Chapter 04,  Chapter Section

Chapter 4: V: Kirin

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Chapter 4: Friends

Section V

Kirin – Lorar: Marianus’s Domus

Kirin bit deep into the plum. Its flesh was mealy, but the tartness suited his mood. He rolled his shoulders and leaned back against the wall of the cramped waiting room adjacent to Marianus’s private office. Marianus had been trapped inside, arguing with the Yellow Faction leader for what felt like hours. Oran and Ydelka had been sneaking nudges and poking each other like children for nearly the entire time, scrunched in close on a wood bench across from Kirin.

Ydelka giggled at something Oran had said and Kirin averted his gaze, focusing instead on the fruit bowl beside them.

So what if she laughed at the monster’s jokes? She’d be disappointed as soon as he stripped for her and revealed his cocklessness. Then she’d be flouncing guiltily to Kirin’s bed, all lust and apology for the three weeks she’d wasted on Oran.

Kirin’s ear still rang now and then, but his hearing had mostly returned, and he could make out Marianus’s words as the senator debated with Yakovius Lutelian. They were arguing about the recent Feislander attacks on Lorai settlements—news the kitchen slaves were still abuzz with, even several days after the first wave of refugees had poured inside Lorar’s walls.

The newcomers weren’t the settlers who’d been attacked, but citizens of Trionja and the other western cities, all fearing that King Ossa would somehow march his rabble east across the Trucia mountains and start burning proper Lorai towns instead of just colonies. On the way to the baths yesterday, Kirin had seen some of them huddled around cookfires in the forum. They’d been dirty and woebegone, and for what? Even Trionja was a thousand miles east of the Feislander capital of Atlin.

“The military doesn’t have to justify its needs to masons and plumbers.” Marianus’s words were firm, but he maintained an even temper. “When a sewer needs repair, do I come banging on your doors to demand where you’ve found the coin? I don’t, because I know to trust a master when it comes to his own craft. These Feislander raids are a broken drain pipe—fixing this mess won’t be delicate or beautiful, but it needs doing. Immediately. Before Ossa grows bolder still and starts menacing Occidis and Casius and even Orentis. It’s me you Yellowers’ll come crying to when we have another Hurtha on our hands.”

Hurtha the Hungry. A name still used to frighten children into obedience. Marianus had been a young man when he’d defeated the Feislander warlord. To come to the senator now that he was an old man and demand he protect Lorar yet again . . . it would be disrespectful even from a fellow Redder.

And Marianus sounded so sure of the threat. Perhaps Kirin was wrong about the danger posed by King Ossa.

“That’s not the fucking point!” Yakovius yelled, shrill. “You’re not fucking Pater till you win the election, or don’t the rules apply to the great Marianus Rufus? Those funds aren’t yours to distribute, which tells me it’s not just the Whites you’re in bed with, but the fucking Greys as well. Not that I’m fucking surprised. And what good are the shipyards in fucking Venius to defend our land borders in the west? You didn’t steal those auratii to fund our defense against Ossa. You’re building a navy to strike at Kemassen. A navy. Against fucking Kemassen. I don’t have to be a fucking military man to see the flaw in that brilliant fucking plan.”

Kirin chuckled, provoking a look from Ydelka. Yakovius was a fool if he thought Marianus was in bed with either Tarkis Murinus and the ruling Greys, or the twisty little Whites with their spy games.

There was a pause and Kirin’s ear started to ring. He squished his lobe against his ear canal to try and pop it, imagining Marianus’s groan before the senator started speaking again.

“There’s a clear strategy here, if you have the eyes to see it,” said Marianus. “Hadrianus and Luciferus have a legion each under their command, and thousands of Indasi cavalry at their disposal. A word and Hadrianus can ship his troops north to attack the Feislands while we hem the Masseni in using Luciferus’s troops in Lera and our navy.”

“The Masseni have made absolutely no attempt to engage us. We rattle our sabres at them for what? So they can fuck us with their much bigger sabres? So they can storm our coasts from ek-Anout and Zimrida? You’re inviting attack, not dissuading it. A final fucking laurel leaf in that crown you imagine the Patership to be.”

