Scared half to death
That was a long and intense session with lots of things happening that literally nobody had foreseen. Posting this as Part I; otherwise it would not only be unwieldily long, but people might get impatient.
I woke up with the firm idea in my mind to find out more about the Guild and all that kind of stuff. Father and Master Nakhast and Ferin were still sleeping with their heads on the table, but I told Hava to take care of them and grabbed a piece of bread and went with Zendegî to see if I could find someone who could take a message to Master Kamel for me, to say that I wouldn’t be coming in today because I had urgent business. After all I had a shilling in my pocket, I could afford not to get paid for one day! But the gate was still closed though it was already light. There were several people hanging around, but nobody I knew, so I said “Anyone going to the harbour when the gate opens who can take a message to the sailmaking workshop?” A nearby young man looked at me searchingly –everybody seems to be doing that lately– and said “But you can call them yourself, can’t you? Nobody else gifted in your workshop?” but I said “I don’t know how to do that! I haven’t learned, nobody’s ever taught me!” “Oh, that can be remedied,” he said, “my master could teach you, how about that?” “Well,” I said, “I want to learn, to know things.” He told me to go past the hospital, then the second street on the left, third house, with an orange doorstep, and I counted two and three on my fingers to remember. “Tell him I sent you,” the young man said, “I’m Eran. And he’s Master Orian, or else Fashordan.”
“Let’s go,” Zendegî said, because it didn’t look as if the gate would open any time soon, and we went, but as we passed the first street after the hospital there was a woman lying in the road, vomiting and crying, she looked sick rather than drunk, in great anguish, and when I tried to touch her she cringed from me as if she was in pain. “You go to the hospital and get a bucket of water and some cloths to clean her up,” I said to Zendegî –yes, I know I’m bossy, comes from having all those little brothers and sisters– and I stayed with her and tried to comfort her but that was hard without touching. She kept wailing “He’s dead!” but I couldn’t get her to say who.
Zendegî came back with a woman doctor, not Vauri but the one who had been in the front office. “Oh!” the doctor cried. “It’s the Princess Naravati!” We picked her up, me her shoulders and Zendegî her feet and the doctor round the middle, and carried her to the hospital. That was hard, because she flailed and kicked all the time, we even dropped her once because we weren’t strong enough. The doctor got two strong nurses but they were men and Princess Naravati wouldn’t be touched by men, so Zendegî went and got Riei from the bath-house and a huge woman called Hinla, the bath attendant, who could carry Naravati on her own.
We got her into a bed, and cleaned up a bit, but Hinla had to hold her down with her large hands for that because she was still flailing wildly. “Raped?” Riei asked, but of course Naravati wouldn’t answer. The doctor was still trying to find out who was dead, and if she could do anything. “My man!” Naravati said. “Fian!” That name made the doctor blanch, and get a faraway look on her face, and say “Oh blast,” and kick off her sandals and run away, leaving us to take care of Naravati. She quietened down after a while, and looked at me and Zendegî and said “You should be dandar, you know,” and fell asleep. Then Riei and Hinla undressed her and washed her completely, hair and all, and tutted over her because yes, it was clear she had been raped. Probably not today or yesterday, though, but even I could see that she wasn’t whole.
“I don’t want to be dandar,” I said to Zendegî, and she said “no, me neither,” and then we remembered what we had been going to do. Naravati was asleep, and Riei and Hinla were still here, so we thought we could go after all. But it proved to be very hard to leave the hospital, because there were soldiers between us and the entrance! Mostly Valdyan soldiers, but one who wore only a kind of apron and had a long spear that looked like a reed. “Go back to your beds,” the soldiers said, “nobody is to pass, the bier will be along presently.” We said that we didn’t have any beds, we’d only come to bring someone, and they made us stand with them and keep out of sight. We tried to find out from them what had happened, but nobody would tell us, though we overheard something like “twenty scorpions in his bed”. Well, that would kill someone, when Nasim next door was bitten by one scorpion his whole hand went black and they had to cut it off.
