Friday, May 29, 2009

54 - Waiting for the Storm's Full Fury

I hid in the library next day. Outside the library the whole Palace was full of the threat of Father’s rage and upset. Mahid dragged almost a full ten of slaves downstairs from his suite for flogging or other punishment. I heard from Antras later, that servants lost their positions for ‘clumsiness’, ‘laziness’, ‘being too slow’ and even ‘I don’t like your look.’

Ailadas found me there and I snarled at him. I gave him a verbal history report instead of a written one and refused to answer him outright in scientific study. “You want to complain to my father today, go ahead -- if you dare. Someone defied him yesterday and he’s furious still.” I know my smile was ugly. “Have fun.” He stood in front of the desk where I had the books I wanted to read spread out. He looked at me and I propped my chin on my hands.

I could see him consider, his spectacles reflecting the light from the clerestory windows, hiding his eyes completely. He was caught between my recalcitrance and Father’s mood and it wasn’t his fault. I sighed. It was so hard to not lash out because I felt bad. “Koren. I… can’t… today. I will have your assignments done tomorrow evening, my word on it.” I had, so far, kept my promises to him and for some reason was glad my word was still good, unlike Father’s.

“Ahem. Of course, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” He bowed, and left me alone. I looked around to the other desks, the two old scholars allowed in from the University, the librarian sitting at his raised desk under the shaft of light from the windows. Under my papers were some of the books I had taken during the last Jitzmitthra, the books I wasn’t supposed to be able to read or bear for another ten years. The one I was reading was actually an Enchian translation of a Haian medical book.

I found out why it was a restricted book almost immediately. There was a whole section, complete with drawings, of people’s sexual organs, even… I slammed the book shut the first time I realized. Even unpurified women. But no devil showed up to drag me off to Hayel so I opened the book again, nervous that someone would see what I was studying, even though only Ailadas would dare look. And he wouldn’t bother me the rest of the day I was sure.

I read the whole section. I was fascinated, both horrified and enthralled, by the drawings of a child growing in a womb. When I read the Haian’s description of the damage caused by purification in Arko, and found out why so many babies died, I had to go vomit. I didn’t think it might be a lie because it was a Haian text and it was innocently trying to advise an Arkan husband to immediately seek Haian assistance for his wife, especially for a first pregnancy. Particularly if he did not wish to lose his first-born and possibly his wife.

I rinsed my mouth out and gathered my books, crawled back to my suite and into bed, hiding my contraband back on their shelves… that one… “Self-care and Basic Medical Aid for the Home,” by Vinchoser of Berit… tucked in behind the other books.

My suite somehow became an island of calm in the Palace, pressed on, on all sides by Father's rage.

Binshala brought me Post Observance, or Luncheon, in bed, stepping soft and quiet as everyone was doing. I looked at her calm face and wondered if she had children of her own, and if she’d lost any. It was something I couldn’t ask. “Binshala, would you inquire if Ilesias’s nurse would bring him to me? I think… I should learn to cuddle him.”

“Of course, Spark of the Sun’s Ray,” she said, so quietly it was almost a whisper. I did my best to eat and ended up mostly drinking the hot milk meant to go into the kaf . I fed the fish to the cats, so ended up with seven of them on the bed with me by the time Binshala and Kaita, Ilesias’s nurse came in with the baby. “Oh dear. Did you want them here, Spark?”

“Yes, please.” Binshala took up the baby with authority from the younger nurse and pushed back the bedclothes. A thick towel went across my lap. “To soak up leaks should his silk pants not catch them, Spark,” she said, the glimmer of a smile on her face.

Ilesias was awake and looked less bruised and red, his blue eyes, a little darker than mine, fixed on me when he was settled with my arm under his head. He felt warm in a good way, not a pee way, and I smiled at him. I tried bouncing him a little and he gurgled at me. “Blphphph!”

“Blphphph yourself,” I answered him.

“If this lowly one may suggest. If the most excellent one would deign to make faces at the baby…” Binshala said quietly. I could make faces at him?

“Won’t that frighten him?” I asked softly. One of the white kittens sniffed at the fluff on the top of the baby’s head and began licking him. “Oh, look… He thinks he’s another kitten and is cleaning him!”

“No, Spark, not if the exalted one is gentle to start.”

Kaita twitched where she stood as if she would chase the cat away and Binshala shook her head minutely. Ilesias closed his eyes and as the kitten started to purr, he smiled. Then he looked up at me and I stuck out my tongue at him. “Look! He copied me!”

“He will Spark. The exalted one can show him all sorts of things, even before he can speak.”

