Thursday, November 12, 2009

149 - Oyster Forks

The room stank and in my newly opened eyes the walls shimmered with my breathing. I had lived a life of utmost luxury, paid for with sweating terror of my father. Now I would live a life of deprivation, paid for with the same money chains. 2nd Amitzas pulled me onto my feet in the stinking room, made me drink and, finally, connecting the two of us further, torturer and victim, poured the buckets of cold water over me to clean me up, with his own hand.

It was barely possible that I could stagger out into the late afternoon sunlight to take up the whip, from Amitzas. I raised two lines of blotched red across Gannara’s pale back, felt the pain I caused through the lash right down my hand into my shoulder, into my own chest. Anything was better than Obedience. I wasn’t strong enough for Amitzas’s taste so he added two more before having Gannara cut down.

“Wash, and read the Holy Book when you wake, if you wake before I summon you to dinner,” he said, his voice crammed full of satisfaction for having punished both of us for his… his disaccommodation, especially me for having defied him. “Tomorrow you begin Mahid sword training.”

My mattress had been replaced, bedding stripped and there was no sign the room had ever been a torture chamber. It even smelled good. I shut the door on the too-bright sunlight outside and beckoned Gannara. We crawled into the bed, together, no nonsense with pillows or barricades between us. We clung to each other as if we were outside still, but this time he was free to wrap his arms around me too, and both of us had tears on our faces as we collapsed and slept until dinner, as ruined as the sacked and burned out city itself.

2nd Amitzas let us sleep. He could not impel us to breaking the way he might have wished. I had many times to wonder why he did not just drive me over the edge and assume the mantel of Imperator. I realize now that he was constrained as much as I and could not imagine stepping beyond the bounds so far. For this, oh Gods, am I grateful.

I had never thought of, nor understood before where his limits were. I now knew where the line was in the sand for Amitzas. I could pay with my own pain for that. No one could command me past the limit of my life.

We were waked at dinner by himself, looming over the bed, looking down at the two of us, clinging together like the desperate children we were. I opened my eyes and saw him over us and my reflexive clutch of Gannara woke him too. Under the blue marble eyes, I realized I’d made a mistake. I had given Amitzas a lever to control me, even more than the letter from my father. I had shown him that I had someone I cared about. The only thing he could not know was whether I wanted the Yeoli slave because he was a possession, or because I actually cared about him. I absolutely could not let Amitzas think it was because of emotion, because I cared.

I deliberately shoved Gannara out of my way as I stretched saying “Is it dinner yet, my Guardian?” ignoring his startled gasp as I hurt him. I could see Amitzas blink as I honoured him with the title and then everything vanished under the usual Mahid face. I was again acting as he expected and I could see his thoughts about how he had corrected my behaviour vanish. For now, I was behaving the way I should and thus my aberrant actions could be put down to a childish fancy, or perhaps shock over the sack of the city, and forgotten.

“Yes, Chip of the World’s Jewel.” He stepped back and I sat up. He thought I had lost the confrontation because he’d made me flog Gannara. That would only work so long as I didn’t make him think about it. As long as he believed that, Gannara was safe. The truth was, he had lost face, forced to drag me away to administer Obedience, in front of all the other Mahid under his command and the rest of my servants and even the women.

“My slave needs a medic. After dinner I require my tutor to attend me, since my lesson time was taken up with other things.” I let my eyes slide to one side before bringing them back straight on to his fish-eyes. He would see that as fear.

“You are to resume your normal ritual, Spark, with your new lessons included. Beginning this evening.” I nodded and let him see how exhausted I was inside. Let him think me weaker than I was. I could hear Dafinas’s careful voice in my memory explaining that the enemy already defeated was the enemy deceived.

He would force as much of the rituals on me that he could. Those rituals hemmed my life in the Marble Palace, so I couldn’t scratch my behind without an Imperial servant handing me a jewel handled implement to do it. It meant a lot of time standing around with an itching rear, trying not to just use my hand, waiting for the appropriate implement to be chosen and ceremoniously presented to me. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as I feared and was used to. There was a limit to what they could carry, surely.

“Slave!” Amitzas snapped at Gannara and indicated the wardrobe with his nod. Then the ritual of dressing for dinner began, with Mahid assisting me, Gannara, though staggering, fetching and carrying for them. I had to wait for my evening slippers to be brought and placed before I could place my feet on the floor to stand, raise my arms to have the shirt slipped on… and so on for every piece of clothing. Amitzas watched every move down to the correct wrapping and draping of my kilt. At least Mahid moved a great deal faster than the Marble Palace servants. Binshala anointed my hairbrush and re-ordered my hair. Then I was free to move, to go relieve myself and though there was no garderobe proper, or attendant to clean me afterward, one of the Mahid did that function.

