I looked at four campaign posters for the vodai that would give Arko an Arkan Imperator again, just as Chevenga had promised. Kallijas Itrean, Mil Torii Itzan, Adamas Kallen and Kin Immen Kazien... all pinch-faced, old guard Aitzas, except for Kallijas who was the best of the lot, elevated and honourable. I hoped that people would have sense and vote for him rather than be conservative and vote for one of the others. The posters were all lined up outside the new Arkan Assembly Chamber... that had been the Crystal Throneroom. Gannara and I were a trifle early for my audience and I so wanted to slip into the new gallery and watch them deliberating. But that was my fear and urge to miss this audience so I turned resolutely away and went to the proper desk to begin the process of seeing Chevenga.
We were asked to wait in the Ruby waiting room. I expected the whole security searches to begin shortly, but had nothing to hide. We were with a half a hundred others in the room, two delegations and several small groups to go before my audience. Even as we stood and looked at the artworks in the room, keeping to ourselves and our own thoughts a servant brought up fresh water glasses and removed all the soiled ones onto his tray on wheels. Another servant placed a small platter of snacks on another table.
An old custom revived. Father never offered those begging audience refreshment of any kind. It cut down the number of people willing, or able, to wait beads to see him.
The first delegation was called away and several more people arrived. I stood with Gannara next to the red glass fountain and realized that the Gods had granted my wish. I had a red-haired Yeoli for a friend, like Manas the Wolf had been Chevenga’s. I studied Gan as if I’d never seen him before, every line of his face, the curl in front of one ear. My friend, my brother. He’d gotten rid of the tiger stripes and his whole head was a dark mahogany red, ringlets cascading half way down his back.
He turned and caught me looking, and smiled at me. I smiled back. It was unreal. I didn’t feel real inside my own skin. I had an awkward moment when I reached out and laid a hand on the gilt wood of the mantelpiece and my fingers recognized a chip I’d carved out of it when I lived here, even through the gloves. In the repairs after the sack, they must have just gilded right over it, but the shape was still there, hidden underneath. I took a deep breath and tried to steady myself, my current self overlaid over my childhood self, like a drop of water... a bubble about to burst through the skin of a bowl of water... and vanish into it.
“Minakas Akam,” the servant called and Gan came with me.
“M’ friend’d like tah wait for me, if ‘s permitted...” I said to the servant.
Such niceties had not been ‘of course’ in my father’s court. I can’t even indulge myself putting distance between him and I any longer. My father. I am not even Minakas Akam any longer. Just as I shed Sinimas Akam... so do I peel away layers of concealment to become Minis Aan once more. The masque is loosened with great difficulty. I liked being Minakas too. He could write what he wanted and the editor could tell him no, if he didn’t like it or couldn’t use it... Or it could be published in the Pages.
The servant led us up to the stairs to the Highest Office complex in the Marble Palace. Oh. I was going to be seen in that overwhelming little room. How appropriate. But as we were escorted up, higher and higher inside the cliff, it felt a little like a weight was coming off my shoulders.
It was all going to be out of my hands soon. I was going to do what I could, to the best of my strength, and trust that it would be enough. There was a stillness growing in me, a solid feeling of ‘yes, this is correct’, a vast quietness looming. After all the strain and pain and failing around and running, it was as if the High Office was the finish line in an enormous life and death game. It would be the point where, as if I had been holding my breath for something to happen, I could at long last exhale.
The vast staircase, with a spiral ramp next to it, began as plain white marble, with a line of gold along ever stair-tread, each one growing incrementally wider until the top ten appeared to be solid gold. Everything up here was either white or gold or glass. Even the white marble had gold veins running through it. Sun-slits and sun tunnels brought eye-blinding shafts of light in to illuminate gold-veined glass statues.
The desks here were spindly, light and almost vanished into the ornate backgrounds but the people working them now were dressed like Yeoli bureaucrats as well as the traditional white and gold uniforms on the Arkans.
The guards were not ornamental at all, mostly Arkans, but more Yeolis as we got higher and closer to the Imperator, the steel grey of well-used armour was more common than fancy red and gold filigree.
The other strangeness was that they didn’t bother stripping me down to my skin to check for weapons and I realized it was because Chevenga would know anyway, if I were carrying something concealed. Which I wasn't. Neither of us were. A dekinas said the cleansing prayer over my head and touched my forehead with a dab of holy oil, scented with bitter myrrh and sweet olibanum, one used for funerals and one for weddings. One for if my audience went badly, one for if my audience went well.
