Chapter 02,  Chapter Section,  Crown of Asmodeus

Crown: Chapter 2: IV: Uta

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Chapter 2: Sisters

Section IV

Uta – The Temple of Qalita: Qemassen

Eshant was faced away from Uta, a lantern’s orange glow beaming from in front of her so that her shadow-black silhouette was bordered by flame—an eclipse in human form. Eshant didn’t turn at the crunch of Uta’s sandals upon the rubble-strewn path that meandered downhill from the depths of Qalita’s temple. Whatever had transfixed her, its claws dug deep.

Even after months making her way past the debir and to the hidden door marked by Qalita’s relief, the passage still made Uta’s hair stand on end. It wasn’t even the knowledge that enumerable Lora bodies still lay crushed beneath the buried path, but the dim light and the constant roar of the waves. Ocean air whistled past the cramped stones that blocked access to the lowest parts of the passage, drenching the thick underground air with salt. Sometimes, when she stood at the wrong angle, the whistling sounded like screams.

Uta tapped her cane against the uneven ground, doing her best not to look at the doors leading down to where Eshant stood waiting. The gods all looked angry in the low light—glimmering evils with hunger in their eyes. The first time Eshant had led her down here, a trick of the light had made it look as though Leven and Pepet were moving. Part of her was anxious to see them frozen in place and have it proved just that—a trick. But the tunnels and rooms beneath Qalita’s temple were strange.

Uta cleared her throat before speaking. “I shouldn’t think you’d like to acknowledge your handiwork.” However much she tried to keep the judgement from her voice, it seeped in anyhow. Some feelings couldn’t be neatly tucked away.

Eshant shuffled her weight from one foot to the other, but she never broke her stare at the rocks below. “My handiwork.” The words might have been spoken as a refutation, but it didn’t sound like it. They sounded like an echo, mournful and reflexive.

As Uta approached, the light from her own lantern—the one given to her by her parents and mysteriously returned to her but a week ago—frolicked across Eshant’s back, revealing the rough spin of her plain brown robes.

To Uta’s left, lanternlight glowed warmly against Qalita’s hideous faces—jackal, ass, and witch—the relief coming alive one moment before sinking into shadow as Uta’s lantern swung to the rhythm of her steps. She hastened toward Eshant, the better to put distance between herself and the goddess.

Eshant shifted, nearly turning at Uta’s approach. “I’m surprised you care what happened to Qwella,” she said. “You hated her like you hate the rest of them.”

Surely Eshant knew why Uta would care? “Convincing someone you love them only to stick a dagger in their back isn’t something I’ve been taught to value.” She paused, allowing the words to fester. “I can see how in Qanmi’s house, you’d have learned a different lesson.”

Her words echoed faintly, bounding down the tunnel ahead of her to join the wild call of the waves beyond the blockage.

“If I learned so well,” Eshant said, choked. “Why do I grieve?”

Uta loathed everything Eshant represented, but even her throat grew tight. She didn’t speak, listening instead to the howls of the tunnel.

“Sometimes I come down here hoping to hear her,” said Eshant, louder than before, her voice higher pitched than Uta was used to from the slaves’ meetings, where Eshant still pretended at being a man. Either way, it was an affectation.

“Does she ever speak?” Uta asked.

Eshant turned to face her. “You can’t hear them?” Her cheeks shone with drying tears.

The freshness of Eshant’s grief was uncomfortable to look upon, the dense blackness of the stone-clogged tunnel easier to stare at. Uta focused on a narrow hole between two large slabs of rock. The whistle of the ghost screams seemed to whirl uphill from inside that hole. The deeper Uta looked, the louder the sounds, cloaking her in a second skin that smothered her real one.

An affectation.

“All I hear is the ocean,” Uta answered. She wouldn’t give Eshant the satisfaction of knowing the whistling had spooked her.

