Also, some reading matter from Khopai that Sedi hasn’t been able to read yet because inside a sedan chair it’s too dark and too bumpy to read, and one isn’t as alone as it seems. (And now I’m wondering whether it’s Kha(u)nu who is Khopai’s eyes and ears in the palace, and whether Ayneth should be worried about that.) (And now I’m wondering whether I gave the GM an idea, but I’m sure that (1) the idea was his in the first place, and (2) he may be cunning but he’s not evil.)
After a week in the Order house in Solay I felt like I belonged there. I’d learned to move in the heat in heavy armor, and the evening sweep had become second nature. I’d already seen the first time that the joint effort made us all more than each one of us was on their own, but now it was lifting me up, carrying me, and indeed all of us, to see everything with eyes of the spirit. “There are so many gifted people,” Aldan said, “that we can’t see every one individually, it’s like trying to see every grain of sand on the beach, every blade of grass in a field. We can only see shape, patterns, movement.”
When I was finishing my breakfast on the sixth or seventh day a young girl came in, perhaps nine years old, with searching dark eyes under bushy eyebrows. She talked to the journeyman at the door, nodded, and came over to me. “Imri, Valdis? Letter.” She hovered patiently and expectantly, so I had to go and get a penny from my purse in the sleeping quarters. I didn’t know whether she’d be able to do anything with a Valdyan penny, but she was satisfied with it and disappeared.
The letter was on thick parchment, sealed with a blob of wax with an imprint I couldn’t make anything of. The writing was strange, as if the hand that had written it wasn’t used to Valdyan letters: very neat but unpracticed. And some of the words were perhaps more old-fashioned than anyone at home would use, except scholars of history. But it was clear enough: Khopai invited me to exchange views about the grain fields. If I would come to the square in front of the palace gates two hours after noon, someone would meet me there and escort me.
I didn’t know what to do with that. I sat by the kitchen fire, praying, but Anshen didn’t seem to want to listen to me — was he such a stranger in this strange country? When I did see him, he was dancing on a faraway beach with a bunch of children, full of joy but without any attention for me. I turned to Aldan, but he said he couldn’t help me, “we keep completely clear of Khopai and all his exploits, if he decides that your throat is to be cut one of his flunkies will cut your throat, no amount of protection will prevent that!” He talked briefly of the boys’ guild, but when I asked whether they could protect me he said that they couldn’t risk it either, they’d be as much in danger as I was and more than the Order would be. I was completely on my own. I thanked him, because even if he couldn’t do anything he’d helped me clear my mind, and wrote a note to Sinaya telling her where my letters were and asking her to make sure someone delivered them –she or anyone of her choosing– in the event that she didn’t hear from me in three days.
I dressed with care, in plain clothes instead of uniform, hiding all my weapons about my person except the sword, which I left at the Order house, and Rava’s dagger, which I wore in sight. If this Khopai was as I’d heard he’d expect me to be armed as a matter of course, but plain clothes and a sword would tell the wrong story.
As soon as I was outside the main palace gates a young man sidled up to me, dark and heavy-eyebrowed like the messenger girl. He spoke somewhat stilted Ilaini with a strange accent, but clearly enough that I could understand him perfectly. “I am your escort,” he said, and if he said his name I don’t remember. He led me to a box on poles, carried by two large strong men, that he and I could just sit in. On the way he made conversation about the strangest things, not only the yield of grain and the many uses of salt but also the habits of moths. When I asked a question he couldn’t answer he was silent for a long time, then started on a different subject.
After a while — I was trying to remember the way but the strange sort of transportation and the conversation made that difficult — we arrived in a small unremarkable street, or perhaps it was remarkable that none of the buildings had windows. The only thing I knew for sure about it was that it must be one of those spots that we’d noticed in the nightly sweep, where, in Aldan’s words, “stuff happened”, the working of gifts in a very different shape than I’d grown up learning.
The young man handed me out of the box and led me through a small door, a low narrow passage and another small door into a courtyard. An older man came towards us, not tall but strong in the shoulders, with dark brown skin and piercing eyes. He had a strange scar on the side of his neck, three parallel lines as if someone had once tried, and failed spectacularly, to behead him. He smiled at the young man and sent him on his way, then greeted me. “I am Khopai,” he said. “I’m grateful that you accepted my invitation so readily. Did my nephew serve you well?” “He was very entertaining,” I said, “I know a lot more about moths than I did before.” Khopai laughed. “Not about tree frogs yet? Good. He is — well, let’s say, very good at following instructions.”
He took me into the house — rather, a warren of corridors and rooms and sudden courtyards, all full of people going about their own things, Nobody seemed to take much notice of us, but I was wary anyway. We ended up in a richly-furnished windowless room, a bit like the princess’ family room but not by far as light and airy. A servant, or perhaps another family member, brought wine and food, and Khopai took some of each himself before offering it to me. He knows I’m wary! I thought, And he knows that I’m noticing it.
I waited for him to speak, and it wasn’t until after the first cup of wine that he did. “I believe we can help each other,” he said. “We have the same problem.” He didn’t say what the problem was, though. “You see… I’m not a criminal. Well, sometimes if a young man or woman wants to drive themself to ruin– I don’t keep them from it! And if someone’s household is too full of people– The queen is against it, but there’s so much she objects to.” I thought for a moment that he meant Queen Raisse, but of course it was Princess Ayneth he was talking about. I didn’t think she thought of herself as a queen, but I could understand that the people of Solay did. I made a noncommittal noise.
Khopai took me through a door leading to a small bare room, containing only a fire and a small heap of broken statuary. “You should know,” he went on, “my family, we’re from the Temple of Anasagga — Anshen, in your language. The God of War. Oh, we’ve been defeated so sorely! But it’s more than that, just like your Guild, your Order, we’re always in contention with Anchuk, the Nameless, in your language. Here Anchuk is the god of Law, of Punishment, of Justice. How can I be anything but lawless when I oppose Anchuk?” I couldn’t but nod; his reasoning was flawless. Whether I agreed I’d have to sort out without his presence.
“I see you understand me. I do have a problem… I know you’re one of the Greys, but you have come here with all your power and strength, under cover.” (I’d been right to dress in plain clothes, and to go armed!) “There are opponents of the Greys here, also my opponents… This is where you and I are together, servants of Anshen!” Well, yes. Though this was yet another face of Anshen than I’d seen until now; how many faces do gods have? “I’ve prayed to Anasagga about it, but he was otherwise occupied.” “Yes,” I said, “I noticed that too, when I prayed this morning.” “It’s understandable,” Khopai said, “when there are three children who are going to be what you call grand masters, and they’re all together celebrating, it’s natural for Anshen to want to celebrate with them.”
I was still thinking about that when Khopai said, “Haven’t I given my daughter to your queen? A sign of my trust!” and led the way out of the temple, because I was sure it was that. He poured me another cup of wine, and made small talk for a while more; then the interview was evidently over and he escorted me back to the entrance. Before I got back into the carry-box, he pressed a package into my hands, a thick wad of papers tied with silk string and sealed with an elaborate wax seal.