This was getting to be too much. Yakovius should know his place. Kirin snapped his fingers at Ydelka, then jabbed his thumb behind him at the closed door of the office. “Should we . . . ?”

“He’s always like that.” Ydelka barely looked his way as she answered, eyes only for Oran since Marianus’s scribe, Delos, had started telling the prettier girls that Kirin had a venereal disease. “Marianus could snap Yakovius over his knee like a twig if he wanted.”

“So why are we even here?” Kirin took another bite of his plum and its juice streamed down his chin, tangling in the scruff of beard he’d acquired. He wiped the juice off with the back of his hand.

“For show.” Ydelka smiled. “Why else?”

Kirin glanced at the door beside Ydelka and Oran. Outside, in the atrium, Marianus’s clients had been queued up waiting to see him all day. Usually a patron’s clients paid their respects in the morning, but it was late evening now and Marianus had seen barely anyone. The line of men stretched all the way out onto the street and down the road. Was that, too, for show?

“You make the mistake of thinking I don’t strive for peace,” Marianus was saying from the office. “My history in the Feislands is surely proof of the opposite. These attacks on our colonies are Ossa spitting in the face of peace—my reward, I suppose, for offering them dignity, civilization, that plumbing of ours that you love so much.”

“Your bodyguards out there,” Yakovius snapped, and Kirin tensed. “All dressed up like good little Lorai slaves. I guess you think them the recipients of your benevolent fucking dignity, do you?”

Kirin clasped his hands together, glaring at the floor and tapping his foot. Why had Yakovius drawn Kirin into their argument? Long, long ago, Kirin had come from somewhere else, but even he didn’t know where, and he’d grown up in Lorar the same as Marianus himself. He should have expected the jab from a Yellower, but it was especially rich coming from a brown-skinned man like Yakovius, whose foreign blood was obvious to anyone with eyes. Yellow Faction only fought for peace because they thought it would slow the flow of foreign slaves into the city and stop the dilution of the fidelia. They were hypocrites to elect a man like Yakovius, and Yakovius was obviously a hypocrite right alongside them. The senator would set him straight.

“Oh, these days you can dress anyone in a tunic—a toga, even!—and he’ll think himself a man of Lorar. It is a gift,” said Marianus, “but to use any gift to its full worth a man must have the proper nature. Teach a Feislander savage to read and write and he’ll be able to sign his name as well as the next man. But will Kirin the Ripper ever compose great verse? Will Feralius ever become a renowned rhetor? Can an Anouti rat play at magistrate or senator?” Marianus laughed.

Oran and Ydelka hadn’t reacted to Marianus’s words at all, like they hadn’t heard him, but Kirin pulled away from the wall and started pacing. His skin itched—he shouldn’t have been listening either. Marianus’s comments weren’t meant for him; they’d been feints against Yakovius’s barbs. Kirin settled. What Marianus had given him was a gift, and if the senator didn’t see him as a man or Lorar, then that only made it Kirin’s duty to prove him wrong.

“Why are you thinking so hard, Maznin?” asked Ydelka. Damn Oran for teaching her the word.

Oran grinned the way he did every time she said it.

Kirin frowned thoughtfully. “I was thinking about Marianus and what he’s done for us.”

“Are you in love with him?” Ydelka quipped, her bowstring lips pulled into a smirk.

Kirin tossed his plum pit all the way across the room and into the bronze dish next to Ydelka. The pit dinged on its roll to the bottom. “No. I respect him. He’s everything a man of Lorar should be.” Kirin paused. “Don’t you respect him?”

“As much as he pays me to, which isn’t much.” She reached for a piece of fruit, but clutched it in her hand instead of bringing it to her mouth. “It sounds like you’re in love with him.”

Kirin straightened. “I’m not ashamed to love my country.”

“Nor am I, but since Lorar wiped it from the earth I’ve found that love hard to express. Maybe if you paid me enough I’d change my mind.” She smiled just a hint too sweetly.

“How much would it take for you to decide you love me?” Oran raised an eyebrow at Ydelka, leaning a little closer. It, at least, was enjoying the conversation.

Ydelka fluttered her lashes. “Oh, a thousand auratii at least! My love’s expensive.” She bit into the plum, chewing with her mouth open.

