[image by Shirley Meier]
The trumpeters were out in force next morning, parading the call through the city that there would be a presentation at noon. The orators on the corners repeated the same message and callers on skates as well. It was a cacophony that drowned out the Imperator’s chime and the clock-tower, as people realized it was a half-holiday and began preparing to close their businesses.
The whole ceremony would take place on the Presentation Balcony, so the Platform stayed tucked away under the pavement, the fountains dropped to waist height but not turned off. I was thinking of how reluctant I ought to be to hold Ilesias. Father would expect me to be reluctant so I should appear obedient… but indifferent.
After the Noon Observance the Mahid Choir -- a hundred strong -- an immaculate blot of black -- filed out onto the Steel Gate steps. If I leaned over and looked straight down I could look down on the bumpy sheet of gold their heads presented, the youngest – their pre-adult voices sweet as angels, upheld by the deeper rumbling tones of the men.
They sang “The Magnificent”, one of the Imperial hymns, and the Processional for Father to make his entrance. The crowd prostrated as best they could, packed as closely as they were, and he gestured them up, graciously before settling onto his throne.
He wore the Imperial Robe of course, and my blue silk tunic was so heavy with topazes I had trouble standing. The pearls on my train made it worse but I had my companions to carry the bulk of it for me. The Blob -- I should start to think of him as Ilesias I suppose – was engulfed in enough gold and pearls it was hard to see him in it.
The latest Imperial record, with its golden cover, was brought out and the past ten generations of Aans were read out, ending with my page. Father reached out and ceremonially turned the page to a blank one and Ilesisas Tathanas Kurkas Joras Aan was raised over it. He squawked as he was unwrapped, and his hands and feet were painted gold and pressed to the pristine white page.
His nurse scrubbed the residue off and swaddled him back up again as I fidgeted and clenched and unclenched my hands behind my back rather than ripping at my gems. I pretended not to see the nurse offer the re-wrapped baby to me until Father said. “Take your brother, Minis.”
I twitched as if I hadn’t been paying attention, which amused Father. Ilesias was crying when his nurse handed him to me, and I made my face masklike as I took him. I was happy enough to be stiff as I stepped up onto the riser so my brother and I could be seen.
Father rose carefully, ponderously and the cheering crowd quieted.
“The Gods are good, Arko! Your Imperial line is secured! I present my Coronet Regal in the arms of the Heir under Muunas’s Eye! See my sons, my Splinters of Light, my Chips of Sun on earth! The Gods are good! Do I hear an amen, Arko?”
“AAAAAAMMMEEEEENNNN!!!!” The crowd’s amen made Ilesias cry harder. I could feel his cries through his whole body, vibrating in my arms and against my chest. I felt something under my ribs then I wasn’t sure of. Whatever it was, it was fierce and soft at the same time. I’d figure it out later.
We had to stand in the sun while the choir sang another hymn. “Glory, Glory Glory”. I was sweating by the time the last chorus of “Glory, glory, glory, To The Ten Almighty/ Who were, and are, and will forever be!”, and Ilesias’s little face was bright red.
When my companions lifted my tunic off me, it took both Ordas and Definas working together to get it over my head. I sat down, so tired and sweaty I didn’t feel like standing, a little light-headed. Binshala called Misahis to check me and he gave me some drops and told me to plunge my head under in the cool pool when I went to wash.
I was a little nauseated but managed to eat the bread and cold soup he ordered. It had no additives in either and I was able to swallow them. I bathed, my companions actually giggling and splashing on the big pool’s steps as I floated in the cool pool. I was pleased to be able to float without anyone noticing, probably thinking I had a foot or hand on the bottom.
After I was dry and tucked into the bed I was able to dismiss everyone, except Binshala of course, who asked if I wanted another cool drink before I slept.
I lay on my side, my head propped on my hand. “No, thank you, Binshala. Would you do me the courtesy of instructing me?” She glanced up from where she stood, her slight height putting her eyes just barely higher than I was since my bed was so high.
“If it is a matter on which this humble one can possibly instruct your royal self, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”
“Oh yes, please sit down. I don't know how long this will take. It’s about Ilesias the Blob.”
“Your illustrious younger brother,” she said quietly, and sat down in the chair next my bed that put her eyes on level with mine.
“Sorry, yes. I was trying to make a joke but I guess it fell a little flat… do all babies look squashy?
She smiled a little. “Yes, they do.”
