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Chapter 2: Strangers
Iridescia – Indas: Ipsis: The Court on the Hill
Iridescia squatted low between two potted palms, hoping the green and yellow ribbons woven through her hair would help her blend into the foliage as she spied on Indas’s royal court. While she crouched, head down, her long, heavy braids slid in front of her right eye, obscuring her view of the nobles standing with their backs to her twenty feet away. She flicked her hand up, swatting her braids behind her ear. She should get Roewyn to cut them shorter next time, maybe even shear them down so she was bald on both sides of her head and not just one. It was no good blending in with the palms if the beads in her hair clacked together so loud everyone could hear her.
The grownups didn’t turn and look her way, though. Even if they did, the guards were far slower than Iridescia. She was small and quick, and they were big and clunky in their Lora armour.
Iridescia squinted as the evening sun shone into her eyes. The sunset cast a magenta hue over the whole court.
The courtroom at Ipsis was a splendid sight, no matter the weather. It was roofless so that blessed Adonen could watch over Indas’s kings and judge their royal judgements from his palace in the clouds. Its circular walls were pillared with columns of veiny marble, decorated with ancient images of the Old Kingdom’s pagan gods and godlike kings. A square pool lay nestled at the court’s centre, filled with lilies and lotuses, concealing one of the court’s more theatrical means of punishment: a bath of vicious eels. Liberio had told her the pool was a Lora invention, and that when he’d been a boy the water had only held fishes, but Iridescia liked to believe nymphs had swum there once upon a time.
Iridescia had never known a world when Indas had been free of Lora rule. Liberio’s father, Governor Hadrianus, had been king in all but name since before Iridescia had been born eleven years ago. Like many palace orphans who’d survived the slaughter of their parents, Iridescia had been given a Lora name, but Iridescia was no orphan. She was the charge of Hadrianus’s vizier—Iridescia’s great-aunt Star. Star barely paid Iridescia any mind, leaving her to her own devices or to the guardianship of the palace slaves. Iridescia liked it that way.
When she was very, very little, Iridescia had wondered what her parents were like and dreamed them faces and smiles and names. Her father, she had decided, was an upright judge of the people and a loyal believer in Tanata and her miracles. Iridescia’s mother was kind and warm, with a shy, soothing voice. Her name was Moniqa like King Melqan’s daughter, and she told stories by the riverside when the waters of the Waoidat swelled to overflowing and the children of Ipsis paddled along its muddy banks.
The dreams seemed childish now, but Iridescia kept account of them in a heap of papyrus scribblings in her chamber. A history was a history, even if it was made up. All history was just stories anyway, and since Star refused to tell Iridescia anything about their past, Iridescia may as well tell it to herself.
Iridescia’s knees were starting to cramp, and since none of the guards were doing a proper job of guarding, she plunked onto the floor, wiggling her toes in their reed-woven sandals to wake them up. She tugged on one of her braids, twisting it round and round while she waited for the adults to say something interesting.
Far at the head of the room, Governor Hadrianus presided over the court with Star looming behind his reed throne. Liberio slouched beside his father in a smaller reed chair, even though he was a twenty year-old adult, and even Iridescia wouldn’t sit that way. A metal mask hid half his face, which was olive-skinned, like most Lora people seemed to be. His wine-red hair tumbled to his shoulders in waves. He was short and stocky with muscle, draped in a trim white tunic with a red cape attached by brooches.
Hadrianus towered over his son, his own red hair peppered with grey and white. He had a bit of a flat face for a Loran, but he wore Lora armour, despite the sweltering heat, and he grinned all the time, like he was always in a good mood.
He was never in a good mood.
But Iridescia didn’t hate him half as much as she loathed Aunt Star. Like Iridescia, Star was brown-eyed with dark brown skin, but when Iridescia looked at her, all she saw was a monster. Star was ancient, probably over fifty years old, all skin and bone like a hideous demon from the wall etchings. There was a real star carved into her left cheek—another forbidden history Iridescia would never be told. Star’s close-cut, cream linens strangled her chicken-legs and skeleton-arms, the fabric so thin her small breasts poked against its airy fibres. Thin linen was expensive—the thinner the richer. Roewyn said it was because the flax was hard to work. Star was the most powerful Indat in Ipsis, probably in all of Indas—she could easily afford to pay for the hardship of others.
