Sifadis had walked no farther today than the previous thirty. Yet now she was tired. It had been no short distance across was the townstead, from East Gate to West Gate; she could have walked from Lecheni to her manse and back, twice. Apparently it was the standard size for a Lubanthan townstead, most of which was given to farmland. And after all that traipsing they had still found no lodgings.
“Did you send to reserve?” one after another the ostliers asked. “We can accommodate you come Sunday.”
“Ay, not even a stable for the ponies?”
“Patri Kerchen might be able to help,” a soft pudding woman had said at the Tiszkin-run hostelry, the Horse and Hart just off their vicinage. The woman had directed them to Horse Gate. Ay-ay, was she to walk yet another five miles for the sake of her pride? Och! But she’d always said she’d not enter a stew-house.
Lorken had grinned at Kullt when she’d finally relented and said, ay, they’d try at Rookeri Gardens. Ay and those two men would be happy this night. But it would be just for this night and Stup-Day. Thereafter she’d go the Luant. From there she could watch them loading the barks. It would be almost like home.
And now here they were. And there he was – holding a stew in a most intimate way. And why should that bother her so?
She forced smile and greeted him, aware of Lorken peering over her shoulder. “Boddy Rookeri? We meet again. But now I’m confused. What are you, a gate-guard, a poet? Or a stew-master? And no wonder you recommended these Gardens. Rookeri!”
“Natzo! This is my uncle’s hostelry,” he said though his face flushed scarlet.
The stew in the poet’s hands threw a sneer at her. And she could see the others were watching him. She saw their quizzical looks, and saw their amusement. That other guard, too, he was here with him, stood intimate-close.
“I wonder,” Sifadis said, “have you a sister?” But he frowned at her question – or rather his brows cast shadows over his eyes. She’d not noticed while at the gate, where he was squinting against Heli’s rays, but those eyes were demonous-dark with lashes yet darker.
“No sister, no brother,” he answered. “I’m . . . alone. But why do you ask?”
She shouldn’t have asked it. Had he understood the question it could have betrayed her. Instead of an answer she said, “Something other we share.”
Ay, and now he was flustered. He excused himself from his stews. She noticed then the half-dozen musicians with their pipes and drums. So there was to be entertainment at Rookeri Gardens? Of better quality, she hoped, than the fair-folk she’d heard while squeezing her way through the Hub.
“So now you’re here,” he said, his tongue tripping his words, “I’ll take you to Uncle Kachinnar. He’ll know of the rooms.”
“Kach’ was last in the parlour with Count Slemba he was,” his companion gate-guard said which seemed not to please him.
“Oh great, Ghats and rats.” Then he turned on his stews. “So, tell me, when did I say to stop your rehearsing?”
She wanted to tut and to chide of temper. Instead she withdrew from the room.
She knew without looking behind that he’d joined her in the dark narrow corridor: she could feel the heat of him. She ought to have stood back, to allow him passage. Instead he was forced to brush against her. He said nothing but strode away into the gloom. He had silent ghost-feet. She had studded heels; they clicked on the terracotta tiles as she hurried after him. She was sure if she once lost sight of him she’d be threading this warren of latticed wood walls forever. And that Lorken annoyed her, trailing too close behind her, almost clipping her heels. He’d grown too familiar and the journey here had leached any tolerance. Ay, but now they were here he and his bisonian companion would soon find something other to distract them – like the plentiful stews in this place.
They arrived at a door that led to the tavern, judging by the noise and the smell. Beyond that the walls were of plaster, brightly painted with folk making merry, most of them naked – but what else to expect of a stew-house. At least this part of the warren was lighter, every glimmer multiplied by the myriad tin-diamonds set into the walls, they were everywhere. Then, abruptly, they were at the parlour. Boddy Rookeri pushed open the door.
Hard leather heels clicked as a man clad in brown, black and cream stood up from his chair. His coat was crisply cut. His brecks, where visible, were equally ufan. She noticed the badge worn on his arm – a cream diagonal on a green ground; she’d seen the same on Boddy Rookeri when he guarded the Gate. So this was the aforementioned Count Slemba. But was he keefer of the town-watch, or the Dragon’s ledhere? Fortuitous that he was here. Were there a god particularly for spies then she’d have thanked him and offered a gift.
