Last time, Nerilka grieved for the loss of her mother and sisters and found herself usurped as the Lady Holder by decree of her father. While trying to be as unhelpful as possible to Anella, Nerilka has put the stash of storeroom herbs and plants to excellent use in service to the Healers trying to keep the plague under control. While this isn’t directly contradicting anything yet, at some point Anella is going to try and bring Nerilka to heel.
Nerilka’s Story: Chapters VI and VII: Content Notes: Evil Stepmothers, sexism,
Chapter VI starts with Campen guilt-tripping Nerilka into seeing Anella by telling her that Anella is “…making life very difficult for our sisters, and they miss our mother enough without having to put up with her carpings.” Because wielding family members is the highest road you can take in this affair, Campen.
Nerilka takes the beginnings of Anella’s scolding in silence, relishing the age difference between them and the height difference between them to make Anella look buffoonish, but when Anella implies that Nerilka has been stepping out for sex, Nerilka sets her straight about her medicinal tasks immediately. Without referring to Anella as a mistress, out loud or in her head, showing a restraint she certainly hasn’t had before.
Anella complains that nobody tells her anything, and complains further that Nerilka didn’t come when she called, even though she messed up the name. After getting stonewalled by Nerilka, Anella demands her presence:
“Your mother had everything so well organized in this Hold that I’m sure she had drapery stores and patterns. You may come with me to choose suitable lengths for my new wardrobe.”
“Aunt Sira is in charge of weaving.”
“I don’t need the Weaving Aunt. I need your sewing skills. You have those as well, do you not?”
Oh, she does have a name. How interesting that it wasn’t mentioned before, in the context of all the other ones. (Okay, most likely it’s an editing error.)
Also, it sounds like the Holds have official job titles for their older residents – in a single-family hold, they might all be aunts and uncles, but here at Fort, it seems likely that everybody’s Aunt or Uncle (as was mentioned before when we were talking about the possible insult of “Old Uncle” – maybe it was supposed to be a term of endearment and respect for the character, but they just weren’t treated that way).
Anella also gets the keys, finally, after Nerilka points them out, basically in plain sight, and then has to spend the time showing Anella around and explaining which keys unlock which items, including a “jewelry safe” (which seems a bit odd), growing more irritated with Anella’s lack of knowledge about running any Hold properly. Nerilka also realizes that if she wants to get a good life and marriage for herself, she’s going to have to get out of Fort Hold and out from under the thumb of Tolocamp and Anella.
After starting everyone on the duties of putting together new gowns for Anella, Nerilka excuses herself to see the Healers, learning about the serum inoculation, and then receiving one as all of Tolocamp’s family and Anella’s family are also immunized. As she is immunized, she quietly directs where the leftover doses should go – Nursery adults, Harpers, cooks, Sira, and the bailiff, Barndy, and his son. (Is that a male name ending in a vowel sound I spy? Even though the y can be seen as a consonant, too.)
The presence of a bailiff tells us more about the administrative system of Holds, as those particular officers tend to be those executing the decisions of either nobles or courts. Since there isn’t any sort of civil court system on Pern, we have to assume that the bailiff is acting to administrate the Hold on Tolocamp’s behalf, when he can’t be bothered to run it himself, and performs those functions like justice, collection of taxes or tithes, and the like. We haven’t met one before because all our characters have either taken matters into their own hands or are of rank sufficiently high that they wouldn’t be subjected to the bailiff’s justice. Certainly worth wondering whether these bailiffs are fair and impartial, or whether or not they’re doing things in the name of the Lord designed to ensure enough drudges exist.
The next day, as Nerilka and her sisters are required to help with the sewing of Anella’s dress (while she criticizes them), Anella also talks about Tolocamp’s latest instructions:
Anella also had the poor taste to recount to us Tolocamp’s injunctions to his bailiff and my brothers that there was to be no disposition of Fort Hold’s stores to the indigent. All must be reserved for the needs of Fort Hold’s dependents. This was a critical role, and Fort must stand firm, as an example to the rest of the continent. For instance, Anella relished reporting, Tolocamp was certain that the Healer and Harper would be applying to the Hold for substantial aid of food and medicine. He had received a formal request for an interview with Master Capiam and Master Tirone the next morning.
That, for me, was the final straw. I had now come to the end of patience, courtesy, and filial loyalty. I could no longer endure that woman’s presence or remain a dependent of a man whose cowardice and parsimony made a disgrace of my Bloodline. I would no longer remain in a dishonored Hold.
