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Chapter 9: Family
Iridescia – The Palace Residences: Ipsis: Indas
The last time Iridescia had tried to steal something, she’d been five years old. Miqipsi had caught her right away, plucking her hand from the satchel where he kept his sweetmeats. The look of disappointment and anger in his eyes had frightened her from ever trying again.
Until tonight. And tonight wasn’t the same at all: stealing from Star to pay for Tobi’s passage from Ipsis was good. Star and Hadrianus wouldn’t flinch at hurting Tobi, so the only thing to do was to be like Roewyn and Liberio and help him escape the city.
She hefted the sack she’d already filled to the brim with expensive items from Star’s collection: perfumes, fabrics, and small ornaments—whatever she’d been able to grab quickly and quietly.
Iridescia tiptoed toward a chest in the far corner of the room. The objects stuffed inside the sack clattered and she shrank inwards, as though by making herself smaller she’d be undetectable to any guards who happened by. When no one burst inside, Iridescia relaxed and set the sack on the floor.
Star was at the docks with Hadrianus, inspecting her newly-crafted wedding barge—if Iridescia was careful, she’d have time to look around for both coin and answers. After Star’s interrogation, Iridescia was certain Star must have access to documents about the shadows, and where else to keep them but in her rooms?
The chest in the corner gleamed as firelight glanced off the gold inlay that rimmed its edges. It was exactly the sort of chest that held secrets.
Upon reaching it, Iridescia stroked her hands along its edges. Unknowable words in the ancient Sand Tongue decorated its surface, and on the front was a relief of a vast, high-ceilinged room with a statue at its centre. The room was ringed with geometric shapes that might have been windows, each with a stylized face inside. There was a keyhole on the front of the chest, right in the middle of the statue’s back.
She maneuvered herself to the side of the chest that was against the wall and pushed. The chest scraped the stone floor, but at least now she had a view of the side. A name was gouged into the metal in a lower corner: Omid eq-Gethras, heq-Ashqen of
Molot Adonen, heq-Ashqen of Tintellan. “Molot” had been scratched out.
Omid eq-Gethras. Iridescia had read that name before, in Buqqus’s letters. He was the heq-Ashqen who’d tried to bring his daughter back to life, only to be executed at Buqqus’s orders. Omid the necromancer.
Searching the tables and drawers nearby didn’t turn up the key. Iridescia bit her lip. Once Star figured out someone had been in her room, she’d post guards. Iridescia wouldn’t be able to come back. If she wanted to know what was inside, she had to open the chest now, and she had to do it quickly enough that she still had time to get Tobi away from the palace. Her plan had been to hide him on Mount Nuna until she could buy him passage in a caravan heading south, but leading Tobi to the hills and explaining to him what he had to do could easily take longer than she’d planned.
The choice was clear: the chest, or Tobi. Answers, or Tobi.
A way to use the shadows to remove Star and Hadrianus, or Tobi.
Tobi’s scream as they severed his finger echoed in her heart. She forced herself back to the sack. If she didn’t save Tobi, what was the point in anything she was doing? To Star and Hadrianus, Tobi was just a thing they could sacrifice to get what they wanted. If Iridescia used all her time examining the chest, she’d be like them. Iridescia would never be like them.
And anyway—she hauled the sack up over her shoulder—maybe all Aunt Star kept inside the chest were jewels. The contents might not be important at all.
Footsteps thudded outside the room.
Iridescia froze, clinging to the rough cloth of the sack, willing it not to rattle, hoping the footsteps belonged to a slave or a courtier out for a stroll.
The footsteps—there was more than one set.
She darted for the bed, looking for somewhere to hide. The sack bounced against her back, its contents shaking like an earthquake.
“Take her quietly if you can,” said Star from outside the room. She sounded close.
Iridescia dropped the sack immediately. Bottles and tiny statues rolled across the stone floor in an avalanche of sound. Panicked, she searched for another exit, but the only door was the one in front of her, and aside from the bed, there was nothing to hide in.
The steps were drawing nearer, growing louder. Iridescia shut her eyes, breathing heavily. Surely they could hear her through the doorway; her heart was thumping so fast.
The knock came swift and hard. Iridescia was so filled with fear that she couldn’t move.
“Go!” Star was wroth. “I said take her quickly.”
The door opened.
When she looked up, she was staring directly into Star’s eyes. Two guardsmen with Lora armour and Inda spears flanked her. The men were far too big and mean for Iridescia to pose any threat to them.
“She’s mute,” said Star. “She can’t scream.”
Iridescia frowned, frightened.
She must be brave.
