Chapter 05,  Chapter Section

Chapter 5: III: Qwella

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Chapter 5: Mazna

Section III

Qwella – Qemassen: The Temple of Qalita

The only light in this part of Qalita’s temple was that of the dying brazier Qwella was struggling to tend, and the glow from Eshant’s lantern as Qwella’s fellow acolyte scrubbed the floor. The small square room was sequestered within the labyrinth at the centre of the heiqal, its purpose as opaque as the blackness that clung to its corners.

Qwella shoveled the ash collected in the base of the brazier so she could sweep it to the edge and clean the bottom, but it kept tumbling back into the middle and choking the flame. What had been a healthy fire had shrunk to the size of the pomegranates embossed on the brazier’s sides.

Qwella sucked her lip as she drew a smaller pile of ash toward the curved edge.

Concentrate. Concentrate. If she moved slowly, agonizingly slowly, she just might be able to do this. Then she could build the fire up again.

How had her slaves made this look so effortless?

From the corridor to Qwella’s left someone giggled. She tensed, an image of Dansila and her followers materializing before her eyes. When she looked though, it was only two strangers. Qwella kept her hand steady as she spied on them from her spot on the floor.

Two women clasped hands, one of them pushing the other backwards against the wall. Was she going to hit her?

Qwella tensed, but then the woman doing the pushing leaned forward and planted a kiss on the other’s cheek. The second woman leaned into it, arching her back against the wall, brushing her cheek against the first woman’s face. Their lips found each other’s, their hands slipping from each other’s fingers and around their waists, beneath their robes, toward—

The pile of ash collected by Qwella’s brush whumphed onto what remained of the fire, smothering it.

“Ah!” Qwella gasped as darkness enveloped her.

The two women in the hall hastened away, their sandals whispering against the stones.

Across the hall, Eshant snickered, not for the first time since she and Qwella had begun the evening chores. Qwella pursed her lips. Eshant might have rescued Qwella from Dansila’s taunting, but that didn’t make her a friend.

The pit of Qwella’s stomach churned as she turned to watch Eshant, who crouched in the opposite corner. No, she wasn’t a friend, but she was . . . something. Seeing Eshant in the riad had inspired Qwella to join the temple in the first place, and she’d been gentle and kind as she’d instructed Qwella.

But what did Qwella know of her? How much of herself had Eshant shared? Nothing.

Qwella rubbed her sore, tired eyes, exhausted by the endless parade of menial tasks Daana had saddled her with. Qwella had come here because she’d thought she belonged here, because she’d thought to find sisterhood, because Qalita was the goddess of secrets and Qwella had hoped to be indoctrinated in her sacred mysteries.

She hadn’t come to clean wine stains, breathe dust, or cake ash beneath her fingernails as she busied herself with duties fit for slaves.

And where was her sisterhood? The other women—save Dansila—were kind enough, but all they did was gossip about this or that Ashqat, their worries and concerns worded in a coded shorthand she lacked the vocabulary for, their jokes dependent on familiarity with the convoluted history of the aforementioned gossip. Qwella had never been as social as she should have at the palace, but at least she’d understood what people were saying.

She dumped the shovel and brush into the brazier, letting them clatter against the brass, and marched to the opposite corner of the room, where Eshant was scrubbing.

“You were laughing.” Qwella faltered at Eshant’s dimpled smile, an expression that found its way to her eyes.

“I’m sorry.” Eshant laid down her damp cloth, still smiling. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Qwella drew herself up. “You shouldn’t laugh.”

“It really didn’t mean anything. All the women who come here struggle at first. Especially since so many come from good houses. Didn’t you know that?” Her tone was free of condescension, but Qwella was unimpressed. Why such niceness? It made Qwella feel rude when she hadn’t meant to be.

“I did know that,” said Qwella. “Why else would I have come?”

Eshant held up her hands. “I’m sorry. It was only a question.”

“You know who I was, don’t you?”

“You mean before you came here?” asked Eshant. “The woman from the palace, right? The one at the window? I saw you watching us the night we prayed for that merchant.”

That merchant. The girl at the window. Was that all Qwella and Sabeq were to these people? Still, Qwella shivered, remembering the look Eshant had cast her from the riad, the feel of Eshant’s fingers brushing her own when Eshant had handed back the torn dress Dansila had ruined.

“Qwella et-Moniqa,” Qwella said, then bit her lip. She was Qwella et-Afqat now, so why did it matter so much that Eshant know the difference? That Qwella impress her?

“The king’s Moniqa?” Eshant’s already wide eyes widened. “You’re the one who refused Qanmi eq-Sabaal.”

