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Chapter 9: Families
Qwella– Qemassen: Tanata’s Temple Archives
Dashel’s arms swallowed Qwella in a tight embrace. He lifted her off her feet briefly before letting out an oof and laughing. The warmth of his arms lingered even after he’d released her, such a welcome comfort that Qwella couldn’t help but grin back, especially in the cool of the archives, with their one round skylight.
The reed-pens of the Ashenqa at the tables filling the room stopped their endless scratching, like Dashel and Qwella had distracted them.
“You’ve grown!” Dashel pronounced, as though he hadn’t seen her since she was a girl, and not just over a month ago. He winked. “You look happy.”
“I am happy,” said Qwella. Troubling visions aside. But even the disturbing images she’d seen during Ashtaroth’s exorcism didn’t vex her as they probably ought to. Instead, they filled her with an insatiable curiosity. None of the other Ashqata had seen what Qwella had: the sand of a foreign desert, the women who’d replaced Ashtaroth, the northern boy with a mask covering half his face. But all of them had heard Ashtaroth scream that Vetnu name: Dannae. Since Qwella had only recognized one of the women—her aunt Meg—the name Dannae was her only clue. She must be one of the Semassenqa, but the only Dannae Qwella knew of had been Qanmi eq-Sabaal’s long-dead mother.
When Dashel had reached out to her to arrange a visit, she’d suggested he attend her at the temple. It was hard enough to slip away to investigate, let alone for a visit to her friends. Better that she combine the two.
Thanos eyed Dashel with barely disguised affection, taking Dashel’s hand and squeezing as the staid Ashenqa at the archival tables cast curious glances and reproachful stares Dashel’s way.
“And you brought a friend,” Qwella said. “I hope you don’t mind, but I invited a friend of my own.” Her chest tightened, not with fear, but with excitement. Of anyone, Dashel would understand her desires. He would be happy for her. She hadn’t told Eshant Dashel would be here either, but they were certain to get along. In so many ways, Eshant was just like him.
“A friend?” Dashel beamed, his voice booming and echoey, despite how cramped the room was compared to the rest of Tanata’s high-ceilinged, airy temple.
An Ashqen looked up at them from his bench at a copying table and tsked. The sound was followed by a cough, no doubt brought on by the smoke of the braziers lighting the room. Would it be too smoky for Eshant? She suffered terribly from such things.
“A friend?” Dashel whispered comically.
Qwella stifled a laugh. “Eshant. She’s a fellow acolyte. But she’s coming later once she’s finished her morning duties.” She shifted her attention to Thanos. “I hope you won’t be bored—I’m on temple business. The head archivist’s collecting some documents for me.”
“Dashel promised me a tour.” Thanos narrowed his eyes at Dashel teasingly. “He claims this is the most beautiful of Qemassen’s temples. It’s certainly very blue. The walls are blue, the floor is blue—even the Ashenqa are blue.”
He eyed one of the azure-robed priests as he passed, the man’s blue tattoos suddenly standing out to Qwella in a funny sort of way. She’d grown up around Samelqo, and since becoming an acolyte, she dealt with Tanata’s Ashenqa regularly, but Thanos’s curiosity cast the man in a new light. His gold earrings glinted beneath the sunshine sneaking inside through the skylight.
“The colour blue is sacred to Tanata,” Qwella explained. “Besides, some things are gold.” She beckoned them to follow her to one of the copying benches.
“And what is the gold supposed to represent?” Thanos took a seat at one of the long benches. “Wealth?”
As Qwella sat, she eyed the door through which Bashir had disappeared. Most of the scrolls were kept out of sight to protect the ink from light damage and maintain the airiness of the temple. “No. It’s the colour of the moon and stars.”
On her way through the temple’s towering halls, she hadn’t been able to stop from gaping at the star-speckled ceiling. The archives were hunched compared to the rest of Tanata’s temple, but they were still more open than Qalita’s labyrinthine corridors, or Molot’s severe, brutish architecture.
“Why is that?” Thanos pressed.
Dashel slapped Thanos’s shoulder. “Because it just is.”
Qwella tsked. It was nice to be asked questions, to have the opportunity to share what she knew and be valued. If Thanos was interested, she was more than willing to teach him. “Tanata floats her barge through the stars. It’s where the souls of the beloved dead reside: the Semassenqa, poets, those loved and lauded by Qemassen’s people—”
Thanos rapped his fist against the table, earning a shh from one of the Ashenqa. “And everyone else is sent to Molot, is that right?”
He said it as though there were something wrong with the fact.
