801 - The girl I’d played with twenty years before
It shouldn’t have been surprising. And yet these things still affect you. Cold went up my spine, prickled out into my limbs. He would find nothing and say nothing came, and she would entirely believe him; if I pressed it further, she would say I was calling her chosen staff liars. “Artira,” I said before she could command him, “never mind; it’s not necessary.” It wasn’t, actually, to let me know what had happened. “Don’t trouble your staff.” Her brows peaked, half-puzzled, half-angry. “Imperator,” Kosai said to her as he went, doing that half-bow again, and to me, “Chiranyerai.”
She is not running things. The half-bow, the obsequious way people had around her, the tension in the air—it was all someone else’s doing, I saw. The Azure Alabaster Room is not an office but is still spring-darted, and the chair they were aimed at was mine, of course; it pricked and itched my weapon-sense constantly, but as I’d sat I’d told myself casually that it was fair price for all the people who’d been there across from me.
Whose agents were in truth behind the glass? If I got up to whisper in her ear, they might dart me and then argue to her that they were following policy. What would be said while I lay unconscious? I thought of the drug that acts precisely like stun-dart serum but kills a moon later in a way that looks like illness; I suspected she didn’t know of it, since she generally didn’t like to know that sort of thing.
Then I thought, Have I gone mad? I’m afraid in my sister’s court. I’m imagining Yeolis would kill me.
A mind like Inatalla’s, though, has plenty of things other than death in it. This might all feel unreal, but if it was a mere play, I was still a character in it, subject to its laws. Whatever hit me would be a weapon, not a prop, and blows would not be pulled.
My sister stared at me, in a way that made me think she was about to ask what child’s game I was playing. I clasped my crystal and said, “Ardi, may we speak where no one at all will hear? It’s important, second Fire come.” Whatever else was between us, she knew I was not an oathbreaker. We got up to go to the fountain of silence in the Imperial office atrium.
Outside her office, an earnest young warrior did that half-bow again. It was starting to annoy me; how much must she feel, even if she refused to know it? He asked her where she was going. “Semanakraseye-Imperator, the Guard Captain must be consulted on this,” he said, when she told him.
This was too much. “The semanakraseye-Imperator has to ask permission of the Guard Captain to sit in a courtyard of the Marble Palace?” I said. “Don’t tell me the courtyards are left unguarded.” He turned pink and said something about policy. “It’s up to you,” I said to Artira. “If you like, since they’re so nervous, I can gear up, and anyone who’s after you will have to get past me.” She looked at me smiling, in spite of herself, and I saw the grin of the girl I’d played with twenty years before.
The kid stammered something else about policy regarding the presence of people not on staff. Finally I understood. “It’s me you’re worried about!?” I fixed my eyes on his. “I call you out. Think of your sister. If you don’t have one, boy, imagine it. What would you say to someone who suspected you meant to do her harm?” He clammed up, going pale, and off we went, by way of my guest-room so I could get my gear.
My loves, my son and my escort were all gone, no doubt sipping tea and kaf with whomever Artira—or whoever—had assigned to host them. I had my gear on a stand; as I put it on, I heard the ghost of a rustle in the closet. I glanced around. You know, you can almost feel, when someone has gone through your things; they don’t look quite right where you left them. Not expecting me back quite so fast, he hadn’t finished.
The only things I might have wanted to hide were Inatalla’s letter and my copy of my consent to the Alliance Chevengani, and I had them both inside my shirt. But I still felt sick, thinking, this is like Kurkas’s time. Probably he was made up as a valet; if I hauled him out by the ear in front of Artira, he’d say he’d been tidying and had hidden in the closet from panic in the face of my greatness, then stayed hidden rather than revealing himself so as not to impose his lowly presence on me. I doubted I could get her to truth-drug him for that, whether he was Arkan or Yeoli.
So I showed nothing as we left, then pretended I’d forgotten something and went back in alone. No doubt he was watching me through the slats, so I gave him a grin as I jammed the chair up under the latch, wedging the top of the back into it hard as I could. Let him have to knock and yell and be rescued by the regular servants, and the chips fall where they may. At the very least he’d get mud on his face, and perhaps think twice about doing similar again.
Curtained by the rush of the fountain, Artira and I sat together. “Well, here we are, my big cloak-and-dagger brother; you are in your shining armour and no one can hear us. What’s the big mystery? You said you sent a letter about the statue, but not what it said about the statue, or why you’re here. Did you decide I’m messing up so badly as Imperator you had to tell me in person?”
I knew she meant the last question to sound annoyed, but pain and resignation were there too much for me to miss. She knows it; she’s just not letting herself know it. I didn’t want to tell her what I had come to tell her; I wanted to take her in my arms and let her cry on my shoulder, then roll up my sleeves and help her clean it all up. It felt like going into a death-duel with someone armourless, while my conscience forbade spilling even a drop of her blood. Knowing we were being watched, I kept my arms folded all through, speaking gestureless like an Arkan.
“I’m against the statue,” I said. “Very much so. All my reasons were in the letter, but I can list them again…”
If I’d suspected she had actually received it and was lying to me, all such suspicion would have died right then. She looked at me as if I’d struck her. “What? It’s to honour you… part of my chalk was to make it up to you because I felt badly after the last time we spoke! Fourth—Chevenga, how could you change your mind like this? They’re already tearing down buildings!”
“What do you mean, change my mind? I was never asked. My first news of it was this letter from Inatalla.” I handed it to her. “I never favoured such a thing, never would, never will, why would you think otherwise?”
“We didn’t think we needed to ask you!” she said. “Not after those other massive, self-congratulatory artworks that you had to be talked out of, they were so pricey… a ten-man-length-high bronze Chevenga, Arko can afford. A golden one, even bigger... what struck me most is that it never even seemed to occur to you that that was a bit much!”