Chapter 03,  Chapter Section

Chapter 3: V: Iridescia

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Chapter 3: Merchants

Section I

Iridescia – Indas: Ipsis

Old Miqipsi had finally agreed to escort Iridescia to Roewyn’s shop, after two days of what he called “pesting.” Now, hand in hand with the court scribe as they walked down the alley of shops leading to Roewyn’s store, Iridescia struggled to focus on the promise of an ordinary day, one away from the Haven and the whispering voices she’d spent all week dreaming about since she’d tiptoed in the glade where the prisoner had been executed.

Merchants plying everything from spices to ceramics to woven reed furniture scrunched in tight along the narrow, covered road that connected the eghri to the river traffic of Ipsis’s docks. Rather than distracting her, the merchants’ hustling only added to the memory of the ghosts from the Haven.

She’d heard the voices before, of course. They’d played games with her and whispered soft comforts. But their words, as the tub bobbed atop the surface of the black pool—that they would kill her enemies if she asked—buzzed inside her head like the flies that had burrowed beneath the prisoner’s skin.

She squeezed Miqipsi’s hand, and he squeezed back wordlessly. She hadn’t told him about it, of course. She couldn’t tell anyone about the voices. No one would have believed her. They’d just say she was making it up, or that she was mad, or if they did believe they’d tell Hadrianus and Star, and Iridescia would be hauled away for blasphemy. Then she might be the one condemned to rot in the tub.

She kicked a stray rock along the stone-paved street. For a moment its rattle rattle rattle blocked out the memory of the voices.

A pack of feral dogs further down the street bolted toward the sound, but a vendor reached out and whipped the leader on the nose, sending the dogs dashing off in the opposite direction.

As they reached the stone she’d kicked, Miqipsi bent down and picked it up. “Watch out,” he warned. “Someone could trip and fall on this, or cut their foot. Not everyone can afford pretty little sandals like yours.”

A lot of the clients in the alley were barefoot. Iridescia tugged her hand away from Miqipsi’s to sign back. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” Or if she did, she’d kick the stones out of the way instead. “If I’m good, can I have some ginger drops?”

There was a confectioner’s right beside Roewyn’s shop, his tables piled high with candied dates, sweetmeats, and crumbly almond biscuits. When Roewyn got busy, Iridescia sometimes offered to babysit the confectioner’s son, Tobi. He was only seven, and playing with him was boring, but today she thought she might like to pretend at soldiers and heroes, if only so she didn’t have to think about the shadows.

But Miqipsi frowned. “The confectioner’s closed down, but I’ll have a look in the eghri before I head back to the palace.”

They turned the corner that would have revealed the confectioner’s, and an empty stall was all that greeted them. Broken furniture and discarded empty crates cluttered the recessed part of the shop beyond the street-facing table.

What happened?” Iridescia signed. And how had Miqipsi known? If he’d visited the alley before now, he would have taken Iridescia with him. Unless— “They were arrested, weren’t they?” As the court scribe, Miqipsi might have been responsible for issuing the decree that had seen them locked up.

Miqipsi looked down at her. She could practically hear him debate whether Iridescia was old enough to be told such things. She’d seen a lot worse than people being arrested, but this did feel different. She’d just been thinking how babyish Tobi was, and now it carved a pit in her belly.

“A neighbour reported them for praying to the old gods. They were hiding the Ashqen who helped them conceive.”

That was right. Tobi’s mother had been pregnant.

Are they dead?” Iridescia asked. Her own harsh words stopped her in the middle of the street. It sounded mean, but she wanted to know the truth. It felt wrong to look away. Not that she could—the empty shop to her left was like a missing tooth in a bright smile.

Miqipsi glanced up the road, as though looking round the corner at Roewyn’s shop. “I don’t know.” He stroked the braided hair on the top of her head. “But why don’t we hurry along? Roewyn is waiting.”

