Konstance Rittar, Senior Armsman to the Imperial Heir Minor, had to be at least six feet tall. It was an entrance requirement for the Home Guard of the Imperial Marines, from whom almost every Imperial armsman was recruited. In his imperial uniform, he was a big and imposing man.
Worse, Princess Isabey, her hair in pig tail braids and wearing her own faded pink overalls, could easily have been anyone's child. A grin covered her face, squeezing her eyes together so much that Jeshen couldn't see the color of her pale green irises.
She looked him and Markus over, shaking her head at the crisp brightness of their canvas leggings and summer tunics. "Yeah, I guessed you wouldn't have workman's clothes. Well, Ritter guessed it first, but he let me work my way to the same guess. So! We brought spare overalls. Oh, Markus, Rittar's going to talk with you on the comm link. Try not to move your lips or make audible noises when you answer him from your sub-v. Where we're going, people will get weird about that. And, Jeshen, you'll need to unlink your comm from Markus's. You have to hear what's around you and not be distracted by the comm chatter."
"Where are we going?" Jeshen asked.
The princess smiled brighter. "You'll see," she said, turning and leading the way into the city.
Two blocks over, she directed Markus and Jeshen into a public restroom to don the spare overalls. The pale tan fabric was soft from many washings and covered their leggings and most of their tunics. Isabey nodded then glanced to Rittar for confirmation.
"They will do," Rittar said.
Jeshen timed their walk. Twenty-three minutes, forty-seven seconds. Then they waited two minutes, twelve seconds. Rittar nodded and they took off again. Another nine minutes, fifty-two seconds later, they got onto a public transit, leaving the Imperial District of Lidari City.
They got off in Kharman's Wharf. Sea trade wasn't a particularly booming business on Lidari, and Kharman's Wharf faced the rougher waters of the Gray Sea. Pleasure boats and their owners mostly kept to Phalen's Bay, on the opposite side of the capital city where the natural bay made for much smoother sailing. The water was protected enough in the bay that several high-end merchant-zoned towers had been built in the bay, more a testament to the increasing population density of the peninsula Lidari City had grown onto than the eccentric tastes of the untitled wealthy.
Jeshen hadn't been to the Wharf yet, but he had slipped out to the poorer side of Maga, the capital city of his father's fife. The difference between Maga's poor and Lidari City's stood in stark relief for him.
Kharman's Wharf was a modern slum. The sanitation drones kept the streets free from litter, but they couldn't keep the buildings in good repair, the graffiti off the walls, or money in the pockets of the desperately poor. They could not fix cracks in the walk ways, or replace the monitors and public lighting when people who were angry with the idea of living under constant surveillance broke them.
The drones that could maintain the lighting and monitors were broken just as quickly as the monitors, so the city officials left the people of Kharman's Wharf to live with the graffiti and the cracks. Debates over cutting off sanitation services to the Wharf district flared up every few years, but came up against the hard line of Imperial law and the good sense of the medical profession.
In Maga, with its smaller population, the city watchmen were better able to protect the monitors and repair drones. Lord Pitor took pride in the beauty of his capitol and had a freer hand to enforce building maintenance. Their poor might be forced to grow their own food in a commons garden, but they didn't have to fear the garden's walls would fall down around them.
Rittar and her Highness led the way down a street marked by graffiti, mostly blue and white chem coat, the symbols like complex hieroglyphs Jeshen could not read. Isabey and Rittar were alert, but otherwise appeared relaxed. They moved like they belonged on that street, but even with their best effort, Jeshen thought they were easy to spot as outsiders. The people they passed on the street bore the marks of chronic fatigue, even those with an air of happiness. Her Highness and Rittar were too much in the present.
Even as he thought it, Isabey's shoulders rounded and her movements came a little stiffer. Ritter glanced at her before sweeping his gaze over the street and similarly stiffening his movements, as if he muscles wouldn't know how to relax.
The walk from the transit station to their next stop took another eleven minutes, sixteen seconds.
They spent two minutes, thirty-eight seconds waiting in line before the man at the coffee counter smiled and said, "Hi, Sissy, Conner. Let me get your order."
"Thanks, Peri," Ritter said, laying down a curious coin. Lidarii's monetary system was purely electronic. Jeshen couldn't see details well, but the coin was a dull silver with some kind of imprint, and about as wide across as the first two joints of his index finger.
When Peri returned with a small case he glanced at the coin and rolled his eyes. "Take that back and spend it on something nice. You know your coin's no good here. And let me know how the repairs go."
