WHEN THE THIRD GOAT came up shyly to bite him he resolved never again to wish aloud. He ought to have known: from his lips to the ear of the god of inversions. It is a perpetual irritation to divines of the Bastard that it is not possible to blaspheme against him. He has already thought of all the rude things one might instruct him to do. He would cheerfully do them. He minces one’s oaths before one has got to them. He reduces one to the depths of decency. “For goodness sakes,” said Umegat, aggrieved, to the goat still nibbling at his glove.
Not with animals, or royalty. Which was why he was here in imminent danger of being eaten by a flock of goats with the Royse of Chalion-Ibra in the mountains at the border of the princedom of Tavaki. He might have added to the list: persons who would like to divest me of my thumbs. He had added it, silently. He ought to have known. No wish is silent to the gods. He could not wish not to wish. He took off his glove and gave it to the goat, which dropped it, and began licking his wrist. “What do they want with me?” he said to the sky, under which was the Tenienti dy Palliar, walking beside him.
“You’re still god-steeped,” said dy Palliar, who had been watching with interest, and had bent to retrieve his glove. “They belong to the Bastard, don’t they? And they like salt. The Bastard strikes me as a very salty god.”
“I haven’t been a practicing saint for almost five years,” said Umegat, accepting the damp glove, and putting it back on his hand, already chilled; the air was sharp and painfully clear, their breath showing upon it as on a mirror. “I should think He would have rinsed out by now. And these might be the Father’s. The ones with curled horns are His. If we eat any we’ll have to say both prayers.”
The goats had been following them since Laínez, to the amusement of the company. There were only thirty-one men, including the Royse; it might have been taken for a criminally foolish size for a party traveling into enemy territory, if one were not acquainted with the men. The Royina Iselle, seven months pregnant and safe in Cardegoss, was of the opinion that this venture was a trap. But Prince Virsauf was to all appearances sincere in his offer of negotiations for a treaty; the invitation, months ago, had been delivered by two couriers under the universal rose-colored pennant of truce, and accompanied by some cleverly worked garnets on chains, and a round wooden chest of the almond nougat that was a Tavaki specialty. Iselle had put the garnets in a cage with some mice and forced the couriers to eat all the nougat in a night, and when after a week neither the mice nor the couriers had died, she had released the couriers, less gently than the mice, to carry Bergon’s acceptance.
Bergon, walking near the front – their horses were led in a line behind, on this narrow path, like a streambed – looked a proper roya, dressed as the General of the Son’s Order, straight-backed and dark-haired and angular with new height, the flame-colored clothes very clean. He did not try to conceal the silvery rings of scars round one wrist, from his place at the oar. Umegat tried intermittently to read his face and each time came up short. To return as Royse of two countries to the shore on which, as a child, you were sold. If you had not done this you could not help but come up short. In his memory of his own nineteenth year he was perpetually slinking away to the southern edge of the city before the sun had set, to the private wineshops and courtyards where beardless boys played flutes and sang about the transience of love. No law, no moral will drive pleasure out, not from where there is profit in it. The throats of the boys dense and soft like petals, as easily bruised or marked, copper-colored, golden, blue-white, blue-black. He had been biting his lips as he hurried, to make them red. He had not even thought about where the boys had come from, then.
“Surely there must be more than one native speaker of Court Roknari in Chalion,” he had said to Chancellor dy Cazaril as the weather turned cool, with the name of the man who might go in his place already on his tongue.
“Oh, hundreds. Of those that ever heard a prince speak, perhaps thirty. Of those that would be willing to go back into the princedoms for any length of time, I can think of five. Of those that I trust to be entirely loyal to the Royse, two. Yourself, and Selit dy Isbilida. It would rest easier with me if you both were to go.”
He had ceded the competition of mildness not long afterwards. Cazaril had suggested his own choice of substitute and bundled them both neatly in, like hares into a sack. He did see the need. Bergon had not studied Court Roknari, although he had of course learned Common, in his two years in the galleys, which got him halfway there, in nouns and stems. Common Roknari was simpler than Ibran; there was the respectful, the familiar, and the insultingly familiar, only modified by the sex of the speaker and the spoken-to and not even bothering with plurals. Court Roknari had one hundred and fifty-six modes of address, although in places many overlapped, and thirty-two of those were for speech to and from eunuchs and there had not been court eunuchs even in the Archipelago for four hundred years. “And it’s not as though you need to speak them all,” he had said to Bergon, still in Cardegoss. “I think you can get by well enough if you learn the forms for speaking as a prince and as a warrior. King and scholar can come later.”
“So merely twenty-eight modes to learn,” Bergon had said dryly.
“Yes, for now.”
“Five gods,” Bergon had said, and then, at a flicker of a glance from Umegat, substituted for practice, “Dear Mother – you would think the language was invented to be as difficult as possible.”
“It was,” Umegat had told him. He had thought this obvious. “It keeps out impostors. One has to be raised speaking it. If a long-lost prince turns up and pronounces akhh as akh, or aakh as akhh or akh as akkh, you know his gold has a bit of tin in it.”
“So what of me?” Bergon had said. “Those all sounded identical, by the way.”
“But that’s the other use – sneering at barbarians. It’s all right if you mangle it, you’re meant to. It reassures them. If you can speak it correctly, you’ll unnerve them. Which would be useful.”
“It would,” Bergon had said, almost without expression again, and had paused, and gone on in Court Roknari: “That is wise counsel, and will serve me well, and I am pleased to have you to advise me.” This in the mode for prince to scholar. He had not sounded pleased, but he had got the akhs in the right places, despite his protests. Whatever else he was, distrustful, vengeful, anxious, or hopeful, under the consciously kept stillness of his face, he was not a fool. He might, Umegat thought, be going so as to map the princedom for invasion routes, or for a mere excuse to declare war, like a duelist claiming to have been slighted: these ideas were not new, and not quiet, at court. But he was going, and of his own accord.
