Taking the fort

That was suspiciously easy. Probably my own fault because I chose “the seeds of his own destruction” over “a hard fight”. Either that, or there’s something that the GM isn’t telling us (apart from all the other things he’s not telling us).

When I was at sword practice with Aftabi after the morning service a sergeant came and stood just out of reach, looking impatient, so we stopped to hear what he had to say. “They’re fighting in the town!”

“Who, us?”

“No, among themselves, the market-master’s people against another bunch.”

Just then another sergeant came to say that they’d seen some of Miham’s troops descend into the desert and go south, and they’d put up a blockade there in case anyone else went the same way.

“Well, if they’re fighting anyway we’d better use the opportunity and go in,” I said. Maha promptly went with the other doctors and the new nurses to set up a field hospital.

We found the town in disarray but not much fighting was going on any more. The market-master was lying in the middle of the market, dead of sword wounds. “Good riddance, I must say,” I said, and people around me agreed.

The fort was closed. I hadn’t expected otherwise. Sealed, too, with a freezing cold seal as hard as glass that reminded me of Lydan’s seal in Zameshtan. Perhaps that was something the Resurgence specialised in. Even the grass in front of the doors was frosty, making me a little homesick. The soldiers got one of the pillars from the little partly ruined town temple, making it fall down completely. They started to bash the great doors with it, while I tried to get in through the brothel on the north side.

The house was ruined too, half burnt — some of the soldiers said that there had been an earthquake, though we hadn’t felt anything. My escort cleared some of the rubble away to let me at the door. I picked the lock first, to the amazement of the soldiers. It didn’t go as well as I hoped, because the lock was frozen and I broke one of the picks, and when I got it open the seal was still there, as cold as on the big doors. (Which the ram had got the bronze coverings off by now, but the wooden doors didn’t budge.)

I called for my firestarting acolyte, but he couldn’t do anything to the seal either: any heat that he sent at it was chilled at once, and the only effect it had was to make him very tired. “Thank you,” I said. “I wanted to know that, I’ll find another way.”

The soldiers were already climbing the walls: up to the first row of small windows with ladders –the windows were sealed too — and with climbing irons from there. They got on the roof easily, hands wrapped in cloth against the biting cold of the irons, and stood there triumphantly. One of them pissed against the wall and it froze at once.

“There’s a hatch here!” one of them called. “It’s open.”

No seal on the roof? “I’m coming up,” I said, and pulled on my gloves –lockpicking goes better without– and climbed the icy irons. Yes, the seal ended at the top of the wall. Sloppy, but convenient. We could easily drop through the hatch in the roof and ended up in a corridor with small rooms on both sides.

More soldiers were coming up now. “If you meet any soldiers or officers in white,” I said, “isolate them, don’t let them get to the boss.”

These rooms and those on the floor below looked like barracks, but they were completely empty. Not only of people, but of most of their stuff too. I suspected that the inhabitants had packed up and gone south. I could t see Miham, though, in the tower I could now see was standing alone in the middle of the fort. The very local earthquake had definitely been here: the courtyard contained several collapsed wooden buildings.

In the meantime Thulo was working on the main doors: he’d had people bring buckets of water and throw them against it, and presently the doors creaked and collapsed under a great load of ice.

The tower door was locked with a massive padlock. I realised too late that it was no match for my puny little lockpicks, and I broke them all. I’ll have to get a smith to make me a new set! Strangely, the door wasn’t sealed, though I could see that it had been; as if the person sealing it, who must be Miham, was tired or distracted. Well, all of us trying to get in at once would distract him and wear him out.

The soldiers hauled the temple pillar over the mound of ice in the doorway and broke the tower door open. Downstairs it was completely empty. A huge ostentatious staircase led to the next floor, which contained a common-room and kitchen. The kitchen fire was cold, but the rice in a pot over it still looked edible: abandoned, but not for longer than a day.

The next stairs weren’t as wide, and we ended up on the floor where Miham was. We found his room easily, but before going in I wanted to make sure there were no surprises waiting for us upstairs.

Well, we had a surprise all right, though on hindsight I should have expected it: one floor up was a luxurious apartment. I was longing to search it, but this didn’t seem to be the time for it. It had its own small kitchen, also abandoned.

The top floor was all servants’ rooms, empty at first sight, but I sent two soldiers to look for people anyway. And then there was the tower roof, a nice roof garden in fact, surrounded by a parapet that I could look over but the outer fort blocked my view of the south road. Thulo had gone to look out from the outer fort and had seen the road, now blocked by a barricade where there was fighting going on.

Now I could confront my enemy. The door wasn’t locked, and not even sealed any more — I could sense through the closed door that there was something wrong with Miham. Surely us breaking his seals couldn’t have weakened him that much? Once inside the temple –for that was what it was now, a temple to the Nameless with windows set high in the walls and a fire in the middle, though it had probably been an office before– I saw several dead bodies, all but one dressed in white; the last was Pesar’s physician. All had died from what looked like knife wounds. Miham was lying by the fire with a knife in hs back, barely alive.

