Essle is Essle

This is the second part of a post that would otherwise be unwieldily long. (Small edits, mostly in conversation.)

The singing-girls were only the first lot of people we lost in a few days. Some went to be servants elsewhere, some found other work, a whole lot of girl clerks and a young eunuch or two enrolled in the trade school. The work went on, not only taking valuables to the attics but also converting the house to a royal palace with offices, and then there came a moment that we were suddenly finished. The building work wasn’t done, but the stowing away and labelling was. Only the small reception room was in its old state. Lydan paid Halla’s father and tipped Halla royally for the introduction: without him we’d have been stranded for sure. “We can leave!” I said to him. “We’ll have to,” he said with a grin, “we don’t have a kitchen at the moment, they’re breaking down the back wall to add on the next house.” And off he was, to order in food.

I resolved to go to Raisse and tell her that I was going ahead with it, but just then we had a visitor: my cousin Moyri, with all four of her little kids. The queen was occupied. I could say yes to her, not that it was necessary, because they’d organised a ship for us, funds, equipment and even a small regiment of Prince Uznur’s soldiers who had been too late to go with Athal and were perhaps a bit too smart to seek their fortune somewhere that had been under occupation for twenty years. “They’ll take some handling,” Moyri said. “Can you go and inspect them later today?” Well, yes, of course I could. “And what about that seneschal you were holding”? Gods, I’d completely forgotten about him, they must have had trouble breaking down kitchen walls with his room in the way! Never mind, Moyri said, she’d ask Uznur for a couple of guards, and if I had the papers and account book wrapped up she’d take them off my hands. While the parcel was being wrapped, she gave me a letter to Lydan from Bebakshi –the singing-girls were now in Tilis– and I put it in my shirt and played with my cute little cousins. I even remembered to ask about Kare: he was getting better, thank the gods, but he didn’t write himself yet, he had under-secretaries for that now. Including the girl from our house who had taken a shine to him and was now working for the court.

When Moyri left one of the remaining servant girls came to find me, looking worried. “It’s about Naravati,” she said. “I think she hasn’t washed herself or changed her clothes for days. And not eaten either. She doesn’t let anybody touch her.” I went to Naravati’s room and found her on her bed, gaunt and stinking. I knew she needed help urgently. “Can you get a woman doctor?” I asked the girl, but she said that it would have to be a doctor who didn’t treat any men at all, and Valdyan doctors all did. I got a desperate idea, which might just work: I tried to find Alaise, the midwife, by sending my mind into town for grand masters. I found her in the middle of practice, reassuring someone. “It’s a Guild affair,” I said as soon as she had time to listen. “If it’s a Guild affair you need Phuli,” she said dismissively. “No, a medical Guild affair, we need someone who doesn’t treat men.” That seemed to ring a bell with her. “Oh! You’re Fian! I’ll be along presently.”

She was as good as her word. I’d never seen Alaise before, just heard of her by reputation. Small, bent, very old, but with watchful piercing eyes and a huge presence. I told her in short what had happened to Naravati, and she went into the room with some servant girls and presently a seal appeared on the door, made partly by Naravati herself. It was clear that Alaise –and perhaps Naravati too– wanted me to watch with my mind. I was shocked, appalled– what those men had done to her, so bad that she hadn’t wanted to see her own body, she’d only wanted to keep it out of sight. The girls came out of the room with Naravati’s black robe, wrinkling their noses at the smell. Presently Alaise came out too, saying “I’m eighty-three years old and I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, but never something like this. What’s she to you?” That was hard. “We’re working together,” I said. “We’ve made a pact. I started out wrong, but I’m trying to make it up.” “An Eraday with a conscience? That’s new to me,” she said, already on her way to the kitchen to wash her hands. “I’m not Eraday any more,” I said. “And even when I was Eraday I had a conscience.” I trailed after her, but she didn’t say much more, only “You know, perhaps you ought to be a master before you leave.”

Well, that wasn’t very helpful! I knew I was almost a master in the Guild, and that it would be better for many things, but I hadn’t exactly kept up with my learning since leaving for Essle. Dejected, I went to see Naravati, who was lying under a sheet dressed in a clean shift. She didn’t want to talk yet, but consented to being brought something to eat. I couldn’t stay long, because Lydan was waiting for me to come and inspect the regiment, but I saw a girl bringing her a bowl of soup before I left. Lydan grinned at me and said “I bet you that you’ll kiss her before we’re in Albetire!” and I grinned back and took the bet –two shillings as always– but I believe that he’ll lose it.

I put on something more princely than the working-clothes I’d spent the last few days in and we went to the harbour where the regiment was waiting to be inspected. More than two hundred men and women, Valdyans with a sprinkling of darker-skinned people, with three sergeants –which didn’t seem to be many– and, as the eldest sergeant said, with me as the captain. I told him frankly that I was depending on him, because I didn’t have as much experience (no experience at all, but I didn’t say that; if he can’t tell that for himself he’s not the man I take him for). I was walking past the ranks when something caught my eye –not really my actual eyes, because when I looked straight I didn’t see it, but something in the corner of my mind– but there was a handful of men who looked out of place. A bit small, a bit wiry, not at all as soldierly as the rest; badly dressed and overly smart at the same time. I asked the sergeant about them. “Those seven, they’ve only just joined today,” he said, “adventure-seekers, I suppose, didn’t seem anything wrong with them.” They did make me uncomfortable. One had a gold ring and very white teeth and seemed to be the leader. I went up to him and asked “What do you expect of the south?” “Well, Albetire, you know, adventure, pretty girls, streets paved with gold!” “Adventure and pretty girls, sure,” I said, “but you’ll find the paving-stones are made of stone there like everywhere!” Then, in order not to attract attention, I had to ask a couple of others what they expected of the south. “I’m from Rizenay,” a big woman said, “and what I expect of the south, no snow any more, ever! And pretty girls, too.” “Not handsome blokes?” “I had a man back home, and didn’t like it much!” she said.

