Chapter 13

Sep. 28th, 2009 07:29 am
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The Festival of Ardalia was the holiest and most popular day in the calendar. It was holy because it because it thanked the harvest goddess for her bounty and ensured her protection during the winter season.

It was popular because of the chariot races.

The races made reputations and lost lives each year; the rich prize and promise of glory ensuring there would always be young riders will to test their skill. House Kommene's team had raced each year since the founding of the city. Though no one of arist blood piloted a chariot, Loukas had helped condition his mother's team and he took their victories and defeats personally. The charioteers themselves were slaves as expensive as the horses they commanded.

“It's a waste of horseflesh,” Iereus said shortly when Loukas inquired about his own team.

“It's to honor the gods,” Loukas pointed out, affecting an outraged tone.

Iereus snorted, disbelieving the act. “It's an excuse for fools to risk other people's necks for their own vainglorious aspirations.” He set aside the folio he'd been reading.

“But how can you sit in the stadium and not have a stake in the action?” Loukas said in exasperation.

“I suppose it helps that I don't plan to attend. The church will be having services; you may take part if that would ease your soul.”

Loukas took a deep breath and held it to keep from telling Iereus exactly what he thought of that. He released the breath slowly and schooled his expression into one of sweet obedience.

“Husband, your temperance and good sense are two of your many good traits I admire most. And, if you don't wish to attend, I concede to your judgment. However, in light of the difficulties endured lately, I wonder if a diversion might just be what we all need right now. I beg you to reconsider.”

Iereus sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Very persuasive. And whose influence is this? Nika? Or Myrrine?”

Loukas smiled gently. “I've had many teachers.”

“I'm so glad you're making use of your time. I suppose,” Iereus sighed, “I might reconsider.”

---

Situated at the very heart of Edessa, the stadium held twenty-thousand people at full capacity and today it was. The crowd was in high spirits, rowdy despite the early autumn heat and wearing colors of the House they supported. Kommene scarlet was well-represented.

“The black and white of Tzykalas is popular this year,” Loukas said in surprise. Tzykalas's team had foundered badly last year.

“The support is more political than sporting, I should think,” Iereus said. “He opposed the last tax; the merchants’ collegia love him.”

The most influential Houses had their own section a few rows above the action. Close enough to see the foam on the horses' flanks but not close enough to be spattered. Loukas and the others had to pass the Kommene box to reach Iereus's. Eugenia was already situated with her two favorite wives and Eleutherios also in attendance. Loukas had hoped to avoid his sibling; as it was, he settled for drawing his veil closer about him and squaring his shoulders.

Iereus stopped to exchange a double-kiss with Eugenia. Her blood-red silks fluttered about her and her lips painted to match.

“And you look well, my son,” she said, allowing Loukas to kiss her.

“Indeed, Brother,” Eleutherios agreed. Loukas gritted his teeth and kissed Eleutherios as well, the scent of over-applied perfume overwhelming. “Marriage suits you admirably.”

“Do you have a team in the race, Falkon?” Eugenia asked, toying with a fan of ostrich feathers.

“No. I don't have the time to maintain a team.” Iereus voice carried just a hint of disapproval. Behind Eugenia's shoulder, Eleutherios smile grew mocking.

“That's such a pity; we could use the competition. I think we have a particular fine team this year, don't you, Eleutherios?”

“Quite, Mother. But if there's no one to challenge us, it's something of a waste.”

“True. Glory is only measured by the worthiness of one's opponent. Ah well.” Eugenia inclined her head. “But I do hope you'll support us on the field today.”

“Of course,” Iereus agreed shortly and moved down to their box.

A barrier ran down the center of the long sand track. Stone statues of Syl and San, the twin god and goddess of competition and victory, served as turning posts as each end. The miscalculation of reckless charioteers had scarred them badly. The track could hold four teams at a time. Close to a hundred teams would take the field during the day and more than a few would be dragged off it again by the draft horses standing by the track's edge.

