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Chapter 5: Mazna
Iridescia – Indas: Ipsis: Adonen’s Temple
“A young girl should know better than to ask such things,” signed the young Ashqen of Adonen.
Despite his protest, he handed Iridescia the scroll case. She smiled at him, reaching inside the dusty canister to remove its contents and lay them out on the table in front of her. The light from the tall square windows shone bright across the papyri, the tables in the library at the temple of Adonen arranged to catch the light throughout the day and diminish the need for papyrus-destroying fire within its walls. The tables stretched on and on, as though an army of Ashenqa might descend upon it to study ancient texts, but Iridescia was alone save for a cougher in the far distance.
She licked her lip, frowning at the papyri before her. The Onion Lady had told her she could learn about the shadows in the Haven from the Great Buqqus’s writings, and if Iridescia learned about the shadows, she’d know whether she could trust their promise to help her defeat Star and Hadrianus. She could put an end to the arrests and save Tobi and his family.
The Ashqen grumbled to himself as he ambled away down the line of mostly empty tables, and Iridescia smiled to herself. His name was Buqqus, like all priests of Adonen. When Adonen’s acolytes underwent the ceremony representing their rise to Ashqen, they took the name Buqqus in honour of the Great Buqqus, who had wandered the country converting its lowly tribesmen from heathen paganism.
Ashenqa could be funny sometimes, but she did like them. And they knew her hand signs and could talk to her, thinking her good luck. In the past, Miqipsi had told her, children like Iridescia had been granted magical powers and could commune with the gods. Nowadays the Buqquses of Adonen’s temples claimed not to believe such things, which was all for the better, since Iridescia did have magical powers, or magical something at least, and she had a feeling today’s Ashenqa wouldn’t like it so well as they had before Melqan’s conversion.
Surely only cursed girls talked to ghosts.
When Iridescia came here, she usually asked for fables, and her request to see Buqqus’s accounts of his travels in southern Indas had raised eyebrows. The eyebrows had raised even higher when she’d told him she wanted to learn about his conversion of southern Indas. The old ways weren’t spoken of much, mythologies rich with meaning relegated to hollow, childish stories. West of the Waoidat lay the lands of the dead, and into them Buqqus had travelled like a sacrifice sent out to Hazzan.
In the old tales, the gods married and killed one another and raped each other’s sons and rewarded the devout with kingdoms and treasure. The wildest, nastiest, scariest stories came from beyond the mountains and in the deep desert beyond Indas’s cities. It was to these places that Buqqus had been sent by the heq-Ashqen, a minor priest ordered to deal with the problem of Indas’s wayward tribesmen. The way the Ashenqa told it, Buqqus had dealt with more than unfaithful, violent chieftains; he had come face to face with the demons themselves, spirits of the dead conjured through dark, exotic magics, there to harry him on his quest.
Iridescia shuddered thinking about the horned god, and whispered a prayer to Adonen. In the stuffiness and solitude of the archives, it felt as though Hazzan himself might jump out from beneath a table, or that she might spy his glowing goaty eyes peering at her from the shelves of scrolls further back. She shifted into a better reading position, drawing inward as though if she were smaller, Hazzan might not bother with her.
A pigeon cooed just outside one of the high windows, and Iridescia turned toward it. It was a warm, sunny day, and there should have been lots of time to read, but Miqipsi had walked her here, with the promise of returning once he was done with his errands nearby. She didn’t have long.
Which scroll to start with? There were several curled round each other, copies of copies. She picked one at random, rolling it out flat and pinning down the corners. It was about Tintellan, the largest city in the south. Iridescia’s skin prickled with excitement. So many of the stories of the civil war seemed rooted in Tintellan: the mystery of the disappearance and death of Princess Lena, the failed conspiracy to overthrow Melqan and seat his brother in his place, a Massenqa queen who’d sneaked into the city rolled up in a carpet. Iridescia scanned the page for relevant details. It was a brief report to Qorelibas, the usurper, complaining of corruption in the city.
