Well, I’ve been here in Nalenay for nearly a year and a half now, and lots of things have happened! Lochan had been right about the Left Hand Inn but he took pity on us and showed us where apprentices can get a beer, called the Underground, and it is underground, in a cellar! It’s always damp and dark and smelly but the beer is cheap and not bad, and twopence will get you a bowl of hot soup with a piece of bread. So that was where we mostly went if it wasn’t any sort of weather to be outside.
Both of our masters had become richer. And fatter, and better dressed, and higher-up in the temple of Mizran (I could see that by Master Rhanion’s stole, he now had one that was longer and wider and with more embroidery, some gold thread on it as well). We thought it was because of the folding knives, because there was a new workshop on the burnt plot, sort of like a shed, full of kids our age and younger who did nothing but put knives together all day! I don’t know who made the blades, it wasn’t our workshop! And Mialle’s workshop wasn’t making the copper springs either.
The masters weren’t in the workshops much any more. Layse handled our workshop mostly, and she gave us apprentices more interesting work to do than Master Rhanion had! There were two new apprentices too, Laran and Halla, who did all the slog-work that I’d started with.
Layse had found out that I was good at the decorative work, firepots and screens and candle-sconces and such, so I did a lot of that. And Ayneth was good at things that needed to be sharp, or fit well, so she made knives and chisels and hinges.
And now Master Valyn was having a new house built downtown, where all the high-up people lived, and she was commissioning a gate for it! Because she wanted to keep people out, but still wanted them to see her beautiful garden, the man said who came to order the gate. And I got to make it! I showed him some almost-finished things I’d already done, that were hanging on the wall, and he thought I was the right man for the job. (I’m big enough that I don’t look as if I’m not quite thirteen yet, that helps, and if I keep my mouth shut as much as possible people don’t notice that my voice is still breaking very badly.)
It was to be with flowers, like the fire-screen I’m most proud of that still needs etching on the leaves and polish all over, and Halla or Laran can do the polish but not even Ayneth can do the etching, Layse will have to do that herself or we must wait for Master Rhanion to come back. “Two pieces?” I asked the man. “Mirror image?”
He had to think about that. “No, make the halves different.” He made a quick sketch on a blank part of the whitewashed wall with the measurements next to it. I took the charcoal from him and sketched in a lily with a butterfly over it, and a sunflower with a bee. “That will be pleasant,” the man said. He had a strange way of speaking, as if he was from somewhere far away, but he looked like an ordinary person, not some kind of foreigner.
When he was gone Layse told me to get my materials ready, and I asked her if I could have Halla to help me carry the bar-iron, because the bars were longer than I was tall and I’d need a lot. That was all right, and Layse told Halla that she should be pleased because she was assisting in important work! Well, if I got her as my assistant anyway she could pull the bellows for me and hold the tongs when it came to putting the frame together.
Halla was a chatterbox, but I didn’t mind because the work was just hauling heavy iron bars, not anything we had to keep our minds on. (So much not that I invented a mouse and a hedgehog to put at the bottom of the gate halves while we were at it.) “I’m so angry about that workshop across the street! My best friend works there and she never gets a half-day off like us. And yesterday Priestess Ashti came to look at it and she went away all angry!”
Then Jichan from the potter’s workshop poked his head over the half-door and asked “Hey Ferin! Are you coming along for a beer? My treat.”
“One moment,” I said, “got to finish this.” But it was near the end of the day, and Layse had just gone out with Yssa from next door, and anyway she was never difficult about leaving early as long as the work got done. When it was done, Jichan was back and he had Mialle with him. “I don’t want to see another leaf or apple or grape!” she said, and told us about the huge copper bowl she was making, leaves and fruits all over. She got as much of a free hand with it as I did with the gates! “Are you putting worms in some of the apples?” I asked, but no, she wanted it to be perfect.
“We’re going for the grain, not the grape,” Jichan said, and took us to the Underground. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” he said. “Or rather, who would like to meet you.” He made it sound so mysterious that I got suspicious. “As long as we’re not going to do anything illegal,” I said.
“Oh no, this is perfectly above board, you’ll see. He’s someone I’ve been learning from, things you can learn too. I can do this already!” And Jichan cupped his hands and looked as if he was thinking hard, and lifted the top hand and there was a little ball of light in it! “I’ve been in the Guild of Archan for a year now,” Jichan said. “Master Mernath will tell you everything.”
When we got to the Underground there was man sitting in a corner who didn’t look like he belonged there. He was surely a master! Old enough to be someone’s grandfather and better dressed than Master Rhanion on Temple days. And I thought I’d seen him somewhere he didn’t look so much out of place.
“Good afternoon, Master,” I said.
