Chapter 07,  Chapter Section

Chapter 7: IV: Qwella

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Chapter 7: Traitors

Section IV

Qwella – Qalita’s Temple: Qemassen

The new girl had arrived to pledge herself to the Shy Queen only a day after Qwella had been informed of the attack on her nephews. The temple had swarmed with activity—not for the new girl so much as with preparations for the spring festival, and Qwella’s hours had been packed so tight and stretched so long that the only time she had for tears was when she was lucky enough to make her toilet in private. Even at night, the room was never silent enough for Qwella to feel safe sobbing—what if Dansila and her bitches were listening and thought her weak? What if in the morning they grabbed her and shoved her in one of the tiny dark rooms that lay hidden in the labyrinth of the heiqal? Eshant couldn’t be with Qwella all the time, and for so bustling a temple, there were a thousand places someone could be made to disappear.

At night, Qwella dreamed of bodies buried in the walls, their fingers dusty with age and forever curled into gruesome claws. She was sure sometimes she could hear the scratch of nail against stone.

But then Qwella would wake to the pit-pat of Eshant’s feet as the woman returned to her bed from one of her nightly strolls, and all would be well. When Qwella fell asleep again, Eshant in the bed beside hers, nightmares fled.

Tonight, Qwella was determined to take a nightly stroll of her own, to steal back some hours for herself and visit the hidden shrine Eshant had shown her. The room full of flowers, where light as bright as daylight had glowed underground, seemed nearly a dream. Qwella had been afraid to go back until now, in case it turned out she’d dreamed it all up—and with it, her kiss with Eshant.

As Qwella patted the rocky wall to guide her path on the narrow stairs, her eyes stung with exhaustion and her fingertips burned from spending all morning painting fine details onto the wild, weird faces of festival masks. Even the roar that thundered in the tunnel couldn’t keep her eyelids from drooping.

Carving masks for Molot’s temple, painting them for the Feast of Ashtet . . . . Perhaps she should have paid more attention to the politics of the Ashqena when she’d lived at the palace, for it seemed lately that Qwella’s service to the Quiet Lady was service rather to Qalita’s bossy family.

Just like Qwella’s own siblings. She snorted.

As she walked to the rhythm of her flickering lantern light, her fingers finally brushed the first of the holy reliefs that lined the passageway, Leven and Pepet’s coiling, intertwined bodies smooth against her skin. She rushed past the other gods, stopping before Qalita’s door, half certain that if she pressed the indentation like Eshant had shown her, nothing would happen.

But the door opened, revealing a square room so bright it may as well have been one of the palace riads at the height of the afternoon.

It was so dark on the tunneled stairs that led to Qalita’s secret chamber that when Qwella stepped from the narrow steps and inside the tiny bright space, her sight went patchy and black with light blindness.

Qwella set her lantern down beside the doorway, holding her right arm over her eyes as though that would protect them from the glare. She stood still at first, with the entrance behind her, but the gaping hollow of the doorway made her skin prickle beneath her acolyte’s robe and she scuttled blindly into the room to escape the looming absence of the darkness.

The crush of flowers beneath her slippers jolted her eyes open. She glanced down at the floor of the room, lifting her foot to reveal flattened, exotic moon blossoms and snapped stalks.

So it had all been true. Just as true as when Eshant had led her down here before. Qwella had half convinced herself the impossible chamber had been a dream, or that perhaps there’d been something she’d missed—a skylight that gave life to the flowers carpeting the square chamber, some source for the bright light that had blackened her vision when she’d stepped inside.

The room was as before though, the only openings the strange hole peeking through Qalita’s broken relief in the side of the wall, where Eshant had told Qwella she had struck it, and the secret door Qwella had entered through. Vines still climbed the painted wall; the flowers nearly glowed just as they had last time.

The flowers.

Qwella backed away from them and knelt down, dipping her head in reverence to Qalita’s likeness on the wall. “Forgive me, Quiet Lady. I didn’t mean to—”

In the corner of Qwella’s vision, something moved amongst the living carpet. Slowly, she raised her head, gaze fixed on the moon blossoms.

It was only the ones she’d destroyed springing back into shape. Qwella clasped the neckline of her robe, her nervousness spilling out of her in a laugh.

So silly.

But the flowers continued to right themselves, the bruises on their pale purple petals vanishing as though they’d been only stains and a cloth had mopped them clean. A stalk snapped back into place. The imprint of Qwella’s foot disappeared as though it had been pressed into the sand before the wind came and erased all trace of her.

