She draws the water slowly, one bucket at a time, pouring them into the copper basin like a thing mechanical.
Downstairs, her father's guests are waiting. She can hear them speaking softly, but she has not seen them yet. She does not imagine she ever will. There is a veil on the bedside for exactly this purpose. Its folds are thick.
She finds it difficult to navigate by instinct alone; vision denied by the wrappings, remembering the stairs instead of seeing them. She almost spills the basin twice on the way down, and her breath catches at the thought of how furious her father would be if he found out.
Her hands shake. The water shivers in sympathy.
Be calm. Be sure. You can afford no mistakes.
She can tell when she reaches the entryway by the change in the feeling of the stone under her feet, and by the sound of the voices getting closer. Her father's, she recognizes—a rumbling baritone—but the others are strange. There is an unfamiliar lilt to them, like a bird learning to sing. She knows that these guests are from far away, but she cannot hear the slightest trace of accent in their words. Beyond this, her father has told her nothing about them. If they notice her, they do not break off their conversation to acknowledge it.
"Your hospitality is a welcome blessing in these lands." The first guest's words are a ritual between peers. She hears a bow, recognizing it by the crinkling of clothing as a man folds and straightens.
"Indeed." The second guest's voice is lower, his tones more clipped. His bow is a sudden rush of sound, direct and brief.
Her father speaks now, in accordance with his place in the rite, but a note of uncertainty intrudes on his usual forcefulness. "I hope that you were not discomforted overmuch by the journey, nor by the people that dwell here. Come, let me make you welcome. My daughter will attend you."
With a curtsey, she sets her basin down on the stone. There is usually a small wooden bench to be found nearby, but she can neither see nor hear it, so she sits down amidst the dust. "I will wash your feet, good sirs, so that you may forget the road and start afresh in this house."
There is a chuckle from the first guest. "Such eloquence, and from only a maid."
She hears the scrape of the bench being pulled over, and a quiet splash from the basin. Invisible beneath the veil, her cheeks burn. "I live only to serve." She bows her head and lets her hands reach into the water, beginning the process of scrubbing the travel-grit from this stranger's feet.
"Humble as well. Is that not so, Dumah?"
"You have raised quite a daughter, Llôt."
She hears her father stiffen. "We abide by your laws and your reasoning, and so our children flourish." He pauses for a moment. "Paltith is not promised yet."
To hear him say it so openly is humiliating, but she forces her hands to ignore the feeling that floods her. They work, even still, when the rest of her body wants to crawl into a hole and never come back out.
She is grateful for the veil now.
She works quietly, and—when she is finished—her father presents the first guest with a cloth to dry himself.
The second guest, Dumah, then steps up to the basin. He says nothing, and her place is not to speak. The dust and callouses under her fingers are the entirety of her thoughts for the next couple minutes.
When at last he stands, she realizes that she knows nothing more about him than when he sat down, save that he has human feet.
"It is a question of purity." Eremiel sits across from Dumah at the table of the host. In quick sidelong glances, he studies Llôt's estate. There are antique carvings and statuary, decorative furnishings and bits of fine art, all on discreet display. This is not the home of a man who is accustomed to deprivation.
"What is, my lords?" Llôt is acting anxious. Too-eager to please. He manufactures opportunities to pay them compliments, or to offer them gifts. They have seen this in hosts before.
"There is nothing amiss. I am simply thinking." Eremiel steeples his fingers together, elbows resting on the tabletop. This is a small, calculated rudeness. It says look at what you'll let me get away with.
"On what subject, may I inquire?"
"Personal health." The statement hangs uncertain in the air, so Eremiel continues. "When you eat a piece of food, you are bringing it into your body, and so the wise man does this with care. He first examines it for specks of dirt, or mold, or other imperfections that could cause him to sicken and weaken as a whole. The wise emperor does this also. He does not annex a place that would bring him only ill. This is why we come to you—and to Zeboyim around you. We are assessors."
"So far, you are doing well." This is the most Dumah has said in a while, and Eremiel sighs. If only he could have been this talkative on the road. The unkind miles would have passed much faster.
Llôt lets the polite mask of his expression slip, and for a moment naked relief shows underneath it. Just as quickly, his composure returns. "Are you hungry, my lords? My wife and daughters have prepared a meal for you."
In the kitchen, lamb sizzles on a spit. Fresh pomegranates lie firm and ripe in their basins.
