Working and fighting

Ashti got work at a school somewhere between Master Sidhan’s house and the Order house, because the usual teacher was at home with a tiny baby. There was a teacher’s room over the school but the teacher didn’t live there (she had her own house with her husband, and now with the baby), so Ashti and I could have it! It even had a little kitchen with pots and pans and spoons and plates and stuff. Mialle went to live at Master Sidhan’s house, and Vurian too, they both got beds in the apprentices’ and journeymen’s attic.

In the morning I went to the Order house to use the smithy. I’d thought it would be wonderful to have the whole smithy to myself but I was rattling around in it and I wished there was a master and journeymen and apprentices all working! But I liked the work, repairing stuff that Rava hadn’t got round to. And after work I picked up Ashti at the school and we went to Master Sidhan’s for dinner and lessons. Dinner was a mountain of some kind of grain (rice, I learned later) with different sorts of meat and vegetables in bright-coloured sauces, yellow and brown and red and green. Some were sweet, some were hot, some just strange and unfamiliar, and all were delicious! Except that Ashti and Mialle couldn’t eat much of the hot ones, and my eyes watered too when I tried, but Vurian had got used to it when he was in Essle.

There were two more of Sidhan’s apprentices learning semsin, and a young man who came through the back door because he lived nearby, Jeran. “You’re the new schoolteacher, aren’t you?” he asked Ashti. “My little sister is in your class.”

She looked at him and screwed up her eyes. “Caille is your sister, right?”

“Right!”

Jeran was almost a journeyman in the Guild already but the rest of us were all beginners, so Sidhan started right from the beginning but let Jeran do some of the explaining and showing.

It got very late, and Ashti and I watched carefully when we walked home but nobody seemed to be interested in us.

What woke me up the next morning was the smell of pancakes. And after the pancakes I dropped Ashti at the school and went on to the Order house, where the morning service was just ending. “Lazybones!” someone said, and before I could protest Master Radan came and handed me a leather breastplate and a sword. “Training time!” And he taught me how to hold the sword, how to stand, how to move, all without hitting anything or being hit so I started to wonder what I needed the breastplate for. Then Vurian came along, and Master Radan sent me to wash my face and took him on in a training fight. It lasted a long time! Master Radan was old and not very fast on his feet any more, but every time Vurian tried to hit him he blocked the swing before it could get anywhere. I wanted to learn that, too!

Eventually Vurian did something wrong and the point of Master Radan’s sword was in his chest. “Good thing this is wood and not steel,” the master said, “or we’d have to call the priestesses! Right, off with you, I have more to do today.”

I waved to Vurian and went back to my pile of broken stuff. A couple of knives, a kitchen grate, a helmet with a hole in it, and then something interesting: a whole suit of steel armour! Not just a breastplate made of overlapping strips, but arm-plates hooked up to it with hinges and a kind of short skirt. It looked as if someone had got hit by a cart or something else really heavy while they were wearing it, and some of the strips of steel had come off the fastenings. I really didn’t know what to do with it. There was one in the weapons room that looked like it, and I went to look if I could see how I could mend it, but it turned out to be too different after all.

I caught the nearest person — it was Master Radan — and he asked “what do you intend to do?”

“Ask a master,” I said.

“Good choice. I think Master Jerna at the palace smithy might be able to help you.”

I put the suit on a wheelbarrow, because I sure wasn’t going to carry it all the way, and remembered to tell someone where I was going. I had sort of a map in my head — cross the bridge if I didn’t want to go all the way around the harbour, and cross again if I didn’t want to get stuck on the other side of the palace — but mostly I had to stay close to the Valda to keep going the right way. I passed a large market — good to know, I wanted to buy linen for shirts — and went through a whole lot of narrow streets where women were selling themselves. One called to me, “hey, young man, I make every man the happiest man in the world!”

“I live with a woman who makes me happier than anyone else can!” I called back, and that made her giggle with her friends.

Then there was another narrow street, full of smells that made me hungry. Bakeries and butchers and greengrocers! And shops that seemed to sell different coloured powders that smelt wonderful. I stopped at a baker’s window and bought a roll filled with meat. The baker raised an eyebrow at my wheelbarrow. “Your  masterpiece?”

“Nope,” I said, “my master went north with the queen and I’m going to ask another master what to do with this. But you are a master — at baking!”

There was a large yard in front of the palace, and in front of the yard there was a gate with two guards. I explained that I was Master Rava of the Order’s apprentice (I think I can say that!) but that she’d gone north with the queen, and I had some work I needed a master for and I’d been pointed to Master Jerna. They didn’t think that was strange, and anyway they could see the armour in the wheelbarrow, so they let me through right away. “Smithy’s in the front yard,” they said and pointed, but that could have been at anything because the yard was really busy.

