We were prepared for an epic fight but got tragedy instead.
It must have been after midnight, but we were still making the rest of the plan. The princes came to show a company of soldiers in the other army’s uniforms: not everything fit and I could also see some evidence of hasty alterations, but they would pass at first sight, and that was all that was needed. “We’ll relieve the dawn watch,” Prince Ishan said, “so we’ll be all ready for you.” We’d go right after the morning service, taking all the temple stones with us, to build our own temple around the city one.
I got some sleep. Not much. The morning service came all too early. I announced the expedition to the city right at the beginning — I was in uniform already instead of the Ishey clothes, sword on my back, so it was likely that at least some people would expect something out of the ordinary — and all we did was ask for the blessing of Anshen and all the other good gods, so we finished early too. I saw the royal family kneeling practically at my feet, and each of them picked up a stone with all the others.
There were about a thousand people from the city — they must have started very early!– and twice as many, perhaps more, from the caravan: a huge procession, with the mixture of anticipation, solemnity and hilarity that seems to go with processions everywhere.
In front of the palace there was a guard of some of the young hunters, along with two palace servant girls we hadn’t seen yet. They saluted us cheerfullly, “the king and the steward are in there, what shall we do?”
“Keep them inside,” I said, “we’ll deal with them later.”
Maha pushed through the crowd to talk to me. “Only Ishey can think of that!” she said with a grin. “They gave everybody in the real watch relief a cartwheel and said it’s a feast of Dayati today and to go and celebrate! I’m afraid it’s probably out of your money, Thulo. But they’re all in the inns and brothels, most likely.”
When we got to the temple we saw that there was a wall around it already, a low one like the wall around a temple of Naigha, only of grey stone, not whitewashed. Should we build on it? Better not — but around it or inside? “Inside,” I said firmly, “but as wide as we can.” And in no time there wasn’t a wall any more either: people were taking the stones to add to our own.
I didn’t know what else to do than to start an ordinary service, to establish it as a temple. I felt power rising above the wall we’d built, almost a seal, stronger than it normally was in the camp. We didn’t do anything special — no marriages, no blessings, no name-givings, everybody was watching me, it was a bit disconcerting because they were waiting for me to take action.
I finished with the soldiers’ blessing, “let’s go forth and fight for Good!” and then went and knocked on the bronze doors. Bronze-covered doors, really, I could hear that. There was no response; not that I’d expected any. They were so cold that the grass in the cracks between the marble tiles in front of the temple was covered in hoarfrost, like the grass at home in winter. That gave me an idea– I called my village acolyte, whose name I know I should know but if I’ve ever known it it hasn’t stuck, and asked him (in mind-to-mind images because we still didn’t have much language in common) if he could warm up the doors.
Yes, that worked. The grass began to smoke, the marble tiles cracked, the bronze warped. Nails shot out and made people in the temple have to duck. There was indeed wood under the bronze and it started to smoulder.
“Thank you,” I said, and tried to pull open the wooden doors, glad of the gloves I’d put on expecting to have to wield a heated sword. It was easy: one door fell away at an angle and the other plummeted straight down beside me.
There was a very high, very wide passage beyond the doors, wide enough for dozens of people to walk abreast. I took Thulo, Maha and the queen with me, and the king wouldn’t leave the queen, and everybody else came after us. I sent Prince Ishan and Prince Sharab back to continue the service — I thought that if it stopped the seal might fail, too. We went into the temple singing.
The walls of the passage were decorated with relief, raised figures painted in colours that were now chipping. The subject matter was what we could have expected — all the figures were different sizes, made to different scales, but no one was apart from another.
In the passage there was a seal, hanging there like a curtain. As we neared, it drew back, until we were in the great hall under the dome, where it settled into a sort of hut made of ryst no larger than one of our tents. One person was inside it. That must be Lydan, then.
The ground had grown colder as we moved towards the dome. I was glad of my army-issue boots –I’ve gone through half a dozen pairs of boots since I left Valdis!– but the queen was barefoot, and halfway through the king picked her up and carried her in his arms.
Everybody was waiting for me to do something.
I drew my sword and tried to hack the ryst hut open, but it was as hard as glass, and while I was doing it I felt something of Dayati in the way it was made.
I paused. “Do you approve of this, Timoine?” I asked the air. I didn’t even know at the time what ‘this’ was — the ryst hut, the way I was trying to break it, the whole situation — but the pigtailed blonde girl I’d seen before was at my side and said, as scathingly as only a ten-year-old can, “Fighting isn’t the way1′
I put my sword back in the scabbard and tried to pry open the seal with my bare hands. Maha saw what I was doing and helped me, and also the queen, and Thulo (though he was mostly busy keeping track of what was happening outside), and the king (though he didn’t know what he was doing at all).