Qwella frowned at him. “It’s the order of the universe. The gods will it that way. Why? Is the Lora afterlife so welcoming it rewards even the low and the unjust?”
Thanos shrugged. “The Lora afterlife is a gloomy, dull affair for everyone involved. Rather like the before-life, in essence.”
Qwella pursed her lips. “Then perhaps you’ll be inspired to build a temple to our gods inside Lorar’s walls.”
There was a creak as Dashel leaned back on his bench, as though he were trying to get as far from Qwella and Thanos as he could.
Qwella laid a hand on Dashel’s arm, hoping it would ease his worries.
Thanos cast an over-the-shoulder glance at the round archway leading back into the temple proper, as though he could see Tanata’s statue from here. “I’m sure your holy cow and her family already have temples in my city. Lorar’s nearly as crowded with shrines as eq-Anout, each god competing for sacrifices in whatever sunken, flooded little basement temple his priests could afford. Have you ever heard of Harshepa the cat scorpion? He’s become quite popular with the charioteers ever since an Anata racer won the tithes in a chariot shaped in his image. Half the chariot crashes are due to the scorpion tails dragging in the sand and catching in the wheels.” He smirked.
What in Qalita’s wisdom were “the tithes”? The name of a particular race, probably.
“Well, we don’t worship Harshepa in Qemassen.” Harshepa was what Samelqo had called a “silly god” during Qwella’s childhood lessons.
“Is there a god of wasps?” Dashel asked.
Thanos waved. “Why on earth would I know that?”
Dashel stretched his arm out into the avenue between the benches. A loud clatter followed.
“Ashtet’s tee—Hm.” Bashir’s voice.
Qwella turned and found the archivist collecting papyri from the floor. She stood to help him, but he ushered her back down.
“I’m—uh—sorry.” Dashel stroked his beard, tugging the hairs the way he always did.
The familiar tick fluttered in Qwella’s chest like a caged bird probing its bars. Gods, she’d missed him, and she hadn’t even realized it till now. She missed all of them: Hima’s scathing face, Aurelius’s jibes and japes, Ashtaroth’s bad poetry . . . .
Tears sprang to her eyes, and she looped her arm in Dashel’s. A comical look of shock crossed his face, but then he smiled. He pulled her close, then released her when Bashir handed over the small stack of papyri.
Qwella smoothed her hand over the topmost papyrus. Bashir flinched and she pulled her hand away, guilty.
“It’s as you suspected,” said Bashir, having calmed himself. “There are few women named Dannae in our records. It’s a Vetnu name, and uncommon at that. If you’re looking for a woman of the Semassenqa, she’s likely Dannae et-Erinya, the second wife of—” he hesitated, then bowed his head, “your father-in-law, Sabaal eq-Sabaal.”
“Sabeq’s mother?” asked Dashel.
“No,” Qwella answered. “Qanmi’s. They shared only a father.” So, Qwella had been correct. Somehow, she didn’t feel good about it. Dannae had been dead a long time; why had Ashtaroth spoken her name during the exorcism? If Qwella hadn’t met her, Ashtaroth certainly hadn’t.
Unless it was a message from the dead. The goddess Lilit was a goddess of vengeance. What vengeance could Qanmi’s mother be seeking?
“According to our records, she was sold to Ashtet’s temple in her youth, but there’s no record of her before that, suggesting she wasn’t,” Bashir cleared his throat, “one of the Semassenqa.”
“Not one of Tanata’s beloved dead, then?” Thanos quipped.
Qwella frowned. “She must have risen in the temple ranks to have attracted Sabaal’s eye.”
“Indeed!” Bashir’s robes rustled and he produced a longer scroll. “Dannae et-Erinya became heq-Ashqat during your grandfather’s reign, in fact. This is the most detailed account of her tenure. Perhaps, you would like to discuss its contents in private?” Bashir cast Thanos a surreptitious glance.
Missing the point, Dashel slapped Qwella’s back. “That’d be perfect! All these Ashenqa keep giving me looks like I’m about to light a fire in here.”
Qwella faced him. “I’m sorry, he means me. Some of these scrolls could contain sensitive temple business—but they’re probably also very dull, especially for a Lora visitor.”
“Or a spy,” said Thanos. “Come on, Dashel. She’s not wrong—and didn’t you say there was a secret temple bath here? And I heard the Ashenqa practice rites of conception in the temple.”
Bashir visibly tensed. “The bath is for the Ashenqa only.”
“It wouldn’t be secret otherwise,” said Thanos.
The way he talked reminded Qwella of Aurelius. Oh, Dashel.
