Scrample players came in two types. The first resembled the kiln-baked bricks used in the construction of the Council buildings; Boddy had no interest in them. The other more resembled the indigenous grasses: though some might grow to arboreal dimensions, providing timber for the gord houses, warrens and ancillary buildings, they retained their pliancy. Those were the ones that Boddy watched. Not that he was actively seeking. Not yet, not when he already had thirteen players; he needed but twelve. Yet he noted which scrample players might make good chorus material once they’d put on some years.
Scrample was essentially a young folk’s sport. The players needed unbounded energy to chase back and forth between the brick-paved goals – the ball hitting that paving (by whatever means) rated a goal. They needed resilience and a fast-healing body for, although deliberate violence was forbidden, in tackling an opponent suspected of having the ball injuries could and did happen. The ball, large enough to be seen yet small enough for one-handed play, was frequently hidden close to the body – else a player might feign possession when (s)he had no ball at all.
The game was played in the same arena as the chorus used for their feast-plays. The supporters sat – at least at the beginning – on the same tiered seats, Council-provided. For their safety (and this was the same in every townstead) the supporters were separated: visiting team took the north and west seats; home team took the south and east. But right now it seemed Boddy was in the wrong place – for the cheers around him were all for Rummastad. He looked to Negghe, but Negghe only shrugged.
“Spew on it, man, is there one of my players not married to a Rummastad woman?”
“I’m not,” Paje said – Paje Ulrin, piper, dancer, usually played the Captain or Duke.
“Fine, yeah, great.“ Boddy raised his arms expansively. “So I exaggerate; only three of our players with a Rummastad wife.” But those wives seemed to be loudest. Perhaps it was only that they strained their voices to be heard over the surrounding Raselstad’s supporters, but they were definitely too close to Boddy’s ears.
“So tell me,” Boddy asked Janta – because he was the nearest player with a Rummastad wife. With no score yet, and the game soon ending, he was up on his feet and straining forward as if to join the play – “why do so many of you choose Rummastad women?’
Janta grinned. “You know a Ghats town nearer to Regionalstad?”
Rats and Ghats, why try to reason it, now in the midst of a game. Yet there were other townsteads close to Regionalstad; Rummastad wasn’t the only one. But it was the fact of it being a Ghats town, that was the answer. No gords, no nobles, no patris to satisfy; consent to wed came easily – and, according to rumour, the women were the same.
“Yeah zo.” Boddy nodded. “I hear you. Met while stationed there with the Dragons. So that’s what’s meant by ‘serving the Dragons’. I’ve been getting it wrong.”
A moment later Negghe nudged him. With a nod he signed to look off to their left. They had seats near the end of a section.
Boddy turned – and his heart walloped straight into his guts. Did he groan or . . .? And now he couldn’t pull his eyes away. He watched her – her, for what cared he for her watchmen – as she passed into the shadows cast by the next bank of seating.
“He-ill!” Negghe nudged him again. “The game, huh?”
Ghats, how could he return his interest there when she was so close and walking – natzo! – away from him? But he tried, he did try. Yet he found himself craning his neck, again, just to see her.
“No, Boy-Boddy, no. She’s not one to be ‘serving’.”
“Hm.” He was too distracted to give better reply. And ought he to tell Negghe of his talk with Count Slemba? The count hadn’t said to keep it quiet and Negghe had been with him when the Rothi arrived. Yet if he said nothing and Negghe started to make a thing of his interest . . . Ghats, but that would blow the assignment. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he ought to tell him; it would be safer to say . . .
“’Egghe-buddy, you’re reading it wrong. I’ll tell you – on the quiet, twixt you and me. I’m under orders from Slemba to keep a watch on her.”
“Wowza-wowz, now that’s a story.” Negghe slapped Boddy’s back with a gaffawing chuckle.
“Natzo!” Boddy protested. “It’s true, I tell you. He said it last night. She could be a spy for Mallen.”