Eshant knelt and retrieved her lantern. She coughed as she stood up, as though the hot air from the flame bothered her. “I never hear Qwella. It’s probably better that I don’t. She’d have nothing kind to say to me.” Eshant led the way back to Qalita’s door.

Uta followed, using her cane to brush away the smaller stones and dirt that littered the path. “I never knew Qwella et-Moniqa to be kind when she was alive. Why should she be in death?”

Eshant gave a dry wisp of a snort. A wry humour more like sadness than comedy coiled inside her smile.


Uta took a step back, eyes wide for one terrible second. Eshant had looked for an instant like Aurelius. Then, it was gone.

 “She was beautiful. Her souls were beautiful.” Eshant paused. “But she killed my uncle. Blood for blood.” That last was nearly spit from her—recited lines, no doubt, taught her by Qanmi.

“Killing Sabeq eq-Sabaal is the one thing I’d have applauded her for. No one deserves a man like that for a husband.” Uta watched Eshant close, eyeing the rise and fall of her back for even the tiniest hitch. A sign Uta’s insult had wounded her.

But Eshant only opened the door with a press of her finger to Qalita’s face. “I was scared of my uncle,” she said. “Everyone was.”

Uta scoffed. “Not everyone. My husband never let him throw his weight around.” She eyed Qalita’s relief as it slid open. The mechanism in the door was so like those Uta had once used to gain access to the tunnels beneath Samelqo’s tower. The doors must have been built by the same hand—every stretch of earth connected beneath the streets and the temples, the houses and the palaces on the hill.

“Your husband didn’t stand in the way of Qwella’s marriage.” Eshant led Uta inside the strange little room with its carpet of flowers, crushing the blossoms underfoot. “That tells me he was afraid.”

“Why should he have stood in the way of the match?” Now Uta was defensive one. She ought to have remembered how good Eshant was at turning people’s emotions.

“Maybe you’re right,” Eshant relented, and the prickle in Uta’s chest dissipated—was that, too, a calculation? “The former heq-Ashqen wasn’t exactly known for his kindness.”

He’d been kind to Uta. She didn’t say that though; the feeling was too vulnerable to give away. “He cared for the royal children, whatever people say.”

In the wake of Eshant’s footsteps the flowers sprang back into place with an uncanny fervour, the ground slightly damp against Uta’s feet as she followed.

More strangeness. More secrets. When Uta had asked about the blossoms before, Eshant had provided little in the way of an answer. To her, it was Qalita’s magic—perhaps it was.

“Have you looked into my father’s parentage?” Eshant asked.

Madaula had been unsuccessfully labouring over Samelqo’s coded missives late into every night. “There’s nothing in my husband’s apartments, but we have yet to check the temple. I’ll inform you once I know anything.”

“And once you do, I’ll bare my face to the slaves.” Eshant stopped before the hidden door that led from the flower room into the tunnels Uta was used to.

Before Eshant could open it, Uta grabbed her arm just above the elbow. “That wasn’t what we agreed. You have to show them who you are tonight. What if there’s nothing to find? Will you sour the slaves on you out of spite that Qanmi has no royal blood?”

Eshant tore her arm free, glaring at Uta. “I’m not even sure if I want my suspicions to be true.”

“Then why? If you’re so frightened of the answer, why ask the question?”

“Because I have to know. Family is the most important thing we have. It’s all I have. Everything. If I don’t know who I am—”

Uta scoffed. “Family is a luxury.”

“Not in my house.” Eshant backed against the door and folded her arms across her broad chest. She stared to her right, at the wall. The furrow in her brow was the closest to angry that Uta had seen her. “It’s all I have, and it’s a curse. And maybe I don’t know who I am. Maybe I’ve never known.” Her throat bobbed. She loosened her hold on herself and held out her hands, palms up, then down, assessing them as though she might read in the lines on her hands the answer to who she was. “Titrit’s always had it worse.”

So, Eshant wanted to talk. Uta set down her lantern, prepared for a lengthy story, perhaps a confession of some kind. It had to be more trickery. Eshant gambled that Uta—childless as she was—must long to mother someone.

