A ship with white sails

The beginning of the new campaign– we don’t know where it’s going yet, but the characters have taken to one another at least.

Sometimes I wish I was a real seagull like my Valdyan name, Venla, so I could fly out to sea and see who was on the ships. Because there’s a big ship with three masts and a whopping great lot of white sails out there, a Valdyan ship, and the queen and the prince may be on it!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Khahar says I always do that, and I don’t want to make her angry again so I’ll try to be good and start at the beginning.

So my name is Venla, which means ‘seagull’, Hinlei Venla, but I’m also called Parandé and that means ‘bird’. I have both a Valdyan name and an Iss-Peranian name because my father is Iss-Peranian, Bist the bronze-caster, who used to work at the palace until the king of Valdyas came. Then the king broke the palace, and there was so much trouble in the city that there weren’t any statues made and the foundry wouldn’t have had any work even if it had still existed, so now he takes on any work here in Little Valdyas that he can get. Mother died last year when Kafi was born, and then I would have been the head of the household if it weren’t for my brother Baradar’s wife Khahar. (Baradar has gone so Iss-Peranian! He doesn’t even want me to call him Arin any more.) Not that I want to be the head of the household until I’m married and have my own household, but it’s not as if I like her, she’s so sour! Perhaps because she isn’t expecting yet, though they’ve been married almost two years and she’s been to the Temple of Dayati several times. No children of her own and having to take care of all her husband’s little brothers and sisters, that would make anyone sour. And there’s never enough money, or quite enough food, even though we have the vegetable garden at the back. Father and Baradar and I are earning money, at least, and we can send Hava to be apprenticed next year when she is eleven.

I work in my uncle Kamel’s sailmaker’s workshop where I’ve been an apprentice for two and a half years now. I can say with confidence that it’s the best, more expensive than most others but we give a guarantee, when people come back because the sails don’t survive the first voyage they get a new set, whether it was a storm or enemies or something else. When I first came I was only allowed to fold the sails that the other people made, then I got to hammer in the brass rings (really nice and easy work), and now I’m in the sewing room, punching and stitching the seams. We do that in pairs, one punching holes with a hammer and an awl and the other stitching, because you can’t get the needle through the cloth without holes. This is very hard work and it makes my hands rough and hard, like everybody else’s hands in fact, but I’m good at it, and after my stint here is over I’ll be allowed to learn to cut sailcloth. And in a few years I’ll have earned enough money for my dowry, so I’d better start looking out very soon for someone I want to marry.

And then there was the big ship. There hadn’t been any ships from the north practically since the king of Valdyas was here, and what ships did come were sunk by Mad King Konandé’s catapults, and if they’d only throw their boulders through the sails so they’d need new ones and buy them from us, but they throw them at the hull so they sink outright. And the trade with the north had always been bigger than the coast-trade, so it’s been very bad for business.

I was working with Biruné, she punching and I stitching, and looking out at the ship hopefully, when she saw the catapult being readied on the White Tower. But they didn’t shoot yet, and I worked some more until I felt Uncle Kamel’s cane nudging me in the back. He does that when people work badly –and if you really screw up, he pokes you to move over and sits down without a word and does a whole yard himself– but he wasn’t angry this time, only looked very worried. “I don’t find any fault with your work,” he started, “but– well, better come with me.” So we went to the office, not the grand outside office where he talks to captains, but the work office where he talks to mates and bosuns. “First let it be clear that I’m not sending you away,” he said, “but you’ve been getting three Valdyan shillings a week and, well, you know how bad things have been and they’re not likely to get better soon.” I did know, and even if this ship came through one ship wouldn’t make the difference. “So I can only pay you two shillings from now on.” I counted in my head: I would have my dowry in four years, but with two shillings instead of three it would be six; and I won’t be able to marry until I’m an old woman of nineteen! But at least I still had steady work, there are so many people who don’t– things can always be worse. “Perhaps your father can talk to the Princess Cynla,” he said, “I don’t want to put pressure on him, but she might just be able to give a little push to make the work come our way.”

Then Uncle Kamel took me back to my place and said the same thing to Biruné, at least he must have because when she got back she said “well, my Marhaz will wait another year, it’s worse for you!” and we rubbed whale fat on our hands and looked at the ship some more and tried to work some more, but everybody was slow and clumsy with worry so Uncle Kamel let us all go home early, there wasn’t much work anyway and he wanted to have the place empty and secured in case there was trouble. Fighting, he said; apart from the catapult on the White Tower there were more soldiers than usual on the quay, Valdyan soldiers too with some of the Greys among them. (Also sailors. I think I want to marry a sailor and go to sea with him!)

