Home again (well, almost)

It felt very strange to be back in Valdyas, even though Sarabal is full of Síthi. It didn’t help that we were in Turenay rather earlier (in real time) than I’d expected and I had to take over almost unprepared.

Note: I don’t have much in the way of notes of this part; some of the facts may be inaccurate. If you were there and know better, don’t hesitate to tell me!

Back at the palace we didn’t get the opportunity to wash or change, because all kinds of people wanted us. There were to be three ships to take everybody to Valdyas who needed or wanted to go there: Kistid wanted to know whether I needed to see the passenger lists. Not necessarily, I just wanted to be sure that Rikhi would be on the same ship I was on so we could comfort each other in our misery, and Kistid promised that. Halla wanted to know what to about the Noble Lady Khanum Vermudant Ke Jenab, who had asked for passage on one of our ships for herself, her apprentice and her grandson. The mere mention of Lady Vermudant made my skin crawl, and I said in an impulse: “I don’t want her in Valdyas!” Raisse asked why, and I could only say that I had a bad feeling about it, partly for Khora’s sake and partly because I knew, deep inside myself, that it would be like bringing poison into the country.

Just at that moment, the Noble Lady Vermudant herself was announced, asking where and when it would be convenient for the king and the queen to grant her an audience. “Here and now, I suppose,” I said, and we had the little side-room prepared that we’d talked to the general’s envoys in: chairs for us and a mat for the noble lady to kneel on. Lady Vermudant was on her face on the floor when we came in, and wouldn’t raise herself further than her knees, but we could at least talk.

She begged for our mercy. That didn’t sound auspicious. With some difficulty we learned from her that she was indeed in danger now that the government of Albetire had changed, and she thought she could settle in Valdyas with the money she’d saved and her apprentice’s skill as a weaver and “live as honest citizens”. I don’t want to take her, but I can’t say no! I thought to Raisse. Someone who begs for my mercy, and really is in danger, I can’t withstand. Unless… Halla came to my rescue, whispering, “I think I can find evidence against her.” I told Lady Vermudant that we would consider her appeal and sent her away.

After a few days Halla produced a whole folder full of documents, most of which seemed to be irrelevant to the issue at hand, but there was one transcript from the interrogation of a slave-girl in the women’s palace that seemed promising. We sent for the girl and she was brought in, somewhat battered and in chains, by four guards. I made the guards take the chains off and the girl fell at my feet, pleading guilty before I had even accused her of something. Halla told me that it was just a stock phrase, the thing one said first of all at an interrogation.

“We’ve heard that you were involved in a scandal in the women’s palace,” I said, only to get more admissions of guilt from her, “I’ve confessed that already, you know I am guilty!” I kept trying: “We’re trying to learn what exactly went on, because some of the people more guilty than you haven’t been brought to judgement yet, and we want to remedy that.” She would talk now: she had been infatuated with the youngest queen, who quite properly hadn’t responded to her advances, and out of spite she had accepted the suggestion of a certain lady to get her own back from the queen by lighting some special incense in her room. “What was the effect of the incense?” I asked. She didn’t know, but she’d been told to light it and get out and not breathe the fumes or her passion for the queen would have been kindled again. Raisse asked her the lady’s name, and after some prevarication it turned out that it had been Lady Vermudant.

We’ve got her, I thought to Raisse. “Thank you, we know enough now,” I said to the girl, and to the guards, “What will happen to her now?”

“Either she’ll be put on the next slave-ship to the west, or sold to whoever will have her,” the chief guard said. I contemplated getting Roushan and Zahmati to buy her, but whether the law against slave-trading was in effect yet we didn’t know. “But Koll Konandé will not hesitate to give her to you if you want her.” I nodded, “Yes, I will gladly accept her,” and sent the guards away.

The girl turned out to be gifted; Raisse had the idea of sending her to Rhanion because he’d asked for more people for the Order. “Are you giving me to Rhanion? I can work! I can scrub and sweep and mend!” “Rhanion will be glad to have you, then, because he lost half the people who can scrub and sweep and mend in the fight.”

Now to solve the problem of Vermudant herself. Halla was vehement about it, too: “I wish you were an Iss-Peranian king so you could just chop her head off! Let’s send her to Koll Konandé so he can chop her head off!” This didn’t seem very practicable because Koll Konandé might well send the head to Khora as a wooing present; we all got rather silly about this, and I said that it would be easy to prevent Khora getting Vermudant’s head by carefully observing every parcel sent to her at the school and hold back the bulky ones. “Seriously,” Halla said, “with what we know now we can have her detained, or banished, or whatever we want. Shall I ask General Beguyan to take care of it?” We discussed whether to take the apprentice or the grandson or both to Valdis, but the apprentice was very close to Vermudant and probably almost as poisonous and though the grandson was probably innocent it seemed better to find him a place to live and work in Little Valdyas.

