The price of freedom

GM: “We can’t really call it ‘priest’ any more, she’s in fact a bishop.” And she’s about to be an ambassador, and will be a judge next…

We sat with Pesar’s wives for a while afterwards with food and wine. Pesar himself went back to his meeting, walking much less painfully. Dunya beckoned Maha to follow her into the tent and we heard whispers and giggles. (An experienced woman giving tips to a young woman? Might be useful, and it sounded fun from where I was.)

The children were still running around. “You take those scamps back, please, Samada,” Ababe asked. When she’d rounded them all up and gone off with them, Ababe pulled me closer. “I’d like to say this when she’s not present, and the children either. You see, we like our younger sister a lot, but I am already a lot younger than our husband, twenty-two years, and Samada is more than thirty years younger! It would never have occurred to me before, well, before everything changed so much.”

It’s not an ordinary caravan any more, Dunya had said last time. I’d never seen an ordinary caravan but I was more than willing to believe it.

“She’s still almost a child,” I said.

“Exactly.”

“You see, if Pesar wouldn’t want to marry her now — I think he’s changed as well — we’d still welcome her as our sister, she could stay in our household, or go on and do something completely different. If it’s what the gods made her for, it’s all right wi th us.”

Then Maha and Dunya came out of the tent, still giggling, and we went on to discuss wnat Ababe called “women’s affairs” — mostly to do with health, and Thulo stayed around for it. Ababe knew that there were at least two more dandar in the caravan, both married and not active any more, and probably several others who didn’t want to show themselves. “We’ll have to get together to talk,” I said, and the others agreed and Ababe would arrange it. It would probably be ‘they’, not ‘we’, because I tended to be called away all the time, but Thulo and Maha would be able to handle it without me anyway.

As we got back to our tent there were five women already waiting for us, looking like whores and so they were– but they were all dandar as well. The youngest one, younger than Maha, had been dandar in training when she’d run away from home because she wanted to get pregnant and wasn’t allowed. One of the others hadn’t wanted to make women get pregnant if they didn’t want to, and everybody else had her own story why they’d gone with the caravan and earned a living with the skills they had learned. They had heard of the plan to practise as doctors, and they wanted in.

“Well, come to the meeting,” Maha said, and then, to the girl, “You’re alreaady pregnant! It’s a boy. About halfway through.” And to me, “Don’t you think we need another maid for the household? Zahmati has more work than one person can handle, with all the extra people here.”

“Yes,” I said, “and I can see by your dress that you know about clothes. You’ll need something more practical to wear here, though.”

“Ask Aftabi to raid my kit-bag,” Maha said.

“Or my leather trunk,” I said, “we have plenty of Ishey clothes, and we’ll probably be able to do laundry soon.”

The girl was quick on the uptake. “I heard you’re going to give names– can I have one too? Now they just call me” –she lowered her voice– ‘that one with the narrow butt’.”

“I can do that,” Maha said, and laid a hand on the girl’s face and screwed up her eyes. “Just be in the temple tomorrow. I know what fits you.”

The women went away to talk to Ababe, and Thulo took Maha for a walk. I went through my books, but of course I didn’t have any name-giving services, so I wrote down what I remembered from name-givings in the family so I wouldn’t have to improvise everything. Then I took my sword and went to find Khali for a workout.

Khali had rounded up the most gifted of the young hunters to make light, shifting all the time, so I was tempted to close my eyes altogether and see only with my mind’s eye but that wouldn’t have been wise, not with a sword I wasn’t completely used to and not against Khali. He did hit me a couple of times, but no worse than bruising, and I think I nicked the skin of his wrist. It reminded me a bit of the obstacle course at the Order house in Essle, difficult and unexpected and exhilarating.

Then Khali and I stood back to back and defended against all the young people at once. I was so tired by then that I was holding the sword in two hands and sweeping in long arcs. “Enough!” Khali said, and I collapsed, dripping with sweat.

“Thank you!” I said. “That was the best fight in ages!”

“Thank you! I learned things too. You’re a mean fighter.” He was sweating as badly as I was, and one of the Khas girls handed us a towel and one of the Ishey a pitcher of water.