So I was out on the street in the middle of the afternoon on my way to the bridge over the Drain. There were more people about than I was used to, perhaps because it was hours earlier, and they were all talking about one thing: the same ship that we’d seen from the workshop. There was a Valdyan prince aboard– no, it was the little queen and her new husband, the king of Valdyas’ brother– it wasn’t a prince, but a nobleman and his army– it was the king of Valdyas himself– anyway, we’d have a king again and everything would be well! I like to keep my hide in one piece so I didn’t say that Biruné and I had seen the catapult being readied, just kept listening and trying to hear the truth between the rumours.

The crowd got thicker as I approached the bridge, and the bridge itself was full of people who wanted to get through the gate before the fighting started. After all, last time there was a king of Valdyas in the city, Little Valdyas was the safest place when everything went wrong. There must have been fighting already, because there were some people there with a bleeding man on a makeshift stretcher, two men carrying it and a girl about my age trying to make room, but she didn’t speak Ilaini and Torin at the gate speaks little else, and anyway they couldn’t even get on the bridge let alone cross it. I went up to her and asked what had happened: it hadn’t been fighting, but a thief had run off and cut him in the belly and they were trying to get him to the hospital. “Wait!” I said and pushed through the crowd, I’m small enough to do that, to talk to Torin. He screwed up his forehead the way he does sometimes, and presently two of the Greys appeared and cleared the bridge so the people with the wounded man could get through. One old man with a little girl wouldn’t move, so one Grey lifted the girl on his neck and the other pushed the man into the water, making the girl wail. “Don’t worry about your grandfather, he’ll get out by himself!” he said. I slipped through the gate after the stretcher, because otherwise Torin would probably have closed it in my face even though he’s known me all my life, he was so stubbornly keeping people away.

“Do you know where the hospital is?” the girl asked me, and yes, I did of course, everybody does. “Could you come with us? I don’t think I can make people understand me.” Well, most people here do speak some Iss-Peranian, but I could see her problem and nobody was expecting me yet. The man on the stretcher was bleeding a lot, leaving a red trail on the ground even, and I led them the shortest route through the little streets. The nurse at the hospital took one look at the wounded man and got him to the doctors at once, and we were allowed in but “if you have to puke do it outside!” — and we did, both of us, and found ourselves in the courtyard under the orange trees feeling a bit at a loss, at least I did, should we stay or go? I wasn’t quite sure what the man was of the girl, she’d told the nurse he wasn’t her father, and perhaps she’d need me to translate some more, so I decided to stay and talk to her. “I’m Parandé,” I offered, “or Venla if you like.” “Which?” she asked. “Whatever you like.” ‘Parandé’ came more easily to her, of course, and she said her name was Zendegî, and that the man was the syrup-seller in the street where she worked. She was a jeweller’s apprentice, she had little white scars all over the exposed parts of her skin from drops of molten metal, but I could see that she was prettier than even Biruné.

“Do you think they have some sort of office here?” Zendegî asked, “I’ve got some money for the doctors.” I’d seen an open door in the gatehouse with a woman at a writing-table behind it, so that was where we went. “Excuse me,” I said, “we came with a wounded man and we’d like to know what happens next.” “The man with the belly-wound, is it? The doctors are going to be busy with him for hours. Are you his family?” No, Zendegî said, a thief had stolen from her master’s workshop and run away and when the syrup-seller had tried to stop him he’d slashed him in the belly. “Is he rich?” the woman asked. “Does he have rich relatives?” No, he had no family at all, only his dog. “Then he doesn’t have to pay.” Well, I could have told her that, but I’d plain forgotten it in the commotion. After all, Father goes to the hospital every time he can’t walk with gout and he doesn’t have to pay, because we’re not rich either. That’s what the Queen of Valdyas ordained when she set up the hospital.

Zendegî tried to explain where the man lived, and her master, to get news to him, but I could see it would be hard for someone who didn’t know the trade district to find it, so I said “I’ll go with you to your workshop so I know where it is, and then I can get the news, or Father can, and I’ll come and tell you.” “Oh, you’re Master Bist’s daughter!” the woman said. “Yes, that’s a good idea.” But the gate was already closed –it was evening by now– and Zendegî couldn’t get out so she’d have to stay with me. “My parents will be worried sick!” she said, but they turned out to live right across the Drain behind one of the big houses and we’d be able to call to them from the wall.

The wall was crowded, with packs of children running up and sliding down, my little sister Serla among them, and groups of girls walking and giggling and trying to attract the attention of the journeymen on guard duty, but those weren’t interested any more once they noticed that Zendegî was pretty. When Jeran twirled his moustache at her I told her not to take him seriously, and he heard that and turned and said “How can you tell her not to take me seriously? Listen, beauty, if I ever left Arin it would be for you.” I had to translate that, of course, and I was’t sure if Zendegî would get it so I said “he falls for men,” but there were enough other guards. One can do worse than one of our journeyman guards!

