The waiting game

Lots of things happen, but no substantial fighting: the next bout of that, barring skirmishes, will probably be at the gates of Solay.

This letter, and the previous, will probably arrive at some time, unless someone sinks the ship.

Dearest Ayneth,

If someone had told me that war is mostly waiting, I’d have laughed at them, even though I’ve done some fighting in Valdyas. But that was fighting, not actual war, I know that now.

After we’d ended up back in the camp with a couple of thousand Khas prisoners-of-war, meek with shock (or probably because they’d lost their mage and their commander, whether or not those were the same person), there was suddenly nothing to do. We couldn’t enter the city yet, even though the occupying Khas had panicked at the shape of the clouds, and the hot sand-storm, and the lightning –there had even been some lightning strikes in the city itself, not of my or even Bebakshi’s doing, but simply a side-effect of the storm– and surrendered as one man because obviously the army of the Alliance had powerful mages (I still can’t get used to people being afraid of me). That news hit us like a cold bath: everybody had expected to fight and the anticlimax was disconcerting.

Bebakshi came for a lesson, but we got distracted and spent an hour or so making ourselves invisible to one another. I could see her if I looked hard enough, but our kind of camouflage seems to confound dandar and she tried to trick me into revealing myself by exuding… it was most like a smell, and a little like a feeling, that made me think of an early autumn morning in Lenyas, a high wind and racing clouds, and desire to go out for a walk or a ride. I knew –but I’m perfectly conscious that I probably wouldn’t have known if it had been without warning– that it wasn’t real, so I could treat it like a test and resist, but barely. I put so much effort in resisting that I almost missed Bebakshi overexerting herself, close to fainting, but I caught her in time. That’s one of the first things she’ll have to learn: to keep herself in check! The servant who was just coming in to bring the tea, a girl called Azireh, had never learned to resist compulsion, and she stood at the door caught in a wonderful dream, or so she said when we woke her up.

I got the bag of vervain I’d given Bebakshi, but the leaves smelt wrong somehow, with an acrid undertone. She’d recovered enough to see for herself and pointed out that there were strange leaves mixed in with the familiar ones– a bit browner, a bit more pointed. “Tobacco,” she said (that is: southweed). “Sashila must have put that in! She’s the only one who knows about it!” What would have happened if we’d drunk tea from that, I wondered, and Bebakshi said that we’d have been very sick for a few days, so Sashila could say “I told you so” because obviously Valdyan semsin didn’t agree with dandar. The stuff is poisonous, but not very dangerous if you only drink a cupful of a weak infusion, mostly very uncomfortable.

Well, if that was all; a stupid schoolgirl prank. Bebakshi took it more seriously, though, and stormed out to put paid to it. I don’t exactly recall what happened then, but at one point I was taken to what I can only call a courtroom, where a bored-looking officer was officiating. Sashila and Bebakshi knelt in front –shackled, in the sun– but I got to stand in the shadow to give evidence. Eventually I got Bebakshi back, exonerated. She started out still full of vengeful feelings, but when I asked what would happen to Sashila we discussed various kinds of punishment –she was surprised, almost shocked, that I as “princess” of Lenay didn’t cut off the heads of people who displeased me– and she went to Beguyan to plead for mercy. That must have gone sour at some point too, because later Sashila came stomping into my room, for all the world as if she was wearing heavy metal-shod boots, and told me “I have an apprentice too! And her name is Ysella!” What that was supposed to accomplish I’m not sure of– did she think I’d be envious? Or angry? I don’t approve of dandar much, though I’ve come to understand them a little more from Bebakshi, but I’m not going to stop a silly Valdyan girl from trying to become one; that’s not part of my mandate, for one thing, and by now I know better than to meddle.

We did get to the city eventually, almost at the same time that the king of Jomhur disembarked from a ship that we’d already seen coming. He was a bit peeved that he hadn’t been the one to liberate his city– but there was nothing Beguyan could have done to prevent the city surrendering to him before the king arrived. Except postpone the fighting, I suppose, and that wouldn’t have been a good idea.

King Aheste –at least I think that’s his name, I didn’t ask him how to spell it– is a friendly, worried man, middle-aged, mild-mannered, not gifted that I could see (but more about that later). He invited our party of officers and officials to dinner, apologising for the state of his dining hall (and indeed one side of it was still in ruins). The food was simple, mostly bread and fruit, but a welcome change from soldiers’ grub. After we’d eaten the king said “now I want to show you something very few outsiders have ever seen” and a party of men and women came in, naked but painted, who danced without any music except the sound of their bare feet on the flagstones.

It was merely entrancing at first, then it started to dawn on me that this was not a performance, it was as much semsin work as any weather-working of mine had been; spreading protection over the hall, the palace, the city– and farther away than I could see. I was reminded of Athal who protected most of Lenyas as his journeyman’s trial, but this was stronger and more solid, woven into the fabric of the world. People started to leave and wanted to take me along, but I declined, taken up in the shape of the dance. When only the dancers and the king and I were left, the king stripped naked and joined the dancers. How could I have thought that he wasn’t gifted? But he wasn’t, not himself, it was only that the shape became his shape, the movement became his movement, the king and the country and the protection being all one thing.

You know me: I want to know what things are made of, how they are structured, and part of my mind couldn’t resist trying to find out. If I could handle the world like that, I could make people gifted! But every time I thought I had it in my hands the shape of it changed and it escaped me.

It lasted the whole night, and eventually I must have slept because I woke up with my head on the table, alone in the empty ruined dining hall. I ate some stale bread and leftover fruit and went in search of somewhere to borrow a horse, but there was a young soldier at the palace door who had apparently been waiting for me since the evening.

I should really write about the transformation of Bebakshi, who cut her hair from waist-length to almost as short as mine, and our girly afternoon of trying different styles of paint on our faces –she can look like an expensive whore in Essle without any effort; any face-paint is wasted on me, and she’s pronounced my hair hopeless– but there’s a ship leaving shortly and I want you to have this. If you catch Athal before he’s off, you could ask him about the Jomhur dancers, I suspect that the play the Khandihan put on was of the same kind. Tell him anything you think he’ll want to know; I don’t mind if he reads this letter, because there’s nothing unsuitable in it (hard to write unsuitable things, anyway) and he knows me almost as well as you do.

With love,