Chapter 17

Oct. 26th, 2009 11:10 am
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The guards allowed him to ride, though they led his horse. He didn’t take Rayna, unsure if he would be riding back. He kept his back straight in the saddle, repeating Nika’s words over and over in his head like a prayer. The domed spires of the palace glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. They cleared the palace gates; the gardens were gray an d still, so different from the night of the Stavros’s party.

Loukas expected to be led to the Great Hall immediately, but he was bit follow an imperial eunuch to the residential quarters. The eunuch showed them into a suite, waving them in with a flourish.

“Wait here, Arist,” the eunuch said and left, closing the door. The lock turned with a metallic click.

“It’s a strange sort of prison,” Loukas said, taking in the cream and emerald upholstery. Outside the lattice over the windows, a statue of Ardalia poured an empty amphora into a dry fountain. “Does this mean they’re not going to kill us?”

“Only that they’ll use poison,” Poppy suggested. “Blood would be hard to get out of the curtains.”

Loukas made a circuit of the room, but there was very little to note. He heard the lock turn again and edged closer to Poppy.

“I do hope they weren’t too abrupt,” Alexia said, pushing the door open. “You know how the Civics can be. Ah well, they were recruited for brawn not brain.”

Loukas’s mouth fell open. “Alexia?”

“Of course.” She held out her hands, taking his and kissing him on the cheek. “Who else would call for you? You didn’t think the Council would want you for questions.... Oh, I can see by your face that’s exactly what you though. Please, Loukas, you’re not that important.”

“What else was I to think?” Loukas burst out, flushing. “The Civic Guard coming to escort me to the palace, ready to overturn House Iereus to find me? You could have sent an invitation.”

Alexia’s expression soured. “Caution is needed -- too many of Procopia’s supporters hope to subvert the Judgment. Justice must be upheld!”

Loukas took a breath, and held up a hand to forestall the argument. “Why have you called for me, Alexia? What new intrigue do you seek to embroil me in?”

“It’s not ‘intrigue’. I did what I had to for the good of Edessa. Procopia is an incompetent fool.”

“How convenient that the person you feel most suited to rule is your very own cousin.”

The color drained from Alexia’s face and her eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t lecture about the dangers of ambition, dear Loukas -- it tastes of hypocrisy.”

They stared each other down, until Alexia turned, moving to the sideboard. “Let’s not fight; we’ve been friends too long. Will you take some wine?” She poured two glasses before he could answer and passed one to him.

He held it but didn’t drink. “You still haven’t told me why you’ve brought me here.”

“I’m trying to help you, Loukas,” she said, carefully articulating each word. “Your husband’s sympathies don’t have to be your own. Things are changing--“ Loukas snorted here, “-- and if you’re clever, they could change to your advantage.” She settled at the table, picking a thread from her sleeve.

“What do you mean?”

“If Cyrian becomes emperor, he can easily grant you a divorce.” She rolled the stem of her wine glass through her fingers. “Sit down, Loukas.”

Loukas sat, too surprised to argue. “Divorce? Iereus would never consent.”

“He doesn’t have to. The throne is the ultimate authority.”

Loukas took a sip of wine, but it could have been water for all he tasted it. “It would do me little good. One a wife has married, he can no long head a House. I’d go back to live under my mother and then Eleutherios. Or join a church.” He shuddered.

“I think you’ll find that this,” she gestured vaguely, “situation is more fluid. We both know that you deserve to be Archon Kommene. It’s what you’ve worked for all your life.”

Loukas set his wine down unsteadily; the top-heavy glass teetered and overturned, wine spilling across the table. Neither of them moved as wine dripped onto the marble floor.

“You’ve discussed this ... plan with Cyrian?”

“It was his idea.” She dipped a finger in the spreading wine and drew a spiral on the tabletop. “Eugenia supports Procopia.”

“Ah. He hoped to replace her with an archon indebted to him.”

Alexia didn’t argue. “Do you want to see Eleutherios -- that smug and conniving bastard -- as archon of your House? Are you content to attend to your wifely duties for the rest of your life? That eunuch dogging your steps, obeying your husband’s whims, subservient to your sisters?” Her voice was gentle but insistent. She stood and rounded the table to kneel by his side, heedless of the wine that stained the hem of her tunic. “I will not deny that this would help Cyrian, but is that such a bad thing? You and he have always been friends.”

