Chapter 19: I: Uta
(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 19: Massenqa
Uta – The Palace: Qemassen
For a week Uta had worked tirelessly preparing her fellow slaves for the Lora attack, and just yesterday ships had been sighted off the coast. This morning, the gates of Qemassen’s great harbour had been shut permanently, leaving what remained of her navy locked outside to protect the city. It was this fact that had confirmed to Uta that she’d been right about Zioban’s identity, that the man and woman behind the mask weren’t Hima and Aurelius at all, but someone very clever, and very patient.
So Uta had called Zioban to her rooms at the palace.
Madaula stood guard beside Uta just in case, Uta having taken the liberty of telling Madaula everything that had happened so far, including both what Uta knew with certainty and everything she only suspected.
She’d also told Madaula everything she herself had done, laying her sins bare for Madaula to judge.
Gods smile on the girl, she hadn’t cursed Uta and run away or called for the guards. Madaula had understood.
Now, Zioban sat across from Uta, hands stretched across the desk that had once belonged to Samelqo, long bony fingers knotted together. Like all the women of Qemassen, Zioban, Uta, and Madaula had sheared their hair for rope on Eaflied’s orders, and now made do with the chill against their skin.
At least they were safe inside. For those aboard what remained of Qemassen’s navy, doom nipped closer at the heel.
And yet, Zioban was all nerves. A wine-like tang wafted off her, as though she might have been drinking.
Uta admired Zioban from the vantage of her desk. It was a view that, even months after Samelqo’s probable death, still filled Uta with a sense of power and strength. It thrilled her a little to see Zioban squirm in her chair, as though she felt that power too.
Uta smiled. “I thought you were a slave at first, I truly did. Then I suspected Hima and Aurelius, a fact you did nothing to dissuade. But the heq-Damirat is at sea now, and the king has been gone for weeks. If I were you, I’d be honest. We stare death in the face together, and I’m anxious to discover in whose name I sold my husband.”
It took a moment for Zioban to answer, and when she did, she did so with movement rather than words. The woman reached behind her to unfasten the mask that hid her identity, dexterously unpinning it to reveal the person underneath. Once she’d removed it, she laid the mask down on the desk.
Please let Madaula not call this whore Sese.
Uta maintained her smile. She wasn’t shocked; she was vindicated.
Happily, Madaula contained any urge she might have felt to honour the woman sitting across from them.
“Titrit.” It felt important to say her name aloud, as though in doing so it gave Uta the same power as if she’d spoken the name in a spell.
“You’re right,” Titrit admitted, words clipped, “if there was ever a time for transparency it’s now. What odds when it seems likely we’ll all be dead and burning soon.”
Uta raised a considering eyebrow. “You think they’ll bother to burn us?” She leaned back in her chair. “What’s your father playing at?”
It stung more than she let on that the man Uta had spent her days pining for was Qanmi eq-Sabaal, an ass she wouldn’t have wasted her spit on were he begging in the street. Whatever girlish fantasies she’d been maintaining that Aurelius would sweep her off her feet were drifting away like smoke.
Titrit sneered. She waved at the desk as though to dismiss Uta’s vitriol along with it. “My father doesn’t play, Uta. This isn’t a game, and I’m not laughing. Those people made a mockery of us―rejected me, killed my uncle and called it accident. What did they expect? Our gratitude? Eshmunen was a fool of a king, and we’d all have been fools to follow him!”
Uta kept her lips pursed, aware of sudden footsteps outside the room. They should leave soon and hurry down to the tunnels where the slaves were waiting for them. How surprised the Semassenqa would be to know there lay a hidden army beneath them, poised to come to their aid.
And perhaps, to give Uta cover to kill Titrit. Uta hadn’t quite yet decided. It depended rather on what Titrit said next. “And what did Djana do, that so upset you?”
