Slipping out of Qevellen was easy for many reasons. The foremost was that it’s not yet full of children, so no one’s employing any of the ways adults contrive to keep them corralled. That would change, given Farren’s determination: bells on the doors, little half-height gates, chiming curtains. But it’s also easy because it’s such an open house. Kor mentioned it was constructed for the First Servant of Shame, presumably to his specifications, so that might account for its eccentricities… except that given the kind of personality attracted to Shame’s priesthood I would have expected the First Servant to have wanted a cave, not this temple to open spaces and garden views.
That’s how I escaped: by taking one of the ubiquitous garden paths entirely around the building and to the gate. I had never seen a house this size on such an enormous plot… only in the Temple District would it have been possible, and only in an old house, built when mores were different. Gardens are supposed to be public amenities. I can’t remember the last time I saw a large one that was also gated.
We were an odd house, and an odd House. Farren has told you those are separate words? Gadare is the building. Eqet is the group of family members. It’s important that you think a little like us, aunera, if you’re to find this story bearable—or even explicable. So remember this, the whimsicality of Qevellen. A House with eight males and one female. What was Thirukedi thinking?
Maybe I would ask Him.
I was going there now—to see Him. Walking to center. We say vaesha. To move toward Him, or more abstractly toward civility, or peace, or harmony with others. He had made me osulkedi, and that made Him my lord. Strange thought. Perilous one, after how I’d fallen out with my last lord. At least, I thought, I would not be likely to fall torridly in love with Thirukedi. A woman might like her lovers older than her, but there are limits.
Surely Qenain had broken me, to have left me with such ideas.
There are fathriked who find the outdoors distressing. I was never one of them. The spring sunlight on my head, warming the curls that brushed alongside my neck and cheeks… that felt good. The piquancy of late spring flowers gave the air some needed spice, particularly in the Temple district where the breezes carried the powdery, sweet smell of incense. The busyness of it, even here, where there were fewer residences: I loved it. Kherishdar has a rhythm, and I now played a different part of the pattern. I found it invigorating, experiencing those differences. To have been rakadhas, thrust from the caste that had defined me almost all my life, had been painful. But now that I’d been ejected from the process of re-evaluation, I found acclimating to my new state stimulating.
I digress. You would too, walking through the graciousness of late spring, in the blossom-strewn byways of Kherishdar.
Farren told you perhaps that the city is separated into wedges—the atan—and that’s true. That’s how we know which Regal Household is responsible for which segment of the city. But the city itself is built in rings, and to walk toward center from the Temple District, one goes through the public parks and plazas devoted to the Trysts, and afterwards into the administrative ring with the great Regal Households, and finally, the point at the center, where Thirukedi dwells. But the parks were an unsettling reminder of the forthcoming Summer Tryst, so I might perhaps be forgiven for being preoccupied when I ascended the steps to Thirukedi’s residence, and there nearly collided with another woman. She was gray-pelted, like me, but a watery color, one that darkened toward the tips of her hair and her ears, like she’d been left in the rain. Even her eyes were a wan yellow, like a piece of amber that had clouded over. I would have found her insipid except she met my gaze with a shocking directness and laughed at the sight of me, and I knew then who she was. Who she could only be.
“Oh! The Emperor’s newest osulkedi. What a pretty girl you are!” Had I thought her eyes mild? When she leaned toward me I found them bright enough. Sultry, even. I was so busy with them I didn’t see the tap under my chin coming. “How do you like it so far? Or should you have stayed in your first caste, Decoration? You’re certainly decorative enough.”
I jerked away, offended.
“Oh, she has opinions, at least!” The woman chuckled. “Good for you, pretty girl.”
“My name,” I said from between bared teeth, “is Haraa nai’Qevellen-osulkedi, and I don’t care if you’re the Exception. Don’t call me ‘pretty girl.’”
“Oooh, she figured me out.” A sly grin, as if we were sharing a secret. “Very good! You’re as smart as you look. People rarely are. It’s very disappointing.”
The nakked at the door weren’t staring at her. I don’t know how. I would have to ask Ajan or Vekken how that worked. How you trained a Guardian not to be outraged by the one Ai-Naidari in all the empire who was allowed to be this offensive.
“Anyway,” she said. “I’m on my way. Have fun with your master, pretty girl.”
“He’s your master too,” I growled. “And my name—”
“—is Haraa, I know, you’ve told me,” she said dismissively. “But I don’t have to call you that. And honestly, you haven’t earned it from me.” More serious, her eyes abruptly grave, almost angry. “Everyone has to earn everything from me, little osulkedi.” Traipsing down the steps now, as lightly as a maiden. “And no man is my master, nor woman either! How lucky I am, am I not, to be so free? I bet you envy me.”
Shocked, I exclaimed, “I do not!”
She flung a grin over her shoulder at me. “Why the boots, then, pretty girl? Where do you wish you were going? Far, far away…” She laughed. “Good luck with that. You live here, and trapped, and always will.” And then she passed down the path, back toward the gates.
Have you ever been angry enough to want to kick something? Goddess, aunera. How she infuriated me! And it was in this mood that I passed into the halls of Thirukedi’s personal temple, trailing my own incense of pique and offense. I wasn’t proud of it, but I had never met the Exception. I’d somehow thought of her as a sad and distant figure, not someone who could flirt at me with her eyes while mocking me with her words.
It was petty of me, but I thought, as a Servant led me to Him, that at least my pelt and eyes didn’t look like someone had diluted them with too much water.
I wonder… do humans have a concept of walking-to-center? The Ai-Naidar want to know.