Chapter 4: III: Qwella
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Chapter 4: Friends
Qwella – Qemassen: The Shedi Qalana
It was a strange truth to swallow that becoming a Bride of Molot didn’t frighten Qwella half so much as the memory of her marriage to Sabeq. What did it mean that a goddess of death and secrets was more welcoming than Qwella’s former husband?
The night before that first wedding, her stomach had roiled, pulled between nausea and excitement and dread. A trembling excitement filled her now, but it wasn’t the same as the grim foreboding she’d experienced for every beat of her marriage ceremony, with every thought of a man’s touch. The piles of gifts, the spectacle of the rites Samelqo had performed, the advice from all quarters as to how to conceive—each of these had been a heavy necklace weighing down her neck.
Qwella hadn’t wanted pomp and fanfare when she’d left the empty, lonely halls of Sabeq’s home for the final time, and had received neither. She was a bride for the second time, only now she was happy to play at pauper’s wife, no matter that Molot’s halls were said to glisten with gold.
It was just she and Hima, jostling back and forth in their litter along the bustling, winding streets of the Shedi-Qalana: the Alley of Voices that gave name to Qemassen’s temple district. A bright sun cast its happy light onto the road, and a cool breeze carried the whiff of rich incense from the temple entrances. Qwella stared past the curtains as the litter chafed side-to-side against nearly identical transports. The litter stopped and started repeatedly as petitioners and priests ambled into its path.
The air was fat with the swell of music: the trill of flutes, the call and answer of Ashqata and Ashenqa singing prayers from the stone mouths of the temples along the street. The Shedi-Qalana was the opposite of loneliness.
She smiled. This was home now, as far away from Sabeq’s legacy as she could run, as far away from her father, and Samelqo, and Qanmi eq-Sabaal as she could dream. Maybe to some, Qalita was a goddess to fear, but to Qwella, her walls were a sanctuary.
An acolyte of Seteq scrambled into view, cursing at a goat that had broken away from his flock. “Tchq-tchq-tchq,” he beckoned, snapping his fingers. “Come, goat! Come!”
“What is it?” Hima asked from the opposite seat. She’d been almost silent the whole journey downhill, a sure sign of her displeasure.
Qwella let the curtains fall back into place. “Nothing.” This might be the last time Qwella saw her sister for months—she should take advantage instead of daydreaming out the window.
“There’s still time,” said Hima, not looking Qwella in the eyes. “You belong with your family, not those wrinkled priestesses.”
“They’re not all wrinkled.” And there wasn’t time. Qwella had given herself to Qalita when she’d whispered her secret into the goddess’s mouth. That was the whole point. If she’d asked her father’s permission, he’d have refused. And what would happen if Qwella broke Qalita’s trust? Surely the goddess of vengeance would find a way to make sure the details of Qwella’s crime made it back to Qanmi eq-Sabaal. He wasn’t the kind of man to ignore violence done to his family, and soon enough the herbs she’d crushed into Sabeq’s drink would become a noose around her neck.
But of course Hima would look for a way out. She saw devotion to the goddess as a prison sentence, not an escape. She didn’t understand that this was Qwella’s choice, one she was more certain of every morning since she’d made it.
Hima tore her gaze away, frowning at the wall. “But Qalita? Of all the gods. We could have found another way to stop the betrothal. It didn’t have to be the Quiet Lady.”
So many whispered of Qalita and witchcraft in the same breath. Qwella thought about bringing up Aunt Meg’s rented rooms in Qalita’s temple to help defend the goddess, but that connection probably wouldn’t help her cause.
“I never took you for superstitious.” Qwella leaned back, rubbing the fine yellow cotton of her Ajwata dress, a gift from Aurel, between her fingers. She’d wanted, at least, to look colourful when she arrived, for after she stepped inside Qalita’s house, it would be an acolyte’s brown forevermore—at least until she became a full Ashqat, drowned in red.
Hima grunted. She was worried, that was all, but it still rankled Qwella that she’d managed to find a way to make their last moments as sisters about how wrong Qwella’s choice had been.
