The Hub with its shrines looked all but deserted. But that wasn’t unusual the day after a feast. Still, Boddy called a ‘Hale you’ to whichever the god responsible. He’d no desire to weave his way through the everyday mill of beasts, carts and people; he was in a bleak mood. Though . . . oughtn’t he take the townstead’s languidity as a complement to him? Yeah-zo, what more could a chorus-master ask? Despite the harsh carp from his uncle this morning.
The bells chinged out as he passed Sharma’s shrine. He snorted ill-humouredly. Those bells marked more than the first day of prayer for the supplicant within, endlessly circling the inner stone cube. Tomorrow the Council would receive yet another petition to build. Yeah, and guess on which land that would be.
Hey, Boddy Felagi, not joyous this morning?
“Hm,” he grunted in response to his god, And un-joyously turned into Rookeri Lane.
Will you not stop at your shrine?
He knew that he ought. With the day already ill-started, it might be wise to pray to Royan – but then Jonesi appeared as if out of thin air, a scrawny arm slapped on Boddy’s shoulder.
“Good day!” Jonesi greeted loud in his ear. “But tush, Boddy Felagi, your feet sadly flap and your knees have no beat.”
“Sturan.” No more need be said.
“Sturan,” Jonesi nodded. “Sturan always stirring young Boteras Rookeri.”
“Tell me.” Booty’s feelings erupted. “Breaking berating me; in the cloth-house pressing me. Why take me in if the murk didn’t want me?” He shrugged Jonesi’s arm off his shoulder.
“You were the boy then, my friend.”
“Don’t you start on me too.”
“Oh, foodeloo, just listen to you. Are you the young Boteras Rookeri, always happy, always singing, always walking with shoulders swinging? Come lift the sky, Boddy Felagi. Come join with me, raise the moon.”
Jonesi didn’t wait. Right there in the lane he bent over double, his long bluish-black hair sweeping the ground. His shirt – kindly donated and far too roomy – slithered and bunched around his shoulders. Boddy felt bad that he didn’t join with him. Normally he would, the slow bend-and-stretch keeping him agile. But wasn’t it Jonesi himself who’d said, ‘If the mind’s not in it, don’t do it.’ And today Boddy’s mind was definitely not in it.
He watched as Jonesi slowly straightened, arms out and lifting the imagined great moon. Up and up he raised it, holding it high while his lithe slim body bent back, almost double. “Great, yeah, fine, I get the message. I need be more flexible. But, Jonesi, moon-lifting apart, aren’t you supposed to be at the Gardens?”
Jonesi slowly resumed vertical posture. “You think there’ll be much gnashing of teeth this sunny spring morning? Will our proud ostlier breathe fire through his nose just because I am late?”
Boddy laughed. “Too right I do, yeah. I imagine Uncle Kachinnar has plenty of bottles and casks for you to move – after last night.”
“Oh, young Boddy Felagi, there you did well with your boom-boom-a-banging. Deluca-god was properly honoured.”
“Yeah. So tell that to my least-favourite uncle.”
“Sturan, Sturan, always stirring. Come, Boddy Felagi, come run, come dance. Come be Boddy Felagi with me.” He gave no time for Boddy to argue but was off at a run.
~ ~ ~
Uncle Kachinnar, his bulk leant against the bright-painted Royan-carved pillar, blocked the entrance to Rookeri Gardens – but not the malty-reek that seeped from around him. “You’re late,” he told Jonesi as Jonesi slipped past him. He waited for Jonesi to be out of the way then folded his arms high over his cask of a chest. “And you, Boddy-boy, I’m hearing worrying things of you today.”
Boddy resisted a roll of his eyes. “But you are only hearing, Uncle Kachinnar.”
“Ah, so you know what I mean. I didn’t think . . . not Estas’s boy, not Robinti’s; no.”
“Leave it, Uncle Kachinnar, yeah. I’ve already had it from Uncle Sturan. And you weren’t there to see it. Besides, there are married women in my chorus, you think they’d agree to that?”
“And that’s what I’ve said. I’ve said, they rehearse it all here and, no, nothing like that ever happens – I’d have known.”
“But you had to tell me, yeah? Ho-hum, hey.” He could put no breeze in that today. “So, which little bird told you? Sorge?”
