3.1

For several weeks, rumors about the criminal and the Protectorate soldiers circulated through the settlement, and among the younger tribespeople – those impressionable adolescents who had heard vague stories of the Prefect’s enforcers, but had never seen them in the flesh – these rumors took on a troubling, sinister tone. Some of the youths thought Dormoroy Gesk had killed Denorians, or that he had laid a curse upon the settlement with his parting words of resentment. Others did not understand what he had done wrong, having only seen him as a crippled, embattled prisoner, and the more sensitive of these betrayed some fear of the Protectorate agents themselves, who had carried such mysterious authority with them.

The parents of the Denorian children tried to calm the rumors by relating relevant bits of history and law, but many of them weren’t skilled in storytelling. In order to allay the fears of the young Denorians and control the circulation of gossip, the four Mistras eventually held a joint lesson. On a mild afternoon, all the young Denorians were encouraged – nigh required – to gather in the central court of the settlement. Only Baliban’s students had leeway in this, because most of them lived far on the other side of the settlement, and Baliban promised to hold a separate session for them.

So, in front of a crowd of nearly eight hundred young Denorians, ranging from four to sixteen years in age, Baliban told the story of the Mekonic Decrees, the centuries-old laws of conduct that Dormoroy Gesk had violated.

… … … …

Some five hundred years ago, there was a stray century when the Templars of the Upriver Kingdoms coexisted with the blossoming bureaucracy of the Delta. The seats of these kingdoms were Callibreath, far up the Tempus River, and Tempustide, the young city at its mouth. The Templars’ influence was waning, fading from the world like a fog in the morning twilight, but their Order still echoed with the memory of its own greatness, and all the people of the great river still looked to its monks for their approval and knowledge of the world.

Where Callibreath was governed by the Templars, Tempustide was ruled by the Prefect, and by 2330, that office was already the most powerful position in the river kingdoms… indeed, in all of Pantempus, the known world. The reigning Prefect at the time was Prefect Elle, the first matriarch from the second line of successors. She was generous and diligent, and the troubles that afflicted the kingdom during her reign were truly a cruel misfortune.

Within her sanctum, there was a noble house called Grail, whose eldest son, at the height of his ambition, was in line for the Prefecture. Grail III had a strength of character, a romantic wildness, that infected the whole city of Tampustide, and the citizens felt they were finally ready for the first male Prefect. It was only those close to Grail III – some in his own house, and some in Prefect Elle’s administration – that recognized in him a recklessness, a hunger that was too dangerous for the Prefecture. Prefect Elle was compelled, at the height of her reign, to revoke the promise of succession and give it to her own youngest daughter. The latter may not have even wanted it… scholarship differs on this point… but in a time of stirred emotion, she was the only safe option for the kingdom’s future.

Lord Grail did not react well to being spurned by the Prefect. Wielding his gifts of influence and charisma, he began gathering an army of soldiers, and his network of support spread across the River Kingdoms. He found Bhijanica and the Tidelands to be fertile with sympathy for his cause, and he channeled untold resources to his most trusted craftsmen and engineers, bidding them to experiment with technologies of destruction and war. Where the soldiers of the Protectorate fought with the ancient weapons of handle, chain, and blade, Grail’s army began using devices that loosed tiny projectiles, rapidly and at a high enough velocity to tear a person’s flesh from her bones.

The followers of House Grail fought for three generations, and their war nearly tore the kingdoms asunder. The years were marked by assassinations (among them Prefect Elle II) and diplomatic conflicts over whether to appease or to oppose Grail’s revolutionary army. Meanwhile, Grail’s burgeoning estate became a haven for engineers, and soon he had outfitted an army with fire-armaments, and was developing a warship that floated like a cloud and could destroy whole towns without fear of defense or retaliation.