It was like a village square! Except that it was surrounded by high whitewashed buildings. On one side there were sheds, on the other side stables. I thought the smithy was on the stables side, and that was where the dung-heap was too, and I had to step aside to avoid tripping up a girl chasing a chicken. The chicken ended up on top of the dung-heap, clucking as if it was laughing at the girl who was too short to reach it. But I wasn’t! I could just grab it by the legs and handed it to the girl, who said “Thanks!” and wrung its neck.

Now I could hear smithy noises, and yes, it was at the end of the row of stables. One young man who looked like a journeyman was shoeing a horse in front, other people were working inside, and I stood in the entrance with my wheelbarrow, patiently, until someone had time for me.

Then a woman who must be the master wiped her hands on a cloth (it didn’t make them much cleaner, I know about cloths like that) and came towards me. “Commission?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “I’m Ferin, Rava of the Order’s apprentice, and I’m working in her workshop now she’s gone with the queen, but for this piece of work I need a master and they told me you might be able to help.”

“Well, I’m a master. Name of Jerna. Show me.”

A couple of the apprentices came to look too. I took the breastplate out of the wheelbarrow and showed where it was broken. “There’s another one in the Order weapons room but the fastenings didn’t go like this but like that.”

“I know about that one — it’s a very old design, far too fussy in fact but it works. You’ll need to undo all the rivets, and make new ones if they’re broken.” She ran her hands over the bands that the breastplate was made up from. “And two or three bands need to be replaced. Goodness, did an elephant stand on it? Halla, Coran, you work on it with Ferin, good practice.”

The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon pulling the breastplate to pieces. It wasn’t done yet by far when a bell rang and everybody started tidying up. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Master Jerna said, and I didn’t mind at all, it was good to work in a workshop full of people! I washed up — I had to borrow a shirt again — and ran to the school where Ashti was just letting the children go home.

“That girl with the two braids must be Caille,” I said, “she looks like Jeran.” And she was!

Today we were having chicken stew, all yellow! “What makes it yellow?” I asked.

“Saffron,” someone said. That must be the strange taste, too, a bit bitter but nice enough. “It’s all foreign food!” I said, and Master Sidhan laughed and said that of course it was, she was a foreigner after all!

That evening there was more noise in the street than there had been. Master Sidhan was worried about it, and when Ashti and I went home she sent her journeyman Merain along with his sword.

And yes, when we were about halfway two people came out of an alley, with clubs in their hands! It was too dark to see what they looked like and even if they were men or women, but they clearly wanted to hit us with those clubs. Merain drew his sword, and I got in front of Ashti and pulled out my knife, and that chased them off. We didn’t want to follow them!

Later we wondered what they’d wanted, we didn’t look rich or anything! (Well, we had a gold crown each, but they didn’t know that and anyway we didn’t have them with us.) Perhaps they just tried with everybody who passed their alley, good thing we’d had Merain and his sword! “I’ll ask if I can borrow a sword tomorrow,” I said, “even if I can’t do anything with it yet!”

“You can stick it out in front of you and keep them further away than your arms can,” Ashti said. “It’s a good idea! I have my priestess knife but I haven’t ever used it yet, and it isn’t to fight with, of course. It’s to help people on their way to Naigha if they need to but can’t do it by themselves.”

“I’ll make you a proper knife,” I said.

Master Radan thought it was a good idea if I carried a sword, and he lent me one that looked as if it was meant for cutting people to pieces rather than just for training and sport, the handle wrapped in leather and the whole thing in a leather sheath. It felt strangely heavy on my belt, perhaps it was a bit heavier than the training sword too.

When I arrived at Master Jerna’s smithy with it she showed me where to hang it up safely and didn’t comment otherwise. There was another full day’s work on the breastplate, and the arm-plates too (more like half a sleeve, the whole outside of the upper arm) and Coran and Halla and I learned more about rivets than we knew there was to learn. In the middle of the day we all trooped into a cellar where long tables were set and ate bread and soup with other people who worked in the palace. “One advantage of working here and not in town,” Coran said, “you get your meals, and good ones too!”

All Master Jerna’s apprentices sounded like Vurian when they talked, even though they weren’t noble! It must be the way they talk in Valdis. They were curious about the way I talked, “you’re from the north, aren’t you?” but the only thing they knew about Nalenay was that it was where the queen had gone.

“Have you heard of Gulynay then? That’s where you go first when you go to Valdis. You can go south to Valdis or north to Rizenay from there, on a boat.” I didn’t tell them we’d come on foot, that would mean I’d have to tell the whole story and that was much too long.

“Rizenay is full of the Nameless,” Halla said. “And you’re not. Oh wait…”

I had to grin at that. “I grew up that way, yes.”

“But you’re with us now! Good for you!” Coran said, and clapped me on the shoulder.