Nnn.” A nothing sound wriggled past Qwella’s tongue. Her hands were shaking.

She’d thought only to come here and cry privately over Hiram and Reshith’s injuries, or to soothe her souls’ disquiet in the comfort of Qalita’s shrine, but whatever lived here had ideas of its own.

Qalita had ideas of her own.

Qwella swallowed. Qalita. Qalita’s temple was full of terrible wonder—hadn’t Qwella seen still more fantastical things when she’d stepped inside the debir to whisper her secret into her goddess’s mouth? There’d been the pomegranate tree with gems for fruit, the muddy soil that seemed to come from nowhere, and even the way this room shut out the rumble inside the tunnel outside. All were magic, of a kind. This was nothing to fear, or if it was, it was a fear a servant of the Quiet Lady ought to embrace.

She reached for the flowers, brushed the rim of a petal gently. It was real. It was true. Qwella closed her eyes and snapped its stalk, cupped it in her hand like a lily upon a pool.

She opened her eyes.

Nothing happened at first, but then something tickled her palm, as though an insect crept across her hand, probing the spaces between her fingers for a point of egress.

The flower in her hand was regrowing the rest of its stem. When its roots began to split into white, serpentine tendrils, Qwella cast it from her like it really was a beetle.

She plunked herself on the ground and watched as the half of the stem that was still attached to the ground regrew a new shoot and blossom. Two flowers existed where there had been one.

Qwella glanced nervously at the walls to either side of her, then at the mosaic where Qalita looked out at her. Qwella wanted to walk toward it, but stepping on the carpet of blossoms didn’t appeal to her.

“When I was a child,” boomed a loud voice, from nowhere and everywhere—the echo of a young woman speaking, “I—”

Qwella bolted to her feet and dug her nails deep into her palms. The woman sounded so close—was it Qalita herself, speaking through the image?

The stranger cleared her throat. “I stole from my father’s purse for sweetmeats.”

Qwella frowned thoughtfully. The words were ordinary, the woman’s voice that of a bleating lamb. Just like Qwella was certain she must have sounded when she’d whispered her own secret into Qalita’s lips. The woman was no goddess, but the new acolyte. And that meant . . . had Qwella’s own, much worse truth, echoed inside these walls for anyone to hear? No, not anyone. Eshant had told her that she was the only one who knew about this place, and what were the odds that Qwella had spoken her words at the exact moment Eshant had been investigating down here?

Fabric scuffled, the sound of the acolyte retreating from the statue, and then there was nothing. The secret had been spoken, and she had left to meet Daana and the other red-robed Ashqata ouside the doors to the debir.

Perhaps, long ago, Ashqata had been ordered down here to swallow the secrets of Qalita’s devotees, a way of ensuring loyalty. Certainly, if that were true, the rite was forgotten now.

Pushing past her fear, Qwella stepped through the flowers to the wall at her left. She smoothed her palm over the surface, looking for any sign of a spy-hole or a pipe that might magnify the sounds from above. Her fingers hit a bump, then a small indentation. She raised her hand, revealing thin scratches like tally marks in the wall, painted over and partially filled in, like someone had meant to hide the writing. Whoever had been counting in here could have been trapped and marking the days.

She shuddered, but a glance down the wall revealed more writing. Her knees ached as she sat to read the scratches in the stone.

The marks dug deep, but time had eroded their edges, softening the lines and corners, and who knew how many words lay hidden beneath thick-coated paint? At first they looked like nonsense scribbles, an impenetrable code communicating a meaning only known to its author, but they weren’t nonsense at all. There were numbers amongst the scratches, little dots and lines: calculations, dates, and measures.

Qwella started to read aloud, if only to hear a voice, but her words came croaky and she cleared her throat before continuing. “Year fourteen Eshmunen, year fifteen Eshmunen . . . year seventeen Eshmunen, second day of the month of Geshet, hour of Qalita.” The seventeenth year of Eshmunen’s reign, Geshet, the last month of the year.

The seventeenth year of Eshmunen’s reign. It was branded into Qwella’s skin: the year Qwella’s mother had been killed and her sister burned.

Qwella pursed her lips and pinned her attention to the writing on the wall.

Water of life, two measures, water of death one sixteenth of a measure.” As Qwella read, the soft dampness of the flowers beneath her knees seemed to disappear, and she was instead perched on a stool beside Aunt Meg’s work table in the heq-Ashqen’s tower, deep in memory, watching Meg scribble down notes just like these on a sheet of papyrus.

