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Chapter 6: Visitors
Iridescia – Indas: Ipsis: The Palace: A Dream
In the dream, Iridescia was fat and heavy with child, a dead weight in the little papyrus skiff she paddled down the palace canals. The boat was narrow, crafted from fresh green reeds. She’d stolen it after waiting for hours for the change of the guards outside her tower, certain the canals could ferry her to the town she watched outside her window. She thought she remembered walking in the town once, when she was a child, but that had been a very long time ago now, before the ruby-haired man. Auntie no longer allowed her to leave her room at all. She held the memory tight, reliving it every morning and before bed in case she forgot it like she forgot so many other things.
The canal water looked green in places, covered by the same virulent moss that crept up the sides of the palace’s intricately tiered walls. She plunged her oar beneath the surface, barely disturbing the deep, charcoal-black waters or the pale blue lilies that dotted the surface. The flowers were beautiful, but also frightening, like dead flesh drifting on a dark ocean. Where the torchlight pierced it, the dark water glowed orange like the colour of papyrus, and she could see dust spiraling around the long, thick stalks, all the way down to the bottom.
Twilight cast its subtle shades onto the reflective gold detailing of the palace walls and the wet leaves of the papyrus forest that lay just outside the palace complex. A breeze stirred the wilderness, and it was as if the great fronds and stalks were soldiers in crested helmets, threatening to break down the man-made walls that barely kept the wilderness at bay.
Under the shadow of the hillside and the papyrus, the water of the canal became a place to hide. Even if Auntie caught her and caged her up again, it was worth it to sit in the boat, bobbing on the water and listening to the birds and insects.
Iridescia dipped her fingers just beneath the still, black water, dragging them through the algae in peaceful commune with the drift of the boat. She shut her eyes, smiling and breathing in the cool air. As she floated, the oar motionless in her hand, something tickled her skin under the water. She looked down, expecting reeds.
Bloodless, fleshy human fingers reached toward her. The empty eyes of the dead gazed through her as fish nibbled at their sockets.
Iridescia screamed, but she couldn’t stop looking. She stared down and down and down to the very bed of the canal, where the dead men’s feet were bound to a metal lattice.
“Ahhhh—” She slapped the stretching, waving hands with her oar, until she’d swatted them away and pelted the boat to safety.
“Tayri!” called a man, somewhere behind her.
She snapped her neck around, paddling more furiously. But the harder she paddled, the worse the boat turned in circles, trapping her. Her thoughts felt clouded and muddy. They weren’t her own. How did one row a boat? It had looked so simple in the paintings in her tower.
A man in a skiff like hers appeared from around a hard corner. She didn’t know his face.
The man was rowing closer, and her boat was spinning in circles. She stumbled to her feet and the oar slipped forgotten from her hand, smacking the water.
She clamped her hands over her ears. She wanted her tower: its solid walls, its unyielding stones. It was a safe place just like Auntie had always told her. The only safe place. She was wrong to have escaped. Wrongwrongwrong.
“Maaa—” she said, wobbling in the boat. Ahead of her, above the canal, a brick walkway bridged the moat. Voices and footsteps were approaching. “Ssss―Suh . . . .”
The second boat scraped alongside hers. The man in reed armour grabbed her calf. She screamed and tumbled back into the boat, but he scrabbled to hold her.
As she kicked and punched at him, her captor said the bad words, the ones she’d been cautioned by Auntie not to repeat. The ruby-haired man had taught her those words and laughed when she repeated them. She didn’t like the ruby-haired man. His ruby hair was coarse, and sometimes she thought his laughs were mean, and sometimes he would be improper with her, like Massan had been before Auntie had sent him away.
“Don’t restrain her; you’re making it worse!” Auntie’s voice.
The soldier’s hand loosened.
“Ssss―Suh.” She started to cry. She curled up in the bottom of the boat, drew her knees to her swollen belly. A chick curled in its egg. She tried to wrap her arms around her legs, but they wouldn’t reach.
The skiff banged against the stone of the canal walls and she looked up. Auntie was staring down at her. Auntie’s thin face grew cold. “I’m disappointed in you, Tayri.”
Until recently, disappointed had meant hitting. It had been a long time since there had been hitting though, longer than she could count. The ruby-haired man didn’t even hit her anymore. Now he came with fruit and sweet milk and maids with trays of meat.
