Friday, June 4, 2010

291 Teaser : Up on one of those things!?

I couldn’t help but let out a long laugh. “Shadow-father... are you... all right?”

“I... shadow-son...” He pulled himself straight, and petted the horse, whose ears pricked nervously. “I believe you’d best lead me back to the barracks. I’ve just gone mad. I could have sworn...that I just saw a person... flying...”

“Truly?” I said. It was one of those times in which the corners of your lips are pulled up even if you will them not to be. “Did it... look like... you’d like... doing it?” He was staring upward now, his head snapping here and there, now that he knew they were not birds.

“I’m serious, Chevenga,” with a bit of a growl in his voice. “I’m having visions here, hallucinations. It makes me very uncomfortable. Do you see them?”

I looked up, remembering which wing-colours belonged to who. “That... would be Kamaha... head woolly bird,” I said. “There is... Sala... Sawas, his true name… One of... the best of... the A-niah. There’s... Sijurai... oh, and there’s Krero.”


“Yes, the one… like a hawk… with the blue stripes...”


“Captain of the… darya semanakraseye… the very same.”

“Up on one of those things!?”

“Cheng, who’s that you’ve got there?” Sachara bellowed from somewhere else on high. “Not… Esora-e! Oh my All-Spirit!”


[AN: Back here again. Please hold comments for when stabilizes, thanks!]

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Monday, February 8, 2010


The Philosopher in Arms is now being posted on my new site at . Click on "latest" or go down the Table of Contents of The Philosopher in Arms for the current post.


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Friday, February 5, 2010

214 - The fox chasing for his dinner

That night as we celebrated I would gaze now and then at each person, and they would each gaze now and then at me, assessing the changes. “They hurt you so,” they kept saying. I am alive, I kept thinking, remembering Jinai’s reading. At least some of the changes were good, such as Shaina’s breasts now having the shape of a mother’s. She was nursing not only Kima Imaye, but Etana’s new baby, Kilalere.

Kima’s face was more Shaina’s, but her hair was mine, as were her tiny hands and feet. She was very shy at first, turning away from me; my face had become a more harsh sight for a child, with the old scar, and the new ones I’d taken today, still fiery red. But I fed her and changed her diaper and played faces with her and carried her around on my arm the whole evening, when she let me, and she began saying “Daddy” with meaning. So soon, I would be gone again, for who knew how long.

The next morning I kissed them all goodbye and set off the courier’s way back to Ossotyeya.

To speak to the army, I wore just my wristlets and Chirel over my formal political clothes, in part because the good set of armour I should have I didn’t yet, having just been measured before I’d gone to Kefara. As the sun was setting, I found a place in the river that was deep enough. The firedish would have to be makeshift, but spears and torches were, of course, in good supply. I called the army to assembly around that spot.

It was a beautiful evening, the purpling sky shot through with long clouds like flame in the setting sun, everything clearer and brighter than usual, as if All-Spirit were more visible than usual in everything.

As with the command council, I recounted all I had done on the way home. From the battle of Haiu Menshir, they were in my hands; it was a crescendo as I told them how many warriors were coming from each place. “It is your names that will be graven in history,” I told them, “since all the world remembers those who refused to give ground, who were present at the turning-point of defeat into victory.” The singing wind was in my ears throughout, and my tongue didn’t come even near to locking up. At the end, as they let out a steady deafening roar, I tapped Esora-e to be my ritual monk, and did the Kiss of the Lake. Here, it was relatively easy. It was a year and some before I was actually due to do it, but now was a good time to show them I could still die for them if I must, whatever Kurkas had done to me, and Renewal was a good thought to have in their minds, too. We feasted and celebrated that night. Next morning, I started work, calling together the command council. There was an Ikal person waiting with a sickeningly-familiar-looking box under her arm; of course, they wanted to do the full debriefing. I told her to wait.

“First priority,” I said to the council. “Triadas Teleken, personally. It’s the best single thing we can do to raise our morale, and lay waste to theirs. Here, he stands for Arkan victory in both their minds and ours; if I’m going to stand for Yeoli victory, I have to kill him. Not only that, but he’s almost certain to be replaced by someone inferior, by the way they promote in Arko.”

I had not forgotten his kindness to me, but nor had I forgotten his loyalty to Kurkas, despite having enough sense to see the futility of it, and that remaining loyal would destroy him. I expect to die there, he’d said, meaning Yeola-e. Yes, you will, I thought. I wondered if he’d been expecting to die by my hand but hadn’t wanted to reassure me quite that much. With Triadas, you couldn’t know.

