767 -The Hearthstone *In*dependent
I found out the next day what Yeolis would think when they saw my face: I would have to hide it if we wanted to get anywhere. Mostly the crowds came to embrace me tenderly, and give me blessings; after Shemeya had played spy to discover where I’d been then Asaya quoted me there, it was no secret. “I voted charcoal!” they’d say, and “Curse those Arkans for taking you away from us!” Or the warriors: “Is this what we fought them for, Beloved?” I would ask whether they now thought Arko and Yeola-e should be two separate nations, which would get them thoughtful, and fairly often saying “Yes.” Though I hadn’t planned or known it, I had worked good in Yeola-e as well as Arko.
But they had semanakraseyeni history on their minds, too. More than anything else, they told me, usually whispering in my ear as they held me in their arms, “Live long, Chevenga.” I would just say, “Thank you.”
I meant to go through Terera on the sly, but right in the middle of downtown, Niku threw back her hood and announced to everyone within earshot of her battlefield, or more exactly, battle-sky, voice: “I’m here, so you know who else is!” With all the waving, hugging, clasping hands, chatting just for a bit with each person I knew and showing off the kids, and no reason to hurry, it took us three beads to get to the falls.
Skorsas and Kallijas were waiting at the lip. Not Shaina and Etana or my other parents or kids, though; “They’re waiting at home, Jewel of the World,” Skorsas said. “Hmm… should we blindfold him now, or where the road forks, Kall, Nik, what do you think?”
“Now,” said Niku. “You know him, he’ll notice something too soon.”
“Chalk,” said Kall. “No questions, Sheng. You trust us, don’t you?”
All I could tell of where they were leading me with the silk scarf over my eyes was that it was up the mountain on a path my feet did not know, that went quite high. Ahead I heard a child’s giggle, bird-high with excitement, then a big door closing though I didn’t think there were any buildings at this height. In the crisp spring air I smelled new wood and paint and mortar as well as pine and mud. After taking what seemed like a century positioning me in exactly the right place and then turning me in precisely the right direction, they untied the scarf.
Standing before me, so new that the snow-patched ground around it was still raw, was a house with stonework in the style of the Hearthstone Dependent. Well, in all honesty, mansion would be a better word for it. The centre was three storeys, the wings two, and sprawling. Everything spoke restrained quality: the windows were all Arkan glass, the roof shining grey tile, the double front doors oaken and carved with patterns, but not Arkan-elaborate. It was one of those places whose outside did not shout but whispered, to one who could hear, of subtle wonders within. Though it was too new to look homey, that would not take long as long as there were plenty of people living in it.
“All-Spirit help us,” I said. “Who built this? And why?”
They’d been peering at my face, their faces all shining like children’s about to hand someone an unprecedented gift. Now they all broke out laughing, as if they’d been waiting a long time for this. “Read the keystone,” Skorsas said.
This house was built in fall and winter of 1553, by the funds of all those thousands who wished to aid in his welfare and happiness, and by the planning of his family, with the deepest love and gratitude, for Chevenga Aicheresa.
I dropped my face into my hands, and would have keeled over if Skorsas hadn’t caught me. The door burst open and a wave of shrieking children, led by Makaina, came flooding out and washed all around me, grabbing my shoulders, my hands, my belt, my kilt, whatever they could reach, and tugging me toward the door. There were adults in the ambush too, waiting inside in the anteroom, which was as big as many Yeoli houses in itself: all the rest of my parents, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my surviving sibs, all my close friends in Assembly Palace and the town. Esora-e knifed open the first jug while the kids dragged me off for the tour. I could hardly see anything for tears.
It doesn’t befit me to describe what was given me. I squirmed enough receiving it; how had this ever got Assembly approval? Suffice it to say the whole place was understatedly top-quality, with a touch of whimsy where one would least expect it, there were enough rooms for all of us and many, many guests, they’d thought of everything, and it was indescribably beautiful. The thing that struck me most was, in a chamber of its own, a fully-functioning spawn-press, complete with a plaque with my name on it. There was even a clinic for Kaninjer; yes, he had been on this too. Everyone had been in on it, weaving a web of conspiracy around me that I hadn’t even come close to penetrating.
Now I knew what Skorsas had meant when he’d said the rest of my family was at “home.” Also what business he and Kallijas had left Haiu Menshir for, and why, come to think of it, Kaninjer had urged me to stay longer on Haiu Menshir, then Niku on Ibresi. (At one point during the party Esora-e asked me what I’d done in Ibresi, so I took my crystal in my hand and said, “Second Fire come if I lie, I threw my mother-in-law off a cliff. Then, since that wasn’t enough, another cliff, and another…”)
When I came back to the Earthsphere somewhat—the wine helped—I drew Skorsas aside. “Tell me in truth, how you did this,” I said.
“What, you think the keystone lies?” he said. “You knew people were sending money… we just decided, partly on Perahin’s advice, not to tell you quite how much. I didn’t put a copper link of ours into this, and there’s still some left over. We had to let you choose how to spend some—ah ah ah, now, no good works, it was for you.” How I’d choose to spend it, I had no idea. “The press will pay for itself in a few years; it’s booked solid already and I’ve hired a man, who is willing to teach you if you wish. You get to pull the lever to start it the first time, though. It was that herd of politicians downslope who gave us the land, all chalk except for the worst of the usual piddling-minded idiots. You have friends everywhere, heart of the world.”
So, this had come about by the will of the people, voting with their ankaryel. I would never have accepted anything so huge, except for that. There had been some objections, but few; I’d learn more once I came out of political sequestration, which was only two moons or so away. A little later, someone in Assembly made a quip referring to the place as “the Hearthstone Independent,” and that name stuck, becoming the common one, though please note it was never on the keystone.
But, I thought with a bitter pang, the same day I first walked in the door, they’ve given me this to have for maybe three and a half years. When I was dead, would Assembly turf out my family? If my foreknowledge somehow came out, would Niku and Kallijas be chastised for not warning Skorsas or anyone else, so it would seem they truly built it for themselves?
All-Spirit, I thought, surely the world is not so small-hearted.