Little Arni was awake first the next morning and poked me awake too. I didn’t know where I was for a moment, in a room that felt strange but comfortable, sharing a bed with Riei that was narrower than the one we had at home. The fort of the Greys! And suddenly I remembered how we’d got here.
“Ssh! Don’t wake Riei, come outside with me.” I pulled on the shirt lying beside the bed and followed Arni into the corridor.
“It’s early and the bell is ringing and I’ve never been — you know –”
“You want to go to the temple?”
“Yes, I’ve never been in a service for Anshen!” (She said his name!)
“Wait, I’ll put on some more clothes,” I said, and we crept back into the room and I put on breeches with the shirt, and Arni put a skirt on over her nightshirt.
The temple was eight-sided like the one in Albetire where I’d been to services, mostly dark, with some candles around the edges and the fire in the middle. The woman who’d given us the blankets last night was leading. “I think she’s the boss,” I whispered to Arni.
The service was short, but very holy, full of godly presence. Arni was so impressed when it ended and everyone went out that she couldn’t move from the spot. Then a girl came up to us and waved her blue-grey sleeves at me. It was Ruzyn! “See,” she said, “I’m in the Order now, calling them last night and bringing you here got me accepted!”
She shooed us to a bathing-room, clever, we could always tell Riei and big Arni that we’d woken up early and gone to wash, they wouldn’t have to know that we’d been in the temple. Especially not that little Arni had been in the temple. Big Arni would perhaps expect me to want to go. When we were in a bathtub together, Arni and Riei arrived and claimed the other one. Then one of the Greys came in and made a beeline for me. “Miallei Leva? The commander would like a word with you.”
Now what was that about? “When I’m dry and dressed,” I said, and climbed out of the bath, I was clean anyway. I dried and dressed in a hurry and followed him.
The commander –yes, the woman who’d given us the blankets– was in an office not much bigger than the room where Riei had made the recommendation for me, crammed with piles of papers and other things. Ruzyn was there too, and a man who looked for all the world like an Iss-Peranian prince. “This is the king’s chancellor,” the commander said, “Prince Uznur.”
“The viceroy?” I asked.
“You might call it that,” the prince said. And without all of the Iss-Peranian courtesies I was expecting he went on, “I gather from Commander Rusla that you can testify that Master Radan of the Dawn abused his daughter and got a child on her.”
That threw me a bit, but thinking back to all the things I’d heard I could fit it all together. “Both Riei and Arni said “father” when he was at the door,” I said, “and Riei wanted –needed– to tell me something but she couldn’t, or not yet.” The prince made encouraging noises. “And Erne told me never to ask about Riei’s father. That’s all I know!”
“Do you think it’s enough, Rusla?” the prince asked, and the commander nodded. “This is a full testimony,” he continued, “there is no need for you or Arni or her daughters to stay in Essle now. Rusla, I can take over this case, after all it’s physical abuse, not abuse of semsin.”
“Do I have to write it down, or sign my name when someone else writes it?” I asked.
“No, an oral testimony in the presence of two gifted witnesses is enough.” He inclined his head at the commander and Ruzyn. “I know you were intending to leave Essle, and I recommend you go to Valdis first and take our letters to the queen and her lawmakers. Now that Queen Raisse’s law book is known more widely in this country, we have more power to enforce the laws. Fathers who get their own daughters pregnant will be hanged for the crime. There’s a precedent from Idanyas where the sheriff and the baroness unearthed such a case.”
“Riei has a law book!” I said. “We read to each other from it in the evening.”
Prince Uznur smiled. “It’s a good thing when as many people as possible know the law,” he said.
“Ruzyn, you will help Leva and her party get ready and escort them as far as Tilis,” the commander said. “Your first assignment as a journeyman. I trust you will fulfill it successfully.”
Ruzyn nodded, blushing, and took me to the eating-room where Riei and big and little Arni were already eating porridge. “What did the commander want?” big Arni asked.
“Prince Uznur was there,” I said. “He’s sending us to Valdis. With letters.” I didn’t tell her about the other thing; I knew why I was the only one the commander and the prince had called.
“Valdis! Not Veray?”
“He said to Valdis first. Right away, and Ruzyn is coming along to Tilis.”
Not much later we had a boat — not Ruzyn’s father’s boat, but a larger one with four rowers and a steersman — with all of our things in it, to go north out of town. But before we even got in ourselves Erne arrived at the landing. “Arni! Stop! You’re not going anywhere without me!”
Arni embraced her. “You have to stay here to take over my work,” she said.
Erne snorted. “As if I’m the only one you taught. And if that didn’t take, they can start at the beginning, like you did seven years ago. The town won’t sink in the swamp for lack of me. Or of you for that matter.” And she got into the boat ahead of the rest of us.
Riei drew me aside. “Do we get to call her Mother Erne now instead of Aunt Erne?”
“Or just call her by her name like I do?” I said.
It was two days to Tilis, Ruzyn said, in a fast boat like this. And we did go fast, overtaking several other boats on the way. It wasn’t long until we were between small islands with poor-looking houses, then just huts and shacks. Small thin children plunged into the water and asked for pennies. I’d given small coins to beggars before, in Albetire, but here there were so many! “If I give them something it won’t be enough, will it?” I asked Riei.