“I’ve always found comfort in Qalita’s mysteries,” Qwella lied—or was it a lie? Perhaps, deep in her bones, she’d always known this was her path to walk.
“A goddess of death. That temple’s a tomb.”
Qwella twisted a black bead from the neckline of her dress back and forth on its short string. “So was marriage to Qanmi. Worse than. A sarcophagus to be buried alive in.”
“Aurelius would have—”
“Would have what? He didn’t come to say goodbye.”
Hima held up her palms in surrender. “Were you expecting me to defend him? Abaal knows where he is.”
“And Ashtaroth.” Qwella swallowed. She hadn’t expected her little brother to stand up for her as he had at court yesterday. She’d have liked to thank him, to have shared a kind word with him about his wife-to-be. He looked so frail lately, sickly and thin and always distracted, like his mind was somewhere else.
“And Father, and Samelqo, and Shaqarbas, and Shaqarbas’s many many sons and daughters—you didn’t want fanfare, so you have me. Satisfied?”
Qwella cracked a smile, and seemingly in spite of herself, Hima smiled back. A rare little laugh escaped Hima’s mouth.
“I love you, Hima.” Tears welled in Qwella’s eyes. The roiling in her stomach intensified.
Hima scowled, but didn’t meet Qwella’s gaze, as if hiding tears of her own. “Yes. Well, you don’t have to cry about it, do you? I love you too, but it’s not like you’re being sent away to Ledan. I could visit.”
Qwella wiped her tears away with her sleeve. “Aren’t you afraid to step inside the Quiet Lady’s house?”
The litter stopped, and Qwella’s heart with it. The longer it didn’t move, the clammier her skin seemed to grow. They’d arrived.
Too soon, it was too soon.
“Do I look afraid?” Hima asked. “I’m not afraid of anything. The heq-Damirat can’t afford to be.”
Sometimes Qwella wondered if Hima thought herself the most important person in the city. Maybe she was. There was some truth to what people said about Father—that he was only a figurehead for Hima’s ambition. “Everyone’s afraid of something.”
“Then I’m afraid Aurel’s going to contract some kind of genital parasite, how about that?”
“That’s not a fear, that’s a certainty,” Qwella joked, though there was at least a grain of honesty in it.
The slaves started to lower the litter. Qwella gripped the handrests to either side of her.
“Well, we’re here.” Hima’s tone was unemotional.
“Aren’t you coming with me?”
“You need your hand held, do you? Are we children again? I’d have thought at twenty-eight you’d have outgrown that.”
Time for a new life, and Qwella wasn’t as ready for it as she’d thought. She wasn’t ready to let go of her big sister’s hand, to lose Aurelius’s warm smiles, or Ashtaroth’s dreadful poems. She’d see them, but it would never be the same.
“Hima.” Qwella locked her gaze on her sister’s. What would Himalit do without Qwella around to remind her to be nice?
Hima snapped her gaze away. “If you run into trouble, you know where to find me.”
“With your ships?” Qwella smiled. “Or sparring at the palace?”
“Working at the palace. Someone has to lead.”
“I never said the sparring would be with swords.” Hima had proved herself quite capable of verbally destroying even big old Shaqarbas.
“Qwella et-Moniqa?” came the familiar croak of Daana et-Titrit from outside. Not just Daana et-Titrit, but Qwella’s heq-Ashqat.
“It’s time,” Hima said. “Scat.”
Qwella wobbled as she stepped from the litter, clutching her skirt to keep it from dragging in the dirt. She watched Hima the whole time, until the curtains at last fell back into place, severing the cord between them.
“Up!” Hima snapped her fingers—a crack of sound like a whip. The slaves hoisted the litter into the air to begin the slow journey uphill.
“Qwella,” Daana repeated, firm but not unkind.
Qwella faced her. “Yes, Sese?” Her voice trembled.
The heq-Ashqat stood on the lowest of the temple steps, flanked by three acolytes in plain brown robes. The young women behind Daana clasped their hennaed hands in front of them, heads bowed. Each was more beautiful than the last, but none of them was the woman Qwella had glimpsed in the riad the night of Sabeq’s funeral, the one who’d first sparked in Qwella’s heart the notion of entering Qalita’s service.
