Chapter 14

Oct. 5th, 2009 02:14 pm
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It wasn’t until Iereus informed him that he'd received the invitation that Loukas remembered his mother's annual party celebrating the arrival of the Season of Theros.

“Will you be needing anything? To wear, I mean. The consensus seems to be that your wardrobe is lacking,” Iereus said with a grimace.

“I think my wardrobe will always be found lacking, so long as it gives my sisters a reason to shop.” Loukas shared a grimace with Iereus. “And I don't plan on attending, anyway.” He would be unable to avoid his brother.

Iereus cocked his head to the side. “Oh, you don't, do you?”

Loukas found a neutral point on the far wall to stare at. “I'd rather not.”

“Your loving family would be disappointed if they didn't see you.”

“I'm sure they'll find Metrodora or Myrrine far better company.”

“I'm quite certain you're correct; however, neither Metrodora or Myrrine have House Kommene blood in their veins.”

“Actually, now that you mention it, my great aunt Korinna married into House Pharsalus and she bore a son that married into House Koiloi, which, of course, is our dear Myrinne's own House. So really....”

“Loukas.”

“Yes?” Loukas toyed with the beading on the cuff of his sleeve.

“It's your family. If you don't make an appearance, they may well assume that I beat you unduly or keep you locked in a broom closet. And though the thought had tempted me on more than one occasion, I have always refrained. I don't want your mother to come to the wrong conclusion and take offense.” Iereus clearly considered the matter settled.

“You could tell them I've taken ill,” Loukas tried. “I've got a cold or the plague. Odds are my mother won't even notice my absence. Please, Husband, do not make me go.” Desperation colored his voice and he caught the sleeve of Iereus's tunic.

“What do you fear? Have you been ill-treated?” Iereus's brow furrowed as he grew puzzled by Loukas's vehemence.

Loukas shook his head and tried to think of a way to put his plot to have his brother maimed and disinherited so that it sounded less condemning. Nothing came to mind.

“If you cannot give me a good reason why you should be excused, besides your odd premonition, you must.”

Loukas's heart fell, and he dropped Iereus's sleeve. “Of course, as my husband bids.”

“Hm. My thanks.” Iereus sounded apologetic as he said, “It's too important an occasion to miss.”

Loukas endured yet another trip to the seamstress stoically, preoccupied with thoughts of the coming party. His position as Iereus's wife granted him some protection. Eleutherios could not strike at Loukas without offending Iereus. At least not overtly.

Loukas turned the matter over in his mind, even as he was fitted for an elaborate tunic and matching veil. This one had a white under-tunic of silk, the sleeves pinned at shoulders, wrists and elbows with silver clasps. A stiff white and silver brocade tunic went overtop. The veil was a very fine and almost transparent silk that affixed to the back of his head by means of a complicated headdress of silver and pearl, tiny chains draped across his forehead. It gave him a headache to wear it.

“You look lovely,” Metrodora said approvingly.

“Yes,” Myrrine enthused. “Like a lily or a delicate white rose.”

“Excellent,” Loukas said, pushing the veil off his shoulders. “I always love it when people liken me to flowers.”

“It's your own fault you've got such fine features, Loukas,” Nika put in from where she lounged, sipping mulled wine and observing the proceedings with an air of vague distain. “Though I was thinking more swan. Or we could keep with the wintry theme and settle on snowflake instead.”

“Ah. Even better,” he said as Myrrine tilted a polished silver mirror so he could catch his reflection. At least the pattern of the brocade was abstract and not flowers. “In the days before the walls were built, the people would sacrifice unmarried youths.”

“Yes?” Myrrine said, taken aback.

Loukas sighed heavily. “I think this is what they wore.”

---

The first thing Loukas thought stepping into House Kommene was that it still smelled the same -- a vague and nameless scent that always meant he was home. He wondered if they'd packed his things, or if the trinkets he'd forgotten were still stashed in his old room. He shook himself a little; he no longer belonged here.

Eugenia received them as they filed in, the other guests arriving in litters. She greeted Iereus, gold bracelets stacked half-way up her arms and then took Loukas's hand in her own and let him kiss her.