“Omid eq-Gethras, heq-Ashqen of the great city of Tintellan, has been found guilty of necromancy and of the solicitation of the false god Molot. During my investigation into the abduction of Princess Lena et-Lioheria, I uncovered with the aid of loyal Hiempsal an underground cave where the heq-Ashqen was secreting his daughter’s corpse. Trusting falsely in the instructions of an ancient scroll, it was his belief that the water in the cave could revive his daughter. We have detained the heq-Ashqen, along with the body, which will be burned in the light of Adonen.”
Iridescia bit her lip at the mention of water. Was it the same water as in the Haven? Tintellan was far, far away. She buried her face back in the scroll.
“I find my inquest into the princess’s disappearance impeded at every turn by the pagans who flood the city, not the least of whom is one Samelqo eq-Milqar, the heq-Ashqen of Qemassen. Supposedly his presence is diplomatic in nature, though how even a pagan king could trust such a vain and prideful man with the delicate work of statescraft is perplexing. At no more than forty-five years he commands his city’s Ashenqa, and if his bragging is to be believed he was elevated to the high-priesthood at twenty-two.One wonders, if he is to be believed, what favours might have been exchanged to secure such honoured status. With him travels a sour young princess of Qemassen, whom he claims to offer in marriage to Shaqarbas eq-Zotan of all men.We have closed the city to foreign intruders and detained both Samelqo eq-Milqar and Princess Meghigda et-Eshant in order to prevent further unrest or violence. Out of supposed concern for her daughter, the queen of the Massenqa, Eshant et-Nila, has seen fit to smuggle herself inside Tintellan’s walls inside a carpet of all things. The queen is belligerent and full of wiles, but fortunately for myself her wroth appears fixed primarily on her heq-Ashqen. May he suffer the full force of her attentions. Should the foreigners fight amongst themselves, it may give me leave to continue my investigations unbothered.”
Court politics were just as boring then as they were now. And how old must Buqqus have been if he thought forty was old? Forty was practically dead. She set the scroll aside. The rest of the documents in the case were about Wewandjis, and she started with what was clearly the first to judge by its opening.
“On my travels I came lastly to the village of Wewandjis, south of the Leopard Hills that separate Indas from the continent’s western shore. The people of Wewandjis are a peculiar people, barbaric in many of their customs, yet strangely mannered when it comes to—”
Iridescia stuck out her tongue and skipped ahead. She didn’t need to know about manners, she wanted to read about the dead people.
A shadow passed over the surface of the papyrus as a cloud blocked the light in the window, and for a moment, it was as if she’d summoned it by thinking dark thoughts. She leaned in closer to the papyrus, focusing on the words and not silly superstitions.
“ . . . bury their dead in holes in the desert. While I was camped in the village one of the elders succumbed to a feverish sickness and was brought out to the wasteland carried on a bier. I followed at some distance, wary of disrupting them. Once they’d reached the desired spot, a pit dug painstakingly out of the sand, the body was laid down and sacrifices offered to Molot and Hazzan. The rituals of these people are at least familiar, not entirely at odds with our own pagan past, but a darker magic lay behind the ritual, one I did not suffer to understand until much later.”
Iridescia wet her lips with her tongue. The scroll made her fingers sore. She thought about licking them to dampen the papyrus, but recalled a scary story Liberio had once recounted of a poison that killed that way, administered to the pages of a forbidden manuscript by a disturbed priest.
“A week after the funeral, the mourning period was ended and the villagers began to smile again, laughing and going about their business. I asked one of the village warriors why the day before he had looked so sad, yet today was joking with his friends. He informed me that it took a week for the elder’s soul to find its way back to the village. The dead man had returned to them, he told me. Even the pagans before us did their best to confuse a man’s spirit so that it did not return as a demon to his household, and I did not conceal my horror from the young man. I asked him if he had encountered the spirit himself, and he was pleased to tell me that he had, and that the man’s ghost had visited him in his dreams and that the dead man was bound to do the villagers’ bidding.
That night my host agreed to introduce me to the dead man, and though I did experience his presence, I shall not defile these pages with the further details of what I saw or heard.”
Ugh. Iridescia made a face at the scroll. She hoped the Great Buqqus could see her, wherever he was in the afterlife, and skipped ahead again. Several boring pages followed, recounting Buqqus’s frustrated attempts to convert the people of Wewandjis. She skipped those as well, till he started talking about the corpse again.