“Yes, your magnificent self did. Many have the mark on the forehead too; most likely it will go away.”
“Okay...I was trying to figure out how to ask that politely. So... how do I... um... he's too little to cuddle really... how do I handle him properly? I'm afraid I'll hurt him or break him and I want to learn how not to.”
She got a soft look on her face and I felt happier because she liked me asking, I think. “Well, first of all, babies are much tougher than they look.” It was my turn to listen hard. “But they're scared of falling,” she went on. “So you must never let them think they're going to or they'll cry. And when they're so young they can't hold their heads up, you have to make sure you cradle the head.” She risked reaching out to stroke a stray hair out of my face. “He's not too little to cuddle, not at all...”
“So do you think he'd like that? Being cuddled I mean.” I found myself turning my cheek into her hand and her gloves were cool. I took a deep breath and felt better than I had all day.
“Of course he'd like that! Babies love being held more than anything. Sometimes when they cry, all they want is to be held.”
“Oh.” She moved over without saying anything, the chair right next the bed and curled her arm around me and I nestled into it, my hand holding on to her arm. It was almost like the middle of the night times. “Like this?” It was instruction and so, acceptable.
“Exactly like this. That's all they need, to be held and rocked, and they'll stop crying.”
“Rocked,” I repeated softly.
It was as though I could hear her smile. “This lowly one will show you how to do it at her next opportunity.”
“I want to learn how to love him, Binshala... thank you for teaching me,” I whispered. I could feel her take a deep breath and wondered what was behind it.
“How to love him?” she repeated. “That is very commendable on your part.”
“Binshala... when I look at him get scared...” I clung a little harder.
“Last this humble one heard, Spark of the Sun’s Ray, you were still Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” Of course. She had worked as a nurse to the Imperial family for years. She would understand instantly what my fear would be. “I wouldn't worry,” she finished.
I heaved a sigh. “I'll try not to...”
“And your gentlemanly self must not treat him angrily; it's not his fault you're afraid,” she said firmly. Just the same as Shefenkas. Don’t blame the baby. I nodded against her arm.
“Do babies like to be read to?” I was trying to think of ways to be close to him in a way I could do.
“They like more to be sung to. Read to when they're older, old enough to start to understand stories.”
“I don't sing very well... but I can try... unless he yells because he doesn't like it.” She hugged me a little more.
“They don't care how well your royal self sings. They just like to hear the notes.”
“They like gentle songs... lullabies, like this humble one used to sing to the exalted Spark.” I could smile because I knew I could do that.
“Like Ten Silver Horses.”
“The exalted one has it exactly.”
“I can sing that. But he'll pee on me again maybe. He can't help it, right?”
“No, they don't learn to control that until they're older.” I felt a subdued twitch as if she were suppressing laughter.
“It’s icky.” I found the urge in myself to make her laugh. Out loud if I could.
“He's not looking you in the eye and thinking, 'My big brother, I think I'll PEE on him!’” I giggled at her teasing. “Yes, it's icky, but it's how babies are.”
She let me go, finally. I supposed her arm was getting tired, but her glove brushed my cheek before she let go. “I guess it washes off,” I said doubtfully.
“Of course it does. It's just baby pee!”
“It won't make me sick then?”
“Oh no, not at all!” She had the oddest little smile on her face, it reminded me of Shefenkas’s when he was teasing me. “Else this lowly one would have been sick all the time she received Imperial pee upon herself,” she paused and then the smile got a little wider. “From You Whose Blessings Will Shower the World.”
I ducked my head and giggled again, louder, a little embarrassed. “Yeah,” I said at last and to change the subject “—So, If I want him around a lot, will I be making more work for his nurse? To bring him to me? I mean I was thinking... maybe when I play the harp or play time, even if he can't play with me yet.”
“No, you won't be making more work for his nurse. She has to be with him all the time anyway. He might well like the sound of the harp.”
“Then I'll ask. And you can show me how to hold him right and cuddle him.” I nodded decisively.
“This modest one will be pleased to do that.”
“Thank you Binshala.” I yawned wide enough to make my jaw crack. “I feel a lot better. You do such a good job... and it can't be easy.”
“Well,” she cast her eyes downward and got up, smoothing my bedclothes. “This very lowly one is excessively honoured.”
“May I ask you again if I have more baby questions?” She blew out the lamp, letting the moonlight take over the job of flooding the room with light, all silver…
“Of course, Spark of the Divine Light. This one will be here for you.”