Albetire

At least Sedi is aware that she doesn’t have enough experience as a spy to work undercover in a place she doesn’t know. (Well, it started as an ‘oops’ moment, but it may turn out to be an advantage.)

When we came closer to Albetire, the weather changed: it had been muggy in Seli Silgham, but now it actually rained every night and some days, and when it rained it poured. So much that sometimes we couldn’t tell whether we were on the water or under it. We spent most of our time below deck, practicing semsin a lot, and Thulo got much better at making seals and defending himself.

The rain didn’t keep us from arriving at Albetire in good time. Green hills, and a city in front of those that looked white at first sight. It was early morning, the night’s rain had just stopped, and the sun made a mist rise from the city that made it look eerily beautiful. Off the shore there were several islands that looked inhabited. On the shore, near the harbour, there was a white tower.

“What’s that tower?” I asked Sinaya.

“It’s Governor Mehili’s residence,” Sinaya said. “The army uses the islands now. Probably General Beguyan is at home too, seeing that it’s the rainy season.”

“And in the dry season the general is away on campaign?”

“Exactly. There’s still a lot of fighting east of the city,” Well, I’d seen some of the fighting east of the city! And the general’s name was familiar to me, it was on the list I’d learned by heart, a friend of King Athal’s.

Before we even cleared the islands a long boat came speeding toward us, fifteen rowers on each side. “The pilot,” Sinaya said, but it wasn’t only him, it was a captain and a sergeant and four soldiers as well. The sergeant looked Síthi, and some of the soldiers looked Valdyan –or maybe only partly– but the captain was a stocky Iss-Peranian woman called Fadri who apparently knew Sinaya.

“This isn’t your ship, is it?” she asked.

“We had an accident along the way,” Sinaya said.

Sinaya made everybody come on deck, except the prisoners of course, and everyone was asked who they were and made to show papers. Thulo was at a loss because he didn’t have any. “If I’d known you needed proof of apprenticeship I’d have written it for you!” I said. Then the sergeant wrote it (“You’re not Síthi Saggha, are you?”) and made me sign it, put a stamp on it, and gave it to Thulo to carry with him.

“Why do I need that?” he asked.

“In case you’re stopped in the street, then they’ll know you’re on legitimate business.”

“You have children on board!” the captain said. “We’ll have to make very sure that you’re not involved in trafficking.”

“We rescued them from trafficking, in fact,” I said, and Sinaya explaned some more of the circumstances.

Then Fadri was frustrated because none of the children could understand her questions, even though she tried three different languages. “Can you talk to them?” she asked me, because she saw Pái clinging to me.

“A little,” I said, and the sergeant tried to write their names but it was still confusing. Then I spotted Maha, who was being almost invisible to the side, and called her over.

“I hadn’t seen you!” the sergeant said. “Are you from the same country?”

“I’m the crown princess of Velihas,” Maha said, and I gave Thulo a mental nudge, she’s a crown princess when it suits her! “They are my subjects.”

What Maha had for papers was a round flat piece of wood, carved with what looked like letters. “I can’t stamp on that!” the sergeant said, but then he got an idea and pressed the whole wooden disc in the ink and used that as a stamp in his book.

Finally, even the children from the East had been written down. “We don’t want to take any risks,” Captain Fadri said, “in case this is a clever new kind of trafficking, You’re in the Order of the Sworn, right? I’ll ask the commander to come here.” It was her gifted soldier she asked to do that, a woman called Erne with pale freckled skin but a broad southern-looking nose, Presently, a small boat came, with two gifted men in uniform and two gifted women with large bags.

“Doctors,” Fadri said, “in case there’s sickness aboard.” She’d seen Pái’s eyes and knew she’d been blinded by a sickness, but I didn’t think anyone was ill right now– well, seasick, and scrapes, and one broken arm when someone was careless. But it was good to have doctors look everybody over anyway.

