3.05 - the tribes
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?"
"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.
Edzie tried to scale the fish, with Eryff supervising, but she was squeamish, and she suffered from a crippling case of distraction... her thoughts always going back to the face imprinted on Eryff's back, causing her to recoil from his tutelage. Eventually, she gave up on the fish, and Pithri took it from her and finished preparing it. Edzie surrendered to her discomfort and asked to be excused, claiming she wanted to get home for her midday meal.
A few minutes later, she passed out of the smells of the fishing village and Docktown, and her discomfort faded as quickly as it had transpired. Instead of heading straight home, she cut through the intervening fields, passing to the west of her dromo. The day was still young, she reasoned, and she had already attended a lesson... she was ready to join the boys at the Chronoboros, and maybe tell them about her lesson in fish-catching.
Cutting across foot-paths, skipping through gardens and avoiding the weary glances of passing adults, she forded the Splitmouth and continued by the path that led north past Mistra Septa's pavilion. Finally, having walked for nearly an hour, she neared the open court around the Chronoboros, with its serene carpet of scrubby grass, its single towering witherleaf tree, and its small conferences of adults, lost in private conversations.
There, at the other end, she saw two figures: one sitting on a marker, the other standing over him and offering a consoling hand.
Edzie's gaiety turned abruptly to alarm. The figure on the marker was Boyle, apparently in distress, trying to suppress his tears (as Edzie had seen him do often enough in the past). The figure above him was Ghada, leaning over and putting a hand on his shoulder. Stray was nowhere to be seen. Edzie was thoroughly alarmed, but she knew she had a tendency to be insensitive at these moments, so she approached slowly and kept her distance. When Ghada looked up at her, his brow was furrowed with concern.
“What happened?” Edzie asked, glancing around again to see if Stray might appear.
“Stray got mad and knocked him over,” Ghada explained, his voice registering discordant notes of anxious patience. “Boyle hurt his arm, but he seems okay otherwise. I think the real problem is Stray's behavior. He was a little scary there for a second.”
“Stray?!?” Edzie was absolutely bewildered. “Boyle, Stray hurt you? Why?”
Boyle collected himself enough to answer the question through intermittent sobbing. “We were joking about how the Protectorate can make people disappear, and I said maybe that's what happened to his dad.”
“I've told him before, Stray's sensitive about that,” Ghada interjected.
“Stray's sensitive about that?” Edzie was still baffled. “Stray's never been mean to anybody in his life! Where is this coming from?”
“He's not, when he's around you,” Boyle stammered. “Usually when he gets mad, it's because somebody is doing some katsun exercise wrong. But Ghada's right, we don't talk about his dad much, because it sometimes sets him off.”
Edzie stood in paralyzed silence, trying to process this surplus of new information, a bizarre anecdotal narrative about some version of Stray whom she had never imagined nor encountered.
“You didn't know about this?” Ghada asked.
“No!” Edzie was emphatic, letting her confusion come out as shock and dismay. She moved to approach Boyle, and then hesitated, asking a question instead: “Where did he go?”
“West,” Ghada said, pointing down the main road. “Are you going to do something?”
“I don't know,” Edzie said, “but I think I should probably find him.” She offered Boyle an almost inaudible apology, but he had withdrawn again. Finally, decisively, she turned and hastened down the path to the west, setting her sights on the watchtower.
Traffic in the settlement had settled into its typical routine, and Edzie could avoid pedestrians with only the slightest effort. This was fortunate, because Edzie was caught in her own head, and the normalcy of the foot-traffic only made her journey seem more surreal. Stray was fully predictable in their play, their exploration, even in their informal lessons where Edzie kept him abreast of her katsun training. Chasing Stray, trying to anticipate his state of mind, unable to account for his behavior... this was strange territory for Edzie, who always felt so complacent in their relationship.
Traffic thinned out as she neared the watchtower. She half expected to find him there, talking to Genefre or one of the other Denorians, but there was no sign of him from the ground. The warrior keeping watch told her that he had passed this way, but had only noted that he was taking a walk by the grazing huskin to the west, and he would be back that evening if anybody needed him.
After a few minutes of searching, Edzie found Stray's tracks, stamped into the mud and leading between two parallel tree-lines into the huskin pastures. He wasn't trying to conceal his path, and from the distance and the freshness of the prints, Edzie could tell he wasn't hurrying at this point. He wouldn't be hard to follow, and she could catch up with him without exhausting herself. Nonetheless, she moved quickly, eager to talk to him and clear the air about the incident with Boyle.
Stray had reached the edge of a sprawling huskin pasture and turned right, heading north along the base of a jagged embankment. By the time Edzie caught up with him, he had lost all his restless momentum and stopped under a tree, suddenly feeling languid and aimless. He gazed across a muddy trench and into an endless expanse of tall grass, just low enough that he could see over it from his perch in the crotch of the tree trunk. A few huskin families grazed in the distance, too few to constitute a herd, but enough that the group didn't have to worry about predators.