With the blare of horns, the races opened; a procession made its way around the track, led by the high priest of Ardalia, conspicuous in his bright yellow robes. Acolytes waved sheaves of wheat and brandished ivy. A chest containing the grand purse rode on a litter. Behind it came the chariots, the horses wearing blankets to show the affiliation of their owner.

Completing the circle, the first heat drew up and the priest sprinkled salt in a blessing. None of the charioteers or teams in this heat were famous but Loukas's pulse still quickened. Racing chariots were lighter than their martial counterparts. They had almost no protection for the charioteer, who balanced precariously over the axle. A charioteer risked falling or being jostled loose by the other teams and had to have excellent reflexes if they hoped to keep their seat.

The priest signaled the start with a waved banner and the horses sprang forward. The chariots formed a loose pack, a team of bays taking the lead.

“There's not much strategy is there?” Iereus said.

“Ah, but there is -- the charioteer must pace the horses. If the horses tire too soon, the lead will be lost by the sixth lap. Of course, if she sets too slow a pace, the team cannot make up the distance. Then there's position,” Loukas pointed as the teams took the tight turn at the end of the track. “A charioteer must know his own team, but also every other team on the field or risk getting boxed in. A single mistake can mean death!” Loukas gestured to the field violently.

“All right, Loukas, you've made your point.” Iereus settled back into his seat. “I had never before considered the finer points of driving horses around in a circle.”

Loukas bristled, but then realized he was being teased. “Perhaps, Husband, you would prefer to watch a rousing game of chess -- something to really heat the blood.”

Iereus smiled outright at that.

The race ended in an easy victory for the bays, and Iereus claimed it as point in the argument. But the second heat proved more intense; two well-matched teams vying far ahead of the others. The first edged ahead, and the second tried to catch them in the turn but took too extreme an angle. The chariot rode on two wheels, teetering for a breath before it toppled. Waiting slaves pulled the charioteer from the path of the other teams just in time, while her team ran down the track, dragging the overturned chariot behind them.

That charioteer survived with minor injuries, but others later in the day weren't so lucky. The worst crash ended with three chariots piled atop one another, the horses tangled in tack and wreckage. Two of the riders pulled from the crash were dead, Loukas could tell even from where he sat in the stands. They carried the third out screaming.

Vendors sold sweets and drinks, taking advantage of the lull while the field was cleared. Loukas bought lemon water to clear the bad taste from his mouth.

The last race had the most famous teams, Loukas could identify each by their standard alone. The royal purple -- Loukas recognized the team he'd helped Procopia select, the black and white of Tzykalas and the blues of Kalligas. Loukas sat up straighter as Kommene rode onto the field, not sure if he hoped for victory or another crash.

But as they erupted from the starting line, Loukas forgot his ambivalence, too caught up in the churning hooves and the shouting crowd.

By the fourth lap, Tzykalas led and Kommene was a chariot's length behind but closing. The scarlet team inched forward, and Loukas did the same, until he perched on his edge of his seat. The teams entered the seventh and final lap neck-and-neck, the horses straining in their harness and foam streaking their flanks. They pulled across the finish line with Kommene ahead by a neck.

Loukas was on his feet screaming his approval. He came to himself, suddenly realizing his immodest behavior and he cast a guilty look over at his husband. Iereus hadn't noticed Loukas's lapse; he was too busy cheering himselfs. The crowd seemed to have forgotten its love for Tzykalas, basking in reflected glory as the Kommene team took a victory lap before accepting the garland the priest bestowed.

Loukas's joy buoyed him as they left, fighting the crowd streaming from the stadium. Even with Poppy to clear a path, the push of the crowd jostled him. A Tzykalas supporter shouldered him to one side and he got pulled away in the tide of people. He struggled against the current, his veil catching. Someone grabbed his wrist and pulled him up onto the high base of a pillar, out of the press of people.

He opened his mouth to thank them but the words died on his lips. It was Eleutherios.

