Chapter 17: II: Vivaen
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Chapter 17: Renegades
Bree – The Queen’s Riad: Qemassen
Since the birth of her son, a boy from whom she withheld a name, Bree had taken to sitting in the riad below her bedroom window, gazing into the pool at the centre, and letting the hot autumn air soak her skin. Eaflied accused her of turning native, and perhaps that was true, but it wasn’t the whole of it. No, beautiful as the setting was, Bree preferred her spot beside the pool because here she felt marginally safer than anywhere else.
As if when the Lora came they might raze Qemassen to rubble, yet not be able to breach these four painted walls. Her ease, as it always was, was entirely unearned.
Bree’s child hiccoughed in the arms of the slave who stood rocking him back and forth. The woman craned her neck and cooed at him. She whispered in a soft, hushed tone—whatever secret language other women seemed to know that bandaged a child’s anxious thoughts.
Bree would have liked to hold him, but whenever she did take him in her arms he became an awkward jumble of limbs, and he would start to cry. Instead, she watched him, stupidly jealous of the woman in whose arms her child dreamed happily.
She was a ball of jealousy these days—jealous of her baby’s nurse, jealous of Aurelius’s councillors in their clammy room, wary of Himalit’s distaste, which seemed to have grown rather than shrunk in the face of Atlin’s fall.
Vivaen—no, Bree—tugged at a loose thread of skin in the crook of her nailbed.
Sympathy was apparently a foreign thing to Himalit, but why would Bree have expected anything else? She might have saved Bree’s life at the coronation, but that had been out of duty, not compassion.
With a bitter smile and an unsteady gaze, Bree looked away from the woman who so kindly and gently soothed her son.
Past the enclosed garden with its fruit trees and fountains, and past the double doors leading back inside the ground floor of the queen’s quarters, a small dog had flopped itself down on the patterned tiles in a heap of ragged curls. It looked like a dirty carpet balled up against the wall, blending into the foundations of the palace. A high, pointed arch framed its disguised and contented mess of a body. It was just another hapless passenger on the back of this great beast of a city.
There were dogs like that in Atlin. What had happened to them when the city fell and their masters had been put to the sword or wheeled away as Lora property? What happened to the people Vivaen had known—sailors and fishermen, whores and thieves? Who slept in their beds and wondered at the children’s toys scattered in empty rooms, never to be held again by their masters’ hands?
The dog whined in its sleep—shrill like a child—and Roewyn’s screams echoed throughout the riad.
Vivaen dug her nails into her wrist.
Things like this were why it was better to be Bree.
The sweet smell of hyacinth drifted to her on currents of autumn air. Soon it would be winter, or whatever passed for winter here, and Bree would spend her days trapped inside, smothered by shadow. That is, it would have happened that way, had war not come, had Ossa not lost and been led away in chains to be paraded before the people of Lorar, had Atlin not been burned and ravaged and humiliated.
Why, of all things, did it smell of hyacinths? Hyacinth was a spring flower—the flower from the Feast of Ashtet.
Bree stroked her fingers along her arm nervously, feeling a wet trickling sensation against her skin, not wholly realizing what it was until she looked and saw that she’d drawn blood. She swallowed, looking up at the sky, trying to let the beauty of this place bring her peace and silence. Her lip trembled and she bit down on it, startled out of her tremors when she felt a friendly hand close about her shoulder.
“Digging your nails into someone else’s skin? I might get jealous.”
Bree glared at Aurelius, stifling a smile. He might have made a scene out of concern, but he knew better than to have done so. He always knew the better way to calm her.
“You’ll have a lot of men to be jealous of then,” she teased. She crooked her finger at the slave, directing the woman to bring Aurelius’s son to them.
She’d grown too used to this luxury. It was dangerous.
The slave carried the nameless prince to Bree, but Bree gave Aurelius a nudge. “You take him. He doesn’t like me.”
Aurelius laughed. “He doesn’t like anything besides eating right now. He’s barely been alive long enough for anything more complicated.”
And so much of the first three months had been spent with Ashenqa of Tanata hovering nearby, swaddling him in warm blankets and fidgeting over every upset. He probably thought the heq-Ashqen of Tanata was his mother.
Bree shook her head. “No, I can tell. I make him nervous.”
“He makes you nervous, you mean.” Aurelius held her gaze as he took their baby. The child gurgled in Aurelius’s arms.
“Perhaps,” Bree admitted.
Aurelius sat beside her on the bench.
She hesitated, but then she rested her head against his shoulder. She was still so tired all the time.