Then some more soldiers brought in a woman on a stretcher, still alive but not much, with spots and splotches everywhere as if she’d been poisoned. Doctor Vauri came in and did things to the woman, but she died anyway, and the doctor said “the pillow too! I should have known!” Then the soldiers retreated closer to the entrance, and Zendegî and I followed, still trying to keep out of sight, picking up a broom and a bucket somewhere because nobody ever notices cleaners. I’ve cleaned Uncle Kamel’s office when it was my turn, and he had guests in there who never once looked at me, and I could overhear whole secret conversations!
The soldiers were now standing at attention in the entrance building, while a small procession came in, a kind of cart with a man’s dead body on it, and I recognised the baron! So it had been that Fian after all. No wonder there were so many soldiers. We sneaked after the procession and stood in the shadow of a pillar, and our cleaner’s disguise worked, the doctors and high-up people didn’t notice us though some of the soldiers pinched us in tender places. And there were a lot of high-up people: Princess Cynla, and the Terrible Twins with their dandar, and the captain of the Greys (I didn’t know it was the captain then, only that he was one of the Greys who looked terribly important), and Doctor Vauri, and Lord Lydan, and some other people I didn’t recognise. They were talking very seriously about “something will really have to be done, and now we’re sure that we have the authority to take action”, and blaming the king and his spies. “The king of Valdyas should have sent a better envoy,” someone said, “or better still, he should have come himself! Then everything would be right!” The Terrible Twins looked somehow shifty, as if there was something they weren’t telling –exactly like Jilan after he’d been at the preserved fruit!– but I couldn’t lay my finger on it exactly. I’m sure Zendegî saw it too. And then Naravati came in, looking almost sane again, and she fell on her knees at the side of the bier and cried bitterly.
Then most people went away still talking about taking action, only Doctor Vauri and Naravati stayed with the dead baron. “I’m carrying his child!” Naravati wailed. “And now he’s dead!” The doctor seemed surprised at that, “how many times have you made love? Once? And now you know you’re with child?” “I’m a dandar,” Naravati said. “I know!” “Well, if you’re so sure– I’ll testify that you were his wife. The priestesses will be in presently, you can go with him to the Temple.” She turned round and saw Zendegî and said, pointing at the door, “You there, if you want to clean there’s a lot of work over there!” and then she recognised her, “do you have a different trade every day? Yesterday you were selling jewels, today you’re waving a broom!” She didn’t seem to see me, and I couldn’t bear it any longer, so I came out of the shadows and said “Excuse me, doctor!” “You, too!” she said. “Where were you? I didn’t see you at all.” “Behind the pillar, doctor,” I said. “Impossible,” the doctor said, “because that pillar is only half a pillar built into the wall. Well. Everything that has been said here must remain completely between us, if you can’t forget it at least keep silent about it. Now are you going to continue cleaning, or…?”
“We have something to do,” I said, and we left our brooms and buckets and went out of the room, through the corridor now bare of soldiers, and into the courtyard. There, a great many priestesses of Naigha were just arriving, all dressed in grey with silver embroidery and their arms and faces marked with ink. One of them paused and looked at me– right into me, right through me! She looked at Zendegî too, but not as long or as piercingly. “Did you notice that?” Zendegî said. “Do I look strange or something?” I said that she didn’t, and she said that I didn’t either, why were all those people looking at us like that?
Now, finally, we could go and look up this Master Orian in the second street. On the way a young man caught up with us, first being pleasant to Zendegî the way young men are because she really is pretty, then when it was clear we were preoccupied asking if he could help. Yes, he’d lead us to the house, he knew Master Orian well, and if we were going to learn from him we’d see much more of each other! To make him go away I said “if we’re going to learn from Master Orian, and if there’s dancing tonight, and if you are there, then I’ll dance with you,” carefully not promising anything for Zendegî, just for myself. “I’ll remember that,” he said, “if you want me ask for Arin, or else they’ll know me as Bahar.” He kept hanging around at the beginning of the street, but we ignored him.
