Warning: contains references to infanticide, and a severe case of deliberate values dissonance.
Book 1 Chapter XX: The Dead Walk the Earth
The dreadful thing was that there was nothing, nothing to look for, nothing to hide from – only the silence and the light. – Margaret Oliphant, The Library Window
Half the afternoon passed before she knew it. Abi got quite a shock when she looked up and saw how low the sun was. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother making frantic gestures at her and Irímé. Bemused, she looked round. Hartanna frowned at her and pointed at the dance floor. One waltz had just ended and another was about to begin.
Irímé noticed too. He sighed. "I suppose we've put it off long enough."
As always there were no shortage of people finding new partners for the next dance, or else staying with their previous one. The only good thing about the crowd was that Abi and Irímé faded into insignificance. No one would see them unless they were specifically looking for them.
It was highly irrational, yet Abi found she dreaded their first dance more than anything else in a long time. She knew it was absurd. She'd danced many times before, at many different balls, in both Saoridhlém and Seroyawa. She'd even danced with Irímé before, at previous festivals and events they were expected to attend together. Logically there was nothing to be worried about. This was no different to any of those dances.
Well, there were two differences. And those were the whole problem. The first one was that the empress and emperor themselves were here. The potential for accidental humiliation increased exponentially and in direct proportion to the number of very important people present.
The second was, of course, the approaching wedding. A betrothed couple whose wedding was many years in the future was not of immediate interest to anyone. A betrothed couple who would be getting married very soon was a constant source of gossip. The slightest thing could be blown out of all proportion. By tomorrow every busybody in the city might be discussing how they'd seemed very cold towards each other, or else that they were far too friendly and a scandal was imminent.
Abi gritted her teeth, forced a smile, and took Irímé's hand.
In the background she was amused to note that Arafaren was still trapped in conversation with Irímé's mother. From the look on his face he was seriously contemplating the pros and cons of jumping out the window. Even more surprising, Kiriyuki was hand-in-hand with Abi's oldest half-brother. She stared at them for a minute even as she and Irímé joined the people waiting for the waltz to begin.
I hope that's nothing serious, she thought with a shudder.
Kiriyuki as a foster sister was... not always bad. Sometimes she was almost bearable. But Kiriyuki as a sister-in-law was something that belonged in her deepest, darkest nightmares. The only thing that might possibly be worse was the thought of Empress Hatsuayazora as a mother-in-law. That thought made her giggle even as she cringed inwardly.
"What's so funny?" Irímé asked.
"Nothing, really," Abi said. "I was just thinking about in-laws."
He shuddered. "No offense, but I'd much rather not think about anything of the sort. Especially when your mother is watching us. I'm nervous enough as it is."
The orchestra began to play. For several minutes both Abi and Irímé were too busy concentrating on not colliding with anyone, falling over, or otherwise making fools of themselves to think about anything except the waltz. By the time they relaxed enough to realise nothing disastrous was going to happen, the dance was over.
"I suppose that wasn't so bad," Irímé conceded. "At least your mother's stopped glaring at us. Shall we talk to Ilaran now?"
Newcomers to the city were never in an enviable position at events like this. Either they didn't know anyone and were left with no one to talk to or dance with, or they were important enough for everyone to want to talk to them. Both Kiriyuki and Ilaran were in the second category. For the last few hours every time Abi looked over at Ilaran he was deep in conversation with someone or other. Now, for the first time since the ball started, he was finally alone. It might be the only chance they had to discuss their plans.
They pushed and dodged their way through the crowd until they reached Ilaran. He had taken refuge in an alcove near the refreshment table, and ventured out only to refill his wineglass. If he had looked ill and exhausted in the graveyard, he now looked almost unreal and barely solid. Like a ghost about to disappear, or a reflection in a cloudy mirror. His dark green outfit contrasted sharply with his pallid face and made him look even worse.
"Are you all right?" Irímé asked, staring at him in shock. "You look awful."
For a minute Ilaran looked offended. Then he huffed a laugh and rolled his eyes. "You're approximately the two hundredth person to tell me that today."
"At the risk of being the two hundred and first, it's true," Abi said. "If Kiriyuki saw you I'd have no trouble convincing her you were a corpse I successfully raised."
Her attempt at a joke fell flat. Neither Irímé nor Ilaran laughed. Irímé gave the sort of quietly appalled look that generally followed an especially outrageous comment. Abi turned red and wished she could take her words back.
Mercifully Ilaran pretended she hadn't spoken at all. "Shizuki told me he heard you shouting in Haliran's living room. What was that about?"
It took Abi several minutes to figure out what he was talking about. "That was me communicating with the spirits. I found out that–" She paused and glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot, "–a child's body is buried under a door somewhere in the house."
From the horrified looks on both men's faces it was clear Irímé and Ilaran had at once reached the same conclusion she had.
"But that's illegal!" Irímé gasped in a shocked whisper.
Ilaran scowled. "Many things are. It has never stopped people doing them."