Negghe stopped laughing, eyes popping. “You blessed pimped up angel you. Some folks! Talk of getting the best assignments. Hey, where are you off to?”
Boddy was on his feet and leaving. “Seriously, ‘Egghe, I need to see what she’s up to.” And right now she was climbing the steps to the Verse and Comp School. “I’ll meet you at the switchback after the game. We’ll have some fun like we said.”
He jumped the last of the steps and jaunted across the green to the school, the sway of his shoulders and the pace of his step set by the rap of the drum in his head. He whistled an otherwise silent tune; it stopped him from grinning. He paid close heed to her clothes. What did they mean? She had said the men’s clothing was only for travel yet here she still wore them. Did that mean she didn’t intend to stay? Yeah, and that would be best. She’d no longer be his concern and no longer in front of him and—just look at that blood-ruby hair, and her petal-pale skin and . . . just think how much they shared. She’d said that, not him. Yeah zo, even the plants!
Or perhaps it’s a woman dressed in man’s clothing that appeals. Hey? Exotic. Erotic. Mmm.
Thank you, Roo, for that unneeded suggestion.
She – Sifadis, Uncle Kachinnar had told him, and had stressed how to pronounce it: Si-fah-dis, with the stress falling on the middle syllable, not as in Lubanthan on the first – she, Sifadis, was gazing intently at the painted carvings on the far gate post. Her watchmen were looking through the few gaps, to the courtyard beyond. Was her behaviour suspicious? Or was it exactly what a visiting scholar might do? Yeah zo, but he wanted her badly to be a scholar. He prayed she wasn’t consorting with Mallen. Mallen had attacked Eshe’s camp; Mallen now was Boddy’s vowed enemy. Yeah zo, that was one bandit he’d happily kill. Warlock, cringe, and know fear.
“Bel Hade Sifadis, a good day to you,” he formally addressed her.
She swung round, a startled look of guilt on her face.
“Have you a problem?” he asked. “Anything I can help with?”
That watchman of hers, the one who last night had been tagging her, grimaced at him. The other, however, ambled away. Boddy followed, eye-wise. It seemed the man was inspecting the brickwork. Well he’d not find chinks or footholds in there.
“Please, Boddy Rookeri, I told your Kachinnar, I am no lafdi to deserve this ‘bel hade’. I am a scholar. Sifadis is all.”
“Oh? Disinherited in just one day? But I’d rather you were Bel Hade than to be the other.”
She looked quizzical at him. Yeah zo, it took his breath away.
“My sworn enemy,” he said.
“Oh? Do you have many enemies?” she asked. Was that a smile or a sneer? “A poet and a Dragon?”
“You’re right, yeah, amazement, huh. But as both poet and Dragon, I swear Mallen the Bandit is my prime enemy.” He watched her closely for her reaction. Please don’t say you consort with him.
“Mallen.” She grimaced – and still looked beautiful. “That wreck. Is this something other we share?”
“You know him?”
“Hur? Who does not?”
From the corner of his eye he could see her two watchers now had re-banded and were moodily eyeing him. He ignored them and asked again, “So might I might be of some . . . service, Bel Hade?”
“Service, na – but you might help by not using a title that isn’t mine. I am a scholar, not a bel hade.”
“Natzo, Bel Hade Sifadis. Everything of you proclaims you a lafdi.” Ghats and rats, and now she’d think him trying to seduce her. Yeah, and?
“Everything about me, hur? And that includes these brecks I wear?” She looked down at her clothing and, scorning him, laughed.
But what did her clothing matter to him. He glanced at two passing women, his look saying everything.
“Fy!” she laughed. “And I had forgotten your Lubanthan woman wear nothing other.”
“Nothing? And here I am thinking they’re wearing coats – which incidentally,” he added to be helpful, “they prefer to call dresses though they’re tailored the same.” He was delighted, she laughed again. “So, is there any way that I can be of help? You being a stranger to our townstead.”
