Chapter 16

Oct. 19th, 2009 08:43 am
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Iereus returned two days later, then the streets were passable once again. Loukas watched as he accepted the swaddled bundle from Myrrine, peering into the baby's face with a small smile. Something within Loukas twinged as he remembered that he would never know the same joy.

“Metrodora said you fetched the midwife?” Iereus asked, and Loukas nodded, not eager to report how easily he'd been ambushed. “Your eunuch was injured?”

“We were ambushed, and he was wounded in the fight.” Loukas looked down, shamefaced. “If it had just been me, I'd be in the gutter now.”

Iereus kissed him. “You may well have saved Myrrine's life. I thank you. Here, take her.” Iereus shifted the bundle into Loukas's arms. She felt heavier than her tiny form would suggest. He held perfectly still, terrified he might drop her. She yawned, revealing pink gums, which made him laugh. With a tentative finger, he stroked a flailing hand, and she grabbed a hold.

“She's strong,” he said, surprised. “Do you know what you'll name her?”

“Her naming isn't for another fifteen days,” Iereus said, “but I like the name Loukia.”

Loukas looked up, the baby's fingers still curled around his own. Children were usually given family names. “You want to give her my name?”

Iereus nodded. “If you don't mind sharing.”

“I don't mine.”

“Good. Hopefully the city will be well in hand by her naming day. The Kleistans should be able to control the streets.”

“Kleistans?” Loukas's blood ran cold and his grip on the baby tightened. She mewled a protest and Iereus swooped in to take her as Loukas froze.

“They've taken a contract from the Council to help bring the city back under control.” He patted the baby until she settled again. “I'd hoped it wouldn't come to using mercenaries, but several in the Council threw their weight behind the measure. There was little I could do to gainsay it. Perhaps they're right, the past few days has been a brutal reminder the Civic Guard isn't enough.”

“Can't the navy be marshaled -- or anyone loyal to the throne and not the highest bidder?”

“The Kleistans may be pirates and mercenaries but they always honor their contracts.”

“And you trust them?”

Iereus shrugged. “I have no choice.”

---

The dark red of Kleistan sails was visible from Loukas's bedroom window, like spots of rust on iron. In addition to the patrols on the streets, several were assigned to bodyguard for the Council members, more than a few of whom had disappeared during the riots, only to show up floating face-down in the harbor.

They were coarse and their dress was strange: close fitting trousers and shirts, fleece-lined vests, and sashes into which they tucked all manner of armaments.

Iereus came out to meet them the first day the arrived to escort him to the Council. “What are you doing here?

A tall Kleistan stepped forward, striking a lazy pose, unruffled by Iereus's anger. “We make sure you get to the Council.” He had a thick accent, his vowels exaggerated and twisted. “Afterward, we make sure you get home.”

“Does the throne think I am incapable of looking after my own safety?”

The mercenary shrugged. “There's many who thought the same, and now they're clogging the sewers.” He toyed with the end of a plait of hair, red thread braided into the strands.

In the end, Iereus acquiesced with less than perfect grace. With the extra protection of the Kleistans the roads were passable, but travel was curtailed to the strictly necessary. When the slaves thought they were out of ear-shot, they spoke of people starving or wandering the streets until they froze.

Worse still, Poppy's hand had turned noxious. The reddened and swollen skin pulled against the coarse thread of the stitches and foul matter seeped from the edges. Poppy had lost the ability to move his fingers, and he wore the injured hand in a sling. He kept up with his duties as best he could, but always had a cup of opium-laced wine nearby. Loukas could no longer tell if Poppy's eyes were glassy due to the contagion or the drug.

“Great Mother, just leave it,” Loukas snapped, watching Poppy struggle to fold a tunic. “Why must you be so damned stubborn?”

Poppy finished smoothing a wrinkle with the palm of his good hand and closed the cedar chest. Sweat beaded on his brow despite the midwinter chill in the room.

“I take after my master,” he said, pushing himself up from the edge of the chest. He swayed on his feet, blinking slowly.

“I think you need to take less opium in your wine,” Loukas said.

“I think I need to take more,” Poppy retorted and collapsed.

Loukas struggled to lift Poppy's bulk, calling for slaves as he did so, his voice shrill and panicked. They got Poppy laid out on his cot, and Loukas sent them for Metrodora as he covered Poppy with blankets.

