The snow burned under his bare fingers as he dug them into the letters in the headstone, kneeling in front of it. He dug his nails under the thick rime of ice on the rough black stone. A blast of wind nearly knocked him forward into it, pushing down the back of his neck. The ice cracked away and the two words cut into it came clear and black out of the snow.
My father. Who died when I was four. Was killed when I was four. The Milari killed him, actually their War Master who I’ve come to this country to meet. I supposed some people might blame him for that. Ilax Vania by name. I doubt very much that I will ever stop hating the man.
He was the only one ever to defeat Kyrus Talain on the battlefield. By all accounts he was a man like my father, honorable. I am supposed to hate him. I do respect him. It might be possible to persuade him to teach me.
Me. My father never knew I existed, thankfully for him. My existence would have brought him great shame, proof that he was not as chaste as his reputation. Me. Whore’s son.
Who was he really? He didn’t know. But he spread his numb hands across his father’s name carved into the gravestone and swore that he would find out if he were worthy to be called ‘son’, worthy to earn a surname.
His fingers were turning blue and he could barely feel his knees by the time he got up. It wasn’t bad weather according to the Milari. Just another winter day with blowing snow, and a misty blue sky above the peaks. Every time one of those wispy clouds blew across the sun the wind whipped new snow to mix with the ice-scree already there. What a country. I wonder that my father fought so well in the thin, cold air.
His heart pounded in his chest like a galloping horse. He pushed his icy fingers up under the scarf covering his face to breathe on them, trying to warm them quickly. It was the one time of year that the Milari kept their faces decently covered, going unveiled every other season of the year, but it had nothing to do with modesty, or righteousness, only with cold.
Viltaria below was a misty gray cluster of roofs, as alike as a cluster of mushrooms, the wildly bright walls all hidden, buried under snow.
He pulled his snowshoes on and slogged down past the avalanche baffles protecting the city below. It was time to see if he could convince the Milari Warmaster… to teach him the sword. Time to find out if his father gifted him with his skill as well as his looks. Kyrus carried proof of his parentage in his face and build, though his eyes were more green than blue, from his mother.
He was dark as any noble Lainzar, like chocolate next to the cream-pale Milari. Was their skin so pale because of the cold? He scrubbed mittened hands under the scarf across his cheeks, made them burn and wondered if his father had been this cold all his time here. He floundered down through the snow, down the mountain into the city.
The Milari high city was a cluster around a town square, the houses oddly similar in size, the streets were all narrow, dug out snow canyons with doors in them. From the moment he’d set foot across the new border he’d seen the difference, even on the plains, though the Milari plains houses had more windows than their mountain ones. These were all single dwellings even though they were often connected one to another with protected walkways between the roofs; tunnels if the snow got deep enough. It was hard to see where one started and another ended. He’d kept looking for hovels, or mansions, and had seen neither. No one in this country seemed to build manors -- It was all related to their odd ideas that all men were equal. It made finding anyone more difficult, he’d found, at least for a Lainzar used to easily seeing anyone’s status in their clothing or home.
Once he reached the snow-packed streets he had to ask four separate people for directions to the Surdeniliarch’s office. The first sent him to the odd building that looked like a cluster of peaks where their Unity sat, and found only a single small room with a clerk open, who told him that the Unity was not sitting now and that he should try the Surdeniliarch’s house, toward the west side of the city.
A house? Like all the rest? No palaces or loggias. Did they not even honor one of their princes? Why would they not even honor their War Master, the man who had literally saved them? The man who had taken the role of Head of State when the war broke out and then just gave it up again afterward. Kyrus had been trying to understand that the whole way into the country. Dark, he’d been struggling to understand the Milari since he’d learned to read.
The clerk told him how to get there but the directions were complicated and he tried to ask a third person on the street but was spat upon before the man turned his back. It was a reaction he’d had a lot of but still didn’t have to like. The war had been ten years ago.
It hadn’t been his war. The Immutable of Lainzar would never have asked someone of his lowly birth to fight for his country, at least in any way other than as an Ass of Lainz, the untrained foot soldiers. It had made him laugh when he found out that the Lainz word for draft beast was the Milar word for backside. Not for nothing were the lower class soldiers called the Asses. The death rate among them was ferocious and any chance of advancement through merit nonexistent. But then he would never end up buried on a strange mountainside.
