It was the last night of her childhood.
Terelle, unknowing, thought it just another busy evening in Opal’s Snuggery, crowded and noisy and hot. Rooms were hazed with the fumes from the keproot pipes of the addicted and fuggy with the smell of the resins smouldering in the censers. Smoky blue tendrils curled through the archways, encouraging a lively lack of restraint as they drifted through the air.
Everything as usual.
Terelle’s job was to collect the dirty plates and mugs and return them to the kitchen, in an endless round from sunset until the dark dissolved under the first cold fingering of a desert dawn.
Her desire was to be unnoticed at the task.
Her dream was to escape her future as one of Madam Opal’s girls.
Once she’d thought the snuggery a happy place, the outer courtyard always alive with boisterous chatter and laughter as friends met on entry, the reception rooms bustling with servants fetching food from the kitchens or amber from the barrels in the cellar, the stairs cluttered with handmaidens as they giggled and flirted and smiled, arm in arm with their clients. She’d thought the snuggery’s inhabitants lived each night adrift on laughter and joy and friendship. But she had only been seven then, and newly purchased. She was twelve now, old enough to realise the laughter and the smiles and the banter were part of a larger game, and what underlay it was much sadder. She still didn’t understand everything, not really, even though she knew now what went on between the customers and women like her halfsister, Vivie, in the upstairs rooms.
She knew enough to see the joy was a sham.
She knew enough to know she didn’t want any part of it.
And so she scurried through the reception rooms with her laden tray, hugging the walls on her way to the kitchen. A drab girl with brown tunic, brown skin, brown hair so dark it had the rich depth of rubies, a timid pebblemouse on its way back to its lair with a pouch-load of detritus to pile around its burrow entrance, hoping to keep a hostile world at bay. She kept her gaze downcast, instinctively aware that her eyes, green and intelligent, told another story.
The hours blurred into one another. Laughter devoid of subtlety drowned out the lute player’s strumming; vulgar banter suffocated the soft-sung words of love. As the night wore on, Scarcleft society lost its refinement just as surely as the desert night lost its chill in the packed reception rooms.
Out of the corner of her eye, Terelle noted Vivie flirtingwith one of the younger customers. The man had a sweet smile, but he was no more than an itinerant seller of scent, a street peddler. Madam Opal wanted Vivie to pay attention to Kade the waterlender instead, Kade who was fat and had hair growing out of his nose. He’d come all the way downhill from the twentieth level of the city because he fancied the Gibber woman he knew as Viviandra.
Behind the peddler’s slender back, Terelle made a face at Vivie to convey her opinion of her sister’s folly with him, then scurried on.
Back in the main reception room a few moments later, she heard nervous laughter at one of the tables. A man was drunk and he’d lost some sort of wager. He wasn’t happy and his raised voice had a mean edge to it.
Trouble, she thought. Rosscar, the oil merchant’s son. His temper was well known in the snuggery. He was jabbing stiffened fingertips at the shoulder of one of his companions. As she gathered mugs onto her tray, Terelle overheard his angryaccusation: “You squeezed the beetle too hard!” He waved his mug under the winner’s nose and slopped amber everywhere. “Cheat, you are, Merch Putter—”
Hurriedly one of the handmaidens stepped in and led him away, giggling and stroking his arm.
Poor Diomie, Terelle thought as she wiped the stickiness of the alcohol from the agate inlay of the stone floor. He’ll take it out on her. And all over a silly wager on how high a click beetle can jump. As she rose wearily to her feet, her gaze met the intense stare of a Scarperman. He sat alone, a hungryeyed, hawk-nosed man dressed in a blue tunic embroidered with the badge of the pedemen’s guild.
“This is empty,” he growled at her, indicating the brass censer in the corner of the room. “Get some more resin for it, girl, and sharp about it. You shouldn’t need to be told.”
She ducked her head so that her hair fell across her face and mumbled an apology. Using her laden tray as a buffer, she headed once more for the safety of the kitchens, thinking she could feel those predatory eyes sliding across her back as she went. She didn’t return to replenish the censer; she sent one of the kitchen boys instead.
