Midsummer

We were talking so late after our Three Kings dinner that Mialle and Vurian stayed the night and slept on spare straw mattresses on the floor. We’d have to get out of the bedstead really carefully so as not to step on them! In the morning Ashti had to climb over me first to get up, then almost stepped on Vurian anyway because he’d been rolling in his sleep, and woke him up. Ashti went downstairs to get water and Vurian opened cupboards and drawers. Most were emorynmpty. He was looking for the chamber-pot!

“Outside,” I said, “there’s an outhouse in the schoolyard.”

“Oh! Of course!” We heard him stomp downstairs, and then Ashti came up and started the pancake batter.

It was strange to leave the house together with Vurian and Mialle! When they turned one way and I the other, Vurian said, “perhaps I’ll see you later at the Order house.” I had at least another day’s work at the palace, though, perhaps two, even with Coran and Halla sharing the work.

But first it was fighting practice at the Order house. I didn’t get Master Radan this time, but Master Aldin, a short man even older than Master Radan who trained all the young journeymen. He saw the sharp sword I was carrying and said “let’s see if you can stand up to that!” And he swung his own sword so close to my ear that I felt the breeze. And pissed my breeches from the sudden shock.

“Well, I’ll assume that was an accident. Clean yourself up and come back.”

I came back wearing Order breeches and a leather breastplate. It didn’t get much better, though, and I was starting to despair that I’d ever learn to use a sword at all! Master Aldin seemed to think the same thing because he said “Let’s try wrestling instead”, and then he beat me up so badly that I was sure he’d broken my nose and some of my ribs. I hadn’t even been fast enough to defend against him! “You have to learn to take a thrashing,” he said. Well, that I could already do! “Push to your limits.” That was probably now, and he saw that and sent me to a side room where someone fixed the damage. They didn’t fix the bruises, though, and the Order journeymen looked at me as if they remembered Master Aldin treating them the same.

When I arrived at Master Jerna’s workshop Coran greeted me with “You look a sight! Got into a fight on the way here?”

“No, I learned to take a thrashing at the Order house,” I said.

“Going into the Order? No, got to be a journeyman for that, I can see you’re only just an apprentice.”

“I might, though, later,” I said, but I wondered if I’d be brave enough. And then there were Ashti’s twins — still too early to see if one was a boy, or even both.

The suit of armour got finished — if not that day, then the next — and I took it back to the Order house and hung it up in the weapons room next to the other one. I’d miss working with Coran and Halla! But I went back to my junk pile. No hope of finishing it, because people had been throwing other stuff on it while I was working at the palace! It was interesting work, though, all different things. I left all the swords for Master Rava, but I could do all the rest, and some of the things I’d learned from Master Jerna I could use here.

And in the evenings we had lessons from Master Sidhan. It was now mostly the three things apprentices in the Guild need to learn first: hiding, hiding and hiding. Not only ourselves, but also each other, and the fact that we were gifted at all, so we could keep out of the way of anyone looking for us and still have our ordinary life. And to hide things. At least Master Sidhan often made it into a game of hide-and-seek, we had lots of fun and I think she was having fun too.

(And Master Sidhan gave me a tangle of gold thread to redo the embroidery on Ashti’s dress! It was in the box of scrap gold from the wine merchants’ guild, the thing that Mialle’s clasp had been stuck in. Master Sidhan couldn’t use it herself, and when I untangled it I thought it would be enough to embroider the unicorn that had been on the dress before, only perhaps not the plants around it. But I could buy some green thread to do those.)

The next Day of Anshen, when we were leaving the temple, Vurian took Mialle aside. “I’d like to give you something for the Feast, something nice to wear at my grandfather’s house, and pretty jewellery to go with it! Do you mind?”

Mialle didn’t know if it was something to mind, so she didn’t know what to answer.

