I sat, with Koren, in the schoolroom with my new companions all diligently bending their heads to their books. I leaned back and put my feet up on the desk, cracked my knuckles. “Koren,” I said as he looked up and ‘ahemed’ at me, getting ready to try and force me to my study. “What is the point?”
He blinked at me through his spectacles. “Ahem. Spark of the Sun’s Ray. Knowledge is – ahem – always power.”
I stood up and without saying anything else to him, waving my stunned companions back to their books. “You lot leave me alone. You have valuable knowledge to absorb.” I walked down the hall and down the stairs, leaned on the marble balustrade looking down into the Emerald atrium, my head on one of the columns.
“Yes, Koren.” I closed my eyes.
“This one must insist on the Spark’s return to the classroom, as per the Divine Sun’s wishes.”
“I know. Koren, knowledge is only valuable as long as there are lungs to drive the body to act with that knowledge. And with an attached head.” I heard him swallow. “You needn’t say anything, Koren. Anyone with half a brain can see what’s happening.”
I turned to set my back against the pillar, looking at him. He stood, his gloves tucked carefully into his sleeves, his lips compressed. He was helpless and I closed my eyes. “All right, Koren. I’ll come back and cooperate but why don’t we go over the fall of the Empire of Iyesias? Perhaps my new companions will gain some important ‘knowledge’.”
“Spark of the Sun’s Ray is aware that the royal family of Iyesias was partially spared in the initial over-run of the capitol city?”
He was trying to be nice. And I could only replay the baby’s screams in my mind. A failed Mahid? How could anyone know? “All right, Koren. I’ll be good.”
“ – THERE IS NOTHING LEFT!” It was General Alket, rumoured to be Father’s High General, though no one knew for sure. He was not bothering to lower his voice. I paused, in the hallway, on the way to my rooms from my school, holding up my hand to stop my following companions. We all stood and listened to the General. “THERE ARE NO MORE REJINS THAT CAN MAKE IT HERE! NOTHING BUT OLD MEN AND BOYS AND THREE HUNDRED FOUNDERED CAVALRY GOOD FOR NOTHING BUT FEEDING REFUGEES! YOU TELL HIM THAT! You take these orders and tell He Who Wills that maybe he should conjure more solas out of HIS DIVINE ASS! THERE ARE NO MORE!”
“Alket,” it was General Meretkias. “You need to calm down. We need to do what we can – conscript fessas and okas from that camp, arm them with farm and waterworks tools if you have to! –“
I stepped back quietly and my companions backed up behind me. We backed all the way to the cross corridor and across to the stairs and around another way.
I wouldn’t be able to skate around in the middle of the night, now. If the Alliance forces had someone who could breach security like that, there would be Mahid at every turn. It was late and I paced around my rooms but that was unsatisfying.
All Aitzas refugees had been admitted to the city of course. Now that Father had decorated the square with slowly dying Mahid there wouldn’t be any fessas or okas coming to look at the centre of the Empire. The streets were full of people still, even with the majority being funnelled to that camp outside the city.
I picked up a report I’d filched from a desk in Irefas. None of them ever tried to divert me anymore. It had been an odd dance. I would sit on desks and read things. Once or twice I commented out loud that perhaps General Fire should see the report immediately. I’d never seen their faces change, but they were Irefas, even if they weren’t field agents. This report I had actually pulled out of the fire. The top and bottom of the report were burned away but there was enough left.
“... hanism is propelled into the air by means of rubber straps pulled back by forty or so human beings, or pulled into the air by means of a contraption devised by the Yeola-e army engineers attached to two horses. The machines gain height by skillfull riding of winds, manipulated by the Aniah savage drivers, since they have no internal means of propulsion like the ancient metal bir...” Aniah... Niah, like the woman gladiator who had disappeared. Niku Wahunai, who was with Chevenga. Chevenga had mechanisms that could fly. I read it one more time and put the remnants of the report into my own brazier.
I made a list of what I’d put into my hiding place. I had water in jugs, I had bread... hard but edible if soaked in the water. I had the light as long as the lamp above had alcohol in it. I didn’t think I would need to hide for more than a few days. I didn’t think the palace would burn, either. I would have felt happier hiding in my escape tunnel but there was no place to put anything. I decided that I would keep an eye out for the first sign of fliers and then go down into my hiding place.
Chevenga’s army was less than an eight-day away.
I was with my dancing master, not attending when a servant came to fetch me. “By He Whose Will is the World’s order,” was all he said, even though Mirialen sniffed, affronted that his lesson should be interrupted. A proper bow in the middle of a gavat is not going to matter at all, shortly.
The servant led me quietly to one of the working offices. Father cut off my beginning obeisance and motioned me to a chair across from Him. He finished folding the letter He’d just written and sealed it shut with all four of the seals while I waited. “I am sending you out of the city, my minimal. Just a prudent act, since I intend to defeat the barbarian still.”
Oh really? With what exactly? You are not a God, Father, and cannot wipe out a hundred thousand with the wave of a hand. “Divine Father, please don’t send me away from You, let me stay and help---“ I have to appear dutiful. My hiding place, putting myself into Chevenga’s hands, not suffering this shen anymore... He cut me off with a slash of hand, the one with the Eagle seal.
