In the Shadow of the Gods (9 page)

Scal lay curled on his side in the snow, bleeding and bruised and shaking and hating himself. He blinked up through watering eyes to see Einas bent over him, mouth moving but his voice a mouse's whisper. Blood flowed from his nose and mouth and a split eyebrow, the same blood that covered Scal's knuckles.
He squeezed his eyes shut, pressed his face against the frozen grass. The cold ground cooled his blood, soothed his battered body. He wanted to sink into the earth and disappear forever.

Love your enemies, for they teach you what you'll never become.

The world rushed back in. Voices talking and laughing. Feet crunching on snow. The sigh of blood running across his skin. He tried to open his eyes again, saw Einas crouched before him. Grinning.

“Sorry for that, boy,” the big Northman said cheerfully. “Could think of no other way to stop you.” He held a hand out to Scal, to pull the boy to his feet. Scal kept his hands cradling his delicate parts. Einas did not seem to take offense, and grabbed Scal by the back of his coat instead. Scal's knees were weak as Einas set him on his feet, but they held. He kept his eyes down at the ground, watching the blood drip from his nose to splatter on the frosted grass.

A hand clapped him on the shoulder, nearly knocking him back down. Iveran said, “We will warm that blood of yours yet.”

CHAPTER 6

T
he damned children found Joros in the halls again. They didn't move like children—more like shadows, fading when it suited them and springing up in places they shouldn't have been. Joros would almost compare them to the Sentinels, though that was probably unfair to Mount Raturo's guardians.

“Good morning, cappo,” the girl said in her sugary voice. She always smiled when she spoke, but Joros couldn't help but feel the smile was more aggressive than pleasant. She should have been too young to even know what aggression was, but Joros had always maintained they were unnatural children.

“It's not morning,” he growled, trying to sidle around them. He'd received contact from one of his shadowseekers that he was eager to follow up on. The blasted children stood in the middle of the tunnel, not more than hip-high, but standing shoulder to shoulder they took up too much space to get around without touching them.

“Is, too,” the boy piped up. Avorra was obnoxious, with her chattering and her smiling, but Joros had decided he hated
Etarro more. The boy was always staring, wide eyes taking up too much of his face, and he spoke so little it would have been easy to forget he was even there, if it wasn't for his stare like a knife between the eyes.

They weren't even five yet, but Verteira's twins gave Joros the shivering shits.

“It's not,” Joros said again. He reached out with two fingers and pressed them carefully against the boy's forehead, putting more pressure behind the touch until, frowning, Etarro was forced to take a step back. Joros quickly sidestepped around the children and hurried down the tunnel, hoping they'd find something else to do, or at least that their legs were too short to follow him.

They kept up well enough, unnatural as they were, trailing after him like kittens after a string. “It is,” the girl said, carrying on as if it were an entirely normal conversation, and as if the subject were something Joros cared about. “Wanna know how we know?”

“No.”

“We saw it,” Avorra said, her voice barely above a whisper, like a breath over stone. “We saw the sun.”

Joros hesitated a moment, his stride faltering just enough for Etarro to run into the backs of his legs. Joros sprang away with a growl, then turned to glare down at the children. They at least had brains enough to look a little scared then, though he'd never trusted Avorra's expressions since he'd found her practicing them in a mirror.

There were no other adults around, certainly none who'd take the beasts off his hands and give them the parenting he'd so very carefully avoided providing since Verteira had died
birthing them, and so he gave an internal sigh before demanding, “How did you see the sun?”

They were silent, shared a glance that he couldn't read, though he could practically see the words moving between them. Finally Etarro looked back at him with those too-innocent eyes and said, “It's a secret.”

Joros growled again; the one question had exhausted his store of patience for the children. He crouched down before the boy; the girl made spiders crawl up his spine, but he knew how to deal with the boy. Etarro was quiet and weak, easy enough to control with a firm hand. So Joros reached out and pressed his palm just below the boy's throat, pressing back until Etarro was against the wall and his already too-big eyes looked ready to swallow the rest of his face. “How,” Joros said levelly, “did you see the sun?”

Etarro scrabbled weakly at Joros's hand, and his sister stared with jaw hanging, but the boy finally gasped, “She found a tunnel.”

Joros let go of the boy and stood, wiping his hand briefly on his robe. “You will show me.”

