Tabeed broke away from her search for a perfectly ripe mango, looked once more around the Market Square. The crowds were thinning now as people returned to their offices and desks behind the grand facades of the buildings surrounding the massive space on all sides.
Time was pressing. When a braid of her hair worked its way loose from its tightly pinned bun at the back of her head, she pushed it back in place with a frown. She had a long and evolving list of chores to be completed before the rains arrived; shopping for mangoes was not a part of her plans.
The stall keeper hovered into her view with a wide face and open palms: she scowled at him, threw the mango in her hand back into the pile and moved on to a large pyramid of stacked garfruit. At least the man had the sense not to follow her.
More minutes passed before the other woman arrived. Tabeed hid her frustration with a nod and a tight smile.
'You're late, Julyeis!'
'My deepest apologies, friend! Varoul woke in a garrulous mood this morning and now the whole house is in disarray.'
Tabeed gave her a calculating look, but accepted the story at face value. 'Employers often choose to be difficult at the most inappropriate times. You have my sympathy. Shall we work as we talk?'
The woman, taller than Tabeed by a finger's length, agreed. She offered her an arm to hold. 'I need flowers, and soap. Are those stalls out of your way?'
She looked across the expanse of cobbles, past the squat spire of the market manager's offices that hid their view of the river. Even when the crowds were thinner, like now, a stroll across the longer axis of the Market could take more than twenty minutes. But this chore was important; she agreed with a nod.
'Our - mutual employer - insists we discuss matters in detail: she will have to accept the fact that other things won't be done. And anyway,' she continued, 'her "ornament" does need some more of her soothing ointment, which I know Bafue the herb man will have in stock.'
'Good!' The taller woman smiled broadly as they started to walk together through the market. 'Shall we gossip as we browse?'
Tabeed kept her mouth even. She knew Julyeis by reputation, understood that her wide, face-splitting, tooth bearing smile was used only to impress strangers and onlookers. Instead she loosened a pin, pulled the loose braid of hair back into place within its woven nest.
'I could do with some henna. I swear my hair will be as grey as the clouds before the year is done.'
Julyeis refused to stop smiling as she checked the state of Tabeed's hair. 'Henna's expensive, and over-rated. The grey looks good on you, gives you a mark of authority. Watch where you're throwing your waste, man!' She put out her arm to stop Tabeed walking into a pile of wet cornhusks that a fat man had just thrown into their path. He laughed at them. She responded with a coarse hand-sign which the stallholder didn't understand.
As they stepped around the detritus Tabeed picked up the conversation. 'I'd rather rely on my tongue to keep my authority,' she said. 'Lady Arbelle told me I was looking ancient this morning. She said I should ask the Governor to give me lighter duties.'
'She probably thinks she's being kind.'
Tabeed sniffed, choosing not to give the suggested excuse more consideration than it deserved. Instead, she slowed down her pace as they passed a stall with a good display of brightly coloured goat-wool bed sheets. Catching the eye of the young stallholder, she asked: 'Are these the finest weave you have?'
'No, friend. We keep the better goods at the back.' He pointed behind him to where the afternoon tarpaulins were stacked around a small, covered space. 'But they're expensive, mind. What would you be needing the sheets for? Maybe something like this' - he reached across the table to pick out a large square hanging from the rail with a broad blue and white zigzag pattern across it - 'would meet your needs? We have a complete set on offer.'
Julyeis scowled. 'The pattern looks uneven. Are you sure you didn't weave it yourself when you were drunk?' Before the man could protest, she continued. 'She has the Governor's purse in her pocket, idiot.'
The stallholder refused to take offence, but his grin told Tabeed that he didn't believe a Servant would be given the job of picking out new linen; the Lady Temis always made those decisions. Even so, he soon showed them into the covered alcove where the better linen was already wrapped and stacked. With the arrival of another customer immediately after, the two women found themselves alone.
Tabeed wasted no time. 'She - ' her eyes darted upwards towards the bulk of the Governor's House '- is keen to know how the special lessons are going.'
'The girl learns quickly. But she doesn't learn well.' Julyeis shrugged, before continuing: 'I feel that she enjoys the lessons for what they are, rather than lodging their content in her skull, if you know what I mean.'
Tabeed nodded, slowly. 'Go on.'
