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Chapter 15: Dreamers
Qwella – Temple of Hazzan: Qemassen
Becoming the heq-Ashqat of Qalita had been a simple thing.
A wash in the temple baths and a ritual shave. A drop of oil on the forehead and a change of robes. Three days and three nights of fasting. A libation poured out before her goddess. An offering of the finest cut of ox, prepared by the temple butchers.
A few words, repeated after one of the Ashqata who everyone knew should have been standing in Qwella’s place.
Everyone but Dansila, apparently. When Hima had insisted Qwella become heq-Ashqat, it was Dansila who’d sworn that Qwella had still been in Daana’s chamber when the old heq-Ashqat had died.
How much coin Hima must have offered Dansila’s family to ensure those words passed her lips.
It seemed not to matter to anyone that Qwella wasn’t at all suitable, that she neither desired the position nor met the criteria for its assumption. Even Eshant had pressed her to accept with humility the great honour that had been bestowed on her.
And now, six days later, she was to become heq-Ashqat of the entire city.
Again, Qwella had been purified, shaved, anointed, fasted, and now she stood in a cramped chamber inside Hazzan’s temple, surrounded by her gods, each one carved in stone or wood or ivory.
Earlier, she’d been made to profess her sins in the holy debir of Hazzan before scribbling her confessions on scraps of papyri and burning them in a brazier. This time, at least, the words were her own, and not those of the scribe who’d recorded the details of Qanmi’s birth.
Whatever Qwella had done—and she had done much—Hazzan would now bear her burdens for her.
The goat god and his family stared at her. Statues of Abaal, Tanata, Adonen, Ashtet, Molot, Qalita, Leven and Pepet, and Hazzan ringed her. The heq-Ashqen of each deity stood beside his own god, clasping a cup or a dish in his hand. The Ashenqa were masked, so that it was impossible for them to stare upon the sacred images of the other gods.
These weren’t public images, but the most holy of statues from deep inside the debira of the temples. Only the heq-Ashqen of the city ever saw all the gods so close. Such proximity to them was a rare privilege.
Before Qwella, the last person to have experienced this was Samelqo.
A chill struck her, as though the former heq-Ashqen would reach a spectral hand out of the air and scratch her eyes out for the presumption.
The heq-Ashqen of Abaal—the man who enacted Abaal’s rituals in place of the king—stepped forward. Even though he couldn’t possibly see, he walked straight and true, holding a dish in his wrinkled hands.
From the dish, a bream stared up at Qwella with dead, squishy eyes.
A day or two ago, at the start of Qwella’s fast, she would have gobbled it down gratefully, but today her stomach clenched at the thought.
She swallowed and reached for the bream, which she was supposed to eat, when the heq-Ashqen spoke.
Each of the priests was to recite something first. Qwella couldn’t even keep the simple details of the ritual in her mind—how would she manage a whole city’s worth of supplications and festivals?
“The blessing of crown and catch,” said the heq-Ashqen.
“The blessing is accepted,” Qwella answered, voice quaking. She reached out tentatively with one hand, but the fish head was comically large to eat that way and she had to use both hands to bring it to her mouth.
Qwella bit into it.
Qwella nearly gagged but forced the mouthful down. Whatever they’d cooked the fish in had imparted a taste so strong it obscured the natural sweetness of the bream. She took another bite—larger this time, to get it over with sooner.
By the time she was finished her fingers were slick with the bream’s juices and flakes of its flesh coated her hands. With nothing to wipe herself clean but her robes, she was forced to stand awkwardly with fish-caked skin.
Somehow, the heq-Ashqen sensed that she was finished and retreated beside Abaal’s statue.
The recently appointed heq-Ashqen of Tanata followed. He was so different from Samelqo—fat and jolly-seeming, even with the mask. He held out a small hunk of dark bread.
“The blessing of harvest and womb.”
“The blessing is accepted.”
Qwella grasped it eagerly, hopeful the bread would soak up the bitterness left by the bream. It did help a little, but the bread, too, was acrid and disagreeable, the richness of its colour disguising an unappetizing something that had been kneaded into the dough.
When Qira had explained the ritual to Qwella, she’d mentioned that the gifts would impart visions. So many foul-tasting herbs were known to have such effects.