He made me smile. I think he smiled back even though the Haian book said babies couldn’t truly smile this young. It looked like a smile to me. “Hey, Ilesias, you big fat little blob,” I whispered and kissed him. I’d have to quit calling him that or it would become his nickname. He cooed in my ear and grabbed hold of my hair in both fists.

“Ow! Hey! Quit pulling!” He squealed and Binshala and Kaita were there to free me without me losing chunks of my hair. I couldn’t help giggling.

The louder I giggled the louder he squealed and kicked and crowed. “You little stinker! You don’t have enough hair you need mine?” I tickled his tummy and he wiggled, his wrappings coming loose enough that he could wave his feet as well as his hands and he kicked and made a happy screech, with both feet kicking till he flopped on my lap like a fish.

“Spark of the Sun’s Ray?” One of my day servants… Lirenas I think… stood at the door, gloves tucked carefully into his sleeves. ““The Imperator wishes the Spark’s attendance. Right now.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

53 - "There is nothing I can't do!"

Father was fascinated with Shefenkas, if not exactly for the same reasons I was. As the war progressed, the Rejins washing into the centre of the country, gutting their resistance, Father had him into dinner quite often. I got very good at scrambling up into my listening spot.

In evening after evening, I received a political education, listening to Father and Shefenkas talk. They talked about power and control, the Gods and the people. Sometime after the fight that made Shefenkas Living Greatest there was one conversation I remembered very very clearly. Shefenkas went back to something he’d asked Father before. “You accept the title of Son of the Sun, you claim to make the laws and dispense the punishments in the Muunas’s name and the names of the other Gods. You accept the tithes and sustain the temples and priests. Your position flows entirely from divine right, and you told me you don’t believe any of it. How can you live such a lie?”

Father’s voice was calm as if He were instructing me in the ways of power, educating a child. “All these things are needful… They are necessary to control the ignorant masses! As for how I bear it – “ He laughed. “I’m Imperator! I can do anything. I can bear anything. There is nothing beyond my strength.”

I heard the pause as Shefenkas took this in. It was longer than an inbreath in a normal conversation. I swiped a hand over the hole and my ear, pressed ear to hole.

“Nothing? Nothing is beyond your strength? I don’t think so! In fact there is something that proves conclusively there is something you cannot do! Would you like to see my proof? Care to lay a wager on it?”

Father laughed harder. “You entertaining barbarian! Oh this is rich! A proof? I have to see this. What wager? You have nothing to match what I can stake.”

I could hear the fight-stare in Shefenkas’s voice but Father missed it. “I prove there is something you can’t do, you set me free immediately, no ransom, no harm, let me go safe beyond arrow range on unconquered Yeoli territory. If I fail to prove my point I send orders to my people to surrender. Yeoli becomes yours. Good terms, I think, especially since I know you’d renege on the bet no matter what oath you swore, while I would not.”

Father chose to ignore the last, intended as insult I was sure. I cringed at Him not caring His word was worthless. There was a clapping noise; I thought it was His hands. “Oh yes! Agreed! Go on! Prove to me what I can’t do!” He sounded excited as a child.

“By your own strength, with no other person or device helping you…” Shefenkas paused a moment, I heard a rustle and a thump that I realized later must have been him clearing a space and putting his elbow on the table. “—Right now. Beat me at arm wrestling.”

I caught my breath. NONONOnonono, God no, He'll gut younonono! The silence stretched and stretched and my stomach knotted tighter and tighter. I put my forehead down on the cool marble. I could feel it coming like a storm, like a lightning bolt about to strike for someone’s heart. Saliva ran together in my mouth and I swallowed and swallowed hard. Oh no. no no no Shefenkas no.

Father’s shriek hurt my ear and I flinched back away from the listening hole. I could hear it clearly even as far as I was. “YOU FIKKEN DIRT-BRAINED, BARBARIAN BACKSTABBER!” I couldn’t bear any more. I heard Him shrieking as I wormed away from the listening post, crying because I knew He’d hurt Shefenkas somehow. He’d not kill him but there were so many ways to inflict pain… I scrubbed my face with my sleeves, the lace scratching my tears away.

Father’s voice cracked high and tiny behind me, echoing out of the speaking tube I hadn’t plugged. “Guards! Meras!” I wiggled away, fleeing His ranting. But I paused. Had I heard that right? “Out! Throw him out!” I went limp, lying like a jewelled sweaty puddle in the secret passage. Thank you, Gods.

