Meeting Mehili

If it had been the last session before the summer holidays –which we briefly thought it was– we’d have detained Thulo’s player to have an hour more so we could get into a fresh lot of trouble…

The city was still strange, quiet and empty, not full of bustle as I’d seen it when I arrived. We stood in the square in front of the Temple of Dayati, trying to decide what to do.

“First of all I want a bath!” one of us said, Thulo or Maha, or perhaps even me, and everybody else thought that a good idea so we went to the bath-house. We expected it to be packed, but it was almost empty. “People are still scared,” Tamame said, a bit annoyed. “They’re so slow to get back to normal again. Well, take your pick, there’s room enough.”

One of the cubicles in the bath-house was full of doctors. All the hospital doctors were there, and some of the nurses, and people who must be doctors’ husbands and wives because Lydan was one of them. We waved — they waved back lazily — and took possession of the next cubicle, where we promptly got hot water and soap and everything else we needed. “Wine and a nibble?” the bath-girl asked, and we said yes because we were really becoming peckish. “I can get you entertainment too,” she said, “my brother makes the music and my twin sisters dance! It costs extra but it’s worth it!”

We were actually in the mood for it, and she had her brother and sisters come– the sisters a year younger than she was, sixteen or so, and the brother younger still, with a flute. He played rather well, and the sisters’ dance wasn’t very interesting but they looked nice, like mirror images. It was quite soothing, but in the middle of it Rhanion called me.

I’m in the bath, I said.

Good. Then I can have your good clothes brought there. Governor Mehili is expecting you.

We got out of the water quickly and were drying ourselves when Rhanion appeared, with a servant to carry the clothes — this was Albetire after all, you don’t go without servants. As we were dressing, he said to me: “We almost had– I don’t know whether to call it a break-in or a break-out. Someone tried to liberate the prisoners. Now we’ve got two more prisoners!”

“Of the Guild?” I asked.

“No– well, there is some strange semsin thing about them, reminds me of what you told me about what happened in Kushesh.”

I sighed. “I’ll come and look at them. But after we visit Mehili, I think.”

“Yes, Mehili comes first,” Rhanion admitted.

There was a sedan chair waiting for us, not carried by elephants but by eight men, two in front and two at the back on each pole. The inside smelt of incense and musty cushions. And we weren’t alone in it– we had to share it with lots of lice and fleas and other bugs that bit us! “I’m tempted to throw all those cushions out!” Maha said, and we did just that, earning angry looks from the bearers. “You’re going to pay for that!” they said. It was the Order paying for it, but I’d tell them to get it from my Temple of Mizran funds if necessary.

The curtains went the way of the cushions and we sat on the bare floorboards, hard and still full of annoying insects but much better than it had been.

We were deposited at the foot of the marble tower at the harbour. I didn’t know how we’d get back and what had been arranged with the bearers, so I asked the one who was obviously the boss, on the right rear. “We’re not waiting,” he said. Well, if the governor hadn’t made arrangements herself, we could always send someone for some other kind of transport. Walk, even, if we had to.

A middle-aged man came up to us, very well dressed, with the manners of a steward. “Ah, you are –” he seemed to search in his mind — “Master Sedi of the Order, and Thulo Síthi Sagga, and Crown Princess Maha of Velihas.” Thulo made a small noise but didn’t contradict him. “Would you please follow me?”

He led us up a great winding stair, all the way to the top of the tower. It was practically open to the sky, covered with a light canopy, but still furnished like the parlour of someone very rich, and as far as I could see very iss-Peranian. A woman came up to us– small, dark, round and boisterously cheerful, dressed in colourful clothes. She embraced Maha and me and slapped Thulo on the shoulders. “Welcome! I’m Mehili. I’m so glad you could come.” Closer up I could see that she was older than she seemed, perhaps about sixty, with white strands in her black hair.

She started to point us to cushions arranged around a low table, but stopped when she saw me surreptitiously scratching at my leg. “What happened?”

“The sedan chair we came in was– occupied,” I said a bit sheepishly.

