Ashas

This story arc ended on such a climax that we’re not going to have a long wrapup (though Thulo may write up his experiences after Ashas); it’s my turn now to take Lyse and either Fikmet or someone else to the East.

As we passed the place where we had seen the people under the ground, I took Thulo to see if we could find them. Maha came along, and Nima too — we were really a team now! It was quite some way into the wood. Strange wood, though: we didn’t hear any birds or see any tracks or droppings of animals.

Eventually we stood practically on top of the people but we still couldn’t find an entrance. Maha needed all her tracking skill to find first a discarded snakeskin — there must have been snakes, at least, though we hadn’t seen any actual ones — and then a wooden hatch in a thicket in the middle of a clearing. (Well, clearing — it was under the forest roof, but there weren’t any trees growing there.)

Thulo and I thought at the same time of knocking on the hatch. As soon as we’d done that, there were people around us: dark-skinned, thin, in rags. I thought they’d probably speak the southern language that I knew only a couple of words of yet, but tried trade Iss-Peranian and one man understood me. “Who are you?” he asked. “Are you from the emperor?”

“No,” I said, “we’re going to the emperor! To deal with him. We want to know if we can help you.”

They talked among themselves — indeed in the southern language, I didn’t understand a word.

“The priestess will judge that. One of you may come.”

I asked Thulo to keep a mental eye on me and followed the first man into the shaft under the hatch, with the others behind me. It was a good ten yards deep, with a rope ladder dangling down, and came out in a corridor dug in the earth. In some places earthenware pipes went through the ceiling, held up by wooden supports.

“Can you make a light?” the man asked. I did so — after burning Sidhan’s trap I seemed to have got better at it. The man looked satisfied. “Ah, now I know you’re not a servant of the grand masters. They make only darkness.”

There were passages on the side, possibly to dwellings. A little boy ran up and tried to touch the light, but his finger went right through, of course, and he giggled and ran away again.

We ended up in a larger space, eight-sided. A young woman was sitting by an empty fire-pit in the middle; she was gifted but not spectacularly, and she didn’t look at all trained. She stood up, supporting herself with a pair of crutches — it looked like her legs had been broken and badly set.

“Are you the high priestess who was foretold?” she asked in understandable trade Iss-Peranian.

“I don’t know about it being foretold,” I said, “but I am a high priestess, yes. Of Anshen.” For the first time I noticed that the name came out as ‘spirit of light’ in that language. It figured.

When she saw that I was looking at her legs, she said, “That’s the punishment from grand master Lyase. If she thinks you’re gifted but you’re not gifted enough.”

“We’re trying to get rid of the grand masters,” I said.

“All of them? Are you from the emperor?”

“We’re going to the emperor,” I said.

“Don’t do that,” she said. “We fled from Ashas. The closer to the city, the stranger it becomes, you get strange dreams and if you stay too long it’s not a dream any more.”

“Yes, we’ve already seen a bit of that,” I said. “How can we help you?”

She shrugged. “You can’t. We have nowhere to go where they won’t find us, and many of us can’t walk.”

“How many of you are here?” I asked.

“Thirty-eight, adults and children.”

“There are three thousand of us. We can give you food, clothes, camels, and an escort to go to a safe place.”

I called Thulo to call to the caravan, and the priestess gave me wine and mouldy bread, all they had. Well, I’ve eaten worse; and given to me with much less reverence and attention.

When Thulo said they were almost ready on the surface, we all climbed out of the shaft, the able-bodied carrying the others. The last one out was a pregnant woman who had had trouble with the rope ladder. Thulo was there with some soldiers, and we got everybody to the road where Pesar’s first wife was waiting with the camels. “These are the people I’m going to take to Ghilas, I understand?” she asked. “I see they need clothes. And food.”

“And a doctor, I think,” I said, but she’d already thought of that as well and brought a couple of the former whores.

As I got back to the caravan, I got a surprise — a double surprise. Prince Shab was back, intact as far as I could see; and he had brought Prince Sharab and all the soldiers! I looked Prince Sharab over with my mind, what if he was an illusion of Sidhan’s? But no, it was the man himself, alive, but looking green with misery. “I — we — had a horrible dream,” he said, “that Sidhan was burning us alive on a pyre!”

“That’s what Thulo and I saw when we were looking for you,” I said. “We were convinced you were dead.”

We were convinced we were dead! They’ve taken our camels, though, not everything was a dream.”

