Return of the Aghyrians 2
Mikandra Bisumar is useless to her father: she carries the curse of infertility that plagues the Endri people of Miran. Forced to work in the hospital to pay her duty to her proud nation, she dreams of becoming a Trader, one of the people who bring great prosperity to Miran.
To her surprise Iztho Andrahar, from the city’s most prestigious Trading family, has agreed to take her on. That is where her troubles begin.
Her father is so angry with her that she has to leave her home. Worse, the Andrahar Traders have been accused of smuggling. Iztho has disappeared and the business license suspended.
Mikandra has nowhere to go, except try to help Iztho’s brothers prove their innocence.
In her last meeting with Iztho, he mentioned getting married to a woman from neighbouring city-state of Barresh. Iztho’s brothers know nothing of this, and think she is crazy.
Going to Barresh by herself while never having left the country is probably not the smartest idea, but she’s desperate for the family’s licence to be restored, because without her job, she’ll be homeless.
In Barresh she finds strange and creepy people who can read minds and who know things about the Endri people that can both solve their fertility problems and tear apart the ancient foundation on which Miran is built. Iztho had found out these things, which someone is trying to trying to keep secret. This is where her troubles really begin.
The envelope lay in the middle of the table, between the silver tableware and the gold-rimmed plates. A bowl with rolls of fish bread stood on one side, and a steaming terrine of bean soup on the other. Father, dressed in his Lawkeepers tunic, sat at his usual place at the head of the table, Mother on the other end and little Liseyo with her silken hair on Father’s right hand side. Old Rosep stood at Mother’s elbow while ladling soup into her plate and talking to her in a low voice.
All of them were looking at that envelope.
Mikandra hesitated in the doorway. Her face still glowed from having run from the hospital against the biting wind to be home in time for dinner. Father cast a Meaningful Glance at the envelope, and then met her eyes in that severe way of his that said Young lady, I demand an explanation.
Mother stopped talking to Rosep, and Rosep scurried out the room as fast as his sore knees and bow legs allowed, shutting the door behind him with a soft snick. The fire popped.
“Good evening, Mother and Father.” Mikandra sat down at her regular spot at the table, facing Liseyo, who looked at her with large eyes.
Into the heavy silence, Mother said, importantly, “A Trader Guild courier brought this for you this morning.”
Totally unnecessary. The envelope could have been anything if it wasn’t so unforgivingly carmine red, and that colour meant only one thing: Trader Guild. And the Guild only ever used couriers to deliver these types of messages.
Mikandra licked her lips and, avoiding her father’s penetrating gaze, picked the offending object off the table. The paper was heavy and smooth in her hands. It exuded a faint smell of ink, which was old-fashioned and classy all at once. A white label affixed to the front held her name, written by hand by the Guild’s calligraphers in Coldi and Mirani script. Mikandra Bisumar. As if there was any doubt.
She clutched it on her knees, out of the reach of her parents’ penetrating gazes, and met Liseyo’s eyes, whose expression said, Well, aren’t you going to open it?
Mikandra didn’t want to, not here where her parents were watching her, not now, before she’d sorted out this part of her future, because certainly, the Trader Guild wouldn’t use a courier if her application to the academy had been rejected, would they?
The thought filled her with panic. She hadn’t expected a reply so quickly; she had expected a rejection, because almost everyone who didn’t come from a Trading family got rejected, right? Because at night in bed, she’d been telling herself that she was full of stupid dreams to even have applied and that she should prepare herself to bandage frost-bitten fingers in the hospital for the rest of her life. And if her dreams ever came true . . . well, didn’t the older people say that dreams looked good when you were young, but seemed silly in a yeah-like-that-is-going-to-happen way when you were older?
Going to the academy had been such a silly dream, something she’d never seriously thought would happen, but now she had this letter and all of a sudden, the dream that had been her childhood wish became frighteningly real.
She didn’t want to open the letter at the table while her family was watching.
But Father would never let her leave the room. He’d stop her before she could reach the door, grab her by the arm and lift her up so that her shoulder would be jammed up against her ear and that his fingers would dig into the soft flesh under her arm and demand that she show him the contents. She still had the bruises on her arm from last time he’d done that. That time it had been about her not wanting to audition for the boring classic theatre. This was worse. Much worse.
He said, in his hard and unforgiving voice, “Open it, daughter.” In that unemotional tone that masked the worst kind of his anger.
No choice then.
Mikandra turned the envelope over and prised her fingers under the seal. The waxy paper ripped. Her hands trembled and made sweat marks on the red paper.
