The rest of the morning was spent paddling around the area and collecting anything useful from the wreckage. Raulin felt like they were picking daisies off of a grave. He was silent in reverence to the lives lost, though he wished to convince the to’ken to hurry. He’d rather not linger in that area for every reason he thought.
In their haul were many barrels they lashed to the back of the vessel. Raulin was annoyed to find that a few were fresh water. He had gulped every drop the to’ken had given him greedily until the ladle was snatched from him. They also found salted pork, churned butter, a spice called koubisque, and salt. He wondered if he could have gathered these and subsisted until he rowed himself to Gheny. Unlikely. He had no idea where he was in relation to the coast. Was he several days away or was it on the other side of the horizon?
However his might-have-beens played out to, he had water, food, shelter, and a hard platform to stand on. He was half-way to being civilized again. Once he had a shave, a bath, and clean clothes, he might even resemble a dashing, young merchant, albeit a masked one.
With the valuable flotsam claimed, the to’ken was ready to leave. “You will paddle,” he said, pointing to the powering contraption in the front of the vessel. It was two foot panels that were attached to large paddles on either side of the boat. He’d have to stand to do it, but he could steady himself with the bar that extended in front to steer.
Raulin took off his boots, thinking it would be nice to have one article of clothing that was dry, and began. “What’s your name?” he asked the to’ken.
“What are you called? What do I call you if I need you?”
“Oh. Do you think I could just call you, um, Neshihon?”
“This term is acceptable. What do the other Metal Faces call you?”
“Ah,” he said, nodding his head slowly. “I am sorry.”
Neshihon pointed from his reclined position in his bed and Raulin adjusted course. “You have such a short name. You have not accomplished much in your life. Our king’s name takes several minutes to say properly because he is such a great man. I will one day have a long name.”
“Metal Faces are given new names when we kill our first man. I was not born with this name.”
Neshihon made an awed noise. “How many Metal Faces have you killed?”
“None. We don’t kill each other. I have killed many Westerners and Merakians, though.” To murder some minutes, Raulin regaled Neshihon with some of the more interesting tales. He had many to choose from, having spent almost twelve years as a trirec and had told them many times to different trirecs in different cities and countries. While he had never been particularly proud of his accomplishments, he had never been so regretful. He didn’t even finish his long list before drifting off in thought.
It took Raulin the better part of the afternoon to paddle to the barge-village where Neshihon lived. “This is Onshalitha,” he said, standing next to Raulin and pointing with his spear. “There is no way for you to steal the hospitality I’ve given you by leaving, so you may walk about freely once we have joined. Remember, though, you are my property until someone else pays for you. You are to strike no deals with anyone else. Besides, ” he said with an arrogant air, “no one would dare go against me.”
“Understood,” he said. He was happy the mask hid his smirk. He usually found overly confident people amusing, but they were usually quick to anger at being mocked.
Neshihon took over and paddled his craft into a position that was far down the wharf where many other boats like his were anchored. He spent several minutes tying ropes of varying sizes in the front of his vessel to the pier. Raulin was about to disembark to see if he could find refinement and sophistication through the cunning use of water when another to’ken stepped onto the vessel, snarled a few sentences, and cuffed him upside the head.
Raulin didn’t know what to do. He watched, hoping he wasn’t about to be expelled, and realized after a few minutes what was going on. When the person left, he said, “You were naughty, weren’t you?”
Neshihon puffed up and turned to face him, his face flush. “My mother did not want me to leave and chance a great haul. She said it was too dangerous. She was not happy despite the fact that I have brought back riches for my tribe.”
“Is everything fine for me, then? Am I allowed to be here or is that taboo?”
Neshihon finished lashing his boat to the wharf in an agitated way. “I will speak to the elders. They will hear me and know that you will bring us riches. You will be allowed to stay.”
Raulin sighed and left, disappointed his fate was in the hands of a teenage boy.
There was much to take in while he walked into the village. The individual houseboats lined the areas along the main walkways, piers that led into the village center from many different points . It was easy to tell the difference between the rafts and the main village, though they appeared to mimic the center on a much smaller scale. The village was sturdier, for starters, made of several layers of planks that might not match in width but at least didn’t leave any gaps. The platform rose higher the farther from the main walkway it got, high enough that it rose five feet from the ocean’s surface.