* * *

Once I made sure there was no one below I climbed down and took refuge in the nursery. It smelled safer than anywhere else in the Palace, with Father angry. Ilesias was nursing and I sat and watched him, his fists bunched and pushed into the breast, ear wiggling as his jaw worked. He paused, and made a stink, so I went back to my room so I didn’t have to bear that. Babies really didn’t have to care. For some reason I thought of Father standing, piss puddle around his feet, then shook it off. I had some weird ideas.

“Definas, I’d like to play chess, please.” He looked up from his book.

“Of course, Spark of the Divine Light,” he said as he shut it and jumped up to come with me to my games room. He seemed a lot happier since Ilian had been disgraced. The cold stone seemed to cringe from the kernal of fury inside it. I tried not to think of Father, somewhere else in the Palace, raging.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

52 - The Big Presentation

Coronet Regal Ilesias Tathanas Kurkas Joras Aan
[image by Shirley Meier]

The trumpeters were out in force next morning, parading the call through the city that there would be a presentation at noon. The orators on the corners repeated the same message and callers on skates as well. It was a cacophony that drowned out the Imperator’s chime and the clock-tower, as people realized it was a half-holiday and began preparing to close their businesses.

The whole ceremony would take place on the Presentation Balcony, so the Platform stayed tucked away under the pavement, the fountains dropped to waist height but not turned off. I was thinking of how reluctant I ought to be to hold Ilesias. Father would expect me to be reluctant so I should appear obedient… but indifferent.

After the Noon Observance the Mahid Choir -- a hundred strong -- an immaculate blot of black -- filed out onto the Steel Gate steps. If I leaned over and looked straight down I could look down on the bumpy sheet of gold their heads presented, the youngest – their pre-adult voices sweet as angels, upheld by the deeper rumbling tones of the men.

They sang “The Magnificent”, one of the Imperial hymns, and the Processional for Father to make his entrance. The crowd prostrated as best they could, packed as closely as they were, and he gestured them up, graciously before settling onto his throne.

He wore the Imperial Robe of course, and my blue silk tunic was so heavy with topazes I had trouble standing. The pearls on my train made it worse but I had my companions to carry the bulk of it for me. The Blob -- I should start to think of him as Ilesias I suppose – was engulfed in enough gold and pearls it was hard to see him in it.

The latest Imperial record, with its golden cover, was brought out and the past ten generations of Aans were read out, ending with my page. Father reached out and ceremonially turned the page to a blank one and Ilesisas Tathanas Kurkas Joras Aan was raised over it. He squawked as he was unwrapped, and his hands and feet were painted gold and pressed to the pristine white page.

His nurse scrubbed the residue off and swaddled him back up again as I fidgeted and clenched and unclenched my hands behind my back rather than ripping at my gems. I pretended not to see the nurse offer the re-wrapped baby to me until Father said. “Take your brother, Minis.”

I twitched as if I hadn’t been paying attention, which amused Father. Ilesias was crying when his nurse handed him to me, and I made my face masklike as I took him. I was happy enough to be stiff as I stepped up onto the riser so my brother and I could be seen.

Father rose carefully, ponderously and the cheering crowd quieted.

“The Gods are good, Arko! Your Imperial line is secured! I present my Coronet Regal in the arms of the Heir under Muunas’s Eye! See my sons, my Splinters of Light, my Chips of Sun on earth! The Gods are good! Do I hear an amen, Arko?”

“AAAAAAMMMEEEEENNNN!!!!” The crowd’s amen made Ilesias cry harder. I could feel his cries through his whole body, vibrating in my arms and against my chest. I felt something under my ribs then I wasn’t sure of. Whatever it was, it was fierce and soft at the same time. I’d figure it out later.

We had to stand in the sun while the choir sang another hymn. “Glory, Glory Glory”. I was sweating by the time the last chorus of “Glory, glory, glory, To The Ten Almighty/ Who were, and are, and will forever be!”, and Ilesias’s little face was bright red.


When my companions lifted my tunic off me, it took both Ordas and Definas working together to get it over my head. I sat down, so tired and sweaty I didn’t feel like standing, a little light-headed. Binshala called Misahis to check me and he gave me some drops and told me to plunge my head under in the cool pool when I went to wash.

I was a little nauseated but managed to eat the bread and cold soup he ordered. It had no additives in either and I was able to swallow them. I bathed, my companions actually giggling and splashing on the big pool’s steps as I floated in the cool pool. I was pleased to be able to float without anyone noticing, probably thinking I had a foot or hand on the bottom.

After I was dry and tucked into the bed I was able to dismiss everyone, except Binshala of course, who asked if I wanted another cool drink before I slept.