'I don't know how to teach her what she needs to know without knowing what - our employer - thinks the girl needs to know. She remains fascinated by the male body, but plays with it for her own pleasure rather than judging what pleasures the man may need.'
'I assume that this is a problem,' said Tabeed. 'Our employer wants her to learn enough to be able to survive … intrigues, I believe, though why she thinks this is necessary I don't know. The girl's future prospects in the place where she's contracted to go will be different: for a start, she'll already be married.'
'And the betrothed is ambitious?'
'From what I hear, he is his father's tool - even though he's the heir. And that family is taller than most Tall Ones, if you follow me; they have an - intimate - relationship with powers beyond my understanding, or so I've heard people say. Well placed enough not to require the girl to trade favours, I would have thought.'
Julyeis reached up and pulled out a large, deep yellow sheet from the pile.
'That trader wasn't lying about the quality.' She stroked her ringless fingers across the material. 'This is a good weave.' She checked the stitching along the hem. 'I'm worried she may fixate on our lad. She needs to see some variety if she's to understand how differently men can react.'
Tabeed took a moment to check outside the alcove; the stallholder was engaged with another customer - he seemed to be doing a brisk trade. Even so, she was beginning to worry that they'd spent too long in one place. 'There's more important things to buy than pretty sheets,' she said.
Julyeis agreed with her, put the sheet back on top of the pile. They left the stallholder with a promise to return, Tabeed questioning him on where the man's workshop was in case the Lady Temis wanted to see the merchandise for herself. Once they were walking again she picked up the conversation.
'So you've used just the one man for the lessons?'
'Our employer was strict on this point; I don't know why. She told us only to use our "recreational" for the practical sessions. He's a good lad, but he lacks the experience of real life, you know?'
Tabeed shook her head.
'This lad,' Julyeis started, 'well he does as he needs to do. He's good at his job, but it's a job to him. His only concern is to give the client what they desire, preferably with minimal effort on his part. Frankly,' she finished, 'I'd be happier if we could let our pupil see how the staff deal with a variety of men, and then used that knowledge on a couple of our lads.'
'You want me to tell … her … that the education she's planned for the girl is, what, flawed?'
They dodged some children racing through the market in a couple of small handcarts. Soon they would reach the flower stalls; the ointment sellers lay immediately beyond.
'I'm sure you can think of a more tactful way of telling her,' said Julyeis.
'Remind me to find a Tall One to curse you with one of their demons,' grumbled Tabeed. She checked the height of the sun. 'Those clouds are banking already, and I'm hours behind on my work!'
From the open flatness of the Market Square, laid out close to the river walls and the city's docks beyond them, Tabeed started on the long, uphill walk back to the Governor's House. The whole town was built on a hillside within a broad half-bend of the river, its main streets looping around the hill with minimal incline along their lengths; shorter, steeper streets connected them, giving the woman a choice of an easy-yet long walk against a quicker, harder journey. She chose both options, switching to steeper streets each time she regained her breath.
The House itself wasn't at the very top of the hill - that was the domain of the barby rats - but rather two thirds the way up, built on a shoulder of land which gave good views of the terraced cultivations carved between the dark jungle walls and the muddy, wide reaches of the river.
Soon enough, she reached the fortress's massive front gate. Instead of walking beneath the arches, she continued along the side of the high, thick, stone dressed wall and through a much smaller side-door into the kitchen gardens that stepped down the landward side of the promontory. She enjoyed the gardens and often came out here to work, but time was pressing and thunder-clouds were already covering much of the sky. She bustled along the gravel path and into the kitchens and store rooms, reordering work priorities in her mind.
She gave orders and directions on the trot. The front part of the compound, overlooking the five-walled Reception Courtyard, was devoted to city administration and office work. Her office was in the back of the House, where the workrooms which formed the heart of her empire spread around the lower tiers of two sides of the almost-square Fountain Courtyard.
With no time to satisfy herself that her orders were being taken forward properly, Tabeed reached her office and pulled a clean over-tunic from the linen stack, tying it loosely at her waist. She allowed herself a moment to check her appearance in a mirror, searching for a new hairpin to skewer the recalcitrant braid back into place. Then she was off again, crossing the courtyard, its herringbone pattern brickwork already scrubbed, towards the great staircase which served as entrance to the upper floors surrounding both courtyards. Somewhere above her she could hear the Governor's young son and heir, Igell, trying to remember the words of a nursery rhyme.
