Gathering people

I hope she knows what she’s doing… Raith and Athal seem to think it’s normal. Either that, or they both know from experience that they can’t stop her when she’s that way.

When we woke up we were alone in the bed again –after various people had joined us in the night– and promptly took advantage of it. Then the maids appeared with clothes for us, a different sort of clothes than we’d worn before. It had become cloyingly warm and damp, but these clothes were clearly made for this weather: loose trousers from a material that didn’t stick, and a sash and breast-cloth to soak up sweat; also a head-cloth. “The women who work here change the cloths every few hours,” Grandmother said, “so they can be washed.” Surtaunu chimed in: “I can wash those, that’s easy! You only use water, and rinse them until they don’t smell like woman any more, and then you hang them up until they’re dry.”

It appeared that we were going to have this weather for weeks on end, and that it would get worse and worse until after the Feast of Anshen or whatever they have here at Midsummer, and then the rainy season would come and it wouldn’t stop raining until it stopped completely. Not like at home, where you have rain at the end of practically every oppressively hot day and the next day it’s dry again. Well, I’ll get used to it, I suppose.

When we got to Athal’s tower room for breakfast, Raith started to look out of the window immediately. The weather did look strange: a ring of dark grey clouds around the city and nowhere else. “That looks like someone made it,” she said, and Athal and I couldn’t but agree. It did smell of magic. “Can the Khas mages do weather like you?” I asked Raith, but she wasn’t sure whether it was really like her or something else entirely. “I suppose the enemy can learn from us, too,” Athal said. Raith rather thought the Khas mages, or whoever, were trying to provoke her. We discussed the matter some more– if this was the Khas, they clearly expected us to do something, so we should do something they didn’t expect. Athal and Raith they both expected, and I’d had Athal send me instead of going himself once already and it had worked, so why shouldn’t I go and do something? A plan was forming in my mind, but I couldn’t grasp the details. (Well, that’s what I’m like: at that stage of a thorny problem I have to either start doing whatever needs to be done and it will fall into place by itself, like the hospital at Veray, or worry at it like a badger until there’s something distinctive to grasp it by. This was obviously the worry-like-a-badger kind of thing.)

When we came downstairs we found Beguyan there with his personal dandar, some of the staff officers and the commander of the Order of the Sworn. They were as worried as we were. “I want to speak to Grandmother,” Athal said, and I went to fetch her from our apartments where she was washing dishes, sensibly in the nude. She put on clothes much like mine, except that she had a loose-fitting straight shift instead of the sash and breast-cloth. When we passed the open space between the women’s quarters and the tower, she stood still to look at the sky: “you’re right! This doesn’t look as it should!”

Athal let Grandmother sit on his own chair and asked her about the weather. Yes, there should be clouds; no, they always covered the whole sky, first white, then grey, then the rain started falling. And it was coming a month early, too: it shouldn’t be this hot, or cloudy at all, until after the feast. The commander of the Order of the Sworn, who had apparently lived in Solay for some time, could confirm that. “What happens when it rains now?” I asked. ‘There will be no harvest,” Athal said, looking more worried than ever. Beguyan’s dandar –a woman about Raith’s age, probably not very nice, but quite efficient– told us that she and her companions were holding the clouds back, and that the power was growing stronger but they could hold out for a week or two. “We can do better than that if the Valdyan dandar work with us,” she said. I asked whether she considered me a Valdyan dandar, and she said yes.

Then Grandmother said, out of the blue: “The tiger eats the goat, but the ants eat the tiger.” That was what I needed. “Give me two soldiers who can speak Ilaini and Síthi, and Khanu,” I said, “I’ll go into town and get a whole crowd of people to come to the Khas fort with me and annoy them so much that they won’t be able to send bad weather any more. A thousand, two thousand, whoever will come.” The dandar looked doubtful, but I said “That’s what I can do. I can get people going.” I got my two soldiers, and Khanu came and asked if she could bring Ishi, which made five of us. We went out while Raith went to Athal’s tower room to take a closer look at the clouds.

There were people everywhere. I looked for a market stall, because that’s where strangers are most likely to talk to each other, but I saw none; the nearest person who looked as if he would talk was a carpenter mending the door of a house. “Bad weather, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “the nails rust as you hammer them in. It’s the Valdyan witch who does it, I’ve heard.” I disabused him of that at once and told him that the Khas were doing it –I wasn’t completely sure myself yet but it was a safe assumption– and the Valdyan witch was fighting them. And he would be able to help with that, and so would anyone else he could round up able to hold a hammer or to pelt the Khas with rusty nails (1). “Don’t you have any apprentices?” I asked. “What’s that?” “Well, you can do carpentry, and someone who wants to learn that could learn it from you.” “That’s impossible!” he said. “Then other people can do it, too!” Lots of work when I come back… But at least I had one man convinced, and he was going to talk to others: it was rolling. “Come to the big square outside the palace the day after tomorrow and we’ll start from there,” I said. “Are you going to feed us, then?” he asked, and I had to admit to myself that I hadn’t thought about that, but said “I’ll do my best.”

I spent the rest of the day doing the same thing, talking to this and that person. Some spewed abuse at me, or at Raith through me once they knew who I was, but most people were glad to hear that there was something they could do to get rid of the Khas and of the bad weather, even though they couldn’t do any fighting. Whole gangs of street children grabbed at the opportunity to cause trouble for people they didn’t like. Families started planning how they’d let the toddlers scream uncontrolled for once. One young man promised to make as many fireworks as he could, and bring all his friends with their fireworks as well.