They grumbled and sulked, and Avorra glared at him with that particular glare she had, the one that belonged on the face of an older woman who had seen more of life than the dark innards of a mountain. They led him, though, good beasts that they were.

Joros was annoyed by the diversion, but the Ventallo had near-unanimously agreed on how the twins should be raised after their mother had died. One of the key points of that child-rearing plan had been that the twins not see the world outside the mountain. Should things come to pass as they were
meant to, it would be best if the children didn't have any fear of the dark, or any great attachment to the sun. More practically, which was the part that mattered to Joros, it would keep them from scarpering off and getting themselves killed like so many other twins by the fanatic followers of the Parents. The children had been easy enough to keep contained when they'd been younger and stupider, but since growing some and figuring out that brains were a thing to be used, they'd proved distinctly less easy to contain. They had an eerie way of seeming not to follow the natural laws of walls and doors. It had been harder to keep their existence a secret from the other preachers, what with the fecking spooky little shits popping up in places they shouldn't be, strolling through the tunnels like they owned the world, and so the Ventallo had agreed to stop trying. Let them wander, let them roam—so long as they stayed within the spire of the mountain.

For all that Mount Raturo was enormous, it only had the one central path up and down the mountain, so it was exceptionally hard to avoid running into other preachers. And for all that their numbers swelled year after year, the Fallen were still a small group, rattling around inside Raturo like a handful of peas in a communal cookpot. All considered, it wasn't necessarily surprising that Dirrakara should cross his path; though Joros cursed it as another minor annoyance, she had the strangest effect on his ability to breathe.

She flashed him a sly grin, her hair curling like fire around her face. Joros gave her as much of a smile as he ever gave, a tight curving of the corners of his mouth. Dirrakara swept her arms wide and said, “Why, if it isn't some of my favorite people.”

Honestly, Joros didn't know what she expected. A hug from the children, most likely, but that would be a ridiculous thing to expect and he couldn't bring himself to think so lowly of her. Avorra and Etarro didn't like being touched, and that topped the very short list of things Joros agreed with them on. So Dirrakara stood with her arms spread and a smile plastered on her face until she realized they weren't getting her anywhere. She hastily cleared her throat and crouched down in front of the twins; Etarro flinched slightly, and she noticed it, of course, her eyes going all mothery. She'd tried so hard to fill Verteira's place, for the children who'd never known a mother. They'd gotten along well enough without one so far, and they hadn't shown any sign of wanting that to change. Joros knew it hurt her every time they rebuffed her, but she kept trying. He saw her hold back the hand that tried to reach out and brush at Etarro's hair, and instead she put that smile back on her face. “What are you two doing with Cappo Joros, hmm?”

They glanced at each other, briefly at Joros, and then at the floor. They didn't seem inclined to answer, and so Joros did it for them: “They're showing me something they found.”

Dirrakara looked up at him with eyebrows raised. “Is that so?” She looked back to the twins, though she still spoke to Joros. “And what have they found?”

Joros shrugged. “You know children.”

Still not looking at him, she nodded. “I do. And I'm still wondering what they're doing with you.”

He bristled at that, though he did his best to hide it. Usually he found Dirrakara's perspicacity and boldness refreshing, but not always. She'd come to know him well in the five years he'd served the Ventallo, better than anyone else could claim
to know him. He was still trying to decide whether that meant he should marry her or kill her. “Perhaps I'm taking an interest in their lives. They're finally of an age where they can almost speak in coherent sentences. One day soon they might even say something interesting. It would be a shame if I missed such a groundbreaking event.”

She smirked, eyes flicking playfully up to him. “It would be, wouldn't it?” She rose and stepped smoothly around the children, resting her hand lightly against Joros's arm. Her eyes were the deepest green he'd ever seen. “I have a present for you, once you're done with them. Come find me.” She leaned in tantalizingly close, lips just brushing against his jaw, and then moved away, smirking again as she strode up the path behind him. Joros watched her until, from the corner of his eye, he saw Avorra trying to slip away. He set the twins marching forward again, and they went without grumbling now, resigned.

