Plans for a raid

Sedi still suffers from Foot In Mouth Disease. Perhaps she’ll grow out of it before she dies of it.

As we were talking in the temple Pesar entered too, still leaving the priest fuming outside. I suddenly realised what was keeping him from entering — this was a priest of tne Nameless! Well, I could probably handle that; easier than priests of gods I didn’t know.

“I’m advised that my intended here has asked you to bless our marriage,” Pesar said. I couldn’t read his expression.

“Yes,” I said, “though I don’t know your customs, and I have only limited authority in our own tradition.” I wasn’t a priestess of the Mother, after all, though I doubted if She would object.

Pesar wrung his hands. “You must know that there are several stages of marriage with us. First there’s the betrothal –that’s already been done–, then there is … well … the” and he said a word I didn’t understand, which made Samada blush and giggle. “The first marriage — the word means something different in Albetire now, it’s not really …”

“Suitable?

“Yes. But that’s something that could happen now, whereas the second marriage, the solemn one, needs the approval of the emperor and that couldn’t be done until we’re in Ashas.”

Well, I did intend to come along as far as Ashas, but I understood that both of them wanted to be married sooner rather than later. “Would your priest otherwise have blessed the marriage?” I asked.

“Ranfir, yes, the princess’ modat, he has the power — the privilege — to solemnise the marriage. But it seems that the princess has other ideas.”

“What happens if you –either by his agency or mine– enter that first marriage, and the emperor doesn’t allow it?”

“Then Samada would still be my property, but not my wife. And if there are any children, I have to claim them explicitly as mine to let them inherit.”

That made me smile. “Valdyan fathers also have to claim children as theirs to let them inherit.”

“Oh! Well, perhaps our customs aren’t as different as we thought.” He put an arm around Samada and took her out of the temple, whispering. No marriage between the elephants just now, apparently. The elephants followed them out, but stayed close to the temple.

Now I had to deal with the priest, and indeed as soon as I came through the door-opening he approached me. “Holiness, I must speak to you.” I nodded encouragingly, but he added “In private.”

I took him into our tent, telling Thulo for safety, and protected it — awkwardly at first because the priest really did bring a whole lot of presence of the Nameless, then more solidly. “My name is Ferin,” he said, which surprised me because he looked more as if he belonged with the Nameless that Merain in Kushesh served, than with the Resurgence. “With all respect — there are three things I must speak to you about.”

“Well, speak?”

“Three things. The pillar of fire, the whore-marriage, the slave children.” He, at least, wasn’t coy about the marriage. I nodded and listened; he was clearly struggling to speak at all, I wouldn’t interrupt him.

“First, the pillar of fire. I am aware that it was not of the Nameless.” It took a while until I understood what he meant — the Nameless for him, so not of Anshen.

“I realise that,” I said. “I also know it was too powerful for a human being to master. And you can call him by his name, that doesn’t discomfit me.” It did in fact discomfit me, but not as much as hemming and hawing and beating about the bush.

“Yes, certainly,” he said, and that seemed to be all of that subject. Did he want me to know that he knew? Or was it a challenge that I’d failed to recognise? He looked uncomfortable rather than hostile; he was sweating now.

“Next, the marriage.” I knew that Samada didn’t want this priest to perform her marriage because she thought him a creep, but he was more frightened than frightening at the moment. It was probably the spirit of the Nameless around him that creeped her out, she was gifted, though completely untrained as Iss-Peranians are who don’t happen to be dandar or, apparently, priests.

“I have protected the princess since she was six years old, as her modat, and that’s more important to me than being a priest of Archan” –ah, he did call him by his name– “and now I have been relieved of that task because of her marriage. The point is that this happened before the caravan arrived, before you were even in sight of the palace. First I was relieved of my task, then the pillar of fire, then Samada decided it was to be you to bless her marriage, that order of occurrence gives one to think.”

Yes, especially the fact that someone clearly wanted to end this priest’s influence. “Who relieved you of the task of protecting her?” I asked.

“Why, the grand masters from the north. Grand master Aylith, grand master Jeran. They arrived from Albetire four, five days before the caravan did.”

Hm. How much chance that these were the exact people that Khali and Bhalik wanted revenge on? And that they were of the Resurgence was a sure thing. I didn’t ask whether they had named Ranfir Ferin, perhaps an oversight.

