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Chapter 19: Massenqa
Kirin – The Shores of Kemassen
It was a cloudy morning on a rough sea outside Kemassen. In the distance, far from the Eralia, the Anouti and Lorai fleets engaged the Masseni navy outside the city.
Kirin squatted beneath a tarred canvas tarp that had been hauled over the tucked heads of every one of Varco’s men not manning the Eralia’s rowing benches. The tarps stretched the length of the decks of the three warships hidden beneath the shadow of Kemassen’s two harbour islands, keeping not just the men out of sight, but the skiffs they’d soon use to ferry themselves to the tunnels where the slaves were waiting.
Man by man, the soldiers in front of Kirin scurried to the head of the line where they were lowered as silently as possible onto the waves.
As one of the men on the outside of the lines, Kirin could just about see the sides of the cliffs from beneath the tarp. He didn’t dare peek out any further in case there were any Masseni lookouts left after the ones Varco’s archers had shot down. It seemed too easy—but then, the Masseni wouldn’t be looking their way at all. All eyes would be on the navy at their gates.
Kirin shifted ever-so-slowly in place, crab-walking forward, his buttocks and thighs burning.
Almost there. He could all but feel dry land beneath his feet.
In the dark under the tarp, he glanced at the dimly lit figure of Vasthes beside him. Light from the side of the tarp reflected across the boy’s eyes, revealing a dazed stare like he was entranced by something in the distance that only he could see.
He’d worn that expression for days.
The Anouti parade had cheered Vasthes for a short while, but then his melancholy had worsened. Over the last three nights, Vasthes’s usual stream of words had slowed to a trickle before he’d gone silent completely. The quiet gave Kirin far too much time to think. Always, it was Ydelka and Oran, or Marianus and the mysterious stranger who’d foolishly tried to kill him back in Ledan.
Puzzles for another time. Distractions.
Kirin was here to hunt rats, and this time he would do his job. The sooner the better, so he could be free of Vasthes and his guilt and all the unexpected diversions that had plagued him since he’d made his bargain with Kordelia’s cousins. He’d be free to chase Oran then. Kirin would follow the murderer across the desert if he had to.
And if he died here instead? Well, that might not be so terrible a thing as it seemed.
At Kirin’s turn to clamber into the skiff below, he swung himself around the ladder. A fierce wave jostled the ropes attaching the Eralia to the skiff and he clung on tight to the sides and kept his gaze on the skies.
Above him, carved in the side of one of the islands, a titan of a goddess reared her impassive face above the mortal men below her. She seemed to stare at nothing and everything, her hands vast enough to crush him between her fingers, her mouth wide enough to consume him whole. She wasn’t as strange and foreign as the statues Kirin had seen in Ledan—more human than animal—but her size! He shuddered to think what hands had wrought her.
“Good lady,” Kirin mumbled. He clutched the rungs of the ladder all the tighter. “I ask your pardon. Let our swords strike true today. Let our arrows pierce and our shields withstand. Let us live.”
Kirin let go of the ladder and thudded onto the boat gracelessly. The skiff wobbled at the impact and another of the strange waves rolled the ship back against the Eralia’s hull. The men in the boat cast him evil stares, but Kirin grinned back. Let them fear him. Kirin was a man in his madness, didn’t they know?
Vasthes came next, knocking the boat about with a landing that was almost a match for Kirin’s.
Two fools who no longer cared if they lived or died.
Kirin plunked onto his rowing bench and gripped the oar. A rogue wind splattered sea spray over Kirin’s face and he licked the salt off lips that were dry and cracking from weeks of sea air. If he made it, he’d borrow some of the honeyed beeswax Varco had purchased in ek-Anout. Drenda had offered it to Kirin yesterday, but he hadn’t liked the idea of smearing the stuff on his mouth. Today, he didn’t care so much that it might be poisoned.
Not that he wanted to die. He didn’t.
