(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 20: Conquerors
Iridescia – The Court on the Hill: Ipsis: Indas
“I have brought you here today to witness the deposition of Indas’s child king, Deghashi the II, Deghashi the Fool.” Liberio’s voice was born to reverberate in halls such as this, his tone steady and charismatic. He cut a figure, garbed now in bold red and black robes that bespoke his importance without the vanity of gold or jewels.
It was almost enough to make Iridescia forget about the corpse.
She pushed the stench of Hadrianus’s rot out through her nose, trying to breathe through her mouth and focus on all that was beautiful, instead of the ugly mess the shadows had made of things.
Sitting straight on his reed throne, Liberio seemed a giant, despite his modest height. His burgundy hair tumbled past his shoulders in gentle waves and his old mask had been replaced with a finer one of polished silver. Iridescia and Roewyn sat to either side of him, dressed as fine as he was.
Iridescia’s braids had been elaborately twined together with red and purple ribbons and wound asymmetrically in looping circles tight against her scalp.
She felt like a princess. She looked like a queen.
Her dress was thinnest cotton, dyed orange and purple and layered so that she looked like a living sunset. When Roewyn had carried over the big bronze mirror, Iridescia hadn’t believed the figure staring back at her was real. She looked like a woman, just like she’d wanted to be.
It had been enough to make her smile, if only for a moment. There’d been so much horror, but there was good along with the bad. Hadrianus was dead and Roewyn was safe. Liberio had managed to organize the older children in the city into something resembling a workforce and the streets had been cleared of most of the carnage.
Together, for now, the three of them ruled in Ipsis, and with the army returned, today they’d test whether the generals Liberio swore would bow to him were loyal.
Two of Hadrianus’s former commanders—Aeronus Sardo and Azaelian One-Eye—knelt before the pool of eels, their heads lowered. No one moved or spoke.
To escape the awkwardness of staring at Liberio’s loyal generals, Iridescia peered past Liberio at Roewyn.
A long, black wig disguised Roewyn’s cropped hair, her cotton dress as sheer as Star’s had once been and decorated with pretty yellow flowers. She smiled at Iridescia, but the expression faded as though she’d glimpsed something upsetting.
Iridescia didn’t have to look to know what.
Star was bound to a plain stool beside Iridescia. She stunk of dried blood, and her troubled breathing rasped at Iridescia’s ear as a constant reminder of her presence. Maybe she did it on purpose. It was something Star might do.
And despite herself, Iridescia felt guilty. As she had done every day since the night of the shadows, Iridescia forced herself to remember the fear in Tobi’s eyes as Star and Hadrianus had commanded he lose another finger. She remembered the way Star had tormented Iridescia’s poor mother in the vision.
She swallowed, looking past Roewyn to where Hadrianus’s corpse was tied. His ripe rotting flesh was abuzz with flies. They clustered around the stumps Oran had made of his limbs as larvae wriggled from his empty eye sockets, mouth, and nostrils.
Iridescia had hated the governor, yet she could hardly bare the gruesome display. Liberio insisted Star and Hadrianus’s ends reflected the obscene decadence of their rule. It was a fitting thing, he’d told her.
Maybe he was right. Iridescia had no idea what it’d felt like to rot alive in the Haven. She’d never been forced to marry, had never been raped by someone twice her age. She’d never been beaten by her father. How could she judge what Liberio had done?
It was different for him.
Pity welled up in her as she watched her brother sitting bold on his new throne. Those two bodies chained to stools had killed Liberio once, though Liberio didn’t know it. Perhaps Hadrianus hadn’t known either. Perhaps all Hadrianus had understood was that he’d murdered his child’s love for him the day he’d left him to rot beneath the sun.
Iridescia shivered, picturing herself lying in darkness, her body coated in honey and sweet milk, bobbing in the water as she listened blindly to the buzz of death approaching. What dread had Liberio felt listening to the hum of the insects? What darkness had he known?