"I appreciate the offer, and I hope you will not take it as an affront to your household if we do not eat." Eremiel is used to turning down dinners in the same way that he is to turning down territories. "I must instead ask that you show us a place to retire for the evening. We would go about the city and see it for ourselves in the morning."
Llôt stands. "Of course. I will have Paltith show you the way."
"Do not ruin this for me."
She presses back into her alcove, unseeing beneath the veil, and listens to the way he looms. He is physically intimidating; she knows this by experience. Despite the peppered white fibers showing through his beard, he is made from sinew and discipline. Llôt grabs her by the shoulders, a ferocity taking hold in his voice. "Do not ruin this for any of us."
She shakes her head. "I will not."
"And you will not challenge me on this, either."
She nods. "I will not."
"Then go, and bring fortune upon me." He steps back, and she moves away, not caring the direction so long as it takes her out of his reach.
She can feel his eyes on her back as, wordlessly, she makes her way to the strangers' room.
There is a knock at the door, sudden and timid, and it is Eremiel that goes to answer it. Dumah is sitting by a window in the corner, staring out onto the street, and so he is not the first one to see Llôt's daughter when she enters the room.
Eremiel is surprised—not by her veil, for these are common in the places he stays, a ward against gossip and understanding—but by the way she pushes past him and walks to the bed.
"I am to be yours," she says flatly, from inside the tangle of fabric, "without price or promise, or any obligation you should feel required to keep." The words are like lead on her tongue, and they scatter heavily before her. The act of forcing them out is torture—crime and sentencing and punishment in a single action, with all their priorities reversed.
"Is that so?" He has seen this before, too. "Well, I shall decline. Dumah, do you want her?"
By the window, Dumah straightens and turns his inscrutable gaze on the girl in the middle of the room. "Our host misunderstands us."
"That he does, although I am flattered by the offer. Please go back downstairs, thank your father, and tell him that it will not be required."
Paltith lays her face in her hands and begins to cry.
Dumah responds first. "You have upset her," he intones, then turns back to the window, satisfied by the observation.
"Clearly. If not for your keen insight, dear brother, I do not know how I would have known." Eremiel seethes a little inside. If this is what it takes to make Dumah talkative, he should have shelled out for an entire palanquin of sobbing maidens to make the journey with them.
Closing the door, Eremiel crosses the room and sits down by the girl. "Look. I am sorry—truly. I do not know if you are acting under your own initiative, or if your father has threatened you in any way, but I will have a word with him. You must understand, however, that I will not ever accept you as an offer."
"Because I am not allowed to. Dumah and I, we are bound by regulation, the same as any man who would live within the shelter of empire. We do not take wives."
She has failed. She knows this deeply, and she will be punished all the worse for the crime she has been told to commit. "Couldn't you pretend? Even for a few days?"
Eremiel chuckles. "We are denied such fantasies." He is finding this conversation fascinating, far preferable to Llôt's fawning. "Tell me, would you know with whom you are speaking?"
She shakes her head. "I am not allowed."
"Nonsense. You are in the presence of a better authority than your father. Loose that swaddling, and perhaps you will understand me better."
When she makes no move to comply, fingers unwrap the veil from her face. Paltith squeezes her eyes shut and turns her head away. She will not compound crime with further disobedience.
"It will not hurt you, I promise."
She doesn't believe him, but the veil is gone, and she is unable to find it with her hands. Minutes pass. Finally, she looks.
The strangers before her are men, but not as she had reckoned. She recognizes their bodies not at all. They stand taller than anyone she has met. Her own complexion is dark enough that she doesn't burn beneath the sun, but these men look like they were inked in midnight.
She stiffens, her first thought like an in-held breath. "You are from beyond the valley?"
"You know something of politics and culture, then." Eremiel smiles. "We are. Although, if we find your father to be a reasonable man, we shall be from here as well. We are already from many of the cities to the north. Every land that welcomes us thrives."
Her father is an important man, but he does not run this city. They seem to think he does. She keeps her mouth shut, refusing to point out this flaw in their logic.
"Tomorrow, we will be going out amongst your people. Your father thinks that the good citizens of Zeboyim are pure and just and fit to be ruled. Would you agree?"
She almost falls for his prompting, but then she catches the glint in his eyes. The words "but we are ruled already," cling to the tip of her tongue, suddenly unspeakable. "We are perfect subjects, all of us," she says instead.