Roewyn didn’t know they were coming, but Iridescia smiled for Miqipsi’s sake. He was doing his best to make her feel better. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t, just like it wasn’t his fault about the shadows. She took his hand and walked with him toward Roewyn’s stall. Whenever Iridescia was feeling sad, sitting with Roewyn cheered her. Seeing her might not make it better, but it couldn’t make things worse.

In the Vetnu stories Iridescia had learned at Miqipsi’s knee, the rainbow was a living goddess with her head in the clouds and her toes tickling the ocean foam. But that was a lie. It had to be. Because the goddess of the rainbow was a raven-haired girl named Roewyn, and the rainbow itself was woven into the wax-patterned cloth that hung in sheets from the rafters of Roewyn’s shop.

Finished dresses, scarves, wraps, and shawls were piled on the tables at Roewyn’s storefront, and cascades of linen, cotton, and wool lined the walls of the recessed, three-walled shop behind those. The door to Roewyn’s apartment was at the very back of the store, barely visible for the bright colours drawing the eye this way and that.

Two of Roewyn’s slaves—Thia and Djori—were manning the tables today. Roewyn was in back, talking to someone quietly and quickly. She held her wax tablet in one hand, while her abacus sat beside her on a table. The figure—a chubby man Iridescia didn’t recognize—handed Roewyn several bunches of onions.


It was Yamsera—the day of the week when Roewyn walked to the eghri to see the onion lady. Iridescia had forgotten all about it after the mess with the shadows and Tobi. She loved going to see the onion lady, who’d trade any kind of information you wanted in exchange for onions. Usually, Roewyn asked the onion lady’s insight on boring business things, like the predicted cost of flax in the months to come, or if she’d heard of any wealthy women looking for a new dress. If Iridescia asked nicely, maybe Roewyn would let her ask her own question—something about the shadows, only not so obvious.

She could just picture Roewyn’s reaction to the idea that the shadows had promised to kill Iridescia’s enemies—her eyebrows raised, her dainty hand covering the laugh on her lips.

Maybe she should be laughing. There were people Iridescia didn’t like, even ones she hated, like Hadrianus and Star. But did she have enemies? Enemies were what heroes had in stories—Yehawellon Son of Serpents battling his evil stepmother Etta Wetta, or Melqan the Sorcerer against the Crocodile King. Even the Great Buqqus’s stories named enemies—Tirdas, the last heathen heq-Ashqen; Reshet et-Ethaena, King Melqan’s sister-in-law who’d rallied half the country against the king and his priest; a heq-Ashqen of the Massenqa, rumoured to have murdered Princess Lena.

Iridescia had a nasty aunt, a stupid Lora governor, and a silly boy who’d stolen her best friend. It wasn’t exactly comparable.

At the stall, Thia was folding a cloth to add to a pile on the display. She and Djori both looked up and smiled as Iridescia and Miqipsi approached. “She’s in the back doing her calculations,” said Thia.

“Thank you,” said Miqipsi. Iridescia let go of him, intent on bounding inside to Roewyn, but he held her hand tight. “I have a commission to discuss with her. Could you two entertain young Iridescia for a moment?”

Iridescia bristled. Entertain her? Miqipsi never asked for privacy when ordering a commission. And she knew how to be quiet. She twisted her lips, pouting, but Miqipsi ignored her, and moved away.

“Could you help us?” Djori held out a balled up yellow sheet dotted with black stars. “A customer insisted he look at every one of them, and then all he bought was a scrap of ribbon.”

Iridescia frowned, but nodded. She reached out and took the sheet, then stepped behind the display to fold it. Even if she’d wanted her hands free to talk, Djori and Thia didn’t know signs like Miqipsi and Roewyn. She liked them though. They were kind and gentle. Before Tobi’s father Mimet had been taken, they sometimes bought her sweets, which made Roewyn feel bad and then Roewyn paid for everything.

