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Chapter 14: Lovers
Kirin– A Safehouse: Lorar
Kirin rolled over, releasing himself from the tangle of sheets and sweat and warmth that held him captive. Kordelia was turned away from him, her red hair splayed across pale linen in streams of brilliant colour. Her olive skin was smooth and flawless, not scarred and callused like Kirin’s. Her body was soft and round, not hardened and unyielding as his was. Like a thief snatching a jewel, he reached his fingers out to brush her shoulder, smiling when she stirred.
Last night, when she’d called him to her bed, she’d cried in his arms, her passion born of rage and sadness. Kirin understood; he felt the same.
Weeks had passed since Basimus Drenda had whisked Kirin and Priscilla to safety along the canals, weeks spent listening to Yellowers plot revenge from the security of the Drenda clan’s hidden safehouse, weeks spent contemplating his own desire for vengeance as Kordelia dreamed of her husband’s vindication.
Yakovius Lutelian was dead, and only hours later Tarkis Murinus, Pater of Lorar, had succumbed to poison. The poison had been Yakovius’s doing—or so said the men on the streets. Marianus’s men, Kirin had no doubt.
In the small moments between words, Kirin caught himself smiling at Yakov and Kordelia’s children. He’d taken to playing with them to ease his troubled thoughts of Oran and Marianus. Franko, the boy, was happily devouring Kirin’s sword lessons, and Katia their games of dice.
Yakov would not have approved.
Not Priscilla though. She’d fallen into her mother’s arms the day Kirin had rescued her, wailing inconsolably so that Kirin had been forced to recount the news of Yakov’s death to Kordelia. Now she spent most of her days in a sullen silence, staring listlessly onto the street from an upstairs window.
“You’re leaving today.” Kordelia didn’t move as she spoke, granting Kirin a few moments more to stare at her nakedness unobserved. She was a wealthy woman who’d used his body in the way that was her due. Kirin hadn’t minded. Watching the cold sunlight glimmer across her fullness, he felt he was using her just the same.
“Not today.” Kirin cleared his throat. “Soon. Your cousin says it won’t be earlier than tomorrow.”
Soon. Soon Kirin would leave the great city of Lorar to escape as part of the century led by Basimus Drenda’s son, Varco. Months ago, he’d told Marianus he wouldn’t hesitate to die abroad if it were in defense of his homeland. Now the opportunity had come to him, and he fulfilled it under the command of a Yellow general.
Kirin couldn’t stay in the city—not if he were to survive. Marianus’s entire household scoured the streets for a sighting of the escaped slave they claimed had served Tarkis the fateful cup of wine, who’d sold himself to Yakovius in heart if not in coin. Just the thought drowned Kirin’s insides.
“Can’t it wait?” Kordelia rolled over, her heavy breasts sloping across her skin. She looked expectant and confused, the same way she had every time Kirin had declined her offer to keep him.
“I have to go, the same way you have to stay here and raise your children.” Kirin had his vengeance, just like Kordelia had hers. Ydelka was dead. Yakovius was dead. All the remained was to find Oran and kill him and to do that, he had to go South. There was no trace of the rat in the city.
Kordelia scoffed. “It’s more than children I’ll be raising. Marianus must be brought to justice for his crimes.”
“The Drenda Clan will see him punished,” Kirin agreed.
“I will see him punished.” Kordelia met his eyes. There was no humour in them. “I will take my husband’s vacant seat in the senate.”
Kirin rolled over and sat at the edge of the bed to avoid looking at her. Kordelia wasn’t someone he was anxious to displease. She was a fine woman in both body and spirit, but she was no senator. “A woman could never be senator.”
“No, she would be a senatrix.” The feather-stuffed mattress sloped toward the centre of the narrow bed as Kordelia shifted her weight. “We must hire someone to help you with your grammar.” Her hand closed over Kirin’s shoulder. She still wanted him to stay.
“You don’t want me,” Kirin said bluntly. “You wanted a distraction.”
They both had. Kordelia was a smart woman, as smart as they came even if she did entertain strange notions of election, but she was wrong about what she needed. Kirin’s purpose was singular now—it must be, or else he’d be left alone with the weight of his thoughts. There was nothing for him anywhere but the promise of a cold kiss from an Anouti sword.
