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Chapter 9: Family
Kirin – Lorar: Marianus’s Domus
In Kirin’s city, rain was a terrible thing.
Fat round raindrops drummed on the heads of the dead men in the peristyle. The bodies of Marianus’s former slaves lined the courtyard in rows of ten, buried up to their necks in soil far richer than the alluvial plains of the great city of Lorar should allow.
It had been a week since Marianus had buried over half his household alive in recompense for Oran and Delos’s plot to poison him, and only a day since the last of them—Ibby, the cook—had expired. A week in a city known for its flooding, with not a drop of water to quench the thirst of those suffering.
Now their rotting, bloating bodies swam in a sea of silty mud. Marianus had summoned the survivors here, rain be damned. They stood in an awkward, overlong silence, protected from the ill weather by the rafters above.
Pit-pikt, pikt-pit on the heads of the dead slaves. Pit-pikt, pikt-pit against the roof: a vile music, but Kirin found himself tapping his hand against his thigh in time with its rhythm.
Irina glared at him from her spot further down the line of people Marianus had summoned. He could read her thoughts in her eyes: it was Kirin’s purge as much as Marianus’s. Kirin was the one who’d uncovered Oran and Delos’s plot. Kirin was the one who’d damned the household. She was angry, but at least she was alive. Edra, Ibby, even the monster Delos—none of them could say as much.
But maybe, Irina wasn’t entirely wrong.
Ydelka, standing at attention to Marianus’s left, cleared her throat. “Heron. It smells.”
It did smell, but Kirin had barely noticed, and the stink was much less pungent than it’d been before the rain.
Marianus coughed, then sucked back a great lungful of air as though the breeze were fresh and the garden filled with the herbs and flowers he’d ripped up to make room for the slaves.
He turned to Kirin and grinned, grandfatherly good humour crinkling the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. “She has the delicate nose of a woman, eh Kirin? Us bloodhounds are used to harsher stuff.”
Kirin felt himself grin, all teeth, but there was horror, not commiseration, behind the smile.
Marianus’s own smile faded. He turned away, staring at the rows of heads. His expression hardened. “You feel sorry for them? Those—those killers?”
Was he speaking to Kirin or Ydelka? Either way, Kirin remained silent. He knew by now that Marianus didn’t want an honest answer.
Beside Ydelka, Irina began to sob. Kirin felt like his ribs were cracking inwards. Irina hadn’t so much as spoken with him since she’d learned that Ibby and Edra had been taken for punishment. He’d never touch her again, not even to comfort her.
He wanted to comfort her.
Marianus’s face was flushed. “I let them into my home. I let him into my home. Those Yellowers chitter in the senate that I’m ungenerous, that I don’t care for the man on the street. If that were true, I wouldn’t be standing here now, betrayed by my own slaves. Rats. All of them, rats. And it was a rat who put that Oran here. We Redders try to be civil,” he cocked his head in Kirin’s direction, as though in conversation, “to extend our hands in friendship and respect. But men’s true natures always show in the end.”
Water from the eaves was flooding the tiles around Kirin’s feet—too much for the drains to handle. Kirin shuffled back, but the deluge followed, lapping at his boots. Marianus’s sandals were soaked, but he didn’t seem to care.
The senator clapped his hand round Kirin’s shoulder, rubbing at first, then squeezing a fraction too tightly.
Kirin stilled, letting the puddle rush over his boots.
“You’re a good man, Kirin. I count myself lucky I chose you along with him. I might not have, but I did.” He released Kirin’s shoulder to tap his temple. “The instinct always kicks in. Even then, I knew. The senate needs me and my instinct. Without me, Lorar is lost. I’ve been too easy on them—the rats.” He glanced sidelong at Kirin. “Time to flush them from their nests.”
The dark look in Marianus’s eyes had a frightening edge to it.
Kirin focused instead on the bodies in the peristyle. As the waters rose, the corpses had turned to stones draped with riverweed. The scraps of their crow-picked skin were like spreading vines.
He fixed his attention on Delos. He didn’t feel guilty about Delos.
“Do you think Yellow Faction hired Oran?” asked Ydelka.
