812 - I thought of you to the end
We did a half-moon transition; without me having to learn the ropes or catch up on much since not much had changed, it went fast. I didn’t wait until I was full Imperator again to assign Rafas to do a true investigation of what had happened to Foranas Delinias; my informal authority was good enough for him. Of course a true report on what they knew so far had been written up and filed away carefully, while the false one was turned in. (Who knows what secrets of the history of Arko would come out if all the Sereniteers’ old files were opened… a project for the future.) Foranas had been found with his throat slit from ear to ear.
I also didn’t wait to have everyone on the Yeoli staff I didn’t know, and even a few I did, undergo a truth-drugging. “Don’t worry that the hawks will be mad at you,” I told Artira. “You never did this until now, so they’ll know to blame me.” Eleven people chose to quit and flee rather than go under, and another twenty-seven, who apparently had never been truth-drugged before and so though they could keep their secrets through it, were cleaned out. I had them all charged with secretly taking money from other employers for work they did on government time; Arko naturally has a law against such divided loyalties.
Said employers were charged and convicted, too, so a good two-thirds of the hawks were hit with hefty fines. I think mostly they paid off the fines of their minions as well, and found them new positions, but the most important thing was accomplished: all thirty-eight were out of Arkan government employ forever, and probably Yeoli as well, having black marks on their names.
Artira did her part of the transition the way she always does her work: thoroughly, exactingly and smoothly. She was cheerful as ever, and casual, but I had been so too, while I was still doing the work. I kept happening to mention that she had not been impeached from the semanakraseyesin of Yeola-e, so duty awaited her there; Assembly had seen sense on that, as well as sparing her from the usual Yeoli ceremony as they’d spared me. But there was a subtle stiffness and numbness about her, slightly like a wooden dolls’s, that worried me. The closer we got to finished, the less her eyes met mine.
On the last two days, as we finished up, I began asking her personal plans. “Taina, Daha and Enta are all coming back to Vae Arahi with me,” she said. “Sorry to lose you a good administrator, but that’s how it goes.” I waited for her to say the obvious next thing—“And we’ll quit holding off having kids”—but she didn’t, though she’d always wanted them.
“Ardi… you must know what I am concerned about,” I said, finally. “Since it happened to me.”
“Don’t be concerned, Fourth Chevenga,” she said, both casually and sharply at once. “As you always said, I cannot be you. I am not you.” And that was that; she changed the subject, so I could not pursue it, though I didn’t feel reassured at all. I went to bed earlyish, after a bath in the Lesser Baths, a massage from Kaninjer and baleful looks from Skorsas who was on sandtimer duty. It was as if nothing had changed.
I awoke to a bang, and a gout of tiny squeaks. One of the mousers had knocked something off a dresser. I lay listening to the mouse being tortured, its squeaks growing weaker and more hopeless as fear weakened to despair. A tapestry tapped against a post in the night-breeze from the open atrium door. I was tense all over, I realized, as if danger were all around, in the air. Something pulled at me like a hook in my heart to get up, so I followed it. It led me to the room where Artira was now staying.
“The late Imperator is not in, Imperator,” the guard, who was Arkan. Arkan-style, he could think of no other title for an impeached Imperator, but my heart was suddenly hammer-banging so hard I felt blood would burst out of my ears. He didn’t know where she’d been headed, only which way. I ran where he pointed.
By successive pairs of guards, I traced her to one of the small offices. People weren’t yet thinking to lock her out. “Artira?” I said through the door. “It’s me.”
“We’re done, love,” she said. But the words were slurred, as I’d never heard from her before in our lives. Thinking of poisons, I sized up the door for how hard it would be to break open.
“There’s one last thing,” I said. I heard a desk-cabinet door quietly click closed—of course I knew the sound from using it a thousand times—and she said exasperatedly, “Fine, come in.” The door wasn’t locked.
A half-empty flask of wine stood on the marble desk-top. She was jelly-mouthed drunk, as I’d never imagined my sister could ever be. The state, that is the same in all people, looked so wrong on her it was as if I’d never seen it before, like Kaninjer observing me on Niah-lur-ana. “One lashht thing, what in kyash ish it, Shhhhevenga?”
The words came out of my mouth without my willing them. I hadn’t planned to be so blunt. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
She stared at me, wavering in her chair. “If I am,” she said, “it’sshh not yourshh to worry about… you have bigger thingsshh. If I am, what in the Garden Orbicular do you think you could sshhhhay that could talk me out of it?”
