The air in Artifice Department Workshop B hung still and motionless, heavy with smells of metal and parchment. Efronia tucked the heavy covers around the metalcutting machines and returned the measuring sheets into their cases for the night.
She was always the last to leave. Professor Baltas himself had gone home around noon, and his graduate students and other apprentices trickled out with the sunset. They left light behind them—garlands of candlebulbs strung beneath the ceiling, those magic-filled globes that blinked down at Efronia with all the indifference afforded to magicless commoners by those who held power.
She was just such a commoner. A peasant. But she knew her work, and she worked hard. That would be enough.
Efronia pulled two large, faded handkerchiefs out of the pocket of her skirt. With slow and careful motions, she wiped the machine oil off her hands with one, then folded the soiled fabric inside the other to protect the material of the skirt. She would wash the squares of fabric at home and hang them to dry on a clothesline strung across her room, as she did every night.
A runner had come to the department three days ago, to seek her out in person. Her water pump invention had attracted a buyer who wanted a machine that was completely mechanical. She had gone straight to Baltas with the news. Certainly this was evidence enough that she could, even without magic, hold her own amidst the other artificers in the department, all of them named strong. He told her that he’d already arranged a faculty meeting to discuss her petition to be granted full student status.
Efronia allowed herself to be hopeful—after all, they had admitted her. And her inventions worked. The lubrication-dispensing machine measured out just the right amounts of oil without the need for magical recalibrations; her other mechanical improvements in the workshop made experiment setup so much easier it was almost unnoticeable now. Certainly the artificers here needed her and valued her work.
She picked her trekking staff from where it leaned behind the door and stepped out into the chilly dark front steps of the building. Behind her, the deepname-powered door swung shut and locked itself, having sensed that she was the last to leave.
Efronia straightened the shawl on her shoulders—not underbelly goatwool but sturdy enough to be serviceable—and walked out of the Artifice courtyard onto the main university avenue. On campus rooftops, deepname-powered weathervanes turned in the strong wind, but no sound passed through the veil that the scholars maintained against the nuisance of rattling.
On a corner to her left, the small after-hours university tearoom held a few students talking quietly and drinking brandied tea on a veranda under a garland of small, multicolored candlebulb lights. She recognized two of Baltas’s student-artificers and a few others from a neighboring workshop. She lifted her hand in greeting, but they ignored her. Perhaps they did not recognize her in the dark. She did not have deepnames to send a small light to illuminate her face. Efronia wondered whether to move closer for a greeting, but she was not sure. People were always so difficult to interpret. Perhaps they wanted to be left alone.
She straightened her shoulders as she walked down to the gateway arch and through it, out into the nighttime city illuminated by great candlebulb lanterns. The maples and the horse chestnuts, captive in their rings of stone, rustled in the darkness, their leaves shivering with the chill.
Efronia was no stranger to wind and cold. She had once trekked through forests wilder by far than the capital, all the way across the country—from her native Vūcha down to Dugomá, on foot, with no more wealth than the models of her inventions wrapped in a carrier bag. The city streets did not scare her. At night, an occasional drunk loitering beneath a deepname-powered lantern would whistle or shriek after her; sometimes there’d be robbers, of a particularly desperate kind. She ignored the rare propositions and the all too frequent derisive calls, ignored everything except direct violence. For that occasion, her trekking staff concealed prongs she’d built into the wood before leaving home, prongs that popped out at a twist of a lever. She judged it faster than deepnames, and just as effective.
Deepnames were a rarity up north, in peasant lands beyond the Vūcha river. In Efronia’s native village of Luka, nobody had had deepnames for generations. Efronia had learned her letters from an itinerant named strong, a Vūchani from another village who had once traveled down to the capital to be educated at the university. As a girl, she had always imagined all named strong to be like her Gorima—kindly and generous older women wrapped in white shawls of underbelly goatwool over simple dresses. Comfortable but not rich, wise but not overbearing, ready to teach and make. She wanted to be one of them, yes, even without deepnames. Despite Gorima’s warning, she did not believe their absence would be a hindrance to her.
She’d been wrong. In Dugomá, at the university, being a simple was more than a mere hindrance. One had to be a named strong to be admitted as a student, and most of those named strong were nobles. She wanted to chart this, collect information, numbers—how many nobles had deepnames, how many commoners? They said here that mind’s power aligned naturally with nobility, but Efronia suspected it was otherwise, that nobles were bred for power, rather like mountain goats for wool.
There was more. Deepnames were taken in early adolescence, and magical nametaking was dangerous. Noble children went into it prepared, schooled, while commoner children were left to burn out and die without instruction. And those who escaped such fate and took power? Well, they’d be admitted to the university, educated, and married off to a noble. Bred into the stock.
She needed to chart this, write it down, track it for a few generations if she wanted to show anything. And she wanted to know, to be sure of her knowledge. But Bird forbid she’d mention this to Baltas.
I am grateful, her mind supplied. They admitted me.
A contrary voice responded, Not as a student. As a workshop worker. As a servant, to sweep floors and dust gears and keep out of sight until called.
In Efronia’s mind, the contrary voice sometimes took the shape of a bear, one of the two she’d killed during her long trek south. The voice did not disturb her. She considered it, weighed it like any other danger, be it long-familiar or new. Rash motions—and emotions—only scared a bear, enraged it into attacking. Bears, like inventions, required her patience.
Which was why she did not halt when she heard, from an alleyway to the west, a sound of approaching feet. Robbers, drunks, idle party-goers on a dare? She kept walking, unafraid but alert, trusting her hearing to supply answers.
No less than two people. Coming towards her, not quite running, but in a hurry.
Efronia neither sped up nor slowed, but her grip on her staff tightened.
“Wait! Please wait!” somebody called.
Efronia’s steps came slowly to a halt. Turning towards the source of the sound, she planted her feet wide, distributing the weight around her core. Back at home, her strength and bulk had been praised as a marital asset. In the city they made her an unpopular target for lechers and suitors alike. But Efronia had not been much swayed by others’ opinions on what was so obviously hers alone—her body. Its utility heartened her. It had served her well in forests, fields, and roads; and then in work and even altercations in the city. Her thumb poised to press the lever to expel the prongs Efronia waited for the strangers to approach.
The first to reach her was a man. With the nearest deepname lantern half a dozen houses away, it was hard to make out his features. He stopped a few feet away, wary of her staff. A city man, not too young, with a serious face and unfashionably short dark hair. He wore a red shirt, vivid even in this light. The second figure was shorter than Efronia by half a head and slender, with hair and most of their face hidden under a scarf.
“Forgive the intrusion, please, Artificer.” A woman’s voice. Her vowels were short, capital-style, but strangely round. Unfamiliar. “But we need to talk to you.”
“You might not recognize me, Artificer,” the man said, “but you saw me at the university a few days ago. I am the one who brought the letter.”
No, she did not recognize him. Faces were always difficult to remember, and his was shrouded now in darkness. She’d been too preoccupied with the contents of the letter, the offer to purchase her pump, to pay attention to the messenger.
“I am not yet an artificer.” Efronia spoke slowly. “Until the department chooses to formally accept me, I have no title.”
“Not so,” a third voice said.
Out of the darkness a light swam, held up in the hand of the speaker. The light, caught in a large glass bulb-like lantern, was not a candlebulb. It did not look magical at all—the flame, small and clear, burned on a wick that protruded from an opaque rounded part at the bottom of the contraption—copper or ceramic, she could not tell.
“What use does the department’s recognition have for you?” Only when the lantern’s wielder spoke did Efronia remember to look up. A woman’s long and elegant face, her thick and curly hair pinned out of the way with a circlet of bronze fish that glimmered with the flame. And oh, such eyes. Dark and deep wells in which the lantern’s light was reflected like stars that fell into water; and there it was contained.
Momentarily taken aback by an unfamiliar emotion, Efronia grit her teeth and held her ground. “I came to study at the university. To become an artificer.”
“I am sorry. The named strong at the university judge everything by magic, whether or not it is relevant. What is it to you, Efronia Lukano? You are an artificer because your inventions work. Work is the measure of everything. It is through work that we will learn how to live.”
