(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 10: Monsters
Kirin – Marianus’s Private Office: Lorar
Marianus’s snug little private office smelled of fruit, wine, incense, and the stale farts the incense was intended to disguise. Kirin sucked back a gulp of oily air. The perfume was a talon carving the inside of his throat. He coughed into his fist, struggling not to break the rigidity of his protective stance beside Marianus.
Farnus Alba, the White Faction senator who’d arrived to see Marianus, shot Kirin an uneasy glance from his side of the desk. The spymaster’s pinched little eyes gleamed like a falcon’s black-beaded stare, trying to intimidate despite his modest height and saggy arms.
Kirin wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the gladius at his belt, shifting so that the metal chape of his scabbard clacked against the wall.
Farnus took a subtle step back from the desk. Kirin suppressed a grin.
Since Oran’s attack, Marianus had made a show of parading in his atrium and waving at his clients, but once he’d made an appearance, he’d quickly abandon his visitors to the attentions of his wife and son and stalk off to his private office. After days trapped in the office’s confines, Kirin’s skin felt like it was melting into the wall, sticky with sweat and itching from stasis. Ydelka had been relegated to standing outside the office, but at least Marianus’s foul mood toward her was mellowing (and besides, as Ydelka herself had remarked, it didn’t stink so badly outside the office, without Kirin and Marianus around).
Even more lucky for her, she didn’t have to put up with the sniveling Whites and grasping Greys that had been filing inside the office. It made sense for Marianus to discuss political matters across the factions, but with every creak of the door and set of approaching footfalls, Kirin hoped it would be a Red face that next passed the threshold.
With each disappointment, Kirin felt the tickle of grass against his fingertips and heard the laughter in Ydelka’s voice as she joked about making him her husband. It had been a joke, but she’d been completely serious when she’d talked about leaving the city and finding a home out west in the countryside. She’d been serious about taking Kirin with her.
All it would mean was leaving Marianus and his world behind.
Kirin eyed the senators, seeing not Marianus the great Red general, but Marianus as he’d been that day in the peristyle—the Marianus who’d fumed at his household for a crime Oran had committed, and who’d vented his anger on the bodies of Kirin’s fellow slaves. He saw Marianus as he was right now: sitting across from a snake in senatorial clothing while bargaining away the spoils due his own soldiers.
For the hundredth time over the course of the past few days, Kirin counted in his head the coin he’d need to buy his freedom and join Ydelka on her dreamed-of farmstead. She may not have been serious about making Kirin her husband, but there were surely worse people she could choose. Oran, for one. Oran, who was still alive and skulking Lorar’s streets.
Whoever had hired him—and it wasn’t Yakovius Lutelian, despite what Marianus believed—the senator didn’t deserve Oran’s sword in his back. Kirin had to stay at least as long as it took to make sure the Anouti rat was dead.
Farnus Alba’s White face fixed once more on Marianus, ignoring Kirin again, like Kirin was another mural on the wall. “Zioban demands we instate him as sovereign once Aesmun falls.”
“You worry too much, friend. Let him demand away.” Marianus strolled toward a cabinet behind his desk, retrieving a decanter of wine and two cups. He held the beaker up questioningly to Farnus, but the senator declined with a wave of his hands. Marianus shrugged and poured himself a cup.
Back in the arena training grounds, Thanus had said you could tell a lot about a man by what he drank. What would the Thumper have said about a man who drank nothing at all?
Farnus shifted on his feet, his long white tunic dusting the ground. “Should the slaves betray us, we’re lost. You’re relying on these men to guide us. Breaking Kemassen’s defences without such an advantage is impossible. Their fleet is superior to ours, their wal—”
Marianus’s cup thudded against his desk. “Their fleet is not superior to ours.”
Farnus tittered nervously. “With all respect, the Masseni are cowards, but a man boasts he can sink their ships at his peril.”
“Have more faith, Farnus. You’ve spent too much time fraternizing with your Masseni contacts, and not enough amongst good, honest, Lorai men. Southern fear is beginning to infect you.” Kirin didn’t need to face Marianus to see the smile coating the senator’s words.
Farnus puffed out his chest. “If I spend all my time with Southerners,” he snapped, “it is for the good of Lorar. I only report what is true, and what is perceived to be true by the people.”
“And the Masseni perception that they make better sailors will be their undoing.”
Kirin wanted to believe that was true—a month ago, Marianus’s word would have been all he needed. But now? And what did Marianus know that made him so sure? Yakovius suspected that Marianus wanted not only war, but for Hadrianus and Luciferus to show their hands and betray the fatherland. If Marianus didn’t even have the Indasi governors’ support to bolster him, in whom or what had he placed his trust?
If Kirin and Ydelka made it west, maybe it wouldn’t matter.
“I hope you’re right,” said Farnus, wisely keeping his response polite.
Marianus tapped his cup rhythmically against the desk, an expression of barely concealed rage or terror that Kirin had come to recognize over days in intense proximity to his master. “Have you studied Maenipilus’s Histories?”
Farnus’s jaw tensed and he bobbed his head as if swallowing his irritation.
“Of course you have,” Marianus continued, his tone suggesting the opposite. “You are my resident expert. You’ll know that Maenipilus Rufus was there when King Isir seized Ledan during the Anouti-Masseni wars, that he was there when Kemassen painted Ledan’s walls red with the blood of her soldiers and took its noble daughters in bondage. When you spot a rat in your grain store you don’t wait till you see a second before setting a weasel on the lot. One rat becomes two, becomes three, becomes a colony. Soon they’ve guzzled all your grain and your family’s starving.”
Not if you liked rat meat.