She pushed past them and darted into the hall. But one of the men grabbed her by the collar of her dress and then she was being lifted up, up, up into the air. She flailed, smacking him in the jaw, her dress’s collar digging into her neck so hard her skin felt like it was breaking.
The guard reached for her throat.
Iridescia bit his hand. She fell.
Her head struck his boot and blood filled her mouth. The taste mingled with the sweat and salt from the soldier’s hand.
Quick, she leaped up, twisting her wrist as she heaved herself to her feet. She scampered down the hallway, banging her fists against every door. Someone had to hear her. Someone would be kind and cunning and rescue her.
She rounded a bend, heard a door behind her swiftly open and then bang shut.
No one was coming. No one would help.
The armour of the guards rattled behind her, their swords clinking against their sides, their heavy boots clunking.
She would have to be smart and fast and tricky, because when Hadrianus’s dogs were set on you, you disappeared. The guards knew the palace almost as well as Iridescia—almost. There were slaves’ passages she’d played in as a child, hidden routes that created a network between the rooms of the palace. Hardly anyone noticed them, and if she were careful, she could use them to sneak downstairs and outside.
Iridescia swerved left, abandoning the narrow corridor for the throne room. The room was barren of furniture besides the thrones themselves; there was nothing Iridescia could throw or drag into the way of her pursuers. She fled past the tapered basin of the floor where Hadrianus’s thugs had murdered the nobles and burst through one of the slaves’ doors and into a narrow passage.
Through another door and she nearly tumbled down a set of steep stairs. In the distance, from below, she could hear the unmistakable trickle of water.
The water room.
As a child, she’d played there: a hall built to mimic the river Waoidat, perpetually flooded, its ceiling supported by a field of papyrus-shaped pillars. There were walkways inside that let out into the palace gardens.
Iridescia jumped down the stairs two—then four—at a time. The shock of her ankles hitting the stone shot up her legs, and one of the beautiful scarves Roewyn had made for her flew free and was lost on the ground.
The guards slowed as they chased her down the stairs, their heavy armour making them clumsy, their bodies too bulky for the narrow world of the slaves.
Real Inda warriors would have caught her already.
Another turn. Two.
The water room spread out like a vast azure cave ahead of her. Its vaulted ceiling glinted at the light from the torches built into the walls, its floor reflecting the same blue that covered everything else.
Iridescia skidded in the shallow water that covered the floor in the hall. Marble paths had been made to facilitate movement in the water room, but she ignored those, splashing her way toward the nearest exit, charging at a diagonal, and praying to Adonen or whichever pagan god would listen that the guards would slip and fall. She darted back and forth between the stone papyrus trees, hoping the pillars would obscure her from view. But she couldn’t stop the rings of water that radiated from her footsteps.
Behind her, the guards cursed.
Where was she running? There were so many places she could try, so many holes and corners and alleys where she might hide. Wherever she chose wouldn’t last her long. Star had spies everywhere, and even a kindly face would turn Iridescia over in an instant if Star came calling.
She had moments to think, seconds to decide.
Light was spilling across the surface of the water from outside.
There was Roewyn, but Iridescia knew Roewyn would help and she also knew it would get Roewyn killed. Liberio was no better, and Star would suspect him immediately.
Fresh air, fresh air, fresh air! The moon hung suspended in the sky, fat and round, framed by the curve of a doorway leading to the palace grounds. The water outside glistened with fresh rainfall, but the clouds had disappeared.
Iridescia skidded to a halt and risked a look behind her.
“I can see her! She’s headed for the southwest entrance.”
There was one place she could go, one place where she might lose Star. Iridescia knew Mount Nuna better than anyone in the city, and some of its paths were deadly during the day, let alone on a night like this one. The mud would still be slippery from the rains. After that, Iridescia could double back and return to Ipsis, sneak aboard a ship or disguise herself and join a caravan like she’d planned for Tobi.
The night sky was clear and filled with stars. It was beautiful, but Iridescia didn’t need beauty now, she needed darkness and storm clouds and a sword.
She kept to the shadows, skittering away as fast as she could under pillars and round walls and past trees and far from anyone she saw strolling through the garden that led to the street. She’d lost sight of the guards, couldn’t hear them. Part of her wanted to hide in wait, needed to see where they came out and the direction they ran, but that would get her caught. The roads were nearly deserted, and if she made a sound, they were sure to spot her.
So instead, she headed for Mount Nuna. Her muscles and throat burned, but it was still a long way up the mountain. She had to keep moving.
