Humanity

Overpreparing again, but it hasn’t hurt yet. Though I fully expect that their plans won’t survive contact with, well, anyone really.

We went to the tailor first after all. Tamame at the bath-house had given us the address of a place that made clothes to measure fast and at reasonable prices. I don’t know what’s a reasonable price in Albetire at all, but if Tamame thinks it’s reasonable my expense account can probably bear it.

We asked the way of a girl carrying baskets full of little dumplings that smelt delectably of meat, one under each arm and one on her head! “Do you sell those?” I asked. “Sure,” she said, “any number from fifty to five thousand, just tell your boss and we’ll deliver. I can’t sell you these, somebody else already ordered them.”

She could tell us the way to the tailor’s address, though. It was through a busy street, then across a little square where a couple of old men were drinking ale –one pinched Maha in the bottom, and she punched him so hard that he fell over, “don’t you ever do that again!”– and through a much narrower street where a sign announced “Riei and Ryath, clothes to measure”.

A woman was sitting in the open store-front, sewing on a garment, and another woman at the back cutting cloth on a huge table. “What can I do for you?” the seamstress asked.

“We need clothes to travel south in, and something stylish and official to wear when we arrive,” I said. “And clothes for a party!” Thulo added.

It became a bit complicated when the seamstress –Riei– learned that the party would be tonight, but she stood up to every challenge. “Valdyan style? Síthi style? Iss-Peranian style? Ishey style?”

The only Ishey I’d ever seen had been the young men with the dog, and they’d worn breeches and a blanket, hardly suitable to travel in (unless you were Ishey and used to it, probably) but what Ishey women wore was a different story: pants and a shirt closed with drawstrings with a huge scarf wrapped around everything, all of white linen. Maha almost fainted with delight when she tried it on. “I want three of those!” she said. “And I’ll wear it to the party, too!” I didn’t go so far as to want to wear it to the party, but I did order two sets to travel in because it looked really comfortable for dry dusty heat. For the party, I got a wraparound thing much like what Tamame had lent Maha. From what Riei carefully didn’t say I gathered that Valdyan women were usually too busty to be able to wear Síthi clothes, but that was a problem I didn’t have.

Now Thulo… the dressmaker apparently thought he was a nobleman, and she gave him wide flaring breeches and a knee-length shirt from some material with a subtle purple stripe, and a high hat filled with what looked like cork, and shoes with thick cork soles, so in all he was two whole heads taller. “That’s what all the Síthi Sagga wear at functions!” the dressmaker said. But Thulo thought he’d better wear Valdyan clothes in that case, so what he got was breeches with one leg yellow and one leg red, and a jacket the other way around, much like the king’s old tutor and bodyguard Lord Reshan, known as a bit of a peacock when it came to dressing. It did suit him, the colours went well with his dark skin. There was a hat as well, large and floppy with feathers from an actual peacock.

“I’ll have the Síthi clothes too,” Thulo said, “it won’t hurt to look that impressive at court.”

I told the dressmaker to send the bill to the Temple of Mizran in my name, and only later realised that I hadn’t asked what it would cost and wondered whether she’d rip me off. Well, there should be enough in that account, and it didn’t look like a particularly expensive shop. We’d ask the Order to lend Thulo and Maha a uniform –well, for Maha it would probably have to be made to measure, but it would be a week at least until our order was ready anyway– so we could all look like Sworn if it was necessary.

Maha had kept her new clothes on, and the man who had pinched her on the way to the shop now almost fell off his stool again, this time without needing a push. “Princess!” he stammered.

“Yes,” Maha said, hands on hips. “I am a princess. I must inform you that I’m not the princess you take me for, but I’m sure that she wouldn ‘t like being harassed any more than I do!”

We’d asked for directions to the Temple of Naigha at the dressmaker’s shop, because they didn’t know where to find the address on my note from Senthi’s captain. They’d probably know at the Temple, and I liked the idea of praying for Senthi on the Feast, too.

It was a small neighbourhood temple, of course, only one very old priestess serving. Several people were queuing to pay their respects, and I joined them. Maha pulled my sleeve, “What does one do?”

“You throw something in the fire, like a lock of hair, or something that belonged to someone who is dead, and remember them to Naigha.”

“But I don’t know anyone who is dead!”

“Not even your grandparents?” After all, her father was the king. But perhaps her grandparents had just abdicated and retired.

“Well, yes, them. But I hardly knew them!” She joined in anyway, and so did Thulo.

The priestess snipped a bit off my front hair when she could see I wasn’t holding anything in my hand and I offered it, commending Senthi to Naigha. I put a shilling in the collection jar that the priestess had next to her. I didn’t see if the priestess managed to cut any of Maha’s hair with her blunt shears, but I didn’t hear either of them cursing either so it must have gone right.

Outside the temple, I realised that I hadn’t asked the priestess where to find Senthi’s family — there had hardly been an opportunity! But a novice was just arriving with a basket of food and another collection jar, stopping to talk with a young man on the way. “Excuse me?” I asked, and showed her the note with the address.

