Two Sisters, Chapter 12 ~ Undesirable
Sien stood outside Tem Auriel’s office and stared at the intricate geometric pattern in brightly colored tile which ran along the windows and doorways. It was a beautiful building, made of smooth tan stone beneath the mosaic. Fit for a Senator of the Auriels, an important man within the family. Tem was not a Key, being a younger child, but even Auriels who did not inherit the gift had the ability to rise up in Airidani politics. In fact, younger Auriels made better governors because they did not have the restless personalities that came with being a Key. Sien did not know his uncle well, but what he did know gave him the impression that Tem Auriel was a patient and methodical man who knew how to work inside the complicated system that was Family Law.
Tem’s main function as a senator was to operate as a liaison between the people of his district and the Elders. He enjoyed this position, as far as Sien could tell, and he was known in Junnen as the sort of man who could get things done. He reminded Sien of his own father, in some ways, or rather, of what he thought his father had been before the years of banishment had taken the life out of him. He wished he’d known his father before he became an old, old man. But he knew better than to put Tem in his father’s place . . . perhaps that’s why he still felt somewhat distant from his uncle. That, or because he’d spent most of his months here in Airidan away from Junnen and now that he was back all his time was devoted to Elly.
He stepped inside the building and saw about twenty people waiting for an appointment with his uncle. They glanced at him and their eyes went to the scar, but he’d gotten used to that by now. People paid little attention to him after they saw the scar, it was as good as having the words “soon to be dead” tattooed across his face. Eyes went to the scar and skittered away, uncomfortable, like one might look at a cancer patient wearing a handkerchief to cover their baldness and not want to stare.
All the seats in the waiting room were filled, so he stood self-consciously beside a large potted fern. In a few moments the door to his uncle’s office opened, and Tem’s secretary ushered a man out. She checked a pad of paper in her hand, about to call out the next name on the list, when Sien stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, could you tell Tem that his nephew is here to see him?”
The secretary was a tall and slender young woman with curling black hair, a beautiful girl not of the Auriels. He’d met her only a couple times before but could not remember her name. What he did remember was the way her face looked when her eyes were on him, as if she were fighting the urge to flinch. She had that same look now. He wondered if it was because if she found him so ugly with the scar, or if the presence of an Undesirable was so unsettling to her because she was a non-Auriel who worked among the family. He tried to smile politely.
“Of course,” she said, and closed the door. When she spoke, her control slipped and she did flinch. But just a little. The other people looked at him again, and though no one said anything, he could feel their gazes linger. He was using his privilege as a family member to cut ahead of all the civilians with their important appointments, and he knew they could not be pleased. But they would never say anything, because he was a soldier who protected them against the hated Lsians, and he was going to die soon.
Tippariah, that was her name. The secretary. When he’d first met her, briefly, before the mark, she’d said to call her Tippi. She’d been flirting with him, he thought. Afterwords she spoke to him as little as possible and always with the flinching. She opened the door again and told him to come with her. On the other side was the waiting room where Tippi – no, Tippariah – and other employees of Tem Auriel worked. Further on was the door to Tem’s office, and Tippariah led him there wordlessly. The door was open, and Tem looked up from his desk as Sien approached.
“Sien,” he said, “I did not expect you to come by today . . . .” They saw each other at home; Sien had very little reason to visit him at his work. But Tem knew that today was the day Sien had to check in at the army office, and there was guarded worry in his eyes.
“I know, I just had to come and . . . and show you this.” Sien held out a paper, noticing that his hand was shaking. Just a little.
Tem took it. He was silent and his face didn’t change while he read it. Then he set it down on his desk. “This is . . . a problem,” he said gravely.
“There were three others who got the same orders,” said Sien. He shut the door. “One of them said it could only be a Lsian mission, that these sorts of secret order codes always end up being Lsian missions.”
