Chapter 20

Nov. 16th, 2009 11:11 am
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Loukas didn't attend the trial; he said he wasn't well enough -- and it was true that he didn't feel at all well -- but he actually couldn't bear the thought of seeing Cyrian or Alexia. The rest of the House went, even the slaves shirked without fear of reprimand. Loukas welcomed the silence.

Poppy stayed behind as well to offer food or medicine or wine or anything he could think of to distract Loukas. Loukas accepted each dish, taking a bite or two before pushing it aside.

He sat, waiting for the afternoon to pass, watching from the window. But when they finally returned, he remained in his room, instructing Poppy to report he was still feeling poorly. It might have been better if he'd left off that last bit as it guaranteed that Myrrine would come check on him.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked, pushing his door open.

He considered sending her away but nodded instead and cleared the cups Poppy had brought from the side table to make room for a new pot.

“I hope you like lemongrass,” she said her brow furrowed.

“Love it.” Loukas managed a smile, accepting the cup and taking a sip; it was far too sweet. “How was the trial?”

“Longer than I'd expected. I don't know why they bothered with all the evidence and testimony and things. Everyone knows they're guilty.”

Loukas took another long sip of tea and watched the leaves swirl around the bottom of the cup. “And the sentence?” he asked carefully, keeping his expression neutral.

“Beheading, of course, that's the traditional punishment for traitors.”

“For all of them?” Loukas asked hoarsely.

Myrrine's look turned pitying and she patted his arm. “I heard a rumor that the Damatrys woman was your friend.”

Loukas set his cup down so it wouldn't betray his trembling fingers. “Something like that.”

“I'm sorry.” She patted his hand.

He nodded, his throat to thick to speak.

---

He was going to avoid the execution as well, but as soon as the family had disappeared around the corner at the end of the street, he went to his wardrobe. He pulled out his most enveloping veil, one that brushed the ground and obscured his face. It would be uncomfortably warm, but he did not want to be recognized.

He jumped and turned at the sound of the door, but it was Poppy, yet another tea tray in hand. He grimaced and set the tray aside.

“We're going out, I take it?”

“I have to,” Loukas said, apologetic.

“I'll get my hood.”

---

The crowd lining the Rhodos Imperatos was in high spirits; executions were always popular. Loukas skirted around the edges, Poppy keeping close on his heels. The conspirators were kept in carts, more like cages on wheels. The thick iron bars were as much to protect the prisoners from the rowdy crowd as to keep them from escaping. The Civic Guard kept the mass of people from pressing in too closely, but the rabble hurled invectives and refuse as the black draft horses pulled the heavy carts up the thoroughfare. Loukas slipped through the press of bodies, ducking and elbowing as sharply as needed to make a path. He lost Poppy, heard the eunuch's shout to stop, but Loukas ignored him. There were two cars. In the first, Cyrian stood, wearing the unbleached tunic of the condemned. Behind him Tzykalas lay unconscious and Halkias wept, but Loukas didn't see Alexia. Loukas slipped away, hurrying to the next, lengthening his strides to keep up with the bouncing carts.

He stumbled into a large man who held a rotten apple poised to throw.

“Watch it,” he snarled as Loukas struggled to regain his balance.

“Sorry, sorry,” Loukas said, panicking; the second cart was already passing. He grabbed ahold of one of the bars, using it to pull him through the press of people.

She was huddled towards the front of the cart, close to the driver's bench, the one place that afforded some protection against the flying rocks. Andros was there, too, his knees pulled to his chest.

“Alexia,” he cried and she turned, looking for him in the sea of faces. “Alexia!”

She spotted him and tried to rise, but the wagon hit a rut and she fell. On her knees, she crawled to Loukas. Her hair had been cut above her chin to make a clean blow for the ax; it fell in her face, sticking to her damp forehead and cheeks. Blood trickled down the side of her face: one of the rocks had found its target.

“Loukas! Loukas, what are you doing here?” She reached through the bars to touch his face.

He tripped on a loose cobblestone, went to one knee, and was nearly lost in the crowd. With the strength born of desperation, he pushed himself up, knocking over those in his way. He reached the cart again, which now drew close to the scaffold. Actors in garish make-up pranced across it, one leaping onto the block to make obscene gestures at the crowd.

