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Chapter 17: Renegades
Uta – The House of Many Purposes: Qemassen
The meeting tonight would be the first in months, Zioban’s communications having become infrequent—coded messages sent disguised as letters, or innocuous marks scratched here and there in chosen places around the city. Uta didn’t know every location where Zioban chose to communicate, but she knew enough, and he—or she—knew where to find Uta.
Uta yawned as the basement filled with slaves. They trotted to the entrance weary and discarded their exhaustion at the door. Elation was the mood of choice when Zioban grew near.
Uta only wished it was elation she herself felt any longer.
In her more generous moments, Uta assumed the gap between meetings was to ensure the Semassenqa didn’t continue to hunt the slaves down, but as she’d watched Himalit et-Moniqa from beyond the tiny punctures in the wall, she’d begun to wonder. What if she’d been wrong about Zioban’s identity? Why hadn’t she caught some sign that Himalit was who Uta had supposed her to be? Why was all Aurelius’s time taken up with Bree—Vivaen—and his child? He was king now. He had the power to free Zioban’s people, and yet he did nothing.
The lack of meetings meant she hadn’t had the opportunity to study either the male or female Zioban—to dissect their mannerisms or their voices for signs of Aurelius and his sister.
Uta turned to her left, taking in her fellow slaves. Just who looked out from behind these funereal visages? Before, she’d thought it likely most of the slaves were from the lower city, but Safot had been a rebel without Uta even knowing.
In their death masks, with firelight deepening the hollows and ridges wrought in leather, stone, and ceramic, the slaves could be corpses descended from their pyres. When the Lora came, and the slaves rallied with them against the Semassenqa, there would be real corpses littering the streets.
Uta’s chest swelled with feeling for this motley tribe of strangers.
Did Aurelius’s breast ache with that same sorrow and triumph?
She hoped so.
If Aurelius and Himalit were Zioban, they would know about the hollow walls that snaked throughout the palace, and they would also know to be careful with what they said and did within palace confines. The fact that Uta hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious could mean nothing at all.
Nothing, or everything.
She clutched her cane more tightly.
Her cane. Samelqo’s cane.
The rounded handle seemed to sizzle beneath her fingers, burning a hole through her skin. She’d been a fool of a woman to bring it with her, when anyone could see it and know her for the heq-Ashqen’s widow.
Qirani eq-Maleq kept telling her she shouldn’t need it any longer, that it was only the horror she felt over the attack that made her believe she needed it. Yet, whenever Uta tried to set it aside, her legs failed her.
Uta discretely turned her head, peering to either side through the slim, crescent eyeholes in her mask. It didn’t seem as though anyone looked her way, but with everyone’s faces covered, it was impossible to know for certain.
She needed to calm herself. Few people were likely to recognize the cane. Madaula would have, but Uta happened to know that Madaula had scampered downstairs to the Hamatri to meet with her new lover. Besides, Madaula would never give Uta up. The girl hadn’t one heqet of guile in all her bones.
Uta drew the cane in close against her stola and inhaled sharply.
The cellar swelled with anxious bodies—men and women thirsty for a sight of their saviour, longing for reassurance after the prolonged silence. They didn’t speak to one another, barely registered the bodies closest to them. Their masks all faced forward, toward where Zioban was expected to appear.
“One voice, many hands! One voice, many hands!” And many hands shot up, waving in the air, the tallest long enough to tickle the ceiling with their fingertips.
Zioban had arrived.
Uta didn’t strain to see their leader as she might have once done, but she did catch a glimpse of them before they stepped to the head of the congregation. It was Hima this time, rather unsurprisingly. Uta shouldn’t be disappointed, given that she needed to speak with the heq-Damirat, but a part of her had hoped Aurelius might make an appearance. It had been so long. What might it mean if he had given up on the cause? Hima would be left alone to steer the rebellion however she wished.
Aurelius was too busy with his newborn and his wife.
What terror would Uta’s news about Vivaen’s identity ravage upon that little family? Who was she to break them apart?
A truth teller. Uta was a teller of truths and an instrument of fortune. If she had information that could help the rebellion, then she was duty-bound to share it.
So why, after so long, had she not sought out Zioban to reveal all she knew?
“Quiet, friends!” Zioban held her palm up in a silencing gesture. She wasn’t doing much to disguise her voice this time. Perhaps to most of the slaves, it didn’t matter that the person behind the mask changed with the seasons. It was the idea of Zioban that mattered most. “I have important news from Lorar.”
The room quieted. In the thickness of the silence, Uta crept further to the back. She pressed herself against the wall, positioning herself so she still had a good view of Zioban. From Zioban’s narrow hips and thin frame, she could well be Himalit et-Moniqa. Yet her voice was shrill where Hima’s was deeper.
“Those who would have been our allies,” Zioban continued, “have been revealed as traitors. Hoping the slaves of Qemassen were as bent and broken as their own, the Lora saw fit to use us as pawns and discard us once they’d finished.”