Prefect Elle II responded to Grail’s escalations by creating her own military technology program, but she began too late, and House Grail’s weaponry allowed it to remain dominant in the conflicts that engulfed the kingdoms. The historians remember well the prophecy of Grail IV, who killed herself in Tempustide’s foreplaza, choking on her own promise that her daughter would deliver the Delta Kingdoms into her arms on the other side of the iron and fire. They also remember the Night of the Beacon, in which the followers of House Grail managed to light fires on the roofs of all the ancient temples of Callibreath, proclaiming the city a spiritual conquest.

Grail III and IV had a far-ranging strategic vision, and they were patient and diligent, but the rebel family’s sights were always fixed on Tempustide and the Prefecture. Grail V, being possessed with her family’s ambition but lacking their patience, finally gathered all her willing supporters and her formidable army of war machines and laid siege to Tempustide itself, ready to take it by force, destroying it completely if necessary. At the resulting Battle of Tempustide, the forces of the Prefecture – weakened by a long war of resource management and attrition – were overwhelmed, and it looked as though the city would fall.

Salvation came through a Paladin, an artist of war who had been trained at the Citadel and the Envoclajiz, who had been a lesser adviser to the Prefect for nearly a decade. This young adviser was named Nova, may his name be honored in the annals of the Echo. In the desperation of those final weeks, Nova created a network of compromised enemy soldiers, operators, and administrators, and when the Battle of Tempustide reached its peak, he leveraged this network to gain access to the enemy’s command center and lead a series of precision strikes on Grail’s tactical centerpieces. Nova was personally responsible for capturing Grail V, and he brought her, alive, to the interim governing council of Tempustide, who presented her to the public to account for her crimes.

This was a bittersweet win for an embattled kingdom… Prefect Elle II had been assassinated in those final escalating engagements, and Tempustide was being ruled by an interim council with no obvious successor to choose. Realizing the danger, Nova stepped into the vacuum and assumed the Prefecture. He earned the approval of the populace he had delivered, and ruled for twenty years, two decades beset by uncertainty and misfortune. Out of fear and respect, the industrial sector – engineers, applied scientists, and manufacturers – abruptly halted their development, which had been spurred into wild progress by the war. However, the knowledge that Grail had unlocked – flying vessels, engineered weaponry, machines created to replicate objects at unimaginable volume – were now common knowledge, and the public struggled to form a consensus regarding the ethical and practical value of such dangerous processes.

Eventually, Prefect Nova sensed that his kingdom was pulsing with tension and anxiety, desperate for a new era and an act of compassion and guidance in the shadows of dire knowledge. Having earned the unwavering, almost fanatical trust of the people of the Delta, he called an abrupt conference with all the leaders of the River Kingdoms: a host of Templars from Callibreath, a board of nobles and officials from Tempustide, and an array of recognized governors from the surrounding cities.

These counselors, who numbered twenty-eight, would eventually find their names permanently inscribed in the history of Pantempus. During this extended session, they drafted the Mekonic Decrees, a document strictly governing the intersection of technology, power, and violence. This document laid the groundwork for a great many laws established over the next century, and the decrees eventually earned an elevated cultural status as universal norms. They were built around four taboos, based on the methodological innovations that House Grail had put to such destructive use:

 

FIRST, no person shall create a weapon that uses combustion of chemical or mineral to destructive ends, e.g. those which engineers call “firearms,” “explosives”

SECOND, no person shall produce substances that differ at a molecular level from what’s yielded up by the Earth, e.g. those which engineers call “plastics” and “synthetic polymers”

THIRD, no person shall create a machine whose purpose is the replication of objects, simple or complex, at high volume, without human intervention, which engineers call “mass production”

FOURTH, no person shall create a device that robs the Earth of her power, stores it in chemical form, and releases it by conduction through plates, wires, or contact between metals

 

And then, having set forth these principles, Prefect Nova announced his resignation and self-exile from the kingdom, naming as his successor Prefect Organis I. Her line ruled wisely for many years.

When the Mekonic Decrees were instituted, the Protectorate – the infamous law enforcement agency of the Prefect – had already existed for two centuries, and their detachments had spread throughout all the civilized cities of Pantempus. When the Mekonic Decrees became the law of the land, they quickly became one of the first enforcement priorities of the Protectorate, who pledged to uphold them wherever the laws of the Prefecture held sway. Enforcing the decrees still constitutes a major part of their mission… perhaps the largest part.