Half the run of a sandglass later, she saw Vivie and Kade the fat waterlender heading upstairs, Madam Opal nodding her approval as she watched. The sweet-smiling, sweet-smelling peddler was nowhere in evidence. Terelle snorted. Vivie had sand for brains if she’d thought Opal would allow her to dally with a scent seller when there was a waterlending upleveller around. A waterlender, any waterlender, was richer than Terelle could even begin to imagine, and there was nothing Opal liked better than a rich customer.
Terelle stacked another tray and hurried on.
Some time later the bell in Viviandra’s room was ringing down in the kitchen, and Madam Opal sent Terelle up to see what was needed. When she entered the bedroom, Vivie was reclining on her divan, still dressed. The waterlender was not there.
“Where’s the merch?” Terelle asked.
“In the water-room,” Vivie said and giggled. “Sick as a sand-flea that’s lost its pede. Drank too much, I suspect. I was bored, so I rang down to the kitchen. Now you can have a rest, too.” She patted the divan and flicked her long black hair over her shoulder. “And Kade’s not a merchant, you know. He lends people water tokens. Which means you should address him as Broker Kade. Terelle, you have to learn that sort of thing. It’s important. Keeps the customers happy.”
“Vivie, if Opal catches us doing nothing, she’ll be spitting sparks.”
“Don’t call me Vivie! You know I hate it. It’s not a proper name for a Scarpen snuggery girl.”
“It’s your name. And you’re not Scarpen. You’re Gibber, like me.”
“Not any more. Opal’s right when she says ‘Viviandra’ has class and ‘Vivie’ doesn’t. And why shouldn’t we be lazy occasionally? I deserve a rest! You think it’s easy pandering to the tastes of the men who come here? You’ll find out when your turn comes.”
“I’m not going to be a handmaiden,” Terelle said. “I’m going to be an arta. A dancer, like the great Arta Amethyst. In fact, I am going to be greater than Amethyst.” To demonstrate her skill, she bounced to her feet, undulated her hips in a slow figure of eight and then did the splits.
Vivie groaned. “You are such a child! You won’t have an choice in the matter, you know. Why in all the Sweepings do you think Madam Opal paid Pa for the two of us? So as you could be a dancer? Not weeping likely!”
All hope vanished as Terelle glimpsed the darkness of her future, crouching in wait just around a corner not too far away. “Oh, Vivie! What sort of handmaiden would I make? Look at me!”
She hadn’t meant to be literal, but Vivie sat up and ran a critical gaze over her.“Well,” she said, “it’s true that you’re nothing much to look at right now. But you’re only twelve. That will change. Look at how scrawny Diomie was when she first came! And now . . .” She sketched curves with her hands. “That jeweller from Level Nine called her luscious last night. A plum for the picking, he said.”
“Even if I burst out of my dresses like Diomie, my face will still be the same,” Terelle pointed out. “I think I have nice eyes, but Madam Opal says green is unnatural. And my skin’s too brown, even browner than yours. And my hair’s too straight and ordinary, not wavy and black like yours. No load of powder and paint is going to change any of that.” She was not particularly upset at the thought. “I can dance, though. Or so everyone says. Besides, I don’t want to be a whore.”
“Opal will stick a pin in your backside if you use that wordaround here. Whores sell their bodies on the street for water. We are trained snuggery handmaidens. We are Opal’s girls. We do much more than – well, much more than whores do. We are, um, companions. We speak prettily, and tell stories and sing and recite and dance, and we listen to the men as though they are the wisest sages in the city. We entertain and make them laugh. Do it properly, like I do, and no one cares if we don’t have fair skin and blue eyes and straw hair like Scarpen Quarter folk.”
“Opal says I’m the best fan dancer she’s seen for my age.”
“Maybe, but she can’t teach you, not properly, you know that. You’d have to go to a professional dancer for lessons, and that’d cost tokens we don’t have. Opal’s not going to pay for it. She doesn’t want a dancer, or a musician, or a singer – she just wants handmaidens who can also dance and sing and play the lute. There’s a difference. Forget it, Terelle. It’s not going to happen. When your bleeding starts, the law says you are old enough to be a handmaiden and Opal will make sure that’s what happens.”
Terelle lifted her chin. “I won’t be a whore, Vivie. I won’t.”
“Don’t say things like that, or Opal will throw you out.”
“I wish she would. Ouch!”
