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Chapter 11: Mercenaries
Kirin – The Senate House: Lorar
The names of every senator who’d ever served the fidelia were scratched in gold into the poppy-red walls of the curia, immortalized in gilt and glory. As Kirin ascended the spiral stairs that ringed the interior of the tiered senate house, the names ascended with him in a continuous march. They blurred into each other, the gold inlay glowing orange where firelight illuminated the sharp corners of the letters, and with every glance a new set of names wedged themselves between the real ones: Ydelka, Petro, Thanus, Ibby, Edra, Oran. Their distorted reflections shone in a winding garland across the great obsidian statue of Lorius that towered at the centre of the curia, joined by the stretched faces of the living senators who crowded the balconies encircling the statue.
One day, a painter and a plasterer would carve Marianus and Yakov’s names into the upper walls and bathe them in gold, but Kirin was the only one who saw the hidden names emerge among those of the famed senators.
Ydelka . . . Oran.
In Kirin’s dreams, he saw her again: Ydelka, outlined in blood, her body cut into pieces and arranged in a grotesque pattern.
Vengeance had been denied Kirin, and his days were filled instead with drudgery. Every other day he guarded Marianus, and every other day he failed to fulfil his promise to spy well and carefully for Yakovius Lutelian Azizin. Kirin’s mind was preoccupied roaming desert sands in search of Oran, not worrying over the election and the war. It wasn’t right. A man of Lorar should grieve reservedly, not let his sadness consume him like a woman’s. He should be focused on Yakovius and Marianus. A citizen’s pain was individual, a nation’s pain catastrophic.
Yakov’s hem kissed the edges of the steps in front of Kirin, muddied white wrinkling against red-veined marble. Sweat soaked through the back of Yakov’s robe as he heaved up the stairs. Marianus marched calmly below Kirin, hemmed in on all sides by the remainder of his retinue, alive because Kirin had chosen to save him with that southern water. Yakovius and Marianus. Yakovius or Marianus.
In two weeks, one of them would be Pater.
Kirin couldn’t quite summon the energy to care.
Yakov fell into step beside Kirin as the chatter from Marianus’s retinue intensified. “Do you believe in evil, Kirin?”
Yakov’s question startled Kirin out of his daydream. The desert he’d been imagining shifted before him: sand piled tall enough to appear as mountains, and a monster with knotted hair and bloodied hands stalking its heights. Yes, he did believe in evil.
“In the south,” said Kirin. “In the dark, secret places of the world. Why?”
“Fucking typical,” Yakov said, but without the judgemental edge that he’d taken with Kirin in the past. After Oran had killed Ydelka, Yakov had softened.
Kirin glared ahead of him at the skirts of the robes of the other senators. “Are you going to tell me evil isn’t real? That it’s an invention of some conspiring senator? That evil is war?”
Yakov shook his head. “No. Of course evil is fucking real. It’s all around us. Evil is apathy, Kirin. Evil is the man who lives daily watching the suffering of others and doesn’t care. Evil is the spectators in the stadium, paying to see men die, and animals too.” He paused. “Did you ever fight a lion?”
Kirin shook his head, feeling rather apathetic himself. He cast a glance over his shoulder, looking down. The winding stairs hugged tightly to the wall, terminating at each level with a rounded landing that encircled the hollow at the centre of the curia. From where he stood on the stairs, he could barely see the circular floor below.
“Noble beasts,” Yakov continued, clearly happy to fill the empty air. “Did you ever wonder where they come from? They ship them all the way from the desert, which is pretty fucking far. All that to be starved and killed. Noble fucking things.” He paused, and Kirin looked away.
“You’re not going to tell me I’m a noble beast, are you?” Kirin swallowed. Yakov was a friend, and Kirin needed those right now. He tried to infuse his voice with good humour. “Because if this is a preamble to getting me to fuck you, it won’t work.”
Yakov hacked out a laugh. “You’d be so fucking lucky. What I was going to fucking say was that you’ve not an evil man. You’re not apathetic. It fucking hurts that your woman died, and maybe you think it’s you’re fucking fault, which it fucking isn’t by the way, but that hurt only means you cared for her, and the fact that you cared means you fucking feel something, that you’re not apathetic. And that, that makes you a noble fucking beast.”
Kirin snorted, but he was smiling all the same, for the first time in weeks. It was quick to fade. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Yakov.”
He’d never been frozen with inaction before and in the shadow of his grief found himself newly transformed till he was unrecognizable. His existence seemed defined by absence and drawn in negative. All he’d been capable of summoning the strength for was saving coin for Ydelka’s monument. What use were his savings now those fields she’d teased him with had vanished? Better to spend it on a marker. Someone, at least, would read Ydelka’s name and wonder who she’d been, this woman named for a hound.
