The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part eleven)
The Prince and his knights, and a woman, her servants…
Indeed his wife, eager, I had been told, for battle…had a lighter craft of their own. This single-masted ship gave its commander some pains, to keep it from rocking in the wake of our larger vessels; to keep it from skimming off course. The winds on this sea, that to the Siankans was named the Zablenen, seemed relentless, never ceasing.
Two of our own sheep, skinned, as the Siankan rite did not forbid it, the brains out—for these were of value, pickled in wine—had been thrown to the waves from a Siankan tower (a sort of crow’s nest hewed from rock).
I watched, for as I played priest to the Prince’s army, this was my dignitary’s role. I stood with the Siankan priest, and neither of us could speak to the other. I shivered to see a monster of the Zablenen—a name, I dared suppose, of the god himself, who ruled these waters—come at his bidding, its white belly thrashing under grey waters, its maw thrusting, toothed extravagantly…
Fearsome meshing rows of teeth…the snout reddened with blood…
The creatures, the poor sheep, were dead, for what we’d done to them.
I could not swear this was true. I had had nothing in my life to do with butchery, or with physic, and wondered now for the first time, what is that threshold? What proof life has flown?
I therefore begged, in my own speech, but aloud for the benefit of my comrade, that Zablenen forgive me…first, that I knew not his proper name, nor whether I erred in addressing him at all; again, I prayed that he forgive us, our mixed party, of neighbors to his worshipers, and strangers; our clumsiness in this sacrifice, our ignorance of his will. That he withhold not from us his hand, in calming the waters of our crossing.
The waters showed no sign of calming. I was led to one of the transport ships.
It was of this construction. Two masts equally placed, if one took the bulk of the vessel as its useful whole, the bow quite long and thin, upcurving to a carven shape like that of a snail’s shell. This I did not imagine it to represent, as men and beasts at work upon some enterprise decorated both sides, shrinking into the infinite. The sleeping deck sat highest, tented from a constant spray by hides, closed by a few measures of planking. It was the place I must live for some weeks.
On the deck below was arrayed cargo in barrels, the weight made perfect, none more on the left than on the right. Lowest, and always airing freely, for the center was laid across with the split trunks of great trees, was the horse deck. The sides of this were raised and floored for the rowers, and also cargo was distributed here, the heavy engines of war.
Asea, she sat somewhat above the oars, and the men used to sailing engaged in marvelous acrobatics, without a care, skipping across logs from one side to the other. In my house, as it were, that space of my own partitioned by hanging skins, I had for company Jute and Egdoah. Egdoah and I worked daily on my learning his language, his learning mine.
We took our lessons together from a map.
A map must be no great marvel to my worldly readers, who like the northerners, have bent no doubt, and plotted, over such scrolls of woven cloth, painted with the shapes of nations and the names of seas, islands known inhabited, others barren, where no fresh water may be had. And coves where ships anchor safe; cities, of trading peoples giving welcome for gold, or of warlike peoples seizing the unwary adrift, to sell them: voyagers, ships, and all.
I had never seen a map…in my education I’d had no cause. Yes, Cime himself had pictured for me roadways, in dirt, crouching with his knife. I’d seen primitive representations of shrines on crossroad stones. But this quite astounded me, so unthought of, and so obvious a thing, that landmarks could prove the breadth of a shoreline, that by formula one could draw out a god’s-eye view of one’s own country.
Jute’s mind had altered, for finding herself included in the adventure.
She was no longer the general’s property, in a practical sense that Lady Nyma’s wisdom would recognize—for he had not sailed with us. The Emperor’s laws, upon the life of Jute, could never again bear sovereign. But a ship at sea is a precarious place to have choice at one’s disposal.
I was her only friend to rely on for simple protection.
The sea was not marked on the map as Zablenen, nor whatever my own people might have called it, the map being Depwoto’s from the Prince…
The sea was not marked at all, by lettering, but by signs like the symbols of my tiles. Only these made no depiction of a bird’s wings, or the undulation of a wave; they were only dots and lines. Egdoah shrugged, and said he did not read these runes. Princes and wise men used them, and could tell their meaning.
“But, you, Jute?”
“No, why would they have taught me?”
I pressed this near-admission. “Our written signs are not thought too high for even a slave. You have been helping me set down Egdoah’s words.”
She muttered, and with my ear tuned to the northern speech, I felt she had called ours a pig’s tongue. Perhaps not. Mild-faced, I turned to Egdoah, and said, “So?”
The syllable meant why. The rest I could not conceive, but I traced a finger straight across the Zablenen, a long, narrow body of water, between island-studded coasts. There were monsters, certainly, and in these depths they might reign. But Egdoah, understanding, said another thing.
“Pirates,” Jute told me.
And then, she made a gesture. “From the south. There is a great city not on this map, a great island, but very near the shore, bridged by land when the tide is low. And that country is feared by everyone…their ships are fast, faster and far more seaworthy than this.”
(2019, Stephanie Foster)