Spring 44: snobals

My beloved Zann,

Of course, over supper, I told Wande and Jhus all about the palace, and the things I saw and what my responsibilities were. Jhus just chewed her food and ignored me, but Wande was interested. I even told her about Candur’s plans for me, and she shook her head.

“Does he think you’re a genius?” she asked. It was something I had asked myself more than once.

“I don’t know. It seems like he does, a little.”

“Well, you do have surprising ideas at times, I’ll say that. Maybe that’s how he sees you. Anyway. I’m glad you’re all right. Do you… are you worried? About the danger?”

“Some. I was more worried when I was sleeping in the mud under Sugarside.”

We ate in silence for another couple of minutes.

Wande looked up at me and then down at her food three different times.


She put down her spork. “I don’t know how to say this. I know you… It’s springtime.”

It was springtime. “Yes?”

“So it’s almost snobal season.”

Oh, coldpiss. I hadn’t thought of that. It had been so long since… “Oh, right. That’s true.”

She continued. “And I would like us to get some snobals this year. I don’t know if that’s asking too much of you…”

“No, no. Of course we should do that. Wande, I’ve seen that knife in the leather case in your trunk. Is that from your mother?”

“My sister.”

“Oh, that’s nice. So I know it’s important to you. I’ll be fine. I’m sure I can do it. I want to do it. It’s not… I want to do it.”

Wande relaxed in her seat, eyes moist. “Thank you, Ybel. It’s just that… well, you know why it’s important.” She leaned across the table and kissed me. Jhus glowered at me.

I did understand. And I really did want to do the snobal ritual for Wande. I could at least be enough of a man for that. But I wasn’t looking forward to it.



Spring 43: the tongue

My poor Zann,

The Tongue turned out to be a jetty on the upriver side of the palace. It curved out gracefully from the riverside, creating calm water below it that was used for all sorts of things. Shapdar took me to a small wooden building at the end of the Tongue. It was just a guardroom sitting atop a staircase, with some signal flags in the windows.

“Go on up,” Shapdar said. “It’s your first day, so try not to fall in the river. I don’t think Del or Chath can swim.”

I thanked him for his help and climbed up into the guardpost. Two guards were watching me, a young woman and a boy, maybe sixteen. “Day,” I said. “I’m Ybel. I’m on your shifts for a few days.”

“New?” the woman said.

I nodded. “Just today.”

“Great,” the boy said. “We need new guards. Are you a good fighter?”

“Hopeless,” I told him. “Are you Chath?”

“He’s Chath and I’m Delega,” the woman said. “If you’re a hopeless fighter then what are you doing here? That is a sword on your belt, you know.”

“I know. I’ve seen swords before.”

She spat out the window. “It’s a good thing this job pays so well. Most bluepiss useless collection of people I’ve ever seen. Well, what are you good for, if you can’t fight?”

I shrugged. “I was a stevedore yesterday.”

“Like down on the docks? Lifting crates with those hooks?” Chath said.

“That was me. It wasn’t bad work but I think I might like this better. Do you like it?”

“Yes,” he said. “So far. I’ve only been here a few months. It’s… I was going to say it’s interesting, but it’s not. Most of the time it’s pretty boring. But when it’s not boring it’s interesting in really new ways.”

“Not much lifting crates, though,” Delega said. “Not that that’d help you. You’ve got to be able to fight to be a Rosolla Guard. If you can’t, well… I hope you don’t mind if I don’t bother to learn your name.”

“You know my name,” Chath objected.

“I’ve seen you with your sword. You’ll be fine if you have the time to learn. You’re not hopeless.”

“What are we guarding way out here?” I asked.

“We are watching river traffic,” Delega said. “You ought to be able to handle that. Most of the boats going by are traders going to or from Crideon. You get to learn the look of them. Sometimes there are other kinds. All we care about, are any of them trying to land at the palace? If they do, we signal out this window, and a Rosolla down at that station at the marina deals with it. But it basically never happens. Sometimes the lords and ladies row around this little harbour. That’s about it.”

“This is a pretty easy guardpost,” Chath said. “Gets cold in the winter, though.”

“Is there a map of the palace?” I asked. “I need to learn my way around.”

“No map, new man. Learn it the way we did,” Delega said.

“Do you know why, though?” Chath said. “It’s my favourite thing about this place! It’s so highpiss. Look, the big long building there, the Comet Halls?”

