A new boss

(Note: this starts about six months after Khushi and Moyri visited Valdis.)

When I came out of my mother’s belly I was the colour of cinnamon bark so she called me after that, Sinkauli. It’s a pretty name! I’m glad I’ve got it. There are lots of worse names to give a kid, like Kehendaki, that means something like “what we got as a surprise”. He’s okay though, we’ve been together all our lives like we’re brother and sister. But neither of us has a living mother or father or any family except each other. Sometimes when I’m almost asleep I dream of my mother, but that’s only a pair of soft arms and the smell of sandalwood and spices.

We’ve been living in Ma Doryn’s house longer than anyone else, even Ma Doryn herself, she only came here a couple of years ago. We started out as rugrats, like the little kids crawling around now, but when we were five or so and could walk and talk we got to do some of the easy work, and got real clothes instead of a bit of rag, and real food instead of what happened to fall off the table or the scraps that the cats got. I ate a mouse once that the cats had caught, but there wasn’t nearly enough meat on it, raw meat is okay when it’s fresh but I see why cats catch such a lot of mice because one sure doesn’t fill your belly.

When we were little it was a lot busier here in Kushesh, when there were still soldiers, now there are only a lot of empty barracks. And brothels, but not nearly as many as when old Dushtan was still there, she died or just disappeared and all her houses got different bosses. We got Ma Doryn then, a Valdyan woman with pink skin that goes red when she’s in the sun, and yellow hair, and eyes as blue as the sky in the morning. And then everything got all strict, Ma Doryn is like that. You’re not allowed in the front of the house before you’re fourteen, not even to serve wine or to get the dirty dishes. Not that I’m so eager to go work in the front! I’d rather be a cook like Amina, but Amina isn’t pretty and people tell me that I am. Or I’ll go to sea like Maham from next door did. Or learn to be a doctor even!

The doctor who comes here is a Valdyan woman, and she drinks a lot of wine, unless someone is sick that she has to heal and then she drinks brandy. Last time that happened I saw her put her hands on Jaleh’s belly and screw up her eyes, and then she said “You’re healed now!” and Amina got the brandy from the top shelf and poured her a measure. While she drank it she looked at us and asked our names. “Why aren’t you called Cinnamon?” she asked Kehendaki, “after all, it comes in sticks! And you” — that was me — “should be called Cassia.”

“That comes in sticks too,” I said.

“But the flowers look just like a girl’s parts,” she said.

“I’ll remember that in case I need another name,” I said.

We’re not allowed to go out through the front either, it’s all right to go out but we have to go through the alley at the back, and get into town far enough away that nobody can see we’re coming from a brothel. (But I think everybody knows where we’re from anyway, Kushesh is small enough for that.) Not that there’s much to do in town but it’s nice to hang out at the print shop and see the engine working and read the papers on the drying line. I can read printed letters well enough, but handwriting is harder with all the letters stuck together!

So Kehendaki and I decided to go out after work. We finish around sunrise, after everybody’s gone and all that’s left is the dirty dishes. The girls had been talking about a big fleet coming, a Valdyan fleet, with a thousand or perhaps two thousand soldiers! That’ll make the town busy again! First we went to look at the barracks, and they didn’t look as if you could put so many soldiers there, I don’t know how much a thousand is but I do know that it’s an awful lot! Most had roofs fallen in and walls crumbling and it would need a lot of work before anyone can live there, but perhaps soldiers can build too. And then, even if the roofs are whole, the barracks don’t look big enough for a lot of soldiers  to sleep in, they’ll have to stack themselves like barrels!

Then we went to the harbour to see if we could see the fleet yet, but there was only one ship coming in and that wasn’t a Valdyan ship, it was a Síthi ship, not very big but with three masts. It put out a couple of tenders and then went away again, as if they’d only come by to deliver people. There was a man who looked like the boss, all in purple-and-white stripes (real purple, not blue and red like the people wear who want to pretend) and a high hat, he must be a high-up Síthi! He talked with a woman for a bit on the shore, too far away for us to understand, and then went into town. With the people from his boat after him. They all looked like thugs! We sort of trailed along and tried to listen to what they were saying. We only understood a couple of words so we crept a bit closer, and then a man turned and said “Those two have been following us from the harbour!” or something like that. We ran into an alley, but Kehendaki twisted his ankle and couldn’t keep up. I went to help him, and we just managed to crawl into a gap between shacks before the man caught up and tried to find us. After a while he went away, with a curse, and we took the shortcut home.

It was all in uproar! We tried to look like we were kitchen furniture but it didn’t help much. First the door to the front opened and something rolled into the kitchen, something horrible, a head with yellow hair, Ma Doryn’s head! Then the boss came through and saw us. “You two,” he said, “get yourselves cleaned up and tomorrow you’ll start earning your keep. You’re much too pretty for the kitchen. And she” — that was Amina — “is going to serve.” He sent one of his thugs with us so we wouldn’t escape.

We wanted to escape, of course! On the way to the stream the thug was saying things like “I’ll give you your first lesson,” and “I’ll have the boy first, then rinse my dick in the girl’s cunt”, and he was already undoing his breeches. “Into the alley,” I said under my breath to Kehendaki, “as soon as he can’t come after us.” And when we were at the waterfall and his breeches were around his ankles I said “Now!” and we ran. We heard a curse behind us, and I could just see him slip in the mud. He went over the edge with such a crash that he wasn’t likely to come after us now or ever more.

We have a lot of hiding-places around town, and we sat in the nearest, up the hill at the edge of the little wood, to catch our breath. Below we could see that the streets of the pleasure quarter were full of angry people and scared people, and Parvaneh’s house was on fire, but it stands a bit apart from the other houses so they didn’t catch on fire too.

“We can’t go back,” Kehendaki said, “what do we do now?”

“Find something to eat?” Our stomachs were grumbling. “I know, let’s go to Lady Mialle’s house, if you knock on the kitchen door and you’re hungry they’ll give you food, works every time.” The thugs were so busy with the brothels, they probably wouldn’t be going to the rich houses soon.

Then something fell from a tree in front of us and stood up on its hind feet and went “Ick! Ick-ick-ick!” and turned and ran away. A little beast, but with more meat on it than a mouse. We picked up a stone each, at the same time, to throw at the beast but only Kehendaki’s stone hit it, on the head. When he picked it up it was still alive so he had to bash it with the stone some more. Well, meat can’t be much fresher than that.