This was written and then removed from a forthcoming GreenSky book, but doesn’t contain spoilers. Enjoy!
Ziricon hadn’t changed. Or, Lusa amended to herself, Attar hadn’t changed.
The city was the nearest to the mines, and was the trading hub for the industry. As such, it was covered with a pall of smog, with dirty buildings, fires lit almost constantly, machines and people working constantly, and endless rebuilding works…
She’d never flown before and had felt slightly petrified for the entire time, wondering when the flimsy craft was going to fall out of the sky as easily as it had risen. The descent towards the desert outside Attar had been the most terrifying, with the ground coming up towards her and then the sudden stop. She’d never been so grateful to touch solid ground in her life.
And then the Fliyer had lifted off into the sky again, and she’d been left in the dust and scrubland of the desert, wondering why she’d agreed to this.
Tollie had dropped her a little way outside the city in the dusk, and Lusa trudged along the main road as darkness fell. They’d wanted to keep her fairly inconspicuous, and being delivered somewhere by Fliyer was going to say ‘Meton’ to any watcher. Hopefully, she had now blended in with the groups of travellers on the road, amongst the final few wagons that were bearing their loads of ore and fuel to the city.
Her clothes felt odd. It had been a few years, now, since she’d worn Ziricon styles…and even when she’d lived here, she had rarely worn the long skirt and tunic of the freedwoman that she wore now. It felt as if she was stepping back into a mask that no longer fitted.
But now…she had changed, and her status had certainly changed. And she really hoped that it would help her mission.
Marlin Pet’re Annan’s house was behind the same high walls as most of the other Palaces in Ziricon. Was it just habit, or to ensure the rabble were kept out? But the gate was open, and Lusa headed for it.
A guard stopped her. “Name?”
“Lusa Annan. The Marlin is expecting me.”
The man looked her up and down, and Lusa felt her lip curl. She hadn’t missed the looks, the leers, the comments. At least Ceane was better than that!
But he did go and check the chalkboard in the small room, leaving her standing in the dust for a minute. Lusa looked through the gates at the courtyard and large doors. The Marlin kept his garden in the inner courtyard, preferring it for private use rather than the ostentatious display of wealth that some other Marlins preferred. She hadn’t seen much of the garden when she was last here, but then she hadn’t been here long. Maybe she’d see more of it this time.
The guard returned. “Through the gate, report to the steward. You know the way?”
He didn’t want to have to send the messenger whose feet Lusa could see through the open door, propped on the table. “I know the way.”
There were few people around as Lusa walked across the dusty courtyard and then into the main entrance. Pet’re Annan was as given to ostentation as the others, albeit in a slightly more decorative way; the main lobby was marble and stone, and was far too garish for Lusa’s eyes. She found the steward’s second in the office, and the boy shot off to tell someone else. At least the news was getting up the chain. Lusa took a seat on an ornately carved wooden bench, and prepared to wait.
But it was only ten minutes later when Marlin Pet’re Annan strode into the lobby. He hadn’t changed from when Lusa last saw him; his silver hair was tied back in the city style, his clothes a rich fabric but a simple design, and his face forming into a smile as he spotted her. He strode over and held his hands out. “Lusa, my dear, your time away has worked wonders for you. Welcome back.”
Lusa took the hands, feeling as if the world was spinning. She had been a slave, the last time she was here…and now she was being greeted as if she were one of the family.
Pet’re Annan smiled more broadly, obviously spotting her confusion. “Please, come and eat with me. We have much to discuss.”
At Pet’re’s insistence that she bathe and relax before dinner, Lusa was provided a bath in a richly decorated room; the marble and inlay of the walls was starting to feel a little less strange by the time she stepped out of the shallow pool, but having two servants to help her dress made her skin crawl. She sent them both out as politely as she could, all too aware that she had been there. She had poured the water for her mistress. She had held the clothes, done the ties, found the scarves and shoes. She had never been on this side of the deal, and even though Pet’re Annan’s household was – well, no less rich, but less ostentatious – than her mistress’, the presence of servants to tend Lusa was unsettling.
