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Chapter 17: Renegades
Qwella – The Temple of Qalita: Qemassen
“Heq-Ashqat.” Dansila fell to her knees in one dramatic swoop. Her plain acolyte’s robes bunched beneath her on the newly polished floor of Qwella’s private audience chamber. She looked like bird perched atop a mound of soil.
Or something fouler.
“Dansila et-Afqat,” Qwella acknowledged, lips pinched to stifle a chuckle.
The gold of Qwella’s bench-like chair—a finer throne even than the king’s—eddied like waves in the reflection in front of Dansila. Tongues of jade and gold flared from the chair’s back, each carved with intricate, twisting patterns and letters in the long-dead Sand Tongue.
It had belonged to Samelqo before her, though he’d rarely used it. He’d kept it tucked away in the great hall of Tanata’s temple, and since Samelqo had been very much a king’s man, he’d rather neglected his first post.
Qwella would show no such disregard. Qalita had done more for her than the Semassenqa ever had, and she would honour her goddess for as long as Qalita wished it.
The sound of cloth rubbing against stone drew Qwella’s attention to where Eshant leaned against the wall with her arms folded against her chest. She was watching Dansila with a forlorn expression, when a sneeze forced her to bend at the waist.
Slaves upon slaves and wealth upon wealth had been gifted to Qalita since Qwella’s ascension, and every moment of every day bonded hands waxed and polished and tended. What had once been Tanata’s was now Qalita’s. A woman’s woman now reined in Qemassen.
Qwella’s distant expression peered back at her from the reflections on the floor and she shook her head to clear her thoughts. Her heavy red headdress listed left, and one of the two Ashqata who flanked her—Qira and Melat—hurried to right it.
“You may stand, Dansila.” Qwella couldn’t help but feel a sliver of satisfaction at Dansila’s new-found humility.
Dansila swept to her feet and took an effortless step back. Her studied style was near flawless in its execution, but Qwella had been schooled as a princess, and she could see past the feigned ease. A few months ago, Qwella might not have noticed the subtle imperfections in Dansila’s dress and manner, but now Qwella’s eyes were opened, and Dansila was made of straw.
“I came to ask your blessing, Sese, and to see that you are well,” Dansila began. “As ever, I am in your service, and I would offer up what little skill I have to work in the tunnels with the rest of your chosen.”
Qwella’s chosen were all stronger, larger Ashenqa—mostly men from other temples. Eshant had been made overseer of the women involved in the excavation, while Tumno, a former architect in service to Adonen, had been put in charge of the building and planning elements of the scheme. There was still hope, of course, that none of this effort would be necessary. The Lora might never reach this far south, and if they did, Hima’s navy would surely make short work of paltry northern warships.
All the same, a rush of pride filled her chest to bursting. She wouldn’t have ever thought herself a warrior, but she felt one now.
She felt brave, and all because of Eshant and the goddess whom they both served. Eshant had made Qwella a warrior.
She smiled over at where Eshant was still waiting, but Eshant’s gloom didn’t wane. Lately a sullenness had taken root in her. Ever since they’d seen the goddess together in the tunnels, Eshant withered while Qwella waxed full.
It couldn’t possibly be jealousy that Qwella had been chosen, yet what other explanation was there? Perhaps Eshant was only jealous that Qwella was so preoccupied with temple business. They hardly had time to hold each other.
“Sese?” Dansila broached.
“I’m sorry,” Qwella blushed. Dansila shifted awkward glances between Qwella, Qira, and Melat. “I was lost in thought.”
Should Qwella deny Dansila’s request? What a small, precious little vengeance that would be.
Of course, Dansila might want Qwella to deny her. This was probably all a show to demonstrate Dansila’s devotion while providing herself a means of avoiding hard work. If anything, agreeing to her request was more likely to disappoint her. Eshant had high expectations of her recruits.
“You have much to think about,” Dansila offered sweetly. “I will return later.”
“No.” Qwella raised her palm, stopping Dansila mid-step. “It was my mistake. Your request is most honourable, and it is my honour to accept your offer of help.”
Dansila’s pinched little smile and the subtle squint of her eyes confirmed that Qwella’s guesses had been correct. “How kind. I thank you. Shall I speak with Eshant?”
The mention of Eshant seemed pointed and tart. Did she have some plot in mind? An injury, perhaps, she thought to seed between them.
Qwella frowned. “Eshant has no need of your help. You should report to Tumno as soon as you can. He’s eager for young hands to help dig out the lower levels. The older Ashenqa will be relieved.”
There. Dansila wasn’t the only one who could wound. Not only had Qwella ensured Dansila’s dainty fingers would be put to work, but she’d made sure they’d be ringed with callouses by the end of the day.