Daana gestured behind her at the trio of acolytes. “Your sisters will find you suitable attire and show you to the dormitory. Dansila?”
The loveliest of the acolytes stepped daintily onto the next step. Her poise made her ugly garment look a wealthy woman’s gown. She smiled the sweetest smile Qwella had ever seen, her deep brown eyes catching the light. She was slim but curvaceous, with pale brown skin, and long, gently curling brown hair. The kind expression seemed to draw Qwella’s worries from her blood.
Qwella fumbled a smile and dipped her head slightly in greeting. Dansila didn’t reciprocate, though she’d been staring straight at Qwella the whole time.
“Follow me.” Dansila turned crisply on her heel and walked up the stairs. Her two companions fell wordlessly into file before her, to be swallowed up by the darkened mouth of the temple entrance.
Qwella spared a glance back at Daana, but the heq-Ashqat was still watching the street. There was nothing of interest that Qwella could see.
“Psst,” someone hissed from the entrance to the temple.
Why was Daana simply standing out here? Shouldn’t someone help her back inside? Where were the two acolytes who’d assisted her the first time?
“Psst.” Dansila was a rude one. It must fall to Qwella to demonstrate civility.
Qwella tore away from the heq-Ashqat and started up the steps after the others. Dansila had fallen back, but as soon as she saw Qwella following, she slipped into the shade after her sisters, expression sour.
Thick clouds of frankincense and that pungent, intoxicating perfume she’d smelled before enveloped her as she stepped inside Qalita’s smoky, shadowed hall. Dust motes spiraled in the air, revealed by the light of the flickering wall sconces and braziers. It was busier than when Qwella had undergone her initiation, but still not as busy as Tanata’s temple. Hooded acolytes tiptoed beside the public statue of Qalita that stood just inside the heiqal, taking payments from the small line of supplicants waiting to make their offerings to the goddess.
Hima might have been right to be afraid. People, women mostly, came to Qalita for curses, spells, and vengeance. No mother goddess here, no sacred whore. Qalita’s demesne was that of secret, hidden things—the form before the shadow, the whisper in the night. No wonder that Aunt Meg had found solace here.
“Are you coming?” asked Dansila, one hand resting on her shapely hip. Her sisters stood further back, eyes wide like startled animals.
“Yes,” Qwella said, daring a glance at Qalita’s triple-faced statue as she hurried past, at the sprig of hemlock in one hand and the scorpion in the open palm of the other.
A serpent or a scorpion bite.
Dansila guided Qwella through an unassuming door on the left side of the wall of the heiqal, then down a series of circuitous passages and a cramped set of barely-lit stairs.
Qwella nearly tripped at the base of the steps, catching herself on the wall. Why did Dansila have to hurry so? Were her duties so important that she felt it necessary to break Qwella’s neck in her haste? The acolytes didn’t even stop to wait for her, disappearing through a square arch.
When Qwella next saw Daana, she’d complain. This was no way to treat a daughter of the Semassenqa, even one who’d given up that title.
She pushed herself from the wall, clenching her hands, and stomped into what turned out to be a rectangular room filled with simple beds. The ceiling was low, the light dim. Hima hadn’t been wrong when she’d compared Qalita’s halls to a tomb.
Beds, underground, buried like the Hamatri beneath the palace.
“Is this the dormitory?” Qwella asked, hoping these might yet prove the quarters of the temple slaves.
Dansila’s companions tittered, as she smiled sarcastically. “No, it’s the dining hall.”
Qwella grit her teeth, vowing patience. “Thank you. And my bed?” She wouldn’t show her disappointment in front of these clucking hens.
Dansila gestured to her friends, who strutted ahead of her, before falling into step. Qwella followed, burning holes in Dansila’s back with her eyes as they passed rows upon rows of neatly made beds.
“What are your names?” Qwella asked. Perhaps peace could still be made, if Qwella opened herself up to it, though what she’d done to earn the women’s ire in the first place was a mystery.
“Sadat,” said one, curt, with a hint of spite.
“Elishah,” echoed the second.