“If I can protect a six-year-old princess I can protect a foreign girl too,” the priest continued. “But they’ve been taken out of my influence as well.” It turned out that the slave-children were still very young, a six-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy, not as I’d thought about Samada’s age! “She wanted to take her favourite slaves, and her mother was all in favour, but her father was under the influence of the priests from the north. Those children are from a country far to the north, and they carry a birthright that the priests can and will use.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “one of my companions is from that country, and it’s her mission to find children who are from there and bring them home.”

And as I said that, the earth started to shake again. I hurriedly put Zahmati and Maha’s seal on the ground so the pebbles wouldn’t pummel us and took the seal off the tent-cover so we could leave it. Ranfir was too terrified to move, so I half dragged him to the temple, where Thulo had already started the service. I’ll be along, have to protect someone first, I said to him and looked for a safe place for the priest. Between the elephants looked safe, but obviously not from the Nameless — it was clear that he was in danger from his own god now. But he could enter the temple along with me, though it took pushing through a great resistance.

Ranfir fainted the moment we entered the temple. So did Thulo, who had been upholding the temple seal. Maha took over at once, and after I’d laid both men securely on their sides I finished because I’d promised Thulo, though Maha said that she could handle it and probably could, at that.

The earthquake stopped when the service did, or perhaps we ended the service at the end of the earthquake.

Suddenly I wondered what happened to all the temples we’d built on the way here — people took their stones, or at least people took a stone, when travelling on, but would there be a slowly fading vestige of Anshen’s power? Could we use the same place again on the way back?

Maha and Zahmati were taking care of Thulo, so I could look after Ranfir. I couldn’t really do much for him, he was mostly exhausted and as long as nobody stepped on him he could lie in the temple as long as he needed to recover, we were likely to stay here at least another day.

Pesar came to talk about the marriage: he wanted Samada to meet his first and his second wife. Well! I hadn’t considered that, and I wondered if Samada knew — somehow I’d tacitly assumed that he was a widower. “Are they in Ashas?” I asked. But no, they were here, he never travelled without them. “Until my mother dies, then my first wife will stay in Albetire to run the business. And when my mother-in-law dies my second wife will stay in Ashas.” So much for Samada’s plans to run the business!

I asked him for his opinion on what to do about the slave children. “See my first wife in the morning so she can talk with my future mother-in-law,” he said.

As for a new fire-pot, or rather two, that would be no problem, I should just send one of my apprentices to one of his stewards.

I asked whether he was planning a feast for the marriage, even if it was a temporary one, but he said no: if he did he’d have to invite his father-in-law with his whole court. And even if Samada’s father declined, it would still be the proper thing to do. “We can’t very well have a feast when we’re a couple of weeks along in the middle of the desert, either,” he said, “better wait until Ashas. Were you counting on it?”

“It’s not that,” I said, “but it would be convenient for us to stay at least another day, if only to recover from everything.” And then I somehow let slip that Maha was the crown princess, because I thought everybody already knew that as she didn’t make a secret of it. Pesar was gracious about it, though I could see it embarrassed him.

Ranfir had recovered enough to sit up: he was on his knees in front of Samada, his hands in hers. When Pesar took Samada away, he did the same to me, but I raised him and offered him as much protection as I could manage. “That is no use,” he said, “I am finished, all I expect now is thunder, lightning and the end. At least I’ve been able to finish my work, Samada has forgiven me.” He said a lot more, of which I mostly understood that he knew no better than that the whole world belonged to Archan, and that Anshen had only a little bit of the North. (If that was truly the case, wouldn’t we have noticed?)

I left him in the temple –that was safe until we dismantled it– and he stayed near the ruined fire-pot, praying.

When I came back to the tent Zahmati, Maha and Samada were sitting in front of it. I asked after Thulo, and they said “he’s asleep!” “Snoring!” “No, purring like a kitten!”

“Have you fought with the priest?” Maha asked.

“No, only talked,” I said, “I took him into the temple because he was in danger from the Nameless. Er, from Archan.”

Thulo woke up from the talking; if he’d been purring like a kitten, it was probably because he was as weak as a kitten. Once again I wished I had ironweed. Zahmati brought him (and us) dumplings filled with chicken, boiled, not fried, and without saffron or pepper but with coconut and almonds.

