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#14228006 Oct 14, 2019 at 01:45 PM
26 Posts
My earliest memories are of bright colors and the slippery smoothness of silk, the clop of hooves and the tinkling of the golden bangles on my mother’s wrists. I was born of noble blood, reduced to a merchant clan over generations since our queen fell and the empire splintered. Our family remembered, though, and we still served our immortal prince.

I always knew that my fate was to serve Crown Prince Ishama. From the time I was born, I was reminded that I was the second child, and destined to become one of his apprentices in the Goldscale Garden. I knew my duty, but that was not the life I wanted. No, my older sister would have that life, training under and taking over for our mother someday, leading the clan.

I learned my letters and numbers quickly and with ease. I followed my mother’s skirts, fascinated with the back and forth of haggling, the prize of hunting the best outcome, reaping the most profits. I loved the feel of the Perinoor silks and cottons against my skin, the sparkling of the gems and precious metals we were paid in, and the pride that swelled my heart each time mother was victorious. She would stroke my hair in the evenings and tell me, secretly, that she wished I’d been born first.

The day came too soon that I was of age for apprenticeship. I was still a child. I was frightened. I wanted to stay with my mother and my clan, but I had a duty.

We made our way to the Goldscale Garden bearing our clan’s biannual tribute for Crown Prince Ishama. Mother presented me, and the prince accepted me formally. I was taken to the apprentice quarters, stripped of my fine silks and baubles, and placed in dun apprentice robes. The next morning, my mother left me.

Being an apprentice was not terrible, but it was not exciting, either. Most of my tasks involved cleaning or fetching and carrying. I was often allowed to sit quietly and listen to the prince recite his memories. Those were my favorite times, hearing the history of Perinoor from one who lived it. Other times, I assisted the actors with clothing changes, or prompting them when they forgot a line here or there. Occasionally I was borrowed by the archeologists when my small body could wriggle into a ruin the adults could not reach.

It was not a bad life, but it was not the life I wanted. I sometimes slipped away to pray to all the gods I knew to rescue me from this duty and return me to my clan. I didn’t know they would listen.

Answered prayers can be bittersweet and cruel.

I was of an awkward age between girlhood and young woman when my mother brought her tribute that summer. A royal guardsman came running up the path to announce that horses were approaching. I was excited, as visitors were rare, and I knew my mother’s arrival should be soon. I ran a little ways down the lane until I could hear the clop of hooves and see the flashes of color on the riders. It wasn’t long before I could see her.

“Mother!” I lost any sense of decorum and ran towards her. She slid off her horse and embraced me as I threw myself into her arms, then held me back at arm’s length.

“Let me see you! You have grown so much since we celebrated the Winter Maiden last.” I beamed, as if I’d had anything to do with how much I grew. It was then that I realized the young woman riding behind my mother was my older sister - but something was wrong. Mother followed my gaze, then looked down in sorrow. She took me by the hand and led me to walk with her. “Come, we must see the prince.”

Mother released my hand and gestured for me to return to my duties as she approached Crown Prince Ishama. I passed through his golden enclosure as if to obey, then quietly slipped around the edge to watch and listen as she knelt reverently before the prince, keeping her head down.

“Rise, Lady Michiko.”

She bowed her body farther forward. “Your Majesty, I cannot. I bring a shame, a plea, and your tribute with me.”

The prince adjusted himself in his chair. This was highly unusual, maybe even worthy of his attention. “Go on.”

Without looking up, my mother began to explain. “A tragedy has befallen my family. My eldest daughter, Megumi,” mother gestured to my oddly uninterested sister, “has suffered a terrible accident. Her horse was spooked by an asp, and she fell. Her head was badly injured, and she is now little more than a sweet child.” She sat up, eyes still lowered, voice dripping venom, “My heir is gone, stolen from me by that vile serpent.”

She took a deep breath, composed herself, and finally looked pleadingly into the prince’s eyes. “Megumi is capable of serving here, your majesty, but not in serving our clan when I am too old. Without an heir, our noble line will end with me. Without training that heir, our clan will end with me. I beg you, wise and benevolent one, let me give you Megumi and return with Tomiko.” Mother prostrated herself before the prince, awaiting his answer.

I could not breathe. I choked on guilt. Was this my fault? Had the gods injured my sister, that I should take her place?

The prince sat up in his seat, rubbing his chin while he thought. He studied Megumi, standing nearby petting her horse, rubbing her nose in his fur and babbling. He studied my mother, prone, with her face in the dirt. Finally, he nodded sharply. “Rise, Lady Michiko.”

My mother lifted herself gracefully into a standing position.

He smiled. “Your family has served me faithfully for 700 years. This, we can do for you. We will keep and care for your wounded child. You are free to take Tomiko with you when you leave. Train her to represent your noble house in the outside world as well as she has represented you with us.”

Mother bowed repeatedly and thanked the prince profusely, until he finally waved her gratitude away. An older apprentice moved to escort her and Megumi to quarters, so I ran hard to grab a broom. No, of course I hadn’t been eavesdropping!

I brushed idly at the same temple step as my mind whirled. Excitement and guilt battled for supremacy inside me. I would leave here! I would have the life I wanted! But my sister had paid the price with her mind. Did I cause this?

“Tomiko.” Mother’s voice caused me to yelp and jump a little, startled. She chuckled and shook her head, reaching out to stroke my hair. “We have things to discuss. Come.” She took my broom, and my hand, leading me off to her room to speak privately.

She told me of the conversation with the prince, though I dare say she knew I had been an earwig. Through tears she told me of Megumi’s accident. I brushed my sister’s hair while she plaited flowers, uncaring of Mother’s words and smiling with an innocent joy.

In the morning, Megumi waved goodbye to us, laughing and content to stay in “the pretty place”. I wore shimmering silks and sparkling jewels as Mother led me away to a new life, the life I’d dreamed.

I return to the Goldscale Garden twice a year, as my mother did. I bring our clan’s tribute. I honor my prince. I honor the memory of my sister, who lived her long life in peace and sweetness after I stole her place.

And in the secret of my heart, I do not regret my prayers.
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