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Chapter 16: Generals
Iridescia – Mount Nuna: Ipsis: Indas
“You have to be quick,” Iridescia signed to Roewyn and Liberio as they marched uphill toward the Haven, the late summer sun beating down on their shoulders.
Meeting like this was stupid. Iridescia knew it was stupid. Roewyn knew it was stupid. Liberio—well, Liberio was stupid, so Iridescia couldn’t exactly blame him, but both she and Roewyn should know better.
Roewyn gave Iridescia’s forearm a gentle squeeze. “We will be.” She smiled like it was a promise. Her words turned to a whisper, quiet so Liberio couldn’t hear her from ahead of them. “He needs me. I know you don’t understand, but this is very hard for him.”
Months ago, a comment like that from Roewyn would have sent Iridescia running off, but she did understand, maybe more than Roewyn herself. Iridescia had been there for the wedding, when Hadrianus had smashed Liberio’s face into the table. She lived at the palace where every day, Liberio was called to Star’s bedchamber, and where Star fawned over her husband like she actually cared for him or wanted him. Iridescia knew better than to think Star really did care—it was a joke made at Liberio’s expense. Only Star and Hadrianus were laughing.
“It’s not that.” Iridescia swallowed the knot in her throat that still formed when she thought of Roewyn’s lips brushing Liberio’s, her hands wrapping around his back, her legs . . . . “I know he needs you, and you need him. That’s why I’m helping you see each other.”
Sticks snapped and damp grass squished beneath Liberio’s feet. Iridescia winced. She cast an anxious glance behind them, but the bald patch of mountain they’d left behind was empty of any spies. “But worse things could happen to you now, if Star finds out.”
And now that Iridescia had spoken to Star about her dreams and let Star feed her that strange potion, Iridescia didn’t have anything left that she could use to bargain for Roewyn’s life. Iridescia had nothing at all to fight with unless she discovered how to summon the shadows like she had the night of Star’s attack. Miqipsi might know, but was it safe to ask him?
“We’ll be careful,” Roewyn repeated. Her head drooped and she stared at the grass. Her gaze looked very far away. “I know what it is to be frightened of someone so much stronger than you.”
Liberio, who must have heard Roewyn despite the whisper, twisted his head to look back at her. “You don’t need to be frightened.” He wiggled his fingers for Roewyn to take, but if she saw she didn’t acknowledge him.
“I’m not, most of the time. I don’t let it rule me.” She glanced at Iridescia.
Liberio’s hand dropped to his side. “I told you I’d protect you. Both of you.” He met Iridescia’s gaze. “Not everyone supports my father.”
Iridescia frowned. “Everyone important does.”
Roewyn translated for her.
Liberio’s face split into a foolhardy grin. “And how would you know? I have men who’ll listen to me. As soon as I get confirmation from my Qarnaaman that Marianus is dead, we strike.”
Who was we? Iridescia’s skin prickled. “Strike who?”
“Hadrianus. Star.” Liberio shrugged. “The whole lot of them.”
Roewyn shielded her eyes as though the sunlight piercing the trees had blinded her. “Even you can’t think one Qarnaaman will be enough to tear them down.”
“You’re not listening,” Liberio said. “I have more than one person ready to fight for me.”
“The Lora will execute you,” Iridescia signed. How likely was it that Liberio would survive a second death?
“I’m not afraid of them,” Liberio boasted.
Roewyn grabbed a passing branch and pulled. She smoothed one of the leaves between her fingers. “Don’t underestimate them. I saw a lot of cruelty as a child, but the Lora were the worst. Our skald used to spin stories of the Aeshqommaeni warriors from the far north—men who dressed themselves in wolf pelts and sharpened and painted their teeth red before battle. When my father took my sister and I to see one of the villages they’d destroyed, the ground was so soaked with blood I mistook the houses for brick instead of thatch.” Roewyn let the branch whip back with a snap. “The Lora didn’t need to try to make themselves frightening. Instead of villages strewn with corpses, they left emptiness behind. They carted off every body they could to sell as slaves, and those they killed they burned. Everything they did was so precise. Every piece of armour and every weapon identical. My sister and I ran from them, but how do you outrun the sun itself?” She turned and looked at Iridescia. “I was lucky I was caught. I’ll never know what happened to Vivaen—whether she starved to death running east, or if the Lora captured her somewhere else. Maybe an Aeshqommaeni warrior found her and ripped into her with his sharp red teeth.”