They smacked hands to foreheads. I was hardly the first to think of this, and all sorts of attempts had been made, so that Triadas had himself extremely well-guarded at night, and no one had been able to solve it. “You’re not going to do another lone assassination of an enemy general, are you, Chevenga?” Hurai asked me, worriedly. “You’ve become more important since then, and their spies will know from last night that you’re back, and he must know you have weapon-sense.”

“No,” I said. “That was by night. I want to do this in broad daylight, and in such a way that his whole army is watching. That would have the best effect.” Of course they all looked at me as if I should be shipped back to the House of Integrity. “I will try to think of a way, and I ask all of you to as well.” In the meantime I asked them to brief me on everything, and took the best look I could at the Arkan camp. What leapt out at me, when they gave me accounts of the times the Arkans had tried to take the pass, was that Triadas had placed his command post in the same place each time, well back from the pass, where the valley lies between two cliffs.

“I can tell you why!” I said, laughing. “He thinks the cliffs are unclimbable. He is a city Arkan; it’s in their bones to think of cliffs as unclimbable, because they are there. But this is Yeola-e! You just know the hotheads among the local kids make a game of climbing them, and know them like the backs of their hands.”

“They do,” said Emao-e. We don’t. You can hardly take enough local kids on such a raid; he leaves a good thirty or forty guards in their camp.” But it was too late; the whole plan had flashed into my mind.

I sent out word in Ossotyeya and the other villages around, asking for twenty hotheads, and picked out the fifteen of my elite and fifty regulars who were the best on cliffs. I stood on rank to go myself. Jinai was unable to foresee the result, but my own feeling was very good. I first held council with the raid unit and the hotheads that night, a good cure to spending half the day on truth-drug being debriefed, and told them we’d be back together the next night, to start the mission. The Arkan camp had a clear view of the cliff, during the day. With our armour well soot-darkened, we climbed down about the time they’d be bedding down, and slept ourselves in the trees at the cliff’s foot, a long arrow’s flight from where Triadas’s command-post had been last time.

At dawn, Emao-e did as I commanded, began a charge down from the pass, seven thousand on fifteen. Triadas must know how my speech had fired up my people; let him think I, and they, were being rash. I’d said enough times how the wasp can sting the bear to death if it has enough spirit, and how every battle would be all or nothing.

The Arkans set ranks and charged in themselves, letting me see something that gave me a turn: he had stiffened the camp guard to what looked like eighty or ninety for some reason. Sachara, who I had here as my second, hissed through his teeth. “Cheng, what do you think?”

They were in the insignia of regulars, but I thought, he’s caught wind of my plan somehow, and they are elite disguised as regulars. Getting away safe depended entirely on running back to the edge of the valley far enough in advance of any chase to stay ahead despite the talus at the foot of the cliff, and the cliff itself, slowing us down. But with more they might be able to hold us long enough for enough of the main force to join them, we were done for, myself included.

My warriors all saw what I saw. Keeping fear hidden behind an impassive face as they waited for my decision, I considered calling it off, or sending them without me and perhaps sacrificing them, a worthwhile exchange for Triadas if it did not include me; but, even as one or two of them suggested it, my heart rebelled. I should follow my mind, not my heart, but knowing I could never be entirely detached about myself, I felt the doubt eat at me. I’m counting my own importance too great, to hide from myself my own cowardice, I thought. It’s a hazard of fighting command.

Meanwhile, up in the pass, the army was doing perfectly what I had ordered, and Triadas doing perfectly what I’d planned. When Emao-e called a fall-back, as if I had lost my nerve—we had a pretend Chevenga, built like me and with a cobbled-together shoulder scabbard, fighting under the national banner—Triadas saw it as a chance to crush us entirely and ordered up his full army after, trying to flank. Even the greatest general will sometimes forget the things he learned first; habit or complacency or stiff-minded or over-confidence creep in unseen like ghosts. He was doing what he had not planned, at a time chosen not by him but by us, and he’d set his command-post in the same place.

My body tingled all over with the imperative, Now! I drove away my doubts and called back logic by will. If Triadas had learned my strike force number, he would have more than seventy here, for, elite or not, you never want to be outnumbered. Nor could he be concealing strength, because in that case he’d keep their apparent number the same as before, fifty, hiding the others. If he really knew my plan, this was half-action, and Triadas wasn’t prone to that. So he must not be. “We do as planned,” I ordered. “Wedge-form, to me, charge!”

