She’d had her ankle linking ceremony more than five years ago, but at night, Cayda still dreamed of running. Fleet feet slipping through the reeds around the lake, toes squishing in mud, strong legs launching her over logs and stones—images so real from her childhood that sometimes she woke to find herself exhausted from straining against her gold-plated links of womanhood. This was one of those mornings.
The sound of Respected Mother’s voice through the door startled her from sleep, and she bolted up from her cushions, heart pounding.
“Why are you still in bed?” The woman’s voice penetrated the wood as though the door was made of linen. “What are you, an empress? Get up!”
The tone in her mother-in-law’s voice sent Cayda stumbling from her bed despite the ache in her dream-weary legs.
“Coming, Respected Mother,” she said, fear tightening her voice to a whisper. Though the heavy door stood between them, the woman would hear. She heard everything.
“You should have been to tend the lamps ages ago. Sluggish girl, my son should send you to the bagnios.”
“Yes, Respected Mother.”
Cayda shuffled to her wardrobe, the links of the oboedire on her ankles tinkling as she moved. She stood blinking at the rows of silks and linens in her armoire, still lost in her dream. The vision of running lingered like the sweetness of summer melon on the tongue, and she couldn’t reconcile the sight of her straight skirts with her memory of speed.
“Hurry up, bone-sack!”
Forcing the dream from her mind, she slipped out of her night clothes and into layers—first shift; then underskirt; next an overskirt, thick with pleating around the waist; finally, a long tunic and a shawl. Her husband said the pale orange silk looked magnificent with her hazel eyes; she thought it made her look milk-faced, and turned her pale brown hair even more colorless. But, her husband knew best what was beautiful, so she chose the orange. Without bothering to look at a mirror, she wound her hair into the plain knot worn by married women without sons, and secured it with a handful of pins to keep the wayward pieces in place. Someday soon she would be twisting those straight, boring locks into intricate loops and braids of a woman who has born her husband a boy.
“Are you alive in there?”
This time Respected Mother’s words were accompanied by an echoing rap at the door. Cayda’s mouth went dry, and she nearly dropped her shoe to crawl under the bed. That sound was unmistakable; it was the ironwood cane the old woman carried with her, though she was in perfect physical form. Wielded by Respected Mother, the cane left bruises on the backs of legs that lasted for two weeks.
Cayda’s trembling fingers fumbled over her laces, but she eventually managed to put on her shoes. She adjusted the gold links of her oboedire so they hung loose between her feet, and then hurried to the door as fast as she was able. She dared a glance at Respected Mother’s expression as she opened the door. Was she irritated enough today to use her cane?
The tiny woman’s face was pinched with impatience, her five son-scars and three daughter-scars shone silver against her reddened cheeks. Her iron-grey eyes were so fierce that Cayda quickly looked away again, but not before noting the punishing cane the woman gripped in her boney hand; her knuckles were blanched white.
“What is your excuse? Hm? Should I teach you to move more quickly?” The old woman brandished her cane and took a step closer to Cayda.
“Please, forgive me,” Cayda said, bowing down. “I am lazy and slow. I will work twice as hard to improve, to please you and my husband. With you guiding me, I might succeed.”
The other woman sniffed and lowered her weapon, seemingly mollified.
“Yes. Lazy and slow. But I won’t tell my son of his wife’s sloth this time—it would only upset him. Go to the temple rooms and light the lamps. No breakfast until you have completed your duties.”
Cayda nodded, eyes still downcast, and shuffled toward the main building of the family compound that held the temple rooms. Alone in the quiet of the smallest of the sacred rooms—the women’s devotional—she knelt beside the brazier, pulling flint from the onyx box that lay on the shelf to the side. In a moment, she had a small flame dancing in the tinder and coal that she’d laid the night before. Her hands worked without her having to think, pouring perfumed oil into the lamps, bringing a thin taper to the brazier, and then touching it to each of the lamps. When the room was flickering with warm light and filled with the spicy scent of the oils, she sat back on her heels, staring up at the mosaic fitted into an alcove above her. The image of Urd gazed down, his black brows heavy, his angular face solemn. She touched thumb to forehead and bowed.
“Bless this house with Your power. Let it prosper under Your mighty eye.”
She raised her head for one last look at Urd, and then climbed to her feet using the wall to support herself as she stood. Four months ago when she’d first donned the narrow wife-skirt, she had tried to stand from kneeling and had ended up sprawled on the floor. Maybe eventually she’d get the knack of it, but until then, she’d use the wall for support. Better than falling headlong into the flaming lamps.
