That afternoon, Miss Delwin’s possessions are transferred to the Eastern Palace. The best professional movers arrive at her small apartment, to the surprise of her landlady and the terror of her cat, and pack everything in neat polyBoard boxes. Her Excellency owned relatively little and the men are ready in a few hours, the huge air-bounced carrier taking everything from the quiet neighborhood to the Eastern Palace.
After lunch, Her Grace and Irene are driven back to the Palace of Parliament, to be introduced to the former President’s office staff.
On the spot, S. fires some of them, sensing their fierce antagonism against STATE. She does not communicate any reasons, does not see the need to. Rigid with anger, they start packing their belongings and depart.
To be honest, Irene is shocked at the off-handedness with which the new Bearer fires these experienced people. ‘They are now condemned to do stupid menial labor for a long time... Nobody will hire fired Palace personnel, and certainly not now, with the implication that they were fired because they were pro-President... But it is not my place to criticize... Hail STATE'
Her Grace does not show interest in running the office or its information flows. She does not seem to be interested in anything, does not speak, stares in front of her in an eerie way, shivering from time to time. ‘Is she ill?’
Without using any password or code, the Bearer is able to enter the top-security dataCorder and allows Irene to create a new adminIdentity with full access and a new password. It is not long before the Bearer withdraws into the private former Presidential Office, while Irene takes on the responsibility of reorganizing things in the Parliament office.
Irene enters the President’s secure data with a persistent feeling of danger. She tries to shoo it away. ‘As if he would come back from the dead to punish me! Whatever his powers were, they are gone now... Gone, like he is gone...! Incredible, but true... And now it is up to me to help Her Grace manage this...
I cannot believe...’ She decides to focus on some simple tasks so as not get too confounded by the changes, so she opens the office personnel workers’ list to make it match Her Grace’s latest alterations. But strangely, she finds all data updated as from 21 minutes ago, and then, some other, 4 minutes ago, by an entity called “STATE”...
The structure of the administrative systems is relatively clear to her, as she had worked on a lower level with them. What is more intriguing are the confidential files the Presidential staff had kept on all personnel. The more sensitive ones were hidden somewhere else, in the office they find only the files on administrative personnel.
First thing she does is to look up her own. It is uncanny to be able to access this classified document, and her fingers tremble when she opens hers. Her office friend Paul was mentioned as her Observer, meaning all his closeness had been instrumental all along... For the rest, the file does not offer surprises, she was only rated as a 3: “non-threatening but to be kept under check”. Every small breach of respect had been logged, down to her refusal to get an assistant of Mrs. Grezner coffee during a tight deadline. Irene had not known things were this well archived and wonders what could validate such investment. ‘The President certainly had been afraid…’
Irene approaches the Bearer’s Office, when Her Grace emerges from the main office and comes up to her. Together, they ask the Guard to be brought to the Eastern Palace. When they have come down to the Parliament’s spacious rectangular entrance hall, Irene looks up alarmed to hear the rumble of a dozen booted feet, and notices in a glance that also Her Grace freezes. But the armed men stop abruptly when they see them, and kneel to the ground before the Bearer of STATE.
One by one, S. lifts them by the chin, the white throbbing then flashing through.
Tired. Just so tired.
The day never seems to stop, an endless parade of actions. Even while lying down, information was sifting through her, and she had felt the orders leaving STATE, the list of invitations for the ‘small’ reception to celebrate STATE, the data noticed by Irene, and a blocking of all money transfers... Did she choose to do that, or STATE? And now the new Guards of STATE... The energy flashing through is painful, but she has to perform the ritual for all Guards of STATE. Again and again. One after the other. Six in all.
When Her Grace is finished, the Bearer and Irene are respectfully escorted to a limo and driven to the Eastern Palace.
“Have them prepare the Bearer’s Bath,” Her Grace orders suddenly. Without comment, the Guard contacts the Palace and a discussion with Mr. Blas ensues. “The locked realOak door in the grand bathroom,” the Bearer interrupts, her voice with a slight edge. As the Guard passes the information, he wonders how a former terrorist could know this...
