27 Festivis, 1137
I hate this dream.
It wasn’t the nightmare; I only get that one after I read my security reports. No, this was one of a series. Not strictly frightening, just disquieting because they’re so bleeding frequent.
This was the dance dream, and in it, I’m enjoying dancing — which tells me it is fantasy because I hate dancing — with my chestnut haired Pronator. The dream is mostly memory; we revolve down the Presentation Hall. I look into his face, meeting his direct, dark blue eyes. We talk, sometimes about my work, though always my work now rather than what it was when the memory was formed. Sometimes we talk about his, though rationally, I know my mind merely fills in the script; I don’t know much of what he did. Engineering, or maybe architecture. He always smells of sandalwood, sage, and a sweetness for which I have no name, but sometimes he wears smoke, or pine sap or sulphur, too. His coat always appears to be fine, smooth indigo worsted, but that’s not always what my hand on his shoulder feels. I’ve touched as little as a single layer of fine linen over wiry, solid shoulders, or several layers of wooly knitted tunic, or wet waxed canvas.
I want to wake, but can’t. This dream is better than the other two. At least I don’t wake from this one with my body in full rebellion, aching for what I cannot have and feeling like my mouth is bruised from kisses I never received.
Part of me castigates myself for not governing my mind better. After eight years, the man himself must be dead, and we spoke for all of ten minutes. That my mind has embroidered this for so long must be a sign of incipient madness.
“Do you know where the private library is?” my sixteen year old dream-self says, and I know where the dream will take me tonight. Now, I must wake. Better to be awake half the night than spend tomorrow with my nerves jangling.
“Yes, Rien,” he says. I know that’s wrong. He always called me Ascendency.
“Cazerien,” he says again. I pull away from him, trying to understand what has turned this well-worn script improvisational.
“Rye-en,” he says, but his voice is feminine, urgent, irritated. “Cazerien Alzandra Lyria descendara Galene, wake up now.”
My Elevation ball vanished and I opened my eyes to a single lamp on my desk. Avah, wrapped in a bedrobe and her hair hanging over her shoulder, stood over me. I fumbled for my pocket clock on the bedside table and squinted at the hands. Third hour of the morning. I didn’t get home until tenth hour of the night and didn’t fall asleep until nearly midnight. “It’s not sixth, yet,” I said, “and we needn’t be at Privy Council until seventh, and not to Morning Audience until eighth, and not to my bench until ninth. Why are you waking me?”
“Oi, I didn’t ask for it, either,” my assistant said. “I was quite comfortable in a well-warmed bed with a lovely body, despite this freezing barn of a museum, but someone left orders not to be disturbed. Who would that be? Oi, right, you.”
“Right,” I groused. “My orders don’t apply to you, but they really should. I’m awake. What?”
“Message, and if it wasn’t coded to within an inch of its life, I’d have dealt with it.”
I growled low in the back of my throat and flung myself out of bed. The two cats nestled where my feet had been slid out from under the blankets and gave me hurt looks at being disturbed. “Who’s your tumble? I thought Norden went home to Palisar.” I pulled my bedgown on as my feet ached from the cold floor.
“He did, and I wish him and Marta great contentment, a profitable partnership of his land and her money and many happy children. Sam, Pronemor tret Lowen,” she said. “The odd-day senior on your afternoon guards. Who happens to possess a clever tongue.”
“He’ll ask you to marry him. You’re a brilliant match for a third grandson,” I warned as I found my slippers and a shawl. I couldn’t quite see my breath. “Please inquire of the engineer on duty why my rooms are suitable for aging meat, and what can be done?” Something was certainly wrong again with the nine-hundred year old hypocaustae that theoretically piped hot water from an underground spring throughout the Karsai.
Avah had left the message on my desk beside the burning lamp and a pot of steaming fondal. I took my time, tucking my feet under me and pouring a cup of strong, spicy tea, already properly adulterated with milk and honey. Just because a heliograph marked urgent arrived in the middle of the night didn’t make it so. At least once a tenday, someone expects the Razin’s immediate attention. Since Da had hared off to the Western border in my place, this was my mess, but people authorized to send such messages seem curiously blind to the speed of a heliograph. It’s not instant. Faster than a messenger, true, but ten or twelve hours can pass between sending and response. If the problem is truly urgent, that’s too long to await guidance and thus do we grant such people autonomy; if it only seems urgent, nine times of ten, it stabilizes before our reply arrives. Further, those on scene have more information and can better decide than me, hundreds of milliae away, with four lines of text.
My irritation evaporated when I saw the code and the message’s origin. Avah saw a cipher she didn’t recognize, not the origin station. Ragin does understand heliography’s limits; he would not send a coded, highest priority message without reason. If Ragin sent this in the middle of the night, which meant burning expensive phosphor all along the route, it was indeed urgent.
He’d used our current private code, not a standard one; he wanted this message illegible in transmission. The decryption took several attempts; my waking brain stuttered over the wax tablet, my code book and the signal officer’s slip.
Hunting cat late. Possible Observation. No confirmation. Priority Two. Then the standard transmission information and a dawn continuance notation in the unencrypted helio code.
Priority Two meant the Razin or an Ascendar or both was possibly dead, injured, captured or otherwise threatened. My father.
Had anyone else declared Priority Two at this hour, I’d be livid. By now, whatever had delayed Da might be resolved. However, Ragin’s idea of caution accords with mine.
Avah returned. “They’re working on the hypocaustae. A pipe burst in the north wing. They’ll send up an oil stove and window vent. Rien? What’s happened? You’re absolutely bloodless.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Inform my guards we’re at Priority Two. I need the Privy Council summoned.” I handed her the decryption.
