The family house
People were starting to do sailory things around me, so I stuffed the monkey in my work-bag and went to have a look at Essle. It mostly looked dirty from where we were, not as grimy as Albetire but still grey and grim. The sea-water was the colour of mud, and the dolphins and porpoises that had been following the ship for the last couple of days gave up and turned back. “I don’t blame you,” I said to them, “I wouldn’t like to swim in this water either!”
It was raining, too. (This seems to be the normal state of Essle.) The air smelt heavy and gave me a headache.
The first mate came and put a large hairy fatherly arm around me. “Well, lassie,” he said, “we’re almost there, do you know where to go?”
“To the trade school,” I said, “I guess I’ll ask at the Temple of Mizran, they’re bound to know where it is, and people will probably know where the temple is!”
“We’ve got letters for the Temple anyway, you can go with Erian.” I knew Erian well enough, a young man shorter than me but three times as broad, and that was all muscle. “Oh! He can carry my tool-bag, he’s plenty strong enough!”
The first mate grinned. “You’re a tinkerer,” he said, “but a good tinkerer!” And then he went away to do some more sailory things, and the ship stopped moving, at least stopped moving forward, I think someone had thrown an anchor out, and Erian and I got a place in one of the rowboats that had come to take people and cargo to the shore. Erian carried the small heavy tool-bag and the bag with my clothes and things, and I carried the work-bag that was big and awkward but not heavy, and Erian hung the leather satchel with letters around my neck. My own letters were in the tool-bag, one from the Temple of Mizran in Albetire that was probably about my inheritance, and one from Aunt Mahsab that was probably about the trade school. I hadn’t read them, I’m not one of those people who break other people’s seals on letters!
Once I was on the boat my headache got worse, I felt like someone was holding my head in their hands and squeezing it. The steerswoman saw me wince and put a hand on my forehead, and immediately it felt a lot better, like Doctor Vauri had done when I had the fever!
She and Erian seemed to know each other very well, they hugged before we got put on a quay (or a jetty, I never know which is which). “That’s my ma,” Erian said, and yes, he looked a bit like her, only she was taller and not quite so broad.
“Is she a doctor?” I asked.
“Nah, she’s a steerswoman!”
“But what she did to my head, that’s just like the doctor did,” I said, but Erian didn’t know about that.
There was another boat to take us to the Temple of Mizran. I was too tired and distracted to see if I recognised anything from when I was little, but the temple steps looked familiar. There was a young priest waiting for us, and he was even expecting me! I gave the satchel back to Erian, and the priest took the bags, and then I ended up in a writing-room on one side of a table with an empty chair on the other side and a clerk at the short end. The clerk was a girl a couple of years older than me and when she looked at me I got uneasy, all prickly, as if I was inside a sack full of hedgehogs.
“First time in Essle?” she asked.
“I was born here,” I said, “but I’ve lived in Albetire since I was six. I’m going to the trade school.”
“I’m there too! Since the schools were joined.”
“I don’t know about schools being joined,” I said, “only about the trade school.”
“Well, since our school was washed away by the flood. The trade school and the Guild school share a building now.”
I didn’t know which guild, perhaps the clerks had one? I had no time to ask, because a priestess sat down behind the table and wanted to see my letters.
“You’re Miallei Leva?” she asked. “Heir of Miallei Ferin’s trading-house.” She read the letter from the Temple of Mizran. “You’re the heir to” –I could see that she was doing sums in her head– “forty-two thousand riders, that is eleven thousand Iss-Peranian wainwheels. We will take good care of it, and if you need anything don’t hesitate to appeal to us.”
“Oh!” I said, “then I won’t have to do what I thought of on the ship, take a clerk job to earn my living while I go to school.”
“You can still do that,” the clerk said, “I’m doing it too! What you’ve got, you’ve got, but you can leave it all in the Temple to set up a business after you finish school. If you’ve worked for it yourself you’ll be much more independent.”
She had a point. “That’s a good idea,” I said, “but at least I don’t have to be afraid I won’t manage!”
The priestess asked me where I would be living. “The next term at the trade school starts in one week. Your grandmother has requested for you to come and live in the family house. And the school has reserved a place for you in the common student house.”
“Goodness,” I said, “I didn’t know I had a grandmother with a family house in Essle. I don’t remember living with anyone except my father even when I was a little kid. Is my grandmother very old?”
“Not very old,” the priestess said, “eighty-five or so.”
That was very old! But then Father hadn’t been young when I was born, and he’d been almost sixty when he died. I was about to say I’d prefer living at the school, but I didn’t get the chance, “So you’ll be going to the family house first. Someone will be along to collect you.”
She went away with the account books and left me alone with the clerk. “Thank you for the tip about the job,” I said. And then I offered, “My name is Leva.”
