Hunting the brat

In twenty years, the Spotted Dog will have a chubby Khas cook. Unless Bakhmet is one of those people who use up all that food energy for semsin work and stays as thin as a rail, like Sedi.

I like these characters so much that I’m sorry it’s not the start of a campaign (the other player lives 3+ hours away so it would be hard). But the GM did an amazing job of rounding off the adventure, and I think we’ve gained a new recurring adversary or two.

I’m going to tell you about this adventure we had, Bathukan and I. It was all Kusay’s fault of course, like most things. It started a couple of weeks ago– no, when it really started was last summer when the mage’s daughter suddenly appeared in the village and told stories about her travels. Only a little girl, called Fikmet, my sister Tamsin’s age but a lot smaller, and she talked really funny but that seems to be how they talk in the homeland. Kusay was all enthralled, and he talked of going to see the world himself, or at least the big city! And then two weeks ago he went out in the morning, we thought hunting, but he never came back.

Mother kept telling Father that he should go after him, but Father said that he had better things to do, a battalion to run. “He’s your own son,” Mother said, and she was right, Kusay is Father’s son by another woman, called Raisse, who was one of the regiment whores when Bathukan and I were babies. She went away and three seasons later came back with a squalling bundle that she left in our tent and disappeared again. Mother had just lost a baby so she took him in and raised him as our brother, and we were so used to him that he didn’t look strange to us any more, even with his pale skin and pointy nose. But he’s always been a brat.

Mother got weepier and weepier, and Father angrier and angrier, and they both took it out on me and Bathukan when the babies caught the mood and got noisy and whiny. In the Midwinter night it was worse than it had ever been. We took everyone out to sit by the fire because Father had threatened to beat all of us if they kept crying, and we made a plan to go after Kusay ourselves. “Tamsin,” I said, “Bathukan and I will go find Kusay, so you’re the oldest, you’re in charge of the little ones. I could handle you kids when I was nine, so I know that you can!” She looked a bit dubious, after all she would be the one beaten now if they didn’t behave, but she set her jaw and nodded.

Just as we were taking everyone inside again — Ishi and the baby were asleep, and the little boys ready to drop– Mother came out of the tent bleary-eyed and started the morning porridge, and then Father came out too, said “I hope there’s some pork in that porridge when I come back!” and stalked off on his morning inspection. We hastily took down some of the dried meat and apples and some flatbread. “Make sure you catch him!” Tamsin said, “and when he’s nasty to you, cut off his head and bring it back!” “Yes, in a leather sack,” Bathukan said, and Tamsin brought him a leather sack big enough for a boy’s head that we put the food in. I took Father’s waterskin, made from the skin of the roebuck that Bathukan caught the winter before last, if he missed it he could catch a roebuck of his own! And before we left, I asked the snake to take care of the tent.

Bathukan had his sword and bow and arrows, and we both had our knives and slings. We tried to sneak out but people saw us anyway, of course, the camp was waking up. (I say “camp” but it’s a village really, called Barracks because it’s a village of soldiers, some people live in tents and others in huts of mud or wood. The king gave it to our people before I was even born. We have one of the oldest tents in Barracks, our father’s father’s father made it, and our tent-snake is eight feet long and as thick as my thigh.) Sepideh jostled me as we passed, “going hunting? I wish I had a brother to take me!” and Bathukan’s friends jeered at him, “nursemaiding your sister?” but I snapped “Skinning is women’s work!” and they didn’t have a retort to that.

We didn’t know where to look for Kusay, after all it had been two weeks and we could hardly track him like a deer, but I thought it would be a good idea to ask the priestess of Nah who came to teach us our letters (well, not us any more, but the younger ones) once a week and lived in the next village. She must know a lot more people than we did. The village was only about an hour away, and it was barely light when we saw the first houses and met a farmer feeding pigs.

“Hey, neighbours! Out early, hunting?”

“Yes,” Bathukan said, “we might bag a deer.”

“Well, I’m in the market for two hares,” the farmer said, “give you two shillings each.”

“Let’s do that,” I said, “hares are easy, and then we’ve got money in case we need it!” So we went to the cabbage field, empty of cabbages now except the stalks, and sure enough a hare raised up its long ears and sniffed the air. I got it with a slingstone, and Bathukan another one almost at once.

