Boddy banished the beat from his head so he’d not move his hips; older folk found it annoying. After the ear-drilling he’d had off Uncle Sturan that morning, this time he intended to play it humble. He lowered his eyes and bowed his head, though not too much. He wasn’t ashamed, and he’d not give that impression. His hands he clasped in patient attitude. He then caught a whiff of Uncle Kachinnar’s stale-beer odour. Too late now to change his shirt; he hoped the judge wouldn’t find it offensive. Patri Madir, alone of the Council, drank the black beer they brewed at Harrelstad (the other nobles imbibed imported Wish-k-bar from Rothi).
Judge Madir sat on a spindle-backed chair behind a slab of a desk. Everything of him was bull-solid – his skin even looked like roast beef. But it was deceptive. Boddy knew well that the man, when not sitting in court or on the Council, made flies for fishing, kites for flying, and collected fossils. But today he was the judge and the judge’s eyes were examining Boddy.
“Boteras Rookeri Sharmin . . .”
Boddy jumped. For years he’d been Boddy or Boddy Felagi or Boddy-boy, now suddenly today everyone addressed him by his full given name. It gave him the chills. What does it mean, my little god Roo?
The same as it does in your plays.
“Shall I quote the complaint?” Judge Madir rhetorically asked him. “At the feast of Deluca – last night – the Raselstad Chorus performed – in public – six counts of . . . of cop-u-lation.”
“No, Patri Madir, that isn’t true.”
“Your dancers were naked whilst . . . performing. Yourself included.”
“No, Patri Madir, that’s not true.”
“Boteras Rookeri Sharmin, I was there.”
“Yeah, so was I,” he snapped back. “Look!” He hiked up his shirt, wedging it under his chin while he tugged at the cord at his waist. “See?” And despite Judge Madir’s look of horror, he dropped his trousers.
He had slept late that morning, waking only when Jonesi, in leaving, clattered the door. Horror! Everyone would be in the dining hall, ready and waiting – because Uncle Sturan insisted they all ate together despite many kin-clips were now lost to time. The food would be cold and congealing – because of him – because none could eat until all were assembled. He’d no time to change from last night’s costume, still worn thanks to his heavy consumption of ginger mead. He pulled on his trousers and ran for the hall. Yeah zo, the day had not started well. Silence had descended as he’d entered, and everyone turned and stared.
“Patri Skaven will tell you the dye,” he told the judge. And hale be the Avatar, and Stayer and Destroyer, for last night’s excesses. He pointed at the flesh-coloured silk, cut bias and hemless, that clung like a second skin to him.
“Hm,” Judge Madir said.
“The women didn’t have these fancy pouches,” he explained with a twiddle of fingers. “And before you ask, Frize made them, and she has a husband. You might know him; the farrier’s son from Rementh Gord? Not a person to cross, yeah. So now you can see, Patri Judge, how eager the eye is to be deceived.”
Judge Madir’s mouth formed a hard line as he nodded. “But inappropriate, Boddy. At a public feast?”
“Natzo, Judge Madir, it was Deluca’s feast, and what’s a marriage without—?” Copulation, the judge had said, and that was the word given in the Good Book. But it wasn’t the word that Boddy would use so he jiggled his hands in descriptive manner instead. “Tell me, what better expression of the Magnificent Maker? Without it the Destroyer would reign, and you know it.”
The judge shook his head. “Boddy, how long now since your Rasel-rites? Ten years?”
“Eleven.” He belatedly added, “Patri.”
“And do you hive into Rasel’s shrine and—” Judge Madir puffed exasperation. “Is that what your marriage to Rasel means to you? Copulation.”
“In a manner of speaking, Patri, though not with the actual—” he jiggled his fingers again. “But that closeness of union, with the head and heart, yeah. Patri, I’m a poet. I look for deeper meanings, the symbolic and . . . things.”
“Ah yes, Boddy the Playwright, driving force behind the town’s chorus. The star – or are you a comet? You certainly have the trail of hair.”
“Is that an official complaint? Only many of the nobles wear their hair as long.”
“But they are not idle. There is a word in the Book, from the Sanskrit, domba: a man of low caste who gains his livelihood by singing and dancing.”
“Patri, forgive my confusion. You have a problem with that when the Avatar forbids us the worship of wealth? I’d say the chorus, with our timely reminders of the Founders, does more to hold away Mercury’s Curse than do you nobles with your Guilds and Councils. Yet you scorn our services, freely given.”
“Take care, Boddy-boy – with your feet and your words.”
