Eshe barely glanced at the other statues in the Two Boars courtyard; they were much like any god, even those seen in Luban. But that bird distracted her. Exotic . . . awesome . . . made of white metal, probably silver.
Trefan Lafard beside her drew back her attention. “I confess I must ask again of your citadel. Where did you say?”
He had asked in such a friendly tone. She blithely answered, “Citadel Parlani.”
“Ah, that was it – though, strain as I might, I still cannot place it. Perhaps that explains why I’d forgotten it.”
“With respect, Hadd Leef, why would you know of it? Unless your brother has battled with Satrun Lafard-Legere?” She didn’t intentionally bat her lashes; it was a habit that accompanied any feigned innocent. “Parlani is days – weeks – beyond Chendani Pass. Too far away for otherwise congress.”
Oh pickles! She shouldn’t have used such a word. It was packaged beyond her supposed vocabulary. And now she must excuse it. “Oh, again! My mother always was telling me I use the wrong words.”
Trefan Lafard smiled and nodded.
He had a look when nodding that made him seem older, wiser – though she guessed him no more than three years her elder. She had noticed that look occasionally replace his usual amusement. She had seen the same on Boddy, too, when he returned from his weeks with the Dragons – as if he had crammed treble the life into those few weeks, and none of it pleasant.
“And the ledhere at Parlani – ledhere of the folkhere, I mean, not of the holden – who might he be?”
She licked her fast-drying lips. She had scoffed at the need of all these details and had committed only the main facts to memory. Yet the Avatar, or her god – or maybe one of those in the courtyard – was keeping watch over her for, despite his position, and Two Boars House was his family’s own dwelling, as they neared the main entrance the duty-holden challenged Trefan Lafard. The murky effrontery! She thanked the god for providing a distraction whilst she groped for the answer.
Then, oops, she realised, her mistake. That challenge had not been for him. He smiled and claimed surety of her. The holden again raised their pikes. Yet they must have wondered at her being there, at the lafard-legere’s house, invited to dine.
Kilda had said of the stews taken into the citadel houses to . . . whazzamy, thingamajig, do their thing. She glanced at Trefan Lafard. Was that his intent? She would certainly find it hard to say no – though he would have to romance her first. Or maybe she could forgo that. But she would do nothing that might imply that she was a stew. That was not the reputation she wanted, even though she hoped soon to leave this town and never return.
And now she remembered the name of Citadel Parlani’s fictitious ledhere. How could she have forgotten when it was her own cousin’s name.
But then the name caught in her throat as she tried not to gasp. Inside, Two Boars House was . . . it was stunning! The colour, the light, in the—what was she to call it, the main hall? In Luban they called it that. But in Luban it would be buzzing with life, the many branches of the family, from gens to goble, gathering there for their many reasons, while this hall was devoid of life. It was immense in every dimension, its curving tiled walls towering up to a domed ceiling vented with yellow stained glass. Those high windows were the sole source of light yet the hall was awash with gold. It caught on the glaze of the painted tiles adding glints to the already bright flower designs. As for the stairs . . .
She had thought them grand at the Woolpack Gardens, hugging the wall as they spiralled up. But here, while they again spiralled and hugged, they were—she lacked a sufficiently superlative word for it. They were wide, the carved balustrade of gold-veined marble. Was the colour due to sulphur? But no, the yellow was far too dark. Perhaps it was cadmium. Yet it glittered as if it were gold. It was unusual, never had she seen its like. But it was lifeless and cold. Rather would she have the warmth of the native grasses, as in Luban.
The hard leather soles of her newly-bought shoes clattered upon every stone stair. Though she winced at the noise she couldn’t keep her eyes down. She had to look into the wide arches set at every ten steps. They were carved of the same gold-veined marble, and each hid an ornately carved wooden door. At least there was life!
“You were telling me of your Citadel Parlani,” Trefan Lafard prompted as he guided her upwards.
“And you had asked of our ledhere,” she answered. “That will be Sonen Lafard, Hadd Leef.”
His hand gently cupped her elbow. Could he feel how it trembled? What would he make of it? But how light his touch for a man whose life was spent in killing (as she imagined the war games to be). His voice too, as if everything around him amused him. Did he never shout?
“You were right, I’ve not encountered him on the campus. And why challenge a citadel as far away as your Parlani when we then must trudge weeks to claim the tribute when they fail to deliver. But I’m always interested in far away places; tell me more of these folk at Parlani.”
She was again slow to answer, though this time trying to steady her voice. She was walking into trouble, she knew it. Though she didn’t yet know its form. Ever since she’d accepted this invitation she had been asking, would the orphaned sister of Ryal Holde have accepted? Or would she have dared to decline? Just how powerful was this lafard-ledhere? Was he on a par with Count Slemba? Or did he rate higher? He certainly looked more imposing with his red and blue uniform, tift-up and trapped. Yet as she understood it, his command was not even this citadel but the part-time armsmen who were called to the Games. And how many had he of these armsmen?
