In my family, we practice lying every day.
“I know what’s best for you”, Father lies.
“I’m sure you do,” I lie in return.
“Don’t you use that tone at me,” his slap rings true.
I’ve never been good at lying, but I’m getting better. Lies are an important tool. Mother taught me that before she left. She would tell me that she loves me, but she didn’t take me with her.
She was good at lying.
“Did you hear about Service?” The whisper erupts from the crowd like a knife from a cloak.
It’s that damned “prince” again. Those primitives over in The Empire are always on about the worth of their blood. Give them two sips of Nectar, though, and they run their mouths off about anything.
This prissy little princeling looks like he’s two cups in, and I doubt he knows how to slow down. Maybe it’s time to show him some restraint.
“No,” I say as I push past a pair of revelers, “tell me about Service.”
“Well... I hear the Lord of Service has royally fucked up,” he pauses for a moment as he looks at me. Maybe he’s realized who I am. “Oh, that’s right. The Director of Service, you don’t have royal blood here.”
The prince’s little hanger-on is tugging on his sleeve, trying to get the prince to shut up. It’s cute how obvious the little boy is being. I don’t recognize him, but he seems to recognize me.
I smile and nod in the universal language of encouraging fools to just keep spooling out rope to hang themselves.
“Yeah,” the prince laughs, “the old fool is sending his serfs out to irrigate fields. Fields! In a desert!”
“Serfs?” I ask.
I love it when primitives explain their barbarity. This one likes to brag like his country is something to be proud of.
“Oh, yes!” He smiles as his boy toy wanders off. “I do forget you don’t quite have those here. It’s like your service people, but it’s night and day. And serfs don’t require much direction, they just kind of maintain the land. That’s their duty, and they know how to do it. They live happy in the knowledge of their place in the world.”
“Under your boot,” I reply casually.
“Oh! Ha!” He bats away the words. “It’s nothing like that.”
“They live and die toiling away at the same field,” I smile. “While you live out a happy life in your fortress or touring the world.”
“But that’s what they are for!” He says jovially. “They’re born to it, and they are happy.”
“You confuse your happiness for theirs,” I mumble and turn away. This conversation is not as entertaining as I’d hoped.
I came to see a man hang himself - yes - but I’d hoped he’d be sane enough to see it coming. This ass’s braying just isn’t doing it for me.
“Hey!” The prince shouts. “No one walks away while royalty is speaking!”
I feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder.
I want to punch this barbarian right in his pretty mouth.
No one even sees it. No one cares. The Moonlight Ball continues around us like it does every month. A dance without servants; the Dynasties and their guests serve each other. No one is less. No one is more.
We are a caravan of silk among a desert of sandstone. A river of Nectar keeps us alive and shining to all the world. This is Brilliance at its most beautiful. We are the light that shines in the desert.
And this princeling brags of slavery.
I grab his hand and twist it as I turn to face him.
“Do you see my mask, little prince?” I ask, gesturing to my bare face.
The ball is watching now. Whether their disinterest before was feigned or not, their interest is real now.
“What?” The prince sputters.
“Do you see the servant’s mask on my face?” I twist his hand. “Is my identity shrouded by the veil of servitude?”
The spirit of the dark calls to me. I know it. It is the enemy of Brilliance. It is the shadow which the light keeps at bay. It is death, the absence of life and light, and it drives humans to destructive acts.
Father speaks of the spirit of the dark. With enough beer or Nectar, Father cries with remorse. His apologies flow like water, and he says “the spirit drove him to it.” The spirit - black as bruises - speaks to him and tells him to punish me.
It’s crox-shit - we both know it - but it explains the bursts of cruelty which well up in him and in me, his only daughter.
“Hey!” I shout over the silence of the still crowd. “Answer me!”
Dark spirits are a great excuse for a bit of justice.
I twist his hand again, but he turns his body and slams an elbow into my ribs.
How did he do that?
I stumble back and look up just in time to see his fist before it slams against my eye socket.
“Fuck you! You worthless shit!” He screams. “How dare you touch me!”
He reaches into his blue doublet. It looks so lush and so foreign. I can never remember what strange plant or animal Imperials get their fibers from. It always looks exotic to my Enlightened eyes.
His hand emerges and it clasps a shining knife with a walkwood handle. Steel! He’s brought a steel knife to the Moonlight Ball!
Shouts rush from all around as hands from the crowd restrain him. I had not realized how close the crowd had come. Everyone looks funny. Everyone looks so close. Or far. Or... I can’t tell how far away anyone is.
“What’s...” I stammer and turn to a man in a red silk gown. “What’s wrong with my eye?”
He looks at me and his eyes go wide.
“Nectar!” He shouts! “The heir of Service needs Nectar!”
That dark spirit rises in me again. That bastard took my eye. He brought a dagger to a dance. He would kill in Brilliance. Death is forbidden in Brilliance, and he would give himself the authority to break our most sacred law.
“You little shit,” I turn to him.
He’s still held by the crowd. His knife is in someone else’s hand. Their back is turned, but I see the heavy cudgel of a regulator hanging from their belt. The Dynasty of Justice is always on duty, and their regulators are quick to quell disorder. The little prince has a beating coming, but I want that beating to come from me.