The farmer counted shiny shillings into our hands. Bathukan put his in his belt pouch and I mine in my sash. “Thank you!” And we were off to the village, where the temple of Nah stood. It was easy to recognise –if only by the spicy smell of incense just like the priestess’ robe– but there was nobody inside. We sat down on the low wall around the yard to wait..

After a while a woman came to get water from the well and I spoke to her. “Mistress! We’re looking for the priestess of Naigha,” remembering the Valdyan name. “Isn’t she here?”

“Oh, she’ll be at Arin’s house, it being Midwinter. Where the holly is.” I didn’t know what holly was, so I must have looked puzzled, because she said “Holly! Green spiky leaves, red berries. Over Arin’s door.” She pointed at a nearby house with a sprig of leaves over the door. “Just knock.” But there was a jokey sound to her voice, as if she was playing a prank on us, and I didn’t really dare.

Bathukan did knock on the door after a while. We waited some more, and then the priestess opened the door, in a grey shift and barefoot and with her braid all messed up. “Oh! Weren’t you in my class a couple of years ago? Is anyone ill in your village? Do you need me to come?”

“No,” we said, “but we’re looking for our brother and we’ve come to ask you for help.”

She sighed. “Oh, well. Give me half an hour. Go make some tea in the temple, won’t you?” Bathukan didn’t want to go into the temple without the priestess there, but I found a kettle and hung it over the fire, and plucked some dried mint from a bunch hanging from the rafters.

Then the priestess came in, dressed properly though her robe was black on one side and whitish-grey on the other instead of the grey robe she wore for lessons. She gave us bread and cheese and insisted that we eat and drink before listening to us. It was a bit annoying because it didn’t help us find Kusay but I was too hungry to care.

“Now tell me about your brother,” the priestess said.

We told her that he’d listened to Fikmet and we thought he’d gone away because he wanted to be like her and see the world. “But now we’re all so worried and it makes Mother unhappy. He didn’t tell us he was going, let alone where he was going.”

“How old is he? Eleven? Usually when boys that age run away they go either into the woods or to the big city.” And he’d talked about the city, so it was likely that he’d gone there! “I’ll write a letter to the High Priestess for you. It’s easy, when you go into the city you cross the first bridge and keep going along the water, not quite as far as the palace but until you get to the market, and you can’t miss the Temple there.” She gave us some more bread and cheese to take along, which went into the leather bag with our own food. “Don’t talk to any strangers at the harbour,” the priestess said, which made me wonder why especially there.

When we left the temple there was a man standing in the doorway under the holly. “Spoiling my fun, are you?” he asked us, but with a grin on his face, and he gave us a sausage from his kitchen.

It was half a day’s walk to the city, and it was getting colder, even started to snow a little. Once we got on the river road it was quite busy. A young man carrying a basket full of dead pheasants, at least twenty, caught up with us and wanted to talk. We didn’t tell him much, only that we had a letter for the temple of Naigha, but he had quite enough to say: he was going to sell his pheasants at the palace, the king loved birds on the table, he’d get a good price for them. When we said we’d been hunting hares, he said “Hares are good to sell at the palace too! Four shillings each, you get for them.”

We got to the gate– it was huge, two gates in one really, one over the water for boats to go through and one on the road for people and carts. There was a guardsman who made us write our names in a book, “Khas, eh? Can you write at all?” but we could, of course, I write a lot better than Bathukan but he can write his name without any trouble.

Inside the city it was so busy and noisy that it confused us. We met the young man with the pheasants again, who walked with us until we got to the bridge. “If you get lost just ask the way to the Vixen!” he said. “It’s a nice place, good food and drink, and you might find me there.” I wasn’t sure that I’d want to find him, he was sort of creepy, but I thanked him and we went over the bridge while he went straight ahead.

There were lots of places here where it looked as if people made something: rope, wooden things, whole boats, but nobody was working though it was the middle of the day. We did see a lot of people, but they were mostly standing outside eating and drinking places, eating and drinking and talking. Eventually we got to a large empty place, but we hadn’t seen a market anywhere, so we stood there looking blank until a woman asked “Are you lost?” but no, we weren’t, we just wanted to get to the market. “There’s no market today,” she said, “it’s the Feast of Naigha!”