Titrit went quiet, the fire in her turning to a simmer. When it became clear Uta wasn’t going to back down, she croaked out a reply. “Eshant was supposed to do it. Father asked her to. She wouldn’t, so I had to. Me, who loved Djana as a sister all those years. But I did it because I’m loyal. Because I love our family.”Titrit choked out a disturbing giggle. Her eyes were red and damp with coming tears. She shook her head, jerking her whole body in her chair as she did so. “She refused him, and father needed the ambassadors to die. There was no one else. It couldn’t have been anyone else. Only . . . .”
Uta couldn’t hold back her disdain this time. She stood up and walked around the desk to avoid having to look the madwoman in the face any longer. “She deserved what she got, I’m sure.” Uta replied sarcastically. She paused. “You said your sister refused.”
The sister in the temple, as Uta had surmised.
Titrit nodded emphatically. “Yes, yes. Djana deserved it. I cut her and she deserved it. All of it. Eshant was supposed to be the one to do it. Until then, it was all her, but she’s useless now. They’ve taken her from us, twisted her.”
“They?” Uta paused, caught on something Titrit had said. “What do you mean it was her?”
Uta made the mistake of staring Titrit in the face and was rewarded with a gut-churning grin. “Zioban. Eshant was Zioban until they took her. Father was so upset. She’ll do her duty though, in the end. She’ll do what she was supposed to, for Uncle.”
There was a loud knock at the door, and a voice from without. “You’re needed down below!”
Uta had taken the risk of leaving an unmasked rebel outside to alert them when the time had come.
“A moment!” She called in irritation. She stalked toward Titrit and grabbed her shoulders. “Eshant was Zioban―you and Eshant, not Qanmi?”
Titrit shook her head, then started nodding, tears pouring down her face. “He couldn’t be put at risk. He’s too important. But Eshant sounds like a man and no one knew who she was. Father thought the slaves would follow a man.” She laughed again. “He loves her. He always loved her best. But I’ve got him now. I’ve got him. I told Hima what you told me, and now Aurelius will be mine. I’ll be queen and Father will have everything he wanted, and I’ll be good. I’ll be a good girl.”
A good girl.
Uta grimaced as Titrit ranted. She shuddered to think what Qanmi might have done to his daughter to distort her thoughts so.
Titrit stabbed the table with one finger, then started tapping. She was shaking. She stared at the surface like she was trying to steady herself. Like she’d taken something stronger than the wine that wafted from her.
This woman wasn’t even worth killing.
“Uta!” called the rebel guard. He didn’t risk yelling Zioban’s name.
“They’re coming! Wait!” Madaula cried, and Uta spared Madaula a smile. Confiding in the girl was probably the best decision Uta had made in a long while.
Uta released Titrit’s skinny arms. She snatched the death mask from the table and tossed it onto Titrit’s lap. “Put it on. Now. You have a job to do.”
But Titrit wouldn’t stop laughing, her giggles turning first to sobs, then finally strained, gasping breaths as she curled her legs up and rolled back in her chair.
“Hurry, Sesa—they’re waiting!” called the guard.
“Adonen’s cock and balls,” Uta cursed.
It was then she felt Madaula’s hand on her shoulder. In Madaula’s other hand, she held Zioban’s death mask. She thrust it at Uta. “Take it, Sese. They need Zioban to lead them, and she’s in no fit state.”
Madaula prodded Uta’s stomach with the mask.
Uta shot her a scathing look, but she took it.
Staring into its face, so light in her hands, it felt like nothing at all. Some cheap wood and a fastening band. Some cheap lies to sell Qemassen’s dreamers on a future they were never intended to have. Uta’s heart ached. She pursed her lips, feeling the sting in her belly where she’d stabbed herself and the throb in her conscience at what she’d allowed Qanmi and his women to convince her to do. “I killed him for this bitch—for a phantom.”
“No.” Madaula shook her head and laid a comforting hand on Uta’s shoulder. “You haven’t killed anyone yet. Save that for the Lora.”
Madaula retrieved the sword Uta had been pathetically training with for the past few weeks, and Uta took it in hand, clutching its hilt just as inexpertly as she had the first day she’d held it. She shut her eyes and forced her feet toward the door and away from Titrit’s sobbing.
