Eshe Parlan, Femella
Eshe held back in the Woolpack until the morning watch had opened the gates. Then she and Kilda ventured out. They stopped at Rams House Corner to have a good jaw. “Women!” she heard the holden mutter. Yet she and Kilda would not be moved. From that corner they had a clear view of the guardhouse door. From that corner they could watch the comings and goings, though they appeared to be jawing of the goods on sale at the Winwon market. Winwon was the townsfolk market, the goods sold there were of local production, no fancy silks and colourful cottons from Luban. Kilda had dragged Eshe there the previous morning; she’d wanted to find a birthday gift for her daughter. Kilda had two children lodged in the town.
Kilda had been most helpful, providing ‘wee innocent Ashlan’ with essential information, such as the number of men in each of the watches – six at night once the gates were closed but twelve during the day, and the day-watch was changed at midday. “Why is that?” Eshe had asked. Apparently so they’d not over-tire. Eshe had stifled a laugh. What were they, holden or grasslings? They wouldn’t survive two days in the Luban Watch. Did their poor little feet ache after so many hours? But after a while of standing on the cobbles her criticism softened.
She watched as the morning watch dispersed to their duties – two holden on each of the gates, two to patrol the close, two to guard the Witan House while the lafarden were there but then after to guard Two Boars House. The two holden at Garrison Gate eyed them a’plenty and, heads together, discussed them. But they then turned their backs to the women.
“They cannot afford us,” Kilda whispered.
One of the two holden patrolling had just passed by them. The next was not due for half of an hour. Ample time.
While Kilda jawed on, saying now of her children, her fingers idly played with her bangles – five, of gold repoussé. It was the agreed sign. The way was clear.
Eshe wished now she’d worn softer soled shoes as she flitted across the cobbles. She swore too at the jangle of coins and the key and the box in the bag clipped to her belt. She had bought that bag (spotted toad-skin) yesterday at the Winwon market. She clutched it to deaden the jingles.
She had spoken to some of the holden on her return from the market. That was after an overlong visit to Kilda’s children. She had tried to be interested but no, something of children made her uncomfortable. Besides, her thoughts were elsewhere. She had time, though, to look at the pictures displayed upon the walls. They were like nothing in Luban where favourites were paintings of the Founders. These were of flowers and trees and birds and emmerling-flies. So pretty.
The guards she had asked on her return hadn’t known Ryal well; he was the night-watch. So she would wait for the night-watch to take up their duties and ask again. The first holde asked had given his name. Lorken, and what was hers? So eagerly asked, she was reluctant to answer. Was it wise to encourage him, though by the flirting she might gain information. Would it not be wiser to pull away – she imagined the unwanted results. But he mistook her fluster for genuine innocence, as had Kilda, and himself pulled back. Then when she’d said of being Ryal’s sister he’d looked at her skance and remarked on her accent.
“Long years at Citadel Parlani,” she said with a casual shrug. Had he swallowed it? But he’d stared at her an uncomfortable time.
She asked about the night Ryal vanished. At that, Holde Lorken waved her aside and returned to his plodding, leaving her with the distinct impression that he was covering something.
So now she’d returned to her first plan, which was to look at the duty roster. It was secreted away in the duty office which was somewhere inside the guardhouse. Though what this silent witness might tell her she had not the first inkling.
In her haste she ignored the blur of benches set against walls, the rows of cloaks and wet-weather jasckte-capes hanging above them. She hadn’t much time. There were lamps, Mathon-made, she noticed them. And additional weapons – her eyes lingered a moment on the brass-studded clubs. She’d rather not be the recipient of those. Imagine the damage from a bash on the head. Then she saw the door set in the far corner. She headed straight for it.
Was it locked? She lifted the latch. It gave with a slight push. But it creaked as she opened it – not slowly but as if in a rush. Easier, that, to pass as a mistake. The office within was empty of folk; no Dryastil Ledhere Hadd was here installed.
She breathed. See, the Avatar favoured her; everything she wanted was there.