While the doctors –a tall Valdyan one called Vauri and a shorter Iss-Peranian one– busied themselves with the children, the commander of the Sworn and his aide came to talk to me. I was glad I’d dressed in my uniform, however worn and dirty it was, when I realised we were close to Albetire. Rhanion –the name on Lyse’s list, fortunately, I wouldn’t have trusted someone else so readily– wanted to know how we’d come to rescue these children, and was there anything else that was the Order’s business? Well, lots really, but for most of it I’d rather be somewhere that could be sealed. “Fair enough,” Rhanion said, “and I suppose you’ll want to wash first, too!”

Yes, a bath! Maha sighed longingly, which made Rhanion look in her direction and see her. “You look like you come from Velihas,” he said, and to me, “Did you know that the Order house in Cuytim burnt down?”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s one of the things I was sent to investigate. At least I know now that the king didn’t order it.”

“I have a letter from the king of Velihas,” Rhanion said. “To explain what happened– he sent letters to Athal by two different routes, too. Also, to ask us to send his daughter back on the next ship if she should turn up in Albetire.” He glared at Maha: obviously he’d guessed who she was.

“No way!” Maha said. “I’m going to Ashas first to get the other children of my people. You have no authority over me here.”

Rhanion had to admit that that was true. “Write him a letter,” I said, and when Maha made a face at that, “if you don’t do it I will! I may not have authority over you either, but you are my responsibility.”

Also, Rhanion wanted to know what we were planning to do with the children. “I’ll take them to Dadán and then on to Valdyas,” Sinaya said, and they decided that in that case it would be safest to keep them on board. The ship anchored some way off the harbour. As the sailors lowered the five prisoners into the rowboat –no use making them climb the ladder themselves if we didn’t know whether they could swim– there was a splash on the other side of the ship and we could see a man swimming away very fast. “It’s that Ogir!” someone said, and three of the soldiers drew bows and shot at him but it’s surprisingly difficult to hit a swimmer, so he escaped and climbed up the anchor-cable of another anchored ship.

“Now they have a stowaway,” I said.

“Also, they’re contaminated if there was sickness on board here after all,” Rhanion said. “But the doctors say you’re clear. What shall we do with your prisoners, by the way, do they have to go to Valdyas or can we handle them here?”

“I think you can handle it,” I said, “after all, it’s a case for the kingdom and Albetire is part of the kingdom.”

“Part of Albetire, at least,” Rhanion said. He explained about the various parts of the city and how they were governed, but I was too tired by that time to take it in. What I did gather was that the merchant-princess twins had had Athal’s first envoy murdered on his first night in Albetire, and the current baron was his friend Lydan, married to Doctor Vauri. The twins had been hanged for the murder, “they’re still hanging there, in fact.”

“As an ever more gruesome example?”

“Well, every now and again someone picks up the fallen bones and puts them back where they belong, with a bit of copper wire or whatever they use for that.”

“Oh, an example of ‘see, that’s how the bones fit in your body’,” I said.

Maha and Thulo and I hugged every one of the children. “I want to come along to Ashas and find my sister!” Pái said, but Maha put on her strict princess voice and forbade it. “You can go to your father and mother and tell them we’ve gone to get her,” I said, “they’ll be only half as worried then.” She demurred, but couldn’t keep from crying.

“You have travel money, right?” Sinaya asked me. “I’ll need food, water, a new set of sails, some repairs– I think about five or six hundred riders.” I’d have to go to the Temple of Mizran anyway, so I promised to have part of my letters of credit put in her name so she could draw on it for anything she needed. “I’ll be busy here for a bit, but I’ll meet you ashore later,” she said.

The boat was scarily full but stayed afloat. The moment we arrived on the quay it started raining. The rain wasn’t only warm and wet, but sort of sticky, greasy, and it made everything that was white a bit grey.

“Why is the rain so dirty?” Thulo asked.

“That’s the smoke from Master Nakhast’s new iron foundry.” Rhanion said. “Largest weaponsmithing enterprise in the world. He’s found a way to get more iron from the same amount of ore, or something like that. He’s got a Valdyan partner, and one from the city, and the baron, Lord Lydan, is in it as well.”

