Yezzzah, what a relief. Gammer Haspra wasn’t with her usual coven in the East Wing. But where was she? She wouldn’t be in the dining hall, would she, not yet. Boddy dodged into the doorway, caught a blast of what the women were cooking – Ghats and rats, not spiced up dhal again, not at this season. Wouldn’t you know it, Sturan the Almighty’s favourite. But as expected, no Gammer Haspra there; not in the kitchen with the hot-bellied stoves and the hot-tongued women. Then – yeah zo – he caught a glimpse of her bejewelled Rothi head-shawl sparkling in the late-afternoon sun. She was sitting beneath the semol tree in Uncle Sturan’s garden.
“Gammer,” he greeted and took a seat uninvited beside her.
“Well what a day! Just look at this.” She patted his thigh. “Boddy-Boy comes visits his favourite teacher. Or is he here only to take in the sweetness of his uncle’s flowers?”
“Herbs,” Boddy said with unintentional disdain, leastwise he didn’t intend it to show. Forgive me, Avatar Woodleigh. You know I do not despise your provisions. “But look at it, Gammer. The Elect thinks nothing of setting aside a patch of gord-land for this . . . what? Sitting and sniffing? Yet he won’t allow me a small patch for the nurture and fattening of Daabian plants. Sweet his flowers, yea, but the garden stinks of inequality. And wasn’t that what the Avatar worked to redress?”
“Boddy-Boy, let’s not spoil it, huh. Your visits are rare and there’s no denying, the air is sweet. Now, tell me of her, this woman who has captured you.”
Gods, but that woman always knew what to say, sweeping away the pain of betrayal, laying open what had been before it, removing the veil. And now he bore the two together and he felt the hurt stronger than the anger.
“Do you know everything, Gammer?”
She leant towards him, her weight rested now through her hand on his knee. “When there are Rothi in town, I listen. And what my grand-boy does, I hear. They say she is a dainty thing, beneath the jasckte-wool.”
“Dainty?” He laughed. “Natzo! But, yeah. Yea, I suppose.” He had to swallow hard and blink back a tear. But hey, he was Boddy the Poet, pain was supposed to rack him.
“She is gone?”
He nodded, not trusting his voice.
“She refused you?”
“Ghats, Gammer, how could I ask? You know what she was? No scholar as she’d have it, she was a lafdi.”
“As she ought to be for my Boddy.”
“Right, yeah, fine, and I can just hear what Uncle Sturan would say. Besides, turns out she’s my cousin. Removed.”
Gammer Haspra pulled back the better to see him. Her head-shawl slipped but she made no move to retrieve it. “She’s from Citadel Endizi? My mother’s kin?”
“I don’t know where she’s from—from East Rothi, but . . . I know nothing more.”
“Ah, you said it poetic, Boddy-Boy,” Gammer chided. “You don’t mean by blood do you. You mean . . . yiyiy, the word? . . . likeness? You say she’s a scholar, so you both are alike.”
“Yeah, a scholar, and both orphaned young, and she likes Daabian plants and . . . Gammer, she’s gone.”
“So that is what you meant. Giving my frail old heart a turn, saying cousin.”
“Natzo, Gammer, I do mean cousin. Some kin of hers – Keril-og – married a femella of Royanth Gord and changed its name to Rookeri. I am last of his line.”
“Oh, and I remember you said of that change. So . . . cousins? But removed, Boddy-Boy, removed’s not against you.” The old woman leaned forward again, her weight once more on his knee. “So say now the truth. Why didn’t you ask her?”
“She didn’t want you? And how hard that’s to believe? She gave no encouragement?”
He looked away. Only with Gammer Haspra could he drop the hip-swaying, drum-beating Boddy that all others saw. With her he could be honest. He could be soft-hearted. But even with her he couldn’t show the depth of this ‘capture’. He thought capture a good word, though he’d not realised it till then. And now she was gone.
He nodded, not trusting his voice. But his Gammer deserved more than that. “Yeah, Gammer, she encouraged – but not till last night when we were saying goodbye. She asked if I would ever leave Raselstad.”
“To go with her back to Rothi?”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s what she meant. But, Gammer, that’s not possible. Whatever her life, there’s no place there for me.”
“Yet she asked?”
“‘Yeah—after saying how we both knew it was impossible.”
