Zameshtan

Yes, she is learning to be the boss. She isn’t sure if having services for thousands of people is what she intended, but meting out justice seems to agree with her.

Also, apparently you can take the girl out of the farm, but not the farm out of the girl.

In the middle of the city there was a very busy market. I recognised several people from our caravan among the crowd. “I want to go, too!” Thulo said.

Beyond the marketplace we went through a broad avenue with statuary on both sides, people and animals and people riding animals, all larger than life. Like the statues in Albetire, except that here they were still whole. They were of some kind of greyish-white stone, green with moss in places, and some with traces of paint — brown faces, blue eyes. Nakash Bayad, the king’s steward (what the flunky had introduced himself as) apologised for the statues, “these remnants of popular religion, outdated now we have the wisdom of the real gods”.

I made a polite noise at that. “It’s a pity that we will not be able to open up the temple for Her Holiness,” he contiued, “but our high priest was called away, there is a dispute between two villages in the eas that he had to go and solve.”

“That happens,” I said, “I know about being called to a village.” The statues were more elaborate now, not only single figures but also groups, some of people making love, and then they got more and more weird: a man copulating with an ape, a man and a woman doing something to a camel reared up on its hind legs, mating elephants — that wasn’t very weird, only very large.

Eventually we entered the palace yard and were received by rather a lot of soldiers — more than our soldiers, which made me sharpen my officer’s senses at once.

A fat man was sitting on a folding chair, his leg bandaged and on a cushion, leaning against two very attractive women with nothing at all on. “Welcome,” he said, “what a blessing that Your Holiness and your companions could come so soon. My name is Fahar Bahiz. Would you be so kind as to accompany me?” And he was lifted into a litter and carried into the palace. We followed, through corridors with painted murals that were as racy as the statues, perhaps more. Further on, in older parts of the building, the ceilings were lower and the murals less colourful, only in red and black and white, but the theme was the same.

We came to a courtyard full of greenery: palm trees, fruit trees, all sorts of flowers. There were goats and cats and small colourful birds and monkeys. A low round table was in the middle, with cushions around it. Fahar Bahiz let himself be lowered on a cushion, with his bandaged foot on another, and motioned for us to sit down as well. It wasn’t until then that I noticed the fountain In the centre of the table, spouting wine.

It was dark red wine with a rich sweet taste, and I decided not to drink too much of it. In fact I had only one cup, though at some moment there were three in front of me. I think Aftabi relieved me of at least one– she could hold her drink better than any of the rest of us.

Still, I don’t really remember what we had to say to each other, except that most of it was pleasantries and meaningless compliments. He was about as gifted as a boulder, too. If we believed him, there was nothing at all awry in Zameshtan, there was peace and quiet again after years of unrest.

Food was served. Expensive dainties: meatballs covered in actual gold, sugared rose-leaves (which I must admit to liking a lot), a dish of grains of rice and threads of saffron all separately sugared, pieces of chicken in an almond sauce that Zahmati would have given her little finger to know the recipe of. It was all delicious, though a bit too dainty for my taste. And I was on edge, either because my officer-sense was still sharp, or because I was wary of being lulled into complacency.

“It is unfortunate that I’m unable to let you hold a service in the temple,” Fahar Bahiz said, “but the city priest — I hesitate to refer to him as ‘high priest’ in your presence — was called to the west because a sickness broke out there.”

To the west? The steward had said the east. No, I thought the real reason we couldn’t enter the temple was that the priest was holed up there, inside the ‘here is nothing at all’ seal. We had seen two such places: at the back of the palace where the temple must be, and somewhere in the outskirts of the city.

“Very unfortunate,” Fahar said again. “The cupola of the temple is completely painted to the glory of the goddess.”

“Which goddess?” Thulo asked.

“Why, Dayati, of course! She has blessed our city greatly and made us fruitful.”

“How many people live here?”

The steward had to answer that question. “Thirty-eight thousand, nine hundred and forty-three at the last census, not counting the unregistered, and not the slaves either, naturally.”

“Slaves are people too,” I muttered under my breath, but I think nobody heard it except Thulo on my left and Aftabi on my right. “How many slaves?” I asked.

“I would have to look that up — there’s a levy to be paid on every slave, of course.” He didn’t go to look it up, though, but went on: “The temple can hold eight thousand people. But you might consider holding an open-air service instead, order has been restored and if we opened it without the high priest’s presence the consequenes would be immense.”

