Sailing

The town was all full of people but everybody was busy! Where the ramshackle barracks had been there were several large tents, each with a sign in letters so clear that I could read them: BOUNCERS, WHORES, and so on.

Kehendaki wanted to talk to soldiers, and I wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t a soldier but was working with them, but we couldn’t find anyone who had time to talk. Until we got to a place where some men in soldiers’ clothes were sorting through the rubble of a burnt house, and we went to help them for a bit. I picked up a bit of charcoal that looked good for writing or drawing. “Can I keep that?” I asked the nearest man, but he didn’t know, “you’ll have to ask the sergeant.” Well, we’d find the sergeant later, because Kehendaki had got talking with the other men. One was from Nalenay and another from Turenay, and all I know about those places is that they’re in Valdyas. They told him things about where they came from and that hurt one of the men so much that he had to go away for a bit, and his friend went with him with an arm around his shoulders. Kehendaki asked the man from Turenay why he’d joined the army, and the soldier asked “do you want the truth or the nice story?”

“The truth, of course,” I said, “and then you can tell the nice story afterwards if you need cheering up.”

He told us that he’d been working in the field, minding his own business, and his neighbour girl had been picking cherries close by. Then he said to her that he liked her but she said she didn’t like him, and then he fucked her anyway! “You get hanged for that now,” he said, “ten, twenty years ago, you just got a beating and had to leave town so you could start over somewhere else! But the priestess of Naigha, she told me to get away and go join the army, so here I am.”

We didn’t think we’d get much more out of the soldiers (the one who’d had to go away and his friend weren’t back yet) so we went to look for the sergeant. There was a man there with a fancier uniform, with braid sewn on, and I called “Hey! Sergeant!” and I was right! But when I tried to ask him if I could keep the charcoal I’d picked up he thought we were thieves and I was only trying to get his attention so the rest of the thieves could get away with stealing, and he let a woman soldier feel under my clothes to see what else I’d stolen! She found my two shillings, of course, “where did you get those?” so I said “Ailin in Lady Mialle’skitchen gave them to me to go into town with!” and I think she asked someone with her mind because she said “goodness, that’s even true” and let me go. And sort of the same thing had happened to Kehendaki. We really didn’t want to become soldiers! Especially because they’d told us it was mostly waiting and getting bored, with some hard work in between, except for the times that it it was so scary that you shit yourself.

We went to look for food, and found one eating-house open, but they only sold something called “Ration” for fivepence, a bowl of something that looked like vomit and didn’t taste like anything, with a cup of watery wine. We sat down at one of the long tables outside, next to some people from the town, and I found some bits of salt pork in my bowl but Kehendaki found a bunch of straw so we swapped bowls halfway through.

And we listened to the other people. There were a man and a woman who had taken Valdyan names, Athal and Raisse! And a man we sort of knew, I’d even learned Valdyan numbers from him, who made weighted dice and dud cards for gamblers, but he wasn’t allowed to do that any more, the new baroness had outlawed cheating and even most gambling. He couldn’t even take a ship to Albetire and do the same work there because he’d been registered (that was having his name written down, and where he’d been born, and things like that, same as us) and every ship’s captain could find out that he wasn’t allowed to leave town.

There was also a man looking like he ought to wear an embroidered stole (only he wasn’t), who said he’d been roped in to check the baroness’ secretary’s sums, and the secretary was checking his. I thought that was a good thing, if you checked each other’s sums you could be sure you were both right! But I think he was complaining that he couldn’t get rich from cheating any more.

We looked in at the print shop but it was full of strangers working very hard, and the papers hanging to dry were all the same, the words of Leva’s speech. I said to Kehendaki, “let’s just go on a ship in secret and stay out of sight until it’s out of the harbour so they can’t send us back any more!” but he didn’t want that.

We did go to the harbour to see ships being unloaded, and there we ran into a tall Valdyan man with a big nose who did want to talk. Kehendaki wanted to talk to doctors, and this man (Fian astin Hayan, I think) wasn’t a doctor himself but it was his job to make sure that most people didn’t need a doctor, because they had clean water and enough to eat and a proper place to live and things like that.

He knew lots of things! That if you weren’t born noble, you’ll never become a duyen so you can’t become an officer in the army, but you can become a sergeant. You could become a ludan like Lady Leva, that’s only for people who weren’t born noble, and under King Athal there are lots of new ones, there are twice as many baronies as there were when his mother was the queen. He knew where in Valdyas you can go to learn different things, and which of those places belong to the Nameless. I do want to learn about the stars but I don’t want to go to a place full of the Nameless to do that! And all the schools wanted you to be good at reading and writing and numbers already, except the school in Turenay where there was also the best hospital in the world.

