“But father will be back from the north before we have to leave?”
Anilat looked carefully at her mother, hoping to see some sign of the truth of the matter. But the old face, schooled in a great many years of diplomacy, was giving nothing away, and the old voice did not directly answer her.
“You will be leaving as he instructed, a half-month from now. I will wait for his return and follow on after. He has been called to attend to the wishes of the King of the North even now.”
The last was, surely, a simple guess, perhaps even a needy wish. Anilat nodded slowly, wondering if, after all, her mother had no more information than she had already shared. All that she herself knew came from the brief report delivered by the weary rider as he passed by the envoy’s house on his way to the royal palace of Ikaret.
Not long after his arrival, the city gates had been closed, and the priests were called out from the temple to bless and prepare the few city guardsmen who remained. Most of the army had already been sent north to join the collected forces of the great King of the North, assembling somewhere in the vassal territories along the coast. As well as force of numbers and weapons, they had taken wagon loads of supplies, honouring the requirements of the treaty.
The army had travelled by land, along the great Sea Road that ran all the way from the southern sedge lands of the Mitsriy up to the rugged hills in the north. But Ikaret had grown up facing the sea, and the sea still brought most of the wealth to the people. Although the hinterlands were fair, and the overland trade routes reliable, it was the port that gave life to the city. There were so few good harbours north or south along this coast.
For a time the royal family of Ikaret had offered allegiance to the Mitsriy, but no longer, not for many generations. Their loyalty had turned away when the ruler of the Khatti-lands, the great King of the North, had started to expand his sway. He was much closer to them in both distance and culture.
The Mitsriy protests were in vain; the city was simply too far north from their homeland to be retained. It was too far for an effective campaign of retaliation to be considered, even from the unruly collection of Kinahny vassal lands they controlled. Even the most warlike among the Mitsriy kings had never been able to secure their conquests this far along the coast. It suited Ikaret to have her ties of allegiance holding her to the north. The huge flocks of wading birds that feasted in the shallow waters around the bay, emblematic of Ikaret herself, had enjoyed prosperity and comparative peace for a very long time.
A little over two years ago, the first stories of raiding groups harrying the fringes of the settled lands had reached the city. A long way north and west of Ikaret, they mostly struck at island settlements, or very remote coastal towns which could not be easily reinforced. Rumours of troop losses had spread, and the great king had been swift to silence the more vocal of his critics. But the reports were still carried, by traders and officials more concerned about the immediate risk to their life and livelihood than the king’s displeasure. Then there had been a lull for a while, and it seemed that peace had returned.
But as the weather turned colder, and winter drew close this year, forlorn and homeless groups had started to come down the Sea Road. The first few dozen of these were treated with kindness and a spirit of welcome. But dozens swelled to hundreds, and generosity could only stretch so far. Some of them stopped around the outskirts of the city, clustering in great tented pools around the streams and wells. Others moved on again, southwards, hoping to find better favour among the Fenku, or even the Mitsriy. They would have a long journey southward, along the Sea Road, but perhaps the effort would be worth while.
“Are the children ready to leave? Yours and your brother’s?”