All-Spirit, I thought as I ran out like the tip of an arrow aimed at the canopy under which he sat, at a desk with a number of red-tunic-wearing aides, this is the moment I have been waiting for for two years, the time I could take the fight to them on my own soil with a good chance of a devastating victory. Drawing Chirel, feeling my footfalls, bellowing out the war-cry, feeling the wind in my face; I can’t begin to describe how good it felt; if I hadn’t been too busy I might have wept.

Of course the guards rallied to form a line to hold us, yelling and leveling spears. I picked a man, faked him one way and cut back the other with a half-leap to get past his spear, and took him down without much slowing down. The rest of the wedge followed until the ten of us who would go after Triadas were all through; I’d assigned the rest to finish the guards so as to cover our retreat.

No fool to pride, he didn’t try to play hero, but ran for the nearest safety, his army’s rear, in the hopeless hope that his guard could hold us off long enough. His mantle, which was the brilliant red of the most expensive Arkan dye, flowed out behind him; two aides ran flanking him and the rest scattered, arms full of rolled-up maps. “Triadas, my old friend!” I hailed him in Arkan as I dashed after him. “Bit different circumstances, we meet this time, eh?”

So, as in the old story, he was the rabbit fleeing for his life while I was the fox chasing merely for my dinner, but he was middle-aged, out of training, breathing thin mountain air, and running uphill. As well the fox knew he could become dinner if he were too slow; already some in the Arkan host ahead were seeing, and peeling away to come to their general’s rescue. Clever to the end, he pulled his mantle in around him so I couldn’t grab it as I drew close. I caught him by his long streaming Aitzas hair.

Give him credit: he turned and drew a dagger, and almost gave me a wound; I twisted to make my breastplate deflect it. There was that square stern face again, but now flushed with exertion, and angry: with himself, I realized. I would love to have taken him alive, and have another conversation with him in bonds and me free, this time, but it was impossible. I struck off his head.

Such sweetness, to taunt the Arkans running towards me, far too late, by holding up his head to them, and smacking his cheek with the flat of Chirel. I hoped Kallijas Itrean was getting a good look. “You are having too much kyashin fun!” Sach hissed at me, as they came closer, and yanked me half off my feet to make me flee as appropriate. The hotheads performed their assignment perfectly, just climbing the cliff fast so we could follow, placing our hands and feet exactly as they placed theirs, and from the top we heaved rocks and dead trees and whatever else we could find down on the Arkans until they gave up and turned back, dispirited. They soon fell back from the pass as well.


This incident from the point of Kalalao Shae-Fara, one of the hotheads, at Gabriel Gadfly's site here.


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Thursday, February 4, 2010

213 - The pain that eases conscience

You can be away from home, and hear that it has all been changed, and brace yourself to see it, but still the idea remains inside that it is somehow just as it was, since that is the memory you have of it. I knew I would be shocked, but I still was.

Of course my first sight of Yeola-e wasn’t much, a deserted rocky beach south of Selina, in the dead of night. We would not risk going through the harbour; it seemed too likely that the Arkans knew I was on a cormarenc, and so they might well be turning every one that came into every Yeoli port town inside out. It wasn’t as if we needed an inn when the door of virtually any house we found would be thrown open to us ecstatically; there is the advantage in sneaking overland in your own country.

We were cautious though, travelling by night always, staying out of big cities, scouting local people who could steer us away from those who might be compromised; I had to accept that even among Yeolis there were those whom terror could make into traitors. Even by starlight I could see the road-signs with Arkan lettering, the walls where there should be none, the gibbets with hanging corpses in village squares. What was perhaps most awful was that my own who were with me didn’t seem even to notice these things.

The army was camped high on the pass near Ossotyeya, as I’d heard, pinned there by a greater Arkan one, which forced us to go around the back way to it, taking several climbs through passes almost too high for trees, so that the forest was up to our waists. Here we could travel by day, but on the last night we were close enough that I ordered push through, and we came in in the death-hour. Feeling we were cause enough to wake up Emao-e, I talked her guards into letting me in, knelt beside her bedroll and barked, as I had once before, “Fourth Chevenga reporting for duty, General First!” Just as before, she bounced about a foot up off the ground, roaring “Shit-britches, boy, I never know when you’re going to oh my All-Spirit, Chevenga!” and seized me in a furious hug.

The command council was only seven people, and I saw some missing who should be here, which told me the worst. In those who were left, I saw a deeper fatigue than from having been awakened too early, and new scars here and there. We’d all aged ten years in two, losing despite giving our utmost.

