As dawn neared, lights of other boats appeared. They bobbed in the distance like candles being led in procession down the villager’s streets--something I’d seen in clear midwinter nights. An alien ritual in an alien world, somehow, something comparable to that sight heralding my arrival in Lartien fit. As the sun rose, the boat pulled into shore.
I hadn’t slept that night. Wide eyed and nervous as I was, I just could not find the ability to seek sleep while on the boat. As soon as I stepped onto the solid ground, my exhaustion caught up with me. I yawned, my eyes hurt and my stomach began to protest.
Diamosk, no longer clad in extensive linen, gave me once-over. “Keep moving, you won’t feel it.”
I scowled, but helped him unload the Yurpi the bahga from the boat. We bid the boatman goodbye and off we went into Lartien. My first sight of it was full of fog that swelled up from the Jardelle sea, and cascaded over the broad woody terrain. There were long planks at the shore, to which boats sat tied and swaying with the water. To my left a small market huddled by the shore. The smell of fish stung my nose. Only a few people, like shades moving in the fog, had arrived to set up baskets, blankets and wooden tables.
On my right stood a little building and many work benches, boats were tipped on sides and laying face down on the ground. I presumed it was for fixing them.
Away from the shore, trees and hills dominated. They closed in on the sides, green tops rising above the clouds. The road began after we passed the building. Mud replaced dust on this end of the sea, and the caw of seabirds resounded through the morning air as we started off toward the treeline.
Yurpi certainly didn’t need to stop as much in this colder climate. We mounted as soon as there was enough light to do so, and plunged into the day. We stopped mid-morning when Daimosk, now wearing sleeves rolled up to the elbows and baggy pants stuffed into knee-high leather boots, realized I was shivering.
“Cold? Well, I guess you were used to that hot desert.” he pulled out his linens, and doubled them up before draping the fabric around my bare shoulders. “Not so fun, hunh, being away from what you’re used to?”
I said nothing to that. There was no reason to protest, no reason to defy the statement. There was also no reason to assent, either.
He rubbed my arms and legs, through the fabric. I started at first, uncomfortable with the touch.
“Shivering isn’t good. just trying to get you warmer--I was paid to get you to the Priestesses, so I will. Whole and healthy. Precisely as I found you.”
I supposed that was his way of saying he meant no harm. I still was grateful when he removed his hands and we started forward again.
The trees rose around us even as the fog peeled away. The sounds of forest unnerved me, and I found that I held myself tense enough to cause a headache. I expected some great beast to be hiding behind a massive tree and race after us. It would be so easy to be spotted, attacked and defeated here.
Daimosk did not seem concerned. Not in the least. When the last of the fog had vanished and the trees grew in more densely, the elevation increased, he actually began to whistle!
I wanted to hit him. I mean, was he calling out to predators intentionally? “Hey! we’re here! on this big meaty bahga! Come get an easy meal!” Or was he just stupid?
Perhaps it was me, though, operating on false assumptions. Nothing happened and by nightfall we were high in the mountains. Daimosk led us off the main road to a cobbled street that wound tight to the mountainside and ended before a house with two levels. There was a small metal gate and a fence composed of long strips of wood, stacked up tight.
“This is the first house of the Priestesses,” Daimosk said. “We’ll go inside and I’ll have completed my task.”
“Are you staying?” I asked, eyeing the cloud of smoke circling up from the rooftop.
“For the night, if I’m permitted.”
I didn’t hate him then. Not for whistling, not for rubbing my arms and legs, not for the silly name he gave his pet. I didn’t know what to do here, with no one familiar. He was the last link I had to Togan, to home, and he was a tenuous link at best.
When he knocked and the door opened, a strong aroma filled my nose. Warmth caressed my skin. The woman who stood in the entryway had tree-bark-brown hair and eyes the color of the sky, just a touch light than that of a Genna-ko. I wondered what magic she commanded. Her eyebrows drew together when she saw Daimosk, and she opened her mouth as if to say something. Then she saw me. I saw her look me over, taking in my appearance no doubt which was dark where she was light, and likely as odd to her as her complexion was to me. Then she met my eyes.
An “Oh...” rushed from between her lips, and I could tell from the relaxed lines about her brow and mouth that she understood what brought us here.
