“Of course. Thank you for so thoughtfully accommodating me,” said Y’lanna. “If you were to get into trouble because of me, well I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Ruili smiled at the alien creature. “Oh, don’t worry about that.”
From the moment he said, though, if Y’lanna was worried about anything, she wouldn’t have had much chance to express it. Although he never sent far from her, Ruili’s attention was occupied entirely by the process of bringing the war-ship Wolf into her home port and the countless tasks that seemed always to keep the crew in a rush of motion and the officers and captain watching all like hawks overlooking a swooping flock of pigeons.
As the Wolf coasted through the busy harbor towards the navy piers, she was hailed on all sides, from small boats and large ships, from people on the docks, pausing in the never-ending flow of business in Plesz to call and wave. And at the navy piers beneath the sheer white wall of the limestone cliffs, they were greeted yet again by a phalanx of marines in bright, red and blue uniforms and a cotillion of selkie pipers who struck up the anthem of the Isles, beginning with a long, plaintive note and swinging into a quickening, lilting tune that seemed to bounce and fly between the white rocks and the sparkling sea.
Under the whirl of music and sea breeze and waves splashing up on the dock, the process unfolded without Y’lanna having to do a thing but keep up and out of the way. First an officer and a marine left the neat, strict double line on the dock to board the ship with a great deal of formal bowing and clicking of heels. The officer, dressed not too differently from Ruili in the state colors of red, blue, white and gold, took a tied scroll from Ruili and immediately handed it to the marine, who took off at such a run that he was off the ship and out of sight in seconds.
Then some stiff, militarily mandated rigmarole of releasing the ship to the harbor commander’s care and handing the crew over to the command of Mr. Foxrun to be paid off and put at liberty, and so on, and finally, Ruili led Y’lanna down the boarding plank. All around the strange girl in her plain, borrowed sailor’s clothes fluttered the finery of the Sovereign Navy, but she had little time to stop and stare. Ruili walked her quickly across the dock, and an honor guard of marines closed ranks around them, all marching towards what appeared to be a brightly painted carriage without wheels. The dock officer opened the gilt doors for Ruili and Y’lanna, and as soon as they settled into the padded seats inside, the carriage jerked twice and began to rise on a series of cables strung through a huge clockwork system powered by wind turbines mounted up the cliff face.
Ruili gave Y’lanna another reassuring smile, and nodded appreciatively towards the spectacular view of the endless sea, a sight dear to the hearts of all his people. And if she happened to look away now and then, he took the liberty of taking in the sight of her as well, letting his eyes wander over the strange ridges of her bald head, her unusual eyes, and all the other details that told him just how strange this stranger really was — not least the fascinating color of her smooth skin.
How like unto a summer’s day my love…, he thought, pondering the fact that plums were a summer fruit and a purple one at that. By the time the lift jerked to a halt, the warrior-playwright’s mind was toying with words that rhymed with “plum” while balking at the far easier rhymes for “prune.”
The lift, which was a short-cut up from the navy pier, left them a few cliff terraces below their destination, so the last part of their journey was completed in an ornate, luxurious, open-topped carriage drawn by five matching piebald goats and driven by a young marine cadet who stared openly at Y’lanna until he remembered himself with a look of panic and quickly focused on his job. To the click-click-click of cloven hooves on the stone paving, they passed along tight, zig-zag lanes lined with the roundish, tower-like houses of Plesz. In this neighborhood, they were all embassies and the homes and offices of dignitaries both foreign and domestic. The sun’s light blazed off the gleaming white walls, made brighter by the inclusion of ground shells and mother of pearl in the plaster. The sun’s heat filled the air with the perfume of the citrus trees that adorned the street, the yellow and orange fruits heavy under the dark green leaves.
Ruili watched Y’lanna as they rode. Her responses to the sights around her intrigued him, but he politely made less of a show of it than the scholars had on board the Wolf. He was happy to pass the last leg of their journey by explaining this or that to her as they went along, answering whatever questions she might come up with, but without prying into her thoughts or past. He expected she would get more than enough of that over time. No need for him to be the first in line.
