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Chapter 9: Families
Uta – Qemassen: The Palace
There was someone inside Samelqo’s rooms. The door was ajar, and no guards were posted outside. Samelqo had left for the exorcism.
Uta crept silently up the last steps, then lingered on the small landing. She pressed her cheek to the wood and listened. Someone was moving about—a man, to judge by the heft of the footfalls. Could it be one of Zioban’s people? Uta was to meet some of them in a few nights, according to what Zioban had told her, but with the heq-Ashqen busy with Ashtaroth’s exorcism, perhaps Zioban had seized an opportunity.
Uta hovered at the door, uncertain. She slunk inside, fists clenched, just in case.
King Eshmunen stood before one of the tables, poking through papyri. Alone.
“My king!” Uta bowed so fast that when she lifted her head the room spun.
He crooked two of his fingers at her, beckoning her into the room.
Uta closed the doors behind her, squinting at the brightness of the evening sun.
Eshmunen took a seat on one of the settees along the walls. He clutched its edge as though he might fall without the support. “I know the heq-Ashqen hasn’t returned yet, but I couldn’t sleep. I find myself troubled. Forgive me.”
“Forgive you?” She should be used to King Eshmunen by now, yet his lack of propriety disarmed her. She sat behind Samelqo’s desk, her movements measured, the better to project a calm she didn’t feel.
“For the intrusion.” Eyes downcast, Eshmunen may as well have been carrying on a conversation with the floor.
“There’s no need, Sese. You’re always welcome here.” Uta sat in silence, unable to keep herself from staring as Eshmunen continued in his forlorn pose. Couldn’t he leave her in peace? Who knew when Samelqo would return?
The king would often wax gloomy when he came to the tower, but today he seemed even more so. He and Ashtaroth were much alike: seeking solace from the heq-Ashqen, whining to his slaves when Samelqo himself wasn’t available, using Uta and her husband both.
It made her sick to think of it. But what was the alternative? Ask the king to go? He didn’t care that she might be busy herself, that she might have wanted to use these rooms.
“What do they call you, woman? I’ve forgotten.” He was ever sombre, Eshmunen, ever sad.
She didn’t believe for a moment, though, that he’d forgotten her. “Uta, Sese. Uta et-Lohit.”
“And where are you from?” Eshmunen’s grip on the rim of the settee tightened.
“The palace, Sese.”
“That’s no place to come from.”
Uta shifted on Samelqo’s chair. “Even so, it is where I was born.”
Was that a smile struggling to be born at the corners of Eshmunen’s mouth? “Then we come from the same place, you and I. But I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered what you said. The common houses of Qemassen are as mysterious to me as the island of Ull. It could be another world behind those sandstone walls. It could be Indas.”
Trading wit with Eshmunen was not how Uta had envisioned her time away from her husband. She clenched her jaw, deciding on a point of inquiry that might cause him to leave. If Moniqa was the scab Eshmunen wanted to pick at, Uta was happy to indulge him. “Why Indas?”
The dying sun cast deep shadows inside the tower, stretching Eshmunen’s shade until it grew long and thin. A subtle breeze could dissolve it into fragments.
Uta raised a hand to shield her eyes from the light.
Eshmunen glanced out the window, as though he could see Indas stretched before him. “It’s a place to which I long to go, but where I will never go. If Moniqa doesn’t haunt my rooms, Indas is where she lives. You know, I wish she did haunt me. I wish she hounded me like the bau that hounds my son. At least then I’d know she was close. At least I’d know she felt something for me, even hatred.”
It was unlikely Eshmunen would wish Moniqa’s hatred upon him if he knew what it entailed. Uta’s scar throbbed, a dull ache that gnawed at her eye socket. Here lay Moniqa’s ghost, miniscule and venomous as an insect.
“Her spirit is with Tanata, Sese,” said Uta.
Eshmunen looked up, glaring, eyes moist and red at their corners.
“You know better than her husband, do you?” he asked.
Uta stood to tend to the wall-sconces. She could have, and probably should have, called for a slave, but with Eshmunen grimacing at her, the familiarity of the task was comforting.