As soon as I made my exhausted way through the door to our apartment, Surtaunu came to fetch me. “Lady Raith is on the bed with a very bad headache,” he said. There she was, indeed, being sponged off with cold water by several maids and Grandmother. I took someone’s cloth and rinsed her forehead, not only with water but also with my mind. “They haven’t got any faranie here,” Raith grumbled. I asked Grandmother to make tea from the leaves that had been on the ice. “Impossible! She’s a princess!” I managed to explain that Valdyan princesses did drink tea, and moreover this was medicine. Raith drank the tea with a scowl –bitter!– and then asked for a bucket and vomited, but after that she did feel better. “I think this shouldn’t be made into tea,” she said, “but rather a tincture with brandy. They invented brandy here, they should have some.” I resolved to ask someone, but first I wanted Raith to tell me about her exploits with the clouds. The dandar had pushed at the Khas working quite glaringly, so Raith could slip through unnoticed. It was indeed a mage at the fort, one that neither she nor Beguyan’s dandar knew, probably freshly from the west.

I wanted to talk to Athal, but that meant also to all the officers and the dandar, and Raith wasn’t up to that yet so we went swimming first to cool down and collect ourselves. Almost everybody came with us. The goat and her young were in the water too, but nobody was concerned about that: Surtaunu even proved he could dive by picking up goat droppings from the bottom. “Very clean, I get them all!” After a while we got dressed and faced the commanders. There were even more of them now, Valdyan officers and Iss-Peranian officers in Valdyan uniforms, and more dandar, and some officers who were clearly in the Guild of the Nameless. Raith told them –some of them again, apparently– about the clouds and the Khas mages (“once again lots of children will die– do you think the Khas get their power from themselves?” and I added “or from the world itself, like us?”), and I told them about my plan to go and annoy the Khas so they’d be distracted and could perhaps be disposed of, or at least would not pay so much attention to their weatherworking. “Do we have to feed them?” an officer asked. I said I’d promised to do my best. “Well, if they could eat gold with gold sauce it would be easy, but as they can’t we’ll have to work just a little harder.”

Athal took me up on the gates, where about five thousand people were already camped, with cooking fires and all. “You’ll learn to count the Síthi way,” he said. “I had to learn that, too. I expect you’ll have fifteen thousand to take west with you.” “There’s one thing I’m afraid of,” I said. “That the Khas will come out and crush my people because none of them are fighters. There is safety in numbers, but still.” “Yes,” Athal said, “that’s why I’m sending part of the Order and one of my regiments of conquered Khas along the other side of the river. They’ll seal the fort so the Khas won’t be able to come out and will be all yours.” I went out of the gate with Raith to talk to people. There were only a few I remembered talking to: most had come because someone they knew was coming. After a while it became too much for us, especially for Raith with her headache, and we went back in, only to find Athal in the pool with our whole household, goats and all.

Later, the three of us went to have a final glass of wine –real wine this time, I think we’ve almost trained the table-servers to pour for us from the same jug as the king– and to talk some more. I wondered whether to leave a day earlier as there were so many people ready to go already, but Athal thought the day after tomorrow would be best because of all the logistics involved. Logistics reminded me of Faran, and I implored Athal once again to take him to Valdyas with him when he leaves in a few weeks. No longer, even if I’m not back by then, he needs to go back to Raisse and see the little princess. “But Faran likes his work! Ah, well, perhaps I ought to listen to you, little sister.”

I don’t remember how the talk came round to the gods then, but I do remember asking Athal “the gods are different here, aren’t they?” and it threw him into a discourse about how the gods are different from each other: Timoine was opinionated, Anshen and Archan actually had character, and Mizran was two-faced, at least in this war, on the one hand the hunter who didn’t mind all the killing, on the other hand the more contemporary one, craftsman and trader, who would take offense at the waste. Then Raith took over, talking about Naigha– the way she was compassionate to individual people and dispassionate on the battlefield, and fierce and angry when someone kept people from her who she was due to collect.

The right course of action for Raith seemed to be to do nothing at all, which irked her. “They will think you’re preparing a big strike against them,” I said, “and it will be such a surprise when you actually do!” The strangest thing for her, perhaps, was that I was going away and she’d stay behind, quite the opposite of what we’ve been used to. But this time she didn’t warn me of the danger, even though she’d had misgivings when I first went into town. Either she trusts me completely (though, frankly, I don’t know if it will work, it’s just a hunch, but my hunches have usually been right until now) or she’s too worried to worry about me.

When we got back to the women’s quarters at last, we found Grandmother sprawled on the bed and doctor Dushtan in the kitchen with the baby boy, Cabre. “We really need to find a woman,” she said, and I ran out immediately to my five thousand people and asked the first woman I saw nursing a baby, “Do you want to save someone’s life?” She came, baby and all, and nursed Cabre, and when she was worried about not having enough milk I told her that the more babies suck, the more milk you have, as I’d seen in Veray and everywhere. She asked if her husband could come, and of course he could; they’re now living in one of the unused rooms in our quarters with their baby and two older children. We’re getting to be a real Síthi family, as Grandmother can confirm. (It turned out that she’s only forty-eight, ten years younger than Raith! But she is a real grandmother, venerable as they come, and of course twenty years of war will age a woman far beyond her years.)


Afterthought: red-hot rusty nails. Thanks, Z!