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Chapter 7: Traitors
Iridescia – Mount Nuna: Ipsis: Indas
Night had wrapped the Haven in a starry veil, but the eyes that stared down at Iridescia didn’t feel comforting like Tanata’s were said to be. It was like being watched through thousands of pin-prick holes, the lights enough to tell her someone was watching, but not who. But if she didn’t look at the stars, her gaze would be pulled toward the boat floating in the centre of the pool, where Tobi’s mother drifted, silent and dead.
Whatever shades haunted the Haven, Roewyn and Liberio didn’t seem to notice. They kept their distance from the pool and the corpse that rested there, but they didn’t know about the real ghosts, didn’t worry at all about the pitch-dark shore. Their words swarmed like a school of fish around Iridescia, mushing together so that the sounds were like one big monster that eclipsed the smaller parts.
Iridescia shuddered and drew her knees up to her chest atop the round stone where she was sitting. She was as far from the pool and the boat as she could get, but even this distant from the black water, whenever a leaf brushed her shoulder, she felt the shadowy fingers of long black ghosts inching across her skin.
“Iridescia’s right,” Liberio pressed, jabbing a stubby finger at his broad chest. “Hadrianus meant that slaughter as a message to me.”
Roewyn shook her head, crossed her arms, turned away and then back toward Liberio again. “Why? If they knew about us, I’d be dead, especially after Star. She’s not the sharing type.”
Liberio seemed to flinch, bodily, at the mention of his marriage, but talk of Aunt Star summoned worse things for Iridescia: the roughness of the skiff as Tayri tried desperately to escape along the palace canals; the image of dead, waving hands reaching upwards from the bottom of the water; the ache in her throat when Star had found her and commanded the soldiers to brick up the tower window; Tayri’s pregnancy by a man with ruby-red hair, a man who was probably Hadrianus.
She twisted one of her braids round and round between her fingers, pressure building in her chest.
She’d promised to tell Aunt Star about her dreams in exchange for Tobi’s life, but it’d been days, and Star still hadn’t approached her, even though Tobi had been given to Iridescia days ago. Maybe it had been enough for Star to know that Iridescia owed her something, and that she’d connected somehow with Tayri, the woman in the dream: the woman who was probably Iridescia’s dead mother.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” said Liberio. “He doesn’t even know you exist.”
Moonlight rolled over Liberio’s tumble of red curls, but the light burned twice as fiercely in Iridescia’s breast. If Hadrianus was the father of Tayri’s child then it made Iridescia his daughter, and Liberio’s half-sister. It made her part Lorat.
She turned over her hands. They didn’t look like Lora hands, but then, what did Lora people look like when half of Ipsis was filled with the children of Inda women and Lora soldiers? No, it wasn’t Lora hands that mattered, nor even Lora hearts, but the cruelty Hadrianus showed everyone around him. If she had that in her, she was better off not being born.
Roewyn’s black hair shone thick as midnight under the stars. Roewyn, the goddess of the rainbow with her cloths and her dyes and her dresses. Roewyn who smiled and was kind and was patient.
Roewyn was good, and she liked Iridescia. If Roewyn liked her, she must be good too.
“But your father must suspect you had something to do with Tobi’s family escaping,” Roewyn said. “He knows that whether alone or with help, you’ve been shuffling people off to Lera.”
Liberio went still, his lips parting as if to speak. He closed his mouth. There was something else he hadn’t told them.
Iridescia frowned and hopped off the stone. She walked toward them, keeping her attention on Liberio so she didn’t have to look at the water or the boat.
“What did you do?” Iridescia signed to Liberio.
When he didn’t answer, Iridescia shrugged and peaked her eyebrows to let him know it was a question. Or maybe he had understood, and simply couldn’t see well.
He laughed darkly, then cleared his throat. “I hired a Qarnaaman to deal with Marianus Rufus several months ago. The senator may even be dead by now.”
Iridescia stared, a shiver coursing up her back. Miqipsi had once told her scary stories of the Qarnaama, who haunted the southern deserts of eq-Anout and murdered for money in the name of the god Hazzan.
“Why?” she signed. Marianus was just another far away man in a far away place. She knew Liberio’s father didn’t like him, but if that were true, then he was an ally, not an enemy.
“You don’t even know him,” Roewyn added, disbelief in her voice. “He can’t be so bad as your father—and he’s a Loran. You’re a Loran. What if he’s a good man?”
“There are no good men.” Liberio spit on the ground. “Marianus is a monster like the rest of them, and with the most powerful senator in Lorar dead, the senate will fall into chaos. Indas will have a chance to break free of her chains.”
Would she? “Would Hadrianus leave for Lorar if Marianus died?” Iridescia asked. She waited for Roewyn to translate.
