Chapter 18

Nov. 2nd, 2009 10:32 am
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Procopia's trial was held the next day. Loukas, again secreted away in the audience room of the Council, pressed up against the thin screen as closely as he dared.

He could make out the Councilors moving stiffly in their heaviest robes of state, wrists weighed down in with stacks of bracelets and earrings big enough they had to give the wearer a headache.

Procopia stood on the dais at the Council's center, all the more conspicuous in her plain tunic. She held her head high. Looking neither left nor right, as though she were oblivious to the activity and hushed discussion around her. Her hands were bound before her, but she ignored this as well.

“Loukas, are you there?” A Councilor stepped in front of Loukas's screen; Loukas immediately recognized Iereus's profile. Loukas bit his lip, and considered not answering. He knew Iereus couldn't see past the screen into the darkened box. “Loukas?”

“I'm here,” Loukas said. Iereus moved closer though he stood in shadow, backlit by the torches. ”How did you know I was here?”

Iereus sighed in relief at Loukas's reply. “I didn't. I guessed you were listening from one of these rooms and this is the fourth screen I've spoken to.” Iereus paused, ducking his head. “I fear the others will think I've lost my mind, muttering to myself.”

Loukas moved closer to the screen, his nose scarcely more than a hand's breadth away yet Iereus still could not see him. “It's the world that has gone crazy, not you.”

Iereus snorted. “Perhaps it is both. I do not think this trial will go in Procopia's favor -- Cyrian has seen to that.” Loukas didn't reply, but waited for Iereus do continue. Loukas's eyes adjusted to the low lighting. “You've assured yourself a good place in the new regime--” Loukas started to protest, but Iereus spoke over him, his voice urgent. “I don't say this to censure you. You have made wiser choices than I have; I don't begrudge that. Your choices have saved you, while I fear mine have damned me."

“I would not have you risk anything for my own sake, but if is in your power, seek leniency for my House. You have Cyrian's ear, you can convince him they are no threat.”

On the Council floor, Cyrian started to call the trial to order, and there was a great rustling as people moved to their seats. Procopia continued to ignore them.

“Loukas?”

“I'm still here.”

Iereus set the tips of his fingers against the silk screen. “They are blameless in this.”

“It won't come to that,” Loukas said hoarsely.

“And if it does?”

Loukas brought his own hand up to mirror Iereus's on the screen, so their hands touched through the thin material.

“May the goddess witness this vow: I will do everything I can to protect House Iereus and all its members.”

Iereus dropped his hand and whispered, “Thank you.”

He strode away to take his place in the Council as the priest of Lereious thumped his staff against the floor four times.

“Justice be done in the east, justice be done in the west, justice be done in the north, justice be done in the south,” the priest intoned. “Procopia Amira, daughter of Stavros, is called to stand.”

Procopia moved for the first time since she'd entered. “I, Procopia Amira, rightful empress of Edessa, answer the call.”

The priest next called Cyrian forth to make the case against his sister. Loukas took a seat, elbows on his knees and forehead in his hand as he listened.

“That woman who stands before you with her head high has brought Edessa low with her impiety and her base nature. Look at what the goddesses and gods have wrought since she ascended the throne -- drought, wild fire, rioting. Never before as Edessa known the indignity of foreign mercenaries patrolling her streets, not until now. Can the Great Mother make her displeasure more clearly known?” Cyrian continued, linking everything from sunken ships and still births to Procopia's reign, but Loukas's attention wandered back to his promise to Iereus.

He told himself that Iereus was surely wrong, that Cyrian would not seek revenge. Unbidden came the stories he'd heard since childhood of Houses destroyed when they fell from favor. The archons executed, their wives and children sold as slaves.

Cyrian gestured to Procopia, punctuating his tirade. His face was flushed, his contempt evident.

“Do not allow this whore and blasphemer to foul the throne any longer -- it is your sacred duty to obey the Great Mother, to protect the people, and to preserve the throne. Remove Procopia Amira.” With a last flourish, Cyrian stepped aside to allow the arbitrator to call for any Councilor to speak in Procopia's defense.

Iereus moved and Loukas realized he intended to speak for Procopia. Loukas jumped to his own feet, but he couldn't reach through the screen to stop Iereus or call to him to keep him from his folly. The entire room turned toward Iereus, who stood with his shoulders squared and his face impassive, as calm and commanding the statue of Lereious himself.

“I will speak for Procopia Amira,” Iereus announced, and though he didn't seem to raise his voice, Loukas heard him clearly. The arbitrator called Iereus forth, and Iereus moved to the dais. He paused before speaking, and Loukas leaned forward until his nose was against the silk of the screen.