“Oh, poor dears! Get those clothes off you!” And she called for servants, who came and washed us with scented water –Maha was a bit self-conscious, especially when both Thulo and Mehili looked admiringly at her naked body– and put long linen shifts and silk robes on us. “That’s better. Now come and sit down and have something to drink.”

Maha sniffed, wrinkling her nose like a rabbit. “That’s unusual incense!” she said, but Mehili laughed and offered us all to share her large water-pipe. “Brus, Thulo said.

“Very good brus, by the smell,” I said. “But I’ll decline, thank you. I came here to work and I’d like to stay clear-headed.”

“Let’s do the work first then by all means,” Mehili said, but it didn’t keep her from smoking, and not Thulo either, and Thulo and Mehili had to teach Maha what to do but she tried it too.

“So, I heard that you want soldiers,” Mehili said. “Pecham, isn’t it? The old Enshah gave it to your crown prince. The prince’s regiment has been vanquished?”

“Yes,” I said, “the prince gave me a letter, written with his own hand, to read to his people there.” I told her about Seli Silgham, and that we’d seen Pecham from the sea but hadn’t dared go ashore, let alone read the letter.

“How many troops are there?” she asked.

“What I’ve seen — I don’t know if I’ve seen them all — probably between a thousand and three thousand.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Mehili said, “Beguyan will enjoy that, nice diversion for him.”

When I told Mehili that there were more beggars in Seli Silgham than in Valdis, and that nobody begged because they were merely poor but all beggars were all crippled in some way and many were blind from sickness, she grew serious and said, “I’ll see to it that he takes a couple of dandar too. If it’s sickness caused by witchcraft they can handle that, and if it’s just sickness from water or air they can at least do some doctoring.” She said that it’s usual for places with much slave trade to have lots of crippled beggars, because the traders, well, throw away those they can’t sell, but the children born in Seli Silgham and gone blind there were quite another story. “I’ll write him a letter, he’s with his first wife at the estate, about five days from here so he’ll have it within the week.”

Mehili poured us some more wine — I was very careful not to drink so much that I lost my sharpness, at least before I’d told Mehili about our Síthi prisoner. “Oh, no problem.” she said, “child trafficking is outlawed, and attempted murder certainly! I’ll issue the order, good riddance.”

I was sure there had been more that I wanted to talk about with Mehili, but I couldn’t think of anything right now. Perhaps the brus fumes were getting to me. Well, at least I’d addressed the most important things.

“We’re done with the official part, I think,” Mehili said and clapped her hands, bringing servants with wine and all kinds of food. “You don’t eat meat, I suppose?” she said to Thulo, and started to point out which dishes were vegetable and which were fish.

“I’m learning,” Thulo said and pulled a leg off a roast chicken. Maha took the rest of the bird. “I’m hungry!” she said. She didn’t get to eat the chicken, though, because she went to the balustrade to look out with it in her hand and dropped it. I saw something small and dark carry it away, probably a cat.

Mehili was looking at Maha all the time –well, she is beautiful, and I must admit that Mehili was also looking at Thulo. “Oh! she exclaimed suddenly, “I know where I’ve seen that kind of hair before, except on the head of your king’s brother. Thatagato Khamin bought a pair of those thistleheads a couple of years ago. A boy and a girl, about four or five years old.”

“Slaves?” I asked, shocked. More abducted children?

Mehili laughed. “Well, it is legal here, you know. Just not in Little Valdyas. He’s treating them well as far as I know, I visited there several times and they absolutely looked happy. You must really stop at his estate on the way south, he’s a good friend of ours.”

We talked for several hours more, and I think we all slept, more or less in turns, perhaps except Mehili who seemed tireless. At sunrise Mehili called for her own sedan chair, and servants gave us our own clothes, washed and neatly folded. I put my uniform back on and tried to give Mehili the silk robe back, but she said “No! Keep it, it’s a present!” One more thing to wear at the Ashas court, then.

I also got a special present “to learn poetry from”: a little book, closely written in a beautiful script that I thought was literary Iss-Peranian but couldn’t make head or tail of. I could see that it was poetry by the way it was written, and every couple of pages there was an illustration, all of them naughty!

