Albetire at last

We’d been promised a session that wasn’t all Guild work, and lo! it came to pass. Instead, we got culture shock, and intrigue, and more culture shock, and a doddering old man who can hardly be dangerous any more even if he probably was when he was younger, and a temple that was all too octagonal. And Raisse got a very large and fierce kitten. Oh, and did I mention culture shock?

We were so tired that we slept like a pair of logs. The sounds of the morning ritual woke us, so we went out to attend it. The words were there, but the heart seemed to be gone: as if there was no longer any need for it. It didn’t change anything, as it had when Hinla had been taking part.

Rikhi had seen it too. After he finished –without Hinla, of course, this time– he came up to us, shrugging helplessly, “the root has been pulled from the village” was what I could gather from him. It was clear that he was at a loss. Also, he was hungry, so we took him and his wife to our house for breakfast. Food had been scanty for a few days: most things had already been packed for the journey.

After breakfast we went to look in on Hinla. It turned out that she’d been awake for part of the night, and someone had come to get Raisse as she’d been promised and they hadn’t been able to get in. Apparently, tired as I was, I’d sealed the room a bit too thoroughly. But Hinla was awake now, and clung to Raisse immediately and wouldn’t let go of her, so we decided to take her home with us. Lyan took me aside, “it’s that Guild stuff of course, and I don’t get any of it, but she does feel different, she used to be like tar that doesn’t take, now she’s much smoother.” I didn’t know about tar but thought it was like yeast that won’t flow, much the same thing.

Raisse fed Hinla some porridge, with difficulty –she weighed almost nothing, there wasn’t anything to digest much with!– and then we carried her home with us.

It went very well for a couple of days: apparently she approved of being in our bed and wasn’t even jealous of the babies. She seemed to get a little stronger, too. But after a few nights she had a terrible nightmare, screaming words none of us could understand, not even Dushtan who we called immediately. She was speaking the women’s language, the doctor said: the men had their own language for things men talked about like war and hunting, the women their own for things women talked about and that they wouldn’t teach Dushtan even though she was a woman, and there was a shared part of the language with things like “get my dinner” and “that was nice, thank you”. Some of the women could speak the men’s language, and Dushtan now spoke a bit of the men’s language too.

We got an elderly woman to sleep in the house at night to see if she would be able to understand what Hinla said in her dreams, but the next time the nightmares came the woman was so shocked that she ran out of the house, tripped, fell forward, and continued on hands and knees. Raisse is still curious what exactly Hinla said, though Dushtan said “some things you just don’t want to know”. It was back to holding her to allay her nightmares. It was hard on Raisse; Hinla was getting to trust Senthi as well but tolerated only Raisse in the middle of a nightmare.

Then, after about two weeks, there were great shouts of joy from the outskirts of the village: the masts! We’d already known for some days that they were on their way, but it was still an event. Each mast was carried by several men, with great cats they had killed hanging from them, even more different kinds than the Khandihan had brought for us. And two men were carrying spears with a lion’s skin spread over them, cured by diligent scraping. The captain helped me lift it on my shoulders, paws hanging down in front and the open jaw on my head. If only Reshan could have seen me!

There was a present for Raisse as well: “the daughter of the king of the forest”, a small fierce lioness cub that hissed and spat at her when it was brought forward. Someone –I think Mikhanan– slipped a leash on it and shut it up somewhere it couldn’t escape from to wreak havoc in the village. “They can be tamed,” the army captain said, “this village used to be famous for it. But you Valdyans probably won’t like the way they do it, the same way as with children or women, apply a length of rope often enough and they’ll be tame all right.” Kistid added that he’d been to Valdyas and noticed that our women aren’t at all tame.

After some talk we agreed –out of Mikhanan’s hearing– to let the cub loose when we left, telling the villagers that we were leaving her to guard the village. Kistid would tell Ruchkhane, Ruchkhane would tell Mikhanan, and he would tell everyone else. The little lioness was old enough to catch her own food: she’d be all right. I’d seen voles as big as rabbits in the wood, exactly the kind of thing that would suit a kitten her size.

