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Chapter 8: Kings
Iridescia – Hadrianus’s Coucil Chambers: Ipsis: Indas
Iridescia kept her head bowed the way she’d been taught, her eyes lowered, her pose humble.
She peeked up at a grunt from Hadrianus, watching her hosts carefully, trying to guess why they’d summoned her here. Was it the explanation of her dreams that she still owed Star, or did Hadrianus have proof that Iridescia had helped Tobi’s family? Star had told her to bring him. Tobi stood beside her now, staring at the floor, just as quiet as he’d been since his parents had been killed.
Her throat dried at the thought, feeling as tight as the audience chamber was small.
The tiny room was stuffy and windowless, its one aperture filled with bricks, as though the very air outside might spy on Hadrianus’s meetings.
The governor was sitting at a beautiful acacia-wood table, his hands folded in front of him, chin resting on his thick fists. There was something of Liberio in his bearing, and in his impish smile, both so disturbing to look upon.
Star sat tall and proud beside him, her already long neck stretched to its regal limit as she stared Iridescia down past her equally long nose. Deghashi was there too, though he was seated in a much plainer chair in the corner of the room, nodding his head back and forth to the rhythm of some imagined song.
Whatever the tune was, Iridescia hoped it was beautiful.
She swallowed, shutting her eyes. She didn’t like to look at Deghashi, who made her uncomfortable and sad. It was said all Qorelibas’s descendants had been born so afflicted. Deghashi was the only one to have survived.
Hadrianus had the boy dressed up and trotted out in the finest clothes, but no one ever sat with him or held him, and he always smelled in a way that suggested he wasn’t being bathed often enough.
“Rest easy, child.” Star twisted her narrow lips. “You’re in no trouble. Our noble Hadrianus merely wished to speak with you.”
“Why?” Iridescia signed.
“She asked why,” Star translated for Hadrianus. She brushed her hand against his arm, the way a lover might. It was no secret to anyone that Star would have married Hadrianus, but the governor had saved that pleasure for his son.
Iridescia’s gorge rose on Liberio’s behalf.
“Am I not allowed to care for my subjects? The children of Indas’s past kings still matter to Deghashi, and to his loyal Loran servant.” Hadrianus laughed, though there was nothing to have provoked such a reaction. His smile widened beneath his beard, his eyes dancing with amusement.
In the corner, Deghashi banged his fists against the edge of his chair in concert with the laughter. Star glared at the boy, but he didn’t pay her any mind.
“You spend a lot of time with my intended,” Star spoke aloud. “I wonder, is there something to be concerned about?” Then, with her hands, she asked something different: “Have you dreamed lately?”
Hadrianus cocked his head at Iridescia. “I thought she could hear?”
Star smiled but didn’t face him. “There’s no harm in being kind. My Iridescia prefers her signs.”
Beside Iridescia, Tobi shifted from side to side. She wanted to take his hand, but she needed to respond to Star—or to Hadrianus.
Which question should she answer? She glanced at the governor, but there was no help to be found on his face. Star must be using the signs to keep her questions from him. She didn’t want him to know about Iridescia’s dreams.
Iridescia shook her head. “No, we just play together. We don’t really get along.” She waited for Star or Hadrianus to say something, but when neither of them did she continued. “I think he’s lonely.” Then, to Star alone: “Only ordinary dreams.”
Hadrianus scoffed when Star translated for him. “Are you saying I don’t spend enough time with my son? Or that Star isn’t enough company for him?”
Iridescia took a step back, right up against the cold metal door, shaking her head emphatically. “No, that’s not what I meant.” She didn’t want to be here, wished she was anywhere else. They were clearly angry with her. She pressed her palms flat against the door.
Tobi stayed where he was.
“I believe we’ve frightened her.” Star gestured to a chair across from them. “Sit down, child.”
They watched her without moving. Iridescia hesitated—would it be smarter to run? If they suspected she’d conspired with Liberio, all she had to do was keep her mouth shut. Star wouldn’t hurt her. Iridescia was the only family Aunt Star had, and Iridescia’s dreams were obviously valuable to her.
Iridescia summoned all the courage she could and tiptoed to the high chair they’d intended for her.
“We’ve all been afraid at one time or another, Iridescia,” Star continued. “When I first came to Ipsis, I was only a young thing, younger even than you. I felt so alone then, with no one to talk to but my sister.” Then: “For people like us, dear Iridescia, there’s no such thing as ordinary dreams.”
The already dim, flickering light seemed to flare bright with Star’s words, matching the surprise that bloomed in Iridescia’s chest. She’d never heard her aunt suggest that she’d ever been weak before, nor that she’d come from somewhere else. If Aunt Star wasn’t from here, Iridescia wasn’t either.
“You’re not from here?” Without wanting to, Iridescia was drawn to Star’s star-shaped scar, cut into her cheek.
Star’s smile was uncharacteristically warm. On someone else’s face it would have been friendly, but on her it was eerie. “No, child. I’m from somewhere far, far away, where the wilderness still rules, and Adonen’s good news is only seldom heard.”
