“We need to change our strategy in the wake of current events,” Aikerim spoke as she paced through her room.
“Didn’t you expect something like this to happen?” I asked from my sofa.
I was aware that something was brewing with Amanzhan Irada after the meeting with Amalric, and Aikerim knew about it even longer than that. She did tell me that her sister was getting curious about me and would likely attempt to claim me as her own, if an opportunity were to present itself. There were laws and ‘Divine Mandates’ to ‘play nice’ but that only stopped direct bloodshed and obvious power grabs. At the same time, some competition was subtly encouraged. At least in Kiymetl.
Aikerim wasn’t just a brilliant daughter with the misfortune of not being born first; the Kiymetl Matriarch sent her to Samat as an indirect reminder for her eldest not to slack off. The sudden growth of her younger sister was bound to make Amanzhan uncomfortable.
But that was before. Now, Aikerim was visibly concerned.
“I was. What I did not expect is her going into Heat.”
Irje whistled and Anaise quietly swore under her breath.
Aikerim glanced at me and Yeva and sighed, “Tackling her as the Speaker of Kiymetl would have been easy. However, all she thinks about now is how to get herself stuffed with the best seed on the market. And Sophia Chasya has Albin. An unclaimed male with a brilliant Spark. She doesn't even need to offer his rings to her — trading him for a night would be plenty as far as Amanzhan is concerned.”
I scrunched my nose in distaste, “Can she do that? He is her brother.”
“That is exactly why she can: he belongs to her Manor. This is how Pillar Houses operate, Erf. Having one of your males spread some seed around is just one of the favours Dominas can provide. Or offer one of them as the gift outright.”
She stopped and checked her glowing fingernails. A runic cheat sheet for whatever spell Aikerim was maintaining. “It is one of the purposes of sadaq-at. Some use it to appease an influential Domina, others — to take in an exceptional male. Whether prominent in blood, connections, or skill. You received my blessing to be taken by my daughter. Similarly, I took Tarhunna. He does have a pleasant character and I have learnt to enjoy his presence over the years, but none of that would have happened if his Spark was dull or he was from an unknown Manor.”
I sighed and rubbed my aching forehead. There was no point in getting morally upset at the cultural norms of Emanai. The norms that were about to give me the third wife were also the ones that were working against me. At least wermages were somewhat egalitarian by treating everyone as tools to further their cause. Whether it was a brother or a murk slave. “How does this change things?”
“My sister is likely to push much harder to take you away now, but she won’t be stupid about it. By taking you, she would kill three birds at once: not only will it hinder my progress, but she would also get the glass and the seed of a daimon. Not you, the Shebet one. Nevertheless, she is the daughter of Kiymetl. Amanzhan will likely ‘accept defeat’ if she is sufficiently placated herself, or if she notices that other Dominas are leaning to my side. There is still a chance, however, that Sophia Chasya would try to sweeten the deal.”
“We did come to an agreement,” I frowned, “She can join in my meetings with Virnan.”
“Yes, for now. You should’ve noticed that Censor was suspiciously quiet, once my sister joined us in the Tower. Sophia is content with Amanzhan continuing her attempts.”
While I managed to convey the basic outlines for logarithms, the in-depth study was interrupted pretty quickly when Aikerim, followed by Amanzhan, entered Virnan’s rooms. I was quickly extracted by the will of my Domina, but that wasn’t hard: both mathematicians were busy digesting the new information.
“What if I talk to Albin himself. I am pretty sure that he has no plans on getting laid by your sister.”
“You can try. Perhaps luck is on our side and he can make his own Domina backtrack. His personal distaste would help you little, otherwise. When it comes to both of them, my sister would take Sophia’s word above his. What we should do is strike back just as hard. Amanzhan is the Speaker but she is not the Matriarch. Nor does she speak for all of us within the House. Amanzhan is merely hoping to profit one way or another from the situation of her own making. Whether by getting you or by milking concessions.”