He shrugged the disrespectful thought away. He wanted to be a trained warrior more than anything else in this world. It was the way out of a shameful life, and held some hope of honor. He wiped the blot of spittle off his sleeve with a mitt-full of snow.
The fourth person gave him better directions even though none of the houses were numbered or named. If there were something as sensible as a street name to look for it would be easier than ‘turn left at the next crossroads, angle right, count three houses and dodge down this alley...’ Mentally he threw up his hands. It worked for them.
A house near the tree line, on the edge of town, had someone working outside. A load of bucked up logs had been dumped in the side yard, only half were split. The man swinging the axe should be able to tell him where he could find the War Master.
Dark hair, pale skin, like all Milari. Lean and muscular like most Milari - they made a point of training almost everyone for war, even the women, barbarians that they were. A slight hitch as he swung the axe - an old wound? He was wearing only a wool sweater despite the cutting wind. Well, he was working so he must have been warm enough. Kyrus waited politely until he turned, pulled off his hat though he left the scarf modestly in place and asked in his best Milar. “Excuse me, --” These people had no word for ‘sir’; he’d had to use the Lainzar. “—Naser, but could you tell me where to find the Surdeniliarch?” He had to be careful not to let his low birth paint the words in his mouth, but speak as though his father had taught him. He reminded himself again not to let any gutter speech slide into his mouth no matter whom he was addressing.
“You’re looking for the Surdeniliarch?” The man just repeated his question. Perhaps he was mentally defective. Kyrus nodded.
“You’ve found him then.”
This is the man so feared? This is the man who practically single-handedly stopped my country from conquering his? This man is the war-leader the known world talks about? I thought he’d be taller. But then he looks at me as if he could see into my soul. Yes. If you were dishonest you’d hate that gaze. Obviously not a mental defective.
Kyrus reached up and slowly pulled his scarf down to bare his face. For my argument, he has to see my naked face. He saw my father’s. The man’s gray eyes widened in shock and the axe sagged in his hands, then he shook his head like a horse throwing off a fly. Why is he so startled? Do I look so much like my father? He visibly seized control of himself. Surely that can’t be because of me?
Then he thought, ‘oh’, ‘oh, no’ dropped his pack and touched heels of his hands to forehead, fingertips to mouth and crossed his hands on his breast. He hadn’t meant to be disrespectful. It was the minimum due anyone higher in station and to forget to offer it to someone as exalted, as this man, would have gotten him Exposed at home. Oh sweet Dark, I’ve offended their version of a King. He repeated the salaam and was about to offer it on his knees when he stopped. The Surdeniliarch had closed his eyes and had a pained look on his face, one hand raised to stop him.
“Resplendence? Have I offended you? My abject --”
“-- Stop,” the War Master said, opening his eyes. “I am no Resplendence. I am only myself. I have this problem with Lainzarians. I understand you need to finish that salaam but don’t call me anything like ‘Resplendence’. Call me by name if you can.”
The icy fear that had leapt up into his throat faded somewhat. Of course. Milari aren’t like that.
“Of course, Il --” he just couldn’t do it. He had to have something more respectful than a plain name on his tongue addressing this man. “Naser. My name is Kyrus.” He’d had a long time to rehearse this in his head so it wasn’t too shaky. The Milari Surdeniliarch was known for admiring plain speech, so he forced it out, even in the face of that gray stare. “You were forced to kill my father Kyrus Talain.”
“Yes, Naser. He never knew of me.” The War Master set the axe down as he listened, still gazing steadily at him. “And Naser, since my father never had the chance to know me, to teach me, I’ve come to you to ask if you would teach me to be a warrior.”
He blinked, surprised. “I’ve never taught anyone.” Then he looked up at the sky. “I want to talk about this, but I have to get this bit of wood split up. There’s another axe against my neighbor’s door. Do you know how?"
“Yes, Naser.” Oltarios, his old patron, – who’d taught him polite Milari among other things --- had taught him that particular skill as well.
“Good. You can help me here and we’ll get in to talk faster with both of us splitting -- before it starts snowing.”
It was bright sun now, about an hour off setting. How could he tell it was going to snow? Kyrus shrugged and nodded. It is Milar in the winter, it is always snowing.
He set his pack down by the door and fetched the axe, a single-bit, light, long in the haft. He preferred that over a heavy head and a shorter handle. He was careful to set his scarf back across his face before he started. It was so raw to have a naked face, so wrong.
