Starting the school

Ashti’s patients are called Malek (half Iss-Peranian), Priyati (at least half Síthi), Ranaise (as white and blonde as Raith) and Lara (red-haired, freckled all over). I’ll assume that they felt safe enough to share their names some time during work or prayer at the tower.

As Arin finished telling his story, Malek pulled my sleeve. “I think he’s dead,” he said.

“What, Arin?”

“No,” and he showed me the little starveling boy he still had on his lap. It was clear: the life had gone from him. “I hope Jeran has a bath for me because he pooped on me when he died. I didn’t want to interrupt Arin.”

Died of hunger and whatever else was wrong with him. “We’ll have to go by the Temple of Naigha when we go home,” I said.

“There’s no Temple of Naigha we’re going to pass!” Lyase-Lédu said.

“Then we’ll go a bit further to find one,” I said. “Or better, I know a priestess of Naigha, and she’s gifted, I’ll see if I can call her.”

I found Erne in a haze of brus and brandy but once she’d understood what had happened she was willing enough to come. “And call the doctor, too,” she said, “so we’re sure it’s not something catching that he died of.”

I called Ashti, but she was already on her way to our own island. “I’ll hire a boy to row me,” she said, “where you are is a bit far!”

Erne arrived first, a young apprentice in tow. “Didn’t expect you here, she said, “and all those people with you, even some of those corpse-burners!” (I assumed she meant the river-folk.) I explained about the boy and Erne looked him over. “Hm. How long have you had him with you?”

“A day, two days,” I said. “We were trying to fatten him up a bit.”

“Once the hair and the teeth start going it’s too late for that,” Erne said. “You can be sure that it’s not anything you did or didn’t do that killed him. But you should get the doctor too, get yourself looked over, he’s got the silver sickness too, look at his fingers.”

“The doctor is already on her way,” I said.

“Everybody who’s been near the boy should be checked for the sickness, every animal too.”

“The pigs? The goats? The chickens and geese? The cat?”

Especially the cat,” Erne said. “I know animals can carry it, not sure about birds but better be safe than sorry.” She wrapped the boy in a linen sheet she had with her, so only his face showed, and others put bread in his mouth so it didn’t show that he didn’t have any teeth. A woman of the river-folk put a tiny blackened silver coin on each of his cheeks, just below the closed eyes. Then the apprentice came with a litter she’d made from two long sticks with linen strips in between. “Offshore, I think?” she asked.

“Definitely offshore,” Erne said. They laid the litter in the boat they’d come in. The apprentice went back to where the girls were throwing buckets of water over Malek and scrubbing him with soap and water from another bucket that Jeran came and poured a kettleful of boiling water in. There was much giggling.

“Teenagers!” I said.

“You’re not all that much older,” Erne said with a wry grin. “Take good care of yourself.”

“I went to see Merain and Raisse because I needed a big brother and sister,” I said.

“Good thinking. You’ll do. Ah! There’s Ashti.”

It was clear that Erne’s apprentice worshipped Ashti as the first-years at the school in Turenay worshipped Doctor Cora: her face lit up with admiration.

“Vauri’s still asleep,” Ashti said, “but it’s me you need, anyway. Where’s the patient? Well, no longer a patient but still.” One look at the boy was enough for her. “Starvation, parasites, leprosy. And there’s a whole island more of people in almost that state, I understand. But let’s have a look at you first.”

She was very thorough, examining everybody who had touched the boy or even been near him, from Serian to Prince Uznur and his children. We were all clear, thank Anshen, even Malek who had held him for the last couple of hours of his life. “It’s contagious but not very,” she said, “it’s possible to catch it in one day but usually it takes weeks, and some people can work in a leper village for years and never get sick at all. Me, I’m glad Cora taught me what to do. Next, the island. I’ll need everybody gifted with me. You’ve been practising power-sharing, right?”

“Just a little,” Priyati said, “we’ve just started learning!”

“A little is enough, as long as you know what it feels like so I don’t scare you witless when I need something from you. It’s just too much for one.”

The island was hedged round with willows, and there were about thirty or forty people living on it. All were thin and many looked ill. Some of the younger people recognised Lyase-Lédu and Raith and greeted them. Ashti didn’t wait for introductions, but promptly started to give orders: to round up all the people, the cats, the dogs, and whatever else they had here. A couple of children even brought two raccoons that lived in a pool under the willows. They’d been hard to catch!

Some people, especially the older ones, thought it was all nonsense, but Ashti didn’t hold with that and insisted on examining everybody and treating whoever needed it. I’d never been to Tal-Rayen with Doctor Cora so I knew only in theory what to do, but Ashti had, and she could lead me well enough so we could do the blood-sifting to get rid of the silver sickness together.

During a break I leaned against a kind of small round tower, and it was warm! “That’s our brick oven,” a man said, “it’s our living!”

Bricks! Exactly what we needed to build a kiln and a bread oven. “Can I buy some?” I asked.

“This load and the next ten are for the veterans’ house,” the man said. “Prince Uznur ordered them.”

“I’ll have the twelfth load then,” I said. “How much do they cost?”

