Nila blew through the air tube to cool the small, silver pendant she was working on. It was a special order by Adrunian Koren, captain of the town guard, for his niece, and she wanted it to be flawless. She picked up a tiny pair of forceps that fit her small hand perfectly and bent the silver a little. The warm metal curved to form the animal face she was aiming for. The pendant was to be in the shape of a shivaree, since Koren’s niece Tara had one as a pet.
Koren and Nila had met when the store had been robbed some years ago, and had become friends. Fazil had been alive then: dearest Fazil, who had taken her in when she had no one. He had given her a home and work when he had been alive, and left her his store when he had died.
The business itself was doing well, as seen by the increase in the orders that were coming in. She had made a name for herself among the wealthy as a silversmith of no mean talent. She smiled with pleasure at the thought. Lately she had been very busy, so much so that she could afford a visit home … if she desired. Her smile disappeared at the thought of home and she sighed, wondering if she really did want to visit home.
Home was Segvaarden, one of the one thousand states of Farevlin, unified by nothing more than a common language, so far away that it took many sennights by ship to reach. She could go home, but there was nothing left for her there. Had she made a mistake in choosing exile over death?
The tiny bells near the door chimed, breaking into her thoughts. She had made the bells herself to announce the entrance of visitors. The pretty, tinkling sound never failed to bring a smile of pleasure to most of her patrons.
“Nila, how are you?” The big, bluff man who entered had a rolling gait that announced his sailorly background to anyone who cared to notice.
“Captain Markus, it is so nice to see you again!” Nila set aside the forceps and the pendant before going around to the front of the small counter. She did not accept the hug the captain offered, but bowed with her palms together, holding them chest high. Before the bulky captain, she looked tiny in comparison. “When did the Laughing Gale dock?”
Her visitor rolled his eyes at her refusal to accept his hug but made no direct comment about it. He dropped his hands and said, “Just this morning, lass. Things are going well, eh? You’re looking prosperous.” He gestured to the items on display behind the counter where there were three necklaces, two hair ornaments and a jeweled dagger.
“Please sit, captain.” She dragged a small chair from an alcove on the far side of the store. It was a small room, with the shelf behind the counter forming the centerpiece of the store. A large window on the opposite wall allowed sunlight to shine directly on the shelf. At one corner was her work area, with a short stool set before the counter. On the countertop lay the pendant she had been working on as well as the tools. She preferred to do the major part of her work that dealt with melting silver and the initial parts of an order in the inner room where she had a small forge, but a lot of the decorative work could be done with the aid of the air tube and the small lamp she had in the front room.
“May I offer you some refreshment?” Nila asked.
“No thanks. Come sit here with me. Seems like it’s been a long time since I saw you. Last time I came here, it was the fleet blessing, back in Seber.”
She seated herself on the ground in front of him and he sighed but made no comment. She knew he found it annoying that she never sat level with him and always chose to sit at a lower level. All her explanations that this was due to her respect for him had failed to convince him; however, he had given up asking her to do otherwise.
“Well, Captain, that was four months, three sennights and four days ago.”
He laughed at the answer. “Still the same wizard with numbers, I see.”
Nila chuckled, the sound almost incongruous from someone usually so solemn. “You are too kind, sir. How long will you be in town this time?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe three sennights. I’m waiting for a merchant coming up from Magnus. He owes me money, and I’m a bit early. Hadn’t planned to be here until the beginning of next month, though.”
“Well, I am sure Mayda at the keep will be glad to see you,” Nila offered, looking up at him blandly.
He reddened slightly and roared with laughter, his jowls shaking with mirth. “Aye, that she will. I brought her a box of saffron. For that, my Fat Mayda will …” he stopped, looking down at her sheepishly.
She smiled back. “I know, captain, I know. Now, I have something for you. Wait a moment.” Nila rose and went past the alcove into the inner room. When she came back, she had a small statuette in her hand. It was no taller than the width of a grown man’s palm. Until then, they had been speaking in Baranurian. Now, she spoke formally in a different tongue: Farevlin. “Sir, this is for you, with all my gratitude.”
The captain, however, responded in Baranurian. “Nila, you owe me nothing. You paid me for bringing you to Dargon, and you give me a gift every time I come to see you. It’s not necessary. We’re friends; no need for this.”
“You must take it, Captain. I owe you for my life. Each day that I live is yours. This is but a poor token, that is all.” Nila bowed again.
“You never listen, do you?” He sighed, and examined the statuette closely, obviously not expecting an answer. He said formally, in the same language she had used, “Thank you, High Lady.” She bowed again in response to his use of her title.
The silver figurine was of Cirrangill, the god of the sea. It was dressed in a tunic with a stylized fish on the back, every scale well-defined. Waves jumped around his feet and rose all the way to his head. “I think this is your best work yet. I have something for you too,” he said, setting the figurine carefully on the counter before digging into the pockets of his voluminous tunic. “Where is it?” He dug first into one pocket, then another, while Nila smiled. He grinned at her. “Ah-hah! Here it is.” He held out a small packet.
She took it almost breathlessly, knowing that it would be something precious. Sure enough, when she opened the small packet, there was a small dirty-looking lump in it. “You got it!”
