Father became calm again, even joyful for some reason and I dreaded I would find out why, every day. It would be if the war ships found Shefenka on Haiu Menshir and I imagined the island in flames, the University and its grounds razed.
I dreamt of helpless patients slaughtered, Shefenkas dragged out of his rooms at the University. They’d cut off the heads of all the government and put chains on those who refused to heal as we demanded.
I started dreaming of blood and bodies on the islands that some people saw as paradise on earth. The image that haunted my thoughts was the clear, pure, turquoise water and the pristine pink or white sand beaches being invaded by inkswirls of blood. I kept seeing the smokey red coils, soaking into the sand and I remembered how the pool looked when I struggled to wash the Yeoli’s blood off me.
I had so many ways to be ashamed of things I had done to Yeolis, I couldn’t count them all, and so many ways for Shefenkas to hate me once he remembered or found out. I didn’t think he wouldn’t find out that I had owned a thousand of his people and a portion of his country no matter who I swore to silence. Then there was the young Yeoli whose throat I had cut, even if my hand was wrapped tight in Father’s. I could still feel the tug and pull on my fingers if I let myself think about it, the feeling of his blood all over me.
It was still more distant though, in part because of Misahis’s remedies and his loving ear. I had not yet found out where he was, though I had taken to skating more and more in the Mahid quarters, searching out every unlocked corridor and even demanding some of the locked ones be opened to me. I was being a completely repellent brat to do it, peering into table rooms, often swallowing my gorge at the wreckage of people on the Mahid tables, even as I smiled.
I couldn’t always make myself feign prurient interest and went impassive as I could rather than show the Mahid guards any kind of compassion or sympathy for victims of the Throne.
Days went by and Father’s joy gradually faded to impatience, and then irritation. He called for Ilesias and I to attend Him after dinner one day, to the orrery. Ilesias was on his donkey and I had my Shefenkas-toy with me, as was proper since Father had given him to me as a present. My companions, and Ilesias’s, a few Aitzas babies his age, were not called for.
Father had lessons for me... and obliquely, Ilesias, the star lessons that only Imperators and their line knew.
Ilesias loved the orrery, yelling and crowing, clutching at the slowly rotating planets. Father sat in the control chair that represented the earth, and had things moving slowly enough that we weren’t being threatened by any of the jewelled orbs, or the brass orbits they ran on.
The orrery was truly suspended between two floors with a fringe of floor all the way around, where we stood, while Father flew around the machine seated on the Earth.
Slots were cut into the floor to allow the planets on their rings to dip below that horizon for part of their routes. Father had talked about making the control chair the Sun, central, but had not bothered to pursue that, in part I think because he loved the motion of it all. And the symbolism of sitting on Earth to control everything else.
The stars painted on the ceiling, down the walls and over the floor below had always fascinated me because I could recognize the constellations on the ceiling and to a certain point on the walls, but I had never seen the ones below.
Koren said that to see those I would have to conquer nations south of the desert that held Srian culture tight to the sea.
“My son... you see this is not to proportion.”
He actually laughed. “The sun is represented by that ball of topazes and yellow diamonds the size of my fist, when in fact it is larger than all of the Earth. My grandfather insisted that it was larger than ten Earths.”
“And I am sitting on something that you very well know is not so small.”
He pushed the ornate brass lever on the arm of his chair and brought the Earth to a stop at the edge so he could step onto the gallery floor with us. We were half way up the orrery where the view was best if one was not actually on the machine. It put us in a god’s position to see the whole thing rather than looking from the floor below, where I had dodged planets before. Earth stopped with a minor shudder, at the gap in the alabaster railing, perfect for His step across.
“This is not often done, my sons, pay attention.”
He stepped over to the console and pulled the big switch there. It moved smoothly enough but he still had to push hard on it to make it seat properly. Even with water assisted power the machinery he was controlling was massive.