When he checked in he had been given notice that his leave was to be cut short, and that he must report to the army headquarters in Auriellen in five days. He was supposed to have two more weeks of leave before returning to his new post in Enliefen, a coastal town on the northern edge of the grasslands, well west of Auriellen. Tem had arranged for that post, hoping it would be safer than in Auriellen, which was close to the bridge between Airidan and Lsi. Only one bridge spanned the Sea River, up between Auriellen and the Lsian capital of Northport. Ages ago a bridge had connected Lsi and the Isle of Jun in the south, but that had long since been destroyed.
None of the other soldiers who received the same orders were Undesirables, but then, it was uncommon for someone like him to be as old as he was and be serving in the military, rather than having been killed as a child. It was rarer still for an Undesirable to be granted a leave. Few had uncles such as Tem. Sien had been friends of a sort with one of them, Lerian, whom he knew from his eight months of service guarding Auriellen. Lerian came from a poor family, like almost all the soldiers Sien knew. He said that it was undoubtedly a Lsian mission. Their papers had a code which they were to submit to their commanding officer in Auriellen, and Lerian said that whenever anyone got secret coded assignments it always meant they were going to Lsi. He had never gone – he was still alive, after all – but he’d had friends who received special orders and then never returned.
“I cannot say for sure,” said Tem. “But it’s a good guess, especially since your orders are for Auriellen. I knew nothing of this. I do not know why your name was drawn for this, when I had arranged for Enliefen.”
“I can guess why,” Sien said, feeling strangely calm. “They don’t want me to be safe in Enliefen. They don’t want me to continue to live long enough to spread around my impurity.” As if I could, he thought. The girls in Airidan weren’t exactly swooning at the sight of him.
“Damn them and their bloodlines,” said Tem, picking up the paper and surveying it bitterly. “I worked too hard to secure your post in Enliefen, I will not let this happen. There are ways to appeal—”
“Uncle,” Sien interrupted, “with all due respect, I think that if they went to the trouble of making sure I was selected for a Lsian mission, they’re not going to let you get an appeal.”
Tem stood up and pushed his chair back. It thudded against the wall. “You are not going on a suicide mission. There is no way.” He began to pace. “We are so near to the time for Eliasha’s appearance.”
Sien watched his uncle. It had been hard on Tem, he knew, when Ren died. It had been hard for Sien, but his uncle had taken it particularly badly. He was a man skilled at keeping his composure, he had to be in order to operate within the Auriel family, but Ren’s death had visibly frustrated him. After waiting so many years to be allowed to bring Ren back, only to have him an old, sickly shell of his former self who could not survive the rigor of Gate travel was a cruel irony. Sien had no siblings, had never known that he’d once had a brother before he was even born, but once he knew he felt the loss of Renji. Like getting something and losing it all in one moment. That’s what the reunion of Ren and Tem had been. A hello and a final goodbye. Tem was starting to look downright angry now, faced with the news that Sien was probably as good as gone.
“I will not let this happen,” he stated, taking the paper and folding it up several times. He did not rip or crumple it, but the gesture seemed like a tightly controlled version of the same thing. “We must simply act sooner than we’d originally planned. Harnin Auriel owes me a favor, and he is scheduled to appear before the Elders tomorrow. I will contact him and have him present the request to bring Eliasha forward, in my stead.”
“What happens then? Would you have Harnin present Eliasha?” Sien didn’t like the sound of that.
“No, he has already had one audience this month. Tomorrow is his second.”
Sien repressed a sigh. The whole system of limiting the number of audiences a senator could have with the Elders seemed ridiculous to him. He understood that there were many senators and some sort of control needed to be in place, but two audiences a month, not exceeding eight per year, seemed like far too little. Not when something as important as the Queen of Seven was involved. He had been patient, telling himself that Elly needed time to adjust to life in Airidan and to learn the language, but he’d thought that he would be in Enliefen, not dead, when Tem was finally able to present her before the Elders.
“Someone else, then?”
Tem’s frown deepened and he tapped his knuckles against his desk. He reminded Sien of Ren when he did that. “I owe more favors to others than are owed to me,” he said. “I have used my friends and contacts to help me over the past year. But perhaps Harnin has someone who can be persuaded to help us.”