And, she reflected as she dried herself off, she was too used to Ceane. The tin tub in front of the fire, the inches of water that did for the whole family…even with Ziricon’s lack of water, there was more in the bath here than in what she now thought of as her home. But then having to haul the water up from the well yourself would argue against using too much.
She did ask one of the servants to help her with the dress; they were unfamiliar silks and ties, and Lusa felt out of place. Even when the layers were arranged correctly, she had to stand and calm herself for a moment, getting used to the feelings. When she had first arrived in Ceane, the tunic and tight trousers of the inhabitants had seemed alien and uncomfortable – until the cold winds and rain proved their use to her. These loose silks were cool and elegant, or would be elegant. On Lusa, with her sagging belly and breasts, her bulging arm and leg muscles from the smithing…she felt incredibly out of place.
But, she reflected, at least the flowing garments covered a multitude of sins. She could pretend to be elegant while she was here.
She pondered what exactly Jan had told Pet’re Annan as they exchanged pleasantries and picked at the first course of food. Lusa had only ever seen the meals from the servant’s side of the table, so it felt strange to be performing such a ritual dance with a Marlin herself. But her former mistress had been a good teacher. The nibbles of the first course were intended to allow the sort of chatter that put a guest at ease, but Lusa wished he’d just get to the point. Again, Ceane living had spoiled her. She felt rude and uncouth as she responded to the Marlin’s questions, unsure what to ask in return, or even if she should be asking anything.
“So,” Pet’re said as the second course was brought in, relaxing back on his couch and smiling at the woman sitting on the straight-backed chair on the other side of the low table. “We come to Janevere Marov’s request.”
Lusa nodded, and took a small pastry-wrapped morsel. The food was all picking items, intended to sate but not to fill; she was having to remember not to gorge herself, too used to the one-dish meals of Quorl.
“I would agree with Janevere that the best way to get you into Marlin Jirlaen’s services is, frankly, to play on his greed.” Pet’re wiped his fingers on a napkin and then took another morsel. “I do not yet think Jirlaen is aware of your return, but I’m sure that he will be soon.”
“Is he still interested in me?”
Pet’re smiled. “He is not often thwarted, and particularly not by me. He has occasionally made reference over the last few years to the slave that he did not manage to buy at market, the one that then left Reyan in the company of the man who became Heir to Quorl…I think he still bears a grudge, my dear. And that is something we can use.”
“You think he is definitely involved, then.”
Pet’re nodded. “I am one of the largest mine-owners, but Jirlaen is the other. I would like to place the blame on Hinart for the problem that you are investigating, but the whole scheme stinks of Jirlaen. I may suspect that our Council Leader is aware of the scheme, but he will be taking steps to cover his tracks. It will be Jirlaen’s scheme and his to rise or fall on, and Hinart will claim it for the Council if it succeeds.” Pet’re paused, and gave a deprecating smile. “Of course, I am merely extrapolating from what I already know of my fellow-Marlins. But that is my best reading of the political situation.”
They paused while another set of small dishes were brought in and the previous ones removed.
“So what do you advise?” Lusa asked.
“Janevere requested that I offer you all and any assistance I could for your mission,” Pet’re said, taking one of the peeled fruits and proceeding to break it into slices. “You are a blacksmith, are you not?”
“Then that will be extremely useful. This is what I suggest…”
A day later, Lusa climbed up onto the wagon that would take her to Attar. It was a steam-powered machine, and smoke was trickling from the tall chimney-stack at the front. She’d forgotten how dirty Ziricon was. Her skin already felt grimy, despite the bath she had taken the previous day.
As Lusa took her seat on the wooden bench and pushed her travel-sack of tools under the bench in front, she was joined by another woman dressed in the long skirt and tunic of a freedwoman, matching Lusa’s own.
The other six passengers got themselves aboard, stowing their belongings under the seats and clutching bags. The wagon did cost money, but it was obviously used by a variety of travellers; in addition to the two freedwomen, Lusa spotted a silken robe under a heavy travelling cloa, and a father with his son sat behind them, the child chattering anxiously about the schoolmaster they were going to see. Lusa wondered why they were travelling to Attar for school when there were plenty in Reyan.
