This tale is told through the veil of years, and though I lived it, there may be a haze of golden nostalgia blurring the sharp edges, along with the experience of adulthood focusing on things that were not important to the child at the time. But I wish to note my perspective on a turning point in my life, that time I took my first step towards my adulthood.
Portărel Constantin Grigorescu was an important man, as the tax assessor for Bihor Judete, but on our riding in the Gilău Mountains, he was also a trusted friend. I did not know this as words, but as we children had been raised to call him "Unchi Costin", I felt it. This was why, in the spring shortly after my ninth birthday, the family awaited his circuit with worry, but not fear.
The previous winter had been hard, and the melting snows gave the relief that our stores of food would be renewed soon, and we would not have to sacrifice any more of the goats to survive. The herds had been thinned enough by the wolves and the caprăvită, as had the chickens before they were brought into the stables under the housen. My older brothers were allowed eggs more often than the younger of us, and had them every morning that spring, but we did not begrudge them the extra food. We all saw how hard they worked, dragging the great felled trees to the village to help rebuild the communal barn and gathering hall. It was not just where celebrations were held, but also communal storage for what few harvests we had and fodder over winter. It had been wrecked by a wicked storm a month after Yule. All told, it has been an extremely hard winter.
The intense industry of the whole village rebuilding is what greeted Portărel Grigorescu's patrol, instead of the usual gathering of village elders. As soon as he entered the pocket valley, however, the elders left their sons and daughters to continue the tasks and greeted him. I was diverted from hauling water for the mortar to help water their horses, so I could overhear my father and his brothers apologizing for the informal greeting.
"Not at all, Hâjdău! I understand! We got the heliograph reports, and the Jaegermonstern have had a good hunting season." The Jagers with his patrol grinned, and the portărel then clapped Tată and Unchi Iosif on their shoulders, "I can give you the reassurance that the wolf population has been thinned, and there are three caprăvită shipped to the labs in Mechanicsburg. The Madboys will find out what we can do to deter them, should they get that numerous again."
The tension seemed to lessen in the village as a whole, as the news filtered through the work groups. The Sergent and his soldiers stabled their horses, and conferred with my aunt Ecaterina, to find out where any lingering pockets of troubling predators might be. Before she had come to wed my uncle, she had been one of the soldiers on patrols like theirs, and was able to lead them to the trails the wolves had used, in spite of her missing foot. While getting Unchi Costin and his assistants settled in, I heard people laughing more, but there was still a worry in the back of my mind.
If you are small and quiet, you get to hear a lot of things with which the adults do not want to burden their children. My penchant for blending in had caused my family to call me Pitulicea, for the little brown bird that was overlooked until she sang. I did not understand it at the time, as I did not sing more or less than the others in the village. Now, with the years to reflect in-between, I see it was when I spoke up, I usually surprised my elders. In this case, I knew, approximately, what the family had paid in taxes last spring. I also knew what we had on hand, and it would not be enough, and I had worried this information about in my mind since the snows had started melting. The discussions at the fireplace seemed to confirm my fears.
The first night of the assessor's visit was always social, not business. In later years, I found out it was in part because Unchi Costin really was a distant relative, as his home village was two ridges south of us. He knew the area, and held the mountains and her people in his heart. Horatiu Loewenstein was the landlord over our district in that time, and though he had served in the Long War, he was still a man of the district. However, he had certain obligations to meet to our Lady of the Fifty, and my parents had obligations to him. So the talk around the fire was not of how hard the winter had been, but news of the rest of the district.
Unchi Costin nodded by the fire, "We do have the hunting reports from the Jaegerkin, and the river is flooding now. Luckily, the rye harvest has been saved in most areas, and there is a section of the valley that has been selected for a new grain experiment, something that will prefer the flooded fields, so the government grants will cover that loss."
My father thought a moment, "That means we have only our own losses to make up. Magistrat Loewenstein is a fair man, we will honor our part of the bargain. How, I am not sure, but we will."
