Since I think the last instalment only brings the story up to where it already was, here are a few more chapters.
The Day of Casting Off didn’t begin with nudity. It began as far from nudity as could be imagined. The entire Ezwayna people assembled outside the Great Hall—which was not a hall, but an enormous tamzan, modelled after the Great Hall they had left behind in the Anarchy. They were not only clothed, their figures were entirely smothered behind layers of cloaks and coats. They looked like huge babies, wrapped up by an overprotective mother.
They stood in a ring around the Great Hall, hand in hand, and Fox stood with them. Nobody was pardoned from this linking of hands, except for those who were bedridden. Fox was holding hands with two boys his age, their hands muffled in gloves though it was not a cold day. He thought it was strange that children were allowed to join in this ritual of nudity, but the Ezwayna children seemed to think it perfectly normal.
Every tenth person in the ring was a Rippler, somebody who knew the Earthly Tale off by heart. The Earthly Tale was the history of the Ezwayna, which they added to every year. It was called “earthly” because it was set on this world, not in magical realms like lots of the Ezwayn’s other stories. Not that the Earthly Tale was without magical events itself. There were miracles aplenty, but mostly it was full of harvests and marriages and births, plagues and persecution and the last words of wise old men. And now it was being recited, line by line.
“And in that year there was the famous race of the Purple and Green, the race over thirty miles, when Oldmaster beat Briddek to the Great Pine…”
They were about thirty years into the chronicles, and it had been two hundred and fifty years since the Ezwayna people had been formed by the Great Pledge. Fox sighed. He’d heard enough about beautiful brides and honourable judges that day. If only he could—
Suddenly a huge cheer arose from all around, and the two boys to either side removed their hands from his own. Suddenly, everybody’s hands were in the air, and Fox quickly copied them, almost without thinking.
“What about all the other years?”, he whispered to the boy beside him when the roar had died down.
“We only go through the Golden Era”, said the boy, whispering even lower and looking straight ahead. “The rest we do inside. It goes on for hours. And even then it’s not finished.”
“Are you hot in all those clothes?”, asked Fox.
“Shut up”, said the other boy. “You’re doing blasphemy.”
The ring was breaking up, and everybody was moving towards the Great Hall. People were hugging each other. Fox saw some old people making their way back to their own tamzans. For the most part, they weren’t dressed up like everybody else.
He heard a voice at his side that he recognised. “I can’t believe that they’re still playing that ridiculous game today—“
“Jasma?”, he asked, looking around and seeing his old nurse almost hidden in a brown woollen cape, which was wrapped around even more layers than anyone else seemed to be wearing. She had a hood of the same colour and material over her head, with a small opening from her eyes to her mouth. She was talking to her closest friend, Secret, who was only a little less wrapped up. Secret was the Ezwayna’s expert on cures and potions, and never let anybody doubt it. The scent of herbs clung around her; she seemed to always have a supply ready.
“Fox”, said Jasma. She had a way of speaking his name that mixed together suspicion, exasperation, resignation and a dozen other unflattering emotions. But right now, she seemed embarrassed more than anything else. “I hope you don’t think you’re joining in this ceremony?”
“I didn’t think you would be”, said Fox. How often had he heard Jasma criticising tavern dancers for showing their legs? And here she was, ready to show a lot more than that.
“You wouldn’t understand, you ignorant boy”, she said, and her voice could have frozen fire. “Haven’t you heard me tell you, The moo of the cow and the song of the lark both praise God?”
“No”, said Fox, truthfully. She had quoted him many proverbs, but none of them had been so tolerant.
“Because you have mud in your ears, that’s why”, said Jasma. “What it means is that are different ways to worship God. And a religious person—like me, Fox—is never ashamed to take part in anybody’s religious ceremony. Now what are you doing?”
Fox realised that Jasma was horrified at the thought of him seeing her naked. He didn’t like the idea, either, so he quickly replied: “I’m not going into the Great Hall. Grandy told me to keep an eye on the tamzans while everybody is inside.”