“Councilors, this trial is nothing but a mockery, an attempt by grasping and unworthy people to claim more than the Mother allotted to them. Princeps Cyrian accuses the empress of sacrilege, but it is he who brought it to the might hall of the Council.” Even from the other side of the room, Loukas could see Cyrian stiffen and go white. “Emperor Stavros chose Procopia and you yourselves approved her instatement. But Cyrian thought his own blood better than his sisters, though his mother can from a lesser House. It is not the Great Mother or her city that he serves, only his own base ambition.”

Iereus paused here, surveying his audience. Loukas's lungs started to burn -- he'd been holding his breath. The entire room was utterly silent and Iereus finished his speech.

“This trial is a mockery and these charges false. You must uphold the rightful ruler or let the city descend into chaos.”

Iereus nodded to the arbitrator and returned to his seat with even steps, as though he had not just committed suicide.

Cyrian finally broke the silence. “Thank you, Archon Iereus. Will anyone else speak for Procopia?” No one stirred. “No? Are you sure? We welcome dissent.”

Loukas found his mother in the crowd; she sat unmoving as the rest.

“No one else will follow Archon Iereus's example?” Cyrian pressed further. “Then let us cast our votes.” He gestured toward the two matching urns at either end of the dais: a white-with-red for a vote against the Judgement and a red-with-white urn for the vote for it. Loukas didn't have to watch as the Councilor's rose and moved to form a queue before the red urn.

Procopia was led away from the Council no longer an empress.

---

Poppy rose as Loukas let himself into his rooms at the palace. Loukas jumped; though the sun had set, Poppy hadn't yet lit the lamps.

“Don't lurk in the dark,” Loukas scolded to cover his own shaky nerves.

“Apologies, Master.” Poppy knelt at the fireplace to light a straw. “And the Judgment?” he asked without urgency. He cupped his hand around the flame and circled the room, lighting each lamp.

“It passed.”

“Ah.” Poppy didn't sound surprised. A newly-lit flame guttered and he waited until it steadied before moving to the next. “Has he scheduled the execution yet?”

Loukas shook his head. “No, though I imagine it will be sooner rather than later.”

“He's waited this long for her blood, why wait longer?” Poppy said philosophically and blew out the straw.

“He could show mercy,” Loukas suggested. “Send her in to exile--” He cut himself off as he caught Poppy's expression. “You think I'm a fool.”

“I think you're young.” Poppy shrugged. “Cyrian won't let any threat live for long; he can't afford to.”

“Do you think he'll make a good emperor?”

Poppy's answer was interrupted by a knock on the door. A slave entered at Loukas's assent.

“Begging your pardon, Arist,” she said without looking up from the floor. “But Emperor Cyrian's asked to see you.”

“All right,” Loukas said and dismissed her. “Emperor Cyrian,” he repeated, testing the new title. “I don't know that I like the sound.”

“Too late now,” Poppy said.

Loukas grimaced and left.

---

Loukas found himself slowing as he made his way to Cyrian's chamber, each step more deliberate than the last. The door was closed, and Loukas hesitated debating whether that was excuse enough to retreat. Cyrian's voice carried through the carved oak, his tone sharp thought the words were indistinct.

The door swung open abruptly, nearly clipping Loukas, who backed hastily away. A man pushed past Loukas, his clothes the ragged garb of the lower city. Loukas just caught a glimpse of his tattoo, but he recognized it with a thrill of fear.

The gang leader from the dock riots.

“Beg pardon, Arist,” he said to Loukas, his eyes sweeping past Loukas without noticing him, but Loukas was sure.

The man disappeared down the hall, his footfalls heavy on the marble floors. Loukas stared after him, his throat gone dry.

“Ah, Loukas.” Cyrian ushered him in. “Sorry if he's put you off your dinner. I swear, you can smell him coming long before he arrives. Let me get you a drink.” Loukas numbly followed Cyrian, accepting the brandy pressed into his hand.

“Who was that?”

“Hm?” Cyrian savored a sip of the amber liquid thoughtfully. “Oh just a contractor I had do some work for me. He wants more money, of course.” He gestured expansively with his glass and sank onto the couch. “You'd think an emperor would be beyond such piddling matters, but I've found just the opposite.”

Cyrian wasn't the emperor; the Council still had to accept his candidacy and confirm him. Loukas wondered just how many votes Cyrian had already purchased to be so certain of his impending coronation.

