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Chapter 3: Merchants
Qwella – Qemassen: Qalita’s Temple
Hope was a blind old woman in blood-red robes, and all Qwella had to offer was her prostration at the heq-Ashqat’s feet. The small cube of a room, with its two arched windows lighting the brown sandstone floor, was a strange place in which to lay out her desperation, but if Qwella wanted to escape marrying Qanmi after Sabé’s death, she had few options. Service to Qalita, the Chaste Queen, was preferable to throwing herself on her father’s mercy.
She’d never stepped beyond the porch—the ulam—of Qalita’s temple before. The heq-Ashenqa sometimes required the presence of Qwella’s family to mediate, but they always came to the palace for that. And most of the high priests lived on the Talefa hill rather than in the temple district. Qalita’s temple was a rare exception.
Daana et-Titrit, heq-Ashqat of Qalita, sat before Qwella on a cushioned stool, wrinkled and cloudy-eyed. Two Ashqata stood to either side of the high priestess, their henna-dyed hands clasped in front of them, their red-tinted lips pressed tight. Diaphanous carmine silk that had been layered so thick it obscured rather than revealed their shapes made cones of their bodies, as a glowing midday sun cast its light upon the fabric, creating a rose aura around the edges of the Ashqata’s clothes. Their hair was hidden beneath truncated cone hats, the flattened tops of which were draped in more silk, making tents of the women’s shoulders and heads.
Qwella smoothed her hands across her knees, the slim pleats of her embroidered purple stola rough against her palms. She’d agonized for hours over her attire, tossing aside the patterned Ajwata wrap Aurelius had bought her, discarding the plainer Inda-style cotton from Shaqarbas, the gaudy gold-trimmed palla from Qanmi. She’d finally settled on her best Massenqa dress—fine wool decorated down its middle by an intricate stripe of embroidery that stretched from neckline to hem. Qwella had commissioned it for herself upon her marriage—one of few garments she owned that wasn’t a gift. Sabé had loathed it, called the cut unflattering on her round figure, found the embroidered depictions of Indas’s famed cities ugly. Month by month she’d asked her slaves for it less and less, until after a year’s time she’d all but forgotten it.
Today she’d asked for her purple dress.
Daana et-Titrit rested her bony hands on her knees, arms quivering. With her loose, lined skin, and her hunched posture, she looked older than Samelqo. “Why have you requested this audience with me, daughter of kings? Do your husband’s qet and ban trouble you?” A smile poked at her lips, half kindness, half something more enigmatic, as if she understood already Qwella wasn’t here for Sabé.
Qwella swallowed to wet her throat. Though Daana couldn’t see her, Qwella looked the heq-Ashqat in the eyes. It seemed disrespectful not to.
“No, Dese, nothing like that.” Qwella hesitated and glanced left and right at the Ashqata beside Daana, but the women only stared at the wall behind Qwella. Perhaps they’d been commanded not to speak and were only present in Daana’s private audience chamber to ensure the fragile heq-Ashqat’s safety.
Daana still wore the same smile, a near-perfect half-circle that belonged to a figure from a mosaic and not a real person. The expression swelled her cheeks until youthfulness peeked through the lined curtains of her age. She folded her hands in her lap. “Most women don’t visit the house of the Shy Queen on a whim. They come to pay for a curse against a rival, or because they’ve been wronged. They come because the burden of grief is too heavy. They come to ask questions when they know their own death will soon be upon them. Is it for any of these that you’ve come to me today?”
“No. Neither, I—I don’t have a question, exactly.”
Daana’s smile warmed. “No, you don’t have a question. You came here with a request.”
Qwella rubbed her thumb over the thumbnail of her other hand. Was it so obvious?
“I did,” she admitted. Her legs, folded beneath her, were falling asleep. She shifted to wiggle some life into them and needles shot across her skin. “My father wishes me married a second time. But I still grieve for my husband. I would dedicate what remains of my life to Qalita’s service, to be closer to my Sabé.”
She darted a look at the only ornamentation on the walls—a faded image of the goddess Qalita, painted directly onto the plain stone behind Daana. The image of the Shy Queen sat enthroned upon a chair that melded with the trunk and branches of a pomegranate tree, her three faces—a queen, an ass, and a jackal—staring in three different directions. The branches of the tree-throne bowed from the weight of their fruit, and Qalita’s hands clutched an asp and a sprig of hemlock.
