The GM said “now there will be seven sessions in which you travel and nothing happens” but lots of things did happen in this one: little things that built character and made relationships clearer, training, friendship, exciting new things to do with the mind and all!
The king was as good as his word. We got not one elephant but two, much larger than Samada’s dowry elephants. Each of them had a kind of hut on its back that four people would fit in easily. Maha and Samada and the children went in one, Thulo and I in the other, and Bhalik and Khali and Zahmati rode along on camels that the king had given them too. It was like being on a ship on a quiet sea, even more so because it had started raining and we heard the water on the roof of our hut and streaming along the walls.
I’d had the presence of mind to ask the king for a sword, because mine had been destroyed in the rescue — I asked specifically for a straight sword because I thought I wouldn’t know what to do with a curved one. He had one brought that looked too long for me at first, but when I handled it I saw why — it was actually a hand-and-a-half sword made for someone my size. Their army is only men, but I’m easily as tall as most men here, and strong enough to swing a sword like that. And it was beautiful: well made from blue Iss-Peranian steel with jewel insets in the hilt. A soldier brought a sheath to carry it on my back, too. I thanked the king profusely, trying not to think of what was likely to happen to this sword as well.
I was asleep before we’d even left the palace grounds. I woke up because the elephant stood still, I think. We hadn’t reached the end of the caravan yet, though when I lifted the curtain on my side I could see a dust-cloud that might be it, beyond the king’s soldiers ahead of us, some on foot and some on horses and camels. Thulo was leaning out of the hut on the other side, and I heard Khali say “Could you wake up Her Holiness? We have a spot of trouble up front.”
“I’m awake,” I said. “What’s the problem?”
“Can you reach someone at the caravan and tell them our soldiers aren’t bandits? They’re shooting arrows at us.”
I racked my brain who I could call –everybody I’d have contemplated was with us– but then I thought of Pesar’s second wife, who was gifted though untrained and would probably at least be able to understand me. We were close enough that she was easy for me to reach, and I surprised her but she was unfazed and eager to help. Oh! she said. Good that you’re here! Can you attack those bandits in the back?
They’re not bandits, they’re our soldiers. Samada’s father’s soldiers. I’ll tell you everything later.
Later was quite soon now this was cleared up. One of the officers came to ask me what to do, should they defend the caravan? “Do what you’d normally do,” I said, “I trust you know the procedure.” That turned out to be the right thing to say, and I saw several other uniformed people direct groups of soldiers to different sides. Good: the army could take care of itself.
Samada and Maha had been arguing from the moment they descended from the elephant, and now they were pulling each other’s hair. “Hey!” I said, “stop that! What’s wrong?”
“She says I’m not allowed to play with my slaves any more!” Samada said.
“I never said you’re not allowed to play!” Maha retorted. “I said that you’re not allowed to own them, and that they can say no when they don’t want to play, and you have to let them!”
“But they’re mine! They belong to me!”
“They were stolen from my country and I’m the princess, they’re my subjects!”
“Wait,” I said, “we rescued Mík and Lástal from the palace, they’re now under my responsibility, and everyone under my responsibility lives by the law of my king and queen. For Valdyan law nobody is another person’s property, so as long as they’re in my protection they’re nobody’s slaves.”
“And when we get to Ashas?” Samada wailed.
“I don’t know what will happen when we get to Ashas,” I said, “but we’re not there yet, and they travel with me as Maha does.”
Samada threw Maha another foul look, and turned, and stalked away in the direction of Pesar’s part of the camp. Mík and Lástal clung to Maha, one on each side, and she encircled them with her arms like a cluck with chicks.
Zahmati wanted to cook our dinner but it was still raining. “Can you make fire?” she asked me. “With your mind?”
“Not very well,” I said, “and certainly not when it’s so wet! I can only encourage something to burn if it already wants to.” And indeed, not well at all; it’s one of the things you need to have a special talent for, unless you’re a grand master. But then some of the servants of Pesar’s household appeared, bringing trays of steaming food. Zahmati talked to them, got excited, and followed them back, after making a ball of rice and chicken to eat on the way.
Then I remembered Cheliân and found him at the next fire, just finishing the dinner the neighbours had given him. “Holiness! Did you succeed?” And after I’d told him and his hosts what had happened, he took me aside and whispered, “I think I did everything right, in the temple. The prayers aren’t that hard. I’ve been a priest for most of my life after all.”
He must have found the book with the rough translations in tradespeak we’d been using! “Thank you,” I said, more grateful than I knew how to tell him. He’d turned into a priest of Anshen all by himself. “As Samada said the first time I met her, ‘one’s got to pray, no?'” That made him smile, and we went to the temple to start the service.
One of the officers stopped me in the doorway, falling at my feet. “Your Holiness,” he said, “would you be able to have two evening services so we can keep half the troops on watch? They all want to go.”
