It took another day of training and another night of prodding before the boy finally managed to either remember or allow himself to choke out his own name to me. It was the middle of the night and he woke up with an all over body start that jolted me, woke me up with a yelp because it hurt.
In his sleep he’d turned around again and clung to me like a monkey I had once had. In the dark I could hear his breathing catch. “It’s all right,” I said. “Its okay. You didn’t hurt me. Are you all right?”
He was shaking all over again and I had to catch his hand as he tried to do what the Mahid had taught him he must. The last thing I wanted was him touching my vile organs. “No. I don’t want that.” I pulled it up to cling to the pillow between us. “It is all right if you don’t. I don’t want pleasure from you. It’s all right.”
Because of what had happened with my father, I never rose except in the night from bodily pressure and urinating in the morning always relieved that. What had happened with Def had eased the abuse I heaped upon those organs, somewhat. I was not a very sensual person, I thought. I didn’t want him to touch me, and I said so.
He held his breath for a while then when it caught again and he inhaled sharply, he whispered something so low I couldn’t hear it. I waited and then said as gently as I could “I didn’t catch that. Could you say it again?”
“G..g…ga…ga..nnn..nnn.” He gulped and tried again. “G…gana..r.r.r…a.”
“Gannara?” I asked. He swallowed and nodded and began to weep, silently. We Aans, we Mahid are so good at demanding silence where there should be screaming. “All right, Gannara. It’s all right. It’s your name. It’s yours and I will call you by it, in private, all right?” I got another nod for that and he hugged me without trying to reach for me sexually, which was good. We both slept better that night, I think.
By this time the excess flesh was beginning to disappear off my frame and my hair had grown brittle, breaking off in hanks no matter how carefully Binshala brushed it in the morning. I found out later that one of the poisons I was regularly ingesting provided the appearance of health, full flesh and glossy, almost oily skin and hair. Now that I was receiving the reduced dose it was all sweating off me and out of me, slowly. I was glad I could not see myself for I was sure I looked as dreadful as I felt. I had lived with the taste of various poisons in the food so long that the reduced dosages tasted oddly flat and insipid, somewhat rancid. But the Mahid are nothing if not precise and the dose was being reduced as fast as was safe. It did not make me ill, but I did not feel well and had no appetite, nor desire to drink anything at all. But that kind of malingering was not allowed.
In my Eclipse Court were two of the Mahid who had been carefully trained to appear like normal folk to act as liaisons or infiltrators. They would be the ones to enter any villages we were near to fetch supplies or news. One bore the okas haircut, the other the fessas and it was eerie to watch them practice the accents, often with each other. The Mahid rigidity would melt away to be replaced by normal motion and emotion on their faces, a jarring contrast since they wore their uniforms except when going out. It was as if they pulled on flesh puppets over a Mahid core. I knew what to look for in their eyes but others would only see men who did not care to chat.
The false fessas, Joras, was particularly bad because he was not taciturn but ebullient. His wide smile and supposedly easy laugh turned my stomach. He was the most effective of the liars and spies that I had ever seen because no one would ever suspect. He was the one who had been sent out to acquire some supplies and the next Pages, the news, anything from the City.
It was another push-up day for me, though I was now alternating between push-ups and running. Amitzas was reading to me from the Holy Book of Muunas when Joras returned from his expedition.
“… told Iakobas to gather up the faithful and take them up to a high place. There –“ He interrupted himself, looking up. I stopped at the top of my push as instructed, arms quivering, waiting for him to begin again. I didn’t count them anymore, I was just to do push-ups as long as he read. Then he’d tell me to run somewhere and back and I would and it would begin all over again.
My form must have sagged because he slashed me across the buttocks with his corrector to remind me to tighten them, pulling myself up, flat. Then he closed the book and laid it across my shoulders. “Do not let it touch the ground. Do not move until I return. If the Holiest of Books falls off, you will do five hundred without a rest. The weight of faith will help you carry itself, Splinter of the Ineffable Light.”
Then he went over to where Joras had flung the lead rope of his packhorse to 2nd Ilesias. There was a murmur of voice and then the silence became deadly. News. I could feel it, even as I trembled and rocked and froze again as the book on my shoulders slipped. I managed to catch its motion before it slipped very far, holding very still, and tried to raise my head to see what was going on.
Amitzas moved so fast I was startled. He snatched the book off my shoulders, rage seething off him. “Get up. Shake it out. Wait.”
Eforas and Donaras had already opened the two copies of the Pages that Joras had brought. I counted days… unless I was mistaken it was a special edition that had come out on an off day. The Press had managed to survive for one more run. Had it been smashed since? I didn’t need to see the lurid red ink. The city was fallen. It had been taken and destroyed, perhaps. Burned. Most likely.
I could see the clot of Mahid around them, my nurse, my betrothed and my tutor all together off to one side. Binshala began to wail but she choked off her cries when Kyriala began to shriek even louder and my nurse tried to comfort the girl.
The rumble of noise coming from the Mahid was low, a snarl. The rattle of a death beetle. A snake’s hiss. How on the earthsphere were they surprised? Had they believed Kurkas’s delusion that he would still prevail? How could they even be remotely surprised?
They had no target to take out their rage on, except one. Gannara.
Amitzas came and got me as Eforas went and dragged Gannara out of the cabin. They tied him between a couple of posts at the ruined building and one of the younger men ran out to us, a coil in his hands. Eforas ripped the tunic off Gannara and dropped the rag as though it were garbage.
The coil was a ten-bead whip handed to Amitzas. “Spark, this slave, this Shefen-kas-mockery, is the embodiment of the Yeoli. The city is sacked. The streets ran with blood and that -- that monstrous savage devoured the children of Arko before their parents.”
Considering who was calling whom monstrous, I didn’t believe any of it except the sack itself. He thrust the whip into my hand and nodded at Gannara. “Your duty is to punish that.” I could feel the avid approval of all the Mahid watching. “Begin.”
I couldn’t believe it. Just because he looked… had been made to look like Shefen-kas… I was to treat him as though he were. If I picked up the whip, if I started at all, they’d make me kill him.
“No, ser,” I said staring straight into his eyes as though he were a wild animal I had to face down. “That slave is mine, not yours. My father gave him to me and I will have him as he is.” 2nd Amitzas stared at me as if I had bitten him. This was the first time since we’d fled the City that I’d actively defied him. I couldn’t take my eyes off Amitzas but I was aware of Gannara’s bony back, already marked by whip scars like the original Shefen-kas, trembling, shoulder blades like the wings of birds under the taut skin.