Metrodora's face soured as she looked at the wound, and she shook her head. “Open the wound and wash it out,” she told one of the slave women. “Keep it as dry as you can.”

“What else?” Loukas pressed the back of his hand to Poppy's forehead; it was startlingly hot.

Metrodora shrugged. “Get him to drink water and broth. Cool him down when he's hot, heat him up when he's cold.”

“Isn't there anything else you can do?”

Metrodora looked at him grimly. “Pray.”

Loukas wouldn't let them move Poppy from his quarters. He sat at his desk and watched as two slaves held Poppy down so the girl could work the wound open again with a small knife. Loukas gagged on the smell as she washed out the wound, the water in the basin below turning a muddy pink with blood and discharge.

Loukas kept close by while Poppy drifted in and out of consciousness. He recited some poetry, things he'd memorized for lessons; pastoral poetry seemed ironic in the dead of winter. He tried to remember the sweet, simple melodies his nurse sang when he was a child, but the notes were unrecognizable when he tried them.

“Do you know any dirges?” Poppy said, in a moment of lucidity. His skin had a sallow cast and his voice rasped in his throat.

“None of that,” Loukas said. “You're not ready for them yet. Do you need anything? Your hand will need to be cleaned again.”

Poppy shook his head. “They should just take the damn thing off; I've seen people die of wounds such as this.” Loukas remembered his father's injury; it had been no worse. Loukas rose and retrieved the pitcher and poured a glass of water. He helped Poppy drink; a trickle escaped and ran down his chin.

Poppy's head fell back against he pillow, and his eyes drifted closed. Stubble had grown in on his head and face, making him look all the more bedraggled.

“I did tell you not to come,” Loukas said, hating how petulant he sounded. “Don't die.”

Poppy didn't open his eyes to say, “That an order?”

“Yes.” Loukas bit his lip. “It would be very inconvenient. It's very difficult to find eunuchs as reliable as you. Even if you do have a silly name.”

“That was the name given to me by the slaver who sold me to the training house, not the one I was born with.”

“Oh,” Loukas said. “What was your name before?”

Poppy shrugged a little and said, his voice drowsy. “I've forgotten.”

“I don't believe you,” Loukas protested, but Poppy was already asleep.

---

Poppy began to recover, but the progress was incremental. Even after the wound had closed over, his hand remained crippled. He could use his thumb and the last two fingers, but the index and middle fingers remained stiff and nearly useless. The scar across his palm healed thick and pink, and it pained him when he overexerted it, or when the weather changed.

On the first day Poppy felt sufficiently well after his fever, they walked in the gardens. The Kleistans waited for Iereus, and Loukas strode past, ostensibly ignoring them, but sneaking sidelong glances from under his veil. One of the household slaves cleared the light snowfall dusting the ground. The snow was like sand, and he used a broom to clear it with short violent strokes which flung it about more than cleared it.

The Kleistans watched idly, their fur hoods pulled up, their breath misting as the spoke amongst themselves. One said something and though the words were in the Kleistan tongue, his mocking tone translated well enough. The slave bristled, turned to the Kleistans and spat deliberately. The spittle had no sooner hit the ground then the Kleistans started to move, closing in on the slave, the mirth gone from their faces.

The slave didn't seem to realize the danger; he bettered his grip on his broom. The sight would have been amusing if the Kleistans' expression didn't promise violence. The circle tightened and the slave's bluster quickly faded, but it was too late to run. The first blow wasn't anything much, just a slight shove that jostled the victim, but others quickly followed, each harder than the last.

Loukas had forgotten himself, held rapt by the action, but now he realized that without intervention, the Kleistans might well beat the slave to death. He ran up the stairs of the courtyard, skirting the group, but none even looked his direction. It would be foolish to risk his own life for that of a slave, and there was no telling that they would listen to him. More likely his fate would be the same as the slave's.

Calling for Iereus, he shoved the front door open, skidding a little on the marble. He glanced over his shoulder and saw in horror, that Poppy hadn't followed him. Instead, the eunuch approached the Kleistans, his step determined.

