Wow, I like the GM’s version of King Athal (first my NPC, then my PC for a while, now his NPC). We did discuss, at our second-favourite cafe on Sunday evening over adequate coffee and rather good brandy, what Athal’s opinion on various things would be.
Revelation at the end– not really a surprise because everybody –players, GM, PCs and NPCs knew it, but startling anyway when it happened. Also a kind of relief because lots of complicated things won’t have to happen now.
We’d been in Glan for over a week when the royal company arrived. Valyn and the other soldier came riding in first, on borrowed horses, and the whole village went mad with cleaning and decorating and organising. The people living in the biggest house went to stay with their neighbours so the king and queen could have it. (Strange that Nesile has an inn and Glan doesn’t, when Glan is four times as large and on the river itself!) And we helped other young people make a gate of green branches that the king could enter the village through. Then suddenly everybody was there at once, making the village about twice as crowded. Atash came and hugged us, and Sabeh, and Senthi, and even the king and the queen when we finally got close to them. “Those murderers have been hanged,” the queen told us. “We had to put a lot of things right in Ildis– there’s a shipbuilders’ guild now, and a school for their children, and a doctor from Valdis.” The little princes were running wild until Jeran rounded them up and took them to see the big horses. The king and queen went through the whole village, talking to people, inspecting the soldiers’ house (especially spotless for the occasion), praising the schoolchildren, being royal. There wasn’t anything that had to be put right, like in Ildis: they could just be royal and at ease.
Asa was not at all at ease. We found her in the wood where she was practising sling-shooting at chestnuts. She’d been doing that all week, and Amre had found out it was because she wanted to seduce Veh, impress him by getting something right for once. We’d thought she could do some of the sewing, as she’d been brought up rich in Albetire so she knew the twelve womanly arts, but she said she wasn’t good at any of them. “Well, I can dance well enough to get a man in my bed, I suppose,” she said, “and not to mind that I’m not really good enough at lovemaking.” Not that she’d had any choice in the matter, her father had sold her to her husband at thirteen. “He was Síthi pretending to be Iss-Peranian,” she said. “That’s the worst there is. And my father didn’t even need the money, he’s got dozens of ships!” And from what else she told us about her father it became clear that he’d been a merchant of the most dishonest sort, a pirate admiral. No wonder she didn’t want to be sent back to him.
She said that she planned to become a streetwalker in Valdis! “That is something I can do, it will bring in money at least. Never mind if it’s not healthy, that way I’ll die young and it will be over sooner.” But we did want to make sure that her baby was healthy, if only for the baby’s sake. “Oh, you may look if you want, don’t see what difference it makes.” “Do you want to know whether it’s a boy or a girl, or do you want it to surprise you?” “Don’t care. My husband wanted a boy.” “Well, he’d have been pleased then,” I said, because it was a lively little boy, nothing wrong with him. Asa didn’t want to come back to the village with us, because she was afraid the queen would see her and send her back because she was dandar. “Can’t you stop being dandar?” I asked. “No, of course not. Same as you can’t stop being a woman.” Probably she didn’t know about Veh, if she said that! So we told her, and I don’t know if she was surprised at all, or relieved, or appalled, or just didn’t believe it was possible. “Really,” I said. “He was born with a girl’s body but he is a man.” That didn’t keep Asa from wanting to seduce him: “at least I can’t get any more children from him.”
“We really do have to talk to the queen about her,” Amre said, and I agreed, the queen was if anything fair and wouldn’t send her back to her pirate father. Even if she was dandar, there must be something better for her than whoring. We found the king and queen together, and they even had time for us. “Oh, the invisible girl?” the queen asked. “Not all that invisible any more,” I said, though Asa still seemed to have trouble being visible all the time, and she definitely wasn’t showing herself now. “She’s in trouble, because she knows you’re going to send her home to Iss-Peran the moment you find out that she’s dandar, and she’s pregnant, and she wants to go to Valdis and work as a whore!” “Wait,” the king said, “pregnant, you said? If she’s pregnant she can’t be dandar.” “But she said she was! And she can make herself invisible.” “I can be invisible if I want,” the king said, “that doesn’t mean I’m dandar! About your age, is she?” “Yes, fifteen, and she came to Valdyas when she was thirteen.” “She can’t have been learning for long, then,” the queen said, “thirteen is when they usually start.” I knew that all too well, of course. “You’re taking care of her? Good, keep it up, we’ll find something.”
That evening, or the next day, I don’t remember, I went to talk to Sabeh. “Have you seen the Ishey writing in the tower?” I asked. “Could you read it?” She’d seen it, but she hadn’t been able to read the writing: she’d recognised most of the letters, but the words were too old to understand. “It’s amazing,” she said, “there must have been Ishey in this part of the world, too! And there are so few of us now.” “That’s another thing,” I said, “the boys say that Amre and I ought to learn the women’s secrets, as we’re almost Ishey now but that’s something we can’t learn from them.” “Come along,” she said, “we’re having a meeting, and that’s one of the things we’re going to talk about.”