Loukas laughed weakly. “I can only imagine.”

Cyrian motioned for Loukas to take the seat opposite him. Loukas did, perching on the edge of it. He took a rather generous gulp of the brandy, which burned the back of his throat and warmed his belly.

Cyrian sighed heavily, toying with a strand of dark hair, twisting it through his fingers. “I'm afraid there's another bit of unpleasant business.”

Loukas leaned forward. “Oh?”

“Falkon Iereus is going to be brought to trial for treason.” Cyrian sounded vaguely apologetic, as though he merely informed Loukas that he would be unable to attend a party. “I'll need to give evidence at his trial.”

“He isn't a traitor,” Loukas said automatically.

Cyrian set his glass aside. “I'm afraid that he is. Your devotion to your former husband is admirable, but misguided. I would be careful, Loukas, that you do not become guilty by association.” He stood, looking down at Loukas. “Do not let his downfall be yours.”

Loukas downed the rest of his brandy; it no longer burned. He heard himself whisper, “I can provide you with whatever evidence you require, but....”

Cyrian leaned over. “But?”

“I would beg leniency for his wives and children. They share neither his guilt or sympathies.”

“Such a tender heart,” Cyrian clucked fondly and kissed Loukas's cheek. “Fine, then. You have my word.”

“Thank you,” Loukas said, rising unsteadily. “Do you need anything else?”

“No, I'm quite grateful for your help.”

“If I might beg your indulgence, I don't feel well.” And truly, Loukas felt nauseated.

“You do look a bit peaked,” Cyrian said. “I'm sorry to have bothered you with all this. Such dark times we live in.”

“Indeed,” Loukas agreed and fled.

---

Loukas's feet carried him back to his room by habit, while his mind was occupied. There was nothing he could do to help Iereus -- if he didn't testify, Cyrian would find someone else and Loukas would lose whatever favor he now held. If he did testify, he could at least keep his promise, and that was all Iereus had asked. Iereus had known what opposing Cyrian would mean. He had forced Loukas into the position, to protect House Iereus by betraying Iereus himself.

Loukas fumbled with the door knob, his eyes stinging.

“He's going to be executed,” Loukas announced. He told Poppy about Cyrian's request; the eunuch sat impassively as Loukas railed against Iereus's self-destruction. “He knew this would happen -- all for pride and stubbornness. Damn him!” he finished explosively. “He's left me no choice.”

“No,” Poppy agreed quietly. “But even if Iereus had not opposed Cyrian openly, there is little chance he would have maintained his position. Cyrian is too careful to allow Procopia's supporters power. He has laid his trap carefully.”

“Oh,” Loukas said suddenly, remembering the gang leader. “Cyrian was behind the riots at the dock -- and possibly others. I am vindicated in that, at least.” Loukas squeezed the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off a headache. “Do you think Cyrian will do as I ask? Spare the rest of the House?”

Poppy drew a deep breath as he considered. “He may let them live, but it will not be mercy. The House will be disbanded, the children stripped of their names and sent to the slave block.”

Loukas swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. “But why?”

“His hold on power is not so strong that he can take chances with mercy. House Iereus will stand as an example to those who think to challenge him.”

Loukas thought of the children, of Loukia in Myrrine's arms as they stood on the block. He put a hand to his mouth as his bile rose.

“How did this happen?” Loukas asked hoarsely.

“Seasons of careful planning, I'd imagine,” Poppy said dryly.

“I promised Iereus I would save them.”

“He will have to be content with their survival.” Poppy shrugged.

Loukas rose and moved to the bed, but knew even as he threw himself down that he could no more sleep than fly. He stubbornly closed his eyes and in his mind's eye saw Metrodora in the streets and Nika sold to a brothel.

He rose again and went to the chest at the foot of the bed. Within it he found the veil he'd worn on the day they'd brought him here. Poppy watched as Loukas drew the material over his head with a practiced hand.

“I have to do something,” he said in reply to Poppy's unasked question. “I promised.”

At this Poppy grasped Loukas's shoulder, stilling his efforts. “Whatever you plan, it is folly.”

Loukas shrugged. “Probably.”

Poppy's frown eased and he said more gently. “You cannot prevent his death.”

Loukas pulled away and finished wrapping his veil. “And you cannot prevent mine! You do not get to question me, Poppy.” He left without looking over his shoulder, afraid that if he did so, he would let Poppy sway him from his course.

---

Procopia was no longer held in the tower, but had been moved to a cells below the palace, the affectation of royal treatment abandoned. These weren't the official prison that housed the royal interrogators, merely a block of cells for prisoners too valuable to be kept elsewhere, ones the emperor wanted within easy reach.

