Off the map– and on to a different map. I think we’re going to need careful timeline work to avoid continuity hell.
Everybody wanted us to be their apprentices. Four different apprenticeships, and we didn’t want any of them. We’re nurses now! Not even apprentice nurses, we even have apprentices of our own!
After we hadn’t gone to catch the thief on the Pride of Ildis we stood on the quay, looking at the ships, and an idea came to my mind. “Suppose,” I said to Zendegî, “we go to the palace and find your sister so your parents still have a daughter when you go away, and then go to Valdyas on a ship with wounded soldiers as nurses? Because we know that’s work we can do.” “But I can’t leave Father and Mother,” she said. “Yes, that’s why we’ll go to find out what happened to your sister first, then they won’t have that worry any more.”
It was already late afternoon, and if we wanted to go to the palace today it had to be immediately, but fortunately the old kings had known that it was useful to have a straight clear road from the harbour to the palace and it was only about half an hour’s walk. There were very rich-looking buildings of stone and marble on both sides of the street, but most had been broken either when the king of Valdyas made the earthquake or more recently in the war. The closer to the palace we got, the richer the buildings were. At one point Zendegî tripped over a stone and when she bent to rub her foot she spotted something bright in the dust: a sheet of gold that had been hammered over a stone fallen from a building. Or rather, the sheet of gold had been covering the stone when it was still in the front of the building, and the stone had fallen with gold and all. It was about a foot high and a foot wide, as thick as a thumbnail, decorated with animals and flowers. She kept it under her skirt so nobody would see it.
We went through a great gate and arrived in a place like a square but bigger, with larger-than-life statues of horses and tigers and warriors and elephants, some still upright and some fallen off their pedestals. There was another gate with soldiers guarding it, one Valdyan and one Iss-Peranian like at the new gate on the harbour road. “Afternoon, ladies!” they said. “What is your business?” And we explained that we were looking for Zendegî’s sister who had been sold to the palace four years ago (the first time of many times we had to explain that) and if she wasn’t here herself, we’d like to speak with someone who had known her.
One of the soldiers got the captain and we explained to him. “You can’t go alone,” the captain said, “we’ve had a lot of trouble with looting, and there are unsavoury characters about, it wouldn’t be safe for you young ladies! There’s been a lot of looters hanged lately, but there are still a few around.” Then he handed us over to a very young soldier, who took us to a room inside the palace where an old man was sitting –I must say an old eunuch, probably– surrounded by piles of paper. He listened to us and then said “the women’s palace, eh? Well, this young man had better take you there, that’s where they have the records.” So we went through a corridor, a courtyard, a piece of ruined building, another courtyard, more corridors of which the soldier said that they were the servants’ passages, and then into a huge garden where a palace was standing, built of white stone and painted with blue patterns. It had been ruined too, of course, but not completely. First the soldier took us through a large room where lots of women were weaving, mostly middle-aged and older but a few young ones– Zendegî looked at the young ones but she didn’t recognise anybody. Then we got to another office where a man and a woman, both old, were sorting papers. This man was probably a eunuch too, come to think of it.
We explained yet again. The man and the woman found a book with the names of all the girls who had joined the palace four years ago, and they found Dushtan’s name! Also, that they had paid more than three hundred for her, not shillings or riders but something else, and which group of girls she had been assigned to. Then they got a book from two years ago, just after the king of Valdyas had been and a lot of the girls had fled the palace, and Dushtan’s name wasn’t in that one. “We’ve had to make all the lists again,” the woman said, “when King Konandé wanted them.” And to the man, “You had it, didn’t you? For the other case.” “Yes–” but he couldn’t find it, or didn’t want to look for it. But they knew the old lady who had been the leader of Dushtan’s group, Lady Mayam. “She’s quite clear-headed still at times,” the woman said, “you could go and visit her,” and told us where she lived: quite close to Zendegî’s house in fact.
Well, we’d accomplished something at least! Our young soldier was waiting at the door, and he led us out of the palace on the other side, where there was a large empty place without any broken horses or elephants. The soldier pointed to where we could get out of the empty place and into a street, “but beware of sharp stones and unsavoury characters!” We made our way carefully, it was hard going, especially as it was getting dark.