“I'm sorry,” he said; his face was wet and he scrubbed it with his free hand. The noise of the crowd washed away his apology and he wasn't sure if she'd heard him. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.”

She placed a hand over his where it griped the bars, squeezing until her knuckles were white. “It's all right. Loukas, please,” she struggled to speak as tears chocked her, “give me the last rites. They'll hang my body from the walls, but pray for me.”

“Hey you, get away!” One of the guards had noticed Loukas, and prodded him with the butt of his spear. “Get away or join her.”

Loukas let go; Alexia's wan face peered out between the bars. “I promise!”

She nodded, waving farewell. The mob closed in around him and he lost sight of her as he was jostled away. Poppy caught up to him, taking him by the shoulders. He allowed himself to be led; Poppy didn't stop until he had them out of the crowd, steering them down a narrow alley which twisted behind the basilica, out of sight of the scaffold.

The crowd erupted anew, and Loukas knew the condemned were being led up to the block. His vision blurred and he wept. Poppy stood by a moment and then tentatively reached out to pull Loukas to him. Loukas clutched the front of the eunuch's tunic.

“This is a gross over-familiarity,” Loukas choked out, his nose running.

Poppy said nothing, letting Loukas cry himself out. Loukas shuddered as each subsequent roar indicated another traitor had met their death. By the fifth, Loukas had stopped crying, his chest aching.

“We should go,” Poppy said, the first thing since they'd entered the alley. “The crowd will be in an ugly mood.”

Loukas nodded, wiping his nose gracelessly on his sleeve. He followed Poppy automatically, senseless of his own surroundings. Poppy hurried him through the streets, avoiding the first of the crowd to depart.

At home, Loukas changed and washed his face. Poppy inspected him after.

“How do I look?”

“Cool as marble,” Poppy judged. “The hair could use combing, as usual.”

Loukas gave a weak hiccuping laugh.

---

The messenger came three days later. Loukas was in the stable, grooming Rayna. He was surprised to see the purple livery of the palace, and he took a breath to steady his nerves and went to meet the her.

“Arist Kommenon Iereus?” At Loukas's nod, the girl said, “You're summoned to the palace.”

“Why?” Loukas's throat was dry, and he swallowed to wet it.

“The empress's business,” the messenger replied with a slight shrug.

Loukas left with Poppy, sending a slave to tell Iereus. Had Procopia decided to bring him to trial for his own part in the conspiracy? He'd saved her life, but she'd needed saving, at least in part, because of him.

Procopia again wore her imperial garb as he entered her audience chamber. She looked up as he knelt before her, getting stiffly to his knees; the pain of his healing back had faded to a dull ache, but it still twinged if he moved to fast.

“Arist Iereus, do rise.” She reclined on a half-couch, a young slave cooling her with an expansive feather fan. “I'm glad to see you in one piece. More or less.”

“And I, you, Empress.” He rose at her leave and came to stand before her.

“Do you know why I've called for you?”

“No, Empress.”

“You have served me well and at great personal cost. Such loyalty deserves reward.”

“None is needed,” Loukas said hastily, weak with relief.

“Of course not. Duty would demand the same of all my subjects. Yet somehow I don't think many would have done what you did.” She waved to her attendants. “Leave us.”

They quickly retreated, closing the doors behind them.

“Cyrian made you an offer to gain your support, did he not?'

“Yes, Empress.” She arched an eyebrow to encourage him. “He promised to annul my marriage and to make me the archon of Kommene.”

She didn't look horrified; she didn't even look surprised. “My brother over-reached, but I do think he may have been right about one thing. You weren't born to be a wife.”

Loukas smiled wryly. “I never wanted to be but the Mother does with us what she will.”

“Ah, and you're pious, too,” Procopia marveled, her tone gently mocking. She reached under the couch and pulled out a folio, leafing through the papers. “This contract formally annuls your marriage to Iereus, by reason of misjudgment by the Archon Kommene. I will not dictate to her may inherit her House, but my blessing is no small thing. And you would not be a widow, but a free man.” She paused, scanning the document. “I haven't signed it yet.”

Loukas swallowed. “Does Archon Iereus know?”

She shook her head. “The decision is yours.”