The out-of-place men kept bothering me, ever more in fact, though Lydan saw nothing strange about them. I told the sergeant that I wanted them dismissed. “What reason shall I give?” I had to think about that for a bit. “No room on the ship, I suppose, if they joined late.” “Then do I dismiss the three who came later still, as well?” No, that wasn’t necessary, just that bunch. I still didn’t know exactly why, but I knew there was something. “I’m bringing a woman I work with,” I said to the sergeant, “she’s had a hard time lately, she’ll need some extra protection.” He got my meaning and promised a to form a squad of women. Good! One worry less, at least, two if I counted the dismissal of the men.

I spent most of the evening trying to talk to every single person who was still in the house, starting with the old seneschal. He was as glad as I was that we were leaving: the house would be closed while the rest of the work was done on it. Several of the former servants would be coming with us to Albetire: some clerks, the younger of the cooks, a few maids and the cartographer’s young eunuch apprentice who not only wanted to see the world, but also hoped to find out whether his parents were still alive.

We were sitting on the few remaining chairs and boxes and bales, drinking from a strange assortment of cups and glasses and goblets and eating from yet another tray that Lydan had had brought in, when everybody who was even the slightest bit gifted was bowled over by a tremendous nightmare of Naravati’s. I ran to her room, took her hands and saw what she was dreaming of– and also why I’d been so repulsed by the men in the regiment. They were those men, her attackers! I told Lydan, and he ran to the Order to tell Morin while I tried my best to comfort Naravati. When Lydan came back he said that the Order was after them, but they needed my directions; I reached Morin, but to really show him something I’d have to be closer. Naravati was now being pampered by a gaggle of girls, as well as the boy who was so infatuated with her –she didn’t seem to mind, so I asked him whether he wanted to come along to Iss-Peran and he said yes; he can be her personal servant if she wants him– so I took my sword and went to the harbour where I’d seen that Morin was.

It was a very unsavoury neighbourhood where I found Morin and a handful of the Sworn. He greeted me much more cordially than he’d done at the Order house– perhaps because we both understood that we were there for the same thing. I showed him the seven men, and he nodded curtly, “we’ve had our eyes on them for quite some time. Especially since Jinla disappeared.” I made a sympathetic noise, but he said “This is Essle. People do disappear.”

Our quarry must be near, but we didn’t see anybody until I caught a glimpse much like the one when inspecting the army, the merest glimmer of presence in an alley almost too narrow to be called one. I nudged Morin with my hand and my mind and we went in, stopping at a doorway where I felt the presence more strongly. Morin sent a journeyman to make a noise in the room beyond the doorway; presently a trap-door opened and some of the men I’d seen jumped out, narrowly missing the journeyman who leapt aside just in time. There was some very chaotic fighting; it didn’t help that the fight was joined by a handful of people of the Nameless, led by a youngish man who Morin told me was Radan, son of Radan of the Dawn. They seemed to be on our side, though, having as much issue with the thugs as we did. Finally all seven had been caught, some knocked out, one probably dead. Radan had one against the wall and was beating him up, trying to get information out of him. “We have a pact with the other Guild,” Morin said to me, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The thug leader was down, but not beaten: he kept spewing abuse at all of us. “Hang me, will you already?” When he saw me in the light that someone of the Order had made, he shouted “So it was your girl! Hey lads, that was the princeling’s girl! My mates have all had her, haven’t you lads? The other bitch as well, but she was no fun, so we tossed her in the bog.” Radan tore open his cheek with his ring, but Morin kept him from doing more and pulled down the man’s trousers. He didn’t have any balls– though he was clearly Valdyan, he was a eunuch. “Where do you come from?” I asked. “Who did that to you and why?” “Albetire,” he said, “and it’s none of your business. Do you want to see it? Like it? Come closer, then.” “I don’t want to see it,” I said. “I want to know.” But he wasn’t going to tell me: he pulled loose and heaved himself up and threw himself at me with all he had, body and mind, with a power that was very much like Naravati’s way of handling semsin. The only thing I could do was to defend myself with all I had, mind and sword. He had so much momentum that he ran into my sword, it went through him like through butter, and I could feel him dying and pulling me along with him in death, in blackness–

Stop! I could call on Anshen for help, of course. So I did that, and found myself filled with light, and standing in a shaft of light, so strong that nobody could reach me, not even my friends. It went away after a while, people were milling about cleaning up, and I was standing there feeling silly. And inexplicably ravenous.

“What a nasty way to take your master’s trial,” I heard Morin’s voice say. What? Well, yes, he was right, but I was first and foremost hungry. “I want a mountain of squid and onions,” I said. “And a big jug of bad beer.”

That could be done: a quayside hole-in-the-wall was still open. As I sat on an upturned barrel eating the worst and most welcome meal in my life, I saw seven bodies dangling from a beam. They’d hanged even the ones already dead, probably to make an example. Morin came to sit next to me with his own jug and food; brothers for now. “When you write to the queen,” he said, “I don’t think you should mention the way we go about this. With Radan’s people and all. This is Essle, after all.”