He arrived on a hairy bahga that shook its head as it shuffled its paws through the sand. He war white to arm against the sun, but was slender under the piles of fabric. I saw nothing but his gray eyes, and somehow that unnerved me. I felt that I was being greated by a ghost, a vision of walking sand with storm-light eyes.
Then he reigned in his beast. It reared it’s head, sending the long gray-white locks bouncing.
“Then I hope you have much water,” I said.
“Oh, I do.” He squinted up at the sky. “I hate this desert.”
I wanted to take offense to that. This foreigner come here and slander my home? But I knew this wouldn’t be the last time I heard words against my home. Most likely, in the fancy streets of Lartien I would hear worse. So I lifted my head to imitate the Genna-ko’s regal bearing and looked my guide into--cloth. Even his eyes were covered now.
“Too pale for this Chia-cursed desert,” he muttered. “Climb on up!” and he launched himself back onto the Bahga.
“I don’t even know your name!” I protested, planting my feet in the sand.
“You know I’m here to get you to Lartien, so what else do you need to know?”
“Who you are.”
“Daimosk. Now get up, and lets get you east as fast as this hairy monster can.”
I swallowed and dragged my feet, stirring little swirls of desert sand. I tried to remember the smell of it, to hold onto the feeling of the grainy sand against my skin. Daimosk offered a hand, and helped to lift me up behind him.
“Hold tight,” he said, wrapping the arm he held about his middle. I followed suit, and wrapped the other around him too.“Oof, not that tight. And sit back just a bit, this is going to be different from riding a Genn.” He lifted the reigns as I obeyed his suggestions.
“I’ve never ridden a Genn,” I said.
“What?!” He half-turned, but the bahga leapt forward, all paws flying. It was a jouncing ride,a nd it took all of Daimosk’s attention. I tried to hold tight, and lean back, to keep my balance in the tiny saddle. I fought the urge to bury my head in his narrow, linen-draped back.
Daimosk stopped to water the bahga and himself many times before the day was done. I blamed his multitude of clothing, but he claimed it was essential. “Too pale,” he said when we stopped near to dusk. “I’ll burn if not covered.”
I shook my head, and took a sip of water despite. “I’ll find us something to eat.”
I sighed, not wanting to fight and not wanting to explain myself. This was still my homeland. I knew what to look for.
“Stay close!” he called after me.
I didn’t wander far, and I kept my eyes and ears on the spce around me. So easy to attract unwanted attention in the open dessert. I found a little brown and green weed, curling up from the sand. I shoveled earth away until I found the root. Big and juicy, and full of water. I pulled it from the ground and kept digging. The ground turned from sand to clay, and there--an underground pool. I filled a skin with water, followed the pool to three more tubers and took my loot back to the campsite.
Daimosk whistled when I unloaded water and roots.
“Around,” I replied.
“It’s not much...”
“It’s food,” I replied. “Boil the roots, the green bits can be used to make tea, or broth. You choose.”
He started a fire from a kit kept wrapped in a leather bag. There was a tiny iron pot hanging from his saddle. It had barked my shins twice on the ride. He used a touch of the water I had collected, and boiled the root as instructed. The remaining water was returned to the flask when our dinner had softened.
The roots had a touch of sweetness and a coarse, dry texture. But food was welcome. I watched the stars as I drifted to sleep a few yards from the fire.
The next morning we rose, munched on the last root and off we went again, through the sands. By dusk the second day I saw the tree line and the remains of our winter-homes. Daimosk knew of an Inn in a larger town, just beyond the first one we traipsed through. I said nothing.
My people and the townsfolk had little in common. We traded, we spent the winters together and occasionally intermarried. But really there wasn’t much I wantede from them. I certainly had never been curious about how they lived. Swaddled in too much clothing, just like Daimosk, and breaking their legs and backs stooped over crops all year round and never falling asleep under the stars....I just never saw the point.
