Strange people

Too tough to die of culture shock, those two. I’m not sure whether the other party will turn out to be that tough eventually.

We’ve been here eight weeks! Sometimes it seems forever and sometimes it seems like only a couple of days because the days are so alike. Except that there’s some celebration or other twice a week at least. Someone’s caught a really big fish, the young people have been inside the cliff and nobody got lost, someone’s found out she’s going to have a baby, a boy asked a girl and she said yes, there’s a boat from Borma with news– everything is a reason to celebrate.

Ever since Ezami and Maile got more or less married you never see one without the other, kissing and cuddling in just about any place. Jakti complained “when we want to kiss, and find a nice place for it, they are already there!” And Parandé complained that Ezami was forgetting she was the herb-woman because she was so busy being in love. But in fact nobody really minds.

We’re learning semsin from Vurian, though very slowly. On the one hand I’d like to go faster, to do something hard for a change, on the other hand I’m glad I’m learning everything so thoroughly. “I wish we’d learnt nursing like that!” I said one day, and Vurian told us that he could only teach that way because he could only learn that way: he’d had a sword teacher who gave him a sword and said “now show that you can defend yourself!” and it hadn’t worked at all. It would work for Torin, he said, but not for him. “If I teach you everything I know works for me,” he continued, “you’ll probably be able to tell later when people are teaching you only half of something because they don’t know what they’re doing themselves, or they have reason to keep it from you.” Maile, I thought, when we were on the ship. But that had been more that we needed to be able to do something very quickly and there wasn’t any time to teach us thoroughly. (Also, that I at least didn’t want to learn thoroughly from someone who belongs with the Nameless. Though if I’d known then… but no, that’s for later.) I asked whether all anea comes from people or if there’s some that’s just in the world, because every bit of anea that I can see (that’s part of what we’re learning) looks like someone. He said that there were different opinions about that, some scholars thought it was all from the gods but through people, some thought it could be directly from the gods, and it could also be that some anea came from things like the sun, the earth or the sea.

With all that niceness there was still something gnawing at me: Ktab was really courting both of us now, and I think that deep down I really did want to say yes to him, but if I did that I’d probably stay here and never leave– and deep down I really wanted that too. But that would be breaking all kinds of promises to different people, starting with Zendegî and myself. I went to old Parandé and asked her how often ships came, and she said “oh, every few moons but sometimes it’s longer” and we talked about so many ships being off to the war, or damaged because of the war. “It’s not as if we have any docks here,” I said, and Ktab said “but there used to be docks, at least you can still see buildings under the water that look like workshops. I can show you, you just have to swim round the headland.” But I could swim only a tiny bit, and Zendegî not at all. “You’ll have to teach us to swim first,” I said, a little rashly it turned out, because he did, and he took advantage of the situation by touchng us a bit more than strictly necessary. (Not too much, though. And I did wish, a little, that I didn’t have those promises I didn’t want to break.)

Swimming makes one tired and hungry! Ktab wanted to show off by carrying us but once we were out of the water we were too heavy for him to carry us each on one arm. It’s really true that water carries you, and seawater carries you even better. That’s why people can swim at all. Ktab says it’s harder in the sea to dive to the bottom, but before I try to dive to the bottom I first want to learn to stay on the surface!

At dinner Ktab gave us the nicest bits of food from his own plate, sweet pieces of roast banana and juicy octopus tentacles. He was really making an effort, and that made me feel even more uneasy. Jakti noticed that and asked me about it. “Are you serious about him?” I said no, I was too young to start being serious about boys, and anyway I was going to leave as soon as there was a ship. “It doesn’t have to be forever!” she said, and told me that she’d had about four boyfriends, sometimes no longer than two weeks, and jostled one who grumbled (but good-naturedly) “and then I was stuck with the necklace I’d made for you!” But still, I don’t want to get tied to anyone here now, and in fact not yet at all. Then the talk got to Halla, who wasn’t eating with us but with Caille, together with the boy called Qvez who had given her her robe back. Caille was really watching over her like a mother! “Is Qvez your brother?” I asked Jakti, but only the two other boys who Halla had gone away with at the latest party were her brothers. “They were really interested in you two,” she said, “well, one in you and the other in Zendegî, but now that Ktab seems to have made so much progress they’re holding off a bit.” So that’s why she’d asked whether we were serious about him! I said again that I at least wasn’t serious about anybody yet.

