Chapter 02,  Crown of Asmodeus

Crown: Chapter 2: III: Liberio

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Chapter 2: Sisters

Section III

Liberio – The Road: Indas

On sunny days like this one, you could be forgiven for thinking the world wasn’t a terrible place. Liberio knew the sun differently. He knew its burn and he knew the dryness of a parched mouth as water nibbled at every inch of him. Flies buzzed and fed. The smell—

He shut his eyes, casting a veil over the pale morning light that slipped past the tent flaps. When he awoke lying on his back like this, it was like the tub still surrounded him. Turbid water licked at his neck as his limbs rotted beneath the milky yellow film on the water’s surface, and the air was as stagnant as the pool on which the tub floated. The firm ground under his blankets ought to be enough to shake him out of his reverie, but it wasn’t. His mouth was chalk-dry like he’d swallowed charcoal, and sweetness cloyed his tongue as though his father’s executioner had knelt above him in the night spooning honey into his mouth.

It wasn’t the only memory his dreams left him with. The words of dead and dying men—men, but mostly women—hissed in his ears. He rarely remembered the specifics. Half-images as indistinct as the scratched-out faces of the gods from Ipsis’s temples paraded before his eyes.

Today was different. This one clung to him: a child pushed underwater as she clutched her father’s robes. Liberio had felt her blood melt into the pool as if it were his, while her father’s tear-streaked face blurred as the water filled her vision. He’d felt fear swallow her reason even though she knew she should trust, even though she’d been weak from blood loss. Even though a princess ought to be brave and he would be so disappointed in her, so—

A whine born of a stranger’s pain slipped out of him.

As always, the memory of drowning was followed by that incessant tugtoward Qemassen: a compulsion. A wish.

Hadn’t he dragged all of Ipsis across the desert with him? Hadn’t he abandoned everything he knew to chase these dreams?

He was doing what he was called to do. Why did the force that asked continue to press him?

And who was doing the asking?

Grains of sand drummed against the side of the tent, kicked up by a hoof or maybe a cart. It was enough to wake him more completely, though his chest still felt as though his ribs had shrunk to a cage around his heart.

Roewyn. He needed her.

He patted the empty space beside him, in case she’d only rolled away, but she was gone. Her body hadn’t yet caught up with the fact that there was no longer any need to rise with the sun.


Liberio sat up and reached for his mask. For a long time, he’d worn it even sleeping, especially on nights when Roewyn rested beside him. But in the morning his skin would be sweaty, the mangled flesh beneath it damp like he’d just emerged, rotting and monstrous, from the Haven.

And lying next to Roewyn he’d felt shame.

There probably wasn’t a worse way to die, because beyond the pain and the sickness, it was shameful. How unfair to feel shame alongside the knowledge that you were dying.

Liberio hadn’t died, but the shame remained. People looked on him and saw not him but what had been done to him. They imagined skin sloughing from muscle, a body bathed in its filth. They wondered at the miracle of his survival and then questioned whether it ought not to have been better if he’d never woken.

The buckle holding Liberio’s mask clinked as he tugged it tight, and the soft leather underside scuffed the skin above his cheekbone with a familiar tickle. He tugged it tighter—one sharp pull. His skull seemed to pulse from the pressure.

Better that people see him. When they saw, they’d understand his complaint. In the weeks to come, they’d realize that what he was doing—everything he would ask them to do—was in answer to a greater injustice. The sky looked on impassively, but man could tip the scales with a nudge.

Liberio stood up and began dressing, and his smile fell into place as easily as his black robe.

People would do things for a smiling face that they’d refuse a scowler.

From outside the tent, soldiers clanked to and fro and men called one to another, the clatter accompanied by the distant babble and screech of the children. Horses whinnied and tents whoomphed as the soldiers collapsed them. The army was ready to resume its march. It made Liberio want to drop back onto his makeshift bed and sleep. Really sleep, without the nightmares impressed on him by whatever force called him eastward.

Liberio hunched over and with a wince he hauled on the riding boots Azaelian had forced on him. They were supposed to protect his legs and feet on horseback, but the march so far had been a plod and what riding he’d done made his thighs rub more than it bothered his ankles. The flesh there was mottled just like his face—his body a patchwork he had to hide in order not to hate. The itching was just another reminder.

Maybe he ought to ride in a litter or on one of the carts instead of the horse. Even once they reached Lera, there was unlikely to be mounted combat. The walled city would no doubt mean a siege, though hopefully a short one. Convincing Iridescia to use the shadows, though, felt close to impossible, and with the city only two weeks away and the army unbloodied, there was time neither to change Iridescia’s mind nor prepare the soldiers as well as Liberio would have liked.