When I got to Master Sidhan’s house she and Merain and Mialle were excited about something. It turned out that Mialle had found a clasp from a guildmaster’s mantle in a basket of old gold she was sorting, and she and Merain had gone to take it back to him and found out that all the clasps needed to be repaired. “I’ll go and talk with him over a glass of wine tonight,” Master Sidhan said, “you have the evening off, go to the Spotted Dog and eat Khas pie if you like. One advantage to doing business with the dean of the wine merchants’ guild.”

“Good wine,” I said.

“Yes, exactly.” We went off in a whole crowd, me and Mialle and Ashti and Merain and some of the master’s other apprentices. Vurian had to go to some family thing, but we met Jeran at the Dog, and Coran and Halla too, and everybody who had seen us there before wanted to celebrate that we were in the Guild of Anshen now and at one point they had Mialle on their shoulders, but I was too heavy to lift.

Over pie and beer Mialle told me about someone else who had been at the wine merchants’ guildhouse: a master in the Guild of the Nameless, Master Selevi. “She reached into my head and tried to grab me!” Mialle said, “but I yelled and Master Sidhan hit her mind and then she stopped. She thought we were prisoners too, like that lawman who wrote the letter. And that Master Sidhan was stealing their apprentices.”

“We’re not their apprentices any more,” I said, “so nobody’s stealing anything!”

“Yes, exactly!”

We ate and drank and tried to dance, but there wasn’t really enough room to dance so a lot of people — Jeran, too — said they were going on to the Mill. We wondered why they’d go to a mill in the evening, but the Mill was a place where you could dance all night, it seemed. Merain warned us that it wasn’t in a nice neighbourhood, perhaps too dangerous if you didn’t know the city well enough.

“Robbers?” I asked.

“Robbers, thieves, nasty people in general, the Nameless, you name it! That’s one advantage of not being gifted, the Nameless can’t be bothered to bother me.”

“Perhaps I’ll go in half a year or so,” I said, and we went home, in so large a group (and three of us with swords) that nobody came out of any alleys with clubs. The others dropped us off at the school, and Ashti put on the rainbow-coloured gown! She didn’t wear it long, though… And we didn’t sleep much.

The next day started very early, because it was the Day of Anshen. We’d been here more than a week! It seemed like a year. We were all going to the temple together, and then I’d finally be able to go to the market. I left my gold coin at home but took all my other money, four shillings and a penny.

Master Sidhan took Master Radan aside before the service, “can we have a word with you later?” I supposed it was about what Master Selevi did to Mialle, but Vurian and I were included too.

There was a woman I hadn’t seen before leading the service, small, thin and white-haired. “That’s Aunt Talvi,” Vurian whispered, “Uncle Ferin’s wife. She’s the chatelaine of the palace.” I didn’t know what a chatelaine was but she looked important, and good rather than nice. “Uncle Ferin is the royal general. They’re taking care of the kingdom with the king and the queen both away.”

After the service lots of people stayed for breakfast. Everybody put a couple of pennies into a jar for it, but we didn’t have to because Master Radan said we were his guests. He didn’t take us to the office that he was looking after for Master Seran, probably because it was too small, but to an empty room with a table, and had breakfast brought there, bread and cheese and ale.

Mialle told him everything about going to the wine merchants’ guildhouse and how Master Selevi had tried to grab her mind and what she’d said to Master Sidhan, that they had an arrangement where neither Guild was allowed to poach the other’s apprentices. I said what I’d said in Master Sidhan’s house before, “but we’re not their apprentices any more, right? I don’t think she had the right to do that.”

“No, she didn’t have the right, and I think it’s cause enough to issue an official reprimand,” Master Radan said. “Most of us are off to the north with the queen, of course, but I still have two people I can send to give her a good talking-to. May I see what she did to you?” he asked Mialle.

“Of course,” Mialle said.

He laid his hand on the side of her head and half closed his eyes. “She didn’t mark you.”

I could see that Mialle was relieved, suppose we’d have to get rid of another mark from a master of the Nameless! “I gave a yell and Master Sidhan hit her,” she said. “She was too distracted to put a mark on me, I think.”

Then Mialle asked if it was still useful to write a letter to the queen’s lawman, but Master Radan thought not, he could even feel insulted by it! It was probably not a good idea to insult the queen’s lawman, even if we didn’t mean to. But when I said that, Master Radan said that we should know the difference between Master Lyan the queen’s lawman and Master Lyan of the Guild of the Nameless. He knew that very well himself and wouldn’t let one get in the way of the other.

Now we young people could go to the market while Master Sidhan stayed to talk with Master Radan some more. Master Radan gave me three shillings, for a week’s work in the smithy! Now I had seven (and a penny). We went to the market I’d passed on my way to the palace, because I’d seen lots of stalls with fabrics and also second-hand clothes. I got enough coarse linen for six new shirts for two and a half shillings! It was a big parcel but the salesman wrapped it in an old cloth and tore the ends to tie into a handle.