Ritter left the coin on the counter. "I am spending it on something nice. You think there are all that many human staffed coffee shops left?"
"Conner," Peri said, putting his hands on his hips and looking sternly at the armsman.
Her Highness, affecting the mannerisms of a younger child, said, "You'll get Niveah a nice reader with that, right? My poppa, he said, if you have a couple of the credits you can get a reader, and you can get the public school on the reader."
"Honey. Sissy, Niveah can't use a reader. The ALS is too advanced. It got too strong. She can't hold anything now." Peri's shoulders slumped as he spoke.
"Doc Eucips got a blood filter at the clinic two days ago," her Highness said. "He said he got a grant to work with an uptown clinic. He said that some of the uptown clinkers, they're willing to pay the cost to do the medicines for ALS. So I bet you that coin Niveah's going to be able to use a reader. I bet you, and gotta take the bet!"
Peri exchanged a speaking look with Ritter before he took the coin. "Thank you. I'll talk with Barry, but don't get your hopes up. That kind of stuff, those deals, they usually only last long enough for the uptowners to get their fancy pics in the broads."
Her Highness took the case off the counter. "Doc's usually the guy who's all doom and gloom, Peri, but he was excited this time. Maybe it's a one shot, but he said he has the blood filter now and a counting thing for buying medicines and it's got money the Imperial Bank said's good. Bet stands."
Peri's shoulders lifted, his posture straightening with hope. "Fair enough. You guys take care and tell me how the repairs go!"
"We will," Rittar said, leading the way to the exit.
On the street, Jeshen asked, "Would you like me to carry that?" He extended his hands for the case.
"Nope," she said, smiling up at him. "You'll spill if I give it to you."
Jeshen shrugged, turning his reach into a foppish hand wiggle and pretending the princess's teasing hadn't felt like a punch to the gut.
Her Highness continued talking, not seeming to pay attention to him. "Everyone spills the coffee case when they try to take it out of my hands. It'll be fine all the way to the site, but if I don't set it down, at least one cup topples. Ritter's the only who ever managed not to spill more than a little sloshy-slosh, and then he dropped the whole case to pull me away from a sparker."
"A sparker?" Jeshen asked, trying to believe her Highness over his personal demons.
Ritter said, "Exposed conduit."
Jeshen blinked. His jaw dropped, but no words came out, and he looked around again. The cracks and chips in the buildings around them took on a more sinister tone as the danger of their disrepair struck home.
"That's criminal," he whispered.
Princess Isabey stopped. "Yes. Yes, it is. These are my people, Jeshen. I have no voice with the bootlickers in City Governance. I have no voice with my father. I have only my own two hands and what the law says my title must have. But I am not powerless, and you aren't either. When we get where we're going, call me Sissy. Don't call me a princess."
"Yes, m--. Sissy," Jeshen said, unconsciously responding to the precocious authority of the Imperial Heir Minor.
She grinned. "If you do that, exaggerate it. You can be the most outrageous person you ever dreamed of being, you know. No one there is going to know your fife or your father."
"There" turned out to one of the damaged buildings a few streets over. A team of eight rough looking men and women along with several slender youths greeted Ritter and the princess. Their easy familiarity made it obvious to Jeshen that none of them even suspected Isabey might be a noble, let alone a part of the imperial family.
Jeshen wasn't averse to hard work. When he had tried to impress his father with how helpful he could be with the herds, he had spent longer days learning the skills of their soil cleaners, burners, paddock maintainers, and he had liked it. Not the subtle condescension of the professions, but the work itself had been enjoyable -- until his father decided he was interfering with the Fife's operations.
This labor, working to restore a tenement to a habitable state, he found he loved it. The work itself felt good, whole-making, not just making whole the building, but also something Jeshen hadn't known he needed. Unlike at home, here the crew treated him like one of the striplings: someone who didn't know what he was doing simply because they hadn't taught him yet. There was no pressure to be perfect and no censure for making mistakes, and at the end of the day, Jeshen found a friendly respect in the gazes of the men and women they had worked with as they shook his hand and thanked their quartet for volunteering.
Eben, the project's foreman, passed out one of the curious coins to each person.
Jeshen smiled and thanked him, waiting until they were on the transit back to the imperial district to ask, "What are these?"
The coin had a nice weight to it, a flexible resiliency that Jeshen thought might be some kind of steel alloy. The imprint on one side was of the imperial dragon, but as an ouroboros wrapped around a scaled egg. The opposite side had a crowd scene, with the people in front arm in arm and the words "Stronger United" filling the bottom third of the disk. An inscription chased the edges. "Awarded for Service in Our Community."
