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I hate you, Sorren thought at the ocean.
The summer air, heavy with salt, made her tired. The money bracelet which Arré had given her for shopping had left a red line on her arm. Behind her on the dock, the stink of fish steamed upward like smoke. Sails bobbed in the bay. An empty cart bounced by her, pulled by a weary gray mule. Flounder, she reminded herself. Flounder in four days.
She walked through the market, past vendors and shops and stalls, to the familiar slope of the hill. The ocean winked at her back, brassy as a plate. Shop banners hung limply in the windless morning. The cobbled streets were hot, but Sorren barely felt it through the tough calluses on her feet. By the time she reached the hilltop, she was plodding, and her cotton shirt stuck to her back and breasts.
She paused before the Med gate to gaze over the city. The red dome of the Tanjo shone at its heart. South the ocean seethed and glittered, speckled with the fishing fleet's yellow sails. East and west of the city lay the cotton fields. She could not see the pickers with their great sacks over their shoulders, but she knew they were there. North were the vineyards, out of which she had come seven years back. She had only gone back twice to visit, the first time to show off her new clothes, the second time for her mother's burial. She arrived too late, and said her farewells by the grave, trying to recall clearly what her mother had looked like. That had been four years ago. Now when she tried to, she could not even remember the outline of her mother's face.
The big blue building to the east, beside the river bank, was the hall of the Blue Clan. Blue banners waved before it, and from shops and stalls and carts small blue flags declared their owners to be members of the Guild in good standing. The carts that carried wine barrels from the Med vineyards to the city had blue streamers on them. Beyond the vineyards lay the Galbareth Fields, where the grain grew; beyond the grain lay the steppe-and the mountains. Sorren closed her eyes a moment, and they loomed in her mind, hard and gray and incorruptible, the way they sometimes loomed in her dreams.
But there were no mountains near Kendra-on-the-Delta. Sorren opened her eyes. The stone from which the Tanjo was built had come from the Red Hills, through Shanan and the Asech country, a long journey, days and days away.
She turned to the gate. The gate guard was watching her from his post near the shade of the kava fruit tree.
"Good day," she said.
He grunted. His dark red shirt was damp with sweat. He had laid his spear down on the stone. She wondered what Paxe would say if she came suddenly from the Yard, and saw her guard without his spear.
"Hot," she said.
"Yes," said the guard.
The green peel of a kava fruit lay in the gutter like a piece of green cloth. All the guards ate the kava fruit when they were on gate duty, but this guard-he was young, with a small sandy mustache-had not yet learned to kick the peel out of sight. He was not going to open the gate for her, either. She reached to do it herself. He changed his mind and reached, too, and their fingers touched. His were sticky.
She walked through the iron gate. "Thank you," she said.
He grunted again. The guards were never sure how to treat her. She was a bondservant, but half the time Arré treated her as if she were her daughter ... and there was Paxe.
The gate closed. She strolled across the courtyard. Flowers grew along the sides of the path, drooping in the heat. As always, the pattern of the courtyard tile intrigued her. She paced along one edge of the figure. The blue triangle on the red field was uneven. She wondered if the artist who had designed the courtyard had made it so deliberately.
As she got to the front door, it opened, and a man strode out. They bounced off each other. More for balance than for courtesy, Sorren went down on one knee.
His perfume was familiar. She squinted. It was indeed Isak. It was harvest month; why was he not at the vineyards, overseeing the picking? "I'm sorry, my lord," she said.
He smiled at her. "Sorren." His soft voice always reminded her of a cat's purr. He wasn't angry, of course. Isak never grew angry. "Be more careful, child. You would not wish to topple one of our august Council members, would you?"
"No," she said.
"Of course not." Brushing his ringed hand over her head, he strolled across the courtyard to the gate. Sorren rose. Her left knee hurt, and she rubbed it. Isak spoke a moment with the gate guard; the sunlight glistened on his blue silk tunic. She wondered if he was telling the man to pick up his spear.
His muscles had felt hard as tile under the shirt. Now Arré would be in a bad mood; she was always cranky after she talked to Isak.
She went into the house. It took a moment for her eyes to grow used to the darkness. The long, cool hall smelled of lilies. A lacquered vase of them stood on a little table beneath the statue of the Guardian. This statue was new; it had been made by the sculptor Ramath, the same sculptor who had directed the making of the big image in the Tanjo. Sorren bowed toward the image. Stone lips smiled at her. Stone eyes gleamed.
She wondered what had happened to the old statue. Surely, she thought, you could not break it, as you might break an old unwanted pot. That would be disrespectful to the chea. She listened for the sound of Arré's voice from the workroom. This morning Arré had planned to meet with her surveyors, to discuss their blueprints for enlarging some streets. But she heard nothing. She peered into the large parlor. Elith was there, dusting, mumbling to herself as she passed the cloth over the wall screens.