The speaker’s words, like the first woman’s, had an unfamiliar roundness to them. Her skin, this close, looked darker than the man’s, darker even than Efronia’s own. Efronia thought back on the peoples she had met while traveling, but nothing came to mind. It did not matter. People were people, and people everywhere were hard for her to read.
She said, “You come to the department, you chase me in the streets at night.” You know my name, and have not told me yours. “Your need for a water pump must be dire.”
“It’s you we’re after, not the pump so much,” the lantern-woman said, “Although we will pay what we promised.”
“We took an interest ever since we’ve heard that the department accepted a simple,” said the man, “though we were sorry to hear that they have not given you student status.”
“Well.” It was true that the department had not yet made her a student, but they were considering her—a magicless simple, an exception among the sea of named strong. That in itself was worth her patience.
“We thought you would be more upset,” said the lantern-woman.
“No.” She was not upset. Even if she was, such emotions were unhelpful when there was nothing to be done. “I will wait and see what happens.”
“It is your choice. But if you reconsider, you should join us, work with us. We do not wait for the strong to illuminate us. We carry our own light with us. Even if it is not as large or as bright yet, one day every person, simple and strong alike, will benefit from that light.”
The little speech sounded odd to Efronia’s ears, as if rehearsed, or written rather than spoken. That’s what the artificers at the department sometimes said about her, too.
She wanted to think about this, and about these words, but it would have to wait. “You want me to join you, but I have no idea who you are.”
The lantern-carrier waved her hand at the man, who spoke. “Name’s Zubrano.”
She nodded next at the small woman with the scarf, who glared back and frowned. For a long while it seemed that nothing would be said, but she did speak at last. “I am Zilpit-nai-Meronit.” Even though she did not unveil her face, in the light of the lantern Efronia could see that she, too, was brown-skinned.
The lantern-carrier spoke last. “I am Zilpit-nai-Rinah. If you want to contact us, look for Zubrano at the chair workshop down Third Furnituremakers’ Street in the Artisans’ Row.” The woman inclined her head, and the links in the bronze fish circlet clanged and shimmered. Efronia should have been annoyed, but she wasn’t. The worksmanship was apparent in the piece, intricate and precise, whimsical beyond anything Efronia would create, but as precise. She trusted this work the way she did not trust the lantern.
The three turned away, but Efronia couldn’t resist calling after. “What fuels your lamp?”
“Join us, and we’ll talk.”
Eh. Efronia watched the strange trio disappear into the alleyway, then resumed her measured walk home. The ceramic contraption at the bottom of the lamp must have contained a type of fuel that fed the wick and maintained the flame. Bog oil? No, too far from the source and thus pricey, and besides, prone to explosions. Peat would smoke. Bear lard they did not have here in the south...
She reached the tenement building, unlocked the door with her key, stepped over the drunk that lay across the narrow vestibule. She began to climb the stairs. Zilpit-nai-Rinah the lantern-carrier had walked slowly, careful not to extinguish the small flame. The other two had run. And yet the three had reached Efronia almost together. Zilpit-nai-Rinah must have lit the lantern just before the others caught up with her.
Efronia finished her climb—three flights of stairs—and unlocked the door to the apartment she shared with three other women, all of whom worked as janitors on campus. The stipend Baltas paid her would suffice for a small apartment of her own, but she was content to rent a shared apartment, as long as one room was hers alone. It was cheaper, and the leftover money bought scrap metal and tools for experiments.
Efronia’s flatmates were asleep already—she heard snoring from the room they shared. Too engrossed in her thoughts to seek out food, she opened the door to her room, barely big enough for a single bed and a small storage chest.
How had Zilpit-nai-Rinah lit the lantern? No time to rub sticks or use another source of friction. And Efronia did not remember hearing the sound of flint against steel, a method for those here without magic. Nor did Zilpit-nai-Rinah appear to carry a tinderbox.
Efronia retrieved her own tinderbox from the chest and lit a small tallow candle. In its light, she crouched down by the pail of water she’d prepared in the morning. She doled out a small portion into a second, empty pail with a brass ladle and unraveled her kerchiefs to wash. Later she’d have to use the tenement bathroom, the one at the bottom of the stairs, and she needed to leave enough water to wash before sleep. But now she just wanted to think, in the quiet near-darkness of this space that was her own. The familiar motions of washing provided the calm she needed.
Perhaps Zilpit-nai-Rinah carried a tinderbox under her scarf.
Or perhaps one of them was a named strong, and that one had ignited the lantern; if so, it all had been just for show.
What did they want with her? Who were Zilpit-nai-Rinah and Zilpit-nai-Meronit? They shared part of a name—did that mark them as relatives? Which one of the three was the named strong? Without magic, she could not tell. Perhaps she’d been wrong.
Efronia found no answers even as later she lay on her back in the bed. She’d walked for three months to study at the university, and so she would be patient now, and wait for the faculty vote. Professor Baltas would come through. She needed no strangers.
We make our own light, Zilpit-nai-Rinah had said, no matter how small. But the lantern she had carried needed improvement. Unlike the circlet. Lots of fine hammering had gone into that piece.
Zilpit-nai-Rinah’s eyes swam in her vision, their reflected sparkle bringing up in her a feeling of floating—then falling, falling deep into a hole in the ground. From that well, the second bear she’d killed spoke up. It was the bear the country nobles had tortured with deepnames until it had gone insane for their entertainment.
The bear spoke with the voice of Baltas.
Like a candlebulb in a dark room, the magical disciplines illuminate the world.
When she judged Efronia to be out of sight, Zilpit-nai-Rinah opened the glass door of the lantern, then licked her thumb and forefinger. She extinguished the wick, grateful for the affirming realness of the flame between her fingers, and for the dying of it. By her side, Zilpit-nai-Meronit hissed disapproval. Zubrano, used to much riskier sights, only shrugged.
It had been a mistake, the lantern. But she’d wanted... what did she want? To make an impression? To provide the right symbol to match her words? What would that do? She’d wanted to convince this simple artificer, to impress her, perhaps, the way she could never impress her own lovers. But Efronia’s eyes on the contraption held doubt, and not all that much curiosity. She had seemed to listen to her words, though, for all they were heavy, rehearsed and difficult to hold in this language not native to her. Locked in the quarter, she did not have much opportunity to practice speaking Lainish; reading and writing were much easier.
Zilpit-nai-Rinah sighed, but any discussion with the others would have to wait until safety. The three of them walked quickly and quietly, concealed under the cloak of darkness, down the alleyways off the Old University road. For the two Khana women, being discovered illegally outside the quarter would mean imprisonment. They’d taken to the streets before, trusting the night to conceal their secrets, but after the overly noisy and probably fruitless encounter with Efronia, they wouldn’t want to take further risks.
The night filled the shadowy alleyways with stray sounds and disturbances—rats dashing underfoot, the flapping laundry on lines stretched high across courtyards, an occasional scream of unquiet sleepers, and the wail of teething babies. And yet, compared to the Khana quarter, the outer city was quiet. To Zilpit-nai-Rinah it seemed that in the richer neighborhoods by the university, these people were afraid to stir from their houses at night—unwilling to wander in the darkness for fear of being robbed, or worse, subjected to the sights and smells of poorer neighborhoods to the south. But in the Khana quarter at this time, like at any time, restless grandmothers would be carrying pots of scalding tea and trays of fishcakes over to their neighbors; the main trading square and the garden courtyards would be full of girls, newly come to their deepnames, practicing magic with many a gossip and giggle; an occasional whistle or scrape would escape from the underground workshops where women, in secret from the men, labored on works of artifice forbidden to them by the holy law of the Khana. And from beyond the white walls of the men’s inner quarter, snippets of prayer and truncated sounds of the four holy instruments would drift out as the scholars were readying to sing forth the dawn.
But in the Lainish outer city, no such camaraderie was available. The only amicable sounds she heard involved Zubrano’s breathing, pointed sighs from Zilpit-nai-Meronit, and the faint clanging of her own fish circlet. It had been misguided to flaunt such treasures, Zilpit-nai-Meronit had said, but she disagreed. What was the point of undercover artifice if one could not also make jewelry, and what was the point of jewelry if one could not wear it? Nonsense. Efronia had seemed interested in it—more so than the stupid lantern, in the end. She wished now they could talk about work, talk about anything, really.