Vurian was all flustered, and tried to explain what it meant that he was so rich, “we own the whole kingdom, really!” — it turned out that the king and his mother and grandmother and great-grandfather, and all kings and queens for generations, were borrowing all their money from the House Brun! I didn’t really understand that, didn’t the king and queen have money of their own? But Vurian said that all the sheep in the country belonged to his family, and that was how they’d earned all that money, selling the wool. “To Iss-Peran, I don’t know why, it’s much too warm there to wear wool! But they want it anyway.”

I think that his point was that Vurian and his family were so rich that they didn’t know what things were worth any more, if they wanted something they could have it, and if they wanted something to happen they could make it happen. And Vurian and Mialle were now so serious about each other that they might get married, and then Mialle would be in his family too because that was how that family worked. She was afraid she wouldn’t fit in, because she didn’t know how to behave. But that was another thing about being Brun, “if I say that it’s all right, it’s all right, because I’m a Brun!” He wasn’t really comfortable with it, I could see that.

We talked a lot more about money while Vurian took us somewhere, over a bridge, into small streets, until we got to a house with a brass knocker shaped like a girl’s head with long flowing hair. I studied it, perhaps I could make one like that from iron! Vurian knocked, and a girl opened the door. “To see the mistress?” she asked.

“And the master, too,” Vurian said.

Then the girl asked me if I was the bodyguard! “No,” I said, “I’m a friend of his.” (Fortunately I wasn’t in my working clothes, but in my best shirt, the first I’d made from the linen I’d bought in the market. And Ashti was wearing the green dress with the outline of the unicorn already done. After all, we’d been to the temple in the morning.)

“You have to leave your sword here, anyway,” she said, and pointed to a little table in the hallway. She didn’t ask Vurian to leave his sword, but I laid mine on the table.

We went through a long high passage panelled with wood to shoulder height (my shoulders) and above that the wall was painted, all different people walking in one direction as if they were in a procession but they looked very serious, not at all merry. “If they’re going to a feast they’re not having much fun!” I said, but then Ashti pointed out a little cat between some of the people’s feet, and then we saw one animal after another, more cats, mice, small dogs, hedgehogs, rabbits, even birds flying above the people. And the animals did look like they were having fun!

Then the girl let us into a room that was all shelves with bolts of beautiful fabric. There was a short round woman there who looked a little foreign. She knew Vurian — it looks like everybody knows Vurian! “Are you the bodyguard?” she asked me.

“He’s my friend!” Vurian said hotly. “They’re all my friends. But we’re here for a dress for Mialle, for the feast.”

“The Feast of Anshen,” the dressmaker said. “That’s … two and half weeks away. I don’t generally hold with a rushed job.”

“I can pay extra,” Vurian said. But of course that wouldn’t give the dressmaker more time! There are things you can’t hurry, like the forge, and sewing.

The dressmaker looked at Mialle from all sides, and then said “May I?” and put out a little thread of power to look at her from the inside! That made Mialle shiver. She had to strip to her shift and got measured, while the dressmaker talked to herself, “yes, honeysuckle rather than a lily, a cornflower rather than a rose.”

“Does that mean she’s not a noblewoman?” I asked. But it seemed that it wasn’t that, the dressmaker went into an explanation that I didn’t understand at all but Vurian said, “It means she’s not like Hinla astin Hayan!” and made the dressmaker snicker.

“Cornflowers, that’s an idea,” she said, and brought a length of blue linen, not exactly as dark blue as cornflowers but darker than the summer sky. “Linen, not silk, you’re too young for that. And pearls, nothing else. A single strand of pearls. Don’t let that husband of mine talk you into sapphires or garnets.”

There was green to make a sash and a collar, and a whole book full of patterns of embroidery — no time to do real embroidery, the dressmaker said, but people in the villages made embroidered ribbon by the yard, what did Mialle want? Cats chasing each other? Lambs? Dancing maidens? But Mialle wanted leaves and flowers and perhaps a few bees and butterflies, and there were plenty of those in the book too.

When all the measuring and choosing was finished we were taken to the next room where a stout man was sitting behind a table, looking at some jewels through a piece of glass. He looked up when we came in, “ah, young Vurian!” He knew him too!

