To the city

When I woke up I thought I was still dreaming because I was lying in a softer bed than I’d ever had and I had Ashti in my arms! But she woke up too and made me know it wasn’t a dream. Then of course were were sticky and hungry and wanted a wash and breakfast. There were little windows that we could see the river through, but I thought I’d seen a well too, so washing wouldn’t be a problem. We put on a shirt and went to look.

Our room was on a long corridor with spiral staircases at both ends, so we picked the nearest one. Just as we were on the stairs a girl of about ten came up, carrying a bowl with a jug of water that looked much too heavy for her. We backed up and I took the bowl from her as soon as we were on the landing. That was our washing-water! “Mialle said you were awake,” the girl said, and that made me blush, she must have heard us!

We washed ourselves –there was a piece of soap that smelt like flowers, and I asked Ashti if it was lavender but she said it was something from the south. The girl stayed to hand us towels and help Ashti put on the blue dress. “Breakfast is in the small dining room,” she said, but we didn’t know where that was so she took us there.

It wasn’t small at all! The table was full of food, though, and Mialle was sitting at it eating bread and cheese. That was white bread like we’d had at Lord Ayran’s table, crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. And there were pancakes, and duck eggs, and mutton chops, and salty butter, and honey, and some kind of syrup that was darker than honey and tasted even nicer. And a large jug of ale! The first I’d had since we’d left Nalenay.

When I was almost done eating Vurian and Morin came in. “You’re up early!” Vurian said, while he split a bread roll and put meat and cheese on it. It wasn’t so early for us! But they’d just got up, and their grandfather was still in bed. Well, Lord Ayran was a very old man, I could understand that!

“Shall I show you round?” Vurian asked. “Anything in particular you’d like to see? The gardens? The temple?” That last with a big grin.

“Yes, I’d like to see the temple,” Ashti said.

“And I heard a smithy last night, can I see that?” I asked.

The door of the eight-sided tower was open and Morin went in ahead of us and stood there as if daring us to get in. I put my head through the door-opening, but didn’t go any further, and Mialle did the same. It was a high tower but without any floors, you could see right up to the rafters. There was a fire in a fire-pot in the middle, and benches against the walls. The little windows high up in three of the walls made it just light enough to see by.

“I think Ashti would like to go in,” I said.

“Yes, I would, but I can’t, because you’re all in the way!” she said, and we hurriedly made place for her. She went around to stand behind the fire-pot, spread her hands and prayed.

A bell started ringing, and Morin sprinted into the house. “School bell,” Vurian said. “We have our own school here. Mother Maile teaches it.”

Yes, a priestess of Naigha would do that! I saw Ashti smile, but neither of us said anything.

“You know, someone has written a book about eight-sided towers everywhere in the country, and ours is in it too! They’re not all temples, and some that are are temples of the Nameless, I think, and some are ruined, but there are a lot! There’s even one in Lenyas that’s been disguised as a round tower, but it’s eight-sided on the inside. You might want to see that book, it’s in the palace library.”

The smithy was next, and it was wonderful! The forge was in the middle instead of, like Master Rhanion’s, in the far left corner. That made room for every corner to have its own purpose, one for horseshoeing, one for tools, one for work like hinges and fire-screens, and one for weapons. And there were people at work everywhere, at least half a dozen. There was a basket of arrowheads next to me ready to be buffed, and my hands started to itch, but a young apprentice came and took it away. His work, of course, not mine.

The master finished what he was doing and came over to us. “Hey, Vurian,” he said, “who are your friends?”

“People with a message for the court,” Vurian said. “Ferin here is a smith.”

“Apprentice smith,” I had to say, “almost a journeyman but we had to leave before I could get my letter. But I’d like to do some work if I can.”

The others went on — I saw Mialle roll her eyes– and I stayed. The master got me leather breeches, an apron and clogs, and I left my other clothes in the tack-room. “It’s kitchen knives today,” he said, “have you ever forged a knife from scratch?”

I showed him my own belt knife. I knew it wasn’t as good as the one Mialle had, Ayneth is better at knives than me, but the master nodded and said “All right” and told me how large a knife he needed and where things were and left me mostly alone to work.

I’d missed work! And I like it when people just let me get on with it, not come and meddle all the time. The foreman — a young master smith of about twenty — worked next to me, and in odd moments he told me how many different kinds of knives a kitchen needs, one for each sort of thing you want to cut! The one I was making was for large cuts of meat, like a whole haunch of deer, and his were for vegetables, short and stubby.