“Or you could become Ishey,” he said, “used to be that all the Ishey had skin as black as night, but lately people of all countries and colours have joined them! Then you’ll learn to herd goats, and build houses, and brag.”

“Do you need to learn to brag?” Kehendaki asked.

“Well, perhaps you need a talent for bragging to become Ishey,” he said, and then he told a story about one of his own ancestors who married a black woman from Ashas and they had lots of children. “And did they all have skin this colour?” I asked and pointed at my own.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I do know that that’s where the name ‘Ishey’ comes from, As or Is from Ashas, and hey or hay from Hayan.”

You are Ishey!” I said, but he shook his head and said “Sadly not.”

When Kehendaki said he wanted to know about doctors, Master Fian took us right back to Lady Mialle’s house, because that was the hospital now! He got hold of a young doctor called Arni who was on her break. She had a really good talk with Kehendaki about him wanting to be important, she said all the things that I think, and worry about, but I don’t have words for! It was all about “do you want to be important to mean something for people, or so that people will look up to you?” And I think he started to think a little differently about it because of that. (But she did mangle his name like most Valdyans do. Perhaps we should take Valdyan names too! Or they can just call him Daki, like I do half the time.)

Then she looked inside Kehendaki’s mind to see if he had any badness inside him, but she found he was all good. I asked “do you want to do that with me as well?” but she said “I don’t want to do it,” and then I said “I don’t want you do to anything you don’t want!” but we’d understood each other wrong, she would do it if I wanted it but it wasn’t the thing she wanted. She said that people who are bad or evil always say that they’re good, but we weren’t like that, we just were good. I don’t know if I’m really good! Only that things are good or bad, and that people do good and bad things. Even bad people do good things sometimes, and the other way round.

Then Arni’s break was over, and she said “You two want to know what doctors do? Do you want to help me? Mialle needs her stitches taken out.”

Lady Mialle was on a bed in one of the courtyards, stripped to the waist and washed already — I think the priestesses of Naigha had done that — and Arni stroked her head and she fell asleep. “Now I want you to hold on to me,” she said, “and expect to faint, it won’t harm you but it will take all you have.” We sat down at her feet and took a leg each. “You too, Fian,” she said, and the tall man came and stood behind her. But she didn’t make us faint, because she wasn’t going to take out the stitches just yet! “Hm, I daren’t,” she said, “because there’s a lot of bad growth there. I really do want to send her to Turenay.”

“To the best hospital in the world,” I said.

“Yes, to Doctor Cora. She can surely do something, if Mialle lives long enough to get there.” And then Arni showed us, with her mind, where the wounds were healing and the piss couldn’t get past easily. “It’s like a scar, isn’t it?” I asked, thinking of the hard bit of flesh on my arm where the rim of the hot pan had burnt me when I was a rugrat.

“Yes, exactly,” Arni said. “A scar on the inside. I could cut it away but then it would only heal even tighter.” Then she took us to another patient. “Now you can help us with someone else, if you’re not falling down yet.”

I knew that woman! “That’s Nadita,” I said, “from two houses over.”

“Oh, that’s her name? Good to know. She hasn’t been conscious enough to ask since they brought her in. Knife to the belly.” She showed us the cut, it must have been a dirty knife because it was already festering.

I don’t remember what Arni did, because I did faint, and when I woke up I was next to Kehendaki in our bed in Lady Mialle’s room. And what had woken me up was hungry twins crying.

“Yes, I’ll get you some porridge,” I said, and put on a shirt and went to the kitchen to get it, and something for us, because I was HUNGRY and I knew that Kehendaki must be too. Now I suddenly thought that I’d never asked Lady Mialle what the twins were called, I should do that, I couldn’t keep calling them Itty and Bitty as I’d been doing all the time!

When we were feeding the twins (and putting something in our own mouths whenever we could) Arni came in to thank us. “Will Nadita be okay?” I asked, and yes, she’d be completely whole again, only she could probably never have children any more, she’d been cut up too badly.

Then Arni took us to see Lady Mialle, and of course the twins wanted milk too, even after the porridge. “It’s not much any more,” Lady Mialle said, “but I still have a few drops for them. Arni tells me she’s sending me to Turenay. I’ll miss you two.”

