Seshalass (Sample Pages)

Section 1

Yilse sat beside her siblings in the attic room, her knees drawn up under her chin and her arms wrapped around them. At times like this she remembered the warm, soft beds at the house, but moving them had been beyond her power even though the owners said she could take any of the furnishings she wanted.

Nor had she had anywhere to take them, at the time.

She glanced around the space, a single room at the top of the two story boarding house. The usable space was small, because the walls slanted sharply down, making places for the children to pretend she couldn’t get to them when they felt like being playful, which hadn’t happened in a while.

Kia shifted in her sleep, moaning incoherently, and Yilse placed a hand on her head, soothing. Neither of them had been sleeping well the last nights, but they still slept.

Their older sister stretched to the far side of the room and pulled the small box toward her.

The box was finely carved, the kind of thing that a farmer might build to keep himself occupied during a long winter. Not fine enough to be a treasure, but certainly a keepsake.

She fingered through the contents of the box, again wondering about the woman she had known only as “mother.” A small packet wrapped in waxed cloth held the birth-papers of Yilse and her siblings. The amulet wedged against the side was old, tarnished silver, embedded with a triple spiral of small black stones that shot rainbows when held against the light.

Colored glass, the jeweler had told her when she tried to sell it, but the expression on his face had warned her that greed had him in its clutches. Whatever the stones were, she would not part with it until she knew what it was worth. Still, the time was coming when she might accept anything she could get.

She closed the lid and tucked the box back in its hiding place as she heard slow, heavy footsteps on the stairs. A light knock sounded.

“Come.” She knew who it was before the old woman pushed the door open. Ima’s first glance was for the children, as usual. She didn’t sit on the cold floor, but leaned one shoulder precariously on the slanting roof.

“Have they eaten today?”

Yilse turned her head away, teeth clenched. The old woman seemed to take that for an answer, and sighed. “Child, I could watch them while you look for work. Surely you can find something if you look hard enough.”

False reassurance, and they both knew it. Yilse suspected that the old woman made the offer only so that she could feed the children and Yilse wouldn’t have to acknowledge the charity. “They don’t want to hire me if they find out about the children,” Yilse said dully. “I’ve tried.”

“I know it.” The old woman was small enough to pat Yilse’s shoulder without bending. “For now, you go to that inn you like and see what you can get for them. I’ll watch them.”

Yilse gently touched her sister’s hair and got to her feet, weaving for a moment before she was able to steady herself. “The innkeeper is kind,” she murmured, and kept her face averted from the old woman’s gaze.

A useless effort. Ima giggled, an odd sound from one so old. “He’d marry you, if you’d tolerate it. He has no heir, you know.”

Yilse’s head whipped around and she stared at the old woman, eyes wide. “What?” She gaped momentarily, then her shoulders hunched. “He’s just kind. He gives me food in exchange for the work I do, even if he can’t hire me.”

“You’re blind, child. He’d even take the children. Ask him.” She stared up at the younger woman, obviously amused. “He might say yes.”

Yilse shivered, not allowing the new thought to find a foothold. “If you can stay, we may have breakfast in the morning.”

“Change your blouse,” the old woman said in a dry tone. “You don’t go courting dressed like that.”

Not worth arguing over, Yilse told herself. The innkeeper always wanted her to be neatly dressed if she was going to be doing anything but washing dishes in the kitchen. She changed the blouse as ordered, and slipped down the stairs.
Alone on the dark street the thought hit her again, and she considered the man’s actions in that light. He had never made any kind of overture, never suggested that he looked at her as a woman. He knew about the children, knew the situation that had led them from relative affluence to abject poverty.

Yilse glanced once at the three-armed sky spiral as she stopped just outside the door to the inn. Walking the god-path was said to lead a person through to the next life, and the next, and the next, until they finally reached the center of the spiral. One star for each life, supposedly.

She shook her head and slipped through the door, trying to remain unnoticed.

The common room was well lit, as usual, the floor gritty underfoot from the dirt and muck tracked in by the patrons. Although it would be scrubbed clean tonight after closing, for now that thin coat of grit put the inn a thin step up from the kind of place where beer and blood mixed into sticky sludge.

Three men at a corner table sang together, their voices not quite in tune. The servers here didn’t need to worry about being assaulted, which meant that the place attracted and held the best.

The innkeeper was a small man, a little shorter than Yilse, and probably forty years her senior. His head seemed too large, his eyes too small, but the metal bat he used to keep the peace spoke loud and clear--no one disturbed this place.

