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Chapter 19: Massenqa
Bree – The Docks: Qemassen
“Why have you brought me here?” Bree glared from her seat at Princess Himalit sitting across from her.
Instead of answering, Himalit turned her head, as though she’d spied something outside Bree’s litter. It was clearly pretense. The curtains were closed; there was nothing to see.
Bree tightened her fingers around the small dagger hidden at her side. A hundred questions coursed through her heart.
Why had Himalit stopped Bree’s litter on its way uphill?
Why had she turned the litter around in the direction of the dockyard?
Why the retinue of soldiers marching alongside, as though to stop Bree from leaving?
Qemassen was under siege. Bree was supposed to be shut up in the palace for her own protection.
All Bree’s instincts told her to run.
“I thought your women were accustomed to battle?” Himalit asked. She still didn’t look Bree in the eyes.
Bree frowned. “That’s not an answer.”
The litter jogged to a halt, and Himalit immediately ducked beneath the entrance and hopped outside. Bree waited to exit long enough that it was obviously in protest, then slowly followed.
They were inside the huge round harbour where her Feislanda ship had entered so many months ago.
At the time, she’d searched for Aurelius along the wharf, hoping to find a sign of her poor sailor. It might have made her laugh if her nerves weren’t so frayed. This was no place to be when the remnants of the Massenqa navy were preparing for battle.
The enclosed shipyard was as impressive now as it had been all those months ago—perhaps even more so, now that Qemassen’s fleet poured in its entirety from the multistoried shipyard with its sluices and canals. The command tower where the Qabira stood watch bustled with activity. Horns trumpeted signals to each other from its many balconies and the shouts of men echoed off its walls in a garland of sound. Himalit had spent most of her time over the past few weeks inside that tower, but it was clear they were headed aboard ship today.
The Myrpalma, one of Qemassen’s best remaining ships, sat waiting for them at the dock.
Bree was still waiting for an answer as to why she was here, when Himalit marched briskly toward the Myr. Instead of leaving Bree alone, Himalit’s guards nudged her onwards.
The Myr wasn’t the largest ship remaining to the Massenqa, but she was the fastest, and after the loss of the Ziphax, she was the jewel of the fleet—Hima’s pride.
She looked ready to set sail. All the ships were vacating the harbour to face the threat outside Qemassen’s walls. Once they’d done so, the city gates would remain closed until either Kemassen won or her sailors were lying dead at the bottom of the ocean.
Bree shuddered as the guards marched her up the gangplank. The rocking of the ship on the waves brought back the sick feeling in Bree’s stomach from when she’d been stricken ill on the voyage from Atlin. She could feel the furs Eaflied had forced her into bristling against her shoulders.
Without a glance in Bree’s direction, Hima began barking orders to her sailors, her shouts punctuated by obscure maritime signals.
Bree slipped to the right of the guards, watching as Himalit stalked the deck, hopeful the heq-Damirat might turn her ire on the guards and distract them so Bree would have the opportunity to escape.
Bree glanced down at the water lapping at the hull. Maybe she could leap to safety, but it was doubtful in her heavy robes. Only the finest for Qemassen’s queen.
The finest, to sink you to the bottom of the sea and drown you.
Not liking her chances, Bree waited in the hopes Himalit would return to free her. Maybe she just wanted someone to show off to before she set sail, or perhaps she was planning to give Bree some advice about how best to end her life if the Lora broke through the walls.
But as the dawn sun cast forbidding red rays upon the white walls of the shipyard, the Myrpalma slipped soundlessly toward the open ocean. Bree clung to the rail and felt a slice against her thumb.
She frowned down at the pearl of blood on her skin and the splinter spiking from her flesh.
An ill omen.
Bree plucked the splinter free.
“Hima!” Bree snapped, but the heq-Damirat was too far away to hear her over the creak of the ship and the rushing of the waves.
If Himalit wouldn’t come to her, she’d go to Himalit. Bree hiked her skirts and up and bounded in Himalit’s direction, but one of the guards pulled her back. He hugged her arms to her side so tight she couldn’t move them, then deposited her back against the railing like a child.
Why, why, why.
