The port of Selina was guarded by an enormously long spit of land, with bright, sharp, new-laid, Arkan-laid stones as foaming breakwater. The dark blue of the water broke with white, white spray. The lighthouse… the Selina lighthouse was eight sided and towered pale over the brightly painted houses of the town. The stone circle – the Yeoli national symbol-- on the top, against the sky, was new.
Not surprising, since it would have been broken off when the town was taken, and replaced by the Eagle. In the rubble at the base, washed by the sea, was the shattered eagle’s head, the beak pointing up out of the foam. One of the sailors tossed a pebble as the rowing tugs eased us into the inner harbour. A new custom. I pointed it out to Ili but he didn’t say anything, eyes big in his face.
The Pages article that had described the taking of the city had described the light-house as being in flames, like a chimney, but the interior was obviously now re-built and the stone fixed and no sign of soot on the whitewashed surface.
Gannara was able to join in with the sailors singing their homecoming song. His accent, as far as my ear could detect,was only a little different, but I was pretty certain he wasn’t from Selina. Singing was something that Gan could do smoothly, with no hitches. He was pale under his tan and he was afraid, I could tell.
Our first stop would be a Haian, I resolved, to get some of what they called calming essence. The customs woman was related to the barokeresin so signed off their cargo with a chalk sign. She patted Gan on the back when he said we were trying to get him home, though she gave me a suspicious look before giving Ili and I entry tokens.
It was funny, even though Gan had settled into the ship family as though he were a long lost son, he took a deep breath when we stepped onto Yeola-e soil. As though he expanded, somehow.
We each had our burdens on our backs, we had a pack each and I had the Imperial sword in its back-slung bundle and the Imperial book in its own bundle. Ili was carrying his Indispensible Bear tucked into his pack and a cleaned repaired Kefas, with a sling firmly in place on the arm that had gotten ripped off. Ili insisted that sewing it back on wasn’t enough… KB needed ‘healing time’.
The port was superficially like the other ports we had seen, but every port was different. The spices on the wind, what people cooked with, the land behind that that same offshore wind blew across. The buildings were painted brighter than Hyerne. Gannara took in a deep breath and it was as though a pinched set to his face eased.
“So. I want to go to a Haian’s office, to buy some remedies,” I said. “Then we need to find a bookseller and buy a Yeoli mapbook.”
“Yeah. I figure we get you to read down all the port towns until something rings a bell.”
He went pale as a sheet of paper and staggered a little, I caught him by the elbow. “Um. Yeah. I guess.”
“Haian Apothecary first.”
“Hey, Gan, how exactly would I say ‘I’m not an idiot,’ in Yeoli?”
“What, in case someone calls you that?”
“Yeah, like my friend… guy by the name of Gannara.”
He snorted and some of his colour came back. “Idiya,” he said.
I laughed back at him as we turned off the port road onto the market road. ‘Te something pah idya?”
“No. Simpler. Shipa idiya.”
“Oh, yeah. Shi – I am. Shipa – I am not.”
“Yeah, bya.” Bya meant good.
“Amimya shi fanga,” I said. I’m starving, my friend. Ili bounced up and down. “Me too!” He said. He was learning Yeoli faster than I was.
Gannara kept saying things like ‘I’m afraid my tongue is going to seize up, but I understand everything.” I kept my hand on his elbow and he didn’t throw me off. Without noticing he was just saying ‘kyuzai’, ‘kyuzai’, to people as we went. Kyuzai is ‘excuse me’.
We braved the steely eye of the matron bookseller to buy a mapbook and ended up at ‘The Cormorant’s Nest’ with a giant fake nest and cormorant on the roof. It was very obvious to anyone who couldn’t read but a little disconcerting to walk in the door under that spear-like three-foot beak and beady eye glaring balefully down the street.
The main public eating room of the Cormorant’s Nest was off to one side with a view out over the sea. Ili sat down on the bench under the window, shucked off his backpack and put his head down, using it as a pillow. “I’m tired, Min.”
“You can lie there, brother. If you nap I’ll wake you when the food comes.”
He blinked and yawned. “Yeha. Can I have crisps?”
“If they have them, I’ll order them, Ili.”
I could see where the windows had, at one time, just been open shutters. Now there was glass in the openings, tilted today to let the ocean breeze in. The waiter came and rattled off the menu in Yeoli too fast for me to catch more than a word or two.
“They don’t have any Arkan-style food, Minakas. But the chef is willing to try crisps for Ili.”
Given the kind of shen we were eating or forced to consume under the Mahid it shouldn’t be a problem. “That’s all right. Just order something, I won’t complain.”
