“Of course, my father. I offer my congratulations to the new prince.”
“Thank you, Haduon,” said Shuoljat, and had another bite of venison. “The official ceremony isn’t for another couple days yet.”
“Yes, you two know each other, don’t you? We had some trouble with the Ekhara while you were away, Haduon. They broke the treaty of peace and ravaged the towns and flocks down here, but we drove them off in the end. It is unfortunate you missed it; negotiations rather more exciting than the kind you were involved with, no? Shuoljat distinguished himself by his command of a force across the river Dierte, sufficiently so that I can think of no one to better serve as grand prince.”
“It was an excellent choice,” said Haduon, and the various ministers chimed in with agreement.
“I will do my best to serve and lead,” Shuoljat said. “You know, Haduon, we should talk together sometime. It has been years.”
“Yes, I would like that. After the ceremony, perhaps?” Shuoljat nodded, and Haduon turned back towards Efeedrus. “I would like to hear more about the situation with the Ekhara.”
“Much the same as it was before, but we are both warier now. We both know just how fragile any peace between us is. I believe the same may now be true for the peace between the Eight Kingdoms. I hope your next words will calm my fears, Haduon.”
Haduon took a deep breath and hesitated before speaking. “I had worries at first, but the resolution of the conflict seems to have been a peaceful one.”
“‘Seems,’ you said. Do you mean it was not peaceful, or not a true resolution?” asked Shuoljat.
“We all thought that the peace with the Ekhara five years ago was a true resolution to that situation. I am not a prophet. I cannot tell what the future will bring.”
“Yes,” Efeedrus said. “It will be vital in the coming days to not only be steadfast against the Ekhara, but also be on terms of brotherhood with our neighbors in Ikkesa.”
“I have done my best to strengthen such alliances, though Adrillit may be a problem. I don’t think the Adril king cares much about the rest of Ikkesa, and in fact may be hostile to what he sees as interference with his land.”
“What do you think about that, Shuoljat?” Efeedrus asked.
“I think the geography is inconvenient. An island like Lazu could get away with that attitude and not hurt anyone but itself, but Adril is right in the middle of the kingdoms!”
“Let us hope that Adril reconsiders its obstinacy soon. Now, what exactly went on in the discussions?”
Haduon explained, leaving out his own role in the settlement that was reached. Efeedrus nodded when he had finished. “Well done, my child. I may give you similar tasks in the future. Would you be willing?”
“I have sworn oaths to you; I cannot turn aside from any task you choose to give.”
“Good.” Efeedrus toyed with his goblet. “Very good.”
The ceremony to install Shuoljat as the Grand Prince of Keervannid went smoothly enough, with the wooden yoke placed over Shuoljat’s neck, the olive oil rubbed on his forehead, and the proper words spoken in the hierogloss. Haduon found it more interesting to watch the other people who were looking on. He noticed with particular concern the queen Meevliha, holding her little son, and the dark look in her eyes.
He remembered his awe at his first sight of the queen, but over the years had come to know her fierce anger and ambition, which some attributed to her eastern ancestry. He could not judge whether or not Shuoljat would make a good king, but knew that in the mind of Meevliha there was no doubt that her son was the only possible choice.
Not more than a week afterward Shuoljat invited Haduon to come and dine with him, and Haduon of course accepted. “Who would have thought, ten years ago, that we would be where we are now?” Shuoljat asked. “I, grand prince, and you, trusted ambassador to foreign lands. Our old masters would be proud.”
“Yours would, no doubt. Battle, rather than talk, was always foremost in Abbazhar’s mind. If he had lived to see peace with the Ekhara, he would have gone straight over to fight the Ptarri.”
“Like Reellut. Have you heard anything about him since?”
“No, I haven’t,” replied Haduon.
“Hmm. Who would have thought that I would have surpassed him?” Shuoljat gave Haduon a satisfied smirk. “I remained to defend my fatherland when the Ekhara broke their word, as we knew they would. Trust neither an Ekhara or a fox, it is said. They will wriggle out of any spot you put them in. So here we are, waiting for them to betray the peace again, but at least we have peace for now. I will be getting married, did I mention that?”
