Erelas carefully placed the half-empty tray on the washing station. “Hey, under-chef! The additives are in this one!” He picked up the half-empty bowl of crème fraiche.
“Dump it,” The under chef, Senaras jerked his chin at the bin. He had the rights to the broken meats from the Heir’s meals and began packaging up the remainder. Erelas scraped it clean and slid the emptied bowl at the dish-boy who expertly caught it and placed it in the pre-wash basin with a clatter.
The Marble Palace kitchen was always humming. There was cleaning from the previous formal meal, four a day, sometimes five if the Imperator called his court to a late meal, to the hair-pulling chagrin of the Master Chef.
Preparation went on constantly. If the butchers were finished for the day then the bakers were beginning the plain breads and once those were all in the massive ovens, the pastry chefs were just beginning to cook down sugars or make their icings.
There were eight breakfast chefs and their underlings alone, and that was the simplest meal of the day. They were replaced by the mid-morning chefs and, in turn, the Noon Meal chefs. Each brigade was bigger than the last, but the Master Chef who began his day at Noon, ran his kitchen rejin as the best of Generals.
Vegetables would come in, in boxes that took four men to lift and slaves would be set to cleaning them in the washing basins before they’d be taken to the chopping stations.
Erelas wiped his face with his gloves, took a fresh pair from the basket, tossed the dirty ones in the laundry bag. He had a few minutes to himself until he was required upstairs again so he stepped around the night station where a chef came on duty should someone above stairs demand a late-night snack. There was the resting room just behind and he closed the door on the noise with a small sigh of relief. He poured himself a cup of kaf and settled down in an overstuffed old chair and put his feet up.
Antras looked up from a copy of the Pages. “Hey there, Erelas. What’s happening above stairs?”
“The Spark’s in the Lesser Baths again – much more of that and the Ten might turn him into a fish… and the Divine One ordered everyone but Karas out, poor kid.”
“Yeah, has the little Raikas recovered from the last Celestial tantrum?”
Antras rolled his eyes. “I’m not usually sorry for slaves… but…”
“He’s killed one of them.” There was no need to say which ‘He’ the two were talking about.
“Really? Shen, I didn’t know that. He took one away from the Spark, did you hear?”
“No. Too bad for the slave, Sparky’s been getting better and better.”
“Yeah, my brother-in-law’s nephew by marriage – Ienas, you remember him? -- works on one of the clean-up crews that had to clear the mess in the Orrery. Supervising of course. But Ienas said that Himself not only took Sparky’s Raikas back, he killed the Ember’s pet donkey by throwing it off the viewing platform. At first the crew thought it was Sparky or the slave they’d be cleaning up until they saw all the fur and hooves and tail… Burst like a blood melon, he said.”
“No shen. Himself’s in a state.” The two men sat in silence for a while sipping their kaf, before Antras looked up again.
“Do you think we should maybe get Durinibas a bit closer to Sparky? It’d make life easier all around if there were more of us... like minded servants if you like… on the Spark’s side…”
“Kinda dangerous-like, Antras. Too much like picking sides.”
“Nobody’s asked you to pick sides, Erel. I just know I’m safer in the Spark’s household than Himself’s… ‘specially lately.”
The two men regarded each other. “Yeah, me too. And Dur’s a good man… He’d be a good man for the Spark’s household… all those boys he has. He understands boys.” Neither man mentioned that Antras was completely smitten with Durinibas and wanted to court him, as well.
“You have an in with the Second Under-Chamberlain?”
“His wife’s a third cousin.”
“Lucky you. We’ll see if we can get a few people traded around, in case the Spark needs more… discreet help.”
“Sounds good, Antras. I owe you from getting me in from the Winter Palace staff.”
“It was nothing. You had a taste of Sparky when they were out there last and you just happened to mention it.”
“I’ll remember… By the way… I thought you were on duty too, the day the lads all got drunk? Did you SEE the face on the First Stone-face when they carried the sodden Spark in from the roof?”
“I wish I’d seen when he upchucked all over FSF’s boots!”
The bell from the Spark’s rooms jangled them out of their gossip. “I’m still on,” Erelas said. “You’ve got a meal coming.”
“Thanks, I’ll see you before you go fall into bed. Night, Erelas.”
The door opened as he put his cup in the bin, to let in the late-night shift kitchen cleaners and a pair of boot-boys all looking for a cup of kaf and a moment to drink it, before their duties started.
I folded up the Pages and put them back in their archive boxes. “Binshala, would you have someone take these back to the library, please?”
While she summoned someone to come and do that, I sat down on my chaise on my balcony, to think. Everyone was not talking about the Yeoli war now. Not only was any mention of Chevenga in front of Father dangerous, but any mention of the war at all.
Reamas Kaitzas aitzas, was the Minister for Dissemination and did not come often into the offices of Irefas, where all the true information for Father came. I’d have to start going down to look through the files there.
