In the water

Whether it was the gods’ favour, or just plain good luck, or script immunity I don’t know. The GM and I discussed whether NPCs have script immunity; I know PCs don’t, on principle, so it’s logical that NPCs don’t either. I’d like at least the king, the queen and their children to be alive at the end of this journey, though!

In the morning we found ourselves at the Piglet with nothing to do! We had breakfast, dressed in someone’s much too large shirts because our own clothes were still drying, then washed and put the clothes on still a bit damp. “What do you want to do?” Roushan asked– she herself was going back to the king and queen, of course. There would surely be some work to do! Or we could go and look for the invisible girl, or visit the academy, or see the first boat in the world that Ishey had built! “I’d like to see the town,” I said. “Yes, the boats, and just the town itself too, and we can look out for the invisible girl as we’re doing that!” Amre didn’t seem to be as curious as I was, but she didn’t mind. “Can we borrow your soldier?” I asked, and Roushan laughed and said yes, but we’d have to bring her to the Crown first because she didn’t want to go without an escort. “Ildis isn’t the safest place for people in our Guild,” she said.

There was a bit of a drizzle –the normal state of Ildis, I supposed– and the ground was muddy. Amre’s skirt dragged through the mud and it became all black! “That is what you need,” Orin said as we passed a shop –an open hatch window with hardly any room behind it, just a wall of shelves really– that sold wooden things you could wear under your shoes, high enough not to touch the mud at all! Pattens, they were called, and they came in three sizes: small, large and in between. Amre needed the small size, Roushan and I the in-between size. We bought plain ones, very cheap, but there were different kinds, some carved like little boats! And even some covered in velvet, but that seemed silly to me. They were hard to walk in at first, but it was easy to learn– until we came to a big square paved in round stones, all slippery from the wet. So we took them off again, and Orin carried all three pairs for us.

On the other side of the square there was a large inn, all painted and decorated with wood carvings. It had a crown hanging from a bracket at the front, and under the crown there was a king! Also a queen, and a couple of small princes and a tiny princess. As we came closer, I felt the queen grin at me in her mind. Roushan gave Orin a kiss and disappeared into the building, and we went in the direction of the tower with the gold dome on top. The way was through ever richer neighbourhoods, first with wells on the little squares, later there were fountains, some with copper animals spouting water! Even in the rich neighbourhoods the houses were tall rather than broad, and some of the streets were so narrow that you could probably hold hands across the street on the top floor.

We talked with Orin on the way, he was not only handsome but also very nice. “You’re not in the Order, are you?” I asked. “No– they’ve asked me a couple of times, and I’ve said no every time. I may want to get married sometime, have some children and settle down.” He was the only gifted person in the palace guard apart from Raith, that was why he’d been assigned to us (well, to Roushan first).

The gate of the castle (that was now the school) was open, and inside the gatehouse there was a huge rack full of pairs of pattens so we put ours there too. The ground inside was paved and swept, anyway, no mud to negotiate. We saw lots of people, most of them about our age or a bit older, and some older, looking very grand and important in long robes and with books under their arms — they must be the masters. Nobody seemed to take any notice of us.

“Do you want to go up the tower?” Orin asked. “I’ll stay down here, I’ve got no head for heights, I like to keep both my feet on the ground. There’s not much that can happen to you up there.” So up we went, first the outside stairs and then lots and lots of winding stairs inside the tower. Halfway we met a couple of young people –it wasn’t clear if they were going downstairs or just standing there kissing, they did look as if they liked one another a lot– who let us squeeze past and grinned at us.

At the top there was a kind of balcony that ran all the way round the tower, and you could go further up inside the shiny dome. On the balcony, we found Atash! He had a board with paper pinned to it and was drawing a map of what he could see, with a circle in the middle where the tower was. You could really see a lot from so high up. Atash pointed out the river Ilda, like a bright ribbon, and the marshy forest that we’d come from. “If you go up in the dome you can look even further with the nadarah. They use it at night to look at the stars, but anyone can use it by day. You can see a lot more through it than just with your eyes, it makes things a lot bigger.” “More stars too?” I asked. “Are there stars too small to see with your eyes?” “They say they do, there must be. Stars are very far away, I suppose if they’re small you can’t see them, just like other things. Oh, one warning: don’t look at the sun through it, you’d see so much light that you’d be blind forever.”