Markus grinned at her pleasure.
“Captain, you are too generous,” she said. “This is the purest silver, and blessed too. Did you actually get it from the temple on the river Navari?”
“More than that. When I docked in Hadrom, I had a guide take me inland to the temple. I went all the way to the entrance, but they wouldn’t let me in because I’m too tall.”
The silversmith’s smile was strained. She was well aware of the religious intolerance exhibited by her people towards those whose physical characteristics did not meet what was laid down in the texts. She herself had been considered a perfect specimen, physically at least, at eleven hands.
“Anyway,” the captain continued, face red, “I bribed the guide to get me a piece of blessed silver, and he tried to cheat me, the –” he broke off, breathing a bit heavily. “After so many years of trading with Fazil and your father, think I don’t know how to judge silver? He didn’t think a ‘vellai’ could judge the quality.”
Nila nodded, the word ‘vellai’ taking her back across the years to her homeland, where the word was an insult to foreigners, who were taller, with unflatteringly pale skin. It quite literally meant light-colored.
The door bells jingled again, and the silversmith gave a start. A tall man entered, wearing command like a cloak. It was the captain of the town guard and to Nila, his entrance made the store seem even smaller. She greeted him with, “Captain Koren, how nice to see you again.”
“How are you, Mistress Nila?”
“I must be going, Nila,” Captain Markus stood, a gigantic man, dwarfing even Captain Koren. “Thank you for the gift.” He reached for the figurine on the counter.
Both of them saw that Captain Koren’s eyes were riveted on the small statuette, and Markus extended the figurine for the other man to see. “Look,” he said generously. “The lass does beautiful work, doesn’t she?” he asked, with a proprietary air.
“It’s exquisite, lady,” Koren breathed.
“Captain Koren, may I introduce Captain Markus?” Nila began formally. “Captain Koren is the captain of the town guard. Sir, Captain Markus is the gentleman who kindly brought me to your shores. I owe him a debt of gratitude I can never repay.”
Markus rolled his eyes, and Koren, catching sight of him, smiled. Nila looked at them both with a serious expression. “I am sorry. Politeness is good,” she said helplessly, wondering how to explain that the formality cloaked her affection. Both men smiled at her.
“It’s all right, Nila, you don’t have to apologize,” Markus consoled, still smiling. “I must be going now. I’ll be back to see you before I go.”
“Thank you, captain, for everything. Good-bye.” She watched him step away and turned to Koren. “The pendant is not ready yet, sir. I am sorry.”
He replied, “That’s quite all right. I was on my way home, and I wanted to stop in and see how you were doing.”
The chimes jingled yet again and a man entered, brushing roughly past Markus, who was in the act of stepping out.
“Hey, what’s the hurry? Can’t you see when a man’s leaving?” Markus began.
“Nila, it really is you!” The man spoke in Farevlin, amazement in his voice.
Markus stopped abruptly, one foot out the door. Koren’s eyes narrowed at the sharpness in the ship captain’s posture and he turned to face the stranger.
Nila froze, her face the utter picture of surprise. Had her thoughts of Segvaarden conjured Deven up? She wondered for just a moment before logic reasserted itself. The man, slender, short, wore his dark hair in a long, thin braid that hung down over one shoulder. His skin was the same shiny bronze as Nila’s, and his black eyes glittered angrily as he frowned and laid something on the counter. He continued to speak, his hands gesticulating wildly. She paled, only half-listening to his words as she tried to absorb the reality of his presence in Dargon.
“– must die. I will assist you. You will die!” His voice rose on the last sentence and Nila stared at him, bereft of words. She realized dimly that Captain Markus was glowering as he listened, but her mind in a tumult, unable to think or even speak, with one thought in her head: Deven was in Dargon, in her store.
Captain Markus roared, his hand going to his belt for his dagger, “Here, what do you think you’re saying? Captain Koren, arrest this man immediately. Why, he’s threatening to kill my girl here. Who do you think you are?” He stepped forward and with one quick move, immobilized the startled stranger by twisting his arm behind his back.
“Who are you?” Koren rapped out sharply. When no answer was forthcoming, he asked, “What did he say?” He looked from Nila to Markus, and it was Markus who replied concisely, “He wants Nila to die.”
It was beyond Nila to form a coherent sentence since she was desperately striving for control over her emotions: joy at seeing her cousin, delight at hearing her own language spoken, sorrow at her own self-banishment, and fear at what Deven’s words meant.
Koren reached for what the man had laid on the counter and looked down at what he held. Nila, still standing behind the counter, rose on tiptoe to see over his shoulders what was in his hands. It was a pair of rather large ear studs meant for pierced ear lobes. Each stud sported a design of a horse rearing up, its mane neatly trimmed. She paled as she recognized it: one of the first pieces she had made on her own, without the assistance or supervision of her teacher. Hot tears filled her eyes as she stared at them. She blinked hastily. It would never do to cry in front of the captains and her cousin, friends and family though they might be. Her breath came quick and fast as she struggled not to let her memories overwhelm her.
