Lockdown

For some reason this was extraordinarily hard to write, not only the last couple of scenes but also the adventure part. But it was a real adventure, damsel-in-distress and all!

Phuli took us to where she lived, about half an hour’s walk away. I’d called Maha to say we were gone –she was dancing, having a lot of fun with people her own age, there was no reason to take her away with us– and advised her to go with Lydan and the rest when they started back, because we didn’t know when or even whether we’d be back at the temple. I got a somewhat exasperated “yes, okay!” back, but that didn’t worry me, she’d already proved that she could take care of herself.

We arrived at a house in the commercial district — a trade office, in fact, with “Khopai Import and Export” written on the door (Thulo had to translate it for me). A little blue-tiled hallway with three doors, a winding staircase to another such hallway but without the tiles. This upper floor was Phuli’s house. She looked a bit embarrassed– I belatedly realised that Síthi usually don’t even have upper floors.

Behind one door there was a bedroom where a little girl lay on a large bed. She clearly had a high fever: she’d thrown all her clothes off and a slightly older girl was washing the sweat off her with a sponge.

“Good job, Kheili,” Phuli said. “I’ve brought the doctor.”

Vauri bent over the girl, felt her forehead, pushed at her groin and throat. “Better not come too close,” she said to us.

“It’s contagious?” I asked.

“Very.” She continued examining, then asked Kheili “Is anyone else in your street ill?”

“Zia, next door,” Kheili said. “They play together.”

“Let’s get her in here,” Vauri said. “Make this house a hospital. The sickness is in the city. You” –that was us– go to the hospital and tell them. Tell Doctor Erne. she’ll know what to do.” She wasn’t even looking at us any more, so much was she caught up in doctor’s work.

We had to walk, of course, because from here it would be a huge detour to go by the Temple of Dayati. I tried to call Maha and saw her still dancing, but couldn’t speak to her, it was hard to use semsin at all, I’d have to look into that when things were a bit less hectic.

We spoke to Doctor Erne– about sixty years old, grey-haired and looking worried, but then all doctors look a bit worried. As soon as we’d given our message a huge bustle broke out, people running everywhere. “Wait!” I said. “Do we have to burn our clothes? We’ve been in a house where someone was sick.”

“Just wash them.” the doctor said, and we did that and put on the first things that were to hand, linen breeches and shirts like the hospital helpers wore. There was nothing more for us to do here without being in the way, so we went back to the Order house to see if we could reach Maha from the temple where there was more anea to work with. Rhanion was already there, praying at the fire.

Prayer did give me more strength, but it was hard to reach out of the temple, of course, because it was protected. Vauri came in and sank down on her knees at the fire, then Lydan, and Rhanion got up and stood in the doorway.

“I’m going to send you out with a squad,” he said when I joined him. “Frankly you’re the only officer I’ve still got now. Go to the factory and tell Master Nakhast to start the emergency plan. We’ll close the gates when you’re back.” There were six of us, me and an almost-master, Jilan, as aide and four ordinary soldiers, some still in their nightshirts because they hadn’t had time to dress. When I saw that I realised I wasn’t in uniform either, but still in the hospital-orderly clothes. Must be a strange sight with a sword and a leather cap, but it couldn’t be helped.

We went on horseback — I don’t like horses much, and they generally don’t like me, but this was an unflappable brown gelding that actually did what I wanted, even when we had to make our way through a throng of people who all wanted to get into Little Valdyas at once. “That’s because the hospital is there,” Jilan said.

The factory was a city quarter in its own right, with a pair of heavy gates that were still open. Jilan and three of the soldiers stayed with the horses in front of the house that Jilan indicated –a new three-story building that looked like a palace– while I went inside with a single guard. We were shown into a room where a big elderly man was working at a table full of papers, though it must already be past midnight. “Master Nakhast?” I ventured.

He looked up, startled. “Yes? You’re from the Order, right?” Good thinking– I wasn’t even in uniform!

“Master Rhanion sent us,” I said. “You have to start the emergency plan. The sickness has come into the city.”

