Woke up this morning to discover that the world had turned white overnight. Sadly I’m away from home, otherwise I would have posted pictures, but here in South Wales everything is crisp and beautiful and the snow is still coming down, so I might be here a while. Luckily we have plenty of coffee and electricity, and looking at the outside, it’s the perfect day to stay in and write.
Making good progress of the edits for Art of Forgetting, and we should have ARCs by the end of March, so please get in touch if you’d like a review copy – you can use the “Talk to Me” form at the top of the page.
In the meantime, as somehow always happens, I am writing about summer in winter, and vice versa. Anyone wanting an update from “Summer Goddess”, here it is (as always, it belongs to me, may contain traces of spoilers and NSFW language, is first-drafty and rough – you know the drill. For now, keep warm, and stay safe!
The room was gloomy, walled around with dark-panelled wood, and even the bright sun outside seemed not to penetrate quite far enough. There was a table at one end made of similar wood, surface scratched and pitted with scars and ring marks. In the opposite wall was a fireplace, a vase crammed with softly-wilting blooms stood where the logs should have been, and above the mantle, above the clutter of dusty candles and trinkets and a blue mug with a broken handle, was a painting that took up most of the wall. Asta took a step back, trying to focus on the whole image, which seemed to large, too bright for the room. There were hooded figures, prostrate or kneeling or offering gifts, held in outstretched hands, but there seemed to be no perspective to the painting, so it was impossible to tell whether they stretched out to each other, or to the Red Temple which appeared several times, or to the night-black hand that dripped blood in the middle of the scene. She felt that was important, a candle had been painted below it, presumably to illuminate it, and in the lower third of the picture were figures she took to be slaves, with bent backs and chains around their necks and bright red, false, painted on smiles…
“You can sit down, you know?”
Asta jumped at the voice, coming so unexpectedly from the deep chair to the right of the window that looked out onto the yard, and the street beyond. The chair had high wings surrounding the seat, and the woman sunk into it with the frayed blanket pulled up to her chin was tiny, even smaller than Lusha. Silver eyes like water-splashed pebbles watched Asta as she walked across the room and lifted the cushion from the identical, facing seat.
“Not there. That’s Lusha’s chair.”
“Sorry.” Finn tutted his irritation, chafing at the delay. He wanted to look around, but Asta forced herself to pick up one of the chairs that sat around the table and brought it back to sit between Marisse’s chair and Lusha’s. “Please, are you Marisse?”
The old lady sucked her gums. “You’re not Inyestan, are you? Where are you from?”
Asta was saved from having to reply by the re-appearance of Lusha, carrying a tin tray with a long-necked flask and three tiny, delicate cups on it. The glass flask was filled with cloudy orange juice, and a dish on the tray held crackers and slices of hard-boiled egg. She took a cracker and a slice of egg and placed it reverently in a dish on the mantelpiece, just below the painting.
There was a low table below the window, as scratched and batter as its larger counterpart, and Lusha set the tray down on the table and poured Asta a thimbleful of the juice. It was thick and pulpy, but delicious, and she was grateful for the cooling sensation as she swallowed.
With much thumping of cushions, Lusha settled herself in her own chair, and motioned for Asta to help herself to egg and crackers, and more juice if she wanted it.
“What did you want to see Marisse for?” she demanded.
Asta set her food down and drew the slave deed from the pocket of her shift. “I’m looking for a relative,” she explained. “He was enslaved. Catmael gave me this, and it says you bought him.” She laid it down on the table between the two elderly women. “I have paper. I want to buy him back.”
Lusha picked up the paper, squinted at it, moving it back and forward before her eyes, then handed it to Marisse. “I told you we shouldn’t have bought the boy,” she said. “This is your doing.”
“We both agreed we needed more help around the house, and in the yard.” Marisse’s rebuke was mild. “We worked all our lives. We deserve a break.”
Her tired voice suggested this was an old disagreement. “Where is Rhodan now?”
“Rhodan? We called him Snipe.”