The next day was already our last in Albetire. The last meetings, the last preparations; a stolen moment between two bouts of rush when I played the lute cautiously and a bit stiffly but with much pleasure, together with young Arin; a lavish farewell dinner where Koll Konandé appeared in kingly clothing but still without the Enshah’s regalia. There was little opportunity to talk to anyone extensively, but I sought out Beguyan and promised him to be there in a year and a half, “but put me on land or I won’t be able to fight!” “I’ll conquer a bit of land for you,” he said, and we parted as fast friends. His wife talked to Raisse, and I exchanged a few words with King Ahesté of Jomhur, and then it was suddenly our last night in Albetire from which we were roused far too early to board the ships.

Of the next six weeks I remember little. In spite of Dushtan’s medicines I was sick the moment we couldn’t see the land any more. Raisse tells me it was a smooth voyage, and the little boys had no trouble at all except with being tied to the great mast with a leash in order not to fall overboard. I was glad to have sand under my feet and to collapse on the merciful earth, and to know that Rikhi had made it, too, while the rest made themselves and us comfortable.

The castle of Sarabal is on a high outcrop overlooking the sea, but our quarters were at its foot in a couple of large tents (Raisse and I had the baroness’ own carved wooden bed, carried down in pieces) and in the fishing village. The population of that village is about three-quarters Síthi, who fled from Solay when the Khas took it. There were many young people and many children. Vurian was sick to puking from being fed too many Síthi sweets by teenaged girls, and Rovan no less. The next day both of them stopped eating when they’d had enough, but the girls were still cooing over them and allowing them to do whatever they wanted as long as it was safe.

I hadn’t seen Baroness Senthi for years, but she was still a dignified old lady, as straight as a rod. It didn’t strike me until later that she was as brown as a nut; that was, after all, the way dignified old ladies in Iss-Peran looked. “You’ve brought another tribe!” she said. “I came here for my rest, and see how many people have come here to live with me. But I don’t mind, I’ve grown to love it.” She offered the villagers a stretch of forest land on the coast further east, and I told them –I’ve really been in Iss-Peran too long!– that they could have the use of anything that grew in the forest, ran in the forest or flew in the forest, and of course anything that swam in the sea, which was edible or otherwise useful. Rikhi came and said that he’d go with his own people first, “to plant the village”, and then come to Valdis with Pnimah, “let them choose another priest!”

Sarabal was a nice enough place, but now that we were definitely in Valdyas I wanted to get to Turenay as soon as possible. Raisse was getting very noticeably pregnant, too: if we travelled now we could perhaps make it to Valdis before her time came. The ships were unloaded, and part of the cargo was immediately loaded again to be taken to Valdis via Essle, with only the things we would want in Turenay staying behind. There were several chests full of books, which Raisse immediately jumped on– she was not available for anything else that whole day. Books of poetry from Mehili, books of history and medicine, three identical translations of into the court language of the Book of Halla’s Left Hand (one for Turenay, one for Valdis and one for Ildis, I thought), a jumble of books that looked as if someone had thrown them into a chest haphazardly from the palace library. Even some account books with much larger numbers than a Valdyan account book would have had, bound in beautiful patterned silk, which people kept picking up and stroking. She was so engrossed that the ships had gone before she could say which books she would take with her, so we’d try to take them all.

While Raisse was lost in her books I went and talked to one of the fishermen, who had been a doctor in Solay. All his family was gifted, a daughter at school in Turenay. Senthi had offered to send him to the north to be a doctor there, but he was content with his new life, “this is a good place to be, and I was never so good a doctor”. When I told him I’d met the twin priests of Dayati in Albetire he was impressed, telling me that they had left Solay when the Khas had “fed Talay and Dayati’s heads to the dogs”. “We have a temple of Dayati too,” he said, pointing me to it in the dunes. It was a small wooden building, completely empty inside– well, except for Timoine, and me, and gifts of fruit and water and fish which a little girl came in to refresh while I was sitting there in Timoine’s presence. “Sometimes the fish is gone,” she said, and I ventured “Perhaps Timoine has a cat,” making her giggle as she skipped away.

It took all the baroness’ horses –three, one very old, but I had a decent riding horse for the first time in what felt like years– and all the village’s carts and mules to get our party to Veray. The land between Sarabal and Veray has been settled very recently and still sparingly, so most of the time we had to sleep in the carts and hastily put up tents, but I found it much more comfortable than a ship.

Veray knew that we were coming all right. While still on the ship Raisse had been hailed by Orian from Turenay who happened to be on a runner’s assignment in Sarabal, and he’d ridden north as fast as he could to announce us. Flags, garlands, crowds of people –with a substantial sprinkling of Síthi– waving and cheering: Veray, at least, was glad to see its king. We were lodged in the castle where the elderly baron and baroness gave us a warm welcome. A warm bath, too, and good food and wine, and conversation.

