He knew who she was!
But of course. She should have thought: his nephew Otian would have told him. She could feel the stir of questions arising, though as yet without form. And she almost smiled; at least now, rid of the charade, he could stop calling her ‘minikin’. How gross.
“But there is no lie to it,” she said. “Ryal is the reason I’m here. I am to prepare a report on his thingy, his demeanour. He seeks citizenship with us.”
Trefan Lafard raised a brow. Whether in disbelief, or in amusement; she couldn’t tell.
“Then why the deceit?” he asked.
“I’ve said. I need to know his thingy, character, worth, his transgressions, and it’s true, people seldom tell the truth.”
“No. Indeed they do not.” The way he eyed her . . . But she deserved it, she with her parcel of lies. Yet it was amusement more than grievance that coloured his look. “Then you are not here as a spy, to determine our weakness?”
Eshe laughed – then realised he was serious. “But, Hadd Leef, if you suspect me of that, why bring me into your whazzy, your Two Boars House?” Unless . . . Again, she looked at the bed, piled with its soft cushions in shades of silk.
He, too, looked there. “No, Femella. That was not my reason.” And now his amusement spilled into a laugh. “No, here seems the only place free of Kalamite’s ears.”
“I hear the name everywhere; who is he? And what is he?”
“Dangerous, is what. And do eat, Femella. Or, I ought to have thought; do you not eat meat? I know many Luban do not.”
“It is not my favourite, but I do on occasions.” She pushed at a fibrous lump with her spoon. “What . . . is it?”
“Fowl,” he answered. “You’d say chicken? They grow plumper on our northern manses than in your south. Or would you prefer fruits and roots?”
“No, this—”—would have been better cut small and not cooked for so long.
Was this what the Rothi thought of Lubanthan cuisine? It bore little resemblance to what she was used. They may have used the same spices – Otian traded in them – but they’d been blended in a strange combination. Something aromatic and hot exploded inside her mouth. She looked for a drink. Again he attended her, pouring a bubbling cordial into a crystal goblet. It tasted of fruit – pears, she thought. It didn’t taste alcoholic.
“Aye, Kalamite. Keefer of the Runman Order.” He spoke around a mouthful from three separate dishes of curry and two of rice. “The man has been stirring trouble since I can remember. He thinks his spies are invisible. And now, what he sees as his trump, he tells us, as news from his gods, that we are at risk of imminent attack from Luban.”
Eshe laughed. “I am sorry, Hadd Leef, but, no.” She tried to stifle her laugh with her hand (it was so impolite), but it burst forth as giggles and that was worse. She tried to control them by sucking them back. “I am sorry, Hadd Leef,” she said when she’d finally gained control. “But truly, you know nothing of Luban if you believe we would attack.”
He smiled and nodded. “It is not my belief. Thus we share this meal and you are not dead.” He fished into his mouth to retrieve a sliver of bone.
She decided to eat no more meat. “Might I have fruit instead?”
In answer he was at once on his feet and, clean dish in hand, querying which fruits and roots with a hovering spoon.
“No,” she stayed him. She would rather help herself to what looked most familiar. Exported Lubanthan fruits they might be, but they were sun-dried and had suffered insufficient soaking to plump them again. Besides, those she had already tried tasted dusty. Or was it musty?
“So the missing Ryal has hied off to Raselstad? I wonder, did he bring anything with him?”
He had, yes, but ought she to tell him? She cocked her head, prompting his clarification. He obliged. To a degree.
“A certain item went missing at the same time as he. The question is, did he take it? It might be the key to his disappearance.”
Oddly, Raselstad’s Council had thought the same. But now she had a quandary. Ought she to trust this Trefan Lafard? He did seem to be offering at least cursory friendship. And as he’d just said, she could now be dead. Besides, they both were seeking the same answers. It would make sense to cooperate, to combine their resources – wouldn’t it? And if she did not . . . would she then be dead?
He stopped eating and watched while she loosened the neck of her toad-skin bag, She fished with her fingers within it. “Might this be the said item?” It was the purple-capped key.
He sighed, nodded, and smiled. “Hm, indeed.”
“We wondered its bearing,” she said. “Ryal would tell us nothing – sent into utter terror whenever we asked, and I do not exaggerate, Hadd Leef. It is part of my task to find what it fits.”
He took the key from her. “And have you?”
She shrugged. “What chance to find it? Wherever I go, I am followed by a walking dead-man. Or I am watched by the holden. Or by you.”
“Oh, and I had thought my presence welcome. But a ‘walking dead-man’?” He laughed. “You must mean Kalamite.”
“Stained lips, blotchy hair and . . . something altogether untoward about him.” She wrinkled her nose in distaste.
Trefan Lafard laughed. “I would like him to hear that. The blighted Keefer of the Runman Order slighted by a manse-born hindling. So, shall I tell you what the key fits?”
With head cocked she waited.
“This –” he held up the key “– is the key to the Purple Tower. And the Purple Tower gives access to Wood Tower.”
“Really?’ She had not intended to sound sarcastic but . . . “There are so many towers. Which is the Purple and which the Wood?”