On the wall, a cabinet of keys. Along the top row three were coloured, red, blue and green. Beside them an empty hook. She knew its colour. Purple. She knew where it was. In her bag. Beside the cabinet were pasted a year’s worth of rosters. They started high on the wall. She ran her eyes down them. The weeks were numbered left to right, three months to a run. But here was a problem that would delay her: Did the Rothi begin their year with the solstice in the January month that they called the Goat’s weeks? The eleventh day of the Rainmakers, Ryal had said. That would be February, Rasel’s month.
For once she was grateful for her unfeminine height; no noisy dragging of chair from desk just to read the highest rosters. She read the names. Lorken, Yehu, Nehstan, Ryal, Hiwi and Gules. The first she had looked at; this was his watch. She tracked the weeks with his names. There! A line through his name and another added. She had what she wanted. Now she knew who to ask. Lorken, Yehu, Nehstan, Hiwi and Gules. They’d been on duty the night Ryal deserted. But next question: Why had he deserted?
She had asked him this and he’d jabbered on about the key. What did it fit, she had asked but he wouldn’t answer. And there were such an abundance of doors in this citadel.
The door behind her slammed open. Why no warning-call from Kilda? Flustered, she spun round – and there was the man who’d directed her to the Woolpack Gardens.
She could feel the blush spreading up from her throat. He’d thought her a stew. But better that than to know the truth.
“Dryastil Hadd Leef, I apologise,” she said, her voice pathetically trembling – and that was no act. “I was seeking my brother.”
The man smiled.
Why must he do that. And he ‘d engendered a deep panic in her, her innards aflutter. It was the way he’d come upon her, each time unexpected. It had nothing to do with his twinkling eyes or the crinkling around them. How vivid their blue. She looked away. Why must it be him who caught. She realised then she was licking her lips. At once she stopped it. And those plaited thingies, long sideburns were they; they were plaited and jewelled and . . . He looked like something never seen in Luban. Exotic. She finally remembered to close her mouth.
“And who might be your brother?” he asked, amusement ripe in his voice though he wasn’t laughing. At least not at her.
“Ryal Holde,” she said.
She couldn’t help notice how the deep blood-red of his heavy-silk jacket suited him perfectly. Fitted him perfectly. She wanted to sigh but caught it. Everything about him was perfect. His perfect blond hair. Those two boars, gold embroidered, that sat on his chest, to the left. He was . . . oops, he was talking to her.
“Then, alas,” he said, “I cannot help you.” He looked at her; a clear prompt for her name.
“Ashlan,” she said.
“Mm.” She didn’t trust using her voice.
“Well, Ashlan Bel Hade, you ask the wrong person. I am not Dryastil Ledhere.”
“Oh, are you not?”
“No, my men fight,” he said and, amused, again smiled.He introduced himself, his head bowed courteously. “Trefan Lafard. Ledhere of the folkhere. Not of the holden.”
She smiled in return, her thoughts racing of what to do now. She needn’t have worried.
“You ought not to be in this office, alone,” he said. “Allow me to escort you.”
Courteously said, but there was no refusing his offer. She ‘allowed’ him to remove her from the duty office. His hand rested gently upon the small of her back. And despite her kirtle and shift her flesh there baked as if she basked in the mid-summer midday sun.
“Did you find suitable lodgings?” he asked.
“Not entirely, but Pertho allows me to lock the door.”
She heard his soft chuckle. “So you are at the Gardens.”
“I am not a stew.” She wanted no question of that.
He glanced round at her. Did he not believe her?
“I came here rather—”
“—unprepared?” he completed, a chuckle again lacing his voice.
~ ~ ~
Why should Kalamite deliberately spy when he had Matikkas to do it for him. Yet, by the Luck of Dizpeter, this encounter was worth a slow step. All unexpected, there by the Red Tower was Otian Hadd. And, aiya, hale-lai, look who was his companion! That supposed Ashlan from that supposed Citadel Parlani. Nix, she was not. Keefer of the Runman Order – and that Order had houses throughout Rothi Plain – he knew the name of every citadel. Parlani! There was no such Parlani. And nix to the holde’s sister too. He knew what this Ashlan was, written on her as clear as the stars. She was a sneaky spy sent from the south, from Luban.
