Eshe Parlan, Femella
It felt strange to sit high in the ‘client’s chair’ by the desk; she usually sat on the divan by the wall. She folded her hands into her lap, a glance at her nails, manicured at her mother’s insistence: she might look less manly that way. Eshe wanted to snort just at the thought.
“Eshe Parlan,” her father said.
Wow, that shook her, that was formal. What was this interview about? She was in trouble, she hadn’t a doubt, but for what? Laughing with Boddy? Or had one of her father’s friend’s seen her last night peering at the dancers’ whazzamies?
“The time has come for you to progress,” he said.
No, now she knew what it was about. He was going to force her into marriage, and that after all he’d said he would not. He could at least allow her time to recover. The breakup with Verdir was only last week.
“You can thank your cousin for this,” he said.
Gods, she was right, he did mean marriage. It was all that fuss over the Squeak, it had set the thought into his head.
“So tell me what you know of this Ryal Holde,” he said.
One’s jaw doesn’t drop in this office no matter the talk. One’s jaw doesn’t drop in this office no matter the talk. One’s jaw doesn’t drop in this office no matter the talk. Repeating the mantra didn’t help, still her jaw dropped. Did her father truly intend her to marry . . . him?
“Well?” he prompted while still she was heaving her jaw back into place.
“I . . . I know that he arrived in Raselstad last week, and is scheduled to appear before the Council on April thirteenth. Next week. I know until then he is lodged with Reknir Skaven. I know nothing more of him.”
That wasn’t entirely true. She had caught a glimpse of him when he came in to register, so she knew he was tall and broad-shouldered with long very-blond hair, worn plaited at the back with two smaller whazzamies that could have belonged to his beard though his chin was clean-shaven. She’d thought him likely Eshqua or Rothi; there had been nothing Lubanthan about him and he’d had that stale smell common to people long on the road.
“His file.” Her father slid it across the desk towards her. “Read it, consume it, memorise it. I want a full report on him.”
“Yes, Patri.” What a relief, this wasn’t about marriage but work. But . . . “By next week?”
With a slight smile on his face he shook his head. “By however long it takes. Though I can tell you now, you will not have it ready before next week. The man’s town is a month’s hard journey from here.”
“Rothi?” The word settled like a cold Ghats’ duff. Then, as if beads had clacked on a mental abacus, she totalled the clues. Her eyes grew huge, she was sure they were bulging. “Y-you want me to go?”
“Did I not preface this clearly? Eshe, my daughter, it is time you progressed. I am making you my heir. And we start by you taking on Jilli’s job.”
Later – possibly next century – she would jump and squeal and be generally excited but it had yet to properly sink in. Instead, she applied her thoughts to practical, logical matters. “But wh-what happens to Jilli?”
“She tells me she has thoughts of a family – oh nothing there yet but best be prepared.”
“And m-my job, who has that?”
“While she is here, your cousin Lucire. I will not support her while she seeks a husband – not when she refuses a perfectly good one in Moranstad. So she can make herself useful as your clerk – though initially, in your absence, she’s to serve Jilli.”
Eshe nodded, though slowly. The full import was creeping upon her. It was that mention of the Squeak, that the Squeak was to be her assistant. A smile started, and spread. “I am—”
“Surprised? Yes, I can see. Though I must tell you, your mother disapproves. But, as I have told her, if you will not marry then . . . . And what is there for you but this?”
Eshe sealed her lips on the giggle now rising. It threatened to burst. She clamped her teeth on her cheek. Gods’ bods, but this was beyond all expectations. She had assumed Cousin Rigere would take the judge’s seat though he lacked any training beyond the school. He was, after all, to inherit the gord, married as he was to Patri Kerchen’s daughter. But she had never imagined that she would be judge. The giggle broke free. She apologised.
“Surprise takes us each differently,” her father said. “I have no need to say not to release it in front of the clients, and never when in the Council Hall no matter the cause. Now, Jilli will brief you on the finer details. She is experienced in these, um, investigations. On your return from Lecheni you will present a report covering our client’s past demeanour – any crimes, sedition, gambling debts. I’ve no need to expand, you know what behaviours Rasel doesn’t condone. We need to know why he left Lecheni. You will find his given statement in the file but . . . I want the truth.”
