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Chapter 14: Lovers
Iridescia – The Court on the Hill: Ipsis: Indas
Before Melqan’s conversion, Iridescia had read, marriages had been celebrated in the streets in the days following the spring harvest. Betrothed couples would be shuffled to the market by their families, and the whole city would feast and toast to the new matches, as they toasted the prosperity of the crops.
Common people celebrated their marriages quietly these days, behind closed doors where they would be free from the prying eyes of Star’s spies. In secret, couples whispered prayers to Tanata, brides painted their faces blue and yellow to draw down the goddess’s blessing, and grooms threaded their hair with the coins that constituted the bridewealth paid to Ipsis’s hidden priests and the groom’s new in-laws.
On this, Star’s wedding night to the man Iridescia now knew to be her dead brother, there was no need for bridewealth. There was no call for Liberio to thread his wine-dark hair with coins. There were no Ashenqa of Tanata to bless the marriage. And the only colour with which Star’s slaves had stained their mistress’s cheeks was Lora-white to represent her entry into Hadrianus’s White Faction household.
From morning until night, Iridescia had been pinned to Star’s side, forced to watch the grim spectacle of Star’s slaves prettying her up for her wedding.
Aunt Star had practically chained Iridescia to her side since the events in the Haven. The only times she could escape were when Star banished her from the room to hold private meetings, or when Star visited Hadrianus in his chambers. Slaves hugged Iridescia like ducklings did their mother if she so much as ventured from one room to another. Always, there was the threat of hidden eyes watching her.
The latest threat though, was marriage.
Star had insisted it wouldn’t be long before Iridescia was ready, something she said was to both their advantages, now that the vizier had seen how the spirits obeyed her grandniece.
Bloodlines had to continue, Star had lectured, lest they become blood ponds.
Iridescia was arrayed in the finest gold and jewels she’d ever worn, her braids bound and tied with gold ribbon, the fringes of her sheer dress outlined in gold, with gold embellishment on the red patterns on its surface, and gold straps on her sandals—fit to be wed herself.
And so Iridescia stood in the middle of the crowd of guests, packed tight against her wealthy suitor.
Mazaetul eq-Qapussa, a rich landlord and steadfast supporter of Hadrianus, towered next to her, as wide around as he was tall. She’d measured earlier, in her imagination, and she was certain she could fit two and a half Iridescias inside one Mazaetul.
He looked a bull, with a drunkard’s ruddy cheeks. He had clever, kindly eyes though, and his short curly hair boasted only a scattered few grey strands
Iridescia hugged her arms, trying hard as she could not to graze her bare elbow against his arm.
As Iridescia watched, he disappeared another of his rings between his chubby fingers, making it reappear in his opposite hand. He’d been showing Iridescia magic tricks since they’d arrived, unable to understand her hand signs. He didn’t seem a bad man, if Iridescia had to marry anyone, but she shuddered at the thought of his skin touching hers.
All the rich men and women of the city had been invited to the courthouse on the hill, and there was food and drink in abundance for those who attended (and everyone who was invited attended).
A long, rectangular table divided the centre of the room, hiding the pool of eels from view, but no matter how hard they tried to disguise it, the darkness lurked underneath, ever-present. The moonlight slanting inside from the skylight only seemed to mark the danger more deeply, though the light itself was delicate and beautiful—auspicious, surely, whether you worshipped blessed Adonen or heathen Tanata.
Hadrianus sat at the head of the table beside Deghashi. As Iridescia peered past the guests crowding in front of her, the little king gleefully smashed his cup against the surface of the table. He cackled joyfully as wine splashed onto the clothes of his neighbours.
Mazaetul nudged Iridescia with his elbow. She turned from watching Deghashi and looked up at her jolly suitor. Mazaetul wiggled his own goblet before vanishing it.
Iridescia smiled, transported briefly. Mazaetul was a lot like Miqipsi, with his grins and his games. He winked and the cup reappeared in Iridescia’s hand. She pretended to giggle, covering her false laughter with her hand, and trying as best she could to let him distract her from her sadness.
Tonight, Liberio became Star’s husband, and when Deghashi was inevitably declared unfit to provide an heir, Star and her puppet would reign in Indas. Star’s sons would reign after.
What difference did that make really? Star and Hadrianus were already king and queen; they already tormented and terrified the people, snuffing out hope where they found it and murdering and raping at will.
But there was Roewyn, and there was Liberio. Star would be a monster to him, and Roewyn was in more danger than ever.
Iridescia twirled Mazaetul’s glazed quartz goblet between her fingers, creating a vortex in what remained of the wine.