“If you bought each poor child in Essle one bowl of squid, you’d feed them for one day and spend your whole inheritance,” she said. “Well, perhaps two days, squid is cheap.”
When we were well out of sight of the shacks it was mid-day and we stopped at a tuft of reeds, not solid enough to be an island. Nobody got out, but the rowers stretched their arms and legs and we all ate cold rice and salted fish and onions from an oilskin bag the steersman got from the front of the boat.
One rower got out a little book that I recognised: the law book! He read a bit of it aloud, and then another rower said he disagreed and they had a whole debate about it, friendly but sharp!
I’d learned to debate at my father’s knee, of course, so I could say something — it was about what happens when one spouse leaves the marriage, do they get any of the joint property? “Is it the property of the household or the property of the people?” I asked. “And what if there are children?”
“Oh, children,” the first rower said, “that’s the next paragraph,” and then Erne joined in, and Ruzyn, and the steersman and the two other rowers, in fact everybody except Arni and her daughters, though Riei looked thoughtful.
The debate ended when we had to get moving again — without being resolved, but nobody seemed to mind.
We didn’t reach any dry land that night, so we all had to sleep in the boat, ending up in a sort of pile like a litter of kittens, with two people keeping watch. I think Ruzyn got a stint of watch as well, because I saw her sitting up in the moonlight when I woke up in the middle of the night.
Around the middle of the next day the river became wider and and choppier, and we could see a dark square building in the north. “The castle of Tilis,” one of the rowers said.
“I’ve never been out of Essle before,” Ruzyn said. Riei and little Arni hadn’t either, and I’d been far away from Essle for years but in the other direction!
When we came closer we could see that the castle was made all of wood, and it stood on thick poles above the water. People were working on it, replacing one pole with another that seemed to be the trunk of a whole tree! I always like to see people make something, even if I don’t know that particular work, so I craned my neck to see as much as possible.
“Are all the houses on poles here?” I asked. “Is there any dry land in Tilis?”
“About one-third of the year it’s dry,” the steersman said, “the rest of the year, if you’re not rich enough to put your house on poles you get your feet wet. Or your knees if you’re unlucky. There’s far too much water here, and not a drop to drink.”
He got punched in the side by the nearest rower. “They have pretty good ale here, though!”
“Pale wheat slops made by a Khas!” the steersman said. “Give me good old Ryshas wine every time.”
“Where I lived we had the opposite problem,” I said, “not enough water more than half the year!”
“People will live anywhere, you get used to it,” the rower with the law-book said.
Next to the castle there were landings with lots of boats, and there were even some boats under the castle! Some people stood on the landing where we moored, clearly waiting for us. One of them thanked Ruzyn for the escort and said he’d take over here. “I’ll introduce you to the baroness,” he said to us.
“Don’t I get to see the baroness?” Ruzyn said, and then the man took her along as well.
We were taken through the gatehouse and then a large courtyard with a wooden floor, like the deck of a ship, but with galleries all around like a courtyard at home (only built of wood instead of stone). In one of the galleries someone was giving bowls of soup or stew to people through a hatch and they took them to tables to eat.
We went into the house again on the other side and up a couple of flights of stairs, and then we reached a large square room with wall-hangings, but very bare and unadorned otherwise. The furniture was beautiful, though, some of it carved all over. I decided that if I ever got a house of my own I’d want chairs and cabinets like that.
A woman got up from behind the table when we came in. She was tall, wrinkled, sun-bronzed (I thought she’d probably been pale to start with, her skin reminded me of Father’s), stiff with age, and her grey-white hair fluffed around her head like ripe cotton.
“Welcome,” she said, “I’m Sidhein Tilies Sidhan. And you are–”
We introduced ourselves, and she nodded at each name except Erne’s. Instead she raised her eyebrows, and Erne had to explain that she hadn’t wanted to let Arni leave without her. “Hm,” the baroness said, “I’ll talk to you about that later.” And then all of us talked, I don’t remember all we said, it was a mixture of ordinary talk between people who have just met and what happened with Radan of the Dawn, only none of us said the really big thing, the biggest we mentioned was that he’d wanted Arni and her daughters to leave their house and live with the family again and then destroyed the house when they wouldn’t.
Then the baroness said to Ruzyn, “I suppose you can stay the night and go back to Essle tomorrow morning? Good. Then show these girls around the village and get yourselves something to eat. We grown-ups have things to discuss.” And she gave Ruzyn a purse that jingled!
We went out of the castle and found an inn with people eating and drinking in front of it. The inn wasn’t on poles, but it was on top of a stable! It wasn’t until we were all sitting down that I said, “pff, ‘we grown-ups’! You two” (that was Riei and Ruzyn) “are both journeymen, isn’t that grown-up enough?”
“I think they’re going to talk about marriage,” Ruzyn said. “Tilies Sidhan is old enough to marry people. The baroness and the sheriff in Idanyas got married, and they’re both women too, so now people know that women can marry each other.”
“The witch and the princess too!” I said. “In Solay.”
“Those were the first, I think,” Ruzyn said. “But that’s abroad!”