“We do what we can to save what’s left.” Yakov raised his hand like he meant to pat Kirin’s shoulder, but then lowered it. With Marianus watching, they probably shouldn’t even be talking, but Marianus was locked in conversation and didn’t seem to be paying attention to anyone around him.
Snatches of that conversation nipped at Kirin’s ears: the army was preparing for a large strike in the Feislands, before Kemassen could send reinforcements; no one had worked more tirelessly than Marianus to ensure peace prevailed between the Masseni and the Lorai—hadn’t he sent his own nephew to treat with them? Thanos had delivered the Masseni the senate’s ultimatum: if Kemassen made a move to defend the Feislands, it would be war.
Only Kirin and Marianus both knew Thanos was dead, and that Marianus was responsible for his murder. How could Kirin and Yakov hope to stop a man with so long a reach? They’d been foolish to try.
“War is inevitable,” said Kirin.
“War is never inevitable.” Yakov snapped his thin fingers, staring into space. When he spoke again, it was hushed. “It happens because some fucking person, somewhere in some big fucking house, thinks it will be profitable. Until the election’s called, we still have a chance. If I can win, I can stop all this. The news I’m delivering to the senate today should be enough to make that happen.”
A cluster of Greys broke from the march of senators hiking up the steps and fell into place on one of the balconies overlooking the cavernous space at the heart of the curia. Kirin followed Tarkis Murinus with his gaze until the Pater of Lorar was swallowed by his people. The Greys always supported the Reds. Tarkis would support Marianus’s bid, and there were White Faction senators like Farnus Alba working for Marianus. Even Yakov’s Yellowers were turning on him. The news that Marianus had orchestrated his own nephew’s death, that he was plotting with Masseni slaves to concoct a pretext for war, wouldn’t matter to people like that.
Kirin gripped the hilt of his gladius. It, at least, was solid and true. “The man who shouts the loudest wins.”
Yakov scoffed. “Haven’t you heard me? I’m a screamer.”
It wouldn’t be enough to drown the voices of every senator under Marianus’s control, but Kirin bit back the thought. Maybe Yakov was right. “Are you still planning to bring it to the senate today? You know he’ll counter that you hired Oran.” Kirin had put out some feelers with his remaining contacts at the stadium to uncover whoever had really hired Oran, but his efforts had been wasted.
“We can’t wait,” said Yakov. “We have to trust the people to elect a Pater who doesn’t see murdering family as a legitimate route to power.”
Months ago, Kirin would have agreed without thinking. He wished he could be that man again. “The people want to feel safe. They want to know the threat of Kemassen isn’t looming over them.”
“And what better fucking way than to kill the man that casts the shadow?” Yakov shook his head. “Destroy Kemassen, and what? Conquer fear? Conquer death?”
Kirin slowed and turned his head, catching sight of Marianus, the man who very recently had conquered death. It still seemed unreal. “Maybe that’s exactly what Marianus wants to do,” he murmured.
Yakov halted at the last of the balconies on this side of the cylindrical tower. Kirin nearly trod on Yakov’s robes but sidestepped to avoid tripping either of them.
“I don’t know about the rest of Lorar, but I’m tired of shaping my actions around what Marianus Rufus wants.” They’d reached Yellow Faction’s balcony. Yakov met his eyes in a silent farewell before following the rest of his faction toward the banister overlooking the statue.
Basimus Drenda, a tall, portly man in pricey yellow and purple robes, turned and greeted Yakov, easing some of Kirin’s worry. Kirin had only seen him twice, and once at a great distance. He had an unnervingly unexpressive face, but a piercing stare. Though he stood at a distance from Kirin, Kirin couldn’t help but feel as though he were being watched.
How much about Kirin had Yakov told Kordelia’s family? Drenda might appreciate Kirin’s information, but it seemed just as likely he scorned him as a traitor.
Kirin fell into step with the Redders as naturally as he could. Air from the wind-tunnel that was the curia billowed their robes around their calves like tail feathers flowing in the breeze. Marianus held back, protected on all sides—an egg in its nest.
The black back of Lorius’s stallion mount gleamed white where the light hit it and the dance of names continued.
Ydelka . . . Oran. Oran.
Long, sturdy ropes brushed limply against Lorius’s statue, part of a pulley mechanism used to hoist masons when repairs were necessary. It must take a different kind of courage to be raised so high with only a narrow plank to support you.
The walkway curved and Kirin curved with it, refusing to look at the statue or the wall of names any longer. Tonight wasn’t about Oran or even Ydelka. It was about the fate of the city.