Then Kehendaki and I looked at each other and I knew we were thinking the same thing. “What if we go with you?” I said. “We want to go to Valdyas anyway to go to school. Arni says we should have our gifts trained too.”

She thought that was a really good idea! “I can teach you on the way,” she said, “if you don’t get so seasick that you can’t do anything but hang over the railing and puke!”

“I don’t get seasick,” I said, “I’ve been on a fishing boat in a gale!” I didn’t say that I’d been hanging on to the mast all the time because I was so scared of falling overboard, I can swim but not when the waves are like that! But no, I hadn’t been seasick at all.

“I don’t get seasick either,” Kehendaki said.

“Then I can teach you reading and writing and arithmetic and astronomy and history,” she said, “and semsin as well!”

Arithmetic is numbers, astronomy is about the stars, history is stories about things that really happened, and semsin is using your gifts. Those are all things I want to learn! And reading and writing too!

We went to see Nadita next, and she showed us her wound, at least what was left of it, just a thin line a bit darker than the rest of the skin. “And they cured the clap when they were at it!” she said. “But I can’t work yet, I have to heal up a lot. They’re feeding me, though, I don’t need to work for a while. Some of the girls are getting married, but I don’t have a chance, not when I can’t have any children.”

“Well, you could marry a widower who already has some?” I said. “Or even a widow if you’ve had enough of men?”

“I do know a widow with two little kids…” she said, and her eyes got all starry. “But she’s going off to Valdyas, I’ve heard.”

I knew who she meant. “Yes, and we’re going along to take care of the children and to go to school in Valdyas. But there are plenty of other widows!”

Then we heard that there was a ship going to Valdyas tomorrow, a fast courier ship that would only land at Solay and Selday. So we just had time to say goodbye to people because we’d be leaving before dawn. We went to the tent city to see if there was anyone we knew in the WHORES tent. We found Parvaneh stirring a large pot. She hugged us, “have you come back to look for work?” but we said we had work, looking after little kids, and we were off on a ship to do that. Then she took off her earrings, the famous ones, three big pearls set in gold, and she put one in my hand and one in Kehendaki’s, “you need something of your own, no use being beholden to strangers!”

“Thank you,” we said, and ran away, we didn’t want her to hug us any more, she smelled so strongly of sandalwood that she made us all smelly! Anyway we wanted to say goodbye to people in the house, Ailin, some of the soldiers we’d become friendly with, and in the evening when the general and the baroness and Jichan came back from generalling and baronessing and grand-mastering in the town we said goodbye to them too.

Lots of people gave us things! We had a big chest between us, so big that I could have curled up in it, and it ended up half full of clothes,sandals, tools, slates, styluses, even books! Ailin gave me one of the middle-sized kitchen knives, “in case you need to cut something, tough meat or nasty people”. And the captain of the soldiers gave Kehendaki a sword and a dagger, and a woman sergeant gave me a leather cosh with something heavy in the tip, probably a ball of lead. “Hang it on your belt next to your purse,” she said, “and bop them on the head before they can touch you, then they’ll never get a chance!”

I was too excited to sleep that night. The night wasn’t long anyway, because someone came to get us out of bed when it was still completely dark and we all went to the harbour were there was a large rowboat to take us to the ship.

One of the rowers looked very familiar, and if she really was who I thought she was she shouldn’t be rowing yet! But she was doing as well as the rest and it didn’t look as if it hurt her. I wasn’t going to give her away.

Lady Mialle was in a room on the deck of the ship, in a bed that was hanging from the ceiling! The twins were in bed with her. There were also other things hanging from the ceiling, a heavy cloth fastened at both ends, those were hammocks, the sailor said, and they were for us. He showed us how to get in, because that was a knack, and we had to practise until we could go in and out easily but it was nice to lie in once you were in. So we had a nap in it, because we were still tired.

We woke up when there was a lot of noise on the deck of the ship, and we went out to look. There was Nadita (I’d been right!) being scolded by the sailor boss (not the captain, I think he was the boatswain). “When the captain hears of this you’re going overboard and I hope you can swim!” was the least bad of what he was saying to her. She didn’t know what to say to him, so we said “She belongs with us, she’s Lady Mialle’s  attendant”. But before we could take her in to Lady Mialle, a tall white-skinned young man crashed at our feet and lay there. “Damn! Tripped over that thing!” and when he tried to get up, “I think it’s broken!”

