Once things settled again into a more normal pattern I asked Silasas if we might visit the family home soon.
“Certainly, Spark. Would tomorrow be too soon?” He winked at me.
“Oh no, I’ve been wanting to see your familial home for some time now,” I said for benefit of servant’s ears should anyone care to run with such trivial conversation, to Father. “The architecture is unusual, is it not?”
“Only the one wing, Spark. That was carefully preserved for generations.”
Since I was not yet allowed my skates we walked down to the Pasen Estate next day midmorning, the whole lot of my companions and my Mahid. We made quite a parade. We skirted the Fire Fountains and headed up Laurel to Wall Street. The Pasen Estate had a prestigious ancient place by the Walls, that loomed over the manor house I was supposedly interested in.
Sil pointed out external detail of the manor’s wing, a smile growing on his face as he teased me. I gave him a bland response, daring him to push me and he relented at last. My Mahid took up their stations at the lower floor and on the floor of Silasas’s rooms.
The whole floor was in marble set in dark walnut, very much like the ancient Fioleniian style, variations on that theme. My Mahid almost disappeared in the dark décor at the head of the stairs. It made me wonder if there were a lot more assassinations during that period since they certainly decorated to accommodate the assassin. “This one was inspired by the Spark’s beautiful fountain in his rooms, though of necessity much less elaborate. May this one show the exalted?”
“I’ll be pleased to see it later… why don’t you show me your library?” Sil blinked but took it in stride. I didn’t want the Mahid to think I wanted to rush into an area where he couldn’t hear me. Conversly I wouldn’t be able to hear him if he chose to move up to listen. He was my guard but his loyalty was, of course, to Father. I still had to consider that I was in an ambiguous place… perhaps damned but still could be saved by a virtuous enough life. Should I kill my Father, there would be no salvation for me. Am I ready to accept my damnation?
Sil showed me his father’s library and we played the fastest game of sha, with the door open and Tom and Ord took over the board when I said I was bored. We opened doors, left them standing open, and Sil kept trotting back to close them properly behind me. We must have rushed back and forth past the stone-faced Mahid a half dozen times.
A game of kill-ball knocked over an ancient vase and brought the servants up to clean. I looked for the tiny signs that the Mahid was bored with fart jokes and pretend bodily noises that young second threshold boys tend to produce. I found that my breaking voice was perfect for making realistic wretching noises. “Mahid. My throat is parched. I want kaf and cream.”
“Of course, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. This one will, of course, taste.” His tone was dry beyond dry. And he went down to the kitchens with the superior servant while we racketed down the hall to see Sil’s fountain. I was starting to look for Dafidas and was surprised that he wasn’t tucked away in the fountain salon. I sat down to catch my breath and cool off and was lounging on a chaise when the Mahid came back with the servant and the kaf-cart. He nodded his approval and took himself back out to the stairs where he wouldn’t have to hear any more pretend bodily function noises.
A moment later, from an inner door that opened without any loud clicks or squeaks, shadowed behind a screen, Dafidas Iren came in quietly. Without any great fanfare I gestured for him to sit down while Sil took everyone else closer to the door that was partly open. Every once in a while someone would pass in front of the door to look down the hallway, casually of course. Dafidas watched all of this with a neutral face but nodded his approval to Sil, warmly.
“This one saw the processional, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. It was an interesting display, though I doubt the light cavalry will be adopting it into regular use.”
I snorted with laughter. “How are you, Dafidas?”
“Well, this one thanks the exalted for asking. One hopes that the Spark of the Sun was not deprived of reading material or entertainment of any kind during his unfortunate exile from court company and has survived the sting of banishment?”
“Oh yes, I had access to my own library. My tutor had more access to me, of course, and my dekinas also.”
Dafidas looked at me solemnly. Apparently he had some idea that I did not like this state of affairs. “This one is amazed that the fire of learning was not damped with such intense application of fuel.” He was trying to get me to laugh. Not a smile cracked his pleasant façade but his eyes were twinkling. “And your approach to the house was very well done.”
“I had Sil’s advice on that. He said you taught him ‘hide the important in the midst of chaff.”
“The best of Generals follows the advice of his advisors. May this one offer the Spark a variant of kaf that is a personal favourite? Something soothing to the throat until the voice settles?” He got up to fetch a pair of glass goblets and rinsed them formally in the fountain before filling them with ice. “It is a little something this one acquired a taste for in my varied campaigns. Iced kaf with lemon and honey… all of which would have been tasted for the exalted since they are here upon the kaf cart. If nothing else, it can provide a pleasant taste, and do no harm.”
“I’d be pleased to taste it.” He poured and offered me my choice with as much grace as if he did it every day. “Is your stay in the city pleasant despite being away from home?”
“Jamia is distant enough that this one need not be listed as one of the Empire’s liabilities. One has found that the ancient problems might have been forgotten and does not rush to remind anyone of those entombed disagreements. It was worth the trip, however to see the exalted’s present to the Coronet Regal. It will take him many years to forget this birthday.”
I grinned into my goblet and said quietly, “It was worth it. Father thought I embarrassed the family.”