“You know what’s strange,” Prince Shab said, “Sidhan fled when we came along, and she didn’t hide at all, I could see her thoughts. And she was convinced Sharab and the soldiers were dead too, that she’d put them on the pyre alive!”

“I’ve been warned of illusions,” I said, “but I didn’t know they were this convincing.”

That evening, in the service, Anshen was there. And, somewhat bashfully behind me, his brother as well. I acknowledged both of them silently.

“Perhaps we should have the other one in the service, too,” Thulo said. “But how?”

I thought of having both versions of the Second Invocation, but I was hampered by not knowing the right words, and they weren’t in the service book either, of course. “Do the Velihan invocation!” Maha said, “it’s the same for both anyway!” And by now everybody either understood Velihan or would know what we were saying, so from that moment on we sang the invocations in that language.

We were riding through a dry plain now, mostly flat, with some grass and brush and occasionally a stunted tree. The road was clearly marked with stones, some with carving on them — Pesar read a number of miles on one and told me it would be about another week to Ashas.

Then the outriders found two dead camels on the road. Apparently they’d been ridden to death. A bit further along there were two dead people — no, one was still alive, though completely parched. I went to talk to him when he’d had a drink of water. “Are you of Sidhan?”

“Not any more,” he said, “her camel died under her and then she took mine and left me behind.”

“Well, do you want to go north or are you coming with us?”

“What’s in it for me?”

“The same as for everybody else here,” I said, “a fair share of what we have.” His eyes narrowed, then he nodded. “That man over there is a sergeant, report to him and he’ll give you a place.”

I’ll keep an eye on him, Thulo thought to me. Good; saved me having to do it.

And yes, in the evening service Thulo looked up and left the temple with a couple of soldiers. It turned out that the man had been taking his share in advance, from four different tents. They brought him to me, and also the sack they’d taken from him, full of small valuables like purses, jewellery, and even a set of very fine linen underwear.

“Is that how you repay trust?” I said.

I didn’t have anything else to say, really, but the sergeant did. “What shall we do with him?”

“Cut his head off,” I said, disgusted with myself as well as with the thief. I should have known that anything touched by Sidhan would never be clean again.

The man struggled all the time while the soldiers were taking him away. Then there was a shriek at the edge of the camp, and a strong sense of the presence of Archan — I couldn’t see which one it was before it was gone.

Thulo sent everybody to their tent and asked one person from each tent where things had been stolen to come and reclaim them. Nobody would admit to the underwear, so I gave it to Zahmati.

After another couple of days we saw a plume of black smoke ahead. When we got close enough we saw that it came from the top of a green hill — strangely green in this wasteland! On the other side of the road there was a small walled city, all white, which looked deserted at first sight but I could see people with my mind, a good-sized farm full, not nearly enough for the city. It didn’t look plundered, not even damaged, and the only gate was closed and probably barred.

“Over the wall, I think,” I said, and promptly soldiers brought ladders. They reported that the city looked empty, but one climbed down and came back surprisingly soon, grey with shock. “There’s sickness here,” he said, “nobody left alive!” Except those ten or twenty people; perhaps they’d escaped, or recovered. We let down a sack of flour and a sack of onions with a note pinned to it, “we can’t help you more now but we’ll come back after we’ve done our business”. One of the soldiers stayed on the wall for a bit when he saw a woman come out to investigate the gifts and said that she’d told him the sickness was in the water.

We left a company to guard the city and went on to see what was burning on the green hill.

That the hill was so green was because it was thickly wooded. I wondered where the water came from that all those trees must need. A natural spring? But no, someone told me that the water came from the distant mountains through earthenware pipes. “Oh, like the aquaduct in the palace in Tanim!” I said, but these pipes were underground until they came to their destination.

In the wood, we found a palace. It was the emperor’s hunting lodge, I heard. It was empty, had been plundered, both recently and less recently as far as I could see. There were several camels in the first courtyard, some with tack I recognised as coming from our caravan, but we didn’t see any people.

After we’d crossed what looked like a whole deserted palace we got to a park surrounded by a colonnade. There was a small round building in the centre, which was on fire; the fire had almost burnt itself out. There were several dead bodies lying around — it looked as if there’d been serious fighting as well as burning, and in fact only the bodies inside the building were so burnt that they could have died of that.

The building itself was so damaged that it was in danger of collapsing. Someone –I think it was Maha– spotted someone alive on the first floor, a man, not young, wounded. “Come down,” I called to him, “this way is safe!”

