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Chapter I: Orphans
Iridescia – Ipsis: Indas
Today was the last day.
Iridescia rested her hand against the latticed window in what had once been her tower, ignoring her great-aunt Star who lay dozing on Iridescia’s old cot. She really ought to start thinking of Ipsis in once hads and had beens. After today, it wouldn’t be hers anymore, if it ever had been hers—or anyone’s—since the night of the shadows.
It seemed strange that the air should hang thick and humid as it had always done, though there was as much distance between what Ipsis had once been and what she was now, as between the sun and the moon. Liberio and Iridescia—willing or unwilling—had turned Ipsis into another world.
A Children’s Court, with grown men for enforcers.
Not everything was terrible though. In the wake of the shadows’ attack, peace had fallen on Ipsis. It was enough to let Iridescia forget most of the time just what horrors she’d unleashed on her city—the same ones she might one day have to summon again, if Liberio and Roewyn were ever in danger.
The vines that crept the wall outside tickled Iridescia’s skin, full and green from the recent rains. Brushing aside a clutch of twisting leaves, Iridescia pressed her eye right up to one of the holes. Staring through, all Ipsis lay before her, pinched inside a would-be spyglass.
But not for much longer. After months of preparation, Liberio was ready to march.
Iridescia still wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but the city swarmed with activity. Watching the Lora soldiers Liberio had inherited from his father—from their father—Iridescia could nearly imagine Ipsis was as full of life as it’d been before she’d summoned the shadows. Man called to man as the children orphaned by the coup were ordered this way and that by the eldest of the survivors.
Sometimes, there was even still laughter. People were beginning to dream again, even with the threat of night upon them.
Outside Iridescia’s would-be spyglass, sundown drew deep shadows and cast orange light onto the tops of the buildings and the side of Mount Nuna. She peered up and up and up, following the slope of the hill to the trees at its peak, imagining the oncoming darkness as it smothered the Haven.
With a shiver, she pulled away, and just as she did, she locked eyes with Star.
Iridescia’s great-aunt was awake.
The former vizier’s gaze was intense and unblinking, like she’d been watching Iridescia all the while.
Iridescia gulped. She shouldn’t feel sorry for Star, but she did, and that made her feel guilty, like all the people Star had killed—Iridescia’s mother and grandmother, Liberio himself and Tobi’s parents—meant less somehow than the witch who’d murdered them.
“What is it?” Iridescia asked with her fingers, taking a step toward the sunken cot.
Rather than sign back, Star grinned, the expression hideous on her thin, scarred face. Her lower lip was nearly cut in two where she’d struggled against the ghostly fingers that had torn out her tongue, the skin there still red and glistening as though moist. One of her teeth had blackened from lack of care, and her hair hung lank about her shoulders.
Iridescia wished she’d died.
It would have been kinder if Liberio had let her, but instead he’d commanded that Oran cauterize the wound. He’d wanted Star to live to see all her work turn to dust and her lover’s kingdom crumble with it. He assumed Star had lost and wanted her to know it. But the more time Iridescia spent in Star’s presence, the more she felt her great-aunt had ambitions greater than those she’d pinned on Hadrianus.
If she didn’t, why did she keep smiling?
“What is it?” Iridescia repeated, managing not to show her nervousness in the movements of her fingers. She was getting better at hiding her feelings. Maybe that was what growing up was about.
Star allowed the question to hang like a half-rotted bridge between them. But then, finally, she lifted her long fingers. The gnarled knot of her movements gave her answer a barbed edge that prickled in the air as though Star had spoken aloud. “What are you looking for, child, that you brought me here to be tormented? When I asked for your help in months past I don’t recall any eagerness to be near me.”
Iridescia lowered herself onto the bed and the cot creaked as she sat beside Star. She folded her hands on her lap the way a noble girl should, holding her head as high as she was able—which wasn’t very. She had a short neck and a round, childish face—not the picture of her great-aunt at all, as Star had always been quick to remind her.
Whatever kind of face she had, she’d be a woman soon. Let Star see that. Let her be afraid.