“A very serious request,” said Daana. “You’re young to make such a choice. Young, and if I recall, childless.”
Sabé lying on the floor, blood beneath his face. A serpent bite, or a scorpion sting.
Qwella flinched. “I failed in my duties as a wife.”
Daana’s smile melted. “That isn’t what I meant.” She stood abruptly, her Ashqata bending to steady her as she rose.
“What did you mean?” Qwella asked.
One of the Ashqata produced a ruby-encrusted cane from the voluminous skirts of her robe. Daana accepted it with a nod, clasping its head with her shaky hand. Light from one of the two narrow windows shone onto the cane, revealing jewelled pomegranates peeking from amidst carved wooden leaves.
“Let’s walk.” Daana tapped her cane against the stones.
Qwella stumbled to her feet, wobbling at first from the sleepiness of her legs. The heq-Ashqat inched to the door, ahead of her attendants. She wasn’t completely blind then.
The Ashqata hurried forward and heaved the door open by its black handles. Qwella followed the three priestesses through the archway, feeling oddly like a child hovering after her mother.
Like the children she’d never had, never would.
“I have nephews,” said Qwella. “My brothers and sister will continue my father’s line.” And on Sabé’s side, there was his niece, Titrit. Qwella had never been able to think of Qanmi’s daughter as her own niece though, and of course Titrit herself was also childless. That, Qwella supposed, was reason enough for Qanmi to seek a new wife. Otherwise, all his wealth would pass to Qorban’s extended family once Titrit died.
But if childlessness were Qanmi’s concern, why shackle himself to Qwella, who’d proved as barren as his daughter?
“Children are their own kind of happiness,” said Daana, walking with the support of her attendants down the short flight of steps that led onto the public floor of the temple. “They’re our immortality and our death at once. A promise that we’ll live on, and the reminder that we won’t.”
Hima probably didn’t think of Hiram and Reshith like they were her death.
Qwella slowed to a stop to avoid tripping on the Ashqata’s robes in her haste. She looked past Daana and the Ashqata at the hall. It was dark inside Qalita’s temple, the plain sandstone walls a sharp contrast to the bright, painted murals and intricate tiled floors of the temples of Tanata and Abaal, and its heiqal—the public courtyard at the centre of the temple—was roofed, cluttered by unadorned stone pillars, with a walled-off chamber at its heart. She’d never seen such a thing before. The rooms where temple barbers, clothiers, and butchers worked and stored their wares typically flanked the sides of the common area. And while most temples featured a holy debir at their backs, Qwella could see no sign of a door at the rear of the walls of the heiqal that would lead to the most sacred of Qalita’s holy chambers.
On the floor of the heiqal, a child darted away from his mother’s grasp, toward the farthest wall. She hurried after him with her skirts bundled in her hands.
“Did you have children?” Qwella asked.
“The acolytes and Ashqata under my care are my children,” croaked Daana. She descended the final step, followed by Qwella and the two Ashqata.
Was it rude to pry further? “What about before you were an Ashqat?”
“There is no before once you enter the Quiet Lady’s service.” Daana turned to regard Qwella, who stopped still. “Take your vows and forsake your family. That is what our goddess asks of us. You can’t escape a husband without giving something in return, and if you aren’t prepared to do so I recommend you look elsewhere for protection.”
Hima appeared before Qwella like a vision, dressed in the strange, tight, northern pants she’d adopted when working on her ships. Qwella had made a fuss last time they’d spoken about being able to care for herself, but what was she without Hima to watch out for her, to scare off the dogs that bit at her heels?
“My brothers and sister could still visit, couldn’t they?”
“Yes, but they would be your family no longer.”
It couldn’t be so terrible as Daana made it sound. Noble families sent their children to the temples often, to gain influence in politics, to curry favour with the gods. Qalita’s temple was no exception. As one of few temples whose offices were never hereditary within families, it provided a rare opportunity for political advancement.
If Qalita’s acolytes truly forsook their family, forsook their needs, no one would send their daughters to Qalita.
But Daana wouldn’t want to hear that, and Qwella needed her.
She stepped onto the temple floor. Girlish voices tittered from a darkened part of the room. Qwella turned in their direction only to glimpse plain brown acolytes’ robes disappearing into the shadows.