No one stopped Iridescia as she fled to the hills, not even a Yirada officer who she passed, and who eyed her curiously. Star must not have told anyone she was coming after Iridescia. Why?
Her thoughts tumbled over each other all the way up Mount Nuna. Every time her sandals slipped in the mud, it was like her mind slipped with them, rolling over itself, trying to settle on what had happened. At first, she’d thought Star had simply caught her stealing, but they’d been talking about “her” before Star had even opened the door. She’d known Iridescia was inside. They’d been watching her. What else had they seen?
She’d visited Roewyn yesterday. She’d been trying to open a chest that had belonged to Omid eq-Gethras.
Omid the necromancer.
Iridescia stopped for a deep breath as she neared the courthouse on the hill. A survey of the ground below revealed no one—no Star, no guards, no Yirada. But maybe Star was trying to draw her out or coax her back down.
No going back.
The courthouse loomed above her, deep in shadow, its fires quenched. She’d be sheltered there, but it was also the most obvious place for Star to look. The Haven was obvious too, but it was also where the shadows lived. The shadows had promised they would help her.
And what then? Iridescia turned around and looked sadly out at her city. What if this were the last time she ever saw Ipsis?
Iridescia squinted. Were those lights below? They bobbed on their way up the base of the mountain, navigating the path Iridescia had taken. She bit her lip, forcing herself to stop looking and keep walking. It may well be the last time she saw Ipsis from up here, but if she didn’t focus then it would be the last time she saw any city at all.
She rubbed her bare arms, wishing she’d grabbed something warmer, missing her scarf. At least there were trees at the Haven. Maybe she could make a nest out of leaves.
She walked quickly, trying to be quiet, trying not to think about what they’d do to her if they caught her.
As her feet touched the dirt path that led into the glade around the pool, warmth spread over her. There were voices echoing off the hillside behind her, but they seemed suddenly distant and unimportant. The Haven was a safe place, just as its name had always suggested.
The Haven was home, and Star’s men were trespassing.
The wind rustled the leaves around the pool as Iridescia pushed past the last of the trees that obscured the path. She gazed up at their branches as she always did, feeling an unexpected zing in the air, as though a storm were coming.
“Hello?” Iridescia signed to the shadows in the dark, wondering if it mattered that there was no light, wondering if they could see her.
Why didn’t the shadows speak to her? What had changed, and what did they want? “Please,” she signed. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’m sorry I brought Liberio here. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I need you to talk to me. I need you now. Star’s coming and she’s going to take me away and then I won’t be able to come see you anymore and you’ll be all alone. You’ll be all alone forever.”
“Who are you talking to?” There was the hint of a smile in Star’s voice.
Iridescia turned around.
Star stood just inside the glade, barely visible but for the moonlight hitting her light linen dress. Torches glowed from a distance, but the guards weren’t with her. How had Star managed to get here? She hadn’t been running when Iridescia had seen her.
Iridescia backed up and started parting the branches of the trees, panicked.
“I wouldn’t run, Iridescia, I only came to talk. The further you run, the more you upset me. I don’t think you want to upset me.” She walked toward Iridescia. “I can’t see you from over there, child, you’ll have to come closer.”
Iridescia let her hands fall from the trees, but she stayed where she was for now. Star chirped in irritation and walked farther into the Haven so that the light illuminated her a bit better. She was smiling.
“Who were you talking to?” she repeated calmly.
“No one,” Iridescia signed, and Star must have seen her this time because she laughed. Iridescia didn’t like that laugh; it reminded her of Hadrianus and the way the two of them smiled when they sent men away to be tortured and killed. It was the laugh Liberio must have heard the day they’d condemned him to be put in the tub.
“I doubt that very much. I think you came here looking for help, because we’re not truly alone here, are we Iridescia?”
“There’s no one here,” Iridescia insisted stubbornly.
“We both know that isn’t true. Be a good girl and stop lying to me. Did you think I wouldn’t know about the men and women I’d put here? There was one in particular I remember very well.”
Iridescia’s skin prickled. “I don’t care! Go away!”
“I could tell you about Tayri if you like.”
Iridescia clamped her hands over her ears, but she could still hear Star’s croaky, grainy voice. She’d wanted to know the truth about the shadows, about Tayri trapped in her tower, about her mother. She’d wanted to know. Now, she wasn’t sure.
But still, her feet wouldn’t move.
“She was a plain girl,” Star continued. “Young to bear a child, but then some men do enjoy them young. If you’d made more of yourself about the court, you would have learned that soon enough.”
Star stepped carefully around the pool, approaching Iridescia without any trepidation at all. Iridescia should run. Had to run. But she couldn’t, she felt it. The earth whispered it to her through her toes.
