Sifadis Lafdi, Shore House
Sifadis attended the Witan whenever she could. She was entitled. Besides, she had a shipping business to run, she needed to know what was happening both regards the citadel and the greater world. But this morning’s sitting had promised to be astoundingly dull, with nothing to discuss – until the commotion caused by Runman Kalamite. His talk of this predicted eclipse had snagged her attention, she almost had gasped. With her shipping and fisheries, she knew what the moons could do to the tides.
Besides, she had recently discovered a prophecy hidden amongst the Shore House records, in the collection of papers titled ‘The Matter of the Tree Legend’ – that’s also where she’d found the tale of Keril-og.
When the tree dies
the sea will rise
and swallow the citadel whole.
She had scoffed on reading it. How unlikely! But now with Kalamite’s predicted triple eclipse . . . what disaster might follow on that? Ay, the conjunction of only two moons was enough that the tides rose frighteningly high. That to her was more important than any conjectured Lubanthan invasion. Yet . . . she could feel a smile creeping upon her; she must control it . . . but a journey upriver, to act the spy, would find favour with her. To Luban, an exotic world, a world apart – where she’d never ventured for her ships couldn’t reach.
But it was more than the lure of inaccessible lands ‘Ulter-Falls’. While away Breken Lafard wouldn’t be able to thrust his marriage candidates upon her. She had so far received three, and still was reeling from the revulsion. Death pleased her better, were it not for Shore House. And what if the remaining two were yet worse? A sharp shudder jolted her body.
“Why do you recommend Sifadis Lafdi Hade?” Breken Lafard asked Kalamite and regained Sifadis’ attention. “A woman? It could be dangerous for her.”
Sifadis looked up; she resented that comment. Did she not sail her ships? Small though she was, she no weak woman.
“With respect, Hadd Leef,” Kalamite said. “I would not expect her to go alone. Could you not spare two holden to accompany her? Those two at the door? They seem sharp as my sprats.”
Would Breken Lafard agree to her going? But he must. Sifadis looked at him, willing him to answer ‘aiy’. He glanced at Gowen. Gowen give an answering nod.
“That would be a solution,” Breken Lafard agreed and looked at his brother, his left eyebrow cocked.
“They’re not mine to command,” Trefan Lafard said. “They are Dryastil’s – if ever he recovers his guts. But, aye, I have men available to cover their absence – if it’s agreed that Disa should go. But I want it recorded that I’m far from convinced of the need. And our runman has yet to say why he thinks Disa in particular would make a good prospect.”
And would Kalamite provide a persuasive answer to this? Sifadis fixed her gaze upon him, again willing it.
“Hadden Leef – and Bel Hadin,” the runman said, “I ask, who is overlooked in a chamber of people? Who do we not see amongst us?”
Sifadis knew what the answer. She squirmed, wanting to shout it aloud. Och! Their wrinkling brows. These lafarden, their eyes were fixed on warriors, they never saw scholars. She turned on her low spindle-backed chair to see behind her. In the corner, a Mathon-lamp fixed above him, sat a solitary man clad in brown. The scratch of his pen was ignored, his presence forgotten.
Since still no one spoke, Sifadis answered. “The runman refers to the scribe.”
The scribe’s scratching instantly stopped.
“Aiy, the man of letters and learning. The scholar,” Kalamite said.
“It is true, Hadd Leef,” Gowen Sivator said. “We none heed the scholar, thus he makes the best spy.”
“He, aye,” Breken Lafard agreed. “But she?”
Her sniff was purposely loud. And she pursed her lips. But the red-stained runman was again at her rescue.
“With respect, Hadd Leef. In Luban a woman might be many things that here, in Rothi, is ill- considered for her.”
“That is so,” Gowen Sivator said. “Though I do wonder how the runman knows this of Luban.”
It seemed every eye then stared at Kalamite, a silent bank of accusations. She thought that unfair. They might not like him – and who did – but he did no harm. Keefer of the Runman Order, he had much power and yet lived a humble life beside them. The way he withstood their hostile attention without either puffing his chest else crumbling, she could almost feel proud for him.
“Again with respects, Gowen Hadd Leef,” he said, his head for a moment bowed, “but would you not say we acquire information by the same means? From the fair-folk who constantly circle around.”
“How so?” Affalind Lafdi asked of no one and everyone, such was her way. “Do the fair-folk go into Luban as well?”
“Apparently, my dear,” Breken Lafard answered in a quite aside.
“And this is how you know of Raselstad?” asked Gowen Sivator.
“Hadd Leef, are my runmen like the citadel houses, to be fixed to one place? Nix, my runmen are everywhere.”
As if disengaging, Sifadis sat back and considered what was happening here. Why did her guardian so pick on the runman? It was not like him to pick on anyone.
