From where we were, half way across the Square, I could see his black, curly head and the dark shirt he wore, his face a white smudge. I could imagine it though. At the dinner I had finally been able to shake the memory of that horrible night when I looked at him, but seeing him on the Presentation Balcony, in the Marble Palace, reminded me. My guts knotted. I looked down at the toes of my skates instead, and just listened.
The Balcony was designed to throw the voice of the speaker, as long as he stood or sat in the right place, so that everyone in the square could hear him without the need for shouting. He thanked us for voting him back in. He promised that the statue would not be built and that a committee would be formed to study what should be in its place on the Square.
He announced that he would immediately begin setting up our own Assembly, with our own representatives and write a new constitution. But then he addressed our confusion directly, about him doing the Ten Tens again.
"Some might wonder why I intend to do it again when I have done it once, and other Imperators have only done it once, accepting that as proof that they have the approval of the Gods.
"It is this: the Gods approved me before as I came to the Imperatorship then; this time I ask Them whether they approve how I came to the Imperatorship this time.
"In other words, this is to ask whether They approve what you have done--how you have voted, and indeed the entire notion of voting.
"This is to confirm that an Imperator chosen by the people of Arko is legitimate as Imperator in the eyes of the Gods, and to sanctify--if I am successful--this vote and the act of voting itself.
Of course. I felt as though someone had snuck up behind me and smacked me in the head with a board. That is so... perfect. Of course.
“You know,” Sera Eren said thoughtfully. “We have a truly extraordinary man as an Imperator... again.”
The truth of it all had me reeling. He was talking about what he’d said to us in his campaign, that Arko needed to be returned to Arkans. An elected Arkan Imperator. We could do it. We knew how, now. We had the tools.
I thought back to the sickening feeling I lived with under the fat guy, the feeling that there was not only no direction offered the Empire but that we were all being steered toward grotesque destruction... and realized that the Gods had answered our prayers. The Gods had punished us... for allowing such a Son of the Sun that they repudiated him and raised up a foreigner to teach us.
The corruption is not gone. It is still here in the form of the Hawks now, but that is both less and more identified as corrupt. There is not a vague formless mass hovering over the city and the Empire. The mood and will of all Arko is better. It’s the home I wanted when I was a child, the home I was supposed to have. That I had to pretend was perfect. I have been so much happier, so much lighter as a wild subversive Dyer rolling messages and packages all over the city.
We had the tools, and the crowd knew it. His speech and His presence raised cheers and applause all over the Square. The whistles of approval came from all around the plaza, trying to make Him stay longer on the Balcony, though his speech was fairly short.
“I want to camp out here, on this spot, to make sure we see His Ten Tens.” I said.
“Oh.” Gan said. “Yeah. We’re closer to the Temple here. It’s a good spot.”
“And Sera,” I said to my friend. “We can hold place for you.”
“Pish!” She said. “I can help us out as well. Ribbons and I can hold our ground and let you boys free for things like getting this young man to his schooling and back!”
“Aw, Grandmother Eren...” Ili whined but didn’t have his whole heart in it. When I had taken Ili with me to play drum for her, or tell her what news the street had, he’d almost instantly adopted her as an unofficial Grannie.
“Not very attractive, young man,” she said and he giggled.
So we set up camp on the Square, right where we stood, exactly in front of the great Temple doors.
Gan and I took turns staying overnight and Sera Eren often came in the mornings or evenings, to sit with Ili when he was not in school or with one of us. Ribbons decided that our spot was the exact extent of his leash all the way around.
So it was that Sera Eren came with Ili, earlier than usual this day, to relieve me of duty. Gan was back at our rooms and I scooted back to fetch new clothing before heading to the public baths. I was no longer dying my hair, letting the blue fade naturally. I wasn’t sure why but it seemed right. I left the nose ring in.
I unlaced my skates and grabbed them by the laces, padding up the stairs in the boot liners, pushed the door open and froze. The bed was folded open and there were bodies on it... heaving, moaning, groaning bodies... having sex...
Gan’s head, tousled and sweating jerked up from where he was kissing... a girl... they scrambled up, him jerking sheets up over themselves though not before I saw the girl’s dark nipples staring at me like her eyes. She was one of Gian’s people... the caravaneers... and she wasn’t covering up. Gan had taken in enough Arkan propriety to want to cover them. “Min! What are you doing home early?” Then his nature as a Yeoli asserted itself and he dropped the sheet, leaving them both sitting naked to the waist.
I manage to swallow and look away, sidle over to the cubboard... “Oh, you two having a... nap? Sorry I woke you.”
“No, no,” she said. What was her name again? Farish? Something like that. “You didn’t wake us, we were just having sex.”