Of her oreg, only Zilpit-nai-Meronit had chosen to accompany her tonight, and that reluctantly. She, Zilpit-nai-Rinah, was considered junior to the other three women for no other reason than lack of magic. It did not hurt when she’d been asked to join the oreg. She’d been grateful, proud. By now it was an old and gnarled and bitter thing.
We used to be in love once, she thought. She was quite sure that out of her three erstwhile lovers, only Zilpit-nai-Meronit was still fond. She came with her outside the quarter, taught Lainish commoner children in secret despite prohibitions for commoners to be instructed in magic—was that why they still cared about each other? The work? Zilpit-nai-Meronit said nothing now, her scarf drawn firmly over her face.
Silently they passed the two streets that led to Artisans’ Row—without arguing this time whether Zubrano should take his leave here. Still together, the three walked down the twisted alleyways that brought them closer to the outer stone wall of the quarter. At any hour now, the giant man-like automata constructed by the scholars would circle the wall. With their white metal bodies covered thickly with the seedlike letters of Birdseed writ, these guardians kept the dangers out. But the Khana people too would remain locked inside—until some miracle would convince the royal government to reopen the doors of the quarter and allow its women to renew their trade routes beyond the city.
The three did not seek the main entrance, used now only by the Lainish who came here each week to trade food for baubles, for jewels and mechanical toys. A pale semblance of previous markets when Khana-traded goods entered the city from the south, the Khana market was closed today—and with it, the gate. The three stopped instead by the now-familiar nondescript wall of an abandoned shop, its stained and dirty for-rent sign remembered rather than visible, this part of the city not rich enough for deepname lanterns. A rickety wrought iron grating, barely waist-high, separated the tiny courtyard from the street.
“You two should lay low,” said Zubrano, “I don’t trust the Vuchani to keep quiet.”
“I don’t think she’ll report us,” Zilpit-nai-Rinah said.
“You assume too much. You thought she’d be upset. You thought she’d join us.”
Zilpit-nai-Meronit nodded vigorously in agreement. “You trust too easily. Another simple artificer! You thought she’d be ecstatic at the invitation.”
Zilpit-nai-Rinah felt a kind of a burning in her gut, a hurt that came from feeling like a child chastised by her keeper for being naïve. She retorted, “Efronia might yet join us. She just did not strike me as a quick-moving type.”
“Nah. She was taken aback by the sight of two Khana,” Zilpit-nai-Meronit said bitterly. “Zubrano’s right, we’d be lucky if she won’t report us.”
Zilpit-nai-Rinah shrugged. “Very well. We lay low and continue our work.”
“Think about my proposal to establish a half-way meeting place,” said Zubrano.
“Impossible,” said Zilpit-nai-Meronit.
“A middle ground is needed,” he insisted, “My people aren’t welcome among yours.”
“Your people locked mine away in the quarter!” Zilpit-nai-Meronit’s voice rang startlingly loud in the darkness. Somewhere above, a stray cat yelped.
“Hush,” said Zilpit-nai-Rinah. “We will consider.”
Zubrano said nothing. Zilpit-nai-Rinah jumped over the rickety grate, unlocked it from inside, and motioned for Zilpit-nai-Meronit to follow. He stood guard as the two Zilpit oreg-mates, or erugot, unlocked the door to the abandoned shop and entered its cobwebbed premises.
As soon as the darkness enveloped them, Zilpit-nai-Meronit waved a hand and released a tiny candlebulb.
“The lantern...” Zilpit-nai-Rinah said, well aware of how weak her voice sounded.
“No,” said her lover, firm again in her own domain, or close enough to it. “Your flame is unreliable. Nobody will see us here.”
They had spoken in Lainish for Zubrano’s sake, but now that they’d switched to their native Khanishti, it brought Zilpit-nai-Rinah little solace. Shame flooded her. The lantern, an invention that would impress Efronia and convince her to join them—she’d worked on the prototype for a month, but it needed more work. Deepname ignition had been a shortcut. She’d argued against it, but Zilpit-nai-Meronit would not comply; she lit the lantern with her deepnames, so quickly. There was no time to argue then.
You help me out when I don’t need it. Because I am simple, and thus, for you, like a child. How can you love a lover like a child? What does that even mean?
Always, for the others, her work had been too unreliable. Too unreliable because it did not have deepnames.
But for Efronia, having deepnames would not be a shortcut. It’d be a lie. A lie that corroded and twisted her words and her purpose.
The lantern, still swung from her clutched fist, dark and heavy and without a light. Though our flame is small, she’d said. But now there was no flame at all.
She swallowed a lump in her throat, then followed Zilpit-nai-Meronit through the dusty shop space to the circular stairs that led to an even dustier workshop below. It was large enough for—for anything she’d want to do, really, though the smells of decay and rat poison threatened to overwhelm her. Zilpit-nai-Meronit led the way out of the shop and into the catacombs, through secret doors used long ago by the city Lainish to trade secretly with the Khana in avoidance of royal taxes.
An hour later the two Zilpit erugot emerged, begrimed, sneezing, and lavishly decorated with cobwebs, inside the walls of the quarter. Shaking with exhaustion and waving away the curiosity of women undaunted by the late hour, Zilpit-nai-Rinah and Zilpit-nai-Meronit found the stair that led home and climbed up to the rooms of their oreg.
Zilpit-nai-Gedulyah was probably asleep, but Zilpit-nai-Mor, the strongest of them and oreg leader, sat upon madder-dyed cushions in the kitchen. She balanced a bowl of nutmeg-millet dough on one knee and mixed it ferociously, teeth clenched—not exactly a picture of welcome. Above Zilpit-nai-Mor, a complicated structure of magical light—likely drawn from all three of her deepnames—reflected her anger in lightning flashes of red. Her face twisted as she looked—not at Zilpit-nai-Rinah but at the darkened lantern in her hand.
“Don’t tell me,” said Zilpit-nai-Mor. “Running around with Bird-eaters again.” Though she was accusing them of socializing with non-Khana, she did not also say with men, one could hope because the thought of such atrocity had not occurred to her.
“Our work is needed,” said Zilpit-nai-Meronit, “if the quarter is ever to be reopened.”
“I...” said Zilpit-nai-Rinah, but the leader of their oreg ignored her.
“Show me one millet grain of evidence that the Lainish care for the Khana. Have you forgotten the story of our grandmothers at the university?”
“We are working towards—” began Zilpit-nai-Rinah.
“The outsiders might cooperate now, but they’ll only trick us, rob us of our discoveries, and lock us away again. We’ve seen it countless times before.”
She tried again. “We must work with the Lainish if we—”
Zilpit-nai-Mor stared straight at her for a change. “I am not talking to you.”
She looked at Zilpit-nai-Meronit, looking for—hoping for—support, some kind of acknowledgment, but the shorter woman only shrugged apologetically, as if saying, “What can I do? She is the oreg elder,” words she’d said to her all too often before.
“Fine.” Zilpit-nai-Rinah walked out of the kitchen; not too fast—goddess fend if she’d show agitation.
In the sideroom, the fourth Zilpit erugah, Zilpit-nai-Gedulyah, slept soundly on a rug bedroll. The rugs, commonplace in the days of their grandmothers before outside trade was forbidden, were rare and worn now. Careful not to make noise, Zilpit-nai-Rinah sat down by the door and opened a small trading chest, from which she extracted a tinderbox.
“She has perverted you.” The voice of Zilpit-nai-Mor, speaking to Zilpit-nai-Meronit. “You run after her, endangering all of us for nothing.”
“She is a genius.”
“She is a simple. A simple is not supposed to dash about stirring trouble, I don’t care how smart she is. She is like a child. A child whose time has come to grow up. She could sell her jewelry profitably and enrich our oreg.”
“She believes that her work is more important than any jewelry she could make.” The words sounded hesitant, cold, as if her lover was unconvinced.
“What work?” Zilpit-nai-Mor snarled. “Artifice without magic? Phah! Cooking without fire. Stitching without a needle! What’s so grand about creating unnecessary work? She’s only jealous of our deepnames...”
