"You haven't come to an Assembly in weeks."
Asha bit her tongue. Mother continued to brush out the gnarls in her hair, preaching on as though Asha barked back at her.
"I know the traditions don't mean much to you, but we have certain obligations. And it's Kept season, Asha. There are laws about these things. Do you really want penalty leveled against us because you were too busy to attend?"
Kailyn chuckled at the mirror across from them. "Busy? I never see her at any of the academy socials."
Asha bit harder on her tongue. Let her sister poke at her all she liked. It wouldn't help anything fighting back. Besides, Asha resigned herself to the evening's affair. At least she wasn't wearing the same kind of showy dress Kailyn put on. So much silver and glitter. And was it so essential to tease out her breasts like that?
"That's enough, girls," Mother chided. Asha didn't know why she fussed. She was being perfectly presentable and quiet as any proper Magistrate's daughter should. She only made a face when Mother pulled on her roots so fiercely with the brush. "Sorry. You really should have my artisan fix this."
"You're doing fine, Mother."
"And she speaks!" Kailyn laughed again. "But she is right, Asha; a little care goes a long way on that mess you've got."
Asha nodded silently, then muttered a half managed acknowledgement for her sister. Something to validate her taunts and leave Asha alone for the rest of the dress up. Thankfully Mother didn't force her into anything as silly as Kailyn. Asha picked all beige colors, with a flowing skirt that covered her feet. Let the other boys and girls flaunt themselves for their Sephy master. Hopefully he picked Jem or Cleo this season as Kept. One less annoyance at academy Asha had to deal with.
The carriage waited for them outside the manor, whirling quietly on the bright blue levitation emitters. Asha climbed to the back, the door hissing shut behind her. Father sat in the middle with Mother, Kailyn squeezed between them. The auto driver knew how to get them to the Assembly cathedral on its own. It took them through the extensive streets of Calmer Bluff, lined with trees, lawns, and beautiful mansions. From most of the overlooks, Asha could see the domed terraces and larger city below where the masses resided. Between the Bluff and the city proper was the Assembly cathedral; a small bridge between the two classes.
"Dalle has had unusual remarks in our latest councils," said Father. "I think he's planning something ostentatious."
Mother exhaled. "I hope not. You don't think he'll choose more than one Kept this time, do you?"
"It's not unheard of. They say in the Torbin Kingdom that their Sephy choose full harems each season."
Asha counted down silently in her head, and wasn't disappointed when Kailyn chimed in with the inappropriate comment. "That doesn't sound so bad."
"Kailyn!" Mother fumbled on her words for a moment. "Please show some virtue."
Kailyn laughed; the same kind she used when she wanted to show she was only joking. Asha wasn't sure how to read her tonight. Most of the girls like her wouldn't have minded any of the perverse fantasies the Sephy promised. Another reason Asha thanked the Overmakers she was of no particular importance. Kailyn and the others might have indulged in Sephy perversion, but Asha had no time for such madness. Not with other concerns.
As expected, the other young men and women at the Assembly wore the same showy and ridiculous costumes like Kailyn. If possible, Asha's older sister looked the more conservative of the group. Lyn wore a backless dress that sparkled so brilliantly gold that Asha had to squint. Missa tested the limits of how high she could wear her skirt.
Why do these girls want so badly to be Kept?
Mother and Father led them to their usual place near the back of the Assembly cathedral. The tiered seats surrounded the open center in a full ring, descending downward toward the back of the room. That left an elevated dais for the higher castes sitting near the front on regular meeting nights. Tonight, unfortunately, Asha had to join the younger group near the front.
Mother took Asha's arm, leaning in to peck her once on the cheek. "You're always a proud sight for our family, Asha. I hope you know that."
Asha smiled like she knew she was supposed to. "I know, Mother."
Kailyn was already up there, gathered with her closer friends. Asha was surprised to see Talm among their number at the front. As far as Asha knew, Dalle only ever chose two male Kept in previous seasons. For the most part, his tastes remained with the girls of age for Keeping. Many lived lavish lives in the Kallis Realm these last few years. Plenty immigrated back to Kynome, wondrously rich for their time as a Kept. There were certain rewards for the duty, least of which went to the patron family.
Asha spotted Miko and wandered over next to him. He wore striking pale blue robes for the occasion. Asha didn't consider him a friend, per se, but he was someone she could bear to stand with during the charade.
"I see your sister's up near the front again," said Miko.
Asha shrugged. "She always goes for the front."
"They don't always let her get that close. She must be on someone's good side these days."
