Father had left us to continue the celebration without Him. Ilesias got to sit in the head-chair and was served the first piece of his cake. He ate four pieces. I sat next to him, tucking my skates under the table and enjoyed the rich, melting taste of cake without additives, since he might never have to endure those poisons. Though, given Father’s sensibilities, he might wish Ilesias protected that way.
A servant coughed behind my chair. “He Whose Wish is the Enactment of the Heir, commands the Spark of the Sun’s Ray’s presence.” The smooth taste of chocolate cake, butter icing with three-spiced cream turned to paste in my mouth. I excused myself from the birthday boy and he was too little to be worried. This was good. I also had to excuse myself from Kyriala, since she and her ladies were there for his party.
I presented my best bow to her and said as formally as I could. “I would like to exc—“ and to my horror my voice froze up. My mouth worked as if I’d finished saying ‘excuse myself’, but no sound came out. I tried again and managed to finish my sentence but the words broke in the middle and slid up to a high squeak. I could feel the blood rush to my face, making my skin feel sunburned.
She smiled and nodded her excusal. I fled. Girls didn’t have this happen. Girls’ voices never broke. Why now? Why today? Why in front of her? And why now, with the fear that Father was unhappy with me? He might take any wobble in my voice for mockery. Oh shen. Oh shen.
I coasted slowly along beside the servant who led me to the Selestial Mirror Gallery. The Gallery was lined on either side with huge, constantly slow-turning gilt mirrors. They reflected, re-reflected, merged and blurred the wall and ceiling paintings of Selestialis infinitely repeated, hiding the edges of walls and ceilings, making the whole room seem as though it were infinite images of paradise.
The servant left me at the door and I was admitted, alone. That frightened me, because the court was with Ilesisas. Father was by himself, sitting at the other end of the hall, infront of the fixed, painted mirror wall. I waited for the first set of sliding mirrors to cross in front of me, spinning by in perfect synchronicity.
Even on my skates I could not cross all three sets of crossing mirrors at one go and had to wait each time. And every time I could see Father’s face more clearly revealed. His birthmark was livid on his face and he was pale with a rage. I cleared my throat desperately and swallowed hard, hoping my voice wouldn’t break in front of him. I broke out in a sweat as I stopped as elegantly as I could and made my deep obeisance.
He let me hold it for a long while and then said. “Stand up and face Me.” What had I done? His eyes were red-rimmed all the way around, whether in suppressed tears or rage I could not tell. He was shaking. “After humiliating the family like that, making a complete and utter laughing stock of the Aan name, making a solemn processional ritual a circus shambles, you dare show your face before Me on THOSE?” He pointed a trembling finger at my skates, teeth bared.
What? What humiliation? I didn’t understand. “TAKE THEM OFF RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!” I sat down so fast I hurt the bones in my seat, clawing at the laces. I wrenched them off and flung them from me as if they were flaming. It would be safer if I stayed on the floor so I went down on my face. “You think it was FUNNY? You think it was AMUSING?” He slammed His fists on the arms of His chair and catapulted His vast bulk up out of it. I clenched my body tight to keep from losing control of my bowels. He wouldn’t trample me to death like that Mahid, would he? Just for a birthday present?
Even as I stretched onto my belly and reached my arms up over my head, sweating, biting my lips to keep words and fluids inside my mouth, I couldn’t help thinking in some part of me, that he looked like Ilesias throwing a tantrum, and yes it had been funny. But those thoughts were only a small, tiny part of me. I closed my eyes, hoping nothing I did would provoke Him any further. He circled around me, his sandals slapping on the floor, stamping. My mouth was completely dry.
“You think to pull a stunt like that, just to make your baby brother laugh, you needn’t be careful of MY feelings? As if ANYONE would have dared offer ME such humiliation? You think that?” He didn’t want an answer from me, so I lay still and listened. I dared open my eyes and watched his fat feet, the sandal straps making the swollen flesh look more swollen as they held onto the fluid-filled flesh move past my fixed gaze, back and forth as He paced, ranting. I felt as though I was hiding in the Imperial tombs again, listening to Him rant at Grandfather’s bones, but more frightened.
