The ladies in waiting played a game of Graces in the Elegant Gem courtyard, the hoop, with its ribbons flying floating from lady to lady, for each of them to catch with gilded wands and send on to the next. Their over-sleeves, laced onto their outer dresses, floated in the breeze from the opened glass roof.
Kyriala folded back both pairs of her over-sleeves, the purple to the shoulder hooking the edge to the button there, and the gold to her elbow, to expose her white undersleeves and gloves all of a piece, and unfolded the cloth packet from home. Her mother had sent her embroidered handkerchiefs.
She looked up as Dee, giggling, almost missed a catch, stepped sideways one step and made it, actually stretching over her head to do it, whirling the hoop around her left-handed wand and sending it, rather more vigorously than she should, toward Celestina who cried out in protest. “Too hard, Dee! I’m not a solasa!”
The first handkerchief was family news. A pink butterfly was cousin Tamira and the little blue butterfly next to it meant that she’d been delivered of a baby boy.
Her mother’s sign for herself was a cream coloured iris and the tiny flash of red meant that she still suffered from headaches.
Father was better. His one hand was getting stronger. His symbol was an unbalanced pair of spectacles with one lens slightly smaller than the other.
“How pretty!” Celestina settled down onto one of the ladies chairs, lower than Ky’s of course, waving her fan. “From the exalted’s mother, Mirror?”
“Yes. She has a good hand. I should hope my stitches are as fine, see, the two butterflies here?” Cousin Tamsen was married to Celestina’s oldest brother and would want to know, if her own mother hadn’t let her know already.
“They are so tiny this one almost can’t see them! This one is particularly taken with this tiny fellow.” One of her gloved fingertips almost covered the little butterfly.
“Is Dee playing too vigorously for you, ‘Tina?”
“Oh, she always does. If she keeps that up she will tear a seam in her dress again.”
“Then she’ll just have to repair it… again.” Ky smiled out over her lady’s head at the group of girls still playing, their fluffies yipping from person to person in pursuit of the trailing ribbons. “’Tina, you needn’t attend me, I am merely going to the garderobe and the attendant there will help me.”
“That’s all right. I will be gone only a moment.” It was so hard for Kyriala to ever seize a moment to herself, surrounded as she was by her overprotective ladies. Her slippers made no sound on the stone at all. I am become invisible. Inaudible certainly. I am meant to disappear into the background, part of the exquisite setting behind the shining of the Imperator. Like all of these beautiful statues that no one sees any longer, their eyes skipping over them with only a vaguely pleasant thought.
She stepped out of the garderobe room and up onto the small pedestal for the attendant to fuss over the fall of her outer dress. I… envy the boys. She actually let herself think that, longing to be able to put on faib skates and go plunging down the corridors, instead of taking tiny, decorous steps.
Two of her fluffies, Lovey and Socks, spun in circles around her feet, barking and she picked up the little dogs to quiet them. She snuggled them into her sleeve pockets, one on each side. At least that way she didn’t feel unbalanced, though they added weight to her gown.
Rather than hurry back to her ladies, she stood under the calm gaze of the Goddess in the Hall dividing the women’s wing away from the rest of the Palace gazing down the hallway toward the Imperial quarters.
Sized by a sudden impulse she padded down the Grand Allee, under the eyes of generations of Imperators, and hid behind a carved screen when a flood of boys on faib skates, went boiling by, Minis in their midst. He looks very different when he’s laughing. I like that face. Scattered throughout the Marble Palace there were screens where the women could hide from view.
There was a woman Mahid at the beginnings of the women’s ways who nodded at her. Kyriala stopped and whispered, “I shall not be long. There is a painting I wish to see.” The Mahid nodded again and sat back in her chair.
The women’s ways led past past the Lion of War statue and to a small room with a carved screen window. It was the women’s access to the Lesser Baths and Kyriala blinked slightly. The door was open slightly. She could hear baby’s squeals and splashes. Ah, the Coronet Regal and his nurse.
She peeked through the delicately carved screen and threw her gloved hand over her mouth to stop from gasping in shock. The Coronet Regal was in the deepest part of the pool, half floating half clinging to the back of… of his nurse. Who was swimming.
She wasn’t drowning, she wasn’t struggling… She was moving through the water, with the baby on her back. How very useful if he ever fell in. She could save him.
Scandalously, she had only a shift on, and her long hair braided tight. That was what the baby had clutched in his fist to hold on. Her arms moved with purpose, skillful. Kyriala watched her swim the length of the cool pool, then back, the baby squealing with joy the whole way.
I wonder. She nodded to herself. She’d thought to cultivate the Coronet’s nurse. Now she had another reason. Socks began to wiggle in the one pocket, and Lovey growled at her, the sound echoing in the little room. The nurse, Kaita her name was, stopped in the water and somehow stayed up, looking around, her arms waving in the water to keep her and the baby suspended.
