Two hundred and one days after she had left the palace she returned. On foot, barefoot, her clothes filthy enough to stink to her own nose though she thanked her ancestors that she herself was cleaner than that, and her head no longer bowed to try and hide her shame behind her hair. When the pilgrimage had started her guards had kept forcing her chin up to show her face to the world, but now when hiding behind her hair would have worked that correction was no longer necessary. Her hands swung freely at her sides instead of being tucked into her pockets and she did not care who could see what she looked like. Well, she did care but she had received advice and had had a hundred days to practice following it. Full acceptance would come in time.
The little contingent was shown straight through the gates of the palace, through the courtyards that had been tidied and cleaned since she’d last seen them with not even the stain of blood left, and into the palace proper before being shown into the antechamber of the audience hall. The commander of her contingent, a hard man with the strap, spoke to another man who appeared to be carrying out the duties of major domo. That man in turn returned his attention to the peephole arrangement that permitted him to monitor events in the audience hall. She knew that if the new regime made use of the old regime’s arrangements then there was a security team monitoring both rooms through similar, if more sophisticated arrangements.
There must have been a break in proceedings because at a gesture from the major domo the double doors were thrown open and he stepped into the breach to announce, “Your Majesty, notables and gentles, citizens all! Her Highness, Rensa, Princess devaunt, returned from her pilgrimage to Uselet!” The audience crowd moved back out of their way as the guards advanced her down the hall to his new Majesty. She didn’t think it was just their weapons that cleared the way, her smell was appalling and in this warm environment it was becoming penetrating. The new emperor and his coterie of advisers seated around him looked a touch care worn, she suspected they were finding the Empire the ride of their lives they could not escape from.
When they reached the front of the crowd the guards, including the prison matron who has her ironhanded chaperone, saluted. Rensa bowed as she would have to her late uncle or any of his predecessors. “A chair for my cousin.” The man with the golden bronze skin and the silvery agouti hair who now occupied the Imperial throne must be right in some degree, for he did have the colouration of her kinsmen.
“Nothing with cloth or that cannot be wiped down, please,” Rensa spoke up, surely the commander would not strike her for speaking here, “I’m filthy and I stink.”
“Yet apparently you were able to apply cosmetics and tint your hair before coming here,” the man behind the emperor’s right elbow spoke with disdain. She remembered him from that day, coming grim faced from the living quarters of the east wing with his equally grimfaced men to report that nothing there lived.
“I am not wearing cosmetics,” Rensa put her fingers on her skin just under her eyes and pulled them firmly down across the bar of burnt umber that decorated each cheekbone. The fingers left reddened marks on the umber and the raw sienna skin it contrasted with. She rubbed a knuckle across the thin raw umber line that traced the centreline of her nose. It didn’t smear either. “This is what I look like.” She extended her arms, palm down, to display the mosaic of double finger width patches of raw umber, burnt umber and raw sienna that were the skin on her hands and arms. Her appearance was sufficiently...something to the crowd that she could hear the hissing intake of breath.
Two men came forward with a wooden half circle chair, borrowed Rensa suspected from the Dowagers’ Gallery. “Please sit,” the Emperor was being gracious and looking annoyed at his adviser at the same time. “You are thinner than we remember you.”
“Walking twenty stadia a day on two thirds of a sedentary ration will give some weight loss,” Rensa agreed as she sat.
“And barefoot?” He eyed her cracked and calloused feet with concern.
“Apparently I needed to be disciplined in humility,” Rensa spoke calmly. This was the man who’d ordered her veils removed, after all. “I believe the clothes were along the same lines.”
“Now you have returned from your pilgrimage, we have some questions for you,” an aide handed him a piece of paper, “Firstly, the palace’s plumbing seems more than a little strange and the water quality is not quite what we would have expected.”
“The palace was last replumbed in Gilhald period when the need for water discipline and conservation was at its height,” she replied, “Gilhald would not impose on the people rules he did not follow himself. If you assume that only the water from the silver spigots is potable, you should have no problems.”
“Where can we find the ciphers to decode the working files?” The coteries seemed eager, even excited for that answer.
“Mainly in the heads of the people who worked on them,” Rensa did not smile, those people were dead. “The auditors often complained that all technical areas used their own shorthand.”
“Ah,” he did look at the paper again, “And why do you look like that.” His hand gesture encompassed everything from the top of her black, sienna and silver head to the bottom of her feet but she did not pretend to misunderstand the question.
“In the last five generations physical elements of the divine genome have expressed oddly in female members of the family,” she swallowed hard, “We are, we were uncertain of the cause. Investigations were underway into whether it was a mutation, some sort of deterioration,” some gasps from her audience, “Or even a prionic infection. It seems to break pigmentation down into elements giving a patchy result, such as you see on me.”
“And you veiled?”
“To hide our defects from people who didn’t know us.” She admitted, “At first for fear of the population’s reaction – how would your parents’ parents, your parents’ grandparents,” she looked around her, “Have reacted to the suggestion that the divine Imperial genome was degrading?” Heads nodded, including those of over half the advisers, “And then over time we became ashamed of our defects, we came to feel dirty and judged,” she hung her head, “So we hid more.”
“Pilgrimage seems to have helped you with that,” the Emperor’s voice was dry. “Now, a political question. Will you marry me?”