“I could hide you,” Kordelia pressed. “Once Marianus is dead we’ll make you a hero.” Kirin laughed, and Kordelia slapped his shoulder. “You are a hero. You saved my daughter.”
But not her husband, and not Ydelka.
Kirin abandoned the enclosed cubiculum where the bed was housed and walked inside the room proper. He bent and retrieved his tunic from its pile on the floor. “I’m going to find Oran, and once he’s shaking from fear I’m going to slit him open, chin to groin, and watch as his guts make a mountain at his feet.”
Kordelia shoved the covers away and snapped her fingers.
A swarthy slave-woman appeared from a hidden corner of the room. She held a water jug at the ready as though she’d been awaiting such a command. And indeed, when Kirin looked outside at the pale orange light glowing above the rooftops, it was past sunrise. They were late in rising.
Kordelia pattered past him, dainty as she sat on a fine cedarwood chair to allow her slave to anoint her. “Not too long ago I would have called you a brute, but when I think of that slug in the senate house I feel I could scratch his eyes out with my own nails, right in the street, before everyone. I’d ruin my name at a chance to make him feel one cyathus of what he’s put me through.”
There was a knock at the door and Kordelia gestured impatiently at her slave. After an exaggerated sigh she slapped the woman’s hand away and finished tying her robe herself, turning around and primping her hair.
He reached for his neck, smoothing his hand over the skin where his slave’s collar should be. It had marked him so long that he itched where it had lain.
“Come in!” Kordelia’s voice was sweetness and innocence. She knew her part and played it well. That, at least, was a good sign for her career in politics.
It was Basimus Drenda, Kordelia’s dour uncle. “You were missed at the household shrine this morning.”
“My household gods remain at my house,” said Kordelia sharply, as though she were used to trading barbs with her uncle and didn’t find it the least bit concerning. “You could be a dear and fetch her like I’ve been begging you for weeks.”
“Oh, Kordelia.” He sighed, sounding the uncle for once instead of the general. “Only you would ask me to get my men killed so you could pray before a goddess of face powder.”
Kordelia twisted round, forcing the slave who’d been combing her hair to hop out of the way. “Not face powder, cosmetics. And you know better.” She snapped her finger and the slave hurried back to work. “It’s expected that I should draw the eye. Now more than ever I must have the correct look to elicit sympathy. Too witchy and the senate will call me a co-conspirator. Too soft and they’ll dismiss me as a blubbering woman. When you go to war, you pray to Vors, but a woman’s armour is the fine plaster on her face. I pray to Elepta to ensure it doesn’t chip.”
Basimus was an ex-soldier and a veteran of the Vetish uprisings. No wonder he was so grim-faced. Those wars had been fleeting but bloody. Apparently it had been enough to end his support of the Reds and convince him to throw his lot in with Yakov.
“Kordelia, we have a guest.” Drenda glanced at Kirin as he spoke, looking down his sharp, straight nose with an expression Kirin would have called contemptuous if he hadn’t known better. Drenda had been good to him, granting him refuge, and keeping him in bread and wine.
Kordelia paled at the mention of guests. “Marianus?”
Drenda’s eyes widened. “No, of course not. Varco’s arrived to speak with the northerner.”
Kirin bristled, as he always did, to hear himself described that way. He might be a slave with no Lorai blood, but he was a man of Lorar all through his bones. He ached to correct Drenda, but the man remained his only hope of freedom from Marianus.
He finished dressing as quickly as he could, belting the simple tunic Kordelia had given him, very conscious of the way her frown followed him.
He’d been wrong to have stayed even this long, and doubly wrong to have enchanted her children. They’d just lost a father, and now they’d lose Kirin too. He might’ve stayed despite the risk, but Oran called to him. He must have scampered home. The Good Ones sent Kirin dreams of Oran, of a great desert that stretched on and on into eternity, and where Ydelka’s spirit was kept captive. In the dream, Kirin fought with Oran, but it always ended before Kirin got a chance to slit the rat’s throat.
Drenda headed back downstairs before Kirin had finished dressing, but both Kirin and Kordelia were quick to follow.
