Emperor Va’dőr’an, unable to stand the grief of his wife and son, left the royal apartments for the servants’ wing. Servants of House nâl Afés’trin knew how to be respectful, yet carry on their duties. Life, sound, and comfort.
How many miscarriages and stillbirths so far? Five, six? The Empress had produced only one living child, and praise the Luminous One that Z’ólt’ár was hale and healthy. By some quirk of genetic chance, he had the right number of everything, and in the right places. Not like the poor, twisted things that had come before and after him. But he was not enough. His cousins were also afflicted with genetic diseases and defects. The family was fading, and would be extinct before too many generations had passed, unless someone took bold action. The longest-ruling dynasty could not be allowed to fade away.
Va’dőr’an paused in the entrance to the servants’ wing. Should he really do this? He should be with his wife, mourning the loss of another child. She was trying to do her duty, and every loss hurt her deeply. Why was he here, with the servants, when he should be with her?
Because the servants were everything he and his family were not: healthy, alive, hearty. They had the correct number of fingers and toes, and the correct number and placement of other body parts. Their blood clotted properly. None of them had to fear their bodies breaking down or turning on them.
His father had been right to end the eugenics programs that doomed the True Race. What was so special about the various classes and castes that they had to be rigidly separated? It wasn’t as if the programs had been run well: animal breeders had done better at keeping their stock healthy. The potters had the same defects as the potentates.
Down the corridor to Seriss’s quarters.
‘If you must relieve yourself with servants,’ his father said, ‘make sure you don’t have any favorites. They misunderstand your attentions.’
He knew that, yet he did prefer Seriss. She had some wit, and a quiet strength that had impressed him over the years. Nor had she made demands on him. If she felt anything for him aside from the loyalty of a servant to a master, she gave no sign.
As was his privilege, he simply walked through the door.
The servant was mending clothing by hand. Not even a sewing machine. Her children scattered into hiding. Light flashed off a head of gold hair as one turned to look at him before finding cover.
“Our lord the Emperor honors us.” Seriss put down her work and knelt, head to the floor.
“Rise.” He was thinking of the golden-haired child. How many times had he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye? This one did not hide as quickly as the others.
“Your grief is our grief,” she said. Was there a hint of genuine sympathy in her tone? He hoped not. He did not need a servant’s sympathy. “How may this one serve you?”
Etiquette required the question, even though they both knew what he wanted. He would be inside her before too much longer. One reason he preferred her was her willingness to participate in sexual activity. Others merely submitted.
Right now, though, he wanted to know about her children. One in particular. “How many children do you have?”
“How many of them have I sired?” She had a mate.
“At least four, sir. This one cannot be certain of the others.”
“Call them out.”
Trembling, she obeyed. Despite her efforts, she could not keep the pleading from her eyes. She expects me to kill them.
The eight crept from concealment. She was either mistaken or lying about which ones he had gotten on her. Six had red or brown hair, one blond boy, and all bore some resemblance to him --- and then the blonde girl-child pushed to the front, taking his attention.
She had his face, except for the ugly alien eyes. While the others looked past him or down, she dared to look at him in naked curiosity.
“Which ones are you certain of?”
“That one. Mala.” Seriss pointed to the blonde girl. “Hōmet, Behl, and Kesra. Hōmet and Kesra because of the timing of their births, and Behl because that one bears a slight resemblance to you.”
Very slight, mostly around the mouth and nose, and in the eyebrows. His red hair had hints of gold. Hōmet, like Mala, had gold hair, but stared diligently at the floor, while Kesra had brown hair.
“Interesting.” He could have them tested, determine paternity for certain.
“May this one ask a question?”
“You want to know my reason for asking.”
“Your children are not in danger from me. I am interested in them for other reasons.”
This was dangerous territory. Millennia before anyone had gotten the idea of eugenics, Spectra’s history was filled with conflicts. Dynasties rose and fell, some as a result of fighting between rival claimants to the Imperial throne, or because the Emperors could not mediate or keep order among the lesser nobles. Plenty of servants’ bastards had taken the throne, but only those of full Spectran blood. Spectran/alien hybrids had died before they could even set foot on the dais.
Now he was about to violate the long-standing taboo against hybrids attaining high position in the government. One or more of these children had the necessary personal qualities to be acknowledged as members of House nâl Afés’trin. Worthy additions to the line.
He just had to find out which ones.
He looked at her. She asked nothing, and expected nothing.
I hope that the one called Mala is worthy of being my daughter. She seems fearless enough. And she looks like one of our line.
And pray that the Luminous One agreed with him.
Mala had long known that the Emperor was her father. The man who shared her mother’s bed most nights rarely touched her, and he was too squat and his brown hair was too dark. All her knowledge of inheritance came from observation. None of the other servants’ children differed from their parents the way she and her siblings differed from her mother and purported father.
His newfound interest in her and her siblings unsettled her. He tested them in various ways, and asked them numerous questions. While her siblings tried to avoid him, or stared at the floor when they could not, she would answer him and look him in the eyes. What was he about? What did he want? Why didn’t she have his beautiful eyes? Why didn’t any of them have those eyes?
“Do not expect much,” her mother said to them. “Our lord has his reasons for his interest in us.”
I was happy until he saw me, she thought. I am a servant’s child. I will be a servant. This thought disturbed her as it had not before.
He wanted something from them. She was determined to get his attention.
Va’dőr’an looked at the children as they played in the courtyard. Of all Seriss’s children, only Mala showed any promise. While the others had retreated further into their proper places under his attention, she had become more assertive. He had sensed ‘I’ and ‘me’ behind her use of the self-negating terms proper to servants.
He would take her away, and have her tutored as befit a member of his House. If the Luminous One accepted his petition, she would be an asset to the royal dynasty. If It did not, then she would die.
Mala could not stay among the servants, anyway. When he had first noticed her, she had been content with her lot (if more bold than most servants). Now that he had awakened her spirit, she would never be satisfied with servitude.
Seriss would not like it, even though she would let him do as he wished. Contrary to most nobles’ belief, servants could and did love their children.
What he desired was that more of the children he had sired on the various servant women had the same intelligence, ambition, and spirit as Mala. It’s their upbringing, not their genes. They are raised to serve. It’s taught to them a thousand times a day, in a thousand ways. No wonder we think them inferior clods, even when we sire them. No wonder I only found one.
When this worked, it would demonstrate that there was a way to save the ruling House and their people.