Okay, I’ve found a voice. It’s mostly Athal’s (hence first person), but a bit more detached than the bit I wrote in Dutch and got stalled on. I blame it on ascribe it to the character questionnaire. Also, it’s not in Dutch, so the whole world (well, almost) can read it if they like.

So, there was the ambassadors’ dinner. An informal thing, really; just friends who happened to be all from different countries. Uznur, who really is the closest to an ambassador or at least a cultural and trade attache that Iss-Peran has here, with Moyri, who is Raisse’s best friend; Bar Hal of the gifted Khas community and his daughter Fikmet, because Bar Hal himself doesn’t speak much Ilaini and she does; Jhalla, the Sithi tailor, with his wife Imri, the midwife; and Èzè, “mother of soldiers” of the Ishey, who doesn’t have a husband or anything remotely like it so she came on her own. Oh, and the royal couple, of course, that’s Raisse and me. Nine of us at the round table in the small dining room. If we set up relations with any more foreign countries we’ll have to buy a larger table.

Jhalla was very wary of Bar Hal –a Khas! Of the people who drove the Síthi from Solay!– but that cleared itself up when they found that they liked each other. Bar Hal even invited all of us to come to their camp, before they move to Lenyas, so we can sit on the ground as Khas do and tell stories. I’ll bet Jhalla has some to tell! Also, next time I have to ask him to bring his lute so we can sing songs as well.

Halfway through the evening I realised that everybody around the table was gifted. When I remarked on that, someone, probably Moyri, said that the rumours were really true, then, that the Guild was secretly ruling the country! It’s a good thing that we weren’t actually ruling the country, then.

I’d forgotten to tell the servants that we were not to be disturbed, and indeed, when we were on the second jug of wine there was a knock on the door. It was a peddler with a message. I excused myself to talk to him. He was in the watch-room, looking hungry –I had to ask for someone to bring him food and drink– and tired. What he said: there seemed to be a large army coming from the south, or the south-east, he hadn’t seen them himself but talked to some fishermen who had, hundreds of soldiers throwing up big clouds of dust. I couldn’t think of anything it could be except my own Khas prisoners-of-war, coming from Sarabal through Ryshas; they ought to be arriving any day now. I thanked the man, had someone call a cobbler to repair his threadbare boots, and went back to the guests.

Obviously, I couldn’t be completely clear especially with Bar Hal there –he might panic– but I could say that it was something I’d expected, nothing to worry about. The story would have been blown up out of proportion by one person telling it to another: two hundred could easily have turned into two thousand between a few messengers. More wine, more food, a date and orange pie that I thought Moyri had brought but it was from our own kitchen; should find the person who made that to compliment them personally, because it was really astonishingly good.

Another knock on the door. This time I had the presence of mind to look first, but the person wasn’t gifted so all I could see was that it was a person. When we let the person in it turned out to be a large man, clearly from Iss-Peran, in some kind of military uniform that even Uznur didn’t recognise the rank of. It was Uznur he wanted. We waited for him –I pointed them to the little audience room– for quite some time, his date pie untouched to remind us that he wasn’t there. When he came back, without the military man, he was as pale as someone with skin that shade can get, almost trembling with nerves. “Is it bad news?” I asked, but he didn’t know yet, and this was incidentally something he wanted to talk about in smaller company. Just him and Moyri, Raisse and me, because neither of us would be without his wife.

The other guests had been about to leave anyway, so they left, promising to meet again in Bar Hal’s tents. We adjourned to my workroom, this time telling the servants that it was not only a private meeting, but a confidential one as well.

Uznur was really worried. He’s here, of course, at his cousin Prince Attima’s request, at least officially– unofficially he just wanted to be with Moyri. And it’s not for nothing that Attima was so glad to have an excuse –marrying Halla as his umpteenth wife, and being given a small whitewashed castle on the cliffs of Idanyas– to live on Valdyan soil for a while: he’s fallen out with the king of Albetire, the one with the two hundred wives, because he seduced one of the king’s daughters. And the news that the big man had brought was that there’s an embassy party coming this way from Iss-Peran, the king’s right hand, called Khandihan or something like that; he’s an ox, a gelding– an unmanned man, anyway. It seems to be common in Iss-Peran, and I can imagine that if men can have so many wives, there’ll be a lot of men left over. Uznur thought it would be something really important to bring so high-placed a retainer to Valdis, but if I were sending an embassy to the king of Albetire, I’d send my right-hand man as well: Reshan. (Who is, at the moment, probably back on his estate in Lenyas; I wish I had him here to stand literally at my right hand.)

So this Khandihan, Uznur thought, was likely to have come to ask for the head of Prince Attima. It didn’t help that I said that Attima’s head isn’t in my possession; that could be changed. Now I’m not someone to cut off people’s heads just to satisfy someone else’s desire for revenge, but according to Uznur that’s the Valdyan way of thinking, not the Iss-Peran way. And if I couldn’t deliver Attima’s head, perhaps Uznur’s head would do as well. I tried to convince him that I wouldn’t let anyone harm one hair of Uznur’s or Attima’s head, but I couldn’t make him feel any safer. He proposed to take a small party to meet the embassy halfway –they were about a week away, just north of the Lenyas border– with some of the palace guards and some of the Order of the Sworn in impressive uniforms. And Moyri, though she’s very pregnant by now. Uznur said, “if it’s my last day, I want her with me!”

