Tuesday, June 30, 2009

72 - Listening while a brass toy spins

My hands and feet were very cold when I paused at Iska’s desk. “I’d like a kaf, if you please.” I said quietly, to the boy sitting there. “Where’s Iskanzas?”

“Certainly, exalted one. Kaf. Right away. Um... the fessas manager... is with the Director, exalted.” It was like pulling teeth to get information... bad image... I took a deep breath in.

“This worm one... umm... does not know...”

“All right. I’ll ask him myself, while you’re fetching my kaf.” The poor boy nearly strangled, coughing, but he whispered me more information before I could turn away.

“This hideous worm thinks it has to do with Karas Raikas, Spark of the –“

“Very good. I’ll be back for my kaf.”

I flounced into the gladiator’s baths, redolent of katzerik smoke, glanced at the brand-new skylights and through to the garderobes as if I had been heading there in the first place. It felt so good to wash my hands with warm water I felt guilty. Why should I feel pleasure when Shefenkas was still in such pain?

The doors to his apartment were open, because somewhere he’d heard that a great leader is accessible to his minions and he saw himself as a great leader even if he couldn’t pour piss out of a pot with directions stamped on the bottom.

I stepped behind an ornamental vase taller than I was, glanced at the orgy depicted on it and turned my attention to the voices coming from inside. Iska was speaking.

"If the high one flogs Shefenkas... Karas Raikas... for rudeness, ser, that one will be ruined for any other fights.”

The Director was in a snit... “Perhaps he should be considering that?”

“The man is current living greatest, honourable and wise Director and won’t be controlled by fear of your greatness, Ser.”

“Hmph.” He said petulantly. “It says ‘Hire someone’. Stupid thing...” he absently addressed the decision maker. He’d obviously wanted it to stop on ‘Flog someone’. “Why should I care if he makes fifty now? I want to flog all the skin off his cursed stinking body.” I realized there were boys coming up to the Director’s suite and I pulled back further, half behind the enormous vase and stood still. That was when I realized they were pointlessly dusting things already gleaming, or swept a rug already spotless. They were here for the same reason I was. They, not expecting me, didn’t see me as far as I knew. I couldn’t move and kept my breathing shallow because I had on enough jewelry that if I moved too much something would clink or rattle.

“Most honourable Director, the Marble Palace wishes him here and fighting for two more fights, Ser.” Even hidden out in the hallway I could hear the stress in the fessas’s voice as he tried to explain his dilemma to his titular boss.

The squeaking and buzzing stopped and I imagined the Director’s fishy, suspicious stare. “The Marble Palace? It gets orders from the Marble Palace that I don’t? Perhaps It needs a flogging as well as the gladiator, Iskanzas Muras, fessas?” The sneer was obvious and I made a mental note to myself to never sound like that. Iska was unmoved, perhaps from long experience dealing with the man.

“The Mezem will be able to charge the world for every seat for those last two fights.”

“That’s true... lost revenue... Hmm.” The three boys... none of whom I recognized, stood very still, holding the cleaning tools in their hands, their faces mixtures of contempt and upset and rage at how the Director was treating Iska. They loved him.

“Just think of charging ten or a hundred times for every seat, just because of people thinking he’s a foreign king. And thousands for the good seats. His fiftieth would pull in chains like that anyway, but now his forty-ninth could as well."

Nicely done. Appeal to the man’s stupid greed.

“There is that.” He paused while his mind plodded through that calculation, then went back to his original thought like a dog to something it had just vomited to try and eat it again. “He still deserves a flogging for insolence, though. Imagine, telling those writers he’s a foreign king! Who does he think he is?” A foreign semanakraseye, you idiot.

“The man was out of his head, most honourable Director of the Mezem. It will only benefit the most high Director, and make that one’s fights more expensive.”

A sniff and the buzzing whir from the desk toy. “Stupid thing. That doesn’t make it any less insolent.”

“It is part of the act, Ser. Acting like a Durakis.” A slam as if the Director had fisted the desk. It was what decisive people did.

“Then he should have started it sooner! That way we could have made more money. Sooner!”

“He doesn’t really think he’s a king, Director of the Mezem.” Another slam.

“Then he should be flogged for uttering falsehoods!” Sniff. It just made me want to kick him. Perhaps I would follow him around all day sometime soon and just kick him whenever I felt like it.

“He’s not as savvy as the exalted Director,” Iska said, with not a trace of irony in his tone. “He certainly should have consulted with your magnificence before doing this, but it’s certainly more lucrative.” That’s right. Keep returning to the point you want the moron to remember. “Just think, most high, of that.”

“Hmph. I always think.”

Iska waxed rhapsodic on the Director’s intelligence. “The Director of the Mezem, held the Yeoli Durakis. The exalted is the only one with the incredible skill and vision to show his skill in combat to the world!”

The chair squealed as it was pushed away from the desk, and I could hear the Director pace officiously. “What? It believes this nonsense?”

If it had been me, I would have rolled my eyes half out of my sockets by this point. “It is what the Pages will say of the exalted Director, Ser. That it is the brilliance behind displaying the man, ser.” I’ll pay someone to write that. It will feed his bloated vanity. Maybe make Iska’s life a little easier. How does he manage not to punch the man, even if he is aitzas? “The elevated one held him captive, displayed him to the world. A huge war effort, if this one might be allowed to say so, Ser.”

“OH! Hmph. What a relief... For a moment there I was beginning to doubt its intelligence, Iskanzas. It was sounding as though it believed this shen.”

“This one is no where near the Director’s intelligence, Ser.” Totally respectful. Totally true but in the exact opposite of how the Director would take it.

“But a modicum of thought is necessary for its role, so I value it.”

“This one, which lives to serve, is excessively flattered.” A completely dry tone. If I had any servant address me so I would have recognized the insult behind the words. I moved then to put my hands over my mouth to stop myself from laughing

“Perhaps I’ll be magnanimously merciful then, and give him a mere talking-to. Karas Raikas I mean.” My mouth dropped open. Oh I would love to see that scene... but then would have to intervene when the Director frothed off in another rage. Iska, do something... He and I were probably thinking along the same lines.

"That one is so far beneath the magnificence who hears me now that this one would dare suggest this one might take that trouble from his magnificence’s shoulders? It is indeed a distasteful and tiresome chore that this one would cheerfully take away, to endure the money-making acts of rudeness, Ser.”

“Distasteful and tiresome, you are exactly right there. Hmph. Well. Yes. I suppose. Go do it then, dear Iskanzas.”

“The Director is too kindly to this loathsome worm.” Iska was backing out of the office and I was pressed tight to the wall behind the vase. I saw him shooing the eavesdropping boys in front of him with a stern look and waited until everyone was long gone before I came out of my hiding place and lit a katzerik.

“Who’s there!? Go away! I don’t want any of you around!” The Director shouted from inside his rooms. I considered letting him see who he was shouting at then changed my mind. I would come down in a day or so, when he went out to the theatre perhaps, and follow him around kicking him as I felt like it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

71 - Mourning

The question gnawed at me all through the rest of my lesson and all through the Noon meal. I gorged, forcing down each extra bite. Father was pleased that I was showing more and more appetite like him.

After the meal was the first time I could slough off a lesson. Ailadas would search the Marble Palace in vain for me when I did not show up. He’d probably eventually ask the guard if I’d gone out. No matter, I’d make up for it later.

At the Mezem, I could hear a man keening, all the way to Iska’s desk and didn’t bother to ask. I went straight past Iska’s desk and he leapt up to follow me, the eyes of my Mahid following both of us down the corridor like a weight.

“Spark of the Sun’s Ray, if this most lowly worm might interest the most exalted one in something else, I–”  I cut him off, holding up my hand, not looking at him.

“Which man killed himself?” By this time we’d turned down toward the cells and the morgue, out of sight of my Mahid. He really didn’t wish to tell me. I could see that in the way he went completely still. I just waited, quietly. It felt as if my silence would be more powerful than words. At last he sighed.

“This lowly one... this worm... regrets to tell the highest one...” I wanted to shake him and scream ‘get on with it!’ but stood still and quiet. “Shefenkas...” no. No. You’re wrong. He wouldn’t. “... his best friend, Mannas the Wolf cut his own throat last night.” I exhaled. It wasn’t Shefenkas. “The Durakis... talked to the writers here this morning.”

“The Durakis,” I said.

“This lowly one cringes in anticipation, Spark of the Sun’s Ray, the man... revealed himself to the writers.”

“And if they’re smart they won’t write or breathe a word of it.” I had only had contact with Mannas, close contact, once or twice, and I found myself seized with a surprising grief. “Go away, Iskanzas.” I knew the way to the morgue. I turned my back on him and walked down the corridor, the voice... rasping but now I could recognize it... was Shefenkas.

On either side of the morgue door were two Mahid. I recognized both of them, Tenth Meras and Seventh Amitzas, senior men. I turned to Seventh Amitzas and asked, “What is the Imperator’s will regarding your orders?”

He looked at me as any Mahid did, with a reptile’s eyes. “These are to guard the gladiator, Karas Raikas.” I nodded and stepped between them.