“Who would have mislead you so? Your nurse? Your tutor?” I realized I was mistaken that He was entirely alone as a pair of boy feet stumbled into my vision... the Shefenka’s toy. Father must have him held somehow and was shaking him. “This One? Your companions? Who?”
I had to answer or he would pick someone to blame. “Myself, Divine Father,” I whispered. “Only myself.”
He froze in front of me. “Do you think... Minis Kurkas Joras Amitzas Aan... that if...IF I had ever had anything like an older brother... do you THINK that brother would have risked doing such a thing? Such an unpredicatable, uncontrolled thing? Such a potentially shameful act as to make MY processional a mere SHOW?” He flung the Yeoli boy to the floor off to one side and I closed my eyes to not have to look at him.
“You... you...! How COULD you?”
You had an older brother. He didn’t love you. He wouldn’t have risked pissing off Grandfather with a stunt like teaching a donkey to skate for you. He’s probably in the Wall of the Lost too. I’d bet money chains on it. You... wanted him to love you... I could feel my understanding chiselled out, each thought a larger chip revealing the shape underneath.
I could hear Him take an enormous sigh in. “You need guidance. You need a firmer hand, my minimal.” He kicked the Yeoli boy out of the way as he paced. I saw that in the sliver of sight I had, cracking my eyelids to let a splinter of light in. “You need guidance, now. Firm guidance.”
If only you were smarter than I it would make it easier to guide me. I was appalled at myself, recalling the first time I had ever realize I was smarter than Father. I tried not to think about it, but I knew I had to be careful talking to most people... perhaps not my tutor... but.
“You obviously are in a state of flux. Yes. That is it. I shall have my new Haian examine you and confirm My brilliant realization.” He bent down and drew me up by my elbow. I scrambled onto my bare feet. In my urgency to get the faibalitz skates off, I’d pulled off the liners as well. He put His hand under my chin to draw my gaze up to His. His rings dug into my chin as I looked into His eyes.
His pupils expanded, contracted and expanded again, the black circles widening to swallow me in. I wish I had enough love to fill that darkness. I wish. I wish. I could feel tears well up and He focused on the water standing in my eyes. I struggled to contain myself and failed. “I’m so—“ and my voice cracked, confirming his idea that I was in the midst of change. “s...sorry, Father. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” I couldn’t make myself offer Him anything more. Out of fear. In fear, I had nothing else I could give Him... who had everything and nothing, just as I had. “I w... wo... won’t do it again.”
His eyes searched my face for a sign of falsehood, a glimmer of pretense and found nothing but truth.
He dropped my face and stepped back, drew a deep breath and tugged His robe to a more pleasing drape.
The Shefenkas toy skittered out of Father’s way and as he looked up, his eyes caught mine like a hook. He and I were the same... we were prisoners of the same man... and he knew it... I knew it. As Father turned away from me, I risked a quick smile at the boy in Hayel with me. There was no overt expression but I could see he acknowledged it.
“As I said, my minimal, you require chastisement.”
Father settled Himself down on His throne again and thoughtfully chewed on a thumbnail. “You will be confined to your rooms on a bread and water ration this next eight day.” He gazed at His nail as if it held all his answers and looked at me suddenly, his gaze as glaring as an animal gone mad. “You are forbidden to use those... those...” He waved His be-sealed hand at my vanished skates. “You are forbidden your faib skates until further notice.”
No skates? Confined? I took a deep breath. He wasn’t going to kill me... or blame anyone in my household. That was worth it. He beckoned me over to the throne and hugged me hard.
“You are a firebrand, My son. I am usually happy with this. I advise you to be careful who you burn.”
“Ye—es father.” I cursed my voice. Who knew where it would settle. It cracked between a baby’s treble and a man’s bass and I couldn’t control it. I thought of Chevenga, with his light, higher voice. He wouldn’t care if he sounded like a man. I closed my eyes. Father smacked me lightly across the cheek. I popped my eyes open.
“So. Now we are again a happy family, are We not my son?”
“Good. Get out and go back to your brother’s party. He deserves to have his brother with him.”
As if you knew what a brother deserves. I smacked myself internally for the thought and yet couldn't stop the thought that followed on. I’ve been taught better what a brother deserves.