Loukas stopped, catching himself with a hand on a column. Loukas couldn't see the slave, the Kleistans obscured the view. Poppy went straight for the group, and Loukas thought he meant to throw himself into the fray, but he stopped just short and shouted something in the Kleistans own language. The Kleistans paused more surprised by their language than Poppy's words, Loukas thought. Loukas edged forward, listening close as Poppy continued to speak, sounding sure and authoritative. The Kleistans turned toward the eunuch. The slave lay on the ground, his arms cradling his head, his knees drawn up -- probably a good sign, if the man was still capable of defending himself, at least he wasn't unconscious or dead.

Poppy held up his hands, his tone turning plaintive. The Kleistan Loukas took for the leader, or at least the one who spoke with Iereus on their behalf, stepped forward over the body of the slave. He spoke to Poppy, each gesturing to the slave and each other. The slave tried to get up while the attention was on Poppy, but one of the Kleistans set her boot on the back of his neck.

Poppy said something that sounded rude and gestured to the house and back to the slave. Loukas feared the Kleistan would strike him, but suddenly he broke into laughter and clapped Poppy on the back, and the rest of the Kleistans backed away from the slave. Poppy helped him up, and the slave stood shakily, blood flowing from his broken nose.

"What's going on here?" Iereus emerged into the courtyard.

The question was addressed to Loukas but Poppy answered. "Archon, your slave has done these people insult and invited the beating he received. Their honor has been satisfied and no permanent damage has been done."

Iereus looked over the retreating Kleistans and the bloodied slave with a cool eye. "Fine. Someone get him cleaned up." He strode past both Poppy and the slave, departing with the mercenaries, who fell into their usual positions behind him.

Poppy hooked the slave's arm around his neck, muttering about fools and their search for trouble.

---

"Poppy," Loukas said later. The eunuch poured oil into his palm, applying it to his scalp with practiced fingers. The razor lay on the table, already sharpened. "What did you say to the Kleistans this morning?"

Poppy set the oil aside and picked up the razor, carefully running it over the dark stubble. He worked more slowly than usual, his left hand making the work difficult.

"I merely reminded them that if they damaged Iereus's property, they would have to pay to replace it. The expense gave them pause." He adjusted the bronze mirror and grimaced at his hand. "Tion is a fool."

"Tion?" Loukas asked.

Poppy hesitated, the razor held above his scalp. "The slave."

"Oh. I didn't know his name."

"He rode with us to the horse fairs." Their was a trace of reproach in Poppy's voice.

"It's not as though we were formally introduced." Loukas frowned.

"I suppose not." Poppy's hand slipped, and he cursed; a thin line of red appeared above his ear. Loukas handed him a cloth from beside the basin, and Poppy pressed it to the cut.

"Here, let me finish." Loukas took the razor. "Before you do yourself real damage." Poppy leaned away, his look wary. "Oh come now, I can handle a razor.” Reluctantly, Poppy allowed Loukas to set the blade to his skin. Loukas worked it across the contours of his scalp without so much as a nick. The set of Poppy's shoulders relaxed, and he tilted his head as Loukas pushed it to the side for a better angle.

A knock came at the door, and Myrrine entered at Loukas’s acknowledgment.

"That are you doing?" she asked.

"Poppy's hand -- I'm helping him."

"I can have Honey help him, if he needs it."

"It's all right." He wiped the razor. "I'm done."

Myrrine shrugged; if Loukas wanted to wait upon his own eunuch that was his affair.

"There's just been news from the Council," she said animatedly, wringing her hands.

"Yes?" Loukas prompted.

"In light of all the misfortunes the gods have heaped upon us, the Council has decided that we must regain their favor. Drastic times call for drastic measures, you know." She paused for dramatic effect. "There's to be an Atonement."

---

An Atonement hadn't been held in the last fifty years -- not since the last major battle with Redini. Procopia I, Stavros's mother, had called for the ceremony, hoping for victory.

The ceremony was held at dusk. The Great Church of the Divine Mother was poorly lit, and hot with the number of bodies crammed into the space, nearly every member of the aristocracy and their wives squeezed together like salted carp in a barrel. Incense choked the air and Loukas nearly gagged with it. Outside the church, hundreds more gathered carrying lamps with them in the vigil.

Sweat trickled down the back of Loukas's neck, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He'd fasted all day with the rest of the House, and now hunger and heat made him lightheaded.