“What would the consequences be, then?” I love Thulo’s innocent face when he asks questions like that.

“Well, the people would insist on restoring the old religion, and that would cause all kind of trouble, the earth would shake, storms would ravish the land, the fertile black earth would be broken–”

He sounded like a prophecy, and I couldn’t help quoting the prayer book: “Wrath, famine, plague, earthquake, flood, fire, the sword, foreign invasion, civil war and sudden death.”

“Exactly!” the steward agreed.

All through this, Fahar was getting paler and paler, sweating more and more, and clenching his hands. I wondered what he was afraid of when I realised that it wasn’t fear, it was pain. “Gout?” I asked. “We have doctors who can alleviate that. If you come with us to attend our evening service they can look you over.”

A gaunt middle-aged man came –clearly a physician, I suppose one of the servants had fetched him– and gave Fahar a draught from an alabaster bottle. He drank it down, made a face, but it did seem to help him. He wasn’t up to travel, though, according to his doctor. (Half an hour on an elephant? Ah, well.) Eventually we agreed to come back tomorrow with the doctors– Fahar had offered to send for them and give us a room for the night but we said we had to be back in time for the evening service.

We collected our soldiers, who looked as if they’d been given wine too, and the young hunters appeared from somewhere inside the palace in time to leave with us. The steward accompanied us on the elephant again; apparently he wanted to attend the service.

As we were about to leave the city I sensed someone trying to reach me. I got the impression that it was a middle-aged woman. Can you come to the city or at least in this direction, tonight? You may bring friends.

Here was someone who wanted to speak with me and not to be seen. Probably much more useful, and definitely more interesting, than this man who played king. Certainly.

The steward noticed that, but thought I’d been in prayer for a moment.

Back at the temple we found that it was now enormous. Cheliân was directing the people to build a temple large enough to hold everybody who had showed up — literally thousands of people from the city as well. They’d built a kind of platform in the middle so whoever was celebrating — me, apparently; “we used the first service to build in prayer”, Cheliân said — could be seen and heard. The fire was very large, too, not our battered little fire-pot with the new fire-pot fxed to it but an eight-sided stone-rimmed pit in the ground.

It was very uncomfortable. We did all the usual things –name-givings were part of the usual things by now– and the gods were there, but not as close as I was used to, and at the end I climbed off the platform and knelt by the fire and prayed, never mind that there were thousands of people who could see me, this wasn’t a public performance. Thulo and Cheliân and the acolytes –there seemed to be more than one, but I wasn’t realy paying attention– kept everybody away from me

Now all the gods were close. All the gods. Anshen, of course, and Timoine, and the Mother, and Mizran, and a bit further away Naigha, and almost imperceptibly Archan, for I must call him by his name if he dared come into the temple. I prayed for strength, much more strength, for myself and all of my household, and then thanked every god in turn for what they had already given me. And every god laid hands on me as I did that and then went away, Archan last. He even stayed to talk for a while, and I’ll probably remember what he said when I need it.

Later I heard from Samada that people had been calling in high Iss-Peranian, “we have a high priestess again! Everything will come right!” How disappointed will they be when I leave Zameshtan for Ashas?

Everybody was leaving now, a huge crowd of people going back to the city with lamps and torches. People crowded around me, but my people pushed them back, “let Her Holiness eat and rest!” And yes, food was what I needed, wholesome food instead of dainty nibbles, though I did tell Zahmati about the almond sauce and got her very interested.

While we were eating I told Thulo and Maha about the woman who had called me. “Only the three of us,” I said, but Khali and Bhalik insisted on coming along, “you are not going to the city without a bodyguard!”

They had a point. When I saw them in their thief clothes I thought wistfully of the black silk that Venla in Essle had lent me. I didn’t actually have any dark clothes with me — but there was something I could do. “Zahmati? Could you lend me something black to wear?”

She gave me a robe and a veil, roomy enough to wear breeches and all my weapons underneath. Maha dressed about the same, and we both blackened our faces with soot. We picked five fast long-legged camels to ride — we tried to leave so late that the city people would be back in the city, but still had to wait in order not to overtake them, and slipped through the gates as if we were the tail-end of the procession.

Then the woman called me again. On the square a bit further along, to the right, there’s a boy waiting for you.

We saw the square soon enough, and there was indeed a young man leaning against the side of a house, cleaning his nails with his knife. It was the very handsome disappearing young man we’d seen the other day — not that i was surprised. “Ah, you’re here,” he said. “Come along with me, please.”

