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Chapter 20: Conquerors
Iridescia – The Streets of Ipsis: Indas
Roewyn Roewyn Roewyn. Let that be the only thought inside her.
Iridescia had lost her shoes somewhere between Mount Nuna and the streets of Ipsis. She ran anyway, imagining the pain in her feet as a slate she could scrape clean. Her feet were hardened clay. Her feet were iron. Would that they pounded the road with the strength of metal and the speed of thunder.
Deserted buildings stared back at her with empty eyes, and the alleys bristled with unearthly stillness. The faces she’d have expected to see were silent.
Up on the hill, the night had burst with a chorus of screams, but grim quiet had met her at the base of Mount Nuna, along with a darkness so thick it seemed alive. This was no true night; it thrummed in the bones like the plucked cord of a lute.
Most of the city had congregated in and around the big eghri to watch the troops march out. And yet—surely there should be someone outside? The army had already left by the time she and Liberio had fled the thieves’ den, and the streets had been filling up again.
Ipsis’s fires were snuffed, her people vanished.
Up ahead, in the middle of the road, heaps of what looked like tattered cloth lined the street all the way to the river.
Something about the piles was all wrong. At a distance, they could be rugs, or cloaks, or even leaves. Except they weren’t any of those things. She knew they weren’t any of those things.
Iridescia started walking more slowly.
Her heart hammered in her chest.
Warm wetness met the pads of her feet.
Iridescia stopped about five cubits from the thing on the ground. The smell of a butchery wafted off it—the tang of raw meat and underneath it all a swampy stink like a latrine.
She covered her mouth and nose, fighting the urge to vomit.
A ring of blood wept outwards around the pile of body. What lay before her was so much worse than what the shadows had done to Star’s guards in the Haven. Ribbons of flesh cut thin as cotton robes had been stripped from the Yirada officer’s body, till barely anything thicker than a papyrus sheet remained. It was as if a cloud of claws had slashed him apart from inside—not only his skin torn from his muscles and fat, but each part of him peeled apart and left almost neatly. It was a mess shaped into a tidy pile like some kind of present. The only signals he’d been a Yirada officer were the splinters of reed armour that speared through the jelly of his organs.
There were so many piles along the road.
Iridescia had called the shadows down from the Haven. She’d done this.
Tears poured down her face and mucus from her nose. She rubbed her face with her forearm to clean away the snot, but she was shaking so violently she only smeared it across her cheek. The taste of salt filled her mouth, better, at least, than the pungent smell coming from the corpses, which stunk so thick it had a taste.
She couldn’t stop staring at what had once been a man. Maybe she’d even passed him on the street on the way uphill. Maybe he’d had children—
Iridescia gazed out at the piles along the road, eyes wide. Were some of them smaller than the others?
An animal scream rang from the direction of the palace, shearing through Iridescia’s guilt. The darkness that choked the city was denser in and around the palace complex. It hung in the air above the lotus-tipped towers that Oran had mistaken for pine-cones. It flowed through the air like airborne canals filled with the Haven’s black water. Whatever Iridescia had unleashed, it was concentrated there.
Iridescia bolted for the palace gates, the blood caked to her feet creating a pauper’s shoe made of dust and dirt.
The gates, which shouldn’t be open, hung wide. Iridescia shoved past them, ignoring the gore splattered to either side where the guards had once stood.
She ran ran ran all the way along the walkway to the palace, darting over and around bodies without pausing to look at any of them. If she looked, she’d be compelled to stop, and she didn’t have time to stop.
When she reached the first set of doors, she half-tumbled inside a sand-filled courtyard. Red-dyed grains crunched and oozed beneath her feet as she dashed for the door that would lead her inside. Like every single other door inside the palace, it was unguarded and unlocked. The shadows had cleared the way of barriers both human and otherwise.
Tobi was human. Deghashi was human. Miqipsi—
She slipped inside, heart in her throat. What did the shadows understand about human desires? Iridescia hadn’t asked for this. And yet, her heart couldn’t help but remind her, she’d heard someone else’s voice speaking in the darkness. It had sounded like Liberio.
The darkness that had descended on the city was just as oppressive indoors, the few fires that still burned in their sconces ringed with a thick dusky smoke that nipped at the edges of the light like hyenas around their prey.
Until tonight, Iridescia hadn’t known you could smell blood. She smelled it now, as thick in the air as the blackness that had snuffed all the fires. Its sour metallic pong mingled with the stink of sweat, urine, and feces.
If she could have screamed Oran’s name, or Liberio’s name—Roewyn’s name—she would have, but all she had were her feet. She used them.
Out of the darkness, a child screamed.
Iridescia jerked to a stop. She couldn’t afford to waste time.
“Mother!” they cried. “Mama.”
