Two girls knelt in disturbed earth. They looked so much alike that household guests often thought they were twin sisters rather than first cousins. The girls had long, gently curling brown hair, narrow and graceful faces, and green-brown eyes. They both greatly resembled their mothers, who were as close as Sesus sisters get to one another in a family known for its intense sibling rivalry. Both mothers encouraged the girlsâ€™ friendship.
â€œBy the Holy Dragons, isnâ€™t it beautiful?â€ gaped Sesus Xiche.
â€œOh yes, it most certainly is!â€ giggled Alon Sekli.
The treasure they had unearthed came from a garden torn up for renovation. Sesus Alon had commissioned repair and revision to the Manse she had taken for her household. This involved tearing down some of the gardens and statues and outbuildings, incidentally providing large areas in which the two young girls could play Scavenger Lords. If they woke up early enough, the girls had found they had two hours of daylight before they were driven away by either the heat of Fire Ascendant or the hundreds of laborers.
Sekli had met her childhood best friend when she had begun her tutoring with Master Sparrow-Song, a famous pedagogue. Sekli and Xiche took their lessons together, ate their meals together, and were even allowed to play and sleep in the same room together. While the adults encouraged each child to outperform the other, the girls knew that their talents were so dissimilar, that they would never truly be competing in the same fields. Xiche wanted a career in politics after serving a term in the legions, while Sekli believed she would likely end up in the Immaculate Order because of her temperament and her barrenness.
Xiche handed Sekli the jade obul they had found in what had previously been a garden. Sekli polished away the grime of Dragons-knew-how-many-years and stared in amazement at the tiny fortune.
â€œEven just the bits could get all sorts of things,â€ Xiche suggested, implying that the girls would, of course, split the money.
â€œI could get Decher the book I saw in the printing shop the other day. His birthday is just weeks away,â€ smiled Sekli.
â€œAnd I could go to the Humbled Mirror and pick out any ribbons and sashes I want!â€ squealed Xiche.
â€œYouâ€™d look so pretty in lavender and crimson,â€ Sekli admired.
â€œBut you know what Iâ€™m thinking?â€
Sekli quickly responded, â€œIs there more down there?â€
The girls giggled madly and returned to their task of picking through the rocks and dirt. Pushed aside were the previous â€˜treasuresâ€™ they had uncovered in the turned earth: pieces of tile and glass, scraps of what might have once been fine silks and linens, and tiny broken figures they believed to be heretical religious icons. The girls were convinced that they had discovered a previously unknown tomb or temple of the Anathema in the backyard.
Some time later, the foreman hollered, â€œYou two, get away from there. Iâ€™ll speak to your mothers if I catch you here again!â€
The girls raced away, their pockets jingling with rich rewards.
Back in their suite, the girls stripped down and climbed into the great stone bath to wash away the evidence of their unauthorized excursion. Scrub brushes were applied to nails and knees while combs and potions were run through their hair to soften their curls. At the same time, they submerged the best finds of their treasure hunt, hiding the pieces they had cleaned in their fresh clothing in case someone should walk in on them.
â€œI canâ€™t believe how much we found!â€ whispered Sekli.
â€œI know! Do you think we found it all?â€
â€œMaybe. Iâ€™m sure there wasnâ€™t any more where we were looking, anyway. Perhaps thereâ€™s more buried somewhere in there, but it might never be brought closer to the surface.â€
â€œYouâ€™re probably correct,â€ sighed Xiche, her elation not at all diminished.
Sekli grinned, â€œWhatâ€™s your count of it?â€
Xiche again figured the total, even though she had done so several times already, â€œI think about one thirtieth of a talent, between the shekel and the obuls.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what I get, too.â€ The two exchanged glances. â€œBy the Dragons!â€ Sekli squealed, kicking her feet.
Xiche dunked Sekli under the soapy water to quiet her.
â€œOkay, okay, what do we do?â€ Sekli whispered when she reemerged.
â€œWe canâ€™t tell anyone,â€ Xiche said seriously.
â€œI know, not even our mothers.â€
â€œOr Decher,â€ said Xiche seriously.
â€œOh, he wouldnâ€™t want to know anyway.â€
â€œOkay, just making sure.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry about me, I can keep a secret,â€ muttered Sekli. She still regretted not being able to share the secret of her barrenness with anyone, including Decher or Xiche. She didnâ€™t have anybody she could talk to about her shame. But, she knew the importance of the secret and was resolved to obey her mother. â€œBut even if we donâ€™t tell anyone, somebody could find all this. I mean, how we could we possibly hide it?â€
â€œThatâ€™s easy,â€ Xiche replied, â€œWe have three options: entrusting it with a business or bureaucrat who will look out for it, convert it into jade scrip which is easier to use or hide, or invest it in some form or other.â€
â€œI like the scrip idea,â€ Sekli commented while she distractedly popped bubbles.
