(If you have not read my prologue or previous chapters, please do so now)
Tales of Tanjia, Chapter 15 - A Spectacular Performance
My mother is smiling at me, but for some reason I cannot help but feel that her smile is hiding something. Though I might be overly suspicious, as the last time we spent time together I was much more a plaything than a daughter to her. "What's that look for, child?" She says as she reaches into the bowl of cherries again. "You look so distant. It's as if someone stole your mind from your body." With a chuckle she takes the fruit into her mouth.
"Apologies, mother. I was lost in thought. You know how your mind tends to wander when-" My words are interrupted by a soft, rolling crackle and a somewhat startled expression on my mother's face. She spits out a good sized seed into her ruby stained palm. Then, leaning against the edge of the basin, she motions for the servant girl holding the bowl to come closer. The girl obliges, but her nerves are obvious. My mother smiles sweetly and takes the cherry pit between her index and middle finger.
"I did ask for all the seeds to be removed from the fruit before my daughter and I enjoy it, didn't I?" Her voice was calm, but it carried a hateful venom. Just like a viper's smooth movements before a sudden strike.
"Yes, my Empress... You did."
My mother utters a short hum, feigning thought. "So I did. Then, could you please explain to me why just now I bit into a particularly large cherry pit?" And instantly, the false smile vanished from her face. That pleasant facade has completely dissolved now. She can be just as terrifying as my father when she's angry.
"Deepest apologies, my Empress. It was a mistake and will not happen again." The servant sets the bowl to the side and bows low. "Please, forgive me."
My mother rolls her eyes and flicks the cherry pit at the girl's head before sinking back into the bath. ""Your 'mistake' could have ruined my day, or my teeth, or both for that matter." I glance to the side, not wanting to actively roll my eyes at mother. She's being overly dramatic about this simply because she can, and it makes the handmaiden feel even worse. "I am not one to forgive such incompetantcies. You know this."
The girl nods slowly, a slight tremor is heard in her voice. "Yes, my Empress..." I look over at my mother once more, hoping to catch her eye with a pleading glance, but had no such luck. Her gaze was locked on the servant girl, amethyst eyes darting a harsh glare at the poor maiden.
"You are an utter failure! Leave my presence this instant. I'll decide later if you will be allowed to return to my service, though you'll most definitely not be a food bearer." Mother waves the girl away and she leaves, head bowed low. I glance nervously at my mother, whose face is still lightly twisted by her anger. She looks back at me with a tilted smile. "I've been a little tense as of late."
"Is that so?" I shift in the water, creating a small wake that pushes two floating blossoms away from me.
"Let's remedy that, shall we?" With that she rises quickly from the water, pulling me out with her, and leads me over to the two stone tables in the northeastern corner. "Remove our garments." Her voice was commanding, and within moments the remaining handmaidens remove our bathing beads and set them aside. Now I am totally nude and relatively uncomfortable being so in front of my mother. Nudity is not taboo in any way, and I am not particularly shy about my body, but I never cared for being so exposed around her. Again, I feel like a doll that she's just stripped down so she can change what game she's playing with me. "What are you waiting for? Lie on the table, dear. These masseuses are the finest in Taj'erii, I've made sure of it." She lounges on her own table, resting on her side, waiting for me to obey her whim.
I hesitate a moment and stroke my arm in my anxiousness. My heart feels as if it wants to jump free of my chest and I don't know why. But I take a slow breath, pretending to be relaxed, and lie on the stone table. It's so warm. All of these wonderful hands did such an exceptional job preparing everything for my mother and I. Truly I wish I could thank them without inciting judgement from my mother. Her lips curl in selfish satisfaction at my obedience, then she whips her head to left to face the Muses and musicians. "I don't want lyrics sung during the massages. Only humming or low vocalizations, if you would." Her false smile and its feigned kindness returned with that request. "And nothing too high pitched from your instruments." The performers nod and play a low, soothing melody, and the masseueses begin their own routines in sync to the tune.
Expert hands and warm, oiled stones glide effortlessly over my tensed muscles. The tingling sensation from the herbal mixture in the oil seeps into my skin and I can't tell if it's loosening the knots in my back, or simply wanting to give off that impression. Yet, I can't relax. My mind won't quiet, it keeps repeating my mother's odd comments over and over. She's never spoken to me so loosely before, and she's certainly never spoken so much about father with me. It's so strange to me, and I want to ask her why she's behaving this way, but I just know she'll judge me for it.
