More stuff written by Fian’s evil twin because there’s no way he could have had time to write. And he’s still embarrassed, but no longer terminally so.

Some of the incidents may be out of order, because this is two sessions that run together in my mind.

Posted in two parts; Part 4 forthcoming.

Well, Athal is away to the south on a ship, poor man. I didn’t go to see him off, because I was too busy keeping Halla’s father and the under-seneschal Khatar from killing each other. I said earlier that the under-seneschal seemed a decent chap, but that was before I knew him– he’s the kind of person who gets under one’s skin subtly and insidiously. I did go to the temporary palace –the Mighty Servant’s doxy’s house– to talk to the queen about Naravati, and she promised to go to the Order house to speak to her.

The next day was much alike: work and more work, with me overseeing and trying to keep the peace, and Lydan keeping records and running to the Temple of Mizran and everywhere, and ordering in food because all the suppliers seemed to think that because Koll Neveshtan had died nobody in the house needed to eat.

I was in bed, cuddling up to Ramesh, and almost asleep, when a noise made me sit bolt upright. Ramesh wanted to soothe me, but I wanted to investigate. Downstairs, there didn’t seem to be anything amiss, but I didn’t trust it anyway. While I was trying to decide which door to seal –I can only keep track of one at a time– and becoming frustrated because a house like this doesn’t have any single door that everybody has to go through, Ramesh came back from the kitchen where she’d gone to fetch something to eat and said “Naravati is back!”

So she was: in rags, battered, terrified. She fell at my feet when she saw me, and I tried to raise her, saying “I’ve done you great wrong!” but she wouldn’t have any of it. She’d been wandering about in town, sent away by the queen to fend for herself –would Raisse do that?–, been attacked by men, a woman had tried to interfere but had been attacked herself, and then she’d been so scared and hurt that her dandar sense had led her straight back to the house.

Eventually not only I, but also all the eunuchs were evicted from the kitchen. I sat outside the door for a bit, but I didn’t seem to be wanted, so I went back to bed. Ramesh went with me, but it felt insensitive to make love to her even though she wanted to console me that way, so I only took her in my arms and fell asleep.

In the morning Naravati appeared at my bedside, very stiff and collected, dressed in a long black robe that covered all of her except her head and hands. She was carrying a tray, probably breakfast, but I made her put it down without even looking at it. She wanted to talk to me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the Iss-Peranian mindset that makes people say they’re worth nothing and mean it, not just to be extra polite. She did just that, but when I managed to listen through it we could understand one another: we asserted that I’m an adventurer, and she is a bitch, and I wouldn’t last for more than a day in Iss-Peran without her so she was offering her services. Also, having a dandar of my own would be almost indispensable for my status.

I didn’t say yes yet. I didn’t want to say yes out of guilt or obligation which is what it would have been if I’d taken her on at once, but promised to think about it. Then I suddenly felt hungry, probably because of the smells from the breakfast tray. But wait! Suppose… Nothing looked or smelt out of the ordinary, and I couldn’t see much with my mind, but I didn’t trust the fruit at all. “Are you trying to poison me?” I asked, offering her a piece of it. She declined –of course– and took my hand and showed me the various ways that everything on the tray had been poisoned, the wine most subtly, only with the mind. I really wouldn’t be able to do without someone who could protect me from that.

Just as I was about to say something, Lydan came in and said that there were some strange people who said the king had sent them to take away the singing-girls. Khatar was hovering over them in the small reception, but they seemed unfazed by him. Strange people indeed: a man and a woman, both middle-aged, she with hair in lots of little braids decorated with green beads, he with longish fingernails painted green. “Athal –His Majesty I suppose I should say– sent us here because you have some young women who want to be travelling musicians,” the woman said. “We’d like to hear them.” I sent for Ramesh, Fairuz and Bebakshi, and they sang– rather well, I thought, and at one point the man poked the woman in the ribs, and later the woman trod on the man’s foot. “If we take them on they’ll have to learn a different act,” she said, “this way they won’t ever be safe!” She did ask them a lot of things about music– could they play any instruments? Fairuz should keep on singing, her voice was the best, and the others could borrow some until they had their own. “We’ll buy them with our freeing money!” Ramesh said brightly, and that made me realise that they’d need their freeing papers and letters of credit.