“There are more than ten thousand people working there now,” Rhanion’s aide said with obvious pride, “and he pays every one of them a living wage, and all their children go to school. And he turned the royal palace –well, where the royal palace used to be– into a park.” Another thing to write to Valdis about! Even apart from the news of the foundry, Raisse would be pleased with all the children going to school, and Athal might be amused about the park.

This was very much a working harbour, dry-docks and workshops and warehouses rather than shops and inns and brothels. We had been joined by more of the Sworn, and also a patrol of what looked like ordinary soldiers, so we could march ourselves and the prisoners to the Order house, not the small harbour branch but the big house in the city. It was clear that Albetire was a large city, “the second largest port city in the known world,” Rhanion said, because it was quite a long way past lots of different sights. We passed the park that used to be a palace too: bits of ruin were still standing, and marble statues of elephants being ridden by kings, but further along the same avenue there were bronze statues of King Athal and Queen Raisse, looking very realistic except that they were the same height, making Athal about five inches larger than life.

We crossed a bridge over the canal we’d been walking along for some time. Apparently we were such an official-looking patrol that people cleared the bridge when we did that. On the other side most of the houses looked Valdyan, though strange and quaint, as if they were in a picture. There were some Iss-Peranian and Síthi houses among them as well. Palm trees — by now I know what they’re called — grew along the streets, dripping water from their leaves.

Then we reached a square with a chestnut tree growing in the middle, a circular bench around it, just like the little square in front of the Spotted Dog in Valdis! And indeed, you could say that the square was in front of an inn, though it was much larger and there were several important-looking buildings on it. The inn had a painted sign in three languages, “The Crown Prince’s Inn”, and another sign on the wall saying “Prince Vurian drank of his mother’s milk here”.

“They serve coconut milk with rum in it,” Rhanion said, “and they call it Crown Prince’s Milk. Very refreshing, but not really suitable for children!” I just hoped they would serve ale as well– I like foreign food well enough, but ale I’d really missed in the three seasons I’d been away. (Seasons! Goodness, it must be nearly the Feast of Naigha. And indeed, when I asked, someone said “the day after tomorrow”.)

There was a bath-house as well, and something that could only be the Temple of Mizran, and an archway leading to a yard with buildings around it that was the hospital, and a reassuringly ordinary-looking Order house, and a white marble thing with pillars and other bits of architecture that I didn’t have words for, the baron’s palace. “That used to be the beer-garden,” Rhanion said. “something had to go to build Lord Lydan’s palace, he could hardly live in the Temple of Mizran like Athal did when he was here.”

“I want to go to the temple first,” I said when we went through the Order house gate. “Coming, Thulo?” Maha wanted to see the temple too, “I’ve never been in a temple to Árankhaen!” So we all went in, never mind the dirt, Anshen has surely seen worse.

The temple was a thick eight-sided tower, looking more elegant than the one in Valdis because the walls were decorated all over with carvings. Inside, too, there were carvings all over the walls, and windows set high in the wall that made it surprisingly light. The low fireplace wall was carved as well, the stones hollowed out in lacy patterns.

Anshen was there all right. He’s not a talkative god, unlike his counterpart. He took all three of us in his arms, wrapping us in pride and approval, but there were other feelings mixed with it: compassion, anger, melancholy and, yes, fear.

“That’s not for us, is it?” Maha whispered.

“No, I think it’s for the other one. The other other one.”

As we left the temple we were taken to our rooms first: a bare clean cell for each of us, with a bed, a chamberpot, a small table with a stool, and a shelf on the wall. The windows were barred with iron inside and out, with a wooden board to slot between the bars to close it off completely. It would be easy to seal that, and that was what it was for: even in the Order house people still needed to keep themselves safe as well. I shook out the sheet that was lying on the bed (it was linen, and Maha had squealed with delight at hers) and looked under the mattress, but there were no snakes or scorpions and if there was any poison it was invisible and odorless and it would be too late anyway. I left my sword and bag on the shelf and sealed the room behind me.

Downstairs there was one of the Sworn waiting for us with a large basket. “We could have filled a tub for you here,” she said, “but we thought you’d prefer a proper bath in the bath-house.”

