My beloved Zann,
Continuing my story. The longcoach stopped in front of a shelter on a little loop of road. Ambe and Master Daust and I stepped down. The shelter had a fountainroom and a privy and a small shop, but the shop was closed this early in the morning. Beyond that was a tiled lane that led up the hill toward the palace. There was no gate or guard; just this lane leading to a small square greystone hut. The palace’s towers loomed beyond, but there was no path to them.
“Have you ever been here before?” I asked Ambe and Daust.
“Not me,” said Daust, and “Never,” said Ambe.
We tried the little square building. It was about halfway up the hill, and there was no door to the doorway.
Inside was a small room with a woman sitting behind a counter. She glared at us. My mother would have said about her face, “she has a mean mouth.”
Daust spoke up first. “We’re here to see Candur, of the guard. He’s expecting us.”
“Prick your finger on one of those thorns,” she told us, “and go on up.”
We looked. There was a thorn branch growing in a corner. I hesitated, but Ambe said, “No, it’s well,” and touched one of the thorns with the back of her arm. Daust and I shrugged and copied her.
There was nowhere else to go but back out the way we came. So we did that. But this time there was another path that continued up to the palace. We couldn’t see it before, but it was there now. “That’s some pretty blackpiss magic,” Ambe said. “Laurans. I could probably plot out how to do that trick, hide a path and then reveal it, but it’s so easy for them. Wonderful.”
We ascended. The path took us up the hill by some very comfortable curves, with gardens and rills all around us. It ended at a small plaza, in a wide triangle between three towers: pink, white, and gold. The gate by the pink tower was right where Candur said it would be, so we tried it. There were a couple of Rosollas on the other side, both of them very young. A woman with a big nose and a short man who was only occasionally visible in his oversized sky-blue uniform.
“For the captain?” the woman said.
We nodded. “Daust, Ambe, and Ybel,” Daust said.
They opened the gate, and the man said, “Down the path, around the other side of the tower. There’s a little stairway going down. The door should be open at the bottom.”
We went there. This gate didn’t seem to lead to anything but back doors to the pink tower; we could catch glimpses of the orchard that was outside this walled alley but no more than that. Anyway, we went down the stairs. I knocked on the door and we went in. Inside was some kind of common room for the Rosolla Guard; there were tables and daybeds and a dartboard and things. A few guards were here, mostly sleeping, although one fellow was reading a broadsheet and scratching his armpit.
Candur beckoned us in from an adjoining office. “Welcome to the palace,” he said. “Ambe?”
Ambe nodded, and took something out of one of her carpetbags. She whistled a tune, the same few notes over and over, while she did her work. Candur waited expectantly as she set some little soap carvings in the corners. Once they were in place, she closed her eyes, still whistling, and concentrated. The medallions in her hair glowed, and then so did the soap figurines, and she said, “There.”
“Good,” Candur said. “Now we can talk. Not that we have any big secrets to discuss. Some little ones. You three know each other?”
“We met in the fucking coach,” said Daust.
“Good,” he said again. “First thing. I need to explain to you just what the Rosolla Guard is. Because you need to understand that to understand what your duties are here. All right?”
It was all right with us.
“We don’t enforce the laws of the city. That’s the city guard, the Qualisons. And we don’t fight wars. That’s the army. We secure the site of the rulership of the realm. That site used to be Cas Crid, but now it’s this palace, so we’ve moved here. This place, this group of buildings, this is our responsibility. People come here to pass laws and judge disputes and determine successions and sign treaties. It’s our job to make sure all of that can happen safely.
“When the Rosollas were at Cas Crid, before the Nap, it was part of our job to guard the lives of the royal family and all their people. But now that the Talistags are exiled and the Valnelatars rule, it’s the Immaculate Zone who does that. Basically they don’t trust us humans with the job of guarding laurans. That’s fine. We guard the palace and we make sure that it can be used for its proper purpose. That’s what I brought you three in to help me do. Understand?”
“Good. Ambe first. Ambe, you know how much magic there is in this palace.”
“I sure don’t,” she said. “I just know it’s a lot.”
“Well, that’s why we want you. I’ve got a lot of inexperienced humans with no magic here, and I want someone around I can trust who can help us deal with it.”
“I get you,” Ambe said. “Do you have a lair for me?”
He nodded. “I’ll have someone show you in a minute. Master Daust.”
“One of the things the Rosolla Guard has to do is to perform in ceremonies. Drill. Receiving ambassadors, knighting warriors, that kind of thing. We have our part to play in that, and the guards who do it have to look good in uniform and perform their drill correctly. It’s part of the smooth functioning of the palace. If we can’t do this properly, we are not fulfilling our responsibilities.”
“And you want me to take charge of that?” Daust mused. “That makes sense. I can do it. If I know all the fucking routines.”
“That’s no problem. But look. There are some people who are good at drill but useless for anything else. There are other people who make good guards but look like a turtle’s arse. So I want you to put together two dozen guards who you can use, you won’t need more than that, and then the rest of them only need to know the guard stances and some basic rules. It might take us a while to find you all two dozen. You can have anybody you want except Ybel here. Questions?”
“Not for right now. You know what all I need.”
“Good. Ybel,” Candur said.
“I’m starting you out as a regular guard. You’ll learn the whole job. Once you’ve done that for a while, if everything goes right, I’ll promote you up a step at a time. The idea is eventually you’ll be my lieutenant. Because I need more people around here who can think and handle responsibilities. You’re one, and you can find others. For the first while, pay attention to everything. We’ll start fixing problems once you know what they are.”
“Yes, sir. I already saw one big one.”
He nodded briefly, and then handed out rings to each of us. Ambe examined hers with interest, tracing her finger around its carvings. “These give you the run of the palace. Most of the palace; I think the Valnelatars have some private chambers that we can’t even see. Don’t lose them.” I put mine on; didn’t feel any different.
“Anything else before I pass you off to other people who can show you around?” Candur asked.
I raised a finger. “Why are our numbers low?”
“There’s a lot of turnover in the Rosolla Guard,” he said. I thought he was trying not to look uncomfortable.
“Why is there? Why do people keep leaving the Guard?”
Now he did look uncomfortable. “Usually they’re murdered.”