(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 1: Orphans
Uta – The Heq-Ashqen’s Tower: Qemassen
Uta dreamed of waves.
She was standing at the top of the Talefa Hill and everything was so, so quiet. Staring out to sea, she could see the wave—taller than the city walls, tall as the firmament itself, so vast it seemed to move as slow as time. And all around her, though she could see the water approaching and there was no time—no time!—the people clogging the road at the gates to the palace moved as though through soup. And Uta was screaming at them, though no sound escaped her throat.
Why wouldn’t they move faster? Why wouldn’t they move?
Madaula wasn’t with her—lost somewhere in the rush uphill. Uta spun round, searching for a familiar face, but none of the people crowding her had faces. Instead, they all wore masks.
“Hurry.” Uta grabbed the nearest man’s arm—not even a Massenqen but a Lora soldier—and tugged him in the direction of the gleaming palace gates. His death mask stared impassively forward, the holes where she ought to be able to at least glimpse his eyes all in shadow.
Each time the sunlight hit the gates’ golden surface a bell chimed.
Blinding light glanced off the metal, filling her vision, if only for a moment.
Uta couldn’t pull the man along to safety. He was too heavy and she was too—she looked down at herself. She was small. Her hands were small. She was a girl.
This time, the noise echoed around and around and around like someone had dropped a stone inside a metal bowl, only instead of quieting, the reverberation grew louder. The light throbbed, then vanished.
Uta clamped her hands over her ears.
All around her, what had been a crowd frozen in place became a frenzy. The people rushed in, hurling themselves at the gates. A soldier’s armoured knee thwacked her arm, a housewife’s hips jostled her shoulder. In the chaos, she was nearly knocked to the ground.
The road had become a bottleneck, the desperate and the dying trampling friend and foe as every one of them pressed themselves to the bars of the palace gates, crushing the bodies of those who’d come before. Men, women, and children screamed. The gates rattled.
Uta was on the ground. Sitting with her little girl legs stretched in front of her, she had a perfect view of the winding street that led up the Talefa Hill. Down below, where the road began to level out, a figure all in black stood watching. Their shape was hazy, almost as though they were outlined in smoke.
They were very tall, their hooded head towering above the people fleeing uphill, and where they walked—or floated—the bodies of everyone else seemed to make room for them.
Uta glanced behind her at the gates. She could barely see them for all the bodies.
Back down the path, the figure had grown much closer.
Terror Uta had never felt before gripped her in what felt like a chokehold. Her bones ached all over her body; her heart thumped.
Beside Uta, sunlight glinted off bronze.
She’d lost it in the tunnels the day of the siege.
Tears welled in her eyes. Her parents’ lantern. The last thing she had of them. The only thing she’d owned that connected her to them. She reached for it—
The figure on the road was alone. Close enough now that she could make out more detail. It seemed to drift toward her, its arms hanging straight down in front of it, pressed in tight and rigid to its emaciated body, the black robes that drowned it making it appear as though its torso was wider than its shoulders. Its face was indistinguishable—a corpse-pale smear.
Uta’s heart hammered. Without looking away from the drifting figure she reached for the handle of her lantern and gripped it tight. Then she was on her feet and running for the gate. The bodies heaved against the barrier, not strong enough to break through into the safety of the palace grounds.
“Climb!” The lantern rattled against her leg as she ran for the gate. “Climb the gate!”
But no one listened, and the stone was circling round and round in its metal bowl, and behind her, the black figure screamed with a voice like a horn.
“Climb!” Uta thudded against the first wave of bodies.
She would die here, pressed against these faceless strangers. They’d all die here.
Uta climbed, using the bodies like a bridge and then a ladder, clawing her way to the gate.
A voice like a thousand laughing voices rattled from behind her.
Uta threw herself at the gate. The bars burned where she gripped them, but she pushed through the pain, hauling herself up and up. Her muscles screamed.
Around her, the others started to climb.
Uta hauled herself onto the top of the gate, her lantern still gripped in one hand. With barely a glance at the ground below, she dropped. Standing on the garden path, Uta grabbed the bar that held the gates closed. With bodies still cleaved to the other side, Uta lifted the bar with all her might.
As the wave crashed into the lower city, the great gold gates swung open.
The drifting corpse screamed from directly behind her.
“Moniqa!” Uta jerked upright in her bed, skin clammy and gaze spinning.
It was too dark in her room. Was she still in the dream?
Uta pressed her fist against her chest—
and let out an audible breath.
