Those from the other block
The house door was open, of course, and I called “Cynla! We’re here!” when we came in. “Hey, Coran,” Cynla said, “is that your bed-linen? Well, I’m glad it’s got a good home.” Because of course she knew him, everybody knew all the neighbours. “Oh, and there are some people upstairs to clean and whitewash.”
“Yes,” we said, “the orphans, we sent them.” And at that moment a boy and a girl of about thirteen came downstairs, carrying brushes and buckets, and with cloths tied around their hair. “All done!” they said, and Riei signed the paper they’d got with them so they could collect their pay.
“How long until it’s dry?” I asked.
“Oh, a couple of hours if you leave the window open, it’s just whitewash.”
It did look bright upstairs with the floor swept and the walls all white! We put the bedclothes in the chest (the cat had carried her kittens into the bedstead, probably to avoid being swept and whitewashed, she looked very affronted) and took the empty mattress cover downstairs again to go and get straw from the farm.
“Are you leaving first thing tomorrow?” Riei asked Coran, who was still talking with Cynla.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ll stay the night with my aunt, everything I need is in her house already.”
“Could you take a letter to Turenay for us? I want to write to Doctor Cora about the pox.” And while she was writing that, I could write to Vurian and Rovin about everything else! So Coran waited (and made a cup of tea for himself and us and Cynla) and took the letters as soon as they were ready. “Vurian astin Velain is at the school,” I said, “probably lives in the Ishey house with his brother but you’ll see him around.”
“And the hospital is next to the school,” Riei said.
“I know!” Coran said. “I’ve been there already, with my aunt when she was sick.” He hugged us and left, but came back at once with a piece of lead that numbers had been punched out of. “Perhaps you girls would like to have this,” he said, “it’s half my garden chit, our house had two because it’s so wide.”
“Thank you! We were going to try to get this house’s portion back anyway.”
“Let me see that,” Cynla said, “perhaps it is the one belonging to this house, really! Yes, it is, number ninety-eight.” And she showed Coran where the nail was that it had hung on, and Coran put it back there.
“You could move into Coran’s house if you liked!” Cynla said to us when he’d left for the second time. But that was too large for us, and we liked living close to people so we could help each other! That house would be better off with a whole family living in it, and there were only the two of us, it wasn’t as if we’d have babies or adopt someone or employ a maid any time soon.
Then we went to the farm to get our straw mattress filled. “Ah, I see you want straw,” Hinla’s grandfather said. “With or without?”
“With or without what?” Riei and I asked at the same time.
“Herbs, of course.”
“To make it smell nice?”
“And against the vermin. It’s fourpence without, and eightpence with.”
“With, of course!”
As we were carrying the mattress back we ran into Hinla who was weeding. “Hey neighbours!” she said. When we told her Coran had given us a garden chit, she asked “Do you want lessons? From me?”
We’d been gardening in Valdis, but Hinla said it was probably very different here, so yes, we did, and promised to come back after we’d brought the mattress home. Riei wanted to make the bed, too, so it was a while, but then we got back to the garden to help Hinla weed and thin out at the same time. Riei was very methodical, learning the shape of each single plant as if she was recognising people’s handwriting, and I did one kind of plant at a time and either put it in the weed bucket or in the basket of thinned-out shoots, according to what Hinla said it was.
We hadn’t been working for more than a quarter of an hour when we heard voices behind us. Young men’s voices, it turned out: there were four of them, all in their teens. “New girls on the block! Faran told us you’d come to live here. You (that was me) are a bit small, but you (that was Riei) are juicy enough. And of course there’s Hinla, we know you.”
“They’re from across the street,” Hinla said to us, “not from here!”
“We know where you live,” the lads said, “the women in that house are all easy, are you, too?”
“Round-heeled, we call that in Valdis,” I said, “and we’re not, I’ll have you know that.”
Then, without any warning, one of the lads came running at me, and I did what I’d learned in Albetire when I was still a child: bent over and let him hit his tender bits on my hard head. He crumpled, holding those tender bits and moaning. At the same time another of them tried to grab Riei, and I tried to grab him, but Hinla’s grandfather suddenly came from nowhere and hit him on the head with a flail. (At least I think it was a flail, a stick with a shorter thicker stick tied to it with a leather strap.)
The third grabbed me by the throat but I kneed him between the legs and he fell like the other one and hit his head on something (I think it was the bucket) fairly hard. And Hinla tripped the fourth and sat on him.
“I’ll get the watch,” Riei said.
She came back with a sergeant from the sheriff’s house, who looked the four over and said “Get the priestess of Naigha, too, this one might not make it.” So Hinla went to fetch the priestess while the sergeant made us tell everything that had happened. “Do any of you know what the law says about attempted rape?” he asked.
“I do know what it says about actual rape,” I said. “Rapists get hanged.”
“Good thing for you lads that these girls stopped you then, isn’t it? It’s Essle for you.”
They all looked as if they’d never heard of Essle, but I said “Row the boats!” Because I’d heard from Prince Uznur that most rowers of the royal boats were doing that work as punishment.
Hinla came back with the priestess, who tutted at the man Hinla’s grandfather hat hit on the head and then whispered with the sergeant. “Take him to the temple,” the sergeant said, “we could take him to the hospital but–”
It was clear that the man was probably going to die and nobody would mind, at least not the sergeant or the priestess or any of us. And if he didn’t die soon enough, the priestess could help him along. Perhaps he had parents and siblings who would mind, but we didn’t know that. Hinla helped carry him to the temple.
The sergeant left, after he’d talked with Hinla’s grandfather too. When Hinla came back, Riei said “That’s half an hour gone when we could have been working in the garden!” so we did the rest of the work, and we went home with one basket of vegetable pickings and Hinla with the other.
In our own bit of garden we met another young man! He gave us a small flask. “Give that to Alyse,” he said. “for the brandymeat.” Then he was gone before we could talk.
“He looked kind of nice,” I said, “and I don’t even know his name so we can tell Alyse who gave it to us!”
“Looks like an Arin,” Riei said, “or perhaps a Rovan.”
But when we gave the flask to Alyse we didn’t need to tell her anything, she said “Oh! Merain gave that to you!” And she stuck the leftover pheasant meat on skewers that she laid over a bowl, and poured the brandy into the bowl, and lit it on fire.
Senthi and her children were just coming in, and Sidhan said “Ooh, brandymeat!” and Senthi said “That’ll go well with the black soup.”
I’d never heard of black soup either, but there were vegetables in it and preserved cherries and bits of black pudding, and everything was delicious. “I’ll teach you,” Alyse said, “everybody should learn to cook the dishes of the place where they live.”