck back a cruelty Uta recognized without fully understanding its nature. Yet Meg’s apology didn’t come. Her next words, at least, were sorrowful. “I’m not allowed to play with you anymore.”
“Do you always do what Samelqo tells you?” Qanmi snapped.
Meg shook her great mane of tangled curls. “My mother told me not to. I’m not to see you anymore.”
Qanmi’s sandals scuffed the ground as he stepped back. He hugged his chest. “She wouldn’t say that. She’s my friend.”
“She’s my mother,” said Meg.
“No.” Qanmi’s tunic bunched beneath the press of his arms. “She wanted us to be friends. She wants us to marry one day.”
Meg stared in what had to be shock. “She felt sorry for you. That was all.” She paused. “I’m not going to marry you. She’d never marry any of us to one of Sabaal’s sons.”
Qanmi at last released his hold on himself, striding forward again. “Fine words from the daughter of Isir’s whore.”
“My mother’s not a whore.”
“I didn’t mean your mother.”
Meg turned as though to storm off and Uta crouched lower, her view obscured by the olive tree.
“You’d be lucky for such a match!” Qanmi yelled after Meg. His footsteps crunched after hers. “To marry Isir’s only true son!”
All the hairs on Uta’s arms stood on end. There was nothing more frightening than a man—or a boy—aggrieved. She stumbled back instinctively and the tiny stones that lined the riad crunched beneath her feet.
Both Meg and Qanmi turned to face the potted tree where Uta was hiding.
It was no use now. Uta bent down and retrieved the water jug she’d laid beside her—wait, had she laid it beside her?
She felt dizzy suddenly. She tightened her grip around the glazed ceramic jug, letting its firmness steady the memories that slipped and slid inside her. She pressed her lips together in a tight line and stepped from behind the olive sapling.
Swallowing her fear, she dipped her head in deference. “Sesa.”
With her head bent, she couldn’t see them, could only listen to the crunch of footsteps approaching.
Leather-strapped sandals stopped before her and Qanmi reached out and nudged the jug. Water jostled inside and spilled slightly over the lip. It trickled over her fingers, making her flinch.
“What do they call you?” asked Qanmi eq-Sabaal. “Look up, won’t you? I want to see your eyes. You can tell everything you need from someone’s eyes.”
She didn’t want to look up, sensing some cruelty to come, but she couldn’t disobey and slowly raised her gaze till it met his. “They call me Uta et-Lohit, Sese.”
Even to her own ears, her voice was far too flat for a slave. She’d intended to demure, like other slave girls did when they flirted with their masters, but she needed practice, clearly.
But whatever hardness she’d heard in her own voice didn’t seem to bother Qanmi. He stared directly at her, expressionless as his gaze carved a hole in her own, as though his eyes meant to scoop hers out like cherry pits.
Before he could speak, Meg tugged his sleeve. “Let her alone. I’ll play fiends with you”
Why was Meg being kind to her? Uta was nothing and no one to these people. Meg probably couldn’t even tell one slave from another.
Qanmi glared at Uta. “Play with us, slave. You can be the captive.” He clasped his hand around her wrist.
Uta shook her head. She wasn’t allowed to play. She had a jug of wine to bring to the fat Ajwatan ambassador. She tried to pull her arm away, but Qanmi held fast.
“I don’t want to. I can’t. I have to go.”
Meg laid a chubby hand on Qanmi’s shoulder and he shrugged her off. “I want to play just with us,” said the princess.
Qanmi turned from her, eyes narrowed at Meg. “Why do you care so much about her?”
“I don’t,” Meg protested. “She’s just a slave. Bora’s slave.”
The Ajwatan ambassador. That’s right, she’d been gifted to the Ajwatan ambassador until he’d left for home. He’d been rowdy but not unkind. He’d been covetous of his slaves though—was that why Meg was afraid? After Bora had returned to his homeland, she’d been given to a demanding but gentle daughter of the heq-Ashqen of Abaal, and then eventually, Aurelius. She’d been so lucky, really, until Aurelius’s mother—
Uta reached for the side of her face where Moniqa had blinded her.
“I’m not scared of some drunk.” Qanmi scoffed.