He whistled, and a younger boy appeared and offered to watch the camels. “One Valdyan shilling,” he said. “For each camel.”

“You’ll have it when we get the camels back,” I said, and he nodded and tied the camels to a fence —limping a little, his foot was lame– and sat down beside them.

The young man took us through an archway into an alley, and suddenly we felt protection all around us — we were inside the seal! The houses weren’t by far as neat as what we’d seen when we first entered the city. Clearly they kept up the houses people would see better than this neighbourhood.

We ended up in a courtyard inside a large house, or a block of small houses, where several people were waiting for us. One was the woman who had called me, who must have been stunning when she was young and was still impressively good-looking. Next to her was a somewhat older man, greying at the temples, looking very noble in spite of his threadbare clothes. The young man looked enough like him to be his son. The last was a tall young woman so beautiful that I could imagine most men and many women falling at her feet, and indeed I heard both Thulo and Maha suppress a gasp. They were all gifted, except the man. Very gifted.

The older woman immediately grabbed my arm. “You are Officer Sedi of the Order of the Sworn? Tell me, how is my daughter? Is she alive?”

Everything fell into place then. I knew who these people were.

“I assume that your daughter is–” now get the name right– “Princess Asa? She married King Athal’s younger brother, she’s a doctor in Turenay. She has at least one child, possibly two by now.”

She let go of me, relieved, but then the man got hold of me, “have you come to fulfill my hopes? Are you the high priestess who can regain my throne for me, did King Athal send you to aid me?”

“Well, King Athal did send me,” I said, “but mostly to investigate what was going on, because we get very little news from the South and what we do get is much distorted. At the moment I’m after what’s called the Resurgence of Archan.”

He had obviously heard of that; it made him look very thoughtful. Then it was the young woman’s turn. “But hasn’t Aheste come to Valdis then? When did he leave, Mother, was it two years ago? We sent him to beg King Athal for help. He sent word from Albetire but after that we haven’t heard from him.”

“I haven’t met anyone by that name,” I said, “but of course I didn’t speak to everybody who went north from the south, and my journey wasn’t exactly in a straight line either.”

“Then I’m a widow!” she wailed. “I knew it!”

“I’ll tell you about the situation,” the king said. I had no doubt that he, and not the man currently on the throne, was the real king. “We had a war with the emperor in Ashas. It started as a disagreement about the tribute, but it escalated, as such things do, and the emperor’s armies conquered the city. We were forced to flee, could win the city back, but just as we thought that we could settle down to rebuilding what had been destroyed, the priests with the Valdyan names came.”

I nodded. “They’re not Valdyan at all that I know of, though.”

“I’m aware of that. Most of them are in fact from Ashas itself, though there is at least one real Valdyan among them. They seized control of the temple and impaled the high priestess. Lydan is the priest in charge there now, he’s got his own troops with him.”

“And the man who is on the throne now?” I asked.

“He’s not a bad sort — he means well, he’s genuinely concerned for the welfare of the city, but he is a tool of the emperor of Ashas.”

“The emperor of Ashas may himself be a tool of the Resurgence,” I said. “I understand that he’s still very young.”

“Well,” the king said, “I do hope you can put me back on my throne.”

“You wouldn’t be the first king who got his throne back with my help,” I said, “though the king of Tanim lost it only very briefly.”

“Samada’s father, isn’t it?” the queen asked. “How is Samada these days? She would be a good match for our son.”

“I’m afraid she’s already married,” Thulo said. “To Pesar, the master of our caravan.”

“That’s a pity,” the queen said. “But perhaps something can be done to change that.”

The young man flushed with anger and embarrassment. “Mother!”

“Are you a dandar?” I asked the queen.

“Of course I am,” she said.

“There’s something you should see,” the king said and took us through a passage, down a flight of stairs into a cellar. About a dozen children were there, from babies to about eight or nine years old, the older ones busy with schoolwork and the little ones sleeping. Most looked as if they were from around here, though a boy and a girl looked definitely Valdyan. I was surprised about the schoolwork in the middle of the night until I realised that of course they would swap around night and day if they were in hiding here! The king and queen and their offspring didn’t look as if they were sacrificing their sleep for us, either, though we were sacrificing ours for them.

“They were about to be taken south,” the king said. “I … bought them. It seemed the only way.”

We left them to their work and sleep. When we were back in the courtyard, a dark form came down from the roof– Bhalik, knife in hand. “You should go, right now,” he said. “We’ve been betrayed. There are soldiers coming.” He saw the king and put two and two together. “I think you and your family should leave, too.”

