"Welcome to Sedu Niyama!" Niku said proudly when they were about to pass under the heavy gates set in the glistening white walls. The caravan had finished crossing the desert a few days ago and had finally arrived safely to the grand marketplace. Far more than just a collection of merchants, it was a heavily fortified city built on an artificial and reinforced staggered hill. Outside was vast farmland built around a myriad of irrigation canals from the winding river that reflected the sunlight like a giant, shimmering spiderweb. The Scissortails' eyes were wide with wonder as they entered Sedu Niyama.
"You could fit five Wynfalls in here!" Shanku exclaimed.
"And twenty times the cutpurses," Niku warned. "Keep your moneypouches securely tucked deep within your clothes, and keep close so we don't get separated."
The caravan quickly disbanded and the merchants hastily went to pay tribute to the lords of the city so they could freely sell their wares in the bazaars. Pilgrims went straight away to the temples. Guards tiredly trudged to their quarters to rest before they had to accompany another train. Camel pullers had their grumpy beasts unloaded and dragged to their stables for well deserved rest. Other travellers disbursed to their own wants. The city was bustling with humans, centaurs, gryphons, cyclops, snake-like naga, many creatures the Scissortails had never heard of before much less seen, and even kurach. The city appeared to be built entirely of pale stones that were then garnished with hanging fabrics of bold colours and geometric patterns. The grandest buildings were supported by great stone columns bridged by pointed arches, with rounded roofs that came to a sharp tip, topped with a metallic spire. Niku skillfully lead them through the crowded streets to a reputable inn where they and their animals could rest and eat.
"I don't know what I want to do first!" Shanku said excitedly. "Eat, explore, shop, have a bath, have a drink..."
"Drink," Katari said quickly. "My throat is so dry I think I may permanently have sand lodged in my gullet!"
"Drink plentifully now that we have ready access to water again," Niku laughed and asked an attendant passing outside their room to bring them a large jug and cups.
"I never thought water would taste so good," Katari said happily after downing two cups straight. "The sand has now become mud." His comment solicited a giggle from Shanku but Niku shook his head.
"Sedu Niyama prizes honesty above all else, even in jest. Please be careful how you speak when in the city," Niku warned. "Liars have their tongues removed. Thieves lose their hands. Rapists and adulterers are parted from their adulthood. All crimes are dealt with harshly here and the laws are very strict."
"Now I'm not wanting to leave the room," Shanku said uneasily. What would these crazy people have done to me as a cub!?
"That would be the only way to manage so many people in here," Ina mused as she gazed out the window. "How else could they make sure so many different creatures get along?"
"Sedu Niyama also allows a great deal of freedom. So long as you are respectful, you can worship at any temple, read any book at any library, receive care at the hospital, and hold any job in your social rank."
"What's a hospital?" Shanku asked innocently.
"A great building of many physicians to heal the sick and train other physicians," Niku explained. "Do you not have hospitals in L'aernth?"
"No, we don't," Shanku said. "You visit a healer or apothecary's home, usually with a gift for their services like food or an offering of work, and in Wynfall the barbershops were kind of a catch-all and cure-all for what ails you."
"I will not be staying in this teeming anthill long enough to pick every last blob of brain in the hospital," Hilael said shortly when he saw Ina look eagerly in his direction and begin to open her mouth. She pursed her lips in a pout and turned her head. "You said you didn't live here, right, Niku?"
"No, I am from a village three weeks' travel from here," Niku replied. "We will only be staying long enough to restore our strength. I must return soon. My sire greatly desires Lita and her daughters to join the herd."
"The sooner, the better," Shanku muttered uneasily as she joined Ina at the window and watched the writhing throng below.
"If we stay quiet, keep our hands to ourselves, and follow Niku like ducklings, we can still go out and see the city," Katari suggested cheerily to Shanku. "Look, there! You can see part of the market from here. Look at all those fruits, baubles, and rugs. Monkeys darting all over the place just like in Mruha! Aren't you just the least bit curious?"
"Right now I want to go back to the mountains and worship Sargund and Sigrid both for making me slave away with a tone-deaf dragon and haughty dwarf instead of chopping me up like an onion," Shanku said grumpily.
"Are you a thief or a warrior?" Niku asked with a raised eyebrow.
"I was taken captive by pirates many years ago," Shanku explained. "When I escaped, I took a wild goat that I afterward found out belonged to the Highland kurach. So, yeah, unwilling thief, once an unknowing thief, and since a willing soldier with a grudge against brigands. Sedu Niyama would carve me up and butcher me like a Dolagog goose if they'd been the ones to catch me."
"I see," Niku said with concern.
"Surely they would make allowances for circumstances," Katari said. "It was comply or die."
"'Tis better to die a clean, honourable person than to live a dishonourable, dirty life," Niku corrected.
"I guess you'll be wanting another bodyguard then?" Shanku asked flatly.
"You're in luck, friend," Niku said with a sly grin. "I am a kurach from a small village, not a large city that must more closely follow the laws of the king, and the emperor is more lenient than the king of Sedu Niyama. Arbos enacts similar punishments as the Highland, and only as a last resort for repeat offenders doles out such terrible penalties."
"When can we go out?" Ina asked eagerly. "And where is the nearest access to a bathing river? I want to get some travel dust off me, and then go shopping!"
"Our first stop will be a bath house!" Niku said and urged them to follow him.
A few buildings down from the inn was the public bath house. It was much more elaborately built than the small hut in the Skihva village. Part of the river was diverted into the city by a series of aquaducts, siphons, and pumps to supply Sedu Niyama with plenty of fresh water for drinking and cleaning. The bath houses each had a courtyard of fountains and paved stones just past the entance to welcome guests. Beyond the courtyard the bath house was divided into a plethora of chambers for the pools. Shanku, Ina, and even Innugati were promptly sent towards the section dedicated to the females and Niku lead Hilael and Katari away.
"Did you hear Niku talk about a steam room?" Ina asked excitedly. "Imagine it: a hot bath!"
"Did that in the mountains in the hot springs," Shanku replied. "I would much rather be soaking privately in a hot spring than here with all these strange women."
"You're pretty strange yourself, vulture-wings," grumbled a passing cyclop. "I hope all that black dye does not stain the water."
"I was hatched with these colours, I'll have you know," Shanku said. The cyclop sniffed in derision and continued to exit.
"Oh! This is nice," Ina purred as she eased into the water. "It's not a Nyre creek, but I'm not complaining!"
"Feels good on my sore muscles," Shanku agreed and rested back against the wall. The water was chest deep and a seat was built along the edge of the pool. Shanku and Ina quietly relaxed and scrubbed themselves clean. Innugati remained protectively perched on their belongings and trilled at any who came too close to her. Merchants and attendants passed by with casual frequency peddling and offering perfumes, oils, and other scented items for their visitors to acquire, but the sensitive noses of the kurach wrinkled at the stout odours. Ina would politely decline and Shanku would duck under the water.
"The inn was awfully kind to lend us these clothes to use while ours were sent to the fullers," Ina said as she stretched out on an etched stone slab for the furred and feathered guests to dry themselves in the warm sunshine.