THE PRESENT CAPITAL of Tavaki, Sedonova, was a small port city, only two days’ riding from the border. Three days the other way, thought Umegat; it had all been downhill, to the sea. They had spent the nights in the smaller towns along the way, quietly but openly. Tavaki was one of the poorer, rural princedoms, without the old and guarded splendor of Jokona, or the harbors of Borasnen. Slow watermills, thin crops, sheer cliffs. A few proud traditional specialties, delicate metalwork, almonds, goats’-wool. The people on both sides of the border spoke a dialect that combined Northern Ibran and Common Roknari into something largely unintelligible as either and did not appear to care who ruled them or what they worshipped as long as they were not drafted, or invaded. An old innkeeper in Lusak three times a war widow had said, informed as to who they were, You just let me keep the next one, Sers. He had thought she would try to slit the Royse’s throat in the night, but she did not. A young boy in Macitón, so small it did not have an inn, had asked matter-of-factly whether they had come to kill him. Bergon had dismounted, looking older than nineteen, to look in the child’s eye, and tell him no. “Should I have given him something?” he asked Umegat and dy Isbilida later, much younger. Dy Isbilida, after a long silence, was first to speak. “You will, Royse,” he said, at diplomatic last.
They were received with ceremony at Sedonova, given a wing of the slightly down-at-heels citadel, and dismissed, like schoolchildren, to begin negotiations on the morrow. Umegat asked and received permission to go out into the city. He had had to buy new clothes for this journey, out of a generous sum dy Cazaril had given him for the purpose, noncommittal dun-browns, dove-grays; he had not owned anything for a long time but cream-and-white. It was close to the Father’s Day, and in his gray cloak he must have looked pious: men nodded to him soberly, and made the brief unsensual gesture about their genitals. For so long he had been stared at for being a foreigner and yet in royal company, and now he was being stared at for looking ordinary but keeping foreign company. Where there is corrective symmetry, there is the Bastard’s touch, writes Ordol.
It was a rule decided months ago that none of them were to go out alone. One of dy Palliar’s men, bored, followed in his steps as though they were steps in snow. The city streets here had a stone walkway, above a man’s knees, built up to either side, and the shops and houses still a handspan or two higher. A sensible system, against storm tides or wet weather; in the lashing spring the streets must be canals of slop, if Cardegoss was anything to go by.
He was followed by gulls, down at the harbor, which was not unusual – gulls were gluttons, he had bought two roasted eggs from a stall to warm his hands – but which reminded him that it would not help their cause to be seen with animals of the Bastard paying him close attention. All twelve roof rats in the elder’s house in Macitón had lined up trembling and quarrelling outside his door. He had told them to get out, and they had got, which did not reassure him. I am not important any more, he had murmured to them, almost spitefully: you are out of date, rats. The last time, these attentions were a warning, but what am I to be warned of now? He ate one egg, cracked the shell of the other and realized at once that it had turned. Briefly he disapproved of everything. He threw the spoilt egg to a stray dog, so as not to be observed feeding a crow or a gull.
Turning back to the fortress, he had retraced his route a few streets when he heard someone calling, in a voice he recognized. She had the sense not to call his name, but general greetings, in oddly precise Common Roknari. He stopped and waited until she came up, and had taken his hands in hers, her lady dy Teneret following a respectful few paces behind. From the heat of her hands alone he would guess her to carry a divine fire, if he did not already know.
Ista dy Baocia had gained another streak of silver in her hair since he had last seen her, a little more than half a year ago, and her face was slightly windburnt, almost ruddy. Last year she had related to him with apparent delight that the Lady dy Hueltar had told her she looked like a weather-beaten old fishwife, which had in it the single strand of truth which allows one to take amusement from aspersion: but she had the fine dy Baocia bones, which, if she looked worn, only showed the better. It was still and always a pleasure to look at her and think of her as she had been when he had first met her, everything about her pale, smooth, dull, matte, a blade dipped in wax, and to see how she had brightened and roughened and sharpened, and shone. She was perhaps the one person now for whom he did not consciously demonstrate how well he was bearing up in any given circumstance, as she did not, to him. They had met in stripped and helpless form, when the gazes of luckier people had been difficult to bear. She stood smiling, silent and expectant, infusing warmth into his fingers, til he spoke.
“Hello, my dear, hello. What are you doing here?”
“I might ask that of you first. There is supposed to be some sort of sea monster hereabouts. Every time we hear of it it has doubled in size, so it is either a demon or a rumor. I have no idea which, as of yet. But we were asked for, specifically, a letter came to Valenda, months ago. Of course we weren’t there. We only just heard of it. What are you doing here?”
“An agreement your son-in-law may be making. He’s come to visit. But one doesn’t like to gossip in the open street. Where is that Lord Consort of yours? You didn’t come alone, surely?” He wished she had not let go of his hands; the wind was concentrated down the corridor of the alley, and the chill of its current was like a current of water.
“Ah, I see how it is, all this welcome is only so that you may admire the rear of my good alférez. Well, you’re out of luck, he’s down at the capital’s finest inn, the only one you couldn’t see the fleas from the door” – she had switched smoothly into Darthacan to bestow this honor – “helping Ferda argue with the stablekeeper. We will find you soon enough; we could hardly refrain from paying our respects to – the husband of my daughter.”
“Calumny, wicked Ista,” said Umegat. “It’s his thighs I admire. It is a pity that hose have gone out of fashion in Ibra. Would you like to stay in our piece of the fortress? They have let us barricade ourselves off, very diplomatically.” He too was switching in and out of Darthacan, as the least common language to the area.
