Sofonisba held her countenance in a remarkably Mahid way and nodded her acknowledgement as she rose. Alaria, her face open as a book, couldn’t keep the chagrin off it entirely. The others merely stood where they rose from their curtsies and waited. Clearly, Sofonisba had either been chosen, or become their First of Mahid.
“Dowager Imperatrix,” Sofonisba said, her voice smooth as cream. “We were certainly in different circumstances at the time. We all believed that there was a life for us, outside Mahid.”
“And you were mistaken?” Inensa’s voice was dry. “It is rather a long time to come forward to claim a name by marriage, that was so vigorously resisted, diligently hated and whose widowhoods were so unseemly joyful. Three years?”
Alaria had not the grace to show shame. The others… it was mixed. All the girls that her own unlamented husband Second Amitzas had married to his rogue Mahid to begin breeding up a new cohort for the new regime he envisioned under her son, where so unlike Mahid born and bred to it that they inspired a headache almost instantly growing behind her eyes. She did not move to pinch the bridge of her nose to try and stop it.
“We… were mistaken, First Sera of the Mahid.” Alaria chimed in. The toddlers with them were admirably quiet. Almost as quiet as they should be but one of the boys had sneaked up on one of the palace cats and pulled its tail. The screech and claw and follow-up howl effectively broke the tension enough to let Inensa massage her temples for a moment, unnoticed.
“Sit down. We must at least speak of this over kaf service,” Inensa snapped.
“These women…” Sofonisba sank gracefully to the indicated chair and as the servants arrived with the kaf trays and service, as subordinate, took up the service role, setting aside her onyxine fan to take up the silver filter and sugar tongs. Inensa noted… and the woman was visibly surprised when she nodded her approval.
“We all took advantage of the assistance of the Yeolis,” she said. “Some of us went back to what families we had left. Some of the children… died or were given away to the House of Red Leaves when born.” Inensa noted the euphemism. Some of the girls had killed their unwanted Mahid children. Not surprising, especially if they were girls. She did not interrupt but the boy who had gotten scratched, now wiggled out of his mother… or keeper’s arms and trotted over to them. “I’m Joras Mahid,” he announced proudly, then hid his face in his hands.
Inensa held up her fan to pause the flow of Sofonisba’s story and answered him. “An ancient and honourable name. Who is your mama?”
“She’s in S’estialis. She was mama!”
“Amatesha Mahid,” Sofonisba broke in. “6th Nuninibas’s wife.”
“Yes. I recall. A very fierce spirit.” Inensa leaned down to where Joras had sat down and begun playing with the laces of his shoes. “Joras. There are other Mahid children to play with. Did you wish to go do that?”
“Can I take Tesha Mama?” One of the other girls, who had another child on her lap.
“Tesha, as Mahid have you sworn to the voted in Imperator?”
“I will have everyone truth-drugged to check their oaths. Sofonisba…” she raised her voice so they all could hear. “I will accept you, provisionally, since you have returned. Mahid is not the same, which I suppose is one reason you risked returning to us. Until your oaths are tested you will be required to remain in the Mahid quarters and have no contact with the other Mahid. Do you understand?”
A murmur of agreement and children were gathered up. “I will have your things brought to you. Sofonisba.” She set down the sugar tongs absolutely correctly, folded her gloves in her lap. “I will continue to hear your report. Joras, good boy for reporting in.” He beamed at her with a smile so like Elasha’s deceased husband that her heart ached.
“Amatesha died last year. She was one of us… displaced ones,” Sofonisba said as the bustle of servants and guards and everyone being escorted downstairs faded. “Many families took their girls back. Especially since the Yeolis saw that there was funding for their ‘pain and trauma’.”
“Of being stolen or even just married into the Mahid, yes.”
“The children… the unwanted… some families would not take their widowed Mahid women back. Alaria’s… solas boy sneered at her as a widow and ‘tainted’ by Mahid touch. She… used one of the techniques you taught her and fled that town to find me.”
“I see. As an honourably widowed Mahid, she was certainly justified in not accepting a mere solas’s opinion of her. They were affianced before my husband stole her?”
“She has a great deal of learning to do to properly channel her rage,” Inensa said and accepted the kaf cup from Sofonisba. “Tell me the rest of it.”
“Dowager… are you not being too trusting?” Sofonisba took up her own cup. “You made me Mahid. Then cut me loose, or some would say set me free of all married constraints. Or, ruined the life I had before. Should you not have your kaf-cup checked after I have handled it?”
“No. I believe I would have noted if you added anything to my cup or to the sweetener, or to the milk.” She set her cup down and turned her hands over on her knees, regarding them curiously. Their cream colour was pristine. “I see I shall need to instruct you on the proper use of drug-detecting fabric.” She reached a fingertip to the toxic ‘White Glow’ in its special pot, rubbed a petal gently and displayed the resultant faint blue spot to Sofonisba who smiled and sipped her kaf.