He called on some deity whose name I couldn’t understand, then pulled himself together, sighed and nodded. “Couldn’t it have waited until the work was done? Ah, well.” He turned, leaning on a stick that a servant handed him, and didn’t take any notice of us any more.

In the yard there was some commotion when we came out: Jilan’s group and the horses were surrounded by a small crowd of people, every one looking like a smith, apparently taunting them. When the crowd saw us they became even more rude, “bringing the sickness here, are you? We want to get out of the city! Or at least to go to Little Valdyas where they have the hospital! Who’s your captain– you? Are you even a captain? Where’s your uniform then?”

“The sickness is already in Little Valdyas,” I said, “we’re closing off all the sectors of the city to keep it from spreading. And it won’t help you to go away either, it was outside the city first.” Nobody listened, of course, and someone threw a stone that narrowly missed me –perhaps it even skimmed my leather cap– and broke the window above the door of the house.

I was about to turn to Jilan for help –when in doubt, ask the sergeant– when an upstairs window opened and Master Nakhast thrust his head out. “Any of you who doesn’t go home now will not have a job tomorrow!”

The crowd started to move, and we spurred on the horses and were out of the gate as quickly as we could.

As we neared the gate of Little Valdyas I spotted Thulo and a guard coming from the other direction. “Come sit behind me,” I said, and he climbed up. One of the soldiers took the guard on his horse. Thulo told me that he had been to the Temple of Dayati to fetch Maha, but they’d said that she’d already been fetched– by two people who looked very much like us. But, the temple doorman had said, he could have been mistaken, all those foreigners looked the same! (As if Thulo was a foreigner to the Síthi temple doorman! But he wasn’t noble, and the doorman probably was, and for Síthi that makes a lot of difference.)

The gatekeeper was just as surprised, “didn’t I let you through a while ago?” Some of the nurses who were coming to set up temporary hospitals in the neighbourhoods had seen “us” too. But I had the authorization from Rhanion to prove that I had really been sent by him so I must be the real me. The gatekeeper frowned at it and put a stamp on it and pinned it on his pin. “I suppose you can close the gate now,” I said, but we weren’t the last squad to come back, there was still one expected.

Back at the Order house we tried again to find Maha, knowing that she was likely in Little Valdyas, but we couldn’t find her anywhere. There were some “empty” spots, though, like the house in Solay, but we were both too tired –and I was too hungry– to go out to search now. Thulo got me supper, or it was breakfast really, because it was getting light outside. It was pea soup with black bread, as good as it would have been at home on the Feast of Naigha! Never mind that the weather was too hot and muggy for pea soup, it was delicious. and I scraped the bowl clean with the last of the bread and went to sleep in my guest room under a strong seal until a journeyman knocked on the door about mid-morning, bringing a jug of washing water.

Rhanion didn’t seem to need me, not specifically at least. Thulo and I did another sweep of Little Valdyas, this time with a map, and notied down every place that looked anea-less and every place that seemed to have a seal of the Nameless on it. Five places were really salient and we made a plan to tackle them one by one, going there in person to see if we could see more if we were closer. I asked a clerk for a warrant –it didn’t have to be official, as long as it looked official– so I could enter houses, though I didn’t intend to use it except as a last resort. “Now if you were a doctor,” the clerk said, “it would be a lot easier! Doctors can go anywhere with the epidemic going on, and they do often have one of the Sworn as escort.”

“That would mean me as the doctor,” Thulo said, “but I can’t do any doctoring, only spout buzz-words.”

“Oh, like any Síthi doctor,” the clerk said. So we went as a doctor and his guard, detailed by the hospital. We took one of the baskets that nurses had for house-calls, with bandages and simple medicines, and I carried it while Thulo strutted in front, looking important.

The spot behind the Temple of Mizran was closest, and it would also be good to go there while we were still completely clean — some of the other places were in neighbourhoods where we’d be sure to get mud on our clothes. It was very quiet, no shoppers or schoolchildren because the shops and the schools were closed, no hawkers, no people sitting outside inns to drink because the inns were closed too.