Kyriala saw that, even as she put a hand over Lovey’s muzzle and retreated out of the room. It was only a moment till she got to the Mahid guard again and past her to the safety of Selinae’s statue. It’s not only boys who can secretly swim. “There is the exalted one!” Niala bustled up. “The illuminated one was gone so long, these lowly ones thought to seek that one out!”
The Mirror of the Imperial Future straightened up her sleeves. “I just had to get Lovey and Socks settled properly. Their weight throws off the cut of this dress. I’m not sure their weight was taken into account by the seamstress. Ni, what do you think?” She paced past her waiting woman heading back to the courtyard, the picture of decorum.
“The young master and his companions will remove those – toys – from their feet and proceed into the salle!”
“Yes, Teacher!” We all chorused. It was Master Ririen’s junior teacher. He would see that we were properly warmed up and take us through the first ten postures… the Lines and Corners. Five lines of attack and five corners of target, four limbs and a head. The master considered slashing attacks inferior since they aimed at a bulk target, the torso, and taught them less frequently. Personally I thought that anything that worked would be good.
To Master Ririen, the Bellicose Art was a high-standing, stiff moving dance. I couldn’t help comparing what we were being taught as compared to what I saw in the ring. I think that even if I got to the first level, I wouldn’t stand a chance against even against a two chainer. The sword forms… weren’t real. I felt clumsy enough dancing with Kyriala… she still made me nervous because she was so graceful and so poised.
I was just a clumsy kid and my sword training wasn’t helping. I never felt comfortable with it, however many times I got whacked in the back by Master Ririen’s staff. I think he enjoyed hitting me, just because he was the only person on the earthsphere who could.
Take what is good, Minis, and leave the rest. Chevenga’s words came back to me again and I made them a chant against my bad temper in the Master’s class. Silasas winked at me once when we were paired and I flubbed a lunge. Again. “Student Aan!” The bellow matched the sting across my hip. I turned toward Master Ririen. “Yes, Teacher!”
“Your foot was turned. Take your partner and practice a correct lunge over there!” His staff flickered out to point into a corner. “One hundred! Jump!”
Silasas rolled his eyes behind the Master’s back. From where he was standing none of the apprentice instructors could see him, only I could. When Master Ririen whirled to pounce on Ordas, smacking him in the calf, yelling “Back foot! Back foot!”, Silasas whispered… “Your back foot wasn’t that bad.”
We set up the lunge and I began, Silasas was good as far as I could see. All of us, my companions and I, were all ‘Tafas Rasas’, or blank slate level but he was a lot better, as if he knew all the moves already. At the end of my lunge I whispered… “How do you know my back foot wasn’t so bad?”
“Teacher Ririen just assumed we were all the same level.”
“And you’re not Tafas Rasas?”
“Who taught you?”
I did the rest of my lunges and got smacked three more times for bad footwork in that class. In the cascade afterward Silasas looked at me thoughtfully. “Hey, Spark. My uncle has some interesting moves he might be willing to teach… but he’s not popular with your father.”
Someone Father didn’t like? I think I liked him already. “I’m interested.”
“Yeah. He retired from the city years ago… and from war. Never lost a war but not in a flashy, properly Arkan way. The Divine called him ‘General Mud’.
General Mud was General Pasen? The General Pasen? Dafidas Iren Pasen was General Mud? I blinked at him and Fil smacked my butt with a towel. “Hey!”
“Sparky was dreaming!”
Father had exiled Dafidas Iren from the city, for… I couldn’t remember. But it couldn’t be that bad or Silasas wouldn’t have made his place as one of my companions. “That first day of class, Sil, you flinched. That was faked?”
“Um… yeah. Master Ririen had to make a point and if he suspected I had more training than you guys, he’d have set me up as a teacher instead of being with you.”
“And he hasn’t noticed how much better you are?”
“I’m being sloppy. Unc would have my hide, except he’d like the story I’m telling.” The others stood listening under the pouring water.
“I wondered why you knew so much,” Tob said.
Tom nodded. “Um… You didn’t want to show up the Spark?”
“That was one reason.” It seemed that Sil’s uncle had taught him more than just swordcraft. I could really really use an adult around who knew Father’s court politics.
“Silasas, would you ask your Uncle to come to town for a family visit? Just discretely? Just family you understand. Nobody from the court need know.”
He grinned at me. “I figured. He’s coming up from estates near Jamian District.” I pursed my lips in a silent whistle. Jamia was about as remote as you could get from the City and still be in Arko, on the Geat ocean’s shore.
“I look forward to meeting your esteemed relative, my companion.”