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Chapter 8: Kings
Qwella – Qemassen: The Temple of Qalita
Dansila, Sadat, and Elishah were a line of painted dolls, necks slender and long, features so even as to have been carved from marble. Their hair was lush, dark, and tamed beautifully, their skin like bronze. What efforts they must make to appear so synchronous, like goddesses themselves. Whatever niceness Dansila pretended at, it was clear that she knew her beauty, that she believed it was she, and not Qwella, who looked the princess.
A whiff of sandalwood drifted past Qwella’s nose, and she sniffed, another sneeze coming on. She sucked it back. The scent wasn’t the smell of incense from the small prayer room, but Dansila’s favoured oil.
“We came to speak with you, Sese,” Dansila murmured, head bowed.
Qwella smiled ruefully and stood from her seated position before Qalita’s statue.
They all knew it was inappropriate for Qwella to be appended the honorific. This was mockery dressed up as propriety. Well, Qwella might be easily flustered, but she wasn’t a fool, and she was older than Dansila and all her friends.
“What about?” Qwella pursed her lips.
“The role Daana et-Titrit gave you in today’s exorcism, and your brother’s unfortunate condition.”
When Daana had come to Qwella to ask if she would take part in Ashtaroth’s exorcism she’d nearly laughed. It seemed an ill-conceived joke that her little brother should have need of such a thing. He’d always been quiet and bookish, but if that was all it took to become possessed, then Qwella must be as susceptible as Ashtaroth to the attentions of demons.
“How kind of you,” Qwella replied. “I’ll inform him of your concern, if I have a chance to speak with him.”
That seemed to give Dansila pause. She mustn’t have expected such an offer. To be mentioned even in passing to the crown prince was a great honour.
“I thank you.” Dansila said, without her usual enmity.
The three women looked up.
Qwella continued to smile. She really ought to get going to the baths to prepare for the ritual. “There’s no need. He’ll appreciate the gesture.”
“The crown prince is most gracious.” Poison flashed in Dansila’s eyes. “There was another thing, before you return to your duties.”
Sadat glanced at her leader. “We were concerned about your part in the ceremony.”
“It seems strangely chosen,” squeaked Elishah.
“It seems that you are inappropriately favoured above the rest of us.” Dansila’s voice was thick with self-righteousness. “Above even the Ashqata. And surely, if an acolyte is to take part, a more experienced girl should have been chosen―Eshant et-Loriqa, for instance? She’s been here a long time. And there’s Nunat—she’s nearly an Ashqat herself.”
So, this was their game. Qwella shouldn’t be surprised. She met Dansila’s stare. “And you, Dansila, there’s you.” Besides, Eshant was helping with the exorcism.
Dansila’s full lips puckered. “We’ve discussed it, and we agree you should decline the honour in favour of one of the others.”
Qwella all but scoffed. Who was Dansila to command her? If she acquiesced to Dansila’s demands now, it would only prove to Dansila that she could order Qwella around. “I will do no such thing. Ashtaroth is my brother; that’s why I was chosen.”
Sadat sniffed. “We have no brothers, only sisters here.”
“It’s because you’re the king’s daughter, that’s all.” Elishah’s voice was flush with spite.
“And Sabeq’s wife,” Dansila added, “Qanmi eq-Sabaal has a long reach.”
Could they speak only in threes? Triplicate, like Qalita’s three faces. But who was the ass, who the serpent, and who the hound?
Qwella smirked. “My appointment has nothing to do with Qanmi. He grew tired of me when I refused him as husband.” And Qwella didn’t want or need to be reminded of his reach. “It’s Eshant who called me here. And Eshant is taking part in the ritual.”
Dansila’s expression darkened. She tilted her head at Sadat, and Sadat approached Qwella.
Qwella’s smile melted. Surely they wouldn’t be so foolish as to hurt her?
Elishah walked toward Qwella from the left, and Dansila from the front. She’d had her hands folded, but now that she’d unclasped them, Qwella saw she held a knife in her hand.
Qwella backed against Qalita’s statue. She grasped for something to defend herself, but there was only the incense. Perhaps she could burn them with it, but probably not before they killed her. And they must be planning to kill her—there was no point in merely threatening her when Daana had been the one to command Qwella to attend the exorcism. Even if Qwella had wanted to refuse, she couldn’t.