“We don’t want the market,” I said, “but the Temple of Naigha that’s at the marketplace!” And that was easy, it was a large building made of dark red bricks, with a low wall around it just like the village temple, and it was full of women and girls dressed in grey and black, some no older than me.

“Excuse me?” I said to one of the women. “We have a letter for the High Priestess.”

She tutted at that. “The High Priestess is very old, and she’s not up yet after the midnight services. Can someone else handle it?” But we showed the letter and it was addressed to the High Priestess, and the village priestess had sealed it with wax, so we didn’t know. “Well, at least come and have something to eat,” the priestess said. And yes, we were hungry! We’d completely forgotten to eat something from the leather bag. We got taken to a large room where people were eating at tables and someone gave us bowls of grits with bits of black pudding. It tasted all right, but I saw some of the young priestesses wrinkling their noses at it.

They were all talking, twittering like starlings, I’d never have thought that priestesses could be so noisy! The one next to me said to her neighbour “Next year you should go to the house I had this time, really worth it!” Then they talked about holly a bit, and I was beginning to realise what the holly was for: to invite priestesses into your house!

After a while a very old woman in black and grey came into the room and looked around until she saw us. “Khas children, that must be you,” she said. “Children? You’re almost a Khas man.”

“Yes,” Bathukan said, “I’m going into the army next season. Look, here’s my sword.”

We gave her the letter and she read it through what looked like a piece of ice on a stick. “Hm, your brother, does he look at all like you?”

“Half-brother, no, not at all, he’s got brown hair and light brown eyes and much lighter skin than us and a narrow nose,” Bathukan said.

“That could still be anyone,” she said, and called another priestess. “Hylti! Did you take a boy of eleven into the hill, brown hair and eyes and a narrow nose?”

“No,” the other priestess said, “well, the smith from Half Moon Street’s boy, but I’ve known him since he was born and he had the measles.”

Another word I didn’t know. “What is that, measles?”

“It’s a sickness, first you have a runny nose and teary eyes and a fever and you’re covered in red spots, and then you die. Or get better, sometimes.”

“But you’ve had that!” I said to Bathukan. “You got better, though.”

“And you’ll never get it again all your life,” the priestess said.

We weren’t really sure what to do now, “But can you help us find Kusay?” Bathukan asked the high priestess. “The priestess back home said you would.”

“Can you show him to me?” she asked.

“Of course not! Then he would be here, wouldn’t he?”

But the high priestess touched his forehead and I could see that something happened but not exactly what. “Ah, you haven’t learned anything yet, of course. You Khas don’t, I suppose, Well, except Kusay.” That must have made me look very puzzled because she said, “Our Kusay”, and a man of about thirty came forward, dressed like a priestess, even with a long braid over his shoulder and the snake markings on his arms, but it was clear that he was a man because he had a beard as well, and he was very clearly Khas too.

“I thought the Valdyans had only priestesses of Naigha!” I said.

“We do,” the high priestess said, “but Kusay was already a priest, he just needed to learn our ways, and now he’s one of us and he doesn’t want to go back. So we’re keeping him.”

Bathukan had been watching the priest for a long time, screwing up his eyebrows, and now he asked “How do you get your hair to stay in a braid?” Because his, and mine too, was much too straight and slippery to stay in place.

“Butter,” he said. “A whole lot of butter. Fish glue works too, but that’s harder to get out and it smells so. I used that when I was a novice.”

“And what do you do in the Midsummer night?” Bathukan asked. So he had figured it out too, probably before I did, I know my brother.

“Well, that was a bit of a problem. But fortunately I know a nice man who likes men, and we made an arrangement. He did put holly on his door, but he already knew who was coming.”

I had other things to think about than holly and Khas priests of Naigha. It took some courage to ask the high priestess, “What did you do to Bathukan? Did you look into his head?”

“Yes, you can say that. He was thinking of your brother and I could see how he sees him, so now I know that I’ve never seen your brother before but I’d know him if I did.”

“Does that mean he’s been touched by the gods?”

“Yes– we call that ‘gifted’, because the gods have given you the ability to do things with your mind.”

