The emperor’s first nohecharei had come off duty, having seen His Serenity pass safely into the hands of his edocharei under the watchful eyes of Lieutenant Telimezh and Kiru Athmaza after an unusually long state banquet with the Parcheneise ambassador. A brief conferral with the emperor’s edocharis about His Serenity’s schedule on the following afternoon, when they would resume their duty, was all that remained. But Nemer had scarcely opened his mouth when the emperor’s secretary appeared in the corridor, bowed and exchanged polite greetings with the nohecharei and entered the imperial bedchamber after the most perfunctory of knocks. Lieutenant Beshalar made as if to move after him, but Cala put a hand on his arm. “We are off duty,” he reminded his brother-nohecharis, “and it may be important.”
“Very likely,” said Beshalar, his tone making his true opinion quite clear. Nemer did not quite succeed in hiding a smile.
It was not unusual for Mer Aisava to be found on the upper floors of the Alcethmeret, seeing to “one more thing” or brandishing schedules and necessary preparatory memoranda for the coming day, but his presence in or near the emperor’s bedchamber had of late become a sensitive point. Cala and Beshelar had privately debated on more than one occasion whether bodily removing His Imperial Serenity’s secretary from his bedchamber when Edrehasivar was plainly exhausted could be considered within the nohecharis’ remit of protecting the emperor’s life at all costs. While Cala felt that such an intervention would distress the emperor so as to nullify any benefit, Beshelar maintained that it was their duty to do what was best for His Serenity, not what would immediately please him.
It seemed that in this limited case, however, Lt. Beshelar was correct, as within three minutes Mer Aisava reappeared in the hallway. His salute to them was so brief as to be scarcely this side of courteous -- unusual in the emperor’s gentle and punctilious secretary. As he passed down a service corridor, Cala could observe that the tips of his ears were flushed.
Nemer smiled fondly. “You see? His Serenity is learning to stand up to Mer Aisava.”
Beshalar looked skeptical.
On such nights, Lt. Beshelar and Cala Athmaza had, without quite intending to, adopted the habit of dining together in the rooms of one or the other. The necessity of constantly being either on duty or within easy call gave a nohecharis little time to cultivate new friendships, and hardly time to minimally maintain those he might have had before his appointment, a state of affairs which, truth be told, suited both the guardsman and the maza, however differently their characters were moulded in other respects. As Cala’s rooms were closer to the central furnace of the Alcethmeret, and therefore to the kitchens, by the same unspoken and unthought compromise they generally repaired thither. More often than not, Min Decho from the kitchen brought two generous portions of supper before they had even settled in the mismatched old chairs that sat on a bright rag rug (a gift to Cala from the hands of his youngest sister) before the tiny grate.
Tonight, however, not Min Decho but a new kitchen servant, a bright-eyed, tousle-haired young elf brought supper: only enough venison pie and pumpkin-colewort omelette for one.
Cala blinked slightly at the unfamiliar face, but thanked the lad. “However, as you see, Lieutenant Beshelar is dining with us tonight,” he said. “Please bring his supper as well.”
The boy bowed with alacrity and his footsteps were just fading in the hall when there came another knock at the door.
“It is his Serenity’s secretary,” came the familiar voice.
Beshalar was on his feet and his weapon was drawn to the ready before Mer Aisava could say “We wonder whether we might impose on a moment of Cala Athmaza’s time.”
Cala had not risen himself, but he felt his shoulders relax as it became clear that there was no emergency. Now he got up to draw back the curtain. “Please enter, Mer Aisava. We are at your disposal.”
Aisva’s ears began to curl and flush in embarrassment when he saw that pie and omelette set on the table. He bowed and made as if to leave. “Maza, please forgive us. We see that this is not a suitable time.
“No need,” said Cala. “We know that you also have many duties, Mer Aisava, and little time, and we are entirely at your disposal.” In truth, Cala did not know when the emperor’s secretary slept or ate, let alone found the time to look so immaculately tidy as he always did. “Perhaps you should like to share our meal. An you do not require private conversation with us,” he added, seeing that Aisava looked about to demur. Cala could not imagine what reason there might be for that, except perhaps the knowledge that Beshalar did not wholly approve of the courier past of His Serenity’s secretary, although he could not fault Mer Aisava’s competence and had to approve of devotion. More quickly than he had expected, Cala had grown to be dearly and truly fond of his brother nohecharis, but he could have wished that the emperor’s First Guardian of the Body did not inspire so much trepidation in the other members of the Alcethmeret household, trepidation which tended to attach, perforce, to the First Guardian of the Spirit as well.
