A Little Thing

When I was writing one of the earliest scenes of The Valley of Decision, I came – while hastening to the main point, which was the introduction of Keiran, the Captain of the Hosts – to a bit moment where an officer clears the way for the army’s highest commanders: “Way for the …”

For the what? My first thought was lords of the army; I added to the notebook masters of the army. In the end I chose the latter title. True, both words mean essentially the same thing, but master seemed the less-used. Better, it seemed more visceral; in America, at least, our strongest cultural memory of addressing men as “Master” is of the slave-holding South.

So they – the five highest officers of the military, my principal heroes among them – were masters. I soon extended this principle of address to their society as a whole. I knew the Dochraitay, ruled for as long as they could remember by Belenus, would be a strongly hierarchical society, well inculcated with the idea of mastery. People could be owned. Didn’t Belenus own them?

When you read The Valley of Decision, you can learn a great deal about the characters’ relationships, and their estimation of each other, by what titles they use. Master was not a mere honorific in Dochraitay mouths, but a recognition of the speaker’s inferiority and a pledge of submission. Hence Keiran addressed the Fays, but only the Fays, as master. All the soldiers, even the three lieutenants of the army, called him master in turn. The lesser soldiers called the lieutenants master, and in their own turn assumed their absolute superiority over the Alamiri captive, and so the hierarchy went …

Caél, as the Captain’s right hand, was second in command of the army. It’s telling of his closeness to Keiran that he alone of all the Dochraitay never called him master. It’s telling of his subordinate rank that he frequently addressed Keiran as Captain. By contrast, Keiran never addressed Caél by his own title, though he might refer to him by it when speaking with others.

When dealing with foreign rulers – such as the leaders of Alamir, and even the King of the Others – the Dochraitay used the honorific lord, as their way of paying respect while subtly declaring their own freedom. The Sovereign and the King of the Others were lords because the Dochraitay did not have to obey them.

Even the fact that the Dochraitay incessantly call Jarmith Alamiri or the Alamiri tells its own tale. That was the most salient fact about him. When they referred to him as our Alamiri, it was wholly without sentiment: They meant only “our Alamiri, to keep and to do with as we like”.

My decision, in the beginning, to use masters of the army instead of lords was a little thing; I did not foresee then that I was sounding a note to be sounded again and again, throughout the book. But of such little things stories are made.