The characters… were just as endearing…. I’ll definitely be recommending this series” – Alexis, a Goodreads reviewer
Lani came running to me when I was folding sheets with Sayen out in the courtyard. “Ria, come see him, if you want to see him alive. Saraid says he won’t last the afternoon.”
She’s much younger than I am, my cousin, though we could hardly be more different. She was fourteen then, and even the prospect of a hero’s death couldn’t sober her for too long. She’d been assigned to bring the dying soldier his meals, though he’d eaten none of them yet. He’d spent the last day and a half out of his mind with fever.
I followed her through the halls to the door of his room. Saraid rolled her eyes at Lani and me when we entered. “Have you no decency? The man’s dying.” She was trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to spoon honeyed wine between his lips.
I’d never seen a Dari before, and I stepped closer for a better look. His skin was very dark, the color of olives, with the same rich greenish undertone. His face was different from Tuyet faces, with a straighter jaw and a slightly narrower nose, all hard flat planes rather than the long elegant curves of a masculine Tuyet face. Not my conception of beauty, but not as monstrous as I’d expected.
His lips were open, and he gasped slightly with each quick breath. Sweat beaded on his forehead. When Saraid spooned the wine into his mouth, he swallowed convulsively, but choked on it and struggled for a long moment before the next breath. Regardless of looks, I pitied him.
Saraid sat back and her shoulders slumped. “I don’t know what else to do.” She sounded totally defeated. She rubbed her hands hard over her face and closed her eyes a moment.
“He still lives. You can’t give up now.” I’m no healer and I really had no idea if he had a chance, but I guess I thought that while he breathed, there was hope.
“He’s taken two, maybe three good swallows. Since yesterday, mind. The fever’s only gotten worse. I’ve never seen a fever so hot, not in anyone that lived. Here, feel.” She put my hand on his forehead, slippery with sweat. It was burning hot, and he twitched at my touch, eyes fluttering open briefly before closing again.
I jerked back in surprise. “His eyes are green!” Green as grass, glittering with fever and oddly bright against his dark skin.
She snapped, “Yes, and you’re standing there not working. Get on with you, and let the man die in peace.”
I scurried out, not hurt in the least. Saraid is very kind-hearted; that’s why she became a healer. Her anger was born of worry and frustration, not a quick temper.
I finished my work that night wondering whether the soldier had lived through the day. Saraid sent Lani to the kitchen to fetch her dinner because she didn’t want to leave him. I brought it to her instead, because I wanted another look at the soldier. Saraid looked tired, and she nodded when I asked if I could tend him for a bit so she could rest.
The usurper Taisto was a vicious man. He had a smooth tongue and a pretty face, but we all knew Tibi and his wife and Anath the cook had nothing to do with the plot against the prince. They were in Taisto’s way, so he eliminated them. Until the prince and his soldier friend arrived, we’d all thought we might be next. But where could we go? Asking to leave would only draw attention, and Taisto’s attention was deadly. Anyone who removed him was already someone I was glad to serve.
If anything, the soldier was worse than before, his breaths quick and shallow. He shook with fever, his hands clenching restlessly at times. He choked and gasped when I spooned wine into him and finally I gave it up, though I did wipe his face with a damp cloth to cool the fever.
His eyes opened sometimes for a minute or two, but he wasn’t really aware of anything. Each time I flinched away because the brilliant green was startling and a little eerie. I felt guilty for it though. A man deserves compassion in his last hours, especially a man like him, who’d done so much for Erdem. I pitied him, and I wondered what it would be like when the quick fevered breaths slowed and stopped.
He was shirtless, with only a thin sheet to cover him sometimes, and despite the strange, ugly tone of his skin I couldn’t help admiring a little. I thought if he were Tuyet, he’d be beyond gorgeous, lean and hard and richly muscled. A soldier, not a nobleman, but I was hardly one to be looking at noblemen anyway. He had scars, and I wondered what their stories were. An old one, a long faint line across his ribs on the left, a newer circle on his chest below his collarbone, a larger ragged oval on his back at the bottom of one shoulder. A fresh scar on his right arm near his shoulder that nearly disappeared under a bandage for a newer wound. And others. I wondered if he’d received them all in the king’s service.
Most would have come in the time of the old king. It saddened me to think of a man so brave serving such a coward. The old king was a disgrace to his royal name, but we’d waited for the day when his son the young prince would take the throne. No one had been more anxious than those of us in the palace who saw the prince’s potential. Not that we’d hurried along the king’s death, of course, but we had hoped, both for ourselves and for Erdem, that the prince would be different than his father. Somehow it encouraged me that this brave soldier had also believed in him.
Saraid and I changed the sheets when she returned. The sheets were almost dripping with sweat, and she said the dampness would chill him and worsen the fever. He didn’t awaken as we rolled him carefully to one side and then the other while we wrestled with the fabric beneath him. He moaned once, when we first rolled him to his right side, a low quiet sound that made me cringe.
