“Vanya! Vanya!” It was Ma calling, coming from the direction of the market horse-yards. “Once the market closes you can pick up the harness from Dorantas. He’s working on them right now, his apprentice tells me.”
I leaned out of the open side of the wagon. “I hear you Ma!” The Orkest Book Faire was full of people this year, everyone from a creepy fessas fellow with his scholar’s list, to women who only last year would have sworn on the Arkan holy book that they couldn’t read. I turned my steeliest eye on the street urchin hovering over one of our book boxes out the front of our open caravan. “And you, boy. You’ve been back to hover over that bin three times now. You aren’t snitching any.” The kid scooted.
Da thought Ma’s idea of a charity book box wouldn’t work, even with the beginning glut of cheap books on the market. She thought if a book were too damaged to sell we could give them away and Da said they were still too valuable. Ma grew up in the Zak ghetto in Rand learning to be an Illuminator --Baba still lived there -- so she has a special feel for books and caught the love of books early. It hurts her when there’s kids standing at our stall with book hunger writ all over their faces and them not with two chains to rub together.
Da’s family were papermakers in Fispur and they know how to cling to every link that passes through their gloves. So they were pretty shocked when Da met and fell in love with Ma on a bookship, him selling paper and her onboard fixing books and scrolls up pretty. And both of them deciding to go into a caravanning bookstall together. And marrying.
Ma has the dark perfectly straight hair of the Rand, and is petite and pale as a Zak, while Da is a lanky fessas who my Baba calls ‘the brass pole’, with a lot of waggling eyebrows at Ma. The bookish are a mixed lot, all of us doing all kinds of things with words. Me, I hadn’t settled into what I wanted to do with myself, not officially. I was just stuck on my parent’s route from town to town, from faire to faire, the same old round year after year.
I’d gotten all of Da’s height and then some, and his skinniness. My hair was like Ma’s but wavier and I’d had partners tell me they love my almond-shaped, bright blue eyes. Not that I’m vain. Or had that many bed partners... I’m only nineteen. But being good enough looking just made it easier to do what I really loved to do, which was story tell. I could sing a bit but I wasn’t a true bard. I’d been scrawling my stories and plays down and sending them off to the Pages in the city... through that whole business with the sack, even though the editor hadn’t bought anything from me to print yet. He would one day, I held that firm in my heart.
I had to say I mostly approved of the Yeolis even though they sacked Arko. Some books got burned, but the big libraries and a bunch of little ones were all saved... sometimes with the sackers helping the sackees put out the fires. And all these changes in the laws meant there would be hundreds, maybe thousands of people learning to read or wanting to. I wanted to travel into the middle of the Empire, to the city itself, to see those big libraries. We were so close to losing them.
Of course enough of the bibliotakises got looted that a flood of books had hit the market and why Ma and Da both were combing through the faire while I was stuck at the cart, selling our stock. If I got the harness back fast, right before dinner, I’d be able to go out and perform at Mussels, Mussels again without my parents knowing. A few more good nights and I might have enough chains to get tested for story bard’s papers and head out to do some wandering instead of our endless up and down the coast round.
There’d been a fight the other night and I got out with my byluk safe but I’d lost half my take spilling out when I grabbed up my hat. I swiped a hand gently over the little cut on my head. I’d lied and told Da I’d stood up too fast and hit my head on the edge of the caravan’s open door. I dust a book and carefully re-shelve it behind me, turn around and start up my calling-on again.
“Incabulus! Wonderfully printed and carefully bound Incabulus! Not just mere books my friends. But legendary books, books commissioned and written in the wild hinterlands of civilized lands!” At least I could turn my talent for storytelling to draw a crowd. “Books dreamed by the Dragon-lords, horded like gold in the frozen city that is their nest. Incabulus sweated out of the fever dreams of the southern cities at the command of the satraps and their sinister viziers!” I’d need to sell our common stock to make room for the rarities that my parents were no doubt finding in the rest of the faire.
“Fanias.” Da was at his most stern, using the Arkan form of my name. Not natural for him because he was an easy going man, for an Arkan. “Your mother and I have been talking.” Ma sat back and watched him, smiling a little. She let him get all stern and patriarchal so he felt that he was doing his job as a husband and a father.
Like tonight. I sighed. “Da, is this going to be one of your ‘it’s time you found a nice girl to marry and a nice boy on the side and settle down’ talks?” Ma laughed and put her rice bowl down. “He got you Arapatas.” She turned to me. “Vanya... we were thinking that if you wanted to branch out... with another biblio-cart... you’re a good seller. We could front you the funds to start and you could take over Great-Uncle Joras’s route in Kikadas province.”
“Or we could find you a place on a bookship. Now that the war is over and things are settling down, your Aunt Ru has found that she can rent books to people from the Rock to Tebrias and she needs a book doctor. She’s talking about buying one of those one-person print-mechanisms for the Word Barge.”
“I... Ma... Da... these are all wonderful ideas but... you know I don’t want to be tied to a single book-route. Joras has done that same route for thirty-five years, reading for the same people and writing obituaries to be posted on the village Temple wall. And Aunt Ru... she could go anywhere and she’s shuttling back and forth from the Rock to Tebrias and around to Marsae and to the Rock on the North side. Same kind of route as Great-Uncle Joras, except on water. There’s nothing new there to see. Nothing different. No new books or stories unless there’s a war somewhere and the books get stolen and sold instead of burnt.”
“And you want to wander like a bard and tell stories.” Da made it sound so stupid. “You don’t have the voice to sing, son.”