“You like fish? It’s nine fish and one chicken. I could order you… hmmm. I don’t know the word in Arkan. Akopo-e. Has eight arms.”
“Akopo-e ve’kri a Laka,” he said to the waiter. “It’s Lakan style,” he said to me. “Blow your tongue off.”
I sat back and looked out at the ocean, out over the roofs of the port. “Maybe not. Something bland, Gan, please.”
“Okay. They also have akopo-e asinanaini, which means—“ He sat suddenly, staring at me, with the panicked look he used to get. The waiter looked between the two of us, confused and beginning to be alarmed. Gannara gulped and swallowed. “Nothing.” He looked up at the waiter. “’sall right.” He took a deep breath. “It’s more bland. It has wine and garlic.”
“All right. That sounds good.”
I looked at the waiter and asked slowly, in Yeoli. “Might I get kaf, Arkan style?”
“’tai, kere.” He said and left, as good as if he were hired by Feliras and was back just as fast with Gan’s ezethra, my kaf and a big glass of goat’s milk for Ili, who had fallen asleep on the bench.
“So, what happened there, Gan. Something hit you.”
“I don’t know.” He looked like something was chewing on his soul.
“It’s all right, Gan. We’ll figure it out.” I really thought he was probably an Asinanaini. Given that the guards had said his accent was of that city. And he kept stumbling over the name. But I couldn’t just tell him. I thought, for his good, he should come to that conclusion himself.
The platters came and Ili sat up himself without me having to rouse him. Mostly the aroma of the food. I wasn’t that hungry but I knew I should have some food. “Heya, Ili. Good thing we’re going Yeoli, no gloves.”
He smiled and then laughed. “It’d be pretty messy!”
The main platter had the flat-breads and the dishes of dipping and spreading sauces, the bigger bread plates, with the main food set in the middle. We were meant to eat with our fingers. Ili’s crisps were like little flat potato crisps. Very different but good. I took one and he squealed “Those are MINE!” I teased him by pretending to go after them a few times. Then he sat back with a huff. “There’s enough!” Gan giggled.
“You got it, Ili. He’s just teasing.”
“You’re right. I apologize, little brother.”
Gan pointed at a red sauce. “Stay away from that one, Min. It’ll blow your tongue through the top of your head.” The brown one was salty. The green one was sweet and the dark yellow one was sharp. “Wait… wait a second. I’m sorry, there’s something we should say before eating.”
Ili swallowed his mouthful and looked concerned. “Something sacred?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” He held out his hands to us and I took one and one of Ili’s so we made a little circle of three. He thought a moment and then a set of phrases rolled off his tongue, polished as if he’d said it every day for years. I didn’t catch it, except for the Yeoli word for bread, right at the end.
“Thank you both.”
I got him to repeat it and it was a thanking the plants and animals for giving up their lives and the people who worked for the food, so that we could eat. I thought it was the closest thing I’d ever heard to a prayer in Yeoli and I realized that I should be seen to do the noon observance or people might realize I wasn’t just an ordinary fessas.
The sweet and salty sauce on the potato crisps was very good and I ate four of them in a row. I hadn’t eaten so well in a long time. On board ship my stomach was uneasy and I hadn’t eaten much in Hyerne, they spiced everything with a green spice that made me sick for some reason.
Ili liked the spicy red sauce in tiny dots on his crisps.
For the first time, I felt that my stomach unclenched, even thought we were coming closer and closer to me losing Gannara forever. I’d lost Kyriala. I’d lost Ailadas. I’d lost Chevenga as a friend years ago.
I put my Yeoli crisp down, half eaten. The sauce curdled in my mouth. I was going to lose everyone in my life. For their own safety, or because I’d promised.
“Hey, Min, you brave enough to try some of this?” Gan was daring me to taste the yellow/red dish he was savouring. “Just a tiny bit?”
He put a dab of octopus on a piece of bread and handed it to me and I popped it in my mouth. It was like the spice that the fat guy had hidden the poison in and just as then I thought the inside of my mouth was peeling off in strips. I clenched my teeth on it, closed my eyes, with tears pouring out of the corners, holding my breath, trying to breathe. I managed to swallow and grabbed for a plain bit of bread and my water glass. I could barely see Gan, so concerned. “Min, are you all right? Are you, kyash I didn’t mean to hurt you, here, have some of Ili’s milk…”
I had a blister on the inside of my lip that I could feel with my tongue. “I’m… I’m all right. Sorry, Gan. I need to go outside for a bit. You two eat. I’ll be all right.”
I wasn’t in the Marble Palace under my father’s eyes. I was free. He was dead. The Empire I knew was dead. I swallowed my bile and went back in to sit and sip my kaf while they finished eating.