“You think she win this war?” Lieza’s tone held a distinctly dubious note.
“With help.” Reva felt her eyelids grow heavy, the heat of the water and the strain of her recent exertions combining to overwhelm her. She turned back to the edge of the bath, resting her head on her arms. “There is a man, a friend of mine.” She found herself smiling. “My elder brother, in any way that matters. If I can survive here long enough for word to reach him, he will come for me.” She closed her eyes, voice fading to a whisper. “Though I would not have him risk any more on my account . . .”
She let it fade away, the arena, the Empress’s fond smile, losing herself in the water’s warm embrace, letting it seep into her, soothing, caressing . . .
She jerked awake, Lieza’s hands vanishing from her shoulders as she reared back in alarm. “You . . . tense,” she said. “I know how to make it go away.” She raised her hands, flexing the fingers, then slowly reached out to trace her nails through Reva’s hair.
“Don’t.” Reva took hold of her hand, hating the electric thrill provoked by the feel of her skin, gently pushing it away. “Please.”
“I not your slave,” Lieza said. “I willing . . .”
“I can’t.” Reva fought down a wave of self-reproach at the regret in her voice. “There is someone, someone who waits for me.”
She pushed herself to the steps and climbed out of the bath, moving to the bed and covering herself with a sheet. She slumped against a pillar, keeping her gaze from Lieza, who she knew would be staring after her, sinking to the marble floor with a whisper, “Loyalty is all I have left to give her.”
• • •
She awoke in darkness, Lieza slumbering next to her, still naked and absent any coverings. She had washed her own clothes after finishing with Reva’s and left them to dry. “No other place to sleep,” she said, hovering by the bed after dimming the lamps.
Reva turned onto her side, facing away. “Then sleep.”
Lieza groaned as Reva rose, eyes tracking to the near-invisible door, realising she had been woken by the sound of the lock turning. She rose from the bed, tossing a sheet over Lieza’s distracting form and retrieving her still-damp clothes. She managed to drag them on by the time the door opened to reveal Varulek, standing with oil lamp in hand. Reva blinked in surprise as she realised he was alone and the tunnel behind him free of Kuritai.
Careful, she cautioned herself against the instinctive impulse to rush the black-clad. He would not come here defenceless.
So she stood in silence as he entered, his gaze sweeping across the chamber, pausing only slightly at the sight of Lieza’s partial nakedness. His face was tense with well-controlled but palpable fear, the face of a man forcing himself to unavoidable duty, an expression she knew well.
“I have something to show you,” he said, voice kept to a whisper.
Reva said nothing but gave a pointed glance at the empty tunnel beyond the door.
“If you find no interest in what I offer,” he said, following her gaze, “killing me would be the greatest favour.”
A blow to the temple to put him down, another to crush his larynx and prevent him screaming. Cover his nose and mouth as he chokes to death. Wake the girl and find a route out of this place of horrors. All so easy. But there was something in his gaze that gave her pause, another expression she also knew well, having seen it so many times at Alltor. Hope. He sees hope in me.
“The Father takes a dim view of betrayal,” she said, reaching for her shoes. “And so do I.”
• • •
The lamplight was meagre, forcing her to keep close to him as he led her along the tunnel to a small door, working a heavy iron key in the lock and hauling it aside. The stairwell beyond was narrow, the steps and walls roughly hewn and lacking the precision evident in every line of the arena.
“This father you speak of,” he said as they descended the stairs, “he is your god?”
“The only god, who made us so we might know his love.” She stifled a cough at the mustiness of the air, growing thicker by the step. The air smelt of little save dust, but had the close, cloying feel unique to places rarely visited.
“Ah,” Varulek said in recognition. “The Alltorian heresy, expunged in the Cleansing. So the followers of the Six Books found a new home in your Realm.”
“Ten Books,” she corrected. Though I promised them an eleventh. “Are you saying my people came from this land?”
“The Cleansing forced thousands to flee across the ocean. Questers, Ascendants, Acolytes of Sun and Moon. Though your people were among the most numerous, along with the Servants of the Dead.”
Servants of the Dead. “The Faith. The Faith originated here too?”
