The paper was wrinkled and torn down one side; the ink was smudged, and the lines weren’t exactly steady. There was something that looked sort of like a street, but it looked like this street only if you already knew that it was. The little square blocks on both sides were buildings, but there was only one of them labeled at all . . .
Steffie watched sidelong while Gwen, her arms all full of dirty dishes, looked from the paper up to the face of the steerswoman. “It’s a map,” Gwen answered to the question she’d just been asked.
“I can see that,” the steerswoman said. “But what I cannot see is what it is for.”
“Mira carried it,” Steffie put in. He went back to sweeping, bringing up a cloud of dust off the old rag rug. “All the time. She said it helped her find her way.”
“To the tavern.”
The steerswoman blinked at him. “The tavern,” she said, “is around the corner.”
“Well, yes.” He grinned and kicked up the carpet’s edge. “I guess she mostly used it to get back from the tavern, of an evening. When she’d had a few, see? She used to make a big show of pulling it out, and say, ‘When you can’t tell where you’re going, get a Steerswomen’s map.’ And that since she was a steerswoman herself, and she made that map, she could always trust it to get her home.”
That got him a blank stare. And then the steerswoman shook her head and sighed through her nose. “Well.” She looked at the map again. “I suppose Mira must have been a steerswoman—” and then she looked up and around at the room “—but I can’t help myself doubting it.”
Too damn right, Steffie thought—except, the other way around.
Gwen traded a glance with Steffie, like she was thinking just what he was thinking, and then carried off her dishes. The steerswoman gave up on the map and went back to sifting through the piles of loose papers on the table. And Steffie kept on sweeping.
When the news had gotten around town that there was a steers-woman at the Annex again, everyone was glad enough. What with old Mira gone, it had been like there was a big hole right in the middle of Alemeth. And even though the new steerswoman said she could only stay for a little while, people pretty much expected things to go back to normal.
But the last thing Gwen and Steffie expected was to be put to work.
Steffie stopped at the edge of the rug, wondering if it would be enough to just sweep away the dirt that showed on top; but with a whole day of the new steerswoman’s company behind him, he figured Better Not, put the broom aside, and set to rolling the thing up. Gwen clattered the last load of dishes into the tin bathtub and said, not being quiet about it, “If you find any more than these, I won’t wash them!”
The steerswoman didn’t even look up from the worktable. “If we find any more,” she said, in exactly the same kind of voice, “throw them away!”
Gwen snatched up a bucket and went to the front door, growling to Steffie as she passed him, “If I’d wanted to wash dishes, I’d have stayed at home.”
Steffie watched her go, then tried to shift the rolled rug to the back door by kicking it along the floor. No good: it was too heavy. He gave up and hefted the thing over one shoulder and carried it out, coughing from the dust in his face and trailing bits of dirt behind, some of which were big enough to rattle when they hit.
Just before he reached the door, he heard the steerswoman mutter, “It’s just as well Mira and I never met. I’m sure we wouldn’t approve of each other.”
That was for sure, Steffie thought.
Outside, the yard was the same old tangle of weeds, cast-off furniture, and broken crockery. The only clear area was the muddy path to the outhouse. It crossed through three different permanent puddles; whenever she used the path, Mira had always put on a pair of huge, old boots that she kept on the back stairs just for that.
The boots were still there, crusted with dry mud. Steffie sat down beside them.
Crazy old woman, he thought. He missed her. Steffie had been just a tyke when he’d first heard about how a steerswoman always has to answer whatever question you ask, no matter what. Seemed funny, so he decided to test it out, just to see. So he walked right up to old Mira, in the middle of the street, and started asking her every personal question he could think of—all the nasty and rude things that make a little boy snicker but no grown-up in her right mind would ever answer.
But Mira had just looked him straight in the eye and answered each and every one—some of them at length and with lots of details—while her friends stood by laughing and making saucy remarks, which Mira didn’t mind one bit, either. Pretty soon it was little Steffie who was squirming, going red as a petunia, and finally fleeing.
Except, he came back. And he kept coming back. He followed her like a shadow.
The next thing he knew, here he was, all grown up to twenty-one years, still spending most of every day at the Annex. And what kept him coming back was Mira.
No one else was like Mira. No one was as honest or as unafraid. She did not care at all what people thought about her. She kept her house a mess; and she ate and drank what she liked, carried on, and talked about things no decent old woman would think of. She used to say that she had spent most of her life being decent and working hard, and she was tired of it. She figured she had earned the right to have some fun.
Sometimes someone would get Mira to talk of her times on the road; and Steffie had to admit that the way Mira told it, it didn’t sound very nice: being cold and often hungry, usually alone, and always with work to do, never any real rest. And often in the middle of talking, her voice would trail off, and she’d look off into the distance or down at the ground, sort of sad and far away—
Then she’d suddenly jump up—they were usually in the tavern—grab someone, like old Brewer, and haul him out to the floor. Then skinny Belinda would pull out her fiddle; Brewer’s fat son would start clapping a rhythm; Janus, so usually quiet and courtly, would start making up the most scurrilous lyrics—and the two old people would set to dancing, stamping their rickety bones around the floor, always off the beat, and everyone laughing, Mira the loudest of all . . .
For as long as Steffie had been alive, it was Mira who lived in the Annex, and it was Mira and Mira’s ways that meant “steerswoman.”
He couldn’t figure out this Rowan person at all.
The rug was still slung on his shoulder. He heaved it off into the yard, and it thumped to the ground in a cloud of dust. Out in the light of day, he could see it was hopeless. It would be a job of a year to get it clean. He gave it up.
