Chapter 1, Part 1
Let me first put your hearts at ease by saying that I do not blame you for the unfortunate events that saw the House of Flowers remade. Many of you look upon our caste system and believe us incapable of understanding that all species are made up of individuals... but we do, and so I know that the acts of some aunera—aliens such as you—do not reflect upon you all.
Nor do I think the situation with House Qenain was without its compensations... for it is because of the problems afflicting Qenain that I came to meet Shame.
There is a word in our tongue to describe when an inevitability comes into life, brought there by changes your spirit requires to grow. It is a beautiful word to scribe, and I often embellish it with silver leaf: such things are precious and deserve the extra art. My particular paisathi
began in an alarmingly intimate room, prostrate before the god of Civilization Himself, Thirukedi, emperor of Kherishdar. Since He had elevated me to osulkedi, the topmost rank of the Public Servant caste, I had been called more often into His presence, but that had not accustomed me to it. It is our belief that Thirukedi is the same man who founded Kherishdar thousands of years ago, reborn into new bodies with each lifetime to continue guiding the development of the Empire. You have only to meet Him to see that it must be so, for such an aura could only be born of generations of patience and witness.
As His osulkedi, I was His to send wherever He felt my talents were needed most. I had ministered to many different Households since my elevation, traveling all three of our crown worlds to bring what small wisdom and talent I could to bear on their sorrows. But Thirukedi had given me these assignments in His vast and impersonal audience chamber, divulging only my destination and the names of the Ai-Naidar waiting to receive me. This... this unwonted invitation unsettled me. It was not for such as I to take tea with the emperor, but the fragrance was unmistakable and the command implacable.
My wrists shook as they pushed me upright; somehow I found myself on the embroidered cushion across from the low table. This chamber had been designed for such audiences, for the table was on a dais with stepped ends: Thirukedi sat on the raised step, I on the low and the table on the middle. Thus propriety was observed, though I imagined such rooms more frequently saw discussions between Thirukedi and those above the Wall of Birth. As osulkedi I was the highest caste-rank below that Wall... but the Wall was insurmountable.
One of the irimked poured our tea from an exquisite pot into equally exquisite bowls, covering each with a lid before withdrawing. Head bowed, I waited for the emperor to draw His closer and sip from it before I dared my own. The finish on the gray-green ceramic was pebbled and warm, a delight to the fingertips; the tea subtle, fragrant and astringent. He allowed me to enjoy it at a proper pace, and only after half the bowl remained did He speak.
"You wonder, no doubt, at your presence here."
I glanced across the table at His throat but did not speak for lack of explicit permission. I watched His long hands as He poured himself another bowl.
"You are released to speak," Thirukedi said, and continued, "Your services have pleased me. I was not wrong to lift you up."
"You are thanked, Thirukedi," I murmured in Abased. Even given leave to speak I could not conceive of addressing Him in anything but the most abased of grammars, anymore than I would look uninvited at His face, though I had cause to know it was beautiful and stern. "It was only in service to your ideal."
"Mmm." His fingers came to rest on the lid of the bowl, restless as butterflies. "Tell me, Calligrapher... do you know the fable of the cracked pot?"
"Which one, Thirukedi?"
He laughed, and my ears flicked back in a suffusion of modesty.
"I should have known you would be familiar with the many variations," He said. "Which of the versions is your favorite, then?"
"If it pleases you," I said, "the one where the potter repairs the cracked pot and puts it back in service."
"As I would have thought," He said. "There is a reason that version is one that is best known." He was quiet; even His fingers grew still. In that silence, I waited, attentive. "I have sent you on many assignments, but as... how shall I say. Preventative care. Pots under strain, that without a moment's respite would have developed flaws. You have eased hearts and pressures both by reminding those in need of the virtues of Kherishdar. You have found those assignments gladsome, I would hope?"
"It is good to serve," I said, and meant it with all my heart.
"Look at me, Calligrapher."
I raised my face, hesitant. His eyes were gentle, and the same willow-green as the tea set's.
"I have a broken pot," He said. "And I need a potter to mend it."
"Command me," I murmured, unable to help a more intimate grammar. "I am yours."
He let the moment rest: He was, I realized, appreciating my outburst as an expression of devotion. I bowed my head and struggled with the honor of being so clearly seen.