This man sounded really foreign when he talked, but his skin was as white as ours, not brown like the dressmaker’s. He had hair as black and smooth as polished iron. (Later I heard that he was from the Far East.) “My wife says pearls, I suppose,” he said, when we’d explained what we came for. “She says that to all the young girls. I’d suggest opals, myself.” And he showed Mialle so many different jewels that it became more and more difficult for her to choose.

The jeweller paused and put a hand on his chin. “Do you insist on precious stones? I have something here…” And he showed her some very blue stones on a bed of black velvet in a box.

“Paint-stones!” I said. “Can you make jewellery with those?”

“You can make jewellery with pebbles if you cut and polish them properly,” the jeweller said.

“Might even be from my grandmother’s mine!” Mialle said. I knew the mine didn’t belong to her grandmother, she’d only worked there all her life, but the jeweler didn’t know that so he probably thought Mialle was rich and important, especially because she’d come in with Vurian. “I could make something with those!”

That got the jeweller interested. “You’re a colleague of mine?”

“Apprentice coppersmith,” Mialle said, “but I can make jewellery, yes.” And I showed the man the hedgehog which still lived in my purse. He could see it was beginner’s work, but he said it showed promise.

“It needs a silver setting, I think. Who is your master?” And of course he knew Master Sidhan, and thought she could help Mialle make her own necklace with the blue stones.

“The bill goes to the house, of course,” Vurian said, meaning his family.

And then we were suddenly outside again — I’d remembered to pick up my sword — and noticed we were hungry. “Pie!” Ashti said, and Vurian asked a passing messenger-boy where we could get the best pie nearby. “Just follow, I’m going that way,” the boy said, and where we ended up was the bakery where I’d bought my breakfast on the way to the palace!

“Hey, it’s you,” the baker said, “brought some friends?”

“Your bread is so good that we want to taste your pie, too!” I said.

The baker laughed and pointed through the back door to the yard. There were two long tables there, already full of people, but some at one end of a table were leaving and there was just enough room for the four of us. We got beer first — too strong for Mialle and much too strong for Ashti, and the serving-maid scowled and said “I’m bringing you the best we have!” but she got some of the sour ale that we’d had earlier, and they both liked that much better. And I like that kind so much that I refilled my mug from the jug, too.

The pie came, already cut into four pieces, and we spent some time eating instead of talking, and petting the huge dog that prowled the yard looking for scraps.

“Now we’ll go to see Aunt Arni!” Vurian said. It looked like it was something that Vurian and Mialle had agreed to do, but Ashti and I went along too. Vurian’s Aunt Arni had married when she was even younger than Mialle, and Vurian thought she would give him and Mialle some hints to deal with people who wanted to talk them out of being a couple.

Aunt Arni’s house was on the same big square as the Three Kings, on one of the sides. Vurian called it a palace! “Isn’t that the palace?” I said and pointed to the castle.

“That’s the palace,” Vurian said, “my family’s house is a city palace. You’ll see.”

When we knocked on the door (this time with a knocker that had the bear of the Brun family on it, but not the crown) a young man opened it, who already knew we were coming. He took us through the whole house, through a corridor with wood at the bottom and whitewashed wall at the top. The wall itself wasn’t painted with a procession of people, but paintings hung on it, each of a different person or a few people, some with animals too. I didn’t have time to ask Vurian if they were all from his family but one boy looked so much like Vurian that it could have been him a couple of years ago.

Then we got to a garden. Here it was just like there was no city around us, so green and quiet. And the woman who got up from a chair must be Vurian’s Aunt Arni because she looked like him too. “Welcome,” she said, and to Mialle, “You must be Mialle.”

“Yes,” Mialle said, and Ashti and I said our names too. Then I thought that she’d probably want to talk to Mialle (and perhaps Vurian) but not to us, so I asked “Can we walk in your rose-garden?” Because I’d seen and smelled the roses.

“Of course,” Aunt Arni said, “but don’t get lost, it’s a bit of a maze.”

