The Imperial stable was dark at this time of night, with only the one flameless lantern at the end of the corridor, even the glow stones from Brahvniki hooded dark. Inensa walked along, the brick pressing hard against the soft soles of her slippers, sleepy horse noses emerging over doorways all the way down as curious horses caught her scent.
Viper’s stall was at the other end from the light and was the dimmest. Since she wasn’t anywhere near foaling yet there was no one standing foal watch. Inensa stood for a long moment, letting her eyes adjust to how dark it was in the loose box before opening the latch and sliding the door open enough for her to step in.
Viper was already awake and Inensa smiled at the horse attempting to lie to her. “Equus, cease assail,” she whispered and the mare snorted at her softly, her posture easing into true relaxation instead of pretending to be asleep.
Inensa stood for a moment, then flipped up the folding bench built into every loose box and sat down on it, hands in her lap. And said nothing to the lump of sulky teenager in the corner opposite, behind the horse.
She said nothing for a long time.
“Go away,” Ili said, at last. “Pseudo mama, this isn’t about you... or my brother… or anybody but me.”
“It is about us inasmuch as we are concerned about your health and well being, pseudo son,” she said.
“You’re just worried about what people will think,” he growled. “I’m the one being embarrassed and humiliated and I still stink of mammoka shit and life sucks dead fang-lions! Life is just horrible. That Haian girl won’t talk to me except to report on Jia’s and Sophi’s eggs! Dyers are making up horrid comedy songs about me getting pooped on and we have to do three more whole days of carrying stone to fix that building. Everything is horrible and Nuninibas is saying ‘I told you so,’ often enough that I had a fight with him and told him to shut up so he’s not talking to me and Didi just laughs when I try to tell her how bad I feel. She says it’ll all go away. She says just get through this. She says laugh at the people trying to shame me and I just can’t.”
“That, unfortunately, is the nature of being a public figure where the populace is close to their leader and vote on his behavior.”
There was just an inarticulate growl from Ili’s corner and Viper shifted over nervously. “You’re disturbing one of your favourite horses hiding here,” Inensa said. “Your body servant told me that you’ve been sleeping here instead of in your own bed.”
“Viper doesn’t mind. She’s used to the smell of mammoka on me. She likes Fluffy, even though Fluffy doesn’t have much hair left. She looks really weird, shorn, except for the top of her head and over her shoulders. That was the only part of her not stinky after we bathed her.”
“She is all right then?” Inensa knew very well that the mammoka was all right but wished for Ili to repeat it.
“Yes, she’s fine. But she still blames me for feeling bad and I’m all over black and blue because she pinches me when I go see her.”
“Do you blame her?”
“No! It wasn’t her fault at all!”
“You don’t smell that bad, pseudo son. Another lime bath and a massage with scented oil and you’ll be acceptable in polite company once more. Your brother is worried about you and would have looked for you himself but will not risk leaving the Temple these last moons.”
“I know, I know,” Ili snapped, unreasonably. “The babies, the babies. That baby Ky still has is going to be the Spark of the Sun’s Ray and I’ll be back to just Coronet Regal again.”
“Just Coronet Regal?” She let her sentence fall into the straw, before taking up her words. “Do you want to be Spark? Are you a threat to the unborn babe?”
“No! Never! I’d RATHER be Coronet Regal again. That way it won’t be so rough if… when I mess up again.”
“Pseudo mama, I’m never going to live this down! I’m going to be Iliesias Mammoka Chili Poop for the rest of my LIFE!”
Inensa had to smile to herself. “I realize it feels that way. But that’s not true. You were Ilesias the Lion Painter once.”
“I just painted the moustache on the one lion…” Ili’s answer was a little more thoughtful, a little less distraught and a little less despairing.
“I think you need to think on how to make it up to Fluffy and Tirchaer and let everyone else just get over it,” Inensa pointed out, quietly. “They’re the ones whose opinion is hurting you the most.”
“I… guess.” The straw rustled as he sat up and Viper turned around and nuzzled his head. “Stop, you big silly,” he said absently. “How do I make it up to Fluffy?”
“I don’t know. I do not understand what pleases a mammoka. You said once that she was vain. Perhaps new trappings to hide her shavedness? Would a new friend or another mammoka please her? Will the King of Laka even consider selling you another one?”
“If… if I could write to King Astalaz and ask… hey! Tirchaer would like that too. It’ll cost most of my household budget to do it, but I could ask Minis if he’d lend me some chains…If the King will even sell one. Do you think he’d sell a boy?” He flung an arm up around Viper's neck.
“So you could breed them? Probably not. But you might ask.”
The mare next door farted and eliminated and Inensa pinched her nostrils with one gloved hand. “Perhaps we could continue this discussion in your quarters?”
“Maybe tomorrow, pseudo mama. I should probably take that bath and then go sleep. I still have brick to carry and I'm really tired and I have a couple of papers to write.”
“I shall be pleased to have you take your meals with me, privately tomorrow should you wish,” she said. “I will listen to your complaint.”
He laughed, a little derisively at himself. “You’ll listen and not just tell me I’m a whiny idiot who doesn’t know how good he has it?”
“I’ll listen,” she repeated. “And refrain from commenting.”
“Just like Tanifas. All right. Thank you, pseudo mama.”
“You’re welcome, pseudo son.”