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Bonus Chapter III
Meriatu – Lera: Indas
Luqiferus Murinus Darcia was the handsomest idiot on the southern shore.
As Meri hung back from the throne everyone was supposed to pretend they didn’t know was a throne, listening to that bore of a Lora general—Aelifus Murinus Manchiris—drone on and on about the relative depth and texture of the gravel in his training yards and why he needed a truly preposterous increase in funds to purchase more of it—she amused herself by mentally tracing the lines of Luqiferus’s face and trying to decide if he’d be a good kisser.
Not that she wanted to kiss him. At forty-something, he was half her age for one thing, and then there was the aforementioned idiocy. Idiocy in a man was almost as unattractive as nose hair—something Meri’s husband had learned the hard way.
Standing in the shadows beyond the steps leading up to Luqiferus’s throne that supposedly wasn’t one, she strained her neck, assessing Aelifus’s face from the side.
He had quite a lot of nose hairs.
Perhaps Meri should try and count them.
“—Iti’s last measurement suggests an ideal ratio of half a qontol to seven dreybals of granite, with a maximum depth of fifty-seven point eight djetla—”
Just how he could rattle off such numbers with no papyrus to keep track of it all was a wonder. Nearly as much of one, in fact, as the miracle that anyone in the room was still awake half an hour into his speech.
Some people were still awake anyway. Luqiferus’s vizier, the albino Qarnaaman Felix eq-Afqad, was leaning at such a terrific angle against the pillar nearest the throne that Meri was growing concerned he might collapse and roll down the steps to land at her feet. If he did, maybe he’d break something and Luqiferus would finally have to appoint someone who could be bothered to do his job.
On the throne, Luqiferus—cropped yellow hair glimmering beneath the rays piercing the throne room’s skylight—lifted a muscular finger (Meri assumed it was muscular because every part of Luqiferus’s body was muscular) and leaned forward with such a delightfully stupid expression on his face—lips puckered in a sort of oh—that Meri at last decided once and for all:
no, Luqiferus was probably not a good kisser.
Finally noticing the governor’s ichthyoid expression, Aelifus stopped speaking in the middle of an exceptionally arresting decimal point.
Truly a tragedy for pedants everywhere.
“Stop.” Luqiferus turned to Felix, brow furrowed with an expression that on anyone else would have suggested the profound contemplation of life’s mysteries but which on Luqiferus usually communicated that he was about to ask for a salad. “What’s a cuntwall?”
Meri snorted, just managing to cover her mouth with the long, drooping sleeve of what had once been her husband Hemet’s ceremonial robe.
Aelifus turned toward her and glared, nose hairs all but quivering as his nostrils flared. He looked something like a cross between an owl and a bleached-white mushroom. Meri could only hope for his sake that when he turned back to face Luqiferus he’d quieted his expression somewhat.
Beside her, the Loran Qristos—sometime court musician, sometime scribe—gave her a nudge with his lute. “Careful. The word is the old Aelf’s in a terrible mood today. If you don’t play nice he might request a private audience. The heq-Ashqen’s wife probably has a lot to contribute on the topic of gravel density.”
Damn Qristos. Meri had to stifle another snort.
“Qontol, Heron,” Aelifus clarified, with about as much deference as a hippopotamus gave to the leg he was about to munch on. It was followed by the exasperation of the same hippopotamus when he realized the leg was made of wood: “it’s a measurement. Using numbers.”
Luqiferus laughed, as though at Aelifus’s expense. “I know what a number is.” He paused. “I am a member of Grey Faction.”
Meri took the terminally dull and pointless conversation as an opportunity to lean in to Meros Qristos—in whatever role he was playing today—and ask: “What happened?”
Qristos grinned. It was a delightful expression that lit up his pale face. “Try not to laugh, but apparently our dear governor mistook his favourite abacus for a toy.”
“A . . . toy?” Meri tried to read Qristos’s face, but it was hard with his eyepatch covering his right eye and his long yellow hair falling across his left.
Qristos’s expression hardened. “He broke one of the sticks off. For use in the bedchamber.”
Meri could at least feel sorry for Aelifus for once. She, too, had a favourite abacus. That probably made her just as boring as he was, but at least she made up for it with a lively inner life. “The beads . . . .”
