Unofficial meetings

There was too much wind for skating, otherwise this would have been the last writeup of the season written in the Skating Cafe (as most of the rest have been since October). I’ll miss my weekly hour of ambient noise that’s practically guaranteed to be nothing to do with me, so I can shut it out and be more focused than even in silence.

Our room was almost the size of the great hall of the palace in Valdis. There were paintings on the walls –mostly of famous people in history in elaborate robes– and statues here and there –which must have been mythological because they had very little on in the way of clothes– and carpets on the floor. Over the bed there was a canopy of netting to keep insects away. It worked: I hadn’t been bitten nearly as much as in the village.

We woke up slowly, to a chorus of birds and servants each trying to outdo the other in twittering. I extended my mind to look around the palace– it was like a city! All kinds of people, good and bad, gifted or not, thousands of them. Beyond the palace walls it was even more crowded. If I really wanted to see the city itself, I’d have to hold on to someone, preferably Raisse, and leave my body completely and see it from above; but that was for later.

Our breakfast was served by a crowd of young girls who didn’t twitter, they were in fact completely silent, but they looked as if they were twittering. In their wake there was an old man, who approached us bent over, so I had a good view of the skull-cap on his head. He was our majordomo, Dashtan –confusingly close to the doctor’s name. He apologised profusely –people here always start a conversation by apologising, it seems– saying that he hadn’t realised that I would be needing rooms for my concubines and he’d make sure they were got ready. I told him that we would prefer to be in one room, which made him hide a snigger. Senthi was very indignant later: she wasn’t a concubine, but a respectable wet-nurse! It was probably a good thing that Hinla hadn’t understood the majordomo…

Hinla took Raisse by the hand and led her to the temple of Naigha, where they stayed for a while. That made me think of something: I caught the nearest servant and said “Dashtan?” in a questioning tone, and yes, the majordomo was called. “Tell me, please, who has consecrated those temples?” It turned out to have been Valdyan priests from the city. I asked to meet them, at least those of Anshen and Timoine. Not at once, of course: there were so many people who wanted to see us that I’d have little time to talk to priests, too.

Presently an under-majordomo came to show us around “our” part of the palace. Around the courtyard, there was our bedroom, a workroom, smaller and simpler rooms for underlings and servants; and of course the eight-sided silly little temple hall. Next to our courtyard was another similar courtyard where all the important people in our party had been quartered. Beyond that, the barracks — a courtyard with buildings for the Khas soldiers, in which they were drilling, supervised by Valdyan and Iss-Peranian soldiers and petty officers; and a mirror-image courtyard where the villagers had taken up residence, some of them in tents in the actual yard. Mikhanan came up to me and said that it was kind of all right, they were happy enough for now, but he didn’t want to stay forever. No, I didn’t either, we agreed on that. Then Ruchkhané showed me something he’d discovered: beyond their quarters there were two more barracks-like courtyards, empty, unused, not even finished, on the outside of the palace with a view of the city and the mountains. Obviously they’d counted on more soldiers– perhaps the hundred and fifty or so we had lost at sea. I intend to go there and look out over the city yet, but of course I couldn’t do that with the under-majordomo and all his attendants looking on.

When we came back we found Senthi and Lysna laughing uncontrollably: they’d found out why we’d had such a long way to walk through the corridors. We had been led along the same path several times, because our rooms hadn’t been quite ready! That explained the repeating carpets, too. The servants had thought that the king would never catch on, and I wouldn’t have, I suppose, if Lysna hadn’t tried her Iss-Peranian on the local maids.

Mernath –not the one in the Guild of the Nameless, but my own valet– appeared, carrying official robes and bringing news. The crown prince would be paying an unofficial visit this afternoon, and there was a letter from the plenipotentiary ambassador of Valdyas –not that I remembered ever having appointed such a person, and Halla had never heard of it either– and, hence the robes, a delegation was on its way to ask me to give Raisse permission to visit the First Queen Ylish and the Second Queen Asa –the oldest and the youngest of the Enshah’s wives– in the women’s quarters. “What if I don’t want you to give me permission?” Raisse asked, half joking, but I said I’d give her permission so she could make up her own mind about whether to go.