“It’s in the Book, Patri, look it up. Mercury, quicksilver – a poison – named for the god of crafts and commerce. Know your demon, sayeth our Lord.” He wasn’t snapping and shouting, but, by Ghats, he was angry. He was shaking. To be slated, repeatedly slated, for following the Avatar’s commandments. Yet those who attacked him openly flouted them, flaunting their association with the Accursed.
“We will set that aside for now.” Judge Madir said. “There is a second complaint – and I must advise you that the Elect seeks the Council’s order on this. He wants you removed from Raselstad’s Chorus. To have no further involvement.”
“No! Spew on it, man, that’s—”
“And so I have argued on your behalf. Boddy, despite what you think, the Council does approve your plays. Generally. Do we stint in providing materials for you?”
“The Council provides. But you must realise that last night has not helped. I accept that since your Rasel-rites you have served in the Watch, and the Dragons, and now I am told you are an angel and have your own horse—”
“Loaned by Count Slemba; my uncle would not.”
“The gelding you keep on Kerchen’s gord? Is the count—is he much like his brother?”
Was the judge not subtle or was he not subtle. Count Slemba’s brother was Patri Edire, nicknamed ‘flower-face’ but not for his herbs. Yet there were many reasons a man remained single, and many more for the loan of a horse.
“I will say that in doing your duty you cannot be faulted,” Judge Madir allowed, having also allowed Boddy’s silent answer. “But your uncle is right: with him you do act as a boy. Where is the wage to support you? You live on his charity and he is not bound, these years on. He could evict you, you know. And so I have suggested a compromise.”
“I’ll tell you now I won’t leave the chorus.” That chorus was his life, as much him as his limbs, and as essential as food and water. He was panic-filled just at the thought. Kill me, set goblins upon me, but don’t tell me there’s to be no more chorus. Even though most months he struggled for inspiration.
“You will work on Sharmin Gord, at whatever work given you,” Judge Madir pronounced.
No! The word wrenched through him though not vented; it would have rasped in his throat. Ghats, man, rats! Roo, how much worse the day? And did he need his face burning, his fists clenching, his muscles tightening. Let it go, man, let it go. But natzo. He wanted to fight, to pulp the bull-headed judge, make mince out of the mighty Minotaur.
You want to be a Rothi bandit? You want to join Mallen? Roo cautioned him.
But despite all the lessons he’d had from Jonesi, and Jonesi knew a thing or two, his anger wasn’t easily cancelled.
“Now listen before you object,” Judge Madir said. “Your uncle has agreed that whatever hours you provide to Sharmin Gord you may provide the same as our chorus master.”
One ought not to stand with mouth agape when facing the judge, said Roo.
But it wasn’t what . . . Boddy hadn’t expected . . . Whatever the hours, the judge had said? He wanted to laugh, he wanted to whoop. He could stay with the chorus? Yeah zo! Oh, but to work on the gord?
“Judge Patri, I’m not—I mean—don’t take this amiss. I’ll happily get my fingers dirty — you know how many times I’ve asked Patri Sturan to please allow me a flower-house? But, Judge Madir, I want to work at my father’s craft – and isn’t that right, isn’t that proper, isn’t that as the Avatar averred it? And is one small flower-house much to ask of his duodecimanse? And I swear I won’t quibble about the Daab expeditions to gather the stock.”
“Boddy – Boteras – I would like to help you further but . . .It wasn’t only that your father died; Rookeri Gord had been failing for years. Now please accept these terms. Otherwise the Council will issue the order and you will have no more to do with the chorus.”
“Natzo, Patri! You may as well say not to breathe.” But was that heavy cloud lifting or was it lifting? In his head, the music was playing. He felt like Boddy Felagi again.
“Now if that is sorted . . .” The judge leant back in his spindle-backed chair. A bull on a daisy, a wonder the chair didn’t break. “I want to talk of a more, say, personal matter. Young Lucire.”
And he was supposed to know this Lucire? Ghats and rats! Now what was he accused of?
“My niece,” Judge Madir said.
Natzo, he’d not mess with a niece. That would upset Eshe as well. “But, Patri, you have no brothers to have any nieces.”
“I have a wife.”
“Ah.” Now cogs were moving. The judge’s wife, Beym Binde, was from Moranstad – on the far side of the Ghats. Boddy had met her. Though once petite and probably pretty, she now was dumpy, her blue-black hair peppery, her once fresh ochre skin now resembling a dusty, cracked, neglected parchment. “Oh.”
