(If you have not read my prologue or previous chapters, please do so now.)
Tales of Tanjia, Chapter 13 - Complicated Relationships
Liri'el, Ku'uri, and I walk down three flights of stairs to reach the transport. As I settle in for the ride I begin to feel uncomfortable, though not because of the seating. The idea of heading back to the Capital Palace and being in my familiy's presence once more... It unnerves me. Truely, I don't mind my position as the Heir to Tanjia's throne, nor do I even really mind dealing with Dai'rous and other officials. It's my family that makes me want to escape this life. Some days when I consider our differing personalities, I feel as though I must have been adopted, but my blood-line is sure as Moonrise. Hopefully when I get back I can avoid interaction with them as much as possible until the festival tomorrow. Looking out the window, I release a tense sigh and wring my hands. Liri'el notices.
"Is something wrong? You've been tense for the past half-hour." She gestures to my tightly woven fingers before returning her own alabaster hands to her lap.
I unfurl my hands and take a breath. "Oh, I'm fine. Just thinking about all that needs to be done before tomorrow."
Ku'uri decides to chime in just then. "The Alignment is almost upon us, isn't it? And it's your last as the Heir. Incredible!" She grumbles something lightly under her breath. I couldn't quite make out what she said, but I don't think it was too important.
When I look out the window again I can see the Capital Palace coming into view. Soon enough I'll be back in the middle of all of this Imperial nonsense. "Perhaps today I can actually visit the Temple."
"That sounds like a good idea." Liri'el takes the small glass vile out of her satchel and places it in my palm. "Take what time you can to rest today. I'll even write up a note for you if you'd like."
I grasp the tiny container and place it in a pocket-fold of the dress I'm wearing. "Thank you. And I'll have the dress returned to you once I change into a gown of my own. You both helped me a great deal, and I'm very grateful."
"I'm glad I could help her Imperial Highness, Ka'asume." I blush lightly, though I'm not sure why. It is rare that I hear my title and my name together, so perhaps that's the reason. The transport stops and I peek out the window. The Dai'rou, four male guards, and Rii'ei are standing at the gate to meet us. I groan audibly and pinch the bridge of my nose. The Dai'rou was the last person I wanted to see today. I brace myself for the onslaught of questions and possible rebukes as I step out of the transport. Liri'el follows and Ku'uri after her. I stand tall and composed, secretly clinging to lavender tonic in my palm.
Mere moments after my feet reached the pavement, the Dai'rou throws his arms out wide, his large stomach jiggling from the force of the gesture. "Your Imperial Excellency!" He bows dramtically from his waist and the guards kneel, decorated spears in hand. Rii'ei bows as well, but not as deeply because she has her eyes fixed on Ku'uri. "Our Dear Imperial Excellency, we were so concerned when you didn't return from the festivities last night. It is so good to see you back at the Capital Palace in good health."
I nod curtly. Honestly I can't think of a single word I want to say to this pompous boar, but I'll have to come up with something. "Yes. My good health this morning is in large part thanks to this wonderful Healer I met last night. And now that my body is in good working order, I'd like to give my spirit the same treatment."
The Dai'rou's face lights up with feigned enthusiasm. "Ah! A visit to Taj'erii's Grand Temple then! Very good, very good. I'll arrange it this very moment, Your excellency." Clearly this isn't what he had planned for today, but frankly, I just don't care. I've meant to visit the Temple here for three weeks now, and I'm going today.
"Thank you. Have a transport ready in about an hour, if you can."
"Yes! Yes of course, Your Excellency. We will be on our way shortly, I can assure you."
"And I'll be going alone, Dai'rou, thank you." It took physical effort not to laugh at his expression just then. He was floored with shock and, if only for a moment, his face displayed the most childlike look of dejection I've seen on any person over 6,000 years of age. He snapped back to a false composure, but I could still see his disappointment on his face.
He cleared his throat rather gruffly. "Of course, Your Excellency. Perfectly understandable." He gestures for the guards to disperse, and bows to me. "I will be taking my leave then. Please, let me know if you need anything else, Your Imperial Excellency." With that, he retreated into his own transport and sped off, and I heave a sigh of relief.
"The Dai'rou is so irritating." Ku'uri's voice piped up again, out of turn, but it was what we were all thinking. Rii'ei begins to fidget with her fingers, glancing back and forth between them, Ku'uri and myself. And Ku'uri is fiixated on Rii'ei.
"It's very good to have you back, miss. I was worried when you didn't come back last night."