One by one the Ashenqa proffered their gifts: blessing of serpent and melody, blessing of the sweet and the bitter, blessing of gold and tomb, blessing of mystery and vengeance, blessing of eternity, blessing of—
Hazzan. Sin eater.
The heq-Ashqen of Hazzan stepped forward, clasping a cup carved from horn. “The blessing of sacrifices made, and absolutions granted.” Two curved goat’s horns protruded from the mask’s forehead, but where the face should be was a flat plane of black obsidian.
Qwella’s distorted face was reflected back at her on the mask’s surface. It looked as though she were grinning—was she grinning? With each blessing—bream, lotus tea, henbane gifted from the hands of a lesser Ashqat of Qalita—Qwella’s thoughts had become jumbled.
Behind her, reflected in the mask’s surface, a figure moved.
Qwella scrambled around so that her back was to the heq-Ashqen of Hazzan. She ran her gaze over and over and over the plain wall behind her, but no one was there.
The figure had looked like a man made of shadow.
“The blessing of sacrifices granted, and absolutions made,” the heq-Ashqen repeated.
She’d already taken his blessing, hadn’t she? She was standing in front of him again, in any case.
Qwella looked down and smoothed her hands over the polished cup of ivory. The liquid inside was a silty, murky brown shot through with veiny threads.
“A bless—I—I accept this bless—the absolution and sacrifices are accepted.” Qwella’s voice juddered from her—and then a man’s? A man’s voice, speaking the words along with her. The heq-Ashqen was so kind to do that to help her he was so kind to—
The cup shook inside her grip. Not her hands shaking—the cup was shaking. Rippling circles radiated outward, toward the edges of the pool the cup the pool
One of the veiny threads inside the cup wriggled.
No, she’d already drunk it. The thing in the cup wasn’t in the cup it was inside her and it was wriggling in her stomach, tickling her, having such fun, so much fun and
A laugh burst out of her and Qwella was sitting in a chair. They’ d brought her a chair to sit upon like a queen on a throne or a prisoner on a floor, and as she sat down her arms seemed to blur and in and out of existence, followed always by a ripple like the ripples in the cup, so that someone else—many someone elses sat upon the chair with her, their hands folded inside hers and gripping the chair with her fingers
There were two cups. One of ivory and one of—
And inside one lay the water of life and inside the other the other, the other?
Aunt Meg rested her hand on the right side of Qwella’s chair. She knew it was Aunt Meg because—because well look at her big tangle of hair and her angry brow and her golden eyes and—another hand gripped the left side of Qwella’s chair.
Qwella turned her head, slowly. A handsome woman with an impish smile and russet skin looked down on her. Her warm brown eyes smiled on Qwella with a love Qwella could only describe as maternal, but she wasn’t Moniqa, she was—
“Eshant. Queen Eshant,” said the woman.
“I—I saw you—I saw you at the the the—”
the the the
“Exorcism,” said Aunt Meg.
“An exoneration, failed,” said Qwella’s dead grandmother.
“The price was already paid.” Meg’s tone was so flat, like she was entranced.
“The price has yet to be paid in full,” said Eshant, just as emotionless.
Qwella’s gut ached. “The price for what?” But she knew. It was the price of murdering Sabeq and burning the papyri that would help prove Qanmi’s paternity as Isir’s son.
King Isir. Queen’s Eshant’s Isir. Surely, Qwella’s grandmother had all the answers.
Qwella tuned her back on Aunt Meg and grabbed Eshant’s hand. “King Isir—he lay with a woman named Dannae. Sabaal eq-Sabaal’s wife, Qanmi eq-Sabaal’s mother. Do you remember? King Isir.”
“My husband,” said Eshant.
“My father,” said Meg.
“Yes,” Qwella choked on her eagerness. “And Dannae? Did he lie with her?”
“The king was called to lie with her,” said Eshant.
“Dannae et-Erinya knew the king in the manner of a wife,” said Aunt Meg.
“A cunning trick to force a lover’s touch,” said Eshant.
“The blood of the kings of Qemassen runs strong in the veins,” said Aunt Meg.
Qwella breathed in deep, relief rushing over her. It was the opposite of what had been said during the exorcism. She’d misunderstood before, she’d—
“The blood of the kings of Qemassen runs weak in your veins,” said Eshant.