Vivie, irritated, had leaned across and yanked a lock of her hair. “Terelle, she’s given you water for more than five whole years, just on the strength of what you will become after your bleeding starts. You know that. Not to mention what she paid Pa. She invested in you. She will spit more than sparks if she thinks she’s not going to get a return on her investment. She won’t let you get away with it. Anyway, it’s not such a bad life, not really.”
But the crouching shape of her unwanted future grew in Terelle’s mind. “It’s – it’s horrible! Like slavery. And even barbarian Reduners don’t own slaves any more. We were sold, Vivie. Pa sold us to those men knowing we would end up in a brothel.” The bitterness spilled over into her voice.
“This is not a brothel. It’s a snuggery. A house for food and entertainment and love. We have style; a brothel is for lowlifes with hardly any tokens. And I am not a slave – I am paid, and paid well. One day I shall have enough to retire.” She picked up her hand mirror from the divan and fluffed up her hair. The reddish highlights in the black gleamed in the lamplight. “I think I need another ruby rinse.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Thanks.” Vivie smiled at her kindly. “Terelle, you’re not aslave, either. For the odd jobs you do, you have water and food and clothes and a bed, not to mention the dancing and singing lessons. You’ve been taught to read and write and recite. When you start working properly, you’ll be paid in tokens like the rest of us. You can leave any time you want, once you pay back what you owe.”
“Leave? How can I leave unless I have somewhere else to go? I’d die of thirst!”
“Exactly. Unless you save enough tokens first.”
Terelle slumped, banging her heels against the legs of thedivan in frustration.
Vivie laid her mirror aside. “Terelle, Terelle, don’t you remember what it was like in the Gibber Quarter before we came here? I do. It was horrid.” She shuddered. “The only time we had enough water was when we stole it. I was glad when Pa sold us to the Reduner caravanners—”
She broke off as they heard footsteps in the passageway outside. Terelle jumped off the divan and grabbed up her tray. When the waterlender entered, she was picking up the empty mugs on the low table. She bobbed and scuttled past him. When she glanced back from the doorway, she saw Vivie smile shyly at Kade from under her lashes. One bare shoulder, all invitation, had slipped from the confines of her robe.
Terelle pulled the door shut.
Back in the main reception room, the crowd had thinned. Most of the handmaidens had gone upstairs with their first customers of the night. Men who had not secured a girl waitedtheir turn. Opal, plump and painted, flirted shamelessly asshe bargained prices with latecomers. Servants brought more amber, keproot and pipes. The air was thicker now, yet there was an edginess to the atmosphere. Terelle scanned the crowd, seeking the cause.
The pedeman in the blue tunic sat alone, and his eyes, still sheened with feral hunger, sought her – but he wasn’t causing any trouble. On the other side of the room, Merch Rosscar glowered at Merch Putter, the man he had earlier called a cheat. He began another drunken tirade, his speech slurred, his words threatening, his nastiness growing more and more overt. Putter stirred uneasily. Terelle glanced at Opal, who gave the merest of nods. Terelle dumped her tray and slipped out of the room. She went straight to the unroofed courtyard where Garri the steward and Donnick the doorman controlled entry to the snuggery via a gate to South Way.
“Trouble,” she told them. “Madam Opal wants Merch Rosscar removed.”
“Drunk again, I s’pose,” Garri said. “Look after the gate a moment, Terelle. Anyone comes, they’ll have to wait a bit till we get back. Come on, Donnick.”
Terelle sat down on the doorman’s stool next to the barred gate. Outside in the street all seemed quiet; at this late hour, not too many people were still up and about. The city of Scarcleft tumbled down the slope known as The Escarpment in stepped levels and South Way was one of three roads that descended from the highlord’s dwelling, on Level Two, to the southern city wall, on Level Thirty-six. During the day it was usually one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city.
She leaned back against the courtyard’s mud-brick wall so she could look up at the sky. On those nights when Opal’s was closed, once every ten days, she would take her quilt up to the flat roof so she could fall asleep watching the stars as they slid, oh so slowly, across the black depth of the sky. She liked not being surrounded on all sides by walls. She liked the feel of the wind gusting in from the gullies of the Skirtings in unpredictable eddies. She even liked it during the day when the air was so hot it crackled the hair on her head, and she had to rub rendered pede fat onto her lips to stop them drying out.