“No, not little Sorge, no. And how could she when she’s not yet here. No one is here except—”
“Except for Jonesi.”
“Did he doss on your floor again? Sturan would skin you alive if he knew. And why pick on my Sorge? That’s not like you. What is it, Boddy-boy? Slept too close to Remen’s Tower and the waiting dead have pickled your brains? And as I was saying, no one is here yet, all sogged-out with the wine—”
“Natzo, more likely with that black beer of yours.”
“Now then, just because your tastes are more delicate. That’s much-wanted beer, by dabbler and toiler alike. Now will you let me finish what I’m saying – as bad as your father, you are. I’m to tell you there’s someone here to see you. A visitor, Boddy my boy – though why she came here and not to Sharmin . . . Anyway, I’ve put her into your theatre.”
“You’ve what! Ghats, Uncle.” Yeah-zo, that man! Boddy’s fingers curled, he couldn’t stop them. Yet almost immediately the anger was gone, replaced by incipient despair. “Oh, today is not a good day. Have I told you, Uncle Kachinnar, or have I told you, no one goes in that theatre alone. That equipment—those lamps . . .”
“No need to tell me, Boddy-boy. Wasn’t I with your father when he was tricked into buying the gear? Mathon-made, the trader said, whatever that means. Though I’ll warrant they’re good – yea good for his plants and now good for your theatre. But stop exploding like a polypod dying. She’s a dainty thing; couldn’t wreck a petal.”
“Great, fine, yeah. Who is she?”
“That’s better, that’s quieter. And as for who, I’ve not a notion.” He shrugged a shoulder, his white cotton shirt straining. Boddy hadn’t noticed the embroidery before, round the yoke and neck. Apt for an ostlier, the pale green tendrils and darker vines leaves. But whose work was it? Was Sorge pulling more than his pints? But noleless widow, when the law forbids it. Tough, though, when the heart wants to love. And they neither were young: Uncle Kachinnar with his white-winged hair and a gut as round as his barrels; Sorge with a son Boddy knew from the Town Watch as well as the Dragons.
“She’s mayhap a wife sent you by Deluca,” Uncle Kachinnar broke Boddy’s reverie.
“Yeah, right. Then she’d do better to slink around Jonesi.”
“You could get a job,” Uncle Kachinnar said.
“I happen to have one.”
“A job that pays.”
“Pennies in the hat, Uncle, pennies in our communal hat. And what’s wrong with that?” He was tired of hearing the same complaint, his response no longer sang. Yeah-zo, was he the only one to remember the Avatar’s teachings? Worth is not measured in gold. Did they think banning a word was enough? That forbidding the metals silver and gold would lessen their attraction? That their Guilds would protect them against the Old World demons? Ghats, it infuriated him. Had the Magnificent Maker in his Forty-First Avatar wasted his efforts in bringing the One Thousand Founders to this new world? And the philosophers were too busy debating the gender of the Genderless Engenderer to cast a critical eye upon them.
“And that’s just like your father as well,” Uncle Kachinnar said. “He didn’t understand the need of pennies to feed a belly. And before you say it, no, I wasn’t against him and his plants, and well you know it. Didn’t I go tramping the Daab with him, huh? And who was it brought home the…the news? – and I’m telling you, that wasn’t easy. He was my friend, Boddy, and I had to tell your mother, my sister, what had happened to her beloved Estas – and your brother, her son, as well. No, that was not easy.”
Boddy ought to have stopped his talk before it reached this. He knew where his ranting usually led. Now he watched helplessly as Uncle Kachinnar dabbed at his eyes. Without thinking Boddy’s fingers found the red beaded bracelet.
His uncle noticed. “Thread’s still unbroken, eh?” It was silk. sixteen years strong. “And you keep me here talking when I have work awaiting.” Again Uncle Kachinnar started to turn. “And that theatre’s a mess. It needs cleaning.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Boddy nodded as he followed his uncle into the low narrow building. Like all Raselstad buildings – except those at the Hub – Rookeri Gardens was constructed from native grasses there being no native trees except for semol; though some of those grasses grew strong and stout, others grew strong and tall.
