By Meyari McFarland
Chapter Five: Second House
Cadfael gulped as he clutched his jewelry case to his chest. Anwyn’s mostly ignored lectures had been about Ntombi politics and history, about Ynes and her sisters. She hadn’t said a thing at all (that Cadfael could remember) about Ynes’ brother. Nor had she told him what had happened last time that caused the family to switch the negotiating team in the middle of a long-term deal. He’d assumed that he had replaced Aravel because it was time for treaty analysis rather than negotiations but the way Lady Ynes spoke made him worry that it had been something much more personal.
The thought that Macario might be horrible immediately made Cadfael’s heart beat faster and his stomach decide that the motion of the carriage was just like being on a boat. He focused straight ahead, breathing deeply and evenly so that he didn’t throw up all over Ynes’ shoes. No throwing up in public, that was Cadfael’s rule, and he truly wanted to keep to it.
“I’ll be fine,” Cadfael told himself while forcing his fingers not to shake in his lap. “It’s not going to be bad. It won’t. Anwyn is here and she’ll make sure that I’m okay. Lady Ynes seems to like me. She won’t let me be bullied unmercifully either.”
He found it hard to believe his own thoughts. Aravel got along with absolutely everyone. There had never been a single person who failed to find him charming and sweet. If Aravel couldn’t get along with Macario then there was little to no hope of Cadfael doing so. The best he could hope for was not to be as miserable on land as he’d been at sea. His worries obviously showed because Anwyn pulled Cadfael into a hug.
“Quit fussing, Caddie,” Anwyn murmured. “You’ll be fine. Just be yourself and it will all work out.”
“Be myself?” Cadfael hissed at her. “Annie, if I act like myself I’ll offend everyone. You know how sharp my tongue gets when I feel bad!”
He hadn’t intended to speak loudly enough for Lady Ynes and her driver to overhear but they both laughed so he clearly had. To his surprise Lady Ynes grinned approvingly at him. Even the driver smiled over her shoulder at Cadfael, prompting him to duck his head again and curl closer to Anwyn’s side. Cadfael wished that he’d had time to question Aravel on his visit here before leaving home. It would have made things so much easier now that he was here.
“You’ll be fine,” Anwyn repeated.
“He’s still adorable,” Lady Ynes chuckled in Ntombian.
She used the term that meant sweetly attractive male for ‘adorable’, something that Cadfael found rather odd. He would have used the one for ‘smaller physically appealing male’ at best, not a word that implied sweet. All Cadfael could assume was that Lady Ynes liked the more argumentative personalities over the more docile ones like Aravel. It would explain why she and Anwyn were friends.
“Thank you,” Cadfael said, clutching his jewelry case to his stomach as if to protect himself even though that was ridiculous.
“There we go,” Ynes said, looking over her shoulder at the road ahead. “Almost home now.”
They passed a second white wall, narrower and lower than the wall guarding the city. Inside, there were hedge walls adorned with beautiful roses that had thorns that looked as long as Cadfael’s thumb. The scent of the roses was quite intoxicating, rich and powerful enough that Cadfael’s head swam until they were past. It took him a moment to realize that this was the exact scent of the rose oil that Aravel had brought back with him from his trip to Ntombi.
Once past the hedges, they rolled along a gently curving path through close-cropped grass lawns that led to the front gate of Ynes’ huge house. Off to the left he spotted a herd of small goats eating the grass in front of the house. A young woman with dark slender legs and arms followed the goats, her shepherd’s staff leaning against her shoulder as she herded them along their way.
Ynes’ home truly was enormous. Unlike the multi-story closely packed homes and businesses he was used to at home, Ynes’ house sprawled across a huge amount of space. It felt as though they’d taken every single room possible and given it its own patch of land. It was constructed out of the same shimmering white stone as the walls and the road, made with blocks that were easily half as wide as Cadfael was tall. The windows and doors arched high and wide, creating huge gaps in the square white walls. Where windows in Aingeal were generally narrow and built to keep the warmth in, Ynes’ home was clearly constructed to let the warmth out through the flat roofs and air in wide windows.
“It’s beautiful,” Cadfael commented more for something to say than from really feeling it.
“Men’s side is on the left,” Ynes explained with a casual gesture, “and women’s side is on the right. You won’t see the women’s side, of course. That wouldn’t be proper at all.”