Edzie waved as she approached the tree. She made a tactical decision to assert herself, rather than hesitating… before Stray could object, she situated herself at the roots by his feet, slouching against the tree trunk like she was fully entitled to the space. Having acknowledged her presence, Stray kept his eyes fixed forward.
“Nice spot,” Edzie said. “You been here before?”
“Nope.” Stray answered curtly, and then remained silent for a moment. Finally, he asked an unexpected question. “Hey, remember that story about Estus and the huskins?”
“Yeah, I know it,” Edzie said. “Mom told us that story every few nights when we were little. There was a version in one of Mistra Septa’s books, too, that was a little different. How come?”
“How was it different?”
Edzie struggled to review the story in her head, and after a few moments of silence elapsed, she started going through the stories out loud. “Well, in mom’s version, the first people on the plains stole the huskin calves and ate them, and there was a war with the huskins over their young being used for food. That’s the same in the book. In mom’s version, Estus was a human priest who learned to speak Huskin, and he made allies with them and brought them before Dissadae the creator, who settled the war. In the book, Estus wasn’t a peace-maker. He was just the leader of the humans, enemy of the huskins, and the huskin prince was favored by Dissadae on her own merit.”
“Right. So in the book, there was no human betrayal, and the huskins didn’t need any help from the humans to come before Dissadae. Weird.”
“Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that,” Edzie replied. “Anyway, they both end the same… with the curse of the plains.”
Stray nodded, still looking forward. “Right. Humans get the huskins’ meat and milk, but they have to follow them and protect them and respect their herds, because the humans depend on the huskins, and not vice versa. If the humans violate the pact, they die alone in the empty pastures. And that’s how the Concordance started.”
“Yeah, that’s how it is in both the book and from mom.”
Stray was lost in rumination for a moment. “Do you think it’s true?” he finally asked.
“I mean…” Edzie struggled to articulate her skepticism, which always troubled her in light of the story’s potency. “I think stories like that are kind of true, even if people don’t remember quite how it happened. They’re true in a secret way, even when they’re just made up.”
Stray nodded, seeming to understand. “And do you think it applies to me, too?” he asked. “Do I owe the huskins my allegiance, like you and your mom and all the rest of the eight tribes?”
Edzie frowned. “Sure. You get your food from the huskins, same as me and mom. You follow them from settlement to settlement, just like the rest of us.”
“But I don’t come from here,” Stray said. “I wonder if my dad died after he left the huskins. If we’re really Denorians, me and him, he shouldn’t have been able to just wander off like that.”
“Your dad and you are a lot different, I think,” Edzie said, feeling this was the simplest way to speak to Stray's concern. They both sat in silence for a few minutes, then, watching the huskins stand, sit, congregate, and munch on the grasses at their feet. The sun was descending before them, falling into the western horizon, and losing its shape in the wet clouds in the distance. Finally, feeling she had done her due diligence, and Stray was prepared to listen, Edzie spoke. “Ghada and Boyle said you got really mad today. What happened?”
“He was being mean,” Stray said, struggling to come to terms with the whole situation.
“It sounds like you were a lot meaner than he was,” Edzie observed.
“Yeah, but he deserved it.”
Edzie considered this for a moment. She wasn't inclined to recommend pacifism or wilting ambivalence, but she sensed that Stray's overreaction was impractical, and probably, to some degree, unfair in its disproportion. When she finally found advice to give, it was a synthesis of all these principles.
“Well, let's think of what you just did in terms of tactics. If you think of the sixteen forms, this certainly wasn't a withdrawal form, or even a withstand form, right?”
Stray nodded. “Yeah. It was an intercept form. He attacked me, and I fought back.”
Edzie winced at this distortion of the situation. “Okay, so that's how you see it... but are you sure Boyle even thought he was attacking you? … and if he was, he was just attacking with words, not hands or feet. You didn't neutralize, you escalated. If anything, that's an attack.”
Stray paused, struggling to accept this, and then conceded the point. “Yeah, I guess he might see it like that.”
Edzie continued. “And like mom... Elkansa... has told us, when we're aggressive, we have to be decisive, and we have to be very clear about why we're attacking. I don't think you were entirely clear on why you hurt Boyle. I'm still not sure you've figured it out.”
Stray finally deigned to look Edzie's direction. “No, I know why. It's because when I think about my father leaving, I don't feel like a Denorian any more. It's like I forget you guys are my family for a second. All of a sudden, I'm a stranger, like that guy the Protectorate took away.”
Edzie wasn't sure how to help with this problem, and she found her patience suddenly wavering. “Well, you know you're family, as far as we're concerned... me and mom and also Boyle and Ghada and the Mistras and everyone else. So you can stop being sore about it.” She became self-conscious, suddenly, and forced herself to soften her tone. “Maybe it'll keep getting easier.”