“It’s what the priests tell me happens to good women,” said Uta. “I find it comforting, to think of my mother as a passenger in Tanata’s fleet.”
A slave-woman like Lohit would never have been worthy of Tanata’s barge. Uta’s family wasn’t sailing alongside the gods any more than Moniqa had loved Eshmunen.
The reply had the desired effect though, and Eshmunen turned from her, wearing his melancholy like a shroud. “My wife didn’t believe in Tanata, only Adonen.”
“Then she’s with him.” If all he wanted was to be placated, Uta could manage that, dull as it would be.
“If that’s true, then surely I’ll never see her again. I thought of conversion, of risking Tanata’s ire by dragging this city with me, but Moniqa always said Adonen saw the truth in people’s hearts. He would know it was no true change in me, and he’d keep her away in punishment.”
Uta approached one of the braziers. The coals that were tended day-long to maintain the fire glowed red and strong, and when the first flames curled from the wood on top, she stared straight into the fire, pinning herself to the spot till her eye watered. “The gods wouldn’t be so cruel. The city’s prospered since your sacrifice. You’re favoured by Abaal. When you become immortal, you’ll be able to reunite yourself with the queen.”
The idea of Eshmunen as any kind of god was horrifying.
“The day she died . . . .” Eshmunen wetted his lips and swallowed. “You saw my Moniqa before they killed her. What was she like? Paint me an image with words the way the poets do.”
Uta rammed the metal poker she’d been using straight into the coals. Sparks burst from the brazier, dying much faster than Uta’s hatred.
Damn him for asking such a thing of her, to relive those moments and be forced to make a paragon of a monster. Uta could paint an image with words about as well as a poet could scrub floors, but it would be no use admitting as much. Slaves and their skills were clearly interchangeable to Eshmunen, just as their personal tragedies were negligible in his eyes.
Uta cleared her throat harshly, a sliver of rebellion, unremarked upon and more than likely unnoticed. “The queen was angry.” Her ugly, round face was distorted into the likeness of a hag. “No, not angry. She was maternal love personified, she was Tanata blazing fiery and crimson.” The sacks of her cheeks were great red bellows, hot and stretched, bulbous as a blister. “I saw a terrible purpose in her eyes. She saw no one but the prince.” She was mad as a wild dog. Her eyes rolled in her skull. Her teeth gnashed. “She had blood on her dress, and she ran for him—for Aurelius eq-Eshmunen.” She was drenched in death, her victims long forgotten, and then she ran at me, this harpy. She meant to kill me―or worse, maybe she didn’t even care, didn’t see me. It didn’t matter to her that she might have destined all of us for death. She probably didn’t know the names of the women she’d already killed, probably didn’t remember my name, the way you don’t remember my name. Uta gave the fire a final shove. It hissed as the poker scraped the charred coals, and the sound was the keen of Moniqa et-Lioheria just before she’d blinded Uta.“That’s all I remember, Sese. You’d have to ask the prince for the rest.”
“Aurelius?” he asked. “He won’t speak of it. He claims not to remember.”
If Eshmunen had ever spent more than a few fleeting moments with any of his children, he might have understood why his son would keep quiet. Eshmunen knew nothing of a parent’s love, nothing of fear, nothing of true loss.
She plunged the poker into the bucket of water beside the brazier. “You don’t believe him?”
“Aurelius and I have long been estranged. But you know that, don’t you?” Eshmunen turned his golden eyes on her, and for a moment, Uta felt she really was looking into the soul of a great man. Then the illusion faded, as the spark in Eshmunen’s eyes faded.
Uta nodded. “It’s hard not to know. The whole city knows.”
“Do they?” He sounded genuinely surprised. “Even the bottom-feeders of the Qelebet?”
Uta stifled a laugh at his ignorance. “Especially the bottom-feeders. Word travels fast.”
Eshmunen sighed. “And what does the word have to say of the succession, of Ashtaroth?”
Was this why he’d really come? A sudden change in tone suggested he was eager to know, that this was of great import to him.
The door creaked open and Samelqo’s wan visage materialized from the darkened hall. He carried an oil lamp in one hand, his face aglow with fevered energy. Whatever he’d seen at the temple had upset him.
