Nobody is safe

Writing this between services, waiting for eggs and prosphora and rye bread, things like that. If I don’t do it now I won’t do it until Easter Monday at the earliest, and it won’t be so fresh (and I know that some people are very eager to read it).

When we came out of the bath, a committee of Valdyans was waiting to escort us to the party on the big square. A man of about sixty came up, Jilan, the neighbourhood overseer, to say that everything was ready. There were streamers and lanterns in the trees, a band playing –very good fiddler–, long tables laden with food, a sheep and a pig roasting on spits, and there was even a small dais with carved wooden thrones for us: probably someone’s best chairs done up with a lot of greenery. We sat down –one perk of being the king is that you don’t have to circulate– until Jilan invited us to the table because the first lot of food was ready.

After we’d eaten and talked to a lot of people –I couldn’t remember all the names, though I’d probably recall a lot of the faces– young Arin the lute-player asked me if I could play. I took the lute from him, but as I flexed my left hand the shoulder told me, emphatically, NO. “Sorry, I can’t,” I said, “but I’ll sing if you play.” We did The Ballad of Zayin and Ranaise, strangely apt for this place, the stormy love story of a young man from Iss-Peran and a Valdyan noblewoman.

Later, I spotted Sellei Erdan, the commander of the Order, sitting at a table near me and drinking wine like a veteran. I took my mug of ale over to him. “I see you’ve secured the place nicely,” I said. That was true: there were some of the Sworn at every entrance to the square, and two more behind our thrones. Everybody gifted who was at the party was either one of ours, or in a different tradition; nobody of the Nameless.

“I’m wondering whether I should make an effort to talk to those of the Nameless too,” I said to Erdan. “After all, I’m their king too.”

He didn’t think that wouldn’t be wise: the Nameless was strong here, working with the Red Party to start a revolution and overthrow the Enshah. At the Great Departing –the Enshah’s death, of course– the whole building would topple anyway, and some people might try to hasten that by an attempt on a friendly head-of-state’s life. “Watch out for yourself,” he warned, “but I know that you’ve got good people protecting you.”

“As good as yours,” I said, and then other people wanted to speak to me, and I danced with Raisse and Cynla and Halla and Raisse again, and then our sedan chairs were there to take us home.

On the way we saw several patrols of what looked like the city watch, groups of six soldiers with red plumes on their bronze helmets and white ribbons crossed over their red tunics. Each was carrying a long spear that looked very serious in spite of the pennon tied to it.

Just as we rounded the bend to the street that ends (or begins) at the square with the elephant-battling hero, there was a harsh shout somewhere in front of us in a dialect I couldn’t understand. Our sedan chair fell on the ground with a bump and a man tried to climb in with us, an Iss-Peranian, knife in hand, anie thrusting out even in front of the knife. In a reflex I mowed him aside –with my left hand, ouch! He fell backwards with a thump and lay still, knocked out either by my burst of power or by his fall.

There was more shouting across the road and I saw half a dozen people run away with the watch in pursuit. They caught up, fought, and at first it seemed that the watch were winning, but some of the others were using semsin to fight and it turned in their favour. As soon as I noticed that, I emptied a mental bucket of treacle at their feet. It slowed them down immediately. While I was hindering the thugs, Raisse was helping the watch, and the fight turned the other way again, until three men broke away from it and started focusing their attack on me. It was a strong semsin attack of a kind I’d never seen, and I didn’t stop to analyse it but caught it and threw it right back at them with all power I could muster.

Time stood still for a while. Then the watch captain –sleeves embroidered with gold thread– came up. “Are you all right? What happened?” I explained as much as I knew. “Great gods,” he said, “do those Reds have mages now?”

“Apparently,” I said.

“You’re a foreigner, right?”

“I’m the king of Valdyas,” I said, making him throw himself face-down in the dirt and utter ‘ten thousand excuses’.

It was a while until we could go on: there was still some fighting between us and the palace. I asked some of the soldiers to bring me the three men I’d felled, so I could question them, but they were all dead, blue in the face, bruises all over their body, according to Dushtan as if all their blood vessels had burst from too much pressure.

Now I was scared. Suppose that had happened to me?

We did tie up the man who had had the knife and took him along as a prisoner. The watch asked us whether they would deal with him or we wanted to; Ayran said we’d deal with him ourselves, at least for now. Back at the palace, we put the man in a stone cubicle between the barracks, used as a latrine but easily cleared. I sealed him in: it wouldn’t do to have him escape and wreak havoc, whether with his body or his mind.

I was back in our room just before midnight. Raisse was expecting the mysterious lady, and indeed I could see two gifted people approaching– had the mysterious lady brought an escort? We left the seal open for her, or them, and presently we heard someone in the service corridor speak very softly to the guard who knew about the visit. The person behind the screen wall spoke to Raisse –I don’t think she knew that I was there, and I made myself as inconspicuous as possible– with all the honorifics that we’d gotten used to in Iss-Peran, but somehow she didn’t sound as if she meant them. I think I’ll keep “Flower of the North” as a tease-name to call Raisse by: it was the only one I liked.