The repair work was going very fast now; so was the packing. We were called to inspect the ships, and it was a good thing that there were so many knowledgeable people accompanying us, because all I could see was that they were clean and looked whole. There were Khas on all of the ships, to maintain the impression that Khas ships had captured a Valdyan ship, and also Iss-Peranian and Valdyan soldiers on the Khas ships to keep the Khas from mutiny. They’d told us we could sail the next day if I gave the word, so I did. The sooner we sailed, the sooner it was over with. We’d depart some three hours before dawn because that was best with the tide and we could get away out of sight before it was light enough for any enemies on the shore to see us.

That evening there was a final celebration. There wasn’t much to eat left, but a lot of singing and dancing, Rikhi’s farewell prayers, and –at least where we were– enough wine. During the evening, people started going away to take ship, the least important first, leaving us on the veranda of the house almost to the last. While we were sitting in the dark, Mernath appeared at my shoulder, Maile close behind him. She carried a flagon of wine and four cups, gave one to Raisse, one to me, one to Mernath and, after some hesitation, one to Senthi. I picked up the cup I’d been drinking from and gave it to her.

Mernath looked askance at Hinla, who was sitting at Raisse’s feet. He seemed to take Senthi in stride, but he could probably see very well that Hinla was gifted and didn’t know what to make of her. Then he realised, I think, that she wouldn’t be able to understand a word we were saying anyway.

“Athal,” he said, “you realise that this isn’t a social talk.” Yes, I realised that very well; Mernath had already said that they would have to talk to establish where we both stood, and where our respective Guilds stood. He had a lot of trouble putting the matter into words –he had to be very careful, of course, because of all the restrictions in his Guild– but eventually I understood that he had orders from his superiors that would put him and me in opposing camps, eventually, when the existing order in Albetire was overthrown. He knew –his Guild knew– that I’d visited Koll Neveshtan, but not what had been said; but he couldn’t imagine that I’d spoken to him and not heard about the political situation. I said, cautiously, that I’d indeed heard of it, but that I wouldn’t have an opinion until I’d seen it for myself.

Then he told me what he thought I already knew –some of it I did know, not all– and what he was allowed to tell. There were different factions at the court: the one around the Enshah that included “the man in Idanyas” and the man “belonging to that woman who used to be Eraday but now calls herself Rhydin”, which threw me a little at first, but I realised soon enough that he must mean Attima and Uznur. Also, the people who wanted the Enshah to be sent back to where he came from in the deep desert. The Guild of the Nameless was mostly in with the latter, and apparently they also wanted to establish themselves once and for all in Albetire.

Mernath more or less warned me that “on the highest level” it would be eight to one. It took me a while to unpack that, but I worked out that he meant that the Nameless had eight grand masters in Albetire! I can’t really believe that, not with so few of them in Valdyas. More than one was reasonable, but if there were that many, wouldn’t we have heard of at least a few?

He ranted about the slaves, then about the children used as sex slaves, and he was so honestly shocked and disgusted about those that I told him about Raisse’s and my experience with Timoine in the night. He was surprised that I still served Timoine; he hadn’t known that I was in the Green Guild as well. But it did make it easier: he said “yes, in that case we can work together”.

There would be the risk of a conflict between loyalty to his god and loyalty to his king, Mernath said, and in that case I would understand which one came first, but until now I hadn’t done anything that endangered his loyalty to me. He did want a promise from me, though, if I could give it: that I wouldn’t kill a grand master of his Guild for no other reason than being the enemy, without them threatening me or mine. And I could easily promise him that, because it wouldn’t be my way of handling it anyway.

