“Wowzah, wowzah, wowzah!” Boddy sang. It was Friday. He should have served another two days on the Watch but this was his last. He couldn’t stop grinning.
The fair-folk were in town, crowding the Hub with their rides and their stalls. And with tomorrow being the scrample semi-final the town was heaving with visiting supporters from Rummastad, come from the East Ghats. The Council, anticipating trouble, had appealed to Count Slemba and Count Slemba had agreed to send in his cohort. In full. Thus at twelve bells, the Watch would be relieved of duty. Boddy need only to guard the gate till this evening and then he’d be free to return to his chorus. Wowzah!
And now that the canal-wall was repaired, the foul-water ditch dredged and deepened, Uncle Sturan had relented – Boddy need serve Sharmin Gord just the one day a week. Was that Gammer Haspra’s doing, or was that her doing. Boddy had hugged her heartily. With Parla’s feast just twelve days away, Boddy was keen to get on with writing and rehearsals. Negghe, too, was pleased of it.
For the first time in eight years Boddy and Negghe had drawn the same seven-day watch, and the dean, the nugget, in a momentary lapse of reason, had posted them together on East Gate. That early morning had seen a steady influx of fair-folk, with their ponies and carts. But now the fair-folk were in, all further arrivals would be at Rams Gate if river traffic, or if travelling by tram-road then at Horse Gate. And since again this year there’d been no goblins sighted, and anyway East Gate was the farthest from the Luant and the Nah, there was little to do. So, hey, Boddy and Negghe could play.
They danced, marking the beat with their lippy-mouth drums, Boddy exuberant beyond control, kicking his legs in a lively jig that Negghe, though younger, was hopeless to match. And, hey, it felt good. Arms out, shoulders swaying, hips gyrating. He was whooping and laughing. Negghe gave up; panting, the sap stood and watched.
Ten weeks of penned-in vivacity vented, Boddy burst into song. “I’ve pennies in my pockets and they’re turning to cents.”
He’d never known so much money. A penny in the hat at each performance, but that was shared between the twelve – thirteen now with the rankling Lucire.
“I’ve cents in my pockets and they’ve taken my sense.”
Natzo, though the ginger mead most certainly would; he intended to sup to his uppance this night.
“I’ve coins in my pockets and they’re making me heavy / but I’ve music in my heart and a lust for a bevy / and I’ll sing and I’ll dance and I’ll find me a girl to—”
Yeah zo! He stopped abruptly to stare at the approaching party.
“A girl to what, Boy-Boddy, to what?” prompted Negghe.
“Romance,” he answered, distracted. “Negghe, is that no boy in the middle there or is it . . . no boy?” Though with the sun in his eyes he had to squint. Three figures approaching, each leading a pannier-packed pony, and the one in the middle was . . . ambiguously sexed.
“Rothi,” Negghe said with contempt.
“Rats, great. They would arrive now, slap in the middle of our duty. Another few hours and they’d be the Dragons to snag.”
“Peddlers, you think?” Negghe asked, head atilt as if questing.
Boddy slowly shook his head, song and dance replaced by duty. “Natzo. When did a peddler dress in drab?” And they must have been stifling in their coarse jasckte coats, narrow-cut brecks tucked into travel-dulled boots.
“But are they Rothi, are they?” Negghe threw doubt on the identification. “Where are the sparkles? They’re not prinked and pimped.”
“It’s their hair is the giveaway.” Boddy could see it even if Negghe could not. “Plaited at the back, see, and as pale as that recent Rothi petitioner – except for that no-boy there in the middle. Is that blood-red or is it blood-red. That’s not what you’d call ginger like Patri Kerchen. Not carrot like Dola.”
“Sure, Boy-Boddy. But I don’t see sparkles.”
“Yeah, which means they’re not bandits.” Not bandits, yet whatever, whoever, they were. Boddy had a feeling they were trouble on legs.
He waited until they were within hailing distance – then brought down his pike to block their way. “No further without identification!”
~ ~ ~
The first sight of the townstead had amused Sifadis. From a distance it looked entirely undefended. And Kalamite Runman feared an attack from here? But closer too and she saw the channels – like moats, and not the one she’d first thought but three separated by baulks. So the townstead did have defences.
Then the gate-guards crossed their pikes and she burst into laughter. Lorken and Kullt cast disapproving glances.
“Och,” she said. “Two men in flimsy cotton and billowy shirts, armed only with pikes? This Raselstad compares not at all with our citadel.”
But, wait. Gowen Sivator had warned her, the eye is easily deceived. Look beneath the appearance, he’d said, and see the purpose there.
The townstead sprawled but not due to any large population; it was that they grew their food within those encircling moats. And that told her much. No walls, ay, but the triple moat and the food grown within – this was a town used to enduring long sieges.