“Strange,” the queen said, “there’s all this talk about child sacrifices but I don’t think there have ever been any, I’d feel it if there were. When someone is sacrificed all the power of their life is unleashed — there’d have to be more power here, Much more.”
I’d expected much more power as well, a stronger seal — no, this one was uncommonly strong — a larger seal, more extensive, with more layers. “Can you see what did happen?”
“No, that needs a high priestess of Dayati. I could do it, I know all the forms, but I’ve never been ordained.”
I’d made priests and priestesses before. “I think I can do that,” I said, and she took all her clothes off and knelt in front of me. I laid my hands on her head. I believed that she knew all the forms already, all she needed was the goddess.
I didn’t know the words, so I had to invent something. That wouldn’t be the first time either. Hardly anyone would understand me if I spoke my own language, anyway. “Dayati?” I asked. “Will you please make this woman yours?”
Well, that worked. I felt a flutter in my belly that I hadn’t had since I’d decided at fifteen that all the rigmarole wasn’t worth the trouble. Even more than that, it felt like there were little feet trampling my insides — goodness, would Dayati be able to make me pregnant without the usual doings? And there was power going into the queen, too, which everybody could see, even those who weren’t gifted. She stood up, looking larger than life, went around to the other side of the seal-hut, and started to dance.
Thulo and Maha and I pulled the seal open. It was easy now.
There was a man inside, gaunt, filthy, looking as if he wasn’t really in the world, with a woman in his arms who must have been dead for years. The high priestess!
The mob was about to seize him but I managed to stop them, saying “leave him, he’s a victim, he’s a slave too.”
“Whose slave?” the king asked.
“Of the one who is responsible for all slavery, of course!” I said. That came out bitterly and without thinking, but looking back I think I meant Archan of the Resurgence. I could see that the king understood it, but would all those people understand it too?
“My wife will take care of that,” the king said. She was still dancing, and I felt that I had to look away if I wanted to keep my vows. Many people were making love now, the spirit of Dayati on them.
This was no place for me, for a troubled man who could only be Lydan, and for a dead body. When I said that someone should carry the dead body out, several people came with spears and parts of railings with cloaks around them to make a sort of stretcher. It was hard to make Lydan let go of the body, and eventually someone allowed him to take hold of the side of the stretcher.
“What do you people do with your dead?” I asked Prince Shab.
“Burn them,” the prince said.
“Is there a special place for that, or can you do it where it’s convenient?”
“Depends how rich you are,” the prince said, “do you want to do it in the temple?”
That threw me for a moment, but I knew what he meant. “Yes, in the temple, but outside the building.” Now I was a priestess of Naigha, too!
There were two convenient charred wooden doors lying just outside the building, and several people started dragging those into a clear space, others brought more wood to make a pyre. When it was shoulder-high the high priestess’ body was lifted on top, Lydan made an effort to climb up, but I caught and held him. Then I called my firestarting acolyte. “Burn this, please,” I said, and pointed.
That made me let go of Lydan with one arm, of course, and he jumped on the pyre at the moment that the flames went up. The acolyte was shocked , it was clear that he’d only meant to light the fire, not to make the whole pyre go up in a blaze that we couldn’t possibly rescue Lydan from. But I suspect that the gods had a hand in it.
There was nothing more I could do here. I tried to find the king, but he’d gone back to his wife. And when I tried to find her, she was still dancing.
We took Prince Shab and Princess Biruné to the palace. Through the back door, the one closest to the temple. Some more of the young hunters were on guard outside, but inside we ran into a guard of real soldiers. “Do you have an appointment for an audience?” the sergeant asked.
“No,” I said, “but it’s vital that we see him right now.” I must have been convincing, because they escorted us to the courtyard where Fahar was sitting. He was looking better than I’d seen him before — no wonder, our doctors had been to see him, I remembered, while I had been swordfighting and sleeping.
“There’s no way to soften this,” I said after a cursory greeting. “The High Priest Lydan is dead.”
All the floridity went out of his face: he was as grey as the ash of a wood-fire, gasped, collapsed. “Quick!” Maha said. “Thulo, help me!” They got his heart going again and he sat up weakly. “What happened?”
I told him a very short summary. “He couldn’t be without his beloved,” I ended.
“Shall I have you impaled now?” he asked.
His description of how impaling worked was … interesting, much like the man in Albetire’s colourful descriptions of torture, but I cut him short. “Shan’t we to go the emperor of Ashas so he can do it himself if it’s necessary?”
“Hmm, that would be an idea. You know, when the emperor was a boy of three years old he was playing with a dog, he pulled his tail, and of course it bit him. Then he had the dog impaled, and the slave who should have been watching the dog as well.” That didn’t bode well for our visit to the emperor, but perhaps he’d learned to be less impulsive in the ten years or so since he was a little boy.