Dansila’s perfect lips hung open like a suffocating fish. Her smile, when it returned, was clumsy. “Yes, Sese. I’ll go right away. Allow me first to find the appropriate clothes. I’m afraid I haven’t suitable attire for digging.”
On her march to the door, Dansila leaned in close to Eshant and exchanged a hushed word before whisking herself away. Somehow, the swish of her robes against the floor managed to sound angry.
Eshant hauled herself upright, heavy shoulders hunched, her hands clasped. She seemed ready to shrink into herself, and despite her tallness and her girth, Qwella just about thought she’d manage it.
Qwella wouldn’t have put a petty manipulation past Dansila—powerless as smoke, but no less blinding for all that. Qwella would just have to banish whatever cruel words Dansila had whispered in Eshant’s ear.
“Leave me,” Qwella ordered her Ashqata.
Qira and Melat stepped synchronously from their positions at Qwella’s side. They bowed once and pattered off. The thud of the door as they left made Eshant jump.
Eshant stood before Qwella with her head bent, as though she hadn’t been inside her just two nights ago. As though they were strangers. What Qwella could see of her expression was dour.
“The digging work is dangerous,” said Eshant. “You know yourself how badly the walls shake, and after the earthquake at the coronation it’s been worse than ever.”
Eshant was concerned for Dansila’s safety? Qwella almost laughed. Instead, she huffed. “There wasn’t a task I could have given her that wouldn’t have been dangerous. She asked that she be given duties, and I’ve given her one.”
“Playing the despot doesn’t suit you,” Eshant sneered.
Qwella fumbled for an armrest to steady herself, but the chair was so wide she couldn’t reach either of them. “And cruelty doesn’t suit you.”
Eshant pressed her hand to her heart. “I’m cruel? Says you, having sent that girl to die! She’s barely lifted a water jug in her entire life, let alone split stone and shoveled rock.”
What was this hurt that filled Eshant’s voice? It couldn’t be care for Dansila, so it must be worry over Qwella. Maybe Qwella really wasn’t acting herself.
“Calm down. I didn’t do it to be cruel.” Qwella paused, considering. “I wanted to teach her a lesson, but that’s all it was. She’ll be taken care of, I’m certain. Besides, your helpers are in just as much danger. What would you have done to protect her? And why her above the others? There are men older than Samelqo toiling underground without complaint. The least a helpless flower like Dansila can do is get her hands dirty.”
The fire in Eshant was receding to whatever distant place it had been banished of late. She glanced to her right, not looking Qwella in her eyes. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m tired is all.”
Qwella abandoned her chair and stepped right up to her. Dried tears had smudged the kohl in the corners of Eshant’s eyes, and her skin looked puffy. Her hair was as limp and lifeless as the rest of her.
“Esha,” Qwella pleaded.
Eshant flinched, but she still wouldn’t meet Qwella’s eyes.
Qwella wrapped her arms around Eshant’s waist and sinched the pair of them together. “It’s more than tiredness.” She sighed. “I’ll have Tumno send Dansila to you after the day’s preparations are finished.”
“Thank you.” Eshant wrapped her arms around Qwella, but there was a languor in the show of affection. Somehow, Qwella didn’t manage to inspire the liveliness in Eshant’s face that Dansila had.
“Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Qwella should have felt warm in Eshant’s arms, but nothing like heat passed between them. “You’ve been like this for months. I want you to be happy. You’ve made me happy. You’ve made me better than I was.”
A wry smile twisted Eshant’s face. It made her look ugly. “You shouldn’t say that. Everything you are now has always been in you. You grew up with this―servants and admirers and a noble calling.”
Qwella pursed her lips. Eshant had pulled Qwella out of the darkness. Now it was Qwella’s turn to do the same. “You make it sound as though your life was different. You said before that your family wasn’t poor. Who were they?”
Eshant’s eyes widened for just an instant. “Just people.” Her tone was so flat. “I only meant—” She shoved Qwella away. “Just stop thanking me, all right? I don’t deserve your thanks. I didn’t make you who you are. Qalita didn’t make you who you are.” She met Qwella’s eyes. Her voice quaked with—with anger. Anger, or fear, or something much worse. “Men did. Men with power, men with greed, and lust, and hatred in their hearts. Men let me be a woman, but they could have said no. Men make all of us what we are.”
Qwella shook her head, rubbing her arm where Eshant had hit her accidentally. She couldn’t stop herself from crying. “No. That’s not true. No man made you.” Her throat was already choked. She swallowed to clear it, but the effort was wasted. Her lower lip trembled. “You’re too perfect. You made everything good after everything was so wrong.” Her next words sliced her insides, jagged as the tongues on her chair. “I was ready to die until I saw you that night in the riad.”