He led Marianus and the other Redders all the way around the landing to the balcony opposite the Yellow senators, then slipped to Marianus’s right, under the shadow of a pillar to stand watch as Marianus took position up against the banister. From here, he could see just enough of the senator’s expression to judge his mood. He watched as Marianus gripped tightly to the railing, as Marianus dipped his head left to listen as one of his men whispered something in his ear. He watched as Marianus laughed before swatting his fellow senator away, as Marianus’s grandfatherly smile faded and his expression flattened, as Marianus stared across the gaping hollow of the curia toward where Yakovius Lutelian was standing.
The senator gripped the rail so tight his knuckles were blotchy. His eyes looked nearly black. Kirin had occasionally seen men with eyes like that back on the arena sands. Dead eyes. Inhuman eyes.
But had Marianus always looked that way, or was this the water’s doing? In stories—and Marianus put a lot of faith in stories—prizes like resurrection always came with a cost.
No, Marianus either wasn’t a monster now, or he always had been. The plots Kirin had uncovered proved that.
Glory to Lorius for ensuring Basimus Drenda stood beside Yakov as protector.
A senator’s racket rattled far below, calling for attention, the sound echoing all the way to Kirin’s ears. The chatter of the curia rumbled to an end, and the senate stuttered off their chairs to their collective feet.
Kirin leaned forward till he could see Tarkis Murinus brandishing his racket. The Pater stood tall at the head of the balcony dedicated to the ruling party. The Greys’ platform was lower than those belonging to the current candidates, but it extended much further into the hollow centre of the building. It was small, which drew attention to it, and more Greys than Whites crowded the other balconies. The power wielded by the ruling party couldn’t be dismissed. If Yakov could win the election for Yellow Faction, it would mean everything.
“Attend your Pater!” The curia scribe called into the newborn quiet.
Kirin straightened. Whatever he thought of the Greys, or of Marianus and his scheming, Kirin was a man of Lorar. Respect for one’s Pater beat in his blood.
Tarkis was an older man, balding and thin. His eyes were grey storm clouds, and when he turned them on you it was hard not to whither. His voice was chilled and powerful, like a beast restrained.
“Grave days lie ahead,” Tarkis began. “A deluge has soaked the fatherland in blood and flooded our fields. King Ossa’s men plunge ever eastward, forcing the people in our western colonies and cities to flee or die.” He cleared his throat. “And I come with still worse news. Our calls for peace have been rebuked. Kemassen has murdered and maimed one of our sacred sons.”
From across the room, Yakov started some of his promised yelling. “And I suppose Lorius descended from on-fucking-high to impart this information, did he? How do you know what happened?”
Tarkis answered from below, not looking up at Yakov, but outward at the other Greys and Whites. “Because Kemassen wanted us to know.”
The doors of the curia thudded dimly, followed by the echoing scurry and scrape of loadbearing footsteps. Kirin approached the banister and leaned over as far as he dared. The height was dizzying.
Six men hulked a wooden sarcophagus inside the senate house. They laid it down beneath Lorius’s shadow before attaching it to the hoists used by the masons. The ropes squeaked as they grew taut from the weight and the sarcophagus was pulleyed slowly upwards.
“Thanos Rufus, ambassador to Kemassen, has been slaughtered and mutilated by the enemy.” Tarkis’s words accompanied the squeak and whine of the pulley as the sarcophagus journeyed ceilingward. Senators clogged the balconies, shoving to get a glimpse of the body, but drawing back upon its revelation. “His was no noble death, but one intended to dishonour. I must tell you his story, for it is important.”
Stories again. Kirin was weary of stories.
The corpse spiraled upwards, first an ivory-white speck in Kirin’s vision, but growing clearer with each tug of the ropes. At first it had seemed one singular shape, but the body had been disassembled like Tarkis had said. The rusty brown of dried blood caked the edges of Thanos’s severed limbs.
The faint but familiar smell of death followed.
The body creaked closer. In pieces, it was so like Ydelka’s.
A chill rolled over Kirin and he pulled away, anchoring himself by staring across at the Yellow balcony, where Yakov stood watching the inexorable rise of the corpse.
“While Thanos Rufus ought to have received a diplomat’s hospitality, he was instead dragged to the Masseni admiral in chains,” continued Tarkis.
On the balcony opposite, a slave tapped Basimus Drenda’s shoulder and the Yellow senator bent to listen. A moment later, he exchanged a quick word with Yakov and then disappeared with a handful of slaves. Worry bubbled in Kirin’s belly.
Beside Kirin, Marianus’s fellow Redders crowded their leader, patting assurances and whispering comforts as Marianus stared impassively out the spectacle. He seemed only vaguely to be watching the body, his real attention pinned on Basimus as the senator hurried down the winding stairs. A smirk tugged at his lips—subtle, but Kirin caught it.