I place my hand on Rii'ei's shoulder. "I'm very sorry to have worried you. I was just exhausted from yesterday and didn't make it back to the palace before sleep overtook me." She nods understandingly, and looks up at Ku'uri almost hopefully. I smile and gesture toward her. "And I met this lovely lady at a party last night. I believe you already know her, though."
"Ku'uri?" Her voice was innocent and hopeful, and with Ku'uri's welling eyes and grin, her hopes were realized. "Sister!" They both lept forward and embraced each other tightly. "It's been so long..."
"Far too long, and I regret it, Rii. I really do." Ku'uri rests her forehead on Rii'ei's before pulling back to look at her. "But I'm here now, and I get to see you. Between my work and yours, it's nearly impossible to get together." Ku'uri ruffles her sister's hair. "And what is this? You didn't do a thing with it! Even if it's short, you have to take care of it, Rii."
Rii'ei takes one of her inky ringlets in her fingers. "I know. I just don't usually have time for it."
"Well, I'm here, and we have time." Ku'uri takes her sister by the hands. "Let's go make you pretty and have some fun." The expression on Rii'ei's face is pure delight, but halts changes to hesitation and worry.
"But, umm..." She looks anxiously between me and her sister. I smile at her and laugh.
"Go ahead, Rii'ei. Have the day off today and spend it with your sister." The joy and gratitude on her face was just incredible, and I'm so glad I could do this for her. She deserves it. As they run off into the Palace, I turn back to address Liri'el. "If you don't mind, I'll go ahead and change so you can have your gown back. I'd like to get to the temples as soon as the transport arrives."
"Of course. I'll wait for you out here in the courtyard." Liri'el nods and sits on one of the many benches availabe. If she were dressed in white, she would have looked like a perfectly carved marble statue. I make my way into the Palace and walk up nine levels to my chambers. I take the glass vile out of the dress' pocket and set it on my vanity. It doesn't take me long to figure out what to wear, and I pull a simple white and silver gown from my wardrobe. There are no beads or pearls on this dress, but the swirling white-on-white pattern and silver thread make this a garment to behold. Without Rii'ei to help me with my hair, I tie it back in loose, knotted intervals, with two long plaits in the front to frame my face. I fold the gown that was so kindly lent to me before slipping into my own. I also place 100 Kesh·ge'ai in the pocket of Liri'el's gown. With the borrowed dress on my arm, and my own appearance set for a trip to the Temple, I gladly set out my door back down to the courtyard.
As I'm making my way down through one of the various corridors, I see a group of maidservants approaching. There are six of them total, and I recognize them immediately as my mother's servants. Two in front, two on each side, and two behind with my mother walking in the middle. That's how she always travelled, and I find it an excessive use of the servants.
"Stop here a moment." My mother's clear, commanding voice sounds out from the middle of the group and the two maidservants in front separate to let my mother step forward unhindered. As they bow low on their knees, she steps toward me and I bow as well. "It's been some time since we've crossed paths, daughter."
"So it has, Empress. I am honored in your presence." I would have called her mother, but last time I did she scolded me for using a familiar term in a public place.
"It isn't good for us to be separate for so long," Her eyes cut to the side, and she speaks under her breath, "especially in the eyes of the public." She looks back at me, carefully looking over my dress, posture and anything else that might be askew in her eyes. Her ruby-painted lips tug at their corners, forming something between a genuine smile and a smirk. "Spend the day with me. Tomorrow is the Alignment Festival and I intend to have you groomed for it in the same way I will be."
I bow my head lower and tuck the folded gown closer to my chest. "I apologize, Empress, but I have already made arrangements to visit the Temple today." I brace myself for a verbal lashing, but none comes forth. Instead I see her face twist slightly in frustration as she crossed her arms. With her index finger tapping thoughtfully on her biciep, she seems to come up with an idea.
"It's not quite midday yet. If you don't take long at the Temple, you can do both. Meet me in the north marble garden before the second hour past midday."
"Yes, Empress. Thank you for your kindness." With her plan and orders set, she returns to the center of her group and continues down the corridor. My visit to the Temple may be cut a little short, but I will still be able to go. I take a deep breath and raise myself from my humbled stance, continuing on my own way to the courtyard. Liri'el is still on the bench, waiting patiently for me. "I'm sorry I took so long. Here is your gown back." I place the folded garment in her hands and she stands to meet my gaze.