The baby stirred in Aurelius’s arms, opening his eyes one at a time as though they’d been stuck shut. It was hard to imagine he’d come from her, fully formed and animate. He had his father’s tight, black curls, Vivaen—no, Bree’s—pale skin. He had strangely large ears that stuck out at the sides, and he cried often and loudly.
Bree loved him. It was horrible.
Aurelius stroked the child’s hair and smiled. “I wish you’d let me name him. It makes him hard to refer to.”
Bree shook her head. On this she was adamant. “Naming a child that soon is bad luck. We can’t.”
Especially for a child born early. Any other family would likely have left him for the crows.
Bree’s chest tightened and she clenched her fists.
She wouldn’t imagine that.
As though sensing her disquiet, Aurelius reached for her hand and squeezed her fingers in his own. He drew her hand to the child.
The baby grasped her finger greedily, as though he might eat it. Bree wiggled her stolen finger back and forth. When the child smiled at her, it was impossible not to smile back.
Aurelius grinned. “How about Little Nobody, then? Surely you can’t complain at that?”
Bree glared at him playfully, one eyebrow raised. “If you say it like a name, it’s a name. Names are bad luck.”
They could be used, abused, twisted and killed. Brees and Vivaens and Roewyns could die or be replaced, and the gods knew anyone Vivaen loved was doomed to be taken.
“You’re too loose with these things,” Bree continued. “You’re always getting into trouble and then getting me into trouble with you. I won’t let you get him into trouble as well. He’s going to be sensible like his mother.”
Aurelius smile never faded. “Sensible?” He leaned down to nip at her neck. “I’ll have to do something about that.”
Bree gave her husband a shove. She cocked her chin in the direction of the slave-girl. “Not while she’s here. And you don’t make me insensible, I can promise you that.”
He did though. They both knew it. If he didn’t, she might have been married to Ashtaroth long ago, fawning over a different child and dreading her husband’s company. The fact that even Aurelius was her husband frightened her sometimes, as though granting that, too, a name, was ill luck for them. Was Bree truly his wife in any real sense? She wasn’t Bree, not underneath, not in her bones. Aurelius eq-Eshmunen had never married Vivaen.
“You’re lying,” Aurelius whispered into her ear, and she felt herself blush.
“I’d be careful,” she teased. “I’ve had both brothers, why not the sisters too?” She smirked, enjoying Aurelius’s expression a little too much.
Aurelius laughed the comment off. “Hima, maybe, but you’d have a hard time convincing Qwella. She’s as unblemished as Ashtaroth, and twice as pious.”
“Sesa?” came a man’s voice.
Bree reached instinctively for her son, relaxing when she recognized Cheti standing beneath an arch, hands folded.
He was here to take Aurelius away, as always.
“You’re going to leave now, aren’t you?” Bree tried not to sound annoyed, but it was difficult.
Aurelius squeezed her hand. “What is it, Cheti?”
“Titrit, Sese. She has an important matter to discuss with you.”
A face appeared to Bree—thin and long, unremarkable, but rigid. Titrit still barely spoke to Bree, even now that she was part of Aurelius’s council.
She’d fucked Aurelius for a while, ages ago, according to Djana.
“Is it urgent?” asked Aurelius. “I’m with my family.”
“Apologies, Sese, but she insisted.” Cheti glanced Bree’s way as though suspicious of her. Since the Feislands had fallen, such looks had become disturbingly common, as though the Massenqa would blame Eaflied, Bree, and Fritha for the loss of Qemassen’s ally.
As though they awaited a new and better queen, with fresh armies and land to grant that wasn’t fenced with Lora swords.
Bree shot Cheti her coldest stare. He had enough humility to look ashamed, turning to admire what was no doubt a most fascinating piece of masonry on the wall opposite.
Aurelius sighed, but he was already shifting beside her, getting up, ready to pass their son to Bree and make his exit. It was just as well. She would have to get used to holding her child eventually, and she wasn’t sure she could stand another afternoon watching the slave rock him to sleep.
“I’ll come,” Aurelius said, “but in future, unless the matter is of absolute importance, I would not be disturbed. Unless the moon has fallen from the sky and the Lora are at the gates, no one is to interrupt us.”
She half-believed him, half-taken in by that smile of his, and the playful glint in his eye as he turned her way. She half-believed him, but the other half was resigned to disappointment, a feeling that offered a poisonous safety.
Bree reluctantly released Aurelius’s hand, then took her child in her arms. He was heavy—Lepti’s doing no doubt. She held him tight at first, afraid he would fall, but he started to squirm, and she loosened her grip. He wrapped his fat little fingers around her black locks and tugged. Bree stuck out her tongue at him and screwed her face up in a snarl.
The child giggled, the little monster.