Qwella ripped her hand from Eshant’s, pulling back. “What?”
“The blood runs strong in your veins,” said Eshant.
“The blood runs weak,” said Aunt Meg.
Opposites. They were contradicting one another. Qwella bolted from the chair, facing it. Eshant on one side, Meg on the other. They each gripped a cup like the cup of the heq-Ashqen of Hazzan in their free hand, while the other hand remained gracefully holding the handrest of Qwella’s chair.
No. Not a chair. It was the throne with its carved sphinxes. Qwella had been sitting on her father’s throne.
All that lay beyond Meg, Eshant, and the throne was shadow, yet somehow Qwella sensed a presence in the darkness—a third. The darkness was waiting for a third.
“You’re contradicting yourselves,” said Qwella. “What do you mean?”
“I speak the truth,” said Eshant.
“As do I,” said Aunt Meg.
“How can the blood be weak and strong?” Qwella pleaded. She hugged herself for comfort. Whoever it was who spoke, it wasn’t Eshant or Aunt Meg, not really. This was some spirit, some god—it was Qalita herself! Qalita, with three faces, and an empty third space where Qwella sensed a presence.
“You aren’t listening,” said Queen Eshant.
Qwella bit her lip. “I am listening. Or I want to.” She hesitated. “Ashtaroth. Ashtaroth is the rightful king.”
“What is rightful?” asked Eshant, but it sounded more like a statement than a question. The darkness beyond the throne swirled. A glistening wetness reverberated beyond, slick like the membrane surrounding a newborn calf but black as bitumen.
“Ashtaroth is destined to save Qemassen,” said Qwella. It slipped out of her, more of a plea than anything.
“The seventh son of the sixteenth king,” said Meg.
“The seventh child of King Eshmunen,” Eshant agreed.
Or had she agreed?
Qwella frowned, suspicious. “Why child?” she asked Eshant.
“The serpents are twins in all things,” the queen answered.
The serpents. Why were Ashtara and Ashtaroth serpents? Was Ashtaroth a woman in the same way as Qwella’s Eshant? She’d never considered it, but could she really say it would surprise? Ashtaroth had always been so troubled with himself, never settling and always fretful.
“And you’re saying that he can’t save Qemassen, because he’s—she’s not a man?” Anger started to bubble in Qwella’s chest.
“What is save?” asked Queen Eshant.
“Is Ashtaroth the one foretold in the Book of Abaal?” Qwella clenched her fists.
“Yes,” said Aunt Meg.
“So Ashtaroth could be, or—” Then it struck her. “One of you is lying.”
“Yes,” said Queen Eshant.
“No,” said Meg.
Which meant Queen Eshant told the truth, didn’t it? Yet she’d stood to Qwella’s left. The left was deceitful. The left was the liar’s side.
The lefthand path belonged to Qalita.
The darkness beyond the throne had turned to smoke. It seethed across the floor, obscuring Queen Eshant and Aunt Meg’s feet. Soon it would overtake Qwella, and then that would be it and she’d have wasted her chance to beg her goddess for answers.
“Daughter of death,” Qwella blurted. “You called me daughter of death through Daana, and during the exorcism.”
“Yes,” said Aunt Meg.
“No,” said Eshant.
The crack of split stone echoed through the shadows that surrounded them and thick, inky smoke formed a pillar in front of Queen Eshant.
“Please,” Qwella begged. “I just want the truth. If I’m to serve you, I need the truth.” She fell to her knees in supplication. “For my sins, I beg absolution. For the curse I’ve heaped on my family, for the demon tormenting Ashtaroth. I—I only did what I had to, to survive. He hurt me, and Qanmi can’t be king. He’s vile and cruel and he won’t serve you. He bears no love for women.”
“Qanmi eq-Sabaal will be king,” said Queen Eshant.
“Qanmi eq-Sabaal is the child foretold in the Book of Abaal,” said Meg.
Qwella’s blood ran cold. “No.” A shudder ran up her back. “You’re lying.”
“No,” the women spoke in unison.
Qwella grimaced. They were both lying, for Qanmi certainly wasn’t King Eshmunen’s child, and even if he were Isir’s, Isir had been only the fifteenth king. This had all been designed to confuse her.
