Chapter 20

Chapter 20: III: Uta

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Chapter 20: Conquerors

Section III

Uta – Tanata’s Temple: Qemassen

Uta wore lilacs in her hair as a tribute to Queen Moniqa’s fondness for the flowers.

If only Uta had been at all fond of Moniqa, then the constant smell and the bad memories it conjured might have been worth it. Instead, she watched uncomfortably with the rest of the Semassenqa as the heq-Ashqen of Tanata placed Titrit’s thin hand in that of her new husband.

You’d rather it were your hand, Uta taunted herself.

What delicious evils would they enjoy tonight, that monster and Uta’s king.

Uta stood far back in the crowd. As Samelqo’s widow she might have positioned herself closer, but she’d chosen not to. It was more comfortable here, half-shadowed beneath the papyrus-shaped pillar. A spiraling crack splintered downwards from the ceiling—one of man such injuries incurred by the temple during the earthquake, but Uta wasn’t frightened enough to move. Here, she could reflect on the proceedings without drawing undue attention to herself, and all while taking in the subtle smiles, frowns, and gossipy whispers of the Semassenqa.

Even now, she still had work to do.

It had fallen to Uta to choose silence or honesty, and though it would have given her great satisfaction to reveal Titrit’s duplicity to the Semassenqa, in the end Uta had put the rebellion first. Regardless of why or how Titrit and Qanmi had engineered the slave movement, they had birthed it, and Zioban’s continued presence was a rallying force for Uta’s people.

With the city torn in two—literally, some might say—the Massenqa needed a symbol to cling to. For the slaves, that was Zioban, and for the rest? Well, Aurelius and Titrit’s union was a powerful reminder that even after tragedy, order reasserted itself.

Along with the bittersweet stink of lilac, the Ashenqa of Tanata patrolled the star-speckled tiles of the temple, swinging thuribles that billowed with oily clouds of myrrh. Like every room in the temple, this one smelled and looked beautiful. It seemed an extension of the loveliness of Samelqo’s tower, with its painted blue and gold sky overlooking them, the sound of water trickling distantly from the many fountains and pools in the adjoining halls, and the glittering of gold-painted stars and moons dotting the ceiling. A large crescent moon, resting so that its tips pointed upwards, glittered upon the wall in front of which Titrit and Aurelius were standing. Tanata’s human face looked out on the pair impassively from beneath the moon, her outstretched palms laden with the pomegranate and rose the heq-Ashqen of Tanata had placed there as symbols of fertility. A cape of peacock feathers fanned from Tanata’s back, dusting the tiles. It was a match for the one gently resting upon Titrit’s scrawny shoulders.

Tanata made flesh.

Titrit bore the crown of Tanata, with its upturned crescent moon, while Aurelius wore the horns of Abaal. Directly above them, a round hole in the ceiling captured the moonlight. The bride beamed, her blue-tinted cheeks catching the moonlight reflected in a basin of water by means of a series of mirror tricks.

Uta snorted quietly to herself. She hadn’t liked Bree particularly, but she liked Titrit far less. The Feislandat had at least been a kindred spirit of a kind—a sneak and a spy. It rankled to see Aurelius smiling. He’d forgotten his pretty northern bride so quickly, abandoning the memory of his child for the promise of Qanmi’s wealth and honour. Bree couldn’t possibly have left of her own volition, with no prompting from Qanmi eq-Sabaal. Far more likely the former queen now fed the fishes at the bottom of the Helit.

“Tanata’s belly rounds with the moon as Abaal’s seed sprouts within her,” spoke the heq-Ashqen. He daubed Titrit’s cheeks with honey. “Qemassen’s fields and vines and orchards grow rich with plenty.”

The sweetly spoken words resounded against the walls, said with such confidence they felt like a promise blossoming in the heart.

Plenty, and the promise of a child. Uta’s chest tightened. She’d been denied such things from her own husband. But then, she’d never have made a good mother.

Let her ideas be her children. Let her deeds bear the fruit she never would.

Gold glinted in the moon and the firelight from every corner of the temple. Even the eyes of the peacock feathers seemed to wink in gold.

The gaiety of the event was what the Semassenqa needed, to forget their dead for a few hours at least, and to lay the burden of rebuilding their city aside. And soon, on the streets of the Shedi-Qalana, the ordinary Massenqa who’d scrambled over fallen stones and shattered columns to reach the temple steps, would have a chance to witness their new king and queen.