She started by explaining that, unlike the Valdyans who used their gifts of the mind in the service of the two opposing aspects of the god of war and fought among themselves, she and her associates used theirs in the service of the goddess they called the Mother, not for bad ends, but to lead their country and their people along the right path. Not every noble woman who served the Mother, she said, appreciated their frankness– she didn’t say what was done when someone didn’t, but I rather thought they would take measures.

Raisse said that she would gladly learn from them, and the mysterious lady promised to give her the opportunity, for instance by sending one of her young masters along when we went back to Valdyas.

The servants’ door opened and another person crept into the room soundlessly on tiptoe: young, very gifted, dressed in a black robe and a black headscarf. I let her come close enough to touch and then grasped her arm, at the same time thinking a firm “keep silent!” to her. She froze, put out a hand to touch my face, startled when she encountered a beard there.

I wrapped her in my protection; the mysterious lady was gifted enough to see her otherwise. Now she was grilling Raisse on whether the princes –she must mean Rovan as well as Vurian, unless she’d seen Raisse’s incipient pregnancy and divined that it was a boy– had been promised to anyone yet. Raisse said no, that wasn’t the Valdyan way, which seemed to satisfy the mysterious lady for the moment. She left, having told Raisse that she could reach her by way of the boy who had brought the earlier message, “my favourite slave’s grandson, his voice hasn’t broken yet so he can still use his gifts”.

Now we could look at the girl I’d caught. She was indeed young and, now that I saw her in better light, stunningly beautiful. Raisse recognised her at once: she was the youngest queen, Asa. “This is the only way I could get to see you,” she said. “You did ask me to come, and I’ve come.” She was in trouble, of course. Ylish, the old queen, was dying. “She’s always been so good to me.” But she didn’t know what would happen when her protectress was no more; she couldn’t hide any more that she was pregnant, and it was obvious that it couldn’t be by the Enshah himself. She admitted that, too: a young man had had a note smuggled to her, she’d gone out because she was curious, he had taken advantage and she hadn’t enjoyed it. Four months gone now, “too late to have it taken away.” I shuddered at the thought of killing a baby in the womb, though I knew it was done.

She couldn’t go back to the women’s palace, that much was clear. We debated for a while where to hide her– among our own servants she wouldn’t stand out except by her manners, but the whole palace would know within hours that there was a lady posing as a servant in the King of Valdyas’ courtyard. Raisse and I had both served as pages, we knew that servants see everything and talk about everything among themselves. Little Valdyas, then? That was on the other side of the city and we couldn’t think of a way to get her there unobserved.

Wherever she ended up, she had to learn to camouflage herself: she was much too noticeable. We tried to make her understand that she had already done it when she come in, and that she only had to do that deliberately, but she insisted that she couldn’t use her gifts because she hadn’t started her training. “I can see when someone’s pregnant but I’ve always been able to. I can’t actually do anything.” Raisse and I both showed her how we did it, and she was torn between respect for me –you don’t hide from the king!– and eagerness to do well, until I said “can you hide from the Flower of the North?” and she hid both herself and me, so Raisse looked straight past us.

Teaching her to call us when she needed us didn’t go so well: I’m not a teacher by calling or talent as Raisse is, and I can’t remember how I started learning, and Asa didn’t have a clue as to where to start. But that would keep. As long as she had a place to go, and a name to go by, at least the problem was more manageable. She thought for a long time when Raisse asked her to pick another name, and eventually came up with ‘Khora’.

She was almost dark enough to be one of the villagers… perhaps she could stay there for a while, blend in with the other young women, have her baby. I called Rikhi and he came, bringing his wife and a set of village garments. Raisse and Rikhi’s wife between them undressed Asa– no, Khora. Rikhi and I pointedly looked the other way, which was very hard. When we looked again, we saw a village girl: she even stood and moved like one. Admirable. They took her with them, promising to look after her.

We got no more sleep that night; that is, no sleep at all. Babies were waking up and demanding attention, milk and clean nappies. Halla came very early with more invitations. One I was very glad of, because I’d already been thinking about it myself: the Holy High Priests of Dayati, the twins Dhamilo and Amaldara, humbly begged to be granted the favour of the presence of the king and queen of Valdyas and their retinue. The other was from the Mighty King Aheste of Jomhur, requesting an informal discourse with the Lord of Legions, King Etcetera. It would be interesting, but I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.

Halla proposed going to the Síthi quarter in the morning, receiving various visitors in the afternoon, and then going to watch the sunset with the general in the evening; a full programme, but not impossible. I wanted to see my prisoner first, and look in on Khora, but I could do that while Halla was organising our escort.