Qwella nodded, blushing. Had news of her choice truly reached all the way down here? Perhaps Qwella had been the source of last week’s gossip. Still, it was nice to have a proper conversation with someone.

The light from the lantern flickered across Eshant’s brown hair, her warm skin. Her lips.

Qwella tore her gaze away. “Who were you? Really, I mean.”

Eshant coughed, covering her mouth with her fist. She gestured vaguely at the open expanse of the hall, its dusty stone walls; the geometry of its patterned ceiling; and the triangular tiles interlocking beneath their feet.

It might have been frightening, should have been, yet Qwella felt only safety, a sense of earthy majesty. She was in Qalita’s abode in earnest, however boring and ordinary the tasks she’d been set.

“It’s the incense,” Eshant explained. “It makes me cough. That and the dust; it just peels off the walls.”

Qwella smiled politely. Peels probably wasn’t the appropriate word.

“I’m not anyone really,” Eshant continued. “A second daughter, unlikely to ever attract a husband. My father saw an opportunity and took it.”

So Eshant had been sold to the temple. “What about your mother?

“She died.” The words carried the neutrality of one who’d grown up motherless, who’d never met the woman, and might even blame her for the inconvenience of her death. Qwella had heard that indifference before, from Ashtaroth. It had frightened her, the realization that Moniqa, a name so full of meaning for the rest of them, could mean so little to him. She bent down, suddenly afraid to look Eshant in the eyes. She found the edges of the tile pattern with her finger, dragging her finger along the rim.

Eshant sat down beside her, dropping her cloth into the metal bucket with a splash.

“You must know all about my mother.” Qwella’s finger darted faster along the lines as she spoke, weaving in and out, recreating the shapes in front of her. They inevitably held some significance. Perhaps tomorrow someone would instruct her as to their meaning, but it was far more likely she’d be shown how to clear the gutters.

What would Moniqa think, to see her daughter scrubbing floors and laundering clothes beside a nobody? Worse, Qwella was a nobody too. Et-Afqat, a lonely name. A rebuke of everything that Moniqa had given her, and everything Qwella had promised to be by virtue of her status. Had she made a mistake?

Tears brimmed at her eyes.

“I do know about your mother.” Eshant laid her hand atop Qwella’s and she looked up, glaring past tears. She shouldn’t cry so often or so much. Hima wouldn’t cry.

When Qwella spoke, her own words surprised her. “Do you know, she wanted them to burn me instead of my brother? I wasn’t supposed to find out, but Sabé told me. All the Semassenqa know. She was my mother and she wanted me to die.”

Eshant’s mouth was a flat line, though her dimpled cheeks quaked. “I’m sure it wasn’t like that.”

“It was exactly like that,” Qwella insisted. “And Sabé—”

Eshant stroked Qwella’s hand. Her touch was so gentle, sending a thrill across Qwella’s skin. “What about Sabeq?” Eshant asked.

“I was a terrible wife.” Qwella’s shoulders shook. “He was lying there on the floor. His eyes―he didn’t look like a person anymore.”

Eshant squeezed Qwella’s hand, but Eshant’s expression had hardened. Qwella tried to push her away. She’d never been married. She couldn’t possibly understand. Eshant released her, expression softening.

Qwella wiped away her tears. “I’m supposed to be a grown woman. I don’t feel grown.”

“Qalita will help you with that,” said Eshant.

“Did she help you?” And would Eshant tell her if she had? It was one thing for Qwella to confide in her fellow acolyte, but perhaps Eshant didn’t feel the same connection between them. Perhaps the squeeze of her hand had been only pity.

The lantern light was beginning to dim. Eshant reached for it and refilled the well. “She helped me find my purpose.” She looked up, smiling. It was a pretty smile, and Qwella returned it.

“Most people would say we were strange,” said Qwella, “wanting to serve a goddess of death. One of my slaves asked me why I didn’t go to Ashtet.”

Eshant chuckled. “You had bold slaves.”

Qwella shrugged. “They’ve grown bold of late. Perhaps it’s because of me.”

“Why didn’t you go to Ashtet?”

It seemed obvious to Qwella, and she had the feeling Eshant thought so too and merely wanted her assumptions confirmed, as though the question were a riddle designed to decipher Qwella’s character.

She reached for the cloth Eshant had dropped in its bucket. She wrung it out before wetting the stones in front of her. “Because we live in a city of death, because all I’ve ever known were Molot’s streets and Molot’s gifts. My father wears the crown of Abaal, but he sacrifices to Molot. It’s Molot who took my mother and my sister, so why not serve his bride when it’s clear Tanata and Ashtet don’t hear my prayers?”

