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Chapter 7: Traitors
Kirin – Lorar: Marianus’s Domus
The smell of pigeon pie mingled with the sweat of the kitchen slaves, meaty and thick, a scent that filled Kirin’s belly and made a home of the noisy space.
Pretty, yellow-haired Irina sat in Kirin’s lap, brushing her fingers over his scruff of beard as he teased her nipple beneath her stola. She stretched her back against him and every inch of him tensed. The roll of her shoulder against the crook of his collarbone may as well have been the delicate drag of fingernails along his cock.
The chatter of the kitchen slaves as they chopped herbs and grated roots at the tables cut in and out of Kirin’s attention: natter about the election, the refugees, the weather.
“All I know is what she told me,” Irina’s thin-fingered friend, Edra, prattled as she chopped. Her knife clip-clip-clipped the dillweed. She waved her blade at an older woman named Ibby. “And what she told me was that the Drenda clan paid for a sacrifice to the Good Ones and it came out bad.”
Ibby snorted. “Bad for whom?”
“Bad for them,” said Edra. “They say Attia herself appeared at the altar and snapped an olive branch before their faces. It means loss for certain, and death most likely.”
Attia, the worst of the Good Ones, who cut life’s thread when fate came calling. It was almost enough to cool the heat of Irina’s hands on Kirin’s skin. Edra was a fool to even speak her name. Had she truly appeared before Yakov’s in-laws? Kirin had never seen a god before.
“They say all kinds of nonsense.” Ibby huffed. “Well, the Yellows were never going to win the election. Not even Basimus Drenda can turn the fidelia away from Marianus now, not with war brewing. Half the Yellowers don’t even like Yakovius, and he’s their own man.”
Edra scraped a small heap of dill and fennel leaf from the tabletop and into her hand. “He’s a pest.”
Pest. Kirin grinned as he pictured Yakovius. Then, annoyed at the distraction, he reached beneath Irina’s skirt to shuffle the fabric out of the way. She fumbled for his cock through his tunic. Gods, he wanted her, but he was soon to replace Oran at Marianus’s side. He had places to be and senators to protect. Marianus would expect him to taste the food before he could eat—a task usually given the praegustator, but lately Kirin, Oran, and Ydelka’s duty. The last taster had broken his neck on the stairs. Not the way Kirin would have expected him to go out.
Kirin groaned as he slid his hand out from beneath Irina’s dress and sucked in a raspy breath.
Fuck his duty to the heavens.
He leaned back against the wall, tilting the stool like he meant to tip he and Irina onto the floor. Irina squealed and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him to keep from falling.
Kirin laughed and let the stool fall back into place with a grating scratch of wood against stone.
Ibby clucked at them from across the room. She glared into Kirin’s eyes “And you. You could be useful instead of sticking your hands where no one wants them.”
“Irina wants them.” He grinned.
Irina slapped his back.“You’re a turd.”
He pecked her on the cheek and shoved her off him.
Just as Irina looked about to slap him again, Marianus’s head slave, Delos, hurried inside the kitchen. Immediately he snapped his fingers, commanding the cooks and servers this way and that. He barely glanced Kirin’s way, and Kirin took the opportunity to grab his semi-erect cock and waggle it tauntingly at the eunuch.
Irina tsked behind him.
Bronze and silver plates laden with pie, olives, and roasted goose filed past the table and out the door.
Kirin’s belly growled and he soothed it with a rub, thinking on the fine meats and delicate olives to come, though the longer Marianus waited to either name or purchase a new taster, the longer Kirin feared he’d lose his position as bodyguard and be sold as a war pig.
Edra made for the doorway carrying the pigeon pie, but Delos grabbed her arm and snatched the dish straight from her hands. He laid it on the table with a clunk and carefully cut a slice, which he shuffled onto a smaller dish before handing the rest of the pie back to Edra. “Hurry up,” he snapped at her.
Edra inched past him, gaze fearful, like she’d spied something frightening in his eyes and wanted away.
Delos waved at Ibby. “Everyone, out.”
The kitchen slaves scurried away—all but Irina. Delos remained, blocking the doorway that led to the peristyle as though he and Kirin had business together.
Kirin strutted up to him, head high, and snarled. “I have somewhere to be, eunuch.”
Delos looked up, at last meeting Kirin’s eyes. He shoved the plate firmly against Kirin’s chest. “The senator wants you fed first.” He cocked his chin at the stool where Irina was resting her feet.
Kirin grabbed the edge of the plate. He wanted to throw the pie in Delos’s face, but Marianus’s orders were Marianus’s orders, and he plodded back to the stool.
