Well, she didn’t expect this. But isn’t that normal for characters at the start of a new campaign arc?
So here I was earning my keep and my school fees, trying to fix one of those hoists to keep the weight off a broken leg, and it wasn’t going well at all. Those things have a very intricate pulley, and if it goes wrong it goes WRONG and you’re probably better off making a completely new one. But Jichan came to disturb me at a very convenient moment, when I was at that stage that you keep going against your better judgment because you just can’t stand that it isn’t working. He’d had some money from his family and was treating his friends at the Apple, and indeed I could see Senthi and Selle and Lan and Rath and little Hylti outside waiting for us to join them.
The Apple was packed, of course, but there’s always room if you know how to push yourself in. We got fish pie, and cheese pie, and meat pie, and carrot-and-turnip pie, all cut into eighths so everybody could eat whatever they wanted (fish for me every time, though I wanted a piece of the cheese too) and a great big jug of apple wine. We talked about anything and everything, the war, the king who should be halfway into Iss-Peran now, what we were going to do when we finished school in — goodness! — no more than eight weeks.
Jichan was very serious all of a sudden. “I’m going to Valdis to join the Order! There’s so much to be done!”
“Wow,” I said.
“Why don’t you come too?”
“It’s not for me, I’m going to want a man some time– not now, but I’d like to keep the option. Wait, I know, I can stay here or go to Veray and start a mending workshop, take in anyone who comes to learn and see if there’s something they want to learn besides mending.”
I even had money for that: Mum and Dad had sent me forty riders they’d earned making swords for the army, with the understanding that this was all they could do and I’d have to fend for myself from now on, but isn’t that what people go to school for, to make their own way afterwards?
“Or perhaps I’ll travel a bit first,” I said, “work my way around the country.”
Then we talked more about the war and the state of the world — someone, I think Rath, had a stack of letters which were scary, all about something called the Resurgence of Archan, kind of like the Nameless but as much worse than the Nameless as the Nameless is worse than Anshen. They’d found those on a ship in Sarabal or something, and how they got to Turenay I don’t know. “You know,” he said, “there were children on that ship that they rescued from kidnappers! Even children from the East, do you believe it?”
Every one of us would go to the south and join the army in a trice, but Master Rava was very adamant that we wouldn’t go anywhere until we’d finished school. And they’d been very strict when they were recruiting, not taking anyone a day under seventeen. (I wasn’t even sixteen at the time, and even now I’m only sixteen and a half.)
I rattled my flattish purse and said that I could pay for the second jug. Before I could do that an old man at the end of the table threw a bulging purse between us, “have a drink on me! It’s so heartening to hear young people talking like that, wanting to do things!” Well, I’d have a dark ale on him, which the Apple does almost as well as apple wine.
It got late. None of us were sober any more. We left the Apple in a rowdy crowd, just before Aylin and Rovan would sweep us out (yes, with an actual broom, no less!). It must be well after midnight. Somewhere along the way we got drenched by the contents of a chamber-pot, accompanied by infant bawling and adult cursing from an upstairs window: “you woke up the baby! Damn students!”
When we fell into bed in the girls’ dormitory Ruzyn was also cursing about being woken up, but she goes to bed ridiculously early so it’s her own fault really. Selle went out again almost immediately and I could hear her voice in the passage, and Jichan’s voice, they’ve been an item for weeks now, Order or no Order! Well, I said no to him before that because I didn’t want to go steady and I don’t do casual, let him carry on with Selle if they both want it!
I had chaotic dreams about the king and the army and ships and scary letters, and woke up far too early and sat in the refectory blearily eating groats with Temple novices who looked just as bleary as I felt.
“Anything wrong?” I asked.
“Fire in Mill Alley,” they said.
“Again? I’m not a roofer but I know some roofers, they should tile their roofs! How much would that cost?” I was thinking of my forty riders, but to tile all the roofs in Mill Alley would cost three or four hundred and I couldn’t even start to think about that. I did want to do something good! But this was beyond my means all right.
Then the bell rang for the first lesson: it was Lochan lecturing about trade regulations which would have sent me to sleep again immediately if I hadn’t done my best to stay awake and take notes because he would expect us to be able to reproduce his lectures exactly. He ends every lesson in the middle of a sentence if the bell happens to ring then, and starts the next one from that point! So I wrote down every word he said without even thinking about it, until there was a knock on the door and a little first-year came in, asking very bashfully for the apprentice Jichan to report to Master Rava.
You can copy my notes later, I told him, and wrote on with even more dedication.
Then Selle was called for, and then me! Had we misbehaved that much? I could only remember the crying baby and Ruzyn’s protest. You’ll have to take notes for me, I said to the other Maile in class and got a silent nod back.
Master Rava was alone, and she asked me to sit down, which I hadn’t expected. If she wanted to tell me off surely she’d want me to stand? “I know we were home late last night and we woke up a baby!” I said. “But Jichan had something to celebrate.”
“What did Jichan have to celebrate?”
“Well, that he had some money from home mostly,” I said.
She grinned at that; perhaps she even remembered being a student herself. “We did get a complaint about the baby, yes.”
“But this isn’t about that. I’ve had a letter from my daughter.”
