Carrying messages

It’s not all he does, but it’s almost a running joke towards the end.

This was the day that Capo or whatever his name was would be at the bath-house! I’d remembered just in time. So I went to ask Arvi at the house if she could lend me a couple of pence so I could go to the bath-house myself. “The one at the west gate? You wouldn’t get by with a few pence there, it costs six shillings just to get in and twelve shillings to have a warm bath! But Keti will be able to get you in through the back door, if you ask her for a message to carry.” I’d never heard of this Keti, but she lived upstairs from Lord Radan.

Lord Radan I’d heard of! But I didn’t know where he lived, either. Arvi started to tell me how to get there, past the Temple of Mizran, but then she said “Oh! Keti works in the Temple of Mizran, she’ll probably still be there. Wait a moment, I’ll write a note for her.” She gave me the note, sealed and with a name written on it in large loopy letters that I couldn’d read, but it was short so I suppose it was “Keti”.

It was easy to find the Temple of Mizran, Arvi only had to point me to the market, and on one side of the market there was this huge building with pillars and steps, with the weigh-house next to it. That was exactly like in Veray! Only in Veray it was larger still and it had coloured glass windows. People were going in and out, and I went in too, trying not to stand out too much. On the far end I could see the statue of Mizran dressed in blue, and along the sides of the temple hall there were lots of tables, each with someone behind it doing paperwork or counting money or talking with people.

I stood around for a bit, and then a girl (not much older than me I think, she must have been an apprentice) wearing an embroidered scarf came along and asked if she could help me. “I have a message for Keti,” I said and showed her Arvi’s note.

“Follow me, please,” and she brought me to one of the tables where a dark woman was writing, all numbers, and muttering about the numbers, while a little girl was playing at her feet and a baby was asleep in a sling on her chest. When I gave her the note she read it and smiled. “This just says that you need to see me,” she said.

So I explained (a bit muddled I think) that I wanted to get into the West Gate bath-house to see if Capo was there. “Hmm,” she said, “better come along with me, I want to talk about this a bit more privately. Could you carry Sita, please?”

So I picked up the little girl, she was about two, and went with Keti to a small room where she closed the door and pointed at it as if she was telling it to stay closed. “You see, it’s a Guild matter really,” she said with a frown. She had thick eyebrows, like a pair of caterpillars, and they met in the middle when she frowned as if the caterpillars were kissing.

“The brickmakers’ guild?” I asked, a bit scared, imagine she’d make me pay because I’d been working outside the guild!

“No, the Guild of Anshen– you wouldn’t know about that, I suppose, but you seem to be in it over your ears. What do you want with Capo?”

“Well, fight him, but I haven’t learned that yet, so for now just look at him and see where I can best hit him, I guess.”

Keti nodded and took a sheet of paper and a pen from the desk. “I’ll write a note for Tiruppuvai,” she said.

“Oh! That is the Síthi woman with the strange name I couldn’t remember! The one who lives with the pasty-makers! And she works at the West Gate bath-house, she told me that Capo comes there every week.”

“Exactly. She can walk right through locked doors.”

“Ooh!” I said. “Could I learn that?”

“I don’t know what you can learn,” she said. “You’ll find out.” She sealed the note with wax and put her hand on it for a moment. “Here. Be careful, don’t do anything except see if he’s there, and if he is, then Raisse should know at once.”

“Raisse the neighbour of doctor Cora?” I asked, because I didn’t know any other Raisse except the queen and I wouldn’t know where to find her, certainly not in Turenay.

“Yes, she’s the head of the Guild, we’re having a meeting tonight. Take the back streets, don’t let yourself be seen too much.”

Then she told me how to get to the bath-house, “the back door is opposite the gate, tell them you’ve got a message, they’ll probably feed you there.” It was easy, really, all I had to do was go behind the temple and through one straight street until I hit the wall and then turn right and follow the wall. I actually passed the gate before I noticed that the plain door a short way back was the door of the bath-house, but it was open and there was a large woman doing laundry, all towels and bathrobes.

“Excuse me,” I said, “is this the West Gate bath-house? I’ve got a message for Tiruppuvai” –remembered the name!– “from the temple of Mizran.”

“The Temple of Mizran, no less! Has she come into an inheritance?” “I don’t know, I’m just carrying the message.” She made me sit down on a bench, “she’s got a client right now, would you like something to eat? You look so thin!”