Not real. Not real. Moniqa never happened.
Behind Qanmi and Meg, framed by a horseshoe arch on the opposite side of the riad, billowing silks swirled in a round ball that formed out of the very air. The fabric writhed in a knot, beautiful and terrible as a coming storm. An arm thrust outward from inside, then another and another and another—identical arms too many to count, each clutching a bloody dagger. Fog thick as cloud bloomed from the spectre, enveloping Meg and Qanmi both.
Moniqa. Moniqa. Moniqa.
“What is she to you?” Qanmi’s voice cracked like distant thunder. “Another girl for you to fondle?”
Uta was frozen fast. The world around her was an endless sea of white and grey except for a red glow where Moniqa’s spirit roiled.
A softness like spiders’ legs tickled Uta’s cheek and she flinched away instinctively, though Qanmi’s hand still held her in place. She pressed her chin to her chest to see what had touched her.
A downy feather.
A woman’s agonized screech ripped through the mist.
Uta tore her arm from Qanmi’s. Water from the jug sloshed all down the front of her plain tunic. She ran down the path without looking back. She didn’t want to see if Moniqa was chasing her. She wanted to go home to the Hamatri and hide forever.
Uta turned one corner, then another.
Blue robes stretched before her. She’d collided with an Ashqen of Tanata.
She looked up, heart pounding. The stern gaze of the heq-Ashqen greeted her.
“Sese.” Uta prostrated herself on the ground the way she’d been taught.
The heq-Ashqen knelt in front of her. He took her hand and lifted her to her feet.
“Where are you going?” Samelqo asked. He was older than he should be—the man she’d married rather than the one she’d only glimpsed from a distance as a child.
Uta thrust the jug out in front of her. She bowed her head, afraid. “Bora eq-Djadar.”
Suddenly, they were walking through the palace, toward the ambassadorial apartments.
Hot tears poured down Uta’s cheeks.
Samelqo’s hand squeezed her small one, but when he spoke, his words weren’t words of comfort. “You killed me.”
This wasn’t how it had happened, surely? Samelqo had taken her to the Ajwatan, who had passed out from drink, and Samelqo had called a physician for him, and he’d taken Uta home.
Uta looked up at him.
His eyes were bloody hollows.
Just like mine.
Blood and fluid from her burst eye streamed down Uta’s cheek, a scream cutting through her.
Her body jerked at the sound, and with feverish terror, she realized she was awake and sitting bolt upright in her bed. The sheets around her were soaked through with sweat, her forehead drenched. She clutched her blankets tight as a vice. The air in her chambers—the former heq-Ashqen’s chambers—was clotted with clouds of incense.
Mint and lavender seeped inside Uta’s nose and throat. Her eye socket, empty again, itched, and there was a tightness at her side that she didn’t recognize.
She patted her abdomen and winced as pain corded through her from the self-inflicted wound she’d made the night she’d betrayed her husband.
“Sese!” Madaula hurried to Uta’s bedside, emerging from the blurred edges of Uta’s vision.
Uta’s thoughts were as cloudy as the room, as though she still had one foot inside the dream and Moniqa was ready to grab her by the ankle. To steady herself, she glanced at the table across from her bed where a village of medicinal vials huddled together. Qirani must have been treating her.
Madaula clasped her hands in front of herself and bent her neck in deference. She peeked at Uta, eyes brimming with worry. “Are you well, Sese?”
Was Uta well? The last she’d seen of Madaula and Samelqo’s other slaves, they were being dragged to the dungeons at Hima’s orders. Something had happened to change the situation.
“I’m fine. I had strange dreams, that’s all.” The joy of seeing Madaula alive and well banished the last of the nightmare. She breathed in deeply, allowing the lavender to soothe her.
Gods she was parched. “How long have I been asleep?” she croaked. She reached for a water jug, but Madaula anticipated her need and poured a cup for her.
“Only since yesterday.” Madaula handed Uta the water.
One day. It felt like Uta had been trapped in dream for years. “My husband—?” The water was uncomfortably warm and Uta choked on it. A coughing fit wracked her, but she held tight to the ceramic vessel. Once the fit had passed, Uta took a long swig.