Loukas pulled his hands from her grasp. “And what does Cyrian have planned for Iereus? And the rest of Procopia’s allies?”

Alexia stood. “They will see reason. Most aren’t as stubborn as Kommene or Iereus.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“I know you think this is heavy-handed, but it’s for the best. Cyrian can help Edessa, but not while people seek to undermine him. He must be careful.”

“I know -- look what happened to Procopia,” Loukas snapped.

“We did what we had to, Loukas,” she said sadly. “I won’t ask for your answer now. You are my personal guest here--“

“Prisoner, I think you mean.”

“--While you consider your answer. Please, do not try to leave or send communication.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“You’re one of the people I do trust, Loukas,” she sighed and bent over to kiss his forehead. “Accept the offer, Loukas. Think how your House will suffer if you do not.”

---

When she’d left, he turned to Poppy. “What should I do?”

Poppy shrugged. “Do nothing for as long as possible. If you do as Cyrian asks and his plot fails, you’ll be executed. And even if it doesn’t fail, you’ll be a traitor to your bloods and your husband. Cyrian himself won’t be able to trust you. Of course, if his coup succeeds, you will have little choice but to do as he orders.”

Loukas rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “What a cheery picture.”

“All you can do is delay. Things cannot remain as they are very long and the change may be to your favor.”

Loukas examined his nails, digging at the grime under his thumb nail. “On the other hand....”

Poppy raised an eyebrow; he’d found a cloth by the washstand in the next room and brought it back to mop up the spilled wine. “What other hand?”

“Well. It’s just.” Loukas traced the wood grain of the table. “She does have a point, doesn’t she? Cyrian will never allow a House like Kommene to oppose his rule. If Eugenia remains the archon, her pride and stubbornness may well destroy the House. Isn’t my first responsibility to Kommene itself? To protect it no matter the personal cost?”

Poppy said nothing.

---

Slaves came with food but refused to answer any of Loukas’s questions. He caught sight of Civic Guards waiting outside his door, quelling his nascent escape plans. He napped in the tedium; Poppy offered to read to him, but the only volumes available were religious poetry, and Loukas declined. Poppy read to himself, seemingly content.

Eventually the Guards came to fetch Loukas.

“Princeps Cyrian is wanting your answer now,” one said. Loukas was almost glad, anything was better than waiting. Poppy tried to come, but the guards motioned for him to stay.

The darkly painted plaster and low ceiling made the room Loukas was led to seem smaller than it was. Cyrian and Alexia sat at a long table, their heads bent together. Cyrian stood and embraced Loukas, kissing him twice. “Loukas, how are you?”

“Um.” Loukas hesitantly returned the embrace. “Well enough, thank you.”

“Excellent. Have you come to your decision?”

“I’ve considered the matter, but before I come to my final decision, I want to see Procopia.”

“Procopia?” Alexia asked, her expression of surprise quickly turning to suspicion. “Why?”

“I want to see her state for myself. She’s the woman you want me to help depose; I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”

The tendons in Cyrian’s neck jumped as he clenched his jaw. “We are not deposing anyone, merely rectifying a gross error on my father’s part. The auspices were always unfavorable for Procopia’s rule, yet he ignored them.” Cyrian took a deep breath, steadying himself. “I suppose you could see her. Anything to quell the rumor I’ve got her cut into pieces and packed in pickling brine.”

Loukas smiled guardedly. “I had heard something to that effect, yes.”

Alexia shot him a dark look. “Thank you, Cyrian. I’m sure once Loukas has seen for himself how magnanimous your actions toward your sister have been, he will be swayed.”

“How could I not?” Loukas agreed blandly.

Cyrian insisted on taking Loukas himself, keeping a step or two behind Loukas, even as he led him to the empress’s quarters. Procopia wasn’t held in a cell as Loukas half-expected, but in a room in one of the western towers. The domed roof came down nearly to the floor. Only two little key-hole window let in fresh air.

Procopia reclined on a low bed, one arm thrown over her face.

“Good afternoon, Sister,” Cyrian said, his voice overly sweet.