“What do you want? What are you doing here?” Koren placed the ear studs back on the counter absently, still looking at the man. The man stared back at Koren silently, and then slowly, deliberately, turned his face away, chin up in the air.
“Answer him!” Markus gave his arm another twist.
The man swallowed a gasp of pain, but his chin did not come down, and he never looked at either of his two questioners. He did answer, however, in broken Baranurian, his accent execrable. “Die must she. Die must she. Die must she!”
“Is that right? Why is that?” Koren asked.
Deven did not bother to reply to this.
“Fine. Bring him to the guardhouse, Captain Markus. We can handle this there. Good day, Mistress Nila,” Koren said sharply, not bothering to look at the silversmith, who, pale and wan, had remained silent and still throughout the altercation. The two men left the store, holding their prisoner between them.
Nila sighed as she watched them go. A tear slipped out of one eye, and made its way unhindered down her cheek. Had her past caught up with her? Perhaps it was time to go home. She smiled wistfully at the thought. Home was a beautiful land with valleys that stayed green throughout the year, where it was never cold, where the sun shone even when it rained, and rainbows appeared as often, unlike Dargon, where a bright sky did not necessarily mean a warm day. She slowly began to put away her work. When the small needle she had been using poked her finger, she smiled wryly to herself. A small drop of blood appeared at the wound. Was she deceiving herself? She knew that the world was just as beautiful here in Dargon as it was in Segvaarden, one of the thousand states of Farevlin on the east coast of Duurom.
The problem was the people. She had no friends here, except for the two captains. Oh, she had plenty of customers, but there was no one who understood that she sometimes felt as if she would shatter into countless pieces like a badly-worked piece of silver. She bent to pick up the piece she had been working on for Koren. Another tear slipped out and fell on the back of her hand. She lifted the hand slowly and wiped the tears from her eyes.
Nila swallowed as she put her things away carefully, and locked the inner room where she kept her works-in-progress. The town guard had been working hard to eliminate the criminal element in Dargon, but she preferred to be careful. She had a safe place outside the store for the money she had saved, and the silver she usually had on hand. But now since she was in a hurry, she put the raw silver that Markus had bought for her into the little cupboard in the workroom and locked it. Then she placed a small cup of sand she had obtained years ago from Corambis, the sage, on the ground directly beneath the lock. He had magicked the sand for her so that she could use it to protect the silver. She had stopped doubting its efficacy about four years ago, when the store had been robbed and Koren had appeared almost instantaneously to apprehend the thief. After that, she had n ever left the store without setting the sand under the lock.
It was raining lightly as she stepped out of the store onto the Street of Travellers, but it was only a slight mist. She locked the shop door behind her, and hurried away in the direction of the keep. The sky was a deep gray, not the blue-green of the Segvaarden sky, and she was once again struck by the contrast between her life in Dargon and her life in Segvaarden. She had worked hard here, and built a life. Old man Fazil had bequeathed her his store, his business, his customers and his home. When she had first come here more than five years ago, she had been glad to get away from Segvaarden. She had not then realized what she was doing. She had paid a high price for freedom, for life, for … exile.
Nila had been barely fifteen when she was married. Since most girls in Segvaarden married at that age, it was normal. She had been excited. She was marrying the son of the ruler of Segvaarden, all because the old chief was pleased with the work of her father, the silversmith. Or so she had assumed.
“Daughter, concentrate,” her father chided. “You must finish this piece before you leave today. I am too busy as it is. I did not want to lose you so soon. How I’m going to finish all these orders without your help, I don’t know.”
Father and daughter sat on the ground in a small veranda outside their hut, each with a small lamp before them. Various tools and implements such as forceps and air tubes littered the area. Since the weather in Segvaarden was almost always bright and sunny, they tended to work outside. The veranda was covered by a short outcropping of braided palm fronds, letting light in without the heat. It was a warm day even for Segvaarden and her father, like many men in Segvaarden, sat barechested.
“But I’m almost fifteen, Father. Shika and Manonmani are already married. Why, Lilla is already in the family way!” Nila picked up a pair of forceps and bent to work on the earstuds.
“Yes, that’s all you girls think of. When I was a boy, girls did not think of marriage until their parents decided it was time.” He laughed, setting down the air tube he had been using to examine the pendant in his hand closely.
She laughed with him. “Father, I did not think of it either, until you decided it was time for me to be married. Besides, I’m getting married to the son of the chief of Segvaarden. How many girls will be able to say that their bridal procession had eleven elephants in it? Do you know what else? The Mother said that he’s going to come to the wedding on a horse. Just imagine, Father. And soon, I’ll be called the Mother too.” The fifteen year-old almost whispered the title, the Mother, with awe. The chief’s wife usually received the title in a formal ceremony that celebrated and venerated her motherhood, about ten days after the birth of her first son.
“Is that all you think of, becoming the Mother? And tell me, what difference does it make if the groom rides on a horse or a donkey?”
Nila looked up from her work with an expression of bliss. “Because, Father dear, it’s the honor, the prestige. My bridegroom on a horse! How many girls will be able to say that? Hah, if any of them have actually seen a horse, I’d be surprised. If they have more than three elephants in their bridal procession, I’d be surprised as well. Here, Father, all done.” She placed the forceps back on the counter and handed a pair of ear studs to the old man.
