Someone was shaking my shoulder, and I didn’t see at once who it was because I was in a strange bed in a strange whitewashed room, under a strange striped blanket! The person shaking me was small, a girl of about seven, and she was saying “If you get up now you can have something to eat!”
I was still trying to wake up. “I’m Arnei Arni,” the girl said, “my mother is called Arni too!”
And there was Riei in the doorway, carrying my toolbag! “You’re wonderful,” I said, “thank you!”
“I said we’d go together but then I’d have had to spend days teaching you how to break into a house for that, and they might have moved your stuff in the meantime! I think everything is here.” And yes, all the tools and even my notebook were in the bag, and the work-bag was there as well, and my bag of clothes but I didn’t have anything I could wear, the only thing that wasn’t completely sticky with salt was the Iss-Peranian wrap that was much too posh for ordinary wear and had been in an oilcloth bag all the time. So Riei got me some clothes that pinched a bit but at least they were clean. Little Arni’s clothes, in fact, I wasn’t so much bigger than she was.
In the kitchen there was the woman who had welcomed me last night, Riei and Arni’s mother. There was rice with squid and a lot of onions for breakfast, wonderful! “Thank you,” I said, “the last thing I ate was a sort of cheese pastry in the Temple of Mizran, and that was very small!”
“You don’t look as if you need a lot to eat,” little Arni said, “you’re almost as old as Riei and not nearly so big!”
“I still get hungry,” I said. “And I’m glad this is nice squid and rice instead of hard-tack soaked in water, there was hardly anything else on the ship for the last couple of weeks! And I love onions.”
“How old are you?” the older Arni asked.
“I’ll be twelve by the Feast of Mizran,” I said. Riei was fourteen, and her sister indeed seven.
“School starts in a week,” Arni said, “so you’ll have time to explore. Riei can take you around the neighbourhood. But first there are things you need to learn.”
Learning things was always good! So I sat up straight as if I was in class, and Arni said, “You’ll have noticed that you don’t have as bad a headache in this house.” And that was true! “Oh! You’re like the steerswoman. She made my headache go away, too.”
“I don’t know what she did, but probably, yes. I think that on the ship — how shall I put it — you know about semsin, right? Of the gods, Archan and the Nameless?”
“Anshen and the Nameless, yes,” I said.
She sighed. “I was expecting that. In this house we’ve always been of Archan.”
“The good one,” Riei said.
I must have looked very puzzled because Arni grinned and said, “There used to be only one, but then some people in the South started calling on him in different ways and — well, he split into two. And recently there’s been a third, trying to reconcile the other two, and that’s only made it worse for us.”
“My– the woman who says she’s my grandmother…?”
“She’s of the other one than we are. But she’s a grand master so we’re deferring to her.”
“But she’s not your boss?”
“No, fortunately not. But she’s seen you, and I’ll teach you to be less visible. I suspect that on the ship you grew into your gifts. It’s like bleeding when you become a woman — the two things don’t have anything to do with each other, but in girls they do tend to come around the same age. With some exceptions.” She looked meaningfully at little Arni.
Then she started to teach me. To find myself, to see where I was standing, to see where I could get power — that was very hard, because the house was built on stilts over water, and it felt almost as wobbly to me as the sea, even though it wasn’t moving so much! And after the lesson I was hungry again. There was more rice and squid, now made into balls and fried. And then another lesson: to make a kind of clothes of power to protect myself with. And to find other people. Then I noticed that I’d been able to see both big Arni and small Arni all the time, even before I really learned to see them, but I hadn’t seen Riei for hours.
“Is Riei gone?” I asked.
“She’s probably asleep,” Arni said, “she can make very good invisible seals. She was away half the night, of course, retrieving your bags.”
“I’m so glad she got my tools! I can’t do without. My father gave them to me on the last feast of Mizran.”
“What do you make?” little Arni asked.
“Toys. I’ll show you.” But the door to the room where I’d slept, and where my bags were, was closed and I couldn’t open it! “It’s locked!”
“Sealed,” big Arni said, “Riei is sleeping in there. She’s very good with invisible seals. Look with your mind and you’ll see it.”