The third house did have a doorstep painted bright orange. When we knocked a woman opened the door, Valdyan, about forty years old. “Excuse me,” I said, “we’ve come for Master Orian.” “What do you want of him?” she asked. “Would you need soap made, or to deliver a message, or what?” “His apprentice sent us,” I said, “Eran, we met him this morning, and he thought the master would be able to teach us things. I don’t know what to call it, because I don’t know anything yet.” She said “oh, yes, I know what you mean,” and called “Orian!” upstairs, and a man came down, perhaps a bit older than her but not really old yet, with that speckled-brown kind of skin Valdyans get when they live here a long time, and hair a shade of white as if it had once been reddish.
“Come in, come in,” he said, smiling brightly at us, “dear young ladies, sit down,” motioning us into the front room, “what can I do for you?” So we explained everything all over again, that people had told us we were gifted but that we didn’t want to be dandar no matter what, and we didn’t want to join the Greys either. Then he said “no, you don’t want to join the Greys, they’re of the Nameless!” and started a long explanation about how gifted we were, and how much he could teach us, flattering us (and especially me) all the time, and I got more and more uncomfortable because he’d said “the Nameless” and disparaged the Greys who I was inclined to trust because, well, they felt trustworthy. And this Master Orian didn’t! “Have a cup of tea with me,” he said, but I said “No, thank you, I’m sorry, I have to leave!” and turned to Zendegî and asked her to take me away, to Doctor Vauri, or anywhere, away! I felt so sick that I was sure I needed a doctor. “You’re not going to leave?” Master Orian asked. But I was going to leave, and tried to open the door but it was stuck, not locked but it wouldn’t open, and I got so scared and angry that I pushed at it with all my will and forced it open, and poured into the street like beer from a shaken barrel, Zendegî after me, but she almost had to drag me to the hospital because I didn’t know what I was doing any more.
Doctor Vauri wasn’t there when we arrived at the hospital, but another doctor came and looked at me and asked “what happened to you”? so I said “I was scared half to death,” and he gave me a cup of something hot and herby and watched to see if that would restore me, but I was so shaky that I could hardly hold it. They put me in a bed next to the syrup-seller, who was almost better (and still showed his scar to everybody who would see it, praising the doctors who had put him back together) and I think I must have slept a bit because before I knew what had happened there was one of the Greys next to me, a very young man with a pleasant face. “I’m Jilan,” he said, “the captain sent me, because the doctor thought that what happened to you was Guild business. Is it all right to touch you?” “Are you of the Nameless?” I asked, still frightened. “Goodness no,” he said, “we’re of Anshen!” This young man wasn’t scary at all, and I nodded, which made me notice a splitting headache. He put his hand on my forehead, then on the back of my head where the headache was, and stroked most of it away! But I could feel he was feeling inside of my head, like Doctor Vauri and the other doctor had felt inside of the syrup-seller’s belly. It was uncomfortable, but somehow it didn’t feel bad or wrong so I didn’t try to prevent him, even if I could have done that which I wasn’t sure of.
“Could you tell me what happened?” Jilan asked, and I told him that we’d been to Master Orian because everybody had been telling us that we were gifted and should learn, and that I hadn’t trusted him and opened his door. “He was devouring me! And he said that the Greys were of the Nameless, and I know Doctor Vauri works with the Greys, and I trust Doctor Vauri!” I said, and then Doctor Vauri herself came and I could have hugged her, only she was too brisk and doctorlike for that. She listened to us again –Zendegî and I both told the story several times over to different people, and she’s better at telling a story but I remember more little things– and said that it was indeed a Guild matter, and sent Jilan away to fetch people. Then she asked “do you know the Invocations?” and I did, sort of, because Mother had done them with us, only I couldn’t remember all the words in the state I was in so Vauri took my hand, and made Zendegî take my other hand, and suddenly the words were in my head and I could say them as well as with Mother. When I got to ‘Anshen’ in the second verse Vauri hesitated just a moment, and that almost threw me out of it, but later I knew that it had been to see what I’d learned at home because it could have been the other one. “See,” she said, “the one who is the Nameless for you, and for me, and for Jilan, well, Master Orian calls him by name.” So I had been right! It was such a relief that I could have cried, and perhaps I did cry.