Before, Kirin had thought everything Marianus said so clever, but it wasn’t really. Kirin didn’t like Oran and his kind any more than Marianus did, but half the senator’s metaphors were clunky, and the other half transparent attempts to cajole. In one breath, the Anouti were rats like their Masseni neighbours, and in the next they were noble daughters and fallen soldiers.
“You don’t have to convince me that Kemassen is a danger,” said Farnus. “Save your speeches for the senate.”
Marianus tapped the desk. “No, you don’tunderstand. You don’t understand war and you don’t understand the ruthlessness of the enemy we face. If we don’t strike, they will. King Isir was a scourge set loose on the Helit sea, and anyone who forgets that for an instant is a fool. He and his court bled the southern shore dry, and the only reason he didn’t set his sights northward is that he died before he could.” Marianus spat to the side.
“King Isir.” Farnus leaned across the desk, but Marianus didn’t budge. Farnus didn’t sense the wrath in Marianus’s voice the way Kirin did—that, or he was stupidly unphased by it. “King Aesmun is a lamb. His son is sickly and indecisive, untrained in the art of war and rarely if ever consulted by his father.”
What were they even arguing about? Both agreed Kemassen must be stopped. One moment, Farnus argued that Marianus underestimated the Masseni, the next he claimed Aesmun was a child shaking his rattle.
“King Isir, and his court,” Marianus repeated. “You mistake the sword for the man doing the swinging. Isir’s high priest is the one you ought to worry over. And wasn’t it you who told me there were rumours Aesmun’s father died no natural death?”
Farnus scoffed. “An old man and a woman rule Kemassen. Easy enough for Zioban to dispatch.”
“Have you heard of the King Rat?” Marianus asked, tone even.
Farnus drew back from the table, a look of confusion on his face. “I have heard—”
“The King Rat is a chimera formed from a hundred tiny vermin. It appears as a great, writhing beast—many-legged and multi-tailed. To look at it you would shudder, until you dared spy closer and realized its true nature. One rat lashes his tail to that of another, and another, and another and on and on until the whole nest is entangled. But the rat at the centre, it cannot eat, and it cannot drink and so it dies, and so each of them dies a slow, agonizing death, pulled this way and that, unable to make a single decision on their own, no one mind to lead them. For years King Isir was a such a head, and his high priest after him. Cut off the head of the snake and all you’re left with is a limp and bloody rope. The rats will tear themselves apart if we’re clever, but the nest must still be scoured. Kemassen must be destroyed. And it will be—every stone razed, every inch of soil salted, every serpent strangled.”
The flames in the braziers at the head of the small chamber were dying and needed to be tended, but in Kirin’s vision they flared bright as sunlight. Sunlight in the glade in the forest and his mother bending down to lift him from the grass as the screams of the women echoed like birds’ cries through the trees. But it was different. This was different. Wherever Kirin had once come from was no Kemassen. Marianus was right, at least, about that. All you needed to see that was examine Oran, who’d proved himself a monster again and again. Thanus and the others had died cruel, undeserved deaths to sate Oran’s bloodthirst.
Farnus didn’t flinch. “The slaves won’t help us unless Zioban is instated as governor, and he won’t be satisfied governing a heap of rubble.”
“What Zioban hopes for is irrelevant; it’s what we choose to give him that matters.” Marianus swished his wine in his cup before drinking from it again. “Tell me, Farnus, have you spoken with Zioban in person?”
Farnus hesitated. “Yes, yes I have.”
“And what is your opinion of him?”
“He’s no fool. He will expect what was promised. He’s been playing the game a long time.”
Marianus nodded thoughtfully, pausing long enough that Farnus grew fidgety again. “Promise him anything he likes, but don’t be too generous.”
Farnus frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Marianus flicked his finger, leaning forward, his elbow drilling into the desk. The wood creaked as he moved. “My nephew is already dead. We already know about the tunnels. Promise Zioban the governorship but bargain a little. Don’t be too obvious about the bluff.”
Marianus’s nephew was dead? He had to mean the ambassador to Kemassen. Such news hadn’t come during the last senate meeting though, which meant Marianus had only recently learned of it.
Kirin’s hairs stood on end, bristling on behalf of his country. The murder of an ambassador was a declaration of war as brazen as if King Aesmun himself had ridden his army of elephants right up to the city of Lorar’s walls.
Only, when Kirin thought harder on it, there hadn’t been time for Marianus to receive the information. Kirin wouldn’t have daydreamed through news like that, and he’d been at the senator’s side nearly every waking moment. And Marianus had mentioned the ambassador’s murder with access to the tunnels beneath Kemassen, as though the two were comparable prizes—tasks Zioban had been set in exchange for the governorship of a conquered country.
Ydelka and Yakovius would have told Kirin to think. Marianus knew Thanos was dead when he shouldn’t, considered his death a service rendered, viewed the death as reason enough for war, and needed a spark to light the cinders that had been simmering in the senate for years. He needed a pretext to attack, and Zioban had given him one.
Kirin shuffled forward unconsciously, then steadied himself against the wall. Marianus stared at him quizzically for a moment and Kirin nodded clumsily, certain Marianus could sense the unease seething beneath Kirin’s stony expression. The senator’s eyes were exactly the same as they always had been, but when Kirin gazed into them now, he saw a wolf in a hen house.
To kill a nephew, even for what amounted to a just cause—it was not the way of a man of Lorar. But Marianus turned away, seemed not to notice Kirin’s upset.
Farnus worried his thin lips. “Is it a tale you’d have me spin? I don’t think Zioban will fall for it.”
Marianus looked back over his shoulder at Kirin.
Kirin straightened under the scrutiny, wiping the unease on his face away like a scribe scraping a tablet clean.
“Say you’re fighting a rat like Zioban.” Marianus waved his hand up and down, indicating the length of Kirin’s body, speaking directly to him. “You get him to the ground, but there’s another man coming up behind you. The first man begs for his life. He tells you he’ll help you fight the second, who you can’t beat alone. You know the first man will stab you in the back as soon as he has the chance, but you also know the second man will kill you if you don’t trust the first. What do you do, Kirin?”