Since the Binding Pact, wrought during the Age of Names, the eight tribes of the Concordance – of whom we are one, as you all know – have kept peace and partnership with the River Kingdoms. We plainsfolk have always agreed with the Prefect’s stance on military technology, and though we do not have the need or the means to enforce these laws ourselves, we always cooperate in extraditing offenders to the Protectorate agents. We will not suffer the abominations of technological diffusion in our lands, and we are proud of our alliance, and of the peace we have maintained for these passing millennia. It is for our own sake, and your sake, that we respect these decrees, and maintain our partnership with the Protectorate enforcers.

The man whom some of you may have seen, and who many of you have heard about – Dormoroy Gesk – was carrying a forbidden object, in violation of the Mekonic Decrees, presumably as a courier between criminal factions. When he was exposed as a criminal, he tried to cause harm to some of our own tribespeople, and it was their own competence that saved them and led to his capture. The people who came here in the aftermath – the armored soldiers on horseback – were Protectorate peacekeepers. We handed the criminal over to them, and they are now bearing him back to Horizon, where he will be tried and punished, harshly but fairly, for his crimes against the kingdom.

… … … …

This was at least the second time Stray had heard this bit of history, and Edzie, for her part, was intimately familiar with it, having read about it countless times. Still, it felt new, not only because Baliban spoke with a special sort of intimacy, but also because this was the children’s first time seeing the consequences of the decrees played out before their eyes. When Baliban finished, dozens of arms shot up, open-handed for those wanting to ask a question, and closed-fisted for those wanting to answer one, or make an observation.

Stray held his hand up for a few minutes, but then another young Denorian asked his question: what punishments awaited the stranger, now that he had been apprehended and remanded to Protectorate custody? The adolescents in the crowd hoped for something sensational and salacious… a beheading, or a trial by fire… and it was all Baliban could do to smooth out the edges of their lurid curiosity. He told them that the Mekonic offense would be tried first, in Tempustide, under the laws of the Prefect. Once that sentence was declared, Dormoroy would be tried for the murders in its victims’ native municipality. Between the two crimes, Dormoroy might face decades of labor and isolation, enough to keep him banished from Pantempus for the forseeable future. He remarked, cryptically, that the murders might earn Dormoroy a capital sanction, but when the younger children asked what this meant, he declined to explain it.

At last, after nearly an hour of dialogue with the young Denorians, the Mistras brought the lesson to a close, and the students began to disperse. Stray found Boyle and Ghada, and they left for the Chronoboros, chattering about their next means of amusement. Edzie declined to join them, thinking she might go home and read, or spend some time practicing her forms with her mother and Mistra Septa.

As Edzie was leaving the central court, she was intercepted by Sola, whose initiation had gone so well the previous year. Luna, her inseparable friend, lingered a few feet away. Edzie didn’t remember either of them being in attendance at the lecture… they were too old for this sort of lesson at this point… but they had obviously been nearby, perhaps looking for Edzie, and certainly ready to catch her eye.

“Hello, Edzie,” Sola said, sounding cheerful.

“Hi, Sola,” Edzie replied, and then looked at the other girl. “Hi, Luna.”

“We hear you got a new katsun from Rodra, and that’s what you used to kill that Riverlander who was sneaking around our lands.” There was a suppressed note of fascination in Sola’s voice, and if Edzie were older and wiser, she would have noticed an edge of jealousy. Luna watched with silent interest.

“Not kill him…” Edzie stuttered, shy at the attention from the older girls.

“Well, no, I spoke wrong. But that’s how you disarmed him, anyway. Me and Luna were wondering if we could see it.” She glanced at Luna, and then back to Edzie. “We heard Rodra makes some of the best ones, and yours has a special distinction now.”

