Katherine Addison created an intricate layered world in her novel The Goblin Emperor, which she revisited in The Witness for the Dead and in this story which shares some of the same characters. In it she gives us a window into another corner of the world, where a governess works to determine the future of her young charge.
~ Julian Yap, May 1, 2022
Min Zemerin’s Plan
The night of the second day after Osmer Neshevis Pazhilavar’s death, after the reading of his will, the governess, Aiveän Zemerin, went to sleep not knowing how she could protect her charge, his twelve-year-old daughter, Tarazho.
The morning of the third day after Osmer Pazhilavar’s death, Min Zemerin woke with the plan fully formed in her head, and all the objections to it worked out, as if she had been considering it all night. She could not leave Tarazho unsupervised, so the child would have to come with her. And it had to be now, before Osmer Pazhilavar’s body was taken to the crematorium. She had no idea if a Witness for the Dead would be able to speak to ashes, and in any event, Osmer Pazhilavar’s mother was to take custody of the ashes until they were scattered, and Min Zemerin knew without asking that Osmerrem Pazhilavaran would not agree to the plan. She did not like Tarazho and had never approved of Osmer Pazhilavar taking her in, and by extension did not like Min Zemerin, either.
Tarazho was red-eyed and inclined to be weepy. She had adored her father, although she rarely saw him, and had had dreams—Min Zemerin knew, although Tarazho had never said outright—of him formally adopting her, making her one of the Pazhilavada and not just the family’s secret (or semisecret) disgrace.
Tarazho was wearing the best mourning they had been able to contrive for her, Min Zemerin and the housekeeper, Merrem Culivinaran. The dress was both too large and too old for her, and did not suit her, but it was black. And since they were putting her hair up anyway, for plaits with the dress would just make the poor child look ridiculous, Min Zemerin had contributed the jet mourning beads she had inherited from her mother; Tarazho was pleased by the effect, even if no one else was. Osmin Pazhilavin had looked as though she had bitten into a lemon, but she could hardly berate Tarazho for wearing mourning for her own father.
Min Zemerin herself wore her fig-brown dress, which was respectful to the dead without claiming the right to wear mourning. Osmer Pazhilavar had been her employer, and wearing black for him would suggest their relationship had been far closer than was in fact the case. Min Zemerin saw him as little as Tarazho did, and she did not entirely care for what she saw. She put her hair up very plainly as always, only the tortoiseshell combs (also inherited from her mother) as adornment. She had only the one ten-earring set of earrings, brass with blue cloisonné beads, but that was fine. Every item in her limited wardrobe went with those blue cloisonné beads. She loaned Tarazho her one silk shawl (dove gray and demure) and herself put on the fig-brown jacket that went with the dress, and they were ready to go.
“But why?” said Tarazho as she obediently put on her shoes. “Where are we going and why before breakfast?”
Before breakfast was so that neither Osmerrem Pazhilavaran nor Osmin Pazhilavin should somehow intuit the plan and forbid it, but she was reluctant to say as much to Tarazho. She settled on the remainder of the truth, which was that she had no idea how busy the Witness for the Dead would be.
“The Witness for the Dead?” said Tarazho, even more bewildered. “But why?”
This truth she had to tell her, although she had been dreading it all night in her dreams: “Osmer Pazhilavar did not make any provision for you in his will.”
As she had anticipated, Tarazho flinched under the news and said, “But, Min Zemerin, you must be mistaken. Osmer Pazhilavar told me he’d changed his will.”
“Yes, well,” said Min Zemerin. “I heard the will read last night, and there was no mention of you.”
“But what are we going to do?” said Tarazho. “What will become of . . . me?”
“That is why we are going to the Witness for the Dead,” Min Zemerin said. “If Osmer Pazhilavar intended to make arrangements, the Witness can find out. And the word of a Witness is just as binding as a will.”
