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Chapter 2: Sisters
Himalit – The Watchtower: Qemassen
Hima’s everything ached, but the sun was shining on the Helit Sea. No rambling Ashqen was needed to explain to her the nature of the omen; the gods looked on her city with favour. The complaints of the body were nothing in the face of that, and she would make her body remember it.
Besides, when Adoran finally showed up for their meeting, she wasn’t about to let him see her flinch.
To the creak of the leather brace strapped to her left leg, Hima labored to the window of the heq-Damirat’s tower and surveyed the ocean beyond and the shipyard directly below. She stood on the highest floor of the watchtower, its circular chamber perfect for observing both the city and the harbour. At the centre of the room stood a smaller, cylindrical wall, which concealed the central stairway. An orange-tinted mural the colour of daybreak curved along the cylinder. Ships upon ships danced their battle-dance across its surface in a proud display of Qemassen’s might. The mural had been commissioned by Hima’s grandfather, King Isir, in honour of his victories in eq-Anout. Though the painting was intended to show an ancient battle between Elibat’s conquerors and the tribal natives, the triremes and quadriremes had been copied from Isir’s own fleet.
Her grandfather’s victories cast a shadow over Hima’s failures. The city had been saved, yes, but through none of her efforts. When the wave had come, they’d been losing. If she were to live up to the might of her grandfather, she had battles yet to win.
As Hima watched the water directly below her tower, a smaller trireme slid from one of the sluice gates. The ship melted into the modest traffic, curving around the tower on its voyage past the bustling dockyard out to the sea.
Her shipyard had fared comparatively well after the earthquake. The exterior docks had been flooded, of course, and repairs were ongoing, but while the stones elsewhere had crumbled beneath the waves, the damage to the yard had been superficial. The Qabira still stood watch atop Hima’s tower; the sluicegates that circled it still opened and closed to allow newly built ships to plow furrows across the Helit’s calm surface.
At a movement no bolder than a twitch, the brace keeping Hima’s leg straight dug into her, its edges like a knife drawn slowly and shallowly around her skin. Her leg thrummed hot with pain.
It didn’t matter that she was alone; the heq-Damirat was Qemassen’s strength. She should stand tall and straight, for her city and for her sons. Aurelius had no bruises to complain about, yet he wallowed like a spoiled boy instead of the king they’d crowned him. One of the two of them must be strong.
Hima rested her palms on the stone window ledge in front of her, anchoring herself, willing the pain that radiated from her leg to flow out of her and into the tower. Let the Qabira shoulder her burden for her, so she could focus on her duties.
Qirani had warned Hima she would never walk straight again, but Hima had sought a second opinion from an Ashqen of Adonen. The Ashqen had promised not only that she’d walk again, but that she’d run. The brace was the price, one Qirani had argued vehemently against. He was an Anan though, and eq-Anout was an enemy. In the weeks to come, it may even be revealed he was one of the spies the Anata had no doubt employed to ferret information back home. How could any of them trust such a man?
Perhaps he was even one of Zioban’s agents.
She was smart enough to recognize that Aurelius wasn’t entirely wrong—not everyone was an enemy and not everyone could have been working with Zioban and the Lora. But Aurelius was also too quick to forget the torture they’d endured. Hima’s sons had been snatched from the Eghri and permanently mutilated. She wouldn’t forget that. She wasn’t going to ignore the danger her family faced in favour of whores and sapenta.
If she’d known Aurelius would turn into such a useless drunk without his big-breasted Feislanda witch, she might not have sent Bree away.
Hima tapped her right foot, staring out the curved window past Qemassen’s defenses to where the water still bore the scars of the battle. The remains of Tarefsa Tithmeseti jutted like jagged spears from the Helit’s wounded belly, and splinters of debris from Lora and Massenqa vessels still nested between the rocks. Hima had lain amongst the wreckage for a night and a day with what few sailors had survived the wave, pinned beneath the mast of a Lora trireme. The wreck had left her with a broken arm and two broken legs. With blood already ebbing from the wound she’d suffered in the battle, she knew she should have died.
