Ashti didn’t have to go to the school any more until the Feast of Mizran. The children who’d still had things to catch up with were all finished. Master Fian did pay her, though! Even without any work to do. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair, he said.
That meant she had time to do things around the house, and one of the things she was going to do was to go into the wood with Arni and the children to collect herb seeds so we could plant them behind the house instead of the overgrown weed patch that the neighbours had dug up. “Chickens would be nice too,” she said. “Oh, and we should visit Asa, let’s do that tonight. It’s the done thing, to make a visit back.”
Everybody at work was very merry for some reason. Well, except Master Mernath, I’d never seen him laugh, the best I’d seen was a tiny smile when someone did something really well. We were all joking with each other, so much that the master had to call for attention a couple of times, and then he said “As you all seem to know exactly how to do this, you make the next fold.” (Because he was working on the sword again, and it was even starting to look like a blade.)
Jichan and I got it all wrong, but Cynla and Jeran fixed that before it could get out of hand. “Thank you,” I whispered to Cynla, who was next to me.
The master tapped me on the shoulder when there was a bit of a wait, and I thought he was going to tell me off for the fumble but he said, “You’re lucky with that wife of yours. Oh, you’re not married yet, are you?”
“We still don’t know if she’s going to go back to being a priestess. Neither of us knows.”
“Well, she’s a good woman. As good as my Maile. They’re two of a kind — not afraid of difficulty, used to hardship. Maile used to be a sergeant in the army. There’s not much difference between being a sergeant and being a priestess, I’d say.” Then he went back to work without another word.
Maile was head nurse of the hospital now, but she mostly managed to push her work-times around so she could bring us food at mid-day and eat it with us. It was bread and sausage this time with the usual jugs of small beer, still cold from the hospital cellar. She, too, took me aside when we were done eating.
“You should go off a bit early today and get Ashti an unexpected present,” she said. “Something she really likes. Make it or buy it, a surprise.”
“Ashti likes roses,” I said, “I could try to find some rose-scented soap.”
“You need the Síthi neighbourhood for that. The streets around the bath-house. The large one, not the small one at the bridge.”
“Thank you!” I had four shillings in my purse, my own money from Valdis, not the household money. That was in a jar in the cupboard in our kitchen that had a lock on it. (Not a very good lock, and I resolved to make a better one when I got the forge in the house going.)
“Oh, and when you get married, do it at Midsummer. That’s when young people should marry. –Do you mind that I’m as bossy as a mother sometimes?”
I shrugged. “My ma is far away. Someone’s got to do it.”
In the afternoon we had a surprise: the painting girl, Rhinla, and her master and the boy apprentice, who came to draw us as we worked. They did a very good job of not being in the way, even though Rhinla got very close to the fire at times. She didn’t really draw pictures, but in what she did draw you could see the fire and the glow and the power in the iron. “I want to learn about the light and the heat,” she said, and Master Mernath said, “And the coolth.”
I did stay to clean up and to have a final mug of beer with everybody, of course, while we talked about how the work was going. That was something I couldn’t skip. But then I was off to the Síthi quarter and the bath-house.
Nearly all the houses were very low here, without an upstairs, and lots of them had small shops at the front. There were lots of smells, so much that I couldn’t really tell if I smelled roses, but I found a shop that had soaps and jars and bottles and some of them were so pink that I thought they must be the right thing.
“Can I help you?” the girl behind the counter asked. (Or woman, she was about as old as Ashti, but she was wearing girly clothes.)
“I’d like something that smells like roses. For my wife.”
“Ooh, you look young to have a wife already!”
“Well, we’re not married yet. But she’s expecting. By me. She loves roses.”
The girl laughed. “And how much money have you got for it?”
“Four shillings,” I said. I wasn’t going to skimp! Or to haggle, I didn’t know how to do that, especially not with Síthi.
“For four shillings, I have something really nice for you.” And she took an earthenware jar from the shelf, white, painted with green leaves and red flowers. She opened it and moved it under my nose. “There’s not just rose in this. Lavender too, and nard, and I’m not going to tell you our whole secret recipe.”
