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Chapter 15: Dreamers
Iridescia – Star’s Chamber: Ipsis: Indas Place
The door to Star’s room was ajar in a way that beckoned and repulsed like the trapdoor of a desert spider. Muffled voices emanated from inside, the only sound in the deserted corridor. The voices did nothing to make it more inviting, but then, it didn’t matter whether or not Iridescia felt invited, because Iridescia had been summoned.
Star was finally calling in Iridescia’s promise to speak with Star about her dreams.
Iridescia lingered outside the door. The last time she’d been here, she’d been stealing riches she could sell to buy passage for Tobi. So much had changed that night, so many questions raised, and so few answers given. And the way Star had stood aside and watched as Hadrianus beat Liberio bloody spoke to how little she cared about protecting family.
If Iridescia was walking into a trap, she wanted to know who was trapping her.
She approached the door as quietly as she could, leaning forward to spy on the conversation taking place beyond the door, but at the last moment she tripped and hit the door so hard that it swung wide. Inside, Star sat rigid on the bed with Tobi sitting on the floor at her feet. Tobi was holding one of Iridescia’s old toys—a cloth doll Iridescia had owned as long as she could remember.
Star stared at Iridescia and smiled. “Why do you linger, child? Is something the matter?” She patted the blankets.
“Why is Tobi here?” Iridescia stole a glance at the metal chest beside the bed. When Iridescia had sneaked inside the room, she’d found that the chest was inscribed with the name of the heq-Ashqen of Molot who’d tried to raise his daughter from the dead.
“He isn’t staying, are you Tobi?” Star said, voice filled with something like kindness, only it couldn’t be kindness because of who was doing the speaking. “Run along now.” She flicked her long fingers toward the door.
Tobi stumbled to his feet. The cloth doll, worn from years hugged to Iridescia’s chest, dropped unceremoniously from his still-bandaged hand and fell to the floor.
Iridescia hurried to Tobi’s side before he could leave and picked up the doll. She rubbed her thumb over the holey cotton, feeling the years through its stitches. Its painted-on face was long-faded, even after she’d clumsily tried to repair it herself five years ago. Roewyn had helped her fix the awkward and slightly creepy mouth she’d made and had even sewed the doll a little blue scarf. The scarf was tattered now at the ends, but it still shone gold when you tilted it just right. She hadn’t played with it in such a long time.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Iridescia folded the fingers of Tobi’s uninjured hand over the doll. She gently pressed his arm to his chest, hoping he understood that she wanted him to keep it.
“How kind,” said Star. “You can go now, Tobi.”
Tobi darted off and the door slammed behind him. With it closed, Star’s windowless room was so dark.
Iridescia turned on Star. “Why was he here? Were you punishing me again?”
On any other face, Star’s smile might have been reassuring, but it made Iridescia recoil instinctively, as though a corpse had turned and winked at her. “What would I have to punish you for, child? Have you been sneaking off somewhere you shouldn’t? Is that why my slaves couldn’t find you this morning?”
Don’t breathe. Don’t blink. Don’t stare in silence. Don’t give away that you took Liberio to see Roewyn.
“I was playing by the river.” She’d walked in that direction. If anyone had seen her, the story would match theirs. “Then the Eghri.” She left Liberio out of it. “Why did you want me?”
Star smirked in amusement. “We’re family, Iridescia, why shouldn’t I want you?”
“You tried to kill me.”
Star shook her head. “A mistake. Please sit.” There was an edge to the command.
Iridescia slowly hoisted herself onto the bed. She inched as far from Star as she could. “Why am I here?”
Star stood up and walked to a small table where a set of cups had been placed. She took one of them and brought it to Iridescia. “Drink this, then lie down.”
Iridescia slung her braids over her shoulder and laid down, keeping her gaze trained on Star’s withered face. “What is it?” She signed awkwardly from her reclined position.
A glare from the wall sconces bounced off Star’s heavy gold necklace and for a moment, Star was as blinding as her namesake. Iridescia squinted as the light assailed her.
“A magic potion.” Star’s hand extended through the light.
It didn’t sound like she was lying. And poisoning Iridescia would be silly when she easily could have killed Iridescia in whatever way she liked. “What will it do?”
Star shoved the cup forward. “Take it, you stupid child.” She added in a softer tone: “It will open your mind to dreams. The voices of gods and spirits both can be heard in dreams, given the right dreamer.”