He looked at them keenly, turning them over. The studs were made of silver, a bridal present from Nila to her husband-to-be. The face of each stud was the side-view of a horse, rearing on its hind legs, mane trimmed, tail long but caught in movement. The eyes were tiny emeralds, one to each stud.
It was customary that the bride present a pair of ear studs to the groom during the wedding, because all men in Segvaarden had pierced earlobes. Since Nila had apprenticed under her father as a silversmith from the time she had been old enough to work with fire, he had insisted that she make them herself. She had chosen a horse design when her mother-in-law to-be had indicated that they had managed to buy a horse, an exotic animal imported from the east.
“Well done, daughter,” he said at length. “This is good work. But I must tell you that the flow of the tail is wrong. What animal has tail hair that thick? Each individual strand must be seen. The way you have inset the eyes: careless, very careless. This lump right here, you should have smoothed it out.” He pointed to a tiny blot on one stud. “The legs: too bulky. Well, you are not going to be a silversmith, so I will not point out what you could have done better. Concentration is what you lack. You must be one with the thing you are trying to create,” he discoursed.
“Father, you said you won’t point out what I could have done better,” she interrupted, grinning.
“Away with you, silly child,” he said. “You must be more responsible. Now that you’re to be wed, you’re going to braid your hair. You cannot behave like a little girl with her hair loose any more.”
Her wedding had been talked of for months: the food, the gifts, the clothing, the jewelry. She had had seven sets of gowns made, three in real silk. The chief’s family had arranged to give all her female relatives silk gowns as wedding gifts. Of course, she had had only four female cousins, so this had not been a real hardship for the chief’s family. At the time, the lavish arrangements had given her so much pleasure.
After the marriage she had come to realize that her husband had wanted to marry her because of his own inadequacies. Her married life did not bear thinking about: the beatings, the burns, the forced starvation. The worst part had been the fact that no one in the chief’s household had even acknowledged that her life had been less than perfect. She had put up with it for fear that her father would be harmed. Over time, her husband had become chief, and his excesses had increased. She had accepted it all. The day her father died, she had become free to curb her husband’s excesses. Finally.
Nila entered the small tavern in Segvaarden with her veil securely in place. Hidden in the shadows, she searched for the man she had come to find. This was not hard, since he was the tallest man in the place, besides being one of only five of the men from the west, with their strangely uncolored skin. After she spotted him, she slipped between the tables and approached. She tapped him on the arm, conscious of a frisson of fear despite her certainty that she was doing the right thing.
“Message, sir,” she said softly.
She wondered if he was drunk already, this early in the evening. “Message,” she repeated. His eyes sharpened as he caught sight of her face beneath the veil. Her heart thundered. He was not drunk, after all. Had he recognized her? She had no clue as he rose and followed her out of the tavern into the warm night. The full moon was a golden circle in the heavens, brightening up the street akin to day.
“You are the daughter of the silversmith. I have not seen you in a while,” he said, staring down at her face as she put her veil away from her face. “I heard your father died. I’m sorry. He was a good man, and a good artist. There is no one who does work of his caliber.”
“Thank you, good sir. It has been three years, eleven months, and two sennights since we last saw one another. I did not think you would recognize me,” she said. Relieved that he had recognized her, she still knew that this was just the first hurdle in her chosen path.
“Yes, well, you are a pretty girl,” he said grudgingly. “You’re married to the chief of Segvaarden, aren’t you? What are you doing here by yourself?” He looked to either side, as if searching for her retinue. “What do you want?”
“Your ship is leaving tomorrow, is it not?”
“What of it?”
“I wish to purchase passage on it. I will pay you whatever you require.”
“Where do you want to go?” he burst out. “What about your husband?”
A wave of desperation filled her heart, and made its way into her voice. “Anywhere. Away from here. Wherever you are going. My husband is none of your concern.” Her raised voice caused a passerby to look at Nila sharply and she turned her face away, pulling down her veil.
The captain stared down at her. “You’re not in any trouble are you?”
The expression on his face made her realize that she had allowed emotion into her voice. She composed herself. “No. There is … nothing for me here. I cannot live here any more. Please will you take me, sir?”
Markus burst out, “But where will you go? I can’t just take you on my ship!”
“Yes, indeed you can. What prevents you from taking me? You are the captain of your own ship, are you not?”
“Of course I am. What does that have to do with anything? The point is that I’m not about to take on a passenger with no destination!”
“But I do have a destination: away from here.”
He gave a sudden shout of laughter, and she stared at him, her whole body stiff with affront.
“I am sorry, lady –”
“My title is High Lady,” she corrected, frost in her voice.
He chuckled. “Sorry, High Lady.” His voice turned serious again. “Away from here is not a destination. You simply cannot buy passage on a ship to ‘away from here’. Listen to me,” he said persuasively, “Go home to your family.”
She stared at him for a moment, trying to decide which direction to continue the argument. It appeared that his main objection was her destination: she had none. In that case, she would choose one. Her mind made up, she nodded. “Captain, where are you bound?”