Xiche sighed, â€œYes, that probably makes the most sense. I regret having to give up the power of holding real jade, though. But if there was something big that we wanted to buy, something that would hold its value, that would be better. Jewelry or precious stones or something.â€
â€œThat could work, I guess. What about the rest of these things?â€ Sekli asked, suddenly finding the money less interesting the more complicated it became. She fingered the other objects they had found in the dirt.
â€œWhat about them? Theyâ€™re not anywhere near as valuable as the jade,â€ said Xiche, her eyes practically glowing with intensity as she gaze upon the coins. â€œWe should concentrate on whatâ€™s important.â€
Sekli met her friendâ€™s eye and knew how seriously Xiche was taking their new treasure. This is what Sesus children were trained to do: to analyze a situation and to extract the greatest advantage out of it as possible. Like she was supposed to, Xiche was already plotting her schemes for the jade. Sekli suddenly felt that something like this could come between them, so she made a choice.
â€œIâ€™ll tell you what, Xiche,â€ Sekli said hurriedly, â€œHow about you handle the jade? I trust you to do whatâ€™s fair. I donâ€™t really need all that much. Really. My favorite part was that we found all this together.â€
Xiche smiled slowly, cautiously, â€œYouâ€™re right. Iâ€™m sorry to get all weird. Itâ€™s just that my family isnâ€™t as wealthy as yours. I guess Iâ€™m a bit focused on what this could mean for me. I mean, if I were able to invest this money in a way that would appreciate over time, I could take my share and buy something big and important when Iâ€™m older.â€
â€œThen go ahead. I trust you to manage the money. Just let me know what to do to get a piece of it, if I need it later on.â€
â€œAlright, itâ€™s a deal,â€ grinned Xiche, and the girls shook soapy hands.
â€œNow, what about the rest of it?â€ Sekli smiled mischievously.
Forgetting the obuls, the girls examined the pieces of colored glass and shiny metal that had been found with the coins. Admittedly less valuable, the trinkets were nonetheless fascinating to Sekli. They were scrawled with markings and pictures that were both familiar and strange, which intrigued her.
Considering that Xiche would get to keep track of all the money, they eventually decided that Xiche would take her favorite treasure and Sekli would keep the rest. As a tribute to their friendship, Xiche took what looked like a gold playing chip similar to what they used for gambling with the cousins. They would put it in play to encourage the cousins to empty their pockets, right before double-teaming them and taking all the winnings. The girls took great delight in planning their strategy.
By the end of the week, Xiche finally lost the gold chip to another cousin who had collected an impressive hand, but not before Xiche and Sekli had raked in quite a fortune in scrip from the other children who coveted the unusual gold chip. The two girls bought the book for Decher and ribbons for Xicheâ€™s hair with the winnings, and squandered the rest on treats and a carriage ride through the temple district. They smacked their lips on sugary confections while gazing with awe and reverence at the enormous temples and beautiful shrines that lined the streets. They agreed that all was well.
When Decher walked in on Sekli and Xicheâ€™s sanxian lesson later that week, Sekli could tell by her brotherâ€™s face that something was wrong. She wondered for a panic-stricken minute if the money had somehow been found out, and she and Xiche exchanged wide-eyed glances. Sekli breathed easier when Decher spared her only a brief nod before pulling Sparrow-Song aside and conferring intensely for several minutes in whispers. She continued to wonder even after Decher left mumbling a brief â€˜see you laterâ€™ to her. The remainder of the work period with Sparrow-Song that day was devoted to practicing the sanxian. Like any good scions of the Dynasty, the girls knew something important was happening by the unusual behaviors of the adults. Xiche gave Sekli a knowing glance as she took both their instruments to their suite, so theyâ€™d be available for practice during study time later that evening.
During her physical training, Sekli considered all the possibilities her eight year-old mind could imagine. She could hardly concentrate on the exercises, so the house guard allowed her to leave early â€“ Sekli could barely keep a good pace for more than a few minutes anyway. She trained alone because she was unable to keep up with Xiche or anyone else her own age.
â€œWhatâ€™s going on, brother?â€ Sekli asked immediately when she arrived in Decherâ€™s study.
â€œIâ€™m not sure, Sekli,â€ Decher mumbled, flipping through a book behind his desk.
â€œWhat do you mean? Why are you so worried, then?â€
â€œBecause mother is,â€ he said, shrugging.
Sekli was quieted by that.
A few moments later, Decher slammed the book closed and pronounced, â€œAlthough itâ€™s not my specialty, weâ€™re going to work on your eloquence and etiquette today.â€
Sekli raised an eyebrow.
â€œI know, I know. Itâ€™s not your favorite subject. Perhaps if I share with you what I know about our circumstances, youâ€™ll find your motivation thoroughly renewed.â€
â€œDonâ€™t bet on it.â€
â€œQuiet. Now, listen. Mother is hosting a party in nine days. Itâ€™s very last minute. She has hired a sorcererâ€™s building crew, mostly summoned demons, to finish the refitting of the Manse so that itâ€™ll be done in time. She has spared no expense to ship expensive meats from the north, wines from the south, dancers from the east, and even brine-salt from the west. Itâ€™ll be the best party in the city, and the guest list is very short.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s on it?â€
â€œThe leaders of House Sesus, mostly: Kajak Raves, Magel Talor, Chenow, Denerid, and others. Also, selected senators of both Chambers are invited, mostly Sesus but a few others. If what I think is going on is actually going on, itâ€™ll be motherâ€™s opening move towards the Greater Chamber,â€ Decher explained thoughtfully. He fell silent, seeming to ruminate on the matter.