Downstairs in what passed for the triclinium, a battle-hardened man with slick, short black hair sat rigidly on a settee. He was the picture of his father, though trim where Basimus bore the weight of age. His back didn’t even touch the cushions, as though the very idea of comfort disgusted him.
Two slaves stood beside the settee. One of them cradled a heavy stone statue of a goddess. Her wide, painted eyes followed Kirin no matter where he moved.
The man who must be Varco looked up as Kirin and Kordelia entered, giving Kordelia a curt nod and a smile.
“I brought you something, cousin.” Varco crooked his finger at the slave, who stepped forward to set his burden on the small table in the centre of the room. Several rolled scrolls shifted as the statue displaced them.
“Elepta.” Kordelia grinned—the most genuine expression Kirin had seen from her since her tears last night. “Thank you, cousin.”
Varco nodded again, and Kordelia and Kirin took their seats.
“Your papers,” Varco explained, gesturing to the scrolls.
Only when Varco speared him with his gaze did Kirin realize the naval commander meant him.
“Papers?” Kirin asked.
“For boarding my ship. We’ve been ordered south to Zimrida to engage the Masseni. Hand them to the notary when you board. Your name is Lupo Aethalus, and your grandfather was a freedman from Endsil in the Feislands. You enlisted when your family was killed in a Masseni raid. To keep things simple, you grew up in Lorar. I have a lot of Trionjans and other westerners in my century. You don’t want to say you’re from Carada only to be asked details you can’t provide. They’ll catch you in your lie and you’ll be discovered for what you are.”
“Sensible enough.” Kirin paused. “Aethalus. A Feislander name.”
Basimus stepped forward. “For a Feislander face. Keep your lies simple and no one will have cause to question them. Kirin is a Feislander name, isn’t it?”
Kirin shrugged. “It’s northern, from the east though, I think.”
Drenda grunted. “Those eastern tribes are fierce.”
“As am I.”
Varco shook his head. “And untrained. The Lorai army survives on its discipline and strategy, not its ferocity. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself. The battlefield isn’t the arena. No one’s going applaud you for putting on a show.” Varco’s icy tone bit like iron. “My men are largely untested. Most of the ones you meet will be younger and greener than you, but they’ll know the formations better, and you should try to emulate them.” He cleared his throat and glanced at Kordelia. “The fighting will be thick on Zimrida, and my men will be leading the attack. Your opponents have lived in a fortress most of their adult lives, preparing themselves for anything we could do to them. You may not come back; you may not even reach Kemassen.”
A fortress. Kirin knew little of Zimrida, except that it was an island hidden within natural rock walls. The way Varco talked, he felt sure Kirin would see combat on land, but even breaching the lagoon would surely be a fight and Kirin had never set foot on a real ship.
“Don’t go.” A woman’s voice pierced the quiet.
Kirin turned. Priscilla stood behind him, clutching a roll of parchment to her chest.
Varco clucked his tongue. “If you’re thinking of changing your mind, Kirin, you’d best do it now. I haven’t much time before we leave, and I have more important duties to attend to than rescuing slaves.”
Drenda laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. “He saved your cousin. Don’t begrudge him his reward.”
Varco shook off his father’s hand. “I don’t begrudge him his reward, only my patience. He’s untrained and untested. My men will be relying on him.”
The devastation and disappointment on Priscilla’s awkward face—so like Yakov’s—was too much for Kirin. He pulled his gaze away. “I have no intention of staying here, or of dragging down your men. I want revenge, and for that I need to reach the southern shore.”
Priscilla stormed off, muttering curses beneath her breath. Who was she to damn Kirin for his choices? Of all Kordelia and Yakov’s children, she’d spoken to him the least. Kirin hadn’t thought she’d be upset to see him go.
“And when the war is over you will have it,” Varco said. “My father’s told me of this Oran. After Kemassen has fallen, and if you survive, I’ll help you go where you need to.”
Wherever that was. All Kirin had to go on was Oran’s strange comment about a children’s court. No one seemed to have heard of it though, let alone know where it was. Back in the arena, Chadras had called Oran karnaam.
There would be plenty of rats who could tell him once he reached Kemassen.
“Thank you, Heron.” Kirin bowed his head. “Are we leaving immediately?”
