Neshihon and Raulin left early the next morning after breakfast. He had, yet again, forgotten to negotiate terms with the to’ken and was expected to row for hours at a time. When he got tired, sweat soaking the back of his shirt badly enough that he could wring it out, Neshihon would take over for Raulin. But only then.
“You know, we could get more done if you took one side and I took the other,” Raulin suggested.
Neshihon looked up from his reclined position. “That is poorly thought. We will both tire at the same time and need to rest. Then we will be adrift with no direction. Besides, the paddles are built for one person to move.”
He was right about the last point. It would be rather awkward for each of them to take one side. It was nice to be getting exercise. He’d had to modify his knife fighting and slinking routines to work in a cramped cabin, then had missed several days when marooned and rescued.
And he was alive. That was the strongest reason for him to bear trap his jaw and keep going.
Most of the day was spent in silence, since Neshihon was in the water for long spans of time. Sometimes he was in the water to catch fish, which he ate raw and wriggling, but often it was to track the currents. “These large boats the humans sail in, how do they touch the water when they are so tall up?”
“They don’t. They are more concerned with the wind.”
“The wind? But the wind is sometimes dead. How do they use it then? And how do they know where they are going?”
“They wait, I suppose. I’m not a sailor. But I do know that they use the stars to navigate.”
“The stars? But they move!”
“Predictably move. They can tell where they will be at any point and can use them to find the directions when night falls. How do the to’ken navigate their ships?”
Sailing wasn’t something that interested Raulin, but it was something to keep his mind off the events of the past few days. Neshihon was more than pleased to describe how they used the currents to navigate, which benefited them not only in steering but in order to find islands and schools of fish. When Raulin pressed further, he discovered that the to’ken had a latent form of elemental understanding, or even magic, that gave them a greater relationship to the sea than any other race he had encountered. It wasn’t something to be taught to human sailors, but he doubted it would have caught on anyway.
That had taken the better part of a day. The remaining week and a half was spent learning more about the to’ken and Neshihon. He was thirteen, newly introduced into adult life but not proven yet, and also not a he. She had failed to mention her gender because it didn’t really effect her status in life too much; she would be provided the same opportunities as a boy, save only a few special jobs. She could eventually leave Onshalitha on her own, choose her own mate, travel to the island Aubin had referred to, and have her children there. She would be able to speak in her own right and cast her voice in elections. It was a very progressive society.
While her gender wasn’t an issue for her, her age was. She was very sensitive to others opinions of her capabilities and was quick to anger when not being treated with the respect she thought she deserved. Raulin learned fast not to patronize her or tease her about things. Even asking about the upbraiding her mother had given her was asking for trouble.
So, instead of correcting her behavior, he breathed in and out deeply at Neshihon’s claims as his owner and all the ways she said property should behave. He ignored her when she told him, with unquestioning authority, about how the world was and how she knew all this. And he nodded and murmured appropriately, but immediately forgot all the little dramas in her world, about which boy she liked and which girl was saying cruel things about which girl. It seemed that teenagers were the same everywhere, even if their races were different.
There were many islands in the Gamik Sea, including several archipelagos. Some were claimed by Gheny and lightly populated. Some were uninhabited and of those, some were depots for the to’ken. They stopped at a few and rested, replenishing water from springs or caches. He had an odd feeling of wanting to live on one for a long time, away from his responsibilities and the trirec life.
The first time Raulin saw proper land, the thin line of coast undulating across the horizon, he almost cried. It was beautiful. The seagulls cawed overhead and he thought they sounded like nightengales. The water that had almost killed him once became a bath for cleansing, so that he could arrive ashore new and fresh. The trees were the bones of his mother and he let himself be embraced by her shores.
The coast was a beautiful sapphire blue. Some palms lined the shore, but deciduous trees were the bulk of the woods. There were even some evergreens interspersed. The beach was a toasty brown, pebbly and full of stones not yet worn down by the ocean. His elation ebbed.
“We were supposed to be going to Riyala. This isn’t Genale.”
Neshihon shrugged and stood to peer at the land. “You said to bring you to Gheny. This is Gheny.”
“No, I said I wanted you to bring me to Riyala!”
“And I had it in mind to bring you where you wanted, but I ride the currents. It would have taken us much longer to reach land if I had headed for the warmest waters.”