So we went up, and there was a thing like a copper water-pipe with a glass stopper on each side that poked out through the dome. And Amre could see the wooden castle through it, and when she showed me where it was I could see it too, though I know she’s got better eyes than me. You could turn the whole dome to make the nadarah point at other places, and we saw the place where the boys were working, half-built ships with people moving around them, most pale but a few were dark so they had to be the boys. “Let’s go there next,” Amre said, and I thought that was a good idea.

We looked around for a bakery and found a stall that lots of students were standing in line for: it sold only one thing, small half-moon-shaped sweet buns with seeds on top. They were very cheap and we bought a bag full to take to the boys. To get to the shipyard we had to go out of town, through a gate guarded by two uniformed guards, both in the Guild of the Nameless. They scowled at us, and Orin scowled back but I didn’t dare. At the shipyard we saw the boys right away, finishing the deck of a ship with boards. They came down when they saw us and called to the man in charge “Hey, boss! Can we go and eat now?” The boss didn’t mind when he saw us, but did warn us not to come too close to the work because it was dangerous. “It really is!” Veh said. “Now you’re here could you have a look at Arin? He’s burnt his whole leg with pitch, and it’s getting worse.” We said yes, but first we shared the buns with the boys and they told us Jeran’s boat was as good as finished. “It was hard, there’s a crane with a donkey in it, but something went wrong and the donkey got in the works. Today we’re having soup with donkey.” “Our mule will never go in the crane!” Tao said with passion. “But we found a way to hoist the mast on anyway, we did it the Ishey way with levers. We’re going to collect Jeran’s bonus for getting it done in time!”

Then a man in a velvet jacket came and told the boys off for going off work before it was time. “The foreman said we could,” Mazao said, “our friends came, and it’s finished anyway.” “Well, as long as you’re back early, seeing that you’re off early.” And to us, “better go away, you two, it’s no place for young ladies here.” We could see several women working along with the men: pulling great saws that you had to use with two people, cutting wood into shape with axes, bending wood by steam, hammering planks on beams. We, young ladies? We were about to start working too, so we didn’t take the velvet-jacketed man’s advice.

Arin turned out to be a big man working at the next boat, or at least the beginning of one. When he took his breeches off –with some pain because the fabric stuck to the skin– we were shocked, and could hardly believe that he’d been able to work with that. The whole leg looked as if it had been on a fire, like a leg of mutton, and there were still bits of pitch stuck to the flesh, and bits of burnt fabric from the breeches he’d had on when he’d had the accident. “Are you really doctors?” he asked. “Apprentice doctors,” we said, “but we can do a lot of things already, and if we don’t know what to do we can call the master.” We’d need to clean him up first, and there was no clean water anywhere– we could hardly use the river-water! I didn’t want to talk to the man in velvet though he was clearly the boss, so I went to the boys’ foreman and asked if I could borrow a pail, and some kind of cart to move it when it was full of water, and if there was a place where we could work. “That shed is the kitchen, use that, there’ll be a pail and a wheelbarrow.” He also lent us a strong man to operate the wheelbarrow, a good thing because a wheelbarrow is a difficult thing to keep straight, especially if you’re not very tall or strong.

Just as we were about to go for the water, the velvet-jacket man came back. “Arin! Why aren’t you working?” “These doctors are going to do something about my leg,” he said, but the man in velvet sent him back to work, in his bare legs. “Didn’t I tell you to go away?” he asked. “You did,” Amre said, “but we’re not going to, we have work to do here. Wait till we tell the king!” And tell the king I did, with my mind, at the same moment. “There’s a man here who needs to be taught a lesson.” “Really?” he said, so I showed him what had happened. “I think an inspection of the shipyards is in order. We’ll be there in an hour or so.”