She was still a grown woman, not a child. The dream’s hold on her wasn’t gone, but it was fading, and as it did her eye began to adjust to the gloom, picking out the shape of the brazier that ought to have still been burning and which had been allowed to go out. Barely an ember glowed from inside, the shadow of some cylindrical object nearly invisible beside it.
“Madaula?” Uta called.
No one answered.
Uta must already have shoved her blankets off in her sleep, because when she rose to her feet there was nothing to fall off. Her bare legs were perishing cold. Naked, a full-bodied shiver forced her to pause before she approached the brazier.
She clucked to herself—in part, if she were honest, for the comfort of sound in the quiet of the darkened room, but on the surface because it would take time to rekindle the flame.
“Madaula?” Uta called. Instinctively, she reached for her lantern sitting on the table beside the brazier—
Uta’s fingers were already almost closed around the lantern’s handle when she realized her mistake.
Warm breath ghosted against Uta’s left cheek, as though someone were standing beside her. As though she were not alone.
Uta’s hand began to tremble, so close to touching the handle of the lantern. But if she touched it, her heart whispered, something terrible would surely follow.
Behind Uta, the brazier crackled to life and she jumped, her hand clutching the handle, her heart pounding.
The room was a kaleidoscope of stars, moons, and lotus blossoms, all blinking in and out in orange and yellow firelight. The glow from the brazier refracted the lantern’s patterns onto the wall and the ceiling and even Uta’s bare skin.
Uta made a dash for the door, but when she reached where it ought to be, the wall was a smooth plain.
The glowing shapes from the lantern were now set to spinning as it jostled in Uta’s grip.
“Madaula!” Uta thumped her fist against the wall.
It was no use. She was in the dream still. She had to be. Just because it didn’t feel like the dream didn’t mean it wasn’t one—and hadn’t she had that wine before bed? It’d been the strong stuff Samelqo had preferred to ordinary wine. Such things played with the mind, and what if there’d been something else in it—a drop of lotus tea or even sapenta?
Samelqo had valued control over all else. He never would have let himself become enslaved to such a thing.
It was a dream.
Relief rushed through her. She turned to face the bed, leaning back against the wall, and waited to wake up.
Something long and sinuous slithered on the surface of her bed.
Uta screamed, throwing the lantern as hard as she could at what had to be a snake and pressed herself even closer against the wall. She held her palms flat against it, attention fully on the hissing, writhing serpents she could now see squirming where the lantern had struck them. There were two of them—long and black—twining round and round each other as the lantern rolled over the edge of the bed and clattered to the floor.
The wall behind Uta thrust against her back with a violent shove and she stumbled onto the floor. Her already sore knee screamed with pain.
Light flooded the room.
Ting. The sound of the lantern rolling to a stop against the metal leg of the brazier.
Uta raised her arm to shield her eye from the brightness. “Madaula.”
It hadn’t been a dream.
Madaula knelt beside her, one hand steadying Uta’s back as though she were a delicate object, the other wrapping round Uta’s side to help her stand. Uta would normally have shaken the girl off, but she was too stunned to bark at her like she might have. Instead, her gaze returned to the bed where—
She squirmed from Madaula’s grasp. “Someone’s hidden snakes in my bed.” She pointed toward it as though Madaula might somehow have forgotten what a bed was.
“What?” Madaula stepped toward the bed. The firelight gleamed where it hit her tight brown curls.
Uta snatched Madaula’s arm and hauled her back. “Fool girl—don’t walk toward them.”
Her heart raced with the names of those who might want her dead or incapacitated: Qanmi, Eshant, Titrit. One of her fellow slaves now that they’d all unmasked—someone jealous of Uta’s closeness to Zioban. Himalit et-Moniqa, who might want Uta’s tower returned to the property of the true-born Semassenqa. It could be any of them.
“Where were the snakes?” Madaula asked. At least she’d stopped trying to break away.
“On top of the covers. I threw my lantern at them.”
Madaula laid a soothing hand on Uta’s. “I don’t see anything.” She bent her head and stared at Uta with wide, patient eyes. “Are you certain you didn’t imagine it?”
Curse the girl for looking at Uta that way—like she was mad. But could Madaula be right? It’d been so dark, and with the shock of the lantern and the brazier flaring to life—
The lantern. The shapes still dotting half the room’s ceiling proved she hadn’t hallucinated that part.
Uta rushed to the other side of the bed. She grabbed the lantern from its resting place on the floor and held it aloft for Madaula to see. “This isn’t my imagination.”