“Your brother shines like he’s swallowed an oil lamp,” Kusay said.

That was scary! Father always said that his family didn’t get touched by the gods, and that in the homeland anyone who was would go to the pyre but the king had forbidden it. He said that as if he wished that the king hadn’t, but of course the king was the king! (He was servile enough when the king came to Barracks, even though the king is a little man with one eye and a crooked shoulder, not even as tall as Bathukan, but in spite of that very kingly.)

“Well, can’t you put the oil lamp out or something?” I asked.

The priest smiled, “Girl, when I put an oil lamp out, it stays out.” And that was even more scary! But we’re Khas, it doesn’t do to be scared. “But yes,” the priest said, “he’s very gifted, and you not much less. Her Holiness saw that immediately.”

The High Priestess turned to us. “I think you’d best go to the Spotted Dog,”

“Is that like the Vixen?” I asked.

“What do you know of the Vixen?”

“That’s where the guy with the pheasants said we should go if we got lost.”

“The Vixen is the haunt of the Guild of the Nameless,” the High Priestess said. “You Khas think he’s the same as Anshen, of course. What do you call him again– Achok.” She sounded as if she disapproved, but I couldn’t tell of what. “You can trust the people in the Spotted Dog. It’s easy to find, take the second bridge and go straight ahead until you get to the Greenmarket, you can’t miss it, there’s a large sign outside of a white dog with black spots.”

Bathukan asked for pen and ink and wrote the directions on the palm of his hand. “You only remember the bridges!” he said to me, which was a bit unfair because it was me who had found the Temple of Naigha. But even without the directions it was easy to find, true.

When we got to the bridge the pheasant man was leaning against it. His basket was gone. “Sold them all,” he said. “You might earn some money too, didn’t you say you’d been catching hares? Four shillings each at the palace, hares do.”

“Perhaps,” Bathukan said. “Not now, we’re on our way somewhere. With a message.”

“That’s a good trade too, carrying messages. See you in the Vixen later?” But we were across the bridge already and didn’t feel we had to answer.

We saw the sign with the dog from a long way off. It was still early so there weren’t many people in the inn: a woman stirring a pot by the fire, a man in the corner making music on a large wooden box that he stroked with a stick, and a couple of people sitting quietly and talking with mugs in front of them. I went to the woman by the fire and said “Mistress?”

She looked at us with a frown. “Khas youngsters? Gifted Khas youngsters? What can I do for you?”

“The High Priestess of Naigha sent us,” I said, “we’re looking for our brother, he’s probably in the city but we don’t know where to start looking.”

“I think I know who can help you. Torin? Come here a moment?”

The music-making man put his box away and came over to us. “Hmm,” he said, “that needs food and drink. The best way to talk. Pie? Ale? Warm wine?”

“I’ll have water, please,” I said, but I got a small cup of warm wine while Torin and Bathukan got large mugs. There was also a large pie, which Torin cut in three pieces. It was amazing! Pieces of meat, and more meat minced, and large and small whole boiled eggs, and some kind of sweet dried fruit, and all kinds of flavours I’d never tasted before. I wanted to learn to make that!

While we were eating, Torin somehow got the whole story out of us. “Hey!” he said, when we’d described Kusay, “I think we saw him– Senthi! Remember that boy who came in the other day and stole the mugs?”

“Yes– it was very strange, he came running in and grabbed two mugs from the counter and ran out again, nothing else! But it does sound like that brother of yours. Can you show him?

“Can you look inside my head like the High Priestess did with Bathukan?” I asked, and Torin put his hand on my forehead like she had done with him. It sort of tickled inside my head, and I tried to ignore that while thinking of Kusay, not only what he looked like, but the way he behaved, the way he was.

“Gods, yes, that’s the one. And were you wondering whether he’s gifted? You bet he is. Anyway, he was in the city –when was it, Senthi?– the day before yesterday. I’ll call the journeymen, they’ll like the challenge.”

“Are those the soldiers?” Bathukan asked,

“No, just some people in the Guild of Anshen, they have a day off today for the feast so they’ll be free to help you. One moment.” And his eyes suddenly looked as if he was seeing something far away that I couldn’t see. “Done, they’ll be here presently. Now, I see that you’re both gifted but you don’t have any learning, is there anything you know?”

