Csevet’s face, normally ivory, was white as paper. Maia put aside the report he had been reading, alarmed. “What is it?’
His secretary stood at the door of the Tortoise Room, so still that he could have been a statue in a tomb.
“Csevet? What is wrong? Are you ill? What’s toward?” Maia hastily stood, shoving his chair out so quickly that its legs scraped unpleasantly on the marble floor. He started toward the other man, but Csevet shook his head.
“Serenity, we apologize. We bring … news. Something has been found as a result of the inventory of articles in the apartments of the late emperor your father.”
Maia sat down again, not without casting a quick glance over at Cala, who looked as alarmed as Maia felt.
The inventory, which was being done now that a year had officially passed since Varenechibal’s death and his private rooms could be reopened as tradition demanded, had thus far been unremarkable. This was normal, as such exercises were usually undertaken, or at least so Maia had been told. Clothing had been taken away to be disposed of, minor jewelry returned to the royal treasury, journals removed to the locked archives of the royal library, books and other personal belongings taken to a room where Maia would eventually be expected to go, to declare that Varenechibel’s personal goods were now his to dispose of. He had no idea what he would do with it all; he had no interest in anything of his father’s, but knew there were others to whom he could grant items as gifts.
“What has been found?” He tried to imagine what could possibly have caused Csevet to look as he did. “Surely it cannot be so horrible? You look as if you had seen a ghost.”
That was apparently the wrong thing to say; Csevet looked, if anything, even more upset.
“There is a painting,” he said carefully. “The frame is of Barizheise style and origin. On the reverse side of the frame are the words ‘Under the seal of The Great Avar of Barizhan, this portrait of his daughter.’ We believe it is indeed a picture of Your Serenity’s mother.”
If Maia had not already been sitting, his knees would have betrayed him. For a moment he could hear nothing but blood rushing in his ears. He focused on his breathing, until he was sure he could speak calmly. “The painting … Do you have it here?”
“No, Serenity. We wished to advise you of the discovery first,” Csevet said. He still hadn’t moved further into the room. In the depths of his own shock, Maia noticed, and gestured him to come in.
“Please, Csevet. Do not linger in the doorway like an unwanted guest. Come sit, and tell us more of this.”
His secretary came in, his ears moving slightly higher with Maia’s words. He took the chair that Maia indicated, and stared at the table momentarily, obviously trying to organize his thoughts.
Art not the only one, Maia thought. But he realized he had to say something, or risk Csevet eying the table even longer. “Where … where in our father’s apartments was the frame found?”
Csevet’s looked apologetically thankful for the prompt. “Serenity, it was in one of the smallest rooms, a servant’s sleeping quarters, at the back of the room’s closet, in a small hole in the floor and under a set of boards that must have once been shelving. It had been wrapped in a blanket to protect it.”
Maia was confused. Why would a servant have the painting, and why would that servant have hidden it in their room? “We confess that we are at a loss.”
Csevet nodded. “We are at a loss as well, Serenity. The room had not been occupied for a long time. It appears to have been unused, at least for some period of time immediately before the end of your father’s reign. It had been shut up. Those taking inventory did not immediately notice it. It was very dusty,” he said, with visible distaste.
“Is it possible to learn who had the room when it was in use?” Maia was thinking furiously.
“We are attempting to do just that, Serenity —”
As he spoke, there was a small commotion at the door. A messenger stood where Csevet had just been, waiting for permission from the ever-vigilant Beshelar to enter. At Maia’s nod, his nohecharis reluctantly let the boy in.
Maia thought the lad looked even more upset than Csevet had been. He smiled encouragingly, and said, “What have you for us?”
The boy looked first at Csevet, who beckoned him closer, and took the note he carried. As Csevet read it, Maia watched his ears flatten to his head.
Csevet visibly composed himself, raising his ears. “Serenity, we believe we know the identity of the man who last used that room. Unfortunately, he died last year, at an advanced age. We could have his son appear before the inventorists — ”
“We would prefer that he appear before us,” Maia said. He was glad that he hadn’t had a full breakfast, since his stomach was turning cartwheels inside him, but he was firm. “And we wish for the painting to be delivered to us by tonight. Let both come before us after the evening meal.”