I helped her change the bandage on his shoulder. It covered an ugly gash, but the wound wasn’t infected. Someone had stitched it, and done a good job of it too, though it hadn’t had much time to heal. Saraid said the fever was from Taisto’s poisoned blade, which had scratched his arm. I wondered how he’d gotten the wound on his shoulder, and whether that was why he’d moaned. Whether it hurt even through the fever, or whether he was hurt in other ways.
I asked if I should come back in the morning, but she said no. She didn’t expect him to last the night. But I could send Lani with her breakfast and one for the soldier if by some chance he was still alive.
Lani was nearly bursting with excitement at lunch the next day. “I saw him! He lives, and I took him to the prince’s office. He’s nice, Ria. I felt so bad. I was so excited I walked too fast, and I think he nearly fainted.” She’s always in trouble for walking too fast and even running in the palace, but she has a willing heart and does her duties quickly and well. She sounded a little upset.
“I hope you slowed down.” I can barely keep up with her sometimes and I haven’t been nearly killed by poison.
“Of course I did. He ate some breakfast too.”
I didn’t see him until the next morning, when Lani took me with her to bring him his breakfast. We were very quiet and didn’t wake him. He slept on his back, one long muscular arm over his face shielding his eyes from the morning light. His breathing was easier, but even sleeping he looked drawn, tired, a slight catch remaining in each breath. Still, it was amazing he was alive at all. I wondered if it was scandalous of me to be so curious about him. Probably it was.
I saw him in the hallway the day before the coronation. We were busy preparing for it, and I’d scarcely thought about him at all for two days. He was tremendously tall, shoulders broader than I’d realized, and I squeaked out a polite greeting as I curtsied and scurried out of his way. He inclined his head more courteously than he probably should have, since I was only a serving girl. He didn’t recognize me, of course, and it startled me that I wished he had.
I looked after him as he walked down the hall, but he didn’t turn around. Despite his color, he wasn’t really a bad looking man. As ill as he had been so recently, and probably still felt, his strides were long and easy and he moved with a taut grace most men could only envy. Not handsome, certainly, but his deeds more than made up for that.
Kemen Sendoa. We had received instructions to treat him as the most honored guest ever to grace the palace. It was hardly surprising. By the wild rumors sweeping the palace and out through the city, he’d saved the prince’s life many times over, negotiated a temporary peace treaty with Rikuto, and almost single-handedly regained the crown for the young prince Hakan Ithel. The poison that had almost killed him was meant for the prince, but Sendoa had taken the blade instead. Of course, it was something of an accident and hardly much of a wound aside from the poison, but the rumors and the king’s regard left no doubt of his courage or his faithful service. There were even whispers that he’d been offered the crown, but had rejected it in favor of the prince. True or not, it only added to his air of mystery.
Isn’t every girl fascinated by heroism and mystery? I wasn’t the only one, even within the palace, who watched him a little more closely than was strictly necessary at the banquet following the coronation. He smiled more than I imagined was usual for him; he didn’t have the lines of smiles in his face. His teeth stood out very white against his dark skin. I thought he should smile more often; it softened his serious, intense look. He didn’t eat as much as I would have expected for a man of his size, and I wondered if he was still ill. He looked tired. It wouldn’t have surprised me.
When I refilled his wine glass, I let my sleeve brush his shoulder slightly. He smiled and nodded his thanks, not really paying attention. My mother would have been scandalized, of course. Good girls like me don’t do such things, especially not with honored guests of the king. I didn’t really mean anything by it, nothing scandalous. I just wanted to see his green eyes again. I’d heard green eyes in Dari are about as common as grey eyes in Tuyets; roughly a quarter of the population has them. But never having seen a Dari at all before, I thought they were fascinating. Eerie, but fascinating nonetheless.
In the next weeks, I saw him sometimes in the mornings, in the grey dawn when only a few of the servants were awake. I passed him in the hallways and saw him in the courtyard where he exercised. The first time I stopped and stared, my mouth open in awe. The kicks and flips, the pure and perfect energy, were breathtaking. It was beautiful in a wild and furious way, the same way a running horse or a thunderstorm is beautiful.
He finished a set of moves and rested a moment, leaning over to put his hands on his knees. He must have seen me out of the corner of his eye, for he suddenly straightened, his eyes on me. My ears burning, I curtsied, but I couldn’t help sneaking a glance back at him again as I hurried away. He smiled slightly and inclined his head, but I wasn’t foolish enough to think it was more than courtesy.
After that I was careful to watch him, the few times I did, from the windows. Though later I felt more for him, I can honestly say that then it was still purely curiosity, and I was terribly embarrassed to imagine that he might have thought I felt more. He gave no sign of anything more than proper courtesy when he saw me next, and I was glad he hadn’t misinterpreted my interest.
