(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 10: Monsters
Iridescia – The Haven: Ipsis: Indas
Black water filled Iridescia’s lungs as Star’s men held her under. Her world was clouding over, dark shapes swimming in her vision as weariness overtook her, and she was no longer able to thrash at her attackers. Beneath her, from the bottom of the pool, inhuman fingers scratched at her heels, tickling her skin.
The men holding her let go, and Iridescia realized all too calmly that she had died. Why else would they release her?
She drifted down in a slow, vertical drop toward the bottom of a bottomless pool. Her arms were heavy as stone, too weighted to swim. The water was taking her, its cold mass seeping inside her, filling her. She was part of the Haven now. As she sank deeper, her thoughts seemed to fly from her like a flock of startled birds: images of Roewyn and Liberio and Miqipsi.
The moonlight shining overhead was a blurred shape above her—yellow but fading, undulating and distant. How far until she reached the bottom? It seemed a long time since she’d started to fall. Would her mother be down there waiting? Would her arms be wide and warm? Iridescia couldn’t remember her mother’s name. But even without one, Iridescia wished she were there to hold her hand.
The shadowy hands were closer. They wrapped around her, caressing her legs, and crawling up her waist. Their voices nestled against her, a physical presence that seemed to thicken the water.
So sad, so sad, the voices whispered to her. So cold, so cold.
Poor boy, poor girl.
Witch of the western desert.
Light. All were words for light. And as they spoke, a light found her, colouring the water an eerie, greenish yellow. Iridescia sleepily lifted her hand. It looked ashen, drowned like the waving hands of the men tied to the bottom of the palace canal in her mother’s memory. She was underwater. She was a fish. She laughed silently inside her head. The fish were speaking to her now, calling her, calling her by other names, but calling her.
Iridescia. Iridescia. Iridescia.
Iridescia was playing by the riverbank, digging a hole in the mud, searching for polished stones and treasure that had washed ashore. Miqipsi called to her from the docks, telling her to come home. There might be hippopotamuses to gobble her up, or a flash flood could wash her away, or a crocodile snap at her legs. He appeared at the crest of the bank and Iridescia waved. Two of her old slaves, Lunya and Aiyya, stomped along beside him, their round faces sweat-slick from traipsing through the thick, liquid earth. They’d come to save her from Miqipsi’s imagined dangers. It hadn’t mattered that the dangers were pretend.
“Iridescia?” It was Liberio. They were standing in Roewyn’s home, above her shop.
Liberio, my brother. The thought came from far away, intrusive. It made her skin ache, and her eyes burn. Itchy. Why did Iridescia’s chest hurt? It felt tight, and she was wet all over.
“You should be nice to me,” Liberio joked. The lattice from Roewyn’s window made a crisscross pattern over his face, the light glinting against his metal half-mask. “I’m your brother. I’m your dead brother. That’s got to count for something.”
That was right, Liberio was dead, wasn’t he? Star had told her Liberio had died in the tub. If that were true, Liberio ought to have been in the Haven, but he hadn’t been. Iridescia was drowning in the water, but he wasn’t with her. Star must have killed him somewhere else—maybe she hadn’t wanted to frighten him off with the reminder of the place he’d been punished as a child.
Iridescia backed away from him. It had been wrong of her to deny him Roewyn when he’d never have anyone ever again. No one would ever love him or Iridescia ever again. Perhaps no one had, besides Roewyn. Would Roewyn ever learn what had happened to them? It would be safer if she didn’t.
“Why did Star kill you?” Iridescia asked shyly, unsure why she was so nervous in front of him. “She was going to marry you.”
Oh, Iridescia, Descia, Descia. The voices of the shadows returned to her, hissing their answers.
Liberio disappeared, but his voice lingered. “I was already dead.”
In the pool, a jet of bubbles seethed toward her from above, like a boulder had been dropped in after her. She wanted to swim away and bury herself down, down, down at the silty bottom with her shadows, but she couldn’t move.
An unfamiliar face floated past her. Dead eyes, filmy like fisheyes, stared through her. It was one of Star’s men, not a boulder at all.
Iridescia gulped, choking. She was in the pool. She was drowning. She punched and kicked. Her lungs still burned, and she floundered madly to escape the ugly face of the guard and the rich, red blood that bloomed around it. But she was alive.
She kicked and fought her way upwards.
A second body plunged into the water, sending out a stampede of bubbles ahead of it. Limp, dead fingers brushed her forehead, trailed by a severed arm and a tail made of bloody bone. Tattered flesh like unraveled cloth plummeted toward her and strips of skin and viscera swallowed her in a cloud of blood. Something or someone had torn Star’s men to pieces.
A limb that might once have been a leg spun alongside her, its skin spiraling loosely around what remained of the bone.
She struggled past it.
The deaths of your enemies.
Iridescia, Iridescia, Iridescia.
