Wednesday, June 26, 2013

671 - Muunas, All Father of the Ten Gods

For the longest time, there was only the sound of his own breathing, and the pressure of the floor against his body.  His forehead pressed on the wood and actual chill spread into his body.   

The Marble Palace, that huge pile of stone and the warren in the cliff behind, hardly ever warmed. Every time he felt himself starting to doze off, his head wanting to loll to one side, his arms and legs wanting to contract to pull him into a more comfortable position, he rose, bowed before the Presence light, shook out his arms and legs and lay down again, to renew his prayer.

There was nothing.  No answer.  Barely even a sense of the Gods. There was a faint skim of sacredness, like a whiff of incense from a censer passed through a room a bead ago. From outside he could hear Bella whine.

At last, there was a faint chime, an ancient, ancient snatch of hymn on a glass instrument… just like the one in the Temple.  The glass water pipe. Minis rose to sit, and stare up at the light. “Gods… should I ask in the Temple?  Is that what you mean?”

In the silence of the Imperial chapel, there was nothing but ghostly echoes of ritual. “Ten? Muunas help us.”  His only answer was the silence.  He rose, genuflected and carefully closed the door behind himself.

He was grievously tired, but he pulled his shirt and clout out from under Bella’s nose.  She whined at him but lifted her head and let him get the rest of his clothing.  “Come on, dog,” he said, tiredly.  “Let’s go to the Temple.”

His guard, two of the Mahid girls, were ready and waiting if he should need them and they smiled as he climbed into the litter he had to use to keep his feet off the ground across the square.  “Jorasa, Amitza… good evening.”

“It’s late, You Whose Eyes Look Very Hung Over,” Amitza said quietly.

It startled a laugh out of Minis.  “I haven’t been drinking, or smoking herb. I’ve been trying to talk to the Gods.”

Both women nodded without saying anything and took up station in front of him and behind him as the bearers lifted him up.  He trusted their training, as well as the bodyguards that his guard captain, Idiesas, had assigned him, even with the terrorist who had tried to kill him on his Ascension, the self-named ‘Unomas’, still at large in the Empire.

Once in the Temple he wouldn’t need bodyguards, though the Mahid women would go with him.  The Temple, or the Ten Gods, or both had made it pretty clear that he was – so far – Their choice when he’d been saved from a lethal dart at the moment of his anointing as Imperator.

He alighted on the upper steps of the Temple, thanked his bearers, and stood for a moment looking out over Presentation square.  Lamp lights glowed all around the perimeter and along the fountains separating the Marble palace from the square, and in every planter through the entire area.  Shade trees and fountain trees helped keep people cool and were carefully maintained despite their blocking of views.  The sun was just too brutal in Arko to have a perfectly bare stone square.  In this unseasonal heat… very much like a heat wave he remembered as a child, it was still sticky hot and thick though it was the middle of the night.

He rinsed his hands just inside the door and went to lie down before Muunas’s statue and repeat his prayers for assistance, his Mahid waiting just inside the doors, where all Imperator’s guard had waited, traditionally.  The only difference, and it was enough to make traditionalists’ heads spin was that they were female Mahid, not male. The dog curled up at Jorasa's feet, huffing that she was not allowed to follow Minis into the sanctuary.

The gold tiles under my hands are even more cool than in the Marble Palace.  Muunas, All Father of the Ten, Husband, Creator, give leave for the Artificer and the Vivisectionist to help us.  We are in trouble. Help us.

Monday, June 17, 2013

670 - Without Using a Word Like 'Plague'

“Thank you, Atzana,” Minis said and handed her the last letters he had just added personal notes to, notifying every head of state around Arko, and the letter to Haiu Menshir giving his notification of the medical problem… all without used the words ‘plague’ or ‘emergency’.  He didn’t want to cause a panic, and he trusted Intharas’s good sense and years of experience to put out his special edition, notifying the Empire that there was an illness stalking the streets, without causing riots or people mobbing Haians or Maskers.

“I’ve put your speech to Assembly here,” Atzana said, taping the top sheet, looking incredibly tired.  It was so late that all the city chimes but the one were silent.

“I’ll go over it, why don’t you get some rest?  This will hit the streets and Assembly and everyone tomorrow, but you should sleep in.”

“I’m fine, thank you, Minis.  Good night.”  If he knew her she’d be at her desk next morning at the usual time.  His eyes felt gritty.  He’d arranged to have the city water cleaning department heads come into a meeting next morning, just after his intended address to Assembly, something that the Imperator couldn’t just do anymore… he’d had to wake the House Speaker and request an emergency point of information time to be officially read out and voted on, so his speech could jump the queue.  

Everyone would be wild with curiosity of why he needed to make a speech, and it was unlikely that they’d deny him time.  They’d just begun sitting this session and hadn’t yet gotten into the really long, drawn out wrangles that tended to wait until the middle of the sitting.

