7: Aes Alienum
The veiled women of Flava touched oil to his forehead as he entered the chamber. The bedroom was full of potent, heavy fumes, clinging to everything. Orsini took one breath and felt his head immediately grow light. Much more and he would start to lose his senses.
Yet that was the point of it. Dahlia lay, the sheets pooled about her waist, breathing deeply beneath her damp gown. Her head was tilted back onto the pillow, eyes fluttering between dream and reality. Occasionally, her lips would move as if she were talking to some unseen figure. Beside her, the cradle was being rocked by a young servant. She reached in to the bundle of cloth within and smiled with an innocent expression. Orsini's chest tightened.
"She will be safe," one of the priestesses said. "The princess and the child are well."
"Were the augurs correct?"
"Yes, Highness. A girl."
Orsini stepped closer to the bed. Dahlia barely seemed to notice his presence, but the babe stirred in her cradle and let out a guzzling noise. He looked down at her innocent, round face, red and flushed with tears, and found himself taking a deep breath. The sight of such youth seemed to reach back through the depths of his memory, right into the pits he deigned to remain hidden. He felt the tightness of guilt for being the force that demanded she be brought into this world. It would not be long before that innocence was robbed.
And yet there was more too. It was impossible not to remember the feel of his own child in his arms. He could still hear her cries as he left the smoking ruins south of Atalanus. He had tried to keep her quiet, but even then, she had been determined to use her voice. That had been the last time he had held her.
"Sini?" Dahlia shifted on the bed. Her hand emerged from the cotton sheets and came to caress at his arm. Her eyes were heavy, mouth open. For a moment, Orsini was sure he saw tears upon her cheeks. "Sini, you are here -"
"Ssh." He sat carefully, taking her hand in his. She was very warm. "I am here."
"Where is my husband?" she croaked. "My son?"
"Lucian is waiting for you outside. He has kept vigil for many hours. Cyrus is performing his duty in Talaen."
"Performing his duty." She laughed, but the sound soon turned into a pitiful moan. "I hate it," she hissed. "This isn't what I wanted, Sini."
Orsini looked away. "I'm sorry, Dahlia."
"It's not Cyrus. I don't care about him. It's you, Sini." She sniffed, the tears coming easily in her drugged haze. Orsini glanced at the young servant, and she obediently stepped back, head down. "Do you remember how we used to play as children? We would hide - hide in mother's camp, or father's study... You'd always find me, Sini. You said you'd never lose me. Please... please don't lose me, Sini."
"You are tired," he said as gently as he could. "You should rest."
"Don't leave me. Please, Sini. Tullia and I...we need you. Not the emperor of Livia."
And yet that is what I am, he thought. For better or for worse.
He squeezed her hands, and reached to brush a stray lock of damp hair from her eyes. She was growing older now, but the child was still there somewhere, the companion he had once shared everything with in their parents' absence.
The moment was broken by a knock upon the door. There was a fluster behind him and Jerome emerged through the veiled women. He had thrown a respectful hood about his thinning hair, but nothing else had changed about him. He was fiddling with the rings and the seal of the treasury about his fingers. Orsini rose from the bed as he bowed. Dahlia still reached for him, a woman drowning in the fumes and searching for a firm rock.
"What is it?" Orsini asked, ignoring the tug at his cape.
"A thousand apologies, Father. I was going to wait but -"
"Speak, Jerome. Don't insult me with your hesitation."
"I must have words with you. It is regarding the money for the coming events."
Orsini knew exactly what he meant behind that euphemism. He restrained a sigh. He understood Dahlia's grief, as heightened as it was by the drugged haze of afterbirth and pain remedies. He carefully extracted her hand from his clothes, as he may a frightened child.
"Come," he said to the ill-timed treasury master. "Let us walk."
"Sini -" Dahlia moaned.
They exited the chamber, and Jerome tugged the hood from his head. Orsini followed until they were out of his quarters. There they stopped in a small atrium courtyard, flanked with carven colonnades. An architect was on his hands and knees, laying tiny fragments of a mosaic. The Livian empire was slowly coming to life in multi-coloured tesserae. With a look from Orsini, the man scrambled to his feet and hurried off between the columns. Orsini turned his full attention to Jerome, who was wringing his hands like a man pulled before the judge. "What is important enough to have dragged me from my sister's labour?" he asked.
