Of course the Parshendi wanted to play their drums. Of course Gavilar had told them they could. And of course he hadn't thought to warn Navani.
"Have you seen the size of those instruments?" <Hratham> said, running her hands through her black hair. "Where will we put them? We can't..."
"We move to the upper feast hall," Navani said, trying to project a calm demeanor. Everybody else in the kitchens was close to panicking, cooks running one direction or another, pots banging. Gavilar had invited not just the highprinces but their relatives. And every highlord in the town. And he wanted a Beggar's Feast. And now... drums?
"We've already set up in the lower hall," <Hratham> cried, "I don't have the staff to..."
"There are twice as many soldiers as usual loitering around the palace tonight," Navani said, "We'll have them move the tables." Gavilar never forgot about things like posting extra guards. Projecting strength, making a show of force? He could always be counted on for that. For everything else, he had Navani.
"Could work, yes," <Hratham> said. "Good to put the louts to work rather than having them underfoot. Alright, deep breaths."
The short palace organizer stumbled away, narrowly avoiding an apprentice cook carrying a large bowl of steaming shellfish. Navani stepped to the side and let the cook pass. The man nodded in thanks. The staff had long since stopped being nervous when she entered the kitchens. She'd made it clear to them that doing their job sufficiently was superior praise to her than a bow. Fortunately, this staff was the kind of middle-ranked lighteyes who understood the need for a little practicality.
They seemed to have things well in hand now, though there had been a scare earlier when three barrels of grain had been discovered with worms in them. A little creative thinking had reminded them that Brightlord Amaram had stores for his men, and Navani had been able to pry them out of his grip. For now, it seemed that with the extra cooks borrowed from the monastery, they might actually be able to feed all the extra people Gavilar had invited.
"I should leave some of the tables set up in the lower hall," she thought, slipping out of the kitchens and into the palace gardens. "Who knows who might show up with an invitation." At the very least she might need to feed some of the military officers who couldn't be seated in the main feast hall.
She turned to hike up through the gardens and entered the palace through the side doors. She'd be less out of the way and wouldn't have to dodge servants if she went out here into the gardens. Maybe she could...
Navani slowed. The Kholinar palace was brightly lit tonight, with spheres adorning every hallway and all of the garden walkways. By that light, Navani could easily make out Aesudan, her daughter-in-law, Elhokar's wife, standing just near the fountains. The slender woman wore her long hair in a bun, which was lit with a gemstone of each shade. All those colors were gaudy together. Navani preferred a few simple stones themed to a color, but it did make Aesudan stand out as she chatted with two elderly ardents.
Storms bright and brash. Was that <Grushu Kris>, the artist and master artifabrian? When had he gotten into town? Who had invited him? He was holding a small box with a flower painted on it. Could that be one of his new fabrials? Navani found herself drawn toward the group, all other thoughts fleeing her mind. How had he gotten the heating fabrial to work? What had captured the flamespren? How did he make the temperature vary? She'd seen drawings, but to talk to the master artifabrian himself...
Aesudan saw Navani and then smiled brightly. The joy seemed genuine, which was unusual, at least when directed at Navani. She tried not to take Aesudan's general sourness around her as a personal affront. It was the prerogative of every woman to feel threatened by her mother-in-law, particularly when the girl was so obviously lacking in talents. Fortunately, Elhokar liked her, and she was of a good family. Navani smiled at her and turned, trying to enter the conversation and get a better look at that fabrial. Aesudan, however, took Navani by the arm.
"Mother! I had forgotten completely about our appointment. I'm so fickle sometimes. Terribly sorry Ardent <Kris>, but I must make a hasty exit," Aesudan tugged Navani forcefully back through the gardens toward the kitchens.
"Thank Kelek you showed up Mother. That man is the most dreadful bore."
"Bore?" Navani said, twisting to look over her shoulder.
"He was talking about gemstones, and other gemstones, and spren, and boxes of spren, and... storms, what a night! You'd think he would understand I have important people to meet. The wives of highprinces, the best generals of the land come to gawk at the wild parshmen. Then I get stuck in the gardens talking to ardents! Your son ditched me there, I'll have you know. When I find that boy..."
Navani extricated herself from Aesudan's grip. "Someone should go entertain those ardents. Why are they here?"
"Don't ask me," Aesudan said. "Gavilar wanted them for something, but he made Elhokar entertain them. Poor manners that is, really."
Gavilar had invited one of the world's most prominent artifabrians to visit the palace, and he hadn't even bothered to tell Navani? An anger stirred deep inside her, a fury she kept carefully penned and locked away most of the time. That man. That storming man. How could he...
Calm, Navani, the rational side of her mind said. Maybe he intends to introduce you to the ardent as a gift. He knows how interested you are in fabrials. Perhaps that was it.
"Brightness!" a voice called from the kitchens. "Brightness Navani, oh please, we have a problem!"
