“White wine and a little pink,” Anla said.
“The bright, angry pink and darker purple,” Tel said.
“What are you two on about?” Sakilei asked, catching up to the two.
“It’s a game we play sometimes. Right before sunset, we like to guess what color the sky is going to be. Of course, Tel cheats and I wind up losing, but it’s still fun.”
“I do not cheat,” Tel said. “I just happen to be a lucky man.”
Sakilei snorted. “Yes, and I just happened to lose fifteen games of Maccre in a row. To a newbie. My tall friend, if you haven’t found some way to cheat then I would like to hire you to gamble for me.”
He shrugged. “It’s just kouriya.”
Anla squinted up at him, who in turn grinned down at her. “Oh, did you just make a little joke?”
“Sakilei has been teaching me how to make jokes. He says I can lie so long as I make sure the person knows I am lying. This is how we share mirth with each other.”
“The big guy was too serious,” he explained. “We ran into a few confusing situations and we’ve been discussing humor. Tell Anla the joke you came up with.”
Tel cleared his throat. “How many grivvens does it take to light a chandelier?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“One, because we are so tall.”
She snorted a laugh. “Okay, that was good. A little dry, but funny.”
“Thank you. I shall share any others I make.”
“Red with the blood of my enemies,” Sakilei said. Both Tel and Anla looked at him with confusion. “I’m joining your game about the sunset. There is an elvish saying: ‘No sky is worth gazing upon if it’s not red with the blood of our enemies.”
“The elves said this?” Tel asked.
“Sounds about right,” Anla said. “Okay, so one for soft, one for vivid, and one for…apocalyptic.”
Sakilei gave a satisfied nod. “Have you been working on capturing sounds?” he asked Anla.
With a smirk she gently pulled a ball almost invisible from her knapsack. She handed it to Sakilei, who broke it. It was his voice, murmuring in his sleep.
“Who is ‘Mr. Muffins’?” Telbarisk asked.
“He was a stuffed toy I had…never mind. It’s not important,” he said, then turned to Anla. “Good, I’m glad you’ve figured out how to make the containment more sturdy. It comes in handy when you need to remember things or convey messages you can’t be present for.”
“Or for reminding people that they need to do errands,” she said dryly.
“And what of your ongoing training in tone?”
Telbarisk stepped back and walked alongside Al, who was struggling to keep up with the group. He offered to switch packs, but Al just shook his head. After a few hundred feet, Al asked, “Do you think I’m a hard person to be around?”
“No,” he said. “Do you feel that you are?”
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but it’s hard for me to figure out what they are, like catching rain in your hands. I’m starting to think that I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I don’t know if that’s true, though, and it makes me confused.”
“What is one thing that you are questioning?”
“Mainly the teachings of Tichen. For the longest time it’s been the tools in which I disassemble life and fix it. That’s how I understand things. But, I’m starting to see that maybe Raulin has a point when he says that Tichen’s philosophy can’t exist in the real world. I’ve been ignoring it for a while now, but maybe he’s right and maybe I need to break myself of those habits.”
“Breaking habits is a difficult thing to do,” Tel said.
“It is. And I don’t know how to do it. How do you be, or become, a better man when there is nothing and no one to tell you what is good and what is bad?”
“My people do not tell each other how to act. Parents tell their children to do or not do certain things, to protect them, but we learn more by a motto of sakresk, bravesk, and maltesk. It is not as poetic in Ghenian, but it basically means ‘be still, watch, and reflect’.
“When we are children we learn how to behave by watching the adults, which we cannot do if we are talking and playing. First we learn to be quiet, to sit near the adults. Then we listen and watch what they do and say. We wait for opportunities to appear and we think about them when they have passed. Then, when the time arrives, we remember what the adult did, whether we agreed or not, and we do or not do what they did.”
Al thought about this for a moment. “Do you think I’ve talked too much when I should have been listening?”
“I think there have been some moments when others were speaking that I thought were good to reflect upon that you moved in a different direction. You decided to argue or fill the void or ignore the situation. I am not saying what you did was wrong, for you, but I learned something by watching everyone react to the words being said.”
“You’re not just a quiet man, you’re reflecting,” Al said.
“If I thought my words would have value, I would speak more often. Silence is the best way to understand while not offending, confusing, or misleading.”
Al nodded slowly in thought. “What have you learned of Ghenians, then?”
“They are varied, much more so than my people. They do not reflect much and spend great amounts of time wondering why their lives are unhappy, while not making any changes to affect that problem. They are vibrant, though, and their happiness is hard not to feel.” He looked down at Al. “I do enjoy Gheny. It’s people are interesting and those that are willing to speak with me offer quite a bit of rich conversation that I’ve treasured.”
“How should I do it, this ‘esk’ thing your people do?”
“It’s easiest during times when you are already still, like tonight around the fire. We converse every night and it gives everyone a chance to learn from each other.”
Al simply nodded his head. Tel put his massive hand on his shoulder and said, “I like that you are opening yourself to this way of thought. I think it will be good for you. And, I see that it means you are trying to live, which makes me happy for you.”
“I don’t know if that’s the case. I feel like my house was set on fire in the middle of the night and I’m left sifting through the ashes, trying to find things that are salvageable. The loss is almost unbearable. I’m still trying to figure out whether I should rebuild or…”
Tel squeezed his shoulder once. “We’ll be here for the rebuilding.”
