This follows on from The Answer.
Just the thought of being properly clean again was heaven. Someone clean had carried soap, pumice stone, towels, combs, loofahs, razors and clean clothes into the bathroom and left them on the benches. The stalls no longer had curtains but the tiles were clean. Rensa was not alone but the prison matron was as interested in becoming clean as she was.
“There are three things to remember,” Rensa told her guard as she stripped off her clothes and dropped them in the rubbish bin. “Firstly, from the time you turn on the tap, you get three minutes of water, total. You don’t have to have it all at once but three minutes is what you get. Secondly, once you’ve had your three minutes no more water will come out of that shower for another five minutes. Thirdly, don’t drink the shower water.”
“What would stop you from simply changing stalls?” the other woman asked.
“Today, nothing,” acknowledged Rensa, “But this was the female shower room for the entire floor, eight families’ worth of women and children would come through here in a day. There was usually a queue whenever you came here. If you were in a sedentary occupation, you learnt to make three minutes enough.”
“I don’t think you’re getting that lot off in three minutes of water,” was the matron’s comment as she stripped off her own clothes.
“Neither do I,” Rensa agreed, “But I don’t think the last few months count as sedentary.”
She was rinsing off the results of her first scrubbing when she heard a dry voice over the sound of running water. “Just as I thought,” said the Emperor.
She switched off the water and, with her arms across her breasts, half turned. “I beg your pardon?” She was not sure whether to feel affronted or afraid.
“Your back,” he was alone, “It’s what I expected. My apologies, ladies.” He turned and left the room.
Rensa leaned around the dividing wall to find the matron, her fine olive skin flushed with warmth from the water, looking horrified. “What was all that about?” she asked the other woman.
“Turn around and show me your back.” The older woman was beginning to look worried, but Rensa did as she’d ordered. A moment then, “It’s the bruising from the strap,” the matron was obviously worried now, “Its showing now, last night and I’d imagine everything for the last couple of weeks.”
“Does he care one way or the other, and if he does what will he do?”
“I have no idea,” the matron was obviously nervous, “We should finish getting clean.”
Later, thoroughly clean and in clean clothes, if lacking underpinnings, Rensa emerged from the shower room. All she had retrieved from her old clothes were the handful of coins she’d picked up from the road as she’d walked and the piece of paper from the temple and those were safely in the pocket of this new, clean, slightly large, neutral coloured tunic. She walked straight into Bannoc.
His arm was across her throat and she was pinned against the wall, “What did you say that got Haslic dismissed?” His other hand appeared at the edge of her view with a knife. Haslic was her strap-loving guard captain and this was the man who had carried out the slaughter of her family’s children.
“I didn’t say anything.” This was as bad as that day when they’d hauled her out of the stationery room but then they’d found they had no appetite left for death, but this man, today? She didn’t know.
“She didn’t say anything,” the matron in her clean uniform spoke up. “He came in, saw her back and went out again. I told Haslic he’d be better off stopping that when we were almost back here.”
“She’s still breathing, that makes it her fault,” the breath from that snarl was warm across her face.
“Bannoc, put her down.” It was the blonde man from the audience chamber. When Bannoc didn’t move, he stepped forward and drove a short nailed thumb up and into the other man’s solar plexus. Bannoc bent double, releasing Rensa as her did so. The matron looked on, appalled. “Don’t do that. We need her and she neither made Haslic behave like an idiot nor complained about him. Our Emperor is perfectly capable of working out something like that for himself. Madam,” he turned to the matron, “Please take my colleague to the sick bay in the main building, I’m sure he will be able to direct you in a moment or so. Your Highness, please allow me to escort you to His Majesty.” He offered her his left arm.
“Yes, of course, Master...?”
“Tuluc, just Tuluc,” he smiled calmly. Then as they walked out of the earshot of the other two, “I believe you’ve worked out what I am.”
“I believe I have.”
“I would prefer to work with a god line of Suohonn, of course, but the populace would never accept an Emperor who was not of Persis’ god line. And of course, Suohonn left no descendents.” He spoke calmly, glancing left and right as they went.
“I was taught that he and Kalhara had five sons, but that he killed them when they sided with her in the Discord.” She could walk along calmly too.
“And I was taught that she killed them when they sided with him.” He led her down a staircase and back towards the audience hall.
“A family I’m glad I wasn’t part of.”
“Indeed, their personal situation must have been fraught and full of tension,” he agreed, “No matter what actually happened. What remains though, is that those two had a function to fulfil and that has not happened.”
“We were in a better position for that to happen than ever when you overthrew my uncle.” She smiled graciously, well she hoped it was graciously, at two guards who had saluted her companion. “My understanding of the Discord is that he wished to turn the Empire into an armed camp, before we could even feed ourselves.”
They had reached the audience room side entrance. “You continue to concern yourself with the well being of the populace, Highness, while I concern myself with the success of my Master’s function and I doubt that we will clash.” He turned a smile on her that she hoped was not a look of amoral evil.
“If you awaken Suohonn to the world, then you reawaken all the others too.”
“I intend to do neither,” he opened the door and announced to the room at large, “Her Highness is returned!”