“Drink up, tiny doll,” said Mazaetul. “I’ll fill another.”
He dragged his thumb softly but firmly down Iridescia’s cheek. She flinched away, but he didn’t pursue her. Instead, he hurried toward the nearest wine-bearing slave.
Iridescia’s heart juddered in her chest. She tried hard as she could to banish the feel of his finger and replace it with something happier, someone wanted—
Iridescia gripped the cup tight and swiftly downed the wine.
There was barely a mouthful left, but it choked her. Instead of the rich red, she tasted the stagnant black water of the Haven.
She spit the wine back into the cup. Then, like she was expelling a demon, she tipped the goblet upside down and let the dregs paint the floor.
A splash of wine stained her sandal and she smirked to herself. She hoped Tobi and her other slaves never got it out. She hoped the sandal was ruined. She hoped she somehow ruined all her fine clothes and Star was out every coin she’d spent on them.
Hadrianus stood up, his chair scraping the stone floor. He raised his cup, grin wide as always, charming and handsome. He laughed and swigged his wine like a wild man, then slammed the cup down on the table.
Beside him, Deghashi started to cry.
Mazaetul squeezed back into place next to Iridescia, sloshing wine left and right onto the floor. He spun his finger, indicating that Iridescia should hold her cup upright. Iridescia fumbled to right her goblet, only just raising it in time to catch the wine he poured for her.
“Tonight, my son becomes a man,” Hadrianus boomed from the head of the court, “and Deghashi, King of all Indas, proclaims an heir. It would be wrong, though many of you have counselled me to do so, for me to take the throne for myself. A man of Indas should reign in Indas, as Lorar has always promised.”
Iridescia’s mouth was dry as the desert. She tipped back a hearty swig of the red, and this time she kept it down.
Mazaetul roared in agreement beside her. His bellow startled a few of the more refined guests.
Beyond the surprised nobles, Miqipsi met her eyes and smiled. The scribe’s kindness did little to ease her jitters though. Miqipsi had betrayed Tobi’s family. Iridescia couldn’t trust him anymore. Whatever she said to him he’d repeat to Hadrianus, or Star, or to Marianus Rufus in far-off Lorar.
It felt like centipedes crawled along her veins.
She had to tell someone about Liberio and about what Star had done. Miqipsi was the only person she had besides Roewyn and Liberio. Telling either of them wasn’t something she was prepared for yet—how did you tell your secret brother he was both dead and your secret brother? How did you break the news to his lover? Star had told her something bad would happen to Liberio if he found out. It might be a lie, but could she risk it? Miqipsi was a neutral party, and from what she’d overheard the day she’d spied on him in the Haven, he knew about the black water and what it could do.
Iridescia’s fingers were sweaty around her cup. She tipped back a larger gulp.
Who to confide in was a decision for another day. She didn’t have to choose now.
She held Miqipsi’s gaze with her own, then signed to him discretely. “Where’s Liberio?”
Miqipsi cast a wary glance in Hadrianus’s direction before replying. “Outside, little one. He’s with the vizier.”
Iridescia made a face, not wanting to know what that might mean. She wasn’t sure which part disgusted her the most, that Liberio was dead or that Star was Star. She frowned to herself.
“Our empires are friends, no?” Hadrianus met Iridescia’s gaze. She shivered, but he nodded in turn at several of the other guests. He hadn’t been directing the question at her.
“Then what better union to represent our friendship than one of love?” he continued. “Our beloved vizier is a woman of Indas, born and bred, and my son, Lora-born, but raised here. A perfect match, to herald a new age. May their sons reign long and true in Ipsis, and friendship remain between our peoples!”
Could Star even bear children at her age? Could Liberio, now that it turned out he was a ghost?
Yet Star had been insistent. Maybe it was because he was a ghost that she wanted to—
The thought turned like a worm inside Iridescia’s belly.
Hadrianus’s toy courtiers parroted his words back to him. “May friendship remain!” There was no man or woman at the table who didn’t lift their cup obediently toward the heavens.
No man or woman except Iridescia.
She looked up at fat old Mazaetul and wondered at his merry expression, whether he really believed that Liberio’s marriage promised a golden age for Indas. Most of them knew better, Iridescia gleaned from their tight smiles, but Mazaetul seemed to genuinely trust the governor’s claims.
It was frightening that there were those who actually liked Hadrianus.
Iridescia rolled her braids absentmindedly, loosening the complicated hairdo the slaves had given her. The strands of fine gold cloth came undone, turning limp as dead eels in her fingers. Iridescia fumbled to tie them back into place.
