Sunday, 3 April 2011
#SampleSunday – 3 April 2011
Something from The Last King's Amulet - an early bit.
“Not at home?” I was a little surprised. Mother never left the house. She was a good wife as these things are measured in the city and the home was her territory, supervising slaves and such, balancing the household budget and hopefully giving me three thousand of it without father knowing. “Where is she?”
The slave wasn't as deferential as I would like. He didn't actually try and stop me from entering, but I had the feeling that he wanted to. Damned impudent of him, if you want my opinion. If he were mine I'd slap him down a bit. Not that I'm a bully, you understand, but a slave has to know his place. Captured, born or self-sold, an air of deference to free men is the least they can offer for their food and board.
“Your mother did not see fit to inform me, young Master.”
At least he knew who I was. I'd never seen him before. father had many slaves and traded them as some men trade horses. Buy or breed, train and sell. Actually, he kept other slaves to do the actual training. It was a classic case of have money make money, and he never missed a trick, which is why his fortune continues to grow. Personally, I'd never had enough of the stuff to make more than a token stab at it, and I was never very lucky at games of chance.
“When will she be back?”
“I was not informed, young Master.”
I kept moving, forcing the ignorant swine to follow me while we talked. I was heading for the private areas of the house, which I of course knew well. “Anyone else home? Sisters and such?”
“Lady Rhia is in the sewing room, I believe.”
“Get some food in my slave.”
It was an order, and he couldn't refuse. One less mouth to feed for the day is one less mouth to feed. I'd get Rhia to have someone bring me something while I was visiting. The household was busy with slaves, whom I ignored as I made my way through the public areas and back to the sewing room where half a dozen women were doing woman things with cloth, my sister among them. She looked up and smiled as I greeted her.
“Good morning, spinster.”
“Hello, fat boy. And not for long, haven't you been told? I'm to be married.”
“Commiserations,” I flopped down on a seat next to her and stretched out my legs. “Who's the unlucky fellow?”
“Lucky. Think of my dowry!”
“I do, with envy. Pity I don't get one.”
“Men are supposed to make their own money, Sumto. It's Yuril Kelenthis Terian. He seems nice.”
I shrugged. I knew the family, of course. As old and powerful as our own. “I don't know if I remember him. How old is he?”
“Forty this year. His first wife died. He wants another. father arranged it.” She shrugged, accepting her fate. Not too horrible a fate, actually, when you consider that she would have control of her own dowry. Her husband could, in law, advise and request but not control her money. It belonged to her and her children, not to him.
“Does all this give me a clue as to where Mother is?”
She raised an eyebrow archly. “You wanted something?”
Wrapping myself in dignity, I told her that I was merely paying my respects.
“Instead of paying your debts?”
“Any hope of some food?”
One of the household slaves was up and moving to the door before Rhia indicated that food should indeed be provided. I noticed that the slave was a pretty little thing with the long blond hair and blue eyes so sought after by brothel owners and carnally minded patrons alike. I wondered if she were originally from the Gerrian tribes, and if so which one? If she could change shape, surely she would have turned into a bird and fled the city by now. Or would she? The life of a slave isn't so terrible; roof and food provided, duties usually not too arduous, especially if educated, quite a remarkable list of rights and protections under the law; a woman could bring a charge of rape against even the most powerful of patrons, for example, and be compensated. With a skill, a slave could earn and keep money of their own, sometimes enough to buy themselves free. A well educated person in dire straits sometimes sold themselves as the purchase price was theirs by law and could be used to pay debts or be invested. Only the most intractable slaves had a hard time of it, working the fields or worse, the mines. Of course, the downside to the whole thing was the simple lack of freedom to shape your own destiny, and I can quite see where, if a barbarian were captured in war and ripped from his home and society, he might take the whole thing badly.
“If you go to the war, I'll take on your debts.”
She sighed, rather theatrically, I thought. “Sumto. You can't go on like this. Father will cut off your allowance soon enough, has threatened already to evict you, and will eventually disown you. You do know that don't you? He will do it. Don't think he won't.”
The thoughtful frown came naturally enough to my face as I avoided thinking about any of this. War and politics don't interest me, yet they were the only career open to me. It was a problem I had wrestled with through my teens and into my twenties.
“You can't avoid responsibility forever.”
