Eshe Parlan, Femella
Eshe didn’t understand the process: why the water so quickly turned to slime, but the water in the bucket needed changing again. She groaned and slapped on her hat.
She didn’t like these new lodgings. She missed Lauschen and his wife. She missed their talk of rocks and ores, their locations and their associations. She even missed the hard graft of grinding. No doubt her mysterious benefactor had saved her from sharing Kilda’s fate, but this ‘female friend’ to whom he’d delivered her was a tailor. And what did she know of tailoring?
“I am trusting you,” the tailor had said – which was somewhat belied by the fact that after two and a half weeks she still hadn’t revealed her name. “The key to tailoring is in the pressing. And here I am instructing you to it.”
She wouldn’t trust Eshe with her name, but the secrets of her tailor’s were readily given.
The tailor showed her the bucket for water. Made from the cartilage of a marine amphib, it weighed very little, even when full – which was as well for it was Eshe’s job now to continually refresh it from the well outside in the yard. And that yard, giving onto the wide Western Way, did nothing to instil in her a sense of safety.
The tailor then slapped a long fabric roll into Eshe’s hand. Made of fine-weave hemp, it was packed with sand. Too quick for Eshe to take them in, the tailor showed her an array of other stuffed shapes that she called ‘hams’. Eshe assumed they were named for the said joint of meat which they closely resembled.
“The garment is laid over the ham. So.” The tailor showed her. “See how the seam now sits high. Open it—so—with your thumb. All along. But you cover only a little each time with the pressing cloth—and it should not be wet, but wrung out and damp. So.” It was that pressing cloth that caused the slime, requiring a constant supply of fresh water. “Then select the required flat iron.” Easy enough for the tailor to say, but there were five different sizes and widths, each kept hot on an ‘iron stove’.
Tailoring, as Eshe soon discovered, was ruinous of a woman’s hair. Eshe’s was naturally a nest of curls – and that was task enough to untangle on a windy day. Now it was a frizzy mess. The tailor gave her a hat to cover it, and to hide the fact she’d no man’s plait. But she couldn’t wear it while pressing. It was far too hot. And so it was always ‘on’ and ‘off’ as she went to fetch water and returned to more pressing.
The tailor also provided Eshe with men’s clothing. Nothing elegant. Coarse jasckte-wool brecks that scratched her legs and itched like crazy when, in the humidity of hot irons and damp cloths, she started to sweat. And a drab maroon shirt that was more of a smock, the cotton imported from Luban. Eshe had then to bind her breasts despite they weren’t bigger than poached eggs.
It struck Eshe as odd that in the two and half weeks she had been with the tailor she had yet to see the benevolent man who had warned her and brought her to here. But then, when visitors called, Eshe was shooed out to the back room.
She’d not seen Trefan, either. Her feelings were divided on that. If Trefan didn’t know where she was then neither did Kalamite. Yet she longed for the comfort of Trefan’s arms.. On those occasions she ended up fretting. He had forgotten her, he didn’t care, he had only been toying with her. At such times she felt alone and deserted. It was then that she’d ask why she still was there in Lecheni-town. Was it really because one deranged man wanted her dead? (He couldn’t be sane.) But it seemed so long now that she’d even forgotten why he’d pursued her. Wasn’t it something to do with a conspiracy with Trefan? Yet according to Kilda, Trefan had been released.
Kilda: Kilda was dead—killed for having helped her. When her thoughts arrived at that there always followed the same conclusion. There was something happening here, something more than she’d been told, something she’d somehow become tangled in
And another bucket of water slopped by her feet. She ought to be quick and take it in, to hide again in the black thatched house. Yet instead she turned back. A second look towards the gate. Something, out there on the road, had snagged at her eye.
She told herself, no, it couldn’t be, as soon as she’d asked it but . . . was that Jonesi? But what would Jonesi be doing here in Lecheni? Yet that black hair—not unknown in Rothi yet certainly rare. And with the white wings at the temple, it was distinctive. So too was that short scrawny body. Eshe left the bucket and ran to the gate.
But, so confused her emotions, she was slow to call out though she waved with both hands high in the air. “Hi!” she shouted. Boddy was with him. “Boddy! Yoo! Boddy! Jonesi!”
A hand clamped over her mouth. Vicious fingers dug into her flesh. The tailor though short was deceptively strong. She pulled Eshe back from the gate and pushed her, fingers prodding into her back, back into the house.
“Cruds and termites, woman, you jert! Hide you, he says, and I risk my throat, whilst you—nix ‘n’ nay!” She threw up her hands in exasperation. She turned round several times. “Why not stand in the Way and declare you are here? Nicky’s Curses couldn’t be worse. I tell my friend, now, to take you away.”
