Boddy skipped down the steps of the Verse and Comp School three at a time, though his legs felt unsteady. Yezzzah, wowzah, great and yeah! But for how long would she be here at Raselstad, how long sharing the Records Hall with him? How long would she distract him? For distract him she would if again she sat only two desks away from him. And how now was he to compose a play? But, hey, at least with her wanting those Minutes she’d removed from him that quest of equal distraction.
Behind him, booted feet clopped down the stairs. Not a student, for students didn’t wear boots, and no student had been left in the Hall; when that bell rang, clatter-bang, they all were gone. No, he knew who it was. A quick scan of the green, the lanes and the Council buildings showed him no waiting watchmen. So what if he slowed his step, just a bit? Would that be too obvious? Would it seem arrogant of him?
You worry of being arrogant? She’s a Rothi lafdi, Boddy Felagi.
Natzo! Unfair; unsay it, unthink it, undo it, remove it. A scholar, I swear.
He slowed his step and added a swagger in time with the tune now in his head. Red headed lady / I bid you, lay with me – which were not the original words.
“Boddy Rookeri,” she said as she drew level with him, her delicate tones like warm fingers upon him. Oh, the sweet ecstasy. “I wanted to thank you.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. And on looking up he drank in the sight of her. Fay woman, how did he not swoon?
Are you not overdoing this, Boddy Felagi?
Roo, my god, please take this temptation away from me—but no! Please leave her be.
She had released her hair from its plait. Yeah zo, but it billowed around her, so thick. He wanted to tangle his fingers into it; he wanted to hold it between his hands; to gaze upon it like the treasure it was. Find a thing that compares with this, Accursed Murky. Yeah zo, to bury his face in it; to sleep on it; to use it as his very own pillow.
I see another distant moon rising, Roo remarked.
Yeah zo, that will be Euryale.
That’s not what I meant.
Yeah, I know.
“Most helpful, you’ve been. And to give up those Minutes for me . . .” Sifadis smiled at him.
She smiled! Now how could he speak.
“Natzo,” he said in humble tone. “They weren’t my purpose for being there. A distraction unneeded. And, hey, they’ll still be there when . . . yeah, well, when you’re gone.” But he didn’t want her to go, not ever.
“Ay an’ well, yet if there is something I might do in return, most gladly I will.”
How could he answer; she ought not to make such an offer. He could think of many a thing but could not suggest one of them. He glanced around, expecting her watchmen to be lurking some place close, but no. It was that time of day; the schools were over, the offices within them had yet to close, and all else were confined to their gord-occupations. The green was empty of folk.
“Great, yeah,” he said. “There is something. If in your search you come upon some explanation of why Royanth Gord became Rookeri, yeah? I’d appreciate that.”
“This is your interest?” she asked in that oddly inflected Rothi accent.
And, yeah zo, now they weren’t walking but had stopped to look at each other. If he reached out a hand he could rest a finger upon her feminine softness and trace its lines. A sweet smell surrounded her, faint like a gasp of roses borne on a late summer wind.
Oh, Roo, this isn’t fair. Can you not make her disappear?
“I did see in the Minutes some mentions of Royanth, but none of your Rookeri. Your Lubanthan gords are unfamiliar to me; perhaps you’d explain them?”
In the westering sun, her lashes, though dark, were as red as her hair. And her eyes . . . yeah zo, not the brown he had thought but green, a very dark green. Lustral lady, in green springs rising . . . Her lips, her kissable, slippable, wondrous lips, rivalled the best Devicstad wine for their depth of colour and his intoxication on drinking them in. Dear Stayer—Destroyer—to taste them!
“So tell me –” how did his voice remain so steady when her hand was inside him catching his breath? “– here is a scholar who knows not of the gords? Then, truly, I must plenish the want.”
How close his hand came to her cheek, wanting to touch. Yeah, but he could not so violate her though it would be in reverence. Yet if he claimed he believed her truly a scholar; would that save amputation?
“Would you like me to start at the beginning? So . . . the Magnificent Maker sent out the Founders in groups of twelve to found the towns. And when each group found land they desired for their use they scoured it round – five miles in radius, ten in diameter – and divided the circle into twelve equal portions. Here we call them gords, for their shape, but their rightful word is duodecimanse.”
“Loh! I have heard that word. Recently.”