They left the house by the servants’ entrance, as they were accustomed to do. Naviko, the upstairs maid, saw them but said nothing. The will did not go into effect until the body was burned, and Min Zemerin suspected that that was the only reason she and Tarazho hadn’t been thrown out the night before. Osmer Stava Pazhilavar, who inherited the house, did not care for Tarazho any more kindly than his mother did.
It was only a block to the tram ostro, and a familiar journey from Min Zemerin’s monthly trek across Amalo to visit her sister, who was a governess for a family in Paravi.
Tarazho was rarely permitted to leave the house and its handkerchief-size garden, and she looked around wide-eyed as Min Zemerin bought their tickets and herded her through the gate.
They took the Habaro line to the Tavarar ostro, and there changed to the Zulnicho line, which carried them north over Amalo’s major canal, the Mich’maika, to the great Dachenostro and then to the Amal’ostro, which was where Min Zemerin took a firm grip of Tarazho’s hand and disembarked.
She knew where the Witness for the Dead kept his office, thanks to stories in the newspapers, and it was a good thing she did, since the great masses of people arriving for work in the Amal’theileian and surrounding government buildings would have made it impossible to find anyone to ask. But she knew it was in the Prince Zhaicava Building, and she found the public map in the Amal’ostro, which labeled all of the government buildings plainly. The Prince Zhaicava Building was only two blocks away, and she covered those blocks at a good pace, despite Tarazho dragging her feet and finding objections, all of which Min Zemerin had already considered.
“What if the Witness for the Dead won’t listen? What if Osmerrem Pazhilavaran won’t let him in the house? What if he finds out that Osmer Pazhilavar didn’t intend . . .” There she trailed off, unable to find a way to finish the sentence.
“Then you are no worse off than you are right now,” said Min Zemerin.
Once inside the Prince Zhaicava Building, Min Zemerin had to admit she was at a loss. None of the newspaper stories had specified which floor the office was on, or in which wing. But she had thought of this, or dreamed it. She chose the first open door she found and asked the person who sat at a desk inside, a part-goblin man who said, “Yes, of course,” and directed them up the stairs and down the hall on the right.
The Witness’s door was open. Min Zemerin knocked boldly, and the young elven man at the desk looked up and said in a harshly graveled voice, “Please, come in. I am Thara Celehar, a Witness for the Dead. How can I help you?”
He was younger than Min Zemerin had expected, younger than her, barely into his thirties, if that. His hair was dressed in a plain prelate’s braid and he wore a prelate’s black frock coat, which made the vivid blue of his eyes even more vivid. His face was tired but kind, and Min Zemerin told herself that to balk now would be absurd.
“I am Aiveän Zemerin,” she said, standing in front of his desk while Tarazho watched in trepidation from the hall. “I was employed by Osmer Neshevis Pazhilavar to be governess to his daughter, Tarazho.”
“The Osmer Neshevis Pazhilavar who is so recently deceased?” said the Witness.
“Yes. He made no provision for Tarazho in his will, although he had promised to do so, and my petition is that you ask him what he intended for her.”
“Ah,” said the Witness. “When is he to be cremated?”
“Tonight at sundown,” said Min Zemerin.
“And until then?”
“He is lying in the family crypt,” said Min Zemerin. “Beneath the house in Tenemora.”
“Then that is where we must go,” the Witness said. “And without delay.”
“Thank you,” Min Zemerin said, and was a little alarmed at her own earnestness.
“I follow my calling,” said the Witness, and got up.
He was not a talkative man, she found on the long tram ride back to Tenemora, although unfailingly courteous. She told him what she could about the household, Osmerrem Lideän Pazhilavaran and Osmin Cladeän Pazhilavin and Osmer Stava Pazhilavar, who was already moving from his flat into Osmer Neshevis Pazhilavar’s bedroom, and warned him that they were likely to be unwelcoming.
“It will not be the first time,” the Witness said. “Do not worry. Since I have accepted your petition, they cannot legally keep me out. I know that, and the Vigilant Brotherhood will know it too.”