Folded inside the envelope she found a cream-coloured sheet and some printed papers, all in the antiquated dialect of Coldi which was the official language of the Trader Guild.
She spotted the words Registration details at the top of one of the sheets.
Her heart thudded like crazy. The field of her vision narrowed while black spots danced in the edges. It was as she’d hoped, dreamed and feared.
The very large, looming, huge problem of course was that this response came before she’d worked up the nerve to tell her parents that she’d applied.
Slowly, her hands trembling, she unfolded the cream-coloured sheet. In the same, neat calligrapher’s hand, it said, We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted in next year’s Academy intake. You are to return your acceptance within three local days of receiving this notice, and then report to our Kedras headquarters at the beginning of the Academy year . . .
The rest of the letter detailed accommodation and course material.
The words blurred before her eyes. She knew those details; she had seen similar letters sent to some of her friends and their older brothers. Those boys from the established Trading families, not the daughters of mere bureaucratic Lawkeepers.
Her heart thudded like crazy.
Liseyo and her mother stared at her.
Her father’s voice came from far off, like through a thick sheet of glass. “And?”
Mikandra looked up and met his hard expression that seemed to never change whether he presided at the court or berated his daughters. Surely he had to know what this meant, but then again, Father was the type of person who refused to acknowledge that he could read cues and demanded that the obvious be stated to his face in words, because that was the only way you could be honest about yourself.
She said, as determined as she could make it, “I’m going to the Trader Guild Academy next year.”
There was a moment of intense silence before Father brought his flat palm down on the table in a thud that made Liseyo wince and all the plates rattle. “You what?”
“I’m going to the Trader Guild Academy.”
His lips were pressed together in a thin line, making his face look even more narrow than normal. His nostrils flared.
Mother started to say, “But Mikandra, why didn’t you tell us that you—”
Father cut her off. “How is it that my eldest daughter continues to be an embarrassment to me—”
“I get into the place where young people most want to go to study, and it’s an embarrassment?” She was bad at fights, but she’d prepared that line over and over, by saying it to the ceiling when she lay in bed at night. Even so, she was sweaty and trembling all over. This had been a dream for her since she was a little girl. She didn’t mind fighting over auditioning for the theatre, because she didn’t care about the theatre. She cared about this.
Silence. Father glared at her across the table. By the way his hands gripped the edge of the table, he was not far from exploding.
“Why didn’t you tell us that you applied?” Mother asked again, in a more timid voice, glancing at Father. Her eyes had that Do not swear at your children expression.
“You would have stopped me,” Mikandra said.
Her father snorted. “With good reason. It’s that sister of mine—”
“Aunt Amandra had nothing to do with it.”
Another silence. He raised his eyebrows. “Didn’t she have to sign the application? Doesn’t it have to be signed by a licenced Trader?”
“I’m not going to apprentice with her.”
He frowned. “Give me that letter.” He held out his hand.
Mikandra hesitated, wondering if when he threw it in the fire it would make any difference to her acceptance. She didn’t think it did. It was just a piece of paper. Despite the antiquated appearance of its official correspondence, the Trader Guild would have everything recorded, saved and backed up many times on the network. They would have this letter flagged as awaiting reply at the Trader Guild office in the city.
She held out the letter. Father snatched it from her hand and looked at it in stifling silence. His face did not betray any emotion. Did he read any Coldi at all?
Because schools and tutors in Miran would rather die than teach the language of the enemy people from Asto, she had spent many nights curled up in the arm chair by the fire in her room, poring over books to teach herself, while listening intently for footsteps on the stairs that might belong to someone unexpectedly entering her room and discovering her secret.
Father’s mouth twitched. “So, who signed? Ilendar? Didn’t we tell you that it was not appropriate to associate yourself with that boy anymore?” No, he did not read any Coldi. The name of her sponsor was written clearly on the page facing him. It gave her a small spot of satisfaction.
“Lihan Ilendar is not a boy. He got his licence two years ago.” Why did he always ridicule her friends? “And I didn’t sign with him.” The moment she was old enough, she’d wanted to run to his house and tell him that she’d apply as she’d promised him, but she had seen so little of him recently, and wasn’t even sure where they stood in their relationship anymore.
He lowered the letter. “Then who did you get to sign your application?”
“Under the Andrahar licence?” He made it sound like a clap of thunder.
“Yes.” She met his gaze squarely.
He spread his hands and rolled his eyes at the ceiling.
“If you really wanted to be part of that deplorable profession of greedy money-grabbers, why didn’t you ask my sister?”
