This is written for my third Finish It! Bingo Card, coming after R is for Rituals and Linguistic Tricks.
If Eliška Konvalinka had been male and still an Informer, she would have found some friendly person and asked them to show her how to tie the complicated head-scarf she’d – he’d – seen here and there throughout the crowds. If she’d guessed right, the person she asked would have a tie to the people with those scarves, who spoke in a strange language when speaking to each other and who held themselves apart from the rest of Scheffenon.
Since she was firstly an Informer, she repeated the teaching poem of Scheffenon to herself several times, taking notes of the parts that might relate, and then she spent the evenings of two weeks in the library, reading up on all of the strange histories of Scheffenon.
What she learned about the people whose men wore head-scarves and whose language had trilled r’s and susurration in their s’s could have filled, were she a small-fingered woman, a thimble. She learned far more about the Cornesc-speaking people, who made up most of the population of Scheffenon (and, it seemed, almost all of the city’s government, their rich, and their powerful); she learned how they had come south to Scheffenon – south, to a city so far north parts of its harbor froze in the winter – back before the Empire had reached this far, and how they had taken a small fishing town and turned it into the jewel of the Northern Sea that it was now. Scheffenon, she learned, was not a Cornesc word, but one from the people who had been here before.
What she learned about the statues – the nerieds and the octopi and such – was that nobody liked to write about them, nobody liked to talk about them, and that the one Informer who had asked too many questions of local government officials had simply vanished.
Informers did that; it was a hazard of the profession. Normally, that would trigger several more Informers to be sent to the vanished location en masse, but in the case of Scheffenon, the powers-that-be had sent a single Informer with the instruction “be careful.”
Eliška learned one more thing of interest – although the majority of the people in Scheffenon spoke Cornesc and had been doing so for centuries, they were most definitely not of the original Western Torvaldic ethnic and religious group which had given birth to the language, and the very oldest records here showed an abrupt and complete switch from some unknown language to Cornesc. And Cornesc, itself, was a heavily idiomatic, strangely-inflected relative of other West Torvaldic languages, spoken nowhere else at all in the Empire.
She saved that piece of information in a series of carefully encrypted notes. Scheffenon had a long and very cold winter, and she could spend that time doing some linguistic study of the West Torvaldic languages. Now, the weather was as warm as it was going to get, and Eliška had some more hands-on research to do.
She had no man in a head-scarf to ask the aid of, but she’d noticed that one of the maids at the Informers’ Embassy wore her hair with three parts and kept a sheathed knife on a necklace just under her Embassy uniform. It would have to do.
She waited until the maid was cleaning her room, something the girl did once every week. “Excuse me.” Eliška used her most careful Cornesc, that sounded uncertain. “I want to go out on the street, to meet some people, but all the clothes I have with me, they’re mostly from down in the far South, and they make me stand out. And my hair, I last learned how to do anything with it in the Capital, and I keep seeing these three-parted braids which look fascinating…”
The maid’s hand went to her hair. “The three-part, it is…” She started to say something, stopped, and tried again. “If you want to look like you belong here in Scheffenon, the three-parted braid is not the way to go. The women here, the Scheffenonan women, they don’t do that.”
“But you do.” Eliška feigned ignorance well. Feigning ignorance was an entire series of classes in the Informer curriculum. “And I’ve seen other women, and they look as if they belong here…”
“There are women that do. There will always be women who wear the three-part, here in Scheffenon. But it’s not the way to look like you belong.”
Eliška pretended to parse that. “So it’s, mmm, oh. Like, in my home city, there is a small group of people, I don’t think we make up more than one in a hundred, and that number has been dwindling.” She ducked her head, as if embarrassed that she had been one of the ones to make it dwindle more. “There tends to be a lot of outward migration. But our people, when we’re home – even when I go home, we wear the pilezcth, it’s a type of scarf that covers your head and your shoulders, all the way down to your elbows, men and women both. You can tell where in the city someone comes from by the weave in their pilezcth and the way they tie it, here, and here,” she touched her temples and her right shoulder.
