Kalamite grimaced at the clash of pikes, rapidly crossed to bar his way to the Witan House. “I have cause,” he said. “Matters pertaining.”
“Only those with permission may enter here,” the holde said, his head turned away.
Kalamite hissed. The jert, as if he didn’t know that. But how to gain that permission. It was hardly common knowledge noised around. How ludicrous this, the citadel’s security at risk and he effectively silenced. Keefer of the Runman House. Keefer-Papa throughout the land. Yet he wasn’t entitled to sit at the Witan. Aiya, no other way to it, he must ask the holde.
“Runman?” the holde said. “Thought you runmen knew everything. You present your request to Mikel Lafard-Awis.”
Kalamite closed his mouth on his retort. This was one runman who knew that this holde would die – soon, and hopefully in excruciating pain – his companion along with him; whispering of the runman’s stench as if Kalamite was oblivious to it. But washing did nothing to rid it. It was the solvent he used for extracting the luban-jaw, the frankincense of Java.
“Is Mikel Lafard-Awis inside?” he asked. Aiya, these mouth-filling honorifics when, outside of the Runman Order, Kalamite had none.
“This being the Witan,” the holde replied, “and this being the morning, all having convened, that is where he is.”
“Sifadis Lafdi Bel Hade? Aye. Now if you’ve no more questions, please go away. You’re making me gag; I hardly can breathe.”
The holde exaggerated. The smell wasn’t that bad, his runmen assured him. “I must speak with Mikel Lafard-Awis. Please,” he thought to add.
“The lafarden hadden are convened,” the holde said.
“Please. This is of the utmost importance.” Why must they humiliate him, making him plead? He asked the holde’s name.
Kalamite frowned. “Were you not night-watch?”
“Promoted. Now go. Flee. Find some water and wash.”
Aiya! He’d rather flee than open himself to this abuse. But he must speak with the Witan. “Lorken Holde, please listen to me. I need to report an event. Thus I need the required permission. Thus I need to speak with Mikel Lafard-Awis. Please will you fetch him?”
Did they want to see him on his knees? Nix, that was for his lover, his mother, his queen; not for these-these—Aiya, now his anger was rising – but at least that destroyed his sense of being a no-one, invisible without a voice. “Please. Fetch Mikel Lafard-Awis out here for me. Now! I insist.”
Lorken Holde looked at his companion. “We couldn’t have drawn gate-duty, could we.”
“Offended Arod obviously,” the other guard said.
Bah! These Arod and Gorm and Truman, these latter-day gods, they were an offence to the old gods, the five gods, the true gods. Kalamite rapped his staff hard on the ground and through clenched teeth repeated, “I will speak to Mikel Lafard-Awis. Here. Now. Please.”
“You want us skinned for leaving our station?”
“I want you—” He held his words and moved aside for Gowen Sivator to pass.
Aiya, almost too late he realised his prayers had been answered.
“Gowen Hadd Leef, please, I must speak with Mikel Lafard-Awis. It is of the utmost importance. Would you extend your succour and ask him out to me?”
Aiy the deuce of it, thus low to grovel. Aiy and he would kiss the lafard’s feet if needed.
“I will tell him,” Gowen Sivator said and disappeared through the doors into the convening chamber.
Kalamite paced, his eyes, at each turn, caught by the tiles that brightened the across-set arch. No bulls or bells here, but goats. And what name had the lineage before failing and folding. Capriot? Kalamite chuckled at that – and realised he needed to pee. Aiya, his every step now vibrated his bladder and sloshed its contents. The need became urgent. Runman House was but a short dash, yet he must wait upon Mikel Lafard’s slow pleasure.
Then, gods be praised, the doors opened again and there was the lafard-awis. “Ah . . . Kalamite. What brings you?”
“Hadd Leef –” a wonder not to choke on the prescribed salutation, yet he said it. “I have grave news to impart.”
“What-ho, what is it? Is the Runman Order to leave us?”