Maia would rather have seen both painting and man immediately. However, he was due to meet with the Corazhas and he knew its members would neither understand nor appreciate being told that the Emperor wished to put the day’s business on hold to view a painting, even if it was a painting of the late empress.
Csevet nodded. “We will see to it, Serenity.”
“Thank you,” Maia said, once again immeasurably grateful for his secretary. “And now we must away to our afternoon.”
*** *** ***
It was well past dark when the son of Cetha Maledar was ushered into Maia’s presence.
He was a middle-aged man who shared Maia’s half-goblin ancestry. Unlike Maia, this man had the goblin’s underslung jaw and very slightly protuberant eyes, although those eyes were an elvish grey, unnervingly bright against the dark slate of his skin. To Maia’s surprise, he wore the robes of a scholar, carefully patched, but faded with much washing. His hair was pulled back in a scholar’s queue; had it been freed, Maia suspected it would have been a frizzy mass, a little like his own on damp days.
“Serenity, this is Chenis Maledar,” Csevet said.
The older man bowed deeply, then stood, straight but respectful.
“Serenity, we thank you for seeing us,” Maledar said, very softly. “Our father often wished that he could see you.”
Maia forced himself to focus on welcoming niceties, but it was hard to do with so many questions nearly crowding all the proper things to say out of his head.
“We — we are pleased to speak with you,” he said. His voice did not shake, for which he was gratified. “Please be at ease. Mer Aisava has prepared a seat for you.” Maia had finally reached a compromise acceptable to himself, Csevet and his nohecharei when it came to speaking with people who were not of the nobility in his more private chambers. A chair, comfortable, but noticeably lower than that of the Emperor’s, was now available for such appointments, even if Beshelar continued to look pained at its use.
After the man took his seat, Maia continued. “Were you informed of the reason for our summons?”
“We were told it was a matter of a painting,” the man said cautiously. “One our father knew of.”
Maia nodded. “That is the case. We would like to learn more about your father, and we wish to speak of the painting, but tell us of yourself first.”
Maledar looked quizzical, but nodded. “We are a scholar of Ashedro, or rather we studied at Ashedro before returning to Cetho to teach at an ordinary school in the Untheileneise Court. We teach boys who are the children of higher-placed court servitors, those whose families may choose to send them to a university, and who have the ability to do so.”
“As your family chose to send you,” Maia guessed, and received a smile in return.
“This is true, Serenity. Our father wanted something … not better, for he was proud of his service, but different for us.”
“What did your father do for the late emperor?”
“He was, for many years, an aide to the late emperor’s master of chambers, serving at night. He left that employ roughly 17 years ago.” Although he spoke easily, Maia noticed that Maledar’s smile had disappeared.
He thought about how to ask the natural question. “He retired due to age, or illness?”
Maledar looked down at his hands, but raised his head and looked directly at Maia when he said, “He was removed, Serenity. At the order of your father or, more precisely, at the order of his household steward.”
Maia felt, rather than saw, Beshelar stir at Maledar’s tone. It was still respectful, but there were echoes of buried anger. Maia was not surprised. Throughout the day, he’d thought about the hidden painting. He’d examined numerous scenarios in his head, and in none of them was Varenechibel IV a welcome participant.
“When was this?”
“Shortly after your birth, Serenity.”
Silence fell. Maia looked to Csevet, who nodded and said, “We will ask Merrem Esaran to arrange for tea.”
At that, Maledar looked bewildered.
Maia resisting sighing. “Mer Maledar, you have been surprised by our summons, and we have been surprised by the need to summon you. We feel that tea is an excellent calmative for both of us.”
“Thank you, Serenity,” the man managed.
A few minutes later, after Isheian had served tea and bowed herself out, Maia returned to the matter at hand
“Mer Maledar, the picture that our inventorists found is, we are told, an introduction painting of our mother, the Empress Chenelo. We are also told that the room in which the painting was found had last been occupied by your late father. What we wish to know is simple; why would your father have, and have hidden, a painting of our mother?”