“Oh yes, please!” I said, and got bread and cheese and a huge mug of funny-tasting water, as if it had been in an iron kettle for a long time.

After a while Tiruppuvai appeared, dressed in white with her hair bound up, so it took me a while to recognise her. “Oh! It’s Coran!” she said. “You have a message for me?”

“It’s from Keti,” I said, “but I don’t think there’s much in it, it’s just a way to get me in here with a purpose. I came to see if Capo is there, and Keti says that if he is I’m to go and tell Raisse at once.”

“Well, that’s strange,” she said, “he’s not here, I haven’t seen him all day. I’ve been working here for two and a half years and he’s been in here every week, regular as anything, on the same day too, you can tell which day it is because he’s there! And he always wants the same thing, too: first a tub to wash himself, then his hands and feet done, the steam bath, then a rub with the scraper, a hot bath, towelled dry, fragrant oil, and his hair braided. But he’s not here, sorry! I think Raisse should know that, too, it’s not the way it ought to be.”

I nodded, “I’ll go tell her then!” and Tiruppuvai said “Go to Serla first and give her this note,” and she wrote on the back of Keti’s note with red lip-balm and squeezed it folded and gave it to me. I didn’t know any Serla, but it was easy, Tiruppuvai said, go back to the hospital by the back street and then I’d pass a large water-trough opposite a weaver’s workshop, and that was Serla’s. “She’s the head of the Guild,” she said, and that confused me, wasn’t that Raisse? But it was the Guild of the Nameless that Serla was the head of. I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with that, but I was only taking a message, it couldn’t be very dangerous.

It was really easy to find, the back street was just another straight street like the one l’d taken from the temple of Mizran, only narrower with little shops where only the people who lived there shopped. Then suddenly it turned into a wide square with the water-trough, and there was a weaver’s workshop where a woman was in the doorway, beating a rug.

“Is this Serla’s workshop?” I asked. “I’ve got a message for her.”

“Yes, come in,” the woman said, “she’s in back. I’m Halla.”

And she took me through the workshop to a back room, a kitchen really, where a woman was sitting at a table with a pile of papers in front of her. She had worry-lines on her forehead, but laugh-lines around her eyes, and she looked strict but not unfriendly. I gave her the note, and she scowled at it, “Will she never learn? Tsh. Tiruppuvai and Keti. Ah well.” She really seemed to have some trouble unfolding the paper, but when she read it she laughed, “Lip paint! Isn’t that like Tiruppuvai. Yes, I’ll be at the meeting all right. Though Raisse won’t like it. She threw the paper in the fire, and the fire flared up hugely and sort of bent towards her as if it was hugging her. Then she really looked at me, and it scared me a bit, but she said “Aren’t you one of the people who came out of the woods? You must be hungry!” and gave me a bowl of thick green soup with pieces of belly pork floating in it from the kettle hanging over that scary fire.

Pea soup!” I said, and I couldn’t resist the smell and ate all of it.

Then I remembered that I’d promised to tell Raisse right away that Capo hadn’t come to the bath-house, so I said “I have an errand to Raisse, too.”

“You’d better go quickly, then,” Serla said. “And secretly. If you go to the weaver’s workshop across the square Khahid will show you the shortcut.”

“Don’t you have to write a letter, too?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said with a laugh, and wrote a long letter on both sides of a paper and rolled it up and put a ribbon round it. “This is for Raisse. I’ve sealed it, just to spite her.” I put it in my shirt, the fourth letter I’d carried there today, and the first one where there was really a lot to read.

Before I left Serla took a short coat from a chest, “you’d better have this, for the cold.” It was beautiful, made of different colours of wool, and it fit me exactly.

“Will you be wanting it back later?” I asked.

“No, I made it for my son, and he grew out of it a long time ago.”

“Did he go to the war?”

“No, he’s living in Ildis. You’d better keep it, it deserves to be worn.”

“Did you make it?”

“The fabric, yes, I weave, I don’t sew.”

“Thank you!” I remembered to say, and started to go away but she held me back, “You’d better not be seen. One moment.” She put a hand on my head and one on my shoulder and stared at me for a bit. “There.”

In the street people bumped into me as if they didn’t see me! I think Serla had magicked me invisible. A cat did see me, kind of, and hissed at me, so I hissed back and it ran away.

