Siri’s servants clustered around her uncertainly as she walked into the chaotic room. She wore a blue and white gown with a ten-foot train. As she entered, scribes and priests looked up in shock; some immediately scrambled to their feet, bowing. Others just stared as she passed, her serving women doing their best to hold her train with dignity.
Determined, Siri continued through the chamber—which was more like a hallway than a proper room. Long tables lined the walls, stacks of paper cluttered those tables, and scribes—Pahn Kahl men in brown, Hallandren men in the day’s colors—worked on the papers. The walls were, of course, black. Colored rooms were only found in the center of the palace, where the God King and Siri spent most of their time. Separately, of course.
Though, things are a little different at night, she thought, smiling. It felt very conspiratorial of her to be teaching him letters. She had a secret that she was keeping from the rest of the kingdom, a secret that involved one of the most powerful men in the entire world. That gave her a thrill. She supposed she should have been more worried. Indeed, in her more thoughtful moments, the reality behind Bluefingers’s warnings did worry her. That’s why she had come to the scribes’ quarters.
I wonder why the bedchamber is out here, she thought. Outside the main body of the palace, in the black part.
Either way, the servants’ section of the palace—God King’s bedchamber excluded—was the last place the scribes expected to be disturbed by their queen. Siri noticed that some of her serving women looked apologetically at the men in the room as Siri arrived at the doors on the far side. A servant opened the door for her, and she entered the room beyond.
A relaxed group of priests stood leafing through books in the medium-sized chamber. They looked over at her. One dropped his book to the floor in shock.
“I,” Siri proclaimed, “want some books!”
The priests stared at her. “Books?” one finally asked.
“Yes,” Siri said, hands on hips. “This is the palace library, is it not?”
“Well, yes, Vessel,” the priest said, glancing at his companions. All wore the robes of their office, and this day’s colors were violet and silver.
“Well, then,” Siri said. “I’d like to borrow some of the books. I am tired of common entertainment and shall be reading to myself in my spare time.”
“Surely you don’t want these books, Vessel,” another priest said. “They are about boring topics like religion or city finances. Surely a book of stories would be more appropriate.”
Siri raised an eyebrow. “And where might I find such a ‘more appropriate’ volume?”
“We could have a reader bring the book from the city collection,” the priest said, stepping forward smoothly. “He’d be here shortly.”
Siri hesitated. “No. I do not like that option. I shall take some of these books here.”
“No, you shall not,” a new voice said from behind.
Siri turned. Treledees, high priest of the God King, stood behind her, fingers laced, miter on his head, frown on his face.
“You cannot refuse me,” Siri said. “I am your queen.”
“I can and will refuse you, Vessel,” Treledees said. “You see, these books are quite valuable, and should something happen to them, the kingdom would suffer grave consequences. Even our priests are not allowed to bear them out of the room.”
“What could happen to them in the palace, of all places?” she demanded.
“It is the principle, Vessel. These are the property of a god. Susebron has made it clear that he wishes the books to stay here.”
Oh he has, has he? For Treledees and the priests, having a tongueless god was very convenient. The priests could claim that he’d told them whatever served the purposes of the moment, and he could never correct them.
“If you absolutely must read these volumes,” Treledees said, “you can stay here to do it.”
She glanced at the room and thought of the stuffy priests standing in a flock around her, listening to her sound out words, making a fool of herself. If anything in these volumes was sensitive, they’d probably find a way to distract her and keep her from finding it.
“No,” Siri said, retreating from the crowded room. “Perhaps another time.”
I told you that they would not let you have the books, the God King wrote.
Siri rolled her eyes and flopped back onto the bed. She still wore her heavy evening dress. For some reason, being able to communicate with the God King made her even shyer. She only took off the dresses right before she went to sleep—which, lately, was getting later and later. Susebron sat in his usual place—not on the mattress, as he had that first night. Instead, he had pulled his chair up beside the bed. He still seemed so large and imposing. At least, he did until he looked at her, his face open, honest. He waved her back toward him where he sat with a board, writing with a bit of charcoal that she’d smuggled in.
You shud not anger the prests so, he wrote. His spelling, as one might expect, was awful.
Priests. She had pilfered a cup, then had hidden it in the room. If she held it to the wall and listened, she could sometimes faintly hear talking on the other side. After her nightly moaning and bouncing, she could usually hear chairs moving and a door closing. After that, there was silence in the other room.