Varco stood up. “No. I have people to see before we sail. There will be a man waiting for you at the Southmarsh docks. We’ll be boarding a small ship and travelling downriver til we reach Venius. Go to the fourth pier. The man you want is called Silices. He’s a young man of Vetish extraction. He’ll be armoured and wearing my colours, so you should recognize each other. I’ve left your equipment with your hosts.”
“Your armour and weapons.” Basimus’s tone was condescending. “You’ve worn real armour before?”
Kirin wrinkled his brow. “Only what Marianus gave me. It may not have been armour enough for you, Heron, but for a bodyguard it served.”
The Drenda men seemed in a hurry to leave. They chatted with Kordelia for a short while longer about household business, then left.
As soon as they’d gone, Kordelia smiled soothingly at Kirin. “They’re hard men, but good. Try not to take them too seriously.”
Kirin snorted. “Is there another way to take them?”
Kordelia reached for the scrolls they’d left on the table for Kirin. She unfurled one of them and skimmed it. “They’re going to help me win this election. They could take the glory themselves, reveal Marianus’s duplicity, but they understand that retribution is my task.”
Kirin wasn’t sure how he felt about a woman illegally declaring herself a senator, but voicing his concerns aloud was certainly not in his best interests. “I’m grateful for their help, and yours.”
Priscilla reappeared from a nearby room, skinny arms crossed in front of herself. She leaned against one of the pillars—a cocky, judging pose. “What will you do for the rest of the day?”
He already knew what he needed to do and was avoiding it, though the moment approached, inevitable and indomitable as the passing of the hours.
Ydelka. Her stone sat among the rest of Lorar’s dead, newly purchased and weeks without his attention.
“I have business in the city outskirts,” he said.
“You can’t!” Kordelia sounded genuinely angry. “I didn’t hide you so you could run out now and get caught. A knife in the dark—”
“It’s daylight,” Kirin argued with a smile. Priscilla laughed.
“Semantics,” Kordelia tutted. “You can’t leave; I forbid it.”
Kirin sighed, about to inform her, freewoman though she was, that should he decide he wanted to go, there was little chance of anyone amongst her household being able to stop him, when Priscilla interrupted.
“I’ll go with him,” she blurted.
Kirin raised an eyebrow at her. “That’s very brave of you, Hera, but if a hired thug’s not afraid of me it’s unlikely he’ll quake at the sight of a half-starved little girl.”
Besides, Marianus hadn’t been shy snatching Priscilla off the streets herself.
Kirin did almost quake at her expression though. She looked vicious as the lions she’d been intended to feed, as willful as her father at his most belligerent.
“They may not quake at my size,” said Priscilla, “but they’ll shit themselves when I kick them so hard their balls come out their—”
“Priscilla. Don’t say things like that; you’ve been told.”
Priscilla rolled her eyes. “Shit. Fuck. Bugger. Cocksucker. Cunt.” She grinned as Kirin covered his laughter with a well-timed cough.
Kirin shook his head once he’d contained his amusement, which was as much at the rosy flush of Kordelia’s cheeks as Priscilla’s cursing.
Kordelia exchanged a look with Priscilla, a scathing, silent exchange that was as much a battle as Kirin had ever waged. In the end, Kordelia was the one to cry surrender, eliciting a pleased little mew from her teenage daughter.
“Fine,” Kordelia spat, “Go. But take Falces with you, and make sure you’re armed. Use the canals. There’s a boatman called Debrar; he can be trusted. Falces knows him and will show you.”
If Priscilla and Falces’s company was the price Kirin would have to pay to go where he wanted, then so be it. He could ask for privacy once they reached cemetery.
They disguised themselves in hooded robes with the help of Falces—the portly slave of ambiguous origin who’d helped Kirin rescue Priscilla from the arena. He had pale brown skin that looked Erusi or Vetish in some light, and then darker at turns, as though he had Masseni blood. He made a fuss of both Kirin and Priscilla, folding the scrawny girl’s hair away beneath her hood, and disguising Kirin’s pale face with some of Elepta’s blessed cosmetics.
“Won’t the hoods make us more suspicious,” Priscilla complained. “Whenever I see a man in a hood I cross to the other side of the street.”