He did: it was a man of about forty, dressed in something that must be a military uniform though I didn’t recognise it. He said that he was Donai, colonel of the imperial guard, charged with guarding the lodge of Nemai. They’d tried to keep Sidhan and her troop from entering the lodge, because of the sickness in the city. He told us that Sidhan had come in anyway, a blazing torch in each hand, set fire to the folly (this was probably what the small round building was called) and thrown herself into the flames, “if I can’t burn the others I can at least burn myself!”

Well, so much for Sidhan. Donai was going on and on in a great paean to the emperor, all of it clearly from memory, before entreating us to take the news to the emperor “because I won’t live to relay it”. He showed us where an arrow had pierced his side: he’d pulled it out but the point was firmly lodged in his guts, nothing to be done about that if you didn’t have access to a hospital with skilled and gifted doctors.

“Long live the emperor!” he said, and died.

“I’ll have to be a priestess of Naigha again, I think,” I said.

“Do you want to bury each of them separately?” someone asked, but I didn’t think that was necessary, just drag all the bodies into the building and make it collapse in a controlled way, like the temple in Merom, before it collapsed on its own. I called on Anshen as well as Naigha, and the fire that was still there flared up high.

Now was the time to investigate the water. Beyond the park (which had fountains, but they were dry because nobody was maintaining them) there was more palace, then servants’ quarters which hadn’t only been plundered but had been clay and mud to begin with, so they were completely derelict now. We could still follow the water-pipes, though. We got to a huge basin that had small black fish swimming in it — as far as I knew, if there were fish, the water was clean. But we didn’t know if there wasn’t a dead camel at the bottom, poisoning the water in spite of the fish. It was too deep to see that, deeper than any of us could have dived.

“Can’t we drain it?” one of the sergeants asked, and I thought there should be a gate in the water-pipe before the basin for exactly that purpose. Yes, there was: some way into the wood, and if that was closed the water would flow into the moat around the castle.

“Well, let it do that then,” I said, but of course we knew that the water was all right before it came to the basin so we could just fill our water-bags at the gate.

We made our camp in the wood. Nobody wanted to sleep in the palace, which felt like a house of death. And we had a deer for dinner — my hunters had gone hunting almost as soon as we’d arrived. “There must have been no hunting for hundreds of years!” they said, “the deer weren’t afraid of people at all!”

The next day, Pesar decided to leave most people here or send them back to the north, and to go on to Ashas only with the people who could fight or had business there. The doctors decided who would go back — almost all the children, half of my household including Zahmati, meaning that Aftabi would go back too. I’d miss Aftabi, and I’d miss her two swords! Samada went with her school, of course. I kept Khali and Bhalik, and all the hunters, and somehow Ysella had argued so much to stay that nobody sent her back. The elephants went back, too: there wouldn’t be enough water for them further on.

We had only about eight hundred people left, mostly soldiers, and more than half of the pack animals to carry food and water because we didn’t know if there would be anything at all to be got between here and Ashas.

“I think most of these people won’t reach Ashas either,” Nima said. He was the only one of his caravan who had stayed with us. “Many will have to stay in camp.”

Now it was real desert, the way I’d always imagined it: sandy hills where nothing grew, and burning heat that made me very glad of my Ishey clothes. After a couple of days we came to a small oasis surrounded by a low wall, a masonry basin fed by water by another pipe from the mountains. When we had finished filling the water-bags the oasis was surrounded by people: refugees from Ashas. It was impossible to live there any more, the grand masters were poisoning the wells and destroying the fields.

“Go to the hunting lodge,” I said, “there’s enough water and you can eat the deer in the wood!”

“But that belongs to the emperor,” they said, “it’s not allowed! Have you been there?”

“Sure,” I said, “and the emperor hasn’t, not for hundreds of years, there’s nobody there right now.” In the end Pesar had to give them an escort too, to take them to any place that was safer and more congenial than this place.

Thulo thought of labelling the water-bags so we’d know which water was from where, and we tied coloured threads around the neck of each one, yellow for the well we’d just been using, red for the hunting-lodge well.

The ground was going down sharply now in a chasm between rock walls. The road was still marked with milestones. In the distance we could see an immense city. Ashas! It was burning in some places, and above the city the sky was dark as if it was encompassed in half a dome, open to our side.

We passed a small waterfall coming down from the rock face. It fell into a pool with plants growing around the edge. There had been a stand of trees here too, but they’d been felled quite recently. The soldiers found the body of a man under a fallen tree: sword still in the sheath, axe in his hand. The axe was splendid, with an emerald in the handle and an engraved blade. The man’s head wasn’t on his neck, but lying a couple of feet away. We buried him under a heap of stones far enough away from the waterfall that he wouldn’t poison the water.