“Wood Tower is the tallest. The one at the centre. The lesser, or outer towers are named for the predominant colour of their tiling – the flowers and birds? So, Red, Green, Blue and Purple; which had you looked closer you would have seen. To save you from running outside to look, the Purple Tower is nearest the guardhouse. And so we suspected him of taking the key. And were right.”
Gods’ bods, she’d been so close! And now he had told her, she strangled a smile. He thought she no longer had the key, yet she had made a copy using Jilli’s gift to her, the ‘Every Key’ box. It was her turn, now, to be amused.
“But tell me, why Wood Tower when, just like the others, it is tiled?”
He shrugged. “Call it one of the runmen’s many oddities.” In other words, Eshe again smiled, he didn’t know.
But, runmen; it seemed they were in some way involved. She wished she knew more about them. All she had learnt at school was their reverence of the old planetary gods. Jilli had told her more: that their Order had a House in most Rothi citadels and were consulted by – as she said it – the superstitious townsfolk and the Witans. But Jilli had said nothing of towers.
“So why Ryal’s terror? Is there something frightening in Wood Tower?” Frightening, and the source of the runmen’s political power? How strange that the Witans should consult them. Rothi Witans were not reputed as superstitious, no more than were the Lubanthan Councils.
Trefan Lafard shrugged. His eyes upturned, his hands palm-up, he looked like he was testing for rain. “Who knows,” he said in weary tone. “None but the runmen may enter there. It is death to all others. Even to Mikel Awis.”
He looked at her. Impolitely, she looked back. His eyes were such a deep vivid blue. And they creased into amusement – or was it embarrassment? Her hands suddenly felt awkward. She tried to occupy them, her fingers twining into her hair. His amusement departed. He eyed her now with deliberate intent – and it stole her breath. It seemed he might, in that moment, be beside her and kissing her. She scoffed at such a sap-headed notion. As if.
“Hm,” she said while collecting her thoughts. And, “Hm,” again. “So we may safely assume that, having trespassed – and that, we may presume, from curiosity – in fear of retribution, Ryal then fled. But, Hadd Leef, if it’s forbidden to enter, why leave the keys on display?”
“Indeed, an apt question, and one, I admit, I have not thought to ask. It just has been so since beyond any memory. Clever, though, of you to cut through it – like the evil spells in the troubadours’ songs. I can only suggest that it’s done as a test. The runman are odd – particularly here at Lecheni. And that Kalamite, he must be the oddest of all.”
“Everything more I learn of these runman, Hadd Leef; the more strange they seem. I mean, why do they dwell in the Rothi citadels, so close to the lafarden? Is that to facilitate your worship of their gods?”
Trefan Lafard again laughed. And this time she knew it was at her, or rather at her misconceptions. “And I thought my tone had told you enough. We scorn them, Femella – a least here in Lecheni we do. Here, where the Order has its Prime House, we will not have them – particularly not Kalamite – in our Witan. As to their gods: you saw in our courtyard, the abundance. What are names, what are forms? They all are the Avatar – though the hindlings might take them as other. True, we share with the runman their Dizpeter and Stup, the Maker and the Destroyer, but that is all.
“And please,” he said, his tone changing, now less intense, “this ‘Hadd Leef, Hadd Leef’, do drop it. I am in no way above you in birth. What, Eshe Femella, Judge Madir’s daughter – who, so I’m told, does not keep stews because the Luban have not the need. But I wonder what you do in their stead? There are tensions, Femella, that need release.”
Eshe swallowed a gasp before replying, “I agree, yet we manage.” Too late she realised her pun, though he’d probably not notice. It depended how thoroughly he had studied the Book. She went on quickly, hoping to cover it. “But if you have known for six weeks who I am, why only now do you choose to uncover me?”
He grinned. “An interesting choice of words. Were I a scholar I might mistake that as an indication of, um . . . interest?” He shot a look at the bed.
She turned her head, unable to face him, breathing turned ragged, lips annoyingly dry.
“Eshe Femella, might it be wise to turn our attention back to the key?”
“Ah yes, the key. And if I cannot find what is in Wood Tower then I may as well go home.” Though she wanted not to go, and not because of the bandits. “Trefan Lafard—”
“Please, just unadorned Trefan will do. It ought to be me bowing to you.”
“Trefan, then, yes. You have been most helpful, and Ryal is waiting upon my report.”
“He is a deserter.”
“Was a deserter. But upon my report he becomes a Lubanthan citizen, protected by our Lubanthan laws.”
“Then he will remain a deserter. For there can be no report, Eshe. I cannot allow you to leave.”
And how willingly she’d stay were it not for Ryal and for her father. She raised a brow, inviting Trefan to give a good reason.
“Kalamite is up to something no good, though I have yet to discover exactly what. Yet I do know, if able, he will have you dead. Eshe Femella, I wish it were otherwise but, since for now I can give no protection beyond these walls, you must stay.”
That was more good reason than she had expected. “Would you clarify? Do you mean these ‘walls’ of your bed—of your chamber?”
“Oh, not quite so extreme. No, I mean beyond the warison. Even in the town, I cannot vouch for your safety.”
Oh. So with Kalamite here and the bandits beyond it, it seemed she must remain at the Woolpack for just a while longer. She wondered if she dared release a smile.
~ ~ ~