As he brought the axe over to the woodpile a number of old fears chased through his head, just as they had when he’d first conceived of this idea, that the Surdeniliarch had to teach him.
Maybe he’ll just kill me as too much of a problem. Or maybe he’s expecting me to try and kill him? A wood axe is just as effective a weapon as a battleaxe. I mean I want to bury this in his body for my father’s sake. If he’s expecting me to try he could say it was an honorable fight because I was armed and attacked him. It was all too convoluted and in the short walk back from the neighbor’s he’d worked himself into a wild confusion that he had to struggle to suppress. Maybe he just wants to get the wood done faster, like he said.
And that was what happened as far as Kyrus could see. If there was any strain in the man, he certainly wasn’t showing it, not by so much as tension in his hands on his own axe. And for an odd, surreal half an hour, Kyrus worked beside the War Master, torn between his hatred and struggling to impress the man with his diligence. It helped that he could throw his confusion into the stubborn oak they were splitting, feeling only satisfaction when a tough chunk sprang into two or even three pieces.
Between the two of them they were done long before the light went. As he worked he could feel the Milar looking, could feel him watching, like a pressure on his skin. As he worked he was able to smother most of his resentment and think of him without the weight of hatred.
The Milari War Master was, as Oltarios would have said, easy on the eyes. He was fit. He could see that in how he moved, even with the bulky clothing, and the fact that he could split wood faster than Kyrus could. He found himself speeding up, to try and match him, breaking a light sweat even in the cold.
He reconsidered how he could pay for lessons if he could convince Ilaxindal; more that just chores. To be honest he’d thought that he would need to offer his body as partial payment before, but now it seemed a better idea. It wouldn’t be a bad way at all, considering. He isn’t like some of the clients I took on to fund my trip here. I quite like the way he looks, if he just hadn’t done what he did...I’ve never hated a client before, but he’s not disgusting. And he has a better reputation than those terrified, hidden old men who could never admit their urges for fear of being Exposed.
He smiled a bit at the hypocrisy in his own land where no man was supposed to crave sex with other men, on pain of death, but where a thriving business of male whores flourished in the Basin; right under everyone’s nose but steadfastly invisible.
Then, finally, the Surdeniliarch set his axe down under the eave and gathered up an armload. “Come inside; once the wood box is full, we’ll talk. I’m not saying yes.”
They replenished the stack under the eaves and he opened the outside door of the wood box. The inside door stayed securely latched against the cold and they filled it before dusting the wood chips off their clothes. Kyrus followed him around to the front door.
Like all Milari houses there was a hall that could be closed against the winter, walls draped with coats and cloaks on their hooks, boots lined up, leaning against each other like drunks in an alehouse, the smell of wet wool. He saw a row of children’s cloaks and mittens as he hung up coat and hat on one of the guest hooks, set his pack below. He hesitated and unwound the scarf, desperately wanting his indoor veil, that was in the bottom of his pack right now. It had been very hard to go naked-faced in Milar but it made for less confrontation. To them, the face covering screamed ‘enemy’. He rubbed his hand over his eyes and turned away from his things. I will not let this bother me.
Beyond the inner door the house was warm and in the room behind the fireplace he heard children giggling. To the right, behind the door, was a cooking area, to the left a table against a window shuttered and completely buried in snow. In the center of the room, a big fireplace with closed metal doors. A ladder-like stair next to it led up to a loft.
The War Master motioned him to sit at the table and pulled open the fireplace doors to place another chunk of wood inside; poured hot water into a pot of the vile leaves they called tea, all in silence. Is he playing for time?
“Your people invaded our country.”
Without answering immediately he set out the honey pot on his side of the table and to Kyrus’s gratification, a small bowl of butter and a set of four small bowls of chutneys. He’s treating me like an adult, not just assuming I’m young enough to want the sweets. “I had to kill your father because he was such a champion for your cause; an enemy of my people.”
“My father always did his duty, Naser.”
“You can stop calling me that. My name is Ilax. Why should I teach you? I truly don’t owe you anything.”
“I can see your point, Nas -- Ilax, but I thought you knew my father, and didn’t just kill him. My mother said he was your captive for at least three and a half months before that.”
He nodded as he got up. “And was decently ransomed.” He poured tea into bowls. Kyrus put a spoon full of butter in his bowl and wrapped his hands around the vessel, not wanting to drink it, but holding it anyway, for the warmth, thinking ‘I’ve got to convince him’.