“Ah, Loukas, darling boy. Don't you look splendid.”

“So I have been told. And you look well, Mother. I trust your health has been good.”

“Of course, I don't get sick. It's a sign of weakness.” She shooed him along, already turning to Archon Nasso and one of his wives. “Go say hello to your brother; he's around here somewhere.”

Loukas didn't take his mother's suggestion, instead keeping close to Iereus. He kept his eyes downcast and his voice soft when he spoke but still felt conspicuous in his white veil.

Musicians played in a corner of the hall, sweet melodies on the pipe. A great number of lamps hung form the ceiling and were stationed along the walls. He was extra mindful of those, lest his veil catch and he go up like a torch. Slaves carried trays of delicacies and carafes of wine.

Iereus seemed content to spend the evening talking to the stuffiest people in attendance. One, a man dressed in an unflattering shade of green, wasn't even an arist but a merchant whose extreme wealth had earned him a grudging place in the best circles. Loukas tried to cultivate an expression of polite interest that still conveyed his disgust as the man spoke.

“Normally my ships are half-way to Gregos by this time of year -- best time to haul the spices, you know -- but instead I've got them on their way to Redini.” He sounded distinctly unhappy about this. Loukas's interest was piqued at the mention of the former colony. Though Edessa had grudgingly granted Redini its freedom after the last war and the two had become allies and trading partners, neither quite forgot their former animosity. “Do you know what kind of loss that will mean.”

“A truly unfortunate hardship,” Iereus said, managing to convey the polite disgust Loukas had been working to affect. The man seemed oblivious to Iereus's disapproval.

“It's your patriotic duty,” a woman in purple and blue said. At least she was a member of the Council; his mother had pointed her out when he was still in House Kommene.

“Yes, yes, and of course I'm happy to do it. But those damned Redini are going to charge a fortune, the greedy thieves. A small fortune for a berth full of grain? It's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.” The man grabbed a pastry off a passing tray, biting into it so the crust flaked and clung to the crushed velvet of his tunic.

“Without that grain, Edessa would starve. The royal silos are running dangerously low as it is,” Iereus said, his voice low and even so that Loukas had to lean in to hear him clearly. “The Committee for Public Supply sees no alternative.”

“Yes, and as soon as my ships are back in harbor, Procopia's sure to commandeer it and I'll be out a tidy sum.” The merchant waved the half-eaten pastry, sending more crust flying. “I'm tired of it.”

“If she does so, it will be at the Committee's advice and with the Council's permission, in full respect to the law.”

“Hm, easy for you to say, no one's demanding you give up those horses of yours.” The man turned to Loukas. “Your husband's certainly a cold one.”

“And a clear-sighted one,” Loukas replied, bristling.

The man gave Loukas a considering look, clearly holding Loukas in the same esteem Loukas held him.

“Master Andros, this is Arist Kommenon Iereus.” Iereus made the obligatory introduction. “Loukas, this is Master Andros of the Merchants' Collegia.”

Andros recognized the name, and Loukas could see him roll it around his thick brain until he attached it to the right scandal.

“Ah, Arist Kommenon Iereus, of course. A pleasure to meet such a bloom of Edessa. The thing is, these matters are rather complicated. There are so many variables, so many factors,” he explained expansively as though he doubted Loukas's ability to comprehend it.

“I must disagree with you,” Loukas said, smiling sweetly. “It seems quite a simple to me. Without grain, the people starve. And without the people, so does your trade. If civic-mindedness does not motivate you, I'm sure self-interest would.”

Andros opened his mouth, his face going purple, but Iereus spoke first.

“Thank you, Loukas, for your assessment of the situation. Perhaps you should go find your brother; I have not yet given him my regards.”

So Loukas went, but not without one last smile for Andros. He made a circuit of the room, avoiding everyone else who required more than a polite nod. He escaped out into the portico. The cold air was welcome after the scent of heavy perfume and over-heated bodies in the hall. The slaves were all busy serving inside, only the statues in the garden kept him company. His silks did little to protect him from the bite in the air, but he lingered anyway.