"We all now travel with three sets of clothes," Shanku noted. "What we left wearing and our winter clothes from the Nyre, and what Niku bought us in Sedu Niyama. Heh, well, Hilael lost one of his britches in the jungle, but still has his tunic from home."
"I wonder what all else we'll end up bringing home with us?" Ina thought aloud. "Katari has that bison hide, we've got those little pouches and raincoats he made for us, these flowing desert dresses, and all the things in my drawing book."
"We're not even halfway through the Foterutu yet either!" Shanku said with delight.
"Maybe we can buy a camel for all our stuff?" Ina asked with a light-hearted laugh.
"Maybe we can buy an animal with a more agreeable temperment than a camel," Shanku shuddered. "Damned long-legged dwarves, the lot of them!"
Shanku and Ina alternated between chatting and dozing as they finished drying, got dressed, and returned to the courtyard to wait for their companions. They were beginning to worry when the others finally came out. Innugati returned to her position on Hilael's shoulder, chattering and scolding him for arriving late and allowing them to be separated. He stroked her back with his finger as an apology.
"I was starting to think you had drowned!" Ina said. "What took so long?"
"Lost in conversation with a fascinating lizard," Katari said sheepishly.
"The inn will be serving dinner soon. Let's return to the inn, have a good meal, and we'll be up early to visit the stalls in the morning," Niku said. Shanku's mouth began to water and almost lead the way back to the inn. They were served wheat bread with a bowl of seasoned lentil soup and a few dried figs. Ina was the most eager to see the bazaars and was first to rise in the morning. After Niku had checked in on the camels and aqilans, he took them shopping.
A cacophony of grunting and squealing animals, merchants shouting their catalogs, and casual and sometimes heated conversation of browsers and hagglers rose up from the crowded streets. Each stall seemed to be dedicated to only one type of good, and had a great deal of it for sale. Bowls and jars of aromatic spices, green and purple herbs, juicy fruits, and oddly-shaped vegetables. Colourful beads of glass and wood, dazzling jewelry, clothes and fabrics from the most mundane to the most elaborate, and expertly woven carpets hanging from the ceiling and racks. Pots, plates, cups, and bowls of ceramic, metal, and wood on the earthen, sandy walkways and wooden shelves. Small, bizarre animals in cages. Paintings, statues, and artwork of every hue and kind. Various crafters offering their services for custom works if the material feast before them was insufficient. Street chefs boiling stews, frying meats, and baking breads added their delicious wares to the busy city.
"They have a stall for everything!" Ina squealed.
If Ina manages to memorize all this for her journal, I will have to formally admit to under-estimating her attention span, Shanku thought as she watched the giddy dam bounce from vendor to vendor.
"Do you see anything you like?" Niku asked when she got distracted at one of the many bead stalls.
"Some of these would make a nice charm to add to my purse," Ina said as she inspected the baubles more closely.
Shanku nudged Katari in the ribs with her elbow and nodded to the two carefully selecting the best colourful trinkets for purchase. "I don't think I'm the reason he's asking us to go to the village," she muttered.
"Definitely not," Katari mumbled back. "He's been all over her from the start."
"And she's been off of me," Hilael said blissfully. "They have a lot of fascinating herbs at this stall!"
"Should we be concerned?" Shanku asked warily.
"His bodyguard should have been one of the better fighters at his village and he died on the trip, and Niku has seen how you handle yourself in a match. I don't think he's dumb enough to try anything. Let her enjoy herself," Katari replied.
"I got a great deal on these medicinal herbs," Hilael said and tucked the pouches into the long strip of fabric that was serving as his belt. "Should any of you be unfortunate to fall ill, you'll certainly enjoy what I've got."
Shanku frowned at her brother and dropped the subject. Ina finally settled on the pieces she wanted to use to make her charms, purchased two more blank books to draw and write in, and was satisfied. The kurach spent the day at the market and Niku treated them to a bowl from a soup stall for their midday meal. With their curiosity properly satisfied, Shanku, Hilael, and Katari were content to rest at the inn and enjoy the parks and gardens. Ina was keenly interested in the library, and spent the duration of her stay at the library with Niku. With Ina distracted, Hilael felt relaxed enough to follow her to the library without being asked, and browsed books on herbs and healing that were allowed to be read outside of the hospitals.
"Onward once more!" Shanku said cheerily as they packed their belongings on the day they were to leave. Niku collected his camels and aqilans, and they were on their way. Shanku breathed a heavy sigh of relief when they exited the city.
"Farewell, civilization. Hello, open road of thieves, bandits, brigands, and cut-throats!" Ina sighed.
"It is much safer through here than on the sands. We should be fine," Niku said warmly. He and Ina became engaged in conversation once again and Shanku rolled her eyes.
"Twitterpated!" Shanku murmured in disgust. "Apparently this past week was just a sign of what was to come."
"There's not a romantic bone in your body, is there?" Katari asked.
"Nope," Shanku said bluntly. "It ain't in me to be all delicate and flirty, no matter how much you and Ina keep asking me about it."
"How do you plan to ever settle down with somebody then?"
"Well I suppose if they can take a hit and keep up with me, I might keep them," Shanku said with a fanged grin.
"What if they can take a hit better than you can and leave you behind?" Katari teased.
"Then they ain't doin' a good job of keeping up with me, now are they?" Shanku said pointedly.
"I suppose not," Katari replied. He noticed some grey birds with small white spots cackling nearby and soon he and Shanku were busy talking about their observations on the wildlife and plantlife.
Hilael looked at the little fairy dragon on his shoulder with a sly smile. "Twitterpated, indeed." Innugati trilled in agreement and then judgementally cocked her head to the side. "You're all I can handle, 'Gati, and all I want," Hilael said softly. Innugati arched her back and rubbed against his neck before settling down again.
The grasslands outside of Sedu Niyama were different than the ones they had traversed through to get to the desert. The grass was long and tall, and the trees were slender with flat canopies. They saw strange, spotted creatures just as tall as the trees nibbling at the leaves. All the animals they passed by had interesting patterns of spots, stripes, and broad splashes of colour.
"Ah, it's good to be home," Niku sighed happily as the smoke from distant cooking fires were seen drifting up to the skies. They were welcomed heartily when they arrived in Arbos and the villagers lavished praises on Niku for bringing Lita and her daughters to them. The aqilans in question appeared mostly indifferent and mildly annoyed at the crowd of people hovering around them. When he was asked where his escort was that had been sent with him, Niku relayed his unfortunate fate. There was a moment of silence to honour the fallen villager, and then praises directed to the Scissortails for helping Niku return to them safely. Niku politely excused himself and lead his companions to his home.
"Welcome home, my son!" Tarek called out from a pasture when he saw Niku. He strode out immediately to greet him and to inspect the aqilans. "Ah, yes, yes," he nodded as he felt all three from nose to hoof to tail. "Good, strong legs. Soft fur. A firm back. They will make an excellent addition to the herd! And who are your friends?" Niku explained the misfortunate demise of his original escort, how Shanku had saved his life, and then became his new escort.
