The feast of Anshen

Party poopers are NOT FUN. And having a very unexpected master thrown at you is disconcerting, to say the least.

We’re not sure about the letter Maile crammed in her purse but I’m assuming it’s Radan’s. (Not read it yet, though; perhaps we’ll continuity-fudge and make it Never Have Happened.) Some other little things put where they make sense because I know they happened but not when. That’s the risk of not taking notes when immersed.

I didn’t think I’d ever see Moryn speechless, but he turned the tools over and over in his hands without a word. Then he rolled them in the leather case they’d come in, tucked them in his shirt and said, “Better get some seasoned oak then, next time someone goes to the shipyard. Might make a better barrel for all those peas.”

We spent the rest of that day working on the fence, the jetty, and the forge. I got everything set up the way I wanted it, with a glaring hole where the bellows ought to be. “I could get the forge going now if I’d thought of bellows!” I chided myself, but then it was time to wash and put our best clothes on and go to the Order’s training ground for the Feast.

We picked up Lochan at the workshop, and he squeezed into our boat while his parents followed behind us. “Did you find a master?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said, “I hope to find someone at the Feast, the whole Guild will be there after all.” Well, perhaps not the whole Guild, Merain had said there would be about three hundred people and that would be the whole Guild in Turenay! But anyway, enough to have lots of masters we could talk to.

“That’s what Merain says every year,” he said, sounding sad.

“I’ve only been here less than a week, and I’ve been busy!” I said. “But I promised, and you’ll be the first to know when I do find someone.”

I hadn’t seen the training ground before, but there were enough markings on the ground that I could tell some of it was usually reserved for obstacle courses with and without horses, and some of it for sword practice. Now it was lined with strings of lanterns and completely empty, except for some benches and stools on the edges, and on one side a row of barrels and several long tables that people were putting dishes of food on. If we’d been in Essle longer we could have brought food too! Well, next year. It was already a good thing that we’d been able to bring ourselves.

Merain and Raisse were already there, along with several of the children I’d seen in their house, and they came to meet us. Merain talked with Moryn for a while, in low voices, the only thing I could hear was “Does he have enough to eat?” so it must have been about Moryn’s house-mate, Arin. Then he came to embrace me, and threw a seal about both of us and said “Grandpa has sent them to the south on a ship. To keep them from getting any more tainted by–”

“By us,” I said. “I was so glad to have an ally in the other Guild. And will the baby be born safely now?”

“Old Radan did want a grandchild, but not from that woman,” Merain said. “He gave me a letter for you.” That must have been young Radan, not old Radan. I took the letter and crammed it in my purse, breaking the wax seal but not the semsin seal.

If what I knew about Albetire — because that was what ‘south’ probably meant — was correct it wouldn’t keep Radan and his wife from meeting the Guild of Anshen, and not from being helped by them either. There was a hospital there, and there must be good midwives, and many of the doctors and midwives were likely to be in the Guild.

A barge delivered a small brown-skinned woman and everybody fell silent as she climbed on a chair, holding on to the back. She reminded me of Doctor Cora a lot, except that she was ten or even fifteen years older and any beauty she had was on the inside. She could probably persuade, but not seduce.

“People!” she called, and her voice carried to the whole field. “We’re together here to celebrate what you Valdyans celebrate on this day.” She looked around and her eyes fell on Raith. “You!”

Raith cringed.

“You’re the youngest. At least the youngest with any sense. The invocations.”

Raith started, and after the First Invocation nobody took over so she didn’t stop — I had to help her with the words, because of course she’d mostly heard the other Second Invocation in Rizenay. The other two were easier, and she finished sweating and trembling but without any mistakes. Everybody who could raised a seal over the whole field, a great glittering dome.

“Nobody except me who can light this fire, I suppose,” the woman said, and got off the chair and threw it on the big pyre behind her. It caught fire as it flew through the air and made the pyre burst into flame at once.

Then there was a knock on the seal that sounded as if it was a pattern, a secret code. Knock. Knock knock knock. Knock knock.