Iridescia shuddered. She stared into the trees to her right, half expecting a giant with yellow hair and bloodstained lips to leap out of the forest and bite her. “It must have been like that here, too.” Iridescia was suddenly very glad she hadn’t been alive during the Troubles, even if it would have meant getting to visit the pagan temples before they’d become illegal.
“Maybe a little,” Roewyn said. She cocked her head to the side. “What was done here was a different kind of evil. More insidious.”
“It is insidious.” Liberio tromped ahead. “That’s why I’m going to stop it. The army here doesn’t care about Hadrianus. If anything, they resent him. No one would punish me for killing him.”
Iridescia swallowed. It wasn’t simple like that. If Hadrianus did die, what if one of his generals—Azaelian or Sardo—decided he wanted to be king of Indas instead? Azaelian an Sardo’s troops would follow them, not Liberio.
Iridescia tugged Roewyn’s sleeve so she could translate Iridescia’s signs. “A lot of people in Indas would want to be king.”
“Let’s talk on lighter things.” Roewyn smiled conspiratorially at Iridescia, like Iridescia shouldn’t hear such terrible things, though Iridescia had been the one to sign the words herself.
A sharp wind blew the through the tunnel created by the path, and the summer-ripened leaves rustled all along the way. Already the leaves were turning, their edges glowing orange and brown like a slow-burning fire had alit upon their tips. In a month’s time they’d fall, draping the heights of Mount Nuna in a copper shawl and leaving the rest of her bare so that the hill would no longer be such a great hiding place.
The Haven itself never changed. Even in winter, the trees there never seemed to lose their leaves.
Iridescia’s skin tingled as though someone had touched her. She’d never thought on the strangeness of the Haven, at least not in that way.
She stared at Liberio’s loping back. If the trees in the Haven never changed, did that mean the people killed there didn’t either? Liberio had been a child when Hadrianus and Star had murdered him, but he’d grown to manhood all the same. In stories, magic had rules, but they weren’t always rules that humans could understand. Somehow that made it all the more frightening.
Roewyn skipped ahead and clasped Liberio’s hand. She leaned in and quickly stole a kiss, provoking a laugh from Iridescia’s dead brother.
They’d want some privacy inside the Haven, Iridescia knew. When their time together became so scarce, they didn’t want to waste it entertaining Iridescia.
The tightness in Iridescia’s throat returned and she ran to Roewyn’s side. She tugged on Roewyn’s arm.
Instead of complaining or trying to make Roewyn stay with her, Iridescia smiled. “I’ll stay here and keep watch.”
Roewyn stopped walking, forcing Liberio, who she was still clinging onto, to stumble.
Liberio cursed and glared Iridescia’s way.
Iridescia glared right back. She was doing him a favour, even if he didn’t realize it.
“Are you sure you’ll be safe on your own?” Roewyn asked.
Liberio’s expression softened. That was something at least.
“No one’s looking for me,” Iridescia reasoned. “It’s you who’s in danger.”
Roewyn bit her lip, brow furrowed, but quick as lightning her pained expression vanished and was replaced by gratitude. She let go of Liberio and pulled Iridescia into a warm hug. “Thank you.”
Iridescia wanted to cry, but she held it back. Only when Roewyn and Liberio were safely far away up the path where they couldn’t possibly see her did she let herself sniffle a little.
“Is someone there?” Miqipsi’s voice echoed from back the way Iridescia had come.
Miqipsi was making for the Haven.
Iridescia shot up. She stood in the middle of the path as she waited for Miqipsi to appear. She couldn’t let him see Roewyn and Liberio—after his betrayal, who knew who he might tell? Iridescia wanted to believe he wouldn’t give Roewyn up to Star, but she wouldn’t have thought him capable of giving up Tobi’s family either.
