It’s very clear that we have some. And now they know that we know it.
It had been less than three weeks since I’d come to Essle, but already the island felt like home. In spite of knowing that we had enemies. “I don’t think we should leave the island empty any more,” I said to Moryn, “suppose they come here and set it on fire when we’re all at the tower praying!”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Moryn said, and so had Raith and Lyase-Lédu, who had already determined that they’d take turns staying to watch and coming along to pray. Some of the river-folk offered to stay behind as well, and they had knives and spears.
We went on working and learning. By the Day of Naigha we’d made so many things that we took them to the market. I wanted to go to the market anyway to talk to the chicken man about having our sow serviced.
Raith and Lyase-Lédu insisted on rowing, because the huge stack of small earthenware cups, some painted, were theirs. “We can sell the plain ones for a penny and the painted ones for twopence!” they said. And they would probably sell them all at that price and earn a couple of shillings of their own. I had four padlocks with Priyati’s cases and my springs and tumblers and keys. We also had three small kegs, some buckets and a large tub made by Moryn.
The market-master — a large solid no-nonsense woman — saw us the moment we were on the quay with our stuff. “Wanting a place, girls?” she asked. “You’ve got such different wares, you’ll need different places. Padlocks, that’s new, keep them with the barrels. Fourpence each.” I paid the two fourpences, and the girls got a spot at the edge of the part of the market with small household wares, and I a corner of the large houseware section. The man next to be had barrels and tubs too, more of them, but they looked as if they’d been made from rougher wood.
“That’s nice wood you’ve got there, lassie,” he said. “Where does it come from?”
“The mainland on the east side, where the ruined castle is,” I said. But he’d never heard of it! I told him about Jeran’s stand of wood and promised to talk to him to see if he wanted another customer.
“I haven’t made these,” he said, “just selling them for the coopers. They get the wood from north of Tilis.”
It was strange to sit in the market to sell: I felt as if I was wasting time! After what felt like hours I’d sold one of the small kegs and two buckets to a very fussy woman, and a padlock to a man who was so good at haggling that I found myself selling it for much less money than I thought it was worth. But what did I know about trade? Not nearly enough.
Suddenly there was a shriek from the other side of the market. I knew that shriek! “Could you watch my stuff please?” I asked my neighbour, and ran to Lyase-Lédu and Raith.
There were two men at their stall, one with a sword and one with a stick, threatening them, and all the cups had been trampled. As I approached the other merchants were chasing the men away. “It’s those Eraday!” a woman said, “dressed up like noble but no manners whatever.”
“Didn’t the king abolish them?” another said.
“He did,” I said, “but not all of them agree with that.” I took Lyase-Lédu and Raith each in an arm. The market-master came along, and several people told her what had happened. “We chased them off,” someone said. “They won’t be back soon.”
“I want to talk to you,” the market-master said. “The girls can mind your stall, I suppose.” They had pulled themselves together now: angry rather than frightened.
She took me to her office, a small booth near the main quay. “You’re the girl from the island, right? With a school. I don’t know why you’d have another school, because we’re getting schools now from Prince Uznur. With veterans teaching, and they get paid, thirty riders a year!”
“That was my idea, too,” I said, halfway between laughing and crying. “I put him up to it. After I’d set up my own school. I was sent here to do that.”
“Who sent you?” the market-master asked.
“Ultimately, the queen.”
I didn’t know if she believed it all, but she was taking me seriously. “And apparently you have an enemy.”
“We can get someone else to sell for us,” I said. “The man next to me knows about cooper’s things, and there’s probably someone who can sell the cups as well. At a commission, of course.”
“Nonsense. We don’t take it lightly if our people are harassed. Next time you should have a place closer to the middle so we can protect you. Costs a bit more, of course.”
“I think I can afford that,” I said.
“But why would someone want to prevent two little girls from selling clay cups? It’s not as if they’re undercutting someone’s trade. It’s just penny stuff.”