I opened the door and shut it behind myself, stepping over the channel that circulated cold water around the edges of the room to help the chill. It made the floor look like an island of marble floating on ice water.

The room didn’t stink. It was too cold to stink and the corbelled brick ceilings were washed down with ammonia periodically. The marble floor and slabs bore ancient stains and only one of them had a body on it. A plain sheet covered most of his body, leaving his head, shoulders and arms uncovered. His red curls had been neatly dressed and he lay, emptied out of everything that made him human. The gash in his throat gaped slightly, dry and crusted dark red against the palor of his skin. It reminded me gruesomely of the vision I’d had of my older brother. It went from under his ear angled across the great veins in the neck all the way to his collar bone. It looked like one stroke, firm and deep.

He’d joked with me about the horrid situation they were in. He’d made me wish I had a friend like him. And now that Mannas was gone, I searched the still, quiet face, looking for that person he’d shown to me.

I’d not known him long enough. I became convinced of that as I studied the planes and angles of empty flesh, no longer animate, no longer driven by a force that I realized was a kind of joy. My eyes, without my wanting it, filled with tears and I had to blink hard to keep them from falling. I missed him and I barely knew him.

Shefenkas sat on one side of the slab, his head on Mannas’s chest, keening. I couldn’t understand any of the words, but I knew they were in their own tongue, as private as he could get, except for the few others also captive here.

I was suddenly uncomfortable, didn’t want to be there, ashamed that I’d seen his mourning, but I’d learned. People didn’t usually like to be left alone in emotion... even my own people, who were supposedly so unemotional. His boy was with him, holding onto him.

I walked around to the other side and without saying anything put my hand on his shoulder, his already hoarsening cry vibrating through it. Skorsas looked up then and froze, even as I shook my head at him. Shefenkas’s noise stopped and he looked up.

“Minis.” He said. His eyes, that I had seen in the ring, full of sickness, were washed clean of the madness, at least for a short time. I wondered how that could be with the germ in his head growing bigger and shoved that ugly thought away. They were red-rimmed all around, he’d wept himself dry of actual tears some time ago but their marks were on his face. What clarity he had I told myself I'd take as a mercy.

I didn’t understand all that was there in his eyes. I couldn’t even understand everything in my own heart. I’m sorry was too small, even the words uttered would cheapen the amount of grief and horror he felt. I shook my head, wordlessly, one hand on Mannas’s corpse. The other I raised to cup around the red, still healing scar on his face, my fingertips and the edge of my hand and the base of my palm the only part touching his skin.

He closed his eyes. Skorsas just stood, watching for a moment. I think to see if I would hurt Shefenkas. The boy was in such a state he’d probably have done something to try and stop me if I’d been that kind of asshole and I loved him for his loyalty. Not that I would ever show it to him.

He said. “Chevenga,” the best, most Yeoli sounding version of Shefenkas’s name I’d ever heard on an Arkan tongue. “Please, you need to drink something.”

“You do.” I said nodding as his eyes popped open again. “Let him look after you, all right?” He sighed and one hand flipped over to sign chalk, then took the water cup Skorsas offered him. He drained it, handed it back and put his head back down on his friend’s chest.

It felt as though I needed to say something but the grief here was so big, so overwhelming, that speaking, asking that someone comfort me, would be like farting in the Temple. It wasn’t right.

There was nothing for me to do here, except offer my company if that was any kind of consolation at all. It wasn’t my place to be reassured, or cosseted. I needed just to be there no matter how uncomfortable I was. I desperately wished I knew Misahis’s skills to help someone in pain, and thinking of him made my tears spill over. That was when Shefenkas reached up and hand and pulled me close to him too, even though he didn’t say anything.

Mannas’s body, under me was cooling fast in the icy morgue and it felt as though Shefenkas clung to that fading warmth. My tears set him off again and I hugged him and didn’t say anything. Don’t distract him from his grief. That’s not fair.

I stayed almost a bead before I realized I could not stay any longer. One thing I had read in my purloined books was a funeral custom. I let go of him and he of me. With my dagger I cut a lock of hair at the nape of my neck, underneath where it could be hidden, coiled it up tight and tucked it under one of Mannas’s hands. Skorsas muffled his gasp when I cut the lock. I hadn't realized. I had wanted Mannas to be a friend, as well as Shefenka, and because Father wanted their country, wanted their bodies and souls and land and goods, because they’d been made slaves despite everything they could do, I never would have him as one.

I nodded at Skorsas and left quietly. Outside, I almost ran into Mannas’s boy, dithering outside, wanting to be there to grieve too. But he’d not come in, afraid because I was there. His eyes widened all the way around the blue from something he saw on my face. I’m not sure what. “Go on, fessas,” I said. “Pardon me for having interrupted your grieving.” He didn’t answer but bowed and fled into the morgue behind me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

70 - I try Arkan Herb for the first time

I left the Winter Palace that day, the last day of the year, to go back to the city in time for Jizmitthra. This year my costume was bones. Not a skeleton, but bones hung around me, clattering and banging, a big weird skull over my head with a cow’s horn on one side and an antler on the other. It was the child’s nightmare version of the Summoner to Death, long steel claws on leather-strapped gloves to snip someone’s lifeline.

I avoided the Mezem this year, though I did go to the Fig.
My costume was too awkward and dangerous to go into the smaller spaces, so I sat on the terrace outside. I drank too much and decided I would try Arkan herb for the first time.

The smoke was sweet and somehow thicker than katzerik smoke and I sat in the light shade, holding it in my lungs and gradually watching the smoke streaming out of my mouth, when I finally exhaled, turn to sparks and flame like a dragon.
That was when I started giggling. Sparks. Just like me.

It was nice but I kept seeing people out of the corner of my eyes… who could not be there.
On my way back to the Marble Palace I kept seeing my older brother Kurkas, in the Presentation robes, next to the express chair, flying along beside me as if he were on faib skates. He was smiling and he and I were good friends and I kindly ignored the blood pouring down from his neck when he talked to me.

“Hey, little brother, you can see me because you’re being the Summoner, right?
One way we can be together. The baby… he’s oblivious. You’re in my place now… maybe one day you will be again and you’ll be able to talk to Ilesias like this.”

I vaguely realized that I was dropping my costume in bits and pieces... laying bones in the outstretched hands of statues, putting bones in behind the fangs of stone dogs and gargoyles.
I hung the steel clawed gloves over the outstretched toe of Filias Aan’s statue at the beginning of the Irisas gallery and the bone mask over the face of the golden marble ‘Baby Sun’. The steps up to my bed were a mountain that I scaled on all fours and found my brother Kurkas again, floating gently three handspans above the bed.

“Move over, brother I want to lie down.”
He didn’t answer me, but moved... I think... or I lay down through him, I couldn’t tell, his features floating up through mine.

“Kurkas… what happened to you?”

“Oh, I was behind a coup attempt against Kurkas,” he said.
“Not a highly publicized coup attempt obviously… I thought I was smarter than I was.”

“Um… why did you try and kill him?
If it’s not rude to ask.”

“No, it’s not rude.
Father started raping me around my thirteenth birthday… because I was too different from him, he said. He was re-aquainting me with our true nature, saying he was a good father. When I was caught, he had 2nd Amitzas torture me in the booth and after, Meras cut my throat.” His hand, pale as paper, trailing its own substance, waved up at his gaping neck wound.

“My condolences.
He… do you think he’ll start doing that to me?” He floated over and sat on the end of the bed.
“I don’t think so. He has other obsessions now.”

“Thanks, big brother…”

“No problem little brother.
I’m glad I’m dead. I don’t have to hate you now that I’m dead.”

“That’s good to know.
I never knew you so I can just love you, I guess. Is Selestialis as nice as they say?”

He started laughing then, the cut throat gaping in a red smile echoing the white one above it.
“Oh, little brother. I’m not in Selestialis. I’m in Hayel.” His laughter was like screaming.

I sat straight up in bed and yelled, “THAT’S NOT FAIR!
MUUNAS!” I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say but Kurkas was gone. I could still feel the singing wildness and the need to laugh even though nothing was funny anymore, of the fading herb high.

Binshala came in at that point with a cup of kaf ready for me, even though it was Jitz and she shouldn’t serve me.
“Thank you, Binshala.” I drank it, shaking. It was still only the middle of the afternoon, but I put my head down and slept the rest of it off, thankfully without dreams.


My new ‘favourite’ was fighting the same day that Shefenkas had his forty-second fight.
I don’t even remember what’shisname’s fight number, though I was careful to cheer wildly and jump up and down and fling myself at the glass for Svet-something, a Brahvnikian I think.

Father laughed at my fickleness when I acted bored at Shefenkas’s fight, Kyriala sitting silently behind us.
Inside I was appalled. Something had happened since the last time I’d seen Shefenkas. There was an unspeakably vile scar on his cheek.

“So, Father, did Shefenkas have a close call at some fight I missed?
Someone carved up his face.”