Before we were halfway, a large man grabbed Zendegî and me each by a shoulder! “Looting, are we?” he asked. We looked at him as if we didn’t understand him at all, but I knew what he was talking about, he’d probably seen Zendegî hide the gold. Then he made a grab at her and had the plate of gold in his hands before we could stop him. “That won’t turn out well for you,” he said. “I’ll report you to our watch. Or will you hand it over to me?” As he already had it, it looked as if we couldn’t do anything else than to hand it over to him! And reporting us to the watch– would that mean we’d be hanged? I wanted to run away, never mind the gold, it had never really been ours in the first place, but I couldn’t tell that to Zendegî without alerting the man as well. He didn’t look at all like a soldier; what if he was just a thief?
Apparently we hesitated so long that the man lost patience and said “I’ll just take you to the watch-house then” and took both of us by the wrist, in one hand, with the gold in his other hand. “Run!” I said, and we pulled loose and ran, so fast that he couldn’t catch up.
Zendegî stopped to look what was happening, even though I’d rather have gone on running, and she saw that our soldier was fighting with the large man! And the soldier won and chased the man away. He came up to us, carrying the sheet of gold, “is this yours?” “It’s really nobody’s, I think,” I said, “my friend found it on the road before we got to the palace.” “Hm,” the soldier said, “I can do two things– well, three things– anyway, several things. I could report you to the watch, the real watch, for looting.” “And then we’ll be hanged!” I said. “Well, I could put in a good word for you,” he said. “Or I could take this for myself. Or share it with you. Or give it back to you for a kiss.” “You can have a kiss!” I said and kissed him on the cheek, and so did Zendegî. And then he gave the gold back to her! “My name is Milavan,” he said, “my grandmother was Valdyan, that’s why I’m so honest.”
“I’d better fold it up or something,” Zendegî said. “And I’ll carry it,” I said, “so people don’t see it right away, I don’t wear my midriff bare.” She did that –it bent easily– and I put it under my shirt, where it sat as a strange cold and heavy thing.
This neighbourhood turned out to be really close to where Zendegî lived, and after a few intersections she knew the way. When we came to her parents’ house, they were sitting outside drinking wine and eating chicken, as if it was a feast day. “We have such good news for you,” her mother said, “have some wine, and eat something, we’ll tell you presently!” So we ate and drank –I suddenly realised I hadn’t eaten since Serla’s fish soup– and they told us that Master Nakhast had offered them a partnership, to build the ovens to melt the bronze in, and was even going to lend them four riders so they could buy in. Zendegî took me aside for a moment and said “I was thinking of giving the gold to my parents to buy in with that, so they won’t be in debt!” and I thought that was a really good idea. But first Zendegî told them that she planned to go to Valdyas with me– no yet that we had been looking for Dushtan, because we hadn’t found her yet nor gone to Lady Mayam’s house because it had been too late for that. “I know that you’ve been saving money for my dowry,” Zendegî said, and her father said “yes, in the purse under the hearth, do you want to take it?” but that wasn’t at all what she meant, she meant that her parents could have the money now that she wouldn’t need it for her dowry anyway. Then I gave her the package of gold and she gave it to her parents. They were flabbergasted, of course. Zendegî said that she’d make something else of it so it would be easier to sell, and got out her bracelet of half-shillings and broke it, so she’d have a reason to borrow tools from the workshop to fix it. I thought of asking Doctor Vauri if Lord Lydan could help us, after all he was a nobleman and must have business sense!
So I spent another night in Zendegî’s house. Now I knew where to get water, and the woman at the big house knew me too. Zendegî went to work and promised to come home with her tools, and I went home, thinking they’d have expected me to be at Zendegî’s when I didn’t come home last night. When Khahar saw me she said “Doctor Vauri asked you to come to the hospital!” I was going there anyway, so that was convenient. But Father said that Lady Cynla was expecting me for my first lessons. “I’m not going to have lessons with Lady Cynla,” I said. “I’ve been talking to people from the Order, and they say that I have to learn things she can’t teach me.” Father looked doubtful, and I became uneasy, so I said “You can ask Master Rhanion if you want!”
