Raicha stood on the terrace and stared at the crocodile. It was a gift from Kanjire. Apparently Kanjirians considered ill-tempered predators an appropriate gift for foreign royalty. Crocodiles were the symbolic guardians of their royal family, fine. Still. It was fifteen feet long and had made a spirited attempt to kill the men who had unloaded it; Camilia had been extremely impolite privately about the need to find somewhere to put the damn thing. It was also, very clearly, a statement about the relative fitness of the ruling families of Kanjire and Tacar. Tamedijl, who had been Kanjirian royalty before her marriage, had looked smug all day.
Camilia gave a gurgling laugh at the sally and laid a hand on the Lord Magistrate’s shoulder. She saw him appreciatively following the line of her neck and long bare arm and smiled. He had known her father too well to be genuinely swayed by her femininity, but she found that very few men actually minded being charmed by the Empress. She crinkled her eyes at him in parting, and turned away to find the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He was standing on the balcony, the last echoes of sunset on his face. He was, as ever, slim, tall, and elegantly dressed, the note-perfect performance of a man who had been at court since long before she’d been born. He had been appointed to his position by her grandfather and had not been young then, but of course that was nothing for the Tevalle.
“After all, Vahl is almost five, and planning a naming ceremony takes time.” Dahla gestured elegantly with a piece of candied fruit before popping it into her mouth.
Cahlila, expression unchanged, took a sip of wine. A sitting room full of her husband’s other wives might be hell, but it was a form of hell she was accustomed to. She was mildly surprised by Dahla’s latest move, although she shouldn’t have been. A naming ceremony, to designate Dahla’s son as the Emperor’s heir. Of course she was pushing for one, indecently early. Dahla was that sure she’d won. He should have married Dahla first.
It was an understood fact that no matter how many lessons and social commitments Raicha had to juggle, she was mysteriously available for anything Camilia invited her to do. They had no illusions; it had nothing to do with Raicha’s personal preferences and everything to do with encouraging the Emperor’s heir to remember that she was an Ameru on her mother’s side.
It worked for everyone, especially the girls, but they tried not to be too obvious about their exploitation of it. There were only so many painful teas with Aunt Chenna that could be coincidentally preempted by shopping emergencies before Looks started being passed around and someone got sat down and stared at by Raicha’s grandfather or Lady Cahlila. Nobody wanted that.
“What are you missing this time?” Camilia was curled on a silk sofa with her feet under her.
Camilia stared out the window of her father’s sitting room. Temash’s body, still bloody from the hunt, had been taken away to be prepared for burial. Now all that was left was three of his wives, Tamedijl having been taken away in hysterics, and half a dozen of his children.
Dahla was crying. Camilia’s own mother Cahlila, who had actually cared for him, was exerting an iron focus on a cup of tea in her hand. Sala, sitting with her two oldest children, merely looked grim.
The servant quietly closed the door behind her, leaving behind a motionless tableau: the Emperor’s first wife, Lady Cahlila, and three teenaged girls standing before her in a line. Raicha tried not to let her eyes drop to the mosaic under her feet. It was a fine example, three centuries old, but she’d seen it before, and as Camilia was always saying, showing guilt was as bad as getting caught.
Cahlila leaned back in her chair and gave them a considering look from those famously brilliant eyes. Camilia, next to Raicha, met the look evenly, nearly identical eyes showing nothing but polite inquiry. The corner of her mother’s mouth lifted slightly. Camilia’s half-sister Sai, standing on Camilia’s other side, stood straight and tall. Raicha envied her ease.
“Lady Dahla had a very bad reaction to one of her paints this morning.” They had known that. Rumors in the hallways varied, but the overall trend suggested that she had a face full of hives and was refusing to come out of her rooms.
“Cosmetic creams go bad so quickly in the summer,” Camilia murmured sympathetically. Her mother clearly did not believe that for a second, but faint amusement said it had been an acceptable parry. “And she needs so many of them.” That had been almost inaudible but Cahlila’s lips twitched.
Camilia was relaxing in a chair by the window when the slim black figure materialized out of the shadows. She noted the ebony leathers with an amused arch of the eyebrow.
“How dramatic. Dressing for your office?”
A smile appeared on the dark face as he sketched a bow. “Dressing for travel. I’m leaving for Maj Malai this evening.”
“Ah.” She glanced out at the bright face of the moon. Almost at the full; only a few nights from the hunt. “You wanted to speak with me personally?”