“Is that even possible?” Thulo asked.
“I don’t see why not,” I said, “but you’ll have to do the second because I don’t think I could manage two.”
So we had a service with half the army standing outside the temple –it was already full of the notables of the caravan, and our own group, and people we’d helped personally, and lots and lots of children, and briefly the front-end of an elephant but it was made to go backwards by its driver– and then Thulo had a service with the other half of the army. Later, someone else asked for yet another service, and Cheliân asked “Shall I take that one?” but I said “Tomorrow, and we’re not going to have more than one morning service, and by no means more than three evening services.”
That evening Maha and Lástal sang us to sleep. Aftabi had attached herself to us, and I think she was the only one in the tent who wasn’t gifted, but the singing worked just as well on her.
In the morning Aftabi asked if we could lend her some clothes, because the only thing she’d got was the scarf she was wearing as a skirt. “I’ve been wearing nothing else since I was sold to the king when I was seven! Ten years! They say ‘those girls from the south are so primitive, they go around like that all day’, well, perhaps the little girls do but surely not the women!” So I gave her my old sailor shirt and breeches: we were almost of a size, she was rounder on all sides but the sailor clothes were forgiving. Too warm for this weather, perhaps, but she liked them a lot and thought the breeches were practical.
What she really swooned at was the Ishey clothes. “You can have a set of those too,” Maha said, “we’ve got enough!” That was true, seven sets between the two of us.
“Tomorrow,” Aftabi said. Before she went out she turned to me, “Your bodyguards have offered to teach me to fight. Is that … safe?”
I couldn’t suppress a wry grin. “You’ll probably have some training scars. But they won’t lay a hand on you as men. I trust them in that.”
“That’s the point, thank you,” she said. She went outside and talked to the men, then there was some commotion and noise, a yelp, and Aftabi came back with a bleeding score on her left arm. “Training scars indeed!”
“You have to learn to defend yourself,” Bhalik said. “Not rush at people like a mad creature. But you’ll do, we’ll just keep you on your toes.”
Maha looked at the wound pensively. “Come here. I don’t know how good I am at this, but I’ll try.” And I saw her close the wound with power, not even a line on the skin left! “There. Not a trace.”
“But I wanted a scar!” Aftabi said. “Like theirs. Shows you’ve been fighting.”
“Next time I’ll leave you to bleed, okay?”
“Thank you, anyway, it did hurt.” Aftabi admitted. She shook out her clothes– “nice stuff, keeps swords from cutting you!” and mounted a camel. Later, she said that she’d walked most of the way after all because though she now had breeches, she still didn’t have a wide enough seat.
This time Maha was on our elephant with us, and the Velihan children came along, and also the children from the palace scullery! “We ran away!” Nán said. “They wanted us to do all the washing-up, and the princess is angry because she doesn’t have her slaves so she says that we are her slaves because we’re palace slaves! And we’re not!”
“No, indeed you’re not,” I said. I couldn’t release every single slave belonging to someone travelling in the caravan, but these two seemed to be part of my household. So there were seven of us: lucky that four were very small. I could see now that Nán and Khubkhub weren’t as much older than Mík and Lástal as I’d thought. They were taller, but Khubkhub was probably about Lástal’s age, six, and Ná a couple of years older.
We spent that day practicing semsin, first sealing every opening in the elephant hut –especially the Velihan children used interesting stuff for that, tree-resin made of anie— and then trying to be as invisible as possible. Mík was best at that: he got so invisible that there was a patch of nothingness where he was, though of course we did know where he was because it was impossible to move from one’s place. (Well, to the corner to use the bucket, but then you had to climb over everybody else. All of us tried to use the bucket as little as possible and to wait until we stopped anyway, but that’s hard for children.)
We talked a lot with the children about Samada and her attitude. “It’s not that we mind playing hide-and-seek!” Mík said. “We’ve just been playing hide-and-seek right here and it was fun! But she could ask instead of pretending that we’re her toys!”
“That’s exactly it,” I said. “People shouldn’t use other people as things.”
After the evening services a woman came to ask me to see her husband who’d had an accident. I asked Maha to come along because she’d said she’d like to be a doctor but didn’t have enough experience, only with animals. Thulo came along as a matter of course, and the Velihan children came with Maha because they didn’t leave her side.
“He fell from his camel and two other camels walked right over him before we could stop them,” the wife said, and indeed the man had tracks of camel feet all over his chest and belly as if he was a patch of mud. He was conscious, though in a lot of pain. “If you can’t fix me, Holiness,” he said, “help me to get to the other world!”
