Sekli gazed towards the other end of the courtyard to where her cousins were dicing tiny, child-sized fortunes of jade scrip away. Sekli had watched her elder cousins play in this way for many months, but had not been invited to play. She had learned the rules by observation, and knew she wanted a piece of the action.
The playmates her own age no longer held much interest for Sekli. At the ripening age of six, she had grown weary of the tiresome games of throwing and running, and she had grown bored of the endless strategic possibilities of Gateway with her agemates. Her independent exploration of Spirit-Frog more than satisfied her craving for challenging puzzles. She wanted to experience the games of hierarchy and social strength that the eldest children played at. She knew that the dice and the chips and the tiles were just the outward manifestation of the political maneuverings that Dynasts learned at the earliest ages.
â€œOh, Iâ€™m sorry, Sekli. Am I boring you?â€ asked Decher sarcastically.
Sekli shrugged, but said, â€œNo, brother, the history of spirit courts bores me. The only reason I can stand it at all is because of your exquisite pedagogy techniques.â€
Decher smirked, â€œNow that weâ€™ve established that youâ€™re lying, what is actually captivating your attention?â€
Sekli nodded her head, indicating the other end of the courtyard. Decher politely closed the book and came around to peer out from behind the stone columns with his young sister.
â€œAh, the cousins,â€ Decher said with mischievous delight. â€œHow they do enjoy their gambling.â€
â€œI wish I could play with them.â€
â€œFancy your luck is better than theirs?â€
Decher frowned, â€œSurely you donâ€™t want to usurp leadership from Lekoa. Sheâ€™s almost ten and just as cutthroat as her father.â€
â€œNot that either, brother. You know my mind about politics.â€
Decher nodded. He recalled his sisterâ€™s observation that their motherâ€™s political skills would always outmatch their own, and that therefore any victory over their motherâ€™s desires must occur on some other battlefield. At the time, he had agreed with her and told her that that was one reason he had wanted to study Sorcery at the Heptagram.
â€œIf not dominance, then what do you seek?â€
â€œCourage, I guess. Iâ€™m not really sure,â€ shrugged Sekli.
â€œTry to explain.â€ Decher had learned that his sisterâ€™s precocious understanding of the world should be encouraged, because she often only needed prompting before realizing important truths all on her own.
â€œUm,â€ she stalled, biting at the webbing between her thumb and forefinger thoughtfully.
â€œGo on. Something about courage?â€
â€œWell, theyâ€™re older and bigger. Smarter.â€
â€œPerhaps, perhaps not. You want to show them youâ€™re just as good even though youâ€™re younger?â€
â€œNot really, no. Justâ€¦ if I can face someone bigger than me, then maybe I can face anything.â€
â€œEven demons,â€ suggested Decher.
â€œMaybe,â€ Sekli frowned uncertainly.
â€œWell, nine and ten year-old Sesus cousins are hardly any fairer or more pleasant than most demons Iâ€™ve met. Sounds like youâ€™ve got an ambition. What are you going to do about it?â€
Sekli looked at Decher with widened eyes. Was he giving her permission?
â€œI think youâ€™ve learned as much about the Court of Seasons as youâ€™re going to. This season, anyway. I declare a half-hour recess. Then Iâ€™ll expect you back inside to practice your tea ceremony.â€
Sekli jumped to her feet excitedly, bowing, â€œYes, brother Alon Decher. It will be my pleasure to join you for tea,â€ she said formally.
â€œGo on,â€ he said to the girl who had already started off, â€œAnd Sekli?â€
Sekli turned to glance at her brotherâ€™s wry expression.
Sekli grinned and darted off across the courtyard.
The children gathered around a dusty mosaic whose pattern was a convenient divider of player spaces for their dice and card games. Most of them were just a year or two off from primary school and none wanted to be left behind by socially skilled peers. And so, they practiced back-stabbing and power-mongering amongst each other. And Lekoa usually won. But what she taught them by winning would serve them well in their own rise to power when they attended the Illicar Academy, or one of the other prestigious schools funded directly by the Deliberative.
â€œLook, itâ€™s little Alon Sekli,â€ whispered an observant child as Sekli approached.
Everyone looked to Lekoa for her reaction. She ignored Sekli, and therefore so did the rest.
For her part, Sekli knelt behind and a polite distance off from the rest. She waited until the current hand was finished.
While the dealer shuffled the tiles, Sekli rose and approached. â€œPlease deal me in,â€ Sekli declared firmly, but respectfully.
Lekoa glanced back, â€œYouâ€™re too young to play. You donâ€™t even know the rules.â€
â€œIâ€™m old enough to know that if youâ€™d advanced your silver tiles sooner, youâ€™d probably have won,â€ Sekli smiled, trying to impress them.
