The room was still as Mnemon and Vâ€™Neef sat quietly. After a moment, Mnemon gestured lightly. â€œWill you take tea, sister?â€
â€œThank you.â€ At Vâ€™Neefâ€™s nod, Mnemon made a gesture, and a slave stepped forwards to pour the cup for her. There followed another pause, before Vâ€™Neef spoke.
â€œI find it a curious thing, sometimes. Here we are, sisters. And yet we rarely take the time to just sit and speak to each other. Even now, we are here only because our siblings have died.â€ She took a sip of tea. â€œWe are the only daughters of the Empress left alive, you know. And your elemental saved me.â€
â€œWell.â€ Mnemon shifted slightly in her chair. â€œI did my best. It wasnâ€™t enough.â€ She sat back, nodding heavily. â€œYou know how damaged the Dynasty is.â€
â€œI know. And I know why you brought me here.â€ Mnemon raised an eyebrow, and Vâ€™Neef chuckled lightly. â€œDear sister, my mother always made it clear to me that you were the one to watch.â€ At that, Mnemonâ€™s eyebrows rose, and Vâ€™Neef chuckled again. But she did not press the point. â€œTepet Arada has been named leader of House Tepet. Nagazzer has become head of House Sesus, and â€“ in something of a surprise â€“ Ejavaâ€™s young adjunct, Tyr, leads House Cathak. Possibly because he was the only one of the ten Cathak targets to live, and possibly because he distinguished himself so well.â€ She took another sip of tea. â€œRegardless, this means that Nagazzerâ€™s alliance of Houses has weathered this disaster better than yours â€“ an excellent argument to throw in the teeth of those who believe that you had advance warning of this attack.â€
Mnemonâ€™s eyes narrowed slightly, but she kept her expression serene. â€œI have heard those rumours. But what do you think this has to do with our meeting?â€
â€œSimple. With Sesus under his control, Nagazzer is finally in position to place me on the Scarlet Throne.â€ Vâ€™Neefâ€™s tone was matter of fact, but Mnemon felt her grip tighten on the china cup she held, and loosened it with some effort before she crushed it to powder. â€œWith Vâ€™Neef and Nellens added to the mix, he controls five of the ten Houses. Cynis has already positioned itself to follow the lead of Sesus, and Nagazzer as a leader is someone they can support â€“ his hedonism feeds their house. House Ragara remains opposed to you, and Ledaal is dubious. Peleps will only join a winning side. That just leaves House Mnemon actually supporting you.â€ She smiled faintly. â€œWhich means that if you still want the throne, you have to swing support today. Ideally, before this strange meeting that Nagazzer has scheduled, presumably the one where he will try to force you to bow out in my favour. And so you call for me. We have tea.â€ She took another sip for emphasis. â€œAnd you will express your sorrow at this tragedy, and remind me that this is a time of danger, and try to convince me to support you for the throne. Because if I support you, Nagazzer has no proper opponent to put against you. Not one that can win without triggering a civil war.â€
The bluntness of Vâ€™Neefâ€™s appraisal was both amusing and vexing. â€œWell, you have certainly thought of everything.â€
â€œI have. Which is why we will be attending Nagazzerâ€™s meeting together, and I will be announcing my support for you as Empress.â€
For the first time in as long as she could remember, Mnemon was caught completely off-guard. She simply gaped at her sister, then quickly took a mouthful of tea to cover. It singed the top of her mouth, but that was a welcome burst of focus. Setting the cup down, she spoke. â€œWithout even hearing my speech?â€
Vâ€™Neef laughed, a surprisingly honest sound. â€œOh, you donâ€™t have to look so surprised. Maybe in two hundred years Iâ€™ll be ready for the throne. But I donâ€™t think I have what we need right now.â€ Her expression grew solemn. â€œYou and I both know that this attack was a precursor. The Iselsi wouldnâ€™t reveal their hand just to create chaos â€“ something greater has to follow it. We need an Empress right now with absolute determination, unwavering confidence, and inspiration.â€ She shrugged lightly. â€œI am not that woman. You are.â€
â€œI see.â€ Mnemon nodded after a moment. â€œI have to admit, I am surprised. I didnâ€™t think you wanted me on the throne.â€
â€œI would have preferred Ejava. She had all those qualities, and none of our motherâ€™s.â€
Mnemon blinked. This conversation was drifting rapidly out of her control, and she wasnâ€™t quite sure how to reign it in. â€œOur mother kept the Empire running smoothly for over seven hundred and fifty years.â€
â€œAnd did you love her for it?â€
There was a long pause. Mnemon set the china cup down carefully. â€œNo.â€
â€œNo.â€ Vâ€™Neef nodded, still solemnly. â€œI will tell you a secret, sister mine. If our mother were to return tomorrow, and announce that she was taking back the throne, I would still support you to replace her.â€ Mnemon, who had been reaching for the cup, nearly spilled it, and quickly recovered. Vâ€™Neef continued, apparently without noticing. â€œShe made a career of turning us against each other. Just look at us.â€ She gestured. â€œTell me the truth, Mnemon. Do you think of me as a friend, or an enemy?â€
Mnemon paused. The easy lie rose to her tongue, but one look at the surprisingly haunted expression on her sisterâ€™s face chased it back down her throat, and she swallowed. â€œBoth.â€
Vâ€™Neef nodded. Finishing her tea, she stood slowly. â€œExactly. Even in the most humble peasant family, sisters love each other. But usâ€¦â€ She broke off, and smiled sadly. â€œThe Realm must come together. You can do that, I believe.â€ She bowed. â€œThank you for the tea, sister. I will see you at Nagazzerâ€™s meeting.â€
â€œThank you for your support, Vâ€™Neef.â€ Mnemon took a breath. â€œYouâ€™ve given me much to think about.â€
â€œI will give you one more thing, I think.â€ Vâ€™Neef, stepping lightly, paused at the door as the slave held it open for her. â€œI know that you live your life trying to surpass our mother. I donâ€™t blame you â€“ she casts a very long shadow. But you will never do it by becoming more like her.â€ With that, she turned, nodded slightly to the slave, and stepped out into the hall.
Mnemon stayed sitting, staring at her empty teacup, for a very long time.