Out here, they were adrift. Purpose seemed distant and Liberio’s target aimless, no matter that he had a very specific goal in mind. The world outside was a midden heap, and everyone too afraid of dirtying themselves to clean it.

A breeze curled the tent flaps inwards, bringing with it dry desert air and a glimpse of armour-clad legs stalking toward Liberio.


Aeornus Sardo, the Butcher of Lera, strode inside the tent, so tall and broad that for a moment he eclipsed the sun. Where the light glinted off his bronze cuirass and crested helmet, it was blinding.

Sardo was a man other men noticed.

He was also a dog—dirtied by the world and happy to leave a trail of muck in his wake. But if Liberio was to wipe the Helit clean, he’d need a rag to do it. A dirty rag could be thrown away.

Liberio smiled, but Sardo didn’t return the expression. From the twist of his small, pinched mouth he was sour about something. If he did have a complaint, he’d better voice it. Liberio wasn’t going to ask him—it established a dynamic between the two of them that could be dangerous.

Whatever Liberio said to his men, he was in charge. The trick of it all was making it seem to everyone that you weren’t—that you could be reasoned with, that they would be listened to. His father had been good at that. He’d been good at smiling and laughing before suddenly driving the blade home with a vicious glint in his eyes. The glint was something he’d never been able to hide, and sometimes you could get abreast of it, but it was a coin’s flip as to whether it’d been better or worse to know his father’s strike was coming. Liberio’s father had been a monster and Liberio had hated him, but he’d watched him very carefully. He’d learned a lot about how to talk to people by watching.

“Another beautiful day in the desert,” Liberio said—it could be sarcasm, but maybe he really was banal enough to chat about the weather with a bloodthirsty murderer. Maybe he really was that stupid. “Have the water barrels been refilled?”

Sardo’s severe eyebrows were drawn so low he looked like an eagle. “The water barrels aren’t my area of expertise.”

Liberio didn’t budge, didn’t speak.

Sardo glanced left as though remembering. “I saw your sister and your wife overseeing them at the nawet,” he admitted. “They’re being loaded back onto the carts.” His attention returned to Liberio. He was completely unafraid to look Liberio in the face, which was something Liberio had always wondered about. Not because Liberio was imposing—he did everything not to be—but because of the ugliness. Normal people turned away from the ruined flesh suggested by his mask. If it bothered Sardo at all, he didn’t show it. If anything, it seemed to fascinate him. “I’m here about more important things.”

More important than water in the desert?

“What things?” Liberio brushed past Sardo without looking at him, forcing him to move out of the way, then to follow.

Blinding sunlight stung Liberio’s eye as he dipped from his tent onto the hard-packed sand. He shielded his face with his arm, scanning the camp. Everywhere, the men collapsing the tents worked with slumped, tired shoulders, and the children plodded as often as they ran, underfoot now where several days ago they’d been sequestered at the rear of the army train. It’d been hot and dry this past week, with few supply stores dotting the sand. Yesterday, when the scouts had sighted the telltale birds clustering on the horizon above the nawet, Liberio had all but dropped to his knees in thanks.

It was all well and good to have an army, if you could control it. People got testy when their bellies were empty and their mouths parched.

Behind Liberio, Sardo coughed. The whole camp had been coughing from the dry air.

“There’s dissent among the men,” Sardo continued.

Liberio snorted. Dissent. There was always dissent. “About what?”

Sardo’s footsteps seemed to clunk heavier, like he was annoyed. “I told you weeks ago. There’s men in the ranks whose families were slaughtered when you took Ipsis. They’ve marched with us so far out of duty—maybe fear—but there’s been talk of desertion, and since we abandoned the Izzat—”

“To avoid more accidents.” Liberio cut Sardo off. It was five days since three boys had been taken by crocodiles as they bathed in the River Izzat. Following the deaths, Liberio had abandoned the river and the spectre of the Waoi Mountains for the gamble of the desert, but it might have been a mistake.

“The men need something to do,” Sardo continued. “Somewhere to stick their swords. If you don’t find them an enemy to fight, don’t be surprised when they start sticking you. Even the children are buzzing with pent-up energy.”

Eager for something to happen, no matter what that something was.

Liberio had started walking with no plan as to where he was going. Without thinking though, he’d pointed himself in the direction of the nawet. The date palms towered over the camp, their fronds a lone splash of green interrupting the endless blue sky.