It was a real maze! With rose-bushes tied up on stakes so they were higher than our heads, and it was summer so they all had lots of leaves and flowers, not like the rose-garden at Liorys where there had been only buds and tiny little leaves. We weren’t really worried about getting lost, and we got to what looked like the centre, where there was a bench that looked very inviting so we sat on it and had a serious cuddle.

And just as it was getting really serious someone came and tickled me on the butt! It was the boy I’d seen from the corner of my eye when we came in, about eight or nine years old, with a haircut like Morin (and like me, come to think of it, before it grew out and I asked the barber of the Order to cut it really short again).

“Mother says you’re to come back,” he said. I could see that he was splattered with paint, and he had a paintbrush in his hand. What if he’d tickled me with that? I felt with my hand and it came away brown. I did have to put my breeches back on over it, and they were my best breeches too, but Ashti wiped my skin with a bit of grass first.

Mialle looked less worried. And she was splattered with paint too, as if she’d been painting with the boy. Vurian looked very much not worried. We all got something nice to drink that tasted like fruit, and then we said goodbye to Aunt Arni and left.

When we got back to Master Sidhan’s house she and Mialle and Vurian immediately started talking about what Mialle would make, so Ashti and I went home. We rarely had lessons on the Day of Anshen anyway, the journeymen would be out dancing and the rest reading or mending (and talking while mending) or anything else that wasn’t work or lessons. And I wanted to start on filling in the embroidery on the green dress and that was hard with Ashti in it. She couldn’t very well take it off in the workshop!

At the school, though, there was a child sitting on the step. Too small to be a schoolchild, perhaps four or five years old, and I couldn’t see if it was a boy or a girl. “Miss, are you the teacher?” the child asked.

“Yes,” Ashti said, “how can we help you?”

“Mother is sick! And Lyse said to get you but now Lyse is sick too!”

“All right,” we said, “we’ll go with you.” Ashti went upstairs to get the basket she’s always got ready for taking care of sick people, and she also came down in her grey teacher’s dress. I took the child by the hand and we went to a part of the neighbourhood much poorer than where we were living, to a small house with an open door. I could see a bed with a woman and a girl lying in it.

Ashti went in first. “Ferin!” she called. “Have you had the measles?”

“I think so,” I said, “Coughing and fever and spots and itch?” I remembered Ma washing me with cold water and vinegar to bring the fever and the itch down. “When I was little.”

“You can come in. Most people get it when they’re little. It’s much worse when you’re grown up. Can you call Vurian?”

I could! He was busy, but he heard me and said he’d come at once. And he must have run because in no time he was there. “The doctor’s on his way,” he said.

“Wait!” Ashti said, “have you had the measles?”

“Sure,” Vurian said, “can’t grow up in Liorys without getting everything. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, all the baby things.”

“All right, then you two can help me lift — Oh, no!” She put her hand on the woman’s forehead. “We’re too late. It’s the priestesses we should call.” And she started to sing something, perhaps the same that she’d sung for the man who had killed himself on my knife.

Vurian ran out, and I heard him arguing with someone in the street. Mialle! Then he came back again, “I’ve sent her back, she hasn’t had it, I hope she didn’t come too close.” And ran out again.

I couldn’t do anything except hold the child, who had climbed into my lap, really tightly. After a while a man came in who must be the doctor, and Vurian, and a priestess of Naigha, all at once so the small house was completely full, and I took the child outside. The doctor came out and asked the child, “Have you been ill, too?”

“Yes, I had spots and I puked but now I’m better.”

“Hm. We’ll see.” And he was gone again. I waited for Ashti, and when she came out — on the heels of the priestess and Vurian, who were loading the bodies on a cart — I said, “shall we keep the little one? At least for a while?” I didn’t know if there was more family, but that would probably sort itself out: for now we all wanted to be away from that house.

“The doctor said there’s an epidemic,” Vurian said to us. “The schools will be closed until Midsummer.” We walked to the school together, the child still clutching my hand, and the first thing he did was get a slate from the classroom and write “Measles, school closed” on it and hang it on the door. Then he got water so we could wash ourselves and the child. Without clothes she turned out to be a girl.