The farthest point from the walkway contained an area beautiful in its chaos. It seemed to be a major social area of some sort, though it was hard to tell from his first impression if it held shops, houses, temples, administrative buildings, or a combination thereof. The whole place was one large, connected half circle with rooms partitioned in varying widths. The same materials the to’ken used on their private boats were used here, only with an artful eye to decoration. Shells were arranged on the top level as tiling for roofs. Sails were used as privacy curtains and decorated with beautiful stitching and dyes. Ship masts, portholes, wheels, railings, window panes, even a crow’s nest was repurposed to fit the needs of a people who took what remained when tragedy struck. Even a figurehead of a barnacled mermaid made an appearance to guard the fresh water cistern in the middle of the square.
And all around the place, save a circle around the cistern, was dirt and sand packed into the floor. The sand held many large sea treasures, such as a gigantic conch shell and a small garden made of coral. The dirt held plants that actually grew, their roots snaking down the walls to pierce the platform and drink from the sea. The area was lush with greenery that was stippled with fuschias, bright yellows, and dark peach flowers. The air smelled refreshingly sweet, unlike what Raulin would have expected from a place with tight quarters.
The to’ken walked about, slapping their fat feet down in no hurry. Children played, men courted women, grandmothers gossiped. It was like anywhere else Raulin had been, only with its own brand of peculiarity. Everyone had the same clammy skin, almost translucent, like the flesh of a sole or a cod. They wore their heads unadorned, but dressed their fingers and wrists with jewels as much as possible. Their clothes were what could be stolen from ships or manufactured from the sea, dark greens, tans, and strips of cloth from long discarded flags.
Amidst the vivid motion of the crowd, one man stood out to Raulin. He was dark-haired, his half naked body covered in ample fur. He was washing clothes in a bucket, dressed only in a loincloth. His body had long tanned in the sun, making his complexion dark like a Kintoan or another from the Empire. He watched him for a few moments, guessing a few things as the puzzle pieces connected. He walked over and skipped Merakian, Walpin, and all the other tongues and headed straight to greeting him in Arvonnese.
The man looked up sharply, then calmed as he looked Raulin over. “And here I thought I”d be the strangest human even to grace these boards.”
“If I had my way, I would have arrived in Gheny by now and you could revel in your strangeness. I was shipwrecked while crossing from Noh Amair and was rescued by a kindly to’ken.”
The man grunted. “Now, when you say ‘rescued’ do you mean rescued or rescued? I was rescued once. I’m still being rescued it seems.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, crouching next to the man.
“I mean, I was found much like you were. My ship sprung a leak and I was chosen to help lighten the load, in hopes of sacrificing some for the survival of many. I was sent overboard with dozens of others with some supplies near a chain of islands near here. About half of us survived to walk on those shores. Then, infighting caused half of those people to leave for somewhere else. That left a dozen when a to’ken passed by and promised rescue. I drew the longest straw that time and left with him. Only, I hadn’t negotiated properly. I had to work off my rescue by coming here. That’s done with, but now I’m working to pay someone to get me to Gheny.”
Raulin finally sat down. “When is your debt paid?”
The man shrugged and went back to washing his clothes. “Sometime soon, I suppose. I’ll get around to asking one of these days.”
“I suppose it’s a lively place, then? Seems a bit isolated for my tastes. Nary a bar or parlor, as far as I can see.”
“It’s much more interesting when they drift Onshalitha to the Akshel Islands. Every so often, something to do with lunar eclipses or alignments in the heavens, they’ll celebrate by journeying back to their homeland. They give birth and raise their young there, then return to a town when the little ones are old enough to fend for themselves. They, too, set out once they can make their own riff.
“But that’s them. I spend my time teaching the to’ken my tongue and learning theirs. I help scavange after storms and tell them what some of the items are.” He cleared his throat and smirked. “If you’d do me a favor, please don’t tell them what that seat cover is really used for. Kind of hard to delicately explain that one.”
Raulin followed the man’s arm and saw he was pointing at a porcelein circle used on some of the fancier passenger ships for the head. He chuckled lightly. “Your secret is safe with me,” he said, standing to leave.
“They’ll be eating soon. You’ll have to enjoy the delicacy they’ve prepared for us tonight. A rare treat.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
The man gave a toothy grin. “Fish.”