Cheti bowed and hurried away on his mousy feet, past the dog in the hallway, and around a corner. Aurelius soon followed, though he glanced back at Bree longingly before he vanished.
With the king gone, it was eerily quiet again, only the bubbling of the fountains and the distant call of the gulls for music. Bree might have called for a musician, but she still had no heart for Massenqa music, and Feislanda songs only reminded her of Atlin.
With a lack of anything else to do while awaiting the king’s return, Bree addressed the slave. She was new, and perhaps she might prove a superior companion to her predecessors. She was certainly quieter—less of a gossip.
“What’s your name?”
The girl looked up. She was very young, barely fourteen to look at her, though fat still from bearing her own child. She had an upturned nose, and terrible spots on her face that marred what would otherwise have been a pretty countenance. The girl parted her lips to speak, shyly fiddling with a strand of pale brown hair that had been plaited to one side. “Simani, Sese, from Yuba to the West.”
Simani. It was a beautiful name, harmonious and sweet, not hard and curt like her own.
“Where’s that? I haven’t heard of it before.”
The girl brightened at the conversation, fingers and hands gesturing enthusiastically now that she’d been asked a question. “It’s a Massenqa town, Sese―well, a village really. I grew up there with my brothers and sister.”
Bree frowned. “Then why are you here if you were no slave?”
Simani was poised to tell her, when a louder, more masculine voice interrupted her.
“Because her family sold her to me.”
Bree looked up.
The silhouette of Qanmi eq-Sabaal stood just beyond the double doors leading back into the palace. As he stepped to the threshold and leaned against the door frame, sunlight illuminated his smile. He snapped his fingers and the little dog bolted upright and trotted off.
Simani stood to trot off with it.
“I can dismiss my own slaves. Or am I wrong to call myself queen?” It was the first time Bree had referred to herself in such a way, and it had the strength to stop Simani in her tracks. The girl looked questioningly between Bree and the merchant.
Qanmi grinned. “Are you queen? I heard that title belonged to a woman with a somewhat poorer constitution.”
Bree hugged the baby to her chest. He let out a wail, but this time she wasn’t willing to loosen her hold. He’d just have to suffer through it.
“Simani, you can go.” Bree hurriedly waved Simani away. The slave dashed back the way Qanmi had come, into the guts of the palace.
How, precisely, Qanmi had come by his knowledge, Bree couldn’t guess, but he’d obviously decided there was more profit in keeping her secret than revealing it. Still, playing the fool was worth a try. Perhaps he was seeking to trap her into confirming something he only suspected.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
That twisted, gold-toothed smile would have made a true queen quake.
He knew. She could tell by the burning intensity in his eyes.
“Vivaen,” he mused. “That’s the name you were born with, wasn’t it? A shame you had to discard it—it’s rather beautiful.”
He stepped toward her, and Bree got up, ready to run.
But her son was in her arms.
She should never have taken him. She should have left him with Simani and then she easily could have run.
Bree backed away till the crinkling leaves of a browning tree scratched her stola. “What do you want? Touch me and I’ll scream so loud the whole court will come running.”
Qanmi tilted his head back just a little, enough to make it clear he was ravaging her with his eyes. “What I want, I should think, is fairly obvious.” He let a dog’s distant bark tear his attention from her, playing at disinterest as he rubbed one of the rings on his fingers. “You’re of no importance now that Atlin is Lorar’s. It would suit a great many if Aurelius were to put you aside, or at least take a second wife. Perhaps even my daughter.”
Qanmi had clearly planned this well. Aurelius was with Titrit now, a woman Bree was suddenly sure could confirm Bree’s identity as much as her father could.
Her baby squealed in what sounded like pain.
Bree stood strong, emphasizing her height with a sharp tilt of her neck. She’d handled men like Qanmi eq-Sabaal before—perhaps not men of such rank, but if she thought of him as another alehouse drunk, she could summon Vivaen to deal with him, instead of Bree the fawning princess. Qanmi was the one who’d dredged up Bree’s former life, and by the end of this, he would regret it.
“Then you don’t know my husband. He loves me like the sun loves the moon. He’d have you killed rather than believe you. And if he didn’t, I would. You forget who I am.” She’d never spoken so imperiously, never let the reality of her position as one of the Semassenqa rear so fiercely inside her, but she felt it now, with her son nestled against her, and her anger pressed close to her heart.
Qanmi’s smile never faded from his lips. His stare never wavered from her face. It was as though he were an actor whose entire likeness had been painted on and could be removed just as easily. “Prince Aurelius has never loved a thing in his life that he didn’t discard the next day. He loves you now with a fire as hot as the one they should have cast him into, but he won’t love you forever, and if there was ever a reason for removing you, you’ve happily provided one.”