Edzie couldn’t very well refuse, and though she was still feeling shy, she felt a glimmer of vain pride in her weapon and her accomplishment. She politely assented to the request, and presently found herself leading Sola and Luna south from the central court, across the Splitmouth on one of the rafts, and then along the path to Edzie’s dromo. The three of them stopped there for a few minutes, and Sola and Luna waited in the gathering room, chatting with Elkansa, while Edzie fetched her katsun. The two teenage girls each handled it in turn, weighing it and showing off their attack forms.

“Feels good,” Sola pronounced.

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Well, it’ll feel better once it’s got an edge.”

Edzie nodded politely, and Elkansa, preparing her midday meal at the basin counter, pretended not to hear the remark.

“Well, yeah,” Sola conceded. “I just meant it feels well-balanced. Of course having a little extra weight at the thrusting end will do it a lot of good.”

Sola executed a couple more shadow strikes, and then handed the katsun back to Edzie. “It’s nice, Edzie. Good job with the trespasser, too.” She glanced at Luna, and then said, “Well, we’re going down to the Dock Town. We’ll see you about.” Edzie acknowledged awkwardly; Luna was already half-way out the front door.

“Hey, girls,” Elkansa interjected, confirming that she was indeed paying attention, “do you think Edzie could come with you? She spends so much time with those boys… I think she could stand to get out and meet some of the other village-folk.”

Sola visibly hesitated. “I’m not sure the fishermen would really be… Ahh…”

“She can handle it,” Elkansa interrupted. “Maybe she can even get a fishing lesson. How’s that sound, Edzie?”

Edzie scowled with dismay that she would lose valuable reading time, but she quashed the thought, knowing it was a bad idea to spurn her mother’s suggestion. Instead, she assented, though she wasn’t sure what value there was in such a trip. Sola cast a glance at Luna, whose face was rigid with annoyance, and shrugged her shoulders.

Thus Edzie followed Sola and Luna to the fishing pier at the far south edge of the settlement, along the bank of the wide, white Prospect River. The older girls maintained a steady chatter as they walked, discussing their practice schedules, their opinions of the various Mistras and younger warriors in the tribe, and their plans for the winter. Edzie understood most of it — certainly more than the older girls were assuming — but she found it terminally uninteresting, preferring to note the scenery and ponder the story she was reading in one of Mistra Septa’s books.

Her current literature told the story of Tumbler Morida, a legendary Caesurite monk from the time of the Breach Wars. A vast legion of Fishers – the hardy, reclusive barbarian people from beyond the mountains – had found a way to cross the impenetrable Crag Mountains, and they intended to engulf Pantempus’s peaceful civilizations: first the Concordance, and then the rest of the plains, and ultimately the river and delta kingdoms, as well.

At the time, the Caesurite Monks lived in the Envoclajiz, perched on the summit of Gryffepeak; deep below, the city of Gryff quietly prospered in the shadow of the temple. When the Fisher army reached Gryff, they annihilated it within a day, and then turned their attention to the Envoclajiz. The monks, many of them veterans and tacticians, were able to stave off the Fishers’ attacks, though they lost half their number.

When the Fishers attacked, the monks – acting in desperation – sent an initiate named Morida down the mountain to get word to the Concordance. The monks held out for three days, and somehow, by means that had passed into myth, Morida got to the foot of the mountain and met with the elders of the Solavera tribe. The Solavera rallied an army of Concordance warriors, and though the resulting war was devastating, costing the eight tribes as many as twenty thousand casualties, the Fisher warlord was routed, and both the Concordance and the Envoclajiz were left standing.

Normally, Morida’s journey would have taken as long as two weeks. The fact that she made it in three days led to centuries of speculation: perhaps she was favored by Dissadae, and discovered some arcane emanence that allowed her to float like a feather from the mountaintop? However her miracle was accomplished, she had been christened the honorary patron of messengers, and her name had been permanently inscribed in the histories, including the one Edzie was currently reading.