Before Uta reached the exit, she let the mask fall from her hands and clatter to the floor. If she was going to do this, she would do it openly. This time, her people would know whom they followed.
“Sese.” Madaula trailed her, as though she intended to offer her support in the tunnels.
Uta collected herself and forced all her authority into her voice. “Stay. I won’t risk you out there, and someone needs to watch that one.” She cocked her head at Titrit.
Madaula bent down and retrieved Zioban’s mask from the floor. She clutched it between her hands as though doing so would protect the pair of them. “Don’t die, Sese. I’d miss you.”
Uta smirked. “If I do die, make sure to kill her next.”
Uta glanced at her weapon, so awkward and heavy. With any luck she wouldn’t have to try to use it at all. The slaves were a last resort, additional troops to drive Lora survivors who made it past the Ashenqa back downhill. The only way Uta would have to fight was if Qemassen was losing.
And if they were losing, they’d already lost.
Uta opened the door.
“Finally,” the slave outside sighed dramatically. He pushed himself off the wall where he’d been leaning. “Where’s Zioban? The Lora have sent out landing parties in skiffs. There’s word of soldiers flooding in from beneath the northeast wall.”
“Zioban’s not coming.” Uta tensed herself. She was a spy and a scribe, not a warrior. What was she doing here? “Let’s go.”
Together they hurried down the winding stairs toward the cellar.
The palace was practically deserted. The Semassenqa who were too young, old, or infirm to fight had all been tucked away, and everyone else was already stationed on the battlements or at sea.
Most of them, like Uta, were women who’d never been trained in combat, and fierce as Himalit was, Uta was almost certain she couldn’t hold back the entire Anata and Lora fleets all by herself.
The way past the amphorae and inside the tunnels had been left open for them and the tunnels lit with torches ahead of time. Uta’s little pack of slaves would be waiting further along.
The tunnels that had once been so familiar and private, had been made strange. Uta’s every muscle felt like it was being pinched. A giddiness not so different from Titrit’s intoxication threatened to overwhelm her. “Are our people in position around the city?”
Her companion nodded. “Yes. Aiel has the northwest, and Picoban is watching the main tunnel.”
Uta smiled unsteadily. “So we have names now.”
He smiled back. “How would we know who we buried if we didn’t? Mine’s Danel, by the way.”
“Danel,” Uta repeated. Her heart was racing. The idle, nervous banter was a pleasant distraction. “Where do you come from, Danel?”
He laughed at that. “From Qemassen, same as you.”
They rounded a corner, and a cramped, crowded tunnel greeted them. Men and women uneasily clutched weapons to their breasts, huddling as distant screams echoed further down the path. Apparently, Zioban had left the women and children under Uta’s command.
Uta scowled quietly to herself. “Today, Danel, we’re all from Qemassen.”
Danel grinned with the foolhardy devotion of a puppy. “Well spoken, Sese.”
At the honorific, Uta clucked her tongue. “You know better than that. We’re equals now.”
Danel slapped her shoulder and Uta flinched, unused to that kind of camaraderie. “Not if we choose not to be, Sese. If I’m free, I’m free to decide who deserves my respect, aren’t I?”
She couldn’t exactly argue with that, but it made her uncomfortable. She grunted, hoping it communicated her unease without being too rude. Danel didn’t press the matter, but nor did he offer any comment to suggest he’d backed down.
All around her, packed against the sides of the tunnel, men and women stared at Uta and Danel’s unmasked faces past the narrow slits in their death masks. They gripped swords and clubs and even copper pans. Whatever could be a weapon in a city where most of the men had marched off to war, very much was a weapon.
And none of the people wielding them knew what to do next. That much was clear from the way they hugged their kitchenware to their chests, and from the mild panic she could see even with their masks on.
They didn’t know what to do, and neither did Uta.