He seemed very calm about the prospect of the Vigilant Brotherhood being summoned. “Does that happen to you often?”
“Sometimes,” he said, which was not an answer.
Tarazho said, “Othala Celehar, how did you become a Witness for the Dead?”
He looked surprised at the question, but answered it readily. “I was called to follow Ulis when I was very young, and as a novice, I assisted the prelates with the funeral rites and eventually realized I could hear the dead.”
“Is it scary?”
“No,” he said. “It’s not scary at all.”
They separated at the front door of the Pazhilavada house, Min Zemerin and Tarazho to go back to the servants’ door, Othala Celehar to climb the stairs and ring the bell.
“I will come back down as quickly as I can,” said Min Zemerin.
“You don’t have to,” Othala Celehar said.
“I’d rather come of my own accord than be sent for,” said Min Zemerin. “They aren’t stupid. They’ll figure out who your petitioner is.”
“And you want to go ahead with this?”
“Much like Tarazho, I will be no worse off than I am right now. They’re certainly planning to dismiss me before Osmer Pazhilavar’s ashes have cooled.”
“All right,” said Othala Celehar; Min Zemerin and Tarazho started down the alley to the servants’ door.
“Is that true?” Tarazho asked.
“Is what true?”
“That Osmerrem Pazhilavaran will . . . that she won’t keep you on?”
“She will have no reason to if she sends you to a foundling school.”
Upstairs, she took off her jacket and said to Tarazho, “Stay up here unless someone sends for you.”
“But you’re going!”
“That says nothing about your actions. Stay up here.”
“All right,” said Tarazho, although her ears were unbecomingly sulky.
There wasn’t time to address that problem. Min Zemerin went back downstairs and then followed the sound of Osmerrem Pazhilavaran’s voice to the front hall, where she was saying, “You have no right!”
“Actually, we do,” Othala Celehar said patiently. “We have a rightful petition.”
“Who?” demanded Osmerrem Pazhilavaran.
Min Zemerin said, “We petitioned Othala Celehar to ask concerning Osmer Pazhilavar’s intentions for his daughter, Tarazho.”
Osmerrem Pazhilavaran seemed too overcome with rage and shock to speak. Osmin Pazhilavin said, “You have brought Othala Celehar a very long way on a ridiculous errand.”
“Not ridiculous,” said Othala Celehar. “Also, very quick. We will need only a few moments with Osmer Pazhilavar to find the answer.”
“We could throw you out,” said Osmerrem Pazhilavaran. “Both of you and that wretched child, besides.”
“That merely puts us to the bother of going to the watchhouse and getting one of the Brothers to return with us,” said Othala Celehar. “We assure you they will come.”
“Arguing about it is pointless,” said Osmin Pazhilavin, the set of her ears showing her flat fury. “If we cannot turn away a Witness for the Dead, we had best give him what he wants. This way, othala.”
“Cladeän!” said Osmerrem Pazhilavaran, aghast.
“It’s just common sense, Mother,” said Osmin Pazhilavin over her shoulder. Osmerrem Pazhilavaran went with them out of the room—whether in acquiescence or to argue further seemed an open question—and Min Zemerin followed along behind.
The family crypt was as old as the house and had not been used for revethmerai since the days of Osmer Pazhilavar’s grandfather, but the central altar, a long, flat slab of stone, was still used for the vigil and, as in this case, a place to keep the body until the cremation could be scheduled. The second housemaid, Tivero, dutifully keeping her share of the vigil, fled without argument when Osmin Pazhilavin said, “We require a moment with our brother’s body.”
There was barely room for all four of them around the altar, and if Osmerrem Pazhilavaran could have killed by the power of her gaze alone, Min Zemerin would have been as dead as Osmer Pazhilavar.
Othala Celehar said a prayer of compassion for the dead, ancient and lovely even in his ruined voice, and touched Osmer Pazhilavar on the forehead. He stood for a moment, nothing showing on his face, then stepped back. He said, “Min Zemerin is correct. Osmer Pazhilavar did intend to make provision for his daughter, Tarazho.”