After the coronation, we fell back into something resembling the routine of the palace. Things were changing a lot then. The young king Hakan Ithel had Noriso, the palace administrator, rehire many of the servants who had been let go during Vidar’s and then Taisto’s brief reigns. I was lucky not to lose my position too during that time, but Noriso knew I had nowhere to go and no family to help me. I was grateful to him for it.
To tell the truth, I should have been married by then. My mother had arranged it; I was to be married at the age of seventeen to a small fabric merchant in Stonehaven. I didn’t mind him, and he liked me enough I think, but it was a marriage of convenience. I’d already been working in the palace for a few years by that time. When my mother died, we were going to go through with it, because he still needed an heir and it isn’t good for a woman to be alone and unprotected.
A month before the wedding, he came to me and begged leave to break the engagement. He’d met a woman, and they were in love. I released him, though I didn’t have to since the papers had been signed already. But what is the use of being married to a man who pines for someone else? There is no security and certainly no joy in that, and I wouldn’t, couldn’t, have expected him to remain faithful to me forever. Instead, he was happy and she was happy and I was quietly disappointed but far from heartbroken. It was better for me too, at least as long as I kept my job.
But the months and then years wore on and I had no other suitors. I didn’t have a way to meet men, working as I did in the palace, a closed environment where everyone knows everyone else. It breeds deep friendships and lasting enmity, but once you’ve figured out where you stand with everyone, it’s set for years. Vidar and Taisto had shaken that up, but it quickly settled down again. There were no particularly good prospects in the few new people Noriso hired, though there were some who might become friends. I didn’t have anyone to take care of the arrangements for me, though Lani’s mother tried a few times.
It’s an odd business, this way that men and women dance around each other. They want our bodies and we want their protection and really, deep inside, I think what we all want most is friendship and understanding. But how do you find that amid the awkwardness and the halting words?
Not long before the king Hakan Ithel was crowned, I met a man in the market. I was twenty six then, well past the age at which most girls are married, though I hadn’t given up hope. His name was Riulono, and he was a footman in the house of Lord Kalyano. He smiled at me as he wove through the crowd, and I blushed and pretended I hadn’t noticed. I saw him again when Lord Kalyano attended a banquet at the palace. With the other footmen, he stayed in the servants’ quarters, laughing and waiting for their masters to finish. He smiled at me, and I smiled at him. He had curly golden hair and laughing eyes, and I didn’t mind when he swept his eyes over me and smiled a little more. It made my heart beat a little faster to think I’d pleased a man. I, mousey little Riona, pleased a man! He noticed me, and I appreciated it more than even I had expected. He sent a letter of intent, properly worded and polite. I didn’t have parents to handle it for me, so I answered it myself.
Riulono made me laugh, and he was dashingly handsome. It bothered me a bit that the one time he’d come to visit, bringing a bouquet of bright daisies from the market, he spent almost as much time looking at Tanith and Sinta as he did looking at me. But I wasn’t sure what I could expect. I was twenty six, after all, and hardly the most eligible woman in Stonehaven. I was used to being invisible. He scattered compliments around with careless generosity.
Once I met him in the market for the afternoon on my off day. He smiled and kissed me on the cheek, told me I was beautiful. He smelled of ale, soap, horse sweat, and leather, masculine smells that made my breath come a little short. He bought me grilled tomatoes and peppers on a skewer for lunch, and sticky rice with sweet beans afterward, and took me on a tour all around the most exciting part of the market, the jewelry stands. The jewels glittered with brilliant color in the sunlight. Sayen said later he should have bought me something, even if it was small, but I didn’t expect him to; a footman isn’t rich, and jewels are frivolous anyway.
We sat on the edge of one of the wells and he pointed out people he’d seen before. That man was a thief, but not very good; he’d been thrown in prison a hundred times. That girl was a harlot. I glanced at him sideways as he said it, and he didn’t seem especially offended. I know some girls rent their bodies, I can even understand why they might be so desperate, but I guess I’d expected to hear a bit of scorn in his voice. I wondered if he’d paid the street women visits of his own. Probably not. He was handsome enough he wouldn’t have to pay for that.
Lani’s mother Ena and father Joka had already begun tentative negotiations with several prospects for her, though she wouldn’t be wed for some years yet. She was intimidated by it, and I couldn’t blame her. It frustrated me that I had no advice to give her – aside from the obvious, of course.
“It’ll be fine. He can’t be that bad.”
“Your mother loves you, she won’t make you marry someone you hate.”
“You might like each other.”
But Lani wasn’t yet interested in men, aside from a general curiosity, so the idea of being attracted to one was far from her mind. She wasn’t exactly unaware of men’s needs, she just wasn’t yet ready to have any desire of her own.
I wished I could say the same. I wished for a girlfriend closer to my own age I could talk to, and I did have a few, but they were all married or betrothed. I laughed when Sinta and Tanith teased me about Riulono, but the truth is I wished desperately for a husband, to feel loved, needed, protected. It’s not good to be alone.