Then I ran off to the hospital where Doctor Vauri was already waiting for me. “I’ve been thinking,” she said, “I’d like to take you and your friend as apprentices, for half a year, and then you’ll be journeymen and each of you can choose whether to train as a doctor or a nurse. What do you think of that?” “I don’t think I want to become a doctor,” I said, “and I intend to go to Valdyas anyway, with Zendegî.” And then I took a deep breath and said that I’d like to talk to Lord Lydan if he had time for me, about something to do with business. She looked around with her mind for a moment –I’m starting to recognise that– and said “He’s with the Terrible– with the Noble Ladies Zahmati and Roushan at the moment, but he’ll be back in time to eat. Will you at least work with me this morning?”
“First I have to go and say no to Lady Cynla,” I said. “She won’t like that!” Vauri said. “She doesn’t take being said no to so easily. You’d better stay away from her.” That did seem wise, suppose she locked me away in lessons at once! “I do have to run to the Order house first, but I’ll be back.” And run I did, but not fast enough, because Master Rhanion was in a meeting. “With my father?” I asked. The Grey on duty didn’t know, but it was a big strong man he didn’t know at all. That sounded like Father all right! I ran back to the hospital and arrived flushed and winded, but the work soon calmed me down. Doctor Vauri showed me all the nice parts of doctoring, and it was tempting, but I knew that if I said yes now I’d never learn what I really needed to learn. And I’d be busy staying out of Cynla’s hands every day!
Then Lord Lydan came, much later than we’d been expecting him. “Venla has been working with me this morning, is it all right if she eats with us?” Vauri asked, and of course it was all right. We went to the Prince’s Inn, called that because of the sign that says “Prince Vurian was nursed here”. “Beer!” Lydan called. “Bread! Cheese! None of those little sweet delicacies. And a bucket of cold water, please, with vinegar in it.” He pulled off his purple velvet boots and I wondered how his feet had ever been able to fit into those. “They’re poor Fian’s,” he said when he saw me looking. “All the noble stuff, boots and hats and rings.” He pulled a handful of gold rings out of his pocket. “Fian is –was– a much more delicate sort than I am. Hands, feet, mine are more a farmer’s size. I can get these on my little finger, nowhere else.” “My friend can fix that,” I said. He cocked his head, probably remembering who my friend was, and said “Well, we’ll pay a visit to your friend later. But first let’s eat!” As he devoured the bread and cheese he told us what the twins had given him, “little dainties, everything sweet and delicate, nothing wholesome! Looks like a pasty, smells like flowers.” “Didn’t they even give you chicken?” I asked. “Chicken taken off the bone, boiled, shredded, put back together with egg and almonds and rose-water and fried in oil again!”
When he stopped ranting about the food, he started to rant about politics. He seemed to have forgotten that I was there. “It’s a good thing really that Fian is dead, poor sod, I think I’m made of stronger stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was them who offed him.” I remembered how shifty the noble ladies had looked at Lord Fian’s bier. “Excuse me,” I said, “I rather think that too,” and told the whole story about how I’d hidden behind the pillar –which wasn’t a real pillar at all– and overheard the high-up people’s talk. “So they’ve hanged Master Orian all for nothing,” I said. “Oh, he’d done enough,” Lydan said, “he’d have been hanged for something sooner or later, it doesn’t matter. But those two drive me mad! They offered me the joint kingship, but I could hold them off a little longer, I’ve told them that I have to write to my king first because I’m his representative.”
“Lydan,” Vauri said, “Venla here wanted to ask you something, too.” And I blushed and said that he was the only person I knew who would know something about gold, and we’d found some gold we wanted to sell. “A treasure? And with that you come to the person you overcharged three times and got away with it?” I blushed more, “I didn’t know you then, and you’re Doctor Vauri’s husband, and I trust Doctor Vauri.” He grinned, “All right, I’ll look at your gold for you. Do you have it with me?” “No, it’s at my friend’s house, she’s the one who found it.” “The same friend who can fix rings? Let’s go, then.”