He held out a hand and she gave him the document. He could pick out the crest of Kommene, but to his eyes the page looked the same as his marriage contract and was just as indecipherable. “Could I ... have a few days to consider?” he asked finally, handing the parchment back.

She cocked her head to the side, studying him. “You're a strange one, Loukas Kommene. I thought you'd be delighted to reclaim yourself.”

“Then why didn't you sign it?”

She laughed. “Fine, you may take a few days.”

Loukas bowed and retreated.

---

Iereus was waiting for him when Loukas returned.

“What did the empress want?” he asked as Loukas handed Rayna's reins to a groom.

“She wanted to thank me for my small part in her rescue.”

“Small part,” Iereus snorted. “She owes you more than she would like to admit. Has she given you nothing?”

Loukas shook his head. “Nothing but her good will. Which I am glad of. She might not be so generous.”

Iereus nodded once in reluctant agreement. “Perhaps so. Surely there was more to your audience.” They took the wide steps up to the house, and though the day was warm, the sweat rising on the back of his neck wasn't due to the heat.

“Nothing of note, Husband,” Loukas said and smiled weakly. They passed into the cool atrium, the water in the shallow pool rippling as a breeze passed across its surface. “But there is something else I would like to discuss with you. Ask of you.”

“What is it then?” Iereus said curiously. “You've never hesitated to make your desires known before now.”

“Well I haven't quite gotten my strength back, I'm sure I'll be back to my usual ways soon enough.” Iereus climbed the stairs to his study and Loukas followed, hesitating at the door before entering. “In truth, I don't think you'll like my request. I want to sacrifice a goat to Theros. For Alexia.”

Iereus's face went from amused to stony in the space of a breath. “Absolutely not.”

“She deserves final rites.”

“She was an enemy of the state and a traitor.”

“She was my friend.”

“Yes, and look at the mess she got you into.”

Loukas crossed his arms, angered by Iereus's flat refusal. “She's died, there's no point in holding a grudge. You've won, be content with that and let me put her spirit to rest.”

“Grudge? Oh no, dear boy, this is no grudge held for a social slight or insult. She nearly destroyed this House, I hope her spirit wanders for the rest of eternity.” Iereus finished, his voice raised, nearly shouting. He turned and stalked to the window.

Loukas waited, repressing the urge to shout back, and eventually the hotness drained from his limbs. He crossed to Iereus and leaned in to rest his forehead against Iereus's shoulder where it joined his neck. Loukas could smell his sandalwood perfume and the sharp scent of sweat.

“Please,” Loukas said, the word soft and muffled.

Iereus neither pulled away nor welcomed the touch. Finally, he said, “Were you lovers?”

The question caught Loukas by surprise. “What?”

“After you were taken to the palace, Nika told me you'd seen her without my knowledge. I had hoped the clandestine meetings were merely political.” Iereus's laugh was bitter and self-deprecating.

“She was a sister to me, and I a brother to her,” Loukas said earnestly. “I have often been foolish but never adulterous.”

Iereus twisted to look Loukas, his dark eyes uncertain. Loukas willed him to believe, and he must have, because he took Loukas's face in his hands and pulled him in for a kiss.

“No goat,” Iereus said when he'd broken the kiss to take a ragged breath. “But you may light incense and pray for her, if you wish.”

Loukas didn't reply with words, but pressed eagerly against Iereus, while at the back of his mind he wondered if this would be the last embrace they'd share.

---

The Church of Theros Death-Bringer had enjoyed an influx of new priests and priestesses: orphaned children, wives who'd lost their husbands, unmarried sibling who could no longer be supported. They wore the black tunics of new initiates and took Loukas's cloak wordlessly as he stepped within the dark building. They didn't speak or look at him directly; he felt as though he walked among the voiceless shades. The sanctum was thick with the scent of oil and stale incense.

There were other petitioners, all plebs who gave way before him. He walked slowly to the front, wishing his hard-heeled sandals were silent on the stone floor. He knelt before the altar and lit a stick of incense, the smoke rising in curling ribbons.

An elderly priestess wandered over, and he pressed a silver piece into her hand. She muttered a blessing over him.

“Please, mother,” he said. “See that Alexia's soul makes it to the House of her ancestors.”