After the service, that evening, the dome around the city was closed a bit more. “Would they close it for the night?” Thulo asked, but it had been steadly closing while the service was going on and stopped when the service ended. Apparently something didn’t like us to pray — but we’d pray anyway.

The next day the horses and camels refused go to any further. “We’ll go on foot, then,” I said, but people didn’t make any more progress here than animals. It reminded me of Thulo’s master’s trial.

“Perhaps we should only go in the spirit,” I said. If that was the only way to get into the city…

But before we did that, I wanted a proper temple. There were trees here, stones, enough people to build: poles on the eight corners, stone walls in between, a fireplace in the middle. We put it as far out as it would go. Where did I want the door? One on the north side to go in, one on the south side to go out. It took a day, and another half-day. Then it was finished, and I consecrated it defiantly, very precisely by the book, the appendix of my service book headed To Consecrate A New Temple.

When the temple was finished it was just large enough for four people to stand around the fire. There was power in the walls, like in the temple in Valdis. “This is a safe place,” I said. “We’ll be safe here.”

After I’d consecrated the temple, the dome around Ashas was completely closed.

Anshen was in the south doorway, Archan in the north. We stood in silence. Archan opened his mouth and closed it again, then started to speak. I don’t recall all the words — it must have been mostly or completely in our minds — but the gist was that he, his power, came into the world here, in Ashas. “I and what is in Ashas are one, we are the same, and when I come closer to the city I’ll turn into him.” At one point I heard Anshen clear his throat — do gods have throats? Well, they were in human form, so in this case they must have — when Archan was about to say something outrageous.

Then even Anshen spoke. “There is a temple with four pillars in the city. The source is there.”

Archan said a lot more: the power must be contained, curbed. I must build an Order house on that place. (Archan told me to build an Order house? Of what Order? I might acknowledge him but I still refused to serve him. But it must be an Order house for Anshen, because he was talking about the need for balance now.)

What I knew of Dol-Rayen was that there had been no balance, perhaps because Athal’s sister had disturbed it. What Athal had done was not to make the city fall, but to allow it to fall after he’d held it up long enough for everybody to save themselves. If we could close off the source of Archan here, would that be enough to restore the balance? It had been the mandate of the Order in Dol-Rayen to preserve that — they must have known a lot of secrets that ordinary Sworn hadn’t even heard of. I thought I’d end up commander of an Order house somewhere eventually, but not this!

“We must go into the city,” I said aloud.

“You can’t do that on your own,” Archan said. “Each of us can carry two of you.”

I thought about that for a long time. “You may carry me,” I said. Maha said that there was no difference for her anyway. Thulo was very wary of Archan, and for Nima there was no question, he would let only Anshen touch him.

“Not now, though,” Nima said, “tomorrow at dawn.”

The gods were gone, leaving emptiness.

“Do you trust Archan?” Thulo asked me.

“In this thing, yes,” I said. “Anshen is there to keep him in check.”

I wanted to have a wake in the temple. Nima thought it a good idea, “but we must sleep too, wake me halfway.” And to Thulo and Maha he said, “better find a tent for only the two of you. ” That made me laugh: the married people, or as near as made no difference, in their tent and the celibate people in the temple! Exactly as it should be.

I even slept, the second half of the night.

When Nima woke me and Thulo and Maha were back, I washed, put on my uniform, took care to put all my weapons where they belonged. I suspected that I’d be able to do what I had to do naked and barehanded, but I needed to feel prepared. I think someone pressed breakfast on me, but I can’t be sure.

I asked Shab to keep watch — I thought we’d probably go in the spirit only, and someone had to watch our bodies. “Get us back if we can’t come back on our own, and bury us if we don’t come back at all,” I said, which made him blanch but he nodded. Goodness, Shab isn’t any older than sixteen, why does this war make people grow up so fast?

We entered the temple. I took Thulo’s right hand and Nima’s left hand, and saw Thulo and Nima clasping hands with Maha on the opposite side. The gods came. Anshen took Thulo and Nima’s hands from me, and Archan took mine and Maha’s. Five steps beyond the south door the gods were carrying us each in an arm.

I couldn’t feel whether I had my body with me or not; I felt much more substantial than usually when I’m only in the spirit.

We were going very fast, through the dome of darkness now. The gods put us down, and we were in a city that looked deserted at first sight. The light was blinding. We couldn’t see Archan any more but Anshen was still with us. I don’t know how the others saw him, but to me he looked like a handsome Valdyan, much younger than he’d looked before, perhaps eighteen years old.

