But the day’s work was not done yet. Even dead, a breeder resh was dangerous; if it were pregnant, the young would eat her hollow, then chew their way out. He had to jog back to the nest, and fetch one of the handmaidens to burn the corpse. Predictably, Kambuz chewed him out for leaving his post. He could have picked a bigger, more experienced man to watch the hole, of course, instead of a kid who’d hardly ever swung a sword before, and never for real. Oh, but those men were important …
By the time the whole ordeal was over, it was past noon. They had a long, hot, silent walk back to Urapu. Like most hearths, it nestled against the side of a river, whose yearly floods nourished its fields. Those fields were empty now—no welcome for victorious warriors. This bloom’s summer crop was too tall to fear weeds, but not nearly ready to harvest, or to tempt hearthless thieves. In a few weeks the watch would be patrolling night and day with long whips and slings; in a month the bondservants would be out with them, gathering in the barley. He could still see the patches the reshki had defiled in their attack, now charred black. They would miss the grain later.
Urapu proper was a little cluster of buildings, none more than two stories high, all made of local brown sandstone or mud brick inside a circular wall. The hearth’s fire was barely visible in the afternoon sunlight, just a bright spot atop the slender tower at its center. Tomorrow the it would be much more prominent, gleaming defiance against the baleful light of the white sun. The three handmaidens at the head of the line paused for a brief hymn to Haranduluz as soon as it came in sight. Ram followed suit, though there was enough of Father in him to feel ever-so-faintly rebellious about it.
After passing the one guard at the gate, and throwing anything potentially corrupted into the burn heap outside it—which included Ram’s shoes—the little party dispersed. None of them had far to go in a place as small as Urapu; there weren’t five hundred people in the whole community, and two thirds of those were servants on public bond, crammed together in the low tenements just inside the wall. A fit man could run from gate to tower in less than a minute.
Ram’s house was near the center of the hearth, close to the tower—which made it one of the nicest parts, even if the house itself wasn’t particularly large. The light from the fire shone into its courtyard strongly enough for them to stay out for a short time even on white days. They only had the house because of Father’s Council seat. A mason and a seamstress could never earn such a home on their own.
He paused in the vestibule to make himself more presentable. He was barefoot now, and sweaty, but he could at least comb his hair. The damp leather breastplate, sword, and shield he tugged off and tossed out beside the outer door. As hearth-issue gear, they could be the bondservants’ problem. His clothes underneath were hardly pleasant to look at, but he couldn’t do much about that.
The courtyard was pleasantly cool, shaded by the house’s bulk and the sprawling fig tree that sprouted from the corner. Mother, naturally, was at work at the little table in the center of it, sewing away at something tawny-colored with silver thread. The light from the tower speckled the courtyard through the gaps in the branches.
Father would be resting in their bedroom, through the doorway to the left. The hanging across it was a rich purple. Ram recognized it as Mother’s favorite, a gift from his sister Mana at Dul Karagi. Most of the time it was carefully packed away in their locked chest; Mother only got it out when she felt like celebrating, or when she badly needed cheering up. And there hadn’t been anything to celebrate lately.
“Be quiet, Rammash. Your father is sleeping.”
Mother hadn’t even looked up from her sewing when he came in. Yes, she was still angry with him. As usual, she was sitting in their only chair, a veritable throne of beautifully carved hardwood with good cushions. It had been a wedding gift from her parents, part of her legally-mandated dowry. They hadn’t spoken to her since. Ram quietly pulled back the far rougher bench from the opposite side of the little table, and slipped onto it. This put his head half a foot below hers. “Hello, Mother. The job went well.”
“Mind you stay out of my light,” she said by way of reply, still not looking at him. Definitely angry, even if her face was calm. Mother was thirty-two blooms old, and hardly looked it. Her curly black hair looked far better on her than it ever had on her son or daughter, and her face was unwrinkled. Today she wore her rust-brown dress with a darker brown mantle, and a matching kerchief atop her hair. Economical, but elegant. So very, very Mother.
He peered at the work. It had a silver sunburst on it—the sign of Haranduluz. “What is that, a new mantle for Erimana?” He only ever used his sister’s full name around Mother. You referred to a handmaiden by her full name or not at all, even if she was your eight-bloom-old sister and lived miles away.
