Black shrouds already draped the house when they arrived. Everyone from the least slave to Iereus himself went without any adornment and wore only in simple tunics of black, gray or brown. Worse than the fashion was the food. Loukas was already tired of the flat journey bread, and was not pleased to be reminded that only unspiced food and water were served during the weeklong mourning period.
The whole of House Iereus gathered to watch the funeral procession as it passed. Iereus himself rode out to join it, wearing blue and white of his House. A riderless black mare led the funeral procession; the well-bred animal tossed her head, made nervous by the crowd or sensing her impending sacrifice. Each archon was a bright spot of color in the sea of black, each House seeing their emperor to his final resting place.
The green and yellow Damatrys caught Loukas's eye, and he saw Alexia, taking her House's place in the procession. But when her eyes swept over the crowd as she passed, she did not seem to recognize Loukas. A moment later, she was gone.
Two immense draft horses pulled the funeral wagon, a mobile monument, all gold and black lacquer. Despite the gilt incense burners at each of it's corners, the sweet and foul stench of rot made Loukas's bile rise.
Nothing kept in this heat.
“Loukas, may I speak with you?” Iereus asked from the doorway of Loukas's room, his sandals still dusty from the road.
“Of course.” Loukas stood, and Poppy set aside his cards and exited quietly, drawing the door shut after him. “Is something wrong?”
Iereus glanced down, taking in his disarray. “No, nothing is wrong. Please forgive my haste -- I've just come from the Council.”
“To confirm Procopia.” Stavros's will had been clear in naming Procopia his successor, the Council's deliberation should have been little more than a formality with no other potential heir.
“That would have been the case, but there is challenger.” Iereus rested his hands on the back of a chair, gripping so hard his knuckles turned white. With a deep breath, he loosened his hold, visibly relaxing.
Loukas's jaw dropped and he said, “But who in House Amira thinks they can ...” Loukas trailed off uncertainly.
“Apparently Cyrian Amira.” Iereus moved to the window. “You don't seem surprised.”
Loukas moved to join Iereus by the window. “I know he is ambitious.” Iereus turned toward him, his expression curious. “Before my marriage, I had some dealings with both Procopia and Cyrian.” In the courtyard below a cat watched caged songbirds, the tip of its tail flicking back and forth. “He is as capable as his sister, but he must know he stands little chance of succeeding.”
“It seems he is confident he will find supporters -- but there are few Houses capable of swaying the Council's vote.”
“And you wonder if Kommene would be willing to,” Loukas said in sudden understanding.
“I had heard a rumor that Cyrian hoped for Eugenia's support. I had thought her a staunch Procopia supporter, but alliances change.”
“I fear I know even less of my mother's mind than you do,” Loukas said ruefully. “I was a pawn, not a player.”
Iereus pushed Loukas's veil back, his hand resting on Loukas's shoulder. “I hate to do the same, but I need to know if there is truth in the rumor. Cyrian may well ascend the throne, and I cannot afford to be on ill terms with him if he does.” He sighed. “Eugenia may tell you what she wouldn't tell others.”
Loukas clasped Iereus's wrist. “I will do my best, Husband.”
Iereus kissed him softly. “My thanks.”
Eugenia made time to see him immediately. Loukas followed the slave to her study as though he were a complete stranger and not her own son.
“Oh, Loukas, how nice to see you,” she said as he kissed her. “I do believe you've gotten taller.”
“And you're looking well, Mother.” He waited until she'd settled on the couch to take the place across from her.
“How is your husband?”
She poured a cup of tea and added a little honey before handing it to him. He sipped it and set the cup down so the china wouldn't rattle.
“What do you want, Loukas? Or I suppose it would be more accurate to ask what Archon Iereus wants,” Eugenia said after a long silence.
“Do you plan to support Cyrian Amira's bid?”
“Kommene support Cyrian?” Eugenia's scorn was total. “You must be joking -- wherever did you get that idea?” She shook her head, lip curled in distain.
“It was a rumor.” Loukas hesitated. “It's not unreasonable for him to expect your support. He has helped our House in the past.”
Eugenia laughed sharply. “If Cyrian thinks a little grain is enough to force me to stake my House's standing and reputation on some ill-planned ploy, I’m afraid he's in for a nasty shock.”
“It was personal risk he undertook for our sake, Mother. I'm not asking you to address the Council on his behalf, merely cast your vote,” Loukas said, shifting uncomfortably.
“Impossible. If I owe him anything, the debt is repaid when I don't stand up before the Council and denounce his breeding. His mother was from Damatrys.” Eugenia's mouth twisted in distaste. “Or is that why he seems to enjoy your support? Some misguided favor for that girl?”