Madaula frowned—a pretty expression on her youthful face. “Where did you find it? I thought it was lost in the tunnels.”
Still holding the lantern, Uta threw her blankets from her bed. She sucked back a breath, counted one two three and knelt to search beneath.
“Nothing.” Part of her had hoped to find the snakes, but there was nowhere else they could have squirmed so quickly.
When Uta stood up, Madaula wasn’t alone. Eshant et-Loriqa loomed behind her—a thick brick wall of a woman.
“I came to tell you—you have a visitor, Sese,” Madaula explained.
Remembering her nakedness, Uta grabbed the stola she’d set aside for the coming morning and began to dress. “You picked an opportune night to visit.”
“Opportune?” Eshant’s brow knotted. “I’m sorry—I hadn’t meant to disturb you, but we heard a commotion and when Madaula didn’t come back.” She trailed off, glancing behind her as though expecting a phantom to appear over her shoulder.
Uta was half convinced one would. “What do you want?” she asked. “Another report on the slaves you still refuse to bare your face too?”
Eshant sucked her teeth. She looked abashed, or maybe cowed. Uta wasn’t foolish enough to trust such an expression.
“Perhaps,” Madaula broke in, with a glance between the two women, “we could speak in the other room.”
Eshant bowed her head, already halfway inside the adjoining room. “Of course.”
Once Eshant was gone, Uta strode past the bed and to Madaula. “I called out for you—you didn’t hear me? Truly?” Uta had to know if she was seeing and hearing things. Snakes in the dark was one thing, but a disappearing door? She hadn’t imagined her own calls for help.
Madaula shook her head. “We heard something clatter.”
“My lantern.” Maybe Uta simply hadn’t yelled loud enough. She needed to believe that, or else . . .. Her mind was all she had. It couldn’t fail her. “Perhaps I’m overworked.”
“You are overworked,” Madaula agreed. “But you could have been sleepwalking, or—” She hesitated, on the brink of saying something.
Uta met Madaula’s gaze. “Continue.”
Madaula reached out and poked Uta’s lantern with her middle finger. It started spinning, and she looked up. “A vision.”
Uta scoffed. The absurdity of it ripped her back into the ordinariness of her tower.
“You are the heq-Ashqen’s widow. Former heq-Ashqen.” Madaula chewed her lip. “Would it be so strange?”
Cold, Uta rubbed her upper arm, very conscious of the cool metal of the lantern still gripped in her hand. She’d dreamed of it, hadn’t she? And this wasn’t the first time she’d had that dream. Only the corpse—she was sure now it had been a corpse—drifting uphill toward her, was different. That, and the lantern.
“The former heq-Ashqen was even less prone to visions than I am.” Uta brushed past Madaula and into the adjoining room, forcing Madaula to turn on her heel and follow. She didn’t mean to be brusque with the girl, but taking on a kind of forcefulness was helping to ease her disquiet.
Behind Uta, Madaula let out a hmm. Uta could well imagine her smile.
“The lantern,” she admitted softly, “was in the dream. Then, when I awoke, it was beside the brazier on the table as though that was where it had always been.”
Madaula whistled. “You must not have lost it. Maybe you didn’t bring it with you like you thought.”
“I did.” Uta’s chest grew tight from remembered grief. She marched to the door that opened into Samelqo’s office—still his after so long—and hesitated before it.
“Then it must have been a vision,” Madaula reasoned, a smile in her words like she was rather pleased with herself.
Uta was less pleased. She turned the door handle. “Or someone put it there.” Someone who had access to the tunnels.
When Uta opened the door, Eshant was sitting on the settee against the wall, twiddling her fingers. She looked up as Uta and Madaula entered.
One of Samelqo’s coded letters rested on his desk where Uta had left it, her scribbled attempts at solving the cypher scratched on the papyrus beside it. She ought to have put it away. It was risky leaving it where Eshant might notice it.
“The hour is late to come calling.” Uta reached for her cane, which was propped against the wall beside the desk. As soon as she clasped it, the familiar notches in the wood and the smooth finish of its surface soothed her unease.
“I always come late,” Eshant answered. As Uta set the lantern on the desk, her gaze followed it—could she have slipped inside somehow and planted the lantern? It might not be so hard, for an Ashqat, and she no doubt knew how to pick a lock. Still, she would have had to place it in Uta’s room this past evening or later, and both Uta and Madaula had been home.
As Uta eased herself onto Samelqo’s chair, Madaula stepped fully inside the room and clasped her hands in front of her. “Not this late.” Her mouth twitched, as though she’d surprised herself with the comment. “Sese.”