She peered down. Thick black arms like ropes reached their hungry fingers toward her, swaying like reeds. She had been down there, drifting, but now the soldier had taken her place, his guts trailing after him like a fishing line. His insides looked blanched, unnatural, sucked of their vital juices.
She kicked, lungs burning, nearly to the surface.
Her fingers dug deep into the muddy bank. She hauled her head out of the pool and coughed black liquid onto the shore. The air that rushed in afterwards burned as painfully as the water had.
Raindrops pelted the back of her head. When she looked up, dark clouds were breeding in the sky, threatening thunder.
Iridescia kicked violently at the muddy walls of the pool, trying to hoist herself up. Her soaked stola was weighing her down.
On the opposite side of the pool, a man made a strangled scream that rose to a pitch before the sound was drowned out by the boom of thunder.
Iridescia squirmed like a worm, snaking away from the edge, her dress plastered to her like a second skin. She lifted her head, her hair matted, her braids tangled and spoiled.
Someone was whimpering. A woman. Star.
Iridescia wiped her eyes with the back of her hand to clear her vision. She squinted into the darkness, making out the huddled form of her aunt.
Star cradled her head in her hands, her long nails digging into her cheeks. Her terrible round eyes were haunting in her bony face.
What was she looking at?
Shivering, Iridescia drew her legs up and folded them beneath her. She turned, blinking away rain, breathing in the freshness of the leaves.
There were dead men in the Haven. The bits and pieces of dead men hung from the branches of trees, blood and viscera dripping onto the storm-sodden grass, draining in little rivers into the pool.
And just inside the Haven, an opaque shadow stood watching Iridescia, outlined against the trees. It had no eyes or face, yet Iridescia knew deep in her guts that it could see her. It could see everything. Its arms and fingers were unnaturally long, just like the grasping limbs in the water, but its body was thicker and shorter. Pure darkness lay where its features should be. Still, she knew it. She knew its shape. She knew its posture. Iridescia’s lip quivered.
He was dead. He’d died.
Iridescia heaved onto the grass, but nothing came up this time.
As though the sound of Iridescia’s hacking had jolted Star out of her trance, her hunched figure uncurled. She stood, her eyes not so round and staring as before.
Iridescia scrambled to her feet, nearly slipping in the mud, but balancing just in time.
Star’s lip wrinkled in a snarl, but the expression vanished quickly. She extended her arm as though expecting Iridescia to take it. “Come back with me, child. Live if the spirits will it.”
Iridescia was too shaky to run away, but she didn’t walk to Star, either. When she didn’t move, Star marched forward and grabbed Iridescia by the wrist, pulling her toward the tree-shrouded path that led out of the Haven.
Iridescia twisted her neck, searching for the shadow that looked like Liberio, but it had vanished.
Leaves stroked Iridescia’s arm as she was pulled onto the path, and she tugged back on Star’s arm. Star kept her grip and rubbed Iridescia’s hand with her thumb, soothing, as if she were a true friend, a real aunt who cared for Iridescia and wished her well.
She wanted to run, but her whole body still felt leaden, as though with the weight of all the water she’d swallowed. She stumbled after Star, every step stilted. In the swirling darkness, she thought she saw the shadow again, reaching its arms toward her, its fingers trembling as lightning lit the sky.
The hills and rocks were slippery as they made their way back to the palace. Iridescia barely felt the rocks jabbing her feet, barely registered the sights and sounds of Mount Nuna or the lightning knitting the storm-purple sky. It was as if she wasn’t on the hill at all, but underwater still, the bodies of Star’s men drifting past her.
Iridescia tripped on a stone. The jagged rock sliced her foot, and she almost tumbled to her knees before Star pulled her forward.
“You’ve made a lucky escape, child,” Star spat, some of her poise returning as they grew further from the Haven. “I’ve cultivated those spirits since I was younger than you are; they should have listened to me.”
The shadows. If what Star had said was true, they were supposed to listen to Iridescia’s aunt, but they hadn’t listened. They’d killed Iridescia’s enemies like they’d promised they would. It didn’t feel comforting like it should have.
“At least with you alive,” Star continued, “I can find out why. Did you know they’d come to you like that?”
Come to her? Was that what had happened?
She shook her head, her wet, tangled braids dripping. No, she didn’t know why they’d come, or why they’d fought for Iridescia instead of Star. Maybe the shadows were angry that Star had killed them. Liberio certainly wouldn’t have helped Star.
A lump formed in Iridescia’s throat. Liberio was dead. Dead dead dead. It didn’t seem real. She’d spoken with him just this afternoon.
Iridescia tugged on Star’s arm. Star turned on her with coaxing eyes. Her longing dripped from her just as the water dripped from Iridescia’s hair. Did she think Iridescia was stupid? Iridescia wasn’t going to tell Star anything.
Star let go of Iridescia, like she expected an answer.
“What did you do to Liberio?” Iridescia signed.
Star’s face twisted in disappointment. “I told you. Don’t you listen? You’d think a girl like you would have learned very quickly that her greatest assets were her ears.”
