Koll Neveshtan’s house
Fian doesn’t actually have time to write so much of a diary, but I’m letting his evil twin write it because I want it to be written. It’s very much his voice.
Essle, day of Naigha, eighth week of Mizran
Lydan says I should write everything down because otherwise my grandchildren will never believe what I tell them. Well, I scarcely believe it myself at the moment, so yes, it’s a good idea.
Where did it start? Perhaps with joining the travelling court so I could be near Halla. Not that I ever had any chance with her, I see that now, and even then she was already as cold as a fish. Lydan says she’s probably secretly in love with the king, but I think it may be the queen she’s secretly in love with. Or only with her work– she should have been bursar of the Order of the Sworn, or perhaps of the Temple of Naigha.
Anyway, being in the travelling court got me in the right place at the right time for the queen to offer me, well, the job of a lifetime. Literally. She wants to send me to Albetire to woo a pair of young merchant ladies —the merchant ladies there at the moment– and get them –both!– to marry me and seize the throne. The throne of Albetire, that is, I wouldn’t presume to touch Athal’s throne and Raisse asking me to seize that would be… well, I don’t want to even think about it. The guy who is currently on the throne in Albetire is, everybody agrees, no good. The young ladies have somewhat of an army, together with the Valdyan and Síthi parts of Albetire, and there’s already a civil war going on between them and the palace. It’s now a matter of winning that and getting rid of the no-good king to make sure there is a throne for the seizing.
It seems that they thought of me because they –the king and the queen and my many-times-removed cousin Moyri– were visiting the uncle of the no-good king, a rich Iss-Peranian gelding-man merchant living here in Essle. He died the next night (probably not because of the visit, on the contrary, he made them visit him because he knew he was about to die) and left all his worldly goods to King Athal. Whopping big house with everything in it, all his servants, lots of money. He had a clause put in the will that Athal won’t get the money until the war is over, so he doesn’t throw it into the bottomless well of the war effort (that’s Lydan’s phrase) but uses it for himself and the little princes. And if he doesn’t come back, the little princes get it. That didn’t keep the king, or rather the queen and Cousin Moyri, from taking possession of the house at once and wanting someone to do everything that needed doing. That was me as well, it turned out, as training for going to Iss-Peran for real. I said yes on the condition that I could have Lydan as my secretary (and to keep a level head when I can’t).
So here we are after a day of nothing but setting slaves free. Tomorrow we start taking inventory. The queen and Cousin Moyri were here and made sure that all rooms with anything that might be valuable were sealed off, and I’m sure that some things will disappear regardless. They’ve already taken a few things away themselves, but that’s only Koll Neveshtan’s personal diaries, because they think those may have clues to the situation in Albetire. I don’t read enough Iss-Peranian yet to make sense of them, though Moyri lent me her secretary and he’s teaching me as fast as I can take it in.
It’s so sad, all those boys who aren’t boys any more and will never be men. The old geezer didn’t want any men in his house, just women and geldings. It’s strange that the women here are mostly strong and sharp, and the men (well, what passes for men) are either soft or bone-dry. It’s not so bad when they’re old, and the seneschal Behrouz is actually a decent sort of chap, as is Khatar, the under-seneschal. (Who was a spy for the Khandihan, the queen says. That probably means he’s not a spy for the no-good king of Albetire, but you never know. I’ll have to get used to the idea that there are spies everywhere.) I like the cartographer too, who is youngish and shy. He’s now in the library copying maps for the king and the queen, because they can’t take the original maps from the house.
Lydan and I are now sitting in the main reception room with wine and a platter full of small delicious things. Most of those people we spent the whole day setting free are staying on as servants! That will be mainly a good thing, because the queen intends to use the house as a war office for the time being and someone will have to do all the work, but on the other hand it’s as if they don’t know or understand that they are free now. They’re treating me as the master of the house, and Lydan as a sort of associate master, while we’re really only glorified clerks working for the king.
Three girls came and sang for us– only voices, no instruments because the queen has decreed that those must stay in the music room. After a while Lydan asked “do you think they can dance, too?” and I exercised my scanty Iss-Peranian to ask. Apparently not, but one of them went and got a fourth girl, who did dance– wow! Completely naked, making both of us goggle, sinuous movements that looked more erotic than I’d ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few things!) and sweat that seemed to run down her body in preordained paths. I got the strangest feeling, that it was a trap, or perhaps a test, and I did my best not to give my body free rein.
Eventually she stopped and came over to me. I don’t recall exactly what she said, and what I said, except that she said she was a virgin (which I doubted) and that I said she was not for me, and I was not for her. “What have I done wrong, then? Didn’t I dance correctly?” I didn’t know anything about correct, of course, but it had been beautiful (and exciting, which I didn’t tell her but then that was hardly necessary), but no, she was not for me. What would she do, then, when the queen had forbidden her to do what she could do? And more like that. She seemed to be gifted in a way I couldn’t fathom, and using that to sway me, getting more and more heartrending. But she didn’t know Ainei Fian astin Nusan yet, I know how to deal with girls who get weepy. I think we actually argued, and then she stormed off in a huff and left the cloak that one of the other girls had brought her.