“Yes,” Mother said. “She is growing out of the old one, and wearing it to tatters, they tell me. Keep your voice down, if you please.”
He hadn’t spoken any louder than she had. But he obediently murmured, “Are you going to ask me how it went?”
“No. I imagine it was an unpleasant business, and if anything had gone significantly wrong you would have had the sense to tell me before now. I congratulate you on surviving your ill-advised escapade.”
“They needed help, Mother.”
“Did they,” she replied, ostentatiously holding up the mantle to appraise her work. As a handmaiden in training, Mana only merited a drab ocher, not the brighter yellow that graced her grown sisters’ shoulders. “And I imagine you were very helpful to the effort. How many heads did you collect?”
“I killed one,” he retorted.
Now she looked at him, flicking a cynical brown eye over his body. “Without sustaining so much as a scratch, even. It must have been a ferocious creature indeed.” She’d certainly been worried, but he’d never get her to admit it. At least, not unless he admitted plainly that he’d been wrong to volunteer in the first place. Not worth it.
In the meantime, he had his regular chores to do, even if he wouldn’t be helping Father at work today. He got up from the table, thoughtlessly shoving the bench back as he did. It scraped against the tiles of the courtyard, terribly loud after their whispered conversation. He winced under Mother’s glower, then shut his eyes entirely as a loud groan came through the curtain to their left.
“Ram?” came a groggy voice. “Is that you?”
He looked to Mother, who frowned, but flicked her hand at him: You might as well, now. “Yes, Father.”
“Come on in where I can see you, boy.”
He’d honestly rather have stayed out with Mother’s acid tongue, but it wasn’t as if he had much choice in the matter. Father had called. With a brief bow to Mother, he pushed the curtain inside and went in.
The room’s lone high window was angled to face directly at the fire atop the tower of Haranduluz, to give its occupants the full life-giving benefit of its light. At present, the curtains had been pulled nearly shut so Father could rest, leaving only a single blinding sliver of light that struck Ram full in the face as he entered. It took his eyes a moment to adjust.
Father lay slanted across the low bed, looking as though he took up far more than the half of it he was due even with his right arm missing. He had on no shirt—possibly no breeches, either, under the sheets—so that it was hard to avoid looking at the heavily bandaged stump of his arm, shining white against the dim light. It wasn’t much better to look at his face; Ram couldn’t make out his father’s eyes between his ungroomed hair and thick beard. The room was close, and smelled of beer, sweat, and poppy-drenched pain tincture over (unless Ram was imagining it) the faintest lingering trace of blood. At least Mother had promptly switched out the chamber-pots.
For a long time, Father said nothing, only peered up sidelong from the bed. He’d been propped up on his left side, on the surgeons’ orders. In his present condition he could hardly move, and might not want to anyway.
“Have you rested well, Father?” Ram asked, just to kill the silence. With the amount of poppy they had him on, he could hardly do otherwise.
Father twisted his neck to look past the pitiful stump on his right shoulder. “I can still feel the fingers,” he complained. “All five of them. Tingling. How’s that work, huh?”
“I don’t know, Father.”
Father grunted, then squirmed in the bed. “Damn it, the other one doesn’t feel much better. Got all my weight on it.” Ram hurried to help, trying to reposition his father without putting a hand too close to the bandages. Last night the sheets had been drenched with blood; he felt an irrational terror that the slightest bump would set it bleeding again. “Ah. Better. Thanks.” He reached out with his one remaining arm for the stool beside the bed, where a clay beaker was still half-full with beer. Weak beer, a half-fermented slurry just strong enough to be sanitary and keep you going during a work day. Father had always preferred the strong kind, but that was out of the question, with everything else they had him on.
Father drained the cup at one swallow anyhow. “Did she leave the jug? No? Hell.” He squinted up at his son’s face. His eyes didn’t look focused—but then, the light was poor. “You all right, boy?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Ram said. “We took out the nest today.”
Father smiled. “We?”
“Yes, Father. I borrowed your gear, and went along. I killed one,” he added, on a vain impulse.
“Hah! That’s paid the bastards back for my arm, at least.” But the words caught in his throat. There was a trace of a sob in them. “They didn’t tag you, did they?”
“No, Father. I’m fine. Not a scratch.”