We tried to explain, very confused, what the priestess had done with Bathukan and what Khas did with children touched by the gods and that people had been telling us that we had been touched by the gods since we’d come to town. Torin cut us short. “Wait. You know it’s a gift from the gods, don’t you?”

“Yes?”

“Well, your mages –the Khas mages– know that as well as I do, and they also know that with the way they use power it’s very profitable to burn gifted children, because then the power –the gods’ gift to those children– gets free and they can catch and use it. That’s probably why your father insists that none of his family has the gift, so the mages can’t take them away from him.”

“But our mage doesn’t do that,” I said, “the king has forbidden it!”

“That won’t convince your father, I suppose, he must have been aware of it before the king gave your people the village. But anyway, you have the gift, and you’ll have to learn to use it or it will drive you mad.”

“Mad?” Bathukan asked. “Our mage is mad enough, and she has been touched by the gods or she wouldn’t be a mage!”

“Yes, I admit that your mages are all mad, but it’s not exactly that way…. Your gifts make you see and hear things that most people don’t see and hear, and you’ll have to learn to shut some of it out or it will be in the way of your thinking. Imagine a house full of people shouting at you all the time.” I didn’t have to imagine it, it was just like my brothers and sisters on a bad day! It made me shudder. “Exactly,” Torin said. “And now imagine that it’s not a house, but a whole city, a whole world.”

“What can we do with our gifts?” I asked.

“I’ll show you. Try to drink your wine,” I took my cup, which I’d forgotten completely because first I’d been amazed by the pie and then by what Torin said, and found that I couldn’t drink from it because there was something that kept it closed! I poked it with a finger, and it felt like a piece of invisible leather. Bathukan had the same problem.

“Hey, Torin,” Senthi called from the kitchen, “don’t tease those kids, let them drink!” Then Torin did something to take the invisible leather away, and the wine was really very good though it made me a bit woozy.

Then several young people came in while Torin went out, saying he had other business. The journeymen –it must have been them, though some were women or rather girls, all of them a few years older than us– ordered food and drink and found places to sit around us. “So you’re Torin’s Khas,” one young man said. “You have a problem and he thinks we have solutions.”

We told them about Kusay, and that Torin thought he was gifted and that he was probably still in the city. “We don’t know where to start looking!” I said.

“Well, we can all look in different places.” And he and his friends started parcelling out the town among themselves. “You’d better go behind the palace,” they said to us, “it’s easy to get around that part even if you don’t know it, and it’s full of rich people so if your brother wanted a job, or to beg, or even to steal, he may have ended up there.”

So we went out, past the palace again. It was afternoon now, getting a bit darker already. And we learned that in a city, snow gets dirty very fast. I did my best to remember the streets –not only the bridges, anyway there was only one, next to the palace– so we’d know how to get back to the Spotted Dog. We ended up in a narrow street that had gardens on one side with a large rich-looking house at the end of each, and small houses on the other side.

Suddenly a small boy ran out of one of the gardens, and he was wearing Kusay’s shirt! The one I’d embroidered for him! We caught him easily and Bathukan held him while I looked into his eyes and tried to look like the strict eldest sister and asked “Where did you get that shirt?”

“Swapped, fairly, for my pocket knife!”

“Who did you swap it with?”

“Selmet, there!” He pointed to the house next to the one he’d come out of. “She works in Lord Uznur’s house. Lord Uznur isn’t there now but some of the maids are.”

That was a Khas name. The same name as Mother’s! That woman must have known what sort of shirt it was, perhaps even been able to read it. “Thank you,” I said, “it’s my brother’s shirt, and that Selmet must have got it from him. You haven’t seen my brother, have you?”

But he hadn’t, of course. “Let me go!” he shouted. “I’m going to the Tin Tankard!” That was an inn on the other side of the street, but before we could decide whether to let him go there a woman came out of the house to collect him because he wasn’t supposed to go out of the house at all, let alone wearing a shirt and nothing else.