Bird peck it. Zilpit-nai-Rinah hit steel against tinder, harder than she’d intended. Still asleep, Zilpit-nai-Gedulyah turned and moaned but did not wake. Her lantern, unreliable and imperfect though it was, would provide enough light for her purpose. In the kitchen, the voices droned on.
She pulled out her leatherbound notebook, the one traded from Zubrano for a carved fish armband. From the same storage chest she extracted a pen, her own clever mechanical design that allowed ink to be stored in a small cartridge equipped with a pumping mechanism. She’d used her jeweler’s tools to construct it—more useful than jewelry perhaps, though she had no intention of selling it at market.
She ruffled through the pages already filled in her sure, florid handwriting. She wanted to write in it, but something nagged at her, something important. Efronia. The wide, solid woman in her faded blue shawl, one big hand sure on her staff. Immovable—but her eyes, her eyes took in and considered. Zilpit-nai-Rinah wanted to see her again.
What was this? Some kind of a sign, a rebirth of that blooming and blistering thing in her chest, forgotten for years with the other erugot? The physical faded with that feeling, and that had been a relief to her. She would not be comfortable now, even if she weren’t bound to the others. She needed—needed space from that intensity, a space to figure out what she wanted. Yet, she felt for the Vuchani woman, Efronia, something she’d never felt for the others, a kind of kinship. An equality. Its heart was in the work.
She tore a sheet out of the notebook, then hesitated, unsure what to write. She could talk about principles with ease, and she could talk about work; often, the two were one and the same. It felt odd, self-indulgent, to say what she wanted. At last she took a deep breath, as if plunging into the water of the ritual bath, scribbled a hasty note, then sealed it. Zubrano would carry it to Efronia in the morning.
She pushed the envelope away with vehemence. Time to stop thinking about this now.
It did not work.
Efronia had not been real to her before. Just a story. A story of a simple, a peasant woman who had walked down from Vucha—how far away was that?—brazenly into the university, as if she expected to be considered an equal. The story seemed incongruous to her before, but now she could imagine it. And why not, after all—why not, if one’s work was so brilliant, one’s hands so deft, one’s eyes so keen—why wouldn’t she expect to be accepted? Efronia did not wait for the strong to help her. She was a simple and she made things that worked. If only more people would do this...
Resolutely, Zilpit-nai-Rinah pressed a lever to expel fresh ink onto the nib. She could not stop thinking about Efronia, but thinking about Efronia made the work clearer now. Her thoughts, too often silenced here in the oreg, ignored as childish by the other Khana strong, spilled onto the page like the blows of her jeweler’s hammer.
The simple everywhere overrely on the deepname magic of the strong, despairing of their own work before it has begun. And yet, I have witnessed many times the possibility in magicless artifice. The humblest of city dwellers, those who lack money to seek out strong builders, fortify their homes with clay and tar, and construct levers and pulleys to transport raw materials. In the north, peasants use bog oil to cause explosions that split rock into smaller pieces suitable for construction. Water pumps, lanterns, self-filling pens, danger-free internal heating—what else could become possible if only simple artificers applied themselves? In magicless artifice our equality will become apparent, undivided by accidents of magic or birth. Lainish and Khana, Vuchani and Taina alike—yes, even the people beyond the borders of our country would benefit from this endeavor.
Zilpit-nai-Rinah pressed on the lever again to replenish the ink and began to translate her Khanishti text into Lainish. Even if Efronia would refuse to read this, she had to believe that people would read her work, both here and in the greater city—that they would read it in both languages. Perhaps, down the road, in other languages of Laina, too, the ones she did not know.
Even in the mornings, when Workshop B filled with hustle and talk, Efronia would often find herself working alone or on the fringes of teams and learning groups. She did not mind. Small talk with others distracted from work, and as for learning groups, she’d be assigned to one as soon as her student status was approved. This morning though, Efronia felt her measure of aloneness more keenly than usual. People seemed to avoid her; the movements of their bodies and heads all turned away. The workers’ gazes, too often tiringly intent to meet hers, slid sideways and off her face.
She thought she must be imagining it. Had yesterday’s meeting rattled her?
Eh. She was at a university. There’d be a way to find out more about Zilpit-nai-Rinah and her people, and surely Baltas would not begrudge her an hour spent on this, for all the extra hours she had worked.
Efronia circled the workshop in search of the professor. He was there just a moment ago, had watched the crane-lifting process here, had just adjusted levers there, but she always seemed a moment behind. Finally she found him in front of a large machine, a carp transport, one of the infamous and old fish-shaped vehicles built at the department generations ago, now cocooned in deepname lights for repairs.
So intent on the work he was that he did not turn to face her. His right shoulder twitched. “Ah, Efronia...”
“I’m taking a break,” she said. “I hope it’s all right. I’ll stay later tonight.” She always stayed later.
“That’d be just fine.” Baltas did not turn.
“I’ll be back within the hour.”
“Good.” His shoulder twitched again.
She was paying too much attention to this detail. Then why did she have an impression that she’d inadvertently cornered him, that there’d been relief in his voice when she said she’d be taking a break, as if he’d expected something else. She must have been imagining it. What reason did the professor have to be wary of her, or she of him? People were not like bears.
Perplexed, Efronia tied the shawl around her shoulders and went out of the workshop. Down University Avenue she walked and towards an old-fashioned building with walls of black tile, each sculpted in a different species of Laina’s birds and lacquered to a glimmer. The central library. In the mid-morning sun, the walls reflected just a hint of a ruddy undercolor that would come out more distinctly at sunset.
She did not have reason to come here often. The department had its own small library, which served the needs of artificers eager for model drawings and measurements rather than words.
Behind the entrance counter, the librarian—a willowy older woman Efronia had never met before—smiled up to her; but in a moment the woman’s smile shaped itself into a scowl, and her blue eyes lost all trace of warmth. “Yes?”
“I am looking for information about a kind of people,” Efronia said, “darker brown skin and curly hair, artificers, perhaps living here in the city?”
“The Khana.” The woman nodded in thoughtful recognition, but then caught herself. “The library is not open to menial workers.”
“I’ve been here before, even earlier this month, to read materials about artifice from my own native Vūcha. The librarians had no problems—I am from the artifice department...”
“You cannot possibly be a student.” The librarian waved in the direction of Efronia’s head, where no latent deepnames coiled.
“I am waiting for my student status to be confirmed. My name should be in the roster.”
But when the librarian brought out the leather-clad book of special authorizations, Efronia’s name was not to be found there. The woman would not budge. “If there is a mistake, please petition with your department.”
Walking back towards Artifice, Efronia wondered whether Baltas’s avoidance of her had to do with her change in library privileges. She’d ask him. It wasn’t a big deal for her, since the departmental library supplied all the information she needed for work. Today’s trip had nothing to do with her work.
And work now waited for her, but she felt oddly reluctant to return to the workshop so soon. Perhaps the departmental librarian would be able to tell her something about these—these Khana. Her thoughts circled back to Zilpit-nai-Rinah, but not in any straightforward fashion. She remembered the lantern light reflecting off the tiny brass fish in the circlet, the ringlets of hair spilling around it. Such fine hammering. If—
What were those thoughts? She did not understand their origin, nor the feeling they engendered; a kind of sweet pain under her tongue. She was curious. That was all. Efronia frowned and squeezed her hand around the handle of her staff, except that it wasn’t there—she’d left it at the workshop by the entrance, like she did every day.
Back at the departmental building, Efronia avoided the workshop entirely and made her way to the library on the second floor. It was a cozy room with four utilitarian reading desks of polished walnut, large enough to hold drafts and constructing schemes. Unlike the Central Library, where people worked in shifts, the Artifice Department had only one librarian, Igala, a middle-aged and cheerful Taina kinswoman with traditional braided and bell-studded hair. The tiny silver bells had been declapped, and they moved near-silently among the librarian’s bleached ashen locks. Behind Igala’s counter, Efronia saw the stacks, with their familiar rows of bookshelves and scroll cubbies.
“How can I help you?” Igala’s smile seemed genuine.
“I...” She opened her mouth to explain about the librarian at Central, the roster, but stopped herself. The Artifice librarian had always been helpful to her, student status notwithstanding. Igala had asked her a question to which there existed a straightforward answer. Efronia’s complaints and suspicions were irrelevant.
“I am looking for information about the Khana.”