“And just so will the man on the street cross the road for us,” clipped Falces.
They left by a hidden, enclosed entrance that led directly to a narrow passage running along one of the canals. Falces led the way, creeping nimbly down the narrow passage where Priscilla and Kirin had more difficulty. Falces had to catch Priscilla a few times to stop her taking a tumble in the deep green water.
“I wouldn’t want to smell you after a bath in there, Hera. Best be careful,” Kirin joked, walking close behind her to protect her from her clumsiness.
“Fine with me,” said Priscilla. “I don’t want you smelling me.”
She stumbled again as they walked. Kirin steadied her this time. Priscilla shoved him off in a playful way that made Kirin wonder. He had saved her life—it wouldn’t be unusual for a girl to grow attached in such a situation.
“Your girls won’t like you much either,” warned Falces, “if you come knocking at their doors smelling of sewage.”
Priscilla scowled. “Not girls. Well, not that many. Two isn’t that many.”
“Oh, has Lydia got bored of you again?” Falces’s voice was full of humour, but Kirin was having trouble deciphering the conversation.
Priscilla tsked. “No, Lydia and I have an understanding now. Vulta’s parents are marrying her off to some idiot from Trionja, just because he owns a horse.”
Falces scoffed. “That isn’t the only reason.” He cleared his throat. “Her mother sent yours an angry letter.”
“Oh no, not an angry letter, whatever will Kordelia do.”
“Marry you off yourself, if you’re not careful.” The way Falces said it, it sounded like a warning.
“Kordelia seems like a mother who’ll find you a good match,” said Kirin, anxious to join the discussion and at a loss as to what else to say.
Priscilla stumbled again, but caught herself on the wall. “My mother knows better than to try. I hope.”
Kirin smiled behind Priscilla’s back. “Most girls spend their days daydreaming about marriage.”
Priscilla was silent for a moment, but then burst into raucous laughter.
“You don’t know very many girls, do you, Kirin?” asked Falces.
Kirin wrang his hands. “I know girls. Plenty of them.” He grinned. “They know my cock.”
“Elepta save me,” Falces bemoaned.
Turn after turn, with barely anyone passing them on the canal below. Eventually, the narrow path widened and a bridge came into view, bustling with pedestrians in comparison. Falces slowed.
“Debrar.” Falces pointed toward a man sitting and singing in a rickety-looking punt below the bridge. A pole lay across his folded legs. He wore a soldier’s metal helmet in an outdated style, the headwear rusted from age or poor care and slumping slightly atop his small head. His song was loud and boisterous, the better to attract passing customers as they navigated the bridge.
As they neared, Falces called out to the punter in a hushed tone. “Psst. Psst. Debrar. A cargo from your mistress! We need a ride to the northeast road.”
The man mumbled unintelligibly and lifted his helmet. He stood up on legs with a balance as questionable as that of his boat.
They would have been better off walking.
Falces rifled in an interior pocket, revealing a vial of something, which he tossed to the punter, who caught it greedily.
The Red Death.
More than one gladiator had fallen under the spell of the poppy drink.
“What’s that you gave him?” Priscilla gripped Kirin’s shoulder from behind, standing on tiptoes to see over him.
“Nothing, Hera,” Falces said. “Poison to keep a man faithful.”
“Poison,” Priscilla said dryly. “From my mother?”
Falces turned to address his mistress directly. Was that the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth? “Some things are best kept from your mother. If you must know, I get it from Farnus Alba’s people, though of late he’s been unreliable, disappearing hither and thither.”
Priscilla looked at Kirin distastefully, as though expecting him to share her views. “Perhaps we should find another man to take us. One boat’s as good as another.”
Falces dripped condescension like a cock dripped piss. “In the real world, Hera, we sometimes have to get our hands dirty to achieve our ends.”
Priscilla almost fell on Falces as they lumbered into the punt. No sea legs on her, that much was obvious.
Kirin would soon find out whether he had any himself. He’d never even seen the ocean, let alone sailed it.
Debrar disembarked as soon as everyone was settled, his pole heaving up and down again with practiced grace as he ferried them beneath the bridge. Every so often he would allow the boat to drift.
“We must be quiet,” Falces warned. “There are always spies about.”