But the tower was cold and lonely, and in the night Iridescia had heard screams again. It had frightened her so much she’d decided to run away.
She reached for the stone wall of the canal, brought back to the here and now by its rough dampness. The boat thud-thud-thudded against a dead end.
“Clang, clang, clang,” she said quietly to herself, the sound soothing.
Auntie glared, gesturing to the strong men she always kept with her, and who stood to either side of her. The strong men lifted Iridescia out of the boat and didn’t let go of her even when they stood her down next to Auntie.
The slap came quick, the sound echoing off the walls. Iridescia’s shoulders shook, and then she heaved, and then she cried. She stumbled back toward the boat, but the strong men’s fingers held her fast, digging into her skin.
“Ssss.” She wanted them to let her go. Why wouldn’t they let her go?
Auntie tsked. “Shut up, stupid girl. Better you didn’t try to speak at all. There’s no need to announce your simplicity, when it’s already so plain on your face. And don’t stare so.”
Iridescia chewed her lip, staring. Auntie didn’t like it when Iridescia stared.
Auntie turned away and stalked beneath an arch into one of the inner courtyards, toward home. “Bring her back. Arrange for a mason to visit tomorrow and brick up the window.”
Iridescia looked back along the walkway and the arch opposite. Past the water and the gardens she could see the town and its people. If they bricked up her window, would the town disappear?
Iridescia stroked her belly.
She woke up.
Great Aunt Star was sitting on a chair beside Iridescia’s bed. After the dream, she looked so much older, her skin marked by so many more lines. Frown lines.
“You’re staring,” she said.
Iridescia didn’t look away. The woman in the dream hadn’t looked away, whoever she was, and she’d been so much more frightened of Star than Iridescia was. Had the dream been a memory of some kind? Everything had looked and felt so real. She could still feel the burn of Auntie—of Aunt Star’s—slap hot on her cheek. She gingerly pressed her palm to her face.
Star tsked, just like in the dream. “Answer me, child. Or will you add disobedience to your laziness this morning?”
“Laziness?” Iridescia signed. She glanced out the window of her small, rounded tower room. The sun was high in the sky. It was at least noon.
She didn’t usually sleep so deeply. It was as if the dream wasn’t her dream at all, but someone else’s and she’d been only a visitor. In the dream, Star had called her Tayri.
Star stood, her chair scraping the stone floor. She walked to a narrow table on the opposite wall, her back to Iridescia. “Hadrianus wants you at court today. As you mature, it’s important the powerful men of Indas see you at your best.”
Mature? Iridescia hadn’t matured. Well, she was mature, much more mature than Liberio, but she wasn’t the kind of mature Star meant, and she had no use for the powerful men of Indas. What did they matter to Aunt Star anyway? Star was Hadrianus’s favourite. She had all the power anyone could ever want already, especially now she was betrothed to Liberio. Once Aunt Star had her own children, what would be the point of marrying off Iridescia?
“Iridescia,” Star pressed, voice hard. “That was an invitation for you to dress. Where are your slaves?”
Iridescia clambered from her bed, but she stuck out her tongue behind Star’s back. She knelt before her carved wood chest and rifled through the messy heap of clothes inside.
Star’s footsteps shh-shh-shhed, fast toward Iridescia. Iridescia bolted to her feet, turning round, clutching her dress against her like a shield. She winced, anticipating a slap like the one in the dream, but none came.
The way Star loomed above her, thin as a reed, was far more frightening. She grabbed Iridescia’s dress and bunched it up in her hands, then hurled it across the floor. “You do make things difficult. A simple question, and you won’t even answer. Spoiled. That’s what you are. Spoiled. Now fetch something to wear. Quickly. I’ll have to dress you.”
Iridescia already had fetched something to wear and Star had thrown it across the room in a tantrum, but she didn’t say that. Instead she did as she was told, retrieving a pale green stola from the trunk. It was one she’d bought from Roewyn, who’d told her green brought out the depth of her brown eyes.
Green was Star’s least favourite colour.
“I sent the slaves on an errand,” Iridescia lied. She’d given Meri and Shena a purse full of money last night and told them to buy themselves something nice in the Eghri. They’d have spent the whole night gambling and drinking and with male whores. It was what they always did, and all they talked about.