“Oh, a couple of other stops down the coast, at Hadrom for one. I’ll probably stop at Bichu as well. Why do you ask?”
“Very well. I will buy passage to Bichu.”
“Gah!” He threw up his hands. “Fine. If you want to go that badly, I’ll take you. But you must pay in gold. Lots of it.”
She wondered for a moment if he thought that by asking for gold, he could dissuade her from leaving Segvaarden. It would take much more than that: she would gladly give up every one of her possessions to leave the place which had once been home, but only remained a shell of itself to her. She pulled out the small drawstring pouch that hung from her waist and handed it to him. “Open it.”
He drew in a deep breath. Two heavy chains fell out. They were patterned like rope, thickly braided, designed to be worn tightly around the neck, like a collar. The chains were usually worn by men, women preferring the longer chains that hung down their bosom.
“I can’t help feeling I shouldn’t take you,” he said slowly, eyes drifting from the treasure in his hands to her face with concern. “You don’t really want to go to Bichu, do you?”
He didn’t seem to expect an answer, so Nila remained silent. It was true that she did not want to go to Bichu, but it was also true that she wanted to get away from Segvaarden.
“Well, I suppose we can discuss where you want to go once we’re on board.”
Their departure was smooth. Much to her relief, no one pursued them. Markus stared at her narrowly when she sighed as Segvaarden disappeared over the horizon, but he said nothing.
The voyage was a long one, lasting many sennights. The captain had at first insisted that she stay inside her cabin, but about two sennights after they had set sail, he relented and allowed her to come up to the deck. Nila had become tired of seeing the same cabin walls day after day. Up on deck there was nothing to see in any direction except blue sky and an even more blue sea.
Markus suggested that she learn Baranurian, and she agreed. Her progress was not as fast as she wanted. He only laughed and advised patience. They dined together frequently. To Nila these were more opportunities to practise her Baranurian.
One day the captain saw her standing on the deck and wandered down to talk to her. “How are you today?”
“I am fine, thank you. And you?”
“Good, good.” He handed her a tankard. “How do you like the voyage so far?”
“It is boring to see the same ocean every day,” she said, accepting it. “How long before we see land?”
He laughed. “It’s only been three days since the last landfall. Our next stop will be Bichu, but I’m headed toward Dargon, and that’s many more sennights away.”
“Where is Dargon?” she asked, taking a sip.
“It’s on Cherisk. It’s where I was born, you know. Nice place.”
“Perhaps I can live there,” Nila offered, speaking hesitantly in Baranurian.
“Maybe. What are you going to do there, though?”
“I can work as a silver … what is the word, ‘herder’?”
Markus shouted with laughter. She looked enquiringly at him.
“You just said you wanted to work as a silver herder,” he translated into Farevlin. “Well, there’s already a silversmith there. Name’s Fazil. I trade with him occasionally. He asks me to bring him pieces from the east. In fact, the last time I was back there, I brought him a piece made by your father. Told me he had never seen silver of that quality.”
“Ah, it must be silver from the river Navari on the temple,” she said, nodding. “The best silver comes from there.”
“Temple on the river Navari,” he corrected. “Your Baranurian is coming along very well, I must say.”
“Thank you, teacher,” she bowed.
“Gah, you westerners. Always so formal,” he growled.
“You are a good man, Captain Makus,” she said.
He laughed. “Markus,” he said.
“You said it wrong. Say it again. Markus.”
“Makus,” she said obediently.
“You’ll never get it.”
Another day at dinner she shared her fear about her future. “Captain Markus, I am worried about Dargon. Do you think I can get work there as a silversmith?”
“Well, it depends,” he said, puffing on his pipe. “I don’t know if you want to set up shop in Dargon if Fazil is already there. Don’t think you’ll get much business.”
“I will work with him,” she offered, looking up at him anxiously.
“He may not want you,” Markus pointed out.
“You said he liked my father’s work. I app … what is the word,” she lapsed into her own language for the troublesome word, “apprenticed to my father. He taught me everything I know. I am a good silversmith, Captain Markus.”
“Well, tell you what. We’ll go see Fazil when we dock. I don’t have any of your father’s work with me, but …”
“I do,” she said, leaning forward. “I have a chain hip with me.”
“A chain that women wear on the skirt, like so,” she indicated the side of her body along the curve of her hip.
“A hip chain? Strange,” the captain murmured.
When the time came, the Laughing Gale docked at the port of Dargon, and the two of them went to see Fazil, the silversmith.
“Hey you old scumbag, how are you?” Captain Markus growled when they entered the store.
The old man working behind the counter at the tiny fire looked up. “Markus, you old dog!” He carefully set aside what he had been working on, banked the fire and came around the counter. The two men indulged in a greeting that involved much slapping of each others’ backs that Nila found quite incomprehensible.
The two men were talking very fast, but she found she could follow them, somewhat. Every once in a while though, a word escaped her. Markus was telling the old man about her, that she was an exile. She wondered why he said that. Did he know the truth about her? Then Markus introduced her to Fazil.
“So, you are a silversmith, eh?” the old man asked her.
