“So… Min—akis… why exactly am I, --ahem-- as an elderly Aitzas, travelling from our far-flung estate with my –ahem -- beloved niece, to the city itself?”
I urged my mule up alongside Ailadas’s horse. We had seen very little traffic on this road and it had only been the other way closer to the town. There was no one all the way down the rolling hill we rode up so we could ride in a cluster. “Ah, sor,” I said. “To yer appointment at the City University, savin' her grace and by'r grace bein so kind as to bring yer niece to friends o' the fambly fer her great chance... her comin' out in the City itself! Yeh never know she might catch a high 'n mighty husband fer hersel'!”
Ailadas’s mouth twitched, Gannara, riding just behind snorted. Kaita laughed right out loud and Kyriala too. It was so good we could ride amidst general laughter. “And once we’re in the city, you can become yourselves again. Gannara and I will travel on. I won’t say where because I would imagine you might be questioned by the Marble Palace once they find out you are home. You’ll be able to tell them the absolute truth.”
“But…” Kyriala subsided, then took a deep breath and continued. “Won’t that be dangerous for you?”
“No I think it will be fine as long as he and I don’t say where we’re going.”
“Ahem. Devious, my young librarian. I… ah… ahem—It is likely the simplest plan.”
“An’ you need someone to wipe your buaaa—“ Gannara changed his word mid-breath, glancing at Ilesias and the women “—nose for you.” More laughter. “An’ nobody would recognize me except in the Marble Palace… And we aren’t going there are we?” He looked alarmed.
“Ah, ahem, young man, it might be incorrect in that – ahem.” Ailadas said. “It does strongly, strongly resemble the – ahem—“
“Chevenga,” I cut in. “Tonight at the campfire we need to dye your hair. I bought blond bleach and then red dye.”
“Ahem. Quite. I had not thought of that.”
“Dye my hair.”
“Yeha. If I can cut mine, you can dye yours. And get used to using the coloured skin cream to cover that scar. A dirty face only covers up so much.” His hand went up to the scar but dropped without touching the smear of mud. He was a little enough boy that a dirty face wasn’t unusal.
“I hope my father doesn’t disown me,” Kyriala said worriedly.
“He’d better not!” I snapped. Then mumbled “You don’t deserve that… and… and… you’ve got your honour intact and all after the city was sacked….” I wasn’t going to say that she’d probably done better with her virtue than any girl in the city then. “There is one place you could go and hide your face behind a mask—“
“NO!” It wasn’t just Kyriala, it was Kaita and Ailadas too.
“Of course.” I backed off, blushing a little. “I don’t like the idea, either.”
“If my mother talks to him before he blurts it out, he wouldn’t…”
“Ahem, surely my dear, if you emphasized that what occurred was by no means your own fault... ahem-- “You were seized up in circumstances not of your making. Personally I would be interested to see what became of my old house, whether my sister is still keeping it for me? Probably taken by Yeolis. Hrmph.”
“If your father disowned you, you could go to the Marble Palace. They would protect you. The Yeolis would probably laud you for getting away from the Mahid and from me both.”
“No.” She shuddered. “Protect me? They’re… They’d… They’re barbarians.”
“The Imperator, legitimate by virtue of the Ten, is a lot like Gannara and you know him.”
Gannara spoke up. “This un’s not a barbarian. Neither’s Ch’venga.”
“I would rather take my chances with my father,” she said decisively. If he’s still alive, I thought, but didn’t say.
“I do believe,” Ailadas said. “We’ve heard a genuinely accurate pronunciation of the Yeoli Imperator’s name. Interesting.”
Gannara leaned over and hissed to me from the back of his mule. “And where are you and I going after?”
I hissed back. “Can’t say. Truth drug.”
“Oh. But you have a plan.”
I nodded. “I have a plan.”
He nodded. “I’m not in the Marble Palace or near any Mahid so I’m happier.”
Kyriala looked down, “I’m scared because I don’t know what will happen at home. What will I do?” I took out my brand-new… used really but brand-new to me… water bag and squirted a mouthful.
Ailadas reached across and patted vaguely at her shoulder as if she were, indeed, his favourite niece. “We’re all scared, my dear. Ahem. But what we need to do is think of this…” he tilted his chin to take in the mountain vista rising before us. “… as an adventure!”
I nearly snorted my drink through my nose, started coughing, and then actually howled with laughter when Gannara, without a beat innocently said, “An adventure. Someone else cold, wet hungry and in deep kyash a long way away?”
The Tunnel was further south than either Two Kills Pass or Black Eagle, an even worse way through the mountains than Two Kills. But the Tunnel would be the easiest and fastest way through.
“It’s actually two days travel though the mountain,” I told Gannara when he asked about why we were still heading south and west rather than going up above the line of trees. He looked so different with red hair that I kept staring at him. With the scar covered up by one of my fessas boy cosmetics he was as different from Chevenga as day from night. The gold teeth were kind of obvious but the little villages out here didn’t have a lot of tooth leeches and someone having gold teeth replaced with porcelain would be the talk of the whole district. So if anyone else was around Gannara tended to act shy and keep his mouth shut.
“Ah you did read those passages in the books we had to leave behind – ahem –“ Ailadas came over… almost a limp. Kaita came and asked for me to look after Ilesias while she and Ky went to do some women’s things that they needed some privacy for. I think Kyriala was getting saddle-sores because she was riding herself rather than sitting behind a men’s saddle.
“They say the Tunnel was something left over when the Fire came… it used to be much much wider and lit by magic. One could be whisked through on flying carts so fast that it would be traversed in beads.”
“Ha. Nice fairy stories. How do they light it now?”
“They don’t. Every worker in the Tunnel Guild, all the guides and porters and the staff at the way stop in the middle, are all blind. If anyone lit a torch inside the smoke could kill everyone around it, make all the air bad and stay locked under the earth in one spot making it deadly, for days.”
“So they’re all blind?”
“And they charge a handsome price to lead travelers through.”
Ailadas snorted. “Nice enough that Ninth Tatthanas Aan forbade impoverished fessas families from blinding some of their children so they would be adopted into the Tunnel Guild and have a life-time’s work.”
I was more concerned with Ilesias being afraid of the dark when we reached the entry point. He made me promise that when we went through he could ride pick-a-back on me, with Indispensible Bear.