Madaula’s lips formed a tight line. “The heq-Ashqen’s body is still missing, Sese. The first time you woke—”
The first time? Uta set her cup down. The ceramic wobbled against the cedarwood. “How many days since the attack?”
“You’ve been waking and sleeping for months, Sese.” Madaula leaned forward. Her gaze roamed Uta’s face as though assessing her for madness. “Adoran eq-Afqad came himself to question you about the heq-Ashqen’s—about the attack. Don’t you remember?
Adoran had been to see her? What on earth had Uta told the Yirada chief in her delirium? Her chest was a swarm of locusts. “No. What happened?”
“They arrested Dashel eq-Yeremi for the murder of King Eshmunen and Samelqo eq-Milqar. He was executed.”
Uta’s throat tightened. So the plan had worked, poor man. She scooched back on her bed, till her aching back was flush against the wall. Belatedly, she remembered the question she ought to ask. “Dashel was Zioban?”
“So they say.” Madaula walked to the table of Qirani’s vials but reached instead for another cup.
Uta watched Madaula pour steaming water from a decanter into this latest vessel, skepticism boiling in her breast. The concoction had better not be lotus tea. Uta couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping longer than she already had. “Is that why they released you?”
Madaula smiled weakly as she approached, clutching—yes—a portion of lotus tea. She knelt beside Uta’s bed, proffering the cup. “Yes.”
There must be more. Uta could read it in the girl’s deep brown eyes. “Who rules in Qemassen?” She brushed away Madaula’s offered cup.
Madaula’s wine-dark eyes widened, the light from the panoramic window hitting her cheekbones, revealing a healed-over scar.
So Hima’s torturers had done some damage after all. Uta shuddered, her hairs bristling at the thought of sweet Madaula suffering at their hands.
“Qanmi eq-Sabaal acts as regent until the prince’s coronation.”
The clouds of incense paled, growing thick and cold against Uta’s skin.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal. The nightmare that had been born of memory, or something like memory.
“Sese?” Madaula stood up, her ministering hand hovering in front of her, like she meant to shake Uta awake.
Uta was already awake. She wouldn’t let strange dreams drag her back. Qanmi was a beast, yes, but he wasn’t a monster. And neither Moniqa nor Samelqo’s restless spirits were real. There was nothing to be afraid of in the daylight.
She threw off what remained of her blankets and stumbled to her feet. Pain burst outward from the wound in her gut and Madaula caught her as her feet failed her.
“You need rest, Sese. Qirani eq-Maleq—”
Uta grit her teeth, fingers digging into Madaula’s shoulder. “No. I’ve been abed too long. There are arrangements to make.”
Samelqo’s eyeless face flashed before her, and she frowned. The feather, the ghost, Samelqo’s bleeding sockets—none of it meant anything to her, and the rest of the dream was a haze already.
“Did you hear me?” Madaula asked.
Uta blinked and the room sharpened around her once more. “What?” She pushed Madaula off, slouching against the table instead.
“What business do you have, Sese? You’re no one’s scribe, no one’s slave, no one’s wife.”
“You ask too many questions for a slave,” Uta said with a smile.
“I’m sorry, Sese.” The hint of a smirk at the corner of Madaula’s mouth suggested she wasn’t sorry at all.
“I have arrangements to make.” Using the wall and furniture as her supports, Uta heaved herself from the chamber that housed Samelqo’s bed and into the entry room with its desks and scrolls.
Madaula overtook Uta quickly and began clearing the mass of clutter piled on Samelqo’s desk. Jewelry, fine glassware, ostrich feathers, ivory trinkets, and scrolls upon scrolls crowded the surface corner to corner.
“What’s all that?” Uta asked.
“Gifts mostly,” Madaula said. “You’ve inherited quite a vast sum.”
Uta chortled. “And the vultures are circling.”
Madaula turned to her and smiled. “The vultures are doing more than circling.” She plucked a scroll from the heap and handed it to Uta.
Uta hobbled around the desk and slumped into Samelqo’s chair. “What’s this?” She unfurled the scroll.
A marriage proposal. From Shaqarbas of all people. Uta scoffed and tossed it back onto the heap. It rolled to the floor and Madaula bent to collect it.