Kalamite scowled. Yet he saw a shade of apology in Mikel Lafard’s eyes and so he continued. “Hadd Leef, I need your permission to enter. I would not seek it unless of dire need. Please.” He closed his eyes; a quick prayer to Rubel to help him. “Please, Hadd Leef, might I enter?”
“Mm, you probably can. Afraid it’s not for me to say.”
Aiya, that Lorken Holde had misinformed him. Kalamite scowled at him. Mikel Lafard must have seen it.
“Ah, he told you that you needed my say on it, eh? And so you do. But he omitted to say that I, as it were, am only the mouth. The permission actually comes from Breken Lafard. Not from me.”
Verily and amen; he took a deep steadying breath. “Then, Hadd Leef, would you offer me succour and ask Breken Lafard-Legere if I might enter and present my knowledge. I swear it is of extreme urgency and importance else, on Stup’s word, I would not trouble you.”
He most certainly would not. Aiya, the humiliation! And now the state of his bladder was equally dire.
“As it happens, Medusa favours you this day,” Mikel Lafard said. “For, although we have sat we have no actual business under discussion. Happens some days – but as a runman you would know, eh. I’ll, um, mention you to the lafard-legere.”
But Mikel Lafard had turned and was gone. He returned less than a blink later.
“A thought. While I gain the permission it might be polite to return to your house and, um . . . well just a splash and a spruce, eh, know what I mean. You might like to return in clean attire, too? Only trying to help. Awis, mine is the burden of keeping the peace.”
The holden’s heads turned in unison to look at Runman House. Kalamite forced a smile and walked with knees and bladder tight. He prayed he could make it that far.
The coat he donned for his return – of blue and red checks in honour of the moons – nipped him under the arms. And constrictingly tight across the back, he feared the seams might split; he’d not worn it these past fifteen years. But at least now the holden admitted him, even though he heard their remark that still he stank. He clamped his jaws lest he snapped them a curse. And what could he do when over the years the smell had seeped through his pores, had become blood-deep. Aiya, how he wanted this ordeal to be over, to return to his chamber and suck on a bead. Aiya, to be with his queen, his mother, his lover, to drift with her to another world.
He gasped at his first glimpse of the Witan Chamber despite he had said, as a mantra over, that he would not be intimidated. Besides, its ceiling was too high, the lighting too dim and the air too cold. And it was vastly huge for so few people – the lafarden, the lafdin and a scribe. And it dripped obscenely with gold. It was everywhere. Caught by the Mathon-lamps, it ruffled and swirled around the chairs. Not divans he noted with a sneer. It skipped and looped around the windows, glazed of course in multiple colours. It formed fancy frames around the emblems of the Twelve Houses. And there for a moment his eyes remained. The Bull, the Ram, the Goat, the Bell – but before he could think more on it his attention was drawn to the floor. Unbroken by patterns, plain ruby-red tiles. Startling, against the black of the panelled-wood walls.
An impatient clearing of throat drew his eyes deeper into the chamber. There, in a deep recess at the chamber’s far wall, sat Breken Lafard-Legere upon the low parasol-protected legere-chair. Kalamite hurried his step, eyes averted. He stopped some four rods distant from the gold-tiled recess, at the bar placed there, and bowed low.
Aiya, and if they expected him to know nothing of lafarden-gear then let them swallow. He knew the procedures. He turned by some fifteen degrees and bowed again, though not so low, to Affalind Lafdi-Legara. And again, now to the right of the legere-chair, he bowed to Trefan Lafard-Ledhere and to the Two Boars’ lesser grunts, Garawen and Iffig, and Kervalet Begator. It pleased him that Otian Hadd, the out-of-walls nephew, was absent. No need to lower himself to a mere chiparin.
He turned again to the left, to where House Eland sat. Helan Lafdi – Affalind Lafdi’s mother – was also aunt of Breken Lafard. Kalamite had spoken loudly against the marriage. Mayhap he ought to have spoken at the Witan. He bowed to her. Of the remainder of the House, he considered only Ilud Marsled, Lord of the Horses, as a caste above him. He noticed the abdicated Mathon Lafard was absent; no doubt a situation that suited them all.