The man gave me a friendly smile. “Sit down, sit down,” he said, and called to the innkeeper, “Bring us four of the best. The best, mind you.”
We sat down. I felt as if everybody was looking at us, or at least at the master, but people didn’t even seem to notice! “So,” the master said, “I suppose Jichan here has already told you part of why I invited you today.”
“Only that it’s about the Guild of Archan,” I said. “And that we can learn things.”
“You certainly can. Tell me, do you find your current work easy?”
“Not always easy,” I said, “but I think I’m good at it, I’m going to make the wrought-iron gates for Master Arlyn’s new house.”
“That’s an honour,” the master said. “Well, what you can learn in the Guild won’t always be easy either, but I promise you that it’s something you can become good at, too. Both of you.”
“You mean we have gifts?” Mialle asked. “Other than smithing gifts, of course.”
“Definitely! Have you never seen things other people didn’t see?”
I told him about the man with fire in his hands in Ilsinay, and the fight with the king’s soldier. “That soldier was of the Nameless!” I said. “Does the king even allow that?”
“Our king is a broad-minded man,” Master Mernath said. “You saw fire in that man’s hands, and power being used in the fight? Did you see that too?” he asked Mialle.
“Yes,” Mialle said, “but not as well as Ferin saw it.”
The master nodded and ordered another round of beer. I’d drunk the first one without even noticing! But a sip from the next mug told me that it was really the best, I’d never had such good beer in the Underground or anywhere else. And now he also ordered food. I fumbled in my purse to see if I had any money left and found threepence and despaired, but the master said not to bother, he was paying! “I’m not a grand master in the Guild for nothing,” he said, “we can afford to feed new apprentices!”
Then we didn’t talk much for a while because there was soup, and bread, and a dish of roast turnips, and a dish of roast chickens! I didn’t even know the Underground had chickens to roast, I’d never seen better meat than trotters there, and the pork belly in the soup.
And there was more beer. Master Mernath wanted to know about the knife workshop, but I didn’t know more than Halla had said and Mialle only knew that it was there. “I’d appreciate it if you kept an eye on it,” he said, and of course we would.
He said a lot more things, how Archan had given us the gifts and He expected us to use them to serve Him, which would also benefit us, and the servants of the Nameless who had gifts squandered them in inconsistency. Or something like that. I didn’t understand half of what he was saying.
If we started learning, he said, we’d be tested, and then we’d have to choose which side we were on — it didn’t matter where we learned the first things, it was the same things anyway, not like learning to be a smith or a carpenter — but who in their right mind would choose the Nameless? We were just because Archan is the patron of justice, and we kept to the rules and those of the Nameless didn’t, they made up rules as they went along.
“But why didn’t we know about all of this?” Mialle asked, “it’s not a secret, is it? It’s about Archan!”
“We have to be very careful, the runners of the Nameless are everywhere.”
I didn’t know anybody who was of the Nameless! Well, that soldier. And I suddenly remembered Layse praying to the Nameless when I’d just arrived. But I didn’t tell Master Mernath about that. “Runners?” I asked. “You mean spies?”
“You can put it like that, yes. They might be a soldier, a trader, anyone at all. This part of the world here is of Archan so they are under cover, but in Valdis our temple is hidden in the middle of a block of houses.”
“Is there a temple here, then?”
“Yes, in the Guild house,” Jichan said. “The master took me there when I became a journeyman, to confirm me before Archan. You are barely apprentices, you won’t get to the temple until much later.” He sounded very smug about that.
Master Mernath even sent Jichan away a couple of times on silly errands because he wanted to talk just to us. He said he’d find us a master to learn from, and the master would come to us, we didn’t have to do any searching ourselves.
“When will we have lessons?” Mialle asked. “We work all day!”
“That depends on when your master is available,” Master Mernath said, “presumably in the evenings, after work, and both your masters are in the Guild themselves so they’ll give you time off for it if needs be.”
That sounded reasonable! But I still wanted to have enough time to work on Master Valyn’s gate.
Then suddenly Layse and Yssa were standing in the doorway! “You two are coming with us RIGHT NOW,” they said. We looked around for Master Mernath, but he’d disappeared, and Jichan as well. “How many beers have you had?” Layse asked.
“I don’t know, seven? But it’s all right, Jichan was paying.”
She cuffed me, hard, on my ear. “Hm. I don’t think Jichan was the only one paying.” The other ear. “And what does that teach you?”
“That five beers is enough?” That earned me another cuff. I could see that Yssa was treating Mialle much the same way.
Layse and Yssa took us outside and into an alley to piss. Layse made a light in her hands, just like Jichan had, only brighter! “So you’re in the Guild too,” I said.
“Of Archan, of course!” I said.