Perhaps Qwella had misjudged her, for Eshant stared at the floor, a shadow seeming to pass across her face. “I know you’re frustrated,” she said. “You wanted something more than what you’ve found here—I see it in your eyes.”

Qwella opened her mouth to refute the statement, but the words didn’t come. She’d wanted closeness with her sisters, so why lie? Instead she nodded. “I thought I’d learn something from being here. I thought Qalita’s secrets would open up for me, like a night flower blossoming under the moon. I thought everything would make sense after that—my husband’s death, my sister’s, my mother’s. The only secrets I’ve learned are what direction to mop in, and which incense best disguises the smell of . . . bodily excretions.”

Eshant’s warm, rough hand took Qwella’s again, helping her stand. Qwella didn’t fight her, dropping the cloth on the ground. Eshant picked up the lantern and started toward the arch that led back into the maze of corridors at the centre of the temple, tugging Qwella gently alongside her.

“Where are we going?” Qwella asked, stepping after Eshant into shadow.

“You said Qalita was the wife of the god of death. She’s much more than that. She’s a goddess of magic too, and women, and beautiful things.”

“I know all that,” said Qwella. “The heq-Ashqen himself was my tutor before—” She didn’t finish the thought. “And Daana explained everything to me anyway. I spoke my secret into the mouth of the goddess like every woman here.”

What secret had Eshant spoken into the mouth of Qalita’s statue? As they turned a corner, Qwella scrutinized the woman’s squarish face, the slope of her shoulders, as if the nature of what she’d told the goddess could be read somehow in her flesh.

But only enthusiasm and excitement were etched on Eshant’s skin. Her eyes danced with firelight as she led Qwella this way and that. Her too-small, too-thin lips weren’t beautiful, but when she laughed, the expression embossed itself in Qwella’s skin.

What would it be like to reach out for Eshant’s lips, her skin, her shoulders? For a moment, Qwella could feel the velvety smoothness of Eshant’s smile beneath her fingertips.

The two women kissing in the corridor had touched each other like that, a strange affection. Aurelius sometimes lay with other men, yet somehow it had never occurred to Qwella that women might . . . that she might . . . .

Eshant led Qwella down the steps toward the dormitory, fingers still tight about Qwella’s, as though she might run if Eshant didn’t keep hold of her. Qwella wouldn’t have run.

The corridors here had much lower ceilings than the hall, the walls closing in tight. The light from the lantern barely touched the darkness that nipped at her toes. Qwella was forced to press in close against Eshant, and at first she tried to suck in her belly to stop from touching the other woman, but gradually she relaxed, enjoying the brush of Eshant’s robe against hers, the comfort of Eshant’s closeness.

“Where are we going?” Qwella asked again, as they passed the door to Qalita’s sanctum with its pomegranate tree and statue.

This was the deepest Qwella had ever been. The deepest she could have imagined. But the next corner revealed a steep set of narrow stairs that led down into a dense blackness. After only ten stairs, the floor gave out, as though the steps had crumbled long ago. Qwella steadied herself on the wall, sucking in a sharp breath and getting a mouthful of dust for her trouble. She tightened her grip on Eshant, fighting the desire to clutch Eshant’s robe in her other hand.

“I can’t see,” Qwella protested, more panic than she liked seeping into her voice.

“It’s not too far,” said Eshant. “I promise.” She paused, but it was only to cough, then sneeze. “Do you trust me?”

Qwella hardly knew her, but Eshant’s clasp was tender, her voice calm and reassuring. “Yes,” she squeaked. Then louder: “Yes.”

Wherever Eshant was taking her, Qwella wanted to see what it was.

The tunnel tilted downwards, further and further beneath the city. The further they went, the hotter it grew, till sweat beaded on Qwella’s skin, and her palm grew slick against Eshant’s. It was humid as well, the walls damp. Water dripped somewhere next to her, as though another passageway lay on the opposite side of the wall. She pressed her free hand against it, fingernails catching the rough edges of the stonework, collecting sand as she was dragged ever downward. The stone seemed to vibrate, and if she listened closely, she could hear a dull thrumming in the distance, like thunder or drums, or the legs of a pack of animals beating the earth.

Qalita’s hounds.

Qwella forced a cough, like it might push out the heat that crowded her lungs. Eshant was coughing too, but the noise was muffled by the now deafening rumbling to either side of her. The unceasing hammering seemed to come both from in front of them, emanating from the bottom of the steep incline, and from beyond the walls framing their path.

The ground quaked beneath Qwella’s feet.