He sipped at his goblet, suddenly more somber. “This one was concerned when the Illustrious’s Father left the proceedings so suddenly. One wishes the Divine Sun long life and good health, but would it be wrong of this one to conjecture that the recent confinement was the result of that momentary occlusion of the Sun’s smiling regard?”
I nodded quietly and sat up more straightly on the chaise. It was hard to lounge when addressed with such careful respect and courtesy. It seemed disrespectful somehow.
“Then the exalted is indeed fortunate to only have suffered exile. Many in this one’s profession who have displeased or embarrassed He Whose Will is the Direction of the World have often suffered more drastic modifications. At least if the exalted was imprisoned, then surely the Spark might be able to say he has been in the most magnificent prison on all the earthsphere.”
“It was rather peaceful and very comfortable.” I couldn’t help grinning. “Father was upset but chose to see my misguided willfulness as needing constraint not eradication.”
“Most jails are peaceful. Why, almost to a man they are filled with those who do nothing but claim both innocence and good intentions.”
“As a punishment it was very light and the whole city was witness to my crime. I could hardly claim innocence. But I am forbidden my skates until further notice and Father has decided I no longer deserve to share his wet-nurses.”
Dafidas looked down into his goblet and added another one or two pieces of ice. “Ah, that does sound like a more severe restriction. It also conveniently hobbles your cavalry as well.” He very properly ignored the reference to Father’s wet nurses.
“Ilesias is not only skating by himself now, now he is riding,” I said, smiling. “To the great despair of his nurse who cannot keep up with him on foot. A servant is now assigned to skate with him… my cavalry – say rather my brother’s cavalry.”
Dafidas set his goblet down in the old way, upside down to prove that it was empty and that he had consumed the contents. Quaintly old fashioned. He looked thoughtful and contemplative and my companions cheered over on the other side of the room, still keeping watch and partly covering our conversation. He spared a glance in their direction before actually unbending enough to lean on one hand, a gloved finger half over his mouth as if he filtered his words carefully. “The exalted has depleted one regiment, and yet bolstered another – a splendid act of logistics.”
“Oh.” I drained the goblet and began crunching on the ice pieces. “I have, haven’t I?” I held out the goblet for a refill and checked to see if Sil still had his eye on my Mahid.
“There will be more faibalitz skates in the Marble Palace by the end of the moon among the servants than there would have been by Imperial decree.” I thought he might be circling toward something. Was he...? Was he hinting that he thought it would be best if Father were gone?
I almost snorted iced kaf through my nose, answering only the surface of the words. “Yes. The skate maker is almost overwhelmed… perhaps another might be engaged.”
“Perhaps I should advise my relatives to invest in skates. No doubt it will shortly become essential to court etiquette.”
There was a dizzying feeling of suddenly talking about two or even three different things with single words. Oh. “--shortly become essential to court—“
“Shortly? Not really. Father will not have it. Nothing that He sees against His dignity.” If he were hinting... and I wasn't sure he was... I wouldn't if I were him... Perhaps he was testing to see if I could pick up on that. "My Father will, of course, be setting the court etiquette for many years to come."
“Of course. May his reign be long and fruitful. Perhaps His dignity is even more fragile than I remember?” He looked up mildly.
I stared down into the clinking ice in the goblet as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. I took a deep breath. “I… hmmm…” I raised my eyes to his. “Perhaps you are correct.” That was as close as I could come to acknowledging any of what we might have been talking about.
He smiled at me. “This one has seen many things in life, Spark of the Sun’s Ray, but this one has never seen the Sun on a pair of skates. It would look perhaps only slightly less inappropriate, or ridiculous as this one would appear on them. This one never had the coordination for them.”
I liked the smile. “That’s odd. Given that you taught Sil so much. I would have thought that a swordsman would be able to handle his balance and his feet.”
“At least this one knows more of swordsmanship of skating,” he said. “It would be this one’s pleasure to offer assistance in this subject.”
“Thank you, Dafidas... I would be pleased to accept any instruction you cared to share, but I would have to figure out how to come here more often for your instruction.”
He straightened again, turned to look toward the door. “If the exalted can handle the feet, he will already be well on the way to being a competent fencer. If one can watch the opponent's feet and their blade at the same time, one can read them like a book, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. And the problem of future quiet visits? An interesting problem that could be discussed further…”
Sil yelled “Hey!” Both Dafidas and I looked at him. He waved one hand and Dafidas rose, seizing up the second goblet, to step quietly behind the screen where he’d first appeared. “That’s not fair!” Sil said to Ord as the Mahid tapped on the partly open door and looked around the room at us.
Sil and Ord stopped arguing over cards and looked at the Mahid. “This one is to remind the Spark of the Sun’s Ray of his presentation,” he said in his flat way.
“Ah, yes, Mahid. One mustn’t disappoint the Long-Distance Express Cartman’s Guild.” I got up from where I’d slumped back on the chaise and put the goblet down. “Sil, Ord, you can settle that later. We have just enough time to get back, walking.” It wasn’t precisely true, the Mahid had reminded us early.
As I got to my feet I caught sight of Dafidas in the shadow behind his screen. He gave me a slight smile and a microscopic nod. He was on my side, it seemed. And I had acquired another teacher… but one I wanted. I let my eyes slide off as if I hadn’t seen, though I raised my chin at him slightly. A teacher. Might he be my friend as well?