I lay on my side, my head propped on my hand. “No, thank you, Binshala. Would you do me the courtesy of instructing me?” She glanced up from where she stood, her slight height putting her eyes just barely higher than I was since my bed was so high.

“If it is a matter on which this humble one can possibly instruct your royal self, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”

“Oh yes, please sit down. I don't know how long this will take. It’s about Ilesias the Blob.”

“Your illustrious younger brother,” she said quietly, and sat down in the chair next my bed that put her eyes on level with mine.

“Sorry, yes. I was trying to make a joke but I guess it fell a little flat… do all babies look squashy?

She smiled a little. “Yes, they do.”

“Even me?”

“Yes, your magnificent self did. Many have the mark on the forehead too; most likely it will go away.”

“Okay...I was trying to figure out how to ask that politely. So... how do I... um... he's too little to cuddle really... how do I handle him properly? I'm afraid I'll hurt him or break him and I want to learn how not to.”

She got a soft look on her face and I felt happier because she liked me asking, I think. “Well, first of all, babies are much tougher than they look.” It was my turn to listen hard. “But they're scared of falling,” she went on. “So you must never let them think they're going to or they'll cry. And when they're so young they can't hold their heads up, you have to make sure you cradle the head.” She risked reaching out to stroke a stray hair out of my face. “He's not too little to cuddle, not at all...”

“So do you think he'd like that? Being cuddled I mean.” I found myself turning my cheek into her hand and her gloves were cool. I took a deep breath and felt better than I had all day.

“Of course he'd like that! Babies love being held more than anything. Sometimes when they cry, all they want is to be held.”

“Oh.” She moved over without saying anything, the chair right next the bed and curled her arm around me and I nestled into it, my hand holding on to her arm. It was almost like the middle of the night times. “Like this?” It was instruction and so, acceptable.

“Exactly like this. That's all they need, to be held and rocked, and they'll stop crying.”

“Rocked,” I repeated softly.

It was as though I could hear her smile. “This lowly one will show you how to do it at her next opportunity.”

“I want to learn how to love him, Binshala... thank you for teaching me,” I whispered. I could feel her take a deep breath and wondered what was behind it.

“How to love him?” she repeated. “That is very commendable on your part.”

“Binshala... when I look at him get scared...” I clung a little harder.

“Last this humble one heard, Spark of the Sun’s Ray, you were still Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” Of course. She had worked as a nurse to the Imperial family for years. She would understand instantly what my fear would be. “I wouldn't worry,” she finished.

I heaved a sigh. “I'll try not to...”

“And your gentlemanly self must not treat him angrily; it's not his fault you're afraid,” she said firmly. Just the same as Shefenkas. Don’t blame the baby. I nodded against her arm.

“Do babies like to be read to?” I was trying to think of ways to be close to him in a way I could do.

“They like more to be sung to. Read to when they're older, old enough to start to understand stories.”

“I don't sing very well... but I can try... unless he yells because he doesn't like it.” She hugged me a little more.

“They don't care how well your royal self sings. They just like to hear the notes.”

“Oh good.”

“They like gentle songs... lullabies, like this humble one used to sing to the exalted Spark.” I could smile because I knew I could do that.

“Like Ten Silver Horses.”

“The exalted one has it exactly.”

“I can sing that. But he'll pee on me again maybe. He can't help it, right?”

“No, they don't learn to control that until they're older.” I felt a subdued twitch as if she were suppressing laughter.

“It’s icky.” I found the urge in myself to make her laugh. Out loud if I could.

“He's not looking you in the eye and thinking, 'My big brother, I think I'll PEE on him!’” I giggled at her teasing. “Yes, it's icky, but it's how babies are.”

She let me go, finally. I supposed her arm was getting tired, but her glove brushed my cheek before she let go. “I guess it washes off,” I said doubtfully.

“Of course it does. It's just baby pee!”

“It won't make me sick then?”

“Oh no, not at all!” She had the oddest little smile on her face, it reminded me of Shefenkas’s when he was teasing me. “Else this lowly one would have been sick all the time she received Imperial pee upon herself,” she paused and then the smile got a little wider. “From You Whose Blessings Will Shower the World.”

I ducked my head and giggled again, louder, a little embarrassed. “Yeah,” I said at last and to change the subject “—So, If I want him around a lot, will I be making more work for his nurse? To bring him to me? I mean I was thinking... maybe when I play the harp or play time, even if he can't play with me yet.”

“No, you won't be making more work for his nurse. She has to be with him all the time anyway. He might well like the sound of the harp.”