I dressed carefully, while I tried to think. Priority Two is stupid — we know nothing, can do nothing. I hate Priority Two.
I’d endured it four times in the last two years — confirmed assassination attempts. On me. The other attempts… well, if they didn’t get close, they don’t count. Once coming home from a crime scene, once returning from a concert, once en route to Arisdal to ride with Da and once… here. That assassin hadn’t reached my third floor rooms, but the roofs had been bad enough. My hands shook as I strapped my palm knife to my wrist and dressed in breeches, boots and a riding coat in case I was summoned. I kept the colors sober, but no black, no grey, no white.
Avah returned, eyed my clothing, and chose for herself similar garments from my wardrobe. I was making a mess of braiding my excessive hair when she finished and took over the job. I clenched my hands together to make them stop shaking. Her nimble fingers tugged my hair into position, then coiled and pinned it at the nape of my neck. “Sorry about my foul temper,” I said, partly to check the sound of my voice. A little thin, but not cracked. Not panicked.
“I woke you and we’ve had only short nights this tenday. I knew what I was stepping in. Ragin didn’t wake us out of malice. No apology needed if you’ll accept mine,” she said and gently pulled my right hand free to twine her fingers through mine until I became still. Avah may be primarily my assistant, but she’s well paid and her family will be compensated if what we fear ever comes. She’s my height and though her hair is darker than mine, she keeps it bleached and long. She’s approximately as too-thin as I am, though she must bind her breasts flat. She’s no warrior, but she’s learned the same self-defenses that I have. She’s my double, half of my mind, my legal partner in all but contract, as close to a sister as I’ll ever have. I try to not take her for granted.
We descended the stairs together, with six guards — twice what’s normal when I’m outside the Karsai in a known environment, five more than when I’m inside. The Privy Council room, at the center of the ground floor, was warmer than the rest of the Karsai, but only because it is windowless and the walls are two feet thick. I lit the six lamps on the table and one in the adjoining private cubicle while Avah attended the oil-burning chandelier above the table. The flames washed the flat marble walls in gold. Maybe all the fire needed to illuminate a room half-buried in uncountable tons of marble and slate explains why this room always seems airless.
I expected the Privy Council to take at least two hours to assemble, and I hoped by the time they arrived, I could send them home. I paced the room’s perimeter, scrubbing a felt brush over the charcoal notes left on the walls from this morning. Don’t imagine what convinced Ragin to request this. For now, it is not an emergency. I erased notes about the Treasury, naval recruitment and grain stocks, just for something to do. Avah arranged a fondal pot and warmer on the table with a plate of buns, then her own scribe’s table in the corner.
These dreams of yours are utter nonsense, completely irrational.
There was a distraction. If the subject were anyone else, I’d just talk to Avah and figure out why my mind feels compelled to repeat them. But the man in question had courted Avah’s elder sister before I ever met him, well before he probably died. She knows exactly how much time I spent in the man’s company. To admit that eight years later, my sleeping mind conjures him at least once a tenday would be humiliating. Besides, Avah would just tell me to use my power and satisfy my curiosity. She’ll assume it’s some species of unrequited lust and tell me to stop repressing myself. Easy for her to say. She may accept any offer she likes, and her father expects his daughters to marry for love and contentment, not money or rank. She may conveniently ignore the fact that I’ll probably be bound to someone three times my age with half my strength, bad teeth and a string of titles beginning with some variation on Monarch to secure a treaty, but I can’t. Avah wouldn’t laugh at me for my witless obsession with her sister’s former suitor, and she’d certainly never tell Merian, but I’d know.
Nor could I speak to my family. Telling Da will just encourage him. He’s wanted me to send someone to find the man and bring him in for years. I doubted that was possible. I’d get the same answer from Ethene, my father’s companion. And Ragin, to whom I’ve always taken my naked heart? No. First, I’d have to wait for his next leave or write it, and speaking would be hard enough. Putting it in a letter… it’ll never get sent. Second, it edged into lands into which we do not enter. Ragin and I do not discuss our affections — or whatever this was — with each other. Ever. We’ve spent too many years with the Privy Council, the Prava and every Curiar with a prurient interest trying to entice us into marriage with each other to be comfortable discussing such matters.
The walls cleaned, I moved to the low, pale bookcases that lined the room, and started putting them back in order. In the rest of the Karsai, a servitor or librarian would be responsible for this tidying, but they’re barred from this room. Once a tenday, either my father’s captain of the guard or mine brings in a mop, bucket, brush and dust cloth. Everything else is the responsibility of we who use this room, and most of those fourteen people have never picked up their own stockings. I knew I was tidying because it allowed me to assert control over something, but the mindless activity let my mind work and warmed my bony body.
The dreams originated in memories of my Elevation, when I had ceased to be merely the Razin’s only child and became his designated heir, the Prima Ascendara. Being my father’s legitimate daughter hadn’t been enough for some; a number of Teregenis, temple leaders and Curiars would have traded legitimacy for a prong, jewels and beard. Almost nine years ago now, and a thousand changes since. Except that. Then, I’d had a damp Advocate’s license and a Royal Child’s responsibilities. Admittedly, those aren’t light — lessons for ten or twelve hours each and every day, accompanying Da, Ethene or my late aunt to Prava House to observe the legislative sessions or to the Judicatura to observe trials — but compared to my schedule now, I’d been practically lazy.
It started in the weapons studio. At least, I think so.