As the smoke consumed the throne and the women standing sentinel beside it, Qwella hauled herself to her feet. Standing tall and proud, she shouted into the blackness. “If I am the daughter of death then I wear that mantle proudly.” She sucked back a breath of cloying air before the smoke could reach her. “Tell me the truth!”
She strode down a palace corridor on the way to the king’s chambers, caring a tray laden with steeping qarqada blossoms and a dish of sweet onion. The tartness of the red flowers steamed into the air around her and against her sand-gold skin. The birds outside twitched and cooed as though the world were free of shadows. As though the world was still clean and clear and beautiful.
A slave woman passed her in the corridor and bowed her head. “Heq-Ashqen.” She cast the tray a wary glance, confused no doubt that someone of the heq-Ashqen’s standing performed the duties of a slave.
Qwella clutched the satchel of precious herbs in her hand, crushing them through the silk, rubbing them, crumbling them to dusty powder. Last night Sabeq had hit her again. It had been a long time, so long that Qwella had started to think he might never do it again. Inevitably though, she’d done something wrong, and it had provoked his anger. He’d grabbed her by the arm, dragging her to this very spot, so dangerously public. The slaves all saw, of course, pretending not to notice. He’d called her a fat bitch, along with his usual slew of insults, remarking on her many inadequacies: her foreign mien, her inability to provide a son, the way she chose to paint her face and fix her hair. There seemed nothing about her that Sabeq eq-Sabaal didn’t detest, so why he even deigned to touch her she wasn’t sure. He had touched her though, bending her over the ledge of the pool so that the water choked her as he sated himself.
Qwella had bought herself the herbs months ago, uncertain even then that she would use them. If she only bought them, she’d thought, if she only kept them in the house just in case, then she couldn’t possibly be accused of doing anything wrong. She didn’t have to make the choice. Knowing she could make it if she needed to was enough to give her courage.
In the palace corridor with her tray, the clip of her shoes hitting the tiled floor beat a pleasing rhythm. She was tall and she was proud and when she walked it was other people who parted for her and not she who scurried out of their path. She did what she did not for pettiness, but because it was what was necessary.
When a dog became rabid you slit its throat.
Yet a cold rage brewed in her as the qarqada stewed in its poison broth. Not a fatal dose, no. Just enough to eat at him from the inside. Just enough to consume him, day by day, to waste his muscle to the bone the way he had tried to whittle his wife and his children and his counselors to slim spindles he could crush inside his hands. Just enough to let it be vengeance.
The guards blocking the king’s chamber snapped their spears out of the way without even a question as to the heq-Ashqen’s business. She opened the door one-handed, balancing the tray with the grace of a temple dancer.
From his deathbed, King Isir groaned.
Qwella started to cry, but she stood up all the same, making her way to the kitchens, where the slaves were busy preparing the morning meal. She shooed them away. She wanted to prepare something for her husband, she said, and the fact that she’d occasionally done so over the last few months lent credence to her request. She reached for the jar of qarqada blossoms from which his morning tea was made. It was perfect really; the flowers had such a sharp, tart taste that they would easily disguise any additions to the brew.
Daughter of death.
She reached for the jar, wincing at the ache in her arm from where Sabeq had struck her the night before.
She laughed suddenly, biting her lip to stifle her reaction. If she were honest though, she felt like laughing. She wanted to sit on the floor and laugh the day away, until it was night again and she could sleep. Perhaps she’d drink the tea herself and sleep forever with her husband as was right.
Bride of Molot.
“Your tea, Sese,” she said to King Isir, with an air of neutrality she didn’t feel.
The blankets rustled with movement and a skeletal hand emerged from the cocoon of fabric the king had wound around himself. “Bring it here.”
She approached him and laid the tray on the stool beside his bed, just low enough that Isir had to stretch to reach it. When he tried and failed, she looked on with practiced detachment.
Isir was a waif compared with what he’d been, his cheekbones turned to daggers in his once-handsome face, his hair lusterless, and his thick beard caked with crumbs from a day-old meal. That, of course, was his own fault for dismissing his slaves and insisting only his closest friends attend him.
Trust was a deadly thing.
He fumbled for the cup and his fingers grazed its surface.
“Would you like me to pour it for you, Sese?”