“You’re good! Aftabi said. “Both of you!”

“Not as good as I’d like to be,” I said. “If you ever become queen somewhere, do get people on your side who are better at some things than you are.”

Thulo and Maha had come back while we were at it, and Maha was insufferably smug and giggly. I didn’t want to know what they’d been talking about!

The following morning we were in the temple early, but the palace children and our new maid were there before us. I started with the naming– the children were small enough to lift, but I let them stand and turned each of them to the west, the south, the east and the north as well as I could estimate, introducing them to the gods by their new name. I said “who was born into this world” rather than “who we have brought forth”, never mind if they had been born six or eight or fourteen years ago. The little girl was Luljhul, the boy Kenemme, the young woman Satta.

It made me feel all light inside, with both brightness and buoyancy, and I thought I saw a pale-skinned girl of about ten with a long yellow-blonde braid somewhere in the crowd, who had to be Timoine because if there had been someone with those looks in the caravan I’d have seen her much earlier. I winked at her, and she winked back. Later I heard that Thulo had also seen Dayati, in the form of a brown boy with a head of curls and an infectious smile.

We were so close to Zameshtan now that Thulo went to talk to his cargo handler. I knew we had one, I’d seen him when we set out — a small man with a nose that had been broken and a cauliflower ear as if he had led a life with much fighting in it, but well-dressed and with a neat goatee now. I tagged along, not because I had any trading to do myself, but because this man probably knew much more about the city than anyone else I had easy access to.

I learned that Zameshtan was a place where people bought food and cloth to make clothes and other things for the rest of the journey, bought and sold camels, and did some trading wth the caravans from Jomhur and Il Ayande and ‘the distant Kushesh’ that met those from Albetire here. They’d have more exotic goods, pearls and whale sperm and other products of the sea. Most trade goods would fetch more money in Ashas, but doing a bit of trading here could be profitable anyway: some people did it for fun, some for practice if it was their first journey, and some to have a better mix of cargo.

We’d also need money for the tolls along the way from Zameshtan to Ashas, and the cargo handler calculated that at a tenth of the value of the cargo. Thulo had one camel laden with gold and one with silver, so it should be enough.

In Zameshtan itself one of the most special things was goldsmith’s work: though it cost five times as much for the same weight in gold as it would in Albetire, it was at least ten times better! And as the noble lord Thulo seemed to have tender relatoins with an exotic princess… Talking of princesses, Zameshtan was famous for having the most beautiful girls in the world, the handler could provide the master with a dozen of them who he could sell in Ashas for a lot of money! (Fortunately, Thulo didn’t take him up on that, not even to test him.)

At least it was quiet again here, a couple of years ago there had been a war between the people of Zameshtan and “the foreigners from the south”. They’d even succeeded in driving the king away, he’d come back, and had been driven away again.

The cargo handler had been a trader himself, but he had an unfortunate habit of gambling and lost all of his money and, as I understood, at least two of his wives. Trying to interest Thulo in gambling didn’t work, but Thulo offered him a hundred cartwheels as a loan to trade or wager as he saw fit, and give the hundred back intact, keeping any profit or shouldering any loss himself. The man thought that was a good plan and called his slave-boy, who brought pen and paper to write the contract, and a hefty book to keep the contract in. The cargo handler wrote it, Thulo read it and agreed and signed it with his name.

When the boy put the contract between the pages of the book, he quickly tore off the bottom with Thulo’s name and slipped that under his gold collar. The boy’s stolen your signature, I warned Thulo.

“Could I see the contract again?” he asked. “Just to make sure we got it right?” The handler agreed readily, but the boy was gone, book and signature and all.

I was worried that the boy would forge Thulo’s signature, or give it to someone else to forge it. When the young hunters heard what had happened they divided into three groups, one from each people in each group, and disappeared into the caravan to search. We didn’t see them all day while we were travelling, but when we were making camp they came back, dragging the boy with them. “But we don’t have the paper with your name on it! It doesn’t exist any more.” It turned out that the boy had been boiling the paper in water, to make an infusion– holy name tea! And selling sips of it to other children for coins, food and other small things. Those other children had come along, a dozen or more of them.