Oran stroked his finger down Ydelka’s cheek and Kirin grimaced. Behaviour like Oran’s was exactly why Marianus had said what he had.

“For a foreigner, you don’t have an accent,” Kirin pointed out.

She groaned, pulling back from Oran, rolling the plum in her hand. “Are you always so tedious?”

Kirin frowned. He was only stating a fact. If he was tedious, it was only because she had no mind for logic. “You’re from Lorar like me, or close enough.”

“I’m not from Lorar.”

Now it was Kirin’s turn to smirk. “Then where are you from?”

“A land of beautiful women,” said Oran. This time, when he reached out to touch her, Ydelka pushed his hand away.

“I don’t remember,” she answered, clipped. A feral quality had entered her black eyes.

“Then how do you know it was wiped from the earth?” Kirin had her there. He grinned.

Ydelka lobbed the remains of her plum at his head. He dodged the clumsy throw, and the fruit smashed against the image of a minstrel, painted on the wall. A red trail of juice slid down the figure’s throat.

Kirin clapped, enjoying Ydelka’s anger-knotted brow. He was about to follow up the clap with a bitingly witty remark when the door to Marianus’s office opened. The senator stepped out alongside Yakovius Lutelian.

Kirin and Ydelka stood at attention, but Oran didn’t even look up. “Heron,” Kirin and Ydelka spoke in unison, for though Marianus had told Kirin to avoid the honorific, in practice Kirin had noticed that no one failed to use it. No one but Oran, and sometimes Ydelka.

Marianus’s face was a mask of civility as he extended his hand to Yakovius, but the skeletal brown man pointedly ignored the courtesy. His toga brushed Marianus’s as he slunk past.

“Kirin?” Marianus beckoned him with the crook of his finger. “I’d like to formally introduce you to my esteemed competitor, Yakovius Mathias Azizin.” He used the man’s family name, rather than Lutelian—the signifier for a member of Yellow Faction.

Kirin hadn’t got a good look at Yakovius till now. Up close, the man was even more hideous than he’d looked from the vantage of the arena sands. One whole side of his face was marred by an angry red burn scar that covered nearly half his shaved-smooth scalp, and his long, hooked nose dominated his bony face from beneath brown, ferrety eyes. He was younger than Marianus, about thirty-five at a guess. His white toga was stained at the bottom with what looked like mud, and from the frayed edges of the fabric, it had seen better days even before he’d dirtied it.

Kirin bowed, because it was expected. He could be polite when he had to, unlike certain Yellow Faction cowards.

Yakovius gave Kirin a cursory glance but said nothing in response to his kindness.

Marianus waved again at Kirin. “You’ll remember Kirin, no doubt, from his recent match. A stunning show of Lorar’s capacity for both strength and surprise. The people won’t settle for the banality of the old spectacles and their tired tricks anymore. Today’s man is a new man, born of iron and blood. He expects more from his entertainments than what he’s spilled himself on the battlefield.”

Kirin’s chest swelled. Marianus’s praise was a sharp contrast to the insults of earlier.

“Does he expect long fucking speeches too?” There was no hint of humour on Yakovius’s narrow face.

Marianus’s smile tightened. He clamped his hand down on Yakovius’s shoulder, guiding him like one might a child, toward the door that led into the atrium. Kirin followed, and Ydelka and Oran fell into file behind him.

“I’ll speak frankly with you, Yakovius. Our positions are irreconcilable,” said the senator.

Marianus’s clients lined the walls in varying positions of despair, some reclining against the wall with their eyes closed as though sleeping, others chatting or scribbling on tablets. They all straightened, watching hopefully as Marianus passed them by.

“I neither like nor trust you,” Marianus continued, speaking to Yakovius and ignoring the clients. “I’ve been a soldier most of my life and a senator the rest. I’m used to men who understand the soldier’s way of life. I’m used to people who understand that Lorar’s beating heart is a war drum striking at the breast of southern terrors.”

At the mention, Kirin swallowed, sensing Oran looming behind him as they walked. If only Kirin had been able to convince Marianus of the danger Oran posed, but Marianus had only laughed when he’d reported the Anouti rat’s mutilation.