The inner four rings stopped rotating, pulling their large planets to nesting spots under the platform we stood upon and the outer rings, with clanking of gears, pulled from the slots in the walls, cranking in close as if we were flying further away from the sun. The planets were now much bigger than the first four.
“These planets are so far away they appear to be stars, my sons, and the orrery must change its scale again.” He waved his gold-decked hand at the new configuration. “We would not be able to contain, inner planets and outer ones in the same building... even in the same city, but we Arkans, we Imperators, still know this. From our lives in the stars.”
The planets shifting into position were enormous swirls of gem colours and I had no names for them, one with a glittering vast ring of suspended diamonds around it. “That’s Mikas’s planet,” Father said idly. “The bigger one with the stripes, closer in, is Muunas’s. You see all the small attendants it has?”
“I do, Father.” Ilesias reached out as the ringed planet rotated by us, snatching for the sparkling dots making up its crown. “B’ful! Mine!” he cried and Father laughed. “Yes, yes, my son. One day when we go back to the stars I will give you that planet for a playtoy.”
I watched it whirl away from us in its vast dance around the tiny, sparkling sun, and hoped with all my heart it would not be the Arko of Father’s creation that would win back to the stars.
There was a discrete tap at the kyparas door, the small service entrance door, around the ring of floor and Meras came in. I froze inside because Father had said no one was to disturb us unless it was important. And important, right now, usually meant deadly to anyone in Father’s presence. I edged toward where Ilesias sat on his donkey, kicking his feet, catching Kaita’s eye as I took up the lead rope. I even managed to pull my little Shefenkas along by twitching my head at him to come, taking a casual step toward the massive brass doors.
“Minis, where do you think you’re going? I haven’t finished your star lesson yet.” Father’s head swivelled as he took in Meras approaching around the floor. “Merassss.” His voice drew the name out into a warning hiss. I took another step toward the doors, hoping He’d forgotten us.
He flung out a hand, halting me, without looking away from Meras’s approach and full prostration, his outside hand only four steps away from the drop to the stone below. The alabaster railing wouldn’t stop him if he were pushed over. He’d just slide right under the protection.
“So you have some word on the misbegotten son of a Yeoli whore?” Father asked him without any preamble. His whole world, his whole focus was on Shefenkas. The war was, in some ways, just a minor adjunct to his possession of the man. “I can think of no other reason you would dare interrupt my family time.”
Did I imagine it? Did Meras the perfect actually hesitate? Dead Joras Mahid came to mind again. I inched my back foot, the one he couldn’t see, back a little further. Selinae, Mother Goddess, High God’s Wife, please protect Ilesias from Father, if this is as bad as it looks.
It was true. Meras’s perfect demeanor was shaken enough that he actually swallowed visibly before he spoke, even lying on the floor. “This abject one has unfortunate news, You Whose--”
“Shut your mouth, Meras.” Father’s voice was very quiet. Very soft. “You are going to tell me that Shefenkas got away again didn’t he?”
Meras twitched a nod, silent. And that was the moment that Ilesias’s pet donkey chose to bray.
It echoed in the orrery, ringing around the planets and the stars on the walls all around us. It truly wasn’t mockery, just a simple, animal sound, but Kaita reacted by snatching Ilesias out of his little saddle and backing up as Father whirled around, hands clenched. She backed up with Ilesias so frightened he didn’t make a single sound, as Father advance on the hapless animal.
He showed some of the Aan strength, that He’d only claimed for a younger self, that I had never seen before, but only read about. The donkey brayed again as he seized the animal’s bridle and lead rope in a bunched fist, kicked it over onto its side. He dragged it to the open edge where He’d stepped off the Earth, and slung it over.
It screamed as it fell past the sun. It just missed Mikas’s Planet and made a wet sound as it hit bottom, cutting off its scream. The sound it made... I had had a case of green melons flung off a roof once. That was the kind of sound it made. Father’s hand lashed out and seized my Yeoli slave’s shoulder, dragging him close. Then he froze, with his hand clamped tight and turned to Meras.