“While you were asleep?” Star cocked her chin up, indicating Iridescia’s arms, and Iridescia raised them over her head so Star could pull the dress down.
“I wasn’t asleep the whole time,” she signed, backwards. Could Star even read her words?
Green obscured Iridescia’s vision for an instant, a veil of algae over a canal. She felt her fingers graze those of a dead man tied to a grate, felt fish biting away at her juicy eyeballs.
Then the veil was gone, and Iridescia was staring at her wall, at the scratches in the stone that had been there since she could remember: tally marks, stick drawings. She’d always thought they were her own, from when she was really really little, but what if they weren’t?
She pressed her hand against her belly, remembering. The woman in the dream had been pregnant. She’d called Star Auntie. Had the woman been Iridescia’s mother?
Star spun her round, smoothing the wrinkles in the fabric, pinning and tightening. She pinned the fabric over Iridescia’s chest so tight it hurt.
“Next time,” Star said, clenched, “I’ll pay for slaves you can’t talk to. Then you won’t be able to trick them with your nasty games.”
They weren’t nasty games. Iridescia just didn’t want slaves that were Aunt Star’s spies. She rolled her shoulder, picking at the dress. Star slapped her hand but said nothing.
“Who’s Tayri?” Iridescia signed.
Star took a step back. Her eyes were wide. “Where did you hear that name, child?” Her voice was soft. Too soft. And sickly sweet.
Iridescia hesitated. “I dreamt it.”
She thought Star would call her a liar and slap her again, but the strike never came. Instead, Star reached out, stroked Iridescia’s braids and bundled them together to sling over Iridescia’s shoulder. She knelt in front of her and brushed her hand over Iridescia’s forehead.
“What else have you dreamed lately?” Star asked.
Nothing. Iridescia had dreamed nothing.
But then she thought of the Haven, and the shadows with their ghostly promises. They were real, not a dream, but the dream had felt so much like being in the Haven, and the dark water of the canal was so like the black pool at the Haven’s centre.
“What else have you dreamed?” Star’s eyes bored into her. She stroked her hand from Iridescia’s forehead to her jaw, sharp fingernails pressing into the bone.
“Nothing,” Iridescia signed slowly. Except that Star’s interest meant Tayri was real, and that Iridescia was right about it not being an ordinary dream.
Someone knocked at the door. Star turned and stood. “Miqipsi.”
Iridescia spied past Star at Miqipsi and waved, trying to snatch his attention. He ignored her.
“Hadrianus sent me to summon you,” he said.
Star laughed harshly. “You’re his errand boy now, are you? All that study, reduced to this. How much you must loathe him.”
Iridescia straightened and stepped past Star. She slipped on her shoes, more than happy to attend Hadrianus’s court suddenly.
“It brings me great joy to fulfill the governor’s wishes,” said Miqipsi. “And to serve his vizier.”
Star laughed again. She spared Iridescia a cursory glance before strolling past Miqipsi and onto the stairs. As she passed the scribe, she turned and dusted his shoulder, as though to remove a hair. “Beware the dog who serves two masters,” she said. “I’m sure I could make better use of you. If I could read your mind and learn whatever secrets the Djeberetza taught you in that tower of theirs, I do believe the whole continent might fall at Hadrianus’s feet.”
Iridescia glared at Star’s back. Star snapped her fingers and Iridescia and Miqipsi fell into file behind her.
“What’s going on?” Iridescia signed discreetly to Miqipsi. They hardly ever made a point of summoning Iridescia to court.
Miqipsi’s face fell. “They have Tobi’s family.”
Iridescia stiffened. She had to force herself to keep pace. The last she’d seen Tobi, he and his family had been prepared to sail for safety in Lera. Roewyn had promised. “What about Roewyn?” she pleaded.
“No. They don’t have her, and they don’t seem to know she was involved. But the sentencing of Tobi’s family will take place today.”
Iridescia had been too late. If she’d read more, studied harder, visited the Haven more often and alone, she would have been able to stop this. She didn’t know how she would have stopped it, but she would have.
The walk to the palace courtroom was torture, like stepping on hot coals or sharp needles. At least today they didn’t have to march all the way to the courtroom on the hill. Iridescia wouldn’t have been able to keep herself from running on ahead if that’d been the case.