We found the house in a street of smallish neat townhouses, each with a little front yard. It was easy enough to locate it, but hard to do any discovering because a maid was whitewashing the doorstep, talking to another maid who was sweeping the yard opposite. We struck up a conversation –Thulo is good at that– and found out that it was Master Ferin’s house, but he wasn’t at home. “The mistress threw him out! He was so drunk, he puked on the doorstep! Couldn’t even use a bucket like he does normally. He hasn’t come back yet, I wonder if he dares!”

I really have to take lessons from Thulo, because he got much more out of the maid: it was indeed the Ferin we’d met in the Temple of Mizran, his wife Maile was the dean of the weaponsmiths’ guild and had a workshop in the weaponsmiths’ street (I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of the other places we’d seen) and last night the maid had set a table for an elaborate dinner, with a roast goose as the main dish, and the master and the mistress had gone away to a party before they could eat it! “They didn’t come back for hours, so we ate it, Cook and I and the children! The mistress was so angry. But if they’re not there, why leave it to spoil? And the children deserved a treat, their parents went to the temple of Dayati without them, you just don’t do that!”

“Perhaps they brought someone home with them,” I said, “a friend who was drunk and needed some nourishing food!”

“Nah, I saw them come home and they were drunk themselves, but nobody with them, I’d have noticed that!”

“They’d have had enough to eat too,” the other maid said, “the party was at the Temple of Timoine, there’s always lots of food. Not a scrap of meat because they’re Síthi, but yummy!”

An angry woman’s voice came from the house, “Ailin! Are you gossiping again? Come here and help me!” and we left in a hurry while the maid banged her bucket on the doorstep, spattering the door in whitewash, and rushed inside.

“Well,” I said, “we can be pretty sure that Maha isn’t here. They may have something to do with it, though.” We were now walking in the direction of the second of the places we’d marked on the map, The road went past the wall, and a man on the wall waved at us: Maham! And when we got to our goal, it turned out to be Maham’s house.

Felan met us at the door. “Isn’t the princess with you?” he asked. “I like her cooking!” But we had to tell him that it was the princess we were looking for, “we were at a party last night and we think she went home with someone, but we don’t know who.” No need to alarm him, it was clear that the children and their aunt weren’t hiding Maha in their house. That they had a seal on their house was purely for safety’s sake; I’d have done the same if I lived in a town belonging for all practical purposes to the enemy.

The next place was in the street of the weaponsmiths. It was eerie– it seemed deserted, though I could see with my mind that there were people in most of the houses. A sign proclaimed Maile’s workshop, and we knew where Maile was: not here! The house next door, “Erle’s Weapons and Instruments” was more likely to give results, it was right in the middle of our marked spot. securely sealed. I couldn’t even see if there were any people inside.

Thulo knocked on the door. Time passed. Just as we thought there was nobody in, an upstairs window opened and a man’s face looked out. “We’re closed! Baron’s command!”

“We’re from the hospital,” Thulo said. “Looking for the mistress. Need more instruments, they sent us to the best weaponsmiths.”

The window closed. There was a long silence. “Shall we knock again?” Thulo asked when we could hardly stand it any more, but then the door opened and a woman stood there: small, drab, no longer young but not middle-aged yet. And a master in the Guild of the Nameless all right.

Thulo introduced himself as Doctor Chua, and I didn’t introduce myself at all, though the smith looked suspiciously at me. We were let into a workshop that was like workshops everywhere, finished pieces hanging on one wall, tools on another, the forge at the back. The smith showed Thulo all kinds of different objects, but it was clear that she didn’t believe he was who he said he was (even calling him ‘Doctor Achoo’) and she interspersed it with digs at the Guild of Anshen and at Doctor Vauri. “the dried-up cow”. I could have kicked her for that, and I would have if I hadn’t been determined to be as formal and professional as possible. Instead, I looked around very cautiously now I was inside the seal, but all I could see was one barely gifted adult –probably not the man who had been at the window, it looked like a woman– and a child. No additional seals that I could see, either.