He disappeared after that, Maile trailing after him. I still didn’t understand the way he treated her like dirt and she seemed to like it, or at least go along with it as if it was natural. If Raisse did that to me, I’d probably get impatient enough to want to slap her– except that I’d never treat Raisse as Mernath treats Maile. Well, if they both want that, it’s none of my business.

We seemed to be the last people in the village, so we got up and took ourselves to the ship, Senthi carrying both of the babies and Raisse carrying Hinla. As we walked the plank, we saw a soldier run back to the village, and a moment later we heard a plaintive mewing: the small protectress had been set loose.

Almost the moment that we had reached our cabin –the same one we’d had on the voyage from Essle, now all repaired– the ship started to move. I realised that I’d run out of seasickness medicine last time before we even saw land, and indeed the seasickness hit me the moment we’d cleared the river mouth. Hinla, too, was badly stricken. Between hanging over the railing and trying to get some sleep, I remembered my promise to Rikhi that we would brave the sea together and went to seek him out. He was deep down in the innards of the ship, where the combination of motion and stink were enough to make anyone sick, even people not so sensitive to it as he and I were. He looked more miserable than I felt. I took him up to my cabin, and his wife as well though she was as fit as Raisse, and got someone to make a pallet for them to sleep on: there was room between the column that I now knew held the connection to the rudder and the wall that was the back of the ship.

One thing was better than on the voyage out: we were in sight of land all the time. Roots-in-the-water woods, swamp, villages, burning villages, fortresses in various states of wholeness, wide sandy beaches. Once, a Khas ship came alongside, and everybody who didn’t look Khas kept out of sight until it had gone.

After about eight days –was it really only that?– we could see something in the distance that could only be Albetire. If someone could pick up Essle and put it down beside it, Albetire wouldn’t become much larger than it already was. It was also dazzlingly white. We’d stopped flying Khas flags a while ago and raised flags with the Velain crown, and covered the black-tarred Khas sails with white cloth.

As we were in sight of the harbour –I’d never seen so many ships in one place, some of types I hadn’t even seen before– a small boat delivered a splendidly dressed Iss-Peranian who could only be a very high-up officer. I was glad I’d put on kingly clothes, and even more glad that the kingly clothes had been made by Jhalla who knew about keeping cool in hot humid weather. The officer’s hat –helmet?– was higher than his head, and when he knelt in front of me it fell off and the strings of pearls hanging from it tangled in his curly hair. He didn’t let that discomfit him, though, but welcomed me profusely with all the floridity I remembered from the Khandihan and his courtiers. When he left, after more floridity, Senthi and Hinla peered out from the bunk where they’d hidden themselves and burst into giggles at the sight of the helmet hanging from the man’s hair by the pearls.

That was the first time I’d heard Hinla laugh.

We sailed on, through what looked like miles of harbour, until we came to a quay where two ships were already moored. One was the Iss-Peranian ship that had been at the end of our convoy, and the other was the Swan which the Khandihan had sailed on! So, by all appearances, he had made it.

This quay was made of gleaming white marble. After pulling the ship close to it with ordinary hempen rope, it was secured with ropes made of red silk, as thick as my calves. A plank was laid out and covered with carpets– I suddenly thought of Ferin, who likes Iss-Peranian carpets so much, and resolved to have some sent to him and Talvi, if only as thanks for taking care of the children. I longed to have solid ground under my feet, but the quay was on pillars above the water. Still, it didn’t move, and that was already a relief. I hadn’t been on the sea long enough this time to get a semblance of sea-legs.

There was a very large welcoming committee: soldiers in shiny black uniforms, like a beetle’s carapace –must be very hot in the sun– and more officers in different splendid uniforms. My soldiers had put on their best, and two of them carried the lion’s skin after me as we went over the carpet-covered walkway to a gate inlaid with gold and ivory.