Elith was old, fat as a feather mattress, and deaf, but she had been Arré Med's mother's personal maid, and Arré kept her on. Sorren raised her voice. "Elith! Do you know where she is?"
The old woman turned slowly. "Kitchen."
Sorren went to the kitchen. All the windows and doors were open, with nets across them to keep out flies, but the big room was hot, hotter than the market. Arré was there, talking to the cook. She turned as Sorren entered. "Well? What did the fishmonger say?"
Sweat jumped on Sorren's upper lip; she rubbed it. "The fishmonger said that he could not get you perch, but he could get flounder."
"Flounder will do."
"That's what I told him."
"How do you want it fixed?" said the cook.
"I don't care. Not too spicy, that's all. Marti can't eat spiced meat."
Marti Hok was one of the Councillors. The flounder was for the Council meeting. The cook nodded and started calling to the apprentices. Sorren recalled her own time in the kitchen. She had hated it. Once she fainted, to everyone's disgust. The other scullions teased her for weeks for being afraid of blood, but it had not been the blood that had made her faint, but the heat. It was worse than the heat in the grapefields. Maybe it had been the heat and the smells combined. She was sensitive to smells, and there were always too many of them in the kitchen.... No wonder cooks threw things.
Arré was wearing white. It made her skin look darker than it was. The heat furled her hair into small curls. Her hair was almost as short as Paxe's, but the texture was different, and her curls were striped with gray. She jerked her head at Sorren. "Come," she said, and marched out of the tiled kitchen. In the cooler corridor they both leaned on the wall.
Arré said, "I think it gets hotter every summer." She squared her shoulders. Her eyes glinted upward. "I'm glad it's you doing the shopping, and not me."
Sorren grinned at the thought of Arré Med, Councillor of Kendra-on-the-Delta, head of the Med family, buying flounder on the docks.
"What are you smiling at?" said Arré irritably.
"I was thinking how surprised the fishmonger would be."
"Wipe your face," said Arré. She started down the hall. "And don't laugh at me."
She was cranky. Sorren wiped her sleeve across her lip. Arré went into the small parlor. It was her workroom and sitting room. It faced south; by day its walls were bright, sundrenched. Its inner walls, like those of the large parlor, were made of screens. The outside wooden wall was hung with a woolen tapestry, all reds and blues. The dyes for the wool came from the Asech country; no other dyes made such brilliant and durable colors. The floor was wooden and unmatted. Sunlight fell in bright streaks across it. The lines of the grain gleamed. Arré sat in her cushioned chair. Sorren stood by the door. The older woman glanced at her. "Sit down," she said, pointing to the footstool. "I need to talk." Obediently Sorren sat. A lacquer table stood at the right side of the chair, its red and black surface shining in the sun. Against the wall, a glass-faced case held a rack of scrolls: the Med accounts. Once a month, a scribe came from the Black Clan-not a Scholar, they did not do such mundane work-and went over them for error, under Arré's watchful eyes. Arré had no steward; it seemed unnecessary in a household which consisted of herself and her servants. She did the bookkeeping.
"Did you see Isak?" she asked.
Sorren nodded. "We met at the gate." Arré's face was taut, as it always was when she talked about her brother. Silver bracelets, two on each arm, clinked as she folded her hands in her lap. The largest bracelet had a blue jewel in it. "What did he want?"
Arré grimaced. "Whatever he can get."
"But it's harvest. He should be at the fields."
"Nonsense. Myra manages the vineyards better than he ever could, or cares to." Myra was Isak's wife. "He asked to dance for the Councillors."
"Did you say yes?"
Arré's hands flew apart. They were big on her small frame, ungraceful, not pretty hands. Isak had pretty hands. "He's the finest dancer in the city-how could I refuse?"
Even Arré admitted that Isak could dance. It was his gift, his art, as administration was hers, and perhaps his passion, or one of them. He had been trained to it by Meredith of Shanan, who had been trained by Berenth of Shanan, who learned it from his mother Jenézia of Shanan, and she, every city child knew, had danced with Kel of Elath. It was his right to wear the shariza, the red scarf of the cheari, but, with greater delicacy than he usually showed, he chose not to. Sorren had asked him about it once. "The old chearis were trained in arms and in the warrior arts," he said. "I am not."
"Why not?" she asked.
"War is uncivilized; you know that," he had answered. "It's a crudity better left to soldiers. Besides, the wearing of blades is forbidden in Kendra-on-the-Delta."
But he danced the role of the warrior well enough. Sorren pattered her hands on her knees. "Does he want me to play for him?"
"We haven't had time to practice."
"It won't matter. Do something you both know. Anything."
Sorren had drummed for Isak for four years, the first year only at small parties, but the next year at the Festivals: Harvest Feast, Spring Feast, the Feast of the Founding of the City. "I guess...."
"It won't matter. He won't care what he does, as long as he can get near the meeting."