I noticed that we didn’t have our escort of soldiers any more. I hadn’t seen them leaving. I didn’t know whether we should be afraid of a larger troop, or something else had distracted them.
“The problem is,” Fahar said, “that there won’t be news going to Ashas now and then they’ll send an army soon. Five hundred thousand troops, probably.”
“Perhaps you’ll have to continue doing the paperwork,” I said. “That’s what you’re good at. King Mahsab would have you as his confidential secretary, his right hand.”
“I could write the letters, yes,” he said, “but it needs the– well, of Archan, and I can’t do that, Lydan could.”
“Perhaps my mother could do that,” Biruné ventures. “Fake the letters.”
Thulo had a better idea: we had to arrive in Ashas first and keep the emperor from sending troops at all. I’m not sure if this king isn’t a better king than Mahsab, he thought to me. That might even be the case: at least he’d done faithfully what he’d been convinced was good for his people.
A Plains girl came running into the courtyard and pulled my sleeve. “You should come to the temple, something’s come up,” she said. Anyway, Fahar was being fussed over by his attendants –different ones this time– who were coaxing him to bed. “Are you using the royal apartments?” Shab asked. but no, he wouldn’t dare! Anyway, the wall paintings there were too racy, not good for his heart.
The girl –I think it was Kisin– took us to a cellar beneath the temple. It was full of children, about twenty of them. The youngest were about four years old, the oldest. the obvious leader, was a boy in his teens. One girl of about eleven looked particularly Valdyan, northern, pale and weedy with hair like birch shavings.
“You’re from Rizenay!” I said.
“Yes, what of it? You’re of the Nameless.”
“He’s got a name. They both do, and we might as well call both of them by it. I’m of Anshen and you’re of Archan.”
“Neither of them is worth anything,” she said, “one says nothing and the other lies to you.”
“Well, perhaps you should become a priestess of Naigha then, she’s honest at least.”
“I’ve had it with gods. No, I want to go home and cut my stepfather’s throat and get the flock back he took from my mother.”
Nobody seemed disconcerted by that; the eight-year-old twin Khas boys next to her even applauded it. Well! It takes all sorts, I suppose.
“Don’t mind her,” the oldest boy said. “We thought we’d have our throats cut because Vurian told Lydan to do it, but then Lydan cut Vurian’s throat because he didn’t want to cut ours. There were more and more children who came here but he never sacrificed even one, Lydan didn’t.”
“Can we go outside now?” one of the children asked.
“I don’t see why not,” I said. They all looked as if they hadn’t seen daylight or breathed fresh air for ages, but they were well-fed at least.
“Do you want to see Vurian?” the boy asked, and I was suprised that they still had him, but he took us to a side room where there was a rotted corpse. The only thing that was still clear was that he’d been a southerner, with the dark skin and broad nose. “Strange that he’s called that really, isn’t that a name from the country in the north where the king makes earthquakes?”
“My country, yes.” I said, “that’s King Athal, my king. Those people from the south give themselves names from the north. I don’t know why either.”
I was just thinking that I’d recommend the children to the prince and the princess when one of the young hunters came down, a Khas, so I said “Look, here’s a bunch of children, can you lot take care of them?” He took them away, and I was really craving a bath now, especially after being in the room with the long-dead Vurian. We’d have to go and talk to the soldiers first, though: there must be someone there who knew about the children. Not only had they had food and clothes and other necessities, but more children had been brought in, most of them probably bought in the slave market. One girl had told me how she and her friend had been bought when they were four, and they were now seven.
At the barracks behind the temple the situation was tense. Outside the gate there was a captain of our own army, inside a captain of theirs, each with their company of soldiers. They were looking daggers at each other.
I breezed through the soldiers — easy, because they parted before me — and spoke to the captain inside. “I think you are the man I need to see,” I said, “can we speak where not everyone sees us?”
“I will speak with you,” he said, “but I want it where everyone sees us! I don’t trust priestesses of Archan.”
“I’m not a priestess of Archan,” I said, “I’m a priestess of Anshen.”
“I’m a priestess of Dayati too,” I said.
While I was thinking about how I could prove that, he said, “Where are the children?”
I looked around with my mind and found them in the market, stuffing themselves with sausage rolls. The captain was gifted enough that I could show him. “They’re outside! That’ll give trouble.” I had no answer to that, but he wouldn’t have given me time to give it anyway. “We’ll confer,” he said, “in two days we’ll know whether we’ll have to fight you or not.”
“All right,” I said, “I’m a soldier myself, I understand that.”