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said, “just follow this street until you get to the wall, turn left, second on the left, it’s the house with the blue door.”

“Thank you,” I said, and put a half-shilling in her jar as well.

It was indeed easy to find. When we knocked on the blue door a little girl opened it, about four years old, with brown skin and light hair. She took one look at us and said “You’re of the Nameless!” It must have been the uniform, because she didn’t look gifted, not the way Pái had.

“True,” I said. “Can we speak to your father?”

“Can’t,” she said, “he’s away.”

“At work? Where does he work?”

She was still wondering whether to tell us when a boy came from inside, an older version of the boy in the picture I carried in my satchel. He had ink on his nose and a quill pen in his hand. “What’s up, Lyse?” he asked.

“These people are of the Nameless! They want to talk to Daddy!”

“I have a letter for him,” I said, showing the captain’s letter. “I think he should read it as soon as possible. Could you take me to him?”

“I have to take care of Lyse,” he said. Fair enough, but Maha and Thulo offered to take care of Lyse while he took me to his father. “He’s a soldier. On the wall.”

It wasn’t far; the boy’s father, Senthi’s widower, was on duty at one of the nearby guard-houses. He looked alarmed when he saw the boy, “are you in trouble?” thinking, of course, that I was one of the Sworn from the local Order house bringing in his son for some misdemeanour.

“I have a message for you,” I said and gave him the captain’s letter. He read it slowly, once, twice, then nodded.

“I knew her for far too short a time,” I said.

The boy grabbed his father’s hand. “What’s happened?”

“Mother isn’t coming back,” he said and took his son in his arms.

The watch sergeant came to look what was going on. “Better take the day off, Maham,” he said when he realised what the message had been. “Take care of your children. I’ll have your watch covered, no problem.”

We walked back to the soldier’s house. “You’re staying for dinner, of course,” he said. I could hardly say no.

I gave Maham the portrait and the bag of pearls. “for your children’s schooling”, but he wouldn’t take it at first, “I don’t need it, i have a good job, I don’t need to take charity from servants of the Nameless! How did you come by it?”

“I sold a barrel of ink for it,” I said, “but I don’t need it myself so I made up my mind to do good with it. I only knew Senthi for a couple of days but I was fond of her, and I trusted her.”

“Hm, well, perhaps I will take it,” he said, and delivered me at the door of the house and took his daughter and son away to the temple of Naigha. I helped Maha and Thulo clear up– it seemed that the girl had wanted to pour wine for the guests and spilled rather a lot on her brother’s schoolwork. It was all numbers, sums, and it looked advanced for someone his age. When we were putting it in a pile I noticed that some of the paper was printed on the other side– leaflets of the Resurgence of Archan! Well, scrap paper for sums was more than it deserved.

A woman’s voice sounded from the doorway. “Maham! Are you home yet? I’ve brought the chicken.” When the woman came in I could see that she looked much like Senthi’s widower. She was carrying a live chicken by the legs. When we’d explained what had happened she didn’t hesitate one moment but looked at all three of us and gave the chicken to Maha, “you pluck it, you look like you can.” And to Thulo she said, “you’re Síthi, right? You won’t eat chicken, I suppose. Do you eat eggs?”

“Er, yes,” Thulo said, looking embarrassed. When the woman had gone away to get more food, he turned to me. “What are we doing here?”

“Showing humanity,” I said.

Maha had wrung the chicken’s neck expertly –she was a hunter, after all– and was plucking it into a pail that we’d found in the kitchen. After a while Maham and the children came back, Lyse with a hank of her hair missing, and all of them had clearly been crying. The woman came back too, carrying a basket full of bread and eggs and vegetables. She introduced herself as Maham’s sister Dimani and disappeared into the kitchen with Maha.

We sat around a bit forlornly until Dimani and Maha came back from the kitchen with a dish full of rice with a heap of yellow chicken meat on top and pieces of omelette around the base. “How do you get it so yellow?” I asked. “Saffron,” Dimani said, “not much, only about a handful.”

“We’ve been to the temple,” Maham said, “now we commemorate our way.” He took a small handful of rice and chicken and folded into a ball, which he put on his plate. “On the Feast of the Dead we eat with our dead.” Then he sent the children out, though they wanted to stay to hear the adults talk. “If you go outside now and take good care of your sister,” he said to his son, “you may light the fireworks.” So that was the package I’d seen the boy carry, which he’d left outside the front door.

“Now tell me,” Maham said to me, “what happened exactly? How did she die?”

I told him about Kushesh, the fight with servants of the Resurgence, that we’d had the same enemies and each fought some of them, and how I’d stitched up her side and we’d become allies — and might have become friends if we’d had more opportunity. And how I’d seen her body after one of those enemies had murdered her, and taken the news and the picture home.

