Ana sat against the solid stone wall, trying to recover from the shock of the day. For a moment, she thought that all her worries about taking the crown would be cone, and then her sister threw a fit and ran? She was always running…
She shook away the unworthy thought. She knew that they had been raised as two very different people, and yet she couldn’t help herself but blame the other woman for the death of her mother and the crisis that was now threatening to tear her House apart.
There was a knock at the door, and the Assistant Sitter, Lara-suharna-Eldera, entered, holding a sheaf of papers. “My lady?”
“Lara,” murmured Ana in acknowledgement.
“I have a few papers for you to sign, and the agenda for the coronation Sitting,” the older woman said, bowing, hands clutching the papers to her chest, her twin braids swinging freely forward.
“Just leave them here, Lara.”
She placed the papers on the side table that Ana gestured vaguely to, then paused, looking at the younger woman with curiosity. “Ana, I’m asking as a friend… what’s wrong?”
Ana, who had been staring at the wall opposite, eyes tracing the pattern of the huge heartstone bricks, glanced upwards, meeting Lara’s inquisitive eyes with her own expression of resignation.
“It’s just so hard to keep up with everything right now,” she said emotionlessly, robotically, dropping her gaze back to the large blocks on the wall opposite.
“Is this about your sister? I heard she came back from the dead today,” said Lara, clearly not believing the wild stories she had heard throughout the place today.
“Yes.” The single word was enough to tell the other woman, a close friend since both their childhoods, that there was no doubt in the rumours she had heard.
“That’s impossible,” she said, sounding deeply skeptical.
“And yet it’s true. I can feel her, coming up the stairs outside this room.”
“She’s standing outside the door right now, no doubt listening to exactly the words I’m saying,” Ana said, her voice rising in volume to make Lyahn aware that she was also aware of her presence.
Lyahn pushed open the heavy door, and sidled into the room, looking sheepish, like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
“Where have you been, Lyahn?” Ana’s scolding, motherly voice was somewhat betrayed by the curious tone that seeped edgeways into it.
“I… I found a room… it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. It had a forest, and a huge fountain…” Her expression was dreamily peaceful as she remembered the stunning room.
“The Sanctuary… but that’s just a myth,” murmured Lara, but Ana was shaking her head, looking equally entranced and blissful.
“My mother took me there once when I was a small girl. The fountain is so big; there’s a small island in the middle of it, and a ring of statues on it, five of them, arms interlinked. Mother said it had been there since the city was made.”
“She was right. The statues, they’re the founders of Kihedra, in a suspended state – they can talk to you,” replied Lyahn, her voice picking up speed with the building excitement under her speech, and the glow in Ana’s eyes was so reminiscent of her own…
“This is preposterous!” Lara’s sharp voice acted like a knife, slicing through the conversation. “First, you simply show up out of the blue, looking for all the world like peasant just wandered in off the street, claiming to be the House Head’s sister, then you find the Sanctuary and the Fount of Wisdom, both of them nothing but legends… you are both insane!”
“Lara!” Ana’s voice was suddenly equally cutting, and she slid off the bed, landing cat-footed between her and Lyahn, facing her childhood playmate. “If you even think of calling my sister insane, I will have your head on a platter,” and the threat in her voice was made all the more effective by the mirror image behind her, arms crossed below her breasts, looking severe with her hair tied back.
To Lyahn, at least, it looked like the two women were merely speaking, but to Lara and Ana, it was a knife fight every bit as deadly as the one from earlier. It was a battle of wits and courage, honed sharp by years of practice, and as they joined, parrying and striking, in parley, Lyahn could almost hear the clipped syllables and knife-sharp consonants clashing.
“I will call either of you snippets anything I wish!”
“And yet, you know that is never a good idea, Sitter-Assist Lara-suharna,” Ana hissed back, dropping the house name, radiating subtext.
“You dare to question my abilities?” Looking proud and vicious, Lara puffed out her chest, trying to look even bigger and more superior.
“I don’t even have to question your abilities, for there are none. All you do is shuffle papers all day, whining when the Sitters lower taxes, claim the city is coming to ruin…”
All at once, Lara smiled, and bowed, and Ana did the same.
“Well done, girl. I liked that last one,” laughed Lara, starting forward, and Ana did the same, hugging the other woman heartily.
Lyahn looked puzzled, trying to work out what had just happened. The puzzlement in her voice was oh-so-endearing as she asked, plaintively, “What… what was that all about?”
“It’s a game we created about ten years ago, and pretty soon it caught on all around Kihedra. I call it Repartee, she calls it Knife-breath. You insult the other player as hard as you can, until someone yields. Some crazy lunatic over in Eluna decided it’d be more fun with an umpire, so they play it that the umpire calls out the blow.”