It was all true, of course. The best stories came from truth – something there were also classes on in the Informer training. But it had the advantage of also getting the reaction she was aiming for.
“Like that, I think. There aren’t that many of us who still wear the three-part, who still keep the old ways. The Scheffenonan, there are more of them every year, like little fish that don’t fear the shark.” She clucked quietly. “But you, you are an Informer and you want to know everything?”
“It’s my job to know everything.” That hadn’t been the direction Eliška had been expecting from this conversation.
“Then I will take you to a place, a family place. They’ll show you the three-braid and some other things, things that help, when knowing this city.” The maid considered Eliška for a moment. “The skirt you wore when you left yesterday? Would you wear that with your family-scarf?”
“It came from my mother,” Eliška admitted with a small smile. “It seemed like it would fit, here in Scheffenon.”
“It’s a good choice. Wear that and a family scarf, so that they understand that you, too, know what traditions are like.” The maid’s smile was a little too knowing. “You know quite a bit, but the trick is to convince others that you know it, too.”
Eliška smiled back at the maid, but she was beginning to wonder exactly who was gathering information on whom. “When would you like to take me to meet these people?”
“The day after tomorrow, in the afternoon. You have your meetings in the morning, yes?”
“Yes.” Eliška managed not to stop smiling. The main, of course the maid would know the habits of the people she cleaned for, and that was all that was. Of course.
The Fedder’s-Day afternoon found Eliška putting on clothes she hadn’t worn, except in training classes, since the joined the ranks of the Informers. She folded and wrapped her head-scarf carefully, the three end folds hanging over her left ear, the pleats in the front telling anyone who could read them the block and street she’d grown up on. The skirt was of a kind, but seen much more commonly around the empire: fitted at the waist with a wide, sturdy waistband, then with plenty of walking room around the knees and ankles. The blouse was sturdy and work-worthy, and the vest fitted and matching the skirt. She looked, she thought, like any of a thousand different groups of working-women, except the scarf. The scarf, like a language, narrowed things down.
The maid met her at her chamber door, dressed not in her Embassy uniform but in a vest like Eliška’s and a narrower, heavier skirt. It was a split skirt, Eliška realized, trading width for mobility in separate legs. “Good,” she declared, on looking over Eliška. “You look more like a person now, and less like the Empire.”
But she was the Empire, Eliška wanted to protest. She was always the Empire, everywhere she went, whatever she was wearing.
“I’m HenÞer, by the way. The Scheffenonan around here, they call me Hennie, they don’t like that sound in the middle.”
“HenÞer,” Eliška tried. “It’s a lovely name. Do you want me to call you that or Hennie?”
HenÞer was looking at her sidelong; Eliška thought she might have won this round. “You have a way with language, you Informers. The one before you was good, too. But she didn’t notice the hair.”
“We each have our own strengths. It’s why we rotate out so frequently.” It was part of why they rotated out, but she was not so far gone as to give away all of the Informers’ secrets. “Shall we go?”
“Of course.” HenÞer led Eliška through back-alleys and cobbled lanes that had been bypassed by wider, smoother roads. Once she led her up two flights of stairs, through a sort of mid-building courtyard, and down the other side into a more conventional courtyard.
Eliška noticed, among other things in their unconventional route, that in a city full of oceanic statues, mosaics and friezes, there was very little of that sort – almost none – along their route. One sad God-of-the-Sea eyed them from a bulletin board; HenÞer averted her eyes and did not pass near it.
There was – well, this was beyond “more to this than met the eye;” this was into “something rotten in Scheffenon” territory and verging close on “choose when the Empire must interfere, and choose it carefully.” Eliška was not certain yet what was going on; that would take more time. But she was now certain something was definitely happening.
That was for another time. Today, she followed HenÞer into a cheese shop, stopping politely to smell the pleasantly funky odors permeating the narrow store, and then out the back door into another courtyard.