“Is there an exit right out of the city?” I asked. There wasn’t, but there was a shortcut to the market. The king and queen started to order people about as if they’d been preparing for this. Servants appeared: two maids and four fierce-looking armed young men. They had the children in tow, the maids carrying the smallest ones. We filed out of the back door; the king put a shackle on each child’s ankle, and he must have seen my face, because he whispered “It’s a disguise.” He did look for all the world like a merchant with his human wares!

Behind us, we heard Bhalik’s angry shouts. “Don’t you EVER do that to me again!” That probably wasn’t the soldiers, so I went to look what was happening. Our nine young hunters were there, or at least most of them. “We were interested so we came along! We just wanted to see if we could surprise you!” one said. Well, this wasn’t the time and the place to surprise someone!

“But are there real soldiers, or is this the whole alarm?” I asked.

“Oh, there are real soldiers all right. Two lots. But we delayed one lot a bit, led them into an alley with a ditch, and two broke a leg each and the others can’t get past.”

“Go and delay the other lot too, then,” I said, “at least you’ll be doing something useful.”

“Already tried that, they’ve got a sergeant with eyes in his head.”

I sent them away– we’d need to leave the town as if we were ordinary market-goers. Good thing that Maha and I were robed and veiled like many of the women here, otherwise we’d stand out much too much even with our darkened faces.

In a corner of the market, we saw a man selling camels that looked strangely familiar. “Go for it?” Thulo asked, and Maha and I nodded.

Someone was already negotiating for the camels, but Thulo tapped the man on his arm and said “Excuse me, I think I know those camels.”

“Really? They’re the best in the market, I assure you.”

“How did you come by them?” I asked. “Did you happen to buy them from a boy, about this high, with a lame foot?”

“I bought them from a Valdyan merchant, lady,” he said, “Vurian astin Velain, right there on the palace side. Red hair pale skin, freckles on his nose.”

“Hm, I know Vurian astin Velain,” I said. He broke into a grin. “The last time I saw him — yes, he does have red hair and pale skin and freckles. He is also no more than six years old.”

“That will be a namesake, noble lady. Do you want to bid for these camels or can I continue negotiating with this gentleman?” But the other customer had lost interest and left. “You’ve chased my customer away!”

“That’s no problem,” Thulo said, “because those camels are my camels.”

“When you pay for them, sure,” the merchant said. “And if not I’ll call the market watch. You’re chasing away the real customers.”

“Do we really need to go to all this trouble for five camels?” Maha asked, just as the man began to shout for the watch. We fled, catching up with the king and his family in a street leading out of the city.

On the way we saw a patrol of soldiers who looked very much like certain people we knew — all very young, in ill-fitting uniforms, three with black skin, three with light brown skin, three with mud-drab skin. They had two quite pretty girls with them as well, who were not in uniform but in worn work-clothes. I grinned at the ‘sergeant’ and he grinned back, but we didn’t speak to each other.

We took a different route out of the city than we’d taken on the way in. There was still trade going on here, but it was much more shady and furtive, and there were people in the road smoking something that smelt sweet, not the way brus is sweet but more dusky and heady, One man was lying in the road, passed out, and Thulo helped push him out of the way of a hand-cart. “What’s he been smoking?” he asked.

“Opium,” the carter said, and when we looked blank, “poppy.”

“Oh!” I said, “we use that to put people to sleep when they need a leg sawn off or something. Makes you sleep all day and wake up with a headache. But they drink it, they don’t smoke it.”

“Stuff from the south,” the carter said, “don’t touch it myself.”

We got back to the caravan at daybreak, just in time for the morning service. Prince Sharab came up to me, “are you going to take the first service, or shall Cheliân and I do that?”

“I didn’t know you were serving!” I said.

“Yes, Cheliân asked me to help yesterday.”

Well, the more people who could, the better! I’d been thinking of getting more acolytes anyway, men and women who were called and wanted to learn. It was a pity that the elder prince wasn’t gifted — and I didn’t think I could make him so. But perhaps the gods could? — It was almost heresy to even think about that.

After the service it was time to adminster justice.

I used the platform in the temple to sit on — someone had brought a camp chair. Maha brought the girl Dayapati, and two soldiers brought her owner, Iman astin Denesh — strange that he had astin in his name, as if he wanted to make it clear that he belonged to a house — who insisted he had done nothing wrong.