“Does he belong with you, too?” the boatswain asked, and we shook our heads. Then he started to swear again, not at us or at the man with the broken leg, but because some sails at the front of the ship that had been tied up with rope were now flapping in the wind. And it was clear why: there was a girl there tying up her clothes with the rope. It was the youngest of the priestesses of Naigha who had been plucking fluff from pods in Lady Mialle’s house! “Do I have three stowaways now? We’re three hands short! You’re not a seawoman!”

“I’ll learn to be one, then,” the priestess said, and she was chased up the mast immediately to put the sails right! And she didn’t fall off or didn’t even look scared, she climbed as if she was a seawoman already.

Meanwhile we had to do something with the young man with the broken leg. “Bring him to me,” Lady Mialle said, “it’s time I started using my mind again, anyway!”

“Someone strong please help us carry him,” I said, and we got two burly sailors who got him to Lady Mialle’s bed easily. Either the priestess or Nadita pulled on his leg so all the bones were in the right place, and Lady Mialle put her hands on the leg and I could almost see the power going in and fixing the broken bone. Then she was very tired, but she could still look hard at the young man and say “we can’t very well drop you in Selday, can we?” “No!” he said, getting even whiter. “All right, Solay then.” “But Princess Ay– oh, never mind,” he said.

“Selday is in Idanyas,” Lady Mialle told us later, “and they don’t let anyone of the Nameless in. Solay is a bit more– well, forgiving, I think I must say. Open-minded, anyway.”

We slept really well in the hammock, and the next day we started lessons! First reading and writing and numbers and history (Nadita was in on the lessons too, she was better at numbers than we were but she thought history was nonsense), and then it was semsin. “Go get the two cabin boys,” Lady Mialle said to us, “and that priestess of Naigha too.”

Kehendaki went to look for the priestess and I for the cabin boys, but I could only find one, the younger one, our age or a year older. But Kehendaki had found the older boy, Arin! And he’d found the priestess at the same time, they’d been kissing! They were both about sixteen, not a wrong age to kiss, but I thought priestesses of Naigha didn’t do that! Lady Mialle had things to say about that as well, “you need to have a long conversation with your goddess, Selevi!” And to Nadita she said, “you’re mostly a dandar, aren’t you?” That made Nadita blush. “Three quarters Iss-Peranian and gifted, can’t very well be anything else. Let’s see what you can learn our way.”

She worked us very hard. First she made us find our real self inside our body, and that was easy to find but hard to see where exactly it was, I had to decide that it was everywhere. And Selevi found hers and saw that it was larger than her body! “That’s because you’ve already been living with a goddess,” Lady Mialle said.

Then suddenly the young man whose leg wasn’t broken any more burst in, “stop doing that right now!” But Lady Mialle sent him away, “this is my cabin and I’m teaching my apprentices, that’s none of your business.”

A bell rang, and Selevi and the cabin boys got up and went to work because it was their shift. Then Kehendaki and I got a really hard writing assignment, and Lady Mialle said “if you can finish that I’ll ask the captain to teach you about navigating by the stars!” We did finish it, and when it was almost evening the captain took us to the highest part of the deck. He had a strange instrument that he was going to show us how to shoot a star with. “Will it fall from the sky then?” I asked, and he laughed and said that stars are the holes in Naigha’s mantle that the light of the gods shines through, and with that instrument you could measure how the mantle had moved around the earth and see where you were. When he was almost done explaining I said “you can see how far north or south we are, but not how far east or west, right?” and he said “Yes, good thinking!” and explained that you could never know exactly how far east or west a ship was, but you could estimate it by knowing how fast it moved. Then he took us to the back, and a sailor let out a rope with knots in and pulled it back and counted the knots that were wet. I still can’t see how you can know how fast a ship moves by the wet  knots, but I’m not a seawoman!

When we got back to the cabin, Lady Mialle was in bed with Nadita, talking very earnestly. We got to change the twins and give them back to her, and then we wanted to go to sleep ourselves, but I asked “Can you close the door very tightly so that creep can’t get in?” And she put up a seal that I could see. And she also made silence around the bed so she and Nadita could talk without disturbing us (and without us overhearing them).

In the middle of the night we woke up because there was something really wrong. I could see the seal straining as if someone was about to break it open. I slid out of the hammock with the cosh in my hand, if someone really broke in I could bop them on the head like the sergeant had told me. But Lady Mialle was first, she got out of bed, wounded and all, and opened the door and the man without a broken leg stood there. She grabbed him by the throat, “once again you think you can force your way into a lady’s cabin?” That’s the second time you’ve dared disturb me. I’m afraid it’s the irons for you now.” And she called some sailors who took away the young man to lock him up!