Irina hopped to her feet, smiling as though entertained by Kirin’s suffering. She plucked a cooked berry from the plate and popped it into her mouth with a twisty smirk, then pierced the pie crust with her finger. She sucked off the juices slowly.
“Irina,” Delos interrupted. He cleared his throat. “That meal is for Kirin.”
Kirin raised an eyebrow at the head slave. “Suddenly you care that I’m well-fed.” He shoved the plate at Irina. “Makes me want to get to work.”
He stood back up, ready to leave just to see the expression on the fat little man’s face, but Delos stepped into his path.
Sunlight from the window and firelight from the hearth danced across Delos’s forehead, catching in the beads of sweat collecting there. “Unless you plan to disobey the senator, you’ll eat.”
From behind Kirin, the stool creaked as it took Irina’s weight. “He’s not going to listen to you,” said Irina. “Maybe if you were nicer.” Pie crust crackled as she bit into it.
Delos’s gaze shifted to the slave woman. He looked about to dart toward her.
Fear prickled across Kirin’s skin, his arm hair bristling like a chill wind had blown through the room, though it was warm from all the cooking and the hearth.
Something was wrong.
Delos rushed toward the stool, but Kirin caught the man’s wrist and hauled him back. Delos stumbled, nearly falling to the kitchen stones. Delos’s hands trembled. His eyes were almost feverish with fear.
“Don’t eat that,” Kirin snapped at Irina. He turned to look at her. “There’s something in it.”
She stopped chewing and spat out pastry and pigeon and herbs onto the plate, wiping her greasy fingers off on her skirt. “What’s wrong with it? Delos?”
Delos clenched his teeth, eyes wide. Then sorrow, even remorse, filled them. He opened his mouth, but no words came.
He wouldn’t have felt such remorse if Kirin had eaten the poison. Anger knotted in Kirin’s stomach, though he shouldn’t be surprised. Delos had judged Kirin from the moment he’d been welcomed into Marianus’s service.
Kirin gave Delos a shake. He wasn’t gentle about it. “What did you put in there? Something to kill me, was it?”
The plate clattered to the floor behind Kirin. He swerved, expecting to see Irina collapsed and convulsing, but she’d only tossed the dish away from herself. Pigeon was smeared across the stone.
Irina’s skin was a deep red. Beet red. She shoved her fingers down her throat and started hacking onto the floor, holding her stomach with her free hand.
“It wasn’t for her.” Delos said, staring at Irina, eyes glazed. “She wasn’t supposed to eat it.”
Kirin shoved Delos against the table in the centre of the room and its wooden legs creaked against the floor.
“It was for me.” Kirin scoffed. “You hate me so much? Or was it Oran who put you up to it?” Kirin spoke the words without thinking, but as they left his lips, the thought hung heavy as an anchor in his chest. Oran and Delos, working together. Why not? Delos had come to Oran’s defense before. They were both cockless cowards, both killers.
Delos shook his head, fingers pinching the side of the table so hard his knuckles were white. He was still staring at Irina, but then he glared at Kirin. “You think you know everything.” He jabbed his finger at Irina. “This is your doing.”
Was Kirin wrong? There was something he was missing, to judge by Delos’s words, but then, Delos was a liar.
“What do you mean?” Kirin asked.
Behind him, Irina moaned.
Kirin ran to her side and bent down beside her. He clasped her hand in his, her fingers trembling harder than Delos’s had been.
“Am I . . . I’m going to die,” Irina whispered, sniffling. She met Kirin’s eyes, her own brimming with tears.
Kirin stroked her pale hair. “You don’t seem so sick.”
Metal scraped across wood.
Too late, Kirin leaped up. Delos held Edra’s kitchen knife with its tip pressed to his chest. He plunged it into his heart—or close enough—and slumped to the ground with an almost comical grunt.
Kirin wasn’t laughing. The head slave didn’t deserve as noble a death as suicide, though even assuming he’d successfully killed himself—unlikely—there was no certainty that Marianus would punish him for an attempt on Kirin’s life. Kirin was an insect by comparison with Marianus, and for whatever misplaced reason, Marianus valued Delos. No, Delos wouldn’t necessarily have been punished for Kirin, or for Irina, so why—
Kirin glanced at the pie. The slice cut from the pigeon pie intended for Marianus. This wasn’t Delos being petty and poisoning Kirin—he was trying to kill the senator.
Kirin bolted to his feet, pushing away the guilt at abandoning Irina. She’d barely swallowed any of the pie: she’d be safe. She’d be fine.
He raced for the peristyle, breaking into daylight, the noonday sun stinging his eyes. He ignored his fellow slaves when they stopped tending the flowers and called to him, his thoughts coming hard and fast.