Indas’s boy-king, Deghashi the second, was absent, which wasn’t unusual. He was a year younger than Iridescia, and soft in the head. In the streets and alehouses, when people thought no one was listening, they whispered that Deghashi was no true king and that his usurper-uncle, Qorelibas, had murdered the spirit of Ipsis when he’d dragged King Melqan’s son Amqlir through the city streets.
A true king in Indas. Someone from Melqan’s line, who would chase the Lora away and return Indas to glory. When such a man returned, the Inda horselords would once again ride the sands, and there would be nymphs again in the pool in the courthouse on the hill.
A true king in Indas. Maybe he would even bring back the old gods, from before the Troubles and Melqan’s conversion. The streets would be filled with stories then, for the old gods had all the very best tales: stories of murder and jealousy, love and transformation. Boring Adonen only had one story, the one where he was resurrected, and even that he’d stolen from the old gods.
A true king in Indas. The sentence whispered and wished upon by half the criminals dragged uphill to the courthouse.
Metal chains rattled, and Iridescia looked up, torn from dream and dropped back into the courtroom.
A prisoner stood before the reed thrones, chained at his wrists. Two Lora guards flanked him, hands curved round the deadly Inda spears Hadrianus had armed them with, as if a few Inda weapons would convince the people Hadrianus was one of them.
Iridescia had missed what the crime was, but it didn’t really matter. It was always the same crime: blasphemy. If you spoke against Deghashi, or Star, or Hadrianus? Blasphemy. Prayed secretly to Tanata or Abaal or Molot? Blasphemy. Found stealing from Lorar’s tribute? That was thievery, but still.
The courtiers on the stone benches lining the room fanned themselves idly while they listened to the court scribe, Miqipsi, recite Hadrianus’s verdict off a scroll. At least Hadrianus had kept the Inda language as the court’s official tongue—one lasting fragment of Indas’s past.
“The accused is a guilty man,” Miqipsi read, “and is sentenced to . . .” He faltered as he read Hadrianus’s pronouncement aloud. “He is sentenced to the tub.”
It had been a long time since someone had received such a punishment.
Iridescia stopped fidgeting. She settled her gaze on Liberio and swallowed, steading herself against the vase where she was hiding. She didn’t like the governor’s son much, but she felt sorry for him in that moment. Besides, Roewyn liked him for some stupid reason, and Iridescia liked Roewyn.
Iridescia bit her lip as she tried to interpret Liberio’s mood. The half-mask strapped to his head by a cloth band had always made him hard to read. It covered a mess of scars that Iridescia had only once had the misfortune to see—scars that threaded in and out of each other, sewn in flesh; scars that covered holes whose hollow shadows lay waiting beneath the surface like a hippopotamus submerged beneath the river; scars that both disguised and memorialized the rot from Liberio’s own time in the tub.
Iridescia shuddered and hugged her arms.
Star nodded to old Miqipsi, though her attention never left the prisoner, who had now dropped to his knees in supplication.
“Please,” the prisoner begged. “I was misheard, Sese. I swear before sweet Adonen that I was misheard.” His voice quavered. “I never called her a—a whore. I—”
She’d heard about this from Liberio a few days ago. The prisoner had written a song about one of Hadrianus’s mistresses. It was pretty popular in the alehouses, apparently. Something about how Hadrianus really liked her feet. He liked them so much, the song went, he couldn’t make children. Feet were smelly and disgusting, but it seemed like a strange song to get mad about, and it didn’t have anything to do with whores, or with making children.
“The City of Reeds suffers traitors no more than it does heathens,” croaked Star, her voice husky like crackling firewood. “Take him to the Haven for his preparations.”
Why would they spare some stranger, when Hadrianus had punished his own son with the tub?
The guards beside the condemned man pulled him to his feet. He screamed as they dragged him away. Iridescia scrunched her face up and covered her ears.
The few courtiers in attendance turned to watch the man with as much discretion as they could muster, no doubt imagining the man’s grisly end, thankful it wasn’t their own.