“The one sort of curving down the left side of the hill?”

“Yes. See that green tower next to it, with the red pennon?”

“I see it.”

“The tower’s connected to the Comet Halls in two places. Two skybridges crossing the gap, one above the other?”


“If you actually go there, and cross from one side to the other, on the lower skybridge, you can look down and see the upper skybridge. And if you cross on the upper one, you can look up and see the lower one. There’s no map because you can’t map it. There’s all kinds of stuff like that that makes no sense.”

“There sure is,” Delega said. “Who enlisted you, anyway, Y-thing?”

“Captain Candur.”

She shook her head. “I thought he was going to be great when they brought him in to be captain. But we need a lot of changes and he’s not making them. Enlisting guards who can’t fight.”

“Maybe you should be in charge,” I said.

She gave me a look. I think she thought I was making fun of her.



Spring 42: the wheel

Dearest Zann,

The next thing we had to do was see Sergeant Vasro about getting me on the wheel. I didn’t know what that was.

Shapdar led me down some stairs, and then outside. I had to shield my eyes from the sun, but I could see that the clouds were pink: vinegar mists this afternoon. One of my least favourites.

We crossed a grassy area, between gazebos and gardens, and I saw my first laurans all day. They were beautifully dressed, mostly, and were lounging in the sun and the flowers, drinking exotic pops, flirting with butterflies. None of them took any notice of us, but Shapdar was careful not to pass too closely to any of them.

We approached a greenhouse in which I could see orchids and orange trees and other such plants. Shapdar took me through a door in the base of it. “Just warning you,” he said. “Don’t talk to Sarge the way you did Crell.”

Under the greenhouse were two rooms. One, its door open, was full of gardening supplies and strange mechanisms. The other was another common room for the Rosolla Guard. It was bigger than the one under the pink tower and had a pitchpenny table. There were a lot more guards in here, sitting in a circle and doing something complicated with a lot of string, and arguing about it. Shapdar pointed at one of the walls, and, sure enough, there was a big wheel on it, and some kind of rack beside that. I couldn’t make out any details from where I was.

Sergeant Vasro’s office was across the room, the way Candur’s was. When we went in, he was drunk and slumped down in his chair. “Sarge,” Shapdar said, gently, and shook his shoulder.

He didn’t open his eyes. “What,” he slurred.

“Got a new man here. Got to put him on the wheel.”

“Tsiz name?”

“Ybel. He’s from the Boltmarch.” I had never heard of the Boltmarch having any kind of a reputation in Crideon before. Maybe it was just in Shapdar’s mind.

“Tcher name here,” the sergeant said, shoving a small slate of wood at me. I found a pen, wrote YBEL on the slate, and handed it to Shapdar. “Now piss off,” he said to us.

“Thanks, sarge,” Shapdar said, hustling me out of the office. He took me over to the wheel on the wall of the common room. None of the other guards were taking any notice of us. Now that I could see it up close, the wheel had slots all around it for guards to put their slates into, and the rack had slots for all the different duty shifts around the palace. Shapdar said, “See, you put your name here, and then when Sarge or whoever is setting who gets which shifts next swing, he spins the wheel, and if the wheel points to your name, you get those shifts, and he puts your name over here next to it. Then next week we do it all again. More fair this way. Some duties are better than others, and any of us can get any of them from swing to swing.

“Now, this time, it’s already been set, so we can’t spin to see where you go. But the Captain wants you to see a bit of everything, so we’ll put your name here for the rest of this swing.” And put my slate into a slot with two others. “Today, you’re starting on the Tongue with Delega and Chath. Easy duty. I’ll take you over now.”

I looked at the slot as we left. The Tongue was there, for today, and then tomorrow was the Fiery Spikes. Day after was the Demon’s Loincloth, and finally Death’s Embrace.



Spring 41: uniform

Dear Zann,

Candur handed me off to a fellow named Shapdar to show me around the palace and get me set up with everything. At the time I didn’t know where all I was going; he was leading me up this corridor and down that staircase and I got completely lost almost immediately. I have a better sense of the place now. But I’ll get to that.

Anyway, Shapdar and I were going down this one corridor. He was a stocky middle-aged man, large mustache. “Ybel,” he said. “Y-bel. What kind of name is that?”

“I was born in the Boltmarch,” I said.

“Oh? Sounds a little like a woman’s name. Ybel.”

