Arrival in Solay

We still don’t know what will rouse Sedi. Though I do have an idea, but it needs more swimming on it. (ETA: Done, even without swimming. Next episode will make everything clear.)

Rewrote a large part of this because Sedi was sounding peevish and whiny, when she’s actually interested in most things, only useless on a ship for lack of competence. (And being incompetent is something she can’t stand!)

Well, seafaring is a dull affair. Perhaps that means that I was lucky because there was none of the excitement you might expect –storms, pirates, getting shipwrecked!– but all I could do was read and write and look at the sea. There’s no space on a ship for weapons training, and perhaps I should have offered to lend a hand and learn the ship’s work, but it looked as if nobody had time to even talk to me let alone have patience with someone with as little experience as I had. I have to correct what I said earlier: seafaring is a dull affair for people who don’t make their living by seafaring.

We rounded the bend — it was easy to see, there was always land in sight and it sort of doubled back on itself and the ship turned to the left rather sharply, which made me queasy again but not very badly. And we ate a pig then, cut up and roasted in pieces. On land it would have been roasted whole, but I could just imagine how a big cooking fire could wreck a wooden ship! I joined Sinaya for dinner a couple more times, and I borrowed the first mate’s cabin to treat Sinaya to dinner because it was large enough to have two people in there eating and even for a very small servant –Orian– to serve us.

Speaking of very small servants, Orian was doing quite well, even when the washing-water was sea-water after Selday and everything got very sticky with salt. I did talk to him about how he’d come to be aboard, and it turned out that he’d given the cook two measures of my brandy ration to bribe him! I’d already sealed the bottle, but I didn’t think the cook would need more bribes anyway. “Did you want to get away from someone in Essle?” I asked. “From Athal! There was glassware in that chest!” He ran away to get on with his work, and I didn’t blame him.

As we got closer to Solay the coast became greener. It had been a sandy yellowish-grey earlier, desert and desolate plains, but this looked like woods. Someone told me that the trees there grew in the water. I’d seen willows, of course, but these trees were growing in salty water! It was warm, too, muggy, and though there was a good breeze the ship was going just as fast because it blew into the sails, so it didn’t make it any cooler. One time we saw a thundercloud on the far side (called “the port side”, the left side of the ship) raining and flashing lightning on a little crowd of enormous fishes. “Whales,” Sinaya said. “They’re often around here.” They looked as if they had spirit, even more than the little dolphins we’d seen playing around the ship near Selday.

Then someone high up in the rigging — it might even have been Orian, or it was one of the other boys about his age who were running around the ship — called “Solay in sight!” I couldn’t see it myself yet, not being up in the rigging nor allowed to go there, but it was a matter of hours until we all saw what looked like a great white cliff on the horizon. There were many other ships around, of all sizes, and we were hailed by some of them. “Do you want to go to the main harbour or directly into the palace?” Sinaya asked. “If you have business in the palace it’s more convenient to land there.” “I have business with the princess,” I said, “so yes, to the palace please.”

I packed all my important things –letters, weapons– and only the clothes that didn’t seem too warm, not any of the woolen tradeswoman clothes, hoever stylish, because it was really hot here. I dressed in my thinnest linen shirt and the blue underskirt that could double as an overskirt. We sailed past a large harbour full of ships and turned into a smaller harbour sheltered by the cliff and high marble walls. “When are you going further on?” I asked SInaya. “When it suits you,” she said, looking a bit surprised. “After we’ve done our repairs, of course.” That was the first time I realised that this ship was really only serving me, not going somewhere on its own and taking me along! “I’ll have you informed,” I said and prepared to go ashore. “Are you coming?” I asked Orian. “If you want me to,” he said. I didn’t think I’d need him as a servant, but I felt responsible for him and perhaps he’d learn something, or make himself useful, or both. “Yes, please,” I said, and gave him my bag to carry.