He could see Jasma’s face relaxing with relief, but her tone didn’t change as she said: “Well, there’s no need to go into ours.” She lived with Secret and several other young women, who patched clothes, made poultices, taught girls and generally made themselves useful, while never seeming to be actually busy. “I don’t want you poking around my stuff. Now be gone with you”.
Half of the congregation were inside the Great Hall right now, and the other half was crowded around its entrance. He turned and went in the opposite direction, and Jasma must have thought he was out of hearing range when he heard her say: “He’s quite a good boy, really. But less trustworthy than a table with a missing leg.”
He walked on until the hubbub of the crowd became a distant murmur, through the thick shrubs with dark green, waxy leaves that seemed everywhere in this country.
They were interesting people. He was eager to get into their tamzans…to see what they kept in their chests and their cabinets…
He was passing the little stream called the Skipwater, which could easily be leaped over for much of its length, when he saw something floating in the current. It was a card of some sort. He picked it up.
It was a playing card, made of thin carved wood. It didn’t look much like any playing card he had seen. It showed a woman with six eyes and four arms, swords in both of them. She was dressed in a jewel-studded robe, and there were towers and domes in the background.
Fox stood looking at her for three or four minutes, strangely delighted with this discovery. She was like the queens in stories; there was nothing weak or vain or silly about her. As he stood there looking at it, he found himself suddenly wishing for a life without any boredom, or petty quarrels, or dull
conversations about the weather. Her world was so clean, so shining. Only great and noble things happened there.
He put it in his pocket and moved on, happy to feel it at his side.
It was strange, walking through the empty tamzans. There was something pleasant about it, but something a little upsetting, too. He sometimes felt like this when he wandered the open spaces of this land. If there were no people, the world would go on, just rabbits and dogs and plants and rain. But who would remember any of it? Who would think about any of it?
Of course, there were people still in the village, he thought. The old. Like Grandy and No-Sooner and Goodfellow, probably all sitting around the Spiral board, maybe happy to be without an audience for once. Like the old woman, the storyteller…
Suddenly an idea struck him, and he was amazed he had not thought of it before. He would go to the storyteller. He would ask her to teach him all her stories. It was what he wanted, he suddenly realised, most in all the world. He wanted to own that power he had felt, listening to her tell the tale of Tamar the Innocent. He wanted to live in the world of stories, a world like the one where the queen in the playing card lived. A world where only wonderful things happened.
He set out for her tamzan, his heart drumming with excitement. Why had it only occurred to him now?
As he made his way through the village—the old lady’s house was on the very edge—he wondered what he was going to say to her. What sort of woman a she? He tried to bring her face to mind, but he had already forgotten. All he could remember her voice, so sweet and yet so austere. It seemed like the voice of someone who had lived through centuries, a voice that spoke through the old woman but did not belong to her.
He saw one bald old man sitting on a tree stump outside his tiny tamzan, looking into the sky as if he was trying to work out some complicated problem. Aside from that, and a few frolicking cats, he passed nobody on his way to the storyteller’s home.
He paused outside, suddenly wishing that he could leave this until another day. But there would be no other day. On any day other than this, there would always be people waiting to hear her stories. So he lifted the latch and entered.
There was a warm smell of herbs hanging the large, dark space. The windows had been shuttered, but some light made its way through chinks in the walls and roof. The old lady was lying on a bed of furs in the middle of the floor, wearing a heavy black nightdress. She looked so small.
He walked a few paces towards her, almost without thinking. The darkness gripped him, and he found himself fearing that one of the creatures from her tales would be waiting in the shadows. He suddenly remembered her face, a single image, a stern look that had come over her during one moment in her story. It frightened him, and he took a step backwards.
But then her voice came from the darkness, shaky and yet sure: “Who is it? Is that the clapping boy?”
Fox couldn’t reply. He was too stunned by the old lady knowing who he was.
“What do you want?”, she asked, and he could see her lifting herself up from the bed. Not with difficulty, as even Grandy sometimes did, but with the utmost ease. She sat at its side, cross-legged There was irritation in her voice, not the good humour that Fox had somehow expected.