The question pounded in her skull, joining her worry for her life, her city, her husband, and her son.
Aurelius would come back to find them and all that would remain were charred heaps of rubble and piles of corpses. Their son’s corpse.
Bree reached for Aurelius’s tiger, stitched inside the thin tunic beneath her heavier robes. She should be with their nameless child now, not trapped on this boat where she was no use to anyone. Their child shouldn’t spend the siege surrounded by slaves and nurses instead of in his mother’s arms.
A thought, sharp as the splinter in her thumb, sunk into her flesh: she might already have held him for the last time, kissed Aurelius for the last time, traded insults with Eaflied and walked the palace gardens for the last time.
At least she was free of Titrit.
The ship at last passed the open city gates and slid with the grace of a seabird into the canal that ran the length of the smaller, unprotected wharf. The Helit was full of enemy ships.
Bree’s throat constricted.
Most of the ships were Lora and Anata vessels, but a few Massenqa vessels broke the monotony. They must have been captured at Zimrida. The sun cast deep shadows across the water all the way to Tarefsa Tithmeseti and Tarefsa Qusirai. Where it spread its blanket, it seemed the light shone an ominous pall over the scene instead of brightening it.
“That’s the Ziphax, at the head of the fleet.” Hima’s voice right beside Bree startled her.
She turned and found the heq-Damirat approaching. Himalit came to a stop at Bree’s right, her arms folded behind her back, her body taut and at attention. There’d been a hint of melancholy in her voice as she’d spoken.
“I know,” Bree answered, words as barbed as she could render them. “I’m not the fool you think me.”
Hima’s face was stone. “No, I suppose you aren’t. You aren’t the woman any of us thought you.”
Bree took a careful step back.
Hima grabbed Bree by the wrist. “I’d have you at my side during the battle.”
Could Bree manage the swim to shore if she jumped overboard? She sneaked a peak over her shoulder. The water was choppy, dark, and uninviting. She’d never seen the waves warp in circles quite like that before.
Keeping her face calm, Bree smiled. “A curious choice. I’m no warrior.”
Himalit held tight. She pulled Bree along behind her as she walked quickly toward the port side. The sailors they passed glowered at Bree from behind their thick curly beards, as though they knew something she didn’t.
Would Titrit have been mad enough to tell Himalit? And if she had revealed the truth, might Himalit have already shared it with others?
Suspicion worried a hole in Bree’s heart. She released Aurelius’s tiger and sought out her dagger again, wobbling after Himalit as the deck shifted beneath her feet. She stumbled, and one of the sailors snickered behind her back.
Let them laugh. Bree might be terrible at walking on boats, but she was still the queen of Qemassen, and she’d sheared her hair with the rest of them to help save her country.
Not so long ago it would have felt false to call herself Massenqa, but the love she’d felt take seed in her had sprouted and grown. This was Aurelius’s place, and her place was with Aurelius. No one would steal that from her—not Himalit et-Moniqa and not Titrit or her troll of a father.
Waves churned at the prow as the ship started to turn. Under a red sun, cutting through dark forbidding water, it was as though the gods had already forsaken them.
Himalit stopped. She squeezed Bree’s hand with unkind roughness, as though Bree needed any reminder of the heq-Damirat’s power. “I can’t kill you for your deception. Whatever else you are, you’ve managed to insert yourself into my family, and I won’t be guilty of slaying a sister.”
Bree swallowed. She could feel her own wide eyes boring a hole through Hima’s skull.
“What I can do,” Himalit continued, “is take you here, to the most dangerous place I can think of, and should some accident befall you while we war, well, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, though your bravery at putting yourself at risk would surely impress my brother.”
Bree’s shoulders heaved. She would remain steady. “My son.”
Himalit didn’t move. Her tone didn’t soften. “Your lies are no fault of the boy’s. I wouldn’t harm a child.”
Bree stared at the ocean, more warmth in it than in the beast of a woman standing beside her. But then, if Bree were dead anyway, what good was there in playing meek and nice? They might as well have an honest conversation.
With a glare, Bree tore her hand free. “What does it matter if I’m not the princess you thought I was? The Feislands have fallen, the real Bree is long dead—your brother loves me.”
