Chapter 06,  Chapter Section

Chapter 6: II: Uta

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Chapter 6: Vistors

Section II

Uta – Qemassen: The Palace

Uta et-Lohit and Samelqo eq-Milqar had been married quietly and stealthily, so that Uta felt half a criminal. She’d suggested that he request permission to leave the tower, but he’d refused, content to wed in his resplendent prison under the stewardship of a fellow Ashqen of Tanata, and with Tanata’s stars looking down on them from the windows that ringed the tower.

No guests had witnessed the ceremony but Madaula. No great fanfare was made of the occasion.

It was now the early hours of the morning. Uta sat alone in Samelqo’s—no, her—bed, still dressed in the fine blue stola her new husband had commissioned for her. The gold bracelets, necklace, and comb—all had been given to her by the heq-Ashqen.

Samelqo was disrobing in his bathing chamber, as though shy that she might look upon his nakedness. Shy, on their wedding night, when in only a short time they were to consummate their marriage.

It was as though Samelqo were ashamed. Certainly, he’d done nothing so far but chastely kiss her cheek, and then only for the purposes of the ritual, as if she displeased him. But if that were true, why marry her at all? No one had demanded that the heq-Ashqen tether himself to a former slave.

Uta stared across the bed at the polished bronze mirror hanging above a table. The skin of her double’s face was like wet paint smeared across a wall. Her glass eye glinted evilly beneath the gleam of the fires in the braziers lighting the room.

Uta wasn’t a woman to covet, only a pauper’s doll dressed in a queen’s costume.

She reached for the patterned sash at her waist and tugged the knot at its centre loose. She cupped her hand against her belly, imagining for the first time in years what it would feel like to grow a child inside her. Her child, and Samelqo’s. Such a thing was dangerous for women of Uta’s age, and conception might prove challenging, but Samelqo was the heq-Ashqen of Tanata. It was his duty to council on issues of fertility and childbirth. He would want a child, and she would give it to him.

How fantastical that so great a lineage would be twined with Uta’s long line of human property. Her parents would have laughed. Either that, or cautioned her to refuse him, for what could a powerful man want with Uta except to abuse her? She wasn’t beautiful or young—except in comparison with her husband. Men like Samelqo could demand whatever girl they desired.

But he wasn’t like that. He never had women brought to his rooms. And there was some connection between them—there always had been. He’d never treated her like a slave, but as a colleague. He accepted her chides with prickly humour and seemed even to enjoy when she fussed about him like a wife.

Water sloshed gently from the bathing chamber, and the shadow of a man’s arm shifted against its wall—smoke-grey on yellow. Samelqo had finished his preparations.

Would he expect her to be naked? Should she loosen her hair from the beautiful braids and knots Madaula had turned into a crown atop her head?

Uta clutched her skirts, crumpling the fabric between her fingers. This was no time for nervousness, and yet in her heart she was giddy as a girl. Samelqo was no Aurelius, but despite his age, desire brewed in her like mint tea in its pot. She’d never touched a man, nor been touched by one, had convinced herself it wasn’t what she wanted, that her own fingers were all the company she needed. Now, those same fingers quaked as she imagined them stroking his cheek, conjuring future ghosts to prepare her to slip her hands beneath his robes.

Her mother’s lantern, resting beneath the mirror where she’d laid it, flickered with orange flame. Its patterns danced on the walls and she thought of her parents again, of the Hamatri, of Zioban.

Her heart knotted tight as her braids. Thoughts of touching the heq-Ashqen were traitorous, not fit for a member of Zioban’s rebellion. What sort of rebel kissed the lips of her master instead of slitting his throat?

Only Samelqo was no longer her master, and Uta was no longer a slave—at least not in name.

“Uta?” Samelqo’s voice rang against the walls, startling her. It was the voice he used at court on those rare occasions he was summoned, not the brittle but familiar tone she’d grown used to.

