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Chapter 18: Saviours
Iridescia – The Palace: Ipsis: Indas
Iridescia skidded to a stop at the sound of voices. She pressed herself as flat as she could against the palace wall. Sharp corners of carved faces dug into her back from an ancient relief, but she held still, bathed in shadow as two courtiers gossiped their way down the corridor.
“—seemed surprised that Marianus is alive.”
“You think he was sick?”
As soon as the courtiers turned down another hallway, Iridescia bolted for the servants’ passage she’d used months ago.
She had to reach Liberio’s rooms.
Roewyn had been in Star’s clutches almost a week to the day, and Iridescia had spent every minute of each of those days trapped in her room and imagining ways to rescue her. All Iridescia’s guests had been pre-approved, and she’d only been allowed to see Liberio when Star herself was present. Last time, Liberio had slipped Iridescia a message on a scrap of papyrus.
Hadrianus’s troops march east two days from now.
Guards from all over the palace had been commandeered to attend Hadrianus’s grand speech, including the guards responsible for watching Iridescia’s door. But locks couldn’t bar supple fingers, and Iridescia had made short work of hers.
Iridescia couldn’t free Roewyn alone. She didn’t even know how to get to her. If she could get to Liberio, the two of them could escape the palace and make a plan.
Two slaves carrying bowls of water entered the narrow corridor from a hidden doorway and Iridescia lowered her head. With her braids tucked under a plain white headscarf and her stola traded for a pale brown tunic, hopefully they’d think her one of their own.
“Sorry,” one of the slaves said as she squeezed past Iridescia.
Iridescia flattened herself against the wall to let them pass and nodded after them. Neither of the slaves paid her any mind, focused on balancing the water. Before they could take a second look, Iridescia scampered off. She kept her head down all the way to the stairs leading to Liberio’s rooms. None of the other slaves she passed took any notice.
Alone now, Iridescia hesitated before the steps.
The passage upwards was dark, the sconces that should have born light-giving torches left empty. In the darkness, the stone steps seemed steeper and harder to climb—a cave mouth ready to swallow her whole.
Roewyn needed her.
Iridescia ran straight up the stairs without looking back and beat her fists against the door.
There was a latch on Iridescia’s side. She slid the latch open, but the door wouldn’t push inwards—it was locked from Liberio’s side. She banged on the door again.
From within came the sound of a chair scraping stone, then footsteps.
Star. It could easily be Star inside and not Liberio at all—or maybe they were both inside. They’d open the door and Star would grab Iridescia and—
Iridescia took two steps back, fists clenched, ready to run.
“Hello?” Liberio called. “Meri?”
Iridescia froze. Meri must be one of his slaves. Hopefully Liberio liked Meri because there was no way for Iridescia to tell him otherwise.
There was a thump and a clink as Liberio slid the key into the lock and unbolted the door. It opened with a creak.
Iridescia held her breath. Star could still be inside, though Liberio’s tone suggested otherwise. She braced herself against the wall just in case the door opened on Star’s evil face and Star tried to push her down the stairs.
“Iridescia.” Liberio stood in front of her, flush in the cheeks as though he were sick.
Not sick. Crying. He’d been crying.
Iridescia took the last two steps up to him and signed to him beneath the light emanating from his room. “We have to get Roewyn, while your father’s distracted.”
Liberio rubbed his eyes and opened the door wider. “Get Roewyn.” He waved at the door. “There’s guards all over the place down in the dungeons.”
Iridescia stomped inside the room. “We have to try.” She cast her pleading gaze on him. “If you won’t go, I’ll go alone.”
There wasn’t even Tobi to help her—not after he’d betrayed Roewyn to Star. Star had promised him she’d free his mother if he spied for her, but there’d been no mother to free. Tobi’s mother had died in the Haven.
Liberio slammed the door shut behind Iridescia. “And you’ll die or get captured and I’ll have to save both of you. Iridescia, there’s no way. I haven’t even been allowed to see Azaelian or Sardo—no one loyal to me.”
And today, both Liberio’s so-called friends would march out with Hadrianus.
Iridescia walked to the main entrance to Liberio’s chambers and pressed her ear to the door. There were still men outside. If she and Liberio did escape, they’d need to use the servants’ tunnels. They could try running through the water room again. From there, they could reach the foot of Mount Nuna.
Iridescia pulled herself from the door. “The shadows.” She strode right up to her stupid half-brother. “In the Haven, the shadows promised to help me.”
For a moment, Liberio looked puzzled, like he hadn’t understood. Iridescia signed for him again, more simply and slowly.
“What shadows?” Liberio frowned. “You mean like in Buqqus’s scrolls?”
Iridescia bit her lip. She nodded emphatically. “I promise it’s true. I see them. They talk to me. And if I ask them, they’ll help me. I know they’ll help me.”
Liberio scoffed. “What good are shadows against steel?”