“They haven’t been in fashion for thirty years, you relic,” she said in her dregs-of-vinegar Dowager voice, her face as sweetly merry as a young girl’s. “And no, better not. We are travelling under different names, so as not to present the temptation of hostages. Astonishing how this has held up so far. I have to meet the archdivine here, before sunset prayers – I can’t talk now – but I will come and find you tomorrow, to be sure. I have some stories to tell.” She favored him with a bow and a crossing motion of both hands, as though they were at court and he outranked her, and then, like another woman entirely, jumped down into the street and picked her way with erratic efficiency over the frozen mud and refuse til she had leapt up to the other bank and hurried off, her companion close behind.
“Divine,” said his guard, watching her go, “who was that?”
“That was Ista dy Baocia,” murmured Umegat, close to the guard’s ear.
“That was that Ista,” said the guard, now staring.
“Mother to our Royina,” Umegat said serenely, and went back inside the walls much happier than he had gone out.
PRINCE VIRSAUF was a son of the Golden General, although there had been so many of those that it was not proof or predictor of any great honor. There was something almost boyish about him of the seed which has germinated in shade and expends all its pale energy in extension towards suspected light. He was older now than his father had been. Even wastrels, at seventy, think of their legacies. He had not been a wastrel, although he had not been much of anything else. He still could not call himself King while his mother lived; she was eighty-four, had been a very minor princess and was now an honorary queen, as the last of the General’s wives still living. She had lived in Jokona for the last fifty years, as had nearly all the Roknari royalty of note who were not in the great city of Visping; the eastern provinces were hollowing out, run by great-uncles and fifth sons who could not afford to maintain their estates. If Virsauf had been less prone to feuds in his youth he would not be on this moth-eaten throne now.
It was immediately clear that the chief difficulty of the proceedings was going to be avoidance of the obvious fact that this was a surrender. Tavaki was not at war. There had not been interest or infantry enough to push the border one way or the other for nearly a decade. It was in drought. The brickwork showed on the granary floors like bone exposed in a wound. Ten months to the next harvest. There had been a token shipment of wheat from the Archipelago, but no more than would be sent out of courtesy to a colony which the reigning dynasty was abandoning as not worth the return on expense. This was a region which did not have the resources to attack promising not to, in exchange for barley and sunflower-seed oil. There was a hopeless shameless bravado in it which one could not help but admire.
There was no suspense in the proceedings for the Chalionese party, only delicacy, and yet Umegat was lying with his eyes open in the dark: every so often he tried to shut them with the feeling of clamping a lid over a boiling pot. He had not forgotten how to identify possession or sorcery, even without god-sight; it looked like the beginning stages of stiffneck fever. You quarantined them, either way. He did not see the symptoms in Virsauf, or any of his men. He did not know why he expected to, outside of usual, useful distrustfulness. He knew the signs of lying, and had not seen them either: a little posturing, no more than was necessary to sustain pride. He had nearly lost his way in the phrases he was translating several times that afternoon, fixing his vision on a single point, which was the way to see, around the focus, the faint flickers, tiny catchings, pullings and dissolvings that were ghosts. This fortress was the governing seat of the invaders it had been built to keep out. Most of its defenders had had their throats cut in that hall. It ought to have been swarming and shimmering with ghosts, like minnows in shallows. It was not. He had had a sudden mad temptation to bustle up to the steward and ask whether housekeeping had found something that kept them out, as moths are excluded by cedar. We have a simply dreadful infestation of them, don’t you know, in the Zangre. He shut his eyes again, nearly needing to do it by hand. If he missed much more of the night’s sleep he would be seeing ghosts tomorrow whether they were there or not.
He missed the whole night’s sleep: it was a separate entity which had waited for him, given up, and gone on without him. In the last room before the wing of the fortress joined on to the main towers there was a wide hearth, already, bless it, blazing. It was not yet time for dawn prayers. When he held out his cloak like a curtain before the fire a billow of steam went up from it. Coastal winters: never quite cold enough to snow, and draw the salt damp out of the air. A few men were already awake, restless. Twenty-two of the thirty-one were only along as protection and with luck and discipline would remain deeply bored.
Ista had not come by the hour at which negotiations began. He should have liked to speak with her beforehand, to tell her what to look for. They were discussing an abandoned zinc mine in a valley near the border, flooded for nearly a century. He could not see why anybody should want it. He reminded himself that he did not need to give Ista clues: don’t teach a spider to spin, as they say. Finally they had extricated themselves from the mine and were very carefully raising the possibility that Tavaki might, sub rosa, sell Archipelago goods to Chalion. Into this thicket was introduced the fluttering, twittering Sera dy Ajelo, a half-Chalionese widow who was lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Royina: she had made a vow to visit all the temples of the Mother on the continent, and had met with what a surprise a soldier of the Royse in the street, and whatever was the dear boy doing here? She lavished her respects all round, in piping Court Roknari, and was not enlightened, and was escorted impatiently out. She had looked him full in the face and he would have sworn she did not know him. He thought for a moment Bergon had not known her. A fine spider, Ista.
He slipped from his place at the table during the mid-morning recess without apology or explanation. She was waiting in the room with the fire, at present not more than ticking cinders, talking idly with some of the Chalionese guardsmen. He did not know which Ista she was to them. “What did you see?” he said quietly, as she came to his side.
“I don’t know. It’s what I didn’t see. I don’t like it. I would swear there’s nothing unnatural.”
“But – Virsauf.”
“Yes. No god-light, no demon-shadow. But there’s something – I kept turning my head to look. Almost too clean. He and this castle are blank as slates. Where are the ghosts?”
“I don’t know. They might have concentrated anywhere, if there was something that drew them. But forty soldiers died in that room. I should have thought that would leave a mark.”
