I am in my old room in the Mahid quarters. My room when I was young. There are signs that someone used the space for storage and it has been cleared for my use once more. It is strange. I feel… odd.
I kneel down and feel under the edge of the wood trim. The tiny piece, a handspan long, pops away from the wall and I feel inside. My treasures are still there. From when I was a child. I lay them out upon my lap. It is harder to kneel here than the last time. I had given up my incorrect secrets, I thought… when I was chosen by the former, failed Imperator.
Lying across my lap I have a blue feather and a shining white one. A red stone. A fragment of lake-washed glass that is a swirl of colour. Foreign coins, circles of metal instead of Arkan chains. It was wrong of me but I used to try and imagine the people who made those tokens. Outside the Empire, outside the city, outside walls of the Marble Palace. Outside the walls of bone that make up my head. I thrust my treasures away, seal them up in their secret tomb in the wall.
I am not sworn so my Senior has limited my access to this single hallway. He looked sideways at me and included all the secret passages as well so I may not use them either. I am able to speak to Tesha, Selisa, Ruta and 2nd Inensa all of whom have rooms along this corridor.
I walk. I walk up and down. I walk from the guard and the door at one end, to the guard and the door at the other end. I turn and walk through the open door of the women’s chapel, around and out. Then into the door of the training hall, where I learned to dance. The ghosts of generations of Mahid girls who trained here under the sharp eye of their Seniors flap on the edges of my thoughts. I walk up the steps and around the gallery and then down the other side and around the floor.
There are four hidden passages out of this hall. My Senior… my father… knew it. I do not test any of them. If I swear… I will be the Senior of the women. They… all but Elsha… are agitated and feeling incorrect. Elsha clove to her husband. Sworn and safe and knowing where she stood. Most of the women cannot bear that uncertainty. I will speak to them here in the hall. Early tomorrow.
My… son… is undergoing minor surgery, even as I walk. He intends to become Imperator. He intends to have the Empire choose him, rather than force the masses to accept him. I stop at my room and have a glass of water. Then I walk my circuit again.
The Mahid quarters are very different. I stop before a table… a decorative table with a vase of flowers upon it. I lean forward to sniff. The flowers are white and I know them. There is a faint bitter note in their sweet scent. Flowers in the Mahid section. How odd. I do not have the required perfumes. No ritual of placing the precise number of drops upon each wrist and behind each ear. I do not smell like myself.
There are shelves of books… free for any hand to take… in unlocked cases in the hallways. Such luxury. I… and the other women… should we swear… will be allowed to read them, if Mahid women will be ruled by the same laws as other Arkan women. I wonder if that will be. Mahid have always been a breed apart. I look at their spines lined up like an inspection parade. I am the commander inspecting her troops… I pull one out and it crackles when I open it. It smells of leather and aged paper. I run my glove down the column of numbers? Yes, that makes sense. Numbers. A pattern… the smallest words…there can only be a limited number of choices. This must be ‘the’ ‘of’… perhaps… I feel my lips move as I sound out the letter sounds I recall… ‘The Tales of the Shadow City’… I am not supposed to be able to do this. I shut the book sharply. This might not be the best use of my remaining time. If my son succeeds… if I swear.
I set the book back upon the shelf and slide it sharply back into its place. I… will look at them. Later.
A sun tube --now dark with night-- is over another plant. It is actually planted in a soil container set into the floor. It is a Selestialin’s Trumpet bush taller than I am. A miniature garden in the Mahid section. It is so strange but whoever chose to do this… I wonder if it was my Senior, given the species chosen.
I walk. I hear the door open down the hall, a murmur of voices, the acknowledgement of the guard. I finish my circuit of the training hall and emerged to see my Senior proceeding down the hall. “Inensa. Do I have your oath to continue harmless outside your confinement?”
“Yes, Senior. Am I required elsewhere?”
“Yes. Your son is in his room, recovering. Did you wish to see him?”