At the end of the morning I had the rough shape hammered out. The bell rang, and everybody went to wash up so I went with them. Then I saw a woman coming our way, grey robe, grey hair, and she made a beeline for me! Mother Maile! I’m too large to hide behind anybody else so she couldn’t miss me.

“Young Ferin,” she said. “I’d like you to come with me for a moment.” I shrugged at the smith, who gestured “go!” with his head, and followed the priestess to her temple.

The temple wasn’t much smaller than the one in Nalenay and it had the same sort of side room, only without little kids or a statue of Dayati. Mother Maile made me sit down at a table and put a bowl of thick vegetable soup and a hunk of bread in front of me. “You seem to have run away with a priestess,” she said.

“I didn’t run away with her,” I said. “I mean, we didn’t run away together. Well, we did run away together, Mialle and Ashti and I, but not that sort of together. Only because we were all running away.”

“Hmm. And what were you running away from?”

I didn’t know how much I could tell her. And how much she already knew, for that matter. Finally I said “I fought someone who was going to do Ashti harm, and who had done harm to lots of other people, and he missed me and he fell on his knife and died. And then they told me to leave town because I’d otherwise be hanged for it.”

“Hanged for an accident? Doesn’t seem likely. On the other hand I have heard some things about the place you come from. And you seem an honest enough fellow, this doesn’t sound as if you’re making an excuse for running away because you stole your master’s money.”

“Vurian says you know everything,” I said.

She smiled. “Only because people tell me things. But anyway, you must know that Ashti is very much in love with you, but it cannot last, Naigha will claim her for her own in time.”

“Does that mean she’ll die?” I asked.

“That she will be a priestess again. And yes, eventually she will die, like all people.”

I nodded. “I know it’s not forever.”

“She must have been consecrated very early to have so many markings already,” Mother Maile said. I didn’t know what ‘consecrated’ meant, so she explained, “Become a priestess.”

“She was thirteen, I think, she’s got three-year-old twins. They’re very cute, I wish they were my own little brother and sister.”

Mother Maile smiled again. “I see what attracted her to you. It does happen quite often that when a priestess is called early they take a year or so to — sow their wild oats, so to say.” I thought about Ashti’s mother, but I didn’t say anything. “Anyway. Take good care of her. And do eat your soup.”

The soup was still warm, though not hot, and I was very hungry from the work. Mother Maile gave me more soup when the bowl was empty, and sent me back to the smithy with another piece of bread in my hand.

In the middle of the afternoon Ashti came to fetch me: she wanted to walk in the rose-garden with me! I don’t like to leave things unfinished, but the master said “Come and finish it after dinner!” And it needed to cool down anyway, so it was all right to go with her.

The rose-garden was full of bare prickly bushes, some with a bit of green peeking from a bud. There were spring flowers, though, like the ones we’d seen at the riverside, only a lot more of them and of course planted on purpose. We stood between the bushes and Ashti put her hands on my shoulders (she wasn’t tall enough to put them round my neck, unless she stood on her toes) and said “Mialle was saying such strange things! She wanted to know what it was like to kiss you. But if she wants to know, she should just kiss someone herself! Vurian, for instance, he likes her.”

“Perhaps she doesn’t like him? Not to kiss, anyway.” And I kissed Ashti, and she kissed me back.

“It’s impossible to say what it’s like,” she said. And we kissed some more, until the bell rang again and someone (Morin, I think) came running up to say it was time for evening prayers and then dinner.

I hung around in the yard, looking for some animal to scritch behind the ears. A pig was easier to find than a dog or a cat, the pigs stayed in their pens after all! I talked a bit to a big fat sow, and then Mialle came along, who had been in the library almost the whole day, drawing what Vurian put in her head. “It wasn’t even very uncomfortable,” she said. “But I still don’t want to pray in that temple.”

“Me neither,” I said, “that’s why I’m here petting pigs.” The sound of singing came from the tower, and sometimes a whiff of a strange smell like green pine branches and spices being burnt.