The prisoner was sullen rather than angry, though his eyes burned with fanaticism. Fatalistic, that was the word. He knew he was going to die– if I didn’t give the command to execute him, somebody else would, and even in the unlikely event that we let him go his former friends would be likely to kill him for bungling his assignment. When he talked about the Nameless I was led to think at first that he actually meant the Nameless, but it was Anshen he meant, of course. I’m embarrassed that I don’t recall what words he used, but he was so convincing that he got me almost agreeing with him. I said to Raisse that I was tempted to give him to the Khas, and had a hard time explaining why. It was anger at my own fear, I think, at my own insecurity. Also, I can’t kill someone or give orders to kill someone if they’re not actively threatening me or someone I’m responsible for. It would be so much less trouble if I was like the Khandihan, who does that with the merest flick of a finger, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling anything except revulsion at that.

This man was so prepared to die for his cause, so determined not to fight me, that it seems pointless to kill him. I’ll hand him over to the city watch or the palace watch after all. Better still, Ayran will do that for me. I never want to see him again.

Khora, as I must call her now, made me a lot more cheerful. She was at Rikhi and Pnimah’s place, mending a huge pile of linen. “I know the Twelve Womanly Arts!” she had said proudly, and mending was obviously one of those. She asked me whether she’d got it right that Rikhi was a priest (I said yes), a priest of the Father (I said yes hesitantly). That was a good thing, according to Khora.

Mikhanan took me aside, “she’s a refugee, right? Not a dancing-girl that you want to hide from the queen?” He’d honestly thought that I had a concubine that Raisse wasn’t to know about! “No,” I said, “she’s a noble girl who got into trouble and can’t stay where she comes from. She asked us for help. Raisse knows all about it.”

On the way to the Síthi quarter we saw whole streets that looked deserted: shops closed, nobody in the road. I asked the captain of our guard about it, and he said it was nothing to do with us (and I could see that he was sincere), but the Reds, or the Blues, tended to do that occasionally, make it clear to people that it would be better for them if they weren’t seen. There was smoke going up in several places in the city, sounds of fighting, and when I cast out with my mind I could sense anger, fear, pain, people suddenly ceasing to exist– it made me shudder. Little Valdyas was safe; the gate was firmly closed when we passed it. Most of the city was safe, in fact, the unrest was mostly in some spots near the harbour. Warehouses, the guard captain said, but the grain warehouses were secure.

In the meantime, Raisse and Hinla were practicing words. Hinla had been doing very well: she was bright enough to pick up things quickly, gifted, but she’d missed such a large chunk of her childhood that she’d never catch up completely. She still had nightmares occasionally, but on the whole she was almost happy.

The Iss-Peranian guards left us at the gate to the Síthi quarter: they had an agreement that Iss-Peranian soldiers wouldn’t enter. It didn’t look as if we’d need so many soldiers here, anyway. Here all the buildings were large, low, white and windowless. We passed several of those before we came to a square where a large sedan chair was waiting. Two people in striped mantles and high striped caps came out of it: tall and regal, their skin a golden bronze. I was surprised to see that they were perhaps even younger than I was. They fell at our feet –had they caught the habit, or was that the Síthi way too?– and introduced themselves as the high priest and high priestess of Dayati, Dhamilo and Amaldara. Amaldara took Raisse into her chair with her, Dhamilo climbed into mine.

It turned out that they were the children of Dayati and Talay, the priest and priestess who had taken Moryn and Imri and the others into their house more than twenty years ago. “They are no more,” Dhamilo said when I inquired about his parents. I didn’t ask further, but I suspected the sack of Solay by the Khas. Dhamilo had some serious business to discuss with me, but that would have to wait until we were safely in his house, because it was very delicate.

The temple-house of Dayati was exactly as I’d imagined it from what Moryn had told me: pillars everywhere, all decorated differently, cats and children underfoot, a murmur of voices that was just short of unbearable. We were given food and wine, everybody admired the babies –I was glad we’d taken them along, we’d almost left them behind because of the danger, but not taking a baby to a temple of Timoine would be a very foolish thing to do– and then Dhamilo took me and Raisse through a courtyard and a couple of corridors to a large hall equipped as an infirmary. It was full of children, between six and about thirteen, all showing clear signs of the same condition that the children the Khandihan had brought as a present for me suffered from. “We’ve been rescuing them wherever we can,” Dhamilo said, “buying them free, getting them from the market, but what we really ought to do is shut down the supply.” It was only one trade-house, it turned out, that had that particular licence from the Enshah: the House Shoma-i-a. The trade licences weren’t transferable– if the licence-holder shut down another house would have to get another licence, and it was unlikely, seeing the current state of the Enshah’s health, that it would be easy. This seemed the perfect moment to do something about it. The House of Dayati was in league with many of the servants: they had contacts among the servants of just about every great house. I must ask Dhamilo who their contacts in the palace are; perhaps we can do something there.