Wednesday, September 30, 2009

137 - Her blessing

The Pages and the Watcher both accorded me title as Living Greatest, and it was just as Skorsas had said: gifts from those who’d benefited from the odds against me poured in, as did money through who knew what sorts of arrangements he’d made. The crowd at my next fight was dotted everywhere with black heads: people wearing wigs that looked like my hair, the Aitzas complete with the gold leaves.

As Skorsas had advised, I sat for a sculptor and a painter both, mostly to humour him. I went out of my way to be good to him, both to console him for my not being his lover, and to atone for hitting him.

Yet to be close to me without hope of love-making caused him no pain, he assured me, but the sweetest joy, every fingerwidth. “I know now I have no claim on you, or ever could,” he said, twining his fingers in the back of my hair, one of the things I let him do now. “You’re a king.” To the Arkan mind, no one has claim on a king, not even a people.

So I let him hold my hand and gaze at me and speak endearments in public, so we were a pair in every way but one. Of course the writers made much of it, and our love became common knowledge: good, for it diverted suspicion from Niku. At first it bothered me, that he seemed to love me more the more I killed; then it came to me, it was the more I stayed alive.

A polite letter came from one Haiksilias Lizan, fessas, requesting that I sit for him to paint my portrait; Skorsas, who insisted on going through my mail with me in case I missed anything, made his typical shocked gasp when I read the name. It seemed Haiksilias was considered the greatest painter in Arko, and the portrait would be raised in the Hall of the Greats. What choice had I but to agree? The sitting was interminableI was never one for being still longbut the painting was astonishing, like looking in a mirror that could reflect with wisdom and feeling.

On the streets, one could soon buy luck-charms with my figure, stamped out of a mold, porcelain in the poor quarter, gold in the rich. One tavern became the haunt of my followers, for no other reason than its name, the House of the Mountains. Going along, the proprietor had my face painted on the sign, in the style that had become standard, following an engraving in the Watcher: straight frontal, the lines too square and perfect—they forgot I’d had my nose broken—the eyes wrought of pure sentimentality, huge, dark and sad to lugubriousness, and hauntingly following the viewer wherever he went in the room.

I only know of the place because Mana insisted that I see it, and we crept in through the kitchen—threatening to show my face to the clientele, which might start a riot, if the proprietor didn’t let us—to peek through the service-slot. The black-curly-wigged throng sung my praises—sometimes in actual song—over their beer. It was bewildering. What did I truly mean to them, who meant nothing to me?

I knew I was truly great when Koree threw me, smoothed the dust of the training-ground with my face and said, “Don’t let it get to your head, cockspur. You can still die.”

One day, an ornate little wooden box came, wrapped in pink and red silk with a gold ribbon; since they often had sweets in them, I opened it. It was lined in cushioned satin, very elaborately embroidered, all framing what seemed to be a tiny bit of meat, entirely desiccated, wrapped in a white rose of silk. For some reason I found myself afraid to touch it. I read the note, seeking clues. The writing looked like an eight-year-old’s. “Dear Karas Raikas: I am scribing under great duress for on behalf of my twelve-year-old sister, who loves you and wants to dedicate herself so entirely to you that only this gift can express it, our great Noble God help her.”

Skorsas happened to come bustling in at that moment. His shriek almost made me drop the box. Kaina marugh miniren!” he screeched again, meaning “dog mother of the Ten Gods,” the most blasphemous curse Arkans have. His face was ashen. “Close that up! My blessed professional God, close it, close it!! You didn’t touch it, did you? Oh, my God!! Where in Hayel did it come from?”

I closed the lid, and read off the street and number of the house, which was in the Aitzas quarter. “Why? What is it, Skorsas?”

His tongue seemed to stick to his teeth, and his cheeks turned from grey to flaming red. “Celestialis… I don’t think I can tell you, love of my life… But—no, no, don’t ask Iska! We’ve got to keep this secret; that poor idiot girl will be in more trouble than anyone deserves, and… my diligent God, what do we do?”

“I don’t know how you expect me to know, when I don’t even know what the thing is,” I answered in a very even voice, hoping my calm would rub off on him. “Is it something sacred, that shouldn’t leave their house?”

“No!—I mean, yes! It’s sacred—cursed—blessed—I mean, cursed for a man to touch, or—Shefen-kas, it’s a women’s thing, it’s the abomination, it’s the vow, it’s her blessing, it should go to the man she’s betrothed to, it’s… Shefen-kas… Celestialis help me… Shefen-kas, forgive me, I beg you, please, but... do you know anything about… purification?”