Qristos winked. “Now that remains a mystery.”
Meri stared at Luqiferus with renewed respect. “I hadn’t thought he’d be that creative.”
Qristos smiled. “It might not be true.”
They settled into silence after that. With only Aelifus’s lecture to listen to she found her attention wandering to the shadows beyond the throne. The blinding midday light poured through the skylight, creating a neat circle of illumination around the throne and its immediate surroundings, but casting the back wall in even greater darkness. The shadows felt denser than usual somehow, as though thick with something besides the perfectly ordinary lack of light.
Meri gripped the shimmering black and gold palla she wore around her shoulders and hugged it closer, wrists aching from how tight she pulled it. These days, she felt the cold so easily, and she still wasn’t used to such wide, drafty spaces even after three months standing in for Hemet. If Hemet had been cold though, he’d never have complained. Big stupid oaf of a man that he was he always—he had always carried on with a smile, even in discomfort. No complaints. Not then.
Just this morning she’d found him weeping at the top of the stairs over a lost trinket he claimed his long-dead brother had stolen and thrown from the window. The way he’d cried for his toy—the way he’d screamed the name of a dead man she didn’t have the heart to tell him had been gone twenty years or more. It broke her heart.
It broke her heart every time.
She’d tried to explain at first, the way she’d increasingly struggled to stop doing over the last few months, but it was so difficult not to. It seemed she should be able to find a set of words—a magic formula—that would cut through his delirium and reach the man beneath—but if there were such a phrase she hadn’t the wisdom to find it. She ought to be able to simply explain, calmly and rationally, that he wasn’t where or who he thought he was. He wasn’t a child, or an acolyte, or a stranger, or whoever he’d settled on that day. He was Hemet eq-Hemet, heq-Ashqen of Adonen in the Pearl of Indas. He was Meri’s big stupid ox who used to hoist her over his back and pretend to carry her kicking and screaming to the bedchamber.
He was hers.
And most of the time he didn’t remember it.
There she went again, thinking when she shouldn’t. Her throat was tight and her skin clammy now, along with the cold. She was virtually heq-Ashqat with Hemet ailing—a fine representative of the temple of Adonen in Luqiferus’s court. A fine example of a woman. When he died, they’d all be well rid of her.
Something hard thwacked her bony elbow.
“Meri.” Qristos stared her straight in her eyes. He cocked his forehead toward the stone steps leading up to the governor and his vizier.
On his throne, Luqiferus cleared his throat. He was staring directly at Meri. “Meriatu et-Djulat.” His tone wasn’t pleasant. Grim, she might have called it.
He always sounded grim when he called for her, though how he could possibly find her more of a chore than Aelifus she couldn’t fathom.
Well, that was a lie. She could, in fact. For many in Luqiferus’s court an Inda face was enough to cause consternation. She also had the audacity to be fat in his presence and Meri had noticed since taking on her husband’s work that Luqiferus didn’t tolerate fat or thin persons in his presence. He had an ideal and he adhered to it like a mollusc.
Meri crept to the centre of the floor, the light flashing in her eyes so that she had to keep her head bowed. Luqiferus probably thought it was out of obeisance or awe, but the only aspect of the man about which Meri felt any awe was his jawline.
How delicious it would be to be able to say that aloud.
Meri was a mouse though. She’d always been a mouse and Hemet her big strong ox to protect her. And now, of all things, she was expected to speak in front of kings who called themselves governors and chatter to foreign dignitaries and mingle with generals. She was much better suited to privately eviscerating them.
“Heron,” Meri said, disliking the shrill squeak of her own voice. She sounded so confident in her mind that it never failed to surprise her to hear her own words and find herself a quivering old coward.
Luqiferus sighed—a drawn-out and melodramatic sound. “What do the temples say?”
Not much, being made of stone. “Everything is harmonious.”
“And your husband? Will he be returning soon?” Luqiferus shot a grin at Felix, but the vizier was too busy turning his hands over and inspecting his nails to notice. He was a vain one and drunk half the time. He didn’t seem drunk today, though that only suggested he’d imbibed of something stronger. Useless twat.
His daughter was sweet though—Silvaea—an albino like Felix and kept inside most of the time to spare her the harsh sun.