“It blossomed just before the Cleansing. Some say it caused it. In the space of barely twenty years thousands had forsaken the gods, preferring to grovel to the dead, begging a place in their imagined paradise beyond life. Such devotion was anathema to a Ruling Council intent on fostering absolute loyalty to the empire. The Servants of the Dead were the first to feel their wrath, though they resisted well, led by a man named Varin. In time though, they were forced into exile, taking ship to a damp land across the sea, where more followed in time as the Council sought to wipe away all vestige of what they termed irrational belief.”
“You killed your gods,” Reva said, recalling the Empress’s words.
“No.” They came to the bottom of the stairwell, Varulek crouching to unlock another door, pushing it open on squealing hinges. “We hid them.”
The space beyond the door gave a long echo as he stepped inside, though the absolute blackness prevented any estimation of its size. He paused next to the door, holding the lamp to a torch set into the wall, moving away as the flames blossomed. Reva followed him in, the chamber gradually revealed as he moved from torch to torch. Her gaze went immediately to the statues, three figures, two men and a woman. They were life-sized, and posed as if frozen in a moment of discussion. The woman leaned forward, hands raised and seemingly addressing both men at once. The taller of the two men stood stroking a bearded face, his brow deeply furrowed as if in sombre reflection. The other man was clean-shaven with narrow handsome features and appeared to be in mid-shrug, regarding the woman with a half smile, his expression one of affable disagreement.
The three figures stood around a plinth of some kind, flat-topped with a circular indentation in the centre. It seemed completely unweathered by age, its lines clean and free of chips or scars. It also contrasted with the three statues, being carved from some form of black stone, whilst they had been hewn from a kind of grey granite.
“The gods?” she asked Varulek.
“The gods are too divine to be captured by a mortal hand, in word or in stone.”
She frowned at his tone, hearing a faint echo of the priest’s rantings in the terse note it held. “These are the Tyrants,” he went on, gesturing at the three figures. “Progenitors of the Dermos. Once they ruled all the world with vile magics, casting down any who dared speak against them, a triumvirate of tyranny. In time the gods brought them down, banishing them to the fire pits beneath the earth where they spawned the Dermos. No, these are not the gods.” He moved away, going to a wall to play the lamplight over the stone. “This is where you’ll find them.”
Reva moved to the wall, finding the stone to be rough, shaped by unskilled hands into a vaguely flat surface, and marked with tiny indentations from end to end. Peering closer she saw the indentations were symbols of some kind, arranged into clusters, neat at first but becoming more irregular as they progressed along the wall.
“Scripture?” she asked Varulek.
“Only a few in every generation are chosen,” he said. “Those with the strength and will to contain the essence of the gods, their hands guided to impart their wisdom and guidance, chipped into stone whilst life and strength remain. Though, inevitably, a blessing of such power has a price.”
He moved along the wall, the light revealing yet more scripture, every cluster and symbol becoming less uniform until they were nothing more than vague scratches on the stone. The work of a madman scrawling in the dark, Reva concluded, deciding it best left unsaid for the moment. As he moved past her she noted again the tattoos covering Varulek’s hands, finding an unmistakable similarity to the wall markings.
“What does it say?” she asked. “You can read it can’t you?”
He nodded, eyes still fixed on the wall. “Though I doubt there is another soul in all the world who could.” He moved to the far end of the wall, where the markings were most coherent. “‘The Tyrants return,’” he read, finger tracking over the first cluster. “‘Hidden behind the face of a hero, unseen Dermos, set free upon the earth. Even this refuge will be lost to the gods.’”
This refuge. “The arena,” she said, “it remained a shrine, even after they banished the gods.” Her gaze returned to his hands. “You are a priest.”
He inclined his head, acknowledging her insight. “Perhaps the last. The secret charge of my family for generations, as is this arena. My ancestors had charge of this temple long before the Council rose with its pestilent notions of rationality. We were wise enough to make a show of throwing off our piety, amongst the first to swear loyalty to Council and empire, the first to accuse others. Building trust that lasted all the ages. So complete was the destruction of the gods we were able to reclaim the symbol of our true allegiance.” He held up his hand, splaying the fingers to display the tattoos. “The Council thinking it no more than a tradition of those charged with maintaining the arena. She knew differently of course.”