My dearest brother,
I kiss you upon your left cheek, I kiss you upon your right. And with formality satisfied, I ask you, where is my money? You promised you would send enough to redeem me from this garlicky wasteland! Oh, I weep, brother, I weep with desperation. We are Sarkoszkys, you and I; how is the world fallen, that one of our family should be reduced to—
Oh, I cannot put it to paper. I can barely say it, though I must hear it, five mornings a week. “Good morning, Your Grace. Your tutor is here.” That word, “tutor”. It is an iron spike, no, a pair of them, one hammered into each ear with tradesmanlike gusto. I swear in blood, each time I hear it, I am this close to throwing myself off the walls of His so-called Grace’s so-called castle from shame.
And the girl herself—oh, brother, brother, put out of your mind the buxom Praczny maidens (so soon and so inevitably unmaidened, eh?) in those slim volumes we discovered hidden beneath account books in the further corners of Father’s library. Her “Grace” has the physique of a lowland ox, and not half the wit. She can barely speak her own language; such decency as this place has left me forbids me from describing what she does to ours. Never have I loved Uwsian more than now, when I must listen—no, must collaborate, may all the unnamed saints forgive me—while my dullard pupil flays and quarters the language you and I have sworn our lives to, then craps upon its wretched remains.
To paint salt on the burn, the hopes I was so foolish as to express in my last letter regarding her brother have been slaughtered most cruelly. (Did it reach you? If so, then where is my money!?) He has intelligence, yes, but it is of a low and cunning sort, unilluminated by any real spark of wit. I admit—I freely admit—that I mis-read him. Oh, I can hear your guffaws now, you churl. Me, mis-read a boy? Yes. That is how cloddish this clod-trap, crapulent wilderness has made me. Oh, brother, brother, you must rescue me. You must, you must…
But the boy. He—
My apologies. The duke’s courier rose from his table then, as if to depart. As it is my plan to slip this letter unnoticed into the packet he carries (as I am too impoverished to pay him to carry it for me), I was about to pursue some stratagem, I know not what, to delay him until I could sign it, but on event, he sought merely to relieve himself, and has now returned. I think him no keener to be out in the rain this night than the innkeeper’s pigs, which are farting and snoring contentedly in front of the fire. You see what I am reduced to?
So, the boy. It wasn’t the usual. No, no, not this time. This time, it was about money. There, I’ve said it again. Money. Money, money, money. I needed some, but had none, and thought to enlist the duke-in-waiting to remedy that, that—drought? Shortcoming? Bah. I cannot even find words any longer. No matter. In brief, in place of verb declensions and well-rolled R’s, I filled his lessons with tales of derring-do, of swashes buckled and monsters slain, taking care always to point out the “skills” a true hero must have. Not just swordplay—no, no (here, I shake my head), not just the parrying of one’s enemy’s blows, and the hewing of his limbs. Why, the great heroes of old were also adept at climbing ropes, picking locks, skulking and scurrying and all manner of thieverous what-not. Upon my blood, yes, they were!
And of course, from there it was small coin to persuade him (but never in so many words) that a hero-to-be like himself had a right, nay, a duty, to acquire said skills. And how better to do it than by filching a few odds and ends from his sister’s chambers? Oh, but his eyes lit up at that. His sister, whose impending marriage to some third-rate cast-off south-end-of-nowhere lordling would leave him a guest in his own home; his sister, who wore more gold on two fingers than he had to his name; his sister, who called him “darling Pupsy” in front of his friends on his fifteenth nameday. Oh yes, he—
Another false alarm. The courier stirred once again, I thought to leave, but he only wished to scratch the ears of one of the innkeeper’s pigs in order to disguise a release of flatulence. Pfah! Have I mentioned the garlic these people eat? Brother, dear brother, please, I will shave my head and swear my soul to the Balance if Father demands it, only send me twenty bezels for the carriage home, and lodging fit for a gentleman on the way…
So, again, the boy. I thought him caught, like a sparrow in a spider’s web. He would do the skulking and scurrying (his heart pitter-pat the while, I am sure, to be in the Women’s Yard uninvited, the chopsman’s ax his reward if caught), and I would dispose of whatever filchings he brought me. Of course, I didn’t tell him that outright. No, my plan was that I would, with the aid of a rogue I met under circumstances I shall not trust to paper, transform Her Bovine Grace’s jewelry into more negotiable assets, then offer the boy half. If he accepted, so well for him; if he refused, so well for me, as I could always claim he had accepted it.