I called Ababe as a witness; the other doctors would perhaps know more but they didn’t have so much standing in the caravan. Yes, she could certainly testify that the girl had been abused. The man wouldn’t admit it, of course. “Do you know this girl?”

“She’s my slave. I paid two cartwheels for her.”

“Two cartwheels. Write that down,” I said to my clerk, and to the crowd at large, “Are there any other slaves here who have been abused in this way by their masters?” I got no response, and hadn’t expected any, but now I’d sown the seed and it would come up in its own good time.

“What is the value of your trade goods?” I asked the man.

“I’d have to ask my clerk that,” he said, and I had the clerk fetched: eighteen thousand cartwheels.

“Write half of that down, under the two cartwheels,” I told my clerk.”Do you have a wife?”

“Yes, in Albetire. It’s because she’s in Albetire that I used my slave for–”

“Silence. The wife gets the other nine thousand.”

Now Iman astin Denesh was starting to look worried, but he still didn’t seem to know what it was about. “Why are you asking me all of this? I haven’t done anything wrong!”

I was running out of patience. “Did you, or did you not, fuck this girl?”

“Of course I did!”

“See, he’s confessed,” I said to nobody in particular, or anyone who would listen. “In Valdyas we hang people who rape children.”

“She’s a slave!”

“She’s a child. A person, a human being. You will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. Half of your property goes to your wife in Albetire, after all it’s not her fault that you are a rapist. The other half is for Dayapati to build a life with. As well as the two cartwheels — someone better give her the two cartwheels in hand now.” The clerk got two gold coins from somewhere — probably his own purse, I’d have to reimburse him from the hanged man’s effects — and gave them to Dayapati, who stood looking at the money a little dazed.

“Take him away,” I said to the soldiers, “I don’t want to see him any more.”

I was completely drained. Around me, the crowd was cheering.

When I was leaving the temple King Mahsab came to speak to me. “Do you need to have me hanged, too?”

“Why, did you rape a slave girl too?”

He laughed wryly. “Not personally, but I sent my daughter to be married to the Enshah when she was seven years old.”

“I have it on good authority that the Enshah was too old to actually consummate that marriage,” I said, not mentioning that the good authority had been Lyse guffawing about it.

“That doesn’t change the fact, does it? I did it to cement an alliance, and when I needed Albetire in the war they didn’t send any help after all.”

That could have been because Albetire itself had been in trouble at the time, but I didn’t know nearly enough of the history of these parts to be sure. “Those things happened before Valdyan law was in force here,” I said.

“Valdyan law is the best law,” the king said.

“It’s not wrong that different countries have different laws,” I said, “but some things should apply to all. Nobody may own another person, and nobody may violate a child, or anyone dependent on them.”

“I’ll promise you something,” the king said. “If you can give me my throne back, no people will be bought or sold in Zameshtan any more, ever. Or at least as long as I and my heirs can enforce it.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I hope the gods will grant me the power for that.”

Now I needed to work off all that tension. I found Khali and asked him to spar with me; he agreed, though he was of course as tired as I was. We were interrupted twice, too: first by some of the young hunters, who I had to tell that there was a time and a place for surprises and that that was not when people were actually working, and then by a soldier who came to ask, bashfully, whether it was really necessary to hang people sentenced to death, couldn’t they behead them next time?

“Sure,” I said, “whatever works, it’s just that hanging is what we do at home, so I’m used to that.” I wasn’t, really; I’d never even seen a hanging, only heard about it from my brother Arin when he was already in the town guard and I not yet in the Order.

Still, it was good to fight when I was tired: it made me find the extent of my ability. At some point, just when I thought I couldn’t last, Khali said ‘Enough!’, and ordered me to go to sleep and wash later. He collapsed in front of the tent and was asleep instantly; I made it to the sleeping mat.

I slept for a couple of hours, washed, and spent the afternoon being the priestess, blessing people, giving advice, looking in at the school. The school had doubled in size with all the children the king had brought. Prince Shab was in the doorway, eyeing Samada. “She is pretty,” he said, when he saw me. “Only a bit…”

“Bossy?”

“Er, yes. I wish Mother didn’t keep throwing brides at me, especially not brides who aren’t really available! But I’ll have to get married soon, I’m sixteen already, I need to provide heirs.”

“You’re the only son?”

“The only surviving son, yes.”

“And what about your sister?”

“She’s a woman!”