"A thousand thanks for seeing him home safely! We are in your debt," Tarek said as he bowed lowly to the dark-winged dam. Shanku shifted her weight uncomfortably and murmured an acknowledgement. "I will see the camels and aqilans safely to the stables. Go, greet your mother. She has been worrying."
Niku nodded and invited the Scissortails to come with him to their house, one of three somewhat close together connected by paved walkways. The family home was two stories high and had a cellar dug out beneath the house, covered in a similar pale, smooth stucco as they had seen in parts of Sedu Niyama, and as flat and rectangular as many of the buildings they had seen in the city. The ground floor was paved with tiles that felt good on Shanku's hot feet, and the center of the house was open around the four large beams that were the main support for the roof. Dalia was in the kitchen toward the back, kneading out dough to be baked and served with the evening meal. When she saw her son, she calmly cleaned her hands and embraced him.
"I missed you too, mother," Niku said affectionately. Dalia inquired about his guests and he told his story.
"We are indebted to you. Please, stay the winter with us. It's late in the year and it will be dangerous to travel," Dalia invited them.
"We wouldn't want to impose on your hospitality. We'd be glad to help with any chores you would have us do," Ina said graciously. "The loss of a good hand is severe enough without the burden of more mouths to feed with nothing in return."
"Indeed," Dalia agreed. "I shall work out a place for each of you tomorrow. Today, rest, and enjoy yourselves! Supper will be finished in a few hours. Our home is your home."
The Scissortails bowed to her and Niku offered a tour. He showed them where they would be eating and sleeping, where the great room and latrine were located, and took them back outside to show off the stables.
"Welcome back to Arbos, Niku!" a voice came merrily from before the house.
"Greetings, Zos!" Niku called back.
"I hear your escort met an early end," Zos said with concern.
"And an ignoble death. A viper in the night," Niku said solemnly.
Zos shook his head and grunted. He noticed the Sylvans and grinned broadly. "Welcome to our fair village, travellers!"
"Howdy, Zos! You still arguin' with merchants and captains when you're in Janihi Kleust?" Shanku asked mischievously.
Zos' expression turned serious and he looked her up and down. "Who are you? I have not been to the port in years."
"Shanku Ravenwing of the late Merriweather," Shanku said with an elaborate, sweeping bow. "You always had Captain Morgan saying such pretty words when he came back to the ship!"
"You grew up, you little scamp!" Zos exclaimed. "Wait, you lived? I heard the ship was sunk with no survivors."
"Fate played many cruel tricks on the moody sea," Shanku said nervously, slowly remembering Niku's warnings about the laws in Bhadarukia.
"Morgan was a good man. A hard ass. But, a good man," Zos said. "I'm less surprised now that Niku made it back safely. Morgan said you were handy with a blade on the seas. What are you doing up here?"
Shanku explained the custom of the Sylvan Foterutu and introduced her brother and their friends.
"Well met," Zos said warmly. "When serpents are not an issue, we train some of the finest warriors and mercenaries in the kingdom! You should come by and see them tomorrow. Tonight, all of you need a good rest from your long journey. You'll receive a much better quality rest out here in the open skies than hemmed up in that wretchedly crowded city!"
Shanku thanked him and they were soon called by Niku's mother to supper. It was another lentil soup with wheat loaves, more heavily seasoned than what the inn had offered, and then they were shown to their bedrooms.
Shanku rose early, as always, to do her morning martial practices before breakfast. She found her hosts already up and working. Dalia and her three daughters were busy preparing porridge for the first meal of the day. Tarek and Niku were outside tending the garden shared between them and their extended relatives.
"You are free to go as you please, as Mother directs," Niku said after he had stood and stretched. "I must help Father with the new aqilans."
"I'll be heading into the village and finding Zos," Shanku stated. "Maybe he'll let me practice with these 'mercenaries' so I can get us back across the desert safely."
"Do you want company?" Katari asked.
"It's your turn to get left behind to heal and rest," Shanku said with a devilish grin. "If you complain, I'll make one of Granny Misen's poultices for your scar."
"It's been a month, I'm fine!" Katari protested. Shanku deftly poked his side before he had time to avoid her and yipped loudly.
"You need to rest," Shanku said firmly. "Lay around. Watch the birds. Admire the gardens. Just finish healing! I want to go stalking with you for one of those horned things we passed by on our way here, and you need to be fully mended for that."
Katari sighed with resignation and went out back to the terrace to lay on one of the benches in the shade. Hilael and Innugati shortly joined him to enjoy the quiet and peaceful day, and to watch the ripples in the ponds from nibbling fish and the gently blowing breeze. Ina decided to follow Niku's mother around the house to help with domestic chores. Shanku struck out into the village to find Zos.
Shanku had expected a modest collection of tents or huts and hadn't been able to get a close look on their way by the previous day as Tarek's ranch was outside the village and Niku had been eager to get home. Arbos was a properly built town with tidy streets and a low wooden wall to discourage the more mundane animals in the area from roaming freely inside, like wild dogs and swine. After stopping to ask directions, she soon found Zos.
"Ah, you came!" Zos said cheerily. "What do you think of our little hamlet?"
"It's beautiful," Shanku said honestly.
"As I'm sure you can tell, trade has been great! We've been able to become a small influence in our kingdom, and our citizens thrive because of it," Zos said proudly.
"It's such a long walk down to the port. Why don't you just trade with Sedu Niyama?" Shanku asked with a puzzled expression.
"Anybody can sell local products to local people," Zos scoffed. "But in the south, where Bhadarukia, Mruha, and L'aernth easily meet in such a pleasant and balmy environment, there is much profit to be made!"
"Still a lot o' walkin'," Shanku said.
"Nah," Zos waved her off. "The Iele river isn't that far away and both ends meet the ocean. We cruise the river, sail the sea, and arrive much more safely to Kior Bay where we have our choice of Janihi Kleust in Bhadarukia, Ila-tyaq in Mruha, or if we felt like it, we could go all the way to Port Tephras in L'aernth. I hear there are a lot of pirates skulking the islands to Tephras, so we just stick to this side of the Southern Mruha Sea. And, since we live between the river and Sedu Niyama, merchants must pass by us frequently, which has increased the availability of other things we needed here, like medicine. They said the river couldn't be navigated! But we did it! And now they must respect us."
"What all do you trade?" Shanku asked curiously. "I never really paid attention when I was sailing on the Meriweather."
"Livestock, mostly. Goats, sheep, horses, donkeys, mules, camels, aqilans, and servants."
"Servants?" Shanku asked suspiciously.
"Our servants are sent strictly to other kingdoms," Zos said wryly. "They are not your average slave. They are trained militia, and the other kingdoms know it. Helps with loyalty and all."
"Why would anybody buy a soldier for house chores?" Shanku asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Wouldn't you want a washerwoman with martial precision and strictness? Cleanest underwear you'll ever have!" Zos said. "Besides, we only send ours off to nobles. It's common practice in Bhadarukia among allies. It ensures loyalty with so many potential assassins in your chambers, and allows for a life of relative luxury for the servant."
"Interesting," Shanku murmured.
"It can be!" Zos chuckled. "So, care to buy a few for your clan in L'aernth?"