But speak not for the snake, eh? Speak not for the weeping snake. The boy—
Sir Anton Usrachiakov Berion
Respected Sir Anton,
I kiss you upon your left cheek, I kiss you upon your right.
I am writing with regard to the letter enclosed, which was included in a packet of correspondence My Lord was honored to receive from His Grace, the Duke of Anyalcze-in-Praczedt, on or about 15th Amethyst of last year. As you will no doubt have noticed, while the letter is addressed to a member of your household, the seal upon it has been broken. What further mundane inspection may not reveal is that the letter has in part been read by myself.
For this, I offer my most sincere apology. I assure you, no Pelkoy would ever intentionally read the correspondence of any other gentleman, or of any he knew to be in the service, standing, or employ of a gentleman. How, then, did the seal come to be broken, and how then did I come to read the letter’s first part?
It was thus: the packet was delivered by His Grace’s courier in mid-Malachite, on the day after the first great storm of this past winter. As I am sure you recall, the storm was fiercer than usual for its season—much fiercer than My Lord’s magician, the respected Urptenchauenchut, had foreseen. Our household was therefore less well prepared than it would have been in prior days, when less trust was put in such persons.
It was the work of several days to direct our peasants and serfs as they brought in the last of their crops and cattle, re-roofed their dwellings, &c., during which time the packet was neglected. If I recall correctly, I did not even bring it to My Lord’s attention at that time, believing it would be spring at the earliest before the courier would be able to return to Anyalcze-in-Praczedt with a reply.
At some point during those days, one of my servants placed some accounts I had requested on top of the packet, which was waiting for me on my desk. I have whipped him for his error, but that does not change the fact that the packet was not then opened until three days past.
I trust you will therefore understand that I was in something of a temper when I finally returned to reading the packet’s contents. The bulk of it was commercial correspondence, which I perused with no more enthusiasm than a gentleman ought to bring to such an endeavor. (I should say now, before it slips my leash: an ironmason in Polgotseny named Kariadanov may be employing Hett in the guise of honest tradesmen. You may wish to investigate…) The rest of the packet comprised revisions to a contract of marriage which My Lord and His Grace have been negotiating these past two years, and a dozen perfumed letters from His Grace’s eldest daughter to her prospective intended, which I gave immediately to My Lord’s sister for inspection, as she will most probably accompany My Lord’s son to Anyalcze should the marriage be agreed.
It was then that I made the error for which I have already offered my apology. My Lord’s sister had taken the unasked liberty of opening the letters from His Grace’s eldest daughter, and insisted upon reading aloud some passages whose tangled grammar she found particularly amusing. While so distracted, I took the next letter from the packet and broke its seal with first inspecting the address. I then read the first page, and part of the second, without truly taking in what was before my eyes.
Of course, I ceased as soon as it was clear that the letter was not intended for My Lord or any of his household. However, My Lord’s sister noticed my discomfort, for she ceased her recitation and asked me what was wrong. Refusing to accept my demurrals, she drew from me a precis of what I had accidentally read. I confess, I was not as loathe to confide in her as a gentleman in my position perhaps should have been, as I of course recognized the address on the letter. Having seen a portion of its contents, I realized I had inadvertently placed myself in the sort of delicate quandary which are more properly a lady’s province.