Qwella stretched her hand out. Her fingers grazed Eshant’s shoulder as Eshant stepped deftly out of reach.
The braziers in the room burned hot, but it was cold as winter night.
Eshant paced to the wall, then back again. “What does it matter anymore? Qemassen will fall. We’ll all be taken away. What does anything matter?”
Eshant’s tears weren’t dry anymore. She sounded so scared, but why? The Lora couldn’t take the city. They couldn’t even take Zimrida. And if they did make it to Qemassen, the Ashenqa of the Shedi-Qalana would see them crushed beneath the city walls.
Qwella wiped her eyes clean on the sleeve of her red robes. “Qemassen won’t fall. I know it in my heart.”
“Don’t be saccharine. No one knows anything in their heart.”
Qwella was tired of being told by others what she should say or think, how to feel or what she knew. She wouldn’t have accepted it from Sabé or Hima or Dansila. She wouldn’t accept it from Eshant. “I know it with my mind then, because my brother wins everything he sets his mind to, and he aims to win this war. We’ll win because we deserve to win.”
Eshant scoffed. “No one gets what they deserve, or there’d be no use for places like this.”
An acolyte carrying a basket of fresh laundry stepped inside the room, then quickly hurried out again upon hearing Eshant’s voice. The door thudded behind her.
Something foul coiled inside Eshant. It was Qwella’s duty to uproot it. “You can’t mean that. We’re in Qalita’s service. The goddess chose us.”
“Chose us to be beaten by the ones we love?” Anyone listening outside would surely hear Eshant’s raised voice, but she didn’t seem to care. “Chose us to be chattel? Chose us to forsake everything that was given to us—the most measly happiness. My father—” Eshant’s voice broke. She sucked back a sob. “He—you don’t know the things he did to us. What he does to us. But he’s my father, and they hurt him so badly and—”
This time the words stopped completely. Whatever Eshant had been about to say didn’t matter anyway. Eshant’s father brutalized her, and maybe once upon a time someone had hurt him the same way. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t a good enough excuse.
Qwella raised her hand as she approached Eshant a second time. This time, Eshant let her. She stroked her palm down Eshant’s tear-streaked face. Eshant’s skin was dirty with rock dust and soot, but it was just as soft as it had always been. “My husband deserved what came to him. I know that now. I’m at peace with what I’ve done. If the same were to happen to the men who’ve hurt you they would deserve it too, and I would hunt them down and make them pay if it would make you smile again.”
The poison on Eshant’s face, at least, was draining out. She still wouldn’t look at Qwella directly, her gaze roving as if for anything else to focus on. She bit her lip. “He fucks me. He fucks my sister.”
“Your father—” The look of shame on Eshant’s face made Qwella’s stomach turn. Her hand started to pull away of its own accord, but when she realized what she was doing, she netted her fingers through Eshant’s hair. This time, she made Eshant look her in the eyes. “He won’t ever do that again.”
“Don’t.” Eshant covered her face with her hand, hiding her tears. The movement knocked Qwella’s hand away.
“I’m heq-Ashqat,” Qwella pressed. She grabbed Eshant’s hands and laced their fingers together. “I can save you and your sister—you just have to ask. Whoever he is, he’s nothing compared with the power we wield. Aurelius will tear him apart at a word from me.”
“No.” Eshant stumbled back. “He’s not—he didn’t mean it.” She inhaled sharply, eyes closed. “He—he let me be who I am. That’s no small thing. I was his only heir and—” She stumbled on her words. “It’s nothing to do with him. It’s not him I’m worried about. But something terrible is coming. I don’t want to see you hurt because of the power you’ve been given. I don’t want to see the world pull you down the way it always does.”
“They won’t,” Qwella whispered softly. “Not with you beside me. Because if they try they’re sure to fail, and if I fall you’ll catch me.”
Eshant squeezed Qwella’s hands. “I will.” The words tumbled out, Eshant in a hurry now, as though to show Qwella everything she’d been withholding these last few months. Her lips met Qwella’s, hungry and quick, and Qwella held her tight again, against the oncoming darkness that Eshant seemed to see before them. Qwella wasn’t sure she believed there was anything to be afraid of, but if there was, she would do her best to make it go.
“I do love you,” Eshant spoke into Qwella’s mouth. “Promise me you’ll remember that, when all’s said and done.”
“I won’t,” Qwella said, feeling pleasantly saccharine, “because remembering would mean I’d have to forget.”