And no matter the years, the memories lingered. Off to the right was where they had nurtured the plants that Boddy’s father brought back from the Daab. Exotic forms, like the pink carnal flower, and the po plants, and the fire-juice trees which weren’t a tree and yielded a sap that, Ghats and rats, could burn. His father had installed expensive glass windows to shelter those plants from the strong northern storms. Natzo, remembering those plants didn’t help Boddy’s mood. That glazed flower-house now formed the guest quarters. The same glass panes pampered peddlers from Rothi, and the rowdy visiting scrample supporters. The rest of the hostelry – the kitchen and dining hall, parlour and tavern – were permanently out of the sun.
Boddy’s theatre had never been glazed, being the former the stores. On nights when he couldn’t sleep Boddy would picture the theatres he’d seen in the Ghats’ towns – that one at Rummastad, the biggest granddaddy of all towns . . . Yeah-zo! Boddy-boy, best you dream on. At least he had a theatre. That’s more than most of the towns had this side of the Ghats.
He pushed open the door. And the sweet scent of Nalada hit him – like ten dozen pots had been broken and spilled. It hit his belly, swilling and stirring a super-abundance of stale ginger mead. Natzo, this was not a good day.
~ ~ ~
As his uncle had said, she was dainty. Without those breasts he’d have thought her a child prinked up in her mother’s best wear. Her eyes and her hair – piled atop her head –were molasses-black. Overall, not unattractive despite that her face was mace-paper yellow, but that was the cast of the Mathon-lamp.
“You wanted to see me?”
“You Boteras Rookeri-Sharmin?”
Boddy watched as she bounced her way across the auditorium. She was like one of Patri Edire’s wind-tossed flowers: the tangerine silk of her dress where it clutched her chest unmoving, yet flouncing and swirling around her thin black-trousersed legs. The theatre last night had been used as a dressing room. Clothes were strewn everywhere. Crates, only part-packed, spilled costumes and props. Streamers, like vivid vine tendrils, curled around a collection of green bottles – wine from Devicstad, now empty of course. Boddy was astounded the way the girl negotiated every obstacle without stutter or trip – which considering her sight seemed taken with him was no mean feat.
“I watched you last night,” she said in a heavily accented voice. Childlike and reedy, it grated on Boddy. “That was, er, some performance.” She raised her brows as she smiled. Her face formed at once to a ‘comedy’ mask.
Boddy forced a nod of acknowledgement. But why was she here?
She answered without his asking. “I want to join you.”
Rats, Ghats and shats! No, never. No. But he couldn’t say that. Who was she? The way the day was moving, everything said she was sent to stir trouble. Uncle Sturan trying to trip him? Well Uncle Sturan could go stir the shit in another latrine. Calm, the instruction came natural to him, no need of Roo or of Jonesi to tell him. Calm. And think.
She wasn’t of Raselstad, he’d have known her. Besides, her accent placed her firmly west. Perhaps even beyond the Ghats. So how came she to here? She could have a sister or aunt in the town. Yeah-zo, it wouldn’t do to offend, Sturan’s offering or no. Besides, was he Boddy and was he Boddy, and was Boddy rash and offensive? No, never.
“Great, fine, yeah,” he said. “Your age?” Hey, Boddy-boy, yeah, that was polite.
“Old enough.” She thrust out her breasts – which marked her as no experienced dancer.
“I don’t take ’em into my chorus under twenty.”
She tossed her head, her nose describing an upward spiral.
“So you’re twenty?” Natzo, he was to believe her? He was penniless not witless. When?”
He spread his hands, oh joy. Sorry, but there was nothing he could do.
“I only want to sing and dance. Not that do that drama-kabuki stuff.”
What? He so wanted to laugh. Someone was setting him up for certain. “Listen, and learn, lady.” Perhaps by his tone she’d know what she’d said wrong. “People do drama, the chorus does comedy – what the Founding Gods did, yeah? And still I don’t take ‘em under twenty. But, hey ho yeah-zo, if the lady’s keen – are you keen? Then I’ll take your name; you come back next year and we’ll see.” He started to turn. He had to open that door to vent the smell. Too strong and cloying; and she thought it perfume?
“But I want to show you what I can do.”
“Lady, you see this mess? I’m busy this morning. And is it so different?”