“I think Yakovius Lutelian hired Oran,” Marianus snapped. “And I don’t think, I know. Haven’t you been listening? Damned lucky, bitch, that your killer of a lover slapped that pie from your grasping hands, or you’d be dead as the rest. You probably still should be—who knows what lies he whispered in your ears? Whatever they say about me, I’m a generous man.” He hacked a laugh.
Ydelka stared at the ground, eyes glazed. She’d been able to talk to the senator like that before, but no longer. She wasn’t the favourite anymore.
And she was lucky. Lucky that Marianus had fled the room before Ydelka had distracted Kirin and allowed Oran to escape. Kirin swallowed, glad Marianus hadn’t been there to see it.
Marianus turned on his heels, sandals slapping the small lake that had formed on the tiles framing the former garden. “Back to your duties,” he snapped.
Kirin and Ydelka started after him, but Marianus waved them away. “Not you. Kaenus, attend me.”
One of the burlier slaves fell into step behind Marianus, and Kirin and Ydelka were left standing in the peristyle as the rest skittered away to their respective corners of the building. Kirin watched Irina’s back, hoping she’d turn to smile at him, or even glare again, but she didn’t. Her hands were balled into fists.
“Kirin.” Ydelka snapped her fingers, drawing his attention. “This wasn’t your fault.”
Kirin grit his teeth, annoyed, even though he’d been thinking that exact thing since the day Marianus had rounded up the supposed conspirators. But what choice had he had? If he hadn’t warned Marianus about the poison, the senator would be dead. Kirin shrugged at Ydelka, affecting disinterest. “If I hadn’t uncovered Oran’s plot, we’d all have been judged guilty and killed anyhow.”
Which was true, so why did he still feel like shit?
Ydelka pursed her lips. “Let’s go for a drink. Marianus doesn’t need us, and it’ll take more than wine to wash the image of those bodies away.”
Those bodies. Ibby and Edra, so many others. It was like seeing Thanus the Thumper and Petro dead in the sand at Oran’s feet. Oran’s feet, not Kirin’s. This was Oran’s doing.
The roads on the way to the city centre streamed deep as shallow rivers, and on every street, men piled sandbags and tossed buckets of water from their homes. The flooding was worse the farther they walked from the wealthy districts. Out here, the sewers had been in bad need of repair for years.
What had the Lorai done to warrant such displeasure?
Outside the curia, the forum was nearly deserted. Most of the tents belonging to the refugees had vanished.
Kirin pointed at the modest huddle of shelters that remained. “Where did they go?”
Ydelka whistled. “Didn’t you hear? Marianus bought over half of them as slaves. Irina told me about it this morning. He’ll take some into his household, and the rest he’s shipping south.” She scoffed darkly. “At least they’ll escape the rain.”
Kirin frowned. “South to Venius?” Surely Marianus could sell the slaves locally? Unless there was a surplus. There’d been an awful lot of Feislander captives being carted inside lately, more than enough to meet the city’s needs.
“No idea. Could be Venius, could be Suflan.” Ydelka narrowly avoided a deep puddle at the centre of a dip in the road, darting round it. “I heard it from Irina.”
Kirin splashed right through. There was little point protecting his feet from the damp when his boots were already soaked. “Irina won’t speak with me.”
They turned down a side street, keeping to the raised portion of the cobbles.
“Give her time.” Ydelka looped her arm in Kirin’s, her shoulder brushing his skin. “It stings to be betrayed, even if she only thinks you betrayed her.”
Not like Oran. Oran had used Ydelka to get close to Marianus, and then he’d used her again to escape. Ydelka was a kind person—good and loyal. She deserved better than that.
Kirin sighed. “It is what it is. I’m not sure I could look at her and not see those faces in the mud.” Why had he said that? He tried to free his arm, embarrassed by his candor and the weakness it suggested.
Ydelka held him for a moment, but then released him. “I miss the sun.” She wrang the water from one of her drenched braids. “At Marianus’s villa, in the summer, I’d sneak away to daydream in the fields. If the rains keep up, we may not get a summer.”
Kirin stiffened. “War is coming. Maybe it’s the gods’ way of prefacing the battles to come.”
Ydelka gave her second braid a tight squeeze. “Then we must be going to lose.”
“Marianus has a plan. We’ve got the Indasi for allies. Hadrianus and Luciferus will hem in the Masseni, and once Kemassen has fallen, we’ll sweep over ek-Anout and maybe farther south than that. We can’t lose.”