She found the Lady Temis in her reception chamber, on the west side of the first level furthest from the staircase. The chamber's doors ran the length of the walkway; all had been opened to allow the room to catch the morning sun. The space itself was only lightly decorated: most of the fittings and furnishings was expensively new. The only old piece of furniture in the room - an overstuffed, frayed armchair - had been pulled near to the open doors so Temis could sit and look over the courtyard as she worked on her papers.
'My Lady,' said Tabeed as she drew close.
Temis looked up from a letter she was reading and wrinkled the sides of her eyes in greeting. She rarely moved a muscle in her face more than was necessary. From the neatness of the small pile of papers next to her on a stool, Tabeed surmised that the Lady had been waiting for her, rather than concentrating properly on her work; Temis had a habit of spreading her work around her as she engaged with it.
'Ah, Tabeed! I was just about to call for your help to close these doors.' Her voice was even and slow, as controlled as her face with never a misplaced word or tone.
She nodded, moved to the end of the room to start the process of door-closing. 'The rains will be early today, my Lady,' she agreed. By the time she reached the old chair and stool, Temis had moved her papers over to an ornately carved work desk placed at an angle in the centre of the room. Under the desk lay a small figure, curled up as if in sleep.
'Maeduul, my sweet one. Wake up now. Tabeed is here.'
From under the thin, bare arm appeared the wrinkled face of the Lady's "ornamental" servant. Her head's disfigurements had once shocked Tabeed, but time and acquaintance has soon cured that issue: Tabeed knew better than to accept things as they appeared to be.
'I'm not sleeping, luetsa-ten. I was listening to your pen whisper its secrets to the paper!'
'You were snoring, dear. And now you're pretending.' Temis could always find a small smile for her pet Servant, as if she was remembering secrets of her own. 'Now come here and stand before me.'
Beneath the table the tiny woman stretched, then rolled onto her knees and crawled out towards where the Lady was settling her old chair in the corner of the room.
She was short, barely more than a metre tall. And yet well-proportioned along her length, like a doll of a woman, thin in the arm and the buttock. Today she was wearing a light blue smock with white hems around its edge. It reached down to her knees and left her arms bare to the shoulder, wrapping her body like a loose sack.
Tabeed could see the woman's age plainly. It showed in her face, the lines around the eyes that peeked out above the large, flat bony plates that grew from her upper jawbone to almost circle her furrowed, hair-free head.
Temis reached out and took Maeduul by the hands, turned her round to face Tabeed. 'She has been sitting on the roof again, haven't you, hosha? Her skin has burned.'
'I was watching the red dog chasing the white rabbit across the sky. It was a good race! And then the hearth-woman came and cleared the cinders out and lit the new sun. How could I refuse her gift of soft rays?'
'You should know better! Your skin is too white to sit out in the sunshine! What happened to that old parasol I gave you?'
'You are silly, luetsa-ten. Why would I need a parasol over my head to watch the moons play in the sky?'
'Nevertheless.' Temis moved the muscles around her mouth to form her special scowl, the one she used to show the woman that she was not happy with her. Maeduul reacted accordingly.
'I'm sorry, my Lady,' she said, bowing her head as low as her deformities would allow. 'My work is to please you. I only thought you would like my skin to be brown and soft like your own.'
'And now it is red, like Brach the fire imp's droppings.'
'And you want me to be white,' said Maeduul, a soft grin on her still lowered face, 'like snow petals on the mountains.'
To Tabeed this seemed like an old exchange, signalled in stock phrases: for both women each utterance probably referred back to previous, much longer conversations.
Temis waited a few seconds before continuing. 'I can forgive hosha-ten, if hosha agrees to have cream rubbed into her burns now - and to stay off the roof for at least a whole week.'
Between her cheek-plates, Maeduul smiled. 'Of course I shall obey my Lady! The moons will not be running together for another ten days.' Quickly, she pulled off her smock and stood before the two women, naked. 'Have you brought me the minty cream, Tabeed? That one makes my skin taste nice!'
'No, Maeduul. I've been to the market this morning to get you some special cream - the one with the balming herbs you said you liked.'
'I don't mind the tingles,' said Maeduul, 'they make me feel free like the light, but they do bother me after a little while.'
'Turn around then, hosha, and hold out your arms,' said Temis. 'And stay quiet while Tabeed applies the cream. We need to discuss other business now.'
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