The clerks wouldn’t dare to stop me, and they also would probably not want to mention what I was looking at to either their superiors or to anyone who would have Father’s ear.
I’d have to see what came into the Pages, as well. The editors… all of them would be very, very careful when I was around, because of the Mahid lessons wreaked on them from last time. I’d have to make myself a fixture, until I could find the good spots to overhear people without them knowing. Or I could hire one of the Pages people… to cover the war for me.
But how could I get someone I could trust to tell me what was really going on? I wasn’t even sure where to start.
I was still mulling it over when Ordas came running in to inform me that Koren and the others were already in my school hall and was I coming? “I’ll come back with you, Ordas. Thank you.”
“Um. You’re welcome.” Of my six, Ordas was still the one most shy of me. I flung an arm over his shoulder and for a blink he stiffened, but I was only thinking friendly thoughts not the ugly ones, so he relaxed after a breath or two.
“I’m glad I have you and all the others. I never thought I’d say that… Thank you.” I caught the shy smile out of the corner of my eye. I gave him a half-hug and let him go.
Koren had his materials all laid out when we came in and I had a thought. He was my teacher, why not take advantage of his being there? Let him teach.
“Koren,” I said as I sat down, and as he opened his mouth for the first ‘ahem’. He swallowed what he was going to say along with his phlegm and looked attentive. “I realize you have your agenda but I have a request.”
“Yes, Spark of the Sun’s Ray?”
“I understand I must have historical grounding but I find myself vastly interested in current events. Might we… focus on those for the next little while rather than delving in dusty tomes?”
“I… ahem… current events? Ahem… that is… ahem… most commendable, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”
“I’m finding myself dissatisfied with Pages reports, however. Do you, as my tutor, have any advice on how I might find accurate and true information on current – happenings, wars, security actions, and such? Without disturbing my Divine Father, of course.”
He coughed sharply instead of employing his throat clearing gulp. “No, Spark of the Sun’s Ray, I am merely a tutor, not a research scholar. Any information brought to me, we will of course analyse and put into context.” Forzak it. “Ahem… now I have a thought that the Spark and I haven’t yet considered the novel reading list.” He fussed through his papers a moment while I stared at him, confused. He’d never mentioned a novel reading list. What was he going on about?
“The Spark, when considering literature should contemplate, ‘The Prisoner of Rand’, ‘The Coronet Regal’s Inquiry’, and ahem ‘The Aitzas of Divine Mountain’, in that order. I suggest the Spark read them, ahem, expeditiously. Until then, shall we consider our lessons on the Economics and development of the rejin in its current form, beginning with the Schism War reforms?”
I nodded and opened my books, suddenly much more interested in the novels mentioned than the material being presented so carefully to the seven of us. It was a struggle to sit through a bead and a half about the Schism Wars thousands of years ago, but I tried. And I realized after a while that the so-called reforms to the structure and functioning of a rejin, though more than five hundred years old, were still in place despite the flaws pointed out by the High General Filibas Oren, and the half-measures laws presented to, and rejected by, the Imperator at the time.
The rejins and command structure of the Empire hadn’t, glaring idiocies notwithstanding —in effect—been changed in eight hundred and fourteen fikken years? There was a lot more than just Pages reports starting to raise a strange stench in my head.
How much of this was true? How much of this, however true it might be on paper… was still accurate? I realized that I didn’t even know who the High General in the field was and who did he report to in the Marble Palace? Did he report straight to Father? And if he did, how? There were pigeon messages coming in from the fronts every day, from the Eastern Empire and the Western, dispatch pouches coming in from every rejin and naval base and fortress. Father never looked at them. Who did? Father was supposed to be the High General. Who had he delegated to do this, if He wasn’t?
When I closed my books and released my companions to prepare for the next meal, saying I’d follow along shortly, I sat for a half-tenth trying to figure it out, before realizing I truly knew nothing about the actual running of the Empire.
I felt as though I’d just discovered I was riding on a huge war-ship, a double trireme with the battle deck across both hulls, the deck loaded with people, not just warriors, but all of Arko. The warship is moving under the steady stroking of the solas below but I look up and realize that not only is there no one steering but Father is busy making the steersman serve him while the massive juggernaut goes on, unattended, being driven toward a deadly whirlpool that I and everyone else on the deck can see.
We’re all quietly saying to each other. “Did you see that? Yes, but I’m not sure, we should ask someone else.” And that person just says “No, the Divine one says everything is good. Everything is all right, so ignore the fact that the boat is starting to shake and be pulled apart by that monsterous wave…” There’s no way to get Father’s attention, and no one dares stand up and start screaming.
And I, clinging to the possibly disintegrating rail, perhaps condemned to Hayel, didn’t even dare pray for fear the Gods might be offended at that and kick us all into the maelstrom that much faster.