I went to the Chamberlain’s office that afternoon. I’d kept the Minakas outfit on... I didn’t really need to but it felt safer somehow. Even if Skorsas knew exactly who I was. I tapped on his door, feeling weirdly like I was in the Mezem, being taught how to request permission to enter. Chances of his being in were slight, but one of his assistants should be, and able to track him down.
“He’s down having new curtains sized for the Pastoral Nude Recumbent Parlour,” the assistant told me. “But”--quick glance at his bead-clock, which was a large-beaded model perhaps from the Piinanian era--“I expect him back very soon. Is he expecting that one?” He looked down his nose at me.
“Yes, Sor, but only at t’ exalted’s convenience, ser. May this ‘un wait?”
“Certainly, Serin fessas, right over here.” The office, needless to say, was impeccable in colour and taste, and the chair uncompromisingly comfortable. I couldn’t relax, my back refused to settle into the well padded chair. My toes tapped and my fingers tried to twitch so I knotted them together in my lap to keep them still. My shoulder ached dully and I made a note to myself to see Akminchaer again and have it checked. “Serin fessas?” the assistant said. “A little drop of comfort?” He pulled out a flask and a tiny crystal goblet.
“Thenk yeh, Sor. Your fine self is most gracious, sor.”
I sipped and gasped. “Thet... thet is astonishin’, exalted sor.” It was Silk Gloves. I knew it would be popular. I should write and see if Ancherao was still this side of Selestialis.
“Isn’t it,” he said pleasantly. “Quite the striking new brew: Silk Gloves. Pleased to give that one a wee taste.”
The tiniest beads rang pleasantly down, counting down the time I had. I had less time to campaign every bead that fell. Chevenga would be back from Yeola-e soon. I just had to wait. It was in the hands of the Gods. I just had to wait and be still. I tried shutting my eyes but I could not shut my ears to the sound of the trickling away if precious time I would never get back.
Eventually the Chamberlain came bustling in. “Ahh Min!” he said, when he saw me. “Ser Akam, Ser Akam, Ser Akam! Good to see that one, come on in to my private enclave.”
I had to smile. He was so perfect for the position of Chamberlain here. But then he had martialled Chevenga’s family in the Hearthstone Independent with as much grace and panache.
“Thenks be tah the exalted sor.” Skorsas’s office was surprisingly small and modest, with boxes of papers everywhere, a big wardrobe, with scarves hung over the door, a desk with several statuettes of Chevenga and mini-paintings of some other people including Arkans - I suspected they were relatives of his... a middle-aged woman, was that his mother? A brilliantly-wrought gold filigree brooch mounted in a little glass case... so much like someone’s work on display. Things that were a miniature feast to the eyes. Very much like the man, I suspected.
As soon as the door was closed, he dropped the two-down almost apologetically. “That can’t end too fast,” he said. “So! Campaign fashion advice! It all comes down to this - what impression do you want to make? What sort of person do you want Arkans to think you are?”
“I want to be seen as who I really am, Skorsas. Um... not like my father at all. I wish my father had been Ilesias the Great... but that’s impossible... sober at the very least. Thoughful. Intelligent. Concerned. But how do I portray that on my body? I can put on this...” I waved at the scholar’s robe. “But people wouldn’t respect that. When I was a Dyer in the streets it was easy. Dye the hair, put in a nose or earring... people see that and don’t look past it.” I sighed. “You’ve been the one with the fashion eye from the beginning when I first knew you.”
“Not like your father at all... and...” He looked me straight in the eye. “Not like you used to be. Right. Very modest in the jewels. Modest all over... absolutely top of the line quality, but nothing, nothing, no-o-o-o-thing ostentatious. Got it. Hmmm...” He went to the wardrobe in his fast, half-scurrying way, started rifling through behind the door.
“Do I need to wear jewellery at all?”
“Just a touch,” he said though the door. “No more.”
“Yes. And I can tie my hair back until it grows out I suppose.”
“Oh, no no no no no -- haha -- these days? Hang on hang on -- here they are.” Tossing several shirts onto the top of the door, he came out with his hands full of hair. “Mmm need the right colour... Aan blond... here. Come, come...” His tone was so motherly I couldn’t disobey. He lifted up some of it, a fall of hair that was a colour very like my own, and put it up against mine. “There. Look in the mirror”--he turned me, almost forcefully. Did he do that with Chevenga? He divided it in two and made it hang down in front of my shoulders under mine. “Vyaha! Instant Aitzas!”