Iridescia shivered. “Why am I here?”
“Tell me about your dreams, Iridescia.” Star flicked her fingers at Tobi. “You already have your reward.”
Iridescia stared across the table at Star. “I dreamed of a woman called Tayri,” she said. “She was pregnant, and she lived in my tower only you bricked it up when she tried to escape.”
Star’s expression darkened. “She never would have survived the world outside the palace. She was a stupid, broken thing.” Star looked pointedly at Deghashi. “Don’t leave her waiting,” she said to Hadrianus. “Our poor king is a busy man, and he doesn’t have time to waste listening to my niece gossip.”
The room was so quiet. Star’s words echoed in the cramped space. And dark, it was so dark. A shoe scuffed the stone floor, and Iridescia twisted in her chair, look at Tobi.
Someone snapped their fingers and Iridescia jumped.
“Do you listen to Adonen, Iridescia?” Hadrianus smiled through his question, as though he were asking her what she thought of the weather lately.
Iridescia took a moment to think, but then nodded, her attention flickering between Star and Hadrianus. “Of course.”
“It’s just that you’ve been missed at His temples of late, for His service. I hear you go there to read often enough, but what use would a girl like you have for reading, hmm?” Star’s dark eyes, sunken in her haggard face, seemed to pierce Iridescia’s skin. “What do you read, Iridescia?”
“Scripture.” Iridescia swallowed, rigid on her chair. It was true, after all. “I like the temples. They’re good to me. They understand me; I can talk to them.”
“I think she’d like to be a priestess.” Star sounded amused. “What did you read in your scriptures? And don’t lie to me, child. I’ll know if you lie. You aren’t the only one of us with magic.”
Iridescia swallowed. She wasn’t sure if she did have magic. She hadn’t heard the voices in the Haven in what felt like ages, and no matter what Star said, Iridescia’s dreams since she’d lived inside Tayri’s memory hadn’t been special at all.
Hadrianus smirked at Star’s faulty explanation of what Iridescia had said. “There are no more priestesses, not in Indas.”
“I didn’t say that!” Iridescia clutched her knees to repress her anger. Star was just trying to make her mad, to show that she could, to show she had control over everything Iridescia said and did.
“Don’t lie, child,” Star repeated. “My spies are everywhere. You think I’m fool enough not to have people in the temples?”
“I’m not lying. It was scripture.”
The angles of Star’s bony face seemed to grow sharper, as though her cruelty lived in her sinews. “She’s still lying.”
“Has Liberio ever told you why he was punished, child?” Hadrianus’s face was stone.
The blood drained from Iridescia’s cheeks. Hadrianus and Star kept shifting the subject around—it was like trying to steady herself inside a skiff over rough waters. In answer to Hadrianus’s question, she shook her head, too frightened to sign.
Hadrianus leaned back in his chair, folding his arms behind his head like a cushion. “Lying. He liked to lie, my son. He’d sneak about like a savage, cursing me and then lying about it. He deserved to be punished, to be taught what it means to respect one’s king.” Hadrianus laughed. “Forgive the slip, Iridescia. I meant no offence to our beloved Deghashi. There is no family more in debt to Qorelibas than mine. Without his rebellion, I would never have found these shores, and they are so very welcoming. Deghashi is the true king in Indas.”
“Though perhaps the last,” added Star. “His ability to produce an heir is somewhat doubtful.”
Iridescia swallowed. Her eyes felt big as full moons. Surely Hadrianus could see that she was just as bad a liar as Liberio. What she wanted to say was that Deghashi wasn’t a king at all, that the last king of Indas had died screaming as he was dragged through the streets, but she knew better, even if she had been bold enough to speak the words every Indat held close to her heart. If any man could claim the throne of the Inda princes it was King Eshmunen in distant Qemassen.
Hadrianus yawned. “My son lied. He often lies. You know he sent someone to Lorar? He’d create chaos out of my order. What kind of gratitude is that?”
Iridescia’s chest tightened. She was sure Star would see the change in her, the tension all over her body. She knew all about the Qarnaaman Liberio had hired and sent to Lorar. How did they know she knew? Or did they only assume? There’d been no one in the Haven with her and Roewyn when Liberio had told them what he’d done. Miqipsi hadn’t even arrived yet.
Unless the shadows talked to Star the way they did to Iridescia.
Star, who almost blended into the shadows but for the light hitting her eyes, adjusted her tight linen dress. “All we want to know, Iridescia, is whom he sent and why. What purpose could he have for doing such a thing? Nothing you could be involved with, we’re certain, but nonetheless, there may be something you can tell us.” Then: “What did Buqqus’s writings have to say about your dreams? What about them made you think to look for the scrolls you did?”
Iridescia sucked her lip. She shouldn’t hesitate. Hesitation would make it obvious she was withholding something. “No. Liberio doesn’t tell me things like that. He just teases me.”
The door behind her groaned open.