I remembered a well in the square in front of the academy, but we didn’t have to go so far: just inside the gate there was a fountain where several other people were getting water too. They were all wearing simple but well-made clothes, clearly servants from the big houses. The wheelbarrow driver asked “Can you look at some other people too? We used to have a doctor in the shipyard, but he went to Valdis because he could earn more money there.” If Roushan heard that she’d be furious! “Yes, of course,” we said, “we can hold a proper surgery in that shed.” When the pail was full, or at least as full as it would get without the water sloshing over the side, we set out for the gate but found that we couldn’t because the royal company wanted to use the gate first! We went through at the tail of the procession, and put our pail on the fire in the shed while the king and queen and various other people –Roushan, too– started inspecting the shipyards.

The king and the princes seemed to be most interested in the ships themselves, but the queen was talking to the velvet-jacketed man, Master Lan. I couldn’t hear everything she was saying, but she looked like a cat cuffing a kitten with velvet paws. When the water was on the fire and didn’t need our attention, we could come closer. “And when someone has an accident and can’t work, what then?” “Well, your Majesty, if a man can’t work he can’t work.” “And they don’t get any compensation?” “If a man has an accident he should have been more careful.” “Don’t you have a shipbuilders’ guild here? Who owns these wharves, anyway?” “The silversmiths’ guild, your Majesty.” That made the queen raise her eyebrows, and that made Master Lan cringe, but she said nothing about it.

By now the water was ready, and we washed Arin’s leg and got all the pitch and dirt out– some new sawdust, too, from working bare-legged. Then the hard bit came: it was hot, as if it was still burning, and we did know how to make flesh colder but we’d done it only once before. After a few tries it worked, just as I thought I’d call Roushan. (Roushan came anyway, and approved of what we were doing very much.) Then we put goose-fat on the leg and bandaged it, and said that we’d really like him to stay home for a week or so, “can your wife change the bandages?” but he said he had to work, and there was no way to keep his house clean enough. When the queen came in to inspect and overheard that, she said she’d arrange a room at the Crown for Arin and his wife until he was well again! “We’re staying for a few days anyway, it’ll be easy.”

The queen had Sabeh with her, who was making a list of all accidents in the shipyard, so she talked to every patient we got, even if it was too late to help them, like the man who’d lost his little finger to an axe (but had come to us for something rather more intimate that we had to call Roushan to help with: he couldn’t piss because there was something inflamed in the way). We spent the rest of the afternoon doctoring too, and went home to Hinla’s house with a whole crowd of workers who all lived in the same neighbourhood.

“Let’s go for ducks,” the boys said. “Are you coming?” But we were tired from the afternoon’s work, and all I wanted was to sit down with friendly people who didn’t want me to cure them (well, except Jeran, but that was just a matter of checking that it was still going well). So they went off to the river, and we walked with some peoole from the shipyard. “Where are your handsome young men?” a woman asked. “They’ve gone to catch ducks for dinner,” I said, and she blanched and said “But that’s not allowed! There’s an overseer, and he’s going to kill them! All the game belongs to the lords, we can only have pigeons and rats. And rats aren’t any good to eat.” That sounded silly, don’t wild ducks belong to whoever can catch them? If you don’t catch it here, tomorrow it will be somewhere else! But I thought I’d warn the boys anyway. I couldn’t reach them with my mind and neither could Amre, so we ran after them. “Oh, that one,” Mazao said, “we met him yesterday and took him for a swim, but he couldn’t swim, so we fished him out again.”

But when it was completely dark they still weren’t back! And we couldn’t find them at all. “If the overseer got them, they’ll be lying dead in the river,” Jeran said sombrely. We wanted to go and look for them regardless, and we got dozens of people with torches and lamps and ropes to search with us. At the riverside we looked hard with our minds again, and saw something, but it kept disappearing and appearing again like a lamp flickering in a draught. “It’s Veh!” Amre said, “there!” None of the people in front were gifted, and hardly any in the whole group, so we went to the place where we’d seen Veh, and saw him being pulled out of the water, barely conscious. Someone undressed him and rubbed his whole body with brandy –not commenting on what he looked like without his clothes– and wrapped him in a blanket, while we looked further.