"And there's a ghost baby in the house, too," Abi finished.
Irímé's eyes widened. "There's a what? But- How- Why? Why is there a baby there?"
Ilaran looked at his half-empty glass of wine. Without a word he drank the rest of it, then fetched two new glasses and gave them to Abi and Irímé. "We'll need alcohol for this discussion. A lot of alcohol."
Several hours passed without anyone going near the graveyard. There was no one to see the earth on top of a grave slowly form a small mountain, as if something underneath was pushing it up. There was no one to see a hole finally open in the mountain. There was no one to see a dirty, bedraggled figure haul itself out and collapse beside the grave.
At first glance the figure was so mud-stained and dirt-splattered that it was impossible to tell anything about them. When they lay on the ground they resembled nothing so much as a mound of soil themselves. Only the faintest hint of red showed under the thick black dirt.
The corpse lay there for a long time. At last she staggered to her feet and brushed the dirt off her clothes. They were no longer the colour of fresh blood. They were barely even red anymore. No one who saw her would take her for anything but an exceptionally dirty beggar, or someone who'd had an unfortunate accident with a mud puddle. If she wandered through the city in such a state she would get scandalised looks from all the people who made a special effort to clean themselves up for the festival.
She didn't realise how muddy she still was. She didn't realise that anyone would be surprised by her appearance. She didn't even know there was anything special about the day. All she knew was that she had been asleep for what felt like a long time. Someone had woken her up, and they hadn't come back for her.
Her mind was still not fully awake. She didn't know she was dead. But she knew, in some dim and distant way, that she had to find whoever had woken her.
Slowly she made her way out of the cemetery. Frequently she stumbled as she tried to force her stiff limbs to move properly. At the back of her mind she could sense the magic of the person who had left her here. They were somewhere in the city. She could find them if she followed their magic.
Irímé's shout was far too loud. People all over the ballroom heard it and craned their necks to see what was happening. Ilaran grimaced.
"Keep your voice down!"
Abihira immediately jumped to her fiancé's defence. "Let's see you hear something like that and then keep your voice down! Do you really mean to tell us that your uncle killed a baby?"
Truth be told Ilaran had never looked at it like that. People in Tananerl did not recoil from the very thought of a child's death in the same way that foreigners did. It was simply a depressing fact of life. Children died, just as adults died. Of course it was very sad for everyone concerned, but it wasn't seen as an absolute tragedy. It happened, everyone mourned, and then they moved on. Ilaran had seen many children die. One of his full siblings and all of his half-siblings had died young. He knew for a fact that his mother had been responsible for the deaths of at least two of his half-siblings, as well as his father and several of his father's lovers. It was a simple reality that he accepted and never thought much about.
He had forgotten how Saoridhians like Abihira and Irímé would view the matter. In hindsight it was a foolish oversight. Tananerl's attitude towards child death was one of the things other provinces used to claim they were uncivilised barbarians.
He tried to explain. "From his perspective it wasn't killing a baby. It was revenge by proxy, killing someone associated with an enemy."
Irímé looked like he was about to murder someone. "Associated with an enemy? Just because of who its parents were?"
It was traditional, though in recent years increasingly frowned upon, in Tananerl to kill every member of a defeated enemy's family to ensure they could never be a threat again. There was nothing unusual to Ilaran about people being killed because of their family. Heaven knew he'd come close to being killed because of his father often enough. If they had been in a less public place he might have tried to argue about it. But right now the last thing they needed was to start a debate sure to end in screaming, insults, and general nastiness on both sides.
"Clearly Haliran isn't the only person who needs to stand trial," Abihira said grimly. "You can tell Siarvin that if he doesn't admit his crime himself, I'll personally tell the empress about it."
He couldn't tell Siarvin anything, unless he sent a message via Shizuki. But attempting to explain that would only keep them on this most unpleasant topic.
"Shizuki's father arrived today," he said, and prayed they wouldn't insist on dragging out the argument. "He worked with Haliran for at least twenty years. He has the evidence I needed, and he's agreed to give it at the trial tomorrow."
Thank goodness they both accepted the change of subject with only a scowl and a few mutters.
Abihira asked, "Does Shizuki know yet? What part will he play in all this?"
That was a question Ilaran would like to have answered too. Shizuki undoubtedly knew more than anyone else about the things Haliran wanted to hide. He was one of those things, for that matter. But would he agree to stand in front of the entire royal court? When most people recoiled from him as if he had some dreadful disease?
"He knows," Ilaran said. "I don't know what he plans to do yet."
As evening fell the crowds in the streets began to disperse. No one had much attention to spare for a curious figure shuffling along in very dirty clothes, hiding their face with an equally dirty veil. If they noticed them at all they thought it was just some beggar looking for scraps.
The corpse paid no attention to any of them. She was barely even aware of her surroundings. All she knew was that she had to find the person who had brought her back.
Unnoticed by anyone, she drew steadily nearer and nearer to the main palace.