There was Skorsas’ self introduction and he didn’t even stumble at referring to himself as Aitzas. But that would have been less than smooth or polished and he would never be either rough or umpolished.
Beside him as Chevenga’s oldest girl, Kima, and then her shadow sister Kila, oldest child of the couple who where the other half of Chevenga and Niku’s four, Shaina and Etana. They were full Yeolis, bureaucrats, he’d married before he found his love match. Because of the debate in the Assembly over him marrying Niku, anyone who followed Chevenga's life knew he'd married them, and they him, for convenience.
Another child of theirs was on the other side, a boy named Vitara. Then came Kallijas, the Younger next to his father Kallijas. No one mentioned the scandal there any longer because the elder Kallijas had made the woman who bore the boy his ‘year wife’ and made it all right with the Gods, so his son could not be called a bastard.
Then came Roshten who ceased beating upon the tray of his chair with a fork and announced, mushily but perfect in its particulars, “"My name is Woshai Tennunga Shae-Awano-e aht Niku nar sept Taekun called Woshten. My blood-daddy is Iwaen Shewenga Shae-Awano-e and my shadow-mama is Shainano-e Anataeya and my shadow-daddy is Etana Shae-Sai.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Roshten,” I said to him as carefully as if he were an adult.
“I’m pleaztoomeetyou too.” He said, grinning and almost knocked over his juice cup which was caught by his mother Niku next to him.
“I’m Niku aht Tanra nar sept Taekun, sometimes called Wahunai.” I nodded at her. Next to her was Krisinga, the cook for the family, Tawaen, then Kaninjer, then it was my turn.
I took a sip of water to moisten my throat a bit. “I’m Minakas Akam, fessas.” Good I didn’t stumble on that one. “I write freelance for the Pages and I’m studying Arkan Political History. I’m very glad to have been invited tonight. Thank you.
And then every eye wasn’t on me any longer which was a relief. I was quivering inside and even though I was hungry I was starting to get the nervous signs that I shouldn’t keep trying to force things down. I sipped my water more and sat back, trying to draw into the background and watch the magnificent chaos all around me.
Chevenga kept telling me what was this, or that. I had to demure at the kri though.
“I cannot eat spicy foods. I'll eat anything else, thank you.”
“All right,” Chevenga said. “Try some of... Kall, can you roll the spinach rice over here please?” The little cart carved to look like a chariot, skittered across the table as if coming to his hand. “Thanks, love. Here, Minakas, try some.” That was nice and I ended up being able to eat more than I thought, even just a spoonful here and there.
"The food is all wonderful!" I exclaimed at one point and Chevenga turned to the cook. “Did you hear that, Krisinga?”
He leaned back to address me behind Kaninjer and Tawaen. “Thank you, Minaka.”
“Oh you're welcome... you are amazing.” I was impressed because this food was as impressive as any I’d eaten elsewhere, even in the Marble Palace which had so much ruined by over-treatment and too much ostentation.
“Well, I did not do it without help,” he said. “To cook all these people’s dishes.” I noticed a number of the older children smiling at that.
“I don't have an occupation now so I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen,” Chevenga said quietly. He is doing some of the cooking? I nearly fell out of my chair and tried to hide it. The one time Imperator of Arko might have cooked this food?
I sipped more water and managed to come up with a fib to offer the table. “I was in a boarding school where the food was awful.” A Mahid boarding school, in the woods.
“They are as a rule, as I understand,” Kallijas said.
Skorsas spoke up. “What would they serve you?” He’d been a Mezem boy and never had the opportunity to go to a boarding school, even a fessas one.
I noticed that in Chevenga’s presence the two Arkans spoke Arkan, though equal to equal. I stuck to Yeoli. “The meat was always tough if there was any. There was one cook who alus scorched the eight-day roast...” --That had been Tathanas Mahid –I thought.
“I never do that,” Krisinga said, to a chorus of agreement.
“And barley porridge fer breakfast, cold barley soup for lunch and barley soup for supper. Oh, and for a treat -- barley and pea soup.”
“Not as bad as army food, I'll bet,” Chevenga said.
“Oh dad, quit complaining.” It was odd to hear an Heir chastising his father.
“You haven't been there yet, my child.” Chevenga grinned at him. “You have no idea what our souls... and our tongues... suffered.”
Niku said, thoughtfully, “Niah army food is a lot of roast pork... but then we always were close to home,” she caught herself. “Usually close to home.”
Chevenga turned to me. “They roast it buried in the beach.” I couldn’t imagine how that was possible. “With giant cormorant eggs and mangos and earth apples.”
“Doesn't it get covered in sand?”
“It's wrapped in paila and yellow-fruit leaves.” He sipped his own juice. “All armies should eat like that. Unless I'm fighting them.”
“Aba, didn't you say that you could use the hardtack as a weapon?” That was Vriah. Tawaen laughed and cut in.
“Yeah, put it in a slingshot!"
“Yes, love, we were considering that when I was fighting the Lakan war. Shooting our hardtack into the enemy camp. They were doomed.”
That summoned up giggles from the children all around. “But then, the first night,when I went up on the mountain to think, this little girl came and offered to show me the Lakan camp for a piece of hardtack. She ate it so desperately...” His gaze looked into the past, even as his fingers absently rolled another dish expertly across to Kaninjer who had quietly asked for it. “I realized how lucky, in truth, I was.” His eyes came back to the now. “So, you're right, Tawaen, I shouldn't complain. If you're hungry, worms'll taste good.”
There was a resounding chorus of “EEWWWWWWWWWW” from the children and round of smiles from the adults.
An impulse I didn’t understand, truly, as if I were teasing Ili prompted me to add “You have to squish the dirt out of them first.”