“Arist Iereus.”

Loukas glanced around, caught off-guard; Alexia stood half-concealed behind an over-sized topiary. She jerked her chin once to indicate Loukas should follow. Loukas nodded his understanding and, casting a look over his shoulder, hurried after her.

Alexia moved quickly but without seeming like she had a particular destination, as though she were only out enjoying the grounds. Loukas was obliged to lengthen his strides to keep up. She turned abruptly, finding shelter in the corner of the garden wall, the view of the villa obscured by an aged cypress tree.

“Alexia, what is it?”

She pressed a finger to her lips. “Great Mother, keep your voice down, Loukas. We're not out strolling for our health.”

“Obviously,” Loukas said irritated, though he kept his voice a whisper.

Alexia reached into the fold of her tunic and produced a piece of folded parchment, which she pressed into his hand. Wax sealed it shut, but no crest marked its sender.

“Keep this for me, Loukas. Let no one know you have it -- not your husband, not your sisters, not even your eunuch.”

“What is it?” The folded paper was slightly rough in his palm, a cheap pulp parchment used by thousands of tradespeople in the city. Completely anonymous, he realized.

Alexia gave a little half-smiled. “Ah, ah, ah,” she warned, “I let you keep your secrets, now you must let me keep mine.”

Loukas turned it over in his hands, nervously. “Alexia....”

“Don't fret,” Alexia said, her amusement fading. “It's better if you don't know anything. I fear Procopia is having me watched.”

Loukas blinked in astonishment. “Watching you? I hadn't realized your staggering importance to matters of state.”

“Not just me. Anyone she's deemed a threat. Dozens of good Edessan Houses under constant watch. Personal correspondences stolen or confiscated.” She clapped a hand to Loukas's shoulder, her fingers tightening almost painfully. “Kommene and Iereus are both staunch Procopia supporters, she won't be watching you. And you're the only one I can trust.”

Reluctantly Loukas slipped the paper into his own tunic. It settled against his skin, warming quickly. He pressed a hand to it, feeling the edges through the cloth. “Who is it for?”

Alexia kissed him quickly in thanks. “Archon Tzykalas. Him and no other. No one can see this, Loukas.”

“I understand, Alexia. What was I going to do with it, anyway? Read it?” Loukas rolled his eyes. “But Archon Tzykalas and Iereus aren't friends; I may not get a chance to see him.”

“You really don't follow politics at all, do you?” Alexia shook her head in wonder. “Iereus hopes Tzykalas will lend his aid to the Committee for Public Supply. Too many of the lesser Houses and merchants have resisted giving aid. Tzykalas has the contacts and alliances with tradespeople that Iereus lacks. If Tzykalas supported the Committee, it would bring reticent merchants into the fold.”

Loukas blinked. “I hadn't paid that much attention.”

“Obviously,” she said, mimicking his earlier tone.

“I have less stake in it than you,” Loukas protested.

“Anyway, Iereus is sure to try and woo Tzykalas, even offer him a place on the Committee itself. You must ensure that you are present on one of the occasions. Tzykalas is expecting this letter, so he will be looking for the opportunity. I'm sorry to have to involve you in this, but I have no choice. Now go before your husband misses you.”

Loukas hurried back through the garden. Rounding the fountain, he nearly ran into Eleutherios.

“Brother,” he said, coming up short. His hand was half-way to the letter in his tunic before he stopped and let it drop back to his side.

Eleutherios's eyes narrowed. “Enjoying the party?”

“The season's best, as always.” Loukas drew himself up. “Just needed a little air. Too much wine; it went to my head.”

“Best not to over-indulge,” Eleutherios agreed, looking past Loukas suspiciously. “I suppose I have to commend your nerve. Considering your recent attempt on my life.”

“Perhaps you should just be grateful I didn't succeed.”

“But it seems the one whom I owe is you eunuch.” Eleutherios grinned, ugly and mean. “Although I think he really needn't have bothered. I'm not sure you're capable of murder, a weakness of the blood.”

“Perhaps you'd like another demonstration?” Loukas growled.

Eleutherios didn't get a chance to reply.