It was full dark by now, and my stomach was finally complaining that I had abused it terribly and it was empty. I was led to a tent I hadn’t seen before. Bowing to necessity, I had been eating my meals in the one room and while rustic had seemed enormously free compared to the four formals. This tent was so heavily camouflaged it could hardly be seen, even from the air. I realized from now on, since the enemy had real flying equipment, that would have to be a consideration, not only in war but in everything, from now on.

Inside the tent a table had been set. How they had managed a carpet, a table and two chairs, snowy linen and the full set of china and crystal for a formal meal for two, on horseback, I do not know. In a tent. On grass. The ancient gold-edged Imperial porcelain glowed in the light of the lamp hung from the top of the tent. A madman’s idea of a picnic.

Kyriala stood by her chair, waiting for me, also perfectly turned out as if it were merely another evening and after dinner we would be required to do two stately kurains around the dance floor before bed. She wore a silver silk gown, embellished with loops of silver chains making her worth rather obvious since she wore her fortune so openly sewn on. Her face was pale and her arm was in a sling, but so carefully draped was her gown that I could hardly see it. I bowed and seated her. “Serina.”

“Serin.” Her voice was musical as ever and showed nothing of what she felt. Apparently her hysterics over the sack of Arko were to never have happened. I kept wanting to do something to disrupt this dreamlike madness, scream, shout, throw dishes, anything.

The. City. Was. Sacked.
The. Empire. Was. Lost.

Why was I handing this young woman into her chair before an Imperator’s ransom in cutlery as if it were normal? I was still upset enough from flogging and sun, the night cold, and Obedience that I could only sigh before taking my own chair.

There was no chef. There were no elaborate sauces, though the Mahid who cooked for me did try. Mahid are, as one might imagine, not very sensitive or artistic and see food as fuel. The rabbit on my plate was cut into convenient pieces but had been roasted over a wood fire while the rice had been boiled and served with butter alone. A tomato had been cut into paper-thin slices, salted and peppered before being re-stacked as if it were still whole. My water glass was full. No wine, though the glasses stood in a military row off the end of my salad knife.

I could not stand it. I had to ask. “Second Amitzas, if I might enquire?”

He was behind me. I could feel him standing there. I suppose one might find that sort of thing protective but I was raw as if someone had sandpapered my nerves.

“Yes, Spark of the Eternal Light?”

“Why, since we are in the middle of the woods, inland and malas from the sea, am I required to have the oyster forks?” I raised one long, thin elegant piece of gold-handled, silver tined artistry and turned it as though I had never seen it before. It trembled a little, because my hand shook, though I did not try to fight it. He would know I was that exhausted even after having been allowed to sleep.

And of course being Mahid he didn’t hesitate so much as a heartbeat. “Because they are part of the formal service, Splinter of the Ineffable.” I turned the ridiculous fork in my hand, a shining fortune in metal and totally unused and useless. That would be the best answer I would get. Obviously the Empire would continue, even if zealous formality would be dragged behind me like a stinking corpse.

But perhaps there was comfort in it. It was all symbolic. The city was destroyed. Long live the city itself. I placed the fork down and adjusted it minutely. Go through the motions like a gear-cranked doll. If they were going to pretend to the point of lunacy, so would I. Even though the setting was all different, it was comfortable to be dancing through the same senseless absurdity I had had every day of my life before everything changed. It was comfort. It brought some relief to my mourning for the city. I could feel it, below everything. I could not grieve for my father, but the city and the people, I could weep for, inside. Always inside, for it would never do to show unseemly emotions.

I could feel Kyriala watching me without seeming to look directly at me, the way people watched my father, smiling, turning her face to show me only a perfectly graceful profile as she sipped her water. She didn’t know what had happened other than what she’d heard read aloud from that awful edition of the Pages, but she knew it was likely her family was dead. There was no sign of it in her.

After dinner, where Kyriala said perhaps five words to me, all about the weather, we were indeed required to repeat two kurains to the rigidly mechanical strains of music from a small lap harp played by Itasas Mahid. The damp grass soaked through my slippers in seconds, and must have also, for her, but she said nothing, her smile as fixed on her face in the waning moonlight as the moon itself.

I could not let myself relax even then. There was the whole undressing ritual to be endured and then the ‘washing of the feet’ and the ‘turning of the bed’ before I could remind Amitzas that I wished my tutor sent to me with “Meditations” in his hands.