When he came back into the room, he felt at first that it was altogether empty, like a snail shell found on the beach, its little dweller dead and gone. It was proper for it to be empty.
But there was that Rowan, sitting at the worktable as Mira never did, poring over those books, as Mira never had done. It felt wrong; it felt like an insult.
She did have the right to be there. This was the Annex, and she was a steerswoman: so she said, and she wore the little gold chain and the twisty silver ring, like they all did. But she did not look like a steerswoman to Steffie, not at all; she looked dangerous.
She sat at the old table, where the sun slanted down, dusty, through the high front windows. There was a pile of loose papers on the table and three stacks of books, each book looking exactly like the others, all bound in red leather.
Her right hand was on top of the papers, holding them down, and that hand was splotched with ink stains, new ones and old ones to- gether. Her left hand, the one with the silver ring, was holding the book open; that hand looked like it had been through a little war all by itself, because it had small scars crisscrossed all over it, maybe a dozen of them.
Her short hair looked like it had been trimmed with a knife; and it was a dry, harsh yellow on top, darker under. Her skin was sunburned and weather rough. And at first Steffie had thought her much older than he, from the lines about her eyes. But close up, you could see that the wrinkles weren’t real—just pale lines on darker skin, as if she had spent a long time squinting into the distance against bright sunlight. She looked like a woman from a land with no shadows.
And there was something about the way she sat, too, forward from the back of her chair, both her feet on the ground. It was like she figured she might need to move somewhere else quick, and she thought she should stay ready. Except, not really thinking about it, because her mind was all on her work, you could see that from her face. So it was like her body had a mind all its own, and by itself it made her sit that way, all ready to go, just in case.
And that sword—seemed like her body really wanted to keep that sword nearby. One time Rowan was reading at the table, got up with the book still in her hand, went to the sword where it leaned against the hearth, brought it back, and laid it right down on the table in front of her—and never stopped reading once all that time. It was spooky.
It was like some kind of instinct. It was like she had taught her body to take over and protect her whenever her mind was busy someplace else.
It made Steffie queasy to watch her. It made him remember that there were places out in the world where life was not safe.
But he did watch her—he just couldn’t help it, it was all so odd—so now, when the front door opened with a bang and the steerswoman looked up, Steffie saw that her hand went right to the hilt of her sword, slung on the back of her chair. He couldn’t help wondering what trouble it was that her body, if not her head, expected.
But it was only Gwen, lugging the bucket she’d filled from the well out in the square and trailing a half dozen children of all different ages, each toting a jar or pot. “I found help,” Gwen said gruffly, and she led her helpers in like a stream of ducklings up to the hearth, where each one added to the cauldron.
The steerswoman had a way of smiling that happened in two steps, almost too quickly to separate: first her eyes, then her mouth. It was when her mouth smiled that her hand left the sword, and Steffie was surprised to see a big grin.
She liked the children; you could tell. “Thank you so much,” she said to them, like they were each special. “That’s very helpful.”
They shuffled their feet, made shy smiles, then lined up in front of her, waiting.
Rowan glanced at Gwen. “They’re expecting a reward,” Gwen told her.
“I see . . .”
One girl spoke up. “Mira used to give us sweets.”
Rowan winced. “Are there any on hand?”
“None,” Steffie said.
“Beer!” She leaned back in her chair. “Are the people of Alemeth in the habit of giving their children beer?”
“Yes,” Gwen answered straight off, and Steffie nodded along. And there was plenty on hand, since Brewer had taken to sending over Mira’s usual daily ration, which Rowan hardly touched.
But you have to be honest with a steerswoman. “Well,” Steffie said, “I guess really, it depends on the parents . . . Some do and some don’t . . .”
Rowan nodded and turned back to the children. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you beer unless I know that your parents approve. But here—” She shuffled the papers before her, found one that was blank, and began to fold it. It grew smaller and smaller in her scarred and stained hands, until at last she held a little triangle.
“Like this.” She moved her hand: a sharp downward flick. The thing let out a sudden loud pop, and everyone jumped. The children shrieked and giggled, and nothing else would do but that Rowan make one for each child. Then the whole bunch of them boiled out into the street, snapping and popping like chestnuts in the hearth.
Rowan watched them go, smiling a little, like she was thinking of something similar but from long ago, or maybe very far away. “Well.” She turned back and looked down at her work, and her mouth twisted. “I’m getting nowhere with this.” She pulled the pages together, stacked the books, and stood up. “I think I have time to see about organizing that second shelf. Gwen, please let me know when the water is ready. I can’t have you scrubbing all those dishes by yourself; you’ve done far too much already. I hardly know how to thank you.” She turned away and took a half dozen steps toward the aisles of dusty bookshelves that filled the rest of the room, then stopped. She looked like she thought something might be lurking back there, and frankly Steffie didn’t blame her.
He took the chance to say, “I think we should give up on that rug. Just chuck it out.”
“It’s just as well,” the steerswoman replied, sort of far-off. “Unfortunately, we can’t chuck out the entire house.”
Steffie jumped at a clang from the bathtub. Gwen had kicked it. “Mira liked things just the way they are!” she declared.
In the space of that clang, Rowan had come back to her chair, putting her right next to her sword again. “I’m sure she did,” she said to Gwen, seeming not to notice where she was or how she got there, “but I don’t, and no good steerswoman would. However much you may have liked Mira, the truth is that she simply wasn’t doing her job.”