Yes, we would! At the entrance to the bath-house a large fat dark woman greeted us, “Rusla! You’ve brought guests! Just a bath, or” (with a wink to Thulo) “would sir like something more?”

“Just a bath to start with, I think,” Thulo said.

The bath-house was a beehive of small pavilions, each with a sunken pool, some with people in it. “This isn’t the same bath-house that the king’s grandmother worked in as a young woman,” Rusla said, “Lord Lydan had it rebuilt completely.”

We washed at a stream of running water that came out of the wall, seeing layers and layers of grime coming off and running into the sink-hole, as dark as ink to start with. We wouldn’t be allowed in the warm water until it ran clear. “Wait until Tamame gets hold of your hair!” Rusla said to Maha, “you’ll hear some curses you’ve never heard before.”

A bath attendant came to take our clothes away to wash, others started to fuss around us as soon as we were in the warm bath. The mistress herself –Tamame– came to wash our hair, and yes, she did curse. “Yes,” Maha said, “all the copper we don’t have in the ground, we of the Satha clan have on our heads!” But after trying a couple of different combs, Tamame got one with coarse teeth that looked like silver but didn’t get black in the soapy water, and it ran through Maha’s hair perfectly.

“What’s that made of?” I asked.

“Iron, it’s one of the new inventions from Master Nakhast’s foundries. See, it bends and springs back beautifully. The hospital uses it for their knives, and for the children’s lice combs.” Suddenly, she made a face. “Lice! Of course, you’ve been at sea for a long time, all cooped up in that ship.”

“If I’ve picked up any I don’t mind having my hair right off again,” I said.

“Me too!” Maha said. “Now that will shock Mother. Pity she won’t see me until it’s grown back.”

“I have a saw that goes through brass like butter,” I said, “I can lend you that!” But little came of it, because Tamame had a kind of smelly oil that killed all lice outright, and Thulo didn’t approve of short hair –neither on himself nor on anyone else, but I didn’t let that hold me back– and the bath attendants had a different plan for me: they put something on my head that smelt for all the world like retting flax and forbade me to touch it. After a while it was rinsed out, and my hair was combed and cut, and someone held a silvered mirror up for me.

I didn’t recognise myself! The top of my hair was still bleached-blonde, but the sides were red, a bright deep shade that brought out the freckles on my cheeks. It was … interesting. “That will make people look twice at you!” Tamame said.

“Hm, I’m not sure I want people to look at me even once!” I said. “Can’t you at least make the middle part red too?”

I got to soak in the warm bath some more with something different in my hair, and then another look in the mirror. This time my hair was almost black, with a red tinge to it. I still didn’t look like what I thought of as myself, but at least it wouldn’t make any heads turn. “Thank you,” I said, “I like this!”

While I was waiting for my hair two of the bath girls had taken Maha away, tittering like sparrows, and now they brought her back– even more changed than I was! Her face was painted with tinted creams, her hair oiled –though it stood out like dandelion seed anyway–, and because the Order breeches Rusla had brought were too small for her hips Tamame lent her something of her daughter’s, a wraparound skirt and a very short jacket that left her midriff bare, and a huge scarf to wear on her head or shoulders or both. It was of a shiny fabric, all in jewel colours, red and blue and green in flame-like patterns. “Ooh!” she said. “We don’t even have linen at home, and we certainly don’t have this.”

“It’s silk from Ashas.” Tamame said.

“Perhaps you can buy some there to give to your mother,” I said, “she might like that!”

Maha nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, you may be right,” she said.

The face-paint and the clothes made her spectacularly beautiful. She would surely turn heads– and indeed Tamame had to cuff the young man among her bath attendants and send him away to finish rinsing our clothes.

Tamame held up a mirror for Maha to see herself. Maha was silent for a moment. “Wow!” she said. “I’d go for girls this moment if I didn’t prefer boys!”

“If you ever do decide to go for girls…” Rusla began hopefully, and I could see Maha give her a mental cuff. “Sorry!”