“Sometimes it is.”

“Well, Ybel from the Boltmarch. What brings you to the Rosolla Guard?”

“Lots of things. The captain asked me. I need the money. You need people. Things like that.”

“Ahh,” he said. “Well, we do need people, that’s a fact. Here, stop here a moment.” We were in a dark stony passage, halfway between two lighted doorways. Nobody was around. “We do need people. But we need the right people. We need people who know how things work here at the palace. You need the money? We all do. We all do. And it’s the people who know how things work who can get it. Can you hear me?”

“I hear you very well.”

“Good, that’s good. So, the captain. He’s new to us.”

“I knew him from before,” I said. “At Sugarside.”

“Was that it? Close friends, are you?”

I knew how to answer this one. “Someday I’ll show you the scar on my leg I got because of him. He could get me a hundred jobs and that wouldn’t make up for what I went through.” It wasn’t even that untrue.

“Well, well. If you stick around here, it could be that I’ll introduce you to a couple of fellows who’ll show you some interesting things about being a Rosolla Guard.”

“I’d like that,” I said. “I like to be friendly. Not one of these types who shows up to work and never talks to anybody. After all, we’re a team, right?”

“Good man,” he said. “You’ll want a uniform first. That’s through here.”

He took me through a door and up some stairs and so on and eventually we found ourselves in a little tailor’s room. There were Rosolla uniforms hanging on both sides of the room. A young golden-haired man sitting on a desk rubbed his nose, grinned, and said, “Shap the tap!”

“Day, Crell. This is our new friend, Ybel from the Boltmarch. Needs a uniform.”

“Day,” I said.

“Oh, sure, a uniform. Pleased to meet you, Ybar. Are you going to be paying for the uniform all at once, or have the cost deducted from your pay every swing?”

“Are there different uniforms for formal occasions, or does the same one do for all situations?” I countered.

“There’s a sash for formal occasions,” Crell said. “It’s cheaper to pay up front, of course, only ten silver cups, but not everyone can afford that. If you have two cups deducted every swing, you’ll have it paid off in ten swings.”

I think Shapdar had the idea that I was a young kid who was in the big city for the first time and still ate radishes for luck. I turned to him. “Did you bring me here to get a uniform, or to watch a comedy?”

He grinned, but Crell said, “Hey, Ybar. You need a–“

“It’s Ybel. I need three uniforms to start with. I don’t mind if the first two were stripped off of dead guards, as long as they’ve been properly cleaned and repaired, but the third one has to be brand new. One sash. One set of arms. Two pairs of boots. I’ll change into one uniform now and pick up the rest at the end of the day. And if you think I’m paying for any of it, you’re more foolish than you thought I was.”

He spread his hands. “Ybel, sorry. Ybel, these uniforms aren’t free.”

“I’ve been in the army. Uniforms are provided. And I’m not arguing.”

“This isn’t the army,” he said, but he reached me a uniform off of a rack beside him. It took a couple of minutes to find three that satisfied me. He obviously wasn’t happy. “And you, you shithat,” he said to Shapdar. “Couldn’t say anything to back me up?”

Shapdar laughed. I put my spare uniforms on a guest hook to retrieve on my way home.

“I would have given you a couple of pennies for your trouble,” I told Crell, “if you hadn’t tried to cheat me from moon to moon.”

“You’re never going to last in the Rosollas like that,” he said. “I promise.”

“But,” I continued, “as a guard, I know how hard you work all the time, job like this, and how little appreciation you get for it. So here’s this as a sign of respect.” And I put a silver cup down on his desk.

Crell hadn’t expected that at all. Hostility gone, he frowned at me, trying to figure me out. Shapdar was similarly puzzled.

“What’s the next thing?” I asked Shapdar.



Spring 40: explanation

My dearest Zann,

Caldur had just told us that Rosolla Guards are often murdered. It took a moment to finish hearing that.

“Thank you for fucking revealing that,” said Daust. “Who’s killing us?”

“They can try killing me and see how far it gets them,” said Ambe, her medallions glittering.

I didn’t say anything.