Sien didn’t know this Harnin and didn’t like the idea of getting even more Auriels involved. He’d stopped trusting his extended family since coming “home” to Airidan. They might not all be Elders, but for thousands of years new Elders had risen to power without changing the Family Law for the better, which indicated to him that most Auriels were happy to tow the party line. It was no wonder that the Queens – outsiders – were the only ones who had ever gotten anything done.
“You’d think they would be eager to have the honor of revealing the Queen of Seven,” Sien said, though he knew the answer to his words even as he said them. It had been so, so very long since the Sixth Queen, the fabled Dragon Queen from Dezang, that the entire institution of the Queens was viewed as all but myth. Most Auriels were too pragmatic to consider that the Queen of Seven was a possibility anymore. They’d more likely consider it political suicide to present some girl they’d never even heard of as a favor for a senator who’d just about wore out his welcome with the Elders arguing for Undesirables such as Ren and Sien.
Tem didn’t even bother responding, just said, “If Eliasha can prove herself, and become Queen, she will have the power to repeal your orders for this mission.”
She intends to repeal a lot more than that, thought Sien, though he didn’t say it. Tem was already sticking his neck quite far out by backing Elly at all, best not share her more revolutionary designs for the country. Not that Tem seemed thrilled with the Family Law to begin with, but still.
“If rushing to present Elly jeopardizes her chances of being accepted by the Elders, you shouldn’t do it,” he said. “It seems that if you don’t approach them carefully, they may reject her out of fear that she will upset their rule. My involvement in discovering her already endangers her chances.”
“If the Elders will not grant a request to repeal these special orders—” Tem tapped the desk with the corner of the neatly folded paper “—I can see no other way to spare you from going on this mission. If you flee, they will track you down.”
“Then I may have to go on the mission,” Sien said. “I’ll have to go through with it, whatever it is, because the important thing is that you make Elly the Queen.”
“No,” Tem objected. “I will not have this. You are . . . you are important to me.” He came around the desk and put a hand on Sien’s shoulder, a bit awkwardly. “I know we are not close; you grew up far away in a very different world and neither of us knew the other existed, but you are the only thing that is left in any world of Ren. I cannot stand by and let them send you to your death as if you were expendable.”
“I am expendable,” Sien pointed out. “You can continue on with the plan, even without me. I’ve brought Eliasha here, if I have to move out of the way to ensure that she becomes Queen . . . .”
“You are the only living child of Ren Auriel. To me, that means you must continue to live,” Tem insisted. “Your father was one of the best of us. His banishment was a tragedy I have been working for decades to correct. I rose up through the ranks of the Auriels to become a senator so that I could use my position of power to bring my brother back. You are what I have to show for all those years.”
Sien shook his head. “Elly is. She’s what you really need, what Airidan really needs. Someone who can change the way things are.”
“She can change very little,” Tem disagreed. He sat down on the edge of the desk, wearily. “The Elders will always hold sway over her, they can discredit her, destroy her, whenever they want to. If they feel she is threatening their power . . . their way of life. . . . I am not saying that having the Queen of Seven will do nothing, but whatever she does that is against the approval of the Elders will have to be achieved very subtly.”
“She won’t just be a puppet Queen. She’s too strong-willed for that.”
“You know her better than I do,” Tem said with a little nod. “But I fear being too strong-willed could get her killed. Besides, you are the only person she knows, the only person she can truly trust. How do you think she would react if you left on a suicide mission and died so soon after bringing her here?”
Very, very badly, thought Sien. He had not told Tem about their romantic involvement . . . it had been so short lived and nothing had ever come of it, it didn’t seem worth telling. It would only cast doubt on Elly’s adherence to the fourth rule . . . something she’d already admitted breaking. But he was the only person in this world who knew about that. He still didn’t even know who she’d been with, under what circumstances. He hadn’t wanted to ask, though he’d wondered. Had she been dating someone? Fallen in love? For how long? Had it been something random? Someone unimportant? Had it been that guy he’d seen that day, beside the pool, and again at her mother’s birthday party? He’d been clearly lusting after Elly and somehow the thought of her giving in to an asshole like that seemed even worse than if she’d fallen in love with someone . . . someone he’d never met. But it didn’t matter. Not at all. He kept telling himself this, and would not ask Elly what had happened. Despite whatever had happened in the time he’d been gone, she had made it clear that she came here for him. To be with him. To help him. No, if he went and got himself killed, Elly might just go back home. But what could he do? He seemed to be ruining the plan no matter what he did, or didn’t do. He caught himself unconsciously touching his scar, and put his hand down quickly.
