13 Nevrine, after curfew (hah!) (continued)
I don’t know how long we waited, but it was a lot longer than an hour before some signal imperceptible to me led one of the soldiers to throw open half of the chamber door and say, “My Lords, your Majesty, these messengers beg five minutes of your time.” No one said anything in reply, but he advanced into the room, out of sight, and Jeddan and I looked at each other, wondering if we were supposed to follow.
I’d almost decided to stop hesitating when the soldier came back and said, in a low voice, “Approach to the edge of the carpet, go to one knee, and keep your head lowered until you’re told to rise. Address them all as “Honored” and don’t say anything until you’re spoken to. Say your piece and wait to be dismissed.” He gave Jeddan a little shove. “You first,” he said.
So Jeddan went through the door, and I followed him, which means that my first view of King and Chamber was obscured by his massive shoulders. I knew what the room looked like, of course: it’s not very big, and windowless, I’ve heard for security reasons.
The walls are covered by the Lessareki tapestries, which are so valuable no one could put a price on them, because their value comes not from their materials or their subject matter (the life of a minor Queen of Balaen from maybe two and a half centuries ago) but because they were created by Balaen’s most famous artist, whose placename is still one of the most popular girls’ praenomi in the country. I’ve never had time to admire them properly, and of course today wasn’t the right moment. But it was exciting to be in their presence.
There’s a square black rug in the center of the room, and five chairs are set in a circle on it, all of them identical as a reminder that in this place, King and Chamber are equal in the service of Balaen.
Anyway, I didn’t actually see any of this until Jeddan stopped and knelt, and I took a quick step to the side and knelt next to him and bowed my head. That only gave me a quick glimpse of four men and one woman, all of them looking at us. Then the King said, “Deliver your message.” (He has a distinctive voice that sounds like it’s coming from the back of his head and gets pinched a little on the way out. It’s not a voice you forget, even if you’ve only ever heard it while you’re hiding in a cupboard listening to him grouse at his valet for not ironing his nightshirt properly.)
Jeddan didn’t raise his head, which was probably the right decision. “Honored,” he said, “we come from Calassmir, where an enemy army has attacked the city as its first move in invading Balaen.” I really hated saying it this way, because it wasn’t going to make the King more friendly toward the Castavirans who weren’t the God-Empress’s pawns, but explaining the Castaviran sociopolitical situation and the consequences of the convergence would just have confused everything.
There was silence. I’d expected a least a couple of gasps, but no. Then, “Rise,” said the King, “just you, young man,” and I had to keep kneeling, which annoyed me. “You’re not a soldier,” he said.
“No, Honored, we’re both just loyal Balaenics who were in the right place when it mattered,” he said. “We were traveling here to look for other mages like us, and meant to stop in Calassmir for provisions, and nearly got caught by the foreign army. It looked impossible for our soldiers to get a message out, so we figured we ought to take it ourselves, just in case.”
“Foreign army meaning these invaders who have appeared among us in the last month?” said another man. He had a rich, strong voice, and if I hadn’t known who the King was I’d have thought this man was him.
“I think so, Honored,” Jeddan said.
“Then this puts a new light on their tactics in the north,” he said, half to himself. “How long before they arrive?”
“I don’t know, Honored, I’m no soldier,” Jeddan said. “We were there 24 or 25 Coloine and based on what the surrounding villages said, the attack had only just started a couple of days before that.”
“You took too long about it,” said a woman. Debarra Jakssar, Chamber Lord of Transportation. Her voice was nearly as deep as the other man’s, but more gravelly even though it was still clearly a woman’s voice.
“We’re truly sorry, Honored, we came as quick as we could, but we were on foot,” Jeddan said.
“You should have requisitioned horses,” said a third man, this one sounding very old, so I guessed he was Jarlak Batekessar, Chamber Lord of Agriculture. I’ve worked enough harvests to know he’s disliked by farmers, particularly the ones with the big estates, because of the demands he puts on them. “This is far more important than anything else you could do.”
“We can’t ride, Honored, and we didn’t have any proof that we were what we said we were,” Jeddan said. “The soldier Nessan at the gate showed great insight when he passed us through.”
“That’s his job,” the rich-voiced man said. “How many insurrections did you pass on your way here?”
“I beg your pardon, Honored, but I don’t know what you mean,” Jeddan said. My knees were starting to ache. I have no idea how Cederic manages to hold that position indefinitely.
“The other invaders. They were causing disruption in preparation for their army to attack our cities, hoping to weaken us?” he said.
“Ah, no, Honored, we didn’t see anything like that,” Jeddan said. “Most of those invader towns kept to themselves. And a lot of our people were, um, subduing them themselves.”
“Good initiative,” said the last man, whose voice had a bit of a whine to it, a whistling sound like he was speaking through a blocked nostril. “We ought to send another decree, commending their patriotism and encouraging them to stand strong against invasion.”
“I don’t want civilians interfering in military affairs, Lenssar,” the rich voice said. “Self-defense is one thing, but vigilante action is dishonorable.”
“I didn’t mean we should tell them to take up arms,” Lenssar said. Lenssar is Chamber Lord of Commerce and I don’t remember his first name. I don’t know much about him at all.
“Any encouragement could be seen as just that,” the rich voice said, and I realized he had to be Caelan Crossar, Chamber Lord of Defense. He’s got a reputation for cleverness and has maintained the army at full strength even though Balaen hasn’t been at war since forever, which says a lot about his influence over King and Chamber. I don’t know if he genuinely believes Balaen is in danger of invasion, or if a strong army just increases his political power, but either way it’s due to him that Balaen could repel such an invasion if it came.
to be continued…