Calling the sea
Hard to fit in: Kehendaki realising that caring for people is important. But he did at some point work out that it is important though it probably doesn’t make you important.
It was about a week from Kushesh — no, New Dol-Rayen — to “the city”, Solay or Aumen Síth, depending what language you spoke. And the city was SO BIG! We could see it from a long way off and it looked like white cliffs but it was white walls, at least ten people high!
Lady Mialle called us and said “You’re not going ashore in the city! First, because it’s dangerous, second, because you don’t speak the language, and third, because I don’t want it.”
“I don’t care about the first one much,” I said, “and the second is no problem, but I’ll do what you say because of the third,” I said. I didn’t want to get on Lady Mialle’s wrong side!
“If you were a Valdyan child you wouldn’t care about any of those,” Lady Mialle said with a smile. And then she looked at Nadita and Selevi, “you’re not going out either.” Selevi was pissed about that because Arin was going to take her out! “I can’t forbid Arin to go ashore, he’s crew, but you aren’t going, especially with a baby in your belly!”
“It’s a pity I can’t see the princess, though,” I said, “I’ve heard that she’s very beautiful!”
“Just wait,” Lady Mialle said, “we’re having visitors, and you’re all going to keep silent, don’t speak unless you’re spoken to!” And a while later some people came into the cabin, first two soldiers who looked behind all the things and into all the chests, then two more soldiers who stood just inside the doorway, then a man and three women, two young and one old. One young woman had pale freckled skin and bright red hair, the other brown skin and very long and thick and shiny black hair (and they were both very beautiful; the red-haired one must be Princess Ayneth, the sister of the king of Valdyas), and the old woman was small and not at all pretty but her mind was so big! The man looked sort of ordinary, like a rich Iss-Peranian man, but nice and not at all bossy like some of Mother Doryn’s clients. Kehendaki and I were each hiding behind a toddler to remember to keep silent.
The princess embraced Lady Mialle, “it’s so good that you could come! Are these your ladies-in-waiting?” And then she saw Kehendaki, “and boy-in-waiting!”
“My apprentices, too,” Lady Mialle said, and the princess asked our names and the twins’ names (I knew now that the one on my lap was Sefara and the one on Kehendaki’s lap was Saditya, but I still call them Itty and Bitty most of the time) and then Lady Mialle sent us out, twins and all.
We all sat on the deck looking at the city. Kehendaki climbed the big mast to look further, and I heard him making astonished noises so I went up too. But a moment later I was back on the deck and Kehendaki was looking at me with a worried look on his face. “Did I faint up there?” I asked.
“Yes, it was too much for you! It was almost too much for me, too.” And then we talked about how many people must live in that city and why they couldn’t spread out more because there was all that empty land around it, and a sailor who had been there before said the land wasn’t empty, they needed it to grow enough rice for all those people to eat. That made sense! And they were Síthi so most of them probably wouldn’t eat meat, then they’d have to eat even more rice.
The princess and the other people and the soldiers stayed with Lady Mialle for a while and then went back to the palace, and we also saw the man from the Nameless being taken away, a soldier on each side.
Arin did go into the city — he wanted us to come with him but we all did as Lady Mialle said, after all she was so gifted that she’d find us even if we tried to hide from her! Because if we played hiding games in the lessons she always found us too. He promised to bring Selevi a knife, and asked the others if we wanted one too, but Kehendaki had a sword and a dagger and I had Ailin’s meat knife and the sergeant’s cosh, and Nadita pulled the long pins out of her hair and showed him how sharp they were. “Ooh, hairpins, those are useful!” I said, and Arin promised to bring me a pair of those.
We did get to the shore though! One of the sergeants wanted to give Kehendaki a fighting lesson on the quay and let the rest of us join in. It was strange to be on land after a week at sea, it was like the ground was going up and down like water! “Landsick,” the sergeant said without any pity. “A good workout will cure that.” I learned how to handle my knife to fight with, and we all learned how to throw someone who attacks you, even without weapons.
When Arin came back he gave me a pair of hairpins made of gilded steel, with little gilded swallows on the ends. “I went to the smith to have them sharpened,” he said. I put up my braid with them at once, and everybody looked at me a bit strange.
“Where I come from, when you put your hair up you’re a woman,” Arin said. I didn’t think I wanted to be a woman yet, so I took the pins out again and let the hair tumble down my back, but now that felt strange, as if I’d taken a step and couldn’t step back. “I’ll do as Selevi did and cut it all off!” I said, “and when it’s grown long again I’ll probably be old enough to be a woman!”
“Then I got you these pins for nothing!” Arin said, and of course he was right, I wanted to wear them because they were useful and also because they were pretty! I decided to talk to Lady Mialle about it when I got the chance.
We sat on the deck some more, looking at sailors carrying small chests aboard that looked very heavy. “Gold!” Arin said. “For Selday and Essle and Valdis. But nobody is to know about it except people who are on this ship already. People might want to steal it!”