He’d said his piece to Vors this morning, paid an on-ship priest for a small offering. He’d greeted the strange Masseni goddess and asked her forgiveness. He was ready and Kemassen lay waiting.
Dull grey waters churned all the way to the hillside, sometimes bubbling up into small whirlpools the like of which Kirin had never seen. Rowing would be hard work, but the monotonous, rhythmic nature of the labour was at least something to focus on.
After the last of the men had hopped into the skiff and settled on the rowing benches, Kirin rolled his arms back and thrust his oar into the water. To keep from heaving or grunting, he grit his teeth with every swing, imagining his oar was a knife slicing the waves. The men around him weren’t so quiet—but then, how could the Masseni hear them all the way out here?
Kirin twisted his neck back so he could watch the shore as they approached, staring darkly toward the empty cliff-face Farnus had claimed would lead them to victory.
The sounds of war travelled to the skiff, buoyed on the waves: screams, splitting wood, and an omnipresent rumbling. The Anouti ships along with the captured Ziphax would keep the Masseni busy, but the cost in lives would be steep.
Would that Marianus were here so someone could accidentally stab him. But Marianus had remained behind in Ledan to accept the sycophantic praises of his new Anouti subjects while his soldiers warred on his behalf.
“They call Kemassen the painted city,” Vasthes said, so quiet Kirin could barely hear. “We’ll paint her with blood.”
The sky was bloody enough on its own. A red light funneled past the looming clouds, spreading like miasma above the city. It reflected off the spires and domes and walls of Kemassen, giving everything it touched a crimson cast.
“As long as it’s not our blood,” said Kirin.
Before he could add anything more, something beneath the waves whacked the side of the boat.
Kirin and several of the other men dropped their oars, jolted leftwards as the boat tilted.
“What was that?” Vasthes drew back as far as he could from the water while still remaining at his bench.
“A rock?” someone offered.
It had felt almost like they’d come aground, but there was no sign of a shoal.
“A sea serpent,” intoned another.
The water had gone murky. Dirt and weed bubbled up from the sea floor as though something had plunged downwards and kicked up the debris. Kirin leaned forward, gripping his oar tight in case he had to thwack something back down.
Slick, silken flesh curved just under the surface of the water.
“Did you see that?” Kirin was frozen in place. Whatever he’d glimpsed had been wider than the boat—so wide there’d been only skin.
Skin, or scales.
“I did,” croaked the man behind him, “and if you don’t keep moving we might see it again.”
Vasthes leaned back, straining to catch a glimpse for himself. “I didn’t see it. Where is it? What was it?”
At the bottom of the sea, where the skiff would find itself too if they stuck around to find out.
Kirin grabbed his oar and drove it hard under the water.
“The south is full of serpents,” Kirin reasoned. “Should it surprise us if some of them live in the sea?”
But dread filled in belly and drummed along his arm to the rhythm of his oar ploughing the waves.
“An eel,” offered one man.
“Sharks,” said another, “which is worse than any sea snake, I can tell you.”
He probably could, but right now Kirin didn’t want to hear it. He let the thunder of the waves deafen him to the hushed banter of his fellow soldiers.
They’d left the protection of the two islands now, all that remained a short stretch of uncovered sea before they reached their destination. The ocean hadn’t been so loud between the islands, but then, they must act as a buffer against the waves.
But why had they been empty? The Masseni must have been truly desperate for men if they’d manned the islands so sparsely. The beach that stretched the length of the smaller of the two was littered with abandoned boats.
To Kirin’s left, the other skiffs kept pace with his, as the Eralia emerged from behind the islands ready to join her fellow warships against the Massenqa navy. The beat of her war-drums burst against the air. The music faded steadily as she rowed further and further away, but its booming rhythm thudded in Kirin’s heart.
