A curse on the land
Ayneth’s letter and Athal must have travelled on separate ships after all, because it has arrived and he is nowhere in sight yet. (Also, the eclipse hasn’t arrived yet; I’ll correct the priestess’ estimate after the fact.)
In the westernmost port before Solay, probably almost the Feast of Naigha
You can’t imagine how touched I was when I got your letter with enclosures. Or perhaps you can– you’ve always been the imaginative one of the two of us. I couldn’t help crying, and when Bebakshi looked puzzled I gave her the letter to read but she couldn’t, of course (though she can understand quite a lot of Ilaini now), so I had to give her a summary. She thought you looked sweet in the picture, but even more strong, and I think she’s right. That painter has caught you exactly as you are in my mind. And the silver locket! I’d forgotten that your hair was so red.
Since my last letter there hasn’t been much fighting: the only Khas sort-of-army we met was only a few thousand strong, which I’d have thought a big army if I’d stayed in Valdyas but it’s a very small army for what I’m used to now. There’s been lots going on that wasn’t fighting, though: for one thing I saved an elephant’s life. Perhaps many people’s lives, too, but I’m less sure about that.
I’ll start at the beginning. Remember the juicy land I wrote about, where I married three hundred people or more? We didn’t stay there long, because there was something very wrong in the air, and the ground, and the trees– the fruit was rotten on the branches, the plants weren’t growing as they should. The air tasted like copper, as if you’re sucking on a penny. I had to tell myself very firmly that it wasn’t all my fault; after all, it was already too hot a summer (well, a dry season, they don’t have any proper summers here) before I started messing with the weather. When I tried to find out what was happening I couldn’t see anything at first, only wrongness: wrongness that was somebody’s doing, as if it was a curse. The most plausible people to have done it were the Khas mages with all the power they get from killing gifted children.
I wrote that last sentence with stubborn bitterness, but it made me shudder the moment I finished it.
Athal could heal this land, I think; I couldn’t even touch it. In the meeting we had to discuss strategy I said, very tentatively (at least for me), that we had to leave right away, that nobody should eat any fruit or vegetable growing here or drink any water from the ground– that last was easy because it had finally, mercifully, started to rain. I’ve never been obeyed so promptly, not even by my own servants.
I can’t remember much of that journey, because it all blends into one in my memory: it was mostly rain. After a while interesting patterns of mold started to appear on the silk of our elephant-litter curtains. All my writing-paper got too wet to be any use, that’s why I’m writing this on scraped parchment someone found for me in the city. The soldiers stripped and marched in their loincloths, or nothing at all, to avoid being chafed by wet cloth. Every time we stopped, the doctors or the hospital orderlies came to ask me to help people breathe who had been overcome by the damp.
The elephants didn’t seem to mind the rain much, but at one point one of them fell over, crushing the people who had been walking beside her, and couldn’t get up, though another elephant tried to help her. I went to see if there was anything I could do. I got a horrible fright: from the ground, or perhaps under the ground, to a height of a few feet, there was no anea at all. As if the cursed ground was sucking up everything! That was the elephant’s plight: having fallen, she couldn’t get at the spirit of the world. “She’ll die if we don’t get her up,” I said –suddenly I knew that for a fact– and immediately I had lots of soldiers around me to help with that while I got what spirit I could from the higher air, made a funnel of myself, and poured it to where the elephant could reach it.
I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but eventually we had the elephant standing on shaky legs and getting stronger every moment. Bebakshi snuggled up to her– it was almost embarrassing, like lovemaking in public.
The blighted land must have ended somewhere, because we ended up at this port city, already conquered by a combined force of Iss-Peranians and Valdyans. I talked to the Valdyan commander, a former Eraday, who told me that there had been about eighteen thousand Khas holding the city, who the Iss-Peranians “had treated as Lord Moryn would have”. She was very bitter about it– she won’t ever forgive Moryn, she said. (I’m practically sure that I will, when I’m back, however angry I was with him before I left.)
Now we only have to wait until Athal arrives: here, at least, there is solid ground that he can sit on and get his strength back. Oh, and we have to wait for your eclipse, of course. Isn’t it the moon creeping in front of the sun and hiding it? Then it would have to be at the new moon, which must be in about a week. Though someone (perhaps even Bebakshi) told me that it’s perfectly possible to have an eclipse in Valdyas while the sun stays in full sight here.
I want autumn, damn it. Or spring. Or even one of those half-hearted Ryshas winters when it’s grey and drizzly and won’t become properly cold, or stay properly warm. This too-hot-or-too-rainy is getting on my nerves. I almost wrote “I wish you were here” but that wouldn’t be true, I wish I were with you.