Edzie was pulled out of her reminiscence as the three girls reached the bank of the Splitmouth where it fed into the Prospect River. This was the Splitmouth’s namesake: the waters of the stream diverged here, creating a small island and a riverscape of rocky protrusions and swift rapids. There was a series of wooden bridges, just wide enough for a single pedestrian, with no guard rails, traversing the mouth of the stream by hopping from shallow to island to shallow to shore. Edzie had to concentrate to follow her companions, who crossed with graceful nonchalance.

As they navigated the island, Edzie asked the question that had been nagging at her since she left home. “So what do you do at the fishing pier? Are we just going to fish?”

“That, and also talk to the menfolk down there,” Sola confirmed. “They’re really nice, and a lot more interesting than all the tribeswomen we deal with all day.”

Edzie found this puzzling, but she noted to herself that she spent most of her time with Stray, Boyle, and Ghada, and they were indeed more interesting than her female peers. Edzie even felt threatened and stifled by Sola and Luna themselves… their casual confidence, their assumption of authority… and she felt the same about all the women in her tribe, both adolescents and adults. There was some irony in that now, in one of her rare female bonding experiences, she was following them to socialize with a bunch of itinerant males by the fishing pier… but irony wasn’t something that Edzie had learned to recognize, so she just felt a passing note of amusement as she hastened across the stream.

Presently, Edzie discerned the row of wooden docks, some floating and anchored to the riverbed, others elevated above it on sunken pilings. A muddy path led from one dock to the next, and a row of fisherman’s huts lined it on the other side. The whole stretch of earth smelled offensive, partly from fish, and partly from rampant waste and refuse that the fishermen allowed to stagnate around their homes.

The fishermen all seemed to be loitering on the docks, observed by a few matriarchs who lounged at the front doors of their huts. The men, many shirtless, with greasy hair and balding heads and scruffy faces and backs, were collected into groups of two or three, chatting and chuckling boisterously as they waited for their lines to bob. A couple of the nearest yelled greetings to Sola and Luna as they came into view. The nearest woman, a broad-bodied matriarch sitting on the porch outside a hut, sneered at the three girls, saying nothing.

Everything about the experience — the smell, the immodest men, the fishy mud of the path — prompted a certain revulsion in Edzie. Her reaction echoed a whole conditioned history of distrust toward these outsiders, who were known to be transients and degenerates, merely tolerated by the tribe, rather than welcomed. None of them came from Denorian families — most had traveled here from the towns along the Delta, or they had come from the disputed territory to the north, where some wandering tribespeople kept contact with the hostile Fisher Kingdoms across the mountains. Somewhere, these itinerant exiles had learned to harvest food from the sea. This was not something the Concordance tribes generally did.

“Hallo, ladies!” the nearest fisherman yelled, excited for the girls to join him on the dock. Sola and Luna did so, greeting him and his friends cheerfully, and waving politely to the woman on the porch. She did not wave back.

“And who’s this then?” the first man grunted, looking towards Edzie with a raking grin. His black hair was heavy with dust and sweat, and fell below his shoulders. His jawline had a light dusting of black scruff, and his weathered skin had the pallid tone of the natives of the Delta. There was something inked on his back, but Edzie didn’t get a chance to look at it.

“I’m Edzie, from up in the center of town,” Edzie replied.

“Allo, Edzie, I’m Eryff. Eryff Afekt, they called me back home, but no need for you tribesfolk to remember both names.” He glanced up at Sola. “So you’re watchin’ her for someone? Or…”

“We said we were coming down here, and she wanted to see the place,” Sola replied, only slightly distorting the truth. “And her mom thinks she should learn to fish.”

Eryff turned from Sola to Edzie, looking genuinely surprised. “Your mom, you say? Who’s that?”

“Elkansa.”

“Ah, right, I know the one. Hasn’t talked to me much, but sometimes talks to Pithri about tribe business.” He glanced back at the woman on the porch, and then returned to the matter at hand. “Anyway, must be a sensible woman! You plainsfolk generally don’t care too much for fishing. Useful skill, though, if you ever get caught out in the woods. You know any of the basics, girl?”