“Not loyalty, merely honor.”
“Ha! Do not think to educate me in matters of honor, boy. You know so little of it. Assure your husband that Procopia has my full support and give him my regards. This interview is over.”
Loukas left his mother's House, stepping out onto the street and adjusting his veil, smoothing his ruffled nerves as well. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, and Poppy's shaved head was shiny with it. The ocean breeze didn't make it this far in and the city stewed in the miasma of heat and sewage. Poppy said nothing as the door shut behind them, for which Loukas was grateful.
He was still absorbed in his mother's words, seething to himself that she would so insult him -- he was a child no longer and had left her House. Loukas paid little heed to his surroundings, and was taken completely by surprised by the man that came up on his elbow.
The man grabbed Loukas, one arm around his shoulders, a hand over his mouth. Loukas seized the man's wrist, trying to pull it away, but he lost his feet as he was pulled into the alley. Poppy bellowed in outrage as Loukas's assailant shoved him into the stone wall. Loukas was abruptly released, and he stumbled a few steps before righting himself.
Cyrian stood across from him, his face deeply shadowed in the dim of the alley. Poppy moved, drawing the knife in his belt, but Loukas cried “No!” and held out a hand. The eunuch slowed, lowering the knife, though he didn't sheath it. Cyrian's eyes flickered to Poppy and then back to Loukas as he crossed the alley, pushing Loukas against the stone.
“Why has your mother not spoken for me?” He kept his voice low, but his words were harsh.
Loukas caught his breath, his heart hammering. Over Cyrian's shoulder, he could see Poppy, still tense and ready. “Cyrian, I--”
“Don't call me that. I thought we were friends.”
“We are,” Loukas said, reaching out, half in entreaty, half in defense. “Princeps.” Loukas said it too loudly, and Cyrian slapped a hand over his mouth.
“Keep your voice down.”
Loukas nodded and Cyrian released him. Loukas started again, keeping his voice just above a whisper. “I have reminded her of her duty to you but she is unmoved.”
“Eugenia knows the aid I have given her House?”
“But she says nothing to help me -- why does wait?”
“She ... intends to support Procopia. Princeps, she did not tell me all her plans, even when I was living under her roof.” Loukas indicated his veil. “And now I hear even less of them.”
Cyrian sighed heavily, his hands on his hips, the anger draining from him. “Your marriage was a waste.”
“My mother thought it rather a good bargain.”
Cyrian rubbed the back of his neck, his expression turning rueful. “Sorry about this. Of all sins, I hate betrayal the most. I spoke in anger not wisdom, and I should not have accused you.”
“No matter.” Loukas shrugged. “If I had any power, I would do everything to help you.”
Cyrian clapped him on the shoulder, and pulled Loukas into an embrace. Loukas first tensed, then relaxed enough to return it.
When Cyrian released him, Loukas said, “If your bid fails--”
“Which it will without Kommene support.”
“What will you do. Surely you will at least be given your choice of churches?” In one of the wealthier churches, Cyrian would live in the same luxury he’d known in the palace.
Cyrian shook his head. “I do not know yet, though Procopia will surely ship me off to the navy after this. Don't worry, I always find something to get up to.” He kissed Loukas quickly on either cheek. “Now I must go; I've business with Damatrys.”
“Damatrys?” Loukas asked. “What business could you have with Damatrys?”
Cyrian smiled enigmatically and pressed a finger to his lips. “In time, Loukas, in time.” And he was gone.
Procopia's ascendancy was confirmed two days later.
With the coronation fast approaching, Loukas found himself obliged to tagalong on shopping trips.
“Your wardrobe is sadly lacking,” Nika declared, draping a sliver-shot satin across Loukas's shoulder. “I'd meant to do something about it, but I thought I had a little more time before you'd have to be seen in polite society. This makes you look ashen.” She handed the bolt back to the merchant, who added it to the growing pile of cloth that made Loukas too pale, too ruddy, or too dull. Loukas had to conclude it wasn't the cloth that was the problem.
“Does it really matter?” Loukas protested. “No one's going to be looking at me, anyway.”
“Of course it matters,” Nika said, pointing out a raw silk that looked blue in one light and green in another. “You look shabby, and people will notice. They'll wonder why your husband doesn't care. They'll start talking.”
“I had no idea my tunic could say so much,” Loukas replied dryly, but Nika was admiring the cloth.