Procopia entered flanked by priests and priestesses of the Mother. She wore an unadorned black tunic, her hair unbound. Without her jewelry and accessories, she seemed smaller and plainer. He could see the circles under her eyes as she passed him. The priests chanted darkly, the sound felt more than heard. The procession made it to the altar and turned to face the congregation.

Procopia raised her hands to address the crowd, but she never got the chance. The great doors at the back sung open again, hitting the walls with a reverberating crash. Loukas jumped and twisted to see through the crowd, wondering if it were a part of the planned ceremony. He quickly decided not, as the people who poured in brandished swords and wore Kleistan garb, no foreigners were allowed within this sacred precinct.

Several people screamed, their voices bouncing back against the vaulted ceiling. Loukas found himself rooted to the spot, unable to move and no where to go even if he could. Someone grabbed his arm -- Myrrine, her face pale and terrified -- drawing him back further into the crowd.

The mercenaries jogged in, moving quickly and organized, stationing themselves throughout the crowd, which kept clear of their swords. Other mercenaries closed in on the empress. Procopia shouted for her guard, her eyes dark with anger rather than fear, backing up against the altar, but she was trapped; more Kleistans had slipped in through the side doors, flanking her.

"Your guards are not coming," said one of the Kleistans.

"Oh, you've killed them all, have you?” Procopia sneered, her hands groping on the altar behind her to close on a sacrificial knife. She brought it around to point at the mercenary, but the small blade only emphasized how outmatched she was.

"Didn't have to kill them," said another who'd slipped in from behind the altar. With a start Loukas recognized him. "They were easy enough to bribe," Cyrian said, his royal purple tunic standing out in the sea of black.

"What is the meaning of this?" Procopia demanded. "You threaten my person, you will answer for it."

"What I do, I do for the Houses of Edessa," Cyrian countered angrily. He jumped up on the altar; Procopia moved toward him with the knife, but a Kleistan raised his sword in warning, and she froze. "My sister has called for an Atonement today," Cyrian shouted, facing the crowd. "But it is not the people that need to beg the Mother's forgiveness. Drought, fire, rioting -- when did these evils start? When Procopia thought to ascend the throne! It is not the people who have brought down heaven's wrath, it is my sister. Sacrifice as many goats and sheep as you'd like, things will not be right in Edessa until Procopia steps down."

A wave of sound washed over the crowd as people made their opinion known.

Cyrian held up his hands for silence. "I call for a Judgment of Deficiency in Procopia Amira."

"How can you claim divine right to judge me, when you do not follow the laws yourself?" Procopia called back, mindless of the sword inches from her throat. "Only those in the Council can call for a Judgment and that must be seconded by at least two Houses."

"I call for a Judgment of Deficiency against Empress Procopia."

Loukas recognized Alexia's voice before he found her in the crowd. She held her head high, her voice calm and certain. Tzykalas called out to second her, followed by another archon Loukas couldn't see, their voice nearly drowned out by the roar.

"As of this moment, you are awaiting trial," Cyrian said to Procopia. "And as eldest of the House Amira, it is my duty to take you into custody. Please put down the knife lest force be needed."

Procopia hesitated and Loukas willed her to put down the knife; it would be convenient if she resisted and were 'accidentally' killed in the struggle. Slowly and deliberately she set the knife on the altar; Loukas released the breath he'd been holding. Without sparing a glance for Cyrian, she left, the Kleistans falling in around her. Cyrian, Alexia and Tzykalas and the two other conspirators followed. Loukas watched Alexia as she passed, her expression exultant. The doors shut behind them and there was a pause in which the crowd took a collective breath. The crowd streamed out of the church to follow the captured empress. Loukas would have gone was well, but Iereus stopped him.

"You're returning home," he said. "The Council will meet soon, and I want to know that you are safe."

Iereus escorted them home, changed back into his usual tunic and left again. Loukas and Myrrine stood in the doorway as he left.

"What do you think will happen now?" Myrrine asked, leaning against the doorframe.

"I don't know." Loukas shrugged.

"Come away from there," Metrodora admonished, shooing them from the door. "You won't learn anything standing about." But as soon as they moved, she took their place, peering out anxiously.

