What a day

Was this really only one day? I think yes, though we slept for a few hours in the middle of it. It did end around midnight– the in-world day, that is, we ended neatly at 10:50.

Unresolved questions: what on earth was Selle’s message? It must have been important. And who was it that called Athal “priest of Timoine, Anshen and Mizran“? Sounds like the merchant-guild sisters, but I’m not sure.

It was really morning now, relentlessly bright and already beginning to be warm. I seemed to be whole, only very weak and shaky, and there was a dull headache lying in wait somewhere at the back of my head. A young Valdyan merchant was ushered into our makeshift tent and, with some circumlocution, explained that –without wanting to imply that it was a retreat– quarters had been made for me and my cortege in Little Valdyas, and General Beguyan would like to have the square vacated in half an hour so he could use it to storm the palace. I had already been thinking of Little Valdyas as the best place to be –a hot bath!– so I thanked him and was looking around for someone to give orders to when I noticed that people were already packing.

When the merchant was gone I had Halla at my side, who wanted to know exactly what had been decided last night– gods, I hardly remembered myself! There had been no time at all between getting back to the palace and events starting, and Halla knew nothing. I think we eventually managed to get the the important things across to her. She said that the merchant guilds had begged for protection of the mighty King, etcetera, and I saw no objection to that apart from perhaps not having enough troops to give actual protection. “Send me Talvi or Ayran, the first of them you see,” I asked Halla. They would be able to tell me what troops we did have left and what they were doing.

Dushtan came back from her round then. When I said “this time I’m not wounded at all!” she grinned wryly and showed Raisse the stitches she had made in my anie, six at the front and six at the back. “It looks ridiculous, but it was the way that worked best,” she said. “Will you take them out like real stitches, or do they go away by themselves?” I asked, and she said that she’d perhaps leave two or three in as a reminder. “If you’d been fifteen years younger it would have been oil-plasters.” When I was fifteen years younger, I fell out of the apple tree at Gralen and broke my collarbone, but that didn’t teach me not to climb any apple trees! If I have to fight again, I’ll fight again– well, perhaps not just now.

I would have gone to Little Valdyas on horseback –and said that I could ride– but there was a sedan chair for us. Khora came with us, and as soon as she climbed in on one side someone opened the curtains on the other side. It was the Noble Lady Khanum Vermudant Ke Jenab, with her younger attendant and the little boy who ran errands for her. She dropped to her knees, started to speak, saw Khora and fell silent, mouth agape. “What can I do for you?” I asked. With some difficulty she asked for the indulgence of the mighty king and the mighty queen, with all the etceteras, and begged us “please protect us”. The whole square was full of people, Iss-Peranians all, carrying their belongings, women with babies, men holding small children by the hand, and I asked “my lady, may I ask, which ‘us’ do you mean?” All those people, it turned out, wanted to place themselves under the protection of the mighty king and the mighty queen. I said that I didn’t have much power in this city, but that we would attempt to protect them to the best of our abilities. It seemed to satisfy Lady Vermudant, and we gained hundreds of followers in a train that was already fairly long.

As we were moving, I wondered again where our troops were, and Halla got a sergeant on a horse to ride beside our sedan chair to tell us what he knew. Apparently the merchants’ quarter was already being protected by a small force of our troops and a few of the Sworn; both Little Valdyas and Little Solay had walls, and the merchants’ quarter was a beehive of walled houses so that would also be easy to defend. He could also tell us that more than a quarter, perhaps even half, of the palace guards had asked to join our troops. “Khadiya told me–” he started, blushing, checked himself, and went on: “that when the crown prince seized power they did not want to serve under him.” It turned out that Khadiya had been in the palace guards too.

Also, we would have to be out of the way as soon as possible, because General Beguyan wanted the rabble to storm the palace, where he could deal with them at his convenience, instead of having to fight them in town and especially at the harbour. There was nothing we could do to speed up, though; we were already going as fast as we could, especially with all those people who had joined us. We saw very few people in the streets –apart from our own party, of course, hedged about with soldiers–, some of the buildings were burning, and we passed several dead bodies.

The atmosphere in Little Valdyas was watchful but not fearful; people were going about their business, came out of their houses to see the royal party pass. Most of them were old or very young: the able-bodied were on the walls, with journeymen in the Guild at regular distances among them to keep in contact. Vurian’s hand, applied by Erdan, I supposed.

We stopped at the large square where Sellei Ruzyn was waiting for us. She told us that the Temple of Mizran had been put into service as temporary palace, and our servants and attendants went to help the servants of the Temple to fit it out while we told Ruzyn all that had happened on our side of the events. There were already people who wanted to see us; I said that if I could have half an hour and a tub of warm water I’d be all right.