Jerome swallowed audibly. "We have nothing in the coffers, Highness," he blurted. Orsini frowned.
"I examined them recently, Jerome, and I know that is not true."
"There is nothing in them to fund the funeral for the Lo-Parahlian delegation," Jerome said, lower now, as if frustrated that Orsini had not grasped his meaning. Orsini sighed. He grasped his hands behind his back and walked from Jerome, pacing the edge of the small courtyard. He looked down at the map taking form beneath his boots.
"Where are we, Jerome?" he asked.
"Where is this?" He pointed with his foot at the southern coast of the continent. A blue tiled sea beat at the edge of the land, populated by the curving backs of sea serpents and the breaching tails of mighty fish.
"That is Livia, Highness," Jerome said slowly, as if frightened of a trap.
"The heart of the empire, yes. She stretches from the gateway of the West -" Amaportis, decorated with two angels carrying a scroll above the proverbial gates of the continent - "and the islands of the East -" the inlets and bays which stretched beyond the province of Lo-Parahl, leading to the Boundless Sea. "We are in the empire's most southerly point, guarding the harbours along the coast. Our dearest cousins are Marinn - the Azure City, Paydrina and Salaray. We trade in spices, in silks, in fine wine, in marble, in staples such as wood and iron and cloth, even in the smallest items you should think nothing of. Livia has the most prosperous port, and has conquered a sea with a thousand daughters. Our border only reaches its limit when the sands of the desert encase the greenery."
As he spoke, he traced the line of the empire about the unfinished map. It was a potent indication of their strength and endless quest - they were always shifting, always gaining more allies, whether through dependencies, marriages, vassals, clients... The starry sceptre of Aureliana burned brightly over the continent. Jerome followed him around the chamber with a meek look.
"In all of this plenty," Orsini continued, "are you truly telling me that we have no money for one funeral?"
"Highness, I beg of your forgiveness - I mean not to argue with your wisdom - but this is different. The riches we gain from trade are sequestered. We have been paying back loans and finances from the war for many, many years, and much is diverted towards imperial projects and aid. The charities of Livia alone cost us... Well, Highness, you know - you examined the finances recently, as you said. And, as you also say, this is a funeral paid for by the imperial household itself. With the princess Nymias arranging her own investigations, and going forth with the celebrations..."
Orsini paused. He was standing above the borderline of the desert, where rich green faded into bright yellow. "Her own investigations? She was serious about that?"
Jerome nodded. "Yes, Highness."
Orsini had become so occupied by the bickering affairs of the council and of his family that he had barely paid heed to his daughter. She had disappeared, as she so often did, to her Dread Queen where he could usually trust her to keep her nose in her own business - not something he could say for the others. He had scored her plan up as another of her fancies. "She is using coin from the imperial treasury?" he asked, as if that was the primary thing to be concerned about.
"She has money from her own estate, and affairs. I shall talk with her."
Even with that suggestion, Jerome had his issues. "It is not only that, Highness. With the Appeasement on the horizon -"
Orsini resisted the urge to sigh. He looked down at the sea beneath his feet - the swathe of blue tesserae, breaking smoothly upon the continent. "It is not Ata you should be worried about displeasing, Jerome," he said, trying to keep his voice as level as possible. "Keep your mind on your emperor, and the city. This funeral shall go forth. Go to the merchants that owe us, the trading guilds, even from your own coffers if the need calls for it. But we will honour the men and women who were slaughtered in Aureliana's temple."
He knew Jerome wished to argue further; knew that later, he would visit him with physical records of the dearth in their treasury. But he had his sister to fret over now, and then, other members of his family.
a/n: So, I know it has been a long time since I updated this but I've been getting some lovely comments on Wattpad recently, and I've also taken it up as my Camp Nano project, so I've been a bit more active with writing this story! I don't think this chapter is great, but it does its job haha