Chaos in Zameshtan

It happens every time. EVERY SINGLE TIME. She does what she needs to do, this causes a lot of chaos, and she moves on before it’s resolved. She’s beginning –no, continuing, she already thought it in Kushesh– to think it’s a curse.

And I admit the boots are a running gag now, as inadvertently foreshadowed here.

When I found Maha she was bubbling with giggles. “They were making love!”

“Who?” I asked.

“Aftabi and Zahmati, of course! But you’ll have to talk to her fathers because I’m afraid they won’t like it.”

I promised to do that, hoping I’d find the right occasion before there was trouble. That evening there wasn’t time for anything any more, of course, Two services, more name-givings, though Thulo and the acolytes wouldn’t let me stay up all night.

The next morning a boy came to tell me at breakfast that the market-master wanted to speak to me. “After the service,” I said, but Pesar and the captain of the Zameshtan regiment caught me first. “We talked about staying here another few weeks,” they said, “but would you mind leaving earlier? The caravan is getting larger every day.”

I’m a farm girl. I knew what the problem was. “And the land won’t bear it any longer.”

“Exactly. The day after tomorrow?”

We’d have one day to go to the market and get everything in order for travel. “Yes.” I thought for a moment we could perhaps split the caravan, but that wouldn’t do, everybody would want to be where the temple was. (I resisted thinking they’d want to be where I was, even though everybody could make a temple and the people had seen it done now.) “That will foil my plans for the tailor, though, would there be someone who could sew me a uniform? I don’t seem to have one at the moment. My bodyguard says it’s being sold in the market in tiny pieces for luck.”

That made Pesar laugh. “Of course! I’ll have it taken care of.”

The captain talked about the next stage in the journey: to a garrison town called Ghilas, guarding the border with a commander and a couple of hundred soldiers. “Are they guarding against people coming into Zameshtan, or people going out?” I asked.

“Both? Anyway, this commander is a bad lot, he’s doing things that — well, make a soldier less worthy in the eyes of Mizran.”

“Corruptible?” I asked.

“I’d almost say not corruptible enough! The tolls are high, but it’s the only passage to the road south, and the girls in the slave market cost half of what they cost here.” He clapped a hand over his mouth. “When you could still buy girls here, I mean.”

After Ghilas it wouldn’t be easy with such a large caravan: there were at least two stretches where we’d have to carry our own water, because the river disappeared. Whether it went underground or it went away entirely, Pesar and the captain didn’t know.

As we went on our way to the city we met the market-master. Goodness! I’d completely forgotten the man. “You wanted to speak to me, I gather?” I asked.

“Yes, Your Holiness,” he said, after the obligatory falling-at-my-feet. (I should perhaps go barefoot so they won’t have to kiss the latest installment of my succession of threadbare boots!) “Your inestimable wisdom has seen fit to free all the slaves, and I understand that there is a question of compensation. Businesses are being ruined! Didn’t your Queen Raisse provide for that?” And he called his clerk — who I suspected was still a slave — and had him recite all the owners’ claims!

I stopped him before he was well underway. “You must have misunderstood, master. Queen Raisse’s decree is to recompense the slaves, not the owners. For the years that they worked without pay. But the king has ordered that void for Zameshtan because it’s on a far too large scale here to handle.”

The man crumpled, retching, his face going grey, Maha and Thulo rushed to help him but he was gone before they could do anything.

“Could anyone go to his family? Or get a priestess?” I asked, but his former slaves looked at each other and said “we don’t have to do that any more, do we?” and departed, one by one. We waited for a bit but nobody came, and we went on to town. Someone else would have to take care of this for once.

When we got to the market we saw that the slave side of it was completely empty, but the rest seemed to be going on as normal. Some of our soldiers –I recognised a sergeant who saluted us with a grin– were loading huge bolts of grey fabric on wagons. Surely I could get a uniform from that — and it looked like the whole army was going to be decked out in Order colours!

There wasn’t a single water-bag left to buy in the whole market, but in a corner a small man was sitting in front of a huge stack of goat-skins. I watched Thulo haggle for them for a while, then I took Satta to the spices stall. I’ve never been as good at haggling as Thulo anyway, and I would probably just be a distraction.

I marshalled all my smatterings of languages but the woman at the spices stall spoke trade Iss-Peranian. “Do you have northern silverleaf?” I asked, barely daring to hope. They got out a crate, “this is all I’ve got, Holiness! Would you like one pound, two pounds, four pounds? I’m afraid it’s gone mostly to powder, it doesn’t travel all that well.”