At last, Miqipsi appeared, huffing from exertion. A long, peculiar flask rattled at his belt, strapped there with leather thongs.
“Iridescia!” Miqipsi grinned one of his big, beaming grins.
Iridescia swallowed her doubts and ran to meet him, smiling right back. “What are you doing up here?” She couldn’t help but glance at the flask. Was it to fetch some of the water from the Haven to send to Marianus? He must not know the senator was dead.
“Can’t an old man go for a walk without being questioned?” He rubbed his eyes as though from tiredness. “Even I need an escape from your aunt sometimes.” He patted Iridescia’s shoulder. “Come, why don’t we walk together.”
He made a move as if to continue along the path and Iridescia hopped into his way. “I had something I needed to ask you about.”
Iridescia pursed her lips, praying Miqipsi wouldn’t insist they keep walking as she spoke.
“Please.” She scrunched her shoulders and hunched over in a begging pose. “I can’t ask anyone else. It’s about the water.”
She hadn’t prepared for the cold horror that froze Miqipsi’s face. “What water?”
“The water from the Haven that . . . .” She hesitated. She couldn’t tell Miqipsi everything. Some things had to be secret, like that Liberio had been brought back to life. “Summons the shadows.” She crossed her arms to show him she wasn’t budging, and she wasn’t going to let him just hide things from her.
Miqipsi started to reach his hand behind Iridescia’s back as though to coax her to him, or draw her out of the path. “Iridescia—”
Iridescia stepped out of his reach. “I heard you talking about spying for Marianus. You’re trying to get the water for him. Tell me what it does or I’ll tell my aunt all about what you’re up to.”
She hadn’t been prepared for the guilt. It struck her before her betrayal even had time to settle on Miqipsi’s face.
“You don’t know what you ask,” Miqipsi said.
Iridescia stomped her foot. “I do know. I’m not a child anymore. The spirits talk to me in the Haven. Star told me my mother’s ghost is one of them. She said we can control the spirits and I want to know why.”
Miqipsi reached for her again and Iridescia stumbled back.
He stepped toward her.
She stepped back.
Miqipsi made to dart around her, and she thrust out her arm, blocking his path.
“Is something up there that you don’t want me to see?” Miqipsi stared up the path, then back at Iridescia.
Iridescia’s lip trembled. She shook her head no.
Miqipsi laid his hand on Iridescia’s arm and gently pushed it down. “Marianus won’t be able to use the water, so it doesn’t matter if I collect it for him.”
“How do you know he can’t?” Iridescia maintained a glare.
Miqipsi hung his head, fiddling with a pouch at his waist. He slipped his hand inside, knuckles twitching like he was rolling ginger drops in his fingers. “When I trained with the Djeberetza in eq-Anout, I met a scholar and their daughter who studied such things. They shared some of their knowledge with me. The water only speaks when it wants to be heard, and even then only few can listen. I had a theory, that the peoples who lived here thousands of years ago bred that power into themselves and that those who can speak to the spirits now are their descendants.” His eyes glazed over with thought. Iridescia could practically feel the sand slipping beneath her feet as he transported himself back to the desert tower where the Djeberetza studied. “Meg thought it was only the ancient priests or kings who—It doesn’t matter. Those who have the talent have it, and those who don’t will never be able to create it in themselves.”
“Marianus could have that power.” Iridescia didn’t see why not.
“When someone is like you,” Miqipsi said, his voice slipping on its teacherly tone like a cloak, though a danger and a warning thrummed in his words, “they draw and are drawn to the others. Would Marianus have remained in Lorar all these years if he was anything like what you are?”
Gold-tipped leaves tickled Iridescia’s shoulder where she stood just slightly off the path. Were the shadows whispering through the trees? She swallowed, a dark feeling creeping over her. The summer sun was cool now on her skin. Clouds covered its light.
Iridescia hunched toward the protective cover of the trees. “Are you one of them—one of us?”
Miqipsi smiled. “No.”
“So why do you care?”
“I care about you.” Miqipsi took a huge step back. “I’m not your enemy, Iridescia. I’ve only ever been a protector and a friend.”