In front of the gate there was a man lying flat on his front. The Khandihan, looking very sorry. What I wanted most was to raise him up and embrace him, but I didn’t know whether that wouldn’t be a terrible breach of protocol. I conferred with Raisse in the mind, and she said you’re the foreign king here, they’ll forgive you! so I took his hand and made him get up. He did so in stages: first he kissed my feet, then my knees, then caught me round the middle, sank back on his knees again, telling me all the time how insignificant and despicable he was. At last he was standing upright –he looked a shadow of his former self– and I could embrace him, after I’d pointed out my shoulder to him so he was careful. He couldn’t believe me when I said “I’ve never been so glad to see someone as I am to see you!” though at that moment it was completely true.

The gate opened and the Khandihan, walking backwards all the time, led us through a hall, and another gate, and another hall, and another, and more, and more. In each hallway small boys swung censers that spread delicious-smelling smoke and richly dressed courtiers fell on their knees for us. I ached to tell them not to do that, but of course I couldn’t. The closer we came to the heart of the palace, the more handsome the small boys became and the richer the courtiers’ clothes. At last –it must have been half an hour or more– we came to an enormous throne room. The throne was on top of a flight of ten marble steps. A very old man was sitting on it, dressed in a robe that looked as if it had been made of pure silver. It was stiff enough to hold him upright, which he definitely needed. Two young women were feeding him morsels of food and sips of wine.

All the Iss-Peranians, even the crowd of slightly less old men standing around the throne, went down on their faces. I knelt at the foot of the steps, on one knee as a Valdyan kneels to his king.

The Enshah looked at me with beady eyes, and then at the lion skin behind me. “Is that a lion?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Is it alive?” “Not any more.”

“It’s a long time since I’ve seen a lion. Not since I was twelve. I was eaten by a lion– or was that my brother?” One of the girls whispered in his ear. “Ah, that was my brother. I was wondering. –A lion!” “It’s a gift for you, great king,” I said, confident that it would be translated with the proper honorifics. The Enshah was thrilled, happy as a little boy.

After exchanging some more politenesses (the Enshah was impressed with Raisse and said that she should meet his wife, who was closer to her age) a master of ceremonies came to take us to our rooms in “the Valdyan garden”. When we were leaving, the Enshah called after me with a surprisingly strong voice, “Young man!”

“Yes?”

“Do you have a son?”

“Yes,” I said. My son was very much in evidence, rubbing his eyes with his fists in Raisse’s arms, obviously about to cry.

“Good. Take care that it’s known who your successor is.” Then he seemed to go away– the light in his eyes dimmed and he was once again only a doddering old man.

The Khandihan came with us, taking me aside as we went. “Which god is responsible for this miracle?” he asked. I said Timoine and Anshen, because I was a servant of both and they both protected me. He had given orders that we were not to be disturbed, except by himself later tonight, because he wanted to speak to me privately. That it would include Raisse, and probably Senthi and Hinla as well, didn’t seem to bother him. Anyone who tried to go to our quarters against orders “wouldn’t ever be going anywhere any more.”

Would I ever get used to that careless way of dealing with people’s lives?

We walked through more hallways and patios, carpeted floors all the way, though after a while I noticed that I’d seen this particular carpet before: were we being led the same way twice, or did they pick up the carpets after us and lay them down before us again? But finally we got to a patio that was on the hillside at what must be the far side of the palace, and it did look like a garden in Idanyas, with orange trees and rose-bushes –I almost picked a rose to give to Raisse but that would have to wait until we were surrounded by fewer of the Enshah’s servants– and a tiny green lawn being watered by a boy in a loincloth. There were two large rooms, each with its own workroom, and many smaller rooms, and a door that –according to one of the army commanders– led to a set of barracks where our soldiers would be quartered, including the Khas soldiers. I asked whether the villagers could have a barracks too, but apparently they were taken for part of our complement of servants. Excellent: that way we would both make a better impression and have them close to us.