Phuli — it couldn’t be anyone else — looked annoyed. “All right, come in,” she said.

A woman came into the seal, followed by a small group of assorted people, and she was not pleased. “So you’ve started without me. How typical.” She said a lot more, punctuated with little high-pitched disdainful sniffs, but I hardly listened let alone remembered because I suddenly knew who this was: the late Athal’s cousin, the bitch of the Drunken Seahorse! Then my attention was back because she singled out Lyase-Lédu. “We don’t want any deceivers here. On the other hand, you’re still very young.” Lyase-Lédu pushed close to me, and so did Raith after a moment. I made a cloak of anea to protect all of us — Serian came under it the moment it was finished, and I’d had Moyri with me all the time.

“I wish she’d stayed away,” Merain said behind me, “spoiling the party. Bitch. She’s not the boss, or even a grand master.”

“Is Phuli the only grand master we’ve got?” I asked.

“There are a few more, but they’re still apprentices,” Merain said.

Raith and Lyase-Lédu were holding hands under my seal. “I wish we could cut that corner off the field and make it sink in the swamp!” Lyase-Lédu said. And indeed, the woman was holding court with her companions in a corner. I could only call it that: nobody else came near them, and they weren’t mixing with the crowd by themselves either. The girls suddenly left the seal and went up to her, still holding hands. “You’re spoiling our feast!” Raith said. “You’re a horrible bitch. Go away!” And each of them scratched at the woman like a cat, Lyase-Lédu with her left hand and Raith with her right. It tore the skin of her anie like tearing a silk shift, and she shrieked and turned and left, taking the others with her. Phuli closed the seal behind her with a “good riddance” gesture.

There was suddenly a nasty smell, or perhaps it was only the spirit of a smell, that made me think of the Resurgence.

“So that’s her game!” Raisse said. “And none of us could see it, not even Phuli. Nobody except those two girls. ” She looked sort of over my shoulder as she said that, and I looked where she was looking. Very handsome, too old to be Timoine and anyway definitely male. I grinned at him with silent thanks.

Meanwhile, those two girls were back under my cloak, clinging to me and crying.

“You did the right thing,” I said, “you were very brave! It’s all right now. We can have the party.”

From the corner of my eye I could see several of the Sworn leaving the field and rowing away in a boat. The fire was almost out, only smouldering, but Raith peeped from under the cloak and glared at it, making it flame up again.

I was still too shaken to move, but people brought me food and drink, and that got me back to almost normal. I found Phuli herself beside me at one point. “You’re from Ryshas,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.”

“You smell of the queen.”

“The queen sent me, ultimately,” I said. “To stay here and do what needs doing.”

“Good. We need more of those. You’re barely a journeyman, aren’t you?”

I shrugged. “I hoped I’d find a master here, at the feast. But everybody is too busy for that.”

“Put your hopes on Anshen,” she said. “You’ve seen him, what, four times now? More than most other people. It won’t be anyone from here.” And she was gone, talking to everybody in turn, it seemed. There were many more than Merain’s three hundred people now, perhaps five or six hundred, but somehow when anyone wanted to dance there was always room.

I talked to lots of people, danced a couple of times, saw the children find other children and run around the field with them. Moryn found a seat and kept Moyri on his lap so she wouldn’t get trampled. There were others than Moryn who weren’t gifted, family of people in the Guild: he didn’t stand out, not even by his legs because he wasn’t by far the only veteran missing something.

Far into the night a boat came up, brightly painted with gold trim, and a man got off who could only be a prince. Clearly in the Guild, a small crowd of children with him. “That’s Prince Uznur,” someone told me, “the king’s chancellor in charge of veterans.”

I’d heard of him, of course, one of the letters in the secret bottom of my tool bag was for him! I’d even seen his wife Moyri in Turenay when she was still alive, in the first year that I was at school. She’d had a weak heart and died of it, leaving her parents in charge of the children while Prince Uznur was in Essle. Clearly he’d had them come here now! The eldest was a girl about Raith’s age, and there was a slightly younger boy, and a boy and a girl who looked about five and must be twins.