Jilan came back with a woman and two men in grey uniform, both of the men almost as young as himself, the woman a little older and obviously in charge, a sort of sergeant. “Are you sure it was that house?” the woman asked. “We’ve just been there, and the neighbours said that it’s empty, nobody’s lived there for ten years.” We were completely sure, and then they asked us to go there with them, which scared me all over again, “I don’t want to go back to Master Orian’s house!” but Jilan said it was all right, we’d be with the Order. (That’s what the Greys call themselves.) “You can’t stay in the hospital anyway,” Doctor Vauri said, “tomorrow there’ll be fighting and it’s going to get crowded, we’re putting up extra beds even now.” And indeed, nurses and other people were putting stretchers between the other beds and in the corridors. “You can go home too,” she said to the syrup-seller, “these girls can take you home after they’ve run their errand,” and she made him sit on the bench in the gatehouse to wait.
So we went back to the second street and pointed out the third house, and it did still have an orange doorstep. No sign of Arin-or-Bahar, or we could have asked him. Or perhaps not, because he was surely one of Master Orian’s people, no wonder he’d got under my skin! The house did have a more deserted look than I remembered, and the door wouldn’t open again, but this time it was probably just locked. The two men Jilan had brought broke it open, and the house was empty and full of dust! They went in, and the sergeant too, leaving Jilan to guard us. “You know what’s strange,” Jilan remarked, “there’s dust on the floor a finger thick and not a single cobweb!” Just then three large rats ran out, disappearing into the street. “And a bunch of fat rats and not a single rat footprint!” I said, “well, except for the footprints we just saw them make.” “Or rat droppings,” Zendegî said, and then the Greys came back from upstairs and said they hadn’t found any sign of people living in this house. “But we saw them!” I said, “there was a table right here, and a tea-kettle! I didn’t dream it, did I? Zendegî saw it too!” One of the men was inspecting the door, running his hands over the door-jamb with a look on his face as if he was listening to it. “Come and look at this, Alyse,” he said, and the sergeant listened to the door too. “Is this the door you opened?” she asked, and I said yes. “Hmm. Well, you’d better come along and tell the captain, there’s definitely something here.”
The house of the Order was in a part of Little Valdyas where I’d hardly ever been, right on the other side, a stone house built against the wall. It was full of people, all in grey, women as well as men. Zendegî looked scared, but I didn’t find it at all scary, it was strange but reassuring. Perhaps it was because it felt so very Valdyan that it made her uncomfortable but me feel at home! We sat on a bench under the arcade in the courtyard, next to a door that must be to the captain’s office, waiting for the captain to come and collect us. I was getting hungry, and the headache was still lurking at the back of my head, and it took a long time, but finally the captain came out of his door and went in again with the sergeant, but without anybody else. The two other men went away, but Jilan stayed to keep us company, or to guard us, and talked about how he’d come to join the Order. He’d been a tailor’s apprentice but no good at it (witness the state of his uniform) and then there was more and more talk of fighting, and the Nameless had become stronger, and a lot of young people were joining the Order to work for Anshen so he’d thought it a good idea to do that too.
