Well, I know who to be angry with now, and it’s Arni and only Arni. Little Arni, that is. Vurian and I tried to reach to Valdis too, the two of us together, to warn big Arni or Vurian’s father or both, and however hard we tried we couldn’t manage. So Arni must have been lying to us that she could do it on her own. She’d made up everything! And she’d tricked Rusla and the two Ishey boys too so they’d take her to Valdis on a horse.
“I suppose she wanted to get me off her back,” Vurian said, “I think I’ve been pushing her too much.” And we all agreed that he had been pushing her a bit and it might have been to much for her.
“Suppose we’d believed her!” I said. “I did believe her for a moment. But if we’d all believed her and gone on with the mules and without all of our things! I suppose your things are in your saddlebags.”
“We don’t have a lot of things,” Rovin said, “the bandages and stuff, and a horse-brush, and I think an old dried-up apple.”
“I’ve got a notebook and stylus in mine,” Vurian said. “And a horse-brush too, and a spare saddle-strap because the one I had looked weak.”
“But Leva and I would never travel without our tools,” Riei said, “I can’t even pick a lock now unless it’s such a weak one I can do it with a stick. Or my pocket-knife.”
The boys looked at her wide-eyed. “Can you pick locks?”
“You should take lessons from her,” I said, “everybody needs to learn to pick a lock before they’re thirteen.” (I was going to say “twelve” but I’d turned twelve while I was still learning.)
“You can actually travel to Turenay in winter,” Vurian said. “But it’s not very safe or comfortable. And I’d really like to have more clothes and a proper bedroll when we do travel.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Riei said. “Let’s go on to Three Hills and stay the night and go back to Valdis tomorrow. It should be only one more day’s ride. Arni will get into trouble the moment she gets home, I’m sorry to miss that, but the mules can’t catch up with the horses.”
“But won’t everybody be worried about us?” I said. “Think we believed Arni and we’re on our way to Turenay?”
“Only for a couple of days,” Riei said, “and even if we did go to Turenay from here we’d go by Three Hills anyway so they’ll know we’re safe and warm.”
So to Three Hills we went, riding all day except when the mules needed a rest. We ate the food that was left in the bag — it wasn’t much — and wished we had Rovin’s dried-up apple. At the end of the day we came to a little town with wooden walls. There were lots of hills here, we could easily count more than three! On the highest hill there was a stone house, perhaps too small to call it a castle though it had a round tower.
The gate guard wanted to know our names and business, and Vurian stepped forward and said, “Vurian astin Velain. And party. Do you want my seal? And he took the seal-ring off his finger and dipped it into the guard’s ink and stamped it in the book! Then we all went through the gate, giggling. “Sometimes it’s so much fun to be a prince!” Vurian said. “Let’s sleep in the best inn in town. Or no, I know something better. It’s not in the best neighbourhood, though. But Hylti and Arni are good people, and they have a lot of little kids. Perhaps we should have told them we’re coming, but I’d like to surprise them.”
We stabled our mules at the inn. It was called the Thirsty Queen, and the queen on the sign really looked like Queen Raisse nursing a little baby! That was Vurian’s little brother, he said. Then we went on through the town, past a tiny temple of Mizran (but it did have pillars, made of wood and carved with ears of grain) and up a hill, until we came to a dead-end street that had houses on one side that could only be whorehouses. One woman sat on her doorstep, looking bored. “Hey! New in town?” she said. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“We’re visiting Hylti,” Vurian said, “she’s a friend of my parents. And of me and my brother, too. In Valdis.”
“I can hear that by the way you talk,” the woman said. “That you’re from Valdis, not that you’re Hylti’s friends. It’s that house,” and she pointed across the street. “Round the back unless you’re patients.”
We knocked on the back door and a woman opened. She was tall and had very light skin and hair. “Hey Arni!” Vurian said.
Another Arni! (And later we met yet another one, one of the women from across the road.) She let us in and gave us bowls of soup from a large cauldron at once. She knew Vurian and Rovin, of course, it turned out that she and Hylti went to Valdis every so often to use the palace library and see the fathers of their children, who were also a couple and lived in the palace. One of them was the pie baker!
There was another woman here, either Síthi or Iss-Peranian by her looks, and after a while a man came in who embraced her and then went on to peel and cut vegetables to add to the soup. “Jeran only ever looks at his own wife,” Arni said, “that’s the best kind of man to have around the house! He and Prithi live next door but we eat together most of the time. Prithi taught both of us, she’s a doctor from Valdis. Well, an Iss-Peranian doctor but she lived in Valdis before she came here.”
Then a short tired-looking woman came from the front room and washed her hands in the kitchen (there was a large copper kettle with a tap near the bottom and a fire burning under it, they had hot water all the time) and sat down at the table without really seeing anything. Only when Arni had given her a cup of steaming tea she looked up and noticed us. “Goodness, it’s Vurian and Rovin,” she said, “where did you come from? And who are your friends?”
This was Hylti of course, and we introduced ourselves and we talked for a long time, interrupted all the time because people kept knocking on the front door (the patients) and the back door (the neighbours, who were sometimes patients too). This was the Hylti who had written the book about the eight-sided towers, and more books that were in the library, like the one about how a whole village got the clap except one old couple. “But I suppose you’re not interested in medicine or architecture?” she asked.
“The eight-sided towers are interesting!” I said. “But what I’m mostly interested in is anything mechanical.”
“For mechanical things you should talk to Maile in Essle,” Hylti said.
“We did that! And she let me teach some of her young people how to handle tools.”
At some point Prithi and her husband went home and took their own children with them, and still patients kept coming. The woman we’d talked to earlier brought her friend who could barely stand up on her own, “that one was so bad, it was like he fucked me with an icicle!” (Arni had to tell me what an icicle was: water dripping off a roof or something when it’s very cold so it freezes into a sort of pointy stick. She comes from the far north where those things are ordinary.)
Hylti and Arni took the women to the front room, and Riei went along to see if she could help. “I’ll watch the little ones,” I said, but Vurian and Rovin were so used to having little brothers and sisters of their own that they did all the childminding. I sat at the table with a cat on my lap.
When they came back, I heard Hylti say to Riei, “You should tell that to your Erne: look at the men, too!” Everybody was very tired, and Arni showed us where there was an attic where we could sleep, “that’s where my mother slept when she came here when we had the babies!” It wasn’t really big enough for four people, but fortunately we weren’t very large people, and we had our own blankets, smelling a little of mule.
“You sleep on the wall side, and we’ll sleep near the abyss!” Vurian said. “So you won’t roll off the landing unless you roll right over us, and we’d notice that.” He’d also made the same sort of seal as on the bedstead, perhaps to wake himself up if he rolled too far.
But all of us were still too awake to sleep, and we talked about the kind of things people talk about at night, the things you’ve forgotten in the morning even though they’re very important when you’re talking about them. After a lot of talking we were still too awake to sleep. We went down to the kitchen, where the two neighbour women were now sleeping near the fire and Arni and Hylti were sitting at the table, Hylti on Arni’s lap as if they were big Arni and Erne.
“We’re too awake to sleep,” I said, “can we do something?”
“Make tea!” Hylti said, and Arni said not to use the hot water from the copper kettle because that was only good for washing (I understood that: copper is poisonous and if the water is in the kettle all the time some will get in) but to get water from the well. When I was in the yard I saw that it was getting light already, now we hadn’t slept for two nights!