She remembered Aunt Amandra’s serious face as they sat in her office. Trading is no life for a nice young woman, she had said, and her voice exuded a tone of sadness.
And Mikandra wanted to shout, But what about you? But she knew how Aunt Amandra had obtained her licence—through a childless uncle—and how much it had cost her, like never being able to marry either within Miran or bring home her long-time, not-so-secret Coldi lover. Now that she was High Councillor, she did mostly Mirani politics anyway. Likely she had no time for an apprentice.
Father had gone red in the face. “So, let me re-cap. Because my sister wouldn’t let you apply for apprenticeship under her licence—for very sensible reasons—you went to the Andrahar Traders and asked if they would let you apply under theirs?”
“Yes.” Simple as that. And to be honest, she’d been astonished that her scheme had been so successful.
“The Andrahar brothers! What were you thinking? They’ve been trying to trying to hold the council to ransom for more than a year. Ever since Iztho decided to pull out of a deal with them, single-handedly causing the eviction of the army from Barresh and the resulting two-day war. Single-handedly causing the boycott of Miran by all the entities of gamra. Single-handedly causing us so much hardship. As if that wasn’t enough, the Andrahars want to flood Miran with foreign produce. I’ve been talking about it at the dinner table many nights. But no, you don’t listen to any of that, and ignore the fact that the Trader Guild is trying its very best to bring down the council whose laws I upheld. Excuse me if I don’t jump up and down with enthusiasm.”
Mikandra wanted to ask him, Is there anyone in Miran you don’t disapprove of? but that was just like Father, and he’d always been that way. By the same token, he would visit the Andrahar Trading office and have long talks with the brothers as if they were his best friends. “Why, Mikandra? We made sure that you had a comfortable path for your future. Why fly in the face of everything your family has done for you?”
“Because . . .” Mikandra wanted to say, Because I’m different and Because I want to do more for Miran, but that would require talking about the Healer Eydrina Lasko’s visit and how she had put her hand up Mikandra’s private parts and declared that she carried the family’s curse of infertility. And as consolation had offered her a job as apprentice healer, which, in Father’s words, qualified as a comfortable path for the future, which translated into keep this useless woman off the streets.
Mother said, “I saw Eydrina a few days ago, and she said some lovely things about your progress at the hospital. I don’t understand why you would want to leave. You’ve been extremely privileged to get the opportunity to work with her. So many girls would love to take your place.”
Mikandra screamed inside, Then let them!
She hated the hospital and its cold and clammy corridors filled with never-ending tides of misery. She hated how the majority of health problems of those poor people would go away if only the council got its act together and installed windows and heating in the city’s housing apartments. Or gave the homeless places to shelter at night so they wouldn’t be attacked by maramarang in the streets.
But saying those things aloud was Not a Proper Thing to do for a girl. Because Mother was right: many girls would love the opportunity. Because girls were supposed to like caring for sick people and not question the causes of their sickness, because simply caring and being compassionate was in their gentle natures or some other thing like that. And not unquestionably Caring for the Unfortunate meant that you were a heartless and mean person.
If Father insisted on hearing the obvious stated to his face so that he could get Officially Angry, Mother loved to make her feel guilty.
And both of them were still waiting for her reply, her all-pervasive reason that justified the diversion from the path that they had set for her. The reason was too big to be explained in a few words, especially if those few words were Because I hate everything I’m allowed to be. The only thing she could think of saying was, “Because I want to see more than just this city and I don’t just want to travel for the sake of travel. I want to do something useful for Miran.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she knew they sounded dumb and what was more, had nothing to do with the real reason. And that real reason was much deeper than anything she could put into words.
Sitting at the table in the Ilendar house—where Father didn’t like her to be, because having boys as friends was inappropriate and because he had some unspoken feud with the Ilendar Trading family.
Listening to Lihan’s father talk about his experiences at the academy.
Hearing the stories of how his father signed huge and important deals. Because of Aithno Ilendar, the council could afford to build new schools. Because he sold staple foods to Asto—yes, gasp, the home of the Coldi people—and quarried Mirani marble to the master builders of Damarq. The turnover was massive. Real money, which, when he paid his council levies, enabled the council to do real things.
The reason that she applied was also because, while she sat there at the Ilendar’s table, she could feel the implied assumption that Lihan would follow in his father’s footsteps. Because he was a boy, because that was the easy path for him, because he’d been conditioned from birth for the fact that he’d have a successful business and live comfortably.
And she felt like shouting What about me? Because assumptions about her future involved the theatre or the hospital.