Is that what I was doing? And if so, why not? I could speak and read seven languages, do numbers in my head, knew the whole history of our people (especially our family) and much of that of other peoples (some in their own words, which was a bit different than our version, I can tell you!) Also, I had some understanding of magic, though as such teachings have to be earned by status achieved or paid for in hard cash I had less learning in this area than I'd like. Actually, just a few cantrips; probably less than any noble in the city - apart from Kerral, of course, and he had only just this moment joined our ranks. And, of course, I was limited by the size of the one stone I owned. The Colleges, and some patrons, owned stones that you could barely hold in one hand.
“You have to do something!”
And I would, I would. I have skills, and could doubtless earn a living doing something. Not in the city of course, I was far to well known for that. I couldn't be seen too be doing something, like some commoner. But in the provinces I might be able to set myself up in some style, provide a few small magics for some nobleman or some client king, in secret, anonymously, always at risk of being kidnapped or killed for the stone itself... hmmm, maybe not. Still, I didn't have to wear the stone openly, or bruit it about that I was of the city, or who exactly I was.
“Do you have any idea how angry father is with you? How close he is to carrying out his threat to disown you? Without your name to protect you, how would you survive? The only reason your creditors don't take you to court is because father made it quietly clear that anyone who did so would suffer unpleasant consequences for the damage done to his reputation, the reputation of the family name, of course, not for any consequences to you.”
Of course, she was right. If no one knew who I was, I wouldn't receive guest rights anywhere, so perhaps I should travel openly from court to court around the Client Kingdoms. That might actually be fun. Of course, I would need funds to travel with. But then travel was such an uncomfortable business even at the best of times...
“Sumto, are you listening to me?”
I picked amongst the sweetmeats that had arrived at my side. “Of course. I'm thinking about it.” I turned my thoughtful face to her so that she could see that I was indeed thinking about it.
“What's to think about? Go with the army, do a year, with our ancestry there is no need to do more. Use your share of the spoils to start a career. It's simple. All you have to do is do it!”
“Like Kerial did?”
It was a low blow. Our older brother had gone to war and not survived. They hadn't even found a body to send home. As I should have expected, tears welled up at once and, quite honestly, I almost let my own emotions get a hold of me. I had been thirteen at the time, and Rhia eleven. It had been hero worship, pure and simple, and I recognized that now. Dashing and seemingly immortal older brother, everything I aspired to be, courageous, honorable, and suddenly quite dead.
She waved my apology away and made an effort to get a hold of herself. “That was unfair.”
“I know.” It was.
“I don't want you to come to any harm. It's not that at all. It's just... what else are you going to do?”
It was a problem. I could marry, of course. But it would be to someone of a station considerably lower than ours, a social climber wanting an association with our family and using his daughter to get it; and she would have control of the money. Not a solution, really. Besides, I doubt father would allow it to happen. He wouldn't want some new noble family feeding off our illustrious ancestors, or the embarrassment of a relationship by marriage to such a low bloodline.
We were interrupted by the uppity slave who'd answered the door to me. “Yuril Kelenthis Terian is here, mistress.”
“Oh!” She fluttered, looking around. “I can't see him, Mother isn't here, or father. He must know that! Sumto, you must receive him and extend my apologies.”
I was glad enough of the distraction. Rhia wasn't going to be the answer to my problem and, as she had just reminded me, Mother wasn't here. I crammed the last sweetmeat into my mouth and dusted off my hands as I rose to my feet. “I'll come back later.”
“Mother won't help, you know.”
It was a parting shot I chose to ignore. At the door I changed my mind. “Why?”
“Father has been working on her. They do live together, you know.”
Damn. “When's the wedding?”
“You are not invited, Sumto. I'm sorry. But the heads of our respective households insist.” She did look genuinely sorry, and to be fair I knew she couldn't do anything about it.
“Did you throw a tantrum?”
She smiled and dropped her head, looking up at me. “I did,” she admitted with mock shyness. “It didn't do any good.”
I smiled in return. “I shall be sad to miss it,” I said, and left.