Eshant smiled wryly, but when she noticed Uta was looking, she quickly banished the expression.
Gods be good, Uta hadn’t the patience just now to deal with a flirtation between the two of them. She’d speak to Madaula later—Eshant was dangerous.
Uta leaned forward and her chair creaked. “What are you here for? More news you’d like me to impart to your followers from on high?” She let all the disdain she felt for the rebellion’s supposed leader seep into her words. Last time Eshant had come with news it had been about the uprising of the salt flat slaves. They’d taken to fighting in Dashel’s name, reimagining him as some sort of god.
“A favour, I’m afraid. Nothing to do with the rebellion. It’s a personal matter.” Eshant was still fidgeting with her thick, manly hands. Anxious.
Well, Uta was certainly intrigued. “Go ahead.”
Eshant winced—was it the light in her eyes, or some deeper distress? “My father—I don’t know how to express it really, or even what the right questions are to ask. But sometimes, especially recently, he’s been behaving strangely. How much do you know about the old queen?”
“Moniqa?” Uta tensed involuntarily as she spoke the name, feeling the clutch of the dream’s fingers upon her, the ghostly breath at her cheek as she’d reached for her lantern.
The socket where her eye had once been started to itch.
“No. I’m sorry—I meant Queen Eshant et-Nila. My namesake.” Eshant looked from Uta to Madaula and then back again.
Hopefully Uta’s relief didn’t show on her face. She didn’t relish a conversation about Moniqa. “Barely anything. You do realize I’m not quite that old, don’t you?”
Eshant’s fidgeting had increased. “Yes, but you know a lot of things about a lot of people. I thought Samelqo eq-Milqar might have told you something.”
“Something?” What exactly did Eshant suspect? “Tell me what you’re asking, or I won’t be able to help you.” Not that she particularly cared to.
Madaula nodded to Eshant, the way one might when coaxing a child to confess some crime. “It’s all right, Sese. You can speak freely with my mistress. She’s a good woman.”
Could she? Uta shot Madaula a puzzled glance before returning her attention to Eshant.
Eshant’s shoulders and chest rose and fell as though she’d sucked back a heavy breath. “I think there was something between my family and the royal family. My father—he has these turns of mood. Sometimes, he talks about her—Eshant—the other Eshant. And today—” She wrang her hands.
Yes, that anxiety was genuine, Uta had no doubt. Eshant’s chin and cheeks twitched as though she were fighting tears. She bit her lip as though to stop her mouth from quaking.
Uta wasn’t so cold as not to feel for her. Whatever Qanmi had done—and Uta had an inkling what that had been—it had truly shaken his daughter. There were no visible bruises across Eshant’s face though. If he had beaten her, he’d made sure the strikes had landed where no one could see.
“Pour her some wine.” Uta waved Madaula in the direction of the decanter on its small table and Madaula dutifully complied.
Once the cup was in Eshant’s hand, she smiled up at Madaula in thanks. She brushed a loose strand of her chin-length hair from her face and drank. From the way she closed her eyes and how her shoulders relaxed, the wine had done its work.
Perhaps Uta had been right to suspect there was more to it than a simple red. She’d have to speak with Samelqo’s supplier.
“Better?” Uta asked. She cocked her chin at Madaula and the two exchanged a look before Madaula sat beside Eshant. Hopefully the closeness steadied Eshant enough she was capable of speech.
“Better.” Eshant opened her eyes and smiled. She hesitated. “Thank you.” It seemed she might qualify that thanks somehow, but she didn’t.
Uta smoothed her palms across the surface of the desk. “Now, what was it that your father said, exactly, that made you come to me?” Eshant had mentioned King Isir’s wife. The connection tickled Uta’s heart, and the vestiges of a memory and a dream came to her.
She’d been in one of the palace riads—only a child—watching an argument between Qanmi and Princess Meghigda et-Eshant. Qanmi had implied, if she recalled, that he’d been close with Meghigda’s mother.
And in the dream, there’d been a cloud of smoke and Moniqa’s hands reaching for her from inside it.
It ought to calm her that she’d dreamed of Moniqa’s ghost long before tonight’s nightmare, but the realization prickled her skin till her hair stood on end, as though Moniqa stalked her from a place the waking world ought not to touch.
“Sese?” Madaula was frowning at her.
Uta shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m tired.”
And she’d missed Eshant’s reply. Fortunately, the woman was willing to repeat. “He told me today that there hadn’t been a real king on Qemassen’s throne since Isir.”