---

They all found reasons to hang around the front hall, each taking a turn watching the street. Iereus finally returned late that night, exhausted and in a foul mood. Myrrine took his cloak as Loukas pulled up a chair and Metrodora poured him a glass of wine.

Nika crossed her arms. "So?"

"The Call for a Judgment is holding, damn them all." He took a long drink and continued. "Cyrian has a good number of the Council on his side--the trade collegia and many of the lesser Houses. Procopia's imprisoned in the palace where the conspirators have ensconced themselves. Too many of the Council fled the city during the riots to take a vote and Cyrian's desperate enough for the credibility to wait for a quorum."

Myrrine bit her lip. "How long will it take for the trial?"

Iereus shrugged. "Not before the Exsen of Ardalia, the weather's taken an ugly turn, and most of the roads are impassable and the Amarna's too rough this time of year." Iereus drained his wine glass in a long gulp and held it out to be refilled. "We can expect Cyrian's pet army out in full force, rounding up anyone who protests or proves inconvenient."

"What do we do?" Metrodora asked.

"There's not much we can do. Everyone stay in the house. My allegiances to Procopia are well-enough known that I may well be a target." Iereus considered the bottom of his cup. "All we can do now is hope that the Council sees past its own superstition and votes this idiotic Judgment down."

"Why wouldn't they? Cyrian's obviously doing this for no reason other than his own gain." Loukas felt profoundly irritated that the Council might entertain Cyrian's power-grab.

"People are scared and Cyrian's influential. I should have seen the risk earlier." Iereus sighed. "There are many people who hope to profit by Cyrian's promotion. Procopia had her own share of enemies."

---

Loukas, sick of being cooped up, was in the sunken garden when the Guard came. He heard the clamor of boots and shouting. He exchanged a look with Poppy, whose expression tightened. They ran down the colonnade, keeping half-hidden at the top of the steps. Twelve of the Civic Guards stood in the courtyard, a full honor guard. Or execution squad. Slaves gathered at the doorways and windows, holding back curious children.

Nika swept out of the house, her youngest child on her hip. "What is your business here? This is House Iereus, not a training ground. We don't need you tramping about."

A young lieutenant stepped forward; her armor looked too big for her, but she kept a practiced hand on her sword. "Arist Iereus, we are sent on the Council's orders to escort Arist Loukas Kommenon Iereus to the palace."

"And what does the Council need with the wives of others?"

The blood drained from Loukas's face, his hair standing on end.

"We don't question our orders, and with respect, arist, neither should you," the lieutenant said, her tone just barely civil. "Where is Arist Kommenon?" At Nika's silence she added, "Arist, not you or anyone here will obstruct justice. Where is the arist?"

Nika handed the child to a slave, who disappeared back into the house. "The Mother may know, but I do not."

"Search the house," the lieutenant ordered sharply. The guards advanced, spears in hand.

"I am here," Loukas called, leaving his hiding spot without deciding to. "Whatever you want of me, leave this House alone." He moved to pass Nika, but she caught his arm, still watching the guards.

“The Council can wait for the arist to attire himself properly,” Nika told them, but the lieutenant looked ready to argue “I’m sure that you would not with to insult Archon Iereus by dragging his noble wife out in the streets, unveiled, under the cruel gaze of the plebs. Arist Loukas Kommenon Iereus’s eunuch will also accompany him. No one would object to that.” It was not a suggestion.

The lieutenant nodded, grimacing. “All right, but hurry.”

Nika nodded her assent, then turned to escort Loukas back up the steps. Once inside, she turned to Poppy. “Help him get ready.”

“What do they want?” Loukas asked as he was ushered along.

“Whatever it is, don’t give it to them,” Nika advised. “Remember that you are a wife. You know nothing of your husband’s concerns, your husband’s enemies, your husband’s politics. You are a sweet face; you do only what you’re told.”

“Play dumb? That’s your advice?” Loukas demanded shrilly.

“Well, yes.” Nika patted him on the cheek. “Though, in your case, I fear it won’t be an act.”

Poppy dressed him in the dark blue of House Iereus and changed into his own black eunuch’s tunic. Loukas hesitated and then tucked his knife into his belt. Nika nodded her approval as they returned.

“Remember,” she whispered as they descended the stairs to meet the waiting guards, “you are the wife of Archon Iereus, and they are all beneath you.” 


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