Yuril Kelenthis Terian was a tall, broad man who looked effortlessly powerful. At forty he was in his prime, a martial man of our class and just the sort of chap father would approve of. His family was as illustrious as ours, and I had lied to my sister; I knew of him, and we had even met on a couple of occasions. He was well advanced on the course of honors, having been a Ludile in charge of public works at the proper age. I had no idea what public works he had been involved in and didn't care. Still, I could not help but be aware of who held what titles, it was something almost everyone I knew talked about. So I knew he held no title now but, being forty, would be aiming to be elected as a Judge as soon as he could muster enough votes. After that a seat in the patron's assembly, and so on and so on, ending in King or Censor, titles of much prestige but little power. The numerous nobility of the city devised ways of sharing power in order to avoid constant internal warfare, which disrupted trade, weakened the city, and was generally thought to be a pain.
“My sister can't receive you, Terian. No other family members are at home, and I am leaving.”
His smile reminded me of a shark. “Perfect. It was you I wanted to talk to.”
“Well, let's walk out together, shall we?”
We turned right, our slaves following. In this area there were few people abroad; all the buildings on the Yurintal hill were large and prosperous so there was little traffic and no street markets, just a few private citizens and slaves about the business of their masters, and us.
Terian didn't waste much time. “I knew you would turn up here some time in order to sponge off your family, so I had the place watched. Things have to change. I can't have my family name tarnished by association with a no-account layabout. I'm putting this bluntly as there seems no other way to do it. Leave the city and don't come back. Or go with the army and do your duty.”
“There is no or. If you have to be removed from the city I certainly have a large enough clientèle to get the deed done. If you come back I'll have you killed. If I have to remove you I may have you killed anyway. Am I making myself sufficiently plain? I am not related to you and I will not be. Go or go or go. Those are your options. Choose one. Goodbye.” With that he turned and made off in the other direction.
I didn't think he was kidding.
Neither did Meran. “When are we going?”
“Today seems like a good time.”
I like writing letters. I have a good hand and like to show it off. First, to my father. Loving son, doing duty, realized error of ways, hope armor and weapons dispatched to army for my use, etc. Simple. Second to Kelenthis Terian. Greetings, I will not forget your advice. Farewell. Let him be in no doubt that I owed him one. Third to my sister. I accept your offer to clear my debts and am joining the expeditionary force forthwith. Fifth through twenty-seventh. I hereby inform you that the sum of (varies) will be paid on presentation of this letter to Rhia Illana Solientina Cerulian on any day after her wedding to Yuril Kelenthis Terian. Done.
Meran had packed and arranged for my horses to be bought to the house by the time I was finished. I arranged that my other slaves move next door for the neighbors to look after and use as they saw fit while I was away, in return that they look after my home.
Standing in the doorway of my bed chamber, eying my bed with great regret and generally looking about the place I noticed that there were far too many books unpacked.
“Meran!” He appeared at my side. “There are too many books unpacked.”
“We can't take them all, master.”
“Two horses. Two people.”
I frowned. Of course he was coming with me. “We need another horse.”
“I already borrowed a donkey for the baggage train. Clothes. Tent.”
He looked embarrassed.
As it came clear to me in a sudden insight, I hastily dropped the matter. He had bought a donkey, with his own money. And a tent. No wonder he was embarrassed. So was I. “I need to take my books, Meran. It's important. Some are rare and valuable.”
“I don't think I can undertake to protect them all from the weather.”
Bugger. “How about a dozen?”
“Six. I can vouchsafe six.”
“Right. Six.” Picking the six books I could take with me took longer than writing thirty letters but eventually I was done and they were packed and there was nothing more to stay for.
A bedroll and a tent are no substitute for a bed and a roof.
Sheo and Kerral were delighted of course. Tulian, who was now my commanding officer, had not been quite so happy to see me when I had presented myself to him as custom demanded.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Military service,” I effected to sound surprised.
He sat behind a table covered in papers I can only assume were necessary for the organization of an army and stared at me. “Why?”
“It's my duty, Tul. Why else?”
“No. You know the law. You can't refuse me. What duties am I assigned?”
He was defeated and knew it. “Stay out of the bloody way, Sum. Just stay out of the bloody way.”
I sighed. “Duties?”
“You are not going to be a member of my staff, Sum. Forget it. Join the equestes and ride with them.”
“Something nominal, Tul. Come on, cousin,” we really were cousins, “you know I can't just tack on. Family honor and all that.”
“All the command posts are filled.” Meaning he had enough officers to do whatever they were told; it was the centurions who really commanded, the first centurion of the cohort who interpreted orders on the field. The command posts were there just to make sure units went where they were supposed to go - like a rudder on a boat, they steered. “And I already accepted Gatren Teciba Orans as my aide.” In fact the aide was there just to observe and learn how to command. It was the post that would have been most appropriate for me, though I had no intention of learning anything other than how to stay alive. Instead, it had already gone to some other young noble.