I couldn’t help it, I had to giggle. “Oh, Gods. No. I’m not the Brat anymore, Ten hear me.... That is fantastic!”
“You are such a Winter!” he said. I looked at him, confused. “Bright, clear, vivid tones! Nothing earthy, nothing neutral. Tan will just make you fade right out!” He laid the hair down carefully on his desk. “Those just sew right in... there is a mane artist on staff in the Palace, who can repair or touch up every kind of politician’s hair you ever saw. It’s become an industry since Chevenga became Imperator... There was an ambassador from the south who had his coif simply ruined by mischance on his journey and Febran just put the whole mass back up the way it was supposed to! Brilliant man.”
He pulled out a shirt with green and brown in it. Nice, but when he laid it against my shoulder it made me look greenish and like I was about to vomit. “See? Nothing with these greens or browns... no earth tones at all. Nothing rusty looking. If you wear winter whites or any kind of pale colours they should be ‘iced’ colours. Still clear but looking as though they have been snowed upon. Lovely style out of northern Yeola-e... perhaps I have an example in an ice blue...” He dove back into the wardrobe...
I blinked at him. “Ser --- Skorsas...” He straightened and looked around the edge of the door.
“Thank you for helping me.”
After absorbing as much advice as I possibly could I fled. Not just out of his office but out of the Palace entire.
I, in the Minakas guise that was becoming more and more onerous, walked out of the Black Gate, quietly and went down to sit at the Gryphon at the Lake. Sera Eren and Ribbons weren't there today. Then I had a thirst for something I had not had in years.
I walked up Sword to the Avenue of Statue and then over to the Puckered Fig.
I hadn’t been there since long before the Sack and I had to stop and stare. Ienas had done well for himself and it looked like the Figgish Gourmand was affiliated with him... a large restaurant. I supposed that made sense. A small bar with a big restaurant. A waiter on faib skates zoomed up from the Gourmand, out onto the patio that encompassed both businesses, circled a table at the Fig and set two plates down before diners there.
The two establishments seemed prosperous and I found myself cheering for their prosperity. What had been next to the Fig? I couldn’t remember. I entered and found the wine bar half empty. I was lucky in that my favourite table came empty as I entered, right under the big window.
“Sor...might I sit at the window?”
The manager looked me over and for some reason decided he wasn’t going to be ruled by my appearance. “Certainly ser.”
He set me by the window and I looked up at the new banners all along the street to the Mezem, advertising the Hariforn Brother’s Circus about to open soon. “Would the Fig have any Tat 153?”
The old vintage. The insanely expensive vintage. I still had half an Imperator’s ransom in gemstones in my possession. I could spend the earth on what was important. Surely I could spend for a glass of wine to calm me down?
“Of... course, serin.”
“Does the Fig still have the fried crisp platter?”
“Oh, no serin. That chef is not here now... May I suggest the rolled beef?”
The platter appeared with magical speed and the glass of Tat. “Might I buy the rest of the bottle, Ser Server?”
“Oh. Yes. Of course, ser.”
I could see the furtive glances out of the kitchen, the eyeballs in tiny cracks of door as they gazed at the insane fessas spender.
The rolls were wonderful. Tender. Spiced perfectly. Wrapped around the green spears of onions and other vegetables. I noted the new arch-way to the eatery making the Fig more focused on the wine but nicely connected the two. That made sense to me. I stuffed the last of the rolls in my mouth and left a pair of gold chains upon the table to pay for food, wine and tip.
I had to figure out how to calm myself down before Chevenga came back from Yeola-e. Perhaps I should speak to Kallijas. There was so little time left that every moment felt like red hot iron pincers on my privates.
I took up the bottle as I left. There was a full glass there for someone. Either Gannara or Farasha. Whoever wanted it. Perhaps two full glasses since I’d only had one.
It was good to see the Fig had survived. I clung to that as I staggered back to the Marble Palace and hid in my suite, in my bed. Gods help me. I have no way of winning. I still have to try.