The Haven. This was her place. And this knowledge—it was hers to know.
“She would have made a fine queen—a true Inda woman to make a king of Hadrianus.” Star stopped beside Iridescia. She gently tugged Iridescia’s arms away from her ears. “But I couldn’t have that. It was my time, and I’d waited a very long time.”
Iridescia sniffed. Her nose was running. “Who are you?”
“No one. Only a girl brought out of the wilderness by a great man. Only a girl, given to a king. Just a magician of the wilds. You read about my sister and I in the temple scrolls: two children secured by Buqqus and brought to Melqan’s doomed court. Melqan had no interest in us, but Qorelibas . . . .”
The two girls Buqqus had brought with him from Wewandjis. Star and her sister.
“Who was Tayri?” Iridescia’s lip quivered.
“A leftover from Qorelibas’s brood. My niece.” Star shrugged. “A stupid girl with a baby in her belly and a lover anxious to assert his power.”
Iridescia tried to snatch her arm free, but Star dug her talons into Iridescia’s skin.
“So I killed her,” continued Star, “I watched her beg right here in the grass and when I’d had my fill of her tears, I slit her open and let the waters have her.”
It couldn’t be good that Star was telling her all this. It meant she didn’t think she was in any danger.
“Wasn’t her lover angry? What did he do?” Star’s grip made it difficult to sign.
Star’s thin-lipped smile sent a shiver across Iridescia’s skin. “Nothing. As far as he knows, his child died with his whore after a difficult birth.”
“As far as he knows?”
Star snorted. “You’re as slow as your mother.” Her grip on Iridescia’s arm tightened. “Only you’re not slow at all, are you? You’ve spoken with the ghosts. You’ve seen their shadows in the Haven.”
Iridescia shook her head.
“You see them the same way I do, the same way Tayri did. All our family sees the spirits, and all of us can bind them.”
“Yes, your mother, my sister’s daughter. Hadrianus’s bitch.”
Hadrianus was Iridescia’s father. The ruby-haired man with the temper. Iridescia thought of poor Tayri bricked up in her tower. She tried not to let her revulsion distract her. She needed to think. She swallowed. It was too much to ask her to think. “Liberio . . . .”
Iridescia darted a look behind her at the trees. It was so quiet and dark in the spaces between their branches. “Why didn’t you kill me when you killed her?”
Star’s smile was almost sweet. “Because you were a child, and I had time. We can help each other.”
Almost against her will, Iridescia shook her head. “I won’t help you. You’re evil and I hate you!” She held her hand against her mouth, shaking, trying not to be sick.
If Star wanted Iridescia to help her so badly, why was she trying to upset her? She could have lied about Tayri and Hadrianus. She could have made up any story she wanted.
Star’s smile melted. “Then you can die like your brother.”
Liberio was dead?
Iridescia lunged, breaking Star’s hold. Star’s nails raked her skin.
She ran past Star toward the path, but the guards who’d been waiting outside stepped inside the circle, obstructing her.
Iridescia swerved around, crying. Blood slid down her arm where Star had scratched her. She should have gone to Roewyn. Roewyn would have helped. “Please,” she signed. “Please.” If one of these spirits was her mother, surely she would come.
“Do you want to know how Liberio died, Iridescia?” asked Star.
“Please, please. Mother, please!” Iridescia fell to her knees in the mud. She imagined the shadows—the spirits—whispering to her. She imagined a night dark as pitch. She tried to force them into being, but no one came.
“He died screaming and babbling, drowned by his own shit as his body rotted away around him.” Star extended a long finger to point at the pool at the centre of the Haven. “Right here. And this is where you’ll die if you don’t help me.”
When had Liberio been here? Iridescia had seen him only a few hours ago. There’d been no time for Star to kill him.
But no answer came from the shadows in the Haven.
“I won’t.” She didn’t need to know what Star wanted her to do to know it would be terrible.
Star nodded at the guards. The soldiers grabbed Iridescia and hauled her kicking and jerking to her feet.
She whipped her braids back and forth as she bit and kicked at the guards. Her sandals fell to the grass and her bare toes scuffed the ground as she was dragged to the bank.
The pool’s deep water was as still as the moon, and just as perfect a circle. A big black mouth with no bottom.
Star pinched Iridescia’s chin between her fingers and Iridescia snapped at her, her teeth grazing her aunt’s skin. Iridescia winced at the sight of Star’s raised hand before she felt the slap’s sting.
“Hold her under until she stops kicking, then hold her down some more.”