Kirin snorted. “You’re the one who admitted to buying from Farnus Alba. You do realize he’s Marianus’s man, don’t you?”
Falces rested his elbow on the side of the punt. For a moment he looked as though he’d considered dipping his hand into the water but thought better of it at the last moment. “Farnus Alba is nobody’s man but his own. White Faction plays a different game than the other factions—one to which only it knows the rules.”
“How would you know?” Kirin asked.
Falces chuckled. “I’m the scribe of a former senator. If I didn’t pay attention to such things, I wouldn’t be much use.”
“Fair enough.” Kirin craned his neck back, assessing the grey sky, which was pierced here and there by sunshine. A certain slant of light shone upon the Stadium Venaris in the distance. The curved walls seemed to shield it in a deep embrace.
Kirin clenched his fists, feeling the crunch of sand beneath his feet, the roar of the crowd, Oran’s braids whipping the air.
Kirin should have killed Oran right there, on the arena sands. “What do you know of the karnaam?”
Priscilla’s eyebrows pinched together. “The what? It sounds like an Erusi word.”
“A good thing you are one then, isn’t it?”
Priscilla snorted. “Hardly. No more than you’re a Feislander. Or did that costume in the stadium convince you? In which case I should be a fucking queen. I wish people knew; I might be treated with more respect.” She gave Falces a pointed look, and he ignored her just as pointedly.
“The karnaam, you said?” Falces turned away from them, staring at the water as Debrar steered the boat beneath a tall arch. “The Karnaama are a desert people, south of ek-Anout, in the deep Sajit.”
Oran had been from ek-Anout. “Why would a man be afraid of them?”
Falces laughed. “The better question is why someone would not be afraid? The Karnaama are the ghosts of children sent out to Hazzan, the horned god. It’s said they’re schooled in all manner of atrocities, that they sup on poisons from childhood to make themselves immune, that they can speak the tongues of beasts, and that their only lovers are the serpent people of the wilderness.”
“Horsehit.” That, at least, Kirin knew to be a lie. Oran had been a man—well, a something. He’d been human, more of less, and the only lover he’d taken had been the one he’d slain.
Debrar nodded sagely, ignoring Kirin. “They can turn into fire or wind. They can kill a man with words alone.”
“At least,” Falces whispered, as though he were recounting a frightening story to a boy, “that is what is said of them.”
Kirin grunted. “Can they be killed?”
“Not by a man,” said Debrar, shoving the punt along with his pole.
Falces cocked his head to the side. “They must die, or they’d have no need of new children. Why, may I ask? Is this man you seek one of the Karnaama?”
Kirin grit his teeth. “The man I seek is a leech.”
Falces scoffed. “Let us hope he isn’t an immortal leech.”
“Let us hope,” Kirin echoed.
“If there are any ghosts here, this is the place for them.” Debrar stared ahead as the boat slid silently beneath overhanging arches, making a turn onto the wide canal they called the northeast road.
To either side of the canal, great hollowed-out buildings towered darkly. Statues and sculptures had been carved out of the buildings’ foundations and tucked into recesses from first to fifth floors. Occasionally, the painted face of a statue watched them from a window. The older ones, whose families had neglected them, stared blindly down at the punts and gondolas below from paint-chipped and sun-bleached faces.
Most of the boats would be passing through the morbid district on their way to outlying farms, but Kirin had business here.
“And where is your ghost?” asked Debrar. “Are we going to see the old master?”
Falces shook his head, turning to Kirin for direction.
“Set us down wherever you like,” Kirin answered. His throat felt tight. “Her stone’s not in one of the houses.”
“East or west bank?”
Debrar clucked to himself, steering the punt to a wood pier.
As the three of them disembarked, Falces stared down Debrar. “Wait for us. Our friend here has another ship to make, one that isn’t falling to pieces.”
Debrar scoffed at the insult, but didn’t look insulted enough to leave.
They headed off, Kirin slowing his walk so the others could keep pace.
He’d paid for the plot, and knew where it should be, though he hadn’t yet seen it. He’d known he’d have to come here eventually though. He couldn’t leave the city without saying goodbye.
The wealthy of Lorar paid for the cubicula hollowed out of the surrounding buildings, whose faces were lined with costly statues and murals depicting the great feats of those there memorialized.