She ripped her hand from Eshant’s, falling back on the ground. Her tailbone ached and she could feel scuffs on her palms. “I’m not going any further!” Qwella stood, brushing crusted dirt from her palms onto her robes. She couldn’t see anything anymore except the small circle of light that framed Eshant.

“We’re almost there,” Eshant pleaded.

Qwella turned to peer at the path behind her, but it lay in darkness, while an aura of orange light lit Eshant’s coaxing face. She sucked in a breath.

She’d stood up to Sabeq, to her father, to Dansila. She would be tall and strong and bold now. She was confident. She didn’t flee at the sight of shadows, or the feel of tiny tremors at her feet. “Could you tell me where we’re going?”

“Look closely,” Eshant said, playful. “You’ll see them soon.”

Qwella was about to protest that she couldn’t see anything at all, when Eshant flashed the lantern at an angle, revealing depressions on the walls just ahead of them.

Slots for—

“For candles,” Qwella said aloud, fascinated by the rectangular holes. “Why didn’t they carve some further up?”

Either Eshant didn’t hear, or chose to ignore the question. She pressed on silently, until Qwella stopped Eshant with a tug.

There was a door to her right. At least, it looked like a door. The sides were sealed, its front caked in dust. A metal relief of a serpent eating its own tail decorated the door’s centre. When Eshant lifted her lantern, the light illuminated the green patina of the metal.

“Leven and Pepet,” said Qwella. The twin snake gods seemed out of place here. “Why are they in Qalita’s temple?”

Eshant shook her head. “I don’t know, but it’s not the only door. Look.” Lantern-light splashed across the wall ahead, revealing more doors, each distinguished by its own carving.

Qwella squeezed past Eshant. She ran her fingers over the next relief—a rearing Inda mare. “Ashtet.”

She moved on to another, and another—every door bearing the likeness or symbols of a different god.

“Qalita’s is the last one we can reach,” said Eshant from behind her. She followed slowly, just enough to light Qwella’s way, and their view of the doors.

Qwella faced her. “You mean there are more?”

Eshant smiled. “Keep walking.”

Qwella obeyed, letting her fingers trail across the wall till she felt smooth metal beneath their tips. She stepped back, firelight bobbing as the lantern swung gently with Eshant’s descending steps. Red and orange flickered over Qalita’s triple face. Her scorpion sat obediently in her lap, hemlock and olive branch in either hand.

The smoothness beneath Qwella’s hand had been the goddess’s human face rubbed flat and featureless, as though it had been stroked repeatedly for good luck. Many of the statues in Qemassen were worn in such a way, but it seemed a lot of trouble for someone to come down here.

Eshant raised the lantern up high, casting Qalita back in darkness, but revealing the details of the path beyond. A heap of collapsed tunnel barred the rest of the path. Perhaps it was the work of that terrible earthquake last year.

What further secrets lay beyond the rubble, forever out of reach?

“The only one left is Molot,” said Eshant. “I’ve always thought his door must lie beyond here.”

Always? How long had Eshant been an acolyte of Qalita?

Qwella turned to Eshant. The woman’s smile was uneasy, as though concealing fear, but it wasn’t entirely like that either. She knew fear intimately from the faces of her husband’s slaves. Whatever troubled Eshant was something more nebulous.

“Did you bring me here to scare me?” Qwella asked, though she herself wasn’t afraid at all, only curious. And warm, she felt warm down here, with her fellow acolyte.

Eshant snapped her attention away from the cut-off passage, shaking her head. She walked up to Qwella and pressed her thumb against Qalita’s face. “No, I brought you here for this.”

Click.

Qwella jumped as the goddess’s metal face depressed.

Eshant stepped back against the wall and Qwella grabbed her hand again, squeezing Eshant’s palm as the door slid inward, leaving a space for entry to either side of it. A brilliant light shone from either side of the stone, blinding Qwella briefly, until her eyes adjusted.

The light radiating from the room was strong enough to bathe the wall immediately outside the door in white light. Under the evenness of the glow, the walls that had been warm and haunting looked cool and mundane.

Eshant laid the lantern down. “Go on. It’s safe.”

Qwella smiled, but as soon as she let go of Eshant’s hand, her skin prickled with fear and anticipation. She walked toward the door all the same, breathing easier at the sound of Eshant’s footsteps behind her.

When she stepped to the right of Qalita’s relief and inside the chamber beyond, her lips parted in wonder.

The room was carpeted with flowers. The heady perfume of the blossoms flooded her nostrils, so intense it was like she could taste them. Bright light glanced off the petals, off their myriad hues. Small trees laden with dark berries and purple flowers lined the back walls, their branches reaching like arms toward a giant mosaic of Qalita, the centrepiece of this strange shrine.

