Keefer-Papa of the Runman Order
Kalamite cursed whoever it was who’d allowed the walkway-door to slam. Aiya, did they think the wood of the door would last forever. And now the sprat was thudding down the stairs. Down and round, down and round, an ever-loudening drum. He looked at the brimming bucket of beads by feet: it had been a good harvest. And he still had time and plenty to tie his brecks, to step into his boots, to shrug his arms through his coat and shuffle his shoulders to settle it.
Again clothed, he edged around the inner tower till he came to the door, invisibly set into the alabaster screen. Its carving was a veritable marvel, the work of a master craftsman. Yet he’d no doubt the Lubanthan would scorn it. They’d claim it the work of Verth at his worst. With a betraying sniff, he set the bucket by the door. And stepped out, quietly. The door closed with a soft click behind him, to become again invisible.
Still careful to keep his movements unseen and unheard, he circled the white stone tower till he came to the next flight of spiraling steps. Down he went, into the darkness. The air here still smelled musty from the spring that once had welled here. Kalamite’s predecessor-three-back had blocked it. Diverted, the register said, its water used to irrigate the garden. And how that Shore woman and her warden, Gowen Hadd, delighted in tending the plants growing there – ugly things: fat and spiny.
Kalamite laid himself down on the floor, dry now despite the smell. In the darkness he outspread his arms. Again he sniffed; let the sprat find him like this.
The sprat’s feet continued to drum, louder and closer as down and around the tower he came. Kalamite grew impatient for him. His leg started to twitch. Then he was there behind him. Kalamite remained as if oblivious to him – until the sprat alerted him with a forced cough.
Kalamite lifted his head, enough to see a purple coat and purple brecks – and purple boots! Aiya, the sprat goes too far with his fancy chiparin connections.
“Aiy, Ffika, what?” Kalamite asked from his prone position. “ You can see I am at my devotions.”
“With respect, Papa Hadd. A visitor waits for you.”
“You disturbed me for that?” he snarled. Yet he pushed first to a sit and then stood. “Who is it, this visitor?”
“It is Mikel-Awis Hadd,” Ffika said. “And with him, Papa Hadd, the ledhere.”
“Trefan Lafard, ledhere of the folkhere, Papa Hadd,” Ffika expanded.
Deuces! What did they want with him? Had Matikkas bungled killing the stew? Had he been found with her and pointed a finger back to him? He would deny it of course. The man was aged, his mind was lapsing. Why would the Keefer of the Runman Order be entangled with stews? He’d turn it so the Lafard-Awis would laugh at the old man’s fancies.
He sighed. “Aiy, whatever it is, I suppose I must grant them my attention.” But he still held back.
So too did Ffika, for it wasn’t for a sprat to precede his master up the spiralling stairs.
“Aiya!” Kalamite nicked him with his staff. “Don’t just stand there, sprat! Retreat. Return up the tower whence you came with your purple boots noisily drumming.” Himself was content to follow the runman – he’d not then be seen casting wistful glances through the pierced screen, his fingers with adoration trailing it.
~ ~ ~
The visitors waited in the Purple Chamber, a small room intended to accommodate one runman only. There was a window but that too was small, and high. There was no furniture; there was nothing to sit on but for the floor. That floor was plastered and painted purple. It was cold. The walls, too, were plastered and painted purple – a shade or two lighter where the pigment had faded. The room held nothing to distract the eye – no pictures, figurines or adornments – for the runmen used the Purple Chamber for meditation only. Woe for two lafarden directed there by Honning Runman; it was not the most comfortable of places to wait.
Kalamite approved Honning’s choice. Such thoughtfulness. And should it be needed, the plaster in there would absorb their voices. Elsewhere in Runman House – apart from Kalamite’s cellar-cubby – was sound-reflecting marble.
“Lafarden Hadden,” Kalamite greeted them, bowing low. “What pleasure that you should visit me here.”
Mikel-Awis eyed the cell. “Is this how you live, here at Runman House?”
“Our needs, per-circumstance, must be few. We are not lafarden to have holdings such as you.”
“Yet you receive gifts from the—”
“Gullible,” Trefan, ledhere of the folkhere, cut in.
“With respect, Hadd Leef,” Kalamite said, head slightly bowing, though how he begrudged it, “we help many who are in distress. Discovering their illness, devising their healing – unsealing wombs that are cursed. In return we must eat. We do not waste on the sumptuous.”
He didn’t mention, as he could have, that other citadels granted gifts to their runmen, taken from the taxes in return for their setting the best days for the War Games. Yet in Citadel Lecheni, where was situate Runman House, Prime of the Order, no gift was granted them. It left an unpleasant taste.
“But with respect, Hadden Leef, you did not come here to remark of our poverty.”
“Indeed not,” Trefan said. “It is rather to remark of your in-ability. Four weeks to your projected calamity, when a force from Luban is supposed to attack us. Yet I see none. A force such as you say needs time to traverse the passes. They ought by now to be moving.”
Kalamite forced a smile. “And you know they are not, Hadd Leef?”
Trefan’s reply was swift, his words almost gabbled. “A chiparin called upon us yesterday seeking Otian but Otian is gone. He had recently returned from Luban. He says in the east the Dragons are moving out to the west. Thus there is no calamity to come.”
