Next morning, I finished almost all my orders, Alana cancelled her classes apart from today ones. Using Shirela’s pigeons, she sent a letter to other cities to inform her students there about her departure. At the start of the busy day, Shirela came over to prepare both of us to the journey. We sat round the dining table, Shirela and my uncle brought a lot of documents.
‘As we never treated you differently,’ my uncle started, ‘I’d like both of you to hear this.’
He took a map and opened it. The map showed our country, which had a similar shape to a deciduous tree drawn by a child. The tree was surrounded by the sea and the trunk was connected to the land. The tree was upside down, the sea surrounded the Kingdom on the south.
‘We are here,’ my uncle indicated the top of the tree, the southernmost point of the country, ‘Here is the capital,’ he indicated the trunk. ‘They have different weather from here, but as it is summer now, you will feel only a little chillier.’
‘They dress differently,’ Shirela said, ‘women wear long dresses which are tight at the top and have a comfortable long skirt at the bottom. They like to wear different belts. Men wear long trousers and shirts.’
‘Never wear a green dress or any green colour,’ my uncle said, ‘Green is the colour of the royal family, it is improper to wear any green. If you don’t want to be conspicuous, avoid green even if you can buy it very cheap.’
‘It’s a pity,’ My sister said, ‘green is a nice colour, but I’ll give it up then.’
‘I’ll show you the route where you must go,’ my uncle said, ‘I marked on the map the posts of the royal guards. The tax collectors are staying there as well, you must avoid them. I marked your route with blue dots. Most of the cities are by the seaside. There are three trade routes, two are close to the sea and one is in the middle of the Kingdom. You must ride on this one,’ He showed the route on the west coast, ‘The road in the middle is too busy as this is the shortest, the east one is too far. This road on the west will be the safest for you.’
He showed us the red circles which were the places of the guards and small blue dots which were leading to the capital. The dots started with a huge bypass, but after a while, they turned back to the trade route on the west.
‘I marked the inns with green,’ my uncle continued, ‘you shouldn’t stop in any other inn apart from the marked ones. Even if you are sleepy or tired, you should not stop anywhere else,’ He stressed it, we nodded, ‘I’m giving you a list with the names of the inns.’
‘I’ll give you a list about when and where the guards will be,’ Shirela said, ‘you must avoid the southern tax collectors. For most guards during the journey to show your invitation card will be enough.’
‘Can we go together?’ My sister asked.
‘Yes,’ Shirela smiled, ‘the winner and his family have been invited as the winner can have a family from any province.’
‘Were others invited from every other province?’ I asked.
‘From all the four,’ Shirela said, ‘after the summer the Prince might ask some of his guests to stay.’
‘If you are good, you might stay like a royal guard. Teachers are needed in the capital for sure, so I could find something for myself too,’ my sister was enthusiastic.
‘Only very rich children are private students,’ Shirela said, ‘the rest go to school, but you can find something there for yourself.’
My uncle said that we should not be surprised at meeting someone on the road, but we should be careful with the bandits.
‘Don’t trust anyone who you don’t know,’ my uncle said, ‘it is very important.’
‘Understood,’ I said.
‘You are going to travel like two brothers,’ my uncle said, Alana raised her head.
‘I did not plan to cut my hair just now,’ she said, ‘but I’ll do it of course.’
‘Don’t cut it!’ my uncle said immediately, ‘you can wear your hair open in the capital. You will not look weird there.’
‘As a boy, you can wear your weapons and you will get a room easier,’ my uncle said.
My uncle stood up and went to his room and brought out some huge packed bags.
‘This is yours,’ he said to my sister and gave her a shawl with hair hanging from it.
‘It is a wig,’ Shirela said, ‘it is a fashion in the capital. If you tie your hair, and put this wig on, you will look like someone who has short brown hair.’
Alana went to the room and put the wig on.
‘How do I look?’ she asked from her door with a smile.
