I got up very early with the intention to pray to Timoine. There was an ornamental fountain in our courtyard: the water came through pipes, not directly out of the ground as a spring, but at least it was emerging water, and behind it I found a patch of grass and flowers that looked almost natural. I sat down and sang –the First Invocation, and whatever I could remember that called on Timoine, and perhaps some words of my own invention– hampered by my left hand that itched and stung as my muscles remembered the lute. Timoine was with me, of course, but no more or no less than otherwise. A servant girl came to bring some food, and she stood and hesitated for a moment, but we didn’t speak to each other. If I’d known then– ah well.
When I came back to the gazebo Halla was there with a stack of unofficial invitations. Apparently this week was dedicated to the unofficial meetings, so we could get to know the people before we had any official meetings: it would be important in which order we had the official meetings, and without the unofficial meetings we wouldn’t have anything to help us decide. Halla could comment on most of the people who had invited us: what she had been doing, talking to everybody, amounted to building a local spy network. One of the things she had already found out was that the crown prince was an accomplished writer of temple hymns.
The Holy Matis, priest of Mizran, would be honoured if we would deign to receive his miravit Šoma Birun. Why the Holy Matis couldn’t come himself –too old, too fat, too important? Confined to the temple for some religious reason?– he didn’t say. Yes, of course we would receive the miravit, whatever a miravit might be.
Beguyan, “general of the centre wing”, invited us to an unofficial gathering. According to Halla the centre wing was something like the palace guard, except that they weren’t actually in the palace — the palace palace guard was run by eunuchs, and all of them were from Ashas like the Enshah and his eldest wife. There was a note from the general’s second wife, Mehili, proving that the general at least was no eunuch; it was addressed to Raisse, hoping that she, Mehili, would be allowed to give herself the honour to watch the sunset in the company of the learned, etcetera, and admire her proficiency in poetry. That made both of us laugh: it’s true that her verse scans better than mine, but she doesn’t think that counts as proficiency in poetry. But perhaps the fact that they can’t understand it will cover that. We’ll take young Shab Hafte to preserve the moment on paper for eternity, or at least as long as paper lasts.
The venerable deans of the merchants’ guild, Zahmati and Roushan –Halla said those were women’s names– asked to be allowed to fall at my feet to bring their thanks for the wealth that trade with Valdyas brought to Iss-Peran. The thought of two venerable ladies falling at my feet disconcerted me a bit, but it seems to be the custom here. Another one on the pile for Halla to write a letter of acceptance. I really don’t know what we’d have done without a good secretary.
The Noble Lady Cajallata, the wife of Prince Khetabayesan, also wanted to fall at feet, but in her case those of the mighty queen. She was representing the prince’s interests in the cause of merchants from elsewhere. It was clear even to me that their names were foreign, not from Albetire or Ashas. This prince was a prince like Prince Attima, or even Uznur: a rich merchant with his own lands towards the west.
Tsigorda, the Most Serene Chancellor of the Court of the Enshah, excused himself, but would appreciate it if his zadan Ettefah –the “h” was a mere squiggle that neither I nor Halla could make anything of, but Raisse could read it– could pay us a visit. Halla said that the chancellor was one of the adversaries of the Khandihan, and had no fondness for the army either. Well, let him send his zadan, I would try to be equitable.
The Noble Lady Khanum Vermudant Ke Jenab had sent a handwritten note, delivered by a twelve-year-old boy who had snuck in through the servants’ entrance. She wanted to have “a very informal talk” with Raisse, either tonight or tomorrow night at midnight. It was clear from the handwriting that the noble lady was well-educated and not young; from the note itself it was clear that she was gifted, as if she had imbued the ink with anea. Raisse saw that better than I could at that moment, confound it; it’s as if something in this palace is restraining me. Raisse replied immediately, and very tersely: “honoured, you are expected, first option”, sealing the note so that the lady would notice but not be hampered.
That seemed to be all for now. Halla was still missing a few that she had expected, for instance from the eunuchs. I wondered briefly whether the Most Serene Chancellor was a eunuch, but for all Halla knew he was a whole man.
We sealed the gazebo –Senthi had taken both babies and Hinla into the garden first– to make a plan without anybody overhearing. First of all, we’d have to know how everything fit together, which factions there were and how they interacted. The Brun trade-house, the Rising Sun, ought to have a representative here; that person would surely know more than we did. Perhaps we could also borrow a secretary from the Temple of Mizran, which was how we’d acquired Halla too, or from those two venerable ladies. Raisse wanted three different secretaries, who would all have different knowledge and different points of view: one from the Rising Sun, one from the local merchants or priests of Mizran, and one from the Khandihan.
