14 Lennitay (continued)
I walked around after a bit, admiring the courtyard. It was open to the outside on two sides, and the sunlight even at seven o’clock in the morning was blinding thanks to the white stone paving the paths that led away from the courtyard to some other part of the palace. Ahead of me, with respect to where I’d entered, was another archway that led to a short hallway identical to the one we’d come in by, but I couldn’t see very far thanks to the sunlight. I went to stand at its entrance, glancing at the guards for some hint, but they ignored me. That was when I became angry. I was so afraid of what the God-Empress might do that I’d forgotten how far I’ve come, how many dangers I’ve faced, and I was ashamed of my cowardice. The God-Empress might decide to have me killed no matter what I did, so I decided to hell with her, and set off down the hallway. When I think back on how defiant I was, it makes me feel sick.
This area, too, was completely empty of people. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought the palace was abandoned, and I wondered how its population could disappear so thoroughly. I suppose the servants, not being otherworlder women with strange powers that fascinated the God-Empress, would take every opportunity to stay out of their mistress’s sight. I wandered the broad, frescoed halls, mentally keeping track of my route, until I reached an actual door. It was unlocked, so I pushed it open and found what I can only call a boudoir. The walls were invisible thanks to all the filmy draperies that shrouded the room, most of them moving lightly in an intangible breeze; the floor was so soft it was like walking on a pillow, every step throwing me a little off balance. Cushioned, backless chairs stood at random throughout the room, some of them canted due to the pillowy nature of the floor. Everything was in shades of red, from deepest maroon to lightest pink, and the God-Empress, who was reclining on a divan at the center of the room, was dressed in a thin shift of pale red—not pink, but pale red, there’s a difference—so sheer I could see her nipples. Not that I was looking. They were impossible to miss.
“You are late,” the God-Empress said, and here I should probably admit that I’m making up almost everything I write her saying in this conversation. Not the intent or meaning, and I’m not doing it to make myself sound impressive and clever. When we were in her pavilion, she spoke in very straightforward language, but every time I’ve met her privately, she’s used what sounds to me like formal or archaic words. Understanding her put a strain on my aeden-acquired language skills, and I found I couldn’t remember her exact words most of the time. So this conversation is more extrapolated even than most of what I write. I really do think there’s a pouvra for memory. If I ever have time, maybe that’s the one I’ll try to invent.
Anyway, she said, “You are late,” but she didn’t sound angry. I said, “I apologize, but your palace is too beautiful for me to rush through it. And I didn’t realize how constraining this dress would be.”
“You dislike my gift,” the God-Empress said.
“It’s beautiful. I meant only to indicate my ignorance of Castaviran clothing,” I said, trying not to panic. Insulting her before half a minute had passed was not a good beginning to this day.
“You chose well. It is an old-fashioned cut that shows you appreciate tradition,” she said. “I would have been displeased if you had appeared in the other.”
Already I was navigating the twisty maze that was her mind. Even my wardrobe was a test. “Thank you for the honor of the gift, which I do not deserve,” I said.
“Sit,” the God-Empress said, and I found a slightly canted chair and settled into it. “Drink,” she said, and a servant emerged from a door hidden by the draperies and handed me a squat golden cup with two handles; I drank, and discovered that it was lukewarm water, tasting slightly of minerals but welcome after the rapid walk I’d had. The room itself was comfortably cool, and I think I’ve mentioned that the palace has some kind of cooling kathana that I’ve been grateful for. Balaen is quite a bit more temperate than Castavir despite occupying much of the same territory. I wonder if Cederic knows why the same places in each world can have vastly different climates.
And yes, it did occur to me that the water might be poisoned, but there was nothing I could do about that. There’s only so much I can protect myself from, and refusing to drink on the slight chance that the water might kill me would only be trading the possibility of danger for the near-certainty that the God-Empress would have me executed for insulting her.
We sat and drank in silence, me mindful of the instruction not to speak unless spoken to. The God-Empress had a cup matching mine and drank with both hands on the handles, which gesture I mimicked. Eventually she set the cup down and said, “I will show you my city. You should know what it is you are going to defend.”
“Thank you, Renatha,” I said, only barely remembering to use her name, and she stood up, which was a sign for servants to come rushing out of hidden doorways to dress her in tunic and robe and another tunic and a sash that went around her waist three times, all of it in shades of red and decorated with rubies, and a matching ruby-studded silver choker. The God-Empress is unusual in preferring faceted stones to cabochons, which is probably the only thing we have in common. That and being female. She was gloriously beautiful, and I felt dowdy next to her, which was probably the idea.
Once she was dressed, and her golden hair (which was freshly dyed) was piled on her head with ruby-studded hair clips, we left the room and went by a completely different route back to the courtyard, where the God-Empress went down one of the brightly-paved paths to where a strange-looking collenna waited, its thumping higher and more rapid than that of the loenerel. It was…I can’t even think of anything to compare it to. It reminded me a little of a tortoise’s shell, if tortoises were dusky rose; its base was circular, and two seats surrounded by a silver rail were perched in a depression on its back, which was about five feet high. The seats were shaded by a canopy of rose velvet fringed with silver, and the seats themselves were upholstered in the same colors. At the front (what I guessed was the front, which guess was later proven correct) was another seat, this one black lacquered wood, with a smallish bucket to the right of where the master would sit and a tray of brushes above it. The plate containing the th’an engraving was silver rather than brass, or it might have been steel, and I couldn’t see the th’an because a woman dressed in a master’s uniform, but in rose pink, was standing at attention near the collenna, blocking my view.
“Lift me,” the God-Empress said, and a pair of tall and muscular men actually put their hands on her and raised her to where she could step into the collenna. I was watching her settle herself when I felt those hands on me, and I squeaked, but managed not to fight them. My ascent was considerably less graceful than hers, but I eventually got my dress arranged around me and gripped the rail of the seat as the collenna lurched forward. I’m not afraid of heights, but there was something about the movement of the collenna, and being just far enough off the ground that falling would hurt, that made me nervous. Then again, it might have been the company.
to be continued…