Chapter 10: IV: Vivaen
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Chapter 10: Monsters
Vivaen – The City Streets: Qemassen
This noisy Massenqa marriage festival was exactly the kind of celebration Vivaen was usually desperate to avoid. The raucous crowds made her arm hair turn rigid as pine needles, and though she went masked like the others, every eye and every smile seemed fixed on her with probing intensity, as though they could read Vivaen’s true name written in her skin.
She would rather have found an empty house to sneak inside, to wait out the excitement like a storm, but a party of friends had been foisted on her against her will.
Friends. The word felt wrong on her tongue and in her heart. Vivaen had never had friends in the truest sense—fellow thieves and ne’er do wells, certainly, but friends had only ever been something others could take from you. Friendship was a wound best cauterized and wrapped in thick bandage.
Bree though—Bree had friends of a kind. Since her arrival, Eaflied had been kinder, and there was Dashel, who dutifully stood guard when Princess Bree had an itch to scratch that only Aurelius could reach. But Vivaen was no fool. Dashel’s longing for Aurelius burned in his eyes and throbbed in his veins whenever the prince left her room.
Tonight, Dashel and Aurelius were nowhere to be seen. Vivaen had been handed over to Eaflied and Djana, who each now walked downhill beside her in the direction of the Eghri eq-Shalem.
Vivaen eyed the women to either side of her from behind her black cat mask. Eaflied wore the face of a jackal and Djana a wooden tiger’s mask. Djana’s beautiful, coiled hair was bound in a yellow scarf covered in the dainty outlines of green leaves and flowers. It made her mask appear to peek out of a forest thicket, searching for prey.
A disguised slave ambled ahead of them. He’d been assigned to guard them and fend off pickpockets but given the amount of beer Djana had already consumed, and the shambling revellers frolicking in the streets, it seemed more likely he’d serve as bodily support when Djana, Eaflied, and Vivaen returned to the palace too soused to walk.
Though she’d mellowed to Eaflied, Djana was almost a stranger. The Ajwatat was personable enough, but Vivaen still felt out of place and foreign around everyone at court, and Djana’s accent made her more challenging to understand than the Massenqa-born courtiers.
“I can’t see in this hideous . . . , dog face,” Eaflied complained in clumsy Massenqa, substituting “dog face” for “mask.” She fumbled with the twine that held her jackal-counterpart bound to her ears.
At least Vivaen could speak Massenqa. Eaflied was reliant on Vivaen to translate much of the time.
Djana laughed, and despite herself, Vivaen smiled along with her.
“She could return to the palace if she wanted,” offered Djana. “No one would think ill of her.”
No such charity for Vivaen. This was Vivaen’s marriage feast, and it didn’t matter that she’d rather be trapped inside that rickety boat on the Helit Sea, there was no refusing the dubious honour the festival was meant to represent.
“What did she say?” Eaflied pleaded. “Complaining about the Feislander savage, is she?”
For a cruel moment, Vivaen considered keeping Djana’s offer to herself. It was Eaflied who’d forced Vivaen to Qemassen against her will, so why not make the queen suffer with her? But then, if Eaflied did leave them, Vivaen might have a chance to steal a much-needed moment of privacy.
“Djana said you could return to the palace if you’re tired.” Vivaen tried her best to sound convincing, but it came out as sour as ever.
Eaflied scoffed. She shoved her arm in front of Vivaen’s chest and twitched her fingers at Djana, prompting the Ajwatat to hand over her skin of beer. “No, I won’t hear of it.” She took a stupidly large swig. “No one hides the queen of the Feislands away like a dragon’s horde.” She shoved the beer at Vivaen.
Vivaen wanted her wits about her. But—fuck it. She gulped the strong beer and wiped the residue off on her forearm.
“She won’t go,” Vivaen explained to Djana. “A pity.”
Djana laid a hand on Vivaen’s shoulder as they walked. “A daughter wanting to escape her mother’s protection, that I am familiar with.” The playful tone of Djana’s words warmed Vivaen’s cheeks—or maybe that was the beer.
The lights bobbing downhill were dizzying—fires dancing in the Eghri. The sight made her shiver, a childish memory tugging at her: Loralander torches filling the fields as they marched toward her village. She and her sister had thought they were giant fireflies.
“Do you miss your family?” Vivaen focused on Djana to will the image of the Lora invaders from her mind.
“Hmm.” Djana drew a delicate hand to the lips of her striped mask, as though to cover her mouth. “My people do not believe in missing one another. We are taught to think fondly on our memories, but not to miss. I confess though, lately I have not been a very good Ajwatat. I would like to see my brothers again, see what they’ve made of themselves.” Djana glanced over her shoulder just briefly—barely a movement at all, something anyone less attentive than Vivaen wouldn’t have caught.
While she was distracted, a Massenqen stumbled into their path, colliding with Vivaen. He grinned at her, righting his mask, and shoved a red flower at her chest before dashing down an alley.
Their escort was even less use than Bree had thought, allowing strangers to get so close.
Vivaen nearly dropped the flower, clutching its stalk with her nails so that she pierced its flesh and juice twined down her fingers. She lifted the blossom to her nose. It was perfumeless, not like the wild roses back home.
“I miss Atlin,” Vivaen admitted.
“You must miss your friends and family.”
She’d never let anyone get too close, not even the ones she’d been fond of. Especially the ones she’d been fond of. And family? Vivaen grew stiff as cold metal, imagining the pit she and her sister had clambered into to hide from the Loralanders, picturing her sister’s terrified face as huge, ungentle hands wrapped around her waist and pulled her up—
Djana snatched the beer skin back and took a drink. She tilted her head to the side in a movement that seemed like it should dislodge her headdress, but which somehow didn’t. Even with her mask on, patience and kindness radiated from her.
Vivaen pursed her lips. “I had a little sister, but she died when we were both young. I never got on with the other noble children. They weren’t always kind, and I turned prickly. I made a game of sneaking to the docks to talk to the sailors. They were probably the closest thing I had to friends.”
“Crude people for a princess’s companions.” Djana grinned. “But crude people are more fun.”