Even so, those guards were ineffective, flashing white brecks and silken shirts – her fingers itched to touch them, she did so like silk. And that one on the left sported a shirt the exact same colour as her hair. But, nah, the men lacked beef. They’d not cut down a foe at a slice, they’d not even heft a Rothi battle-axe. They had more the lithe forms of fair-folk jugglers. Ay, with their Heli-darkened skin and Heli-bleached hair they could pass for those travelling entertainers. Were it not for the badge-bands tied round their woeful biceps – and their pikes – she’d not know them as guards.
One called a challenge – no further without identification. That amused too. Was his voice supposed to scare, neither deep nor fierce. Softly it wrapped around her. She frowned. How had it carried so far? But, supposedly a lad, a student, it was not for her to respond. She waited for Lorken.
“Travellers from Rothi, warding this scholar, here,” Lorken shouted, no hesitation in his step, continuing to walk.
And why not, they had every right to enter. She twitched on the reins of her baggage-pony to keep it moving, and crunched her way along the gravelled road, Kullt to her one side, Lorken to her other. The look exchanged between the gate-guards wasn’t lost to her, though they spoke too quietly for her to hear what was said.
Then the one in blood-red shirt called again. “Tell me, what interest has a Rothi scholar in Raselstad? Or has she come to Luban to discover the truth?”
“He,” Lorken called back. “You blind? The scholar is he.”
The red guard said something to the other in blue. Both laughed.
“Great, yeah, fine,” said the red guard. “Then the scholar has found what she seeks – the truth of her sex. We’ll know more of you before you pass.”
With their continued walking they’d no need for shouting. And now she could see them more clearly, there was no denying both gate-guards were handsome. But, hay la, her gaze fixed – she swore it was of its own accord – on the one in the red. How cool he must be in his silken shirt, with his long hair surging like the sea around him – while hers was severely knotted. Ay, she envied him. This westerly breeze, heavy with heat, did nothing to cool her, wearing this jasckte-wool coat. And despite she wore a cotton shirt beneath it she couldn’t undo it for scholars did not. The rest of Rothi called them stuffy and no wonder. Ay, but such clothes served a purpose in Rothi where scholars must sit in the coldest of chambers.
“Och, you doubt me?” To sound more like a lad she lowered her voice. “My wishardt-master sends me to Luban as part of my final validation.”
“Natzo, I don’t doubt. But tell me why pretend you’re a man.” The red guard stared in challenge at her.
“Prove it,” he said.
Och, crud and crust! And now she could feel the flush creeping up from her tightly bound chest.
“Impudence!” Kullt sneered, his hand dropped to his throwing-axe hidden amongst the skirts of his coat.
“Nah,” she bid him, quietly, urgently. “Leave it.” She turned back to the red guard. “You have the truth of it, ay, I travel in guise. But it’s not from my choice. My wishardt-master urged me to it, he said for my safety. We hear there are bandits in Luban.”
“Sure. Rothi bandits,” the blue guard said though the red guard bowed his head in acknowledgement of her – or so she took it.
“Great, yeah, fine, Bel Hade. So I’ll ask you further. What’s to interest a Rothi scholar in Raselstad?”
“And I have said. Be I man or a woman, it makes no difference to my interest here. I am travelling through the Lubanthan townsteads seeking record of an ancient Rothi adventurer. And that is all.”
“Ghats, is that right?” the red guard said. “Then I’ll be having the pleasure of seeing more of you – whether you remove your coat or not.” He flashed her an impish smile.
Her quick gaze down hid the flush of her cheeks. But then Kullt muttered of removing the poodling guards with a throw of his axe. She quickly thought how to stay his hand. Perhaps if she answered the gate-guard in equally light manner . . .
“And why say you that, of seeing more of me?”
“Oh, no deep reason, Bel Hade. Yet to access our records you need access our Records Hall.”
She appreciated his unwitting help. But she didn’t understand how, by her use of the Records Hall, he would see more of her. She cocked her head in query.
“But you don’t think my sole occupation is to stand at this gate checking who’s in and who’s out? Bel Hade, you see before you a fellow scholar – master of the chorus, a poet and playwright, Boddy Rookeri Sharmin, at your pleasure.”
This time she heard what his companion said, that he was being free with his words. Sifadis thought the same and she laughed.
“With respect,” Lorken said. “Why are we stuck here when we could push through?”
“Hush,” she hissed at him, quietly. “The man brims.” And, most unexpected, she felt as easy with this guard, scholar, poet and playwright as if he were Rothi.
“Boddy Rookeri, a Lubanthan poet,” she teased. “I have heard no tell of such a creature. Yet there are two types of poets; which are you? The resident bard who composes epics to laud the deeds of the lafard-legere, his House and his ancestors? Or – and I suspect it more likely – the troubadour who travels around to entertain the hindlings and urbs in their hamlets and manses and towns? Orator, or singer of common tales; which are you?” She softened her tease with a swift smile.
“Forgive, Bel Hade, but aren’t they the same? The Rothi epic is but a common narration, not a worthy tale of the gods. But if pushed, I must say I am both in part. I am the gods’ very own versifier.”