I was surprised at Father’s frown.
“The Mahid who did that overstepped my will. I didn’t want him disfigured like that. It was part of his punishment.”

“Punishment, illustrious sire?
What did the barbarian do?” I took another slice of deep-fried two-shell, held it to the slave to have it slathered with iced green sauce before putting it in my mouth.

“The vile conglomeration of lies published under the title “Life is Everything”.
I had to speak quite harshly to Norii Maziel about his choice of material and sent a Mahid down to adjust Intharas’s attitude. It was obvious the Pages editor needed some attention since he published such nonsense.”

You did that to him. You ordered it done. Then acted as if the Mahid overstepped his orders. You. My brother’s ghostly face and screaming laughter echoed in my head.
Don’t show that you aren’t like Him. “Yes, Father. Lies and vileness, as you say.” I raised my new magnifiers... the Lens Guild had gifted me with a new pair for my birthday, in the hopes I would be seen using them. They were blackwood tubes with gilt rings holding the ground lenses, on a single elegant blackwood and gold handle.

Shefenkas’s face sprang close as if he were in touching distance, the lurid, jagged red slash cut across smooth skin like an acid burn, Father’s hatred painted across his face.
He turned after receiving his victory chain and his eyes were wrong... they were wrong. The expression in them blank and old and wandering all at once, overlaid with a barely contained viciousness. Those weren’t his eyes. They were the eyes of a man being driven mad by rat bites. They were germ-of -the-head eyes, starting to see things that weren’t there.

I tossed the magnifiers into their cushioned carry case and rummaged through a box of sweetmeats, biting into each one before dropping it and going on to another until I found one that I cared to eat all of.
I could feel Father’s eyes on me and raised mine to catch his gaze, smiling. I made myself a mirror that he was pleased to look into. He grunted his approval and heaved himself up to his feet on the arms of two slaves. Time to go.


I could start haunting the Mezem again now that Father had become convinced that I was no longer interested in Shefenkas.
The look in my friend’s eyes had frightened me, as if I could see him losing the fight against the germ. I resolved to ask Misahis if he knew of any remedies that could help.

But when I required Binshala to summon him, she pressed her lips and gloves together.
“This one may not, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”

“What do you mean this one may not?
I want him. I have a belly ache," I lied. "Fetch him!”

“This one most abjectly regrets that the Haian is no longer available, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.
He... he has gone home by your Father’s command.” She stared at the floor as she said this and my heart and stomach clenched. She was lying to me. I could tell.

“Binshala, I don’t care if you tell me you can’t say things... but don’t lie to me.
Don’t EVER lie to me. Get out. Get out of my sight until I call you. Get out!”

She gathered up her tight skirts and fled.
The moment she was gone I turned on my Companions and snarled at them all to go away, I wanted to skate by myself. I let Definas put my skates on before he left. He looked as though he wanted to say something but didn’t quite dare. What was Father going to do for a personal physician if he'd gotten rid of his Haian? He couldn't just write and ask for another one, like a replacement automaton.

I pushed past Definas, knocking him over as I lunged to get out of my own rooms.
I skated the lower Imperial levels for a while, not daring to go straight to my objective. I passed through the atrium garden where little Ilesias and his nurse and servants were, but didn’t stop to cuddle him or make faces at him. I’d probably just make him cry with the faces I wanted to make.

At last I dared head back to Misahis’s rooms.
They weren’t locked, but I knocked softly anyway. No answer. I pushed the door open slowly. The instant I slipped in and closed the door behind me, I knew he hadn’t packed his things and gone home. Not voluntarily. The rooms had been sacked, but slowly.

Half of his things were still exactly as they had been left, the other half packaged up as if to be shipped away.
But they weren’t carefully packed. Too many things were flung onto the floor because they had no value to someone. His orchids were all there... dying of dryness, the broad flat leaves wrinkled like an old man’s skin.

He was gone and I had an idea I knew where.
If he weren’t dead, he was in the deepest cells of the Mahid section. Why? Why? This was stupid. If Haiu Menshir realized, they’d pull every healer out of the city... perhaps even the country. Why would Father do such a thing? The known world would rise up to defend Haians. Haians who never did anything but good, never did anything but heal everyone who came.

Harming a Haian was like spitting in Muunas’s Face and the idea made me sick, made me cringe.
I wanted Misahis. I needed him. I stood in the middle of the mess and cried, silently. Is it because I loved him, too? Is it me again? He listened to me, when I thought I was going crazy. Is it because of me that he’s dead or suffering?

I stomped one skated foot, froze when I heard the smash of the spine of a paper lantern under the wheels, took a deep breath before skirting the worst of the mess.
The three little orchids he had, had dropped all their flowers, the rotten petals brown smears all around the pots, but they were on one tray. I picked it up, orchids, smears, pebbles and all, and skated carefully back to my room with them.

The tray went into my windowseat behind the curtain so it wasn’t so obvious and I gave them a drink.
Maybe... maybe he’d be able to get them again some day, if he ever got let free from where he was. Maybe, if I kept them from dying, he wouldn’t die. It was a child’s wish, a child’s hope of magic, or maybe it was a prayer. I didn’t know. But it was the only thing I could do.


I was struggling through Etudes and Dances on the Great Harp, with my music master marking my time with a frozen smile on his face, when Antras looked in, a tray in his hands.
It wasn’t time for the Noon Observance Meal and well past Mid-Morning. My companions, all as far as they could be from my practice, as they could excuse themselves, look relieved at the interruption.

I looked at him and he brushed the tips of his gloves over his mouth.
I figured it out. He had something to tell me that he thought I should know. “Ah, Antras, excellent. Master, perhaps a moment’s break for a drink?”

Yes. This one thanks the divine Spark.” I knew I wasn’t much good at music but he didn’t have to flee quite so fast. I could almost see him wondering if he had time for a fast herb-pipe out a window before he had to come back to hear me torturing the music.

Antras put the tray down carefully and poured me a glass of wine, presenting it properly to me, going down on one knee, letting him say, quietly enough that my companions couldn’t hear,
“There has been a death... a suicide down at the Mezem. There are writers called down there now.”

“Thank you, Antras.
Nicely done.” I took the glass of wine that I was ostensibly thanking him for and he bowed himself out. I’d gift him for the information, later. Who had died? It couldn’t be Shefenkas. Forzak it. I would go down and see for myself the first moment I could.

Who had killed himself? And why?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

69 - Like two strange dogs.

While the truth drug wore off, I called Mil Loren. “You will have to hire another clerk to keep track of my kennel expenses. I’ve just hired Inthilin Amras as my new estate’s administrator.” “He came up on his own initiative, and I liked that.” I hadn’t picked one of the career clerks my secretary had presented. I guess I’d have to teach him what my taste in servants was. He’d never had to figure out what kind of household servant I wanted.

“Call the Yeoli slave… the woman in the closest hut… in, when you go, please.” He nodded and left and Inthilin began groaning and muttering the way some people do when coming out of truth drug. Some people giggle. Some people weep. On rare occasions people convulse or drool. I was glad to see that Inthilin was not a drooler. The chaise he was on was in the back of my office, in the glass alcove where I’d ordered the curtains drawn to make it dim and quiet. I leafed through the Pages as I waited for Ancherao to arrive and for Inthilin to throw off the drug.

She came in before he recovered, sat down across from me in a way that would have had other Arkans fainting from shock that she would be so cavalier. “Heya, Minis.”

"How are you doing today?” She flexed the one shoulder, carefully, turning the arm, opening and closing the fingers as she did.

“Not too bad. The stitches came out last night.”

“I’ve found a bureaucrat for the position.” I nodded toward the back of my office where Inthilin muttered as if to introduce himself. He shifted in the dimness.

“He’s back there now?” She looked startled, a little shocked. “You mean truth-drugged?”

“Yes. I thought you’d want to meet him.” I was confused. She seemed upset but I couldn’t figure out why.

“And you’re… and I… are just talking about him where he can hear and not respond?”

She looked like Shefenkas, sort of. “Was that… rude?” I asked quietly. I felt very ashamed but wasn’t sure why.

She nodded. “Yes, but that’s not what I’m afraid of. You told him our secret?”

“Not yet, but I intend to. Rather than find a stupid clerk I found one that I thought I could trust.” She signed chalk and looked over at the chaise, considering. I couldn’t read her face but figured she was thinking that if Inthilin made a move to betray us she could kill him.

“I believe I can trust him… and I’ll have to apologize for my rudeness and make it up to him after.”

“Better you not make the gaffe in the first place, lad,” she said. Right around then Inthilin sat up, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Amras… when you are ready, please join us. There’s kaf and Yeoli tea available,” I said to him in Arkan. He spoke Enchian so he probably understood what she and I had said before.

The Yeoli woman looked at the Arkan man and I was glade to see that Inthilin didn’t automatically dismiss her as a mere female. “Ancherao Shae-Lemana, this is Inthilin Amras, Aitzas. I poured the three of us the Yeoli tea to point out I was treating the three of us as equals. “Inthilin… My Father gave me the estate in Yeoli and a thousand Yeoli slaves. I’ve manumitted the lot of them but I don’t want Father to be offended.”