“Come on, you know better than that.”
Yes, I did. “I heard you praying to the Nameless that first evening. But I never told on you!”
“No, you didn’t. If you had I wouldn’t be alive now. I was careless. Well, what did Master Mernath want from you?”
“Can you ask me that when I’m sober?”
“No. When you’re sober you’ll have the wits to tell me only the safe parts.”
So I told her about the promised lessons. “Hm, if he’s cleared that with Master Rhanion I can’t do anything against it. You’ll have to learn anyway, it doesn’t matter much where.”
“Yes, that’s what Master Mernath said, too.”
“I’ll be watching you. We runners are here to make sure that kids like you two don’t get into too much trouble.”
Runners? I’d have to ask her more about that when I was sober. “Yssa, too?”
“She doesn’t have the gift. But yes, we’re friends.”
Then she marched me home and got me into bed and I didn’t know anything until morning. I woke up with the worst headache I’d ever had, and I’d also been puking without noticing! Lucky for Jeran that he’d moved out.
My first job was to clean up, of course. But when I went downstairs for another bucket of water there was a stranger there, a tall man with a little dark beard (though his hair was light, perhaps he rubbed grease and soot into it, it did look shiny) and piercing blue eyes. And Mialle was right behind him.
“You are Ferin?” he asked. “Hm, I was expecting better material.”
I couldn’t tell him about last night! But it turned out that he was the master that Master Mernath had promised. That was why he’d picked up Mialle too.
“I’m Master Merain. First we’ll get all that beer out of you.” And he took us up the hill and made us strip to our loincloths, in the snow, and run to a tree-stump and back, and there and back again, for what must have been half an hour, until we were all sweaty and winded! But sober all right.
“Get dressed,” he said, and while we were doing that, “The body needs to be sound for the mind to be sound. The mind needs to be sound for the gifts to blossom.” I didn’t really understand what he meant by that, but I nodded anyway. “Now, a bath. I can teach you while we’re bathing.”
A bath was exactly what I wanted now! But learning in the bath sounded strange. And Master Merain was looking at Mialle’s tits in a way I didn’t like at all! (Not that she had much to look at yet, but she wasn’t as flat as a boy or a little kid any more.)
When we were about to go into the bath-house Master Merain laid a hand on my shoulder, and the other on Mialle’s, and said “I’m your master now and you are my apprentices.” It felt kind of hot and cold at the same time, and when he took his hand off the feeling didn’t go away. I pulled my shirt away to look but there was nothing to see. Master Merain smiled and said, “That’s my mark on you. Anyone whose business it is will see it.”
In the tub Master Merain asked us what we already knew, and I told him about the man with fire in his hands in Ilsinay. “You saw fire?” he asked. “And you, girl, did you see it too?”
“Not as well as Ferin did,” Mialle said, “but yes, I saw it.”
“What else?” the master asked, but all we’d seen was the fight with the soldier of the Nameless. We knew our masters were in the Guild but we’d never seen them do anything of that kind! And we’d certainly not known that we had gifts ourselves so we could have used them.
“There is power in the world everywhere,” Master Merain said. “Archan has given it to us to use, and to use it well.” Yes, that was what Master Mernath had said, too! “Now look for that power.”
I couldn’t see anything, however much I screwed up my eyes. “With your mind’s eye! Not the eyes of your body.” I didn’t really know how to do that, but then I found a way to sort of look behind my real eyes, and I did see something! It didn’t really look like anything but I could still see it. (And now I could see something on my shoulder as well, an invisible handprint, but I didn’t tell the master that.)
“Good!” the master said. “Now take it into yourself to use.”
That was hard. But if I had a mind’s eye, wouldn’t I have mind’s arms and hands too? I tried to stretch out my hands without moving my real hands, and after a while my body (or my mind’s body, I think) knew what to do and I raked in all the power I could reach. Mialle hadn’t got that far yet but when she saw what I was doing she was clever enough to figure out how to do the same thing.
The water was cold now, there hadn’t been a bath man pouring new hot water in for a while, and our skins were all wrinkly. “Enough,” Master Merain said. “Go back to your work. I’ll teach you six mornings a week, I’ve arranged that with both your masters.” And he was gone, but not before he’d had a good long look at Mialle’s tits again while she dried herself.
“I’ll punch him in the face if he looks at you like that again!” I said. I felt a bit like I was her brother, I’d do the same thing for my sisters! Not that my sisters couldn’t do their own punching, but they were big and strong like me and Mialle only a little thing.
“Don’t do that, hitting a master gets you hanged! Or at least beaten half to death.”
“All right, not when he only looks then. But if he dares touch you I will punch him, I don’t care what happens!”
