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Chapter 6: Visitors
Uta– Qemassen: The Palace
When the Lora came—in many months, in years—Zioban was going to help them take the city, and Uta would have to kill Samelqo. Either that, or let a stranger take his life. For all that she was angry with him though, the notion was as painful as if Zioban had struck her.
Mere hours had passed since Uta had fled to the tunnels in search of comfort after the disappointment of her wedding night. So much had changed.
Pale daylight spilled across the stairwell to Samelqo’s tower by the time Uta made it to the top. With every step, the young light seared away another layer of her indecision.
She wasn’t one of the Semassenqa, and she never could be. Her marriage to Samelqo was a sham, as was the friendship she’d convinced herself they shared. The Semassenqa had to die, Zioban was right. And Samelqo was one of the Semassenqa.
Rounding the bend of the spiral stairs brought Samelqo’s guards into view. Uta started to nod to each of them, but froze instead.
They weren’t palace guards, but Yirada officers.
Her first instinct was to back away, but she caught herself. If they were here for her, if they’d somehow tracked her movements and knew about Zioban, running would do nothing but prove her guilt.
Uta swallowed her fear, held her head high just as a Semassenqat would, and strode toward her rooms. Samelqo’s raised voice, muffled through the door, was like a metal spike hammered into her back. A woman’s voice joined Samelqo’s.
One of the officers swept up her sword, blocking Uta’s path. Uta stepped backwards and scanned the officer’s face. Was she a foreigner? She had the high cheekbones and sloping nose of the peoples from the far north. The vague and untraceable foreignness in Uta’s own face sometimes moved her fellow outsiders to treat her with more friendliness, but the woman’s gaze was hard and unyielding.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Uta let some of the imperiousness of the Semassenqa leak into her voice. Too late, she realized how dirty she was from the tunnels, how stained the fine stola Samelqo had given her.
Her haughtiness didn’t seem to have an effect. The Yirada officers exchanged a glance, faces stony. “The heq-Ashqen is to be arrested,” said the woman.
Uta clenched her hands. “Arrested? On what grounds? Whose authority?”
“Are you one of his slaves?” asked the man to her left.
Why was that relevant? What had happened that Eshmunen had turned on the heq-Ashqen? Worry flooded her where earlier she’d felt only bitterness at her husband’s lack of affection. She swallowed. The worry meant nothing. She could still kill him when the time came. It simply wasn’t time for that now was all.
The woman yelling at Samelqo must have passed nearer the doors, for her words rang clear. “All palace slaves are to be questioned. I find it suspicious that you wouldn’t agree. Or do you have some latent love for them? Does slaves’ blood flow in the veins of the great Samelqo eq-Milqar?”
It was Himalit et-Moniqa, the heq-Damirat. This was about Princes Hiram and Reshith.
“Are you one of his slaves?” the female officer pressed.
Uta returned her gaze to the officer. “I’m his wife. I demand entry.”
Samelqo was shouting too now—a fine competition: the powers behind Eshmunen’s throne raking each other’s flesh with words.
The male officer rapped his knuckles against the door, keeping his attention on Uta. “Sese, we have a woman here claiming to be the heq-Ashqen’s wife.” He made a show of assessing her torn hem, her ruffled hair. “Looks like Qelebet corner trash to me.”
If Uta hadn’t been in fear for her life, she’d have spit in his face at that slur. The Qelebet, Qemassen’s poorest neighbourhood. Dog’s Home.
It was also where the street Samelqo’s niece had burned to the ground stood.
The woman cocked her head at her colleague. “Was that necessary, Bo?” She turned worried eyes toward Uta. “If she’s who she claims, she could have you whipped.”
Bo grinned. “We’re not on the streets now. We’re in the palace. I give it three days before we’re sipping lotus tea on gold cushions and getting our cocks sucked by nubile slave girls.”
Uta cleared her throat and the two officers regarded her with irritation. “I’ll have both your names for that. Adoran eq-Afqad knows me. He is still your captain, isn’t he? Or do you work for the heq-Damirat now?”
Bo snarled like he might spit on Uta himself, but the woman stayed him with a hand on his shoulder. “Taliq et-Afqat and Boyan eq-Boyas.”
Good. At least Taliq had answered, though she’d left off the honorific Uta was due. “Call out to the heq-Damirat again, please. I don’t believe she heard you.”
Taliq banged harder on the door. “There’s a woman here says she’s the heq-Ashqen’s wife!”