Iridescia had to tell him. “They tore Star’s men apart. I think they did anyway.” She held out her hands, palms up. She hung her head. “Please.” He loved Roewyn, didn’t he? He hated Star. What more could he need to convince him?
But before Iridescia could sign anything else, Liberio snapped his fingers.
Iridescia looked up.
Liberio was grinning. “My Qarnaaman. He’s here in Ipsis—I know where to find him.” He grabbed Iridescia by the wrist and pulled her back to the servant’s entrance. “A Qarnaaman could take any guards my father’s set down there.”
A Qarnaaman. Liberio must mean the man he’d hired to kill Marianus. Iridescia tugged free as Liberio hauled open the servants’ door.
“Marianus isn’t dead. Your Qarnaaman failed.” At least, that’s what Iridescia had overheard those courtiers saying. “We need to go to the Haven.”
Liberio tsked. “Didn’t you pay attention to anything you read in the temple? Buqqus’s companion was a Qarnaaman and he knew about the shadows, right? So maybe this one will know too.”
Iridescia followed Liberio back downstairs, unsure whether or not he’d understood anything she’d signed.
He wasn’t wrong. The Great Buqqus’s writing had talked about a Qarnaaman—Hiempsal if she remembered correctly. Had Hiempsal known anything about the shadows? She couldn’t remember, but at the very least he’d witnessed the same things Buqqus had. He’d been with Buqqus in Wewandjis the night Buqqus had dug up the body that angered the spirits.
At the bottom of the stairs, Iridescia grabbed Liberio by the shoulders and coaxed him to face her.
“All right. We visit your Qarnaaman, but if we can’t find him, we go straight to the Haven.” She bit her lip, praying he’d agree. If he didn’t, she had no way to make him, and this wasn’t something she was sure she could do alone. They were stronger together, and if Star had left any guards at all up on Mount Nuna, then Liberio was the only one of the two of them who could fight them.
Liberio cleared his throat. “Okay. We will. I trust you.”
Iridescia hugged him. She hadn’t planned to, wasn’t used to hugging him, but it just happened. Tears sprung to her eyes as he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a gentle squeeze in return. In his warm embrace, she could really believe he was her brother. She maybe even wanted him to be.
Reluctantly, she pulled free. “We have to leave. Before Star notices we’re gone. Once Hadrianus marches out, Star will be alone—”
Liberio’s brow furrowed in that way it did when he was struggling to understand her signs.
Iridescia repeated her meaning more simply. “Hadrianus, gone. Star, alone.”
But Liberio only shook his head. “My father’s not marching out with the army. There’s been no sign Luqiferus is planning to join him against the Massenqa, and my father’s not willing to risk his life for the appearance of being loyal to Marianus.” His eye glazed over as he stared at the darkened staircase. “Especially if Marianus is alive.”
Liberio stroked his hands down the front of his tunic, not looking at her. “If Marianus were dead, my father could stroll into Lorar as a triumphant avenger. Now he’d just look like a rebel. He’s biding his time.” Liberio looked up. “But so am I.”
The roads of Ipsis were all but deserted. Only elderly soldiers remained to patrol the streets, while the rest of Hadrianus’s legion, as well as a city’s worth of spectators, crowded the roads surrounding the biggest eghri in Ipsis.
Even Liberio had no trouble slipping past the old soldiers who’d been left behind.
From the direction of the eghri, Lora horns began to blow, and a mess of shouts and chants broke out. It was impossible to tell what the people were saying, or even whether the trumpet blasts signaled the beginning or ending of Hadrianus’s speech. If Iridescia and Liberio didn’t hurry, they might be caught up in wave of people returning home.
Then again, it could be useful to have the crowds to swallow them.
The lack of men along Ipsis’s streets cast an eerie pall over the city. It seemed everyone not flooding the market streets was on edge, from the wives and mothers who’d seen their sons off, to the courtiers whose power in the city hinged upon the Lora victory.
I hope they all die, Iridescia thought unkindly, almost immediately regretting thinking such a thing. The Lora weren’t her enemy. It was Star and Hadrianus she detested.
“It’s down here.” Liberio took her small hand in his bulkier one, tugging her off the main thoroughfare and down a dark alley. The alley was cold, the building a hulking block of apartments. The door leading inside was loose on its hinges, the windows piled with dust and sand that had blown onto the ledges but never been cleared. It looked abandoned.
Iridescia pulled her hand free and tugged Liberio’s sleeve so he’d face her. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
Iridescia glared in annoyance but followed him to the door. She held back, nervous of the shadows beyond its rotten wood, but Liberio strode right up to it and bent at the waist so that his eye was level with a small round hole at the door’s centre.
If someone wanted, they could stick a pin straight into his eye.
Iridescia winced. She had to hold back from pulling him away.
“Adonen’s moon is bright tonight, and the Waoidat rests . . . .” Liberio hesitated. “Still. The Waoidat rests still.”