The other children paled. One gasped. Lekoaâ€™s composed face betrayed only a slight blush as evidence of her rage. It was enough that everyone suddenly found the clouds, the courtyard, or anything else vastly more interesting to occupy their attention for a few moments.
â€œHow dare you?â€ whispered Lekoa.
Sekli grasped that she had offended her cousin. â€œI apologize for questioning your tactics, Lekoa. I am now certain that you had a much longer goal that you were accomplishing and that I simply do not understand enough yet about the game to appreciate your long-sightedness. Please teach me, Chenow Lekoa,â€ Sekli bowed respectfully.
With only tightened lips and a slight head movement, she rallied her allies. One of the cousins threw a chip at Sekli. She stepped back, startled, and tripped over a flower planter and fell into the herbs.
â€œGet out of the garden!â€ shouted a Sesus major domo from an upstairs window overlooking the courtyard. No one had seen her there.
Sekli stumbled out, brushing dirt from her hair and trying not to crush any more plants. She glanced at Lekoa, who smiled sweetly at the younger cousin who was now in a good amount of minor trouble. Lekoa experienced her power and dominance and reveled in it as much as any older Dynast socialite would.
Sekli met Lekoaâ€™s gaze, miserable at the prospects of punishment, yet determined. Sekli imagined that her own intentions would be rather alien to Lekoa, who could only see Sekli through her own eyes. Eyes that saw a younger cousin trying to gain an early political advantage before Lekoa was sent off to school.
Lekoa turned her head away as though Sekli suddenly ceased to exist. She and her friends picked up their game pieces and went on their way while Sekli awaited the major domo for assignation of punishment.
The next day, Sekli and her cousins young and old were gathered together early in the morning for calisthenics. After stretching and warming up with the instructor, a Sesus legion soldier on leave that season, they were given an entire courtyard built as an obstacle course to roam and play in. With ladders and jumps and foot-race tracks, and things to climb on (or under, or through), and various objects to throw, catch, bounce, and maneuver, the courtyard was an active childâ€™s delight.
Sekli enjoyed the exercise period well enough, but she ran short of breath much sooner than did all but the smallest children. Ever since her illness, she just could not keep up with the kids her own age. Thankfully, there was no one to monitor her efforts or to demand greater performance from the children. Adults correctly assumed that children would enjoy the play for its own sake. Although casually supervised by the legionnaire, the Sesus children of all the nearby households also used this opportunity to mingle, exchange gossip, and otherwise be the children they were. Many brought their own toys to use when they grew bored with the equipment built-in to the exercise field.
â€œI like that kite,â€ said Lekoa from behind Sekli.
Sekli turned her head to see that the older girl was standing nearby and had come alone. Sekli looked up again to the kite. It was built of feathersteel and a kind of treated silk, painted with the colors and images of Mela, the Immaculate Dragon of Air. Decher had given it to her as a birthday present last winter and it continued to be her favorite toy.
Sekli smiled as she glanced sidelong to Chenow Lekoa, â€œThank you, I like it too.â€
The two girls watched the dancing movements of the kite for a few minutes as Sekli manipulated the strings to guide its soaring motion.
â€œMight I have a turn?â€ asked Lekoa quietly, respectfully.
Sekli wondered for a few moments, but happily passed the hand instruments to the older girl. The young girl believed that the other regretted her hasty actions the day before. Maybe she was willing to make a new friend, but Sekli was also wary of political machinations. She would not be anyoneâ€™s minion.
Lekoa took over control of the kite and began experimenting with its motions. She seemed to catch on quickly, Sekli thought. Then, young Sekli felt a sinking sensation as Lekoaâ€™s friends came over and started remarking and delighting in Lekoaâ€™s expertise.
â€œYouâ€™re much better at that than the little brat,â€ said one.
â€œYeah, good thing she turned it over to you. I was worried she would let it fall and harm somebody,â€ remarked another.
Lekoa smiled angelically, â€œYes, thank you Alon Sekli. I do appreciate your gesture.â€
Sekli frowned, â€œWhat gesture.â€
â€œYour gift. Thank you, I accept it. I will always consider it a token of your high esteem for me,â€ Lekoa said calmly, dangerously.
â€œI didnâ€™t give it to you!â€ Sekli cried out, alarmed.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t say that too loudly,â€ Lekoa commented.
Just then somebodyâ€™s foot reached out and tripped Sekli, who tumbled to the cobblestone courtyard. She sat there miserably before getting up and wiping the blood from her knees. By then Lekoa and her friends had moved on, taking the kite with them.
Sekli remembered her vow and shed no tears. But she almost did, from the mild pain and great frustration.
The next day during the exercise period, Lekoa and her friends had the kite and were enjoying flying it all about. One of the other cousins asked Sekli if she had given it to Lekoa. Knowing the consequences of â€˜betrayalâ€™, Sekli said that she had. She was afraid of the older children and their willingness to hurt others. Her knees were still rubbed raw.