The smiles at me were desperate, the eyes naked with the thought, You are our last hope. I saw in Hurai’s the thought, I hope I taught him well enough. Jinai Oru, who looked the same—nothing could age or tire him—gave me a rib-cracking hug and said, “I told them you’d be back.”

So I sat them all down and said, “Let me tell you what I’ve been doing, between Haiu Menshir and here.” They hadn’t even heard of the battle of Haiu Menshir, I saw by the first shock, and the subsequent delight. As I listed everything off, totaling the numbers we would have, weight seemed to lift off their shoulders. We were so far gone that I don’t think shame for needing allies even occurred to them.

The rest of my family was in Kefara, about two days north; Assembly stayed and met where it could, in tents and on pastures. Renaina Chaer was still keeping the New Mountains to the south free, with her usual ghost and lightning tactics. This army was, as Krero had told me, seven thousand. It made me feel weak and sick to think of it: of all the warriors of Yeola-e who’d faced Arko on land, each the fruit of ten years of toil and sweat in training, only about ten thousand remained.

“Well, yes and no,” Emao-e pointed out to me, when I said this. “It’s been close to two years; everyone who was fourteen at the start is sixteen now, and there’s been a lot of secret training. Besides, there are those who lay low after they scattered, or recovered from wounds; if we start winning back, we’ll gather joiners.”

“If?” I said. “I know it’s been hard for you, all of you. But there’s no if here.”

I’d wondered if Emao-e might question my taking over the high generalship, either because of my age or that I’d been in the House of Integrity. That had been part of why I’d made my entrance for her the way I had. Now she just said, “A-e kras.”

It was close to dawn. “Tell them only that I am close,” I said. “I have a little business in Kefara, first, then I’ll be back to speak to them. Pick me out ten people who are good runners.” Going as couriers do, we could make two days one. I didn’t say what business; they needed nothing even slightly demoralizing now.

It was hard; I found out how unused to high air I’d got, breathing the thick heavy stuff of Arko and Haiu Menshir, except for when Niku had taken me up high. The secretary of the Arch-Arbitrate was sitting in the temple of Kefara. I knelt before her, took off my Brahvnikian-made signet and said “I have done what warrants impeachment without vote, as well as charges, but I plead extenuating circumstances. I submit myself to the Arch-Arbitrate’s judgment.” He was surprised enough just to see my face; now his jaw dropped open, the look of joy vanishing.

“I have Yeoli blood on my hands,” I told the head judge. “This is a story you should only have to tell once,” she said, and moved to assemble the court. I waited in a monk’s cell, with the bailiff keeping me company. Even chatting with him, I felt fears settle on my heart like mosquitoes on skin. I should have kept quiet, let them stay missing in action forever, as they themselves intended, I thought, sweating. If I were impeached, I could still serve as chakrachaseye if Artira appointed me, but how much would this touch morale? And what if they decided to charge me with murder?

But, in truth, I didn’t have it in me to do differently. Keeping it secret would have haunted me, ruining my own morale, weakening my spirit, hindering my fighting, muddling my plans. The God-in-Me would not send me the flash of inspiration, and without that, we were lost.

A voice came faint through the heavy door of the cell. “Chevenga?” It was Artira. We threw ourselves into each other’s arms, laughing like fifteen years ago, before we’d known what pain was, and crying too. I told her why I was here. She knew I had done it, of course.

We caught up. She’d sent a last letter to me in Arko, that I hadn’t received. I told her I’d accept whatever position was given me. And I said, “I’m sorry I left you with all this mess on your shoulders, Ardi.”

She knew I was the only one she could let show the strain. “Everyone’s been saying, ‘Will Chevenga come back, we’ll be all right with Chevenga back,’ and so on and on,” she said. Everyone loves you and no one loves me. “You can save us, and I can’t, and everyone knows it; how can I not feel I’ve failed?”

“Ardi… you were flung into the avalanche, you didn’t invite it, or even fail to prepare for it. Take two steps back and ask, did I do any more to prevent it than you did, really? We’re all equal in the face of Arkan power.” That helped a little; what helped more was taking her in my arms and letting her cry on my shoulder.

The case required Assembly as well as the Arch-Arbitrate. They set up on a field under the mountain Merahin, and I stood on grass while the charges were read. I was the only witness, but there were Enchian issues of the Pages and the Watcher of the Ring, too. I told the whole story as impassively as I could, which was not very.