The damage had been extensive, but not as terrible as it had first seemed. The wall had broken, and it was the south of the city that had been flooded the worst. Even there, most of the foundations had remained strong, surviving the waves as well as the earthquakes that had caused them. Tarefsa Tithmeseti was largely lost, the figure of its goddess taken by the sea in payment for what some called the salvation of their city. Had the wave not come, the Lora might yet march Qemassen’s streets, slaughtering her children.

And in the end, there seemed no one to thank for it but chance. Ashtaroth had disappeared, Samelqo’s prophecy meaningless without him. If Tanata could bless a union between Titrit and Aurelius, what good was she? Surely, the goddess of wives and mothers would never smile on such a woman.

The moods and seasons of life were random and unfathomable. No god weaved their fates on gilded loom, no prophet foresaw what was to come. Life was ugly and sudden and wonderful, and Qemassen as much as anywhere lay at its mercy, though there was none to be had.

Only men spoke for man, the omen seemed to say. Qemassen might just be better for it.

Men whispered tales, of course—rumours of an otherworldly serpent or bird that had been sighted during the battle. It was nonsense, but it was harmless, and if it helped the Massenqa come to terms with what had been lost and gained then why not encourage it?

“I’ve never seen my sister so happy,” hushed Zioban’s deep, familiar voice from behind her.

Uta turned, hairs on edge at how easily Eshant had snuck up on her.

Eshant et-Loriqa, the burly Ashqat who’d made a joke of Uta, was dressed in an Ashqat of Qalita’s elegant red tent of a robe. Her wide trunk that had once seemed noble now looked oafish and plain, her face unremarkable with no mask to disguise it. She was an altogether awkward creature—too mannish for a woman, too womanish for a man.

Uta sniffed, turning away. “She’s a fool if she thinks her marriage will save her Qanmi’s attentions.” She smiled meanly in Eshant’s direction. “I think we both know that.”

Eshant gazed uncomfortably at the floor, a deep frown creating a furrow across her face. “Don’t you pity her at all? She’s wanted this a long time. Something for herself.”

The words rankled. “We’ve all wanted something for ourselves. I had a husband, a place, a cause I was made to believe in. Why should your sister steal from others and be rewarded for her trickery? I’m sure Djana thought she might have something of her own one day. I’m sure Bree did. What about all those who died under your command?”

That shut her up.

Uta leaned back against the pillar. Her shoulders ached, but she wouldn’t let Eshant see her discomfort. She fixed her attention on Titrit and Aurelius and the marriage ritual she’d undergone herself not so long ago.

“More people than you know,” Eshant said sadly, in a tone that suggested Uta had asked her opinion of something.

“What?” Uta turned.

“More people than you know have died because of me. Good people. People I’d have liked to have by my side.” Eshant spoke too loudly, but then, what matter? They were far from Titrit and Aurelius, and Aurelius’s immediate family. And why shouldn’t Samelqo’s widow speak to the newly anointed heq-Ashqat of Qalita?

“You betrayed us,” Uta said simply, hoping the coldness in her voice provoked some guilt.

Eshant took a step forward. She tugged Uta’s fine, simple palla. “I’m sorry. You’ll never know how much.”

The apology sounded genuine, but Eshant was as skilled at lying as they came. Still, such a sad sound from a young throat softened Uta’s dislike.

She shook off Eshant’s hand. “And you’ll never know how much I’ve hurt for you, so I suppose all things are equal.”

Beneath the votive garlands hanging from the ceiling, King Aurelius and Queen Titrit parted their fingers to receive small cups of lotus tea. They drew the cups to their lips, facing each other for the first time as man and wife. While Titrit kept her smiling eyes on Aurelius all the while, Aurelius looked away.

Not all Titrit’s pain, then, would be Qanmi’s doing.

“I’d like to help you if I can,” pleaded Eshant.

Uta stifled a laugh, but she was genuinely curious. “Help me? Your family has nothing to gain now by supporting the rebellion. Why would you help us? The only reason I don’t reveal you all to our dear Semassenqa is because we may yet have use for Zioban. His voice is the one my people trust.”

That, and the fact that if Uta were to reveal all she knew, she and the rest of the slaves would be torn apart in the Eghri along with Eshant.

“It wouldn’t be that way,” offered Eshant plaintively. “I seek amends.”