“The Children’s Court rules in Ipsis now!” Liberio announced at last. “In all of Indas!”
There’d been no room in Liberio’s court for Miqipsi, but for men with swords, there was always a place.
Iridescia clenched her hands.
“They can rise, can’t they, Iridescia?” Liberio stared at her.
Iridescia hadn’t expected to be asked. She nodded hastily.
Sardo and Azaelian’s sand-sprayed armour clinked as they stood. Sardo was an old man with grey hair and pale blue eyes in a handsome face. Scars patchworked his skin, but they only made him look tougher. Azaelian One-Eye was ugly as ever—his walleye staring ever right, and his pockmarked skin prickling all the way back across his scalp to his receding hairline. What remained of his hair stuck out in all directions, like tongues of wild red fire. Azaelian was scarier than Sardo on the outside, but Liberio had always spoken of him kindly.
Azaelian shifted his attention between the three of them. With his walleye, it was hard to judge his mood. “And to which people does this children’s court swear allegiance? This is Lora country. It has been for years.”
Liberio inclined his head. “We’ve gone one better than Lorar ever did. Barely a soul remains of the Inda nobility. The stain left by Qorelibas has been washed clean. Only Deghashi is left.”
That was a lie, not that Liberio knew it. From Iridescia’s visions, she’d learned enough to suspect Qorelibas or one of his sons had been her grandfather. Iridescia’s mother and Deghashi seemed to share the same affliction, for one thing.
“So, it is Lorar we serve?” asked Sardo. He crossed his arms as though assessing his boy king. “Our men would like to know. They talk of shadows and witchcraft. Of a sorcerer king.” He glanced at Iridescia. “Or queen.”
The Butcher of Lera. That’s what Aeornus Sardo was called. He’d massacred the people in Indas’s second largest city with a brutality unheard of. Or so people whispered.
Iridescia curled back in her seat. Having Sardo look at her felt like having a knife pressed to her throat. An awful lot of Inda women and men had gazed into those blue eyes as they died.
Azaelian One-Eye grunted, then spit to the side, as though to ward off even the mention of sinister magic, and Sardo blessedly looked away from Iridescia.
“You swore to me, both of you, that if I could take down my father, you would follow me.” Liberio hesitated. “With respect, we are the Children’s Court. We serve no one but ourselves. Azaelian—I’ve known you all my life. Lorar’s canals run in your veins. That connection is thicker than blood, but you both saw how corrupt my father had become. Marianus Rufus is no different. He appears strong, but he’s just like my father—a weak man who wastes the lives of those stronger than him. Under men like them, our country’s turned as rotten as this body beside me.” Liberio cleared his throat, straightening in his chair, his voice booming louder and more confidently. “So many of your soldiers have made a home in Indas, though the word has been denied them. I won’t deny you words, and I won’t deny you the fruits of your hard work. I won’t threaten you with torture or murder those who follow the gods of their people. You marched east to claim Qemassen for my father, but I would have you march east for yourselves. There is no kingdom called Indas, no province of the Lora empire. There is only this room, these people, ourselves. Fight for me and I will give you the Lorar that was lost. Together, we will take all that has been denied us, as I have taken vengeance on my father.”
Iridescia stared. When had Liberio decided anyone was marching east? What was he talking about, the Lorar that was lost? What had he meant, saying there was no Indas? Liberio had never considered himself a Loran before. He’d always claimed everything he did was to free Indas.
Iridescia dug her nails into the hand rests of her reed throne. The weave stretched as she pried her nails between the fibres.
As though the water were just as troubled by Liberio’s proclamations, a cloud of mud bubbled to the surface of the murky pool of eels.
“You mean to take Qemassen? To rule as king against the wishes of the senate?” asked Sardo. “What of Luqiferus? He didn’t march out with us on Qemassen, but he stands in our path. If the senate gets word of your plans, they’ll order him to march.”