“We’ll explore the heiqal,” Dashel said, fidgeting with his beard. “Come find us when you’re finished.”
“What’s the heiqal again?” Thanos muttered as they walked away.
“The public part of the temple,” said Dashel.
Bashir guided Qwella to a private cubicle with a table and bench. He closed the door behind them, shutting out the scritch-scratch of reed pens against papyrus. There were papyri stored even in here, tucked inside drawers built into the walls. She’d expected everything to be dusty, but the shelves were clean and polished. The air smelled of nothing but incense and Bashir’s musky perfume.
Qwella laid the stack of documents Bashir had given her on the table as he unrolled the scroll. He had a buzzing energy to him that reminded Qwella of a wasp’s, and she smiled to herself in remembrance of Dashel’s joke.
The skin of Bashir’s fingers was dry and weathered as though from toiling over the documents. As he summarized the document, he underlined the words on the scroll with one hovering finger. “Dannae et-Erinya was made heq-Ashqat of Ashtet in Year 26 Isir. That same year, she performed the role of her goddess during the Feast of Ashtet, choosing as her ritual consort the king, your grandfather.”
The Feast of Ashtet. It was approaching now—was that why Dannae’s name had been conjured?
The festival commemorated Adonen’s resurrection, his sacred marriage to Ashtet reenacted every spring in celebration of Adonen’s return from the underworld. The groom was the Ashqat’s choice in principle, but in recent years it had been whichever acolyte of Adonen she found prettiest. The Ashqat or Ashqen would lie with their choice as husband and wife.
Dannae’s choice had been Qwella’s grandfather. It might mean nothing at all, but it did provide a connection with Qwella’s family beyond her own marriage to Sabeq.
Qwella set the first of the papyri on her pile to the side—it was a simple death notice. Dannae et-Erinya, wife of Sabaal eq-Sabaal, dead of a fall in Year 32 Isir.
Dead of a fall. A fall from where? Was it even true? She’d blamed so many of the bruises Sabeq had dealt her on just such accidents. Poor Dannae. Qwella traced the letters that formed the dead woman’s name. She didn’t know Dannae, but she knew Sabeq’s family. The shared suffering warmed her to the woman.
“Lying with the king,” Qwella asked Bashir, “is that common for an Ashqat of Ashtet?”
Bashir brightened, as happy to share his expertise as Qwella had been. “It used to be. It was during your grandfather’s reign that the practice died out.” He chuckled. “Certainly, your father has never worn the mantel of Adonen.”
The chuckle felt inappropriate, but Qwella couldn’t imagine her father playing Adonen’s part either. She buried her offense, rifling through the pile of documents before her. Most of them were to do with the transference of property rights. “And what happened in the event of a pregnancy?” There were contraceptives one could take, of course, but those were never a guarantee.
Bashir sucked his teeth. He rolled the scroll back up. “There are rituals practiced in my temple to legitimize or delegitimize a child. Since the Temple of Tanata oversees all births among the Semassenqa, there’s no danger of an accident. Though on occasion in our history, a child born from such a union has inherited the kingship with the support of the Semassenqa. From my recollection, it was just such an occasion that formed the basis for the transference of power from the queenship to the male line. During the reign of Queen Gedolit, the tamqaru were viciously set against her. When her husband performed his role as Adonen, and a son was born to the Ashqat of Ashtet, the son was legitimized by our temple as a compromise between Gedolit and the tamqaru who preferred her husband. The son was declared to be the true-born child of Queen Gedolit and her husband. Power has transferred to the first-born son ever since—until Prince Ashtaroth eq-Eshmunen, of course, as per prophetic instruction.”
Hima would have liked to learn more about that, but it wasn’t why Qwella was here. She returned her attention to the papyri in front of her and Bashir patted her shoulder.
“I’ll leave you to your research. When you’re finished, alert one of the attendants and he will return the documents to my care.”
Qwella turned to thank him, but Bashir was already most of the way out the door. He must be a busy man.
She sorted through the pile, eyes glazing over another chunk of property notices and taxation records. It wasn’t much help—she should probably return it all and look for Dashel and Thanos. Eshant might even be here soon, and she wouldn’t recognize Dashel.
But as Qwella skimmed the last of the documents, one caught her eye: Qanmi’s birth record.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal, son of Sabaal eq-Sabaal and Dannae et-Erinya, born in Year 26 Isir in the temple of Ashtet in the month of Qisheb. Twin sister dead at birth. Overseen by the Ashenqa of Ashtet.