"I'll pass until we have something similar to offer, thank you," Shanku said with a naughty smile.
"Fair enough," Zos nodded.
"Although, I do have a favour to ask," Shanku said slowly.
"Speak! Perhaps I can grant your request."
"May I train with your warriors? We've been invited to stay the winter with Tarek's family, but eventually we must leave, and we'll have to cross the desert again. I want to be better prepared to defend my little family."
"Ahhh," Zos said knowingly. "We cannot give away all our secrets, of course, but a little preparation for handling the marauders won't hurt. I'll see what I can do."
"I am in your debt," Shanku said humbly.
"One that I may cash in on," Zos warned with a sly smile. "Be prepared to negotiate the terms before you leave."
Shanku nodded and Zos took her to the barracks.
Dalia set her daughters and Ina to their looms, then strode out to the terrace where Hilael and Katari were dozing in the warm morning sun. "Come along, young bucks, there is work for you to do, too, and the servants are all busy at the loom and the kiln." Katari complied and followed her as to the stables. "Can either of you handle a beast of burden?"
"Does Shanku count?" Katari asked.
"You handled her so well you were left behind this morning," Hilael teased and Katari made a disgusted face at him.
"Just hold a firm hand on the reins and keep it calm," Dalia said as she attached a tether to the bridle on the donkey she intended to harness to the cart.
"Where are we going?" Katari asked.
"To trade," Dalia stated. "We need some more eggs, oil, dye, salt, spices, a hog, and to retrieve the grain we left at the mill."
"A hog? I thought we were going to market, not hunting."
"The Bhadarukians managed to tame swine, cattle, and many other creatures. A nice, fat hog raised on barley and then cured will be a nice supplement to our diet over the winter. We'll be picking it up last. I don't want to listen to the squealing more than necessary."
Dalia passed the reins to Katari. He looped part of it around his hand twice, patted the side of its neck, and began to walk with it. Dalia stopped by the storehouse to load up some items that were ready to be used for trade. They lived a decent walk from the village and a full candlemark had passed by the time they arrived. Most of the inhabitants were human and a few were kurach, and all deeply tanned. There were many stalls set along the main street through the village where other villagers were selling their harvests or crafts. Dalia's first stop was at the stall of a dark kurach with a mountain of curls on her head.
"More eggs, Madame Dalia?" Adeelah asked cheerily.
"Yes, dear Adeelah, and I see you have a few chickens, too."
"Oh, yes, we had an abundance of chicks this year! And now we have too many to keep over the winter."
"Give me two birds, if you please."
They spent a moment haggling over the price of a basket of eggs and two chickens before exchanging items and coins. Dalia had similar interactions with the other vendors until her cart was almost empty of what she had left with and nearly full of what she had gone to fetch.
"Ah, I should have just enough left for a hog!" Dalia said. They went outside the village to the miller to gather a few sacks of flour ground from grain that had been left behind a few days ago, and then she began to lead them down a different road that went out away from the village.
"Are all the livestock are kept in pastures away from the village?" Katari asked.
"Naturally," Dalia replied. "Now, Hilael, I hope you can keep a firm hand on the rope as well. Pigs can be opinionated about being pulled along. You may have to trade places with Katari since the donkey is feeling passive today." Hilael looked worriedly at Katari, who in return winked at him.
The swineherd's wife welcomed her customers heartily. Dalia presented her payment, and Hilael was left behind with the donkey while Dalia and Katari were taken to the pen where the hogs for sell were being kept. Katari nervously eyed the large hog whose back easily reached his hips, and wondered if perhaps he and Hilael both should be wrestling it home. Where is Shanku when I need her?
The swineherd's wife expertly lassoed the boar, and with a little assistance from Katari, had him dragged out of the pen ready to go to his new home. "Mind the tusks, now, son!" she called out to him cheerily as they began to leave. Katari could barely hear her over the pitiful wailing and screeching the hog was making about having to be almost dragged every step of the way home. Katari was thoroughly winded and his bad side was aching fiercely when he finally managed to get it home and tied to a post for Tarek to butcher the next day. Hilael frowned and shook his head. After he had helped Dalia unload her cart, he made a poultice to ease the pain under Katari's ribs.
"You are a physician?" Dalia asked curiously when she saw Hilael applying his concoction.
"Apothecary," Hilael corrected. "I'll stitch a wound, but I don't do surgeries, amputations, or tooth extractions like the ones nearby in the city, and only in a pinch will I serve as a midwife to labouring beasts or fellow intelligent species."
"A healer of any following is invaluable when wandering through the wilderness," Dalia said.
"Regardless of their bedside manner, I suppose," Katari grumbled. Hilael merely narrowed his eyes at his patient.
"If you are of any use in the kitchen, I would appreciate your assistance. Perhaps there are a few things I can teach you about my herbs," Dalia said and motioned for him to follow.
"Yes, ma'am," Hilael responded and followed her. "Might as well put more focus on culinary herbs since our two mighty hunters only know how to apply fire." Hilael did not see it with his back turned, but Katari stuck his tongue out its full length at him as he left the room.
Tarek, Niku, and Shanku came wandering in close to supper time. Ina was nearly as tired as they were when she kneeled at the low table to eat. Bethany, Huldah, and Mitzi were telling how much weaving they had completed, and how well Ina did for her first time at a loom. Tarek and Niku shared how well the new aqilans were adjusting to their new home and their hopes for introducing them to the rest of the herd. After supper, all of them retired to the common room.
"What's that smell?" Shanku asked suspiciously and stared at Katari.
"Katari over-exerted himself wrestling a hog almost bigger than he was back from market," Hilael explained, despite Katari glaring at him to be quiet.
"I thought I told you to stay home and finish healing?" Shanku asked with narrowed eyes and a raised eyebrow.
"It's only right to try to earn my keep," Katari protested. "I did more around here today than you did!"
"Where did you get off to?" Ina asked pleasantly.
"Training," Shanku said shortly. "Zos got me in with the mercenaries. I won't be one of them, but at least I'll be better prepared for future encounters when we cross the desert again. They'll let me drop by three times a week."
"Then you can take my place helping with the butchering tomorrow and be useful," Katari retorted.
"If I'm needed. Otherwise, I'll be practicing," Shanku stated.
"Sounds great! Like that soup. Hilael could become quite the chef with Dalia teaching him," Ina said quickly in an attempt to diffuse the hostility.
"Are you having disagreements...?" Tarek asked slowly.
"YeNso," came the garbled, mixed reply from Katari, Ina, and Shanku.
"I see," Tarek nodded. "Very revealing."
Katari sighed. "Ever since the first bandit raid when we started crossing the grasslands, Shanku has been becoming increasingly aggressive." He then glared at her. "She is not the same person we set out with over a year ago."
"And for once you're not being serious," Shanku countered. "Either we cross back over the desert, or we take the river to the ocean and sail back around to Mruha to meet pirates, but either way, there's bound to be plenty of thieves, robbers, and killers waiting for us."
"How is that any different from anywhere else we've been?" Katari asked. "Our first lesson after leaving the Nyre was to obtain our human forms so we could sneak past soldiers of Wynfall and safely book passage on a ship in Tephras!"