Yakovius scoffed. “Are you used to men who understand mixed fucking metaphors?” He shook off Marianus’s arm. “I don’t fucking care if you don’t fucking trust me. You’re a war-monger, and this city doesn’t need another waste of its men and its money. All Lorar needs from you is your resignation, or better fucking yet, your suicide.”

Kirin reached for the gladius swinging at his belt, but a gentle hand stayed his own—Ydelka’s. She shook her head, releasing him, then cocked her chin at the senators. Kirin resumed walking. How was he to know Yakovius was joking? It certainly hadn’t sounded like a jape.

As they reached the ostium and the steps leading to the bustling street outside, Marianus stopped and calmly faced his rival. “We’ll resume this conversation at a later time. But I promise you, your concerns are unfounded—my nephew Thanos is doing all in his power to ensure the peace between Lorar and Kemassen stands. I fear when dealing with the Masseni that war is an inevitability, but that doesn’t mean I plan to shepherd it along.”

Without a word of acknowledgment, Yakovius pushed past Marianus and onto the street, surrendering the comforts of the domus for the clotted air of the city. Somehow the diminutive Yellower’s skinny legs carried him away at the speed of a much taller man. Such melodrama, from such an unassuming little body, and where was his litter? Did he plan to walk the entire way? No wonder his toga was muddied.

Kirin stared after him, amused despite himself. “He should trust in you, Heron.”

Marianus chortled. “Just Marianus, please. We’re both fighting men and, I hope, good friends.”

“I’m honoured.” Kirin grinned to himself, nodding, but the words Marianus had spoken earlier came back to him, that Kirin would never be a poet, or a true man of Lorar. He had no love for poetry, it was true, but a sword could sing as well as a pen could. If they were truly friends, then Kirin could speak to him man to man. He could ask what Marianus had meant earlier. “Back in the waiting room, I heard—”

Marianus smiled, already turning back toward the interior of the domus. He flicked his fingers at Ydelka and Oran, directing them inside. “Honoured? Don’t be. But do go after that pest and make sure he gets home. He’s brash and he’s stupid and in the season of war the fidelia doesn’t much care for pacifists.”

Was the dismissal a sign of Marianus’s displeasure? Kirin glanced between Marianus and the claustrophobia of the cramped road. “If you’re certain, Heron.” Yakovius had already vanished into the swamp of litters and foot traffic. A clouded evening sky hung above the city, threatening rain.

“I wouldn’t have said it if I wasn’t sure, slave.” The senator marched back inside, leaving Kirin on the steps.

The fetid city air brushed his bare shoulders, and for a moment it was like he stood, uncomfortably naked, at the jaws of the domus. He never felt uncomfortable naked, and yet Marianus’s reprimand—no, Kirin’s own disobedience—had stripped him like a reluctant whore. Perhaps Delos had said something to Marianus, whispered some lie in the senator’s ear. If so, Kirin might be in danger of being sold. Then Kirin would have nothing.

All he could do was prove his worth. He was a man of Lorar, wasn’t he?

He leaped down the steps two at a time to make up for his brash error. The crowd swallowed him until he was just another fish pressing upstream against the current. It felt like freedom.

He cupped his hand to his mouth. “Yakovius!” He shoved his way past two massive slaves carrying baskets on their shoulders. “Yakovius!”

Kirin exploded onto a wider stretch of road. Though still crowded, there was enough room that he spied Yakovius, bent over and panting from exhaustion. “Yakovius! H-Heron.”

Yakovius turned, eyes narrowed as Kirin jogged to his side. “Did he send you to kill me?”

Kirin snorted. “He sent me to bring you home, or wherever it is you’re running to.”

“Good. Fucking help me then.” Yakovius straightened. He gripped Kirin’s shoulder as he caught his breath.

With all his cursing, he seemed an unlikely pacifist. When Kirin thought of Yellow Faction, he pictured fanciful scholars in hairshirts, waving old scrolls above their heads like the Speaker Alley preachers.

“You ran away from the senator,” said Kirin. He frowned as the Yellower used him as a prop. “You’d colour yourself a coward, as the fidelia think you?”

Yakovius shot him a puzzled look, stretching again before removing his elbow. “A coward? For wanting to distance myself from that horse turd?”