The chronicle of her experimentation may as well have been a signature. When Eshant had led Qwella below the temple, Qwella had wondered whether Aunt Meg might have worked in these rooms. Here was confirmation.

She frowned at the date—the seventeenth year of Eshmunen’s reign—re-reading in case she’d been mistaken, but no, the words could read no other way. Had Meg still been alive during the drought and the burning? Qwella was certain she’d died the year before, but perhaps she was mistaken, or Meg had made an error.

It wasn’t like Aunt Meg to make errors where numbers were concerned.

Someone else must have been working here alongside her and had continued Meg’s work after Meg had died. Daana claimed to have known Meg—could she have assigned an Ashqata of Qalita to help Qwella’s aunt? Or perhaps even Samelqo had known about the room. The two had always been close. There was also Qanmi—he’d always buzzed around Meg’s aunt like a wasp to sugar.

And then he’d buzzed around Qwella.

Water of life. She’d heard Meg and Samelqo talk about it once.

She closed her eyes and could hear the creak of the stool beneath her, the scritch-scratch of Aunt Meg’s reed against the papyrus. Seashells rattled in her pockets, collected with Hima, Aurelius, and Dashel the day before, and brought to Meg for identification. The room smelled of anise and ink—a smell she’d described as round when she’d been a girl, though Hima had always made a face when Qwella had called it that.

She raised her hand, imagining the smooth back of her toy mouse beneath her fingers as she’d rolled it along the tabletop beside Aunt Meg. It’d had a mechanical, clacking jaw on a string that you could pull, but Aunt Meg had stoppered it up with a rag. A gift from eq-Anout, she thought, but who’d sent it, Qwella didn’t know. No, that wasn’t true—Meg had come back with it after one of her visits there. She’d given it to Qwella and said it was from a relative.

Qwella swallowed and focused on the writing again. The water of life. She traced the letters.

And she not only remembered the scent of anise, she smelled it. She wasn’t only remembering the scene, she was in one of the rooms in Samelqo’s tower, a child balancing on a stool beside the table where Aunt Meg was working. She was somewhere impossible, and yet it wasn’t disorienting. She was happy.

Sun beamed through the window, warm on Qwella’s cheeks. Meg’s wild bush of tangled hair, bunched at her aunt’s round shoulders like desert scrub, too messy to tumble over them, inspired a rush of love in Qwella’s chest.

Qwella twisted on the stool—her movements not her own, but those of her younger self—and found Samelqo bent over, cleaning Meg’s mess of scrolls and implements and rubbish from the floors.

That was right—they’d never allowed the slaves inside. Samelqo had struck a man once when he’d tried to enter to clean. It seemed a lot of effort just to cater to Meg’s antisocial behaviour.

The heq-Ashqen looked so young. She’d thought he was ancient when she was a child, but the man in front of her couldn’t be over sixty.

“If you insist on conducting such research, you should do it elsewhere,” Samelqo snapped.

Qwella wheeled her toy mouse through the air like it was sailing along Tanata’s clouds, but Samelqo wasn’t paying attention.

Meg continued writing, unperturbed. She’d possessed a special talent for ignoring Samelqo.

But then she started speaking, rattling off information to the heq-Ashqen, not so much a justification for what she was doing as one of her oblivious, rambling tirades. Qwella could barely follow it, but her attention, just as it had at the time, hooked on a phrase in the stream of words: water of life. It sounded important and exciting. Her heart was already dreaming stories, little plays she and Aurelius could act out together, robed in their mother’s scarves as they’d played princesses.

She pushed herself up on her knees and leaned toward the papyrus.

Samelqo clucked at Meg. He walked to the table and touched Meg’s hair, making a face. A spider crawled out of a particularly dense tangle on the back of Meg’s head. Qwella and Samelqo jumped at the same time, and Qwella’s toy mouse fell to the floor.

“A slave could tend to this,” said Samelqo, wiping his fingers on his robe as though spidery hair might be infectious.

“I don’t want them touching me,” Meg answered without ceasing her writing.

Samelqo glanced briefly at Qwella. She smiled at him. Her own hair was very well groomed, and she liked it that way, but she also wished she were bold enough to ignore Samelqo like Meg.

“Then shave it, as I do.” Samelqo brushed his finger over the papyrus, attention now on Meg’s work and not Qwella.

