Memory five: Cracks in the porcelain
I pour over Sehe’s dictionary at every opportunity.
Keeping a small notebook by my side I look up anything I see. I practice the symbols and try to get the flourishes just right.
But I quickly find this isn’t ideal.
I can’t keep on guessing what words are common in Jigani.
I need something real to read.
I make my way up the stairs to father’s office and knock on the door.
“Is it urgent?”
There’s a grunt from the other side of the door. “One second.”
I can hear the sounds of drawers being locked and a chest being closed while I bob back and forth on my toes.
Then father opens the door and asks “Yes?” while remaining in the door opening.
“I need to go outside,” I tell him.
“What’s stopping you?” he asks a bit annoyed.
“The big gate I’m not allowed to cross without your permission.”
He sighs “Why would you want to go beyond the gate anyway?”
“I need books.”
“Just make a list and I’ll order them. They don’t have Cygnian books outside the wall.”
“I don’t want Cygnian books, I want Jigani books.”
“Excuse me?” his eyes stand strong and I can hear by the tone of his voice he disapproves of the idea.
I swallow, steel myself “I’m learning the language but I need books to read.”
“Why bother with that? Everyone in these walls knows Cygnian.”
“Personal interest, besides just imagine how much I can learn if I can read up of the local flora and fauna Cygnian books simply don’t cover them.”
His eyebrows knit together as he thinks “All right, fine, but I’ll assign a bodyguard to come along with you. I don’t want those kani touching a hair on your head.”
My fists ball at the sound of that hated word but I keep it in for now.
I doubt father will let me out of the locked city if I start correcting him now.
I’m pretty sure father doesn’t want me to succeed for the bodyguard he chose is Cygnian, massive and dressed in the most official-looking suit known to man.
The bodyguard salutes at me “Ready for duty ma’am.”
I chuckle uncomfortably “Right, what’s your name…soldier?”
“All right, nice to meet you, Henri, we’ll just be going to the book store today, I don’t expect anything drastic.”
“Do you have to call me ma’am?” I don’t feel like ma’am is any way to address a thirteen-year-old girl.
“What would you prefer I call you?” he asks in a robotic cadence.
“Most servants call me lady Elizabeth.”
He nods stiffly “Then Lady Elizabeth it is.”
“Thank you.” Maybe we can make this whole arrangement work nonetheless.
“Now stay close to me and don’t go wandering off, your safety is our priority.”
I make a mock salute to try and take the edge off this tension “Yes sir”
My bodyguard doesn’t laugh.
I make my way to the door, and Henri marches after me.
There are so many people outside the wall.
It’s not even a festival day and yet hundreds of people make their way down the streets. There are musicians trying to scrape some chui together for the day and food stalls balancing round pans on high flames. The smells coming off of them are completely alien to me.
It’s a different world out here, one I don’t belong to.
With every step I take, I feel my muscles tense up with nerves.
The people around me are staring with disdainful eyes, they don’t even try to hide it.
And as I walk they talk and I pick up words from their conversations.
“What’s she doing here?”
“Stop looking, do you want her dad to…?” I don’t understand the final words but judging from their scared expression it must be something bad.
“Cygne bastards.” A man spits on the floor as I pass by.
Henri rears up behind me “What do you think you’re-”
“Leave it,” I command with as much authority a young child can muster. “Just keep walking.”
“But they disrespect-”
“I’m here for books, not to break the spirit of the population.” I grab his hand “just keep walking.”
Henri huffs, but in the end, I’m the Chattoway “Yes Lady Elizabeth.”
The book shop is small and the moment I enter the few customers inside its bounds practically run for it.
Leaving me alone with my uniform-wearing bodyguard, and the very nervous-looking store keep.
It smells odd here like smoke and perfume joined forces.
I follow the smell to the counter where a black stick burns with a hot red tip, smoke drifting up in a perfumed cloud. The lady behind the counter looks at me with wide concerned eyes.
“Please don’t mind us.” I try to tell her.
Her expression shifts to one of surprise as she responds to me, I understand half of it, something along the lines of “what do you want here?”
“Book. Storybook.” I try to explain to the best of my ability.
She nods, still bewildered, then points at a pile of books set out on a small table.
I bow respectfully “thank you.” Then walk to the pile, and pick up the top book.