Khatar brought the papers when I asked, but there seemed to be something wrong– a hunch reinforced by a fleeting thought from Naravati who was standing in the doorway. I checked that the names were right, then called for Kare, who brought a blank freeing paper so I could check that the wording was right, but still something was wrong. Another hunch– “Take me to the strongroom, I want to see all the papers!” I said, and we all went, Khatar and I and Kare and Naravati. There was barely enough room for two, so Kare and I examined the drawers– there was another drawer, barely visible in the decorated front! I was about to open it, but Naravati stopped me, squeezed in past me and did it herself with movements that looked exaggeratedly careful. The drawer was full of papers– all acknowledgements of debt from the former slaves, sealed with their thumbprint. Two hundred from this one, a thousand from that one, made out to Khatar personally. “What is this?” I asked, but he wouldn’t answer. Kare reached all the way to the back of the drawer, pricking his thumb painfully on a needle. He put it in his mouth at once, sucked it, and spat something out– poison? But he’d found something: a leather-covered book in which Khatar had been keeping accounts of all slaves– food, clothes, tools, doctors’ visits, everything! “This is illegal in Iss-Peran,” Kare said, sucking his thumb again, “though in Valdyas there’s no law against it.”

“You should get to a doctor, quick!” I told Kare, remembering what Naravati had told me. He nodded –his thumb was swelling ominously already– and disappeared. I had the servants prepare the only room in the house that I knew to have only one door –the one we’d found the little boys in — for Khatar, “make it as comfortable as you can so he can stay there for a while”. Then I went to Khatar’s room with Naravati, to see what else we could find. Apart from the three doors, there was one spot where I felt… not quite a draught, but a weakness, between the bed and the wall, or under the bed. There were three low chests under the bed: one with clothes, one with bed-linen, and one so heavy that Naravati and I together could barely push it, which turned out to be full of gold and silver and jewelry. “Those are Bebakshi’s ankle-rings!” Naravati cried, picking them out of the heap. “She was punished so when she’d lost them!”

We had the chest removed by a pair of eunuchs burlier than us, and found that it had been covering a hatch in the floor, leading to the water below.

“Do you know the poison?” I asked Naravati, but she didn’t. She pulled out one of the poison needles from the drawer immediately and I called Moyri to ask which doctor Kare would visit. He was indeed there, and also another doctor in the Guild, and someone from the Guild who wasn’t a doctor but had been in Iss-Peran and knew about poisons. It was a while before I could make clear that we had a sample of the poison: everybody was looking at Kare’s hand which was now halfway between purple and black and swollen to five times its normal size. Once they had the sample, they sent us away while they set to making an antidote.

Lydan said that we’d do best to burn all the acknowledgements and the accounts book so they wouldn’t exist any more, but I thought it would be better to find an Iss-Peranian lawyer, or at least someone who knew about Iss-Peranian law, and ask them what to do against Khatar. “Or the queen,” I said, “she’s half a lawyer.” Lydan agreed– “but perhaps the wrong half, I sometimes think.”

Athal’s musicians, bless them, were still in the small reception room. They were good-natured enough about it, willing to take the girls along, especially when I said I’d take care of any nasty paperwork that remained. Ramesh and I hugged each other with thanks for a good time on both sides. Bebakshi couldn’t let go of Lydan, and that was on both sides too, but eventually they’d all left.

That evening Lydan and I went to have a beer in a nearby inn, and we felt as much out of place there as we must have looked among the journeymen and labourers. And none of the girls were pretty enough to make an effort for, though we’d probably have thought them all right a few weeks ago.