Meeting people

It’s a good thing that Ayneth is a practical and proactive person, because things are really happening now.

We woke up because the baby was crying. Hungry, of course. The two boys had somehow ended up between us, and the bed was completely wet– obvious, because we were all naked, even the baby who couldn’t use the chamber-pot yet. “The sheets need washing,” the elder boy said. I must ask his name one of these days! I know now that the baby is called Cabre, or however you spell it. We ended up going to the servants’ quarters together, the boy carrying the baby, Raith the wet sheets and I the milk bottle.

There was milk in the servants’ quarters all right: the grandmother (“not my real grandmother, but that’s what we call her”, the boy said) having boiled it with leaves to make it healthier. I didn’t recognise the leaves, though I know a lot of cooking herbs and even some healing herbs, but obviously not Síthi herbs! They did smell nice, though, as if one could make tea with them.

One teenaged boy was fascinated by my freckles: “you’re speckled all over! Are you ill?” I tried to explain that this was normal for at least some Valdyans, and if he looked at the king he’d see that he had a speckled face, but he wasn’t one of the king’s servants so he didn’t get close enough to him. Also, he couldn’t understand that the king hadn’t even taken his clothes off when his cousin, all dressed and painted, had been ready to receive him. “The king has a queen at home,” I told him, “and he misses her so much that he won’t look at any other woman.” “If he misses her so much,” the boy said, “he should be glad of other women!” This made the grandmother chuckle and say to him, “The day you understand that a man can miss his wedded wife so much that he doesn’t want other women, that’ll be the day you can marry.” This boy had been born a few years after the Khas conquered the city, she told me, and he’d never known anything else.

Girls appeared with armfuls of clothes. “Oh! You’re here! We have to dress you, because his majesty the king is going to have breakfast in your rooms!” And dressed we were, and our hair bullied into submission, and our faces painted, which Raith promptly spoiled by taking me in her arms and kissing me until the paint ran. “I think we can appear in the king’s presence without paint on our faces,” Raith said, but the girls wouldn’t have any of that, “what will he think of us?” and did it all over again. I can tell them all apart now, but there’s only one I know by name: Ishi, who had a Khas father and a Síthi mother and is perhaps fourteen years old.

Athal was already in our reception room, eating melon seeds and spitting out the skins at a nearby goat. He hit it nine times out of ten, and the goat ate them all. “That’s new to me, a palace full of goats,” I said. “Do you know Moyri?” he asked. Of course I did, I said, and he went on to tell me about Moyri’s parents who had lived here (well, not here as such, but in the Temple of Dayati) and come back with stories about Síthi life before the Khas. I should be glad that there were only goats and not spotted cats the size of a goat who could eat people. “It was very different then,” he said, “I don’t think that there’s any family now that’s still intact.” I told him about the teenaged boy’s cousin, who he had said wasn’t his real cousin but that was what he called her. “Talking about girls in your bed, you won’t escape unscathed!” Athal said. Raith was there by then, and I could feel her raising her eyebrows. “I’ve already had a proposal of marriage for you. Before he’d ever seen you. And now that he has seen you he hasn’t retracted it, but he says he’s willing to marry two women, or three, or four.” Raith’s eyebrows went up even more, and I got more and more interested– not in marrying this man, but in the wildness of the ideas. “The first to bear his children, the second–” “To keep the first happy,” I said, squeezing Raith’s arm. “Exactly. The third for the people at home, and the fourth because he’s in love with her.”

Wait a moment– was this actually serious? “I think I’ve seen him, too” I said. “That young officer of Beguyan’s, what’s his name, Shishe Namak.” Yes, that was the man. Well, I’d liked him, but to say yes to a proposal on the basis of that? “I don’t think I’m obliged to provide heirs for Solay,” I said. “No, you’re not obliged to,” Athal said. “We do need a dynasty, though. We’ll need a princess for my second son.” Radan? The earnest-looking toddler I’d seen taking his first tentative steps at his nurse’s hand? But Athal went on, “If we can find a princess within a few years, they can get married right away.” It sounded reasonable, though strange, at the time –I remember saying that sixteen seemed a more sensible age to marry than six– but now that I’m writing this I’m appalled: has Athal really become so foreign that he intends to use his son as a playing-piece? He married for love, he let Aidan marry for love, he never objected to me following my heart; for all I know Father and Mother married for love, too. I wonder what Iss-Peranian witch has been talking to him.

We must have stopped talking about the dynasty at some point, because Raith was saying that if she were in charge, she’d send five hundred or a thousand soldiers to the north to stop the fighting, and if anyone didn’t listen then, send them to the fields. “I’ve thought about that,” Athal said, “but these are not Khas, it’s Síthi against Síthi and nobody can tell me what it’s about.” “Send me,” I said, “I’m probably not as daunting as you, and people do tend to tell me things.” Raith started to protest that it was too dangerous, but Athal thought it was a good idea. “I’ll want an escort,” I said, “not too many, just enough to keep me safe. Where do I go to organise that?” “You should talk to Faran,” he said and got Ishi to take me there. “Am I dressed properly to go out?” I asked her. “And to ride a horse?” She didn’t know about horses, but these clothes I was wearing would be perfectly suitable, not like hers! True, what she was wearing was very skimpy; for me it would not only be unfortunate, but uncomfortable as well because any skin I exposed to the sun would turn red at once.