Yakov didn’t seem bothered—how could he not see something was drastically wrong?
“The Massena bitch tempted Thanos with gold and power and magic, and when he refused her that third time she offered her soft, fleshy body,” announced Tarkis, and all Kirin could hear was Marianus’s voice speaking the words. It was Marianus’s cadence Tarkis mimicked, Marianus’s diction he copied. It was a script composed by Marianus’s hand.
Kirin glanced again across the hollow. He could make it to Yakov’s side in so short a time. He tapped his leg, anxious to move, but if he did, Marianus would know Kirin had betrayed him. It might cost Kirin his life and, worse, it might cost Yakov the election.
“But she forgot that men of Lorar are not like southern rats,” said Tarkis, “and he resisted her. The she-witch sent Thanos home to Lorar to tell his tale, but before he left she made him promise he would return to Zimrida to report Lorar’s words to her. Thanos was an honourable man, and he agreed to return, though he knew it would mean his death by her hand.”
For a moment, Tarkis’s story captured him. Himala, the Massena princess who used spells to command her father, and who suckled serpents at her breast and between her legs. Another monster, just like Oran.
Gasps of unease erupted from the Red Faction senators bursting at the banisters to gaze upon Thanos’s corpse. Kirin could have melted into the pillar against which he stood. He pressed himself as hard as he could into the stone.
“Thanos returned to Lorar, and here I met with him, and he told me what had happened. I offered him help; I told him a pledge made to a rat is no pledge at all, but his nobility was greater than an old man’s reasoning.”
“Or common sense!” Yakov cut in. His commentary was met with shushes and hissing from the balconies, including from Yellow Faction’s own.
When Tarkis took his speech back up his voice rang all the louder. “He sailed back to Zimrida and for his courage he was rewarded an agonizing, ignoble end. Thanos was beaten. He was whipped and then shut up in a metal box full of spines and left in burning darkness, for they had placed the metal box in the sun. Once he’d been driven mad in this prison they took him out again and cut off his eyelids and forced him to stare into the sun until he was blinded.”
Rotten stink wafted in invisible clouds from below, accompanied by the buzz of flies, a mixture of burnt and decomposing flesh. Kirin gagged, holding his fist to his nose and lips. He’d smelled death many times, yet the stench of it never got easier. The characteristic sweetness underlying the smell of char was like perfume daubed on a latrine.
The sarcophagus rose to just below eye-level as Tarkis’s story came to its gruesome end, so that it was impossible for Kirin not to see. Up close, at least, the differences between Ydelka’s body and Thanos’s were obvious. His eyes were shriveled black stones, barely visible in his skull, and what had looked like limbs when the body had been far away became lumpen, yellowish mounds up close. What remained of his skin was blackened, pock-marked with a pink so red it seemed obscenely alive. There was a sunken quality to his torso, but even in its dismemberment, here and there lay the signs of a vicious attack: stab wounds and slashes that cut into bone. Having reached the end of its journey, the sarcophagus spun languidly on its ropes.
Kirin lowered his fist from his nose. Except for Marianus, all the Redders had backed away, foolishly thinking a few feet would be enough to escape the smell. Marianus hugged the banister. He looked troubled, but Kirin couldn’t shake the impression that every display of grief was only performance.
If Thanos had really died the way Tarkis had described, it was Marianus who’d commanded the deed done. Kirin bit his lip as he stared at the body. It seemed a vigil was the least he could do, for yet another man who’d met his end at Marianus’s command.
“And so Thanos died,” said Tarkis. “Lorar and Kemassen cannot both survive. Kemassen must be destroyed. This is the enemy we face, fellow senators; these are the people Yellow Faction would have us pardon.” He paused. “Marianus Rufus, can you confirm for your fellow senators that the body is that of your beloved nephew?”
Marianus didn’t answer right away. He hung his head and briefly closed his eyes as though in reflection before opening them and pointing an accusing finger at the corpse. “His ring. I recognize it.” He shuddered bodily, then rolled his shoulders as though to shake off his horror. “This is Kemassen’s message to us. This her war-cry, and it is fierce and terrible.”
“Then it is clear what we must do,” said Tarkis. “Much as the decision grieves us.”
“Then don’t make it,” spat Yakov. He leaned over the banister to speak directly to Tarkis on the balcony below and Kirin’s stomach dropped.
One push. It would take only one push. The Yellowers swarming around Yakov weren’t friendly, didn’t he see that? Basimus Drenda must have been lured away—
Tarkis barely looked up. “You are a disturbance, Yakovius Lutelian, and you forget yourself. The Greys still rule here, and if we choose, we can have you removed, following or no. Some misguided pocket of miscreants might make noise, but it will be a chirp compared with what you’ll face if you don’t hold your tongue.”