After a while it stopped and people came our way. “I’m not on page duty today,” Morin said, “I’ll come and sit with you!” And he took us to what must be the large dining room, much larger than the small one, and the small one was already the largest room I’d ever been in in my life! There were tables set like three sides of a rectangle, with Lord Ayran and some other very noble-looking people on the short side and other people on the long sides, I think sorted by how important they were. Morin put us somewhere in the middle of one long side. Other boys and girls and grown people came and put food on the tables, all kinds, like Lord Ayran’s table the other day but a lot more, of course, there were a lot more people too! I was already getting my own knife out to eat with when I saw that there was a knife and a thing like a miniature pitchfork beside my plate. I watched what other people did, and they used the fork-thing to pick up food they were going to eat so their hands didn’t get greasy. Nifty!

There was wine, too, and after last night’s wine I was cautious of it so I asked if there was water, and put so much water in my wine that it only just tasted like wine. People closer to the end of the table were having cider, and I wished I could have some too! But I think it went with the place at the table.

“I like cider, too,” Morin said. “It’s our own, from our own orchards!” Then he cut us a slice from a whole ham, not like the hard smoked hams we got at home on feast days, but salty and not smoky and very juicy. “It’s boiled in salted water,” he said. “Smoked ham is okay too but then you can’t cut thick slices!” Well, you could, but then you couldn’t eat them if your teeth were made of tooth and not of iron.

And then all the dishes were taken away, even though more than half of some was still left. “Will someone eat that?” I asked Morin, and yes, the pages and servants would eat some, and the meat went into pies, and whatever was still left was for the pigs. “We don’t waste,” he said, “we’re Brun!”

We got sweet porridge then, as yellow as dandelions. And then I went to finish my knife, at least as much as it could be finished in one day. There were more people finishing up things, and the foreman was working on a project of his own, the case for a lock, decorated with what looked like a starry cloak! “That’s for Mother Maile’s strongbox,” he said.

“It’s beautiful!” And I don’t know how it came about but I ended up telling him about Master Valyn’s gates, “I could draw them for you!”

“You’re gifted, right? Show them to me!” So first I made a picture in my mind of the gates, easy enough, I’d been looking at nothing else for weeks (except the cat that I had to do very quickly while Mialle gilded the leaves and flowers). Then I took both of his hands in mine and thought it at him very hard, cat and all.

“Wow!” he said. “I’ve seen masterpieces less accomplished than that!”

“It was going to be my journeyman’s work, but I had to leave before the master could make me a journeyman,” I said.

I worked on the knife a bit more, until the master came in and pronounced it as finished as it would be today. “Your girlfriends are outside, I think the lord wants to see you now,” he said. “If you’re not here tomorrow I’ll do the buffing and sharpening myself. Good work.” And he gave me two shillings!

Maile and Ashti were indeed outside, and Vurian as well. We all went to Lord Ayran’s room again. “It’s best if you leave tomorrow,” he said, “the Order should have the news as soon as possible. The question is, which is the safest way for you to travel. It’s four days on foot. One day on a horse for a good rider, but I gather that none of you are.”

No, we weren’t. “I can drive a cart, though,” I said, “with a donkey or a mule or an ox, if you lend me one we can even sleep in it.” But he thought it better to go by boat. There would be a boatload of barrels of cider going to the city in a few days anyway, it was easy to make that earlier. “You shall have travelling clothes and provisions. And an escort.”

“Can I go as escort?” Vurian asked.

“Why else do you think you are in this room right now? You see to the clothes and provisions. But no crossbow for you, not until you have some skill with it.”

We were going to leave an hour before dawn, so we went to bed right away; anyway it was already dark, I’d really been working late.

Before I even knew I’d fallen asleep there was someone knocking on our door. It was Vurian, of course, with his arms full of clothes. “Washing water in a moment,” he said, and yes, Morin was behind him with the bowl and jug. And also a woman carrying a basket, who asked me “You wanted the barber, right?” She made me sit down on a stool and draped a towel around my neck and cut my hair, and then showed me my face in a copper mirror: I had hair just like Morin’s (except that my hair is yellow and Morin’s is brown), like an upside-down bowl on top of my head, as if I was a nobleman! That looked strange on me but I sort of liked it.

We both had thick linen breeches and a shirt, and a leather vest, and leather lace-up boots, and Vurian was wearing about the same but his had been made for him and ours were just a little too large. Better than too small, for leather! While we were putting them on, Morin packed yesterday’s clothes into a bundle for us and Vurian went to wake Mialle.

