In an Orchard Grown from Ash
The guards were discussing his overcoat. They had been since Legerma, where Lexos had been passed into their care, and they were not being quiet about it.
It was, according to them, quite ugly and in need of mending, along with a good wash so that it might stop stinking up the carriage. One of the guards had even tugged on the hem a few minutes ago, as if expecting a seam to give and the whole thing to come apart in his hand.
Lexos had said nothing then, as he did now, sighing and settling more deeply into the corner of the carriage before shutting his eyes. He knew he looked quite Thyzak in his dour black coat and that its sleeves did nothing to hide the beautiful silver bracelets that had been bent around his wrists—ornamental chains to mark his status as a captive of Tarro Domina. But he was warm, and he could tell, from the guards’ occasional shivers, that they were not. They were dressed for a standard spring; the weather they found themselves in these days was anything but standard. Snow was still falling, even as the season began to tip toward its end. It melted quickly, to be sure, but it left the ground unsteady and the air heavy with mist that took too long to burn off.
It was a shame. Trefazio was meant to be beautiful this time of year. Rhea had told him once that it was her favorite place to make a marriage, although it had been some time since she had married anyone outside of Thyzakos, since their father’s efforts had turned toward securing the support of his own stewards.
It didn’t do, lately, to think of his sister, but he couldn’t help it. Every night on his trip across the countryside he fell asleep remembering the look on her face that day at Stratathoma, in the silence after he’d finished reciting the prayer meant to end her life. Her shock, that he had tried. His, that it hadn’t worked. Wherever Rhea was now—and he was very sure that she was still alive, sure to his bones—it was with the matagios on her tongue, a little black spot marking her as their father’s eldest child and successor. Had she made any peace with it, he wondered. She had never wanted that power. Especially not at the end.
But power or no, she was free. He hoped she was pleased with that, because he could not be pleased for her, not when he was stuck in this carriage on the latest leg of his tour of the countryside. Every few days they would stop, and Lexos would find himself in some city or town he’d never heard of before and be given hardly a minute to catch his breath before being paraded down the street: the Argyros prince, federation traitor, and fugitive, captured once more. He’d asked one of the guards if this was a popular Trefzan hobby—if there were other parades on the off days, perhaps for anyone who had worn a non-Domina shade of green—but apparently this was a custom Falka had invented just for him. Lexos couldn’t decide if that was flattering or not.
At least Tarro had gone back to Vuomorra. The first few cities had been the worst, when Lexos and his guards had been accompanied by Tarro and Falka both, the two of them riding at the head of their dubious little procession, waving to the people and basking in the wrath Lexos could not keep from clouding his expression, much as he tried to seem unaffected.
He’d gotten better at that part. The guards had to work harder to get a rise out of him and even sometimes switched from Trefza to poorly accented Thyzaki, as if the problem was simply that Lexos couldn’t understand them. Never mind that he spoke Trefza very well, and never mind that of everything that had gone catastrophically wrong in his life over the past season, being dressed unfashionably was the most palatable.
The least was that after years of serving his father and of keeping the Argyros family safe and well, the four siblings were scattered. Chrysanthi was probably following her older sister, or charming her way into some secluded rich household in the countryside if she knew what was good for her, and Nitsos . . . well. Lexos couldn’t begin to imagine what his younger brother might be busy with. Nitsos had stepped into the garden as a man in control, and meanwhile Lexos had still been picturing him as a child sulking at the dinner table. What else had Lexos missed? Who else had Nitsos taken for his own?
“Wake up, Argyros,” one of the guards barked from across the carriage, and Lexos jolted upright as an elbow connected with his ribs. Somehow the guards all managed to make Trefza sound harsh, a true feat. “We’re almost there.”
“There” meant Vuomorra, a return at last to the capital. Three months ago, Lexos had been quite prepared to vomit over the side of the ship at the sight of Vuomorra’s port on the horizon. Now he bent low to get a good view out the carriage window, and when the green dome of the palace came into view, a wave of gratitude threatened to overwhelm him. At last, out of this gilded Domina carriage, and off the rattling Domina roads, and into a comfortable Domina bed.
Which he would then object to, on principle. Just as soon as he got a good night’s rest.
The city seemed busier than when he’d been here last, as though more people might have trickled in from the countryside when their fields did not thaw and their crops did not grow. Lexos watched carefully as the carriage eased down the main thoroughfare, searching for signs in each face that he passed. What was Rhea doing out there? What had she done, letting winter linger through spring? Her consort had been dead when she’d arrived home at Stratathoma. Everything had been set up to continue on as normal.
“Are we going to the palace?” he asked the guard opposite him. Tarro would be there, along with his second, Falka, the very woman who had stripped the mark from his left hand. He needed to see them both to, if possible, get a sense of what maneuvers they’d begun since their last real meeting.
The guard laughed. “Not the way you’re thinking.”
Lexos was about to ask what he meant when the carriage cornered sharply and turned from the broad street cutting through the center of Vuomorra onto a smaller, cobbled alleyway. Still neatly kept, as all things in Vuomorra were, but he could tell that they were headed away from the main set of entrances open to the public, through which Lexos had entered when he’d come to Vuomorra last.
“Why not?” he asked. “Aren’t I due for another parade?”
This, apparently, did not warrant an answer, and the ride continued in silence, with only amused glances and barely muffled laughter exchanged between the guards. Lexos began to brace himself. Whatever waited for him at the Domina palace might be something even his recent experience in humiliation had not prepared him for.
Finally, the carriage came to a halt. Lexos and his quartet of guards sat there in the stilled cabin for a moment, enjoying the quiet that the clatter of the carriage wheels had obliterated for so many weeks. Then, the most senior of the guards clapped his leather-gloved hands together and said, “Let’s get him inside, shall we?”
Lexos barely had time to take in the small courtyard where the carriage had stopped before he was bundled through a door cut into the stone wall. From there, he was escorted down a low, dimly lit corridor, the guards leading him on ahead even as smaller branches of the hallway split off and disappeared into the dark. Oh dear, Lexos thought, somewhat hysterically. Was he being taken to a tiny, damp cell, where he’d be left to rot? That hadn’t seemed like Tarro’s intent, but the man had lived a long life, and would live a longer one still—it was entirely possible he’d just forgotten he had Lexos in his custody at all.
But he needn’t have worried, because the corridor soon opened and emptied into the sort of room Lexos had spent time in when he’d previously been Tarro’s honored guest. This one was a portrait gallery, the floors a polished wood that had been laid in an angular pattern and the walls so thoroughly hung with portraits of Dominas past and, in Tarro’s case, notably present, that Lexos could barely see the stone behind them. At the far end, a pair of double doors stood shut, each side manned by two armed guards, and in the middle of it all, sitting perfectly still on a single plain chair, was Falka Domina.
She looked well. Falka always looked well. This time, though, she looked well when Lexos knew he very much did not, and he resolved to take it as a personal insult.
“Alexandros,” she said at last. One of her heavily jeweled hands twitched as she seemed, impossibly, to sit up even straighter. “Welcome back.”
Lexos said nothing, only narrowed his eyes. He’d been transferred often enough without ever encountering a Domina, let alone the family’s second-in-command. So what sort of play was this, then?