And we went, Lord Lydan in more comfortable and less flashy clothes and Doctor Vauri and I, with an escort of six guards. “Is that because you’re afraid you’ll be killed like Lord Fian?” I asked, “or just to impress people?” “I don’t want to be killed, either like Fian or otherwise, and if it impresses people that’s an added boon.” Vauri took me aside and pointed out people on the roofs, two in front of us and two behind us, “that’s the Guild, they’ll follow out of sight.”
Master Nakhast was much surprised when the whole procession arrived at his workshop. He didn’t even recognise me until I spoke up. Immediately he brought a chair for the noble lord, and on second thoughts for the noble lady, but they wouldn’t sit right away, after Lord Lydan had explained what he wanted he first showed the rings to Zendegî. Yes, she could do that, though it was a very different design from what she was used to. She started right away. Then one of Master Nakhast’s wives brought wine, and the other a platter of food, exactly the kind of delicacies Lydan had complained about (though probably not such good quality as in the palace) but he ate them with visible enjoyment. He talked about the work, the city, and then suddenly I realised that he was talking about the bronze-casting workshop– I hadn’t told that to him, not even to the doctor! Zendegî was so shocked that she missed a stroke with the hammer and had to start again on the ring she was working on. It was a good thing, he said, not only to make art but also because the army would need a lot of bronze for tools and horse-trappings.
“I’ve got my spies,” Lydan said as we walked from the workshop to Zendegî’s house. “And I’ve known about this enterprise from the beginning. I’m not sure how honest that Master Nakhast is, but he does have business sense, and your father” –that was meant for me– “knows about bronze, as does that deserter who calls himself Dorush now.” “Doran,” I said, giving myself away but he didn’t seem to mind. “Dorush, Doran, it doesn’t matter. And I don’t know what your parents can do,” –to Zendegî– “but they must have some skill or Nakhast wouldn’t want them in it.” “They’re builders,” Zendegî said, “they’re going to build the casting ovens.”
On the way to Zendegî’s house we were escorted by the soldiers again, two even went into the big house from the front. Her parents weren’t home yet, and Zendegî and I went to meet them so we could tell them it was all right. “That’s Doctor Vauri that we worked for at the hospital,” I said, “and the lord is married to her. It’s only good news!” And when Lord Lydan and Doctor Vauri and all of us were seated in the little house and we’d explained, Zendegî’s father took the gold from the hiding-place and put it into Lydan’s hands. “Gods!” he exclaimed. “You’ve folded it!” “Yes,” Zendegî said, “that was the only way to take it with us without people seeing it.” “And you’re sure it belonged to nobody?” So we told him how Zendegî had tripped over it when it was still on a stone fallen from a ruined building, in the street before the palace, so we were fairly sure it didn’t belong to anyone in particular. “Then the gods have given this to you,” Zendegî’s father declared. Meanwhile Lydan was turning the gold over and over, trying to unfold it, grumbling about the damage. “I can fix that, I’ve got my tools with me!” Zendegî said, because of course she’d taken them from the workshop, Master Nakhast had been too preoccupied to do anything except wave and say “yes, of course, do be careful”. But this, Lydan said, was work that nobody in the whole world could do now, and he’d sold most of the inventory of a very big merchant’s house so he knew that by now. “It would be a shame –almost a crime– to make it into something else. But don’t worry,” he said to Zendegî’s parents, “I shall give you a sum of money, a hundred riders, two hundred, as much as this is worth, and dispose of it myself so nobody need ever know.” “Then we can really become equal partners with Master Nakhast,” Zendegî’s father said, and they started talking enthusiastically about buying the plot of land where a house had been demolished and setting up a workshop for the ovens there, Lord Lydan as eager as anybody else to discuss it.
There seemed to be no reason for us to stay. “Now we can go and talk to Lady Mayam!” I said, and Zendegî thought that was a good idea too. Her house was in a neat street with freshly painted houses, not touched by the war, even with a covered gutter running down the middle. After some asking around we stood on her doorstep and knocked. A young maid opened the door, “can I help you?” and we said that we’d been sent from the palace to ask Lady Mayam something. “Wait a moment, please,” the girl said and closed the door on us, but after a while she came back and showed us in, all the way through the house into a garden. There was a fountain where birds were bathing –they flew away as soon as they saw us– and somewhere out of sight someone was making soft music. As we came nearer, I saw that it was a boy about ten years old with an instrument with a long neck and strings.
