She only went to buy a couple of chickens…
The next morning I wrote a letter, but with interruptions. I’d found ink and a pen, and carefully loosened a page from my notebook, and settled against the workshop wall with a board on my knees to write on, when someone gave me a pancake, and I’d just finished that and set out to write when Moyri crawled out of the house. “Hey, Moyri!” I called. “Do you want a pancake too?”
“Pank, good,” she said, and got one from Raith and ate it practically on my feet while I dipped the pen into the ink. Then Lochan appeared.
“Have you come for a lesson?” I asked.
“Lessons are in the evening, aren’t they? No, there’s a letter for you, arrived at the Temple. From Rizenay.”
Rizenay! That must be from either Rath or Rhanion. I could see that it was in code, so it was Rath, and fortunately I remembered enough of it not to need the key that was in the secret compartment of my tool bag. He started with all the Iss-Peranian “hope you are well” floweriness, either out of habit or to bore people who tried to decipher the letter so much that they’d give up, but then the real news came: he’d travelled to Rizenay via the eastern route, the road was a lot better now and there was even a town somewhere in the middle, and he had barely settled in Rizenay when he met an old woman and a young man who brought some children back from being kidnapped. The young man was in the Guild of the Nameless and said he knew me and could be Rath’s messenger to me! So would I please confirm it so he knew it had gone right.
Well, yes, I could, so after I’d written a recommendation to Doctor Cora for Miallei Jichan (I had to ask him for his mother’s name) I wrote to Rath about my adventures with Rhanion, and a shorter version of that with the rest of what had happened to me for Hylti to send to everyone. That didn’t go without interruptions either: Ashti and Vauri had landed when I was deciphering Rath’s letter, and they were treating patients behind the workshop before starting their ordinary working day. I thought at first that they’d come only for their own patients, but then I saw several people who came to evening prayer, some from the river-folk. “No, I can’t do anything for you,” I heard Ashti say to a little boy, “you need to put flesh on your bones! Eat!”
Serian came up to me, “he doesn’t know how to catch a duck! Can’t take care of himself! He can’t even steal enough food!”
“Give him a pancake then, and teach him to catch ducks? You can use the boat, you can teach him to row too.” He did, but came back disappointed, “he’s too wimpy to row! No muscles at all!” But he sat on the jetty with the boy for a long time, talking. They must be about the same age, though Serian was half a head taller and not nearly so thin.
“Hey, you want to go to Ryshas?” Lochan asked Jichan. “I’ve got a boat. I’ll take you to Tilis for four shillings.”
“Right now if you like.”
“If you can go by the Temple of Mizran– I’d better not go home to pick up stuff, they’d probably make me stay, but I’ve got enough money to manage.” They packed up, and I gave him his own letter though I’d have to send the others from the Temple myself, I wouldn’t get them finished in time.
“I hope he comes back soon,” Ashti said, suddenly at my side. “We need more doctors in Essle. Gods, we were up all night. Trouble at the harbour.”
“You can sleep here before you go back.” I said. And yes, Ashti crawled into my bed, with company from the cat that had appeared almost the moment we were on the island and went its own way around us, as cats do.
Vauri came to talk to me as she tidied up her medicines. “I wish we could keep that boy here, apprentice him to Ashti,” she said. “But it’s better to learn at a proper hospital, I suppose. We need a hospital here so much.”
“Then we’ll have to build more island first!” I said, but she meant in Essle, not strictly ‘here’. There was no hospital at all in a place where half the people in Valdyas lived!
“Cora is a good teacher, too,” Vauri said.
“Yes, not easy but good!” She’d taught us apprentice runners to treat wounds, to set bones, and the most important thing of all, to decide when you can’t help and need to get a real doctor. “What about we build you a shed so you can leave your things here? A big one, so you can work inside if you want. We’ll put everything high enough to be out of reach of goats.” Because the goat was pushing at the catch of the house door just at that moment, and had it open! “First thing I’m going to do now is make a better catch. Or even a lock.”
“A surgery shed — well yes, that would be a good idea.”
“You could come once a week, even, so people know when you’re there.”
“Like Doctor Cora downtown,” Vauri said. “We’ll talk it over.” And she crawled into bed beside Ashti and fell asleep at once.