It should have been Dansila et-Afqat. Dansila, daughter of no one. They were supposed to abandon their names when they joined the temple.
Asking about it would likely only upset Dansila more, so Qwella grasped for the only other point of commonality she could think of: their heq-Ashqat. “Daana stayed on the steps. Does she have business in the Shedi-Qalana?”
Dansila, Sadat, and Elishah stopped at the last bed at the very end of the row. There was quite a bit of space between the final two beds and the rest. At least Qwella would have some semblance of privacy, though the mattress itself looked lumpy and cramped.
“Daana grows closer to Qalita every day,” Dansila explained. “She barely knows who she is anymore, let alone where. Best to leave her be.”
If Daana was truly as forgetful as Dansila claimed, it seemed better that she be cared for, and Qwella wasn’t sure she trusted Dansila’s assessment anyway. Daana was old, yes, but she’d seemed in her right mind when Qwella had joined the temple. Then again, the last of her second cousins had died flip-flopping between senility and sensibility.
Sadat gazed admiringly at Dansila. “If Sila makes Ashqat before Daana dies, she might be heq-Ashqat.”
There it was. Dansila had a stake in Daana’s feebleness. Qwella wrinkled her nose in distaste. It was a rude thing to say, especially so plainly. And it already felt like Qwella had known Dansila long enough to know she’d make a hideous heq-Ashqat.
“Of course, we all hope Daana lives for many more years,” Dansila said, a smile in her voice that hinted the opposite.
Qwella turned back to the bed to avoid looking at the three women. She’d never wanted to hit someone so badly. Perhaps she was turning into Hima.
The bed was laid already, several plain, brown robes neatly folded at its foot. Qwella would have to change soon. What would happen to her fine dress when she did? Would they burn it? She fiddled idly with one of the beads. Aurel had commissioned this one for her on her last birthday. She’d already sold all the gifts Sabeq had given her. Everything else had gone to Qanmi, though hopefully Titrit and Qorban saw some of it.
Footsteps echoed from the other end of the room.
Another acolyte was walking down the corridor of beds, broad-shouldered, tall and stocky. Her bold stride was familiar. Qwella’s hairs stood on end. Was it the acolyte from the riad? That woman’s stare had been like a vortex pulling her down amidst the fruit trees and flowers. She’d drawn Qwella here half on her own, and Qwella would thank her, if she could.
Dansila grasped Qwella’s wrist. She tugged insistently until Qwella was forced to look at her. “We must remake your tattoos.”
Her expression was eerily friendly in that false way Qwella recognized well from Qanmi’s household. She pulled Qwella’s arm, and Qwella allowed herself to be tugged out a small door at the back of the room, away from the woman that had so captured her attention.
“And remove your face paint,” Elishah said from behind as they hurried up some more stairs and back into the spiderweb of tunnels that made up the temple proper. “We’re forbidden such adornments.”
Qwella smiled wryly. Dansila wore enough kohl and yellow blush that she might have been an Ashqat of Ashtet.
“It’s such a maze,” Qwella remarked, as they turned yet another corner.
“You must be used to that,” Dansila snapped. “From where you come from.”
“You’ve been to the palace?” asked Qwella.
“Of course I have. The semassenqa have need of funerals the same as anyone else. Besides, my father wasn’t no one. He often visits friends inside the palace complex.”
“Oh?” Qwella struggled not to betray her shock. Though she supposed that explained why Dansila behaved the way she did, and why she’d refused to call herself et-afqat. “What’s his name?”
“Fasil eq-Himal,” Dansila said, holding her head a little higher as they entered a wide room filled with round bathing pools. Stones circled the baths, and towels were laid on shelves about the room, alongside fresh robes.
“I believe I’ve heard the name,” Qwella lied politely, but Dansila said nothing.
There were so many minor nobles amongst the Semassenqa—minor Ashenqa, members of the tamqaru—Qemassen’s wealthy merchant class. Qwella had never had the head to remember so many names, and no desire to.
They stopped beside one of the pools.
Qwella had forgotten her robes—well, Dansila had dragged her along before she could bring them. It wasn’t Qwella’s fault.
