A few months later

Fiction, except for most of the conversation with Athal and Vurian.

Well, I can speak the southern language now. Also three or four other languages I didn’t even know existed, because the city is filling up with people again.

I did what the gods told me to do, built a house around the source of darkness and the tree of light, but it’s not called an Order house because ‘Order’ is a tainted word here. We are the Companions of Anshen. Lately I’ve been spending mornings talking to people who want in, sending most of them away because it may be a very different community than the one I came from but there are still requirements, starting with being gifted and somewhat trained. I can do most of the training they still need, and so can Shab now, who is wavering between wanting to stay here and travelling to Valdyas to see his sister.

“And what about your own kingdom?” I asked. “You’re your father’s only son.”

“He’ll have other sons,” he said. He was probably right.

Sharab did go north after a couple of weeks, with Pesar, to make sure there were settlements all along the caravan way, each one no further than a day’s journey from where one can reach people with one’s mind. He’s not his father’s only son, but his brother is a priest in Ghilas and I think he’s likely to end up a priest himself too. The third son of his father is here, waving tiny arms and legs in his cradle, but I don’t think Sharab will tell that when he gets home.

One of the first things I did when I was settled was to ask Zahmati to join my household again. That meant Aftabi too, infant and all: he was born soon after they arrived here. They did get married at the hunting lodge, even though Bhalik and Khali still resist.

I think the Grand Vizier still doesn’t know what to do with me, but he’s a capable administrator and he can handle the emperor. Poor emperor! I wish I could get him a place on a farm, where he can do useful work and get his hands dirty and have people watch out for him, as would happen at home with someone like that. He’s literally been spoiled rotten all his life, and that was exactly what Archan needed to get all that influence.

Speaking of Archan, I spend my afternoons clearing up little patches of rotten power. There are thousands all over the city, and I’ve managed only a couple of hundred until now because I can only do two or three before I’m too exhausted or disgusted to go on. And that’s something I can’t teach Shab, and Nima can’t do it at all because it makes him ill. I’d give a lot for a handful of the Sworn from Valdis or Essle or Solay, or even Lyse on her own, to help with the heavy cleaning.

And now there’s a messenger telling me there’s a big army coming down the chasm. What they call a big army here must really be a big army, a hundred thousand at least; compared to that our own army was hardly more than a regiment.

“Whose army?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the messenger said, but right at that moment I sensed a familiar touch.

“Never mind.” I said, “it’s King Athal.”

So it was. Also King Edhmem, Maha’s father. It was another day until they were anywhere near, and half a day more before Athal and I could embrace each other.

“Sedi, I’m so sorry I had to do this to you,” he said, “but you did turn out to be exactly the right person to do it.”

“This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened in the world,” King Edhmem said. He could have been Athal’s elder brother: a good fifteen years older, fatter, with more lines in his face and two good eyes, but much the same otherwise, even the appearance of his mind.

And then a small red-haired boy ran up to me and grabbed me round the hips. “Sedi!”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Did you get my letter?”

“Yes! And Thulo told me all about Pegham! Thank you!”

“You brought Vurian,” I said to Athal, “did you bring Lyse too?” But Lyse was in Albetire, handling logistics. Mehili was here, though, and she told me she’d married Thulo and Maha when they met about halfway.

“Pegham is why Beguyan has only half his force here,” Athal said, “he sent the rest there before we turned up with the Valdyan and Velihan armies. Not to speak of the Ishey, the Khas, the Síthi, and those from the East. All to get our children back, but you seem to have beaten us to that.”

“My daughter and her man handled that admirably,” King Edhmem said. “I’m very pleased with my children’s choice of spouses. Three married now, and all from different countries.”

“We saw your temples on the way.” Athal said, “it was like a pilgrimage! How did you do that?”

“Prayed,” I said, “it seemed the thing to do.” I told him about the travelling temple from Dadán, which I’d used when I needed a safe place to pray, and how it had gone on from there.

“Those places are still holy ground,” Athal said

“Have you seen the little temple just outside the city? That’s the holiest of all. There’s power in the walls.”

“Have you seen it lately? The farmers are going there to pray. When we arrived there were dozens of them.”

“I have to show you something,” I said, and took Athal to the source and the tree, the ring of fire burning on its own now, never needing fuel.

He was silent for a long time. “Thank you. Again.”

We talked about it much more, of course, after the banquet at which Zahmati had surpassed herself, not only presiding over the palace kitchens but also coming up with saffron chicken she’d made for the kings of Valdyas and Velihas with her own hands. And again later, because Athal was staying for half a year to teach me. I learned much statecraft from him, and much about the gods from Edhmem. Vurian learned all the languages that could be picked up in the streets of Ashas, because it was impossible to keep him inside longer than for the daily lesson in the library that Athal insisted on, and very hard to persuade him to at least take a guard along.

“And here’s me thinking I’d go and found an Order house in Kushesh,” I said to Athal.

“Kushesh? No. Perhaps Dadán, where they don’t care what you are, only who you are.”

“Sometimes I dream of going back home to Valdis. Or to the farm.”

“You’ve grown too large for Valdyas,” Athal said. That was probably true. He had a full portion of that himself, of course.

I hope I can be spared here when Athal goes back, so I can go with him and see everybody one more time. And then I’ll probably come back to Ashas, because I’m too young to retire to Dadán, too large for the Order in Valdis, too cosmopolitan for the farm, and too notorious to be a Guild runner.