She pinched her lips closed to stop herself emitting an embarrassing giggle or smiling too much. She clutched her hands before her and twisted round, then at the last moment thought better of such a frumpish pose and pulled the shoulder of her dress down in a clumsy attempt at seduction. “Samelqo.”

His eyebrows were raised almost to the ceiling, as though in incredulity, and rather than being naked as Uta had anticipated—even hoped—he was clothed in one of his finest robes. Geometric patterns in red and green and yellow were embroidered all along his black sleeves, rimmed in gold thread. It seemed unnecessary. He would surely undress himself in a moment. Surely.

And yet, after years in his service, Uta was accustomed to the nuances of Samelqo’s expressions. This incredulity wasn’t surprise at Uta’s divine beauty as she presented herself for the taking.

Samelqo parted his lips briefly, then closed them as though thinking better of whatever he’d been poised to say.

Shame rushed over her like a wave scouring the sand. She tugged her sleeve back into place.

“I had thought,” said Samelqo, and the wave grew colder with every slowly-spoken word, “that we would retire. It has been a long day for the pair of us.”

A long day. As though this were a duty, a chore. As though Uta had merely laboured all afternoon at her scribal duties while Samelqo busied himself with the minutiae of court. As though they hadn’t been wed but two hours ago.

Uta could have crumbled, retreating inside herself as a chastened slave would do. But she didn’t. She met Samelqo’s eyes. “And I had thought you would want to consummate your marriage. If I am not to your liking,” she added, clipped, “then might I suggest a blindfold.”

Samelqo flinched. He walked to the window, staring outside as he poured himself a cup of wine from a decanter. “There’s no need for that, Uta. I will not be taking my marriage rights.”

He spoke the words like he was doing her a favour. Was that all it was? He believed she wouldn’t want him and was determined to be gracious about it?

The bed creaked under her as she walked up to him, trying to still her thumping heart as she cupped his shoulders with her hands. “What of my marriage rights?”

Samelqo drank of his wine, silent until he laid the cup down with a clink. “Uta.”

Her name, spoken like a reprimand.

She drew back, releasing him. “What of my marriage rights? You want a child, don’t you? Isn’t that why you married me? Your niece is dead, and you’ll need someone to pass your wealth to.”

He was slow with his words tonight. It didn’t sit well with her at all. A heavy sadness weighed down the very air, and Uta couldn’t couldn’t trace its source.

“I hadn’t thought you could want such a thing,” Samelqo said without facing her. “I am sorry. At my age—”

Uta snorted. “I’ve seen you,” she spat. He did turn around then, brow furrowed. “We slaves see everything. So don’t lie to me.” She pulled out her skirt, as though showing off the fabric. “Is it that I’m ugly? If you couldn’t bear to touch me, then what, Sese, was the point?”

He regarded her darkly, coldly. “I thought to offer you what was mine.” His expression softened. “You’re not unbeautiful, Uta, but I consider you as a daughter. You’ll inherit when I die—what you do then is your choice.”

People talked of the heq-Ashqen as though he were a ghoul, but until now, Uta had never seen a monster. Behind Samelqo, Tanata’s stars shone from the tower’s vast window, but the goddess’s mantle wasn’t a cloak to be warmed in so much as a heavy sheet to smother. The firelight from the sconces and braziers lit Samelqo’s eyes not with desire, but with Molot’s deadly flame.

Uta squeezed the knuckles of her left hand, but it wasn’t enough. She pulled the gold comb he’d gifted her from her hair and hurled it at his feet. “You’ve taken my choice.”

She wouldn’t cry in front of him. She wouldn’t.

“What choice?” Samelqo asked, and gods, it sounded genuine, as though he hadn’t thought about what Uta might want at all. Because he hadn’t.