“Maybe. Whatever else it does, it’ll strike Lorar where it hurts.” Liberio threw up his hands and stalked to the edge of the glade. When he spoke again, it was to Roewyn. “People are going to have to die before this is over. You can’t stick your head in the sand forever. Or did you want to keep watching children torn from their parents, betrayed, beaten, while you stand there unable to stop it? You couldn’t even get Tobi and his family out of the city. How will you keep Star and my father away from the next ones? Marianus is just the first. He dies and my father will think he’s won. He’ll be off guard.”
Roewyn’s black hair swirled in the air as she turned on him. “Off guard for what?”
Iridescia swallowed as the pool and the boat tugged on her, and she was drawn toward the black water. The ghosts were her friends. They were good. They would help.
Tobi’s mother moaned.
Iridescia jumped back and both Roewyn and Liberio went silent.
Tobi’s mother was still alive, and suffering.
This time, Iridescia would help. Not like with the man before, who she’d left in the hot sun. She rushed to the edge of the glade, searching the trees for branches she could use to push the boat closer to shore. They’d need something long but sturdy. She reached for one as Roewyn approached, and shook the Feislandat off when Roewyn laid a calming hand on Iridescia’s shoulder.
“Iridescia. Let me and Liberio do it,” Roewyn said.
Do what? It was no trouble to get a branch. Iridescia just had to find one she was strong and tall enough to break. She leaped, fingertips grazing bark The second time, she coiled her fingers round the branch and it bowed with the force of her weight, creaking.
“She’s too far gone,” said Roewyn.
The branch snapped and Iridescia tumbled to the ground.
“Did you hear that?” asked Liberio. “Someone’s coming.”
Roewyn hauled Iridescia to her feet and they all scurried into the bushes. It could be Star, or maybe the man who administered the honey to the prisoners, or even a guard sent to check if Tobi’s mother was dead.
Leaves whipped against Iridescia’s face as Roewyn pulled her toward one of the hidden paths that spun like a web from the Haven, Liberio traipsing behind. But then, out of the darkness came familiar voices. Friends.
Miqipsi and his lover, Leri.
Iridescia stopped walking and hauled as hard as she could on Roewyn’s arm. Roewyn sucked her teeth loudly as if in pain and Iridescia released her. Liberio bumped against Iridescia’s back.
“It’s Miqipsi and Leri,” she signed to Roewyn. She twisted, stretching her neck to catch a glimpse past the thick trees blocking her view.
Roewyn snatched Iridescia’s fingers. “Be quiet,” she coaxed.
Iridescia whipped her hair as she turned from Roewyn again. She pulled her fingers free of Roewyn’s silencing grip. “But it’s Miqipsi. I’m going back.”
She pulled away, starting toward the Haven. Liberio and Roewyn were very quiet behind her, and she sank into the relative silence of the moment, struggling to make out words or even voices. The squeaks of the whinchats and the crick-whistles of the wheatears made it challenging even to hear Liberio and Roewyn when they started after her.
“Iridescia,” Roewyn whispered behind her. “Slow down. We don’t know why they came here.”
Did there have to be a reason? It was a cool, calm night, and Miqipsi was a helper like Roewyn. He helped people escape. He was on their side. He knew the same as they did that the Haven was a safe place to talk. So why did Roewyn’s warning fill Iridescia’s stomach with dread?
Her foot pressed down on a branch.
The songbirds vanished from the trees with an eruption of wingbeats and rustled leaves, their springtime restlessness vanished with them into the sky.
Liberio grabbed the scruff of Iridescia’s dress collar. His pull was firm and forced her to stop six feet from the boundary of the trees and pulled her into a crouch alongside him. Roewyn reached them and knelt beside them.
“And what about next time?” Leri asked. He held a spear, tip pointing down, toward the grass as he and Miqipsi walked toward the pool at the centre of the Haven. Black water licked the edges of the boat.
Iridescia rubbed one of the beads in her hair with her thumb.
“There won’t—” Miqipsi started to say.
“There will be a next time. There’s always a next time.” Leri sighed. He stopped before the pool and hefted his spear. He hung his head as though unable to look at Tobi’s mother.
Miqipsi reached for his lover, but Leri snapped away. “I had to. It was that or give them the children.”
Iridescia’s throat seemed to close. Give who? And to whom? He couldn’t mean what she thought he did.
“Tobi was a child,” said Leri. “And she was pregnant.”
Iridescia fumbled for Roewyn’s hand, surprised when Liberio’s fingers found hers as well. They held her between them, three friends with hands clasped like a rope.
“She is,” Miqipsi corrected. He gestured at the spear. “Finish it.”
Leri went quiet, rolling the spear in his hands.
“Finish it,” Miqipsi pressed.
Leri looked at him, but Iridescia couldn’t read his expression from so far. “For her, not for you,” he said. He raised the spear up high, adjusting his position, extending it toward the boat. With a barely perceptive push, he slid the spear downward and then pulled it back. The blade came back red as though with blood.
A sound halfway between a squeak and a groan came from inside the boat. A death rattle? Iridescia squeezed Roewyn and Liberio’s hands.