That elicited some emotion. Himalit glared. “My brothers loved you, and it’s driven one mad and the other foolish. I liked Aurelius better when he was a whoremonger, instead of the simpering idiot you’ve made him. Make no mistake, Bree, you’ve thrust a wedge between my family, and no one harms my family and walks away unscathed.”
A moment ago, Bree had been family.
Maybe she could still argue her case.
“I had no choice.” Bree’s words came out breathy and ragged, a desperation crawling out her throat. “My mother—”
Her real mother had died many years ago. This latest connection was a fiction. It was time, at last, to lay that fiction to rest.
She cleared her throat, balling her hands into fists. “Queen Eaflied commanded it of me. She called the gods’ curse down on me if I didn’t obey. All I knew was I would be good as dead if I didn’t marry Ashtaroth. All I knew when I came to Qemassen was that she’d damned me to a life I didn’t choose or desire. I loved another man—a rogue I met in Atlin who promised to return for me and filled my head with silly dreams. What a grim surprise when the man I’d let steal my heart turned out to be the brother of my betrothed.” Himalit’s eyes were on her. All Bree’s hairs stood on end. Suddenly her thick autumn robes were too cold.
If she’d known her sister-in-law had planned to kidnap her, she’d have dressed differently.
“I’m not without sympathy.” Himalit’s tone softened. “I know a woman’s way is hard. Maybe you’re telling the truth. Maybe you sought no power when you placed yourself at my brother’s side.” She paused. “And if that’s the case, and should the two of us survive this, you have my word I’ll release you from your burden.”
“My burden?” Bree hardly dared ask.
“Your crown. You claim you didn’t ask for it; allow me to remove it from your pale head.”
“Knows or will soon. Do you know my brother well enough to know what he’ll do with the information? With the knowledge that you’ve lied to him, cheated him, played the Semassenqa for fools?”
Bree thought she knew, but could she risk it? There might be shades to Aurelius that she simply hadn’t seen. “He wouldn’t let you hurt me.”
Hima laughed cruelly. “You’ve never had the pleasure of seeing my brother angry, I can tell. I’m giving you a gift you know. Run, if it’s what you’ve always wanted to do. Run as far as you can and don’t ever look back or trouble your thoughts with things out of reach.”
Out of her reach. Aurelius.
Vivaen had never been meant to have such things. A son, a husband, a family? It was laughable. When she’d arrived at Ossa’s court bloody and broken, she’d let herself be ignored by everyone else with any status. She’d happily let the world forget she was a digan’s daughter. Why on earth, now that she craved it, would the lofty look on her now?
Titrit’s words in the maze returned to her—accusations and threats. So many seemed sure Bree was unsuited to her role. Perhaps it was time she listened.
“Would you look on your husband’s face when he understands you for what you are?” Hima asked.
It was that image that broke her. Bree hung her head, wishing she had her hair to hide her coming tears as she dug her nails into the Myrpalma’s side.
“My son,” she choked, her composure failing her at last. Everything she’d held so tightly was slipping through her fingers.
If she’d known it would be for the last time, she’d have sailed back to the city with Aurelius.
“Stays,” said Hima. “Aurelius will always know the truth, of course, but there’s no reason our people need to. The king will remarry, but in case his new wife is incapable of providing an heir, his eldest son will be useful.”
That, at least, was something. “He won’t be harmed? Not by you, or Titrit, or Qanmi?”
Hima didn’t react to the list of names, but then, it had been Titrit who’d told her. “Anyone who tries to harm him must cross me, and I think you see now how unwise that is. You’ll have money enough for safe passage and lodgings, and a good ship to take you east.”
East. What lay east? Eq-Anout, Ajwata, the lands beyond. Empty hands, a withered heart dry as desert sands. Titrit in her husband’s arms and Bree’s child with Titrit’s whispers at his ear.
Behind them, a lone soldier hammered his war drum. It was such a solitary sound: repetitive and droning. He went on like that for what seemed like ages, until finally others joined him, both on their own ship and across the water. Death calling to death across the waves.
“Love him for me,” Bree whispered as she stared dully out at the water. But Hima had already broken away, and the words were lost to the wind.