“So she has already called upon you this morning,” Judge Madir observed.
Boddy nodded. “But I haven’t taken her on, Patri.” He wasn’t going to get drilled over this. “You know I don’t take ‘em under twenty. It’s a ruling I have.”
“Then it is a ruling you will break. For you will take her on, and you will train her. She is my wife’s niece and I am bound to help her. And that is a ruling I have. You understand?”
Yeah zo! Boddy wanted to whistle in exasperation. This was an ill-wrought day indeed.
~ ~ ~
Eshe Parlan, Femella
Eshe still stared at the judge’s door, though the shouting had been brief and now had stopped. She should have warned Boddy. Yet to what effect? Forewarned would not have changed a thing. And there was no denying, he had brought it upon himself with his usual blundering lack of forethought. Eshe had been there, she’d seen it – and she’d needed a close-up view to discern the conceit. And it was not only that. The entire performance had been . . . steamy. Hm, yep, that’s what it was. Were she married, had she a partner, she knew how she’d have spent the night. Now she could imagine Boddy, in defence, saying, Hey, isn’t that what Deluca’s about? Yep, Eshe agreed, it was. But nope, it also wasn’t.
She returned to her task of tidying the files. Jilli had no concept of order – A-to-Z was fully beyond her – and it wasn’t that Eshe was a tidy soul but it was annoying when the information she needed wasn’t to hand. But what could she say without snarling into office politics. Yep, sure, Jilli was her superior in that she was the older and more experienced and she was training her. But Eshe was the femella.
The inner door opened unexpectedly. “Send Jilli to me,” Judge Madir said over Boddy’s shoulder. But Jilli, anticipating, was already there.
Eshe waited for the door to close behind them. Then Boddy gave her no chance to speak.
“Has your father stitched me or has he stitched me – Ghats and rats. And listen to this, is he jerking jesticating? First he accuses me of being obscene, then he orders me to take his niece—zups, that’ll be your cousin, hey? Double zups, Eshe, I’m sorry.”
Eshe waved it aside. “No love there, the Squeak. But as I remember, I was younger than her when you took me.” She raised a brow to show she was teasing.
Boddy groaned and turned around, his arms held wide in appeal. “No, Eshe, no. That wasn’t . . . this isn’t . . . we’re not talking of that. Besides, as I remember, you begged. What’s a boy to do?”
Ouch! Eshe pulled back. That had stung, unexpected.
“Zups again. Unfair, yeah? I only heard yesterday about what’s his name, Little Face Verdir.”
“Verdir Facelette,” Eshe corrected. And well might Boddy screw up his face at the name. She agreed: it wasn’t one she was eager to wear.
“Ho-hum,” he said, “and another one down.”
“Thanks. You make me sound like a whazzamy—thingummy—a scrample team-thingy.” Though she knew that hadn’t been his intention. His smile said he was offering consolation – or his idea of it. And at least he was in a better mood now. “So now here I am at the bottom of the league,” she continued with the scrample team theme. “Verdir was my last chance; I’m getting old.”
“You are not! What are you? Twenty—”
“Hush, no need to say it. And you ought to be going.” She shot a meaningful look at the door to her father’s office. She could hear Jilli’s voice and it was coming closer.
“Later, hey?” Boddy said. “The Gardens, I’ll treat you.”
Eshe laughed; and how would he do that? He couldn’t even afford his own paper.
~ ~ ~
Boddy left the door open. Jilli closed it behind him and leaned against it. “I am told that amongst the Eshqua thirty-five is considered the best age for a woman.”
Eshe slammed a hand over her mouth. Jilli had heard? What if her father had heard? He would go all out to find her a husband; he’d already threatened that with Lucire.
“And they say twenty-five is the best for a man,” Jilli said, her eyes alight with a mischievous twinkle.
“Really?” Eshe did her best to recover. “Are you saying your Hassel was past his thingy, his best, when you got thingamabobbed, married?”
Jilli shrugged, still with a wicked twinkle. “Why else did his people allow him to go?”
Jilli seemed to be teasing yet Eshe wasn’t sure. Jilli and Hassel had no children; was she hiding resentment? Did she pray at Royan’s shrine? Yep, and it was just as possible she had no desire for them. Understandable when the thought of children and everything about them left Eshe cold.
“Oh, and your father says to give him five and send you in.” Jilli nodded towards the door.
Again, Eshe stared at it. What did her father want with her? Had she done something wrong? Was she to be scolded for being friendly with Boddy? Yet her father had never minded before.
~ ~ ~