“Think of something, cousin.”
He sighed. “Baggage train. Look after it.”
I gave it a thought. Too many animals. “Anything else?”
“Three battle mages and six healers need a wet nurse.”
“Good enough!” In fact, perfect. Might even get a friendly one to teach me something for free.
“Don't bug them.” It was as though he could read my mind, or my smile. “Just keep them safe and happy, and let them do their job when the fighting starts. They know their duties.”
I held up a hand. “I understand, one healer per cohort in the fight and protect the battle mages from enemy action. I'll need a bodyguard for them for that, of course...”
“Take six men of your choice. Now get out.” I got.
As I said, Sheo and Kerral were delighted. I'd pulled them from the equestes and given them something useful to do. Then I'd told Kerral, ordered – I was in command after all - ordered Kerral to pick four of the toughest looking bastards he could find and get them on board. Pakat, Geheran, Luk and Gobin had joined us. They were all big and scarred and had more weapons on them than I thought any one man could possibly use, but they fit the bill as far as I was concerned. That done we went to join the battle mages, who traveled in style. Big comfortable tents, several servants, and a wagon full of supplies. They were sitting around a fire pit on chairs. I was instantly envious, but presented myself with a pleasant smile.
“Sumto Merian Ichatha Cerulian. At your service.”
“We don't need anything. Go away.”
Best to stay polite. Who knew what rank they were? Could be anything, though I didn't recognize any of them. I tagged them in my mind as Tall, Fat, Old and Skinny. “I'm here to protect you.”
Tall looked around ostentatiously. “We don't appear to be in any danger.”
“And to see you have everything you need.”
No answer to this, at least no immediately. Then Old pointed to a clear bit of ground off to one side. “Set yourselves up there and try not to intrude. We'll send someone if we need anything.”
Fat actually turned around in his chair to glare at me. Tall jerked a thumb to signal behind him, which I took to mean that they were not so far away in that direction. Thinking I might not improve things with further questions or one sided conversation, I left and put my subordinates to setting up camp in the space indicated. Then went to check in on the healers; just as well appointed as the battle mages but much friendlier. Invited to stay and join them for the evening meal, I accepted with alacrity. They looked like people who liked to eat, and I guessed the food would be good. A short time later I sat before a friendly fire in a comfortable chair with a small table to my right hand on which slaves dumped dishes and drinks. I did a head count, six healers and me, confirming that there was in fact one more battle mage than Tulian had said. Interesting. Or odd. Or maybe he was just visiting and would go back to the city when we moved out, tomorrow or the next day. With less qualms than I would have had with the battle mages, I asked about the extra mage.
“Ah, you mean the student.” Middle aged and plump, Lentro was the only healer whose name I had retained from the bombardment of introductions. He was the nominal leader of the healers, senior by some ranking system I didn't inquire about; on his right hand he wore a ring that encompassed two fingers, and the gently iridescent lilac stone upon it must have been nine carats or more. It was the most impressive stone in sight and I had only seen one or two greater stones in my life, both owned by my family and not much in use. Just because you have the stone, and the money, doesn't mean you are going to be any good at magic, even if you have the inclination to learn. Anyway, he'd answered my question. The fourth one wasn't a battle mage in much the same way that Tul's aide, Gatren Orans, wasn't a commander, or even in the command chain, but was there to learn how to command by observing. That was interesting. What was he observing and could I get to observe and learn with him? It was an intriguing thought. But later for thinking, I had my end of a conversation to keep up.
“Ahh,” I said. “I seee.”
“Yes. He's here to learn. He won't do anything, just watch and see how his betters do what they do, and maybe as importantly, why they do what they do.”
“Battle mages act pretty much independently on the battlefield. Unless asked to try and achieve something they just watch and intervene where they think they can do the most damage without harming any of our own soldiers. Tricky, that, if you think about it.”