“I don’t think it’s about trade,” I said. “I know there’s someone who wants to ruin us. They’ve already tried to kill us but we had a guard to prevent that.”
“And you’re not going to tell me who that is, of course,” she said.
I shook my head. “No. Not to someone I don’t know well enough to know if I can trust her, sorry.”
“I see,” she said with a wry grin. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think one of the trade-houses may be behind it.”
“You may well be right,” I said.
“Come back on the Day of Mizran,” she said, “best day for trading. And we’ll get you a better place.”
“I’ll be there,” I said, “two or three of us, perhaps someone else than the girls. We all need to learn.”
“About those girls of yours — haven’t I seen that little redhead picking pockets in this market?”
“You may have,” I admitted. “But she’s going straight now. I can vouch for her.”
“Hm. I’ll be wanting to talk to her.”
As we got back to my barrels and padlocks, I found that the girls had done much better than me in selling. Raith took my hand and told me that they’d sold two locks for a rider each, exactly what I thought the price should be, and the big tub for a price that the neighbour, at least, found reasonable. Meanwhile, the market-master took Lyase-Lédu by the shoulders and talked to her in a low voice. I could see Lyase-Lédu blush a deep red, then she nodded and ran to me. “Aunt Maile? Can I borrow two shillings please?”
I gave her the two shillings and she ran off to the other side of the market. She came back carrying a couple of brooms without handles.
“Good, we needed those,” I said.
“I’ll pay you back when we’ve made new cups to sell!” she said. “I paid her what I stole from her money-box a couple of weeks ago. She really can’t do without it.”
“Widow, five children, old sick mother in the house,” the market-master said.
“But she gave me the brooms!” Lyase-Lédu said. “She said to make a clean sweep with.”
The market-master and I both laughed, but Lyase-Lédu didn’t get the joke. Before it could make her angry, there was a commotion among the barrel-sellers. When I arrived there, I could see the two men I’d seen before lying face-down in the water, being beaten with sticks. It didn’t look as if they’d survive it.
The market-master sighed. “We have no law in Essle,” she said. “We have to take it in our own hands. I don’t tolerate thugs and thieves in my market.” She glared at Lyase-Lédu, but with a hint of a smile.
“I think you can handle it here,” I said to the girls, “I’ll run over to the chicken man to ask about the sow.”
The chicken man was happy to see me. “Breed from the young sow? So your children have got fond of her? Oh, of course they’re not your children, you’re far too young for that.”
“My mother always bought the sows already expecting,” I said, “but we’ll need to take her to a boar and I thought you’d know where to go.”
“Yes, I know that — better not take her this year, though, she’s far too young. Next year — they carry three moons, three weeks and three days, get her serviced by the Feast of Mizran.”
“And then we’ll have piglets after the Feast of Naigha,” I said.
“Exactly. Eat some, sell some, keep some to fatten. Just get back to me when it’s time. — You’ve got a cat, right?”
I didn’t see the connection, but I said “Yes.”
“It’s because — well, I thought you might be wanting a good guard dog, too. Like this lady.” And he grabbed behind him and dragged a huge, really huge shaggy dog in front of him, which lifted a lip to show vicious teeth. I like dogs! But this one looked very daunting.
“Ship’s dog, from Kushesh. Best you can have as a guard. Eats a lot, I have to admit that.”
“Will she eat fish?” I asked. “Fish we’ve got plenty of. I just hope she won’t eat the cat, or the baby goats.”
“Eats anything people will eat, and lots of stuff they won’t.” The dog was now sniffing at my hand cautiously. “Good people, lady.” Then the dog suddenly stood up like she was hunting and growled at me — no, not at me, but at something behind me. She bounded off before I could even turn, right past me.
I followed, and so did the chicken man. We found her on top of a prone man, but I wasn’t interested because Lyase-Lédu and Raith were also there, bleeding, Lyase-Lédu from the arm and Raith from the chest. “He ran at us! He stuck his knife in us! He’s killed Raith right through the heart!”