“No, you did not. Congratulations!”
“Yes, to a lovely young girl with a good family. And what about you? Will you be domesticated any time soon?”
Haduon laughed lightly and shook his head. “Not yet. I’m a wanderer for now, and I’ve seen many a lovely girl but none lovely enough to bind me down.”
As time wore on and mead poured down throats, talk of old times faded into rousing songs of war and love, and it was well into the next morning when Haduon stumbled back to his own room, his head pounding from the drink.
A few days after his dinner with Shuoljat, Haduon was seeing to Fihar in the stables when he heard someone coughing and looked down to see that a beggar woman, with torn clothing and dirty face, knelt at his feet. He was about to push her away when the beggar spoke, and he recognized the voice. “Haduon…spare anything for an old friend from the wars?”
“Tewetr? Tewetr, what in the name of Donaranie happened to you?”
“Bad luck. Miserably bad luck.”
Haduon extended a hand and helped her to his feet. He looked at her and shook his head wonderingly. “Where have you been these past, oh, seven years? No, no, you don’t need to explain right now. Come with me; I’ll get you a bath and a full meal, and fresh clothes. I hope you still don’t mind men’s clothing.”
When all this was done, and Tewetr sat at a table across from Haduon, she was still downcast and somber of expression, nursing a cup of drink. “I should have died fighting the Ekhara, Haduon. I would have been happier.”
“Don’t say that. How did you come to be…”
“How did I come to be like this? I had nothing, remember? No family, no possessions.”
“You did not have to leave the army, you know. I would not have betrayed you.”
“I was young and frightened. I wasn’t thinking clearly. Why didn’t you just keep your mouth shut, Haduon? No, that is unfair – it was not your fault and you don’t really care to hear all this. Thank you for the meal. I will ask no more of you.”
“Tewetr…we were brothers, well, siblings in arms, and I will not leave you poor and starving. I will bring you to Geavarra and see that she provides you with a place to sleep. Tomorrow we can discuss the future.”
“I am thankful for your concern, but there is nothing you can do for me,” Tewetr said when Haduon came to greet her the next morning.
“I am a full-fledged knight now. I have the ear of the king,” he said. Geavarra had apparently found an actual dress somewhere for Tewetr, and looking at her now Haduon realized…
“Oh, right, and then he will think I am your mistress.”
Haduon considered for a moment, tapping his fingers on the table, then looked back up. “If you would like to do something honorable for the king, how would you like to be a spy for the next month or so?”
“That is more honorable?”
“There is more honor in it than in begging on the streets, I can certainly say that. But I would not ask you to do something you would not want. If you would like to go make your own way, as you were before, then so be it.” Haduon stood up.
“Wait a moment,” said Tewetr, glancing up quickly at Haduon. “What exactly do you mean by ‘spy’?”
“Nothing underhanded. I was just thinking that, given how you were when we met yesterday, it would be very easy to underestimate you.”
“And who exactly do you need to…spy…on?”
“The queen,” Haduon answered. Tewetr looked at him oddly.
“What do you think of the new Grand Prince?”
“I have only met Shuoljat a few times, and did not think well of him on those occasions, but I must honor the choice of the king. To do otherwise, well, that would be lawlessness.”
“I believe that the queen desires above all else to give the crown to her son, and she will not scorn to use lawless methods to be certain of this. I would like you to keep track of her and any…furtive meetings she may have.”
Tewetr nodded slowly. “I called you my friend earlier because I was desperate and you had helped me before, long ago. But if you add up all our meetings we have known each other only a week, maybe. How can you be sure that I will not betray you?”
“Ah, Tewetr, do you think I would only use one spy?” Haduon asked. “Would I be that foolish?”
“I see,” said Tewetr, and she stood abruptly. “Very well, I will do what you ask.” Haduon and Tewetr looked at one another in silence for a moment, then without saying anything further Tewetr walked out.