Vivaen smiled. They had been crude, most of them anyway, but the Feislands maintained a certain fondness for crudeness. Her caretakers at the court hadn’t entirely approved of a digan’s daughter running amok, but with so many people coming and going, it had been easy to slip away. After a while, King Ossa’s court stopped caring what she did, and she’d made herself useful by mining information from her contacts when the court needed it. Vivaen had got by, till now. She might still get by if she stopped thinking with her cunt.
“I’ve long since stopped caring what other rich people think of me,” Vivaen said. “And most of them repay me in kind.”
Eaflied huffed beside them and Djana handed her the beer. “What are you two chattering about?”
“The weather,” replied Vivaen.
The skin was empty and Eaflied tossed it at the slave’s back, provoking a yelp. He bent down and retrieved it, then kept walking.
“I can tolerate a certain amount of mockery, but too much and you’ll find yourself disinherited,” said Eaflied. She loosened the colourful Massenqa belt that pinned her stola at the waist, then parted the fabric at the middle, revealing at least three beer skins of her own, each fastened to the interior of her dress. She plucked one like it was a grape on the vine and closed her dress again.
Vivaen narrowed her eyes at the dress, the beer skin, and especially her would-be mother, a little impressed. “And you’ll find yourself without a translator,” Vivaen shot back, smirking. “Or an army.”
Eaflied grumbled and hastened over to the slave. She started talking at him in broken Massenqa.
“You should join our philosopher’s circle,” Djana suggested. “There is much to talk about, and it will help you know the prince better.”
Aurelius’s annoying little smirk appeared before her eyes. He was insufferable enough without adding philosophy to the equation.
“I know all I need to.” Vivaen twirled the flower in her hand. “He’s conceited, and silly, and frivolous, and an idiot.”
“I meant your prince. Ashtaroth.”
Of course she had. Vivaen loosened her hold on the flower. “You knew who I meant though.” If she made a joke of it, perhaps Djana wouldn’t think too much of the mistake.
“I would not call Aurelius an idiot, but he is foolish, and often silly.” Djana paused. “Do you love him? Ashtaroth?”
Vivaen’s heart had nearly stopped beating, before Djana had clarified. “I don’t really know him.” She watched Djana a little more intently, noting the slump in her shoulders, the way her smile had faded. “Do I have to love him?”
Djana tilted her head, staring at her feet as the slave guided them along. “No, but it would make it easier for all of us. Aurelius is . . . he is very handsome and very gifted. He is a good friend and I care for him deeply, but there is a darkness there, and he has hurt many people. Ashtaroth is not so easy to love, and certainly no one expects it of you, but it would help you both if you did.”
So, Djana had sensed something of Vivaen’s feelings. It didn’t mean Djana knew she was fucking Aurelius. Half the servants, slaves, and nobles seemed to want to—a little heat between Vivaen’s legs was hardly remarkable.
She didn’t get the impression Djana had meant the warning maliciously, and perhaps she was even right. It didn’t take much to see that Aurelius was a terrible person to fall in love with. Ashtaroth was another matter. The sole point of Vivaen, as far as the entire world was concerned, was to fall in love with the crown prince of Qemassen, or at the very least, to let him put his cock in her.
Too bad it was the last thing Vivaen wanted. But Djana?
“You love Ashtaroth, don’t you?” She dared ask the ambassador.
Djana squirmed. It was all the confirmation Vivaen needed, but Djana wasn’t finished. “Yes, but of all the men I have known, he is one of few who ignore me. The heq-Ashqen has offered Aurelius to me, or Himalit to one of our princes. I am not sure I can accept.”
Fuck. Well, there it was. Aurelius, given to Djana. Why couldn’t they just trade? Then again, Aurelius was incredibly irritating. Still, Vivaen bristled. “Wasn’t that merchant courting you? The self-important one with the braided hair?” They all seemed self-important, but this one especially.
“Qanmi? Yes, but I cannot marry him. He would not make me happy. We do not do anything intentionally to make ourselves unhappy. It is not in me to accept his offer and now Titrit hates me for it.”
Vivaen had met Titrit too, and her boorish husband. To hear Vivaen’s slaves tell it, Titrit and Djana had been close friends. The pair of them were like fire and ice. Titrit had been kind enough to Vivaen, but something about the merchant’s daughter had felt uncomfortable to her, uneven and unhinged beneath her cool exterior. Vivaen should know, unhinged as she was herself.
She slid her right hand beneath the folds of her dress—Eaflied wasn’t the only one with hidden pockets—and clutched the small wooden wildcat she’d stolen from Aurelius’s room. It was a strange one, three-legged and rougher than the other carvings that lined his room. Its oddness was what had attracted her to it.
If Aurelius had noticed it had gone missing, he hadn’t mentioned it. Hiram and Reshith were always running off with the figures, leaving them in unexpected places for the slaves to find. Aurelius probably thought they’d stolen it.
Vivaen rubbed her thumb over the wood. “You should forget Titrit. A true friend would want you to be happy. She isn’t worth your time.” She’d never been good at platitudes, but she liked Djana.
The slave had led them down a quieter street, and some of Vivaen’s anxiety eased.
Djana bent her neck, watching her feet instead of the road ahead. “It is unfortunate but telling myself that does not make it true. When I came here, Titrit was the first to welcome me. She introduced me to the others. I would have been lost without her.”
Djana fell silent. At a loss of what to say, Vivaen occupied herself listening to Queen Eaflied as she inflicted her stilted Massenqa on that poor slave.
Now that Vivaen looked closer, there was something familiar about his gait and build. She hadn’t seen him before he’d put his mask on. He’d arrived at her door with orders to collect Djana and Eaflied and lead them outside.
“I love this city.” Djana broke the silence, distracting Vivaen. “At first Qemassen was peculiar and foreign, but now it feels like home.”
In the distance, celebratory cries and a piercing jumble of musical instruments rumbled like water over beach rocks. It was cacophonous, but maybe not so different from Atlin. She was used to port cities, feeding off their confusion and contradiction. Perhaps she could love this new chaos, with its foods that burned as hot as its sun, its colourful houses, and its sprawling, outlying hills. Beautiful. New. Strangely calming when she gazed toward the ocean like this.