Tao and Mazao were already making a fire in a clearing near a little stream with a pool, just outside the village. Veh spitted a couple of the suckling pigs that had been killed for the royal party and carried them to the fire. Ebru caught up with him –they’d become fast friends in a few days– and they walked together. Jeran was there too, and Lochan and Coran who had been learning from the other Ishey, and the little girls came running after us. “We want to be Ishey too! Cabbage with carrots isn’t nice at all!” Well, I thought Aunt Alyse wasn’t good for them, we’d more or less decided to take them along anyway. And then Asa pulled at Amre’s sleeve, “can I come?” Amre was a bit strict, “do you want to be with Veh, or do you want to be Ishey?” “I want to learn to hunt. And to cure skins, the thing with the stuff from the head is fun.” So we took her along, which made thirteen people by the fire, all young or very young. Sabeh was the oldest, we heard later that she was twenty-two.
Mazao started by knocking on the ground at the fire to call Anshen. Then Tao called Mizran, and Sabeh Timoine. I felt a great urge to call Naigha, and I knew that Amre had the same thought, after all we’d helped some people who were dying and kept some from dying. So we knocked on the ground together, and Naigha was there. Ebru called the Father (or the One as he is called in Valdyas), and Asa hesitated a bit but eventually called the Mother.
Then Mazao looked at Sabeh as if he wanted to say “you’re a woman, you’re the boss!” but she said “No, we’re not going to do it in the old way! You thought of it, you tell everybody!” I could tell by the way she looked at him, and the way he looked back at her, that he was a real prince and she was a real princess. “We all know what we’re here for,” Mazao began, and then he went on to tell us that there had once been Ishey in the whole world, one could tell by the stones we’d found, but there were now only about thirty-five thousand left, fewer people than lived in the city of Valdis. Mazao’s mother’s people by the Mera were twenty thousand, and the rest lived more to the west and were even more old-fashioned. “We had cities built of stone,” Mazao said, “but the Khas drove us out of those, long before I or any of our people living now were born.” What he wanted, and talked about with Sabeh, was to settle somewhere we could all be Ishey, regardless of where you were born or what colour your skin was, it was about how you lived and what you could do. “There are really Ishey everywhere,” I said, and told them about the forest people who had come to Dadán and the girl called Fasal who had looked rather like a young Ishey woman and spoken a language with some of the same sounds and words.
Tao told us about his father, who had followed his mother from Selday to the Mera, and only then found that his wife wanted to direct his whole life so he couldn’t stand it and ran away, even before Tao was born. “We don’t want that either,” he said. He didn’t really have words for what he did want, none of us had, but it was mostly that nobody should run someone else’s life (this made Asa nod with a grim face) and anybody should get a chance to learn whatever they could, not be banned from learning something because you happened to be a boy or a girl. That meant that boys should be taught the women’s mysteries as girls were already learning the men’s, someone said, and there was a lot more discussion about that but it came down to “we’ll work that out” in the end, and we shared the pig meat and drank water from the stream and it turned into a very good party.
Someone at my shoulder handed me a cup of wine, and I turned to thank him and it was the king! “I noticed there was something going on,” he said, “the place seemed to be crawling with gods, and there were pigs missing, not to speak of the missing people! And as one of the local kings” –he grinned at Mazao– “I thought it might be my business.” We made room for him by the fire and Veh tore a bit of meat off a pig. “What can I do for you?” the king asked, and Sabeh and Mazao explained that we wanted a piece of land where we could hunt –near Turenay would be convenient– and found an Ishey settlement on it, so that we could give new life to the Ishey people. He nodded –I don’t think he was surprised, perhaps Sabeh talked to the queen and the queen talked to him– and asked some thoughtful questions.
A day or so later the whole royal company went north-east where, Erle said, there ought to be a road to Rizenay. In fact there had been one in the past, with villages at least every few days of travel. But perhaps they’d suffered the same fate as Nesile! Atash had calculated that if we could travel at the same rate as from Ildis to Glan, we’d arrive at Rizenay around Midsummer or a little later. The girls were with us again too: someone had talked Aunt Alyse into letting them go with us, thinking that Jeran’s parents would adopt them. Fian from Ildis was staying as sergeant for what was now an official king’s regiment, because Ebru was going with us. As we left, we saw Maza try to put an arm around Hinla! At first she pushed him away, but the last we saw of them was with his hand on her buttock.
This part of the country was even thicker wood. We didn’t see any villages on the first day, so we made camp near the river. We sat by our own fire that night, a bit apart, with our cart. It was just like the early part of our journey again, except that we had Ebru but not so many children, and Asa was kind of hovering near and sometimes became visible enough to sit down with us to eat. She was still trying to impress Veh a little, and Veh was still not impressed, but neither of them seemed to mind for now, it was just the way they dealt with one another.
Mazao leant back on his elbow, stretched against Tao, and asked in a voice that made it clear that he’d been thinking about this for a long time, and perhaps talking about it with Tao and probably Veh, too: “Hey, you two, are you in love with one another?” Amre got that faraway look she gets when she’s going to say something important or wise, and said softly “Yes, I am.” And then I had to say what I hadn’t really known I knew, “Yes, me too.”