“Loukas?” It was Iereus, he stood at the top of the step, backlit by the lamps.

Loukas threw one last dark look toward Eleutherios. “Coming.”

---

When they'd returned, Loukas changed and knocked on Iereus's door. He let himself in at Iereus's answer. Iereus sat at his desk, a lamp flickering and smoking beside him.

“Husband? I've brought you tea.”

Iereus sat back. “I'd prefer wine.”

“I don't doubt it.” Loukas set the tray down on the desk, pouring a cup of the fragrant jasmine tea. “Didn't you enjoy my mother's party?”

“Such parties aren't meant to be enjoyed.” Iereus accepted the cup, pushing away the scatter of papers. “Though I did enjoy your words to Master Andros. Thank you for the tea -- will you stay and have a cup with me?”

“I don't mean to interrupt your work.”

“It's work that wants interrupting, believe me. A handful of half-promises and vague agreements from people who would rather see the city starve than inconvenience themselves.” Iereus sighed. “So please, distract me. You are far more appealing company.”

Loukas pulled up a chair, as Iereus poured another glass and pushed it over to him. They sat for a moment in silence, the cup warming Loukas's fingers. “It's rather chilly in here; should I fetch a slave to build up the fire?”

“I'm afraid I snapped at the last one who came in to tend it. They're either cowering or punishing me or both. Serves me right to sit in the cold.” Iereus got up and put another log on the fire himself. When he sat down again, he said, “What words passed between you and your brother?”

“Nothing of consequence.” Loukas shrugged. “Though I will never feel comfortable in my mother's House again.”

Iereus nodded and sipped his tea. “Is there anything I might do for you?”

“No,” Loukas said. “Can't I visit for some reason other than selfish ones?”

“I suppose that it is possible.”

Loukas smoothed down the front of his tunic, where Alexia's letter still remained. “How is the Committee?”

Iereus frowned. “At every turn I meet more fools like Andros.”

Loukas looked over the spread of papers. Most were lists or letters, but there was also a map of the coastline of the city; he could pick out the three harbors and the straight lines of the aqueducts.

“They've started rationing,” Iereus said. “It's not a very popular move.”

“Do they have enough grain?”

“If we get the shipments in from Redini. It'll be close, but it should be enough to last, if we can make it until then. Hungry people do desperate things. The Civic Guard's been marshaled to safeguard the granaries.” Iereus pulled the map toward him. “I'm hoping that one of the archons in the city will use his leverage with the tradesmen to supply the grain needed to make it until then.”

“Tzykalas?”

“Yes,” Iereus said, surprised.

“I pay attention, you needn't be so shocked.”

“I beg your pardon. Indeed, his support may well be imperative. I'm invited to a dinner party he's hosting in three day's time, but I am not optimistic.”

“Why not?”

Iereus smiled wryly. “I'm not nearly so charming as you.”

“Very few are,” Loukas said and Iereus's smile widened and lost it's deprecating edge. “Why don't you bring me along? I'll do my best to be charming enough for the both of us.”

Iereus reached out to clasp the side of Loukas's neck, kissing him on the forehead. “My thanks.”

---

“Here,” Poppy said, opening the small jewelry chest. “I think these. They go well with the green tunic.” The earrings were gold with jade inlay.

“All right,” Loukas agreed absently, fitting them in his ears. When Poppy's back was turned to stow away discarded tunics, Loukas lifted the tray at the bottom of the jewelry bow and took out Alexia's letter. He tucked into his tunic and then busied him self with arranging his veil as Poppy had finished.

Iereus waited, the dark blue velvet of his long tunic detailed with silver embroidery and seed pearls. He smiled as Loukas appeared and Loukas managed to return it gracefully, despite the uneasy feeling in his gut.

They followed the southern aqueduct along its rout to the Tzykalas estate. Loukas was careful to note Archon Tzykalas as he greeted Iereus. He was younger than Iereus, a tall, broad man with a heavy jaw, a man more comfortable hefting a spear than hosting a dinner party. Loukas caught his eye, but Tzykalas look was cool and held no recognition.

