Busy

She’s very happy: close to Raith and getting every opportunity to do the work she’s good at. And even if she were unhappy, my other half points out, she’d be too busy to notice and/or surrounded by too many people to give herself the chance to mope.

I still don’t know if Bhandrekhadi is what Khopai called himself for Ayneth’s benefit, whether they’re the same man at all. If I write the book I’ll have to find out (or make something up).

We arrived at a barrier, manned by Iss-Peranian soldiers. Behind it, the houses were significantly smaller: in some streets our heads while we were on horseback were level with the eaves. Even here there were no outside windows. Eventually we got to a large building, or a smallish block, where Ruyin dismounted. “Let me go and ask first,” he said. Five of the soldiers stayed with me at the door, the rest surrounded the block. “If I’m not back in about a quarter of an hour, you must all come in.” At his knock an old woman opened the door and he talked to her, in such atrocious dialect that I didn’t even understand what it was about. Then he went in with her, leaving us outside.

I got off my horse and planted my feet firmly on the earth and looked around with my mind. Still no sign of the Order of the Sworn, though I could see many gifted minds both in the block and outside it. I think I could have seen and perhaps spoken to Athal or Raith if I’d put my mind to it, but I didn’t want to risk it in this unknown neighbourhood, probably before I had to do something difficult.

Just as I was getting anxious the door opened and Ruyin beckoned me. “Bhandrekhadi will deign to see you,” he said. (I need to invent a letter for ‘kh’ because both the Iss-Peranians and the Síthi use the sound all the time, I’m using c-with-a-stroke for now.) We rode in through something between a passage and a gate and arrived in a courtyard, where we could leave the horses and our escort was served wine and something to eat. Then the old woman took Ruyin and me through more passages –a part of the house that looked for all the world like women’s quarters, but empty of women and indeed mostly of people– into a great hall. The door we came in through was so small that it was probably a servants’ door. There was a large chair like a throne at the far end with a man in his thirties sitting on it. What could be seen of his body outside the purple robes he was wearing was marked with ink, like the snakes on the arms of a priestess of Naigha, but all different designs in colours. At first sight he looked fat, but when we came closer I could see that it was all muscle. I was intending to kneel to him on one knee as to a lord, but he forestalled me by coming towards me and throwing himself at my feet. He called me “lady, princess, ear of the great King Athal” and I could only say “Master” in return. “I should prefer to speak Iss-Peranian or Síthi now,” he said, and I answered that I could speak Síthi but not very well, and wouldn’t hesitate to ask for clarification.

Bhandrekhadi –for it could only be him– made me sit on his throne and sat at my feet, leaving Ruyin to stand. A servant brought wine, and I smelt it cautiously, but Bhandrekhadi and Ruyin both drank of it so I thought I might as well do it too. It was sweeter and more heavily spiced than what I was used to, but pleasant enough.

Not only did Bhandrekhadi know who I was, but also what I had come for. “I am not the person you should be speaking to,” he said, “but that person will not speak to you, so I shall. [name I couldn’t understand at all] has permitted me to serve her.” And he went on to tell me the history of the city, starting with the time before the Khas came, when there were five classes of people: the priests and nobles, the merchants, the servants or slaves, the untouchable, and the invisible. With great circumlocution he made it clear that he himself had belonged to the invisible. The Temple of Dayati and of the Mother would take in just about everybody who was in need, but if one of Bhandrekhadi’s sort knocked on the door of one of the other temples, someone would open the door and close it again because they simply didn’t see them. “In those days, if I’d lain on the ground with my mouth wide open in front of one of those priests, they wouldn’t even have shat in it!”

When the Khas first came, the old order was overthrown and there were opportunities for everyone, especially the people who hadn’t had any opportunity at all before. Some had used that opportunity to serve the Khas, some had fended for themselves. I was now speaking to the people who had never paid taxes to the Khas (and not to the emperor either, Ruyin whispered to me; and I didn’t dare ask whether they were paying taxes to the king or intending to), and the conflict at hand was with the people who had paid, and who had taken their, that was Bhandrekhadi and his family’s, houses from them to boot. “We fight. And we helped many people who could not fight to leave the city, to flee to your country.” (Later, Athal said that he expected the other side to tell me the same story; he may well be right.)