“We thank you,” said Mer Aisava, “but we have already supped, and it is indeed a small matter.” He looked down for a moment, as if unsure how to begin.
Cala looked at him closely. “Is this matter a sequel to the business on which you had to consult His Serenity tonight?”
Mere Aisava colored slightly. “No! No, indeed, maza. That was merely a -- a trivial matter. For which,” he added ruefully, “Kiru Athmaza rightly chastised us for disturbing His Serenity.”
Beshelar, who had taken up a position next to the curtain the hung between Cala’s sleeping nook and the study, made a slightly strangled soun that might have been either approval or been outrage that Kiru Athmaza had anticipated him. “Did she indeed?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Beshelar,” admitted Aisava. “She told us in no uncertain terms that she would undertake to remove us bodily from the Alcethmeret, an we did not leave His Serenity alone when he has retired for the night. To be precise, her words were, ‘We do not think that Csethiro Zhasan will wish to share her marriage bed, except in extreme emergencies of state.’”
“Why--” Beshelar began.
“Cor!” Exclaimed the kitchen servant, who had returned with a second portion of supper and entered without knocking. “Did she really say that then? And to His Serenity’s face?”
Mer Aisava looked momentarily stricken. Cala’s face took on a slight look of amusement.
“You may go,” said Beshelar after a moment, somewhat roughly. “And a boy of your age should know better than to listen at doors.
Cala interjected more gently. “We are sure that you meant no harm --”
“Ama, maza sir.”
“Ama. Go on, now.”
“Now he’ll be spreading tales to all of Cetho,” grumbled Beshelar.
Cala sighed. “We cannot prevent it,” he said, “but we are certain that telling him not to would only have ensured that he did. Mer Aisava, we apologize.”
Aisava bowed it away. “No matter,” he said. “Kiru Athamza was quite correct, and we do not think the story of our mild embarrassment before her to be worth very much concern one way or the other.”
“And the matter on which you did wish to speak to us?”
“Ah, yes. It is only that we have observed,” began Mer Aisava cautiously, “Cala Athmaza, that your robes are rather...old.”
Cala raised his sleeve and looked at it. “They are not so very old, Mer Aisava,” he protested. “And, as Theluhezh says, they ‘cloth nakedness, defend against the elements, and conform to my station.’”
It was now Beshelar’s turn to roll his eyes. “Philosophy is all very well, Cala,” he said, “as are vows of poverty, but there is also His Serenity’s dignity to consider.”
“His Serenity’s dignity?” Cala spoke the words slowly, as if feeling for their meaning. “We are afraid that we are unusually obtuse tonight, Mer Aisva, or perhaps Lieutenant Beshelar is being unusually subtle in his speech.”
“The emperor is concerned that you are not provided for,” said Mer Aisava with an apologetic look, ears coloring again. “And, we think, although we do not presume to know His Serenity’s thoughts, that he would be pleased an you were to appear with no shabbiness, for he believes that it reflects poorly on him, as if he did not provide for his nohecharei.”
“Ah,” said Cala. “We understand. We shall speak to the Adremaza about a new robe for state occasions.”
* * *
When Mer Aisava left, Beshalar permitted himself to give full rein to his disapproval, but not of the emperor’s secretary. “It is not appropriate for a nohecharis to adopt the familiarity of a nursemaid,” he complained. “We do not suppose that you would ever speak so… That is, that you would ever speak so about the future empress,” he added, when Cala merely took another bite of pumpkin and colewort omelette.
“No,” said Cala, with a slight shudder at the thought. “We would not. But,” he added pensively, “We are not that which Kira Athmaza is.”
“That does not signify,” objected Beshalar, “We are prepared to grant that her sex plainly does not unfit her for service as a nohecharis --”
“We are astounded by your generosity,” murmured Cala, smiling.