Someone downstairs handed Vurian a basket that smelt like food. “We’ll eat breakfast on the boat,” he said, “it’s lying ready!” And yes, there was a largish flat boat full of barrels moored at a jetty in the river. There was room to sit in front, at the back and in the middle. A man and a woman who looked like soldiers, with bows and quivers and swords, got in first and one sat in front and one at the back, and all of us in the middle, and a man with a long pole stood right at the back to make the boat go. It wanted to go all by itself, because Valdis was downstream, but it still needed to be pushed in the right direction.

“Easiest job in the world,” the boatman said, “only two ways to hit the bank and neither is the way we’re going!”

“He always says that,” Vurian said softly, “I’ve heard it so many times! Oh! I almost forgot, Mialle, these are yours.” And he handed her a flat leather bag. Mialle didn’t seem to know what to do with it, but it was full of the drawings she’d made!

“But–” she started.

“No buts. You made them, they’re yours!”

“But the ink and the paper aren’t,” she said, “and the bag! They’re yours! Your grandfather’s, anyway.”

“The House Brun can spare some paper and ink,” he said. “There wasn’t time to sew them into a book, sorry about that.”

“Can we see them?” I asked, but we had to wait until there was more light than the moon shining on the water. “You can afford all those things, right? You’re rich.”

“I’m not very rich,” Vurian said, “not by myself, at least. I’m a Brun of course, and our family has enough, but I only get my stipend.”

“What’s a stipend?” I asked.

“Pocket money. Forty riders a year like anybody else in the family.”

Forty riders! I counted on my fingers and in my head. “That’s twenty times as much as Mialle or I have. As many riders as we have shillings.” And that was something he couldn’t get his head around.

When there was enough light, Mialle opened the leather bag and showed the drawings. There were flowers and animals and a whole page of different fishes, some very strange. “Is that a fish with legs?”

“Eight legs,” Vurian said. “They sell them in the market in Essle. They’re delicious. You cut the legs into little pieces and soak them in oil and vinegar and fry them with a lot of onions.”

That reminded us that we were hungry and we had a basket full of breakfast. One of the soldiers put her hand in the basket and took out — not one of the little pies the basket was full of, but something that went on and on, and turned out to be Vurian’s crossbow! “I don’t think that’s a pie,” she said, “I’ll keep it safe for you.”

Vurian shrugged. “Chances are I’ll be going to Turenay from Valdis, and then I’m going to want it! I suppose there’s weapons lessons at the school as well as doctoring lessons.”

Can you be a doctor and a nobleman at the same time?” Mialle asked.

“Sure, Doctor Cora is a queen! Of Albetire in Iss-Peran. The king had another queen, and a thousand other wives in a great big palace. Mind you, Cora doesn’t do much queening at the moment, first she was widowed and then she married my Uncle Aidan. The king’s brother.”

Then we had some of the pies and they were delicious. “That’s breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Vurian said, “and tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch too, and after that we’re probably at the Order house. We can take the boat there right through the city. The cider needs to go to the Spotted Dog anyway, right next to it.”

Then I wanted to look at the fish with legs again. “You can make a gate or something with that,” Mialle said, “bend the legs any way you like!” And I thought that was a good idea, and I’d surely borrow the drawing from her when I wanted to do it.

In the evening we got to a place where the river was very broad, one part was where it was really deep enough for boats, and at the side there were little islands, some with grass and plants growing on them. We pulled the boat on to one of the larger ones and the boatman started to make a fire. The soldiers handed him a fish each, apparently they’d had fishing lines hanging from the boat!

I asked the soldiers if one of them could wrestle and would like a bout with me. The man stripped to his loincloth, and I did too, and we started, but he had me on the ground every time, worse than Jeran! “You’ve been learning from street fighters,” he said, “that won’t work for people who know a decent style! We have only this one evening, but I can teach you to defend yourself at least.” And he taught me how to keep standing when someone wanted to topple me with my own weight. “I’d teach you how to throw someone larger than yourself instead but I don’t see you needing that any time soon,” he said, and then did it to me.

We washed in the cold river water, and found that the others had made a pot of fish stew with carrots and onions that had been in the boat in a sack. There was only wine to drink, but the boatman had boiled water in a small kettle so we didn’t have to have it strong. I did hope they had beer in Valdis!

Later, Vurian and the other soldier did a bit of swordfighting (that looked exciting!) and then we rolled ourselves in blankets around the fire, with the soldiers and Vurian taking turns keeping watch. It was strange to sleep in the open and not have a watch myself!