There was Mazao, in the middle of the river, trying to swim! But it looked as if he was being dragged down by something. Someone got a boat and Amre went in it with them to show where Mazao was. Then there was a shout from the opposite bank, “here’s another one! But I don’t know if he’s alive!” So I went in another boat to see Tao being fished out of the water. At first I didn’t know if he was alive either, but there was a bit of his mind struggling to exist, so I got hold of that and kept him with me, while other people took care of his body. “He’ll make it,” I heard someone say, but I didn’t stop holding him.

The schoolmaster offered the schoolhouse as a safe and dry place to take the boys, and Amre and I kept watch over them there. They were all fast asleep now, not unhealthily unconscious any more, though they all looked more grey than brown. Amre told me that Mazao had had half a dozen dead ducks tied to his feet, no wonder he had a hard time swimming! After a while Veh woke up and told us that the men had been upon them the moment they’d caught some ducks, five Valdyan men in cloaks, and he’d recognised the overseer by his moustache.

In the middle of the night there was a knock on the door. We couldn’t see anyone with our minds, and when we opened the door there was the body of Veh’s dog, its throat cut. There weren’t any people in sight. “The invisible girl must have done that!” I said. “Not killed it, but brought it back. Invisible girl, if you’re there, please show yourself!” But she didn’t. We put the dead dog in the woodshed, because Veh was asleep again and we weren’t going to wake him up before we had to.

When the boys woke up it was broad daylight. When we showed Veh his dead dog he first cried (and Amre put an arm around him), then he got really angry. “Now I’m going to the king!” he said. And we went, after Amre and I had got the boys’ Ishey clothes from the cart, because they’d gone hunting in their work clothes and been sleeping in the blankets people had wrapped them in. They really needed their staffs to walk with, too, though that was only clear if you knew them very well. I asked Veh what he wanted to do with the dog– take it along? “No,” he said, “I don’t need that to prove to the king that someone killed her,” and he threw the dead dog in the river, I think with a prayer.

While the king and the queen were listening to us, the invisible girl came and made herself visible (but not very) to Amre! “I don’t really want to help you,” she said, “but killing dogs and handsome boys goes too far! The man who killed the dog is over there, by the market stall. The one in the blue cloak.” And then she disappeared again. Nobody else had seen her, Amre told us what she’d said. We told Rayin of the Sworn, with our minds, and he didn’t look as if he was even listening but a moment later two of the Sworn came out of the alley next to the Crown, eating bread, and sauntered in the direction of the market.

Meanwhile, the boys were eating the king’s breakfast, they were really recovering! “We’ll round them up,” the king said, “Will they hang for it?” Veh said. “I want justice! I want the man who killed my dog to hang!” “He won’t hang for killing a dog,” the king said with a smile, “but for trying to kill you, he will!” “Even if they didn’t manage to after all?” I asked, but the king said yes, it’s what someone is trying to do, not whether it succeeds. “Oh, and you’re completely right, game belongs to everybody. Except in the woods around Valdis, there the game belongs to the Crown and you can only hunt there with my permission.”

“We’ll have to stay here for a few more days,” the queen said, “there’s more to set right here– but would you like to travel ahead to Nesile and take the little girls home?” “Oh, thank you!” I said. “I can’t stand it any more in this place. It’s that thing I talked about in Valdis, having to be on my guard all the time.” The queen nodded. “I know.” And I was sure that she knew, and that she felt much the same, but of course she couldn’t escape. Amre looked as relieved as I felt. “One thing,” I said, “could we please have a paper that says we’re allowed to hunt? So if anyone gets nasty about it we can show them?” The queen laughed and started to write a paper right away, and when she was finished she and the king both sealed it with wax and their rings. The boys wondered whether they’d have to stay, but it could probably all be done without them. “Unless you particularly want to see them hang?” the queen said. “Well–” Veh said, and then something that must be an Ishey curse-word, “no, let them rot without us!”