“No, my son. You are not yet a man. Let the men deal with it.” Send me away? Send me away? I wasn’t sure if I wanted it or not. Chevenga offered me a hug in the letter... he would save me... at least until his people forced him to do otherwise. I couldn’t imagine the Yeola-e mob would let me live. But... but...
“It is only a precaution, my son.” He belched and got up. “Come eat with Me. You will be leaving tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, I’ll send your betrothed and your little brother along with you. And everything will be back to normal in a few eight-days. Think of it as an extended stay at a hunting camp.” A hunt camp? Are you completely mad, Father? What are you thinking? You... you...
“Father? This is...”
He raised a hand and silenced me again. “No more argument.” He got up, came around the desk and grasped my shoulder and pulled me close under His arm. My chest shrank in on itself as He shook me slightly as if He were reassuring me, as if He loved me.
He never loved me, He never had. He’d never learned how. He stank under the heavy perfume and as always His hand was too heavy. He stroked my hair and patted my shoulder as we went and I wondered why. Why was He showing me this now? Why was He pretending now? I looked up at Him, putting on my ‘brave boy’ smile. “No, Father. No more argument.”
“Everything will be all right and everything will go back to how it should be. This was just a minor aberration.” He steered me around ‘Celestial Hero’, twitching His robe aside so as not to catch the lace on the bronze spikes all around the bottom. “We’ll get you a troupe of contortionists all your own to celebrate Our return to normal.” His voice trailed off, thoughtfully.
He paused and turned me around, looking down at me. Even though I was past my second threshold I was still a weedy boy, and He still loomed enormous. I looked up at Him and wondered if the look in His eye was how He looked at Grandfather’s tomb, wanting me to love Him enough. Then I realized His eyes weren’t looking at me at all, but over my shoulder. “I know,” He said. “Slave, Shefen-kas. Come here.”
The boy that shadowed Father came around into my sight. “I will be generous, my adjunct. For your trip out of the city I will give you company. I would not wish to be deprived of certain pleasures, so neither would you. You may have his life as I will have the original’s.”
I couldn’t help exclaiming, “My Great God!” before clapping my hands over my mouth.
Father chuckled. “So quaint a superstition!” He pulled one of my hands away from my face and grabbed the slave’s wrist and put it into that hand, folding my fingers around it, the way He’d folded my fingers around the knife. “Shefen-kas slave, the worm is given to my son, my Minis. Obey him. Does the disgusting vileness understand?” He shook us by our joined hands and the boy nodded quickly.
He gave him back to me. Again. Was it the same boy from before? I couldn’t tell. He was skinny. I could see his every rib and I wanted to cringe back from him but couldn’t move. “You don’t have to be very careful of this toy, my son. I won’t mind.”
“I understand, Divine Father.”
Father expounded to me, over food, what he intended for me, the Chevenga toy crouched on the floor next to my chair.
“I fully intend to kill Shefen-kas, my boy, not to worry. I have plans. Of course every plan is flawed so if I do not re-call you, I will trust that you know what to do. You will need to wait, and train of course, but you will win back Our throne. Ah, yes, I will send the Imperial Sword with you... not that pretty toy downstairs.” He sent a servant to get the real sword from his underthings closet.
Then He paused and looked thoughtfully down at his wine-cup. It was full of Silken Gloves, from a bottle I had gifted Him. "You will also be taking the Imperial Book with you."
I nearly choked. The sword and the book both? And He was still pretending He was going to win? No. Somewhere in Him, He knew. Perhaps in drunkenness He had a moment of lucidity, of understanding of how badly He had failed. The silver-wrapped packaged He placed at my elbow Himself. Then, without looking at it again, He went back to talking about how He was still going to win.
I sipped water as much as I could. “Oh, Father, the additives are in the sausages.” Pretending that everything was normal. I’m as crazy as He is. The servant laid the sword on the table at Father’s hand. The plain leather scabbard looked odd as he laid a pudgy hand on it, desecrated. I had the sudden odd fancy that the sword hated him.
“Good for you, my son.” He thrust another handful of crispy-fried tripe into his mouth and I watched the honeycombed white squares disintegrate as he chewed. “You will become a man and take the Empire back from the barbarians who would destroy it.”
“Yes, Father.” There was nothing else to say.
Next morning, Binshala woke me and dressed me in a plain satin version of my practice clothing and sandals. There was no sign of my companions. Then she and I went up to the riding ring on the roof where Father would have ridden before He got too big for a horse. There were fifty Mahid and horses for them all, with re-mounts. There were women Mahid with them, as stone-faced as their men, dressed in divided skirts for riding. Kyriala stood, wearing white and rose and gold skirts, with satin gloves.
She didn’t have a veil on as she was handed into her carrying chair. No one asked her if she wished to flee the city. Binshala saw me into the same chair and the gold and satin curtains shut both of us away from the sight of the Mahid preparing us to leave the city. I am never going to see Father again. Everything between Him and I is now set in stone. I may never see the city again.
The Gate of my childhood was closing soundlessly, softly as falling rain, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.