“Then I'll ask. And you can show me how to hold him right and cuddle him.” I nodded decisively.

“This modest one will be pleased to do that.”

“Thank you Binshala.” I yawned wide enough to make my jaw crack. “I feel a lot better. You do such a good job... and it can't be easy.”

“Well,” she cast her eyes downward and got up, smoothing my bedclothes. “This very lowly one is excessively honoured.”

“May I ask you again if I have more baby questions?” She blew out the lamp, letting the moonlight take over the job of flooding the room with light, all silver…

“Of course, Spark of the Divine Light. This one will be here for you.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

51 - Threatened by the Blob

I held onto -- Ilesias -- even as a slave slid a chair behind me so I could sink into it, the three little pages arranging the train of his presentation gown artfully around my knees.

“Oh I like that pose,” Father said. “But I still like the look of you standing. Haiksilias will cope with it and can complain all he wants.” I still didn’t understand what He was talking about. Why had Father given this son the strongest, best name in the whole possible gamut of names open for the Aan line? My name was a joke. I was his minimum. His Diem Wards Back boy, not even named for the hero Sinim. Did he want me to automatically hate this baby?

But I was his older brother. He… he smacked his lips in his sleep, yawned but didn’t wake, though his nurse startled like a mother hound alert to every sigh from her one pup. I was supposed to be happy he was there, Father was. In his sleep a fist waved free of the wrapping and I stopped him from smacking himself in the face with it. Didn’t he know where his fist was? His fingers wrapped around my thumb and I drew in a breath. He was strong. I didn’t know babies could grab-on that strongly. My brother.

How was I going to… manage… this? How? I didn’t have a book on how to be a big brother. I didn’t have any kind of text. I couldn’t ask Father. He had no surviving brothers. I had never heard of any uncles. I looked up at Him and wondered what happened… had Grandfather had a younger son as well? I didn’t know.

I don’t even know what the look on my face was, but it certainly amused Father. He threw back his head and laughed whole-heartedly. Perhaps he thought I was overcome with some kind of joy. All I wanted to do was strip Ilesias of his gold and silk and topazes and slide him back into the Mahid nursery, just one more Mahid. Either that or drop him quietly down the nearest garderobe.

I felt a sudden warm wetness on my lap and snatched him up off it with an exclamation of disgust. “I’m wet!” He woke and wailed as the nurse took him from me, quickly, and I pulled my kilt away from my legs, or tried to. Father started laughing at how quickly I was moving, over the baby’s quickly muffled protest at the sudden action. “He peed on me!” Father laughed again, more than he had in days before.

“By-your-Illustrious-leave-Sire-may-I-go-change-my-clothing?” I babbled in all but a single burst and when he waved me away, still laughing, I fled away to wash and change my clothes again, my face locked into a rictus of disgust.

He’s going to take my place. I’m less safe than I was before. Because he’s chosen the same way I was chosen I have to be very very very careful from now on. He’s the one with the best name. He’s the one with a proper birthday. He’s not old enough to ask Father impertinent questions. He’s the perfect little flesh tag. I have to be very careful to be more like Father, show less independence. Why did he get the best name? “BINSHALA,” I shouted as I ran into my rooms, tearing at my kilt, the buckle catching, I couldn’t get it open, get it off my body. The buttons popping off my shirt as I tore it off and flung it to the floor in a terrified rage. “GET THIS VILENESS OFF ME! Get it OFF, GET it OFF!”

She came running, the slave actually sliding on her knees as she stopped in front of me, fingers prying at the stubborn belt. “Spark--"

“I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU, I DON’T WANT TO TALK, I NEED NEW CLOTHING NOW!” I panted and screamed, fists clenched, trembling all over my body, burning with shame having his piss on me. I felt hot all over, tears of rage squeezing out of the corners of my eyes. I was older but HE already got more than I had. I was Heir, but if I stepped out of line I was dead and HE’d take my place. The slave managed to open the jammed belt and I almost jumped out of it as she pulled it down over my legs, I moved so fast I half fell, ended up on hands and knees scrambling away from my contaminated clothing.

“Spark of the Sun’s--" Binshala reached as if to catch me and I scooted up onto my feet and ran to the bath, yelling.

“LEAVE ME ALONE, DON’T TOUCH ME I DON’T WANT ANYONE LOOKING AT ME, I’LL KILL THE FIRST PERSON WHO ASKS IF ANYTHING’S WRONG! NOTHING’S WRONG! EVERYTHING’S PERFECT! I was so angry and upset I managed to slam the outer bath door and dashed through the cascade, water pulsing down on my head, before I huddled in the hot tub in a crest of bubbles, pounding the edge of the tub silently with my fists.