At some point a young girl came in with an enormous silver tray full of dainty finger food. She was very pretty in the doe-like Síthi way, rather like Cora’s friend Keti. When she had left I said as much to Bhandrekhadi, who looked a little startled at first but then thanked me for the compliment. More circumlocution –“you are the ear of the King, I am the eyes of [name I couldn’t understand]”– which I will probably remember the gist of when it’s relevant, and then he sent us cursorily away, claiming that it was getting dark.

When we got to the horses the girl was standing there, carrying a small bundle, obviously in order to come with us. Bhandrekhadi came up, smiling, and said that as his daughter had clearly pleased me, he was giving her to me as a gift. “Master,” I said, “we have no slaves; if she really wants to come with me, I’ll free her as my brother has freed all of his slaves.” “What you do with your gift is your business,” he said, and that was the end of it.

I took the girl –her name turned out to be Khanu, another use for my new letter– in front of me on my horse. It was indeed nearly dusk; when we got to the palace it was almost completely dark. Ruyin had disappeared along the way, which I hadn’t noticed because I’d been thinking about what Bhandrekhadi had told me. As I was about to introduce Khanu to Ishi and the other girls, she grabbed my arm and said “Khopai. Remember that name.” (So I’m writing it down here in order to remember it, because I have nothing to associate it with.) I said to the girls: “This is Khanu, please take care of her. Khanu, this is Ishi, she’ll show you around.” Khanu looked at Ishi as if at a turd, screwing up her nose, and said to me “She’s half Khas!” “Yes, that’s true,” I said, “she serves me, and you may do that too.”

In our reception room Athal, Ferin and Mehili were sitting with Raith, bent over a map that covered the whole table. All of them looked worried. “Did you get the dispatches you were waiting for?” I asked Athal. He nodded and pointed out, on the map, what he was worried about. “There were two forts there guarding the mountain pass,” he said. “Beguyan’s troops destroyed one, and the other is full of Khas.” About thirty thousand, it seemed: a large enough force to cause concern. “I may have to go there myself,” Athal said. “And perhaps take Raith with me, the Khas know enough by now to run away when they get the merest whiff of Raith.” I wasn’t looking forward to being without both Athal and Raith for any length of time, especially if they were going into danger, but I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t even ask Athal not to give me the regency this time. I can really only handle little things, like placid and peaceful Valdyas, not big things like a city ten times the size of Essle full of brawling people I can’t even understand the language of most of the time.

“Come with me for a moment,” Raith said, and took me to the kitchen where I could hear pitiful cries. Two young men were holding Khanu, each by an arm, and the grandmother was spanking her like anything. “What’s this about?” I asked. Ishi answered. “She called us– no, I’m not going to say it, it’s too terrible.” “Invisible?” I asked. “Worse than that.” All the while the grandmother kept spanking, and Khanu kept crying, until Raith stopped it. “How can you make me live with these people?” Khanu wailed. “Do you eat their food?” “Yes,” I said. “They cook very well.” Khanu wouldn’t have any of it: “They’re–” and she said a word I didn’t understand and Raith blanched at. “All my servants are free and equal,” I said. “If you want to serve me like these other people, you may; if you don’t, you’re free to go.” Ishi and the young men scowled at that, and the grandmother looked at me with an expression of disbelief on her face. “If you elect to stay you can learn from Ishi, she knows how I like to be served.” I felt every inch a princess then: not a comfortable feeling. Raith noticed, of course, and took me by the arm and led me gently to the swimming-bath, while the servants were still bickering.

She had something of her own to work off: she swam about a dozen lengths faster than I could keep up with. Then she came and put her arms around me, still in the water, and we stood there for quite some time until we climbed out –nobody to hand us a towel– and started back. “Can we find a quiet place first?” I asked, and we lay under the colonnade, I on the hard flagstones, Raith touching me in every place I needed to be touched.