Stray shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. Maybe I'll stop thinking about it after I get initiated.”
“Yeah. But for now, we should probably go back to the village and say sorry to Boyle. He's smart... hopefully he'll know better than to make jokes about your dad from now on.”
Edzie and Stray headed back along the path as the light softened and cycled through its twilight colors. They greeted the guard at the watchtower as they passed, and Stray's mood slowly lightened, so that he was cheerful again by the time they reached their own region of the settlement. The path was deserted, which was unusual, but nothing to be alarmed about. Stray was hesitant, but Edzie coaxed him toward Boyle's dromo, urging him to apologize so everybody involved could return to their former rapport.
Stray's attempt was frustrated by the frigid reception he received from Alynn and Dredda. At first, they simply refused to acknowledge him, effectively shutting him out of their household at the front entrance. To Stray's solicitations, they replied that Boyle was not in the mood to entertain, and they thought Stray and Edzie should go home and attend to their own affairs for the moment. Stray and Edzie left in dismay, an anxious and disturbed mood settling over both of them.
At home, they fared little better. Elkansa had heard about the fight from Alynn, and had assured her that she would speak to Stray. She was in a cruel and impatient mood when they arrived, and she confronted Stray in the kitchen, effectively ignoring Edzie, who kept as close as she could without drawing any more wrath from her mother.
“Stray, you can't start trouble with your friends when they are also my neighbors. Boyle's parents are unhappy with all three of us. Frankly, I find it petty and irritating, but I can't seem to talk them out of their fit, so we'll have to be cordial and apologetic until we're all back on friendly terms.” She shook her head. “In the meantime, I have no patience for you, either, throwing temper tantrums about trivialities.”
Edzie interjected. “Mom, he hardly did anything. Boyle wasn't hurt, was he? Stray just knocked him down. We do that to each other all the time.”
Elkansa knew better, and her sensibility overrode her sympathy. “You may have thought so, but both Boyle and Ghada felt threatened. They said this sometimes happens, meaning you” – looking at Stray – “get mad and lash out at people, often enough that they're familiar with the situation.”
Stray's mood had gone from anxious to thoroughly sulky, just hurt and angry enough that he wasn't ready to be contrite. He stared at the ground, scowling defiantly. Meanwhile, Elkansa's lecture continued on the momentum of her disapproval. “Frankly, I don't think I can abide such a temperament in my household. I'm certainly not going to advance your lessons or give you a huskin until you show me you're capable of keeping friends and staying on good terms with our neighbors. Let me know when that happens, and we'll see about your progress on your forms.”
She stepped back, then, waiting for a reaction. Stray's head remained down, his gaze fixed on his own feet. To both Edzie and Elkansa's surprise, he gave a simple, tortured nod of assent, and then shuffled off to his room at the back of the house, silent and unreadable.
Watching this confrontation play out, Edzie thought back to Stray's meditations of an hour earlier, his confessions of alienation as he watched the huskins graze. She felt an inexplicable rage well up in herself, as if Stray's suppressed anger had seeped into her through the air between them... for the first time in her life, she felt an open, flagrant hostility toward her mother, who looked so cruel and stupid, standing in the light of the thresh lamp. Edzie found herself wanting to physically attack her mother on Stray's behalf... and even on her own behalf, out of a sense of injured righteousness.
There was no way Edzie was challenging her mother, especially in the latter's present stormy mood, so she muttered the worst curse that she, as a mere foundling, could muster, and then hastened to Stray's room to see if she could offer him any consolation.
She found Stray sitting on his bed, facing a wall. He refused to turn toward her, but looking from the side, she could tell that despite his best efforts to be strong and self-possessed, tears were streaming down his cheeks.
... ... ... ...
Elkansa's threat proved redundant, because she had been neglecting Stray's lessons even before his fight with Boyle. Now she simply had a convenient excuse to delay his informal initiation, which should have happened that summer. Edzie and Stray both knew Elkansa's tendency to set things aside and never return to them. Even Edzie's katsun was still unfinished.
The situation with the neighbors remained awkward. Boyle quickly forgave Stray, even going so far as to acknowledge his own role in the disagreement, but Alynn remained frigid, mildly disapproving of Stray and Edzie's visits. She extended this treatment to Elkansa as well, though she relented a bit when she encountered her by chance, and Dredda – gentle husband and caretaker of the household – was swept up and carried away by his wife's anger. He was polite to Stray and Edzie when he was out of Alynn's sight, but he couldn't openly defy the protective mother's grudge against her neighbors and long-time friends.
The days grew warmer, and the Festival of Emergence approached quickly, sending the settlement into a flurry of anticipation and preparation. This festival was the traditional celebration of the new brood of huskin calves, conceived during the previous mating season, around the time of the Festival of Release. For several weeks, activity picked up in the settlement, and though Stray was left free to play with Boyle in the fields, Edzie was enlisted by Elkansa to help with the preparations. In the final ten days before the festival, Stray was recruited, as well, and Boyle was left to wander off and attend to his own amusements.