We passed the pie-shop and the smell made me so hungry! “Say, I’ve got threepence, if you’ve got a penny we’ll get a pie each, and next time you can pay half of mine!” I said. Mialle did have a penny, and we bought turnip and onion pies and were eating them when Layse and Yssa and the young priestess of Naigha, Ashti, came along, talking. It looked as if all three of them were friends.
“You two look done in,” the priestess said. “Your first bad hangover?”
“Our first lesson from Master Merain, too,” Mialle said, and that made the priestess frown.
“He’s marked them already,” Layse said. And that made the priestess frown more. “Shouldn’t do that to apprentices.”
“He is a good teacher, though,” Yssa said, “I’ve heard that some of his apprentices could see in one lesson!” And I knew she meant seeing with the mind’s eye, even though she didn’t have gifts herself.
“Yes,” I said, “but he couldn’t keep his eyes of Mialle’s tits!”
Priestess Ashti sighed. “Yes, he’s like that,” she said, “he likes girls your age. Only girls, and he only looks at their tits ever, I’ve never heard of him going any further.”
“If he does I’ll punch him in the face!” I said, but Layse took me by the shoulder and said, “That mark makes him able to see what you do and hear what you say, when he wants to.”
Well, I didn’t have any problems with Master Merain hearing me say that! But she was right, it would give me problems.
“Let’s talk more in the temple,” the priestess said, “the Nameless doesn’t have any power in there.”
“But does Archan?” I asked.
“That’s what I said, right? No gods have any power in the temple but Naigha.”
I hadn’t been in a temple of Naigha since I left school. There was no school now, perhaps because it was only in the mornings, but the priestess’ little son grabbed me by the leg when we came in and talked to me. “I’m leaving next year!” he said. “My sister can stay, it’s not fair! I’ll run away and fall in the mill-pond and drown!”
“You won’t drown,” I said, “because in spring when it’s warm enough again I’ll take you to the mill-pond and teach you to swim.”
“Really? Can you swim?”
“Like an otter,” I said.
“Otters swim on their back. Can you swim on your back?”
“Sure. I’ll teach you to swim on your back too. And on your front.”
He had to think about that for a moment. “What’s your name?”
“Ferin is going to teach me to swim.”
“Yes. You can tell your mother that. It’s a promise.”
He ran away laughing, and I followed the women into the temple. The old priestess was talking to Mialle, I think about women’s things, but Yssa and Layse and Ashti were talking about the workshop across the street from us, where Halla’s friend worked. “Those children should be in school!” the priestess said. “None of them is older than eleven or twelve, some even as young as eight! And you never see them outside except for a bit in the middle of the day. Of course it’s a good thing to give shelter and work to orphans, but I don’t think they’re learning anything!”
“I don’t think so either,” I said, “they’re only putting knives together. And the pieces don’t even come from our workshops, or I’d know!”
“Do you know more about it?” the priestess asked.
“Only what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from Halla. Her friend works there.”
“Well, it would be good to know more. Keep an eye open, would you?
I was going to do that for Master Mernath already! “All right, and I’ll ask Halla, too,” I said, “she’s helping me with a piece of work anyway.”
So I did that when she was holding the tongs for me. “How did your friend end up in that workshop?” I asked. “Is she an orphan?”
“I don’t know!” she said. “We only met when she was already working there. I was flying my kite and it got stuck on a roof and she was outside and helped me get it back, and we became friends then! She’s not even from here, she was born somewhere else and came here to work. Can’t remember the name but she talks funny. It’s a pity she doesn’t get any time off, or we could do more things together.”
“Don’t you think she should be learning, like you, not doing the same work all the time?”
“Of course she should! But if she is an orphan it figures that she doesn’t have the apprentice fee.”
“Well, can you ask her when you next meet her? If she’s an orphan, and how she came to live and work here?”
“Sure. It’s not fair!” (She sounded a bit like the priestess’ son when she said that.) “Hey — can you write? Real well?”
“Well enough,” I said, “why?”
“I’m going to write a letter to the queen about it, and I want you to read it and say if I’ve made any mistakes.”
“Let’s write the letter together,” I said. “Do you know how to get it to the queen?”
“We can drop it off at Relsinay,” she said. “That’s where my mother lives.”
Relsinay! Where we were supposed not to go, ever! Well, cross that bridge when we come to it.
Layse came in then, and put a hand on my shoulder as if she wanted to show “well done” but instead I felt something strange happening, like Master Merain’s mark but different. “What’s that?” I asked.
“A patch,” she said, “I should have done that right away.” I wondered what Master Merain would have to say about that — if she could see his mark, surely he could see hers! But I didn’t ask, and Layse looked at the work and told us “well done” after all.