It wasn’t much, and I’d have paid him in advance on the spot if Ashti hadn’t called for me again.

We were home after midnight, all of us exhausted, and slept almost until mid-day. But I’d promised to start school on the day of Naigha, and that was today. I got everybody together and asked “Who can already read and write?” Raith could, and both of the soldiers, and Malek but not very well, he said. Lyase-Lédu could write in Velihan, and demonstrated, and half of it was spirit! But in writing Ilaini she had as little skill as Serian: her own name and a couple of words.

“I can read and write,” Priyati said, “but not in any language you know!”

“Are you sure of that?” I asked in trade Iss-Peranian.

Just as I was setting up for a class, the river-folk delivered a dozen children and a couple of young adults, as well as enough flatbread for everybody, so we ate while I asked my question again. There were enough people who could read a little, and enough people who couldn’t read at all, for two classes, and Raith offered to teach one.

“Good idea,” I said, “you take the ones who already can, and I’ll take the ones who have everything to learn.”

I took a flat piece of bleached wood and a bit of charcoal, and started to teach letters, then easy words. From the corner of my eye I saw Raith, who’d clearly been taught in a very different way in Rizenay: she was going through all the letters and their sounds and combinations of those in a kind of drill. Well, as long as it worked!

Finally I said, “Tomorrow we’ll all write our own names. Even if you have a name with letters you haven’t learned yet!” I wrote mine on the board and yes, there was a letter in it they hadn’t learned yet: ‘ai’ . Slates, that was what we needed! I wished Rizenay wasn’t so far away, so I could ask either Rhanion to take them or Rath to send them.

We worked like that for the rest of the week: crafts or whatever else needed to be done in the morning, school in the afternoon, prayer, a meal for anyone who was there and wanted to share, semsin lessons from Arin in the evenings. I was sometimes concerned that Arin wouldn’t be able to bear all those people, but teaching made him get himself more in order all the time.

Then it was the day of Anshen again, and we went back to the tower. This time Jeran gave us three fat ducks, cooked and cold, he must have caught and prepared them during the week! And with the bread and fruit and vegetables that everybody had brought, we had a splendid meal.

The damaged men and their mother were there, and also the woman from the market who was indeed her sister, and a young woman who looked like her but didn’t speak a word of Ilaini. She did speak something that Moryn and Arin could understand! Moryn said it was Kushesh soldier-speak.

“Can you do something for my daughter?” the market-woman asked. “She came back from the war and she’d forgotten all her Ilaini!” But that was something I couldn’t help with, short of sending her to Turenay to Doctor Airath who was very good at helping people who had something wrong with their minds, even though he wasn’t gifted at all.

When we were about to go home, the damaged men were sitting on Jeran’s quay next to the splintered remains of a boat. There was something bobbing in the waves that looked like a body — and Arin got a stick and fished out a man, with a bald head and a grey moustache, very dead.

“Gods, it’s Merain,” Moryn said. Not the Merain I knew, thank Anshen.

There were more dead bodies in the water. Arin could recognise them with his mind. “Jichan, big Jeran, little Jeran, Senthi with the grabby hands. Oh, and that woman, too. What happened?”

The bigger of the damaged men said, “The boss, the boss’s boss that is, sent them to tell us to stop the little girlie’s spooking here. Set everything on fire, they said. But we said that the little girlie isn’t spooking, she’s praying, and leave her alone. And they said do it anyway. So we broke their boat, and then we broke them.”

Arin nodded. “You did well. I think they’re food for the fishes now, don’t you agree, Maile?”

I sure wasn’t going to call Erne for these people who had been ready to kill all of us. “That’ll make for good fat fishes!” I said.

So we had an enemy. “It’s the school,” Arin said. “Radan can’t stand that.”

“But I’m not teaching semsin to everybody!” I said. “Just reading and writing.”

“Do you think he’ll notice the difference? One flows into the other, you can’t see the seams.”

At least, when we got home, nothing there had been set on fire. We’d have to set watches, even though I was sure that Anshen protected the island.

We’d been doing a lot of smith-work: Priyati, the one who’d wanted to know about setting a saw, had real talent and she was strong enough to use the small hammer to make boxes for locks, and I was making new springs now. Perhaps we’d become good enough at it that we could sell locks to other people! But the children had other ideas with the springs: they’d invented a kind of pea-shooter with a spring, and were shooting each other with those. “Hey!” I called when I saw them at it, and I gave them my mother’s lecture about blow-pipes. “Don’t shoot at each other with anything hard, only soft clay or the marrow of a willow branch. Don’t shoot at anyone who isn’t carrying one themself, in sight. Don’t shoot the animals. Don’t shoot at people’s faces.”

“See what I can do!” Serian said, and he put a clay cup on a tuft of grass and went backwards twenty paces. He aimed, shot, and the cup was a heap of rubble.

“Now you have to make a new one,” I said.

“There are plenty! We made a whole heap! That was a — what do you call it, didn’t come out right so we threw it out.”

“A reject. All right, you may shoot at things with pebbles, but don’t break anything that we need whole. And if the enemy comes, shoot at them with whatever you have.”