“I want you to teach me your stories”, said Fox. He wondered if the old woman would even hear him, the words came out so strangled.
There was a long pause, during which Fox realised the audacity of what he was doing. He was one of the youngest people in the settlement, and the storyteller must have been one of the oldest. By the customs of the Ezwayna, he had no right even to address her.
“And why do you want that?”, she said, eventually, in her rough voice. His eyes were getting used to the gloom of the tamzan, and he could see her face, peering at him. There was no smile on it, no playfulness. She was every bit as serious as him.
“Because…I’ve never heard anything so wonderful.”
He heard her laughing to herself, a bitter laugh. “Why don’t you go to the gulls and ask them to teach you how to fly? That would be even more wonderful.”
Fox thought of saying, I don’t know where to buy wings, but he held his silence. He was probably in enough trouble already, without giving cheek.
“Nobody taught me to tell tales”, she said. “I learnt at the fireside, in the fields, from the lips of washer women. You’ve already heard enough stories to last you a whole lifetime, I’ll warrant. The fish were there, but not the net.”
Fox remembered the bloodthirsty stories Jasma had told him, while he sat drinking tea and watching her chop vegetables, stir pots, and scrub floors. There was plenty of death and horror and betrayal in those stories, but…
“I’ve never heard stories like the ones you told”, he said, feeling more desperate with every moment that he spent in this dark place. “Nothing so happy, so beautiful. Or so sad. I’ve only heard violent stories. Scary stories.”
“Enough!”, snapped the old woman, raising a hand. Only from Grandy had he heard so much force in a single word. “Believe me, you’ve heard every single story I ever told a thousand times before. You hear them all the time”.
“I’d never even heard of Tamar the Innocent—“
“Keep quiet”, cried the storyteller, and Fox took a step back, nervously. His cheeks were burning and his stomach felt like a clenched fist.
“What has Tamar the Innocent got to do with it?”, she demanded, in a softer but somehow even sterner tone. “Names don’t matter one little bit. All of the stories about Tamar have been told about other people, too; soldiers and sailors, and mice and maidens, and gods and ghosts and grandfathers. You don’t understand that, and you have the nerve to ask me to teach you stories? Get out and don’t come back!”
The last words were almost a shout, and Fox turned around and rushed for the door. He had been running for two or three minutes before he stopped to lean against a tree, and realised that he was sobbing like an infant. Where had it come from, this overwhelming desire to learn the old woman’s stories? And already it was crushed. He felt as if he had found the door to life, but found it locked.
He took a deep breath and willed his tears to stop. Whenever Grandy had found him crying he’d been almost as angry as if he found him writing on the walls. What difference did blubbering ever make to anything?, he’d say.
Spend your energy in deeds, not tears. That’s what Grandy would say when his anger had cooled. But what was Fox supposed to do now? The old lady had told him to go away, to never come back. And he still had these tamzans to check. The idea of peeping into other peoples’ homes no longer excited him, but he went about it, not having anything else to do.
And there was nothing in the tamzans to get excited about, anyway. He was slightly amused to find a few mock Spiral boards, very roughly painted on wood, most of them with a game left unfinished upon them. Spiral games usually took several sittings to complete, if you didn’t have the time or the patience of Grandy and his friends. Grandy would be furious if he knew games were being played without his permission.
There were many Snakeboy dolls as well, carved out of bone for the most part. Snakeboy was the hero of children’s stories, a prankster and idler who seemed to do exactly what he wanted. Snakeboy had begun as a story parents had told their children to teach them to be good; in those stories, Snakeboy always suffered for his naughty deeds. But the stories took on a life of their own amongst children, and soon he became a hero rather than a warning.
Fox felt like taking one of the Snakeboys—there were almost a dozen in one tamzan—but his respect for toys was too deep. He laid them back on the floor, and moved on.
There were other things to look at, too, like the Firstfather and Firstmother statues. Every family amongst the Ezwayna believed their family name to have begun with a single person, and every member of that family kept a ceramic statue of that ancestor. When they had a problem, or a decision to make, they would sit in front of the statue, believing that the spirits of all their dead relatives hung around it, offering wisdom. The statues were always
smiling, with their arms slightly extended, as if about they were about to hug you. He liked looking at them.