"Good. Please remember that." Unwinding the fabric in his hands, Eremiel returns the veil to her. "I will have no more of this attempted bribery from your father, nor from anyone else. Our assessment will not be swayed by these things. It will be based on observation alone—nothing else."
She begins to re-drape the veil around her face, adjusting the layers to look like it had never been tampered with. She can tell that this conversation is almost at a close, and begins to make her way to the door.
At the threshold, she pauses. "Honored guests?"
"Yes?" She cannot tell anymore if Eremiel is looking back at her, but she imagines he is.
"What would happen if our city was not deemed fit to be ruled?"
"We would raze it. There is no sense in leaving to flourish something that we cannot control. But worry not, for—as you said—the people here are pure."
The night is cool and quiet in the chambers where her sisters and mother sleep. Cicadas sing in the dark beyond the walls of the estate, and there is still movement in the city outside, but for the moment, all is calm.
It does not last long.
Paltith sits up in bed, sloughing off covers heavy with sweat. The visitor's words still echo in her hearing.
She waits as long as she can—perhaps to a five-count, perhaps longer—to be sure that no one else has awoken with her, and then she sets her feet on the floor. It is the work of torturous minutes to get dressed, and a longer eternity still until she is certain that she can make the front door without discovery. She pads quickly through the house and—once outside—lays a hand over her heart to soften its pounding.
There is danger out here, unveiled and unescorted, especially at night. She learned this in her cradle, along with a host of similar lessons. Do not touch fire, for it will burn you. Do not descend into water, for you will drown.
Her lungs feel as if they should be aching for air, and her hands feel as if they might blister, but she forces her fear aside. There are worse things in this world than disobedience, and finally she has encountered one of them.
Her father has business partners stop by the house from time to time. She knows none of them well, but she finds herself calling at doors all the same.
"Please. I must speak with you. We are all in danger."
They let her in—some of them—and listen to the truth. She tells them of her father's guests, and of their intentions towards Zeboyim. She begs for a show of obedience and cooperation towards the strangers, so that they might leave peacefully. The men that she tells this to consider her words thoughtfully.
And then they summon the city watch.
Dumah stares out the window at the flickering torches. He counts them quietly, marking each sputtering light with a finger. "They are here for us, brother."
Eremiel climbs out of the bed where he has been shamming sleep. He gets little actual rest these days. His back and arms ache. "Do you think they mean us harm?"
"We will know momentarily."
Llôt wakes to the sounds of men at the front door. Pulling on his clothing, he makes his way to the deserted foyer and finds that his two guests are already there.
"It seems the rest of the city would welcome us too." The smile on Eremiel's lips is taut, and his eyes are empty of levity. He is fully dressed, and in his hands he cradles a small amphora of cooking oil. Dumah is at his side, holding a chair from the dining room like a club.
"Please. There will be no need for violence." Llôt slips past them, interposing himself between his guests and the door. "I will speak with them, and then they will leave."
There comes a knock at the threshold, then. Thick, heavy blows. The kind made by a weapon, not a closed fist. "Open up, good citizen Llôt. The watch would have words with you."
Checking to see that the door is sufficiently locked, Llôt bars it as well. "Anything you would say, I can hear just as clearly in my home."
"Our concern is not for your hearing, citizen Llôt. Do you deny that you are sheltering enemies of the city? Bring out your guests, so that we might better know them."
Dumah's knuckles go white around the legs of the chair. Eremiel simply looks disappointed.
"What friends I choose to entertain are no business of yours."
"So, you do not refute the accusation. Give them up to us, Llôt, so that they may be given punishment for their crimes."
"I would sooner surrender my daughters. No guest in my household will suffer your abuse so long as I breathe."
"I hope you realize that was a poor choice of words."
The first of the watchmen slams into the door, and it groans on its hinges. Eremiel takes a step back, and turns to his host. "I would suggest you take your family and leave. We will delay them for a time, but then we must depart as well."
There is iron in his guest's stare. "Save for this moment, you have been a simpering, useless man. Do not remind me of that. Go."
Taking a deep breath, Llôt flees.
The general is old. Older than he should rightfully be. Time and weather have worn so many lines in his face that it resembles the valley. He has been lucky in his campaigns, and he knows this.
His emissaries have not been similarly blessed.
It has been three days since they were expected to return and there is still no sight of them. The meaning is clear.
He sends a runner to his men.
They will sack this city at dawn, and then they will turn their attentions to its sister, Amorah.