And again he turned to the right and bowed, this time with grace, to Gowen Sivator who had enabled his admission – and to the sivator’s ward Sifadis Lafdi who sat some thirty degrees off the legere-chair. He had plans for her. In return, and alone of them all, she offered a fleeting smile.
Lastly he bowed to Mikel Lafard-Awis, and with reluctance to his brother Evand.
Finally he was able to straighten. The lafarden-gear had pulled on his back, but at least it was done – though their lack of acknowledgement, not unexpected, had left him feeling slightly . . . slighted. The exception was Bel Hade Sifadis. But then she was used to dealing with seamen.
“Hadd Leef,” Mikel Lafard addressed Breken Lafard. “Kalamite Runman tells me he has important news. He is here to recite it.”
Breken Lafard nodded. Was that to say to proceed?
“Hadd Leef – Hadden –” and now he was talking he was again confident “– I preface my tale with an event map, despite I know you have not the knowledge – arcane, esoteric, not given to all. I shall keep it brief. On the eleventh day of the Witan’s weeks the gods Svara and Murag will form . . . a union, in this same Witan’s duodecimanse. Four days later the Varlet Verth, having retreated the past twenty days, will halt, revolve and thereafter run true. This will be accompanied by a triple eclipse.”
“A triple eclipse? Fascinating,” Breken Lafard said and turned to his brother Trefan. “Do you remember Master Tredwell telling us of these eclipses? And now we are to see one. And a triple, imagine. And, Kalamite, will this bring triple the hours of darkness of a single eclipse?”
“Astute, Hadd Leef; you almost could be a runman. Alas, we cannot say with accuracy. We would say, rather, three days of intermittent darkness.”
Breken Lafard turned again to his brother. “Trefan, you must ensure the hamlets are warned – cannot have people saying crazy things, full of dire warnings and the end of the world. Mikel, ensure all in the citadel know. We thank you, Kalamite Runman, for this prior advice. You did right to press for audience. Now you may go.”
“Hadd Leef, with respect, if you please. The eclipse is the least of my news. And without what else I have to say you might not live through it. My runmen have—”
“We know of eclipses, runman,” Breken Lafard said. He sounded amused. “You need not fear for us.”
“Breken Lafard-Legere Hadd has heard enough,” Mikel Lafard said, standing with implicit intent.
“No, indeed but,” said Breken Lafard with a waved hand to Mikel Lafard. “We cannot have him leaving here and saying I am deaf to my people. Think of the effects. No, let him speak. But, Kalamite, do keep it short.”
“Hadd Leef, I thank—” but he had not time to grovel further. “When the gods Svara and Murag last conjoined in the Witan’s duodecimanse – some four hundred and fifty years ago – strangers arrived here at Citadel Lecheni and killed the lafard-legere. We fear the same could happen again.”
Aiy and he might stress to Breken Lafard the threat to his person. And with no clear line of succession, the problems caused, not least the war games when those who now paid tribute tried to fight their way out, such an event would be . . . disruptive. But Kalamite’s concern was for the citadel only, and Runman House within it. Or ought he to name their House properly? Bell House. He now had ventured beyond that door in the cubby. He knew what lay beneath it. The heraldic device here in the Witan merely confirmed what he’d seen.
“Event maps!” Trefan Lafard bellowed. “Are we to listen to this? Five thousand citadels speckling our plain yet your arcane, esoteric, squiggly event maps apply just to this one?”
“Hadd Leef, with respect . . .” Lah! How they did explode. And all to belittle what they could not know. It was not an uncommon retort and he was long past the rising. “As I said, we have record of this happening here, in Citadel Lecheni. The Order has Houses in almost all of the citadels; it did not happen in any of those. Thus where is the reason to suppose it will not again happen here? I note you did not dispute the eclipse.”
Trefan Lafard, keefer of Lecheni’s folk-here, shot a look – and it seemed loaded with meaning – to his brother, the lafard-legere. In return, Breken Lafard nodded. What was happening? Had the brothers telepathy? Had they access to the red rubel berries? Yet they had not the stained lips. Still, that loaded glance sent shivers through Kalamite’s slight frame.