“My Anan bodyguard and I decided to unearth the corpse and examine it, despite the possible danger posed by the tribesmen should our nocturnal exhumation be discovered. My studies in eq-Anout had prepared me for such work, and as Hiempsal was of the Qarnaama, he had extensive knowledge of the flesh. To supplement our expertise, we conscripted two of the village children to accompany us, a waif of a girl-child and her younger sister, who appeared to have no set home or family and who would not be missed should the unfortunate occur.
The sand made for hard digging, and it took us dangerously close to dawn before we had finished. When the elder was revealed to us, his body was not bloated or rotted, nor even dry and shriveled from the sand as one would expect. A deep pool of dark water lay at the bottom of the pit. Only the man’s head lay above the water, resting against the wall as though he had fallen asleep. I confess Hiempsal was forced to remove the body, as I was weakened from the digging. Once he had finished he laid the body out, and we prayed to Adonen to allow us to cut into the corpse uninterrupted.
Beneath the skin, the elder was absent any obvious tampering that would have delayed his decay, yet the inside of his body was near as fresh as that of a live man.With no further suggestion of what might have caused his peculiar state, we began the arduous process of returning him to the burial site. We had only finished dragging him to the edge of the grave site, when I was distracted by a tickling in my ear as though someone had blown cool air against my skin. I let go of the corpse, and despite our efforts he fell back into the water. The dawn was coming, and we were fearful of discovery. In our haste, I ignored the strange occurrence and we fumbled with the business of filling the hole.
A shadow passed over me, like that of a man, but very tall, with long limbs and fingers. I turned to see who was there. At first I saw no one, but as the sun rose higher I discerned further shapes in the blackness, long-limbed shades akin to the one I had seen. They stood sentinel, equidistant from one another and covering the sand behind us. Hiempsal and the girls could see them also, and my protector pulled me away from the pit, leaving the elder naked under the sky.
To my relief, the shadows did not pursue us, though their voices seemed to echo across the dunes as we ran eastward into the sun’s approaching light. The words they whispered were not words I shall ever repeat, and are not things a mortal man could ever know. The children we brought with us, for lack of other available courses, and they will hopefully find a place in Ipsis’s court.
Having profaned their ceremony, we could not return to Wewandjis, and my task there was left incomplete. It remains for braver men than I to take up, though I warn them that should they do so, they are condemning themselves to sleepless nights and visions of an endless desert hidden by nightfall, the black faces of shadow men lining its sands as sentries, standing lodged to the subtle indentations that mark their graves.”
“What are you reading?”
Iridescia scrambled from her seat, brandishing the scroll case like a weapon. Rolls of papyrus scattered across the floor.
Liberio held his palms up, wincing. “I’m sorry; I didn’t know you’d be so jumpy.”
“Fart face,” Iridescia signed. By the look on his face, the governor’s son was smart enough to understand that. Her heart was racing, but she laid the scroll case on the table.
Liberio bent down to collect the spilled scrolls. As he fumbled beneath the table, Iridescia couldn’t resist giving him a light kick. He glared at her, and she laughed silently to herself.
When he was done, Iridescia pointed at him and shrugged her shoulders, her way of asking why he was there.
“I came to see you, stupid. I was bored and Miqipsi told me I could come get you.” Liberio stared around the room, mouth agape, as though he’d never seen a library before. After a moment he sneezed. “It’s dusty in here.”
Iridescia rolled her eyes playfully. “Obviously,” she signed, and he seemed to take her point.
“Fine, all right.” He smoothed his hand over the flattened scroll she’d rolled out on the table. “What are you reading, anyway?”
No one could know about what Iridescia had seen and heard at the Haven. She snatched the papyrus from the table and slotted it back inside its case, pulling it against her chest as though it were a treasured toy.
“A secret, is it?” Liberio raised his brows dramatically. He looked silly. “Well, you know all my secrets.”
Iridescia shook her head, even though it was true and made her feel bad. She swept her arm out, encompassing the whole room.
“You know everyone’s secrets,” Liberio translated.
She nodded and smiled, though it wasn’t really true. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have needed to come here.