I could not stand the suspense any longer, and spoke out from my nook in the chimney-corner, revealing I was not in bed as I should have been. "How, Tată? We do not have but five parts of the seven we gave last year."
"Ach, Pitulicea! you should be in bed!" Mamă made as to shoo me off when Unchi Costin said, "Wait, I want to hear her." Mamă bid me stand with her in front of the fire, and Unchi asked, "Tell me what you are thinking, Mara."
Well, only the circuit priest had ever called me by my given name (other than Mamă, when she was upset, and then she used all of them) so I drew myself up as I was supposed to when declaring my vivas for schooling. "I don' know the hard numbers, but I do know the wolves took a tithe of our chickens when they broke into our coop, and the others lost that much, though Unchi Valreiu lost a double-tithe. If you divide the goat herds of everybody into seven equal herds, we lost two of those, mostly to the wolves and the blestematmâncător." Here, Mamă smacked my shoulder, and said "Language, young lady!" The adults rippled with chuckles when I said, "That is what Mătuşă Ecaterina called them!"
"That is a soldier's word, and even if she is retired, she can use that, but little girls do not." Tată said.
Unchi Costin got his snorting chuckles under control, and asked his second, "Good assessment, you think?"
"Aye, and better than some of the elders we have interviewed this season." The woman spoke with an accent that I had trouble understanding, being used to hearing my family. Miss Tarkeshwari's smile was brilliant in her red-dark skin, "A little unconventional, but with only the priest to come in on circuit every quarter, there are bound to be holes in the information."
Unchi Costin nodded, "And so she made the tools she needed. Well done, Mara."
I fidgeted a bit, and said, "That does not fix the taxes, though."
"It might. Do you like working with numbers?" he asked.
I frowned, doubtfully. "They behave better than the chickens, mostly."
Mamă's grip around my shoulders tightened at his next words, "Would you like to learn to work with them all the time?"
"Costin, we cannot afford an apprentice fee on top of the taxes!" my father muttered.
"What about the government indenture contract? She would get the training, and the bounty would cover your taxes this year." Unchi stayed calm in the face of my parents' sudden tension. I worried that my parents would send me to bed so they could argue, but I stayed still and quiet, hoping. "She would be my responsibility, and me and my wife would make sure she gets all the benefits of learning at the schloss. Sorina is in charge of the pages now, and we have several open spaces, with the kids growing up and into good positions."
Mamă murmured quietly, "I don't know, she is so young...."
Miss Tarkeshwari nodded, "It is a big choice, so you should sleep on it, but I will tell you it was the best thing that could have happened for me. Otherwise, I might not be alive today. And it is not as if she would never come home. Besides, the cachet of having someone in the family that can send news home would be good for the village in the future."
Unchi Costin had been scribbling on a bit of paper, "It could be good for the village now. The current indenture fee could cover the whole village's taxes for this year. I will have to see what we have in the other families, and I will not say anything of it to them, but it could give you the step up the village needs for the next year."
"By selling my child to the schloss?" Mamă whispered.
Miss Tarkeshwari stood up gracefully, "It is not slavery, it is what saved me from the slavers." She stood by my mother and murmured, "You must consider carefully, as the choices are different for every person. But please do consider, for during the seven years of her apprenticeship, she will be housed, clothed and fed as everyone else in the government standing. Her training will be for a job with the House, a good job that that is always in demand, and when she is twenty-one, she will be able to stand on her own." The reserved second placed her hand on my mothers shoulder, "It is an opportunity for her, but you should not decide now. Sleep on it." Then the woman turned to the cupboard bed where her packs had been placed and began readying for sleep.
"Sound advice, this is not a snap judgement." Unchi Costin stood and stretched. "We are going to be here another two days, after all, and the wagons will be here in a fortnight after going through the high reaches. Take time to think about it."
I did not say anything to Mamă, as she was guiding me to the loft ladder, but I was thinking furiously. I fell asleep to the murmurs of my parents in their cupboard bed underneath the loft, my mind spinning out threads of arguments.