“You would, wouldn’t you. I can’t find my damned monster either. The fishermen scratched together sixty maravedís and gave it to the temple of the Father, and they think He’s caught it in a net and sent it to hell. Where it isn’t. To the best of my knowledge.”
“Your knowledge is the best there is,” said Umegat, on the brink of envy, but kept back from its edge by knowing how she earned it.
“Well. I will see if a display of my piety will win me a room in the ladies’ quarters. I will think of some fool’s errand to perform for the Mother, that I may delay here a few days. She of all the gods must be used to Her children’s silly tributes. My own investigation is not going anywhere. But I don’t want to leave Bergon here alone. Nor you, for that matter. There is something here that I can’t make out.”
“Mm. Before I forget. I need to bring something back, to explain why I was gone.” He ducked back into the little chamber he was sharing with dy Isbilida and found a paper at random. Brajaran tax rates. What had he brought these for to begin with? When he was as tired as this sometimes it was difficult to read again. “They’ll miss me at table – they do, when one is a translator… After we’ve finished for the afternoon I should be here.” She stopped him as he passed her, and glanced at his face. “A moment,” she said, with a lightness he had learned not to cross.
She walked to the end of the chamber that had the larger window, and undid the shutters, and looked out: closing them again she returned, coincidentally passing dy Agüera, one of the young guards she had been speaking with, and coincidentally making a little gesture near the small of his back, as though she were gathering up cobweb, or playing a lute. Dy Agüera stumbled over nothing, and straightened himself at once against the idea of anyone watching, but his face was queerly drawn, now, and set with vague worry. He knelt at the hearth and tried to rouse a little heat in the ashes. Ista, unconcerned – wicked Ista, smiling Ista, at the center of a thousand strands – came back to Umegat, and put her hand up almost shyly, and traced the knuckle of one finger along his lip.
Warmth bloomed in his chest, as though his heart had had a swallow of brandy, and laced outward. The first time she had done this, he had thought he was dying. A wave of awful needling, ringing, shimmering sensations, as though his whole body had been asleep like a leg crossed at the knee, swept over him and fell away. For a single heartbeat, he felt his pulse, bizarrely, in his lips. When that had passed he was luxuriously warm, and supple and keen as a cat which has slept all day by the fire and has just opened its lawless eye. He had used to feel like this, waking at twenty.
“I would rather not be in receipt of stolen goods,” he muttered to her, the severity in his voice rather diluted by sybaritic pleasure, “especially when I am still not sure what they are.”
“I am just evening things out,” she said comfortably. “As any hand of the Bastard ought. All that bounce is wasted on the young. Tomorrow he won’t take it for granted, when he leaps out of bed and runs up and down stairs. I think you have earned it, love. Consider it a pension.”
“I will consider it a pension when I am no longer serving, witch,” he said, not without affection, and went out.
VIRSAUF AND COUNCIL ended the day’s discussion slightly early, so that they could prepare a set of conditions overnight for the proprietary trade corridor: the Provincar dy Guarida had introduced the term, cordially, naturally, before anyone had been such a brute as to actually pronounce smuggling route. Bergon had, for a beat, clearly not known what he’d meant. This was why one brought men of fifty and sixty. The gift of euphemism took decades to flower. Umegat got to his feet with his hands braced on the carved arms of his chair, experimentally. Ista’s thefts gave you several glittering hours, and after that you fell. But his time was not up yet.
He took a wrong turning as he went back towards the Chalion-Ibra quarters, as though accidentally. His curiosity had been what kept him from being a truly good spy. He passed what he thought was a storeroom and realized, a few steps beyond it, that there was light in it. It must have been a storeroom once. It was a tiny oratory now, perhaps six varas deep, four varas wide, bare but for a bench along either wall and a tall window, a peacetime window, put into the wall opposite the door. It was crown glass, faintly blue-green, its light curiously pure, like the taste of melted snow. Listening for footsteps, he signed the five points.
He sat with the chill of the window on his face and shut his eyes and prayed, by rote, and by heart. You whose door has no lock, set your cuckoo’s eggs in our familiar hearts, so that we may not be too certain of limiting our love. Salt our wounds, that they may heal cleanly. God of surprise, god of presumption, tuck our tails into our mouths, so that when we go to bite our enemies, we receive as we mean to deliver. Presently the last of Ista’s gift left him, like a loss of blood. He began to be very cold. What he ought to do was go back down out of the tower, before any of the Royse’s party imagined he had been waylaid. What he could not do was move.
A boy in the doorway, hesitating. Umegat could not have slept for more than five minutes; the light was going out of the sky, but it had gone no further than when he had sat down. “Good evening,” he said in Court Roknari, scholar to greater noble, lifting his head. At least he had not slept with his mouth open like a fish. “I’ll be gone in a moment, if you wished to pray privately.”
The boy slipped in and sat on the bench across from him and watched him. “I was only passing by. You are from Chalion?” The young man. He was of an age with Bergon, Umegat thought, or a little older, though everyone less than thirty had become impossibly young to him some years ago.
“I am. But I was born in the Archipelago. As were you, I think?” The temptation to theatrics, also unlucky in a spy. But he had never heard anyone pronounce Chalion like that outside of the islands.
“Ah! It must be true what they say, about you Chalionese sorcerers. Yes, I was, though I have been here five years. I came with my uncle, but he is dead now. And what of you, m’hendi?”
The odd young man. Well-dressed, well-kept, lovely in a spare clear way, like a branch of grapes with the bloom still on, like a red deer. He was speaking in Common, which was not odd; it was a usual arrogance among young lords, to affect a poor man’s way of speaking, as a joke. But he spoke in the formal mode, which you would not catch that sort of lord doing, as it carried the danger of sincerity. There were isolated flat shining scars on his hands, not sword cuts.