Kirin was halfway through pulling away from the pillar and making for the balcony exit toward Yakov, but then Yakov jerked himself away from the banister and to safety.
“If I held my tongue, you Grey bastard,” said Yakov. “I’d be fuck-all use as a senator and fuck-all use to you.” He spread his arms, inviting the attention of the curia. “Can none of you see the lie in what Marianus is saying? I thought at least some of you had fucking sense, but Lorar’s obviously in more trouble than previously fucking imagined.”
From below, a senatorial racket rattled, but Kirin couldn’t see who brandished it. A Whiter maybe? “Then tell us, where is the lie?” asked the unknown senator.
This was what Yakov had been waiting for, surely, only neither Kirin nor Yakov had predicted the spectacle of Thanos’s corpse, nor the visceral reaction it had evoked.
Yakov thrust his finger at Marianus. “This man, Marianus Rufus, has lied to us all. He conspired with Masseni slaves to have his own nephew murdered, all so he could put on this sad show and convince you to make war on Kemassen. That corpse,” he waggled his finger, “that grotesque fucking thing. Marianus is responsible. He did that to his own kin. What else would he do, to get what he wants? Is any of you as close to him as Thanos Rufus? No? Then I’d be fucking worried.”
Squeak-whine. The sarcophagus swayed in the wind but didn’t tip.
It was so quiet, but not in the way Kirin had hoped. It was as though the curia had taken a collective shrug.
Then, Marianus laughed. “A fine story.” He clapped.
“Where is your proof?” This time, the question came from one of Yakov’s Yellowers. Kirin recognized Potbelly from the tavern where Kirin and Ydelka had sat listening to the traitors conspiring.
Briefly, Yakov met Kirin’s gaze, but he tore his attention away quickly. Kirin’s heartbeat raced. If Yakov gave him up, he’d likely be killed.
He swallowed. It was a death he would happily accept if it brought Marianus’s crimes to light. He stepped out of the shadows, right up against the banister. He swallowed the saliva that pooled in his mouth. He’d never spoken in front of so many people. Stabbing and slashing and drinking up the praise of the crowds in the arena—that he could do, and happily, but this? It threatened to make a coward of him.
Kirin was no coward.
“Far—” Kirin started to speak Farnus’s name, but Yakov’s voice rang out like a bell, the loudest Kirin had heard it, cutting Kirin off, and drowning him out.
“Farnus Alba met with Marianus and was party to the plot!” Yakov bellowed.
Fuck. What was Yakov doing? Keeping Kirin from proving his honour, that was what, all to the detriment of his own case. Kirin could at least have corroborated the story.
“He’s Marianus’s go-between with a Masseni slave named Zioban,” Yakov explained. “In exchange for being promised the governorship of Kemassen once the city falls, Zioban agreed to murder our favoured fucking son and send the body back to us.”
“Farnus?” called Marianus. He made a show of leaning over the banister, searching for Farnus’s face on the balconies below. He snorted. “The man’s not even here! Should we wait for his return so you can make your case? By the time he arrives, the Masseni will have stormed our walls and slit all our throats, but please, do continue with your baseless accusations.”
“Then tell the curia how it is you do plan to win this war,” cried Yakov. “Tell them about the money Grey Faction’s been helping you funnel south to build warships without the permission of the senate. Tell them about the land you’ve promised Zioban’s slaves.”
Mentioning Grey Faction had been a mistake. Kirin could practically feel Tarkis Murinus bristling with the rest of his Faction. Yakov had to be desperate to bring it up.
Marianus worried his hands around the banister railing. He leaned forward, brow hard and strong. The face of a man comfortable doling out hard but necessary truths. A man other men followed. A man Kirin had followed. “Elements within Kemassen have indeed proved traitorous to King Aesmun, but it is not they who have killed my nephew. No. This Zioban has offered us a way past Kemassen’s walls.”
The curia started speaking all at once: “Which elements are these, and how do they propose to do us this so-called favour?” “What do they expect in return?” “We can’t trust them.”
Marianus raised his hands to fend off the barrage of questions, voice calm. He was a man used to command, used to being looked to for reassurance. “Senators please, all will be explained. My spies in Kemassen tell me there is opposition to Aesmun’s reign. The slaves of the city have been willing to foment that opposition and will even accept a man of Lorar on the throne in his place. These are not Masseni rats we are talking about; many of our allies are Lorai themselves, or Vetish. They are closer to us than to their masters, and their numbers have been bolstered by our very own loyal men.” He paused. “I have worked with White Faction colleagues to ship refugees southward, posing as slaves. These men have lost their homes to Ossa’s savages—they’ll fight harder and better than any Masseni warriors, because they fight for the very soul of Lorar. They will ensure that Kemassen’s walls open themselves to our soldiers.”