The world went vague, as in a dream. The one thing that was solid, like a guidepost, was my intent. I barked out the door for a servant to fetch a pot of strong kaf and a bowl of ice-water, then pulled the cup and the flask out of her reach. “Artira, do you remember, right after Daddy was assassinated, we were standing near his corpse, in the courtyard… you remember when Mama Karani put her hand over my eyes?” She signed charcoal. Of course she’d been in her own world of grief. “I had a vision. I saw myself in his place… my own corpse. I knew it was foreknowledge. I’ve known I am going to die about his age ever since then. I didn’t make it known because I knew it would be best if I didn’t… Every reading I do with Jinai he sees it, and Avritha has seen it too. She said, next summer.”
As I said the words, her hazel eyes on me slowly steadied, sharpened and froze. At the end they were glass, if glass could burn, and her face was white. I reached for her hands, which were cold. She showed no sign of feeling mine. “Artira, Yeola-e is going to need you again.”
“That’s why you didn’t give me the two years,” she whispered. I let go one hand to sign chalk.
“That’s why you wanted to grow up so fast.” I signed chalk again. “That’s why you made a loveless marriage.” Chalk again. “That’s why you were always in such a kyashin hurry. That’s why you never listen to Kaninjer.” I decided to leave my hand in the chalk sign. Her voice caught, strangled, just as the servant tapped on the door. I let go her one hand to spring up and grab the kaf and the water, and kicked the door shut again. “That’s why—” Her voice caught. “Every time we should have done chiravesa, you said I couldn’t be you. That was the knowledge I didn’t have.”
I signed chalk. She let her head fall to the desk, and cried as full-throated as a baby, smashing her fists on the marble as the baby does, but with adult force, so I thought the marble might crack. I waited, saying nothing; perhaps drunkenness was best after all, I was thinking, if it allowed her to let all this out. Finally, mid-cry, she tore open the desk cabinet, grabbed out a paper and slammed it down on the desk before me. I read it only once, but I will never forget a word.
Chevenga, my brother:
Of all people, you will understand best why I have done this.
It all comes clear, what you were trying to tell me: I did fail, in a thousand ways. You were right in every one of your points, as you know, as you always are.
You have done what you wished and planned, as you always do; you have taught Arko the lesson of the vote, that if they vote foolishly, they will pay. I see my part in it: to be the price they paid. You saw how it would go right from the beginning, as you always do; but just as you wrote in that letter, you had to think of your people before anything else, as you always do. Before yourself, and before me also.
All my life you outshone me, succeeding where I could only fail. This time I find is more than I can bear. It is your destiny, your nature, to burn so brightly that those who are measured most closely against you are so thrust into darkness that they cannot bear to live. I don’t blame you, truly, so don’t blame yourself. There’s nothing you could have done to stop this.
My brother, Chevenga called Invincible, called Beloved, you will never fail at anything you set out to do, so I need not wish you success. I only wish you more of what you were denied all too long: happiness. For marring it with the grief my act has brought you, I am sorry. I thought of you to the end. I love you. All-Spirit infuse you always.
I don’t know how she’d planned to do it. She never told me, and I never asked. She’d written the letter here, so as to leave it where I and no one else would find it. She’d drunk to nerve herself up. Had she left others, for her loves? Again, I never asked, and never heard.
I lifted the letter, and held its corner close to the candle. Hand trembling, she signed chalk. I touched it to the flame until it caught, and laid it on the bare marble to burn, curling, brightening the room momentarily, the ink-black letters obscured by the more complete and final blackening. I went around the desk and as one we wrapped our arms around each other, and buried our heads in each other’s necks.
“That’s why you hated my envy,” she whispered, and then I was crying hard myself. I felt her fingers curl in my hair, gripping it so hard it hurt. I stroked hers. This is the first time in our lives, I thought, that we’ve ever been loving toward each other, purely for the sake of each other.
“Artira, may I ask a favour of you?” I whispered. “Beyond being semanakraseye for my people, I mean… whose very lives I’d trust you with.” A sob strangled her again. “Will you drive away death with new life? I’ve always wanted nieces and nephews, even if I never see them. Taina and Daha and Enta will be excellent parents, alongside you. Will you please have a beautiful and happy and long life, filled with love?”
She could not answer for a while, for crying. She held me so hard it hurt my shoulders and my neck. When she could, she whispered, “Yes.”