Cutting connections

Lots of events that Athal can’t tell because they happened literally behind his back (also behind a closed door, a courtyard or two and a stretch of ruined corridor with a small tree growing on it). Loose ends galore, but we ended the episode here anyway because tying them up wasn’t enough stuff for a whole session. We’ll probably do the rest in talk and mail.

I held the seal while people ran back and forth, a petty officer came and took Attima and his guard away somewhere, other soldiers carried things through the door behind my back, and inside the seal nothing happened. The mages showed no sign of running out of air; on the contrary, their seal pushed back at ours and we’d be hard put to keep them in for long. They must be getting air or power from somewhere. When I tried to see if the seal was a hemisphere with its base on the floor or a complete sphere going underground I saw what was happening. Just like in Albetire with Mernath, there were thin threads of anea going under and through the seal. I showed it to the nearest gifted officer, who immediately picked one up and tried to break it. “Don’t do that!” I said, “it’s going to kill whoever is on the other end and I’d rather avoid that.” I remember being a bit short with him, saying “I’m only here as a grand master right now” when he called me “Your Majesty”; but I plead absorption.

It was a stalemate. I knew there were people on the other end, and that they were being drained unto death by these mages. “We have to destroy them.” I said, and just then one of the mages keeled over and died. If only it was that easy, say the words and it happens! But I rather thought that whoever this mage was getting his anea from had been killed elsewhere in the palace. I realised –a chilling thought– that killing all the rest would take care of the problem too, but didn’t say it aloud because otherwise someone would perhaps think it a good idea and act on it. If people had to die, let it be the ones doing the hurting, not the ones being hurt!

I asked for a crossbow and took a shot at one of the other mages. I’m not the best of shots –eyesight as bad as mine doesn’t make it easy– but anyone can hit with a crossbow, and I would have hit if the bolt hadn’t been slowed down first by my own seal, and then by that of the mages, and fallen harmlessly at the target’s feet. He didn’t even laugh; he was as impassive as before.

One down, eleven to go. As I was thinking frantically of a way to cut off their supply without doing more harm to the source, Attima came back, somewhat the worse for wear, with roughly half his soldiers –many wounded– and about two hundred women and children. “Wait!” I said, and picked out the thirty or so who were clearly the source of the mages’ anea. Haggard women, drained-looking, dried out, all of them. Attima took the rest away, to safety I hoped. The mages still didn’t show any reaction. I picked up one of the threads again, trying to follow it to the person it belonged to, squeezing it closed to keep the strength within her. It worked, somewhat, and I wished I could handle fire– if only Raith were here! But I remembered someone telling me in passing, when I was too busy to take notice, that she’d been taken away with the wounded while unconscious.

“Bebakshi!” I said, “is she here somewhere?” She came, looking exhausted and more than a little annoyed, probably because she’d been deprived of Raith too. “Can you burn this through? Cauterise it, like a torn limb, make sure nothing can flow out of it?”

She looked skeptical. “With lightning?” “Whatever you can manage,” I said, “I’d like to keep these poor women alive if it’s at all possible.” She made all of us leave the room –which made the mages’ seal widen alarmingly– and hit the bundle of threads, where it went through a crack between floor tiles, with actual lightning. All our hair stood on end, even on our arms. Most of the women screamed, some fell unconscious. A wave of heat and rogue anea swept in our direction, fire threatening to devour us. My seal shattered before it. In a fit of desperation I threw most of the ruined stone wall on the mages, but of course that didn’t keep the fire away.

There was still a rain cloud hanging over the palace, though it had stopped raining. I called to it with all I had: it started to pour. Uncontrollably. I don’t really have any power over weather. Bebakshi does, I’ve gathered, but she was in no state to do any more than she already had so we let it run its course.

The flow of anea had stopped. There was still some life under the heap of rubble, but it looked as if Naigha would take care of that. One of Attima’s officers went that way, a knife in his hand and a grim expression on his face. Someone asked me whether to stop him, but I said “let him go, he’s Naigha’s instrument.” I could see that he and Naigha had a lot in common– ruthlessness, perhaps, but without any malice. After a while the man came back with an even grimmer expression, saying nothing but going back quietly to his place in the ranks.

Soldiers were taking the women to the field hospital, which was strangely empty. Indeed Dushtan had sent everybody who could be moved away to the base camp to make room for the new casualties.

Everybody was now a little dazed, unsure what was going to happen. We did what people do in a war when there’s nothing to do: wait. Someone remarked that it seemed eerily quiet on the other side of the citadel gates, so Attima and I went up to the top of the wall to look what was happening.

It was indescribable. It made my stomach turn and empty itself. The whole square in front of the gate was covered in bloody body parts, unrecognisable bits of what had once been people. I couldn’t see if they’d been Síthi, Khas, Valdyans, Iss-Peranians or some of each. I staggered down, cleaned up, and stood there shaking when a captain arrived with a ship full of fresh troops. “You can’t do anything,” I said, “we’ve finished here.” He hadn’t come to help us, though, but to find a way through the city from east to west. “Do you have a dandar in your regiment?” he asked, but all I could offer was Bebakshi who still wasn’t up to dandar work, and anyway she was a master in the Guild of Anshen now. I tried to reach Sashila myself but couldn’t find her– either she’d fallen, or she was under a seal. “Ah well,” the captain said, “we’ll do it in the usual way.” I showed him why he couldn’t use the obvious route, and his stomach turned too.