Either the priests left each night once they were sure the deed was done or they were suspicious and trying to fool her into thinking they were gone. Her instinct said the former, though she made certain to whisper when she spoke to the God King, just in case.
Siri? he wrote. What are you thinking about?
“Your priests,” she whispered. “They frustrate me! They intentionally do things to spite me.”
They are good men, he wrote. They work very hard to mayntayn my kingdom.
“They cut out your tongue,” she said.
The God King sat quietly for a few moments. It was nesisary, he wrote. I have too much power.
She moved over. As usual, he shied back when she approached, moving his arm out of the way. There was no arrogance in this reaction. She had begun to think that he just had very little experience with touching.
“Susebron,” she whispered. “These men are not looking after your best interests. They did more than cut out your tongue. They speak in your name, doing whatever they please.”
They are not my enemes, he wrote stubbornly. They are good men.
“Oh?” she said. “Then why do you hide from them the fact that you’re learning to read?”
He paused again, glancing downward.
So much humility for one who has ruled Hallandren for fifty years, she thought. In many ways, he’s like a child.
I do not want them to know, he finally wrote. I do not want to upset them.
“I’m sure,” Siri said flatly.
He paused. You are shur? he wrote. Does that mean you beleve me?
“No,” Siri said. “That was sarcasm, Susebron.”
He frowned. I do not know this thing. Sarkazm.
“Sarcasm,” she said, spelling it. “It’s . . .” She trailed off. “It’s when you say one thing, but you really mean the opposite.”
He frowned at her, then furiously erased his board and began writing again. This thing makes no sense. Why not say what you mean?
“Because,” Siri said. “It’s just like . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s a way to be clever when you make fun of people.”
Make fun of people? he wrote.
God of Colors! Siri thought, trying to think of how to explain. It seemed ridiculous to her that he would know nothing of mockery. And yet, he had lived his entire life as a revered deity and monarch. “Mockery is when you say things to tease,” Siri said. “Things that might be hurtful to someone if said in anger, but you say them in an affectionate or in a playful way. Sometimes you do just say them to be mean. Sarcasm is one of the ways we mock—we say the opposite, but in an exaggerated way.”
How do you know if the person is affekshonate, playful, or mean?
“I don’t know,” Siri said. “It’s the way they say it, I guess.”
The God King sat, looking confused but thoughtful. You are very normal, he finally wrote.
Siri frowned. “Um. Thank you?”
Was that good sarcasm? he wrote. Because in reality, you are quite strange.
She smiled. “I try my best.”
He looked up.
“That was sarcasm again,” she said. “I don’t ‘try’ to be strange. It just happens.”
He looked at her. How had she ever been frightened of this man? How had she misunderstood? The look in his eyes, it wasn’t arrogance or emotionlessness. It was the look of a man who was trying very hard to understand the world around him. It was innocence. Earnestness.
However, he was not simple. The speed at which he’d learned to write proved that. True, he’d already understood the spoken version of the language—and he’d memorized all of the letters in the book years before meeting her. She’d only needed to explain the rules of spelling and sound for him to make the final jump.
She still found it amazing how quickly he picked things up. She smiled at him, and he hesitantly smiled back.
“Why do you say that I’m strange?” she asked.
You do not do things like other people, he wrote. Everyone else bows before me all of the time. Nobody talks to me. Even the prests, they only okashonally give me instrukshons—and they haven’t done that in years.
“Does it offend you that I don’t bow, and that I talk to you like a friend?”
He erased his board. Offend me? Why would it offend me? Do you do it in sarcasm?
“No,” she said quickly. “I really like talking to you.”
Then I do not understand.
“Everyone else is afraid of you,” Siri said. “Because of how powerful you are.”
But they took away my tongue to make me safe.
“It’s not your Breath that scares them,” Siri said. “It’s your power over armies and people. You’re the God King. You could order anyone in the kingdom killed.”
But why would I do that? he wrote. I would not kill a good person. They must know that.
Siri sat back, resting on the plush bed, the fire crackling in the hearth behind them. “I know that, now,” she said. “But nobody else does. They don’t know you—they know only how powerful you are. So they fear you. And so they show their respect for you.”
He paused. And so, you do not respect me?
“Of course I do,” she said, sighing. “I’ve just never been very good at following rules. In fact, if someone tells me what to do, I usually want to do the opposite.”
That is very strange, he wrote. I thought all people did what they were told.
“I think you’ll find that most do not,” she said, smiling.