He needed to find out if the water protocols had changed somehow in the past year, or if anything was different about the Risaen commands in the city that might have caused this.  The weather had been so hot and wet.  He put both hands flat on the desk and levered himself to his feet like a much older man.  Doof didn’t pull her head out from under her wing at all, though Bella sighed up and clattered out at his heels.

He told her firmly ‘sit’ at the door to the Imperial chapel. Then he hesitated at the threshold.  He turned away from the door and leaned against the wall to pull off his slippers, then all the rest of his clothes.  He did fold them so his master of intimate apparel wouldn’t have fits about wrinkles and having things ruined. Bella lay down, with her muzzle on the neatly folded clothes and watched him as he opened the door.

Minis prostrated himself before the presence light, his fears and his prayers a jumble in his head, that the cool wooden floor failed to calm.

Gods, I come before you and am most humbly begging You for help, or for answers, or something.  There are no children being born in the city of Arko, and haven’t been for moons.  Women are bleeding more heavily and the Haians say they were possibly pregnant, but could not carry it.  Goddesses, your Fenjitza tells me this.

Your Fenjitzae tell me that You would not punish us this way, certainly not without enormous fanfare of how and why it is being done. I feel You would not do this.  This must be a natural disaster of some kind… though if I am wrong, oh Ten, then I trust You to make it clear how I err.

 Please help us.  This looks like the boy plague in a different form.  Help us, for I fear this will spread and all human kind will go down to the Summoner.

Monday, June 10, 2013

669 - I See I Shall Have to Instruct You

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?”

“Yes, First.”

“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.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

666 - Next Time

After the Fenjitzas, the Fenjitza and First Amitzas left and he politely put Intheras off a follow up question or two – as if he didn’t know what the old news hound would be sniffing around -- Atzana had a dozen letters for him to approve and sign, and after that four audiences that could not be set aside, delegations who had travelled moons to speak to him.  Even after the Sack, still fresh and clear in every city Arkan’s mind, and the establishment of the new form of government, people still needed to speak to the Imperator.  Perhaps they needed to speak to the Imperator even more than before all the changes.

The new Nellan Ambassador had arrived, with full black robes, heavily beaded with coloured crystals, his wife and his entourage in matching garb, and courtesy absolutely required that Minis meet him personally.   He received them in the Highest Office since nothing less would do and he didn’t particularly want or need to offend the man.

He sat and drank kaf with them, said the right words, welcomed them to their new posting.  The man and his wife left, hopefully feeling soothed and valued in their new position.  It was likely that either he or someone in his entourage was a new spy, but then that was to be expected. Irefas would keep an eye on them as they settled in.

The door had barely closed on them when he sprang up and out to Atzana’s desk.  “Could you hold everything after dinner until I let you know?”

“Of course, Minis.  Don’t forget to eat!”  Is everyone in the Marble Palace conspiring to feed me? “Gannara sent word that everyone was in the bedchamber, not the archery range any longer.”

“Of course.  Thank you, Atzana.”


He could hear their voices down the hallway since the great doors were open.  They didn’t sound tearful, or upset, more thoughtful and the relief he felt was enough that it stopped him where he stood, just listening to them.  He put out a hand and just leaned against the marble railing, setting his forehead against the cool stone.  I was so frightened that everyone would still be grieving.  Well, we are, but it’s not quite like losing a child.  It’s more like losing the latest hope of a child and that is much less of a grief.

But everyone’s tone was subdued.  The women laughed at something, their laughter only a little forced.  Gan’s deep voice chiming in, like music.  The voices of my family.  They support me and they don’t even know I’m here.  Muunas, Selinae… Ten Gods… thank you.  Thank you for this joy, even if we don’t have children yet.  Their voices faded and they must have gone deeper into the suite.

He straightened, took a deep breath, and went in, and through the room, to the balcony where he could see his wife and alesinae next to the Crystal Fountain of Life. “Hey, shouldn’t you all be badgering me to have dinner?  You are all too skinny and should eat!”

It wasn’t a good joke, but it got them to smile at him as he crossed to gather Farasha in his arms, as if his hug and the rushing of the water could enfold her and hold her safe from hurt. “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

He could feel her twitch as she caught her breath.  “Next time.  There’s always next month.”

Minis shook his head, no, but his eyes were open and he stood back, taking her hand on one side and Kyriala’s on the other, Gannara reaching to complete the circle.  He gripped their hands firmly, managed to say it quietly enough that the fountain covered what he said.  “Loves…just between the four of us.  It might not just be us.  There’s a problem in Arko.  It looks like no one is having children in the city now.  Not for the past six moons. I have to try and talk to the Ten and see if the Gods have any answers for us.”

They all stared at him.  Then Kyriala said, quietly, “That makes me feel better and worse at the same time.”