The workshop across the street looked very new, and people were working there just like in Serla’s workshop. There was nobody who happened to be at the door and I didn’t know if I was still invisible, so I called, “Hey!” and then someone saw me, a young man, who finished his bit of work before he came to talk to me. “Serla sends me to Khahid,” I said. “I have a message.” I didn’t say that the message was for Raisse, I didn’t know how much people were supposed to know.

“Upstairs,” he said and pointed me to a staircase that went to a room where a foreign man (not Síthi, he must have been Iss-Peranian) was sitting at a table doing something that looked like Temple of Mizran work.

“Serla across the road says you can get me to Raisse’s house by the shortcut,” I blurted out.

“Hmm,” he said. “You’re one of Serla’s?”

“No! I’m mine!”

“Good,” the man said with a smile. “You’re one of the people from the forest, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m staying at doctor Cora’s house.”

He nodded, looking sort of wise though he couldn’t be old yet, and got up stiffly and walked to the other door. “Have you done a lot of heavy carrying?” I asked. “Because that makes people stiff that way.”

He smiled. “No, I have… other issues. But the doctor is doing good things for me.”

Khahid led me down the stairs and another flight of stairs, so we were in the cellar, then through a door. It was a real secret passage! The passage got narrower, and there was a pit with a heavy oak board lying next to it in the middle. “Could you cover the pit, please? I can’t manage.” So we went over, and I had to uncover the pit again. “Not many people use the passage, but we’d like to know if they do,” Khahid said.

“What if someone wants to come the same way and the cover is on this side?” I asked, but in fact it was close enough to reach if you had long arms and weren’t afraid of the smell, because it appeared to be a cesspit. Or if you had a rake or something. “And when you want to go back, when you can’t manage?”

“I’ll stay in Raisse’s house,” Khahid said, “I’m going to the meeting anyway.”

We went through a door and got to another cellar, this one whitewashed, and up a ladder into a big kitchen where it smelt deliciously of roasting meat. A man in an apron turned round when we got through the hatch, but didn’t seem to be surprised. He did notice my hungry look, though, and gave me half of a cold roast chicken because the meat on the spit wasn’t done yet.

I’m not completely sure how we got to Raisse’s house –too busy eating the chicken– but it involved a small passage and another, smaller kitchen, where a woman was cooking. “Through there,” Khahid said, but first I asked the cook where to put the chicken bones (in the stockpot) and borrowed a cloth to wipe my greasy hands and face. Raisse was working at a loom –I hadn’t realised she was a weaver too, I seem to be meeting a lot of weavers!– and smiled when she saw me. “Coran, isn’t it?” Then she noticed the coat I was wearing and said, “You’ve been to Serla. That weaving of hers, what she puts in– well, let’s say, I can do that too.”

“Is that bad?” I asked, but no, it was good, it wouldn’t hurt me, and hardly anybody would think I belonged with Serla even if they could see that she’d woven some anea into the cloak. “She wrote you a letter,” I said, and Raisse flinched when she took it from my hand and scowled at it just like Serla had scowled at Tiruppuvai’s letter. She sighed, “well, we’ll have to put up with her, I suppose”, and threw the letter into the fire. This fire didn’t flare up like Serla’s had, and when I told that to Raisse she said “yes, Serla’s kitchen is a temple of the Nameless.”

I was shocked. “I ate pea soup from that fire!”

“I’m sure it’s just ordinary pea soup,” Raisse said.

“It was delicious pea soup! With pork belly in! I get so hungry all the time, it’s as if I can never stop eating.”

Raisse nodded, “I know about that, I was as poor and hungry as you when I was your age, and it was sweet stuff I wanted. Honey!”

“You’re from downtown, aren’t you? Like me, only I’m from downtown Veray.”

“Boy, when I was fifteen I was living in the palace as Queen Alyse’s linen maid. But yes, I was born across the river.” And she frowned, “Veray, eh? Tell me, when you talk about the one who does have a name what do you call him?”

“Anshen, of course!” I could see that she was relieved. It hadn’t been easy in Veray, because there aren’t all that many people of Anshen there, but we’d had our little neighbourhood when I was a kid where I hadn’t had to watch my words that much. And afterwards I’d learned to call neither of them by name.

“Keti told me about the meeting tonight,” I said. I didn’t remember whether she or Tiruppuvai had said I was to be there too, so I talked around it a bit, and Raisse said “You’ll have a seat in a quiet corner so you can listen in, but lie low, you’re not sitting at the table.” That was all right with me, it was just that I’d probably hear a lot more about Capo and Arin that way. “And if you go to Cora’s house now, you’ll be in time for dinner! That door, and out the other side.” I was surprised that the door opened into an draughty empty little house! But on the other side there was a door that opened into doctor Cora’s downstairs room, near the kitchen.