There’d be none of that anymore, and it hurt in a whole other way, because almost her first thought about Tobi’s family was really about herself, about what she’d lost. She pressed her lips together, blinking back a tear. People were always being taken, and she only felt bad now because it was someone she knew, and she only felt bad about that because she’d wanted ginger drops. It was the most unfair thing she could think of.

All she could do was try not to think of it, just like with the shadows.

She shook the sheet, careful not to let it drag in the dirt, then smoothed out the wrinkles. She matched corner to corner to get it nice and neat for display. Would the person who bought it ask for it to be cut smaller? They might commission a piece from Roewyn from it—a pleated dress, a braided sash, even a curtain. Or maybe one of the Lora soldiers would buy it and wrap themselves up in it. When important Lora visitors came to treat with Hadrianus they often wore heavy white tunics or togas. It made them look like larvae. At least if they bought from Roewyn they’d be pretty larvae.

As Iridescia laid the yellow-with-stars on the pile, a street child about Tobi’s age reached up to try and sneak something from the display table. Thia deftly thwacked the boy’s knuckle with the Swatting Stick, and he cursed at her before darting away down the street.

Until last year, Iridescia had loved being in charge of the Swatting Stick. But then one day she’d made a little girl cry, and after that she’d felt too guilty to use it. Seeing Thia wield it with such mastery made her feel powerful again, like it was Iridescia’s swift hand and trained eye fending off would-be thieves, and not Thia’s. It made her feel like she could do something, instead of only dreaming of doing something. If only Iridescia could reach out and stop Hadrianus and Star and their stupid laws with the swat of a switch. Maybe the voices had a point about killing her enemies.

But like the injured little girl had taught her, sometimes being bigger and stronger, or even faster, wasn’t better. It was important to be kind, too.

She grabbed another messy fabric from amidst the stacks of folded rainbow, folding and flattening it like it was Star’s ugly face.

Across the alley, the street boy from earlier grabbed a handful of dried apricots from the fruit seller’s. He didn’t notice, and Iridescia didn’t try to warn him. That boy was awfully skinny.

“I’m sorry it’s not better news.” Miqipsi’s voice drifted to her, and she had to force herself not to turn and look. “If you speak to them, perhaps a kind lie would—”

His words faded out of hearing, like he’d moved further back.

She recognized Roweyn’s voice. “They’ll want to know. She’s always asking, because of the baby. She thinks if there’s no Ashqen to help with the birth, the gods will—”

The gods! Iridescia’s heart seemed to chirp. Roewyn and Miqipsi were talking about priests and gods.

She leaned over the table, checking to make sure no one was close enough to have heard, but knocked over a heap of scarves.

Iridescia,” Djori pleaded.

“It’s all right!” Miqipsi called. His sandals clap-clapped as he approached. “Everything’s sorted now.” He grinned at her. “You can see Roewyn.”

Iridescia would normally have darted right in, but she wasn’t going to let Miqipsi worm away. He’d lied to her. “What kind of commission was it?”

He blinked, surprised. Good.

“A special surprise for Leri, for his birthday. A new pleated kilt.”

Leri was Miqipsi’s lover, and he was always running around in frayed kilts. It was just plausible enough to be believable, only Iridescia knew it wasn’t true at all.

I hope he likes it,” Iridescia signed. She narrowed her eyes at Miqipsi, hoping he could tell how angry she was. Well, not angry, but hurt. Then she did rush off behind him, to where Roewyn was sitting and counting on her abacus.

Even if Roewyn was distracted today, at least it would just be the two of them. Liberio was busy getting beaten up by the two Lora generals Governor Hadrianus had ordered to train him. Iridescia had gone to watch last week, and she could confidently say she was better with the Swatting Stick than he was with basically any weapon he tried. Sword, spear, even stick. Somehow Liberio managed to trip over it and land on his bum. To be fair, having one eye probably didn’t help, but then again, one of Liberio’s trainers only had one eye, and he managed.