Liberio could use a drink of something other than wine, and besides, that’s where Sardo had said Iridescia and Roewyn were.

The men packing up their gear stepped out of Liberio’s way as he led Sardo along. Some of them even muttered sese as he walked, even though he’d done away with all that. Was their refusal to do what he’d told them a sign of disobedience, or deference?

Liberio had never been deferred to till now. It was a strange feeling—uncomfortable yet full of promise, like a pair of new sandals that took time to get used to. He shouldn’t like it, didn’t care for it, but maybe it was what he needed.

“Liberio eq-Hadrianus.” Sardo’s already deep voice boomed more authoritatively behind him, and finally Liberio stopped. As he turned to face his general, he had to catch himself from tripping on a slab of rock that jutted up from below the sand.

“What?” Liberio crossed his arms. “So, the army are gossiping like old women. What am I to do about it? We have water now. Azaelian promises there’s a village out here in the wastes. There’ll be blood spilled within the week, maybe even a few days.”

Sardo’s dour expression didn’t change, not that he was ever very expressive. When he was, it was usually to smirk over some cruelty. All the better that he remain grim. “You’re not listening. If all the men wanted was a fresh kill, I could send them out hunting, but they want to hurt you. Fear of your sister’s shadows has kept them quiet till now, but the more time passes, the more distant that threat.”

“And?” Liberio threw up his arms. “What would you have me do?”

There it was—the smirk, nearly a grimace. “Make a new threat. It’s follow you or die of thirst in the desert.” Sardo stroked the pommel of his sword, round and round in a slow caress that he didn’t seem aware of. “In Lera, there was a game we’d play. Bury the locals up to their chins in the sand and place bets on how long they’d last.” His grin broadened. “One of my soldiers was caught feeding his mark water so he could collect his prize. Next day, that soldier was buried along with the others. It was five days for him. No one cheated after that.”

 The sun burned past Liberio’s loose robe and in his ears, a buzzing.

To ground himself, he glanced down at the sand and the rock that had almost tripped him. What looked like an eye carved in stone stared up at him and he frowned. He knelt down, then brushed his hand over the buried object. Beside the eye was a symbol Liberio was certain he’d seen before back in Ipsis: a circle and a triangle with two lines jutting left and right in between them. The arms were pointed down. The stone was almost completely flat on one side, the remnants of a battered relief barely visible any longer. The part that had tripped him was the rounded corner of whatever the stone had once been—an altar maybe? Part of a wall?

A group of children dashed past, giggling and squealing. They roamed the camp like wild dogs lately.

“Ruins.” There was a scrape like Sardo had scuffed the sand. “You’ll find a lot of those out here, especially where there’s water.”

It felt like the eye was watching him.

Liberio quickly dusted the sand back over the relief. He stood up. “Too bad Iridescia’s not here.” She was fascinated by anything ancient, but junk was junk and the passing of years just made it old junk.

Sardo’s feet entered Liberio’s field of vision and he looked up to find the general standing but two cubits away. “I need orders. You have to make a choice.” His fingers rubbed and rubbed the pommel of that sword. The metal glinted, polished smooth from repeated touch.

Liberio wouldn’t be surprised if Sardo slept with it.

He doesn’t sleep with it, but he dreams of the blade falling and the arc of blood that sprays in the wake of its plummet. The thought came to him clear as a ringing bell, rippling not in his ears but in his eye. He dreams of splintered teeth, guts spilling from bellies, the screams of his prey—human prey. Power to crush, blind, kill. He’s thinking of blood now, of the rush to his loins as a mother’s heart stops, of—

“Liberio?” Sardo approached him.

Liberio jerked back. His ass thumped against the hard ground before he even realized he’d tripped and fallen, pain shooting up his tailbone.

What was that?

Insight. It had been insight. He knew Sardo was a bad man. Everyone knew. But it had felt like his dreams: textured, real. It was like the voice had been pulled from Sardo himself, and the feeling it had left in its wake was the skitter of ants across Liberio’s skin.


Liberio held up his hand before Sardo could approach again. He couldn’t be near the man. “I’m fine. The sun’s so damned hot it’s making me dizzy.”

Sardo, thank Adonen’s cock, retreated. “Then I’ll make my own recommendation. In Lera, I commanded a unit of men separate from the rest of the army. Hand-picked. Loyal. We did the business no one else wanted to do. We sniffed out dissent, made men talk. We cleaned up the mess.”

