An old-fashioned duel
It looked like another round of the waiting game… until things started happening. And of course when things start happening, they all happen at once. This letter was written with interruptions (marked with a <hr>).
Hallei Lenye Raith, in the city that she now knows is called Kushesh, to Alysei Ayneth astin Velain in Veray.
The new moon has come and gone but no sign of the eclipse. Perhaps the priestess was mistaken about the time or the place, or perhaps I misunderstood her. Good, because Athal isn’t here yet. The last I heard was that he had left Valdis, at least.
It’s been so boring here that I have to amuse myself by learning all the patterns of air and water and weather between here and Solay –it’s just too far for me to reach– because there’s only so much claim one can lay on apprentices’ time and attention and learning capacity. Useful, of course, but a way to pass the time more than anything else.
Bebakshi and I have two rooms in a house that used to be a fishmonger’s shop. The shop itself is deserted– I receive visitors there if they’re not familiar enough to take them upstairs. It’s a palatial apartment as housing goes in this city, much better than a bit of tent with only a cloth between us and the rest. Bebakshi is almost a journeyman now; I’m trying to come up with something to test her. Mostly we’ve been working as a team, standing on the tower that looks out on the sea. The soldiers are used to us by now.
When we were on the tower just now, I saw something in the north-west that looked for all the world like ships. Rather a lot of ships in fact. It was too far to see clearly –the soldier on watch didn’t see anything at all– so I sent Bebakshi out, warding her, for practice. She could only see that I’d been right about rather a lot, between twelve and twenty ships, and they didn’t seem to be normal Khas but she couldn’t tell whether it was the Valdyan fleet or at least part of it. I went out myself and couldn’t see much more, mostly because there seemed to be a kind of veil over the ships. They were of various sizes, some with two masts and some with three, and there were gifted people aboard but not as many as one would expect if they were Valdyans and many more than one would expect if they were Khas.
Beguyan would have to know about it, of course, and I caught him in his map-room so I could point to the location on the map. He started giving orders immediately, to send out scouts and possibly to get people ready to fight if it was the Khas. Then he told me that he’d heard that the Khas haven’t only occupied Solay, but driven all the people from the upriver villages into the city as well. He could think of three reasons to do that: to keep me and Athal from setting the city on fire; to keep the people from providing us with labour for siege engines and such; and to protect them, which he rather thought wouldn’t be a reason for the Khas but it would be for him. Did I think it would be a good idea to conquer the land behind the city, seeing that there were no civilians there anyway, so we could surround it? I didn’t see why not, and I didn’t think Athal would object either, so it was decided.
When I came back to our fishy house there was a Valdyan man standing there, faintly familiar and stinking of the Nameless. He said his name was Arin– as if I believed that, from the way he pronounced the name. I took him into the shop, and there he told me that he had an apprentice ready for his journeyman’s trial and he had heard I had one like that too. It didn’t have to be a life-and-death duel, they could both come out journeymen in the end. I said “I’ll put it to her”; he seemed surprised that I couldn’t just accept for Bebakshi, but that’s the Guild of the Nameless for you. The more I talked to him, the more familiar he became. He’d just arrived on a ship to do some trading– he tried to get me to buy bottles of wine from Tal-Nus (real glass! the original seal!) which made me homesick, but didn’t tempt me, not much anyway.
Upstairs Bebakshi was nowhere in sight. I wrote the bit of letter about the ships until I heard her giggling. She’d hidden herself the Valdyan way, very impressively if I couldn’t see her. She agreed to a formal fight, promising not to use anything she’d learnt as a dandar but only what I had taught her or what she’d known before her training started. I called to “Arin” and found him in a small house near the harbour in the company of a gifted boy and another person who wasn’t gifted. He agreed to come right away, with his apprentice, to discuss terms.