That wasn’t strictly true, but she did have a knife-wound between her ribs. I staunched it as best I could. “We’re going to the doctor right now,” I said.
We ended up in our own boat, rowed by me and the market-master as fast as we could. She was a lot bigger but we were about equally strong, probably because I was a smith and she wasn’t. “I’m so cold!” Raith said, and she was also much paler than she already was from being from Rizenay. The dog coiled itself around both of the girls and kept them warm.
“I’m taking you to the doctor and she’ll fix you,” I said, hoping and praying fervently.
There was a queue of whores at Ashti’s door, as usual, but when they saw we had wounded girls with us they let us pass. Lyase-Lédu could walk by herself, and the market-master carried Raith in her arms.
Ashti, too, paled when she saw us. She cut away Raith’s shirt. “Gods,” she said, “who did that? No, I don’t want to know who, I just want to know that they’ve been taken care of.”
“The dog sat on him,” I said, “and I think the market people killed him.”
“Good. You” — that was me — “call your people, the ones at the north harbour and the one with the boat. Now.”
I called Lochan and Raisse and Merain, and I must have been very insistent because they came much faster than I’d expected. “How good are you at fighting?” Ashti asked me.
“Good enough,” I said, “I learned at school.”
“Yes, of course. Then stand guard outside. Don’t let anyone come in until I’m finished here.”
I stood outside and made a seal on the door for good measure. After a while, I remembered that I’d had some training in doctoring and did what I could for the whores. I could actually help most of them, only one had been roughed up by a customer, a sea-captain, and was all torn up inside. “That needs the real doctor!” I said. “I can only do first aid.”
After a lot of time — it seemed almost evening already — the door opened and Ashti came out, Merain behind her with Raith in her arms, Lyase-Lédu leaning on the dog, her right arm bandaged. “Right,” Ashti said, “she’ll do. She shouldn’t get water in the wound, and not travel either after you get home, for a couple of weeks at least.”
“Can she wash with boiled water?” I asked.
“I’ll give you some sage,” Ashti said. That was a good thing, because none of the sage we’d sowed had come up yet. “And do you have any brandy?”
“Yes,” I said. There was the flask in the bottom of my tool-bag that was strictly for medical emergencies.
Ashti sighed. “What we need here is a hospital. Turenay has one, Valdis has one, fucking Veray has one, and Essle which is a hundred times bigger than Turenay has only a couple of doctors trying to do it all by themselves.”
I could only agree, but I didn’t see myself build a hospital any time soon! A workshop and a small school were quite enough… But when I was going to write to the masters in Turenay anyway I’d mention it. After all, the hospital in Veray had been set up by people from Turenay too.
“Oh,” I said, “I’ve done some of the easy work for you. But that woman needs a real doctor.”
The woman told Ashti about the sea-captain. “That one! You’re the second in one week.” But he’d promised to pay with gold, and then he’d torn her all up, he was hung like a horse!
“I don’t believe that anyone who isn’t an actual horse can do that without any — well, tools, for want of a better word. And gold! You should have known better. Well, come in and I’ll see what I can do.”
“I think someone should go and whack that sea-captain on the head with a huge chunk of gold,” I said.
“Would you? That would be splendid. He won’t know you. If you’re serious, ask Mother Sedi at the third quay in the south harbour, she knows where his ship is.”
On the way home Lyase-Lédu sang to Raith, very softly, all in Velihan.
“Can you teach us that?” I asked when she stopped because we arrived.
She shrugged. “People learn that from their father and mother,” she said, “In Velihas they do, I mean. I learned from — you’ve seen him too. Someone handsome with red hair. So I guess you can learn from me.”
On the island they’d had prayers without us, and skipped the semsin lessons. Had I told anyone what had happened? I didn’t remember. Probably not as it had all been so scary. I was shaking all over.