“Yes, this one. It complements your eyes.” She pushed his hair off his forehead. “At least you have one nice feature.” She turned to the merchant. “We'll take this, the amber silk, and the white linen.”
The merchant quickly packaged the goods and then took Nika to look at trim. Loukas wasn't needed for the intensive process, so he escaped, slipping out into the street.
Looking over his shoulder to see if he'd been noticed, he walked straight into an entering customer.
Loukas blinked into the bright sunshine. “Alexia?” Poppy cleared his throat meaningfully. Loukas hastily pulled his veil into place and dropped his gaze. “Uh, I mean, Elarchon Damatrys.”
Alexia grinned and reached out embrace him, but she aborted the gesture.
“Arist Kommenon Iereus,” Alexia said, eyes flicking disdainfully to Poppy. “Have you been in Edessa long?”
“I came with Archon Iereus for the funeral. My sister Nika felt that I could do with some new apparel.” He made a face to convey the full amount of his suffering.
Alexia laughed and rolled her eyes. “It must be hell. I do hope that you're acquiescing to her superior tastes.”
“In everything, I find. There is no aspect of my life about which she does not have an opinion,” Loukas said sourly.
Alexia found Loukas's irritation entertaining. “Guidance is something you have always needed.” Loukas was about to protest, but Nika interrupted.
“Oh Loukas, there you are,” she said, swanning out of the shop, followed by Star, who was over-burdened with packages. She pulled up short seeing Alexia.
“Arist Iereus,” Alexia said with a nod.
“This is Elarchon Damatrys,” Loukas said and cleared his throat.
“Such a pleasure to meet you,” Nika said, sounding as if it were nothing of the kind. “Loukas, we need to get to the seamstress's before lunch. Do come along.”
Loukas looked back helplessly at Alexia as he was ushered away.
Procopia stood naked, tiny in comparison to the priests beside her. Her chin was held high and her shoulders squared as she looked out at the arists gathered to watch her coronation.
“An empress of Edessa must be without flaw or failing in body,” a priest declared, his voice echoing against the vaulted ceiling of the church.
“I will serve, for I have none,” Procopia replied, just as loudly.
Nika's elbow found Loukas's side sharply, and he dragged his gaze away from Procopia's well-formed breasts, settling on the flagstones, though he stole another glance as Nika's attention returned to the ceremony.
With the physical inspection complete, attendants drew a white robe over Procopia's head.
“An empress of Edessa must be without flaw or failing in mind,” the priest intoned when they'd finished.
“I will serve, for I have none.”
There was a pause while the priest waited for any objection on this count, but no one spoke.
Next, a white goat, its coat freshly washed and brushed, was led forth. The priest held its head and Procopia cut its throat with a quick clean cut. The animal crumpled, kicking feebly as its blood poured onto the altar, collecting in grooved troughs to drip into waiting buckets. Acolytes deftly sliced the belly open and the priest examined the heart and liver, declaring them to be of good color and unblemished.
“An empress of Edessa must be without flaw or failing in spirit,” the priest said, the last of the three ritual tests.
“I will serve, for I have none,” Procopia replied.
“You have been found worthy of the throne of Edessa,” the priest declared. “Will you serve Edessa as empress?”
“Do you swear to protect her as a husband protects his or her wives, guarding and protecting them?”
“I do so swear.”
With that attendants brought out the heavy robe of state, the gold cloth trimmed with lion's fur, and placed a crown of fresh bay laurel branches on Procopia's head.
“Archons and arists of Edessa, greet your empress!” the priest exhorted.
“Hail, Procopia,” Loukas chanted along with the crowd. “Long live the empress!”
Procopia processed down the aisle, priests and attendants falling in behind her each row in turn joining them. The shouting of the masses waiting outside the church reached a fever pitch as the tall doors were thrown open.
As Loukas joined the procession, following Nika's heels closely, he saw Cyrian, half-hidden behind a status of St. Euphrastes. Loukas smiled, but Cyrian didn't see him, his gaze fixed on his sister.
“There's a message for you,” Poppy said, handing Loukas a folded parchment as he returned.
Loukas opened it, puzzled. The parchment was clean and blank, but something fell from it as he unfolded it -- a knot of find green and yellow cording. Poppy's brow wrinkled in confusion, but Loukas understood immediately. Damatrys's colors. It was their system. No written massage could be trusted -- even if Loukas could read it, any one else might do the same. But Alexia had worked it out when they'd been children, and they'd used it ever since.
“Do you know what this means?” Loukas asked Poppy.
“I can guess who it's from. I recognize the colors.”