She and Daimosk rattled off a string of unintelligible syllables. Back and forth, back and forth, I tried to discern some recognizable sound and failed. I knew it was language, but the tongue, like the building, like the bone-pale skin was alien.
I stood on the threshold feeling lost.
Then the bone-white woman with tree-bark hair and sky-colored eyes, grabbed my shoulder gently and nodded at Daimosk. together we went inside.
She looked at me and a long string of sound fell from her pink lips.
“She asked if you want food,” said Daimosk.
Relief flooded me, and I felt not so lost again.
The woman looked up at Daimosk, and said something to him to which he responded. Then he shrugged.
“Guess you’re not getting rid of me, little Chianic-princess,” he said, “apparently, no one else here can speak Togan. So they need me to teach you Lartien and to translate in the meantime. Good thing I like steady pay! So--eating?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then let’s go.” He translated everything to the lady and she smiled down at me. She smiled, though, as if to a child. Didn’t she know I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t undergone the rites of womanhood? I was an adult in my people’s eyes.
I bristled under that smile and the woman pulled away.
Daimosk said something. I wondered if he were explaining my behavior. I suppose it didn’t much matter. We sat and ate in a large room filled with light, and rich spices, and a lot of chatter. I drowned it out and concentrated on the food at hand. Daimosk had to show me how to use the utensils at my disposal. My people never made anything that couldn’t be eaten by hand. It just never made any sense to have metal or wooden utensils. They would become just one more thing to carry, and that seemed impractical.
In a society where people spent their lives cloistered behind wooden walls, I suppose they didn’t have the same concerns about weight and portability.
They spent a lot of time on frivolity, just judging by that first meal. There was cloth on the table. There were decorations on the walls, as well as candles. I understood the need for thick clothing, so that wasn’t so odd. The priestesses wore ornate clothes, which I also understood.
I did not understand the fancy painting on the plates, the stain to the windows, and the color on the walls. It all seemed...frivolous. There was no practical use.
I knew it was unfair. I mean, how they ordered and arranged their society and persons was so alien, it wasn’t my place to judge them. But I couldn’t help it.
Despite their warm smiles, and the laughter I could hear--one of the few things I understood--I wanted to use my people’s measurements to gauge these foreigners. I had to hold onto something that was me.
Here, even eating took practice and concentration. I was so self-conscious that I would mess up and someone would turn an ingratiating smile on me, something that was meant to encourage but would serve only to make me feel ever more out of place.
“They seem so friendly, don’t they?” asked Daimosk when I successfully managed to finish my serving of meat.
“I want to warn you, Elessa. The priests and priestesses, while not the official governing body of Lartien, have strong ties with those who do rule this realm. There has been rumor for some time of a possible war with Sanara, Lartien’s southern neighbor. If that happens, these women, and maybe even you, may be called on to defend Lartien.”
“I don’t belong to them. I won’t involve myself in their battles.”
He shrugged. “I’m not here to tell you what to do, just translate. I only wanted to let you know what you may be getting yourself involved in.”
“You could have told me sooner.”
“I was charged to drop you off. But now that I’ve been hired as a translator, I guess I’ll take it as my job to be your guardian against Lartien madness.”
“You’re not from Lartien?”
“No.” he took a bite, while I stared and watched him chew. “I’m originally from Videsse. My mother, though, was Togan from Kwenda. That’s why I speak your language. She made ceratin I learned it. she thought I would be able to do more for my father’s business. Little did she know that my half-brother had plans to take over the whole thing. I was left to my own devices after my parents died.”
“What was your father’s business?”
“Sailors, of a sort.”
“But now you have a bhaga....”
“I can’t go on the outer waters any more. My brother...is not friendly to me...if I stay hidden, he won’t come after me. If I make myself known? Well, that would be different.”
“So what is your job now, exactly?”
He grinned. “Sometimes mercenary, sometimes spy, sometimes courier, and--” he nodded at the woman who had opened the door, “--and sometimes translator. Whatever and wherever my knowledge and skills can earn me a meal.”
I turned my attention back to my food. This was the man I chose to trust among all these laughing women drinking wine and enjoying good food? Was I crazy? Would I ever be the leader my people expected me to become?
I really shouldn’t judge anyone, I thought, poking at the minute amount of vegetables on the plate, that part of my mind seems to have something wrong with it.