The Lesser bath’s clock tipped a flying fish forward and the bead ran down its back before chiming down on the bronze turtle shell before disappearing down the turtle’s throat when the inner glass door of the bath clicked and Binshala came in with a tray and a suit of clothes draped over her one arm. “Did the Spark of the Sun’s Ray wish to dine in the baths? Or dress for the meal?” She didn’t look at me, her eyes resting on the tray in her hands.

One tantrum and I had lost something I had found I wanted. I had lost my gains with people around me. His fault. If he hadn’t peed on me, I wouldn’t have screamed at Binshala. I took a deep breath. Shefenka’s voice in my head, I imagined it. What would he say? … I couldn’t make the words come. I tried to think of it and was just getting mad all over again when I thought of Shefenkas’s kid. I was jealous of him even though I’d never met him. He had a dad who loved him and didn’t think he was a skin flap that would one day take his place. That was what gave me the words, the thoughts. Shefenkas would look at me with his alien, dark brown eyes, and say… The baby didn’t choose, your Father did. Your little brother isn’t your enemy by his choice. But you can choose. Choose what, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t think of anything else he might say.

Binshala was still standing there, quiet as a marble statue so as not to set me off. I took in another breath that hurt all the way down into my chest. “Binshala,” I whispered. “I’m… sorry.” She looked up at me, then back down at the tray. I heaved my sodden, wrinkled body out of the tub. I had better not hide in my rooms now that the baby’s existence was revealed. If I hid… I felt like I was losing my grip on the Rim when I hadn’t even known I was clinging onto the edge. If I hid, I’d slip a little.

“I’ll eat with the court, Binshala, thank you. Please put the tray down and help me.” Her nod was a fraction that I would have missed if I hadn’t been watching for it. “Father surprised me today. He presented me with a new little brother. His name is Ilesias.”

She—faltered. That was the only word for it. She caught her breath as she straightened, nothing showing on her face as she turned to me, holding out my clean kilt to step into. She was the only one willing to risk my temper when I threw a tantrum – there was no nonsense of a dozen people to place three pieces of clothing on me and all the separate jewellery.

“A little brother. This lowly one dares offer felicitations.” Her hands on me, clasping a topaz collar on my neck, strangely reminiscent of part of my Jitzmittra costume, were warmer somehow as if she would comfort me. Did she know something about Father and my brother? Had she heard gossip, below? I patted her shoulder and stopped her from going down on her knees to latch my sandals.

“You needn’t. I can do that. I have to go or I’ll be late for the meal. Binshala… I meant it when I said sorry for yelling at you. Are my companions dressed for Mid-After?”

“Yes, Spark of the Divine Light.” I put my chin up and put a calm look on my face, with as much of a smile as I could manage. I would look like an Heir. Not like a brat. An Imperial son. I was as much Ilesias the Great’s bloodline as my little brother, name or no name. I would try not to be scared. My stomach was empty. I was empty. I’d have good appetite to try and fill that odd hole in my gut.

* * *
“Dear Che, {scratched out Yeoli characters}

[In Enchian]I cannot come to visit you, even now more than before. I know this is… I don’t know how to ask. How do I deal with a baby brother?

Father has picked me a baby brother and named him Ilesias. I’m frightened. Do you think Father is thinking of replacing me? He gave the baby the best name, after Ilesias the Great. He was born on a respectable day, Risae 1, not a joke day. His name isn’t a joke.

Father presented him to me today and I had to hold him and he peed on me and Father laughed. I… had a tantrum and screamed at everyone in my rooms after. I have to say sorry to you to for losing my temper, when I promised I wouldn’t.

How do I… bear… a little brother? What is the right thing? I don’t know. Father… I don’t know if he ever had brothers. I’m going to check that. But Father killed Grandfather. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel with a little brother. Could you help me, please?

Your devoted fan,

I got Antras to take my letter down to the Mezem and stay for the reply if there was going to be one. It was late when he got back so I thanked him and dismissed him. I slid into the window seat with a lamp and put it on the shelf over my head, pulled the curtains. They were the heavy winter silks so no one would be able to see me, even with my light inside. The glass window looking over the woods and lake was a black rectangle with no sign of humanity.

I had written the letter to Shefenkas after the Mid-After meal, I just had time to send Antras down to the Mezem before I had to be in at Dinner. He was waiting with my answer when I’d finished.