Was that all? Uta might have laughed. “I’m sure Qanmi’s made such statements before. Half the city said it of Eshmunen.”
“No.” Eshant pressed her lips together tight. “At first I thought all he meant was that someone else ought to be king—not Aurelius, but—”
She didn’t need to finish the statement.
“Go on.” Uta stared at her lantern. The brazier’s flame made it shimmer burnished bronze along the sharp edges of the shapes decorating its sides. Her reflection gazed back at her, distorted.
“He suggested,” her words hung in the air, her reluctance palpable. She cleared her throat, the swallow followed by a cough. “Maybe it was nothing, but he told me he had a claim to the throne. By blood. More than that, he said that Aurelius and Eshmunen didn’t.”
Aurelius, Uta might have understood. For people who hadn’t been around during Moniqa’s affair, the spectre of her infidelity put in doubt Aurelius’s legitimacy, but Uta had been there. Aurelius was Eshmunen’s. To call into question Eshmunen’s own parentage though—Uta hadn’t heard such a thing whispered before.
Uta frowned. “I don’t suppose he gave you a basis for this?”
Eshant stared at her knees. Madaula must have seen a flicker of sadness on her face because she laid a comforting hand on Eshant’s shoulder.
Eshant jumped. “I’m sorry—”
Madaula had already removed her hand. “No need.”
Eshant met Uta’s eye. “He’s implied things before, about what’s owed to our family. He suggested that Titrit’s marriage to Aurelius does more for him than us.”
“That could be the musings of a proud father.” Uta doubted it, based on what Eshant was saying, but it was a simpler explanation, and she wasn’t about to let fancy make a fool of her.
“Maybe.” It was clear Eshant was as unconvinced as Uta. “But if it wasn’t, we ought to know.”
We. That Uta was in any way part of a we with Eshant made her teeth ache. But Eshant wasn’t wrong—if Qanmi had a claim to Qemassen’s throne it cast the slave rebellion in an alarming new light. A promise and a warning dwelt inside that idea. If Qanmi were to become king, he might free the slaves—certainly, Aurelius’s rule had so far proved less of an upheaval than Uta had dreamed. But Qanmi was also vicious. He was not someone Uta allied herself with guiltlessly.
“What is it you’re asking of me?” Uta pressed.
Behind Eshant, the glow of the rising sun shimmered with a fire that hadn’t yet realized it was supposed to be warm. Its light was a pale spear, arcing inside the tower through the panoramic window and promising to blind Uta should she continue to stare. She’d never thought it before, but in Samelqo’s tower, where the walls were the starry midnight of Tanata’s veil, the sword of daylight was a bleak messenger.
Eshant looked up, her face a shifting plain of emotion. “There’s more to my family than either Titrit or I know. I think something happened between King Isir, his queen, and my grandmother. I’d just like to know what it was.”
Did Eshant really believe Isir could be her grandfather? It seemed that was what she was saying.
Uta did her best to veil her interest, staring at the desktop with its fine, polished grain, and Samelqo’s letter in its bizarre code. “What am I supposed to do about this? My parents served under King Isir, but they left no written legacy.”
Eshant’s furrowed brow turned her expression to one of dark intensity. She was worried Uta wouldn’t help. “Of course not, but you’re Samelqo’s widow. Everyone knows he has documents in his care going back before he was born. If there was something to know about Queen Eshant, Samelqo knew it, and whatever that secret was I’m sure he had the sense to keep it buried.”
Would Samelqo have documented something so destructive as an affair between King Isir and Qanmi’s mother? Uta couldn’t be sure. And what if he hadn’t been aware of such a relationship at all? Samelqo knew much, it was true, but perhaps not so much as he’d thought, and not so much as Eshant hoped. Yet the heq-Ashqen had been a young man then. He would have been able to make use of the passages around the palace that he’d once revealed to Uta. How could he have known to show her unless he’d first used them himself? And who had shown him they were there?
“I’ll do what I can,” Uta said hesitantly, “but I may find nothing at all. If Samelqo knew anything, the secret probably died with him, as I’m certain would have been his intention.”
The coded letter seemed to thrum, but Uta forced her attention from it.
Eshant nodded as though to herself. Her expression had cooled to that harmless mellow stare she typically affected. “I understand.”
“Do you?” Uta settled the weight of her stare on the woman. “You’re asking me to find evidence that your father has a legitimate claim to Qemassen’s throne. Should it be true, do you honestly believe that information should ever come to light?”