Eshmunen stood, his robes dragging on the floor. “How is my son?”
Samelqo nodded to someone outside the room before entering. He closed the door behind him.
Uta started toward her husband to help him to his desk, but he waved her toward it instead. She took a seat, frowning at the way he hobbled on his braced leg.
“He has every protection available to us. I believe he will be well. His marriage should give his soul strength, in both his own eyes and those of the gods. The Ashqata have done well.” The way Samelqo hovered over Uta, staring past the surface of his desk, suggested the exorcism hadn’t gone well at all. Did he lie for Eshmunen’s sake? And would Samelqo be honest with her once the king had left?
“See they’re well paid.” Eshmunen seemed satisfied and sat down again, though he clasped his hands together and twiddled his thumbs. “I was asking your wife what people think of the succession.”
“Uta?” Samelqo looked at her askance as though wondering why Eshmunen had bothered. “And what did she say?”
“Nothing yet,” Uta broke in, irritated. Her voice was as level as she could make it, which was very level. “You arrived before I had a chance to answer.” She paused for permission to continue, and finding it, she looked away, unsure what to admit. Was it anything to Zioban’s plans what the peasantry thought of Ashtaroth? Uta had no way of knowing. “They’re hopeful, because of the prophecy. The people on the street look to Ashtaroth as their future, but . . . .”
“But?” prompted Eshmunen.
“There is a growing contingent of Semassenqa who think Aurelius would make the better king.” Surely even Eshmunen knew that? Shaqarbas and his family certainly made no secret of the fact they supported Aurelius. “They fear Himalit’s influence on Ashtaroth, and there are whispers in certain circles that the crown prince is mad or cursed.” Uta hesitated. “Some even fear that someone at court, one of your children, might be responsible for the slave attacks.” Such titters were all over the palace, though how they’d started, Uta couldn’t be sure. There could be no truth to it, much as Uta would have liked to believe Aurelius still cared some for the slaves who’d tended him.
Samelqo’s face was drawn. “That will be all, Uta. I must speak with our king in private.”
The dismissal left her cold. They couldn’t suspect her involvement with Zioban, could they? If they did, she’d already be in a cell somewhere, or on a torturer’s table.
She got up quickly but gracefully. Neither of the men turned her way as she bowed and left.
Samelqo’s words as she closed the door came to her broken, incomplete: “—what I’ve learned, you’ll—”
It must be sensitive information indeed that Samelqo was conveying to the king, something to do with this spirit that had attached itself to Ashtaroth.
Uta made it to the first step before the weight of the opportunity struck her. The obedient wife in her wanted to do as she was told and find some suitable activity to pass the time, but the other Uta—Uta the former slave—allowed her gaze to linger on the door to the cellar. It wasn’t treachery, exactly, to learn what was being discussed upstairs, merely prudence. Listening didn’t mean she would have to report to Zioban, only that she would be informed herself. She wouldn’t have to choose what to do with her information until later.
And there were any number of things the king and his heq-Ashqen might have learned, things Uta had known for longer, perhaps, than anyone—things she hadn’t even told Zioban. There was the foolishness going on between Princess Bree and Aurelius. Uta had seen them several times, knew that Dashel was assisting them. She also knew Himalit had a strong dislike of Bree, for reasons that were unclear, but likely amounted to concern over the sway Bree seemed to hold over Ashtaroth. Then again, perhaps the former heq-Damirat had discovered the truth and gone to Samelqo.
Uta smirked to herself. Samelqo was the last person Himalit would tell.
Once, Uta had heard Bree and Aurelius talking about her. Bree didn’t like the way Uta looked at him, which she’d decided was in some lustful way. Uta could admit that once that had been true, but such longing had soured in her breast as she’d grown older and wiser. She was no Feislanda maiden, to steal a prince’s attention or earn his love.
Her feet thudded onto the lowest level of the tower. She wasn’t far now from the hidden passage in the cellar. As she neared it, her eyes alit on the door that led to the Hamatri, to the tiny cubiculum where she’d spent so much time. Those evenings cramped together with that young Lora bride of Shaqarbas’s were so distant now.