Was it Bree’s imagination, or were the waves higher now? The crash of them against the hull was enough to deafen her thoughts. It was an unexpected relief.
Out on the water, the Ziphax and the other stolen ships were drawing swiftly nearer.
The temptation to leap overboard struck her again. No one would notice and after all it was what Himalit wanted. It was why Bree had been brought here.
She gazed down at the swirling sea beneath the boat but couldn’t summon the bravery to jump. Instead, she clutched the rail harder, afraid of herself and what she might do, afraid of the Lora ships hastening toward them.
Afraid. Afraid. Afraid.
She would never again hold him close to her, never again feel his skin on hers, or sleep peacefully knowing he lay next to her.
The Ziphax was close that she could make out the men rushing about on her deck. They were mostly Anata sailors, to judge by their armour and colouring, but the Lora were always close. They’d dogged her fleeing steps all her adult life—Caern’s hounds come to collect what was theirs.
Now she faced the men who’d taken her sister, slain her parents, and robbed her of everything. They would rob Qemassen next. They would rape Aurelius’s city, slaughter its children, kill Bree’s boy where he slept. All because she was here, drawing their eye, drawing their attention. They knew, they had to, that Vivaen deserved it. After what she’d done, she deserved all this and more.
The Myrpalma and the Ziphax passed one another, locked in a perverse dance as they sought to gain the upper hand. A Lora ship would have been an easier mark, slower in the water, making enough of a difference for the Myrpalma to ram her. With the Ziphax, the outcome was less certain; she was so much larger a vessel and there was the danger the Myr might not be able to pull herself loose before being split apart in the effort to destroy her opponent.
Bree should be below deck. With Hima occupied, she probably had a chance to do just that, yet she couldn’t pry herself from her post, as though her vigilance cast a protective spell over them all. The moment she looked away, some part of her screamed, was the moment the ship was lost.
Hima was at her side again, not for Bree’s sake, but watching the pride of the Massenqa fleet as it veered away.
“There’s something tied to their mast, Sese!” called one of Himalit’s men.
Bree peered closer, straining to see what the sailor was yelling about.
“I see it,” Hima called tightly.
The thing on the mast rippled in the wind like a hundred flags. At first it looked like someone had bundled dirty sheets and cloth to the great mast, but further inspection revealed a more gruesome sight. All about the Ziphax’s mast were tied the bodies of Massenqa sailors, their corpses rotting where they were fastened, their eyes long pecked away by birds. Among them shone the unmistakable gleam of armour, and the glimmer of a golden crown atop a featureless head.
A dark red—almost black—line ringed his neck where his head had been removed and sewn back on. Bree couldn’t look away, much as she wanted to. When the corpse finally passed from view, she breathed a prayer of thanks.
“I’ll gut them,” Himalit threatened beneath her breath. “I’ll gut them and send their souls to Molot.”
Wood split against wood—the unmistakable sound of the other ships ramming each other. Men’s screams as they were thrown overboard and crushed joined the pounding of the drums.
The Myrpalma though—she was outpacing the Ziphax. She was turning—she might yet split the larger quinquereme apart.
She might yet win.
Bree stood tall and backed away a few steps from the rail, anxious to be as far as she could from danger when the jolt hit.
But as she watched, something odd was happening on the Ziphax’s deck.
Instead of bracing for impact, the Anata sailors started positioning planks along the port side, men stationed in the middle of the ship winding great wheels that appeared to control the apparatuses. As the Myr rushed forward, ready to rend the Ziphax with her sharpened battering ram, the Ziphax veered toward them at an angle.
So huge. The Myrpalma was a minnow in comparison.
Bree grabbed hold of a line of rigging in time for the Ziphax and Myrpalma’s sides to scrape against each other. She cringed at the sound now ringing in her ears, unable to let go of the rope to cover them. She squeezed her eyes shut as though it could keep out the sound, but the ruckus only worsened as Himalit’s shouts and the wail of sailors’ warnings cut the air.
The sound of squealing wood intensified before shifting tone.
Bree forced her eyes open, as the purpose of the enemy planks became hideously clear.