She wanted so much to believe him. Iridescia searched his eyes for hints of a lie but found nothing. He was Miqipsi. Just Miqipsi. It made what she was about to ask so much harder. “Like you protected Liberio?”
“What happened at the wedding was an atrocity, but Hadrianus won’t live forever.”
The wedding. Did Miqipsi not realize Liberio was dead? Or maybe he was only pretending he didn’t understand what Iridescia truly meant.
“Teach me how to summon the shadows.” Iridescia hardened her heart. “And I’ll make sure he doesn’t.”
The birds and insects had gone silent. Iridescia’s heartbeat quickened—how long ago was it since she’d heard them? It couldn’t have been her words that had silenced them.
“I couldn’t teach you if I wanted to,” Miqipsi answered. “I wouldn’t want to if I did know.”
Lies lies lies came a voice from the stillness and Iridescia whipped around. Her braids slapped her shoulder.
The path in the direction of the Haven lay empty.
“Iridescia?” Miqipsi’s footsteps crunched behind her. “Did you hear them just now? What did they say?”
Iridescia bit her lip. She looked from Miqipsi to the path and back again.
Should she trust the spirits, or Miqipsi? Right now, she didn’t want to choose either of them. She wanted to run to the Haven and wrap her arms around Roewyn and forget the shadows and Hadrianus and all of it.
“Some of the dead people come back,” Iridescia dared. She wasn’t going to learn anything without taking a risk.
Miqipsi’s weathered face crinkled, but it wasn’t a happy expression. “Some of the dead people come back,” he repeated. “Those ones are drawn to each other even more strongly than all the rest.”
After drinking Star’s potion, Iridescia had been shown a room filled with glass images of people in the water. One of them had been Liberio. Were the other people from the images revenants like her brother? She couldn’t remember their faces. She should have paid more attention, but the world of the vision had spun so fast and Iridescia had been drawn to Liberio’s face like a bee to a flower.
She’d felt the water flood her lungs though, closing over her inside a dark cave. She hadn’t been Iridescia in that vision, but another girl. She’d been afraid and in pain, and then confused as a man she thought was her father shoved her beneath the black water. Was that girl one of them?
“Why do some of them come back?” Iridescia signed. “How can you see who they are?”
Miqipsi shook his head. “You can’t. They could be anyone—as long as they have the blood it can happen. Or so we believe.” He held out his hand. “Iridescia, it’s far too dangerous to toy with such things. I watched a man drown himself in search of something he thought was godhood. Most won’t wake, and it’s no blessing for those who do. Come back to the palace with me.”
Liberio will live forever. The voice in the vision had spoken those words. To live forever would be worth more than enough for most people to risk death.
“Godhood?” Liberio was just an ordinary person.
“Iridescia.” Miqipsi stretched his hand further. “We can speak at the palace.”
Why did he want to return to the palace so suddenly? Iridescia narrowed her eyes. “I want to talk here.”
“Star already knows I work for Marianus. She doesn’t care. All she cares about is the water. Iridescia, I want to help you, but we should leave now. Nothing good will come of being here.”
Here because of the shadows, or here because of something else?
From behind Miqipsi, indistinct voices echoed over the hillside. The slap of soldiers’ armour was unmistakable.
Roewyn’s scream thrilled through the air, followed by men shouting. The noise was coming from both directions. Star’s men, or Hadrianus’s guards, or whoever they were, had been waiting in the Haven.
Iridescia stared pleadingly at Miqipsi. “You led them here? Roewyn and Liberio are in the Haven. They’re you’re friends.”
Miqipsi cast a glance over his shoulder. “It wasn’t me.” He ushered Iridescia into the trees. “Tobi—”
Iridescia slapped him and dashed from his arms and into the dense brush. The branches didn’t reach for her but instead seemed to part so subtly she almost doubted what she was seeing. She followed the hollow all the way to the entrance to the Haven.
“Iridescia!” Miqipsi yelled after her.
Roewyn lolled unconscious in the grip of two guards. Liberio lay nearby on the grassy earth. He wasn’t moving.
Star stood opposite the guards holding Roewyn, shielded by three more tall men.
“My husband’s whore,” Star said. “Take her to the dungeons for questioning.”