“You have to understand lauran society,” Candur said. “There’s a lot of intrigue going on in this palace. These lauran families, they plot against each other all the time. Politically, socially, financially, romantically…

He took a deep breath. “Twenty days ago a lauran woman named Shalshal was staying at the palace. She decided she wanted to do some bouncing with a lauran fellow named Jacovar. So she gave a message to one of our guards, a girl named Sande, to give to Jacovar. Problem is, Shalshal’s political allies didn’t want Shalshal and Jacovar getting close. Jacovar was part of the wrong faction. And they didn’t want any human knowing that this even could have happened. So… Sande disappeared on her way to Jacovar’s chamber. Just isn’t around anymore.

“Now, a couple of people said to me, this is easy to avoid; you just have to not deliver any messages or anything like that. I disagree; it’s not easy at all. These lords and ladies ask you to do something simple like that, and you’re going to refuse them? It’s unrealistic.

“But let it pass. Let’s assume none of our guards will ever do anything to run afoul of lauran politics. That still wouldn’t have saved Pasus. Pasus was an old man, had decades with the Rosollas, served under three kings. Yesterday morning he was in the Mangosteen Room, guarding Kerra’s Diamond. Break of dawn, some young lauran swashbuckler crashes in through the window. He was trying to win a bet by stealing something important to the Valnelatars. So he puts his sword through Pasus’s heart, goes to pluck the diamond off the plinth, and gets cooked to a turn by the fire spell protecting the diamond.” He put his feet up on his desk. “Apparently that kind of thing happens all the time. It’s why they put me in charge.”

We all thought about this.

“Interesting,” Ambe eventually said.

“I don’t figure anything will happen to either of you,” Candur said to Ambe and Daust. “I’d be surprised if any laurans ever really took any notice of you. You won’t be doing any kind of regular guard duty, after all.” He turned to me. “And when I took this job, my first thought was, who’s the one person I know who’s best at not getting killed?”

“Thanks,” I said. “So… how are we supposed to not get killed by swashbuckling lauran adventurers?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Candur said.



Spring 39: the palace

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.”



Spring 38: the upriver route

Dearest Zann,

I had never been to the palace before. Partly because I had only lived in Crideon for a couple of years. Partly because it isn’t really in the city. At some point during the Great Nap, it had formed on a hill upriver, with its tallest towers on the peak, and other domes and pavilions flowing down the hillside toward the river, and belvederes and parks extending out over the water on colourful piers. It wasn’t quite clear what had become of the people who used to farm that land before the laurans grew their palace on it.

The old government had been in the city. The Talistag dynasty. They ruled out of Crideon Castle, or Cas Crid as the locals all called it, and their appointed mayors had their offices in Blackfloors. Cas Crid was empty now, and its gates completely gone, and the mayor was now selected from the palace.

Most people just called it “the palace”, or “Valnelatar Towers” if they’re trying to be more formal about it, but I’ve found out since that its official name in Orem is “Hand Extended to the Dawn”.

Anyway, I didn’t know what to expect. Candur had wanted me there early, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get there. Turns out that longcoaches to and from the palace ran all night long. I could just walk over to Blackfloors Square and catch one. So that part was easy.

There were a few other people on the coach. Most of them got out at Steckel Creek. It turned out that the ones who stayed aboard, a man and a woman, were not only also going to the palace, but had just been hired by Candur for the Rosollas. “Day,” I said. “I’m Ybel. I was in the army with Candur, and he remembered me.”

“You’re a soldier?” said the woman, more of a girl, really. Bright-eyed and fat, wearing a crisp new lightcoat and small medallions in her hair. “You don’t have that look.”

“I know,” I said. “I wasn’t much of a soldier. Candur must have something in mind.”

The man, sinewy and balding, nodded. “He didn’t explain anything to me either. I’m Daust, or Master Daust, when I need to be. I don’t know what the palace guard needs with a dancing instructor, but I couldn’t turn down the money. Not these days.”

“A dancing instructor, a nondescript soldier, and…” I turned to the girl, inviting her to fill in the rest.

“Oh, I’m a wizard. My name’s Ambe. Day! No idea how Candur would have heard of me, but he did, somehow, and he knew just how to ask me. I don’t need the money, of course, but…” she shrugged. “Oh well; I don’t mind telling you fellows. I need to hide for a while. Some people don’t like some things that I did, and I’m not so great a wizard that I can just ignore them… Nobody would ever look for me in the palace, though. They wouldn’t even if they thought of it.”

“But do you know why the fuck Candur wanted to hire you?” Daust said. “I never heard of a wizard in the fucking palace guard before.”