Edzie knew there was something about string and sticks and live flesh used as bait, but she didn’t know anything about setting a hook, trolling, or reeling in a catch. Eryff explained these concepts, each in turn, using his own line to demonstrate. Sola and Luna clearly thought the whole display very charming, and even Edzie might have been taken with Eryff, if it weren’t for his unfamiliar smell. Still, she listened closely, and before long, she was holding her own line in one hand, waiting for a tug, as the older girls and the fishermen chatted behind her.

Among the three men now on the dock, Eryff was clearly the dominant personality. The others may have been cousins, or old friends, but they knew him well, and their dynamic was firmly entrenched. When Eryff spoke, the others deferred to his voice, and most of their remarks reinforced the conversations he was driving. He spoke roughly of the hardship of being on the road, of the hazards of hunting in the forests to the north, and of the many reasons he appreciated Concordance women.

As this latter topic progressed, Edzie came into some awareness of the dynamic that had formed around Sola and Luna. They were still young — living with their parents, and therefore off limits to serious suitors — but both of their bodies had developed significantly in the past two years, taking on the proportions of grown women, all elegant contours around their muscular frames. Edzie could see that the men who were not talking to them… Eryff’s two fishermen friends, plus some of the others on the adjacent docks…were scanning them and assessing them with a furtive hunger in their eyes. Eryff seemed the least blatant about this, but if anything, it was because his vanity was satisfied by being the center of attention.

As for Sola and Luna themselves, they were making a visible effort to ignore the ogling. Edzie could see that they were conscious of it, and from the way they were shifting their weight across their hips and tossing their hair, they secretly appreciated it. Something about this whole spectacle made Edzie anxious and uncomfortable, so she turned back to her fishing line and gazed into the water.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be excruciatingly boring.

When she could no longer stand the tedium, Edzie tied her string to a pole mounted on the corner of the pier — a rod, slightly flexible, that allowed the bait to continue bobbing without the dedicated care of the fish-catcher — and left the dock, hazarding nary a glance at the socializing adults as she passed. She sensed that it would be rude to leave completely, but she wanted to get away from their awkward sexual chemistry. She reached the muddy path, hesitated for a moment, and then crossed it and approached the woman on the porch of the house.

The woman was well beyond the bloom of maidenhood, though she wasn’t elderly, either. Edzie guessed she was a bit younger than her mother. The woman wore a burlap tunic with a mesh outer layer, and her legs were shamelessly bare, folded up beneath her. She had a fierce burst of curly black hair that fell over her ears and suddenly terminated, hovering just above her shoulders. Her eyes were fixed on the distance until she spoke.

“What then?” she prompted, affecting surliness as Edzie approached her space.

“You’re Pithri, right?” Edzie said, remembering the name Eryff had just used. The woman nodded, and Edzie gave a little bow. “I’m Edzie. I came with my friends, but they’re all caught up talking to your men, and I got bored.”

“Those two are your friends? Then you must get bored a lot.” Pithri snorted. “I don’t know how they don’t all just get bored of themselves, posturing like that. Damn unwomanly.”

Edzie was not fluent in the languages of desire and jealousy, but she had an instinct for navigating conversations. Sensing the ire in Pithri’s voice, she spoke with an intentional vagueness. “They… seem to like them. Your men, I mean.”

“Aye, the comic stupidity of young women,” Pithri replied. “Eryff gives off a whiff of danger, he’s got the look of a challenge… Not something girls their age find in young boys. As soon as they start noticing the bad habits… The running off, the petty lust, the show with no substance… They’ll learn better, and stay here with their people, where they belong.”

“Why do you travel with them?” Edzie asked, her curiosity driving away any concern for tact. “You don’t seem to like them very much.”

Pithri was stone-faced for a moment, and Edzie was afraid she might lash out at her. Instead, she got quiet. “Edzie, you say… You’re Elkansa’s girl?” Edzie nodded and remained quiet, allowing Pithri to continue. “Your mom’s got a good set-up here. Your people love her. She’s the kind of woman those two whelps will grow into one of these days.” She leaned back, then, her expression loosening. “Well, not all of us have a tribe, like she’s got. Me, I had to make my own.”