What had the girl’s name been? Lyra? Lara? Whoever she was, she was lucky to have escaped slavery before Hima had rounded up Madaula and the rest.
As Uta tidied a path to the hidden door and began the march back upstairs, it was Madaula she thought of. It was for Madaula and those like her that Uta spied on her husband.
Uta forced her guilt down. Conscience was one thing she would have to lose, as Zioban had schooled them. Eshmunen and his men were cruel and unmerciful, and anything less than the same would crumble beneath his resistance.
The press of the walls to either side of her grew narrower and narrower the higher she climbed, until eventually she reached the thin space between Samelqo’s audience room.
Strands of conversation drifted to her ears as she positioned herself: the corners of words and the dog-ends of sentences. She inched to one of the peepholes disguised by the murals on the other side, her buttocks scraping the wall when she bent to peek through. Her knees and back ached as she contorted herself.
These passages were made for people whose bodies hadn’t yet grown brittle from overwork.
Samelqo was at his desk now, watching the king pace back and forth with increasing ferocity.
“He’s a grown man. It’s unprecedented,” said Eshmunen.
“We wouldn’t burn him. This is to appease the gods, not the people,” said Samelqo, sombre. “It’s the gods who need convincing.”
Eshmunen stopped pacing, his voice dull and dark. “Because of your mistake.”
“A mistake I pay for in my heart a thousand times, Sese.” Samelqo shifted his broken arm awkwardly. He gripped his knee with good hand, massaging the joint as though to relieve an ache.
Uta resisted the urge to tsk. She doubted very much Samelqo had taken the medicine Qirani had prescribed.
“A thousand times is not enough.” Eshmunen’s voice grew heated. “Not enough!”
What was it that had turned the king so wroth and Samelqo so timid? They meant to kill someone, but who?
“My queen would die a second time,” Eshmunen muttered.
There was only one death that would cause such a reaction: the one Uta had lost an eye for.
Samelqo released his knee. “Then be thankful she cannot.”
Images danced in Uta’s glass eye: a small boy holding out his wooden tiger to her, a child she’d cared for turning from her in hatred, an idealistic prince refusing to meet her gaze whenever they shared a room.
Uta pressed her palm flat against the wall, her elbow scraping the rough stone behind her. She hissed in pain, swallowing the tail end of the sound.
“To see her children tearing each other’s throats,” Eshmunen mused, “turning traitor over a chair. To see them plotting behind our backs. What do you make of this talk that one of them could be behind the slave attack? Aurelius has always sympathized with them. And Hima has always been ambitious.”
Aurelius. Could he really be—? Uta hadn’t taken the rumours seriously, but King Eshmunen seemed less certain. Enough that he was willing to consider killing Aurelius.
Uta bent her nails against the wall. No. Aurelius did often talk of freeing the slaves, but it was only the idle banter of youth. Were Aurelius to succeed his father, she had no doubt he’d swiftly forget such daydreams.
And yet her breaths came harder, her pulse beat faster.
It was only the claustrophobia of the passageway, the limited air. Uta was being silly, allowing childish daydreams of her own to snare her.
“Precisely.” Samelqo inclined his head, but his tone and movements were weary. Did it pain Samelqo as much as Eshmunen? He’d never shown Aurelius much love, but then, Samelqo was much better than Eshmunen at disguising his emotions.
“We risk alienating the Inda in the court.” Eshmunen gripped his arms.
“Which would matter if they had any influence beyond what we deign to give them. If they had any power in their homeland they would be in Indas, not playing at princehood behind our walls.”
“Or marrying slaves,” Eshmunen said, his tone jesting, despite having just broached the topic of his eldest son’s murder.
Samelqo was far too dismissive of Shaqarbas, and he always had been. If Uta had been allowed to stay at her husband’s side for the discussion, she’d have warned him of that herself.
And why had Samelqo ordered her from the room? Had he wanted her to spy? No, she hadn’t got that sense from him. It was because he knew how she felt about Prince Aurelius. He understood that the need to protect neither vanished, nor diminished. He, too, saw the images captured in the space where cold glass met warm flesh.
