Aidan writes from Iss-Peran

If all goes well this will arrive before the report of victory, not with it. And if all does not go well, it may be Aidan’s last message, but he doesn’t realise that.

Alysei Aidan astin Velain to Raissei Cora astin Velain in Turenay

Darling Cora,

I’m writing this in Iss-Peran! The north-westernmost point of it, a city called Kushesh in the kingdom of Jomhur. You probably know better than I where it is. It’s now full of our army, more soldiers than I ever thought I’d see, about ten times as many as left from Valdis. And that’s not even all of the army! Some troops have already gone forward to Solay, and I’m not counting all the sailors on the warships. Most of them are Iss-Peranians, but there’s a good thirty thousand Valdyans in all, perhaps more, because I didn’t see anyone from the old regiment of Turenay –the one that went first of all, before I even knew you– and I know they’re still active so they must be somewhere in the vanguard..

You were right about me being able to give Athal a bit of earth to keep him steady, though I wasn’t all that steady myself when we started out from Essle and gave my breakfast to the fishes. Apparently that’s normal for one’s first voyage, and the first mate of our ship gave me a sip of very strong brandy “to settle my stomach” and it did.

Athal wasn’t as bad as last time, he said, because there was only one bit where the water was so deep he lost his footing completely, but he did lose the use of most of his gifts the moment we were out of sight of land (and probably in deeper water than he could handle). I could just sense him, so I took him into my mind, in the pansy field — did you ever see the pansy field? I think it came from showing you the forest, because it wasn’t there before. If you stand facing the forest it’s in front of you and to the right as far as you can see; to the left there’s something I know is there but can’t see yet. To get to the forest you wade through pansies, and they smell delicious but don’t get trampled, they bounce right back again. I took Athal’s hand, in my mind, and sat him down on the ground there. I knew he shouldn’t fall asleep or I wouldn’t be able to get him back on my own, so when it looked as if he was dropping off I led him out again and he could sleep in his bunk without any trouble. I think I did that almost every evening, and he was really fit again after only a few hours ashore! (See, I’m using seaman words, a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have known ‘ashore’ existed.)

Prince Dhamir wasn’t seasick once, which is beastly of him, because the last time he was at sea, he says, was when he was eight years old. We were supposed to share a cabin but I’ve been with Athal every night, and he’s been sleeping in the men’s quarters with the rest of the troop. I wonder if Síthi men don’t have much of a beard generally, because he doesn’t, and what beard hairs he does have he pulls out with tweezers (which looks very painful!). I’ve been growing mine, but I’ll ask the royal barber to shave me before we fight, much more practical.

It’s so full of soldiers here that it’s hard to see anything of the city but I think it would be quite pretty if it hadn’t been half sacked by the Khas, and commandeered as quarters by our army. I think the Baroness of Lenay is quartered in what used to be a fish shop, with some of her apprentices.

We did have to fight off some Khas who thought to waylay us, but we had Prince Attima as admiral and they didn’t have a chance. I could point out on a map what he did, but I don’t have any words to describe it, it was sort of attacking from both sides at once when they thought they were attacking us in the middle. Attima said the Khas had a mage, but someone shot him down with a big crossbow before he could do any magic. And Athal says, now he’s clear-headed enough to have an opinion, that this mage must have been a very weak one or he could have pushed the bolt aside or shielded himself against it. He thinks –and so does Raith– that they’re keeping their grand master mages for the battle itself. Athal, Raith, Uncle Ferin, Attima, General Beguyan (a comical little man at first sight, but impressive the moment you see him working) and some other people who make the decisions are in conference now to talk about strategy. Athal asked me to “keep Dhamir out of it, please” so I took my troop to the flood-plain for sword drills.

Lots of other people had had the same idea, so it wasn’t even as if I was only doing it to distract him. There are even some soldiers in the Guild of the Nameless, who are fighting for our king! I talked to a sergeant who has been here for three seasons already, and he says it’s his king as well as ours, meaning the Guild of Anshen (I don’t think he knew that I’m Athal’s brother as well as a sergeant and a journeyman) and we could put our squabbles aside until we’d won the big battle. Sensible of him! I hope he’ll agree to put our squabbles aside a bit longer, so we can celebrate together afterwards.

The worst thing is that when we win, I can’t come into your arms right away! (It would be still worse if I died and you couldn’t be with me, but I’m confident that we’re going to win and that I’m coming back to you.) But the best thing about that is that I’ll be able to spend the whole journey back in expectation.

Blessings of all the good gods on you and on our daughter,