Farnus gawked at Kirin, as though Marianus had addressed the furniture. “I don’t think a slave has the capacity to weigh in on the matter.”
“Shush.” Marianus dismissed the concern with a wave. “Kirin?”
Kirin looked to Farnus, then his master. The confidence Marianus was placing should be reassuring, but the implications of his answer troubled him. “I would make the deal with the first man, who I was sure of beating, but when the second was dead I’d kill the first.” Perhaps, Kirin could convince him. Maybe Marianus only seemed to deal in treachery and parricide. “But such tactics, while fit for the arena, are not the grand actions of a man of Lorar. Our country is made of stronger stuff than any one individual, than a slave in the fighting pits. We fight in desperation, and for entertainment, while Lorar fights for justice and the Lorai way.”
Kirin flinched, reminded of the savagery of Marianus’s face when he’d lined up his household before the rotting bodies of the traitors. That night, when Kirin and Ydelka had returned from their fun, he’d spied poor Irina scrabbling in the mud, cradling Edra’s head and struggling to pry her from the ground.
“You see what men I command?” Marianus directed the comment at Farnus, raising his drink as though toasting Kirin’s boldness. “Good men, honest men. Too bad they’d make such poor politicians.” He grinned at Kirin. “Perhaps that’s why I own you and not the other way round, eh? The Lorai way is the way that wins.”
Farnus cleared his throat, jowls swaying as he spoke. “You mean to deceive them.”
Kirin had to force himself to remain still. Marianus wasn’t a liar. He couldn’t be, because that would make Kirin a fool. Yet, Ydelka had trusted the senator with her life, and when Oran had tried to poison Marianus, it was Ydelka he’d forced to eat the pie.
“Any more quick and you’ll put our charioteers out of work.” Marianus strolled to Farnus’s side and laid a hand on the Whiter’s shoulder. Kirin felt sick. “Let Zioban know we’ve got his back, then when the fighting’s done, put the lot of them to the sword.”
“What of the Lorai slaves among Zioban’s people?” asked Farnus.
“They can burn with the city if they like. We can’t risk an uprising and we can’t suffer the Masseni to live. How long do you suppose it takes a man to go native—or worse, a woman? You can bet those Masseni masters haven’t wasted any time breeding our northern stock. Get a child in a girl and she’s soft as butter. She’ll be brown has her babes by the time our men set foot within Kemassen’s walls.”
Kirin wrestled the unease in his gut. A place could change a man; wasn’t Kirin himself proof of that? He’d been born a savage, but now he was a man of Lorar, perhaps no more than a slave, but a man nonetheless. If Kirin could be made civilized, then could a Lorai man grow wild and untamed? Marianus was a good man, a seasoned general. He’d seen so much of the world. He couldn’t be wrong.
Ydelka’s pretty, curved face flashed in his mind. He could hear her chiding him, claiming nothing would civilize her, not Lorar and not Kirin. He curled his fingers around the lock of her braided black hair which hung at his belt, a few strands she’d cut off for him to keep.
“I’ll attend to it,” Farnus said softly, as though sobered by the same thoughts as Kirin. He bowed once to Marianus, then hesitated, sliding his hand inside the purse at his waist. He pulled out a small glass bottle and placed it on the table. “A gift. From Zioban.”
He left the room without another word.
“A drink, Kirin?” Marianus turned and smiled. “I thought he’d never leave. Between you and me, I prefer the company of a good slave. That man is too slippery by far. But what use is a dry spy, I suppose.” Marianus poured wine into the cup he’d intended for Farnus, and offered it to Kirin, who felt obliged to drink, though he’d rather have kept his wits sharp. “His rise to prominence was a gift for his services to my predecessor.”
Kirin abandoned his place at the wall and stepped around the table. He grabbed the cup, tilted his head back, and downed his wine in one gulp. If he had questions for the senator, he should ask them outright, not dither in the shadows like Oran would have done. “A White Faction senator working for the head of Red Faction? That’s unusual.”
“Not as much as you’d think.” Marianus rolled his cup, staring into the vessel before pouring himself another. “The world you live in now is vastly more complicated than the arenas, Kirin. You may think you know a man, know his motivations and his character, but in most cases, you’d be mistaken.”
Kirin forced a laugh. “So exactly like the arenas.”
Marianus downed another drink. “Perhaps.”
“And you trust him?”
Marianus snorted. “Of course not, but he’ll do as I say.”
“Because you pay him?” Kirin understood how the world worked, despite what people like Yakovius and Marianus seemed to think.
“Because I know the kinds of creatures he beds down with.”
“Disturbing?” Marianus sighed. “Little disturbs me nowadays. You’ve seen death, you’ve struggled, but until you’re sent to the far corners of the world to fight for your country you’ll never understand what horror is. The things those savages do in the wilds . . . .” Marianus trailed off, gaze distant. “I found Ydelka on campaign, did you know that? She was wandering in a snowy wasteland, little more than a babe. We’d taken her village, more of a collection of shabby tents, really. Those people fought though, tough as iron. One of them got a man in the side with a harpoon, then dragged him onto the ice floes. Have you ever seen a harpoon? No, of course you haven’t. A spear, thick as a thigh. Never saw either of those men again. Savages. Sometimes I still wake at night, shivering.”
“At least it’s warm in Kemassen.” Kirin smiled, trying to dispel some of Marianus’s gloom. “Our men should be grateful.”
“You’d like to join them then?” Marianus looked Kirin straight in his eyes.
Kirin hardened. He laid his cup down on the table and without breaking their gaze. Marianus poured Kirin another.