“Father, w-would you say it again so I’m perfectly clear. You want me to go to Rothi and investigate?”
“No but . . .” The reality had just come crashing upon her. “Father, Rothi is north of the Ridge.”
“So glad the money was not wasted that I spent on your schooling.”
“But the Ridge is a dangerous place. The Dragons patrol it. Men return dead. I might be tall but I am still a woman.”
As she heard the words trip from her mouth she wanted politely to disappear. What a sap! And there was Jilli, travelled all over, even as far as the far-northern Eshqua. And it wasn’t even that she had not been to the Ridge. Her father had taken her there as a child, fossil-hunting. And she had returned often with her friends to go climbing and caving. But that had been to Byhen Cliff and the Tartarine Heights, not through the Chendani Pass and beyond to the plains. Was she a coward? She listened to her little god saying yep, sure was, and that wouldn’t do. It was time for shoulders back. And do stop wringing those hands.
~ ~ ~
“Congratulations! Still stunned, yeh?” Jilli grinned furiously.
“Somewhat,” Eshe said, and slumped onto the divan by the outer office’s outer door. Her father had pressed a key into her hand; she pressed it into the soft seat beside her. Her head still was whirling with emotions, thoughts and desires all conflicting. Her father was not to push her to marriage; her life was not to be stolen from her. Yet a half-hidden voice protested that she did want to marry – or was that only the fear of living her life as a fruitless plot? And now this: She was to go to Rothi, beyond the Ridge.
“How long have you known?” she asked Jilli.
“Last week. I’ve been simply itching to tell you but I was sworn to secrecy. Now first things first. You’ll need a guise.”
“Slowly,” Eshe said, hand up to ward off the haste. “Explain. Why do I need a guise?”
“Because look at you. You may not dress like this outside of work but everything of you says femella. Like this you’ll be a prime target, captured and held for ransom. Besides, you’ll need a story.”
Captured? And had she not said of the danger? But she could do nothing to squirm out of it now. And why should she squirm? She was dancing on air for the promotion, relieved she was no longer expected to wed. Yet to go to Rothi would be dangerous despite what her father had said.
“So what thingummies, stories and guises, do you suggest?”
“Let’s start with a reason for you to be travelling.”
She shrugged. “In support of the local scrample team?”
“Funny, Femella. They have war games in Rothi, not scrample; which I’ve an inkling you knew. And forget Luban. Rothi is nothing like Luban. Luban is civilised while Rothi is . . . let’s say it’s an experience. So, again, since it seldom is wise to reveal our true purpose, you’ll need a reason to travel, and a need to be asking.”
“H-hold there a moment. Not that I doubt you, but why is it not wise to reveal my true purpose?”
“Well, for one thing, because Ryal is our client and we must protect him. You go saying to his former master that here hides Ryal and . . . need I say more? So, let’s say you are Ryal’s sweetheart – or better, his deserted wife who’d like to geld him. You do speak the lingo?”
“Graduated. With honours.” Eshe smirked at the noleless question. But Jilli’s supposedly helpful comments were doing nothing to settle her roiling innards – or was it some undefined amphib trying to burrow through her transverse colon? No wonder she shuddered. “You’ve travelled loads; did you ever feel fear?”
“Every time,” Jilli said. “But you soon get used to it. Now the lingo – they say jaw by the way – have you used it since school? But no matter, you have time to practice. I take it you’re to have a Dragon escort? They’ll be Count Slemba’s men and because of the bandits they’re good with the talk. By the time you reach Rothi you will jaw like a native. Now let’s cobble the story. Before our client was dragged screaming to serve his patri – that’s a lafard in Rothi, plural lafarden – he was a raw hamlet worker.”
“A pagin,” Eshe said to prove she knew the lingo – the jaw.
“Hmm.” Jilli grunted. “Afraid not, Femella. Although the pagini do come from the hamlets they’re only called that when in service to a citadel House. No, before becoming a holde – plural holden – our Ryal was a trall, also called hindling.”
“Like a goble?” Which wasn’t a word Eshe usually would use. She preferred pepin, literally ‘a seed’, applied to non-noble kin. “Yet he looked so agreeable.”