There’s a couple things here. First, and perhaps the more petty of the two, I love idiomatic language as much as the next person, but “the last straw”? On a planet that may or may not have such a plant by name, and that usually is hostile to Terran names for things? This is why language is hard and you really need to think it through – I would much more easily believe “the last shell-crack” or something that communicates the intent, but that is more suited to the planet and society already built.
Second, and more importantly, who, other than a cartoonish Evil Stepmother, gains pleasure in telling someone that their plans are going to be foiled and that people are going to suffer? During a plague that is on the mend, potentially, and needs supply to ensure that progress isn’t halted? Seriously,
Cocowhat by depizan
Anella could not be a better example of an author tried to hammer home that she’s a selfish and self-absorbed woman. And, incidentally, a perfect match for Tolocamp’s own ideas. The author has hit the anvil hard enough that everyone at this point can see that Fort is not going to be heroic and is up to Nerilka to do something bold and brave and totally against her father and stepmother’s wishes. All she needs is the magic carriage.
Nerilka heads back to the storeroom and cooks up more medicine, hides it in the storerooms, then gives the jewels meant for the family to Uncle Munchaun to distribute to the family, and goes to bed. The next morning is more medicine work, along with Nerilka changing into plainer clothes and cutting off her braids to make the transformation complete. With Sim and two drudges on standby, Nerilka listens in on the meeting we saw in Moreta, then catches up to the two Masters with the copies of the keys she has. The dialogue is the same from Moreta, as is basically the action where Nerilka disguises herself as a drudge and slips through to the internment camp, while Capiam is turned back away by the guard, who has had a name in this side (Theng) since getting assigned to border patrol back at the beginning of the novel.
Now clearly in the other side of the forbidden gate, Nerilka reflects while she carries supplies.
Although she had not said so, Desdra undoubtedly had refused my offers of assistance because she knew that young ladies of Hold Blood did not engage in such activities on a public basis. She probably considered me a feckless, trivial person and perhaps I was: Some of my recent thoughts and decisions could have been considered petty. But I did not consider that I was sacrificing my high rank and position. I thought, rather, that I was putting myself in the way of being useful, instead of being immured in a Hold, protected and unproductive, wasting my energy on trivia like sewing for my stepmother. Such a “suitable occupation” for a girl of my rank could so easily be undertaken by the least drudge from the linen rooms.
These thoughts fleeted through my head as I kept up the awkward gait I had assumed – ironic, as Hold girls were taught to take such tiny steps that they appeared to float across the floor. I had never quite mastered that skill.
Ah, yes, thank you for that reminder that we are hearing Nerilka’s Story from Nerilka’s perspective, and so pronouncements and judgments she has of the character and motivations of others may not be fully accurate. Anella could be a perfectly pleasant person transformed into an evil stepmother by Nerilka’s grief and rage by the speed at which her father is remarrying and the love that Nerilka has for her mother and sisters. Nerilka could seem pushy, bossy, or flighty to others, but that would be translated as courageous here.
That said, the internment camps and the decision to cut off supplies to the Crafts, plus what we already read in Moreta gives weight that Nerilka is at least reporting accurately on the motivations of her father, and Anella’s participation in this tars her with a similar brush. Nerilka may not be a fully reliable narrator, but she seems to be doing all right with the facts that we can confirm independently.
Second, this passage is a rich seam of information about Hold life and expectations for women of the Blood in a location not considered the ass end of nowhere. Which, much like Terran history, suggests that women are to be ornamental, and that the skills they collect are mostly less useful in a professional context and more useful at home (including that incredibly powerful skill of household management, though.)
Finally, though, we’re back at this point where we have exceptional women against their counterparts. This has been a running theme all throughout the series – Lessa as outstanding compared to drudges, Menolly as exceptional compared to Hold women and sexist Harpers, Moreta as exceptional compared to other gold riders, Brekke and Sharra both as exceptional Healers and outspoken women. Even Kylara gets in on the action with her choices in partners and unapologetic sexuality. There’s a bit of Conservation of Awesome, in that we have yet to have a narrative point where two women are being awesome together on screen (as Brekke is support to Sharra in The White Dragon), but a lot of these stories follow women who have skills that they have been able to train to high degrees and then finally find a situation where those skills will be put to use, usually in the absence of men who have been trying to suppress or control those skills for their own benefits. Nerilka is looking to join some pretty good company.