Where the fall festival, the Festival of Release, was generally a tribal affair, with its rituals of mutualism and pacification, the Festival of Emergence was more open and more volatile. It was a customary gathering for family members returning to the Concordance from the kingdoms beyond, a homecoming for a great many emigrants who still had ties with the tribe. It was also a time for trials by combat and tests of martial skill, where those rivalries that couldn't be calmed and unraveled at the fall festival would be resolved, instead, by mediated bloodshed.
This was also an occasion for the elders to account for themselves, and to name their successors, in cases where they hadn't already done so. It turned out, to Stray's delight, that Ghada's mother Treya was being named a successor, and so all who knew her had extra cause for celebration.
So it was that by the last few days before the festival, Edzie and Stray were both mortally weary of cleaning and cutting fruit, dressing butchered huskins, and tidying up gardens and public spaces around the settlement. Elkansa had an endless stream of mundane tasks for them to complete, and it gradually dawned on them that without some convincing excuse, they would never get away from her litany of small jobs.
Luckily, on the last day before the festival, Ghada invited them – Stray, Edzie, and Boyle – to join him in primping and choosing his wardrobe. He promised Stray and Boyle that he would help them prepare, and even provide some accouterments and accessories to make them presentable. Edzie herself wasn't terribly interested in this spectacle, but word had reached her that Ghada's sister Bellaryn was going to be visiting, and she very much wanted to see her.
The three of them left for Ghada's at mid-day, navigating a swarm of gawking, loitering visitors and traveling markets to reach the family's dwelling. Stray and Boyle each carried a few articles of rarely-used clothing that they felt would be fancy enough for a major festival; Edzie carried nothing, except for her katsun, sheathed along her left thigh. They reached Ghada's dromo at mid-day, having crossed the Splitmouth near Boyle's and cut across the settlement behind the East Storehouse. The front entrance was uncovered, the interior steeped in shadow, lit only by the sunlight through the doorway and a few front windows. They called out as they entered, heading instinctively toward a hallway on the right side. After a moment, a young girl's voice greeted them enthusiastically. Edzie instinctively quickened her pace, and Bellaryn emerged from the hall just as Edzie was reaching it.
Bellaryn had been studying at the Hunter's Roost for the last two years, a two-day journey to the north, and to Edzie, it seemed like an eternity had passed since they had last seen each other. Bellaryn was fourteen, nearing her own initiation, and Edzie was barely old enough to call her a peer. Nonetheless, the older girl recognized her younger playmate, and she greeted her with an old friend's embrace, before Edzie could even pause to look her over.
Bellaryn was tall and straight-backed, with thick well-muscled arms and legs and a ruddy tan that told stories of a life spent outside, in the sunny patches within thickets of trees. Her hair was cropped around the height of her cheeks, and shaved nearly to the scalp up around her temples, less severe than her brother's mohawk, but still rugged and stern. Her features were naturally cheerful, her eyes bright, but normally she held them steady and impassive, her demeanor no less serious and stony than Edzie's. At this moment, however, Bellaryn's natural smile lit up her face, and Edzie found herself compelled into a grin.
“Edzie!” she said, almost shouting. “It's been ages! Shameful! You're probably grown like a weed, but you look just the same to me, except maybe a little tougher. How's your mother? How's Stray?”
Edzie glanced back at the boys, who had stopped behind her and fallen into their own distracted conversation. “I don't think much has changed,” she concluded. “Mom is still tough on us... Stray especially, lately, but that's really not such a big change. So nothing much to say about my circle. But I know you have some news, don't you?!?”
Bellaryn grinned. “You've heard, eh? Mother is being recognized as next in line as Elder of Accord, after Keldra! People are afraid it means Keldra is getting ready to step down. I don't really have any idea, myself.”
“Still, great news for the four of you. Are your parents here, so I can congratulate them?”
“Mother is out talking to people, meeting her friends' visitors, buying things... you know, her typical day. Father is out back, working on something for mom. Feel free to say hello if you want, but he's probably too busy to talk much.”
“I'll leave it til later, then,” Edzie decided.
“Fair enough. We'd better go see Ghada, then. He's been insufferable, waiting all morning for you three to show up.”
The two girls headed toward the end of the hallway, with Stray and Boyle in tow, and into Ghada's room. It was impressively large, having been built with both children in mind, but with Bellaryn away, Ghada's belongings had spread out over the whole space: from an arrangement of practice-weapons and outerwear in one corner to a small table in the other, stacked with cosmetics and accessories. Ghada was leaning over his cot, sorting through some odds and ends for the tailoring session. Edzie gave him a friendly acknowledgment, and then was almost knocked over by Stray and Boyle as they passed through to join him, looking at his small collection of tunics and brivsas and jewelry. Stray and Boyle each tossed their outfits on the cot next to Ghada's, and they all stepped back to look at them, falling into disordered conversation.
