He may not be a great writer, but he does get everything into the story, and he has a splendid storytelling voice.
Valdis, just after the festival of Timoine
So, there we were — in the Tunned Piglets, asking every master butcher who came in whether he’d got some work for us today, sipping some truly awful beer while we were waiting. We, that’s me, Arin, and Jeran, my friend. We’re journeyman butchers. (And journeymen in the Guild of Anshen as well.)
And since we’re currently without a master, I don’t know when we will ever become masters ourselves. It was the lung plague, it killed not only my mother and my girl, but also our master, master Ayran and his wife, who was also our master in the Guild of Anshen.
Well, the foreman was lucky, he was a master already and he quickly married master Ayran’s daughter and got the shop. I don’t blame him, and I don’t blame him he sent us away.
After all, we were Master Ayran’s journeymen, not his, and there was no way he could have afforded keeping us on. After all, there’s little work to do at the end of the year anyway, and there aren’t as many customers as there used to be, blame the lung plague, and also all the men who have gone off to Solay to fight for the King. Maybe I should have gone, too, but master Eldan had made clear that if we’d leave the shop, he wouldn’t take us back.
That’s the way it is with us. I’m not denying that I was worried, about us, about my little sister who’s living with dad — who has never been much good, but after ma died, he’s been taking his ‘girl friends’ home, what Halla doesn’t like.
Oh, and I’m sixteen years old, and Jeran’s seventeen. He’s tall and handsome and can sing and make music, and I’m not nearly as tall or handsome, but I’m very honest. That’s not to say that Jeran isn’t very honest either, otherwise he wouldn’t be my friend! Well, the difference is, he’s got a new girlfriend every three weeks, and I have gone steady with my poor Halla (not my sister, my fiancee) since I was thirteen and looked like having a good future in the Guild.
So there we were, keeping an eye on the door so we could be the first to pounce on a master needing a temporary hand, drink pig’s piss and trying to make it last. You have to drink, in the Tunned Piglets, because otherwise you’re not allowed to stay. And if you get hired, you have to buy beer for the master who hired you — and sometimes, if it’s a nice job, say a week or so of work, for everyone else. It’s a stupid custom, would be stupid, even if the beer were good, which it isn’t. But there’s no other place to go, guild rules forbid masters to hire temporary journeymen anywhere else.
We had just decided to sort of go out and take a look at the foreign ladies — there’s a street where about a dozen of them are making themselves available, and they are good to look at, poor things. Probably widows whose husbands have died in the plague, but they are still good to look at, well, then Jeran’s little brother came into the Tunned Piglets, telling us master Ervan, my little sister’s schoolmaster, wanted to see us about a little job. Not guild work, but it might be Guild work, if you catch my meaning. He could see us late in the afternoon, after the small ones had all gone home.
So we went to take a look at the foreign women after all, though we couldn’t understand what they were asking us, I knew they were wasting their breath. I’m thrifty, I have to, if we want to keep our garret, and Jeran would never pay for a woman, they usually love him the moment they see him and pay him his dinner.
Then there was an elephant — that’s important, because when we followed the elephant (elephants are always worth following, they are so impressive!), we arrived at the city gate, where just outside the city Queen Raisse is building the hospital. It looks like it’s going to be huge, I think Valdyas really should count itself fortunate with the King’s choice for a wife. Well, and working there was a gorgeous girl with an enormous mass of red hair, so I asked her whether she wanted to join us for dancing that night in the Old Mill — and she said yes, to my surprise. I was surprised I dared ask her, but poor Halla has been dead for four months now, and besides, she looked like she was worth taking a bit of a risk.
I’m rambling… Everyone will tell you that I’m the chatty one, and Jeran the silent one (except when it comes to girls, of course). Anyhow, Jeran and I went to master Ervan at the old school. What he told us was very exciting!
He said a friend of the Queen had been asked by the Queen to figure out where all those fake medicines the quacks have been selling — and still are selling — come from. She is very interested in medicine, doctors and all that stuff, it seems, has lots of friends who are very good doctors, master Ervan said. And of course neither the Queen, nor her friend could go out in the street and look around for quacks plying their business or asking questions everywhere without being in a lot of danger. So the Queen and her friend wanted master Ervan to find two nice, dependable young people in the Guild of Anshen — and he thought of us!
We’re getting six shillings a week, paid in advance! Well, we didn’t hesitate, after all, we’ve seen what the sickness can do. The problem is, real medicine, for instance from Rusla, is really expensive, and doesn’t always work anyway, and there aren’t many real doctors who can tell you what you need. So for mum and dad I had to buy something on the street, too, and it not only didn’t work, it probably killed my mum. So I have a bit of a personal interest.
It seems it’s mostly the foreigners who supply the medicine, and when they do that, it might even work, but by the time it reaches us, it’s worthless. And some of those foreigners are witches, the Queen has forbidden them to work in Valdyas. We must really have been in panic during the plague, because only now people are thinking, if the foreigners have medicine against the plague, how come they die first? Because there were many more dead among the foreigners than among us.