He ended up next to me on a bench. He seemed to know who I was, or at least what I was here for; so much for secrecy! “Would you like to dance?” he asked.

“Yes, please.” He took me round the fire, dancing with steps that I didn’t know and had to pick up from him with my mind. When he noticed that he was more cautious and made a point of doing the steps precisely, so I could follow everything. This was a man, I knew, who had fallen in love once and only once, and even if it hadn’t been the Feast of Anshen where everyone is safe — well, barring intrusions like the one the girls had foiled — I’d have felt completely safe with him.

“Thank you,” I said when we were back at the bench. “I’ve got a letter for you, but it’s at home, I’ll bring it to your office.”

He nodded absently, watching his children who were now playing a rowdy game with Raith and Lyase-Lédu and Serian. “It’s good for them,” he said, “meeting other people than our own household.”

“Don’t they go to school?” I asked. “Mine don’t, I’m doing all the schooling, but that’s one of the things I was sent to do.”

“They have tutors.”

“Well, they can come to our house occasionally if they like,” I said. “Help with the work, and play, and we could bring them back or you can have them fetched.”

“Really? That would be a very good idea, actually.” He was silent for a moment. “If there’s anything you need…”

“Bellows! I’ve got a whole forge set up but forgot to get a pair of bellows for it,” I said. That startled him. He hid his face in his hands and I thought he was crying, until I realised that he was laughing. “Did I say something funny?”

“Can I trust you with something very intimate?” he asked.

“Er, yes?”

He took my head in his hands and pressed his forehead to mine, and yes, it was very intimate: his head between Moyri’s thighs, and her shrieking “Uznur! I’m not a pair of bellows!”

“My late wife — we loved each other very much, and though she wasn’t strong she always enjoyed lovemaking — if we hadn’t been weak with laughter on any one night in bed, it was a wasted night. You shall have your bellows. Tomorrow.”

It was getting light — after all, it was Midsummer, though I’d noticed that dawn wasn’t as early or dusk as late here as in Veray or Turenay — and people were starting to leave, hugging close friends and waving to others. I rounded up the children, and when the people near the food tables saw me doing that they gave us several packages of leftovers to talke home. Moryn sat against the barrels with Moyri on his shoulder, both fast asleep, and two huge men carried them into our boat together. Lochan was nowhere to be seen, but I trusted he had either gone home with his parents or would do that later.

We must have gone to bed, because I woke up sometime in the afternoon, as I could see by the sun. Other people were still asleep, but the smell of the porridge I started to make woke them up as well. While we were eating it, a boat came from the direction of the city, carrying two liveried people with a large package. “Compliments of His Highness Prince Uznur,” they said and carried it into the forge. The bellows! I almost forgot to thank them, and it wasn’t until I could barely see their boat any more that I wondered if I should have tipped them.

I hung up the bellows and couldn’t resist firing up the forge. When the girls and Serian saw me pulling the bellows they wanted to do that too, of course, all three together at first but they got in each other’s way and I made them take turns. I got a piece of not too rusty iron from the scrap pile and found that my skill was as rusty as the iron, but everybody was so interested that I kept at it until I’d hammered the iron into some sort of shape. “When you can lift this hammer you may try,” I told the children, but nobody could lift it except me. “That’s why you start by pulling the bellows,” I said, “to build muscle. I started with it when I was about your size.”

With all that it was almost evening again. We made a good meal of party leftovers, sang, prayed, and fell asleep, all sprawled on the straw like a pile of kittens.

Not for long. I’d forgotten to seal.

I don’t remember what the nightmare was but I had it, and it would have been much harder to wake up from it if all the children hadn’t had it too. I had to shake Moryn awake because he was in distress but couldn’t wake up by himself, and we all sat round and someone made tea even though it was the middle of the night. I looked around if I could see where it came from, and the only direction that was plausible was the east.

Moryn had been dreaming about the war. I think I’d been dreaming about ghosts. It was very probable that it came from Arin.