“I expect his dean did some scrubbing.”
“You mean his ledhere.” Eshe hoped she had it right this time.
“Yea, well, remember, his ledhere did not lead him here. He ran from the man, so beware.”
Eshe heaved a great sigh. “And my father said there would be no danger.”
“There always is danger. What of the goblins here, are they not that? And that is one mark in favour of Rothi: fewer goblins, and they stay close to the rivers. But just as here we have the goblin-walls to protect us from the danger, when going to Rothi we must plan ahead. Precautions, Femella. So you are Ryal’s sister—”
“You said his disgruntled thingy, his wife.”
“But who cares to help a disgruntled wife? She will only make trouble. His sister is better. Kin is kin wherever you are. Now, you’ll need to look the part.”
Eshe rolled her eyes. “As if I have such clothes.” Though she didn’t know what was required.
“Would you say we’re the same size?” Jilli asked, head atilt as she assessed Eshe’s measurements.
“You have hips,” Eshe said. Jilli also had womanly didis while Eshe’s couldn’t even be likened to a poached robin’s egg.
“The fit isn’t important,” Jilli said. “Being prinked is the thing. Besides, Ryal’s sister has no gord-kin to do the sewing.”
“Our prinked and pimped, that’s their tift and trappings?” Eshe asked, to be sure.
“See how it all comes back? And the Council have granted you use of Ryal’s gems – now peace, less excited, they are only glass. But we know how the Rothi like their trappings. Now, your hair, I would say to leave it loose.”
“You want I should look savage,” Eshe objected. “Like some bandit’s woman?”
“Don’t talk it up, sweet minikin.”
“Yurgh, they say that?”
“Oh, they say worse. And you need at least a smattering of their slack-jaw, such as not taught in yon school.”
Eshe grimaced. But it wasn’t, as Jilli mistook her, at the cuss-talk. It was those less obvious aspects of this adventure that now were queuing to whisper to Eshe.
“Come on, Femella, I’ve heard you say worse than nats on stubbing your toe. So let’s try, You’re a neshy knobless bisonian trall.”
“A what!? And what does it mean?”
Jilli laughed. “Roughly translated it’s ‘You are a castrated sap from the pits’. Or how about, You’re a rutting Javanese lorel who ought to be akolded.”
“Akolded, I like that. What does it mean?”
“Strangled; derived from accolade, ‘collared’. A rough translation runs something like: ‘You’re a pigging headless Luban who ought to have been strangled at birth.’ And whatever you do, never get wancolled.”
“Drunk. Seven degrees beyond gaga.”
“What a charming people. A delightful place. Can you see how excited I am? I cannot wait to get there.”
“It’s not all bad. Just think, fewer amphibs, yea. But in Rothi your word will open no doors. In fact, as a deserter’s sister you are likely to find every door slammed in your face. And that’s a bad war-song because you can guarantee that whatever you want will be guarded by lock. And so . . . tra-la-la-la!” Jilli held out a small metal box upon her spread hand.
“What is it?”
“A real live whazzy. Ingenious. Hassel gave it to me, but he had it from a Rothi trader brought from some mid-western town. Look, give me that key. Did this come from Ryal? Then it will make a good test.”
Eshe watched, fascinated. Inside the box was another key – the Every Key, Jilli called it – which seemed to be made of several pieces.
“Watch,” Jilli said and lifted the key from its bed – a soft substance smelling vaguely of linseed and wax. She smoothed it over before laying Ryal’s key on it and pressing down firmly. Of course the key sank in. “Now, this is the part.” She carefully removed the key, leaving behind a clean impression. “You can play with it later and get used to its works.”
That was as well, for the details of the next part were hidden behind Jilli’s hands. Yet Eshe could see that she was pushing and pulling the metal pieces till they lay exactly into the key’s impression. There were were several clicks, perhaps of catches snatched to each other.
“And tra-tra-tra!” Jilli lifted the key from its bed and laid it on Eshe’s open palm. Of the two keys, the Every Key felt lighter and the shaft was thinner, yet in all parts that mattered, yep, both keys would fit and turn the same lock.
“Mathon-made,” Jilli said, “whatever that means.”
~ ~ ~