“You know our meaning, Cala. We admit -- I admit that I was wrong in this respect. But we do not think either that a woman should use her sex to take liberties that a man cannot.”
“Kiru Athmaza is also a cleric of Csaivo.” Which, from a certain perspective, made Kiru’s allusion to the imperial marriage bed the more shocking, since the clergy of Csaivo were sworn to chastity.
“All the more reason,” said Beshalar, “that she should behave with dignity and self-effacement, as you do, and not be forward.
Cala frowned, the same expression his face took on when he was trying to put a principle of mazaism into words that would be explicable to one not among the instructed. “It was once observed to us,” he began, and then decided to change the structure of his sentence. “An Kiru did not claim such familiarity, she would be effaced away. The titles of dachenmaza and nohecharis, we have observed, grant a woman less trust and authority than they do a man.”
“Hmph,” Beshalar had said, but his expression had softened into pensiveness.
Cala knew his fellow nohecharis well enough to suspect that Beshelar was probably thinking that Edrahasivar VII appeared the least likely of all men -- or at least, of all men who were not marnis -- to mistrust a nohecharis on the basis of her sex, but that his partner could not find a way to say it that would not conceivably imply an insult to the emperor. “If that is so,” he said at last, “she shockingly underestimates His Serenity’s generosity. But,” he acknowledged, “we suppose that we must commend her impulse, however we deplore her methods.”
* * *
The younger of the two Dowager Empresses of the Untheileneise Court was taking tea with the soon-to-be Empress-consort. The question of precedence was a nice one: both women were legally now of the Drazhada, and the fact that the one was as yet merely engaged to the reigning emperor might be considered to balance the fact that the other was a childless widow in little favor with her step-son, and who might soon be expected to make another marriage out of the imperial family. Such a subtle difference in rank, could it have been precisely calculated, ought to have been wiped away by that universal rule of precedence that dictates reverence toward one’s elders. But the Dowager Empress Csoru was hardly older than Dach’osmin Csethiro, and the latter, with the determined pride of a maiden soon-to-be married, found it hard to be expected to bow to the experience of a matron who was so little her senior.
Nevertheless, Csethiro had made a resolutely correct curtsey and murmured the outwardly-respectful ‘Zhasanai’, privately taking pleasure in the knowledge that her one-time playmate would not love to be reminded that her time of influence was past -- and that soon Csethiro would be able to command the more exalted title.
And, as she had in every conversation since her wedding to the late emperor Varenechibel IV, Csoru waved the address away with a delicate, graceful hand. “Don’t be silly. We cannot stand on ceremony with you, dear dear Csethiro, not after so many years of being Mich’csoris and Mich’thiris.” As they had for years, now, the pet-names grated on Csethiro when they came from Csoru’s tongue, although, in truth, she was still Mich’thiris to her parents and older sister, and would likely always be. “Will you not sit? We have been dying for a proper talk.”
“Of course, dear Csoru,” replied the other. Csethiro had practiced sweeping her skirts to the side in one movement, so she was able to sit gracefully and effortlessly on the delicate couch opposite her hostess. In deference to the half-mourning of the dowager empress, she wore mauve and grey brocade with an overrobe of silver taffeta, cut to resemble the coats of Edrevenivar’s cavaliers but cunningly divided to accommodate and display a full-skirted petticoat. Csethiro was desperately fond of the robe, even more so on this occasion -- although the thought was unworthy -- because she knew that Csoru hated the style. But the former queen of the younger court could do nothing but make veiled (very veiled) snubs about the fashions that the soon-to-be-empress chose to set.
The tea had barely been poured before Csoru let her real motives slip. When the servant was not yet out of the room, which might have been by design, Csoru leaned forward. “In truth Csethiro, we have heard that which we would not keep from you -- for you know how devotedly we have always been your friend.”
Csethiro pondered several possible responses: she had found that she genuinely could not tell where Csoru’s play-acting ended and her self-delusion began. In the end, she said merely, “Naturally, dear Csoru.” Then, because she could not help herself, she mustered all of her practiced dryness and added, “we are all ears.”
“Well,” said Csoru, setting down her teacup and folding her hands. “We have heard the most shocking -- but oh!” Fragile, innocent dismay swept Csoru’s face.