Chevenga grinned at that. “The voice of experience.” Even as the children squirmed or cried ‘eww’ again.
“No, no I just interviewed someone!” I was smiling. “Honestly!”
Vitara said “You... ate WORMS?”
“No, no, Vita, they’re just kidding.”
“I figured one day I should try it.” I said, even as Chevenga said
“I haven't yet.” Some of the children actually looked disappointed that I, the exotic guest, hadn’t actually eaten worms. “But crickets are very crunchy.”
“So when you do the grand experiment of worm-eating, you are going to write it up for the Pages?” Chevenga winked at me. “In the form of a restaurant review, perhaps?”
“That would be good idea.” Better than anything a Mahid could cook. "One thing I cannot eat. Akopo-e Asinanai style any longer. A... friend of mine has a domoctopus and it would be too much like eating a friend.”
“We have a domoctopus!” Kila said. Her sister chimed in with “She's in her aquarium right now.”
Kaninjer tore a piece of bread in half. “I recall someone trying chocolate in kri sauce, once.”
“So,” Chevenga said, loftily ignoring his healer. “...before we make each other throw up, let's change the subject: Mini--I mean Minakas, what are you researching?”
That stumble again. My throat and stomach closed up tight. I wasn’t as safe as I had started to imagine myself.
I couldn’t help it, my voice dropped. “I'm researching Yeoli/Arkan relations during the war of the travesty.”
“There were some?” Tawaen asked me
I answered the girls in an aside. “Really? I'd love to see it later if she wants to come out,” and turned to the Heir. “Yes, actually. Notyere and the Imperator Tathanas were apparently friends.”
“We can show you the whole menagerie!” That was Vriah. I partly heard her even as her father said,
“Well, you found some evidence that there was Arkan encouragement for Notyere to do what he did,” Chevenga said.
“I'd love to meet them all,” I said to the little girl. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the conversations I was trying to keep track of and the questions and the disguise and the fact that all of this love and camaraderie and inclusion was all illusory. It was all a fairy story. It wasn’t for me. It was never going to be for me. I could not imagine myself the patriarch of such a table, of such a place. I could only see myself alone in my rooms, like an elderly Ailadas, with not even a sister to keep house for him. Alone.
I couldn’t bear any more food, the words were almost too much as it was. I pushed my plate away slightly. “Yes... apparently there were a number of times that Yeolis allied or at least met with the leaders of other sea powers, usually to get around trade embargos and trade route monopolies on land... that long coast...one reason I was in Asinanai.” I took a deep breath and managed to keep my dinner in place. “...looking at their records.”
“The animals records?” That was little Vitara, looking confused. I blessed him for taking their attention, the pressure of their regard, off me. Several of the children laughed.
“No, no, silly!” Kima said.
He isn’t either silly or stupid. I turned to him and answered. “No, the Asinanai's tax records, Fitara.”
His father chided her gently. “Kima, that's how he heard it.”
“I sorry I wasn't being clear,” I said. My own voice sounded thin in my ears and I was overwhelmed suddenly with a wave of sadness. It was too much. I couldn’t bear it.
Chevenga leaned over and murmured in my ear. “Are you all right, lad?”
I jumped, a little. “Oh! Oh yes, ser... I mean kere...” I choked my feeling down again. “You have a big family.”
Vriah, across the table, was looking at me with sympathetic eyes as if she understood and I looked down.
“Tonight you are part of it,” he continued.
I nodded and signed chalk. “We had a very small family, for our caste, Chevenga.” He reached to put an arm around me, holding me together. It was so much like how he used to hug me. Just me. Not who someone thought I was. Just me. It was almost enough to undo me entirely. I held very, very still.
“Thank you, kere,” I managed to whisper.
“Yes, sorry, Chevenga.”
“Aren’t you hungry any more? Would you like something more, lad?”
“Oh. Um. No, thank you. Just some more water or juice will suffice me.”
“Whatever you need.”
Oh, how I wished you knew what I needed. How I wished I could just go back in time and be your son instead of the fat guy’s. Why? Gods why did I have a father, as family, who did not know how to love? I’m sorry... Ancestors, could you ask the Gods that for me? Why was I raised starved for what flows so freely around this table?
I straightened and he let me go. Such easy hugs. I pointed at a dish I hadn’t tried. “What's this?”
Tawaen said “It’s good for you. Eat it and I'll tell you!” I had to laugh at the obvious parental voice in his mouth.
Kima chimed from across the table. “It's not worms, we promise.”
“Or eyeball soup,” Chevenga said.
“EEWWWWWWWWW! DADDY!!!!” Came the chorus of children again.
“And you wonder why your kids are considered unusual,” Kallijas said dryly.
I swallowed and tried to join in again. “Or domoctopus in aspic.”
“I like domoctopus in aspic,” Skorsas said. Oh dear.
Vitara exclaimed in absolute horror. “You'd EAT Kinarina?” His face was a study of total shock the way Ili did just before opening his mouth to do a major wail. As if someone had just offered to eat his Jia Klem.
“No no no no no! Never mind...” Skorsas backpeddled rapidly. “Can’t stand it.”
“Shefen-ka, what's eyeball stew?” Little Kallijas said, pulling on Vitara’s elbow to distract him.
“Stew with eyeballs in it,” Chevenga said without a pause.
“He first saw it up at Sukala's!”
“That's the only place I've ever seen it,” Chevenga said.
My stomach and guts had settled down somewhat. “I saw some once in the city,” just as Chevenga said. “Oh I forgot, Feliras's Glory, too. Sheep eyeball on a bed of rice...”
“That place... was unbelievable,” Skorsas said, reminiscently.