Ani busied herself with the clean-up of her breakfast preparations as the other Cria gathered around the door to listen to the conversation between their Empress and Strin. The whispering between the Cria never stopped. The formation of women hugging the door fluctuated continually—Kali went to whisper something to Rina; Jin walked away from the door when she could no longer suppress her giggles; Pholia tried to peek beneath the door or through the crack between the two panels; always they were shifting to find a better spot.
Ani avoided them. She was curious, of course. She had been reared alongside the Empress—as had been all the Cria—as servant and big sister, playmate and parent. She was only a few years older than the Empress herself. Everything the Empress did concerned Ani. The Empress was their ward, and their ward ruled the Kingdom.(1)»
It was difficult not to live through the Empress. The Cria felt compelled to pamper her and fulfill her every need—she was their sole concern, their accomplishment and their life. She was the Empress, and they were fully hers.
But three years ago, Ani had been the brunt of one of the Empress’s tantrums.
Ani didn’t remember what it had been about. Something silly and insignificant. Ani had tried to calm her Majesty … and there a picture had been etched in her mind, a moment when the Empress had become a stranger to her. Ani had not seen her as a darling child or as a friend, but as a young woman nearly grown—a young woman gulping air like a four-year old who couldn’t stop crying—a young woman who should have been beautiful, but who was angry and ugly.
That, too, was a distorted picture, perhaps an exaggeration, but it had destroyed something in Ani. She had always believed her Empress would be like the ones of old, the ones spoken of in legends as wise and kind and just. Ani still believed her Empress could be such, but she wasn’t now, and her progress was often measured in years, not months.
Ani tried her best to discipline her Majesty. Indeed, that tantrum had been the worst of it. The Empress had matured, with some guidance, but Ani feared she was backsliding.
It wasn’t this Strin character. Personally, Ani approved of Strin as a husband. She had watched him last night. He was handsome in a reserved way. His expressions were understated, as if they were only the outer ripples of more powerful emotions within. He stood straight, if not particularly tall, and his face was brown from sun, silent and rugged as one cut from wood. His eyes were kind. It was the eyes that impressed Ani.
Ani had seen dozens of suitors visit the Aerie. There had been warriors with no more than muscles, women, and glory on the brain; magicians lost in their world of secret words and sacred books; charlatans and politicians, both much the same; nobles and merchants and audacious commoners. All were concerned, but often it was too obvious what concerned them; other times it was indiscernible. But Strin did not seem to be concerned with money or power or fame—those eyes had thanked her for breakfast as much as his words. He cared for whomever he was talking with at the moment. The Empress needed that example.But the late nights and the late mornings, the extravagant breakfasts and flippant reaction to all things political, these worried Ani. The Empress was more than the most pampered and privileged citizen of the Kingdom. She was, in both image and power, the Kingdom.
A bell chimed, signaling the approach of a lift to the Aerie. None of the other Cria noticed the sound. Ani wiped her hands dry and strode through the tiny corridors to the entrance and opened the door. Advisor Telmion stood outside.
“I need to speak to the Empress,” he said gravely.
Ani nodded. Telmion observed every custom of the Crystalline Castle faithfully, and one did not demand to speak with the Empress without prior arrangement. Telmion’s visit must be important. Ani started walking. “She’s eating breakfast with Strin right now.” She instinctively looked over her shoulder to see if he showed any sign of disapproval. His lips twitched with a spark of good humor.
“Excellent.” He caught Ani’s glance and her eyes swung back to where they should be. “Not the breakfast,” he said. “Strin. He’s the man who arrived from the Horizon yesterday, correct? Saved our Governor there?” They neared the door. “I’ll go in unannounced. It’ll save you the trouble of interrupting.” (2)»
“Thank you, Advisor.” Ani curtsied and ran to the kitchen to listen.
“Why do you interrupt, Advisor?” The Empress’s sharp voice cut through the door. The whispering ceased. Ani approached the huddle of Cria pressing against the door, but stood back a little, so as not to be part of their clinging mass.
“A situation has arisen.” Telmion’s voice was a gong; it made the other Cria shake with agitation. “A meeting has been called. It concerns the Horizon. Strin Telnok, your help and expertise would be greatly appreciated in this matter.”
“Anything I can do,” Strin said. “Majesty, I must go. Advisor, lead the way. If it involves the Horizon, I want to know everything.”
“Strin,” the Empress said. Overplayed regret sweetened her petulance.
“Thank you for breakfast, Your Majesty. It was filling. Advisor.” Ani heard the door close.
“Ani!” the Empress cried.
Ani pressed through the other Cria as they quickly returned to some errand they had never begun. She entered and curtsied. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Summon the Trio to the meeting.” Ani hesitated a second to assimilate the words. “Go!” the Empress screamed, jumping from her chair.
Ani rushed out the door. Looking back, she saw three Cria swarm the Empress to help her dress for the Council Meeting. The door swung shut.