“I feel somewhat troubled at sending a woman,” Breken Lafard said. “Especially Sifadis, a woman of high birth. If chosen as spy, then she must go in the guise of a man.”
“But—” Kalamite started.
“As a man or not at all,” Breken Lafard said and none could gainsay him.
Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay! What absolute fuss when they’d already agreed to send two holden with her. What, did they fear she might contract a marriage while there? She stifled the laugh that was about to burst. Imagine the whobub if she returned with a Lubanthan wed-man.
“I am inclined to agree with you, Hadd Leef,” Gowen Sivator said.
Her head swung round. ‘Inclined’ to agree, as if he’d a choice? But none had the right to counter-say their lafard-legere. And anyway, why all this talk. Why not say ‘aye’ and let her be gone.
“Well I am inclined to say you have all been touched by Medusa’s hand,” Affalind Lafdi said.
“My dear, would you care to explain?” asked her wed-man.
Sifadis scowled. She’d no need to listen to the lafdi-legara; Affalind Lafdi could never say a word that wasn’t against her. Ay, to go the Luban, to be away from them all, especially her. She prayed, Ffadise, ancestress, whisper, cajole and help them agree it.
Affalind Lafdi cocked her nose. “One. Sifadis has no experience of spying. Two. She is bound to get lost or . . . or something. Three. She would make for a juicy ransom should your exiled son snatch her. Four. Should it not be Otian who goes? He knows the land. And, five. I am not sure this runman has yet convinced us of the need.”
“With respects, Bel Hade,” Kalamite answered quickly, “but what experience does Sifadis Lafdi Bel Hade need when all we ask of her is to watch and to listen? Aiy and verily, is that not something at which all women excel? As for protection, she will have the holden. And she needs only to follow the river, it’s quite impossible for her to get lost. And though I do agree that Otian Hadd would serve us better he, alas, has recently taken ship to the north. And as for the need – would you have your wed-man murdered?”
“We have Dryastil’s holden,” Affalind Lafdi said with a shrug. “And Trefan’s folkhere.”
“Aiy, as had the citadel on the previous occasion. Yet strangers crept in and done the deed. Must I repeat? Already a Raseltop spy is amongst us and the holden do nothing, while the folkhere’s keefer . . . flirts.”
“I have warned you once, runman,” Trefan Lafard responded sharply. “You mind your tongue.”
“But, Trefan, the runman has a point,” Mikel Lafard said.
“And I need not explain my actions to you, though I will,” Trefan Lafard said. “I am not flirting, as accused by that tattagoose-runt. But, in knowing she is not as she claims to be, I am keeping my eye on her.”
“Trefan, mine is the stew-house. Need I say more?”
Ouch! Sifadis wanted to laugh, though she felt for the lafard-ledhere. And the barb was no less vicious for the smile Mikel Lafard accorded him.
“Well, I say the woman should be arrested,” Affalind Lafdi said. “Put her in the warison. Why is she allowed to wander freely?”
Such would be a prompt solution, Sifadis agreed. But she wanted that mission and so she kept quiet. To dwell for the summer in another land, strange and exotic, that notion enticed her as much as that of escaping a marriage.
Luban, whence came the silks that Otian spread so temptingly before her, their colours shouting of all things that Rothi was not. And their cottons, fine and soft for under-shifts. Their woollen-weaves, warm for winter wear — of sheep’s wool, not that harsh Rothi jasckte. Luban was rich in everything. The Rothi gems came from there, and the gold, so she’d heard. She imagined it blazing with colour beneath Heli’s oven-bright light, sweet with the fruits they exported to Rothi.
Yet the Rothi used Luban to mean ‘the austere avoidance of the Varlet Verth’. It was almost synonymous with ‘to be blinded by zeal’. For the while-a-day lorels with their Guided Ghat-Guilds and plays and psalms yet succumbed to the Curse with their very industry.
“My dear, there are two quite obvious reasons for leaving the Luban spy at liberty.” Only Breken Lafard, as lafard-legere, could so publically belittle Affalind Lafdi without her erupting like the Voice of Farhana. “Firstly, in nosing around, she will see just how strong our defences are and, reporting back, perhaps the Raseltops then will fold and abandon their plans. Secondly, if the woman fails to report back, as they doubtless expect her, then these Raseltops will simply launch an attack. Then both Trefan’s and Dryastil’s armsmen will be kept somewhat busy.” He looked then to Sifadis. “We shall need to know the size of their force.”
~ ~ ~
An ancestor, long ago, had overlain the wood-lined walls of this low-ceilinged chamber, supposedly a solar, with alabaster screens. But still it suffered for want of luminance. She had hung coloured glass globes from the red-wood beams. Their yellow, green and red reflections danced over the room as Ember, the dulsind, closed rather sharply the door behind her. It was Wood Tower that stole the sun’s light. The rooms on the lower floor were yet worse, cast into full darkness. Sifadis glared at the Tower, her formal headdress carelessly let drop to the deep windowsill.