Asha shrugged again. She didn't feel like talking about her sister's politicking. Asha doubted it would amount to much anyway. There were too many girls much prettier and older than her to sate Dalle's desires. Probably more intelligent, too, but Asha couldn't say she understood the tastes of the Sephy. Did they look for clever Kept? Or merely anyone attractive?
"I hear you've been in the Forsoti Ravine lately," said Miko
Asha bristled, her face hot. She hesitated, choosing her words carefully. "You hear? Or you just happen to pay attention?"
"I guess it's no secret. You do what you want with your free periods and log it with the academy."
That was better. Asha didn't like the thought of her little jaunts attracting attention.
"I guess it's nothing special, but you logged a lot of hours down there. Can't all be for physical requirements."
"And what if it is?"
Miko shrugged wordlessly. So he was being conversational. Good. No one brought it up with Asha before. And she intended to keep it that way if she could. The Forsoti Ravine was supposed to be the beautiful canyon below their estates. Nothing more.
Eventually the domed ceiling over the center dais pulled apart, light shining down from above. The chatter throughout the cathedral died immediately. Asha smirked, watching as all eyes in the room turned reverently to the opening. As if the Overmakers themselves were descending from heaven above.
Instead, all they got was Dalle dressed in flimsy white robes that left his chest, arms, and legs bare. Oh sure, as a Sephy his unblemished, perfect skin radiated with a faint glow. His wispy blonde hair fluttered on the air as he floated down from the ceiling, the air swirling around him with the right amount of flair so that it didn't tug at his robes awkwardly. He looked ever the part of the angel his kind purported to be. But Asha was fairly certain this fool spoke for no gods. Regardless of his very real power.
Dalle usually had words for the occasion. This was Asha's fourth Kept season, and there was ceremonious nonsense to appease the important mothers and fathers in the room. The empire's leaders played along with the decorum that Dalle was here as a heavenly representative; to claim one of their daughters—or sons—as a Kept to come back to the Kallis Realm and live as a surrogate mate among the Sephy.
This evening Dalle didn't say anything. Asha blinked as he walked quietly around the dais, drinking in the best and most beautiful the empire had to offer. Maybe Father was right; maybe he was changing the ritual in unseen ways.
Once he completed his circuit of the dais, he did something Asha didn't expect: he stepped down to the next tier.
Asha had to fight back a scoff. That's all she needed; to interrupt this strange scene Dalle clearly planned. She could only imagine the shame on her family. So she kept her mouth shut and tried not to think too hard about Dalle's games. He had never stepped off the dais before. Why should he have? There were plenty of pretty faces up there to choose from. If Kailyn was right, he could pick the entire first row and take them back to his Keep in Kallis. Was he going to take the whole of the cathedral? That didn't seem likely…but it would be ostentatious.
The silence stretched on uncomfortably. Dalle strode down every tier one by one, taking his time to examine each of the young men and women. When he got to Asha's row, she found her breath quickening. She hadn't expected him to come this close. The idea was suddenly revolting. She didn't want to be anywhere near the immortal freak.
His features were more amazing in person. She had never stood this close to him; never appreciated how perfectly crafted his face was. The warmth that came with the glow off his skin. The taunt muscles in his exposed chest and arms. Up this close, Asha could begin to understand why her parents and the leaders of the empire treated him like an angel. Gods or no gods, Dalle was real and he looked beautiful. Beautifully dangerous.
Dalle strode right past her.
Finally, he returned to the top of the dais. He bowed once, flashing a smile, and then ascended through the ceiling. At least this part was on track. Sephy never chose their Kept on Assembly night. The decision would come in the next day or two.
When the dome closed again, conversation returned to the cathedral in a building roar. Voices drowned out the reverent silence, and everyone wanted to talk about the change up.
"Well he certainly mixed things up," said Miko.
"And you didn't find that even the least bit bizarre?" said Asha.
"Oh of course. But wasn't that the point? He's bored with the ritual. Trying to keep us guessing. If for no other reason than to poke us and see how we flinch."
Asha's heartbeat slowed. Miko was right. This was all a game to Dalle. Really, the stipulation between empires and the Sephy was that they could do whatever they wanted. Codifying it and turning these events into rituals helped the empires deal with their fantastic whims. Hopefully all Dalle wanted was to nix with tradition for the effect right now.
"Though I will say this," said Miko, "I have no idea who he's choosing as his Kept this season."
Asha nodded. "He didn't focus on anyone."
"Guess it's going to be a surprise."