The sun was setting when we crossed the bridge to Dalyn and drove through the sprawling city to the king’s palace. Namal and I were silent, listening to the wheels on cobblestones and trying to internalize everything Jemin had told us on the journey. Jemin prodded the doctor, who opened his eyes, and pulled the cotton out of his ears. Rawyn Drayk looked bleary eyed, like he had really fallen asleep in his self-imposed isolation. He nodded to us. We nodded back. In a short while the carriage halted, we heard voices and Jemin leaned forward to open the curtains. A helmeted guard appeared at the door. “Jemin, doctor, we have been expecting you for hours, is all well at the villas?”
“Better now that I’ve been there,” said the doctor brightly, “It is good the Clanor family wished me out today, for the king also found work for me through his generosity.” Here the doctor gestured to Namal and I.
The guard peered in at us, “Ah, yes, the captain told us to expect the king’s visitors.” Stepping back, he called to someone else and I heard the clang of a gate’s locking mechanism. “Come ahead,” called the guard, walking back toward his post.
The carriage rolled forward again. Jemin left the curtain ajar. “It will be all over the palace by the end of the evening,” he said, “No point in making it spread faster by keeping the curtains drawn.”
Through the crack I glimpsed ornate sills and glass panes on the many windows, and gargoyles hunched on corners, watching everything. The carriage halted and a footman leapt down to open the door. Jemin climbed out and waited as the doctor and then Namal alighted. Namal turned and offered his hand to me as I exited the carriage. It took conscious effort not to step out with my head high and my back straight with the easy assurance of my rank. I tried to shrink in awe in my green traveling dress—which was difficult as the dress made me feel beautiful. I looked around, widening my eyes as I admired the impressive stonework. The palace was magnificent. It appeared to be carved out of one solid piece of gray stone—though I didn’t understand how that was possible since we weren’t even in the foothills of the Magron Mountains. Scrolling patterns were painstakingly carved around the doors and windows, and I realized with a start that they were portraying the currents of the Bandui River. The patterns were beautiful, and flowed from opening to opening, giving the palace a molded, wind-driven look. A white canopy covered the arching entrance and two servants were waiting. Jemin led the way to the archway. Straight ahead was a courtyard, but there were doors on either side under the archway that must lead into different wings.
Here, the doctor excused himself. “It was a pleasure,” he said, bowing slightly to me and then took the door on the right.
Jemin stopped by the servants, “Here are the king’s guests.” His tone was military: direct and disinterested.
The servants, a man and a woman dressed in the same gray as the palace, bowed. “Follow us.”
We fell into step behind them, leaving Jemin behind at the door as they took us through the left-hand door and into the palace. I didn’t look back for the bearded guard, as much as I dearly wanted to, and I felt very alone even with Namal walking beside me. The hallways were wide, and smooth archways adorned every junction. The windows on this side faced east, and the fading daylight was surrendering to the golden light of lamps. We passed mostly servants, going to and fro, but there were a couple people dressed in fine clothes who looked at us with pointed interest as we passed.
“This is the guest wing,” announced the man, when we had turned down another corridor. We said nothing, and neither servant looked back at us as they led the way down what felt like miles of gray stone, dotted with occasional tapestries depicting scenes of trade and ships. Finally, the servants stopped.
The woman pushed open a sturdy wooden door, “This way, miss.” She stood back, waiting for me to enter. I looked at Namal, and then went inside.
Thick carpet silenced my steps. It was a sitting room with red woven carpets, carved wood furniture scattered with colorful cushions, and a fireplace. After the endless, smooth gray of the palace this room exploded with warmth and color. Gold laced up the lampstands and around the legs of chairs and tables, a gem encrusted statuette of dancers stood on a side table nearby. The finery reminded me of the home I had lost.
Another gray clothed servant girl was tending the cheerful fire. I noticed two doors off to one side—bedroom and washroom perhaps? And a third door on the other side. I walked into the chamber slowly, aware of the other servant closing the door behind me. “This is Amantha,” said the woman who brought me here, motioning to the girl by the fire, “She will be your servant while you are the King’s guest.”
The girl turned to us and curtsied. “Miss.”
I nodded at her. “Hello.”
“The king requests your presence at dinner,” the woman looked at Amantha and I severely, “We haven’t got much time to get you cleaned up.” She walked to the pair of doors and pushed one open, revealing the washroom. It was gray stone, like the rest of the palace, but reed mats covered the floor and the tub was carved out of olive wood. There was a fireplace in here, also, and a long counter down one wall. I noticed incense on the counter, and the toilet just beyond.
“I have just had a bath,” I managed. If she was in a hurry she was not likely to stand for my insistence on bathing alone, or how long it would take me to dry.
She took my elbow and turned me around, appraising me. If I had not spent a year in the circus before coming here, I would have had a very hard time restraining my indignance. “Very well, it appears Sinensis isn’t entirely devoid of civilized manners.” Releasing my arm, she pointed to the pitcher and bowl on the countertop. “Freshen yourself, and then go to dressing room. Amantha will help you dress.”
She turned on her heel and left me alone in the washroom. I took a deep breath, quickly washed my face, and returned to the sitting room. The dressing room was next to the washroom, the door was standing open and Amantha was inside laying out a gown. She looked up when I entered. She was younger than me, I guessed. Her hair was blonde and pulled back into a tight bun. The gray clothes made her eyes look gray. There seemed to be no trace of the openness of Caraca in this palace.
“My name is Analie Meredithe,” I said, hoping to thaw the reserve in Amantha’s face.
Amantha stepped forward and began unlacing the traveling dress. “Miss Meredithe.”
“This place is beautiful.”
“That it is, miss,” replied Amantha. She was kinder than my guide had been, but her mask would not budge.
I fell quiet as she helped me into a burgundy evening dress with a high lace collar that then swooped down my back in a graceful cowl. I swiveled in the full-length mirror, admiring. Amantha had brought out high heeled shoes of the same color and I sat down on the dressing room stool to put them on, trying to remember the last time I’d worn high heeled shoes and wondering if I would be able to walk in them.
Amantha watched me for a moment, then said, “You’ll be joining the king in his hall for dinner. It is not a full court dinner, those are once a week, and not for three more days.”
I looked up at her, openly surprised that she was talking to me.
“The general, the ambassador from Hirhel, and the king’s chief advisor are often at the king’s table, along with whatever noble or dignitary who is being courted for one reason or another,” she continued, her eyes very serious, “You are to be seated across from the king with your brother, because he is very interested in your story. Your rescue is a diversion to him, an escape from the pressures of court. But you are not to speak unless spoken to, not to him or any of the others present.”
I nodded and wondered if our servants gave this same talk to middle class visitors to my father’s court. I hadn’t really expected to meet Tarr Kegan in public, actually. Much less at the same dinner where I met the ambassador from Hirhel. I couldn’t even imagine the terrible things that would happen if it was the same man who’d been the ambassador to Galhara before the war.