She skipped light-footed across the floor. With a cart-wheel and back-flip she arrived on the stage. It wasn’t a high stage, yet the execution was enough to stop Boddy mid-stoop. He watched her performance. Splits, pirouettes, more moves than he’d names for. Yeah, fine, if she wanted to join the fair-folk. But how could he make use of her here. He heard Uncle Kachinnar’s muted call.
“You, hold a moment.” He didn’t yet know her name.
“Am I in?”
He winced at her desperation (so it wasn’t a set-up?).
“Here, hold this a while.” He scooped up a woven grass-ball and threw it at her. She caught it deftly. “Keep it high, at arms length. Higher. And don’t move till I say. Right, yeah? I’ll be back in two.” He yanked open the door.
~ ~ ~
“Sorry to call you from her, Boddy-boy. But there’s a message brought for you. You might like to respond without delay. From the judge.”
“Oh . . . spews!” And now Ghats! In leaning against the tavern bar his shirt, his favourite, garnet silk, had mopped up last night’s malted slop. And would it stain or would it stain? Of course it would stain. Today was turning to the worst of days. And after last night had been so good. Uncle Sturan was certain to rant of the shirt. ‘Is this how you sneer at my charity?’ Natzo! How was it charity? Sturan gave him these silks and cottons so he’d not wander the Hub and off through the warrens looking like some common, befaded gord-hand. It annoyed Sturan to death and beyond that Boddy refused to have them tailored like the noble gens’ coats and holha-grass trousers. Oversized, with the least-est possible shaping, that’s what suited Boddy best. “Yeah-zo. What have I done to deserve such a day?”
“Well I did hear . . .”
“Yeah-yeah, I know. I suppose I’d best go. Did he say to the court or his office?”
“Stop fussing, it isn’t a summons. Not yet. It’s mayhap for something entirely different. You been messing with his daughter again?” Kachinnar’s eyes twinkled.
Boddy shrugged. “No. Not recently. Look, while I’m gone, yeah, will you get Jonesi to poke his head into the theatre? Is that . . .?”
“Yea. Sure. And was I right of her? Sent by Deluca to be your wife?”
“More likely from Villas – I’m thinking of plumage. But how’d she gain a travel-permit, under age? Is she lodging here with you?”
“You want to rephrase that? And the answer is no. And if she came in by Rams Gate then she’ll be at the Luant.”
“Yeah, and that’s where I’d like her to be.”
“Now then, Boddy, I meant the Garden not the river. Now go. It’s not wise to keep a judge waiting.”
~ ~ ~
Royan’s shrine beckoned again as Boddy approached it. He could do with the help but he hadn’t the time. He closed his heart to it. Besides, this time of day it was the resort of pubescent girls and infertile women; they came with their garlands of flowers and sweet incense though not the expensive luban-grass. According to the Good Book, luban-grass came from the Old World, Java – which earned for the Luban their Rothi slang-name of Javanese.
The shrines were busy. Of the twelve around the Hub, each at the tip of its gord’s vicinage, only Black Father Remen’s shrine today was ignored. Boddy was tempted to go and pray there since, as Uncle Kachinnar had said, likely some waiting spirit had seeped into him while he slept. Perhaps that’s why Uncle Sturan had allocated to him a north-facing room – to keep the dead company.
Beams, Boddy Felagi, beams and balance.
Yea, yea, Roo, I know. There’s nothing unfair in it; unmarried gens at the back.
And gens are?
Short for gentry: Noble’s family, derogatory.
He could lodge you out with the gord-hands.
Yea, yea, I know; so be grateful.
Boddy cut across the corner of the Hub’s central green, the remains of five hundred picnics removed while he’d been at the Gardens. He kept his ears pricked, a habit from school-days when some master or another was bound to shout at him. He aimed for the same school-days building, the Verse and Comp School. Except for the longer years of weathering, nothing set the building apart from the others.
At the Hub of every townstead were the same four Council buildings, without variation of design. And they always were set around the same: at northeast, the Elementary School; at southeast, the Exchequer School – housing the Treasury; at southwest, the Verse and Comp School – housing the Law Courts; and northwest, the Council House where matters arising were publicly discussed. Each building was set atop twenty-six steps, their walls, built of oven-baked dark ochre bricks in alternating bays, recessed and projecting, shown bleak and unbroken to the town, their high set windows easily missed.