I was stuffed full of food. I felt a little sick even because I had gone to Mid-After and eaten every course. Then a few beads later, still feeling full, had done the same with dinner. I managed a belch, which made me feel better, and looked at the seal. He’d gotten a fancy K and R, and I bet Skorsas had dictated the type of wax… red and black shot through with silver flecks. I had to smile thinking that Shefenkas probably didn’t give a toss what colour his sealing wax was.

[in Arkan:] Dear Minis:

[in Enchian:] I’d scribe the entire letter in your language if my ability were sufficient, but as the matter is of great importance I want there to be no chance of misunderstanding.

How to deal with a baby brother? What to feel, what is the right thing? My first inclination is to say, love him, but I know that, as usual, your situation doesn’t allow for such a simple answer. You fear your father will replace you with him not only in the position but in his regard, and you have every reason to believe your fear is well-founded, I think. It is the habit of Arkan Imperators to be concerned that their sons might prove threats to themselves, and this is the first thing your father will think of, as he was the worst threat to his own father.

So I cannot blame you for your anger, though as always I say it’s best not to take it out on people who are not themselves to blame. More important than apologizing to me is apologizing to them, if you haven’t already.

My suggestion in regard to your father is this: remember, if he sees you as a threat, then at heart he is afraid of you. Give him no cause to fear you and he is less likely to move against you.

With your little brother, remember he has chosen his situation no more than you have chosen yours. He did not choose his name or his birth date or his father. To treat him angrily for your father’s decisions would be to do him injustice, and don’t imagine a child does not feel it; you have felt it yourself, as you know.

Not only that, but the best way to prevent him acting against you in the future himself is to be loving to him. If his raising is to be like yours, with those who become too close being removed, then insofar as you take a hand in it in a loving way, you could become very dear to him, and win his unending loyalty. You and he are brothers not only in blood, but in adversity; think of it that way.

Warm regards from your gladiator,
[in formal Yeoli:] Ivaen Chevenga Shae-Arano-e semanakraseye d’Yeola-e

I sat for a time thinking about it. It made sense. I could… I could… get him on my side. He and I could… hmmm. I could learn how to love and teach him. I felt like a huge weight came off my chest. Father was expecting me to fight my little brother… it would make me less dangerous to Him if I paid attention to the threat the baby presented.

I smiled to myself. I would pay attention to him… but not the way Father expected. Binshala would tell me how to handle a baby, maybe without getting peed on. And I did like being cuddled. Like Shefenkas said… he’d feel it. If I could, he could… when he got old enough to not be a blob.

The letter exchange from Chevenga's point of view

Monday, May 25, 2009

50 - A Red Blob in Gold Lace and Topazes

My school-room was quiet, the remaining Companions diligently working at their desks. I wasn’t sure they were being so industrious and careful out of fear of losing their places or out of gratitude for Ilian and his friends losing theirs. I thought I might ask the youngest some casual questions soon.

I closed my musical composition book where I was copying “A Harpist’s Libretto” in preparation for learning it. The bead clock in my room chimed quietly and I knew Father wanted me in the garden for something, He’d said so this morning at breakfast, His face full of a secret glee.

It was probably to present His new water-driven automata, either the clock they’d been building in one of the Throneroom atria with the mechanical fire-birds singing on the half bead and the gilded sea eagle that would flap its wings on the bead, or the ‘drinks serving’ mechanical slave that was supposed to come out of its box when one pushed a button.

If I stopped copying here, I’d have time to bathe before changing my clothing. I had to change, since I had worn the silver spider-satin this morning and while it was allowable to have the same clothing for luncheon, I had to change before the third formal of the day. I was secretly practising my swimming skills when no one was looking. Once or twice an eight-day, I’d get up at night when I couldn’t sleep or was sweated awake by a nightmare, I’d swim because often it was the only time I could be alone.

I was pleased because I could make it all the way across the big pool and back without putting my feet down. My swimming wasn’t very elegant, more a four-legged paddle than the sleek strokes Shefenkas had done without thinking about it. Next I would try to paddle all the way around the edge without stopping or grabbing onto the wall.

Binshala had to re-brush my hair for me but the smooth damp strands felt good against my back. The day was uncommonly hot for a winter day.

I and my Companions went down to the atrium where I was informed my Father was taking his leisure. I was surprised to find Him still on the massage table. The masseur didn’t pause as I dismissed the boys, the smooth kneading motion of his spade-like hands never faltering, his tinted spectacles unreadable. The man had been blinded when he acquired the position. I was reminded of Shefenkas covering his injured eyes with the same kind of spectacles and shivered inside.