An old woman was sitting in a corner of the garden in a chair that looked as if it was made of reeds. Her clothes were old but rich, patterned with purple on black. “Ah, girls,” she said. “It’s not often that I’m visited by young girls as agreeable as you. You wanted to ask me something?” “Yes,” Zendegî said, “we heard in the palace that when my sister was still living there you were her– what’s it called? Anyway, you taught her and took care of her. We’d like to know if you know what became of her after– well, when she left the palace.”
The old woman thought for a while and nodded. “Dushtan, Dushtan– yes, she was one of my girls when the old king was there, the real king. The one we have now is no good, and they tell me he’s fled the city like a common thief. Your sister? Let me look at you.” And she took Zendegî’s head in her hands and pulled her very close so she could look at her face: she must be almost blind. “Yes, you’re her sister, you’re much alike. We lost her when the king of Valdyas came and destroyed everything, she went away with the soldiers. And now she doesn’t dare go home any more, of course. But I’ve heard of her, many of my girls come back to ask my advice and tell me about their lives. Now let’s see… yes, that was the girl from Ashas, Zarzanesh, she came back from Il Ayande to start a house on the east side of the harbour, she’d had enough of the army. She had seen Dushtan, with a dark man from the plains.” I’m telling this as if she was speaking clearly and all at once, but in fact she was rambling, and fell asleep a few times, and finally the boy stopped playing and said “My lady, it’s time for your medicine” so we had to go, but first she took our hands and said “I could teach you so much, would you like to come and be my apprentices?” “We’ll think about it,” Zendegî said, and I made an agreeing noise, and we left. “Another person who wants us to be her apprentices!” I said. “I don’t think that is something I want to learn.”
After another night at Zendegî’s house I was almost afraid to go home. “Shall I come with you?” Zendegî asked, and I was glad of that. Father was alone, no sign of even Khahar and the little ones, and he looked — well, not precisely angry, but definitely worried. “So you’ve been staying at Zendegî’s again,” he said, “you’d better have a good explanation. I hope you’re not haring off after that thief.” “No,” I said, and stammered and bumbled about Zendegî’s sister who had gone with the army, and wanting to find her for her parents. “And I know you’ve been to talk to Master Rhanion,” I finished, “and I’m willing to go fetch the stick.” Was that a hint of a smile on his face? “Yes, I’ve been to Master Rhanion, and I think you haven’t been telling me the truth, or at least not the entire truth.” “The fact is that I’m not going with Zendegî, I said, Zendegî is going with me, I’m going to Valdyas to learn what I can’t learn here.” “Was that why you didn’t dare come home?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I couldn’t come home because I went with Zendegî to the old lady who knew her sister in the palace. We are going after her sister as well, that much is true.” “Hmm,” Father said. “Lady Cynla offered you an apprenticeship, and I understand that Doctor Vauri did, and Master Rhanion said he’d gladly have you as his apprentice as well.” “Yes, and the old lady from the palace too,” I said. “But if I do that I’ll learn a lot, but not what I really have to learn, because there’s nobody here who can teach that. I’ll just end up as Lady Cynla’s pet, something to show off with.”
Father was silent for a long time. “Lady Cynla is on her way here to fetch you,” he said finally. “If you don’t want that, you’d better climb up the roof and down the other side. Go to Valdyas, with my blessing. Don’t come back– in ten years, perhaps, but not too soon.
And then he did give me one hard smack on my bottom, “that is so you know that I don’t want a daughter of mine to lie.”
Next door there weren’t only the neighbours, but Khahar and all my brothers and sisters too! But there was hardly any time to hug them, because we could hear a large group of people coming from the other side. Zendegî and I took another road to the gate, out of the gate, through the new gate, and we didn’t stop until we were at the harbour, far from anyone who wanted to take us.