My gorge came up far too fast to let me get to the garderobe. I put the box down harder than I could help on the night-table, and vomited my guts out into the chamberpot. He knelt with me, steadying me in his arms, saying, “This shows how pure and clean-hearted you are.”

I had not known the entirety of the purification custom. That which was cut off is placed in a ceremonial container, to be presented to the girl’s husband-to-be on her betrothal, symbolic of her fertility, given into his ownership. Skorsas explained this to me, and my puke-tears turned into heart-tears.

“We should send it back,” I said, when I’d mastered myself.

No! Her father will find out, and she’ll be disgraced for the rest of her life, maybe made unmarriageable, for nothing more than childish stupidity!” Once again his eyes had that you-brute-why-don’t-you-get-it look.

“If we keep it or do anything else, he’ll eventually notice it’s missing.”

He stood biting his lip, not wanting to say what he must say, but eventually said it. “Fine. I will sneak it back to her.” He pulled at his perfect hair, which he never did, while telling me the story the next day. He’d had to argue with her for a good half-bead, balanced on a third-floor windowsill.

It happened six more times. Once he got caught, making me wonder how he could smile as he recounted it. “The girl’s father stamped in and caught me on the window-sill. ‘Skorsas Trinisas!’ he yelled at me. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Oh ser,’ I answered, ‘how is it that your superior self know this humble one’s name?’ Of course he couldn’t say a word, especially with her right there. He was one of my old clients.”

Around the same time the first box came, the Pages announced with the greatest pomp and most florid writing that Kurkas had a second son. I wondered how that would go over with his first son, since in the Imperial family brothers are perhaps each other’s worst danger; Kurkas had certainly proved that by disposing of his own brothers. A few days after that I got a letter from Minis.

I cannot come to visit you, even now more than before. I know this is… I don’t know how to ask. How do I deal with a baby brother?

Father has picked me a baby brother and named him Ilesias. I’m frightened. Do you think Father is thinking of replacing me? He gave the baby the best name, after Ilesias the Great. He was born on a respectable day, Risae 1, not a joke day. His name isn’t a joke.

(That was referring to Minis’s own name being Sinimas, a common Aan name, rendered backwards, a whim of Kurkas’s because he’d been born on Diem Wards Back.)

Father presented him to me today and I had to hold him and he peed on me and Father laughed. I… had a tantrum and screamed at everyone in my rooms after. I have to say sorry to you to for losing my temper, when I promised I wouldn’t.

How do I… bear… a little brother? What is the right thing? I don’t know. Father… I don’t know if he ever had brothers. I’m going to check that. But Father killed Grandfather. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel with a little brother. Could you help me, please?

Your devoted fan,

His footservant was waiting for me after training to write a reply. How could a question that would be so simple in Yeola-e that no one would even think of asking it, be so complicated somewhere else?

I took my time writing it, again feeling that in some part I had the fate of Arko, and thus the world, in my hands. “My first thought is, love him,” I wrote, “but I know it is not so simple for you, because you fear your father might replace you with him. So give him no cause to fear you, and he won’t see you as a threat.” I wrote this hoping it was possible; how far beyond reason Kurkas’s fear of his son might be, I could not know. We hadn’t talked about Minis over dinner.

“For all there is just cause for your anger,” I went on, “don’t take it out on people who are not to blame. You needn’t apologize to me, but you should to them. Your little brother has no more chosen this than you have, so don’t do him injustice. And if you are worried that he might one day act against you, the best defense against that is to love him. If those who are too close to him are removed, but you treat him lovingly, you will win his unending loyalty. You and he are brothers not only in blood, but in adversity.” And I signed and sealed it, laying a kiss on the hardening wax. There is little good I can still do; may this be some.

That night, as sleep began to take me, I thought absently, it’s odd how my mind feels off-kilter more and more these days, as if it’s been stirred with a ladle and left to fall almost back into its old pattern, but not quite. Funks were unavoidable in this place; apparently needing it, I did my own observance again, meditating on my knees with my crystal in my hand.

But then as I lay down again, and found it unchanged, I thought, no. It’s too even, too consistent; it doesn’t have the changes, like clouds crossing the sun on a ragged-sky day, of moods. It’s been more than five moons; the Pharmacist said I’d noticed the first slight effects in a half-year.

It’s the grium.

My mouth went dry and sour, and sweat broke out sparkling cold all over me. At first I tried to fight off the fear; then, same as the eve of the fight against Riji, I let it take me, until it was done with me. Huge beyond imagining. When would it end?