“Ah Aedlin!” Kurga said. “They’ve stopped the waterfalls. And I do believe the lake is smaller too. Come to think of it, the whole place looks kind of run down.”
“As long as they still can supply us with water, it could be a shed and a hand pump for all I care. You will aid Captain Rayjay with the negotiations for our provisions?” Amisbhake asked.
“Delighted. The Emperor will probably gift us what we need, so excited will he be to see another holy person.”
Ch’loi, sitting among the baggage, slashed the air in front of her, yet it was Amisbhake who spoke. “No,” he said, “you will present us as traders. Nothing else.”
“But I thought..” Kurga looked at the girl, “don’t you want to meet with the Emperor?”
“Why,” her voice was as light and tremulous as dust lit by stained glass, “would I want to do this?”
“Why? Why? Why because I thought the idea was to proselytize. To spread Yah’s message of peace, love and whatever comes after that. Ch’Voga seemed rather keen on it.”
“I am not the Fire-maker. Aedlin is not my calling.”
“Not your.. well, what is your calling?” But she would not speak anymore and Kurga knew from the look in Amisbhake’s eye that he was not welcome to push. “Ah, well, all things reveal themselves to the patient. Looks like a delegation is coming out to meet us anyway.”
They came alongside the quay and the gangplank was settled. The delegation didn’t look threatening or welcoming. It looked bored. This was routine. The toady at its head opened a scroll but never looked at it. “The Emperor of the Sand Sea welcomes his honored guests to his capitol of Aedlin, the Jewel of the Empire. He blesses you by the gods and prays your stay here will be one of fortune and good luck provided your papersareinorderandtaxesarepaidinfull. Here is a list of currencies and trade goods no longer acceptable for tax purposes by order of the Chief Steward.”
“And how is ol’ Khop these days?” Kurga asked.
The toady turned one baleful eye in his direction. “Dead. Tea is provided for your refreshment as you are to enjoy the privilege of the search of your ship for impurities. Please to step aside.” They were made to exit the ship and stand on the quay as the desultory soldiers ransacked their goods looking for contraband.
“Probably looking to supplement their pay with whatever they find,” Captain Rayjay grumbled. “’Impurities’ is probably code for ‘whatever fits in my pocket.’”
“Oh cheer up Captain and have some lukewarm lake water with some leaves tossed in,” Amisbhake sipped his, “mm, poison sumac I think.”
“It would seem the jewel of the Empire is anthracite. Hear now, here’s a familiar face. Ho there!” Kurga hailed the wharfmaster. “Well met, friend, what’s the news?” The wharfmaster began to tell them of his bunion and the horrible fee he would have to pay to have it removed, “yes, yes, I can see how that would be troublesome. Almost as troublesome as removing and replacing a Chief Steward.”
“Oh, has Rizzlethop gotten the axe too? I hadn’t heard!”
“I’m sure he hasn’t, (long life to him) I was referring to the Khop who was Chief Steward when last I weighed upon your hospitality.”
“Really? Had you not heard of his removal? It came shortly after the succession of course, surely you must have heard.”
“Oh now you’re just poking my belly. Everyone in the Empire and beyond follows the successions. Are you so removed from politics?”
“You would be amazed how far one has to go to hear no news of the Empire. So the child is no longer Emperor?”
“Gods, no. He was called to join a monastery in one of the far off provinces, I forget which one, not being a religious man myself and made his Vizier Emperor in his stead with full rights and lineage of succession. Very generous.”
“Yes, very generous indeed, one wonders if he knew what he was doing. And the people, the people are happy with the new emperor?”
“People are people,” a dismissive wave, “keep them fed, keep them busy and they don’t really care who sits in the throne room. But overly principled people, religious fanatics, you know the type,” he elbowed Kurga, “Zealots who take their faith so seriously, they make normal people nervous. Trust me, the people are better off with a bureaucrat than a crusader. You know what I mean?”
Kurga looked over the man’s shoulder at where Ch’loi was squatting and reading Ch’Voga’s copy of the Holy Scriptures under a parasol held by the Royal Counselor who was not a bodyguard. “Yes, yes, I think I do.”