In any case, we accepted the offer (weird thing: that afternoon a friend of mine in the guard asked me to come and join the guards, but I declined, I want to become a butcher!, but this is very close), and went away. First to fetch my sister: with the extra shillings, we could move from the back garret to the front garret (Jilan the clerk had died two months ago, and it hadn’t been let since) over the bakery where Jeran and I live, and there would be enough room for my sister. Getting her away from dad’s friends is something I’ve wanted for a long time.
We found her in the pub on the corner, called The Corner, where she was doing her homework with some friends in the kitchen. One of them was really small and dark! She is called Serla, so she must be Valdyan, not that I would mind if she weren’t — she is only five years old, but can already read and write. Halla was really happy about moving in with us and took her friends with her to clean the garret. The baker’s wife likes Halla, so she might be able to get a few pennies now and then by doing chores, as well.
Bah, I’m rambling again. Let me think — oh, yes. We actually combined our first evening of investigation with the dancing at the Old Mill — we thought we might be able to get a lead there. The red-haired girl, Maile, was waiting for us with two friends, Selle the slater and Jerna, who also works at the hospital building site. They offered us some pie — Jeran’s magnetism, I guess, but I carefully kept my piece apart for little Halla, for her breakfast.
We hadn’t had so much fun for ages, not since the plague came to Valdis. We could dance, stand a round of beer ourselves, and the girls were very nice. When we started chatting about the quacks, we quickly heard from people around us about the red-haired man, but it was clear he had fled to Rizenay already.
At the end of the evening, Jerna’s cousin lame Tyan came — he is now the stable boy at the Three Kings, a really posh inn, and he came to deliver a letter to from his landlord to the owner of the Old Mill. When I walked him home — he is only thirteen and it was getting late — he told me he used to be quack’s stooge — sometimes his lameness would be cured four times a day! He also showed me the insides of the Three Kings. I had never been there! It was beautiful, with paintings of the three great kings on the wall. And I was given a glass of wine as thanks for seeing Tyan home. Weird stuff, wine. I think I prefer beer, though wine is preferable over the beer in the Tunned Piglets!
I had never been in that part of town, and on my way back I got lost, somewhere near the School, but on a side of town I’d never been — at least not after dark. I tried to find Jeran with my spirit, and appeared to be somewhere to the left — but the street I turned in happened to be a back alley and a dead end. When I turned back, I thought I heard something: I made sure I made a bit of noise myself, and then the noise stopped, so I hid myself and kept quiet. The noise started again.
Now I’m not a hero or something, but it seemed to me that something fishy was going on, and I called Jeran with my spirit and then climbed over the wall to investigate. I came into the back yard of some posh house, and saw two people climbing in through the window. Well! I hit the last one with the handle of my butcher’s knife, knocking him out, and then proceeded to pull the other one out. He tried to slither away, so knelt on his breast and throat, and then shouted to wake up the people in the house.
There was only an old gent and his servant, who was just as old, but they made a great hullabaloo in the front and presently the city watch was alarmed. They arrived about the same time as Jeran — it turns out Jeran and me had caught someone the watch was really anxious about, somebody-the-rat (well, he did look the part, with a weedy little moustache and whiskers), and who was apparently quite dangerous. Well, the old man was grateful, the watch was grateful, and I decided going to bed was completely useless, so Jeran and I went home and cleaned up the bakery, like we had agreed when taking the bigger room and bringing in Halla.
After Halla had had her pie and gone off to school, Jeran he’d stayed on talking to the girls and some others, and had learned about a Síthi or Iss-Peranian woman who was known to sell medicine in the market, right near the Guard House. Maybe it was the genuine stuff, maybe it was counterfeit, poison or whatever, but the Queen would want to know about it, that Jeran and I agreed upon. Besides, the guard had told us to come to the Guard House to get our reward.
The reward was twelve riders! They told me to put it by in an account with the Temple of Mizran, but that costs money, so I’m going to hide it in the hollow bit in the roof beam where the beetles have eaten away the wood.
Jeran then decided to try something with the old woman, and she admitted to not only selling medicine without a license (though I am still convinced the medicine must be good, she’s an Iss-Peranian witch, and everyone knows they’re powerful — and it seems the queen has forbidden them to be in the country), but also giving out loans so people could pay her, which is something the Temple of Mizran will want to say something about.
So we made a bit of a fuss, and the guard came up and took her away for questioning. Maybe that wasn’t a smart move: if she tells them who’s the big boss, we’ve lost our temporary job! But maybe there’s a reward, though why the guard hadn’t arrested her before, I don’t know. She was working right in front of the Guard House gate! In her black witches’ robes, even. Maybe she used to share her profit with some of the guards?
I really had to work hard not to go to the hospital building site to watch Maile, but that would have been silly, so we went to the school to draw up our first report for the queen, together with master Ervan, because I must admit I have forgotten a lot about how difficult words should be spelled. And this is it.