Meeting in the bath-house

It was so hard to get the characters to meet! It took half the session and two trips to the bath-house. It didn’t help that while Sedi’s player (me) and Thulo and his player all knew they ought to meet, Sedi herself didn’t, frustrating me no end.

Lots of gaps in the narrative because Thulo’s bits came in between.

Something I remember, but not where it came in the story: a noble-looking man (Moryn, perhaps ex-Eraday) telling us that a pirate captain (?) had landed, with his wife who was probably a dandar (and her name was mentioned but Sedi didn’t recognise it); this wife having been seen at the workshop of Doreyn Doryn the jeweller, perhaps connected with smuggling silver. I also have a note about (the bath-house proprietor?) saying “the baroness needs to know this” but I don’t know what it was she needs to know.

I arrived with my parcel of letters just after the evening meal, but Khopai had fed me generously so it didn’t matter. The first thing I did was send to Sinaya to say I was all right, and while I was doing that Aldan came from the refectory and saw me. “Ah, you’re back,” he said. “Success?” “Yes, I think so,” I said. “Khopai said that he and I have the same problem, but he never told me which problem it is!” (Now, looking back, I think the problem seems to be the Nameless. Too big a problem for either of us to solve!)

I unwrapped the papers in Aldan’s workroom. They seemed to be related to trade, receipts and acknowledgements, some in Iss-Peranian and some in Síthi, and I couldn’t make much of even the ones I could read. When I stared at them a little longer I began to see discrepancies– nine hundred barrels of wine ordered and paid for, only six hundred delivered and acknowledged at the other end, and more of that kind of thing. Goods and money were lost in transit, or perhaps the goods never existed but someone was pocketing the money anyway. “I can’t read half of these,” I said, and Aldan sent for a chancery clerk, a man in the Guild who he trusted completely. The clerk sniffed at the papers, rubbed them between his fingers, turned them over, but apparently didn’t find what he was looking for. “Looks like someone grabbed a bunch of documents from a merchant house’s strong-box,” he said. “I hope the owner doesn’t want them soon or there’ll be an uproar.” But none of the papers seemed to be recent enough for someone to want them, all of them were dated a year or more ago.

I’d been right about the discrepancies. There were letters and bills and receipts from Solay, Essle and Albetire, all concerning expensive goods –wine, jewellery, dyed cloth, silverware– and huge amounts of money, all indicating that money was silently disappearing. There was mention of “the southbound road” in one letter, and that must be the road from Albetire to Ashas because obviously there’s no road south from Essle, and south from Solay you end up in the swamp. “I don’t know how he thought that would make his problem clear to me,” I said. “Finance is not part of my assignment!” “It’s not the job of the Order either,” Aldan said, “but if he wants to rope you in for that you’ll have a hard time refusing. One doesn’t refuse Khopai, not if one wants to stay in one piece.”

Somehow I thought the financial problem wasn’t exactly what Khopai wanted to rope me in for, but why had he given me the papers then? To show that he trusted me? I could imagine that he didn’t trust anyone in the temple of Mizran, or what was he called here, Micalacuk, but surely he had his own people for that? Well, part of the problem seemed to be in Albetire and I was going there anyway, I might as well investigate. “I’d better be off to Albetire soon,” I said, “anything that has to be done here is for others to do, I suppose.” I did make a note of the people involved — the jeweller Doreyn Doryn and a priestess of Naigha called Liase in the Valdyan temple here in Solay, and the trader Venlei Mialle in Essle and her secretary Serlei Jinla. “You’re from Essle, right?” Aldan asked. “Do you know them?” I told him that I wasn’t actually from Essle, I’d only been there a couple of days, and anyway Mialle –and even Venlei Mialle– was a very common name. I thought for a moment that it might be the woman who’d dropped the pearl from her robe, but that would be too much of a coincidence!

At the nightly sweep I could actually see where I’d been– there was no mistaking Khopai’s– I’m tempted to say “lair” but I’ll be charitable and say “house”. It was indeed one of the places where stuff was going on. Still, we couldn’t see what was going on any more than before.

I kept worrying a little for all of the next day, though hard practice did a great deal to put my mind off it. It was another sweltering hot day, and we were all sweating so much after practice that we went to the bath-house on the big square in front of the palace. The cook went with us, and one of Princess Ayneth’s maids, and a couple of soldiers, so it was quite a large party. Most of us went to soak in the large communal bath after washing the sweat off, but I tried the steam-bath. That was already good for my stiff shoulders, and with the steam-bath came a massage that relaxed me even more. When I finally got to the main bath Aldan and Jeran were talking to a young man who seemed to be worried about something, in Síthi so I couldn’t understand a word of it. About his shipment that hadn’t arrived, they told me later. It hadn’t been clear if it was related to the other case, but they’d asked him to come to the palace tomorrow morning and talk to the chancery so they could find out what had happened. “I’m not so sure he will come,” Jeran said, “he might be a smuggler himself, and in that case he deserves everything!”