Uta covered her ears at the officer’s abrasive voice.
The door opened.
Himalit et-Moniqa reached between the two officers and seized Uta by her shoulder. The heq-Damirat hauled her into the room and the doors thudded shut behind them.
The heq-Damirat’s fingers pinched hard as an animal’s bite. Royal hands hard on her flesh—the most attention any of the royal family had paid her for twenty years. Fear coiled like a snake at Uta’s breast, but she strangled it: she wasn’t a slave anymore. According to Himalit’s own rules, Uta was a person of import.
Uta’s attention was drawn immediately to Madaula, huddled in the corner behind Samelqo’s desk. Her cheeks were smeared with black where her tears had carved rivers of smudged kohl. Her brown curls had been torn from their binding as though someone had grabbed her by her hair and pulled.
Violence burned in Uta’s belly. Madaula was a sweet, even-tempered girl, and she’d had absolutely nothing to do with any harm that had come to Himalit’s bratty sons.
Samelqo stood in the middle of the room, drawn up to his full height. “Unhand my wife,” he said, but Himalit did not unhand her.
“Your wife, is she? Not your slave?” Himalit’s grip on Uta’s shoulder tightened and Uta sucked her teeth. “Do you have documents to prove it?”
Samelqo scowled. As he stalked toward his desk, his black, embroidered robe twirled. “Of course I have documents! Do you think me incompetent?” He shuffled some papyri around. “Uta—find me the documents!”
When Himalit et-Moniqa made no move to release her, Uta tore her shoulder away. She brushed past the heq-Damirat with an air of confidence only made possible by her anger at Madaula’s shattered expression.
“Your reports are always inadequate,” the heq-Damirat bit back, as though this bizarre argument over who was a worse administrator was of dire consequence to anyone but themselves. “You have a propensity for embellishment.”
“I have a propensity,” Samelqo insisted, “for reporting necessary detail to my king. Your sparseness has left him in want of crucial information more than once.”
“You actually believe my father reads anything you give him? I’m the one suffering through your tedious verbosity.”
This was rather a lot like watching a cat attack its own reflection, and Uta had little patience for it. Perhaps, like cats, they ought to be drowned.
Uta plucked the correct scrolls from the shelf against the wall, sparing Madaula a comforting smile. She walked back to the heq-Damirat and handed her the papyri.
Himalit unrolled the marriage contract first, then the manumittance proving Uta was a freedwoman. She scoffed, allowing the scrolls to snap back into their curl. She stared straight past Uta at Samelqo, as though Uta wasn’t two feet from her face.
The heq-Damirat’s tone darkened. “If you had nothing to do with this attack—this attack on my children—then why tether yourself to a slave? It’s because you sympathize with them.” Himalit tossed the scrolls at the rounded wall of the tower. The papyri glanced off and rolled across the floor—the freedom Uta had worked so hard for dismissed as nothing.
“You want revenge for your captivity,” Himalit continued. “You didn’t get enough of murdering children twenty years ago and now you’ve come for mine!”
Samelqo’s eyes danced with fire. “If you think I would harm Eshmunen’s grandchildren, you understand nothing! I have dedicated my life to serving this family. I have given everything.”
He had given everything, Uta reminded herself. Not for Eshmunen’s rotten family, but for all Qemassen. And he had protected Uta. She felt that most of all.
Himalit prowled up to him, hand raised.
Uta stepped into her path. The heq-Damirat’s slap scoured her cheek.
“Uta,” said Samelqo, commanding. Wroth even. She’d taken a blow for him and he was wroth with her.
Himalit stepped around Uta as if she weren’t there. “You murdered my mother. You murdered my baby sister—a child you pulled from our mother’s body with your own hands. What wouldn’t you inflict on two boys you’ve never met?”
“I would have tutored them, if you’d allowed them to see me,” spat Samelqo.
“So you could drip poison in their ears,” said Himalit.
Uta turned to watch them. All she’d wanted was her wedding night, after years of lonely dreams, and then, once that had been refused her, all she’d longed for was to sleep and put dizzying thoughts of rebellion out of her mind for a few hours. Himalit et-Moniqa stood in Uta’s rooms, accusing her husband of abusing two children, treating Uta as though she were as unremarkable as the manumittance she’d tossed aside so casually, having driven poor Madaula to tears.