Raulin gritted his teeth and growled. “And how do you suppose you’ll be getting your money when we’re hundreds of miles from the headquarters!“
Neshihon looked stunned, then angry. She stood before Raulin and pressed her index finger firmly into his chest. “You never said you had to go to one place! ‘Riyala in Genale or Hanala in Sharka will do’ were your words! Not ‘we have to go’ but ‘it would be nice’. It would have taken us a little longer but I could have brought us to either place just as easily. Fool,” she spat. “You have wasted our time. This will cost more.”
“Our agreement was that you would bring me to Gheny, alive, in exchange for the bounty on my mask. I said I would tell you where the buildings were and protect your asset by only going with you. You never said I had to tell you exactly where to go! If you had asked, I would have said you had to go to Riyala because there are only two headquarters in all of Gheny!”
It was a weak argument he made more to release the irritation he felt with himself. Yet again the to’ken had managed to twist Raulin’s inability to negotiate against him.
Neshihon snarled her lips back, then hissed in frustration, her face scrunched in a flashing anger. The action was so feral that Raulin barely kept himself from flinching. “We make for Hanala, then,” she growled. “It will be another day or two. You will row.”
“Of course,” Raulin said, moving back to his position at the helm. “Why would it be any different?”
They were at sea for only the rest of that day and the morning of the next. They skirted between islands and fishing boats, getting some strange looks from their occupants. The pulled into a beautiful little harbor where Neshihon tied her raft next to fancy pleasure crafts of all kinds. A few ladies and gentlemen dressed in finery stopped and stared at the two of them as they climbed up the ladder to the dock.
“Hold a moment,” Raulin said once the two of them stepped off the pier. He fell to his knees, popped off the bottom off his mask, and leaned down to the cobblestones to kiss the ground.
Neshihon shook her head at the trirec, offering her spear to help him up. “I’ve never understood why you humans love your precious land. It is hard, cramped, and permanent.”
“Only some parts are hard and mainly just the cities are cramped. And it’s not permanent at all. It’s constantly changing, through the seasons, by human hands or the animals’ movements. A forest can live for a long time only to be cut down in a few weeks. It’s beautiful.”
He was glad for the distraction. People were literally stopping on the street to watch the two of them walk past. It was unnerving for a man who tried very hard to remain in the shadows when working.
“Grab my spear,” Neshihon said, extending her webbed hand.
“I’m not going anywhere. We have a deal and I will honor it.”
Raulin turned and saw the to’ken’s shoulders were tight. Her hands gripped the end of the spear until her knuckles bulged. She was breathing shallowly. Raulin sighed slightly and grabbed the end, resting it near his hip.
It took them the better part of an hour to reach the top of Hyelk Hill, which overlooked some of the more important buildings in Hanala. Past the temple of Uvurna, the College of Apothacarians, and the Order of Ap Ginsa sat a building bizarre even amongst the varying architecture collected on that street. It was made of cedar stained dark to mimic the fibrous mralik pine. It had all the typical features of a Merakian building: the beams jutting out past the walls and curving downward, the roofs with rounded tiles jutting out to catch the fruit from the trees planted around it, and the overly wide doorways and windows. Raulin’s stomach seized with memories of Arvarikor, of feeling like he was in trouble and threatened. It was a beautiful estate, a wooded lot twice the size of any other on the street, but it was a symbol of dread for him.
“We’re almost there,” he said to Neshihon, whose was ducked low into herself. The to’ken raised her head and nodded, then returned to staring at the ground.
Outide of the estate was a fence thirty feet high. The only entrance through it was a wide gate, the lock a set of sliding beams that needed to be moved in the correct order.
“Tell them we are here,” Neshihon said as they stood outside the corner guardhouse.
“No, it’s up to you now. I’m still property.” He gestured to the bell.
The to’ken flailed on the pull, ringing it with the enthusiasm of a man needing entrance into town just ahead of a pack of wolves. Twice would have done well enough, but Raulin appreciated the urgency. As he had walked through the streets of Hanala, he had noted how encrusted with salt his clothing was, how stringy his hair felt, and how desperately in need he was of a hot bath, a warm meal, and company that didn’t hiss at you.