Aldan and Jeran did some strange sit-down wrestling after they came out of the bath. It went on for a long time, until Jeran toppled Aldan off his seat, and then I could see the seats were part of the bath-house, stone cubes fixed to the floor. “That’s Síthi wrestling,” Jeran said, “they say it’s the most noble kinds, but I think it’s because they’re too lazy to get off their butt!” “Perhaps it’s been invented by someone who busted both his legs in a fight and wanted to wrestle anyway!” I said. “Can I learn that?” “If you stay another five years,” Aldan said. Then we heard noise on the other side of the bath-house, where two men were doing sit-down boxing, surrounded by a large crowd of watchers. That didn’t look noble at all: the men were ugly and scarred, and all they did was clout each other on the face until one of them was unconscious.

The worried man didn’t arrive the next morning, and frankly I forgot about him until the evening when a little girl brought me a letter. It was a different little girl than the one who had brought me Khopai’s letter: a bit smaller, very cute, with large dark eyes. I thought I’d seen her watching the sword practice earlier, she must be one of the children who were running around the palace grounds. She waited patiently for an answer while I read it. It was in trade Iss-Peranian, probably written by someone who wasn’t used to writing that language –it was hardly better than mine– but clear enough, coming down to “I want to meet you in private about the affair you know of, please communicate” only both clumsier and more flowery. The writer signed himself (Aldan knew it was a man’s name) Thulo. “Well, let’s invite him here!” I said, but the girl insisted that he wouldn’t want to come. “Say,” I said to Aldan, “I think that is the man from the bath-house!” I could actually find him in the square, because he was gifted, though completely untrained as the Síthi are. “All right,” I said to the girl, “I’m willing to meet your master.”

Aldan wouldn’t let me go unescorted, even though I said “you’ve seen my weapons and what I can do with them.” “I’ll meet him in the bath-house, then,” I said, “the best way to be private in plain sight.” I wrote “I’ll meet you in the steam-bath in an hour” on the back of the note and gave it back to the girl with a penny. Aldan said something to her in Síthi, and she nodded and promptly demanded another penny from him. He sent her on her way with a good-natured cuff. “Beggar kid,” he said, “from the north side, I wouldn’t be surprised. Like that man, come to think of it, you can tell by the way they talk.” That was where Khopai was, too! Well, I’d find out.

When we got to the bath-house –for Aldan hadn’t only given me an escort but gone along himself as well– it was already late and very quiet. When I entered the steam-room I could see a couple of feet and sat down across the corner from them. “Thulo?” I asked. “Yes,” a voice said. I felt Aldan’s seal close over the door. All right, we were private. “You wanted to speak to me.” It was a difficult conversation, because we were both speaking a language that wasn’t native to us and trying to say enough but not too much– at least I was, and I think the kind of diplomacy that consists of making allusions and expecting the other person to guess what you’re talking about without ever coming to the point is natural for Síthi. But eventually I knew that he was in trade, that he was interested in the loss of money and goods, and that he thought –as I was starting to think– that the Guild of the Nameless or whatever was the equivalent in other countries than Valdyas was at least partly behind it. He offered his services to me, in whatever capacity it would be useful. I didn’t want to employ him, though I would be glad to have him as a fellow traveller and associate if our ways happened to run side by side for a while.

I scratched at the seal when it was clear that we only had to make practical arrangements, not a moment too soon because I was well and truly cooked. “At least your seal didn’t keep the steam in!” I said. “Pff, I’m not the king!” Aldan said and went into the steam-bath himself while Thulo and I lay on the massage benches. There’s not much one can say when a strong woman is kneading one’s muscles, so we had enough time to think before we were in the common bath — now almost private, there were some whores trying to get a bed for the night and a pair of merchants finalising a deal. “You’ll need travel money,” I said, both to make it clear that I wasn’t going to finance him and to find out if he had any funds at all. “I suppose that won’t be a problem,” he said. “How much?” Hmm, that was a point. “That depends,” I said. “I’ll take you to meet the captain tomorrow so she knows you’ll be travelling with me, and you can make arrangements with her.” We arranged to meet again the next day, in front of the gates, when the signal sounded for the building workers to start.

Thulo left soon after, and I waited for Aldan and the others so we could talk while we walked. “I like him,” I said, “though I don’t know yet whether to trust him. Or even what he really wants. And” –it suddenly occurred to me– “I’m practically sure he’s working for Khopai.” “Let’s see where he goes,” Aldan said, and indeed we could follow Thulo all the way to Khopai’s house. “Hm, he’s definitely gifted, does he know about Anshen and the Nameless?” “Well, the Síthi way,” I said. “But he’s on the same side as we are in that, at least.” “I think you’ve got yourself an apprentice,” Aldan said with a grin.