While he was doing that, the others had found a clothes stall. When Ashti said she wanted a dress the stallkeeper said, “I’ve got just the thing for you!” and brought her a wonderful green dress and showed her to a little tent where she could put it on. Mialle went in with her to help with the ties.

“How much is it?” I asked when they were inside. The dress wasn’t new, and it had been re-made already, it had been embroidered once but someone had taken the thread out, probably to embroider something else with it, but it was still a beautiful colour. “Four riders,” the stallkeeper said, but Vurian talked it down to two and slipped two large silver coins into my hand, “I know you’ve got money, you can pay me back later.”

Ashti came out of the tent all dressed up! The dress was too large for her, but that was easier to fix than the other way round, and she needed an inset in the sleeve so she could move her arms, but I could take that out of the bit that was too long at the bottom and have some left over for a belt.

Then suddenly something whizzed past my ear and landed on Ashti’s breast with a splot! It was a clot of fresh horse-dung, and the people who had thrown it were standing nearby, grinning. Five people, men and women,  journeyman age.

Vurian was the first to do something — no, in fact Mialle was, she got some straw from somewhere and started cleaning the muck off Ashti, and then took her back to the changing-tent to put her own clothes back on. But Vurian immediately ran at the ringleader. He didn’t draw his sword or his knife, “this calls for fists,” he said.

Well, I had fists too! And I hit the nearest two with those at once and they fell down, and kicked a third in the shin so she stumbled and landed in the mud on her front. When she crawled up again, the clothes-seller grabbed her and I could go and help Vurian who was fighting two at once.

Now he had his knife out, because one of the other two had a knife too. I gave the other a kick and that I think broke his kneecap, but I couldn’t reach the one with the knife yet, and he was fast, and jumped aside so Vurian missed him. But before he could stab Vurian someone caught him by the arm: the man who’d sold me the linen. “I’ve called for the watch,” he said.

Vurian dusted off his jacket, stood up straight, and said “I’m Vurian astin Brun. This will not go unnoticed.” And he made a grab at the face of the man who had almost stabbed him and it looked like he pulled something off, sort of like the seals we’d been learning to make. Now I could see very well that he was in the Guild of the Nameless, and he’d been hiding himself! He did it to the other four people too, even the ones who were still knocked out from my fists, and it made a difference for all of them.

“Wow,” I said.

“I am a grand master apprentice,” Vurian said.

There were more people around us now, when the watch came they had to make room for them. “We were alerted that someone was provoking a fight in the market,” one of the watch said. “Robbery?”, looking at Vurian’s noble clothes and at Ashti’s tear-streaked face. By now I had my arms around her very tightly.

“Guild stuff,” Vurian said. “I think they may be after Mialle and Ferin.”

“Better all come along to the watch-house and we’ll get to the bottom of this.” So we did, in a strange procession, but not before I’d paid the stallkeeper the two riders for the dress. I folded it so the dirt was on the inside and gave it to Ashti to carry, because I had to carry one of the unconscious people while a watchman carried the other. And I think Mialle carried my package of linen. At the watch-house I asked for a bucket of water to soak the dress in, because once horse-dung dries you’ll never get it out!

At the watch-house we started to tell everything that had happened, but before we were finished a large man dressed in something that looked like a uniform (not a soldier’s uniform, but there was a lot of braid on it) came in with a smaller man. The large man was the sheriff and the small man a doctor. The doctor looked at the unconscious people and asked “Who did this?”

“Er, me,” I said. “They call me Ironfist.”

“Hm. Well, they’ll have a bit of a headache but I dare say they deserve it.” Then he did something to their heads, with his mind, and they were both awake at once, grabbing their heads as if they had a hangover.

“Right,” the sheriff said, “I hear it’s Guild trouble. Anyone care to elucidate?”

Then we had to tell everything yet again but the sheriff knew how to listen, and to ask the right questions. “Don’t I know you?” he asked the man who had had the knife. “Didn’t I tell you that next time it would be the galleys in Essle? Well, that’s for Lord Ferin to decide. I hope he puts you away for a good long time,”

Then he asked the five people the right questions, and found out that someone had paid them five shillings to get at us. And he also had them searched: they had clubs and knives and purses with a lot of money! Perhaps two of these had tried to attack us from the alley with the clubs, or even all five of them with the other three still out of sight. They were cowards anyway, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

“Lock them up,” the sheriff said. “Their possessions are forfeit, we’ll wait for Lord Ferin to dispose of those, but I think you can have some compensation for the damage.” And he gave Ashti four riders from one of the purses! Then he wrote down our names and where we were living and promised that we’d be called as witnesses.

“Is Lord Ferin your Uncle Ferin?” I asked Vurian when we were outside again. “The boss of all the soldiers?”