“If you can spare four pounds–” The only thing I was afraid of was that I wouldn’t be able to afford it: the doctor in Samada’s house had said it was as costly as gold. Four pounds was almost all there was, two large linen sacks full, even though a lot of it had indeed gone to powder. We’d have to bind it in a scrap of cloth to brew. I took out my purse, but the stallkeeper said “It’s for the temple! Take it as a gift, please!”

“A royal gift,” I said, “thank you!”

I did manage to pay for the cooking spices: a bag of saffron the size of a well-grown rabbit, sticks of cinnamon tied in bunches like kindling, and several different brown and red and yellow powders that Satta picked out with much glee. “Zahmati will be so happy!” she said. Everybody would be happy, in fact, when things that smelled so nice went into the food.

Thulo, meanwhile, had bought eight hundred goat-skins for, I think, forty-five riders in all. And the two youngest daughters of the goat-skin merchant, not bought of course, but engaged as waterskin seamstresses. Later, it turned out that they’d only seen slaves sewing waterskins, but they knew how to make them waterproof, and could also look after goats, so there was enough for them to do.

We found Samada together with a young man about her age, swapping lines of poetry, it seemed. When we arrived with the wagon they came running, excited. “The paper has arrived! Now we can make notebooks! This is Halik, he’s taking half the class. He used to be a slave and a clerk but now he’s a teacher. Are those goat-skins? Can I have some for notebook covers? We can make four out of one skin, I think.” She negotiated with Thulo for eighty of his eight hundred skins, so they could make a covered notebook for every one of the more than two hundred students that the school had got now.

“There are probably more people who used to be slaves,” I said, “clerks, historians, accountants, map-makers. They could teach what they know.” Halik nodded eagerly, but Samada looked more thoughtful and said she’d think about it.

The captains of the army came to present themselves. And to show off their weapons: Prince Ishan had a larger version of the dart-thrower that Rava had made for me, and Thulo was very interested in that and wanted to get one himself. According to the prince, it could take down a war elephant! I was still against killing any elephants, but if our enemies used them to fight it might be inevitable.

The captains were all wearing hastily sewed uniforms of the grey cloth, each with a different badge. “We picked Valdyan animals,” they said, “the eagle, the wolf, the boar!” The eagle and the wolf were realistic enough, but the boar looked like the toy piglets my eldest brother used to carve from wood for his little siblings, with a tusky grin from ear to ear.

“I’m glad I have so many loyal soldiers,” I said.

“As long as the troops get their pay, yes!” the Zameshtan captain said, which made me worry, so I went back to town with Thulo to talk to the king and queen. They were in the palace, together with the former king, going over papers in a workroom. Exactly the right circumstances!

“Holiness,” they said, but I came to the point without waiting for their deference.

“I’ve come for the soldiers’ pay,” I said. “I’ve suddenly acquired another regiment that used to be paid by you, and now they’re expecting their wages from me. Frankly, we don’t have that much.”

They prevaricated a little, all three of them. Apparently the king had engaged the former king as his confidential clerk! “The problem is,” the former king said eventually, “the money for the soldiers’ pay comes from Ashas, and it will be on its way now. But it won’t be in time for you to collect one-third of it, as you have one-third of our standing army.” (That was straining the truth a little: it wasn’t this king’s standing army, and it couldn’t be the former king’s army any more since he was no longer the king!)

They offered all kinds of schemes, which Thulo questioned so insistently that the kings and the queen were convinced that he was my treasurer. We let them think that. (He’s putting up most of the ready money anyway from Phuli’s legacy, it’s a distinction without a difference.) It all seemed to come down to “we keep all the money we have now, and you intercept the transport and negotiate with them”, to which I said yes in the end, exasperated.

“Did you just say we’d raid the money transport?” Thulo asked when we were on our way back.

“I did, didn’t I? Well, if it comes to that I suppose we’ll have no other choice. Either that, or have no soldiers.”

In the evening I went to sit with Bhalik and Khali, who were drinking something that must be the local anise brandy I’d seen Thulo and the goat-skin merchant seal their bargain with in the city. “Can I have some of that?” I asked, and yes, it was, even stronger than I’d expected. They could tell me more about Ghilas: it had walls twelve yards high, and inside those walls it was like Albetire would be if everybody was as bad as they themselves had been before Mehili got hold of them and employed them.