As we were eating, Samada wondered aloud why her father hadn’t given her more soldiers, and not a single camel either, though he’d bought lots of extra camels! She had only the elephants, not even any servants, apart from the elephant-drivers.

Later, without Samada there, we talked about strategy. Khali and Bhalik promptly wanted to go after the grand masters with a knife, but much as I’d like to get rid of the priests of the Resurgence I balked at sending them as my assassins or even condoning it. It felt so wrong– but I couldn’t explain to Thulo why it was all right to kill someone in a fight, but not to murder them in cold blood. The only thing I knew whas that I wouldn’t have that on my conscience — that if I did something like that or ordered someone to do it, I’d have to ask myself if I still belonged to Anshen.

“I’ll have to pray about it,” he said, and as if that called up a memory, “Have you asked that priest if he wants to belong to Anshen?”

“Not yet,” I said.

I slept patchily that night, on guard all the time. I wasn’t the only one: in the morning Maha told us her dream, in which she was in an immense palace with trees for pillars and heaps of rocks at the foot of every tree. Outside, there were lots of people, but they were maimed, as if they were lepers. None of us knew what to make of it, though it felt as if it had a meaning, not just a dream-story.

I found the priest still in the temple, though it was clear that he had been moving around a little. “We’re going to move the temple tomorrow,” I said, “then it can’t protect you any more. I can offer you my protection — and I can see that you’re already under the protection of Anshen.” Anshen’s hands were on his shoulders along with mine. He only had to accept it, but he kept insisting that he wasn’t good enough. “Everybody is good enough for Anshen,” I said. “You can be our temple servant, then you belong to Anshen, even if you haven’t decided yet.”

“I’ll have to think more about it.” he said.

“What name do you want to be called by?” I asked. I didn’t want to call him Ferin, and something made me think ‘Ranfir’ was a priest-name too.

“My birth-name is Cheliân,” he said.

This time, the service didn’t seem to hurt him so much.

Afterwards — after handling people’s queries, more every day — a servant of Pesar’s household took me and Thulo and Maha to Pesar’s part of the camp The wives were waiting for us: the first was about forty years old, the second about thirty and gifted but untrained.

“I understand you have a request to make me for Samada?” the first wife asked.

We explained about the children from Maha’s country, and Maha’s vow to collect all those children and bring them back home. That meant they wouldn’t be Samada’s slaves for long, yes, but also that the priests from Albetire wouldn’t be able to do anything to them.

“Hm,” she said. “It’s long ago that I led a raid.” I suppressed a chuckle. “But I understand that you prefer to do this the diplomatic way. Shall I go and speak to Samada’s mother?”

“Yes, please,” I said. “And another thing, do you have a herbalist in your household?”

“Yes, our physician,” she said, and she had a servant take me to a middle-aged woman who I’d have recognised as a doctor even if I hadn’t known beforehand that she was one.

“Oh, northern silverleaf!” the doctor said when I’d explained what I needed. “We use a tincture of that for festering wounds, but small silverleaf works just as well and it’s much easier to get. I’ll show you.” And yes, what she showed me was indeed ironweed, but not even enough for one cup of weak tea. “This is all I have,” she said.

Small silverleaf turned out to be sage — well, yes, we use that for wounds too, and to wash your hands when you’re going to tend to wounds. When I told her that we used ironweed tea to restore strength of the spirit, her face cleared, “oh! now I know why the baron in Albetire was so angry when the hospital stores had been plundered and there were two bales of it missing! It’s worth its weight in gold here. Not that it weighs so much. And no, I’m not selling mine to you for any gold.”

“You’ve helped me a lot anyway,” I said. “At least now I know what it’s called here! When I’m back in Valdis I’ll have a sack of silverleaf sent to you.”

The doctor had been looking at Thulo, who was still weak and rather grey. “You look as if you need kalesh,” she said, and when she saw us look at each other in alarm, “You have the dandar sickness. It’ll go away on its own, but kalesh will help it.”

“I had some, and it didn’t agree with me,” Thulo said.

“Yes, but how? In brandy? Tsk.” And she showed us a box of little thorns in a bed of fluff. “You take this, and stick it in the–” a word I didn’t understand, but it probably meant the small of the back, or the spine in the lower back.”

