I was so stunned I couldn’t speak, or even move, for a moment. The heart seems to know the implications even before the ever-sluggish mind works them out. Even as I wanted to say “A golden one? What are you talking about? Is this something someone told you? Who?” I didn’t, as I didn’t need to. It was obvious someone had told her this, and I could be fairly sure of who. Clever, eliminating the likeliest hindrance to the building of the statue and ruining my name with her even further in one stroke.
I had heard about this happening to other people many times, being slandered to someone close who believes it, but it had never happened to me. It is the darkest, most sickening feeling. Perhaps because it precludes chiravesa; you can’t imagine what could be happening in their mind to let them believe it. You are my sister! my heart wept. You have known me all my life; did you think of me as something I never suspected you did? Or perhaps because the natural human urging towards consensus, to respect the opinions of others, poisons your view of yourself , however slightly. Was there something I had said as Imperator that could have been misunderstood to mean this because I wasn’t careful enough with my words? Was it true and I’d forgotten, as I’d given approval to many artworks, including ones that had me in them? Had I treated her in such a way that this seemed plausible in childhood? The prosecutor in me hunted for it furiously.
But another part of me was just angry, or even less than that: annoyed, confident I could easily brush this kyash aside. That made me find words. “Artira, this is the first I’ve heard of any big golden statue of me. I never proposed such a thing, to be talked out of it by anyone. I can swear if you like, or even submit to truth-drugging. But I shouldn’t have to. You’ve known me all my life. It was Inatalla Shae-Krisa who told you this, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. “The one who talked you out of it. And who happens to be my closest advisor. Are you calling him a liar?”
“I’m calling him no names, just telling the truth of my actions; whatever he said is for him to answer for. What bothers me is you crediting it. After everything I said and did as Imperator, how can you imagine I would want all Arko to see a reminder of their defeat and the Sack in the form of my own image bearing sword every time they look up the Avenue of Statuary? How can you think I’d be in favour of tearing down the Edifice of Religious Studies and the Philosophical Arts building—I taught in that building! Or displacing Arko’s greatest statue commemorating its warriors? My sister, sprung of the same seed, do you know me?”
She stared at me speechless, her thoughts naked. That does sound like what my brother would feel… but I was told… I probably should have let her answer; I went on instead. In for a copper-chain, in for a gold. “Now look what has happened. Your new scribe—Inatalla recommended him to you, right?” She signed chalk. “Inatalla tells me in a letter in this utterly gloating tone—”
“Nonsense, it was congratulatory, he wrote that he would be glad of your feeling!”
“Yes, the feeling that must be swelling in my heart; he did not say my happiness or joy or pride… he knew that if he wrote it this way I’d know exactly what he meant, but he’d be able to say he meant otherwise—it’s a fork, like in laesha…” She’d never played, and I realized this argument seemed weak. “Anyway, he lets me know before it’s been announced, giving me a chance to write you my objection. I do, then follow it with two pigeons. All of which have disappeared… and it’s his man who does your correspondence. Don’t you see something here?”
“What, you’re suggesting…” Her eyes were suddenly full of tears. Too easily… you are living too hard a life. I realized: the hawks were probably making sure of that, purposely. It explained several things at once. “Chevenga, I defended you to him! I defended you, when he said you were getting more suspicious towards the end, seeing plots against you everywhere… the danger of a brilliant strategic mind in power. I said you didn’t have it in you to so suspect Yeolis!”
Kevyalin kyash… How well had Inatalla and the other hawks laid the ground, either sure I’d come back, or just preparing as a contingency? Probably with only slight lies at first, then building a whole matrix of them, gradually making them more and more extreme as she became convinced so the worst no longer seemed implausible. Her envy of me, her wanting to see the weaknesses in my strengths, her hatred of my shadow... he knew how to play everyone’s weaknesses beautifully. Mine no less; he hadn’t cast doubt on my honesty, since I had a name for it and would also likely offer to be truth-drugged, but on my sanity, after I’d been twice in the House of Integrity. I felt so much like throwing up, I put myself into warrior-mind.
But really, it could be easily solved. “Don’t trust me, then, if you think power turned my mind,” I said. “Check the pigeon coops personally. Trace the courier through the A-niah; they all know each other; mine would have come in on the 62nd or so, depending on the wind. Get out the truth-drug and see who turns green; if none do, then you’ll have been proven right. You’re Imperator, you can do any of these things and more. In my term, I’d have suspected Kosai enough to ask if he’d consent to a dose, Yeoli or not.”
“Oh yes!” she cried, furiously. “Everything was perfect in your term!”
I heard an echo in my mind, faint in its antiquity. Everyone loves you and no one loves me and it’s always Chevenga this and Chevenga that. She bared her teeth, just slightly, showing a crack of white.
“Ardi,” I said. “You know in truth I’m at your mercy, here in Arko. You could do any number of things that are still perfectly legal, as I understand it. Have me dragged out of the Marble Palace; declare yourself my guardian and commit me to the House of Integrity; have me arrested for harassing you; issue a proclamation discrediting me. Any of these things would free you of my pestering. So, if you get nothing useful from it, what I think of how you are doing is chaff in the wind. Even what the people of Arko think of what you’re doing would matter nothing if you chose; you and I both know they are too new to the custom of the vote that you couldn’t wean them from it again, if you really wanted to. No one’s estimation of you matters but your own. The rest is nothing. You rule here.”
Her eyes gave off a hundred emotions at once, most of them pain. My anger died. I thought aloud. “But you’re alone with it.” For a few heartbeats longer she gazed at me, frozen, then sprang up and away from me. In the din of the fountain, I could hear nothing, but as I stood up, she thrust her hands into the spray and splashed her face with water. Droplets hung in the gold of her ringlets, and the chains of the Imperial Seals.
I laid my hands with all the gentleness I had in me on her white-and-gold-clad shoulders. “Ardi… you feel you have to be strong before everyone, don’t you? I did… Is there no one here whose love gives you strength, and yet who will still let you rule?” She flinched as if I’d stung her. “What about your loves, do you lean on them?”
“Of course, but they don’t understand how it is,” she said. “This is none of your business anyway, Fourth Chevenga.”
“It is,” I said, “as I am your brother, and love you, and feel your pain as my own.” It was right then the thought of the iconic portrait of me in the office in Terera came to mind, and the other paper in my shirt, and what I had come here to do.