Roewyn looked up. She smiled, but she looked tired, as though from lack of sleep. “Hello, Iri.”

Iridescia grinned. Even Roewyn’s tired smile made all the bad things melt away. Iridescia didn’t have to be afraid of the shadows, or upset about blasphemy.

She pointed eagerly at the bunches of onions laying on the ground at Roewyn’s feet. Four bunches of onions. Whatever she wanted from the onion lady, she wanted it badly. “Can I hold them?

She liked swinging them by their tails like they were a sling. If they swung too hard, sometimes the bulbs went flying and she got in trouble with the onion lady for bruising them, but the onion lady never said no to an onion, even if it was bruised.

Roewyn narrowed her eyes though, like she was suspicious. “Last time I let you hold the onions—”

I promise I’ll be careful.”

“You’d better. I really need to speak to her.” Roewyn smoothed her hands over the skirt of her green dress. Her hands were balled into fists, tight like she was anxious. “It’s important, okay?”

Iridescia stared her in her deep brown eyes. She didn’t want Iridescia to come. Realizing that was like swallowing Aunt Star’s bitter herbal remedies. But this time Iridescia didn’t run. Running was what children did, and Iridescia was no child. “You can trust me. Is it about Liberio?”

Roewyn smiled a little but shook her head. She stood up and grabbed the onions. “Thia, Djori—I have errands to run! Mind the store.”

She gestured for Iridescia to follow her through the door leading into the back of the shop, to the stairs that led to her apartment. “This isn’t something you can tell people about.” Her voice was almost a whisper as she slipped inside.

Iridescia skipped up beside her and tugged her sleeve. “Of course I won’t.” Who else would she even tell? She closed the door behind them.

“No one. I mean it. Even Miqipsi.”

Oh. Maybe Iridescia did sometimes tell Miqipsi things. But Roewyn did too—she just had, in fact. It must be a test.

She nodded slowly, firmly. She understood.

Roewyn smiled, then popped inside the pantry. She came back with several loaves of bread, the onions still in her other hand.

Iridescia held out her hands, twiddling her fingers. If she acted cheerful, maybe things would go back to normal. Maybe she’d lift up Roewyn’s mood.

Roewyn handed the onions to her, but she furrowed her thick black eyebrows. “Careful.”

Careful,” Iridescia mouthed.

After Roewyn had packed up the loaves along with some fruit and fish, they took the back entrance to the quieter street behind the shops. The clouds rolling in from the west were a gloomy grey, threatening rain. The packs of wild dogs that usually roamed the road were gone, as if they’d sensed the coming storm.

Iridescia swung the onions—gently—and skipped along beside Roewyn. She could sign some words with one hand, but today she was happy to have her thoughts to herself. She still needed to think of a question to ask the onion lady—one whose answer could help her with the shadows.

If the shadows were dangerous, then what she needed was protection. In the stories of the old gods, people went to the temples for protective amulets and spells. If she’d been in one of the stories, or if Adonen weren’t the only stupid god you were allowed to pray to, she could have asked about the voices at the temples of Qalita and Molot, maybe even Hazzan. But any Ashenqa of the old gods who were still around quickly got caught and executed. And Iridescia wouldn’t have known how to find one anyway. The only place she could go to investigate the Haven was the archives at Adonen’s temple. But it was a stupid thing to ask about, when she already knew the answer.

At least visiting the archives was a plan. For days all she’d been able to do was suffer the nightmares of long-fingered shadows and the tub spinning round and round on the surface of a deep black pool. Sometimes the dream voices spun songs like webs, full of names and titles she didn’t understand.

As they neared the eghri, the soothing melodies of flutes and the heavy beat of drums grew louder. On top of the building to her right, the women tending the dyeing vats and fish flakes called to each other as they stoppered the huge round tubs with wooden covers to shield them from the coming rain.

