Caution: Mahid Attitudes Articulated. Graphic Violence. Soul Violence.
Minis was glooming again. We’d be in the city today and he was scared. I’m scared. They have to take us to the Marble Palace and we’re all scared.
The First Patrol were nice. They talked to me in Yeoli and it was like big chunks of rock were breaking out of the walls in my head. Right now Ailadas… um… Aimondas… was asking patrol intelligent questions about the city.
“The city sereniteers have everything well in hand, ser,” said Ses. “Not to worry. We’ll get you signed off at the Marble Palace… you might get your niece a quick peek at the public galleries if you like, and it’s early enough. There’s a lot of new things.”
“Ah. Ahem. Quite. Did you hear, my dear? You might be able to start your stay in the city with a tour of galleries that are unequalled.”
“Oh, Uncle, how thrilling!” Kyriala looked up from the book she had on her saddlebow. Since she read with us last night, she’d been going through Ili’s picture books like she was a starving girl and they were chocolate buns. My shadow daddy would say it was like a silverling run and she’s yanking in the nets. Oh. Hmmm. The Yeolis along the road had all said I had a coast accent, but most of them were inland Yeolis and didn’t know more exactly, some guessing Selina or other cities on the seacoast. “I’ll have to write a letter to mama and tell her all about it!” Kyriala was saying.
“My brother will be scandalized but will, of course, read it to her. My dear, will the excitement not be too much for you?” Ailadas was playing the solicitous uncle beautifully and Ky fluttered her eyelashes.
“Uncle Aimondas, I will do my best not to faint!” The two patrolmen rolled their eyes at each other a little. Only a little.
I dropped back to Minis. “Heya, Minakas, didja hear what the sereniteers said?”
He closed his book and blinked at me through his spectacles. The one lens was still not plain glass so they were giving him a headache and put a crease between his eyebrows. “Nah, Rao, what were that?”
“We’re going all the way to the Marble Palace because that’s where the garrison is.”
“Ah, yeha, Rao. They said a couple days ago I think. I never thought I’d get tah see it. And now, my lil professional god, I will.”
My heart was hammering in my chest but surely no one… surely there would be no one who would recognize any of us? “—so we shall be seeing mostly the administrative wing?” Ailadas was asking.
“Yes ser. Just past the White Gate.”
“Splendid! Ahem. Magnificent! Minakas, remember to take notes on the architecture!”
More and more buildings had been built along the road until now they were almost as close as in the city. The crowds were almost as thick as when we were dragged out of the city but this time it wasn’t a terrified mob of refugees.
A beer wagon, then another, and a third. Carts full of vegetables. Single people with handcarts and back-packs. Horses with panniers. Donkey carts and a herd of beef cattle heading to the slaughter yards downwind. A couple of early fishmongers having relayed from the coast. The fish was so fresh it didn’t smell at all. The cows were stinkier. Even this early in the day and on a perfectly paved road there was dust everywhere.
We got moved to one side as a full caravan, probably of early wheat, passed us by. I didn’t count the wagons as that was seen as bad luck. There was a post with a triple thickness of posters glued one over the other on it, the top one about a vote to be held in several moons.
A good spearcast away there was a watering trough by the side of the road and a speaker stood on the edge of it, clinging one handed to the curlicues of stone decorating its top, his other hand waving another of the horrible signs. I was just as glad the noise was enough that I couldn’t hear what he was bellowing.
“Hey, look you can see the morning couriers going. The Niah ones!” There were what looked like enormous soaring birds rising and falling over the city circling up or down and I realized they weren’t birds. They were people. I’d seen them before but just didn’t think they might be the wing-things. Minis nearly rode into me, staring up at them.
The sides of the road were rising gradually as the road plunged into the entrance area of the Main Gate. All the banners were up though they alternated the Yeoli Blue and Green with the Arkan Eagle. A whistle blast and a wheeled courier picked up speed in front of us, coming out, the whistle sound rising and falling as he passed us. He wasn’t the usual courier on skates… I had to stare. He was in a wheeled chair, with arms as thick as most people’s thighs and a couple of big dogs towed his chair along, happy tongues lolling out of their open mouths. I put my hands up as his whistle spiked into my ears.
I’d gotten used to quiet. This was… I folded in on myself and struggled to get used to it. I lived in the noise before. I could again. Everybody closed their books against the dirt kicked up and we moved into the underground part of the Main Gate.
That was pretty much the same but this time I wasn’t frightened of it. After the Tunnel this little hole in the ground was about as scary as a hole pawed by Ili’s donkey. The outer gates were being scraped down by people sitting on swing-chairs and scaffolding, pulling off long flakes of sun-faded paint. An eyeblink after we went in past the outer Gate, just long enough for eyes to begin to adjust and ears to take in the wind-roaring echos of all that noise crammed down into the hole, we came back out into the blazing sun halfway up the walls, with Arko – the new Arko, the rebuilt Arko -- all laid out before us.
