Oh my Ancestors. Sinimas did he just... Oh no... My heart leapt up with an evil little ‘yes!’ I squashed it even as I tried to draw in a breath through a chest gone to stone. No. No. No. It was a hideous idea. A horrible one. Arko would never want me, the little monster, on the Crystal Throne. I had a vision of one of my nightmares... my eyes in the fat guy’s face, clawing the flesh off in gobbets, trying to get out...
“You...” I couldn’t get enough air to talk. “Aren’t...” Another breath. “Serious???” Only my hands clutched to the arms of the chair were keeping me upright, though I still felt rigid against the too-soft cushions. I couldn’t see him clearly, even staring straight at him, as if through a fall of water over a pane of clear glass.
His hands turned up. “I am absolutely serious. Do you dispute any of the qualities I named?”
Serious. I couldn’t look at him any more, his eyes that could only see the good in me, the hard-earned, rote learned goodness plastered over the rot put in me by my father. My hands were up over my eyes and I could finally move, bending over as if to fold over a gut wound. He’s serious. At least bent over my suddenly aching gut I could answer him. “I... No. Not as you stated them… but the character behind them cannot be trusted.”
“What, you’ve turned dishonest since the last time I spoke with you?”
“Raik—Shevenka!” The world was spinning end over end. I gasped in another breath. Don’t faint. “Please... don’t joke, I’m serious. You of all people should know I would never survive the Ten Tens, even if all Arko should want me as Imperator!”
Even if I went along with his mad scheme... even if I could win this vodai in the few days left of the campaign... even if all of that... the Ten would smash me like a slug on marble. I was forzak. How could I even consider approaching Them?
“What are you talking about? You actually know how to do it,” he said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees so when I looked up I was almost nose to nose with him, startling when I took my hands down. I stared into his intense eyes a little frozen now by how much he felt about this. He was inspired. “I didn’t. I already told you I’m serious. The only problem is that you’re two years or so too young; so what I propose is that Kallijas act as regent until you get to third threshold. If you agree, he’ll be the next person I speak to.”
It was about three more breaths, nose to nose before I couldn’t bear it any more and cringed back into my chair, burying my head in my hands again. “Aigh aigh aigh no! It would be blasphemous for me to even try!”
“Why? Because you are Kurkas’s son? You are you, not him. Just because he called you his addendum all the time doesn’t mean it’s actually true. Don’t you remember, he lied about a thousand things?”
“You think the Gods, having set you in the Crystal Throne, would accept the Aan bloodline back? Are you out of your mind?” The dark behind my eyelids wasn’t enough to drive that image away and the spots of false light made by my hands pushing on them somehow made it worse. I reverted to a much younger child and curled my legs up under me, knotting me tighter into my own chair. I remember vaguely the creak it made as I shook.
I heard his chair legs scrape slightly on the floor as he shifted it... closer I imagined. “Minis. Look me right in the eyes.”
He waited for me and wasn’t going to stop till he got his answers. I set my feet upon the floor once more, pulled my hands down though it felt as though I should not, prying my eyes open, feeling the pressing tears. They were like pressure in my head like a reservoir pipe overstressed. I have to say no, don’t you see this? I have to. If I say yes I’m starting on the same route to corruption that my father tread. I have to say no. Sinimas, Ancestors... please intercede for me with the Ten and make him stop...
I was nose to nose with him, close enough to feel his breath. Like Gan his dark black eyes had threads and speckles of gold in them. I could smell the sweet green scent of the ezethra on his breath. “Forget everything else. The Gods’ opinions, as if you can know them, the people’s opinions, as if you can know them any better, the Ten Tens, all of it—”
No, no. I whipped my head side to side as if to throw off his words, turned to Gannara who was sitting quietly, watching, his hands over his mouth. I couldn’t decipher the look on his face...“Gannara!” I called him as if asking him to throw me a line as I drowned in this insane idea. “Can’t you tell your semanakraseye to stop this insanity of me running for Imperator…?”
His hands came down and he was smiling. He agrees with this shen? Chevenga spoke again as if I hadn’t tried to wiggle out of his verbal grip and my eyes snapped back to his. “Forget all that, put it out of your mind,” he said, quietly intense. “Look at me, Minis, and tell me, everything else aside and if there were no obstacles at all, on your hope of Selestialis: do you want this?”
I did. I wanted it. But that was wrong. Tears flooded up to make his image wavery and as I clenched my eyes shut once more, I felt them overflow onto my cheeks, hot as blood. I... he’d asked me and I wouldn’t lie to him. “Yes.”
“Why do you want it? Tell the truth.”
“That I want it, alone, is enough to make me a bad candidate.” Why didn’t he understand that? I’m Mahid trained, I’m a Mahid as far as my blood is concerned, a Mahid or an Aan and neither one is good.
He took me by the shoulders, gently considering how intensely he was speaking to me. “Look at me, Minis. Why?”
I looked through the drops hanging on my eyelashes. “I… this will sound insane.”
“Something I’ve learned recently: if a person tells the truth that is deepest in him and therefore scares him the most, it sounds insane to his own ears. So say it anyway.”
I managed to swallow against the glue in my mouth. I found one of my hands pulling my hair toward my mouth but it wouldn’t reach. I had no jewelled buttons to worry on my clothing. “I… I love Arko,” I managed to whisper. “I love… every one of them. I turned myself in to die if that was best for them… but if I could live for them…” I clenched my eyes shut again, against how much saying that hurt. It was as if my heart were clutched hard.
“You used to hate everyone.” His voice was very soft. I nodded and signed chalk at the same time. My chest jerked and quivered as it fought me trying to draw breath.