A secret code!
Iridescia just hoped Liberio had got it correct and a band of thieves didn’t leap out of the darkness to slit their throats. She’d listened to enough stories and read enough scrolls to know how these things worked.
A creak as of someone standing from an ancient chair broke the silence, but the tension battering at Iridescia’s ribs never left. She reached for Liberio, just about to hook her fingers in the crook of his elbow—
“Hold on, hold on,” muttered a long-suffering voice.
Beyond the door, a wooden bar thudded as though the gatekeeper had hauled it off and let it thunk on the floor.
“What is your number?” asked the voice.
Liberio darted a glance at Iridescia. He cleared his throat. “Blue as the summer—no, no, wait. Five. Five.”
“And your colour?” asked the voice.
Liberio’s shoulders relaxed. “Blue as the summer sky.”
There was a grind followed by a rattle as of a wooden key being fitted into its slot, and then the door opened inwards.
The gatekeeper—a white-skinned man in a ratty grey hood—stood aside without a word. The blue and yellow lights from the clear sky outside painted his pale face a hundred rainbow shades that stood in contrast against the opaque blackness beyond.
Liberio entered, walking straight forward into the shadows.
Iridescia followed, not shy this time about grabbing the back of Liberio’s tunic as a comfort in the darkness. She hugged in close, eying the gatekeeper as he shut the door. With that, the last of the light was smothered.
Iridescia had thought it would smell of death inside, or decay, or mildew, but the only scent at all was the faint ashy odour that came from torches. Her sandals scuffed the floor, as though it were made from hardened earth, but it wasn’t cluttered or dirty.
Behind her, the bar on the door thumped back into place.
She scrunched closer to her brother.
“Iri.” Liberio hissed in a whisper.
Liberio shifted and soon another door shrieked ahead of them. A sliver of light cut the darkness from ceiling to floor.
It was a long, windowless hallway. Torches in blackened sconces lit the floor and walls, and distantly she could make out the trill of a flute and a chorus of laughter.
The building hadn’t looked so large from outside.
Iridescia tiptoed after Liberio.
“It’s through that door,” Liberio explained, as though sensing her nervousness. “At the end of the corridor and to the left.” He paused. “It’s not so scary inside.”
Iridescia almost stomped her foot and pulled away to complain that she wasn’t scared, but she was too afraid to let go of him. He must be enjoying this.
Soon though, the promised door revealed itself, and Liberio turned and smiled at her. Lit by the red flame of the torches, his metal half-mask looked like a glistening lake that had caught fire.
“Stay close,” Liberio told her.
Iridescia finally released Liberio’s tunic. “Promise.”
Liberio knocked three times in quick succession, waited for the length of two heartbeats, then knocked again.
Ten heartbeats passed, and another wooden key rattled into its slot. The door opened inwards, and light rushed outward like water from a busted dam.
Roewyn. They were doing this for Roewyn.
Iridescia heard the room before she saw it.
Dice rolled against tables, laughter roared from drunken throats, and underneath it all heavy chatter hung like a tapestry to decorate or disguise the particularity of the conversations taking place.
The tables that filled the long, rectangular room overflowed with people—so many that some gamblers stood rather than sat—and a flurry of men and women clustered at a long counter on the right side of the room. That must be where the servers ladled wine and food.
At the very end of the room, across from the door Iridescia and Liberio entered through, a red curtain hung in front of another entrance. In one corner, upon a pile of cushions, lotus eaters lounged and laughed.
It was a den of thieves like out of the stories.
A man at the nearest table eyed Iridescia wearily from red-rimmed eyes and she tore her gaze away, skin crawling.
“Where is he?” Iridescia signed to Liberio, pulling his sleeve to get his attention. “What’s he called? What does he look like? Do you even know?”
Liberio bit his lip. He nodded in the direction of the curtained-off door. “Last time I met him in there.” He frowned. “Why don’t you stay here, and I’ll go look?”
Iridescia crept closer, her attention spinning from table to table, drunken face to drunken face. “You told me to stay close.”
“Yes, I know. But—” He hesitated. “It’s rougher back there.”
Iridescia had seen men and women rot alive in the Haven. She’d watched Hadrianus smash Liberio’s face into his own wedding feast. She’d nearly drowned at Star’s command. She could handle rough.
“Please, Iridescia. I need you to keep watch.”
He was using the tricks you’d use on a child to make her do what he wanted.
But she swallowed, casting another look around the room. It was dangerous in here. He probably could use someone as a lookout, even if he didn’t really believe that.
Iridescia nodded emphatically, one of her braids falling free from its headdress. She tucked it away, in case an attacker tried grabbing hold of her by her long hair.
Liberio hurried off.
As soon as he was past the red curtain, Iridescia backed up to the door through which they’d entered. She wanted a wall at her back in case something did happen. Besides, from here, she had an excellent view of the room.