Meg turned around. “Like you do?” Her one eyebrow—identical to Hima’s and just as unplucked, seemed to arch at its centre. She returned to her work. “The mess makes me look old.”

The way she said it was strange, like she wanted to look old.

“Not old enough to justify your slovenliness,” Samelqo had chided. “You’ll give your nieces ideas.”

Meg had snorted. “You’re worse than my mother.”

Samelqo crossed his arms. “Your mother comes from a slovenly, undisciplined people. It should be no surprise.”

“My mother is a queen.”

Is. Is. She’d said is. Qwella’s grandmother, Eshant et-Nila, was years dead.

But little Qwella hadn’t noticed, hadn’t cared, and her thoughts drifted as Samelqo and Meg argued. She reached for Meg’s scroll.

Samelqo’s hand slammed down on the papyrus, smearing the ink.

Qwella looked up at him, stealing some of Meg’s fire. “I want to know about the water of life.”

Samelqo’s eyes were piercing, but as he stared at her, his expression softened. “It’s a children’s story. Nothing for a princess like you.”

Qwella frowned. “But I am a child.”

“A well-behaved child,” said Samelqo. “Most of the time. Only bad children are told such tales.” He leaned down and plucked Qwella’s mouse from the floor. If there was any proof she was a child, it was right there in his hands.

She reached for the toy, but like a flash of lightning it was gone, vanished from the heq-Ashqen’s hand. He held Qwella’s gaze, raised an eyebrow as though to dare her to guess what had happened to it.

“She threatened to visit,” said Meg, taking up a conversation Qwella had missed most of.

Qwella contorted herself on the stool, checking behind her, underneath the furniture, in the sleeves of her robes. Frustrated, she puffed out her cheeks in a pout, folding her arms across her chest.

This time, Samelqo smiled. It was an odd, foreign expression on his face. He reached behind him and snatched the mouse from Meg’s hair. Qwella took it back and his smile faded. “I’m sure I can find a reason to travel west, should she decide to act the fool.”

Meg snorted. “It’s never something she actively decides.”

Who decides?” Qwella asked, but Samelqo shook the folds of his robes, making a rattling sound just like—

Her seashells!

Qwella frantically patted the purse at her waist, but it was empty. She ran her fingers over the bottom and one of them poked through a small hole. She turned furious eyes on him. “How did you do that?”

He held the shells out in one hand. On his other palm, a tiny blade rested, glinting in the sunlight. A small blue thread the colour of Qwella’s purse still clung to it. “It’s a simple game,” he said.

Qwella cupped her hands together and Samelqo poured the shells from his hand to hers. The knife he slid beneath his robes so fast Qwella nearly missed it.

“What sort of game?” Qwella asked. She dumped the shells out on the table, having no purse to hold them any more.

A shadow seemed to pass over the heq-Ashqen’s face. “We called it the knife game.”

Stones rattled from the tunnel.

The tunnel. Qalita’s temple. The flowers.

Qwella sprang to her feet, hands raised defensively. She was in the sanctuary again.

The smell of anise still lingered in the air.

Eshant stood frozen in the entrance, as though Qwella had startled her just as much, though Eshant must have seen that the door to Qalita’s sanctuary lay open. Eshant’s face looked . . . stricken.

Qwella released the breath she’d trapped in her puffed-out cheeks and smiled. “I’m sorry,” she said, then cursed herself for apologizing. What in the Shy Queen’s name was she apologizing for? Eshant had shown her this place, and Qwella’s own aunt had once studied here, or so it seemed. This room was meant for her. The memory, if nothing else, proved it.

What had that been just now? Her mind still reeled with it, but even now, so soon after she’d felt the wood of the stool against her, heard Meg and Samelqo’s voices, it felt like a fading dream.

Eshant wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand as she stepped slowly into the room, her posture slumped, stride drudging. She looked broken—a big, clumsy doll. Tears had dried little rivers of smeared kohl down her cheeks, and were those bruises on her cheek? She sat cross-legged in the moon blossoms and pulled up a clump of them. “You never need to be sorry,” she said belatedly, in answer to Qwella’s apology.

Qwella knelt beside her, laying a comforting hand on Eshant’s own. Up close, it was easy to see that the angry red patches on her skin would soon form bruises, the patterns uncomfortably familiar. Qwella’s own cheek ached with remembered hurt.

“Who was it?” Qwella struggled to keep her tone even, the way she thought Eshant would have, were their positions reversed. “Was it Dansila? Or one of the Ashqata?”