We all knew that we had to hold hands and not let go.

Now we could also see people: a small red-haired child running after butterflies without seeming to notice us; more children playing, every one of them alone; a woman who sat on the rim of a fountain and whispered to thin air; a man celebrating on his own, toasting with something invisible.

Anshen led us further into the city, until we came to an immense gateway, the doors covered in gold. The wicket gate was open, and a guard sat next to it, playing dice. After every throw he picked a coin out of the air and added it to a growing pile. He didn’t see us either, or at least paid no attention.

We went through an empty courtyard, then into a room where a young man was sitting on a throne in what looked like a whirlwind of darkness, but when we got closer we could see that it was a cloud of flies converging on him. All he did was snatch one out of the air and pull off its wings, and another, and another. He didn’t have attention for anything else, especially not us.

Next, there was a huge office where a richly dressed middle-aged man was doing paperwork on his own. “This would be the emperor’s secretary,” I said.

“Grand Vizier!” the man said, irritably, and went on with his work.

Then we heard a voice speaking to us, promising us everything we wanted. “Thulo, wouldn’t you like your wife to stay seventeen years old and beautiful forever, not getting old and ugly? I can give you that!” Thulo pointedly ignored it, only squeezed Maha’s hand more tightly.

We were in a library now, where many people were sitting on benches and at tables reading, and the walls were full of books, more books than I’d known there were in the whole world. Now the voice was promising Maha wisdom and knowledge. “The temple first, then wisdom!” I said, and we went on.

Anshen was younger still, barely in his teens. “When I become a small child I’ll turn into my brother,” he said.

“Because that’s when you and he were still one?” I asked, but got no answer.

Beyond the library there was a large garden with a colonnade around it. The marble here was old, yellowed, crumbling in places. In the centre there was a round domed building, also of old marble.

“I think it’s there,” I said, and looked at Anshen for confirmation but he’d disappeared. “We’re on our own now.”

Inside the little dome we found the four pillars: made of greyer stone than the marble, connected by lintels on top. Inside the square there was something that could be a pool or a fireplace, obscured by a column of darkness that went all the way up to the roof and presumably through it. We could just stand around the square of pillars, holding hands. The column seemed to stand still at first, but as I looked at it longer I saw that it was flowing, up from the pool. This must indeed be the source.

“What do we do now?” Maha asked.

It was hard to answer, or even think. “It’s darkness. You beat darkness with light.”

I knew that I could make light. Wait — we could all make light, we were light-bearers! But we should do it together, not each of us separately. We thought a little dome of light into existence at the level of the lintels, and it fractured into pieces like stars and dissipated.

“I don’t have the strength,” Nima said.

“Of course you do,” I said, “in the plain you could help me, now I can help you.”

That made him able to brace himself — I didn’t even have to help him, it was his own confidence.

“Whatever we cover this with should be firm, like a seal,” I said, and Thulo and I could do that, but it was still too small to close the source. “Maha, it should grow.”

Maha concentrated, and the glimmer of light sprouted leaves and then twigs. “Like this?”

“Yes–” and I suddenly realised that we already had something to close, the pillars and lintels made a structure to seal. “We must close the sides,” I said.

“How? Like brambles, a thorn hedge?”

I gave Maha the image of a wattle-and-daub house. “Huh, strange way to build,” she said, but she started coaxing the twigs to braid themselves together. Every space that seemed small enough, we smeared with seal. It was almost closed.

“I can’t go on!” Maha said, but Thulo could give her some of his strength and we did go on, closing the structure completely.

The pillars fell.

And the lintels fell, on top of us.

Thulo was the first one who could put himself out and helped the others. We were exhausted, full of bruises, bumps and scrapes.

In the middle of the dome there was now a heap of rubble with the seal clearly visible under it. A small tree of light was growing from it. “We should make a fire, I think,” Thulo said, and we gathered firewood from the garden and laid a ring of it around the heap. “I even brought a tinder-box,” I said, but Maha thought it would be better to light the fire with our minds. It was surprisingly easy.

When we were all outside again, the tree of light touched the roof and it fell in; the walls stood, and the ring of fire stayed.

Above us, there was bright blue sky with clouds.

We went back the way we’d come. In the library nothing seemed to have changed, but Maha caught my sleeve, “look!” Two young men were sharing one book, pointing things out to each other and talking in low voices.

