Shopping and dancing
When we went to pay our bill we met the Mighty Servant herself, who was also paying her bill! “Ah, Riei, Leva,” she said, “have you been eating here too? It’s the only place that serves the dishes of the region. Everybody else does pheasant in grapes, but here you get the real specialites.”
“Everything was delicious!” we said, and the man behind the counting-table (I thought he was the boss, by the way the Mighty Servant talked with him) beamed. I’d said to Riei that I wished I had a seal to send bills to the Temple with, and I think the Mighty Servant had overheard that because she pressed her seal on our bill and said “I’ll take that, I’ll see that it gets taken from your account.”
We also asked where to go to buy dancing-clothes, “doesn’t have to be new or expensive, as long as it’s pretty”, and the Mighty Servant said “You need Cloth Alley for that,” and pointed out where it was.
This was a long, narrow street with a bend in it, so we couldn’t see the end, full of clothes shops and I think a couple of weavers. Most shops had the front folded down so it made a stall, and the more upmarket ones had cubicles made of hanging cloths as fitting rooms. We decided to see one side first, then the other, and only then decide where we wanted to buy something, but about halfway along a shopkeeper called out to us, a girl of about sixteen, saying “I heard you talking about the Donkey’s Head! I’m going there too, tonight!” so we got talking with her (she was called Hinla, and had a very deep cleavage and the tits to match and very light hair, like Ashti in Turenay) and she thought she might have something we’d like.
“If you like the clothes may I tell everybody at the Donkey’s Head that I dressed you?” she asked, and we said “Sure!”
“I want a skirt so wide that it goes up when I spin round!” I said, and Riei said she trusted Hinla completely to find her something suitable, so Hinla found a dress for me first, a bit like Iss-Peranian court wear but in one piece, in a pale purplish colour. I thought it wouldn’t be able to go up if it was that style, but when I spun round it rose and stood around me like a flower.
Then she dressed Riei in black flat shoes, black stockings, black short wide breeches gathered at the knee, and a tight-fitting black jacket, with a black cape over it that had a shiny white lining. “You look like an upper-class burglar!” I said.
“There was a crown prince from the East at school in Turenay a couple of years ago,” Hinla said, “and that’s their court dress. There’s a skirt with it, no longer than the breeches, but I don’t think it’s needed. Do you want to try?”
Riei wanted to try, and I asked her to spin round but the skirt stayed where it was. “I don’t think it’s needed either,” I said, “it doesn’t change anything!”
Hinla hugged me for that, “I’m so glad you agree!”
“We’ll take these,” we said.
“Do you want them only for the evening, or to buy them outright?” Hinla asked. “For the evening it’s three shillings each, to buy a rider and a half.”
“For the evening now, and then decide whether we want to keep them?” I asked.
“That’s possible, but you won’t get a discount!” Hinla said.
“You mean, we pay the three shillings and the rider-and-a-half?” I asked.
“Well, that’s reasonable,” I said. And we arranged to leave the clothes in the shop and come back after dinner to change, because the Donkey’s Head was at the other end of the street anyway.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through streets at random, not even buying anything in the shops though most were open, and we found a market that was actually quite close to our house so we’d probably use that later but we didn’t need anything right now (and didn’t want to go home to drop the things off anyway). When we got hungry we bought sixpenny pies at a pie shop near the harbour, one cheese-and-onion and one turnip-and-carrot. They were all right, especially for sixpence, nothing special but nice enough. We ate them at the end of a long table with lots of other people, and when we were almost finished a fight broke out at the other end, so wild that our end of the table rocked! “Let’s go,” Riei said, “we’ve paid anyway!” so we took ourselves away with the last piece of pie in our hands.
We walked sort of in the direction of Cloth Alley and the Donkey’s Head, and then saw a group of young people walking the other way, all armed with clubs and some with knives. Riei pulled me into a porch and we hidb ourselves, waiting until they’d passed, but the door behind us opened and a voice said, “Better come in.”
It was a friendly voice and neither of us felt threatened (except from the street) so we did. This was a man of about thirty who introduced himself as Meruvin. His wife was inside with a toddler at her breast, and also a slightly older child playing on the floor and a boy Arni’s age busy with schoolwork.
“I saw that you’re new here,” Meruvin said, “Veray is a rough town sometimes.”
“We’ve noticed,” we said, and talked about the town and what we were doing and what we expected, until either of us mentioned that we were about to go to the Donkey’s Head to dance.