The large fluffy tail swished as she spoke, steel in her voice. “Her ‘concerns’ would fall on deaf ears, once the rest of my House is struck speechless, gawking at the wealth and gifts of my Manor. I want them to be uncertain at the sight of all that splendour, unwilling to offend the rising power. Obviously, they would clamour and talk but, by that time, it would be too late. My daughter will be in your sadaq and I will have you shipped off to the border regions.”
“So, we are finally going on the offensive?” I cracked my knuckles.
“As we must. I wanted my family to be impressed but now it is not enough. Now I want them stunned, Erf. Do your Navigator magic. Do discuss each project with me personally within this room, however. I want this Feast to shock the Emanai without being outright blasphemous in its audacity.”
“You are afraid I will be struck by some ‘tribulation’?” I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the sudden display of piety, somewhat disgruntled by the apparent limitation.
Spurred by Aikerim’s proclamation, I felt a certain itch within myself. A tiny desire to shrug off the concerns and constraints and show off my true power in earnest.
A smack by the nearby Anaise took me down a notch.
Aikerim also glared at me, but chose to explain instead, “There are legends of the past when Gods chose their own Gifts during the Divine Rituals. You said that your knowledge recovers what is lost? I do not wish for you to revive that tradition as well. It is my final word about this. We shall not discuss this further for the time being.”
I raised my hands in silent concession. Her speech about gods, despite barely mentioning them in my presence before, had more than one meaning. The point was to awe others with splendour, not unnerve them further with something trivial to me that Emanai somehow found blasphemous. Especially when having the Censor as an opponent.
The city wer reacted negatively when I tried to appropriate their animal looks. A murk trying to step above his god-given status. It was just as possible that thunder was considered the sole domain of a local ‘Zeus’ and tinkering with electricity would get me branded as a heretic. Aikerim’s cagey demeanour didn’t help.
At least it did look like she was trying to steer me away from things she wouldn’t speak about, rather than try to drag me to some local form of inquisition.
“Stunned, huh.” I scratched my chin, “Something tells me that you aren’t just looking for a few more mirrors. Although we should still postpone glazing the greenhouses and make more mirror panes instead. Not only to make heads turn, but they could also work as gifts to sway people with. Give me time to think. I have many ideas but we are limited on time.”
The difficulty of the question wasn’t about picking something — my head was full of ideas. The problem was to find solutions that were quick to make and glaringly obvious in their value to the crowd of centuries-old wermages. Ones I’ve never seen in my life. The Entrance Feast was also less than a month away, and Kiymetl dignitaries were likely to arrive even sooner.
“You only have two tendays,” Aikerim agreed with my inner thoughts, “Your current inventions are dazzling, but they aren’t new anymore. I am not just trying to rub it in their faces — the point is to show that your continuous presence benefits my Manor and the entire House in general. The Arksite, or that Cobalt glass, will definitely make a commotion, but these are delicate goods to brag about. I want my family to know we have them, but not how much.”
“So, no painting whole rooms in blue?”
Yeva coughed beside the sputtering Anaise.
“No. No painting whole rooms in blue.” Aikerim cut me off, deadpan. “We will have bolts of blue cloth as offerings. Perhaps some glass as well. Leave such tactics for someone like Sophia.”
I nodded, “Some things are already at our disposal but will need to happen as fast as possible. Proper kilns and ball mills are necessary for Keivan to produce the new type of pottery. At the same time, Isra’s smithy and furnaces have to be completed. I will need more people. At least for the grunt work: hauling slag from copper mines, bauxite, and clay.”
“You will have some. I still need to prepare for the events, but many tasks in the Manor can wait until the Divine Ritual is over. Processing wool is a lengthy process and the current stock won’t be ready anyway.”
“Thank you. Regarding the more complex tasks…hmmm.”
“Let me do it,” Yeva interrupted my thought, “Now that I can see, I can do alchemistry alone. Isolating alumina out of bauxite would be a trifling matter. In the meantime, Keivan can concentrate on less extreme fireclays and structural bricks.”