Father snorted. “See, that is why young girls are not fit to make decisions like this. You do things for frivolous reasons. Trading is not a frivolous occupation.”
“I know that.”
“No, you don’t. Young daughter, you have no idea. You will be slaughtered at the Trader Guild headquarters. Kicked, quartered, sliced to tiny emotional pieces and packed up in a box. They’ll bully and pester you until you run home in tears. You do not half understand the profession. Go and talk to my sister and hear her stories. Listen to what she says about the infighting, the bullying, the backstabbing, the politics, the murders . . .” His voice had risen with each item he’d listed and he needed to pause for breath. “There are a lot of Traders who become so disheartened that they just vanish and are never seen again, leaving their families and their countries nothing except a trail of debt. Because you wanted to travel indeed.” He blew out a forceful breath through his nose. “How come they even selected you?”
He picked up his spoon and stirred his soup.
Mikandra clutched the envelope under the table. She felt very small and very stupid. How come they selected you? She wondered that herself. Surely there were many candidates who were traditionally more worthy. To get selected, she would have had to been recommended by the majority of Mirani Traders. Beyond the Andrahar brothers, who would have voted for her?
Mother said, her eyes pleading, “I thought you had a good chance of becoming someone important at the hospital. Eydrina was going to recommend you for surgeon training.”
Mikandra shrugged, feeling closer to tears than she dared admit. She’d wanted this since she was a little girl, damn it. Since seeing Aunt Amandra come to the house in her uniform, since hearing her stories about travel and other worlds. Since Aunt Amandra had spoken so eloquently about the opportunities that existed in Trading for women, since they were better at maintaining networks similar to the Coldi social networks. And if you understood the Coldi, and they respected you, many doors opened for you that were normally closed.
“I am stunned by your audacity,” Father said into the heavy silence. “I will be talking to Iztho Andrahar.”
Mikandra looked up sharply. He was going to do what? “Why? It’s his decision to sign me on.” And why should Iztho Andrahar care about what some self-important Lawkeeper thought?
“Because I want him to understand that you’re not going, and I can’t believe for one moment that he signed the application with full knowledge of what he was doing.”
What? “Why wouldn’t he?”
“The Andrahar family is very traditional, and would assign their succession in the line of the oldest son of the oldest son. So, if it is true that Iztho signed for your training—”
“—why won’t you believe me?—”
He raised his voice. “—If it is true, then their intention is to use you for a bridging period until he has a son only to cast you out later, or . . . some other reason.”
“Lots of Traders use bridging employees. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
He glared at her. “Whatever his reason, you are not going.”
“But why? It’s my life and my decision. It’s not as if I’m going to get married and—”
“How would you buy your own business? How would you pay for an office, for an aircraft, for exchange fees, even before you’ve started earning anything? If you think that we are going to pay for that—”
Father glared at Mother. His face had gone red and now slowly resumed its normal colour. He put the letter down and pushed his plate onto one of the corners. “I’ll deal with this after dinner.”
He started eating. The only sound in the room was the clinking of the spoon on his plate. Mikandra looked at her mother without raising her head. She met Mikandra’s eyes, her spoon half-raised to her mouth. Her expression said, Did you really need to do that? Mikandra felt like shouting Why do you let him do this to you?
Mikandra then looked at Liseyo. She had also started eating, meek and pale-faced. She had barely moved during the discussion and had her gaze firmly fixed on her plate. Her cheeks were so pale and poking from the sleeves of her severe dark red dress, her wrists were so thin that Mikandra often wondered if she was healthy, and wondered if Eydrina Lasko had already put her hand up her private parts or if she was still too young for that. And maybe Father had realised that he would never have a male heir and he was disappointed with Mother for not giving him any sons and angry with his eldest daughter who refused to behave like a good girl should.
Mother deserved better than this. Liseyo deserved better than this.
She started eating as well, although her stomach felt like a big knot. However, that only lasted for the first couple of bites. She never had any time to eat in the hospital, and she was hungry. Eydrina was always saying that she was much too thin.
Most of dinner went past in the company of only the popping of the fire in the hearth and the soft clink of plates.
When Rosep decided it was safe, he came to clear the plates and brought bread and eggs. He met Mikandra’s eyes briefly and glanced at the letter under Father’s plate. He collected all empty soup plates, except that one. Questions hovered in his expression. Even if he hadn’t heard what had been said—and he wasn’t the type who listened at doors—he’d been with the family since she was a small girl, and knew how arguments went. Father won, even if he lost.