“We’ll go and see him tomorrow,” I said.

“You must be careful, he can be dangerous. But I’ve never seen him hurt a child.”

“Good, then we can take the children.”

Now I sealed, and we slept some more, until I staggered to the fire to make porridge and found Serian already making porridge, with milk! “From the goat,” he said proudly, and then had to push the goat out of the house because it was as curious as goats are.

“Where did that come from?” I asked.

“Simmin,” Moyri said, and Serian translated it, “Swimming.”

“We’ll have to keep her fenced in,” I said, “or keep her on a chain, because if we keep her on a rope she’ll gnaw through it.”

As soon as we’d done our morning prayers and eaten the porridge (with saffron! Serian had obviously found Radan’s box of spices) I started making chain links. Of course, because I wasn’t up to speed yet, it was too short a length of chain to be useful when we left for Arin’s house. “Best go in the afternoon,” Moryn had said, “he’s usually quiet then.” Well, we’d put everything goats weren’t supposed to eat in the attic and pull the ladder up, I’ve never seen a goat that can fly. I considered putting the goat on the next island, which was empty except for a couple of edible-looking shrubs, but we already knew she could swim.

I hadn’t been this far east yet. I suspected Lyase-Lédu and Serian had, when they were catching ducks and muskrats, but they didn’t say anything. In the distance I could see a stone building that turned out to be an eight-sided tower when we got closer. “A temple of Anshen?” I asked. Someone at the feast had told me that Essle had been much farther to the east centuries ago, and that it had sort of crept westward and lost its eastern parts to the swamp.

“That’s Jeran’s castle,” Moryn said. Well, I wanted to buy more wood from Jeran anyway, next time I’d go myself and investigate the tower.

Then we landed at a bit of swampy ground with a shack on it, built of wickerwork smeared with mud like the poorest houses across the river in Turenay. “Let me go in first,” Moryn said, and made his way inside on hands and stumps. Moyri thought it was great fun, escaped from Serian’s arms, and crawled after him the same way. Before we could catch her she was already inside. Moryn has never seen Arin hurt a child, I thought, and then we were inside too and saw a huge man standing in the middle of the hut’s single room, his hands stretched toward Moyri.

“Hey, little one,” he said, and she was surrounded by what looked like a cloud of fireflies made of anea. She laughed and flailed, trying to catch them. Then the big man looked up and saw me.

“Moryn says I kept you awake,” he said. “Sorry, kid.” His eyes were infintely sad. He looked wild, unkempt, very dirty, and smelt as if he’d been drinking steadily for weeks, but he was definitely a master in the Guild. And very broken.

“I don’t think it’s your fault,” I said. “I think it’s the fault of the war.”

He sat down, and so did I, and the children around me, and he began to tell us about the time Raith (at that our Raith pricked up her ears), the baroness of Lenay, now queen of Solay, the witch, the grand master of Anshen, cleared the chasm through a mountain from the spirits of the dead that the Khas mages had sealed it with. “Every one the mages kill makes them stronger. The younger they are, the more power they give when they’re killed. There was this girl with the army, called Mousie, she was so young… They go for the little ones first.”

If that was Doctor Cora’s Tamycha1, who was hanging round the school in my first year, absurdly good at languages, went abroad with Raissei Senthi as her apprentice, then she at least hadn’t been killed in that war!

[1] tamych “little mouse”. Her name in her own language is actually Tamikha.

I could imagine that it had broken him. I wished I could get him to Doctor Cora, but I didn’t think I’d been sent here for that and he’d never go to Turenay by himself. And people were already looking out for him: Moryn, and I think Merain and Raisse as well, were doing all they could.

Then Arin stopped in the middle of a sentence and looked over my left shoulder. I looked behind me but saw nobody this time.

“Really?” Arin asked. “Hey, kid. He says I am to be your master.”

“If he says so, he probably means it,” I said. “And will you teach the girls too? And Lochan? Because I promised Lochan I’d find a master for both of us.”

Arin had to think about that for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. All right.”