“What is the matter?” Csethiro asked after a long moment, when it became plain that Csoru was waiting for her to react.
“We had forgotten,” said Csoru, “we had not even thought of it. But you are not married, and perhaps it would not be proper...” Her large expressive eyes and the set of her heart-shaped chin seemed to lay bare an inner turmoil.
Csethiro was very glad no longer to be the age when such games from Csoru had sent her into tears, even if she somewhat regretted that they were no longer the age when it had been possible to fly at Csoru and pull her hair. “You must do as you think best,” she said with as good cheer as she could manage, which was quite good cheer indeed.
“And yet,” continued Csoru, cocking her head in dismay. “It concerns Edrehasivar.”
At that, Csethiro’s curiosity was pricked in spite of her distaste for Csoru’s games. If Csoru was now attempting to meddle with the Emperor, Csethiro wanted to know and to head it off. For first of all, her husband-to-be had not been raised in the vicious vipers’ den of the court and would be genuinely hurt and dismayed to hear whatever nasty rumours Csoru was purveying (and from her calculated demurral, they were nasty indeed). Second of all, Maia was far too kind-hearted, and when Csethiro punished Csoru as she deserved, it would be better for His Serenity not have forbidden it beforehand.
“Well then,” she said as drily as she dared. “We own that we are obliged to you, for being so frank with us, dear friend.”
Csoru could not quite keep the triumph off of her face. “But to speak of such things to one unmarried -- even to our dearest friend and bosom sister?” she said with doubtful tones.
“Dear Csoru,” said Csesthiro after taking a long and steadying breath so that her own voice would remain light, “surely you would not keep from us that which concerns His Serenity?”
“But we do not know whether it would be quite proper,” said Csoru, and her ears twitched elegantly in shame. “We should not wish to be answerable to Dach’osmerrem Ceredaran…”
That was too much. “We assure you,” exclaimed Csethiro before she could quite help herself, “we are well acquainted with theory of the relations between husbands and wives! And we are quite sure that nothing you would impart, dear Csoru, could be improper to know.”
Csoru sighed a dramatic sigh. “We suppose you have the right. Then,” she leaned forward again, “You should know, Csethiro, that there are rumors about Edrehasivar’s... fitness as a husband.”
Various people had come to Csethiro to tell her of His Serenity’s attachment to Min Vechin; others had since told her in earnest confidence about the emperor’s parti for this lady or that, the more ignoble the better. It was, Arbelan Zhasanai had warned her, both one of the trials of an empress’s life and one that could be met with only one answer, whether one’s lord was faithful or no. This was a rumour of a different variety, Csethiro judged, but, as her friend Thenevu Akhmazhin would put it, of the same genus. “Indeed?” she said. “We are curious who it is who claims to know, for we certainly do not.”
“It grieves us,” said Csoru cheerfully, “for we have always been fond of Edrehasivar in spite of his unkindness for us, but we know for a certainty that His Serenity’s nohecharis -- or rather, his nohecharo -- warned Mer Aisava that he might be called to, ah, remedy his Serenity’s deficiencies in the marriage bed. As we are given to understand that the woman is a healer with a great deal of experience among the lower sort, we imagine that she is reliable in this regard.”
That was not what Csethiro had expected, and she was surprised to find herself indignant and slightly queasy. Affairs and infidelities, wives unsatisfied by their husbands, yes, even marnis proclivities were one thing: as much the bread and butter of the court, without which the public halls of the Untheileneise would be silent, as of the popular novelists and playwrights. The emperor and his secretary -- she was not unaware that such slanders circulated among the very very daring or very foolish wits who thrived on dancing the edge of the forbidden, though they were usually silenced in her presence or the presence of any lady. But Maia summoning his secretary to bed to beget him an heir? It was more distressing than she had imagined to be herself the object -- indeed the object in all senses -- of a scenario so coarse and crude. Not to mention insulting to Maia, who would never-- who could not even imagine, she was sure, such a disgusting affront to her or to anyone.
But someone had imagined it, even if Csoru had perhaps not fully considered how nasty the gossip was that she was so eager to pass on. A glance up at Csoru’s face corrected that mistake. Oh no, she knew very well. Csethiro tried to devise an appropriate response, something that Osmer Cethenehar might have said. That gentleman had been betrayed a thousand times over in the course of Mer Breda’s novels without betraying his own feelings in the slightest.