The wildcat was warm beneath her touch.
Her throat grew tight and heavy.
There was at least one thing in Qemassen she already loved, even if she didn’t want to. This place was his place. Might it seduce her the way he had? Would it melt her worries the way he did when she slept dreamlessly in his arms?
“When did you start feeling safe here?” Vivaen asked.
“I always felt safe here, until the attack in the street.” Djana hugged her arms. “You will remember I told you there was something dark in Aurelius. The same darkness lurks beneath Qemassen, flows in her rivers and gives her strength.” Djana turned to face her. “If there was ever a time to bid this city farewell, it is now. Is that cowardly of me? Qemassen is in danger, and I choose to flee. Perhaps I would be more brave if things had not become strained with dear Titrit.”
Cowardice and fear were emotions Vivaen understood well. They were nothing to be ashamed of—they kept you alive. “You think the city will fall to Lorar?”
Djana shook her head. “I am not sure. I think the Massenqa are on the brink of something. I think Qemassen needs a strong leader.”
And Eshmunen was not that leader. It didn’t take long to work out that much. Himalit was the backbone of Qemassen. Himalit, and the aged heq-Ashqen who Vivaen had yet to meet. Hopefully he liked her more than Himalit did. Vivaen needed allies.
“I can’t leave.” Vivaen swallowed. “Not that it matters. If Qemassen is destroyed, the Feislands and Ajwata won’t last long.”
Djana drew her palla around her shoulders. “Not necessarily. We could bow to Lorar, become provinces like Indas.”
“No, no, that won’t happen.” An image flashed unwanted before Bree’s eyes: her sister crying, pulled away, bleeding and dying in Lora arms. “They’ll make slaves of us.”
“Many would say the Inda are slaves. Do you know how much they pay in tribute to Lorar? How much is stolen from them as a symbol of Lorar’s just rule? A true king of Indas has not ruled in Ipsis since Melqan’s day. Ashtaroth is owed that throne, yet it is Lorar’s.”
“You’d rather Qemassen didn’t submit.”
Djana sucked her teeth. “That is not for me to decide. I bear the Lora no love, and would not wish them victory, but perhaps it is better to relinquish freedom to save the lives of our peoples. Worse bargains have been made.” She swallowed visibly.
“A prison or destruction. It isn’t much of a choice.” Vivaen didn’t want to think about the past or the future, neither of which she could control. All she had for choice were her stolen moments at Aurelius’s side, which increasingly didn’t feel much like choices at all. “Right now, I’m more concerned with surviving this city and its politics.” Could Djana be the ally Vivaen needed? It was worth the risk. “Ashtaroth’s sister is unbearable, and there’s so much ceremony—if I step the wrong way, or if I recite the wrong words, there’s always someone happy to correct me.”
Djana laughed a little. “The Massenqa are a complicated people, but they have good hearts, even Hima. I am much less restrained than they, more indelicate. Perhaps that is why I took to Aurelius so well, though he has his Inda blood to thank for some of his peculiarities.”
“His Inda blood?” Strange that Aurelius should be singled out, when as far as she knew all the royal children shared the same parentage.
“His mother, Moniqa, was an Indat. Aurelius was her favourite. She died protecting him you know, when they wanted to burn him.”
Vivaen blanched. “Burn him?” People had whispered in Atlin that the Massenqa had burned a royal child alive years ago, a sacrifice to the gods like the criminals her own people gave to the fens. She’d never connected the stories to Aurelius and his family, though now it seemed obvious the child must have been a relative of theirs.
“They brought him as far as the fire and Molot’s palm, but in the end they burned Ashtaroth’s twin, Ashtara. You did not know? I thought everyone knew that story. Aurelius does not speak of it, but he does not need to. I am glad they did not kill him. I would be short a friend, and though he boasts like a lion, between the two of us, not all his skills are mere fabrication.”
Vivaen furrowed her brows, unsure if she was more upset at the idea of Aurelius being burned alive or pleasuring Djana with his skills.
The slave-guide stopped abruptly. Vivaen collided with him. She gripped his arms to steady herself. Eaflied turned around, pulling her mask down for the express purpose of glaring. Djana let out a loud guffaw.
“I am so very sorry, Sese,” the slave said ingratiatingly. He knelt all the way to the ground and snatched Vivaen’s hand. “You must flog me, oh radiant princess!”
Ugh. Aurelius. She snatched her hand back and scowled. “Don’t call me Sese. We’re in disguise. Act like a normal person.”
“And pray, what do they act like, Sese?”
Vivaen ripped off the slave’s plain mask. “Not like a worm, for one thing.”
Aurelius got to his feet, bowing curtly to Eaflied and Djana, but pointedly refusing Vivaen the same courtesy. Eaflied slapped the prince on the shoulder as he righted himself.
“And there I was practicing on you like you were no one,” Eaflied said in Feislanda.
Aurelius grinned. “These Feislandata, they kill you instead of kiss you, barely ladies at all.”
Djana shrugged one shoulder. “Do not be so hard on them, Aurel. We should take you at your word and flog you in truth.”
He winked. “You should know better than to take me at my word.”
Vivaen shoved Aurelius’s mask at his face and stalked past him and Eaflied both. “Hurry up. The sooner we reach the festival, the sooner we can go home.”
The patter of the others’ footsteps trailed her.
“The festival’s all around us,” said Aurelius. “No one’s going to report you if you want to go back. I suppose I could report you, but that would mean speaking to Hima for an extended period of time, and if you hadn’t noticed, she doesn’t like me.”
“She likes you,” chided Djana. “Stop being foolish.”
The quieter road Aurelius had taken let out suddenly into a bustling market. There were so many people she could no longer make out individuals—it was like they were one slithering organism. Vivaen stopped and let the others catch up.
Eaflied forced her own mask back on, tugging Vivaen’s sleeve. “I’m too old for all this.” She had to yell to be heard over the ruckus in the Eghri. “Would Djana take me back?”
“I do not mind, Queen,” Djana put in. “I can return later to find these two.”
“Then I’ll be sure to look after the princess, whether she wants me to or not.” Aurelius slid his fingers between Vivaen’s and smiled. Vivaen jerked away, but he held tight, and when she looked, Djana and Eaflied had already turned around to trek back the way they’d come.