Ktab didn’t come to the roof to sleep until we were already in bed and almost asleep. The next morning he was gone before we got up, so we thought he’d gone fishing. But he wasn’t at school either, or at the midday meal, or even later! It was Jakti’s idea to find him with our minds, but she wanted Vurian there for safety. I called him, and he was surprised but he came right away when he’d understood what I was trying to tell him. He did tell us that it was very hard to find someone who isn’t gifted, but as we knew him quite well it would be a bit easier. First we looked in the bay where the old submerged docks were, but he wasn’t on the shore and the sea was very difficult to see anything in, as if it was one big seal or alive by itself! Then we looked on top of the cliff in the ruined garden, but he wasn’t there either.

Then Zendegî thought of looking in the forest, in the direction of the temple of Dayati, and she saw people! At first three people, two gifted ones she didn’t know, and the third was Ktab. When we all looked there, we could see that there were many more people but not many were gifted. Vurian saw two gifted men, no, eunuchs he said, not-men. And someone who might be a woman but that one was very weak and he couldn’t see it well enough. And they were coming our way! We immediately ran to tell everybody, Vurian to the army and we to Parandé.

Parandé wanted to go up the hill at once, and so did everybody else, but the soldiers were going first. They were all wearing as much of their uniform as they could, Ruzyn with all the straps loose on the sides because her breasts were bigger from the milk. When we were up on the highland we could see movement at the edge of the wood. People, with something that looked most like a large box but they were carrying it like a boat, on long poles.

Everybody wanted to go and meet them, but Captain Ailse made us all wait for the strange people to come out of the forest. There were soldiers in threadbare uniforms, really falling apart, worse than the uniforms of the Valdyan soldiers. Also smaller people, men and women, carrying four big litters on poles. They all looked very sick– so would anyone be who came through that forest, especially carrying a heavy load! And they were tied each to their own litter with a rope round their ankle. Ktab was there too, carrying the front pole of one of the litters, without his loincloth and looking wounded. Parandé and Shini ran to him at once and took him away. Ailse said “let those poor people put down their burden– what do you think you’re doing! You even have a child carrying!” But the soldiers pushed and kicked at the bearers –one was indeed a girl no older than six, not even tall enough to have the pole on her shoulder, but holding it up with her hands in the air– and most of them collapsed. There was still no sound from any of the the litters.

The soldier in front pointed his spear at Ailse and said something in a language nobody could understand, and then in a language I did understand, sort of, and Zendegî understood better (because it was very close to what she was used to speaking at home but more old-fashioned, she told me later). But what the lead soldier –I’ll call him the captain because that’s how he behaved– was saying was hard to make sense of even if we could understand the words! And Zendegî had to translate all the time, because Ailse didn’t know a word of what he was speaking, only Ilaini and the Dadán language. Apparently this was the escort of the Great Envoy of the Holy Emperor, come to call on the Underking of Valdyas to invite him to come and throw himself at the emperor’s feet. At least that was what I could make of it. The captain was also angry because he had expected Dadán to be here, the palace, the harbour, the gardens, the multitudes of servants, and all he could see was a posse of farmers with pitchforks! (Well, it was true that some of us had pitchforks, also knives and fish-spears. And three of the Valdyan soldiers had crossbows.) And he wouldn’t believe Ailse or Zendegî, or me for that matter, when we assured him that this was Dadán.

In the meantime more people had come out of the forest: little children and some old weak-looking women and men. No wonder they’d had to let a six-year-old carry! There was a lot of chaos, as some of us tried to help the bearers and the Valdyan soldiers tried to capture the strange soldiers, and Ailse did her best to keep everything in order. She kept me and Zendegî close because we could translate for her. “Drop your weapons,” she had us say to the soldiers, “or you’ll have an arrow through your throat.” They did that, reluctantly, but not before they’d actually seen the crossbows pointed at them.

Eventually the bearers were all being taken to the barracks –they were mostly too weak to walk and people had to carry them– and the old people and little kids to the marketplace, and Ailse had her soldiers bring rope to bind the strange soldiers and lock them up in the old oil-mill on the square. Those people needed everything: food, drink, washing-water, something to wear that wasn’t falling apart. The only available cloth in the whole town was the bolt of linen that Zendegî and I had bought and not taken on the ship for bandages, and it would probably be just enough to make everybody a loincloth, and perhaps shirts for the old women.