“Hmph. Sounds like a double dose of can’t-do’s. Now you listen here, Boddy-Boy. This Rothi lafdi wants you to go to Rothi with her. You know it as clear as day. So you go and you sort out the problems once you are there. You think it was easy when my mother came here? A different species, they said of her, a wonder her offspring lived. And you, what did you say, last of this Keril’s line? Well then, between my mother and your Keril, you’re halfway to Rothi blood anyway. So why should you not go?”
“Gammer, she stole from the Council Minutes.” It was like a dagger driven into him having to say it. Yet he had to tell her; it was part of the problem. “I ought to report her. She stole the evidence that we are related. But the nugget, she didn’t know there were records kept at Rookeri.”
Again, Gammer Haspra sat back, resting now against the high rattan back of the garden seat. She nodded, slowly. “Now that is interesting.”
She chewed on her lip. Boddy had to look away. With so few teeth, she looked like she was swallowing her face.
And now with his anger gone he could give fresh thought to it too. He remembered what Jonesi had said of two and two being three. But rather he’d say that two and two were twenty-two – twenty-two, as in the formula relating to circles, when divided by seven. He startled himself with a self-mocking chuckle.
Boteras Felagi, playwright, poet, now mathematician?
Hey, Roo, I’m adequately able to mock without you joining in. But tell me how to break out of the circle.
A child could answer.
“You know what I think, Boddy-Boy?” Gammer said. “What’s to do when someone takes a thing that is not their own? Someone must go ask for it.”
And there is your answer, Boddy Felagi. When the spin of the circle becomes unstable you stick out a leg. Beams, remember.
“Yeah, right, fine. So I ride after her and accuse her of stealing. And her henchmen attack me with their axes. I saw the way they kept eyeing me.”
“Hmm, you might need to be more subtle than that,” Gammer offered with a tinge of amusement. “So, I say first you must decide what you’ll do. Will you return her to Raselstad, to marry and live with her here? Or will you go with her to Rothi?”
“She cannot live here. Natzo, not ever, not that. That’s beyond thought. What have I here to give her? If I had the flower-house, if I had what’s rightfully mine—but the Council, my own uncle, the Elect, won’t allow it.”
“Then you will go to Rothi,” Gammer said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.
“Great, Gammer, yeah. But my friends are here—you are here. And then there’s the chorus. Natzo, Gammer, I can’t just up and go.”
“But that is what people do. That’s what my mother did when she crossed the Ridge. That’s what this Keril-man did when he came here to Raselstad. It’s what one thousand founders did when the Avatar brought them from the Old World to this. Are you less than them?”
Of course he was not. Her suggestion offended. But never once in his life had he considered this, not even while idly dreaming. To go to Rothi, to live there? It was the last place on earth he wanted to go. Yeah zo, rather would he sail the sea back to the accursed Old World. Yet he felt the irresistible spread of a smile. And with it came lightness such as he never had known. Gods, but he was filled with joyousness. This venture, now he had thought it, had the feeling of rightness to it – despite all his life, like any good Lubanthan, he had scorned Rothi, its people and ways. He was on his feet before he knew it, a tune again, playing in his head, a drumbeat driving his joints and limbs.
“Gammer . . . I shall miss you. And don’t say yet where I’ve gone. Keep it close, yeah, between you and me. After a week, when I haven’t returned, then you might suggest that’s where I’ve gone. Just to stop them from worrying, eh?”
Not that he thought any at Sharmin Gord would waste a minute worrying of him. Gammer Haspra would, yea, but Gammer Haspra would know where he was.
~ ~ ~
The harvest season on Ulrin Gord was no time to ask to speak with a worker, not with five different grains ripening one after the other, and then the cotton.
“Is it important?” Patri Skaven’s son Matteley asked. He looked harassed and his tone clearly said he didn’t need this interruption from the townstead’s chorus master. He probably thought Boddy had come for his players. Three of his chorus were Ulrin-born, though only Paje and Avista were gord-workers. The other, Valent was employed off-gord at Rementh’s mill.
“Alas,” Boddy said, “can’t give you details but . . . I’m in Count Slemba’s pay.”
Zups, an itzy bit of a lie but it worked. Matteley called over to his young brother Distillare, “Take this whimsy to the stackyard.”
Boddy grinned at the use of ‘whimsy’. Was Matteley a sap, that he dared not to be more offensive than that? Fearing his father, likely. Or was it the mention of Count Slemba? A dancer, poet and singer may be, but Boddy also was an angel. No sap was ever promoted to that.