“It’s all good fun, and we just keep each other on our toes,” said Lara, smirking at Lyahn’s confusion, hugging her friend’s shoulder close.
“If you say so…” she muttered, sounding thoroughly confused.
Still smiling, Lara pulled out of the spontaneous embrace, and started for the door. “Have a good evening,” she called back, pulling open the door.
“You too, Lara,” replied Ana, still wearing a slight smile.
“So, I went to the Sanctuary.”
“So you said, hun. Would you like something to eat?”
“Uh, yeah, sure…” The sudden unexpected question threw Lyahn, but she continued. “Well, the statues of the founders, they’re … alive.”
“What do you mean, ‘alive?’” Ana turned from the voice pipe by the door, looking puzzled.
“They’re alive. I went onto the island, and they showed me the city, over thousands of years, and what they wanted it to be, and everything…”
Ana looked thoroughly shocked now.
“Mother… Mother told me something like that, once, years ago,” she murmured.
“Well, it’s true. They can give you memories, and it’s weird, but I think I have the memories of every single king and queen of Kihedra for the last four thousand years in my head,” said Lyahn, blushing slightly.
“Wait a… hang on. Kings of Kihedra?”
“Well, now I know you’re telling the truth. Only a few people know that there were male rulers of the Houses, let alone of the whole city.”
“Where did the men go?”
“I don’t know. You’re the one with the entire history of the city in their head, remember?” Ana tried joking, but the tone just made her sound jealous, snarky, sulky.
“But I can tell you one thing I do know now, definitely.”
“I will be the next Queen. I’ll do it for the city, for the founders, for our mother…” Lyahn swallowed, and looked, smiling shyly, at her new sister. “I’ll do it for you.”
Ana’s face slowly pulled into a smile, and she darted across the room to tackle her sister into a hug, not caring that they fell onto the thick rug, only caring that her sister had just made her life complete, again.
Lyahn, relaxed into one of the first true hugs she’d ever been in, a hug of respect, caring, understanding. “I’m just doing my… my duty.”
“No, really. Thank you,” Ana murmured, holding her sister tight.
Eventually, they disentangled themselves, and Ana arranged a meal. When it arrived, they sat at the window seat, a narrow opening in the walls of the sparsely furnished room.
“So… the next Queen, eh?”
Lyahn blushed, holding a piece of crisp, warm bread, tearing a chunk off it with one finger, and dipping it into the soup, before tossing it a bare hand-span into her mouth.
“I really don’t know what to think,” she mumbled, after chewing and swallowing, then looked out the window, out over the city, the faint glow of houses fading away quickly as the night wore on. “I still don’t feel like anything has changed.”
“Well, it has, Lyahn. And by tomorrow morning, you’re going to be press-ganged where you stand,” Ana said. “I’ve heard the headlines that are bouncing in the newspapers… ‘Forgotten Sister Takes Throne’, ‘Back From The Dead: The Story of Kihedra’s New Queen’, and my personal favourite, ‘New Queen Tells All About Favourite Nail Techniques’.”
“I … what? Nail care? Have you even seen my fingernails?” Lyahn sounded affronted, but the laughter was bubbling to the surface, and it was the least she could do to try to maintain her composure.
“Oh, I know the sort of story. They’ll speculate about your choices for nail care, probably suggest a few brands for you to try, and so on,” said Ana, chuckling. “Look, the press release is out, now we need to make sure the vultures don’t descend.”
Lyahn smiled. “You seem awfully good at managing things for another person,” she said, quietly.
“Lots of practice? I did this sort of thing for Mother – press management, making sure that all the paperwork was dealt with. She elected me to Sitter for the House, just before the end.” Ana looked grim, her voice trailing off, but she glanced up at Lyahn, shaking off the emotions like a coat, slipping free of them. “Look, it’s getting late. You’ve got a press event tomorrow morning. We need to get you looking dapper for it, and the first and most important step for that is to get a good night’s sleep.”
Lyahn found she had no more bread left, and very little soup, so she drained the bowl, and the small goblet of water, then placed them both back down on the tray.
“So… where should I sleep?”
“You’re in the other room, for tonight. Mother’s chambers are going to be tidied up first thing tomorrow, and you’ll be moving in there,” said Ana, but Lyahn was shaking her head.
“Can I see it before they start pulling out all her stuff? I just … I want to know what sort of a woman our mother was, before it’s gone.”
“I’m so sorry, Lyahn, I completely forgot. Look, we can go now,” and the apology and regret in her face was sincere and deep.
“I’d like that.”