“Naser -- Ilax, I know that I’m old to start training. I may not have the talent for it. I hoped my father might have gifted me with more than just his look.”
“I know you’re your father’s son because you take butter in your tea.” Ilax laughed sharply, suddenly. “You do look like him.”
“Thank you, Naser.”
“How did he not know of you?” The look was direct and clear as a hunting bird’s, and as opaque, giving nothing away.
Kyrus grimaced to himself but tried to keep it off his face. A cat leaped onto the table between, thankfully blocking his gaze. That would make it easier. He took a deep breath. No waffling, now.
“My mother was a whore, Naser.” The cat lay down in time for him to see the Surdeniliarch’s eyebrows fly up. “I mean no shame to my honored father and I realize that I am not untainted, but I do try to rise above it.”
“Untainted? Of course. How could that ‘taint’ you?” He shook his head at the boy's confused expression and waved a silencing hand. “Never mind, your father and I had such confusions all the time. Just put it down to Milari strangeness.”
“Of course, Naser -- Ilax.”
“Why should I teach you?”
“Naser...” He paused, wondering how blunt to be. The Milari were always shocking in what they would just say straight out. “People said you loved him.” He could feel himself blushing, wished again for his veil. Those odd, dark gray eyes seemed to flinch and the Ilax looked away. His hand, that had been stroking the cat, stilled.
“I hoped to ask for his sake, and for his sake I hoped I might prove worthy of being his son. I might not even be suited to a warrior.”
He shook his head. “You’re suited. But I can’t just give you an answer straight I’m afraid. ‘I’ll think about it’ is the best I can do.”
“I understand, Naser.” I’m not giving up if he says no. I’ll keep coming back until he says yes. “Naser, I don’t mean to trouble you, but would you out of the goodness of your heart tell me of my father?”
There was a long silence. Kyrus knew not to rush this, sat and waited. There was a giggle and shuffling around behind the chimney corner. Ilax stirred and called “Haraklez, can you go to Mina’s for tonight with the girls?”
“We get to sleep overnight?”
“Yes, would you ask for me? Something’s come up.”
A heavy sigh and a peeking eye around the corner, gray like her father’s. “Of course, Pa.”
He sat and waited during the tumult of three children… Haraklez was the oldest, about his age… getting ready to go out over night. Politician’s children, they did not pester to be introduced. The outside door slammed and they were gone.
“My neighbor and I have an arrangement, since my inamour died,” Ilaxsaid as he came back to the table. I translate that as ‘wife’ though they used the same word for male or female marriage partner. “Your father.” He continued, closing his eyes and sipping tea. “Your father was in every way the embodiment of honorable. He was the best person I ever met and one of the best warriors. He was my so-called prisoner for half a year and I could not understand why you people would not ransom him at first, even though I had to set the amount high. It was what he was worth, to you and yet your general… Adwild d’Molfe, you may recall… tried to throw him away.”
“Yes, Naser. Anyone with a brain… no, half a brain would understand how valuable my father was.”
The War Master coughed and smiled, somewhat painfully. “Ahem. Yes. Then someone who valued your father replaced him. Though I understand that general d’Molfe is actually lobbying your Resplendence for the post of Head of your Armies of Light.”
Well, there aren’t very many generals left, competent or otherwise because of you, Kyrus thought. “That is actually so far above my station, Naser, that I do not choose to have an opinion.”
Ilax burst out laughing. “You sound exactly like your father.”
Kyrus looked away, both embarrassed and pleased. “My father. You were talking about him.”
“Yes. Ah. He was an excellent man. And you don’t need to prove your parentage, it’s written all over your face and body… even, as I said, in the way you speak.”
“Thank you, Naser.”
“Now, I need to go up-mountain to meditate on all of this, and I am going to trust you here in my home. You’ve found that we don’t have a lot of inns or alehouses.”
“Yes, Naser.” Travelling Milari have so much family that they tend to stay with kin, and they’re insular enough that only the biggest cities have inns for foreigners at all.
“You may eat – my kitchen is open to you.”
“Thank you, Naser.” He offered the minor salaam, fingertips to forehead. “I pledge no harm to you or your house. Further, as long as I am a guest, I offer you my arm in defense.” Ilax’s eyebrows shot upward at the last.
“You needn’t –“ he started.
“Yes, Naser. You don’t know me. I give my word to you that you may go with an easy heart.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Of course, Kyrus.” He showed the boy all he needed, shrugged into a heavy, wool-outside coat and was gone up the mountain.