We woke up stiff, of course, and cold, and that wasn’t made better by washing in the cold river again but it did get me awake completely. There was some kind of herb tea to go with another round of pies, and then we were off again. There were more boats on the river, some going the same way as us and some being pulled upstream by horses. One man leading a team of large shaggy horses waved to us, and Vurian and I waved back. “He’s hiding himself!” Vurian said, “he’s with the Nameless.” And now I could see it too, that he was with Archan and hiding.

Ashti was suddenly very quiet. “I think that was that Eldan,” she said when we were out of earshot. He must have passed us in the night, or yesterday when we were in Valdie Liorys! But it didn’t look as if he’d recognised us. We were all in clothes that made it look as if we were a company of guards or servants or something, the soldiers didn’t look much different from us except that they had bows and Mialle and I only a knife. (Ashti not even that, but Vurian had both a knife and a sword.)

Well, if Eldan was going upstream with his boat he wasn’t chasing us.

“I know something,” Vurian said, “you’ve been learning from Layse, and Mialle and I worked together all day yesterday, so I know you can learn from people in our Guild! I’ll teach you how to hide.” And he explained first how to hide in plain sight, like when he was a page at court and had taken a whole platter of cakes to the pages’ quarters for a private feast by walking straight through all the corridors, the platter covered with a cloth, looking as if he was bringing it somewhere on command.

“But everybody has their own style,” he said. “Watch.” And he dragged his hand in the water, and I could see that he was taking power from it. “Works that way for me,” he said, “Uncle Athal — the king — gets sick from water, he needs to take power from the earth. Hassle when he’s going to Iss-Peran on a ship.” Then he did something I couldn’t follow, as if he was changing the way he sat, and suddenly he didn’t look like a nobleman at all any more, I’d have overlooked him completely if he’d walked in the market in Nalenay!

“Hm,” Mialle said, and she changed something about herself too, and I could have sworn she was a boy, even more than when she was wearing the too-large boy clothes from Jeran.

Ashti just disappeared completely. I knew she was still next to me but if I tried to look at her she was sort of hard to see, I could only see her from the corner of my eye.

I found it very hard! I’m too large to disappear, and too solid to make myself much smaller. But water was a good idea, and I dragged my hand in the water too and tried to remember what Master Merain had taught us in the very first lesson about taking power from the world. I could feel that Vurian’s hand had been in it, too! And I felt that I could take any power I wanted, the only limit was what I could hold at one time, as if I was a bucket that could get full. It was a lot easier than with Master Merain! But perhaps that was because I’d always felt comfortable with water, like standing in the brook to talk to Timoine. (When I told the others that I’d noticed in Gulynay that it wasn’t easy to talk to Timoine even in the water, they laughed at me. Of course they did — in Gulynay I was already a man!)

Now I had all that power, and I used it to fold myself up like you fold the iron after drawing it out, so I’d take up less room. Vurian laughed out loud when he saw me doing that. He made a fist that I could see was more than half power too, and punched me hard. I didn’t even feel it!

“You’re not hidden at all! But nothing can get through that iron armour of yours. What did you do?”

That was hard to explain to someone who wasn’t a smith, so I blundered through it a bit, but he seemed to understand most of it. “How do I hide then?” I asked, but nobody knew a good answer.

Then we overtook a large boat with at least twenty sheep on it, bleating like anything. That gave me an idea! I used some of the water-power I’d still got to think up a large fleece cloak and hid under it. That worked a bit better, not as well as Ashti’s disappearing act or Mialle and Vurian’s changing, but it did keep me out of sight a bit.

Now we could see a dark shape in the distance with grey clouds hanging over it. “Valdis,” Vurian said, pointing to it.

“Is it on fire?” I asked. Those clouds looked like smoke!

“Nah, it’s just the fires from the houses and the workshops. There’s a lot of people living in Valdis. I don’t know exactly how many, but a lot, anyway.”

We came to a wall with a huge gate in it, that was really two and a half gates, a little one on our side that people with at most one horse or donkey could get through, a larger one on the other side that carts could get through (and also a dozen cows, going through it just then), and a huge one right across the water for boats. A little boat with two people in uniform came alongside ours and the people wanted to know everything about the barrels. “Vurian astin Brun, bringing cider to the Spotted Dog from Valdie Liorys,” Vurian said a bit impatiently. “All the freight papers are in order. It’s a commission.”

“Passengers?”