“Will Annie be allowed to see me?” Cadfael asked and then blushed because his voice came out entirely too small and much too frightened.
The driver had just pulled their carriage to a stop. She smiled sympathetically at Cadfael as she opened the small door on the side of the carriage for them and put down a step for them to use. Lady Ynes had a similarly sympathetic expression, especially as Anwyn hugged him firmly.
“Of course you’ll see me, Caddie,” Anwyn said, grinning as she jumped down without using the step at all. “We’ll have to talk about how things are going.”
“Let the servants get your things, Annie,” Ynes said as she got out. Her legs were long enough that she didn’t need the step at all, making it a convenience brought solely for Cadfael’s comfort. “That’s what they’re here for.”
Cadfael carefully used the steps, being especially watchful not to step on the hem of his kilt, not to drop his case of jewelry, not to humiliate them all by falling flat on his face in the mud puddle that had to be waiting for him. There was always a mud puddle with his name on it, even if the ground here looked completely dry. As nervous as he was Cadfael was relatively certain that he’d do something to embarrass them soon.
“All right,” Anwyn said to Ynes as if she hated to do it. “Seems lazy to me but if you insist. Again.”
Ynes laughed. “I do. Have a little respect for their responsibilities. How else are they to earn their place?”
Cadfael followed the two of them into the house, firmly clutching his jewelry case. Certainly, he had no problem at all allowing the servants to take his trunk but he wasn’t letting anyone carry his jewelry case, not even Anwyn. He clutched the handle even tighter when he realized that the ‘servants’ all had slave collars and cuffs. Every single one of them was female, bigger than him and much stronger, though that was nothing new. At a bare finger’s width over five feet, Cadfael was shorter than everyone.
“It’s not like real slavery,” Cadfael reminded himself as he scurried after Anwyn and Lady Ynes. “They weren’t bought and sold. It’s just a way to see if they fit into the household, a trial apprenticeship.”
He found it hard to look at the collars, even so. Aingeal had outlawed slavery when his grandmother Treva was a young woman. They didn’t allow slaves or slave taking anywhere within their borders. For him to need to be calm about interacting with any sort of slaves made Cadfael’s skin twitch with nerves. To him, the slave collars and cuffs had completely different meanings, ones that his people were still trying to set aside. Even with slavery outlawed two generations ago, there were people back home who argued that it was a good way to make the poor and lazy do their part in society.
He would never understand how the women in his family could be so calm about slavery in general. They argued it on winter evenings as though it was something distant and unimportant instead of a horrible institution that warped people’s lives. Cadfael had never been able to think about slavery with that sort of mental remove. It was too close to how his life already was.
Just like a slave, Cadfael couldn’t go anywhere without his sisters’ or mother’s approval. He had to wear what they provided him and be grateful that he had input into the choices. He couldn’t associate with people freely, no matter that the laws of Aingeal claimed that men and women were equal. If he were caught away from his female family members, he’d be at the mercy of any woman who found him. Cadfael was so busy cataloging all the ways that his life was an informal version of slavery that he didn’t realize that they’d stopped until Anwyn not discretely at all elbowed him. That made him stop fretting and actually pay attention to his surroundings.
The inside of Ynes’ house was beautiful. The walls were faced with marble that had been accented with blue and white tile. The floors were covered with beautiful slate tiles interspersed with tiled patches in blue and white patterns. Overhead, the arched ceilings had murals of clouds, oceans and forest scenes painted on them. The central area they had stopped in was enormous, easily twice as wide as the Wave Dancer was at its center.
The area was full of women walking busily to and fro. None of them gave Cadfael more than a glance despite his odd appearance, thank goodness. He wasn’t sure if that was due to Anwyn’s stiff posture or Ynes’ looming presence. Either way, he was grateful for being functionally invisible for the moment. Of course, everyone towered over Cadfael and Anwyn by at least a head. Few of the other women were as tall as Ynes though.
There were three big double doors that lead to separate wings. One was open, showing dozens of women talking, working, and carrying on business at long tables set out in ranks. The other two, opposite to each other, were closed. Anwyn glared at him when he automatically tried to follow her towards the one on the right so that he could keep her and Ynes’ protection.
“Did you listen to a word I said on the way here?” Anwyn hissed at him.
“What?” Cadfael asked. “Of course I did! I thought that there would be introductions or something first.”