There was a whole crowd in front of the hospital gates, wagons and pack animals being loaded, doctors and nurses milling about. “There’s been an outbreak of sickness to the west,” Rusla said, “they’re going to do what they can before it becomes a full-blown epidemic. Last time the sickness came into the outskirts of the city.”

I could see Doctor Vauri, who looked positively grey. “She looks tired!” I said.

“Yes, doctors do get overworked in Albetire. We’ve had two or three who worked themselves to death in the last couple of years.”

But it didn’t seem to be only that; it looked as if she didn’t have enough anea, almost the way Athal had looked when I last saw him. When I said that to Rusla, she said: “You’ll find that it’s sometimes hard here to get your anea back when you’ve used it, I don’t know what causes it, I’ve heard there’s a whole forest without any anea some way to the west but that’s because of the Khas, and the Khas haven’t been here.”

“In Kushesh there was something –or someone– sucking up all anea, but I think we cleared that up,” I said.

“But Kushesh is a small place, isn’t it?” Maha asked. “Albetire is a huge city. Suppose you have a strawberry field the size of — well, of that hospital yard, full of strawberries, then you can pick everything and it’s empty, but if your strawberry field is the size of a city you can’t do that, before you’re finished there are new ripe ones on the other side!”

So perhaps there was someone here who did the same thing as in Kushesh, but Albetire was, well, a bigger strawberry field. It was a chilling thought. “Another thing to investigate,” I said. “But not today, I want to do my business first.”

I got my letters of credit from the Order house, and we went into the Temple of Mizran. It was huge, three times the size of the one in Valdis. The city was huge too, of course, and there were probably several other temples in other neighbourhoods, but this seemed to be the main one. The statue of Mizran was as high as three people, gilded, clothed in silk, with gilded animals lying at his feet: a fox, a great cat and something that was probably a bear, though I’d never seen a real one so I couldn’t be sure.

We found one of the ubiquitous Temple apprentices, but before we could ask him for directions he fell at Maha’s feet. “Princess! What an honour to have you here! If we’d only known you were coming we could have received you in style!”

He went on for a long time, and it started to dawn on us that he thought that Maha was Princess Ayneth. “Nonsense,” Maha said, “yes, I happen to be a princess but if you think I’m Princess Ayneth you should think again, for all I know she’s ten years older than me.”

“And her hair is as straight as a waterfall,” I said.

We got it sorted out, and the young man, much sobered. took us into a room where a Valdyan man was sitting at a desk. Light-haired, tanned, with a small fair moustache that bobbed up and down distractingly when he talked. “Faran, at your service. Ladies, sir, what can I do for you? I know that you are not Princess Ayneth and her entourage, I had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited our city.”

I gave him the letter from the Temple of Mizran in Valdis, though it was likely that later letters had arrived earlier with all the roundabout travel I’d been doing, and laid my sticky packet of letters of credit on the desk. “This is eighteen hundred riders,” I said, “I’d like to have them all rewritten, eight hundred in the name of Captain Sinaya of the Blue Dolphin and the rest in mine.”

“Sinaya? That’s not her ship, is it?”

“We had some… difficulty,” I said. “She is commanding the Blue Dolphin now, and needs money for equipment.”

Now he looked at me more attentively. “That can be done, master.” He was a master himself, in the other Guild. “Thank you, Master Faran,” I said.

“What brings you to Albetire? Oh, I’m forgetting my duties, let me offer you some refreshment.” He called for the apprentice, who brought a carafe of wine with four small cups and a plate of little dainties to eat. “What does bring you to Albetire? Are you planning to stay in Zameshtan?”

I knew that Zameshtan was the kingdom that Albetire was the capital of, but not how far south it stretched. “We’re going south,” I said.

“South! You must know that your letters of credit are no good in the south. This is the last temple of Mizran. I would advise you to take out any money you need in gold.” He went into a long discourse about the new coins the city had been minting, and how they were worth more than Valdyan riders and shillings because the metal was more pure, and showed us a couple of “double riders” with very sharp imprints as if they’d just been made — and as far as I knew they had, because the mint was still very new. “How far south, if I may ask?”