“Yellow Faction men are either madmen or cowards, and you don’t seem mad.” A passer-by edged too close, and Kirin gave him a shove and a stern look. At the sight of Kirin’s hand on his sword hilt, the traffic flowed to either side of them like stream water parting in the path of a stone.

“Fair enough.” Yakovius stuck a finger in his ear and flicked the wax off with his thumb. “I suppose he sent you to spy on me, did he? Fucking cunt. Can we start walking now?”

Couldn’t Marianus have just abandoned the Yellower to get stabbed in the street? Kirin sighed and started walking at a brisk pace.

Immediately, Yakovius reached for Kirin’s shoulder. “Slow down. Do you take me for an athlete?”

Kirin snorted again and slowed till his pace crawled like Yakovius’s.

It felt good to be out in the world again. Marianus’s residence was beautiful, its air sweet, but nothing could match the grit of the city, the intoxicating choke of humidity, the stink of canal water and sweat. He breathed in deep as Yakovius directed him across one of the many bridges leading away from the district around Marianus’s domus.

Marianus’s resided on one of eight man-made islands that rested on the region’s flood-rich marshland. The city of Lorar was a marvel, a spot of defiance on the face of the gods’ earth. Thousands had died laying the foundations of the most beautiful city in the world. The stones of its streets stood stacked atop the fallen bodies of Lorai people; its towering architecture had been erected only to collapse into the boggy soil and be rebuilt. During the rainy months, the fidelia lived in near-constant fear of flood, their worry matched only by their perseverance. And despite the danger, Lorar’s canals and bridges were ever cluttered with merchants and travellers, its streets choked with clients lined at their patrons’ doors, with workers and politicians, slaves and whores.

To either side of them, men punted in shallow skiffs along the rigid course of the canal. This was man’s dominion over nature, his might in the face of adversity, an ordered land created out of chaos. The fighters in the stadium were little more than whores to the people they entertained, but if Kirin was a whore in service to so great a master, why complain of his lot? Lorar made wild lands tame, and wild peoples Lorai.

Marianus had called what Lorar had given Kirin a gift that he could never truly take advantage of. It stung like a sore to think so, but faced with the might of the empire that had conquered this waterlogged earth, he could admit it might be true.

Beside him, Yakovius rubbed his arms like he was cold, his face twitchy like a weasel. “Fucking say something. Or don’t you talk? I can talk using smaller words if you need me to. I get plenty of practice catering to the illiterates at the senate house. Illiterates are people who can’t fucking read by the way, in case they didn’t teach you that between lessons on stabbing and clubbing men to death.”

Kirin smiled to himself. Yakovius’s ignorance was astounding. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Ripper!” a labourer called to Kirin from over the bridge before grinning and pumping the air with his fist. Kirin waved, pride swelling in his chest. He’d been spending too much time absorbing Ydelka and Oran’s snideness. It was good to feel himself honoured.

Yakovius narrowed his eyes. “I’m thirty-seven. Why? I seem older to you, is that it? Frail fucking Yakov.”

“No.” Kirin tried not to laugh. “The opposite, as it fucking happens.”

“Maybe that’s true, from where you stand.” Yakovius stomped carelessly through a puddle. His hem trailed in the brown water. “If you think killing the innocent makes you a man.”

Kirin strode ahead of Yakovius enough to carve a path amongst the rabble as they reached the end of the bridge. “You really hate the arenas, don’t you?”

“What gave you that fucking idea?” Rather than letting Kirin guide him like he should have, Yakovius sped up to meet Kirin’s pace.

The man had no sense of self-preservation or propriety. Kirin tightened his grip on his sword, though as far as he’d seen, no one was interested in the senator. Kirin himself had generated more attention. “Strange, considering you know nothing about them. More prisoners and criminals are killed than fighters.” Images of Thanus and the others lying dead in the sand flashed unkindly in Kirin’s mind. His fingers twitched as his gripped his gladius. “It’s a good job for a man who can fight. In the arena we’re as loved as kings.”

“And out here you’re less than offal.” Yakovius paused in his speech as they passed the curia—the three-tiered senate house with its white pillars, shaped in a series of roundels one atop the other. “Just prisoners,” he repeated, almost to himself. “Do you ever learn anything about them? Their names? The names of their people?”