“Be careful in these crowds, Brother. They can get quite rowdy after a race. Last year there were riots.”

Loukas yanked his hand back. “Why thank you for your gracious concern.” The words were appropriate, if not the sarcasm that accompanied them. “And may I congratulate you on today's victory?”

“Beautiful, wasn't it? I told you we had a good team.”

Loukas gritted his teeth. “I never doubted it, after all -- I trained them.” This was only a partial truth, but he'd had a hand in their training, certainly.

Eleutherios shook his head pityingly. “Of course, Loukas, it's a shame you can't share in their glory.”

“And I was just thinking how its a shame that you steal it.”

Eleutherios's smile didn't falter, but his eyes narrowed as he said, “So, tell me about your husband. I had heard some rumors that he'd was disappointed. But at the bargain rate he got you, I don't think he can complain.”

Loukas's hand balled to fists and he would have struck his brother, but Poppy appeared, elbowing those who failed to get out of his way fast enough.

“There you are,” Poppy called. Taking in Loukas's agitated state with a shred glance, he took Loukas's elbow. “Archon Iereus is most anxious to depart. My apologies, Elarchon Kommene -- you'll excuse us.”

“Of course,” Eleutherios said, waving a lazy farewell as Poppy hustled Loukas away.

---

“I want to kill him,” Loukas fumed later when he'd shut himself in his room. “Or have him killed -- I'm not particular.”

“And what does my young master know of fratricide?” Poppy asked, pouring a cup of tea and sweetening it before handing it to Loukas.

“I do not jest, Poppy. I want him beaten, strangled, mutilated and left in the gutter so dogs eat his liver!” Loukas set the tea down untasted.

“I don't doubt your sincerity.” Poppy drank from his own cup. “I'm merely pointing out that you have little practice with murder.”

“But you have, I'll bet. Isn't what they teach you in eunuch school? Subterfuge and deceit?”

“Among other things,” Poppy agreed drily. “If you want your brother to die, then I will do all I can to help you.” he hesitated, swirling the teacup as leaves danced in the bottom. “But I think upon further reflection, you'll find that you do not want your brother's death on your head. The deities do not look kindly on kin-murder.”

Loukas pursed his lips and considered. “It doesn't have to be murder. Maiming would work as well. In fact, that might be better: he'd no longer be able to inherit. That would be mere justice; Lereious himself would approve. What method do you think more fitting -- blinding or hamstringing?”

“Your problem isn't going to be the method, but finding the coin to fund your plot,” Poppy said. “You're going to need muscle, and that muscle will want payment. Hush money, too, I shouldn't wonder.”

“I've my dowry,” Loukas said. “There's enough money there, and it's mine to spend as I like.”

Poppy sipped meditatively and set the cup neatly in its saucer. “Iereus is sure to ask why you need it, and even if you can think up a reasonable story for him -- and I'm not entirely sure you can -- he's likely to become suspicious after your brother is maimed by street thugs and you have nothing to show for the coin you've spent.”

“I could say I lost it gambling.”

Poppy didn't deign to reply to that, instead saying, “Stealing something to sell is out of the question; Metrodora is far too watchful to overlook missing silverware.”

“I think I know where we can get the coin,” Loukas said. “But you're not going to like it.”

“I'd be surprised if I did.” Poppy closed his eyes, waiting.

“Alexia would help me.”

“You're right.”

“She'd help me?”

“That I don't like it.” Poppy rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. “It's another point of weakness in an already flimsy plot.”

“She would never betray me.”

“Perhaps not, but why give her the opportunity?” Poppy continued before Loukas could defend Alexia. “And even if she were as constant as the rising and setting of the sun, one of her people may not be. And if you're caught with Alexia Damatrys....”

“I know.” Loukas twisted a silver ring around his finger. “But I have precious few choices and if you have a better idea, now would be a good time to offer it up.” Poppy frowned but remained silent. “I thought as much. The question is how do I get to see her? Nika's keeping far too close an eye on me.”