The grating on the window cast a net made of shadows across Star’s face, and the vizier squinted in the light. She shielded her eyes with her hand.
Iridescia forced a smile. “You were dangerous then.” She was dangerous now, but Iridescia didn’t want Star thinking she knew it.
A huff of a laugh croaked from Star’s lips. “And now that I’m caged you see nothing wrong with making use of me. How like a Lorat you are, to eye me through the bars of my pen. Your tiger in the dark.”
Iridescia was nothing like that. She was of Indas, whatever Star said, no matter who her father was. There were some truths, though, that Star still owed her. It hadn’t seemed to make any difference at all to Star that Liberio had mutilated her; she still kept her secrets tucked beneath her ribs. “I want to know what I am.”
Star grinned, a foul odour wisping from her mouth. “Hadrianus’s daughter, when all is said and done.”
Frustration gnawed at her, anger coming faster than her ability to stop it. Star knew just how to hurt her. “My mother—you killed her. She knew what you were and she was afraid of you.”
Star’s flesh seemed to hang suddenly limp on her bones. She leaned forward, all the more close to Iridescia, as though she meant to whisper. “Tayri never knew fear like I have. She was too feeble-minded for it. A fleeting panic, perhaps, a disarming confusion even, but fear? Think on Deghashi and ask yourself if the simple know fear. She was blessed. She never feared because she never had to understand what was done to her.”
Tayri had seemed afraid in Iridescia’s dream. Iridescia still shivered at the memory of those dead fingers reaching for her from beneath the canal and the fish-eyed stares of the corpses as they’d waved back and forth like branches caught in a great wind.
“What you did to her,” Iridescia countered.
Star reclined against the wall, gazing distantly out the window. She made the stripped-bare bed look like a throne. “Yes, what I did to her.” She paused. “But I wasn’t the worst of them.”
The lonely tower felt tight and quiet and sadder even than usual. What could possibly be worse than imprisonment and death, than madness and solitude?
“We’re leaving today.”Iridescia couldn’t help changing the subject, anxious to escape something yet unsaid. Perhaps what she’d thought she wanted to know, she really didn’t. The details of Tayri’s torment didn’t matter; what mattered was that it had happened and it was Iridescia’s duty to remember her. She only wished she had a happier memory of her mother’s to cling to.
Besides, Star was coming with them; there would be plenty of time for talk during the long march across the desert.
Liberio’s gamble still seemed incredible—a child’s game, a flippant boast. Yet houses now lay abandoned, the Haven drained of as much of its water as Liberio could pack into barrels. An army waited outside the city, camped in tents, planning the journey ahead and organizing its supply train. A city had risen up to follow the Children’s Court into the desert.
Star turned from the window, or what little of it she must be able to see, and looked Iridescia up and down. This time, she didn’t smile. “Your boy-king is using you. The shadows are what matter to him, not family. Not love.”
That Iridescia knew was wrong; for Liberio, love mattered most of all.
“He won’t do anything bad,” Iridescia signed, though inside she was anything but certain. She had to hope though. “Not with me and Roewyn at his side. We have to stay together. Because of you we’re all he has.”
Star’s mocking smile returned. “He will do bad things.” She rattled the chain that shackled her foot to the bedpost, as though it were all the proof Iridescia needed. “He’s already done bad things. He will make you do them, because it’s all he knows. Because he’s not alive like the rest of us, and he’s forgotten kindness and mercy both. Is loyalty worth the pain he’ll cause? Is love? When he sacks his first city, it won’t be your rivals he lays waste to any longer.”
No mercy or kindness?
Liberio wasn’t like that, no matter what Star said. He’d done everything he could to save Roewyn, and deep down in her heart, even if sometimes she pretended to hate him, even if sometimes he was a big stupid idiot, she was certain he’d have done everything to save her, too. He’d done bad things, but how could anyone blame him? Iridescia had done bad things.
But a frown tugged at her lips.