The masseuses finish after what feels like an eternity of time spent in my own head. I feel that I've wasted their talent with my inability to relax in my mother's presence. Now she, on the other hand, looks as if she's recovered years of rest and relaxation. "What did you think dear? Surely these women have the most skilled hands in Taj'erii."
"It was very enjoyable, yes. Thank you, mother." She nods and snaps her fingers, and yet another servant offers us glasses of tei'loo. This was a much lighter variety than what the Dai'rou had served me, but the alcoholic scent was still very strong. I honestly don't want to drink it, I fear I'll let my guard down. Instead I glide my finger around the rim of the glass, the crystal hums quietly as I ponder. "What had you so tense mother? It doesn't seem like Taj'erii has had any issues in preparing for the Alignment." She takes a long sip of her drink before answering.
"No, it's been going swimmingly. Everything is being completed on schedule and the Dai'rou comes running over with a report almost every day to be sure we know. The man's a nuisance."
"I have no arguments there. I spent the entire afternoon and evening with him two days ago, and I regret it. He's obnoxious and repulsive."
My mother laughs softly. "You actually agreed to go on that fool's tour of the decorations? I just made up some important sounding excuse so he'd go away. Your father was busy dealing with the Dou·Tzan and his issues."
She takes another swig of her drink and rests on her side. I, on the other hand, sit up straighter. "What issues would the military need to discuss with father mere days before the Alignment?"
Mother shrugged and swirled the last of her drink in the glass. "Some uprisings in the east. It seems that a chain of mines collapsed last week, and the people are uspet." She waves her hand dismissively and frustratedly gazes into her empty cup. "Now we'll have to pull from other sources to aqquire enough blue silver for your coronation robe and headdress." That's what she's concerned about? How many people died in those collapses, and she's worried about what I'll be wearing in 500 years? No wonder the people are upset with my mother and father.
Mother hands her glass back the servant who offered it to her. "Well, my child, we should be moving on." She stands and pulls me up with her. The attendants quickly dress us in loose silk robes, and carefully pack the bathing beads away. "Muses, you performed excellently today. You'll be a Whisper yet, La'lua." With that, we make our way back to the courtyard and ride the palanquins back to the Capital Palace. We step out at the gates and dismiss nearly two thirds of our attendants.
"I'm glad we got to spend time together, mother. We hadn't done so in a while."
"Oh, we're not done yet." Her eyes look me over like a lioness sizing up her prey. "I'm going to get you polished up, we'll meet a few of my associates, and then we'll watch that animal show they're putting on tonight before the tides dip." In a blink I'm whisked away to the Empress' Chambers. A dozen handmaidens primped and polished me as my mother watched. My nails were expertly shaped and laquered, and my hair was done up extravagantly. They dressed me up like a doll in a teal gown, and my makeup was done just as heavily as the beading on my dress. Thick eyeliner and mascara, violet cheeks, and dual colored lips completed my look. My mother gently cupped my face in her hands, being careful not to smudge the makeup. "You look wonderful, child." She inspects my gown and compares it to her own. "We look perfect together, dear. Now, let's go so I can introduce you to some interesting people I've met during our stay."
We were then escorted to a building down in Taj'erii's Central Square by four intensely decorated guards. The crowd was large and still growing, so I suppose the escorts were necessary. It seems like the Vitki'i-nyaxixi show will be spectacular, given how much I've heard of this particular group of animals and their trainers. Kari'iya was the most mentioned, so I'll be keeping an eye out for her when the show starts. The hall was filled every sort of noble and wealthy merchant, as was expected, and the constant chatter of the people bounced around from wall to wall. It was so overwhelming, and half of the attendees were drunk a good two hours before the show. Mother introduced me to a few of her new 'friends', but it was obvious that she simply wanted something out of them. An additional silk supplier, another jeweler, or simply someone popular to spread a positive opinion of her. All of this false friendliness is exhausting.