Then He said, "You were once asked to serve as an instrument of Correction
, were you not?"
"It was so," I said.
"How did you find it?" he asks.
I studied the lid of the bowl, shaped subtly like a flower with the stem for a handle. "It was difficult," I said. "The shape of the outcome was a thing known, but to undertake its creation was... a weighty task."
"A noble, was it not? One of the eritked," Thirukedi asked.
I inclined my head in agreement. "Who had taken advantage of a merchant. The resulting transaction had seemed pleasurable to her, but she did not understand that the merchant could not deny her."
"An important matter of caste law," the emperor said. "What did you do?"
I hesitated. The memory of that day remained brightly inked in mind. "My brush painted the rules on her body while she dictated them from the Book of Precedents."
"Novel," Thirukedi said. "Appropriate to your talents."
I tried not to shudder. Even though the rules allowed me to touch another with impunity when serving as their instrument of Correction, I had still found it uncomfortable. Touching is a thing between the trusted, to be gently negotiated beforehand. The instances in which it was appropriate for such as I to touch someone above the Wall of Birth were... very few. I could probably count the paragraphs in the Book of Exceptions, were I so minded.
"She was appropriately grateful?" He asked. Nuil
, is that word, and it has no aunerai analog that I know. It is a gratefulness that comes only from having a poison drained from one's spirit, a gratitude known most frequently from Correction, a word I paint in the cerulean blue of joy and the brown of dried blood.
"It seemed so," I said. "It was good to have served her."
"But a discomfort," Thirukedi said.
I inclined my head again.
"Would you do it if asked a second time?"
"Of course," I said, because to say otherwise was unthinkable.
"For the same eritkedi?"
I almost glanced up, startled. "Was there a second transgression?"
"Of a different kind," Thirukedi said.
I found myself speechless, though I could not decide which understanding affected me more: that the noble I had tasked myself to such careful treatment had relapsed into shameful behavior or that Thirukedi had bothered Himself to learn the details. For what? For this small discussion? Surely I was not so important. What broken pot did He intend me to mend, if it was clear that I had failed with the one I had tried before?
"There is no shame in it," Thirukedi said. "You succeeded in preventing her from transgressing in the same way."
"But not in another," I said, ears flattening.
"No," Thirukedi agreed. "There was a pattern there that you had no opportunity to see. There is no shame in it, Calligrapher; Correction is an art, not a skill. You were made for different tasks."
I sighed, folding my hands before me on the table. "There is yet regret," I said. "That the effort was not enough."
"Sometimes no effort is enough," He said. "I am sending you to the Bleak."
My silence was not the silence of respectful attention, but of shock.
"There," Thirukedi said, "you are to deliver my message to the osulkedi who serves Shame. He has been there the better part of two seasons now, attempting Corrections of those most in need... but it is enough. His services have been requested by House Qenain's gate complex, and it is there you will tell him to go, on my command."
He sipped his tea and finished, "He is the broken pot."
I stared at the finish on his bowl, stunned. Still, I found my voice... for such an incredible assignment demanded precise understanding. "And he is to be mended?"
"By thee, yes," Thirukedi replied with a smile in His voice. "Accompany him to Qenain. Observe him, advise him... be to him what you have been to others in need. I suspect that will be sufficient."
"Forgiveness," I whispered. "Thirukedi... an aphorism, no matter how beautifully painted, may not be enough to succor such a soul."
"I suspect not," the emperor replied. "This is not the work of a single painting. Your duty to him will take time. But mark it, Calligrapher... he is my osulkedi, just as you are. Not since the first servant of Shame has there been one such as he... and he is shattering. He has given Kherishdar his service for years. If we did not save him, the very Civilization he has broken himself to uphold will not be worthy of him... is it not so?"
I bowed my head. "It is as you say."
"Go," Thirukedi said. "Retrieve him from the Bleak. I have set aside for you the records of his many Corrections... you may read them on the way. Until he is well you have no duty of more paramount importance."
"Yes, Thirukedi," I said. Then, quietly, "What is his name?"
"He is Kor Nai'Nerillin-osulkedi. But as his duty is to Shame, so he has preferred to be called."
© 2011 M.C.A. Hogarth, Stardancer.Org