As a child Boddy had sworn the steps were intentionally set to trip him , already late to his classes. Now he took them three at a time. The gate-pillars which once had seemed threateningly huge still dwarfed him. And just as then, he paused to look at the Royan carved there in the form of a man, Rasel’s luscious limbs twined suggestively round him – how apt this morning. Those pillars had been painted afresh for Rasel’s feast a month ago, the colours still brilliant, orange, dark blue and green, red, white and yellow. Beside them, the brass gates, held open, gleamed in the sun. Within the courtyard bloomed with windows, none of them glazed, all shutters opened. The masters’ booms and the teachers’ twitters merged, danced and broke, resulting in isolate words. Strangely, their voices seldom penetrated the quiet of the upper-floor where Boddy spent many of his days – in the Record Hall.
For now, he headed across the courtyard to where a matching pair of black and white Dragons crossed their pikes to guard an arched door. Within was dark and cool. He pushed open the door to the judge’s office.
“Hi, Boddy!” Eshe greeted him. “Long time—discounting last night. I’d forgotten how sexy your, um . . . whazzame.”
Ghats, but he’d had enough of these comments. As if to ward off, he held up his hands. “Eshe, I—”
“No, Boddy, no need to explain – least not to me. And he could be some time as yet.” She glanced towards the inner door. “So . . . sit.”
Boddy obeyed. The provided divan was deep-padded and comfy. As he settled he chuckled.
Eshe gawped at him. “What amuses?”
“Is this like school days or is it—”
“You mean you being here in the old school building?”
He didn’t answer, mesmerised by the flash of flesh through her gaping dress-jacket; glimpsed on the turn. Yeah zo, but he’d warrant that was more than she’d intended.
“No-no, I know what you mean – you being always in trouble.”
“Yeah. I meant you ordering me around.”
Her tawny eyes flashed. “But you liked it.” She pursed her plump lips flirtatiously.
“Long time ago, Eshe.”
It was the wrong thing to say; she returned to her side of the desk, her knees clicking as she sank to the kneel-pad, “No wonder you’re not married. Even with those dancers around you.”
“Yeah, quickest way to rip a chorus. I don’t touch ‘em, you know it.” And that, too, was a stock answer.
“But don’t say it’s not tempting.”
“Should we talk of something other? Say, how are the worms?”
“Oh . . . you!” She peeled into laughter, though it hadn’t been that funny as he remembered it. It was worrying though; she started to snort, almost convulsing. And now there was more than a glimpse of bare breast. He waited, ho-hum, trying to be blind in those flashes.
She could of course retaliate – once she’d dabbed at her eyes and her cheeks and the other bits women always did – she could say of his blunder. But then he’d had a genuine excuse: though two years her elder, he’d been newly at school; he’d had to catch up.
“It was so embarrassing,” she finally said once she’d quietened. “Everyone laughing.”
She acted out the incident, hand raised as if again a schoolgirl in a class. “‘Please, Femella Linniker. In last week’s assignment I found the word Helminthology –’ I shall always remember that word. ‘And I wonder, Femella Linniker, well, why did they want to study worms . . . of all things? Had they nothing better to do with their time?’”
“Yeah, great, Eshe. But it wasn’t what you said. It was that indignant tone you used, as if personally offended.” He had mimicked it for days after. Thinking back now, it could have been that which had started him into acting.
“And of course, to say the word ‘worm’ in a class full of boys . . . ” Yeah, that had been funny. “But as I remember, the laughter stopped short when Linniker gave us that lecture on the First Accord and Technocrats and . . . what was it?”
“What’d she say? ‘Because the Old World scholars had so little to do, they devoted their hours to devising demonic machines.’ And all you boys yawned.”
No, the other boys had yawned, Boddy had not. Boddy had fond memories of Femella Linniker. She’d been a good teacher, she had encouraged him – and brought him to this. Now what would Judge Madir say of his daughter’s laughter, and in his ‘undesirable’ company? Boddy was about to find out.
The door beside him opened and Jilli, the judge’s assistant, breezed out. “Ah, Boteras Rookeri-Sharmin. We thought we could hear your melodic tones. Judge Madir is ready for you now.”
~ ~ ~