“We met there,” Meruvin’s wife said.
“Perhaps we can watch your children sometime, so you can have an evening there again?” Riei said.
“I don’t need watching!” the eldest boy said, “I can watch my brother and sister!”
“Let’s watch them together, right?” I asked, and he thought that was a good idea.
“You’re staying for dinner, I hope,” Meruvin asked, and went to get things from a cupboard. We’d eaten pie already, but that didn’t mean we didn’t want to eat something more!
“My father’s the best cook in town,” the boy said, and we could feel Meruvin glowing with pride.
“The very best cook is Grandma Alyse,” Meruvin said. “I learned from her. And my cousin Fian who keeps the eating-house in the main square is a close second.”
“I think that’s the one where we went,” I said. “It was delicious! And we live with a Grandma Alyse who is a very good cook, she’s going to teach us, would that be the same one? On the square near the Order house.”
“That’ll be the one. I call her grandma but she’s actually my great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister.”
While Meruvin was talking he put onion confit in a pan, and cut-up sausage, and then he got three eggs from a bowl that looked as if they were the last eggs in the house. “Are those preserved?” Riei asked. They looked a bit strange, with shiny shells.
“Yes, with isinglass,” Meruvin said. “We get it from the apothecary, it’s made from fish, I think. Next week we’ll have fresh eggs from the market again.” And we told him about the woman in Halfway who sold us a dozen eggs because her hens had started laying again.
Some vegetables went into the pan, and the beaten eggs, and when it was all done Meruvin divided everything into four large and two small portions and we had coarse brown bread with it. It was delicious! And when we’d finished it, it was time to go to Hinla’s shop and put our new clothes on and go dancing.
Ferin and Jichan were in the shop, too, Hinla knew them! They were dressed like rather foppy noblemen in the kind of clothes Vurian had been so scathing about at court, with different-coloured sleeves and breeches legs and large floppy hats. And there was also a girl we hadn’t met yet, Halla, who asked us “are you two together?” and when we said sort of yes she said “oh good, then I won’t flirt with either of you”, earning her a friendly cuff by Hinla.
We arrived at the Donkey’s Head in a noisy laughing bunch. There was someone at the door who let people in (or not, I suppose) but she recognised Hinla and Halla and the boys and saw that we were with them. “One rule,” she said, “no fighting. Ever.” Hinla had already told us that, and Meruvin too, so we only nodded and went in.
“Seran made that rule,” Hinla said. “The man who set up the school.”
“Yes, I’ve met him, he admitted me to the school!” I said.
“This place used to be as rough as the rest of town but he took it over and really made something of it. Do you want to go upstairs or downstairs? Upstairs is to have a quiet drink and a talk with your friends, or play music to listen to instead of to dance, or tell stories. Downstairs is where the action is.”
“Down first!” I said. I wanted to show off my skirt! A couple of people were playing fiddles and drums, and I danced with Riei and with Jichan and some people I didn’t know yet, and then with Riei again, and it was so much fun! Then the music stopped, except for one drum, and two men got on the dance floor and started a twirling dance. One stopped after a while and came to stand with us, and then I saw it was Seran.
“Ah, you’ve found the place,” he said. Meanwhile the other man still danced, it looked like an Iss-Peranian dance for the gods except that he had all his clothes on (well, only leather breeches and a leather vest, not even shoes) and I’ve never heard of men dancing for the gods like that. Everybody was completely silent, the only sounds were the drum and the dancer’s feet.
He came to a stop and nodded to the drummer (who had broken out in a sweat) and stood still for a while, and I could see that he was Khas. Not young either, perhaps fifty. As he left the dance floor he slapped Seran on the shoulder, “thanks for giving me a boost!” and then accepted a large mug of something foamy at the drinks table.
Riei and I and a couple of the others went upstairs to see what it was like (and frankly, to get off our feet for a bit, we hadn’t only been dancing but also walking most of the day). Someone was just starting to tell a story, in the Ishey way, and it turned out to be the half-Ishey boy we’d met on the way from Turenay! When he finished, a girl next to me turned to me and said “He’s good, isn’t he? Oh! I think I know you. You were at the school.”
“I think I know you too,” I said. “You ran upstairs to write something down. You’re Aine.”
“Right! And you’re Leva. See you when school starts, day after tomorrow!”