“You’re a fool,” Vivaen spat as Aurelius tugged her away from the market and down another street. Happy as she was to be away from the market, she didn’t like not knowing where they were. She squeezed Aurelius’s hand. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere we can misbehave.” He tugged her round another corner.
They were masked. They were free. And misbehaving with Aurelius sounded better than just about anything else Vivaen could do right now. She let herself be pulled, keeping pace.
A few corners more and they were completely alone along a row of houses.
Aurelius pulled her to him, and she lifted her arms, wrapping them around his neck. He backed her up against a purple wall. The painted brick was deliciously rough and uneven against her hips and shoulders. Aurelius’s body was deliciously hard against the softness of her own.
She needed to not think with her cunt.
“They should grant us special dispensation to fuck each other.” Vivaen lifted Aurelius’s mask up, then her own.
He was smiling as always. She leaned up and kissed him, his lips salty, his skin sweaty. She bit him, eager to let lust swallow her and drown the worries that clung to her like hungry children.
“Your royal whore?” Aurelius broke away, tracing his finger across her lips. She snapped her mouth gently, nipping his skin.
She returned his smile, letting him go. “Maybe. What do they call a male courtesan? You can be one of those.”
“According to Djana, I am very skilled.” He cocked his head to the side. “I could offer my services to all the women at court.”
He was goading her. “According to Djana. I’m much more discerning. It’s only desperation that finds me in your arms.”
Aurelius kissed her again. “I love you.”
Her lip quivered. She wanted to say she loved him back, but the words caught in her throat. If she said it, it would become a real thing people could know, and attack, and kill them for. At least she could touch him, let him know with her body how she felt. It had been a whole day since Dashel had brought her to meet Aurelius at the baths, too long for either of them. “They’ll kill us.”
Aurelius shook his head, hands beneath her robes, pulling her hips toward him. “Isn’t it worth dying? What were the chances we would meet again after Atlin?”
Vivaen choked out a laugh. “You’re as lovesick as your brother. Thinking the gods had anything to do with our meeting.”
“Did I say anything about gods? As far as I’m concerned they can fuck themselves.”
Vivaen grabbed Aurelius’s shoulders and pulled away enough to look him in the face. “Don’t say things like that. They’ll hear you.”
“And do what?” Aurelius looked far too amused.
She glared. It was so dark in the alley, only the moon and a lonely torch to light them. “Hurt you, spite you, whatever they like. They’re gods.” The red of the fire reflected in Aurelius’s eyes. It reminded her of what Djana had revealed and what Aurelius had interrupted—the story of how his city had tried to burn him.
Aurelius leaned his arm against the wall. “Are they? Apparently my brother will become a god one day. Are you afraid of him?”
She was afraid of what Ashtaroth would do if he knew who she was and what she let his brother get away with. She was smart to fear him, and Aurelius was oh so stupid. He made the temples sound ridiculous, but she’d felt the gods’ wrath, heard Caern’s hounds hunting for her through the forest, seen his bastions carry her sister off in ropes.
There was that fire again, in Aurelius’s dark brown eyes.
“It’s because of your mother, isn’t it?” Vivaen regretted saying it as soon as the words left her.
Aurelius flinched like he’d been slapped. “It’s because I have eyes and ears and a mind. The soul isn’t ruled by gods, no more than we’re ruled by my father. It’s the illusion of control, that’s all.”
“Control that decides the fates of the people of this city. If your father wanted, he could have Qemassen burned to the ground. He may as well be a god.” Vivaen gripped Aurelius’s plain tunic tighter. She didn’t want to argue—she didn’t even want to talk.
“Maybe we should return. You can rest at the palace. I know you hate being around so many people.”
She nudged his leg with her knee. “Don’t sulk. I’m not around many people right now, just you. I thought you were my courtesan?”
“Only if the gods allow it first,” he said sarcastically. At least some of the laughter had returned to his eyes.
She rolled her shoulder against the wall. This time the brick scratched her skin and she winced. “I’m sorry. If we’re so well suited to each other, I don’t see why you can’t talk to me about what they did to you.”
Aurelius’s smile returned, more of a mask than the one resting unused atop his head. “Djana told you all there was to tell.”
Vivaen wouldn’t be dissuaded. If she was going to risk both their lives to touch him, she wanted to know who she was risking them for. “She didn’t tell me it made you stupid, bringing the gods’ curses down on you.”
Aurelius tensed, his jaw taut. “My father let me spend a day being prettied up so a golden cow statue would make him a better king, and when someone tried to stop him, his solution was to burn my sister instead. Under the circumstances, I’d rather the gods’ curses than their blessings.”
Vivaen was not a warm person, but when she was with Aurelius, she wanted to be. If she pretended hard enough and long enough, maybe it would even become true. She rubbed his back, his shoulder blade rigid beneath her hand. “I wouldn’t risk it.” She averted her gaze. She’d taken something from him—she ought to give something in return, tell him about the Loralander pit and her sister and their parents. She should tell him what she had done and why Caern had cursed her. “I’m not a good person, Aurelius, not near enough to gamble on the affection of Abaal or any of the others.”
Aurelius tickled her thigh and she let out an embarrassing squeal.
His other hand had grabbed something inside her dress—something that wasn’t her body. He drew it out.
The wooden cat.
She snatched it back.
Aurelius’s free hand slid further up her thigh, where he rubbed rings in her skin with his fingertips—closer and closer. She tipped her head against the wall, letting him heft her up so that she felt weightless as a feather. She knotted her legs around his waist.
“I told Ashtaroth you were a thief.” He bent and kissed her neck.
She couldn’t think straight when he was touching her like that. “What?” She slid the cat back into her pocket.
“Nothing,” Aurelius laughed, kissing her cheek. She kissed him in return, soft and slow. His cock was hard against her, only a thin strip of fabric between it and her.
A foot scuffed the pavement in the alley and a man’s voice echoed against the walls: “Good night, Sesa.”
Vivaen screamed and pushed Aurelius away from her, her feet hitting the ground hard. She grabbed her mask and shoved it into place.
