Expecting long evenings on the roof terrace, we thought up a single-player side campaign. We haven’ t had one for a while and were missing it. It’s already full of excitement.
I joined the Order at sixteen, kind of late, but I’d really tried to be a farmer. The only thing I didn’t like about farming is that it’s always in the same place. Then I went to Valdis hoping to become a Guild runner and spent the next eight years in the same place as well, even without the season’s changes that keep farm life interesting. And to my surprise I usually wasn’t bored, probably because I was too busy.
But this particular afternoon I was both busy and bored, because I was on paperwork duty. I’d already sorted most of the stack into ‘handled’, ‘doesn’t need handling’ –where anonymous letters go, we had a particularly nasty one– and ‘needs time and/or money thrown at it’ piles, and I was just putting the note from the farrier saying “aren’t your horses due for shoeing?” on that third pile when Erian and Ayneth came back from patrol. Erian threw his gloves on the anonymous-letters pile and said “Nothing going on! Again! Say, master Sedi, remember that house in the swamp where the invisible princess was hiding? We heard that someone’s been seen there again, can’t we go and investigate, the two of us?”
Well, that was actually a good idea, and if it had been mine to decide I’d have given them my blessing at once, but it wasn’t, of course. “I’ll take it up with Lyse,” I said, and they nodded and went to change for prayers and dinner. Then Lyse herself appeared, flustered as always, too distracted to listen to my reports, toying with Erian’s glove that she’d picked up. “That isn’t your responsibility any more,” she said, “put on your dress uniform and I’ll take you to the king.”
What? When she said “that isn’t your responsibility any more” I got a sinking feeling that I’d done something wrong that I didn’t know about, but the king! Did he need a sword tutor for the princes? But they were still too little to swing more than a wooden play sword. I do teach the children’s class, but I don’t take them before they’re seven, and I thought Prince Vurian wasn’t even five yet.
I hurried to change, splashed water in my face, brushed my hair, gave my least-worn boots a rub with a rag. I’d probably arrive at the palace looking like a startled rabbit anyway, but that couldn’t be helped. We went on horseback, for propriety rather than speed because it isn’t any faster than walking in the crowded streets. After we’d handed the horses to a groom Lyse strode into the palace just like that, passing the door guards without a word, and I followed in her wake. I’d been in the great hall and the anteroom, but never in the king and queen’s private quarters. That was where we went this time, up a flight of stairs into the new wing.
I don’t know what I’d expected, but certainly not that the king’s sitting room would be just like home, bare scrubbed floorboards with a single rug in front of the fireplace, small boys building a tower from wooden blocks, a baby crawling underfoot, and two women in a bay window mending linens! I’d seen the king only from a distance, before he was wounded in the battle of Hostinay. Now he had a patch over one eye –where the eye had been, I knew he’d lost it– and walked with a limp and looked generally ragged. And from close up he turned out to be shorter than me and no broader in the shoulders. But he was still clearly a king and a grand master and I went down on one knee and said “Your Majesty.”
I heard Lyse suppress a snort, and the king raised me up and said firmly “Athal.” Well, it will probably be some time until this farm girl dares call the king by his first name, even though we’re in the Guild together.
We all sat down at a large table full of papers: the king, a tall thin woman about my age who must be the queen, a grizzled man with a Brun face, Lyse and I. The two women picked up their mending and disappeared into a back room. The king sealed the room, very thoroughly –I’d love to learn from him!– and waved some introductions, “Raisse. Our children. My uncle General Ferin.” “I’m Ainei Sedi,” I said. Lyse needed no introduction, of course.
“So you’ve brought her.” I felt myself looked over and was suddenly very conscious of my startled-rabbit face and my boots sorely in need of the cobbler. “Hm. Has Lyse told you what this is about?”
“No, Your— No, she hasn’t.”
“There are two things,” the king began. “Three things in fact. First, our Vurian got a rather unusual gift for his name-giving from the king of Albetire, a deed of ownership of a village and the surrounding lands. It’s some way to the east of Albetire, on the coast as far as I know. Pegham, it’s called, and the region is Tavaneshtan. We sent a regiment there, because it’s part of the kingdom now and we have a duty to protect it, but it’s never been heard of again.”