Uta hefted her weight onto her cane and leaned forward.
There was no danger of losing anyone’s attention now.
“We would have taken the city for them,” Zioban continued, as though from a script, “only to watch it burn and be made slaves to new conquerors.”
One of the men nearest Uta rocked back and forth on his heels at Zioban’s words, mumbling beneath his breath. His unease was clearly contagious, for as the meaning of Zioban’s proclamation filled the room like a miasmic cloud, the slaves began to rumble with protest.
This was, of course, what Zioban wanted. Uta could see it plainly, even if the others could not.
It didn’t make them wrong. Beneath Uta’s calm, the idea that the Lora thought her people simple-minded and malleable rankled.
“What will we do?” she called out, struggling to be heard. Her voice cracked from the effort.
Zioban motioned for silence again, and those around Uta obeyed, parting so that they created a corridor down which Zioban had a clear view of her.
Uta held her head high. Zioban already knew who she was. She had nothing to hide. “What will we do if we are not to help the Lora? Pray for victory and bide our time?”
Zioban tilted her chin down ominously. “We will help the Semassenqa.”
If the news of Lorar’s duplicity had caused a ripple, this new command elicited a tidal wave.
Zioban paced back and forth, speaking, but struggling to be heard.
Uta listened though; Uta listened very carefully.
“Have I led you astray so far? The Lora are coming. That much we know. We also know we can’t defend Qemassen alone. The Semassenqa control the army and the navy. They hold most of the weapons. If we overthrew them now, we’d be standing alone when the Lora reached the city walls.”
The slaves quieted.
Zioban cleared her throat and continued. “If the Lora make it to our shores, it’s better that we let our enemies fight each other, it’s better also the enemy we know. Should the Semassenqa fall, we’ll be chattel, but should they win, it will no doubt be at great cost. We’ll be in a stronger position than we are now, the better to attack them in force, instead of picking away at them as we have been.”
“But why must we help them?” The man who spoke didn’t hide his disgust.
Zioban’s tone grew more assured. “Slave or free, we’re all Massenqa. If the Lora take the city, they’ll have a governor installed here before the new moon and this will become a Lora city, filled with Lora soldiers. We can’t fight them alone, but we stand a chance against the Semassenqa if we take their side. We must make sure they win.” She had them under her spell again, or thought she did. She sucked in a breath, as though steeling herself to reveal yet worse news. “We have one task. As part of our bargain with Marianus Rufus, we allowed Lora freemen to enter Qemassen under the guise of slaves.”
Uta all but stumbled. She pressed one hand to the wall, clutching her cane with the other. The slaves who’d replaced Madaula and the others had come from Qanmi eq-Sabaal. Himalit had purchased them with his help.
When Uta had spied on Zioban and his lover in the tunnels, she’d seen him kiss another man. Zioban had reassured her that the slaves had friends among the Semassenqa. Qanmi could be the man Zioban had referred to. Yes, that could have been his voice Uta had heard.
But why should Aurelius kiss him?
“We must kill those freemen,” Zioban was saying, but Uta found it suddenly hard to pay attention.
“What about the tunnels?” she croaked. She’d spoken quietly, too quietly, she thought, to have been heard, but the other slaves turned her way. A sea of laughing masks regarded her from shadowed eyes.
Zioban grabbed her wrist—a subtle, anxious movement. It wasn’t a gesture Himalit would have made. “The Semassenqa know of the caves already. Should it come to a siege, the Ashenqa of the Shedi-Qalana will lure the Lora inside and collapse the tunnels.”
The Ashenqa? “Since when do we have friends in the temples?” Trouble steeped in Uta’s gut.
“We have friends everywhere. We are many and we are one.” Zioban’s smile curled inside her words, a match for the one etched in stone across her mask. “All we need to do is eliminate the Lora slaves inside the palace and the rest of the wealthy homes. Only if it becomes dire should there be any need to put ourselves at risk inside the tunnels.”
“As though murdering armed men inside palace walls isn’t risk enough,” Uta snapped.
“I suppose you would know.” Zioban’s threat cut deep.
She was willing, if Uta pressed, to reveal Uta’s identity.
“At what cost to us?” the man from before asked, saving Uta from having to respond, though he didn’t know it.
“Great,” Zioban allowed, “but great too will be the value of our sacrifice. The gods will smile on us, and our fellow man. We have never balked at the threat of death in the past. We won’t balk at it now. I promise you we are stronger than they think us, and smarter, and quicker.”
“We are many hands!” someone shouted, raising a fist. “We are one voice!”
The crowd picked up the chant quickly, nearly drowning Zioban’s voice as she added it to the chant.
Liar. Fraud. The male Zioban had confessed to her himself the words meant little to him. Hopefully they’d grown in meaning since. These people were ready to die, and for a man and woman they’d have happily strangled if they knew the truth.