Eshant snorted, looking up at Qwella, face covered in snot and tears. In spite of it all she smiled. “You think one of those crowish old women did this? I wouldn’t let them touch me.” Torn moon blossoms tumbled from Eshant’s fingers.

Qwella couldn’t help but glance at them, watching as, yes, they began to reform from their severed pieces. Eshant didn’t even look down, but it was no time to bring up the strange magic. Instead, she stroked her thumb over the back of Eshant’s hand. “Then who?”

There wasn’t anyone else inside Qalita’s temple, unless some beggar was responsible, but it seemed unlikely. But then, what if Eshant had been on some errand, outside the temple?

“My father,” Eshant said. She smiled nastily. “No one beats someone like this unless for love.”

Qwella cringed. Anger and sickness bubbled inside her. It was one thing, what Qwella had suffered at Sabé’s hands, but Eshant? Eshant was good. Even after Qwella had killed Sabeq, she could recognize that sometimes she might have caused it, might have brought it on herself.

Sabé had always had a reason.

“Always.” The word slipped from Qwella’s lips, a fish escaping its net, the spines of its fins snagging her skin on the way out. She shuddered.

“What?” Eshant sniffed, wiping her nose on her droopy sleeve.

Tears brimmed in Qwella’s eyes, but she made herself meet Eshant’s. “I thought I’d become stronger, but I’m not.” She sucked back a breath of perfumed air. “Sabé used to hit me. He said he loved me, that he struck me only because he loved me.” A sob escaped her. “Maybe he did love me. He was so good to me, most of the time.” Her heart hardened, cold as rock just like she’d made it all those times before. “It was because I didn’t listen. I chose to make him wroth.”

The words tasted bitter. She wanted to expel them, to force the thoughts informing them as far from her body as she could. An exorcism.

Eshant’s face seemed to deflate. She stared at her feet where they were tucked inside the fold of her legs. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper. “It wasn’t you. It was him. It’s always him.”

Maybe. But Eshant didn’t know what Qwella was guilty of, that however much Sabé had hurt her, what she’d taken from him was so much more permanent.

Except, when Eshant’s face had come into view, Qwella’s cheek had stung like she’d been struck herself. Perhaps, there were different kinds of permanent.

Eshant groaned in irritation. She tugged her hand from Qwella’s and started picking apart the flowers again, shredding them into the hollow space between her feet. “I must have said something that upset him. He wants me to be a harder person. For my family.” She sniffed, but then she looked up at Qwella and smiled. “The sisters are supposed to be my family. I swore to Qalita, the same as you.” She shook her head. “But to him they were only words. We’re good at breaking words in my family.” Her laugh was cruel.

Qwella reached out for Eshant’s hand, relieved when Eshant didn’t pull away. “So don’t break it.” She pursed her lips.

Eshant’s fingertips brushed her cheek and Qwella shivered. The sadness on Eshant’s face had bled away with her tears, her flushed cheeks dry now, though her smile had faded in favour of some far less obvious emotion. She really was a handsome woman.

The last time they’d been down here, Qwella had kissed her. She could feel the sweet saltiness of that kiss tickling her lips now, as if the gaze roaming across Qwella’s lips had a touch of its own.

Eshant smiled warmly. “Has anyone ever told you you’re beautiful?”

Qwella forced herself to keep still, forced herself not to break their stare.

Plenty of people had called Qwella beautiful at the palace, but whether they’d meant it was a different matter. Men sometimes said she had a pretty face, as though it were a consolation for her less than desirable body. She shifted awkwardly on the grass.

“Rarely. I’m not a beautiful woman.” Qwella tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, and it came out sounding harsh.

Eshant scrunched her nose. “You’re very beautiful.” She straightened, uncrossing her legs, and the movement sent a thrill up Qwella’s spine, like Eshant had reached out and touched her. Then she did reach out and touch her. Eshant’s hand smoothed down Qwella’s back, first flat, then tracing the ridge of her spine, her curves.

They were so close together, closer than Qwella had been with anyone besides Sabé. He’d never held her like this though, or touched her so tenderly. Eshant’s hand was warm through the cloth of her robe.

“Next time,” Qwella trembled, shifting so she was at the same height as Eshant, so their breaths mingled like swirls of incense in the air, “make sure he can’t hit you.” Qwella met Eshant’s eyes, lips so close . . . so close.