A slight inclination of the head. “All of the essentials were in the report my office provided to Sai” — Sai had briefed Camilia on it — “But our people in Shin Ai have picked up… some concerning sentiment regarding the Kanjirian trade agreement.”
“There’s been no mention of that in the dispatches from our embassy.”
“Indeed.” His tone was studiously bland.
She sighed and put a hand up to rub the bridge of her nose. The embassy in Shin Ai was the one her father had appointed the oldest of her half-brothers to. Vahl, who’d had five years before her birth to think he might inherit the throne.
“Very well. You will return to Maj Delumai…”
“Within the week. I might have a word with my counterpart while I’m there.”
That drew a quirk of the mouth from her. “You astonish me.” She could think of few things less likely than two Tevalle spymasters resisting the temptation to exchange secrets. “Good hunt to you.”
“Your majesty.” He did her the courtesy of letting her hear the door open and close on the way out.
Camilia turned back to the window opening on the moonlit courtyard. “Need you have given me so many siblings?” There was no answer, but in a tree, a nightlark began to sing, so Camilia smiled and turned away.
Voices from the courtyard met Camilia as she entered. She smiled and paused under the arch to enjoy the daily spectacle only she got to see: the empire’s most notorious young rake playing with her children.
“And how are you going to get there?”
“ELPHANT!” Aleish bellowed. Cahleina giggled.
“Vash! What are you teaching them?” Camilia struggled to keep the laughter out of her voice.
“Until dinner.” Par finally left. Thank heavens. There wasn’t enough wine in the city.
“Did he propose to you, or is he saving that for dinner?” A wickedly inflected baritone caught her ear, and Raicha turned with relief to see Par’s brother Avash. “You could do better.” He lifted an eyebrow suggestively.
“You don’t imagine my grandfather would let you anywhere near me, do you?” Avash combined his brother’s middling social position with youngest-son ineligibility and a scandalous reputation for affairs with married women.
“Grandfathers never seem to approve of me. Even my own.” A regretful look that she didn’t believe for a second appeared.
“Well, mine is here,” she laughed. “Go away before you get me in trouble, Avash.”
He winked and strolled off to the imperial balcony where Camilia and Sahmin were sitting. He casually dropped into the chair next to Camilia. Sahmin addressed a friendly comment to him.
Raicha froze. She could see the corner of Avash’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. Avash? She had never caught so much as a whisper. And joining her this publicly could only mean one thing. She folded her lips under and firmly bit down on them to control the hysterical bubble of laughter that was welling up. Her eyes darted around the room. The Temeru patriarch had stopped with a glass of wine halfway to his lips and was staring toward the balcony with an expression he’d be embarrassed by later. Raicha quivered.
“My lady.” A servant bowed. “Her imperial majesty invites you to join her to view the fireworks.”
“I think my view of the fireworks would be better from here.” Dahla Faro’s face was furiously red. Raicha’s great uncle – Camilia’s grandfather – caught her and gave her an amused glance. Raicha quickly looked away.
“Yes, by all means. I would hate to miss them.” Camilia turned and caught her eye. Raicha choked, but her shoulders only shook a little as she sauntered off to join them.
a : display of temper or intense conflict
b : a spectacular display <the fireworks of autumn leaves>
He was almost in love with her. She was beautiful — God, so beautiful. She moved like a cat, even during the daytime — strong, lithe, so powerful that he couldn’t help but watch her across the council hall. He stared, even when the debate had stopped and the council chief was tapping his foot and waiting for him to respond. Then she’d look, and her eyes would laugh and promise him he was forgiven.
She was beautiful in the daytime, but it was at dusk that he could hardly believe her. As the light faded, her black skin would melt into the night and her gray eyes glowed. It was like a communion with a god he barely knew. He couldn’t turn away.
And yet. She laughed, she smiled, she touched his hand. She was the best company he could imagine, but there was still something in her he couldn’t reach. At first he’d splashed in the shallows, then floundered deeper. Still she laughed and smiled. You could fall as far as you liked, he thought, spinning so deep you didn’t know which way to turn, and yet never reach the core of her, still slide right past the place where her secrets lived.
He wondered if they understood each other. Was it different, if you were one of them? Was there was some quiet sanctuary deep in the heart of Maj Malai, far from human eyes, where they let the secrets fall, where she was nothing but herself? Or was she an enigma, even there?
1: an obscure speech or writing
2: something hard to understand or explain
3: an inscrutable or mysterious person
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