Just then a black-skinned man came from the house behind the shop. “I’ve fixed it,” he said to the shop girl, “everything should work again.” He kissed her on the lips and left.
“Is he Ishey?” I asked.
“Sure. Lives up the hill. They can fix everything, and he’s doing it for me because –” She stopped and blushed, at least she got a couple of shades darker.
“I can see that. Will you live up the hill too?”
“Perhaps when I get pregnant,” she said, and put the stopper back on the jar. “This one?”
She wrapped the jar in a cloth and tied ribbons around it. “It’s a cream, to rub behind her ears or between her legs. The scent comes with the warmth, and it’ll stay for half a day or more.”
I ran home with it, but I didn’t get to give it to Ashti right away because there were a lot of people in our backyard, building something from what looked like pieces of leftover timber. “It’s a cat tree! Sidhan said. “For the cats to climb!”
“What’s wrong with the willow tree? Or the alder tree for that matter?”
“They’re people trees!” I couldn’t disagree with that, I’d seen the children in those trees often enough. But the cats could surely climb them too. The cats themselves didn’t pay attention to the building, because Arvin and another boy were catching fish for them in the river.
In the house Ashti and Arni and Raisse were stirring the beer jar. Taking turns, not all at the same time, of course. Raisse was explaining to Arni how beer became beer, the same way she’d explained to us.
“I’m keeping an eye on it,” Ashti said to me out of earshot. “It would be a shame if her very first brew went wrong. And if it goes right, we know how to do it. Perhaps Arni could become a brewster too.”
Now we were out of earshot I could take Ashti to our bedroom and give her the parcel! She tied back her hair with the ribbon, then undid the covering. “It’s beautiful!” she said when she saw the little jar.
“Open it!” I said, and when she smelled the roses and the other things she grabbed me round the middle and swung me round and round. “So sweet of you!”
“The shopkeeper said to put it behind your ears or between your legs,” I said, and she did both, and it made her smell deliciously like roses.
“I love this so much!” she said. I confessed that Maile had put me up to it, but she said that Maile might have done that but I had chosen the right thing, and she loved me for it! (Not that she didn’t love me for a lot of other things, of course.)
Then she put the jar away very securely, next to the jar with our household money, where children and cats and nosey neighbours couldn’t get at it. “You know,” she said, “I’ve got snakes on my hands, what if I had mice on my feet? I could ask that girl who draws pictures to draw them and then I could prick them into my skin myself.”
I had to think about that for a while, but it didn’t seem like a bad idea. “And cat ears on your pussy?” I said, because some of the people building the cat tree had been talking about why it was called a pussy, was it because you could stroke it?
“Maybe, or a mouse’s tail — but then it looks like I’m devouring it and I don’t want that. We can try to find the girl on the Day of Anshen so we can talk about it.”
“Let’s take the children now and go to the Ishey,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll want to feed us.” So we rounded up the children, and Halla from next door said “I’ll keep an eye on Arni” so that was one worry less.
We passed the stable where Raisse had got all the horsehair for the sieve, then climbed up the hill. Halfway up there was a very large house, almost a village all squashed together. A lot of people were in front of it on a sort of outdoor floor, made of wood. They were all different colours, just like our neighbour had said. Someone saw us and came to greet us: Asa!
“How good that you’ve come,” she said. “I think you’ll be wanting a bath first in this heat!” And she took us through some corridors to a place where there was a small lake inside the house with a waterfall running out of it. We took our clothes off and went in the water, splashing at the shallow end. “I’ll get you some clean clothes,” Asa said, and she brought linen loincloths and a sort of rolled-up linen blankets for me and Arvin and long linen shirts for Ashti and the girls. “Now you’re real Ishey!” Asa said, and took us back to the outdoor floor. (It was called the veranda, I learned later.)
“Veh!” Asa called, and the Ishey man with the breasts who I’d seen at our house came up the hill. “I think we can do with another lamb.”
Now I could see that some men and boys were already roasting a lamb and a calf over a fire-pit some way down the hill. Arvin wanted to be part of it, and I sent him off with a gesture. I noticed that everybody still on the veranda were women and girls, and some babies who might or might not be boys, but by that time I had Ashti on my lap and I couldn’t very well go and join the men. Not that the women didn’t tease me for being brave enough to stay with them!