The funeral procession for His in Resplendence, Tyriu Paghemar stretched along the entire length of the Avenue of Prayers, coiling through the whole city, stretching outside the gate onto the causeway and out over the chasm, with every noble Lainzar house determined to show their grief over the death of the Immutable’s last Heir. The other side of the Avenue was empty, lined along the whole way with the Rasheem, the Bodyguard, to keep the cobbles clear under a sun that bit deep into uncovered skin.
In the formal silence the roar of the river in the canyon echoed up to the highest balcony, almost drowning out the bass vibration of the pumps that moved water from a thousand feet below below. Even the dry Basin and the streets were silent, honoring the dead. No sound from the closed market, the street birds in their cages covered to ensure their silence. Strung along under the causeway like a huge string of beads, even the Exposure cages had been emptied and silenced, swaying slightly in the constant wind.
The body at the head of the waiting procession, gilded and standing in the chariot of honor, swayed slightly, giving it an odd semblance of life. Two charioteers stood on the stone, waiting his Resplendence’s signal, one leading four white horses that would be sacrificed to the Light at the White Mound, the second leading the black team that drew the chariot. For the last time, Tyriu would leave the Sunrise Loggia and make his way all the way through the city that would have been his, had he lived longer than his Great Grandfather.
Above, in the Sunrise Loggia’s only public balcony, weighed down by years as much as the heavy red gold and white robes, the Immutable sat, leaning forward on his staff of office. Every wrinkled, bony finger winked with two rings, one above and one below the arthritic central knuckle. Gold painted his long nails and gold powder dusted his sunken eyelids. It gave him a blind, golden stare when he closed his eyes, as they were now, his breath gusting to belly out the fine woven white veil over his nose, mouth and chin.
He looks like a snapping turtle in a golden shell, Nadian Basserus thought, not letting his slight smile climb over the top edge of his own face covering. He didn’t want the old man to get the idea that he was anything but grief-stricken at Tyriu’s -- his own distant cousin -- untimely demise. It was ironic that the Lainzar nobles below were displaying all their finest horses and battle banners in honor of his Resplendence’s life, given that Tyriu had only been five years old.
“The river has risen.” It was a dry croak from the old man, talking emptiness.
“Of course your Resplendence. The rains are coming.” As if you needed me to tell you that, he thought, leaning forward slightly to hear the almost whispered word. You’ve seen more seasons turn than I and my father and my grandfather combined.
The shriveled golden figure nodded absently, his eyes locked on the funeral chariot below.
What the Dark is he thinking? He can’t have cared for the little brute. Nadian turned away to cough, smothering his urge to laugh at the fuss. He’ll name another Heir and everything will go back to normal. The thing that bothered him was that the Immutable was starting to become more unpredictable. Why, he’d even held a hero’s funeral for his granddaughter, what’s her name, Tyriu’s mother, when she’d died in childbirth a few months ago. I wouldn’t have stooped to killing a mere female except he was starting to look at her, at women of his line, as Heirs, rather than where he should look. Me.
The horses were getting restless in the heat and down in the city there was a minor commotion, quickly suppressed as a lesser family’s Moas tried to start a fight, or perhaps eat someone. Only the great nobles had both Horses of honor and Moas as draft animals, and the number of trainers necessary to keep them apart in such processions.
Nadian, like all the immediate court, was dressed as usual, head to foot in black to properly reflect the Immutable as his shadows, the only concession to mourning allowed was the gold lace along the bottom edge of the veil, scratching on a bit of dry skin on his bottom lip. If only the old fart would open his eyes and give the word for the stupid procession to start, winding down the empty side of the Avenue, out to the private burial mounds where every Immutable or his family had been laid to rest under a blindingly white dome.
It was a pity the boy had died. Nadian hadn’t meant the ‘cline, the spell of diminishment, to work quite that way. He had actually been aiming at the old man, hoping to be the boy’s Regent. After all, wasn’t that what all villains aspired to? Not that he considered himself a villain, just the next best Immutable, even if the old man didn’t see it yet. He wondered again what had gone wrong with the ‘cline. He’d been fortunate to find out that he had the rare talent to be a Dee-mander or a Dee-cliner, one of the great mages of legend, but the Lainz hadn’t had a full fledged Dee, in over a generation and Nadian had resented the lack of teacher almost as much as he resented not having been Heir. He shrugged to himself, long reconciled to the lack of teacher. He’d just have to go back to his studies. It had startled him that the 'cline had made his own nose bleed, even as it killed the boy.