Now Ailse and Vurian and Zendegî and I were left on the highland to deal with the litters. For there was really a person in each of them, and a gifted person in half of them at that, though they hadn’t come out or even made a sound.

The first litter was closed with curtains that were probably velvet, like Lord Lydan’s ill-fitting trousers, but they were so covered in mildew that it was hard to see what the colour was supposed to be, I thought dark red. When Ailse touched the flap it came apart in her hands, and I handed her a spear that one of the soldiers had dropped to push it aside with because it was really filthy. Inside there was an emaciated old man with an unkempt beard, sunken cheeks, eyes bright with fever. His clothes were all gold! But they were covered in mildew too. This man spoke even more old-fashioned than the captain. Zendegî had a hard time understanding him and I could hardly understand him at all. So I don’t really remember what he said either, and also I may be mixing him up with the next man. This was a eunuch, though, not a whole man. I think it was something about the envoy of the emperor, like the captain had said too.

In the next litter there was a man even older, with an even more sumptuous robe (but just as mildewed): this was Prince Something, apparently the envoy himself. He was a bit more coherent, and even tried to sit up– though he didn’t succeed. He seemed to think he was the boss of everything, including our town. When we tried to explain that there really was no palace any more he accused us of lying, “where are my servants? all I see is a bunch of monkeys” and “where is the under-king of Valdyas?” I thought he meant someone representing the king, so I pointed at Ailse as the highest officer present, “she is, I suppose.” But that wasn’t good enough for him. “Well, if you’re not satisfied, you’ll have to make do with us anyway,” Ailse said. “What you need now is good food and drink, and a bath, you’re absolutely filthy!” And we left the prince sputtering and went on to the next litter.

The man in there was a lot younger, with a black beard, and a somewhat less elaborate robe. “Whose whore are you?” were his first words to me. “Cover your shame.” “I have nothing to be ashamed of,” I said. Anyway, I was wearing a skirt, I’d at least got something covered. But he probably meant my bare tits, which I didn’t even notice any more. When he saw Ailse, he called her a whore too, though she was in full uniform with everything covered. She got so angry! “I’m a decent married woman,” she said. “And I’m a decent virginal girl,” I added, glad that I hadn’t said yes to Ktab yet. Perhaps ‘whore’ was his word for ‘woman’! Or he thought all women were whores. This man was called something like the Marquess (that’s a kind of baron, I think) Upasakor Puchati.

(Later, Jakti asked me what a whore was, and I said “that’s a woman who makes love with men she doesn’t like, and they give her things.” She thought about that for a bit and asked “because she won’t have anything to eat otherwise? Why can’t the men give her food and stuff she needs just like that then?” But I didn’t have an answer, because I don’t really understand it either. Halla sleeps with everybody –well, just with Qvez at the moment, I suppose, but she used to anyway– but then she likes everybody, and they don’t pay her for it as far as I know.)

Then there was only the last litter left. If there really was a weak woman, she must be in here! But it was a man too –a eunuch, I realised when I saw him, I don’t know how I knew– younger than the rest, with a robe much like the other eunuch’s (perhaps that’s a special style for them), looking a little more healthy than anyone else. I could see that he was gifted. He looked down at us, even though our heads were on the same level, with a disdainful sneer that at the same time showed that he was scared. (Scared of me and Zendegî and Ailse? Oh, perhaps he was scared of women. Vurian was still dealing with the baron-person, so he probably couldn’t see him and thought he’d arrived in a place where only women are in charge.)

We got a big shock then, because he spoke Ilaini! Very stilted, as if he had learned words by heart or was reading them from a book, but understandable. “I am Devamanassa Hoti” (or something like that), “interpreter to His Highness Prince” (well, “Something”, I still don’t know his name), “great envoy of the most holy emperor who has graciously extended his hand to the outer reaches of the empire” — well, lots of things like that, hard enough to understand and impossible to remember. The more I looked at him and listened to him, the more he got under my skin, and I could tell that Zendegî and Ailse were the same way.