Over the next few weeks Haduon received the occasional report from those he had watching the queen, but there was nothing of great interest until over a month had passed, and Tewetr came to him with the message that the queen had been seen consulting with Peaselvi. “That is very interesting,” Haduon said upon hearing this. “I never did like Pesealvi. Did you ever meet him? He was one of the squires, and he would always be sneaking around and lying about where he’d been.”
“He would have made an excellent spy for you, I think,” said Tewetr.
“Don’t be ridiculous, it is not at all the same thing. I wonder what she wants from him. I think I will have a talk with Pesealvi myself. He is still with that old aunt of his here in Piereagnar, yes?”
Haduon found Pesealvi outside his aunt’s house, on his knees and digging at something in the ground. Upon hearing Haduon approach, he sprang up and hid his grubby hands behind his back. “Haduon! What are you doing here?”
“It occurred to me that it has been many years since we last talked.”
“I am quite busy, so if you would not mind…”
“What are you doing there?” asked Haduon.
Pesealvi lifted his chin in the air. “I am beginning a garden. Are you satisfied with that, or do you plan on putting me to the question?”
“Is your aunt still messing around with her spells and potions?”
“I would rather not discuss my aunt with you. You should know that I am aware of those dirty hounds you have poking their noses into my business. Call them off, or I will not be able to answer for the consequences.”
“Be very careful, Pesealvi. There are some crimes for which no atonement can be made.”
“Thank you for the advice, Haduon, now please leave me alone.”
Haduon nodded. “If you wish, I will go. But you spoke of consequences to our actions – remember that you yourself are not immune to them. Good day.”
Not too long after this conversation the marriage of Shuoljat was officially announced, with the feast to be held at the home of the bride’s father. Haduon was there, of course, and as he approached the large palatial house, he stopped to kneel by a beggar lying at the side of the path. The beggar whispered in his ear, and Haduon nodded before standing again and continuing on his way.
Haduon was greeted at the door by Shuoljat, who introduced his new wife, Jedanri, a young woman wearing the traditional marital veil and arrayed in rich clothing. Haduon kissed her hand politely and was ushered to his seat at the table.
He counted off each of the other guests, but Pesealvi wasn’t there yet. As Pesealvi happened to be a second cousin of Jedanri, Haduon had made sure to have him invited, but was beginning to worry that he would not arrive. Perhaps Pesealvi was suspicious, or perhaps he simply was too busy at this time to come. But he did arrive with several minutes to spare, and Haduon relaxed. Now everything could go according to the plan.
“Welcome, my friends,” said Shuoljat, standing. “I thank you all for coming to honor my wife and me, and to celebrate the union of our lineages. Please, drink to our future together.”
Cups were raised and mead poured down throats. Haduon, sipping his own drink, kept a careful eye on Pesealvi as first one minute passed, then another. Pesealvi coughed suddenly and rubbed his throat before taking another swig of liquid. He put a hand to his stomach and cried out suddenly, standing to his feet and leaning on the table. Conversation ceased and all attention focused on him. Several people hurried to help him, but he struck out at them, waving his arms furiously, and began to stagger towards the door. Halfway there he collapsed altogether. “Poison!” he managed to say in a wavering hoarse voice.
“Aye, poison,” said Shuoljat, striding over to him. “Your poison, Pesealvi, meant for me, and turned by the hand of justice upon yourself. You are a murderer and an assassin. Take him out to die in the road, someone.”
Haduon turned his eyes to the queen, who was seated next to Efeedrus. Her eyes were blazing with fury that she did not even try to hide, and Haduon, nodding to himself, crossed his arms and smiled slightly.
“Whatever thanks I give you would be insufficient,” said Efeedrus to Haduon on the next day. “You have delivered my prince from death. Ask for anything, and it shall be yours.”
“The ambassador to the Salarain has returned to his farm recently; I would like to take his place.”
“It is done. Concerning this woman, Tewetr, you tell me that she helped you also?”
“It was she who uncovered the plot. She is as brave as any man; she fought for us in the Ekhara wars but has fallen into difficulties recently. Could you find a place for her in your court?”
“Of course. She has done us a great boon and well deserves repayment,” said Efeedrus. “May the goddess Eashur look over you and give you good fortune in Salarainnid. You should speak to the previous ambassador before you go, and see what advice he has to offer.”