Oran would taste Marianus’s meal before the senator did. The Masseni eunuch would fall ill first, and then Marianus would know what had happened. Marianus wouldn’t be harmed.
So why did fear buzz in Kirin’s belly like he’d swallowed a hornet’s nest?
Kirin had been meant to replace Oran at Marianus’s side. Oran and Delos had to have planned this together. Every sliver of intuition told Kirin it was true—why else kill Kirin beforehand? Why make sure Oran was the one to taste the poisoned food?
A bird flitted across Kirin’s path, lazy. It arced upwards in a sudden burst of speed as Kirin neared it.
Why make sure Oran was the one to taste the poison? Unless Oran was immune. Unless he’d trained for this. A hired killer, maybe? He’d moved like one in the arena.
A hired Masseni killer, and Marianus had welcomed him into his domus, where he’d conspired with Delos. Perhaps he’d threatened the eunuch, or bribed him. Perhaps all that had been in it for Delos was Kirin’s death. Perhaps—
One heartbeat. Two. How long before he caught up with Edra? What if all the food was poisoned and Marianus had already eaten of it? What if Oran was crowing over the senator’s corpse right now?
The leaves of a citron tree to the side of the path whipped Kirin’s cheek, and he darted from the peristyle toward the clutter of the atrium.
The floor of the big open room churned with Marianus’s clients and slaves and Kirin was forced to slow against the choke of bodies.
Past the rabble, Marianus’s wife, Nuna, and their son, Ianus, attended the men and women who’d come to pay their respects to the senator. Between the shove of shoulders, Kirin glimpsed Ydelka’s braids, her hand gripping the hilt of one of her daggers as she watched over Nuna and Ianus as the clients prostrated themselves.
If Kirin called out to her, what if someone took advantage of her absence and attacked her charges? What if that was part of the plan? Marianus’s household wiped out in an afternoon.
The bloody bodies of Kirin’s fellow gladiators rose before his eyes, the memory so vivid he could feel Oran’s braids whip his face as the Masseni rat leaped over his head and slammed Kirin’s face against the arena wall. In his mind, the sand was painted red and viscera coiled in the grains like limpid, bruised serpents.
Kirin swallowed. He elbowed his way toward the small alcove where the stairs leading to Marianus’s upper offices lay and leaped onto the first of the steps to give himself some height. The throng was the busiest Kirin had seen—had that, too, been planned by Oran and Delos somehow? Delos would have had access to Marianus’s schedule, could have sent personal requests on behalf of his master to encourage the mess of people.
Kirin cupped his hands over his mouth and hollered, loud as he could. “Ydelka! Marianus needs you!”
He snapped his fingers, then turned without seeing whether she’d followed, skipping the stairs two at a time. He turned into the narrow upstairs corridor, but no footsteps followed—Ydelka would have been slowed down just like Kirin.
He couldn’t wait for her. And anyway, Oran was his. He’d always been Kirin’s.
“Marianus! Heron!” Kirin dipped his head inside an open chamber just in case, but only strangers sat inside.
His feet were hammers against the floor. Up ahead, Edra, empty-handed, scrunched herself against the wall, out of Kirin’s way.
The door to Marianus’s small triclinium was open. Past the entrance, the senator’s feet poked out from beneath the hem of his robes, legs reclined on a couch. On the low table in front of him, bowls and plates of olives, fruits, and the roast goose with a knife buried in its belly rested untouched. The tiny, square room was cramped with two more couches—not much room to move in if he had to, but not much room for Oran to run, either.
Oran stood beside the table. He met Kirin’s eyes and popped a small dark berry into his mouth. It looked just like the one Irina had eaten.
Which meant Marianus hadn’t touched the pie yet.
“Don’t eat anything, Heron!” Kirin shouted. He ploughed forward and shoved Oran against the wall with his forearm, pinning him against the painted plaster. Oran’s skin was sweaty against his, his breath sweet and rich from the pie. His eyes seemed to glow red with a strange fire, hard to pull away from.
Behind them, Marianus bolted to his feet. “Kirin.”
A bronze decanter clattered to the floor, spilling wine, but Kirin didn’t break his hold on Oran, despite the way his arm burned from the strain of keeping the man in place. There was no breaking away. Oran was guilty. Kirin could see it in his eyes and his smug smile.
“Kirin.” Marianus’s voice echoed in the small room, accompanied by the drip-drip of the wine.
“The food’s poisoned,” Kirin spat, his gaze boring into Oran’s. “Delos tried to get me out of the way so this one could kill you. Irina ate some of what was meant for me. She’s sick.”