“Yes sir. I would like to show you the pieces I have worked on,” she said, rapidly pulling out the jewelry she wanted to show him. “This is a chain hip … I mean, hip chain. These are some of the ear studs I have made. And this comb, it is the last piece I made before I came. It is engraved with beads,” she said.
“What? Oh, you mean inset,” Fazil murmured.
“Yes,” Nila agreed. Her anxiety combined with her weak command of Baranurian left her searching for the right words. The old man peered at the comb. It was a fairly small silver comb, the top part inset with tiny silver beads. More beads hung loose from the lower part in three groups of three beads each, so that every movement of the head would result in a tinkling sound. It was the kind of comb used by young, unmarried girls in Segvaarden. Walking to Fazil’s store from the docks, she had seen several women with their hair loose. She wondered if this comb would be attractive to these women. None of them had worn any jewelry that she could see. This seemed very strange to Nila, because she had thought that women always wore jewelry.
“This is good work,” he said at length. “But I cannot afford to pay you.”
“I will work in exchange for food and board,” she offered.
Fazil was already shaking his head negatively. She cast an imploring glance at Markus. He drew the older man away and began to talk to him. She could not hear his words, but the cadence and the tone of his voice told her that he was persuading. Fazil did interrupt every once in a while, but Markus continued without pause. At length, the two of them turned to her.
“All right,” Fazil said. “You can stay, for a while. We will see after three months. If you work out, then we will see.”
“Thank you, sir, thank you.” Nila bowed deeply.
“Who goes there?”
Nila stopped, one foot raised to step into the captain’s office in the keep, more than a little apprehensive. She stepped back from the doorway into the corridor and turned to face her questioner. “I wish to see Captain Koren.”
“He has left for the day,” the guard said. “What is it you wish to see him about?”
“There was a prisoner arrested this afternoon. I wish to have him released.”
“I’m afraid that may not be possible. Let me see if Lieutenant Darklen can help you. Please wait here.” The guard returned after a few moments and led her into another office. A man, much younger than Captain Koren, sat in front of a large desk. A small window let in some of the outside light, but it didn’t do anything for the room. The dark, dingy walls made the room seem dreary, and unlit sconces graced the wall. Still, the room was clean with not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere.
“May I help you?”
“Sir, Captain Koren arrested a man in my store this afternoon,” she began.
“Are you the silversmith?” he asked. When she nodded, he continued, “I understood that the prisoner was arrested because he threatened to kill you. He did not answer any of Captain Koren’s questions, but I haven’t interrogated him yet. I don’t think that I can release him.”
“There is no need to interrogate him, sir. Captain Markus misunderstood his words. It has been a long time since the good captain spoke my language, so it is perhaps understandable.”
He stared at her in silence for a moment. “May I ask why you wish to have him released? Do you know him?”
She sighed. Sometimes the people of Dargon were too abrupt. They did not follow the dictates of formality. They claimed that being direct saved a lot of time. It might have been true, but it left her feeling exposed. Formality could save face, and it provided a curtain to hide one’s emotions behind.
“He is … known to me, yes. He merely said that he was surprised to see that I was alive. It appears he thought I died when I left the shores of my land. Please, release him, sir. He would never hurt me. There is no need to arrest him,” she said solemnly, trying to control the distress that leaked into her voice despite her control.
“Very well, madam,” he replied. “Please wait here.”
After a few moments, the lieutenant returned with his prisoner.
“Here is the man arrested this afternoon, madam. Since he refused to talk, we do not even know his name,” Darklen said dryly.
“Deven, his name is Deven,” she swallowed her tumult as the prisoner glared at her. “Thank you, Lieutenant Darklen.” She turned and left, followed by Deven.
A long, narrow table lashed together with dryfall stood in the center of an area cleared of pine needles and grass. A shallow trench circled the table, and Nila stared at it almost blindly. The table represented both the end of a life and the beginning of a new one. Deven and she had spent bells talking, and when he had explained why he had come seeking her, she had at first been stunned and later resigned.
“Don’t be scared, sister,” Deven said gently. “This is your right, and your duty.”
She looked up at him. Even though she had to look up to meet his eyes, he seemed shorter than before to her. Perhaps it was the years in Dargon that made her think so: the people of Dargon were, in general, taller than those of Segvaarden.
“I am not scared,” she said softly. “I have nothing to fear, Deven. Only someone who wants to live is afraid. I wish for nothing. Therefore I feel nothing.”
“Climb on to the dais. It will be time soon.” He bent and kissed her forehead. “I am pleased you have accepted your destiny, sister. It will be my privilege to light the pyre,” he said softly.
Nila knew he felt the honor keenly. His voice control was perfect and his face was expressionless, but his eyes glittered. The soft voice in her mind which still questioned her decision was overwhelmed by his emotion. She swallowed, aware that over the past years in Dargon she had relaxed her control and her facial expressions were no longer as reserved as they ought to have been. Yet Deven said nothing about her lack of restraint. She let his affection bury her doubts.
“Climb, Nila,” he urged her, laying a gentle hand on her arm and propelling her toward the dais.