The palace courtroom was enclosed, claustrophobic. Steps led down four corners of a recessed square that lay at the room’s centre—a kind of auditorium within the rest of the room that forced the courtiers gathered below to look up at the thrones at the top of the square. Only a dozen courtiers filled the depression now, mostly prominent merchants and their wives, but one of Miqipsi’s underling scribes was there as well, and a boat captain.
Hadrianus towered over them from the centre throne while Deghashi bashed his toys together in the chair to his right. Star’s seat at Hadrianus’s left was empty.
As Star led them around the side of the square, the gold painted into the etchings on the stone walls glared in the corner of Iridescia’s vision. The faces of the old gods and the Inda kings who’d served them had once looked out on the courtroom, but their faces and names had long ago been scratched out by Melqan and his successors. Praying to the gods here would do no good with their eyes defaced.
Wood scraped against the stone floor to Iridescia’s right and she jumped. Aeornus Sardo, the Butcher of Lera, stood with spear in hand and sword at his belt above the courtiers. What was he doing here?
He glanced over his shoulder at her as she passed. His pale eyes were like a blade carved from ice, the wriggle of his lips as he formed them into a smile like worms. A long, jagged, ugly scar cut his face in half, beginning at his forehead and snaking down to just below his mouth.
Iridescia peered past him. On the other side of the square, Azaelian One-Eye, Liberio’s personal trainer, gripped a spear as well. It made an asymmetrical picture. Sardo was tall, and Azaelian was barely over five feet. With his wall-eye it was hard to tell when he was looking at you, and with his wild red hair that stuck out at all angles around his pockmarked face, he looked like a Feislander savage. Wherever he was from originally, he was a Loran through and through now, for all that Liberio sang his praises.
Iridescia stepped away from Miqipsi and her aunt to descend the stairs to the base of the square, avoiding looking at Sardo as she passed, but Star grabbed her elbow, stopping her.
“Today you stand with me,” Star said.
Iridescia’s skin went cold. She didn’t want to stand beside Star and Hadrianus. Something was wrong. She never stood with Aunt Star, who’d always seemed to keep her as far from Hadrianus as possible, and why hadn’t the whole court assembled?
Hadrianus looked up at her as she fell into place next to her aunt, his gaze roaming over her in a way that made her want to wrap herself in a thousand scarves. She stared back at him, at his salt-and-pepper beard, the stray red hairs that tumbled in curls from his head. In the firelight they shone red as rubies.
She tore her attention from him, clenching her hands into fists at her sides.
“Where’s my son?” Hadrianus asked.
Miqipsi responded. “He could not be found, governor.”
He was probably with Roewyn. Hopefully they had the sense to be careful. Hopefully Miqipsi had got word to Roewyn about Tobi’s family.
Iridescia clasped her hands. It was almost impossible not to stare at the people below from her spot beside the thrones.
Up here, the nobles at the base of the square looked so small, like fish in a bowl that you could pluck out and swallow whole. That scribe—Miqipsi’s man—Iridescia was sure she’d seen him with a medallion to Molot. She glanced from Azaelian on one side to Sardo on the other: two monsters on either side of a pit.
Her thoughts wormed like maggots in her belly. The nobles were unusually silent. They darted looks at each other like frightened mice.
“I’ve assembled you here for an important demonstration,” Hadrianus said suddenly. “Once again, it’s been brought to my vizier’s attention that pagan worship still survives in the back alleys and dark corners of Ipsis. All this, despite the enormous gift given us by the Great Buqqus, and the stability Lorar has brought to this once fractured kingdom.” He cleared his throat. “Some of you, I’m very sad to hear, even share these devotions! Imagine that.” He laughed. “Everything we’ve struggled for together—all our collective efforts to drag you into our modern age. But then, you can only teach a goat so much before his stubborn nature makes itself known. It seems hard to change, but change we must. The way forward is painful, challenging, but so is everything worthwhile in this world.” As it so often did, his cheerful demeanor shifted, his voice growing louder, angrier. “You think I coveted this post? You think I dreamed of shepherding the savages of a desert wasteland when I first took my commission?”
Iridescia leaned forward as much as she dared, trying to read Hadrianus’s expression, but Star tugged her back.
“Miqipsi, have the prisoners brought in,” Hadrianus commanded.