They took him all the way to Raturo's floor, where the wide space gave a perfect view of the great arch that led into the Ventallo's chambers. It was hard to notice anything besides the two falling gods, but the twins didn't even seem to notice their stone counterparts, walking instead to the two tunnel mouths leading farther down. There was the path leading to the Cavern of the Falls, which Joros had to visit fairly frequently for ceremonial reasons, and the other path led down to the sorts of rooms necessary to keep a large place full of many people fed and clothed and clean. Kitchens, baths, storerooms; the kinds of places Joros had managed to avoid, save when he needed cleaning. The children took the latter path, of course, strolling deep into the mountain's foot, going lower even than the Cavern of the Falls reached. It was darker there, below where most
of the mountain lived, far removed from the labored gasps of life crawling through Raturo's tunnels.

The storeroom they took him to was near freezing, cold enough for his breath to make a cloud before his face. It was full of meat, carcasses hanging from the ceiling, dark pools of frozen blood dotting the floor. They wove through the room to a back corner, pushed aside a hanging pig, and knelt down before a pile of bones, shaved of their flesh. As the twins began to root through the bones, Joros felt a strange twisting in his stomach. The children were unsettling enough on their own, but there was something especially troubling about the casual carelessness with which they dug through bones and flesh and blood.

The storage room began to slowly grow brighter.

Through the tunnel they revealed, tight to the floor and barely big enough for a full-sized man to fit through, daylight stretched its fingers.

There were a great number of things Joros hated, and the children being right was most certainly one of them.

“See?” Avorra said with a grin that was half superiority and half disdain. “Told you it was morning.”

Joros stepped forward and took the smile off her face with the flat of his hand. The twins gaped up at him with matching expressions of shock, Avorra's hand slowly rising to touch her reddening cheek. It took a great effort of will for Joros not to raise his hand again; he even managed to keep his voice low, calm and deadly, as he told them, “You will never come here again. You will never speak of this place.” He glared at them a moment longer, letting them soak in his anger. “Go. Now.”

They went.

When he was sure they were gone, Joros turned to regard
the tunnel. He would ask the right questions to the right people; he was confident he would know within the week who had thought of making a tunnel to discard refuse, who had been too lazy to drag carcasses up through the mountain to the gate. There would be proper punishments. But the tunnel . . . he wasn't sure what to do about the tunnel itself.

Carefully he rearranged the bones in front of the tunnel mouth, the sunlight fracturing against the far wall, dimming piece by piece until the storeroom was once again near dark, lit only by a single candle. There were always candles scattered throughout the mountain, since there was no other way of tracking time in the darkness. The initiates were constantly replacing them, precisely trimming and lighting them. Joros found himself staring at the flame much too long and shook himself, making his way from the storeroom and back up the path through the mountain. Not all problems had an immediate solution; this one would take some more thought.

He thought about ignoring Dirrakara's earlier invitation, of going instead to his own room and attending to his shadowseeker business. But Dirrakara was a nightmare when she was angry, and taking a bit of time now to make sure he didn't have to deal with her bitter anger for a week was an easy enough choice to make.

He entered her room without knocking; after so long, there wasn't any point in knocking anymore. She was at her worktable, where she was often to be found these days, wearing only a simple linen shift. Her discarded robe was a crumpled pile on the floor, likely cast aside in a flash of inspiration—she'd often complained that the robe's sleeves weren't made for rolling and just got in her way. A soft crunching sound filled
the room, pestle grinding seeds to powder, holding all her bright-eyed attention. Joros almost didn't see her manservant, Haro, standing dutifully nearby in case she needed anything; the man was so innocuous he might as well have been a wall. Haro noticed Joros before Dirrakara did, but the man never did anything without his mistress's command.

Joros didn't like catching her like this—focused, forehead wrinkled, her thoughts swirling behind her eyes. She was useful, and a good enough companion, but he didn't always like to be reminded that she was more as well; that she had ambitions of her own beyond the ones he'd aligned her for. It reminded him that he didn't know her nearly as well as she knew him.

Absorbed in her work, she didn't even notice him staring, waiting. Finally he cleared his throat and she looked up from grinding seeds, smiling broadly. “There you are. I was starting to worry you'd forgotten about me.” Joros shrugged noncommittally and dropped into the room's single chair. She had piles of cushions scattered around that she swore were more comfortable, but he'd persuaded her to have Haro find him a chair. “How are the children?”

That earned another shrug. “No smarter than they've ever been.”

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