Thulo was running out of glibness now, and I took advantage of the fact that I was very much not a doctor to ask about some of the instruments. “This is a grater,” the smith said. “Mostly used for soles of feet.” I thought at first that it was to remove calluses, but then it dawned on me that the smith indeed provided instruments — of torture! “And that thing you’re holding,” she said to Thulo, “we call a thumb-screw.”

“What about the knives?” I prompted.

“Oh yes, the knives.” When Erle went to the finished-work shelves, the back door opened and a little girl came through, followed by a middle-aged woman. “Go back up, Arni,” Erle said, but the other woman turned to Thulo, “you’re a doctor, right? Don’t you have some medicine? She’s been sleeping so badly.”

“Didn’t want to sleep!” the girl said. “I dreamed of monsters. Big black scary monsters with tiny little teeth.”

Hm, that sounded like a bear! And bears sounded like Maha. But I didn’t get the opportunity to ask about it, because Erle sent both the woman and the girl back up, “I’ll give you medicine from my own cupboard. I don’t think Doctor Achoo can help you.”

We got the knives then– a dozen very sharp-looking ones, a short blade on a long stem like a miniature polearm. “Ten riders each,” Erle said, “a dozen to the box. I’ll take a letter of credit, even from the enemy.”

Especially from the enemy, I thought. A hundred and twenty riders. The expense account might be able to bear it. I wrote the letter in my own name, but sealed it with the Order seal just to annoy her. “Congratulations,” she said, “you have the sharpest knives in the city. Especially suited for eyelids.”

Thulo put the box somewhere inside his shirt and we left, not daring to talk before we were well out of sight and earshot.

“As far as I can see Maha isn’t there,” I said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been there, in the night at least. Spreading dreams of bears.”

“But why can’t we find her? We were inside the seal.”

“They might have taken her away. Or the house next door– let’s go round the back, if it’s really as much like Valdis as it looks they’ll have yards and sheds there.”

There was an alley, with fences higher than our heads, but it was easy to find the house because it definitely smelt of the Nameless. There was another smell too, linseed oil and soot, and after a moment I realised that it reminded me of the sort of ink the pamphlet-maker in Kushesh had used with his machine. Thulo climbed on my shoulders to look over the fence, but he caught his shirt on a nail and the box of knives fell out and clattered to the ground. Fortunately they fell in the mud so they didn’t make much noise. I stuffed them all back in the box and the box in the basket.

Thulo had seen enough, though: the yard of Erle’s house and that of Maile’s house were joined together, and there was a large shed taking up two-thirds of Erne’s yard and part of Maile’s as well. Maile’s back door opened on the clear part of the yard, but Erle’s on the shed.

There was a seal on each door. Just as we were discussing climbing over the fence — the seal didn’t extend over the whole yard — an elderly man came around the corner, carrying a large basket on his back. He knocked at each yard door, shouting something I couldn’t understand, and sometimes it was opened and the person on the other side of the door threw something into his basket. When we came closer we saw he was a rag-and-paper man; that was what his basket was about half full of anyway.

“You won’t have much luck here,” he said, “they never give anything!” But he knocked on Erle’s door anyway, and presently a maid opened it — the seal fell off, it must be one of those seals that protected from outside but not inside.

“No rags today!” the maid said, as expected. “Paper, then?” the rag-man asked, pointing inside. “You have enough!”

“Nothing!” and the door slammed shut on him, leaving the seal off. We heard feet shuffling away.

We talked a bit with the rag-man, in his trade he must see a lot without being noticed himself, but he hadn’t seen Maha either. “Fishy people in this house though, and the neighbours too!” he said, and we could only agree. When he continued on his round we tried the shed door– there was a latch on it, but Thulo could lift that easily with the back of his knife.

There was a little light coming into the shed through a tiny window and some cracks in the walls, so once our eyes were used to the gloom we could see what was inside. Piles of paper, some with text on it. I stuffed one of those into my purse. A press like the one in Kushesh was in one corner, with a pile of wadded-up discarded paper behind it– that was probably what the rag-man had pointed at. Thulo narrowly avoided stepping in a pool of ink spilling from a broken jug. Judging by the footprints, the maid hadn’t avoided it.