“You would be Lusa,” the woman next to Lusa said with satisfaction as the chimney belched a cloud of black smoke, and the driver threw a lever. The wagon juddered, rattled, and moved forward.
The blacksmith turned her head, examining her companion. She was plumper than many of the freedwoman Lusa had seen; she had either been out of slavery for a while, or had an indulgent owner. Her hair was bound up in a knot and her cloak was thicker than it had first seemed, indicating expense. There was something not quite right about her, Lusa thought.
“I’m Ellie. Marlin Pet’re should have mentioned me.” She said it as if not mentioning her was an unspeakable offence.
Lusa was nodding, trying to stop that line of indignation before it started. “He mentioned you, yes. He said you would be travelling, but he did not think you would be going this soon.”
Ellie smiled. “I received permission yesterday.”
“Permission to travel?” She was free. She shouldn’t need permission…unless Lusa had got it wrong, and the woman was still a slave.
“I am going to visit my daughter,” Ellie explained, some of the cheer dropping off her round face. “In Marlin Jirlaen’s Court.”
The rattle of the wagon and punch of the engines was drowning out their words to any of the travellers around them, for which Lusa was grateful. Was that why Pet’re had suggested this mode of travel? “But you reside with Marlin Pet’re?”
“He was my master, yes. He freed me.” Ellie’s face had dropped even further, as if recounting the story was painful. One hand went to her bosom. “Marlin Jirlaen kept my daughter when I was sold, and I may visit her once a year. Once a year!”
Lusa nodded sympathetically, abruptly missing Mikael. How was he getting on in Meton? But there was no chance she’d let Ellie know she had children, not if she was this chatty to strangers. The wariness of slavery was still with Lusa, despite her freedom.
“She’s a virtual prisoner, not allowed out, not allowed to visit me…” Ellie was moaning. “I don’t even know why he wanted to keep her! She is a girl child, useless to him. Pet’re would buy her in an instant, but he won’t hear of it…”
And the rivalry between the two men was probably why the girl would never be returned to her mother, Lusa thought. Jirlaen would always want some control over his former slave. “Is her father not around?”
Ellie’s widened eyes told Lusa exactly who the girl’s father was, and she cast her eyes over Ellie again. A few years ago, the plump young woman probably would have been very attractive – attractive enough to risk fathering a child on. And then she was disposed, sold off…but the daughter was kept. The political maneuvering made Lusa want to spit. To keep a child when its mother was sold was abuse, even in the world of slavery. To have Mikael live somewhere else, only able to see him once a year…the thought made her shiver.
Ellie was still wailing, and Lusa put her hand on the woman’s. “Tell me about her.”
Ellie tended to repeat herself, so by the next stop, Lusa had repeatedly learned that Maya was about fourteen, had brown hair and dark eyes, lived in the depths of the Court, had learned some letters and did well in her studies when she was allowed to take them. “Jirlaen will not hear of her learning a trade,” Ellie added indignantly, “but she is not a slave! She is not property, she should be allowed to make something of herself.”
“If she is the Marlin’s daughter, surely she can marry?” Lusa was trying to remember what avenues were open to freedwomen in Ziricon, and suddenly ached for Quorl. Life was so limited here!
“He will not hear of it! She is the daughter of a slave,” Ellie wailed, “and therefore no one wants her! Jirlaen will not marry her off, he thinks she is unworthy.”
“She’s just…left at Court then?”
Ellie sniffed. “Left all alone, most of the time! She is allowed to read and learn, but that is not enough. I have begged to be allowed to bring her home, to let her make something of herself, but he prefers that she stay at Court, stay in her room…”
What a life. Even a slave was allowed to go out, to leave their occupation for one day a week, to have some future. Well, Lusa amended, most slaves were. Those sent to the Mines had no future beyond pain and death. They were not places where the workers survived for long.
By the time they reached the second rest stop, Lusa wished Pet’re had put Ellie on the next wagon. The woman had repeated the same story twice, and was starting on a third time. Lusa felt sorry for the child, but she wasn’t sure what she could do.
Lusa leaned back against the hard back of the bench, and looked out over the road.
It was going to be a long journey.