In the air above them, the Anata boards swung round, revealing huge metal spikes on their undersides. In a panic, Massenqa sailors hurled themselves out of range as the great, manmade claws slammed into the Myrpalma’s upper deck. The first and second jolts tilted the Myr toward her opponent, forcing Bree to scramble to keep from slipping and tumbling against the Ziphax.
The Myrpalma’s hull groaned.
Anata and Lora sailors flooded the gangplanks, milling at the threshold ready to swarm across and dampen their swords. They were all screaming—no longer the controlled, measured soldiery Lorar prided itself on, but men driven mad by bloodlust and fear.
A stampede of sweaty, hungry bodies spilled onto the deck of the Myrpalma, to the clang of drawn Massenqa swords, spewed curses, and war cries.
Bree let her body go limp. She used her grip on the rigging to swing herself around the mast and make a grab for a discarded sword that had rolled within reach. Crouching on the skirts of her robes, she stretched her left hand out, willing the sword to slide toward her as the ship tilted further on its starboard side.
Bree swerved in time to see a Lora sword bearing down on her.
Without thinking, she let go of the rope, relinquishing her body to the will of the ship. She rolled across the floor, rushing past him in a tumble, and thudded against the starboard rail. Ocean water erupted over the side, splattering both her and the deck, drenching her robes.
Bree looked up, spitting out salt water.
The soldier who’d attacked her had cut the piece of rigging she’d anchored herself to and was now unsteadily seeking his own support.
To right and left, Anata and Lora warriors continued to thunder onto the Myrpalma’s deck. If they saw her—
Bree scrambled for cover beneath one of the clawed gangplanks. She curled her legs up against her chest, hidden—hopefully—in its shadow. She sat with her head tilted back against the rail for a long time, crooned into a state of semi-wakefulness by the cacophony of sounds. It was just as well to stay here, where at least no one was paying her any mind, where she might as well be dead already. She might have fought if there were any point, but there seemed no longer to be one. They were lost, all of them, and she had no doubt once Himalit had fallen, Qemassen would be lost as well.
Bree chuckled quietly to herself. What did Vivaen matter in this moment? What did any of her worries matter at all?
The ship was straightening, relaxing into its deadly embrace with the Ziphax.
Bodies tumbled from the Lora planks and onto the Massenqa deck, enemies and allies both, bloody corpses with spilled guts and missing limbs and missing faces.
Like the pit and her parents. Lora hands reached down like snakes ready to rip Roewyn from her perch.
“I’ve got her! The bitch-queen!”
Bree peeled her head from the side of the Myr and released her grip on her legs.
Across the deck, three soldiers had cornered Himalit against the mast. One man had her in a choke hold. The other two stood in front, hands twitching as though eager to spill blood, and barely restraining themselves. She’d be worth more as a captive.
Kill her. Kill her now.
The only thing that shocked her about her reaction was that it didn’t.
Bree clenched her teeth. She must look crazed, and perhaps she was, but in the moment, Himalit’s ultimatum seemed the only real thing she could cling to. Her hatred and fear of it was overwhelming.
The two men in front grabbed hold of Himalit’s legs. They parted them, reaching for her clothes to tear them—Bree staggered to her feet, unwilling to let it fall to fate to see the woman dead.
There was a sword nearby.
Bree scanned the floor for the weapon she’d tried to grab earlier. It must have slid across the deck when she had. There. She dipped out from beneath the gangplank and hunched over to avoid notice.
Kill her and you have your son. Kill her and Aurelius is yours. So Titrit told; she’s mad, no one will believe her if Hima’s not there to support her.
Bree dashed for the weapon.
Himalit claimed she’d already sent Aurelius word, but perhaps that, too, was a lie.
Bree reached down slowly, hands shaking as she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of a heavy Lora sword. The weapon weighed her arm down. She had to use both hands to hold it with any confidence.
Ahead of her, Hima elbowed the man behind her in the face. The thwack forced the man against the mast. Hima pushed back, using the other two soldiers as leverage. With the mast at her back, she braced herself and kicked the remaining two soldiers away. They stumbled, shocked.
