It clamped down harder again when the Mahid delivered Father’s gift to me, the miniature copy of Shefenkas, four eight days later, naked. He was delivered to me as I prepared for bed, standing and turning to let my Companions attend me. Oas had just smoothed my nightshirt over my head, since it was a hot night it was thinnest silk.
The Mahid... it was Meras himself so Father must have sent him, ghosted into my rooms between the time I had closed my eyes to have the shirt pulled down over my head, and opened them again, raising my head to have him clear my hair away from my collar.
The boy stood absolutely still, looking down at the floor. He looked like exactly like a small, skinnier version of Shefenkas. I stared at him as much from surprise and shock as anything prurient. His hair was cut perfectly like the gladiator’s had been and the whip scars curled faintly around his shoulders. The initials ‘A’ and ‘M’ had been burned into his torso and the Yeola-e symbol for the semanakraseye falsely branded onto his chest. I couldn’t see his face, since he looked down but I had no doubt the ugly cheek scar would be there as well.
“Your gift from your Divine Father, Chip of the Effulgent light. He sends with the fond hope you will both use and enjoy It with that thought in mind.”
“I assume It answers to a name of some kind?” I turned so that Filias could tie the sash around my waist.
“Yes, Divine Spark. It answers to Shefenkas, of course.” His tone was so dry I didn’t even have to imagine the ‘you idiot’ in it. Mahid never implied such things to Father or I. All through this exchange the slave stood absolutely still, looking down at the floor in front of his feet. Inside I was horrified.
“Good. Meras, dismiss.” He nodded and was gone as silently as he’d come. I looked around at the sea of faces that was the beginnings of my own court, the pale shadow of Father’s. My companions, the sons of aitzas who pandered to Father, my household servants and then the slaves.
I couldn’t see the guards outside, or the Mahid, or the guard on the outer walls, any more than I could see the rejins of people who kept the Marble Palace working. That led my thought to the solas rejins not only keeping me in place but spreading that place bigger. I had the sudden image of myself as the core of a rotten onion, standing next to the little boy who had been turned into a slave and slavish copy of a false Shefenkas.
My wash and bath water might have been perfumed with sweetwood but my mind was full of the stench of myself and the whole Empire.
“You’ve seen me undressed and done everything but catch my shen in your hands,” I snarled at them. They didn’t deserve it, I could hear the words in my head and tried to seize them in my breath. “My apologies. Everyone has been diligent. I release you to your rest.” I closed my eyes on their bows. The Shefenkas copy stood still. He hadn’t been addressed. My stomach cramped and I hated Meras and Father both. I hated the way he looked and the way he smelled. He smelled like father’s favourite perfume, not mine.
It took a little time for them all to leave me alone. Just before Binshala left I called her back. I tried to look past her, or over her head, since I’d killed the cat and made her clean it up. She was safest hating me, so I didn’t try to speak to her, except to command, or try to be nice to her.
“Binshala, you’ll have another charge from me. Take...” I couldn’t make myself say Shefenkas’s name. “The Yeoli boy away and wash the perfume off him. He’ll need to sleep in my bed.” Father expected it since he’d think I was using him and I didn’t dare disabuse him of that notion.
He was a skinny rake of a kid, the warrior scars sitting oddly on his skin. In that way he looked like Shefenkas, not at all. It was all right, looking at him. Where I kept having to shake myself was when I looked at his hair. His hair, cut like that, the loose curl, it was precisely the same as… no it was just a common type of Yeoli curl. I told myself that.
“Yeoli... look at me.”
Absolutely obedient, he snapped his eyes up off the floor to gaze at my face... or rather past it or through it. Certainly not at me. “Go with the nurse. Do as she says. Do you understand?”
He nodded, but didn’t speak. Of course. There was not even a twitch of hand as if he would do the Yeoli sign for yes. “You are allowed to sign like this.” I held out my hand and signed palm up, palm down. “Itai – chalk, or boru – charcoal.” “Do you understand?”
He nodded again, his one hand fluttering in place as if he were terrified of raising it. I signed itai. “Just to me, or the nurse... no one else.” This time the hand flipped all the way over, just at his hip.
Binshala watched quietly. I turned to her, looking at her eyebrows rather than at her. “You understood the signs I gave him leave to make?” She nodded, shortly. “Bring him back and get him up into the bed when you’re done.”
I climbed up into my bed and built myself a barricade of pillows across the middle of the bed. He could sleep on the foot of it. That way anyone checking would report to Father that I was keeping the slave in his place and I wouldn’t have to touch him with any part of me.
I was afraid having him naked so close would call out the evil passion in me in a way I wouldn’t be able to stop. I was afraid I’d wake up in the middle of a nightmare and find myself doing something awful to that child. I lay rigid in my bed and endured the odour of rot in my head, until Binshala came and put the slave into the bed at my feet. “Good night, nurse,” I said.
“Good night, Spark of the Divine Sun.”
I lay and listened to his breathing until it changed into something close to sleeping before I slipped out to try and wash the stench away and ended up sitting on my balcony. I sat down on the chaise where I managed to doze until the lamp-tenders made their final rounds to snuff the city lights and the kaf sellers and pavement scrubbers came out to make sure the city started fresh.
I couldn’t get away from the smell. The stench of decomposing onions and green meat and blood was all over me, all around me. I tried to cover it with perfume, or scrub it with washing. I scrubbed with soap and my hands and clawed at the putridness all around me.
I was standing on the Presence Balcony and the streams running through the streets weren’t water, they were sewage springing from me, springing out of my mouth and nostrils, out of my eyes and ears. It poured out of my body as if I sweated it and breathed it out and vomited it I was rooted in it and it sprang from me and even blood would have been cleaner.
MUUNAS! HELP ME! Burn this out of me, burn it all if you must! Please... I raised my filthy black and green and blue hands toward the sky and the Sun answered me and brought blessed, painful fire to cleanse the gangrene out of Arko, to cleanse me and everything I’d touched. Blood and then fire would cleanse the city in a way mere water could not.
I woke, whispering ‘please’ this time rather than screaming. No one was running out to see if I needed assistance. If I had cried out in my sleep the servants would put it down to just another nightmare.
I hadn’t wakened anyone so I went to my desk and began writing ‘The Arkan Need For Atonement.’