I had such a spiffy title for this, but it went away, confound it. Posting in two parts to stop myself thinking I need to finish writing it all in one go; next one (with action!) coming today or tomorrow.
The session was interrupted by Raisse’s player trying (without success) to catch the last train, and when he came back we decided to have “just half an hour more”– and it got out of hand so much that we went on to what is probably the climax of this story arc. The GM had planned for the events to happen, but perhaps not precisely now.
When we came back from the Temple of Dayati we were looking forward to an hour’s uninterrupted rest in the cool of our bedroom– no chance. Mikhanan was waiting at the door, asking for an audience. Behind him Talvi and Ayran, and Halla, and a small dark boy with a letter. As soon as we had changed into something more comfortable the audiences couldn’t be put off any longer.
Mikhanan told me that the prisoner, who he had been about to hand over to the palace guards, had died. When they came in the morning to give him food and water, he’d been lying in his cell blue and limp. Poison or sorcery? If poison, had he taken it –but how, when he’d been stripped of everything– or had someone given it to him? And if sorcery, who could have reached him when he was so closely guarded? Well, he was dead, and the body had to be disposed of. I wondered what the Iss-Peranians used for a temple of Naigha, but Mikhanan had the idea of giving him back to the Red party so they could dispose of him.
Talvi and Ayran came to talk about two things. First: the situation in town was getting steadily worse, so they recommended taking the Khas soldiers as my guard for meeting the general at the harbour. If there was any disturbance, it would be less bad to lose a hundred Khas than to lose a hundred Valdyans– and brutal as this seemed it was actually sensible. Fight and die for their lord, that was what the Khas wanted, and they might just get the chance. The soldiers had bought bolts of black silk and cotton in town and made the Khas regiment new uniforms, and upgraded the Valdyan soldiers’ uniforms as well.
Second: they were working on an evacuation plan together with Little Valdyas. If the situation became untenable at the palace, we would be able to take refuge there, and if it became untenable in Little Valdyas there was the unused courtyard that belonged to our apartments. Ayran thought –and Raisse and I agreed– that it would be a good idea to discuss something similar with the Temple of Dayati too.
Next was Halla with the appointments for the rest of the day. When could I inspect the Khas troops? Well, in the interval between seeing everybody who needed me right now and the King of Jomhur’s arrival. After King Aheste, it was the deans of the traders’ guild and then evening meal with the Khandihan, which had been scheduled early especially so we could be at the general’s by sunset.
Halla also handed Raisse a package that had come for her while we were away, from Mehili, the general’s wife. It was a little soft-bound book of poetry, one side with the left-hand page in beautiful but unreadable letters and the right-hand page in Ilaini– at least the words were Ilaini, but the text didn’t seem to make any sense. On the other side –when you turned the book right over– the left-hand pages were in Ilaini, many songs and poems that I knew, and the other pages in the beautiful script. On that side there was a handwritten dedication in the Iss-Peranian trade language to the Fountain of Wisdom, the Flower of the North, and all the rest; obviously a personal gift from Mehili to Raisse.
It was absolutely beautiful, and Raisse didn’t know what to give in return until Halla said “perhaps the best gift is something you don’t really want to part with” and suggested an album of Shab Hafte’s drawings. We spent a pleasant half-hour choosing them from the folder he brought: scenes from the courtyard, Raisse nursing both of the boys, Hinla watching a heron watching a fish, servants carrying things, soldiers training… And also one he blushed about: our whole family asleep in one bed, obviously made during an afternoon nap. Getting better the more he practiced. This young man had real talent. I told him that he would be able to earn loads of money when he came back to Valdyas with me, from men wanting him to draw their wife and children (mothers were his favourite subject) and women wanting a portrait to give to their husband as a present, and that made him blush again.
We ended up with sixteen drawings and Halla took them away to be bound in a bit of black silk left over from the new uniforms. Really a gift worthy of a queen.
The small boy, who had waited patiently all this time, now knelt in front of us and wouldn’t get up. He had a letter from the Noble Lady Khanum Vermudant Ke Jenab, starting with half a page of compliments to the king and the queen; she had found a suitable lady who was burning with desire to join the cortege of Queen Etcetera (another half-page), would we grant her an audience? Raisse told the boy to say yes and sent him on his way.
Then we were dressed for the inspection of the Khas guards. There were black silk uniforms for both of us– mine with a lot of metal-work on shoulders, back and front, Raisse’s unrelieved black which looked so good on her that I said “You must wear more black.” I got a sword and a dagger too, and Raisse a bow and quiver, which she promptly gave to a servant boy to carry for her. She had a dagger too, or I’d have given her mine so as not to be unarmed in front of the troops.
