Return 3 pt3

(chapter continued from previous post)

“Your husband isn’t here?” Narcissa asked.

“Gone, like all Ilek’s master craftsmen, looking for a place he can earn a living to support his family. He’ll be back when he can. Meanwhile, I do what I can to keep his children and myself fed, and remember my duty to Ejiro’s Bride even when many others forget.” She paused in front of a sandstone shop, closed like the others.

Unlike the others, the faded and chipped sign above showed the unmistakable form of an astrolabe.

Enodian technology turns up in the oddest places, Lysandra reflected.

“Your home?” Narcissa said, and gestured upwards. “The sign of an educated craftsman, that. I suppose you’ve sold all his work by now?”

“No, not all. I can’t get much for it anymore. Neighbouring towns charge us cruel prices for food and have had so much sold so cheaply that even an object that should feed our family for a month, I’d be lucky to get a single healthy meal.”

“Would you be willing to humour me? We’re far from home and at times I feel homesick, I confess, and I would very much like to see what a master craftsman might have done with Hypatia’s plans and descriptions.”

The woman hesitated for a long moment, then nodded abruptly. “On condition that you touch nothing else. I have children to feed, and right now, the plants are worth more than all the clever trinkets combined.”

“We do not need your food, even if we were willing to steal from children.”

The woman unlocked the door with a heavy key, and waved them inside.

The interior was much brighter than Lysandra expected.

That had a great deal to do with mirrors, both polished metal ones and glass ones that should have been astronomically expensive, angled to cast sunlight across an indoor garden of sorts. Anything that could be used to hold soil had been pressed into service, from cooking pots and washbasins to half-barrels and odder things she couldn’t readily identify. In all of them, plants were growing, and doing so more successfully than any others they’d seen locally. The air smelled heavy and green. Lysandra couldn’t tell the difference between root vegetables and salad greens, but some sort of bean that had been trained up a trellis was hard to mistake.

Between the plants, though, were things of brass and bronze and steel and glass. They’d been shoved to the backs of shelves, into the shadows, and were dulled by dust and dirt, but some of those shapes were complex or deceptively simple.

Interestingly, Lysandra saw scant trace of mice or signs of their presence—but she did spot, tucked under a bench, a boxy object with heavy wire mesh across one end. A mousetrap, she guessed.

“We will do your garden no harm,” Narcissa assured her. “This is impressive.”

The woman shrugged. “With no one in Ilek buying my husband’s work these days, the space is better used to feed his children. Look around as you wish.” She picked up a rough-looking trowel and knelt on a pad of tattered soil-stained rags to work on a half-barrel of, well, something green. Lysandra was conscious of her keeping a wary eye on them as they explored the small forgotten treasures.

Narcissa picked up a small brass box, bright with inlaid glass in an abstract pattern. The top refused to open. Such boxes were common in Enodia: typically there was one bit of inlay that had a switch concealed beneath it, though expensive ones might require pressing two or three in the correct sequence. They weren’t terribly secure, and could be forced open readily, but they were popular nonetheless. Narcissa, methodically, worked her way across the top, seeking the switch.

“Very pretty,” she murmured in Enodian.

“She’s much more coherent than that poor girl in the temple,” Lysandra said, just as quietly. “A good source of real information?”

“Yes, if we can find a way to persuade her to talk to us. I think we need first to convince her we aren’t a threat. Ah, there!” The box clicked open, and Narcissa raised the top to expose an interior lined with soft pale felt. “Beautiful work,” she said in the local language. “This would be lovely to hold a gift to someone special.” She closed it and set it down.

On another shelf, they found a tiny model of the world, with the five moons circling around it. The clockwork had run down, leaving it frozen with the moons in the wrong places, but when Lysandra delicately set Meyar to the correct phase and location, the others clicked along with it.

“Lirit’s correct,” Narcissa said. “The others certainly look to be. Very clever. I don’t believe this came from Hypatia’s book.” She traded glances and smiles with Lysandra. It would be a useful gadget for anyone needing to keep track of the moons—but their own lives were so heavily dominated by that endless cycle that they really didn’t need it.

The woman’s husband was unquestionably skillful. Not all the small devices were Enodian, but a number of them were, and the rest were amusing or useful or both.

Now and then, despite the healthy plants and lack of visible mouse droppings suggesting an absence of mice here, Lysandra found her gaze snapping to track motion. There was never anything there that she could see, other than once an even more fleeting and indistinct impression of whiteness than she’d had in the temple. She was sure her sister was finding the same thing happening.