The office looked smaller and less tidy now, and the grand vizier was at his desk asleep. When three clerks came in, clearly in the middle of a conversation, he woke up and started ordering them around, then saw us. “Who might you be?”

“We’re the delegation from the King of Valdyas,” I said, brazenly.

“Ah! To pay respect to His Imperial Majesty and bring tribute! I fear that His Imperial Majesty is … not as his best today, could you come back tomorrow?”

“Certainly,” I said. The grand vizier walked with us through the throne room. The emperor –it couldn’t be anyone else– was still on his throne, but the flies were gone; he was drooling a little, a vacant look on his face. It wasn’t clear whether he couldn’t see us or just wasn’t interested.

Two women, one middle-aged and one young, came in and took the emperor each by an arm, leading him out of the room while talking soothingly to him, I wondered if he’d ever be at his best at all.

The guard was gone from the palace door. We heard children’s voices. “I can hear Velihan!” Maha said, and we followed the sound and found a schoolyard, full of children of different nations, running, shouting, playing, arguing.

Maha stood in the gate until someone noticed her and said “I’m the princess of Velihas!” and most of the children ran up to her, talking excitedly.

“Yes, she really is our princess,” one of the older Velihan children said. “Have you come to take us home?”

“Yes, I have,” Maha said, and all the children ran to the city gate ahead of us, the larger ones carrying the smaller. I tried to lift a little girl too, but my bruised state wouldn’t let me. An Iss-Peranian man ran after them, shouting “come back, I need you” but he stumbled and stayed behind, fuming.

The gate was wide open. We could see the new temple, but it was very far away. “That’s a whole day’s walk,” Thulo said.

“Then we’ll walk a whole day,” I said. I was confident that we could do anything now. But there was a better way: I called Shab. “Can you send someone to fetch us?”

His mind-voice sounded very surprised. “I see a lot of children, too!”

“Those are the kidnapped children, they’re going with Maha,” I said.

“I’ll have them brought here. And I’ll come to fetch you.”

That was a strange way of putting it. Then I felt something pull at me in the direction of the camp, and gave in.

I woke up on what felt most like a wooden bench. There was a pit dug next to me, the size of the wooden bench. My body felt completely stiff and cold, and my tongue was so thick that I couldn’t speak.

Water? I asked Shab, who was squatting next to me.

He gave me water with some wine in it. “You were dead! Really dead! No breath, no heartbeat, and no connection with your spirit at all! We were just about to say the prayers.”

I noticed that I didn’t have the cuts and bruises I remembered, and I was even cleaner than I’d washed myself in the morning. I could look around now, and saw that the others were in the same state, coming around slowly.

After we’d drunk more water and eaten a little, we were carried to our own tent. None of us could walk yet. I must have been feverish because I saw Anshen, who gave me an inscrutable glance and disappeared, and also Naigha. Perhaps I was dying after all. But Naigha looked at me, right inside me, said “Thank you for your service” and swished her mantle around and disappeared too.

When I woke up the first thing I saw was Nima, sound asleep with his thumb in his mouth, looking young and cute. On the other side of the tent, Maha was asleep and sucking Thulo’s thumb, but Thulo was awake. “I had such strange dreams!” I said, and then it dawned on me what had happened. “Oh!”

I got up, shaky but whole, and found Shab. “We’ve taken the city,” he said. “That was the plan, wasn’t it? There’s a tree of light growing in the palace. We’ve fed the fire around it.”

“Good,” I said.

“And we caught three of those grand masters, I think they were the last. There was a problem with that, because with the darkness gone they were working together, but we did get them, and we hanged them. We didn’t hang all their followers, that didn’t seem necessary.”

“That’s good, too.”

“The emperor doesn’t seem … capable.”

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “Who will rule Ashas now? You?”

Shab shuffled his feet. “I know how to do it but I can’t. I’m not the high priest. It should be you, Holiness. You’re the regent now.”

“Perhaps I can, but I don’t know how to do it!”

“That’s what a regent has advisors for,” he said.

The next couple of days were a complete blur. Thulo and Maha left, with all the children and what looked like half the army, but that could be because most of the army was in the city, trying to get normal life going again.

“I’ll miss you,” I said. “Both of you. I’m sorry I can’t keep my promise to show you Valdyas, but I seem to be stuck in Ashas for the gods know how long.”

Stuck in Ashas, with an idiot emperor, an officious grand vizier who I still had to convince that I wasn’t going to bring the emperor any tribute from King Athal, and the mandate to build an Order house. Well, that at least was something I knew how to deal with.