“Would you like me to pour it for you, Sese?” Isir mimed in a squeaky voice clearly meant to emulate the heq-Ashqen’s. “I called for my son. I want my son to serve me.”
“Your son is busy with matters of state.”
As Qwella prepared the drink she checked in the pocket of her robe for the needles she’d acquired, the perfect shape and width to mimic a scorpion sting. Aunt Meg had died of a scorpion bite. Qwella remembered the symptoms and had gone to some trouble to find the correct plants, ones that would have the same outward effects.
Sabeq would be awake soon. He always rose early, the better to manage his business enterprises with his brother.
I’ll drink the tea when he’s finished, and they’ll burn us together in the gardens, where my sister burned, where I should be too. Mother will be there. We’ll sail through the night skies and I’ll be a good wife, a dutiful daughter.
That wasn’t how it had happened though.
Just lying there. A scorpion or a snake.
King Isir sneered. “My son is busy, but not my heq-Ashqen? You’re keeping him from me.” He bared his teeth in that way he always did that looked both as if he were amused and like he meant to bite you. “I see what you are. I’ve always seen.”
“Have you.” The heq-Ashqen ignored Isir and drew the cup to the king’s lips. He tilted it back. For a brief moment the king let the tea collect in the proud coils of his beard, but then he leaned his neck back and drank.
The heq-Ashqen continued to pour well past when he ought to have stopped, till the king strained from the constant flow of liquid.
Sabeq had drunk all of it, leaving none for Qwella, and when he’d collapsed, frothing on the ground, blood streaming from his swiftly paling lips, Qwella had curled up beside him, watching the light fade from his eyes, his breath turning to gasps. He looked a monster in death, eyes bulging, sickening foam clumping on his lips. His bowels and bladder had let go, but Qwella had laid beside him all the same, and when she’d finally remembered herself, she’d lifted his tunic to make the small pin-pricks in his leg that would support her story.
There was talk, of course. There was always talk.
“Have you no pity for your king?” Isir’s eyebrows met in a pleading peak. “I was a lion! The world quaked before me. Qemassen owes me her greatness. You were a mouse beside me.”
She grit her teeth, nose wrinkling in distaste. The room where she’d found them flashed before her eyes: the queen lying in a pool of blood that flowed freely from her sex, beaten till her face was swollen and puffy, Isir cradling his broken baby, its neck snapped and head lolling. He was covered in blood. He was covered in their blood and he’d looked up at the heq-Ashqen with his wide, haunted eyes—a ghost in human skin—and he had begged as he’d cried that he’d murdered his son.
The heq-Ashqen had nearly grabbed a sword and cut the king down, but there had been other matters to attend to. There had been something more urgent.
She sucked her teeth. Her eyes felt as though they burned inside her skull. “Even on my knees I have stood taller than you ever have, and if your royal head ever grazed the clouds it was because you stood upon my shoulders.”
Isir lashed out and grabbed the collar of the heq-Ashqen’s tunic, pulling him close, so their noses nearly touched. The cup of qarqada tea thudded, empty, against the carpet beside the bed.
“I’m not dead yet, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you can speak to me that way. Where are your seses and your sniveling promises now? What happened to what I was owed?” He licked his cracked lips, then grinned. “You sent my pretty daughters away—yes, yes, I know you did so don’t look at me with those eyes. I know what you did. But I had a little taste first.”
The heq-Ashqen’s robes dug into her neck where Isir held her fast, but the physical pain was nothing next to the wound of Isir’s words. Could it be true? The king’s daughters would have told their mother, surely . . . .
The king stroked his thumb down the side of the heq-Ashqen’s face. “Do you want to know which one? Can you be sure you didn’t send her to eq-Anout with a king’s seed already swelling in her belly? Maybe even the seed that killed her.” He let go, as if to prove that he might not have, that he’d spared his heq-Ashqen. “You could have had either one of them. But even a princess wasn’t good enough for the great Samelqo eq-Milqar. Why is that?”
“I am already married,” Samelqo said curtly.
“To a dead sister.” Isir snorted, then coughed. “A fine, breeding pair. But your charms are fading, and what will poor Ashmodai do once he can’t fuck his way to power?” Isir shoved his hands between Samelqo’s legs and squeezed. “I’m dying. Do your friend a kindness and solve the mystery of what my mother saw in you to make you the whore of Tanata.”