"Aesudan," Navani said, eyes on the ardent who was slowly walking away toward the path to the monastery. She could catch him. She could spare a few minutes. "Could you help the kitchens with whatever they need. I'd like to..."
But Aesudan was already hurrying off towards another group in the gardens, one attended by several powerful highlord generals. Navani took a deep breath, shoving down another stab of annoyance. Aesudan claimed to care about propriety and manners, but she'd butt into any conversation between men without even her husband with her as an excuse.
"Brightness!" the cook called, waving to her. Navani took one last look at the ardents and then set her jaw and hurried back to the kitchen, careful not to catch her skirt on the ornamental shalebark. "What now?"
"Wine", the cook said. "We're out of both the <clavina> and the ruby <bench>."
"How?" Navani said. "We ordered..." She shared a look with the cook, and the answer was evident. Dalinar had been at the wine again, it appeared. "I have a private store," Navani said, pulling her notebook from her pocket. She gripped it in her safehand through the sleeve, scribbling a note. "I keep it in the monastery, with Sister <Nana>. Show her this, and she'll give you access."
"Thank you Brightness," the cook said, taking the note. Before the cook was even out the door, however, Navani spotted the house steward, a white-bearded man with too many rings on his fingers, standing in the stairwell up to the palace proper. He was fidgeting with his rings on his left hand. Bother.
"What is it?" she asked, striding over.
"Guests have started to arrive, Brightness, including Highlord Vamah, who was promised an audience with the King regarding the border disputes. You know the one..."
"...about the misdrawn maps, yes," Navani said, sighing. "And my husband?"
"Vanished, Brightness," the steward said. "He was seen with Brightlord Amaram and some of those... uncommon figures." That was the term the palace staff used for Gavilar's new friends, the ones who seemed to arrive without warning or announcement, and who rarely gave their names.
Navani ground her teeth, thinking through the places Gavilar might have gotten himself to. There were a few rooms he tended to use. He would probably be angry if she interrupted him. Well, good. He should be seeing to his duties rather than just assuming she'd handle it all. Unfortunately, at the moment… well, she would have to handle it all. Brightlord Vamah couldn't be left waiting.
She let the anxious steward lead her up to the grand entryway where guests were being entertained with music, drinks and poetry while the feast was being prepared. Others were going with master-servants to view the Parshendi, the night's true novelty. It wasn't every day that the King of Alethkar signed a treaty with a group of mysterious parshmen who could talk.
She dealt with Vamah, offering apologetic words, even going so far as to promise to review the maps herself and write him a judgement. From there, she was stopped from locating Gavilar by a line of needy men and women who had come specifically to get the King's attention, a privilege that was growing more and more difficult these days, unless you were one of the 'uncommon figures.' Navani assured Brightlords their petitions were being heard. She promised to look into injustices. She soothed the crumpled feelings of those who thought a personal invitation from the King would mean they'd actually get to see that King. It was emotionally taxing work, but nothing new to her, and fully within the Queen's expected duties.
Navani didn't resent her station. Perhaps some day she'd be able to spend her days tinkering with fabrials and pretending that she was a scholar. For now, she had duties. The only thing that truly bothered her was the fact that she shouldn't have to do those duties alone. She was unsurprised at asking that more guests were indeed still indeed showing up, ones that weren't even on the list an annoyed Gavilar had provided for earlier that day. Vev's Golden Keys! Navani kept her increasing fury under control, painting an amicable face on for the arriving guests. She smiled, she laughed, she waved. Using the cheatsheet she kept in her notebook, she asked after families, new births and favorite axehounds. She inquired about trade situations, took notes on which lighteyes seemed to be avoiding others. In short, she acted regal.
She always felt like an imposter, and with good reason. She hadn't been born to this station. Gavilar, Navani, Sadeas, Ialai, they'd taken these mantles upon themselves. And however prestigious their ancient lineage, Navani had to work hard to suppress the anxiety that whispered she was really just a backwater country girl wearing someone else's clothing. Those insecurities had been stronger lately. Calm calm, no room for that sort of thinking.
She rounded the room and was happy to note that Aesudan had found Elhokar and was chatting with him for once, rather than other men. Elhokar did look happy presiding over the pre-feast gathering in his father's absence. Adolin and Renarin were there in stiff uniforms, the former delighting a small group of young women, the latter looking gangly and awkward as he stood by his brother.
And there was Dalinar, standing tall. Somehow taller than any man in the room, but with those haunted eyes, simmering with passion. He wasn't drunk yet, and people orbited him, like they might a fire on a cold night, needing to be close, but not daring to step up and risk the true heat of his presence. Storms. She complained to her current conversation partners that she was feeling a little faint and, after assuring them that she would be fine, made a brief exit up the steps to where she wouldn't feel so warm.
It was probably a bad idea to leave. They were lacking a King, so if the Queen vanished too, questions were bound to arise. But surely everyone could get on without her for a short time. Besides, up here she could check one of Gavilar's hiding places. He would probably come this direction, away from both the guests and the location of the new feast hall.