“It’s not the only one,” said Madaula.
Uta had no intention of acquiring a husband―what would she do with him once she had him? Besides, she knew the dirty secrets of all the men who’d hope to court her and had no desire to end her days their property.
She’d only just sat down, but already she had no taste for the labour that lay very literally before her. “What else has happened while I’ve been asleep?”
Madaula bit her lip thoughtfully. “Much. Oh! The prince. Ashtaroth has been removed from the line of succession following an . . . an incident at court.”
What? Uta reached absently for Samelqo’s cane, which still rested against the desk. She stopped short of taking it in hand. “You can speak plainly to me, Madaula. I’m not like Samelqo. We slaves always know more than we say.”
“Apologies, Sese.” Madaula wrung her hands. “Prince Ashtaroth disgraced himself before his councilors—in front of his brother and sister, all of the ambassadors. They say he began shrieking and scratching himself, that he stripped himself naked and spilled his seed onto the council room table.”
Uta grimaced. Part of her even twitched with pity. Samelqo would have been devastated to hear such news. A blessing, then, that Uta had spared him from witnessing it. “Then he truly is mad.”
Madaula nodded. “The council are saying so. Prince Aurelius is to become king within the week, and Princess Qwella is to be appointed heq-Ashqat. It was Aurelius who had us freed from the dungeons.”
And there it was. Aurelius as king. Zioban as king—one half of Zioban, in any case, for there was still Hima.
Uta’s chest swelled. Her and Dashel’s sacrifices had been worth it.
She closed her fingers about Samelqo’s cane and stood up slowly. She still had to hold her hand to her chest to balance herself. Madaula looked as though she might rush to help, but Uta waved her away. She started for the door, eager for the hidden corridors that had been her true home for so long now.
“You don’t have to do everything alone, Sese.” Madaula nipped at Uta’s ragged steps. “Let me help you.”
“I have no need of help, only peace and quiet. I have business to see to. Why don’t you busy yourself rejecting my suitors.” Uta smiled as she stepped into the hallway. Refusing help, ignoring Qirani’s prescriptions—she truly was becoming Samelqo.
In true form, she declined the help of the guard stationed outside her room, silencing him with a stare, and with the aid of the railing and her cane she made her way to the cellar and the tunnel entrance.
The tunnels were harder work even than the stairs had been, but Uta found her footing all the same. As she walked the halls of this second palace, she let thoughts of Aurelius and Zioban chase away whatever lingered of the dream’s foul clutches.
Uta stopped. Were those voices? Raised voices from somewhere above her. It sounded like the Feislandata.
Such a curious little creep you are. She could all but feel the yielding strength of the olive sapling beneath her fingers and hear the trickle of the fountain melding with Meg and Qanmi’s laughter in the riad.
Uta didn’t have the time or patience to be haunted. She shook off the anxiety of the dream.
She’d never liked to think of herself as having a weakness, a soft spot, but perhaps her strength was her weakness. Perhaps the spying was more than just a useful tool. Perhaps it was also a temptation.
Temptation or not, she’d become too dependent on its fruits to stop now.
As Uta reached the cramped corridor that lay outside the Feislandata’s chambers, it became clear that one of the speakers was a man. He had a subtle northern accent. It must be the new ambassador, Fritha. Samelqo had been communicating with him since Bree had arrived absent an escort.
“You could have at least told him,” Fritha said, switching to the Feislanda tongue.
Uta strained to listen. They were speaking very fast. She pressed her eye to the spyhole looking inside the princess’s room, catching a glimpse of a man’s elbow before there was a rustle and Fritha blocked her view entirely.
“And risk the letter being intercepted?” Eaflied scoffed. “It wasn’t feasible. Besides, what good would it do my husband to know? The wolf is at the gates; he doesn’t need his daughter’s death to distract him.”
They must mean Ossa, but how could his daughter be dead? Unless he had another.
“You’re a cold bitch,” Fritha said matter-of-factly.
“She’s not cold,” said Bree. “Everything she’s done has been for Atlin.”
It was surprising to hear Bree defend her mother so vehemently. They hardly ever agreed, in Uta’s experience.