Arin arrived with not only his apprentice, a lanky boy who called himself Arin too and looked fourteen at most, though he admitted to sixteen (Bebakshi didn’t want to fight anyone under fifteen, she said), but also one of those fabled bottles. Tal-Nus indeed, and sealed by Moryn himself. He was selling them for a hundred and twenty riders, but had brought this one to seal our agreement. We drank to it, with wine that didn’t seem to have suffered from travel: the apprentices a symbolic sip, I about half a cup, and Arin himself three cups at least. I suddenly realised how I knew him: I’d thrown him out of Lenyas once because he had a brothel in Lenay where he kept his women captive, and also because of some allegations of theft from wine storehouses that couldn’t be proved. Ruyin or Rovin or something like that, not quite of the House-that-Fell but closely tied to it. Well, if he wanted to go by “Arin” now, that was all right with me.
I suggested going to the salt flats if the apprentices were going to have a formal duel, and that’s where we went, where they couldn’t hit anything by mistake. I implored Bebakshi –again!– not to use lightning, to keep the boy whole if she could.
The younger Arin drew a circle in the sand, and I checked whether one of the apprentices had a knife by mistake –they’d agreed bare hands and bare minds, Arin could handle a knife though not a sword, and Bebakshi didn’t know how to use weapons at all. I let the elder Arin make the inner seal: if something breached my seal from the inside his would be useless anyway. His was cloudy, not so easy to see through; mine a half-globe of solid air, hard and completely transparent.
Young Arin started by stripping to his loincloth and posturing –strutting! like a young cockerel– in Bebakshi’s direction. It seemed to throw her a bit, and through the cloudy seal I could see her sitting on her hands, so to speak, not to use her dandar abilities. It went on for some time, then all at once they were fighting like children in the school-yard or half-grown kittens. More iterations of that –I’d have to make an effort to recall everything and frankly I’m too tired to make an effort– and suddenly Bebakshi remembered what exactly I had taught her and made the whole arena dark. And light again before Arin expected it. It gave her the advantage all right, but after a while they were fighting again, this time more seriously.
Lots of people had come to look at the fight, mostly Valdyans of both Guilds. I could hear someone saying “it’s a formal duel! just like old times at home!”
Eventually Bebakshi succeeded in driving Arin into a corner, or rather under an edge, but he came back strongly and was only checked because Bebakshi accepted Anshen, completely, and had his power to draw on.
She pulled him up. Excellent form. She had the grace to give him the opportunity to make one last effort, and yes, he crossed the line to journeyman too. Even when the seals fell away, I couldn’t go and congratulate Bebakshi, because a very large man with a bushy black beard took her in his arms first and then held her at arm’s length to scold her. On the other side, Arin was being scolded by an Iss-Peranian girl. I’d heard from the elder Arin that the boy had a girlfriend who had trained as a dandar for a year and a half– but only when the fight had already started. This must be her. Bebakshi’s man, on the other hand, I’d never seen before. I got the opportunity to talk to him later: Rovan, from Tal-Serth, a smith who makes tools for the glass-blowers. Not gifted at all, and very skeptical about it, “does she have to join the Order now?” when I told him what it meant that had just happened. Exactly the right man for her, I’d say; I hope they both make it. She doesn’t want to sleep with him until they’re married, and they can’t marry until they’re back in Tal-Serth because he wants his mother to marry them, but she does intend to bear his children.
Bebakshi is back from walking to the sea-front with her Rovan. There’s a little wine left and we’re going to drink it. Still no news of “my” ships. I do hope it’s Athal after all.
Things I have learned:
- To speak two, perhaps three kinds of Iss-Peranian.
- To handle really large amounts of weather.
- What “swearing like a trooper” means exactly, and how to do it myself.
- That most people in the world are various shades of brown; pale like us is rare.
- That gods have different habits in different countries, but are still the same under whatever they use instead of skin. Just like people in fact.
- To be civil to servants of the Nameless. And their tactless apprentices.
- To say the name of the Nameless with impunity, when necessary.
- Patience, oh gods, patience.
Sealing this letter now even though it’s not really finished, because if it is the Khas and we do have to fight I don’t know when I’ll be able to send it otherwise.
All my love,