Off to war
Seeing the clerks in Beguyan’s headquarters, Athal asked for paper and a pen and wrote a note to Raisse: Off to war now. I love you. This travelled on the same ship as Aidan’s latest letter to Cora, so Raisse may get it soon after she reaches Valdis.
Finally, I’m about to fulfil my promise to Beguyan. We’re outside the walls of Solay, preparing to strike.
Either I’m becoming a better sailor at last –which I doubt– or Aidan is very good at whatever he did to me –which seems likely– because though I was as shaky when I arrived as the previous few times, I was in good shape again in hours. I don’t recall much of the voyage, but Aidan tells me that he let me into his inner space and led me out when I was almost falling asleep so I could sleep in my own bunk, mind and body together. It must have worked, because I was weak but not knackered.
We couldn’t sail into the harbour, because not only was our ship too large for the makeshift quay, but there was also a still larger ship half on the shore and half in the water, its mast broken and jutting into the town square. Raith was standing almost in the water, tanned to an almost Iss-Peranian brown, looking leaner and harder than I remembered. Beguyan was close on her heels: we embraced like brothers. Mehili was there, and most of my generals, and many people I didn’t know; also Attima who had landed not long before. They gave me and Attima the former bakery next to the former fish shop that Raith was using as quarters: me on the ground floor, him on the first floor and the three wives he had with him –the two from Jomhur and his latest, the Síthi one from Essle– in the attic, with a side-room for Dushtan. There was warm water, and clothes that smelt of camphor instead of salt, and surprisingly good wine, and Raith sitting on an upturned bucket telling me the latest news and gossip.
There was nobody left of the original inhabitants of the town. First the Khas had taken it, then Valdyans had taken it back from them, before Beguyan and the land-army arrived. It was a very small fishing town really, much smaller than even Selday, only some houses and shops on the square and a few streets leading away from it, and it was now completely swamped by the army. Even with a camp to serve a soldier’s every need away from the main camp. A makeshift harbour had been built in a hurry, too small already to take all of our ships.
Raith had a woman with her who looked for all the world like a dandar, except that there was something strange about her– or perhaps something familiar instead. “My apprentice,” Raith said, “Bebakshi.” She spoke quite passable Ilaini, telling me that she was learning weather from Raith, but would be going to Rychie Tal-Serth after the war. “Don’t they have excellent weather in Ryshas already?” I asked. But it wasn’t for the weather that she was going, but to marry a smith, it turned out. How it had come about that Raith had taken a dandar as an apprentice I didn’t learn, because she went on to tell me how she had been trapped and escaped twice, and how Khas mages fed their power by killing people: not only gifted children, but also captives and possibly slaves. And they’d been sucking the land dry of all anea somehow; even the elephants, according to Raith, had suffered from it. If I get the time and opportunity after all the fighting, I’ll definitely look into that.
Then there was a strategy meeting. Beguyan had appropriated the local magistrate’s house across the square from our bakery. First we ate soldiers’ food, barley mash with fish and something that might have been a vegetable. Some meat, too, probably in honour of me as a king, because many people were surprised. Aidan had been invited, but he told me he thought it better not to come because otherwise Dhamir would think he was entitled to come too. Wise of him– he’ll really make a general yet.
The table was cleared and maps spread out– I’d brought mine too, and some of those were more accurate than Beguyan’s though they were perhaps somewhat out of date.
The city is built as a square or a rectangle (the maps don’t agree on that), twice the size of Essle, surrounded by a wall at least six man-heights high and very hard to breach. It has been breached, though, on the north-west corner, and some civilians have fled and are in refugee camps in the swamp. There are already about sixty thousand Iss-Peranian troops surrounding the city, as well as Rhyn’s advance force, and more are being brought over all the time.
Beguyan thinks that the Khas must be concentrated in the forts along the wall, especially the two huge forts in the west on either side of the great water-gate. The water-gate is also a sluice, which can be closed to flood the swamp, but that would mean that the city won’t have drinking water so it’s not likely that the Khas would do that except in the last resort. Someone asked me if I could cause an undersea earthquake and have the city flooded by the wave, but that would not only kill the civilians as well as the occupying force, but also be likely to come back and flood Kushesh. That, too, is only a last resort.
Taking the citadel, sticking out from the coast and the only really firm bit of land around (the rest is either as swampy as Essle, or built on the same kind of worm-shell ground as that island we were shipwrecked on), would be the best option if the Khas weren’t likely to expect us to try exactly that. Create a diversion, Attima said: one division to attack at the breach in the wall and fight its way towards the citadel, while others took the citadel from the sea. I oughtn’t to be with the first detail ashore, he thought, but probably with the second. If I could stand on the citadel –chalk on granite– I’d be able to shake it a little and create panic among the unsuspecting Khas. Also, that was where their most powerful mages and generals were likely to be.
