Coming back

A little interlude from Athal in preparation for his return to Valdis.

Leaving Solay behind was surprisingly difficult, and I’m glad I managed to sort of slip away, leaving Raith and my sister in charge. They’ve proved themselves enough! After Ayneth’s campaign to the upstream fort the Khas are well and truly subdued. Not that someone won’t need to go to their heartland in a few years, of course, but as far as I can tell now the someone won’t have to be me. Beguyan is planning for it already.

It wasn’t until the lush green coast of Idanyas was in sight that I realised that I hadn’t acted on my resolution to do something about the blighted land around Kushesh. Too late– we couldn’t very well turn back, and anyway I wasn’t the only man on the ship pining for his wife. Ferin too, for one. The lucky bastard can actually enjoy a sea voyage, and he spent most of the time on deck sunning his fresh scars. I didn’t suffer as much as on previous voyages, even without either Aidan or Raisse this time. I think I may be getting used to it after all! I’d have liked to sail in the White Whale, but she’d gone ahead of us full of wounded soldiers, so we had the Pride of Selday, low and sleek and very fast, sailing mostly along the coast where the wind was most favourable. That may have been another thing that kept me from being too seasick to think: it’s not the movement of the ship that gets me, but the depth of the water, not being able to reach earth.

It was a relief to set foot on the quay at Essle. I staggered to the nearest bit of bare earth and fell flat on the ground there– blessed, blessed Valdyan earth! Even if it was the soggy mud of Essle. I remember someone with a scowl in her voice –Phuli!– bossing my escort around to put up a pavilion around me where I was lying and not to have me bothered, because “a king is much more kingly if he can walk upright”. Also, apparently to Ferin, “you’re the general,” –in spite of him being dressed in threadbare sailor’s clothes and sporting a grizzled beard– “you can do the protocol stuff.”

I must have slept for hours, getting my strength back, because when I came to my senses it was dusk and I was feeling almost like myself. People were filling a bath in my pavilion and bustling about with kingly clothes. Ferin was there, clean-shaven and looking every bit a general again. “We’ll spirit you away to the little palace,” he said, “or to the chancery if you prefer. Wholesome food and no big functions for you tonight.” That sounded very delectable, especially the food– being seasick for seven weeks does make a man hungry.

The chancery it was, because Uznur had insisted on feeding me. It was so good to see him again, and bracing to know that he’d been keeping my soldiers in pay and bonuses for all the time I’d been away. Not single-handedly, of course, he’s got more staff in Essle than I’ve ever had in Valdis. He’s coming to Valdis with me; Raisse sent one of her clerks with messages and Uznur promptly trained him to take over at least for a season or two because he’s longing to get back to his wife and children as much as I am.

As we were eating chicken and peas and Iss-Peranian pasties –no fish! no hard-tack!– Ferin sat back and half-closed his eyes and remarked how young we were. He meant Uznur and me; of course Ferin himself is my father’s age, pushing fifty. I’m twenty-eight, and Uznur twenty-four, and the soon-to-be chancellor Raisse sent all of seventeen. “That’s the new order of the world,” Ferin said, more than half drunk, I suspect. But he may be right.

I’ll have to get used to being the king of a small country again. Before I went south, I was a small fish in a small pond; in Solay I grew into a big fish in an ocean; now I’m still a big fish, but back in my small pond and I’ll have to make an effort to cut myself down to size for fear it cramps me or I tread on people I want to protect. At least when I get back to Valdis I’ll have Raisse at my side, sane, sensible Raisse who will keep me from foolish acts.

The next day, of course, we did have the big functions: a triumphal tour of the city, or at least the easily navigable parts, and a banquet at the Temple of Mizran. All of Essle seemed to want to see me, to touch me, to make sure that I was real. It didn’t matter to them that I had fifteen hundred soldiers with me who had won the war just as much as I had. I told them so when the Mighty Servant called on me to make a speech, but I knew already that it was no use: they had come to see the king, and the king had to stand for all the others.

I stayed in Essle for two more days to hold audiences and see a few people of my own. I was shocked to hear of the death of Fian: he hadn’t survived even one day in Albetire. Poison; treason, most probably. “The noble ladies”, as Fian’s companion Lydan calls Zahmati and Roushan in his letter, have blamed Koll Konandé, ousted him from the city and declared the throne vacant. I have to tell myself very firmly (and Uznur and Ferin tell me too) that this is none of my business. If Albetire wants to destroy itself, let it; even though about a third of the inhabitants consider themselves my subjects.

In the evening of the third day one of the Sworn came to fetch me, which immediately made me think of the day I was secretly brought to the dying Koll Neveshtan. And indeed, I was called to another death-bed: that of Valain, grand master of the Guild, in his eighty-fourth year. Weak as he was, he held my hand and let me into his mind. I have no words for what I saw, except that he was all water, the way I’m all earth. Then he gave me a seal-ring “from my so-many-great-grandfather”, and a parchment with his family tree– split off from mine with Vegelin the Great’s grandsons. History does record that Queen Ardyth’s younger son went to Essle, but what is generally known about him ends there. Apparently he became an innkeeper and built the Drunken Seahorse, because Valain said it had been in his family since then.

Naigha came for him while I was still there, and I sat with his body until the priestesses came. After all, if someone has the power to summon the king, it’s no more than proper that the king stays to pay his respects.

Now we’ll travel. Very slowly, I expect, stopping in every village to be cheered and gawked at and make speeches. Ferin sent messengers all over the kingdom, so we’ll be expected all along the way. And at the end, we’ll have our loved ones waiting for us like any returning soldier.