We were resembled siblings, she looked very like as my very young brother, but her feminine slender shape showed that she was not a boy.
‘I don’t want to disappoint any of you,’ I smiled, ‘but she is well developed for a boy,’ Alana started to laugh.
‘I asked Corul today to change some of Aleron’s old dresses,’ my uncle said, ‘In loose shirt and trousers you will look like a boy. The rest in this bag,’ he showed the bag, ‘are old dresses from your mother.’
‘I will use them for sure,’ Alana smiled, the trip made her very happy.
‘Corul made two sets for both of you when you introduce yourselves to the royal family. You will know which ones they are at the bottom of the bag. There are shoes and other things which Shirela thought would be useful.’
‘Do you still remember the etiquette and the behaviour protocol?’ my uncle asked, ‘it should be in your head.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we remember everything. After our arrival, we will call a courier from the inn and deliver the invitation card. He will come back with the details.’
‘Take your mother’s mare with you,’ my uncle said, ‘you need a place to carry the bags.’
‘Is there anything else?’ I asked.
‘I cannot tell you everything in one night,’ he said, ‘the most important thing is not to trust anyone.’
‘I will not trust the royal family for sure,’ Alana said, ‘as they are collecting taxes this way, they cannot be fair rulers.’
‘Before you judge them, you should get to know them,’ my uncle said.
‘Do we have anyone to contact in case of an emergency?’ I asked.
‘Unfortunately, no one,’ my uncle said and took a quick look at Shirela.
‘Tomorrow you should pack everything and leave during the night,’ my uncle said.
‘Why during the night?’ Alana asked.
‘Tomorrow night the tax collectors will spend their money in Gaina’s tavern,’ Shirela said, ‘to leave tomorrow night will be perfect timing.’
‘There is one more thing,’ my uncle said, ‘the money. As a guest of his majesty in the capital, you will not need any. In the beginning, you will be given everything and after that, hopefully, you will have your own money.’
My uncle went to his room again and came back with four small bags with coins. He put them down on the table, I looked inside the bags.
‘Uncle,’ I was surprised, ‘these are gold. It is a lot of money.’
‘It is,’ he said, ‘take your own money with you, during the journey gold will not be needed. Hide these bags in four different places, you might need them later. In the capital, everything is more expensive. Never leave any of your bags in the stable, always carry them up into your room.’
‘Where did this money come from?’ Alana asked, ‘what should we do with the bags after our arrival? We cannot hide them under our pillow.’
’This is from your parents, ’my uncle said, ‘in the capital put them in a place called the “guardian of coins”. They will take care of them instead of you and you can take out any coin if needed at any time.’
‘We will do that,’ I promised.
‘Now go and have some sleep,’ Shirela smiled, ‘today no one should go anywhere,’ she looked at me, I understood that I could not visit Gaina anymore.
We listened to the adults and went to sleep quickly.
Next morning, I wrote a short letter to Gaina thanking her for the past years and wishing her good luck for the future. I packed my daggers and knives in separate bags and helped Alana to dig out her herbs. She put the herbs in separate bags which contained fresh soil. Shirela came over in the morning and helped us with everything. She promised that she would send the letter to Gaina and she prepared some food for the journey.
‘Will your herbs survive the journey?’ I asked Alana.
‘I hope so,’ she said, ‘I need to take good care of them, but mother said that they should survive such a trip.’
I hid the moneybags and we packed everything. Alana tried on one of my old dresses with a flat boot and the wig.
‘Are you ready?’ our uncle asked at lunchtime.
‘Yes,’ Alana said, ‘after lunch, we will drink some of my tea and go to sleep. We are leaving in the twilight.’
After lunch, Alana and I drank a small cup of tea and we went to sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke up my sister was already in the bathroom. Both of us got dressed, Shirela and my uncle prepared dinner.
‘What do you think?’ Alana asked when she came out completely dressed.