Born in Year 26 Isir. The same year Dannae had lain with Isir eq-Ashtaroth, Qwella’s grandfather. She quickly counted the months off on her fingers—fingers that started to shake.
The difference between the Feast of Ashtet and the month of Qisheb was the length of a pregnancy.
Qwella’s heart thudded, but it did nothing to warm the cold that had crept over her skin. She counted again, but it did no good—the arithmetic was the same each time.
Qanmi eq-Sabaal could be her uncle. And how had Bashir phrased it? The Temple of Tanata oversaw all pregnancies and was responsible for delegitimizing or legitimizing children born in this way. But according to this document, Qanmi’s birth hadn’t been overseen by Tanata’s Ashenqa. His birth had been ushered in by Dannae’s own temple. It meant the ritual to delegitimize Qanmi might never have been conducted, that he was not only her blood uncle, but her legal uncle as well. A younger son of Isir eq-Ashtaroth, but still a rival claimant for the throne, should Ashtaroth die as many seemed to think he would.
The blood is thin. That’s what Ashtaroth had said during the ritual. Ashtaroth was weak, having inherited the sweet urine sickness from their mother’s line.
A roar like ocean waves rumbled inside Qwella’s skull, threatening to drown her.
If Ashtaroth died, Hima and Aurelius would already claw each other to death over the throne. What if Qanmi were to realize who he was and put himself forward? In Bashir’s little story about Queen Gedolit, the tamqaru’s influence had swayed matters in the king’s favour. As the leader of the tamqaru, Qanmi’s own influence was that much greater. There was already so much doubt about whether Ashtaroth ought to be king, his longevity questioned. Aurelius already nipped at his heels from the shadows—and although Qanmi hadn’t been Isir’s first-born son, an uncle could easily inherit if Eshmunen were gone and Ashtaroth dead or unfit. Was this what the gods who’d spoken through Ashtaroth had meant? Dannae’s spirit might be vengeful because she believed the future crown was her son’s birthright, not Ashtaroth or Aurelius’s.
Qwella dug her nails into her palms, staring at the papyrus, re-reading every word, willing even one of them to change.
If Qanmi found out about this and contested Ashtaroth’s claim, civil war would follow. And should he win, he would surely kill the rest of Qwella’s family—he’d have no other choice. He’d kill them, or he’d rip Qwella from her temple and force her into another unwanted marriage, the same one she’d refused him once. Qanmi wasn’t a man who many people dared refuse.
Her nails broke the skin of her palm. She squeaked in pain, unfurling her hands. She had to calm herself—Qanmi and Sabeq were far away and long gone. They couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt her. Qanmi couldn’t and wouldn’t find out about the papyrus. She’d summoned the courage to destroy Sabeq, and she could summon the courage to keep this information hidden. None of what she’d imagined could happen without a good deal of ifs. If Eshmunen died and if Ashtaroth followed close behind and if Qanmi found out he had a claim to Aurelius’s throne. If Qanmi was willing to fight for the kingship. If he won.
Qwella slid the record of Qanmi’s birth and the scroll describing Dannae’s part in the Feast of Ashtet down the neck of her robe and tightened the belt at her waist to keep them in place. The papyrus chaffed her skin, but as far as she could tell, you couldn’t see it through her thick acolyte’s robe.
What had Dashel said about fire and the scrolls? The Ashenqa were worried he’d burn them. Qwella could take these back to Qalita’s temple and safely dispose of them there. Better not to speak of them to anyone.
She retrieved a scroll of approximately the same size and design as the one Bashir had given her from one of the drawers lining the wall, then hurried out of the room to hand them to an attendant.
The entire way out of the archives to the heiqal, Qwella was terrified one of the Ashenqa would grab her wrist and accuse her of stealing, but no one did, and nothing happened.
As she searched nervously for Dashel and Thanos, she spotted Eshant in the distance, framed by the jaws of the temple.
Qwella could have collapsed from relief. With Eshant here, she felt so much safer.
“Ah! Qwella, there you are!” Dashel called out from the pillars behind her.
Eshant stilled inside the temple entrance. She looked upset—mouth open, eyes wide and brows raised—had her father struck her again? Instead of coming inside, Eshant waved at Qwella and flitted away, back uphill. She’d been limping, and she’d looked frightened, like she’d seen something upsetting.
Eshant. Qwella’s chest burned with love and anger. She had to go to her, and she had to take care of these papyri.
“Qwella!” Dashel called again, like she hadn’t heard him, and she turned.
Behind Dashel, a row of three stern, blue-robed Ashenqa was walking hurriedly in Qwella’s direction. Had they startled Eshant?
