A king’s dilemma

This is long; it was hard; I may have made some mistakes because I stopped taking notes after Raisse had gone to see the Khas. Also, it doesn’t really end because all the endings I wrote were cheesy. The story, and Athal’s dilemma, isn’t finished yet anyway.

Athal has discovered a tendency for culture relativism in himself, which is perhaps a bit modern of him (or me); also, he’s hesitatingly putting into practice what one of his mentors taught him, “sometimes it’s braver to admit that the other guy is right”.

I slept better than I had in days or perhaps weeks and woke fit and rested. There was singing coming from the village square, and perhaps it was that what had woken me because it was very insistent. After a while I recognised Rikhi’s voice. I had to ask Mernath to help me dress, as he had done when I was three years old –confound that useless arm!– and went to look, leaving Raisse fast asleep with a baby on either side of her.

The priest was kneeling on the ground, digging fist-sized holes in the ground, scooping out handfuls of earth and throwing it in the air, singing all the time. There was a large crowd in a circle around him: mostly men from the village, but also Valdyans and Iss-Peranians. Few women; the village women were all at their work and the only women present were those among the soldiers and sailors. I didn’t understand a word, but I could sense tension building up in the earth and in my own body. After a while the village men all knelt, and I with them. Rikhi changed from digging holes to smoothing the earth with his hands.

I tried to determine whether this was the same kind of thing as the play, ritual, performance, whatever it had been, that the Iss-Peranians had done for us in Valdis. It did have some similarities but there was one great difference: then it had been a representation of something, and now it was the something itself. I couldn’t understand what was happening, but it was definitely happening.

There was an enormous racket of drums and cymbals, and also a woman’s voice singing. When the singer came close enough, she turned out to be very young –in her teens–, dressed in black tatters, legs painted bright red, hands painted black, and with her hair in a crest so that she looked like nothing so much as a monstrous black bird. She danced around the priest, making stabbing motions with her long black fingernails as though threatening him; he went on doing what he was doing as if she wasn’t there.

He kept her at bay, eventually, by throwing a handful of earth in her face. Then they both sang. The drums and cymbals had stopped already. The ritual wound down gradually, but the tension stayed. Everybody went about their business as if nothing had happened. The young bird priestess went away as well. Only Rikhi was still kneeling on the ground, looking drained. We had to touch to understand each other –no language in common– but then it was clear enough: he had started to prepare the village for leaving. I wanted nothing more than to sit down right there beside him and see if I could do something with the tension in my body, but I thought it might destroy something he’d just been building up very carefully so I didn’t do that.

When I came back to the house there was a lot of food, most of it fresh pork. Obviously slaughtering the pigs to take on the voyage was underway. Vurian and Rovan were sitting in a village woman’s lap, sucking on something that had made them cover themselves in grease. After a while they tired of it and demanded milk; first Vurian let go of it, then Rovan, and it fell to the ground and a dog ate it with much crunching, but not before I’d seen that it was a large floppy pig’s ear. Raisse wondered if that was healthy, but the village kids must have grown up on it and there seemed to be nothing much wrong with them so I wasn’t worried.

People were already queuing up for an audience. Mikhanan was first, sitting down next to us; then half the village, most of them just wanting to say good morning. The doctor, too, who organised a large tub of hot water for us to bathe in because she didn’t trust the river water: people had gone blind from it, and she listed a whole slew of other things that could happen to people who bathed in river water. She did tell me not to move my left-hand fingers for another six days– hard! Especially as the feeling was coming back, which was in itself fortunate.

Raisse and I talked about how to get all the semti together. There didn’t seem to be a real occasion for a meeting, but perhaps we could ask for a pig of our own and eat together. There were many people of the Guild of Anshen, some of the Nameless, some of the Iss-Peranians and villagers; also Dushtan who was Síthi, and the lone gifted Khas who I still couldn’t see however hard I tried. It was important to get all the gifted people together: soldiers in the Guild of the Nameless ought to know that they belonged with me before we reached Albetire, which was crawling with the Nameless as far as I knew. “Do you trust them?” Raisse asked. I had to think about that, but yes, I trusted them for now.