Despite her submission, Lekoaâ€™s friends pestered Sekli when they grew bored of other activities. She became very afraid of their bullying, and dreaded the exercise period for the next week. The fear would have encouraged Sekli to quietly give up and go about other activities, forgetting the kite and forgetting her desire to game with the older children, had they not continued to torment her. Fear was not protecting her, so instead, she decided some action was necessary.
â€œBrother, I have a problem,â€ Sekli told Decher over a game of gateway they shared late one night.
â€œHow is that possible? Youâ€™re already better at Spirit-Frog than I am, surely this isnâ€™t much more difficult.â€
â€œNo, not about the game, about something else,â€ she said impatiently.
â€œOh, alright. Tell me whatâ€™s going on?â€
â€œI canâ€™t say too much. Just that somebody took something from me and Iâ€™m not in a position to take it back. I donâ€™t have the resources they do.â€
â€œOne of the cousins?â€
â€œHmmâ€¦ those are difficult situations. Iâ€™d say cut your losses and back out.â€
â€œI canâ€™t. They wonâ€™t let me.â€
â€œMy, my, Sekli. What have I let you get yourself into? I knew itâ€™d be trouble for you to get involved with Chenow Lekoa,â€ he clucked his tongue.
â€œI know. Are you going to help me, or criticize me?â€
â€œI canâ€™t help too directly, you know that. Iâ€™m a grownup, now.â€
Sekli sighed and nodded.
â€œBut letâ€™s talk strategy. What characterizes the power dominance she has over you?â€
â€œShe can take things from me and I have to go along with it, or else they make things hard for me.â€
He thought for a few minutes while staring at the gateway board. He grinned at last, â€œIâ€™d like to remind you of the Greedy God pattern.â€
â€œForget Spirit-Frog, these are big kids weâ€™re talking about.â€
â€œJust listen. Remember that board? The god desires your pieces. The god piece hunts all your pieces down one by one, starting with your best piece and working down. If you try to escape, it only delays the inevitable. If you try to sacrifice lesser pieces, it just bypasses them, until it comes for them later. The god piece continues until you have nothing left. The principle of consumption.â€
Sekli nodded with rapt attention.
â€œI see this as the same problem. Once youâ€™ve figured out that board, youâ€™ll have figured out the answer, here,â€ said Decher as he moved his piece and won the gateway game.
Sekli wasnâ€™t even paying to the game anymore, â€œBut brother, Iâ€™ve already solved that board.â€
â€œOh. Then you donâ€™t need me to tell you what to do, do you? Good night, sister,â€ he grinned as he rumpled her hair. He rose and left her to think.
Sekli pondered the Greedy God board. The answer was simple: instead of attempting to escape, the solution was to give the greedy god everything it wants until it was overwhelmed by generosity. It perishes from its greed. What her brother probably meant was that she should endear herself with meekness towards Lekoa until Lekoa had no choice but to accept the fawning follower as one of her own, and protect Sekli.
But Sekli admired the simplicity of the solution. It gave her a different plan.
The next morning before breakfast, Sekli organized her belongings. Most of what she owned was gifts that would be noticed if they went missing. However, she had a beautiful emerald and diamond necklace that had once belonged to an aunt, who had died a few years ago. Sekliâ€™s mother had been given the jewelry but, since green was not her color, it had been given to Sekli. Sekli loved the piece, but decided to make this sacrifice.
The young scion of Sesus instructed a business-savvy servant to sell the necklace and use the proceeds to acquire several materials according to specific proportions. The servant hesitated but at last humored the young girlâ€™s wishes.
That evening, after enduring studies and tests and another humiliating exercise period, Sekli gathered up the components she had purchased and brought them to the kitchen.
â€œWake up, Rube,â€ she said to the small jade-and-steel box sitting on a stool.
The box chirped and unfolded its metallic skeleton until it stood upright. It leaned forward to view the young girl that it towered over. In its deferential mechanical voice the Folding Servant asked, â€œWhat is your desire, daughter of my Master?â€
Sekli imparted her instructions and left it to work all night.
The next day Sekli took Decher aside before they began her language lessons. She led him to a household supply closet that was barely used and opened the door.
â€œWhat have you done, Sekli?â€ he asked in bewilderment.
â€œOnly what you suggested.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t think youâ€™d take me so literally. I meant-â€œ
â€œI know what you meant,â€ Sekli interrupted, â€œBut I wanted to make a statement. Now I just canâ€™t figure out how to carry the statement out.â€
â€œOh, Sekli,â€ he said, his voice crackling with humor. â€œThis is too good, if we can finish it.â€
â€œWe?â€ she said hopefully.