Vurian waved vaguely in everybody’s direction. “My guards.” And then the uniformed people let us go on and we went through the gate. Through a building, really, there was at least one room on top of the gate, with windows looking out over the river.

And then we were in the city and it was so busy! The river was running between straight banks now, some of stone and some of wood, and the banks were streets where people could walk. Lots of boats were lying here, tied to posts on the banks. Wherever I looked I could see people, and they were all different, much more different than in Nalenay. And horses and donkeys and carts and dogs and everything.

Vurian did something that felt like a curtain or a cloth falling over the whole boat and it was a lot quieter. “So you won’t have to hear everybody at once,” he said. “But we have to hurry because I can’t keep this up forever. I may be going to be a grand master but I’m not even a journeyman yet, and anyway it’s not about power, it’s about ability. Grand masters can do new things with semsin. And once something exists, other people can use it too.” And he told us about someone who had made white mice from power, at the Order house no less, and everybody there could see them, except the cats, because they weren’t real mice and didn’t smell like mice either. And then some of the Order journeymen had got together and made a cat from power that could chase the mice!

When we passed a huge stone building with thick walls and towers Vurian said, “This is the palace.”

There was a little door in the wall and a landing-place with a small boat tied to it. “So you can sneak right in there?” I asked.

“Well, that door’s locked. But Uncle Athal sometimes sneaks out in disguise and goes into town to play music.”

“Can he?”

“He’s an accomplished lute player.”

After that we passed a market, and more houses, some four or five stories high, and large official-looking buildings, like a guild house. Finally we arrived at a kind of castle that looked as if the buildings had grown on the city wall, with its own mooring-place and a small gate.

“Let’s give a barrel of cider to the Order, shall we?” Vurian asked, and the soldiers and the boatman agreed. So they heaved one barrel on the mooring-place and rang a bell beside the gate.

A man and a woman opened the gate, wearing grey uniforms and a sword at their side. “Vurian!’ they said, “we didn’t expect you yet. Who are–”

“People with an important message. They need to see the commander.”

“She’s in Albetire, or on her way back at best. Seran is in charge, will he do?”

“Whoever is in charge, yes.” And we went through the gate, all except the boatman who took the boat somewhere else.

This was a much larger place than it had looked from outside: two-story buildings with a peaked roof all around a sandy yard, one part even higher, and an eight-sided tower larger than the one in Valdie Liorys, perhaps not higher but a lot wider. “Is that the temple?” I whispered to Vurian, and he said, “yes, of course, the main temple of Anshen in Valdis!” There were some people fighting with swords and sticks in the yard, but we didn’t stop to watch them, we went into the bit of building that was higher than the rest and up a flight of stairs. Vurian seemed to know the way. He knocked on a door and a man’s low voice answered, “Yes?”

“Vurian astin Brun,” Vurian said. “The younger. With important messengers.”

The door opened and there was a tall man in the same uniform as the other two we’d seen, and some we’d seen in the yard though others had been in leather jackets, and the stick-fighters only in breeches and a shirt. “Well, let’s see,” he said, and then he saw us.

He looked at me, at Mialle, at Ashti. “You two are of Archan,” he said, “and you are a priestess of Naigha in disguise, and yet you come to the servants of Anshen with a message. That would be a momentous one. Sit down.”

We found a place to sit down, not easy because there were papers everywhere. Mialle put some papers on the windowsill, Ashti put a pile on the floor, and I tipped an indignant cat from a stool. Vurian stood in the doorway as if he was standing guard.

“I’m Seran,” the man said, “acting commander of the Order of the Sworn.” We said our names, and then we didn’t know where to start. Then Mialle found her voice and told him about the knife workshop, and how we’d tried to get the children out to celebrate the feast because they were never allowed outside.

“They were so pale!” I said. “Even the ones who came from faraway countries, with skin the colour of your skin, but they looked all grey, not brown! Halla had a friend in there, and Halla and I wrote a letter to the queen about it, and I think it arrived because–” I took the ring from its bag and handed it to Seran. “We left the blood on so you can see that they cut someone’s finger off to get it.”

“We know about the letter,” Seran said. “I have it here, in fact.” And he showed us the letter, Halla’s words and some of my words in my writing! “But how did you come by the ring?” So I told him about fighting the two men, and how one had died without me even touching him, and we’d found the ring with him, and Layse and Yssa had said I had to leave town and I’d said in that case I’d take the ring to the queen myself.