“Of course, of course, my son,” the crone muttered. “She is at peace.” She set a gnarled hand on his head. “You should be at peace too.” Her eyes were blue-grey with cataracts and her words were worn with repetition, but he found comfort in them anyway.

He said one more prayer and lit a stick of incense, watching the smoke curl and twist around itself. He stayed until it had all burned to ash.

---

He exited the church, his veil pulled over his face. Poppy held the door open for him and he stepped blindly through it.

“Excuse me, Arist,” a startled voice said as he nearly ran them over. Loukas's stomach turned over as he recognized the voice. Eleutherios. “I did not see you.”

Eleutherios stepped back, not wanting to give offense to the wife of a wealthy archon. It was obvious he did not recognize Loukas, his gaze cast down respectfully. Loukas stepped back, his mouth dropping open, but he did not speak.

His brother's face was drawn and there were shadows under his eyes. He looked older, more than the change a year would bring.

Loukas found his voice. “Do you not recognize me, Brother?”

Eleutherios started, as though he had been burned, and he met Loukas's gaze. His features hardened and his eyes became guarded.

“Arist Iereus? Is that your name still or have you found a new one?” Eleutherios affected the bored drawl of one of the courtiers.

“Kommenon Iereus, yes,” Loukas agreed. “Were you afraid it had changed?”

“I'd heard rumors that you sought to change it,” Eleutherios, his eyes narrowed.

“Yet here I am with the same.” Poppy was at Loukas's elbow; they were blocking the flow of traffic into the church and would soon draw a crowd if they did not move. Instead of biding Eleutherios farewell and departing, as Poppy wanted him to do, Loukas took the sleeve of Eleutherios's tunic and tugged, pulling around behind the church. Eleutherios resisted, then followed.

When they they were no longer visible to the traffic in and out of the church, Loukas stopped.

“Say what you will, Eleutherios. Accuse me to my face.” Eleutherios reddened in anger and, Loukas thought, embarrassment. Eleutherios had never liked direct confrontation. “Whatever foul rumors you have heard, they are probably true.”

Eleutherios scowl faltered at Loukas's rueful words. He hesitated, biting his lip. “You were in league with Cyrian.” He made it an accusation, but his shoulders were hunched uncertainly and he dropped his gaze.

“Yes.”

“I can hardly be surprised,” Eleutherios said coldly. “Your tendency to deceit is already well-known to me.”

Loukas laughed at that and at Eleutherios sullen expression. “It was less deceit than ineptitude. And when I realized all that I'd done I paid a high enough price to undo it. I think even you would have to agree.” Loukas reached up to adjust his veil, more as a nervous gesture than out of need; the silver circlet held it firmly in place. Eleutherios started and his gaze fixed on Loukas's hands. Loukas no longer wore the thick bandages around his finger, but the skin around the base of each finger was still red and freshly closed. Loukas fought the urge to hide his marred hands as his brother's eyes widened and his face went white.

“If I had been truly treacherous,” Loukas continued wearily, “you would not have the opportunity to accuse me of it now.”

The bells in the high church tower began to ring to mark the fourth horai and midday, the smaller bells' high notes ringing after the deeper tones of the great bell. Neither of them moved while the bells rang, as though they were held there by the sound.

“My apologies for interrupting your prayers,” Loukas said when the last note had died away.

“Hm?” Eleutherios said, seeming dazed.

“The church,” Loukas waved to the massive building behind it. “I presume you came to offer your prayers and not by accident...?”

“Oh.” Eleutherios shook himself a little. “I've come to pray that Theros bless my engagement. I am to be married.”

Loukas swallowed hard, a marriage would confirm Eleutherios's place as the elarchon of Kommene; only one child could take wives. “A god of war seems a strange choice to bless an engagement,” Loukas observed.

“You'd understand if you'd met my bride to be,” Eleutherios said, his tone plaintive. He wrinkled his nose. “Dorotheia Gikas.”

Loukas remembered her from court. “The one with the teeth?” he asked, gesturing to his own to recall the pronounced buck teeth of the daughter of Gikas.

“That's the one,” Eleutherios sighed and then leaned in to whisper, “she smells of garlic.”