Whenever Terelle tried to explain such things to Vivie, the older girl would throw her hands up in incomprehension and remark that talking to her sister was as unsettling as having a stone in your sandal. So Terelle didn’t try any more. She learned to accept the fact that she was odd and Vivie was the one who fitted in. Terelle wasn’t comfortable in the snuggery; Vivie revelled in it like a birthing cat that had found silk cushions. Terelle sometimes cried real tears – and Vivie had never hed a tear in grief in her whole life.
Now, though, the oil lamps around the walled courtyarddulled the sky and made it hard to see the stars. A flame sputtered and shadows danced. Once more she saw the dark lump of a future crouching just out of reach, waiting to smother her.
I’m trapped, she thought. It had been her fate from the moment she had been included in the deal made with the caravanners passing through their settle. Her father had his tokens, enough for a year or two’s water, and she had this. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of citrus flowers, a hint of perfume, the stale smoke of burned keproot.
She had to get out. She wasn’t Vivie, and she never would be. Yet how to escape?
Garri and Donnick returned, hustling an irate Rosscar between them. Outside in the fresh air, he appeared less drunk and more dangerous. “I’ll be back, Merch Putter!” he shouted over his shoulder, even though the merchant was nowhere in sight. “You’ll regret the day you cheated me!”
Terelle opened the gate, but when the steward attempted to guide the man through it, he lashed out with a kick, catching the older man in the knee. Terelle winced. Garri had swollen joints at the best of times. Donnick, a hulking youth of eighteen with few wits but a good heart, gently levered the drunken man through the gateway and closed the gate.
Terelle stepped back into the passage leading to the main reception room. Light flickered as some of the lamps guttered. There was someone coming the opposite way, and she politely flattened herself against the wall to let him pass. But he didn’t pass. He stopped: the pedeman in the blue tunic. She turned to hurry on, but he barred her way, his arm braced against the wall at chest height.
Her heart scudded; fear broke through on her skin in goose bumps. She did not look at him but kept her head lowered. “Excuse me, pedeman. I have work to do.”
He did not move the arm but lowered his head to whisper close to her cheek. “How much is your first-night price, child?” The tip of his tongue thrust into her ear, seeking to know her.
She tilted her head away, reminded of the forked tongue of a snake questing after prey. “I’m not a handmaiden. I’m a servant.” Her voice sounded thin and frightened to her ears. Her terror was out of all proportion to her danger; after all, one way lay the security of Garri and Donnick, the other way Opal and her servants. No one would allow him to touch her. Not this night. Yet she shivered as if the cold of a desert night wind brushed her skin.
Madam Opal won’t sell my first-night before my bleeding starts, will she?
“You’re a lying Gibber child,” he whispered. “And you should not try to deceive your betters. I will buy your firstnight, and you’ll pay for that lie.” He placed a hand on the bud of her breast and squeezed, the touch a promise of horror. “It won’t be long now, will it, sweetmeat?” She pushed him away, ducked under his arm and ran for the safety of the reception room at the end of the passage.
But the safety was illusory, her danger only postponed.
She was crying when she entered the room, and dipped her head to hide the tears.
The night was unending. The man in the blue tunic did not come back, but from one of the handmaidens she learned his name: Huckman. Pedeman Huckman, and worse still, he was a relative of Opal’s. He owned a train of packpedes and ran cargoes from the coast to Scarcleft, bringing pressed seaweed briquettes to fuel the ovens and fireplaces and smelters of the city.
A wealthy man, and wealthy men bought what they wanted.
Fear fluttered at the edges of Terelle’s thoughts for the rest of the evening. She still felt his hand on her breast, bruising her as he enjoyed her shock. Just thinking about him made her stomach churn.
At last the final dirty dishes and mugs were delivered to the kitchen and Opal indicated she could go to bed. Feet dragging with fatigue, she walked down the passage to the courtyard once more, on her way to the servants’ stairs. Merch Putter was walking in front of her, on his way out after his time upstairs with one of the handmaidens.
Donnick opened the gate for the merchant, but before the man stepped through, he turned to press a tinny token into the youth’s palm. And that was when they all heard it: a shrill keening, like a fingernail being dragged down a slate. No, more than that, a screech so horrible it shrieked of danger, of death on the move. Terelle had never heard such a sound before. She was terror-struck, rendered motionless. The merchant flung himself back into the courtyard, plunging sideways into the potted pomegranates.