She grinned. “I’m Riei. And now I want something from you.”
“Because I know something about you. There must be something you can part with that’s advantageous to me.”
I was trying to think what Riei could want, and why. It must be because of the money. “I thought priests of Mizran were sworn to secrecy about clients’ money,” I said.
“You’ll find out how things work in Essle. How old are you?”
“Has it been the Feast of Mizran already? No? Then I’m not quite twelve yet.”
“By the time you are twelve you’ll have something to give me, I’m sure of that.”
Then a man in what looked like a very smart uniform came and took my bags. “I’m Jeran,” he said, “I’ll take you to your grandmother’s house.” And on another boat we went, until we got to a large wooden house, painted blue, on a small island. My headache was back in full force, and the feeling that I was in a sack full of hedgehogs was worse than ever. Now it was a sack of hedgehogs that someone was sitting on.
There was a woman standing in the hall who didn’t look old enough to be Father’s mother, his sister at most, but she greeted me as her grandchild and called me by my name. “Grandmother,” I stuttered, because the sack of hedgehogs was getting heavier all the time, and when I saw that perfectly groomed woman I suddenly realised that I hadn’t had a proper bath since the ship stopped at Selday, weeks ago. And I’d had wine at the Temple of Mizran, with a lot of water, but only a very small bit of cheese to go with it.
“You’re Ferin’s child,” she said. “Tell me, how is Ferin?”
“He’s dead,” I said, blushing. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh, did he die? He’ll be so sorely missed.”
“Yes, I miss him too.” I couldn’t imagine that I could get more unhappy.
“Let’s go and sit at the kitchen table,” the woman who was supposed to be my grandmother said, “that’s much less formal than the parlour.” And sweaty, salty me wouldn’t get the good furniture dirty, I thought. But a kitchen probably meant something to eat. And water.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but could I have a wash first?”
“Why, of course,” she said, and took me to a scullery where a maid was already pouring hot water from a kettle into a tub. Grandmother talked to her for a bit and disappeared, and the maid helped me out of my clothes and into the tub. When she’d gone away — to get more hot water, or to put my clothes to soak, or something — a hatch in the floor opened and a head poked through. Riei’s head.
“Come with me right now,” she said.
“I’m in the bath! I haven’t got any clothes on! And my tool-bag is still in the hall. If that man didn’t take it away.”
“Never mind about your things. We may be sworn enemies but I can’t leave you here with this woman.”
“What did I do to become your enemy?” I asked.
“We’re on opposite sides,” she said, and I didn’t know on opposite sides of what, because she didn’t explain it but urged me once again to come out of the bath and drop through the hole in the floor. There was a small boat under the house, and Riei covered my dripping naked body with straw and a blanket and rowed off.
“Why are you kidnapping me and where are we going?” I asked. “And what about my tools?”
“To the school. We’ll break in and steal your bag in a couple of days, don’t worry.”
But I did worry. “Isn’t she my grandmother? Mialle?”
“No, Senthi.” So she wasn’t my grandmother after all, unless that woman was secretly my mother’s mother but by the way I looked I suspected that my mother had been Iss-Peranian. “You’re an artisan, right? I can tell by your hands. You work with iron, stubborn, hard, sharp.”
“Copper mostly, but yes. But why would someone who isn’t my grandmother pretend she is and have me live in her house?”
“Because of your assets, girl.”
“She wants my forty-two thousand riders?”
“That too. I’ll tell you the rest at school. I’m Arnei Riei of the Dawn, by the way.”
I knew about the Dawn! “My father traded with you sometimes. Well, not you, but with the Dawn.”
“Everybody does. And I’m also in the Guild of Archan, a journeyman, sort of. Senthi is our grand master.” (I had no idea what she was talking about but I resolved to remember it.)
Riei stopped at a small jetty and covered me up with the blanket. “You stay here, and I’ll go and buy you some clothes.” After a while she came back with a skirt, long drawers to go under the skirt and a wide shirt. Also a headscarf, and I wrapped up my wet hair in that immediately.
Eventually we came to another building on a small island by itself and that was the school. “Here’s Miallei Leva,” Riei said to a woman who helped tie up the boat.
“Welcome,” the woman said, and she wasn’t creepy or threatening or anything, no sack of hedgehogs this time, and I was so relieved that I almost fainted.
Then I got another bath, because the first one had only got me wet, not clean. “Shall I scrub your back?” Riei asked, and I didn’t have an opinion about that so she did it, and my hair too. Then she tucked me into a bed in a room with a lot of other beds in it –all empty– and I was even more tired than hungry so I thought it was a good idea.
Just as I was falling asleep I felt someone kiss me on the lips and that woke me up, but when I sat up and looked around me I didn’t see anybody. Perhaps it was only a very strange dream.