The oval hallway of the Palace is empty. Knowing Her Grace to be still covered in blood, the Captain had ordered everybody out of the way, and personally welcomes Her Grace to the Eastern Palace. He looks at the secretary, her plain clothes and open face. ‘Why did Her Grace select her for this task? She has no experience with the level of complexity we are dealing with here... She is nice, yes, too nice, and not too smart, I think. But well... Trust STATE, I guess’
While he accompanies the Bearer to her chambers, a serious servant takes Irene up a flight of stairs, down two corridors and into a huge apartment.
The high windows face east. When Irene walks towards them, she sees her belongings standing there and hears her cat’s high-pitched meow. “Oh! Gigi! I am so sorry…!”
She finds the traveling cage and Gigi shaking in a corner. She knows better than to open it now and kneels before it, speaking softly to her cat. “Poor thing! I am so sorry... Dear Gigi... Shshshsh.... I never meant this to happen... Never meant to end up here...” Her furniture, small and shabby in these grand surroundings. Dislocated.
Her couch stands in the slanting sunlight, the cat’s scratches and worn leather strangely comforting. Irene curls into it, trying to make herself at home.
A discrete knock. The door opens and a man looks in. “Eh… Your Excellency?”
Irene rises. “Yes. Can I help you?” Her long office experience activates the generic response.
Caught in a wrong track, the man bows, trying to smile. He says: “Eh? Your... Your Excellency makes joke, yes? I... I am Gerard, your faithful servant...”
Another man steps into the room. He is graying and though he is nimble you can tell he keeps things in control. He starts to speak in an overly cheery tone: “Your Excellency. There you are! Welcome, welcome to the Eastern Palace. Please allow me to first introduce myself… I am Phillip Blas, the Head of House.
We welcome you to your new apartment. I do hope it is to your liking? Of course, things have not been settled in yet, but I see it as my personal duty to make sure that before tonight, they will be up to Pr… STATE Level.” Almost tripping into a familiar phrase, he coughs politely. The guttural noise sputters out into a brief silence.
Irene stands there looking at him, not used to being addressed this way. In this other life, the parameters different, her habitual patterns are broken and have to be rearranged. ‘What am I doing here?’ She had liked her small apartment, her solitude, even if she had hated to go to work.
The Head of House looks at her slightly fearfully and ducks into a bow.
Irene forces herself to smile. “Thank you.”
Relieved, he resumes:
“Your Excellency. After we have decided on a few things, tea will be served in your drawing room. Gerard here will unpack for you.
I do not mean to offend… But, eh… Does Your Excellency intend to keep all your furniture..?”
Irene looks around her and decides on the spot which pieces she will keep. ‘There are already so many bookcases, and there is certainly no need for a cupboard for my earthenware… Almost everything has been moved for nothing...’
“I will keep the couch, the small desk and that table there. The rest I want transported to some storage place on my name. You will bring the securiKey to me, personally! And, eh... do find a good place for the cat... Someone nice to care for him, I don’t think I will be able to now.”
They walk around the four rooms of the apartment and decide what has to go where, so Gerard can start unpacking. The Head of House insists the couch will have to be upholstered anew, to which Irene consents reluctantly.
Finally, they walk to the drawing room, where a tray with tea and assorted biscuits and cakes awaits her, together with a girl of about 19 who rises and blushes as she sees them enter.
The Head of House bows slightly to Irene. “Your Excellency. I have temporarily appointed Susan here as your personal servant. I have to admit no servants in the Palace have much experience with being maid-servant to someone as important as the Secretary of STATE, hem, and I personally do think a girl would be most proper...
If you are in any way dissatisfied, please let me know so we can look for someone more qualified… Unless Your Excellency would prefer we start the application procedure right now?”
Irene looks at Susan standing with her head bowed, and is embarrassed for the way he talks about her like she is not here. “You will be fine,” she says.
