Mala looked around her new rooms.
She had spent four years learning everything required of a member of House nâl Afés’trin. Today had been the test, and she had survived.
The Luminous One could have killed me.
Not every child Presented to the Luminous One survived. No-one knew how or why the Luminous Spirit decided as It did. And those who died had been full-blood Spectran nobles. As far as she was concerned, she had no reason to preen about Its Proclamation.
And afterwards, spending time with Z’ólt’ár and her new family, she had used every bit of training to ensure that she made no mistakes in etiquette. Unlike them, she could not afford even the smallest error.
Her father, Emperor Va’dõr’an, had taken great pains with her. He had told her that people would watch her, alert for even the slightest gaffe. Unfair, but simple reality, he said. It would be some time before she could relax. If ever, she thought. Any errors would reflect on him and on the family.
Z’ólt’ár hated her, and no wonder. A sister had suddenly appeared. He’d been an only child, and now he had to share everything with her.
Of her original family, she had mostly hazy memories with a few sharp images interspersed. After that first year of training, Father had taken her out of the servants’ quarters and given her over to carefully selected robot tutors. (He had not trusted regular tutors to keep his secret, or to be able to surpass generations of bigotry.) “You are no longer a servant,” he had said, “but do not forget what they know. It could be very important for you in the future.” At the time, she had not understood, but she had obeyed him.
She slowly explored her new home, a set of rooms in the family quarters, linked to her parents’ and her brother’s rooms. Ideally, she would spend much of her time with her new family.
It was a smaller version of the sort of apartment she would have when she grew up. A general-purpose room; a fully-equipped bathroom; a bedroom; and couple of small side rooms.
She knew the furnishings of all the rooms were old and much-repaired, but they were still grand.
The general-purpose room had a thick rug on the floor, richly colored and figured with scenes from mythology. She could see that the couch and chairs were recently reupholstered. Heavy draperies were tied back from the floor-to-ceiling window-filled doors that opened onto a large, furnished, porch. There were force-fields and automated weapons to deal with any threats.
Behind a decorated panel was an entertainment system. Everything from old-fashioned flat-screen to virtual reality, allowing her to watch plays or dramas, or participate in her own. Or she could simply read, as the shelves of bound, printed, books implied.
Carefully, she took down a book. She had heard of this one, a retelling of the legend of King Zhål’miř, founder of House nâl Afés’trin. Later, after she had settled in, she would try reading it.
She looked around again. Her entire family had slept in a room smaller than this one. The only other room of their quarters had served as an all-purpose room, for everything from mending clothes to preparing and serving family meals.
Where is the servants’ panel? She did not recall learning of any in the Imperial chambers. Perhaps they had been blocked off, or removed during one of the palace’s many renovations.
Father had been fascinated by the servants’ passages, and the servants’ intimate knowledge of the palace. She had showed him through a number of the passages. “Remember these,” he had said. “You may need to use them.”
As with his advice to never forget her knowledge of the servants, she had not understood at the time. Now, she understood his meaning. Advantage. It was all about advantage. There was no telling when her knowledge would come in handy.
Into the bedroom, which was also larger than the room her original family had shared.
Her few possessions had been brought in and arranged. Father had not given her much. The risk of Presentation Day was great enough without the presumption of treating her as if the Luminous One had accepted her already.
She ran her hands over the garments. At her age, having more than a few changes of clothes was wasteful. She would outgrow them quickly.
“Lead by example,” Father said. “When we ask the people to deny themselves, we must do the same.” As the royal family had for centuries.
So, no delicate clothes. The clothing in her hands was soft, yet durable. She felt the fine mending work. Had the Empress worn these as a child? Or some other girl of the House?
The bed would sleep four of her siblings, with room to spare. She wanted the cot she’d slept on for the last few years. It was her size.
There was a dressing table, with a selection of bottles and boxes, and a large mirror. No servant woman had such a thing. But she had to use it, at least a little. It was expected of her.
She didn’t study her reflection. Not when she would have to look at her ugly eyes. Why couldn’t I have Father’s eyes?
Another set of window-doors onto the porch, and heavy draperies tied back.
This time, she went out.
The sun was setting. She climbed onto a bench to have a better view of the landscape.
Her great-grandfather, she learned, had disposed of the last indulgence of the Imperial family. The well-manicured, perfect gardens that surrounded the palace and other Imperial residences ate resources better spent elsewhere. He had decreed that the expensive, labor-intensive foreign plants be replaced with hardy natives, and the gardens designed so that rain and sun would do the work that had been done by servants.
She had always liked the gardens, and the pictures she’d seen of the old ones did not make her wish them back.
She went inside.
The bed was too large. She literally climbed into it, feeling the fine texture of the bedclothes, the softness of the mattress.
No. She could not sleep here.
She pulled the pillows and blankets off and arranged them on the floor. Not as comfortable as her cot, but less frightening.