She slipped down the empty halls, lighting the devotional lamps and whispering blessings along the way. In the men’s sacred chambers, she hurried through her tasks, not wanting to linger under the massive image of Urd carved into the wall above her. It stretched taller than two men, and the god’s eyes seemed to follow her as she shuffled from one lamp to another, making the back of her neck tingle and her stomach clench. Thankfully, she only had to come into these rooms to light lamps at dawn and then put them out again at the end of the day. She couldn’t imagine how terrifying worshiping here would be. Much better the small, women’s devotional room with its simple mosaic and low ceiling.
When the last lamp was lit, she returned to the women’s wing and met the other wives and their daughters for breakfast in the dining hall.
“Ah, Cayda, you’ve finally made it. Those lamps seem to be multiplying.”
Breen was patting the chair beside her and wagging her thick eyebrows, her child-scars curving with her smile. Cayda laughed and sat down next to the plump woman, saying a silent prayer of thanks to Urd that she’d not missed seeing her only friend at the breakfast table. Breen never made Cayda feel low or insignificant as many of the other wives did, even though Breen was second wife to the eldest son and had borne five boys. Likely some of Breen’s friendliness was due to both of them coming from the West Country—that gave them a bond—and Breen’s matter-of-fact western manners hadn’t faded after fifteen years in the capital province, though her accent had. In her heart, Cayda knew she also loved Breen because the older woman reminded her of her mother, right down to her cheerful humor and bright blue eyes.
“I think they do multiply,” Cayda said, drawing a basket of fruit closer and choosing fat grapes and several late plums for her plate. “At night, when no one is looking.”
“I remember when I was the one lighting the lamps,” Breen said with an exaggerated sigh. She glanced around and then leaned close, whispering in Cayda’s ear. “I thought Respected Mother would break my legs with that stick of hers—I could never rise naturally with the sun.”
“Urd save me from the cane,” Cayda said, shuddering. “I don’t know why I’m such a useless lump in the mornings.”
“Ah, Cayditie, don’t be so hard on yourself. You can’t be expected to figure everything out in just a few months. And besides, you’re much quicker than I was.” Breen tapped her head. “You’ve got more up here.”
Cayda lowered her eyes to her plate and nudged Breen with her shoulder. “You’ve got more than I have. I heard Ar-Grise saying that your Honored One taught you letters when you were first married.” She raised her eyes to the other woman. “Only I thought it was against the law to teach women to read and write—no one in the west does.”
Breen popped a grape into her mouth. “But it’s not against the law in the capital state. A man may teach his wife if it is required to improve the husband’s business. The idea came upon my husband when his scribe fell ill. He hates to be without a scribe, and he does not trust the guild to send him just anyone.” Breen shrugged, chomping on her fruit. “My husband only relies on my poor help when his regular scribe is unavailable.”
Cayda tried to imagine what it would be like to touch books, handle paper and quill, to be able to send a message to another person without having to speak. And Breen did this when no scribe was available. She shook her head in wonder. Her own husband worked hand in hand with Breen’s husband, yet Cayda didn’t even know if he used a scribe in his work, or if he did his own writing. Perhaps he didn’t need to send messages or make records at all for his work.
One of the women across the table spoke up, interrupting Cayda’s thoughts.
“You will need to go to market today, Le-Cayda.” The woman’s green eyes were as cool as glass. “We need more thread for the tapestry and new needles.”
“Of course, Ar-Helith. I will go right after devotions,” Cayda responded, though her stomach clenched at the thought of going into a city marketplace.
Helith knew Cayda was scared of leaving the compound. She could have asked anyone to go, but she was flexing her power. Cayda had to obey—any protest would only make Helith more intent on showing her authority in some worse way. If there was something worse than the marketplace. Batin was enormous, thronging with men in carts, on foot, and even on horseback. She’d only seen it from her husband’s closed-wagon, never on foot. The idea of being outside the safe walls of the compound amongst that mob made her shudder.
Breen stared across the table at Helith for a stretching moment before turning to Cayda. “I’ll go with you,” she said loudly so everyone at the table could hear. “I need some fine cloth to sew a new sash for my husband.”
Helith slid her gaze away from Cayda to Breen, and though she said nothing, Cayda could see the anger flare under the other woman’s skin. It made the single daughter-scar on her cheek stand out stark in contrast.
Breen reached across the table for the bread and placed a roll on her own plate, and then one on Cayda’s. “Ar-Helith,” she continued, pulling her bread apart. “I believe I heard you say your scissors were broken. Would you like us to find you a new pair in the market?” Breen took a large bite from her roll and chewed, staring back at the slim, straight woman across the table.
