Kyriala looked at Benthasas’s face, then down at the split ring lying so innocent in his gloved palm, as if it were a tiny, poisonous, jewel spider. She could feel mama’s eyes on her, and the aunties, and Hikinias and Ormanas, even as they pretended to be paying attention to Laisa, preparing to sing the Lament. She could feel the pressure of their desires, the aunties and mama to see her safely wed to a good man, the other suitors to see her refuse.
“Why, Ser Benthasas… this… I…” She could see his smile start as she fumbled, thinking he knew what she was going to say. Her spine stiffened. “I’m sorry. I was just taken aback by your munificent offer, Ser Benthasas. But I am not worthy of you. I’m sorry. No.”
The smile – why do I think it is a self-satisfied smirk?—fell off his face as he realized what she’d said.
“Serina.” He gulped, his hand shook as he thrust it toward her as if he could push it past her ‘no’. “What do you mean?”
She reached out gently with her closed fan and tapped under his outstretched fingers and as they twitched up, followed them and folded them over the ring in his palm. Then over to his thumb and directed it to complete his fist around the ring. “I said no. Ser Benthasas.” The fan tapped his now closed hand. “No. I will not be your bride.” Does he not hear what I say? How many times do I have to say it?
“Surely, Serina, I mis-heard… May I repeat my request?”
Obviously he is hard of hearing when it comes in a woman’s voice. “Ser Benthasas. Did you wish me to say this louder? So that everyone in my salon may hear?” He straightened. As though I’d thrust a rod up his… spine.
“No, Serina. But…”
She kept her voice down. “But? Ser. I have said I am unworthy of you. Let that assuage your…spirit. Should anyone dare to inquire, you may use the information as you see fit. Ser, let this never have happened and neither of us need say anything.” Either for, or against, the other. “Let this be as if no such words ever passed between us and both our reputations will be perfectly intact.”
He blinked at her and then down at the hand fisted around the empty wedding ring. “Of… of course, Serina. Will you sit?” The arm bent to offer Kyriala his elbow and she laid her fan upon it to let him escort her to a seat near the table harp. She could feel her mama’s eyes upon the side of her face, questioning, and she turned her head slightly to catch her eye.
She is quivering like a sight hound with prey on the ground. Kyriala shook her head, fractionally and all the energy went out of her mother’s posture. Poor mama.
Gannara was with me and we were called to the Scarlet Room, yet again. Apparently Chevenga had something he needed to speak to me about that was important enough to see me immediately upon us getting back from the family dinner.
The tension over dinner had eased considerably as the courses continued and both Linasika and Tisha showing their amazing skill as cooks, especially of seafood. Gan… no Nara… I had to remember... was unbuttoning his waistband. “Ashapapa’s fish stew is just as I remember! Oh, I ate too much.”
“—Gan.” He broke in. “You’ve always called me ‘Gan’ and I like it.”
“Oh. Oh… all right. I thought I was going to die. You were joking about introducing Farasha to Kyriala, weren’t you?” I yawned. It had been a long day.
“No, I think they’d really like each other.”
My mouth dropped open again but before I could start an argument, Chevenga let himself in, still talking over his shoulder to Binchala…. “—you know how to present that best, with the rest of that paragraph. They won’t find anything to argue with it… thank you. I’m starting early tomorrow, Binchera, why don’t you roust one of your apprentices and sleep in a little, you’re looking too tired. Thank you again… Get some sleep...” The door closed on Binshala’s goodnights and remonstrance’s that Chevenga should get some rest as well.
“Hello, Minis, Gannara… how are the two of you?”
“Good, s’man’kras’ye,” he said, smiling. It was like looking at siblings… even more now that Gannara was older. I nodded.
“Aside from Gan trying to kill me with embarassment by introducing me to his family, fine.” As if fourteen eight did not exist. As if everything were not done, over finished and I’d end up on a head’sman’s block like my dream.
He sat down and I and Gan reached to pour him a cup of ezethra at the same time… looked at each other and snickered. Gan let me pour it. I set it by his hand and he smiled as he thanked me. He did look tired and almost gray. This vote could not come fast enough. Surely he would be able to rest afterwards.
Gan was pouring cups for the two of us as Chevenga came to the point. “So Minis, I’d like your advice since you have such a unique perspective… what do you think of these qualities for an Imperial candidate? Someone who is intelligent, war-trained, broadened by hardship, intellectually curious, knowledgeable in Arkan law and politics, open-minded, committed to the good of Arko, with a lineage that would make even the most rigid of traditionalists consider him legitimate on the throne, yet a willingness to embrace the new way, so that he combines the best of old and new in one?”
My smile grew as he listed quality after quality and hid the grin in my cup, sipping. “I’d say you must have commanded open the gates of Selestialis so that this person could walk through on golden-winged feet and descend to the Earthsphere on a stairway of sunlight,” I said. “Which is beyond even your fantastic abilities, I suspect.” Gannara sputtered and giggled.
But he was solemn as if he were officiating in the Temple. He’d sipped his cup and set it down with a click. “Not at all.” That was when I caught the trace of a smile in his eyes, as I stared at him. Gan was staring as well. “...well, except for the Selestialis part. But he does exist and he’s in Arko, so I could ask him any time.”
I had to cough. He was talking about a real man? Other than Kallijas Itrean? Kallijas... his lineage was what had some people choking on the idea of voting for him... the other things... well he could learn the political but who on the earthsphere was he talking about?
“Perhaps I know him.”
He was very serious. “You do, actually… perhaps better than most would at your age.”
I looked down and put my face in my hand, thinking. There wasn’t anyone I could think of who fit all those criteria. “I just cannot bring to mind any single one of the Fortunate Fifty that fits those standards. I mean... the best candidate I can think of is Kallijas Itrean and he hasn’t had the political training that most of the born Aitzas have. Mind you, that might be a good thing, seeing that they slid along with my father's corruption far too easily.”
“You,” he said quietly.