I beseech you not to take offense if I tell you, plainly, one gentleman to another, that your grandson’s hasty departure from Polgotseny these three summers past is well known among My Lord’s sister’s circle. She informed me the greater part of her acquaintances believed the cause to be gambling debts, though some claimed (solely out of malice, I am sure) that one of your neighbors had sworn revenge against him for some unknown act. On that basis, she suggested that the letter should be delivered to you, rather than to its intended, in order to apprise you of its author’s whereabouts and current state.
I protested, of course, informing her that I felt it improper for one gentleman to traffic with another’s correspondence in any such manner. At this, she rephrased her suggestion as instruction, stating that it was in fact our duty to put your interests, as the head of your family, above those of your grandsons. I will confess, I was moved by her argument, imagining what My Lord would desire if he should ever be blessed with grandchildren, and if they should ever place his family in such a position.
Thus, the letter, and its reaffixed seal. And also, at the request of My Lord’s sister, a suggestion, which she likens to “turning this grain of sand into a pearl” (a favorite phrase of My Lord’s magician, the respected Urptenchauenchut). As I am in your honor-debt for my actions regarding this letter, I trust I may broach it plainly.
As you are aware, My Lord’s lands have been increasingly troubled by those bandits who increasingly infest the lands forming the border between southern Uws, and northern Praczedt. This situation is in fact what has precipitated his consideration of marriage between his family, and that of His Grace the Duke of Anyalcze. While the pedigree of the latter is no better than it should be, his lands are the sole island of
Excuse my handwriting, please. The master says, something still hunts us. I say, I do not see its shadow, I do not smell its breath. The master says, horses know more than hairless monkeys what it is to be hunted, so I still my mouth and write what he tells me to.
The letters with this came to us in Nevy Rav. The master did not wish to winter there, but there was an early storm. I found work in the Graf’s stables to pay for the master’s hay and barley. It would not have been enough, but some coin was left from the business in Vnir. (I write for myself, I was only asked to sell the master four times in five months. He said he was not offended, what do Uwsians know of horses, but that is the real reason he wanted away at first melt.)
When I told the stablemistress we would leave, she ordered me to the postmaster. “There is a law,” she said, that every traveler must carry mail if there is mail to carry. She said there would be silver in it. The master and I wanted only to be over the mountains in Darp, but it would have drawn eyes, a penniless Darpani saying no to silver. And as you have said many times, “There is no letter not worth reading.”
(The master asks, can I write that to show he is being sarcastic? I say, I can if you will walk more slowly, to not jostle my pen. The master says, if I walk slowly, we will not be hunted any longer. We will be dinner.)
The postmaster asked me which road we would take. I said south, to the Nettelin, then upriver through the Brumosos to Darp. He found three letters that wished to go that way, then told me to come back the morning after next for more. I said, to be away now, today. He said no, there is a law, the postmaster must have the criers announce mail for the south, and I must wait one full day, dawn to dawn, after their cry. I argued and pleaded, but he said, there is a law. He gave me three silver-heart pennies for my trouble, though.
(Mistress, the postmaster of Nevy Rav is half-Darpani. He has the Five Hands on his left forearm, and the Arrow Eagle on his right, but no other tattoos we could see. He is fond of drink, but not a drunkard, and does not seem to gamble. The master says, he would probably not serve you knowingly, but someone in need could play on his feelings for the clan and tribe he has never known. Also, he keeps mail in wooden boxes on a shelf in his office. The locks on the boxes are simple, and I did not smell any magic.)
We waited the rest of the day, then the next. I slept in the stable with the master to save two of the three pennies. The stablemistress came to me both nights, but I pretended not to understand her. On the dawn, we returned to the postmaster. There were no more letters, so we took the three, and a letter with the postmaster’s mark to say we had not stolen them, and left the city by the cattle gate.
A man was waiting for us there, horsed, in furs, with his hood pulled low. The master says I should write his name carefully: Sir Georgiy Chorichiakov Pelkoy, Knight Jurist in service of the Graf. The master says you will know this name from prior times.