I didn’t think he could speak any more, perhaps not even hear my voice, so I asked him mind to mind “Who killed you?” — but he made a small sound and died.

As I was trying to figure out what exactly had happened we heard a sound behind the door on the opposite side of the room. I didn’t have lockpicks any more, but Thulo had one and tried to open the door with it, but there was a key in the lock on the other side. Presently the sound stopped, too. The soldiers broke the door open with a small table and we saw a smlal room full of gold. Full of gold, chests of coins and stacks of ingots. It was empty of people, but we could smell perfume.

In the corner of the room there was a winding stair going up through the ceiling and down through the floor; a couple of soldiers went up, Thulo and a few others down. I was tempted to go with Thulo but I knew it wouldn’t be wise if both of us were away from the fort, through what would probably turn out to be the fabled secret passage. I stayed, fuming a little, waiting for reports.

The soldiers who had gone up were back almost at once. “Storeroom upstairs,” they said, “and a kind of landing on the servants’ floor, nothing interesting.” I dispatched them to take the corpses away so I could clean the temple of any remaining stink of the Nameless. One of the princes had a different idea: all that money would have to be counted, and after some cursory sweeping it was all laid in orderly stacks

I tried to reach Thulo, which was hard because he was far away. I’m under the river, he said, we’ve been to the end of the passage, there’s a watch-house in the woods but the door is barred on this side.

Some time later, Thulo and the soldiers came back and they had a woman with them. About thirty years old, I thought, not unattractive, smelling strongly of the perfume we’d smelled in the treasure room. Thulo was carrying the gold she’d had with her, wrapped in his jacket because the bag it had been in was torn.

I had her taken to the apartments on the upper floor and guarded, while I told various people what we’d found and that it could not be known what exactly had happened because everybody was dead. I also wondered about the woman — was she a local madam Miham had taken for himself?

Suddenly my clerk was at my elbow. “What about the slaves?”

“What about them?” I asked. I trusted Samada to have put copies of the proclamation up and to have it read aloud to people who couldn’t read that particular language or not at all.

“Do they get compensation for their years of slavery? I understand that Queen Raisse did that in Valdyas.”

“We didn’t do that in the city,” I said, but here the situation was different: many of these slaves would end up not only without money, but also without work to earn their keep with. “Talk to Samada about what’s fair and what we can afford, she’s good at that sort of thing and she likes it.”

I went to talk to the woman in the apartment, Shayania. She turned out not to be a local madam at all. “I’m a respectable woman,” she said, “his lawful wedded wife!”

“You’re his widow now,” I said. She seemed more worried than sad. “I helped all the slaves escape,” she said, “and bolted the door from the inside so people wouldn’t find out. And then I came back to save what I could. I wonder what I’ve got left. Are you going to confiscate it all?”

“If there’s anything you have a right to, probably not. I’ll lend you my clerk to work it out.”

“And what will I do now?”

“Well, you can do several things. We can give you an escort back to your family, or you can come with us to Ashas, or stay here and help the town get back on its feet. I suppose you know a lot about the situation here.”

“Not to Ashas,” she said, shuddering. “I have to think about it.”

“All right,” I said, and left her to think. When I came downstairs the young hunters were there with a group of distraught-looking people: the lady’s slaves!

“We found them in the forest,” they said. “There’s really a secret passage! We found the entrance but it was locked.”

“Bolted,” I said, “from the inside. The lady did that to protect her people.”

There was a cook, a cook’s helper, a lady’s maid, two other maids and a young man, and two eunuchs who turned out to be clerks. “May we go to the mistress?” the lady’s maid asked.

“I don’t think there’s anything against that,” I said, “she’s in her rooms, I’ll tell the guards not to disturb you. Oh, and can some of you clean the room that used to be the temple?” But they couldn’t, because the soldiers at the entrance were holding them back: the counting wasn’t done.

Later, I saw Shayania’s clerks help our own clerks sorting and counting the money. When they were done it was all stowed back into the treasure room. “Six hundred and thirty-four thousand, two hundred and seventy-eight wainwheels,” my clerk told me. “And we worked out the slaves’ compensation, each one of them gets forty-eight wainwheels, the same as two years’ pay for a soldier. That will set them up nicely without ruining the town.”

“Thank you — can we clean the room now?”

We could — I was prepared to clean the temple completely with semsin and reconsecrate it, but when Thulo and I had carried out the bronze fire-pot and told a passing group of soldiers to take it to a smith and have it melted down and made into useful things, all the room really needed was a good sweep. Clearly, it had been built as a counting-room and was very glad to get back to that.

The courtyard was serving as temporary quarters for people who didn’t have a house any more. I found Khali and Bhalik, helping with the building. “Did you find your enemies?” I asked.

“They don’t matter any more,” Khali said, and I didn’t ask more.

Now I had to serve as priestess of Naigha. The only prayers for the dead I knew were those at the back of my own service-book, the emergency prayers to use after a battle. But this was after a battle, and nobody would notice if the service wasn’t elaborate, so I used what I had and said the prayers over the fallen. Surprisingly few, considering: a few dozen at most. Naigha approved; after the last prayer I felt her presence like a breath of cool air.