Garri, on the other side of the courtyard, yelled “Zigger!” He dropped the bundle of dirty tablecloths he had been carrying and ran towards Donnick. “Close the gate! Close the blasted gate!”
But Donnick stood rooted, his mouth gaping foolishly at Garri, as if the danger was coming from his direction.
And the zigger flew into his mouth.
Terelle glimpsed it as a black blur the size of a man’s thumb. The keening stopped abruptly, replaced by the shriek of Donnick’s agony. He clutched at his throat and a gush of blood spewed from his mouth like water from an opened spigot. His screams faded into a choking gurgle. He fell to his knees, staring at Terelle, begging her for help she could not render. He clawed at his face, jammed his hand into his mouth, clutching for something he could not reach. She stared, appalled. His blood was splattered over her feet but she couldn’t move.
Time slowed. She saw past Donnick through the gate to where a man stood on the opposite side of the street, his face muffled in a scarf. He held a zigger cage in one hand and a zigtube in the other.
She thought, her calm at odds with her shock, I suppose it’s Rosscar and he meant to kill Putter. Her terror dissipated into numbing vacuity. Donnick fell sideways, his body twitching uncontrollably.
She moved then, to kneel at his side and stroke his arm, as if she could bring comfort.
Garri came to stand beside her, patting her shoulder in clumsy sympathy. “Go inside, Terelle. Nothing you can do here.”
She stammered an irrelevance that suddenly seemed important: “He’s from the Gibber, like Vivie and me. He tells me stuff. About the settle where he was born. His family.” She started to tremble. “We must be able to do something—”
The steward shook his head. “Lad’s already dead. His body just don’t know it yet.”
As if he heard the words, Donnick gave one last shuddering spasm that arched his back from the ground. His gaze fixed on Terelle’s face, speaking his horror, his terror, his pain. When he collapsed it was with brutal finality. His eyes glazed, blank with death. The zigger crawled out through his open mouth and paused. Terelle hurled herself backwards, half sprawling as she levered herself away on her bottom, whimpering in fear.
The zigger sat on the plumpness of Donnick’s lip, bloodcovered and sated, purring softly while it used its back legs to clean its jagged mouthparts and brush the human flesh from its wing cases. Terelle’s trembling transformed to shudders, racking her whole body.
“Kill it!” she begged, clutching at Garri’s ankles. Do something, anything, please . . .
“I dare not, lass. That there beetle is a trained zigger, worth more tokens than I earn in a year, and someone’d blame me, sure as there’s dust in the wind. ’S all right, though,” he said, lifting her to her feet. “Won’t hurt us. It’s eaten now and won’t want to feed again. In a while it’ll fly back to its cage. That’s what they’re trained to do.” He glared out through the gate to where the zigger’s owner still waited, but didn’t challenge him. With a sigh he turned back to her. “Go wash, child. Use the water in Donnick’s dayjar.”
She looked down at her feet. Blood ran stickily down her legs and into her slippers. Shuddering, she kicked them off. Mesmerised, unable to stop herself, she stared at the zigger again. She wanted to flee, but couldn’t bring herself to turn her back on it. Next to the gate, Merch Putter vomited messily into the pomegranate bushes.
“Remember that whining sound,” Garri said, “and if you ever hear it again, take cover and hide your face. It’s the wing cases sawing ’gainst each other in flight. Makes the victim turn his head, so all his soft bits and holes – eyes, nose, throat, ears – are facing the bleeding little bastard.” He glanced at Merch Putter. “Go, Terelle. I’ll take care of this, and tomorrow I’ll report it to the highlord’s guard. That’s all I dare do.”
“Would it – would it have made a difference if Donnick had closed the gate?” she asked.
He drew in a heavy breath. “No, I don’t suppose so. It would’ve flown over the wall, wouldn’t it?”
Just then the zigger spread its brightly veined wings and flew off, heading straight towards the cage held by the muffled figure on the other side of the street. Garri bolted the gate behind it, as if it was a departing guest.