But, a humble scholar, she lowered her head before Count Slemba and Boddy’s uncle – had he called him Kachinnar? Would that be Patri Kachinnar-Awis?
As she again raised her head her eyes lit on the plants. “Loh!” she exclaimed and almost clapped but good sense restrained her. There were five plants here, potted and set round the low-ceilinged chamber. “Your plants, are they Daabian?”
“They assuredly are, Fem—er—Lafdi.” Boddy’s Uncle Kachinnar seemed at a loss of how to address her.
“Bel Hade,” Boddy said.
A look flitted over Count Slemba’s face that was fast swept away. “Boddy my boy, a word with you after.”
“Patri,” Boddy said quietly and gave a slight nod.
Ay and fy, and now she was fully confused. Patri, what did Patri tell her, only that he was a lafard. Why did they not use titles here? How was she to know who was what and when to lower her head – though Gowen had warned her of that. She was a scholar and must remember to always be humble, with everyone. But this poet-cum-gate-guard-cum-stew-master, was he also Count Slemba’s son? She must discover who Count Slemba was; how high his rank.This was why she’d come.
And now Lorken, the impudent trall, was hissing into her ear that she should have denied the title Boddy had given her. Too late. And Boddy again was speaking.
“The lafdi seeks lodgings for her and two men”
“And stabling,” she added. “Three ponies.” Kullt was outside with them, along with their baggage.
“The Avatar smiles upon the bel hade femella,” the rotund Garden-keeper, Uncle Kachinnar, said. “Or mayhap it’s Royan who smiles?”
Whatever the reference was lost on Sifadis. So, too, whatever the voiceless communication between he and Boddy.
“I have two rooms yet untaken,” Uncle Kachinnar said. “Can you say for how long you need them?”
Sifadis swallowed before answering, disturbed by Uncle Kachinnar’s slow rising lone eyebrow. It had looked so odd. “That depends on how long this takes – I have research assigned me and this is my first town.”
Crud and crusts, what happened to her resolve to find somewhere other to lodge after Stup’s night. Her gaze fell again on the plants from the Daab. Ay, she blamed them. Three prickle-balls, huge, she’d never seen their like, and two that were possibly po-plants. Gowen would have loved to have seen them so tall-grown.
Uncle Kachinnar coughed to gain her attention back from the plants. But then there were more looks between him and his nephew before she was bid to follow him, leaving Boddy behind with Count Slemba. That was one conversation she’d have liked to have heard.
“Lorken, are you following?” she asked. “Such a warren, you could easily take a wrong turn.” She could hope.
Uncle Kachinnar, rotund Garden-keeper, opened a door off to the left. So this was her room? He lit a kolza-oil lamp, wall-mounted, within. A thin bed was laid upon a divan, and another divan intended for sitting. Hooks lined the walls for her clothes. And there was a mirror. And what had she expected, Rothi deep-padded luxury? A window was set high in the wood-lathed wall, and a plant sat on the floor in the corner, its white frothy flowers spicy and sweet. At that she couldn’t help smiling. But she thought she ought to clarify things.
“Judge Kachinnar Rookeri, I must make it known. I am a scholar, and am not to be taken for one of your stews.”
The rotund Garden-keeper looked puzzled at first though he nodded his head several times. Then his wide smile returned. “Bel Hade – and I haven’t yet had your name – no, I’m not the judge. I’m just Kachinnar Sharmin, the Garden’s proud ostlier. And this isn’t one of your Rothi stew-houses, no. Though I suppose a quiet scholar like you wouldn’t know that we don’t have them in Luban.”
He chuckled as he left her alone in the room, off to show Lorken the one he’d be sharing with Kullt.
~ ~ ~
Boddy listened as the harsh crunch of their boots slowly faded away. He wanted to know which room his uncle had given the Rothi. Those at the far end of the Gardens. Were they the only ones vacant? It was far from a prime position, far from the tavern, far from the parlour and the dining hall. Most folk would complain. But for a scholar the quiet would surely be welcome. No doubt that’s what Uncle Kachinnar thought too.
“You received them, at East Gate?” Count Slemba recalled Boddy’s attention.