Helith held Breen’s eye for only a moment before lowering her head. “Yes, thank you. Blessing be upon you.”
Cayda made herself take a bite of her own bread, though she chewed without tasting it in her dry mouth. Helith would never let this slight go unpunished. But she couldn’t take her anger out on Breen. Helith might be first-wife to the oldest son and patriarch of the family, but she was lower than Breen, who was a second-wife. It happened that way sometimes. Breen had borne her husband five sons; Helith had birthed only one daughter before her womb had gone barren many years ago. But because of this overturn in position, Cayda would receive the brunt of Helith’s wrath. She was the newest wife in the Goelind family and married to the youngest brother. Worse, her cheeks were still unscarred. Only the cleaning-servants were lower than her.
Cayda peered up through her lashes at the woman across the table who sat crumbling her bread absently onto her plate, brooding. What must it be like to have a second-wife outrank you, and to know you had no chance of ever bearing your husband a son? Worse yet, how must it feel to have your husband choose his second-wife as a help-mate in his work, and to teach her letters? Though she didn’t like Helith, and disliked her persecutions even more, Cayda felt a pang of sympathy for this discarded woman—her bitterness must be worse than a hundred cava beans eaten at once.
When the bell eventually rang for devotions, Cayda rose with the other women and washed her hands at one of the basins, but she did not lift her eyes to see what expression lay on Helith’s beautiful face, nor to make a friendly gesture to any of the other women. Best if she just kept her eyes to the floor and focused on her prayers.
With a jangling of oboedires and bracelets, the group moved as one into the small devotional chamber where Cayda had so recently lit the lamps. Lining up in rows, with first-wives and mothers of sons in the front, and the rest falling in as they fitted in the household hierarchy, the women knelt on the smooth wooden floor, waiting for the priest to speak to them through the high screen in the wall.
In a moment, his voice floated from above. The words of the morning prayers washed down like soft rain, rinsing away Cayda’s anxieties. She whispered her responses with the rest of the women, her eyes closed, and her heart full of the mightiness of Urd. When the priest finished his prayers, and the women had bowed three times, he dismissed them, and Cayda hurried to catch up with Breen to discuss going to the marketplace.
“Ar-Breen,” she said, reaching for the other woman’s elbow with a butterfly touch. “When would you like to go to market?”
Breen glanced around, startled. “Oh, you gave me a start! You’re not a cat, Cayda—no need to creep up on a person.”
She stopped in the hall and turned to study Cayda, her lips pursed so that her normally round cheeks flattened a little. “But on second thought, perhaps you are rather like a cat. You’ve got the same slanting eyes of Monilith, my husband’s cat, and you move as she does too; lithe and silent.”
Cayda’s face grew hot and she ducked her head. Breen laughed and patted her arm.
“Don’t fret, Kitten. You know I’m no hound who will chase you.” But then her smile faded as she continued to examine Cayda’s features. “But that’s not to say there aren’t hounds enough in this world.” With one more pat on Cayda’s arm, she turned back down the passage to follow the last of the women toward the gathering room.
“Let’s get our huids and fetch Helith’s sewing things before she begins to bark and snap.”
The image of Helith as a slavering hound made Cayda want to smile. But in the next breath, anxiety replaced amusement. Helith’s teeth, if they caught her, would be sharp, as were those of the men in the busy marketplace into which they had to venture. Pinching the flesh of her forearm to distract herself, she followed the older woman into the ante-chamber of the west entrance to prepare to leave the family compound.
Without speaking, they gathered their scarves and huids from their shelves, and began the careful process of preparing to leave the safety of the family compound. First, the black and brown scarf which covered hair and neck, secured with a heavy pin. Next, the huids which shielded them completely from the searching eyes of strange men. Cayda pulled the three straps tight at the back of her head before adjusting the huid so her eyes and mouth lined up with the narrow slits.
“Am I guarded?” Breen asked, turning her head this way and that for Cayda to examine her.
She adjusted Breen’s bronze huid so that it sat higher on her forehead, ensuring no skin might show if Breen’s scarf were to slip. Fingering the thin, beaten metal reverently, Cayda thought of the day when she too would get a huid of bronze instead of the plain wooden one she wore now; the day she bore her husband five sons.
Once Breen had examined Cayda’s scarf and huid, they both drew swaths of fabric over their shoulders and chests, the final piece of armor to protect their figures from view.
“Now, don’t leave my side,” Breen said. “Take a piece of my tunic in your fingers so we won’t get separated. You’ll be fine.” Breen turned to face her, but Cayda could read nothing through the huid’s eye slits—it was like looking at a wall. “You understand that Batin is a different place than your village of the West Country, don’t you?”