"It just is," Shanku said lamely. "I'm going outside."
Katari rubbed his eyes tiredly as Shanku left the room. Ina gave him a rub on the shoulder and then followed Shanku.
"Perhaps I can help. Tell me what is wrong," Tarek said patiently.
"Some years ago, Shanku used to be part of the crew of a good trade ship. It was attacked by pirates and she saw all of her crew killed, then was kidnapped and forced to serve on a pirate ship. The only reason she managed to escape is because the captain sent some of the crew to kill her. She managed to end them instead, and fled. Something about the bandit raids kept triggering those memories, and she keeps obsessing over our welfare," Katari explained. "I understand her concern, but this personality change is difficult."
"Fear is a hard thing to overcome after such an ordeal," Tarek said thoughtfully. "Try to be patient. She'll be fine in time."
Katari nodded and stared at the floor.
"You need another application," Hilael said. "Hold still." Katari wrinkled his nose against the foul-smelling concoction, but complied.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?" Mitzi asked as she held her nose. "Do that outside next time!"
Outside, where it was considerably more aromatic, Shanku was leaning against a tree and staring at the stars in the distance. Ina casually walked up and stood nearby for a moment.
"If you're coming to nag me about being inadequate too, I'm getting plenty enough from Katari," Shanku growled.
"No, darling, I think that's all you," Ina said bluntly. "And, believe me, I get it. Hilael and I are terrible fighters and can barely take care of ourselves, so it falls all on you and Katari. And since you're the one who's already been accepted into the guard back home and Katari is just a food-finder, that's even more pressure on you. Then scores of bandits kept pouring in! Over and over! When one of those ugly brutes slipped through and got one of us, yeah, it was as much a blow to your pride as it was to his flank." Ina saw how sharply Shanku was glaring at her in the fading sunlight and decided to try to wrap it up. "I'm going to regret this in the near future, but, stop being so insecure and go back to being your upbeat, mischievous self!"
"It's not that easy," Shanku said after a pause.
"I... know that too," Ina sad and looked away. "If it hadn't been for Niku, I would have fallen apart out there. I just can't handle that kind of thing anymore. That boar... That stupid, unimportant, random boar really shook me up. I'm afraid of the pig tied up over there and I used to not be afraid of any animal! Well, maybe spiders and wasps." Ina stopped and looked at the large hog curled up in the dirt, snoring and grunting in its sleep. She visibly cringed and shuddered.
"I suppose now you'll have some grand lecture on being brave, facing fears, and getting over it so everybody else can stand to be around me again?" Shanku asked with mild annoyance.
"Pluck, no, 'cause then you'll make me help butcher that curly-tailed monster!" Ina said quickly. "I just wanted to try to make you feel better and let you know I can see where you're coming from. We're here for you." Ina gave Shanku a brief, warm hug, and then returned to the house. Shanku stayed outside for a while longer to stare at the stars.
Tarek awoke the whole household early, including their guests, to begin the long day of butchering and preserving their fresh hog. Katari went straight outside with Tarek while the others were finishing their morning grooming. Tarek whispered a few words over the beast, ended it's life speedily, and strung it up to bleed out.
"I don't know how you handle your kills on the hunt, but here, I expect swift mercy," Tarek said as he watched the lifeless boar.
"From what I've observed, all the kurach across the continents and islands share the same sentiment," Katari said. "Although sometimes there are disagreements on what parts of the animal will be eaten. I, personally, don't like feet or ears. Shanku will eat anything but the eyes and digestive tract."
Tarek eyed him warily. "I'm not overly fond of any of that. Ours and the surrounding kingdoms generally prohibit eating organs."
"Takes guts to make good sausage," Katari said with a shrug.
"Sausage?" Tarek asked curiously.
Katari grinned broadly. "Allow me to introduce you to a delicious ingredient for your bean soups."
"You'll be using intestines," Tarek said warily.
"I'm not asking you to eat souse! After you take your preferred cuts, leave what you don't want to me."
"What is..." Tarek began, thought better of it, and raised his hands. "Forget it. I don't want to know what 'saus' is. I assume only half as agreeable sounding as 'sausage'."
"I guess you don't eat much liver, kidney, or heart then, do you?"
"Hush, cub, you'll spoil my appetite!"
"Wait until you smell all the spices that go into sausage," Katari said. "I'll pay you back for the other ingredients."
The others came out to assist and the boar was ready for them to begin. It was an all day affair with breaks only for meals. There was a smokehouse separate from the house and stables, and had multiple drying racks outside of it. These were filled as quickly as Tarek, Niku, and Katari could prepare strips. Dalia got the coals stirred up and blustering, and maintained the fire while the others worked. When Tarek felt he had stripped all the useful pieces off, he left the carcass to Katari, who then took even more parts off to very finely mince up. Under his direction, Shanku cleaned and salted the intestines to be used as casing. Luckily, Dalia had a funnel about the size Katari needed, and many of the spices he desired. Very carefully, he started making sausage links. When he had finished, he tied some strings around the links for support, and put the links in and around the smokehouse to cure.
"You're going to love this when it's done!" Katari said proudly.
"Why did you save so many organs in that bowl?" Huldah asked.
"Too good to go to waste, of course," Katari replied, and grinned at her disgusted face. "Don't worry. Your sire already told me Bhadarukians don't eat much of that stuff, so I'll just fix this outside somewhere for us Arnthians."
The kurach were tired and ready to have their evening meal. Ina helped Dalia and her daughters prepare supper and Katari went outside to roast the fresh meat he had kept to the side. The Bhadarukian kurach shook their head disapprovingly sporadically through the meal as the Sylvans relished what Katari had roasted for them. After supper came the evening washings before bed.
Katari extended a palm to Shanku, and asked sheepishly, "would you hold this for me while I go for a walk?" Shanku couldn't help but grin at the ridiculous reguest. She took his hand and they wandered outside.
"If those two don't make up soon I'm going to fillet them both," Ina said flatly with an annoyed frown. Hilael nodded in agreement.
The air outside was cool and brisk, and they walked well out into the pastures. After they were a great length out of earshot, Katari flopped down in the grass, stretched out, and laced his hands behind his head.
"You wanted me to hold that for you while you were walking, and now you're wallowing on the ground. Should I leave?"
"You could join me and watch the stars," Katari suggested as smoothly as he could.
Shanku shrugged and laid down near by. "Same ol' stars we had in the Nyre."
"I dunno, some seem to have moved. It should be sometime in autumn, I would think. This dry air has thrown me off."
"Still looks like the same frog, heron, and centaur to me." Shanku turned to look at him in the dim light. "Did you drag me out here just to talk about constellations?"
"No," Katari said lowly. "I wanted to apologize."
Shanku raised an eyebrow. "For what?"
"I'm nervous to get back on the road, too," Katari said softly. "I know we haven't even been here a week and you've only spent one day training with the mercenaries, but you going away with them to practice for dealing with the bandits when we leave out again just reminds me that we'll have to cross paths with them again. I got overwhelmed on that last raid, lost my focus, and got stabbed because of it."