“Ah, of course,” Igala said. “I heard Baltas is working on the carp transport again. Neat old things, these fish. Too bad no more are made.” The librarian walked off deep into the stacks where Efronia could not see her but soon returned to the counter with a small pile of books. “Here. I got you a draftbook, but not for the carp. Baltas checked that out last night.”
Efronia retreated with the stack to one of the tables. Here was a draftbook of a simga fish transport, complete with measurement numbers and deepname charts for activation and maintenance. Resolutely she pushed the fascinating draftbook aside and settled down instead with the volume titled The Brief History of the Khana at the Artifice Department.
An hour later she’d learned what she needed to know. About fifty years ago the department had chosen to allow eight Khana to leave their quarter and be admitted to the university. All eight of them were women, and all were exceedingly strong—two of the eight held three deepnames and the others two deepnames each. It was this incredible power that had swayed the department to grant admission to Peninah and Ketri, only a week or so after the quarter was locked by royal decrees. The names Peninah and Ketri, the book explained, belonged to the oregs, the traditional trading groups into which women entered to become lovers and workers together. A group of three or four women would take the name of their strongest and distinguished between themselves through the names of their grandmothers.
The presence of the Peninah and Ketri erugot at the department had been short-lived. They stayed long enough to make and partially document the fish transport, about a dozen vehicles of various shapes that moved without the need for horse or donkey. And almost immediately after the construction of these automata was completed, university governance passed a resolution rescinding the women’s admission. The eight were ordered imprisoned for defying royal decrees for the confinement of the Khana in the quarter, as well as their own custom that prohibited Khana women from practicing artifice. The department, of course, continued to service the vehicles. For the last fifty years they’d been used for speedy deliveries of deans and especially important parcels to their destinations.
The eight Khana women had been stripped of their inventions and carted off to some dungeon, their further fate undocumented in the Brief History. Presumably in the interests of brevity.
Efronia squeezed her empty fist again, then breathed the unexpected anger out. She had learned much. There was a Khana quarter somewhere in the city. The two Zilpit were lovers—erugot—outside of the quarter, illegally, to speak to her. She struggled with strange feelings again. Elation. Disappointment. Concern. Had she endangered them by asking these librarians questions?
She had to speak to Zilpit-nai-Rinah again.
And say what? You said I could work and learn with you. I have no interest in fish outside of fishing, which is often calming to me, especially when nobody is around...
She took a breath. No, it she wouldn’t want to babble at Zilpit-nai-Rinah. Let’s try again...
I know you have a lover, maybe more than one...
Entirely taken aback by her thoughts now, Efronia walked carefully, doing her best not to think anymore.
She returned to the workshop just barely in the timeframe she’d promised the professor. She was not sure she could have a conversation with him now. Perhaps it could wait. Certainly he seemed in no hurry to share words with her, and she did not need to consult the Central Library anymore.
No. She had to face this. Had to have this conversation today, now, as she’d planned. Her confused thoughts about Zilpit-nai-Rinah were irrelevant to this. Postponing the conversation with Baltas would serve no purpose.
Efronia wasn’t sure if it was fear or the rush of anticipation or something else that squeezed her throat as she knocked on the door of his office, prepared to turn around and look for him elsewhere in the workshop.
Surprisingly, he answered. “Come in!”
She did. He threw a startled, furtive look upon her, then started rummaging through papers on his desk. “What is this about?”
“I went to the Central Library,” she said, “to research a topic. Only my name was not on the roster like before. If I could ask you to petition so that I would once again be allowed to use the library until my student status is clarified...”
Baltas cleared his throat and sat straighter in his chair. “About that.”
“The faculty met to discuss your application. It was denied.”
Efronia stepped back, not quite able to contain the shock she felt. How, denied...
Baltas’s fingers fidgeted over the desk as he looked somewhere beyond her.
She had to speak. What to say? Was this some kind of a joke? Was this final? She opened and closed her mouth, as the silences and glances and his avoidance fell finally into position.
Baltas said, in a strangely brisk, strained fashion, “Moreover, it was voted to no longer allow you to audit lectures. The good news is that you can stay on as a worker.”
“Good news?” She echoed, unable to speak more. Denied? No more classes? How could this be good news? Efronia’s hands curled into fists.
He nodded, still not looking at her. “You’ll be able to stay on, with me. I know how difficult such work is to find, for a simple. I at least have always taken you seriously, even though you are limited in this fashion.”
“Limited?” She cried, still not quite able to speak. “But my inventions work—”
“Your inventions?” Baltas rose up in his chair, his furtiveness and hesitation suddenly gone. He seemed angry now. Was he angry? Why was he angry? People were so difficult to understand, especially now, while her mind churned with the shock of his words.
As if in response to her thoughts, Baltas’s three deepnames reared up above his head and combined into a protective structure of light that spilled down his shoulders and torso. “Your inventions are a laborious imitation of what a named strong achieves in a heartbeat. You are clever, but my colleagues pointed out that I have given you too much leeway. They are right, I see that now. Your inventions are nothing special. A child’s play compared to the work of the named strong. I told you to take a deepname, over and over I told you, but you didn’t. You couldn’t, or you didn’t. Perhaps to shame me. I wouldn’t have been made a laughingstock in faculty meetings, either!” He slammed his hand against the desk. “‘Like a candlebulb in a dark room, the magical disciplines illuminate the world.’ Do you know why I keep repeating this proverb to you? One cannot light a candlebulb without a deepname. Without a deepname, you can never become an artificer.”
She understood his anger now. He had been cornered. His colleagues had shamed him, because he took her in. Ridiculed him for defending her. He could not stand against them, so it had to be all her fault. He had engaged his deepnames, ready to strike at at her, to hurt her worse than he’d already done.
She saw it now. He could not lash out at the other professors. They were all named strong. Colleagues. Their acceptance and goodwill meant much. She, she was only a menial worker now.
If he lashed out, it would be at her.
Perhaps people were like bears, after all.
Her hands shook, but showing fear would be dangerous now. She breathed in deep, then squared her shoulders. Spoke in a level tone. “When was this decision reached?”
“Last morning. You do not understand how hard I fought for you, to stay here as a worker. You should be grateful. Your pay won’t even be reduced.”
As always in moments of great danger, she felt her body fill with an enormous sense of calm, immovable and hard as a mountain.
“You’re welcome.” He sat down, looking relieved. “If you could wipe the carp vehicle down, and oil the cogs...”
Efronia nodded and exited the office. The students paid her no attention. The decision has been reached, establishing her with a finality as a menial worker unable to ever achieve student status, and thus outside their social circle.
Their snubbing served her well. From under a desk she extracted her shoulder bag, the one she’d sewn from baby carriers and used to carry her inventions from Vūcha to the capital. With slow and deliberate motions she wrapped the pump prototype and a few unfinished others into it, along with the wrenches and a handsaw she’d purchased with her own money.
The oil-dispensing mechanism was too bulky to take with her. She fought the urge to unscrew a few cogs and put them neatly away into the appropriate cog jars, for the named strong to figure out if they wanted her nothing-but-a-child’s-play of an invention to work again. But they did pay her for her work, and she could not be moved to such games.
The faculty had met yesterday morning, and today her name had already been taken off the library roster.
Bird peck it, but she was a fool. Zubrano and the two Zilpit erugot had found her last night. We thought you would be more upset, they’d said. They thought she’d already known, but Baltas had been too embarrassed to tell her until she’d cornered him. If not for that, how much longer would he have dawdled?
She hadn’t been upset then, but only because she didn’t know yet. Was not important enough to be told. No. Old Baltas had chickened out. He’d told her clearly when she first arrived to Dugomá that he would fight for her to be admitted on the strength of her inventions alone. But he had been made a laughingstock by his colleagues, and so he had changed his mind. She had no magical ability. She had told him so when she arrived. But now he said it was all her fault that she could not be a student.
Not an artificer. Just a menial worker, forever. She’d keep coming up with inventions, and Baltas would use them, just as the artificers at the department continued to use the fish transport long after its inventors had been jailed and gone. Be grateful he did not threaten to jail you, Efronia.
‘Upset’ was an entirely inadequate word to describe how she felt now.