Liberio held out his hand. Iridescia hesitated, unbalanced as she teetered on the edge of her decision. She was learning all this to help Roewyn save people, to stop Aunt Star and Hadrianus. Liberio was always talking about how he wanted to get rid of his father. Just because he was annoying, it didn’t mean she couldn’t trust him.
She licked her lips again as she handed over the scrolls, gaze fixed on Liberio’s soft, tan hands as he slid her secrets from their resting place.
“Buqqus the Great?” he asked, head tilted as he read.
“The Great Buqqus,” Iridescia corrected him, though he was paying her no mind.
He scanned it, but looked up after only a moment. His stupidly long red hair slid in front of his face and he tucked it behind his ear. “What’s it about? Raising the dead?”
Couldn’t he just read it and find out? Iridescia stood on her tiptoes and pointed at the important passages. When he’d finished she jabbed a finger at herself, then pulled her ears and signed toward her eyes.
“You have an earache? Your eyes are sore?”
Iridescia stomped her foot. She hunched when the sound echoed about the library, expecting an angry Buqqus to appear any moment to scold her. She pointed at the text again, then repeated her movements from before.
“You saw all this?” The look of surprise and disbelief on Liberio’s face was almost worth the pain of telling him. Iridescia grinned and nodded emphatically, even proudly.
“How? When? Where?”
A snakelike motion with her hand to represent water, arms raised high like palm branches.
“The Haven.” He handed the canister back to her, scroll tucked away inside. “You have to show me.”
“No.” She shook her head—that should be easy enough to understand.
He frowned, looking hurt. “You don’t trust me.”
Iridescia darted a look at the windowsill, like she could fly off with the pigeon still huddled inside. He was trying to trap her, and she wouldn’t fall for it.
“What if we brought Roewyn?” he pressed.
“No!” Another shake of her head, another stomp of her foot.
It was too dangerous to show anybody. She felt it in her bones as though the spirits themselves had told her so. Telling Liberio the shadows existed was one thing, but what if she brought him there and they hurt him somehow?
Or worse, what if they liked Liberio better? Then Iridescia would have nothing at all to offer Roewyn or Tobi’s family.
But Liberio’s eyes bored into her like great brown saucers. He looked so eager, so earnest. For a moment, she understood a little why Roewyn liked him. It was awful.
All the fight went out of her. She would have to take Liberio with her. If she didn’t, he’d probably go tell Roewyn, or follow her when she was off-guard.
An Ashqen trudged toward them, eyeballing the rows of shelves for intruders or mice or fire. The temple was a place of great peril if you were a sheaf of papyrus. When he reached them, Iridescia handed him the scroll case, mouthing a ‘thank you’ before remembering she could sign to him.
It was sunny outside, a nice change from yesterday’s clouds. The heat made the hike uphill to the Haven more strenuous, but Iridescia was more concerned for Liberio than herself. The governor’s son was dressed in a weighty dark fabric, rich purples and reds that swept the ground.
“They’re collecting tribute soon,” Liberio said as he plodded behind her.
The Lora would be gathering the annual tribute Indas had paid ever since the occupation: goods and coin they were forced to hand over in exchange for being allowed to exist, goods and coin that kept them too poor to stage a rebellion.
Iridescia frowned. It was hard not to resent the one-sided conversation.
Liberio chuckled. “I thought I’d tamper with the collection records.”
So foolish. Did Liberio want to be punished? What if all his stupid pranks drew Hadrianus’s attention to him and Roewyn? Then it was only a matter of time before the Yirada started spying on all of them. A matter of time before it was Roewyn in the tub.
Iridescia’s lip trembled. She curled her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms at the image.
“I want to hurt them,” Liberio huffed. “I’m not sure how yet, but I want to.” He slipped on the muddy path, which was still damp from the heavy rains.
There wasn’t anything someone like Liberio or Iridescia could do about the tribute. Lorar considered the payments reparations for a just war and were strict in their collection. The payments did more than make Lorar wealthy though, they brought shame on Indas. It was one thing to destroy one’s enemy with armies and ships, but Lorar understood that to truly conquer a people, to be sure they would never rebel, you had to attack their will to resist.