Edzie and Bellaryn both remained at the far edge of the room, observing and forming opinions, though they kept them to themselves for the moment. “I can't believe how much thought they can put into this,” Bellaryn observed, watching her brother verbally assess his friends' outfits.
“Do you have anything to do to get ready?” Edzie asked.
“I worked out an outfit, but it only took about half an hour to get everything in order. I think it's cause mom helped me. She doesn't quite have Ghada and dad's eye for fashion, but at this point, she knows how to fit clothes for me better than Ghada does. I don't have a young boy's body any more, obviously.”
Bellaryn had indeed filled out significantly since Edzie had last seen her, though she was still lean and athletic. An outfit would have to work around her hips and keep her breasts under control, and a young girl's tunic wouldn't do it any longer. Ghada, on the other hand, being only twelve years of age, was still well within the constraints of boyhood. He was already growing quickly, taller than most of his companions, but still a child compared to his sister. He had learned the basics of preening and self-care from his young, handsome father, and had shown an aptitude for it; though taste generally discouraged it in polite conversation, he was spoken of privately as a very attractive youth, an excellent specimen of the traditional Concordance male. He was also well-spoken and quick-witted, necessary corollaries to his good looks.
Ghada was now directing the other two boys to try on their outfits. He already had a look of skepticism in his eyes, knowing that Stray and Boyle didn't maintain their wardrobes, and that they were going to be hard to clean up. Edzie watched Ghada look over Stray's outfit, turn it over, and then gaze at Stray's figure again, trying to decide if it was even salvageable.
“They're hopeless,” Bellaryn remarked, chuckling.
“Stray can't help it. He was brought up with two women.”
Bellaryn nodded, trying to decide whether she was supposed to laugh at this. “I suppose that's true. And Elkansa is a beautiful woman, but she never did have much patience for fashion. How about Stray's father? Would he have taught Stray some of these things if he had... uhh...” She paused awkwardly, and then spoke quietly, to keep Stray from hearing. “... If he had stayed with your mother?”
Edzie shrugged, making a minimal effort to keep her own voice down. “No, I don't think so. I was young at the time, but I remember him a little, and Tamlis wasn't the type of man to make a show of himself. He was more the restless, moody type... from what I remember, he dressed the part, like a transient. ... That's what he was, after all.”
Boyle and Stray had now put on their outfits for the festival, and Ghada was adjusting the folds and tweaking the seams. Stray's outfit was a draped tunic, mostly the dusky gray of standard Denorian outerwear, but elaborated with a few dark red vertical slashes, dyed by some merchant at Elkansa's request. It wasn't very impressive, but it was acceptable... it gave his young shoulders some definition, at least, and fit closely about his waist.
Boyle's outfit, on the other hand, was essentially a disaster. It was dyed a mottled foliage green, and it fit tight around his chest, practically exposing his ribs, with a loose fold over his shoulders and down his back. At his waist, it settled into an explosion of shapeless fabric, and his thighs and legs were completely lost in a cascade of ill-fitting trouser. At his knees, it suddenly grew close again, emphasizing his skinny legs and drawing attention to his large feet. It would need exponentially more attention than Stray's outfit... Ghada was still focusing on the latter, perhaps simply to avoid the stress of having to fix Boyle.
Edzie glanced at Bellaryn, and saw that she wore a reserved smile, her eyes wistful and content. She noticed Edzie's gaze and returned it, speaking with a placid sobriety. “I miss you all,” she said, nodding toward the boys. “Ghada and mom and dad, of course, but especially just being around everybody.”
“Is it lonely up at the Hunters' Roost?”
Bellaryn shrugged, and then seemed to reconsider her indifference. “Yeah, it is, actually. No kids to spend time with, no Mistras to teach me formal lessons. I'm practically the youngest one there.”
“Is it hard? Are you learning a lot?”
“It's hard, yeah.” Bellaryn spoke slowly, sorting through memories. “I'm learning to hunt and fight from all my host families... I go from one house to another a few times a week. Seeley, Jagrana... the women all live alone, and hunt for food, and I only stay with them when they have a few days to spend at home. They're always tired, and they make me dress their game and prepare their meals. Most of them would rather teach me to fight, than take me hunting.”
Edzie chuckled in spite of herself. “So you're, like, a surrogate husband?”
Bellaryn rolled her eyes, remembering. “Yup, that's about right. There are almost no real families there... the women who live there are the ones who want to be left alone, who don't have any use for courtship or tribe politics. The men are the ones who are loyal to the tribe, and want to stay near by, but don't want to get attached to a wife or a child. I think the Hunter's Roost lets them provide for the tribe in other ways, like hunting, trapping, and gardening, so they don't feel like freeloading transients.”
“The women sound like me,” Edzie remarked, half to herself, then said: “That doesn't sound like it suits you, though, if you miss the rest of us so much. I guess you wouldn't stay there, if you had a choice, eh?”