Mostly, though, the tamzans were filled with tools. The Ezwayna had many sayings that warned against working too hard. A scarecrow has no soul was Fox’s favourite, though he hadn’t understood it at first. He also liked Even the sun takes the night off. But in this country, the Ezwayna had no choice but to work very hard, just to keep alive.
He was getting very bored when he came to a medium-sized tamzan, with nothing to distinguish it except a few barrels sitting outside. But when he went inside, his heart froze.
Piper was standing in the tamzan, rummaging through the empty home just as Fox had been doing.
He was bending over a large wooden chest when Fox saw him first, muttering to himself. But in a moment he had looked up and seen the boy. And the next moment, he jumped past him and closed the door, holding it shut with his hand while he stared at Fox with his pale, thin face.
“Have you been following me?”, he asked, and his voice was as soft ever. But his face was tight, and his eyes were full of suspicion.
“No!”, cried Fox, stepping backwards. “I’ve been…”
“I’ve been told to keep an eye on the tamzans, to make sure nothing is wrong…”
“By your grandfather?”
“And is something wrong, Fox?”, asked the criminal, watching him closely. Piper had grown a small beard since arriving in this world, and he’d started wearing a black hat with a wide brim. He was dressed in a tight grey robe, and there was a knife in his belt, seven or eight inches long and curved like a tight smile.
“Nothing”, said Fox. “Nothing wrong”.
“Have you got anything to report to your grandfather?”.
Fox thought for a few moments, though it was hard to think of anything except for the knife in Piper’s belt. “Only that the children are beginning to play Spiral”.
Piper laughed, and Fox began to hope that nothing was going to happen to him. “Are you wondering what I was doing?”
“No…yes”, said Fox. “I don’t care.”
“Well, Fox, the Skullmen had a saying. Count the blades of grass in your garden. It’s an old habit, learning everything I can about the place where I’m staying. Especially when I know the Ezwayna are not too happy about me being here. I want to know exactly what they keep hidden away. Just in case.”
“That’s...a good idea.”
“It’s come in useful now and again.” Piper fell silent, still staring into Fox’s face, still holding the door shut. “Do you see what’s in that chest, for instance?”
Fox turned his head a little to look at the chest Piper had been searching, that still lay open on the floor. All he could see were brightly-coloured cloths, and the glint of something that looked like a silver cup.
“I don’t see—“ he began, looking back at the criminal, but he stopped there. Piper was holding the playing card Fox had found in the Skipwater, turning it around in his hands.
“Where did you get this, boy?”, he asked, and his voice was suddenly sharp.
“I found it in the stream, the Skipwater”, said Fox. He had been watching Piper from the corner of his eye, and hadn’t seen the slightest movement. Jasma had told him the most extravagant tales of pickpockets. She’d told him about people who had tied purses around their stomachs with tight bands, underneath two or three shirts, but who still fell prey to the thieves. Fox had never believed them until now.
“When?”, asked Piper, fixing him with his keen grey eye.
“Today”, said Fox, readying himself to leap out of Piper’s path. “After the Ezwayna went into the Great Hall.”
“By the clump of alder trees, the ones with scores from marble games carved onto them?”
Fox remembered the etched scores, and was amazed that Piper knew where he had crossed the stream.
“Yes”, he said. “There.”
“I think we’re in big trouble”, said Piper, frowning at the card. “The Ezwayna don’t play cards. This must have floated downstream from somewhere else. And—from the looks of that sword—from people who know a lot about weapons.”
He closed his eyes, as if he was trying to work something out, and for a moment Fox thought he looked strangely peaceful.
“They can’t be very far away”, said Piper. “And the Ezwayna are all naked as newborn babies, and lost in the other world. Fox, you have to run to the Great Hall and warn them.”
“What?”, asked Fox, feeling like he sometimes did in dreams, when he realised all of a sudden that he was naked, and everybody was looking at him. “I can’t do that. They lock the doors from inside.”
“Well, bang your fists against them. Tear through the skins. They have to know, Fox.”