His throat grew tight. Irina was smart. She’d purged herself. She’d be fine.
Kirin twisted his neck at the sound of approaching feet. Ydelka entered the room, slowing from a run. Two more slaves followed behind her.
She furrowed her brow as she noticed Kirin and Oran. “Kirin.” Her hand was at her belt. “Let him go.”
Marianus clicked his fingers at one of the men. “You two—collect Delos. Hold him for questioning.” The slaves turned on their heels, but Marianus called him back. “And the watch! Notify the watch. Notify the senate. If it’s true, some rat is behind this. Some rat with yellow teeth.”
Some yellow rat. Yakov. It couldn’t be—could it? But what if it was, what if the failed sacrifices Ibby and Edra had been gossiping about had pushed him to plot Marianus’s murder?
“Kirin.” Ydelka’s voice was a bite.
Everyone kept saying Kirin’s name, calling him off like a hound snatched from the hunt. But he’d scented the rat in its nest. There was no stopping him from tearing Oran to pieces. He’d protect Marianus, avenge Irina, save Ydelka from Oran’s barbed touches. He’d make Oran scream till he told who was really behind the attack—not Yakov, but only himself. Only Oran’s twisted, broken mind.
“Oran tasted the food,” said Marianus. “Why blame him for Delos’s crime?” But there was a waver in his voice that Kirin had never heard before. The senator was afraid, or at least, he doubted. It might be enough.
“He could be immune,” Kirin pressed.
The room was still. Kirin wanted to look Marianus in the eyes and show him how certain he was, but he couldn’t pry his attention from Oran. The Masseni wasn’t even struggling, as though he thought he could still get away with his little plot.
Marianus drew in a rough breath. His slippered feet shuffled across the floor.
Kirin’s arm ached. He relaxed the press of his skin against Oran’s chest, but the Masseni’s feral smile widened and Kirin shoved back even harder.
“Trouble breathing?” Kirin taunted, hushed.
“Only from your stink,” Oran snapped, but his voice was strained.
Behind Kirin came the drag of a plate across the table.
“The pie, you said?” Marianus asked.
Kirin swallowed. “Yes, Heron.”
For the first time since Kirin had pinned him to the wall, Oran squirmed. The beat of his heart was strong enough that Kirin could feel it through his arm. His eyes weren’t panicked, but a strange fixation had shifted Oran’s attention from Kirin to the room behind him.
“Ydelka,” said Marianus. “Taste it.”
“No!” Kirin spoke before he could stop himself, turning to find Ydelka holding the plate with the pigeon pie. Her face was stricken. “An animal—couldn’t you use an animal?”
Marianus’s jaw was clamped tight, and he glowered at Kirin with all the weight of a senator of the fidelia. “Don’t presume to tell me what I can do in my house, slave. Taste it,” he repeated, never once pulling his gaze from Kirin’s. The promise of the lash coiled behind that look. He would pay for his insubordination.
But Ydelka would pay for Oran’s treachery.
She cracked off a corner of pastry, then dipped it into the meat. The juices dripped onto the plate—once, twice, rich and brown. Was she wasting it on purpose? She chewed and swallowed.
Marianus pointed at the pie. “One of the berries. I don’t like their look.”
Ydelka’s fingers trembled as she reached for the plate.
Oran flew from Kirin’s arms. In the aftermath, Kirin spun inside his own surprise, before his back finally thudded against the wall and the clang of the silver plate hitting the floor jerked him from his shock.
Ydelka stood frozen with her hand gripping nothing but air. She and Marianus stared at Oran with wide, frightened eyes. Oran stood between them.
For an instant, everyone was motionless, then Oran pulled the carving knife from the goose and slashed at Marianus.
Kirin moved—too slow—but Ydelka caught Oran’s arm at the crook of his elbow, spinning him toward her. She kicked him hard in the chest and he fell backwards against one of the couches. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, his speed and grace much less useful suddenly, in this small and cluttered room.
“Heron,” Ydelka said, voice forceful. “Leave.”
Oran was on his feet.
Kirin slammed into him from the side, knocking him against the couch again. This time it was the couch that moved for Oran, its legs scraping across the floor. Oran vaulted over the back.
Marianus fled the room. As soon as he was safe and away, he started calling for the kitchen slaves to be rounded up.
“Why defend him?” Oran spat at Ydelka from behind the barrier of the couch. His attention was completely on her, as though Kirin were only a buzzing fly.
Kirin drew his gladius. Ydelka’s knives were already gripped tightly in her hands. She was quick—so quick Kirin hadn’t seen her draw her weapons.
Her answer to Oran’s question was slow in coming. “Why not?”