“Not all the soldiers. He’s not his own boss. There’s one man who is the boss of all the soldiers in the country including him.”

“The king!” I said. “But of all the other soldiers?”

“Yes, and he’s the regent now as well so he gets to hear petitions and decide cases like these. It might even be tomorrow, it’s often on the Day of Naigha.” He took us through a street where I hadn’t been before, into a building that was all of polished stone like a huge Temple of Mizran. “This is the best bath-house in Valdis. I think we all need a bath.”

“I don’t have any clean clothes with me!” I said. “Only a dozen yards of linen and I can’t sew that fast.” Anyway, I still needed to buy needles and thread, that would have been the next thing to get in the market

“It’s amazing that you can sew at all,” Vurian said, “but don’t worry, while we wash someone will clean our clothes. And wash Ashti’s dress.” I was still carrying it in the bucket. That would have to go back to the watch-house, I hoped they didn’t need it.

Vurian seemed to be at home here, he knew exactly what to do! There was a room to undress and give our clothes to a brown girl, then a room with tubs of warm water and sponges to wash ourselves, then another room where a different brown girl came and washed our hair, and then yet another brown girl — they looked like they were all sisters — asked whether we wanted a private bath or get into the shared one. “We’re clean already!” Ashti said. “Why should we get into the bath again?”

“To soak in warm water,” Vurian said. “Trust me. — We’ll use the shared bath,” he said to the brown girl, and she took us to a large room with a basin in it that looked big enough to swim in. Steam came from the water, it was really warm, and people were already sitting on benches along the edges of the basin, in the water. There must be benches in the middle too, because there were also people sitting there.

“How does the water get warm?” Mialle asked the brown girl, and she said there was a large furnace right under the basin.

We sat down on a bench, and it was really nice! One thing was a bit strange — we were all naked, of course, and people were really noticing Ashti’s snake marks.

Then a man got up from another group and walked in our direction. Vurian got up too and met him in the middle. “No,” he said to the man, “not now. We’re in the bath. If you need to talk to us, do it some other time.”

He came back, sat down again, and said, “I have no time for Hallei Lyan now. And he shouldn’t be bothering you, either.”

“That was the queen’s lawman?” I asked.

“The same.”

When we got out of the bath the girl who had washed our hair came and rubbed us with oil, all different scents, mine was a bit spicy and Ashti’s deliciously flowery. And our clothes were there, shaken out and brushed clean, because there’d been no time to wash and dry them, but it was good enough. “Shall we send your parcels somewhere?” the girl asked, and we thought Master Sidhan’s house would be the most convenient: there was always someone there for safety, the journeymen took turns staying, but the school was closed. Ashti had told me that some of the parents had wanted the school to be open because they did their best trade on the Day of Anshen, but she was a teacher, not a childminder, and everybody needed one day in the week off!

It was late afternoon when we left the bath-house. I thought I’d want to go back to the market and buy needles and thread and perhaps a pair of breeches, but Vurian had other ideas. “I’ll take you to the Three Kings,” he said, “that’s something you shouldn’t miss when you’re in Valdis. I’ll put it on the family account, I can treat my friends once in a while!”

“What is the Three Kings?” I asked.

“The most famous inn in all of Valdis. One wall is all painted, that’s the one it’s called after, Vegelin the First and Vegelin the Great and old King Athal — not the one we’ve got now but his great-grandfather. And there are pictures of all the kings and queens on the other walls, the last one got finished before Athal went off to Solay so he’s still got both of his eyes in it.”

I’d seen the very large inn opposite the palace that was the Three Kings, of course, but hadn’t paid any attention! People knew Vurian there, they called him “young Lord Vurian”, and when he said he wanted a table for himself and his friends we got one in the gallery, because downstairs it was completely full. I didn’t mind at all, we had a very good view of the painted wall!

All three of the kings were small men with red hair. The one on the left had a large bushy beard and a furry cloak. “Is that a goatskin he’s wearing?” I asked.

“Probably a bearskin,” Vurian said. “He was the very first king, before we were civilised. I like Vegelin the Great’s clothes best.” The king in the middle looked very elegant in almost the same shade of green as Ashti’s new dress. The third king was old, his hair faded and streaked with white, and he was wearing a long dark blue robe and a worried look.

And then someone came to ask what we wanted to eat and drink. I asked for beer, and then Ashti wanted beer too, and Mialle and Vurian wanted wine. “I think we’ll start with jellied eels,” Vurian said, “and sturgeon, have you ever had that? It’s a fish, about THIS size–” he spread his arms as wide as they would go “–no fisherman can boast about it, because they’re even bigger than that. Tastes like the best pork belly if pigs were fishes.”

“Mmm, pork,” I said. “But of course it’s not the time for slaughtering.”