“He’s well,” Meri managed, unable to stop from imagining the scene from this morning, or guessing at what awaited her when she returned home. She couldn’t say that though. Too much depended on Hemet’s wellness.
Luqiferus clapped. “Excellent news. Old Hemet had a much better sense of humour.” He stared past Meri at the darkness—no, at Qristos. “When you recommended her, I thought she’d be a beauty at least.”
Meri tried very hard not to react. She couldn’t be sure that she was successful, and Qristos wasn’t in view to tell her later. So she stood, awkward, feeling like a tired old rag and wishing she didn’t love her city half so much as she did. If she hadn’t, she would have said no to being Hemet’s replacement. No to everything.
“Is that all, Sese—Heron?” She wanted to leave. She hated this court; she hated this work.
Worse duties awaited her. There were yet harder things to see today.
“None of your Buqquses have quibbles about the number of cuntrails—”
“Qontals,” corrected Aelifus from the shadows, making Meri jump.
She hadn’t even noticed he was still there. “No, Heron. All is well. Stuffy Ashenqa’s work, that’s all.”
She ought to put on a show. Hadn’t Qristos warned her as much? Make yourself boring. That was the trick. She licked her lips. “Some of the temple robes—they’re quite old, Heron, from before the conversion. Faded patterns, the ghosts of old gods. Adonen deserves new, or so the Ashenqa say.”
Luqiferus liked nothing less than god talk.
“Felix?” Luqiferus snapped his fingers and Felix turned to look at him in a daze.
“I’ll find the funds.” Felix didn’t even look at her as he spoke, though Meri was impressed he’d paid enough attention to have an appropriate answer. His coral-white djataa—threaded with purple twine—were bound so they hung down his back, and one of them slipped free to hang against his cheek. He barely seemed aware of it.
“Thank you, Sese.” She inclined her head to Felix, meaning none of it.
“If that’s all?” Luqiferus was already getting up, practically at the door already to judge by the dead-eyed expression on his face.
Felix—and everyone else in the room—straightened. Meri’s own back went rigid almost out of habit. Within seconds, Luqiferus was gone, the big stone throne empty and the rest of the court—few as they were—scurrying off to their respective dens. She’d have thought with Ipsis fallen to Hadrianus’s upstart son, that even Luqiferus would be eager to hold court and lean on the strengths of his advisers, but even in that he managed to disappoint.
Just as well. Meri needed him to remain disappointing.
She turned and searched out Qristos, who was waiting for her in the shadows.
Qristos wiggled his lute by its neck. “He didn’t even leave me time to play.”
“Off to swing swords at posts on the Old Aelf’s precious gravel,” Meri snapped. She immediately flushed.
Qristos grinned. “Why, Meri—you grow bolder by the day.” He slid his arm in hers, leading her down yet another set of stairs to the rounded room below.
A thousand and a thousand years before the present age, the floor down here had been packed full with Inda courtiers. While the City of Reeds had fallen quickly to Melqan’s new god and the Lora who funded him, the City of Poets had held strong behind Melqan’s sister-in-law. The old gods had reigned in Lera for years after the conversion and Meri had stood at Hemet’s side through all of it, including that most terrible of days: the moment his temple had finally fallen. The moment the heq-Ashqen of Tanata had been forced to bear Adonen’s plain robes.
Meri accompanied Qristos past it all, then through the palace and out onto the labyrinth of streets. His arm, tucked into hers, was very welcome, not least because she wasn’t as spry as she’d once been, but even more because it felt good to touch someone. To be touched. She daren’t touch Hemet most of the time, though she longed to. The fear it would be unwelcome, or that he wouldn’t recognize her, was too much.
“Thank you for this,” Meri said. She laid her hand on his and gave him a pat.
He smiled at her. “I’m afraid it’s not altruistic. I need you Downstairs, today.”
Her whole body tensed. “The mumblers?”
Qristos nodded but didn’t elaborate.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
“It’s best you hear for yourself.”
Oh, but he knew how to terrify an old woman. She bit her lip, in a fugue as they navigated the palace and made their way outside.