I open it.
Look at the words in front of me.
“Uhm, do you have simpler?”
I leave the store with two story books meant for children.
They have pretty illustrations and talk of myths and folk stories every kid should know around these parts.
And I couldn’t be happier.
“And then the girl turns into a fox, holding the medallion in her mouth and rushes into the woods never to be seen again.” I rattle on and on as Henri and I make our way back to the locked city.
“You don’t say.” He responds disinterestedly.
I don’t understand how people can be indifferent toward stories. They’re like reality but more fun, who doesn’t want that?
“Well, I guess that’s your duty completed again,” I say as we enter the gardens surrounding my house. “I’ll be taking a stroll before dinner so thank you for escorting me today and you can resume your… regular duties.”
The man salutes sharply, then strides back into the house.
I take a deep breath and pull my coat closer to me.
Snow is expected any day now.
All the leaves are gone and as I wander around wondering where Sehe went?
Does a gardener still have work to do in winter?
Maybe he’s just having a quiet evening in his little house.
That is the leading hypothesis until I hear a thumping noise behind the house.
I follow the sound and find Sehe chopping large chunks of a tree into small logs for the fireplace.
Upon seeing me he rests his axe and wipes his brow “Lady Elizabeth, it’s been a while.”
“Yes, sorry for that…I see all the leaves are gone.”
“Indeed, now my job is making sure the inside of the house stays nice and toasty throughout the winter.”
I look at the pile of logs “Where did the tree come from?”
Sehe points to a stump that I believe used to have a chestnut tree on it once? “The tree hasn’t produced nuts for the last three years, so your father has ordered me to cut it and plant something useful instead.”
“It’s the circle of life, if it stops being useful, there’s no need to keep it around anymore.” His tone of voice betrays a bitterness I’m not used to hearing from this calm and happy man.
It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.
“I…I guess?” I respond noncommittally. I wonder about my own use. I don’t think I do anything particularly useful around here, to begin with.
I just live here.
“Can I ask you something?” I ask.
He smiles, “Of course.”
“What’s life like for you?”
The old man looks at me with confusion “pardon?” he asks in Jigani.
“I mean as a Jaobainu and as a servant in our house.”
The man’s smile fades slowly. He sets the axe down and weighs his words carefully “Well, the job earns quite well, and I have a place to live.”
“And the work itself?”
“I’ve been a gardener all my life, it’s what I’m good at. I like the trees and the flowers. I’m at peace in nature.”
“But… you don’t like my father do you?”
He sucks his teeth “He is who he is and I am who I am.”
“So that’s no right?”
He doesn’t say it outright but the look in his eyes is enough to tell me I’m on the right track.
“Is it because he’s Cygnian like me?”
He shakes his head, then sits down on the grass and signals me to sit down as well “ It’s because he represents a system in which my people are not free. Because he calls us ‘kani’. And because he orders me to chop down a tree I love just because it’s old.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be.” He forces a smile on his face and says “I think I’ll plant a cherry next, they have wonderful flowers.” His face pulls into a smile but it feels forced.
Somehow people always pretend to be happier than they are around me.
I wonder why…
“Can I ask something else, something that’s a bit silly?”
“I think so?”
“I…don’t understand…what we’re doing here? Father doesn’t talk about it and inside these walls, it seems like a forbidden topic and outside the wall, most of the people treat me and Henri like villains.”
His expression twists into one of pained memories. I wonder if I pried too far. But then he takes a deep breath and starts talking “Well, Jaobai used to be its own country, with its own king and its own laws and we were used to doing things our own way.
And then Cygne came in with large airships with soldiers inside them.
We fought…of course, we fought” his eyes stare out to a distant past “We fought for years until we had no king, no hope and no fight left in us.
Then we lost.”
Now Cygne decides how things are run. We pay them taxes and they take our things back to their shores and we don’t get anything in return because they don’t need to. We’re their property.
“That’s horrible!” I exclaim and immediately Sehe hisses at me to be quiet, he then puts a hand on my shoulder to calm me down “Now, I’m one of the lucky ones really because as I said I get money and a roof above my head but the decisions your father makes life for my people difficult. And I fear that if I go outside of the wall people will judge me harshly for working for him.”