“I think pigs are slaughtered every day in Valdis,” Vurian said. “But it is the time for suckling pigs. Let’s have a suckling pig, and some birds, and young carrots and turnips, and whatever else comes from the garden now.” He turned to us. “Anything else you’d like to eat?”

“Ham?” I said. “From where we come from? It all went to Valdis, we never got it except those that weren’t good enough.”

“Now that is a good idea!” Vurian said. “Some ham from Nalenay,” he said to the server. “That’s what it’s called, right?” he asked me.

The ham came first, and it needed four people! First a man with a thing that looked like a wooden crate without any short sides, then a boy with the ham itself, then a man with knives and a woman with plates and a basket of bread. The crate carrier put it on the table next to us that was still empty, the ham went inside it, then the man with the knives cut thin slices and put them on the plates that the woman handed him. Then the procession went away again and we were left with the basket of bread — as beautiful as the bread we’d had at Vurian’s grandfather’s house — and our plates of ham.

Vurian put a slice of ham on a piece of bread and bit into it. Ashti did the same, but then popped a piece of ham in her mouth without bread. “It’s better this way!” she said, and we all tried and found it better and decided to keep the bread for later and just eat all the ham.

Downstairs we could see the procession going to a small table with two people at it, the woman who’d led the temple service and a grey-haired man. “Look, Uncle Ferin and Aunt Talvi,” Vurian said. “They never had any children of their own, I think Aunt Talvi was sick or something when she was young, but they adopted a bunch. They’re all grown up now. I should really go down and greet them but I’m eating ham now.”

“And they’re eating ham too,” Mialle said, “you can talk to them later, I suppose.”

But then we were too busy to talk for a long time, because after the ham there was fish, eels in a bright green sauce and a dish full of small pieces of some large fish with the fish-head on a separate dish beside it.”They show the head so you know how large the fish is,” Vurian said, “we don’t eat that! Just the pieces.” And he was right, it tasted like pork belly if pigs were fishes.

“Now we get a suckling pig and all those birds, right?” Ashti asked. “Then I’d better stop eating eels or I’ll have no room in my belly any more.”

“We can have it wrapped and sent home,” Vurian said, “would you like that?”

“Let’s have it sent to our house,” Ashti said, “then you and Mialle can come to dinner tomorrow!”

And then the pig came — I think we ate most of that, there was only one leg left — and pigeons and pheasants, and a huge bowl of different small green leaves drenched with vinegar, and tiny buttered carrots and turnips.

“That’s better than my cousin’s party!” Vurian said, and then of course we made him tell everything about his cousin’s party, where he’d had to eat all kinds of tiny bites that didn’t taste of anything, and dance the old court dances, all slow and stately. “And they kept throwing their daughters at me hoping to marry them off.”

“Do you have to marry who your family says?” I asked.

“No, we don’t go that far, though when you’re noble you meet more noble people your age so it’s likely that you’ll end up with one of those. But we can marry whoever we like. Brun marries Hayan or Velain, usually. More often Hayan because there’s more of them. There’s one Hayan girl who’s really interested in me, but she’s a bit… well, you know.”

I didn’t know, but I could guess.

A man came up the stairs, looked around and came to our table. “That’s my uncle Jeran,” Vurian said. “Well, uncle, I think he’s my second cousin once removed.” There was a girl behind him, kind of pretty but I thought she didn’t look very clever.

“Ah, Vurian,” the man said. “Regards from your Uncle Ferin. He can’t climb the stairs himself because of his leg, so he sent me. Are these your friends who were involved in the altercation in the market this morning?”

“Yes,” Vurian said, and we all introduced ourselves. “Jeran astin Hayan,” the man said. “My daughter Hinla.” The girl giggled and made puppy eyes at Vurian.

“Ferin astin Brun asked me to say that the trial will be tomorrow, an hour before mid-day, and you’re all invited to attend.”

“That means ‘required to attend’,” Vurian said to us, and to his cousin, “We’ll be there.”

It would be easy for me because I was going to be in the palace anyway! I didn’t think Lord Ferin would mind having a witness who smelt of the smithy.

“Is that the girl?” I asked when Jeran and Hinla had gone. Vurian nodded. “Well, as your good friend –and I think I am that– I’d advise you to find someone else.”

“As your good friend I can tell you I took that advice before you gave it,” Vurian said.

People came to take the leftovers away, and then two women arrived carrying a large dish between them with a thing I’d never seen before. It looked like a cake, completely round like an apple but the size of my head, and it was on fire! The fire went out after a while and one of the women cut slices of the cake and handed them round. “I can’t!” Ashti said, but she managed to eat at least a few bites of it. “If we can get this sent home too I’ll eat a tiny bit every day!”

It was delicious, tasting of something I didn’t recognise but it was definitely some kind of fruit, and marzipan in the middle, and with a sharp taste about it that reminded me of apple brandy but without the apple, or perhaps it was the fire I tasted. Even I couldn’t eat much of it, I was all full of eel and sturgeon and pig and bird and vegetables and bread!