“Her House is one of the oldest in Edessa.”

Eleutherios's unhappy expression didn't change.

“And she's rich,” Loukas tried.

Eleutherios's frown deepened further. “A cold comfort.”

“On the contrary, some would argue that gold is the only comfort that counts.”

“They dodn't have to take Dortheia Gikas to bed, though.”

Loukas laughed. “That's not what I heard. Apparently she's found admirers enough.” He put a hand to Eleutherios's shoulder to forestall argument. “Perhaps your next wife will be more attractive. You'll have more than one, remember.”

“Easy enough for you to offer comfort; your husband is attractive enough.”

“And he smells of perfumed oils,” Loukas offered philosophically.

Eleutherios laughed and then sobered as though he'd forgotten himself and he again grew cold. The moment they'd shared, forgetting all the antipathy that had passed between them, was over.

“I should return home,” Loukas said. “Iereus will be wondering where I am.”

“Keeps you on short leash?” Eleutherios sneered, but the words didn't sting any longer.

“Goodbye, brother,” Loukas said and, with one last glance over his shoulder, he left. He heard Eleutherios call out a faint farewell.

“That went well,” Loukas said to Poppy as the navigated the busy street back to the garden district.

“Yes,” Poppy agreed. “Much better than last time.”

---

“I need you to take dictation,” Loukas said to Poppy when they'd returned. “Would you mind running a message for me?”

Poppy shook his head and settled at Loukas's writing desk, laying out a sheaf of paper, ink, salt and wax. “What would you have me write?”

Loukas cleared his throat. “Hail Empress Procopia Amira, Archon Edessa, Ruler of the Seven Territories and Sovereign of the Amarna Ocean.” Poppy raised an eyebrow, but took it all down in a clean and even hand. “I, Loukas Kommenon Iereus, give greetings.” He waited for Poppy to catch up and then said. “I must decline your offer.”

Poppy held the quill above the parchment and looked up. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Loukas said, and he was.

Poppy copied it down and then asked. “And then...?”

Loukas shook his head. “That's it. Finish it with all the necessary forms.”

When Poppy had done so, Loukas stopped him before he could seal it. “I want to sign it myself.” Loukas took the quill, its grip unnatural under his clumsy fingers. He dipped the nib in ink and set it to paper, tracing out the letters of his name. He dripped ink across the page in a constellation of spots. The signature was a shaky and illegible thing, but it was his. He dusted the page with salt and blew on it, finally folding it carefully and sealing it. He gave it back to Poppy, who's expression was impassive.

“It's done.”

Poppy tucked the letter into his tunic. “I'll take it directly.”

---

House Iereus was one of the first Houses to leave the city for the summer. Poppy, in his usual efficient style, had Loukas's things pack quickly. Unfortunately, that left Loukas to Myrrine with hers.

“Where would I be without you, Loukas?” she asked, handing him another chest to take out to the wagon.

He grunted a bit under the additional weight. “You'd be here for the rest of eternity. You'd never get all this stuff loaded by yourself.”

“Hush, you.” She shooed him on. He rolled his eyes and did as she bade him.

The morning was warm and clear, the spring rains had subsided, though the stones in the courtyard were still wet as he carried the trunk out. A slave took it from him, tucking it neatly among the rest.

The House departed by midmorning. Rayna whinnied in anticipation; she hadn't gotten enough exercise during the winter season. He resolved to get her back into top shape out in the groves. The wagons rolled out with the deafening clatter of wheels and hooves on cobblestone.

The markets they passed were noticeably emptier from the year before, but still bustled. The vendors seemed to shout twice as loudly to make up for the loss. Loukas closed his eyes as they passed through the gates. He would not see Alexia among the bodies of the condemned, refused to remember her as carrion.

But soon they were beyond the stench and the noise of the city. The fields were turning green with the recent rain. Loukas kicked Rayna up to a trot, bringing her to the front of the line. She tossed her head, wanting to run, but he reined her in. Iereus cast a glance at them, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards. The circles under his eyes had faded, and he looked freer. Rayna wasn't the only one glad to be out of the city.

Iereus set the his heels to his horse to they rode knee and knee. “And where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked, his tone teasing.

Loukas considered the question for a moment. “I'm going home.”
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