The buildings had once been the homes of the living, but as the number of dead had grown and the upkeep of the old-style palaces had become costly, the wealthy had razed the poorer areas of the city and built newer houses for themselves on the scoured earth in modern styles. Lorar’s paupers had migrated to Southmarsh near the docks. There, the houses of the poor sprawled toward the countryside, dilapidated, overcrowded, threatening to crumble to dust under the burden of so many floors.
Paupers needed graves too, and those could be found past the fashionable decay of the buildings on the northeast road. In such places, men and women were covered by earth instead of plaster, their humble monuments lining the grass so that the cemetery lived in the shadow of the city of the dead.
Ydelka’s stone was far from the great towers of that city, but she wouldn’t have wanted such a grand monument anyway. She’d wanted fields and flowers, not cold stone. In the poor man’s graveyard, the open sky was wide above you.
Priscilla gazed up at the crumbling architecture while Falces sweated beside her. Was the short little slave frightened of ghosts? His stubby legs certainly moved quickly, as though to free him of this place as fast as they could.
Kirin sidled up beside him. “The dead who’re buried here have been seen to. If you’re worried about spirits, you have more to fear on city streets.”
“It’s not that,” Falces chirped. “Someone’s following us. No, don’t turn around.” The slave pulled Kirin aside, snapping his fingers at Priscilla to get her attention. “He hasn’t taken his eyes off you since he appeared.”
Priscilla strolled toward them. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Falces said.
“A man’s tracking me,” Kirin clarified, earning a stern look from Falces.
“A man?” Priscilla peered around Kirin, her eyes widening. “I saw him, but just for an instant. He’s gone now, between the buildings. He looked foreign.”
Kirin’s hair bristled. “Foreign how? Quickly. I know this man. He’s very dangerous.”
Priscilla took a fearful step back, darting a glance behind them. “I don’t know. He was dressed normally, but he had a funny haircut, long and braided, and he had brownish skin.”
Braids, brown skin. It had to be Oran. Kirin’s hand drifted to the hilt of his sword. “There’s no point heading back, he’ll only follow us to the safehouse.”
“Do you know this man?” Falces glared at Kirin. “If you’ve put Priscilla in danger—”
Kirin grit his teeth, pushing past the blooming guilt to get some clarity. “Perhaps. It could be the karnaama who killed Ydelka. He had braids, his skin was brown . . . but he might be anyone.”
“A lot of men look like that,” Priscilla agreed, but she rubbed her arms nervously, shooting frightened glances at the endless shadows that marked the alleys between tombs. “I really don’t think it was Oran. I saw him before, from a distance when he still worked for Marianus. He was tall, and this man was short.”
“He was short.” Falces breathed out hard and laid a hand on his chest as though the relief had made him faint.
Kirin wished he could be so certain. How short might Oran look from a distance? What did short mean to Priscilla? “Let’s go. Falces in front, Priscilla between us.”
They walked that way until they reached the cemetery. Kirin didn’t spot the stalker, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t there.
It was probably one of Marianus’s spies. Kirin should never have let Priscilla come along. She’d been taken for the arena on the backroads of the city. Who wasn’t to say she couldn’t be taken again? And then they’d snatch Kordelia, and soon anyone who could attest to Marianus’s crimes.
“Where are we going from here?” Falces’s question drew Kirin out of his reverie, and he looked to either side of himself at the rows of tightly packed memorial stones.
“Not far now.”
“Have you been before?” Priscilla asked.
“No, but I remember.” He had the number of the plot he’d paid for embossed on his mind. The stones were so pedantically ordered it was impossible to miss.
Ydelka’s face came into view and Kirin stopped walking before he reached it. He shivered at the sight of her likeness carved into her headstone.
Kirin had paid what he could to have her face rendered in detail, but it hadn’t seemed enough, and he hadn’t thought she’d look so—
Priscilla laid a hand on his back. She rubbed gently, and Kirin drew in a sharp breath. When he was ready, he broke away and approached the stone.
“The craftsman did a fine job,” Kirin managed, just to have something to say. “He didn’t have to have done such fine work with what I paid him.”