The sun emerged from behind a cloud, striking its blinding light onto the metal fixings on the generals’ armour. They must be sweltering in their gear, but Sardo stood straight and tall, face a mask.
Liberio smirked, waving to his right. “I mean to take the Helit itself, and that only to start. I’m not afraid of Luqiferus Murinus. He’s barely a man of Lorar any longer, with no guarantee he’ll listen to the senate’s demands. And you of anyone knows Lera’s no impenetrable fortress. I’m angry, Sardo, and hungry. If you fight for me, I promise you won’t ever be the same. The Children’s Court will give you what is owed. When your pockets are overflowing with gold and your belly is fat with eastern grain, I’ll turn to you ask why you’ve tasted but a fifth of what I’ve reaped for you.”
Azaelian grunted again. “Big words, from a small man. Anyone can boast like that, and Hadrianus was the worst of them.”
Liberio leaned forward. “You know me, Azaelian. And look what I’ve done.” He threw up his hands. “Tell me you’ve seen a city fall so easily to anyone before?”
Sardo strode so close to the edge of the eel pond it seemed he might fall in. “You’ll do all this, with only our army? The force we mustered is one of the largest the south has seen, but to take the whole shore we’ll need more than Inda javelins and Lora swords.”
Liberio’s smile widened. “I believe you know we have more.”
Iridescia wished she could wither away. Liberio meant to use her shadows again, the way they had to rescue Roewyn.
Sardo and Azaelian exchanged glances. Some silent conversation seemed to pass between them.
“Sorcery,” said Sardo.
“Only when used to bad ends.” Liberio turned and looked at Iridescia, like it was her he was trying to convince. “You said yourself. We command the largest army the south has ever seen. What a waste not to use her to return Lorar to its former glory and erase the damage done by Marianus’s folly.”
Beside Iridescia, Star gurgled from deep in her throat. She understood far more than she was pretending to, Iridescia had no doubt about that. Simply because Liberio had taken her voice, didn’t make Star blind and deaf, as Iridescia could prove from personal experience.
“And you would be king?” Azaelian chuckled darkly. He didn’t sound impressed.
“I’m not your king. I’m your brother.” Liberio stood up. From where Iridescia sat, she had a perfect view of his feet tripping on his long robe, but he covered the clumsiness quickly and neither Sardo nor Azaelian reacted. “Call me only friend, forI’m asking you to fight with me, not for me.”
Sardo’s pale eyes were like a blade carved from ice as he surveyed the lot of them.
Iridescia squirmed as his gaze roved over her.
Abruptly, he turned from Iridescia and back to Liberio. “I’ll follow you.” He paused. “Friend.”
Liberio grinned. “Azaelian?”
Azaelian One-Eye shrugged. “I promised, as you said. It’s just as well I follow you as I don’t. What else would a soldier do, but find somewhere new to wet his sword?”
He sounded so apathetic, but Iridescia got the impression he’d been the harder of the two to convince. Something in his eye told her he wasn’t yet convinced at all and might just be pretending.
Iridescia stubbornly avoided making eye contact with either of them.
“And now,” Liberio continued, with another meaningless wave of his hand, “please take advantage of the feast I’ve prepared you at the palace. I must remain awhile, but I’ll join you soon enough. Share with your men if you like—the storehouses are full and there’s plenty for all.”
Except only children remained to cook and clean. It would hardly be a feast fit for conquerors.
Sardo and Azaelian bowed and excused themselves. As soon as they were gone and safely out of sight and earshot, Iridescia jumped up out of her throne and stalked past the pool.
As she reached the other side of the eel pond, she caught a whiff of Hadrianus’s stench and gagged. Her head pounded with an oncoming headache.
Roewyn followed, blurry-eyed and in a kind of daze. If she stared into the sun like that, she’d go blind. Iridescia stepped into her field of vision to block some of the light. She did a lot of thinking about Roewyn, but she hadn’t thought about how Roewyn felt. Not really.