At the end of the afternoon I was so tired that I went back to bed while Raisse went with the doctor on her evening round. I hadn’t slept for much more than an hour when a call from Raisse woke me up: she was in trouble in the Khas tower. To me, from where I was, it looked like halfway between a funeral and a master’s trial– as if someone was trying to initiate her in something. “Hold on,” I told her, “I’m coming.”

When I got to the watchtower it was as I’d feared: it was the gifted Khas, now very easy to see though not with the eyes of my body. He was holding Raisse in a kind of bind. Dushtan was holding on to Raisse for dear life. I threw a seal about them –and myself– to have room to think. All the Khas were chanting something, a rhythmic wordless sound. I pushed against it at first, but it didn’t seem to do anything. Then I tried to reach the semte at the back of the room, but all the other Khas were in the way and I didn’t get through.

From the corner of my eye I saw Rikhi, and his wife, and the young bird priestess, dancing around the seal, reinforcing it.

It looked as if Raisse was slowly getting covered in thick sticky treacly stuff. It was up to her neck now, and I managed to peel it off a bit but not completely: it started creeping up from her waist again.

I rooted my feet firmly in the earth and called on Anshen.

The watch-house was suddenly full of light. A column of light, like a tree-trunk, stood at arm’s length in front of us. Raisse knew what to do with it immediately: she stood in the light and the treacle burnt off. Rikhi and the others took up position around the light, too.

The semte Khas came towards us through the crowd. He put his hands on my seal –it didn’t seem as if he could get through yet, but I felt him pushing and didn’t know how long I could hold out, even with the power of Anshen and the help of the village priests– and started to sing something that sounded like an invocation.

I couldn’t stand it any longer. I took the substance of the seal, the power of Anshen in the light, everything I had, made a big fist of it and punched him in the stomach. He doubled over, effectively out of action.

I thought for a moment that I’d gone deaf, but it was the silence itself that was deafening. I stood holding Raisse, still keeping my protection over Dushtan as well, while the whole village, it seemed, crowded around us. The light was still there, almost as bright as when it had first come. I thanked Anshen in my mind, but he didn’t go away– not that I’d wanted him to.

The leader of the Khas, Bayat, came up to me, crawling in the dust. I made him get up; I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to people crawling for me. He put himself out in apologies: that man was a priest, he made wind. I refrained from telling him that by that measure I was no less a priest; after all I could make wind as well! This priest was a bad man, it should never have happened but if they didn’t have him any more they wouldn’t have a priest at all, their god had made him do it; and would I forgive him? The only thing I could forgive Bayat was that he hadn’t known –or had he?– but I forgave him anyway.

Dushtan had passed out; there was something wrong with her mind, as straightforward as a dislocated shoulder, and still filled with the light of Anshen I could put it right easily; looking back, almost absently. She went straight from unconsciousness to a deep healthy sleep. Rikhi’s wife had her carried to their house where she already had a bed.

Raisse told me that the ceremony, or whatever it was, had started after she’d recited a large part of one of the Khas epics she’d learnt from Selmet and Fikmet, to comfort the dying men. Perhaps they’d thought then that she really knew Khas, not only words aided by rhythm and melody? Or that the Khas spirit-god was already possessing her? Or –this only occurs to me now– perhaps she was already a little possessed, and that was why it was so much easier for her than she’d expected?

I found Mikhanan in the crowd and asked him “from one village leader to another, do I have the right to execute my wife’s assailant or will you?” He said that I had the right, but there was no need: Death would take care of him. And indeed the bird priestess was already working on the Khas priest, dragging him through the mud and raking him with her claw-like nails. The villagers chanted with it, something eerily like the Khas chanting, and I took Raisse to the house to get away from it. Senthi was already there, sitting in the farthest corner of our room with both babies on her lap and surrounded by a handful of toddlers. I threw a seal over the room, but presently there was scrabbling at it from many small people, so I opened up again to let in what looked like all of the village children under twelve or so, some older girls, a teenaged boy or two, and the cabin-boy Shab Hafte and his friend from the other ship. One of the girls ventured “King, close door?” and I did, very firmly, shutting out all the sound from outside.