Some people were fighting again, right in the midst of the carnage: Síthi against Khas and other Síthi. The Síthi without Khas had the others surrounded and were clearly winning. When they’d finished, they melted into the buildings surrounding the square. I sent some people out to bring me the leader, but they didn’t seem to have one. “Bring me anyone involved, then,” I said. “Do I have an officer who speaks Síthi?” I did, fortunately, and moreover Attima spoke quite passable Síthi. Three men were brought, hands behind their backs as if they were prisoners, and thrown at my feet. It turned out that the Khas and Síthi group had been trying to reach the safety of the citadel and had been waylaid by the others. “You can spread the word around that there’s no safety in the citadel for Khas,” I said. “It’s ours; it’s safe from Khas now.” I told him who I was –making him fall at my feet again, I’m getting used to that– and asked him his name: Jaro. He didn’t belong to the north side of the city, but not to the temples either, he was somewhere in the middle. I tried to ask him whether he was an artisan, but the interpreter didn’t know a Síthi word for that and we had no way to make it clear, but it didn’t matter: this was one of the people who we were doing all of this for. “Can we do anything for you?” Jaro asked, and Attima beat me by moments: “Yes, clean up the square.” I don’t remember if he said ‘please’; he’s so much more used to giving orders than I am.

The cleaning was perhaps a bit too conscientious. Men dragged away the large chunks of bodies, then boys came with buckets to pick up smaller bits, girls swept the whole square and women mopped the tiles. I couldn’t look at it, but went to help my troops with cleaning up the citadel, carrying stuff, digging latrines, anything that distracted me. Attima was greatly surprised –a king oughtn’t to do the hard work– but the troops appreciated it, and it did help me a lot because I was doing something instead of having time to brood. Eventually, we slept, I among my officers and Attima surrounded by several of the women he’d rescued.

The next day started with more fighting, on the newly-cleaned square. There were too many wounded for the hospital, so we used the women’s quarters of the palace. It was clear that the women now surrounding Attima had lived in them: beds had clearly been slept in, a child grabbed a toy from a bed just in time before orderlies put it in line with the other beds. Attima asked a woman if there was any more food, and she led us to the kitchens. They were crawling with servants: Síthi, half-Síthi, some Iss-Peranians and Valdyans, and even one young Khas who tried to flee through a small back door and was caught by a soldier. The food we found wouldn’t be enough, but at least it would be something. On Attima’s initiative, it turned into a search of the whole palace, at least those parts that hadn’t fallen in.

An officer took my arm, “your Majesty, there’s something you have to see”. Down a flight of stairs, through a recently forced door: there was a cellar heaped with gold, a bigger pile than I could have imagined. “This would buy my whole kingdom,” I said to Attima, who was also gasping though he’s used to much more riches than I am. “We can’t guard this,” the officer said, “I trust every one of my men normally but– well, I don’t even trust myself.” “I’ll seal it,” I said, and we proceeded to call everybody out. At last there were only five people left, far away, seeming lost. One was gifted, an Iss-Peranian, and with some effort I succeeded in showing him how to get out. All five came back shuddering, with ashen faces. “There’s much more there!” the gifted man said, “it goes on under the sea. We thought we’d never get out.” When they were outside under the open sky I sealed not only the door, but also the corridor on the far side so nobody could get at the treasure from there. I rather thought there’d be an exit –so also an entrance– on the other side, but that was something to explore later.

In the afternoon a whole lot of ships arrived. Beguyan was there, with Mehili and thousands of troops. We greeted each other like long-lost brothers, as if we’d been apart for years. The general’s tent was set up in the citadel and we sat down to eat– I realised that I hadn’t eaten for perhaps days, except for the piece of bread someone had handed me between digging latrines.

“Our plan doesn’t work any more, we’ll have to make a new one,” Beguyan said. “The best course of action now is to bring in the elephants.” “What can I do?” I asked. “Now that I’ve done what I came to do: put an end to the mages.” Beguyan showed me on the map which parts of the city had been taken by whom: most of the north was in Valdyan hands, part of the south in Iss-Peranian hands, and the plume of smoke we’d seen from the wall was indeed the temple of Micalacuk, Mizran, which the Síthi had stormed and set fire to. We’d have to take the temple of Dayati to have full command of the north side, and make sure that the harbour was accessible. “Let’s you and I see to the harbour,” I said to Attima, “you know about ships.” Attima agreed, and we got about five thousand men from Beguyan to take the harbour and its forts with. Also two elephants, much annoyed from travelling by ship; I could sympathise.

The harbour itself was almost deserted, with a few stranded ships littered in it. It was taken easily with only a little fighting. I called Arni’s gifted mate to tell her that it was safe for her to come in. There was only one complication: one of the harbour towers was still occupied by Khas, shooting large missiles with a catapult. We sent two small ships there to take the tower, and when that was done it was indeed safe.