The streets were packed, and Meri held close to her escort as he led her down Poet’s March—Lera’s busiest thoroughfare—in the direction of Old Temple Way. Despite its name, Old Temple Way was a new road—the name given to Lera’s former temple district, where zealotry and the Butcher’s troops had razed Lera’s most sacred temples to the ground. In all of Lera, only the temple of Adonen now remained, rebuilt brick by ashlar brick in the eastern quarter and far from sacred ground.
Meri had never heard of a culture so determined to turn everything ugly, but the bleakness of the skyline compared with what it had been in her youth seemed so deliberately crafted. Nothing was painted—despite that from what she understood Lorar itself had no objection to colour when it came to its own walls—and when city works were undertaken to repair old buildings the vibrant fittings removed for mending always returned that much duller. Olive and citron trees that had stood hundreds of years were torn from the earth and replaced by outposts for soldiers. The aqueducts that fed the public fountains were rerouted so the people had to walk further to fill their jugs, and Luqiferus’s lover could enjoy a private baths with a view of the Helit Sea.
It was as if Luqiferus believed that if he stole Lera’s beauty, her people would forget how to dream.
Tanata’s stars she hoped Qristos wasn’t wrong about this prince. Meri wasn’t sure she could take a second Luqiferus, jawline or no jawline.
“How is Hemet?” Qristos turned to her as they shoved through the people bustling up the road in the opposite direction. “Really?”
Why of all things had he had to ask that? Meri couldn’t look him in the face as she answered. “No better than yesterday. No worse, either.”
“That’s something.” He gave her arm a squeeze and it warmed her whole body.
“It’s something,” she agreed, unable to say more. Thinking words came easy, speaking them hard.
Qristos was kind enough to maintain a slow pace to spare her knees, and as they walked Meri couldn’t help but find her attention drifting to the children navigating the streets at their parents’ sides—bold boys and beautiful girls. Bold girls and beautiful boys as well. All manner of people. It seemed strange they should go about their days, shining beneath the sun like the world wasn’t crashing down.
She’d like to be a girl again. Unaware. Scampering and free and still a dreamer.
“Lera was truly beautiful once.” The words spilled out on their own. “You should have seen her.”
Qristos clucked his tongue, but he hesitated as though holding something back. “She’s beautiful now,” he said eventually. “The canals, the bridges, the domes.”
They did glimmer still, Lera’s golden domes and their pearl inlay. Yet somehow, though the sun was just as bright as it had been before the Lora had come, they seemed to glow dimmer where the light hit.
“You should have seen it,” she repeated, caught in her reflections and unable to save her feelings with snide jokes.
Qristos ought to have seen it when Meri had been young, and if not beautiful herself, then more lithe. More free. He ought to have seen her dance before the court and catch the eye of an oafish young acolyte in blue robes.
“Changes are coming,” Qristos reassured her, his voice as hushed as a lullaby. “The like of which Lera has never seen.”
They slipped down a side street, and a shadow passed over them as the clouds drifted in front of the sun.
“Your prince?” She scrutinized his face for a tell and found nothing. He only ever showed the weaknesses he wanted her to see.
He didn’t answer, of course. It had been too direct a question. She liked Qristos—had liked him since he’d entered Hemet’s confidence two years ago—but he was slippery. If he could answer one question with another then he did, and unfortunately for him, Meri wasn’t half so willing as her husband to let it go unremarked. Still, she liked him.
It was more than could be said for the majority of the people in whose company she spent her time.
“There’s no call for secrecy,” she chided. “I’m not some supplicant and of the two of us, I’m closer to a priest. If we’re to win, I need to know at least half as much as you do.”
Qristos’s face was stone, the gaze of his one eye distant. “Have you ever met a god, Meriatu?”
Meri snorted and directed her attention at the bumpy stones of the road ahead. “What sort of question is that?”
They’d reached Old Temple Way.
Instead of exiting onto it, they dipped right and inside an abandoned brick building—a burned and broken husk that had once been a modest storehouse belonging to the Temple of Tanata and which was now a rest stop for pigeons.
Qristos chuckled at Meri’s response, but it sounded hollow. “The sort of question to which the heq-Ashqat ought to have an answer.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “I’m not heq-Ashqat. If the Lora have their way, there’ll never be a heq-Ashqat ever again, only men and the limpid little worms between their legs.”