“Can I trust you to stay here and not go wandering all over the place?” Jilan asked, “then I’ll get you something to eat.” He got bread and sausage and gave half to each of us. Eating bread suddenly made me remember my family, and Zendegî’s parents– how long had we been, wouldn’t they be worried sick? Jilan said that we could write a note and they’d have it delivered, but Zendegî said that she wasn’t sure whether her parents could read, and I said that the only person in our house who could read was my sister-in-law. Then it also became clear that neither of us could write, of course, and Jilan was as horrified as Erian and the priest of Mizran had been and started to teach us right away, writing in the sand with his knife. He wrote ‘a’, ‘l’, and it became ‘Alyse’, and he blushed and told us that he’d made love to her once, when she was very drunk and he was very sober. Then I said “if there’s ‘a’ and ‘l’, I can make ‘la’, but then I need ‘ven’ to write my name!” So he taught me to write ‘Venla’, and because he didn’t know how to write ‘Zendegî’ he asked if she had a Valdyan name too, but she didn’t, so he wanted to know what her name meant: life, ‘amre’. So now Zendegî has a Valdyan name too!
Then suddenly I remembered the syrup-seller, still on his bench in the gatehouse! Would he be all right? But Jilan reassured me that they’d sent someone to take care of him when they sent someone to tell our family that we’d be home late.
The captain –I knew now that he was called Rhanion– came out of his office with the sergeant, and I thought he’d call us in but he didn’t, he only thanked us, “you’ve done us a great service, we’ve been able to unmask an important spy, we haven’t caught him yet but we can trace him and we’ll get him yet” and invited us to dinner. We’d had bread and sausage, but that felt like hours ago, and we gladly accepted.
In the dining hall there were about forty people at long tables. We were seated at the top, near the captain and the sergeant and far from Jilan. There was a lot of food (good food! Bread and meat and carrots and turnips!) and we got wine at the end, and then Jilan took us home, to my house that is, because the gate was still closed. But we had so many questions that we sat down on a bench in Fig Tree Square and drank a beer and Jilan answered whatever we asked him about the Guild and the Order and everything else. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I’ll try to tell what it meant: Anshen and the Nameless, who the Iss-Peranians call the Deceiver, are brothers, and like brothers who are people they’re rivals. If you have gifts like Zendegî, or me, or Jilan, or any of the Greys, or Doctor Vauri, and you want to use those to help people, you’re likely to belong with Anshen; if you want to use your gifts to help yourself and disregard other people you’re likely to belong with the other one. You could also become a dandar or a priestess of Naigha, but if you had gifts and didn’t do anything it would be wrong because the gods don’t give gifts for nothing.
That everybody was looking at us, especially at me, with that “do I know you?” look was probably because– well, it seems that the gods have given me not ordinary gifts like Jilan’s or Zendegî’s but something special which means that I can learn to do special things, like the king of Valdyas making earthquakes or the Valdyan witch controlling the weather. That’s quite rare, and the people who belong with the Nameless have nobody like that at the moment, so they want me, and that’s why Master Orian was so greedy for me. I wondered why nobody had looked at me like that until the day before yesterday, and then everybody who had even the smallest cause, but Jilan thought (or Jilan said that Master Rhanion thought, I don’t remember) that it was because Zendegî and I had met and done things together and that had kind of opened the door for both our gifts to come out. It scared me that I was like that, like finding out that you’re the long-lost princess when you’ve thought all your life that you were just a kitchen maid. But then Jilan stood up and walked the last couple of streets to our house and delivered us to Father. Master Nakhast and Ferin were still there, and the syrup-seller was sitting in Father’s comfortable chair. Father wanted to know what had happened, of course, the messenger from the Order had only said that we’d be too late to dinner, and he tutted at me, “so you went to a strange man’s house? Not wise of you, my girl!” but he didn’t chastise or punish me, he was so relieved that I was all right.
“We’ve arranged things a bit differently,” Khahar said, “Ferin with the boys in the boys’ room, and Baradar and I and Father in the girls’ room, and the guests downstairs, and you girls can sleep on the roof.” I love sleeping on the roof, especially in weather as nice as this, so that was all right with me. Just as we were climbing out, there was a knock on the door– the Order again! Two men this time, who came to recruit Father to carry the wounded and Baradar to patrol on the wall. “You’ll be pleased to know that we’ve found who killed Lord Fian,” one they said, “it was the king who ordered it, we caught his main spy, he’ll be hanged tomorrow.” “Oh, you’ve caught him? Good!” I said, and then the man recognised me and Zendegî, “I know you two, right? Weren’t you eating at our table tonight? How do you know of the spy?” I said “I opened his door, at least I think it was him,” and then he looked at me with something like respect in his eyes.