“I’m no coward,” said Kirin. “I’d fight for Lorar till they struck me down.” He shrugged. “Not that they would; I’m stronger than any Masseni rat.”
The senator shook his head. “No, I think I’ll keep you around. You’ve got more than a little luck about you, surviving the arenas so long, not to mention impressing me. I’ll not waste you on a wasteland.”
“If it’s a wasteland, why conquer it?” Kirin asked, conversational. Marianus trusted Kirin after Kirin had saved him from Oran. If there had ever been a moment when it was safe to probe the senator for answers, it was now. If Marianus revealed to Kirin that his true reason for seeking war was to strengthen his own position by revealing Hadrianus and Luciferus’s treachery, then Kirin could—could what? The only person he could confide in was Yakovius, a Yellower.
It would be laughable if it wasn’t so horrifying.
But Marianus said no such thing, surprising Kirin by reaching for the tiny bottle Farnus had left. The senator tilted it so that the light from the braziers caught against the clouded glass. A black, viscous liquid slid from side to side inside the container. “Kemassen has two things in abundance: sand and stories.”
“Stories?” The black liquid oozed from left to right like some slithering, living creature. It was strangely hypnotic.
Marianus set the bottle down. “Stories of strange, ugly gods that rule the deep Sajit, that can turn to great whirlpools made of sand and air and scoop men up to the heavens where they dine with their sky queen in the sky. Stories of men who cut off their cocks and live as women in a city built inside a mountain. Songs sung about kings who once lived forever and governed eternal cities whose walls were built from human bones.”
Kirin snorted. “They’re not very eternal if they only once lived forever.”
Marianus leaned back, regarding Kirin from beneath heavy, judging brows. “You lack imagination, Kirin, as always.” He fixed his attention on the bottle, his eyes round, his pupils seeming to swirl like the black water had done. “During our early days in Indas, we had a spy. A White Faction man named Kristos we’d sent to court Korelibas and his rebels. He recorded some very interesting stories about immortal kings. A priest of their death god drowned his daughter in a special water from a hidden well, and the water preserved her corpse from corruption.”
“A pretty corpse is still a corpse,” said Kirin.
“True.” Marianus leaned forward, conspiratorial, a grin transforming his face. “If it ended there.” He tapped the bottle on the desk. “But according to Kristos, another girl lost her life in Tintellan and was revived with the help of the water. They say she cannot be harmed, that her flesh cannot be pierced or burned, and her breath never choked or drowned from her. Such a substance does exist. I’ve seen the broken flesh of a man knitted back together. My spies report whatever dribs and drabs they hear, repeating stories and instructions—much of it from the mouth of the Masseni rebel. This Zioban is a font of knowledge. He knows where the wells lie, and if we take Kemassen, I can find them. The immortals live among us.” He grinned as though pleased to have something to brag about, even if only to a slave.
The warmth of Kirin’s specialness threatened to subsume him, but this time he didn’t let it. He eyed the water in the vial. He swallowed. All his sense told him these stories were silly children’s tales. All sorts of tricks could be created to convince an audience they’d seen the gods’ work during a show, or a fight, or a spectacle. But Marianus sounded certain. “If you had water like that, you could survive attacks like Oran’s.” Kirin brought his wine cup to his lips, but he wasn’t thirsty.
Marianus scoffed. “Like Yakovius’s, you mean.” He waved his hand. “Yakovius is a yapping dog. Even his own faction wants him gone, and soon enough, they’ll make it happen. I’m not worried about Yakovius Lutelian.”
Good thing Kirin hadn’t drunk his wine, because he’d have choked on it. “The Yellowers want Yakov dead?” Clan Drenda supported the loudmouth, but was the Drenda clan enough to hold back the rest of the senatorial families? Edra and Ibby had been gossiping about it in the weeks past.
“The Yellowers may be isolationist cowards, but they know a true man of Lorar when they see him, and Yakovius is no man of Lorar.”
“Why not?” Kirin quickly swigged his wine, as though he could drink back the question. He coughed, spewing deep purple into his palm.
Marianus’s expression soured in an instant. “Repeat that and I’ll see you a soldier yet.” His smile returned, springing onto his face like it had never left. “Good day, Kirin.”
The cold suddenness of the comment forced Kirin to step back, but he found himself eager to do as Marianus had commanded. “Heron,” he said numbly before he returned his cup to the desk. He wiped his stained hand on his tunic and left the room in a daze.
As the door shut behind him, Ydelka stood on her toes and kissed him playfully on the cheek. She drew back quickly, fear in her eyes. “What happened?”
Kirin fumbled for the hilt of his gladius, drowning in his own thoughts. “I have to visit Yakovius.”
It was night by the time Kirin reached Yakovius’s doorstep, late enough that the door itself was closed to clients. Since there was no doorman to let Kirin in, Kirin raised his fist to knock. The door swung outward, sending Kirin stumbling back down the short steps and onto the road. A scrawny young woman with a hooked nose and brown skin like Yakovius’s stormed past him, sparing him a glare. She shoved him and hurried down the street.
“You’ll be back come the morning, and no one will be up to let you back in!” cried a woman’s voice from indoors.
“I won’t be fucking coming back!” screamed the ugly woman. She hastened into a run, the skirts of her stola gripped in either hand so as not to drag in the water-clogged potholes, and disappeared around a corner.
A pretty woman appeared in the doorway. She was slightly older than Kirin, with an upturned nose and an arrogant set to her shoulders. Her vibrant red wig curled in elaborate designs about her head, and the drape of her stola accentuated the beautiful roundness of her curves.
She glared at him. “And who are you? A friend of my daughter’s, I suppose. Well, you’ve seen her now, you’re free to follow her if you like, and with my blessing. Be warned. She bites.”