We happened to be on the east side, and there was a house that looked like a house of pleasure, very quiet at this hour, and a young woman with very dark skin was sitting in front of it sewing on something. “She looks like she’s from Ashas!” I said. “Do you think she’s that Zarzanesh?” And we asked her, and she was. She could tell us a little more about Dushtan: she’d taken up with one of the soldiers, not a Valdyan and not really one of ours either, “a dark man, from the plains” as Lady Mayam had said, but which plains she didn’t know either. And she’d seemed happy with her man, unlike Zarzanesh herself who had lost her first man in a battle and taken up with another, who she didn’t like so she’d come back. Then a sailor came along, and Zarzanesh started to attract his attention, so we thanked her and left her to it.
We’d seen the harbour hospital before but only from a distance. It was an old warehouse really, with partitions built in it, but there was a little office just like in the real hospital, with a middle-aged man sitting in it surrounded by papers just like Doctor Ruyin. When he saw us he asked “Have you come to help?” and I said “Yes– that is, no, not to help here but we want to go with a ship that’s taking wounded soldiers to Valdyas and work as nurses. We’ve been nurses in the hospital in Little Valdyas in the war, we’ve got experience.” The man looked at us as if he didn’t believe it at first, then threw his hands up in the air and cried “The gods have favoured us! How– But you’re much too young, how old are you anyway?” “Thirteen,” I said, and Zendegî “almost thirteen”. “I can’t do this to you,” he said, “do you know what you’re letting yourselves in for?” and then a woman came to fetch him because he was needed badly and he told us to wait in the office.
We could see him working through the open door, and neither of us really wanted to wait when there was work to be done! So we went and stood next to him where he was working, one on each side like with Doctor Serla, and threaded needles and handed him bandages and picked up what he dropped, but we couldn’t lend him any of our strength because he didn’t know how to take it. It was only when he’d finished treating his patient that he realised that we were there. “You certainly do have experience,” he said. “But so young… The point is, we can’t spare anybody here, and we’ve asked in the city but they can’t spare anybody either.” They’d only got two doctors there, I knew, Ruyin and Vauri, because Serla had died. And then he asked again, “Do you know what you’re letting yourselves in for?” “No,” I said, “but Doctor Serla said when she was teaching us that everybody who thinks that war is about fame and glory should work in the hospital for a week. And we worked in the hospital for two weeks, so we know.” “And do your parents know, and agree?” “Yes,” we said, and I added “My father’s given me his blessing.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Captain Arin is sailing tomorrow with the White Whale.” There was a large ship on the quay where packages and wounded soldiers were being brought aboard, but the captain was nowhere to be found. “He’ll be along later,” the doctor said, “come back this afternoon and I’ll introduce you.” So we went to the Order house first, where Serla was handing out soup. “We’ve come back for some more of your fish soup,” we said. “Can’t do.” “Why not?” “Because it’s vegetable soup today.” The vegetable soup turned out to be as good as the fish soup, though. Master Orian was there too, and we told him what we were about to do– only to get “you’re too young! Do you know what you’re letting yourself in for?” from him as well. But he understood that it was a wise move to get away before all those people who wanted us as their apprentices got their hands on us. Especially Lady Cynla! “I don’t think there’s anything I can do for you,” he said.”But you can!” I said. “Please tell my father that I’m all right and not to worry. And tell Zendegî’s parents that her sister went away with a soldier, and the last time someone saw her she was happy, and we’ll send more news when we can.”
After the soup, Serla took us to the market to buy all kinds of things: clothes, linen to sew more clothes, sewing things, dried fruit for when we’d get tired of ship food, a small bottle of brandy on Serla’s advice, and a canvas bag each to put it all in. When we got back to the ship the doctor was there, as well as a man who could only be the captain. He was keeping a young woman from boarding. She was dressed very strangely: a short skirt and a shirt with short sleeves, both grey, and slippers that looked as if they’d been sewn from mouse-skin. “You can’t do without a priestess of Naigha,” she said, and tossed her head, and then I saw she was wearing a dark braid that fell to her waist. “Halla, I’ve told you so many times, the answer is still no.”