He blinked at me, his head tipping down from its arrogant aitzas tilt. “Spark… of the Sun’s Ray… the exalted one freed them all?”

“Yes. And I want to get them all home to the land that was gifted me. They will be selling their wines to me. I need you to be my factor as if you were the estate supervisor. But you need to hide the fact that these people are free and the land is theirs, not mine.” He looked as though I had played a prank on him and pissed into his kaf. “Have some water, Inthilin, while you think about that.”

I turned to Ancherao while he reached for a cup of water. I noticed that he actually seemed to appreciate the taste of the tea. A good sign. “I have to go back to the city but I’ll trust you -- the two of you-- to get your… um Ancherao’s… people home safe. Inthilin has the knowledge of how to make it all official. Oh, Inthilin,” I added in Arkan, “Your pay… I didn’t mention what it would be.” I named a sum I thought was reasonable but it made his jaw drop a moment, though he managed to keep his mouth closed. “Ancherao… I was thinking… your people might need tools and supplies that were ruined depending on how the war went. Just ask Inthilin and he’ll pass on the requests…I’ll see you get them. That way it will still look as though I am concerned for my new properties.” I looked between the two of them. I hoped they could work together.

The two of them looked like a couple of strange dogs not yet allowed to sniff each other’s behinds. I figured they had enough motivation to work together without savaging each other.

“I look forward to reports from both of you, please.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

68 - Is there something you wouldn't like me to know?

By the third day of interviewing I was very, very tired of my own clerks and accountants and petty bureaucrats. What did I expect? I knew them. I knew the common practices. They struck me as self-serving and pinch-faced and grasping. Not one would I trust with the secret of my freed Yeolis. And then on the third day I found a young clerk, Inthilin Amras, being both sneaky and honourable at the same time. It was intriguing to say the least and I wondered how he drew the lines where to not do the right thing. He was applying on the sly... but at the same time had been part of what a few years ago had been the ‘Dog-Food Scandal’ and he might have just resigned himself to being a minor bureaucrat for the rest of his life. On the other hand he still had the guts... the nerve, to apply.

When my Mahid left to fetch the medical kit and truth drug, I turned to the young clerk and said, “I am going to ask you to take an oath to me, to keep something secret from my father. It is not precisely illegal, but it could upset him should he find out. HE would not like me to do it. Are you still interested in this position?” He was round faced for an Arkan and flushed easily. He thought about it for a moment and then nodded decisively.

“This one is still interested.” He said firmly. So firmly that I realized something. He thought I was establishing my own power base. Beginning to plot... not against Father exactly, but perhaps that kind of coup might be in the wind.

I opened my mouth to tell him that was not the case... then closed it again. I could not know that I wouldn’t need someone, one day, who would swear to me first. It was an odd sensation. 4th Joras came back with the truth-drug needle already loaded, squeezed the air out of it and slid it into Inthilin’s offered arm as smooth and quick as if he were a Haian. I went back to my paperwork, for Koren, while Amras lay down on the chaise and Joras waited. I listened with one ear as the testing questions were gone through. If he passes my test, I thought. I’ll have to ask Ancherao if she likes him well enough to work with him. Then I stopped a moment to think how strange. Even a few moons ago I would never have even considered what a slave wanted, much less consider asking one their preference.
In the background I could hear the Mahid asking quietly – “Lie to me. How old are you?”

“Ni..nin..” Inthilin stammered as he fought the truthdrug as requested, then smoothed out when he failed to lie and said. “-- twenty-eight.” That was on his job record and easily verified.

“Try to lie, what colour is your hair?”


Joras came and said “The clerk is under the influence, Spark.”

“You may go, Joras.”

When he was gone I went over to sit in the chair he’d used. Under the influence of the drug Inthilin looked even younger, the worried wrinkle between his eyes gone, except for a faint mark that showed permanent already at his age. “Inthilin, can you hear me?”

"Yes.” Completely flat and calm, as anyone else under the drug. He had a little smile on his face as if he were relieved of some internal struggle and I realized that coming out of the drug might be harder for some people than going into it.

“Concerning your job interview, did you tell the truth to the best of your ability?”


Now came the hardest question and the question not normally asked. I took a deep breath. Once I asked this question it could not be unasked. It was his life on the line. If he was too rigidly honest I’d have to kill him to save myself. I’d never been in this position before. What could I do? Should I risk it? What should I ask? “Inthilin, what do you think about the war in Yeoli?”

“This one...” a long pause. I started wondering if I’d asked too complicated a question. “... not thought about it.”

That was only the beginning obviously. Under truth drug people didn’t say a lot, usually. How did I get the answer I needed? “Do you think the war is a good idea?”

There was a slight wrinkle on his forehead but no hesitation in his answer. “No.”

“Why is that?”


This was harder than I thought. “What kind of problems?”

“Long supply lines.” Of course. He was employed as a supply clerk, though his schooling records showed much more extensive training. Hmm. That wasn’t very helpful.

“If I wanted you to work with Yeolis, would you be able to do so?”

“Yes.” It could be interepreted a number of ways but I’d asked him specifically if he would be able to do as I asked.

“Inthilin. Does the idea of living in newly occupied territory bother you?”


“You realize you would be surrounded by foreigners.” He did not answer me and I realized I hadn’t asked a question. I couldn’t think of how to ask the important question without asking it so I did. “If I did something that could be seen as illegal, would you report me to my father?”


Of course. He seemed to be a person of conscience. I couldn’t figure out how to ask the right question. But I could think of one more question I should ask him.

“Is there something that you would not want me to know?”


“What is that?”

“My older brother…”

“What has he been doing?”

“Skimming funds.”

“From where?”

“From the army.”

“For what?”

“Leather harness.” Ah. Well there was something to keep in mind should Inthilin change his mind about his loyalty to me.

“Just relax, Inthilin. I will let you recover now. You have the position.”

And of course there was no response because I hadn't asked a question.

Friday, June 19, 2009

67 - Give this man a dose of truth drug

I clutched my job record in its folder. My gloves were clammy damp from nervous sweat. I shouldn’t be this nervous. My immediate superior didn’t actually know I was here, out of the city, waiting to be interviewed for the new position for the Spark of the Sun’s Ray. I was using one of my holidays and rather than pay for a place in a post carriage, since I was throwing every penny into my savings so I could marry my beautiful Piriala, I’d walked out to the Winter Palace.

“Inthilin Amras, Aitzas?” I stood up, brushed off my robes one more time and went into the office. I’d never seen the Heir before, buried in my cubby in the back of the Marble Palace. Lishas said that was a good thing because the Heir was as likely to use my reports as garderobe papers rather than appreciating my carefully balanced columns. Lish had enough seniority and his family enough money to ease his way and he’d actually been up here to apply for this job two days ago, a day before it was officially announced even. Not for him to use his up his holidays and sneak out to apply clandestinely.

I was only the keeper of the Heir’s kennel records, the highest position the family could afford for me after buying positions for six older brothers. The old kennel records keeper, who’d held the position before, had died in it and had no sons with clerical ambition or training.

I did the full Heir’s obeisance and sat down on the chair provided, raising my eyes to take my first look at the Heir. He was elegantly chunky, with a dark blue tunic spangled with silver wire stars, each one with a diamond chip in the centre. He looked at me as if he were very, very tired of interviewing candidates, eyes hooded, lips compressed. On impulse – father said my impulsive nature would be the death of me one day – I said. “Is it possible this lowly one may assist the Chip of the Divine Light?”

Of course it was forward and presumptuous but he looked tired and my job would be to make his life easier. That was the idea. He blinked and really looked at me, while I tried not to shrink in my seat. “It could be. Show me your record.” He held out his hand and twitched the fingers at me to give him my paper.

I put it on the desk and slid it across for him to take up. Of course he didn’t have to worry about security, since his Mahid had searched me to the skin when I arrived and handled everything I had. No expensive or elusive paper poisons or exotic weapons on this body.

He read it through, ever entry, when he looked up my heart sank in my chest. He wasn’t impressed.

“Last year you refused a bribe... according to my secretary.” How, in the name of my Great God had his secretary found that out? I should have just taken it quietly and not said a word to anyone, but... but...

“Yes, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” Tell the truth and forzak the rest my grand da always said.

“Tell me what it was about.”

I clenched my gloves together. Forzak the rest... “It was a purveyor of dog-food, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. The divine one’s kennel keeper always orders the best quality for his charges. The purveyor attempted to hide the fact he was bringing in a lesser quality meat and tried to bribe this one to not notice. That way he would pocket the difference.”

“And my hounds’ health would have suffered.”

“Yes, Spark and no poor dumb animal deserves to suffer because of someone’s lack of care and greed.” It was the sort of stupidly honest thing I kept doing, despite older brothers’ instructions. Mama despaired of me getting ahead because I was so naive. “For dogs? You put off your wedding for dogs?” She’d cried because I’d given up the amount of money that would have made it possible for me to set up my own household.