"They're also professional killers and robbers, and you're just a hunter. It's a different kind of warfare you're not used to," Shanku said.
"It's honestly not that much different than getting targeted by a minocentaur or panther out in the Nyre," Katari said simply. He unlaced his fingers from behind his head and laid his arms across his stomach. "But it just got to me."
Shanku was quiet for a moment as she listened to the wind rustle through the drying grass. "I couldn't wait to get off the ship. I kept repeating to myself over and over all the things we would see and do in Ila-tyaq to distract myself, but the hull felt like it was closing in on me and I whenever I saw a fish jump on the horizon I thought it was something else. We probably could have sailed to Bhadarukia, and it may have been less risky than trying to fly across the islands, but I was too scared to."
"Heh," Katari chuckled. "You're afraid of the water and I'm afraid of the land. We'll never finish the Foterutu at this rate!"
"We won't have to wait on a slow caravan when we go back across. I think we can clear it in half the time if we fly," Shanku said thoughtfully.
"Where will we get water? We can't do without for two weeks."
"Point," Shanku frowned. She sighed. "I'm sorry, too. I know I've been cranky. My mind keeps spiraling and showing me nasty scenes of everything that could possibly go wrong. Sometimes I can't think because of it all."
"So how are we going to help each other break this?"
"You're the know-it-all nag. You tell me," Shanku teased.
"You're the wily rebel. Surely you've already thought of some unorthodox approach," Katari teased back. He reached over and took her hand in his. "We'll figure this out. Hilael and Ina can't find their way home on their own. They need us to get them back safely someday."
The heat of his hand felt good to her chilled fingers and bad memories began to fade. "Distract me," Shanku said at length.
Katari glanced at her. "How?"
"I dunno. Just do something to snap me out of my head and back into reality when I start slipping away," Shanku said. "But don't be too obvious about it, because it won't work if you are."
"So I should bite your ears every time you get to brooding too much?" Katari asked naughtily.
"I didn't say that!" Shanku said as she flushed and was grateful for the dark of night.
"Worked just find out in the sands," Katari said in a low, rumbly tone. Shanku pulled her hand away and punched him in the shoulder, which made him yip.
"Geez, you're so violent!" he said and rubbed his shoulder with feigned hurt.
"I didn't hit you that hard, you'll live."
"It did hurt a little," Katari grumped. He heard the grasses rustling very specifically, and propped up on one elbow to look at her more closely. "You're shivering! We should go inside. It's gotten too cold out here."
"Actually," Shanku said and looked at him slyly. She scooted over and curled up to him. "I still haven't found that elusive hungry coyote constellation that comes out when food is getting scarce, and you promised when we were little cubs you'd help me find it one day."
Katari smiled softly, shook his head, and laid back down. They rolled to their sides with their bellies together to relieve some pressure on their wings, and stretched a wing over each other to help hold in their body heat. They talked long into the night about mundane things and serious things until finally they were both too cold to stay out any longer.
"I was starting to think you two froze to death out there and we'd have to preserve your carcasses next," Ina said when she saw Katari and Shanku the next morning on the terrace.
"I thought we were going to for a little while!" Katari said. "The temperature started dropping quickly out there."
"I'm bound to get warmed up more than enough to make up for it. It's back to the barracks today!" Shanku waved farewell to the Sylvans and skipped out the door.
"She's in an unusually pleasant mood for the first time in a long time. What did you do?" Ina asked coyly.
"Stargazed," Katari said innocently.
"That's all?" Ina asked with raised eyebrows and her head cocked to the side.
"And talked," Katari added. "A lot. I think we were able to work through some stuff."
"Good," Ina said smartly. "You've both been acting weird. All broody. Like Hilael."
"I'm sitting right here, you know," Hilael said with a frown.
"A—nywho," Ina said quickly, "Niku has invited to show me around Arbos with a rare day off from helping with the herd, and Dalia gave me permission to take a day off from weaving, so we'll be gone for a while."
"You two have fun. I want to try a hand at this weaving thing," Katari said. He excused himself and went inside to find Dalia and offer his help. At first Huldah protested about it being work only for dams, but Mitzi felt he would not be any good at it and be worth a laugh, and Bethany scolded them both for turning down help with the neverending yarn. Hilael was content to stay out in the garden to study his herbal notes with Innugati basking on his shoulder in the morning sunlight.
The grasses and distant trees were lit up in beautiful golden, russet, and crimson hues. What was left on the limbs, anyway. The brilliant colours were mostly littering the ground as many of the leaves had fallen to expose bare branches.
"'Tis a shame we arrived so late. Arbos is truly wondrous in early autumn," Niku commented. "At least you'll be here for the midwinter fire festival."
"Dolagog?" Ina asked hopefully.
"Good to see you still celebrate the old holidays, too," Niku said. Ina began to ask him a barrage of questions about celebrations, parties, and customs. "I suppose we kurach are more stubbornly set in our ways than mankind is," Niku observed when they had checked off their lists. "All our main holidays are the same."
"What about Arbos?" Ina asked curiously.
"A little more reserved. They tend to go all out for midwinter and the beginning of the planting season, and get so caught up in work they may spend a day or half-day for the other seasonal milestones. Then a few regional holidays for surviving or conquering something. Wait here a moment. There! The second bell. We may enter now."
"What's so special about the bells?"
"Life is harsh here in Bhadarukia. Dust storms, droughts, fires, famine, the unrelenting heat of summer, fierce predators including robbers, and restless ghouls who stalk the night. The spirits are proud and demanding if you seek their protection. So, with strict punctuality, prayers and offerings are made many times of the day, and many other rules and rituals followed just as sharply."
"Anything in particular I must know before we enter the village?"
"Speak little and watch much before you interact with the townsfolk. They can be a little rigid and skittish, and while they will make some allowance for you being a foreigner, they will eventually expect you to blend in as well as they. Sometimes even we Long Ears manage to shock them and draw their ire. Unless your life is in danger, I will not touch you or stand too close, nor walk behind you."
"Well, I would get lost if I lead!" Ina said.
Niku only smiled as they began to pass the first outlying building of the settlement. Where his mother had kept to the markets, Niku took her to the other areas. The humans lived almost exclusively inside the village and most of the structures were simply domestic, with up to eight houses across and two houses deep sharing walls to conserve construction material, but great pride was taken in their appearance and functionality. The houses were built with many angular and interlacing designs, decorative arches, with artwork even more pronounced on the windcatchers which channeled cool breezes into the hot homes during summer, and the monochrome mudbrick was offset by the myriad of flowers and herbs that had been planted in plots in front of the houses and little planters on the windows.
The temple was located in the middle of the village, topped with the rounded dome and spire like many buildings in Sedu Niyama. It had a grand courtyard of paved stones, with a fountain set in the center of it. Niku revealed this to be the main reason for his visit to the village. Ina gasped and held her breath a moment when they had entered inside. However lovely the exterior was could not compare to the pains taken on the interior. Elaborate arches and columns supported the celing and tiles were set in the ceiling in complex designs which in turn were reflected on the glossy and otherwise plain tiled floor. Candles and oil lamps were set in wall brackets, lamps, and hanging chandeliers throughout the holy place. Raw cedar was used for many beams and faintly perfumed the air in addition to the holy incenses. One chamber was dedicated to offerings and it was here that Niku stopped. He laid a very fine shroud delicately spun and woven from aqilan hair on the altar. In kurach tradition, he stood with his eyes closed and palms together before his chest for a moment.