Kirin had hoped that his first steps inside the curia would be taken at Marianus’s side, not this belligerent Yellower’s. Thankfully, when Kirin pointed at the senate house, Yakovius’s shook his head. “I’m headed homeward.”

The forum would normally have been empty this late in the evening, the wide square dotted here and there with bare stalls, scattered members of the public praying before the gaily painted statues of the gods that lined the plaza, and the odd magistrate arbitrating a private case. But half the far side of the stones was cluttered with the tents, carts, and cookfires of the western refugees. Some of the westerners were fair like Kirin, others tanner than most Lorai. From the looks of them, they’d come with money and goods, but he knew from the whispers around the domus that the inns were already filling up. If they found nowhere to rent, would they move south or east yet again, or would they enter the service of men like Marianus as servants or slaves?

Uncomfortable, Kirin shifted his attention to the men and women seeking justice before the purple-robed judges, chewing on Yakovius’s almost forgotten question about the identities of the prisoners as they passed. “The guilty have no names. Would you ask mercy for a man who’d raped your sister? Murdered your father?”

“I’d pay the man who murdered my father.” Yakovius was silent for a while. “And subject peoples? With a name like yours I’m surprised you don’t feel pity for them.”

With a name like his. Kirin. A foreign name.It flashed before his eyes, sewn in Lorai letters into his swaddling. It wasn’t a Feislander name, despite what people assumed, but what did that distinction even matter? Feislander? Masseni? Anouti? Whatever Ydelka was? Kirin was a man of Lorar, so it was a Lorai name.

All Yakovius’s words were tricks disguised as questions. The same ones he’d used to provoke Marianus into such harsh remarks.

Kirin followed the senator as he turned onto a side street. “Of course I pity them, but whoever wanted someone’s pity? Lorar has a right to the wealth of those who don’t care to protect it. We do great things with what we conquer, and their peoples are free to do great things should they choose. If I’d been raised where I was born I’d be grunting in the dirt waving a stick in the air. Then I’d be illiterate. So I’m offal, but I’m offal with an education. I’m offal in a proud position, working for a proud house.”

“But at least it would be your fucking stick and your fucking dirt.” Yakovius stepped out of the way of a pair of children as they darted up the road.

Kirin glanced up at the gabled roofs of the towering apartments to either side of them. The sky above was a surging grey. Rain was coming to flood the gutters that lined Lorar’s proud roads. Unless the tents in the forum were more waterproof than they looked, the refugees must be cursing the sky just now. He cleared his throat. “I heard you talking with the senator.”

“Oh?”

Kirin followed him down a shaded alley. “You were screaming at him because he wants to protect the city.”

Yakovius rubbed his bald head like he was testing for rain. “Protect the city. Is that what you heard? Marianus Rufus doesn’t protect anything beyond his own ambition. He’s been funneling money southward straight out of the government coffers to fund his own naval project. No formal petition was put forward to the senate. No formal request was made to Grey Faction—it’s all back doors and secret handshakes with Marianus.”

Kirin bristled. “But he does want to protect the city. That’s the whole point of strengthening our navy.”

Yakovius raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you buy his bullshit about defensive strategy? So the Feislands took back a few tiny villages west of the Trucia—you really think Marianus is planning to sail to war over the deaths of a few desperate soldiers to whom he gifted land he knew was going to get rolled over the first chance the Feislanders got?”

That wasn’t true. Marianus was a Redder, a fighting man. He cared about his soldiers. “He’s sending Hadrianus to avenge those men and halt Ossa’s advance,” Kirin argued. “I heard what he said—I’m not the idiot you think I am.”

Yakovius looked him over. “I don’t think you’re an idiot, but neither is Marianus. He knows just the words to speak and the palms to grease. Sure, Marianus can ask Hadrianus to send all his troops northward, including every Lorai soldier tasked with keeping the peace in a country notorious for fucking rebellions. But Hadrianus is a titan himself. He’s going to ask Marianus what’s in it for him when Hadrianus has been all but king in that blasted country for over twenty years. The senate’s been playing push and pull with him for almost as fucking long, and from what I hear, Luciferus is the same. Hadrianus isn’t going to sail north for anything less than governorship of the Feislands, and if Marianus says yes to serve his current, personal agenda, we’ll be fighting a civil war in ten, maybe even five years. You know what that gets Marianus?”