“Where is the light coming from?” Qwella turned around, transfixed by the beauty of it all, but unable to comprehend how such a paradise was possible under all that earth. There were no candles or lanterns, and the ceiling was made of the same stone as the walls of the tunnel they’d just traversed. Despite everything, the room was lit as though by sunlight.

Qwella laughed, overcome.

“I don’t know,” Eshant replied, walking after Qwella, feet crushing tiny blossoms with every step. “I’ve never seen anyone else here. Maybe Qalita meant me to find it. Maybe she wanted me to show it to you.”

Qwella stared at her. “You haven’t told Daana?”

Eshant shook her head, looking past Qwella at the mosaic of Qalita on the back wall. “No, and I’ve never been able to open any of the other doors.”

“But surely someone must have come this way before.” The path had been frightening but straightforward. It didn’t seem like it should take much effort to find the doors. Had her Aunt Meg known about this place? She’d rented rooms at the temple.

“Like I said, no one’s ever been here that I’ve seen. All I know is I found it, and that once I had I didn’t want to tell anyone.” She grinned shyly. “Until you.”

Tears pricked at Qwella’s eyes again, but not from sadness this time. “It’s beautiful.” She paused. “Thank you.”

Eshant’s shoulders relaxed, as though she’d been worried Qwella might say something else. “There’s more.”

Qwella followed Eshant to the head of the room, trying her hardest not to step on too many of the flowers, afraid if she killed them they might not grow back. Compared with the tunnel, the room felt like a palace, its walls and ceiling high and airy.

They stopped before the mosaic, studying the goddess in the quiet of the moment.

Quiet.

“You can’t hear the rumbling in here,” said Qwella. “It’s really magic, isn’t it? The magic of the gods.” She didn’t bother to disguise the awe in her voice.

Eshant pointed up at Qalita’s face, to where some of the tiles were chipped and had fallen away, as though they’d been struck.

“There’s something on the other side,” said Eshant. “The wall sounds hollow when you knock on it, and there’s a hole.” She rapped her hand against it to demonstrate. She blushed. “I tried to hit her face with a rock. I thought it might open the same as the other one.”

Qwella recoiled at the admission, but Eshant’s shame, plain on her friendly face, softened her. She surveyed the cracked stone. “Where’s this hole?”

“Here.” Eshant parted the branches of one of the flowering shrubs, indicating a small round hollow on the wall. It was tiny, but the hole was perfect enough that it had to have been man-made. Qwella bent down, peering through it. At first she couldn’t see anything, but then something shimmered in the darkness, caught by the light shining from the flower room.

She gasped. “There’s something there!”

She stood up again, searching Eshant’s face as though the answers to all her questions might be found there.

“Will you help me open it?” Eshant asked. She looked concerned, as though Qwella could possibly say no after all this.

“Of course I will.” Her skin tingled as though with lightning, as though with delight.

“Good.” Eshant glanced behind them at the door, and the steadily dying lantern-light coming from the tunnel. “We should go back. The way looks straight, but once you make it to level ground these tunnels are like a maze. We wouldn’t find our way in the dark.”

When Qwella stood up, they were awfully close. Eshant’s hair shone honey-gold beneath the strange light. Qwella pursed her lips, listening to the heady sound of Eshant’s breaths, attention pulled against her will to the slope Eshant’s robes on her shoulders, her hips.

She reached out, twining Eshant’s hair in her fingers. It was as soft as she’d imagined it would be.

“Qwella . . . I’m not like other women.” Eshant started, as though to warn her off.

Qwella shushed her with a touch of her fingers to Eshant’s lips. She stood, heart thumping, hands trembling. She summoned her courage and looked Eshant in her eyes. “No,” Qwella said. She pulled her hand away, but leaned in like the woman in the corridor and planted a kiss on Eshant’s lips. “You’re better.”

What was she doing?

Qwella snapped away, hurrying toward the door, to the mysterious, rumbling passage.

“Qwella—wait!” Eshant hurried after her and Qwella stopped just before the door.

Eshant’s fingers found hers and squeezed, reassuring, steady, kind. “We’ll walk together.”

It was night by the time they made it to the dormitory and slunk quietly to their beds. Some of the other women had already woken for the nocturnal observances, but even tucked in her bed Qwella couldn’t fall asleep. Her body itched like it was on fire, and she reached for the warmth between her thighs, dreaming of the scent of flowers, the feel of Eshant’s lips against hers, of secrets.

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