Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lady of the North Ascends (Part XX V)

Serenity was the meaning of her name in the language of the people of the desert, she was anything but serene. Al-Uzza came before Mina with anger in her heart. The high priestess was many years her junior. The milk skinned woman with eyes the color of grass was not of the old people as Al-Uzza was. She was born of the northern reaches and lacked the robust build that Al-Uzza felt was proper to a woman. Even after bearing a child, the high priestess remained of diminuitive stature next to Al-Uzza. The son born to the high priestess of Julara took after his mother, indeed his face was as fair as a girls and lacked the beginnings of manhood even though the lad was entering into his eleventh year.

Al-Uzza was envious, but few around her dared to name that viper wound around her heart. For the woman with the white touched hair and heavy build was one to lash out at the people who challenged her and questioned her, if they were not of higher standing. Al-Uzza was skilled at flattery, however, and did shockingly well by plying her crafty tongue to move from some village witch at the outskirts of the western empire to within the hallowed halls of the main temple of Julara. Al-Uzza somehow maneuvered her way into serving as one of Mina's secretaries.

Mina could never quite recall how Al-Uzza came to be there with her stoney expression of dour disapproval. Still, the older woman was useful in keeping things in order, as she had been for the high priestess before her and perhaps the one before that. Now, Al-Uzza stood in the throne room, her large hands folded into the sleeves of her robes and her perpetual look of malcontent. Mina regarded the older woman thoughtfully. Mina had no illusions that Al-Uzza sought to reach higher than where she stood and would have gladly poisoned Mina to claim her crown if it weren't for the fact that Al-Uzza was unsure what the results of that would have been. It was not how things were when she was a small child. Julara moved through the world with greater force and Al-Uzza did not want to risk the anger of the goddess.

"Al-Uzza," Mina said, "governor Bastizia's lady has been murdered." The lines of Al-Uzza's frown deepened. "I am sending you north. They have need of your pragmatic mind and guidance. The maidens of the villages have need of a mother to give them direction." The old priestess's eyes narrowed slightly in suspicion. Mina turned her attention back to the letter in her left hand. "In addition to strengthening Bastizia's household against the influence of outsiders, I expect you to learn who it was that killed Lady Zia and why. The resources of the Silent Sisters in the shadows are naturally going to be available to you. Bastizia's letter suggests there is some sort of unrest against the daughters of Our Lady and they who have pledged themselves to her outside of our orders."

Al-Uzza's expression slowly moved from suspicion to grim realization that she truly was being sent away to the edge of the empire. "I expect a missive answering these questions, Lady Al-Uzza," Mina continued and Al-Uzza looked surprised. Mina looked up from Bastizia's letter. "You are surprised?" Mina said dryly, "A secretary is not needed in the north. Of all who have been in my service, you have been the most efficient. When I lay ill, it was you that directed the water priestesses to come to me. You are deserving of elevation. And your steady hand is needed there. Thus, do I send you, Lady Al-Uzza. Governor Bastizia may not choose to wed you immediately but to observe a time of mourning for your sister. Do not let him forget his duty."

Al-Uzza shifted, uncomfortable with the idea of being yoked to a man. In all her time in service to Julara, she aptly avoided contact with men and what she felt were their filthy mannerisms. "Your celibcy is not at risk," Mina said, somehow knowing what the woman who was nearly her birth mother's age was thinking, "Governor Bastizia is a man of some age. He is near to your own, actually, and more interested in the running of his territory than anything equating a love match. Zia bore him his heir. After this, he had little more to do with her beyond official capacity." Al-Uzza let out a breath that she hadn't realized she was holding.>

"Your Imperial Majesty," Al-Uzza said, restraining the urge to spit with disgust at stating the words, "Is it possible that the child was involved in the mother's demise?" Mina tipped her head slightly to the left. She looked at Al-Uzza thoughtfully. It was a question that came to Mina's mind as well, but not knowing what the dynamic between mother and child was, she had no way to speculate upon it. "It is possible, Majesty, that the child has grown rebellious or perhaps succumbed to the influence of the barbarians," Al-Uzza said when the silence had grown uncomfortable.

"This is a question, Lady Al-Uzza, that you must divine the answer to," Mina said. The priestess opened her mouth to give an appropriately obsequious response when the Empress continued. "Do not call the people of the north barbarians. Name them outsiders. Name them interlopers or malcontents. Name them enemies. They are a civilized people," Mina added in a tone of stern warning, "Their gods may be different from ours but they are devout in their own way." Al-Uzza straightened and her look of sour disapproval returned. "Their ways are not our own but they are not beasts," Mina warned Al-Uzza, "Many of them live with us in the north. Their distant kinsmen offer them insult even as it is offered to us. I will not have these people dishonored because of their great-cousin's foolishness."

Al-Uzza bowed to Mina in a silent gesture of repentance. "Go and prepare yourself, Lady Al-Uzza. Your caravan leaves in three days. I shall assign one to serve at your right hand. With you shall be traveling a son of Ashur of the brothers militant. Keep him as your confidant as you move through the north. He shall have a sand mirror to speak with his brothers here in the imperial city. I expect a party of soldiers will ride with you as well for the safety of yourself," Mina said, silently questioning of the intuitive choice of Al-Uzza was wise.

"Blessings of Our Lady be upon you, your Imperial Majesty," Al-Uzza murmured before she moved to depart, inwardly wishing that Julara strike down Mina before her eyes. As the newly appointed Lady Al-Uzza left her presence, Mina watched her with a feeling of discomfort in her bones. One of the water priestesses stood off to the side with a small tray in her hands. As Al-Uzza walked past the priestess in blue, the younger priestess bobbed a small bow. Al-Uzza seemed to preen as she disappeared through the doors into the antechamber. The healer walked through the throne room and approached Mina with her tray.

With a sigh, Mina motioned the healer forward. She took the tiny glass vial off of the tray and unstoppered it. As she quaffed the tincture, Mina restrained an urge to grimace at the bitter taste. The sense of heaviness that slowly blossomed in her chased away the throbbing pain behind her eyes. Mina closed her eyes with a sigh. "Most Serene Lady," the healer murmured, "You must rest. Shall I summon someone to help you to your chambers?" Mina opened her eyes and looked at the concerned expression on the woman who couldn't have been a day older than herself.

"Yes," Mina sighed, deciding that her discomfort earlier had to be due to the ache that seemed to grow stronger the longer she was up and moving. The healer bobbed a bow and scurried off to fetch a strong servant. Mina leaned her head against the back of her throne. "Mother, why must I hurt so?" she sighed. Something of a cool, damp breath of air blew through the chamber, smelling of sweet water, and brused against Mina's face. The sensation of cool hands settling on her shoulders came with it and the distinct feeling that her recovery would be finished soon came over her. "I am so tired," Mina sighed.

"Then I shall bear you to your rest," Sorenan said as he walked through the throne room. Mina opened her eyes and looked at him. He approached her. Where others bowed before her, Sorenan simply walked forward. Mina gave him a wan smile for his boldness. Unable to find the focus to voice her question why he was back so soon from the discussion with the high council, she closed her eyes. Sorenan stooped and picked his lover up. Mina set her head against his shoulder and was fast asleep long before they had reached her chamber.

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