“I’d have sisters amongst the priestesses of Qalita,” said Qwella. She paused. Even as she spoke, her protestations sounded scripted to her own ears. Daana would tear them to shreds. “You were right—I don’t want to marry again, and certainly not my husband’s brother. Qalita’s is the only temple that forbids marriage, so it’s the one I chose.” A lump seemed to clog her throat.
Daana turned to face Qwella. “You have no special love for our goddess?”
A serpent bite or a scorpion sting.
Qwella stood firm. “I believe she has a love for me.”
But Daana’s smile returned. She gestured for Qwella to follow as she headed toward the strange walled-off area at the centre of the heiqal. “Our temple,” she explained, her words coming slow, as though she rolled each one around her mouth before speaking it. “Attracts women of certain proclivities to these halls.”
But Daana continued on without answering.
Every acolyte or Ashqat they passed stared at Qwella, as if she were an ostrich that had marched inside the building and demanded to be sacrificed. At the palace, the slaves knew better than to stare so. She relaxed only when Daana turned right at a hidden entrance into the walled room. The heq-Ashqat disappeared down a maze of sharp turns and low ceilings, taking Qwella and her priestesses with her.
A wall of smoke mixed with a sour, pungent smell Qwella couldn’t identify hit them as they turned a bend, and one of Daana’s Ashqata coughed. Qwella had to swallow a cough herself, drinking deep of the noxious perfume. The smell made her head spin for a moment.
“You know,” Daana said, “You’re not the first woman of your line to make a home of these halls, but you would be the first in my lifetime to relinquish her royal blood.”
Qwella’s mother would never have willingly set foot inside a Massenqa temple, had fought against birthing all Qwella’s younger sibling’s inside Tanata’s halls despite tradition. And Hima was as superstitious as a peasant about the Shy Queen. That left Qwella’s aunts, all three long dead now. But then, Daana was ancient as the sands of the deep Sajit; she’d probably known all of them. The only one of Eshmunen’s sisters Qwella had met was Aunt Meg.
Qwella’s heartbeat quickened.
Aunt Meg, with her scorpions and her scrolls, and her big mess of tangled hair. As children, Hima and Qwella had loved playing in her rooms, peeking at the strange creatures she kept pickled in glass jars and pretending at scribbling curses. Thinking back on it now, no wonder Qwella’s mother had called Meg mad. When Aurel had been born, Mother had done everything to keep him away from Meg, which had of course only made Aurel more curious.
Qwella hadn’t expected her trip to the temple to force such reflexion on her, but as they traversed deeper within the heart of the temple, inside that walled area that had looked much smaller than it had turned out to be, her thoughts turned backwards toward her family the same way Daana seemed to double back with every chosen passageway.
“You mean Meghigda, don’t you?” Qwella cleared her throat. “What did she do here, if she didn’t want to enter Qalita’s service?”
Daana walked slowly, yet as they made their way past corners and down short, narrow corridors, the walls raced by, and Qwella couldn’t measure how far they’d gone. It wasn’t just like a maze in this section of the temple, it was a maze. A labyrinth.
The heq-Ashqat ignored an opening to her right and took a swift left. The floor in this corridor was clearly sloped downward—had they secretly been descending all along? “Meghigda et-Eshant would often visit alongside your grandmother. Eshant et-Nila was a keen devotee of Qalita’s mysteries. She fatted the temple coffers paying for sacrifices on behalf of her family.”
Qwella frowned. She’d never met either of her grandparents, but while she felt she knew her grandfather from the heroic tales of his military victories in eq-Anout that Hima so liked to brag about, her Anata grandmother Eshant et-Nila—the princess Isir eq-Ashtaroth had won as part of the Anata peace treaty—was an empty space in Qwella’s imagination.
“Why favour Qalita? Wouldn’t Tanata be more usual for a queen and mother?” Qwella asked.
“They call Ledan the city of a thousand temples. Who can say what customs your grandmother clung to from her Anata homeland? We were grateful for her contributions. Meg long paid us for rooms here, where she could work undisturbed. She kept rooms in Tanata’s temple as well, I believe, because of their archives.”