Mernath had heard that apart from the crown prince, there were also two crown princesses: the Azure Princess Khiarban and the Azure Princess Yilde, both not at court at the moment. I wondered how many children who weren’t crown princes or princesses the Enshah had, seeing that he had two hundred wives.

When the delegation arrived, we were dressed up and seated on the two thrones on the veranda outside our bedroom. It was an impressive sight: a dozen large burly eunuchs, then a dozen slender stylish eunuchs, all unarmed, escorting half a dozen very old ladies. The eldest of the old ladies bowed, and bowed again, and climbed the veranda stairs and bowed again, then asked me for permission for the most learned, mighty, etcetera, lady Queen Raisse to visit the queens so that they could benefit from her learned instruction. “I’ll gladly give her permission, if she is inclined to accept the invitation,” I said, forcing the old lady to ask Raisse as well.

Raisse accepted, not that I’d expected otherwise. It would be most expedient to go right away, so she collected some ladies-in-waiting: Captain Arni, Talvi of the Ildis regiment, our doctor, my secretary Halla, her own maid Lysna and two identically-dressed linen maids. Talvi commanded twelve women soldiers in their best uniforms.

While Raisse was assembling her party I read the letter from the ambassador: someone called Sellei Ruzyn, probably elderly, judging from her shaky old-fashioned handwriting. Her choice of words was also old-fashioned and mixed with Iss-Peranian– she’d probably been living here for a long time. She was the elected representative of the Valdyan community in Albetire and would like to “enjoy my instruction”– yes, she’d definitely been living here too long. I asked Halla to invite Ruzyn to come at her earliest convenience: I was curious about the Valdyan community here.

Some time went by in which I tried to make a plan for the next few days, complicated by not knowing who wanted to see me and who I needed to see, and the fact that my secretary was currently Raisse’s lady-in-waiting. Mernath knew a lot of things, but mostly practical rather than administrative. I stood by the fire in the temple of Anshen for a while, practiced my Iss-Peranian with giggling servants, and waited. With luck Raisse would be back before the crown prince turned up, and otherwise I’d give him her compliments. As it was, she came back just as it was getting hot, so overwhelmed with everything that she couldn’t tell me much– that will probably come in bits and pieces. She did tell me that the youngest queen was really very young, thirteen, and very gifted, but her training wouldn’t start until her fourteenth birthday. The women seem to have their own way of training gifted girls, which the queen hadn’t been able, or permitted, to tell Raisse about.

The bedroom was cool, the bed looked inviting, though it was currently occupied by two little boys having a backwards-crawling race. When Vurian saw Raisse he started screaming for milk, and Rovan thought that was a good idea, so it was a while before we could lie down and get some relief from the heat. When we did get the chance –Senthi had taken both of the babies to sleep outside under a cloth canopy– Raisse showed me what she hadn’t seen until the youngest queen had: she was a few weeks pregnant. It must have happened that last night in the village. Either we’d have to stay for almost three seasons, which wasn’t what I’d planned, or she would be travelling while pregnant again– but we already knew that she could. Talking about this, we must have fallen asleep, because when we woke up Mernath and Lysna were there with kingly clothes to dress us in.

There was a table on the veranda now, with wine and food set out on it, and another chair next to the thrones for the crown prince. I asked for a chair and a writing-table for Halla, because I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to remember everything important. Halla filled me in on some details: the old queen, Ylish, had two living daughters, the Azure Princesses, born about ten years apart, the first when she was in her thirties though she’d married the Enshah when she was sixteen. The daughters couldn’t stand each other, and they were both in exile anyway– it didn’t become clear to me why. The crown prince was their half-brother, about thirty years old. His mother had been beheaded for trying to poison the crown princesses; the prince had been banished at that time, but was now back in his father’s graces. The Enshah had had three other sons, older than this prince, but one had died in an uprising, one in a war, and one had been poisoned. Also, there were eight-year-old twin sons whose mother had gone into exile with the elder princess; the boys were living in the women’s residence. There was something strange about the elder princess: she was dandar, which Raisse recognised as the word the young queen had used for “gifted”, but it meant more than that, a hint of not-quite-savoury semsin work about it.