“Ashas,” I said, and regretted it immediately, but he’d caught me off guard. So much for going on the sly.

“Ah! You know that is a very dangerous place? There are even rumours that the deposed king has taken refuge there. Do you really want to go there?”

“I’m not my own master in this,” I said.

“Hm. In Ashas, Valdyan money won’t get you far, nor ours for that matter. Payments are mostly in gold bullion there, and gold dust for small transactions. I can give you a good price on that.”

“I do have some gold bars from Solay,” I said. “But I’ll come back here for the gold dust as soon as I know how much I’ll need.” I left him with my letters of credit and instructions to divide the funds between an account for me and another one for Sinaya. When my seal needed to go on the papers, I took out the Order seal –not the bunch of grapes from Essle, and definitely not the Eraday one– and was amused to see Faran flinch and avoid touching it.

Thulo changed some Solay cartwheels, but Maha didn’t have any money at all, only the wood and bone tokens they used in Velihas. We’d have to do our clothes-shopping on my travel budget.

“Wasn’t he a creep!” Maha exclaimed as soon as we were out of earshot of the Temple. “That boy was handsome, though.” I could only agree, both about Faran and about the apprentice, who looked as if he’d inherited the best features of all of his very mixed ancestry. “And you’ve told that priest where we’re going. Who else will he tell?”

I sighed. “I know I’m not an experienced spy,” I said, “I’m not good enough at being undercover to keep it up. Perhaps in ten years if I keep doing this work. For now, I assume that everybody knows who I am and where I’m going anyway, and I’d rather have it in the open than have them on my tail and think I’m safe.”

“Good thinking, really,” Maha said. Lucky catch, I thought.

Then we all realised, almost at the same time, that we were hungry. “Let’s try the Prince’s Inn!” I said. “I want a tankard of ale.”

That made Maha shudder. “I tried that in Cuytim and it tasted like dog piss! Well, like dog piss smells, I never tasted that.”

It was very quiet, because the mid-day people had gone and the evening people hadn’t arrived yet. We got a place in the upstairs room, and large tankards of ale without asking, which Maha took one sip of and made a face at. “Not at all like dog piss, but still bitter! Do you have any honey-wine?”

No honey-wine, but they did have sweet cherry wine, and Maha liked that very much. Roast chicken for her and me, and fish for Thulo, a sea-bass cooked over a charcoal fire that looked as delicious as my chicken tasted. They certainly knew how to cook here. We talked about other food, of course, as people do when they’re eating, and when I said that I’d tried oysters but didn’t like them much, Maha asked “But did they work?”

“Work?” I asked. “What are they supposed to do?”

“Well…” And she launched into a story about her eldest brother who had quarrelled with his girlfriend, even though she had brought him a dozen oysters and he’d eaten them all! Apparently, oysters are what you eat when you want to have sex but you can’t, or something like that. I had to explain that in Dadán they fished them out of the sea for the pearls, and ate them because they liked the taste. (At least I didn’t think all the sailors ate them for the effect!)

Then the conversation turned to the gods and their origins, and somehow we got Maha very angry because “no, you don’t understand at all! And that’s something I can’t explain!” Perhaps it was partly because she was sixteen and tired and more than a little drunk on cherry wine. I would like to talk about the gods with her when we’re both rested and sober.

More people were coming in to eat now. Two of them were Doctor Vauri and a richly-dressed youngish man who must be Lord Lydan. They sat down at the next table and the doctor spotted us and waved. A serving-woman brought them tankards of ale like our own, and very soon a dish full of quail, or anyway roast birds about that size. The doctor ate two, and Lord Lydan the other four, but it was only a starter: they got a whole suckling pig next. We hadn’t even finished our fish and chicken yet! Lydan ate most of it, but the doctor ate heartily too: she must be of the same kind as me, getting hungry from using semsin.

Vauri beckoned us over when we’d finished eating. I said I’d thought she’d gone with the wagons, but she said “I’m expecting our second. Strange, I know I’m seven months gone but it hardly shows! Last time I was like this at four, five months.” And she let us look inside her, where a baby was growing that looked perfectly normal to us.