Parshendi with their drums passed nearby, speaking a language she did not understand, though one of the young interpreters was with them, so Navani could have asked if she'd wanted. Instead, she twisted her way through the dungeon-like hallways. Why couldn't this place have been a little more light, had a few more windows? She'd brought the matter up with Gavilar but he liked it this way. It gave him more places to hide.
There, she thought, stopping at an intersection. Voices.
"Being able to bring them back and forth from Braize doesn't mean anything, Gavilar," one of them said. "It's too close to be a relevant distance."
"It was impossible just a few short years ago," said a deep, powerful voice. His. "This is proof. The Connection is not severed, but can be warped to allow for travel. Not yet as far as you'd like, but we must start the journey somewhere."
Navani inched forward, looking around the corner. Yes, there he was, right where she'd expected him to be. In her study, a place she rarely had time to visit but also a place where people were unlikely to search for the King. It was a cozy little room with a nice window, tucked away in the corner of the second floor. He'd left the door cracked, and she inched up to peer in.
Gavilar Kholin had a big enough presence to fill the room all by himself. He wore a beard, but instead of being unfashionable on him it looked classic, like he was a painting come to life, a representation of old Alethkar. By wearing the beard, some had thought he might start a new fashion trend, but nobody else had been able to pull off the look. Others simply didn't have Gavilar's strong features. Beyond that, there was an aura of distortion around Gavilar. Nothing supernatural or nonsensical. It was just that... Well, you accepted that Gavilar could do whatever he wanted, in defiance of any tradition or logic. For him, it would work out. That was just the way of things.
The King was speaking with two men that Navani vaguely recognized. 'Ambassadors from the West' were what they'd been called, but no kingdom had been given for their home. They were simply among Gavilar's uncommon visitors.
A tall Azish man with a birthmark on his cheek, and a shorter Alethi man with a round face and a small nose. The Azish one leaned back against the bookcase, arms folded, face completely emotionless. The Alethi man wrung his hands, reminding Navani of the palace steward, though this man was much younger, somewhere in his twenties, maybe his thirties? No, he could be older…
On the table between Gavilar and the men were a group of spheres. Navani's breath caught as she saw them. They were arrayed in a variety of colors and brightnesses, but several seemed strangely off. They glowed with a color that seemed somehow an inverse of light, as if they were pits of violet darkness, sucking in the color around them. She'd never seen anything like it before, though gemstones with spren trapped inside them could have all kinds of odd looks and effects. Those spheres… they must be for fabrials. And Gavilar was talking to two strangers about them? She was reminded of the artifabrian in the gardens. What was he doing with spheres, strange light, and fabrials? And why couldn't Gavilar talk to her about…
Gavilar suddenly stood up straight, then glanced towards the doorway. Their eyes met. She couldn't tell how he'd spotted her, as she hadn’t made any sound. As soon as she was seen, she pushed open the door, acting like she had been on her way in, anyway. She wasn't spying, she was Queen of this palace, she could go anywhere she wished, particularly her own study!
"Husband," she said, "There are guests missing you at the gathering. You seem to have lost track of time."
"Gentlemen, " Gavilar said to the two ambassadors, "I will need to excuse you for the moment."
The nervous Alethi man ran his hand through his wispy hair.
"I want to know more of the project, Gavilar, plus you need to know something else. I think another of us is here tonight. I spotted her handiwork earlier."
"I have a meeting shortly with Meridas and the others," Gavilar said. "They should have more information for me. We can speak again after that."
"No," the Azish man said, voice sharp. "I doubt that we shall."
"There's more here, Nale!" The Alethi man said, but his friend towed him out the door, protesting. "This is important! I want out! This is the only way!"
"What was that about?" Navani asked as Gavilar closed the door. "Those are no ambassadors. Who are they really?"
Gavilar did not answer. With seemingly deliberate motions, he walked back to the table and began plucking the spheres one by one and placing them into a pouch. Navani ducked forward and snatched one off the table.
"What are they? How did you get spheres to glow like this? Does it have anything to do with the artifabrians you invited – without telling me, I might add – to come visit you?"
She looked at him, waiting for some kind of answer, some kind of explanation. Instead, he held out his hand for her sphere.
"This does not concern you, Navani. Return to the party."
She closed her hand around the sphere.
"So I can continue to cover for you? Did you promise Vamah that you'd mediate a dispute tonight, of all times? Do you know how many people are expecting you? Did you say you have another meeting to go to now, before the feast even begins? Are you simply trying to ignore our guests?"
"Do you know," he said softly, "how tired I grow of your constant questions, woman?"
"Well, perhaps try answering one or two of them, then! It’s a novel experience, answering someone, treating them like a human being, rather than a machine built to count the days of the week for you!"
He wagged his hand, demanding the sphere be returned. Instinctively, she shied back, holding it.
"Why? Why do you continue to shut me out? Please just tell me…"
"I deal in secrets you could not handle, Navani. If you knew the scope of what I'd begun…"