“She wants to meet -- the knots indicate the hora. Oh, spare me the disapproving look,” Loukas sighed. “Does any one know about this?”
“It was delivered directly to my hand and seen by no other.”
“And,” Loukas drew a deep breath, “are you going to tell ... anyone?”
“No,” Poppy replied. “It reflects poorly on me f my charge is enticing people who are not his husband.”
Loukas tossed both parchment and cord into the fire. “Not 'enticing'. She's more a sibling to me than any of my own blood. She helped me when no other would. I can't forsake her now.”
Poppy bowed his head. “My master's desire is my own, of course.”
By the tenth horai -- the number of knots in the cord -- the house had settled and Poppy snored softly on his pallet by the door. Still, Loukas didn't risk meeting a slave by sneaking out the front. Through his window, he had easy access to the roof. Though the slope was gentle, the interlocking tiles made navigating it tricky. Lattice at the far end held his weight, though it trembled mightily. He hoped no one would ask him where he'd acquired the scratched left on his arms and legs.
He dropped the last few feet to the ground and ran across the courtyard. He stopped by the front gate, its heavy iron bold locked for the night.
Loukas jumped and turned, his stomach dropping. Poppy held a large skeleton key.
“I lifted it off the porter when I slipped out,” he said coolly.
Loukas took the key with a sniff. “Ah. This will make it easier.” The key fit in the lock with a rusty screech and turned with a bit of jimmying. He pushed it wide enough for them both to slip out. Loukas had forgotten his veil, but Poppy handed it to him. Loukas hesitated, but if they met others on the road, it would be excellent concealment; he quickly pulled it over his head.
They kept to the alleys and back ways; the few people they passed were just as eager to avoid them as Loukas was to avoid them. The three-quarter moon lit the carefully tended garden of Gethses Square. His heart skipped as he saw someone in the corner of his eye, but then he turned, it was only a statue of Ardalia watching him reproachfully.
Alexia beckoned to him from the pergola, overgrown with ivy. He broke into a jog, plunging into the near blackness. She'd stopped just within and he ran into her.
“Ow, Loukas, my toes?” she hissed, catching his arm to steady herself. “I do need them, you know.”
“Sorry,” Loukas said, regaining his balance. “You could warn a person, though.”
“Most people don't need to be reminded to look where they're going.”
“It's pitch black in here -- I'd look where I was going if I could see a thing.” It was quite that dark, actually, as his eyes adjusted and he could just make out Alexia's sour expression.
“Oh quit whining,” she snapped and pulled him into a tight embrace, squeezing hard enough to make his spine crack. “Great Mother, I've missed you.”
He got air back into his lungs and hugged her back. “And I, you.”
Poppy cleared his throat significantly, and Alexia released Loukas. “Ugh, Loukas, you've brought that horrid little half-man with you.”
“His name is Poppy,” Loukas said, uncomfortably. “And he helped me make it here tonight.”
“Can't he wait somewhere else?” Alexia asked. “Who knows what he'll report to your husband.”
“I trust him, Alexia. He won't betray us.”
Alexia addressed Poppy directly. “Is that true?”
“My life and loyalty are my young master's, Elarchon.” He bowed, and if Alexia's words had offended him, he didn't show it.
“All right,” Alexia agreed reluctantly. “We shouldn't be bothered here.” She settled on a low bench.
Loukas took a seat beside her; Poppy remained by the pergola's entrance, which gave them the semblance of privacy, even if the eunuch heard everything.
“What is this about, Alexia?”
“How do you like Iereus?” she asked, crossing one leg over the other, her hands braced on the bench behind her.
The question caught Loukas off-guard. “He's ... fine, I suppose.” He shrugged. “What do you mean 'like'? He doesn't beat me.”
She gave a short snort of laughter. “Doesn't beat you. Well. That's high praise indeed. What kind of man is he? Besides one that doesn't beat his wives.”
“He's very serious. I don't think he likes the city much. He has no patience for politics.”
She nodded slowly. “I'd heard as much. Quite a man of the people, your husband. Yet he supported Procopia.”
“What are you after, Alexia?” Loukas asked. “Just say it -- it's too late to follow your convoluted speech.”
Alexia heaved a heavy sigh. “What does he gain with Procopia on the throne? Nothing. She concerns herself only with the most powerful houses and cares nothing for the rest of us or for the plebs.” Alexia drew a breath. “Cyrian would better safeguard the people's interests.”
“Yours, you mean,” Loukas said. “You're his cousin -- rather convenient, that.”