A hand wrapped about her wrist, gentle but firm.
Mazaetul was smiling down at her. “I like a woman’s hair loose.”
The blood beat hard and fast beneath her skin as tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes.
He was just being kind. Only kind and showing interest like people did when they thought you were a good match. If Iridescia were more like how girls were supposed to be, she’d have probably been happy to have someone friendly and rich at her side. But Iridescia wasn’t the way girls were supposed to be, and his touch burned like a brand.
When at last Mazaetul released her, she rubbed her wrist.
She’d lost sight of Miqipsi in the crowd.
“Liberio eq-Hadrianus and Star et-Sibella,” Hadrianus announced.
The faces of the guests turned as one to stare at the wedded couple, who entered the room with their hands linked between them. Moonshine dusted the tops of their heads but left their upper faces in darkness. A subtle smile twinkled at the edge of Star’s thin, drawn lips.
She looked a fright, naked as a newborn child, painted with a smear of white from nape to nether regions. The paint heaped at the ridges created by the scars that covered her body—stars and other shapes carved in thin, elegant lines all over her arms, legs, belly, and back. They must mean something. Had someone from their southern homeland drawn them? Why?
Liberio was similarly naked, painted white like Star. All but his metal half-mask.
The nakedness must be a Lora custom. If it was, that didn’t stop Liberio’s lip quivering, his shoulders quaking. He tore his hand away from Star, but she scrabbled for it and dug her claws into his flesh.
Iridescia could feel that sharpness drawing phantom blood from her own skin.
She squinted till his figure blurred. She wouldn’t look at him, not when his face so obviously betrayed his shame.
“Afraid of your bride, my son? Why don’t you kiss her for us? A kiss! A kiss!” Hadrianus gestured with his muscular arms for the rest of them to take up the call, turning it into a horrible chant.
“A kiss!” Mazaetul bellowed. He looped his elbow in Iridescia’s and tugged her against his side. She didn’t have time to wriggle free before Mazaetul’s moist lips found her cheek.
She squeezed her eyes shut and Mazaetul let her go with a playful shove.
“A kiss!” called the guests, but Liberio stood completely still, savagery in his eye.
“Quiet.” One raspy word from Star was enough to silence the entire room. “My husband is shy. Let him save his kisses for the marriage bed.”
Hadrianus slumped back down in his seat. He snorted. “Trust a woman to ruin the fun. Very well. My sour little boy can pout for the rest of the night if he likes. A toast to his efforts to postpone his manhood!” His grin returned along with his good humour, as though the opportunity for cruelty was all he needed to escape any gloom, and he raised his cup again. Moon and fire cast their light against the glazed blue ceramic, reflecting a pale shade of the colour onto Marianus’s cheeks.
Liberio shuffled forward a step, and Iridescia turned her attention on him.
“If I’m a child,” Liberio announced coldly, “then I’ll rule over a children’s court. Abaal knows, even your mad little Deghashi has more honesty in his heart than any of your so-called friends. Funny how like honey their master’s shit starts to taste, after years gobbling at your backside.”
Liberio. Iridescia grit her teeth, anxiously looking back and forth between father and son, father and brother.
Could he die a second death?
The room was deathly still and silent.
Mazaetul cleared his throat and held out his arm in front of Iridescia as though to protect from something.
Hadrianus slammed his fist down on the table—once, twice, over and over until the wood split with a terrible crack.
Iridescia jumped with every thud.
“You mention heathen gods in the presence of the mighty of Indas? In the house of Adonen?!” Hadrianus swept his arm across the table, scattering cups and plates and food. Those nearest him inched away from his rage.
Through it all Hadrianus smiled a fierce, bestial smile. His eyes smoldered as he stared down the table at his son.
Star released her hold on her new husband and took an obedient step away from him. She bowed, giving no sign that she was bothered by Hadrianus’s outburst.
Hadrianus bolted from his chair. He strode toward Liberio and when he reached him, he grabbed his son by his mane of red hair and hauled him to the table.
One of the guests was in the way of whatever Hadrianus intended, and Hadrianus shoved the man to the floor where both man and chair clattered to the ground.
Hadrianus slammed Liberio’s face into a dish of gnawed bones and waste, grinding back and forth.
Scattered gasps exploded from the guests.
Iridescia huddled backward, finding space behind her where previously courtiers had been packed tight. Everyone was trying to make themselves small and distant and unremarkable. Even Mazaetul wore his shock openly.
Hadrianus pulled Liberio’s face back up by his hair, then forced it down, once twice again until Liberio’s metal mask fell loose and the scarred, tender part of his flesh was being pounded against the table.