Zilpit-nai-Rinah, I like your words better. I’ll use your words instead.
I am an artificer.
I am an artificer because my inventions work.
Hands twitching for the weight of it, Efronia retrieved her staff from behind the workshop door and walked out. Somebody else would have to sweep here tonight, and oil the cogs for Professor Baltas.
Morning came all too soon for Zilpit-nai-Rinah. Still groggy from last night’s writing, she turned this way and that on the faded rug bed in a vain attempt to escape the persistent rays of sunlight. Someone had solicitously unlocked the carved-fish shutters. The side room she’d shared last night with the sleeping Zilpit-nai-Gedulyah stood empty, but a buzz of angry and excited voices reached her irritated ears. It came from the oreg’s cooking room.
Whatever it was, she was not ready.
The sun had climbed, she noticed, too high for it to be morning; no, it was noon, and the sounds she’d heard were of people arguing over a shared midday meal. Zilpit-nai-Rinah felt no hunger, but a growing sense of unease propelled her to make a quick job of morning ablutions. She donned only the barest amount of jewelry but wound the fish circlet back onto her curls after a perfunctory brushing. The circlet reminded her of her first name, the one her grandmothers had given her in hopes of future greatness. Atarah. An adornment. A crown. In her oreg, she did not much feel like a crown—a wayward junior member, a nameless simple who would remain forever under the protection and guidance of her magically talented erugot. Zilpit-nai-Mor thought she was jealous of their magic, but what Zilpit-nai-Rinah wanted was different—the freedom to work and to be judged for her work, regardless of deepnames.
She sighed and walked out into the cooking room. The many women who sat on embroidered brown cushions fell silent. Not only her whole oreg was there, but others as well—older women from mother and aunt oregs, and even the wizened matriarch Mor-nai-Nurit, the oreg-leader’s grandmother, who could no longer hear without the aid of her deepnames. Some of the women looked up at Zilpit-nai-Rinah with wariness, but most averted their gazes or pretended she did not exist. Only Zilpit-nai-Meronit, dressed unfashionably in matching light blue sharovar and tunic, greeted her with a kiss to clasped hands.
“Sorry for interrupting,” Zilpit-nai-Rinah said. “I’ll be on my way.”
Her gaze lingered on Zilpit-nai-Meronit in blue, the one who’d accompanied her to the city last night, for all they had quarreled. She wanted to talk to her alone, a long conversation—about work, about them—perhaps something of their closeness could be salvaged. And Zilpit-nai-Meronit looked at her now. She looked... apologetic, wary. Not a good time for a long conversation with her, in this gathering.
“I’ll be on my way,” she repeated.
“We are talking about you,” said Zilpit-nai-Mor. “It is high time that you were brought to your senses.”
Mor-nai-Nurit, the matriarch, waved her hand, and her three deepnames, as powerful as those of her granddaughter, reared up and wound around her head. Zilpit-nai-Rinah, having seen this before, suspected the matriarch’s magic was more than a hearing aid—it lent persuasion and authority to the sound of the old woman’s speech. “Running around with non-Khana must stop,” she said. “It endangers all of us. You will be seized and imprisoned, and then they will come here to fine us and close what little trade we have left.”
Zilpit-nai-Rinah had heard this argument countless times before. It fell smooth from many lips, but it was not a good one. “The Lainish are smarter than that,” she replied. “They want to keep us frightened. They know that as long as we Khana are frightened but not starved enough to rebel, we will remain complacent—struggling, but out of sight, and not a threat. We’re better off being vocal, being seen—”
“You are better off keeping silent and not being seen,” said a mother from the Gedulyah oreg.
The others spoke up together, aunts and mothers and grandmothers and the younger erugot, their voices blending and rising.
“The place of the simple is not to make rules, it is to support her strong erugot!”
“—with men, Bird forfend—”
“—exactly this, to support her strong erugot in their endeavors—”
“—with non-Khana men! What was she thinking? To top it off, underground artifice—”
Zilpit-nai-Rinah said, “There’s nothing wrong with underground artifice, we need—”
“—a good for nothing, nameless—”
“—artifice which serves no purpose other than her pride—”
“—with non-Khana men!!— “
They must mean Zubrano. How did they know about Zubrano? Zilpit-nai-Meronit must have told, must have— No wonder she looked guilty—
It did not matter. It did not matter.
She stoppered her ears with both hands and shouted, “MY WORK HAS A PURPOSE AND MY INVENTIONS MATTER!”
Without getting up from her cushions, Mor-nai-Nurit reached out and patted Zilpit-nai-Rinah’s leg where she towered standing above her seated kin. “Like a child who imitates in hopes of attaining power, your inventions are nothing but echoes of work that is done with deepnames. And like an unruly teenager who whines but relies on her elders for clothing and food, so must you too learn humility, or be cast out from the protection of your elders.”
“You,” she snarled, at all of them, at the world. “All you know is your deepnames!” She looked around, trying to recall which members of these oregs were simple, remembering quite a few—but none of them seemed to be present. “Only one in a dozen among the Lainish is a named strong, but among us here that number is higher. Is it five out of a dozen? Six? We are strong in magic, but those lacking it suffer an even greater estrangement than the non-Khana, among whom deepnames are rare! Magicless artifice is not a whimsy, not a purposeless play of a lost child—it is a necessity, a work that will show us how to live, together, equally appreciated for our gifts—”
But the last of her words were drowned in voices of the assembled. “—listening to this nonsense—” “with MEN!— ” “A disappointment to her grandmothers—”
She shouted again, scratching her throat raw and not caring. “My grandmothers taught me! They taught me to make these works of sawn and chiseled metal you admire so, the jewelry you’ve all bought from me—they taught me that each woman, strong or simple, must be measured by her work—” She breathed in, gulping, knowing this moment for an ending. These words. Those gestures. These decisions.
“I choose the work that chooses me. I choose to leave the oreg that disdains me for my work! I am not a disappointment to my grandmothers. I am the adornment of my grandmothers, I am the crown, I am the vehicle for the work that is done no matter how you belittle it! I am Atarah-nai-Rinah!”
Not waiting for response, she turned around and back into the side room. There she snatched her purse and began to stuff it with drafts, notebooks, the letter she’d written last night to Efronia.
Zilpit-nai-Meronit followed on her heels.
“What are you doing?”
“You have left the oreg—left me—”
She shook her head. So there was something here after all, a remnant, a pain, of past love. She wanted to tug at this. But she could not stay. “I am going. You can come with me.”
Zilpit-nai-Meronit shook her head. “You should have talked to me first.”
She grit her teeth. “Maybe you should have talked to me first before telling them about Zubrano.”
“I am tired of Zubrano! I am tired of running around with non-Khana, hiding from family—”
Atarah said, taken aback, “I thought you wanted this work, I thought you went because you cared...”
“I cared! I cared about you, I went with you because of you. And now you’re leaving me, leaving the oreg—”
“It’s not because of you. The work...”
“Pluck the work!” Zilpit-nai-Meronit turned around and ran back into the cooking room.
Atarah stormed out the sideroom, clutching her notebook-stuffed purse. If she stopped, she would crumple. She would roll into a ball and cry, for hours, forever, until they found her and brought her back like a sick child, and fussed and fed her, and spoke over her.
She walked briskly through curtained passages, through corridors that led her out of the Zilpit quarters into the rooms of an adjacent oreg, and from there to the next. Women young and old watched her progress with shocked eyes but made no attempt to grab or detain her. In one of the rooms—she lost track of which oreg—she saw a simple rope ladder leading down into the streets, and took it.
Running, then pacing on the cobblestones shadowed by the overhang of buildings, it suddenly struck her how much she resembled those few men, those erstwhile scholars who for reasons unknown to the women would sometimes abandon the sanctity of the inner quarter. Leaving forever they ran, tearing the veils off their faces as they did so, pursued by derisive catcalls of grandmothers through the women’s inner quarter and out of the quarter’s gate, into the unholy outer city of the Bird-eaters, the non-Khana. She, too, was tearing off—not her veils, but the untruth that was her oreg, her belonging to it. Among her grandmothers only the elder had had a deepname. The Rinah oreg might have been poor in magic, but it was rich in companionship, laughter, invention—and she, Atarah, she and her inventions had paved a way for her to join the Zilpit oreg. But that belonging had come at a price. The price she’d had to pay was herself.