"Do the spirits take away their offerings at night like ours do?" Ina asked when they were back outside.
"Some things, yes," Niku replied. "Food left in the morning may spoil before nightfall, so the clergy keep those. They dedicate their lives to the temple and cannot personally accept favors, so this is deemed fair. Afternoon offerings belong to the spirits, who will enter and accept their gifts. They don't appreciate being watched, and have been known to punish prying eyes who don't give them privacy."
"Not much different than the shrines back home, except the priestesses can garden to feed themselves," Ina noted. "May I ask what your offering was for?"
"Gratitude for a safe return," Niku said solemnly. "You never take anything for granted here."
Ina nodded respectfully. Niku was now at liberty to take her for a light lunch of mashed peas drizzled in hot sauce, garnished with onions and parsley, and rolled up in a flatbread. Afterward they strolled through the community gardens. He explained to her how they were grown largely for prayer and meditation, and that she mustn't pluck anything while visiting. "What's with the veils?" Ina asked curiously when she noticed most of the human women were covered in fabric almost head to toe. "We're not in the desert anymore. Are they really necessary?"
"Wards off parasites, originally," Niku explained. "Human women do a lot of the gardening. The carrion flies at times are the most beastly of all the plagues out here, and at one point some wise woman decided she would find a way to shield herself without overheating in the summer while also keeping warm in the winter without having to have a large wardrobe. Out in the sands it helps protect their bare skin from getting cut up by flying grains, scorched by the sun, or froze during the night, as you remember. Bhadarukians are very modest and creative as well, as I'm sure you noticed by all the patterns and dyes they use."
"They have public baths. How modest can they be?" Ina asked.
"Baths are baths, and public is public," Niku shrugged. "Further south where the heat gets much worse, there are some clans who will make wreaths of flowers and herbs to wear every single day to cover the smell of perspiration."
"Can't say I blame them for that," Ina said and stopped to admire a very large rose bush. She smelled it deeply and sighed happily. The other villagers had retired to their homes for their evening meals and the two kurach were alone. "Arbos is such a beautiful village!" Ina exclaimed as she walked freely through the gardens, enjoying the cool evening breeze and admiring the late lotus flowers floating in the pools.
"Not nearly as beautiful as you," Niku said softly and took her hand in his.
"Shameless flatterer," Ina said demurely.
"Is it working?" Niku asked playfully and pulled her close to him.
"That thoroughly depends on what your intentions are," Ina said with a twinkle in her eye and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"Saying a wish outloud means it won't come true," Niku said lowly and placed a hand on her cheek. "I don't want to risk it."
Ina smiled softly as Niku began to lean in. She tiptoed to bridge the gap and the young kurach shared a sweet kiss. "I see you wasted no time in disregarding the 'hands off' rule once the others weren't around."
"Well, of course. How can those two you travel with not realize what a treasure they have?" Niku asked. "It is an atrocity to have left ignored you so long."
"Well, I am a scribe's daughter, and they're a hunter and a gatherer. We come from different lots. Bhadarukia seems to be stricter about that kind of thing than we are, so I'm sure you understand," Ina replied. "Hilael doesn't seem interested in anything but plants, and I think there could be something with Katari, but he's afraid of my parents and I'm pretty sure he has a thing for Shanku. She, in turn, is just a wandering, unrefined brute. Not to mention it's the Foterutu, and this is the last time and place for a bad break-up."
"Perhaps my status would be more to your parents' liking then. As a breeder of fine aqilans, we are wealthy and well educated. They could find I am a better match," Niku said, still smiling gently. "You are well in my reach by my people's standards."
"It's a wonder they let such an important person make such a dangerous voyage by themselves for three animals, no matter how fine the lineage," Ina said with a smirk.
"We all must work for what we have, and personally selecting fine stock is part of my responsibilities," Niku stated.
"I can respect that," Ina admitted. She stood quietly for a moment, enjoying the warmth of his embrace in the cold breeze and how the setting sunlight lit his eyes up from seemingly black to a deep brown.
"Come, it's growing late. We should return before the ghouls come out," Niku said. Ina complied and they walked back to his parents' home, sharing dreams and secrets all the way.
"I think Niku is flirting with me," Ina said uneasily when she returned to the Scissortails and Niku had retired for the night.
"It's well past flirting and up to full on courting," Katari said over his shoulder to her. "I keep waiting to see you in a betrothal bracelet."
"The way you've been making butterfly eyes at him, I figured you'd be more excited announcing it," Shanku said. "What's wrong?"
"Well, for starters, it's the Foterutu!" Ina began. "We're not supposed to start seriously engaging with anybody until after we complete the journey."
"Says who?" Shanku retorted. "If you like the guy, go for it!"
"I don't know..." Ina said uncertainly. "Won't you miss me? I know I'm not useful, but don't you want me around?"
"What do you mean you're not useful?" Shanku asked as she cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow.
"Katari feeds us, you protect us, Hilael heals us, and I..." Ina trailed off again. "I don't do anything!"
"You," Shanku said firmly, "are our charismatic little charmer who scouts out people and digs up useful information. You are the record-keeper writing down all the interesting things we see so we're not immediately flayed alive for wandering out of the Nyre. You're the one bringing new wonders back to our people! Storytellers have their own intrinsic value that does not have to be rooted in physical practicality like combat, food, or medicine to be appreciated. If you stay behind, it's because you wanted to, not because you were abandoned. If you come along, it's because you want to, not because you were forced to."
"That does make me feel a bit better," Ina said sheepishly, and feeling a little guilty for how she had judged the dam earlier.
"We're gonna be here all winter. There's probably not much to do here except sit around swapping stories, eating dried foods, attending a few feasts, and trying not to freeze. Might as well enjoy yourself to pass the time," Shanku said.
Ina was pensive and quiet as she watched the flames of the warm fire dance in the hearth.
As Niku had said, Arbos came to life for the midwinter feast and to honour the solstice. The week leading up to the longest night of the year was a mad dash of acquiring items for the all-night party. Many of the kurach made themselves scarce or traded outside the village as the humans loudly sang, danced, and preached on the streets. Tarek lead his family next door to where his parents lived so they could uphold the annual tradition of passing the dangerous night together. The dams had draped many tapestries of deep crimson and gold, and prepared a succulent feast of roasted meat, fish, stews, rice, puddings, spiced sweets, nuts, and berries. Shanku silently sighed as she impatiently waited for the patriarch to say his lengthy prayer of thanks before they could begin eating.
"The veil feels even thinner here at this time of the year than the Nyre does," Ina shuddered as she heard shuffling outside.
"The ghouls walk freely all the year, and if we are not vigilant, will take us during the night tonight," Niku explained. "Pray, keep yourself wake at all costs."