Terelle fled towards the servants’ rooms, leaving a line of bloody footprints across the courtyard. It was hot up on the flat roof of the snuggery. Terelle pulled the day bed into the shade cast by the adjoining wall of the snuggery’s uplevel neighbours, but the heat of the afternoon shimmered in the nearby sunlight, dragging her water from her with its ferocity. She sat cross-legged on the woven bab ropes of the bed, a stone mortar jammed against her shins while she pounded the pestle. When the rubyleaf powder was fine enough, she added water to make a paste. She puzzled over the oddity of how something green could end up staining things red-brown. She failed to come up with a satisfactory answer, but anything was better than remembering the way Donnick had died the night before. Or the words Huckman had murmured in her ear and the way he had squeezed her breast.
She considered instead what Vivie had said about them stealing water as children in a Gibber settle. Now that she thought about it, she dimly recalled sneaking out at night to fill jars from the wash when the water came down like a meddle of running packpedes. She remembered taking water from the open stone channels, too. What were they called? Slots, that was right. They had them here in Scarcleft as well, to irrigate the bab groves outside the city walls.
But most of all, she remembered being scared. Scared of the dark, scared of being caught by the reeve. Scared of Pa if they failed to return with water. Scared of his shouting.
She frowned, thinking back. She could remember the settle, every detail. She could have described each crack in the walls of their house, or the shape of the stains on Pa’s baggy trousers, or the patterns on the water jars beside the fireplace and the way the water in them iced over on cold nights. Her memory of events had faded, but the place was imprinted on her mind, as unchanging as carvings in stone. Other people don’t remember things the way I do. Why not? It worried her.
She wondered if forgetting the unpleasant happenings had been deliberate, the desperation of a child who had not wanted to remember. But she was no longer a child. Her future had challenged her childhood; Huckman’s hand on her breast and Donnick’s death had banished it forever.
“Oh good, you’re ready.” Vivie clambered onto the rooftop, fanning herself. She sank down on the day bed with a heartfelt sigh and leaned back so that Terelle could rub the paste into her scalp and comb it through the strands of her hair. She is so like a cat, Terelle thought. Wanting to be stroked all the time. Vivie demanding to be pampered was among her earliest memories.
“I hear Rosscar fled the city this morning,” Vivie said, closing her eyes. “Opal’s grinning like a frog in a dayjar.”
“Rosscar’s pa, the oil merchant, paid Opal not to tell the highlord’s guard how Donnick died. Luckily for Rosscar, Garri hadn’t got round to reporting it. Opal will be in a good mood for days. She made a heap of tokens.”
“But . . . what about Donnick?”
Vivie shrugged. “Makes no difference to him.”
Upset, Terelle tightened her lips and tried not to think about it. Luckily Vivie lost interest in the subject. The heat of the afternoon mired conversation anyway. The monotonous click of cicadas sunning on top of the wall was comfortably familiar and it was pleasant not to be at the beck and call of every girl in the snuggery, helping to primp and preen them for the evening, running here and there fetching things, finding lost items.
If only she could forget the night before.
“That’s good,” Viviandra murmured as Terelle’s fingertips massaged her scalp. She stretched, enjoying the first breath of a breeze that promised to cool the desiccating heat of the afternoon.
“It’s been long enough, I think. You want shiny highlights, not bright red hair.”
“Bit longer won’t make any difference. It’s so good just lying here with nothing to do.”
Terelle took no notice. She started to wash away the rubyleaf paste, taking care to catch the water afterwards. “Vivie, why didn’t we have a water allotment when we were kids?”
“Hmm? Oh, Pa lost his rights to land in the bab grove. Don’t know why – a debt, maybe. And he couldn’t find regular work.”
Terelle took the comb and began to tease out the tangles.
“Tell me about my mother.”
Vivie sighed. “I have told you, countless times.”
“No, you haven’t. I don’t know anything.”
“You know everything I know. Father found her out on the plains when he was prospecting.” She counted off the facts on her fingers, not bothering to conceal her impatience. “He guessed she’d been abandoned by a caravan. Her name was Sienna. She was dressed oddly, in colourful fabric. She spoke a strange language. Pa wanted her; he took her, she lived with us and later she had you and then she died. What more is there to tell?”
“You were eight or so then. She must have talked to you.”
“Terelle, she could hardly speak our tongue! What could she say?”
“Where do you think she came from?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knew. And she couldn’t tell us.”