He raised his eyes to that distant speck of white in the desert. The old man’s burial space was a gap in the white shimmer, with all the relatives that had been buried in an ever-expanding spiral around where he would rest. He’s old. Why doesn’t he just give up and die and let someone young and competent take the High Seat? Like me.
“Basserus.” The Immutable’s voice was a harsh croak.
“Yes, your Resplendence.”
“I must let him go, mustn’t I.”
Yes, you greedy old man. Name me Heir and I can afford to quit killing everyone around you. I’ll be able to wait till you die of old age. “Give him to the Gods, your Resplendence. Let the Darkness give him peace.” He leaned over to pour a golden cup full of water, lifting that damnable lace off his lip to taste a sip before offering it to the Immutable. Over his Resplendence’s back, Nadian could see his major rival for the Immutable’s favor, his own younger brother, Billiph.
His posture gave nothing way, except to his brother who knew him. He stood plank stiff watching Nadian whisper in the old man’s ear. The Immutable’s eyes, trained for almost a century of reading his court, even with their faces covered, shifted to one side, taking in the by-play before coming back to settle on the young man offering him water.
Far from being rheumed with age, they gleamed bright, bright blue in his dark face, sharp and clear as the eyes of a predator. “Basserus, your grief does you credit.” There was no trace of irony in his voice but Nadian could see it in his look. He drained the cup and handed it back, his touch dry as a serpent’s belly.
The young noble couldn’t let that opportunity to gently fence with the old man slip away. The Immutable liked to think people would dare stand up to him. He let a faint touch of irony color his answer. “You see everything, your Resplendence.”
“No. I’m not so far gone in my own legend that I believe in my own infallibility. I just know you.” He turned away, his grip tightening on the staff, even though it caused him pain. There was no sign of weakness when he raised it so that the cruel sunlight winked off the mirrored top, signaling the end of his great grandson’s stay on earth.
The lead charioteer stepped forward with his magnificent, doomed charges. With a groan the funeral procession creaked into slow motion, down the spiraling road to the gate and the white man-made hills beyond. Nadian, straightening up from the Emperor, watching the door to the Throne itself open before him, missed the single tear in the old man’s eye that evaporated unobserved in the thirsty air as he watched the body of his great grandson into the distance.
Kyrus snapped awake, his mind fighting its way out of the haze that had settled on it at this altitude, aware that there was a girl sitting, quietly watching him.
“Wha’s sinking, frilly?” he said muzzily. “Basin firin’? Howja Loggia crack?” It was in the street tongue that he’d grown up with. He pushed himself up from the padded couch, before his thoughts caught up with him, appalled at himself. He’d just asked her what emergency was going on and how she broke into the house. As well as implying she was a child whore.
“Excuse me, Nassera,” the polished accents immediately back in his mouth as he came to himself. He pulled the aurochs robe close around him as he sat up, feeling the cool room sucking away the lovely warmth. “I meant nothing by it.”
It was the Surdeniliarch’s oldest child, Haraklez, who sat looking at him. “I can’t be rightly offended if I don’t understand the insult,” she said in fluent aristocratic Lainz. “I speak the language but I didn’t understand what you just said.”
“Ah, well…” he blinked and closed his mouth. “Aren’t you supposed to be over at the neighbors?”
“Yes, but I thought I’d see how you were doing, since pa left you to go up on the mountain. He won’t be back until late. He never is. But you avoided answering. I won’t be embarrassed, honestly.”
She had her father’s eyes, though her skin was quite dark for a Milar. Her hair was a loose brown wave down to her shoulders. It had been a quite a scandal apparently when Ilax had married a half Lainz woman who had had his eldest child.
He was very, very aware suddenly of how he must look with his own hair loose all over his bare face. His hand flew up to cover his mouth before he made himself drop it. “Um. It’s street talk. You wouldn’t have been taught that by any good teacher.”
She smiled. “I should. Learn it I mean. After all it’s not just the nobles who can talk.”
He shrugged and began folding the blanket so as not to look at her. “Nassera Vania I certainly do not mean to intrude on your life, nor expose you to such crudity.” He hadn’t meant to fall asleep on the bench but had sat down after he’d cleaned up after himself in the cooking area.