Tobi’s mother had been a dyer on one of those roofs, before Hadrianus’s men had got to her.

Every so often they passed a Lora soldier, recognizable in his sweltering, leather armour and bronze cuirass. A few of the soldiers had been here so long they’d adopted Inda dress, sporting woven reed armour or linen kilts. On bad days, such laxity worked Hadrianus up into a rage, yet on others he’d sport Inda clothing himself, parading around in it like an actor his costume. Once, when Iridescia had been spying, she’d overheard some Lora officials complaining that Hadrianus had gone native. The day they left back home for Lorar, Hadrianus had ordered eight of his soldiers whipped for marrying Inda women unlawfully.

She’d seen them afterwards, red welts covering what was left of their skin, the rest only bloody red ribbons. She’d never seen a child whipped before, never someone as young as Tobi, but what if—

Iridescia drew the onions in close to her chest.

As Roewyn and Iridescia passed through the gates leading to the city eghri, one of the two Lora guards posted to either side of the market entrance stuck out his spear, barring their path.

Roewyn looked up at him, doe-eyed. With her face done up in gentle orange blush and black kohl, she looked like one of the dolls in Iridescia’s old toy chest. “Is something the matter?” she asked, surprised—well, pretending surprise. Iridescia knew the difference, even if the soldier couldn’t tell.

The guard had deep circles under his eyes. He didn’t look interested in Roewyn’s pretty face. “What’s in your bag?”

Roewyn handed it to him and he poked around inside before grinning. “Is the fish new?” He probably meant fresh. His accent was very thick, and now that she looked closer, his skin was pale and burned. He must be fresh to Ipsis himself.

She nearly rolled her eyes. That was a Miqipsi joke. It wasn’t a good sign that she was making up her own Miqipsi jokes.

“Carp. Bought this morning from Tellas.” Roewyn smiled, warmly.

“I’ll have that and an onion.” He pointed at the bunches in Iridescia’s hands.

The onion lady wouldn’t like that. Iridescia hugged the bunches closer. But Roewyn gestured for her to hand one over.

She did as she was told, but she glared at the soldier. He removed the fish and drew it to his nose, sniffing appreciatively. He lowered the spear pole and Roewyn hurried through, Iridescia trailing behind.

What was that about?” she signed clumsily, the onions banging against her knee as she rustled up to Roewyn.

Roewyn shrugged, her feet kicking up dust. “They often ask for things. You know that.” She marched in the direction of the food stalls set up in the centre of the wide-open market, ignoring the permanent buildings that lined one side of the eghri.

I know.” Iridescia frowned. “But you were pretending. You pretended to be surprised like you knew they’d stop you today. And your face is all done up.”

Roewyn sighed. “They should hire you as a Yirada investigator.”

They should hire Iridescia as a Yirada investigator, but they wouldn’t because her job was to do boring things like get married. “So why? And why aren’t we going to the onion lady?” The onion lady lived in one of the permanent buildings.

This time Roewyn stopped. She grabbed Iridescia by her shoulders, forcing her to turn so they were directly facing each other. “We just aren’t. You’ll see. Please be patient.”

Did Roewyn still not trust her? It stung. Iridescia felt her lip tremble, but she bit down on it and swallowed. “I want to help.”

“I know.” Roewyn let go of her shoulders and patted her back, nudging her toward the stalls. She switched to signing—something she rarely did. Her words were clumsy from lack of practice, but Iridescia could understand them. “I’m just buying another fish and then we’ll go to the onion lady. Please just act normal.

The onion lady wouldn’t care about a fish. All she ate were onions. She wouldn’t want the bread, either. But Iridescia trusted Roewyn, even if Roewyn didn’t trust her, and she let Roewyn guide her to the fishmonger and waited patiently as she counted out the coins for another carp. At a second stall, Roewyn purchased some wine in exchange for a bolt of emerald linen, while Iridescia admired the conical towers of spices—ground pepper, cumin, turmeric, and a hundred others—like she would have on any other day. Like any other day, she resisted the urge to plunge her hand right into the piles, but just barely.