Cayda couldn’t find her voice, so nodded as she took hold of Breen’s tunic. Together, they opened the heavy portal and stepped into the portico that shielded the entrance from the weather. The guardsmen stood on either side, as they always did, dressed in black, brown, and burgundy, the colors of the Goelind family. They turned to examine Cayda and Breen as they emerged, their eyes scanning the two women’s huids and clothes. Cayda stood frozen, waiting beside Breen who had also stopped as the guards studied them. Eventually, the guards nodded approval and stepped back to their places to allow Breen to lead Cayda down the steps.
The women scuffed along the pathway that led to the south gate where they stopped again, this time waiting for the market-guard to emerge from the gatehouse. After a moment he stepped out, laughing and calling to one of the guards still inside.
“Not this time, old man. The young one’s emerged and she’ll need a stronger sword than you’ve got to protect her.”
He turned to look at the women, his eyes roving over them in turn, tracing their forms from head to toe. Cayda bit her lip, trying hard to stop the trembling in her legs. The city of Batin certainly was not like her home town where she had known every street and the men who guarded her were her cousins and brothers, not strangers. She’d always enjoyed going out with them protecting her—after all, she had played with them as a young child, before the boys and girls were separated into their own living areas. But the guardsmen of Goelind house were as strange and frightening as the men in the streets. She saw nothing of her easygoing cousins in their faces.
When the market-guard marched out of the gate, Breen followed, pulling Cayda along into the noise of the street beyond the high walls of the Goelind compound.
Cayda swallowed against the lump rising in her throat. She must get used to this—Breen would not always be able to shepherd her through the hazards of going to market. But what if her huid should come loose, or get knocked aside by a clumsy man unloading a wagon? She reached up with her free hand to check her huid’s straps. She didn’t want to die in the bustling streets of this unfamiliar city. She didn’t want to die at all.
She shuffled after Breen, barely daring to look at anything but the other woman’s shoulder. But, when after ten minutes they had arrived at the neighborhood marketplace with no interferences or difficulties, Cayda found the nerve to glance around.
They stood at the edge of a wide open square, a clutter of farmers’ carts and stalls filling over half the space. The surrounding buildings towered over the stands, casting most of them in shadow. But luckily, the day wasn’t cold. Cayda stood in the shade and took deep breaths of the late fall air, which was perfumed with the scent of frying mezigs and honey. Men, in their bright coats and hats, chatted together in groups or managed the market stalls and open-front stores along the square’s edge. More than a few women also navigated the crowd, their huids ranging from simple wood, to iron, to bronze. The women shuffled silently a few steps behind a man until they were in front of the wares, then the women became animated, pointing and gesturing to what they wanted, shaking their fingers when the vendor presented them with something they didn’t like.
Cayda’s began to relax, her stomach loosening its knot. This market wasn’t so different from those at home where her mother had driven fierce bargains for household goods. Not that her family had needed to bargain—but her mother had enjoyed the challenge. Perhaps, with practice, she would learn to do the same.
“What is it Ur-Arold’s wife needs today?” the market-guard asked, addressing Breen.
“Sewing things,” she responded, her voice muffled through the huid. “We prefer Scalin’s wares, near the center temple.”
The man nodded and turned back to the busy market, pushing forward through the crowd. Cayda kept a grip on Breen’s clothes, like a crab that’s grabbed a bit of fish and would lose its leg before it would let go.
Once in the open-front store, she came around to Breen’s side, peering through the narrow slits in her huid to survey what was displayed. Every type of sewing necessity was laid out on the tables and shelves—more needles, thimbles and thread than she’d ever seen in one place. Behind the counter hung bolts of bright cloth, the loose ends undulating in the breeze. She caught sight of a small sewing box made of beaten silver tucked up against a bolt of red silk. An intricate pattern of shells was fitted into a delicate lacework of wires. It was beautiful.
“Ar-Breen,” she whispered, leaning in close to the other woman’s ear. “I’d like to get that box. The one there, with the shell.”
“It is lovely,” Breen said, stepping closer to the table. “But don’t you already have a sewing box from your wedding? Why do you need another?”
Cayda shook her head. “It’s not for me. It’s for Ar-Helith.”
She heard Breen breath in, and for a moment, the other woman was silent. But then she nodded, and turned back to the merchant.
“Those three spindles of grey thread, two of that blue—no, the other—and five draws of the silver and brown cloth.” Breen paused, eyeing the sewing box. “Does the box there come with scissors?”
The merchant smiled and brought the box forward so the women could take a closer look.
“No, Ar-Wife, because it is so precious on its own. You see the shell? Look at how clever it is.”