“So you want someone to go there and investigate,” I said. “Under cover in case there’s something fishy going on.”
“Exactly,” the queen said. “They may have been shipwrecked, or wiped out by Khas, or even arrived and liked it so much there that they deserted to settle down, we don’t know. We don’t want to send another regiment after them because they might run into the same problems.”
“Does Albetire even have a king?” I blurted out. “Isn’t that part of the kingdom now, too?”
“It had a king then,” the king said, “not any more. Only Little Valdyas is part of the kingdom, I’m afraid that the rest may be in chaos. And that’s the second thing, we want someone to report on the situation who can look with a fair eye, without being an expected guest who gets…” He waved his hands as if to pull the right word from the air. “A tailored experience,” the queen added. “And without Cynla Brun getting wind of it. She’s lived there for thirty years and she may be a Brun but she’s more Iss-Peranian than the Iss-Peranians these days.”
“I’ll leave it up to you what cover you use,” Lyse said, and I said I thought I’d best go as a Valdyan soldier because the city must be crawling with those. “Yes, but what regiment?” the general asked with a grin. “Valdis,” I said, “or Essle, I don’t mind much, it’s just that I’ll have an excuse to bear weapons really.” “Oh, but Turenay has a much prettier uniform!” the king said, and we all laughed about that until the thought of the rest of the assignment sobered us up.
“Thirdly,” the king said. “I also had some letters from the king of Ashas –the emperor of Ashas, really.” That made me catch my breath. “Oh, you’ve heard of Ashas, then. He wants me to come and grovel at his feet, it seems. The embassy that carried the letters got much reduced, and finally wiped out completely, and the letters were brought here by the foreign apprentice doctors.” I remembered those, the two girls we’d had in the attic of the Order house for a couple of days, and I also remembered chasing their big shaggy dog from the yard, or perhaps it belonged to one of the dark-skinned young men they’d had with them. “They came by way of Dadán, a town on the coast in Il Ayande or Jomhur, it’s not clear which, where there’s also a Valdyan regiment, or what’s left of it. You will be passing it between Solay and Albetire “–that was the first I heard of going by Solay– “and I’d like them to know that their king hasn’t forgotten them. And also to hear how they are getting along, of course.” “But watch out,” the queen said, “by all we’ve heard it’s a very good place to be, and if you stay too long you may not want to leave.” “And never get to Albetire, let alone Prince Vurian’s village!” I said. “No, I’ll make sure I don’t get stuck.” “My little sister is in Solay,” the king said, “do go and talk to her and give her my love.”
As we were about to leave one of the little boys ran up to me. He must be the crown prince, by his red hair. “You’re going to my village, right? Those are my people, and if you see when you get there that anyone is hurting my people you must stop it!” “As well as I can,” I promised. “I’ll write a letter to take to my people!” he said. “I’ll do that,” I said, “and read it to them.” Finding someone to translate would probably be the least of my worries.
Then Athal hugged me, and I felt anea flowing from me to him, for all he was the grand master. An Iss-Peranian woman came in who must be a doctor by her manner, though she was dressed in traditional wrapped clothes. She said to him, “You’ve been taking too much out of yourself again! Go and rest this instant!” “She’s right this time,” the queen said, and the doctor shooed me and Lyse out of the room.
Lyse didn’t say a word while we walked down the stairs and out of the palace, or when we were riding back to the fort. When we were back home she took me right into the temple and sealed it fiercely before speaking. “There’s one more thing,” she said. “Athal doesn’t know this, nor does Ferin, and I don’t think they should know until it’s been solved. There’s been a rumour that our house in Cuytim –in Velihas– has been implicated in slave trade from Velihas to Albetire.” “Surely that can’t be true?” I asked. “I don’t think there’s any truth in it,” Lyse said, “but rumours spread, and that it’s reached as far as here means that half the world must have heard it. And your route to Vurian’s village coincides with part of the route that a ship from Albetire to Cuytim would take.”
Then she got all practical, “You can have anything you need for the journey. I’ll give you a list of people you can trust, which you’ll learn by heart — it shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. “I’ll burn it,” I said. “Eat it!” Lyse said with a grin. “I want you to leave early tomorrow.” And she sent me, quite literally, packing.