He followed Distillare, dodging between carts now being laden with grain-sheaves. He imagined his cousin Tulle taunting because he didn’t know the grains. Yeah but what chance had he to learn them. Could Tulle give the origin of the word, say, snigger? He knew the grain on the cart was neither rice nor millet; Sharmin Gord grew neither of those and this grain was familiar.
Distillare led him along a track but, Ghats, was it in bad repair. Uncle Sturan would never have allowed it. Sturan had even talked of putting in tram-roads but, as Boddy heard it, the Council forbade it. And how was he supposed to negotiate this? Walk in a furrow? But they furrows were too narrow for comfort. He could try jumping from one side to the other. Or what if he climbed up on the bank and shuffled along sideways. He watched Distillare; he had the knack of it, one foot up, the other down. Boddy was glad to be off the track and delivered to the stackyard without a mishap. Ghats, if he’d twisted his ankle!
Boddy knew—because he’d seen it at Sharmin—that the five stacks in the yard were but temporary storage. After threshing, the grain would be delivered to the Council for ‘justly-priced’ redistribution, and the straw taken to Tiszkin Gord as bedding for Patri Kerchen’s horses. Gods! Had the Council no quota on that? Hey, man, but that was astounding. Boddy grinned – he could stretch to one now, now that he knew what he was doing.
Distillare jerked his head to show where Ryal was working. And did he think Boddy visually afflicted? Who else was there in the stackyard but Ryal; the man worked alone. He was lifting sheaves from the cart to neatly layer them to build a sixth stack. His upper half, naked, glistened. It was roasted a bright turkey-red.
“Ryal,” Distillare called to him. ”The chorus master’s come to see yer. Probably thinks yer can sing. Half hour, no longer, then back to yer work.”
Ryal looked from Distillare to Boddy. With a shrug he thrust his pitchfork into the straw, wiped his hands down his shorts – cut-down trousers, frayed round the knees – and jumped down from the stack. He nodded a greeting to Boddy. Distillare already was gone.
“I’m not a citizen yet,” he said. “And I can’t sing for nipples. But I am learning your stories and your weird ways.”
“Calm it, man. I’m not looking for singers nor anything else for the chorus. Between you and me, I’m looking to leave.” Ghats! He’d not meant to say that. Yet he had to say something to explain his presence and questions. “I’m shortly venturing into Rothi. I, um, thought you might help. Tell me what’s best not to do if I intend to keep my head and body attached. You understand what I’m asking?”
“Where in Rothi you’re going?”
Boddy shrugged, but said, ‘”East.”
“Then why not ask those two who’ve been snooping? That Lorken and Kullt.”
“You know them?” Boddy tried to dampen his surprise.
“They’re here searching for me, aren’t they?”
Wowitz! Why hadn’t he thought of that? Here was Raselstad, sheltering a Rothi deserter. And here comes along Disa with her two watchmen, her henchmen, her tralls and no one makes the connection? How eager the eyes to be distracted. Send along a dainty red-haired Rothi lafdi and now everyone’s asking of her, not of them. And now he scarcely could think for the clatter of numbers as they slotted into their places. Great, yeah, fine, Boddy the Mathematician. It never had been his strength. Yeah but . . . his mouth almost fell open. If this Ryal Holde knew the thralls’ names then they must all be from the same citadel. Yeah? So, yezzzah! No need to stumble the paths of Rothi in search of the lafdi – that is if he didn’t catch up with her long before there.
But if Disa’s henchmen were looking for Ryal, what then of Disa’s story? Had it not been the truth?
There was one easy way to discover the answer. Which gate had they taken out of Raselstad? Were they heading for Fokstad, Rokestad and the townsteads west? In which case they’d come looking for Ryal and everything else was a cover. But if they’d left by East Gate . . . Ghats, the perliwhirls were wrecking his head again.
“You say these two snooped? Do you mean they asked questions of Patri Skaven?”
Ryal shook his head – then looked around. He found a wood-stump in the shade of a stack and went there to sit.
“Not as far as I know. Besides, the Patri oughtn’t to answer. The Council said I’m protected here. Aren’t I?”
“Yeah, sure, you are, Ryal—may I call you Ryal? Have you a title I ought to use?”
Ryal gave a derogatory snort. “If I ever had one it now would be dropped. Apart from ‘Patri’ you Lubanthan don’t use them. But you didn’t say why you won’t ask them. Or have they now gone?”
“Yeah, bang on, they’re gone. Did you see the woman who was travelling with them? Red hair, ivory skin, dainty. Dressed as a scholar but I’d say she was not.”
Boddy found himself holding his breath, awaiting the answer.