Her retort invited him to have sexual congress with livestock in language so coarse Loukas’s ears pinked.

“You should be more courteous to your guest,” Cyrian admonished.

At this Procopia sat up, leaning on an elbow, studying Loukas with interest. She appeared to be in good health; her dark skin was perhaps a bit ashen, but she showed no signs of abuse.

“Ah, Arist Kommenon Iereus. I bid you a warm welcome to my home. I’d offer you refreshment, but, alas, I have none myself ...”

She held out a hand; Loukas glanced to Cyrian and remained where she was. She let the hand drop with a disgusted sigh.

“I thank you for the welcome,” Loukas replied.

“Hm, may I inquire as to the nature of this visit? Am I now a prize on display?” She pressed a finger to her chin in mock consideration. “Though I can’t imagine a wife of Iereus being worth putting on a show for.”

“Arist Kommene station may yet be undecided.” Cyrian grimaced, his hands flexing by his sides.

“Ah. I see.’ She turned back to Loukas. “So he’s promised you wealth and power for you support, eh? Take his offer, if you like. Just be sure to betray him before he betrays you.”

Cyrian didn’t respond to that, instead saying to Loukas, “Now you’ve seen her -- are you satisfied?”

Whether he was satisfied or not, Loukas thought this was all he was getting. “More than satisfied.” He nodded to Procopia and she waved him away as though she’d dismissed him.

Cyrian waited until they’d descended back down the steps, meeting Alexia at the bottom.

“And?” Alexia said anxiously.

“Have you come to a decision ... or do you need even more time?” Cyrian pursed his lips slightly.

Loukas drew a breath. “I think I must accept such a generous offer.”

“Oh Loukas,” Alexia exclaimed and hugged him tightly.

Cyrian just nodded, looking pleased.

---

“You've accepted his offer,” Poppy said, still reading the volume of poetry.

Loukas sank down onto the couch next to him, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Yes. Did you know I would?”

Poppy shrugged and turned the page.

“Did I do the wrong thing?”

Poppy sighed shortly. “Only the Great Mother knows.”

“I'm sure I can get you a position in the palace. Librarian, maybe -- something worthy of your talents. You won't go to the slave block.”

Poppy's eyes no longer moved down the page, his gaze unfocused. “That's not the block I'm worried about going to.”

---

Loukas was soon called by Cyrian again. This time others sat around the table, Cyrian's inner circle. Cyrian sat at the table's head, Alexia to his right and Tzykalas to his left. Loukas recognized the merchant from Eugenia's party with whom Iereus had argued. They turned as he entered.

“Please.” Cyrian waved to a seat. “Do join us.” Loukas slipped into the indicated seat as Cyrian said, “First, introductions. Elarchon Kommene. This is Archon Halkias.” The name caught Loukas's attention; Halkias was the woman whose lover Procopia had had whipped when his husband pressed charges. She sat, watching him neutrally, her close-cropped hair and sharp cheekbones giving her a severe expression. “And you and Archon Tzykalas are already well-acquainted.” Tzykalas nodded once in terse acknowledgement.

Cyrian moved to the next man seated, his arms crossed tightly and his brows knit. “Master Andros is one of the wealthiest merchants n the whole of Edessa.”

“We've met,” Andros said, still scowling.

“Have you?”

“At Archon Kommene's party.”

“Ah, yes,” Loukas said. “A lovely evening.” His own smile was closer to a sneer. Andros was the only one of common blood at the table.

Andros cleared his throat. “With all due respect, I'm not sure a wife should really be in attendance, especially not a wife of Iereus.”

“Loukas's marriage will soon be annulled; he is capable as any here,” Alexia said, leaning forward with both palms on the table. “And his blood deserves a place far more than yours.”

Andros reddened, his jowls quivering as he clenched his teeth. Loukas was surprised he couldn't hear the man's teeth grinding.

“I understand your concerns, Master Andros,” Loukas said smoothly, adopting his most polished tone. “But Archon Damatrys speaks the truth. My marriage was against my nature. Archon Tzykalas can attest, in every respect I have behaved as an archon and husband should.”

Tzykalas nodded reluctantly. “It is true that he has acted in ways unseemly for a wife.”

“Thank you,” Loukas said dryly.