“That was a very wise decision,” Seran said. “We sent Ervan, and Raith of the palace guard, and Faran from the Reserves — I’m afraid they’ve all been killed. Raisse will have to know as soon as possible, I’ll call her, one moment.” He seemed to be thinking very hard, then looked at us again. “She’ll be here in half an hour. Now, can I do something for you? Wine? Beer? Something to eat?”

“Beer, please,” I said, “and yes, something to eat! But can you call the queen, and will she come then?”

“She’s in our Guild. We are the Order of the Sworn. She needs to know this. We need her advice. I’d take you to the palace but it’s rather too full of the servants of the Nameless right now, and you have–”

“This,” I said and laid my hand on my shoulder. “Everybody can see that! At least Master Merain can’t see me with it any more. Lord Ayran said that it’s only permitted when an apprentice has already run away from their master twice, but he put it on us even before the first lesson!”

“Well, yes, that’s what’s in the Guild of the Nameless’ statutes, but in our experience more of their masters do it without provocation. Without cause, I’d say. Abusing his power over you.”

“But he has that power! He’s our master!”

“Not any more, I’d think.”

“Could Master Mernath find us? Grand Master Mernath. He’s the boss of the Guild in Nalenay.”

Seran raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know the Nameless had any grand masters in that part of the country. I suppose you couldn’t see if he’s a real grand master or only styles himself so. But in any case, you don’t need to worry about that, Nalenay is too far away from here for anyone there to see you.”

Someone brought us beer and bread and cheese and hard sausage, and we spent some time eating. Seran asked us about our apprenticeship, and how much we got on feasts. He frowned at the ten shillings, and thought it was a disgrace that we had to buy or make our own clothes, in Valdis the apprentices got twice as much money and new summer clothes on the Feast of Timoine and winter clothes on the Feast of Mizran! But I can imagine that it’s richer in the big city.

Then there was a knock on the door and a woman came in, a bit tall, a bit thin, not very pretty, but with splendid dark brown hair in a braid down to her hips. She was wearing riding breeches and a dark blue jacket.

I stood up. “Lady Majesty,” I said.

She laughed. “Call me Raisse, that’s easier. We’re all in the same Guild, after all. Oh! I see you’re not, sorry.” And to Ashti she said, “You don’t need to hide, you know.”

“And I was so proud of having my snakes invisible for half an hour!”

Then the queen wanted to know who we were. “Mialle from Tal-Polsen,” Mialle said. And I said “Ferin from Ashinay,” and Ashti “Ashti from Nalenay.”

“I know what you are, but I suppose you two are craft apprentices?” We said that I was a blacksmith and Mialle a coppersmith, and that our masters would have been going to make us both journeymen at Midsummer if we hadn’t left town on the Feast of Timoine. And of course we had to tell her why we’d left town. “Mialle had to come too, because we were both with Master Merain and they’d have been able to find me through her.”

“Or eliminate everybody who knew about the incident,” the queen said quietly. That made me scared about Layse and Yssa again, even though they’d said that they would be all right.

At every new thing we told the queen she got angrier. “Children who aren’t allowed to go to school! Guild masters who keep their apprentices on a short leash! Craft masters who aren’t ever in their own smithies so you have to learn everything from the foreman who is still a journeyman herself! Mind you, I’ve met Layse, you could do much worse, but still.”

“And now Mialle’s master and mine have built great new houses, I even made the iron gates for one of them,” I said.

“So those masters of yours have become very rich from the knife workshop?”

“From the gold mine, too,” Mialle said, and she showed the queen the bits of powder she’d squeezed from her shiny rock. “Gold and silver and arsenic.”

“Arsenic!” Vurian exclaimed. “Don’t touch that, it’s so poisonous. Goldsmithing is a dangerous craft.”

“Now there’s a clandestine gold mine as well?” the queen asked. “Don’t tell me that they mint the gold.” And when we looked baffled, “Make coins of it.”

“I’ve never seen a gold coin,” I said. “Me neither,” Mialle said. “Even though my master made some gold things.”

The queen took a coin from her purse and handed it to me. It was about the size of a silver half-shilling and as shiny yellow as the gilding that Mialle had put on the gate. She gave one to Mialle too, and one to Ashti.

“Keep it — you’ll have a proper reward, of course, but that will come later.”

“How many riders is this?” I asked.

