“Sera, please step in. It is quite secure,” First Amitzas cracked the door of the Most Venomous Menagerie and let Sukala in. The dim room had its reddish lights turned low and the moist breath of heat was full sharp reptilian odours.
“I’ve already said that it’s Sukala, not Sera,” she said tartly and bent to examine a sealed glass tank full of what appeared to be a seething ball of striped legs.
“Ah, yes, Sukala. Those are nesting Tiger centipedes.”
She looked around the room, filled with tanks, floor to ceiling, the ceiling itself built as though a tree were growing above, the roots protruding and hanging down. “That’s lovely!” she said quietly. “I have an idea.” She turned to look at a black and red spider in an enormous web, its delicate legs feeling along the strands. “Bring your bodyguard candidates through here.”
“Whatever use would that be?” Inensa sat down on a low chair near one of the feeding stations.
“No, daughter, I believe that would be correct.” Amitzas sat down as well. Sukala shook her head at the offered gilded chair and settled, content, cross-legged on the floor. “Anyone who does extremely well in the games might have a hidden fear or phobia. This would be most revealing.”
“Yes,” Sukala said. She tilted her head slightly, vaguely birdlike. “Tell me, Amitzas, however did you come away from being the Imperial Pharmacist to Kurkas without being crazy?” Inensa froze, staring at her, then her eyes flashed over to gauge her father’s reaction.
He actually smiled back at her. “I have never said I wasn’t crazy, my dear Sukala.” He turned to a round cage and popped the door open, tapped on the glass, hissing through his teeth. “A Haian friend of mine still considers me quite mad, though healing. I’m Mahid, we’re raised crazy.” A tiny grey and black snake slithered out of the tank and he blocked it from sliding up his sleeve. It coiled and then disappeared into his glove, while he secured the tank with the other hand.
“I see. That explains quite a bit. It seems to me that most Arkans are raised up with their souls shattered into pieces.”
Inensa nodded, half unconsciously. “I would never have said anything like that, Sukala. It seems vaguely rude.”
“Daughter, I suggest you pay attention to the intent behind the question, rather than to your emotional reaction. It is not meant as an insult.”
“Oh, never!” Sukala leaned forward to look at the head of the serpent, just peeking out of the cuff of his glove, on his wrist. “May I?” She held out her wrinkled, work-hardened old hand.
“It is venomous, Sukala, though not of a ferocious nature and not inclined to bite.” His eyebrows went up and he held out the serpent toward her. The tiny flicker of tongue tasted her skin and to his obvious surprise it slithered out to coil in her palm. She cupped her other hand over it to give it a sense of shelter, since she was gloveless.
“I am corrected, my Father,” Inensa said. She sounded unsettled.
“You see, I’m still learning about you youngsters,” Sukala said, peering into the cup of her hands. “My adorable scourge – that would be your Kalicha – he’s taught me a great deal about how good solas are raised. And Minis... that boy could have been a Mahid he cuts himself up so much. Now I’m learning what Aitzas and Mahid did to themselves and their children.”
First Amitzas snorted at hearing himself described as a ‘youngster’. “So once we have the Physical Games done, and I and the other Arkan experts have spoken to the newly chosen, you’re going to take them up into a mountain cave for a moon and teach them?”
“If you cannot unsettle them then it will be my job to see if I can.” The snake was coiling around her fingers now, in and out of the fleshy cage her hands made. “I think she likes me.”
“You know, I think she does too. I find that being calm around any animal helps my ‘integration progress’, as Alchaen says.” He held out his glove with a cricket in it.
“That’s your friend? Ch’venga’s psyche healer?” The snake slid over to Amitzas’s glove, struck the cricket with a flicker-fast dart and held on while the insect struggled, then stilled. He set it back into its tank in a feeding trance.
“Yes. On reflection it is very strange. There have been flickers of what the vast bulk of humanity call sanity in my latter life. I consider that the shattered quite naturally attempt to coalesce into a single whole person. I could be wrong. Alchaen tells me of people who are ‘a troop’ or ‘a crowd’ in a single body, deciding that they are happier so.”
“Truly, Father? That would explain a great deal of Mahid behaviour,” Inensa spoke up. “Quite like a drop of frozen silver that is shattered upon a table but merges happily with itself when gathered into a single container.”
“An excellent analogy, daughter.”
“Seems to me like you made an art of shattering kids so they would grow up the right degree of crazy for Kurkas.”
“We did. That is no longer the case.” Amitzas stirred. “Shall we continue this tour? Or did you wish to pause for tea? If so we need to go out. I seldom allow house-servants in here. Besides, it makes them uncomfortable.”
“Show me the rest of your treasures, Amitzas!” Sukala said happily, rising up and smacking non-existent dust off the eye-searing combination of silks she wore. “You know, people would probably really enjoy seeing these creatures... as long as they felt safe. Hah! You could frighten people just by walking into a room. Then your animals would seem safer to look at since you are more frightening than they are!”
She took in the fact that he'd gone still and set his teeth, his gloves suddenly clawlike. His face was carefully blank.
He rose, nodding at Inensa to open the door to the heat and light creatures room for him, hands knotted together in spasm. “An intriguing idea.”
“Your hands hurting you? Let me see, old man.”
He snorted again. “Old man, indeed!” But he laid one of his tight-clenched claws into Sukala’s hands, to Inensa’s carefully hidden shock. “Daughter, perhaps you should...”
“...I’ll fetch some tea and kaf, Father. I shall be some little time.”
He hissed in pain as Sukala’s thumbs touched a particularly painful spot. "You've been letting that tiny adder sting you to help with this? Bees can help," Sukala said quietly.
“Thank you, Daughter,” he said to her rigid, retreating back, not answering the sage who kept up her careful palpation.
Inensa left, back straight, carefully sealing the doors behind herself. I refuse to notice that I am fleeing the room and the company of both these unsettling old people!