Oran scoffed. He pulled a small axe from his belt and flexed his fingers against the handle. “He’s done nothing but shame you. He’s killed people you loved, he’s stolen your voice and your people. You’re an animal to him. He would have seen you dead at his feet because he was too lazy to call for a real dog.” He paused. “Come with me.”
Kirin grit his teeth and took a few steps toward Oran, sword held out in front of him. “She’s loyal,” he said.
Oran spat, but didn’t look Kirin’s way. “Loyal to anyone but herself.” He cocked his head at Kirin, without bothering to shift his gaze from Ydelka. “You think these sheep will ever understand you like I do?”
Ydelka leaped onto the couch, her feet slamming against its back so that it fell to the ground. She lunged at Oran, one of her two daggers slicing a trench in the side of his leather cuirass. As Oran spun out of her way to escape its bite, she raised her second blade and stabbed it down, above his collarbone.
Oran screamed as the knife sheared through skin, maybe bone, and fell into a crouch.
“You never understood me at all,” she said, and moved as though to wrench the blade from Oran’s shoulder.
Oran shoved her backwards and she tripped on the upended couch, falling onto her back.
Kirin rushed forward, but Oran rolled out of the way of both Kirin and Ydelka’s reach. With one hand resting at the base of the knife in his shoulder, he darted for the door.
“Oh no.” Kirin clenched his teeth. Oran wouldn’t get away with what he’d done—not to Marianus, and not to Irina. He ran for Oran, slashing his sword at the man’s back.
But Oran pulled himself flat against the wall, and with his free hand threw his small axe toward Kirin with such force that it embedded itself in the wall.
At least he’d missed. Kirin grinned, raised his weapon again—
“Kirin!” Ydelka cried.
He turned to her, hesitated.
It was enough—when Kirin turned around, Oran was running down the corridor, toward the sound of heavy footsteps mounting the stairs.
Curse Ydelka’s softness.
The Masseni rat swerved into a room to the left, leading with his good shoulder, unbalanced. Kirin’s feet pounded the floor, and he sprang into the room. He realized his mistake as Oran’s fist thwacked his cheek and the right side of his head slammed against the side of the doorway. His sword fell from his fingers, clunking to a stop in the threshold.
Oran picked it up.
Kirin raised his head, which was ringing again—not so bad as after the arena fight, but enough to flood him with dizziness. He slumped toward Oran.
Oran’s shoulder was soaked with blood, and blood covered his fingers where he gripped his wound.
Kirin grinned. “That sting’ll get you. Even if you kill me now.”
Oran struck at Kirin’s legs, but the gladius didn’t break skin. The force Oran had exerted was just enough to cut Kirin’s skirts. Just enough to trim the mink swaddling that Irina had sewed back into his tunic for him when the rest of his gladiator’s costume had been burned as rubbish.
Light from a rectangular window behind Oran lit his shape so he shone like a god, gleaming in the cruel prick of the sword’s point as Oran used his weapon to lift the scraps of Kirin’s infancy into the beam of falling sunlight.
In its rays, for a moment, a figure shone. Long but brittle hair glowed golden beneath the light filtering past impossibly tall, needle-heavy trees. Her blue-dyed linen dress—her rubaki— blew against his cheek where he sat in the grass, and the sound of foreign voices drifted to him as the women in the ring of trees plucked berries from the bushes. Smoke. It smelled of smoke, and the women looked up the way a herd of horses looks up at the sign of danger, and one of them screamed, and then they all screamed, and they ran in all directions, and the woman with her blue rubaki and her yellow starlight hair knelt in the grass and pulled him up up up—
but that wasn’t how he remembered it. That wasn’t the way it had happened. That wasn’t part of Kirin’s story. Kirin’s story was here, in the room with the window, with Oran, in the house of the great senator, Marianus, who had lifted Kirin from the filth of the arena sand and given him a purpose.
Kirin stretched his fingers out, sword be damned, but Oran stepped away. He pulled the swaddling from the weapon, then tossed the sword at Kirin’s feet.
“You should hope it doesn’t kill me, Maznin,” said Oran, breathy. “If you care at all for Ydelka, or for yourself, you’ll cry no tears at Marianus’s death.”
Behind Kirin, a clatter of feet and bodies came to a stop as Ydelka, and whoever else Marianus had summoned, arrived to put an end to the rat’s life. Someone shoved Kirin in their haste to get to Oran, and he took a few steps toward the window, toward Oran.
Oran clamped the swaddling to his shoulder wound, then leaped out the window to the street below.
By the time Kirin reached the window to scan the street for Oran’s corpse, the Masseni killer had vanished.