"I think the ghouls can keep me awake well enough without my intervention," Ina said nervously as the howling became louder.
Carmelo jumped to his feet quite agilely despite his great age. With a holy wooden scroll in hand, he began reciting sacred texts and invoking the benevolence of kinder spirits. Hisses and growls of displeasure sounded at the doors, the ghouls started receding from the house.
"Perhaps you should study with the eldest sire?" Ina whispered to Shanku. "I fear these monsters more than any tame brigand who pokes people with pointy sticks." Shanku smiled ominously and then Ina wondered if she should also fear Shanku.
The younger relatives appeared somewhat unphased despite how many times Carmelo had to rebuke the bloodthirsty apparitions. Inbetween his spells, they indulged in the reading of poetry and swapping gifts. During the darkest part of the night, Tarek as the eldest son brought out a thick book for divining and gave it to Carmelo. The curious Sylvans watched as each of his descendants would ask him a question, close their eyes, and open the book. Carmelo would then read the verse they had selected and interpret the meaning for their answers. After each reading, the enquiror would make a fist, touch their forehead and chest with their enclosed thumb, and thank him.
"Our esteemed guests are welcome to partake, if they so wish," Carmelo said with his deep, booming voice.
Shanku strode up to him and bowed deeply with her hands pressed flat together before her in the Sylvan custom. She whispered something to Carmelo, and then selected a page as she had saw the others do. Carmelo's thick brows furrowed, and he recited the passage:
"What is plotted and planned in deception
will be as broken and dishonourable
as its inception.
If thy desires are carried out alone
thou will meet pain and suffering
until thou art as cold as a stone."
"Perhaps you will succeed, but not from the shadows," Carmelo advised. Shanku bowed again to him and returned to her cushion on the floor. Ina looked at her in horror when she sat down and wanted badly to ask her what the question had been. Shanku seemed perfectly content and urged the others to step forward. Katari complied and was the next to approach the scroll.
"Strength, industry, and amiable service
are certainly as admirable
as duty and responsibility, thus.
If thou wilt continue to seek without
thou shalt ne'er see that
which will allay thine doubt."
"Allow your natural talents to shine. You don't need explicit approval from others." Katari thanked him and sat down. Hilael surprised his companions by readily accepting Carmelo's offer.
"Even the longest journey
begins with a single step
reached with discipline fully.
If distracted along the way
by lust, greed, or idleness,
't would better to have stayed."
"Apply yourself, stay focused no matter the temptations, and you will reach your goal." Hilael thanked him and sat down. Finally, Ina gathered her courage and paid her respects to receive her reading. Like the other Sylvans, she whispered her question.
"Precious treasures, divided, some spoiled,
turn thine back upon them
and thy plans wilt be foiled.
If thou clingest to that which remains
thou must guard thyself for
security with bitterness shalt be gained."
"You will gain, but at a cost, and ne'er be truly happy." With the readings concluded and Carmelo profusely thanked by all present, he gave the sacred scroll back to his eldest son, and Tarek put it away.
"Gracious hosts, if you will permit, allow me to share a Sylvan custom with you as well!" Ina said warmly and produced a pack of petite, thick papers bound in finest wool, stored in a watertight wooden box. Intrigued, Carmelo gave his blessing for her to proceed, and Ina set out the candles she had been crafting between long sits at the loom. She said a quick prayer over each of the four candles she lit, and beckoned for them to ask her a question. "Whether aloud or kept within, you only need to blow gently on the deck before I shuffle, and split them once before I lay your cards."
Intrigued, the Bhadarukians motioned for the Sylvans to go first so they could see how it was done. Again, Shanku was the first to volunteer. Showing the same respect to Ina she did Carmelo, she silently participated, as did Katari and Hilael.
"The dam has the gift!" Carmelo cried as each of her readings reinforced or expanded upon what he had advised. The Long Ears then sought her guidance without reservation. When she had finished, she ritually extinguished the candles with a quick lick and grasp of her fingers upon the wicks, and tucked her deck safely back into her pack.
Invigorated by benedictions and kind warnings, the kurach began to sing hymns and songs. Some of the holiday, some of love, some of life, and some for the pleasure of singing. Carmelo and his sons had resonant bass voices that laid a firm foundation for the other Bhadarukians to build upon in a myriad of tones and alternating lines. Shanku closed her eyes blissfully when Katari lead the Sylvans in dulcet baritone, feeling a small flutter of joy when she harmonized with Hilael's tenor, and they deferred to Ina's soft soprano for the highest refrains. Ina noticed that the ghouls outside were most opposed to being serenaded and not once did Carmelo have to pause the celebrations to drive them away.
The final ball of the waterclock was tipped from its cup and struck the chime waiting below. Cautiously and carefully, Caremelo peaked outside, and was welcome with the cheery rays of the rising sun. He declared that the horrorific night was over and they could at last sleep, and was met with relieved exhales. Sleeping mats were bought out for all the guests around the warm fire, and each household departed to their own home when they had awoke.
Winter in Arbos passed peacefully with a modest amount of snowfall and much labouring to cut the ice from the river to store in the ice house for the warmer months. Repairs and more weaving and knitting occupied much of the villagers' time. To break the monotony, they would tell stories to one another, and Ina was often up late at night recording them in her journals. In time, the Long Ears even sampled some of Katari's sausage, and, although found it acceptable, decided it was best he took it with him because they couldn't bring themselves to ignore what it was made of.
As the cold days lengthened and eventually grew warmer, Ina became sadder, until finally Niku had to ask her what the matter was.
"We must set out once more now that spring has arrived," Ina said mournfully on the final day she would have with him.
"You could stay here, with me," Niku offered. "If you must finish your journey for Sylvan customs first, I can wait."
"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was tempted," Ina replied sadly. "And with Arbos so close to Sedu Niyama I could have easy access to so many different stories and teachings..."
"But?" Niku prompted reluctantly.
"But... Shanku isn't the only one with wanderlust," Ina sighed. "They think I came along just for Shanku's sullen younger brother, and I guess that was part of the reason, but the main reason is that once Shanku came back from her exile and started talking about her adventures, I just wanted out of the Nyre. When I was younger, I thought the Nyre was all there was, and I was eager to get out and mingle with the other creatures, to learn their ways, to record their stories for other kurach to read and enjoy. Now I know there is so much more out there, I can't settle down to just one place. It would be selfish to ask you to abandon your family to come with me, too."
"You'll always be welcome back here," Niku said gently.
"I'll be back, someday," Ina said. "The Skihva needs to be part of all the Sylvans' lives again, just like in the long, long ago days. Maybe the Nyre can make a pilgrimage to Sedu Niyama like the Bhadarukians do! A quick skip over, and there's Arbos."
"Please," Niku said gently and took her hands in his. "Don't tease me like that. We both know how unlikely it is to establish such a tradition." Ina gave him a sad smile. Niku leaned forward until his forehead rested against hers and they closed their eyes. "You will always be my desert rose."
They shared one last, long kiss, before Ina returned to her fellow Scissortails. The next morning they set out on their journey again with the warm spring sun to their backs, and Ina shed a single tear for her love left behind.