Rhanion appeared, “we’ve had the evening service, let’s have that meeting I promised! Mehili excuses herself, she’s off west dealing with the epidemic, but she’ll want to meet you when she comes back.”

“Yes, I want to meet her too! And the general as well.” I was sorry to have missed the service, but I didn’t intend to stay only one day so there would be others.

We went into the palace, to “the blue reception room”, tiled from ceiling to floor with shiny blue tiles. “We have a red reception room too,” Vauri said, “but that’s too large, and the pink reception room is too small.” The blue one could comfortably hold the six of us, and Rhanion sealed it when we were all in. “Now,” he said, “let’s have your story.”

It took a long time to tell. Halfway through the evening Lydan called for wine and nibbles, but I forgot to eat and drink until we were done.

Maha was concerned about the army of semti, but I said “nobody in that army is more than six years old!” That immediately took care of my own concern, which I didn’t realise I’d had.

Also, I’d thought that the grand master of the Nameless that Thulo had killed in Kushesh was one of the three still missing from Albetire, but Rhanion knew that she wasn’t. So there are still three grand masters for us to deal with! “I said in Kushesh that I’m too small to go to Ashas, and here I am going to Ashas anyway!”

“A mouse is tiny,” Lydan said, “and it can still scare an elephant!”

“Are elephants really scared of mice? Why?”

“Elephants hate getting anything up their nose.”

We’d be the mice getting up the Resurgence’s nose, then. I could believe in that.

After the meeting Rhanion took us through a door directly to the Order house. We were all frisked by the guard there, even Rhanion himself. “That’s because you never know what people bring in, sometimes without knowing. We had someone with a bag of mushroom powder in his back pocket, slipped in while he was in the market, and when he sat down the powder spread and put everybody to sleep.”

I was extra careful to check my guest room for strange objects and substances but there were none, and no strange anea either.

I saw Thulo’s seal going up –he’d really learned a lot– and then Maha’s, in a rustle of leafy branches. Then I sealed my own room and fell asleep almost at once.

I woke in a strange place: a forest at night, on the bank of a fast-running brook. A pair of eyes peeked out from among the trees, and I looked a deer in the face that seemed as startled at me as I at it. Then it turned and ran away. In the distance I heard music, and when I followed the sound Thulo caught up with me and we went towards it together.

The music came from a clearing where Maha and two young men were sitting around a fire. One was about her own age, with a friendly open face, and one a couple of years older, very handsome. All had the same shock of curly red hair. They were singing. I didn’t understand any of the words, but I could hear that what Pái had sung was akin to it — like a single sparrow’s chirp compared to a dawn chorus of blackbirds.

Something large and hairy lumbered between Thulo and me– like a shaggy dog the size of a mule, with short thick legs –the front legs even shorter– a small head for its bulk, beady eyes, round ears, a muzzle with vicious little teeth in it. It halted, looked around a bit, saw the three at the fire and lay down, head on its front paws, with a sound like a satisfied sigh.

Are you in my dream? I asked Thulo.

I thought you were in mine, he answered.

Then we must both be in Maha’s.

The singing ended, the three people stood up, straightened their clothes –made of leather and fur, I could see now– and started to walk away, and I found myself in my hard guest bed again. It was still night; there were noises in the corridor, footsteps, Maha’s voice and another woman’s voice. My seal was intact; whatever had befallen me must have come right through it.

I slept for a couple of hours more, until the temple bell woke me. As I went to wash, the baker’s apprentice came through the gate with a basket of bread. “Hey!” he called. “Nice show tonight, is that your new offering for the city?”

Goodness, had it gone so far? I could see Maha with one of the Sworn, the older woman’s arm around her shoulders. “I must have fallen asleep before my seal was done!” Maha was saying, almost crying.

“Homesick, can happen.” the woman said. “Someone will fix your seals tomorrow.”

There was an ordinary, reassuring morning service, and breakfast, and then Maha was back to her usual self again. Now we could go into town to buy clothes, but first I wanted to visit Senthi’s husband and son so I could give them the portrait and the pearls.