Not long after the coronation, the young king Hakan Ithel sent Sendoa to speak to the Rikutan king. The whispers ran about the palace like fire. The Rikutan king had specifically requested Sendoa, because his brother, an army officer, had spoken so highly of him. It was unheard of to appoint a man of war as an ambassador, but the king’s trust in his friend was absolute. His official title became Ambassador and General Kemen Sendoa.
The day after the coronation, I wandered about the palace almost in a daze. I saw a few servants. The girl who had led me to Hakan’s office gave me a bright smile as she hurried down a hallway and asked if I wanted anything. I shook my head, bemused and pleased by her friendly courtesy.
Finally I found myself in the kitchen, a great room with several open fireplaces, three ovens, dozens of strings of dried vegetables hanging all about my head, and so much other food that I was nearly overwhelmed by the smells. I had to duck my head quite far to see under the strings of onions and peppers, and I would have turned around but a cheerful voice rang out in greeting.
I answered, “I’m sorry, I think I’m in the wrong place.”
“Nonsense. Come in, come in.”
I bent down to find the source of the voice and finally made my way through the confusion to a man kneading some kind of dough at a table, with a woman and a younger girl behind him scurrying about, taking things in and out of the ovens. A young boy was chopping peppers close by. The onions and peppers were above the man’s head, but I couldn’t stand without catching my hair in them, and he motioned me to sit at the table across from him.
His eyes widened when he saw me more clearly, but he smiled very kindly. He had a generous round face with deep lines from smiling and white hair that ringed his head already. The whiteness and the baldness may have come a bit young, for he didn’t look older than fifty. He began talking almost immediately.
“Are you the soldier Kemen Sendoa?”
“Aye.” I nodded.
“I’m Joran. I thank you for your care of the prince. The king Hakan Ithel is a good boy, a good man now I suppose, and we were so worried for him. You know that Tibi and Torna and our own Anath had nothing to do with it, don’t you?”
I nodded, assuming he meant the assassination attempt that Taisto had blamed on Hakan’s tutor and the others. They’d been executed for it on Taisto’s orders.
“He’s well loved here. Far be it from me to criticize a king, but I will say that we look forward to serving under the king Hakan Ithel as a more pleasant experience than we’ve had yet in the palace. You have our gratitude, more than I can say. Here, Luko, bring me that meat pie.”
The boy brought a steaming pie and Joran cut out a large slice, then quickly arranged some cheese and fruit on the side of the plate. “You look hungry. Eat while you rest.” He slid the plate over to me with a smile.
He bobbed his head in quick apology. “Forgive me for the insult, sir, if it is insulted you feel. The king has given orders that you’re to be accorded every honor, as the most favored guest the castle has ever seen, and from what I’ve heard you’ve had a hard enough time of it in your service to him. Take it as thanks from us. We love him too.” His voice had an odd inflection, and I wondered what part of the country he was from. He’d clearly been in Stonehaven for years, and I couldn’t place the accent.
I shrugged and ate with a will. I’d thought I was full, but with the fever fading, I was already hungry again. The man talked all the while, though I hardly carried my end of the conversation. When I finished the pie, he pushed another plate in front of me, this time of tangy vegetables. Then another plate of pie, this one a fruit pie with cream and honey on top. Then pastries and fresh berries. Finally I forced myself to stop. I don’t like the heavy slow feeling when I eat too much. The boy took away my dirty plates to wash with eyes wide with awe.
Joran asked, “Did you have enough?”
I nodded. The kitchen was warm and pleasant, but in a few minutes more, I bid them farewell, with many thanks for the excellent food.
I found Hakan in the courtyard behind the castle. He was speaking to one of the grooms, and I didn’t want to interrupt them.
I leaned on the fence to watch the horses in the small corral outside the stable while I waited for him to finish. The sun was warm on my shoulders and the late spring breeze carried the scent of horses, flowers, and thick rich grass. I felt absolutely happy, more at peace with the world than I had been in years.
There was a foal nursing from a fat healthy mare in the far corner of the corral, and one of the barncats jumped onto the fence not far from me. I held very still. Though I have a way with horses and dogs, cats are sometimes afraid of me.
The cat balanced on the top rail of the fence and walked toward me with perfect confidence. She, a mother still nursing, rubbed against me, the tip of her tail tickling my nose. Her fur was warm and dusty, black and brown mixed haphazardly. Her little white paws were the size of my fingertips. I wondered if that’s what it’s like to have a woman, a creature inexpressibly beautiful and delicate, with an entirely different sort of power.
Hakan stood beside me. “Kemen?” He hesitated. “Have you ever been with a woman?”
I wondered whether I had been speaking aloud. “Why?”
He looked out at the corral as he spoke. “I’ll need a queen, and someday an heir. My mother was a commoner, but I don’t know how my father met her. How can a prince, or a king, court a commoner?”
“If you only want an heir, it should be easy enough.” Too easy. Most women would be only too eager.