Bellaryn shook her head. “Nope, not a chance. After I get initiated next year, I'm coming back to the settlement. I think I'll petition the elders and find a place to live. Maybe I'll travel a little with mom, just to see what it's like, but I don't think I can be an ambassador like her.” She looked over at Edzie, suddenly registering her friend's last remark. “So you think you'd live out there, if you could? Maybe when you get old enough to travel on your own?”
“I might,” Edzie said. “It sounds nice, being apart from all the boring tribe business I'm supposed to be helping with. I can't stand the thought of being at the center of everything, like mom.” She thought about it a little more. “I don't know about the Hunter's Roost, though. I think I might get bored. Plus, I don't think Stray would ever be happy someplace like that, and I think I'd miss him too much if he stayed here.”
Bellaryn felt a pang of remorse, knowing that maturity and independence would eventually degrade this inseparable attachment between Edzie and her adopted brother. She decided not to say anything about it, turning instead to the activity of the boys. Ghada had spent the last few minutes prodding at Stray's outfit, and he had finally decided that he couldn't let it go without some trimming and tailoring. He had made a few marks on the fabric with a brown grease-pen, and then he had prompted Stray to remove the tunic and put his regular clothes back on. The two of them turned to Boyle, and Ghada was making exasperated sounds.
Bellaryn made a couple remarks about how the outfit seemed to swallow the boy, and Edzie laughed obligingly. Ghada told both of them to keep their stupidity to themselves, taking a protectively harsh tone, as Boyle remained silent and motionless under the light of Ghada's gaze. Ghada spent a full fifteen minutes tugging, tucking, wrapping, and tightening, constantly asking Boyle if his adjustments were comfortable. Boyle tried to be useful, and whenever he started feeling like a clumsy wooden scaffold, he distracted himself by joking with Stray about their respective outfits. The girls exchanged quiet witticisms, and offered an occasional unwelcome opinion, but the boys managed to ignore them most of the time.
Watching this spectacle play out, Edzie became aware that Ghada wasn't maintaining a very strong focus on Boyle. His gaze kept drifting to Stray, who was an oblivious bystander, entirely preoccupied with Ghada's work on the outfit. When Stray chatted with Boyle, Ghada managed to stay on task, but whenever Stray asked about the outfit or the tailoring procedure, Ghada answered a bit too quickly, as if he was waiting for some chance to make the point. Edzie also noticed that whenever there was eye contact between Stray and Ghada – an occasion that Stray seemed to completely disregard – Ghada would suddenly hesitate in his work for a moment, and he would have to take a breath before he returned to his arrangements.
This dynamic made Edzie mildly uncomfortable, so she tried to disrupt it by asking a question. “So, are you going to do all the adjustments yourself, Ghada?”
Ghada replied with vigor, exhibiting some of the same excitement in talking to Edzie as he had shown Stray. “Almost, but not quite, I don't think. The seams on Boyle's tunic are a little weird, and I don't know how to make the trousers look good around his knees, so I think I'll need some help from my dad.”
“What else are you going to do?”
Ghada stopped fussing with Boyle's tunic long enough to give a clear answer. “We need new hair and faces, too! Boyle's hair needs to be evened out at the bottom, and Stray's just needs a trim all around. It's too wild, he'll look like he's just getting home from a pilgrimage or something.”
Bellaryn rolled her eyes as Edzie prompted him to continue. “And the face?”
“Not much,” Ghada said. “Boyle hardly needs anything, except maybe a little shading to accentuate his jaw-line, and a little extra color on his cheeks. Stray could use a little covering, to smooth out his skin and darken his complexion a little.”
“See? My skin's better,” Boyle interjected with snotty self-importance.
“You're just younger,” Stray retorted. “Wait until you're in double-digits.”
“Can you do something with their personalities?” Bellaryn snarked. “Touch up their sense of humor, maybe?”
Ghada gave a polite laugh, hoping not to hurt anyone's feelings, and said, “I think that's perfectly presentable already. You ladies, on the other hand... I can help you guys out, too, if you want. You both could really use some work.”
“No thanks,” the girls chirped in unison.
“Besides,” Edzie went on, “won't you have to do it all over again tomorrow anyway? Especially the make-up! It seems like a waste to spend so much time on it now.”
Ghada had asked his own father the same question once, when he was much younger, and now he scoffed at Edzie, so much older, still asking for an explanation. “Well, obviously we have to test everything out first. You can't just throw some cosmetics and accessories on a boy, assuming they'll all look good together.” He paused, tugging and folding one of Boyle's sleeves. “No different from all of us learning to fight. First we learn the technique, and then, before any serious combat, we spar, study our opponent, and review the forms.”
“I suppose that's true,” Bellaryn conceded. “What did our mothers always say, Edzie?”
“Readiness,” Edzie and Stray said, nearly in unison.