Behind a metal pot of dense leafy greens lurked a brass frame that Lysandra drew out into view. An abacus, the beads on each rod a different hue of vividly coloured glass.

“That’s an Enodian-style one,” Narcissa said in delight. “Base-twelve, not base-ten. And quite a striking one, at that.” The rods were separated by a cross-bar, with three beads on each rod above it, four below, and the whole thing was of a comfortable size for easy and accurate use.

“The colours would mean being able to do variable degrees of fractions,” Lysandra said. “Pick a colour to stand for single units, and everything past that gives you fractions. And it’s very pretty.” These days, she used one only when helping Narcissa work out precise measurements for her formulas, but many years of an abacus being a vital tool on a daily basis had left her with an affinity for them. And this one was beautiful, the beads bright even through the dust, the brass gracefully shaped with delicate geometrical designs etched into it. With a fingertip, she slid a few beads around, and found they moved smoothly but stayed where they were put. “Well-made, too. This would be a joy to use.”

Narcissa glanced at her, smiled, and turned to the woman. “Would you be willing to sell this?” She gestured to the abacus. “It’s hard to find an Enodian one this far from home, and I’d be helpless without one. Having another, especially one that’s a work of art, would be well worth it.”

The woman shrugged and sat up straight. “No reason why not, depending on what you’re offering.”

Narcissa looked thoughtful. “How many children do you have?”

“Two,” the woman said guardedly.

Lysandra could all but see her sister calculating what food they had with them and what could best be done with it.

“Perhaps,” Narcissa said, “you and your children would join us for the evening meal? One of my servants makes very tasty and healthy meals, even over a campfire. I would not ask you to accept that as the full price, of course, and coin outright should be less devalued than goods to sell, but I think that this might be of more immediate benefit to your family than coin. Whatever you consider fair for the remainder, I’ll willingly pay.”

Lysandra watched the woman hesitate. Under other circumstances, it would be a laughable offer for the work of a master craftsman. With her children hungry and food so expensive, however, rules changed.

“I’m afraid,” Narcissa added, “it may be nothing more elaborate than soup and bread, but I believe that would be duck and vegetable soup.” She glanced at Lysandra for confirmation, and she nodded. One of Kaveri’s first priorities had been to bring out the biggest pot from its home in a box under the wagon, and she’d been efficiently cleaning the duck when the sisters had left. “And wheat-flour bread. As much as you can eat.”

“I think,” Lysandra added, “we might have a little honey left, as a sweet treat for your children.” She knew there was honey left, actually. She considered it a personal necessity during Meyar’s less bright nights. But all in a good cause.

The woman considered that. “If you have any to spare for Abena—Ejiro’s Bride—you can keep your coin.”

“Done. Bring a vessel you consider a fair size, and we’ll fill it as well for you to take to her. I think she’ll trust it more from your hands than ours. And bread too, of course.” She glanced at Lysandra. “Perhaps with honey.”

Slowly, the woman nodded. “When? You already told me where.”

“Around dusk?” Narcissa suggested. “There’s no need to worry overly much about the time.”

Another nod. “It’s yours.”

Lysandra set it back on the shelf. Being strangers in town, it was better to make certain there could be no misunderstandings: an accusation of theft would help no one.

“Thank you,” Narcissa said. “Then we’ll see you at dusk. Have you a name?”

“Onyeka.”

Narcissa inclined her head in acknowledgement. “I’m Narcissa. This is Lysandra. Until later.”

The sunlight outside seemed almost drab after the mirror illumination within.

“She may be married to a master craftsman,” Narcissa said, “but to set up those mirrors, and to keep them oriented as the sun moves, is a task needing considerable skill of her own, as does keeping so many plants with varied needs growing well under such conditions, and somehow keeping them safe from the mice. And it’s admirable that she will not abandon that poor girl in the temple, even while trying to care for two children of her own.”

“She also seems to have no particular love for the wealthy and powerful of Ilek,” Lysandra said. “I believe we’ve found our source of information. And if a meal for herself and those for whom she feels responsible doesn’t make her well-disposed towards us, it’s hard to imagine what would.”

Narcissa nodded. “Shall we go back? Perhaps by now there will be something we can usefully do without being too badly out of character. Under the circumstances, I’d consider it quite plausible for any lady willing to travel with only three attendants in a wagon to be willing to get her hands dirty, but I think I’m in the minority on that.”

“There’ll likely be something I can do, at least. We need to go left. After you, Your Gracious Serenity.”

The title, to which Narcissa’s claim was now highly questionable, made her smile as they started back towards the camp.

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