That made me think. If Khandihan really executed Uznur, a member of my court in my country, it would be no less than a declaration of war. And if they had all those soldiers, our army probably wouldn’t be strong enough for them. I called Ferin to discuss strategy, but before we could talk any strategy at all there was yet another visitor. A woman this time, dressed in very outlandish clothes. Uznur recognised her. “Shiling!” She fell at my feet, greeting me as “subjugator of the Khas, king of Valdyas, Velihas, Idanyas, Solayas” –and possibly a whole string of other places that I was king of even less than of Solay– “high priest of Anshach” –if that was Anshen, surely she meant Lyse?– anyway, I made her rise and stop grovelling.

She was working in the envoy’s party as a servant, but she was really the eyes of Attima, the ears of– Uznur interrupted her: “She’s a spy.” All right– she could tell more about the embassy, though she didn’t know any more than Uznur did what Khandihan actually wanted. It wasn’t such a large entourage, “only about eight hundred”, with horses and camels and two elephants (elephants!) and, but this was very secret and I ought to show proper surprise, two black and two white tigers (tigers! Aren’t those huge stripy cats? If they’re black, or white, do they have stripes at all?) Gifts from one king to another. How does one feed elephants? And what do tigers eat? Sheep, apparently. Shiling had some reassurance: the tiger problem would solve itself by winter because they can’t stand cold at all, and elephants can work, they can lift heavy loads and push things. And we do have some large building works coming.

But eight hundred people. Most of them were soldiers and servants and could stay in tents outside town, but there were a few dozen nobles and their body-servants who we’d have to find room for in the palace. Especially the envoy himself (itself?), the right hand of Khadahar Enshach (if I heard it correctly), the root of the world, the venerable old well of… well, lots of titles that all seemed to come down to venerability and respectability and made my head spin.

It was long past midnight by now, so I couldn’t call anybody to advise me about that; Shiling went home with Uznur and Moyri, and Raisse and I turned in and slept a fitful sleep.

In the morning I called Rovin, the old seneschal, but when I had explained only a little of what was coming he went purple, then blue, and collapsed. Raisse knew how to keep a person alive when that happened –it’s when someone’s heart has had too much– and did that, while I called the doctor. “He’ll live,” the doctor said, “good work” (to Raisse), and “did you say elephants? Ooh! Elephant’s tooth is good medicine, and fresh elephant dung works a treat for a sore back!” But Rovin would have to retire, even if he would be all right, and we were now without a seneschal on the eve of important events in the palace.

Fortunately Ayneth hadn’t gone off to Turenay with Father after the wedding as she’d originally intended, but stayed on for a bit; elephants and camels and eight hundred guests don’t faze her. She took it firmly in hand, proposing to clear a whole wing of the palace for the ambassador’s people. I’d have been fully prepared to offer Khandihan my own rooms, or Raisse’s, or even both and use only our bedroom ourselves for as long as it took, but Ayneth thought they’d probably all want to stay together.

I called for Lyse and the Mighty Servant. I was worried that they’d have trouble with the envoy, or the envoy with them: women have a very different position in Iss-Peran than here, as far as I knew from Uznur and Attima. But Lyse –who arrived with her hair sticking in all directions and in clothes that looked as if she’d been doing some heavy cleaning; I must have sounded more urgent than I’d realised– wasn’t worried. “I’ll be in uniform and I have short hair anyway, he’ll never notice!” And Serla knew that other Iss-Peranians did their trading with her without blinking, so she wasn’t afraid of Khandihan, and he’d just have to get used to her. Another load off me, in other words. Now to convince Khandihan that if anybody was a high priest of Anshen it was Lyse rather than me. Serla, obviously, was the high priestess of Mizran, and we could have him meet the high priestess of Naigha too: Uznur or Shiling had told me that Khandihan himself was a priest of Naigha; whether because he couldn’t impregnate or something else wasn’t clear.

It was a good thing that I had Serla in the palace, because we could now discuss the presents. The envoy was clearly bringing lots of valuable things and would probably expect us to match that. Little did he realise that we’re not as rich as they are by far! But Serla knew what to do, and she went to confer with Halla about what to give Khandihan –linen, sheep, silverware, perhaps some books– and how to levy an extra tax from rich tradesmen to pay for it.

I’d asked Shiling to come back and teach me some phrases, polite greetings and the proper way to address someone who was at least as much of a prince as I was. She wrote a few lines on a piece of paper that I couldn’t read at all, but Raisse could, a little; it was all Khandihan’s florid titles, and my florid titles, wrapped up in a neat little poem that I could learn by heart as if it was a song. I wrote the sound down in letters I could read –hope I didn’t mangle it too much– and I’ll have it memorised when the envoy arrives in a week. I should ask Shiling for a phrase that means “this is all I can say in your language”, though.

While we were at this, there was yet another messenger. This time it really was the Khas. Or rather, the captain who was bringing the Khas, called Coran. He’d been wise enough to camp one day’s march east of the city. Everything had gone right –except for one man who had objected to a sergeant being in the Guild, but his peers had given him a dressing-down right away– and their only problem was that they’d run out of food. I could promise him that. Coran also wanted some of his men relieved, and I could promise him that, too. If only all my problems were that easy to solve!

Now Ferin and Uznur and Moyri are off to the south; there’s a wagon of food on its way to the east for the Khas; the bit of flat land to the west where Raisse wants to build her “school of wisdom” will have to do for the soldiers and servants of the envoy. If I were a coward, I’d be off to the north to hide in Liorys until this is over, but it will never be said that Alysei Athal astin Velain is a coward.