She looked like my young brother and her chest looked flatter. Probably Shirela had given her something to tie down her breasts. Her eyes were shining, and she still had a very pretty face but for a young boy, it looked natural.
‘You look good, Alan,’ my uncle said it to remind me that Alana’s proper name would reveal her gender.’
We put a leather vest on, attached our weapons, saddled our horses and walked them to the gate of our stone wall.
‘We will be fine, uncle,’ I said and we hugged each other.
‘I know,’ he smiled, ‘after your arrival, please send a letter to Shirela.’
‘We will,’ I promised.
My sister hugged everyone and wiped her tearful eyes before she sat on her horse.
‘Obey my orders,’ my uncle said.
‘I will,’ I said before we left our plot with my mother’s mare.
It was completely dark; the stars were shining in the clear sky when we started to gallop. My mother’s mare was tied to my horse, she carried all our bags.
The royal guard post was near a nice lake, where we used to bathe in our youth ages. My mother forbade us to visit the lake from an early age, she wanted to keep Alana safe.
The post was between a lake and a forest in a glade, we bypassed the forest from the other side, following my uncle’s order. It was already dawn when we turned back to the trade route.
There were cities on both sides of this road, but we did not stop anywhere, we trusted our uncle’s orders. Based on the map the inner side cities were very well situated, they had a trade route on both sides. Each of our inns was in the cities by the sea, probably they were less busy. The landscape had not changed so far, the nearby towns had no walls, they were built in a similar style to our own. The first house near the road showed us that we had reached a new city. On the road sometimes we met people on chariots or on horseback mostly close to the cities. We passed each other without a word. People still had dark skin and hair, but Alana didn’t look so different from others in her wig and no one showed any interest in us. Probably without a wig, everyone would have stared at her or even worse. The sun was high when we stopped for a short break near a forest which started after an inland city. Based on my counting we were on time, so we decided to take a short break.
My sister took the food which was prepared by Shirela, I gave water to the horses.
‘It will take time for us to get there,’ I said, ‘It will take a few weeks.’
‘I know,’ She smiled, ‘I thought the same too, but I don’t mind. Do you think that we will return one day?’
‘If our Uncle comes too, it wouldn’t make much sense to go back,’ I said, ‘I hope that we can stay after the summer. If I do not become a guard, we will look for a smithy and a school.’
‘I will look for a school during the summer,’ Alana said, ‘I will have nothing to do, only reading a few books in a good library.’
‘Instead of sitting in the library I would prefer you to make friends. There will be no mockery there, based on what Shirela said our appearance will be quite normal.’
‘It would be good,’ my sister said, ‘I would love to read in the garden.’
‘Don’t read, talk,’ I laughed.
After our break, we continued our journey until dark and arrived at the inn that our uncle had marked for us on the map. We followed his instructions and we left the horses in the stable without bags, I carried everything with us. I gave a light bag to Alana, as a boy he should carry something.
The inn looked a lot like Gaina’s tavern, but here, there was no podium with dancers and the people at the tables in the middle played some kind of board game. A violinist was playing quietly in the corner. A long bar was on the right side and the stairs led up in the middle where Gaina used to have the podium. Rooms were located on both sides upstairs. The inn was not full, only a couple of tables were occupied. People were already dressed differently from the way we did at home. Women’s tops were just as short, but they had knee-length trousers. Some waitresses had skirts already and they were less colourful, one dress did not contain more than three colours. Men had knee-length trousers as well and they were wearing shirts like I did now.
‘What can I do for you, boys?’ A short, but very strong man asked us from behind the bar.
‘I’d like to have a room for us for tonight and supplies for my three horses outside.’
‘No problem,’ the man said, ‘I assume you would like to have dinner as well.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Your room will be upstairs the last door on the right side,’ he said, ‘right side is just above me.’
‘Thank you,’ I said and we went upstairs.
We went to our room where we had two beds by the walls with the window in the middle. At the end of one bed, there was a wooden tub and at the end of the other one, there was a cupboard and a handbasin.