I nearly melted on the spot. Oh, wonderful... another race with no basic decency... I grabbed for the first set of fresh underkilts that I had and a clean shirt, babbled “Oh, well, then don’t let me interrupt.” I managed to squeak out a faint “have fun,” before fleeing downstairs and out to the baths, away from the image of her dark breasts and his pale, tattooed chest. He’d had the semanakraseye brand covered with this purple bird-like thing he said was an interpretation of their Summoner to Death, and Ice Eye’s initials became sails and waves. The colours inked into his skin effectively hid the scars and he would be able to take his shirt off without explaining to people that his burns were because of Mahid torture. I thought the whole scene on his chest was beautiful.
I fled their eyes, hers amused and Gan’s confused at first, then – what burned me most – full of compassion. He was feeling sorry for me. It’s good. It’s good. He’s normal. He’s healed enough. Yeolis like girls and boys both but Gan’s always like the look of girls more. It’s good. ‘Having a nap’! Of all the dumb things to say!
I managed to wash some of my embarrassment away under hot water in the paid cascade booth, at Rathanas’s Cleanser: Hot cascades, Private Baths, and Laundry, dropping off my dirty clothes at the desk.
It’s good. It’s good. He’s recovering fast. Maybe he’ll bring home a Yeoli girl next. But I should get him to at least put something outside the door so I know not to come barging in on them. A loincloth on the latch or something... When I think of it, according to all the knuckle-suckers... I’m surprised I haven’t walked in on him earlier... just because I don’t, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t. My brother is healing. This is good. My face is as hot as if I had a sunburn.
I laced my skates back on and let the wind of my going back to the Square cool my burning cheeks, just at rim sunset.
I sat, on our mats, all by myself for once. All by myself except for the little community of campers in the Square, all of us staking out our space for the Ten Tens. But it was late and mostly everyone was sleeping.
There was a fessas couple, Alasas and Trina, a few paces to the one side of us and a young solas boy, Idiesas, to the other, holding space for his mother and grandmother at night. A few centuries ago, there had been theft and violence done to people camping out during the cleansing time and the ceremonial guard was mandated to not just keep the people away from the Temple but to protect them from thieves and pickpockets at night as well.
I sat, with my knees hugged to my chest, my chin upon them and looked at the Temple. The darkness was evaporating off it and I could feel the heat of the building from here. The black was being eaten away somehow and one could see the glow of the white and gold exposed, cleansed, renewed.
I am still doing my Ten Tens practice. Why? It is so illegal... just as my existence is illegal. I don’t want to die but as long as I am free I’m a threat to Arko. The stone under our mats is radiating the warmth of the day and is very soothing.
...Blood. The battlefield is covered with blood. It is all Arkan blood. I can see the young commander, a boy who looks vaguely like me, wearing a black suit of armour with blackened silver fittings, like a Mahid. He stands on a war tower with a banner flapping overhead, an Eclipsed Sun, the rays bloody as the battlefield.
He is on Finpollendias and the whole city is on fire, flames reaching up to tower high enough to see over the Rim, smoke billowing, blackening the sky. I see Tawaen... as an old man... his daughter... in armour...
I know the boy in black armour... He claims to be Third Minis Kurkas Joras Amitzas Aan, but he is not, truly. I had no children but who is to know that? He is about to take an Empire so ruined it will never recover.
Arkans are lying dead everywhere I can see... injured... dying... screaming as they are ridden over by other Arkans...
“This is a strong possibility, you realize.” The voice I hear is full of steel. I am horrified, soaking in Arkan blood and cannot scream.
“Oh, Selestialis, no! No!” I managed to say, but I cannot look away to see who is speaking.
“It is not an honourable war. 3rd Minis truly believes himself descended from you... he’s 2nd Amitzas’s grandson, truly.”
“No, this can’t happen. It mustn’t happen.”
“Do you care?”
I whip around in a rage, finally able to move. “Of COURSE I...” My voice seizes solid in my throat and I fall to my knees. He is still a God and I am forzak. “Steel Armed.”
“I’m glad you still recognize Me.” I cannot say anything under that gaze. I am trained enough under His eye that I am ashamed, just kneeling before Him. “This is... as things are... what might be.”
I gaze at his knees and that it almost too much. “Father of Swords, can I do anything to stop this?” I manage to whisper. “Do I have the power to stop this?” I cast my eyes down further, onto the ground. Blood flows around my knees in the mud, Arkan blood. “Let me do something, please!”
“You do have that power. And thus the responsibility. Think on it, my shadow son.”
“Sh...sh..adow son?” I cannot help it, I raise my eyes to His and am shocked to see them full of tears, and His face full of compassion that strikes to my heart. He reaches His hand and I am raised to my feet. For an instant I think His eyes were brown and His hair dark. “Ch’venga? But... You are Aras...”
“Stand tall before a commander, Minis. Don’t grovel." He is speaking to me equal to equal. "Think on it.” His voice shakes me to my bones and I open my eyes to find I have fallen asleep, lying on my side curled up, still facing the Temple. I’m soaked with sweat but I didn’t wake anyone around me, it seems.