I hadn't. Now I did. From accounts of battles I'd gleaned an idea of what battle mages can do; quite a lot in the way of lightning and fire spewing forth from the stone used, which is why most stones are worn as rings. Make a fist, cast the spell and point. Of course, personally I had no idea how this was done, I could never afford to find out, and didn't ever intend to need to know. There were accounts of noxious clouds enveloping enemy units, walls of fire springing into existence, and so on and so forth. All of which could be as big a hazard to your own troops as the enemy if used without restraint. Battle mages were also useful in intelligence gathering; using magic to enhance their senses to see and hear what the enemy was doing or what they planned. It has been a truism that our armies could easily be one tenth the size of the opposition and still win. Magic tipped the balance in our favor. The elite units, and many of the nobles, had access to magically enhanced weapons and armor, including trinkets that enhanced strength, stamina and so on, making them easily worth ten men on the battlefield.
“Of course, our job is easier and safer. Surrounded by a hundred men or behind them, I am safe enough, and all I have to do is heal anyone who comes to me or who is dragged back to me.” He shrugged in self depreciation.
I had a mouth full of spicy meat ball at that moment and had some difficulty reassuring him that his efforts were in fact critical to the impending battle, not to mention very much appreciated by the recipients of his healing efforts. At least without chocking. Still, I think he got the idea and seemed pleased that I'd made the effort.
“I would rather be working with the sick than the wounded, but I haven't been in the field for a few years and it was my turn. Our turn.” He apologetically gestured to his colleagues, belatedly including them.
“None of us like war. Healing is a peaceful man's occupation. But we can't have foreigners thinking they can kill our citizens with impunity! I think we all recognize that what we do is both just and necessary!” This from the pudgy and somewhat bald older healer to my left.
“Quite right, Ormal,” Lentro approved.
“Justice has nothing to do with it,” another healer piped up. “Our citizen was selling wine to people who have no head for it, in exchange for slaves that they had taken by force from another tribe, who quite understandably objected, found out what was happening and killed the greedy son of a bitch.”
“Oh, don't start that.” Ormal snapped back. “Our citizen was carrying out lawful trade in lands controlled by the city. If the Alendi had a problem with being raided their problem was with the raiders, not our lawful and legal trader!”
I had wondered what the war was about. Well, now I knew. Not that I cared much, I mean it wasn't my war as such, I was just doing what I had to do to avoid a more unpleasant fate; ie possible but avoidable death instead of pretty much certain demise.
I leaned closer to Lentro, “Is that all? The death of one merchant?”
“No. The Alendi are now at war with the Ensibi, our allies and Orthand's clients. He has to help them, of course.”
Of course. A patron helps his client and a client helps his patron in return. In the city clients will arrive at their patrons door early in the day and say something like, 'Is there anything I can do for you today and thank you for the gift.' The fact that in this case the client was a whole tribe of three towns and maybe a hundred thousand people made no difference; 'of course you can trade freely with my people for slaves from other tribes, and thanks for the military help when it goes sour.' Same thing.
“Where did he think the slaves were going to come from? Hmm? How moral is that?” The argument went on without us.
“Of course he has to help. Any news on how things are going?”
Lentro showed less interest than I thought appropriate. “Not much, a couple of strongholds have fallen, a few villages razed. The Ensibi have taken losses but it's early days.”
The Gerrian tribes are numerous, maybe as many as a hundred of them all told. The Ensibi had called for help from an ally, and I couldn't help wondering if the Alendi might do the same. Still, no tribe had more than four others on its borders, and none of them were much larger in numbers than the Ensibi. Probably nothing to worry about. In warrior cultures any able bodied man could fight but the true warriors were only one in fifty, noblemen in other words, men who owned weapons and armor, so in a hundred thousand only two thousand were capable and experienced fighting men. In a worse case scenario, say three other tribes got involved; eight thousand against our seven thousand and whatever the Ensibi fielded. No real problem. Of course, spears are cheap and one in five of any given normal population base would be able bodied men. If the whole tribe rose, maybe twenty thousand men could be raised. Not much more than two to one, not worried. Four tribes would make eighty thousand, enough to stretch us if brought to battle all in one place. But that was unlikely, wasn't it? Allied tribes who felt obliged to help out, for whatever reason or incentive, were unlikely to send every able bodied man, right? So say, at a stretch, seven times four or twenty-four thousand serious warriors and maybe twenty thousand guys with spears, worst case scenario. What was that? Seven times our numbers? We could take down ten times our number, that was the tradition, right? So stop worrying.
Still I didn't sleep well. Camp beds and tents are not as comfortable as beds and roofs and I missed my bed. And I couldn't stop running numbers in my head.