Let her think she’d won.

“How was it worse for your sister?” Uta did her best to mimic Madaula’s warmth.

Eshant hugged her chest again. “I had the temple.” She paused. “Eventually she had Qorban, but that didn’t stop—” She hesitated.

“That didn’t stop your father from hurting her.” That tightness in Uta’s throat again, her body betraying her.

Eshant’s forehead wrinkled, as though Uta had said something deeply untrue. Deeply unfair. “Uncle Sabeq was worse. He was worse to our father when he was younger than our father ever was to us. At least—” She sucked in an audible breath. “Our father loves us. I’m not sure my uncle ever loved anyone, not even our grandfather. I had an older brother—but you probably knew that.”

“I do.” Uta also knew what had most likely happened to him, but she didn’t say anything. Better that Eshant tell her. Let the rest of whatever this was—this confession—play out how Eshant had envisioned it.

Eshant was practically slumped against the wall, broad back curved against the indent of Qalita’s shoulder. “I don’t remember him, but I know our uncle killed him. My father saw it happen and he didn’t do anything—he was too scared of his own brother. People can hate my father all they want, but he’s not a monster like my uncle was. No one’s given him a chance to be better—if he got a chance, he’d be different. I know it.”

So what if he might have been different? He was terrible now. Experience taught Uta there was little chance that would change.

“Is that what Titrit believes?” Uta rarely interacted with Titrit in comparison to how frequently Eshant knocked at her door, and probably by design. Titrit was a liability to Qanmi, not an asset. Eshant was at least capable of feigning sanity for longer than the span of one conversation.

Well, perhaps not a whole conversation.

Eshant’s expression was cold, eyes empty. “She told me once she only felt alive in the moments between my father leaving and Qorban returning. When Qorban came home, she had to pretend to be happy and that nothing had happened or would ever happen.”

This ominous what ringed Eshant’s shoulders—something more disturbing than simple violence.

As though violence could ever be simple.

“She ought to have told Qorban,” said Uta. “If he was the man he seemed to be, he’d have put your father to the sword.”

“Haven’t you been listening? She never wanted that. Neither of us want that.” Eshant scuffed the ground, tearing and bending the flowers only for them to mend themselves. Eshant didn’t even react, too used to the temple’s strangeness.

“You should learn to want it.” Uta didn’t soften her words. Soft words and coddling kindness wouldn’t help here. “If you won’t help yourselves, or ask for help from others, then who have you to blame?

“So I can become another dagger in my father’s heart? Another traitor? No one loves him—no one but us. And most of the time, he doesn’t even believe me when I say it.” Eshant peeled herself off the wall. “I never felt the way Titrit did. I never came alive before, not even in the moments between when he—” She closed her eyes briefly, but the twisted grimace of her lips revealed her pain. “I never woke up until Qwella came along. A sleeping self. That’s what I was. I was asleep, and she woke me up.”

Uta scoffed. “And now that she’s dead have you fallen back into your slumber? You’re on the hunt, are you, to snare another girl and then toss her aside?”

Eshant’s nose wrinkled. “What do you mean?”

Uta nudged the side of Eshant’s calf with her cane and Eshant stepped aside so that Uta could lead them through the door. “Madaula. I’ve watched you, prowling about. Laughing with her.”

“She’s funny, not that you’d notice when you lack any humour to speak of.” Eshant slipped into step behind Uta. “And I’m not looking for another lover. I have one.”

“That didn’t stop you seducing the princess.” Uta dipped her head, hunching down beneath where the ceiling had partially collapsed. Most of the tunnels here were no longer traversable, but the slaves had cleared a simple path to the House of Many Purposes.

Eshant audibly sucked her teeth. “I don’t care what you think of me.”

At least she’d stopped pretending to be friendly.

“And here I was, nearly feeling sorry for you.” As the corridor widened, Uta straightened her back. A spike of pain shot up her spine and she let out a gasp.