He was arrogant. “Prove it,” she demanded.
“Hadd Leef,” Lorken said as if she’d not now dropped the deception. “The undern hours are passing fast and we still have a way to reach the town-proper. And then to find lodgings. And neither should you dally with this nesh.”
She noticed how the red guard, Boddy Rookeri, bristled at Lorken’s words. So he had sufficient use of their Rothi speech to know the insult. She glared at Lorken. She dropped her voice to barely audible. “And you have become Gowen Hadd of a sudden? I will speak with this scholar. Who knows what I might learn from him.”
“Bel Hade,” the red guard Boddy Rookeri recalled her attention, the impish gleam in his eye internally disturbing. “Say what you’d learn and willingly I’ll teach you. But only after you stop this deception and be openly woman.”
“Ay me,” she returned, “and I thought that settled. And you’ve yet to prove you’re a poet. So come now, versify.”
Ay-la, and did the guard-scholar-poet not realise how unsettling that shrug. Glimpses of a golden body beneath his red shirt inviting a touch. Why had no Rothi man ever disturbed her as much. But he was versifying and she changed her attention.
“Lotus Lafdi in clear springs rising / wash the earthly from this body.”
It was less his words – though, ay, they had their charm too – it was more his voice, most disquieting, born of his heart. And it seemed his verse was addressed to her.
“Fill in its stead your love and your spirit / make of this man a swain more worthy.”
Her response, what ought it to be? And he’d stolen her breath. She was unused to this. She found herself suddenly flustered, a hundred concerns. She stared. Her lips, her tongue, felt not her own. Yet . . .
“You conjure words just . . . just like that?” she said and with her hand mimicked what she intended as a magician’s gesture.
“Yezzzah, Bel Hade, just like that.” He repeated her gesture.
“Hadd Leef,” Lorken pestered.
“Fy-fy-fy, I know. Go away.” She returned to the red guard, Boddy Rookeri. “So may we now pass? And might you recommend lodgings, an inn?”
His companion, the blue guard, shook his head and drew in a breath, squeezed-between-teeth. So what now was wrong?
“Do I know of lodgings or do I – I’d say to try Rookeri Gardens,” the poet-scholar red guard Boddy Rookeri said.
“Gardens?” Sifadis couldn’t help but draw back. She had no prejudice of the stews, but neither had she desire for such lively company. “Nah, I prefer not to stay at a ‘Gardens’.”
He looked disappointed at her reaction. “Hey, you fussy for a room or . . .? I tell you, there’s nothing wrong with Rookeri Gardens. I’ll tell you too, this isn’t the best of Fridays to be arriving. Now had you arrived yesterday, or delayed until Monday . . . We have our scrample semi tomorrow and Raselstad’s full. Ghats, how ungrateful. Lady, we could refuse you entry.”
“Could set camp out here they could,” the blue guard said. “Plenty of company once the Dragons arrive.”
“That’s so, Bel Hade Scholar. I tell you, I strongly urge you to the Gardens. The other hostelries will by now be full.”
“And your Gardens will not?” That was no good recommendation. She raised a brow.
“Could be, yeah zo, I can’t say as definite. Yet I will say those to the west and the north will be full the first, while Rookeri Garden is east, just yonder.” He nodded southwards towards the river. “This morning, I tell you, there were still rooms, and not on reserve.”
The scrample, he’d said. But of course. A strange game whose sole purpose was to win a title, and that somewhat tame beside the Rothi war games. Ay, they’d arrived at the wrong time, indeed. Gowen Sivator had told her of the crowds it attracted. Yet this talk of Dragons . . . were they not the Lubanthan armsmen, as different from these gate-guards as were the Rothi folkhere from the citadel’s holden? Gowen Sivator wanted to know their strength so perhaps they had arrived the right day.
“Walk on,” she told Lorken and Kullt. “These guards will not stop us.”
~ ~ ~
Boddy didn’t realise, at first, he was sucking his lip as he watched the scholar pass through the gate and on down East Lane. Oh swallow, gulp, pant, but that Rothi lafdi was pulling at everything in him.
“Heill! Yoo!” Negghe said, a hand waved in his face. “Thoughts on duty, here.”
But he didn’t want to lose sight of her. It would wear off, he wasn’t a fool. But, wowzah, it felt good while it lasted. So rare.
“Boddy, Boy-Boddy. She’s Rothi she is. Though, suppose she had a certain beauty.”
“A certain beauty? Spew on it, man. Tell me, was her skin like lotus blossoms in spring or was it—”
“And you heard the way she spoke to her companions – more likely her personal watch. And you see that twitched muscle when you called her bel hade?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. She’s accustomed to it, a noble born of a citadel House.”
Yeah zo, to dream such a woman would ever look at him . . . as futile as dreaming that Eshe would help fatten his plants. Sadly he tore his gaze away.
“No,” Negghe groaned. “Boy-Boddy, she’s a natza for you.”
Yeah right. And already it hurt.
~ ~ ~