As we removed the seal –everything having been taken care of– servants came to bring fruit and juice, and Mernath came with clothes that looked positively Valdyan. The visit to the Valdyan quarter! A bit over-the-top Valdyan, in fact, with a large floppy hat for me that would have looked splendid on Reshan, but I’m neither big enough nor flamboyant enough to carry that off. We were going “incognito”, meaning five sedan chairs without coats-of-arms or pennons, and with an escort which Mernath was busy assembling while we dressed ourselves: the captains Ayran and Talvi, who I’d taken to calling my generals to fit in with local custom, and the doctor, and the four maids who had served as Raisse’s court ladies before, the crown prince and his milk-brother and Senthi. Halla hesitated, but came along after all because there might be business to attend to. Also twenty soldiers, and another five were added the moment Mernath and the generals realised that we were taking Vurian along.
I tried to reach someone in the Valdyan quarter to warn them that we were coming, and found Rhyn, a master in the Guild, though he felt young. He asked who we wanted to see, and I said someone from the Rising Sun, and some from the Guild, and the ambassador Ruzyn, and I trusted him to know who else. I felt his mental grin. Our train was assembled: Halla in the very first sedan chair, the generals in the second, we in the third, Dushtan and Senthi with the babies in the fourth, and the “court ladies” in the last. The bearers were local, the soldiers on the left were our own palace guards, and on the right from the Essle regiment. We went through our own courtyard, the empty courtyard beyond it, a colonnade, through a courtyard where ordinary people seemed to lead an ordinary life, another colonnade, perhaps another round or two of courtyard and colonnade, until we emerged from the gate into a large square with rich houses. There was a huge statue in the middle, a man felling an elephant with one strike of his club –he must have been a historical king or hero; I must ask someone– and statues of lions in various poses at the roads that led off the square.
We were following a long, straight and very broad street now, keeping to the exact middle. That was awkward when we met another sedan train, larger and more richly appointed than ours, which kept to the middle as well. Halla climbed out of her chair and so did someone from the other train, and after some talking back and forth the other train went aside for us. It had been a merchant on the way back from the harbour, inspecting his ships.
When we went over a hill we could see the harbour and the sea straight in front of us. Presently we turned right into a smaller street where everybody kept left. The houses here were smaller and lower, with occasionally a high building, a little park with a fountain, a temple in a green garden, inns, eating-houses, brothels, bath-houses and shops; more varied the closer to the harbour we came. There were beggars, too, but they only tried the last sedan chair of any train. Halla hadn’t known, so the court ladies had nothing to give them.
At last we came to a gate with a bridge that came out on a barren strip of ground. This was the old city wall, which I could see running all the way up the mountain and down to the sea, houses built against it and on top of it as the city grew out of its bounds.
On the other side of the barren strip of ground, everything suddenly looked Valdyan, but in an Iss-Peranian way. The houses were mostly whitewashed, but not built in the Idanyas style, more in the Essle style except that they didn’t stand partly on water. I saw inn and shop signs in Valdyan letters, and there was a strange sound that didn’t mean anything at first until I suddenly realised that it was ordinary city chatter, but the voices were speaking Ilaini. We passed a fountain, where a teenaged boy was playing a lute, giving me a pang of sorrow.
We stopped in a small square not much further. There was an inn there –a real Valdyan inn! It was as if I could already taste the ale. A small boy and a slightly larger girl came to look at us, and when I said aloud that what I’d like most right now was a pint of ale, they brought their mother (or one of them’s mother anyway) who was the innkeeper, and I got my first pint of proper ale since Essle. Apparently, watching the king drink ale –once they’d realised I was really the king– was so absorbing that nobody noticed that there was quite a large group of people coming our way: Rhyn, with the ambassador and the priest of Mizran and the representative of the Rising Sun and many others who wanted to see us, touch us, make sure that we were real. Vurian enjoyed it at first, but he tired of it after a while and started to cry. Raisse took him into the inn to feed him. Perhaps they’d hang up a sign “Crown Prince Vurian astin Velain was nursed here!”