“Oh!” I said as we were heading back at last, “I have something to ask you. My captain wants to get married, and he’ll be here early tomorrow morning. He asked me whether you were a priestess of the Mother, and I was already saying no when I realised the answer was yes, with all those marriages in the army.” “I don’t know,” she said, “Naigha respects me, I’m pledged to Anshen, but the Mother? Ah well, I suppose you’re right. Let them come.” “They need a doctor too,” I said, and she suggested asking Athal for Dushtan, exactly what I’d thought already.

In the meantime Athal, Mehili and Ferin –Beguyan was making a round of his camps and would be away overnight– had thought of a way to overcome the fort without dropping it into the river and changing its course. It was on stone, not mud, and blocking the river at that point would leave the city completely without water. They were making a plan to build a sort of roof over the river, strong enough to withstand a large fort falling on it, so Athal could overturn it without much danger. It was clear, though, that this was the end of a long discussion. Presently Athal and Ferin went up to bed, leaving us three women at the table.

As soon as Athal was gone Mehili said to me, “I noticed that you were upset last night, when we talked about the succession, about Athal’s son’s marriage. But you should understand that it’s what the country needs. Athal agrees with me that Aidan and Asa would have been the perfect couple for the throne of Solay, but he disagrees with me on whether we can do that to them.” “They’d be so unhappy!” I said. “What is two people’s unhappiness compared to the happiness of a whole city, of a whole realm?” Mehili asked. I didn’t agree with that, “If the king and queen are unhappy the whole country is unhappy.” “But Asa has been brought up to make her husband happy.” I thought of Cora, how much she’d suffered by that upbringing, and shuddered to think of a little girl in the same straits right now, brought up to serve Radan who she hadn’t even heard of yet. “You know, Mehili,” I said, so softly that Raith couldn’t understand the words though I didn’t keep the meaning secret from her, “that my heart belongs to a woman doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t have children. I’d rather start the dynasty myself than lay it on my nephew.”

Mehili was silent for a while and then said, “I ought to go to bed too, but I can’t, not without my man.” “Stay with us tonight?” I asked. “The bed is full of people already, but we can make room for you. I know that you and Raith shared a bed with the queen of Il Ayande.” Mehili thought that was a good idea; she went and got her water-pipe, which Raith and I both declined. I rather like brus in very small doses, but Raith’s account of the strength of Mehili’s pipe was a good enough warning. She shrugged and smoked, becoming very dreamy and poetic. “Do you think,” she asked, “that ‘Mehili’ and ‘Maile’ are the same name?” “Might be,” I said. “Then you could call me Maile. I’d like that.” We did, and she giggled, and after a while started to drift into sleep. Raith took her by the arms, and I by the feet, and we got her into our bed where the boy with the baby was already sleeping.

Ishi and Khanu were each on one side of the bed, watching each other warily. “You know,” Khanu said, “you’re not half bad-looking after all.” “So would you be if you let your nose drop to its proper place instead of carrying it way too high,” Ishi said. Some more words like that, and then suddenly they were rolling over the bed wrestling, waking Mehili. “Kittens,” I said in Ilaini, and Mehili nodded wisely. “They can eat from the same bowl now.”

We all slept then, until the baby started crying with hunger in the middle of the night. Ishi and Khanu were at the foot of the bed, sleeping tightly curled in one another’s arms– or at least they had been before we were all cried awake. Raith went with the boy to get milk, and we fed him, and then Raith and I went to rinse milk and baby pee off ourselves in the pool again. When we came back the only place left in the bed was at the foot, so that was where we lay down. It’s not only all our servants who are equal!

I woke up early in the morning because there was commotion outside our quarters. Raith was already gone, and I hastily dressed –well, let Ishi and Khanu dress me– and went to look. Not only Ruyin was there with his intended, but what looked like the whole court and about half the army as well. “Do you all want to get married?” I asked. Not all of them, it turned out, but many of them, yes. Raith came back, pushing through the crowd, and told me that there was a spring in the palace park where she’d be going. She eyed the crowd and sighed. “I was expecting something like this. Get me Grandmother,” she told the nearest servant, and when the the old woman appeared, “I’ll do this on one condition: that Ayneth and I are left alone all evening, nobody else in our bed.”