Miqipsi rolled his scroll closed and bowed before Hadrianus, Liberio, and Star. When Hadrianus stood to leave, everyone but Iridescia bowed with him. They rose only after Star and Hadrianus had left, hurrying outside as soon as they could like ants fleeing a collapsing anthill.
Iridescia stayed where she was, tapping her palm against one of the vases while she waited. Once the trail of courtiers had vanished, she bolted to her feet to run over to the eel pool to talk to Liberio.
Someone grabbed the neck of her tunic. She swerved, swatting behind her, but it was just Miqipsi. He must have sneaked back in.
“My mistress will skin you alive if she sees you, you know that.” He meant Star. The old scribe’s scolding was halfhearted though, and he let Iridescia go with a theatrical sigh. He winked at her, and she stuck out her tongue and grinned—the wide, gap-toothed expression Star had told her to stop making. She mimed a person running with two of her fingers—she was a fast runner—and Miqipsi shook his head, short grey curls bouncing.
Miqipsi adjusted the strap of the scroll case on his shoulder and turned his gaze heavenward. “Have I told you about my younger years? When I was studying in eq-Anout?”
Iridescia nodded emphatically. She had heard. Many times.
Miqipsi ignored her, already walking the streets of the country east of their neighbour Qemassen. “In Ledan, the street children trade errands for money, and they run fast as Inda horses. If you think yourself so spry, I recommend begging. It’s good for both sorts of soul.” He grinned to himself. Iridescia made a show of rolling her eyes at the joke, but all it got her was a pat on the shoulder.
Iridescia plastered on her most pitiful, desperate face, and held her palms out expectantly. The scribe pretended confusion for a moment, the way he always did, but then shoved his hand into a purse at his waist. He pulled out a handful of honeyed ginger drops and poured them onto her outstretched palms.
He snatched one of them from her and popped it in his mouth. “You share those with the prince.” He meant Liberio, but Liberio was Hadrianus’s son. He was no prince.
Iridescia nodded anyway.
She waited for Miqipsi to leave before running to Liberio, her sandals slapping the tiles. The governor’s son had risen from his throne and was pacing beside the eel pond, staring into the water like he wanted to jump in. He looked up.
In her haste, Iridescia tripped, nearly falling, and Liberio laughed. It wasn’t fair; Liberio was usually the one falling over himself.
“You took long enough,” he said.
He didn’t have to be mean, and she was doing him a favour, helping him sneak around to meet Roewyn. She tucked the ginger drops into her pocket and shrugged.
She wanted to ask if he was feeling all right after the sentencing, but Liberio didn’t know the language of hand signs. She stared at him sadly, hoping he would understand the expression all by itself.
A priest at the temple had taught Iridescia the signs so she could communicate, but only Roewyn and Miqipsi knew them. Liberio was too stupid and stubborn to learn. Anyway, she wasn’t sure she wanted him knowing her secret language.
Liberio furrowed his brow. “What is it? Why are you staring at me? You’re supposed to take me to see Roewyn.” He waved his right hand in the air. “You’re a funny girl, Iridescia, and not just because you don’t talk.”
She wanted to tell him that she wasn’t a funny girl, and that it was his own fault if he didn’t pay attention to her, but she couldn’t be bothered, and just glared at him instead.
If it wasn’t for her promise to Roewyn, she’d have left Liberio all by himself, but she had promised Roewyn, so she swallowed her pride and slipped her fingers about his larger ones, clutched his hand in hers and pointed to a side door.
Liberio brightened and let her lead him outside.
The door let out onto the flat top of a steep, craggy peak called Mount Nuna, though Mount Nuna wasn’t one hill so much as several. The courthouse was the only building on it, accessed by a terribly long flight of stairs that even now the courtiers were still descending. Mount Nuna wasn’t even a true mountain: the real mountains, the Waoi—whence originated the source of Ipsis’s sacred rivers, the Waoidas and the Waoidan—lay like sleeping giants in the distance. In the land created by the forking of the two rivers lay Ipsis and Lera, Indas’s two largest cities, protected on three sides by the Waoi to the south, the Leopard Hills to the west, and the ocean to the north. Even the east, with its vast expanse of arable land and desert before their neighbor, Qemassen, would prove a formidable route for invasion.
