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Nothing takes longer than a meal you’re eager to be done with. There are no guests at the house this evening, which means that the long dining room is nearly empty, our small table set crosswise at one end with about a mile of empty floor mats beyond. On the far wall, the Blessed One smiles down at nothing from atop the house shrine, threads of smoke drifting up from the incense lit during the pre-meal prayer.
It’s me, my tutor Ridatha, the house supplicator Narago, and the steward Ofalo at the table—not the most thrilling set of dinner companions ever assembled. Ridatha, at least, is interesting to talk to, with her endless font of stories and her rasping Jyashtani accent. Narago, needless to say, is a bore—is there such a thing as a supplicator with a sense of humor?—and his presence makes Ridatha stay quiet, lest she say something heretical.
That leaves Ofalo, who’s nice enough, but has a tendency to forget I’m not eight years old anymore. You’d think he could manage to remember when we’re talking about my fourteenth birthday—coming in less than a month, Blessed be praised—but in between the salad and the baked smallfin I have to dissuade him from hiring a troupe of clowns.
Honestly, does anyone like clowns?
“Well,” Ofalo says, frowning—maybe he’d been looking forward to the clowns himself—“what sort of entertainment would you prefer, my lady? I believe there’s a traveling menagerie that might be persuaded—”
Narago sniffs. “Only low people travel with such attractions. Best not to risk having them in the house.” He looks at me, posture perfect, his stark black-on-white robes stiff with starch. “Perhaps an excursion, my lady? I could arrange a private visit to Greatcliff Temple, and you could observe the theological debates.”
Monks arguing over whether the Blessed One’s left toenail is sacred in itself or only in relation to his divinity. Worse than clowns. At least you can throw things at clowns. I make a sort of hmmm face, because I can’t very well tell a supplicator that I’d rather throw myself under a cart. I get an inspiration, and turn to Ridatha.
“Perhaps a drama?” I say. “We’ve just been studying the theater of the High Imperial period, haven’t we?”
“Um,” Ridatha says, startled at my enthusiasm. I admit my attention starts to wander when she talks about High Imperial dramatic trends, but she gamely plays along. “I’m sure something could be arranged. High Imperial might be a bit … formal, but—”
“I’m sure something more modern would be fine,” I say blithely.
Ofalo scratches his nose. “Lady Amfala mentioned she hosted a troupe of players last week, and she said they were very fine. I’ll make inquiries.”
I heroically refrain from rolling my eyes. Any entertainment that withered old stick enjoys is guaranteed to be Upright and Moral and utterly bereft of anything interesting, but it’s still got to be better than the monks. Besides, the only thing that really matters about my birthday is that Isoka will come to visit. Usually I don’t know when to expect her, but she never misses a birthday.
Conversation moves on to the price of grain, what the rain has been doing to the garden, and the latest gossip from the Royal Ward. As always, I’m amazed at Ofalo’s ability to keep up an inane conversation almost single-handedly, with an occasional assist from Ridatha or pious interjection from Narago. You’d think that he’d eventually have to acknowledge that important things were going on outside the high brick wall that surrounds the garden. Isoka pays him a lot of money to pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist, and he’s good at it.
Or maybe it’s Ridatha’s presence that makes things awkward. After all, it’s her people that we’re getting ready to go to war with.
The only interesting moment comes, oddly enough, from the supplicator’s carping. His duties require him to return to the Grand Temple in the Royal Ward on certain holy days, and apparently traffic there has slowed to a crawl.
“I waited nearly an hour,” Narago says, with a sniff. “In my ceremonial robe, which is stifling. And when we finally reached the temple drive, it was blocked by a gang of miscreants trying to grab everyone’s attention.”
“What did they want?” Ridatha says, as she methodically removes bones from her fish.
“What the lower orders always want,” Narago says. “To enjoy the fruits of the Empire without having to pay their fair share or fight to defend it.”
“Maybe they just don’t understand why defending the Empire means people have to die on some island a thousand miles from here.” I mean to mutter this under my breath, but it comes out louder than I intended, and Narago looks at me sharply.
“Defending the Empire,” he says, “means defending the Empire’s interests, and the Emperor’s honor.”
“Small honor in being chained to an oar for twenty years,” I say.
Narago reddens. “Perhaps you’d prefer the Jyashtani sailed into Kahnzoka and put us all to the sword?”
“That is enough,” Ofalo says. “These are not subjects for the ears of an innocent child.”
Narago harrumphs, but gives way. He glances at Ridatha suspiciously. “Perhaps some more study of the history of Jyashtani aggression against the Empire is in order?”
“Of course, supplicator,” the tutor says, lowering her head.
Wonderful. I manage to keep my sarcasm to myself, and the rest of the talk is determinedly trivial. Eventually, finally, the fruit course comes, and I’m released from this low-rent torture. I gobble a handful of grapes, for form’s sake, and get up as fast as my kizen and decorum will allow.
“My lady,” Ofalo says, “a pair of musicians arrived this morning and asked for the honor of playing for you. Would you hear them? They come well recommended.”
“No, thank you,” I tell him, with just the right inclination of my head to indicate apology-to-an-inferior. “I’m feeling poorly tonight. I think I’ll go to bed early. But please, have these players perform for the staff, with my thanks.”
Ofalo’s dark eyes watch me thoughtfully, and he strokes his beard. I have to be careful, he’s far from foolish. If I say I’m feeling poorly too often, I’ll end up rushed off to the doctor and placed on a purgative diet or assigned calisthenics. Fortunately, it’s been a while since I needed to make excuses, and Narago helps out with a distraction.
“Musicians,” he sniffs. “Are we really to be imposed on by such vagabonds?”
“These are quite reputable,” Ofalo says, a little irritated. “I am assured—”
I make it out into the corridor as they get into it, walking with the narrow, shuffling gait the kizen allows. I pass servants heading the other way, and smile at Irana, who’s just a few years older than I am and always wears a fresh flower pinned in her hair. She gives me a bow in return, and a smile where the older maids won’t see.
Back at my room, Pakala is waiting, and it takes me a few minutes to assure her I don’t need a bath drawn or my hair combed or anything else for the evening. She departs, still sounding unconvinced, and slides the door closed behind her.
Alone. At last. I let out a breath.
My room is not the largest in the house, which still bothers Ofalo. When I was twelve, he offered to vacate the master’s suite for my use, but I declined. I could use the space—Ridatha always tells me there’s too much stuff in my room, and a cluttered space makes for a cluttered mind—but I can put up with a little junk in my brain in exchange for the other advantages. The master’s suite is at the center of the house, letting directly onto the main courtyard and surrounded by servants’ quarters, whereas my current room is at the far end of one of the wings, separated from the outer wall by only a tall hedge and a narrow strip of garden.
Copyright © 2019 by Django Wexler