A crowd of patrons fled the serving counter with cups in hand and the woman who’d served them bustled off behind a door.
“You look like you could use a friend,” came a man’s voice from Iridescia’s right. The friendliness in his voice wasn’t the good kind.
The man was Massenqa to look at him—handsome and fine-boned. He had at least five years on Liberio.
Iridescia signed no without thinking, then shook her head to get the point across. She slunk backwards till she collided with the chair at the nearest table, earning a grunt from the man sitting there.
The Massenqen held his hands palms up. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Iridescia wasn’t stupid—she ran toward the red curtain, just in time to bump into the belly of a fat man flanked with two gnarled old toughs. One of the toughs grabbed the hilt of a dagger that rested at his waist.
“Ollo!” called the Massenqen who’d approached her. “Be a friend and grab my niece for me.”
Directly to her right, a door swung on its hinge, leading off in the direction the female server had taken. Iridescia wriggled out of the mens’ reach, then dashed for the door. It wasn’t locked and she thudded through, emerging into another narrow hallway. Unlike the first, this one had a window at the very end, and three doors let off from the left-hand side. The door at the far end lay open.
From back in the main room, the footsteps of Ollo and his friends sounded like thunderclaps.
Iridescia ran, hoping the open door led outside, or at least to the server. If the server were inside, she might help Iridescia.
“Hey—” barked Ollo, but Iridescia didn’t hear the door open. “Not in there. He’s in the there.”
She ran for the open door. A thunking sound like someone chopping wood echoed into the hallway from inside.
Firelight flickered from under the door, disturbed as someone stood up. His shadow moved across the orange swatch of colour created by the light, then glided across the room.
Iridescia snuck forward and squinted into the space created between the door and its jamb.
A shortish man was inside, plucking a throwing knife from a raised part of the wall. The knife made a popping sound as he freed it.
The thudding sound from before must have been from him hurling the knife there.
The man had his back to her, but his musculature was obvious in his sleeveless tunic, and he wore his hair in twisted djataa that hung down his back. As he marched to a wooden chair across from the wall where he’d plucked his knife, he turned, revealing a handsome face and deep brown eyes. His brow was scrunched in anger.
Iridescia jumped back, accidentally knocking the door.
He’d thrown the blade faster than she’d been able to see, his lithe body twisted elegantly.
At the swing of the door, he turned toward her.
Iridescia crept backward. She glanced at the door to the main room of the thieves’ den, but before she could decide, the man with the knotted hair strode into the hallway.
Up close, his brown eyes were red-tinted, the flesh of his neck scarred here and there with pale slashes that made a patchwork of his dark brown skin. The madness of the desert wafted off him like a courtier’s perfume. He cocked his head at Iridescia like he was assessing her.
Djataa. Scars. Knife-throwing.
The door at the far end of the hallway clattered open and Liberio marched inside. “Iridescia. I told you to keep watch.”
The Qarnaaman looked up at Liberio, then back down at Iridescia. “Now who are you, who looks so fine, and keeps company with such a boar?”
“Are you Liberio’s Qarnaaman?” Iridescia signed, regretting it as she realized he wouldn’t understand.
But the stranger surprised her with a cheeky smile and signs of his own. “I was a Qarnaaman.” He paused as Liberio reached them. “They call me Oran eq-Afqad.”
Oran, son of no one. A ghost name. Just as well for what Iridescia and Liberio needed him for.Iridescia looked up at their hired ghost, trying to read his face for signs of villainy or goodness and finding neither.
Something in Iridescia’s gut told her she shouldn’t ask, but curiosity won out over her common sense. “Was?”
A stillness settled on Oran as he answered. “Think on this, child. How dangerous is the man renounced by a city of dangerous men?”
Too dangerous, perhaps, for them. Iridescia swallowed, but she wouldn’t be turned away. “I need you to help my friend.”
Liberio grasped her wrist and jerked her back. “This is him. This is the man we want.” He stared past her at Oran. “You can talk normally. She can hear; she just can’t speak.”
Iridescia frowned sourly and snatched her wrist free.
“A boar indeed,” Oran signed. He winked, then waved to the room he’d abandoned. “Tell me about this friend.”
They didn’t have time. Iridescia had warned Liberio. But as Oran disappeared inside the room, she found herself following without complaint. She had no desire to run back into the main den where Ollo and the Massenqen might be waiting for her.
The room was small and plain. A cot in one corner and the chair Oran had been sitting in were the only furniture.
Oran strolled to the wall where he’d been throwing his knife. A slab of wood had been hung there and was dotted with pinprick holes that suggested Oran wasn’t the only one to have used it as target practice. At the woodblock’s centre a scrap of papyrus decorated with a crude drawing of a man had been hammered so forcefully by Oran’s knife throws that it stayed up even when Oran pried the dagger free.
