The envoy arrives

It rambles; perhaps it has factual errors. But Athal’s recollection is, understandably, blurry.

I ought to be thanking all the gods on my knees that I can tell this story, but I’m too stiff and sore right now to do it.

Well, let me tell it from the beginning. It was a busy week, a week full of worry, of arrangements and decisions to be made. We commissioned a stable for the two elephants– I had to call them “very large draft animals” because, of course, I wasn’t supposed to know exactly what they were. I think I spoke to Serla every day, Ayneth came to talk things over twice a day, Raisse and I talked all the time about what had been done and what still had to be done and what was likely to happen. We talked with Shiling again, who thought up some titles for Raisse, “fruitful fountain of knowledge”, but had some misgivings about whether she actually ought to use them, so we decided to wait until we found out whether the envoy would speak to her too, not only to me.

At one point the guildmaster of the brewers’ guild showed up with the best idea I’d heard in ages: seeing that much of the stores of wine had been used up at our wedding, his guild could provide large amounts of ale, and perhaps the foreigners would enjoy it. It gave me a pang of longing for the brewer’s trade: brewing for the king rather than being the king seemed the better deal right then. But I was born to be a king, and a king I will be. I seem not to be too bad at it.

Then finally word came that the visitors were at the gate. I wanted to rush out and meet them myself, but Raisse held me back, and we sent Ayneth and Ferin instead with an escort from the Order. Ayneth would see that it was proper, and Ferin would see that it was appropriately military.

We sat on our carved chairs on the dais at the end of the great hall –an unfamiliar enough place to be sitting– until the doors opened and many people were escorted in. I spotted the envoy immediately: tall, gaunt, dressed richly but not overly luxuriously, with an air of authority about him. Gifted, too, perhaps a grand master but they handle that differently in Iss-Peran, so I couldn’t be sure.

The rest of the crowd was mostly a blur that things slowly started to stand out in. Eight great cats being led on chains, two striped, two spotted, two white and two black. They were all different shapes but all recognisably cats, like plough-horses and ponies and hunters are all clearly horses. The striped ones were huge, easily the length of a plough-horse though not the bulk and height. Servants –they must have been, though they too were dressed richly– carrying boxes and bales and large objects wrapped in cloth. People with skin in all shades of brown, some as light as Uznur –there was Uznur himself, his head firmly on his neck though he looked shaken; I gave him a quick thought of encouragement– and some as dark as any Ishey. There were very few women, and those who were there looked as if they were there in –ah– a professional capacity.

The envoy came forward, his interpreter at his side. He greeted me with a lot of flourishes, “great and glorious king of Valdyas, Velihas, Idanyas…” all that Shiling had told me and more; and every time he needed to say my name all the titles came with it again, so much that Raisse and I still say “King Etcetera”. And then it was my turn. I was so overwhelmed that I foundered halfway through my carefully memorised phrases. I’m not all that good at formal speaking anyway –I think it’s something you have to learn and then you can do it, like horse-riding; it’s just that I’ve never had any opportunity to learn– but the interpreter was a great help and added flavour where I was bland and terse.

If I can take him at his word –and I think I can– it was friendship he desired most of all, friendship between powerful nations. In token of that, he had brought of the best of his country to give to the great and glorious, etcetera, of Valdyas. I called Serla to oversee the exchange of presents, telling the envoy that this was the high priestess of Mizran and my representative in business matters, which he seemed to appreciate.

Then we had refreshments: a private party in the little dining room for ten of ours and ten of theirs, large tables for everyone else in the yard. Rovin, bless him, had recovered enough to oversee it, and he’d provided large tankards of excellent ale. Most of the Iss-Peranians only took a sip and kept to water for the rest of the meal, but the Khandihan actually liked it and said, in careful Ilaini, that he was impressed with this most unusual wine. I told him it was made of grain, like bread, and he said “like rice?” Well, yes– I didn’t think I’d have been able to explain the finer points of wheat and barley. After that, our command of each other’s language had run out, and we had to use the interpreter again. (It’s the Khandihan, it’s a title, like “Mighty Servant”. I don’t know what the title means, or what the man’s name is.)