Left unsaid was Maia’s knowledge that the painting would surely have been destroyed after he and his mother were relegated to Isvaroë, and probably sooner, given his father’s distaste for his mother. He knew, from watching Setheris take everything of his mother’s from him, that his father would most certainly have ordered it burned after her death if it had somehow escaped before then.
Maledar pursed his lips thoughtfully.
“Your Serenity can see that we are not … that our heritage is both elven and goblin,” he said.
Although it did not immediately sound like a direct answer, Maia was willing to listen. He nodded. “Please continue.”
“Our mother came from a small village on the coast of the Chadevan Sea. In Barizhan.” He looked to Maia.
“She was goblin,” Maia offered.
“Yes. Times were hard in her village, and she traveled north to the Ethuveraz, seeking work. Our father met her and fell in love with her, when they were both very young. They traveled together to Cetho, and our father found work in the Untheileneise Court.”
“And your mother?”
Maledar said, “She raised us, and two much older sisters. We all grew up in the lower levels of the court, among the families of other servants. One sister died in childbirth shortly after she was married, and the other early on decided to travel south to Barizhan to find her fortune. She was very beautiful, and life was not always easy for her in the court. Our mother counseled returning to her people.” Now the look he gave Maia was a plea to understand.
Maia thought about what the court must have been like nearly half a century earlier. Even now, when so many citizens of the Ethuveraz, both high and low, shared elven and goblin lineage, their lives were not necessarily easy; he himself was proof of that. When Maledar’s father had come to the Untheileinese Court, marriages such as his would have been a suspiciously-viewed rarity so close to its isolationist realities. Maledar’s comment about his sister, delivered flatly, chilled Maia with its unspoken history of wrongs done to helpless people, especially women.
“You stayed,” he said, trying to hurry the explanation and feeling bad for doing so.
“Yes, Serenity. Our parents early on saw our love of learning, and decided that we should eventually become a scholar. We are forever grateful to them for that decision,” Maledar said, and Maia could read that in his face. “But it is important that you know this. Our father, because of the love he bore our mother, took it upon himself to learn as much about Barizhan and the lives of goblins as he could. What he learned impressed him; their family structures, the way they choose rulers, their festivals and spiritual rites, and much more.
“Then, when he had already reached the status of serving the former emperor, he learned that your father had chosen to marry the daughter of the Great Avar. This made our parents very happy. We remember being a student, and reading the letter he sent us about the news, in which he hoped that this would signal a new closeness between the two cultures,” he continued.
“He was heartbroken when this did not happen, especially after he had the good luck to meet your mother.”
Maia put his teacup down, and folded his hands together in his lap to hide their shaking. “How did he meet her?”
Maledar, who had relaxed slightly as he told the story of his family, stiffened again. He swallowed, and looked past Maia.
“The morning after the emperor and the empress were wed. When she was … she was escorted to her apartments,” he said. “Our father says that as she was being led out, one of those who led her out, who knew our father’s wife was goblin, whispered something to our father that was disrespectful of both the empress and our mother.
“The Empress Chenelo heard, our father said, and began crying. There were no sobs, no sound, just tears. Our father whispered back to the person — loudly — that he would let it be known that the emperor had been insulted by the jape. The man laughed, since it was easy to see that the emperor thought little of his new wife, but he was still afraid, and subsided. The empress turned, even as she was taken out, and thanked our father.”
“Our father said his heart was hurt by how young she was, and how alone she looked.”
Maia thought his own heart, so many times broken and healed, would break again. “Continue, Mer Maledar,” he said. The man nodded and did so.
“When she was found to be with child, our father said, the emperor was up all night with a cold rage that frightened everyone near him, even his nohecharei. Just before the dawn, he ordered that anything having to do with the empress Chenelo in his apartments was to be found, and destroyed.