“They’re all naked!”
“They might die that way, if you don’t tell them what’s coming.”
“But how do you know they’re coming?”, cried Fox, his fear of Piper entirely forgotten. “What if they don’t?”
“I know”, said the criminal. “There’s not much I’m good for, but I’m good at recognising danger when I see it. This is a vast country, Fox. Nobody would be coming in this direction if they hadn’t followed a trail. And they can only have one thing on their minds.”
“But why don’t you tell them?”, asked Fox, feeling sick at the prospect before him. “They’d listen to you.”
“I have other work to do”, said Piper. He strode to the corner of the tamzan, and pulled aside some heavy rugs that were lying on the floor. Underneath lay a bow and a quiver of arrows, which he scooped up in his arms. “They’ll be coming through Pious Pass. That’s where I have to be.”
“What can you do?”, asked Fox, trying to imagine Piper fighting barbarians. He couldn’t imagine it. Piper looked so thin and unhealthy.
“You’d be surprised”, said Piper. “Not much to do in this place except marbles and hunting. I wish I’d spent less time playing marbles. Now, go.” He did not shout, but something in the simple way he said it made Fox realise he had no way out.
“What if they’re already here and they get me on the way?”
“Then you’ll be out of trouble when it’s only beginning for everybody else. Go, and run as fast as you can, but don’t fall into any more holes.”
Piper opened the door, and pushed Fox through it. A moment later, the criminal was making his way to another tamzan, looking for more arrows. Fox stood watching him for a second, then took a deep swallow and began to run.
He stood outside the Great Hall, coughing and heaving air into his body. Slowly, after perhaps five minutes, the dancing colours in front of his eyes disappeared, and he was panting rather than gasping for breath. And now the huge, arch-shaped door of the tamzan lay before him, daring him to pound upon it.
He could hear chanting coming from inside, chanting that sounded like: “Free me from the chains of sin…free me from the chains of sin…”
What if this was all Piper’s joke? He had seemed kind of cheerful when he saw the card. After all, Fox had taken his purple stone. That’s what Piper had been searching his pockets for, he realised. But even Grandy was suspicious when Fox had fallen down that hole and hadn’t been hurt.
He stood in front of the door, suddenly feeling that he couldn’t knock on it even if it meant he was going to die. He remembered the only book in Grandy’s “library”, The Memoirs of Josper Stronghouse. He’d read its thirty-one volumes over and over. The story of Stronghouse’s first speech to the Subjects’ Chamber always made him feel sick. Stronghouse had thrown up that morning. He was twenty-seven years old. Fox felt like he could throw up now.
Instead, he stepped forward, and banged on the door with his fists.
To him it seemed so loud it must have echoed through the fields, but nobody answered. The chanting went on without a pause.
He beat his fists against the door, but the chanting continued. Suddenly he felt feeble, and the door was so thick. What was wrong with them? Were they in some kind of trance?
He looked around, searching for something he could strike against the stubborn wood. There was always thick branches lying around, weren’t there? People picked them up and used them as walking sticks, even children. Where were they now?
But then he saw a large stone, lying in the grass some twenty yards from the door. He hurried over to it, and picked it up with some difficulty. Its edges were jagged, and it bit into his palms. But he managed to drag it towards the door of the Great Hall. He stood there for a moment, hesitating, but the stone was so heavy. He hurled it. It took most of his strength.
The doors buckled when it struck them, and an enormous boom thudded through the earth and sky. Fox put his hand to his mouth, like a scared infant. And he waited, though he wanted to tear away. He was scared he was really going to wet himself.
The chanting inside had stopped, and he could hear somebody coming to the door. It opened, creaking, and there was a short man with a black beard standing there. He had thrown on a black robe, to Fox’s relief. Firelight glowed from behind.
“What in the name of all the ancestors are you doing?”, he asked, in a low voice. The fact that it was Fox standing there seemed to shock him even more than the blasphemous interruption.
“There’s an attack”, said Fox, amazing himself by getting the words out. He was frightened his voice would seize up entirely. “Piper…Piper says there’s an attack.”