She would have died, if the traitor hadn’t found her.
Hima’s leg throbbed, like Bree had crawled up through the floor and dug her claws into Hima’s flesh.
But what had Bree to complain about? The trade Hima had offered was a fair one. More than fair. A life for a life. Bree had helped Hima survive the wreckage and in return Hima had let her flee unpunished. Even better than unpunished—a wealthy woman. And after all, that was what Bree had been after—a crown and some coin. At least she’d got half of what she wanted, along with her stolen child and whatever pleasure she’d derived turning Aurelius from a breaker of women’s hearts to a man yoked and chained.
Aurelius wouldn’t have punished Bree even if Hima had laid the proof of the false princess’s dishonesty at his feet; he was weak when a king must be strong.
Staring at the bay’s altered landscape made her stomach bubble.
She pushed herself from the window ledge, glaring at the stairs which for the last half hour Adoran had failed to mount.
Curse the Yirada chief for wasting her time and curse Aurelius for ignoring his duties. Qemassen could use Aurelius’s charm just now, but he was too self-centered to give it.
She cracked her knuckles.
Hima had lost just as much as Aurelius in the attack. She’d lost a brother, her sister, and all the men and women who’d sailed under her and given their lives for their city.
There was little time for wallowing.
She eyed the stairs.
Little time for wallowing, yet apparently plenty of time to keep the busiest woman in the city waiting. As always, the woman of Hima’s nature was what made that true.
Even more reason not to show any sign of weakness.
With little else to do while she waited, Hima looked hard at the painting of Elibat’s fleet that curled around the cylindrical wall disguising the staircase. She let its story tow her along so she could ride her pain like a wave. The ships looked tiny, of course, but the deeper she stared into the images the grander they became, and as she approached the round wall she could hear the roar of the painted waves and feel the creak of a wooden deck beneath her feet. The screams of fighting and dying men surrounded her, but she could walk again. She could command.
The air tasted of salt water.
At the prow of the tallest ship stood an armoured man—broad chested and bold. He held a sword in his hand, his fierce black beard jutting toward the oncoming shore to show he held his chin high and proud. He was fearless.
Surely, the figure was King Isir, or modeled after him. Elibat sat further back—tall as a goddess and seated upon a throne too large for the ship she sailed on. Isir was her champion, as he had been the city’s champion in life.
A strong man. A true child of Qemassen.
Would that he’d been her father instead of Eshmunen. She’d have grown up the daughter of a true warrior then. Her grandfather would have understood her worth.
Adoran’s plodding footsteps echoed throughout the watchtower as he mounted the stairs, accompanied by two more sets of feet.
Hidden by the wall, Hima hurried to greet him, but as she did so she twisted her leg in its casing and the hard, treated leather broke the skin. She couldn’t stop the sharp bark of pain before it broke past her lips. Wincing, Hima propped herself against the painting for support, jaw clenched, her anger giving her strength.
“Sese!” Adoran appeared from around the curved wall, a second Yirada officer behind him. The second officer was leading a prisoner by a long cord.
Hima forced herself upright before they could reach her, partitioning her weakness inside the deepest portion of her heart.
“Do you allow all your criminals to strangle you from behind?” Hima snapped.
Adoran immediately stopped, causing the second officer to bump into him. The prisoner, at least, was alert enough not to do the same. By Adoran’s wide eyes, Hima’s slight had shocked him out of his sympathy.
“I heard a scream, Sese,” Adoran said flatly, staring Hima in the eyes.
Adoran was a solid block of fat and muscle, his lack of any neck to speak of only making his square face look even more like a sandstone brick stacked upon a larger one. His short, curly hair was mostly grey, but in some places a dark brown remained. He had a wart on his cheek and another above his eye, and his wide mouth gave the impression of a frog or toad. He was middle-aged, but Hima couldn’t imagine he’d been any handsomer in his youth.
For all that, he was good at what he did, and he had the sense to answer to Hima above her foolish brother.