Isak's political ambitions and Arré's contempt for them were no secret in her household. But, Sorren thought, that isn't fair. Isak does care about his dancing. She had watched him practice for hours, while sweat poured from him and his lungs heaved for breath, till anyone with less discipline would have stopped, rested, poured water on his head, something. His muscles were like Paxe's, smooth and stretched, and he moved with the same kind of economy, but with more grace.
"What are you thinking about?" Arré demanded.
Sorren blushed. She did not want to say, of Paxe; it seemed crass. "Being graceful," she said.
Arré Med laughed. "Never mind it," she said. She was a small woman, built like Isak. Though the stool Sorren sat on was lower than Arré's chair, when Sorren straightened their eyes met on the level. "You don't need to be graceful. People notice you anyway."
Sorren said, "That's because I'm tall, and pale." She frowned at her light skin. In the hottest sun, it refused to brown; instead, it turned an ugly and uncomfortable red. She touched her hair, which was long, and the color of wheat. "I would rather be dark, like Paxe."
"Dark is the fashion now," said Arré. "But never regret your height. We small folk find other ways to make people notice us. Like Isak."
People always noticed Isak. If they didn't, he made them. He could turn heads in a crowd faster than anyone. But people noticed Arré, too.
"Will you need something new to wear?" Arré said.
"When you play for Isak, at the Council meeting." Arré tapped the chair arm. "Pay attention, child."
"I'm sorry," Sorren said. Reminded, she slipped the money bracelet from her arm and held it out. Arré took it, her fingers automatically counting the remaining shell pieces. "No, I have enough clothes."
"If you want something, just ask." Arré grinned like an urchin in a street fight. "Isak will pay for it."
A light tapping on the screen made her look around. Lalith stood in the doorway. She was thirteen, lithe and little and brown-skinned. Arré had picked her from the vineyards in the same way she had picked Sorren, and brought her to live and work in the house. "The cook sent me to bring you this," she said. She held out a bowl.
"Well," Arré said, "bring it here! What is it?" Lalith gave it to her. It was a dish of berries with sweet cream poured over them. Arré had a notorious sweet tooth. "Thank you, child."
"And this came." Lalith extended a letter. The wax seal had a crest on it.
Arré ripped it open. She scanned the writing and her dark eyes frowned. "When did this come?" she said.
"Just now. A servant brought it." Lalith shifted from one foot to the other.
"Bah." Arré put the letter down on the lacquered table top. "From Boras Sul," she said. "To inform me that he is ill and cannot come to the Council meeting, he regrets, thank you, my dear Arré." She waved at Lalith to leave, and picked up the bowl of fruit. "He will send his son, who is even more of an idiot than he is. Bah."
Sorren said, "Maybe he is ill?"
"Maybe he eats too much," Arré said contemptuously. Boras Sul was very fat.
Sorren ran a thumb along the smooth lacquer. "I can find out."
"The servants' mail?" said Arré. Sorren nodded. "Don't bother. Save it for something important. Tell the cook that Boras will not be at the Council dinner. Go on. I don't need you."
The letter had brought back her ill temper. Sorren left her alone to work it out. She went to the kitchen to tell the cook. He was playing the pebble game across the cutting board with Kaleb, the night watch captain, Paxe's second-in-command. She watched the design form on the grid.
She told him about Boras Sul, and he shrugged. "Thought it was bad news," he commented. "That's why I fixed the berries."
"I don't think it helped," Sorren said.
"Too bad," said the cook. Kaleb moved a pebble three spaces, and he scowled. "Don't lean on the board," he said to Sorren.
She had not been leaning on the board. She wondered if Paxe had seen Isak arrive. She glanced at Kaleb. Like her, he was from outside the city; he was Asech, brown and high-cheekboned, with stones set in his ears. "Is the Yardmaster in the Yard?" she asked.
Without lifting his eyes from the board, he nodded.
* * *
Outside the house, the heat fell on her again. She went swiftly through the rear courtyard. The tile here was a different pattern than in front of the house. The paths were lined with sour apple trees. She marched under the spreading, blossom-laden branches. There were petals scattered over the tiles. At the end of the row of trees, she balanced on one leg and picked the petals first off one, then off the other foot. Lalith swept the petaled tiles every morning, and three hours later they were pink again. She continued toward the Yard. The gate to it was on the other side, but she was not going in; she couldn't, not being a soldier. When she came to the high red wooden fence she pulled herself up and sat on the top.
From this vantage point she could see the whole Yard, from the gate to the weapons shed. There were perhaps twenty people in the Yard. They stood in a circle around a small moving human knot. The center of the knot was Paxe. Six guards ranged around her. They dived at her, and she dodged and waved and turned, throwing them easily, keeping two paces ahead of their steps, lunging at them to toss them when their tired steps slowed.
Excerpted from The Northern Girl by Elizabeth A. Lynn. Copyright © 1980 Elizabeth A. Lynn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 1, 2011
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