So here I am in Solay — have to learn to call it Aumen Síth, easy enough when I’m trying to speak Síthi but I can’t write Síthi yet — writing on the strange paper they have here, Raith says made of reeds. When I tried and failed to write with a brush Raith got me a kind of stone stylus, like charcoal only much harder, which works, sort of. Perhaps I can round up a goose and procure some quills.
It turned out that I’m almost as bad a sailor as Athal. I thought that was an affliction of grand masters, and that I as barely-a-master would be spared it! But Athal says anybody can get seasick. He was right, by the way, that seasickness is something you don’t die of but you wish you would. I spent most of the voyage alternately lying in my bunk feeling rotten and hanging over the railing being sick. Athal was actually worried when he didn’t see me, he thought that Raith had left me behind after all. Fortunately, the next moment I was in his arms, neither of us caring that I was filthy after six weeks in the same clothes and he was very kingly in something dark blue. He tells me he hasn’t worn the same clothes twice since he pacified the city around the feast of Timoine (and it’s almost the feast of Anshen now). He doesn’t know what happens to the clothes, perhaps they sell them in the city.
Solay is built mostly on mud, but after all that water it felt delightfully solid. I sat down on the ground when I was done hugging Athal and saw Raith being hugged by a tall dark woman who could only be Bebakshi. That was a hug that could have made me jealous if I hadn’t known who it was. It’s evident that they love one another dearly, and Raith told me later that if she’d had a daughter it might have been that way. Bebakshi is family, it’s just that I still have to work out what kind of family she is of me because obviously she can’t be my sister if she’s Raith’s daughter.
We were taken from the quay –a temporary affair off the palace hill, not to be confused with the big harbour, and the small harbour, and the old harbour; I think I’ve seen them all but I can’t keep them straight yet– to the palace. This is a large mostly white building or rather a complex of buildings, parts of it in disarray or burnt or being reconstructed or all of those. It has a large broken dome that Athal is leaving as a reminder for the people of Solay. Also, I suppose, because things like temples are in more need of rebuilding. There was a courtyard with a pool where they’d made us a bath. Blessed warm water! Without any salt in it! We had several women to wash us, and oil our hair, and grumble at mine (I don’t know if they grumbled at Raith’s, but they must have), and put a clean and surprisingly fitting linen shirt on me, and lots of other things, including jewellery. Then I got to take most of it off again, because we were shown to our rooms in a wing of the palace. Athal said that we might want to take a house in the town but he’d rather have us close to him, and the rooms looked perfectly all right, especially the very large bed with a mosquito-net draped over it.
I slept, until I was woken by shrieks: a small naked boy being chased by a slightly larger girl carrying something that looked like his clothes. I slept again, until I was woken by a snore that I discovered was Raith’s, so I snuggled against her back and slept some more. All that time young women were making soft music, and waving big fans to cool us, but I didn’t notice much of it until I woke up again because Raith was kissing me in quite an intimate place. She’d made a seal, but it looked as if people could just look through it, and it would have made me very uncomfortable if she hadn’t been completely unfazed herself. I said that perhaps I’d prefer a townhouse after all, but according to Raith that wouldn’t be any more private, and if we shut ourselves in a sealed room people would worry. And anyway, after a while it was easy enough to ignore whoever else was in the room; they didn’t seem to be paying attention until someone scrabbled at the seal because she thought we’d like wash-water and a cool drink.
While I was sitting up in bed something pushed against my back. It was a little goat, trying to eat the sheet. The girl I’d seen earlier caught it and explained –my Síthi was getting better all the time– that the boy should have kept it in check. “It’s for the milk,” she said. I didn’t understand that at first, because the goat was far too small to milk, and moreover it looked like a billy-goat. But obviously the mother goat needed it to be able to give milk in the first place. “For the baby,” she said. “Doesn’t the baby’s mother have any milk?” Raith asked, but it turned out that the baby’s mother had died.
Then it was time for the informal dinner that Athal had planned with only us, him, Bebakshi and her intended (a very large smith from Rychie Tal-Serth, looking uncomfortable because everybody else was clearly either noble or otherwise a celebrity), and General Beguyan and his wife. We were taken there by a lady with a tinge of questionable morality about her, who disappeared, along with most of the servants and guards, when Athal gave her a sign. We weren’t precisely alone, there were lots of servers and musicians and I think even a few dancers, but it was intimate enough. Beguyan’s wife Mehili is a delightful little thing, all sweetness and poetry. (She’s also a great administrator; he doesn’t only take her along for recreation, but because he’s a leader of men, not a pusher of papers.) Beguyan himself is as ugly as they come, short legs and long arms and a face like a turnip left in the cellar until summer, but a very good man as well as an excellent general.
The conversation seemed to be light and inconsequential, but all the same they were evaluating me. Eventually the general and his wife seemed to have come to the conclusion that I’m a practical person with little use for poetry, but apparently good enough for Raith, who they have a very high opinion of.
The next morning –I can’t remember going to bed– we were awake very early for some reason. Raith asked me, out of the blue, if I could swim. “Yes,” I said, “Father taught us in Valdie Liorys.” I don’t actually remember learning to swim, only that Father taught Aidan when he was four and I was nine or so and Athal and Alyse and I already could. Raith took me to the courtyard with the pool. It was long and deep enough to have a proper swim in. Apparently it had been a swimming-bath for the emperor’s women!