“Oh, it is too long a story to bore with. I was young and I followed someone, and when we parted ways, I had become used to living in Brajar.” He had been fifty before he had stopped seeing Bassel in crowds. Sometimes even in Chalion he had said that he’d come after a woman.
“What is it like? And Chalion, is it different?”
“Where would I begin? Brajar lets Roknari ships in, obviously, and ships from everywhere else in the world. If there’s a larger port than Livitre in the world I don’t know it. It’s a terrific muddle, but it has its charms. You don't need to know Ibran there, though it helps. Some wonderful wine sauces. But it’s where every plague starts. Chalion is – it doesn’t see many Roknari. You have to cut your hair, or outside the larger towns you’ll catch an arrow before you get a word in. There’s some of us in Cardegoss, a whole neighborhood of the city, actually, in recent years. It’s cold. Taxes aren’t bad, though of course the tithe is a little higher. Do you keep haduin? They do like their roast duck, in Chalion. Roast geese.” Of course a Quadrene could not eat web-footed birds; they were bastards got on the sky by the water, mixed creatures, haduik.
“Oh, no, I must confess not. I ate a piece of honeycomb as a child and wasn’t struck down by the Mother, and I haven’t bothered about it since.”
“You are not a temple-going man?”
“The gods may have made us and all the spirits and demons, but if they are among us now, it is too subtly for me to see.” A nice answer; one could not be hanged for it.
“I thought so too, until the Bastard appeared to me in an alleyway in Livitre,” said Umegat, which was the truth, and also a test: he watched the implications follow and fade in the young man’s face. Lunatic, heretic, sodomite. But he had not looked away.
“The Royse,” he said, as though Umegat had not spoken. “What is he like?”
“I could hardly say else but praises, could I, as his man? But there’s no lie in them. He is not hasty in judgment, not petty, not greedy. Not given to speeches. Cautious and fair. He is much in the company of his wife, but she doesn’t rule him. He has the sense of honor that a royse is meant to inherit in the blood, as so few have done.” The twilight in the room was near enough to night now that he could not have read in it. There was a warm unsteady glow in the corridor; a servant must have come by, and lit the sconces. The young man was still watching, one side of his face burnished by the faint light, one side in shadow. “He also will think I have tumbled down the stairs if I tarry much longer,” Umegat said, waiting for, and waiting through, the moment of half-blindness at standing. “Good evening, m’hendi. Father keep your night.”
“Father keep,” said the odd young man, not moving.
THEY HAD MARKED the proprietary trade corridor on two copies of a map, in blue ink, as though it were a river which ran uphill, which, after a fashion, it was. Marble, pepper, albardine for paper. They would not agree to send naptha but that was to be expected. Chancellor dy Cazaril had correctly predicted that it would be more profitable to make peace with Tavaki than to invade it. The agreements only lacked the signatures, which would be added on the morrow. Umegat, who had not slept much better on the second night than the first, let dy Isbilida take over for an hour or two, while Bergon and his diplomats were given a concert by some of Virsauf’s musicians; he should have liked to hear them, but there was a real risk that he would fall asleep in his chair, and he would need his wits about him later. Dinners at this stage in negotiations always had a strange edge.
When the guard came for him he nearly refused to come. “There is someone who says he must see you,” said the guard, dy Haro, through the door. “It isn’t time for the dinner, is it?” said Umegat, eyes closed, fully dressed, below two blankets. No: there was a long bar of late-afternoon light, wavery with thick glass, along the stone of the wall. He let his eyes close again. “He says it’s important,” said dy Haro.
The odd young man was named Atmene, and he said that he needed to speak to him privately. “Anything you can say to me you can say before these men,” Umegat told him. “No,” said Atmene thinly. This is the oldest trap: a messenger in distress. Umegat led him into the tiny bedroom, ignoring dy Haro’s raised eyebrows. His bed was still warm when he sat down.
“Prince Virsauf has a demon in him,” murmured Atmene without preamble.
“We looked for that,” said Umegat, equally quietly.
“It came out of an aktabut – it can hide in him, or the priests would have seen it by now. It draws down inside him like an aktabut in a jar. He sought it out, because he thought he could change the weather with it, and he couldn’t, and he can’t control it, or he’s afraid he can’t. I know the Chalionese can get out demons with that devil of theirs and leave a man still living – I thought he’d ask, but if he hasn’t, I can’t not.”
“What concern is this of ours?” said Umegat, to keep drawing on the line, but already preparing to find Ista.
“Because the Duke Hisham knows about it, he was with Virsauf when he took the demon, and he’s going to tell the archdivine, and they’ll find it, if they keep him long enough, he’ll slip and it will show, and then Hisham will be Prince, and the treaty won't count. And he’ll have the demon out of Virsauf when they burn him, he wants it, that’s what I can’t get around… He thinks he can manage it, where Virsauf couldn’t.”
“You must understand if I ask how you could know this.”
“Because I am the Duke Hisham’s – falconer.” He had begun the sentence with conviction. You leave the country for forty years and the code is just the same when you come back.
“Which would put you in an excellent position,” said Umegat.
“It would,” said Atmene, “if I wanted to be party to treason. Which I thought I could. But I don’t. And I don’t think Hisham would go on trusting me, already he doesn’t, he says I am unfaithful. It is as though he has a demon in him already.”
There was no way to cast ambition out, and leave the man still living. Umegat, taking Atmene with him, was rebuffed at the entrance to the women’s quarters by an old servant who did not feel it proper for men she had never met to enter. Umegat was seized with another mad temptation, in this case to say Listen, we’re sodomites, it’s perfectly safe, but was spared by Ista herself, arriving behind him. She had been out chasing the sea-monster, without success: “Illvin and the others have been asking everywhere, Liss and Foix are still up the coast, but there’s no news of this thing, if it ever existed.”