“Ghats, you have?” She was excited. Yet it was the driest of subjects. “But it’ll be from no mouth around here. Most hear the word in their history lessons and promptly forget it.”
“Nah, it was said not of the land but of the sky.”
“Ah, the sky. Then it would have been said of the zodiac.”
“And you are trying to impress with your words.”
He laughed – to cover the shivering she’d effected within him. “Natzo, Bel Hade. The word dwells in the Good Book, as any scholar should know.”
“You doubt me still.” It was no question but a statement. “So you must ask me a question – any you will. But not of your Lubanthan ways; I confess I’m not so familiar with them.”
“You want this, yeah, that I should ask? Of your Rothi? Then I’ve just the question. This has confused me since first I encountered it. So, in Rothi you have two king-gods. One you say is good and the other bad – these I take it are your Rothi cognates of our Magnificent Maker and Destroyer—”
“Dizpeter and Stup. And they’re not good and bad, they’re merely opposites.”
“Great, yeah, fine, distinction taken.” Not cognates then, for there was more to the Magnificent Maker and Destroyer than opposites; one built, the other pulled down. “But hear me out, yeah. You Rothi assign to them the numbers seven and nine.”
“You know much of the Rothi gods.”
“Natzo, thus my confusion. So, you Rothi say every seventh year belongs to . . . Dizpeter, is that right? And thus the seventh’s a good year. Now, if we speak of Dizpeter as the Magnificent Maker, then it’s probably a year of high yields—and peace, I’ve not finished.” He held up a finger to stop her. “You say then that every ninth year belongs to . . . Stup, is that right? And that ninth is a bad year – the Destroyer ramps, the crops wither with blight; am I right? Great, yeah, so far. But tell me this. Why does these seventh and ninth years apply only to Rothi? There’s no such pattern in Luban. And what happens, yeah, in the sixty-third year? Is it a year of confusion?”
“You intentionally mock me?”
“Natzo, I would not.” Rather would he cut out his tongue.
“Yet . .. look, this is runman-talk, this of numbers and good and bad years. I cannot answer you this. My studies are of the Old World. So ask me another of that.”
“Fine, yeah, if you say. Ah, I have one. Explain to me why Rothi scholars say that Rome was the Holy Land.”
“That I can easily answer, though I’ll not burden you with every reference. An example, the word palmer, one who bears the palm-branch in memory of having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And roam, a runner to Rome, a pilgrim. And so it is proven, with no further reference, that Rome was the Holy Land. But it’s deeper than that. The words that the forty-first Avatar gave us—”
“Oh, so you Rothi do hold with his existence?”
“Ay, of course. And how else and what else the Holy Book? But look at the Latin facere, to make—”
“It’s a word forbidden.”
“Not to scholars and poets, and you know it. From it comes sanctify, to make sacred. And such words confirm the forbidden cult’s origin as Rome. And from there it spread northward to the Celtic, Scandinavian and Teutonic lands.”
“North to these lands? Where does it say that in the Good Book?”
“Would you like me to draw you a map of the Old World? This is my skill and my knowledge. There is more to be had than good and bad gods and zodiacs in the Holy Book.”
“The Good Book,” he said.
“But the Latins didn’t start the cult. That was the Geeks.”
“The who?” Zups! But the exclamation had exploded within him; he didn’t mean to mock.
“Och and now you’ll disagree with me and say it was the Arabs with their sciences and alcohols.”
Natzo – but yeah. Ghats, should he now thump his head, or laugh?
She continued calmly to expound. “Ay and Hermes was of Arabian origin, yet it was the Geeks with their ‘drinking-in’ the holy, seeking to make of themselves gods, who began it. And then the Latins took Hermes and made him Mercury and made him their god of commerce and talents and trickery and thievery and gold. It was they who applied this sanctifying notion to machines and all manner of other makings. And from there all else followed.”
“Bel Hade, we are aware of the theory, even here in Luban. But Geeks? No, Bel Hade, they were Greeks.” He made a point of rolling the ‘r’.
“And who made up that word? You who know the Book so well must know that Geekland is given only in the abbreviated form.”
“Natzo, Scholar Sifadis. It’s given as Greek and Greeks and Greekish and Greece. I could give you the references, there are enough. Try malmsey, from Malvasia, a town on the east coast of Lacedaemonia in Greece. Try barbarous, a name given by the Greeks to express the strange stammering sounds of foreign languages.”