“Kordelia?” Yakovius appeared beside the beautiful woman and Kirin raised an eyebrow.
“She’s not your wife, is she?” Kirin asked. “Poor woman.”
The woman, Kordelia, smiled. “At least someone understands. Invite him inside, Yakov, before the nice man freezes.”
“Not fucking likely,” said Yakovius, but he moved aside, and Kirin slid past Kordelia and into the domus.
The home had the air of a building that might once have been grand, but which had fallen on hard times. There was barely a slave to be seen and actual dust coated the chairs beside the door, where slaves ought to have waited to let in guests.
Kordelia sighed and shot Kirin a look. It was a look that communicated with little effort that yes, she was aware of the state of her household, and yes, it was all her husband’s doing and most of all yes, it would be very helpful if Kirin were to stab Yakovius and let him bleed out on the floor.
She was so beautiful that Kirin was tempted to accept her request, but since he’d walked a long way to warn Yakovius that Marianus was planning to kill him, it seemed a waste to murder him now.
Sensing that Kirin wasn’t here to save her from her marriage, Kordelia turned on one prim heel and led him deeper into the domus. The walls of the home had been painted with popular scenes from folktales and history, and some of the murals were even dust-free and the paint vibrant and new. As they neared the triclinium, where guests normally took refreshment, the images grew filled with copious amounts of food and drink, great heavy grape vines bowing beneath the weight of their fruit.
Inside the triclinium itself, a boy and a girl played on the ground. The boy was red-haired, leaving Kirin to believe that perhaps Kordelia’s strange mane wasn’t artificial at all. He shared his father’s unfortunate features, though he was pale like his mother. The girl was another matter, pretty and fat, with brown hair and skin.
Kordelia clapped her hands, and the children grabbed their toys and ran off with practiced efficiency. Kirin was sorry to see them go, and almost asked Kordelia to call them back before thinking better of it. The news he’d come to share wasn’t fit for so young an audience.
“I’ll have what remains of our slaves bring some food.” Kordelia vanished past an archway.
Yakovius collapsed with a sigh onto one of the benches that lined the room, and Kirin slumped down across from him with only slightly more decorum. “What brings you here, dear slave of my dearest Marianus?”
Kirin had forgotten in the weeks since he’d last seen Yakovius how easy it was to fall into a comfortable banter with the man, like they’d known each other for a long time. If only he’d trusted that instinct sooner.
A slave entered and laid a bowl of figs on a table, then left again without remark.
Kirin plucked a piece of fruit from the bowl and tossed it into his mouth. “These are good.” Even now, doubts nagged at him. What if Marianus hadn’t murdered Thanos? What if Kirin was letting his anger over Edra and Ibby’s deaths colour his interpretations?
“Kordelia will only eat the best, just my fucking luck. She costs me a fortune, that wife of mine.” He grinned. “But she’s fucking smart too. Manages all the accounts.”
“I didn’t take you for a family man.” Kirin let himself tumble into conversation, hesitant to take that last leap and admit why he’d come.
“I didn’t either, until she started popping them out. But that’s always the fucking way. I try to do something fucking useful with myself and end up living the same humdrum life as the men I despise. At least my wife loves me a little bit.”
Kirin surveyed the walls, the furniture, the high ceiling that was still so much finer than Kirin could have afforded before Marianus had bought him. “Being a senator is humdrum?”
“Everything’s humdrum once you’ve done it long enough―the fucking routine, the fucking poison of the senate house.” Yakovius shook his head. “You don’t care. You’re too busy daydreaming about Lorar’s fucking glory all day.”
Kirin shrugged, chewing another fig. “I don’t daydream about anything. You seem to think I’m a child, but if there’s anything you learn in the arena, it’s what a day’s work means, and what a hard life is.”
Yakovius grew somber at that. Then he sat up, spry and energetic. He clasped his skinny hands before himself. “People with hard lives do the most daydreaming.”
The light from a nearby sconce reflected off the smooth dome of his head, the angry red scar that covered one side of his face glinting terribly as though it were fresh. Someone had given him that scar, Kirin was certain. He’d seen enough beaten men to know the look.
“You know a thing or two about that, don’t you?” Kirin asked.
Yakovius chewed his lip, his gaze darting left, considering. “Or two.” He focused on Kirin and grinned wryly, his lips stretched wide across the sharp bones of his face. “I noticed you looking at my scar. You’re not that fucking subtle.”
Kirin had been subtle enough to fool Marianus earlier. “So, what about it?”
“What about what?”
Kirin sighed. “How did you get it?” It wouldn’t hurt to learn more about the man he was about to trust with information that could get them both tortured and killed.
“My father, when I was young. I guess I did something that pissed him off, because he poured hot oil over my face.” Yakovius held Kirin’s gaze, as though waiting for him to quake in horror.
Kirin did not oblige. “You seem to like pissing people off.”
“You didn’t have to try hard with my father. He was a dice-cheat in Kelat, and even worse than that, he was fucking bad at it. He gambled away everything we had, until my mother left. She took my fucking sister and left me with him. Eventually things got so bad we had to leave the city, so he robbed the last friends he had who didn’t fucking hate him and he set us up in Lorar.”
Kirin raised an eyebrow, disbelieving. “That’s impossible. You’re a senator.” He glanced back the way Kordelia had gone. A wealthy Lorai family wouldn’t have allowed such a marriage.
Yakovius tapped the side of his bald head with one finger. “I’m fucking smart, and as much as I complain about the fucking place, Lorar occasionally rewards people who rise above their peers. I went to school, I found a patron, I was granted citizenship, and then I learned to talk fast and yell at people.” He shrugged. “Easy.”
Kirin doubted that. He shook his head. He frowned as snatches of what Marianus had said returned to his ears unbidden.