Tears welled in her eye. “A child. A child. You dangled that promise in front of me. You have no idea what it’s like, to be forced to pin your hopes for freedom on the passing fancy of some prince, some merchant, and then to have that terrible dream ripped from you. Those first few years after Moniqa’s savagery I thought I might still catch a man’s eye, that I might still be wanted if not loved, that I might raise a child who was free and not a baby doomed to inherit only servitude.” She raised her chin, daring him to look at her, to see her tears and her anger. “I wasn’t, and I accepted that. I accepted I would never bear a child, have a family, be free. You made me want it again, and now you stand before me, having shackled me to a withered branch while you behave as though you’ve done me a great service. You’ve taken my choice. You rekindled a fire in my breast I’d carefully put out and now you’ve doused it in harsh water.”

Samelqo’s face was a death mask. No, even colder than that, for Zioban wore a death mask, and at least the hope Zioban promised was true. Uta had missed too many of Zioban’s meetings lately. After Samelqo’s offer of marriage, she’d grown distracted. She hadn’t been attentive to her fellow slaves as she should have been. She’d gambled on the wrong man.

“Haven’t you anything to say?” Uta asked. “Or are the whispers right that the heq-Ashqen rules Qemassen because Eshmunen’s lips are too full of your cock to address the court?”

Regret flooded her, but then came victory.

Samelqo clenched his jaw, nostril flaring. “You’ve been a slave all your life with no mouth to feed, no expenses. You might have purchased your freedom long ago and yet you stayed by my side. If I thought you would welcome this marriage, it was because you made me believe it to be true. What efforts have you made to have a child till now? Any whore can spread her legs—”

Uta didn’t know she was going to slap him until she’d marched up and done it. The noise couldn’t truly have been so loud as it sounded in her ears, but it seemed to echo throughout the chamber.

Samelqo’s eyes were wide, face turned to the side.

She drew her hand back slowly. “Careful how you slander your wife.”

Samelqo glared. “Careful how you slander your king.”

A spiteful laugh clawed its way free of her lips. “Who do you mean, King Eshmunen eq-Isir, or King Samelqo eq-Milqar?”

He held her gaze for only a moment before walking away from her, toward the door that led to his personal shrine to Tanata. His shoulders slumped, as though the fight had left him. “If it is a child you want so terribly, there are rituals we might conduct. Tanata can bless the seed of a proxy to stand for my own. You could choose a man who was to your liking.”

Was a child really all she wanted? Tch. A child, and all it would cost her was the hands of a stranger. Of course Samelqo wouldn’t understand why that part mattered.

She’d been done with tears, but now they pricked at her again, not soft, but jagged as cracked glass wedged against her eye. “I chose a man,” she said, feeling the coals that had glowed red in her belly turn black. “Only he proved not to be a man at all.”

Samelqo scoffed. “Then I’ll leave you to your disappointment.”

Uta’s throat was thick as porridge. She’d hurt him. She’d never hurt anyone before that she was aware of, least of all Samelqo. Whatever he’d done, he was her only friend. He and Madaula. She swallowed. “No need. These are your rooms, and I’m free to wander. A man of your years shouldn’t sleep on a hard floor.”

She thought he might snap back with a retort about how in Indas, a hard bed was considered beneficial to the back, but he didn’t say anything. He stood unmoving, as though waiting for her to leave.

Uta stalked away, but before she vanished from the room, she grabbed her mother’s lantern. She would need it in the darkness below the tower.

****

She sat on the floor of the House of Many Purposes with only the ring of light from the lantern illuminating the room. The cellar stank of wine and refuse today, though her fellow slaves must have cleared Zioban’s meeting place of any physical waste, for the floors were free of litter.

There was no meeting planned for tonight—no, not tonight, for it must be morning now—but Uta found herself unexpectedly in wont of prayer and with no temple to go to. This place, Zioban’s place, was the closest she could claim to a religious house.

Samelqo was protecting her, he’d said as much. When he died there would be no question of where Uta would go, or to whom she would belong, and if she chose she could take another husband. His misplaced sense of honour might be reason enough for him to refuse her, but the barb she’d stuck in his flesh—that it was a man’s touch he longed for—cut her just as deeply.