I could see that he had a couple of broken ribs and some damage below that, probably his liver, and I may be good at bone-setting but this was beyond me. Maha put her hands on the man’s chest, “now I’m going to do something that can cure you or kill you, but it’s sure to be either. Can’t fix your liver though, livers are horrible, our doctor at home says your liver is trying to kill you. That’s why you should never eat the liver of something you hunt, it’s usually poisonous.”
I’d heard from a doctor that the liver collects all the poison in your body, so I wasn’t surprised. “If you want to use any anie of mine you’re welcome,” I said, but Maha wouldn’t have it. She did ask Thulo to watch with his mind, because he wanted to learn healing too. The ribs were easy –she stuck them together with the same flavour of anie that Lástal had used to seal, like pine resin– but Thulo made a mistake and jostled the man, making him yelp. “Again!” Maha said, and the children helped, and finally all three of the broken ribs were at least in the right place. “The liver will have to heal by itself, and that’s a slow job but it will,” she told the man. All that was left for me to do was a blessing.
“He can’t ride, he’ll have to go in one of our howdahs,” Maha said. I hadn’t known what the elephant hut was called until then! Maha would stay with him, because not only could she help when something went wrong but the wife couldn’t really be spared from the work.
When we came back to our tents, Aftabi was talking to a whole lot of teenagers, all from different peoples by the look of them. Three were as dark as she was, muscular young men with rolled-up wool blankets over one shoulder. She was arguing with them. “no, I can’t be, I was born in Temada, that’s south of Ashas, we can’t be Ishey!” “What’s your mother’s name, then?” “Temé.” “Why, that’s my mother’s name too! Sure you’re Ishey, and a queen by the look of you!”
Three others were clearly Khas, and it turned out that they were from the king’s Khas barracks town near Valdis. “Our mage wouldn’t let us go, and the captain wouldn’t let us go, so we went!” they said.
The last three were of a people I couldn’t place, their skin a sallow light brown, their hair thick and black and completely straight, their clothes made mostly of leather and hide. “Oh! You’re from the Plains!” I said. “Yes,” one of them said with an embarrassed grin, “and we got very lost and ended up at what’s it called, in the south where the ships are near the Ishey Mera.”
“Selday?” I asked. “Yes, that, and there we met Mazao and Aza and Hemar” –the Ishey– “and they were on the same errand as us so we banded together.” (Mazao! The same name as the king of the Ishey in Valdyas, and I knew it was also the Ishey name for Mizran.)
The errand being, we found out, to go after their little brothers and sisters who had been abducted by, we now knew, the Resurgence. And the Khas had come for the same thing but they’d gone south on their own and ended up in Il Ayande and met the rest there.
“And we heard of a caravan with a priestess of Anshen on their way to Ashas, and we thought it would be a good idea to join you,” the Khas girl said. She was wearing a skirt and the young men breeches, so that was easy to distinguish. The Plains people were all dressed the same, but two of them were girls and the third a boy. Some –most– were gifted, but nobody was trained in a useful tradition at all.
“Well, you can put up your tents next to ours,” I said. and they all scoffed. “Tent!” one of the Plains girls said. “I’m not about to have a baby!” “No,” her male companion said, “because if you were it would be mine, and I’d know!”
“We Ishey don’t need a tent,” Hemar said, “we’ve got blankets.” And the Khas said they didn’t need a tent in this climate, thank you very much!
Well, one thing less to worry about. I took trouble to learn all the names — the Khas girl was called Bath, and the Khas boys Mekal and Dorha. Mekal wasn’t particularly gifted, Dorha slightly and Bath considerably, The Plains boy was called Guruning and the girls Kisin and Daina. Of them, Kisin was the most gifted one. And of course all the children who had been taken must be gifted, or the Resurgence wouldn’t have been interested.
What woke me up the next morning was the sound of fighting.
I was concerned at first, but it was just Bhalik and Khali sparring with the new arrivals, trying them out. The Ishey fought dirty, but were easily distracted– Aftabi could easily pull Aza’s feet from under him because he’d been staring at her breasts. And the Plains people didn’t fight dirty enough: they were going through a series of elegant movements, like show-fighting, and Khali disarmed them one by one before they were finished with the show. I’d have loved to join in, but I had a service to run and a reputation to keep up.
I must really keep in training, though. Also, we should do more scouting, especially as were coming to ever stranger country, and ever closer to our enemies. Being the priestess of the caravan is useful but it’s not what I came here for, and I shouldn’t let it take up all of my attention.
Just as I was going to the temple Bhalik staggered towards me from between the tents, looking confused. “That… was… quick,” he said, and fell flat on his face.
Aftabi came running after him. “Sorry! He surprised me and I hit back and I must have hit him on the head!” Maha came to look and determined that he had a concussion and should travel in the howdah with the other man. “He’ll live,” she said, “just has to lie in the dark for a couple of days.”