Qwella dashed for one of the side entrances, but the women were too close, and their wicked fingers tangled in her hair, wrapped about her arms, and pulled her down. She screamed as her hair was torn from her scalp. Qwella thrashed, but their grips were too tight.
Dansila, her fist ripping Qwella’s hair, stepped around her, looking her in the eyes. “It must feel good to be able to refuse a man. What luxury you have. I wish Qanmi had been offered to me. I would have taken him.” With her jaw clenched, she didn’t look so pretty anymore.
Tears of pain beaded in the corners of Qwella’s eyes. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew him like I do.”
“Don’t pretend he doesn’t still help you,” Dansila spat. “And don’t tell me what I think. You’re no one to me, and you’re no one in here.” She twisted Qwella’s hair.
“I didn’t say I was.” Qwella’s scalp was on fire, her knees threatening to collapse and land her on the floor. But the three women forced her to maintain an uncomfortable crouch. “Are you going to kill me?”
The tap of a cane hitting the stonework echoed from the corridor outside the prayer room.
Please let it be Daana.
Dansila pulled the blade away. She stepped back. “No. I was going to cut your hair, like those brothers of yours.”
Qwella didn’t believe her. It was only the tap of the cane that had stopped her. She spat at Dansila’s feet. “Nephews. And why don’t you?”
Dansila let her hand fall at her side. Sadat and Elishah loosened their grip.
Qwella tumbled forward onto her hands and knees. Her wrists ached, but she wouldn’t show it.
“I’m no slave,” said Dansila, “and I won’t behave like one.”
The tap of the cane grew louder, then stopped.
Qwella stared past the tangled clump of hair that hung in front of her eyes. Samelqo was standing in the doorway. Dansila and her pets stared at him.
“Leave me,” Qwella said.
The fight flew from Dansila as quickly as it had come, and she motioned to her friends for them to follow her out. They each bent their heads to the heq-Ashqen as they passed.
Qwella didn’t stand until they’d left, trying to fix her hair as best she could.
“What was that about?” Samelqo clutched a cane in his hand. A complicated linen brace was strapped around his leg and his broken arm hung in a sling.
“Nothing. Only temple business.”
“Temple business is best dealt with decisively. A gentle hand only encourages future slights, in my experience.” He hobbled forward. The closer he got, the clearer it was how unclear the old priest’s eyes were, how shaky his grip on his phoenix-headed cane. How long would it be until not only Daana required a replacement, but Samelqo as well?
“You look well,” Qwella lied.
“And you,” said Samelqo, but there was little kindness in it. The heq-Ashqen bared his teeth in what might have been a smile. His withered lips quivered. “Is there nowhere to sit?”
Qwella pointed to an adjoining door. “In there. We have some stools.”
He didn’t move to enter. “Is it private?”
“Yes.” Qwella extended her elbow.
Samelqo accepted her offer of help, allowing her to lead him into the suffocating little chamber where furniture and incense were stored. She helped him to a plain wooden stool next to the wall, then sat across from him.
Her hair was still a mess, and as she awaited whatever delicate news he planned to impart to her, she did her best to tame it.
“The prince has been cursed,” Samelqo said, “by a bau, if my interpretation is correct.”
“A bau?” She was surprised that Samelqo would speak so openly with her about Ashtaroth’s affliction.
Samelqo drew in a breath. “A personal demon, an antagonistic form of a god, or goddess sent to hound Ashtaroth in particular.”
“I know what a bau is,” Qwella snapped. “But why Ashtaroth? What’s he done to bring Qalita’s wrath on him? Unless it’s a blessing of some kind.” She added the last tentatively, as though it were an innocent thought that had only now occurred to her, and not a rival interpretation she’d been stewing on.
She felt the weight of his gaze, disdainful and suspicious. “Not a blessing, I think. At first I believed the demon was related to Ashtara, but it occurs to me the family has a much deeper connection to Qalita through another sister.”