“Better stay at the palace tonight,” Vurian said, “there’s bound to be a free guest room with all those people off to the north with Raisse. We can put the food in a cool larder so you can take it with you tomorrow.”

“We’ll have to send word to Master Sidhan that we’re not coming home tonight,” Mialle said.

“You can tell her, right?” Vurian said with a grin, but Mialle was perhaps too tired for it because try as she might she couldn’t reach her. When I tried I got a very clear image of Master Sidhan in my mind, drinking wine from her gold goblet, and I could talk to the image and it talked back, so I think I got it right! She even knew about the fight and everything. Can you tell Master Radan that I won’t be at sword practice? I don’t think I can manage that. And the image of Master Sidhan smiled and nodded. I didn’t know if I meant that I couldn’t manage to call Master Radan as well, or that I couldn’t manage to get to sword practice in time, but it was probably both true.

Vurian got us through the palace gates without any trouble. “I’ll find a page, wait a moment,” he said, and came back with a boy of about ten who knew where there were empty guest rooms. We got three, one for me and Ashti, one for Vurian and one for Mialle, all the beds already made up with lavender-scented sheets (just like at home, but these sheets were of much finer linen) as if they were expecting guests at any time.

In the night we heard noises coming from the room next to us that reminded me of Layse and Yssa. “Did you see that coming, too?” Ashti asked.

“Sort of,” I said. At least I’d been hoping for it. I liked both of them a lot, and the noises sounded very happy.

in the morning we saw Vurian and Mialle coming out of Mialle’s room together. They looked happy, too. “Vurian says I’m not pregnant,” Mialle said, “but I’ll go and ask Master Sidhan about herbs, I’m sure she knows.”

“Otherwise you can ask a priestess of Naigha,” Ashti said, sounding very serious but with twinkling eyes. Vurian took both her hands and was about to say something but then he stopped and looked at her closely.

“If nothing goes wrong there will be two more of you by the feast of Timoine,” he said.

It took Ashti a while to let that sink in. “Two? It must run in the family then. A boy and a girl again?”

“I can’t see that,” Vurian said, “just that they’re there. Look.” And he showed us, two tiny sparks of life, too small to see anything yet except that they existed.

“Well. — I really must go to the temple now.”

“Not now, I hope,” Vurian said, “let’s first have breakfast.”

I was all prepared to go and see if there was any breakfast in the apprentices’ eating-hall, but Vurian took us to a hall higher up than that, where there were long tables set like at his grandfather’s house, and food on tables along the side of the hall.. We got something to eat and sat down, Vurian and Mialle on the inside of the square, Ashti and I on the outside. We hadn’t even started properly when Hinla astin Hayan came in, saw Vurian, looked again and saw Vurian and Mialle clearly being together, and came to scold him. I don’t remember what she said but it definitely wasn’t friendly!

“Hinla,” Vurian said as calmly as he’d said in the market that he was Vurian astin Brun, “I’m eating my breakfast. And my friends are eating their breakfast, too. Will you please go away?”

She went away, fuming. There was nothing else she could do, except perhaps tear Mialle’s hair out but she was on the wrong side of the table for that.

“It’s not so much Hinla who wants me,” Vurian said. “Well, she does, but it’s mostly her father. For the inheritance. My grandfather has made me his heir, when he dies I’ll be the lord of Liorys. I hope he lives very long, I want to finish school and become a doctor first, but it is in his will. And there’s my uncle’s hunting lodge that I’m going to inherit — and I don’t want to inherit that any time soon because I like my uncle a lot, but he’s over eighty years old so probably he will die one of these days.”

“What’s a hunting lodge?” I asked.

“A house, in the wood, where you go to stay in the hunting season. And hunt, of course. Deer and hares and pheasants and things.”

And then it was suddenly time for Ashti to go and open the school, and for Mialle and Vurian to run to Master Sidhan’s house. And I was actually early for my work! Even before Halla, though Coran was already stoking up the fire when I arrived.

We’d made the whole breastplate into a pile of separate pieces when a page came to fetch me. “Do I have time to wash?” I asked, and yes, he’d fetched me early especially so I could. When I was clean he took me into the palace, up a flight of stairs, where I met Ashti and Mialle and Vurian.

“Could you get away from the school easily?” I asked Ashti.

“Master Sidhan got a priestess of Naigha to take over,” she said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone so she’s staying the whole day and I’ll be back tomorrow.”

The five accused were already in the room when we came in, kneeling in front of a higher bit of the room where Lord Fian was sitting behind a table, Master Lyan beside him. We got seats in the front row. The sheriff and the watchmen and the man and woman from the market were in the front room too, There were some people just watching, but not many, probably only people who lived in the palace and didn’t have work to do just at that moment.