Decher just grinned. â€œYou know, just last week I finally was sent my Summoning License. Iâ€™ve been meaning to test it out. I think weâ€™ll have to supplement our discussion of spirits and elementals today. Letâ€™s summon one.â€
Sekli cheered and embraced her brother, who swung her around and around.
At exercise that day, Sekli endured the torment of the older children. The younger kids had all shunned Sekli by that point, fearing the blight of association with the current pariah. There was no one to protect Sekli, and the legionnaire considered bullying a valid form of exercise.
So, Sekli kept asking Lekoa what she wanted from her, over and over again, no matter how much the other children pushed her around or covered her mouth. Lekoa grew frustrated by the little girlâ€™s persistent questions, and shouted, â€œI want you to shut up, bitch!â€
Sekli shouted, â€œNo, you wanted my kite! And now you have it. I donâ€™t want it back, I want you to have it. May my generosity flourish in abundance until you wither from it!â€ she screamed.
At that point, the legionnaire took Sekli away to punish her for being so disruptive to the othersâ€™ exercise period. Nonetheless, all the children now knew what had happened.
Late that night, Decher performed the complex thaumaturgy required to summon an air elemental. Sekli looked on quietly, filled with the fear and loathing that the Dynastic houses often inspired in their youngest members. Her eyes pierced the elemental, willing it to carry out her vengeance. And with the proper sacrifice of incense, several birds, and the leftover feathersteel, the air elemental sped away to do exactly that.
The next morning when Lekoa awoke, she found her entire room filled with Sekliâ€™s kite. Dozens and dozens were stacked up to the ceiling haphazardly, like a jumbled pile of sticks. Air from an open window made the painted silk sheets flutter and rustle hollowly.
When the servants arrived to present the young Dynast with her breakfast, they found her screaming and crying, trying unsuccessfully to wade through the mess of steel bars. When her father arrived to extract the young girl, Sesus Chenow was very displeased. Although he was unable to extract an explanation for how it happened, Chenow wringed the truth about the situation from his daughter.
Sekli was informed that all the kites were unfortunately destroyed when Chenow broke them apart to fetch Lekoa from her feathersteel prison. That was okay with Sekli, who had already derived her satisfaction from her brotherâ€™s gift. He had given her a better gift.
From that time on, Sekli was allowed to dice and gamble with the older children, who had new respect for the girl. From her fallen position, Lekoa was unable to oppose.
One night the next week, Decher arrived at his motherâ€™s room. Bowing, â€œSummoned, I come, Mother.â€
â€œHow are your studies with young Sekli progressing?â€
â€œThey proceed well, Mother. Sheâ€™s taken to Old Realm well. Only practice and further exposure to vocabulary stand between her and mastery.â€
â€œGood. You will continue those lessons. But you will no longer instruct her in other matters. The time has come to prepare her for primary school. Her growth and readiness has only recently been demonstrated to me.â€
â€œI can instruct her, Mother.â€
â€œNo. You have been teaching her how to think, how to react, how to problem-solve. To gain admittance to the schools, she needs to recite the Texts, perform music adequately, and demonstrate her understanding of formal etiquette. You spend far too much time on philosophy.â€
â€œI apologize mother, I will do better,â€ insisted Decher.
â€œYou will not have that opportunity. I dislike the influence youâ€™ve had. It has caused Sekli to think strange behaviors are acceptable. It is not proper. The only reason you will continue having any contact with her at all is because she will rebel completely if she is not allowed to see you again.â€
Decher visibly struggled with his emotions, but he maintained his polite restraint, â€œAs you wish, Mother.â€
Alon nodded approvingly, â€œRemember your place, son. Your place is now to confer with Sekliâ€™s tutor and ask permission for an hour of Sekliâ€™s time. When an hour can be spared. You will not see her if her other studies suffer, because she will need further practice with the important matters. Do you understand?â€
â€˜All too wellâ€™, he thought, but said, â€œOf course, Mother.â€
â€œGood. Iâ€™d hate for your Thaumaturgy License to be revoked. Youâ€™d have few enjoyable career opportunities left to you. I am only concerned for your best interests, son. You may go.â€
â€œYes, Mother. Hesiesh bless you.â€
As Decher returned to his room, he fumed with the same fiery rage with which his motherâ€™s Essence burned. He resolved not to lose contact with Sekli. Already, the cousins and everyone else were trying to beat her spirit down. Like they had his. He would not let them. Not even his mother.
â€œPower is the ultimate authority, and violence is the ultimate means to take and keep that authority.â€
--The Autumn Ruin, explaining her (perhaps narrow) personal philosophy
"Demons eat little girls-- even when they are hiding from the monsters. So, you might as well look them in the eye, because at least that way you can save your soul."
--Sesus Alon Sekli, aka Weeping Triumph