FIC: You really don't want to write this.
ME: Sure I do! It has a robot in it! I've been wanting to write about a robot since Round One of October!
FIC: Whatever, bitch. You really don't want to write this, honest. See how hard I'm making it for you?
ME: I will admit this is a little difficult. Just a tad. Going slightly less than swimmingly.
FIC: YOU HAVE NO PLOT.
ME: But there's a robot in it! Look! Look! See?
FIC: The robot isn't doing anything.
ME: He's integral to the plot!
FIC: What plot?
ME: Well...um, it's like, a first chapter! Yes! I'm world building!
FIC: You've wasted two hours on on-line name generators.
ME: It's research!
FIC: And I'm not really sure you actually got the theme anywhere in here.
ME: Come on! There's the...there's a united front thing there. Yeah. With the army. And stuff.
FIC: It's nearly one o'clock in the morning. Give up. Seriously. You suck.
But I persevered. Or at least I finished it. It's less coherent than I wanted, but I did get the robot in it. And the theme was what inspired the first image of the ficlet. I swear.
This is for innana88. Something about it just made me think of her.
And I hope that it's obvious that the views of the characters in this ficlet do not represent mine. I just make this shit up.
(Helpful link to brigits_flame, for those who might be interested.)
The people of Ruesh have a saying: Women lift; Men carry.
This has always been the difference between them.
Lora Elemeh, newly-ascended Madra of Ruesh, stood on the balcony in the Great Hall that was as long and wide as the entire Madra Hala, with her head high and her hands clasped tight around the rail, so no one would see their trembling.
Her Armata were below. Thousands of male soldiers, like a sea of black in row after perfect row. They looked unearthly under the harsh light of the Great Hall, inhuman against the grey, gleaming metal that surrounded them. The rank-marks on the shoulders of the women who led them were red as blood and as noticeable as gaping wounds.
These men and women would fight for her, and they would be fighting for her. And dying. Ruesh was going to war.
Lora's father was standing near her but just behind, as was proper. He had been Prince of Ruesh, the consort of her mother. But Isamine was dead.
The former Prince looked sternly splendid in his mourning clothes. They were white as his hair, white the snow of the Ruesh mountains. He had slashed his face as was custom for his sex, and the long cut that started high on his cheek was still open and very red, like the Gods themselves had left their mark on him. He would not let it heal until the official time of mourning was over, so he could show the world the depths of his commitment and his grief. In the ancient times married men had slashed themselves repeatedly and to the bone, marring their beauty so no other woman would have them. But the men the Madras took were chosen foremost for their features; it would not be seemly to ruin them even in grief, so her father had stayed his hand.
Lora was glad of it. Her mother would have been horrified at her consort purposely making himself ugly, even for the demands of tradition.
Now Lora wished she could take comfort in his presence, but her father had been barely more than a shadow in her life, and he was less than even that now. His role had been to be gracious and pleasant and beautiful; to stand at Isamine's side and give her fine daughters. He had not raised Lora, had almost never spoken to her, and Lora felt nothing but a kind of distant sorrow for him. His loss had aged him, and though he stood tall and straight as the Armata below, Lora could see the emptiness in his eyes, already turned inward to memory. She doubted he would live long, without her mother's strength to give him purpose and sustain him.
On her left, Arusia was praising the gathered soldiers, extolling past victories and assuring them of the shining triumphs that would come over their enemies. Arusia had been Speaker of the Court since before Lora was born. She was older than Lora's father, with hair grey as dusk and a face lined like a dry riverbed. But her powerful, clear voice never waivered, and her robes of office were golden as the sun. And when Arusia finished with, "Isur! Isur Madra!" the men and women below echoed it back until it felt to Lora like the walls were ringing with sound.
Isur! Isur Madra!
Long life to the Madra. And she was sending them to die.
Lora had never been so glad that the Madra did not speak in public, that Arusia would be her voice today and all days, until Lora chose another golden-robed and tongued woman to replace her. Because Lora knew her own voice would be trembling like her hands, and her mind was empty as a field in winter.
Arusia raised her hands, her wide sleeves billowing like wings, and the chant stopped instantly. There was a second of silence, then one of the women on the floor of the hall bellowed a single command, and immediately all the Armata changed their stance in perfect unison. The clang of their footfalls was like thunder.
"Madra," Arusia murmured into the dying echo, voice like silk and honey next to her ear. "You must give them your blessing."
Lora blinked, gasped with embarrassment, then yanked her hands off the rail. She lifted her arms until they were level with her shoulders, palms facing out and fingers stretching to the hidden sky. At the last moment she remembered to smile.
The cheering was deafening.