“Hmm. You are concerned for creatures in our power then?” The Heir got up and came over to my side of the desk, leaned back against it, just looking at me.

“This one is, Spark.”

“Even at your own expense?”

“This one does not see it that way, Spark.” I would have to say that. Why couldn’t I just keep my big mouth shut?

His voice was soft. “How do you see it?”

“This one... this one... has no opinions on the Divine Imperator’s bureaucracy, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”

He snorted. “I see.” Oh, Muunas, I’m answering without answering and he could just take offense. “You aren’t afraid of travelling to a newly conquered district, Inthilin?”

“This one is not afraid... or not much, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” And I could have kicked myself for that touch of honesty, again. Bad for a career administrator.

He nodded. “And if I did hire you, would you swear to me under truth-drug?” What was he talking about? That kind of oath was usually not asked except for the Imperator Himself. I had to think a moment. “I have a special mission for the right man, Inthilin. But I have to trust him, completely.”

I swallowed hard. This sounded a lot like he was setting up his own power base... Did I want to risk it? “I want a man who cares, even for my dogs,” he said softly.

Not exactly sure what I was getting into, I swallowed again and nodded slowly, holding out my arm. “This one would offer oath,” I said making my decision. I didn’t quite know why, except I... well... I liked him. In my gut. Nothing sensible. “At the Spark’s conveninence.”

He nodded and called his Mahid in. “Give the man a single dose of truth drug.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

66 - Kahara, who is this kid, really?

I walk quietly out of the hut, trying to get used to the feel of air on my naked scalp. Kahara bless, it was better than anything I’d thought was going to happen to us even a few days ago. I had only just had time to get used to the idea that I not only wasn’t I dead in defense of Yeola-e but that I was alive and a slave.

The ship they’d stuck us on had been a nightmare and it had almost been worse to find out that one of my husbands, Irikai, was in the lot of slaves with me. It wasn’t great that any of my spouses were caught with me, but the good part had been finding out that Bibi and Tima-e got away with the kids.

I wasn’t chained up any more. I wasn’t getting pounded on, or flogged or raped any more. And this kid… When I saw both him and Kurkas I figured the only question was how long before we were all dead from abuse and use. I recognized the Imperator of Arko from the seals on his hands, and the wealth and pomp, as well as his face from ‘Lives of Notables’, even if I hadn’t had a clue already from all the Mahid. He had on a robe that had more metal thread on it than I’d thought possible, stretched over his fat paunch, and more and bigger gems than I had ever seen.

The kid… A chubby silver version with no birthmark and a look on his face like he’s curious, but the kind of curious where a kid pulls the wings off flies before he makes them walk into a puddle. There’s a lot of Arkan, and we find out later, after all we get marched out and looked at and marched back, that we’re presented to him for his kyashin birthday present, along with the deed to our homes, our land.

I’m a little light headed when he waddles down to look closer at us, holding a scented kerchief to his nose, though we don’t reek nearly as bad as when we were unloaded off that stinking ship and got rinsed down with sea-water before we got walked up here, past Arko the city. It helped the raw spots, even if it made the kids cry. Nobody had any bad infections. Then the snotty kid pulls me out of the coffle and they shave my head completely instead of the rough hack they gave all of us and give me medical attention. The stitches in my shoulder pull. They’ll get taken out tomorrow as far as I can figure out. The army medic doesn’t talk to slaves any more than he’d talk to a horse or a dog.

I reach the area he pointed out to me this afternoon, saying something about skating… though there’s no ice here. I have sweat pouring down my sides it’s so kyashin hot. In the dark the tall lights stand out like beacons, lighting a pale, circular strip of Arkan road. It turns around on itself, a closed circle. Not totally smooth, there are hills and bumps and stairs and waist high slanted railings built along the edges, with the center left flat.

And there, in the lit circle, is the kid. Minis has got skates with wheels and he’s tearing around this ring road like he’s trying to get away from something. I don’t go out but stay in the shadow leaning against a tree, and watch and think.

He was a different kid when he woke me up that night, different than the snotty little kyash from that afternoon. And then he threw these wild ideas at me. He won’t own Yeolis, he says. Or their land. But his Dad just gave us to him. So now he’s asking me to plot and scheme to get all thousand of us home and free without letting his dad know.

The kid scoots up one of those hills and actually goes into the air in a long jump that I’ve only seen at home in the winter… someone sliding down a mountain on a footboard seeing how high or long a jump they can get. Just a normal kid. But the lights catch the jewels on his clothes and around his neck and on his fingers and he looks unreal. Those wheeled skates must be worth a warrior's ransom if they have metal bearings and it sounds like it. And the black spongy wheels. That stuff only comes from some place south far enough I’m not even sure where.

I think of Minis’s face in the light of the lamp that night. I didn’t believe it at first. He was the same kid though he carried himself completely differently… and bam, hands me all of our papers to keep, just like that and all of our crystals. I clutch the crystal I picked out of the jar to swear to keep it all quiet, not sure I should re-string it and start wearing it openly yet, figuring its better just to keep it hidden.

I went into the barns today… picked out three more kraiyaseyel who’d been in my command, swore them to silence, since we’d need more people in on this to plan and make it work. Minis makes another round, wheels swishing on the round road, his hair braided back… probably by that servant woman he has looking after him… The kid has no clue and just up and declares “I won’t own Yeolis… or their land… because of a friend.”

I’m making a fortune just following him around and picking up the stuff he nervously rips off his clothing. Not surprising since his father is Kurkas. I’m amazed he’s both sane and polite. Polite no less. Also because of his friend. If I knew who he or she was, I’d kiss their hands.

So now I’m here, planning to pretend to still be a slave… but it’ll get everyone home again. People are wondering… seeing me apparently loose, but are willing to wait and see. Minis makes another round, bouncing up on a rail, arms out, sliding sideways. His servants must have a kyashin hard time keeping the weight on him, since Arkans like bulk in their high mucketies, if he does a lot of skating… and it looks like he does. But the food… I’ve never seen food like that before. If I ate like that I’d have to work out more than half of every day…

I keep thinking of his face again in the lamplight. He’s a needy kid. Wealthiest kid in the world and living with the idea that his dad might – on a whim – replace him, erase him, kill him and stuff his body away in a wall as if he’d never been born. And he just tells me as if it’s just normal, sitting in the middle of the hut floor. Kyash. Unloved. So where did he learn to love? He’s learning it from someone. And when he pulls back -- because he’s scared -- he gets either scary Mahid-like, or spoiled brat prince.

He’s doing another round, backwards this time. He trusted me. A bare moment after he found out I could talk to him in Enchian and he trusted me. It seemed very innocent for a kid growing up as Heir to Kurkas… but then he’s a kid, and he’s learned to trust Yeolis more than his own people, because this one Yeoli was good to him.

Minis loses his rhythm, sits down on his behind hard enough to knock the wind out of himself, waves the servant back who started as if to rush out and help him up. He says something to the… yeah… I see the bald head -- slave. I catch the Arkan word for ‘Go.’ So I figure he’s telling the slave to leave him alone, maybe it’s a ‘go to bed,’ command but I’m not sure with the wildly complicated Arkan language.

After the slave retreats, Minis stays sitting, legs stretched out straight and a little apart, first rocking his feet back and forth on his heels, then sitting, looking up at the moon showing in the trees. Looking for those voices in the sky they believe in, I guess.

You know, I trust he’ll find the person he’s looking for. Some Arkan I’ll work with to get everyone home to the village. I’d work with a torturing, scum-sucking, raping Mahid if I had to, to get everyone home. If I found out we needed a glass of blood every day for it to work, the person who told me would have to dodge the spatter.

I push away from the tree and head back to the hut that seems to be mine for now, leave the kid still sitting by himself in the middle of the skating ring still staring at the sky. “You be brave, Minis Aan, and help us get home, free and I’ll help you as hard as I can,” I say to myself as if he could hear me.

Kahara bless how do these things happen? Minis Aan, setting himself up into his own personal cell of the Yeoli resistance, because he loves and respects a Yeoli. A bard couldn’t come up with a story weirder than this.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

65 - I am disappointed

My secretary, Tirias, came in after she left, looking harried. “Spark of the Sun’s Ray, this lowly one is abjectly apologetic… the slaves’ papers…”

He looked more than harried… he looked sick. I finally realized. “Mil Loran, don’t worry. The papers are in my keeping. Sit down. You may have a cup of kaf if you like.”

Tirias blinked at me. The Winter Palace was less formal, but I had never been so informal with him. Then he sat, so abruptly it was as though his knees failed him. He must have believed I was enough like Father. “Try one of the rolled griddle pastries…” I saw him visibly take hold of himself, before reaching for a cup. “There are no additives in them, or in the cream cakes.”

I waited until he’d added the foamed cream, cinn and chocolate to his cup before I continued. “Mil Loran, I’m going to need a very special bureaucrat to administer my new estates. Preferably a young and ambitious one, with the courage to go into newly conquered territory. One who will be able to get the most out of recalcitrant slaves without stirring up their resistance.” He nodded quietly. “Oh, and I’d like to interview them myself. Father wishes me to learn more about administration.”

