I blinked at him and Gannara said, just as brightly. “Oh, we would love to see the Marble Palace, wouldn’t we?”
“Certainly, then. If those ones will follow...Oh,” said Skorsas. “Hello, Minakas, my apologies, it took me a moment. How are you? You’ll be staying at the Marble Palace, then.” It wasn’t a question.
“Oh, yes. Thenk yah, sor.” I didn’t want to put the fessas accent on any more. But he knows me as fessas and Chevenga introduced us that way. What in Hayel is going on? He hasn’t said, exactly, what he’s going to do with me now that I’ve turned myself in. Blast the Book for recognizing the true Imperator! It messed up everything!
“Let’s get you over the Bridge, then, and I can show you a number of things on the way down to the Guest wing...” he was addressing me only a trifle more formally than when he met me at the Hearthstone Independent.
That would still be the Fiparmukinian level. That was between the Imperial sections and the Administrative sections of the Palace, on the other side of the Audience... now Assembly... Chamber. I didn’t say anything that would let on that I knew it at all. When I had lived here, father had told me to stay out of there, mostly, so as not to bother his guests, though he had few. There was always some supplicant Aitzas lordling from out Empire, to overawe. But I was grateful I wasn’t as familiar with it as most of the rest of the Marble Ant pile.
Skorsas was friendly, asking about how my writing was progressing and I asked him about the household back in Yeola-e, all very calm. I had to keep telling myself to be appropriately overwhelmed when he showed us this or that incredible artwork, or commented on what kinds of fantastic toys the children had found down that particular corridor...
At one point I had to stop and clamp my teeth together. I’d read that ‘Selinae’s Daughters’, by Durumas in the Past Age, had been damaged in the sack and could not be repaired... but that what remained was still so beautiful that it was left in place... I had to clench my eyes shut when we rounded the corner and were confronted with it. The ten dancing young women in mid-dance or play, the sculptor had never said, all had their heads missing and many of the graceful arms also gone.
“There is a commission trying to find a sculptor who might be able to piece the glass back together,” Skorsas said, with sympathy. “The joins would show and the missing heads... well, there isn’t a sculptor in Arko who wouldn’t love to try and cast replacements... even to copy Durumas’s work.”
“That’s... awful!” I said, horrified. “Each face... they all had their own expressions they weren’t just generic girls.” Oops. That sounds like I’ve seen it. “M’ da tol’ me... he saw ‘t once he said and were struck by how much that ‘un...” I pointed at one figure, “...minded him of ma when she were a girl.”
Chevenga hadn’t introduced me as Minis to Skorsas... nor to his guard captain. He obviously didn’t wish to trumpet to the world that I had been caught. My covering story was thin but I couldn’t make any mistakes. Skorsas looked over at the figure I’d indicated, shrugged and led us on. We should be properly overwhelmed just by being conducted by the Imperial Chamberlain himself anyway. I shut up and let Gannara ask more questions, just as if he’d not been tortured in these halls.
We were going to be put up in the Azure Suite, a set of rooms done in plain marble and simple blues and whites, with minimal gilding. It was a bureaucrat’s rooms and I was tremendously relieved that it wasn’t anything more elaborate. “I’ll send a servant around to show you to Dinner... the High Court... you probably won’t see the Imperator, I’m afraid. I’ll have to put you at the other end of the hall.”
“Oh, sor... that’s mor’n we thought, thenk yeh sor.”
“It’s a less formal court than anything under the Aan,” Skorsas went on blithely. “So those ones needn’t fear being underdressed.” He was speaking down to us, but only barely. “There will be a servant along with some light refreshment for you, shortly. The Lesser Baths will be available to you, should you wish to refresh yourselves. Just ask a servant and they will show you.”
“Thenk yeh, sor.”
He smiled at me. “Don’t worry about being a little shocked by the opulence. Everyone is.”
I managed to smile back. “This ’un’ll keep it ‘n mind, ‘onoured sor.” And finally a door was shut and we were by ourselves. Gannara grabbed my elbow and dragged me over to the inner room, between one of the beds and a window, the place least likely to have any kind of way of overhearing us.
“So what in Hayel happened?! Does He know? Are you a prisoner? They’re still calling you Minakas... what’s going on!”
“He knows me. The Imperial Book knows Him... it did something weird... never mind... I got stun-darted and he got me woken up fast and then he recognized me... he knows who you are too. He wants me to stay here. He said Ili was safe and fine where he was... and we... I specifically don’t have to worry about any harm from Him. So there.”
He stared into my eyes for a long moment then dramatically flung himself back onto the bed with a ‘pflump’, hands outflung. “The boy does it again! You’re all right. How do you DO shen like this and keep coming out all right?”
“I have good friends.” I snorted. “Gan, he wants me to keep it quiet that I’m not just Minakas Akam, it seems.”
He raised his head. “That makes sense.”
“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to –“
“—fik that,” he snapped, interrupting. “I was thinking about that, and kind of planning what to do if they locked you up here.” Best case, I thought. “I figured I’d help you get our stuff from the apartment... we’re paid up through the end of the moon and give notice. Then when we know exactly what’s going on with you... probably in rooms next to the main library, right?” I nodded. That would be a good place to live out the rest of my life. There were worse prisons. “And then I go and show up to my parents... that would be fair... and if they’re grossed out—“
I had to interrupt. “—They won’t be grossed out! Stop that. If I can’t beat up on myself for what my father did to me, then neither can you beat up on yourself for what they did to you either!” He waved a flapping hand from the bed, not even pulling his forearm off his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, all right. But I can always come back here with you.”
“Gan... my brother...” I sat down next to him on the bed. “If I have anything to say about it... I’d love to have you stay with me... especially if you need to.”
“Phf. We’re talking like a couple of lugubrious old farts on a Fire-Fountain bench. I hope those ‘minor refreshments’ the Chamberlain was talking about have some beef rolls. I’m starving.” As if by magic the servants’ knock came almost on the heels of his words.
The two men wheeled in a tray with enough food on it to feed a small army, or two teenaged boys, whisked the covers off and disappeared, as silently an efficiently as they always had. War, conquest, election, the Marble Palace servants just seemed to carry on.
“I couldn’t swallow any lunch myself,” I said, grabbing a plate. “There are rolls. I’ll arm wrestle you for my share.”
Gan was serving himself from the other side, spooning a noodles in cream sauce with green garnish into a bowl. “Sure, my granny could beat you arm wrestling!” I had an odd flash to my father refusing to arm wrestle Chevenga for his freedom and shook it off.
“Well, yeah, she’s probably captain of the Asinanai guard!”
“Idya, mammoka diddler.”
“Dog sucker, idle, flea-bitten Masker tickler.”
And we stopped our mouths with the astonishing food. I had forgotten. It was as if 2nd Amitzas and his Mahid had burned the memory out of me with what I had eaten since.