The sedan chair was clean and the bearers were correct but friendly soldiers. Mehili hugged all of us one more time, but as we climbed in we saw that she’d already gone back to work, giving a soldier a tongue-lashing in a corner of the yard while several other soldiers waited for her attention.

Back at the Order house Rhanion charged one of the journeymen to take charge of Maha. “He’s been there, too,” Rhanion said, “not at Mehili’s, but in that state. I send all my new journeymen to the harbour quarter to sample bad wine and good brus and find out what it’s like to be completely plastered. And what that does to your mind. With someone around to watch out for them, of course, and anyway Little Valdyas is small enough that people watch out for each other.”

“Well, that was really good brus that Mehili had,” I said, “I could smell it even if I wasn’t smoking myself. When I’m old and grey I’ll come back and try it.”

“When you’re old and grey, you’ll be commander of the Order!” Rhanion said.

“Yes, in Kushesh I suppose, I promised to come back.”

Thulo asked me to put a seal on his door because he didn’t know how well one of his would turn out, and Maha was sitting on the edge of her bed with the journeyman’s arm around her, so I could safely retreat to my own room and seal it and go to sleep.

I woke up all at once when I noticed that someone was scrabbling at my seal. Gods! Rhanion’s other prisoners! I’d forgotten them completely. But then I’d probably have been in no condition to look at strange semsin things last night, or this morning, or whatever.

There were two men, one small and quick, one large and slow: Honest Khali and Big Bhalik. They didn’t look gifted at first sight, but there really was something strange about them, as if something had been taken from them — if anea was hair, as if they’d been shaven.

The small man did most of the talking. “Are you going to hang us? We didn’t do anything!” he started, and when Rhanion snorted, “When someone’s imprisoned they should go free, shouldn’t they? Especially if they’re innocent.”

I am certainly not going to hang you,” I said, “I don’t know what else you have done that you might need hanging for, but this time at least you’re right that you didn’t do anything. But I don’t think those men are all that innocent — they stole children from their parents and were taking them away,”

“That’s not our responsibility!” the small man said, “We were only doing the job we were getting paid for. One wainwheel up front, three afterwards.” He fished a coin out of his pocket to prove his words. “We were at the Fish and Amphora, that’s where we usually get jobs, the regular bloke had this for us. — No, I don’t know who the bloke works for, Mernath’s his name, looks sort of half of this and half of the other like anyone else. Like me and Bhalik only paler.”

While Khali was talking I tried to see what exactly was wrong. As far as I could see it was something like what had ailed Thulo, his anea being sucked out of him, but it wasn’t only energy with these men, but almost their whole spirit. There was a very narrow thread running from them to a place I couldn’t see now, and I contemplated cutting it but if their spirit was on the other side that might leave them damaged permanently or even kill them. “I want a map,” I said, and it was Thulo who brought it so we could work the map like last time.

We found where the threads were going, trickling streams of anea not only from these two men but from dozens, perhaps hundreds of other people. It looked like the swampy spot where my family’s oxen drank, trampling everything and turning the ground into mud.

Bhalik interrupted us. “Khali? Are these people going to give us ourselves back again?”

“Oh, shut up,” Khali said, but it had put me on the right track. “Did your, er, regular bloke take your spirit away?”

“Well, it’s usual in the business innit? You give them some, or they take some, as a safeguard. But it was different this time, suddenly we couldn;’t hear each other, Bhalik and I, and I couldn’t get locks open and see if someone was coming.” That sounded as if he had been gifted all right!

It reminded Rhanion of something else. “Hm, like a master’s ribbon– I remember King Athal giving a man his anea back that had been stolen through the ribbon.” But these men didn’t look as if they’d ever been in any Guild except perhaps a thieves’ guild, certainly not that of the Nameless.

“I think we have to go to that place,” I said, and Rhanion agreed and got a whole squad of Sworn as an escort. Horses for all of us — fortunately I got the same sedate brown gelding again. “Can you unshackle us, at least?” Khali said. “I can’t ride like this and Bhalik can hardly ride at all even with his hands free.” We thought we could trust them enough for that, especially after we got their promise that they wouldn’t run.