She was no general or commander, no princess or queen. She was a Vetnu slave born of Vetnu slaves going back generations. Her fingers were stained black with ink, not red with blood, and the aches in her back and legs were from forty plus years of running up and down steep palace steps, not thwacking dummies with wooden training swords.
Uta was no one, but still they stared.
She squeezed past her frightened people toward the dark of the labyrinthine tunnels beyond. It wasn’t far to the main thoroughfare from here. If the Lora did make it all that way, Qemassen and not just Uta and her band of misfits, was doomed.
Screams thundered upwards from the tunnels below, followed by a deep rumble.
Part of the plan had been for Qwella et-Moniqa’s Ashenqa to collapse the tunnels onto the invaders. The rumbling was a positive sign that things were going according to plan.
Uta gripped her sword handle tighter, her sweat so thick on her palm that her weapon threatened to slide free.
She turned and faced her people.
“Half of you stay in reserve!” Uta called out, summoning all the questionable military jargon she’d amassed from her readings—which wasn’t much. “The rest follow me!”
Stop the stragglers, that was all they had to do. Stop the stragglers and somehow avoid decapitation.
Uta could have cried. She could have laughed.
Her fellow slaves were still staring at her, cowed and terrified.
With tremendous effort, Uta lifted her sword. “For Qemassen! We fight or we die!”
“We are one voice!” Danel cried, taking pity on her. “We are one voice, and many hands!”
The words rattled through her bones in Titrit’s shrill voice. She saw Qanmi’s daughter laughing drunkenly through her tears as she curled herself as small as possible in Uta’s chair.
Could she speak those words when she knew how hollow they’d always been?
One look at the faces in the tunnels, and she could tell the words weren’t hollow in the slightest.
Uta raised her sword aloft a second time, and this time her weapon felt only half so heavy as the amphorae she’d regularly lifted aside to sneak into the tunnels. It was exactly as heavy as her heart the night she’d made her choice and stabbed her husband in the back. “We are one voice!” Uta shouted. “And many hands!”
The earth groaned as if in reply. At first Uta felt a swell of pride, but then—
“It’s not stopping,” said Danel.
They stared down the tunnel.
Downhill, much closer to Uta and the others, someone screamed.
Less than an instant later the ground beneath their feet began to shake, dust and small stones spilling onto them from the ceiling. The rumbling wasn’t from the planned cave-ins—it was an earthquake.
“It happens sometimes,” Uta whispered to Danel. “We can wait it out.”
But the earthquake didn’t stop. With each passing moment, it intensified.
With a shudder, Uta recalled the bodies crushed inside the Hamatri when the earthquake had struck last year. How much more soil rested above their heads right now, poised to smother them all in a moment?
Uta tilted her head back, gazing in horror at the ceiling.
It was no longer safe underground.
Uta swept her arm at the slaves behind her, struggling to be heard over the noise. “The east passage! All of you! Be quick about it!”
They didn’t need much convincing. The slaves stampeded past her, more a flock of frightened geese than an army. The beat of their feet hitting the ground might as well have been completely silent with the earthquake drowning out all other noise.
Uta pinned herself to the spot till the last of the slaves had disappeared around the bend. Even on a good day she was slow, and with the ground shifting beneath her and the roar of the cave walls trembling around her, it was not a good day.
She should have brought her cane and not this useless sword.
She jammed the sword as hard as she could—not very—into the earth and leaned most of her weight on it. With her free hand, she pawed the wall. It did help to steady her some, but the closeness to the wall also caused the earthquake to vibrate through her body. Her skull felt like it had come undone from the skin that held it.
“Wait!” cried a woman’s voice, barely audible.
Back the way Uta had come, a woman stumbled down the tunnel.
The world broke. Or so it felt. A terrible crack split the air, and in its wake the tunnel floor and walls rattled like a giant was shaking them inside a bowl.
Titrit fell to her knees. To Uta’s surprise, she picked herself up and clambered in Uta’s direction.
What was she playing at now?
It was louder than when the Hamatri had collapsed. Much louder.
And then a splitting roar.
Uta screamed, but she couldn’t even hear herself. She crouched low, pressing herself between the flat of the sword and the cave wall.