Yakovius seemed to sense that something was troubling Kirin, because he frowned, sitting straighter. “You didn’t come to talk about me.”
“No.” Kirin considered Yakovius, his disturbingly thin face, his beak of a nose, his shrewd eyes. “And yes.” Yakovius didn’t look trustworthy; he didn’t look like a man of Lorar. Yet Kirin liked him, and he did trust him, and he still thought this was the best possible place he could have come with the information he had, whatever it proved to mean.
“You’re here to kill me!” Yakovius exclaimed loudly, provoking a curse from Kordelia, who must have heard him several rooms away. He laughed and leaned back on his settee.
Kirin’s fingers were shaking. He clasped his hands tight to disguise it. “It doesn’t sound like your wife would mind.”
“She’d miss me, she just won’t admit it.”
“Wrong,” Kordelia called dryly from the distance.
Kirin steeled himself as though for a fight. He must be decisive and true. He may not agree with Yakovius’s policies, but Marianus wasn’t the man Kirin had thought.
“Marianus is in bed with the senate to have you killed,” Kirin blurted. “He thinks you hired Oran to poison him. And he’s made some bargain with a Masseni slave to take over Kemassen.” He paused, the details of Marianus and Farnus’s conversation whirling between his ears. “I think Marianus arranged for the death of our ambassador to Kemassen, to create a pretext for war.”
Speaking his thoughts aloud sent a chill up his back, as though he’d breathed life into the accusation by speaking it in front of a witness. In fact, now that he had said it, the more certain he was that he was right.
Yakovius narrowed his eyes. His forehead wrinkled in contemplation. “If what you say is true, having Marianus murdered isn’t a bad idea—but it wasn’t mine.” He scoffed. “How did you learn all this?” He didn’t sound overly suspicious, as though the revelation would be entirely in keeping with his opinion of Marianus.
“He met with Farnus Alba today to talk about the deal they’ve made with the Masseni slave, and he mentioned his nephew’s death like it was the slave’s side of the bargain.” Kirin shook his head, reflecting on Marianus’s movements since Oran’s attempt on his life. “I’ve barely left Marianus’s side since Oran’s attack, so if news had come that the ambassador was dead, I’d have heard it. But Marianus knew, which means—”
“He must have orchestrated it.” Yakovius leaned forward, propping his chin up in his hand and his elbow on his knee. “Does he have Thanos’s body?”
“I don’t think so.”
Yakovius snapped his fingers, straining his neck as he called out. “Tephos!”
The same slave as before appeared. He was an older man, with greyed hair that curled about his ears, and a patchy beard. “Heron?”
“Something to write with.”
The man bowed, then returned some moments later with a clay tablet and a stylus. To Kirin’s dismay, Yakovius began making notes on the tablet’s surface.
“Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Very, unless you’re planning to run to Marianus and tell him I have it.”
Kirin swallowed, the race of his heartbeat increasing with every scratch Yakovius made into the wax. He’d believed in war with Kemassen—he still should believe in it. But not like this. And there’d been the vial and Marianus’s little story about it—he couldn’t tell Yakovius that part, or he’d sound mad. “You have my confidence, as I assume I have yours.”
“Then you’re a fucking idiot, because I have to bring this before the senate. What else did you think I would do?”
Kirin glared. “Didn’t you hear anything I said? The senate knows. The senate helped orchestrate the whole plot—or most of them did. Yellow Faction wants you dead.” Kirin had never been so sure, suddenly, that he was right. Everything he’d seen and heard told him it was painfully true, and Yakovius couldn’t even be bothered to save himself. “The Yellowers were whispering about you in a tavern weeks ago, and Marianus confirmed they want you gone. He’s got the Greys and the Whites in his pocket—Thanos’s death is just the excuse.”
Fuck. Kirin had come here alone, and he hadn’t even been careful about it. Marianus might have had him followed, if he had the Whites working for him. And Ydelka and Irina were back at the domus . . . Marianus would hurt them to get to Kirin, no doubt about that. He stood up, ready to leave. “If you’re as smart as you pretend, you’ll leave the city. And you’re taking me and Ydelka with you.”
“People have been trying to kill me for years. I don’t look it, but I’m scrappy. And Marianus doesn’t control the senate, he controls some of it. If he controlled all of them, he wouldn’t be so scared of me.” Yakovius grinned. “And I need you to stay close to him. You wouldn’t be much use anymore if Marianus didn’t trust you. If we’re going to find out what he’s up to, you’ll need to be around him more, not less.”
He wanted Kirin to spy, like Farnus. It wasn’t such a strange idea. Kirin was learned and clever, and his position in society ironically left him freer than a freeman would have been. There was little honour in spying though, and Kirin wasn’t sure he wanted to throw Marianus to the dogs, not when he didn’t fully understand the situation. “I need to be sure.”
“Of what?” Yakovius asked. “We know Marianus is manipulating the senate through trickery. What more do you need before you open your fucking eyes?”
“I’m not sure, but it might not be as simple as that, and just because he lied to get the senate to make a choice doesn’t mean the choice wasn’t the right one.”
Yakovius seemed to diminish. What right did he have to be disappointed in Kirin, when all Kirin wanted was to make sense of what was happening? He’d chosen to warn Yakovius, but he might not have.
“I know it’ll take some effort for you, but I need you to fucking think for a minute. And don’t grit your teeth at me, I can see it.” Yakovius stared at the ceiling, then back at Kirin, his brown eyes confident, as though he had no trouble putting his faith in Kirin. It wasn’t the smartest thing for a man in Yakovius’s position to do, but it did make it easier for Kirin to do the same.
“All right, I’m thinking.”
Yakovius got up, pacing to the wall and then back again slowly. “I know your kind. You still don’t want to fucking believe your hero could be a cheat, that’s what.”
Kirin rubbed his temples. “I’m the one who told you that you have to run.”