Legally, it was all shaky. I should have been charged with eight counts of murder, but was not; the signet I had taken off today was not the official one, as Artira was wearing the one that had been ratified as official, and I had done something that warranted impeachment the moment I did it, so from the Yeoli standpoint, none of my alliances or loans were precisely legal; to reinstate me after this should require a national vote, not just one of Assembly, as those who argued for me asked. In times like these, even the most stiff-mindedly proper look the other way. It could be argued that there was no chance my trial would be fair, when everyone felt so dependent on me. We were so far gone no one argued that. Perhaps it would come back to bite me, some day; now was not the time to worry about it.

When the judges went off to a copse of trees to confer, I heard my name called over the buzz of the crowd. I hadn’t noticed: at its edge were Veraha, my sibs too young to fight, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my spouses and assorted other kin, all waving and blowing me kisses. Shaina lifted over her head a toddler with a thick thatch of black hair: Kima Imaye. I went blind with tears. Fifth wasn’t there, though, and I saw why when I thought about it. He was old enough to understand what I had done, but not why.

I didn’t expect no punishment at all. We might as well be slaves of the Arkans, if we are ever that far gone. They required me to inform the families of the eight myself, and get their wisdom teeth to them when I could; they sentenced me to take eight brand-marks on the face, since that was the Yeoli Mezem custom. But they also recommended Assembly reinstate me as semanakraseye, which they did, almost unanimously. The branding was much lighter than I’d inflicted on other Yeolis in the Mezem, done with wire rather than a rod; the eight lines fit in a space on my left cheek two finger-widths side, as anyone who has met me since knows. Being the pain that eases conscience, it hurt pleasantly.

I slept there the night, spending the evening with family. Now I saw Fifth, so big and with his face so lengthened at the age of six that he looked, to my eyes, like a little man. His dark ringlets hung past his shoulders. He’d proven himself very bright, learning to read and write not long after I’d left, and speaking like a ten-year-old. He’d gripped the sword of Saint Mother, which was held in hiding now, but not lifted it. Still, he told me, “Daddy, I’m going to be as good a warrior as you.”

Azaila had spoken to me about this shortly after I’d brought Fifth home. “You know the odds,” he said. “It’s almost certain your child won’t be as good as you. To expect it of him is to do him wrong.” I already knew that, of course. I’d just said I’d expect his best, no more and no less, and always said the same to Fifth himself. But now here he had this ambition, formed in my absence. I couldn’t single out Esora-e; people always look for missing parents in children.

“Will you train with me tomorrow, Daddy, pleeeeease?” he was saying.

“I have to run back to the army, so I won’t have time, love,” I said. “I have a little time now, though.” There was still a little orange and blue daylight, as we went out on the mountain. I challenged him to a little blind-man’s-bluff, to warm up, I told him. When he was fully blindfolded, I drew Chirel and did a down-cut at his head, a stroke that would have made me leap a pace sideways at his age. There wasn’t even a break in his chatter.

My child, I thought, as he stumbled over the meadow giggling, “I’ll get you, Daddy!”, I took you from your mother, then abandoned you, will abandon you again tomorrow, and then again the final time, before you’re even in your teens. Why did I take you? How could I do you such wrong? I looked ahead in his life, saw him chase the futile goal he’d set his heart on, all or nothing as children do, defeated from the start, with even his name begging comparison. His highest lesson of warcraft would be to abandon it. He was intelligent, too, and therefore sensitive, and when he felt it worst, at sixteen, I wouldn’t even be there. If anything, I would become a curse to him, the summit he failed to reach.

When we were done playing and practicing, I sat down with him under my arm on a rock. “I want to tell you a story, Chevenga—I know, people tell you that can’t be your name, but from me it can, because I alone am not mixing you up with some other Chevenga—about why you are anaraseye. Has anyone told you about that?”

He signed chalk with his smooth little hand, and said “It’s because I’m your eldest child, and you chose for me to.”

“Why do you think I thought you’d make a good semanakraseye? Why do you think that might be?”

“Because you thought I’d be a great warrior, and defeat the savage foreigners?” Definitely, Esora-e had been speaking with him. Already, in that little face so like mine, was tension and doubt I cannot recall feeling, that young. It had been peacetime.

“No,” I said. “That wasn’t it at all. I didn’t choose you for anything I thought you might be someday. I wouldn’t do that. It was for what you were. You think you were too young to prove yourself in anyway, don’t you, love?” He signed chalk, mystified. “But you did. Very well.” And I told him about the toad, on Leyere mountain.

An amazed dawning came into his eyes. He remembered it. Sounding not five years older than he was, but ten, he said, “That’s why you did that.”