Liberio obviously wasn’t thinking about Roewyn’s mood either, because he prowled to her side, lifted her into the air, and spun her round. When he set her down, he spread his arm, indicating the landscape beyond the courtroom. “Your kingdom, mistress.”
Iridescia glared. “You said you didn’t believe in kingdoms.”
Liberio wasn’t looking at her, only Roewyn, but though Roewyn saw what Iridescia had said, she didn’t relay the words. Instead, she scrunched her brow as though to shush Iridescia.
Iridescia hated that. She hated being silenced so casually, hated being censored for the benefit of others. If she were a normal girl, she could say what she liked, and no one would expect otherwise.
She turned her back on the pair of them and walked to the edge of the courtroom on the hill. In the city below, with Azaelian and Sardo’s soldiers filling the streets, it looked as though nothing had changed. What did the soldiers down there make of the fact that half the city had disappeared, including, in some cases, their families and friends? Liberio couldn’t really expect such men to follow him unquestioningly.
The wind whistled between the pillars, blowing the grass this way and that. The birds were singing.
It looked the same down below, yet so much was different from when Iridescia had played on the hill, taken sweets from Miqipsi, and spent her days planning Liberio’s intricate demise for the faultless crime of loving Roewyn. Her memories had turned to silly daydreams, and only tasted bitter now in her mouth.
At night, she was tormented by nightmares in which the screams of the dying cursed her name. Sometimes, her dreams repeated the visions she’d seen when Star had forced her to drink that potion. She saw the rider on his pale horse and the man with wings, felt her fingers clutch that vial of the black water, and heard the whispered threat her name had now become.
“Did you really mean it?” Roewyn’s voice was cold and demanding.
Liberio and Roewyn were pressed forehead to forehead, the blazing sun turning Roewyn’s dress a gentle yellow that drowned out the embroidered flowers. They looked in love, except that Roewyn was pulling away.
“Mean what?” asked Liberio. He held her tight.
Iridescia approached them, the better to hear.
“About the south.” Roewyn let him hold her, but she’d unwrapped her arms from around his waist and laid her hands on his forearms as though to push him away. “You’re going to conquer the whole Helit? Kill all those people? Why? You’re not your father. You don’t have to do this. We could be safe here. We could free Indas if you liked or suggest you as the new governor. There are so many things we could do.”
“I’m doing it for you, Roewyn,” Liberio’s voice cracked. “And Iridescia.”
Iridescia stomped her foot. “You are not doing it for me!”
Liberio glared. “Yes, I am. Do you even want to know what it is I’m doing before you both damn me?”
He’d made it clear to them already. “Laying siege to Qemassen. The only ones with any claim to Indas at all.”
Liberio released Roewyn and marched toward the wall. He paced back and forth. “No. No. That’s not what this is. I’m taking Qemassen, yes, and eq-Anout, and Ajwata, and anywhere I can take. But not to be king, and not to be my father. I will never be my father.”
Star groaned on her stool. She looked about to fall. Iridescia nearly ran to help but stopped herself. She wanted her full attention on Liberio. She wanted an explanation.
“A children’s court, I promised you,” Liberio continued, “because the world needs more than cruelty, which is all this world is. I don’t mean to conquer the Helit, I mean to destroy it. Every city, every village, every hateful home with its torments and its troubles. My father’s army will be the cloth to wipe its surface clean, and when I’m done with it I’ll throw that away too, with those shadows of yours.”
It was just nonsense.
“You’re mad,” Iridescia said. “You can’t kill everyone. It’s silly.”
Tears and laughter brimmed in Liberio’s eyes in equal measure. “Silly? It’s silly to hope for something better?”
He stalked toward Iridescia with such force she thought he meant to strike her.