I catch my breath. Do I wish? “I would not be able to speak to him. My husband is still alive. I am unsworn.”
“Understood.” Then he stood and looked at me. “Your ward, the Serina Liren is also present. Perhaps this will make your decision easier?”
“Honoured father. I will be correct as much as I may. Would it help him, even if I did not speak?”
“I believe it would.”
“I shall come.” He nodded and turned and I fell into step just behind him. “Honoured Father. Would it be possible for me to request two things?”
“Ask, Honoured Daughter.”
“Noted. Very correct for a Mahid woman. I shall have you escorted to a solar so you may work. And your second request?”
“A… reader… or… teacher…”
He did not look back at me. “Yes. Tomorrow. In fact…” He actually paused as we paced down the hallways, the guards reacting in their various ways to our precence. Mostly heads whipping around to take a second look at me, in my onyxine. “It is my opinion that such mental exercise might be good for Joras.”
“Kyriala… I’m glad you know. I’m glad everyone is safe and it’s unlikely that you or Gannara or Ailadas are going to be in any danger now.”
She scooped up her little dog and dropped him into my lap. “Here, cuddle Socks, all right?” I had my one arm around Ili and was afraid the little animal would climb up my chest and plant a paw on my broken bone but the ball of fur decided to be gentle, thank the Gods.
“Ch’venga and Kallijas and I have a presser to announce our candidacy, the moment the Imperator and I are both fit enough. Then I have to begin campaigning.”
She stared at Ili and I and then said quietly… “You left Ilesias and yourself out of that list of who will be safe. What happens if you do not win?”
“I do not think that. I daren’t stare at it for fear of lunging straight towards it,” I said.
Gannara sighed. “If he doesn’t win he figures that the new Imperator will off him… unless he can do the Ten Tens as a pretender.”
“And the Ten will make their will known… the vodai is sacred and as far as I could see… when Ch’venga did his second Ascension ritual. All I have to do is win.”
“Well, we are going to help you!” Where did she get so… so… strong?
“Thank you, Ky.” The short form slipped out of my mouth before I realized and I blushed. That was when there was a tap at the door and my Grandfather came in, leading… my mother.
Kyriala turned her head and rose, suddenly every inch a aitza. My mother was as perfect as always. Mahid stolid. Gannara took in a breath and Fara put her hand on his shoulder. Mother curtsey’d precisely, equal to equal, to Kyriala. “Serina. It has been a long time since we last spoke.”
The crack as Ky’s fan snapped open was sharp enough to make me twitch. There was no way past the two of them to go hide in the garderobe and I really, really didn’t want to be here. I closed my eyes instead. “Quite,” she said. “Inensa. I have not yet forgiven you for laying hands on me.”
“I understand that. However. My husband commanded. I obeyed. His next order would have been to dart you, Mirror.”
Kyriala took in a deep breath. I opened my eyes and looked at the two of them. Mother looked unchanged. Kyriala… her colour was up and her classically pale features where flushed. “May I inquire if you wanted to hurt me?”
“I am Mahid, Serina Liren. I obey. I do not wish to administer pain. I have no wishes but what is demanded of me.”
Right. And I am a domoctopus. Kyriala’s fan was going fast enough that her hair moved. “First Wife… if you are still First Wife… tell me… you obey your husband. Are you like him?” She glanced at me at that point.
“No. Serina Liren. I am not.”
“She isn’t, Kyriala.” I said. “I’ve seen signs of it… they’re hard to see because she’s such a perfect Mahid… I mean she won’t talk to me as long as 2nd Amitzas is alive… but she’s not like him.”
Grandfather was just standing, watching. Gan and Farasha were fixed on this little confrontation.
“Hey… can I have more cream-cakes?” Ili wiggled out from under my good arm. “And everybody should have more kaf… or ezethra.” I think I shall hug and kiss you little brother.
“Does anyone mind if I just go off to bed?” I asked.
“Does anyone mind if I just go off to bed?” I asked.
The looks my mother and Kyriala threw at me were all but identical.