“How is it fair that such elevations are being handed out to the first wife who fancies himself better, when my own long service goes unremarked?” Andros demanded.

“Elarchon Kommene was already an arist, and so his promotion is only a matter of an annulled marriage, rather than an ennoblement -- something that should be kept rather rarer, don't you think?” Archon Halkias asked, toying with the gold chain at her throat.

Andros sputtered and Alexia was ready to further the argument, but Cyrian replied first. “We are not here to debate Loukas's worth; I have already decided that he deserves to be here and that should be good enough for all of you.” Alexia looked smug at this. “But instead we are to decide how best to proceed with our plans. Archon Tzykalas, what news have you?”

“The Kleistans are holding for now, and meeting little resistance. Soon, though, they will be expecting another payment.” He grimaced. “Filthy people. We won't have access to the treasury until after Procopia is officially tried and removed from the throne.”

Frowning, Cyrian asked, “Surely we have the funds in our own pockets to last until the trail?”

“They are running dangerously low,” Tzykalas said. “Much of my own wealth was tied up just to reach this point.”

“As was mine!” Andros asserted, raising a beringed finger.

“We shall have to make it stretch a little farther and appeal to the Kleistans' honor.”

“Yes, Princeps,” Tzykalas said. “But honor means very little to them.”

“Then promise them twice their fee if they'll wait for it,” Cyrian said, bringing his fist down on the table. Alexia flinched at the sound.

Tzykalas pressed his lips together and bowed his head in agreement, doubtlessly calculating how long promises would sway the Kleistans.

“How long until the trial?” Halkias asked.

Alexia answered, her voice quiet but firm, “We're still awaiting sixty of the Council members, most of whom fled during the riots.”

“They fled during the city's hora of need; can't they just be removed?” Halkias replied.

Alexia mouth dropped open in dismay. “You can't just--”

“It might be worth removing them,” Loukas interrupted, “but then you'll lack enough members for a quorum. You can have them replaced, but it'll take even longer to have new members instated and -- though we know your intent is beyond reproach, Princeps -- it will look better to the collegia if the Council members they elected are the ones casting ballots.”

“He's right,” Andros agreed. “The nobility have been buying seats in the Council for far too long.”

“So be it then,” Cyrian agreed, pursing his lips as he considered. “We wait. I want this legal.”

---

Alexia walked back with Loukas to his rooms. Poppy fell in behind them as they exited the chamber.

“Don't you think you could dispense with the eunuch?” Alexia asked.

Loukas gave a one-shoulder shrug. “I don't know that I can. They're very loyal, you know.”

“Yes, but to whom?” Alexia took his arm. “We could find him a position in the court.”

“I've told him as much, but he still keeps hanging around.”

“It just doesn't seem right to have him following you about like some over-grown dog. If you want to be seen as the next archon of Kommene, Loukas, you must act like one.”

“He entertains me,” Loukas said defensively. “Something sorely lacking around here, entertainment.”

“I promise to come and visit more often,” Alexia said, rolling her eyes. “If you're that desperate.”

“You should. I've missed you.” He continued before she could mock him for his sentimentality. “Cyrian doesn't trust me -- why bring me to these meetings?”

“Well, because he doesn't trust you.”

“I ... don't follow?” They'd reached his rooms and Loukas nodded to the guards as he let himself in.

“He has you watched; you can't get a message to the outside, so he risks nothing in bringing you into his confidence. However, the more informed you are, the more, ah, committed you are.”

“You mean the guiltier I look,” Loukas said. It wouldn't matter what his own allegiances were, if he looked guilty, he'd be executed just as readily as the other conspirators.

She smiled and tapped the tip of his nose with one finger. “See? You already have such a fine grasp of politics.”

---

Loukas ran a hand through his hair as he stretched his legs to keep up with Cyrian. This was the first time he'd been bareheaded in public since his marriage, and he felt exposed. The sidelong glances he got as the party made its way to the Council didn't help. Alexia bumped his shoulder with hers.

“No need to look quite so serious,” she said.

Loukas managed a half-smile. “You just lack my natural gravitas.”

“Oh,” she said, “Is that what it is? I'd have guessed indigestion.”