“No,” Roewyn said, “but what you’re describing isn’t something better. And besides, it’s impossible. You couldn’t kill everyone, even if they did deserve it. Now you’ve promised those soldiers plunder and death, and that’s what they’ll expect.”
Real laughter escaped Liberio’s lips. He jabbed his finger at Hadrianus’s body. “This was impossible. We can do anything with the shadows. How many people do you see strolling down the palace’s halls? How many of my father’s court remain? When was the last time that ass, Mazaetul, tried to touch Iridescia?”
Mazaetul hadn’t been so bad really. Iridescia hadn’t wanted to marry him, but she also hadn’t wanted him to die the way he and everyone else in Ipsis had. To say everyone in the city had deserved what had happened to them was vile.
“I’ll run,” Iridescia signed suddenly. “I won’t summon them again.” The choice to loose the spirits was in her hands. She wouldn’t see them inflicted on the towns and villages Liberio was so keen to ruin.
Liberio shrugged. “Then I’ll use sword and sling, whatever tools I have. Come with me, Iridescia. Please. I need you at my side. Don’t abandon me now.”
You have shadows at your side, she almost said. But she held back, not knowing what would happen if he learned what he was. In the Haven, the night of the attack, there’d been another voice whispering its desires. What if it had been Liberio, not Iridescia at all, who had called the spirits to kill? It was a seductive thought.
Iridescia would have given anything not to be responsible for what had happened in the palace, but in the end, whether Liberio had been part of it or not, the blame lay with her. She’d been weak and she’d given in. Oran had warned her there would be a price. She should have been brave enough to ask him what it would be.
The reward for Iridescia’s violence stood behind Liberio, ringing her hands.
Iridescia’s ribs ached. No matter how much she loved Roewyn, one person couldn’t be worth all the death the shadows had caused, and yet, Iridescia would never in a thousand years wish it undone. She couldn’t and wouldn’t undo the bargain she’d apparently made, but she could refuse to strike a new one.
“What if I say no?” Iridescia sighed to Liberio. “You can’t do it without me.”
Liberio sucked his teeth. He closed his eyes as though for patience, or maybe like he was remembering. After a drawn-out pause, he groaned. Iridescia would have called it melodramatic, except that melodramatic Liberio was funny, and there was no room for humour now.
“Fine,” Liberio spat. “That’s not everything, but I—you won’t believe me if I try to explain.”
Roewyn’s brow knit in concern. “What is it?”
Iridescia bit her lip. There was a lot she wouldn’t have believed a year ago. “If you don’t tell us, you’ll never know. And I won’t help you.”
Liberio hung his head back. He huffed. “I had a dream the night of the shadows. I saw a city—Qemassen, I think. And a voice told me I had to go there.”
Iridescia’s heart hitched. He saw them too. Liberio had visions like hers.
“Why?” Roewyn squeezed the crook of Liberio’s elbow.
“It’s ridiculous.” Liberio snorted. “It doesn’t make sense.”
When it became clear Liberio wasn’t going to talk, Iridescia marched up to him and kicked him in the ankle. He leaped left a step, catching himself just short of tripping on his robe again.
“What doesn’t make sense?” Iridescia signed.
At first she thought he’d refuse to explain, but the fight left his face. He drew in close to Roewyn again, stroking her back. “The voice told me I had to go underground. I felt something pulling me. Whatever it was, it was important. I don’t know how to explain the feeling in a way that would make sense. You’ll just have to trust me.”
Trust him? Iridescia believed he’d had the dream—that wasn’t hard at all—but she didn’t trust that the voice he’d heard was good. She didn’t even trust the voices she heard anymore. Any voice that wanted to set half the world on fire couldn’t be trusted. The Buqquses usually said when people heard voices that it was demons. Before, Iridescia had just assumed they’d mistaken spirits for something evil, but a glance at Hadrianus’s body and she wasn’t sure.
“Was that all you saw?” Iridescia asked. Part of her hoped that was all, but if Liberio saw what she did at least she wouldn’t be alone.