This may as well have been a mystical invocation... before anyone could say anything else, there were a mother's unhurried footsteps in the gathering room of the house. A moment later, Treya opened the door and greeted her children and their visitors. She was a short, sturdy woman, wearing a traditional Denorian tunic adorned with eccentric accessories from her travels around the Concordance tribe lands: a gold bracer on her right arm, and a cascade of reed-woven lace over her left shoulder. She greeted Edzie and Stray each by name, her face open and warm.
Stray jumped to respond. “Hello Ambassador Treya! Ghada's helping us get ready for tomorrow!”
“I know!” Treya replied wryly. “He spent all day yesterday talking to my husband about it!”
“Congratulations on your distinction tomorrow,” Edzie offered. “You'll make a wonderful Elder of Accord.”
“Thank you, Edzie,” Treya said kindly. “And how are you two doing? It's been quite a while since I last saw you.”
“We're fine,” Edzie said.
“Have you been traveling?” Stray said, now fully distracted from Ghada and Boyle.
“Yes, in fact, I visited the elders of the Entrane over the winter, and then took the Settlers Road south to attend the vernal festivals of the Aerimus and Hexcalor tribes. The Aerimus gave me this...” She indicated the latticework of dried reeds on her shoulder. “It's made from the tough reeds they harvest from the Huskin Draw. Would you like to try it on?”
Each of them felt the lace accessory in turn – Stray first, and then Edzie and Bellaryn – and finally, Boyle got away from Ghada long enough to investigate it for a moment, loosening and disrupting some of Ghada's adjustments as he did so. Treya told them she would be wearing the accessory to the Festival of Emergence, and then she would give it to her husband for safe keeping. It was up to him to decide whether anyone else might wear it for future events.
Ghada soon realized that Boyle wasn't about to come back and submit to his inspection, so he set down his grease pen and pins and joined the other three children at Treya's side, looking at her artifact. She talked for a few minutes about the Aerimus... one of the smaller of the eight Concordance tribes, whose elders were famously worldly and authoritative... a tribe whose decorative tokens of status were recognized throughout the Pastures, and even as far west as the Weary Road and Horizon. She herself had spent several years with the Aerimus, learning the finer points of tribal history and diplomacy.
One by one, Treya's audience found places to sit or recline, and she went on to tell them about the other two tribes she had visited on that journey: the Entrane, the tribe that had accepted her father and father-in-law, a culture of hunters and trappers who resettled far more frequently than the Denoria; and the Hexcalor, a tribe of Concordance merchants, currently living between the Range River and its smaller western branch. It was Treya's Entrane relations who had encouraged her to become a traveler, inspiring a wanderlust in her breast far beyond the usual Denorian spirit of independence. The Hexcalor tribe was one of the most common stops on her forays, because their central courts were hubs for news, both of the Concordance and of the larger world beyond the Pastures.
They were still talking when Kosef, Treya's husband, returned from his craftwork in the back garden. He entered from the back, poised and polite, as Treya described the Hexcalor's merchant curators, and he took a seat on the bed beside Edzie. It was a few more minutes before Treya paused for a breath, and Kosef took the opportunity to ask Ghada, Stray, and Boyle about their preparations. He reminded Ghada that they still had to do the boys' faces before they went home, and even then, they wouldn't be finished: Ghada had to do all the necessary alterations to their outfits before the evening was over. The children took the hint, leaving Treya's shadow to resume their preparations, and Treya was left watching her husband preside over a painstaking process that would continue into the evening.
A few minutes later, when the boys' attention was back to their primping, Kosef and Treya excused themselves, claiming some valuable time together between their obligations as parents and busy tribespeople.
... ... ... ...
The Festival of Emergence swept up the following day, embracing the settlement at dawn and refusing to let go until the darkness started to soften, twenty-four hours later. Ghada managed to get Stray and Boyle fully dressed and prepared before the mid-morning feast, which all five young Denorians – Edzie, Stray, Boyle, Ghada, and Bellaryn – attended as an inseparable group, waving to visitors, admiring outfits, and sampling vendors' food along the main path.
The feast itself was mostly freshly-butchered huskin, large locally-grown fruit, and smaller exotic berries, nuts, and raw vegetables. The elders' table was favored with a platter of boundeer flank, a meat that was rare because the animal was so damn difficult to catch. There were open seating areas around the central court, but the Denorians and their families generally didn't use them... everybody spent the meal upright, circulating and socializing.
Ghada was invariably complimented by every passing acquaintance, and a few of them noticed Stray and Boyle's accoutrements, as well... not as accomplished as Ghada's (or especially Kosef's, which was rightly famous within the community) but it was enough to keep Stray and Boyle's egos afloat. Edzie and Bellaryn watched this repeated ritual – some stranger noticing Ghada's fierce hair and impeccable outfit, Ghada trying to accept the compliment gracefully, but still proudly recounting his routine to anyone who would listen – and found it all very silly and annoyingly charming.
