Sehm is much as Reaper described it, an insignificant city trying too hard to appear important. There appear to have been a few changes since the regime change though, for one thing, the poor-quarter has shrunk to a few back alleys populated only by drunks. The old shop where Var’s temple appeared is gone, replaced by a new establishment selling scented candles that ward off the night-midges, and are thus very popular amongst the women of Astarte’s temple.
The palace, with the frequent comings and goings of citizens and merchants, looks more like a guild-hall than the abode of a king, but a popular guildhall. Most of the people look happy, and even those who aren’t, don’t look fearful, just irritated.
I wandered around freely until I heard the guards calling the hour, then I presented myself at the only guarded door in the palace, that leading into the royal apartments. The guard there asked my name politely, then sent a page boy inside with news of my arrival. He waited outside, studying me, not as though he saw me as a threat, but as though he was curious about something but too polite to ask. The page-boy returned and the guard let me into the apartment.
I looked around quickly, and was immediately struck by how spartan everything was. The furniture was simple, comfortable, well-used but well-cared for. The room looked lived in, as though it was the sitting room in any house in the city. There were probably a dozen more splendid houses within spitting distance of the palace gate.
There was a young man sitting at a table in the corner bent over an enormous tome and busy scribbling away on a sheet of paper while making constant reference to the book.
“Be with you in a moment. Just finishing this up,” he said without looking up.
“Ah… thank you.”
After perhaps five minutes he threw down his pen and yelled for a page-boy while dusting sand over the page to help dry the ink. As soon as the page-boy came in, he handed over the pages and told him to carry them to the king. The boy ran from the room, pages clutched to his chest.
“Sorry for that.” The young man held out his hand and I took his wrist in warrior’s greeting. “Father will be with you shortly. He’s dealing with a matter that just came up.” He smiled wryly.
I took his wrist and returned the smile. It was infectious. “You must be Prince Galentin.”
“Just Galentin, please. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”
“And you must be Writer. We were warned you were coming.”
He grinned again. “The wrong choice of word perhaps? Alerted?”
“Told, Galentin. We were told he was coming.”
I glanced towards the door and saw Queen Ysmelda standing by it, stripping off mailed gloves and dropping them in her helmet. Her armour was hardened leather and chain mail, both of good quality, and her blade looked to be the finest damascene steel.
“Mother, you’re quite spoiling my joke.”
She smiled at him. “That’s what mother’s do, Gale, spoil jokes, especially bad ones. It’s in our job description.” She moved towards me and clasped my offered hand “A pleasure to meet you, Writer. Has Gale offered you refreshments yet?”
I could feel the muscles in that arm, the callouses on her hand, when I grasped it. “There hasn’t been time yet.”
“Nonsense. The guard said you got here five minutes ago. Gale?”
“I was just about to offer him a drink when you came in. I had to finish writing up those precedents for father so he could finalise the agreement between Yventi and Livia.”
“Is that the same Livia…?”
Queen Ysmelda nodded. “She claimed the throne of Shiloam after the war and is attempting to restore it to its former glory.” Her voice gave no hint as to what she thought of that. “It’s possible that Xantin will be some little while. These things tend to take time. Why don’t we sit and talk? You can ask me your questions and any I can’t answer, Xantin will be happy to deal with when he gets here. Ah, here’s the tea. Won’t you sit down?”
I took the chair she offered and it was only once I was sitting down that I noticed the configuration of the room. None of the chairs had their backs to a door or window, even the desk in the corner had a highly polished sconce over it that reflected the entire room. What had looked cosy and lived in, now looked like a house under siege.
Queen Ysmelda had noticed me noticing the layout and she gave me a wry smile almost the mirror of her son’s as she handed me a fine porcelain cup filled with a herb-scented tea. “The habits of a lifetime are hard to break, Writer. In Karvek we learned to live with the constant fear of an assassin’s knife in our backs, now that things are peaceful, we can’t give up the old cautions.”
“And are things as peaceful as all that?”
“Yes. The war is over. The people here accept us—.”
“Due in no small part to Hawk’s advocacy,” said Galentin.
“They trust him,” said Ysmelda. The wry smile returned. “We all did. He had that about him, you know, that even when he was standing there covered in gore having just slain two dozen soldiers all by himself, that, really, there was no one more trustworthy.” She chuckled. “No one more terrifying either.”