“Yes. I’m sorry I frightened you. But if ever in your life anyone says you aren’t good enough, or as good as me, or strong enough, remember this always. You won my approval for being kind-hearted and just-minded. Nothing else, because you need nothing else to be a good semanakraseye. And if, when I’m not here, anyone says I wouldn’t think you are good enough in one thing or another, tell them this: from the day I met you, you were good enough for me, and you always will be.”

He sat gazing at me for a bit, then said, in an eerily-adult manner, “Thank you,” and gave me a neck-crushing hug. All the way back down the mountain, he who was usually so chatter-filled—I don’t know where he got it—was silent in thought.


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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

212 - I feel much more confident

Offered the choice of waiting until I came off the drug or the meeting he and I were to have that night anyway, Mikhail chose the former, but left to do some business of his in some other part of the Benai. Ivahn lifted the blanket off me, a blessed relief. I was still wearing two shirts, having planned to whip off the outer one in the alley, and was sweating like a pig. He asked me if I was comfortable where I lay, which my drug-palsied mind interpreted as meaning comfortable bodily, making my mouth answer “Yes.” Aside from wishing I were dead.

“Good,” he said. “I had Stevahn tell your people that you’re with me, in conference. Are you thirsty?” I was, desperately, having had not a drop from when I’d headed out to kill Edremmas. He lifted my head on his arm and gave me two cups full, then headed back to his desk to do paperwork, and say his afternoon prayer on the chiming of the bell. Though I found myself almost hoping the drug would never wear off, since then I’d have to speak on my own initiative, it did.

When I could, I turned away from him on the couch and put my arm over my head. I kept my tears silent. He would find them contemptible too, I was sure. When my eyes dried and enough time had gone by that they might not be too red, I sat up, and pulled off the second shirt. I decided to let him speak first, though. Of course he thought my silence was still from the drug, until he asked, and I told him it was gone enough that I could speak of my own will.

I thought he would tear into me, even if in a calm, monkish sort of way, but he settled just for asking me why I had erred, a hard question to answer. Why do we make mistakes? Inexperience? Carelessness? Overconfidence? Was I still a touch out of my head as Mikhail had suggested? I didn’t feel a clear answer in myself, so I said, “Rank stupidity.” After all that, he wouldn’t let me castigate myself. “My anger is only fear,” he said.

I got up, carefully, stretching out the stiffnesses, and trying to will away the last of the truth-drug feeling in my limbs. I went onto my knees and held my forelock to apologize, the strongest way we Yeolis do it, for causing him that fear. “Same as Mikhail,” I said as well, “whatever I can do to help with the Arkans, I will.” The wig, whiskers and hat might be useful in that, I was thinking.

“Accepted,” he said, then took my chin to turn my face up and look into my eyes, which must have been redder than I hoped. “Ah, Vik.” He pulled me up into his arms.

Curse you for making me lose it, I thought, as my eyes filled with tears again. “Truth be told, Brahvniki needs you too, lad. You’ll be all right, and do well.” I couldn’t keep from sobbing then, and burying my head in his shoulder. My Yeoli heart, I guess, has no use for zight. He held me hard, patting my shoulder, the old fox gone, the compassionate priest entirely with me.

Chirel was still lying on his desk. When I was done, he unwound the broken bits of peace-bonding wire from the hilt, and handed it to me. Then he sent a Vra to invite in Mikhail.

“You are up and about again, semanakraseye,” the clawprince said, when he and I were alone. “I am assuming salt is thoroughly shared between us.”

“Yes, very,” I said. More than you know. Unless Ivahn had told him I’d been under the blanket; I had no way of knowing. His face was stern, but closed, so that it was hard to know what he thought of me. As if I don’t, I thought.

“Teik Mikhail...” It was a loss of zight, which is everything to a Zak, but I’d lost it already. I got on my knees to him, too, which put my face at about his shoulder. “I apologize, with all my heart.”

By his face, he had not expected this, but the surprise soon disappeared into the sternness. “For what, precisely?” he said. He was testing me.

“For giving you cause to lose trust in me, when you have entrusted me with so much.”

“Hmmm.” He ran one small finger over his lips. He didn’t accept, so I stayed where I was. “So... semanakraseye... are you all right? Should I worry? Ivahn reassures me I needn’t.” So he doesn’t know I was under the blanket. I wasn’t sure who I would embarrass worse by revealing it, him or me.