We all gasped and Ili yelled ‘Look! Look!” waving his bear at the city from Minis’s lap. At first glance it was just as it had been then, but then things began to jump out.
The biggest, the first thing, was the Eagle. The carving that had been gilded, glittering, spreading its wings over the shining white towers of the city, was bare.
The road sereniteers have been very helpful, even though I was frightened of the Yeoli ones at first. Minis, as was proper, and safe, withdrew into the fessas secretary/librarian but I caught him gazing off with that peculiarly blank Mahid face he wore when he was struggling to control himself. Most people wouldn’t notice because it was so neutral, but I did.
The two young men escorting us this time were Yeolis, both of them, and I was no longer afraid of rapine. They were actually charming. Very personable, both spoke Arkan very well, even if equal to equal.
“Have you ever been to the city, ker?” One of them said to me.
“It’s serina, in Arkan, Ses, not ker!” The other one, named Ticherao interrupted his partner to correct him. Thank goodness neither of them could tell a city Arkan Aitzas accent.
Ailadas and Gannara are both riding in earshot, and Kaita directly behind me, very properly. This close to the city the sereniteers needn’t ride protection before and behind so far, and the main road, though crowded allowed us to ride so that we could speak.
“Why no, honoured sereniteers,” I said. “My family is hoping I shall be presented this season and find a wealthy husband.”
“Ah.” Both of the young men looked confused. “Does no one in Yeola-e marry like that?”
“Ahem. My dear niece… that might be too much for your delicate sensibilities.” Ailadas cut in, as he should. “Yeolis marriage customs –“
The two patrolmen began coughing, trying not to laugh and one mercifully changed the subject. “Ser, you are going to a post at the University?”
“Ahem, quite, I am very proud to be called to the city itself. Where will you honourable gentlemen be leaving us? I was assuming your charge would end at the Gates, since the streets of the city are kept in good and safe order, ahem, and thought I should inquire?”
“Oh, we’ll be taking you folks all the way to the Marble Palace itself,” Sesina-e, the young man who had called me ‘ker’, which must be polite Yeoli, said. I wanted to hide behind my fan but needed both my hands on the reins of this lovely little mare. So much had changed in my life and I was going to be home soon. Oh, I was suddenly homesick for a place that I knew had to be gone.
I didn’t know if my father was alive, or any of my family. Would the house be there? The last time I saw the city it was full of refugees from the war, the whole city seething with fear. And these young men, not much older than I… had they been part of it? I cast my eyes downward.
I had refused to think of these things. Minis… of all people, had lost the most from the Yeoli conquest and he… liked the new Imperator. The Gods apparently liked the new Imperator. I had to admit, I hadn’t like the old Imperator. Selinae forgive me for being repulsed by the man who would have been my father by marriage.
It would be home but not home. It might all be destroyed. To be honest I had deliberately not thought of home most of the time we were away. I’d had my harsh nights when all I could think of was my mother’s garden, my grandmothers’ and aunties in the kitchen, father’s smoking room and his library, his shaking hands struggling to hold a book so his one eye could read it. Peace. Calm and security all in flames.
I’d had to leave it, almost completely for the Marble Palace already. I’d mourned my childhood as a new betrothed often does. But this was different. I found it hard to breathe.
The sereniteers were doing their best to describe the Marble Palace to us, the bumpkins from the country, and they were doing very well. It sounded as if there wasn't that much changed, at least, and they're telling me reminded me, I would have to ooh and ahh appropriately and ask lots of questions as they guided us through the changed city. I looked back at Kaita and she nodded at me. She was so good to have as a friend and very sensible.
“How astonishing,” I said finally to stop the bedazzling flow of words. If anything, Yeolis were certainly not a reticent people. Perhaps things would not be as bad as I feared. Perhaps Minis was right and that the city was much recovered.
Selinae, hold Thy hand over my family, please. A prayer I had worn into a little path in my head and embroidered over and over on a handkerchief like tapestry, so there was no white showing at all.
I excused myself and dropped back to where I could overhear Minis teaching Ilesias how to read. It fit with a lot of things I had wondered. Which symbol meant what sound. I longed to lean over and see the picture book. Hmmm. That had been in the Pages. I could read now. I was allowed.
“Minakas, when that one is finished with the boy’s first book, I wish to see it.”
He blinked at me. “Of… of course, serina. At the exalted’s command.” Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I had a few ideas from sitting in my little brother’s school room before I had to go to the Marble Palace but I could be taught how to read now. I shook my head. Obviously I was caught up in habits of thought. I just had to change that. My life was about to change drastically again.