“I can relay whatever message you need,” Poppy said.

“I doubt Alexia would speak with you. She has no love for eunuchs and won't trust you. Besides, she should hear it from me; I'm asking for no small favor. But if you could arrange a meeting, that would be enough.”

Poppy gritty his teeth and nodded. “If that is what you want.”

---

Loukas met Alexia at the small Church of Theanata, which was consecrated to the Mother's incarnation as a death goddess.

It was a considerably less popular church.

Priests and priestesses in black robes, their hair long and unbound, tended the eternal fire in silence. The grounds held the oldest graveyard in Edessa, time wearing away the faces of carved saints into anonymity.

Loukas stepped into the small church only long enough to light a candle and kneel before the polished black altar. A priestess nodded to him and raised a hand in blessing. Loukas tried not to shiver. Winter fast approached, the sky a leaden gray. Loukas wish he'd worn a heavier veil as he waited, leaning against a mausoleum. Poppy stood beside him, arms crossed.

A figure rounded the corner, Alexia coming into view. She noticed them, hurriedly picking her way around the graves. She embraced him and kissed twice and then again for good measure.

“Loukas.” Her eyes were bright. “Have you been well?”

“Very well.” Loukas smiled. “I'm sorry I haven't been able to see you sooner. Nika caught me out the last time.”

“Oh no, she didn't tell your husband, did she?”

“We came to an understanding, I think.” Loukas grimaced. “I told her you were just a friend.”

“Did you tell her anything else?” Alexia asked.

“Nothing.” He shrugged. “There was nothing else to say. It's not like I'm going to tell her about your treasonous inclinations.”

Alexia grinned. “I appreciate it.” Loukas's veil had fallen to his shoulders, and suddenly Alexia ruffled his hair, as had been her habit since childhood. Loukas shoved her hand away and tried to smooth both his hair and dignity.

“That's truly obnoxious.”

“I know. That's why I do it.” Alexia flinched as Loukas punched her in the arm. “Ow! You hit harder now.”

“Good. I hope it bruises.” Loukas brandished his fist, but Alexia backed out of range and wouldn't return until Loukas had sworn his revenge had been satisfied.

“And tell your eunuch to quit glaring at me. I can't imagine what I've done to annoy the silly thing.”

“He's just anxious that we'll be caught.”

“He's right to worry. What is this about -- have your feelings changed since last we met?”

“No, nothing like that.” He sighed. “I need a favor.”

Alexia rolled her eyes. “Of course you do.”

“I need money, and Iereus can't know. I'd prefer you not know why either, though it's unfair to ask--”

“It's yours,” Alexia interrupted.

“So I understand if--”

“Loukas.” Alexia placed a hand on Loukas's shoulder. “If I have it, it's yours. What, did you think I would deny my oldest friend in his hora of need?”

Loukas had feared exactly that. “And you're not going to ask me why I need it?”

“Whores and gambling, probably. Or have you developed an opium addiction?” Alexia smiled wryly. “You wouldn't ask unless you were in real need and I trust you. But you can't deny me the pleasure of speculation..”

They arranged for Poppy to meet Alexia to collect the money.

“I owe you, Alexia,” Loukas said.

Alexia snorted. “I'll add it to your tab.”

---

Loukas had the coin in hand two days later.

“When best to strike?” he asked Poppy, weighing the heavy purse in his hand.

“You may not have much opportunity -- what evening can you find away from the eye of Iereus or your sisters?” Poppy said in return. “And how will you be able to assure that your brother arrives on time? Logistics have undone more than one plot.”

“I'll find a way,” Loukas snapped stubbornly. “He often stays out later than he should, carousing with his wayward friends.”

“There's no way to guarantee his outing will coincide with your opportunity and he takes a guard with him when he goes.”

Loukas grimaced and said accusingly, “You're enjoying this.”

“Merely being helpful.”

“So I'll ensure that he makes an appearance, lure him out or send him a message to meet me. Something.” Loukas drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “There's got to be something to get that rat from his nest.”