The boy –I remembered to ask his name at last: it’s Surtaunu– was at my elbow, talking about the doctor, “she’s going to look at my little brother too! He’s not well!” I didn’t have much attention for him, because Raith wanted me with her. After Raith had said words over Ruyin and Chatna and poured water over their hands, a steady stream of people came to ask her the same service. Soldiers had built a linen shelter over the spring, and there was a jug of watered wine and some cups; after a while Ishi brought a large bowl of crushed ice and fruit syrup with a few grey-green leaves on top, “Grandmother says this is for when Lady Raith gets tired.” The leaves smelt like faranie, but stronger, more bracing. Raith ate some of the ice gratefully, but didn’t want anything else to eat. I sat down with her when she took a break because I started to feel my legs– I must have been standing there for hours, transfixed. “I didn’t know that marrying was so… strong,” I said. Raith nodded wearily. “Could you give me some of your strength?” she asked. Of course– I was ashamed of not having noticed earlier that she needed it.

The crowd was if anything larger. I spotted Athal, coming down the stairs of his tower, and grinning with all of his mind. “Goodness! the doctor!” I said to him, but he’d already arranged for Dushtan to come. “The baby boy, too!” but even that he had thought of.

At the end of the day as Raith got up, the old grandmother was standing there. “Is it so easy?” she asked. “Just pouring water over their hands?” “You say something, too,” I said, “but I think the Mother gives the words.” “I’ve been thinking,” the grandmother said. “If you two should want me to do that for you– I think I qualify. You have to be a woman who can’t have children any more, right?” “Yes, or none at all,” Raith said, and then our attention was taken by two children, no more than five and six years old, who wanted Raith to marry them too. “I think you’re too young to marry in the Valdyan way,” the grandmother said, and turning to me, “Can a Valdyan girl marry when she’s not bled yet?” I shook my head. “See? You could marry in the Iss-Peranian way. You” –pointing to the girl– “bring ten thousand gold pieces, and you” –the boy– “ten thousand soldiers.” “I don’t have ten thousand gold pieces!” the girl protested, and the boy, “I don’t know so many soldiers!” “Then you’ll have to wait until you’re older. And until then, not even a kiss.” They were shocked at that –after all, they loved each other so much!– but I said “Valdyan people do kiss before they’re married, if they love each other enough. Look!” and I kissed Raith, and the boy kissed the girl chastely on the cheek.

Raith was dropping with exhaustion, and I put an arm around her and said to the old woman, “I think it’s a good idea, but we’re too tired to decide now.” We went to our rooms, and there was doctor Dushtan, drinking a cup of tea in our reception room. I went to sit with her while the maids were bathing Raith. “Can I have some of that?” I asked. “Not really,” she said. “That’s awkward– I’m the king’s slave so I can drink tea, but you shouldn’t. All right, you can finish mine.” “You’re not a slave!” I said. She grinned. “No, but nobody here knows that.” She told me about Ruyin and Chatna, who she was sending with the next ship –tomorrow on the afternoon tide– to Valdyas, “and if the wind is favourable they’ll make it.” They had the right medicine, but just enough until Essle, and they’d need a doctor there too. “The baby boy I’m going to operate on tomorrow,” she said, “his guts are blocked, it’s either a growth or it’s because he’s getting the wrong kind of milk. If they’d given him cow’s milk he’d be dead already, goat’s milk has been saving his life until now.” “Could we find a woman who lost her baby, or has enough milk for two?” I asked, remembering a promise I’d made Surtaunu. “I’ll ask around,” Dushtan said, “I think we probably can.”

I had my face washed by Ishi and joined Raith in bed– yes, it was empty, though at least ten pairs of eyes were looking from the edges of the room. I was long past caring. Raith was all hard knots and sinews and for the first time since I’ve known her she looked old. I thought, I know now what she’ll look like when she’s eighty and I also know that I’ll still love her. I stroked every square inch of her, with hands and lips and mind, until she dissolved, and started to look like herself, and responded; and then we needed clean sheets yet again.