“My name is Ferin,” I said when she was on my lap again, wrapped in towels. “What’s your name?”

“Baby,” she said.

“You must have another name! What did your sister call you?”

“Tiny,” she said, “or Little One.”

“We’ll find out your big-girl name,” I said, “or give you one if we can’t find it. Would you like that?”

She nodded, then burst out crying. “Mummy is dead, right? And Lyse, too?”

“Yes,” I said, “Naigha came to fetch them because they were so ill.” I kept my arm around her while Ashti pulled out the drawer from under the bedstead. “That’s for you to sleep in,” I said, and she lay down in it at once. “Wait! You need a mattress or you’ll wake up all stiff and sore.”

(Ashti said that she loved me for a lot of things but especially because I was so nice to children. Perhaps it’s because I’m the youngest and have never had any little brothers and sisters, only pesky older ones!)

Vurian had found a spare straw mattress, even two, so he could use one to sleep on the floor. “I’m not supposed to go home for four days,” he said, “if I’m not sick by that time I can go out again. I promised the doctor to go on rounds with him so I can help and learn.”

That was a good idea! And he told us that Mialle wanted to stay with him, but she didn’t want to go to Turenay, and he wanted to stay with her though he’d been looking forward to Turenay most of his life, but he’d just decided to see what he could learn in the hospital in Valdis when this happened. Well, now he was going to learn in Valdis, only not in the hospital!

It was a strange four days. Vurian sanded and painted all the benches and tables in the school, because he couldn’t bear to have nothing to do; I taught the little girl to sew a straight seam, and Ashti taught her a bit of reading and writing. I don’t know whose idea it was, but after a day or two we called her Raisse after the queen, and she liked that!

Every morning and evening Mialle brought us a basket of food. In the first basket there was a printed paper (Vurian said the thing to print it with had been carved out of a block of wood), saying that there was sickness in the city (but not which sickness, so they could use the blocks of wood again if there was something else), that the neighbourhoods were closed off, to stay home if you didn’t absolutely need to go out, where to go if you were sick and needed a doctor (with a little map of the city), and that the schools were closed until the Feast of Anshen. And after the Feast of Anshen the schools would of course be closed for the summer, so Vurian’s benches and tables had enough time to dry!

On the fifth day Vurian went back to Master Sidhan’s house, but the school was closed and the Order house was in another neighbourhood, across the bridge (the palace too, for that matter, across a different bridge), so neither of us could work. I finished embroidering the unicorn on Ashti’s green dress, and Ashti sewed two shirts for me and two for little Raisse, and made breeches for Raisse from the good parts of my worn ones.

One of those quiet days stopped being quiet when someone banged on the door of the school. There was a priestess of Naigha, raging against Ashti, saying she wasn’t pulling her weight and calling her a whore! “Let me handle it,” I said, and stood in the doorway while Ashti fled upstairs. I just stood there and let her rage and rant, after saying “she’s not sleeping around, she only sleeps with me” didn’t seem to change the priestess’ mind. Then I got fed up and turned her around by the shoulders and gave her a little push and closed the door.

She came back, of course, and banged the door some more, then it went scarily silent. When I went down to see where she was, she was lying on the doorstep, looking as grey as death but still breathing. I carried her to the temple, two streets away, and waited until the priestesses there had finished laying out a body. A young one came to speak to me. “It’s you! We don’t need you here.”

“I only came to bring–”

“Go away! I can take care of my sister.” And she took the priestess from me and carried her away as if she didn’t weigh anything. Well, priestesses of Naigha must be strong to carry bodies, I knew how strong Ashti was!

Mialle still brought us food — she hadn’t got sick either. She said that she saw hardly anything of Vurian, he was out every day until late with the doctors. She was working on the necklace herself, every day until late too as far as I could tell.