Lora endured it as long as she could, until Arusia finally, finally gave her the single, tiny nod that said she was free. Then Lora turned with what she hoped was the same, slow dignity of her mother, and then walked to the wide doorway as slowly as her pounding heart allowed.
Garis was there, of course, standing just in front of the door. Far enough back so as not to be noticed, but close enough to guard.
Lora didn't look at him. But, "get me out of here," she whispered as she walked past him, then through the long, high doors that slid aside for her as silently as a breeze. Garis was just as silent, despite his size and the materials that had made him. He moved like a ghost, always, until he needed to be heard and seen.
She had asked once of her Nana what women lifted, since she had only ever seen the servants carrying anything, and the males took everything heavy.
And Nana had laughed and said that the words didn't mean material things. They meant that a woman lifted everything and everyone around her--she was the source from which life came, and the well from which life was nourished. A woman's wisdom and love was the path to the Gods.
"But men carry," Lora said, and Nana nodded.
The role of the man was to serve, Nana had told her. That was how the Gods made them.
Garis did not speak, but he did exactly as Lora asked. He did not lead--men never did, and the Argent were not even true men--but he walked closely enough at her side that officials and heralds paused in their rushing to get near her, long enough for Lora to slip by with a nod and a soft, dismissive smile. She would have to deal with everything soon enough she knew, and she would, but not this moment. Right now it seemed to her that if she didn't escape, she would die.
Lora only began to relax when she and Garis were finally seated in the transport, moving swiftly back into the main section of the Hala. And she only felt like she could really breathe again when she was finally, finally, safe in the soft, white sanctity of her private rooms.
Garis came in with her. He was the only one in the Hala who was permitted. Even the Madra could not overturn tradition.
Lora immediately went to the fireplace and sat down on the bear skin rug next to the hearth. One of the servants had thoughtfully lit a fire, and it was blazing now, warding off the natural chill of the room. Unlike the Great Hall, the Hala was stone, carved directly out of the mountain. It was cool and damp all the time.
Garis stood in front of her closed door with his arms clasped behind his back.
Lora crossed her legs, smoothing the gauzy white cloth of her mourning dress over them. She put her hands to the thin mesh of white gold that held back her hair and tugged it off. It was expensive and it had been made specifically for her for this day, so Lora resisted the wild urge to throw it into the fire. She doubted it would burn anyway.
Instead she put it gently down on the rug next to her hip, then put her elbows on her thighs and hid her face in her hands.
She cried for a long time, until it felt like there was nothing left in her: no sorrow or anger or fear, and then she wiped her face with one of her voluminous sleeves and lifted her head, unsurprised to find that Garis had been watching her.
He said nothing; he never did. His face was pale and sculpted and expressionless. And Lora had never known what emotions might drift behind his pupil-less, iridescent silver eyes.
"My mother's assassin was from Delthem," she said. "And so we are going to war with them. The first missile salvo will be launched tonight. The Armata will attack in four days. Less time than it took for my mother to be buried. If anything's even left to destroy," she added bitterly. She took a breath, rubbing her eyelids with her fingertips. Her eyelashes were still wet. "This is not how I wanted to start my sovereignty, Garis," she said quietly. "Not with revenge." She took her hands from her eyes, looked at the backs of them in the firelight, her new rings of office. "Not with so much death." She clenched her hands. "But the Madra can't be weak, not in the face of our enemies."
Garis said nothing.
Lora turned to look at him again. "Do you understand any of this? What's going to happen?"
"Of course you do," Lora said. She smiled with no humor at all. "You were programmed to understand tactics, weren't you? The mechanics of greed and hatred."
She didn't expect any kind of response to that, and Garis didn't give her one.
"And the Argent?" She had asked, "They look like men, but they aren't. What do they do?"
"They were not made by the Gods," Nana said. "They were made by women--to protect us and to kill for us, and to be brutal and swift and silent. But they don't matter. They're not human."
Lora let out a shuddering sigh. She patted the space next to her on the enormous rug. "Come here and sit down," she said.
Garis did. He sat gracefully, with his legs crossed the way Lora's were. He waited.
Lora crawled into his lap like a child. She put her cheek against Garis' wide chest, feeling the rough cloth of his black Armata uniform against her face. His artificial skin was warm, and if she pretended, it was possible to believe the tick, tick of his internal components could be a heart. It had been a favorite game of hers ever since she was a little girl, when it was dark and silent in her room and Nana had left her for the night, and Lora was small and lonely and afraid.
Garis put his arms around her.
Lora sighed again and closed her eyes. "I wish I were a child again, Garis," she said. "I wish that none of this had happened."
There was the faintest touch of Garis' fingers against her hair.
It didn't make her feel any less alone.