Kehendaki wanted to know if there was something that made boys into men, like putting up one’s hair makes a girl into a woman, and Arin took him up to sit on a spar and talk about it out of girls’ hearing. I shrugged and went back to the cabin, but first I went to ask the cook for some porridge for the twins. I got a stack of flat round loaves of bread instead, though! No problem, we gave crusts of bread to rugrats all the time at home, Kehendaki and I grew up on it.
But when I tried to give the twins bread, Nadita grabbed a piece and chewed it and put that into one of the girls’ mouth, as if she was a mother bird!
“You don’t have to do that,” I said, “they’ve got teeth!” But she insisted. Lady Mialle didn’t understand it any more than I did, but Selevi looked very angry and started to argue with Nadita. Lady Mialle sent them both out, and me too after I’d fed the kids and she was nursing them.
Selevi and Nadita were each at an end of the ship, fuming! And Arin was looking helplessly from one to the other, and then decided he had something to do up the mast so he didn’t have to be between them.
“What’s wrong with those two?” Kehendaki asked me, and I told him what had happened and he didn’t understand it either, but one of the older sailors overheard us and said it was an Iss-Peranian thing, feeding a child from your mouth was what a mother did with her own child. “But they’re not her children!” Kehendaki said, and the sailor said “They’re Lady Mialle’s children and Lady Mialle isn’t her husband.”
Then suddenly I understood it. “That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be Lady Mialle’s wife.”
“Do you think Lady Mialle knows what it means?” Kehendaki said, and I thought she didn’t. “But I think she should,” I said, “I’ll go and tell her.”
“Should you?” Kehendaki asked, and I said yes, the worst thing that could happen was that she’d tell me off! Then he asked if I liked him to go with me, and yes, I felt better because I didn’t have to do it alone.
Lady Mialle was very surprised, “is it that? I never knew that!”
“You didn’t have an Iss-Peranian mother,” I said. “And I suppose your mother-in-law wasn’t around when you had the children.”
“No, she lives in Albetire if she’s still alive at all. I saw her only once, at our wedding. — I’m glad you told me this, it makes things much clearer! But why is Selevi so angry?”
“Jealous, I think,” I said.
“But she has a boyfriend, and she’s pregnant by him!”
I sort of knew what it was about but I didn’t have words for it, so I just shook my head and said, “There’s something else I want to ask you, about being a woman.”
She sent Kehendaki away, “let’s keep this between us women, then. By the way, thank you for telling me what you just told me. I honestly didn’t know, and it makes everything so much clearer.”
I told her about the hairpins, and that I’d felt so different but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a woman all the time. “I don’t even bleed yet!” And I put a hand on my chest where a tiny bit of tit was just starting to grow.
“I think you would by now if you weren’t drinking women’s tea for the voyage,” she said. “And anyway, being a woman isn’t about bleeding or big tits or making love with boys, it’s about taking responsibility, and you’ve been taking so much responsibility up till now that I think you’re a woman, not a child, and you should go on wearing your hairpins!”
I put my hair back up right away. “Oh, and another thing, of course you can be a woman and still do the same things as before. Play, or have lessons, or be silly with your friends, those are things girls and boys and men and women can all do. — And now we’re alone I have to tell you something else, you can tell your brother but otherwise it’s a secret: I’m not really so sick that I need to go to the doctors in Valdyas any more, but I need to go to Turenay, the king will be there when we arrive and he has to be told some things we can’t trust to ordinary messengers or to paper. It’s important that someone goes who isn’t visibly a messenger, and I was available.” So that’s why she’d jumped up so easily to catch the man who was with the Nameless! “It won’t make any difference for your schooling, though.”
I wanted to see the king! I wondered if his hair was as red as his sister’s. When I said that, Lady Mialle explained who all those people with the princess were: the man was Prince Shishe Namak, and Princess Ayneth was married to him to have children (they already had some, a little prince and a little princess), the other woman was Ataiyu Semadis, and the prince had married her because they loved each other, and the older woman was Baroness Raith who the king had sent to take care of the city and she and the princess loved each other. “She isn’t married to the prince too?” I asked, but she wasn’t, and not to the princess either. “It’s a complicated household,” Lady Mialle said, “but it seems to work.” But she still didn’t tell me how red the king’s hair was.
“Could you send Nadita to me?” Lady Mialle asked when I was about to leave. “No lessons tonight, talk with your friends or find someone to teach you something interesting.”
I found Nadita still at one end of the ship and said, “Lady Mialle would like to see you.”
“Good,” she said, and went quickly. Selevi was still at the other end, and Kehendaki close to her, trying to get her out of her shell, because that was what it looked like, a sort of angry seal all around her. I tried to stand next to her and talk about something entirely different — like did she know anything about the stars? It was dark by now — but I couldn’t get through. It didn’t look as if she was going to jump over the side, so I gave up and went to look at the stars with Kehendaki.
We didn’t know more than the captain had taught us, but I could recognise some stars he’d showed us, like the North Star, and that was where the front of the ship was pointing so we were going north! And we’d gone only a little way north or we’d have seen some different stars and the ones that were there in different places. But that was all we knew.