He sipped his kaf and nodded. “With the exalted one’s permission, this one will summon candidates from the city for tomorrow morning.”


After the young men began showing up, lining up to sit and wait for me to interview them, I decided that I would give Mil Loren a bonus. On no notice at all there were eight within a bead of Dinner the same day, apparently ready to wait on my attention overnight if they had to.

Since they were there, I invited them all in to dinner and to have a glass of wine afterward. I told them all I wanted no ‘interview’ this evening but for them to mingle, to introduce themselves. I excused myself for a few minutes and slipped out to knock on Ancherao’s hut door.

“Come in…” I had caught her eating as well.

“Ancherao. Hi. Sorry to interrupt.” She’d set her bowl down and gotten up when I came in. “Would you like to see the candidates so far for administrator? I’m having an impromptu gathering with all the candidates who’ve come for interview already.”

“Yes,” she flipped her hand. “But why would I be there?”

“Oh. Um… could you hold a tray of hot hand towels? That would be easier on your shoulder than carrying wood in for the fireplace. In the tunic no one will look twice at you.”

“All right, I can do that.”


I flung myself back into my chair, disappointed. Binshala had closed the door on the young men. Diligent as they were, with impressive credentials, carefully dropped into the conversation, there was not one I wanted. It was more a feeling. They were all ‘too’ diligent in a way.

Ancherao sat down without waiting permission. Yeolis. Hmph. “I’ll interview the whole lot and send them politely on their way,” I said. “I guess if my secretary needs help he’ll have his pick of them.”

“I think you might be right,” she said. “It was very odd, being invisible. I could look at them all I wanted. You shouldn’t be upset that you haven’t found the perfect clerk right off.”

I sniffed. I hadn’t thought I was showing it so clearly. “I guess. I think I will do this again for the next lot. You want to do this again?”

“Yes. If I’m working with the man, I’d like some measure of him.”

I nodded. “All right. Do you know how to skate? Faibalitz?”

“No. I don’t even know what it is.”

“I need to skate some. The track… is out there. If you want you can come out later.”She didn’t say if she would or not. I was more disappointed than I let on. She wasn’t a friend.

Monday, June 15, 2009

64 - Plotting With a Nearly Naked Woman

Next day I had Ancherao brought into the Winter Palace openly. My Mahid didn’t show their surprise, of course, to find her unbound, but I knew they were.

Binshala left the midmorning meal on the table and curtsied her way out. “God morning to you... Have you been fed? Do you need to clean up?”

“Good morning. Yes, to both of those if it’s allowed.”

“Certainly. You may use the bathing cascade in there… there will be towels.”

“Cascade?” She looked confused. “What’s that? I was just going to rinse my face and hands if I could.”

I got up and opened the rustic little door that opened onto the one marble room in my suite. While Father and I were in residence the warm cascades were turned on and left running. It was like a practical fountain.

She looked into the narrow room. "By the way, I'd rather you told me before you send Mahid to get me, please?"

"Oh. All right." She smiled a little and turned her attention back to the cascade. One could walk completely dry down the left side, or step into the water on the left. On the left the wall niches were full of towels and soaps. Her hair had been shaved and she still had matted bloody spots on the skin, perhaps scabs. “The cascade is cooler at this end and hot at the other, just pick. And you can use the stuff you need here. Would you like a cup of ezethra?”

Ancherao stood looking at the steam off the hot water at the end of the cascade then at me and then at the breakfast tray that had the stack of chocolate cream cakes on it. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, not nearly so easily as I could with Shefenkas and it almost scared me.

She shrugged and pulled the slave tunic off without even thinking about it and I managed to turn my back on her before she was completely naked. If I was going to work with her it was easier to not think of her as shameless as a slave, or female either. “I’d like some tea,” she called from the cascade room.

“I’ll. Umm. Just close the door, okay?” I was blushing to the roots of my hair. Yeolis.

I poured myself a cup of kaf, set a cup next to the pot of the Yeoli tea I had demanded this morning. I didn’t know how long she would take so I put my feet up and looked at the notes I’d made this morning. I don’t know what it is, but outside the city it was always easier for me to sleep sound and wake refreshed.

Father’s entourage leaving had roused me and I’d gotten up, trying to think of how I was going to pull this off without letting Him know. I looked at my scribbled notes but they made less and less sense to me. I knotted my hands in my hair and wanted to beat my forehead against something.

“Aaah!” I felt stupid.

“You need to scream?” Ancherao looked out of bathing room, gently towelling her head. I threw my hands over my eyes.

“Um. No. Could you wrap a towel around yourself, please?”

“What? Oh, sure.” She was barely acceptable when she came out, the bath sheet covering her from her armpits to below her knees. But her bare shoulders showed the ragged stitches that needed to come out and I looked at the green and purple and yellow patches of bruise instead of at the fact that her shoulders and arms were bare.

I said, “Help yourself… I had the pot put on the warmer.” I finished the bun I’d taken earlier, and licked the fanilas cream off my fingers. I threw the ink-smeared paper down on the floor, pulled my knees up to my chin and clasped my arms around them.

She turned back to me with her cup and a plate in her hands and I giggled suddenly at the image of us ‘having tea’ like this. She carried herself like a great lady and the warrior she was both at the same time and suddenly the towel didn’t matter.

My giggle got a smile out of her. “So, what do things have to look like to fake what we’re faking? How does this slavery system work?”

That was easy. “I’d hire a bureacrat to administer the estates. He and his staff would get what I wanted out of the land and the slaves. He’d hold the estates’ strongbox and send the accounts to my secretary and my chamberlain.”

She bit into the chocolate bun she’d chosen, with gusto. “And who does this bureaucrat deal with among us?”

I nibbled on the ends of my hair, one side. “I was hoping it would be you as the appointed overseer… but you want to go, don’t you?” My stomach clenched. The risk… I took this risk for nothing… it’s no good. It couldn’t be just with one person anyway. Not for a thousand people. And everyone who knew just made it more dangerous for me. “Excuse me.” I scooted to the garderobe and lost my breakfast.

I came out and rinsed my mouth, glad she didn’t comment on it.

“Aren’t overseers usually Arkans?”

“Yes. Usually one per century. So… for your people… ten. If my bureacrat is dumb enough he might buy the idea that I could have somehow turned you all, using Mahid tricks.” But I was already unsure. It loomed larger and larger as something impossible to do secretly.

“Or by allowing us to return home,” she said. “But if he deals with me… with others… I can’t go to war. I guess that was part of the idea?”

My fingers ran along the bangles half way down my tunic. Today they were polished, facetted silver. One of them had a loose thread so I started worrying that. “Sorry. You could pick someone else who I could trust with this secret I could present to my clerk.”

She sat, thoughtful, brushing crumbs off her lip and hands, finishing her tea and pouring more. “Hmm. I’m going to have to find ten people I trust not to give this away.”

Phew. I won’t have to try and guess which Yeoli might be trustworthy… She would know better than I. I put both ends of my hair in my mouth, pulled them out. “So… can this even be done? I’m not just crazy?”

“Not crazy lad, though I’m biased. With such good reason, people will go out of their way to help, if they know our freedom rides on it.”

“I could get that much truth-drug, no problem.”

She signed a hard ‘no’, palm down. Charcoal. “I’m not truth-drugging any Yeolis. I won’t be party to that. No one would purposely betray this… I mean trust not to be loose-lipped.”

“All right. You know your own people.”

“But how do you run money back to us with this bureacrat there?” She took fruit from the tray this time, rather than the too-rich cakes.

“It would be better if they spoke or read Arkan.”

“I don’t know that I have ten people who do…”

My fingers twitched as the thread tore loose. “I was thinking it would come to him labelled as something else. Certainly not as payment.”

“But then he has to give it to us. I don’t know that you can do this with someone who isn’t in on it, running it from Arko.”

“… tell him things need to be purchased that you no longer have?…” I let my voice trail off. She was right. “I need to find someone I trust, because I can’t come to Yeola-e.” I looked down that the string of bangles I had in my hands. “And I’m willing to truth-drug for our safety.”

“Truth-drug who?” Her eyes, when she looked at me were speculative in a way I understood entirely. She was weighing up my worth to her, what she could get from me. In that second my heart chilled toward her. I had to remember that she and I weren’t friends. We were still at war.

“My clerk, when I interview him.” Her eyes shifted and warmed.

“You mean to find out whether you could trust him to keep this secret? I think that’s the only way it’s going to work.”

I nodded, dropped the string of bangles on the floor and began twisting a palladium button. “It will be up to me to find an Arkan willing to swear to me… and keep all of you free.”

“You know what you could do?” She poured herself another cup of tea. “You could put a stop action on him.”

I had continued, almost thinking out loud. “… all right, that’s one task… hmm?”

“In other words you could hire an assassin to knock him off if you stop ordering him not to.”

“Hm… either that or if he tries to betray me, let you know that you could kill him. Either way. Or both.”