The shouts echoed down to Iridescia from a branching corridor. She could investigate, but the noise was the wrong way from the dungeons where Roewyn ought to be.
The child wailed again and Iridescia didn’t hesitate any longer. She followed the scream.
Inside a small room, a little girl of no more than five sat beside what remained of her mother. She patted the bloody stones as though her mother might be hidden inside them. As if she might come back.
Iridescia walked toward her, but the girl didn’t even look up. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, her face puffy and streaked with tears. There was no obvious sign of any injuries on her.
A children’s court.
Had the shadows killed only the adults? If that were true, then Tobi might be alive.
Iridescia stepped around the corpse and reached for the little girl.
“Nonono!” The child all but glued herself to the floor, folding herself against her legs so Iridescia couldn’t get a good grip on her.
Iridescia scooped her hands under the girl’s knees to try and lift her, but it was no good. She wasn’t strong enough. “I’ll come back for you.”
Iridescia’s fingers were covered in blood.
She hastily wiped her hands off on her robes and raced away before she could think herself out of it. She could come back for the girl later.
The deeper she went inside the palace, the darker it became until the lights disappeared altogether. She pressed herself as close as she could to the walls, using them to guide her, letting memory be her map.
One foot in front of the other. One foot, then two, then one—Blessed Adonen keep her from stepping on a body.
From the direction of what Iridescia thought was the palace courtroom, came the muffled sound of voices.
All her hairs stood on end. The walls pulsed beneath her fingertips. And then the voices of the spirits came to her.
She should follow them. She’d find what she needed in the courtroom.
Iridescia turned a corner and tripped on a corpse. She fell but caught herself on soft fabric and a damp body.
Out of the darkness, fingers wrapped about her ankle, threatening to hold her.
Iridescia kicked herself free and squirmed out of the dying person’s grasp.
Mushy noises gargled from the body, as though whoever they’d been, they’d long lost the ability to speak.
Were they someone she knew? Had they recognized the sound of her footsteps? She wished she could tell them how sorry she was. She wished that even mattered.
They’d be dead soon, and Iridescia needed to find the others. She scrambled back to her feet, giving the body a wide berth and hurrying on. She rounded several corners before warm light startled her out of her reverie.
Up ahead, a dim light radiated onto the stones from inside the courtroom. Whoever was inside, the darkness that had swallowed the rest of the palace had spared them.
Inside the courtroom, a woman screamed.
Iridescia crouched low and slunk toward the arch leading inside. She flattened herself against the wall and peered in.
Light blinded her.
Iridescia recoiled, squeezing her eyes shut. She’d been running in darkness so long that the light had overwhelmed her.
Footsteps slapped the stones, approaching Iridescia’s hiding place. She braced herself. Adonen, Tanata, Abaal—whoever was listening—let her bravery return.
If she kept waiting for that to happen, she’d wait forever.
Iridescia pulled herself from the wall and stepped inside the courtroom, slowly opening her eyes.
“Iridescia!” Roewyn thumped against Iridescia, drawing her into a tight hug. Her glossy black hair had been violently shorn. Her face was dirty, her clothes were bloodstained and reeking.
Iridescia didn’t care.
This was Roewyn—warm and good and safe. She nestled her nose into Roewyn’s filthy clothes and wept into the scratchy cloth.
Liberio’s barking laughter cut the air, and Roewyn’s arms unravelled from Iridescia. The cold rushed in.
Her gaze went immediately to the thrones above the depressed audience chamber, where Ipsis’s kings and queens ought to sit.
And what royalty they were.
Corpses piled three bodies high sat upon the thrones. Every one of them had been gutted, their eyes milky and vacant. They were courtiers—Hadrianus’s loyal followers. It looked like they’d been killed by human hands rather than her shadows.
Liberio was sitting next Deghashi in front of the thrones, on the stairs leading down to the recessed square below. Deghashi was humming and slamming his palms against the floor. All Iridescia wanted to do was run to him and take him away somewhere safe. He shouldn’t be here.
Roewyn grasped Iridescia’s hand in hers and together they walked toward Liberio. “Liberio? Iridescia’s here. She’s come to see us.” There was a quaver in Roewyn’s voice.
Liberio stood up, his red curls and metal half-mask shining in the light from a brazier. He grinned. “Welcome, sister! You’ve come to pay court, I see.”
Iridescia frowned at him. She’d never told him she was his sister. Had the shadows? Maybe they were speaking to him now.
She didn’t dare look at the figures on their thrones with their fish eyes and bloodied faces. But as Roewyn led Iridescia to the steps leading to the recessed audience square in the floor, the rest of the carnage came into view.
