The Feast of Naigha
I got up in the middle of the night to write this because it haunted me so much that I couldn’t sleep (granted, sore throat and clogged sinuses made me sleep badly anyway). Also, caterwauling drunken carnival-goers gave me dreams of witches.
Hallei Raith, in Kushesh, to Alysei Ayneth astin Velain, in Veray.
Writing this in great haste– my next message will come with the report of –hopefully– victory. A large Valdyan fleet has been sighted and it has the royal standard on one of its ships, not a warship but one of the big fast freighters. This probably means that it’s really Athal himself and not his envoy, because (one of the sea-captains tells me) those ships are the most stable in the water while still making good speed. I can’t see Athal’s mind at all, of course, and it’s too far away really to see someone else clearly, no way I’m going out of my body again before the big battle, and only then when it’s absolutely necessary. I can’t afford to be weaker than I could be.
But I want to get the Feast of Naigha off my mind before things happen that might make me forget it.
Bebakshi asked me to celebrate the Feast with her, and her man Rovan, and some of their friends, because she’d heard that we don’t really celebrate it as a feast in Valdyas but she and her man wanted to celebrate the Iss-Peranian way. I said yes, intrigued, and she asked how many dead they’d have to lay the table for. This puzzled me: lay the table for the dead? It seems that they celebrate the feast by having a meal with the living as well as the dead. I didn’t know exactly who to count as “my dead”, so I counted the ones I cried for when they died: Tarin most recently, and your mother, and Raneth who fell in Ildis, and Ruyin of the Order, and my father’s sister Halla who brought me up.
So, two hours before midnight the feast started in our fish shop, cleared and decorated, full of lights, and large tables had been set out full of food. There were place-settings for about fifty people, though only twenty living people were present. I didn’t know most of them, but everybody had come on the invitation of someone they knew. The two women I married on Midsummer were there, the pregnant one very pregnant by now, and I could see that she was gifted and must have found a master. “Bebakshi says she can tell if it’s a boy or a girl, but I don’t want to know, if I wanted I could see for myself but I’ll see what it is when it comes out.” I also saw the two men I’d married inadvertently when I thought the eunuch was a girl.
The thirty plates for the dead had been put very close together– which figured, for me, they wouldn’t need room to sit because they’re only spirit. Someone brought a large basket of small packages of food wrapped in leaves, with a note that could only be from Mehili by the handwriting and the wording. “Is that a traditional thing for the feast?” I asked, but it wasn’t, though “better than the other stuff we’re having”. One of the Iss-Peranians warned me, “if that’s from Mehili, she” –the pregnant woman– “shouldn’t be having it, because there’s a lot of brus in it.” In that case I shouldn’t be having it either, or at least choose between it and wine– and when I said that, the Iss-Peranian said that if I’d only smoked brus before and not eaten it, I’d better stick to wine. He’d left his girl in Il Ayande because she’d smoked so much brus that she was in fact never sober, though she only did it after a battle or when she’d had a bad fright or on very big feasts. Mehili smoked just as much and it didn’t seem to hurt her! But then there are also people who can hold their drink and people who can’t, probably the same thing.
I sat with Rovan, who was uneasy– he comes from Rychie Tal-Serth, brother and son and grandson of priestesses of Naigha, so he’s a bit closer to our way of dealing with Naigha than I am. Though I’ve probably seen her in a starker aspect at the wall of souls. I don’t doubt that Naigha was there, a civilised version of her, but in a different civilisation than the one we grew up in.
When everybody was there, Bebakshi and a eunuch and a young boy I’ve seen around the horses and elephants started to dance. It was a dance for the gods, that was clear. It made Rovan even more uneasy: Bebakshi had danced for him as a woman does for her husband, and it had almost made him break the vow to his mother that he’d bring his bride home first and only then bed her. Me, it reminded a little of the dance of the king of Jomhur, though it was in many ways very different. Looking back, I’m practically sure that it was the dance that brought Naigha.
After the dancing most of the women went off to the kitchen at the back of the house, leaving me and the pregnant woman’s wife in front with the men. “You have a woman at home, right?” she asked, and I said “yes, but she’s not pregnant that I know of.” “Doesn’t make a difference– I suppose you can’t cook?” I had to say that, indeed, I can’t– I’ve always either been around people who cooked, whether or not they were servants of mine, or bought my food ready-made. Then she told me that there was an annoying man –still a boy, really– who thought he was doing a good deed by ‘rescuing’ her from being a troop whore. “But you’re married!” I exclaimed, but the boy didn’t seem to accept that. And she had to earn a living! “Send him to me,” I said, “but not tonight of course.”
Then more food came, and still more, hot and cold, more than enough for fifty people. Every now and again someone went up to the dead people’s side of the table, put food on some of their plates, and seemed to talk to them.
All of a sudden there was a great noise outside, as if a hundred fire-arrows at once hit something very close. All the Iss-Peranians and Síthi rushed outside, and the Valdyans followed a bit more cautiously. The whole sky was full of coloured lights, ten thousand stars, some spraying from a single point, some falling, making beautiful patterns. Fireworks, someone said; the Síthi make them, but these had come from Albetire.
We went in again when it was finished to eat more. After a while Bebakshi came and led me to a group of five plates apparently reserved for my dead, and I served them, thinking of each one as I filled the plate, even giving Alyse a bit more of the sweet, Tarin of the spicy, and Ruyin no sweet at all, as I remembered them. I didn’t know –still don’t know, perhaps will never know– in how far they were actually there in the spirit, and how much was just my memory taking shape.
We sat around talking, couples were cuddling and dancing close, people who weren’t couples danced too, I think even I danced at some point but I’m not sure. It was the kind of party when you say things you don’t remember when it’s light. And it was light quite suddenly, as happens in this part of the world. The three dancers went outside and danced again, differently but still for Naigha, and we could see other groups of dancers on the square doing the same.
Afterwards the remains of the food were thrown in the fire– which Bebakshi had stoked extra high with her mind, like on the Feast of Anshen. She’s learned so much since then! I think she’s well on her way to being a master, doing things (out of my sight, mostly) that can only be Guild runner’s work.
I spent most of that day asleep, and most of the next five weeks or so waiting, having strategic meetings, seeing advance troops leave towards the west, seeing more and still more troops coming from the south, east and north, until yesterday when someone spotted the fleet that Athal is more than likely to be on.
So we’re going to fight, and to win. I wear your locket on my skin so you’ll be with me whatever happens. I know you’re thinking of me.