And I could see it: like someone had painted the door over with protection stuff, or rubbed it on like blacking. “How do you get that off?” I asked. “Wipe it very carefully, and take the power into yourself,” Arni said, and little Arni jumped up and down excitedly, “I’ve been learning that! Can I try?”
Her mother looked at her and said, “Yes, you may.”
The little girl started wiping, and sort of picking up what she wiped off. I watched her and when she was at three-quarters or so, I asked “Can I do the rest?”
“If you keep my sister from hitting me when we wake her up!”
“All right.” I did manage to get the rest of the glop off, but I didn’t know how to collect the power yet. Then we could get the door open and saw that Riei was asleep in the bed, clutching the striped blanket. I tried to fetch my work-bag without waking her, but of course it rattled, and she woke up and tried to slap at Arni but she was too far away.
“I did that!” I said, “I was learning to deal with seals!”
“And you promised to show Leva around anyway,” big Arni said.
“She promised to show me her toys, too!” little Arni said, and I asked for a broomstick and let the monkey climb it (and keep trying when it fell off at the top; I must really fix that, and I think I know how now, make it only climb when its arms are an inch apart) and let the little pecking bird walk on the table and peck at nonexistent crumbs.
Big Arni was really interested, especially when I said that I’d learned from the clock-maker — none of them knew what a clock was, so I said “it’s like a dish with marks on, and there’s a pointer that goes round very slowly so it points to the next mark after an hour. Like an hour-candle.” I’d seen an hour-candle in the kitchen, so they did know what that was!
“Does it work at night too, when it can’t see the sun?” Riei asked.
“Yes! A candle doesn’t need to see the sun either. And it doesn’t burn up, when it runs down you can wind it up again, like the bird and the monkey.”
“Can you make those too?” big Arni asked. And when I said “yes, but not very accurately”, she said “Perhaps I should lock you in the cellar and have you make those clocks! If you take one to Valdis and show it to the king, he’ll be amazed! What are you going to trade school for anyway, instead of being apprenticed to the instrument-makers?”
Amazing the king didn’t sound wrong, but being locked in a cellar? “I like trade!” I said. “This is just what I do to keep my hands from getting bored.”
“All right. You two go off then. Be back in time for dinner. And bring dinner while you’re at it.”
Little Arni wanted to come along too, but her mother was very strict, “You have to go to school. And you can let your sister have a friend of her own for once.”
“You can play with the bird until school-time,” I said, and showed her how to wind it up. “It doesn’t matter if it breaks, I can mend it!”
Then Riei and I went outside into the street. I was surprised that there was so little water around! The house was on a large island with a lot of narrow streets, with small businesses all over, shops and workshops and stalls. There was a stall that sold fruit drinks and sweet cakes, almost like at home in Albetire, and I wanted to treat Riei but didn’t have a purse with me (and anyway the purse in my bag was empty! I’d spent all my pocket money on copper sheeting to work with on the ship). But Riei had some pennies to pay for it. I’d have to get used to Valdyan money! The pennies looked larger than Albetire coppers.
We saw a shop with earthenware whistles and flutes and pipes, and when the shopkeeper saw I was interested in a professional way he took me inside and showed me tiny whistles made of reed that I could perhaps use to make my birds sing! “Hm, how do I blow it? Tiny bellows?” “Perhaps the swim bladder of a fish?” the whistle-maker said. “That won’t be very durable, but the whistles aren’t either, and when they break that’s just another sale, isn’t it? But I’ll introduce you to my neighbour, I think you can work together.”
The neighbour had a shop where she sold musical instruments she’d made, not full-sized but toys, mostly of wood. Drums, clappers, rattles, and a wonderful thing like a lopsided comb that you could get different notes from by plucking its teeth, I could imagine making that from copper and have something mechanical pluck it! And a little person or animal beating a drum like my bird walked and pecked! We talked shop so much that poor Riei started to feel left out. She pulled me away, saying “We have to go to the market and home for dinner!”
“I’ll be back!” I called to the woman over my shoulder.
The market looked almost like it was in Albetire, too: not only stalls but also people with only a few things on a rug, not only food but also tools and clothes and kitchenware. Someone was selling live chickens and Riei looked at those longingly but what we bought was a basket full of eggs, and onions, and a big dried fish. “We can’t eat that until next week,” Riei said, “it has to soak for days!”
