I leafed through the Pages, not looking at the red-ink printed pictures. They were as bloody as I expected and of course they would be. The piece I re-read was about how Kurkas died. Chevenga had dragged him into the Great Baths… and given him a chance to fight. A false hope for Fa… the old Imperator, given that he was so frightened of water and how comfortable Chevenga was there.
I couldn’t imagine Chevenga killing enough people to fill the Bath with blood, but I remembered how the blood from one man clouded my pool. Some died to make the Great Bath murky, mucky with red. I hoped it was no one I knew. I could imagine the scene. It fit. It fit with the hatred and twistedness between Kurkas and Chevenga. In that Kurkas had succeeded in linking the two of them. The one killed the other. I wished him joy, facing Muunas and Aras and the rest of the Ten because he destroyed the empire to be that close to Chevenga.
Kurkas wanted so much what Chevenga gave me. Regard. Attention. Love. Limits. But I asked. Fa—Kurkas tried to force. Like Ilesias hammering harder and harder on a mechanical toy that didn’t do what he wanted. He only managed to break it and all the rest of us and himself. Gods. That was too much like a prayer. I had to stop.
I threw the Pages onto the floor and covered my face with my hands. I was still breathing. Other people were still breathing. But I had no purpose to my life any longer even if 2nd Amitzas and all the rest of the Mahid thought I did.
Gannara sat down on the other end of my bed, I felt the mattress move. “M… Minis…” I looked up at him.
“You know, I’m glad your semanakraseye won.” I took a deep breath. “I’m glad Kurkas is dead.” There. I’d said it. “Arko, what’s left of it, will be better off with Shefenga on the Crystal Throne. And you aren’t my slave anymore, except to 2nd Amitzas. He’s an idiot if he thinks I’m going to do what they want.” What was he going to say to that? What could he say? I was saying truth but he was on the other side. “You should run. You could go to the city and be safe with Shefenkas.”
He shook his head, no, his hand flinched up in a ‘no’ handsign. “I’d be leaving you alone with them,” he said. “And they’d track me down,” he whispered. He was still wobbly from our ordeal. The Mahid hadn’t punished him yet themselves for looking like Chevenga, at least until this stand-off between 2nd Amitzas and I was resolved… and as long as he thought he’d won they might not. I could hope that his status as my slave, my property, would keep him safe enough.
Of course they’d track him down. He was only a kid. But if he stayed with me he was in danger too… I… um… I had to figure out a way to get him away from me. In fact, all of them… Gods. Ilesias. His nurse. My tutor. Binshala. I buried my face in my hands all over again. Then thought… oh. Kyriala too. She didn’t deserve this either. Oh Gods. How could a half dozen, including me, get away from Mahid without having us just tracked down and punished or killed? Oh Gods.
“It’s okay, Minis.” Gannara was still speaking in a whisper. “For now… it’s okay, for now.”
“I’ve just flogged you and we’ve just recovered from standing outside for more than a day –“
“—and you took a bead of Obedience for me…” He dared to interrupt me. That was good. I shrugged.
“I still didn’t managed to save you the flogging,” I contradicted him. He just signed no again.
“It’s not your fault, Minis.”
I took my hands down again and looked at him. He was already talking more normally. “I’m glad you’re talking. I’m glad.”
He shrugged. “You gave me permission to talk a long time ago.”
“You are the same one Kurkas gave me, originally?”
“Yes.” I look at this skinny kid, who happened to look like Chevenga. He had the trailing edges of whip scars curling around his shoulders, old and new.
“I’m going to be saying it a lot I guess. It’s not YOUR fault.” He did look like Chevenga. A kid Chevenga, but he was growing into his face and his dark brown eyes were pretty haunted, too.
“Did Binshala look after you…”
“Back then? Yeah. And she kept encouraging me to talk because she’d heard you tell me it was all right.”
“Oh, good.” It felt so good to just lie here on the bed, talking to him. My head hurt from everything that had happened to me. He looked tired and shaky too. He had his own look, different than Chevenga. I could see it right off. Right now his expression was a little exasperated with me.
The whole situation was so bad and all I could do was say sorry for stuff I couldn’t change or affect and he was exasperated. But he was allowed to show that to me. I’d started that moons before. I couldn’t help it. I grinned at him.
“I guess. All is not lost, huh,” I said.
“Yeah.” He actually flashed a smile back at me, tapped my knee with the side of his fist. I bet as a Yeoli he would have actually wanted more contact than that. I considered hugging him but that was when I heard the Mahid outside acknowledge Ailadas’s arrival. Gannara scooted over to kneel in his corner away from me.
“Hey, you need to stay close to me, so the Mahid don’t fik you up,” I said, and he nodded, silent again as my guard opened the door for Ailadas.