“Where’d you meet Eryff?” Edzie asked, sensing that this was the unspoken fulcrum of this conversation.

Pithri seemed guarded as she told her story, but it quickly became apparent that she was just being patient, and careful. She was the youngest daughter of a poor but upwardly-mobile family from the outer districts of Tempustide, the Delta’s capital city. Pithri’s mother had sworn that her daughter would join the Protectorate, and had groomed her for this role her whole life. For a struggling family in Tempustide, having a daughter in the Protectorate conferred countless advantages… For some, it meant a way to escape from the cycle of petty crime, a respectable means of providing an income to the family. For others, it meant almost the opposite: a contact within the city’s only law enforcement agency, allowing the family’s illegal endeavors to go on unhindered.

Pithri was viscerally opposed to this expectation, so she refused the only way she knew how: she gave her love to an outsider, a migrant fisherman traveling through the Tempustide markets, and she let him spirit her away on his journey up the Tempus River. Over the years, Eryff had become her occasional lover, her trophy romance, and her only confidante. She fought for him when he needed her (he had the typical masculine excess of strength and dearth of grace), and her presence conferred respectability in the cities they passed through. His gift to her: the chance to be an outsider, the ability to live a life wherein she did not have to bear the burden of her family’s welfare.

As Pithri told her story to Edzie, they watched Eryff, Sola, and Luna, first flirting and exchanging witticisms, and then fiddling with the men’s fishing equipment, and then sparring with practice-blades that lay about the docks. Edzie gradually became aware of the design inked on Eryff’s back… A primitive outline of a female figure towering above a layer of crudely-illustrated clouds. When Edzie realized what she was looking at, she felt a shock of disgust at the figure’s grinning face, whose eyes and mouth were painstakingly detailed with abstract pupils and teeth. Edzie was too disturbed to look away for a moment.

“Edzie?” Pithri’s voice became curious and insistent. “Something wrong?”

Edzie’s mind was reeling, and she couldn’t pinpoint where the anxiety was coming from. “Eryff’s tattoo…” she finally said. “Who… Why would somebody put the face on it like that?”

Pithri clearly wasn’t surprised by this reaction. “Right, you plainsfolk and the faces. He always covers that up when you Denorians are around. Sola and Luna eventually got used to it, when he explained it a few times over, but you’re still new here.” She yelled out to Eryff, then. “AY! COVER UP OL’ PAPA! YOU’RE GIVIN’ EDZIE A TWITCH!”

Eryff went looking for a torso wrap, and Pithri turned back to Edzie, who was not only still shaken, but was suddenly a bit confused. She looked to the older woman for an explanation.

“I know you Concordance tribesfolk have a problem with anyone drawing faces on anything, but you should know… The rest of the world doesn’t care. Lots of artists put faces on their drawings. Most of them, really.” She put a gentle hand on Edzie’s shoulder. “We actually had to help Sola and Luna understand, back when they first saw it… you young ones don’t even realize it’s happening. Whenever your moms see a mark that looks like a face… even just two dots and a line, or sometimes just three dots… they rub it out like it’s poison. If any of you kids makes a mark like that, your parents go mad, yelling about it without even really telling you why.”

Edzie struggled to process this, hardly comprehending and barely believing it. She did know that there was an old story, told by her mother, that came to mind when she thought of the drawn face… a story about the first humans, and the face being the sacred sign of its animating spirit. She couldn’t put the pieces together, though, so she blurted out, “I just think it’s ugly.”

“Fair enough,” Pithri said, and let the topic rest.

The two of them stood in silence for a few minutes, watching the others carouse by the water, and then Eryff’s voice summoned their attention. “Hey Edzie!” She and Pithri looked down and found themselves at the mercy of Eryff’s handsome gaze. “I think you got one!”

And then Eryff was tugging at the line, wrapping it around his big hands, and then a small fish was flopping around on the dock beside him, suffocating in the afternoon air.