I raked up the forge fire and started on a lock. I’d seen a rusty but still whole spring in the heap of small scrap metal, so I wouldn’t have to do the most difficult thing, but it was very hard to remember what parts a lock actually had apart from the spring. Everybody came to look, so I explained at every step what I was doing, and that helped me too because it made it clearer in my mind. What I ended up with was a very crude but sturdy lock and a big key with a single ward: it wouldn’t keep thieves out, but goats wouldn’t be able to work it, however clever they were! Especially if we kept the key on a hook that they couldn’t reach.
While I’d been working, and the others had been watching, the goat had opened the house door again, pushed herself between Ashti and Vauri, and given birth to three kids, two billies and a nanny!
“Oh!” Lyase-Lédu said. “So that’s why I could milk her so easily this morning.”
“We’ll eat them,” I said vengefully. “One billy at the Feast of Mizran when it’s grown a bit, and I’ll give the other one to Raisse and Merain for their flock of children. Goats! I want chickens, that lay eggs.”
And I wanted to see Raisse and Merain. I needed a big brother and sister right now. But I wasn’t saying that where the children could hear me.
Ashti and Vauri had been asleep all the time, but when we got the goat and her kids out they woke up. “Goodness, it’s late!” Ashti said. “We’ll have a queue at the surgery! And what’s that, goats in the bed?”
I sighed. “She can open the door. But I’ve been making a lock. I’ll bring you home, I have to go to the market anyway.”
“I’ll come too,” the boy who still hadn’t told us his name said. “I can get my stuff and the girls’ stuff so we can stay.”
Lyase-Lédu rowed: the girls had more or less appointed themselves our official rowers. The boat was heavy with five people in it, but she had strong arms.
There was indeed a queue at the surgery. The boy got out of the boat there too, “if you pick me back up in an hour I’ll have everything.” Lyase-Lédu and I went to our usual market, where was a section with live animals. I’d bought some chickens there before to eat, they were bound to have laying chickens too.
People recognised us and greeted us. One woman gave me a basket full of oranges: “for all those children, and you’re quite a child yourself so don’t forget to have one too!” She looked as if she was the sister of the damaged men’s mother.
“Why is everybody so nice to you?” Lyase-Lédu asked. “I’ve lived here for years and they don’t treat me that way! Except when I’m with you, of course.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Perhaps I’m a nice person?”
She stuck out her tongue at me, but became more serious at once. “Perhaps it’s because you can do a lot of things.” And defiant again: “But I can give head much better than you!”
“I’m not going to learn that from you, though!” I said.
When we got to the livestock market one of the merchants overheard us talking about the goats. “Four goats, you say? Would you be willing to sell?”
“No,” I said, “we had one goat, and this morning she kidded, but we already have plans for them! I want to buy a brace of chickens, no, a clutch, what’s it called? To lay eggs, anyway.”
He laughed. “A brood of chickens, that’s what you want. These speckled ones are good layers. I’ll do you a dozen, and you’ll need a cock as well.”
“That’s all right, he’ll wake us up in the morning,” I said.
The man put chicken after chicken in a large basket, talking all the time. He was so friendly that I looked at him hard with my mind to see if he wasn’t sweet-talking us, or trying to sell us more than we could handle, but no, this was just how the gods had made him. “You’ve got a big household, right? What you really need for a big household is a pig. I’ve got this beauty here.” He waved to the pen next to him with a hand full of struggling chicken. There was a young sow in it, quite pretty with large black splotches on pink skin, that looked at us with clever little eyes. “She can eat all your scraps.”
“All our scraps are eaten by people!” I said. “We don’t have a lot of leftovers. We’ve got just enough.”
“Just enough is too little,” the man said, as if it was a saying. “Look at it like this: you’ll want meat at the Feast of Naigha, and I wouldn’t recommend slaughtering this one then, you’ll want to do that next year. I can give you a good price on her big sister though.” He waved another chicken at the pen behind it, with a larger pig. “Otherwise you’d be buying meat for the feast, no? It’s much cheaper to invest in a pig now. Think of the black pudding, the ham, the chitterlings! See, your young one has an appetite already.” And indeed, Lyase-Lédu had a hungry look in her eyes.
“So we slaughter on the feast of Mizran?” I asked. “I don’t know if we have anyone who can do that. Can we get someone to come for it?”
“The Feast of Naigha, and yes, you can call on me or I’ll send someone else. ”
“My mother always had the ham in the chimney for weeks, though,” I said. “Half a year, sometimes.”