"Service credits," Princess Isabey said. "The Kharman Wharf Center for Community Development gives them out to volunteers. The volunteers can keep them, give them away, or redeem them at the Center's Commissary. They prefer for people to redeem the tokens because they get some extra funding for the program."
"And two of these will get a reader at the commissary?" Jeshen asked.
Isabey nodded. "It's part of a program to make it easier for people to study at home. Almost no one in the Wharf District has auggies, no links, no comm nets. The readers are a way they can still catch the public broads. Problem is, readers are the kind of old tech that no one likes to make. People who can pay for the nicer ones already have auggies and the makers say the lower end ones are about worth the cost of their parts. Which is more than most of the people who need them can pay."
Jeshen kept that first coin, choosing instead to make a modest donation to the Center.
Over the course of the next several years, Princess Isabey drew him deeper into her anonymous charities, and he earned many, many more of the coins, but that first one remained special to him.
. . .
Jeshen reined in Emma and pulled out that same service token. He ran the pad of his thumb over the surface, a gesture that had become his quiet reminder that he was finally enough. He needed that reminder while he gazed out over the pastures of his childhood home.
Over the years, Princess Isabey, with the help of her Rittar, taught him more about the principles and integrity at the heart of the ancient concept of noblesse oblige than he ever thought he could learn. While she and Konstance Rittar taught him how to respect himself and how to value the people who did see him as more than some poor, failed clone of his brother, they also taught him how to forgive the people who chose not to.
Forgiveness, however, didn't mean forgetfulness. Though Lord Timbon's disregard for Princess Isabey was not much more than the classic reaction of an experienced courtier to the attitude of his liege, none of Isabey's Knight Errors found that an acceptable reason for the Lord Chamberlain to show open contempt for the Imperial Heir Minor.
At the same time, ensuring Lord Timbon stank of vinegar and hurrash musk probably wasn't the best way to remove that contempt. Even if the old skunk deserved the dunking, Isabey didn't need more hard feelings directed her way. More importantly, she didn't need to lose her supporters, and the so-far unofficial censure they were all receiving rather neatly separated the Knight Errors from their princess.
With a wry twist of his lips, Jeshen found that he still despised being the Magara Heir Minor, but now he wished he were fourth-born instead of second. A fourth child could swear Armsman's Allegiance while an Heir Minor could only swear allegiance to his House, his liege, and his emperor. As far as Jeshen was concerned, his lifetime's service was a paltry repayment for the meaning Princess Isabey had given his life.
. . .
Jeshen, accompanied by both Markus and the newly bonded Johann, met Lord Pitor at the Fife Governance Building in downtown Maga. The Assignment of Armsman's Rights and Responsibilities had gone off without issues, and the medic who linked Johann into Jeshen's private net gave them the all clear. Markus smiled every time Johann jumped at the new data flowing through his neural networks, though he did reassure the new armsman that the life-sign monitors would soon become white noise. With a few years, he would even be able to discern Jeshen's moods off the monitors.
Pitor didn't say much in the way of greeting, and they headed off to the Ipsberg Medical Clinc, the sole charitable medical center in Maga. One of the clerical volunteers, Abigail, met them in the front lobby. A look of relief crossed her face on seeing Jeshen, which his subtle head-shake quickly wiped away. Lord Pitor gave his Heir Minor a narrow look out of the corner of his eyes. However, all he said was, "Is Administrator Durgish ready to see us?"
Abigail flashed a bright, nervous smile and gave the guests a stiff half bow. "Right this way, my lord, sir, Armsmen."
She led them past the examination rooms to a small cubbyhole office at the back of the building and knocked on the door jam. The dark skinned man skimming text feed on his desk reader jerked at the sound, and then jumped up to greet his guests. He bowed, a much more practiced maneuver than Abigail had managed.
"My Lord Magara, please, please be seated! Ah, Master Jeshen, I'll be happy to speak with you in a little bit. My lord, how may I or our humble clinic be of service to you?"
Pitor turned to his son, arching one eyebrow. "'Master' Jeshen?"
The Heir Minor shrugged his shoulders, adjusted his cuffs, and sniffed dismissively. "So I never bothered to use my titles; what of it?"
The clinic administrator asked, his voice cracking, "Titles?"