He shook his head, as I had expected. “My father and mother had no love between them. I won’t do that to my child. But how can I know whether a woman cares for me or for my crown?” The cat turned about and rubbed her head against his shoulder, purring loudly, and he rubbed her absently.
Finally I spoke quietly. “I’ll think on it. But in this I may not be able to serve you, Hakan.”
He nodded. “I know. But I respect your judgment.”
I raised my eyebrows but did not answer him. Of all things I was unqualified for, advice on women was probably foremost. Hakan would have been better served to go ask a stableboy.
Though I’d expected to go to Rikuto soon after the coronation, it was nearly two weeks before I left. Hakan was busy with the work of ruling, and the palace soon took on a very different feel. Taisto had dismissed great numbers of servants, and Hakan enlisted the aid of the palace administrator to rehire the appropriate number.
Of course, Taisto’s men in the kitchen had already been dismissed. Hakan would have preferred to arrest them for poisoning Vidar, but we were unable to find proof so long after the deed. The king’s guards, who had been awaiting trial in the dank stone cells of the palace prison, were released and given an official commendation for their loyalty. They were pale, hungry, and badly needed washing, but after a hot bath, a new set of clothes, and a week of rest and rich food, they were as eager to serve as ever.
I was honored to meet Siri Andar, the commander who had sent the message to Hakan about Taisto’s treachery. He was a man of thin and wiry build, smaller than most soldiers. His golden hair was liberally sprinkled with silvery grey, but his sparkling gaze and quick smile made him seem younger than he probably was. I knew immediately he was in deadly earnest in his promise to die for his men, though I might have suspected another man of bravado or posturing. He seemed to look on every man even five years his junior as a son to be protected and guided. When I met him, I bowed low before him because he deserved that honor. He returned the bow with more respect than was strictly proper, for he was my senior both in age and rank.
Though Hakan spoke with me about many of the changes he made, I didn’t understand everything he did. He changed the way the taxes were collected; he said that the old way was rife with corruption. I’d heard a few complaints, but since I’d mostly kept to myself, I didn’t know exactly how it worked, and had no experience of it myself. I’d never been taxed; I owned no land and no business.
Hakan said the new way would be better. It would give the king’s treasury the same amount or even more without taking nearly so much from the pockets of the commoners. He said the only people who would be angry with him would be the nobility, but he didn’t mind that much because the changes would benefit merchants and enable them to make more money on their trading. Eventually the greater trade would appease the nobility because they would be able to buy more luxurious silks and dates, nuts and expensive porcelain from Ophrano and Rikuto at better prices. I hoped he was right; antagonizing the nobility at the start of a reign is a risky thing.
He had grand plans to start a series of schools for common children throughout the country. The classes would be similar to those taught at the beginning of our education in the army, but instead of military tactics and strategy he wanted the children to study agriculture and trade. He was also very interested in developing strategies that would take better advantage of the crossbow, for it gave archers different capabilities than the longbow or the shorter bow of the suvari archers. It didn’t require as much training, for one thing, and that meant that even kedani and suvari who weren’t in the archery squads might be armed with crossbows to be used at need.
The day before I left, Hakan asked me to meet with him in his working office. We spoke about what he wanted from Rikuto and what he was willing to give. He had a good idea of what Tafari might demand most firmly and where he would be more flexible.
Finally he leaned forward, his voice very quiet. “I hope you will forgive me, Kemen. I’ve assigned you an assistant who will serve you as both scribe and advisor on this trip. He has some experience in diplomacy and can give you guidance. You hold my authority, but I believe he can help you. He’s been to Rikuto often and lived several years in Enkotan in his early service. In order to have him best serve you, and Erdem’s interests, I found it necessary to tell him about your difficulty reading.”
I nodded. It was unavoidable, I could see that clearly enough. Yet still it stung, and my jaw was tight with shame when the man was brought in to meet me.
Farin Driniamo was perhaps two or three years younger than I was, a bit soft in his middle already. He had smooth pudgy hands and a round face, but his eyes were shrewd and brightly intelligent. He would serve as my chief assistant, but I was also assigned five couriers, several younger scribes to serve under Driniamo, and an escort of fifty suvari. That night Driniamo and I reviewed the agreements Taisto had signed with Tafari, and I saw better how calculating Taisto had been and how tightly he’d been squeezing Tafari.
Though Hakan gave me a carriage in keeping with my official authority, I preferred to ride. The rocking of the carriage made my stomach turn, and it made me uneasy to not see the road ahead of me. Besides, the summer was far too glorious to traverse with windows shuttered. Driniamo was not a particularly good rider, but he took pains to speak to me and suffered from saddle sores in his attempt to remain by my side. I suppose it was a form of honor, for I was the authority of the group, and if I rode, then it was unfitting for him to remain in the carriage.
He liked to talk and I found him tedious at times, but he was a pleasant companion for the most part. With many apologies for his presumption, he offered sound advice about Rikutan court etiquette and negotiation techniques. How to demand more than is possible, so when you compromise you gain more than you might have expected. The priorities that the old king Hakan Emyr had held and what was likely to have changed for Tafari since Driniamo had last been to the Rikutan court.