Again it was clear that we couldn’t do anything unobserved: as we came out of the pool there were several young women with towels. The one who handed me mine looked half Khas and half Síthi and smiled at me bashfully.
When we were back in our bedroom Raith beckoned me to an unobtrusive little door. A servants’ door, leading to a thatched annex of the main building. It was full of people of all ages, all clearly Síthi. A large white goat was asleep in a corner. The boy who should have kept the goat in check was holding a crying baby, trying to get him to drink, but he was too young to understand the use of a cup and sucking milk from his minder’s fingers was too inefficient. I suddenly remembered the orphaned baby we’d had in the hospital in Veray, who we’d given milk from a cup with a hole in the bottom, and resolved to speak to a potter about it.
Our young women were getting worried: when we came back they were waiting for us and asked whether we’d have breakfast in our rooms or with the king. “With the king,” I said, “if the king approves, of course.” The king did approve, and we were shown to his apartments, a suite of rooms at the top of the palace tower. It had been the emperor’s. Raith thought it strange that it was on a top floor– Síthi usually lived on the ground floor only. Athal said that the emperor had had his rooms at the top of the building as a show of bravery. For him it had the advantage that he was served only by his own Valdyan and Iss-Peranian soldiers and didn’t find random Síthi girls in his bed as he had when he was sleeping downstairs. He is pining for Raisse so much! I hope he’ll finish briefing Raith soon so he can go home and see her and his new daughter.
Breakfast turned seamlessly into Athal showing Raith the ropes of running the city. I watched them for a bit, but I couldn’t do anything: Athal has turned into a proper king, and Raith is of course an experienced baroness; I’m the practical person, and though I can do some administration if I have to I’d rather be where people are working and work along with them. “Can you spare me for an hour?” I asked, and went to find the potter. First, back to the servants’ quarters, where the old woman sent a young girl with me to navigate the service corridors of the palace. We ended up in a courtyard where artisans had their workplaces. The palace had its own potter’s workshop, not surprising because of the number of people living there. I explained what I was looking for: a cup, about that size, with a spout at the bottom so a baby could drink milk from it. “Like a tit?” the potter asked doubtfully. “Yes! Exactly like a tit!” And he gave me a thing like an upside-down bottle that they used to water plants slowly. I said I’d try it out and come back if I needed something different. The thing worked, but it was too rough for the baby to drink comfortably and the milk would seep in and stink. “You need a glazed one,” said the young girl, and ran away, presumably to the potter.
When I was on my way back to Athal’s apartments at last, Raith and Athal were coming out. The next item was a tour through the city, and indeed there were horses and guards waiting. I’d secretly hoped for an elephant, but Athal said people didn’t see you when you were on an elephant, and the Síthi elephants were even bigger than the Iss-Peranian ones like those in Valdis. With all the guards around us I didn’t see much of the city except buildings, but I could see that there was much rebuilding going on. I’m so eager to get my hands on something! I just hope I can do it without more soldiers than absolutely necessary to keep safe.
At one point we passed a gate and we were in the Iss-Peranian part of the city. The Valdyan guards were replaced with Iss-Peranian ones. Beguyan was there, too, with a man not much older than me who is in charge of that neighbourhood, Shishe Namak. Beguyan is going home with his wife and most of his army as soon as the harvest is in and the rain starts. It’s very nice weather now –a bit warm, but I’m almost used to it– but it will rain soon for weeks on end, relentlessly, ceaselessly, mercilessly. Raith has already seen a rainy season and she’s not looking forward to it, but the crops need it. The grain we brought in the White Whale won’t grow here –they have a special kind of grain that doesn’t mind growing in the mud, and rice too, which actually needs to be in water– but Athal is going to send it where they have the most need of it, probably Il Ayande.
That evening there was a smallish banquet for about forty officials: Valdyans and Iss-Peranians, no Síthi. Bebakshi and her smith weren’t there either, but Uncle Ferin was so I could sit next to him and give him Talvi’s letter, which he spent the rest of the meal reading over and over again. He should really go home with Athal; if Aumen Síth needs a Valdyan general someone else can have the honour.
Athal was drinking from a large golden cup, filled from a golden pitcher, After the meal he told us that we should do that too as soon as possible: there was pomegranate juice in it, or melon juice, so he could be seen drinking all evening without getting drunk on Síthi wine. Apparently the priests in the old Aumen Síth had been drunk from morning till evening, because only servants were allowed to drink anything but wine. We’d had iced fruit juice earlier, but that was ice, Athal said, it didn’t count as a drink.
We were sitting in a courtyard in the cool evening. At one point Raith spotted some movement on the other side: the boy, the baby, and the goat. The boy started to flee, but we asked him to come over to us. The boy gave me the baby to hold and, proudly, a smooth glazed version of the bottle I’d acquired earlier, decorated with flowers. “Is he your brother?” Athal asked, but no, “I found him, he doesn’t have any parents.” The baby fell asleep in my lap, the boy fell asleep with his arms around Raith’s knees, the goat fell asleep too, I think, and when Athal left us to go up we carried both children to our bed and went to sleep as well.