No need to say who. Qwella frowned. “Daana told me he saw this girl long before I became an acolyte. And what’s so wrong with my choice? A priest should understand.”
“Don’t play coy with me, woman. We both know your dealings with Qalita stretch back further than your service in her temple. There are spirits that have not yet been put to rest in Molot’s Garden.” He paused. “You have nothing to say to that?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Qwella said. “And how could you know such things from your tower?”
He hunched forward. “The advantage of towers is their excellent view. You can’t lie to me and say it was piety that led you to choose this life. Perhaps, if you’d chosen the temple of Ashtet, I’d have believed you, but it’s awfully convenient that service to Qalita requires you live unmarried.”
So Samelqo was no fool. What of it? He couldn’t know she’d killed her husband. “I received a sign from the goddess. After Sabé’s funeral, I witnessed a procession in the riad. One of the Ashqata looked up at me. I knew then what I had to do.”
Samelqo stared at her long and hard. He let out a wheeze. “You betrayed your father’s wishes. You damaged his standing before the Semassenqa. If you’d chosen Ashtet, you could have been married to Qanmi now, strengthening the ties between your houses.”
Qwella furrowed her brow. “The ties between our houses do not require strengthening; my house does not require strengthening. Unless you think my father weak? Whatever your opinion, it’s done now. I’m an acolyte of Qalita, and I will serve her until my death, and in so doing, my father and my family.”
Samelqo bared his teeth again. “Then come now and serve your goddess well. Daana et-Titrit will be waiting with the others. You must wash before the ceremony.” Samelqo creaked to his feet.
This time, Qwella strode past him without helping. He couldn’t speak to her that way, Semassenqa or no, and Ashtaroth’s bau couldn’t have anything to do with her, or it wouldn’t have taken the form of a little girl. Besides, Qalita would never avenge a man like Sabeq or listen to Qanmi’s manly whispers.
She neither looked back, nor spoke to Samelqo as they walked.
The bathing room was filled with Ashqata preparing themselves for Ashtaroth’s ceremony, and from behind a cloud of steam, Qwella spied her brother being washed. Ashtaroth hugged his sides and cast nervous glances at the women scrubbing and dabbing his skin. She was about to call to him when Daana approached. Her robes hung over her shoulders, not yet knotted closed, so that her breasts and belly were visible.
Samelqo’s cane clinked against the floor behind Qwella.
“I see you found her, Sese,” Daana said to Samelqo. “Do you need assistance washing?”
Qalita willing, the answer would be no. Qwella didn’t need nude Samelqo haunting her dreams tonight.
“I have already cleansed myself,” said Samelqo. “We can begin as soon as everyone has finished.”
Daana snapped her fingers, making Qwella jump.
From behind her, the scuffle of Eshant’s familiar footsteps approached. Qwella felt Eshant’s breath caress her ear and her cheek—or thought she did.
“Eshant, please see Qwella is taken care of.” Daana slipped away, and the two Ashqata who accompanied her everywhere appeared as though summoned and guided her from the room.
“I can wash myself,” Qwella hastened.
Foolish, she knew, after Eshant had touched her so intimately already, but it was different being touched and being seen. When you were touched, imagination could fill in the details however it liked, and in Qwella’s experience, much more favourably. To be seen was different. The eye was cruel where the hand was generous. It cut and carved as keen as any knife.
But Eshant stepped toward her. “It’s no trouble.” There was a hint of amusement in Eshant’s voice.
Qwella sneaked a look at Ashtaroth as the Ashqata attending him led him from the bath to be dried. Samelqo seemed to have slithered from the room without Qwella noticing.
Eshant took Qwella’s hand in her own and dragged her toward one of the stone baths. At least Qwella wouldn’t have to listen to Samelqo any longer. She slapped Eshant’s hand and unclasped her own garments, letting them fall to the floor without turning to watch Eshant’s expression. She walked forward quickly, up the steps to the bath, and immersed herself in the water.
“There’s no need to be so shy.” Eshant raised a sponge and pressed it to Qwella’s shoulder, following the curve until the sponge dipped beneath the water. “You must be used to being bathed.”
Qwella remained stubbornly quiet. It wasn’t the same at all.