And if I stopped there, you could squint and take a look and maybe suggest that Pern had some feminism cred. But, you know, it just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny…or by letting those narratives play out. And also present in these stories are the women these exceptional ladies are being compared to, almost always in some form of a rivalry sense. Menolly had to deal with Dunca trying to make her into a proper Hold girl and with Pona trying to make her feel inept and inferior at a different set of things. Nerilka gets them both combined into Anella for extra anguish. Both of these sets of women are to be overcome or avoided in some manner so that our heroic women can stay outside the normal social structure, and this accomplish their aims. It would have been nice to see the story of someone who is able to achieve great things by using the social structure in place, instead of having to be outside it to be effective. Or, that there could be more than one woman pulled outside the social structure to exist there comfortably without disasters, death or other negative consequences befalling them soon after doing so. And that there weren’t women being used to uphold a clearly patriarchal society that wants to make sure that women never get anywhere near being taken seriously. The Crafts are probably the most egalitarian of the three castes, but they’re not able to subvert the social order like they did for Terrans.
Nerilka is now theoretically beyond the pale, and thus, we get our first look at the camp, with “rude shelters” erected, and Nerilka happy that the weather was calm and gentle, instead of harsh, snowy, windy, and freezing, as it usually is. The delivery of the medicine produces Nerilka’s first use of her new name, Rill, and a very strong statement from her about her father. The Healer gives Rill a warning about saying such things.
“Young woman, it is unwise to speak of your Lord Holder in that fashion, no matter what the provocation.” This is the third time we have had someone caution another person about dissing the Lord Holder. I don’t actually know what the penalty is, though, for doing so, because everybody just says “don’t do it.” Banishment seems like a big deal, and we haven’t gotten to the time period where Menolly and Piemur both live without Holds, but I would think that would be a spoken thing, not an implied one. What’s such a horrible punishment that people are afraid to even speak it?
“He is not my Lord Holder,” I replied, meeting his stare unflinchingly.
After giving a rundown of her skills, Rill experiences the joys of a twenty hour shift (hey, look, another arbitrary time division, and the implication that spending that many divisions at one task is not natural) as a nurse. For the next few days, Rill is happy doing effective and functional work, with death and bodily functions very close at hand to temper that happiness and provide a reality check. Then a journeyman Healer arrives with serum for inoculation and news that the camp is to be broken and moved to the Harper Hall. Rill volunteers to help move things, and the journeyman Healer, Macabir, thinks she would do well as a Healer apprentice.
I volunteered, although Macabir repeated his wish for me to take formal training for the Hall. “You’ve a natural gift for the profession, Rill.”
“I’m far too old to be an apprentice, Macabir.”
“How old is old when you’ve a right knack with the sick? A Turn and you’ve done the initial training. Three, and there wouldn’t be a healer who’d not be pleased to have you assist them.”
Despite Desdra’s existence, it’s very hard for me to read this offer as anything other than “You’ll be a nurse in no time! Don’t expect to be a proper Master Healer, though, that’s still for the menfolk.” Because Pern is still that kind of place that would totally leave a very qualified woman as an apprentice or journeywoman, simply because she’s a woman.
That’s how Chapter VI ends, with the camp breaking down, and Rill getting ready to go out and see the world. Chapter VII stays with her on the way to other Holds near Ruatha, with serum for vaccination. She tries to sleep on the horse (without falling off, thankfully) and then sleeps in at the Hold she stopped at for the night, much to her initial annoyance and later gratefulness. One more Hold over, they keep her for a meal, and then send her on.
As she heads on, she ends up having to stitch someone back together, and gains a much finer appreciation of how much the plague didn’t care at all who it killed. Before she can continue on, she meets M’barak, looking for more glass bottles so that they can make runnerbeast serum. He mistakes Rill as a Healer and invites her to Ruatha, where she wants to go, to help get the runners immunized. So it happens, and so it goes, and Nerilka gets to see Moreta arrive and experience her unplugged from the formal apparatus that had previously accompanied visits from Weyr to Hold. (“on state occasions”, specifically, even though there are no official nation-states on Pern) only for a short time, though, and without actual conversation. Once Moreta and M’barak depart, Alessan and Oklina put Rill and her companions to work sterilizing and sanitizing their workspace for runnerbeast serum until Oklina guides Rill to bed and she collapses. So ends Chapter VII.