When the sky began to tinge with a violent shade of pink, the group found a place a hundred or so feet off the Route of the Woods and made camp. Raulin had taken over cooking duties in the days since they had left Kikiyan, giving Al the time to do what he felt was best.
Tonight’s meal was a seasoned stew in the Caiyuzet fashion, a sweet-spicy concoction with lentils, carrots, celery, and chunks of seared beef (added later so that Tel could enjoy the rest). He would have tossed in kompuesto, but there hadn’t been any at the market, not surprisingly since it was a foreign vegetable that few in Gheny knew about. He’d added watercress to simulate the same crunch.
“You’re good at this,” Anla said quietly to Raulin, hoping Al wouldn’t overhear and feel discouraged. “Why haven’t you done this before?”
“I almost always travel alone, and when I do, I cook for myself. I’ve learned how to pick melons at the right ripeness, I’ve learned how to tell from smell which spices are the best quality, and I don’t scrimp on food. If I’m going to be sleeping on the hard ground, maybe in the rain, I at least want a good meal in my belly.
“But if you mean why haven’t I cooked for you three, it’s because someone else was always doing it. Usually the wizard. And I’m not going to take away a job from someone who wants to do it and does a decent job at it.”
Sakilei broke into their discussion. “What is this called?” he asked, sopping up the rest of the meal with a hunk of white bread.
“Souselay, from Caiyuzet. It’s a peasant dish from the Konqui region.”
“I assume you’ve been there?”
“A few times, maybe five.”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s one of the countries of the Empire, which don’t differ too much in culture. Warm most of the year, rainy the rest. There are jungles there so thick that tribes will disappear inside for decades and cities so thick with people that it’s never quiet or lonely. I’d say the defining thing that I remember about Caiyuzet is the people pay attention to details. The glass work on their doors, for example, is often in two bars down the sides, the wrought iron twisting into patterns encrusted by the colored glass. Every door tells a story of the family; what the patriarch does for a living, how many children he has, when he was married.”
As Raulin continued to speak of Caiyuzet and a few other places he’d been, Al sat and listened. When the conversation broke and the other three began setting up for their slumber, he took Tel aside. “I was still. I listened. I reflected. I want to know if I did it right.”
“And now I am listening,” Tel said, pausing to hear what Al was going to say.
“Raulin has traveled to many places. Sakilei wishes to travel, but has only traveled to places in Gheny. Anla recalls tales her father told her about a few places he had been to.”
Tel waited and when Al said no more, he said, “That is true.”
“You reflected upon facts. This is not wrong, but not really why we grivven reflect. Think as to what you can learn from what they did, not what they said.”
“They just talked, though.”
“That’s a correct answer.”
Al’s shoulders slumped.“I don’t understand.”
“What I’ve learned from watching Anladet, Raulin, and Sakilei tonight is that speaking to others about your past connects you to them. Asking questions shows you are interested in what the other has to say and that you want to learn about their experiences. That is friendship.”
“I’ve asked questions of Anla and Raulin before.”
“And sometimes they were the right questions. And sometimes they weren’t.”
“What were some ‘incorrect’ questions?”
“Alpine, I don’t think any questions are ‘incorrect’, just maybe not the best to ask at certain times and during certain kinds of conversations.”
“Please,” he said. “I don’t think I’m understanding this and I want to learn.”
Telbarisk sighed and thought for a few moments. “Do you remember the discussion we had when we were eating the soup in Baradan? It was about the to’ken people from the sea?”
“Yes. Raulin claims to have met them when he was shipwrecked and was telling us about them.”
“Do you think he was lying?”
“Then I did. I don’t know now, but I suppose I’d still say ‘yes’.”
“Why do you think Raulin would lie about that?”
“People lie to make themselves feel better about their boring lives or to keep people at arm’s length.”
“Do you think Raulin either needs to make things up because his life is boring or that he doesn’t want us to know him?”
“I’ve always felt he kept a lot of secrets and felt guilty about many things, so he shifted his reality a little so we would never know the real him.”
“And you believe he makes up stories about being shipwrecked and being saved by a to’ken the same as he has made up stories about visiting Caiyuzet and seeing their glass doors?”
After a few minutes, Al said, “I suppose not the mundane ones. I learned about Caiyuzet in school, so I knew he was being truthful.”
“And would you have asked the same type of questions of him that you had in Baradan of the to’ken tonight if you weren’t listening?”
“I don’t remember specifically what I asked him. I’m thinking they were probing questions, though.”
“Probing,” Tel said thoughtfully. “Yes, like you were poking him, trying to make him say something wrong.”
“I was probably trying to trip him up, is what it’s called. Making someone repeat answers to questions to find inconsistencies in their story so that you can prove they are lying. Do I do that often?”
“It’s something I’ve noticed you do frequently, yes.”
“I think I just hate it when people lie to me.”
“A thought to ponder, then: would you rather listen to an embellished tale from a friend or make certain they are always being truthful?”
“I would rather they be truthful…”
Tel held his hand up. “I am sorry to interrupt, Alpine. I’m going to suggest you ponder on this question more. Perhaps, hold it in your mind tomorrow when the others hold conversations with each other.”
Al nodded and laid down on his bedroll, staring into the fire long into the night.