Atarah—the name still felt odd in her mouth, even though it had been hers before she was Zilpit—Atarah found the entrance to the catacombs which Zilpit-nai-Meronit had shown her when they started first to venture out. With great difficulty she lit the lantern—thank Bird she had not removed it from her purse last night. The supplies of purified white malud oil were beginning to run low, but they would suffice for now. Through well-cobwebbed catacombs Atarah moved until she reached the large room under the abandoned shop. Here, she set the lantern down. Gulping through tears, she began to take her bearings.
She’d need a broom and rags. A bucket. Paint and brushes. Scrap metal and tools. She’d need more light. A bedroll to sleep on. She’d need her jewelry-making tools. She’d need a way to trade her work for food, without alerting the government.
I have shown myself what needs to be done. I am not afraid of the work. I welcome the work.
She took a shawl off her shoulders and began kicking off cobwebs from the walls, feeling heavy-hearted and afraid despite the inner bravado. She’d hoped Zilpit-nai-Meronit would join her, but she had not. And now Zilpit-nai-Meronit said she did not care about the work, that she was tired—as if this work to better simple lives was child’s play, to be put aside when one grew tired. Perhaps a named strong had that luxury. A simple never did.
Some time later she thought, Why in Bird’s many shapes would I want to do this alone? For whom?
This is a work for many.
She’d been so hurt, she’d run without pausing to think. This place, this was the half-way point Zubrano talked about. A place for Khana and Lainish simple to meet and work together. But now she was here alone.
She should have stayed longer in the quarter, talked to family and friends who had no deepnames, those who needed this work the most. Did she plan on doing everything alone, claiming the totality of nameless artifice for herself, triumphantly saving them from cold and privation all on her own? What would that serve? What kind of an example would that set for the future sisterhood she’d hoped to build?
If the work is to benefit many, then it belongs to many, and many must engage in it.
Already the work was teaching her—about herself, her pride, her needs.
She would need to go back to the quarter, to speak to the magicless artificers she had worked with, and other simple Khana—her allies. The named strong in her family were not allies.
She needed to post Efronia’s letter. She had to let Zubrano know.
The work was teaching her how to live.
In the sluggish mid-afternoon warmth, the narrow streets of Artificers’ Row bustled around Efronia. Porters and apprentices darted from shop to shop. Dazed by the riot of color and movement, shoppers turned their heads around in search of bargains. The Third Furnituremakers’ Street, just like the other two, was crowded with woodworking shops and saturated with smells of newly polished wood, beeswax, and resins. Crudely carved chests and commodes crowded the street, while lighter and more intricate work peeked from the depths of the shops. A child of about twelve ran past, clutching to his chest a three-legged stool inlaid with abalone. A thief, perhaps. Efronia could have easily tripped him with her staff, but she desisted with a shrug.
She’d received a letter last night, a little green envelope delivered at her quarters. It contained a small note, written in an unfamiliar florid hand. “I hope you changed your mind about the work. Even if you didn’t, I want to see you. Zilpit-nai-Rinah.” That name was crossed out, and below it, in different ink: “now Atarah.” And on the reverse, “3rd Furnituremakers.”
The note had troubled her. Not the change of name—that was Atarah’s choice—but what it implied. What could it imply? Efronia listed the possibilities in her mind. She knew that Zilpit was a name of her oreg. She’d had lovers. Did she still have them now?
Did it matter?
Yes, it did, especially so close to, “I want to see you.”
Efronia, too, wanted to see her. Beyond that lay a murkier feeling. She had never wanted the physical, what most other people seemed to want. This feature of who she was had never concerned her before, because it had not mattered before.
She examined the feeling in herself, turned it this way and that. She wanted—not that. Maybe something small. To touch Atarah’s hand? To sit together, side by side, as they worked on the lamp prototype?
Yes. That would be good. Work was good. It was comforting to think about the work.
She’d find Zubrano first, she had decided, and he would lead her to Zilpit-nai-Rinah—to Atarah. But finding Zubrano proved harder than Efronia had envisioned. She had asked in different shops, but the name produced no reaction. Even finding a person to whom to pose her question had been hard—some shopkeepers lost interest in helping when they saw she wasn’t a client, others appeared too busy to pay attention. At one shop, the woodworker mocked her accent by drawing out the vowels in mimicry of Vūchani speech: “Where wouuuuuuld you fiiiiiind Zubraaaaaaano,” to snickers of laughter from the apprentices.
Efronia did not respond to the baiting—but on the street once again, she felt suddenly overwhelmed. Too many people. New people, with their talk and buzz and mockery. Walking away from the department she’d felt resolute and solid, but now her knees began to shake. She did not question her decision. It was the right decision. But.
Efronia gripped her staff, an immovable axis in a tilting world. Her surroundings blended into a colorful whirligig, from which sounds and lights emerged like prickles of long, thin needles, only to withdraw again.
There was a sharp tug on her bag. The weight of the water pump shifting inside it jolted Efronia into action. She grabbed without thinking. Her left hand locked in a vise around someone’s shoulder. Still holding her staff in her right, she pressed her assailant close to her body and locked her staff across his chest. The would-be thief was a young man, no older than fifteen, who kicked and screamed but could not escape her grip. She knocked the knife from his hand.
“Aunt! Auntie! Let me go! Let me go!” His head was level with hers. When he attempted to head-butt her, she shifted her left hand onto his neck.
He stilled at once, heartbeat a frightened bird against her grip.
“Everybody needs my water pump,” she said, close to his ear. “They come with proposals. They run after me at night. They try to steal it on the Bird-plucking street.” She tightened her grip, crushing the boy even closer to her. Once again she felt strong, immovable. Focused. A press on the lever of her staff released its side-blades. Around them, a crowd was beginning to gather.
Efronia had never favored public displays. So why was she doing this? She shouted, “They chase and chase after me, but when I am coming to sell, the buyers are nowhere to be found, but there are plenty of thieves! Where in Bird’s guano-crusty feathers is Zubrano?”
She was angry.
Angry at Baltas. At the other university artificers as well, but especially at Baltas. He’d taken her seriously when she’d arrived, praised her inventions, gave her a position higher-paying than that of uneducated menial workers. By the end he pretended that nothing like that ever happened, that student status for a simple was an impossibility, some nonsense only an ignorant country person like her would consider. A country person who looked different enough from city Lainish to draw glances, whose long vowels inspired derision, but whose work inspired nothing at all. If she could not find Zubrano—
“I’m here, I’m here!” A Lainishman shouldered through the crowd. She did not recognize the face, but the red shirt was familiar from last night. “Efronia, thank you for coming, let me take you to the shop...”
She pushed the thief away from her. He scrambled and ran, while onlookers attempted to grab and trip him. She did not care to watch but turned around to examine her carrier bag. Its bottom had been sliced but not wide enough for the pump bundle to fall out. Zubrano offered help, which she waved aside; repositioning the bag under her left arm, she followed him to a side alley and a small woodworking workshop. Only the proprietor was here—a heavyset Lainishwoman with a no-nonsense face, who nodded firmly at Efronia but said nothing.
Zubrano started to speak, but three other people walked into the workshop—a young woman and two men, all of whom began to speak at once. “Too dangerous—” “Those displays—” “What if the royal government—”
The proprietor said, “Yes, little brother, we need to discuss this. You keep endangering us all by bringing—”
“Quiet!” said Zubrano. “I want you to meet Efronia.” And to her, “My sister owns the shop. I am glad you could find a chance to come here from the university. I know you do not have much leisure...”
“Leisure?” She laughed bitterly. “I quit.”
“You quit?” said one of the men. “Why?”
“They say now there’s no place for a simple except as a menial worker.”
The man nodded.
She turned to Zubrano. “You knew that yesterday. I did not. Baltas was too afraid to tell me.”
“Oh. This did not even occur to me. You seemed not to care...” He shook his head slowly, in wonder. “In any case, welcome.” And to the others, “Do we trust her?”
The people exchanged glances.