Kirin trained his attention on the approaching cliff face, and the tiny light he could now see glowing in its side and winking like the tiny eye of a small god opening and closing. Above the hills, the morning sun spread its wild light as it rose, and the grey ocean waves just outside the cave were lit with a spectrum of pale colour.
Kirin’s oar at last broke the coloured tide, leading Kirin past the veil of red that marked the threshold between the rest of his life and what he was increasingly sure might be its unremarkable end.
Ydelka. Yakov. Silices. “Onetwothree, onetwothree, onetwothree, one—”
“What’s that?” someone asked.
Vasthes seemed amused. “He’s counting.”
Kirin continued silently to himself. Onetwothree, onetwothree, onetwothree. Oran. Marianus. Kemassen.
From the way the others traded looks, Kirin’s silence scared them more than the counting.
No. He wasn’t scaring them. He’d only made the fear bristling in their bellies something palpable.
Overhead the gulls keened indignantly, leering at the ships that slouched toward Kemassen’s shore. Figureheads decorated the larger Lorai and Anouti vessels, but not this small spy. Kirin’s ship was nothing, meant neither for seeing nor loving. Kirin’s ship was death itself, whose clammy hands would wrap about the city’s throat while larger monsters distracted her protectors.
“Steer clear of the rocks!” yelled a man aboard one of the other skiffs.
“Oars up!” someone called from the front of Kirin’s boat.
Kirin stopped rowing and looked down. Spiny, jagged tooths of rock speared upward from below. For an instant, panic gripped him—they’d been lured here. Farnus had deceived them.
But gradually they bobbed along a current of water leading away from the hull-cracking teeth, the men at the front deftly guiding the skiff with their oars.
The light flickered in the side of the rock-face, blown by an ill wind. Was there a guard stationed there, holding it? Perhaps it had been sat down in a cleft.
Vasthes let out an awestruck gasp. The natural wall of the eastern part of the city was a sight to behold, but no more spectacular than Zimrida had been. To scale it, straight and tall as it was, would have been impossible.
Staring at it made Kirin dizzy.
One of the skiffs had cut ahead of them while Kirin’s group navigated the rocks, and its men were hauling it onto a sliver of sandy beach that lay at the entrance of a narrow cave. As their own craft turned about, Kirin caught sight of a metal brazier filled with flame.
Masseni slaves with lanterns scuttled from crevices to help the Lora ease their boats onto dry land. Their heads were all shaved, their faces overwhelmingly feminine, if not female. It seemed crude to push your women to such work, when surely there were men enough amongst the slave population, but then, their admiral was a woman.
The cliff was pock-marked with holes, into which the other teams were dragging their boats. Some of the hollows looked deep. Soldiers slipped inside them after the Masseni slaves and disappeared into seamless blackness.
Kirin couldn’t pull his attention from the cliff and the beach. The dark spots were like hundreds of eyes staring out at them from Kemassen’s coast. Some of them looked so evenly spaced and cleanly defined at the edges that they appeared manmade.
The bobbing of the boat was hopefully enough to disguise Kirin’s shudder from the others.
The holes were the slaves’ doing, that was all.
So why were some of them so far up the cliff where no one could reach them? They’d been hidden until the skiffs had reached the beach.
Kirin squinted as sunlight glanced off what looked like a patterned band carved into the rock, as though a building had toppled over and had gradually melded into the landscape over time.
When Kirin’s skiff finally came aground, he didn’t get up with the others. Something was pinning him to his seat.
“Lupo?” Vasthes leaned down and reached out to help Kirin up.
Kirin stared. He’d half forgotten Lupo was his new name. He grabbed Vasthes’s outstretched hand and hauled himself up.
Kirin’s foot sank into the waterlogged sand.
Solid ground. For now. The angry Helit lapped excitedly at the sand, clawing dirt and rock beneath its waves as though it were feeding off the land, devouring it slowly so no one would catch it in the act. One of the gulls careered in flight, casting a looping shadow onto the red sea. Moments later it dove into the water, to come shooting out again with dripping prey glistening wetly in its talons.