We went through the alley next to the house the boy had pointed to and knocked at the side door. A girl opened it– she looked Khas all right! We explained ourselves and she took us inside to the kitchen, where more girls and women were, some of them also Khas. “Yes, I bought the shirt from a boy,” the first girl said, “he turned up here wearing a history shirt he wanted to sell, eight shillings I gave him and an old shirt of the master’s. We thought he was a strange boy, mostly Valdyan and still wearing that shirt.”

“He’s our half-brother,” I said, “his mother was Valdyan, I made the shirt for him. We’re trying to find him.”

“What if he doesn’t want to be found? What will you do with him, take him back to a smelly tent? He’s living in the city now.” And some of the other girls and women chimed in, “A tent! With a snake! Who wants to live there?”

We didn’t have anything to say to that, so we thanked them and went back to the Spotted Dog. At least now we knew much more! It was dark enough that it was hard to find the way, but luckily I recognised a white house with a pillar on the corner, and from there we could almost see the inn. It was full now, all the journeymen back from not finding anything. But we had!

“He’s probably still hanging round there,” someone said. “We all have to go to work tomorrow, won’t be free until the evening, but you know where to look now so you can look for him yourselves with your minds.”

“But we can’t!” Bathukan said. “We never learned that.”

“Well, you must learn something.” That was the first journeyman who had talked to us, who had told us that he worked for the butcher who made sausages for the palace. “All kind of awesome things you can do with your mind, find people, talk to each other, lock doors so nobody can get in–”

“And close wine cups so nothing can get out!” I said.

He laughed. “Torin’s been playing his games with you? Come here, Rovin, you’re better at it than me, show them what the Ishey guy taught us.”

His friend cupped his hands, and some kind of white light appeared that turned into white mice that ran out of his hands and all over the table. One ran up my arm and I felt it tickle a bit, not really like mice feet but more like the tickle in my head when Torin had looked inside. “There. Mice made of spirit. Not useful except for determining which girls are worth keeping.”

The butcher was more serious. “I’ll see if I can teach you the first things now. –You know you have a spirit, right? Now sit still and look at yourself and try to see it.”

It took some effort but when I tried to look sort of sideways I could see that there were two of me, in the same place! The spirit-me looked a bit different from the body-me, larger and less solid, as if it was made of fog.

“Now try if you can see each other,” the butcher said. And yes, I could see Bathukan’s spirit-him, also made of fog, sitting in the same place as his body. “Join hands and see if you can show something.”

“Spirit hands or body hands?” I asked.

“Well, if you can manage spirit hands — why not try?”

I had to close my eyes –and noticed that I could still see Bathukan’s spirit body– because seeing him twice at once was too confusing, but we managed. “Now one of you think of something the other knows, and try to see what it is.”

I could see Bathukan’s image of the pheasant man! And I could see that he’d found him as creepy as I had, only not crawl-under-the-skin creepy but want-to-beat-him-up creepy. But that was Bathukan! And then I thought of the hares we’d caught, the thwack of my slingshot, and he could see that too!

After that I was all wobbly, and Mistress Senthi gave me a bowl of herb tea and one of the journeymen a hunk of bread with sharp cheese. “You can sleep in the hayloft tonight,” Senthi said. “Enough work for today!”

Perhaps it was because I was so tired, but I finally asked what I’d been thinking about all afternoon. “Mistress Senthi? Could I become your apprentice? I want to learn to make pie.”

“Pie! Well, that’s– Yes, sure, you can start as kitchen girl. I admit that I did expect you to want to be my apprentice, but in something completely different.” And she took us to the hayloft, shaking her head and muttering things I didn’t understand,

The hayloft was as cosy as a tent, only full of hay. There was rustling of mice and rats and cats and the soft sounds of sleeping horses, but all of that didn’t keep us awake, we slept like a pair of hedgehogs until morning.

We got porridge for breakfast with bits of dried apple, and then went back to the street with the gardens. Just walking through the streets and keeping our eyes wide open seemed the best thing to do, he couldn’t stay inside all the time! Kusay was never one to hide if he could be doing things. We saw a boy helping a man build a brick wall, and a boy carrying buckets for a woman plastering another wall, and a boy pushing a handcart, and a boy selling chestnuts at a fire-pot, but none of them were Kusay. Then suddenly Bathukan felt something at his side, and he made a grab without looking, and it was Kusay he had hold of! But Kusay pulled himself loose and ran away– with Bathukan’s pouch with the two shillings in it.