Alexia grasped his arm. “I confess I bear no love for Procopia Amira, but she began the enmity between us. Think, Loukas, if Cyrian had ascended--”
Loukas cut her off. “Yes, if he had ascended. But he didn't Procopia did and the Council confirmed it. There's nothing to be done about it now, even if I wanted to.”
“Cyrian didn't get a fair chance to make his case before the Council. Your husband has a reputation for honesty and integrity. He has the respect of both the council and the people. If he spoke, others would listen.”
“And what would come of it?” Loukas shook his head. “Falkon Iereus will never speak for Cyrian Amira.”
“Of course,” Alexia said, deflating. “I'm sorry. Let's not speak of politics anymore.” She smiled ruefully at him. “How are you really? Just look what you've been through.” She pushed his veil off his head. “How can you stand that?”
“It gets hot,” he conceded. “You get used to it.”
Her fingers carded through his curls, sweeping them off his forehead. “Oh, Loukas. You deserved better.”
Poppy cleared his throat again.
“I do hope you're not catching a cold,” Loukas said over his shoulder. To Alexia, he said, “I should leave though.” He rose reluctantly and Alexia followed.
“Can't have you getting into trouble on my account.”
They embraced again, her sandalwood-scented hair tickling his nose. He tugged his veil back into place.
“Be careful, Alexia.”
“I always am,” she said, punching his arm. “Any ruffian who accosts me tonight will be sorry.”
“That's not what I meant,” he said.
She went on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “I know.”
Loukas and Poppy hurried back through the streets, and slipped though the gate and locked it carefully. Poppy led him to the slaves' entrance, but found it barred.
“I left it open,” Poppy said, his brow furrowed.
“Back up the trellis, then,” Loukas said, rubbing one of the new scratches. Loukas climbed up first, which thankfully proved easier than climbing down. He heard the trellis creak with their combined weight, and Loukas whispered a prayer to whatever gods were listening. Poppy cursed instead and kept grabbing Loukas's ankle to steady himself.
“Stop that,” Loukas ordered.
“Do you want me to fall?”
“As long as you don't take me with you.”
Finally Loukas scrabbled up the slope of the roof and swung over the ledge of the window, the sill cutting into sensitive parts of his anatomy until his found his footing. He helped Poppy into the room after him. Poppy straightened and went suddenly still, looking over Loukas's shoulder.
“Good evening,” Nika said. “Would you care for some wine? After all that exertion you must be thirsty.”
She sat at the small writing table, a glass of wine already in her hand. There was no telling how long she'd been waiting.
“Nika, I ...” Loukas started vainly.
“The seamstress has finished with your new over-tunic,” she said mildly, gesturing to the garment draped over the foot of the bed, the cloth catching the dim light. “It looks a bit big. I was hoping you would try it on one more time before we left for the country tomorrow, but it's too late for alterations now -- you'll just have to wear it.”
“I don't mind.”
“Where were you?” She cocked her head to the side as she considered him. “You don't seem the type for torrid love affairs, but perhaps I've misjudged.”
“I'm not -- It's not -- like that.” He swallowed. “I haven't done anything wrong.”
“But you had to sneak out over the roof to do it? I'm surprised you didn't break your foolish neck.” Nika's nonchalance was unnerving. She placed the goblet on the table carefully. “So, who were you with?”
“No one,” Loukas said automatically.
“Oh please. Don't bother lying,” Nika said coldly. “I'm more curious than anything else.”
Loukas hesitated. “Alexia Damatrys.”
Nika shook her head, sighing. “You should be more careful. If Iereus finds you've been sneaking out--”
“You won't tell him.”
“You seem rather free with your orders.”
“You won't,” Loukas said levelly. “I'm not the only one who goes visiting on the sly.”
For a long moment neither of them moved or spoke. Finally she stood. “Make sure you're ready to leave tomorrow.”
Neither Poppy nor Nika had further comment as they rode out to the summer estate, heading back into for the harvest.
Loukas considered Alexia's words as he rode, feeling troubled. Surely she would tire of her little intrigue. The light grew hazy as the sun disappeared behind dark clouds rolling in from the northwest.
“Finally,” Nika said, interrupting Loukas's thought. “Rain.”
The wind shifted, carrying the clouds their direction and Loukas watched them uneasily. A warm breeze kicked up dust which settled on Loukas's sleeves and in Rayna's mane. He touched one mote and it disintegrated to gray grit on his fingers.
Ash, he realized.
“Those aren't clouds,” he said, feeling his mouth go dry. “It's smoke.”
Iereus swore sharply, and pulled his horse up. “Great Mother help us. Wildfire.”
On to chapter 12.