I sprint at him - he seems both near and far away - and I’m surprised when I crash both into him and the regulator. The crowd parts to let all three of us crash to the ground. I hear the peel of the steel blade sliding across the ground.
I can see it, laying next to me, its bright glint so alien to my desert eyes. I grab it, but I reach too far. The handle evades me; my grip settles on the blade.
I scream as blood pours out of my closed grip.
This is how it feels to want to kill.
I grab the handle with my other hand as I stumble to my feet.
The princeling is standing just a few feet away. He’s watching me. His stance is low, and he’s holding his arms in an unfamiliar defensive posture. I forgot that he’s a soldier. Well, that he’s from a soldier’s family. I may be well out of my class.
With a sudden crack, he topples to the ground. The regulator’s heavy iron cudgel pulls away from his knee as it buckles to the side.
I stare, dumbfounded, at the prince’s crippled leg. I’ve never seen a regulator in action before.
I look up and notice that it is not just any regulator who intervened: it is High Regulator Iskra Skala. She’s marching toward me, cudgel in hand, and she’s looking straight into my eye.
Am I still holding the knife?
The wind rushes out of my lungs as her cudgel slams into my stomach. I bend over, head rushing towards the ground, only to snap backwards again when my skull crashes into her chitin-plated knee.
My whole body rocks with hacking coughs as I lay on the ground. I don’t know if it’s vomit or blood coming out of my mouth, but I don’t much care. Someone is shouting at me. Maybe a lot of people are. Their voices run together like lights flooding a blackened stage.
In the plays, people pass out from this kind of violence, but life is never that kind.
Someone is helping to my feet. Maybe it’s many someones. It’s hard to tell, and everything hurts so much. I’m still coughing, but whatever mystery fluid was hopping out has stopped. I take breaths in great big gulps as I’m pulled to my feet.
Someone grabs my nose, and I feel Nectar poured into my open mouth. Sweet and thick, it runs down my throat. The euphoria sets in immediately. The Joy of the Light. It’s so beautiful.
I open my eyes and see the wondrous depth and color of the crowd. The reds, the blues, the purples, the folds, curves, and edges. Everything is so beautiful.
I can see again. I can see right. Two eyes, two hands, and a body fit for dancing. The cut is still open on my hand, still bleeding, but someone is wrapping it hurriedly. They continue to bandage it as I’m pushed down onto my knees.
“Service!” A woman’s voice sounds from behind me.
The voice belongs to High Regulator Skala, and she’s calling for my father. Justice and Service, two houses bound by fate and law. Father is our director, and he will lay out my sentence.
There is a cough from beside me. It’s the prince. Nectar drips from his lips as tears roll from his eyes. He isn’t kneeling. He’s on his back as more priests of Assurance brace and bind his broken knee. With enough Nectar, he may be fine by morning.
Father steps forward from the crowd. Two other members of the board step away from him - Assurance and the Speaker of Light, I think - as he moves into his formal position. Sentencing is quick, but there is some ritual to it.
I feel a light knock on my head, and I remember to avert my eyes down. He may be my father, but he’s my judge - the light - and I am the darkness. The darkness must look away from the light.
“You each have committed the same crime,” Father speaks. “So you share the same fate.”
“Frejvid Pajari!” The prince nods as my father calls his name. “You have been our guest long enough to know our customs. Yet you brought an instrument of death - a steel blade - into our house. On top of that, you struck a member of the House of Service. How dare you?”
There is silence.
“Answer me, boy!” Father shouts. “By what right do you claim to bring violence and even death into the Deathless Nation?”
“I...” The prince stammers but remembers to avert his eyes. “I’m sorry. I let anger get the better of me. It will never happen again!”
“Anger!” Father shouts. “Anger brought you to blows, yes! Anger led you to draw that hidden dagger. Yes! But anger did not conceal the blade, little viper. Hubris did. Pride! You insult us. You insult our way of life. You insult the light itself.”
Father’s words echo in a room where a hundred people stand still as gravestones.
“Shame!” He shouts.
I can feel the heat of his glare turn to me.
“Your treachery is worse than his, daughter,” I feel his spit land on my head.
“You know our ways, you live in our customs,” Father grabs me by the ear. “You are the heir of Service, yet you break our traditions. Even when the conflict was over – when a regulator of the Dynasty of Justice had defused the situation – you brought violence forth yet again. You even picked up a blade in anger. A blade!”
He pauses to release my ear. He usually twists it when he’s chastising me with this bluster. Perhaps he feels shamed by the watching eyes of the audience.
“Child!” He growls and grabs my wounded hand. “Some lessons cannot be learned from books or lectures. Some lessons only come from suffering and from service.”
He squeezes and a jolt of pain rips through my arm. I scream and avert my eyes. I don’t want to see my hand. I don’t want to see my father’s face. I hear gasps from the assembled crowd.
Even High Regulator Skala looks shocked. I don’t think she realized how hard a man my father is.
The pressure on my hand subsides as Father releases it. Instinct drives me to cradle it to my chest. I fear the hand is broken or crushed, but that fear is just pain blended with shame. Blood drips on my fine dress, but I don’t care. I can afford another.
“Seven days!” I hear Father’s footsteps walk away past the parting crowd. “Seven days of service. Learn. Grow. Disappoint your families no further.”