Frustrated, Loukas trailed after Iereus as he greeted the other guests. Loukas nodded politely whenever someone said something to him, but he kept his attention on Tzykalas. Dinner was a long affair with fourteen courses, each elaborately presented, and dancers and musicians entertained between them.

Loukas was careful to only sip occasionally from his wine glass. The woman to Loukas's right was pink-cheeked and breathless and she'd seemed to take a liking to Loukas.

“You're quite the pretty one,” she said, her cosmetics had started to flake and Loukas pushed his plate a little away from her. “Are your siblings as lovely as you?”

Loukas glanced to Iereus, whose lip twitched with what Loukas suspected was amusement. No help would be had from that quarter. “I ... really couldn't say.”

“All my wives are quite plain,” she confessed, and her shoulder accidentally brushed Loukas's. “From good Houses, but may the Mother help them, not a beauty among them. Perhaps I should find myself a wife from Kommene, if your brothers and sisters are like you.”

The woman would be lucky to marry a pig from Kommene, Loukas thought viciously. He slid further over on his chair, coming close to unseating himself. Iereus put a hand to his shoulder to brace him up.

“I fear his siblings pale in comparison,” Iereus said, setting his goblet aside; he was definitely smirking now.

Loukas studied his jellied eel, his own face heating. Tzykalas didn't so much as look Loukas's direction during the meal, despite Loukas's best efforts to get his attention. As the evening progressed and various parts of Loukas fell asleep from sitting so long, he despaired. Let Alexia deliver her own damn letters.

Iereus seemed content to sit and linger over his wine and Loukas morosely turned a bit eel to pulp. Suddenly Tzykalas stood, nodding to his wife, and left -- presumably to relieve himself. Loukas rose quickly, his chair legs screeching against the stone floor, and excused himself. Iereus nodded and waved him off. Loukas kept his pace slow as he made his way down the length of the hall but as he passed out of the doors, he broke into a jog.

“Archon Tzykalas, wait!” Loukas called, catching up to the tall archon.

Tzykalas stopped and turned, looking down at Loukas. “Be quiet, boy. Follow me.”

Taken aback, Loukas hurried to keep up with Tzykalas, who didn't glance back to see if followed. Tzykalas led them outside into a small courtyard, edged in tall hedges. Light form the torches cast dappled light through their branches.

Tzykalas stopped and turned to face Loukas. “Idiot.” Loukas was too surprised to retort. “Were you trying to attract the attention of every archon and arist in attendance?”

“No, just yours,” Loukas said as hotly as he dared. “I didn't think you noticed me.”

“That was rather the point. Who knows how many of Procopia's spies are even now seated at my table?”

Loukas grimaced and fished around in his tunic until his fingers closed on the letter. It was a little damp and a little wrinkled but mostly intact. “Here. You're welcome.”

Tzykalas broke the seal and quickly read the contents. He looked somewhat mollified as he finished. “Did Alexia say anything about the Kleistans?”

Loukas blanched inwardly, alarmed at the mention of mercenaries and wondering again just what Alexia was getting into. He considered asking Tzykalas directly, but decided he was more likely to get information by pretending he already knew it.

“Nothing besides the letter.”

Tzykalas's eyes narrowed a bit, but he nodded. “The less any of us knows, the better.”

“Um. Right.”

“That husband of yours isn't making things easier for me.”

“You should cooperate with him,” Loukas suggested. “The less reason he has to pursue you, the better.

“Better that I should draw his attention than others,” Tzykalas countered.

“If you prove resist where others would agree, he'll wonder why. My husband is no fool.”

“No, but I think he married one. The more strain his precious Committee is under the more Procopia will feel it, and that is only to the good.”

The scratch of a boot heel on tile caught Loukas's attention. He listened as Tzykalas folded Alexia's letter and slipped it into his own tunic. The light trickling through the hedge behind them wavered, a shadow passing over. Someone was listening.