“Well?” said Osmin Pazhilavin tightly.
Othala Celehar looked at Min Zemerin almost apologetically. “He intended the child to become a novice of Csaivo on her thirteenth birthday.”
“How perfectly reasonable of Neshevis,” Osmin Pazhilavin said in surprise.
“When does she turn thirteen?” said Osmerrem Pazhilavaran.
“In a month,” Min Zemerin said.
“The Sanctuary will accept her a little early,” said Osmerrem Pazhilavaran. “Go help her pack. We want both of you out of this house by sundown.”
When they would have had to leave anyway. We are no worse off than we were before, Min Zemerin pointed out to herself as she climbed the stairs. And at least now Tarazho has somewhere to go other than one of those terrible foundling schools. Or the street.
A hand touched her elbow. “Min Zemerin?” It was the Witness for the Dead.
“Othala Celehar. You have fulfilled my petition. Thank you.”
“I am sorry the answer was not better.”
“It is no fault of yours,” said Min Zemerin, blinking hard against the offered sympathy.
“No. I cannot make the answer other than it was. Where will you go?”
“My sister is in Paravi,” said Min Zemerin. “Further than that, I know not.”
“The municipal prelate of Paravi is a good man,” said Othala Celehar. “He will at least let you stay overnight at Ulmavonee.”
“Which is more than my sister’s employer would do, I am sure,” Min Zemerin said bleakly. “Thank you, othala. May I show you the way out?”
“Please,” said Othala Celehar. “Although I hate to trouble you when you have so much to do.”
“It’s no trouble,” Min Zemerin said truthfully, and showed him to the front door. She then went upstairs as quickly as she could. Othala Celehar was correct that she had a great deal to do, and informing Tarazho was the first and worst part of it.
As Min Zemerin had known she would be, Tarazho was heartbroken, all her private imaginings of becoming Osmin Tarazho Pazhilavin destroyed. Min Zemerin wondered what had made Osmer Pazhilavar pick Csaivo as the solution to his problem. Tarazho was a good girl and went to ceremonies at the Tenemora othasmeire as often as Min Zemerin cared to take her, but she’d never expressed any particular interest in Csaivo. On the other hand, it assured her not only an education, but also a path to adulthood. There was always need for clerics and acolytes, and if she wished to leave Amalo when she was old enough to do so, that could be arranged too.
After a while, Merrem Culivinaran appeared with breakfast for both of them.
“Thank you,” said Min Zemerin, who had forgotten about eating.
“It’s the least the house can do for you,” Merrem Culivinaran said darkly. “You’ve been here five years.”
“There is no use for me if Tarazho is not here,” said Min Zemerin. “I can’t expect Osmerrem Pazhilavaran to keep me on out of sentimentality.”
“She could stop short of throwing you out,” Merrem Culivinaran said. “But there. I told myself I wasn’t going to pester you about it. Where will you go?”
“Paravi, I suppose,” said Min Zemerin. “I am told that the prelate of the municipal ulimeire is a good man and will give me shelter tonight.”
“You’re owed wages,” Merrem Culivinaran said. “Surely enough that you could stay the night in a hotel.”
“I am rather trying to hoard my money,” Min Zemerin said truthfully. “As it is, I must beg you to keep my trunk until I have found a new position.”
“Nothing easier,” said Merrem Culivinaran. She hesitated. “Are you called to be a governess?”
“No,” said Min Zemerin. “It is the work I can do, that is all. And I enjoy teaching.”
“Then perhaps this would be of interest to you. I have a cousin who works as a groundskeeper for the Airmen’s School, and he says they always need more instructors.”
“The Airmen’s School?” Min Zemerin said doubtfully.
“They’d be older students,” said Merrem Culivinaran, “and quite a lot of them are those ashenoi, airship girls. But it’s honest work and it’s room and board thrown in.”
“I would love a classroom of ashenoi,” Min Zemerin said with surprised truthfulness. “But could they take me on right away?”