“I saw him today,” Iridescia signed angrily. “There wasn’t any time for you to kill him. Where is he?”
“Patience,” Star hissed. She grabbed Iridescia again. Her nails broke Iridescia’s skin as she started walking. They were almost home.
As they descended the last little slope and stepped onto Ipsis’s streets, relief filled her. Even if the shadows had been protecting her, even if Star was her enemy, Ipsis felt solid where the Haven was unsteady beneath her.
The city streets were harder on Iridescia’s feet than the hillside had been. She bent her leg to assess the cut she’d felt, hopping awkwardly behind Star. The faintest of marks marred her skin. She hadn’t hurt herself as badly as she’d thought. Unable to stop from wobbling, Iridescia planted her foot back down.
So little of what had happened made sense, especially Star’s involvement with the magic of the Haven. It was at odds with the faith of Adonen—the sort of thing that could get Star killed just like the courtiers Hadrianus had slaughtered in the throne room. Star was a very different person than she pretended, perhaps an even more dangerous person than anyone realized. What kind of woman preached things she didn’t believe, to frighten her own subjects into submission? The kind of woman Iridescia had always known Star was, the kind of woman who would kill her own niece.
Two guards barred Star’s way as they entered the palace grounds but stepped aside upon recognizing her. One of them gave Iridescia’s bedraggled, trembling body a furtive glance.
The smell of damp earth and flowers flooded Iridescia’s nose. The gardens were a blur of movement and sensation, trees and bushes and paths rushing past much too quickly, like Iridescia was still struggling for purchase on that slippery bank. It was as though the world were waking up, or that she was waking after a bad dream.
She glanced left at one of the canals, where algae spread like a carpet so soft and thick you could walk on it. She felt the kiss of the canal water at her fingertips from when she’d dreamed of Tayri rowing to safety in her boat.
Tayri. Her mother’s name. If Tayri could have been said to escape the palace, it was only so that Star could drown her in the Haven. But somehow, Iridescia had escaped that fate, and now Star was pulling her along like Iridescia was someone she could work with.
“Not all the spirits are the same,” Star said, dragging Iridescia along the stone walkway leading to the residences. From far away, Iridescia heard laughter and muffled conversation. Instead of following the path homeward, Star veered left, toward the noise. “Most spirits are shades like the ones Buqqus saw in the desert, but sometimes, given the proper care and the right individual, a shade can be made real again. He can be made to seem alive.”
The tiered, conical peaks of the palace had always been a comfort, but as Star spoke, the building’s character seemed to change, no longer a symbol of Ipsis’s lost golden age, but a menacing giant, its many walkways and entrances concealing unhappy secrets and unkind truths. The shadows cast by the towers reminded her only of the dense blackness of the ghosts beneath the water. Everything felt polluted, violated, painted over with blood.
“Another! Another!” A hearty male voice—Liberio’s voice!—laughed ahead of them. It came from inside one of the guardhouses. A warm light glowed from beyond the guardhouse’s square windows, coupled with the clink of cup and the rattle of dice over wood. They were happy, ordinary sounds, but they sent a shiver through Iridescia. She clung to Star’s wet dress.
They stopped just outside the guardhouse, beside a low window. Three men sat at a plain wooden table. One of them had collapsed onto the surface of the wood, his cup still clutched in his sleepy hand. The remaining two—Liberio and a palace guard—sat laughing, drinking, and joking.
“What do you see, Iridescia?” Star asked.
Iridescia started to turn her face away, unsure and looking to Star for an explanation. Star grasped her chin and cheeks and forced her gaze toward the guardhouse.
“What do you see?”
“Liberio,” Iridescia signed. “Liberio drinking with the guards.”
Star grunted in amusement, bending to whisper into Iridescia’s ear. “Look closer, child. What else do you see?”
She squinted, unsure what Star wanted her to say, but then—
Iridescia’s throat felt heavy and full like she was drowning all over again. She shook her head. Was that a tear against her cheek or was it the drip from her hair?
“I see Liberio drinking with the guards. He’s laughing. He’s happy. There’s a shadow behind him, its hands are reaching out with his hands. Its fingers are moving with his fingers. He’s rolling the dice, the shadow’s rolling them too. It’s his shadow. It’s the one I saw in the Haven.”
Liberio, a spirit like the shadows, like the people Star had described, who had died and been returned to something like life.
The pitch-black shadow copied Liberio’s every move. They were the same. Iridescia let her eyes glaze over, till the shadow became a dim haze, till it disappeared entirely, absorbed into Liberio’s body.
“So now,” said Star, standing straight, “you understand.”
Star hadn’t been lying. She and Hadrianus had killed Liberio eq-Hadrianus, Iridescia’s half-brother. They’d killed him over ten years ago when they’d left him to rot in the tub in the Haven. Liberio had been sent to the Haven as punishment for lying, and though he’d been returned to the palace, where he’d grown alongside Iridescia, and played and loved and worried, he’d never set another living step inside its walls.