I sat in the mane artist’s chair and breathed deeply as he had me tipped to one side, trying to relax. The tug at the nape of my neck wasn’t painful and every moment or so he would flip another length of hair from his hands to fall forward across my chest out of the way as he sewed the next lock in. It was so strange, reversing the cutting process.
Skorsas was right, the man, Febran, was brilliant. He wore the briefest whisps of gloves that left his fingers free to do the work. The shampoo artist was his apprentice who washed my hair in the dark because he needed his hands bare to do the work properly, so he said, and apologized for his impropriety through necessity.
I was becoming Minis Aan once more. This Minis… who was he? Not the Brat. Not the Spark in Exile getting pounded upon. Not Minakas Akam writing his stories and running around any country he wanted, with his heart’s brother and little brother. Not Sinimas Akam… nose ring and ear cuffs and bright blue hair. He had been the freest of all of my faces.
This Minis… I looked at myself in the mirror, seeing a stranger. Was I the Minis who could win an Empire? I wished very very hard that my father hadn’t been the fat guy… the one who could piss on the floor if an attendant was too slow and still be feared instead of ridiculed. His position had taught him no self control whatsoever and that had made him terrifying instead of funny.
I took a deep breath and Febran said, “Serin… if the exalted would tilt the head in the other direction?”
“Certainly,” I said, though I could hardly not do it, with his fingers gently poking me in the side of the head. “And I prefer the equal to equal mode, if you please.” I said, equal to equal.
“Of course… Serin.” His deft tugging and pulling began around the other side of the nape of my neck. “A dreadful tragedy, Serin, that you had to cut your hair… for your safety, I understand?”
Like most mane artists he was chatty. I don’t need to hide any longer. “Yes, actually. I was being pursued by the Marble Palace at the time, and the last of the rogue Mahid. I certainly wanted to take them all off my trail.” The rumour fires about me were already hot. This would, of course, throw alcohol on those flames. Perhaps this would be good… getting the Pages of the lip going, before Chevenga, Kallijas and I made my announcement to the Pages of the world. It was only going to fire everyone’s curiosity.
In the mirror I could see his eyes narrow as he thought and his lips purse, but that could have been in concentration with what he was doing. “We’ll have you back to your proper appearance shortly, serin. Not to worry.”
“I’m not worried. Thank you. You have an amazingly deft touch.”
“You’re welcome. I must say, serin… you are much more polite than I expected.” Oh he was sharp, this one. I stifled the bolt of fear that shot through me. I was not only going to be officially out of hiding when Chevenga came back… I was going to be running for Imperator.
Shefenkas’s lifelong secret
By Intharas Terren
Imbas 22, 51 YPA
It is true. Though best all Arko know the correct version, as we and other news dissemination concerns bring to you from the Imperator’s own lips, rather than credit stories running unreliably on the street.
In its bare essence: Fourth Shefenkas Shae-Arano-e has been possessed of a certainty that he would not live longer than thirty years, from the age of seven years until about a month ago, when he engaged the services of a healer.
He is twenty-eight and a half years old.
The story was brought to me two nights ago. The next morning I begged a twentieth-bead with the Imperator to ask for confirmation, expecting him to deny it, and so kill the matter except for rumours, whether it was true or not. He confirmed it, rather, and called a formal meeting of all writers for the next morning. At that morning he gave a full account, which I quote verbatim, then answered questions.
I let my eye skim over the account of the press gathering. I had my notes on it and I still wondered how his children were taking it. No one seemed to be covering that angle, though The Donkey’s Mouth had touched on it with the Imperatrix’s interview, since many women seemed to be reading that publication.
Of course I didn’t have time to write it.
“Cousin Joras?” I found him pacing the Mahid quarters, up and down the hall. Since his fessas cover had been glass-working he found it hard to be idle, and Grandfather was seeing to the re-arrangement of some of the cells to a place where he could work. His caste blindness had only shifted slightly since the raid and he still could not seem to find the Mahid stone face in him any longer, which I found very reassuring on a number of levels. It was odd to see him smiling outside of Jitzmitthra.
“Yes, cousin?” He turned, with a smile for me.
“I have a proposition for you, while you are waiting to be able to work...”
“Why don’t you come into my room and talk, hmmm?”
It was so odd to see the way they had changed their married quarters. It was no longer Mahid rigid. His wife was sitting, reading... reading... in what would have been his part of the suite. There were pages and pages of what looked like possible glass designs pinned to the walls and a drafting table they had instead of a more conventional table. “Elsha, my dear. I need to talk to my cousin.”
“Of course, husband.” And she smiled too. “I’ll get us some kaf and perhaps a few of those buns you like. Cousin? Anything I may fetch while I am in the kitchens?”
I gulped. They had changed so fast. So fast. “Um, I like the fanillas cakes...”
And she left us.
“So, cousin...” he settled into a tall chair at the drafting table, but turned toward me. “A proposition?”
“I’m going to be going outside the protection of the Marble Palace security and I will need someone to guard my back... and I would rather hire a relative... someone who knows me.”
His face grew very thoughtful. “Hmmm. I would gladly do this, Minis if I could.”
“I have permission from the Senior. At least to ask you. And you’ve already stood guard at my back.”
He shook his head firmly. “No... no... I would be concerned that I had forgotten everything I knew... like how to guard, how to fight.”
“Joras...” I tested my shoulder. It was still sore and I wouldn’t be cleared to do more than stretch for another eight-day. “We can still test this. I’d like to do that, in fact, before we go any further. Do you have time?”
He snorted. “Until the glassworks is ready to begin I have nothing but time.” He indicated his drawings. “I’m afraid I’m running so far ahead of my designs I’ll be bored of half of them before I get to make them...” He got up not realizing, still, that he moved like a trained Mahid. He wouldn’t have been training either. “Come on. I’m interested in finding out what’s there.”
The Mahid training salle wasn’t dusty, since it was cleaned by the same staff that had always done so, but it had the cool, silent feel of a place long unused. “I...I’m not sure how to start.” Joras looked a bit lost.
“Well, the first command is ‘Attention’,” I offered. He nodded but there wasn’t any kind of recognition, no reaction. I sighed and took advantage of my new look... I eased into my best approximation of 2nd Amitzas’s training stance, legs shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind my back, making my face go blank. “Usually snapped... kind of like ‘ATTENTION!’”
I couldn’t get the requisite hiss into it but he snapped out of his slouch and gave the right response ‘SENIOR!’ It was odd. His face went still. Three steps put his toes at the line in the floor – a different coloured marble – and he began the normal Mahid warm-up. He didn’t show much sign of not having trained for a time but then that was part of it. Never show how sore or stiff you are. I stepped out of that stance as he moved.
He did two or three moves... then stopped. “Ah. Ouch. I suppose I can...” He was staring down at his gloves, fingers flexing slowly. He stared as though they were not his own. Then he looked up at me, rueful. “Well, I suppose you’ll be as safe with me as I am now, as when I remembered I was Mahid, hmmm?”
“Yes, Joras. That’s why I specifically wanted you.”
“I need to get my edge back, but I’ll do that. It will give me something else to do while I wait.”
“Wonderful. Would you be able to ride with me this afternoon?”
“Of course, cousin.” He gestured and we went back to his rooms where Elsha was just pouring kaf. So normal. So weird. So normal. I managed to swallow a cup of kaf and nibbled on a pastry while we chatted... just talked. Joras’s glass designs reflected his Mahid sensibility. He was working on a series of vases and bowls done in black glass and silver etching but also copper and a wild blue metal that I didn’t know the name of.