Miqipsi’s footsteps retreated through one of the dark exits to either side of the thrones. When he returned, it was in the company of soldiers. Tobi and his pregnant mother were shackled between the soldiers. Even from here, Iridescia could see their faces were heavily bruised, lips swollen.
She dug her nails into her palms.
“I thought there were three?” Hadrianus asked.
“The husband was killed during the arrest,” Miqipsi explained.
“The two will have to do,” said Hadrianus, as if he were a disappointed customer buying perch.
Iridescia’s heart thudded behind her ribs. Her palms were so sweaty it was as if she’d been swimming. He’d said a demonstration—who was it for? Tobi’s family were nobodies. The courtiers wouldn’t be frightened by their deaths.
But Iridescia was. Liberio would have been, if they’d been able to find him.
“For the crimes of blasphemy, I sentence the bitch to the tub. Kill the boy here.” Hadrianus sounded almost bored.
Iridescia stepped forward before she could think herself out of it. Hadrianus barely knew Iridescia existed, but she had something Star wanted, and Hadrianus listened to Star.
Star grabbed her shoulders, and Iridescia wriggled in her grip to the sound of one of the soldiers drawing his sword, to Tobi’s whimper, to Deghashi’s pained cry joining Tobi’s. His mother fell to her knees, begging.
She tugged Star’s skirt. “If you let him live, I’ll tell you all about the dreams,” she signed, words clumsy. “Everything.” She stared up into Star’s hard eyes as the shackles rattled, as Deghashi’s mother wailed.
Star pushed Iridescia away and strode before Hadrianus. She clapped her hands, and even Tobi went silent. “I want the boy as a slave for Iridescia.”
Iridescia tiptoed out. The sword was against Tobi’s neck had drawn blood. It gathered on the flat of the blade, trailing down.
“Please,” she signed to Hadrianus, even though he couldn’t understand her.
“Take him! Take him, please!” Tobi’s mother cried. “It was me. I did it. Tobi had nothing to do with it.”
Hadrianus and Star stared at each other for a long time. Minutes, it seemed. The people in the square below stirred.
“Release him,” Hadrianus commanded. “Bring him for branding.”
Iridescia was shaking. She stomped her foot till Star faced her. “And his mother. I want them both.”
Star glared. “Don’t be greedy, girl.” Star cocked her head at the soldiers. “Take the whore to the tub.”
“Mother!” Tobi screamed, but the soldiers were already dragging him, kicking and screaming down the hallway.
The soldiers hauled Tobi’s mother to her feet as she murmured prayers, eyes clasped shut.
Iridescia stumbled away. She wanted Roewyn, and Miqipsi, and Liberio. She wanted to run to Tobi and then run all the way from the palace.
As if sensing her thoughts, Miqipsi shook his head at her.
Hadrianus adjusted his position in his chair. He rubbed his hands together. “Sardo, Azaelian—kill the others. Quickly this time, please. I’ve lost the spirit of it.”
Iridescia turned in time to see Hadrianus’s generals skewer their first victims on their spears. The remaining nobles stumbled for the steps, or clung to each other, or fell to the ground shielding their heads. Sardo and Azaelian One-Eye slit the nobles’ throats as they rushed the steps. Blood sprayed across stone, across skin.
Iridescia pitched forward, swallowing back vomit.
When she looked back up, there was so much blood coating the stairs that it dripped down and puddled in the square. The boat captain slipped on the blood of the others, scrambling for safety, but Azaelian kicked him in the head and he tumbled to the bottom. Three more soldiers drew swords and joined the generals in the square.
Sardo brought his sword straight down on a fleeing woman’s back, near slicing her from shoulder to tailbone. “For Lorar!” “Fucking cunt bitch.”
Iridescia stared. She stared so long and so hard she didn’t notice it had ended till Miqipsi gently shook her shoulders. “Let’s take you home,” he said to her.
Iridescia pulled her hand away from her arm and her nails came back bloody. She’d been digging them into her wrist and not noticed.
Who was the demonstration for? They’d slaughtered everyone. Everyone but Iridescia. Iridescia and Miqipsi. Hadrianus knew somehow that they’d helped Tobi’s family. But who could have told? And why didn’t they know about Roewyn?
Miqipsi shuffled her from the room, but even daylight couldn’t wash away the image of blood lapping against stone, carved in her mind like the blinded gods on the courtroom walls.