Eshant bent closer to trace the swell of Qwella’s hip and thigh. Their cheeks touched, and Qwella rolled her shoulders as Eshant tickled her skin. Finally, she closed her eyes and eased back against the stone, forgetting her nervousness and the presence of the other women in the room.
“Why did Daana know to ask you to wash me?”
“Daana knows everything that goes on here.” Eshant paused, then laughed. “But maybe I did ask her.” She gave Qwella’s shoulder a playful nudge with the sponge.
Qwella opened her eyes and took Eshant’s fingers in her own. “Thank you.”
“We’re not done yet.”
Feeling bold, Qwella turned and splashed Eshant. She smiled as Eshant squealed. “We’re done when I say we are.” The water soaked through the thin fabric of the robe Eshant had been dressed in for the ritual, clinging to her skin.
“Oh?” Water dripped from Eshant’s face. Eshant plunged her arm into the water and splashed Qwella back.
She was about to grab Eshant’s wrist and tug her closer to the tub, when the last remaining Ashqata left the room, reminding her of the real reason for her bath: Ashtaroth.
The ritual would be starting, and Qwella was playing games with Eshant. She should be thinking about the exorcism. They should be joining Daana in the debir. Otherwise, Dansila had been right and Qwella wasn’t worthy of participating.
“We can’t be late,” Qwella said. “My brother’s souls are at stake.”
Qwella hesitated, then stood up. What point was there in being modest? She let Eshant dry her, burying her embarrassment beneath the tenderness of Eshant’s touch. She tried not to smile or giggle as Eshant dried her knees, her toes, and the space behind her ears. It wasn’t time for laughter, but when Eshant kissed her forehead and nose, she smiled so wide she thought her face would split apart. It was hard to be unhappy.
When Qwella was dressed, they walked to the holy debir beneath the temple, where the ceremony would be held.
In the narrow corridor that stretched to either side of the debir’s entrance, Daana and Samelqo stood beside the open doorway. Clouds of incense curled around them.
Qwella stopped at the base of the steps. She focused on Daana so that she wouldn’t have to look at the heq-Ashqen and bowed her head. “Apologies, Sese, if we kept you waiting.”
“No need,” said Daana.
Samelqo slipped inside the debir without comment, disappearing inside the billowing incense. His feet squelched as they trudged the muddy earth where Qwella had once found sanctuary from men like him.
She had to swallow before she could face Daana. “Forgive me, Sese, but is it right that a man step inside?”
Daana smiled. “You have much to learn. The heq-Ashqen of Qemassen has whispered their secret into Qalita’s mouth for hundreds of years. It’s part of the ascension to the post. Samelqo eq-Milqar was no different.” She pointed. “Look, there. Your brother whispers his now.”
It felt wrong, like the sun rising at night. Like slaves slitting the skin of kings.
“Don’t be so troubled.” Daana’s voice was soothing. “Ashtaroth is sacred in his own way. It is a brash king who baulks at the favour of the gods, and he must serve Qalita as faithfully as her own priestesses do. Besides, I feel this prince has more in common with the women here than you might think.”
Qwella breathed in. “What do you mean? Will my brother be all right?”
The reassuring smile that had so calmed Qwella faded from Daana’s face. In the darkness of the corridor, with incense roiling in the air, she was a spectre. “Qalita will what she will.”
Past the smoke, Qwella could just make out a circle of Ashqata swinging thuribles back and forth. They ringed the pomegranate tree at the centre of the vast room. Ashtaroth knelt beneath the tree with his back to the doorway.
One of the Ashqata held a goat on a lead. It bleated as the Ashqat led it to the centre of the circle.
“When will it be time?” Qwella knew the rite was crucial, but she wanted it to be over.
“When you’re ready.” Daana walked away, disappearing into the smoke.
Eshant moved behind her, startling her. Qwella had forgotten she was there.
“What secret do you think your brother spoke?” Eshant asked.
Qwella shook her head. “Whatever it was, it’s Qalita’s to know.” Just like Samelqo’s secret, spoken years ago, she supposed. She had an inkling whatever it was had been to do with Aunt Meg and her research.
She clasped Eshant’s hand. “Let’s go.”