I was so tired that I forgot entirely to look at the surroundings; all I remember is that it was oppressively warm and someone brought me to a place where it was cooler, in a sort of park with white buildings. There was a large white building that was half in ruins, a smaller white building that looked as if repairs had recently been done, and a bit strangely between them a wooden building that looked for all the world like an Order house. It turned out to be an Order house, too! A journeyman showed me where I could sleep and put my things and said that a bath was being run for me, but Master Aldan wanted to see me first. So I took the letters, and told Orian to find some job to do, and followed the journeyman to the office.

There were two people sitting there, a middle-aged man who must be the commander because he was in uniform and had an air of authority, and a woman of about sixty, small and wiry, tanned to a leathery brown. She was a grand master indeed, unremarkable as she might look on the outside. “Raith,” she introduced herself. “Aldan,” the commander said. They’d evidently been expecting me, “you are Imri from Valdis?” “Sedi,” I said, “I don’t think I need an alias here!”

They gave me cool tea and almond biscuits and asked about my voyage, as if I was a guest rather than a messenger. My letters for the Order and the baroness lay in front of me unregarded, until a much younger woman came running in, red-faced and sweating. She threw her cloth-of-gold cloak on a chair, an ornate headdress on another, and sank down on the chair next to Raith. “Gods, that was tedious,” she exclaimed. “And hot. Took twice as long as we’d expected, too. Any of that tea left? Thank you. So you’re the envoy from Lyse?”

This must be Princess Ayneth. She did look a lot like the king, except that her hair was bright flame-red instead of dark red, and she was hardly older than me. “Yes,” I said. “Your brother sends his love.” “How is my brother?” she asked. I didn’t really know how to answer that. “He’s been hit badly,” I said, “you know about the war in Hostinay?” and then touched her hand and showed her how I’d last seen Athal. She was silent for a long time. “That bad? — Raith, we’re going on a state visit to Valdyas, right now! Only you and me, with the fast ship.”

Then I finally got to give them the letters, and they read them and nodded as if they were convinced that I knew what was in them. There was some talk about the situation in the city, which I didn’t understand much of because I didn’t know what was in the letters, Most of it had to do with one Khopai, “my under-king,” Raith called him, “everything illegal that goes on in this city he’s got a hand in. And some of the legal things, as well.”

I don’t remember how we came round to the subject of gold, but Ayneth said “do you want to see our treasure room? I know you want to see it! I’ll give you a tour one of these days.” I had my bath after that, and when I asked for the loan of a uniform I got something really comfortable, made of cool grey linen and closed with drawstrings at sleeves and ankles. “That’s so the bugs don’t get in,” the journeyman who brought it said. I’d already been bitten by insects, so I could appreciate that!

At the evening service –had I really slept all afternoon?– Aldan told me about the Order in Solay: there were only a few people in this house, five masters and three journeymen. “You must think it’s very small,” he said, “I’ve heard you’ve got a thousand people in Valdis!” That made me laugh, and I said “No, only forty-two, and that’s counting me and two other people who are probably away.” Goodness, a thousand, where would Lyse put them! That would be one in fifty people in Valdis in the Order.

The Order here had another house, in a fort up the river outside the city, right on the border of the Khas lands. “We send everybody off as soon as possible,” Aldan said, “either on patrol or to the fort, or they become soft!” And indeed, most of the work was done by servants here: setting and clearing the table, laundry, house-cleaning, everything that would be a normal chore for everybody at home in Valdis. “You can’t live without servants here,” he said, “Prince Namak insists on us having them too.”

Orian was sharing in the servants’ work and grinning at me every time he passed. “I’ve been to the beach already!” he said. “With the Guild.” “The Guild?” I asked, surprised because I hadn’t noticed that he was gifted at all. “The Princess’ Guild! The boys, they know me already, I was here before when i was seven. And also when I was five.” Well, obviously Orian knew the city much better than I did, and I could safely let him go his own way, as long as I could get him back when I left.