The Khas courtyard was painfully neat, sand raked into absolutely straight lines. The soldiers, too, were standing in straight lines, each squadron with its commander, greeting us as we walked past. Their uniforms were of the same cut as ours, but less opulent, cotton lined with silk where ours were silk lined with silk, sword on a bandolier on the back. They would look very impressive as my guards. Talvi had picked up enough Khas to tell the commander that the king and queen approved of the troops, and to relay his assurance to us that “there are absolutely no sorcerers among us any more”. Yes, we could see that too, but it was proper of him to tell us.
After the inspection we were dressed in different clothes once again, the usual regalia; my robe was trimmed with otter fur, which made me smile as I thought of Moryn. Of course it was much too hot to wear anything furry, but that’s the downside of being a king. There were soldiers of ours everywhere, not only patrolling in sight but also hidden behind bushes and pillars and ornaments. Their uniforms were indeed improved, in one style rather than each regiment its own, and somehow looking more serviceable. A large proportion of the soldiers were gifted.
Through the East Gate came quite a large party: King Aheste of Jomhur with fifty attendants. They all knelt –the attendants flat on the ground, the king on his knees– and I had to invite the king several times to stand, to come closer, to sit down. They must think us inexcusably rude here, but I can’t bring myself to be as deferential to them as they are to me, I think one must have grown up with it. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s why almost everybody here treats me as if I’m a particularly great king, not the very young king of a country with no substantial military power.
At my prompting the attendants sat cross-legged in five neat ranks of ten, not moving a muscle. The king was in his forties, with a little pointed beard and his hair in a braid, wearing gold brocade. He had a pleasant speaking voice and made the impression of being honourable, talking openly about the other partners in the fledgling alliance. I knew that his own Jomhur had already fallen; he’d escaped with ‘only’ fifty thousand able-bodied men, not counting the women and children. Dasht had been invaded and half overrun; its losses were so great that it couldn’t attack any more. Queen Daria of Il Ayandé had had small bands of Khas breaking through its defences. If Jahan Jaran was to fight at all, that ought to happen before the rainy season started in three months, or it would be lost as soon as the rainy season was underway.
He said that some people thought that the god of the Khas was the same as “the Deceitful One”– obviously the Nameless. It was only later that I realised that I was one of those people, because I know that they call him by a name very close to the Síthi one. And there were people who would lose everything to be master of Albetire, even for one day. But there was only one man who could move the two hundred thousand troops of Albetire to fight, in service of the Master of Truth –that couldn’t be anyone except Anshen–, and that was General Beguyan.
He excused himself then, and I could see why: the next callers were waiting at the gate.
I’d imagined Zahmati and Roushan as middle-aged ladies, but they were very young ladies. They were clearly sisters; the elder, Zahmati, was no older than Raisse. They were accompanied by a middle-aged lady with a completely expressionless face, who stood behind them when they sat down at our table. They thanked “the wise overlord and overlady of the North, the East and the West” for granting them an audience, and said that they had come to discuss how the trade guild could take part in the alliance. They had money, ships and influence. What they didn’t have, and hoped we had, was an admiral who understood naval battles. Halla got the captains, Kistid and Arvi, who I introduced as “my admirals”; they got down to business in the side-room without me and Raisse, because it was almost time to leave for the harbour. At one point during the afternoon we had had a message from the Khandihan that the Enshah needed him at his side and he regretted having to call off our dinner; frankly, I didn’t regret it much.
Just before we left –I was already in uniform, the dress uniform of a Valdyan general this time, and Raisse in the red gown that I’d asked her to wear because she looks her very best in it– I remembered something I’d wanted to discuss with the ladies of the trade guild: the poison-root concession. They asked whether I really wanted that trading house to cease to exist –it would take them half a year to kill each and every member of it– or if it was all right if they traded in something else, which would be quicker and less expensive. Well, if I could get the guarantee that nobody else would trade in the root, it was all right with me. I explained that Dayati –the name they would be most likely to recognise– had laid a personal obligation on me to put an end to the treatment, the traffic in children treated with it, the traffic in the substance itself, and the production of the substance. “Oh, the god of servants!” they said, and I told them that Timoine, as he was called in Valdyas, was our god of children.
It could be done, they said, after consulting “Auntie” (perhaps they’d been learning their trade at their aunt’s knees since they were six!). I would have the concession in my hands in three days at most, and it would take a month or two until all the traders knew that it should be stopped. I wouldn’t be able to expect that the trade in child slaves not treated with the root would stop completely. I knew perfectly well that slavery was normal in this country, and it wasn’t part of Timoine’s mandate to put an end to all slavery, so much as I regretted it it would have to be as it was.
Later I heard from Halla that the trade concession was going to cost them 820.000 gold pieces –small ones, worth slightly more than a Valdyan silver rider– and that they could get round the Enshah to get it because the Enshah owed them an amount of money so great that Ilaini didn’t have words for the number.