Iridescia straightened her back out of the slouch she’d fallen into. She had to show Star she was serious about what she believed. She had to believe it herself. “It’s Liberio whose pain I worry about. He thinks he’s going to burn the whole Helit, but that’s impossible. We can’t leave him alone; they’ll kill him. Really kill him.”
Star’s smile all but skittered into place. “The question you’re avoiding, child, is not if you can stand his failure, but what will happen when he succeeds? What will that mean for you or any of us? What will he have made you?”
No one was going to make Iridescia into anything. Not anymore. The only one who’d wanted to do that was Star, and that was exactly why Iridescia ought not to sit here talking with her.
Someone was at the door. It groaned inwards without Iridescia’s permission.
Star’s chains rattled as she drew her legs onto the bed. She pulled her knees up to her chest, her back flat against the wall.
“You’ve been quiet a long time.” Oran’s comment was accompanied by a smile that lit up his handsome face, and he leaned against the door with his arm propping himself up. For some reason, the pose made Iridescia’s heart beat just a little faster.
It almost made her forget she was annoyed with him for staying when she’d ordered him away.
Please please please let her not smile back. She pursed her lips to try and stop herself, then glared. “I asked you to leave. How long have you been there?”
Oran pushed himself off the door, head tilted slightly so his long djataa—worn loose today instead of bound—hung halfway down his back. “Long enough to grow tired of my post. I could be fucking and killing, but instead I’m minding children. Your brother has a strange idea about what a Qarnaaman is usually paid for.”
Iridescia didn’t need or want that reminder. Oran had butchered Hadrianus on Liberio’s orders, and even though Hadrianus had been a monster, what had been done to him wasn’t something Iridescia would have wished on anyone. Better that Oran did mind children, even if Iridescia wasn’t a child at all.
And he still made her nervous―when the light hit his eyes a certain way it revealed something wild and dangerous.
“I said you should leave,” she repeated. She stood up and walked to the door all the same.
“I see your safety has more value to me than you.” Oran let the door swing closed behind him. The metal bands decorating the tips of his djataa clinked as he walked to the bed. At its edge, he knelt down and started to unlock the cuff at Star’s ankle. “Though I suppose if the former vizier throttled you with her chains I wouldn’t have to stay here.”
Star hobbled to her feet. As Oran retrieved her manacles, she steadied herself against the wall. She’d always been thin, but she looked sickly now in a way she hadn’t.
“None of us will be here after tonight,” Iridescia signed.She tore her attention away from Star, even though it was cowardly not to look. “You’re not staying in Ipsis, are you? You’re coming with us?”
From the direction of the bed came a rattle and then a creak as something hit the bed.
Oran had shoved Star back onto it. The former vizier’s eyes gleamed.
What was she so pleased about? What had Iridescia said?
“Liberio’s paying me to guard you, so that’s what I’ll do. Besides, I’ve never seen a great siege before, and Lera promises to be great.” As he spoke, he walked back to the door, trailing Star’s chain behind him so that she was forced to stumble along in his wake.
Up close, Oran was so tall—not as tall as some people, but tall compared to Iridescia. She looked up at him, her braids so long now they hung right down to her bum when she tilted her head back even a little bit.
“Maybe Luqiferus will surrender.” From what she could tell listening in on Liberio’s boring meetings—which was more listening than he ever seemed to do—Luqiferus had never shown much initiative. It didn’t sound like he was loyal to Lorar at all. Maybe he’d see them coming and be frightened into setting Lera free.
“That would be disappointing,” said Oran. He smiled at her, then glanced behind him to where Star was standing with her head bent. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen a good fight.”
Was Star ever going to stop smiling?
Oran snapped his fingers at her, then gave a tug of the chain. “Come on, it’s time to go.”
“You lost against Marianus,” Iridescia dared, feeling cheeky as she walked alongside him. Oran held the door for her, and she stepped beneath the arc of his arm and into the hallway. She twisted round so she could see his face and scrunched her nose, so he knew she was joking.