Lydan, meanwhile, had done the sensible thing and gone off with one of the singing-girls, a little plump one with a low voice and a nice smile. We have had an arrangement ever since we started chasing girls together: that we only sleep with girls who like us as much as we like them.
I sat around for a while, drinking wine and eating some of the leftover delicacies, when I spotted something behind a curtain– actual movement, or the stir of a mind? I couldn’t tell from where I sat so I went to investigate, and there was a boy of ten or so –a gelding, of course– blushing quite prettily. He’d been looking at the dancing-girl; he always does, it seems,.he’s head over heels in love with her however hopeless it is. He told me she’s so beautiful that he can’t keep his eyes off her, even though she’s a nasty witch. Leaving me to ponder that –so that was what the girl had meant about the queen!– he disappeared into the service corridor.
Lydan came back almost the instant the boy was gone, wearing a loose shift I hadn’t seen before. He was upset– “she was a virgin, Fian! She knew how to do everything but she hadn’t ever really done it!” It figured, really, what would an old gelding-man do with all those girls? “Did she enjoy it at least?: I asked Lydan, and he thought she had. We talked a bit more, about girls in general and the plump girl in particular, and about the dancing-girl, and then Lydan said that there were some boys here he could fancy too– and I’ve know him almost all my life and never knew he fancied boys or men at all, perhaps because we’ve always been chasing girls together as I don’t fancy boys. “Could you fall for me?” I asked, amazed, and he said that he could, but only if I liked men at all.
I went to bed eventually, shored up by Lydan because frankly I’d had a couple too many, I could hardly believe what I saw on my bed– the dancing-girl! I went out and closed the door on her, a bit annoyed at myself that though I didn’t want her, my body obviously did. “I want a bucket of cold water,” I said to Lydan, but he had a better idea: he took me to his room where he didn’t only have his own girl, but one of the other singing-girls. This one wasn’t a virgin, fortunately, though most of her competence was obviously from a book too. “You’re a nobleman, aren’t you?” she asked afterwards. I had to admit that I was. “Do you think I’m good enough for the Pussies?” “With a bit more practice, yes,” I said, and then of course I had to give her a bit more practice. (With luck, my grandchildren will be Iss-Peranians and able to imagine all of this for themselves, so I won’t be more explicit)
In the morning the girls were still there –we hadn’t dreamed them!– and mine gave me the best back-rub I’d ever had. Then we wanted breakfast, and Lydan suggested going to the kitchen because though the girls had said they were going to get us something to eat, they didn’t come back nearly soon enough. And anyway, back home, if you wanted to know how things really were, you talked to the cook,
Only, the kitchen wasn’t anything like home. We should have been prepared for that. The moment we set foot across the threshold every voice was silent, every knee bowed, every forehead on the ground to us. Lydan wasn’t bothered by that and sat down at the kitchen table, and when I’d told the staff –for so they were, still, for all they’d been freed– to get up and get on with their work, they did so. Except the cook himself, an elderly gelding-man (I’ll have to get used to the Iss-Peranian word, eunuch), and the housekeeper, who we’d talked to already, a woman called Tarjomé.They came, and served us breakfast, and were willing to talk. We got wine, in the Iss-Peranian way, and when I said I was used to beer at breakfast they went into a tirade about the Khandihan being served beer at the palace, “Valdyan grain wine! He’s never been so insulted in his life! Everybody knows it’s made of barley with fermented mice to make it bubble!” I swallowed a snicker about the fermented mice, and I’m still wondering whether the Khandihan was really insulted but extremely polite, because I was there when he tasted it (well, as a squire serving at table, but still) and he did look pleasantly surprised.
After a while the kitchen people seemed to be used to us. While I was talking to the cook, the housekeeper took Lydan away. Presently he came back, “you have to come, now! I think we’re not too late this time.” In a back room, a sort of scullery or wash-house, two small boys were huddled in a corner. They weren’t more than about six years old, perfectly identical, looking very scared. Also, there was a seal on the door to the outside that wasn’t like anything I recognised, except that it stank of the dancing-girl and I didn’t want it there. “Now I really want a bucket of cold water!” I said, and Lydan brought me one. I washed my hands, which didn’t help much, and then threw the whole bucket over my front, which helped a little more, and I could get the seal off, making someone in the house shriek very loudly. Good!
Then I tried to talk to the boys, but they didn’t understand me, so I asked Lydan to get his plump girl. She could indeed talk to them– they’d come here two years ago to be educated. When I was that age– well, of course I was in the priestess of Naigha’s class learning to read and write, but most of the time I was running around the streets of Erday with Lydan and the rest of our crowd.
Nobody had brought these boys out to be freed along with the rest because they were afraid of the queen. Well, I’ve seen Raisse angry, so I can imagine people being afraid of her when they cross her, and if there’s one thing she can’t stand it’s child slaves. Eventually I succeeded in getting one of the boys on my lap, and feeling surreptitiously under his shift– yes, he was intact all right, and so was his brother. “What do you want to do with them?” Lydan’s girl asked, hands on hips. I said I’d like them to be brought up in a family, preferably a Valdyan one that didn’t have enough children. It seems a good idea to take them to the queen after all, at once, to get them freed at least and then see if we can do something.