“Oh, you’re from the east, right? Here we have everything fresh as much as we can. Salt the ham for three days and then stew it, delicious. There’ll be enough left to smoke, don’t worry.”
I nodded, not completely convinced, and he put a cockerel in a smaller basket and started to count on his fingers. “See, these two pigs, a dozen chickens, and I’ll give you the cockerel for free.” He named a price that seemed reasonable, and I paid without trying to haggle.
“I’m afraid the girls won’t want to eat the pigs,” I said, because Lyase-Lédu was scratching the smaller pig behind the ears and the animal seemed to like it.
“Yes, that’s the problem with children,” he said. “That’s why I keep dogs, so they can love the dog and eat the pig. You can’t eat dogs, after all.”
“I don’t think we want a dog,” I said, “we’ve already got a cat. Perhaps to protect us, but two of us are veteran soldiers, they can do the protecting.”
“Geese is what you need, and the little girl can be goose-girl!”
“On our little island? They’d just swim away. Anyway, I’m starting a school next week.”
“A school! Where?”
“In the east, the small islands, it’s about an hour with the boat.”
“Pity. There are some schools here but they’re — well, they’ve all been founded by the Dawn, and –”
“You have children? And you’d like them to go to a school that doesn’t belong to the Dawn?”
I suddenly got an idea. “I know some people — I’m not promising anything but I’ll talk to someone.”
“Why, thank you!” He helped load the pigs and the baskets into the boat, and when we cast off we noticed that we had two white geese as well, their legs chained together so they couldn’t swim and their wing-feathers clipped so they couldn’t fly. They were very annoyed.
We met the boy at Ashti and Vauri’s jetty, with bundles under his arm that looked pitifully small. “We can buy some cloth so you can make clothes for all of you!” I said, “I know you can, I’ve seen you mend.”
“I can,” he said with a grin. “Unpleasant work, but much less unpleasant than some other work I’ve done! But before we put cloth in this boat we’ll have to scrub it first. Pigs are smart but they don’t care where they poop.”
When we got home the others were finishing a goatproof fence around what would be the kitchen garden as soon as the seeds started to sprout. The geese were on top of it at once. One of the baby goats tried to taste a chicken, the cockerel didn’t agree and pecked it on the head, and then the mother goat went after the cockerel. I fled into the house to get my best clothes, not as clean as I’d hoped but they would have to do.
When the boat had been scrubbed I went off again, to Prince Uznur, with Raith and Serian this time. Raith was quite confident that he lived in the richest neighbourhood, but once we were there she didn’t know which house. I easily found him with my mind, though, and we moored at a brightly painted jetty in front of an impressive house. There were two soldiers with halberds at the front gate.
“I’m staying with the boat,” Raith said.
“All right, are you coming, Serian?
“No, I’m staying with the boat too!”
I’d almost have stayed with the boat myself –gone right back, that is– but Prince Uznur had said that he’d be there for me if I needed help. When I approached the gateway I saw that there were two more soldiers on the inside, also with halberds.
“What do you want of His Highness?” the nearest soldier asked.
“I met His Highness Prince Uznur at the Feast of Anshen.” I said, “and then he promised that I could come and speak to him if I needed his help. And now I need his help.”
The soldier turned without a word, crossed the courtyard and went into the house. He came back with another man in uniform, unarmed except for a dagger at his side. “So, you would like to speak with His Highness. Please follow me.”
He took me into a room so splendid that I couldn’t stop looking at everything: the ceiling painted, the walls covered in dark red wooden panels, gilded garlands at the edges. I couldn’t help looking around the house with my mind either. I found Prince Uznur and two more gifted people with him, then he left them and came towards me. On the way he stopped, and I heard voices from the next room: “a girl with stains on her clothes!” “It’s all right, I know who she is.”
Then the prince entered the room and said, “Ah, I can do something for you! Please come with me.”
We went through a long corridor (also with a painted ceiling), through a large room that looked like a dining room, and up a flight of marble stairs. “What a splendid house!” I said.
“It’s a mere hut compared to my father’s house,” he said, and let me go first into a room that was clearly his private study. There was a statue in the corner that I recognised: a smaller version of the one in Doctor Cora’s yard, the girl lifting her skirt to piss. Only this one didn’t piss, and she was silver rather than tin. “In my father’s house this would be gold, and she’d piss brandy.”