Liberio’s father had commanded such men. Informants. Torturers. He scoffed, Sardo’s heart words had already vanished as if Liberio had never seen them. All the same, they’d left him with a deeper understanding of his general. Sardo was useful, but he couldn’t be allowed too much authority. He craved it too deeply, and if Liberio gave it to him then what was to keep him loyal to Liberio’s cause? He ought to dangle it instead. As long as Liberio had something Sardo wanted, Sardo would keep working for him, ever in search of more.

Liberio stood up. He didn’t bother to clean the dirt from his robes. “No. You won’t do that.” He settled his gaze on one of the bands of children in the distance. Tobi was among them and they were chatting with one of the soldiers—staring as he turned his sword over for them to gaze upon.

“Something needs to be done,” said Sardo.

 Something would be. Liberio rolled his shoulder. “Find them. Hang them. You said you knew who they were; do something about it. But it won’t be a spectacle.”

There was a purpose in spectacle, but there was also a time for it. His people weren’t ready yet. First, they needed to believe. Hungry stomachs and dry mouths wouldn’t be a danger then, they’d be an asset.

Sardo nodded. “I’ll find them.”

Tobi and the other children had started passing the sword around like a toy, marvelling at its gleam.

Liberio grit his teeth. “And keep your men away from the children. They’re not to be led astray.”

Sardo frowned, then turned and followed Liberio’s gaze. “I’ll speak to the men.”

He didn’t sound very committed. “See that you do.” Belatedly, Liberio realized Sardo wished to be dismissed. He smiled. “You can go. Have Azaelian help you with the dissenters.”


As Liberio walked alone to the nawet, the sun really did begin to beat at him. He pulled the hood of his desert robe up to shield himself, focusing on the cooling shade of the palms as he approached them.

Against the backdrop of the desert, the pool, and the trees, Iridescia and Roewyn stood chatting on the shore. Iridescia was doing that thing she did—all but bouncing up and down in her excitement to wriggle her words out.

And there was a third figure with them. An adult, but not a soldier. He was bent over like an old man or a hunchback. He clutched a crook in his hand.

Liberio’s heart thudded, not just in his chest, but all over his head. The nearer he came to the palm-ringed pool, the harder his skull pulsed and the sharper the pain. Water glistened in the sunlight. It should be beautiful, but it made his gorge rise, the idea of wetting his throat sickening.

By the time he reached the nawet, he was almost as bent over as the shepherd chatting with Iridescia. He stumbled, a shooting pain in his legs and hips. The side of his face beneath his mask throbbed.

Roewyn rushed to his side before he could fall. Her kind arms supported him, her cheek brushing his as she pressed in close. He closed his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Roewyn’s voice was hushed with worry.

Liberio swallowed, the light beyond his eyelid flashing. “Nothing. Dizzy from the sun.”

“Well, there’s an obvious cure for that,” laughed an older man’s voice—it must be the shepherd. “Water aplenty here. Clear as Adonen’s fountain in the clouds.” Sand crunched, the sound of the shepherd retreating.

“Who—who is he?” Liberio asked. “Not a soldier.” He peeled his eye open, squinting at the shepherd’s retreating back. The water of the nawet seethed ahead of him.

Roewyn glanced at Iridescia, who was walking toward Liberio. “Just a shepherd. His goats drink from here.”

Liberio managed a laugh. “Goat water. Fit for Adonen himself.”

Iridescia stood in front of him. Up close, she looked tired, despite that he’d seen her jumping. “We should get out of the sun,” she said. Or something like that. Liberio was trying, he was, but there were a lot of words he still didn’t know. Sometimes it seemed like she thought he ought to just learn her language with the snap of his fingers. She’d probably kill him if she knew he got by mostly by filling in the blanks.

Roewyn stroked Liberio’s arm. “Iridescia’s got a headache.”

Like sister like brother.

The shepherd hobbled back toward them, his uneven gait quick despite his infirmity. Up close, he was younger than Liberio had taken him for—his fifties maybe—with the tanned white skin of a northerner and a grey beard. He didn’t look like any of the desert nomads Liberio had ever met. He must come from a village.

“Where are you from?” Liberio asked.

The shepherd smiled past his beard. He glanced behind him to where two goats were drinking their fill from the pool. “Tintellan originally. Nowadays it’s here and there. I graze my goats on the argan trees just north of the moon pool.”

“Moon pool?” Liberio hadn’t heard the term before.