“I just don't see why I'm required,” Loukas started unhappily, continuing their earlier argument. Only Councilors were allowed in the Council room itself during the session. Loukas might join Cyrian and the others on their way to the Council, but he still wasn't one of them.

“It's a symbol, Loukas,” Alexia said patiently, not for the first time. “Perhaps Eugenia Kommene doesn't support him, but her time is ending and the new archon stands with Emperor Cyrian.”

“He's not the emperor yet,” Loukas muttered under his breath. Alexia hurried to catch up to Cyrian and Tzykalas as they started up the Council steps and didn't hear him.

Loukas was invited to wait in one of the audience boxes, tiny chambers of the Council floor where the proceedings could be heard, meant for dignitaries and anyone with enough coin and a stake in the action.

He sat for awhile on the chamber's thinly padded bench, listening to the Councilors debate who should be responsible for the allocations of treasury funds. He winced as Tzykalas accused Iereus of gross mismanagement of the Committee for Public Supply, coming close to accusing him of treason.

“Can we trust a man who's been appointed to his position by Procopia herself?” Tzykalas's baritone filled the Council, loud even through the screen and paneling of the chamber. Perhaps he should have considered a career on the stage, Loukas thought viciously.

Loukas stood, uninterested in hearing more, and pushed back the heavy curtain to step into the corridor. That helped deaden the noise of the shouting councilors. He glanced over his shoulder reflexively, but Poppy had been left behind along with his veil as a symbol of Loukas's negated marriage contract. Loukas would have to save his remarks about Tzykalas's theatrics until he returned to the palace. It was chilly in the portico, though winter had lost some of his bite and the season of Hylous would soon begin. Loukas shivered, but lingered outside, skirting the Council building. Friezes along the walls depicted gods and goddesses who granted the Council their favor: Elarion, god of civic duty; Clothis, goddess of punishment.

There was a small altar to Lereious himself behind the Council building, a plain, unadorned shelter, closed on three sides. The altar was dark and stained with blood of sacrificed doves. A priestess poured oil into one of the lamps that hung at each corner. She wore dark red robes that signaled her affiliation, but Loukas couldn't remember to which church.

He gave her a smile as she collected her supplies and he approached the altar. He had nothing to give, but he knelt and kissed the altar, its grain rough under his lips.

“For whom do you pray, Loukas?” Iereus stood behind him, his head cocked to the side as he considered the scene before him. “Not for Cyrian, surely? A god of justice would be the best choice in his case.”

“I pray for you,” Loukas answered, sounding more plaintive than he meant.

“Generous of you.”

“You need it more than I.”

Iereus inclined his head in slight acknowledgement. “So how much of it is true?”

“I don't know what you've heard,” Loukas said.

Iereus gritted his teeth, and Loukas wasn't sure if he would answer. “That Cyrian intends to install you as the archon of Kommene.”

“Yes.” Loukas dropped his gaze to the paving stones. Iereus surprised him by closing the space between them and seizing his Loukas's shoulders. His fingers dug in, his grip bordering on painful.

“If he has threatened you, Loukas. If he has hurt you....” Iereus's voice caught. “I swear by the Mother and her children that I will kill him. I can protect you. Thy would not have taken you hat I been home. Nika never should have--”

Loukas grasped Iereus's wrists and the pressure eased. “Nika did what she had to; if I hadn't gone with the Civics, it would have ended in blood and they would have taken me anyway.”

“Come now, then. I can have you away and have the whole House out of Edessa. Cyrian can't afford to send anyone after us.” He finished, waiting for Loukas's reply, leaning in until Loukas could feel his breath.

“No,” Loukas said softly. “I can't.”

Iereus pulled back, his hands dropping. “No?" Another roar could be heard from the Council. “Loukas, hear me, if you fear him--”

“No,” Loukas said. “I gave up my ambitions when I entered your House, but I did not forget them. You are a good husband, but I fear I can never be a good wife. I'm sorry.”

Iereus didn't reply and Loukas's stomach twisted uncomfortably. He nearly took it back, but it was too late. Iereus turned on his heel, and Loukas watched him disappear back into the Council building. Loukas crossed his arms, the chill had seeped into his fingers and raised pimples along his arms.

The lamps flickered, guttering in the sharp breeze. Footsteps came on the stone behind him. It was the priestess again. She shivered once, her thin robe and close-shorn hair scant protection from the cold.