A robed figure wearing a Massenqa laughing mask stood behind them, watching.
Aurelius lunged for him, but he was prepared and darted away before tearing off in the direction Vivaen and Aurelius had taken to get here.
Vivaen couldn’t let him get away. He’d seen them. He’d obviously known who they were. “We have to catch him.”
She set off at a sprint. It was hard to run in loose clothing, so she hiked her skirts up and knotted them at her waist. Soon Aurelius’s footfalls followed. The spy took a right, away from the Eghri.
What would she do when she caught him? Kill him? Bribe them? If only they’d seen who it was.
The spy had long, quick legs and kept well ahead, sticking to the quieter streets.
Eventually, Aurelius overtook her. She reached for his hand, calmed by his touch, though it slowed them both down.
“If we don’t catch him,” she panted, “we have to run. Run for the docks or outside the city, I don’t care, but we have to get out of Qemassen before it’s too late to get anywhere.”
“It won’t come to that,” said Aurelius, expression hard.
“Where are they headed?”
Aurelius shook his head. “Could be anywhere.”
It could be, but there’d been a sense of purpose in the slave’s tone, and the fact he’d simply appeared and then ran off immediately wasn’t right.
It wasn’t right, and Vivaen was being a fool like Aurelius, and she’d drunk too much of the strong beer and now she and Aurelius were paying for everything.
She jerked her arm, dragging Aurelius to a stop. “It’s a trap.”
A gated, deserted courtyard—perhaps a market of some kind?—lay ahead of them. The stranger dashed inside the protective confines of the gate.
Vivaen knew she was staring, that her eyes must be frighteningly wide, but the gates of the courtyard looked like a mouth about to swallow them.
Run. Run. They should run.
Her hand was slick with sweat in Aurelius’s.
Aurelius took a step toward the courtyard, and Vivaen followed grudgingly. “What choice do we have?” he asked.
“We could leave,” she begged. But it wasn’t really an option. How long would it take to get to the docks? How much money did they have on them to pay for passage? Were there even any captains at the docks during the festival, and what was to stop them turning Aurelius and Vivaen over for a greater profit?
Vivaen clutched Aurelius’s hand tighter and marched inside the courtyard. “Why did I let you get me into trouble,” she spat, gaze darting from one side of the empty courtyard to the other.
The stranger stood defiantly still about ten feet in front of them—even more of a bad sign. Vivaen didn’t dare move closer.
The buildings around the square were shabby and lopsided, probably the homes of freedmen and women. Deep shadows nestled between them, beneath the overhanging balconies and walkways. She twisted her neck, looking back the way they’d come. Several more masked figures were approaching from outside, about to block the only clear exit.
“Aurelius! Go!” But as she said it, the people outside slammed the gates shut. Every one of them was robed. Every one of them was wearing one of those eerie, grinning masks.
Slaves. They were slaves like the ones that had attacked Djana, Aurelius, and Dashel.
So stupid. So foolish. She should have gone back to the palace with Eaflied.
Aurelus’s voice boomed in the silence: “Let us go, I warn you! The Semassenqa won’t tolerate this; you’ll all be punished.”
The slaves stood unmoving, watching from the safety of the gate. Vivaen counted them: three, four, five—no, a sixth hunched in the shadows beneath the overhang of one of the three-story buildings lining the street. Vivaen turned to make sure the man behind them hadn’t moved.
He hadn’t, and somehow it was more frightening.
“It’s for the benefit of the Semassenqa that we do this here tonight,” called one of the strangers on the road. His voice sounded . . . off. Garbled and wet, like he’d stuffed his mouth with stones. “So they can bear witness to our message, so they can heed our warning, so they can know our name.”
Shadowy figures scurried from every crevice of the square and Bree instinctively backed up against Aurelius, ready to fight if need be. She’d given more than one black eye in her day.
A muffled cry broke her concentration. It had come from the northeast corner of the square.
Vivaen squinted into the darkness, watching as a trio of slaves forced two bound and gagged women into view.
It was Eaflied and Djana. How long had the slaves been stalking their group?
The slaves tossed Djana and Eaflied to the ground, sending up a cloud of dust. Djana struggled in her bonds, to no effect. Their faces were discoloured, badly beaten.
Vivaen turned toward the street. One of the slaves stood in the middle of the others, as though he were their leader.
“Who are you?” Aurelius asked him. “Another man ready to mutilate innocent children?”
“You look rather big for children,” answered the thin stranger—the one with the unusual voice. He nodded to the men surrounding them, and several stepped forward with ropes.
Aurelius clucked. “We won’t go quietly.”
Was there another option that Vivaen just wasn’t seeing? She wasn’t sure fighting back was wise. At least Hiram and Reshith had been left alive. If they did what they were told, the rebels might let them go.
“Then I’ll kill those two.” The stranger snapped his fingers. “Men?”
The slaves who’d brought Djana and Eaflied out unsheathed knives from their belts, holding them to the women’s necks. Djana screamed like she might have been cut.
Vivaen dug her nails into Aurelius’s hand. “Aurelius,” she hissed. It was all well and good to act brave and defiant, but with their lives at stake there was no shame in laying low.
Aurelius hesitated, but she could see the threat had affected him. Finally, he relaxed.
The slaves hurried over to them, forcing them apart. Someone kicked Vivaen in the back of her knees and she pitched forward into the dirt alongside Aurelius, catching herself on her palms. Pain shot up her wrists. Jagged stones scraped her skin.
“My name is Zioban,” said the stranger. He remained distant, as if content to let his men do the work for him.
Rough, thick rope encircled Vivaen’s wrists. She glanced to the side to see if Aurelius was receiving the same treatment and one of the slaves kneed her in the spine. As the ropes squeezed tight around her skin, one of the slaves clamped his hand over her mouth, then forced her jaws open. He shoved a dirty cloth inside and knotted it around her head. It reeked, making Vivaen’s eyes water, and she retched.
Another two slaves approached from the side, and as they moved in, Zioban finally walked toward them. Vivaen watched, unblinking, memorizing every movement, every twitch, every enunciation when he started to speak.
