1627, Fire Season, Death Week
Fire Season, Death Week, Freezeday, midday at House Saiciae. Session 42: Kin-Making
It’s around midday when Varanis comes looking for Venlar again.
Venlar is in one of the smaller rooms by Mellia’s, on a seat by the window, writing. He has a wax tablet and a parchment which he is trimming with some small, sharp tool that looks like its mother was a stone. The door is partway open, letting him look up and raise a hand in greeting.
Dressed for comfort, rather than style or fighting, Varanis strides into the room. Her long skirts have surprisingly few layers or frills and she wears a filmy scarf tied as a top. Her hair looks damp, as though she’s recently come from the baths. “Venlar, it seems I need advice yet again, for all that you have not yet agreed to advise me. May I presume upon your generosity?”
Venlar says, “Of course. I might ask the same, however, when we are done – or some other time. Shall we have wine brought?”
“Yes, please. Wine would be nice.” She pulls a stool over to the table he sits at and seats herself gracefully. Trousers, armour, skirts… she is comfortable in any of it, it seems.
He does just that, and a servant brings some within a few moments. Regardless of his comfort at being here, he is comfortably treated. Venlar himself pushes aside the writing platform, a raised, tilted slab of wood, and brings a lower stool for himself. “Then let us talk of how we can help each other.” It is a phrase his father might use in negotiations.
She smiles and says nothing as the servant pours. She watches carefully to see if they are to be left alone.
Venlar gets up again, making sure the door is closed after the woman leaves, and then glances out of the window as well, for good measure. After that, he waits to be talked to.
Varanis sips at her wine and smiles. “This is a nice one. Light and just a little sweet.” The smile fades into something more serious. “Venlar, Blue Tree is struggling. I’m worried about the people. Unless the crops are better this year, people are going to starve. They are already hungrier than they should be.”
He nods slightly. “We touched on this before. What has changed, that is of this import?”
“I don’t have anywhere to live there. And it feels wrong to me to strain their resources by imposing on others, but equally wrong to use resources to build for myself, when I could be helping the clan instead. Marta, my serving woman, was wondering if I’d be starting a household there and I don’t know.” It comes out in a bit of a rush.
Venlar nods. “So, are we talking about food, or about a household? What do you think it takes to build a house in Sartar?”
“I’m not entirely sure. The houses I’ve dealt with here are generations old. I’ve never needed to build anything new on my hides.”1Varanis just passes Manage Household at half her score. She shrugs. “I’d assume it takes labour and building materials.”
“Indeed yes. You need materials, and labour – skilled and unskilled. A longhouse will take a season or so to build, depending on how many people you have, and then you would want to be decorating it, to show your deeds and power. The skilled labour is the main cost, although stone is highly expensive if you want to build much in stone. Most of the time is in unskilled labour. Most of the expense, in painters, carvings, the blessings on the hearth and the doorway, and so on, and on outfitting what you need. How much would you like to spend?” This does not seem like a terrible problem to him.
She looks at him blankly.
“If you do not mind sharing how much money you have for the project, I could give you an idea of what you might be able to do. A house might cost anywhere between a season’s and a year’s income, depending on what you want.” A languid hand gesture indicates that he could also make an argument for spending more.
“I have a few hundred Lunars, I suppose. Though it will drain my resources entirely to spend that much. I gave about half my year’s income to Blue Tree in the form of supplies already.” She looks uncertain. For someone with money, she has little understanding of its value outside her usual expenses.
“It would be best to use that in a way which gives to the Blue Tree, so asking for the expert help from there and from the Alynxfish clan would keep the money where it could be used. Still, it is not food. There are other options, if you wish to keep enough to give gifts. After all, who knows what the future holds?” His voice is even, almost soothing. Maybe over-trained. He must do this sort of thing a lot.
“There may be an abandoned cottage I could take over,” she muses. “Repairs and cleaning would allow me to direct the bulk of my resources where they are needed most.”
“For whom?” Venlar looks interested. “Who would live there?”
“Well… me, when I can. When we finally drive the Lunars out, I won’t need to be on the move so constantly. Surely it is only right that I should spend part of the year with my people. But if I go now, someone must house me and the people who come with me. They must host us. It places strain on people who already have too little.”
“I’m afraid that would not do at all. It would be better to have no house than an unworthy one. However, it does give me an idea?” He pauses delicately, waiting for permission to put it.