The next day, and the couple of days after that, I joined in the everyday life of the Order. A master called Rusla taught me to handle my throwing knives, not before I’d damaged one by sending it far wide of the target against a stone wall. There was sword practice too, much more interesting than I was used to because everybody was using different swords, one person even two at once. And after dinner we sent the servants away, sealed the refectory, joined hands and did a sweep of the whole city. I’d never seen so many gifted minds in one place! And that was exactly the problem, Aldan said, because the Order was so small and they couldn’t keep track of everything. “You’re keeping up admirably!” he said to me, but it did leave me exhausted the first few times.

I intended to stay for a week, to get used to the heat and recover from being on a ship for weeks on end. That first day I’d completely missed the really exciting practice, and the second day Aldan advised me not to take part, because everybody put on heavy armour for it. It was a sort of hide-and-seek fighting game in a ruined bit of the palace. It was splendid to watch, and I was glad when I got so used to the heat that I could join in. “We’ve had too much trouble with chasing people who disappeared in alleys and buildings,” someone said, “we’re training to handle things like that now!”

On the Day of Anshen we had an archery contest with the regiment. I’d only learned as much archery as any journeyman, but that I was faster than most other people almost made up for that. The regiment had a training field with trenches, and targets in a staggered pattern, so you had to run through the trenches and shoot them one after the other. “If we win this time we get half an hour with the crossbows!” Aldan said, and we did our best and won by a hair’s breadth. The captain of the regiment came up to me, “new, aren’t you? From Valdis?” “Yes, did you hear my accent?” “No, I saw you shooting! You’re fast enough, but you can’t see those –he pointed at the targets– as Khas coming at you!” I was a bit shocked by that, because I only knew peaceful Khas –the queen’s secretary at court, for one!– and couldn’t imagine shooting them like targets.

We got the crossbows then, heavy things that looked like a short bow on a stubby stick, made mostly of iron. The arrows that went with it, “bolts” they were called, were also short and heavy and made of iron. You had to wind it like a winch, and when you let loose the bolt went through everything. It wasn’t fast, obviously, but very effective at a distance, and it was almost impossible to miss once you knew how to aim. Even I demolished a target with it at more than a hundred paces, the first time I had one in my hands. “Hm, do the Khas have war elephants?” I mused, but Rusla was very sharp, “you don’t kill an elephant!” Come to think of it, I agreed; the one elephant I’d seen, in Valdis, had definitely had spirit, as much as a whale, and elephants couldn’t help it when people took them to war.

“You owe us new targets!” the captain said to Aldan. “And we owe you a beer!” It was the first beer I’d had since Essle, perhaps not very good –it must be hard to brew when it was so warm– but nice enough after all that running. It was clear that Aldan and the captain were old friends, the way they taunted each other. Perhaps they’d been in the war together.

That evening I finally got my tour of the treasure room. It was more like a treasure cellar, even a whole underground system of cellars, with three heavy locked and barred doors between the ordinary palace cellars and it: corridors and rooms and vaults filled with gold and silver and jewels! “Have you ever wondered how much gold you can carry before your knees buckle?” Ayneth asked, and put gold bracelets on my arms and chains around my neck until I really couldn’t stand any more. “And this isn’t everything by far, there’s more beneath the sea that we haven’t even started to count yet.” I could imagine now that the king had said that Ayneth would give me gold for the journey, she seemed to have quite enough.

The tour ended in Ayneth and Raith’s private rooms, in the repaired white building. Their whole household was there: Prince Namak who I hadn’t seen before, not much taller than Ayneth and mild-mannered; a small light brown boy and a slightly larger dark brown boy who were Prince Radan and his milk-brother; a black Ishey woman and a very lovely brown Síthi woman with a small baby who were Prince Namak’s other wives; and the ubiquitous servants, one of whom handed the princess a bawling baby that she soothed and nursed. There was weak wine, and mint-flavoured water-ice, and dainty little things to eat, but I was so overwhelmed with everything that I had to excuse myself soon and fell into bed and dreamed of rooms filled with gold.