Qwella shuddered all through her body. She didn’t want to see this. She didn’t understand it. She’d asked Qalita to show her the truth, but what did Samelqo and her grandfather have to do with that? What did any of it have to do with the curse Qwella had brought upon her family?
“Qanmi didn’t believe you, and you never did fool Samelqo,” said Sabeq.
Qwella turned around. Her husband stood over her. His throat was grotesquely blue, his eyes dull and lifeless. He spoke with a voice like Molot’s voice, like the voice of a man buried deep in the belly of a beast. His pale lips didn’t mouth the words he said to her; he only stared, unblinking and terrible.
The corpse raised a bloated finger to point at her, but the limb turned to gold.
Golden hands wrapped around Qwella’s waist, drawing her back into the deep darkness. The nails of the hands were long and sharp, like the claws of a wild animal. She tried to pry them off, but they dug in and squeezed till blood seeped from the punctures in her skin.
“You promised,” Sabeq said. “You promised, you ugly bitch.”
“I’m sorry,” Qwella pleaded. “I couldn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” She struggled to bend back the fingers that pinned her.
If nothing else, she had to make it back to Eshant. This was just a vision.
Eshant would be waiting.
The golden fingers loosened.
Qwella collapsed on all fours, huffing from the effort of fighting.
She was no longer Samelqo in the palace, nor her past self in her old home, nor even her present self in the temple of Hazzan. She was kneeling in a field of endless yellow hyacinths, white light all around her, a black arch looming in the distance. Eshant was standing at the threshold, one foot in the pitch-black room beyond, one inside with Qwella. She was wearing a pale, sheer dress instead of her robes.
“Eshant?” Qwella tried to stand, but her limbs were heavy as though with dream and the yellow flowers were viscous like mud, clinging to her legs as she strained.
Eshant slowly turned away, lifting her bare foot to take that last step past the arch. Time seemed to stop for her, her beautiful pale dress billowing in an impossible breeze.
“Wait!” Qwella cried. “Eshant!”
Eshant vanished into the dark.
Golden arms coiled from the black room, curling and uncurling their fingers, sealing the passage, and beckoning Qwella down a path she couldn’t follow.
Eshant. Eshant Eshant Eshant.
Eshant needed her.
Qwella heaved herself forward, every step laboured as though she walked a field of mud. She was panting by the time she reached the archway and the golden door. Eshant’s face was frozen in gold on the surface, and Qwella watched, helpless, as golden fingers dragged a laughing death mask over Eshant’s face and fastened it in place.
The hands locked their fingers together in a net. Sabeq’s hands. Qanmi’s hands. Maybe even Isir’s hands, if he was the monster Samelqo seemed to have believed him.
Qwella had to save Eshant from all of them.
She slammed herself against door. Hard and unyielding, the linked arms couldn’t be pried apart the same way the others had, and the death mask only stared at her, unrelenting.
Qwella turned around, taking in the ocean of hyacinths. The flowers swayed in the wind.
The air rumbled with the sound of a thousand voices.
“Daughter of death,” they whispered. “Viper at your lover’s breast.”
“Where are you? Who are you?” Qwella searched for the source of the voices, but there was no one, only the blossoms swaying in the breeze.
A figure began to coalesce from the white light. A woman walked the field of flowers, distant, but growing closer. Her dress was stained red, her brown hair tangled with flowers.
Animal fear froze Qwella where she stood, though she couldn’t say why the woman was any more awful than anything else she’d seen.
“Give back what you stole,” said the woman, her voice as loud as though she were right next to Qwella. “Give him what should have been his.”
Great owl wings sprung from the woman’s back, darkening the sky. Darkening everything. The hyacinths crumpled to ash.
Qwella’s hands were wet.
She looked down and found them dripping with red with blood. Not just her hands, but Samelqo’s.
Qwella bolted from her bed, screaming.
Grey stone walls spun in her vision.
A bed. A table. Four walls. A door.
Qwella was in Qalita’s temple. She was in Daana’s former chamber. The heq-Ashqat’s chamber. Her Ashqata must have brought her here—she’d passed out during the ceremony. She must have.