“You were mistaken,” Hima answered. A loose curl bounced free of the hairstyle her slaves had fitted her with this morning and she tucked it quickly behind her ear. When it pinged back, she reached up and tugged the rest of her hair free with one pull.
The golden comb that had held her hair in place pinged as it hit the ground.
Adoran quickly knelt to retrieve it. While he was bent over, Hima’s eyes met the mysterious prisoner’s. He’d been staring straight at her, as though through Adoran’s very head.
Hima stepped around Adoran, taking her offered comb without breaking the shared stare, and maintaining a fluid gait to show that yes, she was still in control of her body.
The prisoner had the look of someone from the very far north, just like Taliq et-Afqat—the officer who gripped the prisoner’s lead. His dark brown eyes were nearly black and boasted a piercing intelligence. His weathered face was scarred both from battle and the sunbeatenness you sometimes saw on farmers’ slaves. He must be in his forties, perhaps his fifties, but it could be difficult to tell on those who’d lived a hard life, and his corded muscle suggested he was both strong and spry.
Adoran cleared his throat. “This man was captured with the Lora prisoners but claims he’s not one of them. Taliq et-Afqat says it’s true and that she knows him. He asked to be brought to you. Thinks he could be of use.”
“He will be of use,” Taliq dared hush at her commander. She was a woman made, not born, like Titrit’s sister. Her height, along with the prominent bump of her throat made her origins obvious. Her cheeks reddened beneath her copper skin as she spoke, but if she was nervous about interrupting, she pushed it back and addressed Hima directly. “He was a great warrior of my people, Sese, when I was a child. When the Lora carted us off to sell as slaves, he held them off for a time single-handedly.”
He’d held them off for a time. Still, it wasn’t unimpressive, and Taliq’s opinion was more valuable for her boldness.
Hima looked the prisoner up and down. “Why were you sailing with the Lora if you were their enemy? The Lora aren’t foolish enough to arm prisoners. Unless you’re a spy. Are you a spy, Maznin? Can you even understand what I’m saying?” Hima prowled around him, but he showed no sign of discomfort. “Sending a man like you to infiltrate our city would be clever, but I don’t think the Lora expected to lose the battle, and you’d have been no use if they’d won. Why don’t you say anything?”
The prisoner was taller than Hima, at least six feet. Those hard, dark eyes refused to look anywhere but at her.
People must avoid a man like this; few would dare fight him.
Hima smiled to herself and brushed a strand of hair from the prisoner’s face. “Where did you get eyes like that?” She took a step back, letting her hand fall to her side again. She addressed Taliq with a frown. “He doesn’t speak our words. Did you translate for him?”
Before Taliq could answer, the prisoner took a step toward Hima. The chains hanging from the manacles binding him rattled. Taliq moved as if to force the prisoner back, but Hima stayed her with a raised hand.
“Which of your ten questions did you want me to answer first, Sese?” asked the prisoner. “I’m no Loran. I’m no spy. I’m not a saboteur, nor am I ignorant of your language. I got my eyes from my mother, whose kin were ravens, and I came to Lorar only after many years of searching. I’ve sung songs in the Feislands and feasted with bears. I’ve sailed to the Island of Ull and witnessed wonders and horrors both. I’ve strayed further still, to the Inda mountains and the wild sands of the Sajit. I was captured defending one of your own, a captain about to be executed. I was put on a ship where they intended me to die, but as you can see, I did not die. Now I am here.”
Defending one of Hima’s own. That wasn’t the most important detail though; she could ask about it later.“And you learned poetry―how lovely. I have no time for poems. You said you were searching. What were you searching for?”
The prisoner closed his black eyes briefly before answering. “My sister.”
“Did you find her?”
“Not alive. The Lora killed her spirit.”
“What is your name?”
Hima turned to Adoran. “Have you learned anything to contradict his story?”
Taliq inclined her chin respectfully at Hima. “He was a good man when I knew him,” said Taliq. “My best friend’s older brother and honoured by our band.”
Poanni stood straight, as though at attention. “I do not lie, Sese. I never lie.”