There was no point in hesitating after she had decided, but still she knew that a small corner of her mind wavered. She looked at the ground around her, seeing the intricate patterns made by the sunlight filtering through the canopy of the trees, allowing the designs to distract her.
“Time marches on, sister.”
Nila heard the fondness in his voice. She knew that he was entreating her to do this because he genuinely believed this was the right thing to do. She deliberately stilled the voice inside her that cried halt. This was her choice. In another lifetime she had chosen freedom. Now she chose her destiny. She climbed up onto the dais, and lay down. The man lit a torch and approached the dais, chanting softly.
A huge roar interrupted them. “What’s going on here?” Markus vaulted over the trench and rushed toward the dais, closely followed by Koren.
Nila rose, facing them, and the man turned as well. She gasped in surprise. “Captain Koren! Captain Markus! What are you doing here?”
“You can tell us what’s going on here, lass. What’s the dais all about?”
“This does not concern you, kind sirs. Please leave,” she said softly, not meeting their eyes. She did not want to explain what she was doing. She didn’t even want to think about what she was doing. Deven had convinced her that this was better than the utter loneliness of having no one who understood the part of her that was Farevlin.
“Look at me, Nila,” Markus stepped up to the dais. Slowly her eyes rose and she looked at him. “I’ve seen constructions like this before. What is going on?”
“Funeral pyre is it,” the other man answered in Baranurian.
“What? Why?” Koren couldn’t believe his ears.
“I am a widow,” she said, looking up at the two captains. “I know you will understand, Captain Markus. I must fulfill the rites of the Sya.”
Markus stared down at her, silenced momentarily. However he recovered from his shock almost immediately. “No! I don’t believe it. The rites of the Sya? Have you forgotten that you live in Dargon now? What need is there to follow the Sya? You –”
Koren interrupted sternly, “What is the rite of the Sya? What does it have to do with Mistress Nila being a widow? Markus, explain.”
Unable to stand still, Markus paced up and down in front of the pyre. “Segvaardens believe that when people die, their mate should follow them into the afterlife. They enter the funeral pyre together. The ritual is called the Sya. Apparently Mistress Nila has discovered that she is a widow, and has decided that she must follow the rite of the Sya.”
“Knew she this already,” Deven shouted in Baranurian.
“Who is this man?” Koren asked. “What was he doing in your store? Mistress Nila, you must answer our questions. If what Markus says is right, then I don’t know what to say. This isn’t your land: we do things differently here. This,” he gestured at the dais, “would be considered an act of suicide.”
Nila stared at Koren and then nodded after a moment. “Very well, Captain, I will explain.” She stepped off the dais and came towards the two captains. “My husband had just died when I left Segvaarden over five years ago with Captain Markus. We follow the rites of Sya, which Captain Markus has explained admirably. I was scared; I didn’t want to die. I was wrong. Now I am following the ancient ritual in defense of the honor of my dynasty. I ask pardon, but I must do the Sya.”
She had left Segvaarden because she had wanted to live and to experience the joy of life. Five years of exile had taught her that freedom to live did not necessarily come with the joy of life. Yet giving up her life did not seem to be as easy as it had been when she had lived in Segvaarden.
“This is ridiculous,” Koren said. “Captain Markus is right, Mistress Nila. You are here; you have a life here, a business, customers, friends. There is no need for you to take your own life.”
She bit her lip in an effort to stop her emotions from showing on her face. Her decision to undertake the Sya had been easy compared to answering the questions of the only two men she could count as friends.
The man spoke again. “Heathens! Pagans! How dare you say that? You know nothing about honor, you dastardly vellai.” He had switched to Farevlin, and Nila realized that only Captain Markus had understood Deven’s words.
“Who is he?” Koren asked, frowning at the stranger. “What is he saying?”
“This is my cousin, Deven,” Nila replied.
Markus began, “Nila, life is precious, is it not? Isn’t that why you asked to leave Segvaarden all those years ago? What has changed now, that makes you want to give it up?”
Nila’s face took on a strange expression. She began to wring her hands, her agitation escaping her control. The arguments tore at her already shaky resolve. “Captain Markus, I failed in my duty. I did not go with my husband to the afterlife. He is alone there, because I did not want to die. I was a coward. I will have to do much penance to expiate that. Is that what you want for me? If you are truly my friend, you will let me do this.”
“No! A thousand times no,” Markus raged. “I am your friend, lass, that’s why I cannot do this. Let you die? Are you insane? You’re not in Segvaarden anymore, and I’ll see who forces you to do the Sya.” He glared at Deven, as if daring him to try.
Koren placed a hand on Markus’ arm. Markus looked at him, and the other man tilted his head slightly, as if asking Markus to let him try.
“Enough!” Deven shouted. “Nila, time passes. Ascend the pyre must you before the next bell. Miss you this time, wait two sennights you will have to.” Deven’s heavily accented Baranurian was barely understandable, and he spoke it as if he were speaking Farevlin.
Koren replied smoothly, “This is Dargon, in the kingdom of Baranur. We don’t allow self-immolation here.”
“Captain Koren, please do not do this,” Nila pleaded. “I have nothing left to do here. I must go to the afterlife.”