“Was it good advice?” asked Elngol.
“What’s that you said?”
"Did the ambassador give you good advice?
“I listened to what he had to say about the customs and politics of Salarainnid, of course. There was a great deal useful in that. But his advice was not to meddle, and I could hardly go along with that.”
“And so you went to Salarainnid?”
“I did.” The old man sighed. “But first I had a talk with Tewetr.”
“I see,” said Tewetr, “and my answer is no.”
Haduon turned the palms of his hands up. “I don’t understand. I am offering you a –”
“You are offering to help me again. The noble Haduon, lifting his companions from the mire to demonstrate his magnanimity and to give him a useful pawn for his political games. Well, I thank you for what you did, and now I want no more of it. I will stay here in Keervan and accept what you have given me, but it ends there.”
“I thought that perhaps, I thought that we were better friends then that.”
“I thought so too. But you have changed. You would use me, not fight alongside me. And I…I want to fight.”
“Very well. If those are your wishes, then so be it. Good-bye, Tewetr.”
“Yes. Good-bye, Haduon.”
Haduon took a south route to Salarainnid, riding down to the port city of Hoasnar and boarding a ship bound eastward. And thirty days after his departure from the royal court, he came to Jovatshin, the city of the glorious goddess Donaranie, set atop a towering hill. In the face of a bracing wind he brought his horse Fihar up a spiral path to the city gates, where guards stopped him and questioned him.
“My name is Haduon of Lammash,” he said. “I have been assigned as the ambassador from Keervannid.”
“Do you have a token that what you say is true?” one of the guards asked. Haduon showed them the seal of the old ambassador, with its engraved image of a heron and a dove forming a circle in flight. “Indeed. You may enter.”
“Could you tell me how to get to the royal court?”
“The king’s palace is on the north side of the city, in the middle.”
“Thank you.” Haduon rode into the city and through its streets, looking around him at the buildings and the people walking by. The exterior of the palace was covered by brightly colored murals depicting kings of old, with a crowned dove hovering over them all. More guards stood at its entrance. “I am the new Keervan ambassador,” he told them.
“Then the king will no doubt want to see you. We will make sure that your horse is stabled.”
As the guards directed him, Haduon passed into an open-roofed courtyard and continued on through a door on the opposite side. The royal hall was decorated with rich purple hangings, but Haduon focused his attention on the gilded throne and its occupant, an aged man with sad eyes. This, then, would be Girunes, the king of Salarainnid.
“I have been sent by Efeedrus to replace Odrolan,” he said, holding forward his seal. It was passed from an attendant to Girunes, who examined it carefully before returning it. “I am Haduon of Lammash.”
“I welcome you, Haduon,” Girunes said. “I see by your clothing that you are a knight?”
“I am. It is my honor to serve the king in whatever way possible.”
“An interesting choice to be ambassador. In any case, as father of the Doves I welcome you to Salarainnid. Mealearis here will guide you through the palace and its marvels – I understand that you Keervan have nothing similar to it in your realm.”
“No,” said Haduon, putting a suitably impressed tone into his voice.
“Then go and marvel,” said Girunes, as a small smile appeared on his face.
The palace was indeed one of the wonders of Ikkesa, built in rivalry to the Ekhara and Ptarri across the sea, but dedicated in the name of Donaranie rather than any of the strange gods of the south. As Haduon followed Mealearis, listening with half an ear to his account of the history of various halls and rooms, he thought for a moment about Reellut and where he would be. According to old Odrolan, there was currently a lull in the fighting with the Ptarri, and Haduon wondered if, similarly to Keervan practice, the Salarain soldiers would be quartered with the royal court. Odrolan had not discussed the army, focusing more on lords and ministers and cultured life in Jovatshin.
“These are the chambers set aside for honored foreign guests such as yourself,” Mealearis said as they arrived at a narrow arched doorway. He bowed until his nose almost touched his knees. “I will show you which room is yours.”