“When I hated them... they hated me.” That had been when I was much younger. “When I found out that I could choose to hate or love, when I learned to look at a person and see him as someone who wished as much and fought as hard as I did, for life and happiness...” I’m just a fessas boy and people just treat me nicely because I’m just another fessas boy. “When I could see them… I could feel for them, I could like them, I could love them. All of a sudden everything made sense… out in the country, once we’d got away from the Mahid, and I was just a fessas boy… I could just talk to people, like every day was Jitzmitthra.” That sense of freedom was good to remember. I would never have managed to be so happy as a Dyer if I’d not had the little first freedoms taught me as a fessas. “And so many people were so kind, they’d do me kindnesses even though I was nothing but fessas, just because… just because I was there. It was as though I was freed from a prison. If I could do something for all of them… that they can’t do themselves, singly, as you said… I know, it’s insanity, it’s all insanity.” How dare I love people so much? How dare I? Where was this flood of words coming from? Had I been holding all this inside?
“Let me ask you this,” Chevenga said. “Why did your father like being Imperator?”
I shrugged against his hands. That was easy. “He loved having the power. There was no one to restrain him, least of all himself.”
He stared at me and then said something I thought he never, ever would. “Being Imperator is power. You should love having it if you want to do it. You think I don’t love it?”
I ripped back out of his hands though he let me go the instant I pulled, staring at him. “No! No no—that’s backwards! It’s the responsibility that should be loved.”
“Ah,” he said. “You’re separating the two in your mind. I say power, I mean responsibility too, because they are one and the same. It’s a misnomer, in truth, that they’re even two different words; in Yeoli, they aren’t.” It was a relief... there was the Chevenga I knew. I could finally draw a deep enough breath. Talking about politics without this awful idea he was pushing was a respite.
“You taught me that all those years ago. Loving power with no responsibility makes my father,” I said. I wasn’t sure why I needed to tell Chevenga that.
“What did he get out of it?” He was baiting me... I was suddenly certain of it. He knew all this.
“Anything he wanted!” If he wanted me to say it out loud I would. Even if I had to be ashamed for my own blood. Perhaps he’d realize I knew why I was fighting him. “He had and loved power and threw away all responsibility and in that sense made himself a God, or rather a demon, for he did it for no one but himself.”
He smiled, just a little. “Right. Now, just to reiterate, for whom would you be Imperator, again?”
Both he and Gannara were smiling at me. I’d just made their own argument for them, out of my own mouth. I would be Imperator for my people if they would have me. I covered my treacherous mouth with one whole hand, the other went over my eyes again as if to take back the words and not see the consequences. But I couldn’t make them go away.
“Sheep-brain, will you listen to him?” said Gannara, with exasperation. “Quit trying to tell him you’re evil!”
Chevenga actually flashed a grin at him. “Don’t worry, I won’t let him,” he said to Gannara. “Or listen. I asked for the truth.”
I had to make myself into stone to say what he wanted... the truth. It was as if I were answering Ice Eyes. “I would be Imperator for my people and the Gods.” My face and throat were stiff as stone, forcing out the truth. He ignored the way I said it, waving his hand and sitting back as if he’d won his argument... he had. I’d won it for him. It was my duty if I cared about Arkans so much. How dare I deny them if I could?
“So you see the difference, between you and him? It’s definitive.”
Mucus clicked in my throat. “If Arko would ever want me in a thousand years!”
“That’s up to Arko. I can’t hand you the seals; only they have the power to do that, now.”
“If the Gods, or Arko, want me… then it’s my duty no matter what I want or fear.”
“You don’t know what the Gods want. Or the people, until the election. The important thing is whether you want it, for the right reason. Which you do.”
“It’s my duty to try?” I felt a little like a child asking if there wasn’t a way out of this.
“All too often, Arkans hide what they want behind duty,” He told me. “You want it even more than you’re letting on; I hope it’s only me, whom you can’t fool, who you’re trying to, and not yourself, whom you can. Your life is your own, ultimately, and the law recognizes that. Even in Yeola-e; if I wanted to resign, I could. As always, you choose.”
Just listening to him brought out my emotion. I curled back into the chair again, my hands fisted over my eyes. “I want it too much!” Arko wasn’t safe from me, how could he not see that? After what I did to him? A sob shoved its way out of me. “I don’t trust that in myself!”
“How much is too much? Minis, I wanted it enough to fight all the way here for it, and talk an army and a nation into doing so with me—some at the cost of their lives.” This was all wrong. I couldn’t get away from him and this insanity. This idea... I wanted desperately to run and all I could do was leap up and start pacing back and forth from wall to wall back and forth, hands clasped behind my back, head down. Gannara leaned over to Chevenga... as if I couldn’t hear the loud whisper.
“Wanting it at all is too much, he thinks.”
I whipped around and glared at him. “For Arko’s sake!” I yelled at him, “Not MY sake. Never MY sake. For Arko’s!”
Chevenga, of course wasn’t intimidated by my yelling at him. “As it turned out, yes,” he said almost as quietly as Gan. “Once I knew what it was in my heart I wanted, I set out to make it real. It’s not bad in and of itself to want power; it’s good or bad depending strictly on what you want to do with it. Now—your and my purpose in being Imperator would be different, how?”
I grabbed my hair on either side of my head. “Aigh! Shevenka—I… I can’t be Imperator because…” Suddenly it came to me. There was no way I was eligible to be Imperator. Arko would want an Imperator who could found a good line, an Imperator who could engender heirs.
I couldn’t. I was safe. I took a deep breath, able to straighten. I closed my eyes. “Arko requires an Imperator to have Heirs. I’m incapable.”