Eshe accepted the tailor was right to reprimand her. But Boddy, what was Boddy doing here in Lecheni? Had he come to find her? Was her father now worried? No matter what the tailor had said, she must go seek him. After all, why this disguise if she remains hidden? But she’d be quieter this time. No waving her arms and shouting. And no one will recognise her, not dressed as a man. But she would wait. That’s it, wait till the next time she went to fetch water. Then sneak away.
Jonesi looked up at the warison. “Citadel Lecheni, meet Boddy Felagi,” he introduced them with appropriate flourishes. “Boddy Felagi, meet Citadel Lecheni.”
‘Great, yeah, fine, I’m impressed. And I’ve seen the scars in our Ridge where they hacked out the stones. And this is to be my new home?” He couldn’t help the sourness. He sighed. Heavily. He hoped Disa would be worth it.
“Oh Boddy Felagi whines, forgetting how strange to Rothi eyes his Raselstad’s Hub with its skirt of shrines.”
Boddy stretched his mouth to a smile. But his lips were elastic and they soon again pursed. Yet Jonesi was trying. Yeah zo, but wasn’t he trying too. Yet to live in a citadel stinking with Murky’s Curse? Natzo. And anyway, as if this Breken Lafard-Legere would consent to the wedding. He may as well turn and go home.
And where is your home, Boteras Felagi, if not here, Heir of Shore House?
Spew on it, Roo. I was happy enough before I knew it.
You were not! You barely balanced.
So I must come to here? Else what? I’ll fall off the beam?
Boddy heaved a second sigh. “Yeah, right, Jonesi. So now comes the job of finding her House.”
“Hey-zo? Wasn’t Ryal Holde bold-er ’nuff to tell you?”
Boddy winced. “Curses, Jonesi, you’ve left your best rhymes in Luban. And though Ryal listed the Houses, he didn’t tell me how to find hers.”
“Mayhap the red lafdi’s secluded bower is in that sparkling white tower.” They’d seen the tower from a distance, above the warison. But close to, now, and that same warison hid it.
“In one of the five white towers,” Boddy corrected him. “But I‘d say the tower is more likely her ward-holder’s hall – this Gowen Sivator she spoke of. She said of him tending Daabian plants in the Tower’s garden.”
They entered through the west gate. Barely through it and Boddy stood, transfixed.
“Yeah zo! Accursed or not, that tower has elegance. Delicate too, despite its construction. Yet looking around me . . .” Boddy turned, and turned, his opinion developing on his face. “. . . that tower is out of place here. It’s like someone has planted it in an ill-suited garden. Yeah zo, it would sit more at ease in Raselstad.”
His eyes followed the line of the tiled curtain wall. He assumed the structure ran the full circle. Above the wall, his eyes found the central tower and tracked up it. And up it, and up it. The tower rose to some incredible height. Buttressed, he supposed, by those—were they wooden?—arched struts. But, wowzah, how precious and magical those towers would look at dawn in the sun’s golden rays . How mysterious, too, when bathed in Medusa’s red light. Truly, he didn’t want to move on. He just wanted to stand there, no eyes for the other buildings in the citadel close. Though fancily painted they were dull in comparison.
Jonesi nudged him. “Gawking won’t find you the lafdi, Boddy Felagi.”
“Hmm.” With a sigh of reluctance he tore away his eyes. “Pictures of hinds, that’s House Eland. Trees, that’s Greystone House. So, great, yeah, fine, Jonesi. We need only to find a House painted with shores.”
“Yea,” Jonesi said. “And when before did you see a shore?”
“Luant estuary: that looks to me like a sea.”
“Ho-oh, Boddy; he likens the estuary to the sea. But he’s not seen the sea to know if it’s like the estuary.”
“Yeah, fine. Point taken,” Boddy conceded, defeated by the abundance of seas. “So we’ll look for the picture that doesn’t fit the others.”
“To quote a playwright of my unmistaken acquaintance: ‘Yeah, great, fine.’ So tell me,” Jonesi asked, “what are these others? Only, Boddy Felagi, you keep much to yourself. All these days walking when you could have been talking.”
“Yea, yea, yea, moan, moan, moan, moan. Leave it for another day, hey. What, you think I’m been missing Uncle Elect?” But all the same Boddy listed the Houses as Ryal had given them. “Shore House, yeah, you know that one. Rams House, Two Boars and House Eland. Runman House and, behind us there, Greystone—and don’t ask why the trees, just Ryal said it was so. Um, how many is that? Six? So there’s another six yet. Ah, yeah. There’s Dormir House, Witan House, the Law Court—not really a house—the Treasury which apparently once was a house—how many is that?”
“There should be two more.”
“Yeah zo, what have I missed? Ah, the Guard House – which is also the barracks. I suppose we’ll know that, it’ll be painted with weapon. And . . . rats, what’s the other one?. Well, anyway, let’s split the task. You circle one way, I’ll circle the other, and, hey, we’ll meet the far side of this massive white feast.”