“What do you mean, an attack? Wolves?”
More figures were appearing in the door behind him, and when they saw Fox standing there, they stared.
“No, people. There was a card…”
“A card?”, someone asked from behind the bearded man. “What is he talking about?”
“It’s a trick by Piper.”
“He’s burning the place down…”
“What did I tell you? He should be flogged for this”.
More and more people were coming to the door, and Fox could hear a babble of voices from inside. He couldn’t make out any words, but he could hear that they were all outraged. Soon, there were half a dozen figures standing around him, asking him questions.
“Did you see anybody?”
“Where is Piper?”
“How many of them are there?”
“Shut up!”, shouted somebody, with such energy that every other voice was stilled. They were all looking at an old man, broad and gnarled like a hardy tree. He had a thick brown cape about him, and misty blue eyes that looked able to stare through a wall.
“What exactly did Piper say?”, asked the old man, after a few moments of silence.
Fox tried to speak, but now his throat did close up on him. The old man did not seem in the least bit frustrated; he just kept on staring at the boy, with unflickering patience. The others shuffled, but did not speak. Eventually, Fox said: “I found a playing card in the Skipwater. I was checking up on the tamzans, like my grandfather told me, and…and Piper was in one of them. He took the card out of my pocket…”
“What do you mean, he took it out of your pocket?”, interrupted the old man, frowning.
“I think he was looking for something else”, said Fox, flushing. “Anyway, he looked at it and said that the people who made it must be warriors, because of the sword. Because…because it had a picture of a sword.” Fox felt like he was babbling, but he just kept going. “He’s going to Pirate Pass to shoot arrows at them.”
“Pious Pass”, said Fox, flushing again. But now a discussion had broken out amongst the surrounding figures. There were dozens now, and more pouring out of the Great Hall all the time.
“It’s a trick”, somebody said. “He’s going in the opposite direction with all of our treasures. Why didn’t somebody..?”
“What if he’s telling the truth, though?”
“What’s all this about a card?”
People were moving away from the Great Hall now, hurrying towards the village, arguing as they went. Children were crying. The last of the crowd were trickling out of the Great Hall.
“This is a judgement”, he heard someone saying, and a woman’s voice snarled: “Shut up, Silversmith. We’ve heard enough about your judgements. Get your sword, or I’ll get it myself, you useless….”
“Get the children back into the Hall! And somebody stay with them!”
Fox stood there, suddenly unnoticed, and wondered what he was supposed to do. But now there was a cry going from person to person.
“Get the children into the Hall!”
“Somebody stay with the children!”
He saw groups of boys and girls, many of them crying—he felt on the verge of tears himself—being rounded up, some of them being held back from running to the village. A hand came on his shoulder, and a voice said: “Fox, are you all right?”
He turned around, and Jasma was standing there, with Secret standing a little behind her. They were both looking at him as if he had caused this upheaval; not angrily, but almost fearfully, as if he had some awesome and terrible power.
“I’m fine”, said Fox, happy beyond words to see somebody he knew. Somebody from the Empire.
“Did Piper try to hurt you?”, asked Secret. She was not an attractive woman—she seemed to be all nose—but there was a look of intelligence about her.
“No...I don’t think so”, said Fox.
“He hardly knows what he’s talking about”, said Secret. “Get him inside with the rest of them.”
Jasma clutched him by the arm and marched him towards the Great Hall, into which several dozen groups of children were being herded, some of them almost hysterical by now. She seemed relieved to have something to do. He could feel her worry in the strength of her grasp, and see it in her ferocious expression.
“I can’t believe they were so stupid as to let him wander around the village”, she said, though she hardly seemed to be addressing Fox. “He’s probably made off with my silver brooch..”
“What if he is telling the truth?”, asked Fox. His mind was filled with images of bearded warriors with long spears, screaming, like the tribes pictured in The Memoirs of Josper Stronghouse.
“Don’t be an idiot, Fox” said Jasma. “The truth would choke him.”