“Are you all right?” Vasthes laid a hand on Kirin’s shoulder.
Kirin was slowing Vasthes down with his silly fear. Practically everyone else was already inside the caverns.
“I’m fine.” Kirin tried to grin, but Vasthes’s frown told him it had come out wrong.
He took another step and together they followed the path left by the other soldiers. The men’s footprints were already filling with wet, bubbling sand. It was better though, than looking at the holes in the cliff.
Vasthes covered his nose with his elbow, eyes watering. “It stinks.”
It did smell down here—hot and sulphurous and salty as the sea. Kirin focused on breathing out through his nose, his gladius clanging at his waist with every sinking step. If it was as sandy as this inside the caves, it would be impossible to run.
Out of the darkness of the cave entrance, a bald but pretty girl emerged holding two candles in her slender hands. She smiled at him invitingly as they reached her. Past her plain stola, her hips curved temptingly, her brown lips and skin seeming to invite kisses. Her beauty was enough to ease the pounding of his heart for a moment. If a sylph of a thing like her wasn’t afraid, why should he be?
She thrust the candle toward him and one to Vasthes.
Kirin nodded a simple thanks as he took it. She turned almost immediately, hypnotizing him with the sway of her hips as the darkness consumed her.
“Masseni bitch.” Vasthes had crept up behind Kirin.
Kirin gave a non-committal grunt in response. Maybe she was a bitch but she was also beautiful.
“Come on,” said Kirin, heading after her into the darkness. “No one else is telling us what to do, and she seemed to think we’d go after her.”
The walls of the hole were slick with water that dripped from above. Kirin reached out and dabbed his finger in the damp. When he licked it, it tasted fresh. Could there be a lake above them?
He frowned and pushed onwards. He’d never had to force his feet to move like this. Even with hard rock beneath his boots every step further into the black was like wading through mud.
At a certain point, the cavern narrowed dramatically and tilted uphill.
Kirin let out an explosive breath. The surface. They must be getting closer to the surface.
His skin was plastered with sweat, gluing his armour to his flesh.
The way was uneven, the path littered with debris that someone had obviously made a recent attempt to shovel aside. It was hotter than it had been at the bottom, and the dimmed tide that had slathered at the tunnel’s entrance now echoed like a roar along the walls.
Their guide had kept ahead of them—or maybe it had only seemed that way in the low, flickering candlelight, but then her figure reappeared, her white stola lit up in orange and yellow.
Kirin coughed at the stench filling the tunnel. The air here was so thick. And as the tunnel continued, new paths opened up to left and right. If they lost sight of their guide, they could get turned around in here and never escape.
He picked up speed so he could reach the woman, then tugged her by the elbow.
The woman gave a shrill, startled cry.
She jerked away so she could face him. Kirin held onto her.
“I gave you a candle,” she hissed in broken Lorai.
“With respect,” Kirin answered in far better Masseni, “it’s still too dark. I thought you could show us.”
She frowned but then lowered her eyes as though in agreement. “Let go of my hand first.”
Vasthes stirred beside him. “What’s she saying?”
“She’ll show us the way,” Kirin explained.
Vasthes shivered. “Good. It’s a maze down here. A Masseni rat hole.”
The girl pursed her lips in irritation.
Let her listen. Let her know to whom she’d sold her city.
“This way,” the girl spoke smoothly, her voice equal parts honey and ice.
Behind Kirin, more soldiers clattered uphill. There must have been another skiff or two behind his. He sped up, confident they could follow his candle at a distance. He didn’t want to be around the others right now, not even Vasthes. Vasthes would be safe if there were more men behind, and Kirin was walking much faster than his companion.
The woman seemed a messenger meant just for him, a beautiful ghost hovering amidst shadows. He wanted to ask her where she was taking him, but knew that if he did, the spell would be broken; she was only an ordinary girl.