“Women are the boss with the Ishey,” Asa said, “Mazao is the king, but we decide what happens!”
Some girls –several had sallow skin and snub noses, they must be Asa’s– took Raisse and Sidhan away to do something with grain and water in a bowl in a corner. It looked like Raisse’s brewing. “Sewe!” one of the girls called, “can you heat it? Not to boil it, just warm it up.” And one of the darkest women stood up and stretched out her hands and steam started coming from the bowl.
“Doctor Cora taught her that,” Asa said. “And no, Sewe, you don’t show your masterpiece before we’re all drunk.” Not that there was anything to get drunk on, there was no beer or wine but only water and fruity things. “She can warm a man’s parts so he gets it up regardless,” Asa said, as if that was the most ordinary thing in the world. But I had Ashti on my lap, I didn’t need any warming from someone else!
We talked a lot, drank more water and juice, and at some point the men came up with platters of sliced meat. There were all kinds of vegetables, and what the girls had been making was a sort of porridge with honey and sweet spices.
Asa told us how she and Veh came by all those children: the first year they were together they’d been in a place near Rizenay where there was a great temple of the Mother, where people from the North (even further north than Rizenay) came to pray, and they heard babies wailing but it was very hard to get into the temple. When they finally got in, they’d found a statue of the Mother with another front instead of her back, and there was a baby girl in one side’s hands and a baby boy in the other, and lots of babies’ bones on the floor! “They were sacrificing them,” she said, and I knew that word only for giving a lock of your hair to Naigha or the first yield of your farm to Mizran, but this meant leaving the babies in the hands of the Mother to die! “And we’ve been back every year since, to fetch that year’s babies. I’ve got seventeen children now, only one is from my own belly but they’re all ours.”
The eldest girl wasn’t here; the little doctors had adopted her and taken her to Tylenay. I’d heard about the little doctors, but Asa could tell us more: they were young Iss-Peranian women, Doctor Cora’s apprentices, who had been living with the Ishey but working at the hospital, and the queen and the doctor had sent them to the east to build a hospital there. The Ishey missed them a lot!
When the stars came out, the men started to tell stories. All bragging! I could tell that it had rules, and that everybody knew that whatever they said wasn’t the truth, just tall tales.
The women, meanwhile, had started talking in a very strange way. It was all ordinary words, I could understand every single word, but it was as if they didn’t mean the same thing. I knew that Ishey had separate languages for men and women, but this sounded like women’s Ilaini! After a while Ashti suddenly understood it and translated it for me with her mind. I’m glad it was dark because some of what they said made me blush!
Finally we knew it was time to go home. We got the girls from a huddle of children — Sidhan asleep, Raisse almost — but Arvin was very awake, and when he saw we were going to take him away he stood up and said “I’ll tell you this! When our little cat Aidan ate his breakfast this morning, he first ate the whole world and then pooped it out again! So we’re all living in cat poop now!”
The Ishey men who were close enough slapped him on the back, and Mazao said, “You’re as good as any of us! Come back with more stories!”
I carried Arvin on one shoulder and Sidhan on the other, and Ashti carried Raisse and a bag of leftover lamb and veal that Asa had given her, and we got safely home and made a nest of blankets for the children and fed the cats scraps of meat.
Arvin came up to me, not nearly asleep yet, and asked, “Can you tell me something?”
“Maybe, what is it?”
“Well.” He had to think very hard. “Grandmother told us that the Nameless lies all the time. And when all the Ishey uncles were telling stories they were lying too! And I lied about the kitten! Aren’t we like the Nameless now?”
That was hard to explain to a four-year-old boy! But I tried anyway. “When the Nameless lies, he expects that everybody believes him. But when you and the Ishey uncles told the stories, you knew that it was just stories, and everybody who listened knew that too. That’s the difference.”
“So if we don’t believe what the Nameless says, then that’s just stories too?”
“I hope so, son.” But he was already asleep on my lap, and I put him back with his sleeping sisters.