In our world Erne would probably chain-smoke.
I didn’t remember when exactly the apparition of Anshen was, and neither did the GM, so I just put him somewhere he seemed to fit. Maile has seen Anshen more often in a couple of weeks than other people do in a lifetime!
Merain took us through the door he’d come out of, where a woman who looked a lot like him was stirring a huge cauldron of soup. “More guests?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’d have told you if I’d known,” I said, because she was a master in the Guild too.
“Don’t worry, you’re welcome, we have plenty. I’m Raisse. Merain’s sister. Find them something to sit on, Merain, and give them a bowl of herb tea.”
“Ever so slightly older,” Merain said, “and she’ll never stop bossing me around.” But there was a grin on his face and a glint in his eyes as he pointed us to a bench and gave us bowls of fragrant tea.
“Mint, ironweed, lavender,” I said, but I didn’t recognise the other thing in it, which gave it a fresh almost tart smell.
“To strengthen the mind,” Raisse said. “You’re from Turenay.”
“Yes,” I said, “and from Veray before that.”
“And your sister is from Rizenay? What was your dad up to?”
“We’re not really sisters,” I said, “not by the flesh anyway. She didn’t want to go back to Rizenay. And I don’t blame her.”
I didn’t get to tell the whole story just then, because children started to come in, about twenty of them, all ages between seven or so and almost grown up. They crowded around the table on the benches, and Raisse and Merain put a basket of bread in the middle. Raith put out her hand for it, but Merain and I were equally fast to slap it. “Invocations first,” Merain said. “You start, Lyase-Lédu.”
A small girl with red-brown curls — she looked more gifted than the rest — sang in a clear voice and we all joined in. Then we got soup and bread, and it disappeared very fast as if everybody was famished. Afterwards everybody got a mug of herb tea as well, the boys different from the girls, as I could smell from the boy on my left and the girl on my right.
They were curious about me, of course, and I told them my name and that I was going to set up a workshop where anyone could come to have things mended, and to learn to mend things themselves. “With wood?” someone asked.
“Yes, and metal too. My parents are smiths, I know more about metal than wood really. And I can teach whoever wants to learn, too.” I fielded some more questions while people took their cups to the kitchen and started to leave.
Everybody got a blessing from Raisse and Merain (“a bit of Timoine, a bit of Mizran, a bit of Anshen”, they said) and another piece of bread in their hand. One boy who looked about thirteen lingered in the doorway and said to me, “If you need a warm bed tonight, I’m available!” but I just raised my eyebrows at him and he scampered away too.
“This is all we can do,” Merain said. “They’re scum, I won’t deny that, but every bit of civilisation we can give them is a good thing.” He gave me my purse back, which one of the children must have taken. I resolved to wear it more out of sight, perhaps hang it from my knife-harness, and put a seal on it.
“It looks as if there’s little I can do any more,” I said, and then I finally got to tell my whole story, why I was here, some of the adventures I’d had on the way, and what I had been sent to do. (After Raisse had sent Raith to do the dishes in the kitchen and sealed the door on her, that is.) But there was enough to do: they hadn’t yet gone as far east as I’d been sent, though I seemed to have ended up well south.
“Is there money?” Merain asked.
“Yes,” I said. I saw him being relieved.
“Essle isn’t like other places. There are as many people living here as in the rest of Valdyas together, but it’s — shallow, I think is the best way to put it. No depth. Literally, you can’t even dig a grave here.”
“A priestess of Naigha in Turenay told me that they’ve tried to have temples here but they’ve all disappeared,” I said.
“I’ll introduce you to someone who knows about that,” Merain said, and it was clear that he was calling someone with his mind. Presently a woman came in, middle-aged and richly dressed. “Ah, Erne. This is Maile, she’s been sent by the Guild in Turenay to do what they didn’t know we’re already doing.”
Erne accepted and downed a small cup of brandy, then rubbed the back of each hand with the other, and faint snake heads appeared. “You’re –” I started, but she silenced me.