“Please,” I smiled back at her, “As you are now aware, this step is critical but time-consuming. I also don’t want some layman to dabble with caustic compounds at high temperatures.”
Yeva nodded in silent agreement.
“I was suspicious for quite some time, but the depth of this interaction pretty much confirmed it,” Aikerim watched me like a hawk as she spoke, “You’ve done something to her that not only gave her sight but knowledge and wisdom. Now tell me: why was I not aware of it and why haven't you done it before?”
The tone was pressing, but not accusing. I had the benefit of the doubt.
“Three reasons. All equally important. This ability of mine needs time to charge and proper fuel to feed it. And it took me this long to acquire both. Yeva was the weakest in my sadaq as well. If an interested party were to try to capture or kill one of us for blackmail — she would’ve been the perfect candidate.
“Finally, she is a murk just like me. No Spark within. And this ability of mine is extremely complicated and was designed with murks in mind. Until I am absolutely sure that it would pose no danger to wer or wermages — I won’t use it on any of you. And I will need extensive access to wermage corpses to be sure.”
Domina nodded, “Until a better time then, we have no time nor bodies for something like this right now. I will tell Sulla to assign a group of servants to her then.”
“Erf, do you want me to help her as well?” Irje glanced at both of us.
I could see she was just like me, itching to do something but still unsure what to concentrate on first.
“No.” Domina didn’t let me speak, “You will study Flow directly under my daughter. I need your skills to be high enough to have non-runed cups of wine jumping into your hand. If we are to impress others with this sadaq, glowing runes on your kaftan won’t be enough.”
Irje and Anaise looked and gave slight nods at each other.
“Ideally I would want Yeva to stand out as well,” Aikerim continued, “Just to avoid someone from picking on her during the celebrations under the assumption of her being an easy target.”
I glanced from one to the other, “Do you want me to introduce you to Virnan? As you are now, you can converse with him on math with ease.”
She scrunched her nose and shook her head, “And have him pester me as he does you? Or even worse, have Sophia start paying attention to me as well?”
“Right. His Gestr gave me some protection and status, but also brought a lot of hassle. Moreover, we can’t ignore that someone else can put two and two together and realize that your knowledge is unnaturally vast for Emanai.”
“What of her playing the ‘guitar’?” Anaise mused, “I’ve seen plenty of renowned kitharists during parties and celebrations and she can stand equal to them with ease. Especially after she got her sight back. Her unique melodies will make her stand out even more.”
“Your father had said the same as well,” Yeva murmured, “I just don’t want to look like I am some sort of performer.”
“Trust me, you won’t. Not with your skill. Performers are like prostitutes — they sell their skills for money, but you have no need for that. I know you like to play. For Erf. For us. For yourself. Famous kitharists are like that as well. They enjoy playing and only play when they want to. And if someone is desperate to hear their songs — they need to bring gifts and offer favours to have such opportunity.”
“The important part here is: this will be your choice, Yeva.” I said getting up, “I know I had similar thoughts myself when I first learned to play the guitar, but now I find myself not caring that much. Unfortunately, I do not think me playing one would be sufficient anymore. Talk with Keivan in the meantime. Your decision on guitar can wait — you already know how to play and your skills won’t go rusty with time. Refractory bricks, unfortunately, cannot.”
She smiled gratefully at me and nodded in agreement.
“You are leaving?” Aikerim raised her eyebrow.
“I need to think, mull over what I can make to woo your family,” I smirked ruefully, “I also want to interrogate a certain werdrake. A brisk walk across the city should help with both.”
“If you want me to change her mind you are more insane than I thought.”
I stopped mid-step and stared at the scruffy sailor nursing a mug of something in the street-side establishment. The lower city was filled with residential blocks: densely packed rooms that offered little in personal amenities. Most didn’t even have washrooms. Even fewer had personal kitchens. Especially since fires were common due to the open flames and lack of proper firefighting methods.
Emanai had some fire brigades, but they usually dealt with preventing the spread of fires by collapsing nearby buildings, rather than extinguishing the source.