Eshant stood up suddenly. Madaula shrunk away from her, startled. “Is it better that Aurelius wear Qemassen’s crown and allow Himalit et-Moniqa to rule unchecked? She controls the Yirada and who knows what else. She’s investigating Zioban again—Titrit and my father have caught her nosing about.” Eshant marched up to Uta’s desk and it took all Uta’s will not to lean back to get away from her. “If the heq-Damirat finds out what we’ve done, who do you think will bear the worst of her wrath? A priestess she hardly knows or the widow of the man she considered her greatest enemy?”
Uta wouldn’t allow herself to be shaken. She smiled and folded her hands on top of the table. “Ah, there it is. The threat that keeps me tethered to you.”
Eshant’s fierce expression crumbled. She was a broken woman, that was clear. Used to pretending ferocity when her father commanded it, but helpless in the face of another’s strength.
All the same, it didn’t mean she was wrong. Despite what Uta might wish, there was, in fact, a we when it came to the two of them.
“I’ll see what I can find,” Uta relented. “But I want something in return. At the next meeting with the slaves, you’re to bare your face to them. Give them a chance to know who they follow and prove any of you are worth following.”
Eshant’s shoulders heaved and fell, as though she were unburdened. “I can do that.” She glanced to her left, at Uta’s lantern on the table. Without permission, she dared close her fingers around it as though to take it.
Uta had almost forgotten the dream.
Not even thinking, Uta grabbed Eshant’s wrist. “My lantern.”
For an instant, Eshant’s brow furrowed again, this time in confusion. “I—I’m sorry.” Her fingers loosened and she pulled back. Uta relaxed her hold on the woman, but she didn’t release her. “I thought I must have left it. It’s similar to one of my father’s.”
Uta’s empty socket itched. What game was Eshant playing? Someone had placed the lantern here, in Uta’s room. It hadn’t been Madaula.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Eshant asked. There was no sign of duplicity on Eshant’s face.
“A simple mistake.” Uta finally let her go. When she did, Eshant rubbed her wrist. “I suppose you remember every object in your father’s possession, do you?” For Uta, one who had owned nothing until her marriage, the lantern was precious. For Qanmi’s daughter? Well, there were many objects in Qanmi’s possession.
Eshant’s throat bobbed like she’d swallowed. “Some things. That one was special. A gift from my grandmother. Dannae et-Erinya.”
Hearing the name said aloud was like getting a sudden whiff of smoke. Dannae. Yes, Dannae, Sabaal’s wife. Uta had been copying something about her for Samelqo last year. It had been strange—a note that she had acted as Ashtet during the Feast.
A note that she had chosen King Isir as consort.
Uta felt her eyes go wide—an expression she had no time to cover.
Madaula must have noticed because she rushed to the desk. “Sese?”
Uta shivered, as though her shock might tumble like an unwanted shawl from her shoulders. “Nothing.” She wasn’t about to reveal such a thing to Eshant so thoughtlessly, and especially without verifying it. She let go of Eshant’s wrist, her attention drawn again to the lantern. Could it really be Eshant’s? Perhaps she’d left it here and one of Uta’s slaves had tidied it up.
She ran her fingers over its top.
She knew the feel of it under her fingers. It was here, whether by some game of Qanmi’s, or another means. What means that could be, Uta didn’t have the capacity to think on just now.
“This one is mine,” Uta said.
Eshant smiled. “Again. I apologize. It must have been the same craftsman.”
Uta nodded. “Of course.” A craftsman who sold both to slaves and to the wealthiest family in all Qemassen? Eshant must simply be mistaken.
“I’ll leave you to your work,” Eshant said, and left.
Alone with Madaula, the taut poise Uta had summoned to deal with Eshant shed like a snake’s skin from her body and she hunched, staring at the desk, then glancing at Samelqo’s library of scrolls on its shelves to her left.
Somewhere in there, she was certain now, lay an answer. Uta had an answer for how Isir could have come to sire a child upon Dannae et-Erinya, but no clue just yet why Qanmi might think Eshmunen illegitimate.
Madaula rapped the desk with her fist. “Sese?”
“Uta, please, I’ve told you,” Uta answered. She turned to meet Madaula’s gaze and found the girl smirking. Her good humour gleamed in her eyes. “Why do you look so smug?”
“Not smug,” she said smugly. “Curious. Is it time, do you think, to break your husband’s encryption?” She tapped the letter where it rested on the desk.
Uta couldn’t quite smile back. It was indeed. Whether or not the letters contained what they needed, she’d rest easier once she’d discovered what Samelqo had known.