“The little shit!” We ran after him and saw him disappear into a dark alley. We couldn’t see him at all any more, but the prints of his bare feet were in the snow, so we followed those until they suddenly stopped. I looked up to see where he could have disappeared to, and saw that there were gaps in the snow on the windowsills of the house we were standing next to. Well, house, it was dark inside and reeked of rot and everything looked as if it could fall to pieces at any moment. We couldn’t climb up as Kusay had obviously done, he’s always been able to climb like a squirrel, but we hauled ourselves through the window and stood in filthy water two fingers high, but there was a ladder going up and on the next floor another ladder that went to a bare room with light shining in through holes in the roof.

No sign of Kusay here, but across the alley there was another roof where I could just make out something that looked like tracks. We went down the stairs again, out of the house, round the corner, until we got to the place where we thought Kusay had jumped to. We stood in front of a door and a couple of boarded-up windows, trying to decide what to do, when the door opened and a man stood there. “Children!” he said. “Are you lost, can I help you?”

“No, we’re not lost, thank you,” Bathukan said. “We’re looking for–” but before he could finish a voice came from inside the house, “They’re my brother and sister.”

And yes, there was Kusay in the corner of the room, dressed in a shirt that was much too large for him, but with a belt that looked new. “Have your pouch back, I don’t need it. And now leave me alone.”

“Mother’s been so worried,” I said, “and the little boys miss you!”

“Do you think I’m coming back? You can think again. I’m going to be a master in the Guild of Archan. I’m learning already, look!” He did something to the door and dared us to open it; neither of us could.

“We can at least tell them that you’re all right,” Bathukan said. “Let’s go, Bakhmet.”

“Won’t you at least have something to eat? Or a drop of wine?” the man asked.

“No, thank you,” I said, because this man was every bit as creepy as the pheasant man, perhaps more so. “Yes, let’s go.”

I was out of the house first, but the man grabbed Bathukan by the shoulders in the doorway and slammed the door closed and dropped the shutter. I could see the latch –the door fit very badly– and put my knife through the gap and lifted it. Bathukan kicked the man in the balls so he had to let go of him, and we ran, never mind which way as long as we got out of the warren of little alleys. We could already see a busy street at the end of the one we were in when two men came around a corner towards us, knives drawn. I drew my knife too, and Bathukan his sword.

“Look what we have here! A little Khas soldier, and an apprentice grand master too! What a catch! You’d better come with us, you and your sister, so we can get you both apprenticed.”

“I’m already apprenticed,” I said. “To Mistress Senthi at the Spotted Dog.”

“And I’m due to join the army next season,” Bathukan said. “Goodbye.” And without another word we both turned and ran, but there was a large woman coming at us from the other side, also with a knife. We stood still like we were frozen. So did the two men and the woman.

“Give me your knife, quick!” I said to Bathukan, because I didn’t want to lose my only weapon. As soon as it was in my hand I threw it at the woman, not trying to aim, just to distract her. She clutched at her throat and fell, and we jumped over her and ran. We heard sounds behind us but nobody seemed to be following, and when we turned a corner I looked back quickly and saw the two men on the ground too, probably fallen over the woman when they tried to catch us.

We reached a street with shops on both sides, and the first people I saw were a man and a woman who looked like patrolling soldiers. They must be city guards. “Guards!” I called. Bathukan tried to hold me back, but I was already there. “There are three people in there who tried to catch us, they’re all wounded, and my brother is there too, with his master, they’re thieves.”

The guards frowned and made us tell it again, while I peered into the alley anxiously but nobody came out. “Your brother is a thief? And three thugs with knives tried to capture you but you incapacitated them and escaped?”

I didn’t understand all their words but I thought they had it right. “Yes.”

“Where can we find you?”

“At the Spotted Dog. –Er, can you tell us how to get there? We haven’t been here before.”

“Down the street all the way, then turn left, and you’ll be at the Greenmarket.”

We ran, dodging people and carts, earning a few shouts of “Stop thief!” along the way, and collapsed in the big warm room of the Spotted Dog, almost at the feet of Torin.

“Whoa! Where have you been? You look like you’ve got a story to tell.”