“And abandon the city?” Yakovius cracked his knuckles. “I don’t scare so easily.”
Neither did Kirin, but he could recognize when he was being baited. “Fine.” He scuffed his boot against the dirty floor. “All right. I’ll watch him. But you need to protect yourself. Call on your in-laws if you have to.”
“What makes you think they’re not in on the plot?” But Yakovius laughed. “I’ll tell Kordelia’s uncle, if it’ll calm you down.” He narrowed his eyes at Kirin. “You’d think you wanted to fuck me or something.”
Kirin’s cheeks burned. “I’ve got a woman, and she’s got nicer tits than you.”
Yakovius grinned, and it was calming. He didn’t look afraid like Kirin would have expected, but then, if you’d had hot oil poured over half your face then there probably wasn’t much left to be afraid of.
One of Yakovius’s children squealed joyfully from a nearby room. Kirin turned toward the sound. He fingered Ydelka’s braid, smooth and silken against his fingers. Its touch summoned her voice—her hopes and dreams that she’d revealed to him: a home, a husband, children who played beside a riverbank.
“I should get back. Marianus will wonder where I am. He won’t hesitate to kill me if he thinks I’ve betrayed him.” Kirin stood up, and Yakovius led him back to the entrance, as though Kirin might have otherwise got lost.
As Kirin opened the door he heard a yelp from below him, and felt the wood collide with something on the stair. When he looked down he saw the skinny girl had come back, looking cold, dishevelled, and sullen.
Kirin smiled at her in understanding. Being Yakovius’s child couldn’t be easy. The girl smiled back, but with more than a little sarcasm to her expression as she pushed past him and back inside.
“Be careful, Kirin,” said Yakovius from the doorway. “Marianus has a long reach.”
Long enough to span the Helit Sea. “Goodnight, Yakovius.”
“Yakov. It’s shorter.”
“Yakov it is.” Kirin waved and walked, though he felt the senator’s eyes on him as he marched back up the road.
The walk back to the domus was long, but Kirin relished the time to himself. Time to think. To daydream.
It had been a pleasant day, warm and sunny. Ydelka had prodded him to walk with her in the fields outside the city, forgetting not for the first time that he wasn’t as free as she was, and that he wasn’t allowed so much time away from Marianus and his duties. Though he’d now set himself this new and urgent task, he might try and sneak away tomorrow to see if he could find any peace in the rural landscape Ydelka dreamed so fondly of. Her ideas had contaminated him, but the more contaminated he became the less he cared. Marianus wasn’t what he’d seemed from Kirin’s view on the arena sands, but Lorar didn’t have to crumble with Marianus’s image. There was a world for Kirin somewhere new.
In the distance, the street in front of Marianus’s residence was speckled with shifting lights. Men bearing torches gathered around the building, and carts had been positioned so that they blocked off the streets leading away from the domus. Kirin quickened his pace.
As Kirin approached, he recognized one of Marianus’s new kitchen slaves and waved to the young man. “Ailus!”
The boy started, then pointed at the roof. “Oran stabbed the senator. He escaped across the roof. The city guard went after him, but he ran out into the marshes, downriver.”
Marianus. Dead. Whatever Kirin had thought he might feel—anger, relief—he didn’t feel it. Instead, his insides swirled like a leaf buoyed along a rough river current.
He started to draw his gladius, ready to join the hunt, but then let go. The guards might not capture Oran, but the marshes surrounding the city would slow the killer down long enough that Kirin had time to go after him. It was more important to find out what exactly had happened, to find Ydelka.
Kirin grunted, knocking Ailus on his way inside the domus.
A circle of guards, senators, and physicians were clustered in the atrium. A few were bent down, speaking in hushed tones to someone on the floor. Kirin pushed past the line of people cluttering the entrance to the white room, and they shuffled out of the way for him, eyeing the sword swinging at his side.
“Marianus?” Two of the men in the circle parted, allowing Kirin a better view of the senator, who was lying on the ground, head propped on a cushion as he clutched his side. A physician was ministering to him, dabbing the senator’s bloodied cheek with a damp cloth.
“Where were you—” Marianus groaned as the physician pressed the cloth against a gash on his cheek. The wound was bloody and angry looking, but the senator appeared otherwise unharmed.
Kirin fumbled for some excuse, but none came. He lowered his head shamefully. “My apologies, Heron.”
“You’re always apologizing.” Marianus hacked a cough. “You were better sport than you are a protector. I should replace you.” His tone suggested he wouldn’t.
“I’ll go after him.” Had Oran really only scratched the senator’s cheek and fled? Whatever Kirin thought of Oran, he wasn’t the type to let a mark live.
Marianus started to sit up, cursing when the physician forced him gently down again. “Give me space, give me space!” The circle widened around the senator, and a few men wandered off to whisper curiously to each other. Kirin stayed where he was. Something was wrong. Where was Ydelka? Oran must still be here, waiting for Kirin, or for Marianus to be left alone, or—
Marianus started to convulse.
One of the clients screamed.
The physicians crowded in closer, pressing Marianus down. One of them tried to pry Marianus’s lips open as though to force him to vomit, but it was no use—the thin but bloody slash in the senator’s cheek was the source.
An odd coldness spread over Kirin as he watched Marianus’s skin pale, his limbs go rigid. The senator’s fingers scratched the floor, stretching, reaching. He met Kirin’s eyes, staring with an intense helplessness Kirin had never thought possible from such a strong man.
Reaching. For something at his pouch. The bottle Farnus had given him.
Marianus’s pleading eyes rolled back in his head as his back arched.
It would be so easy to let Marianus die. No one knew Kirin knew about the mysterious black liquid, if it even worked the way Marianus believed it would. Kirin owed Marianus nothing. Yet, if Marianus died, what would change? The senate would still push for war, and Yakovius might be blamed for Marianus’s murder. There would be fighting, but with no general to guide them to victory. And Marianus would never answer for his deceptions.