The trail led to a part of town that had once been very rich, beyond the park that had been the royal palace. There were huge mansions, built of marble, but now mostly decrepit and inhabited by several poor families each. There were lots of people in the streets, picking up life again after the illness, but they gave us a wide berth.

We got to an abandoned mansion (at least there was nobody in it at this time, but by the tracks and the droppings there had recently been dozens of camels right in front of it) with a tree growing in its gateway that we had to squeeze past to get in. The first courtyard showed signs of people having lived there recently: washing that hung despondently on a line, and a broken cooking-pot kicked into a corner. As dry of anea as the rest of the city was, so squelchy it was here– filthy, as if hundreds of people had vomited on the ground. This was surely the cesspool of spirit that we’d been able to see from a distance.

It was hard to walk here because of tripwires of anea on the ground, like the traps we’d set for practice at the Order house in Solay, but I thought these must be either traps for real, or just the threads as they ran to the mud-hole.

A second courtyard, behind a gate (the door to which was lying on the ground in front of it) was completely empty, with only an open gateway leading to the third courtyard. There we found a dead man, his throat cut, “regular harbour scum” according to Rhanion.

“That’s the bloke!” Khali exclaimed. “Mernath! Knew he’d come to a bad end, but at least he could have paid us.” I didn’t say that they hadn’t done the work to earn their pay! “You’re travelling, aren’t you? Could you use a couple of guards?”

That wouldn’t even be a bad idea. I looked at Thulo, and he nodded back. I was still trying to work out whether we could give them back what they’d lost, but it looked as if it was wasted — the anea wasn’t even going anywhere in this place, it was just failing to soak into the ground like water on hard rocky soil. The leavings of whoever had made off with the rest of what they’d stolen.

I came to a decision. “Come back to the Order house with us,” I said. “We need to stop that drain on you, but I’d rather do it in the temple.” We went there right away, leaving a couple of the Sworn to search the house and ask the neighbours what they’d seen.

Khali and Bhalik were apprehensive when we got there, “is this a temple to the Nameless?”

“To Anshen,” I said firmly. I’d borrowed a couple of the knives we’d got from Erle, sharp and well-made, to cut off the flow and seal the anie at the same time. Maha hadn’t been to the house with us, but she was awake and alert now, curious to see what would happen. Rhanion stood in the temple doorway, guarding. We prayed the invocations — making Khali and Bhalik uneasy, but there was nothing for it, I didn’t want to something this risky without being sure I had the gods on my side.

The knife in my hand was full of the fire of Anshen — it was a good thing that I was still wearing riding gloves. I could see the drain of anea easily now, no way not to see it once it had been noticed. Perhaps I hesitated, because my first cut wasn’t clean, and it had made the knife melt as had happened to Rava’s dagger in Kushesh. I’d expected the melting, but Bhalik was losing power very fast now and there was no obvious way to stop that.

“I’ll sew it up,” Thulo said, and he pulled a needle –a silver one– out of some pocket and threaded it with a strand of anea. It worked, sort of, but the metal needle couldn’t really hold the spirit so it went too slowly.

“Let me!” Maha cried impatiently and took the needle out his hand. She made a needle of spirit with the silver one as a model, the spirit of a needle really, and closed the rift in Bhalik’s anie with tiny neat stitches. “I’ve been doing so much mending, I should know how!”

One to go. Fortunately Khali was brave — a lesser man might have refused. This time the knife went through the drain like butter and sealed it closed, exactly as I’d intended. This knife was ruined too, of course, if we were going to do more of this sort of thing we’d better invest in a gross. To tell from all the threads running to the mud pool there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in the city in the same state. But it wasn’t my job go track them down and cut off the leak: once again I was leaving just as the real work started.

I went to put on something that wasn’t drenched with sweat and sticky with anea. When I came out of the room I noticed Khali and Bhalik sitting against the wall as if they were resting but still on guard. They came along to the Temple of Mizran, looking impressively on guard — strange, usually I was the one doing the guarding, not the one being guarded.