“Midmorning, Patri. Couldn’t find reason to turn them away. We said of the fair-folk and the scrample and the lack of lodgings.”
“So you, too, felt uneasy of them? She is not what she seems.”
“A scholar with a research assignment, she says.”
“Too old,” Count Slemba said bluntly.
“I thought she might be widowed and come to it late.”
“No necklace,” Count Slemba said. Whatever the reference, Boddy didn’t understand it. Count Slemba explained, “These Rothi use necklaces where we’d use a bracelet.”
“Ah, you mean given in marriage. But her coat was buttoned, it could have been hidden.”
“It was open enough,” Count Slemba said.
And what did it matter to him were she married or not. Yet he felt a jolt at this revelation: She wasn’t married; he wished he knew her name.
“No, Boddy, I’m not comfy with this, not comfy at all. What, a Rothi woman in man’s clothing?”
“I questioned it, Patri. Her master pressed her to it, she said – for her safety while travelling. He feared the bandits.”
“I fear the bandits. That Mallen has been too quiet for too long. And perhaps that is the answer.” He glanced at the door as if still she stood there.
“You think they come from Mallen, as spies?”
“I think she’s no scholar. I see nothing humble in her. No, I want her watched. I know you’ve served your term this year but, well, you are best placed. If she’s what she claims then she’ll be in the Records Hall every day – and as chorus master that’s where we usually can find you.”
Boddy frowned. Was he understanding this right? Was Count Slemba asking him to . . .? Ghats! And there he’d been trying not to think of the woman. Commanded – commanded – to watch her. Yezzzah!
“Just keep an eye on her, Boddy, my boy, I ask no more of you. And it’ll give you legal reason not to labour for the Elect. I’ll let him know – no need to say what, only that you’re serving me. I want to know straight off if she gives further cause for concern.”
Boddy swallowed. What could he say? “Yessah, fine, I will. Great, yeah. And where will you be, Patri, if I need to report?”
“We’ll be heading back to Regionalstad after this.”
It would be a long ride, in a hurry, but he was an angel and used to it. “What about Judge Madir? He ought to know if there could be trouble.”
Count Slemba nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “I have to see him anyway. I have . . . I have news for him.”
Boddy suddenly felt cold, inside and out. “Eshe?” Slemba’s hesitation had betrayed it. He closed his eyes, could feel the tears forming. “Please, no.”
“Calm it, Boddy, my boy. The woman is fine, as far as we know. But the other two . . . What was that Noscere thinking of? Facking Pinta and Hibernal of all the . . . Sorry, not good form, my swearing, but . . . It was facking not pleasant to find. But, be assured, we’re as certain as poss that Femella Eshe got away – not that they’d have killed her, anyway; you know that, Boddy-Boy. What, a judge’s daughter, she’s worth a fine ransom. But she left a trail like a mighty galumphing grampus. We followed her as far as the Falls. There’s every sign that she’s fine – shaken, no doubt, but unharmed. We found no blood, anyway, away from the slaughter.”
Boddy hadn’t realised how much he’d been worrying, his internal muscles all tight. He’d not felt it until, now, they relaxed.
Count Slemba rested a hand on his shoulder. “You should have married her, you know.”
“Yeah right. And her father would have agreed it or . . .?”
“True. But you know, I’ve still a place for you. Full time in the Eques – though it would mean losing you as a facking fast angel. And you could have your own command in next to no time – couple of years? I’d recommend you to the duke, prime material for a count. It would get you away from your uncle, and you’ve no other ties here.”
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re saying but . . . No, Patri Slemba, the killing, you know. And the longer I serve the more it would happen—it would have to happen.”
“It is the nature. .”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s not my nature.”
The count nodded, a hand again resting on his shoulder. “You know, Boddy, had my boy lived—”
“Yeah, you’d have liked him to be a long-haired sap like me.”
“No, you know that’s not it. You’re a fine principled man. Well, I suppose you’d best go back to your chorus. But you keep an eye on her for me, and let me know if . . . well, if anything, heh?”
~ ~ ~
Vocabulary note: ufan, literally ‘upper’, therefore ‘neat, smart’.
~ ~ ~