Eshant stiffened for only a moment, but then she ran her fingers over Qwella’s thigh. “I think you know it’s more complicated than that.” She kissed Qwella’s cheek. “I think you understand.”

Qwella did know; she did understand. But Qwella also knew Hima was right, that there were less obvious ways to fight back. And Eshant was tall and strong—as much as any man. She could stand up to her father in a way Qwella could never have stood up to her husband. “Don’t let him. Don’t ever let him.”

“But you never stood up to Sabeq, did you?” Eshant’s voice seemed to dare Qwella to say otherwise. “Tell me about that.”

Could she? She thought of the scorpion painted in Qalita’s lap: subtle, venomous, deadly.

He was just lying there. A scorpion or a snake bite, the physician said. I found him lying on the floor. I found him lying there.

But then, the whisper Qwella had spoken into Qalita’s mouth: I killed my husband.

Qwella cupped Eshant’s shoulder, nervous and wanting. She wasn’t ready to talk about Sabeq, especially not about what she’d done to him, or the details of why she’d made that choice. Eshant was important and special. The warmth of her skin under Qwella’s fingertips was like the warmth of the sun from her memory, and the flood of emotion, the build in her chest—that was a little like what she’d felt remembering her aunt, only different. A different kind of love, or something like love.

“It’s all right,” said Eshant. “You can tell me. I’ll understand.”

Of course Eshant would understand, but understanding wasn’t all that mattered. “There’s not much to it,” she blurted. “He hurt me, and now I’m here, and he’s in Molot’s Garden where he can’t hurt me anymore.” She gripped Eshant tighter. “But there is something.” She swallowed. “I found something in here.” She pointed. “The flowers, when you pull them up, they grow back, like magic. And there’s writing on the wall—I think it’s my aunt’s. She used to rent rooms here, and she talks about something called the water of life.”

Her words had rushed out, and Eshant was staring.

She leaned in and kissed Qwella’s cheek. “You think this water of life has something to do with the flowers?”

Qwella stared. For some reason, she hadn’t connected the two. “Well . . . .” The memory that she’d walked inside when she touched Meg’s writing stung like an insect bite, but it seemed false somehow, like she had just dreamed it, had fallen asleep against the wall and maybe Eshant had woken her.

Eshant laughed. It reached her eyes. For a moment, the redness on her cheeks seemed to disappear, smothered by her joy. “Qalita’s magic. I told you.”

Why didn’t she seem surprised? Had Eshant already known somehow? Or maybe to her it simply wasn’t surprising. Magic, for Eshant, might be as ordinary as breathing. She was a creature of this temple, in a way Qwella still couldn’t claim to be.

The moon blossoms Eshant had torn up were already mended, lying beside her, their naked roots white and new. Qwella reached for one of the flowers, creating an unwelcome space between her and Eshant. She tore one of the petals in half, rubbed its delicate skin against hers, watched its purple blush dull as it wrinkled. Then she let it rest a moment on her palm. The larger plant regrew, and the petal fragment flexed back to its original shape and paled to its natural colour, though it didn’t grow a whole new plant like before.

Qwella frowned. She really didn’t understand anything about the sanctuary, or the flowers, or Qalita’s magic.

Eshant took Qwella’s hand. She kissed it as the flower fell from Qwella’s fingers. “Injuries vanish,” she said, the words tiny vibrations against Qwella’s skin.

“You think it’s the water of life?” Qwella’s voice wavered as she struggled to shape anything like a coherent thought, or sentence, with Eshant touching her.

Eshant pulled her mouth away. “I think it was you. The way you made my worries vanish.”

Qwella frowned. She groped for Eshant’s hand, stopping her where she’d been drawing invisible shapes on Qwella’s thigh. She folded her fingers over Eshant’s. “I’ll make sure your father doesn’t hurt you again, and you can make sure no one hurts me.” She couldn’t face Sabeq’s lingering spirit just now, not even with Eshant, but they could protect and comfort one another. In a way, it was the same thing.

Eshant nodded, wrapping her own fingers between Qwella’s. “We could do that.” She pushed their bodies forward, laying Qwella down atop flowers that couldn’t die, and stones hiding words written in the hand of a ghost.

“We could or we will?” A fire had started in Qwella’s chest, bright and burning. “Do you promise? You’ll never let anyone hurt me, not ever?”

Eshant’s face was in shadow as she bent down to kiss Qwella’s lips, but for an instant Qwella thought she spotted a tear slip away from the corner of Eshant’s eye.

“I promise.”

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