Hadrianus clapped his hands, and Iridescia turned to see Miqipsi walking in with his scribe’s palette at the ready. A pair of guards flanked him. Miqipsi frowned at her, standing aside as the guards walked past him toward Tobi. The scribe must be there to record whatever Iridescia said.
She clenched her teeth. He’d given up Tobi’s family and who knew how many others. He was a traitor, even if he had done it for Iridescia and Liberio.
Tears sprang to her eyes. It was too hard to hate him.
Tobi looked up as the guards approached.
One of the guards raised his hand.
Iridescia flinched away just in time not to see the slap. She heard it though, and the agonized, uncomprehending wail that followed. She clamped her hands over her ears, half-tumbling from her chair as she dashed left, pressing herself as far up against the wall as she could.
“Do you know anything Iridescia?” Hadrianus asked again. “You’re a good girl, we know you’re a good girl. A kind girl. Did my son tell you what the message was? Did he mention who he sent?”
Iridescia shook her head, finally opening her eyes. The soldier slapped Tobi again. He collapsed in a heap, blood dripping over his lower lip.
“My intended is a fool of a boy, but we assure you nothing will happen to him should you tell us.” Star gestured to the soldiers, and they lifted Tobi up by his shoulders, dragging him toward the table. One of the men laid Tobi’s arm out straight on the table, holding him as he wriggled.
“His left arm,” Star chided. “He still needs to tend to my niece’s things.”
No no no. Iridescia shook her head, her braids whipping in front of her face.
The soldiers stretched out Tobi’s other arm.
Miqipsi looked away.
“What has my son done?” asked Hadrianus.
The soldier lifted a small knife above Tobi’s left thumb.
Iridescia dug her nails into the palm of her right hand. She wouldn’t betray Liberio, she wouldn’t, no matter what. They’d hurt him, she knew it. Worse than they’d hurt Tobi, and they’d hurt anyone Liberio was trying to help. They’re hurt Roewyn.
Iridescia shook her head, no. She pinched her eyes shut as tight as she could, balled her hands into fists.
It wasn’t his fault. He was just a boy and he had nothing to do with anything and it wasn’t fair, just like the slaughter in the throne room hadn’t been fair.
In Iridescia’s memory, blood lapped against the stone at the base of the steps. She couldn’t shut it out like she could what was happening right now. The image was there forever.
“Another,” Star said flatly. “One for every minute she chooses not to talk.”
They’d made it her fault, the way Miqipsi had made it her fault all those people had died. Iridescia had done exactly what Star wanted when she’d accepted Tobi’s life for her knowledge. Now he’d always be a captive. They could make Iridescia do whatever they wanted.
Tobi cried for his mother.
Tears poured down Iridescia’s cheeks.
She jerked to her feet before the soldiers could cut anymore fingers off. She waved her hands to stop them, the knife already pressed close enough to his finger to draw blood. Think fast, she had to think fast. “A killer. He sent a killer. He wanted to surprise you―he wanted to kill a senator so you would have more power in Lorar. It was stupid. I told him it was stupid. He wanted to make you love him.” And then: “I read about Buqqus in Tintellan. And the priest who brought his daughter back from the dead.”
The truth. She’d given them the truth, or some of it. It shouldn’t reflect badly on Liberio.
Hadrianus grew pensive as Star translated. He raised his fingers to stop the soldiers, who backed away. “Miqipsi, send for a doctor to see to Iridescia’s slave.”
Miqipsi bowed. “Yes, Sese.” The door thudded behind her as Miqipsi left.
Iridescia slumped her shoulders, breathing heavily as the soldiers loosened their grip on Tobi.
Tobi whimpered, staring at his missing thumb, at the blood that had spurted all over the table and onto the floor. Iridescia couldn’t look.
“Thank you, child.” Star inclined her neck to Iridescia. “We may call on you again. You’ve been most helpful.”
Should she dare ask? “Liberio―he won’t be hurt, will he? He didn’t mean anything bad.”
Star shook her head, smiling. “No, child. How could I harm my love? One day he will be a king of Indas, after all. It is not my place.”
Iridescia was led out of the room shortly after, still shaking from the ordeal. Miqipsi passed her on his return journey, and he stopped to help her back to her room, sending the physician on ahead of him to see after Tobi.
She’d forgotten that Miqipsi was listening too, that he worked for Marianus as a spy. Would he hurt Liberio, or tell Marianus what Liberio had done? She wanted to plead with him not to, but she was afraid he’d do something worse if he knew she knew.
He must have sensed her worry, because he took her hand and squeezed. “It’s all right, little thing,” he whispered to her. “One day the gods will return to Indas, and everything will be as it was, and Star and all the poisonous ones will be gone, and a true king of Indas will return.”
He dared speak of gods? Even Iridescia didn’t feel safe talking of gods in the palace. But he seemed unconcerned, though he’d learned his master might be dead.
She squeezed Miqipsi’s hand, glad he was there, even if he was a liar and a traitor. She hoped he was right, that the gods would return. After tonight, she needed to believe in something.