He was one of those who had asked to buy the master, so I thought his aim was to steal what I would not sell. I put my hand to my bow, but he raised empty hands to greet me. “Clean luck that I have not missed you,” he said, for he had a letter he wanted me to carry south. He gave it to me with a good half bezel of silver, and a promise of a full bezel more upon its delivery to a knight in Polgotseny.
I took his letter and gave him a horseback bow. “I will deliver it,” I said, but I did not say to who. There were others on the road then, so he left me.
(Mistress, I thought the master would reveal his Gift by laughing. Tell her the knight was skulking, he says. (I have tried to write that word sarcastically.) Tell her Sir Georgiy Chorichiakov seemed bursting to ask, “What is the secret password?”)
The master had me ride off the Great Coast Road onto an oxcart track that night to make camp, and then open the letter and read it to him. The seal was easily lifted. There were two hairs inside the letter, by chance or so that the intended reader could know if it had been opened. (The master says, or as a signal, like hunters will tie knots in grass. We are moving again, more quickly than before. If the master begins to trot, I will put this aside. May the First Woman and the Last Man shelter our souls.)
The writing in the first letter is that of a young man with too much schooling, Uwsian, and right-handed. It is very good paper, but cheap ink and a poor pen. The paper smells of flowers. At the master’s instruction, I left this as it was.
The second letter is in a stronger hand, also on good paper, unscented. At the master’s instruction, I made a clean copy of its first part, as far as the stanza beginning, “As you are aware.” This, and what follows, is the master’s invention. He says to tell you, it was the best he could come up with in the middle of nowhere without ever having met the man, and if it trips up another of your plans, it is your own fault for not telling him what was really going on when you sent us here. (Mistress, please forgive the fire in his words—being hunted again has put his nerves on edge.)
A late storm made us five weeks to Polgotseny instead of three. I swear in blood, the letters were against my skin those thirty days, or else under the master’s saddle when I bathed. The copies too were hidden as you have taught us, but when we came to
The Lady Kembe
The Royal City of Ossisswe
Most honored lady,
Please excuse my audacity in approaching you, even at so great a distance, without prior announcement, agreement, or introduction. I can only surmise how busy someone with your wide and varied interests must be; I trust you will forgive my intrusion once I make the nature of my business plain.
I am writing to you at this time because I have recently come into possession of certain letters whose disposition I believe may be of substantial—nay, of material—interest to you. It is my belief that public knowledge of these letters would be deleterious to Your Grace’s reputation; I am therefore hopeful that some mutually agreeable arrangement for their disposition or destruction can be found.
The matter is this: for the past year, I have been preparing an Argument to place before the Governors of the University, in the hope that they will consider it worthy cause to admit me to the rank of Scholar Ordinary. At the advice of Her Grace, the Balance Petcharatiriv, who has presided over this College for the past six years, I selected as the subject of my Argument the causes and conduct of the rebellion in Uws in YS 1224-26. “Half of the survivors wound up here when it was all over,” (if I may quote Her Grace Petcharatiriv directly), “And half of them are still alive, so why not ask them what they thought it was all about?”
Accordingly, I have spent these past months traipsing from one bastion of tattered grandeur to another in order to ask a succession of exiled landgrafs and faded knights-justiciar whether they had felt threatened by Yuriy II Barsadov’s administrative reforms, how they had first learned that the Pelkoys and Berions had raised the old Sarkoszy banner, why they had decided to put on rebel ribbons, &c.