Then we saw a woman with very dark skin in a wonderful blue dress, with a green headscarf and a green-and-purple jacket. “Wow,” Riei said, “isn’t she pretty?” The woman looked like what Riei had told me of her mother’s girlfriends (she hadn’t had a father for ages, but her mother had a couple of different girlfriends): large breasts and buttocks, and a lot of paint on her face. But I only saw the dress, I wanted something that shade of blue too!
On the way home Riei suddenly stopped me and tripped someone behind her. There was a boy lying on the street, clutching his arm, and my knife was lying beside him! “Tomorrow I’ll teach you to avoid pickpockets,” Riei said, “and to pick pockets yourself.” And she picked up my knife for me and put a coin in the thief’s hand, “go to the doctor and have it fixed!”
“That’s good of you,” I said, “giving him money for the doctor!”
She shrugged. “Learned that from my mother. Always humiliate them just a little more.” Well, humiliating someone by doing good was new for me!
I was only carrying the eggs, and Riei the rest, because she’d noticed I wasn’t strong at all. “I was very sick when I was small,” I said, “we thought I’d die but I got better, but I never grew large or strong after that. And I’m clumsy, not with my hands but on my feet.” But I didn’t drop the eggs, we got all twenty home safe. And we needed all twenty! As big Arni was cooking people kept coming in, until the whole house was full.
One woman looked at me as if she could see right through me, or inside me, and Riei cringed at that but it didn’t feel bad to me, only a little strange. “She’s the midwife,” Riei whispered, “she’s of the Nameless!”
“I can’t call anyone the Nameless now,” I complained, “one is wrong for you and the other is wrong for me!”
When everybody was gone and I thought I’d help clearing up, the guests had already done that! And big Arni’s current girlfriend appeared, indeed a woman with big breasts and a big butt and a lot of paint on her face, but not as dark as the woman in the blue dress, sort of biscuit-coloured like me. Arni gave us the lamp and told us to go to our bedroom — it was Riei and little Arni’s room but it was clear that I was sharing it for now — and read or play or whatever. “But don’t make any noise!”
“Shall we take turns reading aloud?” Riei asked, “we can do that quietly, it won’t make any noise that goes through my seal.” She closed the room with the same stuff as before and brought out a thick book. “You haven’t heard this so I’ll start again at the beginning!” And it was a book of law that the queen had written! There were lots of words Arni didn’t know, and some words I didn’t know, and even a couple of words Riei didn’t know though she worked as a clerk. I wrote down the ones none of us knew so we could find someone to ask later.
The lamp ran out of oil, and Riei ran out of voice — somehow we hadn’t got around to taking turns, though I’d have liked to read too — and we all crawled into the bed, me in the middle. Arni wanted to be in the middle, but Riei wanted to be next to me too. “I like having a friend on each side!” I said, and we fell asleep like that.
The next morning we found only big Arni’s girlfriend in the kitchen. She wasn’t wearing anything at all! “Good morning, girls,” she said, “there’s porridge in the pot!”
We said good morning back and got some of the porridge. It was delicious! Riei kept looking at the woman from the corner of her eye. After a while big Arni came from the other room, yawning and stretching like a cat. “I don’t know what I did to get so tired!” she said. “And I have to work today!”
Her girlfriend got her some porridge too and kissed her, then disappeared into the other room herself. “I’m working again tonight,” she said, “better get some sleep now!”
Big Arni sent little Arni off to school, then went out herself, after she’d thrown a little purse of money to Riei and told us to do the shopping and clean the kitchen. I don’t mind cleaning at all! And Riei was very good at it, we even cleaned behind things. There wasn’t any porridge left, but there were enough onions so I chopped a lot of those and put them in a pan with a bit of water and some treacle and spices to get brown and soft, and that was very good with rice. I got all the cutlery to clean while I was stirring the onions, because I couldn’t be away for long or they would burn, and Riei washed the walls and the floor.
“This fork is all bent, shall I beat it into shape? I’ve got a hammer and an anvil.”
“So that’s why your bag is so heavy! There’s an anvil in it!”