I wander over to a drink server and take a flute of Taj'erii's signature liqueur, Mi'ilaya. It's not as strong as tei'loo, which is fine by me, and it has a sweet, floral taste to it. Maybe with this I'll be able to relax. One of the guards hovers irritatingly close to me as I sip my drink, his armor clanking lightly against itself with each surveying turn he makes. I hope Rii'ei is having a good time with her sister. As much as I wish she were here so I'd have someone I actually like to tallk to, I'm glad they got to reconnect today. It would be proper to have at least a small conversation with someone tonight, but this room is so suffocating I couldn't come up with a topic on my own.
I let out a sigh. All of this noise is begging my headache to return, and without the medicine Liri'el gave me, I should just brace for it. Now that there's only about twenty minutes before the show, I suppose I should begin making my way to the balcony so I'll actually be able to see it. The guard accompanying me gruffly moves the other partygoers out of the way as I walk. His voice booms as he speaks. "Make way for her Imperial Highness. She wishes to pass through." If everyone weren't already staring, I would've buried face in embarrasment. I feel like a child.
"Hila'al, would you be a dear and fetch me another glass of Mi'ilaya? I'll be going ahead to the balcony." The clear, nearly sensual voice of one of the noblewomen in the crowd rings out directly behind me.
"Yes, milady." Her emerald-clad handmaiden responds with a short bow before venturing out into the crowd for the drink. My guard cleared a spacious path to the balcony for me, and I actively avoid eye contact with the crowd. Some are staring in awe at the Imperial Heir, and others stare in frustration at being pushed out of the way so I could walk without brushing shoulders with anyone. I sigh again, leaning against the balcony railing. As much as I want to see the show, I'd much rather be in bed resting. Tomorrow is going to be so chaotic...
That same noblewoman from before, as well as her handmaiden, have made their way to the same balcony as myself. "Good evening, your Imperial Highness," She begins to speak. "I am-" My guard abruptly steps between she and I, cutting her off. I place my hand on his shoulder.
"She's fine. I don't mind the company." He grumbles, but steps back behind me once more. "You were saying?" She smiles at me, the first genuine smile I've seen all night.
"I am lady Sa'ahria." She offer a casual but respectful bow. "I just wanted to tell you what a treat you're in for tonight. We do this showfor every Alignment Festival, but this is the first in generations to take place before the tides fall. These animals are spectacular creatures, and incredibly graceful."
I nod my head and gaze toward the outer wall of the city. The energy shields have been made completely transparent so we may watch the performance unhindered. "I'm glad I don't have to wait any longer to watch it, then." Indeed it was spectacular. So many flips and twirls, all of it exquisitely choreographed. Kari'iya did stand out among the many performers, and her Vitki'i performed excellently as well. Sa'ahria and I exchanged brief comments during the show, but we were largely fixed on the performance the entire night.
The ride back to the Palace was unnecessarily long due to the size of the crowds. I could barely keep my eyes open, I was so tired. Finally I reached my room, and as soon as the door was shut I took off this ridiculously heavy gown and removed my makeup. Rii'ei must still be out with her sister, but I don't blame her for wanting to spend as much time as she can with her. I would if I had been unexpectedly reunited with my long lost sister. Now my hair is brushed out, my makeup removed, and I'm wearing a comfortable night dress. The moment my head hits the pillow, I drift off to sleep.
I wake with a start, feeling terribly anxious. At first I believe that I've overslept, but quickly realize that the room is still entirely dark. What woke me? Looking around the room, nothing seems unordinary, aside from the fact the Rii'ei is now in her bed. "It's nothing..." I wisper to myself. "You're just nervous for the opening ceremony tomorrow." I throw on my silver robe and take a walk down the halls. A short walk should be all I need to clear my head.
In the hall I hear the echoes of two guards whispering to each other. "I can't take this any longer, Ma'rek!"
"I'm tired too, Lo'rem. The opening ceremony is at moonrise tomorrow, so we won't have to deal with this for too much longer. Just be patient."
Their job must be stressful around the time of the Festival. Making sure everything stays on schedule, keeping nobles happy, and the crowds in check. I'm sure they feel underappreciated... I stop and sit in the foyer, next to a particularly fragrant floral arrangement, and spot someone else having a sleepless night. He was tall and slender, his frame eerily familliar. He turns and spots me, bowing in acknowledging my presence. The mint colored robe he fell open slightly when he did so, and I caught a glance of a healer's mark on his chest. "...Kii'jah?"