“Minis. Where are you? Minis!” Someone is calling me, looking for me. I know that. The Imperium is looking for me. 2nd Amitzas is looking for me. I’m looking for me. Who I am now I don’t know.
“Minis.” The voices are far away but they are persistent. More than one. Men and women both. Who would be looking for me? Who would want me? I don’t even want me, really. A millwheel swings, idle, as the water rushes through the open, abandoned spillway. A cradle rocks, empty as if someone just took the baby and left it.
Hearths, cold, stones blackened. I’m lonely but it’s better this way. This way there is no one for me to hurt, or injure, or try to force myself on.
I’m walking through solas training fields, dark and empty of souls. The moon’s eye is full and staring down. There is a fire… a camp fire on the edges of darkness. Light and warm and I know there are people there.
I turn away from it and walk up the stairs of the empty Temple. The niches are all bare. Where are the Ten? Why are they out of the Temple? There is no disaster, no emergency anymore. I bow and begin my Ten Tens practice.
As I do, I hear the voices, worried, anxious, looking for me. Step, bow, prostrate myself. My hands touch the place in the floor to honour Anae. Breathe.
“Where have you gone, Minis? Where are you? Come back, Minis, come back!”
Oh the banks of the Rehenas river, the autumn rains turned the wide river a thick brown roil. The village below the vineyards was hunched as if against an onslaught.
Perisalas surreptitiously waggled one booted foot, hoping to ease the damp leather pulling at his calf, without letting anyone see the frailty. “So, sera, please repeat for my clerk. You distinctly heard one man, whom you thought was aitzas say ‘As commanded, First.” But in an accentmore clipped than usual aitzas. Is that correct?”
The stolid, blond farmwife nodded stoutly, her back country fessas sounding broad and flat compared to his. “Ser, I heard and saw. Their faces, when they weren’t thinkin’ about ‘em went funny, still an’ blank ser. Blank as paper, blank as Mahid, ser. ‘M chickens hev more expression, ser.”
“An’ they were lookin fer a boy, a lost boy they said. Aitzas boy, Aitzas tutor, Yeoli slave, a couple a women an’ a little boy. Said ‘twas his son, ser. If that ‘un had a son, ser he ‘gendered it on some’un who couldn’t run like a rabbit, ser.”
It certainly sounds like Mahid. And if it is… people being generally smarter than Mahid give them credit for, it sounds as though the Spark has actually split away from his guardians. But why in this God-forzaken wilderness? It makes absolutely no sense. Grapes, wine, rye bread and sour cabbages. Anything valuable gets dragged towards the mountains by teams of oxen pulling barges or flees away to the deepest hinterlands by the river flowing north.
“Of course, sera. Anything else? Anything at all?”
“M’ sons swear they saw a Lura Lia, sitting up at ‘t old castle ruin, combin’ her hair, over ‘t river. Thankfully it weren’t singin’ so’s they weren’t ‘sorcelled and drowned dead.”
“I see.” My professional God, spare me from more ‘Redbeard under Mountain’ or ‘Dragon’s Gold’ stories. “I shall, of course, investigate the old ruin. Anything else?”
“Thank you, my good woman.”
“NO! NO NO NO! I’M GOING WITH YOU!” Ilesias was in the middle of a full-on tantrum the like of which I hadn’t seen since the Tunnel. Thankfully he and Gannara and I were in our room with the windows closed. “YOU AREN’T GOING AWAY WITHOUT ME!” It was a bad enough tantrum that he was hitting me with Kefas bear, thankfully softer than Indispensible bear, and his fists, alternating between wailing and clinging and yelling and hitting.
Gannara stayed with me, but had his hands over his ears. Mine were full, so I couldn’t cover them.
“Ili. Listen. Listen, I have to leave you safe and you have to pretend to be Ailadas’s grandson for a while longer. Maybe forever, but that’s not a bad thing. You’ll be able to grow up safely Aitzas…” It was no good. Kaita peeked in and gestured that she would take him and I shook my head at her. He was my brother and I was leaving him. I imagined what Chevenga would do with such a child and the only thing I could think of was, hold on and let him yell.
He wouldn’t listen and I ended up hanging on to him while he punched me and kicked his feet and flailed. “I can’t take you, Ilesias. Do you want Kaita to be unhappy? She’s able to be aitza here. You’re strong. You’re a good boy. I want you to be safe. I want you to be happy. Listen, Ili, listen.”
It went on for an appallingly long time, but he finally collapsed like a puppet with its controlling hand removed, sniffling and wailing upon my lap.
I waited and finally he scrubbed his nose and looked up at me with some sense in his eyes. “Can you hear me now?” I waited while he scrubbed his sleeve over his nose and mouth. “Can you hear me?”
“You realize that if you go with me, you’ll be in danger?” Another nod.
“You realize I’m trying to get you to be as safe as possible?” He nodded again, though he didn’t want to.
“You are like my Kefas Bear.” I said. “I’m going to come back someday. I don’t know when. And I’ll need all the information I can get. Can I ask you to gather it for me?”
He stared at me a long, long time. He looked down at his bear and at his fingers. “I haf’ta be ‘ladas’s son’s kid?”
I thought of the Marble Palace coming to truth drug Ailadas. I couldn't leave Ili here, however much I thought I should, however much I wanted to give him a home. I had a horrific image of them finding him and threatening to kill him unless I gave myself up. For all this... I'd been wrong.
"Ili. You'll come with me, but without Kaita. She wants to stay here in the city."