Beyond the Waoi lay the great walled city of Tintellan—the oldest city west of eq-Anout, according to Miqipsi. But the heart of Indas was Ipsis, the City of Reeds.
The city sprawled below them as Iridescia led Liberio along the path—water-lush flatland dominated by white-washed, flat-roofed buildings. The gridded city streets were dotted with palms, all the long route down to the docks. Trading barges loaded and unloaded their wares where the water was clear, but further along the Waoidat was choked with the reeds that gave the city its name.
The walled palace that had once been home to Indas’s royal family, and which now housed Deghashi’s nobles, was a moated wonder, out of keeping with the style of the rest of the city and accessible by a flat bridge that looked like it was floating atop the water. The tiered lotuses that topped the palace spiked toward the sky—a style visitors always marveled at, for the palace had been ancient when Ipsis itself was new, the people who’d built it long gone. From up here, the canals dividing the different quarters of the palace were an onyx maze of interlocking, algae-speckled passageways. It was so hot this evening that Iridescia would’ve plunged beneath their cooling surface if she’d returned home instead of guiding Liberio.
Iridescia breathed in deep. The air was thick and humid, and the smell of the heat coming off the trees that cluttered the southernmost slope was like a perfume made of bark and leaves.
Rather than taking the stairs, Iridescia led Liberio along a secret path. The route was rockier, tamed only by wild sheep and other animals, but no one would see them as they made their way downhill, toward the city.
As they traversed further along the narrow, twisting path, the echoing protestations of the condemned merchant cast a pall over their walk. They’d be carrying him to the Haven now, on the southernmost face of Mount Nuna.
Though the city beneath them was welcoming, the tortured man’s cries reminded Iridescia that these were haunted hills, and the Haven most of all. It was in the Haven that the royal family had been executed during the Troubles. It was where the prisoner was being taken now. It was where Liberio had been punished by Hadrianus and Star. It was probably where the rest of her family had met their ends. All but Iridescia and Star.
Liberio squeezed Iridescia’s hand more tightly. “When I’m king, I’ll raze this place to the ground. No one can be taken to the Haven if there isn’t a Haven to be taken to.”
Iridescia snorted. Even if Liberio was in line to be king, she didn’t trust him to be a good one. He’d make stupid rules bringing back the god-kings and start building statues of himself everywhere. She could picture it all in her head: Liberio’s smug, laughing face carved in sandstone all over the pretty murals around Ipsis.
“Laugh if you want.” He sighed dreamily. “The day will come when you’ll see I was right. We both know neither of them deserve their power. The whole world is run by tyrants and madmen.”
Philosophical Liberio was even worse than silly Liberio. Did he want to get arrested for blasphemy? Iridescia swung round and he bumped into her. She held her finger up to her lips—silence.
“There’s no one here,” he reassured her, but he glanced behind them. “And people are stupid, they won’t understand who I’m talking about.” He grinned. “Most people are stupid, not you or Roewyn.”
Or you? Of course Liberio didn’t think he was stupid.
But Iridescia let it drop and released his hand. She hurried down the rest of the path, hiking her colourfully-patterned skirts so she could hop her way past an especially steep bend. She waited dutifully for Liberio, in case he fell and died or something. It was the kind of thing he’d do, and then she’d feel bad.
“You can see Roe’s dyeing vats,” said Liberio, pointing.
She turned and looked; she never got tired of looking. The vats lined the flat roofs in the merchant’s sector. Their colours looked muddy from this distance, but she could just make out figures stirring the cloth with long poles and hanging skeins of finished wool.
Roewyn dealt in cloth and had worked as a fuller and a dyer’s apprentice as a child. She had a talent for weaving and could create beautiful patterns in linen using wax to overlay the colours. Roewyn made clothes for Iridescia and many other important men and women of the city. She’d begun her life in Ipsis in bondage, but had done so well for herself that she had slaves of her own now.
Iridescia tore her gaze from the city. They were taking too long—Roewyn was waiting. She picked up a tiny stone and threw it at Liberio’s shoulder. It zipped past him but got his attention.
