The glass floor under my hands was completely clear and I broke into a sweat because I felt I was falling. The weight of Father’s feet on my back was his reminder to me that I was His heir only on his will.
The Crystal Throne looked as though it was suspended, floating, the glass polished every day. The glass it was made of was thick and it was a solid, blocky crystal, with the back and back rest rising in blunt, sharp-edged forms that only vaguely looked like wings on either side of the Imperator’s head. It was old style, heavy and solid, but light shot through it so it sparkled almost in an unreal way.
I’d only been kneeling for a few moments and my knees hurt already but I didn’t dare twitch.
Down below, between my hands I could see the edge of the black glass covering what had been Yeoli. It was much smaller now, with only edges of the country still black, the central part all Arkan red. I tried to think of something else while the pain in my knees and back grew, and grew. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be a Mahid, hurled down from the height of Heir to merely another black dog, if I survived the experience. He wouldn’t do that to me? Surely He wouldn’t.
I quivered and Father shifted one foot and toed me warningly in the side. The audience floor was full. I could feel their eyes on me and Father, even as the throne chamberlain organized them into their order of audience.
I looked at my hands, noticed that I had chewed the skin from the corner of my thumbnail all the way down to the first knuckle, both sides, both hands. Then I looked down through, down and down and down to where I could not convince myself I wasn’t falling toward. And then to stop that, at those filing up the presentation steps.
The Throne Room was only a small fraction filled, since Father didn’t often allow full audiences. I took a deep breath. There was a delegation from a northern tributary province. And an ambassador from Sria… complete with lion-skin over his towering head.
I focused on the fangs on either side of his face, so far below. The Srians knew well enough not to send the female half of their delegations, though Koren had mentioned the females fought lions as a matter of pride as well as the men. Something that most Arkans couldn’t comprehend.
It felt like my knees were on fire. Father pressed down harder. My wrists were starting to hurt. Then a drop of sweat fell from my nose to smear the view in front of me. I couldn’t see or think of how long I was there, the glass floor pressing harder and harder up against my knees and hands, Father’s feet pressing down on my back.
Thank the Ten that Father only wanted to hear a limited audience or I do not know what I would have done.
My arms and legs were on fire, quivering hard despite all I could do, when Father pulled his feet off my back. “My minimal. I release you. 2nd Amitzas will have some lessons for you later on. I’m pleased with your diligence. I trust you will remember today.”
“Yes, Father.” I managed a whisper. I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t see at all. I had my eyes closed so I could stop falling off the Crystal Throne. The only mercy was that no one who reported it would be believed that Father would do this to me, publicly.
Father stepped down, over me, and left, dragging the robe, the Imperial Robe itself, over me. The trailing edge of it caught me just under the ear and pulled a few of my hairs out. I mustn’t flinch. I blinked and thought I saw the hair wrapped around a diamond along the bottom edge as if it had claimed me somehow and I blinked the odd idea away. How could the robe, an inanimate object, claim me? These fancies would be the death of me.
I held my position until I heard the distant, echoing click of the door to the Imperial quarters. I opened my eyes just in time to catch Kallen’s eye as he gazed up at me from the court below. His face was folded tight with satisfaction, as if someone had just serviced him hard enough to leave him satiated. The smile was close-lipped but I knew it down to my bones.
That was when I knew that I was being repayed for sending Ilian home. They might present him to Father, since they knew he was a good suck-up, the thing I had objected to. The family was nothing if not adaptable.
There was no Haian to comfort me. There was no nurse because I had driven her away for her own safety. There was only me.
Out of my confusion, with my hair stuck to my face and all my limbs burning as I tried to unlock them I pulled a smile out of somewhere and pasted it onto my clay face; and watched the smile on his face congeal. I would remember.
The only way I could unlock my limbs was to fall back on my knees, letting my hand stretch out in front of me and my shoulders, wrists, elbows and knees all shrieked. All in a different key than my thighs and knees and shins and calves. The palm heels of my hands were bruised as were my knees.
I was floating in the Lesser Baths when Antras left the double doors open for some reason. I could hear Father shrieking all the way down the corridor and caught Antras’s eyes. I nodded at him.
Without another word he withdrew for a bit and I listened to the echoing words, while I floated in the water, letting the water sooth my limbs.
“I SEND MAHID AND THEY CAN’T QUIETLY CATCH ONE YEOLI BARBARIAN? THEY’RE INCOMPETENT ALL OF THEM, THEY NEED RE-TRAINING IF THAT’S THE LEVEL OF SERVICE. SEND QUINQUEREMES! SEND TWO… NO, THREE. DO YOU THINK THREE OF THE LARGEST WARSHIPS I HAVE CAN CONQUER AN ARCHIPELAGO OF PACIFISTS WHO WON’T EVEN KILL THE PLANTS THEY EAT?
DO IT! DO IT NOW! I WANT THOSE ISLANDS IN THE EMPIRE BEFORE THE CHANGE OF MOON. NOW. NOW. NOWNOWNOWNOW! I WANT THAT MAN BACK IN MY HANDS INSIDE THE MOON. HE’S DANGEROUS LOOSE. GET HIM. GET THEM.”
Antras came padding in again and quietly pulled the doors shut, muffling Father’s screaming. I ducked under the water and came up again, clearing the water out of my ears. I didn’t know what I would do without Antras. I had to see if I could find someone else to trust.
Perhaps I would ask Antras.
I shook my head. This was all ignoring what I had heard. I was numb. Father had just ordered Haiu Menshir conquered and I was idly wondering about something else. I put my feet down and walked up the pool steps, thinking.
There was nothing I could do.
Father was about to put Arko’s name on the conquering of the healer’s islands that the whole world loved. He was about to make Arko the most hated country… empire… in the known world. Everyone would spit on every Arkan’s shadow--from the east bank of the Brezhan to the Western ocean and north to the Ang coast, moons away.
Perhaps Father believed that Arko did not need to care but we were not that big. Our trading partners would hate us as much as those under threat from our rejins. He was about to turn the entire world against us.
I was walking into my sitting room unseeing, thinking all these things coldly, rationally, while shrieking inside for Misahis and his kind and culture. I wanted him. I needed him. His deliberate flouting of convention by hugging and cuddling me when I wept on him.
I folded my arms around my middle. I couldn’t even help him in the darkness in the depths of… this place. I could not call it my home any longer. I realized how badly I hated Father. Not for using me the way he did. That was his right as my father. I hated him for what he was doing for the Empire, for His… and if I were part of Him… my… people. In a sense Arkans belonged not to Him but to me and to Ilesias.
“… the people pay to have the Imperator care for them, to do the things they cannot.” I could hear Shefenkas’s voice in my head. That crippled man. That man that my father cut to pieces and left alive, that man who taught me responsibility.
I found tears on my face and looked down at my hand, startled at the dampness shining on my fingertips.