When Liberio didn’t answer right away, Roewyn stepped in. “She said—”
“I understood her.” Liberio smiled weakly. “I have been practicing.” He drew in a sharp breath. “There was a room filled with pictures of people dying. Most of them were drowning.”
Roewyn rubbed his back, as though maybe he’d tensed. “Drowning?”
Iridescia’s heart pounded. She’d seen that room the day she’d taken Star’s potion. Worse, she’d seen Liberio. “In the black water?”
It couldn’t be a good sign that Liberio visibly clutched Roewyn tighter. “It had to be, didn’t it?” He hesitated. “I saw myself.”
Roewyn leaned up and kissed his cheek. She stroked back his hair. “It was just a dream.”
It hadn’t been, but Iridescia couldn’t bring herself to speak the words that would make that real. Liberio—and probably everyone else in those images—was dead.
Liberio ignored Roewyn and stared at Iridescia. “The voice is the one who told me you’re my sister.” His words were choked. He sucked back what sounded like a sob. “Will you come with me?” There was so much hope in his voice. Hope, fear, and worry.
How could she deny him after that?
Iridescia swallowed. “Just to Qemassen. We don’t need to fight anyone to get there.”
Liberio wiped his tears from his cheeks. “I won’t make you use the shadows. I promise. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Besides, don’t you want to learn what they are? Maybe we’ll find our answer in the east.”
It was possible, but then, Iridescia wasn’t sure she wanted answers. And notably, Liberio hadn’t promised not to kill anyone; he’d only said he wouldn’t make Iridescia do it for him.
“What about you, Roe?” Iridescia couldn’t keep the hope from her face. Maybe, if Roewyn refused to come, Liberio would stop.
Roewyn stared at the floor. She looked like she was somewhere else. Eventually though, she straightened. “I won’t leave Liberio. He needs us.”
Liberio’s shoulders slumped, relaxed.
If Roewyn had said no, maybe Iridescia would have had the strength to leave him, but that glazed look in Roewyn’s eyes had been replaced by a ferocious tenacity. She wouldn’t go. She wouldn’t ever go. This terrible dream that had started when Star had tried to drown Iridescia would go on and on, and Roewyn would be part of it until the very end.
And so would Iridescia.
She didn’t have to use the shadows. When it came time, she could refuse, but at least she’d be with Roewyn when she did.
“I’ll come with you,” Iridesciasigned. “As long as Liberio keeps practicing my words. I want him to listen. I’m not just going to do what he wants all the time.”
Roewyn smiled faintly, and Iridescia couldn’t tell if it was from relief or sadness. Her lower lip was shaking, her eyes moist. “She’ll do it, Liberio, but she wants you to learn to speak with her.”
The way Roewyn phrased it made it sound like Iridescia had agreed to more than she had, but she let it slip for now. She couldn’t bear to think about the day when she would have to refuse him the help of the spirits. And deep down inside, even worse was the possibility that when it came down to saving their lives, Iridescia would call the shadows. She wouldn’t have the strength not to.
“Fine, if that’s what it takes to remain friends.” Liberio smiled at her.
Iridescia kept her expression blank. She didn’t want to smile. Maybe they were friends, but she couldn’t pretend to be happy about all this. She couldn’t settle on any one emotion. Her thoughts swirled inside her like they were all tangled up in a great whirlwind.
“I’ll take the south for you,” Liberio said with a grin. “All the world will know our names before it rattles and dies. A storm has come, the like of which the Helit has never seen.”
There he was again, talking about conquest and not the answers about the shadows that he’d promised. He’d lied to Sardo and Azaelian to convince them to serve him. Could he have lied to Iridescia and Roewyn so easily?
And if he had, did it matter?
A chill breeze sailed past Iridescia’s skin, and she hugged herself for warmth.
Behind them, from her perch on the stool, Star murmured something that might have been a word.