Through Fire – Snippet 13
He turned to me and smiled, “There will be clothes for you in the bedroom when you’re done with the fresher.” He turned to Alexis. “You’ll have to wait your turn, Brisbois.” And, advancing towards an impressively stocked drinks table. “What do you drink?”
Which, I thought, was just like men, sending me off to wash, while they drank and, doubtless, Lucius Keeva got an accurate report of the revolution and the mess in Liberte from Alexis Brisbois.
I was in the spacious, and certainly luxurious, fresher and scrubbing the outrageous makeup off my face when it occurred to me that I’d been positively itching to get out of this; that Alexis was probably better equipped to explain the military situation to Keeva, and that they were not being slighting but gallant, giving me first shot at getting out of what were clearly uncomfortable as well as awful looking clothes.
Still, I washed as fast as I could, and rushed out, to find that indeed there were clothes waiting for me: a black pair of pants and a gray tunic in roughly my size. Lifting them, I found underwear underneath, and pulled that on first, in a hurry. Then I ran my fingers through my wet hair and rushed out, barefoot.
The men had sat down, across from each other, with glasses of something amber in their hands. They both rose as I came in. “Ms. Sienna,” Lucius said. “May I offer you something to drink?”
“Whatever you’re having,” I said.
He lifted his eyebrows, but I wasn’t quite up to the variety of drinks on Earth. I knew that some of them weren’t considered ladylike — whatever that might be — but I had yet to taste one I couldn’t drink. None of these people had, after all, been raised on the particularly noxious drink my countrymen made from fermented bugs.
He handed me a glass of amber liquid that smelled alcoholic and peaty. I took a short sip, determined this was a drink to take slowly, and did so. “What did Alexis tell you?” I asked.
“Everything,” Alexis said. “Everything I know.”
I wondered if that was true. I suspected Alexis Brisbois didn’t tell everything he knew, not even to himself. Not if he could help it.
“And now you may go clean up,” Lucius said. It wasn’t an order, but it was. Alexis hesitated, but he got up and said, looking at me, “I’ll be right back.”
I wondered what he feared exactly, from Lucius. I didn’t think he intended to attack me. But Lucius waited till Alexis had vanished into the room beyond, before saying, “Ms. Sienna?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“If you’re Luce I’m Zen.”
“Very well, then, Zen. What… what is your relationship with Simon?”
“Your… relationship. Are you… involved?”
“He–” I said. The problem with Simon is that you couldn’t help liking him. But it came to me that one always felt slightly guilty for doing so. “He has been very kind to me. He’s … he let me live in his palace and… and get acclimated to Earth. I suppose you could say we are friends.”
A short silence, then he frowned. “Yes, but… but that covers a vast array of terrain. Excuse me, but… are you emotionally involved?”
Was I emotionally involved? What did he even mean? “I owe him a debt,” I said, stubbornly. “I think he… I think he likes me very much, but–”
“I can’t… I think he arranged for an innocent man to murder his fath–predecessor. I think he enjoys power and being the center of the seacity. He says he loves me, but I can’t tell if he means it, or is just playing at it.”
“Oh,” Lucius smiled suddenly, as though startled. It was an odd smile. Fleeting. When I’d met him before, we’d been in battle mode. I realized for the first time he’d been raised in the same world as Simon, if not in the same way; that he could probably be charming, if he wanted to, in a way that meant absolutely nothing. The smile was followed by a sigh. “Oh, likely neither can he. Simon–” He paused. “Simon’s… ancestor was created as a spy and someone who could play any role, and I don’t think Simon’s situation these last few years, knowing he was not like the other Good Men and remaining safe only by playing the fool and encouraging the idea his “father” might recover helped whatever inherent tendencies were in his make up.”
I nodded. I’d known about Simon’s original, the person he was cloned from; had learned it from someone who’d known the original. As for Simon playing the fool, I knew that too. I didn’t think I could explain — or wanted to explain — to Lucius the glimpses of someone more substantial beneath Simon’s playacting. Saving me at the expense of himself, even as his world quite literally crashed around his head, was not the act of a self-centered fool. I didn’t think I could explain that I felt as though someone were a prisoner, encased, in Simon’s playacting. Nor could I explain the sympathy I felt for his situation. So I said, “Yes.”
He nodded. “But that doesn’t answer my question. Are you involved? Physically or emotionally?”
“What difference does that make?” I asked.
He let air out through his nose. “It might. In how much I can help, within my limited capacity.” He raised a hand. “No, look. Our organization — not the military, but the organization that predates it — has an unbreakable policy of helping dependents: children and spouses or spouses equivalent. I can’t get you help officially, not from Olympus, that is, but you did render the Usaians a service, and though it’s stretching a point, I can take it to the council. If you’re Simon’s — If–”
I sighed. “We’re not. Not that close, and not physically. I was widowed less than a year ago. I’m not ready–”
“Understood. And emotionally?”
“I care for him,” I said. “Possibly more than I should — but I’m not sure how…” I looked up at those blue-gray eyes staring down at me like a judge from a podium. “Look, I don’t know if I have the slightest romantic interest in him, or if it’s just… just that I feel sorry for him. I always feel bad for people who are ducks out of water, because I am.”
This surprised a chuckle out of him. “Yes,” he said. “I do too, for the same reason. That’s why I said I’d help to the limit of my ability, but my ability is very limited. I can’t go with you and help you. I’m needed here. My superiors would skin me alive for risking myself in the hell Liberte has become. And we can’t send troops into the mess in Liberte because we don’t have troops to spare.”
The meaning of his words so far had sank in — and I understood the sense of cold I’d got from our reception. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to help us, but that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t. “But you’re the Good Man!” I said. “You can order someone like Nat Remy–”
I realized I’d gone too far. His gaze hardened. “I’m not the Good Man,” he said. “Not anymore. Unlike Simon, I didn’t declare the revolution, nor do I control it as he thought he did. And as for Nat, he’s in enough danger without sending him on what will turn out to be a suicide mission. Even if I had the power to order him, which I don’t. I don’t remember the rank in his last letter. It seems to keep changing. But I warrant you he’s my superior.”
“Suicide?” I said.
“What do you think? You know more history than most people on Earth — So do I for my sins. When a land, or in this case, a group of territories, takes it upon their head to make all humans equal, it always ends one way. It’s not that reality can’t be violated,” he said, and sounded suddenly very tired. “It’s that there is always a price to pay for it. Always. And the price for the fantasy of equality is always paid in blood.” He looked very sad but mostly very tired. Then his expression changed in a second, as he looked over my shoulder at someone behind me, “Ah. Brisbois. I would extend you the hospitality of my house, but as you see my quarters are reduced to a single guestroom, and I am about to offer that to Ms. — To Zenobia.”
“I can sleep anywhere,” Alexis said. I turned around to see that he had changed appearance almost as markedly as I had. He looked yet completely different from the man I’d guess I had glimpsed around the palace, in a formal and undistinguished gold and white uniform. And he looked again different than the man in cheap clothes who’d brought me here.
I didn’t know what clothes Lucius had arranged for him, and I hadn’t paid attention but now I remembered seeing a young man in uniform walk in and down that hallway carrying clothes. The clothes Alexis Brisbois was wearing were the formal attire of the upper-crust of Earth, such as I’d seen Simon wear. Silk shirt with lace at collar and sleeves. A velvet jacket with shoulder padding that, in his case, wasn’t necessary, narrowing to make the waist look small — in his case not very convincingly because the man was a single square block of stone-like muscle — and ornamented with ruffles at the back. The pants fit like a second skin under all that, and the boots came to meet the pants just above the calf.