We all had to tell Lord Ferin what had happened. It was interesting to hear that everybody said different things but all those things made up the whole story, and Lord Ferin was very good at putting it together. And even better than the sheriff at asking the right questions. But even he couldn’t get the accused to say who had hired them, only some unknown “she” who had paid them five shillings to do away with us. Us, being me and Mialle, the defectors. (So it was more likely to be Selevi than Mernath, or they’d have wanted Ashti too.) Then I couldn’t hold still any more and I said “If you wanted me you should have hit me, not someone who didn’t have any part in it!” and the man who’d had the knife — probably the leader of the bunch — smiled and said “But you should have seen your face! No better way to get at you than to get at her.” That earned him a cuff from one of the watchmen, and a look on Lord Ferin’s voice that said he’d have liked to deliver the cuff himself.

Eventually Lord Ferin talked in a low voice to Master Lyan, and Master Lyan looked something up in one of the books he had on the table, and there was some back-and-forth and then Lord Ferin told the five what punishment they were getting. They’d be going to Essle with an escort of soldiers, to row the viceroy’s boats (“that’s an under-king, Lord Uznur, he’s the king’s friend, he looks after Essle for him”, Vurian whispered to us) for five years, three if they behaved well enough.

It still wasn’t clear whether they’d been paid five shillings each or five shillings between the five of them, but that wasn’t important any more because Lord Ferin took all their money and divided it, some for us, some for the royal treasury, some for the temple of Mizran to give to the poor.

“Would you like to see where I’m working now?” I asked Ashti, and yes, she would! So I went back to the smithy and did some more work and Ashti tried to see what was going on while staying out of the way. Master Jerna taught me to fold and hammer a strip of iron even more than when it’s going to be a knife, so it became thin and tough and bendy enough for a new band of the breastplate. And then it was time to go home and the work still wasn’t finished!

“Looks like we’re going to have you here for the whole week,” Master Jerna said, but she didn’t look as if she minded, and I didn’t mind either. I can work on my own but that doesn’t mean I like to work alone!

“Now I need to go in here,” Ashti said when we passed the Temple of Naigha. A young priestess opened the door for us and took us through a maze of little corridors, through a room where a priestess was lying in a bed nursing a tiny baby — born in the wrong season too — into another room that must be on the far side of the building because it looked out on a garden. “Mother is still resting, I’ll tell her you’re here,” the young priestess said, and disappeared.

After a while a very old woman came in through the other door than we’d come in. “Ashti,” she said. “Maile in Liorys has told me about you.”

I could see that Ashti didn’t really know what to say, but the high priestess didn’t seem to need that. “You will come back, of course. Not now, perhaps not soon. But you will.”

“I know,” Ashti said.

Then the high priestess turned to me and asked, “And what will you do, young man?”

“I’m Master Rava’s apprentice now,” I said, “and I’m going to be a master smith, and I might join the Order.”

“I didn’t know that!” Ashti said, shocked.

“I didn’t know it either until now.”

“But if one of the children is a boy, or both, you’ll have the responsibility for them. I can keep a girl with me in the temple, but not a boy, you saw that with Arvin. You can’t have that in the Order.”

“They say the Sworn aren’t allowed to love,” the high priestess said. “But that is not true. They may, and they do. What they’re not allowed to do is to take responsibility for another person. And it often breaks their hearts.”

I couldn’t imagine going back to Nalenay, but if Ashti was going back to the temple there with children who were mine as well as hers, perhaps I would. But it would be years before that came up and we all had much to learn until then.

The high priestess sent us away with a blessing, and we went home quickly and found all the food from the Three Kings neatly packed in the kitchen. The priestess who had taught instead of Ashti must have opened the door! We got out all our dishes and plates and cups and Ashti arranged all the food on dishes so it looked nice and you couldn’t really tell that it was only leftovers. And I laid the table with an almost-white tablecloth that I found in one of the cupboards, and mismatched plates and cups. We were just finished when Vurian and Mialle knocked on the door. They were carrying a jug each.

“We brought beer and cider,” Vurian said. “Ah! I see dinner is ready.” And we joked a bit about the best kitchen in the city and ate and talked.

Vurian wanted to stay in Valdis until the queen came back, “I’m curious! But it’ll be another couple of weeks, and I won’t be in Turenay in time for Midsummer. Not that there are lessons then, but I’d so like to celebrate the feast there. Oh! I know something! Won’t you all come to Liorys for the feast? You could stay in the city but it’s so nice to have it outside.”

“And now we can go into the temple!” I said. “I’m for it. I like your grandfather a lot.”

“I think he likes you, too,” Vurian said. “So we’ll do that?”

“Sure. If the queen comes back just then will she stay, too?”

“The queen celebrates the feast wherever she happens to be, sometimes in Valdis, sometimes in Turenay, and a couple of years ago even in Rizenay, so why not?”