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In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors

Late Winter of Year Forty-Three


Winter of Year Forty-Four



Late Summer through Late Autumn in the Forty-Fourth Year of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors

THE first nine days of the third phase were a blur of rehearsals, lengthy walks through the same butterfly garden the Duchess and I walked through, and more tidying and fetching than I’d done since I was a tebēza. Turn these sheets. Wash these clothes. Shine these pots. Clean these cosmetic brushes. Style that outfit. On the fourth day, our eunuchs delivered instructions to pull weeds from Her Majesty’s private garden in the morning and have the dirt swept up by evening. Ladies Buttercup and Geranium complained the entire day, which did nothing to endear them to the rest of us—not least of which because the two of them managed to find every excuse as to why they couldn’t bend or pluck or sweep or sweat.

Then, on the fifty-ninth day of summer, Lady Buttercup spent the day in personal service to Her Majesty. She refused to tell any of us what happened. Granted, we could have hardly expected her to, but given that five of us would be staying here until we died or retired, it would have been the charitable thing to do to make up for her lack of decorum on the fourth day. Nevertheless, we stopped asking.

Viscaria, meanwhile, continued to refuse my advances. If we passed each other by, she kept her head down; when we were assigned to shake out and refold Her Majesty’s Autumn textiles on the seventh day, she aided me in utter silence.

Sadly, it only served to help. The more I considered her as my competition, the less it stung that I had to think of her that way. She undoubtedly thought the same way, or else why stay silent? I didn’t like to think in such a way, but when our walks with Her Majesty stretched long I thought about the likelihood that neither of us ended up Imperial Uzņika and were forced back home in shame. Or, the odds being with us, that neither of us became Uzņika Impozars but placed into one of the other positions: Uzņika Serkunus, Maj, Brisia, or Zmalis. Would the silence continue? For how long? Would she ever know I never meant to supplant her and that the choice was never mine? I tried to keep myself from overthinking things, but the possibilities were endless. We could be here for the same reason, or any number of others. As much as I wanted to know, knowing would not disentangle me from Artis’ scheme or the Chorbortsirya’s threats. But, I couldn’t blame her. The fault for our opposition laid solely with Artis. My only hope was that we could be Imperial Uzņika together and heal our shared wound over time.

I met with Rutgita at the Villa Gladiolus again on the sixty-eighth day of summer; the same day Lady Olive was bound to Her Majesty’s service. I was supposed to have met with her on the fifty-ninth day as well to keep our weekly appointment, but her maids turned me away at the door. No one made mention of why.

I relayed what I had said to Her Majesty the first day I met her to Rutgita over a luncheon of honeyed rolls, cheese, and melon juice. She drank from a porcelain cup.

“The others may have been caught off their guard this time, but now they will remember what happened and do all they can to outpace and surpass you.” She took another sip. “Try harder. What you said was better than the others’ answers in Her Majesty’s eyes, but it was also expected and ordinary. Uzņika Impozars is not expected and ordinary.”

I ate a slice of cheese. It was bitter against my tongue. “If my reply was so ordinary, I’m afraid I don’t understand why Her Majesty praised me.”

“Her Majesty does not care to hear the details of your weals and woes nor a complete history of how you found yourself here. The reason for your presence is painfully obvious. Her Majesty likewise understands that your lives are very difficult. So are the lives of innumerable others. Seeing as she is our Empress, her day is stuffed with naught but tales of strife and pleas for more. More money. More time. More leniency. More attention. If you wish to be Uzņika Impozars, you must continue to stand out. You must give her more.” Rutgita took another sip and set her cup aside. “Are you familiar with the ballad The Grief of Jakshtai?”

“I’ve heard of it but don’t know it,” I truthfully replied.

She did not sing it, as I had hoped she would, but the hairs on the back of my neck needed no more grand an illustration of her eloquence to stand.

Afar laid walls of solid stone,

upon them banners high;

their guards in shirts of metal sewn

but Grief came to Jakshtai.

If ever there you travel near

you may still hear their screams;

they say the ruin's walls are bone

and blood flows through the streams.

There is no hen nor lamb about

no masters and no slaves

for Grief came to Jakshtai devout

that Kings had become knaves.

Accursèd and condemned to rot

for Highborns they did chide,

the Grief assured them rooted out

and there the rebels died.

Rutgia picked up her cup, but did not drink from it. “Are you aware of the ballad’s subject?”

“Emperor Horvas?”

“My disappointment is curbed by expectation.”

I frowned.

“The Nightsinger, the Blighted Bride, the Grief Jakshtai — all sobriquets for the same woman. If not for her, a great deal about Maj Impozars would have changed for the worst. At the height of the Jakshtai Rebellion, everyone, even His Majesty, Divine Ancestor guide him home, feared that Brisia was lost. Yet, she convinced His Majesty to present a plan of her making at a war council meeting in direct contravention of the laws which bar women of her background from interfering in state affairs.”

I held my breath. “But how?”

Rutgita sipped her melon juice. “By the time Her Majesty was fifteen, she had taught herself to read, write, and do arithmetic. Amongst her favourite topics are the histories of the Five Great Houses and Forging-era military tactics and philosophy.”

“And her plan worked?”

“Are you standing here, in this room, rather than on a battlefield?”

I bit the insides of my cheeks. The more I learned about Her Majesty, the more foolish the Chobortsriya’s plan seemed. Surely anyone so gifted would sniff me out before I came within spitting distance of anything important. Her Majesty was industrious and diligent. She would not be caught off guard.

“Her Majesty is distinguished. A distinguished uzņika should serve her.” Rutgita stood and gestured for me to leave the room. “I suggest you mull over the details of your lessons and come up with your own ideas as to ways you could endear yourself. You are dismissed.”

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