“He’ll have security against us. But with the assassin, you tell him if he tries to rat on you.” She flipped her other hand. “If the assassin fails and you are arrested… truth-drugged and it all comes out… hmmm.”

“It’s too bad the Mahid aren’t sworn to me… I’d just send one of them.” But that wouldn’t be possible until I was Imperator… years away and it was a child’s wish. “… to rat on me… there’s a safety factor. He’ll be a long way from the city.”

“No pigeons?” she said quietly.

I shrugged a shoulder. “They’d come to my household. My secretary would be giving him birds from my coops.” I dropped the button.

“So… I need to let you go out to your people to look after them… I need to get interview candidates out of the city to interview. It will be safer out here.”

She nodded and dropped the towel – I flung up my hands to hide my eyes once more -- before carefully pulling on the slave tunic again.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

63 - Commander of A Thousand

“Now my son, I suggest that these Yeoli slaves be moved deeper into the Empire and you should place the more domesticated slaves into your new district. You will have less problem that way.”

“That makes sense, Divine Father. May I look more closely at them?”

He waved an expansive hand, and heaved Himself up onto His feet, so I had to jump up. “I am fatigued by all this excitement, my minimal, have fun. I shall be returning to the comfort of the city tomorrow. You may follow along when you have settled your gifts.”

“I hear and obey, Illustrious Sire.” I waited until He proceeded inside, his beneficence completed, leaving me to contemplate my thousand unwanted gifts. I walked down and stood in front of them. Their eyes were all on me, trying to see where fate had hurled them, what kind of person held their lives in their hands. There was a lot of fear. A woman second down from the front shifted slightly. She was not as healthy as some of the others with visible bruises on head and face and limbs and if the pale marks on her wrists were any sign, she had been a warrior. Possibly still recovering from injuries or torture. She stared me in the face with no sign of fear. It reminded me of Shefenkas.

I turned to the officer in charge. “Put them all away for the evening. Pull out that one and chain her in one of the breeding huts. See that her injuries are checked before you lock her up.”

“As you wish, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”

I went inside to the sound of the shuffle of hundreds of feet as the slaves were taken back to the holding barns. I had to come up with something. I had to come up with a way of fixing this.

I sat down in one of the Winter Palace's cozy chairs, thankful that I didn’t have to fight my way through companions and servants. I wondered if that was one reason Father didn’t like it. Outside, out here, he wasn’t swarmed like a royal bee, with his every whim granted.

On the table my Chamberlain had placed the ownership papers and the jar of their crystals… the trophies ripped off their necks. I just imagined the look on Shefenkas’s face, finding out I owned hundreds of his people and a big chunk of his country. I rubbed my hands over my face. Muunas help me.

It was late when I dared sneak out into the grounds. The slave barns were discreetly tucked behind the cypress, downwind so that the odour of overheated humanity wouldn’t offend the Imperial nose in whichever Age. The slaves were carefully kept clean but people still smelled if they were kept in a barn.

I had a stack of ownership papers, each one with the section for manumission filled in with my signature. I had had to write a cramp into my hand to do them all but if I was going to do this I had to have these papers. And the jar of Yeoli crystals, with a carry strap over the top. I wasn’t use to carrying all this myself and appreciated my servants more.

I was unhappy to wake the woman, especially since she was healing. The medic’s report had said she was recovering from a javelin to the shoulder and multiple bruises, including bone bruises and contusions. I hoped she was the person I needed. Yeoli women were very different from Arkan women, if I believed Shefenkas and he’d been the only person who had the guts to tell me truth.

I unlocked the hut door and slipped inside. The alcohol lamp had been left to low and I realized that her eyes were open just from the glint in the dimness. I had woken her just by opening the door. “Sorry,” I said in Enchian. Then realized I didn’t know if she understood the language. This was all pointless if I couldn’t explain myself. “Do you speak Enchian?”

She sat up as I turned up the light, set down my packet by the door and the jar. “Yes.” They'd shaved her head when they pulled her out of the coffle and she looked wrong in the slave’s tunic, like a highbred horse in carthorse brasses. There were fading bruises and contusions showing on her limbs and one still red and purple angled over her temple, forehead and upper cheek. Her eyes flickered to the things I left by the door then back to me. I sat down to bring my eyes down to her level.

“What’s your name?” I tried not to squirm under her suspicious eyes.

“Ancherao.” She said. Then, “Shae-Lemana.”

“You heard the announcement in Enchian, so I figure you know my name, but I’m Minis. You were a warrior?” Something I said creased her forehead but I wasn’t sure what thought caused it.


“What rank?”

Milakraseye. Commander of a thousand.”

“And you’re healing up well?” It was like pulling teeth. My mind shied away from that particular image. It was a Mahid trick… I’d seen grown men reduced to babies by having their teeth attacked. “The medic said you still needed some time.”

“Well… as can be expected.”

Of course, she was recovering from being either shipped from, or forced to walk from the middle of Yeola-e to the middle of Arko. She was doing really, really well coming from a forced march like that. Being shipped wouldn't have been much easier. I took a deep breath. I couldn’t put it off any more.

“What would you do to get your people free?”

“What would I …” she repeated, startled. She stared at me. “What… would you ask?”

“I have an idea. But it needs your help and your own people might spit on you until you get back to Olinyera. My problem is that Father wants me to be a typical conquering slave owner. He doesn’t know that I won’t own Yeolis, or a fingerwidth of Yeoli land. For a friend’s sake.”

There it was. I’d opened up to a slave. If they truth-drugged her they’d find out and I was as erased as my older brother. It was unlikely, because she was female. Father or the Mahid would never suspect a female of being dangerous, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. She didn’t say anything for a long, long moment, thinking about what I’d said, staring at me. Her eyes were a light brown, almost gold. I started pulling at one of my buttons. Only plain silver out here in the Winter Palace.

“If he finds out,” I finally blurted out. “He might punish or kill me. Umm. I think I can manage it.”

“If you can free us,” she said quietly. “My lips are sealed.” She sat up, more comfortably instead of looking like a wild animal about to attack. The wooden neck-collar was locked to the wooden chain and then to the wall, and her hands were linked by bracelets held apart with a rod to keep the fingers from touching no matter how hard someone strained. “What do you want me to do?”

“I’m going to pretend. I'll have the whole lot of you sent back to your homes. Because you have the expertise to bring the vines back. There will be some time before incomes could be expected in a newly conquered territory.”

“We do, of course.”

“So… that stack of papers…” She looked over at them. “They’re ownership papers for all of you. I’ve signed the manumission section on every one.” It wasn’t a big cabin so I reached behind me, snagged the packet and riffled through the stack. First name only. It was an ‘A’ name so close to the top. “This one’s yours.” I handed it to her.

She leaned forward to take it with one shackled hand. Then looked at the ornate script and silver that was my personal seal. With total incomprehension of course. She couldn’t read Arkan. “The section on the back is the important one. Maybe one of your people can translate it for you. But you can’t use them until you are back in Olinyera.”

“Who…do I show this to?”

“To any Arkan in occupied territory who stops you and demands them.” She was staring at me with an intensity I found very uncomfortable… I quit pulling and twisting on my button and put the end of my hair in my mouth instead.

“So I should hang onto these until –“

“—You’re back in Olinyera and that it's called Minisania. This is the problem. I have to keep pretending that I own you. That…” I nodded at the papers. “is more to prove to you that I mean what I’m telling you.”

“So we’ve got to pretend we’re slaves…”

“It’s going to be tricky because I have to talk my staff into sending you back. And you’d be escorted. The guards think you’re slaves. And if anyone sees the light here they’ll figure I’m in here playing with one of my new toys. Torturing you or trying to turn you… or something…”

“Best all but me think we’re slaves until we get there…”

“Yeah… They might think I’ve forced you into being an overseer or something. That’s why I said your people might spit on you. It’s a rough plan and I’m only a kid. I’m doing the best I can.”

“Ah.” She listened thoughtfully as I kept pouring out this half-mucked out idea.

“It’s not typical, I know, for you to decide for semana… but it’s war.”

She signed chalk absently. “But when we get back… we just go back to our houses? And live as before?”

“I figure you personally will head out to join the troops still fighting. I wouldn’t try to stop you. And keep those papers in case anyone asks.”

“Not most of us. Most of us are not warriors. They are signed with your name?”

“Yes. I’ll have to send a bureaucrat with you but I’ll send the dumbest, most amiable one I can find.”

“If we show them to Arkans, they’ll know.”

“As long as they aren’t in a position to complain to Father, I’m safe. And the bureaucrat… if he or any of my other people get attacked or hurt I’ll wash my hands of you.”

“So the bureaucrat won’t be in on this…? He’ll be giving us orders…”

“As I said, I’ll find a stupid, amiable bureaucrat. I will not own Yeolis but I won’t offer up my own people before them. I’ve only partly thought this out. I’m trying to lose this in a bureaucratic sea of paper.”

“It sounds like it would be best for us to disappear from Olinyera one by one. At least the warriors.”

“Yeah.” I dropped my hair out of my mouth and went back to torturing my button.