For an instant though, Oran looked anything but amused. His reddish-brown eyes dilated, going nearly black. The dark look was gone just as fast, though the smile he shot her was weak, like it was for Iridescia’s benefit only. “I didn’t lose against Marianus. There were complications.”
Could those complications have had to do with the picture of the man Oran had been stabbing when Iridescia had first found him? “Like what?”
“The kind unfit for the ears of a girl.”
She probably shouldn’t have asked.
Oran closed the door behind them, and suddenly it came back to Iridescia that this was the last time—at least for a long time—that she’d hear that familiar sound. A twinge of sadness struck her, no matter that the tower had been a place of terror as much as comfort.
Even so, it was the only home she’d known.
Oran brushed past her, Star trudging uncomfortably close behind him, but Iridescia hung back and touched her palm to the wood of her door just one more time.
“Goodbye,” she signed. “Thank you.” For what that was worth.
Tears formed in her eyes and she wiped them away with her forearm.
Iridescia, Oran, and Star walked in silence from Iridescia’s tower all the way to the main floor of the palace. She didn’t mind the quiet—it was a change from noisy Liberio, whose rants these days filled whole hours by themselves. Once they were on the road it might get better. If Iridescia’s tower was bittersweet to her, the whole of Ipsis must be a nightmare to him. When they were free and somewhere new, he’d change. They all would, and it would be for the better because she’d make sure it was.
It was that and not Star’s taunts about what Liberio would do that she needed to focus on.
Iridescia clenched her hands as she walked. Roewyn had been so withdrawn since they’d rescued her. It was hard to engage her in conversation. She spent most of her time with Liberio or walking near the shore alone. She couldn’t go on like that.
“The man himself.” Oran’s deep voice drew Iridescia’s attention back to the palace.
She looked up to find Liberio walking briskly toward them, arms outstretched. He was smiling broadly, full of mirth. Iridescia didn’t bother to try and smile back; Liberio would see through it anyway. It had been days since they’d truly spoken―he was so busy with his soldiers. Thinking about them made Iridescia falter in her step. The Butcher of Lera, Aeornus Sardo, dined with Liberio every day. Liberio said it was just show, but in the quiet of her mind Iridescia wondered how long it took for show to become truth.
“Sister, how glad I am to see you well!”
Why was he so happy? Iridescia stood still beneath the shallow veneer of Liberio’s good humour. It unnerved her, this new emotion that had taken hold of him, and she wouldn’t pretend like he did that nothing was wrong.
“Why aren’t you with Sardo?” she asked pointedly, but though she’d started to teach Liberio her words the confusion on his face made it clear he hadn’t understood her.
“Who?” he asked.
Oran stepped in front of Iridescia, addressing Liberio as he dragged Star along with him. “Aeornus Sardo. The Loran, the Butcher.”
Liberio’s jovial expression melted. He stepped back, turning from them to gaze outside through a small square window. “I told you, sister, I need him.” He pursed his full lips and looked Iridescia in the face again. “And I’d rather not discuss it here, in front of her.”
The former vizier—Liberio’s former wife—hacked out a laugh.
“Oran.” Liberio’s tone was level, his face expressionless.
Oran struck Iridescia’s aunt across the face, breaking open the wound on her lip. Star bent sideways from the force of the blow, spitting pink saliva onto the floor as she struggled to remain standing. Oran’s strength, it seemed, was no match for Star’s pride.
Iridescia shook her head at her brother, Star’s words echoing in her mind. Star deserved it though, and things would be different outside Ipsis.
“Liberio,” Iridescia began, but then she caught sight of Tobi and stopped. He hung so close to Liberio’s back that he’d been completely obscured. He must have watched and heard everything.
These days he hovered at Liberio’s side like a fly and no one—not even Iridescia—could caution him away. He’d stopped tending to Iridescia and her rooms, and that was all well and good, but it gnawed at her that he never sought her out to speak with. When his family had still been alive they’d been friends. He’d wanted to be, anyway, and Iridescia had done her best. Now they barely spoke.