I was starting to tell him about King Athal’s mother and grandmother who had both been ruling queens in their own right when Queen Gorbe appeared, pulled him aside and started to talk to him in urgent whispers. I saw him blanch, then blush, set his jaw and stalk away with some difficulty.

“What was that about?” I asked, though I was practically sure I knew.

“My son should start thinking about heirs,” she said.

“I don’t hold with dandar influence in our part of the camp,,” I said.

“It’s all for the good! We worship Dayati, she wants people to be fertile. You’ve seen our palace? The avenue with the statuary?”

“Yes,” I said. “Some of the statuary is … strange, to my eyes.”

“It may offend people from the North, from other nations, but for us all celebration of life is equally sacred to Dayati. You should see the dome of the temple, it’s all painted, there’s no figure on there that isn’t linked to another.”

She was trying to distract me. “I don’t want dandar inflluence in our part of the caravan,” I said.

She kept protesting, in much the same words.

“I forbid dandar doings in my household,” I said, and that finally made her leave.

A man approached me with as many as ten women, all shackled to a chain. I startled, but he gave me a key: “Your Holiness! Please free my women and give them names.” By now I had a short form of the name-giving, introducing people to the gods several at a time, and I went into the temple to do that, asking Cheliân and Prince Sharab to think of names for me because I still didn’t want to give the names I’d grown up with, not even those of my family, until the Resurgence stopped using them too.

Thulo and Maha were nowhere in sight; later I found out that they’d been practicing with Birune and Shab to protect themselves against dandar influence, getting tired and irritable but they said they’d learned a lot, “but not nearly enough yet!”

After tne evening service the young hunters came back from town. The pretty girls were with them and so were five camels we knew! They were heavily laden with something I didn’t recognise immediately. “Have you robbed the robbers?” I asked.

“That, too,” one of the Ishey said. And– well, let her tell it.”

“Well, we are –” she stuck out her hands, which were red and chapped.

“Washerwomen,” I said.

“Yes. We wash the soldiers’ uniforms. And we brought five camel loads of those.”

“Hm, how many uniforms would that be?” I was already thinking of putting some of our soldiers in enemy uniforms so they would be able to infiltrate the city.

“Dunno, fifty?”

We were really making plans now. If we could get into the temple and deal with the priest, the rest might even be easy. I made a seal around our group by the fire — Birune and Shab thought it was too flimsy, theirs were much firmer! But they’d never realised that Iss-Peranian seals gave themselves away by looking like a patch of nothing at all. Like the one on the temple, for one. “I think we can dismantle that,” I said, and showed Birune what the seal on the temple in the palace in Tanim had looked like.

“But that one’s made of dead people! We don’t make our seals of dead people, and the temple seal isn’t either! Even though they have the sacrifices.”

“No– and I don’t know how it is made, we should learn that from you.” Even to make it ourselves, in case we ever wanted to give the impression that dandar were hiding somewhere.

“Oh, I’ll gladly teach you,” she said. She and her brother grinned at each other and Shab posed himself in front of me — he was handsome indeed, with the sweet innocence of a new journeyman, so attractive —

“Hey! Stop that!” I said, and they grinned some more and the feeling stopped. I shook myself, realising that yes, I’d definitely have to learn defense against that too. I’m not usually tempted like that, and if this worked on me…

“What if we build our temple around theirs?” Thulo asked. It would probably be large enough, unless the temple was connected to the palace. I didn’t think we’d be able to build the temple of Anshen around the whole palace compound, even if everybody in the caravan carried a stone into the city!

We called the washerwomen, who were now sitting at the hunters’ fire, one with a Khas’ arm around her shoulders and the other sharing a leg of goat with one of the Ishey. “How many soldiers are there?” I asked. There were five hundred, exactly as many as our own army. “I wonder if we can get some on our side,” I said, but they advised against that, suppose they told the rest!

That was a good point. It wouldn’t be possible to steal all the other uniforms and disguise our whole army as the enemy either. But there were three watches, and Maha suggested to change a whole watch with our own soldiers in the uniforms we already had. If you were in an army with five hundred others, you wouldn’t be surprised if your relief happened to be a man you didn’t know.

We’d have to delay or distract the real watch, of course, but that was a problem princes and soldiers could solve, or our hunters who’d done that to a patrol already. And there were a couple of thousand people in the caravan to enlist as reinforcements: every man and most of the women could use weapons or at least tools.

The only question was when. And knowing what we knew now, the answer would probably be ‘tomorrow’.