They let Gannara have a seat at the Glass Bridge waiting room to wait for me to come back and he touched my shoulder as I turned to the guard at the double, frosted glass door. I smiled at Gan and stepped out upon the Glass Bridge with a dozen other people coming and going.
The Bridge was the final step before one got to the Imperator’s welcomist, right at the end, and the office itself. It was an enormous glass tube leading from the door in the cliff, to the Highest Office itself. The cliff fell away, straight down to the roof of the Marble Palace a double ten manheights below. Father had always laughed to see people struggle to cross it. To reach him they had to master their fear of falling and step out onto the clear glass, or close their eyes and be led by a slave.
Now I stood on one of a pair golden carpet runners, with a wide clear space between. People would walk to the Office on the one and from on the other, without fighting their fear of falling the whole way. A humane thing to do for people. I noticed faib skate marks on the path between the carpets, not yet polished away, so they must have been put there just today.
The Bridge was not horizontal, but arched up to the High Office so one must climb, andeven with three or four people in the Bridge with me, I felt very alone. I clutched the brown paper-wrapped Imperial Book to my chest and climbed to the welcomist’s desk. It was the same Yeoli who had booked my appointment moons ago.
“Ah, there you are,” he said in equal to equal Arkan. “Perfectly on time. Go on in, he’s expecting you.”
I touched the bald head of the little statue of the Lukitzas, next to the solid gold door, for luck, dropped a gold chain into his bowl. It wasn’t as if I’d need it for anything else after this two tenths. It was likely that in a single tenth bead I would either be locked up waiting to be executed, or locked up for the rest of my life.
The Highest Office... the littlest one, of a string of offices gradually increasing size along the cliff face, was a gold-lined bubble in the stone, with a vast mirror on the inside wall... behind which I knew where the watchers with their fingers on the triggers of scores of hidden spring-darts in the walls and furniture. The outside wall was clear glass, floor to ceiling, with a vast panoramic view of the whole city and part of the woods and lake as well.
In between the two, Chevenga sat, at a desk so gilded it looked as golden as the rest of the room. I caught a flash of his dark eyes over a white and gold shirt as I went down in the prostration, putting my nose on the floor as gracefully as I could. But I barely had time to get down before he had me up again with a soft ‘gehit’. I smiled at him as I got up and laid the book on the desk in front of him. “Have a seat, how are you Minakas? You’ve not been writing so much since you came to dinner.”
I sat down. “Ay’m fine, You Whose Wit is the Wisdom of th’ World, sor... ah... Imperator –“ He waved impatiently at that.
“—it’s Chevenga, you know me well enough.”
“Thenk yeh, Ch’venga.” Just as at the dinner, I found myself pronouncing it the way Gannara did. He looked well, but a lot more tired than when I had last seen Him this closely. I found I wanted to hug Him and send Him to bed. Or perhaps just fling myself on the ground again, bawling, in awe and terror since He’d been touched by the Gods... but I did neither. “I brought along a gift fer ‘t exalted... ah... yeh...” I shifted from one up to equal to equal though I didn’t want to. “Beggin’ yer pardon fer ‘t impropriety...” I took off my gloves and opened the Imperial book and ran my hands over a number of the paper pages, back and forth to prove they hadn’t been poisoned.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that, Minakas!” He looked bemused but curious, his eyes bright. I had to smile. He trusted me. Oh, Chevenga, you should never ever trust me. And I’m sorry that you probably never will again, for I’ve lied to you. I’ve lied to you and your whole family.
“If not fer yeh, sor... Ch’evenga... then fer yer... ah... watch’s peace ‘o mind...” I tipped my head at the huge mirror, hiding the trap-booth, just for a moment. I slipped my gloves back on and pushed the book across the desk towards him. “’t paper cover tears off.”
Looking completely intrigued he pulled it towards himself and the brown paper ripped off to show the gold cover with the Aan Sunburst over the Arkan boat upon it. His bare fingers, with the gold seals glittering on his hands, touched it and the book... sang, or cried out in recognition. He leapt back as far as he could in his seat and I jumped back in mine just as far. His face was frozen with shock and I heard the hiss and snap and felt the sting of a dart standing in the big muscle of my upper arm. I could see the vaning out of the corner of my eye.
He wouldn’t still have the deadly ones? Would he? Oh sh... That was my fading thought even as I saw his hand come up to signal something but I couldn’t make out what it was and Chevenga grew very small very fast as if he were retreating down a long black tunnel that closed in on his face. “Mina...” and then nothing at all.