Now we could go to the bath-house. We were welcomed by several beautiful and willing young men and women, and I was almost tempted –the spirit of Dayati was still on me– but I wanted to get clean, and perhaps to have my sore muscles kneaded. When I’d found a language to say that in (a mixture of languages, I think) I got a sturdy middle-aged woman who washed me, massaged my back and thighs, rubbed me with oil, and complained about my hair. Priestesses of Dayati should have long hair! Well, I’ll go to the army barber.
When I said I wished I had something clean to put on, several other women were at my side with clothes. A long linen shift, a silk robe in almost the right colours for the Order — blue and grey, but the golden butterflies all over it spoilt the effect a bit. My head was wrapped in a scarf with an enormous bow to hide that I didn’t have enough hair.
I wanted my uniform back, washed if possible but otherwise I’d give it to Zahmati to wash, but it was nowhere to be found. Khali went after it, and came back with a grin on his face, “do you really want your uniform back, or do you want to be remembered forever in this city? Tomorrow every person in this city who can get their hands on it will have a little scrap of grey cloth that will go down in their family for generations. With a story that grows every time it’s told.”
“Like my signature!” Thulo said. “A holy — what was the word again?”
“Relic,” I said, absently. “No, that’s only when you’re dead.”
“Amulet,” Khali said, “it’ll bring them luck and give courage.”
Well, I’d have to find a tailor, preferably a military one or I’d get show clothes again. The washerwomen would probably know where the uniforms came from.
There was one more thing I wanted to do in the city: I took Bhalik with me to the palace and asked the clerks in the writing-room for pen and paper to write a letter. I got a brush, which took some getting used to, and I think those clerks will make fun of me and my writing for years to come, but I managed to write a letter to Mehili to warn about the five hundred thousand troops from Ashas, and would Beguyan have an army that could stand up to that?
When I got back to the camp I found Thulo and Samada just finishing what looked like an argument. Maha was gone, and I gathered that the children had been there when it started but had gone ahead to the camp, possibly with Maha. I didn’t ask what it had been about, and it was impossible to determine now that they were sort of agreeing to disagree.
Samada’s class was suddenly three times as large. “I’ll have a hundred before long!” she said. “But you can’t refuse children who want to learn just because the class is full.” Perhaps she could get some helpers, split the class into beginners and more advanced students, but that was for her to organise, not for me. I can’t do everything any more!
When I got to the temple Cheliân was there already. “Shall I go to the city and hold the service there?” he asked. “Then you can do it here.” Yes, of course, there was a temple of ours in the city now! We’d have to build a new one in the camp. Some people were already bringing new stones, and even when there was hardly more than the suggestion of a wall it still felt like a holy place.
While I was preparing for the service a company of soldiers came from the city. I was apprehensive, but the captain said “We’ve come to join you!” It was the replaced watch, the men who had been paid to celebrate the feast of Dayati! “My army camp is over there,” I pointed, “report to Prince Ishan, he’ll sort you out.”
Between the two services — still enough people here to have two — a messenger delivered a letter from King Mahsab. It was an official-looking document with seals and a little note in his own hand, “if you think it’s all right like this, please read it to your people”. It was a royal edict: all slaves were set free, and never again while this king and his heirs were ruling any person in the land of Zameshtan would be a slave or buy or sell a slave, whether native, foreign or travelling. That was as strong as Queen Raisse’s rules in Valdyas! (Much later I realised that it would also mean that if anyone with slaves travelled through Zameshtan, that would set their slaves free immediately.) The edict didn’t speak of compensation, but the note did: “it’s much too complicated to work out the money, let’s start from nothing.”
I read it, of course, while the people from the first service were leaving and the people for the second one just arriving, so as many people as possible could hear it.
The captain of the company that had joined us wanted a word. I wanted a word with him, too, but we didn’t get round to that, because he asked, “Can a soldier marry a freed slave?”
“Of course,” I said, “er, if you’re not married to someone else yet. Well, in Valdyas you can only be married to one wife, I’m not sure of the laws here, it’s not wrong to have different laws in different countries as long as they’re all fair. Are you married?”
“Well, I have a wife, but she is dead.”
“Marriage ends at death,” I said firmly. I’d go by my own rules, that was simplest.
This second service was long — I was giving names to freed slaves the whole night, and then marrying people well into the morning. The captain turned up with his intended — stout and fortyish, no great beauty as beauty went in Zameshtan, but certainly a woman of character.
It’s now come to Pesar asking me how long we’re going to stay somewhere, instead of the other way round. He did that after the last of the married couples had gone, and I suggested another couple of weeks, so people could at least do some trading. And we could make a plan to face the emperor’s army, but of course I wasn’t telling that to Pesar. I rather thought the emperor would have news of this long before it became clear that there were no more letters from Zameshtan — anyone can take a fast camel and ride south on their own. Fahar’s physician, for instance: Thulo and I realised almost at the same time that we hadn’t seen him this time, and he had made a face at some of the new developments.