The crown prince arrived with an escort of courtiers wearing swords. I was about to ask for my own when Ayran spoke to their commander, a table was brought, cushions on it, and they all put their swords there to be guarded by Ayran’s adjutant.

Behen e Khahar e Aman –that’s what Halla tells me is his name; I could only make “Ben Echar Eman” of it– was a jovial man, so much that I had trouble not to say things that shouldn’t be heard, at least not yet. We mostly made small-talk, but it felt as if he was trying to find out what kind of man this young king was. After a while he apologised for his lack of courtesy and switched to accented, but very understandable Ilaini, making it (whether intended or not) even harder for me not to say too much.

Relations with his father were getting ever better, he said, and I could sense that he really believed that. Then he asked whether I was a father. Yes, I said, my son is ten months old, there he is sleeping under the canopy. That got me, and probably by extension Raisse, his instant admiration: that we dared travel with such a small child! It’s the strangest things that make people think that Valdyans are uncommonly brave.

He was also curious about Senthi and Hinla: he’d always assumed that Valdyans had only one wife. I made him laugh by telling him that Senthi was our son’s wet-nurse and Hinla was our adopted daughter, but that we were keeping the servants guessing. I don’t know how we got from that to the “unfortunate case” of Prince Attima and the girl among the Enshah’s wives or concubines who had been “taken care of”. “Fatally?” I asked, and it turned out that that was indeed the case. “Wouldn’t you do that if your wife betrayed you?” the prince asked. No, of course not, I said, and realised that I couldn’t even imagine my wife betraying me. He didn’t see me blush, or ignored it, and went on to say that he didn’t mind sharing the power with his half-siblings, but someone who had both a different father and a different mother would be too much of a stretch.

There would be an official banquet shortly, where I would be able to meet King Aheste of Jomhur, the kingdom in the west that had already fallen to the Khas. The kingdom we’d just left. The king had left it just in time, I gathered. I asked Halla for the map and the crown prince pointed out where the kingdoms of the alliance were: between Albetire, where we were, and Jomhur there was only one other kingdom.

The moment the prince had left the ambassador was announced, as if she’d been waiting outside the door. She was indeed old, accompanied by a younger woman, Hylti. It was refreshing to talk to Valdyans who we hadn’t been travelling with, even if they’d picked up Iss-Peranian manners. There were about thirty-two thousand Valdyans in Albetire, in their own quarter of the city– that amounted to a town the size of Veray! It turned out that Ruzyn had come with my mother, when they were both girls, and stayed in Albetire when she ran into a nice man. She was now a widow, elected to be “head of the nation” as any group of people from a foreign country in Albetire had to have. When the Khandihan came back, he’d heard that we had someone from Iss-Peran who we called “ambassador”, so she was given that title. I promised to visit the Valdyan quarter as soon as I could; I’m really looking forward to that.

Ruzyn warned me that nothing that was said here could be private, because everybody had spies everywhere. “Then the whole palace will know tomorrow that we’re expecting another little prince or princess!” I said with a grin, but it disturbed me nevertheless. She could tell me some facts that everybody knew already anyway– that Princess Khiarban was associated with what she called “the widows’ league”, and Princess Yilde with the movement of Koll Konandé (I wonder if Koll Neveshtan is any relation) which had a lot of support among the people. Also, that there were a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers camped on the west side of the city, ostensibly to fight the Khas on the Jomhur border, but it could just as well be preparation for an uprising. Ayran told me later, out of everybody’s earshot, that he’d like to be away from here before the soldiers were gone, because otherwise the Enshah might expect our soldiers to defend him if there was an uprising.

As for spies, Mernath had discovered a service corridor running inside the wall, past our bed, and a space under the veranda and part of the bedroom that held a large basin of ice but could easily hold a spy as well; we’ll have to be still more careful of what we say.