Eshant matched Qwella’s stride, and they stepped onto the muddy floor of the debir. The distant stone walls were festooned with garlands of hemlock and other poisonous blossoms. With the flowers, it was so like the secret chamber below.
An Ashqat handed the goat’s lead to Daana, and as the heq-Ashqat took her position beside Ashtaroth in the centre of the circle, Qwella noticed a curved dagger in her free hand. Even from here, she could see that looping patterns covered the metal, intricate as the henna tattoos of Qalita’s devotees.
Samelqo stood to Ashtaroth’s right, Daana his left.
Ashtaroth didn’t look up. In his outstretched palms he held an olive branch and a sprig of hemlock; in his lap lay a dead scorpion.
Three large bowls filled with olive branches were set inside the circle, and as Qwella and Eshant approached, three of the women in the outer circle of marchers handed off their thuribles and entered inside the circle to kneel before each of the bowls.
Samelqo’s attention turned to Qwella. She sucked in a breath, the hairs on her arms standing up as he shifted his gaze to Eshant and Qwella’s clasped hands.
As if Eshant had noticed Samelqo’s look, she rubbed her fingers over Qwella’s.
Did their affection trouble him? And if it did, would he do something about it? When Daana had welcomed Qwella to Qalita’s breast, she’d made it sound like the temple was a safe place for all the women who entered the goddess’s service, but Samelqo’s reach stretched far—farther even than Qanmi eq-Sabaal’s, perhaps.
“Does the temple ever frighten you?” Qwella asked.
“It’s all right, just do as I do,” Eshant whispered, clearly misunderstanding the source of Qwella’s unease.
“That’s not—” Qwella stopped and let Eshant lead her into the circle.
Eshant’s fingers fell from Qwella’s as Eshant slipped into the rhythm of the march, and a sheet of cold crept over Qwella’s skin.
Without a thurible to swing, Qwella fidgeted with her hands. The incense had thinned, but every so often Eshant would cough as she stepped into the clouds trailing the woman in front of her.
The three women in the inner circle raised their bowls. One by one the seven marchers each took a branch from inside the vessels.
Qwella gripped her branch, the wood wiry and strong, its end coated in thick, syrupy blood from the bottom of the bowl. The blood belonged to an earlier sacrifice—a goat, Qwella thought, though she hadn’t been present for the slaughter. A cold red drop hit her foot and she struggled to keep silent.
She dipped her fingers deep inside the bowl from where she’d taken the branch, right to the base as she’d been told, submerging her hand in blood. She daubed her cheeks in red, the smell of copper itchy in her nose.
“Spirit of Qalita,” Daana spoke, and the circular march resumed. “Expel yourself from this body, bless this body. Protectress against poisons, Mother of Venom, Mother of Night. Let your serpents shed their skin. Let them come out like smoke from a fire, fleeing into the trees. Blood-Drinker who comes from the Slaughterhouse, Bau of the Western desert, the Backward-Facing one of the Abyss, Queen who licks the excrement from her hindquarters. You who are benevolent, the gentle goddess, the healing goddess, the warder, the kindly one.”
Ashtaroth’s eyes were glazed over. A cup of flowers rested beside him. He’d been given a potion to drink, lotus tea or sapenta. Qwella wanted to look away, but for all the world Ashtaroth looked dead, and she couldn’t stop staring.
“Return to the Earth-Shakers beneath the desert,” said Samelqo. “Return to the desert wanderer. Return to Molot, your good husband. Your son awaits you. Follow his kid into the wastes. Leven and Pepet await you in the underearth.”
Qwella passed Ashtaroth again. His brown skin was lusterless, and his gaze followed something invisible around the room. She shivered and looked away, feeling the absence of Eshant’s fingers around hers.
Samelqo raised a curved ivory wand. Apotropaic symbols and words were carved into its surface, and its head was the head of the goddess. Its end was shaped like two serpents coiled together: Leven and Pepet, the Earth-Shakers who lived hidden beneath the ground, whose voices frightened even the sun.
Ashtaroth began mumbling beneath his breath—nonsense words, or maybe a foreign tongue. As a child she’d been taught nearly every language in the world, though she didn’t remember them now. This was different. The sounds were like Massenqa sounds, but the words themselves were unfamiliar.