The blade had struck straight into the centre of the figure’s face.
“That’s not Liberio, is it?” Iridescia asked.
“Someone much worse.” Oran laid his knife on the chair. “A human stain made flesh.”
The dagger glinted in the light. The way the metal seemed to liquefy where the firelight touched it was hypnotic.
“You didn’t kill Marianus,” Liberio blurted. Before Oran could answer, he added: “But I need you for something more important.”
“Your friend?” Oran leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “Iridescia told me. You must mean the northern girl the vizier imprisoned.”
Iridescia didn’t bother asking how Oran knew. When Star and Hadrianus took prisoners, they often spread gossip of their misdeeds so that fear spread with it.
Liberio walked to the cot and sat down. “We need your help to free her.”
“And where is she kept?” Oran asked. “The dungeons? Even on a night like tonight, and even with a blade like mine, we’d make it two floors inside your palace, and they’d catch us. You need more than one man to free your lover.”
Iridescia approached him. “We have more than one man.” She met Liberio’s eyes. “You’re a Qarnaaman—or you were one once. Did you ever learn about magic?”
The question seemed to intrigue him, and he raised one eyebrow. “I know something of magic—of the magic in the spray of blood from a well-cut throat, of the magic between a woman’s thighs.” He smiled slightly. “And a little of that other, hidden magic as well.”
Liberio narrowed his eyes. “What about cunts?”
Of course Liberio knew that word. She scowled. She had no way of translating Oran’s cryptic answer better than Oran had himself.
Instead, Iridescia focused her attentions on the Qarnaaman. “What do you know about shadows who speak to people? And magic water that can return a man to life?”
As she signed, Oran’s smile faded. “The water of death and the water of life.” He regarded her coolly. “You must love this woman, to invoke its use.”
Iridescia’s lip trembled. She did love Roewyn. She clenched her hands into fists at her sides to show just how fiercely she loved. “If you know how the shadows work, you have to tell us. Liberio will pay you.”
“Anything you ask for,” Liberio confirmed hurriedly. He must have understood at least some of what she’d said.
Oran pushed himself off the wall and grabbed his dagger. “I make no promises.” He headed for the door, forcing Iridescia and Liberio to scramble after him. “But take me to where you keep the water, and I’ll do what I can.”
They followed Oran back inside the main den. As he opened the door, Iridescia recognized the Massenqen’s voice.
“There you—” he said, clearly not expecting Oran to come striding out.
Iridescia peeked from behind Oran and Liberio, meeting the Massenqen’s wide eyes.
“There I what?” asked Oran.
The Massenqen bowed and stumbled backwards out of Oran’s path. “A mistake.”
Iridescia grinned. If only people fled from her path the same way. If Oran could scare even the thugs in here, what could he do to Star and Hadrianus? One look at Oran’s muscles told her he could crack Star in half.
As they passed the Massenqen on their way back onto the streets, Iridescia stuck out her tongue at him.
Outside, it was Liberio’s turn to lead them. The roads were starting to fill again with people—enough not to have to worry that Iridescia or Liberio would be spotted. This time, they made their way down the main thoroughfare.
Iridescia couldn’t pry her eyes from Oran. His strides were bold and catlike, his strength coiled tightly inside every limb. He set her on edge while putting her strangely at ease.
As they neared the palace, Oran surprised her by turning and facing her. “Who is this woman you want me to save? Is she made of magic too? In the east, I’ve heard it said that all northern women are witches.”
“Iridescia’s the witch,” Liberio joked. “She’s the one who talks to shadows.”
Oran eyed Iridescia with a knowing smile. “And what do the shadows say?”
No matter how fascinating Oran was, Iridescia wasn’t going to reveal everything she knew. “You said you knew about them. What do you think they say?”
Oran smiled. “Something personal. Maybe something true.”
Maybe. Did that mean the shadows lied about helping her? The night Star had tried to drown her, the shadows had killed the two soldiers who’d held Iridescia underwater. They’d wanted to save her that time at least.
“Roewyn in our friend,” Liberio answered. “My lover. Star took her out of jealousy. She thinks she owns me like she owns my father and everyone else.”
Star owned Hadrianus? Iridescia hadn’t quite thought about it like that before. Star was the only one who could quiet Hadrianus though. He listened to her the way he didn’t listen to anyone else.
“If my father’s touched her—” Liberio started, but didn’t finish.
Oran grunted. “I’ll see your lover freed,” he said, a sharpness to his words. “And her captors punished.”
That was far more than he’d promised before.
They walked in silence till they passed the palace gates, keeping to the opposite side of the street, far from the watchful gazes of the palace guards. Iridescia and Liberio kept their heads down and their faces turned away.
“Pinecones,” Oran remarked, almost cheerily.
“What?” Liberio asked.
“The palace,” Oran mused. “Its roofs look like pinecones.”
Liberio shook his head. “I’ve never seen one. Have you, Iridescia?”
