I sat in my mother’s solar, working on my tapestry, of a couple in a green meadow dancing a falisas. The reader, in the corner, was in the middle of an article in the Pages about how the Imperator would stay on long enough to hand power over to his sister, since the vote had gone against him. Mama had refused to vote, but I had gone with a friend. We had had our brothers as escorts to vote at the chapel on the corner.
I stitched a fine, blond eyebrow onto the man, wondering where Minis and the others were now when the butler came to the door and said to mama that I was wanted, to go to the Marble Palace to speak to a Sereniteer.
Mama threw her gloves up over her mouth. “Oh, my goodness! Oh my!”
I wondered why she was acting so astonished. I had been expecting this, or something like this, for days. Ever since mama insisted on inviting the remnants of her old circle of friends to a party to celebrate my coming home safe. Word would have travelled from lip to lip faster than a horse could gallop… and I had some experience now in how fast that was, now.
“I need only exchange my house shoes for sturdier slippers, Bilabas.”
“I seated the sera Sereniteer in the front parlor, serina.”
That was good. I wouldn’t have to bring someone else along to guard my virtue. “Thank you, Bilabas, I shall be down shortly.”
“Kyriala,” mama said. “At least take a fan and your shawl.”
“Of course, mama. I’ll be back soon, I’m sure.”
“I’m afraid that every time you go out, I’ll lose you again, dear.” She was truly distressed and I suppose it was no wonder. She’d lost me when I moved to the elegantly corrupt Marble Palace years ago and then I had disappeared without word to her. She’d never said if papa had told her what happened to me.
Then the conquest and the sack. She had sent the aunties and old uncle Jahas who had hidden with most of the children under the Fire Fountain. The house had been occupied by a Yeoli unit for a time. “I’ll be all right mama. They just need to ask me if I know where the former Spark of the Sun’s Ray is, and I don’t.”
“Oh, my great Goddess, yes. Yes.” She tried to put a good face on it and took up her crewelwork once more but I could see her hands shake. She cleared her throat and tried to ask completely normally,
“Did you want tea when you get back? Or chocolate?”
“Tea, please mama.”
I took my shawl and fan both. The lady Sereniteer was blond and spoke perfect Arkan but there was a faint accent I couldn’t place, her red and blue uniform had been re-tailored for a woman's shape. She read me the warrant for my questioning, very properly. “… on matters relevant to the security of the Empire.” It was about Minis, of course. “No need for an attendant, Serina, I shall be present to attest to your honour.”
“Thank you, Honoured Sereniteer-a.”
“Just Sereniteer, Serina.” She handed me into an express chair as neatly as if she were an attendant, and got into the other.
I desperately wished for my little dogs, that had been left behind in the Marble Palace. I wanted to bury my face in Lovey’s fur. I wondered who had them, who was feeding them. That was almost enough to cause me a tear but I couldn’t afford tears right now. I had not yet gotten new puppies once I was home, and I couldn’t bear to think of them right now.
The room they showed me to was a nicely appointed sitting room, with a huge mirror on one wall, and a very precise Ser rose when I was shown in. “Serina Liren, please be seated.” His hair was tied back tightly and he had a face that would have graced some of the craggier Aitzas. “My name is Perisalas Shefenkas, solas, Investigator to the Imperium, special assignment.”
“Yes, Honourable Ser.” I had my fan open, waving slowly. I told myself facing this man, even for questioning, could not be as frightening as being in the former Imperator’s presence, or living with the Mahid. Yet I was frightened in the bottom of my stomach, for Minis.
“May I offer you kaf, or juice, or tea… or even—something stronger?” He was either trying to be very nice or get me a little tipsy to have me let my guard down. Probably the latter.
“Juice would be lovely, thank you.” He spoke to me equal to equal, even though he was a caste down from me. I supposed it would be the fashion since the Imperator… at least till his sister felt comfortable… favoured that mode. But Minis did it, too.
“Now is there anything else I can do to make you comfortable? At least you are blessed again with the comforts of home... it can't have been pleasant being in hiding and on the road.” He sat down across from me, folding his hands carefully on his knee. He was not taking any notes that I could see, so I deliberately looked into his eyes rather than at the mirror. There was probably someone behind it, like in the Imperial Office, taking notes for him.
“It was very hard. I was extremely relieved and happy to find my home still standing, though my blessed father had since died.”