“But what if father made decisions that benefited your people? Would that make things better?” I wonder and Sehe gives me a pat on the head.
“These sorts of politics are more complex than that. And they’re problems, someone, your age shouldn’t worry about.”
I pout my lips “But I want to help.”
“And you might, one day. Now tell me about what you are reading about now. Every time I see you your nose is stuck inside a book.”
A part of me wants to throw a tantrum, tell Sehe I want to help now, not later. But I guess this subject is over now. “I’ve been reading stories in Jigani. They’re…a bit childish but the stories are still really fun!” I pull the two new finds I bought today and show them off with gleaming pride.
“You’re serious about learning the language then?”
“Yes, and the culture, and the customs, everything really.”
Sehe smiles widely “Our culture is old and filled with nuances, hearing you want to learn more makes me very happy.”
Not quite sure what to say to that so I smile and nod.
Then we part ways, behind him the thumping of an axe on wood continues, while inside my head is a whirlwind of new thoughts, feelings and ideas.
And I’m not entirely sure what to do with any of it.
That night at dinner the atmosphere is even tenser than it has been on nights before.
I love father.
But I also hate father.
I hate what he represents.
An unjust system, a liar and a cheat.
All he needs to do is treat the people fairly, so why won’t he!?”
Thinking about it makes my heart jump up into my chest and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end.
“You seem off tonight.”
“I…” Should I tell him? I guess I could be angry about it all I want but if I don’t talk about it nothing will change right?
The waiter comes in with an extra pot of tea. But trips suddenly and splashes a portion of it over the bright white tablecloth.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry I’ll replace the tablecloth and have this one washed immediately.” The young man can’t be much older than me, two, maybe three years. I jump up, touched by his fear-stricken face. “I’ll help-”
“Elizabeth sit.” Father command and as if compelled by magic I sit down again.
The boy’s eyes flick towards me with confusion, before he rushes off to grab another tablecloth.
“Stupid kani.” Father huffs under his breath.
“Don’t call him kani!” I shout expelling all the bottled-up frustration in one go in the most unstrategic way possible.
“What did you just say to me?” Father’s voice contains a warning.
I swallow hard, lower my voice “You-you shouldn’t call the people of Jaobai ‘kani, it’s mean.”
Father raises an eyebrow. “It’s mean?”
“It means ‘violent beast’ and that’s not fair. They’re people just like you and me.”
Father huffs “Don’t you lecture me on morality young lady. You don’t know what these people are capable of. Besides they are my servants and I’ll call them whatever I please.”
The boy flies back into the room with a trolley and starts collecting the dishes and cups before changing out the tablecloth.
It’s silent while he works.
Father has a sharp tongue but apparently not sharp enough to say these sorts of things right in front of the people he’s insulting.
The boy’s ears are red, there’s no way in hell he didn’t hear the conversation before he walked in.
The whole house did probably.
As he sets my teacup back in front of me I thank him with a smile and realise I don’t actually know this young man’s name, maybe he’s a new hire?
He bows to me, then bows to my father and leaves the room without a word.
“Since when do you care so much about the plights of those…them”
“I care because we already took their home and their stuff, the least we could do is treat them with respect.”
“Who have you been talking to? Who put all these rebellious ideas in your little head?”
“Who taught you kani means ‘violent beast’ and that we ‘took their home and their stuff’” his voice is dripping with sarcasm.
“That’s unimportant, but it’s true, isn’t it?” I want to shout and rage but somehow my voice just keeps going smaller.
Then, father jumps up from his chair, and slams his hands onto the table, the bang followed by the sound of trembling china. “Who told you!?”
My shoulders jump, and my heart skips a beat
And the moment his name passes my lips I wish I could grab it from the air and take it back all again.
Father lays his silverware on top of his food and says “I’ll have my coffee in the drawing room. Please tell Shayu.”
“O-okay?” I’m stunned. His sudden shift from rage to calm catching me entirely off-guard.
He leaves the room.
I sit alone for a while, the previous conversation on loop in my head.
I try to figure out what I’m supposed to do now.
“Is everything satisfactory miss?” Shayu asks carefully as he comes in to collect our dishes.
“Father will have his coffee in the drawing room.”
“Very well miss.”
I get up from my chair and head to the lilac room to think.