---

In the end, it proved more difficult for Loukas to escape than to seize Eleutherios. He waited, ill-tempered, until Iereus had a late meeting with the committee for Public Supply, a position he'd recently been appointed to by Procopia herself. Myrrine had taken ill, alternating between chills and a fever and Metrodora insisted on tending Myrrine herself.

That left Nika to contend with.

“There's no need for you to attend. Let the Kleistan thugs do their work,” Poppy urged. “That would lay no blame at your door.”

“No.” Loukas shook his head firmly.

“But--”

Loukas cut him off. “I've made my decision. Abide by it!”

Poppy nodded once, but Loukas could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was unhappy. Poppy briefly instructed Loukas to wear his plainest, darkest clothes and no jewelry. Loukas obeyed, his fingers fumbling with the rings in his ears, the clasps proving stubborn. Poppy wore a voluminous hood that obscured his face as much as Loukas's veil.

Loukas debated whether to tell Nika, in the end deciding he couldn't risk her discovering his departure on her own, better to tell her himself.

“What errand?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Not an adulterous one,” he said sharply and then regretted it. “Just -- better one Iereus doesn't know about. Please, Nika.”

She pursed her lips, considering his plea. “Fine.”

“Thank you.” He kissed her and turned.

“Be careful,” she called.

He looked over his shoulder, surprised.

She shrugged. “Something happens to you, I'm stuck with your share of the work.”

“Right. I'll be careful.” He slipped out the door after Poppy.

---

Out on the street, they walked quickly, and Poppy chose the back allies to wind their way through the city. They worked down the slanted streets, passing from the garden district down through the markets, finally to the slums. The dark cloaked most of the filth, but did nothing to hide the stench: refuse, urine and worse.

Dogs skulked through the gutters, their eyes flashing an eerie green before they turned and ran. The buildings were wood here, tenements and workshops crowding in on each other, some as many as eight stories high. Here and there were empty ruins; an overturned lamp or unattended cooking fire had consumed an apartment block. The civilian fire brigades were the only duty slum denizens could be counted on to fulfill.

Poppy led him to a room in a boarding house, ducking around the back.

“Now what?” Loukas said careful to stay out of a suspicious damp spot on the floor.

“Now we wait. The Kleistans you've hired know their part,” Poppy said, lighting a lamp that did little chase away the darkness.

When the door opened, Loukas scramble to his feet, knocking over the low stool he sat on. The Kleistans dragged Eleutherios between them, blinded and gagged, his hands bound behind him. Poppy closed the door behind them, after checking the alley outside.

“This is the one, right?” The first Kleistan asked and Loukas nodded. “He fought -- had to hit him a couple of times.' The thugs voice had the strange lilting Kleistan accent and it took Loukas a moment to understand what he'd said.

“That's all right,” Loukas said. “Take off his blindfold.” The Kleistans hesitated, but obeyed.

Eleutherios did look dazed; a trickle of blood ran down his face and dripped off his chin. He blinked slowly and focused, his eyes widening as he saw Loukas.

“What do you want?” the second Kleistan asked. “We slit his throat and we'll dump his body at half-price. It's a good deal.”

“Very good deal,” his companion agreed.

Eleutherios squirmed and tried to speak through the gag, but his captors ignored him.

“No. Thank you,” Loukas said without taking his gaze off his brother. “You've done all I require of you tonight. You're dismissed.”

Beside him Poppy shifted, caught off-guard by the change of plan. Loukas ignored him.

“You don't want him dead?” the first Kleistan said uncertainly. “You paid enough.”

“I've changed my mind.” He waved his hand toward the door. “Go.”

The mercenaries exchanged a glance and a shrug, exiting without further comment.

“You should go, too,” Loukas said to Poppy.

“I'd rather stay.”

“I don't care.” Loukas jerked his chin to the door. Poppy hesitated and then he left too. Loukas and Eleutherios were alone.

