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.
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