“We’ll have them walk, if they remember how,” said Zioban. His voice very strange, but unfamiliar. If he was a slave from the palace, Vivaen didn’t know him. “Hopefully they won’t find it too difficult, used as they are to being carried. Remove their shoes.”
Vivaen and Aurelius were hardly pathetic. They’d run well enough to follow the slave here. Would that they hadn’t.
Darkness, as the sack was pulled over her face. Her breathing came hard, threatening to choke her, and the gag seemed to thicken and lengthen like it extended all the way down her throat, like she was dying. The rancid stench of the sack was different from the pit and the petrichor of the forest, but in the moment, the two scents became one. In the darkness, Caern’s creatures hovered before her eyes.
Vivaen tried to slow her breathing.
You’re not in the ground. You’re not in the ground.
Whoomph. A punch landed on Vivaen’s breastbone knocking the air from her. She fell back in the sand. Pain spread across her ribs and up her throat. Tears beaded in her eyes.
Someone pried her sandals from her feet. A slave with big, rough hands hoisted her by her elbow till she was forced to stand. She could sense Aurelius close by, hear the shuffle of his feet in the dirt as they pulled him up with her. Her head felt echoing as a cave, the sounds of the courtyard drifting to her from all directions at once.
Her toes were so cold.
They were going to die here.
She stretched her fingers out, long as spider’s legs, in all directions, needing to touch Aurelius to make sure he was still there and still breathing and still—
Her breath was coming hard again. She grazed her right foot against the gravel and sand of the courtyard, breaking herself out of her panic.
In the echo inside her mind, footsteps approached from every direction. Djana squealed.
“Walk,” said a woman’s voice.
Something long, thin, and hard slammed into Vivaen’s back and she stumbled forward. She trod carefully at first, fearful of glass and sharp rocks, but when she was too slow, the slaves jerked her forward.
Djana or Eaflied was crying.
Wherever they were going, the trek there was long and stilted, or maybe the terror only made it seem long. She counted her footsteps to force herself to focus, but whenever one of the slaves would shove her, she’d lose count and have to start all over again. Festival music trilled and boomed in the distance. At one point, they must have turned toward it, for it grew louder for about a minute before fading to a whisper. The slaves jeered as they walked, shouting lewdly, and the man holding her took the opportunity to grope her breast.
All that, she could suffer. She’d faced worse before. It was the lack of knowing that terrified her.
As they stumbled along, rocks and other debris sliced her feet open. She wriggled her tongue to relieve some of the pressure from the gag, but it did very little.
Gradually, the smell of roast meat from the festival was overpowered by the stink of smoke. Vivaen stifled a sneeze as it choked her nose.
The smell of soot and ash was growing stronger.
Thump. A commotion ahead of Vivaen pierced the repetitive noises of their march. Someone slammed into her, and the hands holding her fell away. Before she could run, a body knocked her onto a patch of grass. Her cheek stung, her ear ringing briefly.
The gag. It had been dislodged.
Vivaen spit it out and started screaming to get someone’s attention. She rolled to the side, shaking her head, rubbing the sack against the grass to ease it off. As she squirmed out from under it, a maskless slave hobbled into view, clutching a broken nose. Two more slaves lay in the grass, scrabbling to their feet as Aurelius worked the rope binding his wrists. His skin was broken and bloody from the effort. But he was almost free.
Behind her, more slaves rushed for Aurelius.
Vivaen pushed herself up, tripping one of them so he landed face-first on a patch of dirt. He didn’t get up. Vivaen strained her neck, trying to figure out where they were.
Great stone stelae dotted a courtyard patchworked with earth and grass. In this distance, a huge wall marked the perimeter of what was clearly a square of some kind.
Zioban shoved his way past the slaves closing in on Aurelius. He was holding a club.
Vivaen screeched. Too late, Aurelius turned. Zioban swung the club in a vicious arc, hitting Aurelius in the side of the head and sending him flying. Vivaen bolted for him, but huge arms hugged her from behind, squeezing her against a barrel chest. She thrust her head back, kicking the man’s knees, but he withstood her attacks.
Zioban pressed his foot down on Aurelius’s back, crushing him against the grass. There was a sickening crack.
No no no.
Aurelius wasn’t moving.
The slaves hurried to tie Aurelius’s bindings more tightly.
Zioban leaned toward Aurelius, speaking to him. “I see you recognize the setting, Sese.” He had a painful, squeaky sort of voice, not the voice of one used to command. And it had that same strange, garbled quality to it. Moist. A disguise. “Perhaps it will remind you of your place, that it is not so high above the rest of us, that the Semassenqa are as capable of ugliness as those they use and then despise for their usefulness.”
Zioban stepped back and the slaves gathered to haul Aurelius back onto his feet. His arm looked oddly twisted, and blood caked the sack that still obscured his face.
Vivaen clenched her jaw. She couldn’t see what Zioban had done to him. He seemed dazed, alive for the moment. A lot could happen in a moment.
Someone crammed her gag back in her mouth and fastened it, but they kept the hood from her head.
As they wove their way through the stelae that dotted the grass a great gold statue emerged from the darkness, towering over a patch of tiled ground around its feet. Controlled fires blazed throughout the grounds from huge braziers: the source of the smoke she’d smelled past her hood.
The golden statue loomed above them, hands outstretched, coin purse hanging at its belt, bull’s head staring blindly outward.
Was that why Aurelius had struggled? Had he known where they were, even unseeing?
Voices cried from far off, accompanied by the distant march of feet. Was someone coming for them? Hima’s Yirada guards, maybe? She’d screamed her lungs out lying on the grass.
They passed inside the shadow of the death god’s palm and Vivaen shuddered. The heat from the braziers licked her legs like burning tongues. Zioban was surely here to sate them.
She hung her neck back, staring at the underside of the god’s palms, expecting to see black scorch marks tarnishing the metal, but it glowed bright as if it were new. Real gold, which kept no record of the dark things that had happened here.