They are seated and Susan pours the tea.
“As for your clothes…” Mr. Blas continues, “We keep all women’s clothes in this wardrobe. Maybe Your Excellency would care to see if there is something suitable, at least for the Inauguration Party tonight..?
And would Your Excellency prefer a personal shopper or maybe to have your clothes made at Mr. Schneider’s?”
Irene has to think quickly, more decisions she has never been confronted with before. “A personal shopper would be fine,” she says. She had always disliked shopping anyway.
“Yes, yes. I can recommend Miss Chantal Burgers, the nation’s leading stylist, or maybe Mrs. Joanna Curlings? She has definitely more experience…”
Never having heard of either, Irene answers “Mrs. Curlings” on intuition. 'It does not do to seem overcome by the proceedings, with my new responsibilities I have to at least act as if I am up to them…'
Irene is glad that after tea, Mr. Blas takes his leave. He decidedly was taking her measure and she needs to relax before the Party tonight.
Susan shows her the luxurious bathroom and Irene takes a hot bath. When she comes out, skin red and heart thumping, she starts to find Susan there. Irene had forgotten about her and had looked forwards to throwing herself on the bed for just a few minutes. But then she decides that if she wants to survive this, she has to be less reticent, at least towards Susan. She lies down on the bed with a sigh, willing her body to believe she is alone.
In the Bearer’s chambers, Mr. Blas howls.
Before his high residents had arrived, he had located the Bearer’s Bath, a queer dark realWood tub, with only one golden tap. He had had it cleaned, and then he had opened the tap. A golden stream had come out, with a strong scent of pine. ‘This was no water!’
As was his duty, he had just checked the temperature of the liquid and burned his fingers on the hot oil.
“What are you doing in the Bearer’s Bathroom, Blas?” the Captain asks.
“But, Captain, Sir, it is my duty to check the temperature... And it is not safe, Sir... It is not water, either...”
“Out.” The Captain knows very well that Mr. Blas wants just a glimpse of the Bearer, and that he cannot allow him to see her now. “Her Grace is ready to take her bath, Blas!”
“But Captain, Sir, I am telling you... It is too hot.... She will be scalded... Look at my finger!”
The finger indeed is red and a huge blister is already forming.
Click. The door to the Bearer’s chambers opens, and a small woman approaches. She looks like a servant, slightly bent and dirty to boot. ‘Those flecks... What on earth is that? And what is she doing in here? She is not one of mine...’
“Your Grace..! Oh... I am terribly sorry, Blas here is the Head of House...” The Captain bows slightly for the Bearer, then points to Mr. Blas, who stands there, gaping. The Captain hisses: “Blas! Blas! Don’t stand there and stare!”
Quickly, Mr. Blas ducks, thinking that he should have known, a former terrorist as Bearer...
“Out, Blas!” Her voice is cold and straight, a leader's voice. Mr. Blas stops his thinking and whispers, “I was just worried, Your Grace, the oil...”
“The oil is just right for the Bearer of STATE, Blas.
And then, finally, S. can submerge her body in the hot oil. The heat envelops her, matching the heat inside, and the oil is soft on her skin, where the water had hurt. Everywhere, the oil soothes her, caresses the surface of STATE, the fissure where STATE had fused onto her skin, and her whole skin becomes supple, even though S. has no peace of mind to think about it.
The small flecks of the President’s tissue loosen and float, and S. gets sick of the idea of being so close to his remains. She takes a golden sieve, which lies near the Bath, and fishes out as much as she can. But she cannot enjoy the warm embrace too long...
There is so much to do... There is so much to do... There is so much to do.
While Irene lies on her bed, Susan glances at Her Excellency briefly and then again enters the wardrobe, where she was busy selecting dresses on basis of size. The Secretary’s size is quite an average one, but the women the President had preferred were often smaller. While Susan selects the right sizes, Her Excellency does a very short nap.