I knew Lartien was bigger than these towns. I knew that their realm was based on the same practices and the same stay-in-one place mentality. I knew I needed to learn to live with it.
I just didn’t want to.
We made it to the Inn and Daimosk tied the Bahga to a rail infront of the building. He led me in and in a rush was stripping off his excessive layers. He was right, however, his skin was very pale. The color of sun-blasted sand, pale with a yellow -brown tint, that may or may not have been a tan. While my skin gained and lost color from summer to winter and back again, it was never as dramatic as that of the townsfolk. And the townsfolk had stories of other peoples to the north and east that were much lighter than even they.
I wondered if I would stand out in Lartien, with my skin designed for the sun and desert and south. I was Chianic, though, so what would it matter?
“Two rooms!” he said to the Inn keeper, his voice booming.
“We got one,” said the Innkeeper, eyeing me. He didn’t meet my eyes.
“Then two cots.”
“Fine,” said the Innkeeper. “Food?”
“Yes.” Daimosk handed him shiny disks that glinted in the candlelight.
“Seat yourself, the meal will be brought out.”
I followed Daimosk to a tiny table wedged into a corner, opposite the hearth. The food was very cooked and swimming in sauce. I ate it dilligently. I ate something they dubbed “bread” for the first time. It was spongy, and balnd but not bad. I followed Daimosk’s example and usedthe bread to scoop up sauce and eat it. I left the plate clean and then we went to the room.
He, naturally, took the larger cot. I was relegated to the smaller one.
We woke at dawn. There was a bird somewhere, calling to the sun. I sat and stretched, but it didn’t completely resolve the stiffness in my back.
“They’re not that bad,” said Daimosk about the cot when he saw my face. “come on, let’s see if we can get to the Jordelle by nightfall.”
We followed long strips of dirt paths which Daimosk called roads. The towns grew in size, and clustered along roadside and, based on what Daimosk told me on breaks, they also huddled by riverbanks some distance away.
Between the towns, forest replaced sand. The earth turned from gold to clay-brown. Animal sounds changed, and as night loomed, the sounds swallowed me. I held onto Daimsok more tightly.
“Shhh,” he said, “It’s all right. We’re almost to the sea.”
I looked up, when the light had left, and I saw no stars. Instead there was only tree branches. Their shadows looked so much like fingers or a massive spider web. I felt closed in. The world was shrinking. I had no space.
The trees parted.
Water stretched out as far as I could see, glistening ijn the moonlight. Lights on little vessels and buildings on the water’s edge winked at me over the expanse.
“All right, let’s get out of Togan, shall we?”
“We’re still in Togan?” I asked. I had felt for more than a day that we had left my home behind. I knew that, as the world saw it, my people and the townspeople shared a realm. But there had never been any formal organization of territory. The townspeople couldn’t use the expanses of dessert and grassland we traversed, and when we traded Genn and other beast of burden to them, there was always mutual respect. But we never thought we were the same.
“Well, yeah,” said Daimosk. “But when we cross the Jardelle, we won’t be,”
“We are crossing?”
“On a boat,” he said, and pointed to a vessel that bobbed on the moonlight-splattered water.
“A boat...” The word felt strange on my tongue.
“Come, I just need to book us three passage.”
“Three?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not leaving Yurpi behind.”
“Yurpi?” I asked incredulously and Daimosk patted the big hairy bahga. “Really?”
“What?” he asked
I bit my tongue to keep my thoughts from rolling off it. We dismounted as we appraoched the shore and then Daimosk exchanged more shiny disks--currency-with a man standing beside a boat tied to shore. He took the coins and Daimosk, with....Yurpi... climbed onto the boat. He beckoned me and I followed.
The boat wobbled under me, and I fell to my butt.
“You’re a clan-girl,” said the boatman.
“Yeah, stay seated, and hold on to something. This will be a strange journey for you.” He untied the boat and pulled the rope in. He eyed the bahga while winding the rope to rest in the bed of the boat. “In fact, this is looking like it’ll be a strange journey for all of us.”