“What’s your name?” Kirin asked her.
She replied without turning, a waver in her voice. “Dansila.”
“And you’re a slave?”
They turned a bend, and the air grew noticeably thicker, the raging of the water beyond the walls fiercer. Vasthes was fidgeting behind him, leather scraping against metal and dust displaced as his hands pawed the walls for purchase.
The rest of the soldiers were so far back Kirin wasn’t certain where they were.
“Why are you frightened?” Kirin asked. “You think I’m going to hurt you?”
Dansila kept moving, forcing Kirin to keep pace with her. “Are you going to hurt me?” She still seemed nervous—jittery.
Kirin waited before answering. “No.”
Dansila hesitated. “I’m frightened of the sounds. I hate tight spaces.”
She and Kirin both, as it turned out. “Will we be out soon?”
“Soon.” Dansila’s voice echoed off the walls.
Something about the girl was off—her bearing, or her tone, or her answers. It had Kirin on edge.
He lifted his candle an inch higher to examine their surroundings.
All along the ceiling, great cracks spun across the rock like small river systems. New patterns, barely visible, itched along the surface with every step Kirin took. Wood braces held the walls and ceiling caged in place, shrinking the narrow space even more.
The earth felt like it was moving, the world tilting.
The walls were trying to choke him, the air clammy and oppressive.
A rope dangled overhead. Kirin had to dip down suddenly to avoid catching it alight.
Ahead of him, Dansila tensed.
“You could have warned us,” Kirin sputtered. He couldn’t quite keep the fear from his voice.
Kirin swerved at the sound of Vasthes’s cry, staring wide-eyed as the boy swiped his hand at the flame steadily flying up the rope to the wooden supports above. As it caught, Kirin smelled the unmistakable stink of bitumen.
Kirin grabbed Vasthes’s hand and hauled him away as the fire fed off the wood.
“It’s a trap!” Kirin called down the tunnel as his feet pounded the rock, Vasthes tumbling after him. The path would be blocked by debris. “It’s a trap! Fall back!”
Before the flame had even reached what Kirin assumed were bitumen-soaked logs, the air itself seemed to catch fire, sucking the breath from his lungs. Kirin flung himself round the same corner Dansila had taken.
In the shock, he barely heard the crash of the ceiling caving in behind them.
Vasthes groaned. Kirin could feel the boy shaking against him as they huddled against the wall.
Dansila was tearing uphill, her skirts slowing her progress.
She must know a way out. They had to follow her.
Vasthes tugged Kirin’s arm. “Lupo. The ground’s shaking. Lupo.”
The ground was shaking. Kirin dragged Vasthes after him.
The collapse seemed to have caused a much stronger earthquake, a groan that shook the entire tunnel. Stone and dirt cascaded onto Kirin’s head, small rocks pinging off his armour.
His ear was ringing.
Dansila was only just in his sight, the light from his candle dancing across her back as she zigzagged along the corridors.
“Eshant!” Dansila cried. It must be a name. “Eshant!”
The fact that she was calling for help meant they must be close.
As Kirin bounded after her, his candlelight flickered across painted eyes drawn onto the walls to either side of them. Ornate murals, the haunting visages of Kemassen’s subterranean gods, seemed to ward them off.
Kirin ran harder, faster, Vasthes’s hand sweaty in his own.
Dansila tripped on a hidden jut of stone, wailing as she fell.
Kirin seized his chance. He let go of Vasthes, grabbed Dansila by her shoulders, and hauled the traitorous cunt to her feet.
Dansila raked his face with her claw-like nails, kicking his legs.
Kirin hit her hard across the mouth and felt her teeth splinter.
“Take us out of here!” Kirin dropped her.
She screamed as she hit the floor, then wailed that name again, the sound garbled from the damage Kirin had done. She crawled upwards and Kirin pressed his boot down on her leg till she stopped trying to escape.