Finally Ailse couldn’t take it any more. “Right, we’re going to get you to the town. Not your stinking stuff, though.” And she proceeded to get the men out of the litters, helped by the soldiers and other people who had come back, and to strip them all naked. All the “stinking stuff” went on one big pile to burn. The prince protested that he had letters from the Emperor to the “underking”, and indeed, under his cushions we found a casket that looked like solid gold but was probably lead covered in gold. This we put to one side, but all the rest went on the pile, including the men’s clothes. “Could I borrow your skirts for these… people?” Ails asked. “It’s a bit embarrassing otherwise.” And so Zendegî and I both went naked while the two eunuchs got our skirts. The interpreter didn’t want to be carried by what he obviously didn’t consider people, so Vurian said “Fine! If you want to walk, you can walk!” but he did offer him his shoulder to lean on. I think the other three were so weak that they realised they didn’t have a choice.

We couldn’t carry the golden casket as well so we left it there for the moment– it was too heavy for monkeys to make away with anyway. The prince was very worried about that, but of course he didn’t know that nothing ever gets stolen in Dadán. Later, someone got it and Maile opened it with a pin, and it was full of letters! And solid gold after all, that was clear when it was open. The letters were written in such a strange language that nobody could read them, so we put them back in the casket and Maile sealed it again, with my hand as a flat-iron!

Zendegî and went to the barracks to see if we could do anything for the bearers. And we could: they all had scraped-off skin from the poles, and some had dislocated shoulders –I know how to set one, Vauri taught me that in the hospital in Albetire– but mostly they were exhausted, and no nurse can do anything against that except make the patient comfortable. They got food and water too, but only very small portions so they wouldn’t overeat and make themselves sicker. It was like the ship again, only harder work, because these people weren’t recovering yet. It didn’t help that we couldn’t understand them, or they us, and they seemed to be afraid of everything. And anything that came out of their bodies –blood, piss, even breath– stank of the forest.

Then Ailse came to get us, or at least Zendegî but we went together, because she needed to talk to the envoys. They were in the old oil-mill with the soldiers. Someone –Ailse’s troop, I suppose– had tied the soldiers to the press, because they’d been very obnoxious when they were loose. And the captain had demanded twenty girls to be brought to entertain them! They were still obnoxious, too, cat-calling to us when we passed. Fortunately we weren’t naked any more, I was wearing Ktab’s sister’s spare skirt and Zendegî one of Parandé’s. “If you lift one finger in a woman’s direction,” Ailse said, “I shall be more angry than the emperor in Ashas is even capable of!

The envoys were each in their own room off the main hall. They’d been washed and shaved, and were wearing new white linen loincloths from our bolt of bandage fabric. Ezami was there too with medicines –two needed something against fever, and one for infected bowels, and they all had worms– and we started with the man who was really sick with fever, the one we’d found first. I held his head while Zendegî poured first one medicine and then the other down his throat– no use trying to reason with him. “Let that get settled,” Ezami said, “the worm draught won’t take if we give it to him now, and anyway I want him on a very big bucket for that.”

The prince sat up slightly when we came in and looked at me and Zendegî appraisingly. “Couldn’t they have given me more beautiful attendants?” he asked. I said no, there was nobody in town prettier than Zendegî, though Jakti came close. “Hm.” Then he spoke to us in a commanding voice– and I don’t even remember what he commanded, I was so busy resisting it. I suppose if he hadn’t been so old and weak I’d have done whatever he demanded. He took his medicine, and we thought he looked well enough that he could try to eat something (fish soup, I said) but Ezami wanted him to have the worm draught first, and only then eat, because the worm draught would make everything come out at once.

As we were tending to the baron –who wouldn’t take his draughts, so it was hard– a tremendous cry came from the prince’s room. He missed his beard! Then the baron felt his chin and noticed that he was clean-shaven too. “This insult I shall never forgive!” he shouted. Well, we could hardly have let them keep their beards, lice and all!

“I’m not going into that room,” Ezami said, pointing at the young eunuch’s door. “And I don’t expect you to go in either.” She put the vials of medicine inside the room and closed the door, “if he wants to take it, he can do that by himself.” Later I talked to Maile, who said “I think he’s creepy!” so it really wasn’t just us, and it wasn’t the Nameless either. Suddenly I realised why he was so scary: he was like a dandar, only a man, well, a eunuch. The same kind of thing, anyway, but much worse.