“The report that the archipelago of healers was taken, was a lie, Imperator. Apparently warriors whose fellows were there for healing killed Arkabas and took all three ships. The rumour is that Shefenkas led them.”
“Rumour? A rumour sent back Our own pigeons with news of Our conquest?” His voice was still quiet but the boy under his hand was going pale, not able to cry out. If he squeezed much harder, Father would break his collar bone. I knew you could heal, Shefenkas! I knew it! Thank you, thank you, Ten. Thank you. Thank you, Gods. Then I realized. If he’s healed, he must have remembered. He must know what I did to him. He’ll hate me as much as he hates Father now. It’s the way it has to be. It will be only right if he comes to kill both of us. All of us. For what we did to him and his country.
He said he’d sack Arko. I’d read it in my clandestine copy of ‘Life is Everything’ where he’d told that to Norii Maziel. And he was a truthful man. Capable of healing from being mind-broken. Capable of turning the shattered remnants of his people into a force that would conquer the Empire.
I should be afraid of him now, instead of cheering him on. The Gods are showing their favour. It would be just if he killed me for what I did to him.
“Shefenkas has been since reported in Brahvniki, hiring mercenaries, You Who’s Greatness is the Mercy of the World.”
“Mercenaries. When Triadas has his country three quarters conquered and him not right in the head? He’s not on the stupid healer’s islands any more then.” His lips twitched tight and then spoke words that I stared at him for, unbelieving, before blinking my face bland again. “Take those islands. Send five ships. I want every one of the barbarian dog-mother of the ten’s healers in my dungeons to teach them to thwart me. Get those islands for Arko. I am in need of a personal physician who will obey me. Get me one. And all those who had the temerity to heal Shefenkas.”
“At once, You Whose Whim is—“
“GO! GEHIT! GO NOW! STOP WASTING TIME, MERAS!”
He snapped his head around to look at me and Kaita and Ilesias, who was starting to whimper, shook the boy in his hand. “You ran on a leash for that dog. I take back my present.” Kaita held Ilesias’s hands where he stretched them after where his pet disappeared, now wailing for it.
“Mine! My Babump! My Babump! No!” Kaita went down on her knees, holding him.
I went down in the full prostration of lesser men, hoping it would be enough. I could feel the deep throbbing whir of the still running orrery, caught the flash of a planet swooping over Father’s head as he turned away from me, dragging the Yeoli boy I’d hope to help, away with him.
The planets rotated through a number of years before I dared move, the glittering twinkle of their gems skittering across the floor, Ilesias weeping for his donkey.
When I got up, my joints creaked like an old man’s. “Hey, Ilesias... hey little brother... here... Babump went to Selestialis. He flew away.” I picked him up out of Kaita’s arms and gave her a hand up under her elbow. “Let’s get you another Babump... an earthly one, okay?”
He stared at me and then at the edge where the planets spun. “’tialis Babump? Fly ‘way?”
“Yes, he flew away.”
“Want MY Babump.” His face began to crumple again.
“Um, he’s a messenger donkey for the Ten Gods now. Maybe Mama Selinae needed a Babump.” He stopped, thinking, suddenly fascinated with the idea of a Selestial donkey messenger.
“Let’s go pick a baby Babump.”
“Bay... bay... baybbump!” Kaita followed close behind as we walked out of the brass doors, as if she were hiding in my shadow. I hoped my shadow would be big enough to protect her. She was a good person. I had a new donkey to buy to ease my little brother's loss. And while I was at it, I'd stop and make a thank-offering at the Temple for the animal Father had killed. It had drawn his ire away from us by braying when it did and taken his rage. Who knew what he would have done if it hadn't?
I left the orrery running, since Father had not shown me how to turn it back to the small planets, or how to turn it off.