Uta grabbed the heq-Damirat by the shoulder. Himalit might be a princess, but she wasn’t the heir to the throne. She might be of the Semassenqa, but she was a woman. Uta was the wife of the third-most important man in the city. This was her home. This was her night.
“Arrest my husband, or leave,” Uta said plainly.
Himalit et-Moniqa stared into her eyes as though seeing her for the first time. Never had one of the royal siblings looked so intently in Uta’s eyes since Aurelius had been a boy.
Then surprise transformed to annoyance. Himalit’s angry brow made a furnace of her face. “Never touch me again.”
Uta did not remove her hand.
Himalit was forced to shrug her off. She jabbed her finger at Uta, addressing Samelqo. “This is how you raise your slaves to behave? When the Lora finally do arrive, I’ll be the only thing standing between Qemassen and its doom, and this is how your slaves treat me?”
Samelqo looked down his nose at Himalit. “Uta is no longer a slave.”
The princess sucked her teeth. She looked ready to storm from the room. Instead, she crossed her arms. “But she was, and so’s that one in the corner. I’m taking them to be questioned.”
Questioned? If she were tortured, if they tied her down and broke her fingers and pulled out her nails, would Uta be able to stay silent about Zioban’s plans? After Moniqa’s death, Uta had been held in the palace dungeons for several days before Samelqo had rescued her. Each night, screams had been her lullabies. She’d never actually seen what was being done to the men and women being tortured, but she hadn’t needed to: their cries were enough to conjure images before her closed eyes. And even though she’d imagined the details, the pictures still sometimes returned to her in dreams. To hear grown men sob so? It changed you. And how much the more so would it change the one being ripped apart?
“You have no authority,” Uta dared.
Himalit swerved to face her. “Yes, I do. I have my own authority.”
Samelqo’s expression darkened even as the rising sun lit up his face. “I would hardly purchase rebellious slaves. That they were involved is an impossibility.”
Himalit snarled. “Then they won’t fail to be returned upon questioning.” Himalit glanced at the doors. She raised her voice. “Taliq, Bo—to me.”
The doors to the chamber opened inwards and the Yirada officers marched in, hands on the hilts of their swords. It was ridiculous. They couldn’t possibly think they’d need to use them. The beautiful tiled floor was smeared with dirt from their boots, and earth from Uta’s sandals. Who would clean it, with everyone in captivity?
Under the pale light, Taliq and Bo’s helmets shone smooth like the bald heads of vultures, the stylized rams’ horns that decorated their bronze cheek pieces like claws gripping the officers’ chins.
“Arrest Samelqo eq-Milqar,” said Himalit. “If he resists, arrest his wife along with him.”
Uta’s heart thudded against her ribs. This was truly happening. It was truly happening, and she had nothing to defend herself with. She had no way to save her husband, or Madaula.
Behind Himalit, Samelqo stood proud, expression as hard as one of Hazzan’s desert roses.
The officers hesitated.
“Are we to bring him to the palace dungeons?” asked Taliq.
“No.” Himalit’s eyes danced with delight. No, with satisfaction. “Take him to the Yirada cells in the Qelebet. I’m sure he’ll be happy to reunite with his own kind.”
Taliq and Bo stepped past Uta and Himalit, grabbing the heq-Ashqen roughly by his elbows as if a man of his years could possibly pose a threat to them. They marched toward Uta with Samelqo held fast between them. She moved to intercept, but Samelqo paralyzed her with a glance.
“Go to the king,” he told her. “Tell him what his daughter has done.”
To the king. Uta clutched her fine skirts—ruined now from her dealings below the city. Hopefully Eshmunen loved her husband more than he loathed Uta, for watching Samelqo march proudly from the room, even in captivity, she saw not an enemy marched off in chains, but one of her own. He was her friend. She would get him back.
Himalit cocked her head at Madaula and Uta’s skin went cold. “You, with me. You’ll be questioned with the others.”
“She’s done nothing,” Uta pleaded. “She barely leaves the tower.”
Madaula crept from her corner with her hands clasped in front of her.
“Then she’ll be happy for the change of scenery,” snapped Himalit.
As Madaula passed Uta on her way to the door, Uta snatched the girl’s hand and squeezed.
“I’ll come for you,” Uta told her. “I won’t abandon you.”
Madaula’s eyes were wide as a lamb’s about to be slaughtered, and her face so shriven with fear that Uta couldn’t say whether or not the girl had even heard her.