The Khas weren’t united, Beguyan said: each fort was probably occupied by a clan or tribe who might be rivals. That made me suddenly think of the folk-tale of the tailor who killed two giants by throwing a stone at the head of the nearest one, making him think the other did it. If we could pit the two big forts against each other, that would be a diversion as well as getting a lot of Khas out of our way. I thought I could perhaps undermine one, or both, but according to Mehili they were two thousand years old and built on the bedrock.
There were Valdyan semti on all sides around the city, so coordinating the attack wouldn’t be a problem. The first problem at hand was to spare as many civilians as possible while doing away with as many Khas as possible– if only we could evacuate the city first! But supposing that all the civilians could leave, our troops wouldn’t be able to deal with them. It looked as if we’d really have to take the city first. The trade quays looked open to the sea but were probably the best defended; the land north or south of the city was safer. In the north, the Khas were defending the broken wall, so we’d better attack from the south: the first or second fort inland seemed most promising.
Finally it looked as if we had a plan: attack the breached wall and one of the southern forts at the same time, and when the Khas were acting on that, invade the citadel. We drank to that, telling each other war-stories, and I called Aidan to invite him after all, bringing Dhamir if he liked. They arrived soon after, Dhamir a bit upset because Aidan had dragged him from a whore’s bed –he’s forbidden his soldiers to go to the whores, but he couldn’t very well forbid the prince. (Also, he told me later that he’s swapped the women in his unit for someone else’s men, because some were lusting after him and the others after Dhamir. So much for discipline! But I’m glad he has it in hand.)
As we were heading back to the bakery, Aidan said that the train of the army was disbanding, heading to Albetire; he didn’t know what that meant, should he find someone to ask? Yes, I said, I was curious too. After a while he came back without Prince Dhamir, but with a girl whose strident voice I could hear when she was still outside, “so you were speaking the truth! You’re really a prince! You live in one of the palaces!” And when she came in and I said “yes, he’s really a prince, and what’s more, I’m a king!” she fell at my feet as the Iss-Peranians do, because it was an Iss-Peranian girl, of course. From what she told us it turned out that there was nothing to be alarmed about; it was just that the army was going to fight and take the city now, where there would be little to do for the train, and they’d just as well go now while there were still ships going to Albetire –her home– that weren’t full of the dead and wounded. “I’ll start a fish shop, I’m rich now!” she said.
We gave her a handful of silver for her help. It turned out that she’d also had some from Aidan, and she thought we wanted other services, “I give very good blow-jobs!” “That would only make me more homesick for my own wife,” I said. “That’s what the prince said, too! You’re no fun, longing only for your own wives!” and she left, leaving us grinning at one another.
A moment later there was a noise from outside, a curse, something that sounded like a dying croak. Attima rushed out, with Aidan and me hard on his heels. The girl was standing over a man stretched out on the ground. “They may pinch anything on my body, except my purse!” We took her back inside –no use trying to talk to her with half the army looking on– to talk it over. Attima promptly offered her a position as bodyguard for his wives, paying her as much per day as she’d earn by whoring. Of course it had to be under some cover, but that was easy: she could take service as our cook. We called Dushtan to look her over and she ended up with a clean bill of health, but also clean-shaven: her hair had been full of lice. “You can’t escape them,” she said, “as soon as you’re out of the city everything is icky and lousy.” Probably the same thing about the land that Raith had told me, at least in part.
Tashili, that was her name, spent the rest of the night patrolling the upstairs landing. The next day we woke to delicious smells: she was taking her new assignment as cook seriously, too. “The lady next door didn’t have any fish,” she said, “for all she lives in a fish shop. But she can sure scold like a fish-wife!” That sounded like Raith all right! Tashili had found supplies elsewhere, though, and served us a hearty breakfast of squid and bread and the gods knew what else. We’d hardly taken the last bite when an escort presented itself outside to take us to the headquarters, and then to the ship.
The previous night the magistrate’s house had been turned into a palace: now it was a military office, full of clerks writing and clattering their abacuses. I asked for pen and paper and scrawled a little note to Raisse. As I gave it to a clerk Aidan appeared with a thick letter of his own. There was nothing for it: I had to board a ship again. But at least it was less than a day this time, Beguyan had been very clear about that.