In the temple hall a fire in a fire-pot had been lit in front of the statue of Mizran, and in front of that were the thrones we’d occupied before. As soon as we sat down –no time for warm water– two richly-dressed soldiers threw themselves at my feet: the palace guard pledging their allegiance. There had been about four hundred of them originally, guarding the rear of our procession, but they’d lost some fighting a mob of the Reds, and to show their prowess they dragged in a large oilcloth and showed us a pile of severed heads, each with a red kerchief around the neck. “Their bosses were Valdyans, right?” one asked, and held up an the head of a clearly Valdyan-looking man by the hair, but neither Raisse nor I recognised him. When I’d fought the two grand masters, they’d still been swathed in the jelly-pudding seal and I hadn’t seen their faces properly.

A court of sorts was coming into being in the temple hall, Halla establishing herself as my master-of-protocol –Iss-Peran custom didn’t permit a king to attend to all of his own business, it had to go by proxy– with obvious enjoyment.

Khanum Vermudant Ke Jenab and her attendant and the little boy installed themselves near the entrance, apparently to signify that they considered themselves part of the court but didn’t want to presume. We would have to have them watched, if only because their mere presence frightened Khora half to death.

Erdan’s adjutant appeared, a very young master with the unfortunate name of Rhanion– “if my parents had known about the civil war they’d have called me something else!” He told me that Erdan had indeed been killed in the fight and he was now acting commander, currently organising the defence of Little Valdyas. When I said that the merchants’ quarter had also joined us, he immediately took steps to extend the journeymen’s network. All the masters were asleep except him– Erdan had wanted him to stay on his post the night before, which sounded awfully like a foreboding. Not that there were all that many masters: the Order had been small already, and they’d lost half of their force.

A message came from Roushan and Zahmati: they asked permission to present themselves to the court. They came –without their forbidding aunt– to say that they had been successful in buying out the trading-house Shoma-i-a and to hand us a large envelope (from Zahmati’s cleavage; she had a considerable cleavage) with the trade concession. There was a seal on it the size of my whole hand, twice as large as the one on the deed of Vurian’s estate on the north coast. I couldn’t read any of it, Raisse a little, and Halla enough to see that it was indeed the trade concession; she put it in the strong-box. These young ladies, too, stayed at the court, somewhere around the middle of the hall.

By this time we were so tired that we longed to be out of the noise and bustle. Halla had a soldier announce, in a loud voice, that the king and queen were retiring, and we were taken to the vestry which turned out to be comfortably furnished. Whether for us or for the Mighty Servant I didn’t know, but there were wall-hangings from Rizenay and three easy chairs that made a very nice change from sitting bolt upright on the thrones. Not that we were alone here: apart from Senthi and Hinla and the babies –who counted as so close that we were practically alone anyway– Rikhi and Pnimah were there with Khora, as well as the Mighty Servant himself. And servants, of course, and some court ladies who made a good show of doing something when there was in fact no work coming from their hands. Also, Mernath and Maile where shown in, looking battered. Again Mernath threw himself at my feet and called me his master. Both were shielded by what looked like a dome of Anshen’s protection. They’d need to come to terms with themselves and with the gods, but I had no energy to anything about that now, and I said I’d see them again tomorrow. I’ll ask Rhanion to let me use the temple in the Order house when we want to do that kind of work.

Cynla astin Brun had herself announced and, on my prompting, sat down in the third easy chair. When I asked her advice about Khanum Vermudant, she knew immediately who it was, “do you want her eliminated?” No, that would probably be the wrong way to go about it, but I did want her watched. Raisse came with the idea of having Mernath and Maile watch her: they were staying around anyway, and used to being watchful.

The people from the Jomhur village were going to live outside of the makeshift palace, but Khora didn’t feel safe too far from us, so she had asked to stay as one of Raisse’s ladies. I thought she would perhaps be needing more proper clothes as she was wearing a village-maiden’s dress, but it looked on her as if she was wearing silk and satin– a lady making the best of the circumstances. “I can change nappies,” she said. “the Eleventh Womanly Art.” Cynla was very curious who this strange girl might be and I told her that Khora was the Enshah’s youngest widow. She blanched visibly. She knew that there were at least three men, probably more, who would kill –literally or figuratively– to marry her: the crown prince (which we all shuddered at), Koll Konandé (a nice enough fellow, but at least twice her age), and the general himself. “Though,” Cynla said, “the general seems to be in love with his wife, it’s unheard of!” which made me run out of fingers before I’d counted all my married friends who were in love with their spouse.