The shepherd gave his waterskin a shake and it sloshed. “Moon water they call this, on account of the moon in the water.” His grin broadened.

It’s true,” Iridescia signed. “There’s a moon in the water.” She tugged Liberio’s sleeve. “You have to come see.”

The shepherd thrust out his filled waterskin and that sick feeling intensified. “No. No, I don’t want it.” He brushed the skin aside.

“You should drink something.” Roewyn hugged him gently. “If not some water, then some wine.”

Wine. Yes. Wine would be better. “I need to sit.”

Roewyn started to help lower him, but Iridescia cupped his elbow. She pointed at the nawet just as several children stampeded into the water. Another child took a running leap, then belly-flopped into the pool.

“Fine. We’ll sit by the water.” He eyed the shepherd. “And you can explain who you are.”

The shepherd snorted. “What’s there to explain?”

While Roewyn called over a soldier to fetch Liberio’s wine, he eased out of her grip and stumbled on his own toward the pool. Iridescia and the shepherd hovered at his side all the while, as though to steady him if he needed it.

Liberio looked at the shepherd and forced the friendliest smile he could. “Not many men see an army and walk toward it. You must have seen us at the nawet, and yet you came anyway. That kind of boldness needs explaining.”

The shepherd wasn’t smiling anymore, staring at Liberio with an unreadable expression. He had tiny, clever eyes the colour of storm clouds. “It pays to be curious. That’s something I learned in Tintellan. An army means men, means hungry men, means men who might need something. My cousin owns the orchard I mentioned. Word reached us that an army had been sighted marching east from Ipsis, and here you are!”

So, he wanted money. People were predictably boring no matter where they were from. “We might be able to do business,” Liberio managed to get out, before all but collapsing onto a large wood crate that someone had positioned at the water’s edge.

Iridescia stepped into his line of sight. “There! Look!

“I can’t see.” The light was too blinding, the surface of the water almost painfully clear—watching it was like stepping onto a bed of cracked glass.

It’s big,” Iridescia signed. Well, she signed more than that, but big was the gist. “At the bottom.”

Liberio stared hard as he could, keeping his eye narrowed to block out as much light as he could. “Where—”

There. A crescent moon created by a series of pattered tiles decorated the base of the pool. The individual squares of the mosaic were scattered and broken so that the image was less obvious than it might once have been. It looked as though the picture had once been more complex—coloured pieces strewn everywhere you looked now that the mosaic had been pointed out. There were even stray bits of mosaic poking out of the sand here and there, compacted into the hard earth and caked with mud.

Ruins, Sardo had said.

“The moon pools were once sacred,” explained the shepherd. “Or so everyone assumes. They’ve gone untended since before Adonen blessed these lands with his word.”

Liberio chuckled. “No need to pretend for my benefit. I’m no Lora dog yoking Indas to Melqan’s god. If you worship Abaal and his family, it means just as little to me.”

The shepherd regarded him with interest—that curiosity he’d spoken so highly of. “Yet you are a Loran. You don’t answer to the empire?”

Where was that wine? Liberio looked behind him and found Roewyn in conversation with Oran. The soldier she’d sent away had vanished into the maze of tents.

“The Lora empire is a blight on the face of the Helit,” Liberio said as he turned back to face the shepherd. “I may be a Loran by blood, but my mind and my soul belong to none but me.”

The shepherd had the balls to laugh.

Liberio laughed back. He wished he had the wine so he could offer it to this fool. He seemed the type you could win over with some dice and a cheap red.

“It is funny.” Liberio’s temple felt like it might explode. “The idea that you could be free. It’s also funny that Ipsis stands deserted, Hadrianus dead and rotting on that throne he worked so hard never to claim as his own. It’s funny that I’ve marched an army all the way here, and met you, and that a week from now I’ll stand before the gates of Lera and demand Luqiferus Murinus Darcia’s head in exchange for the liberation of its people.”

The man didn’t say a thing, not right away. Liberio had startled him into silence. He was used to it—people expected him to be an idiot, so when he said anything sensible or wise they went quiet.

“Liberation?” asked the shepherd.

It was probably a foreign concept. “As much freedom as we’re capable of dreaming of. Freedom from Lorar.” He paused. He needed to say something else. It wasn’t enough for the weight of what he was doing. “Freedom from the will of man.”

The shepherd smiled, but there was something behind it, brewing in those storm cloud eyes.

He’s afraid—the voice started, then stopped. Everything was quiet in Liberio’s eye besides the pounding of the water. He had to get up. He had to go back to his tent or if it’d been collapsed already then seek shelter inside a litter.