Loukas passed slaves and palace eunuchs, but none so much as looked at him. He heard hurried footsteps behind him and cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, sighing in relief as he saw Poppy.

“You're not talking me out of it,” Loukas muttered as Poppy fell into step behind him.

“I know.”

They reached the narrow stairs that wound down around the back of the palace. Loukas took them as quickly as he dared; if he tripped, he was sure to break his neck on the long way down. The spiraling stairs were very narrow. It grew cooler as they descended.

“Might I ask what your plan is?” Poppy whispered, Loukas's earlier admonishment apparently forgotten. The bottom of the stairs opened up onto a low corridor. Standing along the floor seeped into Loukas's sandals, making the leather slick and his foot slipped against the sole.

He grabbed Poppy's wrist and started pulling him along. “Argue if you must, but keep moving.”

“I really cannot wait to hear what plan you've come up with that a crippled eunuch and his misbegotten charge can execute,” Poppy said a bit breathless as he worked to keep up with Loukas. “I'm sure it's quite brilliant.”

“I don't have a plan, yet. Not per se. It's more of an idea.”

“Perfect.”

“But House Iereus cannot stand if Cyrian takes the throne.” Loukas had never been in the palace catacombs before, though he'd heard rumors. Water dripped in the distance, the echo carrying down the corridor. Torches set in rough iron scones cast flickering light. He followed them; there were dozens of turns in and off-shoots, but most were empty and unlit.

“At least wait until you have a more solid plan,” Poppy whispered.

“I can't.” Loukas shook his head firmly. “The only real chance of saving Iereus is saving Procopia, and Cyrian will not her live much longer. I cannot get out to warn Iereus, and none of Procopia's supporters can get into the palace. But I can. I have the best chance of getting her out.”

He waited for Poppy's argument, but the eunuch only sighed. “You're right.” Loukas looked at Poppy, his mouth open in surprise. “Just this once.”

They came to a sudden split, the tunnel branching off, but each doorway was dark. They twisted so that there may have been new torches a little ways into them; there was no way to tell without following them. Loukas didn't trust his sense of direction; in utter blackness, it would take only a few turns for him to become lost.

“Which is it?” Poppy asked, his voice breathy in Loukas's ear.

“I've no idea. Shhh.” Loukas listened intently. For a moment only the drip of water broke the silence. Then another sound, sharp like a boot heel on stone.

“That came from this direction, right?” Loukas indicated the second doorway.

“If you say so.”

“Let's try it,” Loukas said with far more conviction than he felt. He passed the doorway, his fingers trailing against the wall, the stone rough under his fingers. Loukas knew what it was to be blind as the darkness enveloped them.

“How do you propose we overpower the guards?”

“Maybe we can bribe them. Just keep your mouth shut and don't look guilty.”

Poppy muttered something Loukas didn't catch as they rounded a corner and could once again see. Two Civic Guards stood to either side of an iron-enforced door that didn't quite come up to Loukas's shoulder. The guards leaned on their spears, but straightened to attention as they caught sight of Loukas. They looked familiar and Loukas remembered them escorting Cyrian to the Council. He hoped they remembered him as well.

“Open this door,” Loukas ordered.

“Emperor Cyrian's said no one should be admitted,” one said, eyeing Loukas, his thick brows drawn together.

“Yes, well,” Loukas replied icily. “I'm on his errand.” The guards exchanged a look. “Great Mother. I thought they were suppose to drill respect into you along with the handling of clumsy instruments.” He clapped his hands sharply. “Come now, I'd hate to have you beaten.”

The one on the right, a big meaty fellow with an unfortunate face hesitated a breath longer and Loukas feared he would refuse, but instead he looked to the other guard and shrugged a little. He pulled the keys from his belt and fitted one in the lock. Loukas breezed into the cell as soon as it was open, ducking under the low lintel.

Loukas blinked as he adjusted to the darkness, struggling to identify the form of Procopia from the small mound of dirty straw. He had to breath shallowly, the acrid scent of mold and urine making his eyes water.

The form moved and Procopia sat and snorted. “Loukas Kommene, I do so enjoy your visits. No matter how wretched my circumstances, I'm so relieved to know that I'm not you.”

Poppy followed him in and shut the door and braced his back against it. Loukas moved to Procopia.

“Empress.” He knelt by her side; she brought her bound hands up to strike him, but he caught them. The whipcord dug deeply into the flesh of her wrists and it was wet with blood.