“The truth would have served Atlin best. What did you expect when you put a whore in virgin’s place? You think we’re deaf back home? There’s gossip in Atlin that Ossa’s daughter spread her legs for the prince’s brother. Now I come here to find it’s true.”
Fritha stepped out of the way of the spyhole, giving Uta a clear view of Eaflied and Bree, who were exchanging troubled glances.
“It’s as well she did,” snapped Eaflied. “The crown prince is a madman; there can be no doubting that now.”
“A madman who might have been king,” Fritha said.
“Aurelius will be king.” Bree’s voice was hurried, but whether with excitement or fear, Uta couldn’t say.
Fritha threw up his hands. “Then things are how they are, but I’ll warn you, should you cuckold your new husband, things won’t go well for you.”
Bree’s expression darkened. “I’m not so stupid.”
“You’ll keep quiet, Fritha?” Eaflied crept toward him, hands clasped in front of her. “And make sure your men understand the importance of this?”
“Do I have a choice? The deception’s gone on too long to reveal it now.”
Uta bit her lip. The deception. On Uta’s last night at Samelqo’s side, he’d revealed to her that he believed Bree was an imposter, that a servant or slave had been raised in the dead princess’s place.
“I had no choice,” Bree said angrily. “I didn’t want to lie, and I didn’t want to be queen. I didn’t even want to come here at all.” She rubbed her arm. “I was waiting for someone.”
“The prince. I heard. Well, how convenient for you that his princess took ill under your care, that Vivaen, Princess of Back-Alleys was available to fill Bree’s place.”
Bree paled, and Eaflied reddened. The queen of the Feislands grabbed her daughter’s hand in her own. “Vivaen was not to blame for Bree’s death. Most of our party fell to that sickness, and near half the crew. It’s a wonder they didn’t burn us on arrival. We were both still sick when we got here.”
“So I was told. Spewing your bile on a king-to-be. Perhaps it was what drove him mad.”
Every communication that had passed across Samelqo’s desk described Bree as having yellow hair―a happy, giggling girl, virtuous and pretty. Bree was dead, a victim of the sickness on the ship as Samelqo had suspected. This woman with black hair, this unfaithful bride, was a stranger named Vivaen. Now she had all the confirmation she needed that Samelqo had been correct. She held Vivaen’s fate in her hands.
Uta searched the pretender’s face, trying to gauge Vivaen’s mood.
If Uta told Zioban what she knew, Hima might use the knowledge like she’d used her knowledge of the affair. Could Uta risk it?
Bree, or Vivaen—whoever she was—had a slightly sad expression on her face. “You saw it—was it as bad as they said? Did Ashtaroth really—”
“Yes.” Fritha reached a hand inside his pocket and drew out two coins. He began to dance them between his fingers. “It was humiliating and vile. When they dragged him away, he struggled so much he broke a guard’s nose.”
“It’s hard to imagine,” Eaflied said. “He’s so weak and thin.”
“Madness grants its own sort of strength,” said Fritha.
“And possession?” Bree’s jaw was tight. “The heq-Ashqen thought he was plagued by demons.”
Fritha shrugged in a noncommittal way. He stepped in front of the spyhole again. “He claims he was fighting off a demon; that a woman named Lilit was raping him.”
“A woman can’t rape a man.” Eaflied’s voice was dismissive. “Not unless she’s a mighty beast of a thing.”
Fritha didn’t sound so certain. “Whether he was fouled by demons or compelled by his own perversions to act as he did, it would be impossible for anyone to accept him as king now.”
And so it fell to Aurelius, as Madaula had said.
Perhaps Uta should go to Aurelius with the information. Why not, if he were one half of Zioban? The idea itched like a scab.
Aurelius obviously loved the Feislandat. What good would it do to hurt him so? And should Uta reveal Bree’s lies to him, he might resent her as the messenger. But if Uta were to tell Hima instead—well, Aurelius might be made to look elsewhere for a bride.
Uta swallowed, drawing away from the wall. She knew who she had to tell: the person best suited to decide what was to be done. Uta might hate her, distrust her, disagree with her methods, but the former heq-Damirat would at least be impartial. She would know what to do.