He’d rendering her handsome, impish face with perfect subtlety. Ydelka’s memorial was much better than those that surrounded her, modest though it was, though lacking as it did the murals painted on some of the others. It was so much better, because it was hers, and somehow it still seemed not enough.
Kirin knelt on the ground, so the stone filled his view.
Thin fingers clasped his own and he turned to find Priscilla beside him.
“She was very beautiful if the stonework is any indication,” said Priscilla.
“Yes, she was.”
“We can’t dawdle, I’m afraid,” Falces said softly. “Speak your peace and then we’d best be home. We should take a different route to confuse our friend.”
He was right, but Kirin had so much he felt he ought to say, and without time he didn’t think he could say it. He wouldn’t ever set foot here again. Kirin’s city was already a speck on the receding horizon.
“I—” Kirin started to protest Falces’s order, but his throat grew choked.
“Could we leave him for a moment, Falces? I think he wants to be alone.” Priscilla released Kirin’s hand and stood up.
“Yes, Hera, for a moment.”
He wait until he could no longer hear their footsteps, then finally allowed himself the tears he’d held back. They spilled down his cheeks to collect on his chin, and he let them fall without lifting a sleeve to wipe them from his face.
Kirin reached for the earth in front of him, crumbling it between his fingers, spilling it on the ground. Ydelka’s spirit should be gone from here. He’d paid the priests to see it done right. Some part of him though, couldn’t help but wish she’d remained to haunt him.
“I’m an old man,” he said, and laughed at himself. He was twenty-eight years old, not an old man at all. But he felt old, his feats of strength, skill, and bravery in the arena the acts of a young man, someone long dead or at least far away. And perhaps he hadn’t truly loved Ydelka, for how could he have when they’d had so little time? But he had wanted to. He had wanted to see her set free the way she’d talked about.
We weren’t made to kill. We were made to live. Fields and flowers.
Ydelka’s precise words escaped him. Only their pale cousins remained to drift around him.
He’d have done anything to have the life she’d dreamed up for them, but Oran had ruined that for the both of them. Kirin was no longer a gladiator, or a bodyguard, or a hunter. Kirin was a soldier.
He would call his sword vengeance.
Kirin the soldier traced the cut of the granite, closing his eyes to try and summon the feel of her skin.
The crush of leaves underfoot startled him. “Falces says it’s time to go.”
It looked like Priscilla wanted to say more, but the words didn’t come, and Kirin obediently stood up. He touched the head of the stone one last time, then looked past Ydelka’s memorial to the ones beyond.
A man crouched atop one of the wider stones, balanced perfectly with no sign of strain on his face. He was plainly dressed in a too-long cloak and tunic, and he gripped a dagger as though poised to defend himself if it came to that. The long hood of his cloak obscured the finer details of his face, but he was certainly foreign in appearance, as Priscilla had described. He looked like Ydelka, with the same high cheekbones and sloped nose. Kirin guessed he was around forty or a bit older. Deep, slashing scars marred his face.
“Is that the man you saw?”
Priscilla jumped. “Y-yes.” Her coltish legs trembled like she might bolt back toward the northwest road.
Kirin held out his hand to calm her. He cocked his chin at the stranger. “Are you a friend of Ydelka’s?”
The man’s dark gaze was unwavering. Even Kirin felt a quiver of fear.
Falces crept up beside him. “We should leave,” Falces mumbled quickly. “Before he makes a move.”
“I don’t think he’s going to,” Kirin said. “He’d have made it by now.”
“Who are you?” Priscilla called.
The man leaped off the stone and walked away from them, down the avenue created by the graves. Whatever he wanted, he’d either got it or decided now was not the time.
Kirin could still follow him.
He started toward the man.
“We must leave, Kirin.” Falces tugged on Kirin’s tunic, stopping him mid-stride. “You still have your boat to catch, and it’s not safe for Priscilla alone.”
The stranger wove through the stones, quick and effortless. Kirin would struggle to catch up if the man even allowed him to.
“Kirin,” Priscilla pleaded.
It was a choice: Oran, or the stranger.
He’d promised Ydelka vengeance, and if he followed this man, he’d never find it.
He had no use now for mysteries. The sea called to ferry him to his prize, and Kirin planned to answer.