“That’s because it’s on dry land,” said Umegat, and explained.
They went up into the central tower, looking for the musician’s hall; Ista thought that if Umegat were to somehow draw Virsauf aside, and fix a secret meeting sometime late in the night, they might carry this off without anyone knowing. But as they came to the high narrow doors, closed to keep the sound in, they heard over the lutes and drum and dulzaina a sudden cry, and exclamations, and a crash, and Ista and Umegat flung the doors open and ran in.
Virsauf, who had been seated by Bergon, had seized him and knocked him to the floor. The Royse’s men, and, to their credit, Virsauf’s own, who looked shocked, were trying to wrest him off. But he could not be pried away: his arms were hideously boneless, wrapped around Bergon’s throat and chest without joints, without hands, without ends at all, and purple, mottled, thickly blistered, raddled with some loathsome disease, or they were not arms at all now – and Virsauf’s face hidden over Bergon’s shoulder, lolling and plunging his head as though to bite – and then Ista had knelt by them, calling to Bergon to hold still, and got the other men to pin Virsauf, and was pulling and straining at something not visible, the tendons showing in her forearms, for an unbearably long time – and then all at once every flame in the room went out. Umegat, knowing what that meant, closed his eyes in relief. When someone had got the heavy doors open again and the sunset light came in, and someone had gone out for a candle, Virsauf lay sprawled with his face as purple as one hanged, and Bergon had rolled away and had got his back against a wall, coughing.
Virsauf’s men turned him onto his side, and water ran out of his mouth; they put him onto his back again, and began to rub and press at his chest, the way one could sometimes revive sailors. They turned him again, and more water, salt water, with an estuarial smell, washed out from his mouth and nose, far more than a man’s stomach and lungs could contain. The more they pressed, the more brine ran from him, as though he were the handle of a pump. When they stopped, shuddering, and withdrew, seawater glimmered like a tidepool up to the brim of his mouth.
Bergon, Ista’s hand on his back, was sitting with his knees drawn up, his wheezing the only sound in the room. Umegat thought: he will never trust a Roknari again. He came round and put out his hand, and Bergon, hearing his steps placking through the puddle of seawater, raised his head, his eyes bloodshot, and took it, clutching blindly, but did not move further. So the treaty is to come apart, thought Umegat, and famine in Tavaki until in desperation they begin raiding, and the wars to go on, into the limitless future, until, like the two rats in the children’s verse, we have eaten each other up. He pulled Bergon to his feet in a brisk soldierish way and led him a few paces to Atmene, who was still transfixed by what was no longer happening.
“This, Royse,” said Umegat, in gentle Ibran, “is the man who saved you.”
Bergon’s hand had been as cold as the sea and his gaze unfocused, and Umegat had not been able to name to himself his worst fear: long enough without breathing and it’s better to have drowned, to have hanged, to never have been dug from the rubble. The letters on the paper writhing and weaving, every page the same. But Bergon drew his hand from his support carefully, and, allowing himself a single tautening shiver, set himself straight, and bowed from the waist to Atmene, with a gesture of one arm common both to Ibra and the princedoms. There was an absolute silence, as though they were in a painting: the long low shoal of sunset light parting the room, glittering on the rim of the wide pool of brine; the curiously small, wrung body in the wet near-dark; the group of crouching or standing figures in fine dress, watching, the musicians still holding their instruments; and Bergon, bent, his hand now extended, very formally, into that passage of amber light, the only flesh in the room not blue with shadow.
“I am in your debt,” said the Royse of Chalion-Ibra, hoarsely but with perfect enunciation, in the mode for warrior to fellow warrior.
THE TREATY, FAVORING TAVAKI but hardly costing Chalion-Ibra, was signed the next morning by the courteously terrified nephew of Prince Virsauf, whose body had already been burned. Prince Matiledi, now, all of eleven. His mother could not be regent by Roknari law but she could not be kept from her son’s side. A quick-eyed handsome quiet woman, a piece of luck. She had been a sixth wife taken on impulse, a fisherman’s daughter: she still spoke only common Roknari, never anything but the formal mode. She had climbed the cliffs in her youth for sorrel, for birds' eggs. Her hands were steady. She knew not to look down. They could not have chosen better, out of a procession of every citizen. Both Chalionese parties left before noon, Ista’s to the west, and Bergon’s back to Chalion.
They did not stop til full dark, when they were more than halfway to the border, in a hill town called Iskat. Umegat thought that to leave in such a rush looked like flight, not wholly honorable: but he could not have told Bergon to linger. There were ringed marks on his throat as though a tentacle had crushed it, though they all had seen Virsauf’s body, with its soft spindly arms.
Umegat had sat down on the bed, stiff and aching from riding, and was unbuttoning his shirt when he heard his name outside the door, in a voice he recognized as Atmene’s. Of course: every time he wanted to sleep, this devil appeared. His voice sounded odd, as though his head were bent back. Umegat, who had not strictly speaking been a spy for a quarter of a century, nonetheless thought it through in an instant: if the boy is being made to speak with a blade at his throat, it will not do any good to bar the door. The window was an unhelpful slit. He had not travelled with a knife since becoming a divine. He picked up a pitcher and opened the door.
Atmene was alone in the passageway, his head tipped back by no enemy but drink. The wine at this inn had been dreadful, full of sediment and what the men had feared to be goat hairs but which, removed from the tongue, proved to be leaf-skeletons. Of course one had to put wine in one’s water in a drought like this: but he had nearly taken his chances, although prudence had won out. If the poor fellow had got through two tumblers of the stuff he must have been desperate. He had not seen the Duke Hisham before his arrest, or after. The look he gave Umegat now was like Bergon’s had been, half-strangled.