We sailed in Attima’s flagship. It was sleek and fast and surprisingly steady in the water, or perhaps I was really getting used to it. Tashili appeared to be enjoying herself immensely, bringing us different kinds of food every few hours. “It’s not food for kings and princes, I cook like my mother and my mother cooked like my grandmother, but I hope you’ll like it.” I couldn’t eat anything but bread to start with, but when she brought rice balls yellow with saffron I tried one and it agreed with me. “Where did you get saffron?” Attima asked. “From the cook, he didn’t know what to do with it!” She told us some more about herself– her fisherman father hadn’t come back from the sea, and her mother who kept a fish stall had gone missing in the riots in Albetire, after which there hadn’t been much choice for her except to follow the army.
Aidan wanted to take her to Turenay so that she and Cora could share recipes, but what she really wanted after the war was to go back home and set up a business there. She had been exploring the whole ship and talking to everybody. “And by the way, the ship is safe.” Attima liked that so much that he gave her a whole purse full of what sounded like gold, “for your loyalty” which made her very angry: “You don’t need to buy my loyalty! I’m loyal enough on my own! You can buy me an eating-house when the war is over, but for now I’ll have my wages and be done with it, thank you very much!”
Eventually we were put ashore to the south of the city. It was dark already, the city looking like a necklace of lights from the watch-fires on the walls. As Beguyan had said, the area was all mud; that it was full of soldiers didn’t make it better. That night I slept almost as well as in the bakery and definitely longer.
The next day we went for –I can only call it an excursion– around the city. Beguyan, Raith and I on horses, Attima and Mehili on an elephant, with quite a substantial escort. We didn’t make any effort to stay out of sight, the Khas knew we were there anyway. The forts were much larger than they had looked on the map, the two big forts at the river heavier than I had a hope of moving, especially if they were (as it looked) founded on the bedrock. “When I get to do any substantial work,” I said to Beguyan, “I’d like a team of about ten people of my own, all gifted. Just in case I fall over.” He confirmed that it could be done. I’d like to have Aidan, too, but I appointed him to guard Prince Dhamir myself, and I’m not going to change that now.
The breached wall gave a good view of how it was made: hard stone on the outside, probably only for looks, about four feet of brick on each side to make the wall itself, filled up with earth. I thought flippantly of taking it by one end and shaking it like a children’s skipping-rope, but I’m not that strong. Talking of that, Raith says the Khas in the city have only about a dozen mages that she can see, at least who would count as masters! it might be possible that the strong mages can hide themselves completely, but if that’s the case, she says, she’ll go and become a priestess of Naigha in Rizenay, as far as possible from here.
We reached one of the refugee camps and Attima, who speaks some Síthi, wanted to talk to some of the people. Either someone told them who we were, or they could tell from our looks, because they fell in the mud in front of us and wanted to kiss our feet. These were the brave ones: most people were too scared to try to flee. The Khas were quite good at making heads roll: if you were in the wrong part of the city, if you were in the right part of the city but didn’t have a pass, if you were on the street after dark… It was a while until I caught on, because I could hardly understand a word and everything had to be translated back and forth, but “pass” and Khas didn’t seem to go together in my mind. “Who gives out the passes?” I asked. “Well, those of Micalacuk,” the man said. “We never expected it of them.” Of course, I thought later: a city doesn’t stay occupied for twenty years unless some of the citizens cooperate, and the priests of Micalacuk had been bureaucrats already. I could very well imagine the Temple of Mizran –which is who Micalacuk is, after all– gone bad.
Back at the camp we had another staff meeting. The Khas either flooding the city or setting fire to it seemed a substantial threat, but I’d fought Khas before and they’d fought to the death, defended a lost cause, but they’d never wilfully committed suicide. “That’s a good point,” Beguyan said. Raith suggested making it rain as soon as there was any fire, “we can do that easily!” and then thought of getting the city wet in advance, just in case. She and her apprentice climbed the wooden watchtower and brought in clouds, which made thundery noises and rained on the city. “Do you want lightning?” Raith called down to us, and Beguyan and I replied as one man, “Not yet!”
When she came down –it was still raining– I said “You’ve become better, sharper!” and she agreed, saying that it was due to having a good apprentice. “You should have an apprentice too– calling yourself master without an apprentice is just an empty word.” She is probably right, but I don’t see myself looking out for an apprentice right now. If I happen to run into someone, all the better, but I won’t make an effort until all of this is over.
So tomorrow we fight. It’s good to know who I’m fighting for, not only who I’m fighting against. We probably can’t do it without many innocent civilians dying, but being killed by inches by the Khas would probably be worse.