Tonight the tables were full, most of the patrons focused on the two musicians occupying the fireplace corner. Not just musicians, Yilse saw in astonishment, as the woman jumped from the floor and landed on her companion’s shoulders without a break in the music.

Yilse worked her way through the crowd, keeping carefully clear of anyone who looked too drunk to recognize that she wasn’t available.

The innkeeper watched her come, smiling. “Glad you’re here!” He spoke loud enough to be heard over the crowd, but not loud enough to interfere with the music. “Need another out front here, with this crowd!” He beckoned and she leaned closer over the counter as he lowered his voice. “Did you see the man in the corner? Solo.”

Yilse didn’t need to look. “The one in the cap? He looks familiar.”

“Well, he seems to be looking for you. Been in here every night for the last ten-day, chatting people up and trying to be casual about it, but he’s looking for you.” The innkeeper’s eyes shifted slightly, watching the stranger over her shoulder.

“Described you, knows your name. Doesn’t seem dangerous, but you can’t always tell.”

Yilse opened her mouth, closed it again. “Hm. What’s your impression?” Her eyes drifted to the musical acrobats. She could do something like that, not the music piece of course, but their acrobatics were often greeted by cheers from the crowd. They had a child, possibly theirs, gathering up the scattered coins.

If nothing else it would feed her siblings.

“That’s not for you,” the innkeeper murmured. “Their life is harder than you think.”

Yilse’s mouth tightened, and again she turned her head away. “We’re down to nothing,” she said bluntly. “The old woman lets us stay in that little room, I do odd jobs for food, but the little I was able to bring away after Mother died is gone.” She felt something perilously close to a sob working its way out, and slammed it down.

“You have other options.” He leaned on the bar, studying his packed common room with a satisfied smile. “You’re young, hard working.” His eyes slid to hers, then away.

Yilse took a moment to be grateful to Ima for the warning, and shook her head. “Do you have anything for me to do tonight?”

With a disappointed huff, the innkeeper straightened. “I think you should go talk to him. Just talk. I’ll be watching, and if he becomes a pest…” He raised one eyebrow, grinning.

Yilse huffed out her breath. “I’ll talk to him, although I don’t know why anyone would be looking for me.” She could think of several reasons, actually, mostly dealing with her mother’s family. “That he knows my name is…” She hesitated, and the innkeeper nodded.


Yilse turned her head away from the acrobats again. “Encouraging.” She saw his confusion and smiled, letting him see a little of her fear buried under the amusement. “If he was just some random snatch, he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of learning my name.”

She turned and walked carefully between the square tables. This place ran to tables rather than benches and heavy trestles, allowing the common people to presume to the airs of the Kin. Further uptown she knew there were other areas that weren’t common, where each table was set in its own secluded space and the servers didn’t mingle with the kitchen staff.

She had actually been in one of those places once with her mother, as a child. Her clearest memory was not of the place, but of the big man they’d come to meet. Her father.

She forced the memory back and stopped beside the table where a single man sat silent, nursing his drink as if he expected to be here for a while.

He nodded to her as she approached, and took off the cap to place it on the table. One hand gestured to the chair across from him, a grimy ribbon across the back indicating that the chair was reserved for someone.

Still uneasy, Yilse slipped into the chair and waited.

She swallowed convulsively when the serving girl approached with the man’s meal, and forced herself to continue breathing as the food was placed in front of her.

“Thank you.” She forced the tears back. Certainly he wanted something from her, but her siblings were hungry.

At the thought, she pulled the large kerchief from her belt and carefully wrapped the rolls, the fruit, and the thin slice of cake into a bundle which she set beside her plate.

Another plate was placed in front of him, and he thanked the serving girl absently. “You have a child at home.”

Yilse nearly choked, swallowing too quickly. The man across from her moved one hand, calming. “No harm. I’ve been searching for some time--this inn was the closest I could come to actually finding you.”

Yilse breathed in quickly, her eyes darting to his. Maybe he was a messenger from their father. Maybe, her mind murmured, maybe he could take the children. She would not want to let them go, but they would not starve in the Keep.

No one starved in the Keep.

“My father?”

The man’s eye shifted toward the innkeeper still leaning on his counter, and when he looked back those eyes were hard. “No.” He hesitated, studying her. “I have a message from your maternal grandfather.”

Yilse’s eyes dropped. “I don’t want to hear it.” She’d seen the man’s messengers at their home before her mother died--she should have recognized the type.

Astonishingly, the man smiled. “How are you feeding the children? They won’t need to go hungry, in your grandfather’s house.”

“In his kitchen?” Yilse kept her voice soft, so that others could not hear. “I have to get back.” If one of the children woke when she wasn’t there, the old woman wouldn’t be able to handle it. Yilse got to her feet, intending to move away, but the man caught her arm.