Haraklez actually giggled. She got up and swept him a bow and a salaam that wouldn’t have been out of place in the High court. “So formal. I don’t give up easily.” Her eyes were twinkling and he had a sudden vision of how fascinating they would be over a proper veil.
He bowed back stiffly, determined not to be mocked, shocked at himself for his imaginings. “I’m sure your esteemed father would have words with me should he find you here unchaperoned.” He offered the minor salaam. “I’ve sworn no harm to any in your father’s house and would not harm you by ruining your reputation. Please, return to where your father asked you to be.” He didn’t see that anything he was saying was funny at all. Why the Dark was she laughing like that? At him? His mouth tightened. I’m not that funny, Milar.
“It would be my pleasure, Naser.” She tossed her head, slightly spoiling the effect of her grand manner. “If you need anything, we’re at Mina’s next door, the neighbor you borrowed the axe from? Her place. Just knock.”
He confined himself to a curt nod, his face hot with embarrassment he knew she could see. She smiled again. “My pa will be pleased that you did all those chores, you know. We could see you outside.”
Kyrus was trying to figure out how to answer this when she let herself out to the coat hall. “Ah, goodnight, Nassera.”
Her reply was muffled as the outer door closed behind her. “Good night, Naser.”
When the girl had safely gone, Kyrus sat down again rather more abruptly than he’d intended. He desperately wanted to lie his head back against the wall, but knew that if he did that he’d be asleep again in moments. She’d ruffled him, with her smiles, her bare face, and her unconcern about being alone with a young man. Who does she think she is? Laughing at me. His indignation snuffed out. The daughter of the Surdeniliarch talking to a Basin rat. She wouldn’t care. I’m as significant to her as the house cat. Or a mouse in the wall. Something for the serfs to squash with a broom not worry about whether I’d compromise her. His daughter. Surdeniliarch. His mind circled around again, dismissing the disquieting girl and focusing on her father.
He was so close. He’d actually gotten his story out, to the Surdeniliarch without stammering too much, lapsing into street talk, or trying to gut the man with his bare hands. The War Master was too easy to like. It was very hard to keep hating him now that he’d actually sat and looked into his eyes.
Left alone in the house, he’d been uncomfortable at first but had found bread and the slowly bubbling stew on the back of the hob. Once he’d eaten and dipped water to wash the bowl it had been easier. A full belly always made the world a more pleasant place.
Then since he’d thought he should do his case with the Surdeniliarch the most good, he’d gone looking for some work. The most he’d been able to find, without being too prying, had been outside. The snow was high enough that he’d had to work hard to carve the path to the door a bit wider. That chore had been accomplished by the light of the lantern at the door that he’d refilled and lit with supplies from the coat hall cupboard. It was so dark, so soon and he wondered at the Surdeniliarch being up on the snowy mountain alone in the dark. But no one seemed terribly concerned about that.
He hadn’t taken a bodyguard with him. He was an acclaimed warrior, certainly, but he was as important a head of state as the Konsiliarch, the head of their weird Administration, who handled the day to day running of their Unity. Theoretically they had bodyguards, the Fysilios. He hated trying to translate their terms; the best word wasn’t really bodyguard, but Brother or Colleague. He’d known that they didn’t hover around the War Master… that wasn’t the right term either. It sort of translated as Negotiator of Peace or War. The Surdeniliarch was really supposed to maintain peace.
The Unity even penalized him if the country went to war by cutting his pay down to the minimum since, according to their weird world view, that their Negotiator wasn’t doing his job properly. Kyrus had never understood that and had asked Oltarios a dozen times what that meant when he’d read it.
At least the Milar were lucky that this Surdeniliarch was a kick-your-sorry-ass Warrior, unlike some in their history. When His Immutable had invaded the War Master hadn’t hesitated but taken up their sword immediately. It was part of what had saved the country.
His head tipped back. Why was he trying to stay awake? The girl had said her father wouldn’t be back until late. Surely he didn’t expect to find his unwanted guest awake and waiting, would he? He got up and put another of the logs he’d split that afternoon on the fire, making sure the iron doors of the stove were secure before sitting down again. He’d try to stay awake a bit longer. Perhaps he’d trying parsing some of their more obscure verbs in his head. A noble accent and a good language, boy, that’ll get you far. Don’t you forget that now.
No, Oltarios. I won’t forget.
He was asleep before he could get through the first declension.