But before either had taken more than two steps, Boddy stopped. “Jonesi . . . have you noticed how quiet it is here? I feel like we’re trespassing.”
Keefer-Papa of the Runman Order
Aiya, was a man never to be allowed his prayers? I beg your forgiveness, he beseeched his mother, his lover, his queen, for my ill-temper.
“What?” he snapped at Honning.
“Begging forgiveness, Papa Hadd, but that babbling old holde, Matikkas, he seeks an audience. He says it is urgent, to hurry, to please come.”
“He said no more than this?”
“Nix, Papa Hadd. No other words.”
“Aiya, aiya.” Kalamite huffed in irritation. “So tell him to meet me by the Red Tower’s gate. Run, if it’s urgent, sprat—run.”
It would be less private at the gate than in his subterranean cubby but, unless Gowen Hadd was displaying his ghastly plants to some gawking visitor, they ought to be unoverheard and undisturbed. He had a feeling—nix! more than a feeling—that he knew why Matikkas sought him. This was the last of the Maiden’s days, thence began the Witan’s. That left eleven days more for Murag’s agent to appear and declare. Aiya, he would lay good gold on him having come early, enticed—winkled out, so to speak—by Lecheni’s continued hold of the spy.
Satisfied that his machination was playing out as planned, Kalamite wound his way around the tower. Twelve flights up, aiya! He wasn’t so young. These were three too many when in a hurry. Before he’d reached the top he already was gasping. Then out onto the walkway. So high above the shielding warison, the wind blew strong. But Kalamite had traversed the arching walkways every day since a toddling child. He was used to its sway. Still, he held the skirts of his coat close about him. Then down and down the nine narrow ladders.
Aiya, how fast Honning’s feet, that he could tread the same route, and farther— to the runman’s Purple Chamber—and fetch the reporting Matikkas, and be back here at the Red Tower, waiting for him. And Honning was no lean man; he was flab-bound.
Kalamite nodded for him to leave them. He drew Matikkas deeper into the shadowed arch.
“Papa Hadd.” The ancient holde lowered his head.
Humh, belated respect from him. “Spill,” Kalamite prompted.
“Your man has arrived.”
“Are you certain?” But, aiy, he had already known it.
“I heard him talking to his companion. He said of Raselstad. And then of the citadel: ‘Soon this will be my home.’ I heard him make mention of Ryal, too. You were right, they are conspiring together. And – mayhap this makes some sense to you – he said of Wood Tower being some red lafdi’s bower.”
Kalamite all but swooned, his hand held to his red-stained lips. “Tell me, quickly, what is his colour?”
Aiya, how the old holde tarried, scratching his head as if to disturb the answer there. “He was dark, Papa Hadd. Dark as a Javan.”
“Nixnixnix! That’s not what I meant—unless there was something unusual in that.”
“Aye, well,” Matikkas said, unperturbed, “he weren’t as dark as some Javans seen.”
“His clothing, drip-head, what of his clothing?”
“For clothing?” Aiya, must Matikkas take so long with his answer. “Your man wears only a shirt and brecks—he must be freezing for that shirt looks to be silk.”
“The colour, your lorellish drip-headed jert, the colour?”
“Peace, Papa Hadd. Getting agitated is bad for the bladder—or I’m told. His shirt, you ask? That was red—a distinct colour red. I tell you what, it were the exact same colour as the Shore House woman—her hair, red as her hair. Did you know that woman returned here last night?”
“I thank you for the information, Matikkas, though, aiy, I do know.” He would deal with her later – he still was waiting for inspiration. She oughtn’t to be here. A certain person would shortly be short of his gonads. “Now hush a moment,” he told Matikkas, “while I think.”
There was no doubt of it, the red-shirted stranger was the expected one, the intrusive Raseltop, as foretold by the Events Map. And he, unless stopped, would join with Rubel.
Nix! Not with my lover, my mother, my queen!
He could feel the bristles along his back rising. His lip curled into a savage snarl. Was he shapeshifting into a hound? Aiy, he had heard of such a phenomenon. Happily he’d assume that form, a hound, a guard upon his lover. For this red-shirted stranger, this Raseltop, this Murag’s agent, wasn’t to have his beloved Rubel, his queen, his lover, she who, incarnate in human form, had given birth to him. Aiy, sweet red Rubel, who day and night gave him suck upon her red nippled beads. Communion, ecstatic, erotic – and his alone to savour.
This other, this intruder, this red Raseltop, steeped in Murag’s blood, must die. For no other would ever touch his lover.
“Aiy,” he told Matikkas. “It is him. Nix, don’t rush away. I have just the way to be rid of him.”
~ ~ ~