That will get you into trouble.
“Is that what the priests taught you?”
He shook his head; then he reached over and took out his book. The book of stories for children. He brought it with him always, and she could see from his reverent touch that he valued it greatly.
It’s probably his only real possession, she thought. Everything else is taken from him every day, then replaced the next morning.
This book, he wrote. My mother read the stories to me when I was a child. I memorized them all, before she was taken away. It speaks of many children who do not do as they are told. They are often eaten by monsters.
“Oh are they?” Siri said, smiling.
Do not be afraid, he wrote. My mother taught me that the monsters are not real. But I remember the lessons the stories taught. Obediance is good. You shud treat people well. Do not go into the jungle by yourself. Do not lie. Do not hurt others.
Siri’s smile deepened. Everything he’d learned in his life, he’d either gotten from moralistic folktales or from priests who were teaching him to be a figurehead. Once she realized that, the simple, honest man that he had become was not so difficult to understand.
Yet what had prompted him to defy that learning and ask her to teach him? Why was he willing to keep his learning secret from the men he had been taught all his life to obey and trust? He was not quite so innocent as he appeared.
“These stories,” she said. “Your desire to treat people well. Is that what kept you from . . . taking me on any of those nights when I first came into the room?”
From taking you? I do not understand.
Siri blushed, hair turning red to match. “I mean, why did you just sit there?”
Because I did not know what else to do, he said. I knew that we need to have a child. So I sat and waited for it to happen. We must be doing something wrong, for no child has come.
Siri paused, then blinked. He couldn’t possibly . . . “You don’t know how to have children?”
In the stories, he wrote, a man and a woman spend the night together. Then they have a child. We spent many nights together, and there were no children.
“And nobody—none of your priests—explained the process to you?”
No. What process do you mean?
She sat for a moment. No, she thought, feeling her blush deepen. I am not going to have that conversation with him. “I think we’ll talk about it another time.”
It was a very strange experiance when you came into the room that first night, he wrote. I must admit, I was very scared of you.
Siri smiled as she remembered her own terror. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he would be frightened. Why would it have? He was the God King.
“So,” she said, tapping the bedspread with one finger, “you were never taken to other women?”
No, he wrote. I did find it very interesting to see you naked.
She flushed again, though her hair had apparently decided to just stay red. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” she said. “I want to know about other women. No mistresses? No concubines?”
“They really are scared of you having a child.”
Why say that? he wrote. They sent you to me.
“Only after fifty years of rule,” she said. “And only under very controlled circumstances, with the proper lineage to produce a child with the right bloodline. Bluefingers thinks that child might be a danger to us.”
I do not understand why, he wrote. This is what everyone wants. There must be an heir.
“Why?” Siri said. “You still look like you’re barely two decades old. Your aging is slowed by your BioChroma.”
Without an heir, the kingdom is in danger. Should I be killed, there will be nobody to rule.
“And that wasn’t a danger for the last fifty years?”
He paused, frowning, then slowly erased his board.
“They must think that you’re in danger now,” she said slowly. “But not from sickness—even I know that Returned don’t suffer from diseases. In fact, do they even age at all?”
I don’t think so, the God King wrote.
“How did the previous God Kings die?”
There have been only four, he wrote. I do not know how they died for certain.
“Only four kings in several hundred years, all dead of mysterious circumstances. . . .”
My father died before I was old enough to remember him, Susebron wrote. I was told he gave his life for the kingdom—that he released his BioChromatic Breath, as all Returned can, to cure a terrible disease. The other Returned can only cure one person. A God King, however, can cure many. That is what I was told.
“There must be a record of that then,” she said. “Somewhere in those books the priests have guarded so tightly.”
I am sorry that they would not let you read them, he wrote.
She waved an indifferent hand. “There wasn’t much chance of it working. I’ll need to find another way to get at those histories.” Having a child is the danger, she thought. That’s what Bluefingers said. So whatever threat there is to my life, it will only come after there is an heir. Bluefingers mentioned a threat to the God King too. That almost makes it sound like the danger comes from the priests themselves. Why would they want to harm their own god?
She glanced at Susebron, who was flipping intently through his book of stories. She smiled at the look of concentration on his face as he deciphered the text.
Well, she thought, considering what he knows of sex, I’d say that we don’t have to worry much about having a child in the near future.
Of course, she was also worried that the lack of a child would prove just as dangerous as the presence of one.