It was odd to discuss such things with him. At times, I was impressed by his perception and shrewdness, at times almost disgusted by the inherent duplicity of diplomacy, and at times profoundly grateful that Erdem was served so well. Most often, I felt unequal to the task. Diplomacy was far from my humble experience. For his part, Driniamo gave no indication that he thought less of me for my inability to read. I was more grateful for that than he probably realized.
Our travel to the border took nearly two weeks, for the carriage did not make the trip with the speed that suvari alone would have. We crossed the border on the Lobar Road pass, but we didn’t meet any Rikutan border guards until we were nearly out of the mountains.
We had no trouble. Tafari had already told them to expect a diplomatic envoy sometime, and they gave us an honor escort to the capital. That part of the journey took another week. The Rikutan countryside provided ample interest while we rode. The weather on that side of the mountains is much hotter and drier, and that year it had been especially difficult.
I saw few farmers, but those I saw looked thin and weary. When I asked one of the Rikutan officers how the people in the country fared, he scowled and said that in some of the outlying areas, the roads had become nearly impassible for common folk, because Tarvil bandits and raiders had become so numerous. The crown had spent so much money on buying food from Erdem it could no longer support an army sufficient to protect the populace. Of course, many of the bandits were Rikutans driven to desperation by failing crops and failing markets, unable to travel and trade as they had before.
Once we reached Enkotan, we were escorted directly to the palace. I’d never seen it before, and I tried to get a glimpse of everything as we drew closer. We arrived late in the afternoon with the sun setting behind us, but the angle of our approach up a slight slope meant we didn’t see the palace in all its glory, at least at first.
We were received with all due courtesy and respect. The Erdemen suvari were escorted to their quarters, which I later heard were quite adequate, though not luxurious. I dismounted and handed the reins to a groom, but before I had fully taken in the Rikutan palace, I was greeted by a man who introduced himself with a graceful bow as Virkama Niramsokai, the king’s seneschal. He was a sober man, simply dressed given his rank, with light brown hair, pale blue eyes, and a careful, thoughtful air about him. He asked whether I would prefer to rest before seeing the king. I declined, though I did take his offer of a chance for a quick wash to make myself presentable.
The palace was beautiful and ancient, built within a hundred years of our own in Stonehaven, and I would have enjoyed the chance to examine it more closely, for Rikutan design is much different than Erdemen design. However, Niramsokai himself escorted me immediately to a guest room of deep red and gold. Driniamo’s room was next door. I washed quickly and opened the door to find Niramsokai still waiting for me. He bowed respectfully and took me to the king’s throne room, Driniamo following behind me.
Riulono came to see me again. Tanith called me to the servant’s entrance where she left him outside inspecting his jaunty footman’s cap any specks of dust. “Ria, your catch is here to see you.”
“He’s not a fish, Tanith.”
“He is! He has no soul. I like him, Ria, he’s handsome and funny, but he’s cold. Be careful. He’s not your kind of man.”
Tanith had the worst taste in men I’d ever seen; her advice was barely worth hearing, much less following.
Riulono didn’t seem to care about her opinion of him. He winked at her and then laughed easily when she rolled her eyes. “Beautiful Riona, dearest, could you spare a moment for me? I have something to show you.” He was nearly grinning.
I showed him to a table in the kitchen and sat across from him. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to be alone with him yet. Joran was there, and he made me feel safe.
“Ria, darling, I have something for you.” He was proud, white teeth flashing in another quick grin. “I found it at the market last week, but I couldn’t get away until now. Here.” He pulled a small wooden box from his pocket and gave it to me, leaning forward in anticipation.
I wish I could describe what I felt. Hope, anticipation, quite a bit of fear. I opened the box tentatively. Inside the box was a fine golden necklace, several thin chains linked together. They glittered in the sunlight streaming through the window.
“Do you like it?” he watched my face.
I smiled and nodded.
“I got a deal. It was only twelve golden eagles.” He shrugged carelessly. Sinta rolled her eyes as she passed behind his back. It was quite a bit of money for a servant, even a footman in a noble house.
He leaned forward again, elbows on the table. “I could get the papers next week. Marry me, Riona.”
I licked my lips, my heart racing.
“Here, I’ll put it on you.” He stood and walked around behind me. He fiddled with the clasp a moment, with one quiet oath under his breath. “Here.”
I bent my head forward and he let his fingers linger on my neck, one hand trailing down much lower than it needed to.
He bent to speak into my ear. “Tell me, Ria, dear. Shall I get the papers?”
I tensed as he ran his hand down my arm. “Can I think about it?”
He let out a quick breath and straightened. “What’s to think about? Darling, take all the time you want, so long as it isn’t more than a week. I’m getting impatient.” He grinned wickedly. “Am I competing with anyone for your affections?”