After the feast, there were combat demonstrations and trials until sundown. The first several hours of these pitted Concordance warriors of the various tribes against one another, purely for the sake of sport. This spectacle was limited to proven adults, well beyond the age of initiation, some of them as old as fifty or sixty, paired off as comrades, rivals, and representatives of their tribes. The combat was carried out with fully-forged katsuns, in a broad, accessible stadium. The competitors were required to strike with the wooden edge, and if a serious mistake was made – a bleeding wound, the loss of a digit – there were elders and healers standing by.
These exhibition matches could be won by connecting three direct hits, or by disarming the opponent. The younger Denorians watched with excitement, knowing they would grow to be the ones participating in these matches... indeed, the loudest cheers came from the adolescents, who watched with enthusiasm as their parents were tested. It didn't grow quiet until the second half of the matches, which constituted a more serious ritual: combat over grudges, a rite that the Concordance tribes referred to as a Reckoning.
There was an enviable solidarity in the tribes of the Pastures, both within the Denorian tribe and across the whole of the Concordance. However, there were still hostilities from time to time, mostly over unequal sharing of resources, or warriors' children being favored by the Mistras or the elders, or some long-forgotten jealousy that had soured relations between families. Most of these conflicts were resolved at the Feast of Release, when a discourse and gift-giving ritual helped melt frozen-over relationships.
Some rivalries resisted even this annual show of good-will, and these strained situations needed to be vented through a more violent means. Thus, the Reckonings: a series of single-combat encounters designed to resolve the standing hostilities within the Denorian tribe and its closest allies. These matches would take several hours, and were presided over by the elders... in particular, the elders of Harmony, Severity, and Favor. The victory condition was the drawing of blood, so the stakes were markedly higher, though the combatants were required to control themselves and avoid causing permanent injury to one another. In Elkansa's life, there had only been two fatalities in Reckonings, and both were followed by severe punishment for the perpetrators.
The children watched the Reckonings with intense interest, but they only knew a few of the participants, and even these were mere acquaintances of the families. The Reckonings were followed by a collective breath of relief, tension dispersing into the evening air, and then the tribe and all its guests circulated methodically through the streets of the settlement, making their way to the various feasting facilities that had been established among the residences. The most decadent proceedings occurred at the central court, and this is where Edzie, Stray, and Boyle joined Bellaryn and Ghada to support Treya's acceptance of her distinction.
After a great many huskin calves had been eaten, and a great deal of milk and liquor had been consumed, the eight elders rose silently from their seats. Within seconds, the whole court fell absolutely silent, and all eyes turned toward the elders, anticipating the ritual. Elder Amiaverta, the elder of Reckoning, began the chant, starting on a middle tone. Following her, each of the other seven elders joined in the resonant song: Lillina the elder of Tales, Keldra the elder of Accord, Hylidae the elder of Harmony, Warryn the elder of Severity, Idilya the elder of Plenty, Yogo the elder of Favor, and Pattrice the elder of Stewardship. They let their chant linger in the air for several breaths, and when they finally allowed it to fade, several hundred of the surrounding Concordance tribespeople had joined in.
Elder Idilya followed up with a blessing in Old Concordance, wishing the tribe a strong memory, a plentiful year, and a perpetual peace. She made a special mention of the Mistras, the four Monks of the Caesura who had taken up the burden of joining the tribes and educating their children. She honored the three champions of the combat exhibitions from that day, and thanked the hunters and herders for the day's feasts. Finally, she noted the succession ritual that was to take place, and then gave the floor to Elder Keldra to complete it.
Ambassador Treya was brought to the front of the silent audience, followed by Kosef, Bellaryn, and Ghada. She was asked to pledge her life and experience to the Denorian tribe, to accept the mark of succession, and to serve as a guide to her fellow plainsdwellers until her death. Kosef, Bellaryn, and Ghada were each asked, in turn, whether they would surrender their matriarch to the service of the tribe when the time came. They all answered, proudly, solemnly, in the affirmative.
At last, in the final minutes of the day, the ritual reached its climax. Elder Keldra drew the third elder katsun, the weapon committed to her care. Elder Keldra and Ambassador Treya, her chosen successor, each revealed their tribal scars... Keldra's was on her left side, right at the front of the ribcage, just below the solar plexus; Treya's was on her back, just under her shoulder blade. Treya dutifully removed her tunic to display the scar, and then, leaving it hanging by her side, she presented her naked upper body to Keldra. Bracing herself with her left hand, Keldra sliced with the katsun in her right, reproducing her own scar on her successor's body.
Treya didn't move or flinch, and when the first few drops of blood fell, Keldra raised the katsun above her head. A great cheer arose from the central court, breaking the solemn silence. The noise continued, unabated, until all the food was devoured and swept off the tables, and the liquor was vanquished, and the Denorians had danced by the light of fire and thresh lamps, and the first traces of sun spilled out of the mountains in the east.