My life had opened into an enormous pit of uncertainty and darkness and I could feel that an exile’s court was, of necessity, a court of darkness and shadows. Only in the dark could I defy the father of my blood and try to get the true name of the boy I was supposed to be abusing and learning to hate.
I thought it through. 2nd Amitzas would take full advantage of his power over me, marginally restrained by the thought that I was, technically, his until I turned twenty-one when he would begin prostrating himself to me. He would apply all he knew as a Mahid and as the Head Torturer, to teach me to hate, to make me enjoy indulging that hatred. I would have to feign it while I was in his hand, but unfortunately for Amitzas I already had a target for my loathing and it would not be either this boy or his namesake. It would also not be proper for me to hate my teacher, but I thought that Muunas might understand in this case.
In his sleep the boy sighed and turned around, flung his arms around me and clung. It was my turn to freeze and be thankful for the barricade of cloth and feathers. I managed to soften up and return his hug. I know, I thought. I will consider you my little brother from now on, my little brother from Yeola-e. You’re no more a slave than Chevenga was, or Ancherao, if I see you that way. I will not own Yeolis. And I don’t have an older brother, because of my progenitor. So I deserve another brother.
I hadn’t seen Ilesias at dinner. I would have to insist on being closer to him. I was thankful that he was considered too little to begin indoctrinating and was suddenly sick with fear that they would begin trying to turn him into something like a Crown Prince Mahid, thinking I would need someone like that in my struggle to re-take the Empire. I was responsible. And I hadn’t thought of him. I felt so badly. If we were both lucky he would just be in with Kaita and the rest of the women, somewhere around here.
I would be able to help Ilesias and… my new little brother… and not fall into that ugliness they wanted of me. I put my arm back around the Yeoli boy and hugged him, like a brother. My other siblings… Mahid back in the city… some of the children my father would have cast into the Mahid concubines… my brothers, would be dying soon, if they hadn’t already. I did not think that Chevenga’s mercy would extend to them… Mahid would be exterminated when he took the city, for what they did to him.
I was already half asleep, almost dreaming of a gigantic foot stomping miniature onyxine Mahid, smashing them like peeping cockroaches before my dreams faded entire. Good night little brothers.
I dreamt that I herded a flock of books in front of me. “Fire! Fire!” They flee on tiny little legs, tiny voices piping their panic. We are all in danger… deadly danger. I know but there is no safe place. Where may I go? Where will we be safe?
I looked back over my shoulder, back at the Great Library in flames. The walls are not there, or I can see into the building and the shelves, the stacks, aren’t full of books, they’re full of people, shoulder to shoulder, waving their arms, tearing their hair, despairing, screaming just like the books I’m trying to save.
Are they books? Or people? I turn to go back, to try and get a few more people out and the books all around me whirl up as if they are caught up in a wind, their pages flying up all around me, cutting off my sight of the Library, the city, the fires. I can’t see what’s happening and the rustle of paper is so loud I cannot hear the fire or the cries for help. The books… the pages… The Pages… what is happening? What is happening in the city?
The next day I had a half-day with my tutor and my rustic bedroom cabin became a classroom, the boy sitting in the far corner. Amitzas was not letting him stray far from me. All part of the grand plan to turn me into the evil Imperator. Of course it was not how they thought of it. But I did.
Ailadas surprised me. “Ahem… Your honorable Mahid have given me leave to beat you if you do not study,” he said when he came in and placed a pile of books on the floor. Beside the books he placed brand new corrector, split bamboo with a satin ribbon wrapped handle, handling it as if it were contaminated.
I would have thought he’d welcome the chance to beat me, since I had been both rude and troublesome to him. His white hair flowed, carefully combed, from his bald pate and thin down his back, his hands still as glass in their gloves. He picked up the top book and placed it carefully in my hands. “We’ve not been able to bring enough paper, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. You’ll be doing the work on slate for now.”
It was a thick, heavy copy of ‘Lives’. “We’ll begin by studying the enemies of the state, You Whose Thought Will be the World’s, and then we’ll be studying political history.”
“Lives of Notables” was a current compendium of the lives of people of interest and consequence. Rulers, writers, artists, healers. There was an Arkan edition I had seen that contained only Arkans, but this one was unabridged, that contained the Notables of the Known World.
I stared at him. He looked at me, neutral, as ever. I could see he thought I would fight him on this and expecting me to make him beat me. I paged from bookmark to mark in the book in my hands and noted that every one marked was either a ruler or a general – including Chevenga, who was both – in the Alliance army. It must be Ailadas setting the curriculum. 2nd Amitzas wouldn’t have the wit to have me study the leaders of the so called barbarians about to sack Arko.
I just nodded and bent my head to the book, flipping it open to the first bookmark. He couldn’t know that I had wanted to find this book and had never managed it. My father must have had it somewhere in the Marble Palace for him to have a copy. And he’d put it in my hands. It was considerably more truth than most Arkans were deemed wise enough to handle.
I opened it to see the woodcut portrait of the King of Laka, and began to read aloud. “Astalaz of Laka, son of Astyardk…” Not so smooth as I recall, stumbling over the jumbles of consonants that Lakans love so much. Later I’d have to deal with the strings of syllables that Enchians and Yeolis used.
Ailadas would be surprised at my diligence. I was so grateful to be getting something closer to truth rather than high court etiquette and how to accept foreign gifts with decorum that I could have bowed to him. With the war coming he’d been trying to teach such stupid, asinine things that I knew his curriculum had been dictated by my father to avoid reality. He was never going to get to use that brand new corrector. He was all I had and I had to both treat him like glass and get him on my side somehow. He had access to truths that I needed and I could no longer shirk my studies because I was bored with them and therefore with him.
We finished up the day with him requiring me to begin re-reading The Book, the Imperial Book, from end to end, beginning today. The Book was the only one of its kind in the world, the personal notes from every almost every Imperator’s Reign going back hundreds of years… Some were only minor notes hand-written in a fading chicken-scratch, while others were complete details of important rites between the Gods and the Imperator, and one or two decrees written on gold leaf. The first dozen pages were the oddest in that they were mostly blank, except for one with a picture of the earliest piece of the Marble Palace, with script of some kind written over it and one covered in an odd series of lines.
The other early pages would only come to life in the hands of the Imperator my father had told me and even then they would be unreadable for various reasons, all save the last with an odd variation of the Empire’s Eagle fixed at the top. My father had shown me the effect once. But now it was just blank like most of the other early pages.
It was the heaviest book carried because, even though the pages were gossamer, the cover was also embossed with gold. It was the one thing Chevenga lacked if he were to decide to try and reign rather than just raze the city to the ground and go home.
And that was the question. What would he do? Most of Arko thought that he would destroy what he could and leave, whereupon my Mahid and I would come back and salvage what was left. But I did not think that would happen. Knowing him, I thought I would be in hiding for a long, long time. Especially since the ‘I would set them free,’ speech. He intended to become Imperator.
The one thought looming in nearly everyone’s mind in the camp was “What is happening? Is the city still there? Is it over? Is it still to come?” Every day that went by with no knowledge increased the pressure of not knowing, that grew like a swelling pipe with no water shut-off.
Everyone, Mahid and all, lived now with the ominous creaking of that pipe, the moans of tortured metal silent behind everyone’s thoughts. I tried to ignore my worry and I had enough bodily pain to focus my mind on, but as the next day and the next day went by and Amitzas and Boras and the others hammered on me to remake my steel, they grew more and more distracted underneath.