“All right,” he snapped. He squinted at her suspiciously before waving his hands again, in that way he had of talking with them without actually saying anything. “You could be more fun, you know. Maybe if you drank a bit more.”
Iridescia rolled her eyes and continued her swift course downhill. She had plenty of fun, just not with him around. When she reached the bottom she concluded her descent with a jump for flourish.
The path had taken them to a narrow alley choked with palms and shrubs. No one would see Roewyn and Liberio here.
Liberio skidded as he tried to pussy-foot to the bottom, balancing only after a lot of swaying. He smiled triumphantly and bowed mockingly at Iridescia.
“Did they teach you that in governor’s lessons?” asked Roewyn from behind her.
Iridescia turned around, beaming gleefully at the sound of Roewyn’s silky voice. Roewyn was sitting on a rock beneath the trees.
“The bowing or the tripping?” asked Liberio.
Iridescia ignored him and ran to Roewyn before wrapping her arms around Roewyn’s waist, nuzzling her head against Roewyn’s chest. Roewyn was tiny, Iridescia almost of a height with her, even though she was half Roewyn’s age.
Roewyn gave Iridescia a squeeze. She was so beautiful, with crow-black hair that shone blue in the right light, tanned white skin, and the curves of a grown woman. Iridescia released her so she could sign about her day, the way they always did, but Roewyn wasn’t watching.
She wasn’t watching Iridescia, anyway.
Roewyn’s trilling laugh cut the silence, and she raised a dainty hand to cover her mouth. Iridescia didn’t need to turn around to know that Liberio was making a fool of himself.
“They freed eight slaves today,” Iridescia signed, desperate to attract Roewyn’s attention—eight was an unprecedented number. “And there was an envoy from Lorar. And they sentenced a man to death, at the Haven. They sentenced him to sitting in the tub!” She stamped her foot for emphasis, but all Roewyn did was smile vaguely in her direction. Liberio walked up to them, clasping Roewyn’s hands in his. Iridescia had to shuffle to the side to get out of the way.
Iridescia reached out and gave Roewyn’s arm a light slap, and Roewyn finally turned away from Liberio. “All right, I’m sorry. I’m listening now.”
Iridescia kicked a weed, scattering petals. “Never mind.”
Roewyn smiled sadly, a relentless pity in her eyes, and Iridescia’s heart caved in. She didn’t want Roewyn’s pity; she didn’t want sad smiles and grudging attention.
Iridescia grabbed the ginger drops from her pockets and scattered them all over the ground, startling Roewyn and Liberio. Before they could respond, she dashed off into the low brush to find somewhere quiet where she could regret having made such a scene. She didn’t want or need any more pity—she got enough of that from strangers. Roewyn was supposed to be her friend. Roewyn was supposed to pay attention.
It was a long scramble back up Mount Nuna, but Iridescia went quickly, feet almost failing her in her haste. When she reached the top again, she avoided the courthouse, turning south toward the Haven. No one would go looking for her there. Besides, she liked the Haven, with its mica-black pool, its shady trees. And in the Haven she was never alone—the voices would be there to speak to her, immaterial and otherworldly.
She marched along the top of the hill, plunging into the dense forest that led to the Haven. The cries of the dying man wailed low and sleepy through the trees like a kind of mist, like his fear had lulled him into a dream state.
The sky was darkening, the shadows of the trees stretching long as the air began to cool and the mosquitos and gnats zipped away.
One of Iridescia’s braids snagged on a branch and she winced. She’d planned to ask Roewyn to cut her hair.
Tears budded in the corners of her eyes. She ripped her hair free and stomped ahead.
She shouldn’t have stormed off. What if Roewyn had followed her? What if Roewyn and Liberio tried to follow her and fell and died? No one knew these trails like Iridescia, and Liberio wasn’t what you’d call graceful. Was Liberio so bad, really? Iridescia was just jealous.
Jealous, because all Roewyn cared about anymore was stupid Liberio, because she’d probably already forgotten Iridescia and was heading back to her apartment with him to lounge around on cushions and kiss.