Eshant stepped in front of Uta, blocking her view of the ceremony. It was just as well; there was barely anything left to watch. Until Aurelius and Titrit left the temple, all that remained was for the jealous and the bored to fawn over the pair.

“I killed someone I loved because I trusted someone I shouldn’t have,” said Eshant. “Surely you can understand that.”

Uta glared at Eshant. “Careful what you say. There are things I’d rather not hear pass your lips.” She grit her teeth, letting her attention wander back to Titrit. “But I am curious as to who you mean.”

The crack and splinter of the lotus cups smashing against the floor was followed by cheers from the onlookers. The Semassenqa began to crowd the married couple.

Bored, or jealous.

Which one was Uta?

She tightened her fingers around the cane she didn’t need yet couldn’t part with. Madaula argued with her daily to abandon it. It had been Samelqo’s, and though he hadn’t loved Uta the way she’d wanted, he’d cared for her more deeply than anyone else ever had. For a long time, he’d been her only friend.

Eshant was taking a long time in answering.

Aurelius guided Titrit by the hand as the crowd parted to let them through. They walked toward the arch leading to the temple doors. Once outside, they’d be displayed before the people.

“A true child of Qemassen!” shouted Shaqarbas from the head of the assembly. His cry was echoed by those around him, but there was a reluctant note in the words of some. Since the city had suffered its recent calamities, Aurelius’s popularity amongst his nobles was wavering.

“The princess,” said Eshant, her words nearly lost beneath the hubbub of sound.

“Bree?” Uta frowned.

Eshant shook her head, smiling at her sister as the royal couple passed them by.

Titrit narrowed her eyes in Uta’s direction. What on earth she had to complain about, when Uta had kept all her grimy secrets, Uta couldn’t say.

Let her stew.

“Qwella.” The name tumbled from Eshant’s lips.

As the king and queen departed the room, a chorus of cheers erupted from outside.

Uta frowned, unmoved by the tremble of Eshant’s mouth. “Even more reason for you not to forsake your family. If you’d kill a friend for them, of what consequence is the betrayal of an enemy?”

Qanmi, leading the procession of the rest of the Semassenqa, neared the archway. As he passed, he crooked his finger at Eshant for her to follow.

Eshant hesitated. “I’m not your enemy, Uta, and my father’s not done with the rebellion yet. You’d be a fool to cross him now, especially alone. Maybe we aren’t friends, but with a word we could be. As far as I can tell, they’re in short supply.”

Eshant disappeared into the throng, and Uta slunk back till she was pressed against the wall.

Qanmi’s grandchildren would be kings and queens one day, now that Titrit had married Aurelius. What further need could he have for a fractious army of captives? Overthrowing the king was of little use to him now his daughter’s bony backside called her chair a throne.

Samelqo would have been able to puzzle it out, but Samelqo was gone. Uta was on her own now, forced to make the choices she’d long been denied during her life of servitude.

Striking forward with her cane, Uta found a place for herself amongst the Semassenqa as they poured onto the street from inside Tanata’s home.

Ahead of her, Hima’s voice argued loudly with Adoran about one of the Lora prisoners—some man who claimed to be an enemy of the Lora people and an ally to Qemassen. It was a curiosity, one Uta would look into when she had the time and inclination. Today, she might rather pretend for a while she was someone else—a woman and not a spy. A silly noble with nothing better to do than wander orchards and chide servants.

The moon glowed above them, the air unseasonably warm against her skin. Birdsong from a nearby rooftop set a scene as though from a fable. Aurelius and Titrit waved to their subjects as they were herded inside their litter to be paraded back uphill to the palace.

Uta craned her neck to stare as close as she dared to the full moon and the white clouds that drifted like veils of smoke over Tanata’s surface. If Uta could have, she would have liked to have looked down on Qemassen from on high and watched the saltwater evaporating where the wall had broken, and the tunnels flooded. She would have liked to have stood guard and seen the whole city from a hilltop, overseen the stones as they were fitted to make new walls and homes, watched the timber as it was carted from outside the city to build fresh ships splendid enough for Qemassen’s navy.

It seemed peace had come to the Helit at last.

Though as Uta stepped down from the stairs of the temple and let Madaula guide her inside her litter, she couldn’t help but steal a look at Qanmi eq-Sabaal, and then at Aurelius and Titrit’s litter as it wended along the twisting streets with spring flowers scattered in its path.

Peace had come to the Helit, but the war inside Qemassen’s walls had just begun.

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