“Ay, as it happens, I believe that you can. Kachinnar Rookeri said here is the Records Hall. Yet the gates seem to be locked. When will they be open again?”
“You’re right, the Hall is closed – though usually it’s open on Saturdays. It’s the scrample and the fair-folk, you see. But Monday, early, it’ll be open. Though it will do you no good; you’re from out of town.” Gods but his mouth was gabbling; why not tell her what he had for breakfast. “You’ll need a permit before fighting the pesky pippins for a kneel-pad and desk.”
“Ay me, but you truly are helpful.” She was right to sound so surprised. So was he. “And from whom do I attain this permit?”
He had started now, so the least he could do was to further impress by peppering his talk with what he remembered of Rothi from schooldays. “From the Council – that’s the Lubanthan equivalent of your Witan.” Was that impressive or was it impressive? Yeah zo. He tried not to grin.
“And, um, where does this Council convene? And when – at what hour?”
Ghats, not a bat of those lashes as if, as a poet and scholar, he ought to have known it as common knowledge.
He nodded to the brick building northward, across Rams Lane. “The Hall in the Council House. It will be in session again on Monday.” And hey, listen to this, is Boddy being the most helpful Hero or is he being . . .Natzo, he was just desperate to keep her talking. “But first you’ll need to apply to the judge.” Yeah zo. She ought to fall at his feet for how helpful he is.
“And the judge is where – if not at Rookeri Gardens?”
Ghats, rats and everything holy, just look at that playful light in her eyes. Yeah zo!
Come back to Earth, Boteras Rookeri.
“Ah, yea, the um . . .” For a moment he couldn’t collect his thoughts, his whole being aloft and soaring. “The judge has an office in this building behind us.” He pointed back without taking his eyes from her. She smiled – without looking at where he was pointing. And what did it matter, for the courtyard was hidden behind the solid brass gates. “Open on Monday, second bell,” he added.
“Hay la, the bells. My wishardt-master forgot to warn me of those.”
It was all the invitation he needed. His mouth again gabbled; an explanation of the sun-dial and its watcher who rang the bell that was set in a cubby above the Council House building. But he hadn’t completed before he noticed he had lost her attention. Yeah zo! She was watching a couple of Dragons striding along the road by the green. That was not a good feeling. He noticed her watchmen were watching them, too. He wasn’t happy at any of that.
“Here to keep peace,” he said curtly.
“They seem ill-equipped for trouble.”
“Natzo. I’d advise not to push ‘em. Appearances can be deceptive – Bel Hade.”
“Ay, that’s agreed.” She smiled. She smiled. “Now, that man last night in the brown with the boots – Count Slemba was it? He’s the keefer, the commander, of these Dragons, am I right? And he is your father?”
Boddy pulled back. And what meaning had that, thickly veiled, for her question felt loaded. “I am a Dragon, an angel, and he’s my commander. I told you, I’m alone in this world.”
“Ay, a curious one. A poet, a gate-guard, a Dragon, and . . . what is an angel?”
“A mounted messenger, Lafdi Bel Hade, who flies between the patrols and the commanding station, who fights off the amphibs and bandits, single handed – though as a humble poet, I never would brag of it.”
“Hay la!” she laughed. “And what else are you?”
“I might ask the same of you, Bel Hade Sifadis.” He bowed deeper than even a Rothi lafard – and that tag-along watchman was almost at once at her side. Boddy quickly recovered. “Now, might I suggest you enjoy the fair while you’re forced to wait here? Although, a Rothi scholar, have you the coins to spare?”
She seemed pleased with his rhyme though it had spilled unintended. He skipped back down the steps three at a time, a wide grin on his face, aware she was watching. He so wanted to believe she was a scholar but the presence of her watchmen said something other. He would alert Count Slemba while he was still in the townstead; he would mention their interest in the Dragons. Though the Bel Hade’s interest, he was pretty sure, had been feigned only to tease him.
~ ~ ~
Roots of Rookeri 21