Iridescia shrugged. She hadn’t seen one, but she had no desire for small talk. This close to the palace she was that much nearer to Roewyn. The proximity made the guilt worse, like all she needed to do was run inside the palace and she could wrap her arms round Roewyn’s waist.
If Roewyn even had a body left to hug.
The thought was a pain that seared through every bone in Iridescia’s body, from her skull to her toes. After all this, Iridescia and Liberio could still be too late. Roewyn could be dead.
And the nearer they drew to Mount Nuna, the more her thread of worry over the shadows started to weave into something grander. Oran’s question repeated and repeated inside her head: what had the shadows said to her? Witch of the Western Desert, they’d called her. Iridescia. Iridescia. Iridescia.
At the base of Mount Nuna, Liberio walked on ahead at a speed she wouldn’t have thought him capable of. He didn’t even trip as he clambered uphill, though dry stones and dirt tumbled in the wake of his heavy footfalls.
Oran hung back.
“You’ve seen shadows,” he said, “you’re a strange little girl.”
“Not too strange.” Iridescia furrowed her brow. “Liberio said you’d probably seen them too. Buqqus mentioned a Qarnaaman in his scrolls when he saw the shadows in Wewandjis.”
Miqipsi had told her that the people who could see the shadows were drawn to one another. Was Oran like Liberio and Iridescia? Was Roewyn? How would you even know? There was a difference between Liberio and Iridescia, it seemed. He might have been revived through their magic, but the spirits in the Haven never spoke to him the way they did to Iridescia.
Oran grinned. “Ahh. But is it because I’m a Qarnaaman that I’ve seen them? Any encounters I’ve had with magic happened long after I’d left the fortress, and that was a long time ago and very far away.”
“Across the desert,” Iridescia replied, “which you’ve crossed before, I can tell.”
“And how can you tell?” Oran asked, using her signs. Someone had to have taught them to him—could it have been one of the Buqquses in the temple? Maybe out east, everyone knew how to sign. Once they rescued Roewyn, perhaps they should travel eastward and find somewhere safe to live in eq-Anout.
Once. If. Never.
Iridescia frowned as Liberio disappeared over a rise. They were walking too slowly. “I can see the desert on you,” she answered. “Miqipsi always told me you could see the desert on people.”
Iridescia kept close to Oran. On the hill it was much darker than on the city streets and harder to read each other’s signs. “My friend. A scribe. He studied in the Djeberetza’s tower in eq-Anout for a long time. That’s how he knows.”
“And what does Miqipsi believe a man of the desert looks like?”
The courthouse sharpened in Iridescia’s vision as they approached. Liberio waiting beside it, tossing stones at the wall. He was a grown man really, but it was hard not to look at him and see a child. Was that the water’s doing? Or was he just like that?
Iridescia turned to Oran again. “A man of the desert looks mad, because only madmen come out of it. If they weren’t mad before the start, the Sajit does its work.” That was nearly how Miqipsi had explained it to her, she was fairly certain. She hadn’t really known what he’d meant till now, but everything about Oran was odd and being from the desert seemed to explain that.
“And what about the ones that stay?” Oran asked.
“No one stays.”
The light was low, but she just made out his smile. It was a sad one, or maybe that was just the darkness creeping in, and the sense of dread that slipped and slid in her stomach.
“There you’re wrong, little witch,” said Oran. “The desert is full of men—cruel men and kind men, noble men and poor men. Wise men. Fools.” He laid a hand against Iridescia’s back as they reached the rise, as though worried she’d slip and fall. She was too entranced by his words to shake it off. “And if your Miqipsi is right,” he continued, “then every one of them must be mad as well.”
Iridescia tensed, conjuring a field of dust where all the madmen of the desert congregated to wander in aimless patterns.
In the vision Star had forced on her, Iridescia had seen herself with Tobi, surrounded by sand. A stranger on a horse had been riding toward them, and Iridescia had clutched a vial of liquid in her hand as though it were a weapon.
A shiver coursed through her, joined by a ripple along the tree line. The skeletal branches of newly leafless trees swayed like long black limbs beneath the surface of a still pool.
“I’m frightened of the desert,” Iridescia confessed. It wasn’t even something she’d realized herself until now, but that vision had nested in her, hidden under her other worries. If it had been a true prophecy, then why had Iridescia and Tobi been alone? Where were Liberio and Roewyn?
Iridescia pinned her attention on Liberio the way Oran’s knife had pinned the drawing of his enemy to the wall. It was possible Liberio had been dead in the vision, but although she couldn’t place why, she didn’t think that was true. She would have felt his death.
Oran hopped up a small incline. “The desert is a wise thing to be afraid of, but there are other things, too, of which one must be wary.”
She hesitated before asking, aware of Liberio watching them intently as they reached him. “And what are those?”
“Men and their shadows,” Oran said.