A set of heavy sandstone stairs zig-zagged the wall behind the statue, leading to a platform that stretched toward Molot’s back. She thought the slaves meant to force them up, but Zioban veered left, toward a door cut into the wall. It was the same material as the wall, and Vivaen wouldn’t even have recognized what it was if not that it stood slightly ajar. A slave opened it, revealing only blackness beyond. As Vivaen neared, cool air from inside the passage wafted against her face. The air smelled of nothing—the clean, cold kiss of a cellar.
A slave lit a torch from one of the braziers and stepped inside, leading the way for Zioban and the others. Two slaves fell into step ahead of her, another captive bound between them.
One by one, slaves dipped their torches into the braziers and disappeared inside the passage. Their footsteps echoed back to her, descending or ascending—she couldn’t tell.
Vivaen squinted against the blaze of the firelight blocking her view of the new captive. His face was hooded, and when he groaned it was muffled as though he were gagged like them. Whoever he was, the slaves holding him pushed his head down as he stepped into darkness, and he was swallowed with the others.
Vivaen swallowed. From what she’d glimpsed, it was a narrow passage. The big man gripping the rope at Vivaen’s wrists shoved her forward and she nearly tripped on a narrow step inside the tunnel.
Even the torchlight wasn’t enough to light the narrow passage properly, and they stepped slowly and carefully in single file. Doors led off every five feet, and occasionally the slaves would slow down to take a new path. It was a warren, but Vivaen memorized every turn—left, left, straight for twenty paces, a door to the right, down five steps, turn left, door to the right, up two steps, left, up fifteen steps.
From above came a loud thud and the trampling of feet. A cascade of powdery stone spilled from the ceiling and Vivaen ducked, shielding her face. The slave holding her spit and cursed.
“Turn left here,” Zioban said, and the line of prisoners and slaves marched upward again, up a left-hand turn that led to more stairs.
Light spilled, blinding, from an opened door ahead of them. Vivaen squeezed her eyes shut, then slowly opened them again, acclimatizing to the brightness. Beyond the door, the dark blue sky stretched above them. A frighteningly steep stairwell was built into the vast brick wall of the gardens. In the distance, she could see Molot’s temple and the glimmer of orange firelight against the bull god’s shoulder.
The unknown captive ahead of her squirmed in the slaves’ arms as they led him outside onto the steps. For an instant, they tipped right, so very close to the edge, so very near to falling. But the slaves righted themselves, gripping their captive tighter. One of them backhanded the captive and Vivaen flinched.
Aurelius was somewhere ahead of her, still hurt, maybe dead. She couldn’t even see him, had lost sight of Zioban.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deep. She couldn’t think about Aurelius now.
Her captor nudged her onto the steps. They were standing along the wall that lined the far side of the gardens, high above the stelae they’d wandered through earlier. The stelae below were small and jagged as little teeth. They drew the eye, even the foot, and Vivaen’s vision spun with vertigo.
She’d never been so high before.
Some of the teeth in the garden moved—not stelae, but tiny people, watching and pointing from below. Qemassen’s streets wound outward from the gardens like veins, all clogged with more bodies. The celebrations in the Eghri must have ended, or else Zioban’s rebels had coaxed the gawkers here.
Vivaen started up the nearly vertical stairs. Bringing her foot down was like stepping on knives, the fear shooting through her sharp as any blade. One, two, three . . . sixteen, twenty, thirty-four. Part of her wanted to slip and fall, just so she wouldn’t have to fear falling anymore.
Above her, Zioban stood at the very top of the wall. Aurelius knelt in front of him along the narrow strip. He swayed—alive—and a slave rushed to grip his shoulders and fix him in place.
Fifty-one, fifty-five. Vivaen’s fingers had gone numb.
She followed the captive stranger onto the top of the wall, feeling first a rush of relief, then a growing panic as the full height of where they stood struck her. Just below them, Eaflied and Djana were being dragged along the steps.
Zioban directed the slaves to set the unknown captive down to Aurelius’s left. They pulled off the sack, revealing Thanos, the Loran ambassador. The one Dashel was fucking. He wasn’t even one of the Semassenqa—but neither was Djana.
The big slave holding Vivaen kneed the back of her legs, and she was forced to the ground. The shock of the hard stone reverberated through her bones, and she whimpered, breath fast and frenzied. Blood bloomed at her knees, soaking through her torn stola.
To her right, Zioban pulled the pauper’s veil from Aurelius. Blood trickled down the side of his face, his hair caked with it. It could mean nothing—head wounds bled a lot—but that vacancy in his eyes, as though he didn’t see where he was or who he was with . . . .
Vivaen tore her gaze away, staring out at the gardens instead. It was easier to look at Molot, with his cruel golden skin and his wide-open palms. A god awaiting sacrifice.
Vivaen jumped as Djana and Eaflied were slammed into line beside her. One of Eaflied’s eyes was swollen shut—it hurt to look at her. Djana was crying, her facepaint turned to black and yellow streaks down her cheeks. She was awake, but she didn’t look any more aware than Aurelius had. Vivaen mumbled at her to try and get her attention, but she didn’t react.
In the garden below, Yirada and palace guards alike barked orders. The garden was clotted with onlookers now, some laughing and singing, confused probably, about what exactly was happening. Did they think it was part of the celebration?
The Yirada were readying bows.
“Don’t shoot!” Djana’s merchant suitor, Qanmi, tugged on the arm of one of the archers. “You’ll hit them, they’re too close!”
The horde below rumbled. A cluster of Yirada had run up the steps to Molot’s statue. The gap between them might as well have been as wide as the ocean. They seemed not to know about the door that Zioban had taken, or if they did, they weren’t taking it. Zioban must have disguised it, must have readied the path for his captives. Everything, each little detail, planned beforehand, right down to luring Aurelius and Vivaen into a chase.
“I call for silence!” shouted Zioban, voice hoarse and distorted. The club he’d beaten Aurelius with was gone, replaced by a sword. “I said quiet!” He thwacked the sword’s tip against the stone.
This time, the people below quieted.
Zioban paced back and forth behind them, dragging the edge of the sword so it sang with a painful screech. He passed Vivaen, and she bent forward to get away from the sound.
“State your terms,” someone yelled from below.