I knew which daughter, because it was on the surface of her mind. “The queen? But you have other daughters, of course.”
“Yes, my daughter Raisse. She’s very concerned about the children who get abducted, the children that nobody knows about, the people who aren’t missed if they disappear.”
“Like the ones on the ship in Sarabal!”
“Exactly. Though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t interrupt me.” And she went on, with me doing my best not to interrupt her. The queen had noticed that there were too many people who were out of sight of everything, who didn’t have an opportunity to learn, to be part of any community, and she’d proposed sending young journeymen to the places where those people were to share their lives, teach them to read and write –the queen had very strong opinions on that–, bring them into the world as it were. “You’ll have to live on practically nothing,” Master Rava said, “just like the people you’ll be living with. There’ll be funds for whatever’s needed — my husband has promised that we’ll be able to use any money the family can raise for this cause. But it will be hard, and troublesome, and, yes, dangerous. We’re sending people to Ildis and Veray and Essle, anywhere that people fall by the wayside.”
“I know Veray,” I said, “I grew up there!”
“That’s why we’re not sending you to Veray,” she said. “I’m sending you to Essle.”
“Essle! That’s far away and it’s dangerous!”
“Yes, I admit that.” She took out a map of Essle, the one we’d been studying in class in fact. “Here, in the south-eastern part, beyond the harbour. It’s all little islands in fact, a great slum that doesn’t get any of the assets the city has to offer. You’ll have to live as they do, as poor as anyone.”
“Well, if they’re living there they’re at least not starving to death,” I said.
“Some people are starving to death. Mostly because they don’t have any way to keep themselves, no skills, no opportunities. This is why we’re sending all of you, to give those people a way to take care of themselves.” She picked up a piece of paper from the desk. “We’ve even got a deed of ownership of a bit of land there, with a shed on it.”
“I’ve been thinking of setting up a workshop here, no reason why I couldn’t do it there,” I said. “A shed would do for that, yes.”
“So I can trust you’ve decided to take the offer”?
No way to refuse it now. “Certainly. But you’re sending journeymen, you said? I’m not a journeyman yet.”
“This close,” she said, pinching her fingers so a gnat couldn’t have fit between them. “Ten, twenty years ago we’d have sent masters, but that won’t work, we need people who don’t stand out on the one hand and on the other hand aren’t set in their ways yet. People who don’t have a family or a business they’re being called back to, who are free to do this for Anshen and the kingdom. I’ll give you the names of people who can help you — Athal of the Drunken Seahorse, and the head of the midwives’ guild, and Prince Whatshisname, Uznur, the king’s chancellor in Essle, but you’ll mostly be on your own. I know you can do it — you’re a resourceful young woman, not as innocent as Selle.”
“Naive, perhaps. The way she’s carrying on with Jichan. Did you think I hadn’t noticed?” I suppressed a grimace. “What I meant is, you know what to do in an emergency, judge when you can’t handle it yourself and get a real doctor or other help, that kind of thing.”
“And what about finishing school?”
“Ah, those last couple of weeks — it won’t matter if you don’t finish Master Lochan’s trade law class.”
“That’s so tedious!”
“I haven’t heard that,” Master Rava said with a grin.
“Can I at least travel by Veray and see my parents? They’ll give me some knives and a sword, too.”
“By Veray is the quickest way to Essle. Dismissed.”
I found Jichan and Selle in the refectory, looking as shocked as I felt. “Where are they sending you?” I asked.
“Veray,” Jichan said, “to the slums across the river.”
“I was born there! Well, not across the river but close enough, I can give you some hints.” And I showed him where to go in Veray, and where not to go unless you really needed to, and how to avoid the Guild of the Nameless, and where to get the best ale. We wouldn’t be allowed to travel together — it was kind of a secret operation — but this was the next best thing.
Rath came in while we were doing that, and he said “I’m going to spend the rest of my life in Rizenay!”
“Are you planning to die so soon?” I asked. “Or do you suppose you’ll be in Rizenay until you’re ninety?”
“I don’t think you understand,” Rath said. “This isn’t an assignment for a year or two. The queen needs anchors, people who make a steady place for Anshen in places where he otherwise doesn’t get a foothold. She’s sending us to spend our lives there.”
“The rest of my life in the slums of Essle! That’s definitely not what I thought last night when I said I wanted to travel. Ten years, perhaps, and then come back and marry someone nice and have his children.”
“Essle!” Now Rath was concerned, and he put an arm around me and squeezed my shoulder. “At least Rizenay is full of beautiful blond boys.” He was at least half Iss-Peranian himself, far from blond! “But perhaps you’ll get married anyway. I’m sure that Essle is full of beautiful brown boys!”
Hylti came in then, looking as white as any of us, saying she was going to Valdis, or at least to one of the villages south of Valdis. “You’ll see elephants!” I said, which cheered her up a little.
After a while about half our class were in the refectory, all in the same predicament. Someone thought of working out a code so we could write secretly to each other to exchange ideas and experiences. People showed each other their home towns as I’d shown Veray to Jichan — pity nobody of our group was from Essle, though Essle is probably too large to know all of it even if you were born there. Poor Lochan, half his class won’t be there to finish his assignments!