Liberio strolled toward them, tapping his finger against his leg. “You’re slow.”
Iridescia couldn’t bring herself to tease him. She wished she go back to feeling like a child again, when she’d spent her days jealously watching Roewyn and Liberio, listening to Miqipsi’s stories, and scaring off thieves with the whacking stick. All that was in the past, buried with her daydreams of a loving mother and father, of Indas’s glorious past.
Star and Liberio were the only family, unless she counted her poor mother—trapped in the tower and now a shade in the Haven.
And Roewyn, always Roewyn.
As they tromped through the bushes and beneath the tree cover, the air turned heavy. It hummed and buzzed like before a storm, the way it had the night Star had trapped her here. All the birds had gone silent, or else fled. This time, the air seemed to say, when she called the shadows they would come.
“Through here.” Liberio parted the crinkling, drying leaves along the narrow path toward the Haven.
Iridescia pressed close to Oran. He must be cold beneath his tunic, which barely covered him. Iridescia was swaddled in thick slave’s clothes and even she felt a chill each time the wind rustled along the path with them. Oran never visibly shivered though. Maybe he’d sucked up too much desert sun, storing it in his body.
“What did you do to summon these spirits?” Oran asked.
Nothing, not really. She’d been there and sometimes the spirits answered, while other times they didn’t. But Iridescia was behind Oran and couldn’t answer.
Liberio replied instead. “She thinks it’s the water from the Haven. Buqqus mentioned seeing spirits in his writings, and there was water involved then.”
Oran had called it the water of life and the water of death. It had brought Liberio back to life, that was true, and it had killed those soldiers.
They were almost to the Haven.
Oran held a branch back so that it couldn’t whip Iridescia in the face, and she gratefully ducked under the arch formed by his arm.
Liberio was first inside the glade, but Iridescia stopped, frozen in place as though someone or something had spoken a warning to her. She hadn’t heard anyone. Her stomach was a knot of eels. It didn’t seem right or good here, and it didn’t feel like it would be any help at all to Roewyn.
Oran pushed past her, but Iridescia walked out in front of him. She signed as she neared the pool and knelt beside the water. “It wasn’t just the water. The village Buqqus visited was where my family came from. He brought my grandmother and my great-aunt back with him to Ipsis.” She paused. There was the vision, too, but was it safe to speak of that? Iridescia had half a thought they might laugh at her. For Roewyn’s sake she swallowed her pride. “Star showed me a vision; I think it was the future. I was in the desert, and there were men about to attack us. I had a vial of water with me—it must have been from the Haven.”
Liberio scuffed the grass with his boot. “But you can’t make anything happen now, right?” He scoffed. “Have you ever made the shadows do anything?”
The pool looked blacker than usual, a perfect circle at the centre of the glade. Even though the grass around the perimeter of the trees was littered with fallen leaves, and even though the wind should have blown those leaves all over the place, the surface of the pond and the grass that immediately surrounded it were bare. The grass was as green as it had been all summer.
Iridescia swallowed. She shook her head in answer to Liberio’s question. No. She had never successfully commanded the shadows to do anything.
Oran knelt beside her. As though he felt no fear at all, he dipped his fingers past the surface and trailed his hand through the water. “Then perhaps it’s Star you’re missing.”
“No.” Iridescia wouldn’t let that be true. “Star told me I could control them.” Iridescia’s vision blurred with the promise of tears. “Roewyn needs me.” She glared at Oran. “Do you know something or not?”
All his talk of help had been a lie.
Oran sighed. “Controlling is one thing. Summoning another.”
There must have been something else, something they were missing. Iridescia tried to go back to that day, back to those first times when she’d heard the voices between the trees. A cold settled on her.
“Maybe we could sneak Oran into the palace the way we snuck out,” Liberio offered. “Star and Hadrianus might not have returned to—”
Iridescia stood up, startling Liberio. When she turned to face him, his eyes were wide as though with fear. Had something in her expression scared him?
“There were bodies,” Iridescia signed at last. “The first time, there was that man Star sentenced to the tub. Then there was me, only they saved me instead. And Tobi’s mother—they spoke to me that day too.” It was true. She didn’t want it to be, but it was. “When Buqqus saw the spirits it was after he and Hiempsal unearthed the corpse the villagers had just buried.”
Oran set his red eyes on her. There was a certainty in his face, like maybe he’d known or suspected all along. “Blood has special properties in the right hands.” Without warning, he snatched Iridescia’s hand. He smoothed his thumb over her wrist. “It holds our life, for one thing, and while it is trapped in our veins, our bodies are made to move through its power. The blood of dying men is poison—a death with which the Qarnaama paint their arrows.” His squeezed her hand tighter and Iridescia squirmed.
His grip was strong—too strong to break free. He twisted her hand palm upwards.
“Iridescia!” Liberio cried. “Get away from her!”