We couldn’t get the boy to explain himself, but a slightly older girl volunteered, “It’s a magic draught! From the Holy Name! It makes you free and you get a name of your own!”

Oh, gods.

It was very hard to explain –and I still don’t know if they all got it– that soaking someone’s name in water didn’t make it magic, that that wasn’t what made you free, though people ought to be free and it ws asn’t right that they were slaves and that people had slaves at all. I could give them names of their own, and would do that if they wanted, but it was their masters who could make them free. We probably had enough money to buy all those children, but that wouldn’t solve the problem: buying slaves in order to set our own slaves free felt just as wrong. And if we did get these children free in some way– we couldn’t very well free every slave in Iss-Peran, every slave in the world!

It was clear that Thulo didn’t know what to say either, but Maha prodded him in the side and said “If you don’t do something right now it’s over between us!”

One boy said, “you should talk to my master! Roushan, she has the green tent, over there.” Then he went back to the other children who had already gone off with Samada and Zahmati and Satta to run around playing tag.

‘Over there’ there was indeed a green tent where a middle-aged woman sat, talking with a younger woman who I recognised because she’d asked me for a blessing. “Mistress Roushan?” I asked.

“Holiness! What gives me this honour? Will you take some wine?”

“No, thank you, not before I have said what I came to say.” I needed all my wits about me, and moreover drinking wine with someone I’d come to castigate would give the wrong impression.

That was hard. I didn’t have the words. I’d grown up in a world without slaves. Some of the people at the farm were servants, of course, but they could leave and take another job, they didn’t belong to us. And children owed obedience, and we did get beaten if we broke the rules — I remembered the incident with me and Arin and a neighbour’s peach tree — but we weren’t our parents’ property. But these people were convinced that the gods made some people into masters and other people into slaves, and that that was the divine order of the world that mere mortals shouldn’t mess with, Or perhaps that was what they thought because it was convenient to them, or merely what they had grown up with, but that didn’t make it any easier to explain.

That the queen of Valdyas forbade slavery was one thing, and her husband was the king who made earthquakes so the gods must listen to them, but what was her reason to forbid it?

Then either Thulo or I stumbled on the right phrasing: if you owned a slave, you were in fact stealing their life and their choices. That hit home with these merchants! It worried them, too: wouldn’t the god who makes lightning take revenge, now that they knew they’d done wrong? The gods don’t punish those who do wrong out of ignorance, but now that they were no longer ignorant…

“The gods won’t punish you for ceasing to do wrong,” I said, “nor for having done wrong when you were still ignorant.” I couldn’t speak for the Nameless, of course, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. They still weren’t completely convinced, “so who does all the work in Valdyas?” — I could hardly explain everything about work and money and employment in Valdyas, when I knew only a little bit myself! But at least they were willing to make amends. A friend of Roushan’s had come along with a jug of wine, and when he saw me gone back to get better wine, and yes, now I could accept a drink, and also his offer of a clerk to sort out how much compensation to pay the slaves when they were freed.

“Thank you,” I said, “I’ll pay him, of course.”

“You can pay me,” he said, “he’s my– Oh!”

“I’ll pay him,” I said with a smile.

The evening service was full of people who all wanted names. I still refused to give anyone a Valdyan name, but Thulo had a Síthi name for almost everyone, and I think I gave some Ishey and Khas and Plains names too. Not only the dozen children who had drunk the magic tea, but also lots more children and some adults, and the very last ones were a young couple hand in hand. “I suppose you’ll want to get married too,” I asked, and yes, indeed! I expected that they weren’t the only ones either. “Tomorrow morning,” I said. “I’ll need running water for that.” It was probably too much to hope for a spring, but I thought someone who knew this country better than I did would find me a spot by the river.

“But can you at least bless us now so we can make love?” the young woman asked. “Sure,” I said, and gave them my blessing, and they went away blushing and giggling.

The second service –the last today, the other one had been long and exhausting– was full of soldiers, so I ended with the Soldiers’ Song of Praise that I knew well enough but had only ever sung on the Feast of Anshen, never on an actual military occasion.