Tears sprang to Iridescia’s eyes and she dropped her cup.
Finally, Liberio wailed.
Hadrianus laughed and tossed Liberio aside. His son slipped from table to floor, where he fumbled for his mask. Iridescia’s heart was in her throat as he reached for it, pounding as his fingers closed around the band used to hold it in place.
There was blood on his fingers where he’d touched his face.
Hadrianus made a show of dusting off his hands, grinning and calm as though nothing had happened. He seemed to expect his guests to laugh along with him.
And so they did.
Iridescia had to do something. The shadows had promised her, hadn’t they? They’d come for her in the Haven when Star had tried to drown her. They could come to her now.
Tayri, Iridescia prayed silently, help me now. Help your daughter.
Iridescia stared into one of the wall sconces till her vision burned orange and white, leaving tiny blue ghost flames everywhere she looked.
Liberio crawled on the floor, seeking shelter.
Water. It was water where the shadows lived, not fire. She ducked beneath Mazaetul’s arm and walked nearer the table covering the eel pool at the court’s centre. She was so close, but even after the frightening scene, courtiers still blocked the path to the head of the room. Iridescia grit her teeth and glared at the spot beneath the table where she was certain the pool was.
The torches flickered. Was it the wind?
She could hear them! She smiled, closed her eyes, prayed harder. She pictured black, ropelike limbs drawing up from the pool, standing above the water, reaching for Liberio—
Big, strong, caring fingers closed around her arm. Mazaetul. He pulled her back, and whatever Iridescia had touched in that instant, vanished.
Star strolled up to Hadrianus and leaned in. She whispered something into his ear.
Iridescia grimaced. She wanted to run to Liberio on the floor and help him up, but even Star might not be able to protect her from Hadrianus’s immediate anger.
That man was Iridescia’s father.
Iridescia was a coward after all. She was small and helpless and there was nothing she could do.
“There, now we can all enjoy our feasting in peace, can’t we?” Hadrianus peered down at the mess he’d made of the table and floor, scowling at the food as though he held a personal vendetta against it. He looked up, calling out to the slaves arranged at the back of the court. “Haven’t we any Lora delicacies? I’m sick of this Inda garbage. Everyday. Every day since I was banished to this floundering shithole of a province, I’ve dined on nothing but filth! This city stinks of sewage and filth! Thank Adonen for war. At least it’ll get me out of this rat’s nest. Out of one and into another.” He laughed. “And music!” He clapped. “Where is the music? Play on, musicians, for the wedding of my most adored son, and his beautiful mistress.” He turned and smiled, offering Star a hand.
Star reached out, smiling almost lovingly at Hadrianus. She stepped daintily over her husband’s body. As the slaves raced for their instruments and began to play, Hadrianus pressed his lips to Star’s neck, and drew his hand across her breasts, touching her as though she really were beautiful, as though no one else was in the room.
“What they don’t know,” Hadrianus said more softly, “is that this is my shithole.” He pricked Star’s nipple and she closed her eyes as if from pleasure. “These are my seething little rats—my soldiers patrolling our streets. My army will make victors of Lorar. My army. You are witnesses to an age of greatness! You are witnesses to the ascent of a man as tall as heaven! King and Queen of the rats! Conqueror of Qemassen! Conqueror of the southern shores!” Hadrianus laughed again.
Miqipsi crept in close and bent down to tend to Liberio while Hadrianus was distracted.
Let Liberio be well. Let him be alive and awake.
Liberio stirred at Miqipsi’s touch and took the scribe’s guiding hand. He let himself be scurried to the wall, where Miqipsi gestured for a slave to fetch something.
Liberio’s nose looked broken. Blood streamed from his nostrils onto his lips, and there must be cuts Iridescia couldn’t see from here because blood smeared his forehead and cheeks as well.
The slave reappeared with a basin and cloth, but instead of cleaning Liberio there and then, Miqipsi hurried him out of sight, perhaps even out of the courtroom.
Iridescia wiped her tears off on her forearm.
They had to leave the city. Liberio spoke of a children’s court, but one look at the smiles painted onto the faces of the courtiers was enough to remind her that all the true children of Indas were dead, or else they lived far away from Ipsis. There were no kings of the Western Desert.
Mazaetul reached toward her, a handkerchief in his outstretched hand. She took it gratefully but couldn’t manage a smile.
“Would you like to see another magic trick?” Mazaetul asked, nudging her shoulder gently with his arm.
Iridescia would like to see a trick. She wanted to see him make them disappear.