“You’re too young to know anything. Merain tells me you want to know why there aren’t any temples of Naigha in the swamps. Well, you already know we can’t dig here, and once a week a ship goes out to sea with a priestess, that’s for the people who can pay a little, and once a fortnight a boat goes north to Tilis for the people who can pay a lot.” She downed another brandy. “If you can’t pay at all — well, the water is forgiving.”
I started to say something, but she silenced me again. “Don’t interrupt me. For the sea-burials you need only one priestess, of course. There’s not much call for those who are called.” Another brandy followed the other two. “You’ll do. You look like a good steady girl to me.” And she was gone, leaving a whiff of perfume.
“She’s a good friend,” Merain said, “for all she seems abrasive. I wanted you to hear it from someone who’s been there.”
“Thank you,” I said, still baffled.
Then there was a knock at the door and two very dark young men came in, Lyase-Lédu between them. She had obviously been crying. “Is the evening already over for you?” Merain asked, and then Raisse pushed the girl into the kitchen right through the seal and went through herself without breaking it. I’d like to learn that!
“She tried to chat up an Iss-Peranian sea captain,” one of the young men said.
“Better not meddle with Iss-Peranian sea captains if you’re curly and pretty like that,” I said. Now the young men noticed me, and one of them raised an eyebrow. “Are you Ishey?” I asked, because they looked much like the Ishey I’d seen in Turenay.
“As Ishey as they come,” he said, “and you are from Turenay, I can hear that in your speech.” He took my hand and kissed it, and so did his companion.
“And from Veray before that,” I said, going back to the dialect I’d grown up with. “Are you going to kiss my feet too, or is that only for old women?”
They grinned, knelt, each took off one of my shoes, and kissed my feet as well. “Anything for a pretty lady.”
“You’re flatterers,” Merain said, “and thank you for bringing Lyase-Lédu back.” He gave them each a piece of bread too — the last in the basket — and waved them out of the door. Another young man followed them who I noticed only now, but I knew that he’d been there the whole time while the Ishey had been there, and perhaps already with all the children: brown-skinned and brown-haired, very handsome, dressed in a leather skirt and not much else. Anshen again, the way Lyase-Lédu saw him, to take care of her?
“So much trouble,” Merain said, as if he either hadn’t seen whoever it was or thought it completely normal. “And so little to fight it with. There’s the Order, of course, but they’re busy with the servants of the Nameless, Radan of the Dawn who is all suave and civilised these days but not to be trusted, just like his father. At least we haven’t seen much of the Resurgence.”
“They were in Tilis,” I said. “at least one, he gave me a pamphlet. But the baroness hanged them. That’s how I got Raith — they’d brought some children from Rizenay, and most went back but she didn’t have anything to go back to.”
“Hanged them? Good for her!” He scratched his head. “You’ll need to go the Temple of Mizran first thing in the morning, I think, to show them that paper about the property. Better stay the night. And I’d like you to take both girls along, Lyase-Lédu as well, keep them from harm as much as you can. I know that you can’t have any apprentices in the Guild yet, but you can teach them other things.”
“If they don’t kill each other first,” I said, because there were noises coming from the kitchen that sounded like a catfight. “Are they all whores? The children?” By now I expected anything at all from Essle.
“That girl’s mostly been a pickpocket until now. I don’t know what moved her to branch out.”
“But she’s so young– what, nine?”
“Eleven, she’s half Velihan, most of them are small. But yes, too young for a rough life like that.” He took me by both arms and looked me in the eyes. “Listen, when you trying to protect someone and they get away from you and come to a bad end, it’s not your fault. We can only help those who want to be helped. It’s good that you’re here, we need everybody. Don’t use yourself up. And now I’ll write a letter to the queen to tell her you’re here, and that she should have known that there are already people here doing what she sent untried students to do.”
I still didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed about that, but it was probably another thing that wasn’t my fault.