“Are you Loukas Kommenon Iereus?” she asked.

“Uh. Yes,” Loukas said, as surprised by her informality as he was by his name. “I'm Elarchon Loukas Kommene.” He stressed the title.

Her eyes narrowed, and Loukas took an involuntary step back, under her scornful gaze. Everything from the tense set of her shoulders, to her quick, labored breathing suggested not just dislike, but outright hatred. He could think of nothing he might have done to offend her.

“Who do you serve?” he asked. “Why do you know me?”

She drew herself up. “I am a servant of the divine and righteous Agathaos.”

Her answer only confused Loukas further; Agathaos's fanatical followers lived in near seclusion on the other side of the city. They rarely left their sanctuary; no wonder he hadn't recognized her vestment.

“And it is Agathaos,” she continued, “who you have offended. Your heresy must be punished.”

“How dare you--” Loukas cut himself off as she drew a long knife from the sleeve of her tunic, its curved blade not ceremonial but practical.

“For your insult to matrimony, forsaking your marriage vows and parading as though you were unmarried, you deserve death!” She lunged; Loukas caught her wrist, but she freed herself, twisting against his thumb. The blade tore through the cloth of his tunic, but missed skin. She reversed the blade and brought it up again, Loukas just clearing the blade's path. She handled the knife well with confidence and intent.

He turned and ran, not sparing the breath to cry for help. Sprinting up the steps, his longer legs gave him the advantage and he outdistanced her. He cleared the top well ahead, and rounded the corner of the Council building. Guards stood at either side of the door.

“Assassin,” he gasped, gesturing just as the priestess caught up. There was a heart-beat of time in which they all froze assessing the situation, then the priestess threw herself at Loukas once more as the guards brought their spears to bear on her. The spear's sharp point caught the priestess's shoulder, her momentum driving her upon it. Grunting, she half fell, half stumbled down the stairs. Loukas could hear the crack as her arm broke.

She lay at the base of the steps, the red stain spreading beneath her. With her good arm, she propped herself up.

“Whore!” she screamed. “Faithless, conniving slut.”

“Silence!” Loukas snapped. The guards drew knives and approached the wounded priestess, who ignored them, the whole of her attention on Loukas. Her eyes were black with pain and hate as she continued to scream insults.

The Councilors began to stream from the building.

“Breaker of oaths! Ruin of the city!” The woman spat, her spittle pink with blood.

“What is this?” Cyrian clasped Loukas's elbow, his hand felt hot against Loukas's chilled skin.

“She tried to kill me,” Loukas heard himself say.

“Would to the goddess I had!” A guard prodded her with the spear, and she whimpered, her face going white.

“An assassin?” Cyrian said in mild curiosity.

“Begging your pardon, Princeps,” said one of the guards, shaking her head. “Not an assassin. If someone had hired a professional, the arist would be dead now. This is just one of the crazies from Agathoas's church. Anyone they think threatens the order of the city,” she drew a hand across her throat to illustrate, “they take care of.”

The guards pulled the woman to her feet, jarring her broken arm. She gasped and went limp -- they had to carry her out.

Loukas suddenly became aware of the gathered Councilors watching him. He clenched his hands to disguise their shaking. The faces of the crowd blurred together. Someone came up on his other side -- Alexia.

“Say something,” she muttered for his ears only.

“What?” Loukas asked, the hair on the back of his neck prickling.

“Anything.” She squeezed his elbow tighter and let go. “Prove you're undaunted.”

Loukas swallowed to wet his throat and stepped forward, feeling rather daunted indeed.

“Um, Councilors,” Loukas started and cleared his throat before beginning again. “Councilors! The Great Mother would not allow such a base attack on the Council's own sacred steps to succeed.” Cyrian prodded him forward. “There are many who will be unhappy as the wrongs in Edessa are put to rights. But no dissident can halt progress, no matter what tactics they use -- we are unswayed! We have the gods and goddess on our side!”

There was a smattering of applause; it sounded more polite than enthusiastic. Still, Alexia smiled at him and Cyrian nodded once in approval.

“And with that, the session is adjourned,” Cyrian declared.


On to chapter 18. 
 
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