Kalamite sniffed. Aiya, the rot-talking lorels, what did they know. “But, Trefan Hadd, I do assure you, there is Lubanthan-hatched calamity to come.”
“Pish! Beyond your predicted prolonged eclipse there will be nothing, all wane and gone,” Mikel-Awis said, a vicious edge to his tongue – unusual for him, usually so mellow. (Maybe he’d heard of his stew.) “And take note, Kalamite Runt, for a motion will be raised in the Witan, the day after the eclipse, to close Runman House and to evict you from Citadel Lecheni. You and your runmen are nothing but the resort of fearful women.”
Such anger from the lafarden, did he deserve it? Aiya, he’d show the noble franyans. If his prediction should prove to be empty, he now was alerted to ensure another calamity would happened. Aiy, and for that he’d need Matikkas. The rutting Bisonian had just been granted a stay of execution.
~ ~ ~
Eshe Parlan, Femella
Lauschen had assured Eshe that the watcher was gone. Yet as she emerged from the alley onto the next lane she felt sure that someone was following. What to do? She couldn’t simply retrace her steps to Lauschen’s house. If she did have a tail she’d blunder straight into him. Though at least then she’d get a look at the watcher. But was this the same man?
Anyway, it was pointless her now returning. Whoever it was had already seen her. She’d thought the same of her hiding. All those weeks, when it was obvious by the constant watch that whoever had ordered it knew where she was.
She carried on walking, her destination the hostelry where she’d stabled Muzzle. She wanted to know what the eskuri had done with him. Kilda could have got it wrong. The eskuri could have been moved Muzzle into long-term stabling, across the river where there was grazing. She had asked Lauschen about it, if this was a practice. But Lauschen had his own grazing rights for his donkey and had never paid for stabling. It would have been safer to send Kilda to the stables to ask of the eskuri. But ten days on and still she waited from Kilda to visit. Now, despite the tail, she must stay with her plan. The one thing she changed was her route. If someone was following, she’d be a lorel to go down the alleys where no one could see her. Less chance of an attack if she kept to the open lanes.
Yet there came a point where she had a choice of a wide detour down to the river – with its wharves and warehouses, its seamen and wharf-hands, none of whom she’d trust to be alone with – or to cut down an alley.
She’d not taken above five steps when a voice came from behind her, a man’s. “Don’t stop, don’t look round. Just continue on the same till I say.”
Something of his voice was reassuring, though that could have been intentionally deceptive. Regardless, she obeyed, strangely without qualms or a clenching belly.
“Now wait there—but don’t turn around.”
Again she obeyed.
“With respect, Bel Hade, Eshe Femella of Parlan,” the man said, “I am a friend.” He was close enough now that she felt his breath on the back of her neck. “Do not be distressed. I’m here to warn you of impending danger.”
She snorted a laugh, though that from fear. But really, ‘do not be distressed’ when he was warning of impending danger?
“Who are you?” she asked, tempted almost beyond bearing to turn to see.
“With respects, Bel Hade, but if I wished you to know would I say not to turn?”
“Then tell me, what is this danger?”
“Your friend, the stew? Last night she met her demise. I have reason to suppose you are next.”
Kilda? Dead? No! “How?”
She might not have trembled before, but now she did. Yet she reckoned by keeping him talking, and with her listening, she’d not have time to notice the shock, to register the grief, to know the guilt. For there was guilt. Kilda was dead because of her, and already she was feeling sick with it. She was beginning to sweat. And what of Kilda’s children? Would Mikel-Awis claim them? But it didn’t matter; she had gold, she’d give it to the woman who fostered them. But, no, the wretched pippins, as if gold could replace a mother. Eshe sniffed, trying to stem the tears that now were welling.
“With respects, Bel Hade,” her tail said. “It is better not to know the details. She’s dead, that is all you need to know.”
“So what are you suggesting I do? Leave town? Find another place to hide?”
“To leave would be best. But not to go by the west. The one with your horse watches there. And unless you’ve a boat, you will find the south barred to you.”
“North?” There was no other way out, to the east was the sea.
“That has its problems. There you must cross Tuthe Bridge, else thread through the citadel.”
“Then . . . what?” She’d have to find another place to hide.
“With respects, Bel Hade. I have a friend in North Town – his house overlooks Western Way. The one who would kill you knows nothing of him. I would advise you to move to there. I advise you also to dress as a man. I can find you the clothes.”
“How do I know I can trust you, when you won’t even allow me a glimpse of your face?”
His answer was long in coming, as if first he must find it. “Do you gamble, Bel Hade? Play games of chance,?”
“It is forbidden in Luban.”
“Yet you can calculate probabilities? Stay where you are, and your death is a certainty. Accept my offer, and it becomes a mere possibility. Which odds do you prefer, Bel Hade?”
“But I have only your word for it.”
“With respect, Bel Hade. He knows where you are.”
“I have only your word,” she repeated.
“You would risk it, Bel Hade? I think you would not. Return to Lauschen. Prepare to leave. My friend will call for you in the hours of darkness.”
“But how will I know him?”
“Know her, Bel Hade. She is short, her body well-padded; you will know her.”
What else could she do? She heaved a long sigh. When would it end? And how? Was she ever to escape this town? And what of her father: he must be missing her by now, beginning to worry. And Trefan? Perhaps once lodged with this woman Trefan would call upon her.
~ ~ ~