Haduon’s room was almost absurdly luxurious, with scented candles and pillows piled upon pillows. He sat down, sinking into his bed, and glanced around. The room was clean enough that there would be servants making frequent visits, no doubt, and he would have to remind himself not to leave anything vital where it could be discovered by spies. At the moment, however, he was tired from hard travel. Laying himself back he closed his eyes and was quickly asleep.
One thing Haduon had not been warned about was that even visiting ambassadors were expected to observe the ceremony of the Eight Lights that commemorated the ancient siege of the hill Parules by the god of the underworld, Makret. For men of the nobility, even the adopted nobility such as Haduon, this involved wearing a special headdress of white feathers which was fortunately provided by the largess of the king but which also pinched Haduon’s hair painfully.
The great high priest of Donaranie, whose name, Haduon learned, was Xealanjus, was coming to the palace to review the preparations. Haduon and the other ambassadors had been asked to line themselves up in their finest regalia so that Xealanjus could perform a “cleansing ceremony.” A bowl of incense was burning and filling the hall with a thick smoke that smelled like nothing Haduon could recognize.
He glanced at the men waiting on either side of him and sighed. He honored Donaranie as much as anyone, and respected that the priesthood of Salarainnid knew best how to propitiate and worship her, but the glum weariness of his companions could not help but affect him. He reminded himself that any opportunity to ingratiate himself with the powerful high priest was a boon from the gods.
“Wonderful,” he heard a man say dryly. “Here he comes.” Looking, Haduon saw a gangly man with a remarkably sad face, attended by five or so women with long unbound hair holding small harps in their hands.
“Good day. I am Xealanjus,” the newcomer said, and looked them over. “You have not done a bad job, I suppose.” Stepping closer he peered at each of them in turn. When he came to Haduon he pursed his lips. “Your flower is a little wilted. Donaghani would not approve of such decay.”
“I apologize. Should I replace it?” Haduon asked.
“Of course… Tell Ilekra that, although it may be the month of Salinvar, that does not excuse him from offering less than perfection.” Spidery fingers reached out to pluck the flower from among the feathers, and then Xealanjus turned to the ambassador from Voseannit to adjust his headdress, before taking a step back and surveying them all. “Very good. Donaghani and Sodzhaghan are pleased with you, that you honor their battle. They offer all who do them tribute the gift of purification from the blight of this earthly life.” He dipped his hand into a pouch at his side and withdrew two small idols, which he waved before their faces. At the same time the women began to pluck the strings of their instruments to create a mournful melody.
The high priest’s next words were in the hierogloss, the sacred tongue which had not been spoken by the common people for twenty generations. Even among the nobles and princes knowledge of it was dying, but Haduon had taken care to study the hierogloss lest it be used to keep secrets from him. So he now understood the words of Xealanjus: “Ye that did darkling shield your childer from the gloomy band, look with compassion upon our stains. Wash us with your sorrowful tears. Take us into your bosom, divine Donaghani, and hold your arm over us, great Sodzhaghan. We be your childer now and until the stars rain down from the sky. Sooth.”
A final chord was struck on the harps, and Xealanjus waved the idols in the air one last time. Switching back to the common speech of Salarainnid, he said, “You have been made clean from all the ways you have contaminated yourself this past year, whether you have killed or broken a vow or eaten that which was forbidden to you. The fields of Bilzanni shall not be closed to you; Makret shall not have you for his domain. Praise Donaghani.”
“Praise Donaghani,” the women said.
“Praise Donaghani,” they all said in unison. Xealanjus wrapped his feminine robes around himself and departed, followed by his attendants.
The ambassador from Voseannit snorted. “Why does the holiest man in Ikkesa have to be such a lizard?”
“He’s probably mad because of what they cut off him,” said someone further down the line. “Well, that is done, at least.”
Haduon reached up to shift his headdress from its painful position. He hoped Ilekra was in his greenhouse and able to help him at this moment. Xealanjus’s insistence on perfection was irritating, but there was no point in going against him without good reason, especially as he was after all a priest of Donaranie. Haduon had never offered insult of any kind to the gods, and he didn’t intend to do so in the future.
(copyright 2011 Gabriel Aldridge)