I am being tortured by the dark face of Muunas but I refuse to go down on my face before such perversions of the Ten.
I arch back, chest open, and my head back, struggling to breathe. Is there any air here at all? Is this my eternal Hayel? My open eyes light on a single spark of brightness in all this black. There is a fire bird sitting on the highest spire of this black Temple, the only spot of colour in this Hayel of a city.
As I see it, suddenly also can I hear it. It sings, the blazing red and gold and green tailfeathers swooping down… Kyriala was wearing a Niah feather design in her hair, just like that. For my Ten Tens. A firebird. Kyriala. It is her voice.
“Ten silver horses, to carry you home…” The simple, ancient lullaby pours over me like warming sunlight and the moon is risen and a herd of silver horses comes galloping down to me.
“Nasty? Nasty? Who turned you silver?”
He tosses his head. It’s Nasty -- as if someone took his sooty head and made him white. I fling myself on his back and he, followed by the other nine horses, plunges up into the sky.
“Carry me home, Nasty. Carry me home to Kyriala and Gannara and Farasha…” Even if I cannot breathe, I can cling.
He was thrashing now, in my arms. “Minis. Come back to me.” He had not drawn a breath. I’d be able to feel it if he had. “Breathe, Minis. You need to breathe to be alive.”
I was laughing and crying both with fear and relief and hope. The intense crackle of the lightning isolating us was fading. It was thin enough to look like bars of lightning around us rather than a ball. He stiffened and his hands moved. His hands came up to cling to my arms and then he took an enormous breath that shook him all over. Then another. “We’re here Minis.”
He was breathing. He was alive in my arms, not marble, not stone any longer and the mark on his chest, that was a burned black sunburst had faded from black to raw red, to pink to white; as if it were an old scar, inflicted years ago. His eyes drifted open as if he was just waking from sleep and wandered, flinched shut at the intense light all around us. Then opened again and he looked at me as if to reassure himself that I was truly there, not just something he made up.
Heedless of what people might think I pulled him up to kiss him, as the lightning and the noise disappeared as if cut off. He kissed me back, and Chevenga’s healer and his healer were both there. They must have just been on the outside of the lightning. “Let us see, let us examine him, Minis…” They began their emergency checking but he was fine. I was weeping harder now, but it was with joy, my gloves… heedless of the embroidery I wiped his face with my gloves, and my own. We were both in tears now. Minis was a little confused still.
I understood that they needed to check him but I just moved around so that his head was in my lap and he lay stretched flat on the tiles, people all around us. A perfect babble. “What happened?” He said, looking up at me. “No, I feel fine, a little wobbly, but I’m fine, Akminchaer. I’m fine, Kaninjer.” Gan and Fara were here and he said “What am I doing on the Temple floor? Didn’t I do my Ten Tens? I can’t have failed them, I’d be dead.”
“No, no,” we all told him. “You did them. You’re Imperator.” The Haians wanted him to go to bed for the rest of the day, instead of carving and serving at the feast. He was depleted as if he were recovering from an illness.
Then Gan said, “Some kevyalin asshole tried to kill you and the Temple saved your butt.”
Minis blinked and then smiled up at all of us. “I love you. I love you all. Let me get up. Please, give me your hands. I need to get up. There’s work to do.”
With our help, he was solid enough on his feet that they put the Imperial robe on him, though we won’t let him go. His mother touched his arm as we helped him up, his Grandfather nodded solemnly at him. All our state visitors were being reassured. I caught Virani-e’s eye and he nodded, just slightly and smiled.
“The assassin has been caught, Imperator,” Idis said. “The area is secure but I would be just as happy to see You, and the rest of the Imperial family, safe back in the Marble Palace.” I felt the deep breath Minis took, and reveled in how good that felt under my arm. “Thank you, Idiesas. But it seems to me that I am perfectly safe in the Temple itself. Ili…”
His little brother, his guard having gotten the all clear from Captain Idiesas, ran to us and threw himself at Minis to hug him and rocked the whole knot of us. “You were inside a ball of lightning, Minis! The Temple made all these weird noises… and –“
“Shh, Ili yes, thank you. You may tell me all about it when I am lying down. I do think I’ll have to get all of you help me finish my procession back to the Marble Palace. People need to see that I’m all right.”
I felt unreal, unsettled in my body and the weight of the Imperial robe was actually reassuring. I kept hold of Ky and Gan. Ili had hold of me and then helped me by picking up the bottom edge of the robe so I didn’t have the whole weight of it on me.
“You did really well, Minis,” Virani-e said. “Everything is going as it should.” He was quoting his healer, Surya.
Fish and Cream and Riala and all the Dyers were there, just outside at the bottom of the stairs, drumming, and I thought “that really was almost like the drums in the Temple…” and was glad because I remembered something. They were whooping and the whole group of them were dancing in place, the crowd was too thick to do much more.
I… couldn’t remember anything past the morning preparations. But here I was, anointed, robed, my body feeling insubstantial. People had Imperator’s glass, the Fenjitzae had the glass circlet and the glass things I would have made in my Ten Tens. The crowd was chanting my name again.
It was a bit like hearing them confirm me in my body. Yes, this is who I was. This was reality. “You need to eat something,” Akminchaer said. “Yes,” Kaninjer added. “And have some water as well.”
“Thank you. Thank you all.” I felt as though I wanted to prostrate myself to them but I knew I’d be too shaky to get up again. Someone must have let the animals out because Doof came flying ahead of Bella’s enormous woof, but blessedly she landed on Gan’s head rather than mine. I could see Altras, his tail curled around his feet, sitting in the exact centre of the Steel Gate, waiting.
Doof squawked. “Let’s EAT!”