I’m so hot. I see foam on my shoulders as I strain against the horse-collar. I put my head down and struggle against the enormous weight I’m trying to pull. I dig my hooves in and they slip, screeching on the marble. The whip cracks threateningly. My mouth is plugged with the bar of the bit and I can say nothing, scream no words of protest.
I’m supposed to pull the whole Marble Palace. It’s set wrongly and it is up to me to fix it. I’m harnessed up all by myself and I labour, striving to shift it, muscles bulging. I’m terrified. If I fail, if I fall, someone will cut my throat and haul my body to the dogs.
I had begun to have these dreams. Sometimes I’d be a draft animal. Sometimes I’d be a slave. Sometimes I’d be myself. Always tied to something insanely large or heavy with the life and death task of moving it. I’d get up from these nightmares and, alone, go into the cold pool and swim, back and forth, trying to wash the dreams off, trying to outpace the sensation of facing the whole thing alone.
I was finding people to be with me, to be on my side. I wasn’t alone, not really. But this should have all been on Father’s shoulders. Why was He not worried about it? I felt like I was groping after understanding. I wasn’t alone, but I was. One day I would have to do the Ten Tens before the Gods in all seriousness. One day I would face the Temple and lay my life before the Ten. One day it would truly be my responsibility to make the correct decisions, to do the right thing.
I turned on my back in the water, floating, looking up at the ceiling, letting my arms and legs drift, let my hair flow around me. Chevenga was right. The water would hold me up if I let it. I wondered if I could see the people around me like the water. If I trusted them, would they hold me up? Father always said that people had to be forced. That thought was enough to make me sink. Enough. I dragged up the pool steps.
I wrapped the towel around myself and around my hair, dried my legs. Then I froze. There was hair there. Hair. On my testicles. Like Father. I looked more like Father between my legs. There were three hairs. I nearly vomited. There would be more. There would be lots more. Father’s legs and crotch were thick with it. I squeezed my eyes shut. It was so grotesque.
I pinched one hair between my thumb and forefinger and yanked it out. It stung enough that I yelped. The second one was harder. I had to breathe hard to pull it out of my skin. As well as for the third. My body was a traitor. It would torture my best friend, it would turn itself more and more like Father’s. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I skated back from my schoolroom with everyone else. They were playing forward and back as we went. The person in the front would reach back and someone would call ‘under arm’ or ‘between legs’ and be pulled under the named part of the person reaching and take the front position. Tom was better at pulling, and Ordas was best at tucking himself and being pulled.
“Definas… let’s get Ilesias and see how he’s doing with his skates!”
My title was becoming my nickname. Fil called ‘between legs’ from behind me and I reached back between my legs, caught his outstretched gloves and he tucked himself tight so I could pull him through… I laughed and swatted his backside as he zoomed away ahead of me, still crouched.
Ilesias squealed when we came in and squirmed down from the chair sliding out from under Kaita’s reaching hand. How she managed to keep hold of him as much as she did I couldn’t understand.
“Minis! Heyo! Minis!”
I held out my hands to him and swung him around, bringing my heels together sharply to speed up our spin until he crowed out loud. “Heyo little brother! Want to go skating?”
“‘kate! ‘kate right now now now! Want big boy ‘kates!” I swung his legs up and Tob caught his ankles and held him upside down, then swung his hands to Ord who swung him… to Fil. He giggled the whole way around our circle, each one of us holding him either right side up or upside down, giving Kaita time to go into his closets and fetch his baby skates.
It took a while for Kaita to get his shoes on and then his skates laced to the shoes because he wiggled so, and we had to take turns to distract him with us playing with his toys. Def and I played a mock sword battle with his wooden swords and shields, complete with war-cries and death rattles… Def let me win and died spectacularly and loudly, taking a good tenth of groans of agony and pleas to the Gods and his father to save him. “I die! Oh, Ten! Oh my Father! I die die die!”
“So die already,” Silasas sniffed and we all laughed.
Ilesias was good enough on his baby skates by now that he only had to be held by one hand. I got him to only holding onto one of my fingers by the time we’d gone around the Imperial wing circuit. I pretended to race him and he and I crouched down in a race pose as if he and I were in the yearly games, ready to plunge down the smooth streets of Arko.
Even though he sat down when Fil yelled ‘go’! I managed to stumble until Ord scooped Ilesias up and swooped down the course with him in his arms, screaming with laughter. When he set my brother down, Fil came up with one of the bigger palace dogs. Not a fluffy meant to sit on some aitza’s lap or hide in her sleeves, but a tall, leggy sight hound, with golden thread fur. It had a harness and Fil had looped a silken tapestry cord through it.