“The worst are the brothers,” Khali said, “the only people who got away when we handled Zahmati’s house. Clients.” He spat out the word, making it clear that those were the kind of people who had hurt Zahmati so much. If I can burn down all of Ghilas I won’t hesitate to do so.”

I wasn’t sure whether I’d prevent that, either. I made a noncommittal noise. “Have some more brandy,” Khali said.

“Can you tell us what’s up with Zahmati?” Bhalik asked after the second cup.

“She’s in love,” I said.

“What? Who with?”

“Aftabi,” I said.

“Hm. –We don’t want anyone to make our daughter unhappy again!”

“I think Aftabi is making her very happy,” I said.

After a while they went to talk to Zahmati, and then to Aftabi. They offered her brandy and she accepted it. I thought I could safely go to sleep.

In the morniing, when I wanted to find someone to train with, the only one around who didn’t have a huge hangover was Kisin. And the only reason she didn’t have a huge hangover was that she was pregnant: the taste of drink made her nauseous. “And I don’t even know who the father is!” she said. Counting on her fingers, she thought it was likely to be one of the hunters.

“Never mind, we’ll see what colour skin it has when it’s born,” I said. Very likely to be brown, like most people in the world as I knew now, but the exact shade of brown could vary a lot, from barely darker than me like Kisin herself to almost blue-black like Aftabi and the Ishey. “Only it’s probably going to be awkward on the journey.”

“I’ll cope,” she said, and took up a sword to fight.

Plains people fight very formally, almost like a dance, and it reminded me most of the set exercises I’d run my journeymen and craft apprentices through in Valdis. Very useful! “It’s good for me to go back to the beginning,” I said.

“So you think I’m a beginner!”

“No, I feel like I am a beginner again, and that’s good, to get back what I was taking for granted, and remember things I forgot.”

She did make me sweat. And use all my anea. When the service started Thulo noticed that I was completely covered in a sort of cocoon made of threads of power. I didn’t know whether that was an effect of the fighting, the formality of it, or anything else. I felt I should really investigate, but the service came first now, and afterwards we were leaving.

I’d been wanting to form a gifted patrol for a while, an army detail like Vurian astin Brun’s in the civil war when I’d hardly been born, and I invited the princes and some gifted officers to share a howdah with me while we travelled. There was enough room for me, the three princes, captain Fehel of the Zameshtan army and sergeant Felan. After I’d told them what I had in mind they came up with their own ideas about how to tackle it, encouraging, because it would have been too daunting for me to think of everything myself. But the first thing I had to do was to teach them how to do those things — and for these people, that meant very basic things like talking to each other in the mind.

The local captain knew things about Ghilas too: the walls were fifteen yards high! Strange that they get higher every time someone talks about them. But the rest of what he said was much the same as I already knew, making me very glad indeed that I suddenly seemed to have an army more than a thousand strong.

While I was training the officers on the elephant , Thulo had been walking with the children from the palace, doing much the same things, though more in a childish way: songs and semsin games! He was even making friends with the awkward girl from Rizenay, Senthi.

Two girls had spoken to me, asking whether they could dance for Dayati in the service. It was a good idea as such, but the services were plenty long already, so I said “only on the day of Timoine”. And then several other people wanted to sing or dance or play music for their gods, until I had something for each god on their day except the Nameless. Archan. I have to call him by his name. Perhaps Senthi could? But when I asked her, she thought she didn’t even know the right form of the invocation any more, and anyway she didn’t really want anything to do with gods! “If you don’t want to then don’t,” I said, “we’ll have a plain service on that day, no problem at all.” Perhaps some other servant of Archan would come along — as long as they weren’t of the Resurgence, that was all right with me, and as far as I had seen until now with Anshen as well.

(Still, I shuddered to think of this girl growing up into a grand master of the Nameless. Perhaps Thulo would be able to talk some sense into her?)

We were settling into the travel pattern again, though it was only a couple of days. Before I realised that we’d gone so far already the walls of Ghilas loomed in the distance.

I don’t remember who came to tell me, but it almost must have been Maha: “Aftabi wants to marry Zahmati!”

“Well, I’ll marry them,” I said, “it probably wouldn’t be possible in Valdyas but everything’s different here anyway.”

“That’s not the problem! Zahmati won’t say yes until Khali and Bhalik get married too.”

“Well, I’ll marry them too1” But that wasn’t so easy: first we’d have to convince them of it! And I had a feeling that it would have to be resolved before we made any attempt at Ghilas…