“We should return. I'll go in first ...” Tzykalas trailed off as he caught Loukas's expression. Loukas jerked his chin in the direction of the hedge. Tzykalas understood immediately and he moved, breaking into a run. Loukas stared stupidly as he disappeared around the corner and then followed. He cleared the hedge just in time to see a young man dash through an open gate with Tzykalas in hot pursuit. Loukas put his head down and sprinted; he hit a patch of ice and slipped, catching his shoulder painfully on the garden wall.

Clouds drifted over the moon, leaving the street in darkness. Grabbing a torch from a iron scone, Loukas set after them, his heart pounding in his ears.

The aqueduct loomed up, even blacker against the night sky. It was several stories here, instead of the five or six at the walls, and it emptied into the cistern below the city. He nearly lost Tzykalas as he reached the end of the aqueduct, its stone arches disappearing beneath the street. The spy and Tzykalas rounded the base, but when Loukas cleared it, they were gone. He nearly fell into the open drain, its metal grate set aside. Loukas teetered, but stepped back and found his balance. He peered in, the flickering torchlight failing to penetrated the darkness father than a few rungs down an access ladder.

Loukas hesitated and then started down. One hand gripping the torch, he made awkward progress; the iron bars of the ladder were slick with slime. Twice his foot slipped and he nearly plummeted down, coming close to setting his hair afire as he scrambled for purchase.

The cistern could supply the entire city with water for ten days when it was full, but now the water level was low. The ladder stopped short of the bottom and he jumped, landing with a splash that echoed along the vaulted ceiling of the cistern. The cold water came up to his knees, and Loukas's feet went from agonizing to numb.

Columns ran down either side, more rows barely visible beyond them. Loukas couldn't see the walls or ceiling, but the sound of his own labored breathing echoed back, giving the impression of enormous space.

Panic rose up, threatening to overwhelm Loukas, but then the pitch of the torch sputtered and sparks landed on Loukas's hand. The pain distracted him, the sting oddly comforting.

The water rippled and he spun instinctively brandishing the torch before him. The spy stood there, a long knife in hand. He was scarcely older than Loukas himself, but his practiced grip and stance spoke of long years of practice. His hair was wet and dripping; he must have had a rougher landing than Loukas. Or already finished with Tzykalas. He lunged, the knife arcing down; Loukas scrabbled backward, his numb feet slipping out from under him on the slick stone, pain shooting through his knee as he landed. He'd kept the torch above water, though, and he swung it around.

The man screamed as the torch made contact and the stench of pitch and burning flesh stung Loukas's nose. The torch dimmed, dying, plunging them into blackness. Blindly, Loukas scrambled to his feet. Splashing echoed, confusing the spy's location. Loukas backed into one of the great pillars, the corner of its base digging into his spine. He threw an arm up to ward off the knife, expecting to feel it opening his flesh at any moment. The blow didn't come, though.

The soft ember glow of the torch end steadied and grew into flame. The figure before him wasn't the spy but Tzykalas, Loukas realized. The archon knelt in the water, holding the spy by the throat. The man thrashed wildly, but he couldn't find leverage against Tzykalas's bulk. His struggles slowed and then stopped altogether, his limbs slipping into the water, which stilled to glass. Reluctantly, Tzykalas rose, standing over the body, flexing his fingers.

“Who is that?” Loukas said.

Tzykalas looked up, as though he'd forgotten Loukas. “A minor arist of House Krysos.”

“He's young.” Loukas swallowed. “Was young.”

Tzykalas shrugged. “No younger than you. He knew this was a possibility.”

Loukas very much doubted the boy had thought he would end up drowned beneath the city. The man's hair floated around his face just below he water's surface.

“Let's go,” Tzykalas said and Loukas flinched.

Tzykalas had Loukas climb up first, while he held the torch. It no longer seemed dark on the street -- the stars were a million point of light overhead. Loukas shivered violently, his breath misting in the night air.

His limbs burned as he reentered the warmth of Tzykalas's house. Tzykalas changed into dry clothes, the tunic nearly identical to the one he'd worn before. Loukas did his best to wring out his veil. The red was dark enough that the wet wasn't noticeable.

His hands had stopped shaking by the time he returned to dinner. Iereus looked at him as he as slid into his seat.

“I got lost,” Loukas said.



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