“Mistress Nila, you have customers, friends and unfulfilled orders you need to finish. If you say you have nothing left to do, that’s a lie.”
“No, sir, it is not a lie. All my orders are completed. This past sennight, that is what I have been doing. The special piece you ordered for your niece has been sent to your lodgings. I have completed all my work here,” Nila said, with a note of finality in her voice.
“That’s not good enough, Nila,” Markus said softly. “You owe me, lass. I brought you here, I apprenticed you to Fazil. I gave you a new life here in Dargon. What’s the price for that?”
“I paid you, captain,” she replied sternly.
Markus’ face went red and she winced, knowing she had hurt him. Yet she had done it deliberately, hoping that he would leave her to her chosen fate.
“You paid me,” he repeated scornfully. “Yes, you paid me to bring you here. But what about the apprenticeship? Do you think Fazil would have taken you if I hadn’t persuaded him? You owe me more than money; you owe me … your life.”
“What do you want from me?” she almost wailed, twisting her hands. “Five years ago, I was a coward. I ran away. It is time to face up to my destiny now.”
“A coward? You?” Markus exclaimed. “Nila, starting a new life takes courage. Building a home, a life, making friends, it all takes courage. As for destiny, your destiny was to lead a new life, a second life here in Dargon.
“You died a thousand deaths before ever we came to Dargon,” he said softly, persuasively. “The Nila who apprenticed to Fazil was not the same Nila who left Segvaarden. Do you think giving up your life now will change the fact that you chose life over death five years ago? Do you think that these years in Dargon have left no mark on you? Are you the same person as you were five years ago? Well, are you? Answer me, Nila, answer me.” His voice rose insistently as he piled question upon question.
A fat tear rolled down Nila’s cheek. Her face crumpled for a moment, but she rallied herself. Her expression showed just a hint of her inner turmoil, although her eyes were filling. She blinked trying to stop the tears from falling. Had she changed? Did she believe in value of life like these people of Dargon?
There was silence. A bird twittered, and a tree-rat chittered in the trees. A few yellowed leaves floated slowly down. Markus took two steps closer to Nila, and his footsteps sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet clearing.
He gripped her arms gently. “Nila, I’ve known you for twenty years. I — we — Nila, I can’t stand by and watch you die. You’re like a daughter to me, lass. Listen to me: I was in Hadrom and Segvaarden only a few months ago. You’re not like them anymore. You’re a citizen of Dargon now. You’ve never been scared to face the truth before. Don’t start now.”
“Yes,” said Koren gently. He stepped forward and patted her shoulder. “Mistress Nila, I represent the law here, and I can’t let you do this. But more than that, as a friend, I can’t let you do this.”
Nila looked up at both the men towering over her, and another tear followed in the wake of the previous. She hiccupped and bit her lower lip for control. She exhorted herself to face the truth. The truth was that even when she had lived in Segvaarden, she had been different. Her beliefs had not been the same as those of other Segvaardens. She had had the courage to choose life over death: exile over the Sya. But the price for her life had been more than exile, and only now had she discovered that.
“Nila, you must ascend the pyre, now!” Deven commanded in Farevlin.
“No,” she replied in a quavering voice. “No,” she repeated, in a stronger voice. “I cannot, Deven. They are right. I cannot do this. I don’t believe the Sya is a good thing, even if I can’t believe that the Sya is a bad thing.”
“You cannot turn your back on all our traditions,” Deven said, his voice harsh. “I have searched for you so that you may bring glory to your family by embracing your responsibility. Why is it so hard to do this? You must not listen to these strangers. I am your cousin and the head of your family. You owe duty to me and your dead husband who waits for you.”
“Does she owe her death to her family? Is that what her duty is?” Markus interrupted.
Koren looked blank since they were conversing in Farevlin.
“Speak to me you not,” Deven shouted in Baranurian, pointing at Markus. He turned to Nila and switched back to his own language. “Well, what is your decision?”
Nila responded in Baranurian, feeling that somehow it was more appropriate. “I owe my death to no one, not even my … husband.” She stumbled over the word, surprised at the hate that filled her even now. The thought that the Sya would enable her to join the man who had tormented her was enough to fan the flickering embers of doubt in her mind into a flame. “My life is my own. It is a gift that Captain Markus gave me.” She looked at the older man soberly.
Deven stared at her as if she had suddenly turned into a snake. “Is that your final word?”
“Yes. I am a citizen of Dargon now.” She took a deep breath, drawing courage from the approving expression on both the captains’ faces. While a part of her would forever be Farevlin, the truth was that Baranur was her motherland now, and Dargon her home.
“Very well,” he said sternly in Farevlin. He pulled a small waterskin from his belt. He poured a few drops into his palm, and let the water trail to the ground. “I denounce you, Nila. You are my sister no longer. You are dead to us all. You are forever banished, and your soul will never be recognized. You are purged from our hearts and our history. You are,” he paused for one dramatic moment, “no more.” He turned and walked away.
“No!” Tears cascaded down Nila’s cheeks. She made no move to wipe them, and extended one hand uselessly toward the retreating figure from her past life.