“I am very sorry to hear that, and I offer my condolences... Rest he in Selestialis. He did not die in the war or the sack, then?”
“No, ser. His health was quite frail before.”
“Ah. Were you bereaved otherwise, during those times?”
“Yes, ser. My brothers, my uncles. My littlest brother is now my guardian and holder of the house.”
“Oh I am very sorry to hear that. Rest they in Selestialis. It was a bitter night for so many Arkans. I'm glad that you personally were safe, though.”
“Thank you, ser.”
“How was it... aside from very hard... being in hiding with those Mahid?”
How much detail would he want? I gave him the simplest, as a girl my age would. “Terrifying, ser. The first winter they were unprepared for the snow and a lot of the practical matters of living.... and 2nd Amitzas was so focussed on hammering on poor Minis.”
“How do you mean?”
“The former Imperator gave Minis over to be raised... hmmm. how did the letter go? ‘To be raised as I should have been.’”
“Truly!” I did not care if that amused him. He would have no idea what that meant and that I didn’t think Minis deserved it. I was certainly not going to let him know that I believed Minis never deserved such treatment.
“So the head Mahid began training him as if he were a Mahid.”
“Meaning... well, I assume war-training... but then the Mahid have various specialties; did he teach him torture?”
I let my fan speed up. “I... don't like to remember that, ser. We were in hiding in caverns... I don't know where... over a crumbling old bridge where one of them fell, crossing... and there were bandits who made to attack what they thought was a small group... the Mahid took them... and one man lived a horribly long time...”
“With Minis torturing him?”
“As far as I know it was 2nd Amitzas demonstrating, mostly.” I sipped my juice, my mouth gone dry. I felt ill remembering the screams echoing from the basement. Oh, that had been the ruined manor house, not the caverns... no matter.
“You know... I think we should turn to matters less unpleasant to remember... I'm sorry for bringing that to your mind.”
“Thank you, ser.” It was so warm but I made my fanning slow down again, the wafts of air brushing the warm scents of the Marble Palace to me. I realized then that it was scented the same as when I had lived there... but smelled much, much better for some reason.
“Will you tell me how you came to return to the City?”
“2nd Amitzas decided that the Spark's nurse... an older woman... “ I couldn’t help but begin to weep, thinking of Binshala. As they spilled over, the Sereniteer handed me a handkerchief “...was expendable and murdered her. There were words exchanged between the Mahid and Minis... about her burial rites... and how she ‘died’ because Minis caught him almost in the act.... He... and I... defied the Mahid... and did the sacred rites for the dead... and that was when the Spark had decided... he had to plan... to get anyone not Mahid away from them. He started planning to escape his own Mahid then... We... were all expendable to the Mahid in some ways. We could all be used to control him... and he said he wouldn't tolerate that.” I had to swallow more juice to moisten my throat. I wasn’t going to tell this grim-faced man that Minis endured Obedience for that act.
“He came up with a plan that worked... he ended up stealing half of the treasury from the Mahid... and we got away from them... he left a nastily worded note for 2nd Amitzas to mis-direct him from where we were...” Minis had told me, I should just be honest. None of what I knew would help them catch him.
“Pardon me for interrupting, Serina, but may I ask if you know where that note directed them?”
“As far as I know toward a northern wineland... a place with slate cliffs... I believe...” I think he clenched his jaw at that, and wondered why.
“Thank you. Go on... you and he both escaped from the Mahid... was there anyone else who came as
“He and I and his tutor, Ailadas Koren, Kaita... the Coronet's nurse... and little Ilesias. Oh, and the slave. We all travelled, incognito of course... straight here, where he saw me safe home.”
“Incognito... did you use assumed names?”
“Yes we did. Ailadas was Aimondas Hiren and I was his niece, Kylinia. Ilesias was his grandson. The slave... Shefen-kas, went by the name Rao. Minis's alias was Minakas Akam, fessas. I truly don't remember the nurse's assumed name because she kept her first name the same since it was so common, Kaita.” Minis I hope you have changed your alias by now. Please, Great Goddess hold your hand over him.
“Ilesias went by his own first name and the Hiren last name because he was too little to learn another name, we thought. Though we tended to just call him Ili.”
“Shefen-kas? That was the slave's name? Same as the Imperator... er... former Imperator?”