In this courtyard, seven women and five men sat, the women working at embroiders and carving, the men working at knitting and small paintings. They were as Eliška had noted in other places – the women with their three-parted hairdos, the men with the headscarves.
Suddenly, in a way she had not in the streets, Eliška felt out of place. She called on every bit of her Informer training: she shifted her posture to act as an interested bystander; she looked around, cataloging the unusual things about the courtyard (The artwork was all geometric; in a small space crowded with design, every pattern was made up of interlocking shapes. There were planters everywhere, and fountains, and in all of this there was not a single depiction of marine life, or any life at all); she smiled.
The matron of the group walked over to them with the posture and stride of a soldier. “HenÞer. This is the Informer?”
“This is the Imperial Informer. Mother, Eliška, daughter of…”
“Iva,” Eliška put in.
“-Iva. Eliška na Iva, my mother, Trishka daughter of Henshker.”
Eliksa inclined her head politely. “I think you for the honor of this meeting.”
“We thank the Empire for noticing us. And, i believe, I can thank the Empire for noticing many things in your vision.”
“I am trained to notice things, Dame Trishka.”
“Training is one thing. Your eyes, your eyes are another. You see us, and I do not believe you saw us in the mirror. You see Scheffenon. You see the locked and the jailers.”
Eliška repeated the terms back, carefully. The woman was speaking Cornesc, but those weren’t words she’d expected to hear. “The locked and the jailers?” There were many things those terms could mean. Was she looking at a civil war in Scheffenon?
“The locked,” Trishka repeated, “and the jailers, those who lock, those things that lock.”
There was something about her eyes, the color of the sea on a cloudy day, the way they seemed to bore into Eliška. She swallowed as she considered the question.
That was all it took. “The locked,” she repeated, and this time she understood. “Yes, I see. And those – and that – which locks them.” The statues, and the friezes, and the mosaics. They were… “They’re locks. They’re bindings, we knew that. The fountains… oh, by the breast of the holiest mother, they’re chains. Not just the fountains; the whole of Scheffenon is, is’t it?” They’d know there were bindings, were locks. But what had been locked… They were locking up the water – no, not just the sea. They were locking up all in their reach of the sea. “How awful,” Eliška breathed.
HenÞer and her mother shared a look. “She sees,” HenÞer murmured. “She does.”
“Indeed.” Triska’s gaze bored into Eliška. “But what will do with the sight?”
This was not a question, Eliška realized; it was a challenge. It was a test, possibly her final test.
Elika raised her chin.
“The people of Scheffenon hold secrets close
But the answers are written on their walls & their shores,” she recited.
“The Scheffenon people have locked up the water;
bound up the sea and locked the magic it holds.
The people who conquered, they conquered and conquered
And conquer yet still with their fountains and concourses..”
The poem went on, and she spun it as she went. Triska and HenÞer nodded along.
Eliška took another breath.
“The city of Scheffenon serves as a lock
Every street is a tumbler, every fountain a hasp
The Keys to the Scheffenon lock must be found
To unlock the children of the water here bound.”
She met eyes with Triska and then with HenÞer. Both women nodded.
“I’ll contact my office tonight. But if something fails me in that time… you’ve heard the words. You can repeat them to any Informer, and they will understand. All right?”
“She sees,” Triska repeated quietly. “And she speaks.” She touched Eliška’s headdress with light fingers. “It may be too late. Locks rust closed, after time, and old passageways are replaced by new. But we thank you, nevertheless. For the seeing.”
“Go now,” HenÞer murmured. “Go now and see, as I go, as I see.”
It was the Informer’s private good-bye, what they said to each other when they didn’t know if they’d meet again. Eliška swallowed, feeling that there was still more she wasn’t seeing.
“Go now,” she finished the ritual, “and learn, as I go, as I learn.”
She had a feeling she would either not be in in Sheffenon for long – or she would be here forever.
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