“I think so,” said Merrem Culivinaran. “And you’re an educated woman.”
“By my father’s standards,” Min Zemerin said dryly. “But yes, I can teach the students grammar and rhetoric, if nothing else.”
“So what reason would the school have to wait?”
“And what harm does it do me to go ask?” Min Zemerin answered her own question: “None. And the sooner I went about it, the better.”
Tarazho having even fewer things to take with her than Min Zemerin, they were both ready to leave by midafternoon. Min Zemerin had demanded and received her wages in a frosty conversation with Osmin Pazhilavin, and aside from the question of where she was to sleep that night, she was glad to leave.
She took Tarazho to the Sanctuary, the girl clinging tightly to her hand the whole way. Happily, the cleric to whom they were directed was a good-natured man, and he assured Min Zemerin that Tarazho would be well taken care of.
“This is better than staying in the Pazhilavada house,” Min Zemerin told her.
“But you won’t be here,” Tarazho said.
“This is your father’s plan,” Min Zemerin said.
“I don’t care about him. He never meant to adopt me.”
“Then you need not repine,” Min Zemerin said tartly.
“But, Min Zemerin,” Tarazho said in an agonized whisper, “what will they call me? I have no name.”
The truth of it caught Min Zemerin in the chest. Without a family name, Tarazho would almost certainly be prevented from becoming a full cleric, doomed instead to a life of fetching and carrying . . . just the same as the life that would have been hers had she gone to a foundling school.
And then, like a final part of her plan, she saw the answer. “Use mine,” she said.
Tarazho stared at her, shocked.
Min Zemerin was a little shocked herself. But: “I have no brothers. One sister married into the Silesada; the other is a governess as I am. There is no one left in my family who needs our name. But you need it.”
“I do,” Tarazho said. Her eyes were wide.
“Then have it,” said Min Zemerin. “Be Tarazho Zemerin and be happy.”
Tarazho said hesitantly, “Could we meet again? Maybe just once?”
“There must be a teahouse near enough to walk to,” said Min Zemerin. She turned to the cleric, who had politely busied himself with writing an entry in some sort of logbook, and asked.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “The Glass Phoenix is close. It is clean and its prices are reasonable.”
“Thank you,” said Min Zemerin, and to Tarazho, “One month from today, to the day. I will be there at noon and . . . I will hope that thou wilt come.” She could not stand on formality with the girl when she had just made her a daughter.
“I will,” Tarazho said, beginning to smile.
“Then it is well,” said Min Zemerin. “Go, Tarazho Zemerin. Begin thy new life.”
“But what wilt thou do?” Tarazho said, careful and hesitant, as if she expected Min Zemerin to take it back.
“I will go to the Airmen’s School and discover if they need teachers. I suppose thou couldst say that I begin a new life myself.”
She hugged Tarazho, although it was an awkward hug on both sides, and started back to the tram station and a possible new life.
On the way, she noted the sign for the Glass Phoenix and found herself smiling.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport journey this week.
Sarah Monette and Katherine Addison are the same person. She has published ten novels and more than fifty short stories. Her next novel, The Grief of Stones, comes out from Tor in June 2022, following The Witness for the Dead in June 2021. Thara Celehar is a Witness for the Dead, a priest who can speak to the spirits of the recently deceased; he appears in his official capacity in this story, and is the main character of The Witness for the Dead.
“Min Zemerin’s Plan,” © Sarah Monette, 2022.
What a treat. I am such a fan of Katherine Addison's novels, so I was eagerly anticipating this story, and it did not disappoint. One of the things that appeals to me about her novels is the way she has built a (rich and fascinating) world that has many unkind hierarchies, and then she layers in compassion, resistance, and interconnectedness through brightly-drawn individuals. It's wonderful to see that brought into a quite short form, compared to lengthy and wonderfully slow-developing novels.
I thoroughly enjoyed this! The intense earnest quietness, a story that's about navigating a world vs changing it...