At last the labyrinth seemed to end, opening out onto a corridor that stretched left and right, vanishing into shadow on either side. A door stood straight ahead, cut into the wall, lit to either side by high, small braziers. Daana paused at the threshold of the hallway. “Qalita is far more than Molot’s wife, daughter of kings. She is a goddess of secrets. Of magic.”
Of course Aunt Meg would have been interested in magic, with all the papyri littering her quarters at the palace, all the herbs and ointments fighting for space on her shelves. Even as children Qwella, Aurel, and Hima had suspected as much, had spent afternoons concocting potions from the scraps she’d let them play with. Qwella smiled, remembering the time Samelqo had caught Hima at her potion-making while they were supposed to be learning Lora declensions. Hima had spilled it all over Samelqo’s scrolls. He’d ranted at Meg for an hour about the “potion” his slaves had spent twice as long removing from all the places in his rooms where Hima and Aurel had hidden it, all the fine robes and carpets they’d ruined.
But that was before the burning. After the deaths of Ashtara and their mother, they’d never again played in the tower, and Eshmunen had looked elsewhere for tutors for the royal children.
The losses of that night had been incalculable.
Qwella stared past Daana in the doorway, the flames flickering against the unassuming walls. The door’s rounded top was arched like a garden trellis, stone vines chiseled to curl round its roof. Another pomegranate tree was carved into the centre.
Daana stepped up to the door, her Ashqata hovering beside her. Qwella followed, and her foot nudged against something on the floor. A death mask—olive wood, it looked like, rather than cedar. She picked it up, staring into its placid face. “Did someone drop this?” She held it out to the nearest of the Ashqata, who took it from her.
“It’s a death mask,” said the woman. It was the first indication that either of the Ashqata had tongues to speak.
“Our carpenters fashion them for Molot’s temple.” Daana frowned at the mask but didn’t elaborate on what had upset her. She turned back to the door. “We make them for Molot’s temple, as though Qalita is only another servant to a man, but she’s more than an appendage to the god of death. She’s a goddess for women, not men. Tanata’s Ashenqa have long made Tanata their own, a goddess men can love. But there are Anata papyri that claim Tanata, Qalita, and Ashtet were once one.” She turned a smile on Qwella. “What would you say to that?”
Qwella blinked. “It’s not my place—”
“This is your place, daughter of kings. And you may speak freely here without fear that a father or husband will strike you, that you need accept any touch but that which you desire.”
That which she . . . the acolytes and Ashqata of Qalita were celibate once they joined the goddess’s service. Who would they touch, if not men? “I don’t understand.”
Daana turned around and rested her palm against the door. “Inside this room is Qalita’s sanctuary. A room in which none but our initiates may enter. The only eyes that have looked upon its sacred stone are those hungry for acceptance in the house of the Shy Queen. Those without a home themselves, who seize their path and choose to walk her shadowed road. Are you such a one, daughter of kings?”
Qwella’s lip trembled near as much as Daana’s arm as she clutched her cane. Qwella shifted her attention from the rubies on the walking stick to the pomegranates on the door, and the serpent entwined around the base of the tree, tangled in its roots.
A goddess for women. A promise not to be struck, not to fear, not to shrink at a man’s unwanted touch. Not to marry Qanmi eq-Sabaal and become yet another man’s property, a merchant’s gamble at twining his own line with the royal family’s.
Qwella’s throat brimmed with the words before she dared speak them. “I am . . .” she hesitated, not because she was unsure any longer, but because she was so sure she had to steady herself lest the words tumble from her lips as incoherent mush. “I am such a one.”
Daana stepped aside. When Qwella didn’t move, the heq-Ashqat nodded at the door. “This is your room to enter. In there, you will set aside Qwella et-Moniqa and become Qwella et-Afqat.”
Qwella, daughter of no one. For an instant, she doubted, then she laid her hands against the door.
“You will walk to the deepest chamber, where you will find the goddess waiting. And there, you will give her the gift of your secret. Whisper into her ear a truth you have not given to anyone, and she will embrace you.”
Qwella’s chest burned, like Daana already knew her secret, like she had planned all of this from the moment Qwella had watched the heq-Ashqat and her priestesses in the riad all those nights ago. She stood in front of the door, waiting.
She closed her eyes, waiting.
“You have to push,” said Daana.
Qwella straightened her shoulders and opened her eyes. “I—I knew that. I was just composing myself.” She sucked in deep, drawing in dust. Then she pushed.