No reason to beat around the bush. “You mean, am I sane enough to do what is asked of me?” And where is my confidence, I thought. He’s asking that, too. I took a deep breath, willing it not to be ragged. “Mikhail... I will do with this the same as one should do with any mistake. Learn from it, and never repeat it. I didn’t think I had a tendency to insufficient reconnaissance; maybe I do. I plan to keep that in mind. If I’m still insane, the healers would be the first to tell you that my claim to sanity is not to be believed. For what it’s worth, I think I’m sane.” I drove away the thought, which poked like the black paw of a monster out of its cage, that was a lie. I was sane if I could keep the cage locked.

“I see. I accept your apology, semanakraseye. Your zight is safe with me.” I got up. “And though I am tempted to make my worry manifest by demanding monetary recompense... a deal is a deal. Call it my mistake for not getting that in our agreement.”

Here it was. I must do what I must do, I intoned to myself, and said, “If you wish to change the terms—raise the interest, or make the portion we designated a fee into a loan—I will accept that.”

He stood considering for a while, whether truly considering, or making me sweat, I naturally couldn’t tell. “I am going to heed that which is in part the source of my success though the mind cannot follow it and it is no manrauq that I know,” he said finally. “I’m going to obey my guts. Edremmas is dead by your hand, and a deal is a deal.” He handed me a paper. It was the scrip for the full amount.

Curse my tear-up-at-a-dustspeck eyes, I thought, as they filled yet again. “Yeolis,” he said, but with enough of a smile that I knew it was not contemptuous, and offered a linen handkerchief, so elaborately embroidered I felt embarrassed to let my tears land on it.

Outside Ivahn’s door, Sachara and Krero were waiting in ambush. They seized me in their arms, one from each side. Krero said, “Oh my kyashin left hemorrhoid, are you all right?” and Sach said, “Cheng, what happened? Stevahn came and told us to stop acting like our tails were on fire, the Benaiat Ivahn was handing it,” both at once.

“It’ll be all right, I’m fine, they’re going to fake the assassin’s death,” I said quietly but fast, throwing an arm around each of their necks. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, a thousand times over. Does everyone know I’m here?”

“Yes, we told them,” said Krero. “Everyone’s shitting bricks but your shadow-father, who’s spitting nails. Let’s get you downstairs so Kaninjer can check you over.”

In our cellar-once-tannery, everyone else fell on me in a thick knot of hugs as well, except for Esora-e. His face was white with rage, making me wonder if it had been so the whole time. The silence grew deeper, and those who held me let go and backed away, as he spoke. I braced myself.

“Fourth Chevenga Shae-Arano-e.” His voice was deadly quiet, at least at the start. “What in the garden orbicular is wrong with you? How irresponsible, how reckless, could you be, trying to pull something like that? Have you forgotten everything Azaila or I or anyone taught you? Sachara said you bowed for the crowd, like the kevyalin circus clown you once were—it’s the kevyalin Mezem, you were in it too long! Or your kyashin mind is still soft and we should truss you up and haul you back to the kevyalin healers—how is Yeola-e going to win with you doing kyash like—”

Esora-e Mangu.” The voice that cut in was even more deadly. My mother stepped between him and me, so I didn’t see her look, but I saw him freeze. I hope I am never in the path of it. He opened his mouth, closed it again.

I couldn’t move, as if my feet had grown roots, or speak, as if I were gagged again. The world was spinning; the crowded faces that stared at me, smiles gone, swam in my sight. All I could think was, I am not who I think I am, or claim to be.

My mother turned, and caught me in her arms as if I were falling. “Kaninjer... he needs you.” Not unless he has the secret elixir of competence in his bag, I thought. I wanted to die again. She and the Haian sat me on a bed, and he felt my wrists.

I said what was in my heart. “If you no longer trust me, say so, and I will do what is right.” Leap off a cliff, I meant, though I did not say it.

They closed in around me again, their voices jumbling together. “Of course we trust you, you just made one lousy mistake, if we didn’t we’d be counting votes, we trust you and we love you, Chevenga, our lives are in your hands and we want it no other way!” Of course I lost it again.

In the end, Esora-e embraced me too, and apologized. I learned later that Denaina and Sachara had pulled him aside and said, “You saw how pale he went. Kill his faith in himself and you kill all Yeola-e, too. Just keep right on if you want that on your shoulders.”

3 Jil 4975 : Brahvniki

Dear Mamin:

I did something I did not think was possible last night.

After he asked if they still trusted him, and they were all in tears and all over him, it turned more into a celebration when he told them how much he had earned by doing it, and they went over the numbers of mercenary warriors who’ve signed on.