The refugees. So that was why Marianus had shipped them south. There was something just and satisfying about the plan, something that shook even Kirin’s certainty.
“What of these tunnels?” Tarkis asked. His tone was more curious than judging.
None of them cared that Marianus was admitting at least half of Yakov’s accusations were true.
“All things in time. I have been informed by the slaves that they have access to a network of tunnels beneath the city, some of which lead to the ocean. Should we take them up on their offer, these slaves will meet a party of our soldiers and guide them beyond Kemassen’s walls while our navy distracts their masters. With Hadrianus’s Indasi forces approaching from the West and our own men attacking from within, Kemassen will fall. All the slaves ask in return is their freedom and a place in our new government. When we rebuild Kemassen, they will be allowed to approve our choice of governor.”
“Then Kemassen is to be left standing?” asked a Whiter.
Why shouldn’t it be? Kirin almost snorted. There were good reasons why Lorar had left Ipsis and its sister cities whole. Wasn’t it better to make use of Kemassen’s defences and fields? The Masseni could still be relied on to reap the harvest and bring in the catch.
Kirin paled, staring at Marianus. The senator’s eyes didn’t gleam exactly, but burned blacker still, seeming to suck the light inside of them.
“Kemassen is to be burned,” said Marianus, “her temples raised, her fleet destroyed, her people put to the sword or led away in irons. Tarkis is right: Kemassen poses too great a threat. Their symbol is the phoenix, a most indomitable animal if the stories are to be believed. How can we trust her not to rise again? But even the phoenix can be killed if you take away its roosts and its worms. When we are done and the Masseni are exterminated, we will sow her soil with salt. Not a man or woman or child can remain to rekindle the bird’s flame.”
Smoke. Smoke in Kirin’s nose, and the woman with her blue rubaki and her yellow starlight hair kneeling in the grass and pulling him up up up—
Kirin balled his hand into a fist and steadied himself against the pillar. He pushed back the—the dream, whatever it was.
“Then what do we give these slaves?” asked a Grey senator from one of the lower balconies.
“Anything,” answered Marianus. “Anything, because Kemassen is the old enemy, and we are in dire need. Promise them land in Indas, promise them land in Vetna, promise them land in the Aeskomaeni wastes! Promise them whatever it takes, and when enough time has passed we can rebuild a city of our own on the southern shore, and if they would return, the freedmen can populate it. Once the Masseni are gone, none will dare stand against us, not even the wild men of the west. Lorar will stretch from the Helit Sea across the face of the earth.”
To the ends of the earth.
“And how are we to keep and hold Kemassen?” Yakov stewed, but he wasn’t beaten. He held his head high, scanning the balconies circling this topmost level of the curia. “Marianus will tell you that if we wage war, Luciferus and Hadrianus will come to our aid, but Luciferus and Hadrianus haven’t set foot in Lorar since—”
One of the Yellowers—Longnose—shoved Yakov to the side. “I can’t keep silent any longer! The words of Yakovius Lutelian are poisoned! He claims Marianus murdered his beloved nephew, while he hires southerners to murder his opponent.” Longnose lowered his head. He made fists of his hands and held them out, as though pleading to be bound. “He threatened my family and forced me to act as a go-between with the Anouti killer who attacked Marianus. He conspired to have the Anouti accepted into Marianus’s household, to get close to him, so that Yakovius Lutelian Azizin could face a much lesser Red candidate in the election. When the plot failed, and Marianus was saved by the bravery of good, honest, Lorai men, he concocted this foolish plan to blame Marianus for Thanos’s death.”
Yakov stared. He looked frightened. Kirin had warned him this would happen. They’d both known it would. But the reality was different. The senate had been entirely unmoved by Yakov’s information and had even seemed swayed by Marianus’s strategy to take Kemassen.
Eventually Yakov snorted. “That’s a lie. No one knows who hired that man, if anyone did.”
A senatorial racket sounded. The voice of Tarkis Murinus echoed all the way to the upper balconies. Kirin could feel it rattling his bones. “Serious accusations to lay at the feet of a senator.”
Kirin’s heart beat hard in his throat. Tarkis saw through it. Yakov had the Pater on his side!
“Serious accusations,” Marianus echoed, “with a witness behind them. Yakovius has no witness to this manufactured treachery of mine, yet I allowed him to stand and be heard.”
The men on the Yellow balcony fidgeted, whispering back and forth.
They were blocking Yakov’s retreat. They choked the exit to the stairs with their bodies, but Yakov was paying too much attention to Marianus and Tarkis to have noticed.
Kirin hurried from the Red balcony, marching, then jogging, around the curve. He didn’t have time to check whether Marianus had noticed his disappearance. Yakov was in danger. Kirin’s instincts screamed it.