Every subtle twist of Qwella’s body felt like it was dislodging the scroll and papyrus from their place at her waist. Under the guise of the Ashenqa barreling toward her, the papyrus burned hot as the fire she planned to cast them into.
Dashel was waving her over, smiling, but what if Bashir had looked closer at the scroll and realized she’d exchanged it?
“I’m needed at the temple!” she called to Dashel. “Eshant summoned me.”
She turned and ran out the entrance. Dashel yelled for her again, but the words were swallowed by the bustle and noise of the street: the bleat of goats, the songs of Ashenqa, the busy chatter of men and women who had no idea what deadly secrets Qwella had tucked at her waist.
Eshant’s head bobbed ahead of her, not so far away that Qwella couldn’t catch up. She hefted the skirts of her robe, jostling past Ashenqa and clients alike, squeezing past the press of bodies. She reached Eshant and clamped a hand on her shoulder.
Eshant spun on her feet, thwacking Qwella’s arm away, then covering her mouth in horror at what she’d done.
“I’m sorry!” said Eshant. Her neck was faintly bruised. She had been struck.
Qwella glanced back up the road. The trio of Ashenqa had followed her outside. “It’s fine—we don’t have time. I stole something from the temple and those Ashenqa are after me.” She tugged Eshant along by her elbow. “Did they frighten you?”
Eshant shuffled awkwardly in her attempt to keep pace. Suddenly, she pulled back, forcing Qwella toward the steps to the temple of Hazzan. Qwella glanced inside the temple entrance at the line of supplicants queuing before Hazzan’s altar. The entrance was small, narrow, and dark. It was a perfect place to hide.
Eshant blocked Qwella from view and Qwella let go of Eshant’s arm to pat down her waist. She relaxed at the feel of the papyrus’s rectangular shape beneath her robes.
“They won’t see us,” said Eshant. She strained, peering past the other supplicants toward the altar. “Do you have anything to offer?”
Offerings to Hazzan were burned. Qwella’s heartbeat quickened. She crouched so that she could shove her hand inside her robe without being seen. Eshant moved to hide her. As Qwella stood, she handed Qanmi’s birth record to Eshant. “Burn this.” She rifled inside her pocket for coin to pay for the sacrifice, then set one atop the papyrus in Eshant’s hand.
“This is what you stole?” asked Eshant, scanning the page. “Why do you want to burn it?”
Qwella gritted her teeth. What lie would suffice? Qwella couldn’t think of one, not fast enough anyway. “Something Qanmi eq-Sabaal could use to hurt my family.” She paused. “My brother-in-law isn’t a kind man.” Unwillingly, Qwella’s attention was pulled toward the bruise at Eshant’s neck. “He hurts people, just like my husband did, just like your father hurts you.”
Eshant drew the neck of her robe close against her neck. Her throat bobbed as she swallowed. She stared back down at the papyrus. “He was angry with me because I told him I wouldn’t do something. Because I stood up for myself.”
Qwella darted an anxious glance back at the road, waiting for the Ashenqa of Tanata to pass. The men were already past Hazzan’s temple. Qwella and Eshant were safe.
They shuffled forward as the line progressed, Qwella with her scroll and Eshant with her papyrus.
“You did the right thing,” said Qwella. “But you should stop seeing him at all if he’s going to hurt you like that.”
Eshant scoffed, as though Qwella didn’t understand. She did understand, and Eshant knew it. “Next time it will be different,” said Eshant, expression distant.
It was never different, no matter how many times you told yourself it would be. But Eshant must know that deep down, so there was little point in saying it to her. Instead, as they approached the altar, Qwella reached out and squeezed Eshant’s hand.
The last of the supplicants ahead of them in line stepped out of the way, revealing Hazzan’s caprine statue and an acolyte holding a bronze dish filled with coins. The fire in front of the statue burned hot and bright.
Qwella tossed her payment into the bowl—far too much, probably. For an instant, she clutched the scroll tight against her breast.
Dannae—or Lilit acting on behalf of Dannae—was tormenting Ashtaroth. What further torment might she visit on Qwella’s family if Qwella burned the proof of her son’s birthright? She swallowed. The gods themselves might have already cursed her family for the slight that had been recorded on the documents’ pages—or the words written there could mean nothing at all.
A simple coincidence. An error.
Besides, Qwella served the goddess Qalita, Hazzan’s own mother. Surely, he would accept her gift and protect her from harm.
Qwella cast the papyrus into the flames. She stood until it was burned down to the ashes and stood even longer to watch Eshant cast her papyrus in with it.