Aiya, but how could he prove it?
With measured step, staff elevated, apparently praying, he passed Otian Hadd and the Lubanthan spy, his ears keenly attentive.
“But I swear, Bel Hade,” he heard Otian Hadd say, “I’ve seen you before, and that was in Raselstad.”
Holla, Raselstad was it. And Kalamite knew where Raselstad was; most informative, the fair-folk. Verily, things were beginning to add. But he would leave Matikkas to follow her.
He turned his feet towards the Red Tower – and again lifted his staff when he heard steps behind him. Young steps. Way-worn boots on the cobbles. A snigger and a swish of a traveller’s cloak. Aiya, what a day. He slipped into the darkness beneath the Red Tower before he glanced back. Otian Hadd – nix ‘n’ never – veering his feet towards Mathon’s Manufactory. And what business might the young chiparin have there? Oh to hear through thick oaken doors.
Hale-alai, Rubel, my queen, my lover and mother. Astounded, Kalamite steadied his bones on his staff, almost swooning. Verily, aiy, the gods smiled upon him this day. Nix ‘n’ nay! This was his ethereal queen’s doing, guiding proceedings. He scarcely could breathe. Instead of inviting the chiparin into his manufactory, as expected, the abdicated lafard-legere edged his way out. Aiya, the Keefer-Papa’s communing queen intended for him to discover the plot; she was here commanding him to protect her. And he would. There would be no repeat of the previous calamity, no need to strengthen again the defences around her, to build yet another wood tower.
But it was deuced hard to hear what they said, the wind being against them. He left the tower and, with nonchalant step, returned to his Runman’s House – which was conveniently situated – nay, but it nestled – beside the former lafard-legere’s manufactory. There Kalamite pressed himself against the wall beneath the arch that gave onto the courtyard. With the wind now into his face he listened. Though he still couldn’t hear Mathon Lafard, Otian Hadd was clear as a lark. That chiparin always spoke loud.
“Nar, Lafard Hadd, I’m just returned with a peckle of silks. Now I’m off up the coast. See if I can move more of your bel lafdi’s fine weavings while I’m there.”
Again Mathon Lafard spoke, but again his words were inaudible.
“Aye, I’ll say, and eager for more,” Otian Hadd said with a guffawing chuckle. “Leastways, as far as the Raseltops’ legere is concerned. Jaws of an order from far-away-north.”
Aiya, but this was frustrating, unable to hear Mathon Lafard’s words. Probably not vital, the mumbling sot.
“Aye, agreed,” Otian Hadd said, “why Rothi can’t quarry Rothi stone . . . Mayhap Byhen stone is special, eh. But listen; a word to warn before I go. There’s a woman nosing around here; you’ve seen her? Aye. Well I’ll swear on my mother she’s strayed in from Luban. I’ve seen her there – daughter of an awis though she denies it. And you know the quacks, hissing curses at Nikon while tearing my fingers to get at the goods.”
Again Mathon Lafard spoke though his words were lost. Yet Kalamite could easily guess them.
“Aye, you too, Lafard Leef,” Otian Hadd answered. “We’ll jaw more, aye, on my return?”
Kalamite drew deeper into the shadows beneath the arch though Otian Hadd gave not glance at him as, strolling with his braggart’s swagger, he passed. His gaze was stuck upon House Eland. Kalamite knew how it was: the chiparin would go there first to pick up the weavings then depart from Tuthe Wharf aboard one of Shore’s ships. Kalamite sniffed. Were there any ships here not owned by her? But he had seen now a way to be rid of her.
He left the shadows to return to Red Tower. Up and up the many ladders clutching his staff, his thoughts slotting now into place. Hale-alai, Rubel, this is no longer a puzzle. Now’s time to take it to the Witan. He drew in his breath. He grimaced. Lecheni’s lafarden had no liking of him, no respect despite he was Keefer-Papa of the Runman Order with more power than they wielded, a hundred times over. Besides, what were they if not franyans and tattageese and arrogant stoats.
Aiy but he must lower his head to them. How else to tell them his startling tale.
~ ~ ~