“I saw you have breakfast,” Arin said, “but have you eaten anything since then?”
I didn’t remember that either. I thought I might have had a pasty. Yes, I’d definitely had a pasty, with fish in it. But it was a small one, and half burnt at that, that was why the pasty-baker had given it away.
Malek brought me bread and roasted chicken. “Did you kill one?” I asked.
“No, we got them as a gift,” he said. Other gifted people were following Arin who was carrying Raith into the house, but Malek and Priyati stayed with me. “What happened?” they asked
I told them everything, ending with the sea-captain. “Let’s go!” Priyati said. “Whack him on the head. The three of us.”
Gods, I needed a diversion. “Yes. I don’t have a huge chunk of gold but we can take huge chunks of iron.” In the end Malek had a sword, probably Moryn’s; Priyati a stout stick; and I the middle-sized hammer. “You two probably know Mother Sedi’s house,” I said.
“Sure!” Malek said. “It’s the best. Everybody wants to work there.”
Priyati rowed — she’s much stronger than she looks, that’s why she’s so quick to learn smithing. It was completely dark when we arrived, in a part of Essle where I hadn’t been before (but then most parts of Essle would qualify for that). There was a house that could only be a brothel, lamps hanging in the entrance and a broad dark man sitting in front of it.
“You’re not customers,” he said. And to Malek: “I know you. Looking for work?”
“No,” Malek said, and I added, “We want to speak to Mistress Sedi.”
“Speak to her. Well. I’ll see.”
But the mistress of the house was already coming out. She was about forty, tall, elegant, and when she heard what we came for she took us to her office through the whole house. I’d never seen a thing like that before! Young women and men with very little clothing on, one couple even playing with each other’s private parts. They all looked happy and sleek, like parade-horses. Malek and Priyati seemed to be used to it, but I was trying very hard not to stare.
“Well,” Mistress Sedi said when we we’d all crowded into her tiny office. “You’re the young woman who has been making waves here. What can I do for you?”
Once again I wondered why I’d had to start out in secrecy. All of Essle must know about me and our household now! I told her about the sea-captain, and yes, she knew who it was. “He works for the Dawn,” she said, “are you sure you want to risk that? You’ll have Radan as an enemy for sure.”
“I already have Radan as an enemy,” I said and gripped my hammer a bit more firmly.
She nodded. “I’ll send Zhima with you. The man you want will be in either one inn or another, right across from the ship. Zhima knows where.”
Zhima was the doorman, and he had a knife and a stick, though I thought he’d do as well with his bare hands. As we walked to the quay with him, a tall young man stopped us, elegant, as dark as any Ishey. “Are you going to do what I think you’re going to do?” he asked.
Zhima seemed to know him. “Yes,” he said grimly.
“Mind if I join you?”
“No,” Zhima said, but he did look at me for confirmation. I nodded; if the doorman thought it was all right, it probably was.
There were indeed two inns, one full of rowdy people and the other empty except for the landlord who was cowering behind the counter and a huge man who was beating a frightened girl. He never saw us coming. He was too drunk to notice that Priyati and the tall young man took one of his arms, and Zhima and Malek the other. Only when they tried to march him out he started to protest. “I’ll get what I paid for!”
‘What he’d paid for’ was now lying on the floor whimpering. I went to sit beside her and tried to see how badly she’d been beaten up. Very badly, and there wasn’t any clean cloth in sight, let alone clean water. Fortunately I was wearing my old shirt, soft enough that I could tear a bit off the bottom, and there was a flask of brandy on the counter. “Sorry, I have to hurt you some more,” I said, and washed all her open wounds with the brandy. “Everybody get out!” I shouted at some point, and everybody did get out, including the landlord.
The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old, pretty in a helpless way, gifted, but it was just coming through, I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t even know it yet. “We’ll take you to the doctor,” I said. She did need a doctor: broken knees, a couple of broken ribs, and the gods only knew what the man had done to her insides.