Prince Ishan, the elder one, stayed behind after the service. “We have a lot of recruits,” he said, “more than a hundred men.”

“Who used to be slaves?”

“Yes, and also from the villages. Some of them are hardly more than boys. Would it be possible to have some kind of special blessing for them?”

“I’ll come to your camp tomorrow,” I promised. Blessing soldiers, yes, receiving recruits, that was something I had been trained for. I might even do it in uniform, if it was in any kind of presentable state.

Zahmati had made a huge cauldron of porridge, and all the children were eating when I came out of the service. I sat down next to Thulo and ate my own porridge, thinking, before I could talk.

“Did Maha blackmail you just now?” I asked Thulo.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “just stated the obvious.”

Then, of course, some of the children wanted to know what blackmail was, and I tried to explain as best I could. That led to a general airing of grievances, most of them child-sized ones but no less important for that, and they were talking about how to settle those. “Let’s all forget everything you’ve done to each other,” I said, “when you have a new name you can be a new person!”

“Do I need to forget what my master did to me, too?” a girl asked. Maha took her in her arms and put a hand on her head. “No,” she said, “we’re not going to forget that. We’re going to do something about it.” And she told me silently what exactly the master had done. I’ll have to start administering justice next. In Valdyas we hang people who rape children, and I don’t rule out that it will come to that.

Then there was another thing: it’s all right that children work, after all they’ll have to keep earning a living, but they do have to learn, too. We’d have to have some kind of school. We were already thinking how to do that, Thulo teaching while I held a service and vice versa, when someone thought of Samada. “Oh! May I really do that?” she asked when we posed the question. “Teach everybody to read and get to tell them what to do?”

“Only when it’s about learning,” I said.

“That’s all right.” Mornings and evenings during the service, then. Only one service — I’d said at the beginning that I’d only do one morning service, but we now seemed to have two services after all — so Samada and the children could also go to the temple if they wanted.

Eventually, we got all the children off our hands, and could do our nightly sweep. The city was very quiet, with much fewer gifted people than I expected in a place of that size — would they all have gone south or been taken south? There was one person we couldn’t pinpoint though we kept seeing him: clearly a man, when we briefly saw him, appearing and disappearing and slipping through everything, not affiliated with any god we knew, but so gifted.

I’d expected someone to show me a place by the river for the marriages, but we did it in the temple: my village acolyte had filled a large jug with water and poured that over each couple’s hands as I said the words. I don’t remember what words, I said what came to mind, and the Mother must have been there because it made everybody happy. Each bride and groom drank the water from each other’s hands, which I don’t think is the Valdyan way –but I don’t know, of course, never having seen a marriage– but it was a great image.

After half a dozen couples had come to be married a richly-dressed man came up to me with a young man on one hand and a young woman on the other. “Would you marry these people too? I offered them their freedom when they’re married, provided their children will belong to me.”

“I don’t marry slaves,” I said.

“But I’ll free them!”

“They are not free now, and I won’t marry the future parents of slaves either. Anyone who comes to me of their own accord and asks me I’ll marry, that’s a different thing.”

He went away in a huff, but the young people stayed behind and said “We don’t want to marry anyway, we’re brother and sister! Slept in the same cradle!”

“The queen of Valdyas doesn’t permit that either, not at all!” I said.

Marrying people is exhilarating, almost as much as giving names to children, and though I knew I was tired my spirit felt full of vigor.

It was only half a day until the outskirts of Zameshtan, along a river that was now running south from the mountains, and we made a somewhat more permanent camp because we were going to stay for several days. When we were just settling, a woman came to our tent who turned out to be the madam of one of the caravan brothels. “Would you bless my girls?” she asked. “And tell them how to be healthy? There are so many soldiers now, they’ve got much more work. Not that they mind, it brings in loads of money, but we do want to be careful.”