Sadat and Elishah hovered around her shoulders, reaching suddenly for Qwella’s dress, to untuck the intricately wrapped fabric from her body. They pulled, rough, no care for the delicacy of the weave.
Qwella hugged her arms to her chest protectively.
Elishah glared. “You can’t keep it.”
“It’s from my brother,” Qwella pleaded. “It’s precious to me.”
“Then you were a fool to bring it, little princess.” Dansila stepped in front of her and looked Qwella straight in the eyes as she gripped the neckline with both hands and ripped.
“She’s hardly little.” Elishah giggled. Qwella’s cheeks flushed.
Beads rolled across the stone floor. Qwella let go to slap Dansila away, but that only gave Elishah and Sadat room to pin back her arms. Qwella thrashed at their pinching hands, their digging fingers, but they held tight.
It was like before Sabé had died.
At first she couldn’t move, turned to stone like when he’d raised a hand to strike her, but then she bucked in a panic, throwing back her head, butting one of the two women in the nose.
“Fuck! Ow!” cried Sadat. One set of hands loosened from Qwella’s, but Qwella wasn’t in control of herself enough to run. Her hands were shaking like the wheels of a cart on a bumpy road, like they had when Sabé had been in one of his dark moods.
Someone kicked Qwella’s knees and she stumbled closer to the pool. Elishah grabbed her arms again. “Bitch.”
Dansila tore the fabric right down the middle, and it fell to Qwella’s feet, leaving her naked. Dansila smiled sweetly. Elishah was still holding her. She had no way to cover herself.
She struggled anyway, though it brought her closer to the pool. “How dare you! I’m Eshmunen’s daughter. I’m Sabeq eq-Sabaal’s widow. I’m—” Her lip trembled. She couldn’t suck back her tears.
Dansila pressed herself close against Qwella, so they stood breath-to-breath. “Nothing. You’re nothing here.”
“I’m Moniqa’s daughter,” Qwella said, remembering Hima’s words of a few weeks ago.
Dansila sniffed. “A foreign bitch.” She bent down, grabbing Qwella’s dress and bundling it up in her arms.
“How dare you,” Qwella whispered. A tear slipped down her cheek. “Daana will hear of this.”
“She’s senile as old Samelqo.”
That was a lie—and with Daana to turn to, Qwella wasn’t alone anymore. Qwella choked back a sob, standing fast. She’d suffered worse at Sabé’s hands. She’d suffered and she’d waited and she’d watched him writhe on the floor of his house at her very feet. This woman—this girl—was nothing. She was at least five year’s Qwella’s junior, with an inflated idea of her own importance. If Qwella could bring a beast of a man like Sabeq low, she should be able to handle this sprig of a girl.
Dansila must have seen the conviction in Qwella’s eyes and taken fright, for she took a step back, face falling in shadow. Qwella wrenched herself free of Elishah and stepped away from the edge of the pool. Sadat was sniffling behind her still.
“I’ll need a robe,” Qwella said plainly, as her tears dried against her skin.
“On the hooks against that wall.” Dansila waved at a row of garments hanging a few feet from the first of the tubs, but Qwella remained where she was, and turned to Elishah and Sadat.
Sadat was hunched over, one hand pressed beneath her bloody nose. She and Elishah exchanged glances, then looked to Dansila as though neither was capable of making a decision on their own.
Qwella watched Dansila carefully. The flickering firelight from the sconces seemed to mirror the hesitation on her face.
Qwella took another step toward her, throwing her weight behind it, and the pretty acolyte jumped, tossing the dress down on the stones.
The lapping of the water in the hypocausts beneath the floor echoed in the large room.
“What’s happening in here? Dansila?” came a deep—almost masculine—voice from behind them.
If Dansila had been startled before, she was practically shaking now, and Sadat and Elishah with her. Qwella turned along with them to bow to their heq-Ashqat.
Daana et-Titrit was a spectre standing in the tunnel entrance.
The broad-shouldered acolyte stood next to her—obviously the one who’d spoken. Qwella tensed at the sight of her—she really was a large woman up close, and intimidating with that dark glower on her face. She must be one of those women who’d chosen to be so, odd as that choice seemed.