“Silly old man,” Uta muttered. The words echoed back to her, repeating and repeating, seeming to grow more sorrowful each time.

“Is someone there?” a voice called from the darkness.

Uta scrambled to her feet and lifted her lantern. No—the light would attract them. She snuffed the flame, heart racing.

Was one of the slaves still cleaning? Perhaps it was whoever Qanmi eq-Sabaal employed as master of the building, in which case she had considerably more to fear. She slipped behind a curtained alcove for lack of anywhere else to hide, the partition translucent enough to allow her some view of the intruder, but shadowed from the light.

“Only mice.” It was a man’s voice, scathing. “Stop trying to distract me.”

“I’m sorry, Sese,” said Zioban, a meekness in his voice that made her shiver.

She pressed herself closer against the wall.

Two sets of steps entered the room. They’d come from the direction of the tunnels. If these two knew about the labyrinth beneath the city, then who else did? Uta wasn’t as safe as she’d assumed.

“This is no game, you must remember that,” said the stranger, who was shorter than Zioban.

The figures were a blur beyond the gauze curtain, but Uta dared not step closer.

“I don’t want to do it anymore,” said Zioban. “She’s not like we thought. She’s different. I don’t think she had anything to do with—”

A slap cut him off, followed by a clatter as of a dish hitting the ground. Uta flinched as though she’d been struck herself. Who would dare lay a hand on Zioban? He was tall and broad and strong, with a voice like thunder.

“Then find proof if it troubles you,” said the short man “but do something. Don’t tell me you’d rather a murderer live than defend one of your own, one you loved. You did love him, didn’t you?”

Zioban mumbled something, but it was muffled. He spoke his next words with more strength. “The slaves will still revolt. I don’t understand why we need to go through with the rest.”

The slaves? As though Zioban weren’t a slave himself.

“Then you’re blind. How can she live? No, you do as you’re told. Be good, always good.” The stranger’s last words were soothing. Uta inched forward, watching the short man lean in, raise a calming hand to Zioban’s cheek, and kiss his lips.

Once, Uta had felt affection for Zioban. It appeared, after tonight’s revelations concerning Samelqo and Zioban’s desires, she had rather an unfortunate type.

“I’m good,” Zioban repeated, tender, as the stranger pulled away. “I’m always good. We took the boys, didn’t we?”

Boys? She should never have missed so many meetings.

The strange man choked a laugh. “I’m told they weren’t killed.”

“A blessing,” muttered Zioban.

“Is it?” The stranger reached for Zioban’s face again, but Zioban shrunk away.

“Yes.” Zioban paused. “What about the Loran? We should start planning. It was harder than we thought to take the princes.”

Princes. Could they mean Aurelius and Ashtaroth?

“It shouldn’t have been,” the stranger snapped. “But the Loran is special. He’ll have his moment.”

The Loran—Thanos? What did the Lora ambassador have to do with the slave rebellion?

Zioban stepped closer to where Uta was hiding and she shuffled back quickly. She squeezed her eyes shut, certain Zioban had heard her, but if he had, he didn’t voice it.

In her panic, Uta missed the stranger’s next words, but as he hurried off toward the stairs, she intuited that he’d said his goodbyes.

“I’ll stay a while,” Zioban said. “It’ll be easier if I return in full daylight.” He bent down to retrieve the object on the floor—his mask—and Uta stepped back into shadow. Uta knocked a jug with her leg and it clinked jarringly. She did her best to steady it, but all she did was create more noise. Zioban’s footsteps neared and she froze.

He shoved the curtain roughly aside. His fingers found the neck of Uta’s tunic, pulling her just as roughly into the light. In the struggle she dropped her mother’s lantern. It clattered against the ground so hard she was certain it lay broken. The sound was sharp as grief.