Kirin shoved the physicians aside. A slave tried to restrain him, but Kirin easily jostled him off. He grabbed the purse. Its contents scattered across the tiled floor. He grabbed the bottle and popped the stopper.
The black water seemed to gasp into the air, like a living thing ungagged after hours with mouth constrained.
What was he supposed to do with it? There was so little in the bottle.
Kirin tipped it to dab it onto his finger and apply to Marianus’s skin but stopped himself. He didn’t want to touch the stuff—the black water felt wrong and unnatural, some foul underworld thing. Instead, he hovered over Marianus and poured the liquid directly over the deadly slash in the senator’s cheek.
The slave and physicians crowded him, pushing him aside, yelling. But Kirin stood fixed in place, watching, not sure whether he hoped the potion worked or not.
The world seemed to slow.
Don’t cure him. Don’t. Let the decision be taken from Kirin’s hands. Let whatever Marianus did next not be because Kirin had given him the opportunity.
Marianus stilled as though dead, but he wasn’t. His chest rose and fell. His head rolled to the side, unconscious but living. The black liquid slid down the senator’s cheek and onto the floor. After a moment he sputtered, and his bulging eyes blinked open.
The bottle in Kirin’s hand was empty. It had worked, and now it was empty, wasted on a man Kirin wasn’t sure deserved to be alive. He tossed the bottle onto the floor where it clinked and rolled to a stop at the feet of one of the physicians. All as one, the men and women crowding around Kirin and Marianus rushed in.
This was wrong. Oran wouldn’t have left without paying Kirin a visit first. Unless Kirin’s absence was exactly why he’d chosen this moment.
Kirin looked up and across the room. A long red stain was smeared across the polished floor, leading into one of the adjoining rooms. Was it Oran’s? Marianus’s wound couldn’t have leaked that much blood.
“Did he say anything to you?” Kirin spat the question with no heed to his station, a foreboding building inside him as he followed the blood trail with his eyes.
“Remember your place, slave,” said one of the physicians.
Marianus’s voice was rough and stilted. “He said something about Indas, about children or a court―a children’s court. And whore, he said whore. Whore and murderer . . . nonsense. He’s a madman. It meant nothing.”
Kirin swallowed. It sounded like nothing, but it wasn’t. Oran was mad. He did things for his own obscure reasons, but reasons he had in abundance. “Where’s Ydelka? Wasn’t she here?” She should have been here to help Marianus, or outside with the others.
“A slave is the least of my worries.” Marianus coughed, intention behind it, like he was trying to cough up the poison, or maybe even the black water. “She went walking somewhere.”
They were so stupid. It was Kirin Oran wanted, Kirin, but most of all Ydelka. Because Ydelka had chosen Kirin in the end, because she’d told Oran no when Oran had asked her to betray Marianus. She’d gone walking, probably alone. Oran might have grabbed her, or maybe she was still wandering the fields and Oran had fled to go find her.
For an instant, Kirin hesitated, torn between hurrying outside to sniff out Oran’s trail and following the blood on the floor. It felt like a choice between Ydelka dead, and Ydelka alive.
But that was a false and potentially deadly binary. If Ydelka were inside the domus, and if the blood were hers, she could be injured and in need of help.
Kirin raced for the stain on the floor.
The room lay in darkness, its entrance barely lit by the wall sconces outside. Kirin grabbed one of the torches and passed the threshold. He raised the torch high, so its beam spread over everything.
Firelight glistened over fresh meat.
My children will catch fish in the streams and my husband will tend a flock of sheep. I won’t have to kill anymore. We were born to be alive.
There was nothing left of her, but it was her, or it had been her. Oran had laid her pieces out in a pattern—a leg, an arm, a heart. Her hair radiated around her face like the black flames of a shadow sun. Her head, a sun. Severed at the throat.
Kirin stumbled, his left palm supporting him, bloody now, pressed to the ground.
He looked up and found her dead eyes staring at him: coal-black, sightless. Oran had left her face intact. The rest of what was left was hardly human. Her hands pointed toward her face. The rest of her had been similarly dismembered and arranged, like a tool stripped down to its component parts.
Kirin balled his hand into a fist. In the room with him, a low, lingering whine beat against the walls. He wondered at first who was in there to produce such an agonized sound, but it was him. The sound was him.
Kirin took a step away from the floor, letting the blackness cover Ydelka’s body—a kindly shroud, to hide what Oran had done to her, to erase it for a moment, so that Kirin could pretend he hadn’t stepped inside this room, that he’d chosen differently and ran after Oran and found a living Ydelka strolling through the fields. In that reality, Kirin would have come upon her just in time, would have called a warning as Oran emerged like a panther from the trees. Ydelka would have swerved in time to stop the slash of his sword with her knives, and Kirin would have leapt to her side to hew Oran down and snatch back the swaddling Oran had cut from Kirin’s tunic. Together, Kirin and Ydelka would have fled across the fields and the marshland, and together, they’d have built a home in the middle of a distant forest.
He replaced the torch in its sconce on the wall.
No one came to him. No one touched him. They might have been staring, but Kirin couldn’t see. He stumbled to the floor, on his knees in the blood that had led him to Ydelka. It was noisy in the atrium, but he couldn’t hear. He wasn’t in the domus any more than Ydelka was. He was sitting beside a stream, content in the choice he’d made, that had ensured Ydelka’s safety, ensured Kirin’s own happiness.
Kirin had never been outside the city, had never seen the grasslands and woodlands that Ydelka had been so anxious to share with him, yet in his ears he heard the mournful sound of the wind whistling through leaves, drifting in an endless night.