In spite of the crowd, I managed to meet several people individually. Jichan, about sixty, a priest of Mizran, who looked like a Mighty Servant pickled in sea-salt; Sellei Erdan, the young commander of the Order of the Sworn; Venlei Cynla astin Brun, portly and middle-aged, the representative of the Rising Sun. And the boy who had been playing the lute on the rim of the fountain: Arin, about my little brother’s age, a journeyman in the Guild. When he started to tell me “something that someone we both serve has asked me to tell you” I was about to throw a seal over the two of us, only to find that he had already done it. Timoine, he said, was very much with the servants here, and it was through them that I could do his bidding. I could only nod, and curse myself that I hadn’t given the servant girl more opportunity to talk this morning.
There were some people from the Guild of the Nameless, but none on the square itself, they stayed or were kept at a distance. It got more and more crowded around us; I could only just snatch a toddler from under someone’s feet, sat her on my lap and put my ridiculous hat on her head. Halla was arguing with an angry woman in an apron, who was organising a party with some friends, while Rhyn had already organised a small intimate gathering at a bath-house. The idea of a bath was very appealing, but a Valdyan party too, and I called over the crowd “Let’s go to the bath-house first and then come to your party!” We’d have to send someone back to the palace to warn that we would be very late, and Halla volunteered.
Raisse was at my side again, having left Vurian inside with Senthi, and she told me that she’d seen Mernath –not my valet, but the young master in the Guild of the Nameless– quite close, towards the harbour, with another master. She thought it would be better for me not to look, and she was probably right: I would stand out too much and probably not see enough. What is it here? It feels as if there’s a blanket all over my mind .
The bath-house was in another little square lined with fig and orange trees that had lanterns hanging from the branches, not lit yet, because it was still bright day. Above a black wooden door a sign read “Orange Blossom”, very apt considering the scent all around us. Talvi went in first with three soldiers, coming back to tell us it was safe. Through a narrow passage we came to a courtyard roofed with white linen, where there were large baths arranged like the petals of flowers. Another passage, and there was a smaller courtyard like the first with one large flower-shaped bath, reserved for our party.
Twelve girls, a perfectly matched ascending set, probably all sisters, who looked as if all their great-grandparents had come from different countries, came to be our bath attendants. Their mother made an appearance too and said that my lady mother had often come to this bath-house –I could well imagine!– and that my presence honoured her establishment. She had the girls bring food and drink and leave us alone. The commander of the Order immediately sealed the whole courtyard, even the water-pipes, stopping the flow. When I said that the Queen’s father made his students in Turenay seal the tops of mugs, he laughed and said “I’ve been one of those students!” He’d joined the Order after fighting in the war against Rhanion. There was a small house in Albetire now, struggling against a strong presence of the Nameless.
Now that we were really private, we heard very much of what was going on. There were three grand masters of the Nameless in town, not as many as the eight Mernath had mentioned, but still quite enough; two in the Valdyan district, one in the lower city near the harbour. That one, Meruvin, son of an Iss-Peranian father, was allied with the “red party” together with a large number of followers of the Nameless. There was also a “blue party”: both of those were not much more than street gangs, collections of rabble, though the red party was worse because the blue party was traditionally on the side of the royal house, while the red was only on its own side. Both parties terrorised the poor and hassled the rest. The blue party claimed that Koll Neveshtan, who I’d met in Essle, supported them, but that was only from their side, not from his. He, on the other hand, was trying to save the city by making it a city without a king, governing itself. His nephew (would that be the mysterious Koll Konandé?) was engaged to princess Yilde, “born in the blue” according to Rhyn, which meant in the palace.
The eunuchs wanted the state to be powerful and undisputed, requiring that the army be kept in check. The Khandihan, though a eunuch himself, had his own base of power and manoeuvered between the court eunuchs, the witches and the army. He was of all the people in power the single one most on the side of the Enshah.
The crown prince was on principle on the side of the army, provided he would be leading the next campaign. Jichan could tell me that the prince used to write beautiful hymns in praise of Mizran, but had been writing hymns to Anshen instead for the last two years. He was far from stupid, but far too ready to assume that if he knew something, he knew everything.
As for the witches, some were gifted, many not at all. They had their own disciplines to handle semsin –that must have been what Raisse had noticed in the queens’ palace– and kept a kind of stud-book, not of horses but of people, to breed the most desirable traits by arranging marriages. They mostly served the interests of women in Iss-Peran.