There was a little gazebo in the garden where all kinds of delicacies had been set out for us. We sat down gratefully –it had been miles through the palace– to rest our feet, and feed the babies, and eat and drink. It was about mid-afternoon, judging by the sun, but it felt as if it was already very late. There was music, and singing girls, and the shade was cool, and it was very restful.

When I walked through the garden later, I found an octagonal opening at the back, with an octagonal room behind it. There were eight more doorways in that room, also eight-sided– it was as if someone had heard that the octagon was a holy shape for Valdyans and used it throughout, because behind each of those openings there was a consecrated room. Two had fires burning inside. When I stepped into the first it turned out to be consecrated to the Nameless and I stepped out again hurriedly. The other one with the fire was indeed a temple of Anshen, and I stayed there for a while –I called Raisse and she came too– before looking into the other little temples. One to each of the gods: even the One who doesn’t usually have sacred places at all, and the Mother who has sacred places but not often in a temple. Timoine’s room was bare and very light, and I couldn’t determine if he was really there or just with me, like so often.

This was new; judging by the state of the plasterwork on the walls it had been done less than a year ago. By the time, in fact, that the Khandihan left to visit the court in Valdis. It had been made especially for us. We wondered who had consecrated it: most of the gods were only known here in a completely different form, and some not at all. There was even a temple that had such an atmosphere of wilderness, of savage beast, that it must be to the god or gods of the people of the Plains.

Everybody had settled down by now, the soldiers in the barracks, the sailors on the ships, the villagers and our servants in the rooms around the Valdyan garden. We had a strategy meeting with the captains of the regiments and the doctor and the priest of Mizran in the gazebo with more delicacies and good wine. Mernath was suddenly at my elbow, so heavily camouflaged that apart from me only Raisse could see him. He grabbed a pasty and asked permission to go into town and meet with his superiors. I let him go, but before he left he grabbed another handful of pasties: “turkey, isn’t it? Maile likes that so much.”

On a hunch I asked Ayran astin Brun, as the commander of my personal guard, to find out how to close off our whole wing and evict all the palace servants from it, just in case that it became necessary. He admitted that he’d been doing such a thing already: he’d noticed that it was ridiculously easy to get to the Enshah and kill him, and wondered why that hadn’t happened yet. Probably because he was more use to the various factions alive but incompetent. It would also be easy for any ill-wisher to have him killed and throw suspicion on the visiting foreign monarch…

When the commanders had gone, huge copper tubs were brought and filled with warm water. They had even thought of little copper tubs for the babies. With the baths came yet more servant girls, older ones this time, in their twenties. Once they got to work it was clear why they’d needed more years to learn their trade: they were accomplished. Every knot in a muscle, every sore spot they kneaded out of my body, and that –but not until they’d seen me looking at Raisse– without the merest hint of sex. Even my wounded arm was no longer stiff. Senthi whispered “They think I’m your wife too!” Natural enough for Iss-Peran, and too complicated to explain with my command of the language, so I said “let them think that!” My father-in-law, after all, had taken a distant cousin and her baby son into his family too.

Then another bath was brought, and the Khandihan and his personal servants appeared. He sent our servants away with a short command. I’ll remember that, Raisse thought to me, and yes, it would be useful to have words that made servants go away. Senthi had already dried herself, and dressed, and taken the babies to our room, so we were almost private– I didn’t know how much of which languages the Khandihan’s servants understood, and how trustworthy they were.

The servants undressed him, and I tried to hide my shock: there was really nothing between his legs, it wasn’t only that he had no balls. I wondered how he pissed, because he didn’t have something that looked like a woman’s parts either. But after a moment he was in the water and I could talk without gaping. He was grateful that I’d made it to Albetire at last, because that had restored much of his status. He understood that the diplomatic style of our two countries was very different, and he’d try to ease me into it gradually: in the next few days various people would want to speak to me and I should be careful. I was completely prepared to be careful, if I only knew what to be careful about, and I didn’t know how much I could trust the Khandihan on his own ground, but the first thing I was careful about was not to let that on to him.