Qristos sniffed in amusement. “They have Ashqata in Lorar.”
“But not here.” And Meri was highly skeptical of how much power these Lora Ashqata held, if any. “They’re all too happy to let Melqan’s reforms keep Indas’s women silent.”
Maybe they’d realized the women were the only ones with any sense.
They stepped inside the last remaining room of what had once been only a small part of a grand complex.
Qristos released Meri’s arm. “You wait here while me and my limpid little worm clear the way for us.”
Meri tsked. She started to lean back against the wall but—no, her back told her, that was a mistake. So she stood as straight as she could without the support of the wall, watching Qristos struggle to remove the artfully-placed rubble from on top of the hatch that led to the Downstairs. He was a lithe, stringy man, and had a daintiness to him often indicative of certain proclivities, though she’d caught him more than once with his hands up a woman’s skirts.
That didn’t mean, of course, that his fingers weren’t sneaking up men’s skirts as well.
Qristos huffed and heaved from the weight of the stones. When it was finally clear, he stepped aside, gesturing with wide arms at the wooden lid. “You’re very welcome.” He snatched his lute back from where he’d laid it.
Meri shot him a smile as he lifted the hatch for her.
The rush of water filled her ears—so loud they started to ring. She pressed her hands to the tiled wall to either side of her, treading carefully down the similarly tiled steps. An army of candles, each one set into a shallow hollow in the tiles, lit the space, glittering like stars in a deep-blue night sky. Alone, they wouldn’t have been enough to light the underground hall, but braziers lined the walls past the stairs, the firelight glistening off the surface of the water. Tanata’s sacred pool stretched long before them, reaching from almost the base of the stairs toward a wall forty cubits away. The tiles along the sides and base of the pool were the same colour as those decorating the rest of the room, giving the illusion that the pool floated inside a starry sky.
It was like stepping inside the river of the heavens, and as always it transported her. It must be how Hemet had felt once, or so she liked to think.
Ashenqa of Tanata and their acolytes tended the braziers, dressed not in the goddess’s azure robes, but in the Buqquses’ plain brown. One by one they looked up as Meri and Qristos made their way onto the floor, bowing their heads in respect.
“Now that,” said Qristos, “is the honour shown a heq-Ashqat.”
Meri gave Qristos’s arm a light slap. “Quiet.”
But whether she agreed or not, the Ashqata each greeted her personally, bowing again and again as though she were Tanata herself and not an old woman. Many of them, after all, hadn’t been alive to know what the temples had once been. They wouldn’t care what was between her legs—not that anyone did, particularly, at her age.
Meri and Qristos weren’t here for the Ashenqa though. They made as quick work as they could of the chitchat, then excused themselves to enter the lengthy tunnel on the room’s opposite end. Inside the tunnel were a number of doors leading to more rooms—each one either a newly dedicated shrine to a fallen god, or the entrance to what remained of the hidden underground beneath the original temples. They entered none of these, continuing past them in near darkness along the flat, level path of the sconce-lit tunnel.
By the time they reached the donkey and the cart, Meri was exhausted as always. Today, even Qristos looked fatigued, his brow wet with sweat and gaze distant.
Was it tiredness, or was it fear?
A lone attendant helped them harness the donkey, seeing them off. It was all so clandestine. So scandalous.
It gave her a little thrill to think it.
Meri knew from having watched Qristos take the trip without her that in the darkness it looked as though the cart was being swallowed by a great void. At least when you were riding it, the sconces were enough to keep the shadows at bay, though they did nothing at all to stop the cool mustiness of the air from prickling Meri’s skin, nor the mournful howls that echoed out occasionally from behind and in front of them.
It was just the sound of the Ashenqa, or of stone settling, or of mice—all of it magnified in the impossibly long underground road. But accompanied by the creak of the cart’s wheels the noise became spectral—alive.
Or something stranger still.
Fifteen minutes into the ride, Meri dared a look at Qristos, but his gaze remained fixed on the nothingness ahead of them.
“If this prince is coming—this boy you think is so special—we’ll need to help him.”
“We will, Meri.” Qristos idly plucked his lute. “You know, I think I can convince Felix to turn to our side.”
Meri chortled. “How?”
“All men have a price, and Felix eq-Afqad isn’t particularly expensive as far as I can tell.”