Liberio shuffled along, his footsteps more careful. “Deghashi is supposed to show the Inda they’re respected, but his incompetence only makes us slaves.”
Iridescia bristled as much at the fact that their thoughts had been working along similar lines as that he’d referred to the Inda as “us.”
When Liberio tripped yet again, she breathed out sharply in exasperation. She bent down to help him, noticing his flushed cheeks as he laughed bitterly and held his muddy hands up to her.
“Are you drunk?” Iridescia mimed raising a bottle to her lips. What if the shadows came, but were insulted by his foolishness?
At least Liberio had the decency to look sheepish, helping himself to his feet in the face of her scrutiny. “I said I was bored. You think Father trusts me with anything to do? As far as he’s concerned I’m an overgrown child.”
Iridescia didn’t care one way or the other whether Hadrianus trusted Liberio or not. Besides, Liberio was an overgrown child. And overgrown child caked in mud, his red hair streaked with dirt.
She swallowed, staring hard at his metal half-mask, at what Hadrianus had done to his own son. She could be patient.
She held out her hand, to lead him through the trees that would take them to the Haven. When they arrived at the small glade with its round pool at the centre, Iridescia stopped. Liberio walked into her.
She didn’t say anything to him this time, but stood still, thinking how someone older and wiser than Iridescia was would try and talk Liberio out of the idea before he had no choice. What if she told him she’d made it up? But then he’d just call her a liar.
Liberio grinned, waving at the trees. “Scared now, are we?”
She was not scared.
Iridescia stomped through the tangle of branches ringing the glade, toward the pool. It had been weeks since the merchant had died and been taken away, yet even the night rains hadn’t washed away the vile stink he’d left behind.
Liberio coughed at the smell, but he strode past her like he wasn’t frightened at all and knelt at the bank, gaze fixed on the water like he was remembering when Hadrianus and Star’s men had dragged him here as a child.
She rubbed her arm self-consciously, feeling small.
“There’s nothing here.” His voice was uncharacteristically cold, not the foolish, jesting bellow she was used to.
The water was free of flies today, the Haven silent. She shielded her eyes and looked up at the branches of the palm and papyrus trees. Had the voices been a trick all along? It seemed impossible. Was it because Liberio was with her? Iridescia had never heard anything when someone else was at the Haven, but then, she didn’t come to the Haven when anyone else was around—well, except the prisoners being tortured.
“What gods do you pray to, Iridescia?”
Liberio’s question took her unawares. She plunked down on the grass as he turned to look at her.
She hesitated, then pressed her finger into the mud of the bank, writing a word.
“Justice.” Liberio snorted, his eyes brightening. He looked nearly like himself again. “I should pray to Injustice if I were you; pray that she doesn’t set her sights on you; pray that she passes your house by. There is no other god, no Adonen or Adonis or Abaal or any of the others. Only Injustice, all-seeing and in abundance.”
Iridescia wanted to ask Liberio why Injustice was a woman, but felt as though even sitting next to him she was spying on some private moment. She’d never felt so much a little girl, realizing that perhaps Liberio had problems of his own that she’d never understood.
His usually expressive face was stony. Even his mane of curls looked limp.
Something was different today. Something was wrong.
“What’s happened?” she scribbled in the earth.
Liberio belted out a hysterical laugh, and she grabbed his arm to steady him in case he fell into the water.
“You weren’t at court today.” He smiled, but there were tears in his eyes. “I’m to marry Star.”
Iridescia stared at him, at the sunlight glinting off the metal mask covering his ruined skin, and which was as much Star’s fault as Hadrianus’s. The woman who’d scarred him was to be his wife. Iridescia’s great aunt was to be his wife.
She raised her hands to speak, but she didn’t have any comforting words for him, and even if she had, he wouldn’t have understood them.
He shook his head, turning away from her as though disappointed. He dug his stubby fingers into the ground and started pulling up clumps of soil and grass.
Iridescia tapped his shoulder, drawing his attention. “We’ll stop them,” she said. “If we stop them, you won’t have to marry her.”
One more person Iridescia was responsible for. One more person to save.
Liberio just shook his head, uncomprehending. He lobbed a chunk of grassy, root-choked earth into the pool where it fragmented into the water.