So, Iridescia had something Star wanted, which meant she had some power over her. “How do you know these things? You’re a follower of Adonen.” She paused. Star’s marriage to Liberio must be connected to what Hadrianus had done to him in the Haven somehow—she needed to learn more about that, and whatever Liberio was if he wasn’t truly alive. “Why do you want Liberio?”
Star laughed. “I don’t want Liberio. He’s useful, but he’s not important, not in and of himself. Blood calls to blood, and I want our family to be powerful.”
Iridescia wrinkled her nose. Star didn’t want their family to be powerful, or why else kill Iridescia’s mother and try to drown Iridescia? Whatever Star wanted, it was all for herself. Iridescia was merely the means to an end.
“Why can we see the spirits? Tell me or I won’t take your potion.”
Star drew back and the blinding light snapped away, revealing Star’s thin, pursed lips and the poisonous spark in her clever eyes. She forced the cup into Iridescia’s hands.
It was warm.
Iridescia clutched it one-handed without drinking. A transparent, subtly brown liquid sloshed inside, around and around.
“Because we can; because my sister and I were born in the right place; because as a consequence she was allowed to pass her gifts to Tayri and then to you.”
Was Star’s “right place” Wewandjis? That night in the Haven, Star had admitted that she and her sister were the two girls Buqqus had stolen and brought back to Ipsis. The girls had been with him when he’d seen the spirits dotting the mounds in the desert.
Iridescia shivered. “You knew the Great Buqqus. What did he want from you once you were at court?”
Star grimaced, perhaps the first real emotion to have crossed her face since Iridescia had stepped inside the room. “He was no great man. Drink.”
How dangerous would it be to press her luck? Iridescia stared down at the cup. “I can help you better if you tell me about the shadows.”
“Don’t you think that’s what I’m doing? Some things can’t be explained. They must be seen.”
Iridescia drew the cup to her lips. She wanted to know more, and she didn’t trust Star, but she also sensed this was the end of the conversation. Perhaps it didn’t matter. She could ask Miqipsi or return to Adonen’s temple and investigate on her own.
The cup was hot against Iridescia’s lips, and faint sweetness wafted off the liquid. She sipped, expecting a warm tea, but Star’s magic potion was cold.
Her hold on the cup felt loose and limp. Her everything felt loose. She had to fight not to drop the potion.
Iridescia looked back at Star. She’d only sipped the liquid, but her vision had blurred. When she chugged back the rest, the room started to move.
Star’s face melted into her surroundings, while the wall paintings leaped to life, becoming three-dimensional figures that swayed back and forth jabbing swords at one another and dancing. The sombre colours of the room and the flickering of the flames turned virulent, sucking at her eyes with a pulsing rhythm.
The cup was heavy, so heavy, and when Star relieved her of its burden, Iridescia’s eyelids turned heavy too, her neck relaxing onto the bed beneath it.
Everything was blackness.
“What do you see, child?” Star’s voice came from far away, as though Iridescia were deep inside the belly of a cave.
“Sssuh.” Iridescia tried to focus, to draw herself out of the blackness. She was trying to speak, and sounds came out, resounding in her head. Not words though, never words.
The images that took form around her weren’t pictures so much as thoughts. Yet they felt so real. As if she were there.
Her mouth was dry. The air was dry as well, rippling with heat. Sand covered her in a second skin, but the scratchiness of the grains was almost a comfort, as though she’d been here a long time.
She had been here a long time.
Out of the darkness came the desert, wide and hungry. Iridescia had never set foot in real desert before, had only wondered at it from a distance.
A man on a white horse was galloping across the sand. His loose brown robes billowed in the wind, and he wrapped his brown fingers about the hilt of a curved blade as he rode nearer.
A pale horse. A rider. Iridescia felt the words trickle from her fingers without any need of her consent.
“Good.” Star’s voice again, at the mouth of the cave.
In the desert, Iridescia was afraid.
In my hand. A child. A vial.
She looked down. In her left hand she clutched the cloth doll she’d given Tobi. It mustn’t be harmed; she must protect it. In her right was a vial filled with black liquid. There were more such vials in her pack, but they were running out, and now death was coming for them.
I want to be a goddess. I want to live forever with the hot sand between my toes and the sky above me.
Qeshi and Star were in the palace. Star, her sister, was whispering to her.