“I do not trust that Kalamite,” Gowen Sivator said with force now they were alone.
“You think his story of the gods’ alignments is rot and lanterloo?”
“No. He’s a runman; he would not lie of that. It was his suggestion that you, and specifically you, should go to Luban.”
“You disagree what he says of scholars?” she asked in friendly challenge. Then, since she was the bel hade of this house and could do as she wished, she perched indecorously upon the windowsill, beside her discarded headdress. Gowen sat on a low divan, carved of the same red wood as the ceiling-beams.
“Scholar you might be,” he allowed, “but first you are a lafdi and an heiress.”
“Yet you said nought against it.”
“Because, Disa, in this the Runman is right. Except for Otian, you are the best spy for us. Who but a scholar can ask so many questions and not be at once suspected? But I would not have you go unless as a man. At least Breken Lafard has that right.”
“So am I to wear brecks?”
How inelegant for a lafdi. She stood, her back turned to her guardian, apparently intent on the view from the window. But it was to hide her thoughts from him. Though it was not all-of-a-rush, yet this proposed adventure was gently colliding with a certain interest – nay, ought it rather be called ‘an obsession’ – of her own.
“And your hair cut, too,” Gowen Sivator said.
Sifadis swung round. “And why that? Our men wear their hair long, in tails.”
“They also wear their sideburns long and plaited; can you manage that?” He raised a brow and smiled to soften it. “No, you must be a young lad, not yet shaving. And therefore your hair cannot be this long. Besides, from what Kalamite says, you might encounter the deserter there. He may not know you well by sight but your hair is distinctive; he would recognise it. So you will cut it to shoulder-length and plait it. And you also will need to bind your chest – you are too obviously female.”
“Bind if I must, but I’ll not cut my hair.” It had not been cut since her mother’s death and now it billowed like the sea in full flood.
“We could find another to go.”
He teased her, she knew it, but, “Nay-no! I’ll cut it.” The adventure was worth it.
“You need a story, too; some reason to be asking your questions.”
“Oh, and that is easy. I am travelling around the citadels—”
“Townsteads. Come, Scholar, how much do you know of Luban?”
“Caught! As you know, I know more of the Old World. But at least I know why we call the Lubanthan Javans – because of the incense benzion from Java, given in the Holy Book as luban jaw. Gowen, I have ships, they sail to the north, sometimes they sail south, and I dream one day we might sail them east—and don’t look at me like that, I mean no heresy, I’m a scholar. But north, south, and east, yet my ships cannot sail west, Ulter-Falls. So why waste my time in learning the day-lore of Luban?”
“Then, Scholar, you have much to learn before venturing forth. But, what’s this story you will give?”
“That I am travelling around the townsteads at the direction of my wishardt-master, seeking some record of Keril-og. You remember I started to tell you of him, and you must have heard my mother speak of Ffadise?” She repeated the story.
“There lived a long time ago, three children of Lillis Lafard-Legere, by names of Keril-og, Ffadise and Rorah. The brothers Keril-og and Rorah were both in love with Geta Lafdi, heiress of House Eland – and she averred her love first to the one and then to the other and would give not an answer to either. They disputed between them. Physically matched, their father was afraid they would slay one another, and so he stepped between them. He suggested, instead of fighting for who was to marry Geta Lafdi, they might decide it in a civilised way. And so they played chess to decide it.
“The younger brother Rorah won. He married Geta Lafdi and, with her being the heiress, he took the name of her House. The older brother, Keril-og, in his misery departed Citadel Lecheni in search of adventure, and thus he never sat upon the legere-chair.”
“And you believe this Keril-og went off to Luban?” Gowan Sivator asked, a bite to his voice. “And what if you happen upon evidence of it? Though remember he is not your reason for travelling there, so do not be distracted.”
Sifadis lifted her shoulder in a little shrug. “Yet Keril-og was our heir, not Rorah. And in leaving, he brought this curse on our House. You know Ffadise’s fate – to keep the House, she had to remain here. But never has her line produced an heir. Only girls have been born here.”
“You read too much into it, Disa.”
“Aye, use it as your story. But I want your thoughts kept on this mission. Find out who is the elect-legere — his lineage, his power, and why is he buying explosives from Mathon Lafard. Discover, if your can, the strength of their armsmen. Could they engage with, and defeat, Trefan Lafard’s folkhere? And could they hold siege to a citadel – by which I mean have they the war-engines to do so?”
“I imagine they have. Have they not engines of every sort? Even I know they have townsteads devoted to their manufacture. Bound to the Varlet Verth’s Cult, the Lubanthan – and that is why we Rothi despise them and their ways.”
~ ~ ~