“Do not touch me!” She spat at him, but her mouth was too dry to produce much. She struggled to pull her hands free, and managed to knee him in the ribs.

“Stop! I'm trying to help you,” he whispered urgently. He hesitated, mouth open, her teeth ready to sink into his forearm.

“Why?” she asked, suspicious.

“Cyrian means to destroy my House.”

“I thought he meant to make you archon.”

“Not Kommene. Iereus.” He drew his knife and carefully set it to the tough leather of her bindings.

“Don't tell me this is a rescue,” Procopia said, marveling. “Because of all the people in the world to come to my aid, you are the least capable.”

“Yet I'm the only one here,” Loukas said through gritted teeth as the cord finally came free. He sheathed the knife, casting a nervous glance toward the door, wondering how long it would be before the guards got curious. Procopia gingerly massaged her wrists and stood, teetering a bit as her circulation returned.

“What now?” she asked, sounding almost bored.

Loukas looked to Poppy, who shrugged. “I think we can overcome the guards,” he started. “There are three of us--”

“We're unarmed,” Poppy pointed out.

“--And we have the element of surprise.”

“Can we do it without them raising the alarm?” Procopia asked. “Perhaps we might lure them into the cell and lock them in.”

“We're unarmed,” Poppy said again. “And unused to combat. They would make short work of us.”

“I'd rather die fighting here than executed before the rabble,” Procopia said.

Loukas twisted the end of his veil, rolling it through his fingers. He looked down at the fabric suddenly, an idea coming to him. Unwrapping the veil, he pulled it from his shoulders and handed it carefully to Poppy, so the ends wouldn't rail across the dirty floor. Poppy accepted it automatically, still arguing with the Procopia. As Loukas undid his belt as well, they stopped to watch him, each wearing matching expressions of bafflement.

“Here, trade with me,” he said to Procopia, giving Poppy the belt. “We're about the same height and with the veil....”

Procopia understood immediately and slipped out of her long tunic without hesitation, waiting for Loukas to hand her his own. After the first flash of naked breasts, Loukas kept his eyes resolutely on the floor. He didn't have time to feel self-conscious abut his own nudity as he accepted her tunic and pulled it on. The garment fit him a little snugly through the shoulders, but fell to about the same length.

Poppy was helping Procopia fit Loukas's belt around her waist. The veil was a dark blue wool; he thanked the Mother it wasn't one of the thin silks, the bulk material helped the disguise. Procopia arranged it to shadow her face. In the darkness shadowing her features, Loukas had to admit the likeness was good.

“That should get you past the guards.” Loukas pulled at the short sleeves of his new tunic, shivering in the chill.

“And then what?” Poppy asked.

“I have people waiting,” Procopia said, though Loukas knew it wasn't Procopia's welfare about which Poppy inquired. “They haven't moved yet because Cyrian would kill me before they could reach me. They can shelter me, and then -- with the goddesses to witness -- there will be such a reckoning.”

“Master,” Poppy said in protest. “You cannot do this.”

Loukas didn't reply to that, instead saying, “Would you please return my knife to Iereus?”

“We should go,” Procopia said before Poppy could answer. “Don't worry, I'm sure your eunuch will return the knife.” She took Loukas's head in her hands and kissed his forehead in a blessing. “You will be rewarded for this Loukas. If not in this life, then in the next.”

“A great comfort,” Loukas said and swallowed hard. “Go on then.”

“You Houseless bastard!” Procopia screamed, both Loukas and Poppy jumped. She explain, in a whisper, “My usual parting for my brother.”

“Ah.” Loukas lowered himself down in the foul straw, trying to angle himself away from the door in case the guards gave him a more than passing glance. Their height and relative build was the only real resemblance between them.

With one last unhappy look, Poppy eased the door open for Procopia, following her out quickly. The door shut and the lock rattled and turned. Loukas held his breath and counted, waiting for the guards t burst into the cell, spears at the ready. He got to ten, thirty, fifty and there was nothing but silence. He began to breathe easier, his heartbeat slowing with the count. When he reached two hundred he knew they'd gotten out of the cells, but the feeling that settled beneath his breast felt nothing like triumph.

He paced the narrow confined of the cell -- six steps down, four across -- the repetition and and monotony of each tight circle freeing his mind. When he tired, he sat down again, nesting carefully in the driest bit of straw. He turned over the past events, tracing the path that had brought him here, to a stinking cell below the palace awaiting....

He made himself acknowledge it: he was going to die.


On to chapter 19.
 
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