Kirin frowned, his hairs on end. He hadn’t known any of that about Hadrianus or Luciferus—and why would he have? They were two men in very far away lands. “What does he get?” Kirin asked, drawn in by Yakovius’s words despite himself.

They turned onto a wider street. The food stalls built into the fronts of many of the houses were closing, and men and women walked home along the road, overtaking them.

“He gets an excuse to take charge of the senate for the length of another war.”

Kirin shook his head. “The Whites and Greys wouldn’t stand for it.”

“Won’t they? Imagine it. Hadrianus has just made himself emperor of the Feislands and Indas both—maybe Luciferus has splintered off and claimed a vanquished Kemassen for his own, or maybe he’s joined with Hadrianus. Hadrianus is a White, and if he decides to lay claim to Lorar the Whites will be as tarnished as he is. Marianus can step in as the reluctant hero, bringing order to a chaotic senate. He can set himself up as king.”

“And the Yellowers?” Kirin hated himself as he said it, but this was only Yakovius pretending. This wasn’t real. If he felt a moment of doubt, a moment of hope that a different faction might step in, that was only because this was a game.

Yakovius waved at the sky. “What do you think? Marianus has one thing right about Yellow Faction—no one wants to listen to pacifists when a massive army is sharpening their swords from the other side of the city walls. They want the big strong man who says he has a secret weapon, who says he can protect them, who’s proven himself in battle before, and who they know isn’t afraid to spill a little blood, even Lorai blood, if it’ll keep Lorar standing.”

A donkey hauling a cart trudged toward them, and they fell into a brief silence as they navigated past it.

“That’s a lot of speculation. You sing a frightening song, but it’s still only words.” Kirin swallowed to try to ease the tightness in his throat that Yakovius’s spell had created.

Yakovius smirked. “I had a knack for songs, before I was a senator. Maybe I should have stuck to playing in taverns. It’s safer, and less fucking stressful.”

A street musician who’d risen to senator. Kirin had heard it all now. But it sent a shiver through him. Musicians, actors, fighters—they were almost of a class. Could Kirin himself have dreamed higher than simple freedom? Could he have been a great man himself, instead of just the bodyguard of a great man? “So is there hope for us or not? In your song?”

“That’s the question,” said Yakovius. “I’d like to think there is hope, if Yellow Faction can win.”

“But you won’t, not if you hate this city and its people. Do you even consider yourself one of us? You’re from ek-Anout, aren’t you?”

“I’m from Lorar,” Yakovius answered. It had the air of a tired answer, one he’d given many times. As a Yellower, he probably did. “My parents came from Kelat, near Old Elu.”

“You don’t look like an Erusi.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Yellower scum!” a woman shouted from a second-story window.

Yakovius cupped his hands over his mouth to call back to her. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t forget to vote!”

The street widened, and Kirin spied the facades of slightly grander homes further down the road, though nowhere near so large as Marianus’s domus. “Yellow Faction don’t have a problem with a sun-baked Erusi man at their head?”

Yakovius’s grin was all teeth. He hacked a laugh. “Oh, they have problems with it. Had problems. My wife is Kordelia of the Drenda clan. Without her uncle, the Yellowers would have drowned as a faction a long fucking time ago. They’ll put up with me because of her, and because I’m fucking good at what I do.”

“Which is?” Kirin raised his eyebrows, smiling.

“Yelling mostly,” Yakovius admitted. “Put up with each other long enough and maybe we’ll both come out with what we want. With peace, there’s at least a fucking chance we can save this city. There’s a chance we can start thinking for our fucking selves and building a different system.”

“A different system?”

“You see how this place is.” Yakovius slapped the side of a building and a crumbling patch of plaster avalanched onto the street. “It’s only a matter of time before a flood comes and pulls another house down, crushes another family. Or a gambler sells his household wealth to pay his debts, sells his children into slavery. The criminals you so happily slaughter on the arena sands are the fidelia, stripped bare, forced to steal for the money to pay for sacrifices, for medicine, for food.”