Two ships had come with us when we left the palace harbour, large fast ships that Lady Mialle said had been built in Selday (and the ship we were on had been built in Selday too), with soldiers, some in the Guild of Anshen, to protect our cargo. I couldn’t see the ships in the dark but I could hear the sails flapping so they must be very close.
I don’t know if I fell asleep or anything, but suddenly it was light and there was only one of the big ships still next to us, and some smaller ships around us that had sails but looked as if they could put out oars to get rowed, too! I put my hand on my cosh in case anyone climbed aboard, but Lady Mialle was calling me with her mind. Everybody who was gifted at all, it turned out, her own apprentices and about fifteen other sailors who weren’t having lessons from her.
“Didn’t you notice anything?” she said when we came in. “Remember the first lesson: pay attention all the time! In the night, we were attacked, and the other escort ship got wrecked.”
“Are they after the cargo?” a soldier asked.
“They’ll certainly take the cargo if they can take the ship,” Lady Mialle said, “but they might be after me.” Then she had to tell all the other people what she’d told me and I’d told Kehendaki, of course. “I’ve called all of you here because I’m going to try something we can only do together, to call the sea to speed us on our way to Selday. It’s difficult” — she looked around the room, “you two are still apprentices, no risk it’ll be your trial, but you” — a woman we’d seen at the steering wheel — “might get a master’s trial out of it, be prepared. And it’s dangerous, very much so, it takes a lot of strength, some of us may die of it.”
And she said to Selevi, “you aren’t going to busy yourself with the dying, Naigha isn’t your boss any more, we need you for the living! If we don’t do this, the pirates will kill us all, or at best capture us and sell us in the slave markets, and they’ll take all the king’s gold! I need permission from each one of you to take your power and use it for the call.”
We all said yes, of course, even Selevi. Then Lady Mialle made us all touch each other — easy, we were in a small cabin with twenty people, it would have been harder not to touch someone — and she made a strong seal around all of us and spoke some words I couldn’t understand. I could see or feel what she was speaking to: it was full of questions. Why did we not like sharks? What should it do with the sharks? Oh, let us get away from the sharks. Well, it could do that, as we were all asking so nicely.
Then it was like we were falling into a dark whirlpool, all made of spirit, and I could see all the other people’s minds in my mind like we were pieces of turnip in a pan of soup that the cook is stirring. Then it was like more falling out of the whirlpool, falling upward, and it took a long time but then we were out of it and the door burst open and the captain stood in the doorway. “What have you done! Everybody is gone!”
“The enemy ships?” Lady Mialle asked. She was very pale, as if she was going to faint, and some other people had already fainted and some had bruises, and the twins were screaming at the top of their voices, but everybody was still alive.
“And the other escort ship too! And the navigator tells us we’re at the coast of Idanyas already. There was a kind of — wave? but it looked like a creature, with a head and arms, behind us, pushing us forward. We don’t have any masts now, or a rudder, and there’s a hole in the hull but no water is coming through!”
Suddenly I wanted out of the crowd and I went on deck with Sefara, or perhaps Saditya. The sea was very flat but we were still going fast, as fast as the water tumbling down the waterfall at home, towards a shore with white cliffs. There was green on the cliffs too, so they probably were real cliffs and not a very large palace. Sailors were going back and forth on the deck, the ship was moving but there were no masts and no sails and no rudder and nothing for them to do! I stood at the railing, and Kehendaki came to stand next to me with Saditya, or perhaps Sefara, in his arms, screaming as loudly as her sister. I looked into the water and it was full of spirit, as if all the water was spirit! Kehendaki didn’t see it until I showed him, and the toddler on my arm looked where I pointed but didn’t stop screaming until a spray of water hit her, then she hiccuped a couple of times and squirmed and said “Poop!”
I took her back to the cabin, where there were only Lady Mialle and Nadita and Selevi left, and put her on the pot. When she was doing her business, a little bit of water with spirit came along, perhaps it had stuck to her clothes or her leg, and played with the stuff in the pot.
“Did the sea become a spirit creature?” I asked. “Or was there a spirit creature in the sea?”
“There are many spirit creatures in the sea,” Lady Mialle said, “and they can divide or combine as needed, I think. This was rather more than I bargained for, though, all I expected was to outrun the enemy.”
“What was the thing with the sharks?” Kehendaki asked, but that was probably because sea creatures know only about things belonging to the sea, and ships don’t belong to the sea though they belong on the sea. If someone is going after us and tries to catch us, it must be sharks because that’s what sharks do.
“And what about the other ships? Did they all sink?”
Lady Mialle said, “I’d like to put your minds at ease and say we don’t know whether they’re still back there, but I’m afraid the wave swallowed them all.”
Selevi nodded, “they’re all with Naigha.” Then she lost her calm completely. “We killed them! They’re dead because of us!”
“Yes, they died because of us, but we didn’t kill them. If we hadn’t called the sea we’d now all be dead, or on our way to being slaves. There was little else we could have done. Sailors and soldiers know their work is dangerous.”
So here we were, close to Selday. When I went to empty the pot over the railing I could see a huddle of white and brown houses at the foot of a cliff in the distance. And we had no way to steer the ship there, so I hoped the sea creatures knew where we wanted to go.