Then he turned to us, “so you’re the nurses?” “Mind, they’re not doctors,” the hospital doctor said, “we can’t spare any, but they know all the practical things.” “Young, aren’t you?” the captain asked. Him too! “We’re experienced,” Zendegî said, “we’ve worked in the war hospital.” The captain nodded, obviously he knew that it was us or nothing. “You’ll end up in Valdyas,” he said, “but the roundabout way because of the wind, we’ll go all along the coast and pick up more wounded, Il Ayande and Jomhur, and then go north to Idanyas.” I’d never heard of those places except Il Ayande, but ending up in Valdyas was perfectly all right with me. “Be back here tonight,” he said, “we sail before sunrise, with the tide.” Then we got a whole season’s pay in advance so we could buy supplies. (And while the captain was paying us, we saw Halla sneak on board again!)
There was a special shop at the quay for ship-crew stuff: we got a chest each, wide-brimmed straw hats –we’d need those, the shopkeeper said, because it could get very warm and there was no shelter from the sun. We got an extra one because Zendegî thought that Halla wouldn’t stay away whatever the captain tried, and she was unlikely to have thought of it herself. Also, and even more spare linen; we wouldn’t be able to wash anything on board, just wear a shirt until it was either too damaged or too dirty and then put on a new one. “Do you have good knives?” I showed him the thief’s knife that I’d kept, and that was a good enough knife but it would be better to get one that folded shut as well, against the rust. That made me think of buying a jar of grease, too. The captain had said that as nurses we could use the ship’s store of bandages and medicines, so there was no need to buy those.
Finally the shopkeeper reached behind him and dangled something black and protesting in front of us: a young cat, hardly more than a kitten, but fierce and strong. “You,” he said to the cat, “are going on board with these young ladies. You don’t need your mother any more, and your mother definitely doesn’t need you, better earn your own keep.”
When we came back to the ship the captain was arguing with Halla again. “We do really need a priestess of Naigha,” we said, “some of those people are probably going to die, and we don’t know the prayers! Anyway, she can do some of the work, we need all the help we can get.” The captain grumbled, but let her get on. Later, we found out that Halla was Captain Arin’s daughter, “a priestess of Naigha just like her mother”– never found out whether that meant that her mother wasn’t entirely a regular priestess of Naigha either. She did have markings on the back of her hands like priestesses of Naigha, but they looked home-made. But anyway, she ate in the captain’s quarters with him, and the first mate, and us; and she shared a small room in the rear of the ship with us where we slept in something called a hammock, which is a sheet hanging from the roof with a rope tied to each of its short sides so it becomes a kind of sack. It took some practice to be able to sleep in it! Zendegî was really sick the first few days from the moving back and forth of the ship, but then got used to it. “The moment you set foot on solid ground you’ll be sick again,” the first mate predicted. Strangely, and fortunately, I didn’t have any trouble at all.
There were about thirty wounded soldiers on the deck of the ship that served as hospital, and that made it less than half full but there was quite enough work for the two of us and Halla. These were the people who ought to be well enough to travel, so there wasn’t so much stitching-up work, but they had to be kept clean to prevent wound-fever and we had to change their bandages and help them go on the bucket. We still ate with the captain, though the food wasn’t different from what the rest of the crew had: lentil soup most days, always with a slice of lemon, and when the pig was slaughtered that we had on board we had meat too, first fresh and then salted. And we needed the hats! Most of the men wore only breeches, or even only a loincloth, and most of the women (there were a handful among the men) breeches or a skirt and a breast-cloth, but Zendegî and I wore long shirts with short sleeves, like our hospital clothes.
The black cat was having the time of his life– the ship was crawling with rats. His only problem was that there was already a ship’s cat, a huge striped monster with one eye. They divided the territory but both of them wanted the front that had the most rats and the best places to catch them. Halla set up betting on how many rats each cat would catch, and earned rather a lot of money with that. She wrote everything in a little black book, and once I saw it lying open and spotted not only a list of bets but also a drawing of the bones in a broken arm, as far as I could see very accurate. I’d seen enough broken bones when the flesh had been cut away with swords! I was looking at the drawing when she came back, and she snatched up the book and slammed it closed, “don’t read my diary!” But I’d only been looking at the drawing, and I wanted to tell her how much I’d admired it but she wouldn’t have any of that.