Kirin had seen the tragedies Yakovius only talked about first hand, if not because he’d experienced such things himself, then because the people he’d brushed shoulders with as a gladiator had. Yet there was more to Marianus and the Reds than Yakovius understood. “The Reds are generous. The curia feeds the people all the time, enough to support a hardworking man. No one has to steal—they choose to.”

“Trifles. They feed them with fucking trifles. And what’s a pastry and a spectacle going to fucking do when your leg got crushed by a cart that’s collapsed because its wheels broke off because the fucking roads are shit? What good is watching a gladiator bite a prisoner’s balls off when you can’t afford a butcher to amputate before the rot sets in?”

Kirin opened his mouth to speak, but Yakovius held his hand up.

“Marianus Rufus and his wars will drain our coffers dry, when what we need him to do is fix the fucking sewers, and the streets, and maintain the aqueducts. All those glittering fucking auratii being funneled toward the navy could be used for the fidelia.”

Kirin could understand some of what Yakovius was saying. It would be nice to have better roads, at least, but food and medicine were hardly the responsibility of the curia to provide.

No wonder Marianus hated the man. Yakovius had called Marianus sly, but Yakovius was twice as bad, using his skill at words to sway Kirin dangerously close to his own position.

They stopped before a two-story domus with red doors. Yakovius walked up the small stone steps leading up to it and leaned against it, taller than Kirin now. “You probably think I should pay you or something, but I’m fucking poor as shit, so you’re getting nothing.”

Kirin tried his best not to smile. “You’re poor, you hate the senate, you hate our sport and custom, you sympathize with foreign powers, and you want us to end our campaign against the Southerners. What is it that keeps you here? Why not sail back to Kelat and make another life? Buy your own stick and dirt?”

Yakovius smirked, arms folded across his narrow chest. “Because Lorar is fucking civilization, and at least the senate pretends I get a vote.”

Kirin didn’t, but he might one day, if he were a freedman—He stopped the thought. He was letting Yakovius get to him. “Our city doesn’t burn children, either. There’s a reason we call Kemassen the Old Enemy.”

“Yes, because it’s fucking old and it’s our enemy. I guess you think if anyone’s going to burn Kemassen’s children it should at least be us.”

Kirin threw his hands up. There was no winning with the fool. He had an answer for everything, or thought he did. “I think we have a duty to spread civilization as far as we can.”

“To the ends of the earth,” Yakovius said whimsically. He cracked open the door behind him. “Well, I say we let them sort themselves the fuck out and keep our eyes on this civilization. We should maintain what we have, and do away with the last fucking vestiges of our barbarity.”

“The arenas,” Kirin prompted flatly.

“As a start.” Yakovius frowned, glancing past the slit in the doorway. “You’re fucking keeping me here all day. I need to eat you know. If you didn’t talk so fucking much maybe people would listen more.”

Kirin talked too much? Every one of Yakovius’s sentences oozed into the next.

It was getting dark, slaves with torches leading the way for their masters as the streets emptied of the world of daytime and the merchants of night took to their corners and alleys. Kirin nodded at Yakovius, but the man was already half-way past the threshold.

On the walk back to Marianus’s domus, Kirin passed the refugees again. Most of them had hurried inside their tents at the threat of rain, but as the clouds rumbled with thunder and sheets of rain pummeled the stones, a few families remained, seated on the backs of their carts. A mother and father struggled to cover the heads of four children with a blanket.

This was what Yakovius failed to see—the faces of the people running in fear for their lives, abandoning their homes at the threat of Feislander raiders. It would be no different if the Masseni attacked the south with their warships, sending the people of Venius fleeing northward, and if the people of those cities abandoned their towns, what was to keep the Masseni from moving in? Sometimes to make peace, you had to make war before the other side chose to.

Yet Yakovius had surprised him. For all his bluster, he knew how to argue, which meant he could be reasoned with, that maybe he would one day listen to Marianus’s reason.

And if he wouldn’t listen to Marianus, maybe he’d listen to Kirin. He had a feeling he’d be seeing Yakovius again, and as he trudged home to the sound of water gushing into the city drains, he was surprised to find he wouldn’t mind if he did.

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