Ishi took me out of the women’s quarters and consigned me to a bunch of courtiers, both men and women, who eventually delivered me to an office like a beehive. A Valdyan man came towards me, talking to everyone he passed. His skin was blotchy red and blistered, his nose ran, and he couldn’t help scratching at one spot or another at times. “I should really get out of here and go home,” he said, “but my memory is my curse, I know everybody and remember everything and Athal knows that far too well.” “Faran, I presume?” I said. “Yes, got that in one. What can I do for you, your highness?” I explained what I wanted to do and that I’d need a handful of soldiers. “Can do,” he said, “Valdyan? Iss-Peranian? Síthi? Men or women?” I said Valdyans, please, and men as well as women. With Síthi warring factions taking Síthi soldiers along would probably only complicate things more. He nodded. “I’ll send a company of the Order as well to back you up — promised Athal I’d not do that to people any more without telling them. Do you agree?” “I’d be glad of that,” I said, “though I don’t intend to do any fighting, just see someone from each side and hear what they’re disagreeing about.”

All the time we were talking, Faran was also looking over people’s shoulders, checking calculations when asked, making encouraging noises, speaking to this and that person, organising little things– I was getting more and more impressed with him. No wonder Athal didn’t want to do without him! I don’t remember how we got to that subject, but suddenly he was telling me about all the Síthi girls saying they were still maidens when it was very clear they weren’t. “Can you believe that I have never had a man?” I asked, and he took it as a pass at him –silly of me not to have realised that– and started preening his nonexistent mustache, but just then, fortunately, my escort arrived.

The captain was Ruyin, a very young man, I think about Aidan’s age (but then he’s a captain too: soldiers grow up very fast in a war). “Did you know we had backup?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Is that really the Order of the Sworn?” He didn’t know –he wasn’t semte himself– and I tried to find them but couldn’t, probably because I’m not as gifted as Athal and they were quite some way behind us and I didn’t know any of them. Ah well, good that they were there at least. Ruyin told me about his girl, a Síthi (probably with a Khas father too) he’d met in the victory feasts, and then a little about the unrest in the north, that it wasn’t like the Guilds in Valdyas where the issue is who has the king’s ear, and one is clearly good or clearly bad: in this dispute neither side was all bad, and neither side was all good either. I didn’t mind that: I’d be wanting to hear both sides anyway. “You know, it’s easy to tell you things,” he said. “And hard to listen to you.” Well, I hadn’t been saying much to listen to! “Faran taught me that, to listen to people. You know what it’s like, you seduced a woman too. When you listen in a particular way…” “They know you’re interested,” I said, spot on.

We were passing a lot of windowless whitewashed buildings. “People don’t really live in the city,” Ruyin said. “They live behind their walls, they don’t go out. There aren’t any markets either.” How did they get their vegetables then? I knew that some of the great houses had been like villages, where they grew their own, but these didn’t look large enough to have more than one little courtyard inside. “The rich people have them sent in,” Ruyin said, “and the poor people just don’t have any.” He stopped at the entrance to a narrow alley. “Would you like to meet my girl?” “Oh yes, please,” I said, and we both dismounted. Ruyin went into the alley first and came back to get me. At the end there was a rough shelter of stones that looked like they’d been liberated from the palace, covered with a roof of reeds. Inside, it was almost completely taken up by a mattress like the one on our bed, probably also from the palace. A young woman was sitting on it. I sat down with her before she could get up and introduced myself. Her name was something like Chatna, I don’t know how to spell it. She was shy, perhaps a little in awe of me-the-princess, and I had trouble understanding the dialect she spoke, but Ruyin was around to interpret and encourage her. “Lady Raith is a priestess of the Mother, right?” he asked. I started to say no, but she had done all those marriages, so I supposed yes. “You see, she won’t accept anything from me except when we’ve made love, until we’re married, and she’ll only be married by someone from the temple that her grandmother was thrown out of, and that was the temple of the Mother.” “I’m sure she’ll marry you,” I said –I’d see about that myself– and then I sensed that there was something very wrong with the girl, probably the sickness that Cora had been so afraid of, and Ruyin would do well to see a doctor himself. I’d see about that too. “If you come to the palace tomorrow morning I’ll make sure that Raith knows about you.”

As we went back to the escort, Ruyin said, “Chatna knows who you ought to talk to in the north, on one side at least. She’s sort of related to them.” Apparently that was one of the things she’d been whispering to him. Suddenly he grabbed my arm. “She’s sick, isn’t she?” and when I nodded, “Then I’ve probably got it too.” I said I’d make sure that there was a doctor who could see them. “She was so determined to keep working until we’re married. You know what it’s like.” Unfortunately, I did indeed know– not from experience, but I’ve seen and heard a lot in only two days.