Only three dresses are size-wise an option for tonight, but Irene does not want to make her entrï¿½e as Secretary of STATE dressed like some kind of expensive bimbo, to whom most dresses have clearly belonged. Attracted by its feel, she finally selects the grey realSilk dress. The low neckline could be partially covered with a scarf attached to the back, and the sleeves are long and wide.
In the huge mirror, she observes herself critically. Behind her, the windows are covered with thick gold-embroidered curtains, closer by, the realSilk dress is soft and smooth over her skin, her long blonde hair very carefully combed to shine by the timid girl.
‘I look like a princess’, Irene is thinking, when she becomes aware of a burning sensation. The skin of her arms itches, like a sunburn. ‘Am I imagining things?’ Surreptitiously, she scratches, when she feels her shoulders and upper back start to burn as well.
Susan sees her Mistress’ back arch and asks: “Is anything bothering you, Your Excellency?”
Irene wants to shrug it off, no, but Susan gently lifts the scarf and then gasps. “Oh! Your Excellency! Oh! Take it off! Take it off, now! Oh!
Forgive me…” She fights to undo the long row of buttons on the back.
Irene struggles with the scarf but every movement of her arms and back hurts. Also the skin of her upper thighs starts to burn...
Susan starts yelling to Gerard, to get help, now! Then, she takes good hold of the dress and rips it open, exposing burns everywhere the silk had touched the Secretary. Susan peels it off her, disregarding the shocked look of Gerard as he speeds by to the Guards just outside the door.
Irene is howling with pain: “Water! Give me water! Put water on it NOW!”
The pain is very superficial but everywhere on her shoulders and arms. She is lucky to have had her old-fashioned underwear on, protecting her breasts and buttocks.
Susan is about to fetch water when she recalls some poison guideline about a certain powder that reacts with water and gives burns. ‘What again should I do..?’ In panic she tries to think, feeling very bad, as she was the one to have selected the dress for Her Excellency, and that on her first day on duty…
The Secretary of STATE is clearly faint with pain. Luckily, the Guards have also called the Doctor. They rush in together and Doctor Jan immediately has them call an ambulance. “Oil! Cover her in oil!” the Doctor tells Susan, who had spotted some almond oil between Her Excellency’s personal stuff. The whole bottle is poured over the worse parts, but it is not enough. “Run to the kitchens and get a bottle of olive oil!”
Susan runs down and almost bumps into Mr. Blas, who looks disapproving and starts to tell her off, but she does not stop to hear. Down in the kitchens, Cook is busy preparing the Inauguration Party and not happy at all with this intrusion. But when she sees Susan’s panic, knowing her to be a sensible girl normally, she gives her the oil without comment and allows her to rush back.
Jan has just poured the oil over the Secretary of STATE when the door is flung open.
The Bearer of STATE stands there.
Her face is white and tight with anger.
A look like this from the President had meant someone would get seriously killed, and all servants present stop moving completely.
S. steps closer to Irene and sees the wounds.
Again, someone is hurt. She is hurt. An innocent is hurt, for nothing. The bastard is dead, and yet he continues to kill my people. The people of STATE.
What? My people? Why do I think this? This is not me... This is not for me. What is all this happening for? What am I doing here? Why am I still here?
Her blood pumps thickly, quicker than usual. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
All sense of control slips away and instead, she is filled by anger so intense that all previous bouts are like mild catcalls. Never before had she been able to feel any emotion so strongly, let alone such fierce anger, and it sweeps all ideas of who she is and how she reacts to things before it like rubble. Obliterating all thoughts and even the possibility of reflection, this anger is like boiling liquid metal, filling her every hole and making her into a mould for it. It hurts in an exhilarating way.
The ambulance personnel arrive and lift Her Excellency onto a stretcher very carefully. “Take care of her like she is STATE herself!” the Bearer says, her words short. “Four Guards go with her. No more accidents!”
The Captain quickly points to four of his men to obey Her Grace’s orders, afraid of the icy tone he has not heard of her before.