Zendegî and I lay talking for a long time, and then she said “do you think I could see my house from here?” but she’d have to climb right up on the roof for that and I didn’t feel like getting up from under Serla who had fallen asleep in my arm so I let her go alone, there was a bright moon she could see by. Then suddenly someone grabbed me by the shoulders! Serla dropped on the deck on her head and screamed, and I yelled and fought and bit the arm that was holding me, and then I saw his face in the moonlight and recognised the young man at the gate, Eran! He was a lot stronger than me, though not as fast, but being fast didn’t help much because he’d already caught me. He was dragging me off the roof when something heavy landed on me and him –Zendegî!– and she punched him in the face distracting him so much that I could call Jilan the way I’d opened the door, with all my will behind it. Now Father had heard the noise too, and he climbed through the window and caught Eran in a vise-like grip. I knew he was strong, but not that he was so strong, and fast as well! And he was very angry, “nobody interferes with my daughter in my house, or indeed at all! Understood?” I didn’t know whether Eran really understood because I wasn’t sure that he could understand Iss-Peranian, but the point was moot anyway because Father broke his back with a jerk.
“I suppose we’ll have to warn the Order,” Father said, and I said very softly “I’ve already warned the Order.” I’m not sure if he really understood that, but it wasn’t long until Jilan and Alyse appeared. Alyse made a light in her hand, as if she was holding a handful of candlelight! She spoke quite reasonable Iss-Peranian, so I didn’t have to translate for her when she told Father that Valdyan law didn’t really allow for killing someone without bringing them to justice, but Father said “in my house it’s my law! Nobody abducts my womenfolk!” She had to concede, then, and they undressed the dead man and Father slung the body over his shoulder as if it was a sack of turnips and carried it away. “Put him in the drain,” Alyse called after him. “Shouldn’t the priestesses come and get him?” I asked, but she said “Yes, they will, but there’s no reason for them to get him from here.” We got to keep the dead man’s clothes –they were good quality and they’d fit Baradar with a little alteration– after Alyse had searched them for papers and valuables, but there weren’t any, only a knife that she took with her. Jilan stayed to guard us, and Alyse went downstairs with Father when he was back. We heard them talk a bit and then the door slammed.
Neither I nor Zendegî could sleep for a while, so we talked about all kinds of things– of the Guild again, and that neither of us wanted to be dandar or priestesses of Naigha for that matter, and then Jilan said “you did give me a fright, calling me! I was just going for a piss and then you called so loud that I could only stand still, and you can guess what happened!” and I was torn between pitying him and laughing at him. “But Alyse came and rescued me,” he said, “I’m always so clumsy! Look at my clothes, I’d have made a no-good tailor if I’d gone on, but it doesn’t matter because I’ll have a sword through them tomorrow anyway.” “So is it really true we’re going to have a war?” Zendegî asked. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but I couldn’t have kept it from you anyway. It’s bloody likely now that Lord Fian has been murdered.”
“We’ll go and help at the hospital,” I said –the gate wasn’t likely to open soon, and if there was war there probably wouldn’t be any reason to go to work anyway– “and if you get a sword through your skin too I’ll come and wash you. Because I don’t know how to stitch you up, people aren’t sails.” And then Jilan got that faraway look I now know means someone is trying to speak to someone else in their mind, or find them, and he scowled and said “That Alyse! How can she do that! With your father, too!” and I realised that I’d hear the door slam but no footsteps going away, and I’d heard Father snore but more like “hear me, I’m snoring” than really being asleep. Again, I didn’t know whether to pity him or to laugh, so I tried to keep myself from doing either, and kept silent, and fell asleep after a while though it was already nearly morning.