“But I can play the parts of the stories... you’ve seen the crowd I can draw. It’s not just telling stories, sitting on one patch of ground all the years of my life, either! It’s collecting stories everywhere, Da. And I can play the stories as if I were a whole troupe all by myself. That’s better than what they require for journeyman’s papers at the Society of Tale Spinners and Weavers. I can already read and write better than their journeymen and all I’d need is your permission to journey.”
I poked around in the bottom of my supper bowl. I’d never gone hungry like so many people had through the years of war. The book cart had been a safe place. When things got dangerous our horses, Noun, Pronoun, Verb and Adverb, could be hitched and would pull us to a safer town. Da had a long-knife... not a sword, he couldn’t afford a sword or the training for it... but a knife he could handle really well was always in the hidden pocket by the driver’s seat. And the old crossbow from grandfather up there too in case someone thought a bookseller with spectacles was an easy target. Ma was as good a shot as Da too.
Da had taught me knife – and told me not to tall Ma because she’d be upset while Ma had taught me crossbow – and told me not to tell Da because he’d be upset. We hadn’t had trouble that needed me to tell either of them anything all the years of my life that I could remember.
Da pushed his spectacles up his nose. “And you haven’t found anyone who takes your fancy? No girl? No boy? Someone nice and bookish with a family library?” He didn’t sound too hopeful.
The weather had turned gray toward the end of the day and the first drops of rain had closed the book-faire early. Da had come back with a covered basket where he’d bought dinner from a cookshop so we wouldn’t have to fight with the rain to cook. The three of us sat, cosy as paper weevils, in our closed-up caravan lined with bookshelves.
I sat cross-legged on my bench on the short side, the back door bolted tight behind me, the table pulled out to block me in, with Ma on the long side and Da up front, our dinner spread out and steaming.
Da had bought a beef rice for Ma and potatoes for him and me, cooked in butter and cream layered with bacon slices and sprinkled with onions. There was half a bottle of wine for us and a bowl of eggs and courgettes. And fresh, hot bread. But I wasn’t hungry any more. I fiddled with my eating pick.
“Not that we’re trying to stop you, son,” Ma said. “We’re trying to help you get a good start. We want to see you fly.”
“Not literally?” I said. “Now there’s an idea. I’d love to learn to fly on one of those aNiah things. How about a flying bookseller?”
“Don’t be flip with your mother. That’s a silly idea. You could never carry enough stock.” Of course he wanted my feet firmly on the ground.
I’m good enough and there’s a Hall in this town.”
Ma fiddled with the ends of her hair. “It’s... just such a wild life, Vanya. Never the same thing twice... and dangerous...”
Da snorted. “Zasha, it’s less dangerous than him sneaking out and performing at some of those bars where he thinks we won’t know.”
Ma looked over at Da and nodded. “You’re right, love. He’ll be safer if he’s not sneaking around. The Empire roads are safe enough if he’s careful.”
I was staring at the two of them, probably goggle-eyed. I’d been sneaking around thinking they’d object or... something, try and stop me. “You... knew?”
“Of course I knew, we knew,” Da said. “And next time you duck out of a fight like that, duck faster so you don’t have to lie to me about how you got the cut in your scalp.”
I was flushed hot. He knew? He’d seen?
“And you did a fantastic job of telling the story of Manas and Shefenkas in the Mezem...you played all those parts well, son.” And Ma just nods? She was there too? In that awful dive? Where the stage is more often for boys to strip off their clothes and gloves for old men rather than for me? I threw my hands over my face.
“Ah, ah, son. You need to put a good face on it. If you are going to be a performer... you need to hold your chin up,” she said.
My voice was muffled behind my hands. “Yes, Ma.” Then I took my hands down. Da was going on like he always did when planning our next move. Ma and Da threw words back and forth between them like trading a melodic theme long practiced.
“So we’ll see if you can get your license tomorrow, all legal as a member in good standing of the Tale Spinner’s Hall, while your mother does the selling. If you test as well as I think...I can talk to Don about getting you a horse... a half-decent horse –“
Ma broke in. “--A small horse or pony... nothing flashy. Something flashy or fast will just get him in trouble or killed.” Da nodded and kept on. “—and some gear. You have itchy feet son, I understand. You even think our wandering isn’t enough. You need to see more than our regular route.” He looked a little tired with the idea of me going off on my own but I was a grown man, or was according to Ma’s people if not his. “We’ll want you to catch up with us now and again along our route, just to let us know what’s happening. You’ll know where we are.”
“And write us often... Tell us what you’re seeing, what stories you’re collecting. You might try along the north coast -- There’s those itinerant people the other side of Marsae... the Teachers... they’re caravaneers too. There’s a lot of people to teach and a lot of people who are desperate for words. Arkan women, okas... You could make a good living, son, enough to stock your own book caravan and take up Joras’s route if you wanted to settle down,” Ma said thoughtfully. “And if you should happen to find a nice girl...”
“We’ll let you get the wanderlust out, son,” Da took up the parental melody again. We’re not going to nail your rear to a book-binder’s desk in a cellar somewhere, though you’ve been acting as if we would.” My face was blushing hot, thinking how silly could I be. “You can always settle down later,” Da said. I grinned like an idiot at him and at Ma. Here I’d been trying to figure out how to go do what I wanted by myself and they weren’t trying to stop me, but were helping instead. They were acting like they expected it. I guess I’m pretty obvious. I picked up my eating pick again, suddenly starving.
“I’ll be careful, Ma, and Da. I truly will.”