Then it was off to the onion lady.

Iridescia’s palms were sweaty around the onion tails by the time they reached the two steps leading to the door of the simple mud-brick home. She wiped them off one by one on the sides of her dress. Just as they made the door, the first shy droplets of rain hit the nape of her neck.

It felt like an omen.

The onion lady’s house was dimly lit by narrow, grated windows high up on the wall that faced the eghri, the light bouncing off the pearly bulbs of large onions that filled the reed baskets littering almost every available surface. It was too many onions to eat before they rotted, so she must do something else with them.

A door stood at the far end, but her stove, her bed, and a table were all crammed into the front room.

The onion lady sat on a simple stool beside her table, squat and fat despite her diet. She looked one hundred years old, and her hair stuck out every which way in grey lightning-bolts. She stroked one of the onions on the table beside her like it was a cat. She cocked her chin up as Iridescia closed the door behind them.

Unnnn yunns,” she said, just like that, just like she always did.

Iridescia carried them over very carefully. She’d done a good job this time.

The onion lady snatched them from her and held them up. She squinted, assessing.

Roewyn fiddled tensely with one of her rings. Something really must be wrong if she was this anxious about the onion lady. Onions were never refused.

And like always, the onion lady nodded and laid her new onions on the table. Only this time, she didn’t ask Roewyn why they’d come. This time, she nodded toward the door in the back.

What lay beyond the door? Iridescia’s heart thumpthumpthumped.

“Come on,” said Roewyn.

But Iridescia hung back. “I want to ask her a question,” Iridescia said, though she hadn’t settled on one. “Can you translate?

Roewyn shook her head. “I don’t have time for this.” She marched through the door on the other side.

It was like Iridescia had been slapped.

Then the onion lady reached out and cupped Iridescia’s chin. She turned her face so they were looking at each other. “Ask.”

Iridescia pointed at her mouth and shook her head, but then the onion lady drew her hands back. “I can read finger-words,” she signed.

All the hairs on her arms stood on end and it took her a moment to form her words. “What do you know about the shadows? About the Haven?” And the old gods, and voices that spoke from the water to mortal children, pretending to be their mothers and promising things no one should ever promise? Suddenly she had too many questions. And the one she’d asked had been stupid. It had been vague and—

Go to Adonen’s temple,” the onion lady signed. “Ask to see the writings of the Great Buqqus. When he was in Tintellan. When he was in Wewandjis. He brought two girls with him from the depths of the deep Sajit, but only one of them ever left the Haven.”

The onion lady’s smile was all crinkly, her head like an overripe fruit.

Everything to do with the voices was strange, but it was even stranger to think the holy Buqqus had something to do with them.

Iridescia pressed her luck. “Where’s Wewandjis? What happened to the girl in the Haven?”

But the onion lady shushed her, then pointed to the bunches of onions on the table. She needed more.

Iridescia wanted to scream—but she was used to this. She went where people allowed and did what people told her to. Figuring stuff out on your own was part of being a grown up, and she could always trade a few ginger drops for a few onions. She’d come back again. But first she’d go to the temple.

From inside the door Roewyn had taken, came the echo of a child’s laughter, then voices. Her stomach tightened. She thought she knew that laugh. From beside Roewyn’s shop, from games of soldiers and sailors and getting sweet treats.

Tobi. He was safe.

Iridescia ran toward the room and practically slammed the door after herself.

The back room was smaller than the front, and it was cluttered with Tobi’s family and their things—his father and pregnant mother, along with a few pieces of simple furniture and several chests. A small statue of a woman clutching her breasts in her hands sat in a place of honour against the centre of the back wall, an upside-down crescent moon positioned above her head like a crown or maybe horns. A bunch of yellow flowers had been placed in front of the statue as an offering.

