14 Lennitay (continued)
Around noon, the collenna stopped in front of a single-story red-roofed building (honoring the virtue of Patience) that had arched doorways opening onto a central courtyard filled with little tables, which meant it was an eating place, and half the God-Empress’s soldiers went inside. We waited for about ten minutes before they returned, trailing an elderly man who didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. The God-Empress stepped off the edge of the collenna’s seat exactly as if she expected to be caught, which of course she was, so I mimicked her and was conveyed to the ground with barely a wobble. The moment the God-Empress’s foot touched the pavement, the elderly man prostrated himself before her and said, “It is an unlooked for honor, my God, and I hope you will be satisfied with my humble offering.”
The God-Empress walked past him without a word, and I followed her into the cool darkness beyond the courtyard. Here, there was only one table, an oblong thing about six feet long with chairs set at the far ends, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it was bowing under the weight of a feast that could have fed twenty. I realize now that the man knew the God-Empress was coming that day, but my first thought was astonishment that he’d pulled the meal together so quickly. We sat, and her soldiers ranged themselves around us, and more people came out from what smelled like the kitchen and began serving us. I thought it all looked delicious and only realized that I’d let myself become complacent when I was startled by the crash of a plate the God-Empress knocked out of the elderly man’s hand.
“I will have red,” she said, “red is the color of the day, you will give me red,” and the elderly man looked as if he were going to faint. A younger woman stepped forward and offered the God-Empress a new plate, on which was a slice of beef cooked nearly raw and some slices of tender beets. I breathed a little more easily—even the plate was red. This was a clever woman. The God-Empress allowed her to place it before her, then delicately began cutting her meat and chewing with pleasure. I pointed at dishes randomly and was served by people who clearly had no idea what to make of me, but were grateful I didn’t make any outlandish demands. I was so worried on their behalf I don’t remember what I ate, except that it tasted good. I do remember the final course, which was something sweet and creamy and cold topped with candied cherries, and I asked for seconds and nearly ate myself sick on it.
Afterward, the collenna took us down to the Myrnala Coell River, which has sandy shores and reeds that move with the current, which is faster than the Myrnala’s. We dismounted again and the God-Empress walked toward the river, slowly, removing pieces of her clothing as she went until she was once again dressed only in her thin shift and her ruby choker. And she kept walking. She didn’t stop until she was waist-deep in the river, swaying in part because of the water’s movement and in part because she was caught up in some reverie. I stood watching her from the shore until she said, “You are ungrateful for the river’s gift.”
“Oh!” I said. “I apologize, Renatha, I believed it was…something for God alone.” I struggled to remove my dress, hesitated about my underclothes, then decided to leave them and my jewelry on and waded out to meet her. And it felt wonderful, so cool in the afternoon heat, though I could feel my shoulders begin to burn the way my nose already had. I mimicked her swaying and wondered what else I was supposed to intuit. She could probably have had those soldiers drown me. I wonder what would happen if I tried to use the walk-through-walls pouvra on water? Nothing good, probably.
Anyway, we stood like that for several minutes. Boats went past—it’s a big river—and in the distance I could hear children shouting. I’m glad the God-Empress didn’t take offense at other people using her river, because I don’t think I could have stood by quietly and let her hurt children. But she just stood there, swaying, and I stood there, uncomfortable but at least cool for once. Then she said, “Raise the river.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I said, and that was true both on a semantic level (because she’d used really archaic language that time) and on a comprehension level. She opened her eyes and looked at me, and I took a step back, because for the first time I saw true madness there.
“Make the waters move,” she said. “I’m displeased with the river’s inability to understand my commands. It is the priest’s job to invoke power on God’s behalf. Make the waters move.”
Now I was terrified. Not just because what she wanted was impossible for me, but because she thought I was a priest the way she did her other mages, and I had no idea what kind of behavior she expected from me. So I said, “Of course, Renatha, but I apologize if my…priestliness is different from what you know. My world is very different.”
She kept looking at me with those mad eyes and said, “Do it, or I will give your body to the river.”
I looked back and saw the soldiers approaching the banks. Of course she meant it. I shut out my awareness of the soldiers, and my fear for my life, and my uncertainty, and used the mind-moving pouvra on the water parting on either side of the God-Empress’s body. There was no way I could move the whole river, but I could do something dramatic that might satisfy her mad whim. I pushed the water where it met her body, shoving it back as if it were running up against something much larger than the God-Empress, and desperation gave the pouvra strength I know I’ll never be able to duplicate. The water piled high, cresting white at the top and making a wave that built until it towered over her like a gray-green canopy flecked with white. The higher it got, the harder it was for me to contain it, and the way it strained against my pouvra felt as if it were alive and desperate to drown the woman beneath it. I was tempted. Her death would be no loss. But I couldn’t guarantee that it would kill her, and there was a part of me, the part that still can’t burn flesh, that cried out against taking even a life so cruel and terrible as hers. So I held onto the wave, and said, “The river knows that you are God,” which I hoped didn’t sound terribly sycophantic, and waited for her to see what I’d done, then I released it harmlessly to flow away to both sides of her.
She beamed at me, happy as a child. “Of course I am,” she said, and waded out of the river. She left all her clothes on the shore, so I did the same, and we got back into the collenna in our underclothing and continued our tour of the city. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life, nor so grateful that the Empress’s insanity dictated that no one pay attention to us. Oh, and incredibly grateful that I was wearing the stupid breast band. I’ve decided never to be without one again.
to be continued…