“No.” My answer was quiet, and I glanced at Joran who was working steadily two tables away. I wondered if he could hear.
“Then I suppose you’ll see reason soon enough. I can wait.” He grinned and leaned down to kiss my cheek. “You’re beautiful. The gold matches your hair. I need to go, Kally wants me back soon. I know my own way out.” He whistled as he left.
Kally. Everyone else called him Lord Kalyano. It was another thing that bothered me. Riulono wasn’t as respectful as I thought he should be. Not to Lord Kalyano. Not to me. I fingered the chain on my neck.
Joran slid into the chair across from me, frowning. “Ria, are you really going to do it?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I should. He made me feel desired. A woman needs a man, at least in Stonehaven. I wanted children. I wanted a family, and I was tired of being alone. And Riulono was right; he had no competition.
Joran’s soft face frowned more and he scraped at a spot on the table with one fingernail. “You can do better.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Joran, I’m twenty six. How many other men have you seen in here courting me?”
He shrugged a little uncomfortably. “You don’t love him, do you?” His eyes flicked to my face and then away.
I hesitated. “Not everyone has the luxury of love.”
I didn’t really know if he loved me, or if I loved him. It was a lot of money for a footman to spend on a necklace. I wanted to believe that meant something, but sometimes when I thought about how he spoke to me, I felt a crushing weight on my chest. I felt trapped. Hemmed in.
I’d expected to feel nervous at meeting the Rikutan king, but surprisingly I felt very calm. It was as though I knew already the meeting would go well. The throne room was beautiful, a fitting tribute to an ancient and great culture. The floor was paved in white marble, with stark geometric inlays of black granite, and the walls were hung with red tapestries, tall and narrow to accentuate the vaulted ceiling. The throne itself was of dark wood inlaid with gold, surrounded by a red carpet with gold accents on the edges. I bowed respectfully when I entered and again as I approached the throne.
The king Ashmu Tafari was perhaps forty five years old. The resemblance to his brother Zuzay was clear, the corners of his mouth turning up similarly though his eyes were more tired. A king has a difficult job, and I would not have traded places with him for anything. He stood to greet me and strode down the steps to clasp my elbow as a warrior would have. The gesture surprised me, for it was an unusually warm way to begin negotiations, but I suppose he wanted to make his gratitude quite clear.
The audience was very short, only an invitation to a banquet that night in our honor. Niramsokai called a manservant to conduct me back to my room and stayed to confer with the king. As I left, out of the corner of my eye I saw Niramsokai standing by the king, his head inclined respectfully; their eyes were on me. I wondered what they thought, and hoped Hakan was right to send me.
A servant offered to attend me before the banquet, but I preferred to prepare alone. I had a bath to wash away the sweat and dirt of the road and dressed in the court clothes Hakan had provided for me. The fabrics were luxurious; thick, fine wool breeches of a dark grey-green, a brilliant white silk shirt, and a dark green tunic with a supple dark leather belt. When I saw myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help smiling to think how strange it was, that I, a foundling and a soldier, should be representing the Erdemen king in a foreign court. In all my years of hard training, I had not prepared, had not even thought to prepare, for this challenge.
I looked out the window at the city sprawled below the palace, and wondered how things were different there. In the sunset, the distant houses looked golden and warm, but there were too few cookfires burning and too few shouts of children’s laughter in the streets. I hoped our agreement would change that.
Tafari welcomed me to the banquet that night with an apology. “I would offer you better fare, more in keeping with the honor I wish to accord you, but I fear this is all we have available. The king exists as a servant of his people, and as such does not enjoy luxuries unavailable to the people.”
This was not entirely true, for clearly the palace was more luxuriously appointed than a farmer’s hovel, but the principle was valid and well observed. Each dish was elaborately prepared, but there weren’t as many dishes as at Hakan’s coronation banquet, nor was the amount of food so generous, although it was more than sufficient. I liked Tafari and how he honored his country and my status as Hakan’s ambassador without throwing away Rikuto’s scarce resources. If Zuzay had told him to ask for me, Zuzay had also read my preferences aright.
We began in earnest the next morning. To my surprise, the king himself was the principal negotiator, with his seneschal Niramsokai and a scribe to assist him. We spoke in Kumar, for Tafari was more than fluent. I suppose it serves almost as a common language across our kingdoms, for the soldiers and kings of many nations speak it. Common, or what we call Common, is really only spoken on the west side of the mountains, in Erdem, Ophrano, the Senga tribes, and many of the Tarvil.
Driniamo listened quietly by my side. Very occasionally, he would lean close to whisper a bit of advice or something from an old agreement that he thought might be helpful, but mostly he left me to it. Tafari was clear and direct but much better accustomed to diplomacy than I was, and I could tell he was aware of my inexperience. I stood firm where Hakan had told me I should and was quick to agree where I knew it would cost Erdem little. There is nothing to be gained by needlessly antagonizing a potential ally, and an ally he was.