Out in the wider square hall, soldiers hauled the last of their belongings outside to be loaded onto the baggage train. Children trailed the men, laughing as they darted in and out of the men’s legs as though trying to make them fall.
“The Children’s Court,” Oran mused. “Perhaps an unlucky choice.”
But Liberio snapped his fingers—loud—and the children scampered off, disappearing out onto the street as though they’d never been.
The soldiers hauling the last of Liberio, Roewyn, and Iridescia’s belongings speeded up their pace, one of them nodding to Liberio in thanks. As the second group of six men approached the doors that led outside, sunlight glinted off the gold inlay of the chest Iridescia had ordered be removed from Star’s chambers—the one dedicated to Omid eq-Gethras. She’d failed to search inside it all those months ago, but on the road she’d have nothing but time. The former heq-Ashqen of Tintellan, who according to Buqqus had attempted to resurrect his own daughter using the water, would surely have a lot to say about death and those who lived through it.
If Iridescia could open the chest. Star refused to tell her where the key was, and Iridescia daren’t force the box open for fear she’d break whatever was inside. When she’d first found it in Star’s chambers she’d thought it must be full of scrolls, but she’d had a chance to inspect it more closely. When she’d tried moving it, something heavy had rolled around inside.
“We should be saying our goodbyes to this place.” Liberio’s voice tore Iridescia’s attention from the trunk as it was lugged outside. “The army’s waiting only for my word. We’re finally leaving. We’ll never have to look upon this city again.”
It was called Ipsis. The City of Reeds. Iridescia’s home.
She understood why he wouldn’t want to name it, but it couldn’t help but remind her of the day he’d sat the reed throne on Mount Nuna for the first time and talked as if Indas didn’t exist. Like she wasn’t even an idea.
As the last of the soldiers vanished outside, something small and soft tumbled from the pallet of chests they’d been carrying and settled on the floor.
It looked like—
Her doll! The one she’d given Tobi.
Iridescia grinned and hurried over to it. It looked sad and misshapen, lying on the floor with one of its arms thrown back and the other contorted behind its worn, floppy, nearly faceless head. Its blue scarf was even rattier than when Iridescia had gifted it to Tobi.
Again, for no obvious reason at all, tears gathered in her eyes. Sucking them back, Iridescia knelt and picked the doll up. She hugged it close and—
In a flash of light, for half of a half of a moment, she was in the desert. She was inside the vision Star had forced upon her, holding the doll’s hand.
“Iridescia?” Liberio called, his voice thick with worry. He snorted, as if to make up for the show of emotion. “I thought you were all grown up, weren’t you?”
Iridescia didn’t turn around. She stared down at the faded paint of her doll’s face and held it out in front of her. She’d had it so long she didn’t even remember who’d given it to her. And what had she called it? She was certain it’d had a name when she’d been very little. Knowing how creative she’d been it’d probably been something stupid like Doll, or Girl, or Princess.
Whatever she’d been before, she was Tobi’s now. Let Tobi name her.
Iridescia walked back to Liberio and the others. She held out the doll for Tobi and smiled.
Tobi swiped her hand away, knocking Doll to the floor.
“It’s yours,” Iridescia signed. Tobi had been learning her letters before he’d started trailing Liberio like a sulky gosling. “I gave it to you.”
Tobi’s brow furrowed, his jaw tense. “Dolls are for babies.”
Oran sighed and bent to pick it up. “Then I must be a baby, because if you don’t want it, I’ll have it.” He smiled at Iridescia and her heart fluttered.
A distant horn cut off her thoughts—the sound of the army.
Liberio walked to the window again, eyes focused on some distant thing. “Sardo is an anxious commander, but they’ll wait as long as I ask them to.”
As it always did, Iridescia’s curiosity beat down her fear, and she crept to the window to stand beside the others. In the distance, outside the city’s flat roofs, its canals, its reeds, its dyeing vats, the swell of Liberio’s horses and soldiers kicked up clouds of sand that seemed for an instant to obscure the sky itself.
“To Lera,” Iridescia heard Liberio whisper, “to Qemassen.”