The forts along the seashore were still full of Khas. Beguyan’s troops, now our troops, started on the one closest to the city and took it, making the elephants pull out the door so half the gatehouse fell down. Then they started to advance along the wall. I thought there must be something I could do– if I could let one fort sink into the swamp, why not another? After all, this was marshland too, albeit salty. I asked Arni how quickly she could get me to a spot I pointed at on the map and she immediately took me there. Shallow water, thank all the gods, so I didn’t get too sick to work, though it was uncomfortable. When I went ashore and sat down on the ground the soldiers in the fort immediately started to flee –it’s strange to see Khas flee! And before I’d even done anything: they’d obviously heard what I’d done to the other fort. Some of them fled towards the fort that we’d already taken and fought on the wall, throwing our soldiers off or being thrown off themselves.

This fort was even easier to undermine and sink into the swamp than the other one, because it wasn’t built on solid rock, but on sandstone and shells of little sea-creatures. It did take all the strength of mind that I still had, but not much effort at all before the whole thing toppled and sank. Khas soldiers streamed out, unarmed, hands behind their head, ready to pledge allegiance to the victor. I let Arni take me back to the shore, where they were kneeling to hear me say that I was their king, and I even remembered the Khas words. Two thousand more Khas under my command! “Take them away and quarter them somewhere,” I said, “it wouldn’t be wise to use them now, but we may need them later.”

A few more hours, and the whole of the north side of the city was ours, harbour forts and all. The temple of Dayati was in ruins, except for the great statue made of black and white marble. I wanted very much to go and worship, and perhaps I could have pulled it off –by now everybody knew and accepted that I was a king and had some strange habits– but I didn’t want to hold up everybody else.

When we came back to the citadel Beguyan was there, who told us that the south side was his, except for the two big forts on the river: the northern one was being besieged by the Valdyan army, the southern one by the Iss-Peranian army. Small fights were still going on in places, but in the north there were already celebrations as well. I resolved to ride there as soon as I could.

First, though, a petty officer came to say that there were people waiting to be presented to me. “Yes, present them by all means,” I said. They were about half a dozen Síthi, most of them dressed quite richly, claiming to represent the people of the city. All the people of the city?” I asked, making some of them squirm a little. “Well, you know, you won’t get anyone from the north, and…” I tried to mention Jaro, but realised that I didn’t know where he came from and how to describe him.

I spent the next half-hour answering questions. Would the emperor come back? Definitely not– the last of his heirs had fought in the battle and died bravely. Who was going to rule them? Probably my old teacher, perhaps with my younger sister (that impressed them), together with whoever General Beguyan would send to administer the Iss-Peranian part of the city.

Two of the delegation wanted to speak privately with me: a woman who had already said she’d lived in Valdyas for ten years, and a young man who looked as if he had a Valdyan parent. He was dressed very richly: the weave of his sleeve was so fine that one could only see it was striped when he was close enough to touch. “What can I do for you?” I asked. They had some problems which I could solve– mainly the hunger, because all the food had come from the west side where there was now a siege going on. It would be possible, though perhaps not easy, to make another supply route through the wall. I felt very uncomfortable, more or less sitting on a pile of gold and not being able to mention it to reassure people that there would be enough; but anyway one can’t eat gold, and food can only be bought if there is any to buy.

Also, they wanted to celebrate the liberation, would I lend my presence? That was exactly what I’d intended, and I told them so, sending them away at least slightly happy.

When the delegation had left, Mehili told me that all the wounded in the army camp had been sent away on two ships– the Iss-Peranians to Kushesh and the Valdyans to Essle on the White Whale. Including Raith. She would really be furious. I expected her to turn back as soon as the ship reached the Valdyan shore. But at least Aidan was on his way home, as I’d promised him. “You really want to have Raith as governor, right?” Beguyan asked. “Yes, with my sister if she’ll come. Ayneth is good at that, building up something from nothing.” The general sighed: he’d hoped that the Valdyan governor and the Iss-Peranian one would come to an understanding and start a dynasty. (Secretly I think that Ayneth is calculating enough to consent to starting a dynasty, even without more than a business understanding, but I won’t tell that to anyone, even Ayneth herself.) “Is it true that there’s someone on his way to Albetire to take the throne?” I laughed and assented that Raisse had indeed sent a distant cousin to ingratiate himself with the traders. Beguyan shook his head: “I can’t serve a Valdyan king. The emperor would never stand for it.” Poor Fian, who doesn’t stand a chance in that case!

It will be weeks if not a whole season before I can go home –I won’t leave until Raith is here– but I have a palace of my own now: a large trader’s house, not as large as Koll Neveshtan’s but ample for me and my direct staff. I’ve offered Bebakshi a room of her own, and passage to Valdyas for her and her smith as soon as we find him and they can both travel. Attima has a palace full of women, though not as many as were clinging to him at the beginning; his own three wives and their minder have also moved back in with him. I sometimes wish Raisse had come with me after all, but Valdyas needs its queen more than I need her.