The light was blinding, the air inside the room rich as damp moss, and clear in comparison to the smoke-choked corridors of the heiqal.
A huge round skylight drenched the room in a pearl-white glare. When her eyes adjusted, she made out a square courtyard at least fifty cubits wide. In the room’s center, a massive pomegranate tree, its trunk twisted round like a wrung-out cloth, stretched heavenward. Light glanced off the fruit on its branches, glowing ruby-red as Qwella stepped into the room and the door closed behind her with a muffled thud.
Qwella took a step toward the tree, felt her slippers soak with water, and yelped. The tiles just inside the door stopped after only two feet, replaced by soil and mud. The tangled roots of the tree bumped and looped up out of the earth, improbably large compared to the pomegranate trees Qwella had seen in the city’s famed orchards.
She slipped her shoes off, laid them back on the tile before the door, and walked toward the tree.
She should have asked Daana for further instructions. At least there was only one way forward. Columns lined the walls to her left and right, but they were flat and decorative. There was only the tree, and whatever lay past it.
She stepped carefully, avoiding tripping roots and the dampest patches of the rich black soil. Daana must have been lying when she said no one came here, for surely the tree wouldn’t have survived without someone to tend it. For the trunk to grow so thick, and the web of roots so sprawling, it must be well cared for. With spring nipping at winter’s heels, it wasn’t even the season for pomegranates.
Except as she got closer, she saw they weren’t pomegranates. They were huge rubies.
Qwella stared, eyes wide at the jewels bigger than her fists hanging from its branches. It had to be a trick of some kind. She clambered over the thickest of the roots, the hem of her purple dress dragging in the wet earth. She plunked down at the tree’s base, using the root as a bench, and touched her hand to the trunk.
Real bark, cool to the touch. But how could it be real, when red crystals dripped from its branches?
She hefted herself back up and grabbed the nearest of the ruby pomegranates. It was hard, an inert gemstone growing from a living branch.
Qwella tugged, pulling the fruit free, but she’d overreached, and although the pomegranate came loose in her hand it went flying. She tumbled onto the ground and caught herself with her palms against the roots. Her hands and knees stung with scratches.
She reached for the pomegranate nestled in the roots, and her fingers closed around bumpy skin. She drew it closer, turning the pomegranate over in her hands. It was ordinary. A beautiful fruit from a beautiful tree, but ordinary.
She glanced up at the branch from which she’d plucked it. From which she was sure she’d plucked it, and from where another pomegranate hung now. And all the rubies were gone, replaced with the bruised red children of a natural tree.
Qwella licked her lips, still cupping the pomegranate. She wasn’t a fool like Aurel—cursing the gods in disbelief just to say he could—but she’d never seen their power like this. Never felt it.
But was that true? Earlier she’d told Daana that the Quiet Lady had fixed her eyes on her.
A serpent bite. A scorpion sting. A sprig of hemlock. The hand that had struck her striking the ground now, and for the last time.
Qwella tucked the pomegranate within a nest of serpentine roots and pushed herself off from the tree.
The skylight was directly above her, and the shadows at the far end of the room were impenetrable in comparison. But as Qwella squinted into the distance, the room took shape. It extended back another twenty-five cubits, to where a statue stood against the wall. As Qwella made her way to it, the sodden earth warmed her feet, a cushion to soothe her skin.
The statue itself was the same as the painting in Daana’s audience chamber. Qalita’s human face looked straight ahead, the ass and jackal staring left and right. In one open palm she held a scorpion, in the other a sprig of hemlock. The statue’s mouth though, was open.
Qwella bent over so her face was level with Qalita’s. The goddess’s eyes seemed to catch her own, the hole cut into her mouth seemed to whisper, as if with a breeze.
A secret. She was to offer a secret to her goddess.
She inched forward, hands on her knees. She wasn’t spry like Hima, and it hurt to hold herself like that so long, her weight pulling her down. But it had to be the right moment; it couldn’t be forced. She did want to be here, and more than that, Qwella belonged here as a Bride of Molot. As a priestess of the Shy Queen.
A serpent bite. Sabé’s hand raised for the very last time. A careful drop dripped into his evening cup. A potion.
Qwella swallowed, and then she whispered her secret into the mouth of her goddess.