She stopped walking. He hadn’t intended to shout. And now her face was more red than her hair. In anger? Or was it embarrassment? Natzo, he’d not have that for her.
“Not in our Holy Book,” she said quietly and, gods, what horror was in her voice that her Rothi Book could possibly be in error.
“Then it seems whoever copied your Rothi Holy Book from our Good Book was either hurried or lazy.”
“And who says you Lubanthan hold the original?”
Wowzah, now did her eyes flash! And her delicately carved ivory hands perched as fists on her hips. And having caused this, he wanted to kiss her, now more than ever.
“Has it not occurred to you that you Lubanthan could have copied yours from ours and inaccurately added these words?”
“Natzo, not possible.” He shook his head furiously, as totally caught in the argument as she. “You tell me how, when the Founders came from the west. Here was their first place. They came to your Rothi but late. No, we Lubanthan have the original book. Yours is the copy.”
“Hur? I think not! Did the gods not flee the Old World in their boats? And where is the sea if not in the East? We have the original.”
He had not intended any of this, her feet firmly rooted and . . . and even the drab of her coat seeming red about her. He laughed.
“And what amuses?”
“Beggin’ forgiveness, Bel Hade Sifadis—natzo, I do mean it. But, Ghats, if that’s not proven you a scholar.”
“Why, you trall! All this to test me?”
“Natzo, you’ve it wrong. I wasn’t. Besides, you invited me to it.” But it didn’t help that he still was laughing.
She looked away.
“Sifadis Lafdi Bel Hade, I do beg your forgiveness. It wasn’t . . . Say, are you still wanting to know of the gords?”
He kept the explanation simple.
~ ~ ~
Sifadis, Shore House Heiress
He had tricked her, even though she had invited the question. And now she wanted to be angry at him but how could she when he was smiling, his shoulders swaying, a joy to his step as if in his head happy music was playing. He confused her. Ay, a poet – and without a doubt he was a scholar – but he was also at the count’s command. And it was that that annoyed her. The judge had tested her, and then the Council, with that stern Sturan Elect, and now this Boddy poet-gate-keeper deigned to test her as well. Would they not be done with it? But now he believed her so, hap an’ hope, the others would too – which might make it easier to complete her task and be gone.
Now he was telling her of the gords. She had known none of this, that the Council held the land and leased it to the nobles in return for the Council-set quotas of whatever their crop or beast. Ay and fy, it seemed a complicated way to go on, for whatever went into the Council’s hands, it then was sold its very producers, the folk who toiled to grow it. True, excesses were possible, and allowed to be kept, but failure to meet the quota resulted in loss of land and livelihood. Without telling Boddy, she compared it with the Rothi system.
Five hamlets she held and the manse to oversee them, and that without her shipping and fisheries. The produce off all that land she received, yet she then doled it back to her vassals, each according to need. None went hungry, none were ever evicted, but none ever profited either. But was that not what the Avatar bid them; that none should profit? The citadel Houses might appear to grow rich but, hay la, the number, over the centuries, that had crumbled for want of the means to pay the tributes and taxes incurred by the War Games. The War Games, that was where the Rothi funds went.
Were she the Avatar, which of these systems would she say was right? Not the Lubanthan, for all of their laws that forbade them gold.
“So what happened to your Rookeri that it’s no longer a gord.”
“Natzo,” he objected, “It’s still a gord, it’s just no longer my family’s. My father was already struggling to meet the quotas. When he died, the Council reclaimed it.”
“And the Council then gave it to your uncle Kachinnar? And he would be your mother’s brother, hur?”
“Only the Gardens. The rest they divided into warrens and smallholdings and . . . but Villith is more severely divided.” He sighed, head shaking. “I was too young when my father died, I couldn’t claim. And then my uncle adopted me so . . . to fight for it now is to fight the Elect. Besides, it’s restructured, let out, it’s too late.”
Ay and now in her head keys were turning, releasing cogs and shooting bolts. Boddy Rookeri Sharmin, that’s how he had introduced himself. And Kachinnar, too, had corrected her; Kachinnar Sharmin, he’d said. And what was the name of the elect but Sturan Elect Sharmin. And would Sharmin, mayhap, be the name of a House, a gord? And with his adoption, the poet Boddy bore a double name.