She looks taken aback by his comment, but then gestures for him to continue.
“Build a house for someone else. Someone within your band. It can then be small, but expensive, and you are not showing that it is all you can afford. It would be a little strange, but if you have a house for your healer, or your captain, or your scribe, then you could easily have reason to stay with them. The other thing to do is simply to give gifts each time the chief hosts you, of course.”
She looks thoughtful. “I could build a house for you and Mellia… But gifts to the chief would allow him to redistribute those to people as needed, thereby benefiting the clan every time I visit. Dogva’s a good chief. He’ll know where the need is greatest and I can trust him to always do his best by the clan.” She brightens. “The next time I visit, I’ll bring something I think will be of use and then I’ll try to find a discreet way to ask him for guidance on what gifts would be best in the future. Or…” There’s a broad smile for Venlar, “you might be well placed to learn that information for me, depending on where you and Mellia go.”
Venlar nods to that. “Of course. When Mellia and I stayed, we had under a dozen people with us, but there was room in the longhall. I would not think it would be a long-term solution, but if you are often away, that would work well. A house that is often empty is a house where the cold moves in.”
“I have slept in Vinga’s shrine on previous visits. I helped to rebuild its walls and arranged for the roof to be repaired. But from what Berra says of the weather, this would be unwise in the colder seasons. And I wonder now if I did a disservice to Dogva by doing so.”
“Devotion to Orlanth is seldom a mistake,” Venlar replies. “But that shrine is open, and you are a Thane, not a priest in training. In the future, having the chief guard and guide you would likely be the best course.”
Varanis nods. “Thank you for your advice, Venlar. You are wise. And now, perhaps I may return the favour. You said you had a question for me?” She refills both of their cups.
Venlar says, “Yes. On the surface, my question is simple. Should I free Felgin?”
She takes a sip of wine, considering. “If it were a simple question, you would not need my advice. What complicates it?”
“Firstly, the cost, against the notion of supporting my own household, and Mellia. I am without clan, but that may not stay so. Felgin is not a slave – we don’t keep slaves – but she does have a debt to the clan. Paying that for her is how a thrall becomes… debt-free, I suppose. Her name is struck from the ledger, and she is a clan member then.”
“If you are without a clan, would that mean that she could not stay with you? Her debt is to Cinderfox. Would she be expected to return to serve there?”
“She – her debt – belongs to the clan. I could not expect my father to assign her to me. My household is… probably going to fall back on my mother, but it might be redistributed. She will likely go there, and certainly that would be the expectation. In law, she would be a clan member.” Venlar takes a sip of wine, managing not to look clumsy.
“Has she served you well? Would you be considering freeing her if you were still of the clan?” Varanis frowns thoughtfully. “And… Perhaps this is an odd question, but do you know anything of her own wishes?”
“I was considering it, yes. Marriage is a time when such things often happen. I had not thought to ask her, but the way it is usually done is to present a sum that is the debt, or a promise of it. Some do prefer to be rich, and you occasionally hear of them giving that promise to others. I don’t know if she had expected it, and it seems wrong to ask now. At least, until I know what I should do if she wants such a thing. Her debt is more than the usual price of a slave.” He is, of course, putting facts rather than wishes.
“I see. This is a delicate question, but one that must be considered. If you pay her debts, will you still have the resources you require to look after your other people? It seems to me that the right thing to do would be grant her freedom if she is worthy of such. But, if it means that you cannot feed the others under your care… that is difficult indeed.”
“She has looked after me well. There were times when I was badly affected by the thing that ailed me, and she was one of those who was always there, helping hide it from mother. But then, there’s another thing – I have personal money, and I know my clan could use it. It probably would not help them as much as it would help the Blue Tree, I suppose…” He wrinkles his brow in thought, his scar tugging at the skin. “Perhaps when I know more?”
“Blue Tree is my responsibility,” Varanis points out.
“I am going to be there, with Mellia, I think. If marriage to her is what counts, then I have already joined the clan.” He gives a small, amused smile. “I am looking forward to discussing this with those who know precedent. I think that she is married to an outlaw right now.”
Varanis frowns, then finally admits, “If you are clan, then we both know that I can’t afford to turn away your assistance for the sake of my own pride.”