And then it stopped.
What on earth had that sound been? The palace itself must have collapsed, or maybe it had been Molot’s temple—
Titrit knelt at Uta’s side. “Zioban must be seen to lead his people. In case by some chance we survive.”
Uta was too shaken to be able to summon a clever retort, so instead she grabbed Titrit’s arm, along with the sword, and started dragging them both along the path in the direction of the rest of the slaves.
“Then lead them,” Uta snapped as they slipped past fallen rubble.
Dirt and dust cascaded from the cracks along the ceiling, and the low rumbling returned.
They hit a downhill slope that Uta couldn’t entirely say had been there before, but the incline was steep enough that she couldn’t stop her own feet from half-running, half-tumbling downwards.
Near the base of the slope, Titrit tripped on a rock, pulling Uta down with her.
Pain scoured Uta’s palm and she cried out.
When Uta drew her hand up out of the dirt it was covered in blood.
Blood and water.
Mud coated the tunnel floor, water welling in the hollows created by Uta and Titrit’s footprints.
“It’s the dry season.” Uta grabbed Titrit’s arms, winced at the pain in her hand, and drew her to her feet. “Titrit, how much do you know about these tunnels?”
Titrit’s mask had come crooked when she’d fallen. She fixed it in place. “As much as I need to know.”
Uta released her hold on Titrit, struggling to remain civil. “Do you know if they’ve flooded before?”
Titrit at last caught on. She raised her water-logged sandal, watching the water pool in the depression. “They lead to the sea. You can hear it in the lower passages, beneath the temple district where Eshant and Dansila are. It sounds like an animal sometimes. It used to be blocked off, but when the heq-Ashqat ordered the way uncovered—”
“And with the earthquake.” A chill shot up Uta’s spine. She’d sent the slaves the wrong way. They should have sought safety on higher ground, no matter that it had been a longer walk.
Salt burned inside the scratches in Uta’s feet. The water level was rising already.
Uta grabbed Titrit’s wrist to haul her along. “We have to get out of here. Now.”
Titrit tugged back on Uta’s arm, stopping them. She pointed to an unlit passage leading off to their right. “That way. It’s quickest.”
The darkened passage was very narrow, but now that it had been pointed out to her, she could tell it curved sharply uphill. Titrit might just be right. But to do it, they’d have to abandon the slaves. “I sent the others in the direction of the east passage. If the floodwaters are coming from the tunnels under the Shedi, they might not make it before they’re underwater. We can’t leave our people to die.”
Titrit stole her hand back. “They’re not my people.”
It took all Uta’s poise not to wring Titrit’s scrawny neck. “Then go, before I cut you in half and leave you to drown.”
It took only a moment for Titrit to scramble away down the tunnel, and a moment more for Uta to hurry on. Her side was hurting again, and her legs. She could still feel the sting, as though the point of her blade lay buried beneath her skin.
As she hobbled onwards, using her sword and the walls to balance her, all thought deserted her. She shuffled onwards in a fugue, not stopping even as the walls threatened to cave in on her, and the torches the slaves had installed in the tunnels began to tumble into the water.
Were those voices ahead? It was nearly impossible to tell beneath constant thudding and cracking of rock.
Uta raced forward. “Stop!” The words burned, raw in her throat. “The tunnels are flooding! Stop!”
The integrity of the walls must have been damaged during the earthquake, perhaps even months ago when the tremors had first started. The further Uta ran, the more rivulets of water streamed down the walls, small pools forming between the scattered tiles that paved the way.
At last she caught up with the slaves, who appeared to have stopped. Danel saw her first.
He pushed past his masked colleagues to get to her. “Sese, I think the tunnels are flooding.”
Uta nodded. “I know. We have to get everyone out.”
Cobweb-thin cracks arced along the walls, and shards of rock broke off to shatter against the larger boulders lining the way.
Every inhaled breath was half-dust, half-air.