“I do not doubt your eclipse predictions, Kalamite Runman; they are a matter of progressing the moons’ positions – Breken Lafard himself might do it, as might I. But this—how did you phrase it? This meeting of gods?” Trefan Lafard’s chuckle was as cutting as had been his previous contempt. “And when did you say its recorded occurrence? Five hundred years past? But why believe the events will repeat when in the intervening years the world has changed? And it is not just a matter of clothes – though yours remain. It’s a different House that now holds the legere-chair. Five hundred years, fifteen generations, what around us remains the same?”
“The walls and towers,” Kalamite snapped back. And now he must grovel and beg forgiveness. “Hadd Leef,” he bowed to the lafard-legere. “Yet Citadel Lecheni does remain and it’s the citadel that is in the most danger. Aiya, the stranger already comes and you, Trefan Lafard-Ledhere Hadd, are seen conversing with her. You know who she is? Are you that clever, O perfect predictor of eclipses?”
Aiya, let them hiss through their teeth at his gall; it was Trefan Lafard made the claim. And now how would he answer? Would he compound his treachery?
“I know she is not who she says she is.” The sudden softness of Trefan Lafard’s voice spoke of his guilt.
“She is the daughter of the lafard-awis of the Lubanthan Citadel Raselstad. Four hundred and fifty years ago these same Lubanthan Raseltops arrived here and slayed the lafard-legere. Now what say you to that?”
Trefan Lafard smiled while still he mocked. “A woman, runman? Here to slay my brother and take the chair from us?”
“Nix, Hadd Leef, not so bold.” Kalamite would not play the lafard-ledhere’s game. He would not be put down nor put off. “She comes as a spy, and well you know it. Aiya! Where did you encounter her first? Shall I tell to your brother who you defend?” He’d tell more than the lafard-legere, he would tell all in the Witan. “Trefan Lafard-Ledhere found this Lubanthan Raseltop snooping around the guardhouse – right here within the warrison. Now say she is not in conspiracy with your former holde Ryal.”
“Not my holde—”
“Hold there, my brother,” Breken Lafard interrupted. “Where is Dryastil today?”
“Still recovering his guts, Hadd Leef,” Mikel Lafard said quietly.
“Ah.” Breken Lafard nodded. “Then continue, Trefan. You were saying?”
Kalamite watched while the lafard-ledhere, hands stilled for the moment, recovered his thread, or rather where he’d been in his lie. Then, with face lit, he pointed a finger at Kalamite.
“Runman, you, I advise to mind your tongue and your not-quite-so-veiled accusations. Though, aye, the rest of what you say is true: She has been asking questions of Ryal.”
It amused Kalamite that Breken Lafard’s eyebrows shot up.
“So what do you suggest we do?” he asked.
Satisfied, Kalamite bowed. “Hadd Leef, with respect—”
“I was asking my brother.”
“But no,” Trefan Lafard said, “Let’s hear what the runman has to say.”
“Hadd Leef, with respect,” Kalamite said before another could. “I suggest we send a spy to Raselstad. I have yet more to impart, more than that woman. Your nephew, Otian Hadd, tells me their lafard-legere has requested certain explosives from Mathon’s Manufactory.” It was only a guess. Yet with the talk of quarrying stone it was unlikely this Raseltop lafard-legere was asking only for hammers and chisels.
More looks shot back and forth. Breken Lafard looked at Gowen Sivator. Gowen Sivator nodded.
“Agreed,” Breken Lafard said. “We must issue a spy to Raselstad. I will arrange it without delay.”
Nix! That was not as he wanted. “With respect, Hadd Leef, I would suggest Sifadis Lafdi Bel Hade as the most appropriate to send.”
Ale-alai, but that caused disturbance. Aiya, the looks exchanged. How Gowen Sivator frowned. And he and the lafard-legere locked gazes. Kalamite imagined their thoughts. What, to send little Disa of the blood-red hair? Little Disa – Sifadis Lafdi, the Shore House heiress – looked puzzled yet showed no consternation. And that would be one problem out of the way.
~ ~ ~