“Only a small one,” I said, showing with my hands. “Made of brass. I thought about leaving it behind but then I couldn’t have worked at all on the ship, and I’d have been so unhappy!”
“Then it’s a good thing you brought it,” Riei said. “But ask Mother about the fork, it’s been bent so long that we’re used to it.” Then she told me about her mother’s work: she went to arriving ships in the harbour and told the sailors which brothels were clean and healthy. “When they go there they pay her a commission! It doesn’t pay much, but we need something now we’ve been thrown out of the Dawn. She meets a lot of beautiful women that way, of course, so she has different girlfriends all the time. I hope she’ll keep Aunt Erne, though, I like her!”
I liked Erne too, I thought, even though I’d seen her only for a short while last night and this morning.
“Now I’ll teach you pickpocketing!” Riei said when we were done cleaning and eating. But for the first hour, all she taught me was how to walk very quietly, and for the second hour all she taught me was how to walk so that everybody would pay attention to me! And then it was time to go to the market. I tried to put the different walks into practice but that was harder with all the people around.
We bought a bag of little dried fishes, and turnips and carrots from a woman who had a really nice stall like a tent. Riei was a bit uneasy inside the tent, but I liked it, it felt cosy and safe. The woman gave us two bunches of mint and a bunch of parsley, only a little wilted, “end of the day, better you have it than having to throw it away!”
“Is she of — of the Nameless?” I asked Riei when we were on our way back, and then I didn’t get an answer because my skirt was falling to the ground because Riei had stolen the drawstring! But I thought I knew that the answer was yes.
Little Arni caught up with us when we passed the school (really a small temple of Naigha with the school next to it), and when we came home there was a strange woman in the kitchen, small and sort of mousy. Big Arni came in soon after and asked her “Vauri! Your husband is back, I suppose?”
“Yes, his ship’s come in.” And at that moment Erne came from the other room, now dressed. “Are you still with Erne?”
“That’s none of your business,” Arni said. “But I’ll have a look at you, if you have any bruises I can give you that ointment again.” She took the small woman into the room and we were with Erne again, who sighed.
“Vauri only comes here to escape that man,” she said.
“And she has other women the rest of the time,” Riei said. “But she comes here if he’s in town because he can’t get into this house.”
“Your mother protects it, right?” I asked, and Riei nodded with a proud look on her face.
Then Arni opened the door and we could hear her say “You can stay tonight, but if Erne comes back early you’ll have to sleep in the guest bed.” Erne had obviously waited for her, because she kissed her and left.
We talked about a lot of things — how Arni and her daughters had come to leave the family that ran the Dawn, for one: she was the youngest daughter of the man who was the current boss, called Radan like every oldest son in that family, and her eldest brother had fled to the South after a woman of the Nameless prevented her wife from dying in childbirth. This was all very complicated and I understood only half of it. Why is fleeing to the South the thing to do when your wife and baby stay alive? But there’d been a row in the family about it and Arni had taken her daughters and left and now she was fending for herself.
I don’t know how we got to bath-houses, but Riei asked “can’t we go to a proper bath-house sometime?” so her mother gave her two bath tokens, one for her and one for me, and told us to go tomorrow. Little Arni wanted one too, of course, but big Arni said “I’ll get more from Erne, then we can all go for the Feast.”
The Feast of Mizran, which was in two weeks! And then school would have started, and I’d be properly twelve.
I got an idea but I didn’t talk about it until we were in the girls’ room in the evening, only us girls. “I can get some of my money from the Temple, and buy whistles and fish bladders and some more copper, and make things to sell, and then I can treat you all to the bath-house!” Because Riei had been right that it’s better to earn your own money, and I did want to keep at least most of my money for setting up a business, but this was the beginning of setting up a business, right?
“Don’t do that,” Riei said, “Aunt Erne has plenty of bath-tokens. If you want to treat us–”
“Chicken!” Arni interrupted, and Riei held up two fingers behind Arni’s back. All right, two chickens! And perhaps some fruit from the South or something else nice.
I tinkered a bit by lamplight, trying to fix up the monkey with a brake, and when there was a tricky bit that needed an extra hand that hand was Arni’s. She was very interested! I decided to make her a toy of her own for the Feast of Mizran, but of course that would have to be in secret.