“Caddie, men and women live separate lives in Ntombi,” Anwyn said in a low enough tone that Cadfael was sure that Ynes, who stood watching the two of them with an expression that suggested that she thought he was adorable, couldn’t hear her. “That means you go through that door over there and we go through this one. There aren’t any introductions like we do back home. The only introduction has already been done. Ynes accepted you so you’re ready to go to work. You’ll be working with Macario to fix the mess Aravel made when he visited.”
The sheer thought of Cadfael being able to fix a problem that Aravel, the golden son that everyone adored, couldn’t, made Cadfael stare at Anwyn with his jaw dropped open. She sighed and patted his shoulder fondly before pushing him towards the door. Cadfael took one step and then stopped. When he peered at her suspiciously Anwyn glared but her cheeks went red.
“You didn’t tell me a single thing about what sort of mess I’m supposed to fix, Annie,” Cadfael said even though he wasn’t sure that he was right. Certainly things had been said about his fixing something but no one had given him any details on what, precisely, had gone wrong.
“It’s not a big deal,” Anwyn protested dramatically, proving him right just by the strength of her reaction. “You just have to not be Aravel. Seriously, you were chosen for a reason, Caddie. You’re snappish, sure, but you’re also very properly masculine. You don’t like spending time around women. You love embroidery and taking care of the house. You’re quiet and obedient for the most part, other than your tongue. You’re perfect for this. Just go be you and share stories of home until they calm down enough to negotiate the spice for weapons deal. That’s all you have to do.”
He took another couple of steps only to turn around and catch Anwyn’s elbow before she could disappear into the women’s side of the house with Ynes. To his embarrassment, Ynes started chuckling though she did him the grace of covering her mouth so that he didn’t have to see her grin. Anwyn, on the other hand, rolled her eyes and glared at him as if he was being the most annoying person in the world.
“What did Aravel do?” Cadfael asked with enough shock and amazement that Anwyn started snickering.
“He was Aravel,” Anwyn replied in Ntombian because Lady Ynes had moved close enough to them that she could hear what they were saying. “You know how much he enjoys being around women. Well, he didn’t get to be around women, only men. The pout because of that was epic. He offended everyone on both sides of the house.”
Cadfael winced at the thought of that before replying in the same language. “Aravel with no women to interact with would be quite horrible, I suppose. All right. I will see you, won’t I?”
“Every day,” Anwyn said as she hugged him and then firmly escorted him over to the door so that he’d stop stalling. “I’ve got lots of negotiation to do on my side but this won’t succeed unless you’re friendly with Macario and the male side of the family. Try and be nice, okay? Really, all you have to do is be yourself. I’m not expecting you to curb your temper or your tongue. Just… do your best, okay?”
“All right,” Cadfael said, nodding that he understood. This time when Anwyn and Lady Ynes walked away Cadfael let them go.
He stared at the double doors. They were three times as tall as Cadfael was, with huge hinges that looked as though they could hold doors twice the size. Each door had a border of stars inside of which were murals carved into the dark wood. At the top were images of the Ladies with their fish tails. The Ladies smiled downwards at the carvings of the Goddesses. Unlike at home, here each of the Goddesses was carved separately, Tahira tall and with features much like Ynes’, Chin short and slender with virtually no bust at all. Ragna was hugely plump, holding a platter of food. Tahira had a sword and Chin had a book. Underneath were women with armor and worshipful men gazing up at the Goddesses and the Ladies over them.
The items given to each Goddess were different from what it would have been at home where Tahira was the aspect of knowledge while Chin was hearth and home, and Ragna was the warrior’s aspect. That was completely leaving aside the apparent fact that in Ntombi the Goddesses were separate individuals instead of three aspects of the same transcendent deity that changed her aspects depending on who she was dealing with. Not that any of that mattered as anything other than a distraction from the nervousness making his stomach lurch, his knees tremble and his fingers shake.
Cadfael gulped as he put one hand on the doorknob. The tall warrior women guarding the door were very carefully not looking at him, but Cadfael could see them fighting smiles at his shyness. He wanted to say thank you for not laughing at him but knew that doing so would ruin their efforts to pretend they didn’t notice. Once he worked up the nerve to turn the knob, he found that it wasn’t locked, so Cadfael took a deep breath and opened the door.
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