I don’t know how long we’d been alone in our house (well, together, and with little Raisse), but then one morning Mialle told us that the bridges were open again. We all went to Master Sidhan’s house for dinner, and there we found Mialle who was just trying on her new blue-and-green dress and wearing the necklace she’d made, showing off for Vurian and everybody! She really looked like a lady. And the necklace was splendid, very simple, a chain of links with a paint-stone in every one, but Master Sidhan said that it was more difficult to make something simple than something fussy. “Oh, that reminds me,” the master said, and took a piece of paper and wrote a couple of lines and made a drawing, sealed it with wax and her seal-ring, and that was Mialle’s journeyman’s letter! The necklace was her journeyman’s work and Master Sidhan had drawn it on the letter so the whole guild would know what she’d made.

It was too late to go to Liorys now, and Vurian was too exhausted after all the work. There wasn’t much sickness any more, and only about a dozen people had died because they’d done all the things to make the city safe right away, but the doctors were still going on rounds, Vurian with them. “I’ve learned such a lot!” he said, but he still wasn’t sure where he wanted to learn more. Doctor Cora was the best doctor in the country, perhaps in the world!

“I don’t want to stay in Valdis,” Ashti said. She’d said that before, when the priestess had banged on our door and fallen on our doorstep. She wanted to go to Turenay with me, or Veray so I could study with the weaponsmiths — I’m a lousy swordfighter but I’m pretty sure I could learn to make swords — or even Sarabal, after all the baroness of Sarabal used to be a priestess of Naigha herself!

“Let’s all go to Turenay then,” Vurian said.

“To the school?” I asked.

“I’m going to school,” Vurian said, “at least to the hospital to study with Doctor Cora and the school and the hospital belong together. But there must be smiths and coppersmiths there, and you” –Ashti– “are a good schoolteacher, those are always needed!”

Master Sidhan agreed, “it’s good to learn from more than one master!”

“Master Rava took me as her apprentice,” I said, “and she’s not even back yet, I haven’t had a chance to learn anything from her! And I wanted to learn from her when I saw the leaves on the fire-pot, I want to be able to make leaves like that.”

“That proves you’re still an apprentice and not a journeyman yet,” Master Sidhan said. “It’s not about being able to make leaves like that, it’s about learning what the metal does, and when you know that you can make anything you want.”

It was almost Midsummer. “Perhaps we should have a fire in the field with the goats and the sheep, outside the Order house, just the four of us,” Mialle said.

As it turned out we joined the neighbourhood celebration in the square with the fountain. Ashti wore the green dress with the finished unicorn, but Mialle didn’t wear her noblewoman dress: it was all in the street, suppose something happened to it! And her necklace was safely in Master Sidhan’s strongbox. When we arrived at the fountain there was already a fire laid, but not lit. People were dancing around it regardless, some others were making music, someone pushed a drum into my hands, I saw children from the school take little Raisse along in a ring-dance.

A woman spoke to me, “you’ve taken Aine’s youngest into your house, right? I’m Aine’s cousin, we could take her if she has nowhere else to go.” She looked as if she wasn’t very happy about it, and relieved when said “We’ll keep her, no problem.” I didn’t say that we might take her to Turenay! Or that she was going to have two little brothers or sisters or one of each, and perhaps four if the queen brought Ashti’s older twins to Valdis.

When it must be almost midnight we sang the invocations, and an old woman came to the unlit fire. She was walking with two sticks, two young people supporting her. “That’s the midwife,” someone said in my ear. The woman stretched her hands above the wood and it sizzled and caught fire. “I want to learn that, too!” I said, and then a young man beside me laid a hand on my shoulder and said, “I don’t think that’s something you’ll learn. But you’ll learn a lot of other things.” Then he walked away and disappeared into the crowd — and I knew who he was.

There was more dancing, and food and drink, and Ashti and I ended up sitting on one of our cloaks with the other around both of us and Raisse who had curled up between us and gone to sleep, after running around half the night with a crowd of other little kids. “This is my first feast of Anshen,” I said, and it felt strange but completely right.