Mr. Blas is crawling with fear. He pulls Susan closer by her hair, the neat bun coming lose into braids as he forces her to her knees. “Y… Your Grace… This girl has had the irresponsibility to deem it unnecessary to check for poison… All this is her fault! She is unfit for the responsibility… I will have her punished severely, of course…”
Susan is crying.
Simultaneously, S. hears him talking and his mind racing to make up more arguments why he is not at fault, no not him, forcing the attention away from him and onto the young girl. His turning and scheming gets her even more enflamed. Never in her life has she been so violently angry and the fear around only enhances it.
The Bearer’s voice rings out:
“SHUT up! She has worked here for 48 days and has no clue of the President’s habits! You should have informed her, Blas! YOU!
Don’t you DARE incriminate her! All this is YOUR responsibility!”
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
S. does not know she is emanating light, flashing brighter suddenly. The pain of power fills her, burns in her hands, her arms, her legs, her breast-cage. It flows through the slashes in her hands like lava, burns holes in her skin, oxidizes all her boundaries and seeps out.
When the differences are lifted, she is no longer contained in a self. The pain destroys her, and while the servants back away, hands on their brow against the light, her pain slips into panic.
Pain is all around, a blinding pain,
isolating her completely.
The Bearer is standing frozen with both the expression and the energy of violent anger. Showing between slits of her dressing gown, STATE is a blinding white and her hands radiate light, while her stasis becomes more and more scary as there is no release.
Nobody dares to leave the room or even move.
They stay there like a tableau vivant of fear, the Head of House, Mr. Blas, on the floor, Susan on her knees, Doctor Jan and the Captain with three Guards standing. Nobody dares to enter or intervene.
There is no time for S. as she is suspended in a continuum. Her blood has stopped moving. Time has ceased to exist. She has ceased to exist.
There is no reflection.
There is no space.
There is no way out.
Covertly, the Captain looks at Her Grace. ‘What is happening to her? Why is she not acting, to punish, to order? What is wrong?’
Then, he remembers the scene at Prison and decides that this is no situation to be continued much longer. Tentatively, he steps forwards and softly speaks to her. “Your Grace… Please, forgive us… We did not stop to realize these traps were still present here…” No reaction, as he had feared. Her Grace’s breathing is constrained. Hardly daring to, he reaches out.
He has never before been so audacious in his whole career, in his whole life. To touch the President without explicit permission had meant certain torture and death, and the rules concerning the Bearer are as strict. And the light seeping through Her Grace's skin had killed men before...
But he has to do it.
The Captain touches Her Grace, his hand very still on the arm of the bright Bearer. When there is no reaction, he steps closer, his free hand reaching for her until both his hands hold Her Grace’s shoulders.
Intent on any change or sound, he looks down on the Bearer.
Mr. Blas glances up and, shocked to see this presumption by a mere Captain of the Guards, tenses for the eruption that will surely follow. ‘The fool! Will get himself killed, he will!’
For a short while, nothing happens, nothing at all.
Then, a very, very long breath of air escapes the Bearer, too soft and too long to be a sigh. The light diminishes and disappears altogether.
A small woman with oily spiky hair stands in the middle of the sumptuous room and moves her hands slightly, like trying if they are still there.
S. blinks and sees the group of people staring at her tremulously. She refinds her body. Every fiber hurts, the muscles of her neck and back are cramped and all energy is depleted.
Just to go, somewhere, anywhere, to stop all this, to be somewhere alone, outside, away…
The Bearer turns and walks, pulling the hold out of the situation. Everybody moves, the Captain motioning Jan and his Guards to follow Her Grace, Mr. Blas rising and eyeing the Captain with considerable respect, Susan still crying but now also with relief.
Seeing Her Grace’s body rigid with tension, the Captain softly escorts Her Grace to her own Rooms. The Bearer allows herself to be led there, where she is dressed and prepared for the Inauguration Party.
She does not speak at all.