Bree took another step closer to Qanmi’s face, so close his foul breath could be felt on her cheeks, so close she warmed his cheeks with her own. “King Aurelius. And you speak to the mother of your future king.”
Qanmi wiggled his fingers in the air. Her nameless son giggled as he watched them.
“You’re not the mother of a king.” Qanmi’s voice was smooth as polished stone, full of the ease and comfort of a lazy afternoon, of a courtier unaccustomed to hardship or want. “You’re the mother of a bastard child. Qemassen’s had its fill of them.”
Bree wanted to slap him away, but she wouldn’t give Qanmi the satisfaction. “You can’t deny Aurelius and I are married; it was a public ceremony. Half the city must have watched us.”
Qanmi lifted his narrow chin, staring at the baby wrapped in his thin cotton shawl. His narrow eyebrows peaked—worms on his face. “Bastards can be made as well as born. You should know that better than anyone. Aurelius was the firstborn, the intended heir, yet Samelqo read an omen on a dusty old papyrus and suddenly that birthright meant nothing.” Qanmi’s bright eyes seemed to flash as he looked up at her from beneath his lashes. “Then Ashtaroth’s destiny was erased by the waves, carried off to drown quietly and out of sight. How quickly fate seems to change her mind; how fickle is her love for her children. But you, you I can see love your boy very much. Enough, I’m sure, not to unleash a nation’s hatred on him.”
Qanmi inched closer.
Bree’s choice to draw herself up against him had been an obvious mistake.
He closed his fingers around her arm. His metal rings and jewelled bracelets dug into her, his fingertips angled just enough to pinch.
She started to tug herself away but remembered her son and stood fast. She couldn’t trust Qanmi not to hurt him, and she’d allowed herself to be goaded into believing she was in control.
Bree had spent so much time constructing herself, remaking herself as the princess and the dutiful wife, that she’d neglected what Vivaen had always been good at. Vivaen had been a spy and a cheat and an alley-walker. She’d known all the secrets in Atlin, had overseen and deployed and manipulated them to her liking, and here she was now, facing Qemassen’s version of herself, and she had not a crumb to bribe or threaten him with, not a morsel with which to fight back. Bree had ignored and hidden what she was, made a good woman of herself, paid no mind to the Semassenqa and their schemes, and all for this, so she could be blackmailed like an incompetent.
But she kept her head held high, even as her legs told her to flee and seek some corner in which to hide. As long as Qanmi and his daughter knew who she was, Bree would never be safe in Qemassen. It would be wisest, kindest even, to leave now and never look back. She ought to cut her losses and buy passage abroad with the trifles in her palace rooms.
It would be wisest and kindest, but Bree had never been kind. If there was a chance she could remain, that she might keep Aurelius for her own, then she would try. Imagining him in the arms of another was too hideous a prospect.
“Simani!” Bree yelled the girl’s name. She was certain the whole retinue of chiseled slave-boys and grizzled old serving maids must have heard her. It mattered little. Qanmi eq-Sabaal had made a request of her, and she was inclined, for now, to honour it.
If Aurelius knew what she did for him. If he knew how she bled.
She ripped her arm from Qanmi’s grasp, enjoying the fleeting look of surprise and disappointment on his face.
They stood like that for a long time, until Simani stumbled into the riad. She panted and bent over. “Sese,” she hiccoughed.
Bree held out her son in reply. “Take him to my rooms.”
Simani reached for the child tentatively, obviously doing her best to pretend she didn’t notice how roughly Qanmi held Bree’s arm.
“Go,” Bree repeated. If Simani was Qanmi’s creature, Bree couldn’t trust her to help.
She didn’t turn to watch Simani leave. Instead, she kept her eyes focused on the heavens.
Qanmi released her, and she sucked in a breath before unclasping her stola. A few choice tugs and the fabric pooled at her feet.
Far away, the clouds drifted across the path of the sun, shielding it from view.
As Qanmi reached for her, Bree’s skin trembled, and she hissed from behind gritted teeth, the only sound she would make for him, the only movement. “Pray that no one sees you, or the death you suffer will last a thousand times the pain you cause me.”
Qanmi tilted his head so that his braids hung all the way to his elbow, taking her chin in his hand and forcing her to look at him directly. He was older than she was by about twenty years, but it was as though time had stopped for this one, his age so unreadable. In another context, she might have called him handsome.
Did that make it easier? Should Bree feel ashamed if it did?
He smiled as he stroked her cheek. “I think you’d best pray as hard as I, dear queen. You’re the one everyone’s watching. You’re the one everyone’s waiting to see fall.”