There was also the question of the thingummy, whazzamy, rumple-pumple. What if he tried to kiss her? Could she resist? Would she want to? She swallowed again. He was awaiting an answer.
“And what would you know from me, Hadd Leef? That I was in service with my mother, to the balgerof who served Sonen Lafard’s brother, Madrys Lafard Awis. But, Hadd Leef, my mother is dead and I am without job and she said to find my brother and he would help me. Yet here I am and nobody knows where he is.” She would have wrung her hands had they not been twitching her shift and kirtle so she wouldn’t trip on the stairs.
“My Ashlan-minikin, I am trying to help you in that. Believe me, we all would like to know where Ryal Holde is.”
“Hadd Leef, I feel, with your saying that . . . Is there something of him you are not telling me?” She mewled as a distressed sister would. “Did he commit some crime before disappearing?”
Had Boddy been there he would have applauded. Did she play the part well or . . . Yet, six weeks now had passed and she was growing desperate. It seemed all lips were sealed about the deserter. As for the key, there were so many doors. And this mission was supposed to have been so easy?
With his hand again cupping her elbow, Trefan Lafard guided her to a wide double door. As with the others passed, it was set deep in an archway – her bedroom in Parlan House could have fitted within it. It opened at his touch, almost before she had seen what was carved on it – a confusion of vines, flowers and birds. The Tree of Life, the only life in this cold place.
“I was not Ryal’s keefer to know him well,” Trefan Lafard said as he ushered her into the room. “Yet I am told he was valued – disciplined, conscientious in his duties, well-liked by his fellows. I have heard no complaints of him – except he deserted. And for that, alas, his reward will be final. Ah, I see you are admiring my chamber.” Again he sounded amused; incongruous following his talk of execution.
It was a box carved of stone, or that’s how it seemed though there were no right-angles only graceful curves. The walls were green-, almost black-, veined stone. And along three of the walls deep recesses were cut. Not all gave onto doorways; one, she noticed, held his bed. She turned her head quickly from that – why must her breathing quicken like this as if in some guilty anticipation? Light was added to what was otherwise a dark chamber by an arrangement of screens daintily carved from gold marble. The fourth wall was pierced, floor to ceiling, by a series of windows that gave onto the balcony she’d seen on arrival. At the centre of the room, set upon a thick carpet – again the design was the Tree of Life, all vines and flowers – was a low square table of gigantic proportions. Lacy porcelain dishes, white against the black of the wood, held bright fragrant titbits. The smell of spice surprised her.
“I do hope you like Lubanthan foods,” he said – though she could see nothing here familiar. “My nephew brings us fruits and spices, though his trade mostly is silk.”
His nephew traded in silks and fruits? She almost gasped but caught it. His nephew was Otian the Peddler? She turned away so he’d not see her steamy-red face.
“I wonder,” she said, lightly, “would that be Churpi Hadd? Churpi Hadd traded with our House in Parlani.”
He answered, “No,” with a slight chuckle. “Oh, my Ashlan-minikin, you do look flushed. I apologise for how stuffy the chamber. It has been closed all morning. If you promise to stay away from them – you understand why – I’ll open the doors onto the veranda.”
Eshe hand-fanned her face. “Yes. Please do.”
Though he’d said doors, plural, he opened but one. Beyond it, the metallic bird dazzled in the midday sun. She wanted to see it from the vantage of the balcony but would not disobey him. What gossip would that engender, if she were seen, this stranger here in the ledhere’s chamber?
“Sit.” He indicated the many divans, each richly covered and deeply padded.
A femella, an heiress to a noble house, yet she had never imagined such opulence as this. Though it seemed his tastes were quite restrained. No overt displays of gold as she had glimpsed elsewhere. Even his clothing was less bedazzling than some. Yet she rather would have bare wooden floors, wooden chairs and wooden walls. She sat as bid, close to the table.
He piled yellow rice onto a white dish, added curried-something, she couldn’t tell what, and offered it to her.
She took it while feeling uncomfortable for it. “Hadd Leef . . .”
“Hush. Eat.” He slipped a silver spoon into her hand. She scarcely could hold it for how she was shaking.
He helped himself to similar fare.
“But . . .” She had to say something. “Why? A lafard does not serve such as me.”
“Because I invited you here to dine.” He smiled.
She looked again at the bed. Nothing else could explain this tipped-up-reversal. A lafard-ledhere who waits upon a supposed hindling, a jobless moldkin? “With respect, Hadd Leef, I have said, I am not a stew.”
Again he smiled. He lowered his voice, now conspiratorial. “And neither are you a Rothi sister seeking her brother. Now please do eat. I had my cook prepare Lubanthan food especially for you.”
~ ~ ~