But there we were opposite Zendegî’s parents’ house, a shack really, built against the back of the big white house that’s almost exactly on the other side of the wall and the Drain from our house. “We’re neighbours!” I said, and pointed where I lived. Then her mother noticed her standing on the wall and they waved and pointed, but it was too far away to shout anything understandable. Zendegî’s mother is a small worried-looking woman with grey hair (though she isn’t much older than Father or Uncle Kamel) and threadbare clothes, and her father is a bald man who would be enormous if he wasn’t so thin and bent. She makes building-bricks and he carries them. They’ve sold their other daughter to the palace to be able to apprentice Zendegî to the jeweller, but when the palace fell down she didn’t come back, and now they’re afraid she’s dead– no wonder her mother is so grey and worried. Her master will be worried too, and she’ll be late for work in the morning because she usually starts while it’s still dark and the gate won’t open until the first light, but she thinks he’ll understand, he sounds like as good a master as mine.

When we got home at first nobody even noticed us, Khahar and Hava were busy cutting vegetables for the stewpot, the men weren’t home yet, Coran was mending the bucket again, Jilan was trying to get some clothes on Meran, Kafi was crawling and getting underfoot, and Serla had just come in and Khahar sent her out again to shake the grass and twigs out of her skirt. But suddenly Khahar saw that I wasn’t alone, and she went all snooty and made Hava get a bowl of rose-water and Jilan bread and salt –I didn’t even know we had any bread left!– to welcome the guest. I saw Zendegî hesitate with the water, so I whispered “that’s to wash your hands”, I didn’t even remember whether it was a Valdyan thing or an Iss-Peranian thing, we haven’t had opportunity to do it for ages. Bread and salt is a Valdyan thing all right, and it’s typical for Khahar to be Valdyan when it suits her, to impress people, even though she’s only the wife of a half-Valdyan man. When Zendegî said she lived right across the Drain from us Khahar said “oh, the big white house, isn’t it?” and neither of us denied that.

Then Khahar pushed the mortar with maize to me, and Zendegî wanted to help but Khahar wouldn’t let her, and anyway everything was already being done, so she sat at the table and played with Kafi and Meran and tried to learn everybody’s name, complicated because everybody has two names except Kafi because Mother died before she could give her a Valdyan name. Hava is called Rava, but because of the way you pronounce ‘r’ in Ilaini you can hardly hear the difference, and Coran is called Khahesh, and Jilan is called Shotor which means ‘camel’ so he doesn’t like to use that name, and Serla is called Saye, and Meran is called Medad.

Baradar came home, and Father a bit later, and I dreaded telling him about my pay cut but when I got up the courage he was very calm about it, “at least your work still exists”. Well, yes; and there was this ship with lots of white sails outside the harbour. There was a Valdyan nobleman on board, Father said, to be the king’s ambassador; it wasn’t the king himself, and probably not the prince and the little queen either, but this nobleman did intend to put things right and deal with Mad King Konandé.

Then we had supper, and I could see that Zendegî knew about metal because she looked at the little bronze salt cellar, with the fish, that Father made for his journeyman work. We talked about food, of course, people always do that when they’re eating, and it turned out that Zendegî’s parents have only rice and some onions! At least we have the garden. “Can I give Zendegî a turnip to take home?” I asked Father, and he said yes, though Khahar looked as if he ought to have said no. But she’s not the boss of him! I think it’s time he talks about getting married again, it always shuts her up for weeks. I still don’t know whether he really has plans to get married again, or just does it to shut her up. I wouldn’t mind having a stepmother: if Father likes her she must be nice and she can’t be worse than Khahar.

“Next door they’ve got a rabbit in the pot,” Coran said, “at least that’s what they say, but I saw their eldest boy get it from the water!” “A rabbit with a long tail,” I said, and Jilan said “with little scrabbly feet!” and Hava “and a pointed snout!” until Khahar shut us all up, “we don’t eat that here”. Can’t people make a joke any more? Really sour!

After supper Father said, “now that we have a guest, let’s get out the wine,” and Jilan got the bottle and the little cups. We all got a drop, even Jilan but not Serla (which made her indignant) or the little ones. And finally Zendegî could tell her whole story: a man had come into their workshop, very friendly and well-mannered, looking as if he had a large commission, but as they were waiting for the master to come and talk to him he grabbed a piece of work that the other girl was working on, a bride-gift, a vest made from half-shilling coins and set with little rubies, worth at least thirty riders in coins and gems only, let alone all the work! And then he ran away, and neither the foreman nor Zendegî could overtake him, and when the syrup-seller tried to block his way he slashed him with a knife and nobody could catch him any more. The more Zendegî thought back to the man, the more she knew that he’d been a bad sort, but he’d been so polite to her that she didn’t notice at the time. Khahar and Baradar looked uneasy when she was telling about the bride-gifts, because all Khahar’s bride-gifts have been sold or pawned by now except for what’s in the Temple of Mizran for the children they don’t have yet.

Then all the wine was gone, because the bottle had already been three-quarters empty. But it was nice to drink wine with Zendegî to seal that we were really becoming friends. Good thing, because she’s going to sleep in our bed tonight, right between me and Hava.