“And everyone else would stay. Home is where they want to be. The warriors want to fight, of course.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “My crystal was taken from me. If you’ll accept an oath from a Yeoli without a crystal, I’ll swear.”

I smiled and reached to snag the jar and pop the lid off to reveal the crystals from all the thousand. “I don’t know which one is yours but it’s in here somewhere. These are from all your people.” I set the jar in front of her and she stared at them, then up at me. It struck me what was so strange about talking to her. Her hands were restrained.

“I don’t have to pick mine out… any crystal is sacred.” Shefenkas and Mannas are a lot more emotional than she is. She is a lot more like what I’m used to. It made it easier to talk to her in some ways. I was used to it.

“I’ll give these into your keeping then, until you can sort them out.” She pulled the jar close, the fingers of both hands touching the pottery gently. That was when I saw there were tears in her eyes. Her one hand flipped in the restraint, trying to sign yes.

“Thank you.” Her voice was so quiet it was almost a whisper. “Minis.”

“You’re welcome, Ancherao.”

She picked one out with the tips of her fingers closed her fingers around it as though it were a life-float and she a drowning ma… um woman. “In the witness of All-Spirit I swear on my crystal I will not divulge anything that has been said here nor what is in those papers out of the proper time, second Fire come if I am foresworn.”

“Thank you.” I twisted up the edge of my tunic. “Would you swear to never divulge this even to your Semanakraseye?”

“If you wish… I so swear. Not that I anticipate a chance to tell her.” I blinked, startled.

"Isn't your Semanakraseye male?"

She did the shackled version of the Yeoli shrug. "Yes, but he's a prisoner, so his sister is acting semenakraseye."

“Oh. All right. Yes. So, can I unlock you?”

“I don’t mind. I won’t attack you.” Her eyebrows were really obvious when they went up like that.

“You’ll be able to sleep better and… if we’re on the same side I don’t need to be scared of you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“From what I see of Yeolis you could probably break me in half even if you are a… umm…” I thought better of it but she smiled for the first time.

“Even if I’m a woman?” She said and I blushed. “Thanks for the compliment.” I could see her trying to figure out how I’d been exposed to Yeolis at all, much less how I had one for a friend.

It took me a moment or two to pull out my keys and unlock the chain and the wrist restraints before I dropped them in a corner. She stretched herself in a way I’d seen Shefenkas do, shaking out loose muscles and examines parts of her wrists that had been rubbed raw by the shackles. “I’ll get those looked at in the morning for you.”

“Minis… thank you.”

I found myself making the throwing away motion Shefenkas did, sometimes. “It’s all right, you’re welcome.” She watched me in the lamplight, the look in her eyes puzzled and I got more awkward again. “Umm.” I looked away from her eyes so like and so unlike Shefenkas’s. “This war wasn’t my idea.”

“Of course not. You’re a child,” she said. I nodded.

“My birthday isn’t really until next eight-day. I’ll be twelve.”

“We know whose idea it was.”

Rather than talk about that I changed the subject. “I think I can put off Father asking about wines coming from my new estates for a while… since the vines haven’t been tended…or destroyed in the war… whatever…”

“Well, normally we’d be selling them. In the market, and to the wine merchants.”

“I hope I can ask your help with that.” I pulled on my hair. “This is such a half-baked plan…”

“Where would the wines go if you owned them? I mean, we grow grapes and make wine…We don’t mind seeing them go if we are recompensed for them.”

“Oh, anything off an estate of mine goes straight to my storehouses and my factor would send some on for my household to use and sell the rest.”

“Hmm.” She ran her hands through her hair, thinking. “The vineyards that were battled over won’t produce for a long while…”

“I could have my factor come and pick up the wines. My bureaucrat would think they were just coming to me normally.”

“And the money comes to us secretly? Are slaves allowed to own money, buy things?”

“Usually. But not buy anything except at their master’s behest because it’s all his anyway. Most slaves are saving up to buy themselves free if they have generous owners who give them gifts and tips… but not war captives. That’s policy.”

“Can slaves own land? Doesn’t someone else own our land, by Arkan law, now?”

“Um. I do.”

She gave me the first real smile I’d seen.

“That makes it simple. You are a very wealthy young man.”

“Um. I guess.” I quit twisting my button and tapped the pile of paper. “I mean… until you can get home. The ownership papers for the land are in here too, I nearly forgot.”

This time only one of her eyebrows arched up. “Then we are selling the wine to you… though apparently giving it to you unpaid. You sell it to whom you wish. You must have your own bureaucracy.”

“I do. My own secretary and my chamberlain handles all of that usually. Father wants me to learn more. It’s one reason he gave you to me, but I’m going to be learning different lessons than he thinks from this – how to hide payments in other things, for one.”

“I have to say, I never had this problem when I was your age.” I looked up in time to meet her eyes and the twinkle in her eyes, even after all she’d been through, caught me. I twitched a grin at her and she grinned back.

“I figure I’ll send the wine payment through ‘maintenance and infrastructure’ fees.”

“It sounds convincing.”

“Um. I’m probably going to be paying for the roads to be re-done, bridges re-built… things like that.”

“I suppose we’ll have to suffer that.” Her wit was almost as dry as Shefenkas’s. Then she smiled again and I noticed that despite the bruise over half her face she had a good smile.

“My friend told me Yeoli women are the more practical ones, usually, and Father would never think of me talking to a woman, much less plotting with her.”

“Hm. Your friend? A Yeoli?” I just signed chalk at her. “He… she? Taught you a few things.”

“Yeah. And I’ve been reading.”

“I don’t know that we are more practical than our menfolk… we are less emotional, though. And it’s a good thought talking to a women when most other of your people wouldn’t.”

“Thanks. If I hadn’t been able to give you your crystal back to swear on, I would have gotten you to swear on your Saint Mother’s sword.”

“Are you getting ‘Know the enemy lessons?” I just shook my head. “Sounds like you’ll be ahead.” This time she reminded me of Ailadas. I shrugged.

“More like getting to know my friend lessons.”

“Hmm. You wanted to get close… to a Yeoli?”

The button came off in my hand and I dropped it, picking at the broken threads underneath. “Yeah… That person… has been very good to me. They taught me to be polite.” She stared at me again as if she were trying to puzzle something out.

“I’m glad to hear it. Polite? A Yeoli?”

“Well it was that or have my Mahid break the door down. No one else would or could have. I had no restraints on me and no one else dared except for my friend. Kind of like you…”

“That must have been one very brave person.”

She had no idea. I nodded and made the chalk sign together. “Yeah. Totally not scared of me or my power. So… over the next few days I’m going to be looking for an amiable, stupid bureaucrat. Father is… thankfully, heading back to the city tomorrow so I’ll be staying behind to ‘take control’ of all of you. And being a brat in public.”

Again there was the thoughtful look on her face. “So, you fake it? Being a brat, I mean.”

“If I’m rude it's what people expect… though I’ve recently reformed a lot. Father wouldn’t like me deferring to lesser people.”

“He doesn’t… they don’t welcome your change? Why hide it?” I could see I’d have to explain Father to her somewhat.

“Father doesn’t like it if I have lesser beings get close to me or help me. I should depend only on Him. If I get too ‘soft’, or people get too close to me, He gets rid of them. They ‘disappear’. It’s easier and safer for other people to make them dislike me.”

“Ah. But if you’re nice to ‘everyone’, he can’t pick anyone out. Unless he wants to – lock you in a tower or something.”

“That would make sense if I weren’t expendable as an Heir. He might put my little brother in my place.”

“For being too polite?” I could see the same kind of look I sometimes saw in Misahis’s eyes, in hers. Both Haians and Yeolis thought the same thing? I’d have to think about that later. “I appreciate your secret kindness to us, then.”

She just didn’t understand. I liked the idea of places where Father’s behaviour was that strange. “He’s done it before. I just found out I had an older brother I never knew about.” The puzzled look on her face grew even stronger if that were possible.

“How… how could you have an older brother you didn’t know about?”

“He must have failed Father in some way and Father had his existence erased. I think I’ve just found his grave in the Marble Palace though it doesn't have his name on it.” She looked sick as she thought it through.

“Erased. Meaning… all record?” Her brows knit together as if she were angry.

“And no one is allowed to speak of him, by Father’s decree. He is to not have existed. I don’t know what happened between them. He was… I guess… a little older than I am now.”

“That’s… harsh… And you are afraid the same could happen to you.” She was getting it. It wasn’t a question.

“That’s my Father.” I shrugged again. “And he’s just picked a new baby brother for me… I should let you rest. I hope I can figure out a few more things in this plan tomorrow.”

“I’ll work on it as well.” She reached her hands out toward me and I took them. Just like Shefenkas. Thoughtless use of the hands. I was startled when she kissed them. “Thank you.”

It made me feel guilty that I was in this position in the first place. I didn’t want Shefenkas to ever find out I’d owned any of his people or his country. “I feel ashamed that I’m in this position… but you’ll be free if we work together.”

She let go my hands finally. “Don’t be ashamed. I think you’ve chosen this no more than I have.”

“Gods night to you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good night, Minis.”