With Mistress Maia’s urgent need of an apprentice she has accepted the Brictish Bregan regardless she’s not her true heir. So that ought to slam a door on Queen Yoisea’s tale-telling. Right? Hmm . . . Read on
Bregan was quick to learn. I didn’t need to speak, she needed no explanation: she watched, she copied, she learned. From what she’d said of Queen Yoisea being able to get inside my head, I suspected the same of Bregan. But what of it? She learned the quicker for it, and I had less need to instruct and explain. Incredibly, by the time we were ready to make a start on the brew she was able to take her place amongst my brew-women.
Though all my women were Central Highlanders, without a river or even a stream to cross, yet I worried that, like my brother Palys, they would fear to venture forth in this Darkness. And so I sent my slave Goenys to fetch them.
He was my most precious possession during the Darkness. A side run of South River had long ago been cut to flow by my isle (though that isle was within the King’s Hold). It was here that we set the grain-filled baskets for the grain to be soaked. So I needed that run kept clean at all times; Goenys attended it. But now, with the Darkness, when every water-way stank, slimed with rotten weeds and rushes, fishes floating belly-up (and who knows what other decomposing creatures), his task wasn’t only malodorous but trebly hard. Yet he had that water sparkling clean, as clear as any spring.
And now I’d another task for him. I begged Isbalen’s cart and sent Goenys to fetch my brew-women. But it weren’t above a four-person cart so he must go out and come back, go out and come back, though the farthest was only to North Ridge for Nebona. On the way back, with hardly a detour, be collected Alenha, Kassea and Svepanna. Even so, it took him three days to collect all my brew-women, women who usually arrived of their own accord. And they all must lodge with me, though some were more used to attending me daily. Had Bregan once thought my house too big for just one woman? Well, now she was stepping over ill-placed legs and slumbering bodies. And, of course, while my women were there Truvidir Isbalen hadn’t a choice but to stay away.
We had just made a start on the brewing when the first of the King’s Candidates arrived. I hadn’t seen Queen Yoisea since that talk of Bregan being a Brictan. I thought—I prayed—that she’d found someone else to annoy. But two days after that first candidate arrived there she was, again at my gate. That gate was closed: we were brewing, ‘please don’t disturb’. She waited there at the gate for me.
I ignored her. But as I went about my business there she was, like a constant guard. In the end I told her politely to go away. “We’re busy brewing, you should know that.”
She said, “Young Bregan’s not busy—least not so busy she can’t find time to make eyes at young men.”
I swallowed a sigh. So it was about Bregan again. She’d been seen flirting with the newly arrived candidate. It had to be him, there were no other young men at the King’s Hold. True, there were woods-men and horse-men, herders and hunters and slaves but none of them young. One of the weavers had a son but he still was a child. No, it had to be the King’s Candidate.
“Mistress Bregan,” I said and stressed that title, “is old enough to flirt if she so desires.”
“I don’t doubt she’s old enough. But shouldn’t she be working with the other women, not dallying with him? Won’t your brew-women object? Them working hard while she . . . you know?”
I thanked her for her concern, and walked away. I went to find young Bregan. She should have been with the other women in the brew-house and, aye, she was. Now what was I to say to her?
Sensing me there, I suppose, she looked up from her work. And the longer I stood watching her the more concerned she did seem. Then when I called Tamissha to me Bregan’s face flared bright. I took Tamissha outside; I didn’t want Bregan to hear the talk.
Tamissha was the oldest of my brew-women, and I was happy for her to supervise the others and they happily accepted her direction. I asked her, “Has Bregan been working alongside you? Has she done anything to cause complaint? Are you happy with how she works?”
Tamissha laughed and shook her head. “How can you worry over her? I’ve never seen a more willing brewer. She works with us and never mind that we’re just the brew-women and she’s your heir, she does as we do, and she laughs and sings with us. She’s quick to learn, and not reluctant to use her back and arms.”
“Have there been times when you’ve been working but she’s not there?” I asked.
“Only the times we’ve sent on errands,” Tamissha said.
“Fetching water,” the old brew-woman said. “It’s hot work raking over growing grain; and in this Darkness too; a woman gets thirsty. Mistress Bregan is kind enough to fetch us water from the spring.”
I thanked Tamissha and sent her back to work. There was something in what she’d said that niggled at me, but I couldn’t see what it was. I had to give this some thought. I walked.