That day we went steadily uphill, more slowly than we’d been going on the flat ground but there was still a wide road through forest, with some villages here and there. Maha was on the other elephant with the injured men, so Thulo and I travelled with all the children. While we practiced semsin, the children played a semsin board game: Lástal made the board, and everybody made their own counters, easily recognised by the smell, taste, feel — whatever it is that gives anea the essence of a person. It was fascinating to watch. Mík was winning, but that was because he coated other people’s counters with his own essence!
“Cheat!” Khubkhub protested. It might have become a brawl if we’d been on the ground instead of on the elephant, but Nán distracted the boys by saying “Look what we can do!” and started to blow bubbles made of spirit, like soap bubbles. (Gods, I wish Valdyan children found their gifts that early, by the time they do they’re exactly at an age to find this kind of play childish.) Khubkhub joined her, and of course Míl and Lástal wanted to know how they did it and learn it from them.
We were a bit worried about Samada: after their quarrel she hadn’t been back with us. We didn’t want to fall out with Pesar’s household! And the three girls had been becoming friends before Samada started behaving like, frankly, a spoilt brat. I sighed and went to talk to Pesar’s senior wives. Thulo came with me, but I asked Maha to stay with our tents, “if you come, all the children will come, and if Samada sees the children we’ll have chaos!” I didn’t tell her that what I really feared was that Samada and Maha would continue their quarrel, extra embarrassing on Samada’s home ground.
We got sweet wine and almond biscuits and, yes, a listening ear. Thulo talked to Samada, who was sitting in front of a tent looking sullen, while I talked to the first wife. I explained that our queen forbade slavery, the Velihan children were Maha’s subjects, Maha was my responsibility, and I thought it reasonable to uphold the law of my country among the people I was responsible for. Yes, that was reasonable, the first wife agreed. We talked around the issue some more without really saying more, but at least we agreed that there were no slaves in my part of the camp, even if they had been slaves in Samada’s father’s household. Later I realised that people would probably think that I was responsible for the whole caravan, being its priestess! And I don’t know how to free all the slaves in the caravan, or how to persuade their owners to free them, and I have no way to tell what would happen if they did.
A boy of about seven came to bring more wine, a gold band around his neck. He startled when I thanked him. I was about to ask if he was a slave too, when a shout from Samada distracted me and I saw Thulo looking helplessly at a closed tent-flap.
“I told her you’d booted me out of the howdah because you wanted her in there to talk about women’s things together!” Thulo said as we were walking back. “You girls, that is, you and Maha and Zahmati. Better get Zahmati to travel inside instead of on a camel, to make it true.”
Samada might have slammed the door on Thulo, as well as one can slam a tent-flap, but she did turn up the next morning. “Did you really want me with you?” she asked. “No hard feelings?” Well, some hard feelings, especially from Maha, and the children looked at her warily, but we did manage to get on, and to talk about women’s things so much that the little boys got disgusted and started another game, this one much like kings-and-queens. Samada could see something, but not enough to follow it.
“But you can learn that!” I said, “I’ll teach you. Starting tomorrow, I think, it’s quite late already and I’d like Thulo to be there too.” She had some misgivings — why did I want to teach her, when she had never asked to learn? Did I want anything for it?
“Well, there is something I want,” I said, “I assume you know the court language?” And I showed her Mehili’s book that Aftabi had said was in that language, but could only read a little more of than I could, just enough to find a couple of really ridiculous images for intimate things.
“Bah!” Samada said, “that’s a shitty book, it’s al about how to get men to be nice to you. I’d rather read –” and she rattled off a whole list of books and their authors that I’d never heard of, but some of the subjects were really interesting, history and geography and mathematics! “I had a whole chest of books in my luggage but I’ve lost it, I wonder what happened to it.” That could be lots of things, from having been mislaid to turn up later to someone not wanting Samada to have her books –even Pesar preferring a docile stupid wife to a bookworm, which would be quite foolish of him because taking Samada’s books away would likely have the opposite effect. “I’ll help you find them,” I said, “so we can trade lessons!”
I started Samada right at the beginning, like I used to do with my sword pupils if they turned out to be gifted. Find your place in the world. “But we’re on a moving elephant!” Samada said, “I’m not in a place!”
Nán had a solution for that. “It’s always the same elephant, right? And it’s got spirit of its own.” And indeed, the elephant had enough spirit to serve as a fixed point. It noticed, too, and sent a bit of unfocused elephantine thought in our direction but lost interest and kept going forward.
When we made camp, Maha came off the elephant as hot as if she was running a fever, but it was the camel-trampled man who had had the fever and Maha had taken it on herself. “I got most of it off him!” she said. She knows she shouldn’t use her own strength for everything, but she hasn’t learned yet how to use the world’s power instead — or at least, not to forget to use it. I sent her to sleep it off in the tent, and Thulo went to sit with her– I heard them talking for a long time but took care not to listen.