Zioban’s mask and hood were in place, rendering him inscrutable. He relaxed his hold on her a little, but it was still a hold. “It’s Uta, right? How much did you hear?”

“If I say I heard nothing, you’ll call it a lie.” Uta tore away from him. Zioban didn’t try to grab her again.

He laughed, friendly, but it only made her heart thump faster. “Probably. It was a foolish question.” He shrugged. “It’s all right; all we do is for the rebellion, and I trust you, even if he wouldn’t.”

Uta narrowed her eyes. “Who is he?”

Zioban raised his finger to the lips of his mask, but there was a smile in his voice. “No one and everyone.”

It was as much of an answer as Uta had expected, but surely Zioban could understand that it hurt to be lied to. “I thought you were our leader?” she dared. The way he and the stranger had talked, it was like they weren’t slaves at all.

“I am, but we can’t do this alone. Things are more complicated than any of you know. I’d tell you all if I could, but mine isn’t the only life at stake. If word got out that one of the Semassenqa were aiding us, that person wouldn’t live long enough to be of use before Eshmunen had him torn apart in the Eghri.”

Just like Samelqo’s niece. Uta shuddered. The conversation had made her uneasy, but it made sense. Zioban needed funds to finance the rebellion, and if one of the Semassenqa was on their side, it answered that need.

She attempted a smile, though she’d been told her smiles were so subtle as to be imperceptible. “I understand. It’s like the mask, there to protect all of us.”

“Exactly.” Zioban nodded. “But Uta, there are ways you could help.”

Her? Zioban wanted, no, needed her. Her skin prickled. After her fight with Samelqo, it was a soothing balm.

“You must know about the tunnels,” Zioban continued, “or you wouldn’t be here. You would have simply left from above. And I’ve seen you, watched you wait for the others to leave.”

Uta didn’t like that. She’d been so careful. “You plan to tell the others about them.” She’d considered it herself. What better place to stage an attack on the Semassenqa than from beneath their own palaces?

“No, at least not yet, but we do plan to use them.” Zioban paused. “You can’t tell anyone about this. It’s too dangerous.”

Uta frowned. “How could I? I’d be admitting my own complicity.”

Zioban clamped his hand down on Uta’s shoulder, his brown skin dirty from the dust and mud of the underground. In the darkness, the grime formed shapes like serpents coiled around his fingers. He patted her as a brother might, and though she would have loathed the gesture from anyone else, she treasured Zioban’s touch and the friendship it implied. She’d been so wrong earlier, in the tower. She didn’t just have Madaula and Samelqo; she had Zioban too.

“This goes deeper than anything we’ve planned,” said Zioban. “Than Safot’s suicide, or our meetings, or any of it.”

The tightness in Uta’s throat returned. Safot was dead? How? She hadn’t even known he was one of them, though she’d spoken to him regularly as an intermediary between Samelqo and Ashtaroth. “What happened to Safot?”

Zioban shook his head. “I forgot—you haven’t been here recently. Safot helped capture the heq-Damirat’s sons. He sent a message for us—our introduction to the Semassenqa. He gave his life for the cause, so they would hear our demands, so he couldn’t be questioned.”

The boys. Princes Hiram and Reshith. That’s who they’d been speaking about. Uta’s skin buzzed, her hairs on end. The air was thick with anticipation, her exhilaration tumbling about the room like the shifting shadows cast by Zioban’s light. “I’m ready, as we all are. We are many and we are one.”

Zioban’s laughter pierced Uta like an arrow, and a frown tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“I’m sorry, that was rude.” Zioban waved his hand as though clearing the air of a foul odour. “Those words sound so foreign to me sometimes. I never thought everyone would pick them up so quickly.” He gestured to the door leading to the stairs above. “Come, we can sit comfortably tonight; I’ve been told the house is to remain empty.”