“Indeed,” agreed Tarkis. Though loud, his voice sounded very far away. “And it is for that reason and that I, Tarkis Murinus, Pater of the great city of Lorar, see no other recourse but to strip Yakovius Azizin of his senatorship immediately, for the duration of the inquiry into his guilt.”
Kirin almost stopped but didn’t. He ran toward the Yellow balcony.
Yakov had finally noticed that his fellow Yellowers had hemmed him in. He shoved them, struggling to squeeze through the press of bodies. Potbelly and Longnose grabbed his upper arms, fixing him in place.
“Let go of me!” Yakov yelled.
Tarkis ignored Yakov and continued. “In his absence, does Yellow Faction nominate a new leader to stand against Marianus Rufus in the upcoming election?” He paused. “Where is Basimus Drenda?”
Gone. Gone. Gone. Basimus Drenda was absent. He couldn’t take on the role of opposition. He couldn’t stand for Yakov.
That was all on Kirin.
“He left, Heron,” called Potbelly.
“In his absence, and following our great shame,” shouted Squeaker—another of the tavern conspirators, “Yellow Faction abdicates its right to candidacy.” He bowed his head. “Marianus Rufus stands unopposed. We gratefully relinquish the Patership to a true man of Lorar.”
The curia buzzed with chatter. The sound corkscrewed up the curia, a vortex of noise. Kirin wanted to scream, but he held it in. Screaming, it turned out, helped no one.
Yakov elbowed Longnose in the chin and his captor released him. But there was no opening given, and the Yellowers backed Yakov further and further onto the balcony, till he was right up against the banister.
“He’s going to fall!” someone screamed from below.
The Yellowers ignored the curia as Reds, Greys, and Whites alike started shouting. The Yellow senators pressed in on Yakov. He was too far away for Kirin to reach—too far for Kirin to get to before he toppled from the balcony and busted his brains against Lorius’s statue.
The sarcophagus swayed back and forth. That pulley—it had been enough to handle the weight of both coffin and corpse. Could it handle the weight of two more men?
Yakov glanced in a panic over his shoulder.
Kirin met his eyes.
He backed up all the way against the curia wall. He ran. He jumped.
For an instant, Kirin was weightless, sailing through the air, arms spinning, and then his boots thudded onto the sarcophagus, crushing jellied remains like Thanos was nothing but liquid. The sarcophagus swayed chaotically, out of Kirin’s control, soaring toward the centre of the curia, right above Lorius statue.
Men were screaming. Marianus was screaming. Yakov screamed, crushed up against the banister.
The floor of the curia spun in Kirin’s vision, senators scurrying out the curia doors like mice. What they were afraid would happen was anyone’s guess. He wobbled, grabbed the ropes to steady himself.
The sarcophagus swung left in its arc, toward Yakov’s balcony. Toward where Longnose was pulling, tugging, pushing, pressing. To where Yakov seemed to be falling in slow motion.
And Kirin—Kirin tipped his weight to the left, forcing the sarcophagus closer. Yakovius was falling. He was falling, so close, so close—
Kirin snatched him, looping his free arm under Yakov’s armpit and around his waist. The senator flailed in his arms, threatening to drag Kirin down with him, but Kirin heaved him close, half-lifting half-dragging Yakov over the lip of the sarcophagus.
The ropes swung wildly, veering toward the Red Faction balcony, then back again—a pendulum.
Kirin closed his eyes and breathed quietly—in out, in out.
Squeak-whine. The sarcophagus slumped suddenly lower, the rope struggling to bear the weight of three men and a box.
Yakov wouldn’t stop screaming. His legs started to give out, but Kirin forced him to keep standing. He needed to stop Yakov panicking, or they’d tip over.
“You smell like shit.” Kirin tried to keep his voice steady, but even his voice trembled.
“That’s because I fucking shit myself, shit-for-brains.” But he laughed, the force of it shaking his shoulders, racketing through his diaphragm. He buried his head in Kirin’s chest. His nails dug into Kirin’s back.
“Someone do something!” Marianus called from the Red balcony.
The rope slouched again, the sudden descent sending a jolt through Kirin. He swallowed. He forced himself not to look down. “I’m going to try and swing us toward one of the balconies. Can you move with me when I say so?”
“Yakov.” Kirin patted his back. “Can you move with me?”
“Yes, I can fucking move with you. And then I’m going to fucking fall because I’m not a fucking athlete.”
Kirin shifted his weight. “I promise you won’t fall.”
The rope gave another few inches.
“Yakov.” Kirin hefted them both forward, then back. The sarcophagus started to swing. The bits of body beneath Kirin and Yakov’s feet squelched and cracked.