“Good evening, m’hendi,” he said, ostentatiously. “I had to see you. Thank you or curse you. You have to tell me. I couldn’t stop anything,” he said, still staring at the ceiling.
“You stopped a lot of things,” said Umegat, wondering what he was supposed to tell him, if not this.
“Virsauf, and Hisham – ”
“Two men, instead of a princedom. Not even Ista knew it couldn’t be got out without killing him, til it happened. It was braced in very deep. Not a kind thing. You would not have wanted it for a lover, to be sure.”
“What can I do?” said Atmene, looking down now, sulkily. “Why did you have to come along, why did I talk to you. What can I do now?”
“Go to bed, for a start,” said Umegat, not unkindly. Atmene came to his doorway, then came, reeling a little, inside. “Your bed,” said Umegat, in case this had not been clear. Atmene turned and shut the door, and then turned and began to give him the kind of imprecise, fawning kiss customary from young men to patrons, and which Umegat had never liked. He refused it and had his lip bitten for his trouble, which to his aggravation he did like. This was a courtesan: he had gone over his teeth with an arak twig before he had come up, the faint pleasant bitterness still on them. Young teeth, slick, unchipped. Umegat retreated from these teeth, which, deprived of his lip, clicked shut like shears, and dragged his wrist across his mouth. He was reminded, uncharitably, of the goats. He knew what this was. What do men do, fresh from any battlefield, but look for women willing or struggling, in their own desperation for proof: blood drying black on the boots, the wounds that tomorrow may begin to rot, but now, here, the prick boiling over with life, look, look, I generate, I live yet.
“Toothmarks in the cork, I see,” he said. “No, stop that.” Atmene had been trying to kiss him again, leaning on his shoulders with both hands. This was what he did, what he knew how to do. Umegat found, with some chagrin, that he was outweighed. If this were some drugged girl, stumbling in by chance, he would have nothing but contempt for the type of man who would interfere with her. This was the same as a drugged girl, poisoned, submerged. What this boy needed was a quart of boiled water and about twelve hours’ sleep. He could not give him the sleep. “If you come with me down to the kitchens,” he said, “I’ll make you some tea, and we could talk.” He had a dry packet of sweet herbs in his things, to keep insects out; he supposed he could sacrifice it to a pot, if he could find one.
“I don’t want to talk. I want. I want to thank you. I know what you are.”
“I accept your thanks. I don’t need more than that. Tea, if you like.”
“You’re an Archipelago cocksucker, is what you are. I know.”
“My dear,” he said, and put his hand to Atmene’s shoulder, to keep him at a distance, “peace. Go to bed, go to sleep, sleep this off. It will be all right. We can talk tomorrow. Start making plans for you. There’s no use talking to you just now, you couldn’t find a hole in a ladder.”
“How lucky you are not a ladder,” said Atmene, with the infinite, lascivious grandeur of the perilously drunk, and lurched in to put his hand down Umegat’s shirt.
Umegat, brows raised for his own benefit, feeling very alone in the room, caught the prowling hand and removed it, though not before it had found something to catch at. “Look,” he managed, despite himself; if this were a girl, of course, it would, for him, be easy to demur. Atmene had slumped against him holding their joined hands out at extension, as though they were partners in a galliard. “Look,” he said, at a loss. Atmene’s breath, hot and damp as the steam from a cup of mulled wine, came in fugitive concentrations against the hollow of his throat. He wondered whether the boy were running a fever; how else could he get it up in this weather? The hot tip of a tongue ran up his neck, then the flat of its blade pressed down. Oh, but that is how, Umegat, you dry old stick. Astonishing one can forget. He tried again to push Atmene upright, like propping up a rolled rug. Brief success, collapse, a young thigh thrust between his own and a tensed abdomen rubbing, rubbing against his hipbone, and against his belly, near the ticklish juncture with his thigh, the marvellous insistent springiness granted by the gods to one item on this earth and one only. Not a girl, drugged or otherwise.
“Stop,” he said, nearly meaning it, and was not obeyed. He shifted reproachfully, and increased his difficulties. As though he were the tender girl, shrinking from the lecher. The wall chilled his back through two layers of wool and two of linen; pressed along the length of his front Atmene radiated heat like a stone taken out of a fire. He wondered again, sincerely, about fever. As though the wine were not enough. Atmene hitched up fast and dragged down slow, and for a moment he could not think. If he were still a holy vessel, he would not do this. If this were a girl. If he did not, this brat would rut himself to finishing anyway. If he could only keep him safely until the fight, so to speak, had gone out of him, he could put him to bed, and he would be borne down into drowning sleep. He was not so old that he had forgotten what that dizzy hopeless wildness was like. He ought not to encourage it. He disentangled and knelt, and unknotted, and bowed his head. Already, without realizing, he had been wetting his lips with his tongue.
“SOBER," SAID ATMENE in the doorway of a decrepit inn on the Taryoon River two nights later, having studiously avoided him in the meantime. He must have been biting his lips, to make them red.
“Took that long to wear off, eh,” said Umegat, who had been capable of cattiness even as a saint.
“I still haven’t thanked you.”
“No,” said Umegat.
“Yes, you said that before, and look which one of us was right.”
“That was – medicinal. You seemed at the point of some extremity. I didn’t want you to go out and do anything extravagant.”
“I seem to recall you at the point of my extremity,” said Atmene, “firmly attached. What’s the matter, do you have a boy of your own, do you only like Chalionese, then, do you like them younger, what.”