“Hello, little brother.” Loukas pushed the veil off his head, letting it fall about his shoulders. “Would you like me to remove the gag?”

Eleutherios indicated nothing, just stared at Loukas, his pupils wide in the dim of the room. Loukas undid the gag anyway; the knot was stubborn but finally yielded. The scent of wine and sweat hung about Eleutherios; the corners of his mouth had been rubbed raw by the gag.

“Do you have anything to say?” Loukas asked, angered by Eleutherios's passivity. “Perhaps, 'how could you'? Or 'why'? A plea for mercy, maybe.”

“No,” Eleutherios rasped.

“Not going to tell me that you're sorry for how you wronged me? Guess not, you're too proud for that.”

Eleutherios spit. His mouth was too dry to produce much, but Loukas flinched back reflexively. Loukas seized Eleutherios by the front of his tunic, hauling him up and slamming him into the wall hard enough to shake dust from the wood. The back of Eleutherios's skull thunked sharply. Loukas let him go, and he slid down the wall into a crumpled heap, though he caught himself on his elbows, preventing another blow to the head. Coming to a knee, Loukas drew his knife, the one Iereus had given him. The cutting edge caught the light.

Blood painted Eleutherios's lips and teeth dark; it made Loukas's grip slick as he grabbed Eleutherios's jaw. He held the knife up before Eleutherios's eyes.

“I don't mean to kill you, little brother.” Loukas pressed the flat of the blade to Eleutherios's cheek. “I just want justice. Give me back what you took, and I'll release you.”

Eleutherios's breathing was shallow and quick, he tried to shake his head but the knife bit into him.

“I took nothing from you,” he said, scowling defiantly.

“All right. If I'm defective, then you will be too. I'm going to blind you.”

He pulled back the knife, adjusting his grip, ready to dig the knife into his brother's eye but someone took his elbow and pulled him back. The attack caught him by surprise, and he sprawled onto the dank floor, the knife knocked from his hand. Poppy, he realized with a shock of betrayal. Poppy retrieved the fallen knife and, with a few quick strokes, freed Eleutherios of his bonds. Eleutherios gained his feet, though he nearly tipped over again. Poppy steadied him and then shoved him to the door ordering him to run. Eleutherios did so, disappearing into the street.

Loukas got air in his lungs and stood, anger running hotly through his veins. Poppy moved to stand before the door, but Loukas wasn't interested in going after his brother.

“What are you dong?” he screamed instead, striking the eunuch across the face. It was luck that he didn't still hold the knife, else he might have killed him. His hand stung, but he didn't feel it, striking out again. Poppy raised an arm to defend himself, partially deflecting the blow. “What did you let him go? Traitor! Worthless slave!” Loukas punctuated each word with a blow, driving Poppy back into the corner.

Poppy said nothing, giving ground and trying to avoid the worst of Loukas's assault, until Loukas stopped, his hand still raised. The eunuch met his gaze evenly and Loukas struck the wall instead before collapsing against it. His face was wet and he realized he was crying.

Neither of them moved, their breath loud in the quiet. The lamp had gone out and Poppy's face was in shadow.

“Why did you do that?” Loukas asked, wiping his nose on the back of his hand.

“You would have regretted it.”

“No, I wouldn't have.”

“Maybe not tonight, but in time. Revenge has a tendency to sour.” He sighed and Loukas could hear his weariness. “Besides, your brother isn't to blame for your loss. You might have applied yourself more thoroughly to your studies, instead of letting Damatrys do your work for you. Your mother might have kept you on even after your discovery. There were many who had a hand in your downfall.”

Loukas squeezed his eyes shut; somewhere in the darkness there was the scurry of rodent feet, substantial enough to be rats. He took a breath and pushed himself away form the wall and stalked out. It was only Poppy's presence at his elbow that kept him from falling prey to thieves or worse as he made his way home.

Loukas prepared a story the following day to explain his raw knuckles, but no one inquired.

No one asked about Poppy's bruised face, either.


On to chapter 14.
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