But there was no alcohol-drinking, fortunately, and they all went to bed at a reasonable time. But I had a feeling I should stay up for a while to make sure he got to sleep.

Chevenga and sleep are not friends. He’ll be dog-tired and not want to go to bed anyway, as if sleep somehow steals time away from him that he needs for all the things he has to do. Then it doesn’t take him enough; he sleeps lightly so that a little noise can wake him. When I asked him about sleep in the patient intake, he told me he sometimes can’t get to sleep for worrying about something until he’s come up with a plan for it, and that he also often wakes up too early and lies thinking. I know I am going to have to watch him for the signs of insufficient sleep.

So I crept into his room, perhaps half an aer after he retired. He used to sleep in darkness, he told me, but wants a candle by the bed since he was in Arko, for reasons he’s never told me but which are, no doubt, in Alchaen’s file. His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling.

“Do you want something to help you sleep?” I asked him. “If you stay awake long enough, I will prescribe it.”

“If it gets to that,” he said. We stayed in silence for a bit, and then he said, “High stakes, no mistakes. That’s how it goes. I can’t stop thinking it.”

He’s never shared something like that with me before, Mamin, something of his concerns. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, because, what do I know of war or assassination or planning that sort of thing? But just listening to patients can make them feel better, so I said, “If you want to talk, I am here.”

“So terrible, the consequences could have been, but so easily avoidable,” he said. “All I had to do was stroll along my getaway route beforehand, and then I’d have set a different one. How can I call myself competent if I didn’t think of that?”

It was so odd, Mamin. He is usually so confident, it defies belief. Now he sounded… well, Spirit of Life, he sounded like me. Maybe I could talk to him the way you, and other people, talk to me, when I get filled with self-doubt after I’ve erred. “One mistake is not a terrible thing,” I said. “And anyone can make one.”

No! Or maybe I couldn’t. Was that the wrong thing to say. He sat up fast in the bed. “Maybe anyone else can. I can’t! Not one, not one more, or else everyone and everything I love and live for is—” He drew his finger across his throat, meaning, you know. “I’ve sworn that I won’t make another; but how many people in history have said that, have sworn ‘never again, after this one,’ each time? I can make sure all my reconnaissance is three times what it needs to be from now on, and I will, but what if some other kind of mind-lapse creeps up on me? And I don’t know whether it’s because I’m out of practice or complacent from victories or just young and stupid or that maybe… my mind hasn’t healed as much as I’m pretending it has… All-Spirit…” He buried his face in his hands. “I’ve cried so many tears of shame today, I would have thought I’d run dry.”

You try to make a patient like that lie back and then you’re fighting him, of course, so I just put my hands on his head, frontal-occipital. He closed his eyes and let out a long quivering sigh. “I know. I should lie back.” He didn’t, though. “I… want so much to sleep with a pair of arms around me. I miss Niku… I wonder how she is… I’ve been here long enough, I should have sent a letter, maybe I’ll write it right now… no, no, I know, I know, Kanincha, I should lie back and sleep.” He sighed again, still quivering.

“Lie back and I’ll keep holding your head like this,” I said. He did, and wept a little, but his eyes stayed open and anguished and full of thoughts, that he stopped sharing with me. I told myself, just be patient and keep holding. After a while he wrapped one hand around his Yeoli crystal, and closed his eyes, but in an intentional way that showed it was to pray, not to sleep. He stayed like that for a while, and then he was in tears again, but by the way his face smoothed out, the crease between his brows disappearing, I knew they were tears of relief, that he’d found spiritually, somehow. “Thanks Kanincha,” he whispered. “I’m all right, thank you. I know what to do.” He fell asleep barely a moment later.

So, yes, I did something I didn’t think I could do, ease his distress on a matter of his calling, which is so diametrically opposed to mine. I feel much more confident about being a good healer to him.

All my love from your self-assured son,


On retrospect, the shaking I got in Brahvniki was a good thing, to steady me down for undertaking the war.

We were in Bravhniki for five more days, for a total of thirty-one-thousand and five-hundred gold at various rates, none of them bad, as well as four thousand mercenaries and a feeling they were far from tapped out by the time I was leaving. Esora-e would stay behind until he either had seven thousand or made a good hire of a mercenary recruiter to run it all herself, which he eventually did.

We set sail out of Brahvniki harbour as soon as the sky was fully dark that night. “Steer by Vara-imayen,” I told the cormarenc captain, meaning the star whose Yeoli name means Exiles Hope. Take me home.


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