After some time –I was too busy to count the days– we came to a harbour, and someone told us it was the capital city of Il Ayande though I never learnt the city’s name. Here there had been a lot of fighting too: there was a white palace on top of some rocks sticking out high above the sea, but half of it had fallen, and half of that had fallen on top of a large ship on one side of the harbour. “Do they have a king here?” I asked, but it was a queen, already old, who lived in the part of the palace that was still whole.
We went ashore, Big Arin and Red Arin and Hinla and Halla and plain Arin and Zendegî and I, and it was like the ground was moving like a ship. Zendegî promptly got sick again. “That’s easy to cure, you just have to drink enough wine!” one of the Arins said, but that didn’t help her much. I didn’t like that much wine either, and anyway we were planning to look for some more people who could help with the nursing if we were going to have patients, so we excused ourselves and found a man in the uniform of the Greys, because those were the people we knew would help us. He looked at me and said “have you come from Albetire? You smell of Orian!” and then took us to a camp where people lived who’d lost their home in the war. Zendegî was still staggering and looking pale. “She’s landsick,” I said. “Oh, I can fix that,” the Grey said, and held her head and did something and she felt perfectly all right again. “Ooh,” I said, “teach me that, please!” But he couldn’t– well, in fact he wouldn’t; he said “I could teach you for half a year, and then I’d have to send you to Valdyas after all and you’d have to unlearn everything because I don’t have the experience. Unless you want to be a doctor, of course.” He was the doctor of the Greys here, called Lyan. We told him that we were the ship’s nurses, and that I’d already turned down an apprenticeship with a doctor because there were so many other things I wanted to learn. He seemed to understand that, at least, about the first person who didn’t want me to be his apprentice!
The camp was almost a city outside the city, full of people going about their business. Somewhere in the middle an old man was sitting in front of a tent acting as a judge. When he was finished he listened to us, though it was hard to understand each other because he talked more western than I’d ever heard. At last he understood, and promised to find some people and send them to the ship before nightfall.
As we came back to the ship Captain Arin wanted us to see the new patients, there seemed to be something strange about a two or three of them. I thought they were perhaps more badly wounded than the other soldiers, but it wasn’t that: these were small men, as dark as Zendegî but a more muddy colour, with broad flat faces and straight black hair. “I can’t really take those people,” he said. “They’re Khas. They say they belong to the king, and they’re not our enemies, but they can’t come with us!” “Why ever not?” I asked. “If they’re wounded, and belong to the king, and they’re bound for Valdyas, we can take care of them.” Then we told the captain that some more people were coming to help us, and he gave us his own cabin to talk to them. When they turned up, I realised I’d been expecting people like the whores from Zendegî’s street in Albetire, and I was surprised that none of these people looked like that. There was a woman of about forty, called Elave, who had tended wounded soldiers but had had enough of war now; a girl a bit older than us, Khat’, who had never done nursing work before but wanted to get away (Zendegî got the impression that it was from some particular person), no matter where, and didn’t mind working hard; and a young man, Kuchik, who might be a whore but we didn’t ask him. He said he could clean very well, and that was what we needed! “Mind you, we’ll pay for your work but we’re not taking anybody back,” Captain Arin said, but none of them minded, and Zendegî and I told them what things to get for the voyage, feeling very experienced.
When we were still in the harbour, the first of the wounded from Albetire died: a woman who Halla had been bullying not to die, but she died anyway. Halla wrapped the woman’s body in a sheet, carried her to the railing (she must have been very strong!), said some prayers and threw the body overboard with more prayers, but she held on to the sheet so she’d be able to use it again. Then she sat on the deck for a long time, praying to Naigha. “We’d better do that too,” Zendegî said, so we sat by the kitchen fire and prayed to Anshen. I wasn’t nearly as desperate as the last time I’d done that, and didn’t really have anything to ask him, but he showed himself to me like a ribbon of fire around the whole world.