The goddess Tanata.

Tobi bounced up from the floor where he’d been playing with his wooden soldiers and collided with Iridescia, wrapping her in a tight hug that almost knocked her breath away. Iridescia hadn’t ever thought they were so close, and now she felt bad as he clung to her. Tears welled at the corner of her eyes.

Shh,” his mother hissed. “Tobi, you have to be quiet.”

“I’ve brought bread,” said Roewyn, “and some lentils and fish. There’s a little fruit, too. I can bring more in a few days, but the guards are stopping people more and I’m worried someone will see if I come again right away.”

“Thank you,” said Tobi’s father, Mimet. “It’s more than enough. But—did she?” He sounded worried.

“I brought the onions. I’ll speak to her later about the boat,” said Roewyn.

Tobi let Iridescia go, and pulled back. He rubbed his huge brown eyes, which somehow looked tiny in his round face, with his cheeky ears that stuck out, and his cropped curly hair. He was still young enough that it wasn’t so bad for him to cry. “We’re going on a trip!” he explained to Iridescia. “To see my cousins in Lera. There’s going to be crocodiles and hippos on the river, and elephant fish with huge teeth.” He stretched his arms wide for emphasis.

Iridescia smiled, but she looked past him, at his mother resting on a simple woven mat, one hand over her swollen belly. She must be due any day. It would be very dangerous to give birth on a boat, but they must not have any choice.

She rubbed her shoulder, cold in the shadowy back room. Tobi grabbed her arm and dragged her over to the toys scattered across the floor. She plopped down beside him, dutifully taking the wooden man he handed to her. She was too old for toys like these, but she wouldn’t refuse him.

There was a boom of thunder from outside, then rain pelting the roof and the ground, hard as tiny stones.

“What about the priest?” Tobi’s father asked.

Iridescia looked up. It was the priest Miqipsi and Roewyn had been talking about. Was Miqipsi helping them too?

Roewyn hung her head. “Arrested.”

The atmosphere in the room seemed to break with the storm.

Tobi’s mother sobbed. “No. Nononono. The goddess will curse us for this. She’ll turn her face away.” Her husband hurried to her side, drawing her against him, whispering soothing words to her.

Tobi’s hands froze, holding his toys. He couldn’t read many of her signs, but maybe she could distract him. She smiled, wiggling the little man she held in her hand.

But Roewyn hovered above them. She’d already laid the food down on the floor. “I’m sorry, Iridescia. We have to go. If we take too long, someone will notice. They could report us.”

Iridescia bit her lip, relieved, but then the relief turned into a guilty ache, right in the centre of her chest. She could leave, she could run away back to Roewyn’s house and the palace. She was safe.

I don’t want to go,” she signed, even though it was a half-truth.

Roewyn smiled. “I’m sorry.” She didn’t promise they’d come again. It was obvious that might not be possible. She turned to Tobi. “This will be over soon,” Roewyn told him.

One way or another, it would be over soon.

After they left the room and were back amongst the onions, Iridescia tugged on Roewyn’s sleeve. Outside, the rain would be turning the dust to mud, sending the merchants hurrying to cover the unsheltered parts of their displays.

Clear water, turning dark like the water in the Haven with its rich, black pool and the voices and their promise. Maybe Iridescia didn’t have enemies the way the heroes in stories did, but Tobi and his family did. Maybe she wasn’t brave like Yehawellon son of serpents, but Roewyn was. And Iridescia could be. She wasn’t a fool like people in stories, who could be tricked into trusting evil spirits, but she could do what the onion lady had told her and go to the archives. She could learn enough about the shadows to know whether they were trustworthy.

Roewyn and Miqipsi were ordinary people without the benefit of magic voices to help them. Iridescia could be like them, and make herself useful.

I want to help,” she signed. “Tell me what to do.”

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