Zioban stalked back, left, toward Aurelius. “I have no terms for the Semassenqa, only a warning.” He grabbed Aurelius’s curls and jerked Aurelius’s head back, then drew his sword to Aurelius’s throat, propping the prince’s chin up with his blade. “The slaves of this city grow tired beneath the weight of your sins. The slaves of this city have a message for their oppressors! Tonight is my formal introduction to the men I have sworn to kill, men responsible for the tears of children and mothers, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons. The Semassenqa rule this city no longer, for soon will be the time of the many who are one, the claws and teeth ripping and biting inside the belly of the beast.” Zioban’s voice cracked, high and shrill. A woman’s? Vivaen couldn’t be certain. “My name is Zioban; know me and know your doom! We stand here before the gods themselves, and we offer sacrifice. One for the bull-god’s greedy hands.”
“Let Djana go!” Qanmi screamed from below. “She means nothing to you; she’s an outsider.”
Zioban slipped his sword from Aurelius’s neck and allowed the prince’s head to loll forward.
He turned to address the slaves who stood behind him. “What think you? Should we free the Ajwatat? All I see is another Semassenqat, too proud for those below her station, too good for the rest of us. Another bitch who thinks herself better than what she is.”
Zioban stepped out of view before crouching beside Djana. He stroked a thin finger down her cheek and Djana closed her eyes. Vivaen wanted to reach for her, wanted to tear the mask off Zioban’s face and bite his nose clean off.
Zioban stalked quickly toward Aurelius. “Prince Aurelius, pinnacle of Massenqa greatness, too fine to lower himself to the level of those who clean up his filth.” Zioban’s voice was humourless.
If anyone deserved the sword it was Vivaen—a liar who was too afraid of love not to hurt the ones she cared for. A liar who’d let her sister die.
As if reading her mind, Zioban abandoned Aurelius and knelt beside her, his breath hot on Vivaen’s cheek. “Or the saviour, the promise of Qemassen’s victory against Lorar. Should I kill your symbol, break your prophecy? The whore who spreads her legs for her husband’s brother. What care do the Massenqa have for this woman who cuckolds her future husband before she’d even graced his bed? Her mother might do just as well, I suppose.”
Vivaen trembled beneath Zioban’s scrutiny, keeping her gaze steady, looking out at the stars and not at the stranger who held her life in their hands.
It should be me. It should be me. Please, don’t let it be me. Don’t take me, don’t take Aurelius away.
“It’s time for Qemassen to make an ugly choice.” Zioban paused. He tapped the flat of his sword against Vivaen’s cheek. “The only kind it knows.”
“Bree!” Ashtaroth’s strangled voice nearly cut Zioban off. Below, Dashel plowed a path for him through the stew of people. “This is all my fault. Stop it, please.”
The sword was cold against Vivaen’s cheek. Cold as death. Cold as her sister’s fingers slipping through her own. Cold as the wall of the pit where she’d hid herself as her sister screamed her name. Cold as Vivaen’s heart when she’d clamped her own hands over her mouth to hide her breathing.
You let them take Roewyn. You deserve this.
The cold vanished. Zioban pulled away and marched toward Djana. “I think not.”
He snapped his fingers and the slaves behind Djana grabbed her by her bound wrists and raised her to her feet. Her legs shook so much she almost fell back down.
Zioban whistled, nodding his head past Vivaen at the men behind Aurelius and Thanos. The slaves holding Thanos dragged him to standing. “Strip them.”
The Yirada swarmed below. Qanmi shouted madly at whoever he could. Ashtaroth stared up at them. Even from here, she could feel his horror. None of them were looking at Vivaen anymore. They were looking at Djana. At Thanos. A moment, balanced on a needle’s tip.
Vivaen felt weightless.
She heard clothes ripping, heard Djana sobbing, heard her choked cry, but she didn’t turn to look, she didn’t want to see.
Cold, long fingers reaching down into the pit, arms pulling her sister away. Sorry, she was so sorry. She was sorry that she’d wanted them to take her sister. She was sorry that she’d wanted the slaves to choose Djana and not her or Aurelius.
She twitched her numb fingers, imagining Aurelius touching them, his voice at her ear, his lips grazing her lips.
A stray arrow whizzed over their heads, missing its target.
Djana screamed. They forced her forward, to the very edge of the platform, piss sliding down her legs. To Djana’s right, Eaflied fainted.
The slaves at either side of Djana drew small knives against her face, level with her eyes.
If only Aurelius had fought back in the courtyard. If only they’d killed Djana and Eaflied then. It was better than this. Anything would have been better than this.
Djana squealed like a pig as they blinded her. Far to Vivaen’s left, Thanos cried out with her, enough that Vivaen knew he’d received the same treatment.
“We are many, and we are one!” Zioban backed away from Djana and raised their sword, pressing the tip against her back. They plunged it through her. “Many hands and one voice, many hands and one voice!”
“Many hands!” cried the slaves behind them. “One voice!”
Zioban drew the blade out and Djana’s body tumbled off the wall.
Vivaen stared as Djana fell. A cry burst from the people below as they scattered. To Vivaen’s left, Thanos’s corpse followed Djana’s.
Everyone in the gardens started running. And Ashtaroth—he ran toward the wall, toward where Djana and Thanos had fallen.
Vivaen swayed. She glanced at Eaflied lying unconscious on the stone. Was she dead too? Maybe they were all dead.
The big slave who’d been holding her in place backed away, soon followed by a chorus of beating feet as the slaves abandoned their charges. Vivaen twisted, looking for Zioban, but he’d already retreated the way he’d come.
Vivaen tensed. She flung herself backward, onto the ground, rolling again, pushing the gag with her tongue, pressing her jaw outward to dislodge it.
Aurelius had fallen onto his back, head laying to the side.
Dead dead dead.
Vivaen’s gag came free. She screamed as loud as she fucking could. “They’re in the tunnels! They’re under the ground! The door’s by the statue! They’re in the tunnels!” Her hands wouldn’t come free. She wormed toward Aurelius, ignoring the stinging in her knees. As she reached him, she collapsed onto his chest, sobbing, whispering nonsense into his deaf ears. He was still breathing, eyes closed now. Even if he opened them again, it wouldn’t be for long. Their secrets had been laid bare for all to see.