Raisse had an old man on her left side, who turned out to be the King of Albetire’s younger brother. She tried her Iss-Peranian on him, failed, realised that she was the queen and she could command almost anybody, so she got Uznur to translate for her. I don’t remember what they talked about; there was too much happening already that I had to pay attention to and remember.

It dawned on me after a while that the guests waited for me to take a bite, a sip, another portion of anything from the table before they did– and there was an impressive spread on the table, something special from every region of the country and Síthi and Ishey dishes as well. That made me uneasy once I’d noticed, and being uneasy made me feel how tired I was. They were presumably waiting for me to retire as well, so I did, to the side-room, followed by Raisse after a short while.

The first to knock on the door –for of course a king can’t be alone for long in a situation like this– was Serla. She brought a tally of all the presents, pleased that she had managed to get the total value more or less right. Only there was one thing that disturbed her (imagine Serla disturbed!): some of the presents consisted of slaves. Elephant drivers, tiger minders, and four scholars: a mathematician, an astronomer, an historian and a doctor. What did we want done with them? We discussed that for a while –how can one own a person? how can one give a person as a present?– and then decided to house and feed them for now, and once the envoy has left pay them wages like ordinary servants. Not the scholars, obviously: Raisse will want them to teach at the school and have them paid a teacher’s wage.

Next was the man I wanted to see most of all: Uznur. He had Ferin with him, which surprised me a bit. Uznur told me that Prince Attima was back in favour with the king of Albetire for defeating the Khas with his fleet, and that he himself had been appointed not only ambassador to Valdyas for Attima’s branch of the family, but also for the Khandihan. An estate in Albetire came with the position, and the earnings from it, but Uznur was afraid that the moment he set foot in Albetire there would be a wife lined up for him as well “and Moyri will never permit that!” He’d heard more of the Khandihan’s plans: the king of Albetire was one of six kings who had formed an alliance against the Khas, and they intended to ask me, with my great courage and military strength (and that was where Ferin came in) to be the seventh. I was flattered, of course, and willing to admit to some courage, but I knew as well as Ferin or indeed anybody else in Valdyas that all the reports of my great military strength that had reached Iss-Peran were grossly exaggerated.

I’d have to play this game very cautiously. It would be good for Valdyas to be in such an alliance, but the next aim of the alliance was to win Solay back from the Khas– it turned out that they thought in Iss-Peran that the emperor of Solay had fled to Idanyas and had surrendered to us. To me, according to the Khandihan, who obviously couldn’t count because I was about six years old at the time. Moyri could clear up the question of the emperor: it was her parents who had fled Solay with the emperor’s ship, after the emperor had been killed, I think by the Khas. Sailors from Iss-Peran must have seen the ship and assumed the emperor.

I handed the practical side of the alliance over to Ferin. In military matters I trust him better than myself. He went away with Uznur, talking about how and when and to whom they’d bring it up.

The moment we were about to go to bed –finally, it must have been past midnight– there was some commotion at the door: three men and a woman in robes, great Mizran, the scholars! They had been instructed properly: they greeted me with a nod and Raisse with all the flourishes of Iss-Peran, though they did that in fluent Ilaini, a very strange effect. One, it must have been the historian because I’d heard that he spoke twenty languages, asked her whether she really had a speaker of Khas in the palace, because he didn’t know that language yet! They actually did call Raisse “the fountain of all knowledge” and she took it with perfect poise, though we fell on the bed laughing after they’d bowed deeply, given her a large wad of papers each, and left the room backwards.

And then Rovin knocked on the door, a bit embarrassed, because more of the presents had arrived: two girls for the king’s pleasure, and for the eventuality that the king should have different tastes, also two boys. Very young, in order to avoid any risk that they’re spoilt already. Great gods! What shall we do with them? Obviously I’m not going to use them for their intended purpose. Treat them as servants and pay them wages like the other slaves, I suppose, but not until the Khandihan has left in order not to embarrass him. I could leave that in Rovin’s capable hands.

The next morning we were woken very early and put into riding clothes because someone had organised a hunt for the guests. Not that there’s much game at the height of summer, but there are always birds, and it would be an opportunity for me to talk to the Khandihan without so much formality. Normally I’d have protested that I can put on my own riding clothes, thank you very much, but I was barely awake after last night.