Oran grabbed the dagger from his belt. He met Iridescia’s eyes.
Are you certain? His expression seemed to say.
She steeled herself, watching the blade as it slashed. At first she felt nothing at all, and then a burning sensation as her palm opened, blood flooding the lines in her skin.
“And witches’ blood,” Oran guided her palm over the water’s edge, twisting her wrist and squeezing so that her blood flowed tortuously down her arm before dripping onto the pool’s surface. “Witches’ blood is most powerful of all.”
Liberio grabbed Iridescia by her shoulder and heaved, but Iridescia ground her sandals into the earth. She glared at Liberio and he snapped away.
Oran pressed his thumb into her flesh.
Light flashed before her vision.
She wasn’t here anymore. She was light as the birds. As if from far away, Oran’s grip on her loosened. He slipped away.
Radia. Lumia. Iridescia. Tifawt. Tinhinan. Voices hissed at her from all directions. The Haven coalesced into a clearer image before her.
Iridescia turned left and right, trying to pinpoint the source of the voices, or catch a glimpse of the shadows.
“Are they here? Can you see them?” Liberio’s voice brimmed with nervous excitement.
Ora. Ora. Ora.
“Yes.” Iridescia’s palm burned with pain as she answered. “I think so.”
A light flickered from behind her. She turned.
Black clouds were gathering overhead, darkening the whole sky.
“Something’s wrong,” Iridescia began to sign toward Liberio, but when she set her gaze on the spot where he’d been standing, he was no longer there.
No one was in the Haven. Iridescia was alone.
Panic clutched her. “Hello?”
I don’t want to be like Mother, said a voice. I don’t. I don’t want to.
Thunder rumbled, the clouds clawing across the night like a half-dead beast.
“Where are you? I know who you are. I can help you!” Iridescia looked and looked, but between the trees all she saw was blackness, and only the rustle of the leaves in the growing wind answered her.
A shrill laugh, a little girl’s laugh, made her jump, and for a moment she almost fled the Haven then, abandoning it as Liberio and Oran had.
Except Liberio and Oran hadn’t gone anywhere—it was Iridescia who’d vanished.
As though in response, Liberio’s voice pierced the disturbing quiet. “A children’s court. A children’s court in Indas.” The voice came from nowhere and everywhere.
“Liberio?” Iridescia signed. No one answered.
The deaths of your enemies.
“Stop it!” Iridescia ran to the opposite side of the pool. She huddled beside a rock, trying to make herself as small as possible.
In the water, long dark figures stood still as flies trapped in amber.
The reeds around the pool whipped in a fierce wind, as rain pounded the grass, but the pool never stirred, as though the raindrops couldn’t touch it.
Tell us, Iridescia, the voices spoke in unison.
Iridescia clamped her hands over her ears. This was what she’d asked for.
Poor child. Sweet child.
This was what she’d wanted.
It felt wrong.
In amongst the chorus, Liberio’s voice spoke to her—Tayri’s voice spoke to her. It was as though they were drawing from inside her, that they could feel what she was thinking, read her mind like a scroll.
Tell us, Iridescia. Who is it you hate the most?
“A children’s court,” said Liberio.
“Roewyn,” he said.
“Save her.” The sound of Liberio’s words ringing in her ears was near as painful as the thunder crashing up above.
Iridescia shoved herself off the rock. She scrambled to her feet.
From underwater, black fingers reached for her, hungry and eager. Iridescia’s whole body was shaking, but she crouched over the surface, letting her braids fall from the headdress and dangle into the water. Phantom fingers reached for her hair, caressing and tugging on it as though to pull her down.
She dug her fingers into the bank to either side of her, soil and grass bunching in her nails.
Tell us. Tell us. Tell us.
Her heartbeat thudded in her ears, as loud as the thunder overhead, as blinding as the lightning.
“A children’s court.”
“Roewyn,” Iridescia mouthed to the ghosts in the pool. “I want you to save Roewyn. I want you to save our home.
The laughter came again, ugly and vicious.
A whoosh of air slapped her, as though a flock of birds had all taken flight. It rushed past her, cracking the trees in its wake.
The Haven was still.
Iridescia wobbled to her feet, her hair dripping with water. The shadows that had stood at attention in the pool were gone. They’d flown downhill to Ipsis at her call.
Or had it been her they’d obeyed? They’d begged her to tell them, and she had answered, or thought she’d answered, but other voices had spoken out of the many. Liberio’s voice had spoken.
She had to find her brother. She had to get home.
The sky above had calmed. The wind had died. Nothing was moving.
Iridescia swayed all the way to the path. She had to anchor herself with branches as she retraced the steps she’d walked so effortlessly earlier.
When she emerged from the trees, she looked out on the city.
It looked normal. It looked just as it had.
Nothing seemed to have changed, except that where an autumn breeze had once blown, the only thing flowing to her through the air was the unmistakable sound of human screams.