“Yes, ser. He was a little boy made to look like the Imperator...”
“Then Shefen-kas was not his real name either; did you ever hear his real name, the name given him by his parents?”
“He was not allowed to remember it, ser. The Mahid insisted, but I heard Minis call him Gannara.”
“So you don't know that was his real name, but you heard Minis address him by it? How many times?”
“Whenever we were not in strange company, ser. I would assume that was his true Yeoli name.”
“All right. Go on about how you came to return to the city.”
“We came through the Tunnel. And then found the road straight to the city was blocked so we had to go another way... it took us longer and one evening when we were setting up to camp, we were attacked by bandits. We were rescued by a pair of road sereniteers and from then on we had sereniteer escort all the way back to Arko.”
“Sereniteer escort? Truly.” I refused to smile, thinking of how I would feel if I’d found out my greatest public enemy had been personally escorted to the city by my own people. He showed not a trace, if he were feeling that.
“Now once you were in the city, what happened?”
“Once we had signed off at the Marble Palace, Ailadas took me back to the manor and I didn't see any of them again, once I was safe home.”
“Where did you part ways with Minis?”
“At a little park up the street from our manor house... children play there... He said goodbye then.” I sniffled and used the kerchief again, only one or two tears escaping to cool on my cheeks as my fan wafted.
“What did he say he was going to do?”
“They were going to see if Ailadas's old home was still there but after that I don't know.”
“What about the slave, the nurse and the child?”
“I don't know what he intended or what he was going to do with Ili and his nurse and Gannara.”
“Did any of them say what they wanted to do?”
“Let me think.” I took my time, breathing, feeling a little light headed. “Kaita said she was getting very tired of travelling and never having a place to lay her head. I would think Gannara would want to go home once he decided to leave Minis. And Ili just wanted to go back to the Marble Palace.”
“What about Ailadas?”
“He was hoping that his family was unhurt and their property still there... he did say as part of our disguise that he had an appointment at the University and he could certainly apply, if he wanted to. He had two sisters in the city.” I set my empty glass down. “Might I have a bit more juice, please?”
“Of course.” He poured another glass. “Have you had any communication with any of them since Ailadas saw you to your door?” He was watching me, watching my eyes as intently as a fluffy on a piece of sausage. I had my serenity back. Tell him, tell them, the entire truth. He might still submit me to a shameful truth-drugging.
“No ser. My mother has kept me very close to her since then. Thank you for pouring, ser.”
“What was the date you came back into the city?”
“Selinae Eleven, Ser.”
“And what date did Ailadas see you to your door?”
“That same day, Ser.” He would be checking all of that, I assumed.
“Did you assume any kind of disguises as well as assumed names, Serina?”
“I and Ailadas and Ilesias did not. Kaita and Minis cut their hair and Gannara covered up his scars with cosmetics and bleached his hair, to look less like Shefen-kas.” Please, Gannara, I hope you’ve changed that since I saw you last.
“I see.” He rose to his feet. “Thank you for your assistance to the Imperium, Serina. You have been most forthright.”
“You are very welcome, Honoured Sereniteer.” Mother Goddess forbid I tell him one word more than he asks or expects.
“The Sereniteer will see you...” He was interrupted by a howl, a thunder of tiny barks and a hail of scratches and thumps at the door.
“My goodness,” I said, rising as well. The Sereniteer opened the door and a small white and gold ball of barking fluff burst in and jumped up and hit me straight in the chest where my arms folded around it automatically, even as I sat down abruptly. My fan hit the floor. My shawl flew off as well and Ser Shefen-kas lunged to save the half-empty pitcher of juice from being knocked over. The dog was wiggling and licking so hard I could almost not hold her.
“Socks! Oh, puppy! Oh, Socks! You darling, you’re all right! How did you find me, puppy dear!” I was weeping again, completely dishevelled, my oldest fluffy writhing against me in an ecstasy of joy in having found me, shedding a fine mist of white hairs all around.
“Who’s been feeding you? Who’s looked after you? Oh, ser, I never thought I’d see any of my puppies again! Might I... may I beg to take—“
He cut me off. “Of course, Serina.” He suppressed a sneeze and couldn’t dismiss me fast enough.
“Take the dog, I will see it made right.”
“Oh, thank you, Ser! You are most gracious! Ouch, stop oh stop, puppy too much! Down... calm down, Socks.”