"Thank you. Take care of yourself, Ka'asume. I'll be in Taj'erii through the rest of the festival if you need anything else from a Healer." She bows respectfully before walking into town. The transport pulls up just as she leaves and I gladly step inside. The driver takes me straight to Taj'erii's grand temple. Finally, I'm here! A fantastic pyramidic structure stands before me, with pale grey stones and alabaster pillars leading to the entrance. Above the gate to enter, the image of Ki'konia and I'Ono's crytal moons are carved and decorated with fine jewels. I pass under the gate and instantly feel at peace. Walking down the cool stone stairs to the main hall of the temple is so calming. With the dark underground hallway being lit by pale blue mineral deposits, the sounds of distant hymns and the deep ringing of large bells, it feels otherworldly. Finally I reach the main hall and am greeted by two young priestesses. Their simple white robes and silver headdresses reflect their station in the temple. And, interestingly, both of them have a greenish twinge to their hair.
One of them steps forward, bowing slightly to me, but not tilting her head so far that her veil would slip off. "Welcome, Your Imperial Excellency. We've looked forward to your arrival here in Taj'erii's Temple. I am Sai'la, and this is Ru'qayyah. We will be happy to show you to any area in the Temple available to visitors."
"Thank you both. Would you mind leading me to one of the meditation pools? I've been meaning to visit one since I arrived in Taj'erii." I smooth the front of my dress, hoping that I look presentable to be in this holy place. It feels so serene and safe, I could stay here for the rest of the festival if I were allowed.
"Of course. Please, this way." Ru'qayyah hands me a rose colored lantern and Sai'la leads us down two sets of steps and past several lotus statues. We arrive in a hall carpeted with silvergrass, and just past the marble steps is a large, still pool sheltered by sheer curtains and surrounded by twelve stark white pillars. Dark green vines weave themselves elegantly down the carved pillar, giving a sense of harmony between plant and stone. I tough my toes to the edge of the pool feeling the stone border's embossed roses. I am relieved to be in such a spiritual place at last.
"Please come for me when it is the first hour past midday."
"Of course, Your Excellency. May Ki'konia bless your meditation." The both turn and leave me in peace by the pool. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, I kneel by the water. My shins folded neatly under my thighs, and my hands resting on my thighs, palms upturned. Silently I thank Ki'konia for this opportunity. I struggled to reach the Temple, but now that I'm here, I feel that my efforts were blessed. My grandmother would take my to the Imperial City's Temple every month. She took more care of me than either of my actual parents did, and I cherished deeply. Because of her guidance, I feel that I will be able to heal at least some of wounds my father has inflicted on Tanjia and its people. This is my last Alignment Festival as the Heir to Tanjia's throne. In only half a millenia I will succeed my father and become Empress. I hope to be a relief to the people, and I hope I can live up to my grandmother's legacy. My palms close tightly, and my chest is tight. Just remembering her stings my heart, and I try desperately to keep my chin from wobbling. I hear footsteps behind me and I try to compose myself.
"The gods see your heart, child, and they approve." An elderly woman's voice sounded next to me, warm and kind.
"I- I'm sorry, what did you say?" I wipe my eyes to be sure that no stray tear would fall, and I stand to meet the woman beside me. She was slender and worn from her long life, easily approaching 100,000 years of age. Her robes were silver, she wore a pure white cloak with a silver veil, and around her waist was a green and lavender sash. All of these indicated her station here in the Temple. She is Taj'erii's High Priestess.
"The gods have seen the efforts you've made as well as the intentions of your heart, and they approve of you, child." Gently, I kneel back down in front of her.
"I am honored to have been noticed by the gods, and to recieve their kindness. I will do well to honor them in my life and deeds." The elderly priestess smiles and puts her hand on my shoulder, encouraging me to stand.
"You already do very well. Ki'konia is pleased with you as a young woman, and I'Ono will support you in leading Tanjia out of Ko'tuno's reign. Na'anaki raised you well." At the mention of my grandmother's name, my eyes can't help but prickle with tears. Taking a breath to compose myself does me no good, and instead I give way to the tears that were begging to fall from my eyes. The priestess takes my hands in hers. "It's all right, child. Though we live long lives, it is fine to mourn and to miss those no longer with us. Na'anaki was a fine Empress, and a fine Tanjiian. With you following so closely in her footsteps, you will be as well. Just remember that following her example does not mean that you do not have your own path." She tilts my chin up so that I look her in the eyes. "The gods trust in you, and so do I."
"Thank you. Thank you very much, ma'am." I wipe my eyes dry, and with a sniffle, I feel much better.
"Now, wash your face with the water from the pool. It is the first hour past midday, and I was told you were to finish your meditation by then." I shake my head slighty, I hadn't realized how long I spent here by the water. Quickly, I wash my face and collect the lantern that I was given. Bowing low to the High Priestess, I thank her before returning to the main hall of the temple.
I needed this today. I hope that my supposed bonding time with my mother doesn't undo all the good this just did for me.