“It’s a labyrinth in here. Show us or I’ll slit your throat,” he threatened.
They would die here if she didn’t. Kirin had to hope she cared more about her life than ending his, or their shades would wander these passages forever in the afterlife.
He couldn’t stand another moment breathing this stifling air, let alone eternity.
When Dansila refused to get up, Kirin grabbed her and forced her to her feet. He clutched her throat just like he had Silices.
Dansila slapped at him, but it was pathetic. Blood poured from her mouth onto his hand.
He made as though to push her against the wall, and she closed her eyes, straining her neck back, grimacing in anticipation of death.
Born to kill. Born to kill. To kill.
The ringing in his ear reached a higher pitch.
“Show us, or you’re a dead woman,” Kirin said again.
“No, she isn’t.”
Kirin was falling, his ears ringing, his vision reeling. His hands loosened and Dansila fell away from him. Something sharp stabbed his neck as he hit the ground. It seemed to happen so slowly. Vasthes was behind him, blocked by Kirin’s body. Kirin’s candle was on the floor, lying on a broken tile, so very close to one of the soaked beams, rolling toward it as the cavern around them shook with a giant’s hunger. Struggling to pull himself up, Kirin turned.
A fat southern bitch stood above him, the stone with which she’d struck him still clutched in her hands, blood-stained and heavy.
She meant to crush him.
“Let him go!” Vasthes yelled, accompanied by the sound of a sword being drawn.
No, not him too. We were born to kill, but not him.
Kirin stretched out his leg and tripped Vasthes. The sword clattered from Vasthes’s grip and Kirin summoned all the strength he had left him to grab it. He sprung to his feet, swaying.
The Masseni woman looked like a ghost of underworld. She didn’t even seem frightened as Kirin approached her, only raised the heavy stone as though it might ward him off. Behind her, Dansila had drawn a knife. Its hungry metal surface flickered with the light of a nearby torch.
Kirin looked up, saw the rope dangling between himself and the fat Masseni woman, felt the ground beneath his feet as it shivered in warning. She glanced to her right at the torch on the wall.
The woman grabbed it.
Dansila backed away from her, dagger awash with red. She hesitated a moment, sharing a glance with Kirin, her eyes wide and wild. Dansila ran, or what amounted to running on the unsteady, uneven ground.
In front of Kirin, the Masseni woman touched a hand to her chest as red flowers bloomed across her simple robes. She took a step forward, her gaze disbelieving at first, then unwavering as though all she saw were the rope and the fire. She still had the torch in her hand.
Vasthes slouched to his feet and leaned against one of the terrifying wall paintings.
Kirin strode forward and sliced his sword down, severing the woman’s hand midway through her palm.
Her fingers and the torch both fell to the cavern floor. The torch rolled against Kirin’s feet.
But the rope was lit.
A weariness fell upon the Masseni woman, as though her body had finally caught up with her dying. She let out a guttural croak and fell to her knees with a thud.
Another quake hit the tunnel, stones raining onto the three of them.
The fire blazed above them, ready to bring death.
Kirin mouthed to Vasthes to run.
Vasthes did as he was commanded, and Kirin stumbled after him. His feet were so heavy though, and the ringing—the ringing and the walls were turning. The world was made of black and yellow, the colours jostling for dominion. He was trapped in the tunnel. He’d spend eternity spinning inside it—
Fingers closed around his ankle, fixing him in place.
Kirin looked down at the stranger, acceptance washing over him.
The woman’s eyes were damp with unshed tears, or it might have been from the smoke that seemed also to wet his own eyes.
A crack as of thunder broke ahead, and Kirin shut his eyes, waiting, waiting, waiting. He felt the woman’s hand loosen about his calf, her touch almost tender, her fingers soft.
We were born to kill. Born to kill. Born to die.
In answer, somewhere far off, Kirin thought he heard Ydelka whisper a reply.