The Seer – Snippet 37
Jolon answered back, and Amarta recognized their names. To them Jolon said: “These are the first and second of Kusan’s ten elders, Vatti and Astru.”
The elder woman, Vatti, spoke. “Welcome to Kusan, sometimes called the hidden city. Do you know these names?”
“No,” Dirina admitted.
“Good,” the elder man, Astru, replied. “That is as it should be.”
“I am Ksava,” said the woman with the long, ropelike gold hair, swaying slightly to rock the baby on her chest. She nodded at the other two, a boy and girl about Amarta’s age. “My brother, Darad. Our cousin, Nidem.”
The girl’s cheekbones had three lines painted on one side and two on the other. She back at Amarta with a pointed, unfriendly expression. She addressed Jolon and Mara. “You bring strangers here? Do our lives mean so little to you?”
“They seek a haven,” Jolon said. “We thought you might understand this.”
“That’s a reassurance, then,” Nidem said nastily. “What do they bring us? Supplies? News of our beloveds in the cities? Or do they only take, like Arunkin do?”
“Nidem,” said Astru, in what might have been a quiet rebuke.
“We bring them,” Jolon said to her. “As we bring you bags of grain and salt and nuts, bottles of spice and oil — the many things you cannot get for yourselves, even in your out-trips.”
“And in turn,” Vatti said to him, her voice mild, a contrast to Nidem’s venomous tone, “we supply you with water and hidden shelter for your people and your horses on your journeys north and south.”
“Yes, and we are grateful to you — ” Jolon began.
Vatti held up her hand to silence him, a firm gesture, and continued. “And you bring us coin when we need it. News of the world outside. Your counsel and knowledge.”
Astru spoke. “Hear us clearly: the Teva are valued partners to the Emendi. You are welcome here.” He looked at Nidem. “Nidem is a child and does not speak for us.”
“We will help however we can,” Dirina said quietly, respectfully.
“We will work hard,” Amarta added quickly, looking between the elders and Nidem.
“You had better,” Nidem said.
A sigh from Astru. “You gift us with your companionship as well as your trade, Teva,” Astru said. “And now Nidem will gift us with her silence until she is told otherwise.”
At that Nidem made a series of gestures with her hands and fingers. A clear signal, judging by the sharp reactions of those around her; Vatti pressed her lips together in what might have been annoyed forbearance, and Ksava suppressed a smile as she moved her baby to her shoulder. Astru looked long at Nidem, his eyes flickering back and forth.
Nidem scowled and stamped out of the room.
Astru made a gesture with both hands, a brushing of the air, somehow conveying a cleaning of the unpleasantness that had preceded. Vatti put her hands together at her chest, then reached out to Mara and Jolon in turn, fingers out. They met her fingers with their own.
“We honor your presence here. Your friends are welcome in Kusan,” Vatti said.
“Our gratitude to you,” Mara said.
“Come,” Astru said, “show us what you have brought us.” Then, to Amarta and Dirina: “Ksava will show you how to conduct yourselves here. We will see you at the meal.”
As they left, Jolon paused, put his arms lightly around Dirina and Amarta’s shoulders, head tipped downward, and said quietly: “Their forebears were enslaved by Arunkin. They can perhaps be forgiven for mistaking you for the enemy. Be patient with them.”
“We have our meals here,” Ksava said, motioning to the large room. From the low, round tables scattered around the room, pale-headed adults and children watched them with expressions from curiosity to looks rather similar to Nidem’s. Amarta looked at Ksava rather than meet their eyes. “We eat two meals together each day. If you are hungry another time, go the kitchens back there. Someone is always present to help you find what you might like to eat.”
What she might like to eat? This was wealth, to always have food, to be invited to have a preference. Her mouth watered, and she wondered if it was too soon to ask.
She would wait.
Ksava took a lamp from a nearby table. With Darad trailing behind, she led them down one of many bewildering cave tunnels. They passed numerous doorways, and she was soon lost, though she noticed letters carved into the stone at every juncture. As she stared at one of the signs, trying to sound it out, she noticed Nidem had joined Darad behind them.
A hand sign from Darad brought a smirk to Nidem’s face that vanished when Amarta looked. Nidem gave her another hard glare.
“There are those among us,” Ksava said, “who believe all Arunkin are slavers and not to be trusted. You are the first to visit Kusan in quite some time.”
At this, Amarta moved a little closer to Dirina, wondering how long until they would be leaving.
Ksava gestured to a door much like the last handful they had passed. “I sleep here with my family. You are welcome to join us, or stay with the Teva.” The room had six thick pallets across the floor, cabinets, and the soft sound of running water. Ksava motioned with her lamp toward the back of the room. “The water in the sleeping rooms is for drinking, not toilet or bath or clothes. I’ll show you that next.”
They descended wide stairs that Pas insisted on taking himself. Amarta was glad for this slowing; as they walked, her foot hurt more. She was resolved not to limp.
“The city descends many levels. Even we do not know the extent of the tunnels. Go nowhere on your own until you have learned all the ways. If ever you are lost, do this.”
She sang out in a loud, clear, high tone that then dropped low, then climbed again. “Repeat that until you are found, yes?”
Motion at the floor of the corridor caught Amarta’s attention. Darad knelt to the ground, and a long, thin creature with a ratlike face ran to him, then up his arm and onto his shoulder, nose twitching, sniffing his ear. Pas was reaching upward and making wordless sounds of longing. Darad dropped down and let Pas pet the creature on his shoulder.
“The ferrets are our companions,” Ksava said. “They find misplaced objects in dark corners. They bring us home when we are lost. They know the tunnels better than we ever will. Be good to them.”
Darad let the animal back to the ground. It ran to the wall and then paused, standing up on back legs. Ksava brought out a piece of something and tossed it to the ferret, who caught it between handlike paws and transferred it to its mouth. In a twitch it was gone again, back into the dark.
They descended another flight of stairs to a room with many holes, under which were the sounds of a rushing waterway.
“These are the toilets.”
“Oh!” said Pas, tugging on his mother’s hand.
“Don’t drop anything in there,” Darad said with a grin. “It goes all the way out to the ocean. You’ll never see it again.”
This was a toilet? Amarta looked around. Something was missing. “It doesn’t smell,” she said wonderingly.
“The shiny areas around the holes are mage-made. Nothing sticks. This helps.”
“Mage-made?” Amarta said. “But that’s…”
“Isn’t that… doesn’t it bring death and bad fortune?”
Ksava chuckled, handed her baby to Dirina. She took Pas’s hand, walking him to the edge of the hole, holding him while he peed into the hole. Pas laughed in delight.
When she returned, she said, “My people were brought into the worst of bad fortune when we were abducted from our homeland and taken in chains across the sea and made into slaves. Kusan has been a sanctuary for a thousand years and more, older than the Arun Empire. The gifts that mages have left for us here have been far more welcoming than anything the Arunkin have done. Who brings death and bad fortune, Amarta?”
To that Amarta had no answer.
“Are there other mage-makings in Kusan?” Dirina asked.
“Perhaps the waterways, but they may be simply cleverly made. It is hard to know.” Ksava returned Pas to his mother and led them out of the toilet room. “We Emendi have been here only some hundred years.”
“Do you ever leave?” Amarta asked.
“We visit the hidden gardens up top,” Darad said. “To see the sun, when the keepers allow.”
Nidem tapped Darad and signed at him.
“And,” Darad added, “the out-trips.”
Ksava spoke: “We travel to nearby towns to buy those things we cannot make, grow, or hunt. Darad might do so. Even Nidem, in a few months, if they study the ways of the outside well enough.”