“Six.”

“Then I can try to find a master here to finish my apprenticeship!” I said. The queen looked surprised. “I left a season early.”

“And the master has your twelve riders. I understand. I’ll have to go to Nalenay myself, I think, and when I get back we’ll see what we can do for you.” And to Mialle, “there’s probably a coppersmith in the Guild for you to finish your apprenticeship with, too.”

“Don’t you get yourself killed!” I said.

“That will be unlikely,” she said, “because I’m taking the army. And half the Order.”

“Remember that most of the army has gone to the south,” Seran said. “And much of the Order as well.”

“Oh, I know, I’ll take the Khas regiment.”

“I’ve never seen a Khas,” I said.

“Then you should go and eat at the Spotted Dog, there’s one in the kitchen there. Which is strange because what Khas eat when they’re at home is everything just thrown together in a pot and boiled, but Bakhmet makes the most excellent pies.”

“Can I say something irreverent?” I asked. The queen smiled and nodded. “You don’t — you’re not really like I imagined a queen. I mean, with beautiful clothes and a crown and gold jewelry and sitting on a throne in the palace.”

“Oh, I have more elaborate clothes than these, but that’s awkward if you want to go to the Order house on the fastest horse at short notice. And I do have a crown, and gold jewelry, all put away safely in the little room we call the jewel box. I only wear those at the kind of special occasions I usually take pains to avoid. As for a throne, yes, there’s a carved chair in the audience room. Two, in fact, one is for my husband. I’ll invite you to the palace yet, and then you can see it all.”

Then the thing that had been at the back of my mind ever since Seran showed us the letter came to the front. “Did our letter get three people killed?”

“Your letter made it clear how much rot there is in Nalenay, and alerted us so we can go and put it right. If you hadn’t sent it, the abuse would have been able to continue.” She shook her head. “Greed is such an insidious thing. Yes, the ring is gold, but if they’d left it on the envoy’s finger and thrown him in the river still wearing it nobody would have been any the wiser.”

“Until you’d notice they weren’t coming back,” I said.

“Yes, that’s true. And one crime begets another.” She paused for a moment. “You’re heroes, all of you.”

Then she asked Vurian to take us away and show us around because she had some more business with Seran. We saw more of the building, the kitchen, a dining room about the size of the small dining room in Valdie Liorys, simple little rooms where one or two people could sleep, an attic full of beds (“these are the guest quarters”, Vurian said), a stable, and a gate in the city wall itself with a herb garden and a kitchen garden outside it. And beyond that the orchard and the pasture, but then you were really outside the city.

“Do you want to go into this temple?” Vurian asked when we passed the eight-sided tower again. “They say that the fire never goes out.”

“There are enough people to tend it, I’d say,” Mialle said.

“No, never. There are a couple of temples like that, it’s where Anshen comes into the world. There’s a little temporary temple some way south of here that two journeymen made who were coming to see the queen, and when they travelled back after a couple of weeks the fire was still burning. That was the woman who wrote the book about the towers, by the way.”

Ashti wanted to go in, of course. And after a while I wanted it too. It was full of the Nameless — no, of Anshen, I should say here. And it was more silent than silence. Peaceful, as if any danger couldn’t come here. I didn’t pray or anything, only stood there and felt power around me.

And then I saw the fire-pot.

It wasn’t a pot so much as a huge dish, the size of a wheel of Jeran’s wagon, if Mialle could lie down on it she’d just touch the edges with her head and feet. It was full of fire, but that wasn’t what I noticed, it was the ironwork. At first I thought it was all leaves, but as I looked at them they turned into flames in my mind, and leaves again, all interlocked in a pattern I didn’t understand yet.

I left the temple and wandered around the yard until I stumbled on the smithy. Of course the Order house would have a smithy of its own, if only for the horses! And there was a short broad old woman at the forge hammering on a horseshoe. She was wearing the same sort of clothes that I’d borrowed at Liorys: leather breeches and apron with nothing under it.

“Master?”

She looked up. “One moment.” When she’d finished she put the shoe aside. “What is it?”

“Can I make you a compliment?”

“Always.”

“That fire-pot in the temple– you made it, didn’t you? It’s amazing.”

“Thank you.”

“I wish I could learn that.”

“Well, what’s keeping you?”

“Could I — could I perhaps learn from you?”

“Don’t see why not.” And she went on with her work as if I hadn’t interrupted her.