“Blood-red hair? Like your shirt there?”
“About the same, yeah.” Boddy nodded. “And she stands yey-tall. Probably the same age as you.”
The holde knew her, his face showed it clearly. But he was also thinking before he answered. And now he looked as dumbfounded as Boddy. “But why in the name of Ellenrof is she travelling with them?”
“The god,” he said dismissively.
The god Ellenrof: Boddy hadn’t heard of that one.
“You know who she is, this red-haired lafdi?” he asked. Again, he realised he was holding his breath for the answer.
“Lafdi?” Ryal snorted. What did that mean? “You’re right of that. Sifadis Lafdi, bel hade of Shore House. That’s the wealthiest of the Lecheni Houses. But, nar, there’s a mistake. It cannot be her.”
“Yet, Sifadis? Yeah, that’s the name that she gave.”
The wealthiest, Boddy, the wealthiest.
And did we ever believe her a scholar? But hush, Roo, I need to think.
“But I tell you, guy—what did you say was your name?” Ryal asked.
“Boddy,” Boddy said.
“Aye, well, Boddy, I tell you, that little femella owns every ship in the Luant haven. Every boat moored at the hythes. Every weir along the Tuthe. Not to say of the usual holdings. If you’re in Rothi, you don’t eat fish but by her catching. You don’t wear toad-skin but by her harvesting. And you don’t lose a tooth without her providing the ourali to numb it. But what is she doing travelling here? And with those two jerts.”
“Jerts? Sounds like you don’t like them,” Boddy said.
“Don’t like? Huh. Boddy, I tell you, you know, Lecheni and Raselstad are nothing alike. Nar, guy, you’d not understand.”
“You could try me. That is where I’m heading, I do need to know.”
“You’re going to Citadel Lecheni?” He was no longer lounging but up on his feet. “You wouldn’t be intending to turn me in?”
“Yeah, right.” Boddy laughed. “Peace, Ryal – and me a Raselstad-man? Natzo, I’ve a need of that ourali you said.” It was a potent anesthetic, had from the skin of a rare marine amphib. “I’ve a walloping ache that needs numbing, and it won’t wait for the peddler’s next visit.” And don’t you direct me to Salver Vardhan. He was the healer who had taken one of the Rookeri smallholdings. “So, tell me, these two—what are their names, Lorken and Kullt?—are they trouble? Ought I to stay clear of them?”
“I oughtn’t to say, I oughtn’t to know,” Ryal said. Agitated now, he puffed and paced. “See, it’s Rothi ways, they’re not the same, they’re different. It’s the thing of the tribute causes the trouble; no one wanting to pay it. Then the Houses overspill, too many mouths, and off they go to another citadel. Aye, everyone’s watching over their shoulder and listening at doors. A man can grow rich selling other folks’ secrets, in Rothi.”
“Ah. So you’re saying this Lorken and Kullt are spies, yeah?”
Ryal shook his head, his face set firm. “I have said no such thing. And you now are going to there?” He looked around, jittering, anxious. Boddy began to wonder the wisdom of this venture. “Say what you will when you get there, I’ll deny it. Unto my death I’ll deny it. But, aye, you did hear me right; they are that thing.”
Boddy whistled softly. Were all Rothi citadels such dens of intrigue? And he had thought it merely the weavings of popular poets.
“And would this red-haired lafdi be banded with them?” He didn’t want to know the answer. It smacked too much of Count Slemba’s accusation, that she was spying for Mallen.
But Ryal laughed. “What need, with her wealth? Though it is surprising, her being here.”
“She claimed she was researching.”
“A scholar, in search of evidence –she said, of an ancestor.”
“A scholar, aye, that’ll be her. Reclusive, I tell you. Were it not that she goes from Shore House to the Witan and to her ward at Greystone, and oft to the wharves, we holden never would have a sight of her.”
“Well, you’ve been most helpful, I appreciate,” Boddy thanked him. “And I suppose Distillare soon will be back and yelling for you to get on with the work—”
“I don’t mind the work. I was happy in that hamlet with my folks. Aye, and then that Breken Lafard had to steal me away.”
Boddy nodded as if he understood. But some folk were happy to land-graft.
“So while you’ve time will you help?” he asked. “Just a few pointers, like you have been doing?”
“You mean who to bow to and who to not? Who to avoid? You should avoid the runmen—especially that Kalamite and you won’t mistake him. Red-stained from sucking that drug of his. And never, ever, venture in their towers.”
~ ~ ~