Ryshas had been quiet, in spite of some stragglers from the House formerly-Eraday who had turned up there. Some of them, he said, had taken to calling themselves ‘Nusan’ after the home of, what was his name, Lord Moryn from, of all places, Tal-Nus in Lenyas. I thought that was a good idea, until he told me more about Moryn’s exploits. Apparently Moryn and his army of Khas and others had ‘pacified’ Lenyas by almost razing it to the ground: cut down all of the forest south of Lenay, except for the hillsides too steep to reach. Those trees would be used to build ships, not to shelter rebels, he’d said. There had been many casualties –thousands, it was rumoured– and Lenye Raith had only barely kept herself from fighting him over it. The regents had called all barons and nobles they could reach to Valdis when our ship had been missing for too long on the way out. Even then, Baron Aivan said, Moryn had been embittered and humourless, not even smiling at his grandchild taking her first steps and falling over.

There were official meetings here too, of course, but in the middle of the next day Raisse and I suddenly found ourselves with a couple of hours free. We put on inconspicuous clothes and started down the steep causeway that led from the castle to the town, fortunately getting a lift from a carter. He took one look at us and grinned. “You the king?” “Yes,” I admitted. He gave us tips where to eat, where the Síthi neighbourhood was where you could have a luscious bath but not “eat any proper food”, where to go for a really good mug of beer. He did that himself, he said, whenever he wanted to escape his wife who was at least as much as a nuisance as the kingdom, possibly more, so he understood that we wanted to escape the kingdom for an afternoon, which was after all almost as much trouble as his wife.

We ended up in the middle of town, where there had been an eating-house when I was a boy– yes, there it was, the Gilded Pheasant, where they served one dish, pheasant, prepared one way depending on the season. It was late in the season, so the pheasants were stewed, but very tasty. The wine was free, but Raisse wanted water; when I asked for it the landlord made some objections, until he recognised us, and then shouted to the kitchen “Water for Her Majesty!” Most of the people also eating were studiously ignoring us, some giggling, some casting surreptitious glances. When we left I didn’t manage to pay for the food, much as I tried, and before we were out of the street he was on a ladder with a pot of paint adding “Royal” to the Gilded Pheasant sign. That reminded me of the inn in Little Valdyas where they now probably had a sign “Crown Prince Vurian was nursed here”, and we laughed like a pair of students playing truant.

When we passed a jeweller’s shop an idea came to me; I took Raisse inside and said that I wanted to buy my wife a present. We agreed that, especially with her tanned skin, rubies set in silver would look best on her, and I chose an elegant pendant of narrow silver leaves and ruby berries, which the jeweller said came from Ashas but looked like work from Ildis to me. After I’d adorned Raisse with it, we went to where the carter had said they had the best ale, and very good it was.

The next morning, when we were riding through town, Raisse told me that the jeweller had asked her to come back alone for something to surprise me. That would be a nice kind of surprise, to see Raisse wearing something beautiful I hadn’t seen before, so I stopped the procession “to say a few words to the people of Veray”, and held a speech that was positively Iss-Peranian. It had to be, because it was quite some time until Raisse came back, with a surreptitious smile on her face.

At the Halfway Inn –not quite halfway, it’s so much closer to Turenay than to Veray that if you start out early you can reach the town by mid-day– we used my grandmother’s old pavilion that had been stored in the castle in Veray. In Turenay, after a reception if possible even more festive than in Veray, Ryath astin Hayan offered us the use of her manor-house. Everybody was there– even Vurian, who had rushed to see us as soon as he knew that we were coming. “I couldn’t beat Ferin,” he said, “he still has half a day on me.” Nine and a half days, then: quite fast enough. Vurian told me more about the state of the kingdom, mostly intact, and about Moryn, not at all intact. When Moryn was out of control with his frenzy, Vurian called him and Ysella back to Valdis; they’re now at Moyri’s house (and Moyri is pregnant again, a bit further along than Raisse) and Moryn spends most of the time in the temple of Anshen, which seems the right place for him to be.

My father is a journeyman. My little brother is in love– with Khora. Raisse told her not to chase the prince, and she didn’t; she fell in love with him, and he with her, before she knew he was the prince and he knew she had been a queen. They make a splendid couple, but I fear the political consequences. There’s time to handle those, though: Khora has three and a half years to go at school, and Aidan will be working his way up through the ranks of the army.

We’ve been here for two days now, and tomorrow is the Feast of Timoine, and the next day we’re going on to Valdis. I asked Raisse if she didn’t want to stay here until the baby is born, but she said she can still travel –she’s travelled very pregnant before, after all, and she still has eight weeks to go– and she wants to be in Valdis. Come to think of it, I want to be in Valdis too: I’ve been away quite long enough, and I’m going away again all too soon.