“Dancing instructor, wizard… this is starting to sound like one of those stories,” I said. “You know. Meirie Catheart and her five carefully selected companions steal the grey dragon’s hoard and bring down the city.”

“I’m not stealing shit,” Daust said. “Master Daust is no thief.”

Ambe was looking at me oddly. I raised my eyebrows at her.

“No, sorry,” she said. “It’s just, you’ve got some strange magic to you.” She licked her thumb, rubbed her spit on her eyelids, and looked at me again. “Aye. That’s healing magic on your leg, but I’ve never seen that sort before. Then something else all over you that I don’t know what it does, no, two somethings all over you, and something very weird hanging around your neck. Are you all right? Do you need a curse shifted?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “None of it’s a curse. Or, I mean, I might want to ask you something later, but it’s not bothering me. I know about it all.”

“If you say it,” she said. “If you don’t ask me about it later, I might ask you first. But for now, what’s Candur like?”

“He’s… he was an officer. He was always friendly with us. Had the sense to ignore foolish orders. We appreciated that. He came out of that war very well. We liked him, so we fought for him, and made him look good. Look better, I guess; he’s a strong warrior himself.”

Ambe reached down and shifted her bags. She had two large carpetbags full of stuff. Daust had a neat leather case on the seat next to him. I had nothing.

“Any dancing teachers in your fucking company?” inquired Daust.

“One fellow had been a puppeteer, I think. But Candur never had him deploy his puppets against the enemy.” They laughed politely.

“I suppose we’ll find out everything we need to know,” Ambe said. “Look, there it is.”

At this hour, there was just enough light for us to see the peak of the tallest tower, the Longest Finger, shining sweetly blue against the last of the night. I wasn’t yet awake enough to interpret it as a rude gesture. Later I would be.



Spring 37: dinner at home

My poor Zann,

I feel like I need to keep telling you my story. I feel better after writing. It’s not something I understand, but many strange things have happened to me, some of which I don’t even remember. And I think there are more to come.

Joining the Rosolla Guard gave me a lot to think about, but I wanted to wait until Wande came home from the perfumery so we could discuss it. She often frowned at that: a man, she thought, should be able to decide things by himself. True enough. But I’m not a very good man.

While I waited I started dinner. There was a pigeon breast in the cold bin. I stoked the fire under the griddle and chopped up the pigeon breast. While it was sizzling on the griddle I gathered some parsnips and herbs and onions and things. At one time I had had much more practice at cooking but had lost my affinity for it over the past few years. And I was never actually good at it. But I usually got to our roost ahead of Wande and Jhusdhe, so it was usually my job.

Perfect timing: it was almost ready when the door opened and Wande and Jhusdhe came in, giggling from the mists outside.

“In here cooking!” I called.

“Day,” Wande said, coming in and kissing me. She smelled of earth and rust, as she always did after work. She spent her whole day working with potent lauran perfumes, and it would never do for her to be out on the streets with those scents clinging to her. For one thing, she didn’t get paid enough to afford it; for another, it would cause seventeen kinds of emotional chaos for anyone she happened upon. So she and her coworkers had to scrub down with loam and scrape it off with an iron edge before leaving the perfumery every day.

“Day,” I answered, kissing her back. “Day, Jhus.”

“Do not speak to me,” Jhusdhe said. Jhus was Wande’s little daughter, about four years old and half-lauran. She had Wande’s tan western complexion, but her features were lauran: delicate, high-cheekboned, long-nosed, point-chinned. One eye was brown and warm; the other cold silver. And she had that rainbow streak in her hair that lauran kids all had.

“Jhus, I’ve told you before–“

“Mama, I love you well, and I hope I shall never forget the honour I owe to you. But I cannot be expected to hold conversation with this dockside lout, just because you’ve granted him your favours for some sauceless reason. I–“

“Apologize to Ybel, please.”

“Never,” Jhusdhe said, and strode off into her small sleeping room.

Wande sighed. “I’m sorry. Again.” She passed a loaf of bread to me, and I cut slices from it to go with our dinner.

“I know what she’s like. Lauran or not, she’s little, and eventually she’ll accept me on some level. I talk to laurans every day who are perfectly friendly to me.”

“I know. How did your day go?”

“Well. Twenty-two pennies.”

“That is good,” she said. “A few more like that and we can pay off the cistern.”

“And I have some news. I told you about Candur?”

“Candur. He was your officer in that army.”