Daana gripped the goat’s head. It bucked as she stretched its neck back. She quickly drew the blade across, and it thrashed as blood sprayed onto those closest. The more it bled, the tighter Daana pulled back its head.
Ashtaroth’s face was plastered red. His eyes were wide and horrid, his face was that of a stranger. “DANNAE DANNAE DANNAE!”
Eshant stumbled at Ashtaroth’s scream. Qwella almost bumped into her but laid her hand on Eshant’s shoulder to steady her instead.
Eshant was shaking. She pulled away from Qwella, straightened, and resumed the march.
“Around and around and around repeating,” Ashtaroth spoke, quieter now. “The marriage is false. The blood thins.” And then he said something else, in the foreign tongue again. He followed it with the name Moniqa.
Qwella stiffened, tightening her hold on the branch.
“Meghigda et-Eshant, Eshant et-Nila,” Ashtaroth continued, speaking their aunt and grandmother’s names. “Lena et-Lioheria. Liberio—”
Samelqo raised his voice to be heard over Ashtaroth’s rambling. “In the water-meadows, in the thunder underground, a cup waits for you to drink it. Wand, let not our prince be scared by shadows. Let not our prince be transfixed by dreams. Let him not dribble. Let him not babble. Let him not stutter. Clothe him, feed him. Come not into his house and look not behind you. Breach not the boundary of his house, nor the houses of his family, touch him not save but to grant him breath. Turn away, great lady. Turn away.”
Ashtaroth hung his neck back, staring at the top of the tree branches. “Daughter of death.”
The sound vanished from the room, snuffed out like a candle. An instant later, it returned, muffled, as though Qwella were underwater and struggling to hear the conversation happening above the surface. Instinctively, she reached for Eshant’s shoulder, but it wasn’t Eshant marching ahead of her. The women in the circle were strangers robed in black.
The marcher behind her gave her a nudge, and her feet scuffed sand.
A glance down proved she was right. A glance upwards again and she was staring at a bruised purple sky. Great dunes surrounded them, cresting high as waves during a storm.
“Eshant?” Qwella turned around, searching the hooded faces of the marchers. Daana, Samelqo, and Ashtaroth were gone as well. Instead, two children watched her from the centre of the circle. Their clothes were foreign, though they might be of Indas like Qwella’s mother, to judge by their features. Their hair was gathered in braids and slung over their shoulders so that it hung over their plain wool tunics. One of the children was taller, with an angry scar in the shape of a star carved into her cheek. Her eyes bored into Qwella’s, angry as a vengeful goddess.
Qwella hurried on to escape the woman’s piercing gaze, but when she tried to step from the circle, she couldn’t move. Her feet plodded forward without her consent, and this time, when she rounded the circle again, the two children had been replaced by a pale-faced boy, half his face destroyed by rot and red hair tumbling over his shoulders. The sand was gone, and he was standing before a deep black pool.
A third turn of the circle and it was Aunt Meg standing at its centre with an unknown woman beside her. The woman had a kindly, impish face, russet skin, and tight curls like Qwella’s. She clutched one of Tanata’s sacred razors to her chest. She started to smile, and water poured from her lips as blood bloomed from her sex. A wound opened in Aunt Meg’s side.
Qwella gripped the olive branch so hard it snapped.
The line of women stopped. Qwella bumped into the woman in front of her.
The sound rushed back in.
Qwella caught herself, sucking in air like she really had been trapped underwater.
“Qwella!” Eshant grabbed her elbows, hefting her to her feet, though Qwella hadn’t even realized she’d been falling.
The other Ashqata were staring, but Samelqo kept his attention on Ashtaroth the whole while as he recited the last of the exorcismal prayer.
“Turn away, great lady.” Samelqo bent and placed a protective talisman in the prince’s hand. He folded Ashtaroth’s fingers closed over it. “Turn away.”
The blood of the goat soaked the ground around Qwella’s feet, seeping deep into the earth from which the impossible tree drew its sustenance.
Daughter of death.
The words drummed in Qwella’s ears as incense flooded her nose.