“Yes, because wine is the wrong colour. We pay attention to detail. — Haven’t you got your children with you?”
“They didn’t dare come in,” I said. “Perhaps someone could bring them something to drink?”
The prince called for a servant and gave some instructions. “Now how can I be of service?” he asked. The servant came back with a tray and set it between us. There were little almond cakes on it, and a jug and two small cups. It was watered-down brandy.
“You can safely drink this,” Prince Uznur said, “the water’s been boiled, and anyway I have it delivered in casks from Tal-Nus. Filtered through forty feet of peas.” The servant whispered something in his ear. “Of peat.”
“The only thing I know about Tal-Nus is that they have a round tower there that’s eight-sided on the inside,” I said.
“I think it might once have been eight-sided on the outside as well,” the prince said, “and the round mantle was built around it as a disguise.”
“Yes, that’s what I think, too.” Then I explained about the livestock merchant and the lack of schools except those of the Dawn. “It would be a good thing if there were some schools that aren’t — that don’t belong to anyone. That are just schools.”
He nodded. “Yes, that would indeed be a good thing. Anyone can found a school who has a building and forty riders a year for the teacher’s stipend, so I’m not surprised that Radan of the Dawn is making moves in that direction. I’m in a precarious position, though, being a foreigner, and my task isn’t to found schools but to take care of the returning veterans.” He looked very thoughtful for a while. I thought he was going to send me away with empty hands, and I was about to ask him to recommend someone else to ask, when he suddenly said “I’ve got it! Not all veterans are illiterate, some of them had learned professions when they signed up.”
“Like clerks,” I said.
“Yes, and actual teachers! I can pay them the stipend and find them a place, and they can do the rest! That’s an excellent idea of yours!” I didn’t bother to tell him that he was the one who’d had the idea. “I can do this without Radan thinking I’m stepping into his territory. Only, please keep it confidential.”
“Yes, of course. Talking of children,” I said, “the offer for your children to come and play still stands. We’ve got baby goats now.”
“Tonight, will that do?”
“Yes, they’re welcome!”
He walked with me to the gate. “You know, you remind me of my late Moyri. You’re so eager to give, to spread joy.”
Serian and Raith were in the boat, stickily eating the last of a plate of sweets. “That man is so in love,” Raith whispered to me. “And it’s so tragic because she’s dead.”
“Yes,” I said. I wished I could do something for Prince Uznur who was doing so much for other people.
“Let’s go to Merain and Raisse now,” I said. I really needed to be with people who didn’t expect that I would arrange everything.
We arrived at the same time as Raisse; Merain was already there. They both hugged me (and Serian and a protesting Raith) and poured me a cup of wine. “It’s so good to see you! How are you doing?”
I didn’t have words for it, I could only show it: how everything was good, but getting so out of hand, too big for me, way over my head. I got another cup of wine. “You should write to the boss in Turenay,” Raisse said, “what’s her name, Raith?”
“Raisse,” I said, but perhaps they meant Rava. The Raisse in front of me smiled at that. “This might just be too much for one girl of barely eighteen.”
“I’m seventeen in two weeks,” I said. “We’re going to have a party. Raith? Don’t you think that’s a good occasion for all the nice sweets from the market?”
“Yes!” Raith said with a big grin.
I told them about all the people who came to prayers, and whoever it was that gave us food every morning. “You must be careful with that,” Merain said, “it’s so easy for your enemies to slip something in, and whoever gets poisoned, you or one of your people, it’s going to be fatal for you. And if you’re starting a school soon, that will get the Radans’ attention.”
We stayed for dinner, but when the lesson started we went home. Evening prayer had already been, of course, and all that was left to eat was scraps: grain and meat and cheese all in one bowl. “We didn’t know when you’d be back,” Lyase-Lédu said, “so we left you some sailor food!”
“Khas food,” Moryn said with a scowl. “On top of all the rest, they can’t cook.”
“We’ve eaten already, anyway,” I said. Raith and Serian weren’t much interested either, because there was a well-dressed man there, his head wrapped in a scarf, with a gaggle of children who looked very familiar. They were all playing tag in moments, Lyase-Lédu as well, and then showing the visitors the baby goats and the pigs and the chickens. The geese walked through all of it, honking disdainfully.
Prince Uznur — it was clear that it was him — took his children home just before it got completely dark. “Do come again!” I said.