Then we were all so tired –Amre and I hadn’t slept all night, and the boys were only just better again– that the queen said “You’d better sleep here,” and had someone take us to a room that could only be the royal bedroom. We slept in the king and queen’s bed, all five of us! When I woke up I was so sweaty that I opened the door to see if I could find a place to wash. There was a soldier there, guarding us! “One moment,” he said, “I’ll get someone.” And yes, a girl came in carrying a basin and a jug, and another girl carrying towels! So we washed –at least Amre and I did, the boys were still sound asleep. “They’re cute!” the younger of the girls said. “Are they yours?” and when we said no, “Are they available?” No, not that either, but she kissed Veh (who didn’t wake up) on the cheek before she left. “Could we borrow something to wear?” I asked before the girls closed the door, and after a while a page came in, a girl about our age, with a pile of clothes. For me there were breeches that fit, and a jacket that was only a bit tight around the bosom, and for Amre a linen dress, “it’s my best! I want it back, mind you. I’ve never seen you in breeches so I thought you’d prefer this. And are you hungry at all? I’ll see if I can get someone to bring you something to eat.”

Yes, we were hungry! We got roast chickens and vegetables and bread and a bowl of sweet red berries. Then the boys woke up and smelt the food, so we went to tell the soldier that we wanted more! “Three times more food,” the soldier shouted down the stairs, “the young men are awake!” While we were eating, Veh said “You know what’s funny? I worked for half a day in only my breeches when it was hot and nobody said a word! Perhaps because there are lots of women here, it only matters how strong you are, not what you look like.” I thought that in Valdyas it never mattered so much, I’d seen men and women doing much the same work everywhere. And at the riverside, nobody’d said anything either.

Then Roushan came to call us to have a look at Arin, who was here, at the Crown, with his wife! “This is such a good place,” she said, “there are people who keep it clean for us!” And Arin said “do you know they give me two shillings a day as long as I’m here? I get three when I’m working, but of course I’m not working now so it’s fair.” “And you don’t have to buy food either,” Amre said, “that makes a difference too!” “Really?” Arin’s wife asked. “Do we get all our meals for free? We weren’t sure, and we know we couldn’t possibly afford it, so we’ve only been eating bread.” “No, it goes with the room!” I said. “Do eat the chicken, and the fruit, and everything!”

There was a feast that evening, but the boys were much too tired for it. The next day we hugged Hinla and Mialle and Ruzyn, and checked Jeran’s leg for the last time, and left Ildis to the northwest along the river. We had six soldiers with us, but they rode ahead and left us to travel on our own with the cart, just like it had been before we became part of the royal company! It was swampy at first, but there was proper wood further on. The boys were still very tired, though they did want to walk most of the way.

The next morning Amre and I were up early, when they were still asleep, and we went to hunt. One of the soldiers was from this part of the country, and he knew exactly where to go, a drinking-place a little way into the wood across a small stream. When we’d sat there for a short while two hinds and a yearling came to drink, and we felled the yearling with a slingshot (one slingshot each, but only one hit cleanly; I think it was mine). The soldier wanted to help us, but we waved him away and carried the deer across the stream and cut it open. “Are there foxes in this wood?” I asked. “Everything comes to drink there,” he said, and I carried the entrails across the stream again and left them in a place where a fox would be sure to find them. “Oh! you’re offering to Mizran!” the soldier said, and I told him that for the Ishey bears were sacred to Mizran but I knew it was foxes for the Valdyans, and as we were in Valdyas I wanted the foxes to eat what we couldn’t. “Unless there are bears in this wood?” But no, he’d never heard of bears here but he was sure of foxes. The boys were just waking up when we came back with our deer, and they helped us cut up the meat and start to prepare the skin. “We’ve taught you well!” they said, and that was glorious praise from them!

That evening, when we were sitting down to roast and eat some of our meat, the invisible girl was there. Now I could see her too, though not as clearly as Amre. (And later the boys could see her too, but neither the children nor the soldiers could.) “I don’t know what to do!” she said. “I came after you to kill you, but now I can’t do it any more.” “But why do you want to kill us?” Amre asked. “You made the king hang my husband! And the First Wife! I escaped with my maid Pati, and they caught her, but she hasn’t told them anything.” And little by little, she told us everything she knew: her husband had been one of the gang –she didn’t say which one, but it was probably the children-catching gang, not Khopai’s– and on the information we’d brought, the letters and things, they’d been able to round them up and hang them. “I like it that you’re not killing us,” I said, “but can’t you teach us to be as invisible as you?” “No, you’re too old, you’ll never become proper dandar any more.”