Breen took the box and examined it, opening and closing the lid, turning it upside down to peer at the bottom.
“Hm, perhaps not what we were looking for after all.” Breen held the box out to the merchant. “We really need a pair of scissors.”
Cayda’s heart sank. She had wanted a peace offering for Helith, something to curb the punishment she was sure was coming, and the box was truly beautiful—she would have liked to see it in their gathering room every day.
“Yes, scissors are always needed, but this,” the merchant gestured at the box, not taking it from Breen’s hands, “this is something a woman could be proud of in her family.”
“Yes, but how much would that have to cost her, that pride?” Breen responded, laying the box down on top of a stack of folded sack-cloth.
“Pride is not cheap, Ar-Wife. Three gold bothe and two yirn.”
Breen shook her head. “For that price I could buy a year’s worth of scissors. Perhaps one of your neighbors has something more suitable, Respected Merchant.”
The man waved his hands to stop Breen from turning away. “No, no. Nothing like this. Because you are a favored wife, I am willing to lower my price. Two bothe ten yirn.”
Breen stood unmoving. “Two bothe even, and you fill it with a pair of scissors.”
The merchant smiled and spread his hands wide. “Ah, Ar-Wife, you must come from a very illustrious family. So clever. Agreed. Two bothe, and I will give you my best pair of scissors.”
The market-guard handed the merchant the Goelind token. He examined it, returned it, then wrote on a piece of paper which he laid on top of the goods and handed over to the market-guard.
Breen bowed to the merchant. “Blessings be with you.”
As they followed the market-guard back through the square and up the street that led to the family compound, Cayda took Breen’s hand and squeezed it.
“That was wonderful! How do you do it? How do you manage to speak to the merchants like that? I would be terrified!”
Breen chuckled, leaning in close so that their words would not be heard by others in the street.
“I would not be so brave if my huid was not of bronze, kitten. Your day will come too. You will bear your Honored One many sons, Urd willing.”
Cayda nodded, and fell back a step, taking up the tail of Breen’s tunic once more. The outing had been better than she’d expected, but she still did not feel confident untethered from the older woman; men were everywhere in the streets, their eyes running over her huid, her clothes, like they would tear her apart any moment if given the chance. Thank Urd for her long skirts and the wooden mask that protected her from the eyes of strange men. She said a silent prayer, and tipped her chin down, scuffling quickly after Breen.
Before they had made it completely out of the square, a series of shouts and a rising clamber of voices brought them to a halt.
“What is it?” Cayda asked as she stepped up beside Breen, her heart pounding.
Breen did not respond, but reached down and took Cayda’s hand. A moment later a woman’s scream turned Cayda’s guts to water. A group of men were dragging a woman into the market’s central plaza. She had no shawl over her shoulders, and most shocking, no huid. Her pale, moon-like face was unthinkably bare.
“Please, Respected Merchants, Respected Husbands! I did not mean to offend. My huid—”
Her next words were drowned by the angry shouts of the mob of men and their wives who were gathering from around the marketplace to witness the woman’s shame, to judge her careless disregard for the laws that were there to protect all women.
Cayda’s teeth chattered, the muscles in her jaw uncontrollable. She’d never actually witnessed a profane woman’s punishment—only been warned by her mother and aunts that she must always obey the laws, or face the consequence of village judgment. Only one woman from her childhood village had been judged in the last ten years. In that case, a man who was not her husband had taken his pleasure with her, and her punishment had been meted out swiftly by her husband’s family in their own compound, rather than a public square.
Breen tugged at her hand, trying to draw her away, but Cayda was trapped in a dream, one very different than what she’d had that morning.
“No…” she breathed, though not sure if she was referring to Breen’s insistent tugging, to the mob, or to her thought that one day that could be her if the straps on her huid failed.
“Come away, Cayda. Right. Now!”
Breen’s voice finally broke through her stunned mind and she dragged her eyes from the ring of men surrounding the woman, prostrate now on the plaza’s cobblestone, her hands covering her head, a futile attempt to ward away the rocks to come.
With a suppressed sob, Cayda turned away, squeezing Breen’s hand until the older woman gasped.
“We are ready to return to the compound, Respected Guard.” Breen’s voice was barely audible above the riot of the square.
The guard glanced at them, his expression unconcerned, and shrugged. Without another look at the woman who would not live as long as it would take them to return home, the guard led them away from the plaza and the judging taking place.
When they were safe inside the compound walls, the market-guard took the packages to the men’s wing to give to Breen’s husband, and Cayda escaped, holding the contents of her stomach and her tears until she reached the privacy of her own room.