Monday, June 15, 2009

64 - Plotting With a Nearly Naked Woman

Next day I had Ancherao brought into the Winter Palace openly. My Mahid didn’t show their surprise, of course, to find her unbound, but I knew they were.

Binshala left the midmorning meal on the table and curtsied her way out. “God morning to you... Have you been fed? Do you need to clean up?”

“Good morning. Yes, to both of those if it’s allowed.”

“Certainly. You may use the bathing cascade in there… there will be towels.”

“Cascade?” She looked confused. “What’s that? I was just going to rinse my face and hands if I could.”

I got up and opened the rustic little door that opened onto the one marble room in my suite. While Father and I were in residence the warm cascades were turned on and left running. It was like a practical fountain.

She looked into the narrow room. "By the way, I'd rather you told me before you send Mahid to get me, please?"

"Oh. All right." She smiled a little and turned her attention back to the cascade. One could walk completely dry down the left side, or step into the water on the left. On the left the wall niches were full of towels and soaps. Her hair had been shaved and she still had matted bloody spots on the skin, perhaps scabs. “The cascade is cooler at this end and hot at the other, just pick. And you can use the stuff you need here. Would you like a cup of ezethra?”

Ancherao stood looking at the steam off the hot water at the end of the cascade then at me and then at the breakfast tray that had the stack of chocolate cream cakes on it. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, not nearly so easily as I could with Shefenkas and it almost scared me.

She shrugged and pulled the slave tunic off without even thinking about it and I managed to turn my back on her before she was completely naked. If I was going to work with her it was easier to not think of her as shameless as a slave, or female either. “I’d like some tea,” she called from the cascade room.

“I’ll. Umm. Just close the door, okay?” I was blushing to the roots of my hair. Yeolis.

I poured myself a cup of kaf, set a cup next to the pot of the Yeoli tea I had demanded this morning. I didn’t know how long she would take so I put my feet up and looked at the notes I’d made this morning. I don’t know what it is, but outside the city it was always easier for me to sleep sound and wake refreshed.

Father’s entourage leaving had roused me and I’d gotten up, trying to think of how I was going to pull this off without letting Him know. I looked at my scribbled notes but they made less and less sense to me. I knotted my hands in my hair and wanted to beat my forehead against something.

“Aaah!” I felt stupid.

“You need to scream?” Ancherao looked out of bathing room, gently towelling her head. I threw my hands over my eyes.

“Um. No. Could you wrap a towel around yourself, please?”

“What? Oh, sure.” She was barely acceptable when she came out, the bath sheet covering her from her armpits to below her knees. But her bare shoulders showed the ragged stitches that needed to come out and I looked at the green and purple and yellow patches of bruise instead of at the fact that her shoulders and arms were bare.

I said, “Help yourself… I had the pot put on the warmer.” I finished the bun I’d taken earlier, and licked the fanilas cream off my fingers. I threw the ink-smeared paper down on the floor, pulled my knees up to my chin and clasped my arms around them.

She turned back to me with her cup and a plate in her hands and I giggled suddenly at the image of us ‘having tea’ like this. She carried herself like a great lady and the warrior she was both at the same time and suddenly the towel didn’t matter.

My giggle got a smile out of her. “So, what do things have to look like to fake what we’re faking? How does this slavery system work?”

That was easy. “I’d hire a bureacrat to administer the estates. He and his staff would get what I wanted out of the land and the slaves. He’d hold the estates’ strongbox and send the accounts to my secretary and my chamberlain.”

She bit into the chocolate bun she’d chosen, with gusto. “And who does this bureaucrat deal with among us?”

I nibbled on the ends of my hair, one side. “I was hoping it would be you as the appointed overseer… but you want to go, don’t you?” My stomach clenched. The risk… I took this risk for nothing… it’s no good. It couldn’t be just with one person anyway. Not for a thousand people. And everyone who knew just made it more dangerous for me. “Excuse me.” I scooted to the garderobe and lost my breakfast.

I came out and rinsed my mouth, glad she didn’t comment on it.

“Aren’t overseers usually Arkans?”

“Yes. Usually one per century. So… for your people… ten. If my bureacrat is dumb enough he might buy the idea that I could have somehow turned you all, using Mahid tricks.” But I was already unsure. It loomed larger and larger as something impossible to do secretly.

“Or by allowing us to return home,” she said. “But if he deals with me… with others… I can’t go to war. I guess that was part of the idea?”

My fingers ran along the bangles half way down my tunic. Today they were polished, facetted silver. One of them had a loose thread so I started worrying that. “Sorry. You could pick someone else who I could trust with this secret I could present to my clerk.”

She sat, thoughtful, brushing crumbs off her lip and hands, finishing her tea and pouring more. “Hmm. I’m going to have to find ten people I trust not to give this away.”

Phew. I won’t have to try and guess which Yeoli might be trustworthy… She would know better than I. I put both ends of my hair in my mouth, pulled them out. “So… can this even be done? I’m not just crazy?”

“Not crazy lad, though I’m biased. With such good reason, people will go out of their way to help, if they know our freedom rides on it.”

“I could get that much truth-drug, no problem.”

She signed a hard ‘no’, palm down. Charcoal. “I’m not truth-drugging any Yeolis. I won’t be party to that. No one would purposely betray this… I mean trust not to be loose-lipped.”

“All right. You know your own people.”

“But how do you run money back to us with this bureacrat there?” She took fruit from the tray this time, rather than the too-rich cakes.

“It would be better if they spoke or read Arkan.”

“I don’t know that I have ten people who do…”

My fingers twitched as the thread tore loose. “I was thinking it would come to him labelled as something else. Certainly not as payment.”

“But then he has to give it to us. I don’t know that you can do this with someone who isn’t in on it, running it from Arko.”

“… tell him things need to be purchased that you no longer have?…” I let my voice trail off. She was right. “I need to find someone I trust, because I can’t come to Yeola-e.” I looked down that the string of bangles I had in my hands. “And I’m willing to truth-drug for our safety.”

“Truth-drug who?” Her eyes, when she looked at me were speculative in a way I understood entirely. She was weighing up my worth to her, what she could get from me. In that second my heart chilled toward her. I had to remember that she and I weren’t friends. We were still at war.

“My clerk, when I interview him.” Her eyes shifted and warmed.

“You mean to find out whether you could trust him to keep this secret? I think that’s the only way it’s going to work.”

I nodded, dropped the string of bangles on the floor and began twisting a palladium button. “It will be up to me to find an Arkan willing to swear to me… and keep all of you free.”

“You know what you could do?” She poured herself another cup of tea. “You could put a stop action on him.”

I had continued, almost thinking out loud. “… all right, that’s one task… hmm?”

“In other words you could hire an assassin to knock him off if you stop ordering him not to.”

“Hm… either that or if he tries to betray me, let you know that you could kill him. Either way. Or both.”

“He’ll have security against us. But with the assassin, you tell him if he tries to rat on you.” She flipped her other hand. “If the assassin fails and you are arrested… truth-drugged and it all comes out… hmmm.”

“It’s too bad the Mahid aren’t sworn to me… I’d just send one of them.” But that wouldn’t be possible until I was Imperator… years away and it was a child’s wish. “… to rat on me… there’s a safety factor. He’ll be a long way from the city.”

“No pigeons?” she said quietly.

I shrugged a shoulder. “They’d come to my household. My secretary would be giving him birds from my coops.” I dropped the button.

“So… I need to let you go out to your people to look after them… I need to get interview candidates out of the city to interview. It will be safer out here.”

She nodded and dropped the towel – I flung up my hands to hide my eyes once more -- before carefully pulling on the slave tunic again.

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