“N-Nothing, Sese,” Dansila fumbled. “We—”
“They were helping me disrobe,” Qwella offered, letting Dansila know with a glance that she might not have been so gracious.
“Exactly,” said Dansila. “Her dress tore, and—”
Daana’s wrinkled cheek twitched, her lips drawn in a scowl. “That will be all. Dansila. Sadat, Elishah—you three return to your duties.”
“Yes, Sese,” the women said in unison.
They left, and Qwella’s courage with them. She was acutely aware of the broad-shouldered acolyte watching her. She re-folded her arms to cover her breasts, then bent down to pull the remains of her dress against her stomach.
“This is Eshant et-Afqat,” Daana said, taking no notice of Qwella’s embarrassment. “She will help you from now on. Please look to her for guidance with your duties.”
“Thank you, Sese,” Qwella mumbled.
Daana nodded her head, her glazed eyes unfocused, chin bobbing as she turned to leave. It seemed someone should escort her, but Eshant made no move to.
“You need a robe,” Eshant said obviously. “And we should wash you before re-applying your tattoos.”
Qwella flushed, furrowing her brow at Eshant as the woman retrieved a garment from the wall. “That is why I was brought here.”
“If I know Dansila, you were brought here for a dressing down.” Eshant shrugged as she approached, and held out the robe. “Here.”
Qwella snatched it quick as she could, to avoid revealing her nakedness again. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” Eshant’s face was square and plain, her straight black hair cut in a messy, chin-length style. Qwella shouldn’t have felt embarrassed in front of her, yet her heartbeat had quickened as their fingers had touched.
The thrill of the acolyte’s hand on hers was too much. Qwella took a step back and started to dress, twisting Aurel’s torn gift into clumsy shapes to create some privacy. She was supposed to wash, but right now all she wanted was to cover herself and then run back along the Shedi-Qalana to Hima’s litter.
“Would you care for assistance?” Eshant asked, smiling. “Or did you prefer to play at acrobat?”
“Acrobat,” Qwella sniffed, finally hauling the robe over her head. She glared at Eshant, doing her best to mimic the terrifying statue of Seteq that stood in the Shedi. She hoped her eyes looked as red and looming as his painted ones.
Eshant held up her palms. “I’m sorry. It’s just—you looked so funny. Not funny, I mean, not you, but the way you were—oh, never mind.”
Was it Qwella’s imagination, or was Eshant flustered? There was a slight blush to her sandy brown cheeks.
“It’s fine. I understand.” Qwella stepped past Eshant, ready to leave, and Eshant snatched her wrist, stopping her.
Done with being grabbed, Qwella snatched it back. She turned to confront her.
Eshant was holding out Qwella’s ruined dress. “You forgot this.”
Qwella hesitated. She stared at the shining black beads, the proud, rich colours. She locked eyes with Eshant. “I was told we couldn’t keep such things.”
That warm smile again. It reminded Qwella of Dashel. “Who’s going to know?” Eshant asked. She thrust it forward. “Take it.”
Qwella itched to hug it close, to have some piece of her family with her in this place of dark corridors and labyrinthine passages. She’d sworn to give up the outside world. She’d sworn before the goddess Qalita that the temple sisters were her family, Qalita’s house her home. “I can’t wear it,” she said.
“No, but you can hide it.”
She could hide it. She could fold it beneath her mattress like talisman, the love of her little brother reaching out to protect her all the way down here, buried beneath the earth. She reached for it, but stopped.
Her stomach sunk as the words she’d spoken into Qalita’s mouth returned to her. She could all but feel the oddly cold mud of the inner sanctum on her knees, the dark water welling between her toes.
She’d made a promise to the goddess. Rejecting her family meant freedom from Qanmi, from Sabeq. It also meant cutting her ties with Aurel, Hima, and Ashtaroth. She couldn’t have one without the other. You couldn’t choose only one of the goddess’s faces—you had to accept all three. The herb that healed was the same one that poisoned.
“I’m a bride of Qalita now. My robe is all I need, my tattoos the only finery.” Qwella closed Eshant’s hand around the dress, pushing it away. “Burn it.”