‘Do you know where the bathroom is?’ My sister asked quietly.
‘I think partially it is the tub and it’s on the corridor,’ I made a guess based on Gaina’s tavern.
Alana went outside, I waited for her in the room.
‘Have you found it?’ I asked.
‘I have,’ she said, ‘they are not as good at cleaning as I am,’ she laughed.
We went downstairs to eat dinner, I chose a table where I could keep my eye on our room. I did not want anyone to go in. The innkeeper brought us two huge portions of meat, fish with seaweed and potato. I paid for dinner and the room.
‘If you want to take a bath,’ the innkeeper said, ‘we will start to fill the tub.’
‘Yes, please,’ I said and handed an additional coin over, my sister nodded gratefully.
‘What are you doing here boys?’ a man who was half my size just sat down at our table, the smell of alcohol hit my nose.
‘We are travelling,’ I said, Alana tried to eat timidly.
‘Do you want to play?’ he showed the board game at his table which was just next to ours.
‘We don’t have any money,’ I said calmly, ‘and we don’t know this game.’
‘It is your choice,’ the man said.
‘Come back,’ a fat man stood up, ‘you will just lose later,’ the man said, his mates started to laugh.
‘I’m coming,’ the man stood up, ‘if I don’t win today, my wife will kill me.’
‘She will kill you because you are spending your income here,’ the other man was laughing.
Alana and I finished our dinner and went upstairs. A girl was just coming out of our room with a huge, empty jug and she winked at Alana. I started to laugh, Alana just smiled at the girl.
‘Do you see?’ I teased my sister, ‘you already have admirers.’
My sister undressed and sat in the tub. I didn’t want to bother her, so I went out to the corridor. At home, we used to go into the bathroom while the other was standing under the pipe, but we never stared at each other. My uncle was right, Alana had undoubtedly become a beautiful woman and men would be buzzing around her.
When she finished, I sat in the tub as well. From what I heard from our neighbours the water is not changed after each person, so I did not request it from the innkeeper. While I was taking a bath, Alana took care of her herbs one by one, she watered every herb.
‘Could you please push the cupboard near the door?’ my sister asked, ‘I don’t want anyone to come in during the night.’
‘The cupboard is too heavy, but I’ll push my bed,’ I said, she nodded.
I quickly pushed my bed near the door. It was not easy, but I had pushed even heavier things before. We fell asleep quickly, this journey had made both of us tired.
We woke up and got dressed very early. My sister carefully pinned and patted the locks of her blonde hair under her wig, before we left the inn.
During our journey week by week, we got used to our schedule and the customs at the inns. During the evening sometimes we passed a noisier inn, but we never stopped anywhere apart from the inns on our list. Sometimes young men fighting fell out to the street in front of us from other inns, but we didn’t pay any attention to them. Our inns were generally quiet like the first one, mainly local people were resting after their daily fatigue. After two weeks riding people’s skins were visibly lighter and instead of black hair, they had brown hair. The clothes became more and more long and less colourful, women were wearing mainly long skirts instead of trousers.
In the middle of the Kingdom, there were mining towns, during the early morning and evening many people were passing by. The cities started to have chest high stone walls to clearly show their borders. If someone sat at our table in an inn, they were only curious rather than intrusive.
Close to the capital, we were stopped once by guards, but after showing our invitation card they politely let us go. We left the sea behind us only on the last day of our journey.
We planned the journey to arrive in the capital during the daytime, but the castle and the peak of a tower were visible even from afar. The tower was the same height as the castle and from here it had a brown colour.
‘What is that tower?’ my sister asked.
‘I have no idea,’ I said, ‘I haven’t heard anything about it.’
The capital was enclosed by a high thick stone wall, guards were able to walk on the top but at that point, I saw no one.