Maha, Thulo and I went with her and found about a dozen women, from just a bit younger than me to middle-aged, and Maha and Thulo looked them over in a tent while I stood outside with Khali and Bhalik –who had said that we shouldn’t go to that part of the caravan without bodyguards– and blessed each one as she came out. I talked to the madam about justice, and law, and told her that I had a book written by Queen Raisse herself with an overview of the laws of Valdyas. It was time to have laws for the caravan, and I’d have my clerk translate the parts that applied into a language that people here could understand. There were at least two women among those who were listening who I could feel thinking about magic tea from the pages– I’d have to keep the book very safe!

Maha and Thulo came out of the tent, looking tired. “Well, six of them have the harbour sickness,” Thulo said, “and we can hardly check all five hundred soldiers for it!” (But perhaps we’d have to…) “Six hundred soldiers,” I said, and that reminded me of my promise to the prince. “I’d better go to the army camp for the recruits’ service!” I said. They took one of the women to the hospital tent, because she needed more than a bit of copper salve. And after that they’d be working on the little girl, too. Both the woman and the girl had to learn to trust men again, to know that there were men in the world who wanted to help them, not to hurt them.

There was an impressive-looking little fort in the army’s area. “As we’re staying here for a bit we wanted to do it properly,” Prince Ishan said. I regretted that I hadn’t put on my uniform after all, but I’d only thought of blessing the women. Nobody seemed to mind that I was in not quite clean Ishey clothing, though, least of all the recruits. A hundred earnest young men, who I treated almost like new journeymen in the Order, except that there were so many that I could only repeat each one’s name as they told it to me, and not remember them to use in the prayers.

The prince thanked me warmly. “This means so much to me,” he said. “to fight for the good god, to lead my people. It’s such a blessing to see the world that the gods have made, in the night, under the stars– I can really sense the presence of — Anshen — then.” Clearly he’d only just learned the name, it was still awkward on his tongue. It was such a pity that he wasn’t gifted, because otherwise I’d have suggested that he join the Order in Albetire — he had everything else that it took. Perhaps I could find some gifted pious soldiers and train them to hold soldiers’ services, and then Ishan could have a post as “protector of the temple” or something like that and use the gifts that he did have.

Back in our tent I called for the clerk who Roushan’s friend had lent me, and showed him the law book. “This book should stay here, nobody is allowed to touch it except you and me and Thulo,” I said.

He nodded. “It’s a holy book.”

“Not so holy that it’s useful to soak it in water and drink that!” I said. “It would be a hassle to lose it, I’d have to write to Valdis for another copy and that would take a year or more, if my letters even arrive.”

“Magic potions are a superstition of slaves,” he said, but he did kiss the book reverently. He proposed writing a summary of each chapter, so I could decide which laws were relevant for the caravan and had to be translated in full. He started right away, with the book on a cushion and the stack of paper he was writing on on another. Later, when I saw the summary, I couldn’t read it at first, until I discovered that it was in trade Iss-Peranian but written with Valdyan letters: when I read it aloud I could understand myself.

Just as I was taking my sword and trying to find Khali to have another training bout, Kenemme came running to say there was someone to see me. Priestess work, I thought, but it was a man from the court with a bevy of soldiers on camels as well as a fairly large elephant with an uncovered box on its back. He had come to invite me “and my entourage” to take the evening meal with the ruler of Zameshtan. (Who couldn’t be the king, because the king had been driven away! Well, we’d see.)

It was clearly part of this man’s job to wait, so I could make him wait for me without any qualms! I called Thulo and Maha who were just finishing the healing, and sent Kenemme to fetch Aftabi, and found my uniform and shook it out and dressed in it and armed myself carefully, while the court flunky was cooling his heels.

Eventually not only the four of us went, but also all nine of the young hunters who wouldn’t be left behind, and I asked both of the princes to come along with a company of soldiers, so we were a good thirty people. Apparently the court flunky thought that was normal, at least he didn’t show any surprise or disapproval.

We rode through the outskirts of Zameshtan: it was a lively neighbourhood, with children playing in the streets, trade going on, not the bitter poverty of the shanty-towns of Essle: rather like the north side of Valdis, but flat and white and extensive. And there, Thulo saw the man we’d seen in our sweep, the furtive one, just for one moment but long enough to notice that he was a very attractive young man, even to Thulo who usually looks only at pretty girls.