“Most Illustrious Father, I am here at your command.” He turned his face toward me but didn’t open his eyes. That meant I had to stay on my knee until he did. I was glad I had picked a soft spot of grass to kneel on by the time he opened his eyes and dismissed his masseur.

“Good, my boy. My adjunct. My minimum. Flesh of my flesh.” He sat up on the table and slaves jumped to wipe His flesh with warmed wet clothes to take off the excess oil, since He did not care to endure the water of a bath or cascade, after His massage. The water, of course, had the same scent as the massage oil, heliotrope. He still didn’t tell me to get up so He was making a point of some kind. I just didn’t know what it was.

“My adjunct. I have felicitous news! Marvellous news for you! Get up, get up my brilliant little reflection!” He slid off the table and the slaves swarmed to lay the under-robe over his shoulders and an Aitzas man I didn’t recognize leapt to tie the belt for him, obviously someone new. A gem-bright blue velvet robe went over that and another slave brought a brazier up to warm the air anew. He accepted a cup of chocolate while He sat down in His chair and His feet were raised so that a slave could work on each foot, paring away slightly roughened skin, cleaning and trimming the nails and so forth.

Behind him, the masseur packed up his case and slaves removed the massage table, whisking away the dirtied sheets and silk blankets. I swallowed dry phlegm. My stomach knotted. “I’m wild with anticipation, Glorious Sire.” I caught a whiff of his feet under the perfume. He laughed as if I made a joke. I set myself to show incredulous joy at what He said, no matter what He said.

“You are such a child my son. I love giving you gifts. You, my son, my Heir, are a big brother! I’ve just chosen your little brother.” My mouth dropped open, my eyes popped open wide. I felt like He’d just punched me in the chest and I couldn’t breathe. A… a… a… little brother? That meant… that meant so many things I couldn’t even think of all of them I was so shocked. It meant I wasn’t his only Heir anymore. It meant… I… had a rival.

He beckoned to a slave and from behind a boxwood planting a little procession came. Two new-minted, or at least just new-trained, third threshold, personal Mahid escorted a woman… a wet nurse, though not one of Father’s personal stable, carrying a baby wrapped in a cloth of gold presentation gown. It trailed down to the tile at her feet and looped up to where three little pages – his first Companions -- held the train of it behind her. At my Father’s gesture the woman presented the gold wrapped bundle to me.

I had my hands knotted into fists behind my back as she pushed him under my nose and I could smell a sweet, milk smell. I could hear Father draw in breath and knew I should take it – him – before I was told. I put out my hands and she set the itchy gold lace ball in my arms.

He was sleeping. His face… hard to see what he would look like but Father favoured gracile girls when he chose Mahid concubines. He was a red blob nestled into the silk swaddling, protected from the presentation gown’s itch, his eyelashes fine and long against puffy rufous cheeks. He was completely bald though I couldn’t see his entire head, buried in the swaddling as it was. He had a deep ‘V’ of birthmark over his forehead and I glanced at the strawberry on Father’s cheek.
Had he chosen him because of the birthmark? I shook my head and looked back down into the baby’s face.

He looked insubstantial, with wax-doll fingers curled up tight under his pudgy chin. New born. The grin on my face was a rictus. Didn’t anyone see that?
Breathe. Breathe. He’s proper born on a proper day, not mis-born on one of the days that don’t exist. My gut tightened up even more. “You won’t drop him, my minimal, you needn’t be so tense!” Father laughed. “I shall have your portrait painted… just so… You holding your brother. Yes. Once he is presented to the populace and his hand and foot prints have been entered into our family book, Haiksilias will paint that. Like he painted…” He cut himself off with a sigh. “A new painting. Yes, I will have him use that canvas. Very appropriate.”

What was he talking about?
I didn’t understand. “Father? What do you mean?” The baby was beginning to stir slightly, I could feel a tiny foot kick as I held him. Father shook his head refusing to answer, addressing instead a question I hadn't asked. “His name,” Father said. “Is Ilesias Tathanas Kurkas Joras Aan.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

[Guest author's note]

Hi Eclipse Court readers:

Karen pinch-hitting for Shirley here: despite a promise from the nice folks at Bell Sympatico on Friday night that her Internet outage would be no longer than 30 hours, and a second promise that they'd send a tech out to her place yesterday, said tech never showed up and her connection is still out. Expect the next post whenever they get it together to get her back online, or when she gets out to her local library and uses their net service to post (they're closed Mondays). If I recall rightly, it concerns the question of whether Geography or Mathematics is pugilistically superior, the fate of a white fluffball, and Minis both despising and indulging the evil within...