“Catch them!” yelled Marianus. Was it a call to lend aid, or to stop them escaping? Kirin didn’t have time to analyze the command for nuance.
“Once we get high enough, I’m going to jump. I need you to jump with me,” Kirin instructed.
Yakov was breathing very hard, but he nodded. “Yes. Jump. Yes.”
The sarcophagus arced left, above the balcony just below Yellow Faction’s. Kirin bent his knees, readying himself. Closer, closer—just a little closer.
“Put it down!” someone screamed.
Kirin looked up.
One of the Yellowers had a sword.
The rope snapped before Kirin could register exactly what had happened and sarcophagus plummeted, veering sharply right till it bashed against Lorius’s obsidian statue. Kirin lost his footing, skidding with Yakov still clinging to him, slipping toward the edge of the sarcophagus. His feet scrabbled for purchase, palm burning as the rope bit into his skin. Bits of body slouched toward the edge along with them, gathering on the unbalanced side of the coffin in a sludgy heap.
Kirin grabbed the ropes and Yakov grabbed him.
The remaining ropes whined. The sound was nearly a hum.
“We’re not going to fall,” Kirin said, as much to himself as to Yakov.
“Lower the fucking thing!” Tarkis commanded. The Pater’s balcony was above them now—had they really fallen so far?
Not only the ground was spinning now, but the ceiling too.
The ropes creaked.
Slaves rushed to base of the pulley, gradually lowering it. It wasn’t fast enough—it wasn’t.
Kirin’s arms ached from supporting both his and Yakov’s weight. His feet slipped, boots slimy with rotten flesh and melted fat. He’d drop them before they made it to the floor. He’d drop them, and in doing so, he’d destroy any hope the senate had of maintaining its integrity.
Kirin closed his eyes and prayed.
The ropes slid around and around, up and down, as the pulley did its work.
If they fell, there was one last thing Kirin could do, a way to prove himself. He’d hold Yakov tight, try to protect him as they fell.
“This is—” Yakov was crying. “Shit, this is shit.”
Kirin clung to the rope, palm burning. “Yakov, I need you to hold onto the ropes. Let go of me and hold onto the ropes.”
Yakov pried his shaking right hand from Kirin, reached out, and grabbed the rope.
Some of the weight eased off Kirin, then more, as Yakov freed his left hand. Kirin kept one arm around Yakov’s waist. “I’ve still got you,” he said. “Just hold on.”
“T-this was all some elaborate, f-fucking plan, wasn’t it?” Yakov stuttered.
Kirin managed a snort. They were halfway to the floor. The drop still far enough to kill them.
“What gave you that idea?” Kirin asked.
Yakov huffed. “N-not Marianus’s plan. Yours. You j-just wanted to get up close with me.”
Real laughter rocked Kirin’s body. “I can think of easier ways to do that.”
The ropes groaned. Kirin tensed. The slaves lowering the sarcophagus worked faster as they drew nearer the ground.
Squeak-whine. Squeak-whine. Squeak-whine.
The eyes of every senator on the balconies were fixed on Kirin. The senators’ expressions were frozen in horror like hollow-mouthed theatre masks.
Squeak-whine, squeak-whine. Squeak-whine.
Faces blurred as the sarcophagus rushed past the balconies, an image out of nightmares. Ydelka’s dead face seemed plastered onto each and every one of the spectators.
Marianus might kill him for this. Kirin couldn’t even say he cared.
He held Yakov tighter.
Kirin’s grip was stuck around the rope and about Yakov, but as soon as they hit the ground, Yakov slumped against him.
Slaves and senators stared. No one seemed to know what to do about the slave who’d just risked his life to save his master’s enemy, and if Marianus had anything to say about it, Kirin couldn’t hear him from all the way down here.
When he looked up, the weight of Lorar seemed to bear down on him. Their judgement pinned him in place.
The senators on the ground floor milled around him, clapping him on the shoulder. Two slaves peeled Yakov from him, freeing Kirin of the burden. Somewhere distant, Tarkis Murinus was barking orders. Yakov was to be kept under house arrest.
Kirin didn’t have the strength to go after Yakov, only to stand, clinging to the rope, waiting to be hauled away and beaten.
Then someone far up—perhaps Marianus himself—rattled his racket. The sound was taken up by the rest of the senators, till the whole curia was waving.
Kirin swallowed, drowning in what he couldn’t interpret as anything but praise.
Despite the distance, Marianus’s voice rained upon him. “My man, Kirin! The Ripper of Feis! See how merciful is Red Faction’s justice, that even our servants leap to the defense of respected enemies!”
Standing in Lorius’s shadow, Marianus’s voice might as well have been the god shouting to Kirin from the heavens.