As they climbed back the way Uta had just run, she lost her footing and went flying forward. Strong arms wrapped around her, pulling her to her feet. She looked up, expecting Danel, and finding Madaula instead.
Madaula smiled. “When Titrit left I thought I’d best seek new orders.”
Uta’s joy at seeing a friendly face was short lived.
From all around them came the unmistakable thunder of water rushing against stone.
“Keep going,” Uta panted.
She didn’t need to tell them. The slaves tore down well-worn passages, trying to outrun the ocean itself. It wasn’t clear from where it was coming, or if it had broken through nearby or somewhere that couldn’t reach them.
Uta let Madaula and Danel help her until they reached an all-too familiar basement, into which the slaves were already crowding.
The House of Many Purposes.
How could she not have realized, all this time, when it had stood so obvious before her?
Zioban’s army burst from the building and onto the city streets, with Uta, Danel, and Madaula behind them.
Uta had to stop herself retreating inside the house at the chaos awaiting them outside.
Soldiers filled the road—Lora and Massenqa both—and nearly all of them were running and screaming in the direction of the hill.
But they weren’t running after each other. They were running from something.
Uta turned slowly to face the lower city. She stumbled back against Madaula.
There was a massive hole in Qemassen’s wall. Ocean water flooded the lower streets, as though it had been propelled by some powerful force.
From the gaping wound in Qemassen’s armour, Uta could see fire, and smoke, and ships tangled together in the harbour. The mass of debris rolled back out to sea as though with the pull of the tide. Through the hole, she glimpsed bare sea floor in the wake of the retreating waves.
Bare sea floor.
She didn’t have to look again. Uta held onto Madaula and together they bolted in the wake of the fleeing soldiers. To left and right, some had escaped the crush of the panicked mob and had clambered onto the roofs of the buildings.
Hadn’t they seen what the earthquake had done to the wall? They’d be swallowed in rubble.
As the road before them narrowed, a Lora soldier shoved her out of the way, punching Madaula. Uta swung her sword out wildly, feeling it slice through something thick and soft and wet.
The soldier screamed and fell at her feet.
Uta stared in shock, weapon still tight in her hands.
“Come on! Sese!” Madaula wrenched the sword from Uta’s grasp and flung it aside. She tugged Uta forward as waves crashed against stone that had stood a thousand years or more.
Uta daren’t look behind her, but to look forward—
Everyone was pushing and shoving and stabbing as they reached the road leading up to the palace gates, trapped in a bottleneck as the Helit prepared to consume the city below.
The narrow gateway leading into the palace gardens gleamed under the red sky—so close she felt she should be able to reach out and touch it.
So many bodies stood in the way, pressing those at the top against the metal. The screams of those crushed against the bars was a match for the cries of those struggling to reach the gates.
It was no good. No good.
Uta clamped her hands over her ears, turning in circles.
They’d lost Danel.
“We’ve lost Danel,” she said, but it was clear from Madaula’s terrified eyes that she hadn’t heard.
Discarded swords and spears and armour clinked beneath Uta’s feet. Everyone had dropped them in the frenzy to reach higher ground.
And still more people raced toward them from below. The street had a chokehold on them. No way back and no way forward.
Nowhere to run, and a terrible sound like a god skinning the ocean floor with a brittle razor.
She was going to die. Right here. Right now. They were all going to die.
Everything seemed so pointless in the face of it.
Uta tugged Madaula’s sleeve, pulling her close.
She turned, so that she was facing the Helit. If she was going to die, she wanted to see her death when it came for her.
Men and women were rushing and punching, yet the world felt oddly still as she clutched Madaula’s hand in hers.
She deserved this, for what she’d done. Somewhere, Samelqo’s gods still answered his prayers.
Madaula pressed in as closed as she could get. “Sese,” she said. “Uta.” Madaula’s voice wavered as she raised a shaky hand to point out at the water. “The island, Sese. It’s collapsing.”
And so it was.
Out on the ocean, a wall of water rushed toward the city, and Tarefsa Tithmeseti was crumbling into the sea.