It was on one of these visits that I came into possession of the letters to which I alluded earlier, the first pages of which I have faithfully copied and appended to this letter of mine. In between draughts of a particularly pungent home-brewed otrava, their owner informed me that in the years prior to the rebellion, it had been his honor to serve as a knight-warden in the Pelkoy domains in the south of Uws. Early in 1224, his patrol intercepted a Darpani courier, in whose possession he discovered several letters he felt would be of interest to his lord, the Knight Justiciar Sir Georgiy Chorichiakov. Upon his return to Nevy Rav, however, he discovered that Sir Georgiy had raised the flag of rebellion. In the confusion, he claims, he set the letters aside, only thinking of them again these twenty-five years later when prompted by my questions.
The letters are, to wit:
Item, from the mysterious “Gentleman” who authored the infamous travelogue, The Customs, Laws, and Language of Northern Praczedt: A Guide For Those So Fortunate As To Have Been Born Elsewhere. This appears to prove that the “Gentleman” was Sir Josep Antonikov Pelkoy, later husband of Her Grace the Duchess of Anyalcze.
Item, from Sir Georgiy Chorichiakov, conspirator and rebel, to Sir Anton Berion, the same, verifying the authenticity of the first letter, and in passing rehearsing the matter which formed the basis for the rebellion, to wit: that lawlessness had increased under the reign of the Barsadovs.
Item, and of most immediate interest, from a Gifted horse named Sweet, put to paper with interjections by someone named Buckle (most probably the Darpani courier whom the letter’s possessor intercepted). The letter’s intended recipient is not named, but is addressed as “Mistress”, a title by which, as all Cherne knows, agents in your employ often use for you.
This third letter is what has prompted mine to you. If you were in fact the one for whom the letter was written, it suggests that you did not simply take an interest in the events of YS 1224, as you said in your communication to His Majesty Yuriy II after the rebels’ defeat. Instead, it appears that you were in fact inciting the rebels by intercepting and altering their communication. Since reading these letters, I have found it impossible not to speculate on how His Majesty’s heirs would react to this knowledge. At the least,
The Lady Kembe,
The Royal City of Ossisswe
Thank you for your message of this morning. Please excuse my use of soldierly language—I did not expect words to write themselves in the fog on my shaving mirror, and did myself a very minor injury with my razor when they appeared. By way of apology, I hope you will accept the bottle of apple brandy that accompanies this letter; it was laid down in the last year of His Majesty my grandfather’s time, and Her Grace the Balance Petcharatiriv tells me that it may bring back fond memories for you.
Thank you also for the packet of letters which I found on my desk upon arriving at the University. I agree, the one purporting to be from me is an excellent forgery: the stationary bears the correct watermark, and the hand is accurate. Having made such an effort, it is peculiar that its author would commit the simple errors of putting my name at the head of the address, and incorrectly addressing you as “Most honored lady.” Still, as Balance Petcharatiriv often tells me, no one was ever bankrupted by underestimating the intelligence of his fellows…
In answer to your questions:
Item, yes, someone did burst into flames a little after noon today, to wit, my tutor, a Scholar Stipendiary named André Ghislaine é Marcque. He came to Ensworth from Seyferte to study after the end of hostilities eight years ago. I have spoken to my father’s Minister of Rumors; she assures me that her agents never had any indication that Sra André was engaged in any improper activity.
Item, no, I do not recall Sra André’s mood being particularly dark over the past few months. While I agree that Ensworth’s winters may seem damp and gray to someone accustomed to those of the south, he had weathered the previous seven with no apparent ill effect. And if I may be so bold, I would also venture that if he did find our weather or our food as unbearable as you suggested, a man of his intelligence could undoubtedly have found a more reliable way of committing suicide than attempting to blackmail a magician.
Item, no, setting those two possibilities aside, I do not have any thoughts on why he would have written the letter. Our relationship had been increasingly strained—he did not approve of me making events “recent, and therefore trivial” (in his phrase) the subject of my Argument. However, I find it hard to believe that even as dedicated a scholar as he would consider this cause to attempt murder, albeit indirectly. I have asked the Minister of Rumors to continue inquiries, and she has assured me she will do so.
