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Isheian was honoured to serve the old Emperor. Of course she was. She was young for it, and that Merrem Esaran thought her service good enough that even Varenechibel would find no fault with it filled her with pride. She owed everything to Merrem Esaran, who had given her a place when she had none, and it was not for her to criticize the master Merrem Esaran loved.

But she did not weep when he died, remembering how many other servants he had dismissed, tossed out as if they were nothing more than garbage. Merrem Esaran wandered the halls ashen like an unquiet spirit, and Isheian smiled into her pillow at night when no one saw.

Is aught wrong with me? she wondered. I ought to grieve for my betters, or if I can’t, I must not secretly rejoice.

Then Edrehasivar came.

Edrehasivar smiled at her almost as soon as he met her. It was not a courtier’s smile, but a real one, and Isheian could not help but respond in kind. Edrehasivar brought that out in people, she thought. Made them better, because he was better. Varenechibel his father made people scared because he was petty.

She knew he had her loyalty forever when he defied Merrem Esaran for the express purpose of learning her name, and made a point of using it thereafter.

Change came with Edrehasivar, too. He was the first Emperor to ever have a nohecharo, not a nohecharis, and though Isheian’s dreams had never run toward the martial, she remembered her little cousin Nareian back home who wanted to be a maza, and she grinned at Kiru Athmaza whenever she came on duty.

Kiru Athmaza, of course, was far too dignified to respond.

But the most interesting change was Mer Aisava, the Emperor’s secretary. Mer Aisava had been a courier, was a commoner. Not like all of Varenechibel’s secretaries, who were educated minor nobility, ambitious men of consequence.

And, she quickly realized, he was better at his job than all of them.

She watched Mer Aisava, when she could. Watched how well he did his job, how many things he juggled at once. Admired how much he knew.

He caught her watching, one day when the Emperor had finished his luncheon. Instead of going on ahead of the Emperor, he stayed behind.

“Min Selanin,” he said. “We hope you do not think us rude, or too forward. We ask only out of friendship. Do you wish to learn to read?”

Isheian stared at him. She felt herself flush. Her stomach was shards of broken glass. “We…we are sorry, Mer Aisava,” she said.

He held up a hand. “No, wait, please,” he said. “We only meant…we have taught many of our fellows among the couriers. We would be pleased to teach you too, in our off hours.”

Her voice came out a whisper. “We would like that.”

He was a good teacher, patient with Isheian’s timidity and with her frequent mistakes. He always tried to find interesting things for her to read, and when he ran out of those at her level, he wrote stories just for her, most of them screamingly funny.

It was during one of these, about an argument between the lords of the Corazhas, that Merrem Esaran came upon them.

Isheian gave a little shriek, one she could not help, and jerked away from the paper as if it burned her.

Mer Aisava—Csevet, he had insisted on being called—gave Merrem Esaran a wide smile. “Ah, Echelo,” he said. “We are just working on Isheian’s letters. Canst thou think of anything interesting for her to read? I am running out of ideas.”

Merrem Esaran did not smile back. “We will think on it,” she said, rejecting Csevet’s informality.

Csevet suddenly remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere, leaving Isheian alone with her employer.

“Are you unhappy?” asked Merrem Esaran, voice betraying no emotion. “Do you wish to be elsewhere?”

“No!” Isheian cried. “Please believe me, merrem, I…”

“Because we would hope that if there were something you wished for, something you needed or even wanted, that you would come to us. That you would trust us.”

She wasn’t angry. No, she was hurt, which was a thousand times worse.

“It is not,” Isheian began, “that we are ungrateful or wish not to serve. It is merely that…we wish to serve with more of ourself. To have all of ourself we can.”

“We understand,” said Merrem Esaran coolly. “Go and ready the Emperor’s tea, now.”

Isheian hurried to obey. Esaran stopped her with a word. “Isheian.”

“Yes, merrem.”

“Would you stop, if we asked? If we told you it was unseemly?”

This woman had given her a place when no one else would. She owed her honesty. “No, merrem.”

“We see.”

That was all, until the next night. Merrem Esaran summoned her to her study, where she had her account books open. “The Alcethmeret,” she began, “is a court of its own. There is much that goes into its running, its expenses. We will make sure you know your sums, then we will move on to the budget.”

Isheian stared at her. “Merrem, we….”

“If you are to be our successor, you must know these things.”

“Successor? Us?”

Now Esaran looked sad. “Edrehasivar is a good boy, but we cannot think of him as aught else. He deserves a household steward loyal to him. Who can serve him with all of herself. We did not doubt your loyalty, but we were not sure you had the spine. Until yesterday. You will do well for him, Isheian.”

“I…I mean, we would be honoured, but we cannot do your job.”

“A month ago you could not read. We assure you we will not leave until you perform to our standards."

But we are just a server, she thought. And Csevet had only been a courier.

She sat down, and Esaran opened a new world for her.