After our arrival in the capital, we understood our Uncle’s words. It was completely different from the cities in our province. The huge crowd went along the main road by foot, by chariot or by horse and they turned off to a smaller street. On the main road, many chariots transported the citizens. People had various skin and hair colours, from light till dark. Everyone dressed differently but all of them wore long clothes. No one cared about anyone else. We looked for an inn which was on the other side of the city close to the castle. The castle stood on a small hill near the brown tower. The chariots were coming and going on the main road and at some points, people got on and off them. On the side of the street sellers sold their products, the royal guards supervised the city on horses or on foot. We didn’t stop anywhere, we wanted to arrive in the inn as fast as possible. Our last inn was located near the castle in a small and quiet off street.
‘Finally, we are here,’ I said when I got off my horse, ‘let’s take the bags and go in.’
‘Yes,’ my sister said, she was beginning to feel uncertain about the city and the crowd.
The same as every evening in the last couple of weeks, I took the bags and walked into the inn which looked like other inns.
‘What would you like, boys?’ A well-built woman who was shorter than even Alana asked me. The woman seemed to be older than my uncle.
‘We’d like a room for two of us for a couple of days,’ I said.
‘Payment is in advance for every day,’ the woman said looking at us.
‘It is not a problem,’ I said and gave the estimated amount to her.
My uncle was right, the prices indeed went higher as our journey progressed.
‘Almost right,’ she smiled, ‘add two more copper coins to the rest.’
I gave her the exact money, she called a boy from behind the bar. The boy’s height was between Alana and me, but he was much skinnier and maybe a bit younger than us. He wanted to take our bags, but even my sister could carry them easier than he did.
‘Please follow me,’ the boy said and went upstairs coughing.
‘You are coughing very badly,’ my sister told him.
‘Yes, since my childhood,’ the boy said.
Our room was like the others during the journey, but here our room was connected with a bathroom, there was no need to go to the corridor. In this bathroom, they had pipes which were controlled by pedals just like at home.
‘What is that brown tower next to the castle?’ I asked.
‘The tower of the fortune tellers,’ he said, ‘I’ve never been to the tower or the castle, although I’d like to.’
‘Could you please call me a royal courier?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said coughing, ‘he will be here before dinner.’
The boy left us alone, my sister unpacked her herbs carefully.
‘All of them survived,’ she said happily, ‘some of them even bloom,’ she showed me a tiny bud.
‘Let’s look for this guardian of coins,’ I said, ‘Who knows what is waiting for us from tomorrow, I want to keep the coins safe as soon as possible.’
‘I agree,’ Alana said.
We left the inn and walked back to the main street. I didn’t want to ask the innkeeper about the guardian of coins, she didn’t have to know that we had money. After a short walk, we found a huge building and a big wooden coin on the door showed that this was the building that we needed. Next to the entrance two royal guards stood with huge halberds.
We went inside, it didn’t look like a big place. In front of the door, behind a long table, three women sat next to each other in the same kind of yellow dress. Two women already had one handsome man each in front of them, so we walked to the third woman. With our current dresses, we didn’t fit in here.
‘Can I help you?’ The red haired woman who was older than us asked.
‘Yes,’ I said and sat down.
As Alana still looked like my younger brother, as an older brother I had the right to sit down. Alana stood behind my chair.
‘I’d like to leave my coins here,’ I said.
‘We keep here only gold coins,’ the woman said.
‘I know,’ I took the small bags out.
The woman looked inside the bags and nodded.
‘You should fill out the form,’ the woman said and gave us some paper.
The paper had three lines with beautiful writing.
‘Do you want me to read it out for you?’ she asked.
‘Not needed, thank you,’ I said.
I read the form, which contained questions about any number and quantity of coins and a space for a name.
‘Please provide a number and a name and write down the number of coins,’ the woman explained, ‘Only the person who knows these details can ask for the money.’
‘Write down your date of birth,’ Alana suggested, ‘and the name of our mother’s mare,’ she smiled.
I filled out the document with the details given by Alana. From one bag I took out one gold coin before I gave all the bags to the woman. She took the paper and gave us a wooden coin with an engraved number.
