Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Ambassador, Part IV

Part III 

Amansaiva on Lake Ayssan is a small community, mostly consisting in farmers. It is also the cucumber capital of Syan; the area is, in soil, clime, and access to water, a haven for all kinds of gourds, including wild cucumber, manroot, horned melon, and true cucumber, of which last there are at least seventeen varieties in the region. The locals raise their cucumbers either in a kind of large window-frame, in town, or in frames in a kind of cart that they move around to give the cucumbers more or less sun, and which are equipped with a mechanism by which the beds may be raised; in winter, although cold is only sporadic here, they protect them with a sort of box composed of a frame and mica.

So I was told. It is astounding what you can learn by listening to boring people who never stop talking about their obsessions. Nonetheless, the effect of this surfeit of gourds and cucumber-growing practices is that Amansaiva is quite a lovely town, and all its little and otherwise unimpressive buildings seem like quaint and charming plants growing out of a rich and abundant garden. For all of the greenery, however, it is not a damp place; Lake Ayssan itself is well below the town, which sits on a ridge or cliff, and while rain is abundant, it mostly falls lightly and does not waterlog the soil, which is loose and well drained.

It is good land. In the Empire, there would be senatorial villas throughout the area. Instead, as this is Syan, it is all held by minor farmers, who are not exactly poor but only occasionally rich, something like husbandmen with a yeoman or two thrown into the mix. They are mostly self-governing as long as they don't interfere with the operations of the Matriarchate. They are hard-working, parochial, extraordinarily generous, suspicious of foreigners and change, shrewdly difficult to outfox in negotiation, thoroughly superstitious and willing to believe any ghost story that anyone might tell, and they have an immense pride in their roots and themselves that is invincible because it does not depend on any justification at all. They are also gregarious and hospitable, despite their suspicion of strangers, because that suspicion is based not on fear of the unknown but on a sort of pity for foreigners being foreign, which, after all, is a misfortune they cannot help. I was told that, in one way or another, at least three times by three different locals who, pleased by my free spending on their airs or my buying rounds for the entire tavern, clearly meant it as a generous concession, an allowance that there may be some good in foreigners despite their embarrassingly foolish mistake of being foreigners. In any case, they are rewarders of generosity, foreign or not, and the coin of their reward was conversation. They would toast the Matriarch, boast for some minutes about having been chosen to be a capital of Syan, and then would talk about whatever interested them at interminable length. Sometimes this was cucumbers. Sometimes, and often much more usefully, it was family, and I heard long stories of both past and present and, I suspect sometimes, of the wishful future.

They knew nothing about the inner operations of the government, of course. But they knew, like no one else, the travails of their cousins in the army. Here and there they knew something that they were probably not supposed to know, because their cousin's friend had a cousin whose brother had happened to let slip something. And they knew the comings and goings, and if pressed could probably have given an exact description of every non-local who had been in the area for the past several years. While it had to come piecemeal, by the evening I had a good sense of how extensively the Republic had been spying, and for nothing more than the cost of some large tavern bills and orders from local merchants. 

And, yes, I ordered pickles, and made myself eat a few, all of which tasted like oversalted rotting cucumber. I hate pickles, and will hate them even more forever. The carts selling those saltwater pickles were everywhere. I only gave my patronage to a few, though; while some pickle vendors were talkative, others seemed to grow very silent and suspicious over any attempt to get them to talk.

Returning to the embassy, I was loaded down with many useless irrelevancies, a large number of jars of saltwater pickles that I would never eat, and two barrels of beer, so I accompanied my guards to the embassy barracks to spread them around. It made me popular for a day among soldiers so neglected they were highly surprised even to see me; they were not picky about the pickles and they were enthusiastic about the beer. I spent some time with them, and, while they were more guarded than the villagers of Amansaiva despite the camaraderie of being Empire-men, learned some of their complaints and problems. The food apparently was a sore point, being monotonous and monotonously poor. Further reason, if I had needed it, that my staff were spies of the Five Cities; anyone from senatorial family would know that feeding your guards is among the highest of high priorities. Soldiers well fed are at least potential allies; soldiers poorly fed are your enemies, indeed, are everyone's enemies. That is another fundamental truth of politics.

Afterward I returned the residence and spent some time looking down and out on Lake Ayssan, which truly was a beautiful view. And then I slept again with three weapons within arm's reach.

Something like this was my life for the next several days. I did everything in my power to come across to my staff as a frivolous boozer, who spent his days drinking in taverns and shopping for useless trinkets and his evenings drinking rowdily with the guards. The difficulties were finding ways to do it without losing the respect of the guards and not getting hopelessly drunk. Holding your liquor well, though, is one of the most important survival skills in politics, and I had had my share of practice at it.

On the fourth day, an Imperial courier came with a shipment from my brother, consisting of a letter and a package with a slim book, the seventh volume of the Aureate Histories. The letter was the usual tripe, implying without ever actually saying it that I was useless and an embarrassment to the family and that the only reason he was helping me is that it would be an even greater embarrassment to the family if I managed to get myself killed through incompetence. The man is a complete and utter viper, toxic in every way. But if he had been there in person, I would have kissed him, for the viper had come through as family should. That is indeed an advantage of family; sometimes it's useful to have ties to a viper.

I spent most of the rest of the day reading the volume at the residence, often mulling things over while taking in the view of the lake. It was slow going, the family book codes are good for carrying a great deal of information in such a way that no one who did not know the code could discover it, but they are also cumbersome, and I had to do all of it in my head, because I did not want to have any external sign that there was any code. And there is a great deal to keep track of, since you need to know the pattern of the bookplate and the code associated with the volume; the marginalia tell you how to apply the code to the text of the book to get the message, but how they do so depends on the bookplate-pattern. It is not intended to be done mentally. By proceeding slowly, however, I managed to piece it together. I then had to compose the basic elements of a return letter to my brother.

The next morning, I went down to the embassy and dictated the letter, to the irritation of the staff, who were clearly hoping to have me out of the way, and then, to their relief, went into Amansaiva for a day of carousing. Before I ever even approached a tavern, though, I found one of the sullen pickle vendors who had not been very talkative, tipped him a large amount, and said, "If you or anyone you know is going to the castle today, please send a message to the Matriarch that I am not only in town but at her convenience." He looked astonished, but I simply walked away.

A few hours later, a soldier of Syan came to the tavern at which I was treating the locals to lunch to take me to a meeting with the Matriarch.

to be continued