“No, I don’t suppose she’d just continue on as if nothing was changed,” he admitted. “I could try to convince her that it’s what I really want, but . . . I don’t know.” There was a chance Elly would become Queen and try to repair Airidan and Lsi in honor of his memory, but if she was angry with him for sacrificing himself she might not want to honor his memory.
“I have dreamed, privately of course, of living long enough to become an Elder,” said Tem, shaking his head. “It is the only way I would have power, true power, enough to change Airidan for the better. But that is a goal so far in the distant future that it does not help us now. If this is what it appears to be, you have five days to live, and I’ve never heard of an Elder younger than five hundred. No, waiting two hundred years for my turn to come is of no use. Waiting a matter of weeks to install your Queen of Seven so that she can pardon you, is of no use. The only thing I can think of to do, is to ask Harnin to submit a request on my behalf that your leave be restored to a full month and that you be sent to Enliefen as originally intended.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
Tem stood up, straightened his clothing resolutely, said, “Then you must flee Airidan.”
“I will be tracked down,” Sien said, “and executed. You know this. You just said it yourself.”
“They will try. But I would rather you lead them on a chase than follow these orders. Lsian missions are pointless and accomplish nothing. You will not hear it said publicly, but many of my fellow senators believe these missions do more harm than good. We enrage the Lsians by killing their woman and children, and incite them to do the same to us. Who wins? No one.”
“I agree, but it’s the Elders and the generals you need to convince.”
“Right now, I need to make sure that you do no go on this mission. If I cannot do it legally, you will become a fugitive. It is your best option. If your Queen of Seven rises to power before you are caught, she can pardon you, and you can return. You won’t need to run forever.”
Sien didn’t exactly like the thought of running at all, but he had to admit that the thought of going to Lsi in order to kill civilians appealed to him even less. His certain death aside, he had no wish to become that kind of soldier. So far he had been stationed in Auriellen as a part of the armed guard, defending the ancient seat of the House of Auriel against the Lsians. He’d only killed other soldiers who were attacking them, he’d never gone out looking for innocent men to murder. Some people thought there was no such thing as an innocent Lsian, but he was sure that plenty of Lsians thought the same thing about Airidanis. Maybe if he’d been born here and hadn’t lived the first eighteen years of his life in that other world, he’d understand their need to kill each other better. As it was, he could not fathom the way they picked at each other, each determined never to let old wounds heal.
“I must call on Harnin,” Tem said. “I must have Tippi cancel the rest of my appointments for today, in order to prepare the supplication for the Elders.”
Sien knew that whatever Tem hoped for Harnin to say to the Elders tomorrow would have to be written and submitted by tonight. “I have to go,” he said. “Thank you, Uncle. I don’t deserve all you’re doing for me.”
“I don’t want to hear anything about deserving,” said Tem, busily gathering up his things. “Your brother did not deserve to die, and Ren and Hayti did not deserve to have their lives ruined. But it happened anyway. Whatever you do or do not deserve is not an issue.”
Sien smiled faintly. Tem Auriel seldom had the patience for self-abasement, at least not from Sien. Perhaps a lifetime in politics had made him weary of groveling and anything that seemed too close to it. “I have to return to Elly,” he said. “She’s waiting for me in the Gate Garden. I’ve left her there much longer than I said I would.”
“Of course, of course, go to her,” said Tem. “It would be best not to tell her about your orders, though. Not until tomorrow.”
“I won’t.” It will only make her angry, he thought. She will only be more frustrated with how this world works, and she might want to do something rash.
next: Two Sisters, Chapter 13 »