There was a decanter on the table beside the bed. Qwella grabbed it and slung it back so fast that water spilled down her chin.
The vision still had its grip on her. She was still half inside it.
Qwella slammed the decanter back down and wiped her mouth off on the sleeve of her robe.
She couldn’t stay here, not in this delirium. She had to do something about what she’d seen. That woman with the owl wings had to have been Dannae. She’d been wroth with Qwella for Qwella’s misdeeds. And Eshant—Eshant had been barred from Qwella’s reach, perhaps because of the untruths that still lay between them? Perhaps because of Qwella’s guilt and her refusal to open herself to Qalita.
If she asked for absolution, perhaps Dannae would see fit to release her hold on Qwella’s family.
Golden hands. Sabeq’s hands. Qanmi’s hands. Qalita’s hands. The gods had damned Samelqo for what appeared to be his crime—regicide—and Qwella would be damned just like him.
Qwella rushed from the room without the aid of a torch. She couldn’t have anyone following her. She couldn’t risk anyone overhearing what she intended to say. Besides, after so many journeys into the underground, she knew the path well enough she shouldn’t need fire to guide her.
Under the earth in the tunnels, the rumbling was louder than usual, but Qwella pressed on.
When the door opened, Qwella was shocked to feel a cool breeze tickle her skin, blowing her robes tight against her legs. The flowers that she’d found dead all those weeks ago had turned vibrant and alive once more, only they were a different kind and—
A door lay wide open in the wall opposite the entrance to Qalita’s hidden shrine. Where Eshant had shown Qwella the hole in Qalita’s image, the path lay open, revealing the chamber beyond.
It lay open the way the golden door had been closed to Qwella in the vision.
She grinned—sure now where she’d been anxious, certain where she’d been afraid.
Qalita had meant her to come here tonight and find this place.
Qwella hurried to the wall and slipped into the darkened passage beyond.
It was surprisingly airy inside the room, and the wind was quite strong.
At first Qwella didn’t understand, but as her eyes adjusted to the low light she spied another passageway in the left-hand wall. The rest of the room was empty except for a peculiar collection of mirrors arranged in seemingly arbitrary positions on the floor and walls. A painting of Qalita, the one Qwella had seen through the hole, decorated the back wall. A bunch of dried flowers lay in front of it, though they were so wrinkled and old she couldn’t tell what they’d been. A feeling of trepidation took hold of her as she turned around, searching for some meaning in this strange place. Next to the beauty of the light and flowers of her special place, this secret compartment was disturbingly mundane.
But Qalita had led her here. There was something here she was meant to see.
An investigation made it clear the other passage was a tunnel that led sharply upward. It was impossible to tell where it led from the angle—one of the other temples, maybe? The tunnels that led to Qalita’s room held shrines to other gods. It made sense that each of the temples would want access to these spaces.
Qwella jumped, startled by Eshant’s voice coming from behind her.
She turned and smiled, holding a hand to her breast. “E-Eshant. It’s open. Look.”
Eshant didn’t speak for a moment, exhibiting none of the amazement Qwella would have expected. “I know. I came down here and I found it.”
“Without me?” Qwella frowned.
Eshant jabbed her thumb behind her, indicating the stairs. “I just went to get you, but you were gone.”
Eshant was here, just like in the vision. This time though, they were together.
“Did you see it open? Did you open it?” Qwella could barely conceal the excitement brimming in her chest. This was it. This was Qalita’s sign to them both.
Eshant walked up to her. She poked her head inside the tunnel. “No. It was like this when I got here. I thought you might have done it.”
Qwella reached for Eshant’s hand and clasped their fingers together. If the hands that had barred her path in the vision were gold, then Qwella and Eshant’s bond must be stronger even than that. “Qalita summoned me here in my vision. I think she wants me to follow her.”
Eshant’s brow furrowed with worry. “Follow her? You saw somebody?”
Qwella bit her lip, trying not to let her impatience into her voice. It wasn’t Eshant’s fault she didn’t understand. Eshant wasn’t heq-Ashqat. “No, but she must have opened the way for me.”
“I suppose.” Eshant sighed, gazing up at the tunnel as though suspicious of its stability. “We’ll go together, all right?”
Qwella nodded, and feeling bold she stepped through, leading Eshant along behind her. As they walked, the wind grew stronger, the air cleaner. Eshant wasn’t even sneezing the way she normally did.