“The Indasi aren’t our allies, they’re our prisoners. You can’t trust a prisoner to remain honest if he sees a chance of escape.”
Was she thinking of Oran again as she said it? Or was that Kirin’s imagination? But Oran had never been a prisoner—Ydelka had. Oran had been toying with all of them, and only Kirin had seen through it.
“We have the succession in our hands. Hadrianus will come when called.” Yakovius’s words from weeks ago came back to him. Yakovius thought the Indasi governors would try to seize power for themselves. He’d also said that Marianus was counting on just such a move.
The rain pelted harder suddenly, and Ydelka screeched. She grabbed Kirin’s hand and tugged him beneath the lintel of one of the houses lining the street.
He’d thought she’d let go of him once they were out of the rain, but she stroked his hand as they watched the gods pummel the street.
“If Lorar loses,” said Ydelka, speaking louder to be heard over the racket, “the Masseni won’t ignore their chance. They’ll raid the coast and march inland, and the city will be done for. If Lorar falls, Marianus will fall with it. What would you do?”
What did she want him to say? Protecting Marianus and his city was Kirin’s duty. “I’ll defend him. I’ll defend Lorar with everything I have. The Masseni are cowards; if we stand up to them they’ll run back to their desert burrows like rats fleeing fire.”
Ydelka slipped her fingers from his.
“What did you expect me to say?” Kirin asked.
“That, I suppose. You’re married to this city, aren’t you?”
Kirin rubbed his hands together for warmth. “It’s my home, Ydelka.”
Ydelka searched his eyes. “But you could have another. Where is it written that you have to die along with Lorar? You could come west with me, to Orentis or Trionja—or even north to Aeshcommaeni territory. We’re strong and useful and we could survive.”
Kirin swallowed. He didn’t want to think about Lorar losing, or the city falling. Not so long ago, Ydelka had made it sound like Lorar was her home too. Had Oran’s betrayal changed her mind? Or was it Marianus’s cruelty?
And there it was: the traitor thought. Marianus couldn’t be cruel, because if he was, then what else had Kirin been wrong about? Cruelty implied an excess where cool justice was needed.
Senator Marianus Rufus was a just man.
Kirin leaned back against the door. “We’ll win anyway, so why trouble yourself? And why does it matter to you where I go? I thought you didn’t like me.”
“Oh, Kirin. You’re an idiot.” She punched his arm. “I do like you.” She paused. “And I want to leave. I hate this place so much sometimes, especially on dark days like this one.” She leaned her head back against the door, closing her eyes as though breathing in a distant summer air.
“Why are you still here?” He didn’t want her to go. Without Irina, Kirin was friendless. If Ydelka liked him, he’d welcome her company.
“I need money. I want to buy land one day, somewhere with fields of wildflowers and tall grasses as big as a person.” Her smile transformed her whole face, and she relaxed, looking at Kirin again with her foreign eyes.
It was impossible not to smile back as he imagined a sunlight so bright it turned the tips of the grass yellow, and a forest with trees so tall and straight they stood like spears pointed at the sky. A woman’s blue dress folded beneath her as she crouched to search for berries. “What will you eat?”
Ydelka grinned. She took Kirin’s arm again. “Bread and grain and venison from the woods nearby, and my children will catch fish in the streams and my husband will tend a flock of sheep or sow the earth with seed.” She paused. “And I wouldn’t have to kill anymore.”
In his imagination—or was it memory?—the women in the glade searching for berries screamed, and his mother plucked him from the grass.
Kirin swallowed, feeling the prick of Oran’s sword as he sliced Kirin’s swaddling from his skirt. “We were born to kill.”
Ydelka squeezed his hand. “We were born to live, nothing else. The rest is for us to decide.”
That was fine for Ydelka to say. She wasn’t a slave like Kirin. She was free. “Killing is what I’m good at. It’s what I was taught to do.” It was how Kirin had achieved glory in the arena. It was why Marianus had raised him up. It was what had made Oran run in fear.
“Then I feel sorry for you,” said Ydelka, thoughtful. “Or maybe I’m jealous. I wasn’t born for it.”
The rain was slowing. The gods were only spitting now.