“And how does Livia feel about him?”
“More terrified than trusting,” said Galentin immediately. “I think the shock of seeing him helping us escape Karvek hurt her even more than being ridden down by him.”
“She still bears the scars of both,” said Ysmelda.
I sipped my tea. It was very pleasant, soothing, but also invigorating. “What do you know of what happened here?”
“With Baldur?” said Ysmelda. “Nothing. No one would speak of what happened.”
“They all went white lipped and wide-eyed whenever it was brought up.”
“They tried to smash those statues, and when they couldn’t, they dragged them out of the city, dug a very deep hole, and pushed the statues in, then filled it with concrete.”
“Then they had every single priest and wizard in the city go out and put wards and containment spells on the site.”
“That seems a little… excessive,” I said, “especially as Reaper destroyed the artefact that controlled them.”
Galentin shrugged. “I guess they didn’t want someone coming along and making a new one.”
I frowned. “But… doesn’t it also seem strange that they’d take so many people out to where the things are buried? I mean, now everyone knows where they are. Surely someone will talk?”
Ysmelda smiled. “No one knows where they are. Fifty holes were dug, fifty holes were filled, fifty holes were blessed, and everyone who knew which hole had the statues had their memories of it wiped by the high priestess of Astarte.”
“Everyone?” I said, surprised and a little incredulous.
“Everyone,” said Galentin. “It was a special spell that encompassed the entire city and removed everyone’s memory of everything connected to the disposal.”
“But you remember.”
“Only that it happened.”
I shook my head. “That seems… “
“Unbelievable. They were that terrified of the statues?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” said Galentin.
We were all silent for a while thinking about that.
“Reaper made it sound as though he defeated them quite easily.”
“Probably he did,” said Ysmelda. “He’s the finest swordsman I’ve ever seen.”
“The best in the world,” said Galentin.
“But what he can do easily, might be impossible for anyone else.”
I nodded. “And he often passes off the impossible as though it were the everyday.”
“It only helps his reputation.”
“There is that.”
We fell silent again, each of us lost in our own thoughts as we sipped our tea.
“I saw the statues when they were dragged out,” said Galentin after several long minutes, voice quiet and thoughtful. “They were covered in blood and dust and we had to knock down that whole part of the palace because the damage they did made the whole building structurally unsound. There were dozens of bodies, too. Most of Baldur’s court died that day, killed by the statues. I think the survivors have a right to be terrified of them.”
“The survivors of what?” said King Xantin from the doorway.
“Ah. Writer. Good to meet you at last.” We clasped forearms in greeting. “Sit, please. Don’t let me disturb your conversation.”
“I think we’d all rather you did disturb it, your majesty. It has been a rather disturbing conversation.”
“We told him about the Interment.”
“Ah. Yes.” A look of discomfort flickered across Xantin’s face. “Well, not a lot we can say about that. We all had our memories wiped.”
“So Prince Galentin said.”
Xantin nodded. “Well. I have a little time now, if you have questions?” He took the cup of tea Ysmelda gave him and sipped.
“I’d like to know about Galentin Goldenhair, if you don’t mind? The whole story started with him, and yet Reaper said very little about what sort of person he was. He must have been special to inspire the sort of friendship that caused Reaper to… well, to do everything he did. And I thought I should ask you, you being his cousin…”
Xantin was staring at me as though I’d grown a snake’s head out of the side of my neck.
“I’m sorry if I offended you, your majesty.”
He shook his head.
“We don’t talk about Galentin much,” said Ysmelda. “Nor about those last days in Karvek.”
I nodded, thinking I understood. “Can you tell me what happened to the Archivist? Reaper didn’t know, or didn’t say.”
“We received word that he’d made it to the Temple,” said Galentin. “But nothing since then.”
After that the conversation quickly devolved into the usual round of questions after the health and status of shared acquaintances, and some of the tension that had appeared in the room with my question about Galentin Goldenhair vanished. All three of them were very pleasant and solicitous of my comfort, but there was little content to the conversation and they all jumped at the excuse offered by the appearance of a page-boy to bring the conversation to a close.
I made my good-byes, thanked them for their hospitality, and left. They were all back at work before the door had closed behind me.