After the ceremony Jonan had a few words with some of his men, while the seer accepted the congratulations of her friends and others, then he had her take him to her rooms so she could pack. He’d been uncomfortable in her rooms, finding their natural darkness oppressive and their proximity to the altar on the other side of the wall unsettling. He’d had chests brought round so she could pack her possessions and she had only needed half of them. Even with her winter coat, hat, gloves and boots the second chest was barely full.
She’d gone to strip off the vestment so it could be returned to the public chapel but he stopped her saying, “Let everyone see you in your wedding garb. You do realise that you’ve just set the standard for Imperial brides for all time to come, don’t you?”
She retorted, “I got dressed this morning thinking that I was going to spend the morning washing windows. I, for one, do not expect to be copied!”
“But think of all those daughters we’re going to have,” he drew on his cigar, “If I can get them to dress like you today for their weddings, think of the savings!” He added virtuously, “I have an empire to run after all, every penny counts.”
Then Jonan led her out into Great Courtyard fronting the temple proper and bounded by other buildings of the complex. It was a hive of activity. More soldiers in Jokkiel’s markings than the seer had thought he had with him, coming and going. One was helping an elderly priestess, almost the last of her grandmother’s contemporaries, across the courtyard, a bag of her possessions and a rolled-up mat on his back. One of his fellows followed, carrying a solid red cedar chair. “I wanted to make sure,” Jonan said casually, pausing to take a draw on his cigar, “That no-one was too tired, too weak or thought they were too busy to come out and say good bye to you. So I called up a few more men I had waiting down the valley to go through and make sure everyone was out.” He stopped and pointed the cigar at a group of the Mistress of infants and Oblates’ charges emerging from the direction of the watchdog kennels, all wearing packs on their backs and carrying a puppy each, being closely supervised by a kennel man and the puppies’ mother. “What are those?”
She looked. “Children carrying puppies. Did you really mean every living thing? What about the rats and mice?”
“The vermin can take care of themselves, or not,” he replied then clarified, “Puppy what? Those aren’t dogs.”
“Oh, aren’t they?” The seer looked at the familiar animals with interest. “When we were little, my aunt told us that when the Mistress of Time and Sluan threw down the stronghold of the rakdhan Showa-ked, Sluan took its hunting beasts while our mistress kept its guard hounds. These animals are some of their descendents.”
“Hell hounds,” he muttered, “My wife comes with hell hounds and their kennel masters, no doubt. Are there,” he asked her, “Any other unusual domestic animals I should know about?”
She looked at him blankly, “Our cats are pobhas but I understand they’re fairly wide spread.”
A squad of Jonan’s soldiers went slowly past carrying a woman in labour on a wide padded litter, being threatened by their sergeant with the five sessions of pain if they dropped her or even made her feel unsafe, while the infirmary’s mid wife walked beside her.
“Pobhas.” Jonan stopped mid gesture. “Hell hounds and demon ghost cats. Dear wife, what sort of mice and rats does this temple have?”
“Scared ones!” She smiled up at him. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any particularly attached to me.”
“That’s probably good,” he admitted as he continued to lead her through the crowd and she caught a glimpse of one of the chests with her things in it loaded on a cart that was beginning to make its way towards the gate out of the courtyard. “Now this one is for you.” He indicated the gold bodied animal with the pale tail and mane as if presenting her with a great treat.
She looked at it. “It’s a horse.”
“Yes.” He sounded encouraging.
“I can’t ride.” She looked at him. “I’ve never been further than the inside of the last gate leading out of the temple’s demesne. I’ve had no need to learn how to ride.”
“Surely, when you were a child before you became seer-”
“Before I was identified as the seer, neither Dulcine nor I were allowed to leave the temple grounds,” she told him. “My horse related skills are,” she pointed at the horse in question, “Look it’s a horse!” She bent over, mainly sideways to get a better view. “I’m fairly sure it’s a girl horse.” She straightened. “Also don’t walk too close to their back legs or you’ll be kicked and if you are going to give them an apple or a carrot, keep your hand flat.”
Jonan took a deep draw on his cigar. “Right, so you’re not riding out of here today on your own horse.” Another draw on the cigar. “And today is not the day for a riding lesson.” He tapped the ash off the cigar. “You’ll have to ride with me. Come this way.”