Sleep was impossible. I sang instead. Anything at all, nonsense rhymes, the starling song, things the children sang to me. Everybody sang, Raisse too, and even Senthi, and the cabin boys sang songs that I’d probably have found bawdy if I’d been able to understand more. I learned more songs in that one night than in the ten years before.

In the morning, when everything was quiet and people wanted to use the kitchen, I opened the seal and went out. Rikhi was chanting again. This time, when he threw earth at the young bird priestess, she collapsed, unconscious. Everybody stayed far away, even Rikhi, who was visibly shaken. I thought at the time that it was because he was a priest of the earth, and stayed well clear too, though now I know that it wouldn’t have been necessary. Raisse alone touched the girl and gave her some mental strength. We could see –had seen before, but it had never been so clear– that she was really very young, and far too thin, and pockmarked; filthy and louse-ridden too, with matted hair. I asked “does she have a place to rest?” and some of the villagers pointed it out so Raisse could carry her there. It wasn’t more than a hole in the ground, just outside the village.

“I want a temple,” Raisse said. I asked her “Do you want one that already exists, or can I build it for you?” No, it didn’t need to exist, she’d build it herself. She borrowed a hatchet and took me and a handful of Valdyan soldiers along to a place in the wood where the floppy trees were further apart, felled three of the trees and hacked the trunks into three parts each– eight to build a low octagonal fence, and one to chop to splinters and put into the fire-pot that she’d sent a soldier back for. She let me try to seal it, but obviously it was her work, because mine glimmered out of existence the moment it was there. Hers was ragged and patchy –she was as tired as I was, perhaps more– but stayed up. She went in, while I stood guard at the entrance with the soldiers, and tried to light the fire with her mind. The wood splinters went up in a single great blaze, singeing her eyebrows, and the presence of Anshen was unmistakable. Now I could go in too, and we stayed in the temple for a while before going back to the house to sleep at last.

Not for long, though. Ayran astin Brun was at the door within the hour, or so it felt. “You really need to intervene yourself,” he told me. I went with him, to the place where the bird priestess slept, to find several Valdyans ready to clean her up, comb her hair and feed her. She was still unconscious or sleeping, so it was impossible to determine what she thought of that. Some of the villagers were looking on from a distance, and when they saw me coming retreated even further.

A boatswain from the Eagle was the ringleader. I challenged him, “how dare you interfere in these people’s life?” but I knew at the same time that I really agreed, the way the villagers were treating the girl was too bad for words. But on the other hand, how could I, or he, know that being outcast and unkempt was not the way priestesses of Death had to live, that it didn’t come with the position, the way our priestesses of Naigha have a long braid and wear grey or black and sleep with a man only at Midwinter? Suppose someone from Iss-Peran came and said that that wasn’t the way to do it and made them do whatever their priestesses do?

The boatswain said that if I forbade him to care for the girl, he’d disobey, and anyway he was from Tal-Havin so he wasn’t sure whether he was my subject at all. Arni couldn’t do anything either; if the captain intended to flog him for insubordination he’d just leave her crew.

The standoff seemed to last for hours, but eventually we came to a compromise: they’d wait until the girl woke up and not try anything until then. I sat down to wait, and so did the sailors and soldiers. Raisse appeared after a while, and she approved of the compromise, but was more convinced than I that it was a matter of neglect, not of custom.

The moment the girl opened one eye, a woman from the palace guard started to wash her face, first showing what she was going to do by washing her own. The priestess didn’t protest; she didn’t object to being fed rice gruel either. I told the Valdyans once again not to do anything against the girl’s will, and to stop the moment she or anyone else from the village stopped them –the last I wanted was war among my own people– and Raisse and I went to find the doctor, who had been asleep in Rikhi’s house all day.

Every villager who passed us averted their eyes, as if mortally ashamed of something. Had the boatswain and his people shown them that they were really doing their priestess an injustice, or was it something else? We found Mikhanan before Dushtan, but he prevaricated and didn’t tell us anything that made us any wiser.

Dushtan was still tired, but back to her usual self. She prepared to go and see the young priestess at once. “It’s easy for a doctor,” she said, “when someone is sick you go and help them. It’s not so easy for a king.”