“At least take some food for them.” He motioned the serving-girl and ordered her to bring two loaves of the fresh bread, then placed a handful of coins in the thick-walled clay bowl at the center of the table. He seemed unconcerned that Yilse was leaving most of her meal. The servers would make sure it didn’t go to waste.

The girl arrived moments later with the two loaves wrapped in brown paper. She glanced at the bowl long enough to determine if the amount was sufficient to pay for their meals, and scurried away at a shout from across the room.
The man remained seated, watching her go from the corner of his eye.

Yilse turned back at the door and nodded to the innkeeper, trying for reassurance, but he watched her go, obviously worried. That was understandable, despite her reassurances.

The stranger had known her name, and had obviously been searching for her for some time--if he was a snatch, even if she for some obscure reason fit the requirements of one of his clients, it was unlikely that he would have spent so long searching. My maternal grandfather.

She stopped just outside the inn door to orient herself and continued along the street, hunched over and trying to look like she had nothing to steal. The house was only a few streets away, but still she heard soft footsteps shadowing her before she’d gotten halfway there. When she was around the corner she ran, jerking into an alley and forcing her breathing to calm as she huddled behind a pile of refuse.

Running footsteps passed her hiding place, moving on down the street. Instead of taking the wide public streets, Yilse slipped into the alley across from her hiding place and made her way back to the house by the back ways.

She slapped her back against the bricks as she came within sight of the house, recognizing the form of the man loitering a short distance down the street. She realized belatedly that if he’d followed the street they’d both been on he would come to this corner. The street itself stretched straight in both directions, and where he stood he would see her if she crossed.

Her breath caught as he moved away from the corner toward her, and stopped across from the alley where she huddled.
He didn’t look at her, didn’t seem to see her, but his soft words carried. “You don’t trust me.”

Yilse clutched at the bread. He obviously had seen her in that brief moment when she’d been on the street. “You’ve given me no reason to trust you.” Her siblings could eat for several days on the bread and what she had in her kerchief, tied to her belt.

Payment, perhaps, for services not yet explained. He could very easily demand those services, and most people would feel obligated to comply. He fed the children, she reminded herself, and walked slowly across the street.

“Why?” she asked simply, and saw the man shrug.

“I was told to ascertain how you were living.”

Yilse swallowed heavily. “Now you know, you can go tell him that his vengeance is complete.”

The man remained silent, leaning against the recessed door. “You think he is after vengeance?” Yilse heard a sigh in the darkness.

She knew that her voice was hard, but made no effort to soften it. “He threw her into the street because she asked permission to marry someone he didn’t approve of. I’ve listened to his messengers before. Yes, I’d say he wants vengeance.”

The man still didn’t move. “When I began my search, I learned that you had been living well, with money for a servant. I thought that unusual--the man she had married didn’t seem to have the kind of resources that would allow such a thing.” The obvious question--What happened?--remained unspoken.

Yilse turned her head away, but well remembered anger tightened her face. “They said the rent was paid only a year in advance. She’d told me she owned the house, father had paid for it. I couldn’t find the documents to prove it. I tore the house apart, but if she hid anything...”

Breath hissed out between her teeth. “The town clerk had no record of the transaction. I thought maybe he’d told her he’d bought it...that she believed him.”

The man’s sigh was nearly inaudible. “Why did you come to the inn tonight?”

“The innkeeper gives me food sometimes. For my babies.” She shook her head at the slight movement. “My siblings, but they’ve been my babies since they were born. That’s not going to change.”

She took a step forward and he moved aside, as if intending to give her access to the door. Instead she moved around the narrow building to the rickety outside staircase. She stiffened as his light steps followed her up toward the second level.

The door didn’t want to open, as usual. She had to jiggle the handle and lean just right to make the latch give way. She glanced back at him then, and this time it was she who guarded a doorway. “What do you want?”

“I was instructed,” he said quietly, “to find out how you’re living.”

Yilse spun away from the doorway and fought back tears as she moved along a hall that her companion must have difficulty traversing--it was barely wide enough for her own shoulders. His head brushed the ceiling, and his low, disgusted exclamation informed her that the floor was sticky.

Two doors opened off of that hall, but if anyone heard them they didn’t come out to see.

At the end of the hall another staircase opened out, one which had obviously once extended from the lower floors along the back of the old house. A servant’s stair, and Yilse smiled at the thought that it was even narrower than the hall.

The man's steps were clumsy in the dark as he worked his way up one stair at a time.

No comments:

Post a Comment