“Right. He’s commanding the guards at the palace now. And he came here to hire me this afternoon.”

“For the palace guard? Oh, Ybel! That’s wonderful! How–” She stopped, and locked gaze with me. “Wait. What did you tell him?”

“I said yes.”

She hugged me. “That’s wonderful news. How do you feel about it?”

I filled our small platters with food. “It’s complicated. And not just in the obvious ways,” I said, making a swirly kind of gesture that brought in Jhus’s lauran heritage and Wande’s relationship with it. She nodded, taking a jar down from a shelf, and sprinkled some dried bumblebees on Jhus’s platter. “Another part of it is, I’m sort of becoming a soldier again.”

“It’s not exactly the same.”

“No, it’s not, but I’ll be carrying a weapon and it’s not impossible I might have to use it. And I never wanted to do that again.”

“I know.”

“I went through the whole Sugarside war without bloodying my spearblade and I’m curst if I’m going to start stabbing people now. I don’t know if Candur knows that about me. I was always good at getting into clinches and defensive stances and pretending I was fighting a lot harder than I was.”

She nodded, and called Jhusdhe in to eat. “Do you think it’ll be a problem? It sounds… I don’t know… Palace guard, how often do they really have to fight?”

I shrugged. Jhus came out of her room, sat carefully on her bench, and started eating bread. “I just don’t know. What I do know is, first, they put Candur in charge, and he’s a fighting soldier. Second, they’re running out of guards and need to bring more in. And Candur didn’t want to talk about either of those things with me before I said yes.”

We ate in silence as Wande thought about that.

“And you said yes?” she said. “I mean… I would have expected you to want some time to think about it.”

I nodded. “I know; it’s strange. I can defend my reasoning. The money is very good. Three silver cups a day.” She gasped. “And it’s more likely to be interesting than dockwork. Candur did say he wanted me because I was calm and did well as clerk for our unit during the siege. So that’s all fine. I don’t care for wearing a sword and I certainly don’t care about safeguarding the lives of the Valnelatar dynasty.”


“But. If I’m a palace guard, I might be in a position to do something important, someday. Consequential. I don’t mean that I’d become famous. Just that, I might have an opportunity to do something that I wouldn’t trust anybody else to do. And if there’s a chance of that then I have to take it. It’s a responsibility that’s come down to me.”

“You felt that? That… I was going to say it doesn’t sound like you.” We laughed. “But, I mean, you don’t usually speak in those terms.”

“Well, I never had that feeling before,” I said. “But, now that I’ve told you all of it, what do you think?”

Wande chewed on a crust of her bread and considered. “I agree that you had to say yes. It’s just too… big to say no to. And the money. It would have been foolish to turn it down. As for the rest of it, you know so little about the job and the people and the palace and everything, there’s no point in trying to figure it out yet. Go on in and learn. Don’t overworry.”

She was right. “You’re right. Again.” She winked at me.

That evening, before going to sleep, I found a stout lace and strung the old coin on it. I tied it around my neck, making sure that the lace was short enough that it couldn’t be drawn over my head. I had been worrying about losing the coin, and felt a little better once it was secure.



Spring 36: the second thing

My dearest Zann,

I’ll keep going with the story I was telling you.

When I came back to Wande’s roost, there was a man waiting for me on the steps. I didn’t recognize him right away because of his clothes. A sky-blue pajazuse with red cape and belt. That’s the uniform of the Rosolla Guard, you can see it a mile away. I didn’t think I knew any Rosollas, and I had my hook in my hand in case there was trouble. But when I got closer I could see, mostly by his nose, that it was Candur.

You don’t know Candur. After the Great Nap, I found myself in the Wallantorp army. The Wallantorp laurans were in the middle of some kind of squabble with the Sugarside laurans, so we were besieging the Sugarside castle. Candur was the Ancient of our company. I don’t know a lot about the military life, but I thought he was a good officer. The other soldiers said so too, mostly.

Well, one day, the Sugarsiders made a sortie and broke our lines. We had to retreat. It was a mess. I saved Candur’s life, but I got a blade through the leg doing it. Getting it healed was, well, that’s a story I’ll have to tell another time. But it’s fine now.

Candur stood and stretched when he saw me. “Day, Ybel,” he said.

“Day. It’s good to see you.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. Wasn’t sure you’d feel that way. Maybe you want to put the soldiering life behind you.”