As Uta followed Zioban, she pressed close against the walls, fearful of discovery despite his assurances. This place was used by so many; what if a Semassenqen happened by the House for a jaunt with a woman? If Zioban were captured they were all doomed, and Uta most of all. She tried to imagine Samelqo’s expression when he found out what she’d been up to, every layer of consternation, disappointment and hurt. Uta never wanted to see that face.

Zioban stopped before a cushioned bench leaning against the wall. “Here, this is much better. We spend enough time on our feet; we deserve a rest.”

Uta nodded, too ashamed to admit she spent almost all her time on a cushioned chair copying manuscripts. “You were telling me about our plans.”

Our plans,” Zioban repeated. He leaned his head back against the wall as though staring at the ceiling, but Uta knew from experience that he wouldn’t be able to see much past the mask. His voice, when he spoke again, was sombre. “Peace between Qemassen and Lorar won’t hold, and when war does come, we may find the Lora better allies than enemies.”

Uta recoiled. Lorar was no friend to their cause. They saw the world as their private slave market and nothing more. The notion the Lora would look upon them any more kindly than the freeborn Massenqa was laughable. Ever since she was a little girl she’d been taught to fear Lorar. Her lip trembled. “They’ll enslave us all if they win. We’re all the same in their eyes.”

Firelight flickered warmly across Zioban’s mask, and through a trick of the light it seemed for a moment to turn the obscene smile of the wood to a frown. “That might be true, except we have information they can use, and allies they trust within the Semassenqa. Mutual friends of the rebellion.”

“Spies.” Uta shivered, thinking on the coded scrolls Samelqo would send and receive from eq-Anout. But eq-Anout wasn’t Lorar. Samelqo couldn’t be one of the friends Zioban spoke of. Qemassen meant everything to him—he couldn’t be a spy. It should have warmed her, to think he might be on the side of the slaves, but it hurt to think him a traitor somehow. Perhaps, now that they were married, she might pry his secrets from him, the letters included, but she doubted he would tell her anything.

A chill air whistled downstairs and Uta hugged her sides. She’d come down here in her finery with no thought to practicality. Her emotions had burned too hot. It wasn’t like her. “What have you promised the Lora?” she asked.

“Qemassen.” He said it so calmly, as though it were nothing. “The tunnels reach to the sea and maybe even beneath it to the islands. No one’s ever broken Qemassen’s walls, but they may not have to.”

Uta swallowed the lump forming in her throat. There was more to this. Zioban wouldn’t just tell her such things if he didn’t trust her to understand why it was necessary. “Those passages are blocked off,” she said, to push back her true worries. “I’ve tried them all.”

Zioban leaned toward her. “But we can unblock them. The strongest walls in the world couldn’t keep the Lora out, not with us to guide them.”

An image flashed before her eye: Lora troops marching beneath Qemassen, rising from the ground like Molot’s beasts, blood spilled through the streets. She’d never seen a war, though she’d lived under the threat of one her whole life. What would happen to the city she knew once the Lora were finished with her? Why should the Lora spare the slaves once Qemassen was ash? “And we’ll fight with the Lora?”

“Yes.” Zioban sighed. “I sense your unease. But all Lorar wants is to end the threat posed by a hostile Qemassen. With Eshmunen and his Semassenqa gone, the slaves will inherit the city. Partners with Lorar. Allies.” He paused. “Are you still one of us?”

The pointedness of the question startled her. “Of course.”

“I heard they freed you, that you married the heq-Ashqen. That’s no low station. You might be one of them now.” Zioban crossed his arms.

Uta was not one of the Semassenqa. Her conversation with Samelqo had made that very clear. “It doesn’t change anything,” she snapped. “I still want the freedom my great-grandfather bartered away.”

“And the respect the Semassenqa have denied you.”

Uta sucked her teeth. “Yes. But how can I help?”

Zioban’s enthusiasm might not be visible on his face, but it was clear in the way he turned to her on the bench, hands held up. “You know the tunnels. You know the palace. When the Lora come, I want you to guide them to the palace and help them set it alight. None of the Semassenqa can be left alive.”

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