In the evening there was a meeting in the town square of just about everybody. Halla said to me and Zendegî: “you go, I’ll take the night shift at the barracks, I’m afraid some of them aren’t going to make it anyway.”

It turned out that not everybody knew yet that the two men and the two eunuchs were envoys from the emperor in Ashas– in fact only we did, and the people who had heard us translate, and a few who had heard it from them. Now what would we do with them? They were angry because the Dadán they expected wasn’t there, they thought we were lying to them about it, and there was nothing we could do to make them believe us. Also, one or more of them could still die from exhaustion and illness, and then they would have died while in our care and people would believe that we had killed them. If word of this –and of any real or imagined insults from us– got back to Ashas, wouldn’t the emperor send a whole army to eradicate us? But then there had been two thousand in the party that set out, and only sixteen had arrived (because all the bearers looked like local people, probably picked up on the way); how would an army of five hundred thousand be able to cross the forest?

They wanted to speak to the king of Valdyas; the best thing we could do was probably to put them on the first ship going north and send to the king of Valdyas (or, as someone suggested, “the emperor of the northern empire”, but he sure wasn’t a mere under-king!). “Or we can cut their throats right now,” someone said, “then nobody will hear of it, it’ll be just as if they have perished in the forest.” But wouldn’t the emperor send an army after them if he didn’t hear anything? Perhaps, but that would take years, and that army would have the same problems. “The king should come here,” someone else said, “and deal with them, and cure the forest!” But curing the forest would mean that people could come through, and find enough to eat, and that would make future problems worse.

All those bearers, and the fact that there were old people and children there as well, must mean that the envoys’ party had enslaved a village. Or perhaps more than one, I thought, let people carry the litters until they ran out and then enslave the next village. And that meant there must still be people living in the poisoned forest, or at least close enough on the other side to make it through alive! “That’s another problem,” a farmer said, “all those extra mouths to feed and nothing planted for them yet, that will make for very lean times.” They should really start a village of their own, room enough along the coast beyond Borma. There was even a whole village standing empty, Ozok, but they couldn’t go and live there because the reason it was empty was that the sea came too high and submerged it at times. Finally an elderly couple spoke up, a farmer married to a fisherman, whose children hadn’t come back from the war. They were willing to help those people set up a village to live in, and to get them going with farming and fishing.

People were now only saying the same things they’d said before, so Zendegî and I decided to go and have another look at our patients in the oil-mill. When we arrived a woman was just coming out, all covered in food! Other women thronged around her. “It’s that prince person! He threw the whole tray over Iki!” So we went in to ask what was wrong. “I demand that food be brought to me,” he said. “Not pig swill.” I tried to ask him what exactly he’d like to eat so we could see if we had any, but he kept saying “food” without naming anything in particular. “Well, I suppose it can’t be done then,” Zendegî said. Ailse came in then, alerted by the commotion outside, and when we told her what had happened she was outraged. “Iki is the best cook in town! You know what, those envoys won’t get anything special any more, just maize gruel like the soldiers. If they don’t want to eat it they can starve to death as far as I’m concerned.” “This is an outrage,” the prince said, “I shall return to the holy emperor and tell him that there is no world beyond the boundaries of the empire.” “Very good,” Ailse said when we left the oil-mill, “I’d almost go and take him there!”

Then she sent us to the carpenter to have bolts fitted to the doors, so even when the envoys recovered they couldn’t get out and release their soldiers and wreak havoc. In the carpenter’s house there were two little kids from the bearers’ people and the carpenter’s daughter, only slightly older, was feeding them porridge and teaching them words. We explained the problem, and he was designing immediately, “those doors open inwards, right? What about a strong hook?” It was clear that we could leave him to it, so we played with the little kids a bit. One put a finger in the bowl and said “Porridge!” before licking it off, then offered some to me, “Porridge!” I licked her finger and said “Thank you!” which made her giggle and do the same with Zendegî. She did know that word all right, but it wasn’t clear if she thought it meant ‘porridge’ or ‘finger’ or ‘eat’ or ‘yummy’ or ‘here you are’! Perhaps I can learn to talk to the people in the barracks.