“No. No. Listen. You can’t – you can’t turn yourself into a kept boy, and be smuggled about like a bundle. Or if you have been, you can’t go on. It isn’t anything to do with whether I want you. I mean not anyone’s. You could do it, certainly, you’re a beauty and they don’t hang for it there, you’re exotic: ‘the Wild Quadrene, fanatically pure, but longing all this time to be debased…’ There are even Roknari to snap you up, quite a few. But if you let yourself be shut up in some garden and – and fed and petted and hung with silks and given things – you’ll never properly learn the language, you’ll never have anything of your own, it is just the same in Chalion and Ibra as it is everywhere under the sun, consorts don’t inherit, and they don’t last. If you have some quarrel, or if he dies, or when you begin to have lines about your pretty mouth – what do you think you’ll have, when that ends? Where do you think you’ll go?”
He had not spoken so sharply to anyone in years. Atmene had taken a few steps backwards, stricken, furious, and turned, his lips still incredulously parted, to go out.
“I don’t want you,” said Umegat, eyes half-closed, voice very low, calculated, as always, for effect, and yet sincere, “to make my same mistake.”
Atmene did not move.
“I will help you, I want to help you. But I refuse to be the – the jar to your aktabut. The Royse is not a man who forgets a debt, you must realize. You have the both of us at your service. If you want to go to Brajar, I know the archdivine. If you want to stay in Chalion, there’s a thousand things you might do. Were you to go into a trade, before you came to Sedonova?”
“I was a journeyman silversmith,” said Atmene, unexpectedly.
“Sit down,” said Umegat. “There’s a start. I am not saying no, you know, to everything.”
TWO DAYS PAST the Mother’s Day, at midsummer, one of the older orphans of the Bastard’s House in Cardegoss came up to a set of rooms on the top floor, and knocked at the doorframe, the door being open. It was late in the evening, past supper, but the sun had only just gone down, and nearly all the windows in the House had been opened to the warm wind.
Umegat, seated at the desk and putting off closing the shutters and lighting a brace of candles, turned at the knock and smiled. “Guiomar, my page. What have you dragged up here now?”
She had had to put the sack down, to knock. She carried it out before her, with a solemnity in proportion to the weight: this was a very grave matter, perhaps fifteen pounds. “This was sent here, for you. Nisolau meant to tell you earlier. Is it secret? Can I see?”
“I don’t think any of the secrets I know would fit in a sack,” he said, blotting the ink on his fingers with a rag, and setting the sack down on the seat of a chair to cut open the coarser stitching at the top. He pulled it open and began to laugh. “Very secret,” he said, showing her. It was a sack of lentils. He knotted the cut cords, and returned it to her arms. “Give this to Leonor, if she’s in the kitchens.”
He still had not lit the candles, or written any more of the letter, when Guiomar pelted up the stairs and said “There was something in it!”
“What, alive?” he said, startled. “A viper, a rat? Are you all right? Did something bite you?” If she had just been struck by an adder, she would no doubt be thrilled at the adventure.
“No! No. I am well. But look, Learned, look at this.”
She held out a lamp, an elegant metal oil lamp like the ones he had grown up with in the Archipelago and had not been able to find on the continent, even in Livitre. In her other hand she had the thick glass chimney to keep the flame steady. He thought Cazaril might know where to find naptha, although olive oil would do. The lamp had an intricate inlay, copper in pewter and bronze, he thought, though he could not identify most metals by sight. There was a silver shape of perfect symmetry at the center, an eight-pointed star with closely waved rays, or arms, he realized: suns were traditional on inlay lamps, but he suspected that this was an aktabut. He could not believe the glass hadn’t broken, being slung about in a sack all the way from Brajar. Damn the boy, really. It had taken him close to twenty years not to care for possessions, and now his disinterest had been undone in one blow.
“Set these things here on the table,” he told Guiomar, “and I will come down with you and wash my hands, so that I don’t give it inkstains, and we’ll find some oil and thread, and I will show you what it does.”
IN HIS DREAM, he was standing in the little oratory in Sedonova, in his cream-colored robes with the white embroidery which he never wore save in ceremonies. The window was very bright, the room luminous, every knot and splinter charged. He was alone, but there was a presence behind him in the doorway that he knew, another light. A scent of cypress, semen, dry stone. Have you missed it? said the Bastard.
Some, said Umegat. I thought, at first, that I had failed you.
I think, if it is not an arrogance, that you do not give what is not needed. And that my will remains your will, even now.
The silky light flowed round him, in colors like mother-of-pearl, like the smoke of wet wood. Oh, be arrogant, it said. It stroked his throat, his wrist, the lined lid of his closing eye, with touches of warmth not fixed to a body. Through his mind flitted the importunate goats, the nose of a roof rat pushed against the back of his hand, the brush of a gull’s wing, Ista’s hand against his lip, Atmene’s teeth, Dedicat Nisolau’s laugh, the rough tongue of a white temple cat on his cheek. I have been kissing you all the time, said the god.
Umegat unlatched the window, which had not had a latch in Sedonova, and pushed it open. There was nothing outside it but the sea in every direction, far below, and the sun rising, and striking the sea down its center with stars. I know, he said, and the light increased.
The sunlight in his room, touching in passing the lamp on the table, had glittered into his eyes: he woke as the angle shifted, and it merely shone.
He lay still, looking at the light welling into the wide white room like a spring refilling, and at the shadows on one wall, stirring a little now and then, from the tawny-cream roses which were trained along the top of the window. The desultory breeze carried eddies of early heat, against which he would have to bar the heavy shutters when it began in earnest, but welcome now in the cool of the morning. Doves murmuring in the palomar next door, a wheelbarrow grating on the stones of the street, a distant woman singing. The world beginning, as always. He had used to feel like this, waking at twenty. He began to sit up, and caught his hand up to his lips: and drew away a petal, which had drifted through the window, in the night.