“Good. Good.” He blinked, and settled back against the pillows, breathing somewhat heavily. “Sun’s fire, but I’m out of shape. So. How’d it go? I’m sure you’re dying to tell me, boy.”
That wasn’t exactly true, but Ram couldn’t see any way out of it. So he did, trying to skate over the bit where he got knocked flat, and leaving out the resh’s small size. And the breasts. Father didn’t need to know about the breasts. Thankfully, he was still too woozy to notice the awkward pauses in his son’s story. Ram got up to the part where he went back for the corpse before he saw that his father had fallen asleep again. Then he tiptoed from the room.
When he got out, there was a bowl on the table next to Mother, with a chunk of cheese, some olives, and a handful of almonds in it. Next to it was another cup of weak beer, with the jug Father had wanted. Mother was adding a silver trim to the mantle’s edge, but looked up and nodded for him to sit as he came out.
“I don’t imagine they fed you, under the circumstances,” she remarked. “You missed lunch.”
“Thank you, Mother,” he said warily. He could tell from her face that she was still unhappy with him. This didn’t feel right. But he could hardly refuse, and besides, he was hungry. So he sat down.
Mother waited until he’d finished the olives before setting down her work. “I have a question for you, Rammash.”
Of course—it was a trap. He couldn’t rush off to do chores halfway through a meal, after all. “Yes, Mother?”
“How does a one-armed mason work?”
His heart sank. “I don’t know.”
“Nor do I. Which is the most pressing of our many current difficulties. Anshibig and his surgeons were at work on your father for some time, you realize. Long enough to accumulate quite a bill, in addition to our regular expenses.”
“Yes,” Ram said stupidly, because he couldn’t think of anything else and couldn’t say nothing. He threw back the beer, and poured another glass. Then: “Father’s been training me.”
“So he has. How much have you learned, Rammash? Enough to work as a mason yourself, or to hire on with Ganteg or one of the others for good pay?”
He couldn’t lie to his mother, and besides, there was no point. “No. Not that well. I’ve been moving the blocks around, helping to dress them a bit. That’s it.”
“Then we have a difficulty.”
“Maybe the Council—“
“Rammash. Do you, in all honesty, believe the Council will provide a pension to the likes of us? I didn’t think I had raised a fool.”
Ram swallowed. She was right. But—“I can still do some work. Not much, but enough to bring in a little bit of money, and eventually I could apprentice. If you could sell some pieces in the meantime—what?” Mother had shut her eyes, and was shaking her head.
“We meant to tell you in a few days,” she said softly, and touched a hand to her stomach. “We have been perversely blessed. By this time next bloom, I will have a small child to take care of.”
“Your father and I had been trying for some time, now that you are nearly a man, and learning the craft. We had thought that, with your assistance, we might take on larger projects, and bring in extra income. But now …” She grimaced.
“Yeah.” There would be no question of not keeping the child; Mother said the gien stone was for bondservants and trash, and Father would never consent to disposing of anything small and helpless. He hadn’t done it with Mana, when the whole hearth had been howling for her blood, and he’d won his Council seat for it when she became a handmaiden. They’d keep this child even if they wound up in bondage themselves.
Ram could remember two families who met that fate, when they couldn’t match income to expenses; two people from one family, and one from the other, were still alive and doing service about the hearth. Tarpaz, the boy he’d played with when he was five, was not one of them. He’d been sold off last bloom.
Ram looked down and noticed he still hadn’t eaten the other half of his lunch. He didn’t feel hungry at the moment. He took a sip of the beer instead, just enough to wet his mouth. “Well, I can still try and apprentice now.”
Mother stared. “Apprentice with whom? Do you really believe any of the other masters will take you?”
“I can try,” he repeated stubbornly. “It’s the best chance we’ve got.”
Mother sighed, and returned her attention to her sewing. “Your time is your own, Rammash. Waste it as you please. But mind that you finish your chores first.”
4 thoughts on “Chapter 1.2”
Ouch. You can almost feel how desperate Ram’s family is. And you can tell they love Ram, and I like them both in different ways. I wonder how he’ll end up handling this.
I think beyond the good prose and excellent character voices, the world-building is really standout so far.
I find myself having to actually pay attention to understand nuances and different aspects of daily life in this world. It helps that you’re able to craft these mundane scenes so well, very easy to keep the reader immersed.
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