“Uta is a good woman,” said Samelqo.
It seemed the heq-Ashqen might have said more, but Eshmunen stopped him. “I know. You were very careful in choosing a second wife. I don’t believe you would have married her if you weren’t certain of her character.”
They were talking again like old friends.
As though unwilling to end that pleasantness, neither man spoke for a while. The king paced again, but slowly, deliberately, the way he always did once he’d come round to Samelqo’s way of thinking.
Aurelius was going to die.
“How is it to happen if we’re not to burn him?” Eshmunen looked up.
Samelqo smoothed his hand over his pate. “Covertly. A public sacrifice could complicate the situation at court. The last time was difficult enough; there must be sufficient precautions.”
“Of course.” Eshmunen paused. “I don’t want to be there when it happens.”
“You must be there, Sese.” Samelqo’s voice was conciliatory. “The time for proxies has ended. It is important the gods see you giving fully of yourself.”
Was that how Samelqo had seen himself the day he’d burned Ashtara? As a proxy for King Eshmunen? A proxy who had failed. He had promised Aurelius to Molot, and now he believed Qalita tormented Ashtaroth as revenge for a promise broken.
Eshmunen scoffed. There was no fire in it. “Surely they can hear me now, see me making my choice? Are they not gods, after all?”
“What matters is the symbolism of the thing.”
Eshmunen stopped pacing. He walked to Samelqo’s desk and pressed his hands down on the surface. When he looked up, Uta instinctively tried to back herself further from the spyhole. Her back bumped against the wall.
King Eshmunen was staring directly into her eye.
But he couldn’t see her.
“What symbols will the gods accept?” he asked.
Samelqo stirred, but Uta couldn’t see his face. She wanted to see that face, to read it for signs of remorse, or certainty, or doubt. “He will need to be incapacitated beforehand, to ensure he can’t escape. It will also dull the pain, and the memory. We don’t want another bau troubling the palace when we’re finished. Molot’s wine should do, and daggers for the deed itself.”
“Perhaps,” said the king, voice cold, “the night of the Feast of Ashtet? The death could be blamed on street toughs.”
Samelqo stroked his head again. The mention of the festival seemed to make him sit taller in his chair. Finally, he clucked in the back of his throat. “Not the night of the festival. It would be inauspicious for Ashtaroth’s marriage. After the festival, when all is settled. I will consult the calendars for guidance on the particulars.”
Silence reigned in the little room. It was time she left. But as she began to tiptoe away from the peephole, Eshmunen’s voice coaxed her back.
“You know, I love him still. But he is my eldest son, how could it be otherwise? I wish I did not.”
Samelqo cleared his throat. “If you did not, it would be no sacrifice.”
“I wish he’d stayed away, off in the Feislands or wherever the oceans took him. They say he fell in love there. Is it true?”
“I couldn’t say, Sese.”
“Perhaps he will find my Moniqa. If anyone could, it would be him. Aurelius was always her favourite. And Mother—he has something of my mother in him, don’t you think? She was a beautiful woman.”
Eshmunen’s reminiscences seemed to trouble Samelqo. The heq-Ashqen turned his head to the side as though avoiding the king’s gaze.
If Samelqo answered the question, Uta didn’t hear it. She slipped from the passage and scurried down the steps that would lead her back to the hidden cellar door. Her fingers shook as she pressed the reliefs in the stone, her throat tight.
She felt like a young woman again, serving her little prince, playing with him, and listening politely to his childish stories. In his naivety, he’d promised to free her, and ugly and ill-named, he’d charmed her even then. Who will love him, she had thought, except for me, and more the fool she’d been for it. When they’d told her he was to die, it was as though they’d ripped her own heart out and burned it along with him. And for a long time, Uta et-Lohit had believed they had, for she felt she had no heart, that Eshmunen and his court had whittled her to a crude spearhead.
It was as a spearhead that Uta was useful to Zioban.
Uta brushed away the tears beading on her cheeks, remembering a dream lost, and treachery done. Aurelius’s death might serve the rebellion as well as it did Ashtaroth, and Zioban had warned them, over and over, what an enemy was their conscience.