Then Malek came in with a big grin on his face. “Can I borrow your hammer? Thanks!” I heard some hammering outside, then he came to bring it back. “You’ll appreciate the new decoration.” And yes, above the door Malek had nailed up the evidence that the sea-captain had been well-hung, but not nearly like a horse. “The rest of him is hanging on the bowsprit,” he said, “in pieces.”
Zhima carried the girl into the boat, but he didn’t come along with us. The tall young man had already disappeared. “Poor Doctor Ashti,” Malek said. “Never a moment of rest.”
When we got to the doctor she was eating, dressed in a loose gown, and surprisingly the tall young man was with her. He must have hurried to get here so long before us that he could be eating with Ashti, and it was clear that they didn’t only know each other but were very good friends!
She’d already heard from her friend what had happened. “I know one thing,” he said, “I will never let that happen to people in my employment!” So he was a brothel-keeper? He didn’t look like one, but then I didn’t know many.
“You’ve got yourself another one in the household,” Ashti said. “Some of this won’t mend. We’ll keep her here for a season, if you pay for her keep.” We made a quick calculation, and I had enough money in my purse to cover the first couple of weeks. “Gods, we need a hospital. We can’t go on like this.”
“You need protection as well,” the young man said, and to me, “So do you.”
I already had the damaged men and Moryn, but I resolved to ask the river-folk if they could spare some people with weapons. And I might really have to set up a hospital, or find someone else who could. There was a lot of room on the mainland south of Jeran’s tower; perhaps we could scout it out when we were there anyway.
We came back long after midnight, of course. I must have ended up in my bed somehow, because what woke me up the next day was the dog bounding over me to stand at the water’s edge growling. I scrambled after her and looked with my eyes, then with my mind: a small boat with a man and a woman in it, who looked Iss-Peranian but had clearly had Valdyan semsin training. They came closer, then went away, so far that I couldn’t see them any more.
The next time a boat came it was a larger one, with two women, two men and two teenage boys in it: the damaged men, their mother and their mother’s sister, and I didn’t know the boys but they might be the sister’s sons. “Right!” the men’s mother said, “we’ve heard that you’re under threat, and we’d better move in with you then. You haven’t met my nephews? They’ll help protect you.”
“Sure,” I said, “any help is welcome, we’ll build you a house, we’ve got enough wood.”
“You know,” she said, “when I first met you I thought you were a pearl. But now I know you’re a grain of sand. And Essle is the oyster. You get in, scratch at it, and a pearl grows around you.”
Then I realised that today was the Day of Anshen. Clearly Raith couldn’t go to the tower, and Lyase-Lédu would rather stay with her. We left the dog, who had appointed herself as Raith’s blanket. Several river-folk men and women stayed with their weapons. “I’ll stay, too,” Moryn said, “someone has to oversee all the rabble!” But I knew he was secretly pleased with the rabble, and perhaps the chance to command an armed company.
One man and one boy got in their family’s boat and rowed away in the direction of the city. “Sent them to watch the doctor’s house,” the men’s mother said. “Take the other two with you, there’s enough armed folk here.”
When we got to the tower, Jeran was waiting for us. “There’s been trouble,” he said, “look!” The inside of the tower had been smeared with tar, some rude words but mostly smudges and splotches. We sighed and started cleaning. I didn’t dare ask Jeran if he wanted us to stop using the tower. I knew that if he did want that he’d ask us, and he hadn’t asked it yet but was bringing hot water and sand and soap for the cleaning!
Ashti and Vauri appeared while we were at it. “We seem to have a couple of guards,” she said, “some of the patients are scared of them. Your doing?”
“I didn’t intend them to scare anyone,” I said, “and I didn’t send them, their mother and aunt did. They do come from my household, yes. They’re — well, not harmless, but they’re not going to harm you, or any of your patients.”