The massive edifice of the Citadel of Grippio at last loomed before them, and the main gate of iron wrought into the form of twisting kraken tentacles spread open. Guards fell in step, running alongside the goat carriage to clear the path of tourists and petitioners and others with business here as they entered the first courtyard and pulled to a stop before a fountain of dolphins spraying water up to the sky. All the many-arched galleries surrounding them looked the same, but Ruili, with an extended hand and a gentle, “Come along, Milady,” led Y’lanna unhesitatingly into a building of black and white marble, along tall, airy corridors, up broad stairs, along more corridors, being saluted by guards and bowed to by civilian officials all the way.
It all finally ended at a pair of gigantic doors, before which stood a dark-faced, dark-haired woman in a suit of flower-embroidered, pink silk. In many, subtle ways, she seemed Ruili’s equal, including fashion. In the garments and general silhouette, her attire was nearly identical to a man’s suit, but where Ruili’s masculine britches were cut to accentuate the lines of his legs and hips, the woman’s vest was shaped and boned to highlight the slender waist under the open coat and the ample bosom presented high and soft, under a necklace of brown pearls. Thus were the tastes of elven society underscored.
“Milord Admiral,” she declared as she and Ruili bowed to each other.
“Milady Chancellor of the Customhouse,” Ruili answered. “How are you, cousin?”
“Quite well, thank you. How was your trip?”
“Spiffing. Look what we found.” With a broad grin, Ruili stepped aside to reveal Y’lanna. “Mistress Y’lanna Sparti, lately arrived from the Vortex Zone.”
“Oh, my,” said the Chancellor, looking Y’lanna up and down. “Your report was quite accurate, I see. My, my, yes indeed. Well, Mistress, this way, please. Just a few formalities. She has her medallions?”, the woman added to Ruili.
“Tongue and Eye, yes.”
The Chancellor of the Customhouse pushed open the tall doors, revealing what was, in fact, the Customhouse of the Grand Navigators, or at least its main records hall. She led Y’lanna and Ruili into a room so vast that its upper reaches seemed lost in a mist as spears of sun from the high, arched windows sliced through the dust of thousands upon thousands of books and documents. On the ground level, customs and immigration officials sat at rows of baize-covered desks writing, writing and writing. At some desks, tradesmen or visitors were giving information, presenting accounts, etc. At others, the workers were processing transit documents for cargo and people. And at every desk, the soft scratching of quill pens was multiplied by enchanted scrivener’s quills that flew about and moved of their own accord, scribbling in exact copy of the writing of the officials.
“I shall be processing the lady for greatest expeditiousness,” said the Chancellor. “Their Graces have asked that you go to see them as soon as we are done.”
“Oh, jolly good,” said Ruili.
They arrived at a desk like all the others. Three sets of documents written up by hand in graceful, flowing calligraphy were laid out, the animated quills dancing across them all by themselves. When the Chancellor took her seat behind the desk and caught one of the pens in mid-dance, the rest immediately froze in place, hovering over the papers.
“Now,” said the Chancellor, indicating that Ruili and Y’lanna should take the two visitors’ chairs facing her, “most of the information for our purpose was in Lord Ruili’s report, but we need a few more details to process your provisional passport. First, what was your place of residence in your homeland — nation, town, street, that sort of thing? And then, how did you come to enter the vortex?”
The Chancellor, beautiful in the arch way of the high-born, smiled at Y’lanna so impersonally as almost not to be smiling at all. On all sides, and high above, the hum of government carried on, the rustle of papers, the buzz of voices, and the constant scritch of pens. In the warmth of the island sun and the smell of parchment and ink and sealing wax, Y’lanna was now truly in a new world, different from the one she’d left behind in ways she may not be able to imagine. And this new world was preparing to put its stamp on her and make her one of its own, at least provisionally, and it was waiting for her to account for herself.