Another story about understanding the fall of an empire, one person at a time. This person: a noblewoman missing her son, who should have returned from the war by now.
To start at the beginning: Table 1
…is carved of fine hardwood, stained a rich brown. The table is a pace wide, and almost as deep, with a center panel propped up for writing. The side legs are carved pedestals, starting wide at the bottom, narrowing in with curves and cut outs and brightly-painted reliefs, and swooping out wide again at the top. On either side of the writing panel, the tabletop is adorned with mosaics of small tiles.
The jaen requested this specific design of flowers and leaves, in orange and purple and green and yellow. She perches on the matching stool, back as straight as her mother taught her. She holds a brush gracefully between cinnamon fingers that look older than she remembered. Puffier. Veiny. Her mother’s hands, at the end of her arms. That happened sooner than she expected. She dips the brush into the lacquered ink pot and writes another word on the parchment, admiring the elegant swirls and curls of the script.
This is the latest style in furniture, the delicate tile mosaics. Although Pyanni style doesn’t mean what it used to, sad to say. When it first came out, it was expensive, but the jaen ordered several pieces. She and her family have achieved substantial wealth, thanks to hard work and planning and the grace of Entovan. With that wealth comes the responsibility to support crafts workers, for the benefit of the whole society. It is her duty, even during war. Especially during war.
It is always during war, it seems to her. When was the last long term peace? It takes her a while to think it through. Before she was widowed the first time. Before losing her parents and her sisters and her little girl and her first son. Lifetimes ago.
The jaen pauses, her brush suspended over the pot. She raises her other hand so that both layers of silk sleeves fall to her elbow, and runs her fingers over the tiles. Orange poppies. Her son’s favorite flower. Her fingers trace the outline of the flowers. She loves this design. Still, she is glad that no new fashions in furniture have come out in the decade since this one. They cannot afford to be as generous these days.
She had hoped her son would be back this spring, in time to see the fields around the castle covered in orange and purple poppies. Ever since he was a little boy, they cheered him so. No matter what happened during the dry, gray winter, the color popping up among the grasses always made him smile so wide that it infected the whole house with joy. This is the third spring he’s missed the flowers. She touches the locket hanging on her chest, with the dried poppy clasped inside it. The one from the first spring he missed, that she saved for him, thinking he would be back in a few weeks.
The jaen dips the brush and writes more. She tells her son about the trivial happenings of the family and the castle. How his sister is doing with her lessons in history (not well), numbers (better), and sword fighting (enthusiastically). How his half-brother is recovering from the coughing sickness (mostly). How many puppies his favorite dog gave birth to (six).
She tells him they finally captured some horses from one of the magruk raids and are trying to train them—difficult, as the horses shy away from the smell of humans. She amuses her son with humorous stories about soldiers being stymied by the horses, but only hints at the more serious accidents. She prays they will master riding soon. The magruks have had that advantage too long.
The jaen doesn’t mention the repairs they are putting off, or her husband’s cough, or how the bands of brigands are larger and more organized than ever. She doesn’t mention the refugees crowding the streets of every town, or the begging, or the dying, or the smell. She doesn’t mention the calls for new taxes from Nyeada, or why they worry her, or what the shortages tell her about how bad things are in the capital. Or the war. He has enough war already, she assumes.
She hasn’t heard from her son in eight months, but she tries not to worry. Getting letters this far across the empire was a questionable business even before the war. She sends as many as she can, hoping at least a few will reach the battlefront.
Staring at the last word she wrote, the jaen absentmindedly dips the brush toward the pot, but misses. Feeling her error, she looks down with dismay. The brush has little ink left, but it leaves a mark where it pressed against the wood. She scrambles for her blotting cloth to soak up the ink but only smears it further. It needs grease-soap, before the stain sets. She calls out, asking her servant to bring it immediately.
As she waits, the small black stain on the wood accuses her of all the mistakes she’s made. All the decisions that have gone wrong. All the things she should have done when she had the chance. Then this. That’s it—now she’s ruined everything. The jaen curses softly. Only a minor profanity, though. She has learned to save up the serious curses for when she really needs them.
“I’m sorry,” she says to the table that reminds her of her son, patting one of the orange poppies. “I’ll take better care of you from now on, I promise.”
Next story in this series: Table 4