What a curious man. “Ravens are all liars, everyone knows that.”
“Maybe in the south.”
“Which is where you are now,” Hima snapped back. “Where in the north did you come from?”
The supposed northerner sighed, relaxing his shoulders. Hima wasn’t sure she liked that―he shouldn’t be relaxed.
“A dream the Lora stole.”
More poems, more riddles. Hima suppressed a scowl.
Taliq broke in. “The camp where the Lora attacked us was called Ninutsuet.”
For the first time that Hima had seen, Poanni reacted, a shiver rocking him. He raised his head a little higher.
“Fine.” Hima felt more comfortable now that Poanni had shown some vulnerability. “But why are you here? What do you want from me? What do you want in Qemassen? If I set you free will you linger or go wandering again―and why should I even care?”
Poanni didn’t budge, only kept standing with his bound hands clasped in front of him and his gaze distant, staring past Hima and toward the window. “You’re the ones who locked me up. I only want to be released, now the truth has been made clear. If you order me back to my cell I can live there just as happily. I’ve made a friend of solitude. Otherwise, I would stay in Qemassen for the time being. I’m strong at arms and I could be of use. Or not. It is your choice, Sese.”
Of course it was Hima’s choice. She snorted. “Let me think on it.” She hesitated though―did she really want him hauled back to the dungeons? The way he’d played her made it near impossible to do anything else without looking weak, but it wasn’t what her gut told her to do.
But what if he hadn’t been playing her? What if all he was was a silly, truth-telling poet?
Adoran cleared his throat. “Last week you asked me to find men for you who could be useful at the palace. Ones with no connection to—” he hesitated, having the sense, at least, not to name Qanmi or Shaqarbas or Eaflied in front of Taliq and Poanni. “No connection to certain personages at the palace.” Adoran cocked his head at Poanni. “This man has no connections whatsoever. He could work alongside Taliq.”
“And Bo,” Taliq hurriedly put in.
Hima suppressed a sigh. “Which one is Bo again? The one with holes in his boots?”
“He’s promised to have them repaired,” Taliq said quickly, a sternness to her tone that suggested she might personally have reprimanded him—possibly on numerous occasions. From the last time Hima had set eyes on the young man and his tattered uniform, the reprimand hadn’t been strong enough.
“As you are aware, Sese,” Adoran spoke slowly with a hard look at Taliq, “since the flood we’ve been short of both men and equipment.”
Hima was aware. She’d even allowed him to take on several of the younger, more malleable Lora prisoners as city guards. It was more than generous, yet she could see why Adoran considered Poanni a fine prize. And yes, she did need someone at the palace to help with her investigation into Zioban.
Despite Adoran and Taliq’s arguments, however, Hima wasn’t yet convinced that Poanni ought to be freed. Poanni addressed her with respect, but it was clear he was a proud man still, in spite of his circumstances. Some more time in Adoran’s cells might help to break him. “Return him to the Yirada jail for now.”
Adoran’s bushy eyebrows rose briefly in surprise, but he bowed. “As you wish, Sese.”
Poanni, of course, showed no reaction at all. Perhaps it really was of no consequence to him—a cell or the city streets.
A lance of pain shook her and she clenched her teeth, fighting not to lean against the mural again. All she wanted, suddenly, was to be back at the palace with her sons, soaking her leg in one of the heated baths.
“Sese?” asked Taliq.
“You may leave,” Hima managed. Once all three of them had disappeared past the curved wall on the way downstairs, she called out: “Send the slaves up with my chair.”
Regardless of whether she returned to the palace for rest or for work, she couldn’t face the climb all the way back down the tower.
It was only a temporary thing. She would regain her strength soon and all the pain she’d endured would be worth it.
In the meantime, she had a city to govern and Zioban or his accomplices to unmask.
Certain there was no danger of Taliq bounding back up the stairs and seeing her, Hima leaned against the mural, her head touching azure-blue clouds, her palm flat against the figure of Elibat on her golden chair. If the founder-queen was Qemassen’s past, Hima would be its future.
She would be her city’s strength.