“Thank you,” he said. “You’re a decent sort for one of the Nameless.” And we went outside, where the boy –Senthi’s son, called Felan, I knew now– was already unwrapping the parcel of fireworks. “He’s good at figures,” Maham said, “he’s going on a ship next season as an apprentice. –Not as cabin boy,” he added when he saw me looking shocked, “for trade! His work is like he’s four, five years older.”

Several other children were running around setting off firecrackers as well, but Felan and Lyse came to their father’s side when they saw us coming out. “Now we commemorate,” Maham said, and he said something in Iss-Peranian that was probably a prayer and we ate the balls of rice we’d set aside. There was a gust of cold air of the sort that I’d always associated with Naigha, and Thulo looked greyish and uncomfortable, and I could see that Maham wasn’t alone.

“Now run along!” Maham said to his children, and they did, and there wasn’t anything more we could do so we went back to the Order house too, to dress for the party. Strange idea to go to a party after this!

We met Lydan and Vauri on the square, who had ordered a litter carried by two large elephants. “The Síthi expect the baron to travel in style,” Lydan said with a grin. Maha had a whole conversation with the elephant at the back, stroking it on the trunk and looking it in the eyes. The other elephant got interested too and tried to turn, but it was between the handles of the litter so that was hard. “Come on in,” Lydan said and handed us all up into the litter.

It was like a little room, larger than my cabin on the Narwhal, and all covered in silks and velvets. There was an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling and an incense burner on the floor. Either it was a long way to the Temple of Dayati or the elephants had to take a detour because they were too large for most streets: we were in it quite some time before we arrived in the outer courtyard of a huge white marble building with pillars at the front. The moment we stood on the pavement the litter went on, making room for more elephants.

The high priests were standing at the entrance to greet their guests, and they were dressed exactly in the kind of clothes Thulo had tried on. Good thing he’d decided to wear the Valdyan clothes, because it would be embarrassing if people took him for a priest. I lost the others almost immediately in a forest of thin pillars full of strange people speaking several different languages that I mostly couldn’t understand..

A man spoke to me, but all we could say to each other was that he was Síthi and I was Valdyan and we were both here for the feast. He got me a cup of warm sweet light-coloured wine from a huge ewer, quite pleasant, and I could see people walking past with food but didn’t find where to get it. Instead I got lost among the pillars, trying to stay alert without being overwhelmed.

Finally I wandered into a quiet courtyard — only a young couple were sitting on a bench, the one’s head on the other’s shoulder, and someone was playing a tinkly kind of instrument out of sight. I sat down on another bench where i wouldn’t disturb them, but before I could find my bearings a Síthi-looking woman who I thought must be a priestess by her clothes (lacking the high hat, but the rest was similar) came from the other side and sat down next to me.

She tried very hard to make something clear to me, but I was already exhausted and we had very little language in common. “Learn Síthi!” she kept imploring me, and she even took me to a further courtyard without lovers or music (but with two goats in a pen and a haystack) to say everything again, in a mixture of Síthi and excited Iss-Peranian. “They all go to the south! Your king makes them not welcome. Big people from Valdyas, from Albetire, from Aumen Síth, all go to the south to Anchuk. Bah! You learn Síthi, I tell you.”

“I do want to learn Síthi but i can’t do that today! May I call my apprentice at least?” I asked. “He’s Síthi, he can understand you, and we’re in this enterprise together,” because I’d gathered that what she was talking about was something to do with Ashas. She didn’t seem to be completely in favour, but she grudgingly assented.

To my surprise Thulo was very close: behind the haystack! Which meant that he’d heard the priestess’ whole speech. He wasn’t alone either: he had a Síthi woman with him, and it looked as if they’d been occupied with business rather than romance.

The priestess said a few short phrases to him, scowled at me, turned on her heel and walked away.

“What was all that about?” I asked. “She was warning me about Ashas, but that was about all I got.”

The Resurgence, Thulo told me that the priestess had said, was attracting disgruntled followers of Anchuk –the Nameless, er, Archan, better call him by name now to avoid confusion– and gathering them in Ashas. Not just an army of little children, then! I could understand that they would feel unwanted in Valdyas with a king who was a grand master of Anshen, or in Solay with Raith and Ayneth! It made me shiver– would we have to fight all the masters and grand masters of the Guild of Archan? I could take it as a fact that Anshen believed in us, but wasn’t this doomed to fail simply for being too big a thing?

While I was trying to come to terms with it, the woman said to Thulo in a worried tone “I have to go now, my children are alone, they’d have come but the youngest is ill.” Then she turned to me, “you’re a Valdyan semte, right? Can you take away a fever?”

“Not very well,” I said, “I can set broken bones and stitch up wounds, but I don’t have experience with fevers. I’ll see if I can get the doctor for you, though.” So I called Vauri, who was sitting with Lydan and the high priests, and she came and talked to the woman in Síthi– I didn’t know she spoke that!

“That’s Phuli,” Thulo said, “Khopai’s agent here. She can get us camels and trade goods and a place in a caravan, the next one departs in a couple of weeks.”

Well, one less thing to worry about anyway. Now alll we had to worry about was the mustering Resurgence.