That made me shudder. “I’ve always heard that it kills you when it gets in your blood,” I said. “I did have it once– when I was, er, initiated into the priesthood. But that was in wine.”

She looked as if she didn’t hold with all those foreign practices, but we managed to excuse ourselves and get away before she could dose Thulo. Dandar sickness indeed!

Back at the tent there was Samada again, who took Maha and Zahmati to the bath-house, “I can bring two friends!” And they took Thulo too, “you look as if you need warm water!” So I could stay in the tent, alone, and get some real rest.

I woke up refreshed, stretched and knocked over the flask of wine that someone had put beside me. I could rescue most of it, though, and praised whoever had thought of me (Bhalik, who stood in the doorway beaming). But I hadn’t had more than one sip of it when Thulo called me, “Mistress the First Wife wants to see you!”

I went, with Bhalik as a guard, and found the first wife angry and the second wife upset. Samada was there too, though according to the senior wives she wasn’t supposed to, but it was a good thing because she could tell us that her father’s first wife wasn’t her mother. It was the first wife that they’d talked to, not Samada’s mother, then: and this woman would gladly have sent the slave-children but the priests had made that impossible. How exactly, Pesar’s first wife hadn’t been able to learn.

“How many servants does your father have?” she suddenly asked Samada.

“I don’t know– three thousand, four thousand?”

“Hm, thought so, it was much too empty, I wonder where they all are.”

“I thought it was spooky!” the second wife added. “I felt threatened all the time!”

“I think I might be able to help you with that,” I said, “I can at least bless you, and that will protect you.” I’ve found out that I can’t bless someone without putting at least a little protection on them, and while I was doing that I tried to see if she’d been touched and was being drained. They’d tried all right, but it hadn’t taken, thank Anshen. “Thank you!” she said, “that makes me feel a lot better!”

I tried to explain in as simple terms as I could that the priests from Albetire would want to use the children’s spirit, as if they were milking a sheep. That made the first wife even angrier, “perhaps I’ll go on another raid after all! But no, that’s too long ago.”

After the evening service we started to make a plan for a raid of our own. Bhalik and Khali wanted very badly to kill the priests outright, after all, they were the people they’d sworn to get! But I was still against that. “Club them, knock them out, okay?” Bhalik said, and I nodded, saying we’d have to be clever,and we’d had to be fast.

My backup plan, which I didn’t tell to anyone yet, was to send a message to Pesar’s first wife so she could have us pulled out if we screwed up. (But reckoning with screwing up didn’t seem wise with Khali and Bhalik around, nor with Maha.)

Bhalik asked Samada to draw a plan of the palace, threatening her at every step: “if you’d like to see your father again, show us where the rooms are!” Khali stopped him every time, “she’ll do it without that, there’s no need!” but Samada got scared anyway, and that made her falter.

“You’re the only one here who really knows the palace, now you can help us find the children!” I said. And while she was at it, I thought of something else: “May we look in your head? So we know what it looks like.” She agreed, uncertainly, “how do I do that?”

“Just think of what it looks like as you draw it,” I said, “try to see it in your mind. You may feel that we’re there but we’ll only look, not touch anything.” I put a hand on her shoulder, and Thulo on the other, and we could see that there were hiding-places and an almost completely secret route to the kitchen for girls who wanted to steal a sweet in the evening. I suspected that the children were in Samada’s old room, and whoever was guarding them in the priest’s old room which overlooked it through a trellis. The throne room had been turned into a temple, the priests lived in Samada’s father’s rooms.

One thing was very useful: water was brought to the kitchen by an aquaduct so large that slaves could crawl into it to clean it. If they could, so could we!

We planned to do it in the morning right after the service: if we did it before, or skipped the service before leaving, we’d draw too much attention, and this way any confusion would be covered by the confusion of packing up. None of us could stay behind, me least of all, though I was the obvious person to protect the temple and the caravan and Cheliân.

We couldn’t do anything but sleep and wait now. I thought of a couple of things before falling asleep: it would probably be useful to fill the bag of temple stones and take it with us so it would be easier to protect ourselves, and we might have to disguise the children in some way because they’d stand out like a lighthouse with that colour of hair and skin.