After a minute, â€œWill she succeed?â€ Sekli at last broke the silence.
Decher sighed and leaned back in his chair, â€œIâ€™m not sure. She could easily enter the Lesser Chamber, but sheâ€™s aiming higher. Too high, really. Politics are not my expertise, but my girlfriend has explained to me the implications here. Whatâ€™s really important for us is that mother needs us to be perfect. The eyes of powerful people will be on her in nine days, and if we are not flawless in elocution and gracious in courtesy, it could reflect badly on mother. And then weâ€™d certainly earn her wrath.â€
â€œMother gets upset whenever she feels like it,â€ Sekli said petulantly, still bitter about her bad memories.
â€œAnd thatâ€™s exactly the kind of disrespectful comment that will not be tolerated until this is all over,â€ Decher declared, his voice rising.
For the first time, Sekli saw her big brother not as her favorite teacher but as a real adult with an adultâ€™s ideas and worries. She felt sorry for him. â€œYes, brother. I will discipline my tongue,â€ she said, bowing low. For you more than for her, she thought but did not say.
Decher looked relieved, â€œGood, good. Well enough. Soâ€¦ shall we begin?â€ he prompted, opening the book again for reference.
That night while they sipped tea, Xiche and Sekli dipped their fingers in cool water to ease the blisters on their fingers. The tab they used when playing the sanxian had burned right through the thin calluses of inexperienced musicians.
After Sekli had explained what she knew, Xiche added, â€œMy mother did not seem worried about anything, maybe Decher is overreacting.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think so. Your mother is far too reserved to let worries show,â€ Sekli offered.
â€œMaybe. I guess. Well, we have lots of work to do, anyway. That much is certain.â€
Sekli sighed, â€œYes. Iâ€™m just glad that itâ€™s my mother theyâ€™re going to be critical about. They will be too focused on her to pay any attention to us.â€
Over the next week, Sekli discovered how much in error she was. Every little detail of the Manseâ€”its staff, its guests, and its residentsâ€”were examined carefully. It was one of the few times Sekli had seen her mother in person when Sesus Alon came in and observed Sparrow-Songâ€™s teaching of Sekli and Xiche. Although the Fire-Aspected matron did not say a word, Sparrow-Song was quite nervous and sweat dotted his wrinkled forehead. Naturally, the girls were nervous and forgot their lines several times during recitation. Each time they did, the candles in the room guttered wildly, which only added to the girlsâ€™ apprehension. Not soon enough, Alon left saying no more than a brief, â€œWork them harder,â€ to Sparrow-Song on her way out.
New faces were seen on staff and in the corridors as porters delivered strange bundles to every storage place in the Manse. Sekli tried to stay out from under foot, and spent her time doing her best and hoping and wishing and praying that she would not have to confront any of the demons that had come to work on the grounds. The stories she heard from others were bad enough.
When the night of the party finally arrived, Sekli was nauseated with fear. She and Xiche were dressed by professional stylists. Standing still and looking in the mirror, Sekli watched her youthful features transform into a pretty parody of adult grace and refinement. The crest of Sesus and the emblem of Alon were decorated with designs and filigree meant to resemble fire. For many long minutes, Sekli imagined herself a Fire Aspect just like her mother, with all the power and respect that she might someday enjoy. Somehow, she was unable to maintain the imageâ€”her features lacked the determined resolve and fiery Essence her mother demonstrated. Sekli wondered, not for the first time, if she would remain mortal as all her siblings had.
Sekli turned to glance at Xiche, wondering if her cousin was also affected by their transformation into small adults. However, she could see that Xiche was silently rehearsing her sanxian performance. Sekli tried to as well, but could not concentrate.
At last, the stylists declared the girls as prepared as possible.
â€œAre you ready for this?â€ Xiche inquired, holding her hand out to her cousin.
Sekli took the hand for comfort. Her belly was rumbling, but not from hunger. Her knees shook, but were concealed beneath her dress. She easily recognized these sensations as gripping terror. She wondered if she would make it through the evening without earning the terrible anger of her mother.
â€œHey! Sekli!â€ Xiche grasped Sekliâ€™s shoulder and shook it. â€œDonâ€™t feint.â€
Sekli realized that she had gotten very lightheaded. She took several deep breaths while paused above the long stairwell.
â€œI think Iâ€™m okay. Itâ€™s probably just the corset,â€ Sekli smiled weakly.
Xiche nodded silently and turned to proceed down to dinner.
The only thing that allowed Sekli to approach her fears below was the recollection that demons eat little girls even when they try to hide from the monsters. You might as well look them in the eye, because at least that way they donâ€™t eat your soul, too, Sekli thought to herself. Resolved, she descended.