A window of wood slid to the left, a masked trirec placing his fingertips on the counter and assessing the company. “Well, if I live and breathe, if it isn’t Raulin Kemor!”, he said in Merakian.
It took Raulin a few moments to place that voice and demeanor. “Isken! Last time I saw you, you were in Hiben.”
“I was, until they found a better place for me,” he said, then turned to Neshihon. “Why, if it isn’t a to’ken. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one in Hanala nor have I ever met one.”
“This is Neshihon of the Onshalitha to’ken. I’ll translate, since I believe she only speaks To’ken and Arvonnese.”
In a rapid back and forth between the two, Raulin explained Neshihon’s role in his survival and arrival. “I bargained with her, explaining that if she turned in my mask she’d receive the fifty gold bounty we pay.”
“Mmm. Normally the masks are empty when we do that. I’ll have to go fetch a trivren to approve this.”
Raulin sighed and explained to the nervous to’ken what was happening. They waited another ten minutes before the gate opened and the two of them were let inside.
People take out contracts with the Arvarikor for many reasons: revenge, political motivation, prestige, heriditary insistance, protection. A few now and then will feign interest in hopes of seeing the mysteries the grounds of the trirec headquarters held; some for personal pleasure and some on a dare. They all left disappointed. Unless you were a trirec or a battering ram, you didn’t make it past the second gate at the end of the roofed, small garden, the same garden that Raulin and Neshihon entered.
Isken stayed to offer protection though it was extremely doubtful one to’ken could get the better of two trirecs, spear and all. The older trirec, whose mask was lacquered with red stripes around his eyes and mouth and ceremonial at this point in his life, sat on one of the benches provided. Raulin and Neshihon sat opposite and Raulin again translated on the to’ken’s behalf.
The older trirec folded his hands in his lap and considered the information for a few minutes. “I see no problem with giving the to’ken her due,” he said, “but I cannot fund it.”
Raulin translated, then added, “I’m sorry, Neshihon. Perhaps there is something I can do for you?”
“Exactly,” the trivren, Curvorn, answered in Arvonnese, then returned to Merakian. “When a trirec dies, his funds are absorbed by the association. That is where we draw our reward from. Ideally, the fifty gold should come from your coffers, Kemor.”
He sucked in his breath through his teeth, then sighed in resignation. “As always, master, you speak with wisdom.” He opened the small pouch that hung from a loop around his waist and pulled a string of six yellow beads off. “This should cover her costs.”
“And then some,” the trivren answered.
“It will be an expensive day for me. I figure ten gold will be a good starting point.”
Isken took the string and left. The trivren offered the hospitality of tea and cookies for the to’ken. She sipped the tea and winced, putting it back down, but gobbled every one of the iced pastries available.
When he returned, Isken had a pouch of fifty gold and the additional ten for Raulin. “You will buy things in the markets,” the to’ken insisted, “and then escort me back to my boat.”
Raulin crossed his arms. “Oh, we never discussed this. And since you’ve taken advantage of me every time you could, I am disenclined to help you out once you leave these gates.”
Neshihon stood and moved her spear inches from Raulin’s neck. Isken moved forward, a few feet in just a moment, when Raulin put his hand out to stop him. The to’ken looked more frightened then furious, but there were large doses of both in her tone and posture. “Our arrangement ends when my boat leaves without you, not before! It is known by anyone who isn’t stupid. You are obligated to bring me to my vessel. As payment for causing a delay due to your assumptions, you will escort me to the market to buy things. You will make sure I am not swindled, like you humans do.”
The trivren cleared his throat. “I do believe it is in your, and our, best interest to make sure this young lady is taken care of. I feel a trip to the market and fifty gold is a bargain for seeing you hale and hearty, back to us in good time and uninjured.”
Raulin opened his mouth to argue, but the master was correct. The Raulin from weeks ago would have been happy to be in this situation and he shouldn’t get in the habit of taking life for granted. Neshihon was so afraid of being abandoned that her spear was shaking near his throat. He sighed, moved to kindness. “All right, all right. We’ll go spend your money and I’ll make sure you arrive at the docks where your boat is.”
The to’ken nodded and relaxed a little. She turned and stood right in front of the door, as if magic would suddenly open it. Raulin cleared his throat and she looked at him. “Oh, no. We’re not leaving just like that. Sit. We’re going to hash out some rules before we leave.”