Iridescia stuck out her tongue like she’d bitten into a mouldy fruit. Blech.
And she was the one who’d introduced them. If she could undo that, she would.
She stopped walking as the voices of the Haven rushed in on her, the already thick air turning thicker, prickling her skin.
“Oh little girl, sweetest girl.” The voices were like half-remembered whispers, like ghosts tickling your ear. So many voices, sometimes speaking as one, then dancing in and out of each other.
She pushed past the branches, stepping from the low-growing ferns ringing the glade into the circular clearing that surrounded the pool. The circle was so perfect that it must have been grown this way on purpose, or whoever tidied the courthouse kept it neat.
The sky was nearly dark now, its stars obscured by cloud-cover. As she walked further onto the grass, the leaves on all the trees swayed gently, their rustling like laughter. A million voices seemed to whisper at once in hushed excitement, a ring of ghosts around the small, deep pool at their centre.
The prisoner’s wooden tub bobbed on the surface of the pool, turning turning turning in the breeze. Flies, mosquitoes, and stinging creatures buzzed above it and clustered along its rim. Iridescia couldn’t see over its edges, but the prisoner would be bound to the base so he couldn’t escape.
“Hello? Is someone there?” The prisoner called. He started to sob. “Pleasepleaseplease.” A pause. “Please. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it . . . .” His voice trailed off into a moan.
The sickly sweet smell of honey, milk, and feces drifted toward her, and Iridescia wrinkled her nose. Couldn’t he see her?
“Step closer, step closer child,” the voices urged, and this time it was like they came from the trees, like her friends were watching her from the bushes with a hundred invisible eyes.
She obeyed, tiptoeing toward the edge of the dark pool. She swallowed the lump forming in her throat, not wanting to look and needing to see all at once.
The prisoner had been blinded, his eye sockets filled with gooey honey that dripped down his face. Flesh flies covered his head. Sitting in the tub was a slow and cruel punishment. Prisoners were force-fed milk and honey daily, with nowhere to defecate but into the basin. Their limbs and sensitive places were smeared with more honey so that flies burrowed beneath their skin and inside their orifices, devouring, gnawing, laying eggs. When the eggs hatched, the victim’s skin would be pockmarked with maggots. A person would rot alive like that, or be stung to death, if they were lucky.
Was it worse or better not to see what was happening to you? Had Liberio wished he couldn’t see? Had he closed his eyes? Iridescia bit her lip. He’d only been a boy when Star had suggested the punishment to Hadrianus. She didn’t remember it, having been so young, but sometimes she dreamed about this place, and of a son sent to rot by his father. They’d taken him out, it being only a warning. What a warning it had been.
“Poor boy. Poor boy.” The voices cooed in unison. Iridescia craned her neck and stared at the tallest tips of the tallest trees. The shadows had heard her thoughts, as they often did.
Who are you? she wondered, not for the first time.
The voices were silent. Once, a woman’s voice had told Iridescia she was her mother, but the way the trees laughed afterwards had roused Iridescia’s suspicions.
“I know you’re there.” It was the prisoner again.
He’d be delirious with pain or infection in a few days. She couldn’t help him. Star would find out, and then? Blasphemy.
Besides, Iridescia had no way to remove his shackles. Maybe if she had help—
A shadow appeared at the edge of the pool, and Iridescia gasped. She swerved to look for whoever had cast it, but she was alone.
Iridescia bent down by the bank, breathing heavy, staring into the dark water. How far was it to the bottom? Did it even have one?
A large dead bluebottle drifted on the surface of the pool, buffeted occasionally by the gentle waves created by the tub. Another victim of the pool, to add to the humans carried here and drowned.
The trees rustled again with their soft, giggling music. The shadow was still standing over her—long-fingered, stretched all over, almost solid.
On the surface of the pool, the dead fly buzzed abruptly and flicked its wings, spinning in circles. She snapped a leaf off a lily and pushed the fly to the safety of the bank.
Who are you? Iridescia asked the voices again, silently, in her head.
“Death,” the shadow said, and Iridescia felt cool fingers on her shoulder, squeezing her skin with a mother’s gentility. “The deaths of your enemies.”