One of the soldiers had stupidly sheathed his sword in his haste to have Himalit. Himalit drew it from his scabbard, then quickly slashed the blade across his throat. Red spray, the heat of which Bree could almost feel on her own face, splattered both Himalit and the soldier squashed against the mast. As Himalit stepped away from the mast, the first man slumped to the ground, unconscious.
The remaining soldier backed away from her, holding his blade out defensively.
Bree tensed. There was still a chance. Himalit was distracted.
And what would become of Bree then? She’d told herself already: if Himalit fell, Qemassen fell. The enemy would take Bree before she could get back to shore, before she could attempt to flee. At best she’d be a slave, and at worst—
Himalit and the Lora soldier were trading blows, but the fight was unmatched, any fool could tell. The Loran would be dead in moments. Bree had to be quick, or at least clever. She ran forward as fast as she could. As she neared, she heaved the sword forward and up, aiming to stick Hima with it from beneath the Loran’s arm.
She wouldn’t see it coming, she’d have no way to defend against it.
There was no time for guilt if she wanted to live with her family by her side.
The ships lurched, buffeted by a powerful wave. The Myrpalma creaked against the larger vessel. As the ships rocked, the movement drove the claws in the gangplanks deeper and further across the deck, cutting jagged furrows in the wood.
Bree managed to hold her balance for those last few steps, but as she ran forward, the Loran stumbled left, taking the blow that had been intended for Himalit.
His yowl as Bree’s sword plunged through his stomach was piercing.
Hima dispatched the man with a quick slash of her sword across his neck, nearly severing his head.
A disfigured corpse thumped onto the deck where a man had once stood.
Bree lowered her bloody weapon.
The heq-Damirat was staring at her.
Bree backed away.
The feral look in Himalit’s yellow eyes was anger made flesh. Her skilled grasp on her sword was death. “You,” she spat coldly, her face distorting in hate. “That was meant for me, wasn’t it?”
If she let Himalit see her weakness, she was dead. “I saw them attack you. I didn’t think you’d survive, so I grabbed a sword to help.”
Himalit looked ready to stalk forward and end Bree’s life there and then, but the ship tilted violently, forcing them both to catch themselves on the rigging.
The claws of the Ziphax were too loose in the holes they’d made in the Myrpalma. The strength of the waves had jostled them out of place and now the two ships were being pried apart.
“Something strange is happening on the sea.” Himalit’s eyes widened.
Bree had never seen such a terrifying sight as the heq-Damirat afraid. She looked haunted. Her sword hung limply at her side.
And blood soaked through her leather armour, staining her tunic.
Bree needn’t have bothered.
The sea had gone oddly still, and then, the ships dropped, tugged forward as though they’d been resting on a blue sheet and someone had pulled it out from under them.
Another look at the Helit told Bree everything she needed to know.
They were both dead already, two spirits waiting only for the gods to take them.
“I’ll see you gone,” Himalit winced, “when we get back. Save me or kill me, I’ll see you gone.”
The sea was boiling, its waters vibrating as though under some spell, its waves pulling back back back, leaving the Myr, the Ziphax, and the rest of the ships to rest like useless toys in a shallow and swiftly draining puddle.
Behind them, a massive crack had rent open Qemassen’s protective wall.
There was a moment of blessed stillness.
Hanging by a fraying rope, Bree reached her hand out and grasped Hima’s hand—the only one left to her to hold. “I don’t think either of us is getting back.”
Beyond the Ziphax, something was approaching, something dark and loud, with the roar of a thousand lions.
Bree turned, squeezing Hima’s hand as tight as she could, and Hima looked with her, in time to see the wave as it charged toward them, casting ships to the wind as though they were blades of grass. Far away, on Tarefsa Tithmeseti, the crumbling face of Qemassen’s patron goddess was cracking, sending boulders showering into the water.
Bree shut her eyes, not bothering to seek any shelter or purchase. Men all around them were clinging to ropes and boards, screaming as they threw themselves overboard in desperation.
No such desperation for Bree or Himalit, not after everything that had happened, not after losing Aurelius. Not after Qanmi’s coercions and her dreams of little Roe.
Bree opened her mouth to scream as she felt the first drops of sea-spray reach her skin. Beside her, in an echo of Bree’s defiance, Himalit screamed with her.