“Well, I do,” I said. “It didn’t suit me at all. But I have no grudge against you.”

“I’m glad. Get some water?”

I nodded. “There’s a fountainroom on the corner here.” I thought of checking in with Wande first, but the afternoon mists were still very light in the low places and alleys; she wouldn’t be home yet.

We walked down the block together. The building on the corner had a laundry on its west face and a cobbler on its north face, and a small fountainroom in between, right at the corner. Four floors of roosts above. There were only about four or five other people sipping their water inside; there was a larger and sunnier fountainroom not far away. But the two women who tended this one stocked a selection of flavours I liked.

We selected a couple of lacquered wooden cups and filled them from geysers in the wall. Candur took hot water; I took cold. Of the dozen or so shrines arranged in a circle around the central benches, the one for Dumasha of the Great Arch was glowing the least brightly. I touched my hand to my heart and poured a drop of my water into the shrine’s stone bowl; it disappeared immediately, and the glow brightened a little. Candur did the same at the shrine of Yskere, the soldiers’ patron.

I added a pellet of double-pear flavour to my cup and sat down on a short bench. Candur got orchid apple and used the star-wand on the wall to make it a pop.

“Water,” he said as he sat down, holding up his cup.

I held mine up and said, “Thanks are,” and we sipped.

“I didn’t come find you just to drink pop and tell stories,” Candur said.

“I didn’t think so.”

“You’re a stevedore these days, aren’t you?”

“I am. Leg’s finally healed. It pays well enough, for now.”

“I can offer you something that pays better,” he said, turning to face me.

I looked at his Rosolla uniform, up and down. “I did say I wanted to put soldiering behind me.”

“You did. But it’s not like soldiering. It’s… it’s a different thing.”

“We’re talking about me joining the Rosolla Guard, right? At the palace? How is that different?”

“We are. Our numbers are down, and I wouldn’t give you a cube of frozen piss for what’s left.” He spoke slowly, staring over my left shoulder. Any of his men would have recognized this. Candur never did that when giving orders; only when he was trying to explain something that he wanted to get correct. “It’s different because you’re not in the field. The food is better. Fighting is rare. But having your wits about you is even more important.”

I thought about that.

He continued. “If all I wanted was a soldier, a fighter, someone to hold a spear, I’d get Troca or Mazzon or someone like that. I need someone who can stay calm and think and handle details. That was always you.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I do. It’s perfect for you. And it’s three silver cups a day.”

That was a lot of money. More than I could ever make on the docks.

“Come on, Ybel. I need someone to help me wrangle the other mudwitted smackasses in the Guard. Come help me.”

I had several questions begging to be asked. Why are your numbers down, Candur, was one of them. What aren’t you telling me, and what are the reasons why I wouldn’t want to do this. And my first thought was, I don’t want to take this job and have to deal with all the trouble Candur was dealing with in the palace.

And I knew there was trouble. Candur is young and fit, well-respected as a warrior and a leader. Nobody would put him in charge of a ceremonial guard unless it wasn’t just ceremonial. He was there for a reason. And I didn’t want any part of it, no matter how much it paid. Wande wouldn’t like it, but I could get her to understand.

But then… I don’t know how to explain it to you. A thought came into my head that, no, I can’t do nothing, I have to do something. There’s a responsibility being put in front of me, and I have to fulfill it. This job is an opportunity to do something that matters.
Candur was looking at me curiously, probably because I had been staring into space for a minute. I held up my hand to let him know I was just thinking.

Obviously I didn’t have to take the job. Obviously if I wanted to take on a big responsibility I could pick something else. If I could find something else. I probably could eventually. Obviously I could say no to Candur. But, somehow I knew that I should say yes, that this was the right choice.

I didn’t like it. I felt like I was going against my better judgment. But I didn’t really doubt that it was the good move.

“Yes,” I said. “Now…”

“Good for you!” He pounded me on the shoulder. “There’s a gate to the left of the pink tower of the palace. Be there tomorrow morning at second bell. Wonderful seeing you again. I have to go and recruit someone else. Our numbers are down.” He drained his pop and tossed his cup into the washbin by the door, where it clattered around happily.

“Before you go. I want to ask you about–“

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow!” And he was gone.

I finished my water and went to leave. I remember I picked a penny out of my pocket for the moneybox on the back of the door, saw it was the old coin I had found at the docks, and paid with a Crideon penny instead.