“We do not believe you. And we find no entertainment in your slander of Kiru Athmaza.” Whom Csethiro hardly knew, since the emperor’s second nohecharei were less often on duty at public or even semi-private court functions. But it had gladdened her heart that if she could not personally stand in protection over Maia, at least there would be a woman standing for her.
“Oh dear, we are afraid that we have shocked you. But when you are more experienced, my dear, you will find that outward virtues can hide very low characters.”
Csethiro stood up without bothering to be graceful or polite. “We also had thought,” she said quietly, “that we could not be shocked by any lowness of your character. But we find ourselves corrected.” With no bow or curtsy, she turned her back on Csoru and left.
After an hour of rapier drills, Csethiro trusted herself to contemplate her feelings again. She had heard coarse tales about this courtier or that before, even about the emperor, even about Maia. A truth: she had even laughed at such things, once. She had been made aware of gossip concerning herself before. A truth: half the court believed that they knew precisely what the scientifically-minded ladies were really getting up to, even if they were too well-bred to say it of a noblewoman. But she had never paid that any mind. Why should she, when even an it were true, it would have been no harm and no dishonour?
Why then, merrem, art so distressed now?
“Because,” she answered herself finally, as she put her thoughts in order along with her fencing gear, “It is one thing to be accused of doing wrong, but another to be said to be the passive object in the slander of someone else.”
Several somebodies else, in fact: she could see that it was a particular bit of maliciousness to attribute such a gross thought to the only woman ever to become nohecharo (unless one counted Ithu Chelvenar, of course, who had disguised her sex and served the emperor Edrethorivel IV for his entire reign, undiscovered until death). And yet, for all that she had experienced Csoru’s half-truths and even quarter-truths before, she had never yet heard from her something that was fully a lie.
As Csethiro bathed, she thought some more. Csoru could wait, she concluded, but her own peace of mind could not.
* * *
Kiru Athmaza bowed deeply when she entered the second receiving room of the Ceredada appartments. “Dach’osmin.” Her blue maza’s robe was neat and fresh and been skillfully turned, and her long maza’s queue gave her a mannish look although she was unmistakably a woman.
“Please Kiru Athmaza,” said Csethiro, “be seated.”
“We thank you, Dach’osmin,” said the maza, “but with your permission, we should prefer to stand.”
Already, it seemed, the interview was off to a bad start. “Well then,” said Csethiro, “we will come to the point. We do not ordinarily credit rumors, and we are somewhat ashamed to have been so disturbed by this one, as we are convinced it is baseless. But we find it so incredible that we felt we must consult you, as you are in part its object.”
“Dach’osmin,” interrupted the maza. “We protest that we are a cleric of Csaivo; an you do not believe our obedience to our order’s laws, and do not trust in His Serenity’s probity, we beg you to believe in the honour of our partner Lieutenant Telimezh, who can swear to our upright and chaste conduct at every moment that we have been in His Serenity’s presence, and who is, moreover, a gentleman born.” Her tone remained polite, but it had a certain tired asperity, as if this was a protest that she had made very often.
Csethiro felt her face flush slightly. “Kiru Athmaza, we do not accuse you of, of trifling with our betrothed. For we do not think you would. It is rather that someone has accused you of speech that is...that is crude and offensive -- so much so that, although we do not consider ourselves missish nor especially naive, we were quite overset to hear it.” She knew that she sounded precisely missish and naive -- what sort of courtier called up a nohecharis to interrogate them about a rumour, after all? “As we could not trust anyone who imagined such a thing of Edrehasivar, but we must indeed trust his Serenity to you, we wish to understand frankly what has happened.”
“Dach’osmin, we assure you that we are loyal to the emperor and take our oath seriously. What are we said to have done?”
“It is said that you advised the emperor’s secretary that his Serenity might well call upon him to fulfill his…” Csethiro bit her lip, although there was no reason to be embarrassed about speaking of this to a woman who was a maza, a healer, and a dedicatee to Ceitho. “His marital duties.”