At first I didn’t go far, keeping within the beacons light, which meant I kept around the houses in the King’s Hold. But my feet took me of their own accord—up to the spring. I sat down on the kerb-stones and scoped up a handful of its sweet water. It was cold. I looked down on the King’s House and the high thorn hedge that part-encircled my isle. Something wasn’t sitting right with me, but for the life of me I couldn‘t work out what it was.
My eyes fixed on my isle. I couldn’t see much, too blurred by the Darkness. But there was the gate, closed behind me when I left. There the hedge—not a berry nor a leaf upon it—guarding my isle till it reached the side run. There was the side run, as much a guard on my isle as the hedge. Had Sauën been able to cast her light its waters would have sparkled, so clean.
So clean, so clear—why then did Bregan come up to this spring to fetch water for my brew-women’s thirst? I repeated the question: why had she come here for their water instead of taking it from the stream? Did she not know how clean that side-run? Maybe she thought it as undrinkable as South River’s water? Or had the women told her to come here? They’d know from their holdings that the only safe water now was spring-water. Aye, that had to be it: The women had told her to come here.
The vats of beer had been set aside to strengthen. I’d sent the brew-women home, their work now done. It was now just a matter of waiting—and hoping that the way we’d substituted this for that, and that for another, wouldn’t severely skew the brew. But we’d had no choice in it; nothing was as it should be in the Darkness.
Though the brew now was done, still my gate was closed. Those vats of beer sat in the brew-house and were not to be disturbed. So when Queen Yoisea came to visit me—again—again she waited by the gate.
“The queen’s there again,” Bregan told me.
I marvelled at how soon I’d grown used to what Bregan could do that I could not. She’d not even looked out of the doorway and yet she had known that the Old Queen was there, waiting for me. I didn’t want to go to her. She made me feel as if, somehow, I was her servant, maybe even her slave.
“You go speak to her,” I told Bregan. “Tell her that I’m busy. Tell her to go away.”
“She’ll know that for a lie,” she said.
“Do you know what she wants with me?” I asked.
“To tell more tales.”
Now what was it that Bregan had done?
“I cannot lie to you,” she said though I’d not spoken aloud. “So please don’t ask me that.”
I raised a brow at her. “Fine, but you know Queen Yoisea will tell me.”
“But Queen Yoisea mayn’t tell you the truth,” she said.
I went to see what the Old Queen wanted. Aye, she had come with another tale.
“I’m worried about young Bregan,” she said.
“Mistress Bregan,” I corrected her yet again. “Now what has she done?”
“Nothing she’s not old enough to do, but it’s with whom she does it.”
“Are you saying that Mistress Bregan has been getting into bed with this King’s Candidate?”
“I don’t know if he’s been bedding her, but I do know they’ve been getting close.”
“But what Mistress Bregan does with any of the men of this hold is none of your business,” I told her.
“So it’s not,” she agreed: “I’m getting old and soon they’ll bury me; what happens here is none of my concern. But I am concerned for you, what with what young Bregan’s up to.”
She expected me to ask the question but I did not. I turned away.
“Mistress Maia,” she called me back, using my title and that was rare. It startled me. So, aye, I turned back to her, just as she knew I would. “Mistress Maia, I’m not trying to cause trouble. You think ill of me if you think that. But I ask you, what can become of it: young Mistress Bregan and that . . . that King’s Candidate? What if he wins the Games? And what if he fails?” Her high pitched fragile voice was beginning to grate. “Win or lose, it will be harsh on her. I ask, what do we know of him? Where’s he from? Do you want this for her?”
“They’ve known each other less than a decan,” I said. “You exaggerate if you think she’s too deeply in.”
“Oh, you think so?” she asked. “So why don’t you ask her?”
But how could I ask her that? Bregan knew such an involvement wasn’t forbidden, I’d as good as told her that. And how could I censure her for what she knew full-well passed between me and Isbalen? And as I’d told Queen Yoisea, they’d known each other less than a decan; it was nothing more than a dalliance between them. Let her have that. She may never have another. Though I admit, such a pretty thing, it wouldn’t be her lot to wait till a truvidir needed a means of introduction to the New King so he might be taken by that New King as the New King’s Truvidir. I wasn’t stupid, I knew the truth of Isbalen’s interest in me. But that didn’t stop me enjoying his embraces. I wasn’t a young woman to be swept along by thoughts of weddings. I was the King’s Wife, and could not be wed.
But I asked Bregan anyway. I wished that I’d not.
But who is this King’s Candidate, the first to arrive to contest the Games? And what exactly has he and Bregan been doing? Is it all stuff and nonsense enriching the Old Queen’s imagination? Or is there something . . . worrying . . . about their liaison? Next episode, Reksan Albinnys Saramis