From the corner of Liberio’s vision, a set of shadows was approaching. He didn’t look up, more interested in the shepherd.

“Ipsis has been freed already?” the shepherd’s voice perked up. Maybe he was at last realizing the value in what Liberio was saying.

“Of course.” Liberio paused. “I’m sorry I didn’t travel south to Tintellan, but one day I will. I promise. For now, I’m marching east.”

The shepherd’s shoulders relaxed, as though he’d been tense and anxious without Liberio noticing. “We’d heard nothing out of Ipsis. There was rumour the city had been slaughtered to a man.”

Liberio laughed. “For some, freedom comes at a high price.”

“Through witchcraft?” The shepherd drew his waterskin to his lips and took a hearty swig.

He sounded skeptical, but it could benefit Liberio for word to spread of Iridescia’s magic. He’d thought to kill the shepherd once the children had abandoned the nawet, but it would be better to make use of him first. “My sister’s magic.”

“I thought you didn’t look to the gods for support?” The shepherd’s face had turned severe, probing. Was water all he’d come here to find? He could be a scout.

Liberio grinned. A scout was just what he needed. Let word spread. “I have no need of gods. Ipsis fell without them, once to Lorar and then to me. The gods in the heavens are silent when it comes to men’s needs.”

The shepherd’s brow was drawn. “What is it a man like Liberio eq-Hadrianus needs?”

Wine. Sleep. Roewyn’s arms and an end to this conversation. But he said none of those things. When a word did come, it seemed to speak itself into being without the force of Liberio’s will behind it. “Justice.”

Surprise widened the shepherd’s eyes—a feeling that took Liberio just as suddenly. “For whom?”

Me, he wanted to say, but that wasn’t the most of it. It was for the shame, yes, but not just his shame. It was for the shame felt by every child wronged by the world they’d been born to. It was for the suffering that took place behind every door. It was for the horror. “A world where everything is wrong.” He’d bloody his own hands to put an end to that shame.

“I’m not sure I follow,” said the shepherd.

The shadows were growing nearer.

Liberio was done answering questions. “Maybe you don’t need to. Maybe it only matters than when justice comes knocking you answer your door.”

The shepherd looked about to say something else, so Liberio interrupted him. He wasn’t sure how long he could force himself to sit here in the sun. “Some wine?” Liberio waved his hand in the direction of the approaching soldier.

But the shepherd stood up, blocking, for a moment, the blazing sun. “Not now, I’m sorry. My brother’s expecting me. And the goats—” he tipped his crook in the direction of his animals. “They don’t like to be out at midday.”

That suited Liberio just fine. He wanted to rest. He wanted to get away from the sickening water. It reminded him too much of the Haven, that was the problem. Maybe the Haven had even been one of these moon pools, a thousand and a thousand years ago.

“Then farewell,” Liberio managed, but the shepherd had already turned around and was headed back toward the nawet. Iridescia was playing by the shore, watching the other children. Liberio wished she’d just jump in with the others. She so clearly wanted to. She was too eager to grow up. All growing up meant was horror and weariness.

To Liberio’s left, a man groaned, the sound oddly muffled.

“Sese.” Sardo’s deep voice dragged Liberio’s attention toward where he stood on the sand with Azaelian One-Eye and three prisoners. The prisoners were each bound and gagged, one boasting a black eye and all three of them stripped of the armour that had marked them as soldiers in Liberio’s army.

“Did you have to bring them here? The children are playing.” Liberio spared Iridescia another glance. Fortunately, she hadn’t looked over. She wouldn’t understand why he had to execute these men. She’d try to convince him not to.

“You wanted them hanged.” Azaelian grunted. “The palms are the only things tall enough, unless you want the army to stop so we can erect a gallows.”

If only he had a retort for that. “This was supposed to be quiet. No spectacle.”

“You don’t hang men if you want to avoid a spectacle.” Azaelian’s nasal voice had never been so annoying, all the more so because now Sardo was grinning as though he’d won somehow.

The water burned and shimmered, burned and shimmered. Beyond it, the shepherd led his goats back out into the desert.

Liberio hauled himself to his feet and the world spun.

“Sese?” asked Azaelian.

Liberio turned his back on the nawet, on the children and the goatherd and his sister. With the water out of view the air felt lighter.

“Wait for my sister and the children to leave, then hang them from the palms,” said Liberio. “Or drown them. Do what you want with them—I need to rest.”

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