Neither Thulo nor I –and Maha least of all– had ever been on a trade expedition before, but the priest who helped us (not Ferin, who was still imprisoned, I thought) knew all about it. We ended up with two hundred camels laden with linen, wool, wax and honey, sixty shared reserve camels in the caravan’s common camel pool (that gave me a vision of camels swimming in a crowded lake, but that was probably not what the priest meant), riding camels for all of us, and two carrying gold and silver to trade with in Ashas. It made me and Maha boggle, and even Thulo, probably used to handling much more money, looked taken aback.

“When do we leave?” I asked, expecting to hear a number of days, but it was that same day, in a couple of hours. The priest called his assistant, a short cheerful woman called Dimani, to make everything ready. He made us a present of a book, Melawat’s “Letters to my Son”, advice from a seasoned tradeswoman to someone who wanted to learn the ropes. Exactly what we needed! It was in trade Iss-Peranian, which Thulo could read fairly easily and I could puzzle out when written and understand when spoken, so we’d get by.

Now we were suddenly in a hurry. We packed everything we had at the Order house –fortunately not much– and sent someone to the dressmaker to pick up the rest of our clothes. I finished a letter to Valdis in a rush and put it in the box for outgoing mail, confident that it would go with the first ship likely to end up in Essle or have a good connection.

While we were doing that, someone came back from the abandoned house to say that they’d found nothing more, but a woman who worked on the other side of the block had seen the camels at “the house one shouldn’t enter” and could tell that the people they belonged to had left the previous day: southerners, men and women, about ten of them.

“I suppose they’ll be in the same caravan,” Rhanion said. I didn’t know whether that was good news or bad news.

We went to Master Azbabe’s compound, just south of the city. Khail had told us where to go and that they would meet us there, they’d have to go and get their things. It was easy– just walk the broad causeway from the harbour past the palace, and follow other people with camels. Ours would already be there,

The compound looked most like an enormous cattle market: mostly camels, but also horses and donkeys and even the occasional elephant. As we moved between them, Dimani came riding up on a donkey. dressed in clothes that looked sort of Iss-Perianian and sort of Síthi and sort of Valdyan, with a broad-brimmed hat and breeches under her skirts. She took off the hat and revealed a head of bleached-blonde hair. “Ah, you’re here already! You should give your travelling papers to Azbabe so he can cross you off his list. I have the papers right here.” She took us to a pavilion where a man and a woman were sitting at a folding table full of stacks of paper and boxes that could contain money or more paper.

The man –Azbabe– looked over the papers and passed them to the woman. “Dunya, my wife, she keeps the books.” Then Dimani took us to our riding camels, but before we arrived there we ran into Khali and Bhalik, now dressed in clean clothes and with packs at their feet. They had a girl with them– at least she had the figure of a girl, but she was so heavily veiled that all that could be seen of her were her eyes, which were dark and lively. “Zahmati,” Khail said. “Our daughter. She cooks for us.” Now that was a good idea– both Thulo and I were only indifferent cooks, and though Maha could cook she probably didn’t know how and what to cook in the desert. Zahmati was probably about Maha’s age, and the two girls were talking with minds and gestures immediately.

We had to wait until our section of the caravan started moving, the front was already gone, and I suddenly realised that I was running out of maiden-herbs, just when I’d promised to share mine with Maha so she wouldn’t be caught in the middle of nowhere with bloody linens again. I caught one of the little beggar children who were all around the place and sent her to an apothecary (“a place where they sell herbs”, she didn’t know the word) with a half-shilling and a note ordering maiden-herbs and ironweed. “How do you know she won’t pocket it and run away?” Thulo asked, and I looked the girl in the eyes and said “I can see you with my mind! If you don’t come back I’ll come after you!” It was in fact impossible to see her at any distance where my eyes couldn’t see her with all the crowd, but the girl didn’t know that.

Just as we were starting to move she did come back, her skirt full of packets. There was a strange smell coming from some of them– the maiden-herbs were there all right, but the packets that ought to have contained ironweed were all full of brus! Well, I had some ironweed left, and there were other ways, though not as efficient, to recover from work with the mind. I gave the girl a half-shilling and she ran away, clutching it, to show to a boy who looked enough like her to be her brother.