“Here, Ilesias… let him pull you.” He grabbed onto the cord with both hands and the dog took off down the corridor.
He’s staying up? He’s staying up on his skates? Oh Gods! I scrambled to catch up to him, Def and Sil on my heels, realizing the danger. The dog was heading for the gallery just before Father’s Bedchamber… when it realized all the doors were closed it might turn too sharply and throw Ilesias over the edge.
The doors were open. Oh, shen. I left a black mark on the marble I stopped so hard in the middle of the Grand Corridor looking left, right, across, looking for the dog and Ilesias, listening for them. His wild, high, screeching giggles echoed from every corner. Where is he? Shen, where?
The dog, trailing the silk tapestry cord, slunk out of the Imperial Bedchamber doors and sat down in a corner to scratch, its one hind leg thumping on the floor. I scooted in through the great glass doors and turned the corner, looking for Ilesias, looking for the slaves that must have left the door open.
The Bedchamber was empty as far as I could see. I heard the murmur of slave voices echoing, so they were there somewhere but Ilesias’s giggle was closer. I turned all the way around and caught a flash of motion behind the gold sidewall of the Imperial Bed.
I hated looking at that bed. I hated it. It made me sick. It was a torture chamber not a bed. But if Ilesias was there… I skated across the room without going closer. The slaves had drawn aside the chains and clipped them up out of the way in great sweeps of gold and sharp-edged glitter to make stripping and cleaning easier. To my relief, it looked very different in daylight streaming in, with the white cotton cover of the feather-bed mattress pad bare on top of the water bag.
Father had a harness built into the ceiling and posts. There was a lesser version he would take out onto the Presentation Platform when the public ritual required a sexual act. But the one built into the Imperial bed itself was more elaborate and was capable of suspending two, three, or four above the bed.
Dekinas Tobeas said that suspended sex was sacred, since when we all lived in the stars, we flew. He had been bright pink in the face the day he’d taught me the texts from Muunas’s book that laid out the kinds of sex most smiled on by the Ten. I hadn’t paid much attention to the teaching since I hated all of it anyway and so ignored him, mostly.
Father had instructed me twice, showing me how it was done, how the central loops could hold without impeding the principal sex partner, while the lesser harnesses could be turned into restraints.
And the thought, the memory, of Father’s pale bulk hanging there like a sun, surrounded by much smaller planetary partners, made me ill. It was a sexual version of the orrery. He used it often enough that the leather had to be cleansed and buttered to keep its suppleness. The bed was stripped and the support boards placed across to let someone clean the harness, and to catch the occasional oily drip as the leather soaked up the fatty cleaners, drying.
Ilesias had found it. He had climbed up onto the boards, skates and all, and was trying to find a seat, hanging on the harness. He turned and yelled at me… “Hey, Minis! Look looky! A swing! Swing swing! It’s a swing! I wanna swing, Minis! Wanna swing!” Even as he yelled, my companions had caught up with me, daring the Imperial chambers.
They stood behind me and I could almost hear their jaws drop as they realized what Ilesias was pulling on. It wasn’t the sort of thing that most Arkan Fathers would teach their sons. “Is that… what the dekinas was talking about a moon ago, Spark?”
“Yes. Muunas Chapter 12, verses 12 to 34.”
Definas whistled. “I can see why this thing needed so many verses.” Tob, trying to be proper, snorted trying not to laugh. That set Silasas off like a steam boiler with the lid clamped on, a hissing snigger bursting out between his lips. And all of us fell off our skates laughing. When the slaves came back in, they found us all up on the boards, with our skates scattered on the Imperial floor, our feet bare, pushing Ilesias in his new-found swing, to his great squeals of joy.
The slaves just sensibly backed up and went to clean something else without a word and the Chamber Cleansing Director came over and did his obeisance to me.
“Yes, Chamber Cleanser?” I threw a hand over my one ear, flinching as my little brother put a spike of sound into it.
“This lowly one is required to have the Chambers finished by the next bead.” He left it at that but I could see him sweating. He’d be hard-put to finish before Father came back.
“Come on, Ilesias… we should have a big swing built in your rooms, hey?” His face went from wild laughter to a more thoughtful look.
“In your rooms, yes. We should go and see if my old swing is there for you to use and get it set up.”
“’kay! Big swing… MY swing.” He leaned forward and lunged into my arms and I had to laugh at his enthusiasm.
“All yours, Chamber Cleanser Director.” Definas took up my skates and we bundled ourselves back out to Ilesias’s rooms. Every once in a while someone would say ‘swing’ and we’d all start giggling, to Kaita’s confusion, especially since someone had been dispatched to find and hang a swing from a place in the ceiling that looked to have been there for hundreds of years and she could see nothing at all funny in the word.