Through a crack between two boards we could look on the back door of Erle’s house. She was standing in the doorway, talking to Ferin of the Temple of Mizran! They were too far away to overhear any of what they were saying, but presently Ferin went through his own door — well, his wife’s door — and Erle came in our direction. We stood in the shadows behind the press, trying to be as invisible as possible. I knew that the two of us could probably overpower her, perhaps easily, but I didn’t want to have to do that and alert everybody that we were here.

Erle came into the shed, grumbled about the maid breaking the seal again, but before she could make a new seal she stepped into the ink, cursed, and went back to her own house. We were out, in the alley, before she could have washed her feet.

“Look!” Thulo said. There was a smear on the whitewashed wall that looked like blood and ink. Fairly fresh blood, too, still more red than brown. We followed the alley in that direction, and beyond the corner where we and the rag-man had entered there were clear footprints, of smallish feet in worn shoes –the left big toe stuck out to make bare toeprints– but deeper than you’d expect from a small person.

“Someone was carrying something heavy,” I said. “Or someone heavy.”

As we were following the track we met the rag-man again. He hadn’t seen anyone carrying a heavy burden, but perhaps his mate had– the man sweeping the street a bit further on. I thanked him and gave him a half-shilling, and we went to find the sweeper.

That was easy — he was barely moving, leaning on his broom to rest after every couple of strokes. Yes, he had seen a small man carrying a girl. He even knew who it was. “Kejalat, lives with the smith, Master Erle. Her niece it was, he was taking her to the hospital.” He hadn’t seen whether the niece had red hair because she’d had a scarf around her head, but she had ‘spots on her skin’ — perhaps he thought that meant that she was ill, his own skin was much too dark to freckle.

I gave the sweeper a half-shilling too. “Thank you very much! She’s a friend of ours, we’ll go and see how she’s doing.”

Would Kejalat really have taken Maha to the hospital? It didn’t hurt to go there and find out. If she wasn’t there, it was close to where we were going anyway. We took the shortest route, back streets rather than the main street. Halfway to the hospital we ran into someone we knew: Felan. “Hey!” he said, “are you still looking for your friend? Because I know where she is, Someone was carrying her into the hospital. Hurt her foot real bad, it was going all black!”

But why would someone who had kidnapped Maha take her to the hospital? It was getting more confusing by the moment. And even more confusing when we reached the hospital and asked the doorman whether he’d seen Maha brought in. “Of course, you did it yourself! Well, not both of you, but the gentleman.”

“No, that wasn’t me,” Thulo said. “Where is she?”

“She’ll be with Doctor Arin, through there.”

As we entered where the doorman had pointed, a young doctor we didn’t know yet was saying “I don’t know how that could have happened, Thulo!” And the man who was sitting on a stool at the foot of a cot that Maha was lying on did indeed look like Thulo from the back. The real Thulo promptly grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground, leaving me to explain to the doctor.

“I don’t understand,” the doctor said, “he came in carrying her, said he’d found her, and she’d been beaten up by — that can’t be you, can it? By the Order.”

“No, that’s not us.” I said, “But I’ve seen before that the Order was blamed for things they’d never do. Killing people, mostly. Is she alive?”

“Yes,” the doctor said, “but she’s been unconscious all the time, I can’t bring her back. Wounded all over, internal injuries, the foot is the least of it.” There was a clean bandage on Maha’s foot now. “Can’t you do something?”

I touched Maha’s arm and tried to touch her mind, but it was as if she wasn’t there at all.. No wonder we hadn’t been able to find her!

Meanwhile Thulo had knocked out the man who looked like him, and unconscious he didn’t look much like him at all any more — about the same build and colouring, but ten, perhaps twenty years older and not half as handsome: definitely the man who had looked out of Erle’s upstairs window. I found someone at the Order house, “could I have two people to pick up a prisoner? We’ll want to talk to him later but he’s in the way right now.”