When Torin heard where we’d been he nodded, “The Churn, yes. It’s full of thieves. Can’t get them all out, they’re like rats. Your brother has really fallen in with the wrong crowd. Can you show what his master looked like?”

Bathukan had seen more of him, so he let Torin look into his head. “Ah, that’s Seran, yes, we know him. It’s a matter for the Order, I think. I’ll call them.”

A while later three people in grey uniforms came in, a sergeant and two soldiers, I thought. “I’m Alyse,” the sergeant said, “and you must be the gifted Khas who landed in Torin’s lap. Could you tell me about Seran?” So we had to tell everything yet again, but the sergeant asked very different questions, and she even understood a bit of Khas so we could speak our own language if we didnt know the Valdyan words. “Hm, yes, I see why Seran wanted you, and also why he’ll keep hold of your brother if he can get away with it. They’re, well, rather short of talented apprentices at the moment.”

“I don’t think I want to be in with that lot,” Bathukan said.

“Good decision. You might even consider joining the Order. You’re a military man already, right?

Bathukan drew himself up to his full height. “Due to be enlisted on the spring feast,” he said.

One of the soldiers grinned at him. “You’re on the young side, and there’s stuff you need to learn before you can join the Order, but we’d sure like to have you. Guild training, military training, the only disadvantage is you can’t marry.”

“That’s never kept you from having fun,” the other soldier said and poked him in the side.

Sergeant Alyse glared at both of them. “Anyway,” she started, but then one of the guards I’d asked for help came in. The three thugs had all been caught. “Nobody will blame you for killing that woman,” she said to me, “clearly self-defense.” (So I’d hit her more thoroughly than I’d realised!) “And we’ve got enough against the other two that they’ll likely hang.”

I felt suddenly like a cold hand had gripped me. “You won’t hang Kusay, will you?” I asked.

“The boy? There are people out now to look for him and Seran –some of your lot, right, Alyse?– but I don’t think it’ll come to more than a thrashing if all he’s done is cut some purses. How long has he been in Valdis, two weeks? Can hardly be a confirmed murderer then.”

I knew now that I didn’t like Kusay and probably never had, for all he was my little brother, but I didn’t think he could be a murderer either. But if he stayed on in the Guild of Archan, wouldn’t he become as nasty as the pheasant man or Seran? The thought made me shiver. Senthi saw it and gave me warm wine and a bowl of stew –from the pot I’d seen her stir when we came in, more than a day ago now– and made me sit by the fire.

It was getting more crowded: journeymen came from work to have a drink, and every one of them was glad we’d escaped and sorry they’d missed it. Some went home when their mug was empty, some stayed to eat and talk. One of the soldiers of the Order came back and told us that they hadn’t been able to find either Seran or Kusay, not with their eyes and not with their minds. “But someone’s boat got stolen,” he said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d absconded to Ildis. We closed the gates, but that may have been too late.”

The brat! I couldn’t decide between worry and ‘good riddance’. The soldier also said that they could send a message from the Order to our parents, or if we wanted to go back ourselves, send someone with us. That was a good idea! I wasn’t sure if Father would believe us, and he’d certainly beat us for not bringing Kusay back, and probably beat me extra for getting apprenticed in the city. But we could’t say yet whether we’d go back or send a message, that would have to wait until tomorrow because we were too tired to think.

When it was really evening a small red-haired man came in, carrying leather bags that looked like there were music-boxes inside. His hair was tied back with a green scarf and he had a patch over his right eye. The king! I knelt for him as I’d done when he came to Barracks.

“Hey, don’t do that,” he said, “I’m just here to make music with Torin.”

“But you’re the king!”

“Most of the time, yes, but I’m at the Dog for pleasure, not work. –I know you! You’re from Barracks, aren’t you? Your father is –let me think– Captain Naran. I don’t recall your name, but this is your brother Bakutan.”

“Bathukan,” Bathukan said, as impressed as I was but a bit more confident.

“And I’m Bakhmet,” I said. “I’m going to become Mistress Senthi’s apprentice here.”

“Not a bad choice, there’s much that she can teach you. Senthi! What about that rabbit pie you promised?” And Senthi came and put a pie in front of the king, who ate it like a starving man.