True. “A fine wine is a cheap price to pay for freedom.” And they’d need someone with Felix’s strength to oust Luqiferus. Besides, even a drunk Qaranaaman was a danger—as long as Luqiferus had Felix protecting him, there wasn’t much Meri or Qristos could do. Better he was on their side than against them.
“The wine won’t even be necessary.”
Meri frowned. “You’re not planning to threaten his family, are you? That little girl is innocent.”
Qristos squinted at her. “I don’t hurt children.” The hardness in his voice wasn’t the kind you could fake.
Meri flicked a knot of string from her palla. “All right then. So what?”
Mirth returned to Qristos’s eye. “He’s fucking Zara.”
Luqiferus’s woman. “Really?” That was a fine piece of gossip.
“Her and her generous—” He cut himself off before Meri had to. She was training him well. Finally. “Assets.”
It was something. It didn’t seem enough of a something to turn him to their cause, but men and women both were known to have done still more foolish things for love. Assuming it was love. Meri would have liked to think so but had her doubts.
Grinning, she settled back against the cart.
From the tunnel ahead came a wail, cutting short her smile and turning her bones to ice.
Just a mouse. The echo of a mouse’s footsteps.
Something deep within her couldn’t accept that it was a mouse.
“The mumblers,” she pressed. “What did they say?”
Qristos didn’t react immediately, but gradually a sinister smile crept across his face. It was a look like he was trying to smile but couldn’t quite bring himself to do so—an expression halfway to a grimace. “Wait. It’s not long.”
“Qristos.” Meri reached across the cart and laid her hand on his arm.
Finally, he faced her. “It’s not anything bad. I promise you. I’d even call it good.”
If it was so good, why wouldn’t he tell her? But she gave in, and they road the next hour without speaking. If not for the wailing of the walls, which at its worse took on the character of human voices, Meri might have drifted off to sleep.
As it was, her legs were in a deep slumber when the cart finally halted before a simple wooden door.
Qristos hopped off first, stumbling before catching himself against the wall. He fed and watered the donkey while Meri made her much slower descent onto solid ground. As he finished up, she grabbed the key from her pocket and approached the door.
Meri sucked back a breath of the crisp air that haunted the tunnel. She never liked to be the one to open it.
“Do you want me to—”
She cut him off. “No.”
Once she’d opened the door she stepped inside quickly so that she didn’t have time to think about what waited on the other side.
The shadows scurried every which way, darker even than the pitch black that surrounded them, yet somehow eager as ever to hide. Their whispers as she reached for the torch just outside the door were impossible to derive any meaning from—so many that the sound was a wave washing over her, the crash of seafoam against a rocky shore.
She drew the torch to the brazier she knew rested directly to her right, then dipped it a second time to the brazier at her left. Red and orange firelight leapt to life, and from the corner of her eye—always the corner—a dark shape like a foot drawn in coal snapped from sight and into some hidden place. Up and up and up.
Meri gulped. She couldn’t help her fear, and perhaps that was as it should be. Whichever gods dwelt here clearly wanted her afraid.
Qristos’s sandals shuffled against the perfectly flat floor behind her and she stepped further into the room, careful not to venture too close to the precipice she knew lay before her in the darkness.
“I’m always careful.” She wished she could speak without that tremble in her voice, but it was impossible in a place like this. It wasn’t just the fear, either, but the sense of having come upon something secret. Something beyond the ordinary, even compared with what she’d experienced in the temples.
This place was holy. And terrible.
Qristos reached around her and pried the torch from her fingers. “I’ll do the rest.”
Meri cleared her throat and wetted her lips, the sound audible. She must focus on Qristos’s footsteps, on his closeness to her as he sought out the wooden lever near the righthand brazier. She must focus on that sound and not—
Clink. The lever clattered within the indent in the wall and all around them flames sprung to life—up and up and up the walls directly ahead and to the right and left. The light climbed higher and higher. Impossibly high. It seemed to walk up the shallow sets of stairs built into the sides of the room, illuminating the jagged edges one by one, leaving only the darkened crevices built between them in shadow. Leaving only the mumblers.
“You’re awfully close, Meri,” said Qristos from behind her.