The old man’s eyes, behind his spectacles, were rimmed in red and I was suddenly sorry I had called him out of privacy where he could let out what he felt. He hadn’t expected to be summoned, so soon after the conflict with Amitzas. Ailadas’s eyes flicked over Gannara in the corner, then back to me. He clutched the book to his chest as if it where a lifeline, which perhaps it would be.
"Koren. Excellent. Shut the door.” He did so and I nodded at the one chair since I was sitting on the bed already. Perhaps it was my new perception of people but I really looked at him and could see how tight the muscles were around his jaw and lips. He was not throwing words at me, as he usually did to try and engage my attention. He looked as though he had the Obedience this afternoon and I realized that grief was like Obedience in a way. It is just as overwhelming and inescapable. He wasn’t even clearing his throat.
"Our prayers are with the city, Ailadas. I hope all of you and yours are safe." He swallowed once, twice, his eyes grew more red and I looked away to give him time to collect himself. My eyes caught Gannara’s and he looked away as well. I was not sure it wasn’t a kind of glee. I would not have blamed him for it, if it were.
“Ahem. I thank you, Spark of the Sun's Ray. I am praying for all Arko.” There it was, the fear for all of us. The thing that I had found missing in so many of my teachers. The feeling for others. It was what I had found in Chevenga, and in Dafidas and my companions… the good six, not the most recent replacements.
His eyes flickered over the Pages I’d flung aside. I just shook my head, refusing to look at the discarded papers lying on the floor. As all effective propaganda, it had enough truth in it to make it feel real. But he must not have had any information at all.
"I am somewhat fatigued, as you might have guessed from the little playlet put on out near the ruin, I would appreciate it if you would read me 'Muunas's Hand'”, I said. “Then The Great's "Power and Cruelty," please.” I was resolved to be even more scrupulously polite from this day on, if it killed me, so ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘if you would’ would have to be first on my lip from now on.
On Ailadas’s face there was a fraction of a second of surprise, rapidly hidden. Unfortunately for him, in this place, his face revealed a great deal. I had to keep my lip still with an act of will, thinking that he would be terrible at cards. I could almost see him think to himself that I had never shown signs of even knowing there was such an essay as ‘Power and Cruelty’. He opened ‘Muunas’s Hand’ the book and began to read.
“I will look to the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord of Light and Crowned with glory He sustains the righteous. Out of the depths of despair, we cry to you oh Lord. Lend us Thy shield and sword to defend us in our hours of darkness. Our sins ring us 'round and Thou punishest us. We repent, Muunas, we repent.” I could see him hesitate on that line as though wondering what Arko had to repent of. I hoped he would never know.
“In Thy Hand let the innocent rest safe. We are led by false shepherds and stray from the path of righteousness and are ringed round by the thorns of oppression. With Thy Hand under us, with Thy favour will we rise once more to the light. Will we be raised to the light.” Again the hesitation as if he were asking himself if it would be possible.
His anguish was clear on his face. He had no idea of what was happening in the city, of the fate of his family. I knew he had two sisters but his wife had died years ago and he had never re-married. No children. He had no one to write, no one to ask.
I looked over at Gannara. “I believe that is a good ideal to cling to, ‘Rather than punish the innocent.” Ailadas would have seen the confrontation, of course. If he had noticed, wondering over the fate of his own family. He looked back at me as though I had grown gills and demanded a swim in the sea.
“Ahem. No point in punishing the innocent, Spark of the Sun's Ray.”
"Ailadas if there were a way to find out about your family, I would do it. I have to deal with 2nd Amitzas and he will not compromise my safety to send someone… even to send a letter. I'm sorry.”
His mouth dropped open, absolutely surprised I should think of him at all. “Spark of... the Sun's Ray, this one… this on thanks the most high for the thought. Ahem. At least... this one is spared the certainty... that the exalted is not.” He shook his head. “Rest He in Selestialis.”
Despite my exhaustion, I got up and began pacing, his face following my progress one way, then the other as though he had to keep a dangerous animal in sight. As if I was Fa… um.. Kurkas. “The two men… Chevenga and my father, were enemies from a long time ago, Ailadas. It was either one or the other.” I could only turn away when I let the next words out. “My father is wherever the Gods judge him to be.” I wondered if he’d noticed yet that I was addressing him by his first name. Kurkas was deservedly in Hayel, as far as I was concerned.
I caught the flash of startlement and shock on his face. “I should be grieving for him. But I cannot.” I looked straight at him. “My apologies for shocking you.” His mouth had opened again and closed, somewhat like a fish gaping for water on dry land.
“Perhaps..... perhaps it is too much to hope, Spark of the Sun's Ray... that the Yeoli has then burned out his anger.”
I shrugged at that. “Does my lack of proper grief make me a sinful person?”
“To this one’s mind... it is for Muunas alone to judge.” I had pushed him too far. He could not, should not think these things, I thought.