Eshant hurried to Uta’s side and gently gripped her elbow, as though to draw her away from the wall and lend support.

Uta wouldn’t have it. She clamped down the pain and shuffled away, leaning hard on her cane.

“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me,” said Eshant. “I’m not trying to hurt Madaula or manipulate either of you. I know our family isn’t what you wanted or expected, but we are fighting for the slaves.”

“Fighting how?” Uta forced one foot in front of the other until the ceiling evened out and she was able to stand again.

The long wait for a response gave the impression that Eshant had more than simple platitudes to offer. She had news.

“You want me to trust you,” Uta said, all the sternness she’d struggled to keep from her voice now thick as syrup in her words. “Give me a good reason to.”

Eshant’s feet scuffed harder on the dusty, chipped tiles that lined this stretch of the labyrinth. She caught up, matching her even gait to Uta’s uneven one. “I already tell you everything. You hear news before all the other slaves. You’re practically their leader.”

An embarrassing warmth flooded Uta’s chest. She shouldn’t want such a thing.

“We have no leaders,” Uta forced herself to say.

Eshant smirked. As they walked, she reached inside her robes and retrieved her mask. She fitted it into place with practiced quickness. “Then why do you need news from me?”

Uta smiled a little. Cleverness, no matter who it came from, deserved some reward. “You’re a leader, that’s true. So lead. Don’t stand half in the room and half outside like someone’s sour old cat.” She turned and faced Eshant, just before the door leading to the final corridor. “You can start by taking off that mask.”

Eshant stopped with a jolt. She stood watching Uta past the windows of the mask.

How had Uta ever found that face beautiful?

“I haven’t spoken to my father about it yet.” Eshant’s words came in a hush, like Qanmi might hear her, even underground. “He’ll be wroth.”

Uta grimaced. “And the fact that you fear his wrath doesn’t trouble you at all? You say he’s not terrible. That he can be good. Prove it by making your own choice and giving him the chance to accept it.”

As soon as the words left her, queasiness roiled in her belly. She wasn’t a manipulator, for all that she’d been a spy. For all that she was a liar who’d withheld the truth from her husband and betrayed the one she cared about, she had little bending people to suit her needs.

Yet past the mask, Eshant was trembling—not just in her body, but something inside her had been rattled about.

“It’s not a crime to be angry when someone disobeys you,” Eshant said, but there was meekness in her voice.

“Perhaps not, but there’s anger and there’s what your father does.” Uta met Eshant’s eyes. “My husband was sometimes angry, yet even when I was a slave he never struck me. And yet your own father—”

Eshant swallowed. She turned, breaking their stare. “How happy I am for you, not to have known real suffering.” Eshant hurried to the door leading to the next corridor, the rigidity of her shoulders communicating clearer than words that whatever spell Uta had managed to cast had been broken by a clumsy misstep she hadn’t even known she was making. “You want information, to prove to you my family’s sincerity? We didn’t fall asleep when my sister married the king. In the salt flats to the south, the slaves there are rebelling. My father keeps word of it from reaching Aurelius’s ears. You know whose name they chant as they put the freedmen to the sword?”

The salt flat slaves. A thousand—no, as many as two thousand men, all in revolt. There were guards down south, of course, to watch them, but not near as many.

Uta didn’t even try to hide her surprise.

“Whose name do they chant?” Eshant pressed, voice hard.

Uta swallowed, the sickness in her stomach rising. “Your father’s.”

Eshant smiled. “You’d like to think that.” She pressed open the door, stepping through, forcing Uta to follow. “My father’s not the man you think him.”

As they slipped inside the next corridor, Uta heard the low rumble of the slaves in the basement of the House of Many Purposes—Danel’s warm, full laugh, old Lanyat’s caustic bray, and Madaula already there and waiting, attempting to keep the peace.

“Whose name then, do they speak?” Uta asked.Eshant stopped before the final door. “Dashel eq-Yeremi.”

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