“We will, thank you!”
Raith was trying to feed the scrawny boy. “He doesn’t say much,” she said. I went to see if he’d talk to me, but I ended up just holding him in my arms. Moyri came for a cuddle too, and I sat there for a while with one in each arm. I stroked the boy’s head, and some of his hair fell out.
“Perhaps all boys should have their head shaved,” I said for Serian to hear.
“I don’t have lice! And he doesn’t either, there’s nothing for the lice to eat!”
I was already in bed — the little boy asleep on one side of me, Moyri on the other — when Raith and Lyase-Lédu came and shook me. “Can we please use the boat now?” they asked.
“In the dark?” Somehow, I didn’t think they were planning a nightly raid or burglary. “All right, if you take the lamp. And an extra flask of oil.”
Long after midnight they came back. “We need the doctors!” they said.
“Let’s go outside or we’ll wake everybody else.”
“We’ve found where that boy comes from, and the doctors should go there tomorrow, they’re all sick!”
“Tomorrow is the Day of Anshen,” I said, “we were going to the tower. The tower in the morning and the doctors in the afternoon?”
Now, of course, I was too awake to sleep, and so were Raith and Lyase-Lédu. We sat outside, looking at the stars, and after a while Moryn and Arin came to sit with me and we talked: memories of the war, mostly.
“Were you already friends before the war?” I asked.
“Yes,” Arin said, “and if I hadn’t been sent to Essle the witch would have married us. But it doesn’t matter now, we’re together anyway.”
“But you can’t get married!” Raith said. “You’re both men!”
Moryn looked at her with a “what do you know, kid” face.
“I know two women in Turenay who are married,” I said.
“That’s impossible too! The Mother won’t allow it!”
“I don’t think the Mother cares as long as there’s love,” I said, but she was too stubborn to accept that.
There was a bit of light in the east now, and I could see a small flat boat go past, with someone in it — not gifted — who dropped something at the edge of the island. It was a basket full of white pudding. I remembered Merain’s warning, but there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. I’d have to ask Vauri or Ashti if there was any way to see poison with your mind.
The island was waking up; some of the chickens had already laid eggs that we could use for the pancakes with white pudding. The pigs had made a wallow where we’d dug up the anvil, probably because that spot was already muddy, and looked as if they were enjoying themselves. I made doubly sure that all doors were as firmly closed as we could manage: the heavy bar on the workshop door, the new lock on the house door, the key in my pocket. Now we’d see if the goatproof fence was really goatproof.
We arrived in an unexpectedly large number of boats, because some other people had joined us on the way. Prince Uznur and his children, too! “First we clean and repair for an hour, then we pray!” I said, and Raith and Lyase-Lédu took some of the hassle out of my hands by bossing people around. I handed out tools, showed people how to use them, took some measurements — I can’t do stonework myself, but if we find someone who can, it’s good to be prepared — and set children to collect loose mosaic tiles. “If you find any like this, put them all in that bucket. We’ll take them home and see what we can do with them.” I had no hope of laying a whole new floor with the tiles, that needs a master of that art, but we could at least clean them and see if we could use them to repair what was still there.
When the tower was clean as high as we could reach, we could see that it was made of the same white translucent stone as the fire-pit.
Jeran came to bring a double armful of firewood: rose branches, which he dropped in the fire-pit. Then he left without a word.
“Anyone here who can light this without a tinderbox?” I asked. “Lyase-Lédu? Raith?”
“Stand back everybody,” Lyase-Lédu said. They did it together: angrily glaring at the branches until they went up in flame with a great WHOOSH! All the branches were gone, but the fire kept burning.
Then we prayed, what I remembered from the Day of Anshen services at school. “Arin?” I said at the end. “Could you tell us about your journeyman’s trial now?”
He made us all sit down around the fire. It felt very safe, secluded, as if this place was cut off from the world. He told us how he’d been learning in the Guild of the Nameless, and then the time for his trial came. “Choose me and I will give you riches,” the Nameless had said, “and else you will lose your betrothed because she has already chosen to be on my side.” And when Arin hesitated, he saw the girl he was engaged to walk away on the Nameless’ arm.
“That was when I stopped believing him,” he said. “Always promising this if you give up that, always the thing that’s just out of reach. I couldn’t live with that. I knew he’d be after me for the rest of my life, but that was a better price to pay.”