Then Khora said she’d show us why she couldn’t afford to be conspicuous– she asked me to hold Raisse’s hand, waved the Mighty Servant away first but then said “no, stay, you’ll like to see it,” remarked that Rikhi was immune anyway, and did something. It was a kind of presence, but not the kind I used to be kingly with. She filled the whole room with her anie, and any man (or woman for that matter) so inclined would promptly fall at her feet. The Mighty Servant did in fact fall at her feet, and if I hadn’t been holding on to Raisse with all my might, and she to me, I’d have proposed to Khora on the spot. She took it down again, looking very small, and said “I know how to do this, but not how to extinguish it”– even though she just had. “All men fall for it, and some women too, but those are creepy.” Cynla whispered something to her that sounded very sharp, something like “that was very mean of you, my girl”.

Khora asked me to keep Mikhanan’s son away from her, because he was in love with her and though he was a prince (and she only wanted a prince; she’d turned down several village boys she liked because they weren’t princes) she didn’t want him. I thought of my brother Aidan, fifteen, gifted, and definitely a prince; but it would be awkward to have Khora as a sister-in-law so I kept my silence. If she goes to Turenay, probably the best place for her, they’re bound to meet anyway.

We’d have to send a ship north soon. Not only to take Khora away from all the contenders who could and probably would use her as a political pawn, but also to send for grain, and to send for Reshan if the Khas in the Plains haven’t killed him. A small fast ship, carefully hand-picked crew, all women and men who don’t fall for women; an escort of women soldiers. I could spare neither my woman general nor my woman admiral, but there were bound to be others as suitable; perhaps the young lieutenant, Selle, who came in with a message that I’ve now forgotten (perhaps Raisse remembers).

Senthi remarked, when we were talking about the ship, that it would be strange to be back home again, so I asked her if she’d want to go; it would mean separating Vurian and Rovan (which we didn’t want and they wouldn’t like), or sending Raisse back with Senthi (which Raisse was vehemently against, and come to think of it, so was I) or (but I didn’t even mention that) sending both boys to Valdyas with Senthi. She considered it, thinking aloud: she could wean Rovan on the ship, live for ten months on her wet-nurse fee from Rhaye, and start again. “It’s very different being nurse to the queen than in a merchant’s house,” she said, “then you’re in a room with the babies and you have to fend for yourself, you never see the mother at all.” Suddenly I was seized with longing to spare her that –she’d become so much part of our family– and said “But we’ll need a nursemaid in Valdis, someone who isn’t ridiculously young and can do all sorts of things.” She nodded and said “it’s not as if my husband would mind, he’s dead anyway”. So I think we’ve got ourselves a nursemaid now…

Something was nagging at the back of my mind: Cynla had said that quarters were being prepared “in the brothel back there”, which could only mean the Orange Blossom bath-house. I hadn’t realised that it was in fact a brothel, and I wouldn’t have minded if the bath-house people hadn’t said that my mother used to frequent it when she was a girl. Any thought of Mother’s conduct in her teens left me, however, when I saw the room, and –finally!– the bath, that had been set ready for us. As well as a bevy of bath-girls there was a very large, very black, very gifted man in a loincloth waiting for us, who said “You are king? I am wash man.” He asked whether to wash the king or the queen first, and I said “oh, wash the queen by all means”; while he was working on Raisse I had a girl wash my hair, still full of grit from the broken palace. It was massage rather than washing what the wash man did, and it had Raisse completely relaxed and sleepy in no time — at one point the wash man asked me if it was all right to put her on the bed and carry on there, and I said yes rather absently.

Raisse was fast asleep when the wash man came to me. What he did was amazing. It dissolved every strain and stress in my body, and I jokingly said to myself and whoever would hear that it would dissolve at least seven of Dushtan’s twelve stitches, when Dushtan herself came rushing in, alarmed: “What’s going on here? My work’s all undone!” Soon she saw what exactly was going on, and she was intrigued, thrilled, rather than alarmed: “I thought that technique had died out!” She sat down on a bench, watching intently. The wash man must have lifted me on the bed too, because I woke there refreshed, completely healed in mind though my body was still tired. This wash man was a grand master indeed, but he could do only one thing: give anea.

It was still only afternoon. It felt like a week.