For a moment, Kiru Athmaza looked bewildered, then she frowned slightly. “Please believe us, Dach’osmin, that we would never say such a thing. We find the thought insulting in the extreme, and contrary to everything we have come to know of His Serenity’s character. We are profoundly sorry that you sh--” Then something appeared to occur to her. “Oh merciful goddesses.”
Csethiro’s heart, which had begun to relax, clenched again. She very much wanted to believe Kiru Maza’s sincerity.
“Dach’osmin,” the maza continued. “We are indeed at fault in this. Several days ago, we advised Mer Aisava that he should not pester the emperor when his Serenity has retired for the night, and we reminded him that soon he would have to take thought for you, Dach’osmin, who would not allow him disturb the emperor at all hours. We suspect that this is the origin of the malicious report -- please, dach’osmin, believe that we said nothing further nor intended any insinuation.”
“We do wish to believe you, Kiru Athmaza.” Perhaps it was foolish, but it was, admittedly far easier to believe that someone in Csoru’s circle or even Csoru herself had concocted the nastiness than that it had been begun by the emperor’s nohecharo, a cleric of Csaivo who had become dachenmaza, healer, and nohecharis in spite of her sex. That itself was a great recommendation to Csethiro, but even greater was that Maia trusted her. And that she was willing to throw Mer Aisava out of the emperor’s chambers in order to give Maia what little moments of peace an emperor could find. “That is,” she said more firmly, “We do believe you.”
The maza took a slow breath, and seemed to decide something. “We meant no disrespect or any rude suggestion, please believe us, but we see that it was a liberty with His Serenity’s person and with your person that was most improper. We have lost your trust, Dach’osmin, and your trust in our discretion and respect for the emperor, and we sincerely regret our thoughtless words. We humbly beg your forgiveness, and we shall offer our resignation, an you think it best.”
“No,” said Csethiro slowly. “We would prefer not to have heard even that, it is true. But we own that an we must be told what is being speculated about our forthcoming marriage, we prefer the thought that we will defend Edrehasivar from threats to his sleep than -- the other one. We know that there will always be gossip and that we cannot but be an object of talk.” Palace walls hear more than is spoken and see more than is done, the historian Aëlthennu had written. “And,” she added, because she was, for her sins, honest to a fault, “what we should not hear should not, for that reason, be forbidden to be said, even by the emperor’s nohecharis. We have been oversensitive.”
“We do not find it so, dach’osmin. We find nothing humorous in the conceit of violation, nor in the idea that His Serenity would order such a thing. Indeed, we find it offensive in the extreme that such jokes should be imputed to us at all, and that anyone should think we have so little respect for decency, let alone our respect for you, dach’osmin, and for Mer Aisava. We shall endeavor to find out who in the emperor’s household is at fault, for we do not think that they should serve His Serenity any longer.”
“We are entirely in agreement,” said Csethiro, a little bit fiercely. “And we shall, for our part, see to the person whom we believe to be most responsible for its elaboration.”
Kiru Athmaza’s smile betrayed some fierceness as well. “We heartily approve, Dach’osmin. What is more -- may we speak plainly? Although we have perhaps been speaking too plainly, of late.”
Csethiro gestured her assent.
“We are fond of His Serenity, dach’osmin, and we wish him well and happy and safe.” A look of fierce protectiveness crossed the maza’s face and her ears curled slightly. “And because -- forgive us, dach’osmin -- because we guard him often when he sleeps, and when he is burdened and distressed and wearied, we have presumed to consider him our charge with more familiarity than we ought.”
“We are happy to hear it,” said Csethiro, slightly puzzled. “We also are fond of His Serenity.”
“Yes,” said Kiru Athmaza, “and we now see that we were perhaps hypocritical to remind only Mer Aisava not to presume on his position, Csethiro Zhasan.”
The unexpected, technically improper title surprised her for a moment, but then Csethiro understood, and she suddenly felt pleasure and glee fizzing in her chest.
“We know that you cannot be our friend,” she said in reply. This she knew from novels and from the historians: on more than one occasion in long history of the Ethuveraz, an emperor’s nohecharei had defended his life from the empress. Kiru Athmaza would not let her loyalty be divided. “Or else we would immediately insist upon it. But, Kiru Athmaza, we are very glad to be considered your ally.”