The crowd was thinning now. A soldier went past them, blood-dripping scratches running the length of his forearms and hands. A cluster of kitchen staff were with him, one carrying a basket of moving shapes under a cloth with a large housecat-sized pobha following her and miaowing loudly.
“This is my mount.” He was affectionately rubbing the nose of a creature as tall and muscled as a cart horse. Its tack and trappings seemed to shout, “Look at me! I’m carrying the Sun Emperor!” Everything that could be metal and, hopefully, not irritate beast or rider gleamed golden. The seer wondered who had to polish it all. The animal’s iris was a solid metallic gold colour. The dappling seemed to be moving on the portions of its hide she could see. “His name is Zhaerudmeal. Zhaerud for short.” The animal head butted him playfully.
The seer’s lips moved as she worked something out. “His name is Dapple.” She laughed. “You’re riding a whatever-he-is and you’re calling him Dapple.” She curtsied to the animal on the grounds that it was better to be safe than sorry. “It does sound better in Melladiki, I’ll give you that.”
He looked at her oddly. “What do you mean ‘whatever-he-is’? Zhaerud is a horse, aren’t you boy?” The two males nodded at each other and the mount made a whuffling-whumping exhalation sound as if in emphasis.
“Remember that “It’s a horse!” thing?” the seer asked tartly. “Well, I do know that horses don’t have three-lobed hooves. Zhaerudmeal here has three-lobed hooves, therefore he is not a horse.”
Man and beast gave each other looks of what may have been interpreted as embarrassment. “Ah,” Jonan said and took a draw on his cigar, “He is from the star-meads. From the herd sired by Jokkiel’s Sundancer.”
She looked at them both. “And you said my domestic animals were strange!”
Whatever Zhaerudmeal was, she would have sworn that he shrugged at the same time as her husband.
“We’ll need to be the last out of the temple grounds,” Jonan went on prosaically, “And I’ll have you up in front of me so I can see what you’re doing. Zhaerud,” he turned to the animal, “My wife, whose name cannot be used and which I do not even know, cannot ride. We are going to have to teach her. Today, though, you are going to carry us both. All right?”
Zhaerudmeal got to whuffle her as the conclusion to formal introductions and the seer suspected that she had been categorized somewhere under ‘rider’s mate.’ There were some more introductions, particularly to the men who were going to help her get on Zhaerudmeal in front of Jonan.
It took a mounting block and two men to get her up there – it was not like climbing a ladder. Once she was up then she and Jonan had to settle her into a position that was comfortable for all three of them. She did not feel very safe when they were done: she had nowhere to put her feet so she envied Jonan his stirrups; where she was sitting was not meant for sitting and while she had no idea how it felt to Zhaerudmeal she suspected that she would be very uncomfortable before long; and she had nothing to hang on to while Jonan had two arms with which he was holding his cigar, steering Zhaerudmeal and holding her. Precarious seemed to sum it up.
“Couldn’t I just ride on a wagon?” She looked up at Jonan. That felt better than looking at the ground, which seemed a long way down.
“Not until we get through the town,” Jonan replied, then took a draw on his cigar, “This is about the stories people are going to tell about today as much as anything else. You can lean back into my arm, you know. You’d be more comfortable.”
“I’m worried I’ll get in the way of you doing something important,” she confessed, “I just don’t know how this works.”
“For this I’m mainly holding the reins to keep them out of his way and so I can tell him to stop in a hurry, most of the steering I’ll need to do will happen with my knees.” He dropped a kiss on her forehead, almost as if he wasn’t sure how it would be received. “It would actually make it easier for us if you relaxed a little more.” The seer took a deep breath and slowly breathed out, consciously relaxing her muscles as she did so. “That’s better,” he risked another kiss to her forehead, “Much better.”
A fanfare of trumpets sounded from the direction of the gate to the temple’s demesne.
“That’s our signal,” said Jonan with some satisfaction, “Everyone else is out or will be by the time we get there. Let’s go.” Zhaerudmeal started towards the courtyard exit at a stately walk.
“Wasn’t it rather elaborate for a signal?” It occurred to the seer as she asked the question that if she kept talking to Jonan then she wouldn’t have to look down. Looking down while they moving seemed like a recipe for disaster.
“As far as anyone else is concerned,” Jonan took a draw on his cigar, “The trumpets were announcing us.”