Men and women, ripped apart like the victims of the shadows, were heaped in every corner. Just like on the day Hadrianus had executed his courtiers and sentenced Tobi’s mother, blood filled the base of the square. Though the blood was still now, it seemed to churn inside Iridescia’s memory, sloshing and lapping at the lowest steps like it had during Hadrianus’s purge.
Iridescia scanned the bodies, searching—praying—to find signs of Star and Hadrianus.
A chill passed over her. All at once the darkness was closing in. It snaked along Iridescia’s skin, embracing her.
Roewyn had anticipated Iridescia’s fit, and as Iridescia bolted for what remained of the scribe’s body, Roewyn pulled her back, digging her nails into Iridescia’s skin to keep her from running to him.
“Stop, Iridescia, stop! You can’t help him. Forget it.” Roewyn’s voice sounded broken.
“He was good. Not him. He was good to us!” She went limp in Roewyn’s arms, her mouth hanging open in a silent scream. “He was my friend!” She shook her head, her braids hanging in front of her eyes so she could no longer see Miqipsi’s pouch of sweetmeats or his scribal robes soaked in blood.
“I’m sorry, Iridescia,” said Liberio.
“I didn’t make them do it.”
Then who else?
“We had to save Roewyn.”
Iridescia had killed him. Her her her.
She broke free of Roewyn and glared at Liberio. “Where’s Star?”
Roewyn backed away. She clutched her fist against her chin, nervous. “There.” She pointed to the space between the thrones.
Star was a crooked, crumpled thing, wedged between the thrones so that she was barely visible. She was naked, her wrinkled skin awash in blood. She looked grey as the stones she sat upon.
Liberio gave her foot a shove with his boot and she moaned, lolling her head back and forth. “Huh. Still awake.” He bent down and picked up something red and wet from the floor. He cocked his head appraisingly, then tossed it at Iridescia. It landed with a wet slap on the stair below hers.
Iridescia looked closer, then immediately jumped back a step.
“Her tongue,” Liberio offered glibly. “For you. For me. For Roewyn. They pulled it from her mouth with their fingers. You should have heard her scream. You would have loved it.”
Iridescia wished she could scream. All the hurt came back to her, all the pain caused both directly and indirectly by the ugly monster leaning battered and bruised against the throne. That woman had murdered Iridescia’s mother, her grandmother, Tobi’s parents. She’d cut off Tobi’s finger, raped Liberio, and tortured Roewyn.
Iridescia should be happy. She should be so happy.
So why wasn’t she?
She couldn’t stop her tears.
“I decided to let her live. Call it mercy if you like.” Liberio spat on the woman they’d made his wife. “But not my father.”
“Why did they kill Miqipsi?” Iridescia asked again, not really expecting an answer.
Someone did answer though. Oran emerged from the opposite end of the courtroom, where he must have been lurking in the shadows. His every footstep was followed by the sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor. “Because there’s no room for him in a children’s court.”
“And no room for you,” Iridescia signed toward Oran, but there was no hope he’d seen her.
Iridescia walked backwards up the steps, to glimpse what it was Oran was lugging toward them.
Hadrianus. He was naked like Star, and he whimpered like a dog at every jostle.
So, he’d been left alive too.
“The world is cruel, Iridescia,” said Liberio. He waved his arm at the room, as though encompassing his terrible, cruel world. “There’s nothing good in it. Not besides you and Roewyn. So I’ll make a world for you. A kingdom, just for you.”
Iridescia balled her hands into fists.
Oran shoved Hadrianus down the stairs. He rolled to a stop at the base, sending out waves of blood that rolled over the bodies surrounding him.
Iridescia’s tears splatted against the steps.
Hadrianus had been beaten. Scratches that couldn’t have come from human fingers had raked great furrows in his flesh, all over his torso and his face. One of his ears looked as though it had been pulled off. He whined again—a sound like a dog. What had they done to leave him so? He wasn’t injured like Star. He stared up at his son with pleading eyes.
Liberio hopped down the steps and kicked him hard in the side. Hadrianus began convulsing, his neck straining back, his face reddening.
Roewyn cried out.
A shadow stood behind Liberio—one only Iridescia seemed to see—its fingers interlocked with his, its shape that of Iridescia’s brother. Her dead brother.
Hadrianus had killed his son and look what it had brought him.
Abruptly, Liberio tore away from his father and marched back up the steps. He kept his back to everyone, heading for the archway at the other end of the courtroom. Some of the oppressive weight in the air seemed to flow away with him.
As he left the room, Liberio shouted an order back to Oran. “Cut off his hands and feet. Make sure he feels it.”
Iridescia backed into Roewyn, feeling the strength of the shadows recede completely from around them. She grabbed Roewyn’s hand and dragged her to Miqipsi’s side.
“Help me,” she signed.
Together, they slid their arms beneath what remained of Miqipsi’s body and carried him from the hall to the sound of Hadrianus’s screams.