“Sienna is not a Scarpen name. Or a Gibber one. I’ve asked lots of people about that.”
“Maybe she came from across the Giving Sea. Though we lived a long way from the sea.”
“Was she happy?”
“Was anyone ever happy living with Pa? He made my ma bitter and unhappy by taking a second woman. He killed your ma because he was too mean to call the midwife when you were born.” She was matter-of-fact, rather than angry.
“Terelle, I scarcely knew her, and what I did know I’ve mostly forgotten. Looking back on it, I think she was weak and ill most of the time. Maybe because of her experience out on the Gibber Plains? She didn’t say much, but then she probably didn’t have the words anyway.” She stood up. “I’m going to the baths now; do you want to come?”
Terelle shook her head. The women’s bath house was a gossipy place, abounding with stories, and normally she loved it there. This time, though, she wasn’t in the mood. “I’ll clean up here,” she said.
Vivie smiled her thanks and left, her scent floating behind her. She had spent days concocting a personal fragrance; Terelle found it over-sweet.
She poured the rinse water onto the fruit trees. Watering them was her job, and sometimes she used cooking water cadged from the kitchens or dirty wash water from the bedrooms. Her allotment of pure water for the plants she sold to the street waterseller for tokens, and used those to buy items in the bazaar. At first she’d thought she was being clever, saving water like this and getting money to spend on herself, but now she was wiser. Opal knew perfectly well what she was doing and in fact intended for her to do just that. It was a lesson for every child to learn: water was life; water was wealth. You didn’t throw away old water and you didn’t waste drinking water. Ever.
As she watered a kumquat already coming into fruit, she glanced down over the balustrade. Below, the lowest four levels of the city of Scarcleft merged into one another, the outer walls of one building forming the boundaries of the next a step below. From this angle, the city looked lush, each terrace and roof crowded with potted plants: dwarf figs and apricots and quandongs, melons and peppers, herbs and spices, keproot and hemp. The rock-hard daub of the stepped streets between the houses was brown, as were the high windowless walls of mud-brick on either side, their sun-baked clay as hard as iron. Gates set into the walls were brilliant patterns in the drabness. Painted with family colours and symbols, heavily studded with gemstones, the gates varied from the garish scarlet paintwork and amethysts of the snuggery to the subtle combinations of ochre wash set with smoky quartz on a nearby potter’s house.
Further down, on the buildings of the waterless inhabitants of the city’s lowest level – the thirty-sixth – there was neither paint nor studs. Nor much greenery sprouting from rooftop pots, either. Terelle let her gaze linger for a moment on the crumbling bricks and palm-leaf weave of the walls there and felt a familiar touch of fear.
To be waterless . . .
There could be no worse fate. Once it had been hers and could well be again if she didn’t order her life wisely. She had been born without water allotment, owed none by any settle or town or city, all because at the time of her birth her father had been both landless and unemployed.
She drew a ragged breath, unbalanced even at the thought. I won’t let it happen again. Useless to rely on Madam Opal or on Vivie, and certainly useless to think of her father, almost faceless now in her memory, who had sold them both. Never again, I swear it, she told the lurking dark. But I’ll earn a living my way, not Vivie’s way.
As she watered the last fruit tree, she kept back a fingerbreadth of water in the bottom of the bucket, which she then poured into the sun pattern pressed into the clay of the flat rooftop. Her sacrifice to the Sunlord, the giver and taker of life. For a moment she knelt there in the heat of full sunlight, watching the rivulets spread outwards to fill the indentations. Greedily, the Sunlord sucked up the water.
Lord of the sun, help me,” she whispered, but she couldn’tframe the words to specify her wants, even as the water beganto vanish. Why would the Sunlord listen to a snuggery child? He, who was so great you couldn’t even gaze at his true face as he moved across the sky? She addressed his emissary instead. After all, Gridelin the Watergiver was supposed to have once been human, until he was raised into the glory of eternal sunfire. Watergiver, intercede for me, she prayed, her eyes screwed up tight. I need to escape snuggery service.
When she opened her eyes again, only a damp patch remained. She watched its edges contract. Like magic, she thought. People said that was proof a prayer had been heard.
But, the coldly sensible part of her head said in return, that doesn’t mean the prayer will be answered.