We had to present ourselves in the throne room again, but when we were in the vestry getting ready for that a messenger –another very young one, I wonder where the middle-aged soldiers are– came in with a message from General Beguyan, actually written on paper. He told the story first, though: the Khandihan had been “torn into strips” by the crown prince (or his servants, that didn’t become clear) on the occasion of his temporary accession to the throne. There hadn’t been enough left of him for me to say goodbye to, unless I would be satisfied with a sausage. That sausage, according to the messenger, would have to be made in the gut of the crown prince; he, also, had been caught, maimed, and given to the angry mob. The general had asked the palace guards to spare him, because there was a special pit in the throne room for failed pretenders to the throne, but mercifully (I think) he’d been killed before he could end up there. The messenger gave more sordid details, but I don’t have the stomach for that kind of thing, and neither had he, for that matter. It came down to the crown prince and his two wives having been cut to pieces.

Beguyan’s paper message said much the same, without the details: he was sorry that the Khandihan had met his end, because he knew how much I had valued his friendship and advice.

Princess Khiarban, it seemed, had fled to an island off the coast, but if she met Arni or Kistid or indeed any part of our fleet (augmented greatly by the merchants’ ships) she won’t have got that far: either they sank her or they captured her. The situation in the city at the moment was that the army had openly acknowledged Beguyan, the priests Koll Konandé; Princess Yilde hadn’t been present at the time. Was she keeping a low profile, or had the two men kept her out of it?

Very soon, as soon as the situation in the city and the palace is reasonably quiet, I shall visit the general in order to talk face to face. Or perhaps we’ll have a strategy meeting with everyone on our side –and maybe a few not really on our side, but willing to go along– to see how soon we can go and deal with the Khas in the west.

At last Ayran appeared –he’d been too busy all day, of course– and remarked that it was strange for an army used only to civil wars to wage war on foreign ground. True, I suppose, though any real fighting I’ve ever done and seen has been on foreign ground. I’m not counting childhood squabbles, or even the ruin I wrought on Dol-Rayen and Erday, only actual fighting against human adversaries. Ayran told us that the losses of the battle hadn’t actually been very great, except among the Order. The dead had been brought to the Temple of Naigha, and would the king and queen come and pay their respects? Of course we would.

The Temple of Naigha was a very small white building. As soon as we came in, we saw how it could be so small: it contained only a staircase leading down. Two novices were there, both quite young, one very pregnant– I realised with a jolt that it must be nearly three seasons since the Feast of Naigha: Vurian was almost a year old! They led us down the stairs, where there was a large, blessedly cool temple hall filled almost completely by what I can only call a pile of dead bodies. Valdyans, Sithi, Iss-Peranians, Jomhur villagers, all but Khas. When I said something about that, the priestess –somewhat older than the novices, about four coils of snake on her arms– said “After the service”. The pile was so large and overwhelming that I couldn’t have recognised anyone –Erdan!– even if I’d looked more closely.

The priestess explained that it was the custom here as in Valdyas to let only blood-family into the vault, but the king and queen could be seen as everybody’s parents, so we could attend. And they didn’t have enough priestesses to take care of all the dead: the daughters of Little Valdyas had been asked to help. Girls appeared, lots of them, all younger than the novices, to carry one body between every two of them into the vaults. “Can I help?” I asked, but the priestess said “No, you’re a father.” The procession went silently, the priestess with the girls after her, we after that, the novices at the end, and when all the bodies had been placed in empty vaults, back again in reverse order. Once outside, the priestess poured wine for everybody. I saw now that the youngest of the girls, burly as she was, was barely ten years old. Her friends called her Rava: obviously the daughter of a smith. She quaffed her wine in one gulp, straightened her clothes and went home.

About the Khas, the priestess said that they didn’t bury but burn their dead, and they invited us to attend that ceremony too at the intersection of the draining canal. She took us there herself. There were two serious-looking Khas soldiers there at a large pyre laden with bodies. About fifty, I thought, more than all the others together. The elder, who spoke a little trade language, said words that sounded traditional: “Duty has been fulfilled, the gods satisfied, the men fulfilled” and then turned to Raisse: “You are not a sorcerer, you know the song, song of fire, fire of the heart.” Raisse nodded thoughtfully and asked the men to help her with the words. After the first few verses the song almost sang itself, carrying Raisse with it, as scary but not by far as dangerous as the time she had sung to the dying men in the barracks. I held her with my mind, first only as a foundation, then in a passionate embrace to echo the passion that was in the song. It ended– the song, not the passion.

There was a little gate-house there with a straw pallet and a cold fireplace. I looked for something to burn –fire!– but the straw pallet was the only useful thing for that and we needed it for other purposes. If Raisse hadn’t been pregnant already I’d have made her pregnant on the spot. We arrived at our quarters late, with a Khas escort who looked much tidier than we did, not caring what anybody thought.