Having answered your questions, I would now be grateful if you would be willing to entertain some of my own. From the scorch marks on the forged letter, Her Grace infers that you used it to work this morning’s spell. (She wishes me to ask whether it was Idjfikan’s Long Reach, or the Bantangui variant of Moescher’s Immolation.) Setting that aside, I must confess I found the other three letters fascinating. Do you believe any of them to be a true copy of an authentic original? Fully a dozen of the University’s junior scholars have presented an Argument at one time or another regarding the identity of the author of A Guide For Those So Fortunate As To Have Been Born Elsewhere; if the first letter is not a forgery, it would put that matter to rest. The second letter would completely refute my Argument that the rebellion of 1224 was a reflexive, uncoordinated thing, while the third would, as Sra André suggested, cast a rather different light upon those events. If
His Highness, Evan Prince Ensworth (Renounced)
King Edward’s College
The University, Ensworth
Received yours of 3 Tourm. this morning. First page intact but stained, all other pages missing entirely; deduce from this that a bottle of fifty-year-old brandy was too great a temptation for at least one courier on the road between Ensworth and Ossisswe. Doubt anyone at this end would be brave enough to open something addressed to me; suggest inquiry at your end, followed by whipping.
Regarding questions in yours, trust you will not be offended if I choose not to answer them directly. I receive more inquiries regarding historical, legal, and genealogical matters with each passing year. Were I to answer even a tenth part of them, I would have no waking hours left to devote to the events of the present day.
More importantly, even if I were to answer, would you actually know any more than you do now? If I told you that a Gifted horse named Sweet was doing my bidding in Uws at the time of the most recent rebellion, would you then know the truth? No, you would not—you would then have to ask yourself whether I was trying to mislead you for some purpose of my own. (You would most certainly ask yourself that if I said I did not have an agent in Uws at the time, would you not?)
Of course, once you enter this jungle, you are lost. Was the first letter a forgery? Some scoundrel could have impersonated Sra Josep Antonikov Pelkoy in order to wheedle money from his brother. Or someone closer to home could have forged the letter in order to embarrass the family.
Or perhaps the first letter is authentic, and the second is a forgery. Or perhaps the first two are authentic, but the third was a plant by that prissy toad Yuriy, to convince disaffected noblemen like Sir Anton Usrachiakov (who was a dull knife, though brave) that I was meddling in Uwsian affairs. I’m sure your lessons have taught you that nothing stops the Uwsians fighting amongst themselves except the prospect of fighting someone else.
Or perhaps your letter is a blind for some secret communication unrecognized by you. Petcharatiriv was a member of my household for several years; I do not need magic to know that she cast an eye over it, suggested phrases, had you trim a word here and insert one there—she is your teacher, and she has no doubt cautioned you that royal haughtiness is best set aside when speaking to me. That bottle of brandy—was the idea of sending it truly yours, or did it grow from a seed she planted in your mind? Perhaps it means, “The king is to be assassinated,” or, “I have run out of pistachios, please send some more.” You cannot know, can you?
And so, you turn to me. Kembe will know—if there was a king or coincidence involved, Kembe must have had a hand it it, so ask her. I have become a substitute for scholarship, young prince, an ore from which historians hope to smelt knowledge, and it wearies me.
So, ask yourself, is the story complete? Or am I fabricating to some end, as the true author of the letters you (or someone pretending to be you) may or may not have done? Has this letter even truly been written by Lady Kembe, or is the hand holding the pen that of some rival scholar who wishes to encourage you to believe those letters, or equally, dissuade you from doing so? Did your letter ever even leave Ensworth? Perhaps the Darpani courier you entrusted it to was acting for the Balance Petcharatiriv, who engineered this to teach you a lesson regarding the unreliability of sources.
You cannot know, Your Highness, and neither can I. Are the letters authentic? As much as this one is; they are authentically letters, written by someone, for some purpose. That is, in the end, all we can say.
Kembe, in and by her own hand, or not