‘This wooden coin is not needed,’ she said, ‘but if you have it, next time my job will be easier. Where are you from?’ she asked with curiosity.
She was visibly surprised that we were able to read.
‘From the south,’ I said, ‘thank you.’
We left the building, the guards inside next to the door nodded to us. We walked without purpose, but we saw a market on a wide street, so we looked around. At the market, stalls stood next to each other covered by canvas. Alana bought some clay pots and soil for her herbs. People sold different kinds of products even very cheap green fabric. I saw stalls with belts, coats, sweets for children and other products that I didn’t even recognize. Some people wore several belts above each other, but it seemed to be a normal thing.
‘I’ll mix some herbs for the boy in the inn,’ Alana said, ‘he coughs very badly, and he is very skinny.’
‘As you wish,’ I said, ‘what are they selling there?’
I pointed out a long queue of women to Alana near a stall.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘let’s have a look.’
At the stall were creams, colourful powders, fragrance oils and similar products, my sister looked at a sticky and creamy substance and made a step aside.
‘Do you know what these are?’ I asked.
‘I do, Aleron,’ she smiled, ‘Our mother showed me all these many years ago. She said that a woman always needed to look after herself. I know how to use all of these.’
‘I haven’t seen you using any of these,’ I said.
‘I never used anything visible,’ she smiled, ‘I didn’t want to be conspicuous. The oils and the powders would have melted in that hot weather anyway.’
‘Are you going to buy something here?’ I asked, ‘Eventually, we will introduce ourselves to the royal family.’
‘I brought a few things with me, but I still don’t want to wear anything visible,’ she said, ‘who knows what kind of person the Prince is.’
‘You are right,’ I said, ‘based on the swine we cannot know.’
After shopping we went back to the inn, Alana wanted to take care of her herbs, and I was hungry.
‘From tomorrow you will get rid off this wig, won’t you?’ I asked while I was unpacking my clothes from the bag.
‘I thought,’ she began cautiously while looking at me, ‘I could stay as your brother. It would be safer.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘From tomorrow please wear our mother’s dresses. No one will mock you or stare at you. In the castle, we will be safe.’
‘I hope so,’ she said.
Alana started to plant her herbs, I ate the leftover from yesterday. It would be enough till dinner.
Alana finished planting and cleaned the desk when someone knocked on our door. Assuming by the cough, it must have been the boy. I opened the door and behind the boy, a man was standing who wore a yellow-green vest with the royal coat of arms. The man was tall like me but much thinner.
‘The courier is here,’ the boy said and made a step back.
‘Please give this invitation card to his majesty, Prince Veron,’ I said to the courier and handed the card over.
‘I will bring the answer back soon,’ the courier said and left us.
Alana signalled to me to make the boy stay here.
‘Please wait for a moment,’ I said to the boy, who wanted to follow the courier.
‘From these leaves,’ Alana gave a small bag to the boy, ‘create a tea for yourself twice a day until the cough disappears. If you run out of the leaves just let me know, but according from my experience, it should be enough.’
‘Thank you,’ the boy said.
The boy went downstairs, we followed him to have dinner. With the fish and the meat, we got a different kind of sauces, we tried all of them. One was rather sweet, the other one was rather bitter. The inn was quiet, the sun has just started to set. We had almost finished our dinner when the courier came back.
‘Tomorrow, after the noon bell, his majesty, Prince Veron will receive you.’
‘So soon?’ my sister asked.
‘Yes,’ the courier said, ‘every guest from the other provinces already arrived yesterday or even earlier,’ he gave me a card which needed to be shown tomorrow at the entrance.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
The courier left, the innkeeper stepped up to us with a smile.
‘You will not stay long here after all,’ she said.
‘No,’ I said, ‘we are leaving tomorrow.’
Both of us were tired, after dinner we went up to our room and after washing ourselves in the bathroom, we fell asleep quickly.