Mariush stopped on the wind threshold of Mother’s Loggia and smiled to herself under triple veiling. Just as she wore the extremely formal second veil, that covered her hair and half way down her back, and the third and final gossamer covering as thin and light as a whisper of wind over her head falling all the way to her feet, to honor her patron and her Mother --- Mother, knowing she was coming had ordered the wind screens removed.
Behind her, her escort weren’t concerned, because they had seen this often enough since she had become the Emperor’s First concubine. Every ancient Loggia, suspended over the canyon, the stone pathway looking delicate and thin as a lace veil, had carved screens on either side to keep people from being swept away by the wind, except for the last twenty feet before the door. That was where the permanent protection dropped to knee high, unless the servants had set the movable screens. It could be either a compliment, or an insult depending on how one looked at it, and Mariush knew that Mother meant it as a compliment to her. She wasn’t going to be forced to drop to hands and knees to approach her old home.
She nodded to her Myrmidons and they settled on the carved stone seats to wait. Then she gathered her veiling firmly into one hand so she wouldn’t be dragged away like a kite, settled her mind and stepped into the form ‘Bee flies Home’. As she set foot onto the polished pink stone she heard the young commander sit up somewhat straighter. He actually didn’t realize he was doing it. A young, attractive man, by the name of Shiadan. She sighed. He was already half in love with her and would never say anything to His Radiance’s First. Mariush shook off the unworthy and distracting thoughts.
Half way along the bridge, she could even slow down to admire the smoky blue light along the depths of the canyon, the river below a shining thread of silver in the greenish-black shadows. And though the wind plucked at her it couldn’t seize hold. In ‘Bee Flies Home, the wind was her friend and companion, not her killer.
The carved wings on either side of the Loggia’s door enfolded her in lace shadows and the door-girl opened the gilded stone doors smoothly and silently. Mariush smiled and nodded at her as she passed.
When she had been in training, she had been the door-girl for almost a year, from Dry to Dry. Once the door closed behind her she knelt down, made the ladies’ salaam, and removed her veils of honor before giving them into the door-girl’s hands.
Inside, the walls were the garden, with the plants set into rows and rows up the stone, with the biggest and tallest along the bottom rung, the smaller, more trailing plants higher. The girls watering, and pruning, planting new and deadheading the flowers waved at her from their positions like butterflies lighting on the vertical face, bare toes curled around the stone lips of the wall plant-pots. Watering was the hardest training since one climbed the walls either hauling the water up, or passing the smaller containers from girl to girl.
She smiled to herself, remembering when she graduated and found out that there were fountains all along the tops of the garden walls that could be turned on with the flip of a lever right by Mother’s door. The school was full of the girl’s laughter, their eyes bright over their playful, beaded veils, daringly showing a bottom lip.
“Mariush!” It was Mother coming out to meet her, leaning on her moa-headed stick. Some of the younger kids thought it was the most original joke when they giggled over the fact that Mother looked a lot like her cane.
“Hello, Mother!” She gave the minor salaam. “I’ve brought you candied orange blossoms.”
“Come in and have some tea.”
Mother’s inner rooms were actually outer rooms, in the form of an unopened stone blossom suspended out over the canyon even further than the bulk of the school. During the day she could have all the windows opened like petals, letting the wind pour through, though they still sat in shade. The outer rooms were empty save for cushions set tight into the floor so they would not get blown away when the windows were open.
In the centre, where the centre of a flower would be, was Mother’s sleeping chamber with walls that were entirely carved lace screens, giving the illusion that one could see in, and see every portion of the room when in fact the inner face of each ‘hole’ was a mirror chip. The inside of the room was dark and lined with cushions and curtains and soft padded surfaces, even the boxes of papers padded.
It was on one of these padded boxes that the tea-set sat, the elegant swooping lines of the cups and pot of hammered Trovian silver. The bee serving dish held golden skewers of sweet roasted honey’d bees like a flower. Mother sat down, folding her hands in her lap and Mariush knelt down to serve as was proper.
In the dimness of Mother’s room her hands flashed pale, a gentle rhythm against the silver. “Mother, who is graduating?”
“Aramina and Ziva, and Silvish grieved but is ready to be hearten-wife once again.”
“Ah, her Zukardah died?”
“It is unfortunate. He was very close to the Emperor, my daughter.”
“She developed feelings for him,” Mariush said thoughtfully. “Mother, the Spymaster, speaking to Diryush, said he suspects someone close of attempting to remove the Imperial line.”
Mother snorted, took up her cup and added another crystal of honey. She examined one of the skewers of bees, before pulling one off the rod and crunching it between strong white teeth with relish.
“We sent you to the Emperor because you would please him, my daughter, and because you are no fool.” The irony of a dark Lainzar woman calling a pale Trovian daughter slipped by without either of the women commenting. From the moment Mother had bought her off the auction block as a six year old and adopted her there had been no question over who held her loyalty.
“It is good that Diryush is a man devoted to Lainz’s welfare.”
For a time the two sipped tea and ate bees together in silence, the older woman leaned forward and patted her daughter’s hand. “How long have you suspected?”
There was no confusion on the younger woman’s serene gaze, and only the barest hesitation. “Just this morning, actually, which is why I asked to have tea with you.”
“So if this unknown assassin does not get wind that you carry the Emperor’s child, when will the baby be born?”
“Deep Dry, Mother.”
“I suggest you begin ‘being unfaithful’ so that everyone will think the child is not… the Emperor’s.”
Mariush pinched her lips together hard. “I am not happy with that, Mother.”
“It is up to you whether you wish to inform your Zurkardah of the truth of the child’s parentage. It is unfortunate that many of the Emperor’s daughters had inopportune accidents as well as their children.” It was a pointed comment that she held her own life in her hands as well as her child’s, at least until the unknown assassin was found and stopped. Mariush clenched her hands on top of her silks. “I hear, Mother. I just…” she took a deep breath. “He will be so disappointed in me.”
“I am sure he will survive the experience, daughter.”
“Blessed Light. Blessed Dark.”
“Blessed Both.” Mother’s tone was only faintly ironic as she gave the traditional response. “I am sure there is a young and honorable myrmidon who would be terribly upset with himself for loving you.” Mariush thought of her guard and her cheeks pinked.
“Daughter, you have no wish to become ‘The Lady Clothed in Sun’? If your child survived… perhaps even if female… you would be Regent and the most powerful person in the Empire.”
Mariush set her teacup down with a harsh click. “No! I will have to use everything I have just to keep this child alive. I am not a Regent, or a Politian! The courtiers would…” she paused. “They would destroy me.”
“Not with me and your sisters to support you, my daughter. If the Emperor dies in the next five years… and this is likely… You will be in this position.”
“What do you mean, they tried to kill him!” Ilax was beside himself. “That’s too ugly even for the aftermath of a war!”
The other man, huddled so tight in the wool coat that he looked like a mound of fleeces, hands wrapped tight around a hot cup of buttered tea, shook his head. “Ilax, you couldn’t help it. The boys were only going to beat him. There was something else there, some vile ‘cliner thing.”
“You’re joking! Oh, I am so sorry, inam. I will keep him safe! I swear.” Ilax leaned over and kissed his lover on the lips, set warm hands on either side of his face, warming chilled cheeks with his palms.
“I know, deovar. I know.”