Tobi’s mother was dead. Leri had freed her from her suffering. He’d undone what Iridescia had set into motion—what she and Miqipsi had set into motion.
“Black deeds for dark water,” said Miqipsi.
Iridescia frowned at the mention of the water. The way Miqipsi said it made it sound important, like he knew something about the pool in the Haven and the ghosts that haunted it.
For the smallest of instants, a long, thin shadow in the shape of a finger rose from the surface of the pool. Iridescia started, but then the shape vanished. She swallowed her fear, breathed in and out as deep as she could without making a sound.
“Not as black as they’ll be if you keep this up,” said Leri. “Who’s next? How many line the chopping block between Hadrianus and his son?”
Liberio. Miqipsi had given up Tobi’s family to distract attention from Liberio and Roewyn.
And with them, Iridescia.
The executions in the throne room had been a warning. Iridescia had be right.
“When Marianus comes, things will change.” Miqipsi’s voice was nearly as quiet as the breath Iridescia kept tight inside her.
“What makes you think that?” Leri asked. He turned away from the pool, dropped the spear on the ground, and started pacing. “Marianus will scour the surface of Ipsis for anyone he thinks will oppose him. He’ll kill Liberio, and probably Iridescia too.”
Iridescia’s palms were sweaty in Liberio and Roewyn’s. She shifted in their grasp and Liberio’s fingers fell from her own.
Miqipsi shook his head. “Not with what I’ve promised him.”
Leri stopped. He turned round suddenly. “Him? What happens when the water doesn’t work? His family will have you condemned as a traitor. You’ve never seen it work.”
Miqipsi hesitated. “I have.”
“When?” Leri cocked his head in the direction of the boat and the corpse inside it. “The dead are dead. Anything else is fable. Whatever those Qarnaama told you in the tower was nonsense. They’ve played the Djeberetza for fools for years.”
In Buqqus’s journals, Iridescia remembered, Buqqus said he’d seen a heq-Ashqen of Molot try to revive his dead daughter by means of magic. Was that what Leri meant? And the water was the key—the water, and Iridescia’s ghosts. How much did Miqipsi know about what Iridescia had researched in Adonen’s temple?
She let her attention drift to Liberio, then to Roewyn, but they only looked confused. When this was done, could she tell them? She’d trusted Miqipsi, but now . . . . No. Of course she could trust Roewyn and Liberio. Well, she could trust Roewyn.
“I have seen it work,” said Miqipsi. “Here, and in eq-Anout. You’ve heard of Eshant et-Nila and her daughter, Meg? Those scholars I correspond with, one of them is—”
A stick snapped directly to Iridescia’s right, where Liberio was sitting. She turned on him and met his wide, guilty eyes, a wince contorting his face.
In the glade, Leri bent down and took up the spear.
Iridescia grabbed Roewyn’s arm and, still crouched, hurried them in the direction of one of her hidden paths. She didn’t look back at Liberio, but she didn’t need to look to know he was following. Hopefully Leri and Miqipsi mistook the noise for a deer.
By the time they reached denser cover and the base of the hill, Iridescia’s neck was on fire from being bent so long. Liberio and Roewyn looked even worse as they stood, rubbing the backs of their necks with eyes closed.
Iridescia swallowed, surveying the darkness between trees. She didn’t feel safe, even here. Nothing was what she’d thought, and she’d been so panicked that Miqipsi and Leri would catch them she hadn’t fully taken in everything he’d said.
“I told you he was a spy,” said Liberio. He stood with his hand on his back, looking at Roewyn.
Liberio had known. The thought stabbed deep.
“For your father or Star, not Marianus.” Roewyn bit her nail. When her gaze eventually fell on Iridescia, she spread her arms and beckoned Iridescia toward her.
But Iridescia needed more than comfort right now. “Miqipsi only did it because he thought he had to.”
Roewyn sucked her teeth, a sound like oncoming disappointment.
Iridescia braced herself for more bad news.
Roewyn’s frown deepened. “It’s something we’ve suspected for some time. I’m sorry.”
Dimly, Iridescia recalled back at Roewyn’s shop, when Roewyn had been reluctant to talk with Miqipsi around, when she’d warned Iridescia about sharing information with him. But he was Miqipsi. He was on their side. He’d always been on Iridescia’s side. She trusted Miqipsi more than lumbering, stupid Liberio.
And she’d been wrong.
Roewyn sighed. “He’s not a terrible man, not exactly. But he’s betrayed secrets to Star and Hadrianus before, when he thought it necessary.”
Iridescia forced back her tears. She wouldn’t cry. She’d be strong. This changed nothing, except that Miqipsi knew about the shadows in the Haven, about bringing the dead to life, about all the things Iridescia needed to learn if she was going to stop Hadrianus and Star do even worse things than the slaughter in the throne room.
It was a glimmer of hope, wasn’t it? But when she turned to Liberio, there was nothing like hope on his face, only a grim despair, a hatred.
“I told you there were no good men,” said Liberio.