They were inside the Great Hall now, which was filled with the wails of children. Some men, he saw, were carrying swords, though weapons were forbidden inside the Great Hall. The question of where they had got them passed through his mind for only a moment.
The Great Hall was an impressive building, even if it was only an echo of the Great Hall they had left behind in the Anarchy. It was simple, and it was huge. Wooden figures of famous ancestors, perhaps eight foot tall, hung on chains from the huge rafters. He recognised Arazua, the last high priest of the Ezwayna. He was so admired by his people that no new high priest was appointed when he died; Arazua would be their high priest, they declared, even in death, and until the end of the world.
Which might be today, thought Fox…
The great fire was still blazing in the central hearth, lighting up the twelve coloured glass globes around it. They must have been brought from the Anarchy, as there was no glass-maker here. Four great tables were ranged around it, forming a square. Children were being seated at these tables, often by force.
“What’s happening?” Fox asked Jasma, who was frowning at the scene. She seemed to half-adore and half-despise children.
“You’re going to be given something to eat, that’s what’s happening”, said Jasma, looking towards the door of the tamzan, her thoughts obviously on the village. “Nothing like food to calm people down.”
“Are we all going to die, Jasma?”, asked Fox, and tears started down his own cheeks as he said it.
“Absolutely not”, said his old nurse, and the certainty in her words made him less afraid. It was the same tone she had used to chastise him, back in the old house, but he was glad to hear it now. His tears stopped as soon as they had begun. He did not ask himself how Jasma could know. He wanted to believe, to exercise the privilege of children.
But then, behind him, he heard one man whispering to another: “I’ve just been outside. I can hear shouting coming from the village. Fighting.”
He looked up at Jasma. Her face was flushed with fury. She turned around briskly and smacked the man on the cheek with all her force. Her hand was closing in upon him a second time when he grasped her wrist. He was a ruddy-skinned chap, in his early twenties, his face still pimpled. He was staring at Jasma disbelievingly.
“What in the Nameless—“
“Don’t you dare blaspheme in the Great Hall!”, shouted Jasma over him, and he stopped, looked ashamed and confused. “And let go of me. You deserve your bottom spanked for talking nonsense and scaring the children. And it is nonsense.”
The young man blushed, glanced at Fox, and said: “I’m sorry. I was only making it up.”
“That’s right. Now do something useful and help them give out the porridge. And you, too”, Jasma said to the other man, who had anxiously watching her, fearing his own turn. They both hurried off, towards the fire, looking like naughty children.
“God’s wisdom was strangest when he made men”, she quoted. It was probably her favourite proverb.
“What about Grandy, Jasma?”, asked Fox. “What about Goodfellow and No-Sooner? What’s going to happen to them?”
“Nothing is going to happen to anybody, Fox. Thank you.” A woman had laid down a wooden bowl of lumpy porridge in front of Jasma, from which the handle of a spoon was jutting. One was thrust down in front of Fox, too, so briskly that some of it spilled over onto the table.
“But what will they do if the attackers—“
“There are no attackers!”, she said, banging her spoon against the table. “Eat your porridge. Nobody can think sense on an empty stomach.” She spooned a mouthful into her own mouth, and swallowed it loudly. “It’s not bad”.
Reluctantly, Fox took ate a spoonful himself. It wasn’t good, either. But as soon as it reached his belly, he realised how hungry he was. He’d had nothing to eat since morning, and he was exhausted from his run.
“I’ll tell you exactly what’s happening”, said Jasma. “Piper is five miles away already, carrying as much treasure as he can. Not that the Ezwayna have very many treasures”—despite her religion, Jasma had a keen respect for
wealth—“but whatever trinkets and heirlooms they brought out of the Anarchy, he took, to be sure. I just hope he gets himself hanged, one of these days.”
Suddenly, Fox felt very, very tired, as if he had been woken from deep sleep in the middle of the night. He looked about him. Children were putting their heads on the table and rubbing their eyes, and the men and women were carrying some from their chairs. As he drifted into sleep, he wondered if he would ever wake again, but it was a distant thought, as if his own life was merely a story he had been reading. The last thing to pass through his waking mind was Jasma lifting him from his chair.