“Ay and la, I’ve mistaken you for a humble poet, and you’re not.”
He scoffed at that. “And neither am I a gord-holding noble; I’ve no claim on Sharmin. My birth-right is lost.”
“And had you been older, and fought and won, what then would you have made of your land?”
“I—Ghats, you’ve got me. Likely the same ruinous losses as the stack of forefathers before me. Say, yeah, how many folks want Daabian plants?”
Ay, how plaintively sad he sounded. He shrugged a shoulder and his shirt, of apple green silk, rippled around him. He wore his shirts large and loose with no tailored coat, she’d noticed that. Ay, they hung from his shoulders like – and she smiled at the thought – like a pregnant woman’s smock, though it was not for his lack of form. Slender he was yet she’d seen muscles there, hard and defined. Perhaps no warrior’s body, beefy and able to hack with a broadsword, and yet he served the town’s Watch as a gate-guard and the count as a Dragon. And from his comments she’d say he’d fought with Mallen. To have survived that, he’d no mean skills. Ay, but she had asked a question and he was still answering.
“Didn’t the Avatar give us every plant we should need? Yet here was Rookeri growing these. Most don’t even smell pleasant – most can’t be touched. None can be eaten. Like everything else not brought along with us, they’re poisonous – good only for export to your Rothi Houses.”
Ay, and there were several growing spiny and fat in Shore House – gifts to her father from Gowen. And ay, this Boddy would likely delight to see Wood Towers’ garden. But she could say nothing of that.
In silence, now, they walked, the day’s heat fled, the air turned cool. Earlier, she had unbuttoned her coat, suffocating in that airless Records Hall. Now she was glad of its warmth. The sky over the trees in the distances was unadorned purple. Behind them, off to the west, Stheino and Euryale were preparing to set, and Medusa wouldn’t rise for some hours yet. Ahead, the lights of Rookeri Gardens glowed warm in the gathering night. But she didn’t yet want to reach that tavern, to say goodnight and to lose his company. She grappled for something to say.
“So your uncle’s tavern was not the gord-house?”
He laughed. She thought it aimed at her, her naivety and ignorance. Even so, she liked how he laughed.
“It was the flower-house,” he said. “Where we tended and fattened the plants.”
“So the flowering-plant in my room is left from then?”
“And still in my care. I still . . . potter. It’ll be a robinti, there. My father named it for my mother.”
“And she also is dead?”
He didn’t answer but turned his head.
“Sorry.” She had touched upon something raw.
“Hey, for what? I’m supposed to be over the grieving, long ago gone.”
“How long ago, exactly?”
“Should we talk of something other?”
“Ay. You can tell me of your Rookeri House.”
“Say, you really are interested, yeah? Or is this a delaying tactic, so you don’t need to return to your lodgings yet? Could it possibly be for the some reason as me?”
There were gold flecks in his eyes she’d not noticed before. But that look he gave her, she looked away. Confusion multiplied through her body, suddenly alive as if infested by kenga flies.
They didn’t turn towards the Gardens but continued to walk along the lane. There were roads leading off that disappeared into what he called ‘the warrens’, high multi-storeyed buildings, several all stacked together. She couldn’t guess at the numbers of families living there. She grimaced as she imagined the likely conditions. They passed turnings to other buildings, isolated amid the green fields. Built of wood and wood-grass, the same as in Rothi, yet they resembled nothing seen there, not even those in the hamlets for her tenants’ workers. None were thatched; all roofed with lengthwise-cut holha-grass, like hundreds of gutters. And where painted they were white, not black.
Then, loh, ahead was a two storeyed house that could have been lifted straight out of Rothi, had it been built of stone instead of wood-grass. It wrapped around a courtyard with stairs running up in several places to access an ancient veranda. Its roof was of shingles though several were missing, no doubt a problem when the Poneroos Winds brought a wet winter. Children were everywhere, and cooking smells reeked from it, strange spices she had no names for.
“And here you spent your child-days? And now you don’t live here?” Though she knew the answer, still she asked.
“I live at Sharmin, the Elect’s House. Hey now, if you want to see big . . . It’s what you Rothi call ‘grand’.”
“Nar, milig, we’d say milig.”
He laughed at the word. “Yeah, but I can’t take you there. A stranger, you couldn’t pass beyond Sharma’s shrine. Natzo, not even in my company.”