The door behind them thudded as someone pushed it open, and they leaped back onto the road, startled.
He laughed and Ydelka laughed with him. She didn’t pull away from him like she would have when Oran was around. Instead, she held his hand tighter, leading him down the narrow road toward one of the inns.
“Do you think Marianus is right about Yakovius?” Ydelka asked.
The question startled him. “I—I don’t know.” But he did know. Not because he’d heard it somewhere, or because he had proof, but because he felt it instinctively. Yakovius wasn’t that kind of man. He was a man of honour.
“No,” Kirin said, confident this time. “Someone else hired him.”
Ydelka frowned. “I thought so too.” Her lip quivered. “Fuck him.”
“Oran.” Ydelka tensed as they approached the inn. Had she told Oran about her dream—about her fields and her children and her husband? Had she privileged him with the story of her lost homeland—the story she’d told Kirin from the rooftop as they tossed stones onto the street?
Before Marianus had plucked Kirin from the rubbish heap, Kirin had dreamed of his own freedom. A small plot of land, away from the city and its troubles . . . was it so ridiculous to want such a thing? Could Kirin be satisfied wielding a scythe and not a gladius?
He squeezed Ydelka’s hand. Her skin was callused and firm, harder than Irina’s. She understood that what had happened to Ibby and Edra hadn’t been Kirin’s fault. She understood duty and honour.
She twisted round as they reached the threshold of the inn. “I want to feel alive, Kirin. Do you?”
Kirin had wanted Ydelka as soon as he’d set eyes on her in Marianus’s litter. Back then, he wouldn’t have hesitated, but whether or not she understood him, Irina was still a sore wound in his belly.
Just like Oran in Ydelka’s.
And maybe they were each other’s way of tending their injuries.
He nodded, smiled. Ydelka was beautiful with her bow of a mouth, her black hair that shone with water, her chestnut eyes.
Ydelka grinned and tossed the server a coin. “A room, for the afternoon.” She smirked at him. “Come on.”
She led him through a small door and up a narrow staircase that led to the second floor. A number of small rooms with beds built into the stone stood to either side of the cramped hallway, and Ydelka pulled him inside the one at the end.
Kirin shut the door behind them and Ydelka released his hand, her soft fingers creeping up his wet tunic like spiders after prey.
Kirin slipped his hands around her waist, and the feel of her skin was enough to chase away the image of the bodies rotting in the peristyle. “Are you sure you’d want me joining you in the west? I might taint your fields and flowers.”
Ydelka giggled, hooking the fingers of one hand in the collar of Kirin’s tunic. “I’ll decide for myself how tainted you are.”
Kirin risked sliding a hand behind her back, tracing the hollow of her spine through her clothes, the firm muscles of her back. “A killer could protect you.”
“I don’t need protecting.”
She didn’t. There was some comfort in that.
Ydelka reached to pull Kirin’s tunic over his head, and he lifted his arms to help her. The fabric stuck to his skin, just as her clothes clutched tightly to her curves.
She tossed his tunic aside, her gaze roving his chest. She pressed two fingers to one of the many scars that crisscrossed his torso and traced its trajectory.
Kirin undid the belt at her waist, then peeled her soaked tunic from her shoulders. Her body was taut from training, muscles hard as a man’s. He cupped one of her small breasts, then bent to kiss it.
She moaned and stroked his cock, and they fumbled their way toward the simple bed.
“You wouldn’t make a poor companion,” said Ydelka. “I meant what I said about liking you. I can think you’re a fool and still like you.”
They fell onto the cot and Ydelka wrapped her arms about Kirin’s neck as he held himself above her.
“Are you offering to make me your husband?” he asked. “Or do you want me with you as a slave?”
Ydelka laughed. “Whichever.” Her voice was a low purr, and Kirin kissed her lightly on her lips. The little room was windowless, and only a sliver of light shone inside from beneath the door. The reflection in Ydelka’s eyes was almost the only thing Kirin could see at all. “Sometimes I like to think someone’s watching over me; why not let it be you?”
Kirin sunk easily into comfort and lust, and when they were done and he’d surrendered himself to slumber, he dreamed of fields and flowers and grasses as tall as a person, and his sons and daughters fishing by a riverbank and a sweet wife toiling at home as he made his way back from the forest with venison to eat.