“Indeed. We both have travelling to do. Some would say I am not married to Mellia until I bring her to my home, a safe place. Sartar, in this instance. But I believe it is likely that I am going to be of the Blue Tree, and we will have someone else there as well, to finish off the contract as written. The bride and groom, and then Mellia and Venlar.” He drinks as he thinks. “I will have to let her go at the Tula, but I’ll give her a gift, to help her to save if she wants.”
“This seems a fair and reasonable thing. Perhaps there will be someone at Blue Tree who could help you and Mellia. I rather suspect my cousin, may Chalana Arroy continue to bless her, is no more capable of a servant’s work than I.” She gives him a gently teasing smile. “And I’m not sure that it would be wise to put you to work at the cook-fire, Venlar.”
Venlar looks horrified by the thought. “I honestly cannot imagine that,” he admits after a moment. “Nor should I try. But here is a thought. Currently the bride – Elenda – is not a member of the Blue Tree. It may be that her husband needs to be welcomed in by someone who is. I have not read the contractual part clearly, but we might need to bring her with us, before he arrives.”
“And she cooks? Or has a thrall of her own?”
“I’ve barely met her. The provisions in the contract are for there to be hides of land, a house built, and for her husband to be able to support her. Hasfoth has effectively become a thane. She will have people.”
Varanis winces. “I’m sorry. That was all meant for you, wasn’t it?”
“I have her. I said I would take her without anything to her name, and now I can prove it. I may yet prove a bandit, as my father was, but he rose to be chief – again.” Venlar is very amused at his wine.
“It’s unfair to ask this of you, as you have been so directly affected by her actions, but… Should I be accepting of what my sister has done? There seems to be nothing I can do to change it, but it fills me with such rage…” Her fingers have gone white around the cup and it is likely good that she was given one of Venlar’s sturdy vessels for her wine.
“You never have to accept what others do,” he replies immediately. “Nobody can make you do anything.”
“People keep telling me that she may have found the way to deal with the Lunars, but all I can think of is that she has betrayed my family.” She sets the cup down carefully. “I can’t see beyond that to the larger battlefield.”
“Then ask yourself what else you may do, elsewhere, or how to oppose what she has done.” Venlar shrugs. “But ask your family if they feel betrayed.”
She laughs sadly. “I’d have to visit my brothers to do that. They and Mirava’s daughters are all that’s left and my brothers and I barely speak.”
“Hmmm. Then you do not get to think for them, I believe. If you have been alone in the world, you make your own decisions but not theirs.” To Venlar, that seems easy.
Her temper rises instantly. “Venlar, the Lunars have hunted my family for generations and now my sister shares Ernalda’s bounty with one of their top generals!”
He stays calm, in the face of that. “You may be as angry as you like. I know what my reaction would be. But unless you talk to your family, you should not be angry for them as well. Do you see the difference?”
She glares mulishly, but sinks back down onto the stool. It takes a long moment before she finally sighs. “No. Not really. Because if Desdel and Kalops aren’t angry, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I may not get along well with them, but I am reluctant to imagine they’d all betray our mother.”
“You could ask them, but it is an error to assume. What difference will it make to know you are right?”
“If I’m wrong, then I truly have no family left.”
Venlar asks, “Are you afraid of finding that out?”
A multitude of emotions cross the Vingan’s face before she finally replies, “Yes. I suppose I am.”
“So. As always, you have many options. Umath forced himself in between Sky and Earth, and in doing so created the Middle Air. Orlanth might well fight against such a marriage, leading his kin to do the same. Will it be Prince Kallyr who makes that decision, or you?” Venlar’s hand flexes a little, just short of his wine bowl.
She scowls. “But… I…” The air leaves her in a heavy sigh. “It’s not my place. Kallyr is Prince and I serve her. It must be her.”2Failed Air.
“Then she is the Orlanth who matters. And she too will have a decision to make – it may be yours.” He picks up and drains his wine, pours more and checks how Varanis is doing. “Now, if we could only work out in advance what she wants, and what my father will want, we will be very well set.”
This earns him a reluctant laugh. She nods at his offer to pour more wine and says, “Tell me of your father?”
“Oh, well. You know him, but you never had to meet him secretly. He has been chief of our clan thrice now, or at least proved himself as such. He spent time in exile because of the Lunars, but refused to leave Sartar. A warrior known as Peacemaker.” Venlar waggles his spare hand in the air, indicating he does not know how to answer that question. But, still, Venlar talks a little, until it is plain that he has only a young man’s view of an old man.