With Kejalat gone, we could turn our attention to Maha. “I’d like to have her in the temple,” I said, but the doctor was against that, “better not move her at all if you can help it! I can’t see what’s wrong inside her, but it doesn’t look good.”

We decided to seal the room itself, dedicate it to Anshen, make it a temple. “Do you need me?” the doctor said, “I’ll take my stuff and go to my other patients. I’ll send Erne when she comes in, I’ve done all I can.”

As we did the sealing I noticed that Thulo was much more confident than the last time we’d done something like this. At this rate he would become a journeyman in Albetire! The room was as safe as a temple when we were finished, with the approval of Anshen too.

We went together to find out where Maha’s mind had gone. I could imagine that if someone –Kejalat, in all probability– had hurt her so much she’d have retreated into a safe place. And knowing that, finding the safe place was easy: a deep cave where Maha was hiding in the dark, small and scared.

“Maha?” I ventured. “It’s us.” I showed myself, and sensed that Thulo did the same.

She fell into our arms, only in anie of course. “Oh! I’m so glad that you found me! Can I come out now? Is he gone?”

“Yes,” I said, “it’s safe, they’ve locked him up.” And then she opened her eyes and tried to stretch. “Gods! Everything hurts! And I’m so thirsty.”

“I’ll see if I can get you a drink of water,” I said. When I opened the door Doctor Erne was there. “Ah, you did it,” she said. “I couldn’t get in.” She went to Maha’s side and started to look her over methodically.

“May I drink water?” Maha asked.

“You must drink water,” the doctor said, and she called a nurse who she gave some instructions. After a while the nurse came back with a cup. “Water with honey and salt,” she said. “Give it to her by the spoonful,” she instructed Thulo, and he did that while Erne continued the examination.

“Hm,” she said, in that way doctors have, “she’s taken a beating but nothing that won’t mend. It will take a while, though. Weeks until she can traval. Months before she’s as good as new again. Was that Kejalat? Used to work in the palace under the old king. He’s– well, I’ll have to call him a master of his craft.”

After a few more sips of the honeyed water, Maha’s eyes drifted closed. “There was poppy juice in that too,” the doctor said.

Thulo wanted to stay with Maha, and I went to the Order house with the box of knives. I could clean them and wash my hands of Kejalat at the same time.

I found Rhanion in the kitchen, washing his hands too. “Good work,” he said. “We’ve been to the house and collected Erle and Ferin. Here’s your letter of credit back. And now the Order has a printing press!” He dried his hands carefully and handed me the towel. “It’s… interesting to talk to Kejalat. I suppose you’ll want to hear it.”

Kejalat was sitting in Rhanion’s office between two of the Sworn, looking subdued. “Again?” he asked. “I was doing my work. And I’m a master, I know all the ways.” He started telling me in detail what he’d done to Maha, “we start on the trunk, then the extremities”, a man who took pride in his skill. “But she went away before I had even started. I’ve seen it before but never so early. That was after she kicked the jug of ink over. I took her to the hospital, I could have done more but it was enough.”

What does he mean? I asked Rhanion. He gave a signal to the other two, who took Kejalat away. “We got most of it out of him, and some of it out of Erne. The plan was to leave Maha somewhere she would be found, and blame the Order.”

“Like the dead woman in Kushesh,” I said.

“But alive– they got her out of the party disguised as you and Thulo, drunk or drugged or both, so she’d remember being taken and tortured by you, one of the Sworn, so we could be charged with high treason against foreign royalty. Perhaps provoke a war between her father and King Athal.”

I could imagine that if Maha’s father and Athal heard of this –and they would, from me, as soon as I could get a letter on a ship– that would make them go to war, but not against each other.

“And now we’ve charged Erle with high treason, abduction, and inducement to torture,” Rhanion said. “Kejalat– he’s a tool. I don’t know whether he really knows what he’s doing. His job, yes, but I”m not sure he realises that that he’s doing it to people.:”