It was like the sun coming out. "I'm COMING!"
Gannara rolled his eyes behind Ili's head. "Yes, you have to. I was wrong. We can't leave you here yet."
"Can you be very grown up and have both Kefas and Indispensible watch out for me?”
I was floundering. I wanted to give him a safe home, but truth drug would make any home safe, until they got convinced I wasn't coming back to the city. We weren't coming back to the city. “Minakas.”
“You didn’t want to leave me behind?”
Every little brother’s lament… take me along too… “No, Ili. I never did. They’re looking to cut my head off, not yours.” Oops. Perhaps that was a little much.
He looked solemn. “Yeah. They want us dead, right?” I could only nod. “All right. We not dead. You not dead, me not dead… Dead would hurt, right?” I nodded again, though more faintly. “Dead’s like the birdy we found on the road from running into a window. Gone. Put in the ground, not moving, no more. Our poor bird…” He quoted the song I’d given him when we found the bird, an allegory for a human soul. ‘Our poor bird, take thy flight, far from the pain of this sad life….” When we’d buried the bird in the garden he’d sung with gusto, hurling dirt on the corpse of the bird we’d found.
I still thought he didn’t understand what death was. “Ili.” I took both of his hands… bare hands because that was what we’d been use to in the Marble Palace when life was most strange and most real all at the same time. “I promise to take you, this time."
"And one day I'll ask you to hide here without me. But I’ll come back. Where ever I am I will love you. Even if I get killed. I’ll love you from Selestialis. But if I’m alive, I’ll be with you. I promise. Hope to be flung off the Rim if I lie.”
He stared at me, hard. I could feel the tears pressing against the backs of my eyes and throat. I had to bite on my inner lips to suppress them. It was hard to breathe. No one had ever made such promises to me. It hurt. It hurt so badly I wanted to throw a tantrum of my own. I caught hold of my breath and just hugged him.
“All right. You promised. And I'm goin' with you.”
“I will do my best under Selestialis and over Hayel, little brother, as long as my heart is beating. I'll always love you.”
He nodded decisively. “You heard him, Kefas. Witnessed.”
I kissed his head and his eyes and his hands to acknowledge my promise. When Gannara took him off to his room with Kaita I curled up, put my arms over my head and cried, overwhelmed with the feeling, was I going to be able to keep him safe with us?
“Ser! Ser! We’ve found a grave. Come ser! Come!” The escort were exited and Dagasas paced quietly, solemnly next to Perisalas as he walked calmly to the newly discovered gravesite.
“Hmm.” Perisalas said little but his stick came out and raised the hair trailing from the mostly denuded skull.
“Aitzas.” The end of the stick trailed down from where he crouched and nudged the jaw open, falling away from the skull. “Goldwork.”
“Ser.” Dagasas said. “Isn’t gold toothwork common in the Empire?”
“In the city, yes.” Perisalas’s stick trailed the length of the matted strands of hair. “Notice the kinks. Normally a fighting braid.”
“Dagasas… lie down next to the grave.”
Perisalas pinched his lips together. “Did I say something unitelligable? Lie down next to the grave!”
With trembling, and trepidation the solas did so. “Excellent! Dagasas, notice! The man in this grave is taller than you. His skeleton is amazingly robust!”
The solas scrambled gratefully up, careful not to disturb the lines Perisalas had drawn over head and feet.
“He is?” He brushed off his clothing fastidiously. “I mean, he was?”
“Yes. Definitely Aitzas. And city Aitzas to boot.” The stick moved down in the shallow grave, pried at a flake of dirt. “Aha.”
“What, aha? What?” Dagasas looked but could see nothing.
“You see here, and here?” The stick tapped twice, on two separate teeth. “Both pristine. The molar in the middle… hollow and not filled with gold. Hollow. Filled with… what?”
Standing still Dagasas could think of only one thing. “A hollow tooth… filled with poison, like Mahid?”
“Perhaps, my good Dagasas. Perhaps. We cannot spring to conclusions… but I believe we have a Mahid burial here.
“And a Mahid sighting, as well, ser.”
“Perhaps, my good Dagasas. One cannot jump to conclusion from scant metaphor. The place makes no sense and the evidence of a grave cites deeper problems than mere ‘attrition’.” Perisalas rose and paced. “I do not have all the information I need, Dagasas.”
“What now?” Perisalas’s mouth was pinched tight as his brows. “Why are you disturbing me, solas?”
“A runner, ser. A runner from the last post… a pigeon message for you ser.”
Perisalas, for all that he had been a slave was as imperious as some Aitzas thrust his glove out to receive the message. “Well?”
The messenger surrendered it and sank to the stones of the tor, panting, head hanging. Perisalas walked a short distance away to unroll the tiny message. Dagasas tried to decipher his face as he read but was, as always, stumped.
He let the message roll shut with a snap and turned on his heel, back to Dagasas. “We are going back to the city.”
“Ser?!” Dagasas couldn’t help but protest. “We’ve just found solid or the most solid proof of Mahid presence we’ve had for years! How can we just drop this…”
“The Mirror of the Radiant Light is returned to the city itself.”
“We will return as well, and question her. She is one of the closest links to the Spark. We will see if she knows more than she thinks.” Perisalas tucked the note into his case and strode toward his horse. “Now, Dagasas. Not tomorrow. Not next day. Now.”
“Yesser. Of course, ser. Immediately ser,” he said and jumped to obey.