Yes, I was just in time for dinner, and dinner was huge pancakes filled with meat and turnips and stuff. Little Dayati climbed on my lap and wanted hugs and to eat from my plate. I think I ate four, and I could have eaten a fifth if Raisse’s cook, maid, whatever, anyway Hinla, hadn’t come in and asked anyone who was going to the meeting to follow her. That turned out to be nobody except me, so I went after Hinla and ended up in Raisse’s front room, small and crowded with a table and chairs and people. I got a stool by the fireplace where I could pretend I wasn’t there. Keti was there of course, and Tiruppuvai, and Raisse, and Lady Rava and a man looking like a nobleman who had to be her husband the way they were going on, and two other men looking like noblemen who were Raisse’s husband and Keti’s husband (and I worked out that Keti’s Arin was Raisse’s Orian’s apprentice). Also, Khahid of course, and Serla came in after I’d hidden myself in the corner, and a couple of young people I didn’t know, and a man in an embroidered cloak who could have filled the room all by himself, Keti’s boss.

Then they started talking, and most of it in the beginning was about things I didn’t know about (a lot of it was about money) but then they talked about the brickworks, that it couldn’t be right because they couldn’t have made money with it even if they didn’t pay the workers. And the people downtown were angry because Arin was selling bricks to people who would otherwise have bought from downtown, but still they wouldn’t have made as much money as there was in the books. Keti had been doing all the sums, and Khahid another set of sums, and Keti’s boss the Mighty Servant had checked all the sums and found that they were right.

And then it was about other things again that I didn’t understand, sending messengers here and there. I thought about offering myself as a messenger, but that would mean going away when I was just getting settled so I didn’t.

Then suddenly the talk was about Capo and I did know something about him! So I said “Excuse me,” and suddenly everybody was looking at me and I said that I knew that Capo liked to make love with young boys, even if the boys didn’t want it, and was that important? Well, no, not directly, but they were glad they knew something more and Keti wrote it down. And then Tiruppuvai said again that he hadn’t appeared in the bath-house as he’d done every week for at least two and a half years, regular as anything.

When the talk was about Arin, it was Serla who drew attention to me, “you’re one of the people he was setting to work, right? Perhaps this is your thing.”

Lots of people –no, in fact only Lady Rava and Keti– disagreed, but Raisse looked thoughtful and Orian and Arin and Lady Rava’s husband grinned. “Yes, perhaps,” Raisse said. “You know how to be discreet, you’ve already shown that.”

People started to leave then, and only Lady Rava and her husband stayed with Raisse and Orian. Now it was clear that they were two married couples, they were kissing!

“I’d better go,” I said.

“No, don’t go, you’ll see how sappy old married people can be!” Orian said, but I went anyway.

Lady Rava’s husband came with me as far as the door and put a hand on my shoulder. “Catch him alive if you can,” he said. “and take a semte along, someone who can call Raisse if you get into trouble.”

“I don’t think I know anyone,” I said.

“Oh, Veh will do, he’ll probably like the chase, but it’s your quarry. Take some people from the highest class of Master Fian’s school, they’ll enjoy it and it’s not something to do alone.”

I nodded, and took a deep breath, and said “My lord? What about the money, will we ever get paid for working for a whole year? I mean I was kind of a little boss at the end, and I’ve been looking after people, will everybody be all right? Have enough to eat?”

“You can be sure that everybody will have enough to eat– they have enough to eat now, don’t they? But I can’t promise that you’ll ever be paid. If you catch Arin, and we catch Capo, and they have money, some of it might be given to the workers, but I really can’t promise. Certainly not before we know more.”

Then I went through the silly little house into the doctor’s warm room, where everybody was sprawled on the floor while Sabeh was telling a story, or singing a song, or both at once, anyway it was nice to listen to. The floor seemed to be full of dogs too, but it was only Veh’s dog, legs and tail sticking out everywhere. (Also, there was a cat coiled up asleep on top of the dog, but she didn’t seem to mind.) I found a place between Jilan and the nearest bit of dog, and Dayati snuggled up to me, and I must have fallen asleep because I didn’t remember that anything else happened.