She shivered, as if his words scraped her spine. Why would he say that? Was he protecting his uncle, the Elect? Did he suspect her mission? Yet she’d say not. He seemed to believe she was a scholar – which, indeed, she was.
The sight of a wheel of black birds to the north halted her steps as they turned. “Heida! And that bodes ill. A death omen.”
He laughed. It surprised and confused her.
“Yezzzah, but that’s what it is; it’s a sky burial. See the black tower? That’s Remen’s Tower, where we lay out our dead for the birds to strip.”
The birds were too distant to see in detail, but her mind could supply it. “Ay, my master was right when he said I knew more of the Old World than I do of this. Do the birds . . . do they eat the bodies?” She shuddered at the sudden revulsion.
“And how do you Rothi deal with the dead?”
Och, now he was offended. She’d not intended it. “We place them in tombs in our gardens – those who have gardens; elsewise in the cellars. But these bird-eaten—”
“Bird-taken, sky buried.”
“Hay la! And what happens then to their spirits? Are they gone forever, no more to talk to you?”
“They’re . . . yeah, they’re around. Some say the spirit goes off to the Ridge. Others that the spirit resides in the marriage-beads – until they’re reborn.”
She noticed his fingers absently rubbing a bracelet strung with red beads. Several times she had noticed him touch it when seeming anxious. All the adults seemed to wear them, yet Gowen had said nothing of them when he’d instructed her.
“So that’s what the bracelet is?”
“Oh, did you think me married? Hey, wrong arm.”
“So it it your father’s bracelet?”
He nodded. “They say the silken thread is as strong as the bond. It breaks only when the spirit’s reborn.”
She wanted to ask, did that mean that a son’s affection might delay the cycle. And was that so different from the Rothi high-born?
“You say, ‘It is said’, and ‘They say’, but what do you believe happens? I mean, to the spirit at death.” It was not her intention to bring to mind whatever it was with his mother, yet she was curious.
“Gods, but what interesting things we talk of,” he said with a laugh in voice. Yet she noticed how his fingers now wrapped round his wrist. “No, in truth I’m unsure what I believe of these things. Though I will say this: I believe in the One Spirit that unites and animates all life on this Earth – you know, the trees, the grass, the amphibs – us.”
She looked at him, quizzical. It was the first time she’d heard such a belief. Yet how else to explain the Tree Legend: that the tree only will blossom when the rightful heir sits on the chair.
“Hey, you asked, and you know I’m a poet.”
“Ay. But what of rocks: does your One Spirit animate those too?” Indeed, what things they did speak of, she and this swain, this poet. This holy man? She had not expected this from him.
He nodded, heavy with thought. “I suppose, yeah, it includes the rocks too. Our holy men believe so. I tell you, I’ve a friend Eshe who gathers fossils –“ he relinquished the red bracelet, to free his hands, to demonstrate “– that’s the shells and bones of ancient creatures – and these she finds in the rocks. But what of you? You ask all these questions of me.”
“Oh, our dead, too, are reborn. But we bury them close to us, so until then we can talk to them.”
“Fine if you have the body,” he said sourly. “But you talk to them? You believe the spirits can hear?”
She shrugged. “There is comfort in it – especially if you’re young when your mother dies. She—my mother—thought—ay was convinced—that I was her ancestress Ffadise reborn.” But how could she be Ffadise-reborn? As a child Ffadise had spoken to her. “Ay, my mother wanted me named for her, but my father refused. He said it would be too many ‘ff’s’ in the house.”
Ay, now why was he laughing?
“Say it again,” he said, standing heart-stoppingly close.
“That name. F-f-fadise.”
Ay, if he wanted. His lips moved, repeating it with her and they laughed together. And the way he looked at her . . . she was sure he was going to kiss her. She waited. But he pulled away and behaved like one flustered.
“Hey, I expect your watchman is looking for you.” They were back at the Gardens. He turned in circles as if he looking. “Yeah zo, I’d hate to be accused of abducting his lafdi. Hey, sleep well. I must go.”
Stunned to muteness, she watched until he was out of sight.
And mayhap the Legend should read that only if she wed the right man would a son be born and the Shore line again flourish. And he did want her, she knew it. And, treble hay la, she wanted him too.
~ ~ ~