Whoever he was though—Aurelius or some unknown—the other Zioban was good and strong. He wasn’t like this strange woman. And Uta knew Zioban hadn’t been Qanmi eq-Sabaal, for surely she’d have recognized his voice too.
You would have recognized Aurelius’s voice, wouldn’t you?
Uta dug her nails into her cane.
When the chanting had stopped, Zioban went into greater detail about the plan. Volunteers agreed to lead teams at various corners of the city, in the event that the slaves were needed in the tunnels, and from amongst the gathered slaves, fighting men stepped forward with the promise that they would bear arms should it prove necessary.
The show of solidarity, so like what the slaves had shown in the Eghri when they’d stood for Aurelius, didn’t fail to move her.
Uta swallowed, adrift in a sea of warmth that still threatened to drown her.
It shouldn’t matter, in the end, who Zioban was or who he worked with. It mattered what he did.
“This is our city,” Zioban counselled them. “We mustn’t forget it. We fight because we love Qemassen. We are Massenqa, every one of us. We will live and die as Massenqa, and when we have driven the Lora back, we will hammer our oppressors into the dust. They will know our names and our faces. We will rejoice at their ends.”
The rumble of agreement was less boisterous than before, but it was no less honest for that. There was an overarching sombre quality to it all, a nervous energy fueled by foolhardy courage and fatalism. It felt a dangerous and mismatched concoction, difficult to steer and deadly to wield.
Uta waited and watched as the others dispersed in dribs and drabs. She was well practiced at fading into corners, turning grey as the walls and letting the world forget her.
Zioban though, didn’t forget. She stared at Uta from across the room, waiting till everyone else had gone. When Uta declined to approach, Zioban abandoned her position at the head of the room and walked toward her. Uta didn’t smile outwardly at the deference, but a small part of her enjoyed it all the same. To have Himalit et-Moniqa—or else another member of the Semassenqa—give in to you was no little thing.
“Have you a complaint?” Zioban asked, an air of amusement about her. “You usually do.”
“No complaint, only some information.” Now was the moment. Uta could still turn back, give Zioban only crumbs to peck at. She wouldn’t though. She’d come here tonight to do this thing, and in her heart all she wanted was for the rebellion to succeed.
And for Aurelius to set Queen Bree aside.
And what? Become Queen Uta? What a fanciful thing, when Uta had no time for fancy.
“And what would that be?” Zioban seemed to strain as she spoke, as though to appear taller, more intimidating.
Uta clutched her cane and thought of her duty. She swallowed. “That Bree et-Eaflied is not the woman she pretends. She’s a maid called Vivaen, an imposter fulfilling the role of the true princess, who died on the voyage here.”
Zioban slunk back a little, then raised her hand as though to chew at her nail, lowering it again when she remembered the mask.
Bree chewed her nails, but Zioban could hardly be the princess. And yet, there was someone else with the same nervous habits, someone—
“That is news indeed.” A long pause. “Thank you.”
Uta wasn’t sure what she’d expected from Zioban, but it hadn’t been this slow deliberation, this anxiousness. It was no secret that the heq-Damirat loathed her sister-in-law. Surely, if this were Himalit, she would have been happy to discover the truth? Bree’s identity meant the end of Aurelius’s marriage at the very least.
“What will you do?” Uta asked. She’d thought she’d known, but Zioban’s motivation became slippery in her grasp. Hopefully, at the very least, Zioban could use this information to help the rebellion.
“Whatever needs to be done,” Zioban answered, “whatever it takes.”
The meaning of Zioban’s words was more than opaque, but Uta had already had enough of her company. Being near the woman made her want to rip the mask off and test Uta’s guesses against the truth.
And guesses she had now in abundance. There was one woman Uta could think of who fit the form and sound of the Semassenqat before her. One woman with good reason to work alongside Qanmi eq-Sabaal.
What Uta didn’t understand, was why she worked with Uta and the other slaves. That, and who the male Zioban had been.
Then it came to her, a scrap of information she’d learned months ago: Qanmi had two daughters. Two daughters, and one had been sent to the temples.
Could a woman have masqueraded so easily as a man?
Uta nodded once, curtly, removing her own mask, weary of the pretense. They both knew who she was. Perhaps, if she took it off, Titrit might grant her the courtesy. “I’ll leave you then, but be careful how you use what I’ve told you. What happened to Djana was too cruel. And there’s Bree’s child to consider. It mustn’t be harmed.”
Uta’s skin buzzed, her heart a-flutter. She felt as though Titrit must realize on some level that Uta knew. And yet, she gave no clue that that was true, nor did she remove the laughing mask that obscured her face.
“I’ll do what has to be done,” Zioban said in reply.
Uta was happy to walk away from her and head home. She had much to think on, and Qanmi’s other daughter to sniff out.