Some sensible person had thought to give the Khandihan the old white gelding, tall to fit his height and gentle to allow for any lack of experience in riding. We didn’t take the usual route out of town, but went through the West Gate, and as soon as we reached the camping ground I knew why: to see, as the Khandihan called them, “the present that didn’t fit through the gate”: two enormous grey beasts with big flapping ears, silly little tails and legs like tree-trunks, one with pink markings on its feet. Large as they were, their skins still seemed oversized. They were peacefully eating a whole haystack between them. I thanked him again and said that we’d have them help build a school in this exact spot; he seemed pleased that we intended to use his gift.

The hunt didn’t go well. We raised a flock of ducks, the falcons got a few, and I shot one or two but more of my arrows went wide than I was used to. This wood was really too thick for hunting birds. It was on the west side of town, the Ildis side, and we couldn’t go further east to better hunting grounds without trampling fields. Moryn was somewhere in front –I was in the middle with the Khandihan and Raisse– and suddenly I heard him cursing, some of the words in Síthi, and something very large came crashing through the undergrowth. A wild boar, an enormous one, coming straight at us. Raisse steered her horse to the left and I mine to the right, as one person, without thinking, so the boar had a clear path. The white gelding startled, stumbled and fell, almost throwing the Khandihan, but I caught him under the arms and pulled him in front of me, tall as he was.

I had to warn the people at the back of the hunt. Who was there who would be able to hear me? Vurian. There’s a boar coming, I thought at him, but he’d already noticed. It hadn’t noticed him until it had run right across him. I left the Khandihan on my horse, imploring him not to move, and went to see what I could do. Raisse was at Vurian’s side at the same moment. There must be a doctor– wait! I’d seen Hinla astin Hayan at the front, not only a doctor but gifted too.

Before Hinla arrived the boar noticed that it had run over something, turned around and came charging back, about to run over Vurian again. All I had was my sword, so I waved it trying to distract the beast. Others had tried that too: its back was as full of arrows as if it was turning into a hedgehog, but that didn’t seem to hamper it. It did slow down and look at me. Encouraged, I started to lure it away from Vurian, who I could now see out of the corner of my eye being attended by Hinla.

I have no eyes in the back of my head.

There was a pothole right behind me.

I fell over backwards and the boar ran on. I felt the sharp hooves tearing my left sleeve and the side of my jacket. I don’t know how I got into the right position –providence, I suppose– but I managed to stick the point of my sword into the boar’s throat. It took a few more steps, faltering, and fell on top of me.

In the blur that followed, people got the boar off me or me out from under it. Later I heard that it had been the Khandihan, with a spear that Raisse had tossed him because he was close enough and she wasn’t. Someone helped me stand up –astonishingly, I was only badly bruised– and I could look at the beast. It was a sow, and indeed we could now hear her piglets squealing.

Hinla was still with Vurian. “He’ll make it,” she said, “he’ll only have a few more scars.” Vurian opened his eyes and asked “What was that?” “A boar,” I said, “never mind, we’ll eat it.” Raisse said that this wasn’t the time for jokes, but Vurian’s painful grin (“oh no, that’s the second time!”) made it clear that on the contrary, it was exactly the time for jokes. I could understand Raisse’s reaction, though: she’d thought that she was going to lose both her father and her husband. “Don’t ever do that again!” she said, and that made me feel exactly like the little boy I’d been when I’d fallen out of the apple tree in Gralen and broken my collar-bone.

“I want to go home,” I said. That made everybody go home. Vurian was sitting up on his horse– braced by the bandages Hinla had swathed him in, I suppose. H did look very pale. I don’t know how pale I looked, but my bruises were starting to hurt. The piglets were wriggling in a sack, the sow on a travois pulled by two horses. “That’s five hundred pounds of meat we’ve got there,” I heard someone say.

Hinla has dosed me with willow-bark, and presumably something to make me sleep, because I can’t keep my eyes open much longer. I do hope that the rest of the Khandihan’s stay is less eventful, as much for his sake as for mine!