Finn snarled. Shut it, Asta warned him. You sound like Mother. Aloud, she said, “I’ve travelled a long way, and I’ll pay any paper you ask. I just want him back. Where is he?” Wherever he was, he clearly hadn’t done much in the way of yard work. Or dusting.
Lusha blinked. “Well he’s gone, my dear!”
“Gone? Gone where?” Not dead, Finn, he can’t be dead. We’ve come all this way….
“We sold him. He wouldn’t do as he was told, and he kept trying to run away,” Marisse said. “Stubborn, he was. Never known a boy like it for obstinacy. Couldn’t beat it out of him, nor starve it. Gave up in the end.”
The matter-of-fact way she said it sent the heat rushing to Asta’s face, and she snatched up the slave deed with a shaking hand. She was shocked into silence, but Finn was raging enough for both of them, beating against the walls of her skull, fighting to take control of her body, to wrap his hands around the throat of the frail old lady and choke the life out of her. He snatched at her hands and she twisted them in her lap, fighting him, pushing him down into the dark of her mind, holding him there.
Finn! Not now! We’ll find him, we’ll find him and we’ll burn the city. She’s an old lady, Finn… This whole fucking culture is diseased, not her!
This place is fucked, Asta. Let’s find him and get out.
“Are you all right, dear?” Lusha peered at Asta. “You look a bit upset….”
“I’m fine.” Asta poured a drink and swallowed it quickly, to cover her anxiety, to buy time to think. “Who did you sell him to?”
Lusha swiveled her eyes reverentially up to the painting. “To the Red Temple, to the service of the Deity.”
Always the bloody Temple! There’s something going on at that place, Asta. I don’t want my son to be part of it.
Asta ignored him. She had her own fears regarding the Temple. “Who is the Deity? What will he do there?”
“The Deity watches over all of us,” Lusha said, piously. “He needs people to serve him. Snipe will have a good life there.”
“Rhodan. His name is Rhodan.”
Marisse gummed her cracker, sucking it to make it soft, and swallowing. “You’re Atrathene, then. Never known a people set such store by names. You’re a long way from home.”
“Please,” Asta broke under her silver stare. “My brother is dead. Rhodan was taken… I just want to bring him home.”
Marisse pushed herself to her feet with a creak of old bones, and motioned for Lusha to stay sitting. “You’ll want the Temple, and quick. I would only take a switch to a stubborn boy, but the Red Maids… They’re harsher than me, if he doesn’t learn his place. I’ll see her out, Lusha.” Her hand with its yellowed nails lingered on her companion’s wrist, and Lusha patted it.
“The Deity will protect him,” she said. “If if he is a heathen.”
“Of course he will,” Marisse assured her. “Come with me, Atrathene child.”
The sun was close to setting as she opened the door. It seemed to move faster, here in the south, and the hot winds had faded away, the swirling dust settling in patterns on the driveway. The cloudless sky told Asta it would be cold at night, and she had nowhere to sleep. She hoped the Temple had at least put a roof over Rhodan’s head.
“Thank you,” she said to Marisse. The old lady’s hand darted out and caught her wrist in a crab-like grip.
“You be careful,” she said, in an undertone. “Lusha doesn’t remember, but I do. She thinks the Deity is benevolent, the Temple is kind. Get your boy out of there and get back to Atrath.”
Asta stared at her, startled into speechlessness. Marisse had spoken in heavily accented but fluent Atrathene.
“I travelled when I was young. I’ve seen a lot of the world, a lot of gods.”
She found her tongue. “What – has Lusha forgotten?”
“The stonings, the fires, the whispers on street corners. Now they have more subtle methods. They still come and take you away in the night, I’ve heard. Not us; we’re old, we don’t cause any trouble now. You cause trouble, you ride outside the herd, they’ll come for you too.”
“Not them.” Marisse pressed her lips together. “I’ve said too much, even in your tongue. The birds of the air have eyes that watch you. Get Rhodan, and get out, before –”
She broke off, turning back to the house, to her wing-backed chair and Lusha, who had forgotten what she was meant to remember. She left Asta staring at a closed door, with nowhere to go and the chill of evening on her back.