The passage was circuitous and steep, its walls so narrow that Qwella’s hips brushed them on both sides.
“I have something I need to tell you,” Qwella admitted. “The reason I think the door opened was because I told Qalita I would seek absolution. For what I’ve done.” She swallowed, hesitant suddenly. “Not just the papyri from Tanata’s temple, but—”
Eshant’s hand stiffened in Qwella’s, but she didn’t stop walking. “You don’t have to tell me. Maybe it’s enough that you pray to the goddess.”
“No, it isn’t. Besides, who else would I tell? It’s important that you know, and then you can make up your own mind about me.”
As they turned another corner, they emerged inside a much more sculpted tunnel that led off in two directions. Judging by the grooves in the floor, there must have once been a door barring the way. Qwella squinted to her left. A rim of stone stood separate—a slab that looked as though it must slide into place.
“Don’t tell me,” pressed Eshant. “It’s enough that I love you, isn’t it? Why should you have to confess anything to me? I’m sure whatever you’ve done can’t have been so bad, and we all have our reasons.”
Qwella glanced right and then left.
Left was Qalita’s path. The side on which Queen Eshant had stood in the vision.
One had spoken truth, the other lies. But which? Qwella had no way of knowing, and she couldn’t remember which of her relatives had spoken which words.
“We’ll go left,” Qwella decided.
“Fine.” Eshant tugged her hand free
The words didn’t come so easily, though even the knowledge that she was planning to explain herself had made her body and soul seem that much lighter. “It’s about Sabeq.”
They reached another fork.
“Which way now?” Eshant asked.
“Left again.” Why did Eshant keep interrupting her? This was important.
Beautiful blue and white tiles paved the floor here. The design reminded Qwella of something she couldn’t quite place.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” Eshant insisted, speaking fast. She was hovering so close behind Qwella. “We should go back. Maybe we’re not meant to come this way. Maybe the dream was a warning. You should forget about Sabeq. Start afresh as the heq-Ashqat.”
“No.” Qwella stopped before a little door. There was a lock, but the way was open, more of Qalita’s magic. Qwella opened the door and stepped inside.
It was a plain, empty room lined with stone benches. A staircase led upstairs. “We’re in someone’s house.”
Eshant hung back. “We should leave. Who knows who lives here?”
The room was so familiar. Qwella strolled to the centre of the room, trying to place it. She looked up the steps without ascending and caught a hint of that same blue and white tiling on the main floor.
Her words of comfort caught in her throat as she gazed up those steps. “The House of Many Uses—that’s what Aurelius called it. He took me here once.”
“This is someone’s home, Qwella. We have to go. I shouldn’t have ever shown you the tunnel. We shouldn’t have kept going.”
“It belongs to my brother-in-law.” Qwella held back a shudder. “That’s why Qalita wanted me to come.”
“Stop it. Let’s go home.”
“I killed him.”
Qwella turned around and flinched at the sight of broad-shouldered Eshant kneeling on the ground, lips drawn back, eyes closed. She was weeping. The poor thing was so scared, but what of Qwella couldn’t fathom.
“It’s all right. We’ll leave. I know where we are now.”
“It didn’t lead anywhere,” Eshant managed.
Qwella knelt in front of her. She drew Eshant into an embrace. Eshant’s fingers dug into Qwella’s back, her nails so sharp.
“It led to truth,” Qwella said, half to herself. “I killed my husband.” She felt dampness on her own cheeks, though she hadn’t realized she was crying. “I bought a poison for him, and I slipped it in his tea, and he drank it, and I lied to them all.”
And years ago, for reasons Qwella didn’t entirely understand, Samelqo eq-Milqar had murdered King Isir using very similar means.
“Don’t tell me. Don’t.” Eshant shoved Qwella away from her.
She screeched, staring at something behind Qwella, then leaped to her feet.
Qwella turned around, heart thudding.
A tall, slim figure stood on the stairwell, a death-mask covering her face.
Eshant’s fleeing footsteps echoed down the corridor whence Qwella and Eshant had come.
Qwella wiped her tears away. Before running after Eshant, she nodded appreciatively at her goddess. “Qalita, goddess of death. I ask for absolution.”