Wednesday 15 June 2016

The Prince of Exiles, 18

"We cannot. You do not understand." Cambren's head is shaved like Xipil's but where the priest is slender and graceful, Cambren, the Governor, is bullish, squat, broad, his delicate diadem of office and silk robes somehow at odds with a chin like one of the blocks in the city wall, his brutal brow. His voice is a gentle tenor. His breath stinks. All of them have terrible breath, all the officials around us in the room, sitting at the table, staring us out, these men and women and others with their clear complexions and shining eyes and shaved heads and strong teeth, the benefits of a diet of offal and spiced oils and rotted fish sauce and the halitosis that comes with it.

"You come in with your high ideals and your new ways of doing things and, and, and, even if we could do this, where would they go? What would they do? Where would we find the money to pay them for the things they were doing before? What of the slaves who are happy being slaves, being fed and given the chance to live in our homes and serve us? Would you take that chance away from them?"

Svaathe, in front of me, uncomfortable in a long, simple white dress, fresh paint on her eyes, hair tied back in a simple plait, snorts.

Makara wears her crustacean armour, polished, newly lacquered, over a fresh surcoat, high boots. She's shaved her head too, lice in her cornrows from too long in the wild. Her pale-blue scalp gleams in the light, reflects rainbows, throwing into relief a single nick of the razor behind her ear. She hates it, I know, thinks it makes her look soft. Svaathe had, before we were admitted to the council, put her hand on the back of Makara's scalp and stroked it, said, "Well, like it," and Makara had grasped her hand and kissed it and smiled, and then the doors opened, and their fingertips lingered, lightly touching between them just for a moment as they walked in ahead of me and took their places.

It's not for me to talk. Svaathe is a noble of her people, Makara an officer of the Imperial Army, and rightly feared. I, I am the freak, the beast who stands by them and whom none will address directly. I am behind them, trying not to fiddle with the cuffs of my plain grey jacket.

Makara is contemptuous. "Will you introduce me to one of this happy majority? Bring a happy contented slave in and have them tell me in their own voice?"

A woman on the left, elderly, acquiline, one glass eye catching the light and reflecting across my face in the filtered morning sunlight, coughs. "It is not permitted for a slave to offer testimony before any court without first having been put to the torment." The two men who flank her shift in their chairs, look at their clasped hands, the table. Caiphulis aren't good with sarcasm.

Svaathe laughs, one hard hah. "Would put a dent in the contentment, that." Twelve faces, five to the left, five to the right, two ahead, look on her with loathing. 

They're not winning this point, my companions. These are the children of Empire. Come to them with their history and their power and laugh at them, patronise them, and no amount of threat will make them turn. Too much pride. And now they've seen me, they're starting to believe in less outlandish things. 

I heard two of them women earlier, outside the curtain of the reception room they put us in, a younger one, the older one who just spoke: "You think he could have done a thing like that? Truly?" "Him? Sure, he's got the look of a jackal, but there's just one of him." "But the army –" "Some disaster happened, it wasn't him. Can't have been." They walked on, left the room behind.

The silence oppresses me. I speak up. I do not know what I am saying. "Slavery is an ill. Slavery is a canker. Do you know where I come from? Have you seen what they do to the slaves in Leagh?"

Shudders, pressed lips. They know. "They do that to my people. Among my people, I am a prince, although you do not recognise that, but I can see the things that you do not. Your power, your arrogance–" Svaathe has turned, is looking at me, her eyebrows knit, saying silently What are you doing? Makara is looking straight ahead.

We were told I have no right to speak here.

"Emancipation is not an option," Cambren says, cutting across me, addressing his words to Makara, a tone of finality in his voice. They allowed us in here, not to hear us, but to humour us.

"It is your only option," she says.

I begin again. "You cannot–" 

"Tell your tame dog to cease his barking," the Governor says.

Svaathe puts out a hand, rests on my arm. I hold my tongue. No one is getting anywhere. The meeting is over.


[Collected Writings Index