The ground floor of the fort was full of prisoners: men, women and children locked up separately. One of the gifted sergeants explained, a bit apologetically, “we used what you taught us and looked at them very hard, and locked up everyone we didn’t trust.” Some of the people doing that weren’t even gifted, I gathered, but it would have intimidated the prisoners anyway. I didn’t think I would need to sit in judgment this time, and indeed Prince Shab told me he was writing to his father to send a new governor. The town really had enough stores to keep all these people fed until they could be judged.

There were many more wounded than dead. We went to visit the field hospital, where an exhausted-looking Maha was ordering the new nurses around. “They’re doing really well!” she said. “Most of them, anyway. It’s strange to have forty nurses who can all pick pockets. But some of them are gifted, that’s an asset, and some of those might be able to train as doctors.” Some of the nurses were making eyes at the soldiers –after all, they’d only just changed jobs and one couldn’t be too sure– but the doctors didn’t allow that.

Just as we were leaving a six-year-old boy was released from the hospital, “you’re all done, now run back to your parents!”

“Got no parents. Only my aunt and she’s in the lockup!”

He kept trailing after Thulo, so he took him on as an errand boy and told him to go to school with the other children he’d been teaching while we were travelling. “Don’t need to go to school!” he protested, but some of the others took him along. “Do I get a name, too?” he shouted over his shoulder.

“Yes,” I said, “tomorrow morning at the end of the service.” That evening, he was already making himself useful: I sent him to the barracks to fetch a stack of bowls because we were suddenly feeding a lot more people. “What kind of name do you want? Síthi, or Ishey, or Velihan, or Khas?” He thought for a bit, talked to the other children, and decided on a Velihan name.

There were many, many name-givings in the morning. When the boy he turned up I called him Mík at Maha’s prompting. Most people who got a name also got a bag of gold from the clerks, and they were turning away people who tried to come a second time — having a name and money of their own doesn’t necessarily make people honest, and this town didn’t have a tradition of honesty.

When I went back to talk to Shayania, she’d made a plan. “I’ll go to Essle,” she said, “the clerks told me I have my marriage portion, thirty-five thousand, and another thirty-five thousand that Miham settled on me in his will, I’ll manage. My servants are rich as well now, they have forty-eight wainwheels each!”

I tried to make it clear to her that she did have to pay them wages if she wanted to keep them, even though they had some money of their own. “There are more Iss-Peranian people living in Essle,” I said, and promised to write an introduction for her to Prince Uznur. “He’s the king’s man of affairs in Essle, his personal friend, too. He takes care of returning soldiers and such, he’ll take care of you as well.”

She declined an introduction to the Order of the Sworn, “I don’t want to have anything to do with any Order!” Even if it was a very different Order, but I wasn’t sure she understood that. Privately, I wrote a little note to Athal of the Drunken Seahorse so he’d keep an eye on her.

The next day she started out, with her lady’s maid and some more of her former slaves, and the three soldiers we’d caught before the battle as a guard. She handed me a package of paper. “I wrote down everything I know about Ashas for you. My children are there, we weren’t allowed to take them because they’re gifted.” More children to rescue, if they hadn’t been … used. I tried not to think about that too much.

Princess Biruné was staying behind with some of the nurses to take care of the wounded who couldn’t travel yet. Prince Ishan was staying too, with a regiment, until the new governor arrived. “I’m the obvious choice,” he said, “I can do the services, too.” That was true — and I gave him my firestarter acolyte as an aide. Once again, I wondered how nearly gifted Ishan was, and if serving in the temple might make that stronger. If in a couple of years he’d still want to join the Order of the Sworn, perhaps he would qualify!

I caught Aftabi and Zahmati snuggling in front of the tent. “At least we can’t get pregnant from it!” they said when they thought they caught me frowning (though I wasn’t frowning at them, I was only thinking hard about Ishan’s possibly budding gifts).

Maha had heard that, and she said out of their hearing, “they may say that, but Aftabi is pregnant! By the king of Tanim. And it’s a boy, and both his other sons have gone away with the army.”

“So he may want to claim him,” I said.

“Exactly.” Then Maha started making lots of plans to prevent that happening — including having Thulo make love to her and claim the child as his own, but Thulo wouldn’t have any of that. Well, it was still more than half a year until the problem would become urgent, and we’d be far from Tanim at that.

We had another meeting with the clerks and Ishan to determine how much money he’d need for the regiment, how much was needed to rebuild the town, and how much we could take with us to Ashas. We ended up paying all of our soldiers two months’ wages and a bonus for winning the battle, and still needed several camels to carry the gold we were taking with us. And a couple of camels to carry food for those camels and themselves, of course. I must admit that I was leaving all the buying of camels and hiring of camel-hands to Thulo, and I think Thulo left it to his quartermaster, or whatever the title was of the little man with a fondness for gambling.