“One of his nohecharei found the painting. The emperor looked at it and then dropped it to the floor. Our father, who was on duty, was told to pick it up and take it to the kitchen fires for burning.”
Maia fought his own rage, cooling it with gratitude toward Cetha Maledar. “But he did not.”
“No. He took it to his room and wrapped it in a blanket, and hid it in that space in the closet, which he had found quite by accident sometime earlier.” Maledar said. “He told us once, years later, that he did not know why he did so. It would have been dangerous for him to display it anywhere, even in the privacy of our home. He would never have been able to give it to the empress, although he said that might have been at the back of his mind.”
The scholar sighed. “Someone saw him take the painting to his sleeping room, and told the person who was household steward at the time. Although our father lied and insisted that he had taken the painting to be burned, as commanded, the steward must have suspected something. She had our father’s room searched. For a wonder, our father always said, the painting was not found; the boards and what they hid escaped the searchers’ notice.
“Despite that, the steward dismissed our father. He did not have a chance to return to the sleeping room to retrieve the painting. He left the court with our family, and found work in Cetho for a few years before he became ill. The last 10 years of his life he was an invalid, but his mind was keen until the end.”
With that, Maledar fell silent. Maia marshalled his thoughts, while Csevet signaled for someone to come and remove the tea service.
“Did you ever wish to see the painting, Mer Maledar?” he finally asked.
Maledar considered the question. “Perhaps. Our father said he believed the Empress Chenelo resembled our mother in her youth.”
Maia saw Beshelar’s eyebrows hit his hairline. Of course his punctilious soldier would consider this some sort of implied insult, Maia thought. Maia himself thought it was a lovely sentiment, given what Maledar had said of his parents’ story. He smiled and, out of the corner of his eye, saw Cala smiling too.
“Then you shall see the painting. Mer Aisava, if you would be so kind?”
*** *** ***
In the Elflands, fashionable portraits were done in shades of ice and winter sky, with palest jade, and silver, and grey. The introductory painting showing Chenelo Sevrachesed, second legitimate daughter of the Great Avar of Barizhan, glowed in warm summery greens and fiery reds, edged with the deep blue of skies in high summer.
She looked straight out of the ebony frame, as if she had truly just been introduced to whoever held the canvas. Her eyes, deepest gold, shone above her broad nose, and her dark skin gleamed in some imagined lamplight, its shade close to that of the frame. Above her strong goblin chin, her smile was tentative but true, and in her arms she bore a young suncat. Her black hair was drawn into a nest of complicated braids, with the braids exploding into curly waves on each side of her head.
Maia, who could only remember Chenelo as she was in Isvaroë, all grey skin and stick-thin fragility, drank in the look of her young and healthy. This was his beloved mother, and he did not mind letting Csevet, Cala and Beshelar see his tears.
Wordlessly, he held the painting out so that Chenis Maledar could see.
The older man viewed it, then bowed his head. “Serenity, our father was right. It seems a young image of my mother.”
Maia thought about the painting; given to one man who cared nothing for the girl in it, saved by another whose beloved wife it resembled.
“Your father was a wise man,” he said. He did not say what he was thinking about Varenechibel; the emperor of the elflands would not speak ill of his predecessor. “Thank you, Mer Maledar, for telling us his story. We are grateful that he was part of our father’s household, that this legacy of our mother might be saved.”
Maledar slid from his chair to one knee in obeisance. “Serenity.”
Maia reached over and captured the other man’s hands between his. “We would be most pleased to meet your mother, if that is possible. And we are pleased to grant your ordinary school such help as it might need to flourish.”
“We … yes, Serenity.” Maledar’s face was full of wonder.
After he had been seen out, Maia sat in silence for a good long time, the painting cradled in his arms. When Beshelar made an abortive motion to stand, a none too subtle suggestion that the emperor should also stand, Cala waved him back.
Eventually, Csevet spoke. “Serenity, your edocharei await.”
Maia nodded slightly and stood up, still holding the painting. “Then let us go to them.”
The last thing he saw before the lights were turned down for sleep was his mother’s smile, for the first time in years.
He was content.