Meri glanced down and her heart all but stopped. Her sandals were less than a breath from the edge of the stone platform on which they stood. One more step and she would have—
To her left, another lever clinked and the rush of water—louder than the flow of the aqueducts filtering into Tanata’s pool—rumbled from deep inside the walls. Opaque black water spilled from every hollow doorway dug into the cavernous room’s mighty walls. Deep down below her, the water began to fill a pool that it was too dark to see the bottom of.
“He’s coming,” hushed a voice from the darkness. Then another. And another. “He’s coming.” The mumblers—thick dark shadows standing in the doorways between stairs it was impossible to reach and which were far too narrow for human feet—whispered up and down the endless wall, their words swimming in and out of each other, their voices audible where before they’d been impossible to understand.
“Who’s coming?” Meri quaked.
“A god.” Qristos stepped up beside her and smiled. “Hope.”
But all along the wall, from top to bottom, the words of the shadows changed, and the words they whispered said: “there’s a special place in hell for liars.”
It was night by the time Meri returned home to the modest residence she and Hemet had lived in since before the Lora occupation. Qristos had walked her all the way to the end of her street, but standing alone in front of the two-story stone building she wished she’d taken him up on his offer to remain with her and tend to Hemet.
The words of the shadows couldn’t help but rattle around in her heart though, and she needed time alone to let them settle. No matter how much she liked Qristos, nor how holy the mumblers and their prophecies were, she couldn’t quite get comfortable after a journey Downstairs and to the water room.
A cool breeze tickled her skin and Meri was deep underground again, the wails in the walls surrounding her.
If only he weren’t sick. If only he was here with her, to sling her over his broad shoulders and carry her laughing and kicking to bed. He’d stroke her hair and pinch her elbows and tell her she was worried at nothing. What kind of woman was scared of shadows? Not a sensible one, and Meri was always telling him how sensible she was.
The fear in her heart wilted in the face of her grief. It should probably frighten her that what she felt wasn’t guilt, but relief. Grief was such a human thing to feel. After even a minute in the presence of the mumblers Meri desperately needed to feel human.
The door to her home loomed dark though—as dark as the door to the water room.
When she wasn’t there to light the braziers, did the shadows march up and down those narrow stairs, over and over?
Cool air kissed her neck.
Meri all but threw herself at her door and inside her house. She slammed it shut behind her, then leaned back against it, panting. She clutched her chest.
In the corner of the room, her slave, Aulla, clasped a metal firepoker to her breast as though ready to attack her. “Sese.”
Meri had frightened her. “It’s only me.” She forced her shoulders to relax, trying to still her heart.
She felt so foolish now she was inside and out of the cold. The mumblers couldn’t get her in here—not that they ever got anyone. They were shadows. All they did was speak.
“Where’s Hemet?” Meri heaved herself away from the door, already heading for the stairs that led to their upstairs rooms.
“Sleeping, Sese. He’s eaten.”
That was good. Hemet so rarely ate, and when he did it was hard to get him to chew or swallow. “Thank you, Aulla.”
Meri shoved aside the beaded curtain that disguised the stairs and all but skipped up the steps. She wasn’t sure she’d ever been so eager to collapse beside her husband and fall asleep. Whether or not he knew her, or remembered who he was or where he was, she needed to feel him beside her. She needed the reassurance that the work he’d begun with Qristos and which she now continued for the both of them, was safe. Was good.
There’s a special place in hell for liars.
Cool, crisp air blew softly against her face, rustling through her grey curls.
Meri looked up.
She stopped at the top of the stairs.
The shutters directly across from the stairs were open, a cold wind stealing inside and banging them against the wall.
“Aulla!” Meri called out, some of that hope—a last dreg of it—beating in the syllables. “Aulla? The window—Aulla?”
A dread settled in her chest. She couldn’t move.
“Sese?” Aulla’s familiar footsteps approached the base of the stairs. “What is it, sese?” The beads clinked.
“Did you—” But of course Aulla hadn’t left the shutters open. She’d never done such a thing in all the years since Meri had bought her.
Meri mounted the final step and tiptoed to the window that overlooked the alley behind their home. If she didn’t look, part of her wanted to believe, it wouldn’t have happened. He’d be safe in bed. He’d be whole.