“I’m afraid,” she said to her sister. “I don’t want to be like Mother.”
Star clutched her hand. “You won’t be. We’ll be like gods; we won’t ever die.”
“I’d rather die than be like Mother. Forever dead, not like Mother.”
“We won’t be like Mother.”
Star’s voice cut through the dream. “Not this. I know this.”
Her words made the world of the palace dissolve, and instead Iridescia was in the Haven. The boat where she lay spun around and around in a lazy circle, the buzz of the insects at her ears—inside her ears—as they bit and burrowed and the smell the smell the smell the smell thick in her nose and when she looked down with her one remaining eye at her hand beneath the fetid water a sliver of fatty tissue from below her thumb floated free and revealed blanched and rotten muscle.
The Haven. The boat. The flies.
“I know this. Stop it.”
Tayri was in the Haven. Auntie was beside her. There were shadow men around the pool. Auntie wanted her to swim in the water, but Tayri was afraid. She didn’t know how to swim.
Then it all disappeared, the scene shifting to the same place, but different. She was someone else, not Tayri any longer.
You told her she wouldn’t be like Mother. You lied.
“I’ve seen this. Leave.”
Water burned her lungs as her father plunged her head beneath the black water of a dark cavern. His face was a blur above her, but she reached for his arms, scraping her fingers over his hands to try and stop him—why was he . . . why did he . . . . She was so sleepy, her blood pouring out of the wound where she’d been stabbed—she’d been stabbed! She remembered the bump and thud as he’d fled down the ancient stairs that led to the flooded cave. Shadow hands reached out from all around her and stroked her cheeks lovingly. She wanted to sleep so badly. But if she slept, she’d never see her family again, and her scorpions . . . .
She opened her eyes.
Iridescia stood inside the palace in Ipsis. Men and women were screaming from all sides. In the audience chamber, blood flowed in streams down the stone steps till it sloshed in the square depression before the thrones. The crevices between tiles overflowed with red.
I’m in the palace.
“What do you see?”
I see blood. A shadow sits on a throne.
“And on the other two?”
Iridescia glanced at the figures in the chairs. Corpses.
Their faces are scratched up.
Why was her sister asking her such hard questions? Why was Auntie so mean? Iridescia began to shake and cry.
A children’s court.
She was in the desert again, a rider bearing down on her. As she turned around she saw that the desert was contained within four great walls, that the horse and rider were a statue. The rider held a severed head in his hand and as he charged toward her he tossed the head at her feet.
A true king in Indas.
“A queen in Indas, a goddess.”
Liberio will live forever.
The thought was like someone else’s voice in her head. The shadows, maybe, speaking to her?
A true king in Indas.
It didn’t sound like the shadows. It was a woman’s voice. She had a Massenqa accent.
Iridescia was in a great stone temple. A circular room lay at the end of a long hallway, ringed with strange glowing windows that showed scenes of people drowning. One of them was Liberio in the tub.
Iridescia shuddered as her feet started moving toward the room on their own. She could just make out a statue at the room’s centre, its back to Iridescia. Stunted feathers spiked from its shoulders, and where its hands should be, a skeleton’s fingers curled and trembled. Its rocky flesh heaved up and down as if beneath its stone prison it was breathing.
A true king in Indas.
A witch of the Western Desert.
“Take me somewhere else.”
Tanata’s stars hung overhead, burning in her eye. She was lying in the sand, tents all around her filled with the people she’d been tasked to save. A Massenqa woman—she thought it was a woman—sat beside her, stoic and unyielding, her short brown hair a tangled mess.
“How do we live with ourselves, when we’ve killed the ones we love?” the woman asked.
“Tell me where you are. Who are you?”
Iridescia didn’t know.
A true king in Indas. A true child of Qemassen. Witch of the Western desert. Prophet of the waterless sea. A man of Lorar.
“Hadrianus? Liberio? Tell me what you mean, child!”
Riders circles her on their black mares, going round and round. Iridescia reached behind her for her vial and deftly spilled its contents on the sand.
Shadows sprang up around her and thunder cracked overhead. Iridescia was sweating from the humidity. A fork of lightning divided the purple sky, and the sand beneath it turned to glass.
Iridescia screamed and opened her eyes. Star’s hands gripped her shoulders, her nails breaking the flesh. Her eyes were so wide it seemed they would burst.
“What did you see?”
Iridescia shook her head. “A man with wings.”