“Trust me in what?” Efronia said. “You told me I should work and learn with you. Here I am, a simple and an artificer.” The word lay strange on her tongue, but she continued, resolutely, to claim it. “Zilpit-nai-Rinah said work is the measure of everything. Then measure me by my work. My artifice can benefit many others, and especially people who cannot rely on magic.”
The people in the workshop looked at each other and nodded agreement. It felt like Zilpit-nai-Rinah’s words were valued, here.
Zubrano said, “You know me already. I talk to people about this work, and I make furniture.”
The young woman said, “I am Rada. I am a laundress. I talk to people about this work, and I talk especially to women. Women with deepnames are equal to men in power and influence, but simple women are not so lucky.”
One of the men said, “I am Zhivin. I work as a servant at the palace.” He winked, as if to convey some meaning, but Efronia was not sure what he meant.
The last—a short but burly man who appeared older than the others—said only, “Yanek.”
Laundry? Furniture? I thought you people were artifice...
She turned from one to another. “What are you talking about? What is your work?”
“Our work is change,” said Rada. “Our work is for a world in which simple are not dependent on the strong. A world in which every room is warm in winter—be it by magic or better yet, by mechanics. A world where nobody lacks for water.”
“A world in which the Khana quarter is open, and those who wish to come and go can do so,” said Zubrano. “A world in which every child receives education, independent of magic or means.”
“A world in which the simple are more than servants to the strong,” said Zhivin, the one who said he worked at the palace.
“Yes... But such a world...” Efronia’s head churned with new thoughts and ideas. “It will never happen. The named strong at the university will never allow it.”
Rada laughed without mirth. “At the university? The university is nothing but a voluntary Khana quarter for the named strong who deem themselves too smart for simple folk, and so they wall themselves away. The problem is not with the university.”
“You mean the government,” said Efronia slowly. “The royal government will never allow it.”
The burly man, Yanek, had remained silent throughout this exchange. But now he spat, like a lumberjack readying to cut down an old tree, then spoke. “We do not plan to ask for permission.”
“People have asked,” said Rada.
Zhivin said, “At the palace, I have discovered many such petitions. Our people have petitioned again and again, to open a school for commoners, to improve heating and water supply to poor neighborhoods, to open the Khana quarter again. People keep asking and waiting, asking and waiting.”
“I see,” Efronia said. She did. Lodging petitions was traditional in Laina, but such petitioning afforded the nobles the time to stall, to ignore, to lose documents, to dismiss—and perhaps to briefly discuss, to assuage any contrary feelings a strong in power might have, and then dismiss. What came after such petitions? Silence, or...
This would be a dangerous endeavor.
“Why do you need me?” All this talk was well and fine, but these people would need to want and value her work if she was to join them.
Zubrano said, “Our need for artifice is great. Zilpit-nai-Rinah said she would like to work with you, to create artifice without magic. It is how we can best resist the named strong.”
Efronia nodded. Yes. She wanted to see Zilpit-nai-Rinah again.
His sister the proprietor said, “Not in this shop. As I was trying to tell you, talk is spreading. Too many people—and after today’s little show, especially if you bring Khana here—”
“Don’t worry,” said Zubrano. “I’ve long been dreaming of opening my own shop. I think we would sell... chairs.”
Zhivin grinned. “There’s always an acute need for chairs at the palace.”
“Is that so? Then I know just the place for my new shop. Are you coming?” Zubrano said to Efronia.
An unfamiliar emotion tugged the muscles of her mouth upwards into a smile. It felt strange to her, how her face contorted with it, for she rarely before had a reason to smile. But Zilpit-nai-Rinah had sent her a letter, had asked for her. It meant—
This feeling in her chest, it meant something. Something new.
She gripped her staff and adjusted her hold on the carrier bag. “Lead the way.”
Since last night, Atarah-nai-Rinah had gone back to the quarter and returned with three helpers, each carrying bundles and bags full of tools. Multiple hands made an easier work of clearing away the grime and dust; one of the women spoke of having established, years ago, a new underground workshop with her erugot, but of course there the bulk of the work had been done by magic. Here the women used no magic, only brooms and mops and simple tools. A small mechanical cistern supplied enough water for cleanup.
Atarah wished again and again for Efronia’s invention. Could they improve it together? Could such a thing be extended to bring water to poor neighborhoods, even to irrigate the fields in times of draught? Together, they could do so much. Bring warmth and illumination to all. Reinvent the infamous fish transport, only without magic... Her mind supplied blasphemous pictures in which, discarding the Khana prohibition against eating and depicting animals more complex than fish, the new artificers would construct vehicles gloriously shaped into birds and snow tigers and even the mythical, almost-forgotten razu beast... To make anything at all, they’d need a furnace and people skilled in smithing, and woodworkers skilled in making—well, a work surface and chairs, for starters.
As if in response to her thoughts, a rattle of descending feet was heard from above. In a short while, the door to the workshop swung open to admit Zubrano, and one other.
“Good to see you already busy,” he said. “I brought you a guest, as well as some other people interested in the fine art of chairs.”
Slowly Efronia walked forward, and Atarah did the same, until they stood face to face, at loss for words, each trying to suppress a smile.
Atarah said, “I used malud oil purified with clay,” at the same time as Efronia said, “I’ve been thinking how to improve your lantern.”
They grinned fully now, but then fell silent again.
“I’m sorry you’ve only seen only the lantern,” said Atarah, “it’s one of my least successful inventions.” “I’ll show you everything once the workshop is set up.”
“Can I help? I brought the pump, and other things...”
It was easier to work than to talk.
They finished the cleanup and, under Zubrano’s direction, began assembling a workbench and desks. More Khana women kept trickling in, including two of Atarah’s own Rinah grandmothers, both metalsmiths. With a pair of younger helpers, the grandmothers began rolling out sheet metal for the new furnace.
“We need a source of fuel to reliably replace the power of deepnames,” Efronia said.
Atarah had been thinking about this all day. “I have tried various things. I believe we will need to do more than replace. We’ll need to invent our own way of doing things, a much more flexible way. The mind of a named strong relies on its own power. This is where our potential advantage lies. A person’s mind can hold no more than three deepnames, and is moreover limited by the laws of magical geometry. We will rely instead on forces found in nature, whose power is unlimited and varied.”
Efronia nodded vigorously. “I’m eager to explore the uses of bog oil. And I’ve never used malud oil before...”
“Riverwater can be used to turn a wheel, and so can wind, though not as reliably,” Atarah said. “And there are wilder things. I’ve been thinking about lightning...”
“Hah. I’ll make a list.”
Later, when Zubrano and most of the Khana artificers left for the night, Atarah sat down with her notebook and pen. Efronia, having judiciously lit a few tallow candles, sat down by her side and began to tinker with the malud lantern. “I’m going to see if I can make it easy to light when you’re walking.”
She nodded. “Use my jewelry-making tools.”
The candles and the lantern weren’t as bright as a candlebulb, but they served well enough to illuminate a page. There wasn’t enough light yet, or enough workers. The government knew nothing of their plans, and so they weren’t yet in danger. All this would change, she knew, as change would come for all things that grow. She opened the notebook and pushed the lever of the pen.
We cannot continue to live like before. Separated from each other by walls and words, set against each other by those who fear our common strength, we stand divided. The Lainish named strong withhold their help from those who had been deemed unworthy—people of lowly birth, or the poor, or the Khana, or those lacking deepnames. The Khana strong may grudgingly help the Khana simple, but they aren’t eager to share their power with outsiders, for fear of violence.
The work unites those divided by birth and talent, Atarah wrote. The work creates a place for us to come together in a wordless understanding. Where our people have been divided by language and customs, they would be united by work. Then let us trust in this work, and in the sisterhood it will create, to teach us how to live.
In this uncertain light, Efronia’s body loomed bulky and solid. She smelled of sweat and grime and refined malud oil. Atarah wondered how she herself smelled, and whether it mattered.
“What are you working on?” Efronia asked.
This was interesting. Books had been never Efronia’s ambition, but she wanted to know more about Atarah’s work, whatever shape it took. “Do you have a title yet?”
Atarah smiled. “I think I’ll call it How to Live.”
“I want to read it.”
“You will, of course,” Atarah said. “You will.”
The room was large enough to spread comfortably, but here they both were, as close as possible without fully touching. This would suffice, for now.
She continued to write.