Mother filled the uneasy silence with small-talk about the theatre. The company was taking on the classic play of The Invasion, and now it was time to think about the new costumes. She cast a few pointed looks at Mikandra, and suggested that the girl who played the role of the legendary Tinandra Elendar wasn’t very good, and oh did you know that are were some vacancies in the choir and we could really use a contralto to back up the old woman who has trouble keeping time?
Also Your sister plays in it as well and it would be so nice if we could make it a family production.
And We got Genny Manudrin to do the costumes and the dresses will be gorgeous.
Mikandra grew more and more annoyed with the chatter. As usual, Mother was glossing over the big issue that hung over their heads, or rather, that was written on a letter underneath Father’s plate. Ignoring it and hoping it would go away.
When dinner was finished, Father rose, and Mikandra rose after him, as custom dictated. He went over to the door and took his cloak off the hanger. He looked like he was going to go back to his office.
“Father, wait please.”
He stopped with his cloak halfway to his shoulders.
“Can I have my letter back?”
Father looked at her and didn’t move.
Her heart thudding, she continued, “I need the number that’s on the letter for the reply.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said earlier? I said you’re not going.”
“I still don’t understand why.”
“Because if I thought it was appropriate for a young lady to go to a place such as the Trader Academy—which I do not—you would be working with my sister. Her refusal to sign you should have been a sign for you.”
“She is busy with her council work.”
“Look me in the eye and tell me that was the reason she gave you.”
Mikandra met his eyes. No, it hadn’t been the reason and she wasn’t going to be untruthful about it. She hated it when Father did this.
“You are thankless and ungrateful for everything I, your mother and Eydrina Lasko have gone out of our way to do for you. I and your aunt are working very hard to protect our ways and our nation. The Andrahar brothers would open the floodgates for foreign Traders and businesses and destroy Miran. They’d pillage us. They’d dig up our mountains and raid them for minerals.
They’d build huge factories and fill them with guest workers. What do you think my colleagues and your aunt’s colleagues, notably Nemedor Satarin, would have to say about your joining the very people who are trying to bring us down? That is the embarrassment, if I have to spell it out to your face. You are not going.”
“I still need the letter.” She bent over the table, snatched the letter from under her father’s plate and ran for the door.
“Wait a moment, young lady!” The floor vibrated with his steps. His hand closed on her upper arm.
From close up, he was terrifying. His typical narrow face, his ice-cold light blue eyes. His long straight nose, his long straight hair, platinum white. All prime characteristics of the Endri. She could see the veins in his eyes, the pores in his skin. Pearls of sweat glistened on his upper lip. The nails of his carefully-manicured hands dug into the soft flesh underneath her upper arm.
“Asitho,” said her mother, quietly in a soft pleading tone.
Father sniffed, and continued as if Mother hadn’t spoken. “Clearly, I failed to make myself clear to you. Being of the Endri is about being grateful and giving back to our city and those less fortunate than us. It is not about running off to some foreign place and spending lots of money there, and taking all the money out of our city and wasting it on frivolous pursuits. If, despite my strong advice, you decide to go, expect no financial help from me or your mother, or my sister. You will also be stricken off the list of owners of the family estate and you are no longer welcome in this house. You understand?”
She glared at him, and he glared back.
“Asitho, leave it,” Mother said. “Let’s talk it over later.”
“No, we will not, because she will not listen. Not now and not later. I have no idea how I’ve ended up with such a brat for a daughter. Everyone has been far too accommodating with her all this time. She should have been married last year and taught manners.”
“I thought we covered the marriage issue,” Mother said.
Liseyo was looking on from her seat, her eyes wide like those of a scared animal.
Father glanced aside. “Did we? I don’t remember that. I must get back to it.” His nostrils flared. Oh yes, he remembered when they’d last broached the marriage issue, when Geonan Takumar had visited, looking for a young girl. To amuse me he’d said, while undressing Mikandra with his eyes. And later, Mother had pleaded Mikandra to take up the position in the hospital Because he will marry you off to that old creep if you don’t take it.
“Can I go? You’re hurting me.” Mikandra looked pointedly at her arm in Father’s grip. She would have another nasty bruise next to the one from last week. “I’m not a toddler.”
“Then don’t behave like one.” But he let her go because hurting your wife and daughters was also not part of the honour code.
Mikandra rubbed her arm. While still meeting Father’s eyes, she stuffed the letter between her breasts in the bodice of her dress.
Then she ran up the stairs taking two steps at a time, through the hall, scrambled into her room and slammed the door behind her.