Pitor, still studying his youngest, answered with deliberate enunciation, "Administrator Durgish, it seems you are already acquainted with my son and Heir Minor, Jeshen Alexander Ramses Magara. Would you be so kind as to enlighten me as to how you came to know my son?"
"Mast -- I mean, Lord Jeshen is a regular contributor to the clinic and volunteers at several hours a month with the clerical administration. He has provided education grants that allowed many of our volunteers to obtain nursing and doctoral degrees in return for service in the clinic." Despite the help Jeshen provided, the clinic only existed on the Lord of Fife Magara's sufferance. The tic jumping in the corner of Lord Pitor's mouth as he studied his son did not inspire the Administrator with confidence in the continued existence of his clinic.
"How long has this ... has he 'contributed' to the Ipsberg Clinic?"
"I would have to consult the records for a definitive answer, but I would estimate four years."
"Three years and seven months, give or take a few days, actually." Jeshen gave his sire a pointed look. "Whatever are we standing here for? I do believe we had some business to take care of, Father."
Administrator Durgish blinked, clearly shocked by Jeshen's behavior. A faint, "Oh, dear!" escaped his lips.
Pitor, too busy thinking and glaring at Jeshen, dismissed Durgish's exclamation. "Why?" he finally snapped out.
Jeshen glanced over at Durgish and squared his shoulders. He dropped the sneering quality from his words. "Ahmed, I apologize for bringing this scene into your office. Please, may Father and I take over the back break room for a private conversation?"
"Absolutely, Ma -- Lord Jeshen!"
"Father, the break room is this way. It's relatively soundproofed, though I wouldn't recommend shouting," Jeshen advised, striding off while discarding the pose of an arrogant, self-absorbed clothes horse altogether.
Pitor followed his son, trailed by the armsmen. Once behind closed doors, he set his face in the implacable lines that had made all his children confess their misdeeds within moments. Jeshen simply met implacable stare with imperturbable stoicism, a strange and somber something lurking in the back of his gaze. When it became obvious that silence would not draw out a confession, Pitor asked, "Why?"
"Which 'why' are you asking? Why did I start volunteering? Or why did I never tell you about it?"
"Both of those would be a good start."
Jeshen dialed a glass of water from the refreshment center, offering it first to his father, who declined, before taking a sip and answering. "The short answer would be Princess Isabey. She started dragging me around on her own charitable jaunts, and I found the experience to be ... exceptionally rewarding."
"But why keep it hidden, like some dark secret?"
"I've never hidden my actions. Since the day you demanded my armsmen's Recall, you never asked." Setting the glass down, Jeshen allowed his lips to twist into a wry smile. "You never once asked what I did with my time, where I chose to spend my retainer, or even what I thought of the weather. You lecture quite well; you've got that down pat. You give orders and criticism with pomp, but it has been quite clear from the beginning that you wrote me off. You have your heir and a spare, and I've always been the extra, damned to spoilage. Why should I put myself out for someone who wrote me off before I was even half grown?" Jeshen asked mildly, eyes clear and calm as he met his father's gaze. How he managed that when he gut twisted with nerves at finally speaking up, he didn't know.
Pitor opened his mouth, closed it, and frowned at his son. "When did you ever give me a reason to think you wanted more than to be some snotty dandy?"
"Oh, I don't know, how about every time I tried to get involved with the herds and you brushed it off because it was Jason's job? How about when I asked about the farms and you declared that was Paulson's responsibility? Then there was when I asked about our factors and you saying Sari had all that wrapped up. The only responsibility you allowed me was showing up at court and looking for a wife. Even then, the only lady I took a fancy to you decided was beneath us, though I have to admit you buying her off did prove to be the better course. So, when did you ever ask more of me than to be some 'snotty dandy'?"
Jeshen waved his own question off and heaved a great, big sigh. "Frankly, Father, we can sit here spitting recriminations and dissecting all the things we all did wrong. Somehow, I just don't think it's going to change the past. So the question really is, where do we want to go from here? If you want to keep the snot-nosed dandy around, that's up to you and how you choose to treat me. If you're as sick of the role as I am, then start treating me like your son and stop treating me like damaged goods."
The Lord of Fife Magara took a seat at the break room table. He studied Jeshen for a few moments, then asked, "Alright, well, let's start off with just what the hells have you been up to?"
Jeshen grabbed his water glass and took a seat at the table. "Oh, quite a bit of this and that. Isabey introduced me to a few good money managers, so most of my Heir Minor retainer's been going straight to a few of my pet projects, like expanding Ipsberg Clinic ...."