One of the most important things Hakan had hoped for was the repair and security of the major roads between Erdem and Rikuto. He wanted the roads enlarged and made more secure, for though Tarvil raiders would no longer be paid by Taisto, they were yet a menace to unguarded travelers and traders. Throughout the day, Tafari was more than gracious and acceded to most of my requests. His own were much as Hakan and I had expected and prepared for, and I was glad to be able to promise our cooperation.
To my utter surprise, we finished the day with much of the final agreement decided upon, though it was not yet written. We were treated to a banquet again that night, with music and a demonstration of traditional Rikutan dancing. Tafari was in good spirits, for our arrangement promised great improvements for his country. Zuzay Tafari arrived that afternoon in time for the meal and festivities.
The banquet was more than pleasant. Though I was among strangers and acquaintances, I felt as though I were among friends. Both the king and his brother took pains to make me feel welcome. Driniamo told me later that though Tafari was always gracious, that evening showed his great pleasure in the day’s agreements.
Afterwards Driniamo spent several hours writing a tentative copy of the agreement, speaking to me all the while to confirm the details. Of course, the next morning we changed many of the finer points, but Tafari was pleased with the outline and we signed the final agreement before noon.
I practiced signing my name that night. I’d done it before, but it had been years since then and I’d never done it often, only for the highest orders for the army. I swallowed my pride, though it stuck in my throat, and asked Driniamo to help me. I wouldn’t shame myself or Hakan by ruining the agreement with a faulty signing.
He spelled my name and wrote each letter individually for me, but then showed me a good form for the final signature, a smoother and more practiced hand, the letters running down the page like water. It was easier to imitate the casual signature than to form the letters into precise words, and this reassured me. Driniamo was tactful enough to hide even the slightest hint of mockery. When we finally signed the binding agreement the next day, my signature, at least to my unpracticed eyes, looked nearly as fluid as Tafari’s.
We were set to depart on the morrow, after a greater banquet than before.
Before the celebration, Tafari himself took me on a walk through his garden. It was a wondrous place, and I could tell he loved it, for he told me far more than most would ever want to know about each plant and flower. The garden was a beautiful example of Rikutan style and design. The pathways were laid out in perfect arcs intersecting with arrow straight paths, all of which were covered in tiny pebbles of pure white or deep grey. Each flower and tree was pruned to perfection. There were glittering pools of still water, their floors paved in cobalt blue tile. Every detail was arranged in an exacting symmetry that must have been stunning from the top of the tower. Off to the west side, well separated, there was a section of the garden left a little more free, the pools unpaved but still carefully tended. It was a peaceful place that the king clearly enjoyed. I imagined it a retreat from the cares of his office, and considered it an honor that he shared it with me.
I saw a girl some distance away as we walked. She was sitting on a bench with a book before her, though she was not reading. Instead she was carefully braiding some flowers into a small circlet, which she eventually put on the head of a small dog laying next to her. I tried not to stare at her, though I was intrigued, but we passed close by her twice as we followed a curving path through the garden.
Finally I asked, “Who is that girl?”
He glanced at me quickly. “That is my daughter, Kveta.”
I cannot tell what spirit of audacity prompted me to ask it, but I did. “How old is she?”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “She is seventeen.”
Well into the age of eligibility then.
“Why?” He stopped and turned to look me square in the face.
I inclined my head to show him my respect. “She is very beautiful.” In fact I’d been unable to see her face, but her form was pleasing and I liked the quiet laugh I heard once.
“Aye, she is.” He studied me closely. “If you were another man, I might ask you not to notice so closely.”
I swallowed. A father has every right to be protective, but I would not jeopardize my mission for something so foolish. Again, the spirit of audacity took my tongue, as well as a stroke of genius, which I cannot normally claim. “I notice not for myself, Your Highness, but as the envoy of a king.”
He blinked in surprise.
“The king Hakan Ithel is young, wise, and kind-hearted. Yet he has no queen.”
He smiled suddenly and resumed walking. “You have a smooth tongue, but a good heart behind it. Tell me about this king Hakan Ithel. Not as a king. As a man. Tell me that.”
“He is calm of temper, not easily angered. He is patient, though he wasn’t always so, and very hard working. He likes to sing. He likes history and the stories of the heroes of old.” What else? What can a man say when evaluating the heart of a friend? What was my right to say and where should I keep silent?
We walked in silence for several minutes, and finally, almost before I realized it, we had reached the bench where the girl was sitting.
She jumped up and curtsied to her father and to me before embracing him with a smile. He smiled at her, and it warmed me to see their love. I wanted that kind of love, if I ever had a daughter. I studied her face a moment. She had wide blue eyes and blond hair, common enough in Tuyets. Her face was bright and kind. If she’d dressed differently, she might have been any commoner but for her eyes, which showed a light of educated intelligence I thought would please Hakan. Her eyes on me were curious but showed little of the fear I expected.