All that meant that most of the Samat populace was buying food from street vendors, rather than attempting to cook at home. Restaurants sprouted across the city. Some simply offered bread and grub for workers to eat on the go, while others had places to sit and eat. Quality and reputation also varied greatly, mostly due to the vast demand.
“Are you going to stare and gawk or are you going to join me?” The ‘sailor’ smirked.
I blinked, the voice was awfully familiar, “Albin? I confess, you look like shit. You know I didn’t expect this even from you.”
“Bah!” He performed his role with great aplomb, “Compared to the stuff I do daily, this is almost negligible. It does help me avoid some conversations, however.”
Huh, so he was hiding from his sister. Yep, that was the Albin I knew. No other wermage would even consider morphing into some sketchy disguise just so he doesn't have to talk to his family.
I shook my head and sat across from him, “This means my plan to convince your sister is a bust then. Is there any way for me to convince you otherwise?”
A mug slid across the table. Sniffing it, I realized this was one of his expensive wines and not some fermented swill from the bar. The disguise was purely visual. Just because Albin acted it, didn’t mean that he would sacrifice many of his comforts.
“Can I convince her? I probably can. But let me be honest with you here, Erf.” He leaned over, “I don’t want to.”
I sipped the drink, thinking on it. Reminded of my actions with Aikerim. He had his way of saying things, but my previous experience helped me not to jump to rash conclusions, “And why is that? You want me to be taken away from Aikerim?”
“Erf, you have ‘fuck you’ knowledge at your disposal.”
I coughed on the wine.
He continued, grinning, “I am sure you will come up with ways to keep the horny fox frustrated. And I do want to see them.”
Suddenly his grin was gone and a piercing blue shined through the mouldy-grey eyes of the sailor, “What I want you to do is teach my sister the meaning of the word ‘No’. She had lived a life of luxury with all her wants met immediately. Unfortunately, she is also strong enough to get anything else. Until you showed up. A murk that doesn’t fear her Spark. I am a good brother, and I want Sophia to learn and grow.”
The world stilled around us. What sister did by drawing on the sand with her tail, brother has done with but a wave of fingers.
“The Flow is uneasy, Erf.” Albin murmured into his cup, “Something is brewing across the river of Fate. I once thought it was you, who made these ripples. But now that I am close, I sense something else.”
He shook his head, “Not your kind. But this is nothing but my worry. I am not talking about what will happen tomorrow, but centuries from now. Or never. However, if it does happen, I wish to see my sister stronger than her current spoiled self.”
“Well, I need to smack down a few grabby hands first.” I grumbled, “It would be hard saying ‘No’ to your sister if Amanzhan gives me to her on a silver platter.”
He idly removed the cup, leaving the wine frozen in the air, “If you worry about the foxes, think about who they are. The House of Trade. Just give them something all traders would salivate about. What you really should worry about is the Ritual after. Make sure that for everything you show off, there is a proper offering at the Altar.”
An image jumped into my mind. A giant open square, easily seen from Virnan’s place. Right between all seven floating towers too. Beautifully ornamented and clean — I heard there were servants that washed it daily, while most of the city residents were forbidden from entering lest they bring dirt from their feet inside.
“So that plaza is where offerings will be taken during the Divine Ritual? Including slaves?
Albin cut the wine with his finger and sent a piece into his mouth. Like it was some sort of floating gelatin dessert and not some time-frozen liquid. “Yep. Including slaves. Make sure you don’t get included in the process. But I am sure Aikerim will have you covered on that.”
“What? You think the gods will take me away?”
“Someone might.” He shrugged cutting another piece.
I silently watched his shenanigans and decided to leave that worry aside. I had to tackle everything in order.
A small smile crept upon my lips, mirroring that of Albin. I had already given them better bookkeeping, now it was time for something more…material.
But first — I had a mug of wine in front of me. In some sort of temporal stasis.
The scientist in me couldn’t let this go.